At first, when the frogs all started getting bigger, people thought it was cute. It wasn’t a plague, after all. They weren’t roiling and pulsing across the plane—threatening invasion. You didn’t find them between the bed sheets, or massing on the lawn furniture. It’s just that the damn things were getting larger.
“Everett found one behind the wood pile,” Nancy told her cousin, on the phone, “as big as a catcher’s mitt.”
Even the diminutive little tree frogs seemed a size or two larger, in a way that made people think the latitude had shifted 50 degrees to the south. It felt something like setting up shop in a Panamanian jungle cottage and beholding a cockroach the size of a lab rat – except the shift applied only to frogs, and that may have muted the threat a little. During that first summer in Dayville, it felt merely eccentric, as though the town just grew large frogs for some reason, and the phenomenon itself wasn’t universally accepted.
“It feels a little anecdotal to me,” Nancy’s husband, Tim, said. “I mean how do we really know our frogs are larger than the Buckwood frogs or the Shelby frogs?”
Tim and Nancy Felton made a vow not to pose the question to any of their guests that summer, just to see if a stranger would notice the grand frogs of Dayville, and – sure enough – despite several frog sightings, a huge July 4th celebration with people coming in from as far away as Nash City, and a big Labor Day birthday celebration for their son, Everett – no one made mention of the frogs.
And then one Saturday, two weeks later, Tim’s uncle Winslow came up from Shelby to help with a little roof repair. Just as Tim was unloading the last of the asphalt shingles, he heard his uncle whistling from the top of a ladder.
“THAT,” Uncle Winslow said, “is the largest frog I have EVER seen in my life. He was staring me down.”
“You didn’t prompt him?” Nancy asked, later that evening, after Uncle Winslow drove home.
“No,” Tim said. “It was totally volunteer, and he—”
“I mean, he looked absolutely unnerved by it. His mind wasn’t on the roofing.”
“Did you see it?”
“No. He got away. That was the other thing that bothered Uncle Winslow. The hopping.”
“He said he had never seen a frog leap that far and that fast.”
Nancy and Tim had to measure this testimony against Uncle Winslow’s past. The old fella was a Woodstock original, no stranger to the exotic psychotropics of the era, and even Winslow himself wondered if he was having some sort of flashback. Before driving away, the old man looked out into the Dayville brush and scrub country across the road. He was distracted and a little pale. “No,” he had concluded with a sudden shift of demeanor and a solemn resolution. “I did see that frog.”
But that only reduced his credibility, and the Feltons consoled themselves with the oncoming fall colors and the Dayville town festivals and parental pride they took in Everett’s piano-playing. For a ten year old, his Maple Leaf Rag was getting pretty good, even if they said so themselves. The fall and winter would bring that glorious Dayville frost and cider weather, and frogs would surely take a seasonal retreat, wouldn’t they?
On Thanksgiving day, after sharing a meal with some of their Dayville cousins, Tim allowed himself a rare cigar and a double Bourbon out on the porch. It was unseasonably warm and pleasant for Dayville, and Lloyd Felton, Tim’s cousin, puffed away at his Churchill as he took in the horizon and savored the last of what must have been at least seven rounds of Woodford Reserve. Lloyd was city manager. He took pride in knowing the town stories, and Tim was prepared for some boozy Dayville gossip, but the first words out of Lloyd’s mouth brought on an unpleasant sobriety..
“You like frog legs?” Lloyd asked.
“Why do you ask?”
“You like ‘em?”
“Don’t think I’ve ever had them,” Tim confessed.
Lloyd belched and took another puff.
“Have you noticed?” Lloyd asked. “That we grow some BIG frogs around here.”
Tim tried to chuckle. “Uncle Winslow didn’t put you up to this?”
“Winslow?” Lloyd looked genuinely confused. “I haven’t seen him – my word – in a decade, since that intervention thing we all did.”
Lloyd stood up, shuffled into the kitchen, and came back with more bourbon.
“Anyway,” he said. “Frog legs, if you do them right, are really tasty, and the boys caught some obscenely large bull frogs down by your pond last July. We snuck down here when you guys went up to Nash City for that concert.”
Lloyd sipped his bourbon and continued. “Anyway, these things were so big I took a picture of them and sent it over to what’s her name .. oh, what IS her name again?”
