And Never Mind the Watching Ones
(Part 1 of 2)
By Keffy Kehrli
He is lying on the splintered, faded-gray wood of the dock, the fingers of one hand dangling in the slough and glitter frogs in his hair. His breath catches and he cups the back of Christian’s head. An airplane is flying far, far overhead. It sounds like the purring exhale of the frogs. Aaron wonders where it’s going.
When he comes, his abdominal muscles tense, pulling his shoulders off the planking. The frogs in his hair go tumbling nubbly ass over nose, their creaking noises gone silent. The orgasm is an adrenaline rush that outlines his body in nervous fire before fading, leaving a ringing in his ears.
Aaron stares up at the broadening remains of the jet contrail, sucking air like he’s been running rather than getting head. He thinks, like every time, that he should have liked it more. He wonders if there’s something wrong with his dick. Christian crawls across the dock and flops beside him, one arm draped carelessly over the baseball logo on Aaron’s T-shirt.
One of the frogs has come back. It puts a clammy little hand on Aaron’s cheek before letting out a croak. The others are scattered across the dock and they answer in identical voices.
“God, they’re so creepy,” Christian says. He picks up the frog. It kicks out its back legs and inflates its neck. It doesn’t ribbit; it freezes as though holding its breath. The two boys can see the delicate iridescent shading on the frog’s belly, the flecks of “glitter” — sensors of some kind, probably alien nanotech. They can see circuitry, visible under thin layers of skin.
“I like them,” Aaron says, reaching out to touch the frog’s nose with a fingertip. It opens its mouth slightly.
Christian holds the frog closer to his face, eyes narrowed in mock anger. “If you’re going to watch, the least you could do is pay us, frogface.”
“We still don’t know if they’re individuals, or like a hive mind or something,” Aaron offers.
Christian drops the frog into the slough and it hits the muddy water with a disconsolate plunk. “Holy shit, I hope not.”
“Is there really a difference between one super smart alien frog brain or a thousand of them, if they’re always watching?”
“Is that like, if a tree falls in the forest?”
Aaron doesn’t answer. The contrail overhead is starting to dissipate. The clouds around it have turned pink at the edges.
Christian rolls onto his side, propping his head up on one elbow. “Well, I’ve got something to tell you,” he says.
Christian brushes hair out of Aaron’s face, and then tucks his own long, dark brown hair behind his left ear. It falls forward over his shoulder and across his neck. There’s a mole near where his clavicle peeks out from the collar of his yellow-and-green shirt. Aaron watches his lips as he says, “I got into Dartmouth.”
He says something else, but Aaron doesn’t hear it. And then Christian is looking at him expectantly. And Aaron knows that what he’s supposed to say is, “Congratulations,” or “Oh wow,” or “I knew you’d get in.”
But what comes out is, “I thought we were going to U of O!”
Christian puts his head down on his arm and sighs. “You’re going to U of O. I told you I was applying to better schools.”
Aaron only vaguely remembers those conversations, whispered to him in the back of the band room while waiting for the conductor to drill the flute section on a difficult part of the song. He does remember hiding in Christian’s attic room, with stolen bottles of hard lemonade, talking about how they could be roommates. Was that all bullshit then?
“I didn’t think you’d actually apply to them,” Aaron says. “We had plans.”
Aaron thinks he can sense Christian rolling his eyes. “You had plans.”
“But you can’t just… I mean, what about…”
Christian picks his head up to look at Aaron, and then all he says is, “Well, I guess either we’ll spend a lot of time on Skype or you’ll get over it.”
“Fine.” Aaron says, and he gets up. Once he’s standing, his head is above the shadow of the slough’s bank, and he has to shade his eyes to look down at Christian. But he doesn’t. His huffy attempt to stomp off is made less dramatic and more comical by his need to tuck his underwhelmed penis back into his pants and zip his fly. So he’s already less angry and more embarrassed, cheeks burning, as he hunts around the grass for his sneakers. But it would be worse to back down and face Christian now, so he musters what anger he can and storms off.
“Whatever,” Christian shouts after him, as he struggles through the tall grass at the edge of the field, glitter frogs hopping up and away from his stomping feet, their bulging eyes watching him. “Text me when you feel like talking about this like an adult!”
Aaron rides home, stuffs his bike in the garage, heads for his room. There are frogs all up and down the stairs. Even though he likes the stupid aliens, he wants to kick them out of spite. He wonders if he drop-kicked one down the hall if it’d bounce off the back wall or splat horribly. The frogs hop away from him, as if they can tell what he’s thinking, and he feels awful. “Sorry,” he whispers, a roiling sickness in his guts. He can’t get the image of a splatted glitter frog dripping off the wall out of his head.
