She’d been dating the guy for a while, long enough to be invited to sleep over while his kid was in the house. Up till then she’d only ever visited when the kid stayed over at the mother’s, which wasn’t often because she had a mental health problem no one liked to talk about.
The kid had a frog in a tank. A white frog with red eyes like circles of ink drawn at the end of a sentence. Like punctuation marks. It sang at night, loud calls, that sounded like a comb being rubbed back and forth on the edge of a table top. Looping vibrations that rose out of the water. She heard it calling, all night long, even in the next room.
She sat and watched the frog as it ate, gulping the red worms that they dropped in small frozen blocks into the tank. It scooped them into its mouth with its hands, looking like a starving man who still remembered his manners. They really did look like hands, its front feet. Pale with thin fingers, each tipped with a tiny black claw.
She watched the frog while her boyfriend and the kid hung out in the sitting room watching TV. She was supposed to wait in the bedroom till they were done. The kid didn’t like her. Didn’t want to be in the same room as her, so she had to wait, be patient. Let him come around in his own time. These things take time, and the kid didn’t need another mother. She didn’t argue. What did she know about children?
Her own mother had told her she wasn’t the mothering type. Too hard to please, too fussy and now look at her – on the shelf, past her prime. The frog swam to the surface of the tank, broke the skin of the water and took a breath. It floated for a moment, its red eyes unblinking before kicking its thick back legs and settling back on the pebbles at the bottom. They watched each other, frog and woman, as the sound of laughter, canned and real, popped their liquid peace from the other room. She checked her watch, not long to wait, soon the kid would go to bed and then it would be her turn.
On her way over to his place she passed a fancy looking sweetshop, decked out like it belonged in another era, a pink and green striped awning shading elaborate glass jars filled with brightly coloured sweets in the window. She pulled into the parking space outside the shop. Inside, the owner wiped down the counter with a cloth while she stood and tried to choose from the confusion of colours and shapes and flavours.
Sorry, she said. I can’t choose.
The owner smiled, his cheeks pushing up into his narrow temples, shifting his glasses. He was clean-shaven, but he reminded her of her Economics Professor, with his soft grey hair and thin lips. He pushed his glasses back up his nose and waited while she peered into each jar and container. Finally she bought a mixed bag of everything, hard-boiled fruit sweets, soft jellies, chocolate nut chunks, sugar mice, a jelly snake. The guy weighed it all on a scale.
£30, he said.
Jesus, she breathed. But she paid and watched as he tied the package with ribbons. When she arrived her boyfriend took the sweets and put them on the counter.
I thought the kid would enjoy them. I want him to like me.
That’s sweet of you, he said.
You going to give them to him?
Later, he said. Then he kissed her on the cheek and went through to the sitting room and the TV and the kid.
It’s lonely, she said, that’s why it calls like that.
He laughed at her. He was wearing a T-shirt with a joke caption on it, like a teenager would wear. Little things like that were beginning to irritate her. He grabbed her foot and pulled her across the bed towards him. The frog’s rasping call carried on through the night.
But a few nights later it escaped, pushing up out of the thick yellow water with its bunched flexing legs and plopping onto the carpet. She found it, barely alive covered in fluff and hair like a sweet. She washed it off, feeling its pulsing, slick body in her fingers. It survived. But then it did it again the next night and then again and each time she rescued it and put it back.
I’ll get a lid for the tank, he said.
I told you it’s lonely, it’s looking for a mate, she said.
He laughed at her, Oh yeah? The frog thinks does it? Has romantic needs?
How do you know it doesn’t? she said. She watched it, its unblinking eyes watching her back.
Do you think maybe I can come and sit with you and the boy now? It’s been a while.
He looked at her, his chest rising and falling. Maybe, let’s wait and see. These things take time.
But the next time she visited he let her in, kissed her on the cheek and ushered her away from the sitting room, closing the door behind him. She walked down the hall, not bothering to take off her shoes, despite knowing the house rule. The tank was empty. She reached in and stirred up the water, lifted the small rock where it sometimes hid. Nothing. It had gone. She pushed open the sitting room door, and stood there the blue light of the TV washing over them all.
Hey, what’s up? he said. The kid stared at her and then turned back to the TV.
Where’s the frog? she asked.
Just like that?
Yeah, just like that.
Have you looked for it? Her voice had shifted up out of her chest and into her throat.
No, why bother? It’s gone, I’ll just get him another one.
The kid sucked on his fingers, his round face pink and scrubbed in the light.
Another one? she said.
Yeah, he said. I’ll replace it. Why don’t we talk about this later? You go and get a drink and get comfortable.
She nodded, and turned to go.
Babe, he said, shut the door behind you.
And so she did.
Heidi James asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work