The terrarium sat alone in the center of the clinic’s waiting room like a sarcophagus of seamless glass. Due to the constant attention required to hold environmental catastrophe at bay, care of the biome had been contracted out. Today’s visiting herpetologist was an older gentleman, and each prostration before the massive tank sent a quiver of worn abuses rolling through the cartilage of his knees and up the witch-finger hook of his spine. Usually, the contractors worked unaccompanied, lonely journeymen in crisp polo shirts. For some reason, this one had arrived with a young girl in tow—a scrawny thing, waxy and tangled. The child bounced between empty couches, chewed fingernails catching on the faded tartan and coming away with tangles of thread.
From the safe remove of her desk, the clinic’s receptionist observed all of this over a cup of ice water. On a typical morning, all those seats would be filled. But it was Columbus Day or whatever they called it now. Probably why the girl wasn’t in school. Did children still go to school? The receptionist wasn’t sure. The girl showed no interest in the herpetologist’s work or the terrarium. This prompted the receptionist to wonder if it was strange that she had never actually seen the frogs herself. Once, she tried, during her first and only interview for the job. The owner of the clinic warned her they would be hard to pick out. Itty bitty things. Always hiding. Check under that big leaf. Try the other one. Nothing? Well, maybe next time.
As he scrubbed the tank’s exterior, the herpetologist rambled on about an imminent barbeque he was hosting, repeating the date, the address, and the varieties of butchery in his repertoire.
The receptionist eventually understood: He was extending a passive invitation.
“Next weekend is my anniversary,” she blurted out. “Our anniversary, I mean. We might be going out of town.”
Breathless, the girl upturned a basket of broken toys and began to pick through them.
The herpetologist slipped on a pair of latex gloves. They would protect the frogs’ delicate membranes from human oils, human sweat. He braced himself against the wall and reached down deep into the tank.
“You have to see this massive pig we’re going to roast,” he grunted, contorting to inspect the furthest corners, his fingers walking across fiberglass branches and stones slick with algae. “Saturday, all afternoon. It’ll be a great time. Stop by for just a few minutes. Who knows if this will be the last one. Go out with a bang. Promise, it’ll be worth it.”
The receptionist smiled and poured another cup of water. Sometimes, to keep her thoughts from pulling at their leash, she would scan the upcoming appointments and predict the faces that went with the names. She double checked the logbook, opened to today’s date. Of the hours broken into boxes, only 10:00 AM held a name in red ink: Victoria Brown. The mental effigy that swam up was of a slender woman with cropped chestnut hair, pearls in her ears, rarely early, never late.
The girl drifted away from the toys, leaving a trail of naked plastic dolls in her wake. The Color Box had all her attention. Cellophane wrappers crinkled under small fingers as she sorted through the options.
Terror—cold and acidic—pooled at the base of the receptionist’s neck. Where the scars were.
The herpetologist slipped a tiny flashlight from his back pocket and shone it around the tank, casting hobnailed shadows across lithographs of bleak New England shorelines. When the receptionist was a child herself, back when this was still a dentist’s office, these walls held charts of teeth in various states of disrepair: enamel, nerves, cavities, rot. There was an aquarium back then too, stocked with goldfish—the ugly kind with spots and puffy eyes. Little else had changed. Same limp avocado carpeting. Same laminate walls. Same antique longcase clock lurking in the corner like a German priest, compulsively counting down the seconds until confession.
The girl held up one of the bags from the Color Box and presented it to the herpetologist.
“Is this your favorite color?”
“Red? Not really. Guess again.”
A chunk of ice slipped onto the receptionist’s tongue. She gently bit down, not letting it crack until her molars ached.
“Well, what do you think?” the herpetologist said.
It took a moment for the receptionist to realize he was speaking to her and not his … daughter? Granddaughter? Not much of a resemblance, but that wasn’t unusual. Most families those days were salvaged puzzle pieces, glued together.
“Should I put you down as an RSVP?”
The receptionist repeated her response. She would still have to ask her husband.
“Why? Is he a vegetarian or something?”
