And the Frog

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17

This could be the end of the story. That the last line could very well have been the last last line. And perhaps, were a manuscript containing all words thus far transcribed brought before the professionals of the general publishing apparatus, they would decide that ‘That, right there. That, sir or madam, is your ending’ – why belabor on with more upon more gibberish (if you’ve made it this far, you’re already aware of how much gibberish has confidently transpired to this point). But, no. Really that doesn’t seem likely, does it? Our main character hasn’t gotten anywhere, has she? Ends are still loose. What’s all this “Tiller” business, and where’s the closure? Well, let us get one thing out of the way straight quick: the character you’ve been following all this time was never looking for closure, and so there’s a fair chance that you might not want to get your hopes up on the idea either. And if you think that’s silly, if you’re unsatisfied with the thought that she’d only ever been chasing, this entire time, that just take a moment to consider that you aren’t so different, because this entire time you’ve been chasing her. Oh, don’t be frustrated. That’s reading, and really it’s writing too. In any case, it may be worth noting that this is indeed not the end, though it very well could be.

Instead, this is where she finds herself, suddenly, in her car, with Saphal in the passenger seat next to her. They’re on the Road. She looks over at him, and he is not looking at her, but instead faces his window. He’s leaning one elbow against the car door, and his cheek on that same hand. He gets quiet after they’ve been on the road for a long while.

“Where’s our next stop?” she says.

He doesn’t answer, must be asleep. But she’s not so good with navigation, and honestly has no clue where they are at his point. She wouldn’t even know what time of day it was if the sun wasn’t up there, making her so damn sleepy. She’s jealous of Saphal, so she nudges him awake.

“Hey,” she says, gently shaking his shoulder with her right hand. “Our stop’s coming up soon, right?”

He begins to stir, sucks a big chunk of air into his nose, rubbing his eyes, and goes “mmmmmm.”

“That’s not helpful, buttlick,” she says, nudging him again. “Where are we stopping?”

He chortle’s softly, a soft chortle being one of the things that is unique to him, and says, “All almond omelets are always already alternating Olive Gardens.”

“What?”

He laughs, says it again, “All almond omelets are always already alternating Olive Gardens.”

“That is also not helpful.”

“All almond omelets are always already alternating Olive Gardens.”

“Okay.”

And, as you might expect, he keeps saying it and saying it and saying it, so that it replaces the air around her, and she closes her eyes but that does nothing for her ears, and so she opens them again, looks at the rear-view mirror, and there she is inside of it, saying “All almond omelets are always already alternating Olive Gardens. All almond omelets are always already alternating Olive Gardens. All . . .” And then her grandmother’s voice joins in, and she looks around because her grandmother is dead, but there she is in front of her, standing in the middle of the road, and it’s too late not to hit her and she drives straight into her but there’s no impact. Instead the old woman moves right through the windshield, and for a moment she’s standing right in the car, waist disappearing into the middle console, and she looks Emma right in the eyes and says “All almond omelets are always already alternating Olive Gardens,” and then passes through the car and is behind them, but then in front of them again, in the middle of the road, and it happens again, and again and again and again and again and again and again and

“SShhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh,” She holds it until her lungs are flat, pushes it out so hard that it burns her teeth. And it all stops. Saphal is asleep again, and no more grandma. Oh my, that was not pleasant. She sucks in a breath but it’s obvious that there’s nothing to suck. She wipes her forehead with the back of her hand and looks at the rear-view mirror and sees her father’s eyes. She does a double take. There he is, in the reflection, sitting right behind her. He says nothing. She returns her eyes to the Road. There’s a car coming toward them up ahead. Not a car, an RV. Green.

Back to the mirror. Her father is still there, still silent. Just meeting her eyes. It’s always been best to let him speak first. She often wondered if somehow with his eyes he’d already started the conversation, and she wished she knew how to hear that, because she was always afraid of what his mouth was going to say, even when she knew she had no reason to be. She stared and stared at the eyes in the mirror. The longer it took him to speak the worse the words would be, she knew. She almost wanted to say it for him, whatever she expected him to say. She thought maybe if she opened her mouth whatever came out would be some kind of resolution. But then his lips twitched, and her heart jumped.