There are about a hundred of them in his bedroom when he gets the door open. Unlike the glitter frogs in the hall, these ones don’t scatter when they see him. He wonders how they get through closed doors and what they’ve been doing in here alone all day.
He swipes his tablet on and tries to distract himself with Facebook, which mostly works. Well, until Christian’s status changes to single.
Aaron stares at the notification. The thick feeling in his throat is the same one he gets right before he cries. “I didn’t mean that,” he says to nobody in particular, though of course the frogs are listening.
One of the glitter frogs jumps up onto Aaron’s shoulder. Its back is such a dark and stormy blue, speckled with metallic flecks, that it looks like the night sky. Aaron picks it up and holds it in his hands, feeling the cold fluttering of its heart and breath. It smells odd, like a spice barely remembered from childhood. He wonders if the frogs are alive, or if they’re robots, or if it’s just a grand, mass hallucination. “Well, you were there, some of you.” Aaron says, “Tell me why he did it.”
The frog doesn’t say anything, even after Aaron lifts its face to the screen, showing it his Twitter feed. The feed is full of tweets by Christian that are definitely about him, though they don’t mention him by name. The glitter frogs never say anything.
Aaron puts the frog down on his desk. He lowers his face so their eyes are on the same level. Another frog, this one striped red and black, jumps onto his computer tower without displacing the rejection letters piled on top. From underneath, looking up, Aaron can see the Harvard crest. That response? No. Princeton: no. Yale: no, not even. Don’t even think about it. And Dartmouth? Ha.
The night sky frog ribbits. It sounds disgruntled. Aaron sighs; the puff of his breath makes the frog blink. Here is the pain of his future collapsing on itself and the realization that no, he’s not that great. He’s not great at all. He’s completely, devastatingly average. Seventeen years of denial couldn’t change that.
“I wish for once I could be the one leaving, not the one being left behind,” he says.
The frog stares at him; its wet eyes reflect the cloud-studded sky out the window.
Tumblr gif set, eight images: Rescue Dog “Saves” Frog. Taken from a YouTube video of the same name, filmed on a smartphone in portrait mode.
One: A mottled green and purple glitter frog swimming in someone’s backyard pool.
Two: A golden retriever paces left on the pool deck. Barking.
Three: Glitter frog is still swimming, minding its own business.
Four: Retriever leaps into the pool, and the splash repeats incessantly in the browser window until you tap over to the next gif.
Five: Retriever paddling toward the pool stairs, glitter frog held in its soft jaws.
Six: Retriever puts down frog and backs two steps away. The frog blinks and its throat expands with a mighty, pissed off croak.
Seven: Retriever lying next to the frog on the pool deck, wagging its wet tail.
Eight: Retriever licks frog. Frog retracts its eyes to escape the overeager tongue.
The last time he ever sees Aaron is when he watches the other boy walk away from their fight. He’ll come to think of it as the stupidest fight that he’s ever had. He’ll spend years wondering if Aaron would have still run away if they hadn’t broken up with each other on Facebook.
Aaron’s parents come to Christian’s house two days later, looking as though they’ve been crying, or not sleeping, or both.
“Have you seen him?” “Did he say anything about where he was going?” “If you hear anything, will you tell us?” “Does he have any other accounts online that we don’t know about?” “Did he say he was meeting anyone you don’t know?”
And Christian has no answers for them, sitting in the dining room with his own parents nearby, their faces also drawn and worried, as though running away might be contagious.
He’s still no help later, when it’s the cops come to ask almost the exact same questions, or when the school counselor asks him how he feels about it, or when mutual friends, voices low and quavering with awe, ask what exactly he said to Aaron?
“Nothing. I told him I got into Dartmouth, that’s all. I didn’t think it was a big deal. I don’t know where he went, he didn’t say anything about leaving. I don’t know why he left. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t remember.”
Christian isn’t sure what he expects, but he knows that people can’t vanish without a trace, especially if they don’t have that much money and extra especially if they still expect to graduate from high school.
Everyone is so nice to him.
Except that the frogs are starting to avoid him, a scattering cloud of various colors every time he steps into a room. They’re still watching him, the way they watch everyone, but from a distance now. From under the bed, not from his desk. From the shower curtain rod, not from beside the sink. From behind the Xbox, not from the arm of the couch. When he can catch them out, hiding behind a cup of pencils or a pillow or the venetian blinds, Christian thinks they look strangely content. Like they know something.
There’s a SoundCloud user who records the glitter frog songs almost nightly and puts them up raw. This is unusual, as most users remix their recordings into songs. On one track, a flurry of comments at the four minute mark:
Whoa, is it just me or does this sound like a code?