“Who?” Tim asked.
“That biologist relative of ours. What IS her name? Adriana? Elly? Married Aunt Dixie’s son?”
“Aldea,” Tim said.
“Anyway,” Lloyd continued. “She’s a hot shot at State. I think she’s on the mammal side of things, but she ran it by a batrachologist friend to see if I was just seeing things.”
“Well, in the picture I put a quarter down next to the frogs, for scale, and Adriana says her friend wasn’t particularly impressed.”
“So,” Tim asked. “Our frogs are not particularly large?”
“It’s Aldea, by the way,” Tim said, relieved to have felt the world righted by normal sized frogs.
“Right, right. Well, anyway, you mind if the boys and I try to scare up some more of your frogs? It’s kinda warm today and I was thinking this might be the last catch before winter.”
The sun was going down. Lloyd and his boys got themselves all kitted up with rubber boots, frog gigs that looked like Neptune’s trident, and miner’s lamps to “jack” the bullfrogs with a bright light that stunned them. Tim couldn’t help noticing, with some perplexity, a little fear on the face of Lloyd’s youngest boy, Ferris, but that fear was remedied by the girlish delight of Lloyd’s wife, Shelly. She was along for the ride, but she had been hitting the hard cider at the dinner table, and she appeared genuinely excited about a frog leg fry.
“Tim!” she said. “I can’t believe you haven’t tried frog legs.”
“And here I appear to live on a giant frog farm.”
“Just you wait,” Shelly promised.
She was carrying the family Chihuahua, Hector, in the breast pocket of her overalls, and she was the very picture of a jovial mom in the process of making memories. For a moment, Tim was tempted to drag Nancy and Everett out for a nighttime frog hunt, but he also felt that buttery fatigue, that turkey and bourbon induced sleepiness, that he had learned not to ignore. When you get a chance to sleep, he told himself, take it. So Tim fell asleep to the sound of his son, Everett, making a credible attempt at a sonata, and he had one of those two hour naps that felt something like a century, but he woke up to a mix of euphoria and panic — coming from outside, in his driveway.
It must have been about 10 PM. Lloyd and his three boys were beaming their headlamps down into the bed of Lloyd’s truck.
“Look at those suckers,” Lloyd said. “Tim! Get me a tape measure.”
In the distance, Tim could hear Shelly screaming for Hector, the Chihuahua.
“Is Shelly okay?” Tim asked.
“She’s fine. Seriously, get me a tape measure.”
Tim found one in the kitchen, but registered a definite sense of panic in Shelly’s voice, far out in the distance.
“Shelly!” Tim yelled into the darkness. “Are you okay?”
“I can’t find Hector! He’s a barker. I can’t even hear him.”
It is strange that tragedy and triumph are sometimes delivered up at the very same time. Lloyd’s marvelous bullfrog catch and the loss of a beloved family pet announced themselves at almost the same moment — and it was all being set to the piano-playing of young Everett, who was pounding out “The Entertainer” on his keyboard. The sweet, syncopated chorus trailed off into the night, along with the now dogless relatives–and a week later, on the last warm Saturday of the fall, the extended family played touch football, barbecued frog legs, and consoled a tearful Shelly, who made one last unsuccessful attempt at finding her Chihuahua.
Time went by. Several months. The winter, and several blanketing snow storms, pushed frogs out of the collective consciousness. Lloyd, the city manager, had to deal with a collapsed roof at a recreation center, brought down by a blizzard. Tim and Nancy lost power a few times, fought snow drifts, and contemplated — as they were prone to on such occasions — what it might be like to live in a more temperate latitude. During such winters, it didn’t seem likely frogs would ever emerge from the cold again. How could anything so green and wet and tropical survive a sub-zero Dayville winter? Where did they go, after all?
Some months later, in the late, euphoric Spring of the next year — when even the trees seemed to be flirting with each other — Shelley and Nancy set out some delicate honey and cucumber concoction on a sawbuck table near a flowering dogwood on the back porch. Lloyd puffed a cigar and conducted city business on his smart phone. Tim was wrestling with someone on the far side of the internet. He was mildly addicted to this sort of thing — confronting bald-faced error. The sheer, mule-headed stupidity of the world was fascinating in a mood-breaking sort of way.
