B-Sides are short stories based in the world of Bytown. Every so often, I take a request from a reader and see where the story takes me.
She ran along the water’s edge, bare feet on the rocky beach, knees pulled higher every time a big wave came in and threatened to topple her. Her hunting spear stayed ready, though, held in her tight little hand, no matter how unsteady she felt. She had to be ready for when the moment came.
There, just around a turn in the shoreline, she saw a massive boulder jutting out of the water. It was weathered and mossy, like a giant’s tooth left out in the sun too long. That was the spot she’d been looking for.
As she got closer, she held the spear higher, up above her shoulder, creeping through the calf-deep water with very careful footsteps. Soft sand and tiny rocks squeezed between her toes, but her focus stayed locked on the boulder—on the secrets it was hiding.
Off in the distance, a bird called out, the edges of its voice bouncing along the water like a tiny stone skipping forever. It made her pause, eyes cast across the lake, lost in well of curiosity for a moment. But just a moment.
She came around the boulder, stick aimed to strike, and the corner of her mouth curled up ever so slightly when she saw she’d been right.
“There you are,” she said, setting down the stick as she knelt on a rock. Nestled into a shallow bit of water at the base of the boulder was a small family of frogs, almost invisible in the sloshy shade. They didn’t run for cover as she got closer—she was far too practiced for that—but watched her carefully, waited to see what would happen next.
It took her ‘til close to noon to get back home, stick under her arm, hands cupped together to keep her little prisoner contained. She let the stick drop into the tall grass by her beach as she dragged her feet along, clearing off as much of the wet sand as she could before stomping up the steps and—
“Maggie, don’t you dare!” called a voice from behind, and she froze, one step away from safety. She turned on her heel, noticed her father in his chair beneath the old oak tree, watching her with a dubious stare. “What did we agree about toads in the house?”
“Geoffrey’s not a toad,” said Maggie. “He’s a frog.”
“Ah, well then,” said her father. “That makes all the difference.” He picked up his book again, but then had a faux-epiphany: “Oh wait! No it doesn’t! No wildlife in the house!”
Maggie held Geoffrey the frog a little closer. “He wouldn’t be wildlife if he were my pet.”
“And you’d set the rules if you weren’t an eight-year-old girl,” said her father. “But since neither of those conditions are changeable, I’m afraid Mr Geoffrey will have to find his own accommodations.”
She plopped down onto the steps, still carefully cradling her frog, and glared at her father the way her mother’d done it. The face of a displeased woman. Her father picked up his book again, and kept reading. Evidently her glaring needed work.
“I want to go home,” she said.
“This is home,” he said.
“The other home,” she said. “I miss my room.”
“What colour are the walls in your room? The room here, I mean. In this house. Our home.”
Maggie’s frown got deeper. “Yellow.”
“Yellow,” said her father, still looking at his book. “And what colour were the walls in the old house?”
The answer was reluctantly given: “Brown.”
“Mmhmm,” said her father, turning the page in his book. “And who was it, exactly, that said she’d sooner die than live in another room with brown walls again? The one who insisted, every night at dinner, that she would surely perish if she were faced with a wall any shade other than the brightest yellow?”
Maggie had no answer to that. Or at least none that would help her case.
“This is home,” said her father, content with his victory. “And the rules of home say no wildlife in the house. Even Mr Geoffrey.”
“Sir Geoffrey, actually,” said Maggie. “He was knighted.”
Her father tipped his book and smiled. “Remarkable. For what? Jumping?”
“Bravery,” said Maggie, then narrowed her eyes to add: “In the face of tyranny.”
Her father laughed, closed the book and sat straighter. “That’s what I get for letting you raid my library,” he said. He waved her over. “Come on, let’s see him. Bring him here.”
Maggie stomped down the steps and across the grass, stopping short of the chair her father was perched on. There was an empty bottle of liquor by his feet, which meant a glass must be lurking somewhere. She didn’t want to step on it by mistake. Not in bare feet again.
“Let’s see him,” said her father, holding his hands over hers to catch the frog if it tried to escape. He opened her fingers slightly, creating a kind of open prison to peer into. Her father leaned down angling this way and that, trying to get a better view.
“That’s a good one,” he said with a smile. “Where did you find him?”
“Down the beach,” she said, nodding back the way she’d come. “There’s this big rock shaped like a giant’s tooth, and—”
“Ah, I know the one,” he said. “In the little bay, with the birch trees at the shore?”
“Maybe?” said Maggie, because trees never interested her much. They were the background noise, not the focus. “He was hiding in a shadow, but I saw him anyway.”
