And the Frog

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12

“Just gonna take his RV?” said Emma.

“Not his anymore,” said Marigold.

Did people stop owning things when they died? The big purple loveseat that didn’t match anything else in the living room had still been her grandmother’s favorite chair, after the stroke.

“So it’s yours now? Cause you killed him?” Those were outlaw rules.

“Killed him?” the engine was on, but Marigold still hadn’t moved Ferrule. “I didn’t kill him. I’d be in way more trouble than he’s worth if I killed him.”

Well that was good news, or at last it rang like good news in her ears. She tried not to let that on. “So why shoot him?”

“Oh, just to hit snooze on him for a bit, so I could get to you.”

Right. “And you got to me to get to him.”

Marigold looked back at her, with a small grin on her face. “That’s right.”

“So, time to kill me?”

Marigold turned back around. “Oh, I don’t know. What do you think?”

Ugh. She wanted John back already. She rubbed her head. “I think my life was easier when I was a young woman with daddy issues.”

Marigold scoffed so hard that it sounded like she was choking. “Daddy issues? Please don’t ever say those words again.” That was fair. Emma had always hated the phrase too, but she didn’t like Marigold much either so this felt like an appropriate space for hate. “Besides,” said Marigold, “your life was never that simple.”

Emma had to cock her head, and simultaneously roll her eyes. “How many people am I going to run into that are so confident they know more than me?”

“Confidence happens for a reason. It’s safe to say you’re stupid.”

Good. This was going well. Emma leaned against the little table and said, “So are you going to drive or did you just pop in to start the engine?” Only John Bain drives ol’ Ferrule, darlin’.

Marigold gave a dry giggle, then said, “Actually, you bring up a good question. Am I going to drive?”

Emma wasn’t sure how she was supposed to answer that. She threw an arm out in an I really couldn’t fucking say kind of gesture.

“No, I think you should.” And Marigold popped open the driver’s side door, grabbed her hat, and hopped out.” Wait what now? In a few moments the side door, to Emma’s left, swung open, revealing Marigold standing on the road. “Get up there,” she said, “and before you get in, I think I’d like you to get rid of the frog. Don’t need anyone knocking on my door.”

Now that made her curious. She didn’t move. “What?”

“The frog.” Marigold was coming up the steps, and she stopped on the second, and looked up at Emma with eyebrows raised and mouth corners pulled down. “He didn’t tell you what the frog is?”

Emma didn’t speak, but she could feel her face giving away her answer.

Marigold shook her head. “He’s a bit of an arrogant shit, is he not?” That remained to be seen, really. “The frog is a gateway, Emmaline. To the realm of the dead, and from it.” Of course it was. “And I have no business with the dead, only the living. So you’re going to pull it out and leave it on the road, or I’m going to shoot you in the head.”

“Aren’t you going to shoot me in the head anyway?”

Marigold finished walking up the steps. “Eventually, probably. You never know.” She took a look at the red recliner, seemed dually satisfied, and took a seat. “As of now, I’m going to make him chase me, because he made me chase him. But if you don’t do what I tell you, I’ll just kill you now and find some other way to torment him.”

“And why is it so important to torment him?” She glanced out the open door, then back at her captor, who leaned forward.

“You know what,” she said, “I’ll tell you, once we’re on the road.” She’ll tell her? She couldn’t lie, it was refreshing to hear those words after all the cryptic puzzle talk and information holding from John and her grandmother.

Her grandmother. Emma looked away and began stepping out as the thought hit her. Marigold said the frog was a gateway, to the realm of the dead. So that was really her, in the dreams? And getting rid of the frog meant not seeing her again. She walked to the passenger door. It was already hanging open. There it was, big and green and fuzzy. Getting rid of it meant no more grandma, keeping it meant shot to the head. But her grandmother had told her she was going to die anyway, and that she could, no, should come find her when she did. Was that the best option? She resisted the idea of letting herself die, as just about anyone naturally does. Surely that wouldn’t be what her grandmother wanted for her, if she had the choice. This new reality was a mite more confusing than the last. But also, Marigold had said that John wasn’t dead. And that he would chase them. Well of course he would, right? So she would leave the frog with him, and perhaps she’d see him, the frog, her grandmother, all three of them again. You never knew. She reached over and unbuckled the frog’s seatbelt.

Gently, she pulled it down, and carried it over her shoulder around the front of Ferrule. There he was. She looked down at John. There was no blood, she noticed. He was just lying there, still. An idea occurred to her, and after she laid the frog down next to him, she, well she hesitated. And then she rolled him over, searched for the revolver.

