And Never Mind the Watching Ones
(Part 2 of 2)
By Keffy Kehrli
(Continued from Part 1, Escape Pod 726…)
Of course, if someone were systematically scrubbing the Internet of all references to the glitter frogs, then how do you explain the Tumblr gif sets? The audio recordings? The videos that don’t involve illegal firecrackers and animal cruelty?
Surely someone would have taken down the space frog conspiracy theory site designed by a person with only a very cursory understanding of HTML?
The site has a star field background with red, white, and blue text. The only thing less systematic than the wildly varying font size is the capitalization, which seems to occur at random.
tHe FRogS ArE NOT alIeNS, ThEY are GOveRnmENT sPiES!
DO NoT leT TheM FOOL yOU!
i HaVE THE uLTiMatE PrOoF thAt THE sHIp iN oRbIT iS FAkE
tHeRE ARE NO aLiENs
tHAt iS whAt THEY WanT YOu tO BeLiEVE
cIA and FbI haVE bEEN tRYinG tO ShUT Me uP FoR YEARS
NsA iS UsInG FROGs tO ImPLAnt TheIR InSTRUctiOnS In YoUR ChilDRenS MInDS
We MuST RISE UP BeFoRE iT iS TOo LaTE!!!
And so on…
This site has been up for at least a year now. If these sites were under surveillance, don’t you think it’d be down already?
She is really surprised how easy it is to get drinks at this show. She’s got three years to go before she can drink legally, but the show is 21+ and the bartender is assuming the door guys did their job. The door guys checked out her boobs with about ten times more attention than they did her fake ID.
Her friends, Trisha and Moira, are drinking whatever they want, ordering drinks that sound funny and then snickering behind their hands when the bartender, harried and over-busy with the number of drink orders during the shitty opener’s set, just nods. It seems that he’s completely lost the ability to find “sex on the beach” funny. Karen doesn’t blame him.
She orders her fourth rum and coke and wonders if she should be feeling drunk yet.
Trisha has ordered a drink that is a horrifying shade of blue, and she’s trying to get Moira to bet on whether or not it’s going to make her tongue change colors. Karen is still watching them when one of the glitter frogs on the counter walks over with its halting, I-should-be-jumping frog walk. She thinks that it might be planning to climb up the side of her glass — yuck. The last thing she wants is a frog in her drink.
The frog stops a few inches short, staring at her with its incomprehensible gaze. Then it crawls to the other side of the bar, where it stares at a fallen slice of lime in a puddle of tepid water.
“I guess there’s so much heavy breathing going on that there’s enough CO2 for you all,” Karen says, flicking a piece of ice at the frog. She misses, and the ice skitters away over the bar. The alien turns its long-suffering eyes on her again. She sips her rum and coke and stares back until she starts to feel distinctly uncomfortable. She leans left, and the frog’s eyes follow her. Then she leeeaaans left, and the frog is still staring. She leans so far that she loses balance and falls against Trisha.
Trisha laughs and pushes her back upright on her barstool. “Hoo boy, Karen’s smashed already.”
“No, I’m not,” Karen says, hoping that the bartender didn’t see her fall. Luckily, he’s busy, slinging limp white napkins and pouring cheap beer.
It’s easier to hear now, and it takes a moment for Karen to step outside of her drink-tunneled attention and realize that the opener has stopped playing. In the silence between sets, the bar gets so busy that she can feel the press of people against her back as they crowd forward to order drinks over her head. A guy stumbles against her, grabbing her boob for balance, and then he slides away down the bar before she can respond. Trisha and Moira either didn’t see or don’t care. Karen bites her lip, hunches her shoulders, and wishes she’d stayed home. She doesn’t even like the headliner much, it’s Moira’s favorite. She wishes she’d responded faster and punched the guy in the kidney, or something.
The glitter frog is gone. Karen wonders if they can walk on the floor in this crush of people, and then she imagines the floor coated with the remains of glitter frogs like stomped grapes.
The benefit of going to a show in another city is that it means the chances of running into someone you know, or worse, someone who knows your parents, are much slimmer. Still, Karen thinks she recognizes one of the young men on the other side of the bar. She squints in the dim light and can make out his features.
It’s the missing boy from her high school, she realizes. He has glitter frogs on both his shoulders and he’s buying a drink for the boy next to him. People thought he was dead. He’s been gone for months.
She’s about to go over to him and tell him that he should call his parents and at least tell them that he’s alive when Trisha says, “Oh my god, can we dance already?”