“Put it down,” Nancy said, frowning at Tim’s phone.
Tim sidled up to the Agurkai su Medumi. The acacia honey and the cucumber chill and his vodka soda felt something like sprinkler mist on a hot day, and he settled into the comfort of conversation and two hours with nothing to do. In the distance, he could see Everett running from the pond back to the house with an urgency that looked alarming. Everett liked to run, but it looked like he was running away from something this time. His eyes were a bit wider than usual.
“Everett!” Tim called. “What’s up?”
Everett stopped on the porch, took in the cucumbers, and breathed hard. “Nothing,” he said. “I don’t think so anyway.”
“What are you talking about?”
The boy scampered into the house and slid the glass door shut with a protective finality.
Nancy looked out towards the woods and the pond in the distance. “They definitely are getting bigger.”
Lloyd looked up from his municipal business on the phone and Shelley took in the woods as well.
“You know,” she said, “there’s something weird about that night Hector disappeared.”
Tim took in a drink. “How so?”
“Well, Hector was a little weirdo to be sure. High strung. He jumped out of my overalls pocket all the time, but that night when Lloyd and the boys were frog hunting..”
Shelly stood up from the table as though to demonstrate. “I had my little pocket purse in there as well, and it had a strap on it, and Hector’s leg was stuck in the strap. I mean. It was so dark, I couldn’t see anything, but I can’t help feeling something actually pulled Hector out of my breast pocket. There was a tug, like the purse strap was holding him back, and then there was like this second hard yank. And he was just gone.”
Lloyd ambled up to the table and took up a cucumber. “Ever see a slow motion recording of the way a bull frog snaps up a moth? Big old sticky, super fast tongue. Like lightning. Zap. Down the gullet.”
Shelly laughed. “Oh, it’s just too ridiculous.”
No one spoke for a few seconds.
“I’m not losing my mind,” Shelly said. “I’m really not.”
At the beginning of that second summer even the calm and sensible people in Dayville agreed that the frogs were getting bigger — much bigger. Pictures were being posted. A news van came down from WTXW in Nash City. A few of the local merchants were proposing a frog fry festival for the late summer. For most of the town, at some distance from Tim’s pond, it all felt like some sort of wholesome seasonal anomaly — melons that were larger or a supremely bumper crop of apples.
But what Tim couldn’t shake was the final detail in Shelly’s story. “When I got home that night I was so upset losing Hector that I didn’t even notice the stain on my overalls. It was like goo, or slime, or something.”
Between friends and family, when peripheral details point to something truly preposterous, it can bring on a silence that even the unfiltered are unlikely to break. This was was one of those moments. Lloyd raised his eyebrows and summed it up this way: “come to your own conclusions.”
No, Tim chuckled to himself, the next evening, standing next to his pond in the woods. He said the words aloud: “no frog is large enough to swallow a Chihuahua whole.” He laughed out loud and he took a seat on a boulder near the water’s edge and over the course of ten minutes counted several very reasonably sized frogs. The evening sun glow was burning orange through the trees, and he thought he saw a flickering piece of yellow paper in the distance, across the pond. He was going to let that go, but the thing seemed vaguely institutional, as though it had been planted by a surveyor or a Forest Service intern. It appeared wired to a tree, so he walked the circumference of the pond and made an examination. It definitely looked official on some level, but he couldn’t make out the shorthand. The letters “BIO FS” appeared across the top, with a date, and then a grid below. In the top right hand box of the grid someone had scribbled “Lith. Cate. 307!” Tim snapped a picture with his phone and, in bending over to do so, he noticed another flapping yellow piece of paper in the distance.
“They were every 100 feet,” Tim told Lloyd down at his city office. “Like a grid, running from my pond over to Quail Creek.”
Lloyd pondered the tag, and frowned. “Text it to me and I’ll send it over to Edina.”
“The tag over by the creek had this same ‘Lith. Cate.’ but the number was 1407 with three exclamation marks.”
Lloyd sat back in his chair. “Your property line goes all the way across the creek, right?”
“Right. Another 300 feet.”
“So they were doing this on private property without your permission. That isn’t very kosher.”
Lloyd’s phone dinged with Tim’s text, and Lloyd thumb-typed a quick note to Aldea Felton, their cousin-in-law and associate professor of biology at the state university in Nash City.