“What a-” he said, and she cranked the steering wheel, drove headlong into the RV, and crashed.

And now she was lying on her back. She curled her fingers on what felt like fuzzy noodles and she smelled . . . something meaty. Her eyes opened to a ceiling. Waking to a ceiling can be disorienting, because ceilings are universal. The only thing that you can conjecture immediately, upon seeing a ceiling, is that you are in a room. People wake up in dorm rooms and have to sit up before it hits them that they don’t live with their parents anymore.

She all at once felt a sense of familiarity and a sense of confusion. There was an outline of a large hand on this ceiling. That wasn’t completely new to her, she could be sure of that. She sat up, took more in. Fuzzy noodles = shag carpet. A small table and booth seats, mugs on hooks, two seats ahead of her, where the floor ended. John in the left, Marigold in the right. John and Marigold, right. And behind Marigold’s seat, a red recliner, bolted into the floor. And sitting in that, a boy who didn’t look old enough to drive. Jimmy? Jonny? There were tear streaks down his face.

“She’s up,” he said.

“Mornin’, Emma.” John’s voice carried a tone she didn’t remember hearing before. His words were less welcoming than usual, but that’s not to say that they were unwelcome, or angry, or disappointed, or any of the ilk. Really they weren’t much of anything but words.

Also, Emma. Emma was her name. Emma stretched her back, and breathed in deep. Deep, deep. The air was good, grounding. She rubbed both eyes, and then, like they do in the movies, squinted them as she looked forward, at the two in the front seats.

“What’s going on?” she said. She saw John and Marigold both share a short glance. She also quickly recollected the two drawing guns against each other. Before either had a chance to make an attempt at a response to her question, she said, “You two don’t like each other.” No immediate response to that, either. Then, more contextual information trickled in – it was all coming, slowly. The frog, for instance. John was back in Ferrule’s driver seat, but the passenger seat had Marigold, and no frog. “Why isn’t the frog in its seat?”

“It was my seat first,” said Marigold.

No. No, she didn’t want cryptic answers that she wouldn’t understand. “I need to know things,” said Emma, a little disappointed that that was the best she could do.

She saw Marigold just shake her head. “Emmaline,” said John, “Do you remember what you did?”

“No,” she said, because frankly she wanted to know things, not remember them. Whether or not she remembered doing anything was irrelevant, because right now she just wasn’t going to try. But that was alright, because John didn’t seem to believe her anyway.

“A Tiller’s weapon is not meant to kill just anyone, at a whim. What you’ve done, girl . . .”

“What I’ve done . . .”

“You killed me, you bitch,” said Jamie. His name was Jamie. She looked to him, and he wasn’t looking at her. He had his knees drawn up to his chest, was holding his right upper arm with his left hand.

Oh, nuts. “I did do that, didn’t I.” She looked at the shag. The good ol’ shag. For some people, at times when they knew for sure that they’d done something wrong and had no out, the brain defaults to attempted solidarity with inanimate objects, because there’s no chance there of moral rejection. “That was . . .”

“Not the best idea,” finished John. Though it hadn’t been an idea, really, because that implies premeditation. Whatever she’d done, she knew she hadn’t planned it. “We’re taking him in now.”

In? “In where?”

“To death,” said Marigold.

John kept his eyes in front of him, and as Emma looked out the windshield, she could see they were on the Road. So, she’d sent someone to death. Or did she? When she’d pulled the trigger, she didn’t know who she was, so was it her that pulled the trigger? Well, here’s the thing: she’s in the RV now, with the dead kid, on the way to “death,” and that kid said she did it, and that kid also called her a bitch, so regardless of her philosophic or moral conundrums, outside of her mind where the world was, the answer was yes. She shot and killed.

But she still felt ungrounded. She wanted to speak to her grandmother, the one element that seemed to transcend identity mystique. “Where’s the frog?”

“He ditched it,” said Marigold.

Ditched the frog? Her security in the leaving the frog behind on the Road only came from leaving it with him. “Why?”

“So that they couldn’t find him when he came for you, Emmaline.” Marigold let out an explosive breath, like she’d been holding it in. “Almost one hundred years you’ve had that thing, and you trashed it for her.