She disregarded the question and glanced at the longcase clock. The hour had almost run out. Her knee began jumping. She tried to distract herself with her phone but, after skimming the same cached Facebook posts over and over, a carsick vertigo forced her to stop. Same with the pile of year-old magazines. They might as well be written in another language. Instead, she stared out the window, her eyes gliding like swallows over trembling patches of milkweed and into the grime-ringed sockets of an abandoned parking garage. After fires consumed both St. Johns and First Presbyterian, the unnamed four-story structure inherited the title of tallest building in town, its misshapen concrete skull leering over fields of tar rooftops and corroded satellite dishes.
The receptionist listened.
No traffic on the road. No wedge heel footsteps on the concrete.
No sign of Victoria Brown.
“You like bourbon, don’t you?”
“Sure,” the receptionist said, regretting it instantly. “I mean, I guess it’s fine.”
“I’ll be pouring from my private stock. You can’t get this stuff anymore. Usually I save it for my famous sauce but I’m thinking, hell with that.”
“Yeah. Sounds fun. I’ll have to see. Like I said, it’s our anniversary—”
With a scrape of arthritic gears, the minute hand of the clock accused the heavens and coughed out a set of barking bells. The girl sang along.
“One … two … three … four … five …”
“Where exactly were you thinking of going, again?” the herpetologist asked as he picked through the foliage. A caustic tone had crept into his voice. “Out of town?”
“Six … seven … eight …”
The receptionist willed the door to open. She imagined a gust of warm, greasy air flowing over face.
“Nine … ten.”
“Well, whatever your plans are, I’m sure you can spare a few minutes.” He lifted something from the tank. “Ah, here we go. Got you.”
The minute hand cut into the next hour. One tick, then two, then five.
The front door remained closed.
Victoria Brown had missed her appointment.
The receptionist took a deep breath. Don’t worry. There were standard procedures for situations like this. Check the logbook, call out the next name. No other names? Unusual but not unanticipated. All she had to do was call the central office, say a certain code, and the clinic would be flagged as temporarily closed. A notification would go out to their clients, accommodations made. A few hours of pay might be lost.
A minor aggravation at most.
But the call had to be made promptly.
She flung open the desk drawers. Hiding among the mess of appointment carbons, gum wrappers and paperclips was a note with a phone number written in a now-dead woman’s hand.
“I’m telling you. It’s going to be a real hoot this year. Your husband doesn’t have to come if he doesn’t want to—” The herpetologist swallowed his words and approached the reception desk. “Everything all right back there?”
“What are you looking for?”
“Please. One second.”
The lights flickered. Far below the worn carpet, a vast machine shuddered to life. Fossorial shrieks gave way to a slow, wet drone that reverberated up through beams and brick, sang across the windows. The ice in the pitcher clicked as their air bubbles shattered.
The receptionist braced for the smell. It always triggered the same synesthetic memory, one of her earliest. On a school trip to the space museum, her class met an astronaut. He let the children pass around a real moon rock. Later, she would be told such a trip never happened; that moon rocks are sealed up in vaults; that, no, she had never met an astronaut. It must have been a dream.
Maybe it was.
But the receptionist still remembered the smell of that rock, like breathing in the cobalt fumes of a dying campfire.
“Hey! How about this one?”
The little girl held up a crescent of indigo, sealed in clear plastic. She either hadn’t noticed the sounds rumbling up through the floor or didn’t understand what they signified.
“Maybe,” the herpetologist sighed. “Can you find yellow? That’s my favorite color.”
“Yeah. I think I saw one.”
A speaker in the ceiling buzzed.
“Shit,” the herpetologist said. He still held a frog in his gloved palm, barely larger than his thumbnail. It looked like a tiny, black heart. The receptionist couldn’t tell if it was alive or dead. It didn’t move. It didn’t breathe—not a blink across cataracted eyes of milk and fog.
With his free hand, the herpetologist scratched his neck, under the polo collar. Where the scars where.
The receptionist flipped to the back of the logbook where the paper switched from cream to powder blue. Her thumb raced up and down columns of text until it landed on the street of the herpetologist’s barbeque. She repeated the address back to him.