Dont b fukin stupid
No, it kinda does.
Y WOULD ALIENS USE MORSE CODE!?
its just u
He’s looking for somewhere to sleep that doesn’t smell like pee. Before he left home, he wouldn’t have thought it’d be this hard, but he learned better pretty quickly. Timing is also important. You don’t want to wait until it’s too late, because then all the really good places to sleep are taken. You don’t want to go too early, though, because if you’re too early, there’s a much higher chance that a janitor or someone will notice and kick you out.
So far, every place that he’s checked smells like pee. Usually he can smell it before he even gets under the awning. It’s the spots that don’t get rained on that smell the worst. They get pissed on and then forgotten, and the piss bakes into the concrete when the weather gets hotter, drier.
It’s not hot or dry right now. The air has that heavy, waiting feel. It’s cold enough to make people complain about May being too late in the year for chill, northern winds. Occasionally a single raindrop falls.
The frogs don’t seem to mind. When the rain falls to the stained concrete, the frogs rush to it, a wave of glittering color that bunches and scatters. Tristan used to like the frogs, when he was younger. He used to fall asleep listening to them outside his window, in the house, sitting on the edge of his pillow, their voices not-quite harmonizing. That was before stepfather number three dragged the family into the kind of turmoil Tristan thought was restricted to TV movies until it happened to him. But after Tristan ran away, nobody paid much attention to him, including, and perhaps especially, the frogs.
Past the abandoned theater, there’s an awning for a stage door. There’s a half-wall that blocks view of the door from the alley. Great. Three walls and a crappy roof. Tristan pulls his sleeping bag and backpack down the stairs, lays out the sleeping bag. He rips open a half-melted granola bar for dinner as the sky opens up and rain pounds the awning overhead. There’s a leak near the door, but Tristan finds an old coffee can, a few long-dead cigarette butts in the bottom of it, and uses that to catch the water.
While he eats, some of the glitter frogs, slick with rain, seem to grow tired of the weather. They come down the stairs in butt-bumping hops, surrounding him. One climbs up onto his knee.
He pulls out his old cell phone, the SIM card deactivated long ago. He’s still got some juice, but there’s no WIFI near enough, so he saves the power. He thinks about offering the frog on his knee some of the granola bar, but he isn’t sure if the frogs eat.
He remembers a news article that went the social media rounds a few months ago:
Question: Alien “Glitter” Frogs: CO2-Eating Terraforming Technology?
Answer: Nobody knows, but they do seem to exhale oxygen, despite looking like animals. However, it’s not enough oxygen to reliably light them on fire.
Tristan is putting the phone away when another boy comes around the corner of the half-wall, drenched from the rainstorm, his hair plastered to his face and his T-shirt stuck to his torso.
The boy stops, staring, his hand on the half-wall. His fingers leave little damp marks on the painted concrete. He picks at the edges, dislodging crumbling bits of stone. There are glitter frogs all over him, of all sizes. Large ones sit on his shoulders, cling to the wet fabric of his clothing. His hair seems to move of its own accord, but it’s just small frogs climbing between the strands.
Tristan has never seen anyone with that many frogs on them before.
“It’s raining,” the boy says.
“Yeah,” Tristan answers. He wonders if the boy is high. If he is, that’s fine unless it’s meth or something and he’s going to flip out. Tristan wonders what the frogs would do if the boy flipped out. Probably leave.
Tristan shifts his sleeping bag, crumpling it up so that there’s bare concrete for the boy to stand or sit on. He doesn’t want his bed to get wet. “Come in,” he says. “What’s your name?”
The boy steps out of the rain, dripping on the dusty concrete. Tracks of rainwater run down his face and arms. “Aaron,” he says. He crouches, his back against the wall, watching Tristan. The frogs also follow him in, too many.
Tristan tries to keep them off the sleeping bag, but eventually gives up. Most of them don’t climb on him, but the entire space is quickly covered in a shifting mass of the glitter frogs, all colors and sizes hopping, shifting, trying to stay close to Aaron. This makes Tristan nervous.
“Do you have somewhere to stay?”
Aaron blinks rapidly, wipes the rainwater off his face. “No,” he says, and then he laughs. “I didn’t plan this very well, I guess.” He pulls off his T-shirt, scattering the frogs. He shakes it out gently to make sure there are no frogs inside, and then he leans over the wall to wring it out into the rain.
He must have run away recently, Tristan thinks. Or been kicked out in the past few days. But it’s strange for him to be so calm about it. Maybe this isn’t the first time. “I can help you find somewhere to go tomorrow,” he says. “If you need it.”
