And the Frog

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7

Oh, dear. She didn’t know exactly what situation she was in but she knew it wasn’t ideal. It would clearly be prudent to get away but she didn’t feel that she could. She’d already tried, and she wasn’t about to go sprinting through a Walmart, gaining the attention of the other very strange strangers that were most probably present because it was a Walmart. But what was there to do? Her first thoughts were: ask this woman nicely to leave her be, or laugh hysterically. Another one of her grandmother’s frequent lessons was that the only way to defeat an insane person was to be even more insane, which to Emma always meant that it was better not to beat them but to escape them. But, as was previously established, she felt escape was not an option. So, what did more insane mean in this context? The problem was that she wasn’t sure if this woman was insane, per se. But there wasn’t time to think on it, and she had to do something, and so she had no choice but to cough, right into the woman’s face. It worked, possibly, because the woman immediately looked confused, and lifted her hand away. When Emma turned to make a dash, she ran into John, who said, “We best be leavin’.” His tone was flat, and he wasn’t looking at Emma, but past her. Right at the woman. And she could tell right then that he knew her.

The woman didn’t follow them to the register. John kept his hand in the center of her back as he guided her forward, and she could feel him looking about them, being sure that Marigold wasn’t about. There was no line to check out, and Emma approached, arms full of discount clothing.

“Find everything?” said the man behind the register.

“Everything,” said Emma, glancing back at John, who she noticed had somehow been pulling a cart behind them as they went. As she began to think about how strange a backwards-moving shopping cart was, the register man said,

“Ma’am?”

She was still just standing there, holding all the clothes. She set them down on the belt and he said,

“Cash or credit?”

“Credit,” she said, realizing that in her situation she probably should want to pay with cash but had no idea how much she had and hadn’t thought to find an ATM. She fished her wallet out of her pocket, and the man said,

“Wow, a woman with pockets,” and she suddenly remembered that she’d gotten that before. Was she buying pants with pockets now? Oh well. She opened her wallet and . . . oh, her driver’s license. Not the whole thing – it sat in one of the pockets, but she could see the upper edge of it, knew what it was. A little card that would have her, well, her old identity on it. Her name. It had been on her all this time. Along with her credit card. Two different physical representations of who she was, and all this time she’d been waddling around accepting that she had no access of the pre-crash her anymore. Goodness, what a numbskull she was. She pulled out the credit card and without looking at the name on it stuck the chip-end into the reader. It prompted a PIN and she apparently knew it, 2738. She signed the line with just three jagged squiggles.

John moved through his payment as quickly as he could. She didn’t pay attention to what he bought, as she was half occupied with casting her eyes about, wondering of the strange woman would appear again, and half distracted by the realization that she’d been carrying herself in her own pocket all this time. When he was finished, John ushered her out into the parking lot and they speed walked toward Ferrule.

“Who was she?” said Emma.

“Egghead, Queen of the Brakes,” said John. “But also someone else.”

They reached Ferrule, John threw open the back door, and she said, “Who else?”

“Didn’t look at her closely on the road,” said John as he started quickly transferring bags into the RV. “Didn’t think she’d be here.”

“Who is she?”

He stopped moving for a second and looked at her. “She’s tryin’ to kill you, Emma.”

“Oh.”

“Don’t worry, I’ve got somethin’ of a plan.”

Emma looked back to the Walmart’s entrance, and with excellent timing the woman emerged. Even from this distance she could tell that Marigold’s low eyes were fixed on her. “There she is,” she said.

John, finished with the bags, slammed Ferrule’s door shut and said, “stay here.” Then he went off walking back, quickly and with intent, toward Marigold, who was rather casually strutting to them. Emma watched him march forth, watched him meet her right in the middle of the driving lane, watched him crank is right elbow back, and watched him sock the woman straight in the face.

Marigold dropped to the asphalt and lay still, and John immediately turned and headed back toward Emma and Ferrule.

“Get in !” he called.

“That was a good plan!” returned Emma.

“Get in, please,” said John, closer now.

And she did.

John was moving quickly, but he still adjusted the mirror, buckled his seat belt, knocked the frog twice on the shoulder. Emma took the recliner, and they were off. They rumbled along quietly for a bit after they were back on the interstate. Then John said, “Some a that stuff I got is cold. You mind throwin’ it in the fridge?” He had a fridge? She leaned forward and looked over at the kitchen.

“What fridge?”

“Oh, sorry.” She looked back to him. “It’s more of a cooler, I guess. It’s up top.” He pointed up, and Emma stood to look at the mattress pad. On the far end, up against the window, was an abnormally long, very old looking, tailgating-on-game-day type blue cooler. A paper sign taped over sloppily with packing tape read FRIDGE.

She nodded and went back to the Walmart bags by the back door. There were only seven of them, and after feeling the outside of each she found that only three were cold (two were her clothes). She carried them all to the bed and lifted them up, then found that she had no clue how to get herself up. She made a few awkward attempts, lifting knees and pulling and such. “How . . .”

