Never Laugh | Teen Ink

Never Laugh

April 22, 2019
By Greenleaf GOLD, Oakville, Ontario
Greenleaf GOLD, Oakville, Ontario
10 articles 8 photos 7 comments

Favorite Quote:
"Oft hope is born when all is forlorn." --J.R.R. Tolkien


“Mama, look!”

Yue glanced up from weeding the garden and did a double-take. She stared for a moment in disbelief, and slowly but surely, she began to laugh. In front of her, Joey stood with his galoshed feet wide apart, grinning proudly, while the frog in his hands gave a baleful croak. The two of them were dripping wet and completely covered in pondweed.

“Joey!” She clambered to her feet and scooped him up. He was getting heavier by the day, it seemed. “What have you done to yourself?” Joey giggled, and the frog squirmed in his grip.

“I catched him, Mama,” he said proudly, holding it high. “He was just sitting, right there in the grass, and I catched him.”

“Caught him, baobei,” Yue corrected fondly. Joey beamed, and not even the cold, damp mud seeping into her clothes was enough to dim the force of that smile, nor the surge of warmth that welled in her chest when she saw it. “You caught him, and that was very clever of you. Goodness, just look at what you’ve gotten yourself into.” She allowed herself a brief moment to press her lips into his hair, then set him back down. He immediately gripped the edge of her jacket, as he always did, and held the frog carefully in his other hand.

“And you didn’t go any further than the pond, did you?” Yue asked, looking him over with a critical eye.

“Nuh-uh.” Joey shook his head. “Promise I didn’t. Didn’t go past the dead tree, just like you said.” Fortunately, he sounded sincere enough, and Yue knew her son generally wasn’t a liar. Aside from being liberally coated in dirt and weeds, he seemed none the worse for the wear.

“Good.” She smiled at him. “But now you need a bath. You’re even muddier than a pig, and that’s saying a lot.”

Joey pouted. “But Baba said pigs are one of the cleanest animals,” he said, stubborn. “So if I’m as muddy as a pig, I’m actually clean.”

She chuckled again, and relished in the feeling grown only too unfamiliar over the past few months. “You’re getting far too clever for me.” She held out her hand, and Joey happily took it. “Pig or not, you need a bath, and soon! I’m not letting you run around like that all day.”

“Can Mr. Frog come, too?”

“Oh, alright,” she said. “But just for a while. And not in the bath with you - the water will be too hot for him.”

——

It was only after Joey was splashing cheerfully in the tub did Yue realize the frog had six legs.

Small and underdeveloped, to be sure, but definitely there. Nestled among the frog’s functioning hind legs, they didn’t seem to impede its ability to move - and wriggle vigorously, as she was discovering now. It didn’t take long to give Joey the excuse that she was finding “Mr. Frog” some water, and she hurried to the kitchen and dropped the frog in the sink.

She found a knife. Returned to the sink and held it high, hand trembling. The frog glowered, but despite its general disposition of “just-captured-by-an-eight-year-old-boy-and-therefore-pissed-off”, it didn’t show any signs of being out of the ordinary.

After a few tense moments, she set the knife aside.

In their tiny bedroom with its peeling yellow wallpaper, Wen hastily slid his book under his pillow as Yue came in.

“I promise I was resting earlier,” he ventured.

Yue glared half-heartedly at him. “As you should be, but that’s not what I’m here for.” She passed him the plastic container with the frog inside, and Wen sat up with a wince and took it. His eyes widened when he saw the frog, but otherwise he didn’t react, and simply observed. The frog splashed in the dirty tap water, looking unimpressed.

“Joey got it from the pond,” Yue said.

“It doesn’t show any signs of being affected.” Wen nudged at the frog’s mouth with a finger and it puffed up and croaked loudly, making both of them jump. Wen’s lips quirked a bit at the corners. “Looks like an ordinary frog to me, aside from… well.”

“The legs,” Yue said. She reached over and held up its left hind legs, though that only made the frog kick her away. “Isn’t that one of the possible signs? And Joey said he found it out of the water, on the grass.”

“Still near the pond, though,” Wen pointed out gently, “which isn’t an unusual place for a frog to be.” He ran a careful finger over its bumpy green back. “I’d say it was just born like this; this particular mutation in frogs has existed, before. It’s a sign of pollution in their ecosystem, but not necessarily of anything else. There are those old factories nearby, after all.”

She pursed her lips. “It’s awake and active,” she eventually said. “There are no visible signs of sluggishness or uncharacteristic behaviour.”

“Pretty energetic, actually,” Wen said wryly, when the frog kicked again and splashed water on the bedsheets.

They spent a few moments looking down at the cheap Tupperware container in Wen’s lap. The frog gradually stilled, looking peaceful at last. Joey’s cheerful voice chattering to himself, and the occasional splash, sounded from the bathroom down the hall.