“I didn’t come just for her. I came for you too.”

“Fuck off, John.”

“I don’t want to have this talk again right now.”

“Then stop talking.”

“You were going to murder, Marigold.”

“Horrible, isn’t it?”

Emma cleared her throat, because she’d originally intended to be a part of the conversation. “You came for me?” she said, remembering the “job” he had in Vegas, and the implication that diverting from their jobs was a dangerous decision for Tillers.

“And I got to you. Just a little too late.”

“She wouldn’t have killed me.” She wasn’t sure what compelled her to say that, but right now it seemed like it must’ve been true; that was never going to actually happen. Marigold said nothing to refute. It wasn’t that she thought she could defend herself – she was well aware that Marigold had much more killing experience than she – just that in memory she could not see any believable intent on Marigold’s part. Or maybe all she could remember was the way it had felt between them once she’d gotten the gun. She automatically patted her waist band, and all it held was herself. “Where’s my gun?”

Your gun?” both John and Marigold said this simultaneously. The screwdriver, she noticed, was still in her back pocket.

“Emma,” said John, and she cringed slightly just because of how often he was using her name now, “that gun has killed too many that it was never supposed to. No one’s pulling that trigger again.” She looked at the cabinet, up and behind her, that she had watched him open and retrieve the gun from. It was still open. If he didn’t want anyone to use the gun, she thought, you’d think he’d lock it up again. “There’s chili if you want it.” That didn’t compute for a second. What did chili have to do with murder? A lot of things probably, in the end. A lot of people would kill for chili, or at least that’s what they claim. And surely chili has itself killed, either because something fatal was stirred in by accident, or because someone misjudged their chances against whatever type of pepper. But in this specific situation she didn’t immediately recognize any direct avenues to chili except for the meaty smell. Oh, the meaty smell. That was probably chili. On the small table, she saw seven paper take-out bowls – four empty and three still with lids. Yes, she would like some.

She slid into the booth, facing toward Ferrule’s front, realized she forgot to get a spoon, got a spoon, and slid back in again. She popped off a lid and dipped the spoon in, and could tell that Jamie was watching her. She should say something to him, right? But what really would it help, for him to know she was sorry? This was the sort of thing that wouldn’t do much to ramificate anything in the moment, but in time the boy would appreciate that she at least tried. Right?

“I . . . I didn’t mean to shoot you,” she said.

“Yeah,” said Jamie. He moved his eyes from her to her chili. It seemed that he intended not to say anything more, which she took as an indication that she should. But before she could get started on the ‘I’ in “I’m sorry” he spoke, seemingly to the chili. His voice was soft. “I didn’t mean to get shot.” He didn’t ask her why she did it, and he didn’t scream at her. Instead, he said, “I’m sorry I called you a bitch.”

What? “What? You can’t be sorry. I shot you.” She didn’t like this, the way he was tunneling under the conversation she thought she should expect. “You can call me a bitch. Pretty sure I’m a bitch.” She knew he wanted to; after all, he already had. But he just shrugged and said,

“Not the way I was raised.”

Wow, now that was parenting. “You were raised to be kind to your murderer? I took your life. Your family, your friends. I took you from them.” Or the hand that held that held the spoon in the chili did. She really had a hard time feeling that it was the person whom she presently was that had killed this kid.

“I’ll still get to be with them,” said Jamie. “Just gotta wait longer now. My dad is gonna be real pissed, though.”

Pissed. She wondered if that was how Saphal’s parents felt, now that he was gone. Pissed.

“We’re here,” said John. Ferrule came to a stop. Marigold thrust her door open and was out. Jamie slipped out of the recliner and left the RV as well. John lingered.

“We’ll camp the night before we go in,” he said.

Good, why not build up the anticipation. Whatever they were about to do, might as well make it as foreboding as possible. “Okay,” said Emma.

“Because I don’t want to do this.” He didn’t sound overly sorrowful or despairing, but rather his voice brought to mind a word that her grandmother had always hated: blasé. “Listen, something like this was going to happen. Every time we think we’re runnin’ away from it we’re really just going toward it.” She wondered about that ‘we,’ about who exactly it referred to. He left the cab.

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