I don’t remember much about the last day of normality. I imagine it was like any other summer evening – the sun would have dipped below the horizon late in the day as the air cooled from humid to pleasant, and a throng of Sunday evening drinkers would have sat in groups on the bar patios as they laughed easily and downed colourful cocktails. Maybe some of the more generous ones would have tossed a couple of coins to the guy sitting on the pavement outside the corner shop. He would have gone inside and gotten himself a can of Carling, I reckon.
My memory of that day is fuzzy, but I do remember how it ended. Halfway down a cramped terrace in the shabby house with the broken gate, we’d ended up sleeping in front of the telly again. It happens all the time; Jade whinges and pouts whenever it’s time for bed so I usually end up putting on a cartoon to settle her down, and then we’re dozing off after a few minutes. It’s a bad habit, I know, but it’s just less hassle. She tires me out, that one.
I woke up a few hours later, when her hair was tickling my nose. Her hair is gorgeous – red curls with a thick blonde streak at her right temple (I know all mums think their daughters are beautiful, but everyone can tell my Jade is going to be stunning when she grows up, honestly). Don’t ask me how that happened. She certainly didn’t get it from me.
I heard the rain falling against the window, and I let myself fall back to sleep with Jade cuddling against me. We slept through the final hours of what would come to be known as “before”, and we silently passed into what could only be described as “after”.
“After” was cold. Most of the people in my group managed to nick jackets, either looted from shops or snatched from the poor people lying in the streets, but all I managed to find was a thin grey cardigan trampled in the doorway of a burned-out clothing shop. I’d pulled it on over my orange and blue polo shirt (of all things, why did I have to be wearing my uniform when the apocalypse hit?), only to find it gave no extra warmth at all. It was August, but it seemed like we moved from summer to winter as soon as everything kicked off. Maybe it just felt that way because I wasn’t used to sleeping rough.
When the yellow clouds had first arrived, the media had exploded. Twenty-four-hour news channels never seemed to stop playing the infamous footage of an elderly man in Brazil tripping over his walking stick and struggling weakly in the street as the raindrops burnt his skin. The British public had been disgusted at all the young Brazilians running past the man as he sobbed and bled, not realising that it would barely be a week before the clouds would move northwards and our own ethics would be tested.
Chaos had come first, then silence. Gradually the broadcasts faded, newspapers fell out of print and teenagers stopped tweeting. I clung to the sporadic radio transmissions which would crackle over the boombox our group had looted, but they were rarely helpful; mostly rushed messages from other street people crying for their loved ones to come and find them.
The frogs were everywhere, of course. For the first few days we had all been very mindful of them; everybody had watched where they stepped and would even pick up the little things and move them out of harm’s way, but it wasn’t long before only the only people who still bothered with it were the wackos from Trinity Church (it’s almost as if the abandoned church infected its squatters with good Christian morals). I wish I’d had the chance to join up with them, but I got stuck with my work crowd instead.
I’d only been working at the supermarket for a few weeks, and it hadn’t been going great. I hadn’t even really wanted to work there, I’d only applied because the jobcentre was getting on my case and being at home all the time wasn’t a great example for Jade. I kind of hoped it would ease my anxiety, leaving the house and getting used to seeing people, but it hadn’t. It had made it worse.
There were a few nice old ladies that worked in the cafe, but they weren’t really interested in speaking to me beyond pleasantries. The “lads” in the chilled department were obnoxious, the pristine girls on the tills were kind of bitchy, the nerds in the tech department were too cliquey, and the old men in the warehouse were disgusting. I’d probably been too quiet, as always.
When the yellow clouds came, I had been at work. Management had locked the doors almost instantly, shouting over the outcry of customers and employees that it was for the best, it was too dangerous to go outside and besides, the store was stocked to the rafters with food and other supplies. They wouldn’t let anybody leave, not even when I cried and banged my fists against the locked doors, screaming that Jade was at school, that I had to get her.
We stayed inside for twenty-seven days. I spent most of those days sitting cross-legged on the customer service desk, watching as the deadly rain burned through the trees and cars outside the glass doors, leaving behind only plastic hubcaps and bumpers.
Perhaps the military had done a sweep of the city and evacuated people, I thought. Maybe the teachers were keeping the kids safe.