That was that.
Except that it wasn’t. A few days later, as Tim steered a weed-wacker through the high grass beyond his back porch, he felt something lurch out quickly into the higher, taller grass with such mass and speed that he dropped the equipment and flinched as if snake-bit. Nancy laughed. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
“I just hit something pretty big. Look at that!”
“In the distance. See the grass moving?”
“Whatever it was, I mean.. no way. It can’t be that big.”
“What can’t be that big?“
“Says here,” Tim told Nancy, looking at his phone a few minutes later, “a frog can jump 10 to 20 times its body length.”
Tim took a breath. “Two feet long? A three foot long bull frog? A frog as big as a yard stick?”
They looked at each other.
“The reason I flinched,” he said, “is that it was bulky. Dense. Like a sleeping dog or something — and then it was just gone. Weasel quick. Look at my hand. It’s still shaking.”
“This thing has us all a little freaked,” Nancy said. “Everett won’t go outside anymore, and he won’t go down to the pond, even if I’m with him.”
“He says he wants to practice, but you know how he is about ghost stories? He has a hard time talking about fear. He’s hiding the details. I think he saw something.”
A summer rainstorm kept most of Dayville inside for a few days, and when the sun came back out Tim looked out his kitchen window to see four or five men in orange hunting gear walking around in the woods. On approach, they were friendly, even jovial.
“Sorry,” one of them said, “Tim, is it? Lloyd told me to call you but I lost your number. Jack Hess,” he said putting out his hand.
“Frogging?” Tim asked.
“And how. Lloyd said you have so many you wouldn’t mind.”
“I don’t, actually. You can take them all if you like.”
“We’ve been out here since just after midnight, when the rain stopped. Look at these monsters. Dale? Dale! Get over here.”
A tall, broad fellow approached with two five gallon buckets.
“Not a one of these,” Jack said, “is under eighteen inches long. And Dale, show him big daddy.”
The big fellow trotted over to an ice cooler and fished out a frog that was easily two and a half feet long. Even in death, it looked a little menacing.
“Do you mind,” Tim asked. “If I get a picture of that?”
Dr. Aldea Felton was a handsome woman, Colombian by birth, with piercing brown eyes and a wild, wavy mane of black hair. Tim remembered her as a bride ten years before, so this official persona felt odd at first, or it might have been some grim tension she wore on her brow. She took in the network of yellow tags and the montage of photos the hunters had happily volunteered.
“Last year,” she said, “when Lloyd sent over that picture, I was a little stunned by Noah’s reaction.”
“Noah?” Tim asked.
“Noah Kimmel. He’s one of our batrachologists. We both agreed, based on the quarter, it has to be at least 12″ long, but, for some reason, Noah tried to act as though that were nothing — just trophy frog hunt material. But when I got that set of pictures yesterday, I knew something was up.”
Aldea pursed her lips and looked around. “Um… do you mind if I look around for a while? We can talk later. Quail Creek is in that direction?”
Tim nodded. He and Lloyd walked back to the house and Aldea disappeared into the woods.
Over coffee, Tim leaned in towards his cousin Lloyd and whispered. “Gotta confess. This is getting to me.”
Lloyd sat back. “I hear ya,” he said. “It’s a little weird.”
“I don’t use that word anymore. It was weird last year. This year, it’s spooky. If you saw the size of that thing I hit with the weed-wacker.”
“I put the the word out to fish and game. You should have a lot of gigging the next few weeks.”
“Frog hunters,” Lloyd said. “Little interesting fact I just found out: Frog farming is kinda dicey Most of the frogs sold for food are wild-caught. You can farm salmon and deer, but it’s difficult raising frogs in quantity. There’s an outfit down in Missouri that ships wild-caught frogs frozen. I was thinking of calling them to see if they wanted to bring up a crew.”
An hour went by without any sign of Aldea, and Lloyd was getting nervous. “I have to meet a roofer over at the rec center this afternoon.”
“How is that coming along?”
“Mostly bids. We probably have to rebuild the whole thing. Couldn’t save the basketball floor.”
“How many feet of snow on that roof?”
“It was a big storm, but I’m thinking something different these days.”
Tim waited for Lloyd’s theory.