It was nowhere. Marigold must’ve picked it up. Smart. She stood and looked one more time at the both of them, lying side by side, then she turned, went to the driver’s side, where Marigold had left the door open, and stepped in.

“Onward,” said Marigold from behind. She moved the rear-view mirror so that she could see the other woman, then buckled her seatbelt. Onward.

For Emma, the strangest thing about driving someone else’s car had always been the smell. Granted, she didn’t have a great many personal examples, but when she worked in the library at her college campus, her boss would have her move his car into the library lot after 4 o’clock, when permits were no longer required. Why didn’t her boss have his own permit? Well, as he would always say, because It would make way too much sense for the school to allow that. He always contended that universities in America didn’t provide based on need, but rather on what he called monetary seduction. He often tried maybe too hard to sound intelligent and tortured, but Emma always thought he also may have had a point. However, this story digresses, because the goal here was to speak of smells.

Her boss’s car smelled like wet cardboard. For that reason, she always associated unfamiliarity or uncomfortability with that smell. Why did it smell like wet cardboard? Does wet cardboard actually have a distinct smell? Not important, that’s just what her nose told her brain that she detected. And later, every first week of a new class, every time she let this or that friend drag her to a house party, every time she was in a room that included Saphal’s parents but not Saphal, the tinge of wet cardboard tickled the hairs in her nostrils.

Curiously, although she now found herself in what was indisputably the most unfamiliar phase of her life, she hadn’t been reminded of wet cardboard at all. But that could’ve been for any number of reasons. It was a good four years since she graduated college and drove her boss-at-the-library’s car, she hadn’t been nearly as uncomfortable as she should’ve been, and she hadn’t thought of the smell of someone else’s car until this very moment, as she sat in the torn driver’s seat of Ferrule. And John’s cab smelled of sweetness. Clipped onto the AC vents, she saw those car fresheners that were talked about so much in radio ads. They looked like little jewels, purple jewels that, according to the adds, smelled like a thunderstorm. Well, apparently a thunderstorm smelled like pink lemonade, and from here on out whenever Emma felt she was somewhere or somehow that she shouldn’t be, her olfactory would remind her of sweet-smelling purple jewels.

It was a bit intense, so Emma turned down the AC. They’d been driving for maybe half an hour, and it had been easy going, because they were still on the wide, empty road. She drove toward the rain.

“Exactly where are we going?”

Marigold didn’t answer immediately. For a moment Emma wondered if she were already asleep, and perhaps she could gently dump her on the road and speed away. But then again, wherever this road was, she surely didn’t know how to get off it. And anyway, Marigold finally yawned, and said,

“Doesn’t matter where we go, long as it’s away from John Bain and away from Nevada.” Vegas, that’s where John’s job was. “We’ll see how much he really cares about chasing us down.”

That wasn’t exactly what Emma was asking. “Ok, but right now, where the hell are we going?” As in, in which place are we performing the act of going, but no one talks like that out loud. Being that it was asked by a clear novice of whatever everything now was, Marigold seemed to catch her meaning.

“Ah,” she said. “We’re on the Road.”

Very helpful. Emma nodded, with attitude, and said “Yes, and . . .”

“No, not the road,” said Marigold. “The Road. Capital ‘R’.”

Hm. “Like the Cormac McCarthy book?”

“I knew you were going to say that.”

“No you didn’t.”

She heard fabric rub across fabric as Marigold sat forward. “The Road, which we are on, is the thread between threads.” Sure. “It’s what the Tillers use to travel. Or what they should use. Your friend John likes to travel place to place in the world like he’s still among the living.”

Oh boy, that rang like heavy artillery dropping on an unfortified mind. Road, Tillers, among the living?

“You have more questions,” said Marigold, and she said it playfully, like she was dangling a vibrant and odorous new toy in front of a puppy (which of course is vibrant not for the puppy’s sake, but the owner’s). She could hear how much Marigold delighted in knowing more than her, and having enjoyed a similar position herself on numerous occasions, was frustrated and perhaps a mite jealous. Nevertheless, she was at a disadvantage and wanted to know more, so she indulged the other woman.

“I have more questions.”

“The Tillers,” began Marigold, “till.” Emma rolled her eyes, and the rest of her head must’ve rolled with them because Marigold giggled and said, “Oh, relax. I’m messing with you.” And such jocular messing it was. “The Tillers are somewhat of an order.” Now that sentence carried the flavor of getting somewhere. “They are selected after death, and their job is to crop the lives of humans, keep them contained so that the order of the world is maintained.”

