CROAK

“I got him!” yelled Elijah, lifting his net out of the mossy water. 

He was knee deep. His adult-sized rubber boots, though adequately protecting him from becoming wet, reached nearly to his waist. Trying to wrench free from the goop of the pond, he fell clumsily to the damp bank. His prized frog hopped frenziedly in an attempt to escape. Just in time, Elijah again lifted the net from the dewy morning ground, successfully entrapping the frog. His hand, planted against the wet grass, slipped, and he fell backward to the earth, his feet flying freely out of the oversized boots. He began laughing and cheering victoriously.

“This one is going to win it for me! Did you see the way he tried hopping out of the net? I could barely catch him, and I’m the quickest kid in class!”

Elijah then stood up, holding his net high above his head so as not to lose the frog, and skipped back to the truck. His boots were still wedged in the mud of the pond: two plastic oval holes rising out of the water like the eyes of an alien creature.

Isaac, agitated, watched Elijah’s triumphant trot back to the truck with vexation. Benjamin found a good frog, now Elijah had also found a good one. He hadn’t found anything. He walked dejectedly back to the truck. It was six in the morning. It was dark.

***

“Don’t worry, there, Isaac!” said The Man. “It’s just a jumping contest! Won’t make no difference whether you find a frog or not! Damn thing will probably only last ten minutes or so, anyhow! Quit worrying!”

Isaac couldn’t see reason in The Man’s words. He wanted a frog. He wanted a frog that could outjump Elijah and Benjamin’s frogs ten times over! He didn’t find one, though, and now they were headed home; away from the pond. Away from the frogs. 

High beams from the headlights bounced up and down, through the early morning fog, as the truck ambled down the narrow gravel drive. The Man was tired. He was holding a cigarette, hung out the cracked window, its smoke wafting out and fusing with the fog. Periodically, he would nod off and the truck would begin drifting off the road. He would catch the wheel just in time, swerving back to center. The headlights swerved with him.

He was nodding off again.

“Hey!” screamed Isaac. The Man, disoriented and confused, jerked awake.

“Hey!” Isaac said again, “Stop the truck! Look there! Stop the truck!”

The Man, still barely awake and not entirely sure what was going on, perhaps not even completely sure where he was, slammed on the brakes. The truck slid from noon to two, across the gravel, to a stop. Isaac immediately jumped out of the truck. He was back only a minute later.

“Look at this!” He said, “Would you look at this? I got one! It’s HUGE!”

Using both hands, Isaac lifted up his net, grunting from the strain. 

Inside the net was the largest frog any of them, including The Man (who had to be at least fifty) had ever seen. Its eyes, black oval vacuums, shivered as if to bulge out of their sockets. It was such a strange dark shade that it looked almost purple. 

It croaked apathetically.

“This thing is going to win it for me!” Isaac yelled.

It croaked again, as if in agreement. The truck pulled off, throwing gravel and dust in its wake.

“Well, there you go, Isaac!” said The Man, “I’m glad you found yourself something! That thing is a beast! You’re right about that!”

The truck continued down the road, off The Man’s farmland and back toward town. The scent of sizzling steak and eggs was already wafting in the wind blowing from Main Street. 

***

The muddy white five-gallon fishing pail grinded against the asphalt of Main Street as Isaac dragged it toward the starting point. The frog, named Daniel Webster (The Man’s suggestion), added quite a bit of weight to the bucket. The sound of the scrape against the road didn’t bother him a bit; he hadn’t moved an inch. He was saving himself for the race, as Isaac told himself.

Elijah and Benjamin were already at the starting line, waiting:

“Hey!” Elijah called out, “Over here!” He was waving animatedly, a look of childish excitement in his eye. Isaac continued his slog, now using both hands to pull the bucket. It was as if the frog was getting heavier the closer he inched to his goal. Finally making it to the starting line, exhausted, he let go. It tipped over and began rolling away, but the frog didn’t jump out. It was as if he didn’t even notice.

“Hey!” said Isaac, rushing after the fishing pail. He grabbed hold of it and, upon recognizing that the frog wasn’t moving, saved his energy by rolling it back to the start. The shift from a clockwise roll to counter evoked no response from Daniel Webster. It was as if he was always somehow at the bottom of the fishing pail, stepping in time with its roll. 

“This frog is going to kill yours!” He said to both Elijah and Benjamin.

“Yeah right!” responded Benjamin, “I can’t even let mine out of the bucket; it starts hopping like a bat out of hell! He’s going to grill yours!”

“Hey! Mine too!” said Elijah, “I got in a practice run with him this morning; got here early for it! I clocked him and everything; he made it all the way to the finish in less than a minute! I don’t think yours is going anywhere, Isaac! I haven’t seen him move a single inch since you caught him!”

“He’s saving himself,” said Isaac defensively, “We both know this monster frog could easily jump all the way through the finish line in one easy hop! You’ll see!”

Daniel Webster croaked again.

***

“Hey there, Isaac!” 

It was Isaac’s mom.