Then Wen sighed. “I can see why you’re worried,” he said. “Maybe it does mean something.”

“Or not,” Yue said. “It could be nothing, like you said.”

“I’m not always right.” He shifted and winced again. One hand drifted to his loose cotton shirt, and brushed at the bandages underneath. “This should be proof enough of that.”

“It’s nothing,” Yue said firmly. “It has to be. We were promised this place was safe. We haven’t seen anything to contradict that, and it’s been two months already.”

She scooped the frog up in cupped hands and held it out. “It’s just a frog.”

Wen smiled, a bit ruefully. “Just a frog,” he agreed, and kissed her when she leaned in.
——

“But Baba,” Joey cried. “Why can’t we?”

“Listen to your mother, baobao.” Wen ruffled Joey’s hair and Joey pulled away, scowling. “We’re already allowing Mr. Frog to stay for the night. We have to let him go by morning.”

“He’d make a great pet!”

“He belongs in the wild, sweetheart.” Yue knelt down and met Joey’s eyes. “He wouldn’t be happy staying here with us. He needs a big place to swim and lots of other frogs to play with, and we don’t have either.”

Joey pouted, then sagged. “Can’t he at least sleep in my room tonight?”

It took every ounce of Yue’s strength to not immediately stiffen at the idea. “No, Joey,” she said as evenly as she could. “Frogs are usually nocturnal animals, and he might make sounds during the night and wake you up. We’ll set up a nice tank in the bathroom, and he’ll be much more comfortable there.”

“Fine.” Joey seemed resigned at first, but quickly forgot his grumpiness when Wen produced a battered copy of The Hobbit seemingly from thin air and distracted him. With Joey thoroughly occupied by tales of dwarves and dragons, Yue took the container and discreetly left the room.

She’d been surprised to unearth, of all things, a sizeable fish tank in the old shed behind the house. Still, it was undamaged, and readying it for its new guest had been straightforward enough. Several hours had passed since Joey had brought the frog back from the pond, and it was entirely unchanged, down to its unimpressed look. She placed it inside the tank, and it thrashed around in the water a bit before settling.

Wen was the one with the biology degree, but she was just as much as a scientist as he was. Besides, it didn’t take a biologist to see the obvious. It was a bullfrog, an American bullfrog - Lithobates catesbeianus, with the species’ distinctive stripes and yellow belly. It puffed up and croaked at her. She laughed, but it came out as a hollow, reedy sound.

“Just a frog,” she said aloud. “We’re safe.”

She placed the lid firmly over the tank and left the bathroom.

——

They ate dinner that evening at the rickety table in the kitchen. Wen’s appetite had improved, and his breathing sounded better. The food sat thick and heavy in Yue’s stomach. Joey drank down three whole bowls of soup, and nothing happened.
——

Yue and Wen sat with Joey nestled in between them, and together, they read two chapters of The Hobbit aloud to him. They did all the voices, and added facial expressions to match. Joey laughed so hard he nearly rolled off the bed, and nothing happened.
——

Joey was put to bed, and nothing happened. Yue changed Wen’s bandages, and nothing happened.
——

Yue awoke in the middle of the night to muffled thumping down the hall. She thought it was Wen at first, sneaking to the toilet and falling over, but she felt his warm body lying next to her when she sat up.

Down the hall. The bathroom.

Her heart leapt into her throat and Joey’s scream pierced the air.

Light flooded out from beneath the bathroom door when she staggered into the corridor, immediately wide awake. It flickered, once, and she screamed, too, tearing down the hall and flinging the door wide open.

Joey, who had been pressed against the door, fell into her arms, sobbing. Broken glass shards stuck out of his palms, and were scattered all over the cracked tile floor, glinting under the dull light of the ancient fluorescent bulbs. The remnants of the fish tank lay shattered on the counter, exploded outwards, muddy water splattered on the mirror. The frog was nowhere to be seen, and in the bathtub, a seething mass snarled.

She caught a glimpse of innumerable writhing limbs and glaring yellow eyes, far, far too many eyes, and wrenched Joey away from the sight. “Don’t look!” she commanded, and Joey’s breaths whistled in his chest as he cried.

From the bathtub there came a rasping groan, long and low and almost mournful. Then the mass suddenly grew, twisting and morphing in unspeakable ways, too fluid and quick for the eye to catch. The groan wrenched into a shriek, and the limbs reached out. She clutched Joey to her chest and shielded him with her body until—

Bang! The limbs jerked and fell back. Bang! bang! The mass screeched again, and thrashed agonizingly. Another shot finished it, and its voice trailed off into a whine as it slumped bonelessly to the floor. Yue stumbled away, still holding Joey to her chest, and caught Wen’s arm before he could collapse himself. He gripped the shotgun with white-knuckled hands, breath coming in harsh pants, and red seeped out through the pristine white of his bandages.

