It was Thursday, early morning in mid-July, opening day of the Lake Arrowhead county fair.
Dana MacMurchy sprang from her bed with an enthusiasm equivalent to that of a child on Christmas morning. She was up and dressed so quickly one might have thought she had actually slept in her clothes.
Braiding her hair was going to take too long, so her tousled chestnut locks were pulled into a ponytail. She then pulled it through the back loop of her Anaheim Angels baseball cap. They’d changed their name to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim a few years back when Dana was only eight. Being the diehard fan that she was, she refused to acknowledge the change, even to this day.
Dana flew down the stairs of her house with a series of hopping thuds. Her faded and worn black Converse Chuck Taylors took the steps two at a time until she reached a foyer closet at the bottom. As she dug through for her backpack, she was stopped cold. A presence seemed to lurk behind her, silent but strong like some sort of ominous chilling spirit. She didn't need to turn around to know what or who it was… Mom-police.
“Where do you think you are going, missy?” her mom asked, standing behind Dana, arms folded across her apron in consternation.
“Today’s opening day, mom,” she answered quickly in her most angelic of tones. “I’m supposed to meet May in a few minutes.”
Dana considered for a moment telling her mom about the frog-jumping competition that would start at three, but she swallowed that idea like a bitter pill. The best bullfrogs lived in the pond behind Ms. Kranston’s house; surly, crotchety, mean-as-a-witch, Ethel Marie Kranston.
Last time Dana and her best friend in the world, Mable “May” Wilson, went wrangling bullies in that pond, the old lady chased them away screaming and wildly shaking a rolling pin. The old lady’s threats were difficult to make out as the girls took off running. But, Dana was certain they had to do with boiling the two of them in a vat of carrot and onion stew—after she had skinned them alive, of course.
Ms. Kranston’s place was the favorite topic of every chilling, keep-you-up-all-night, scary, sleepover story. It was your typical rundown gated mansion; swallowed by tufts of overgrown weeds and gnarly wooded-over wisteria vines. The exterior was drab, gray, and looked like it had been abandoned for centuries. Even the adages of chilling superstition couldn’t detract from the fact that the pond behind that terrifying house had world-renowned jumpers.
After that fateful day, when Dana and her flaxen-haired partner in crime narrowly escaped certain death, a hand-written note went out to every house in the neighborhood. Even the ones without kids! Hence, her mom had forbidden her from ever going anywhere near that property and its treasure-trove of frogs.
She knew that any mention of the fair’s competition would set mom-police into overdrive. Dana’s plans to catch a thick-thighed bullie would be kiboshed.
“Well, you need to eat something,” her mom said, breaking the silent stare. “Come. I made cinnamon rolls with sugar icing.”
“Can I take one to go? Please, mom?” Dana flashed her sweetest smile. Her hands demurely clasped in front of her denim shorts as she rocked side to side on legs as thin as a heron’s.
“You’re nothin’ but skin and bones, child,” her mother chided, turning to head back into the kitchen. “Take one for Mable too. And, Dana…” Now out of sight, Mom-police called over her shoulder, “You two girls stay out of Ms. Kranston’s. There’s no telling what that senile old woman might do.”
‘How did she know?’
Dana followed into the kitchen, eyeing her mother suspiciously as she was wrapping two sweet-rolls in wax paper. Could she really see through Dana’s sly exterior? What gave it away? Maybe the backpack. Why else would a kid need a backpack in the middle of summer?
Either way, she gave her mother a playful swat on the tush good-bye; certain she would not get caught this time.
Earlier that week, she and May had found a broken section in the wrought iron fence surrounding Kranston’s eerie haunted manor. It was on the far east corner where a thick grove of trees shielded most of the Kranston house from sight. Dana reasoned that if the house was not easily visible, then they too must be hidden.
She remembered reading that once on a warning sign that hung from the back of an eighteen-wheeler: “If you can’t see my driver, then he can’t see you!” The warning was accompanied by an overly dramatic depiction of a car getting squashed by the turning truck.
As Dana rounded the corner, she spotted May walking toward her twirling a small fishing net. It wasn’t large. A hand-held oval with dark-green mesh netting. Mable’s older brother used it when he went trout fishing in the stream that fed Lake Arrowhead. Had he known they had it, he’d be in line right behind old lady Kranston waiting his turn to skin the two girls alive. Fortunately, it wasn’t trout season, he’d be none-the-wiser.
“Hey, May,” Dana called as they got closer.
“Froggie,” May replied with a nod.