“Hey!” she continued, “Come over here and get some food before the race begins! I got you a burger. It’s from the Cattlemen’s Association! And some of those good seasoned fries!”

Isaac couldn’t pretend like he wasn’t hungry. It had been a grueling morning out on the pond, especially considering he had to jump out of a moving truck and haul in a gargantuan frog. Food was necessary. 

“Hey, guys,” he said, “Do me a favor and watch my frog; I’ll be back in a minute!”

“Yeah, yeah!” said Elijah, “We both know that big old thing isn’t going anywhere! We’ll watch it for you!”

Isaac ran through the crowd toward his mother. Though it was still morning, the county fair was already bustling. There were lines at all of the food vendors; the longest by far of which was at The Cattlemen’s Association. They had the best steaks and burgers in town. Unfolded lawn chairs lined Main Street in anticipation of the day’s events, the first of which was the Frog Jumping Contest; always a hit with the kids. The beginnings of a stage was already being assembled behind the food vendors, from where a concert would be held later that evening. Until then, recorded music filled the airspace. Peace Frog was now playing. The day had become hot, the air thick.

Isaac rushed to his mom and snatched the cheeseburger from her hand.

“Remember your manners!” she said, visibly affronted.

Before eating, he opened the bun and peeled off an onion and a pickle slice from the burger. Daniel Webster would need some pre-game sustenance as well. Isaac then, after eating about half of the burger, crumbled the aluminum wrapper and laid it in the lawn chair next to his mother:

“Thanks! I’ll eat the rest after the race!”

He sprinted off toward his friends. Daniel Webster was still squatting lazily in the bucket when he returned.

“Hey!” He shouted, “Hey, Daniel! Danny boy! Look what I got you!”

Isaac dropped the pickle and onion into the fishing pail. Daniel Webster, exhibiting his first noticed sign of movement since Isaac caught him, wallowed across the width of the bucket to the greasy vegetables. Upon examination, he looked up at Isaac and croaked emotionlessly. He went back to his previous position after that. 

“Come on!” said Isaac, “Come on Daniel Webster! I need you to be ready for the race! You need to keep your energy up!”

“I don’t think his energy is going anywhere fast,” said Benjamin, “That was the first time I’ve seen him move this whole day!”

“Hey, shut your mouth!” said Isaac, “He’s just saving himself. He’s going to destroy your frog! He’s going to destroy all of the competition; then he’ll be hungry! After a job well done!”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Elijah, “I guess we’ll see!”

The sound of a megaphone coming from the direction of the stage suddenly signaled the call to post:

All right boys and girls! It’s time for one of the oldest traditions here in our little town of Abry: The Frog Jumping Contest! All contestants please take your mark at the line on Main Street! Good luck! 

Isaac, tired of lifting up the heavy fishing pail, and not wanting to make Daniel Webster dizzy before the race, decided against either lifting or rolling the bucket. Instead, he tilted it backward, moving it forward in a back and forth shifting motion, from clockwise to counter, periodically dropping the bucket to regain his grip. Daniel Webster, seemingly for the first time unsure of something, hopped in frustration. His jump was massive; he launched completely out of the bucket, grazing against Isaac’s chest. Isaac, unexpectedly knocked back from the force, stepped back in amazement. Daniel Webster fell back into the bucket. He didn’t move.

“Did you see that!” said Isaac, “Did you see Daniel Webster jump! You guys are toast! Toast as hell!”

“That was luck!” said Elijah, “He just wanted to get away from that stinky pickle and onion! He’s too lazy to win; you just watch! As soon as the race begins, he’s not going to move an inch!”

Jumpers on your mark! The sound came from the megaphone. The trio of boys frantically grabbed hold of their buckets, ready to dump them into the street.

Get set, GO!

The three kids, and the other numerous, faceless participants, all threw their buckets to the asphalt; frogs hopping out everywhere, in every direction, apparently disoriented from the fall. 

Every frog except for one, that is. Daniel Webster left his bucket in no hurry to be anywhere. From the vantage point of the three kids, he wasn’t even visible, as if hiding in his new cylindrical home.

At first, the fishing pail sat motionless, anchored to the ground by the stagnant bulk of Daniel Webster. Then, after the other frogs had already begun their spasmodic hop in every direction – whether toward the finish line or not – the bucket began wobbling back and forth. Then it started rolling away, in the direction opposite the finish.

“Hey!” shrieked Isaac, grabbing hold of the bucket, “Where do you think you’re going!”

Isaac then decided to lift the bucket from the road, forcing Daniel Webster to exit. He strained under its weight. It seemed to him as if it had put on five or ten more pounds since he dragged it down the street earlier. Finally, he yanked it free, falling backward as he did, his ass planted on the asphalt. 

Throwing the bucket behind him, he saw Daniel Webster squatting pensively in the road. He gave a melancholic croak, looked to the ground, and finally lapped up the pickle and onion. He seemed huge, as if his already enormous size had somehow doubled during his incarceration in the fishing pail. 

