And the Frog

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19

For someone who allegedly didn’t need sleep, John was out fast. She could tell because he slept on his back with no blanket on. He didn’t snore but he did breathe like an ox. Jamie she assumed was sleeping, but couldn’t be sure because he was on his side and covered almost to the top of his head with a thick crocheted blanket John had pulled out from the storage space under Ferrule. Personally she wasn’t sure she’d be comfortable wrapping herself up in something that had been sitting under there for who knows how long, becoming a home for tiny things that most probably bight. Although considering the circumstances she could understand why the kid wasn’t all too concerned. He looked all shadow, even in the dim light from the bulb next to Ferrule’s side door. Marigold still hadn’t returned from her “walk.” Emma was sitting crisscrossed on her bedroll. She had been lying but she’d decided that she didn’t really care for the idea of dreaming tonight, and besides it turned out she didn’t need sleep anyway.

Because she was dead. This would be the time for dwelling on that, she knew, but she didn’t care for that idea either. Was she dead, really? She’d already decided to nix that other self. Casey died; Emma surely hadn’t. Emma was sitting right here.

Instead of dwelling, she replayed in her mind’s eye the scenes that John and Marigold had described. She came from a long line of killers. Every Humphrey woman, Marigold had said, became a Tiller. Though that claim wasn’t too heavily supported, as they actually had no clue where Suzy was, and Emma wasn’t sure how many other Humphrey women there had even been. Still, she could easily run with the romantic vision here, that she had some sort of destiny to fulfill as the next Humphrey Reaper. But she’d never been all that romantic, and even if she had, did she really get to fill that space if she’d already forsaken Casey Humphrey? Well, the problem here is that the legacy extends beyond death. The common denominator between all Humphrey woman is what they become after they kick their buckets, so to speak. She had no control over what this “office” would dictate for her now, so did that mean she remained a Humphrey, whether she wanted to or not? Well fine, for thematic purposes she could remain a Humphrey, but she was still Emma, and not Casey, because no one could tell her her name.

And with that settled, she saw two horses in the distance. One with a rider. Immediately it made sense to her that that was what Marigold had gone off to do – finally retrieve the horse she’d left on the road however long ago. But the figure in the saddle on the left horse slouched in a way that Marigold didn’t.

She couldn’t make out any great detail from this distance; the moonlight wasn’t nearly bright enough, and it just occurred to her that she hadn’t actually seen a moon out here. It also occurred to her that she was sitting up, and therefor was clearly awake in the eyes of this newcomer, who was coming toward their little camp. Should she wake John? No, despite their long conversation she still didn’t quite trust him not to curb her curiosity. She would take this opportunity to meet a new development on her own.

Soon she could hear the mingling clip-clops of the two horses as they came closer, and soon she could see that it was a man that rode one. He stopped about ten feet out. She couldn’t quite see his face, but she could tell it was old, and familiar, for some reason. He wore a knit hat. She could also see, this close, that something was strapped onto the back of the horse to the right. Something green and fuzzy. Would you look at that.

“Where’s Marigold?” said the man. His voice was soft like cotton, and he had an accent that she’d definitely never heard in person. Asian. Oh, Korean?

“She took a walk,” said Emma. “Are you Jang-soo?” Was that rude? How many Asian Tillers that spoke English were there? Luckily, he said,

“Yup.” He walked his horse a bit closer, and the other followed. He looked down at the sleeping John. “Those two have gotten so reckless. Again.”

“That’s Marigold’s horse,” said Emma. It was a guess. She could see clearly now what it was carrying, which was much more exciting.

“Yes, it is. Tell her if she leaves it again I’m going to keep it. I like this horse.” The animal flicked its head, smelled the ground. “It’s a hell of a lot smarter than she is. And tell John that I gave this node to him as a gift, and if he wants to get rid of it he should do better at hiding it.” (node = frog?).

Emma nodded. “I’m probably not going to do either of those things.”

Jang-soo nodded back. “You fit well with them. I would try to avoid them, if you can.”

“Noted.”

“Have a good night.”

“You too.”

And he clicked his mouth and turned his horse away. Marigold’s did not follow, though to Emma’s eye he’d made no command for it to stay. Now that was the Tiller she should’ve gotten stuck with, she thought. He carried authority and wisdom and all those traits desirable to fill that mentor slot in a good hero’s tale. Although, his apprentice, so to speak, had been John and look how he turned out to turn her out. To be fair, Jang-soo presumably didn’t have a vindictive rival come and hunt down his student.

Hold on now, that was one more unanswered question. She was already dead. Both John and Marigold had said that dire consequences await the Tiller who kills another Tiller, but what happens to the dead Tiller? Do they just get relegated to the realm of the dead? That wouldn’t make sense, if the office was adamant about keeping them out in the first place. But they can’t just remain a Tiller, because in that case what would be the point in killing them? Hm. She almost wanted to wake John up now.

But wait, something else must take priority. The frog. The frog was back. She stood and went to the horse that remained, put a hand on its cheek because that’s what you’re supposed to do in dramatic horse moments. “Boy is Marigold going to be positively indifferent to see you again,” she said, and snorted. Then she moved to its side. There it was, secured by one leather strap that looped through the brass rings on the saddle. Now she wanted to sleep.

It took her a good ten minutes to figure out how to untighten the strap. Once she did she pulled the frog down, looked it in the face. “Good evening,” she said, and she returned to her bedroll and laid it down in the dirt beside. She laid down next to it, looked up at the starless sky. She figured it would be prudent to take a moment and decide what she’d say to her grandmother. Perhaps she’d apologize for the way their last talk ended, perhaps she’d ask why her grandmother told her she was going to die instead of telling her she was already dead. In truth she knew she’d forget anything premeditated the second she saw the woman, so she just closed her eyes and took a breath.