Karen realizes that she hadn’t noticed the headliner beginning to play.
Moira throws back the rest of her drink, and then she grabs Trisha by the arm, pulling her off the stool. “Come on,” she says, “I love this song!”
Karen chugs the rum and coke, which is a mistake because she realizes that she isn’t quite sure how many drinks she’s had so far.
She follows her friends out into the mass of people, shoving her way past sweaty arms and glowsticks, past people dancing so close that she wants to scream, “Get a room!” but doesn’t because she figures they wouldn’t hear her anyway. Moira is extremely good at working the crowd, and it doesn’t take long before they’re only a few people from the front. And then they are in the crush of humanity, everything smelling hot and damp-slick with sweat.
Karen feels like she should be repulsed by the warm sweat of strangers, but instead she lifts her arms over her head, lets the stage lights strobe between her fingers and the thrumming bass fill her head.
For the first two songs, she hopes that the night lasts forever, that the set will go on and on until she dies of old age here in this dark room. There are no frogs on the floor, but there are some on the stage. One is even clinging to the microphone stand.
But then the first few songs turn into a few more, and a few more, and suddenly Karen realizes four things:
- a) She isn’t sure where her friends even are anymore.
- b) She would rather the show be over sooner rather than later because she’s not sure she can keep up with this pace much longer.
- c) Most of the guys on the floor seem to have the same balance problems as that one man did by the bar.
- d) She’s going to need to puke soon.
Her feeling of malaise turns into an even stronger need to puke as the slower song she’d been swaying to segues into something faster, hotter, and with more thumping in it. And then she’s dodging elbows on her way to the edge of the crowd. The world consists of nothing anymore but the sour smell of other humans, the bruising force of their bodies against hers every single time she misjudges the tempo of their terrible fucking dancing.
Karen thinks she’s going to start screaming, crying, or maybe just pass out, but then she’s miraculously outside the crowd, stumbling toward the can. There’s a man near the door checking her out, and she barely manages to flip him off before stumbling through the bathroom door.
The women’s restroom is full of glitter frogs. They’re everywhere — on the floor, clinging to the stalls, on the sinks, in the sinks, by the sinks. On the paper towel dispenser.
She stumbles into one of the stalls — of course none of them have doors — and hovers over the painted-black toilet with the cracked seat, trying to puke so that the bathroom will stop spinning. She tries to stick her finger down her throat as if that might help. It should have, since her finger tasted grosser than anything, but it didn’t.
After a few minutes of fighting to give in to the nausea, she gives up, sits on the toilet with her pants still up, breathing heavily and trying not to cry. The sickness encompasses everything. She is in a building with several hundred people, here with friends, and she’s alone.
The glitter frogs are watching her.
Air, she thinks, and even though the room is still spinning, she climbs to her feet and stumbles out of the bathroom, following the wall to the front door, and then she’s out on the street.
It’s raining, cold fat drops are landing on her hair, soaking through her shirt. The door guys watch her like the glitter frogs as she stumbles around the corner and leans back against the jagged bricks of the wall. The street keeps tilting clockwise.
“Are you okay?”
Karen blinks. Standing at the corner is the boy she recognized earlier. He is covered in frogs. He doesn’t seem to mind the rain.
“Are you Aaron?” she asks. Missing Aaron.
He smiles. “Kind of.”
She squeezes her eyes shut to make the spinning stop. This makes her more dizzy, so she opens them again.
He asks, “Do you need help getting back inside?”
“Not yet.” Karen can hear the music. She can feel it against her back, the vibrations working their way through the wall.
“I’ll wait with you,” he says. He doesn’t add, “Because you’re way too drunk.”
Minutes pass. Karen asks, “Why’d you run away?”
Aaron’s voice is so soft that she almost can’t hear him over the music and the sound of rain. “The frogs,” he says. “I want to go away with them. Me and Tristan are going away with them.”
Karen laughs. “Oh my god,” she says. “Are you serious?”
He lifts a glitter frog off his left shoulder. This one is dark blue, and it glistens in the streetlight. She can’t tell if that’s from the metallic flecks in its skin, or from rainwater. Aaron holds it out to her. “Haven’t you ever felt like you didn’t belong here?”
Karen takes the glitter frog, holds it in the palm of her hand.
Aaron says, “Neither do they.”
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She’s sitting on a bench outside the bus station in Baker City, feeling the dust and the heat seep through her skin. Regrets are crawling around her veins like one hit too many of a cheap upper. It’s already late afternoon, but the next bus won’t be leaving for hours. She watches the cars pass on the interstate to the east. The rolling foothills to the west bake golden in the hundred and ten degree air.