“You’re in the district for the Maple Corners clinic, right?”
“Sure, but wait—”
“We do have a slot that needs to be filled. I would take it, but I just had mine. My counts aren’t back up. They wouldn’t take me. Okay. Here you are. And it looks like you’re about due.”
“I can go ahead and pencil you in. Fifteen minutes. You’ll be done before lunch.”
The herpetologist gently set the frog back down in the dirt.
“Let’s not … I mean …” he said, each word an octave higher than the last. “See, the thing is, all my records are at Maple Corners.”
The girl wobbled over to the terrarium and pressed an eye to the glass. Dislodged furniture and scattered toys spoke testimony to her expended energy.
“That’s no problem,” the receptionist said. “I can call it into the system. I can slide you right over.”
“Now hold on. I can’t just drop everything. I have plans.”
“We all had plans,” the receptionist said.
Ignoring the signs taped to the wall, the girl knocked on the tank. The frog didn’t move.
“Hey!” said the herpetologist. “Don’t. Just … don’t.”
Several months before leaving the city alone, the receptionist came home to find her husband curled up on the couch, shivering under a half-dozen blankets. He had been among the first called to contribute—an invitation from senior leadership in ivory cardstock. As construction vehicles lumbered outside in heavy parades, she cradled him in her arms, careful to avoid the fresh wounds scrawled down his spine like a weeping alphabet. Let’s leave, she whispered to the back of his head. His hair smelled like wet clay. Didn’t you say you could get a travel pass? My mom lives out in the middle of nowhere, a town barely touched by all this. Please. She grows her own vegetables. A garden full of fresh flowers.
The ceiling speaker buzzed three times in impatient succession.
“We’re running out of time.”
“How is that my problem?” The herpetologist began putting away his equipment, occasionally lingering over the tools made of metal, the ones with sharp edges. “I’m sure it happens. Just tell them to try another clinic.”
You carry something, right? The clinic’s owner had asked the receptionist at the end of the interview. I don’t have tell you people get cold feet before the procedure. It’s natural. Don’t worry. In the end, these things always work themselves out. We’re good citizens here. We take care of our own. We take our civic responsibilities seriously. No, of course, not a gun. Something small. A kitchen knife. A pair of scissors.
The girl slapped the side of the tank hard enough to separate clumps of moss from their branches.
The frog swelled with air, and it reminded the receptionist of her husband’s emaciated ribcage as he frantically installed a deadbolt in the dark. He had been summoned underground again. The stark command had been slipped under the door as they slept, the gilded guise of charity no longer necessary. Everyone knew who benefited from the rearrangement of the world. I see what this is, he grunted. It’s a late stage cancer raging through the marrow. Curled up inside us like worms. Worms with human faces. Fattening themselves on our … our … heart blood. Maybe we deserve it. I let them take it from me. As easy as breathing. When we found them down there … waiting for us … we should have … drowned it in poison … burned it with fire … you can’t bargain with cancer …
Whenever her husband got that way, she had to withdraw to their tiny apartment balcony, an unlit cigarette rolling between her fingers. A damp summer wind fluted through the new hollows of the city. Protest signs drifted down the moonlit streets like cardboard moths.
The night before she left, her husband found himself on the other side of those same deadbolts, pleading, swearing. I know, he said. I should have asked your permission. Please. I couldn’t help myself. I’m sorry. I know. I know, I said they stole something from me. I was wrong. It was a gift. Let me in. Please. Let me show you. It’s so beautiful. What we can become. She crouched on the unmade bed, every light turned on, waiting for the sun to come up. Her nightgown lay crumpled in the corner, ripped apart by muddy fingernails. The fresh wounds on her back sang. His toolbox sat at her side; a hammer cradled against her chest.
The lights in the clinic flickered again. Even when they returned to full brightness, the air remained sodden with a muted gloom—desaturated, dusk arriving eight hours early.
The girl yawned.
“How much longer do I have to be here?”
The herpetologist shrugged.