By the time my genius colleagues decided it was time to leave the supermarket, it was probably too late. The rain had started to burn through the metal roof and was dripping onto the shelves filled with food, and so as soon as there was a break in the rainfall the doors had been wrenched open. Single-file, we had carefully walked a path through the thousands of tiny green frogs blanketing the streets. I’d lagged behind, scrutinising as many of them as possible.
The first time I saw it happen, our group had been camping in Pearson Park. It had been a lovely place, “before”. We had lived just around the corner and I used to take Jade to the park all the time; I don’t even know how many afternoons I’d spent pushing her on the swings and reassuring her that yes, I definitely was watching as she braved the monkey bars for the millionth time.
The park hadn’t held up well under the rain. The grand old houses and trees that had lined its perimeter were reduced to moist piles of rubble and bark and with nothing to block the cold air, a harsh autumn wind whipped through the park from the nearby roads.
When the group had heard the tell-tale thunderclap and saw the yellow clouds gather that day, they’d scattered, tents abandoned. I’d watched them rush to the ruins of the grand houses, desperately trying to cover themselves in the rubble. But there was nowhere to go.
Then the rain started. For a terrifying minute I couldn’t move – I was stuck in dread. Nobody had noticed I wasn’t running for shelter. The rain was beginning to burn small holes in the sleeves of my cardigan, leaving painful red welts on my skin that would never go away.
Somebody was screaming. I didn’t even have a chance to look around to see who it was before a great lump lumbered past me, bashing me on the shoulder in the process. It was Geoff, one of the gross old men that worked in the supermarket’s warehouse and whom had never even acknowledged me, despite our paths having crossed several times. It felt wrong to see him this way, emasculated and screaming, like I was spying on him during a private moment.
He was headed towards the duck pond. Perhaps he thought the pondwater would dilute the raindrops enough to keep him safe. Poor sod.
I could smell the surface of my skin burning. I needed to do something. I sprinted towards the pond and jumped onto one of the large rocks by the water’s edge, ready to trust Geoff’s half-baked logic and jump in. As I teetered on the edge I looked past Geoff galumphing into the dirty water to the trees on the far side of the pond, and the small building nestled under a canopy of their branches. The old Victorian conservatory! Of course!
The door was open, but thankfully there was nobody hiding inside. The place wasn’t how I remembered it. The green vines which had hung from the ceiling and trailed down the walls were now brown and papery, there was no chatter from the tropical birds and no rustling from the lizards. All that remined were a couple of chameleon corpses and a large mottled shell which I would later discover was hiding the shrivelled body of a dead tortoise. There was no sign of damage from the rain, of course. The Victorian conservatory was constructed almost entirely from plastic and glass.
There was a commotion outside. I ran back to the entranceway of the conservatory and peered through the window to see Geoff thrashing and screaming at the edge of the pond. His grey hair had already begun to fall away in patches – most of it was floating on the surface of the water, surrounding him and reflecting the mid-morning sunlight. As the raindrops hit, his skin bubbled and then tightened, pulling his arms towards his body and hunching his spine in preparation for death. Last to tighten was the skin on his face, forcing open his jaw into a wide-eyed scream. He lumbered to the edge of the pond and grabbed desperately at the rocks, perhaps in an attempt to steady himself, but he slipped, toppled forwards and his head cracked painfully against the rocks. And then he was still.
A small lime green frog plopped out of his mouth, slid down the blood-stained rocks and hopped away into the bushes.
That night, I dreamt of Jade again. I didn’t startle awake. My eyes slowly opened, tired of the same old nightmares.
The days played in monotone and each night was a pause. For the past six weeks I had prayed for solitude; as I’d tried to fall asleep each night my thoughts had been contaminated by the sounds of my colleagues snoring, grunting, farting in their sleep inches away from my face and I had yearned for my bedroom at home, for my double bed with the memory foam mattress and the knowledge that Jade was sleeping soundly in the next room.
Now that my nights had suddenly become silent, there was nothing to distract me from the chasm in my chest.
Over the next couple of weeks, the Victorian conservatory became something like a home. The reptile skeletons were starting to upset me, so I scooped them up in a dirty blanket that somebody had left in the store room and took them outside. I decided the pond would be the best place to lay them to rest, only to find the damn things floated. I didn’t have the energy to wade in and find a better resting place for them, so on the surface they stayed.