It’s probably too hot for the glitter frogs and she’s glad. She doesn’t think she could handle their disappointment on top of her own.
“Should’ve just stayed in the car,” she tells herself, but when she thinks about Aaron’s wide eyes and mumbling, of wandering the western states without a single fucking clue where they’re going, feeling less and less connected to the world… she doesn’t really regret leaving them.
There’s no shame in getting scared and buying a ticket back to Centralia, she tells herself. Her mom cried on the phone when she said she was coming home. It’s been more than a year.
A car pulls into the parking lot, kicking up a plume of orange dust that obscures the semis behind it. It’s red, an old, kinda boxy car, probably one from the ’90s or something. The windows are up, so it’s got air conditioning.
The man who gets out of the car is tall, and he’s got long brown hair that he hasn’t bothered to tie back. He’s wearing tight jeans and a green Dartmouth T-shirt. His sneakers look new, even from half-way across the lot. He leans on the driver’s side door, looking at the building, at her. He’s frowning like he’s looking for someone. He checks his iPhone before slipping it into the pocket of his jeans.
The only sounds are the thud of the car door shutting, the interstate beside them, and the scuff of his feet on the faded asphalt. Avery puts a hand on her ratty old backpack, but she doesn’t move it off the bench. He comes so close that she can see her wind-burnt, sun-scorched face reflected in his shades. Strands of his hair drift in the breeze like spider silk.
“Hey,” he says. “You wouldn’t have happened to see a car or a van or something here recently? Maybe an older one. There’s probably be a couple people in it about our age.”
“You got a cigarette?” Avery asks. There’s this sick feeling in the pit of her stomach, because she already knows who he’s asking about. And she doesn’t know if she should play stupid or what.
He glances over his shoulder at the car and then shakes his head. “I don’t have any tobacco, sorry.”
“Weed’s fine,” she says, but she already knows he’s not going to give her any.
He puts his sunglasses on his forehead and digs his phone back out of his pocket. He swipes past some screens and then holds it out to her. Avery has a brief impulse to grab the phone and run, but there’s really nowhere to go from here and it’s too fucking hot for that kind of shit.
“I’m looking for this guy,” he says. “I was supposed to meet him here, but my flight home from school was late and I couldn’t get here any earlier.”
Of course it’s a picture of Aaron. It’s Aaron and the boy standing in front of her. They’re sitting on the edge of a fountain, holding hands, heads bent, foreheads touching.
Avery feels something rising inside. Fear, anger, self-loathing. She’d be down that road already, in a car full of frogs, going to meet the aliens, finally, if she hadn’t been so fucking afraid. Because what if they turn us inside out, and what if they get tired of us and shove us out the airlock, and what if it means leaving everyone we know behind, coming back in four hundred years. She wants to scream at this guy to fuck off and leave her alone, and she almost does.
But there’s such a sad look on his face. She pulls her backpack off the bench to the ground next to her feet. “You just missed them,” she says.
“You know him? Oh, god, how long ago did they leave?”
Avery shrugs, “Like an hour ago.”
“Do you have his number? I mean, to whatever phone he’s got now? I tried to call him back but the number didn’t work. Maybe if I can call him…”
Avery hates him a little bit for his assumption that he can show up at the last minute in all his Ivy League glory and be welcomed. “He’s not going to come back, you know,” she says. She flips the phone to his address book and puts the newest number in under Aaron’s name. There are four old numbers there, all defunct.
“Thanks,” he says, and he dials immediately, pacing in the dust, in and out of the shade. When he says, “Fuck,” Avery knows that the phone has gone to voice mail. If this surprises him, it makes Avery think that he must not have known Aaron all that well.
“Aaron,” he says, and then there’s a pause before he continues. “It’s Christian. I made it to Baker City and there’s a guy here who says I just missed you, but I meant to be here, really. I want to see you. Your parents have been crazy for the past year and a half, absolutely batshit. I’ll be waiting here. Call me back.”
Then he sends a text, and another, and finally slumps on the bench beside her.
“He’s not coming back,” she says. “And I’m not a dude.”
“Oh, oh, I’m so–”
“Don’t worry about it,” she says, waving his apology away like a cloud of gnats.
They sit together on that bench while the sun crosses the sky and slips behind the hills, barely talking. Christian’s got questions, of course. He wants to know where they’ve been, where they were going, how Aaron’s been doing. Avery shuts him down. She’s marking time until she can get on the bus and head back to the real world. It kills her that he doesn’t seem to have figured out that they’ve both missed their chance. Some people you can’t explain this shit to. They’ve got to figure it out on their own.