Aaron drapes the shirt over the wall, and even though he got a lot of the water out, it trickles down to pool on the floor. “I don’t,” he says. “I’m not planning on sticking around very long. I’ve decided to go away with the frogs.”
He looks slightly surprised when he says it. Like he’s just now put the thought into words. But he doesn’t take it back.
They are glitter frogs, and they are aliens, but nobody has ever gone away with them. There are so many frogs that Tristan has to be careful if he shifts his legs, otherwise he’ll squish them.
“Running away to join the alien circus,” Tristan says.
A YouTube video that persisted for six months before someone reported it for terms of service violations:
The camera is fixed on the ground, bouncing with every step. Glitter frogs dive out of the way. The person behind the camera knows better than to tilt the camera back and show their face.
There’s a clearing in the tall grass, glistening where it’s been wetted down with a hose. Just in case. There’s a flat piece of particle board on the ground, dented, scratched, splattered with paint of various colors. The camera gets especially haphazard as something is put on the wet piece of particle board. It’s one of the glitter frogs, but it doesn’t look quite right. Something is wrong with its legs.
And there are fire crackers next to it.
You can guess the rest. You don’t need to see it. Don’t go looking. The video was taken down. There are no torrents.
Nickie’s high school doesn’t do dissections anymore. It hasn’t for years. Her parents once asked if she was going to be dissecting worms in biology class and then looked dismayed when she said, “Uh, no. Duh.”
Duh. You can’t cut up unassuming animals for fun. And there’s no way that the school would want to court more controversy after firing their biology teacher for being too aggressive in his teaching of evolutionary theory.
Nickie saw him in the grocery store afterward. He looked drunk, or like he’d been drunk, or maybe he wanted to be drunk. She waved at him, after shifting the box of Coke to her left arm. He stared through her like she wasn’t even there, picking up glitter frogs from where they sat among the kumquats. In retrospect, Nickie didn’t think that she’d want to be reminded she’d been fired, either.
Even though the equipment never gets used anymore, the school never throws anything out. After class, Nickie steals one dissecting tray, two scalpels (in case the first one isn’t sharp enough), ten pins, and a pair of rusty surgical scissors. She has her own scissors, but the idea of using them on dead animal guts and then putting them back in her desk drawer is gross.
At home, the frogs are everywhere, so they’re not hard to catch. Nickie holds the frog while others hop around her feet in the living room. Her parents have tried to keep the frogs out, but they always get back in.
Whenever Nickie types a question into a search engine that starts with “How,” the autofill gives her variations on “How do I keep frogs out of my house?” She clicked a link once, and the suggestions horrified her. But that was then. Now, she’s watched an old instructional video about Earth frog dissections, taken careful notes. All of the Google results for dissections of the glitter frogs come up broken. Her other searches weren’t much better.
What are the frogs?
What are they doing here?
What are they made of?
Nickie carries the frog into the kitchen and puts it down on the counter. There are so many others — almost as though they know what she’s about to do and are coming to watch. She hopes not. Psychic alien frogs are even worse than regular alien frogs.
She drops the frog into a canning jar. It puts its brilliant green hands up against the side of the glass, its purple-blue throat pulsing more rapidly than the frogs on the counter. Nickie drops in three cotton balls covered in acetone and tightens the lid.
She watches the glitter frog suffocate.
Nickie takes the frog and supplies into the garage and sets up on the concrete floor. There are more frogs in the garage than she expected, hundreds of them sitting on every surface. Nickie has to nudge them out of the way with her sneakers.
The frog doesn’t move when she takes it out of the jar. She hopes it’s completely dead. To make sure, she waits a few minutes, the frog resting motionless in the center of the dissecting tray. She cautiously pokes it in the back with her set of tweezers. Then she flips it over onto its back like she saw in the video. She uses the pins to stick it to the pad underneath, trying not to gag at how hard it is to push pins through the stringy flesh of its legs.
She makes the cuts with the stolen scalpel, wishing it was sharper, trying not to break anything that could be interesting. The skin of the glitter frog parts easily, though it rips in places and she has trouble cutting through the sections that appear to be circuits.
The dissection video hasn’t prepared her for the blood. It wells out of every cut; it oozes from the pinholes. This is nothing like the nice, neat dissection she had planned. It’s worse. Messier. There is so much blood. She pulls back the layer of skin from the torso, pins it to the side, and looks down at the smooth, peeled wall of the glitter frog’s abdominal cavity. There’s a thin circuit embedded in the muscle. Nickie takes her tweezers and carefully, gently, extracts it from the bloody mess. The thin metal wire keeps coming until she pulls it free. There’s a square bit at the end that looks more like an RF chip than anything else. She holds it up to the light, frowning because it doesn’t look all that alien.
