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.