I teased the brown crunchy leaves away from the few remaining green ones, and I even managed to build a makeshift bed from some old blankets and pieces of foam (more treasures from the store room). Each morning I would tiptoe outside the door, and venture into the park and beyond in search of food.
It wasn’t long before the frogs began to visit. At first it had been just five of them waiting outside the door one morning. They had hopped inside as soon as I had opened the door, and that had been that. Soon enough, the place was overrun with the things. I didn’t mind. Focusing on them broke up the days.
One grey afternoon, the rain was hammering hard against the plastic roof. I wasn’t sure if it was regular rain or the fatal kind, and I definitely wasn’t about to go and find out. Instead, I continued to study the frog that was sitting placidly in the palm of my hand.
I brought the frog close to my face. Its eyes were hazel and rather small, and there was a delicate smattering of dots on its back that could have been freckles. Joanne from Mummy and Me class, perhaps? No, she had been tall and slender. This frog looked a little too pudgy. It hopped out of my hand and re-joined the croaking crowd on the ground.
I leant back against the wall and stared up at the rain hammering against the plastic roof. None of this would be happening if I hadn’t gotten that stupid job. I would have been at home when everything had kicked off, I would have gone straight down to Jade’s school, and we would’ve been safe together. I wouldn’t be sitting on the floor of a glorified greenhouse examining bloody frogs, that was for damn sure.
I needed to pee. As I hauled myself up, I noticed movement in the enclosure a few feet away from the entrance. Until a few days ago it had contained a dead chameleon. Now the only thing sitting in the wood chips was a tiny frog with a distinct white patch on its right temple.
It was smaller than the others. Its movements in the woodchips were clumsy, as if it was test driving new legs for the first time. It seemed lonely. Frightened?
It must’ve felt me staring at it, because it paused and turned around awkwardly. It stared at me. My hands began to shake.
Numbly, I took a step forwards. Perhaps misreading this as an act of aggression, the froglet jumped through the hole in the wire fence (the one that I’d ripped open several days earlier in order to rescue the dead chameleon) and hopped into the entrance way, where it hurriedly squeezed itself between the bottom of the door and the ground. It was in the park.
I darted to the door and threw it open. It was difficult to see much of anything through the haze of the heavy rain, and I didn’t dare run without being able to see what I might be trampling underfoot. The rain drops sizzled into my skin as I walked carefully past the pond, past the flower garden and towards the playground. It had to be the playground.
The stink of the wet woodchips got up my nose, and I baulked. As my fingers touched the cold metal of the playground gate, I tried to ignore the nausea in my stomach and instead squinted through the rain, scanning the ground around the climbing frame, the slide, the see-saw. As I brushed the wet hair out of my eyes, a dark clump came away in my hand.
I found the froglet on the tarmac at the far side of the playground, staring forlornly at the swings, as expected. I scooped her into my hands and sat on the swing. It was difficult to speak.
Stupid, shallow words.
I think my skin was starting to blister at that point, but all I could feel was relief. I held my precious froglet close to my chest, closed my eyes, and let myself swing gently in the downpour. I made whispered promises of love, and swore that I would keep her safe forever.
I could feel it happening. My skin tightened and took on a waxy sheen (I probably looked like one of those old mannequins in a cheap house of horrors), and then the choking started. My oesophagus and lungs grew heavier as if turning from muscle to bone. About a minute into my body’s death, my eyes glazed over and dried out completely, and I spent my final moments blind. My jaw forced itself into the same wide, macabre scream I’d seen worn by so many poor people left in the streets, and then my heart stopped.
My used-up body toppled forwards out of the swing and smashed against the tarmac like an ugly glass figurine. A fresh frog emerged from beneath the shards of my jaw.
A few feet away, the bloodied remains of the froglet laid under one of my boots (most of the foot was still inside). The new frog hopped between the broken pieces of my body, searching urgently.
J.L. CORBETT is the editor of Idle Ink. Her short stories have been featured in The Cabinet of Heed, STORGY Magazine, and Preoccupied With the History Department, and she is a staff writer for Syndicated Zine Reviews. She owns more books than she can ever possibly read and doesn’t get out much. You can follow her on twitter: @JL_Corbett.
Image: pixel2013 via Pixababy