“Ready for this?” Lloyd asked.
“I’m thinking.” Lloyd lowered his voice. “It was a giant bull frog.”
Tim snorted and Lloyd howled. “He was looking, see, for a winter hidey-hole, a place to hibernate. He just burrowed on in there and exploded the place from the inside out.”
The two of them were chuckling with abandon as Aldea hurried up on to the back porch deck and entered Tim’s kitchen. She held a finger up to their laughter, as though waiting for permission to speak.
“Okay, listen,” Aldea said, “a few things. Someone has obviously been conducting some sort of field study out there. It looks like one of ours, but I can’t be certain. This is going to sound strange, but just some abundance of caution stuff: keep pets and children indoors. Situational awareness stuff. Know what’s around you. Careful in the high grass–”
“Wait,” Tim interrupted, “what are you talking about? What did you see?”
Aldea took a breath. “First of all, uh, droppings. Amphibians aren’t my specialty, but we’re talking some very, uh, big frog shit out there. Second, well, look I have to get Noah off his ass. I hate being cryptic, but I hate being wrong even more, so for now, just sit tight.”
“Sit tight?” Tim asked. “Wait. You said ‘first of all.’ What’s ‘second of all?'”
Aldea looked at the ceiling. “Eyes disappearing. Frogs burrow butt first, so when they disappear, the last thing you see is their eyes disappearing below ground. I saw–”
Nancy burst into the room. “That’s what Everett said. ‘Eyes disappearing!'”
Aldea nodded her head. “BIG eyes disappearing.”
A few days later, when Aldea succeeded in getting Noah Kimmel down from Nash City, one of Tim’s neighbors met him in the driveway. His name was Dennis Drake and he owned Dayville’s small animal hospital. He had been in practice for thirty years, and he had spent the previous evening drinking a little too much bourbon with Tim.
“Listen,” he told Noah in Tim’s driveway, “I have a huge day today. Doctor Kimmel, is it?”
“Right,” Noah said, stretching after the long drive.
“I can’t stick around but I wanted you to have an extra data point to consider.”
“I’ve been the local veterinarian around here for some time. Small animal disappearances are off the charts. I usually get about five or six a year. We are getting that per day now.”
“Just something to consider,” Dr. Drake said, walking off towards his car.
Tim, Aldea, and Noah watched the vet drive off and Noah scratched his head.
“Are we,” he asked slowly, “really entertaining the idea of a bull frog eating domestic pets? No, we can’t actually be talking about this.”
To Tim, Noah looked to be a kind of casual academic, the sort who didn’t care if you referenced his title, as long as you reverenced his expertise. He had a way of snorting between pronouncements — the patient teacher amused by juvenile questions.
“You see,” Noah explained, yawning. “Frog size varies with precipitation and temperature. We’ve had a pretty wet winter, pretty warm summer. You get these fluctuations in mass just like you do with anything else in nature.”
Aldea groaned. “If someone would bother to consider the scale of this for a minute.”
Noah chuckled. “The drama,” he said.
Noah and Aldea set out on their scout and Tim watched them from a distance. He could actually read the aloof contempt in Noah’s posture, the shrug of his shoulders, the shaking of his head, even the way he carelessly fingered the yellow tags on the trees. His body language seemed to be announcing, “nothing to see here.” Aldea was getting more animated with him and coaxed him off in the direction of Quail Creek. She led the way, and he appeared amused by his walk off into the darkness of the woods.
Later, across Tim’s kitchen table, Noah shrugged. “Okay, they’re big. No doubt, but are we talking beyond expectation? An event? I’m not seeing it..”
Aldea groaned again. “Have you ever seen a frog-hunting camp with 40 giggers before? Frog-hunters with deer rifles on their backs?”
“Okay, that’s a first, and I would have appreciated a little heads up on that one. I’m not a big gun guy.”
“Those people,” Tim said, “are from that food processor in St. Louis.”
“Well,” Noah said, “let’s hope they don’t decimate the population.”
“Wouldn’t bother me,” Tim said, “if they triggered a local extinction.”
“That,” Noah responded. “Is a little reckless don’t you think?”
“I’m not a scientist,” Tim explained. “But scale can be a little unnerving. As human beings, we don’t like seeing vulture-sized moths or rats as big as German Shepherds.”