The bathroom lights flashed and blinked, throwing long shadows against the floor. Yue fumbled for the lighter Wen passed to her, and giving Joey to him, she stepped over the threshold and set the body alight. When dead, the remains of what it had been could be more clearly seen - a webbed foot here, a long, white protrusion of a tongue still twitching from between clenched jaws there. Its skin bubbled and hissed like acid as it was consumed by the flames.

“The supplies,” Wen said through gritted teeth. “They’re all in the shed out back.”

“We don’t have the time.” Her chest ached to say it. “The damn thing’s shrieking would’ve drawn every other one in the area to us.” Above them, the bulbs flashed bright one final time before fizzling out like dying stars.

She pulled Wen’s arm over her shoulders, and hefting the still-weeping Joey in her other arm, she barrelled her family down the creaky stairs, through the foyer, and out the front door. Their van, thankfully, sat quiet and unoccupied in the front yard, but she knew they didn’t have much time. Within seconds Joey was clutching at Wen desperately in the backseat as if his life depended on it, and perhaps it did. Yue started up the van and threw the gear into drive.

The road was unpaved and rattled her teeth with every bump, but she didn’t stop. In the rearview mirror she could already see them emerging from the woods behind the house - foxes, badgers, deer with rotted pelts and broken antlers and always, always those clustered, twisting limbs, those horrifying, countless eyes. She turned on the headlights and immediately illuminated a human-shaped figure before them. The van barrelled right through it, and she knew that to stop now would mean the end of them all.

“Joey,” she said. “It didn’t get you?”

“No,” came the choked reply. “No. Mama, what happened to him? I just wanted to check on him. I just wanted to see—”

“Yue,” Wen said sharply. “His hands—”

“The glass,” Yue said. “Only the glass. It didn’t get the chance to touch him.” It couldn’t have. It couldn’t. Her mind balked at the thought of it.

Joey’s sobbing changed note. “You said we’d never see one of the monsters again!” he screamed. “You told us we were safe! You promised!

“I did, Joey,” she said, shakily. “I did. I am so sorry.”

The sky was a depthless sea above them, looming and impenetrable. Through the glare of the headlights, she couldn’t tell if there were stars.

“Yue.”

She turned a sharp corner, and the whole van shook as they ran over something that crunched beneath the tires.

“Yue, you’re bleeding.”

No, I’m not, she nearly said, unthinkingly. But the back of her shirt, as she slowly realized, felt warm and wet, as did her right shoulder. A sharp, unpleasant sting crept up her spine and down her arm.

“Yue,” Wen said again, like a broken record. The disbelief in his voice was palpable.

Joey’s weeping quieted into a single shuddering question. “Mama?”

She breathed in, unsteadily. Blew it out in a rush. Words from a book they’d read only a few hours ago - still somewhere in the house, a whole world and lifetime away - returned to her mind’s eye, unbidden. Never laugh at live dragons, Bilbo you fool.

“We have a half-tank full of gas,” she said. “There aren’t any stations left this side of the Atlantic, so our best bet is to seek out other survivors.”

Wen was silent - too silent. Joey was not. “Mama, what’s wrong? What did Baba say?”

She steeled herself. “When the time comes,” she said, “you’ll know what to do.”

Yue gripped the wheel with sweaty palms and tried not to be afraid.


The author's comments:

Based off a dialogue prompt: “Look at what you’ve gotten into.”


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This article has 2 comments.


Greenleaf GOLD said...
on May. 12 at 3:42 pm
Greenleaf GOLD, Oakville, Ontario
10 articles 8 photos 7 comments

Favorite Quote:
"Oft hope is born when all is forlorn." --J.R.R. Tolkien

@Maddie_Cheshire Thanks for your feedback! This is intended to be a one-shot, and I tried to imply that this was a post-apocalyptic situation in which the frog was one of many animals that had been infected by some sort of virus/parasite, much like human zombies. These infected animals can also infect humans, hence why Yue was doomed by the end. They were running since they wanted to try escaping all those infected animals that had been summoned by the infected frog's screaming before they, too, became infected.

This wasn't intended to be anything more than a writing exercise unfortunately, hence why there are loose ends. But feel free to imagine what you like. ;)

on May. 4 at 5:10 pm
Maddie_Cheshire SILVER, London, Other
6 articles 2 photos 12 comments

Favorite Quote:
I'm not crazy. My reality is just different from yours. ~The Cheshire Cat

It was well written, but I'm slightly confused as to what happened..
Is there going to be a sequel? There are a few loose ends, like what exactly the frog was and why they're running.
But overall, it's interesting and would make for a good start to, let's say, a mini series or something.


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