And the Frog

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18

For the first time, she was completely alone in the RV. She ate a spoonful of chili, though really she didn’t taste it. She looked at the pictures on the wall to her left. People, people all over there, and in each of the pictures a person missing. That seemed easy to understand now, that each picture was of the lives John had removed someone from. That’s why there was a woman hugging no one, a little girl floating in the air instead of sitting on her father/mother/uncle/grandma’s shoulders. She imagined Jamie’s dad, who in her mind was a taller Jamie with a goatee, because in her mind all dad’s had goatee’s until proven otherwise. She imagined him, pissed.

Then the side door opened, and Jamie re-entered, John behind. “Hop up there and grab the two black bags,” said John. “Toss ’em down to me.” Jamie squirreled up into the bed nook, and John walked up to await the tossing.

“What are the bags for?” said Emma.

“Bedrolls,” said John, as he caught one. “We’ll roll ’em out on the ground outside.”

Again, Emma found herself wondering why the vehicle intended to be a mobile home wasn’t being utilized for sleep. “But we have an RV.” Jamie threw down another bag, and John caught the handle with one hand.

“You want to take the recliner tonight, she’s all yours,” he said, turning to her with both bags in hand. “I need the sky above me when I sleep.” Jamie climbed down, and the two made for the door. John opened it, stepped on step down, and without looking back said, “Gonna need you to come out for a bit, though. We gotta talk.” Then he took the rest of the steps, and Jamie followed.

We gotta talk. Where had she heard that before? Oh right, it came before all the things people generally least wanted to hear. It was right up there with I’ve been thinking, and it precluded I want to see other people and I’m gonna have to let you go and you can’t keep using my golf clubs to go “turkey hunting” in the park. Actually she didn’t recall having ever been delivered the words herself directly. Granted, this story largely deals with memory loss, so she didn’t recall a lot of things, but the significant detail is that when John said the words, it struck her like a weapon she’d seen used on many others but had always herself eluded.

She had no trace of an appetite at this point, so she put the lid back on her chili. They’d left the side door open, and she could hear clunking outside. She pushed out of the booth and stood, cracked her neck, and made her way down the steps.

Outside, there was no sign of the Road. It was just a dry land all over. Just an endless flat expanse of yellow-brown. Mountains, as usual in the distance, which meant the rain was behind her, on the other side of Ferrule. She looked at her feet, and there looked to be spots of dead grass here and there.

John had opened a big side hatch next to Ferrule’s door, and was pulling out folding chairs, which Jamie was taking and setting up. She turned toward John and held out a hand to indicate that she’d take a chair. He looked to her, half bent into the storage compartment, and said, “pink or green?” She could see that he had at least four more chairs left in there; surely they weren’t all either pink or green.

“Blue,” she said.

“Green it is,” said John, and handed her a chair. It was one of the old-fashioned lawn chair kind, with a foldable metal frame. The plastic back and seat were so faded they were almost grey really, but she could see the memories of a lime-ish green. She unfolded it and plopped it down on the ground across from what looked to be Jamie’s, ensuring that she wouldn’t be sittiing

Marigold didn’t seem to be present. “Where’s Marigold?”

John walked over with a chair in each hand, one pink and one green, and said, “She’s checking us in.”

“To what?”

He stretched a green chair and put it down, and said, “the office.” He put the pink chair across from the green, and now there was a small circle of folding chairs, which might’ve been perfect for an intimate get-together with close family.

“What office?”

The office.” He pointed over Ferrule. “Go ahead, take a look.”

Alright. Emma walked over to the cab, where she could see over the hood. Rain. Not in in the distance, but thirty feet away. It came down in a wall stretching away in all directions accept for where it hit the ground. And it was soundless. It poured heavy and dark, but no water spread onto the ground in front of the wall, and there was no sound at all of drops pocking into the dirt.

And straight across from where she stood, she saw a door. Just a regular, brown, wooden door standing upright, as if the rain wall really was a wall and the door was built into it. She could see the water dripping down the wood. And then it opened, and through it came Marigold. She noticed immediately that the woman was entirely dry. Their eyes met, and she read absolutely nothing from that. Marigold turned and slowly closed the door, and Emma turned back to the others, who were already sitting, Jamie in his green chair and John turned ninety degrees at his right in a pink one. There was a strong pronounced sense that it was now time for her to take her seat, time for that which followed the heralding and nearly downright intimidating we gotta talk.