“You just gotta kinda . . . hoist,” John said, which was not helpful. Eventually she succeeded by just leaping as hard as she could while pulling with her arms until she could finally throw a knee over, and she was up. She scooted her way past the bags, the foldable grill, the other, smaller coolers, and popped open the big one. It was cold inside, though there was no ice. She figured it must’ve been electric, and she looked at the wall to either side and did see a wire curving away to the right.

There wasn’t much inside. Bottles of water, a pack of lunchmeat, a bag of blood. Hm. “Whose blood?” she said.

“Mine,” called John.

“Right,” said Emma. She looked at it for a bit, then loaded all of the Walmart bags into the fridge without removing the items from them. She shut the fridge with a thump and then turned and laid down on her belly so that her head was hanging off the bed and she was looking at John upside down.

“John, the woman you punched . . .” John said nothing. “Was she a hitman like you?” He said nothing again, but wrung the steering wheel with his hands. She still had no clue why anyone would want to have her killed, and that would be her next question, but John said,

“I never said I was a hitman, Emma.”

What else kills people for a living? she wondered. “What else kills people for a living?” she said.

She could tell John was thinking through his answers. “Marigold and me . . . and some others . . . we . . . you ever heard of the Grim Reaper?”

She raised her eyebrows, or lowered them, considering the top of her head was pointed toward the floor. “The Grim Reaper . . . big skeleton, black cloak, overly large scythe. Yes.”

She saw John chew on his lower lip for a second. “Well, I’m like him, but, uh, but less ‘grim’.”

Emma raised, lowered, her eyebrows even farther, so far that the stretching of the skin hurt a little. “Come again?” she said, and she rolled over and sloppily slunk her way off the bed and onto the floor behind John.

“I, uh . . . reap.”

Emma had always been fond of mythologies, not as such that she studied them or really knew any in great detail, but the idea of great pantheons always amused her. The Grim Reaper was always a fun figure of her fantasies, riding out into the world to scythe people into blackness, usher them to the realm of the dead. He also made for great tattoos, and was a solid easy go-to for a Halloween costume. From the brief experience she’d had with John, she didn’t immediately see a great many similarities between the two. John was surely right in claiming that he wasn’t all that grim – he went nuts for a good bowl of chili and had green shag carpet, after all. She imagined people dressing up as him for Halloween, and it was decidedly a much less fun costume.

“I have questions,” she said.

“Yeah,” said John, shaking his head. “Listen, Emma, I’m gonna be right and honest with you. It’ll be a lot easier for you to learn about all this in bits and pieces, if you even wanna know.” Well, she didn’t have much else going on. It was fair to say she was pretty curious, especially because somewhere in ‘all this’ was a crazy woman who popped up in Walmarts with the apparent intent to kill her. “And,” said John, “I don’t think I’m quite ready to just lay it all out, anyhow.” She was fully aware that she was likely not exactly prepared either, but she did want to be able to sleep again, so she had to get some preliminaries out of the way.

“Can ask just two questions?” she said.

John glanced to the rear-view mirror, and said, “Simple questions?”

She had to evaluate the word simple for a second. Simple as in easy to understand what she’s saying, or simple as in uninvolved with a complex or shocking context? Well, that latter version was now impossible to avoid, and she was pretty sure John was aware of that.

“Simple questions,” she said.

“Alright. Shoot.”

“First,” said Emma, and she felt this was a rather important one, “are you crazy?”

A bit of the tension in John’s shoulders slacked away and he actually released a dry little chuckle. “I won’t lie to you, darlin’. I’m batshit.” The honesty was assuring, even if the answer was a mite unsettling. “But I’m the right kind of batshit, I think. And I’m gonna do my absolute darnedest to keep you safe from the wrong kind.” The wrong kind. The popping up in Walmarts kind. That brought her to her next question.

“Why does Marigold want to kill me?”

He didn’t answer immediately. The tension seemed to creep back up into his shoulders, and she almost wanted to apologize for asking. “That’s not a simple question.” Yes, she might’ve violated the agreement with that one, and it was especially unfair that it followed an easy, polar yes-no inquiry.

“Well,” she said, “Just give me the simplest answer. And I promise I won’t ask anything else. Today.”

John sighed. “She wants to hurt you to . . .” He paused for so long that it seemed like he was just going to stop there.

“She wants to hurt me to . . .?”

“. . . to hurt me. She’s trying to kill you because she’s got a grudge. A long one. With me.” He lowered his head, though he kept his eyes on the road. “I’m sorry, Emma. I didn’t know she’d do this.”

Well.

Well good God dammit if that didn’t just fill her with a whole new list of questions. Why in the hell would hurting her have anything to do with John? What did he do to spurn this woman? How did he even know that was her motivation? Why did she ask him if she was going to question how he knew? Suddenly she wanted to know things, like what was in the cabinet that was screwed shut, why did he have a bag of his own blood in the fridge, and what in all hell was the deal with the frog? But she’d promised two questions, and she could see that John would very much like her to stick to that promise, so instead of asking them she grinded her teeth for a moment and then said,

“She seems grim.”

“Oh yes,” said John, “far as reapers go, she is a damned grim one.”

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