Croaking Gifts -- fiction by Mariam Khan
"It's slimy," Isadora whined, voice higher than a broken reed. The toad, cupped tight between her palms, let out a croak as if to note: why yes, I am not as delectable as you might think, but the notion altogether is very flattering.
"Chunk it in," I suggested, "it'll slide down real pretty." A pebble of water shined on the toad's bulbous chest, resembling a nervous bead of sweat.
"Do you think it'll make me fat?"
I considered, "What do they eat most of the time?"
"Flies, snails," she stared on morosely, "worms, even."
"It'll be an excellent serving of protein, then. I think."
Isadora gazed into the frog's black, expressionless eyes in neglect of a response. She went on staring for so long that I forced myself off the paved road and onto the curbside next to her just to investigate what had entranced her.
I didn't see much, initially, but with a staring match conducted in the dim lamplight, a strange and humane expression came through. It looked honest. As if it would guide you off the precipice of indecisiveness and encourage you to take intelligent, educated decisions. The eyes, which had before looked like any other animal's colourless set of marbles, fixated me with a serene earnestness.
"To think that a fish could look more trustworthy than our dad," I muttered.
Isadora elbowed me without strength, "Amphibian, sis."
A pause settled over us, so I picked up the box on the roadside, crudely labelled with the word, "Princess." Seeing as I went through half the morning with a blade of grass stuck in my hair, it went straight into Isadora's hands.The gift was rather obviously from one of the schoolboys that couldn't resist letting the day come to fruition without a little pranking. I hated myself for knowing the owner of the handwriting, for recognizing the little curl he put on his lowercase p's and the arrogant slash across his t's. Even if his script made the word 'pretty' read like an insult, the real intention was self-evident.
When Isadora opened her gift on the front porch, it had jumped out with such velocity, such fevered rampantness, that all our eyes detected was a blur of green.
After giving chase with the box's tape still clinging to our fingers, we fell into a debate of what the exact colour was. Isadora argued it was like grass mixed with peppercorn, while I dismissed the specificity and called it olive.
Regardless, I just wanted to watch her take a nibble out of it before dinner forced us inside.
Isadora asked, "What if I made it into a pet?"
"And leave me listenin' to the croaking while doing homework?" I scoffed.
"It'll be like Felix."
Felix the impressively ugly kitten. I'd always been neutral with animals, but that cat looked akin to the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland, with a mass of white fur that was spiky to the touch and inexplicably unclean. On a weekend run through the neighbourhood, the scrawny thing had followed Isadora home, purring and meowing. Whenever I had put my hand on it, it emitted something akin to a growl, or whatever a mere kitten could do to express anger.
I had tried again and again to force exile upon its dirty limbs, but it would just remain splayed out on our driveway until Isadora let it back inside. Eventually, I took it to the pier and held it underwater at arm's length, feeling its long torso trash and jerk until all I was clutching was an immobile, furry corpse.
Isadora spent a week leaving out dishes of slivered chicken until Mama told her Felix was a runaway.
"Forget the charity, are you going to eat your toad, or what?" I said.
"It looks yucky."
"So do Mama’s stuffed peppers."
She stroked its back, "What if it's poisonous, you wouldn't miss me if I died?”
I groaned to the sky. If I were on the wrong end of a pistol, then perhaps I would say I would miss her, but to admit it aloud would only serve to make words turn to cotton in my throat.
"Listen, Cherry, you've been around me like a baby duck since you were a wee thing. So how the hell am I supposed to know if I'd miss you or not? I've never known an existence without you around. Before you, I didn't even know that you would join the family, so that hardly counts."
The answer put a disheartened curl on her lips. But I'll be damned if she still wasn’t persistent, "What about that time I went missing at the pier 'cause Ebony invited us all over to look at her piglets?" she pushed.
“It was more than a couple of piggies you were there for,” I snarked. According to Mama, when the moon hung like a curl of paper in the night, Ebony left her house to take Isadora and their friends to the pier. There, Ebony showed off the hairless expanse of her calves and obtained her father's razor to show everyone else how to do the same. Isadora came home dragged by the ear that night, smudges of blood welling up from the messy cuts peppering her dark skin. It looked like Mama's brownies when she sprinkled over bright red currants over the cocoa surface.
She groaned, “That wasn't my fault.”
I ardently recall that Isadora's punishment was a day without the television. When I snuck some makeup off Mama's vanity, she made me kneel in rice until my knees looked permanently dimpled.
She groaned, "Stop getting distracted."
I hummed a bit, "Well, I actually had a pretty good day. Woke up from a nap, polished off some reading. Didn't really notice you were gone."