Froggie was the nickname bestowed upon Dana for her uncanny ability to chug A&W root beer and belch in the perfect tone of a bullfrog. She used to go by Mac, until Mackenzie Lindstrom transferred to Taft Elementary and started handing out lollipops. Upon receiving theirs, Dana and May had immediately tossed them into the trash. The rest of the class, however, loved it and Mackenzie Lindstrom quickly became the “it” girl in grade three.
From that day forward, Dana no longer wanted to be called Mac.
“I’m not so sure this is a wise plan, Froggie,” May said.
“Risk versus reward,” Dana replied. A saying she had once overheard her step-father say when he was investing the family nest egg in a new venture. Soon after, the company went belly-up and the theory was left unproven. Dana decided it was best to leave that part out of her rationale.
“If that old lady catches us, we’ll go to jail. Do you know what happens to girls like us in jail?” May was waving the fishing net while shaking her head in discontent.
“You worry too much, May. That spot we found is perfect. Foolproof.” Froggie had her thumbs locked in the shoulder straps of her backpack swaying with a confident stride; ponytail swinging back and forth enthusiastically.
The morning air was warm, humid, and thick. A slight breeze played with the leaves of the black cottonwood and eucalyptus trees that lined either side of the street. The early light made the boughs shimmer as they danced. When the girls reached the corner, they cut right to head down Poplar Lane, which would take them around the backside of the Kranston estate.
As they rounded the corner, they were greeted with an unexpected snip of snark.
“Well, well, well. What have we here? Tweedledee and Tweedledummer?”
Mackenzie Lindstrom riding in circles on her brand new Schwinn Huntington Cruiser, white with a pink seat and matching pink rims.
“As much as we would looove to stay and hear all about your new bike, Mackenzie, it’ll have to wait for another day.” Froggie never broke her stride, brushing past Mackenzie with an exaggerated roll of the eyes. May was matching her step for step.
Mackenzie fired back dramatically, “Oooh, I’m so sad I might just die.”
“Promises, promises,” May whispered, causing both girls to erupt in a fit of laughter.
Mackenzie sped past them by a considerable distance then jammed on her foot-brake and turned.
“Don't even think about entering tonight’s talent competition,” she called. “I wouldn’t want you to embarrass yourselves trying to keep up with me.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it, toots,” Froggie sniped as the girls once again bounced past her. “Got us a frog jumping contest to win.”
“That’s utterly disgusting. I hope you get covered in warts, Froggie MacMurchy!”
“You’d still look prettier than her,” May whispered again, resulting in an even bigger fit of laughter.
The girls' jubilance began to wane as they neared the Kranston property. Even the air that surrounded them seemed to shift from friendly to eerily and cool.
A towering fence guarded the grounds with a combination of three feet of brick at the base, and another three feet of ominous wrought iron on top. Crows—as if attracted to the purported evil that lived within—filled much of the foliage surrounding the secret entrance. Their cackling was loud and foreboding.
Froggie could see May already having second thoughts. “Don’t worry, May, I’m telling you, this plan is foolproof,” she assured her friend.
They pulled back the overgrown juniper that shielded their hidden entrance. Behind it, the wrought iron had snapped free under the pressure of the bush. It created an entrance just wide enough for two skinny eleven-year-old girls to slip through, virtually unnoticed.
The pond was a decent size. If it got cold enough in the winters, it might make for a pretty good ice-skating rink. Shoulder-high cattails grew in clusters along the far bank. Swaths of gooey algae floated here and there in the stagnant water, blending into pockets of shimmering green lily pads.
Tall pines and a few beefy oak trees lined the edge where Froggie and May emerged. Despite the ominous chill as they entered, the pond felt peaceful and calm. Glassy. The air was clean and pungent with the fragrance of jasmine. If they stayed close to that side, only a small corner of Kranston’s dreadful house could be seen.
Froggie slipped off her backpack and smiled. May was still not so enthusiastic.
“Let’s just get one and go, Froggie. I don't want to be here any longer than we have to.”
“Relax, May.” She handed her the backpack. “My ma packed you a cinnamon roll.”
Froggie kicked off her Chuck Taylors, wiggled her bare toes, and scoured the pond for hopefuls. A few smaller ones perched on lilies basking in the dappled sunlight. The big boys tended to stay submerged as the flimsy pads were not sturdy enough to carry their weight. She scanned the surface looking for any sign of a disruption in the smooth texture of the water.
Big bullfrogs were like icebergs. Ninety-five percent of their body would usually stay submerged, floating like they were in a suspended state of animation. Front and back legs splayed out as if they are in mid-leap. This would allow just the very crown of their head, where their eyes and nostrils sit, to crest atop the water. Any sense of danger and they simply dip slightly, swimming away with nary a ripple disturbing the water.