When she opened them, she was still lying on the bedroll, in the dirt. The sky above her was still starless. But she couldn’t hear John’s ox breath. She sat up. John and Jamie weren’t there, though their bedrolls were. She looked over her shoulder and saw that Ferrule wasn’t there either, just the endless wall of rain, and the door. She turned her eyes forward.

And she was there. In her favorite chair, and not even wearing the frog suit, was her grandmother. She was smiling, and shaking her head. She leaned forward and put her elbows on her knees. “You did better than I thought you would,” she said.

And how good did she think she’d do? What reason did she have to expect she’d do any worse than she’d done? Admittedly, Emma wasn’t even sure how to gauge herself up to this point. She had no sense of a good-bad scale, though there did seem one clear infraction. “Thanks,” she said. “I did shoot a kid though.”

“Yeah, well John could’ve maybe done a better job helping your mind along, like I did. Anyone would’ve reacted like you did, suddenly being two people at once like that.” She pointed to her own head. “We aren’t made to deal with that.”

Emma was a bit hung up. “Like you did?”

“Well, yeah.” Her grandmother sat back. “John had the right idea, not telling you everything at once, but I pushed you in the right direction.” Emma cocked her head. To her mind, recent memory included a lot more of her being pulled than pushed.

“And what direction was that?”

The old woman spread her arms out to each side. “To me.”

No. No, that’s not what had happened. “Grandma, I’m a Tiller now.” She couldn’t help but watch the woman’s eyes for validation of her words; despite what she’d been through she was for a split second worried that she’d made it all up. But of course she didn’t. She pressed on. “I gotta roam the world, reap souls, all that. How does that get me to you exactly?”

Her grandmother waved her words away. “Honey, you can’t just buy into everything these two say – they sure as hell aren’t experts.” Oh? “The office can’t make you do shit. Tilling is a job, like anything else. If you want to turn them down, go right ahead.”

Good grief, was that true? Was this woman the only person she could trust? “Are you sure?” she said. “They said Tilling could be a punishment.” And, grandma, if you’ll recall, “I killed a kid.”

“Listen to me, girl,” said the old woman, and she pointed to John’s empty bedroll. “These two are entertaining, but they’re also two of the most confused asses you’ll meet from here on out. They’re hurt by the things they did when they were alive, and now they’re so obsessed with their own guilt that they’ve made up they’re own rules. Look at me.” Emma did. “You got no reason to follow their rules, Emma.”

That would seem to explain a lot, actually. Marigold and John were strange folk, and maybe that wasn’t just because that’s how people are in the afterlife. Emma would be the first to admit that mental trauma could lead her to behave and even believe differently. She could easily foresee a scenario in which she convinced herself that her own fabricated truths were in fact naturally occurring truths. And in fact, in the very interest of avoiding that she should acknowledge that others could very well be similarly susceptible to self-deception. In that case, however, how much of what they’d told her was untrue?

“Okay,” she said, “but what about what John said about you? About stepping in when he came for dad?”

Her grandmother huffed. “Well, I should think that part’s more believable now. All that few impress the office bullshit. All they need is for people to die, Emma. I just decided it should be me instead of your dad, who’d pretty much already been dead inside for a while anyway.”

“How’d you convince John, to take you instead?” she asked, holding off the alternative and more pressing curiosity for why.

“Oh, I didn’t. That idiot convinced himself. Pardoned his own loony dogma. All I did was offer.” Emma still wasn’t convinced that her grandmother would’ve given her life for her son-in-law, and she knew the woman could see the skepticism on her face. “I never loved your dad,” she said, “but my daughter did. Maybe when she finally finds her way over the line she’ll be thankful for what I did.” That one was hard for Emma to touch. Her grandmother hardly ever said a thing about her daughter, so really Emma didn’t know exactly what the feelings were there. The woman kept speaking. “Though, obviously I would’ve done it for you over him in a heartbeat.” Ah, there was the button she wanted pressed. “But John didn’t tell me he was coming for you next till he’d already done me in.” Couldn’t fault her for that. “That’s why I had to come talk to you though, to try to help you find your way. Sure as hell got all twisted up by those two idiots but you found away to get here anyhow.” By killing a kid. Her grandmother grinned proudly.

Emma stretched her legs out in front of her because that were falling asleep. She leaned back and propped herself up with her hands. Gravy, she was glad Jang-soo had showed up with that frog. “So what,” she said, “in the morning we go into the office, and I just tell them that I don’t want the job?”

“You do that exactly.” Her grandmother looked so satisfied. “And you tell them to bring you to me, and we go on living together. You’re gonna love this place.”

That sounded mightily preferable. A thought pinged her. “What about Saphal?”

Her grandmother raised her eyebrows. “What about him? I always liked him well enough, he can stay with us if he wants. If you want.”

Honestly, she was rather indifferent. She didn’t offer an answer to that. It seemed there was nothing to do but move forward now. No need to even prolong this conversation, if come morning she’d be able to speak with her grandmother without the need of a giant stuffed frog. “Well,” she said, “I guess I’ll see you in the morning.”

Her grandmother was still smiling. “And in all the rest of the mornings too.”

Well, maybe not all of them. Even our favorite people get old with overexposure. She smiled back. “Goodnight, grandma.”

“Mmm,” said the woman, and Emma laid back down.

She woke up with the frog next to her. The sky was bright again.

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