Nicholas A. White
John once made the mistake of describing his hobby as an urge he satisfied, like the need to use the bathroom in the morning, and his girlfriend, Christiana, told him the analogy was disturbing and that he needed to read the damn newspaper or watch TV with his free time. She said grown men weren’t supposed to collect frogs. He corrected her. Not frogs. Toads. He didn’t see anything weird about it. Some people liked cuddling with dogs and cats, and he liked his toads. But Christiana told him to keep his hobby away from her daughter. Ellie was her daughter, not his. And from then on, he didn’t talk about the shed. If he went outside, he simply said he was “going to work in the yard.”
John searched the sky for any signs of the approaching storm. It was warm for a September afternoon, sunny and pleasant. Some people rushed to the grocery store for bread and milk—an overreaction, according to the weathermen, who predicted only moderate wind this far inland. Still, John worried about his toads. Hurricane Hugo was supposed to make landfall around midnight, and southern toads were nocturnal, meaning they’d be awake for the storm’s arrival. John worried the heavy rain might induce unexpected behaviors. Two months ago, during an evening thunderstorm, a small male had escaped under one of the shed’s warped boards, hopped through the backyard, wriggled under the garage door, and eventually soaked itself to death in a container of gasoline.
John walked into the kitchen.
“Please tell me you stopped at the grocery store,” Christiana said.
“I forgot. Sorry.”
“Of course you forgot. Do you ever listen to me?”
John considered walking away. She’d told him earlier that if the storm made landfall at a certain angle, it could rip through Charleston and Columbia and reach Charlotte as a category three hurricane. John thought it was ridiculous, but he knew better than to argue. Christiana never listened if he contradicted her. She would attack and scream, like a goose or a cat, always hissing. His knot of southern toads never hissed at him, not those burrowers with their silent company.
“I’m going to work in the yard,” he said.
In the shed, he scraped his fingers through dirt, looking for his favorite toad, Caesar, whom he always found burrowed in the back left corner. There was something remarkable about Caesar, a level of self-awareness, a dormant, cognizant sparkle in his eyes. For twelve months the toad had burrowed in the same spot each day, away from the others. But this time, Caesar wasn’t there. John checked other locations without success. He hurried to the garage and checked under his car, relieved not to find Caesar in a puddle of transmission fluid or gasoline. He searched in the dirt-filled aquarium. Not there, either.
John continued searching late into the evening, until the outer rainbands of the hurricane arrived. Before giving up, he admired the shed for a while, appreciating the symmetry and the finished texture of the wood, remembering each nail he’d driven. At one time, he hadn’t bothered with a lock, but that was before Christiana and Ellie moved in, before he needed to hide the part of himself that mattered most.
John opened Ellie’s bedroom door and watched her small body rise and fall, her chest ballooning with her breaths like a male toad’s throat. He imagined what she would look like if she were an Anaxyrus terrestris, her blond hair resting across the bumps of her back, her compact legs tucked under her body. How perfect it would be, he thought, to look under her bed and finally find Caesar, huddled in the back left corner.
“What if a tree falls on the house?” Ellie asked.
John stepped closer. “You’re not asleep?”
“I’m only pretending.” She propped herself on her elbows. “You’re supposed to find the flashlights, just in case we lose power. And the bathtub, too. Mom wants you to fill it up with water.”
“Geez,” John said. “We’re not going to lose power.”
“But Mom said—”
“Yeah, I know. How long’s she been asleep?”
“A while. She took those pills.”
John decided to rest on the couch in the living room, burrowed under a half-dozen blankets. It made him feel at peace. Around midnight, he turned on the news and listened to reports of Hugo making landfall in Charleston. A stronger storm than predicted, the reporters said. Higher winds, more momentum, not sure how far it could go. He fell asleep—a mistake, he realized—and woke to the sound of trees crashing. Not only limbs and branches, but whole trees, pushed over from the wind. John thought about walking to his shed, or maybe crawling. He could hunker down on all fours to combat the wind. But a tree fell on the porch, as loud as a gunshot, making him change his mind. There was nothing he could do. He went to Ellie’s room and told her everything was fine, unsure of the proper way to comfort a seven-year-old. All he could think about was Caesar, and his knot of toads, and what the hurricane would do to those quiet, innocent creatures.
A gray light filtered through the window. John looked outside and tried not to panic when he saw the smashed shed. He counted the fallen trees.
“What’s wrong?” Ellie asked.
The pain in his stomach bent him to the floor. Christiana was still sleeping off the effect of her pills. He didn’t know what to do. His shed was destroyed, and most of his toads were probably missing or dead, including Caesar. He kept telling himself not to cry. Grown men didn’t cry. Christiana would never forgive him for breaking down, especially in front of Ellie.
“Where are you going?” Ellie asked.
“What about your frogs?”
“They’re toads, Ellie! Southern fucking toads!”
He went outside, his hands trembling, hoping Christiana hadn’t heard him yell. A fallen tree had broken through the roof of the shed and demolished three of the four walls. Under shards of wood, John found less than a dozen toads burrowed deep in the mud, still alive. They looked lost. He probably could’ve found more, but he was afraid to keep looking, knowing it was only a matter of time before one turned up dead. He carried the live ones to the woods and set them free.
Christiana was waiting for him inside. As soon as he stepped into the kitchen, she slapped him across the cheek for yelling at Ellie. John wanted to apologize but didn’t know how. He wasn’t good with children. He’d never been good with them. And that was the problem. He’d invited a single mom to live with him thinking he would figure it out.
“There’s something wrong with you,” Christiana said. “Don’t ever cuss at my daughter again. Ever. You can spend all day with your precious toads for all I care. Fix your stupid broken shed. We’re not staying here much longer.”
Ellie avoided his eye contact, as if she feared him, all of their trust gone.
“I’m going back outside,” he said.
But instead of returning to his shed, he got in his car and drove, unsure of his destination. He passed uprooted trees, fallen telephone poles, shattered fences. Three times he came across a blockage in the road and had to turn around for another street. The storm had taken everything from him: Caesar, his toads, his family, his shed. He drove for hours until he didn’t know where he was, until he ran out of gas, and he sat on the side of the road, alone, wondering how long it would take for someone to find him. It was peaceful there, and he imagined the transition finally occurring, warts growing on his body, his nose and ears disappearing, his legs and arms shortening under his plump belly. He was no longer John but another nocturnal toad, another silent creature that hopped around and burrowed in sandy dirt, waiting, forever patient, for the darkness to set it free.
About the Author: Nicholas A. White is an MFA student at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. His stories have appeared in Pembroke Magazine, Permafrost, Necessary Fiction, Pithead Chapel, Fiction Southeast, and elsewhere. For more information, visit www.nicholasawhite.com.