There had to have been a few dozen sets of eyes dotting the water here and there. The set Froggie locked onto were pea-sized pupils seemingly peering back at her from across the pond.
Without breaking the stare, Froggie pulled a pair of swim goggles from the front pocket of her shorts. She’d gotten them last summer when her mom signed her up for lil guppies swim lessons at the Y. The lessons were a waste, but she got to keep the goggles which would now allow her some visibility under the murky pond water.
Froggie traded her baseball cap for the goggles and slipped fully-clothed into the warm water as stealth as a gator about to secure its next meal. It wasn’t more than a foot deep at the edge but soon she was floating belly side down, eyes still locked on the monster bullie. He hadn’t so much as blinked yet.
“Froggie…” May whispered hoarsely. She didn’t turn for fear of losing sight of her prize, but as she inched closer he dipped and disappeared. Taking in a deep breath, Froggie followed under.
“Darn it, Froggie, you forgot the ne—” May’s voice trailed into a muffled gurgle as Froggie’s head fully submerged.
Even with the goggles, it was difficult to see anything, like swimming through a brown fog. Fortunately, the sun was strong and she could make out shapes well enough. In her best amphibious mimic, she paddled underwater kicking her hands and feet outward in timed succession. It didn't take long to reach where she thought he had been floating.
Just as her lungs began to burn, she spotted a dark shadow to her left; the backside of the beast. Two thick-thighed legs dangled motionless to either side. Froggie smiled and slowly crept behind. Then, in one swift motion, she planted the balls of her feet in the slimiest ick she’d ever felt and sprang up at an angle, swooping him into both hands.
As she surfaced, she filled her lungs with fresh air followed by a burst of joy. He was massive. She could feel the weight in her hands and let out another whoop without a care for the mucousy green algae that now coated her hair, face, and goggles.
“I got him, May!” she hollered. “And he’s ginormous.”
“Ginormous indeed.” The voice came from her right and was not the voice of her best friend in the whole world.
Froggie turned to face that direction but her vision was blurred green behind her algae-covered lenses. Something pink began to move amidst the green curtain, something bright pink and it was moving in her direction.
“Best you lift your goggles, little lady, if you are going to safely make it to shore.”
Old lady Kranston.
Foggie’s heart seemed to stop, then slithered itself all the way past her stomach to a pit reserved for the most dire of situations. The last time it was there was when Dana MacMurchy got her name put on the “talkers” list in second grade. A note was sent home that required a signature from mom-police. For a good while, her heart had stayed out of that stomach-pit, but it was right back down there now.
Without dropping the bullfrog, who seemed to be frozen with just as much fear as Froggie, she used the back of one hand to push the goggles up onto her forehead. There stood mean ole Ms. Kranston not more than fifteen feet away. She was wearing a pink housecoat down to just below her knees where it touched the tops of black rubber boots. A floral gardener’s hat darned her head with canvas gloves that had a matching print. She held a trowel in one hand.
“Wwwhat are yyyou gonna do to me?” Froggie stammered.
“Well, I have a right mind to call the police, seeing as you’re trespassing and all.”
“Please, Ms. Kranston. Me and May were just trying to get a bullfrog for the jumping contest later today at the fair.” Froggie turned to see that her best friend was long gone. Probably home by now scribbling notes to eulogize one Dana “Froggie” MacMurchy, cause of death, boiling in a vat of soup.
“What gives you the right to take my frog?” Ms. Kranston scowled.
“Nothin’ I suppose. Just that your pond has the best frogs I’ve ever seen.”
There was a lengthy pause. Even though the air was now warmer than earlier, Froggie started to shiver.
“You know, my late husband never liked this pond, why he put in all these damn trees. Said the frogs were evil, that their little eyes popping on the surface would stare right down into his soul.”
Froggie’s eyebrows raised. ‘Late husband? Please don’t tell me he’s buried in the ick beneath my toes,’ she thought.
“Most nights, I sit on my back porch and listen to them serenade the stars. Beautiful sound. And as luck would have it, the trees he planted are now home to thousands of fireflies.”
The woman standing before Froggie seemed to be taking on a more frail exterior. Still just as threatening and scary, but vulnerable.
“My ma says when you see a firefly light up that means two people are in love. My friend, May, says it’s on account that the female is trying to attract a male for funny business.”
Ms. Kranston stifled a snicker. “You’re that MacMurchy girl, ain't ya?”
“Damn shame what happened to your father. That drunk driver deserved a death sentence, taking a little girl's daddy like that.”
