And the Frog

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20

“Mornin’” said John and for a moment she couldn’t tell where his voice was coming from. She sat up. Jamie was still asleep, still cocooned in the blanket. Marigold still seemed to be absent.

“Good morning,” she said. She looked over at the frog, the presence of which she figured was probably somewhat of a shock for John. “Jang-soo brought your best friend back.”

“Mm,” said John. “I don’t think I’ll have much allowance for friends after today. The office isn’t gonna be happy with me.” Right, John’s severe version of this office. Emma knew she couldn’t tell him what her grandmother had said, about her plan to turn down Tilling and live in the realm of the dead. She most definitely didn’t want to deal with his reaction to that, which probably would’ve involved another intervention-like interaction that would’ve been painful for the both of them. “I’ve a mind to give Ferrule, and everything in her, to you. Be much more useful that way. Won’t say I’m not sad to see her go.” Then don’t. Emma didn’t want that kind of guilt; she wouldn’t be accepting the gift anyway. To avoid taking the subject any further, Emma pushed herself up and snatched up the frog. She took it into the RV to set it back where she’d first seen it, in the passenger seat.

See pushed it over the middle console and into the seat, reached over to unfold its left leg out from under it. She looked out the windshield, at the door in the rain wall. What could they possibly be walking into today? What was the office, really? Surely it wasn’t a predominantly beige business setting, with a secretary behind a counter and the smell of leather and ink all about. For all she knew it was a firelit cave, and everyone inside wore dark robes and wooden skull masks, and the smell was less of leather and more of herbs and boiled blood. She would’ve preferred that to the beige office, really. She knocked the frog twice on the shoulder, and exited Ferrule.

Outside, John was gently nudging Jamie awake. Still no Marigold, which evidently was the first thing the kid noticed. “Where’s Mary?”

“Oh,” said John, “I’m gonna hazard a guess that Mary went on her way already. Been a long time since she was any kind of team player.”

But wait, didn’t see need to face judgement too? Emma almost said it out loud, but cut herself short when she remembered that Marigold had already visited the office the day before. She must’ve done more than check them in, then. It didn’t feel like any kind of great loss. Emma would’ve been interested in hearing more of her side of the Suzy story, but it all became less interesting when her grandmother told her that she and John were crackpots.

“Guess I’m not saying goodbye, then,” said Jamie, who inexplicably just adored Marigold.

John began folding the chairs back up. “You’ll see her again, kid. Believe me, she wanted to say goodbye to you as little as you did to her. Probably why she left.”

“Sure,” said Jamie, pushing himself up. He began rolling his bedroll up, and Emma figured she should do the same. They had everything packed back into Ferrule’s hatch in a matter of moments.

Before he closed it, John said. “Oh, Emma, whenever you close this thing, you gotta slam it real hard.” He did. “The latch is a bit stubborn. You don’t want all your junk spillin’ out when you’re on the road.” Dammit John, stop that. She wasn’t taking the damn RV. “Same with the back door, actually. You probably don’t actually want to open that thing in general. Fair chance it’ll never close again if you do.” She thought back to the one time they’d used the back door, when they were escaping Marigold, when she was just the Walmart lady. “Anyway, we can talk about all that later, or you’ll figure it out on your own.”

My, he really was forlorn. “Exactly what do you expect they’re going to do with you?” Emma said.

John sighed. “Welp, this isn’t exactly my first infraction, so to speak. And they gave me the gig to punish me in the first place. To be honest, I don’t rightly know where they go from here, but it sure as hell can’t be good for me.”

Sheesh. “So why don’t you just run?”

John actually looked at her. “Emma, the office always has a way of gettin’ to you. The whole way this all turned out, you killed Jamie with my gun. I’m not escaping anything.”

What was that supposed to mean? That her shooting Jamie was ultimately John’s punishment? Goodness, couldn’t Emma have anything for herself? To humor him, she said, “What does that have to do with not being able to run?”

He rubbed his forehead. “I don’t pretend to know exactly how they do what they do, but if the office isn’t happy with you, there will be payment. You should remember that.” He turned to the Jamie. “Besides, I owe it to the kid’s parents to make sure he gets where he’s goin’. Not gonna leave him now.” Jamie didn’t look back at him, which could very well have been because he wasn’t necessarily excited to enter the realm of the dead. “Anyway, best get to it,” said John. “We waste anymore time squattin’ out here and we’re liable to piss ’em off even more than we already have. Here.” He held a key out to Emma, and she held her breath and took it from him. Then he walked past her and around Ferrule’s cab. Jamie lingered for about a second, and followed. She dropped the key in the dirt, and turned to do the same, turned back and looked down at it, then turned away again and committed this time. When she rounded the RV, John was already at the door to the rain, and Jamie was shuffling up behind. She shuffled in accordance.

When she reached John, his hand was on the doorknob. Rain water trickled of his wrist, and vanished when it hit the ground below. “I’d tell you what to expect,” he said, “but the office is never the same. They stay unpredictable to keep us on our toes, I guess.” He turned the knob. “Or just to stay in control.” He pulled the door open, and stepped into a blue hue. Emma waited for Jamie to follow, and then didn’t look back at the RV because she wasn’t compelled to be over dramatic, and then stepped in.

They were in a long tube chute, made of glass. She could tell it was made of glass because she could see through the rounded walls and top. She saw a robust blueness all around. There were also trees, dark trees that reached up all around them, and floating things. She looked to the left side, and it seemed indeed to be some kind of dense forest of long slender tendrils, which split open wide at the top to create a dim canopy. And all among them, floating things that at first she couldn’t quite make out in detail.

“Whoa,” said Jamie. “Are we under water?”

“Oh, who knows,” said John. Then in a grunting mutter said, “I hate these people.” Something thumped the glass to Emma’s right, and Jamie jumped. She looked over and saw it was a wooden chair. It rattled against the glass as it dragged over the tube, and then floated away behind the trees. “Most likely they’re trying to unsettle us,” said John. “Not you, Jamie, you got nothin’ to worry about. Just us.” ‘Us’ minus Jamie left Emma. For the moment she was more disoriented than unsettled, to be accurate. John began walking forward, and so she and the kid did as well.

Jamie’s eyes were all about as they went, as if he were in an aquarium exhibit. It seemed all manner of objects floated about; dishware, furniture, knick-knacks. A shirt momentarily pressed itself onto the glass, and on it were the words Welcome Abroad. They walked for what couldn’t have been anything but a great while, the sound of their footsteps seeming to bounce against the walls and be carried ahead of them. Finally, John said, “There we are, up ahead.”

Emma looked past his shoulder. All she could see was that the corridor opened up and the floor ended. They continued their approach, and there was a high-pitched tick as a screwdriver lightly speared the glass below her, then curled away. They hit the edge of the floor. The walls curved widely away in all directions but down, so that before them was a large dome chamber. And still it was transparent, so that it looked like they were in a giant upside-down fishbowl, the forest all around. Then shafts of grey light split the air. Directly in front of them were stairs, leading rather far down to the open floor, which held nothing but three glass seats that rose like the glass had been stretched up to form them.

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