“How should I know? Go on and ask your mommy.”
“I can’t. She told me not to come home until I’m done. After I’ve taken my turn.”
Her hand resting on the hammer in her backpack, the receptionist froze.
“To go downstairs,” the girl said, small hands balled into fists. It was a simple statement, barbed with exasperation at a world of continually disappointing adults.
The question—the name written in red ink—pressed against the receptionist’s teeth, but she couldn’t utter it. She had become limp, the marionette strings snapped clean from her bones by the blade of her error. It took all her strength to remain upright. The herpetologist’s gaze met her own. Oh. His eyes confirmed it: the girl’s arrival had nothing do with him. Merely a coincidence of time and space. Shape-blinded by cowardice, both adults had mistaken precociousness for familiarity.
To their credit, neither flinched as the riptide of truth threatened to pull them under.
“Oh, I think your appointment might have been cancelled.” She walked out from behind her desk and joined them at the tank. “John, remind me how many are in there?”
At the sound of his own name in this sacred space, a series of inscrutable expressions pulsed across the herpetologist’s face. The receptionist recognized the argument being replayed in that quarrel of nerves, having felt it under her own fingers: those muscular twitches in the cheeks, the jaw, the eye sockets. An animal aspect trying to break through. Fight or flee. Me or you.
She resisted the urge to tell him that, yes, her husband had in fact once been a vegetarian.
“Should be seven,” he said.
“That’s not so many,” the receptionist said. “I’m sure, both of you, working together, can find them all. I’m going to step away for a few minutes, and then I’m going to take a walk … I’m sorry, sweetie, what was your name again?”
The girl was already scanning the leaves, the wet stones and chips of wood for signs of life. How many frogs would the girl find? Three or four, probably. Certainly not all seven. The last few would be the most difficult. It would take patience. Like all subterranean creatures, they clung to the dark corners, silent as stones. Until it came time to feed, that is. Then they moved. Then they sang.
“Huh? Oh. Vickie.”
A heavy tension sloughed off the receptionist’s shoulders. The illusion of choice had been an unnecessary weight. “Right. Of course. Give me a few minutes, and I’ll walk Vickie home and explain the whole thing. She can tell her mom all about the frogs. How does that sound?”
The girl nodded and handed over her chosen prize from the Color Box. The receptionist ripped the plastic wrapper open and popped the curve of hard rubber into her mouth.
“How do I look?” she asked, her voice muffled.
The girl giggled. “Like you’re eating a lemon.”
The receptionist smiled. She would be spitting out bloody flecks of yellow for days.
She left the two of them peering into the tank and made her way down the hallway that once led to various examination rooms, each of them dark, their stainless-steel instruments coated in dust. There were Polaroids of smiling children warped with moisture hanging on the walls.
Back in the waiting room, the ceiling speaker buzzed again.
She had to keep going.
She approached the doorway at the end of the hall, already wide open, leading down a rough-hewn cement staircase that had once been a cleaning closet, the underground droning now loud enough to pick out individual voices, a choir of thirsty tongues seething up in auroral waves.
No stink of moon rocks yet. That would come after.
She bit down hard on the mouth guard and began the descent. With each step into the waiting darkness, part of her was already crawling back into her childhood bed, the nightmare smothered by an opiate nostalgia. She could almost smell the gardenias in her mother’s garden beautiful, pungent—their soft centers crawling with ants.
DAVID GALLAY is a writer of speculative fiction and horror whose stories have appeared in various publications including Kaleidotrope, The Future Fire, and Metaphorosis: Best of 2018. His science fiction novelette, The Catalog of Lost Objects, is available now from Aurelia Leo press. When not writing his way through the dark Wisconsin winters, David can be found on Twitter @svengali.
DENNY E. MARSHALL has had art, poetry, and fiction published. Some recent credits include cover art for Dreams & Nightmares #116 Sept. 2020 and poetry in Scifaikuest August 2020. This year, his website is celebrating 20 years on the web. In 2020, his artwork is for sale for the first time. The link is on his website @ www.dennymarshall.com.