Marigold walked past her, and Emma followed her with her eyes as she pulled her chair out and took a seat. They all turned their heads to look at her, a universal expression of waiting. Goodness, what was this? Were they about to talk to her about her alcohol problem? Or induct her into a cult – what is it about people facing each other in a circle that bring cults to mind? Regardless, there was nowhere to go but the chair, so she nodded to indicate compliance, and took her seat. Immediately a shade seemed to layer over them all once she joined their eye level. She’d entered into a new phase of the process, whatever the process was.

“What did they say, Mary?” said John.

Marigold cracked her knuckles as she spoke, one at a time. Emma hadn’t seen her do that before. “Just like we thought,” she said. “Jamie gets top privileges, since he was murdered so young.

John nodded. “Good.” He was leaning forward slightly, his right hand on his right knee and has elbow crooked out to the side. “See, you’ll go straight to your mom, bud.”

Jamie’s knees were pulled up to his chest, the same way he’d sat on the recliner, and Emma noted the pattern of keeping his feet off the ground too. She felt she understood it, though didn’t give the thought enough attention to explore why. His eyes were on the ground between them all. Marigold reached over and put a hand on his closer knee.

“Jamie?”

The kid sniffed hard, the way you do when something is trying to burst from you but you’re trying violently and desperately to keep it sucked in. Emma could see his lower jaw tremble. He was just a kid, after all.

“She’s gonna be so excited to see you,” said Marigold.

Jamie covered his eyes with his whole arm. Emma recognized this move too. She remembered being young, and irrevocably heart-stricken, eyes all around her of people she didn’t want to seem so young to. She didn’t remember what she’d been so emotional about, but it couldn’t have been anything so heavy as having been murdered and told she’d be returning to her dead mother. Not that her mother was even dead, as far as she knew. Still, she could feel the empathy creeping up her stomach.

Jamie’s face reappeared, wet. He wiped his nose with the back of his hand. “She’s gonna be so surprised.”

“I . . .” said Marigold, “I told them to let her know that you’d be coming.” And those words hung in the air, as well as the ones that everyone heard follow despite that they hadn’t been said: should I not have?

Marigold watched Jamie, and Emma watched Marigold. “That was probably a good idea,” he said. “She’d shit bricks if I just walked in.”

Marigold and John both chuckled. Emma and Jamie did not.

“Well,” said John, “All you gotta do now is wait, bud. We’ll get you all taken care of in the mornin’.”

“Yeah,” said Jamie, quietly.

“Now, we got some things we need to go over with Emmaline.” She wished John wouldn’t call her the full name; it kept some sort of familiarity border between her and the others, like when a man’s name is Carl but his colleagues only know him as Dr. Richards. “You don’t gotta sit through it if you don’t want to,” he said to Jamie, who shrugged and said,

“Got nowhere else to go.” His gaze was far off now, up and behind Emma, she looked over her shoulder at the dark rain wall, stretching up and up into a darker mass of slowly curling cloud.

“Alright.” John’s voice brought her back to the group, and for a moment she saw that Jamie’s eyes were on her now, but they fluttered away quickly. Marigold and John’s did not. “Alright,” he said again, a bit quieter this time. He inhaled. It was so clear that his was painful to him, like he was about to tell his child their dog was dead. “Listen, I didn’t to do this this way. I didn’t want to just dump it all on you in one big load. I had . . . I had reasons not to.” But then you went and killed a kid, and now we’re here. Oops.

“John,” said Marigold, “what difference does it make?”

He held a hand up to her. “Yeah, yeah. I just want you to know I tried to do it the right way.” He flicked a glance at Marigold, who made no move to interject again. “Right, so let’s do this like this.” He leaned back and crossed his right leg over his left, a wide cross with left ankle sitting on right knee. “First, do you have any questions?”

. . .

Did she have any questions? It sounded like a foreign language. She was being invited to inquire upon that which she didn’t know? By John? Forgetting whether or not she even deserved the opportunity, she thought back to the last time she’d got to asking questions, with Marigold, when the answers had become cumbersome. Should she be careful now? Now that she’d felt firsthand the consequences of learning, should she take it easy on herself? Should she even take the bait? She could just deflect the idea and ask them to begin wherever they thought was best – John would have no clue where that was, probably, but that surely wasn’t true for Marigold. No, she had to ask something. This was probably the closest she was going to get to being handed back the gun. She just had to be more thoughtful about where she pointed it. So yes, start light.

“Why did you come for me?” Yes, good start. She saw, in her mind, the image of John and Marigold sitting on the bench outside Quick Serv. The last time she’d seen them before then was when they’d pointed shiny guns at each other.

“Because,” said John, picking at his knee, “I knew that if I’d left you two alone with each other, one of you would end up suffering for a long, long time.”

“Oh, fucking please,” muttered Marigold.

And Emma had to agree. “I don’t know what that means, John.”