When the bus comes, she flips her hair out of her face and says good-bye to Christian, who’s checking his phone again. She slides into a stained fabric bus seat that smells a lot like spilled coffee and a little like piss. He’s sitting alone when the bus drives off, waiting in the night for a phone call that’s never going to come.
The car is full of four teenagers and too many glitter frogs, sitting on laps, on feet, on the floor, in the back window. The car rattles down a dirt road somewhere in Utah, a ranch exit fifty or eighty or a hundred miles from civilization.
They’re driving with no lights, leaving the freeway far behind. It’s a full moon so they can see the road anyway, their eyes adjusted to night. Tristan is driving. Aaron is drumming his hands on the dashboard, making up for the radio that he turned off once I-84 turned south, way back in Idaho.
In the back seat, J is staring out the window at nothing. Karen’s sitting on the driver’s side, head pressed against the back of Tristan’s seat. She keeps thinking that she should have stayed in Baker City with Avery, but she doesn’t say a single word.
The car hits a bump so hard that their asses all leave the seats. Aaron stops drumming. “Here,” he says. “STOP HERE.”
Tristan stomps the brakes, and there’s an exhalation of breath from slamming into the chest straps of their seatbelts, and then Tristan kills the motor. Silence.
Aaron climbs out of the car first, the dust of the road under his boots soft and dry. The air has gone cold, but he imagines he can still feel the warmth of the rocks underfoot. The others, human and glitter frog, follow him out of the car.
“Now what?” Tristan asks, the words strange in a place so quiet. Behind them is the buzzing rattle of someone’s phone left in the car.
Aaron skids down the embankment, dislodging dirt and gravel in a rush, and he starts walking away from the road. He doesn’t think he’s ever seen so many stars.
At first he thinks that the glitter frogs are catching up with him as he walks, but then he realizes that these are new frogs. More frogs. He can’t see where they’re coming from, but there are more, and more, until the ground is a shifting mass of glittering sparks.
He stops, waits for the others to catch up with him, waits for Tristan to be close so he can grip the other boy’s hand tight in his. They are barely breathing for the anticipation. Karen takes Aaron’s other hand, and J takes Tristan’s. Together, they wonder what the ship will be like, the stars, the swiftly receding earth.
All around them, spread out for miles as dense as carpet, the glitter frogs begin to sing.
By Benjamin C. Kinney
This is a story that tries to speak to us all in a thousand different ways. Whether your partner can’t connect with you, or your coworkers recoil from the things that excite you, or the world just seems too loud. We’ve all had that moment where we feel like we don’t belong. For some of us, it’s rare; for others, it’s our daily lives. But what if there was someone, or some thing, who would be there for us, even in those moments of distance? Who would watch, without judgment? Who would welcome us, no matter who we are? It doesn’t matter if that person is alien – all the better, when we’ve failed to connect with the society around us. If we had the chance to leave this world behind, who among us wouldn’t be tempted to leap at that chance?
As I record this, it’s the third weekend in March 2020. Social distancing clampdowns have come into effect in recent days, and those rules are going to do a lot of growing before they relax. Maybe you’re stuck home, maybe you aren’t. Maybe you’ve lost your job. Maybe you’re a medical worker, putting yourself at risk every day to keep our communities safe. This whole situation is moving so fast, I don’t know if anything I say will still be relevant in April.
I hope, wherever you are and whatever your situation, that you’re holding up. That you’re keeping yourself healthy and sane, fed and supported. And that you have, in your life, some glitter frogs. Mysteries, for you to find wonder in. Glories, that seem so alien, no matter how earthly their parts. Eyes, that see you, and never turn away, even in your darkest moments. And I hope that you, too, don’t turn away from them. We all yearn for our struggles to end in a joyous song, and we have the opportunity to be those things for each other. To beckon each other toward a future full of love and understanding.
We can’t wait for respite and welcome to descend from space. No matter how scary the world gets, we have the power to fill it connection, and excitement, and peace.
So if I had to give one message to all of you out there, it’s this: Be the glitter frogs you want to see in the world.
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 Rebecca Solnit’s book, A Paradise Built in Hell. “Disaster doesn’t sort us out by preferences; it drags us into emergencies that require we act, and act altruistically, bravely, and with initiative in order to survive or save the neighbors, no matter how we vote or what we do for a living.”
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.