“A good catch,” he said. “See the spots on his back? What do they remind you of?”
He laughed, shook his head. “No, think animals. Spots on animals.”
She frowned for just a moment until the idea came to her: “Leopards!”
“That’s right,” he said. “Sir Geoffrey here is a leopard frog. And just like other leopards, he likes to eat little girls’ fingers.”
She closed her hands around the frog and narrowed her eyes again. “You’re not funny.”
“Not even a little?” he laughed.
“No. I’m done talking to you, and I’m going to find Sir Geoffrey a jar, so he can sleep by my bed.”
She tried to go, but her father held her in place. His face was so kind, but so sad. “No, darling, you can’t. It’s not a rule you can bend. No wildlife in the house.”
“But mama said—”
“Your mother...” he said, flinching at the mere thought of her. “She...” His eyes shifted downward, searching for the bottle before seeing it was empty. Remembering it was empty. He cleared his throat, then put a pleasant smile on his face once again. “Your mother loved frogs, did you know?”
Maggie did not know that, but it seemed obvious. “Leopard frogs?”
“All frogs,” said her father. “Turtles, too. Fish and birds, squirrels...” He laughed. “She’d have turned our home into a zoo, if she could. When you were little, she used to call you tadpole. Her little tadpole.”
Maggie frowned at that. “Tadpoles are icky.”
“Not to her,” said her father. “To her, tadpoles were full of possibility. They could do anything, go anywhere, be anyone they chose...”
“Tadpoles can’t do any of those things.”
“Oh, but they can,” he said, scooping her up and settling her on his lap. “A frog like Sir Geoffrey, his life is set in stone. He is all that he’ll ever be. He jumps a little, swims a little—”
“Hides behind rocks,” said Maggie.
“Indeed,” said her father. “But he’ll never fly. He’ll never explore the depths of the sea. He’ll never walk the plains of Africa, or visit the South Pole. He’s a frog, and that’s all he’ll ever be. He’s taken his path, and now he’s bound to it.”
Maggie frowned, felt Sir Geoffrey fidgeting between her hands. “But papa,” she said, “tadpoles grow up to be frogs. They don’t fly, either.”
Her father smiled at her. “How do you know? How do you know tadpoles don’t grow wings and soar into the sky?”
“Because they don’t,” she said. “They just don’t.”
“Or maybe,” he said. “Maybe you just haven’t seen them do it. Maybe it happens all the time. Maybe Sir Geoffrey spends half his days on that rock, waving hello to his brothers and sisters as they soar about in the sky.”
She watched him very carefully for a moment before asking, in a quieter voice: “Are you alright, papa?”
He sniffled, nodded, but looked away. “It’s been a long year, darling,” he said. “A very long year.”
“Would a pet help?” she asked, and he laughed.
“No wildlife in the house,” he said, wiping at his eyes. “And it’s not because I want to make you sad, Maggie. Truly, it’s not. But a wild creature like this, it needs care and support we can’t provide. It needs its water, its sand, its rocks, its family. Bring her—it—inside, and it will wither and die. And that’s not fair to you, but it’s especially unfair to Sir Geoffrey.”
She loosened her hands a little, and the frog stuck a leg through, trying to wiggle free.
“I miss my old room,” she said. “Even if it was brown.”
“I know, darling,” he said, and kissed her forehead. “I miss it too. But I can’t go back there again.”
She got to her feet, looking back out to the lake that seemed so boundless, she couldn’t imagine the end of it. The waves lapping against the rocks by the shore, the birds circling in lazy patterns in the sky above.
She opened her hands and looked down at her frog for the last time. But he didn’t try to escape. He just sat there, staring out at the lake, too, like he felt the same sense of wonderment she did. The endless possibilities, seeing something from a different vantage point.
She crouched down and set him in the grass, ever so gently, and took her hands away.
“Go on, Sir Geoffrey,” she said, but the frog still didn’t move.
“What’s the matter?” asked her father, watching her with reddened eyes.
“I don’t think he wants to go,” she said. “I think he wants to stay.” She turned and frowned at her father. “Can frogs be like tadpoles, too? Can they change, once they’ve made up their minds?”
His smile was weak. “They can try.”
“Alright,” said Maggie, heading back toward the house with purpose.
“Where are you going?”
“To find a jar for Sir Geoffrey,” she said. “Not for inside. For outside. So he has a safe place to stay while he decides who he wants to be. And so I can help him, when he needs it.” She paused, wincing a little. “Is that allowed?”
Her father smiled. Nodded. Picked up his book again. “That sounds perfect,” he said, and prayed Sir Geoffrey wouldn’t break their hearts, too.