There was a high possibility that most of that statement was false.
A little 'oh' escaped her lips, and the action made her entire face collapse like a birthday balloon.
I pointed at the frog, "Look on the bright side," it squirmed with my accusatory finger, "eat that, and I’ll never forget you."
Her shoulder still wilted, just one, since I got us into a mini car accident a long time ago and ruined the other.
"I promise," I assured.
"I could also die of froggy poison."
I waved a hand, "You’ll go down in history."
How long did we have until dinner? The sun had settled lovingly over the creek already, but that said little considering Mama was an easily exhausted soul and needed a long nap before she started on dinner.
Right as I turned back to Isadora, the house ironically became drenched in harsh yellow light, igniting the streetside.
Isadora's dark skin stretched as she let out a shriek.
"Hey," I hit her over the side of the head, "Shut up or else Mama's going to think I did something." She was probably at the sink now, getting an apron around her waist.
"Don't you even care about what scared me?" Isadora asked.
"It's just the frog, ain't it," I sighed.
"Just, just, look," she thrust the croaking creature into my face.
There wasn't a great deal to see. The nuance of a light source revealed its less aesthetic features: bubbly, boil infested skin, black upon green, as if its poisonous insides were so cautionary that they perforated onto the outer flesh. Every bump was stark and cutting, caught between a backdrop of night and plate of light.
How long would Isadora be pushed back and forth? She was hesitant when it was dark, terrified when it was light, I don’t understand how she even managed to hold it in the first place.
"Eat it, Isadora," my voice betrayed impatience. This was supposed to be a fun little joke for me to think about in a decade, but she had thoroughly twisted it to be about sisterhood, and like with a tight ring, my finger fleshed green.
"God, why can't you just be done with it!"
Her face was young and pimpled and somehow still prettier than mine, morphed into a sorrow so mournful that the hurt drenched her like perfume. What I said was a little cruel, sure, but with Mama up bruising fish for the table, we’d be forced inside soon. Hopefully before Papa started giving us, giving me, heat for being unhelpful.
The front door puckered open.
I grabbed Isadora by the knee, "I'm sorry, okay? That was a bad thing to say, but come on, hurry up and eat the-"
Swearing wouldn't help, swearing won't help, swearing doesn't help.
"- thing before we gotta go in."
She set her eyes on me, and there must have been something within my own that was as earnest as the frog itself, for despite the bright fear that twirled in hers, she bent her neck and crammed the entire bulbous mass into her mouth.
Its legs dangled helplessly, still not quite past her lips, and began fidgeting in a relentless fight for freedom. Muffled croaks emitted in the slobbering silence, saliva dribbling down her chin in foamy strands. And the crunch, good lord, her jaw moved up and down savagely, snapping and squelching, working the round body down in manageable pieces until blood joined the rivers of spit, travelling down onto her shirt, splattering onto the ground. Her shaking hands shoved the remaining limbs in, and the chewing grew louder as the croaks died in her throat, and I sat watching, truly mesmerized as she went on and on, chewing the once living, breathing work of nature into a small sum of bone shards and pulpy insides journeying down to the chasm of her stomach.
"So?" she asked, turning to me with a face resembling ferritin portraits.
I used the inside of my sleeve to clean up her chin, and the mixture of blood and spit left a wet splotch that settled against my wrist. It was warm.
"I reckon that you are the best sister in the whole world," I told her, giving her shoulder a firm pat. Rising on cramped legs, I stretched to the dark sky and didn't bother offering Isadora a hand. "Come now, we've got real food inside."
That night, we ate fish with a side of green peas, accidentally scorched on the bottom. The crimson sauce that drenched the fish tumbled and spread to the entire plate, soaking the peas. I told Mama they looked poisonous. Isadora spent the hours before bed throwing up the contents of her stomach, turning the toilet bowl shades of evil and cruelty. I could still see my reflection in it.
“You love me, right sis?” she asked, wet hair plastered to her cheek, skin red from scrubbing away the bile.
I didn't know how to tell her that the only reason Isadora was found at the pier was because I had told Mama. I didn't know how to admit that I'd killed Felix.
Isadora's skin still carried a sickly undertone, as if vomit sludged through her veins. Her eyes were vats of serene earnestness, dark as ink, glossy with the brush of moonlight. All this time spent looking at the toad, but perhaps it was upon her that I should have directed my gaze.
I sucked in a breath, then spoke in a terribly quiet exhale.
Mariam Khan is a Texas high school student frequently debating how much sugar is too much sugar. When she is not writing about characters eating peculiar things, she is studying Chemistry.