Of the three of us, I think I’m the only one who’s having trouble with the shortcut through the forest. We’re heading to the abandoned house with the pool, and Elizabeth swore this was the fastest way to do it, but currently I am having my doubts. Every step through the quicksand-soil squelches under my shoes like a wet sponge. The heat sticks to my bare legs, drenches the little hairs under my ponytail and plasters them to my neck. Bugs swarm all around us.
Kat and I are three days into the week that we’re visiting Elizabeth, at her new house, in the new neighborhood surrounded by trees. Precisely nothing about it is like California. The only place where the bugs don’t bite me is in Elizabeth’s room, like she’s coated the cut-out magazines on her walls with that spray her mom keeps out on the counter.
Elizabeth glares at me over her shoulder.
“Walk slower, why don’t you.”
“This is dumb.”
“You’re dumb!” She skips over the wet dirt.
Just behind her, Kat says, “Don’t be so lame, Maggie.”
It is my life goal to never hear this. I hate it because I am lame: I am fourteen and have a physical aversion to breaking the rules. I slap at a mosquito—or something—on my arm.
“We’re going, aren’t we? I’m not stopping us, am I?”
“OK, whatever,” Elizabeth says. “Get over it, oh my God.” She turns, we take three steps and are back on the sidewalk just like that. It’s so white that I squint. The gate of the house is rusty and low enough to scramble over, although this is another thing I’m bad at. The house is peach-colored like all the others, and there’s no for-sale sign; from the outside, you wouldn’t know that it was empty.
You can tell by the pool. It’s a gray swamp surrounded by concrete and it smells like dead green things and old chlorine.
“Ugh,” I say.
On the surface is a thin layer of scrum that reminds me of the wrinkly white skin that forms when you microwave a mug of milk, before adding the hot chocolate powder. Tiny brown bubbles squirm up through the murk and pop soundlessly.
“Gross,” Elizabeth says, fascinated. She crouches close to the water and swirls it with a stick. Kat walks around the edges, peering at the water like a mermaid or a swamp monster might suddenly break the surface, sludge running from a glossy head.
Elizabeth points suddenly with her stick and breathes, “Look.”
I bend next to her. Struggling across the surface is a tiny, battered-looking frog. Whatever color it used to be, it’s now the same flat gray as the pool water. I wrinkle my nose; the smell is more powerful this close to the surface.
I say, “He’s probably, like, radioactive.”
“His name is Sherman,” Elizabeth says.
Kat squats beside us. “Poke it,” she tells Elizabeth.
“I’m gonna,” she says.
The water gurgles around him as Sherman swims unsteadily towards his fate. I say, “Why’s he going so slow?” and then realize he is missing two legs.
Elizabeth stares at him, barely blinking. As soon as Sherman is within the stretch of her stick she reaches out and scoops him towards us on a little wave, the way you’d try to get a bee out of a pool without touching it, lifted on a buffer of water. It doesn’t work; Sherman flails.
“Crap,” Elizabeth says.
“Let me try.” Kat holds out her hand.
“I got it.” Elizabeth adjusts her grip. This time the stick makes direct contact. She pushes Sherman to the pool edge like a long, gentle finger on a back. He goes along with it.
“He’s probably like, what the heck,” I say.
“Little buddy,” Elizabeth croons. “Come here!” Sherman, however, doesn’t seem to realize that he has hit the pool’s edge and the possibility of salvation. Having reached the concrete end of his world, he turns and placidly begins to paddle back out to sea.
“No!” Elizabeth moans. “Sherman, no!”
She nudges him back.
“Maybe we should just leave him,” I hear myself say, and cringe.
“Maggie, this is a rescue mission,” Elizabeth looks at me briefly, stunned. “If we hesitate now, he may be lost forever.”
“Maybe he doesn’t want—“
“Wait, wait, wait.” Kat scrabbles on the sidewalk behind us, straightens, and extends a second stick. “Use this.”
“Perfect,” Elizabeth says.
She wields them like chopsticks and lifts Sherman into the sunlight and onto the sidewalk, a gray, squirming piece of sushi.
“Sherman!” Kat says.
“Sherman, you are saved,” Elizabeth says. We sit there watching him twitch and twitch, and then we realize something. With two legs, he can’t hop away.
I feel slightly sick. There is brown muck on his flat, shiny skin.
Elizabeth moves the sticks slightly, but doesn’t touch him. Uncertainty creeps from each of us to the next.
“Should…” I start.
“He’s fine,” Elizabeth says brightly, but Sherman is not fine. He stops kicking his two small legs and just lays there on one side, breaths ticking through his little body.
“Maybe he’s just hot,” Kat says.
“That’s probably it,” I say, maybe too fast. “It’s really hot. Like, I’m sweating. Amphibians don’t like the heat.” I have no idea if this is true or not, but I am, against all odds, a very good liar.
“He just needs a quick swim,” Kat says.
“He’ll hop out when he’s done.”
“Will he even be able to climb out?” Elizabeth asks. “Can frogs even climb?”
“Yeah,” I say. “Duh. Of course they can.”
Elizabeth regards him sadly for a moment, then finally she lifts him with the sticks and places him in the water. We bend over the lip of the pool. Sherman floats for a second, then gives a feeble kick. He starts chugging back across the pool like nothing has happened, blending in so seamlessly that all you can see is a little ripple moving through the gray.
I can’t help myself. “I guess it’s a good thing we put him back in.”
Emma narrows her eyes. “Don’t say it.”
I am physically biting my tongue. The words are banging around my throat to get out.
“I told you so,” I say, sullen, triumphant.