“Killing another Tiller,” said John, refusing to make eye contact, “is the worst crime our kind can pull, in the eyes of the office.”

Another? Meaning . . . what? She said nothing, but it seemed John could read her confounded expression, even though he wasn’t looking at it. “You were picked a long time ago, before you . . . uh . . .”

Oh.

“Died,” said Emma. “Before I died.”

Now he looked at her. He said nothing, but looked at her with a straight and stern gaze, almost as if he was trying to be sure for himself that she had said what it sounded like she said. And to her eyes it seemed his couldn’t hide a small measure of surprise, a question that was quickly being buried in a stony face, though not quickly enough for her not to catch it: you knew?

And the answer was no. She hadn’t known, clearly. But good gracious she should have, shouldn’t she? Of course she was dead. If this was a book, the reader probably would have guessed it pages and pages ago. It might’ve even been so obvious that that it became too simple of an answer, so that perhaps this moment would’ve been a sort of backward surprise anyway. However, perhaps it was not entirely expected that she was not only deceased, but also a member of an order of beyond-the-grave people hunters.

“You’re a Humphrey woman,” said Marigold. “Humphrey women have been Tillers for ages.” But she wasn’t Casey Humphrey. Not anymore. In fact, knowing that she’d died made that even more decisive. It was a bit of a relief, actually, to have such a defined break between one self and the other. Casey died, and now she was Emma. Easy. “All the way back to Suzy,” said Marigold. Right, the gas station exhibit. The outlaw woman. But she lived in the ’Old West.” Was that ages ago? It didn’t seem long enough, but this obviously wasn’t the right time to debate Marigold’s diction.

John cleared his throat. “Right.”

Emma could sense where the conversation had been funneled. They must have been getting close to the meat of the talk. “And who was Suzy?”

Kaboom, there it was. The question hoisted itself up into the air, posted itself onto an imaginary cork board and waited for either Marigold or John to take the assignment. She watched them battle for the job with their eyes, and she couldn’t tell whether they were each trying to gain the advantage or escape. But it wasn’t either of them that answered.

“Suzy was a badass,” said Jamie. The sudden vulgarity was like when you bight down on something hard while eating a hamburger. Everyone flicked their eyes to the kid. “She was a gunslinger, a real Wild West horse-riding outlaw.” He had and an energy now, a youthful fervency that just a second ago had seemed entirely absent. John and Marigold had not suddenly sparked with the same enthusiasm.

“Yeah, she was really something else,” said Marigold, which to Emma’s mind was what people said when they didn’t want to give a real answer. John sighed, indicating that what he was about to say was perhaps painful enough to be clear and truthful.

“Suzy,” he said, “was my wife.”

Hm. Alright well, they were getting somewhere now, though if anyone was to fulfill the position of was my wife for John she honestly would’ve expected it to be Marigold. The two certainly treated each other like divorcees.

“In the Wild West?” she said.

He switched his crossed legs. “Wasn’t so wild for me. I was a working man, pressing newspapers. Suzy was the wild one.”

“Mmm, isn’t that the truth,” said Marigold, looking lowly at John.

“Because she didn’t take any shit,” said Jamie. “She killed men that didn’t treat her right, and robbed the greedy. She kicked ass.” Sounded like a character in a modern day western, thought Emma. Not so much like a real person.

“Jamie,” said John, “you weren’t there.”

Jamie looked slightly stricken, like no one had ever contradicted his admiration for this Suzy before. “Well that’s what my mom told me.”

“She wasn’t there either.” John rubbed his eyes, then looked at Jamie who was starting to sink back into himself. “I’m sorry, kid,” said John. “You’re not wrong. Suzy didn’t take guff off of anyone.”

“Damn right,” murmured Marigold.

“But she wasn’t a criminal. Not at first.”

“Not until she met me, you mean.” Marigold leaned forward. “Not until I showed up and put the devil in her.”

“There is no devil.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Woman, I don’t blame you for anything, now. You know that.”

“You don’t blame me, John? Good for you. That must really put you at peace, not blaming me.” She leaned back again, hard enough that the old folding chair protested with a creaking sound that almost sounded like actual agony.

“Can I just finish my piece?” said John.

“Please,” and Marigold held a hand out in front of her as if to indicate that his “piece” was sitting right there on the ground in front of them all, and it was his to finish.

“When she met Marigold, the two got along real quick. After a while they were disappearin’ together every once and a while. Days at a time.” Emma’s eyes were on John, but she heard Marigold’s feet shift in the dirt. The woman was listening for mistakes and lies, she knew. “This was the early nineteenth century,” he continued. “A woman behaving like this, everyone noticed. I was told I needed to control her better, put a stop to her act. More than one man suggested I get myself a big mastiff that would hunt her down and drag her back, or literally tie her down in the kitchen. I wasn’t going to do any of that.”