“Well, maybe we have a folk problem here. People are scaring each other. They are getting fever pitched about this — approaching frogs with deer rifles.”
“Small animals are disappearing,” Aldea said, “..and Noah I’m getting tired of this. You saw the catch out there. Are you going to sit here and honestly say you’ve ever seen bull frogs that large?”
“On this continent, no, but I’m willing to wager that next year–if these lumberjack knuckle-heads don’t destroy them entirely–they will shrink back into a normative range.”
“What about the field study?” Tim asked.
Noah closed his eyes and sighed. “For reasons I’m not at liberty to explain, I can’t comment on that.”
“So it is your study?”
“For reasons I’m not at liberty to explain, I can’t comment on that.”
Aldea was looking off at the wall. Noah smiled patiently. “So can we hit the road? It’s a long way back to Nash City.”
“I guess,” Tim said, standing up, “we mark this down as a non-visit visit.”
“I came,” Noah said. “I saw. I passed.”
“Why is it I get the distinct feeling,” Tim asked, “we’re being told we’re too stupid to hear the truth?”
“The drama,” Noah said. “Lordy, Lordy. When will people learn that science is rarely entertaining? It’s a bore most of the time. It’s a bore this time.”
And it would have ended there, except that Aldea’s car wouldn’t start, and they were left to awkwardly entertain Dr. Noah Kimmel as they waited for a tow. Noah paced, a little stiffly, around Tim’s living room, pausing to examine a painting or evaluate a family photo with dull eyes. He refused refreshment, and several offers to sit down, in a way that made Tim conclude acceptance of hospitality would constitute a kind of approval, or a recognition of social equality. Scientists don’t accept dinner events from their guinea pigs, and Noah was reserving his clinical distance.
“Sit down, you dork” Aldea barked at him. “You’re driving everyone crazy.”
Noah snorted, and obeyed, but he looked distinctly uncomfortable on the sofa, as though he were trying to minimize his contact with the furniture.
“This,” Aldea said, “is what happens to graduate students who spend too much time around salamanders.”
Tim processed the way Noah took this joke. It seemed clear that Noah had built some sort of emotional castle, and throne room, around himself. Even when he was being mocked, it was really just another sign of his basic superiority. The silly little flies were mocking the evening sun. For some reason, this sent a chill down Tim’s spine. Noah was one of those people who couldn’t be told anything and could certainly never be expected to repent.
“So tell me,” Tim asked. “Has the bullfrog genome been mapped?”
Before Noah could respond, Nancy came into the room holding a portable phone.
“Well,” she said, “if this isn’t poetic. Dayville’s one tow truck driver has a family emergency.”
“What happened?” Tim asked.
“Are you ready for this? Their Pekingese has gone missing.”
The room went silent for a beat or two before Nancy exploded: “Gah! This is driving me crazy.”
“Drama,” Noah said. “Drama, drama, drama. You folks are fueling your own little horror story.”
Tim whistled and took up a chair close to Noah. “Let’s go with the facts. Frogs that are measurably larger on a scale you admitted you’ve never seen in North America. Small animals disappearing. Enormously large droppings. A food processing plant sending up a harvesting team on short notice. And a ‘scientist’ who isn’t at liberty to comment on field studies.”
“Listen,” Noah said. “You don’t even have the training to know why some of these matters are confidential.”
To say that the rest of the evening was awkward, to say that seeing Noah asleep on his couch was creepy, to say that a two am wall-sized thud on the south side of their home was nerve-wracking would have been to engage in obscene minimalism. It was a bad night. Tim took in too much wine and found little comfort on the internet. He couldn’t find much about Noah’s academic career, except a reference, by two of his former graduate students, to a paper that had disappeared entirely — double-wiped from even the digital archives.
“Let me guess,” Noah explained, with a sneer, over breakfast the next morning, “you think I was building super-frogs?”
Aldea put her coffee down. “What about a simple mistake?” she asked. “You wouldn’t be the first researcher whose ass needed covering.”
“Look,” Noah said, “even if I could talk about this stuff, you wouldn’t understand it, or the reasons for keeping it secret. And with that, I’ve already said too much.”