He waddled forward, toward the finish line. The other frogs – or at least ones that had successfully managed to hop in the correct direction; Benjamin’s frog had long since been disqualified for hopping away – were much too far ahead of Daniel Webster. Elijah’s frog was only a few good hops from the finish. He crossed it successfully, winning easily.

“Yeahhhhhh!” came Elijah’s joyous scream from the finish, “I knew we would win it! We’re the champions! You’re the Frog King!”

Elijah, then scooping up his beloved champion, raised the small creature above his head victoriously, shaking his arms in triumph. The frog, regardless of whether or not frogs are capable of experiencing confusion, certainly looked puzzled, and maybe even a little nauseous.

Isaac, witnessing Elijah’s elation from the wrong end of the racetrack, was seething with anger.

“Aw, you stupid frog!” He yelled, “You’re not good for anything! You’re just fat and lazy!”

He then stamped over to Daniel Webster, who still hadn’t moved since eating the burger veggies, and gave him a frustrated kick.

Daniel Webster, who at this point had grown even larger, simply flopped over onto his backside. Isaac, as angry as he was, hadn’t noticed Daniel Webster’s growth. He wasn’t in the state of mind to recognize much of anything other than the hatred he felt toward Elijah and his tiny little frog. 

Daniel Webster, now also angry, began flailing around in agitation in an attempt to upright himself. Isaac continued to scream childishly at him:

“Look at you! You’re good for nothing! You can’t even sit up! You can’t even get up off your back!”

Daniel Webster continued wiggling. He also continued enlarging, now even more rapidly, as if Isaac’s abuse was fueling his growth. His color shifted from its natural greenish brown to a darker color, more purple and blue. His eyes, though still dark, lit up like a black hole, as if to inhale all the mass unfortunate enough to cross over the event horizon.

Isaac, finally recognizing the shift in Daniel Webster’s size, and also noticing his vacuous eyes, fell back to the ground in horror. He silently, frantically, did a backward crab walk away from his monstrous companion. After making it to the sidewalk, he bumped into his mother’s lawn chair; the one he had left the unfinished burger in. The chair collapsed, and the burger fell out of its aluminum foil wrapper and into his lap. Daniel Webster, instantly noticing, and as if having newly developed a taste for burger, waddled lethargically over to Isaac. He let out an elated croak that was both heard and smelled blocks away.

Isaac froze in fear. Daniel Webster, upon making it to his prized patty, flopped onto Isaac, completely engulfing him. A second later, he was back off. The burger was gone. Isaac, though still mortified, was unharmed. Daniel Webster, then directing his empty gaze over to the Cattlemen’s Association booth, began hungrily dragging his still fattening form toward it. 

Pandemonium inevitably erupted. The entire crowd of people, as if a single entity, simultaneously shrieked in terror. Some parents grabbed their children, shielding them from the beast. Others were too frightened to do anything other than run away, leaving their families to fend for themselves. “Peace Frog”, the song appropriately chosen to be the theme of the event, continued playing: 

There’s blood in the streets
It’s up to my ankles
There’s blood in the streets
It’s up to my knees

Daniel Webster continued his lurch toward the Cattlemen’s Association booth. Those working the booth, in an attempt to protect themselves from this otherworldly behemoth, flipped over all of their tables, grills, and chairs into the street. Daniel Webster, still growing ever more colossal each minute, made quick work of all the spilled beef. After finishing, he again croaked, though this time angrier, hungrier; as if consuming all of the burgers had simply made him more famished. He then, amazingly, leapt from the ground to the top of the Cattlemen’s Association food truck. He landed with a crash, shattering all of the windows in the vehicle. He leapt again, this time from the truck up to the top of a streetlamp. It buckled under his weight; bending nearly halfway to the ground, the lamp explosively vomiting glass all over the street. 

Daniel Webster then opened his mouth, and out sprung his massive, flailing tongue. He whipped it around chaotically; it latched onto whatever it came into contact with. It crashed into vehicles, shattering their windows. It picked up lawn chairs and baby strollers and hurled them fifty feet into the air. The slimy tentacle even managed to uplift a motorcycle and hurl it through a storefront window.

Elijah, thanks to the afterglow from winning the competition, only very recently recognized the severity of what was happening. He stood alone, frozen in the middle of the street, his tiny champion still held above his head. His frightened eyes met the empty gaze of Daniel Webster. The tongue, still in search of meat, swung back around and connected with both Elijah and his unfortunate Frog King, aggressively lifting them high into the air. Daniel Webster, realizing that he had prey on the end of his line, reeled in his tongue, gobbling the both of them up. He then croaked apathetically. The streetlamp continued bending under the strain of his weight, slowly to the ground. Using it as a spring, he leapt into the cosmos, never to be seen again.

— Robert Pettus is an English as a Second Language teacher at the University of Cincinnati. Previously, he taught for four years in a combination of rural Thailand and Moscow, Russia. He likes writing, but he never found the time or the courage to try and regularly do it until quarantine forced him into a much more isolated lifestyle. CROAK is one of his recent works.