“’Cause she would’ve fucked your shit up,” said Jamie, carrying the tone of a thought that wasn’t meant to squirt free. Marigold giggled.

“I don’t doubt it,” said John. “Really I just missed her.”

“Or you missed having respect,” said Marigold. “You missed not being the guy that couldn’t go out in public without being asked if he knew where his wife was.”

“I loved my wife,” said John.

Marigold turned to Emma. “They even made a wanted sign at the press he worked in. It said Wanted: Bain’s Woman, and they stuck it up all around town.” Although much had changed, or presented the intent of change, Emma couldn’t shake the sense that Marigold was the villain of the story.

“And what did your husband think?” she said, almost positive at this point that Marigold didn’t have a husband.

“That’s very funny,” said Marigold. Emma shrugged, content with the strike she’d dealt but not wanting to show it. “I had Suzy. I didn’t need a husband.”

John very audibly blew a puff of air out of his nose. “Yeah, they sure were close.” He looked at the woman across from him. “If you had met her first, none of this probably would’ve happened.” No answer to that. Back to Emma. “One day they disappeared for the last time. Suzy was gone for two weeks before I decided to go looking for her. I don’t know if I meant to get her and make sure I’d keep her still this time, or if I just needed to say goodbye. I honestly don’t remember.” He scratched his right shoulder. “But it didn’t take me long to find her. Just followed the stories. I was in Mexico by the time I caught up with her, in a bar. After that, I don’t much remember what happened. I was shot, and killed. Don’t know by who.”

“You weren’t the only one chasing after Suzy,” said Marigold. “Had to be at least eight men in the bar that day that could’ve done it.”

Right. “You’re sure it wasn’t you?” Emma said to Marigold. Aside from the fact that she was genuinely curious, she just couldn’t resist. She heard Jamie actually gasp. Marigold smiled her villain smile, but John spoke before anything came out of her open mouth.

“No, Emma. Her and I have already been through that. Through it and through it. Like I said, I don’t blame her for anything.” Marigold crossed her arms. “Doesn’t matter who it was. One second I had my hand around Suzy’s arm, and the next I woke up out here, just like you. I was picked up by another Tiller, just like you. His name was Jong-soo, first Asian man I’d ever met, and it was after I’d died.”

“Unruly woman followed by a foreigner,” said Marigold, “must’ve been hard for a white American man in the 1800’s.” And for a split-second Emma wondered if John had been a racist. He ignored the interruption.

“He told me everything right then and there. That I was dead, that I was chosen. He showed me how to use the Road, and he gave me a compass that showed me where my assigned targets were. But . . .”

“But all the sudden you just couldn’t follow the rules,” said Marigold.

John closed his eyes and Emma could tell he’d shouldered this chastisement before. “It had all happened so damned fast. I wasn’t sure I believed any of it, anything in front of me or anything Jung-soo told me. And I wanted Suzy more than ever.” A heavy breath from Marigold. “Soon as I was left to my own, I used the road to get back to Suzy. I . . .”

“Finish the story, John,” said Marigold, really before enough time had passed to suggest he wouldn’t.

“I did the worst thing I could’ve done. The worst thing I’ve ever done. I found her asleep, in a room in some Inn in El Paso. She didn’t know it was me. That’s the way it works, after you become a Tiller. No one you knew will ever recognize you.”

Emma thought of the people that had known her old self. Known Casey. None of them would know her as Casey now. Should that have upset her?

“I knew,” said Marigold so quietly that Emma wasn’t sure John even heard it.

“I looked down at her and she was so surprised to see me. I just wanted her to know me again.”

“Just tell her what you did John.”

“I think she’s probably figured it out, Mary,” John snapped.

“You killed Suzy?” It was Jamie’s voice. Emma looked to him. His eyes were wide. Evidently he hadn’t heard this part before.

“He killed Suzy,” said Marigold. “I was right there, right there in the room, but he didn’t see me, did you John? So all I saw was some man burst into the room and murder the greatest woman I’d known, right in front of me.”

My, how’d this get so romantic? This was much dryer story up to now, wasn’t it? Emma swallowed.0

“And you couldn’t even kill him back,” said Jamie, “because he was already dead.”