“By killing them.”

“Life requires the space to live and grow, Emma. Life requires death. We till the land of the living, so to speak. Tillers.”

Tillers. That’s what John was? A dead soul handpicked to roam the world and make more dead souls? At this point it was still difficult for her to imagine John actually killing someone. He couldn’t even kill the killer, after all. It wasn’t necessarily hard to believe, mind you, just to imagine.

“And how do I know you and John aren’t just psychopathic delusional murderers?”

She looked to Marigold in the rear-view mirror, but the woman disappeared from the reflection because she was moving. A foot jammed into her right elbow, causing her to accidentally flick Ferrule to the left. She heard something made of glass fall somewhere in the back, again. She righted the steering wheel as Marigold finished climbing feet-first between the front seats and slid herself into the passenger side. And now she was sitting next to Emma.

“Have you really not seen enough yet to believe me?” she said. “Watch this.” About a mile in the distance where the road led, Emma saw something rise from the ground, the same way the clock tower had. But this wasn’t slender and symmetrical like something made by man, this was simply a mountain, albeit a small one. And the Road led straight into it. Emma took her foot off the gas pedal. “No, don’t stop,” said Marigold. As they got closer, Emma saw a dark spot where the road hit the base of the mountain. A tunnel. Alright then.

Automatically she held her breath once they hit the tunnel, because that was a tradition between Saphal and her. He’d once nearly passed out when they hit a tunnel that was longer than he expected, and he was driving. Ferrule was engulfed in darkness. Complete black. Emma kept her hands on the wheel. “Keep going,” said Marigold, “Just watch. Go toward the light.” And she snorted when she said that.

There was a blip of white in the distance, steadily growing in size, so Emma supposed she’d just keep doing what she was doing. The blip grew and grew, like a snowball rolling toward them. And Emma closed her eyes for a second, and for that second all she could sense was the sweet smell of a purple jewel – no sound, no sight. She felt like she was floating, almost like she had during the crash. And then she opened, and they hit the snowball. Everything went from black to white, she was blinded with light right after having been blinded with darkness. And then color faded in, with it the sound of movement, and a horn honked somewhere behind her. They were in the fast lane of an interstate. Ferrule’s speedometer read 54.

“Better speed up,” said Marigold. She pushed the gas. “How crazy do I seem now?” Marigold put her feet up on the dashboard.

Emma thought. How crazy did the woman seem, now that they had driven through a mountain and to . . . where were they now? Entering some city. “Well, you still kidnapped me and are most likely going to murder me in cold blood.”

“That’s fair,” said Marigold, “But you have to admit, I’ve made certain parts of my argument pretty convincing.”

Yes, she did have to admit that. “Alright, I believe in the Road.”

“Well good. If you believe in anything, believe in the Road.”

The Road, where they’d just left John and his mystical frog. “So where’s this.” Her question carried the cadence of a sentence, because she was a bit weary of doing any more asking.

“We are at the bottom of Texas.” Marigold took something out of her pocket, and there was crinkling sound. “Welcome to El Paso.” Emma looked over in time to see her pop a root beer hard candy into her mouth. “Eyes on the road,” she said.

Well, now she was in Texas with an undead killer. Many more questions needed asking, but could feel her brain still chewing on what she’d been told thus far, and she didn’t want to bloat it without digesting first. She knew she had to be careful now that she was starting to learn, because hers was the kind of mind that would fill in blanks if they weren’t filled quickly enough for her. This isn’t to say she would often believe in something that she knew full well was a fiction of her own division, but learning gets confusing when your imagination keeps trying to insert its own answers over the actual ones, and now she had just enough catalyzing information to begin jumping to conclusions. It was a wonder she never accused Saphal of cheating.

One primary question that she was currently trying to suppress: If the Tillers were an order, did that mean they had a leader? Emma had never been all too religious – if she had, this whole experience might have been much harder to accept. Or easier? Either way, she had never quite known how she felt about God, and frankly had never much cared. But if someone was pulling the strings of these Tillers, would that be the who that it was? Who was it that first decided that “tilling” was a necessity? Or was it? Life requires death, Marigold had said, which seemed overly poetic. True though, she supposed, if it was simply referring to population control, but she had a feeling that the meaning had been much more . . . spiritual?

Ugh. In any case, she hadn’t the mind to ask now. And so she drove. In El Paso Texas, with a woman who was admittedly interested in her death, she drove.

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