Jonah and the Frog
By James Wade
There was a hush to the night, all secret like. Slow moving clouds that canceled the stars. The water stilled by God herself. The moss hanging.
Can’t do much with a night like this, Jonah thought. Can’t do much at all.
Down by the water, just clear of the docks, the bars lined themselves up like pageant contestants.
Jonah had never been one to judge.
There’s complicated, like fate and love and algebra. Then there’s straight talk, like the bottle.
Funny about the old buildings, Jonah thought, how the brick and stone and wood survived. But nothing else.
The thing inside him, it was moving. He could feel it.
He’d felt it move from his foot to his calf. He pulled off, parked the old Buick in the alley by Yancy’s place. The girls were starting early, he could hear; but tonight wasn’t good for a visit, so he headed east. Whatever it was, this thing inside him, it was having trouble getting past his knee caps. Jonah had already had knobby knees. Maybe this was why.
He figured he still had some time.
If Karen were there, she’d laugh at him. Point to all the things wrong, and laugh. Not cruel, but something. He never felt embarrassed. Not until the end. Not much sadder than a happy clown.
They’d walked the cobblestone path by the river as if it were a hallway. Ducking into each room to chat. A drink here, a story there. And Karen, laughing, by the water.
Jonah felt his left thigh tense. He saw the thing climbing, clawing at the tendons in his quadriceps. His whole leg stiffened.
He hobbled into The Quarter.
Brick and stone and wood and the thing inside his thigh. That’s what would live on. Not John, with his thick arms and pronounced stomach, standing at the door, gazing too long at the young men from the boats. Not Loggins, the sour-faced old captain covered with cliches; or Shelley, behind the bar with tattoos and a tired look. Not even Karen.
Not even Karen, he thought again, feeling the sharpness pull past his hip and into his stomach.
"Quiet night," Toby nodded.
Jonah nodded his agreement. He dug his elbow into his side, sending the thing scurrying around to his back. His eyes were having the same trouble as the rest of him. Difficult to concentrate on things. Difficult to move. Like a dream, Jonah thought. Could be, but no, not with this goddamn thing in my spine.
“How ‘bout we ask Jonah?” Hap said. “Let him settle it.”
“Jonah doesn’t want to hear that shit,” Shelley said. “Not right now.”
“Aw, horse piss,” Hap was stammering drunk. “Hell, he’s the perfect one to decide.”
Shelley shook her head.
Jonah itched at his shoulder blades.
Hap was talking. Jonah tried to listen.
“--- came crashing down, split the fucking boat in two and, and, AND missed my fucking head by a goddamn frog hair.”
“Frog hair,” Jonah nodded, lost.
“You understand?” Hap continued. “That’s why-- that’s how you know. That’s how the fuck you know.”
“Know what?” Jonah asked.
Shelley laughed, moving down the bar to help a fresher face.
“Know what? Know it’s real!” Hap shouted. “Know it’s all fucking real, and all around us. It’s-- we’re-- there’s a plan, goddamnit. A fucking plan. We’re in it.”
“A plan,” Jonah repeated, hunching over to make room in the back of his neck for the thing to burrow.
“A fucking plan,” Hap nodded, seemingly satisfied with Jonah’s response.
Hap belched, went a little cross-eyed and stumbled toward the back of the bar. Jonah stared into his glass. There was something black in the beer’s foamy head. A fly. He could hear it, kicking furiously under the liquid. The thing in his neck began to launch itself toward his skull, ramming him behind the ears and in the back of the head. He steadied himself against the bar.
“Don’t really believe that, do you?” Toby asked, softly. “Don’t really believe in no plans.”
“Couldn’t say,” Jonah replied, the pressure in his head building up into his ears. “Don’t know enough one way or the next.”
“I just figured, I mean, with what happened and all,” Toby said, eyes down. “Not that it’s my place.”
Jonah sprang from his stool, his head twitching. He plunged his hand into the glass, scooping beer and bug into his mouth, the liquid running down his chin.
“Sorry,” Toby said. “I didn’t mean nothing. I shouldn’t brought it up.”
Jonah’s whole body spasmed. He wrenched one leg at a time toward the door. Shelley watched him go, concerned. Toby looked away.
Outside, nothing had changed. Nothing ever changed, Jonah thought, even when it did. Life and death and these old fucking buildings.
He could taste it now, in the back of his throat. His eyes bulged. He hammered at his head with both palms open. His jaw clicked and the veins in his neck bulged. He ran toward the water, each step more of a jump than the last.
A mist moved across the river, layering the world in the useless facade of shield. There is no protection here, Jonah thought. There is no plan.
He hit all fours. Hands and knees plunging into the cool mud of the bank, threatening to stay forever. He couldn’t breathe. He wrenched his hands free of the earth and clawed at his throat. He coughed and hacked and gagged, until finally the first leg came out. He grabbed hold of it, his mouth open wide for the birth.
He pulled until the body cleared his lips, cracked and dried, then flung it down into the shallow water. He stared into its eyes. It hopped once, then disappeared.
“No,” Jonah cried, crawling into the water.
The river moved past his shoulders, then his head.
“No,” he thought, the dark water filling his eyes and nose and mouth. “This time I’ll save you.”