“Mmm,” Marigold replied, “but I didn’t know that. I was in shock for a few seconds. I hadn’t heard the gun, even though I’d watched itfire, even though Suzy had a whole in her chest. It was so strange. And I didn’t see his face, before he dashed out the door like a scared little boy.” Emma glanced to John. He was watching Marigold talk, and she could see his jaw push in and out as his teeth grinded. “It all took a moment to wash over me. And then I wanted blood. I didn’t know who I was looking for, so I grabbed Suzy’s gun, and I went downstairs, and I started shooting every man I could see. I probably got four or five before they got me down.”

A murderess, then. “And they made you a Tiller, too.”

“Yep. I took those men out of the world, and this is my penance.” Which, incidentally, is talking people out of the world.

Emma sucked her lips to her teeth and made a clicking sound, and turned to John. “What happened to Suzy? You said all the Humphrey women are Tillers.” John didn’t answer immediately, just picked at his knee, so Marigold got there first.

“She sure as hell isn’t with the dead,” she said, “so Tiller is the only option.

“What do you mean?”

John finally made it to his answer. “The office has no record of her. The realm of the dead is a big place, but they got a tally on every single soul they’ve ever let in, and she’s not there.”

Well, now. “But you don’t know that she’s a Tiller either?”

“We haven’t seen her since the day he killed her,” said Marigold.

“We looked for her,” said John, glancing toward Ferrule. “We looked for years and years, together. We hated each other, but for a while all we wanted was to find Suzy.”

“Yeah,” Marigold went on, “and we got in a good deal more trouble for it. The office doesn’t want you doing anything but your job.”

Silence followed that sentence. Boy howdy, there it was. Answers upon answers. Solid, concrete information. Emma realized just then that she’d shifted at some point from being a character in this story to a reader. She felt like she was listening to someone else’s lives, and had forgotten almost entirely that this was all supposed to pertain to her somehow. How was that again? Oh, yes. Great great great etc. grandmother. Humphrey.

But, “wait. This is the woman I come way down from? Meaning she had a kid? Meaning . . .?” She looked at John and she could feel her eyebrows raise.

John threw up a hand. “I’m not your great great grandpa, kid. Suzy and I never had kids.” Quickly excusing the fact that that wasn’t nearly enough ’great’s, Emma had a follow-up question, which John clearly knew before she said it out loud. “I told you she was wild. By the time I’d met her she already had a five-year-old girl she’d left somewhere in Arkansas. She was . . . she was my first assignment, after I killed Suzy.”

“You had to go kill a five-year-old?” said Emma.

“Five-year-olds die too.” Thank you, Marigold.

“No,” said John. “I had to wait until she had a kid of her own. And then kill her. That was my punishment. Hunt the Humphrey line. Since I’d killed one, the office thought I shouldn’t mind killing them all.” Well that was hardly fair. Why did the rest of them deserve that? “And it is a punishment, Emma. I’ve watched too many of you grow, make families, just so I could come in and break them apart.”

“Seems like the wrong people are getting punished,” said Jamie, and Emma had to agree.

“Yeah,” said Marigold, “the office doesn’t really work with the same kind of morals as us.”

“So . . .” said Emma. “My mother?” did this confirm that she was dead? “My grandmother?”

“No, Emma,” said John. “They aren’t Humphrey’s. Your father is.” Oh, right. But . . .

“Why’d you kill me first, then?” She consciously ignored that this all meant that John had taken her life, had brought her into this new one. What did that matter, anyway?

John actually smiled. “I came for your dad, but your grandma stepped in the way.”

“She what?” How could she possibly have done that?

“Some people just have a sense. I can’t tell you how, but your grandma knew I’d come. She offered her life in place of your dad’s, and the office was so impressed that they accepted her offer.” Of course her grandma had a “sense” that an undead hitman had come for her son-in-law. “Few impress the office, Emma. She saved your dad’s life.”

And in her brain she couldn’t stop a voice, it had to have been Casey’s, from bubbling up and asking why didn’t she save mine instead? But she didn’t say it out loud. Now it was time to process. There had been much anticipation compounding and compacting before this answer dam had finally been breached, and she was still getting over how surreal it was that she’d actually sat down and had this conversation. Not because she cared for more information, but because she wanted to buy time to compute it all, she said, “My grandma died of a stroke.”

John nodded. “Sure. When a Tiller takes a life, it manifests as an acceptable form of death in the living world. Your grandma’s cancer wasn’t far enough along to reasonably kill her, so she had a stroke instead. Or something along those lines.”

“And who decides that?”

He shrugged. “Beats me.”

And with that, it seemed everyone understood that answer time was over. Jamie and Marigold both stood, the kid going to the bag of bedrolls and pulling one out, the woman just going.

“Where you goin’?” called John.

“For a walk,” she said without turning.

And it seemed just like that, in a flick of a moment, it became night.

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