The car that whisked Noah away that morning did nothing to settle Tim’s nerves. It was a big black Suburban with shaded windows and a couple of dudes in gray suits. If that weren’t bad enough, Noah looked extremely agitated about their surprise arrival. He was unsuccessful in assuring them he was on his way back to the university with Aldea. They wanted to take her too, but they weren’t prepared for her Colombian resolve. She flipped them off, and the surprise arrival of three giggers, sporting rifles, must have spooked them.
“Did you see the look on Noah’s face?” Tim asked Aldea, back in the kitchen.
“Look, Tim, we’re family, so I’m going to come clean here. I’m not in the loop, but I’ve seen the loop if you know what I mean. I may have gotten too close to the loop. When Lloyd sent me that first picture, it wasn’t the picture that got me, the size of the thing. It was the look on Noah’s face when I showed it to him. He tried to hide it, but he had a kind of micro-freak.”
“What was he up to?”
“You know. What you were suspecting. The genome. They were playing with the map. Putting the building blocks back together in different ways. I knew some of that was being considered, but I had no idea how far they must have gone with it. I think that field study was off the reservation. Noah couldn’t sleep at night. He had a guilty conscience.”
“So he is capable of repentance?”
“Nothing,” Tim said. “Just a sense I had about him.”
“Noah is the kind who might, under pressure, repent before God, but apologizing to fellow human beings is way beyond him.”
Aldea looked out the window. “And it’s making more sense now.”
“The timeline. We were told not to come down here.”
“Who told you not to come down?”
“My department head. His. But it was awkward. If you have pictures of frogs two feet long and ‘science’ is telling you not to have a look? They should have led with the Suburban and the gray suits. We might have listened.”
Nancy walked in. They pondered the enormity, and the absurdity, of the thing.
“Anyway,” Aldea said. “We have a bigger problem than frogs.”
“What’s that?” Nancy asked.
Before climbing up into the cab of the tow-truck, Aldea gave Tim and Nancy a hug. “Strange times,” she said, and she tried to smile. “Can I give you some advice?”
“By all means.”
“From here on out, the fewer questions you ask, the safer you’ll be.”
The tow truck disappeared up the highway, into the sunset, and Tim ambled off in the direction of some giggers putting away equipment by the pond. One of them was that first frog hunter he met the other morning, Jack Hess. His mood was considerably more somber than that first meeting of trophy frog-hunting.
“We’ll be back tomorrow,” he said, “to finish off the ultra grand-daddies. It’s getting too dangerous at night. How’s your house?”
“Took a pretty big hit last night. You didn’t feel it?”
“I did. But what are we talking about here? Say again?”
“We’ll be back tomorrow night.”
Tim started in on his routine the next morning. He worked out of his home. He was what you might call an engineering double-checker. When someone engineered a retaining wall, or a big banquet hall, Tim double checked the engineering of other engineers. He recalculated formulas, and re-read building codes, and re-questioned assumptions. It was pleasurable mental stuff. It let him live in the country, after all, where his boy could play in the woods and study piano, and his wife could grow tomatoes in a green house. Sometimes, he got a little emotional thinking about it all, the sheer blessedness of food on the table and a skill someone was willing to purchase.
But, obviously, events had taken a different turn, and he spent much of the day waiting for Jack Hess and his fellow hunters to return.
“What do they mean,” Nancy asked him, “by the ultra-grand-daddies?”
“I’m guessing something a little larger than the one I hit with the weed-wacker. I’m thinking it’s in the ‘eyes disappearing’ category.”
Nancy shivered. Tim’s phone rang. It was Lloyd on the other end.
“Hey, Tim,” Lloyd said, “you think you might want to bring the family into town tonight? You can stay at our place.”
“Thanks,” Tim replied. “But I think the army is returning tonight. That friend of yours, Jack Hess. He’s got a big crew.”
“Who is Jack Hess?”
“The frog hunter. He said you gave him permission to hunt here?”
“Jack Hess? Not ringing a bell. I don’t know anyone named Jack Hess.”
After a parental confab, Nancy packed up the car and drove Everett over to Lloyd’s house, and Lloyd drove back out Tim’s way, a little miffed at the news of his name being misused. He was there when Jack Hess and his little army arrived. There was new equipment this time. Some of the crew had uber-large back packs, encased in industrial plastic, and all of them were suiting up in some sort of fire-proof hazmat gear.