For a moment, the pitted feeling that had been cradling Froggie’s heart swelled. The crows that hid in the treeline began to cackle as if they agreed with Ms. Kranston.
She had been four when it happened. Too young to fit into the Angel’s cap he had bought at the game that night.
“We don’t really talk about that, ma’am.”
This time there was a stretch of silence that Froggie wished the crows would interrupt.
“Well now, I can’t have you fishing out my frogs and scaring away the ones you don't catch, you understand me?”
“Come on now, out of that pond with ya. You’ll need a carrying case for Quadzilla there, I might have one buried in the shed somewhere. I’ll wait till after your contest to have a word with your mother.”
Mom-police would probably issue a pretty hefty grounding, especially since she had been clear in her warning earlier that morning. But that was at the back of Froggie’s mind now as she waded through the murk.
~~ * ~~
“Jumpers take your mark!” The crackly voice squawked from the bullhorn speaker.
“You got this, Quadzilla,” Froggie whispered to him.
Excitement electrified the air. Distant screams from whirling rides floated in on the cool fall breezes. Each breath was filled with the sweet smell of buttermilk funnel cake and purple clouds of cotton candy.
The bullfrog competition was being held on the main stage and drew a considerable crowd. Quadzilla was assigned to the first station closest to the edge of the stage. It was not ideal as it exposed him to the jeers and cheers of the crowd. The cheers coming from ninety-nine percent and the jeers coming from one Mackenzie Lindstrom who had planted herself front and center.
“That frog is as ugly as you are!” she yelled, dressed to the nines for the talent show set to immediately follow on the main stage.
May screamed from the finish line at stage-left, “Don’t listen to her, Quadzilla! You got this!”
Ten frogs in all were placed on their respective marks. The course and rules were simple. First frog to make it across the ten-foot designated jump zone was declared the winner. Froggie estimated that the average frog would take five, maybe six leaps to cross the expanse. Quadzilla would undoubtedly shatter that.
Froggie held him in place, the thrum of her heart soaking in all the energy swirling through the fairgrounds. The raucous buzzers and bells of the fair began to drone out until finally, the starter’s whistle blew.
Three frogs immediately sprung. Then, like popcorn kernels reaching their popping point, the rest followed one by one. Quadzilla remained planted, seemingly content just to sit and watch the action for a moment. Froggie raised her hand and slapped down with her palm flat into the stage behind him.
“Booo. Where’d you find that dud,” howled Mackenzie, “the cemetery?” She leaned into the stage with a pointed laugh.
“Come on, boy. You can still catch ‘em but you gotta give me a leap,” Froggie said calmly to his back.
Quadzilla didn’t move, save for the gentle flutter of his throat like he was just happy to be away from the pond for a spell. Froggie looked up toward the field, all the frogs were now scattered in the jump-zone. A few appeared to be within a hop or two of the finish.
She turned her gaze blankly to the crowd, past the hysterical Mackenzie. The commotion once again seemed to fade as time began to move in slow motion.
Suddenly, a whistle snapped her attention. It wasn’t the starter’s whistle. This was like the one her step-father does with his two fingers when she scores in soccer. Froggie spotted the noise-maker. A woman off to the right under a floral gardener’s hat.
Another whistle, this time with a slight uptick. Quadzilla, as if responding, jumped.
It was not a straight leap, he cocked off to the left closer to the edge of the stage. Mackenzie let everyone around her know that she thought he might be drunk.
As she pitched her head back to laugh at her own quip, Quadzilla jumped again and once again in a leftward direction. He did not land in the jump zone this time. Instead, the beefy bullfrog landed smack down onto Mackenzie Lindstrom's upturned face.
The ensuing shrill that emanated from the girl was like something Stephen King would have wanted to capture on tape and write an entire horror plot around.
Spinning frantically, Mackenzie’s dress snagged a wayward nailhead in the stage and tore a hole straight across her belly. The pull caused her to lose balance and fall backward plopping into the trodden fairground mud.
Quadzilla leaped through the crowd unaffected by the chaos and was scooped up by good ole Ethel Marie Kranston.
Froggie jumped from the stage, completely oblivious to the outcome of the contest, and hustled past a teary Mackenzie.
“I’m so sorry, Ms. Kranston,” she said breathlessly as she caught up to the old woman.
“Looks like you lost your contest,” she replied, placing Quadzilla into his carrying case.
“I suppose so. But at least it doesn't look like Mackenzie is gonna have much luck in hers either.”
“You are entirely right, young lady,” she said with an odd smile. “You know what that means?”
“Can’t say as I do, ma’am,” Froggie replied.
“Means my husband might have been right.”
“Looks like these lil guys can spy evil after all.”