Next, Nickie cuts through the muscle itself even though her scalpel slides around on the wet tissue. She can see the glitter frog’s organs, and she realizes that they look nothing like the ones she saw on the video. These organs are shaped differently and of course, they’re not dyed.
The other glitter frogs around her are staring; their eyes are huge in the dim light of the garage. The frogs crowd so close that she can feel them pressing up against her legs, against her arms. There’s an army of them, a nation of them, and she thinks she can feel them climbing up her back.
The cold, wet sensation of a frog on the back of her neck jars her into motion. Nickie stands suddenly, accidentally kicking the dissection tray so that it clatters across the concrete floor. The frogs fall from her, and she hears soft thuds as they hit the ground.
She bags the dead glitter frog in a Ziploc sandwich bag to carry it out to the woods behind her house — a stand of tragic cedars and vine maples between her house and the neighbors. She hides the body under a rotting log and hopes something out here will eat it.
She hoses off the dissection tray in the backyard, her golden retriever snuffling around the sullen red puddle at her feet, the bloody water flecked with tufts of shed hair and tiny bits of frog guts. When the dog laps up the bloodied water, she turns the hose on him, and he dances away. He stares at her from a few feet away, head cocked to the side, pink tongue dripping.
Nickie washes the RF chip in the sink, dries it on a paper towel, and brings it with her to school the next morning.
She finds her chem lab partner before class. Christian has been doing the same thing every morning since his boyfriend — ex-boyfriend — ran away from home. He’s sitting out on the picnic table that nobody ever uses, picking at flecks of lichen and peeling paint, moping. Nickie had a crush on him, once, in like elementary school. She’d held out hope he was bi until sophomore year, when they had the most awkward conversation ever.
Nickie brushes some frogs off the table and sits next to him. “Hey,” she says.
He frowns at her through that missing-someone-plus-senioritis haze. “We don’t have anything due today, do we?”
“No. Remember how I was telling you that I couldn’t find anything online about what the glitter frogs are made of?” She pulls off her backpack and swings it around onto her lap. It’s warm for being so early. There are other students out, though most of them are walking to the lunchroom or heading toward class.
She pulls out the plastic baggie, hands it to him. “This was under its skin.”
Christian frowns at the piece of metal, frowns at her, holds it up to the light. He slides the plastic baggie around with his fingers, as though the clear plastic is obstructing his view. Nickie’s about to tell him that he can take it out of the bag if he wants when he asks, “Are you sure?”
“What do you mean, ‘am I sure?’” Nickie takes the RF chip back, stuffs it in her backpack. “I took it out of the frog myself.”
Christian looks at the glitter frogs surrounding them on the grass. They are watching. He pitches his voice low, almost a whisper. “You cut one of them up?”
Nickie zips her bag with more force than she intended. “Yes. I did. I thought that it was weird that they’re apparently such a big fucking secret. But look at that. It doesn’t look very alien, does it?”
Christian closes his eyes and exhales, but before she can ask him what he thinks about it, he says, “I didn’t see anything. You didn’t show me anything, I don’t know anything.”
When he opens his eyes, all she can see is fear. “I don’t want to know,” he says, as a glitter frog lands between them.
(To be continued in Part 2, Escape Pod 727…)
By Benjamin C. Kinney
That’s the first half of our story. Come back next week for part 2 of Never Mind the Watching Ones. I’ll hold my tongue until then. Which I think isn’t a frog joke, because nobody ever sees the glitter frogs eat, do they?
Thank you all for listening, downloading, reading, and sharing Escape Pod. If we provide you with a bit of joy, comfort, or escape in these difficult times, we’d love your support. Find us on Patreon, listed as EAPodcasts, or donate via paypal on our website, escapepod.org. If you can’t afford to donate right now, you can also rate and review us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or whatever service brings you our signal.
Our opening and closing music is by daikaiju at daikaiju.org.
And our closing quotation this week is from Garrison Keillor, who said: “What a shy person wants most in life is to walk away from everything and everyone, and be told: come back. We miss you.”
Thanks for listening and reading, and fly safe out there.
About the Author
Keffy R. M. Kehrli is a speculative fiction writer who currently lives on Long Island, where he’s working on a PhD in Genetics. He attended Clarion UCSD in 2008 and since then, his fiction has appeared in magazines such as Lightspeed, Apex, and Uncanny. In 2015, he launched GlitterShip, a podcast featuring LGBTQ short fiction.
He is also a former editor of Shimmer Magazine.