“It’s almost as if,” Lloyd observed, “if you wanted to make a nice, polite-looking, domestic RPG, or flame-thrower, that’s what it would look like. Where is this Jack Hess dude?”
Tim nodded in Jack’s direction, and Lloyd was about to approach him, but he backed off. There was something a little too official about the whole assembly. Lloyd’s instinct for civil service brotherhood kicked in, and instead of confronting Jack Hess, Lloyd took a seat on a back porch bench–and yanked Tim down next to him.
“This,” Lloyd said, “is some heavy duty..”
His voice trailed off, and for the first time in memory, Tim understood that his cousin was genuinely frightened.
“I can’t believe,” Lloyd said, “they are even letting us watch this.”
As the evening darkness set in, bursts of orange light radiated through the woods in the distance. There were bull-horns, heavy rifle blasts, and even the sound of something that sounded like an excavator, or a big bulldozer, in the distance. About two hours into the battle, one of the crew took a seat on Tim’s porch step. The fellow was big, and bloodied, and thirsty. The right arm sleeve of his protective gear had been ripped off. Tim recognized him as “Dale,” the guy who retrieved a the two-and-a-half-foot frog from a cooler a week before. Tim was about to ask for details, when Jack Hess stumbled up onto the porch. The orange light in the woods was receding and the chaos appeared to be in decline.
Jack Hess took a seat across from Lloyd and Tim. He held his protective helmet in his hands, and he looked up at the heavens.
“Dale,” he said. “Pack it up. Get yourself over to district. See to that wound. Call your wife. Get everyone out of here.”
Dale moved off and did as he was ordered. Tim listened to Jack Hess trying to catch his breath, as the vehicles in the distance began to disappear.
“If people,” Jack said, “could only follow orders.”
Lloyd stood up, examined Jack Hess for a full five seconds, and walked off to the kitchen. He returned with a half bottle of bourbon, and three Dixie cups.
Jack took the drink. He eyed Lloyd, and then Tim.
“Listen,” he said, “I’ll have to deny this all tomorrow, but sometimes I get sick of the shit they put people through. The shit they put US through. I almost lost a guy out there tonight.”
“Noah Kimmel,” Tim said.
“Right, right,” Jack said. “The assignment was simple. Fruit flies. Can you imagine? It started with fruit flies.”
Tim’s eyes narrowed.
“Fruit flies,” Jack repeated, as though nauseated by the absurdity of the thing, “are devastating a lot of orchard stock, so they wanted a frog that both attracted the little suckers and that would eat them efficiently. Seemed like a pretty good idea. Design a frog that smelled something like an apple, and then when the little mating pairs showed up, zap! Bullfrog eats the fruit flies. Farmers grow the fruit. Everyone’s happy.”
Jack poured himself another drink.
“Problem is,” he continued, “little punks like Noah Kimmel. They get the whole genome up on a screen — CAD style, as though they were designing a car. We should have seen it coming.”
“What coming?” Lloyd asked.
“Think about it. You give a moral midget like Kimmel the ability to play with traits and features. You can’t just enlarge a frog. Ants can lift fifty times their body weight, but if you just tweek the size strand, you get a fat ant that’s dead on arrival. Physics of scale. Adjusting for size. Listen to this: Kimmel factored all that in. He tweeked everything–frog size, leg strength, weight, visual acuity, even fear of humans, which is what we were really worried about. He grafted in Rhino muscle tissue, so that six foot frogs could still jump fifty feet. He couldn’t resist the temptation to re-design every damn strand in that genome.”
“So,” Tim said, gulping. “I guess you’re not just a frog hunter.”
“Molecular biologist, by trade,” Jack said. “Giant frog hunter by necessity. And let me tell you, you’ve never lived until you’ve seen a twelve foot WIDE bull-frog recoiling its tongue with someone’s arm inside it.”
The three men drank a few more rounds and listened to the deep night around them. It was blissfully free of that sound which had been getting louder every night: frogs croaking.
Tim shook his head and shuttered. “Wait. I just have to ask: did any of this really happen? Am I dreaming this?”
Jack Hess stood up.
“No,” he said. “None of this really happened, but get ready.”
“I have a feeling it’s going to happen a lot more.”