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- That Frog

By Michael Shea, from Fantasy and Science Fiction Vol 62, No. 4, April 1982.

An estimated 50,000 copies of the following narrative rained down upon the downtown area today, dropped by a fleet of helicopters whose identity or affiliation has not yet been established.

The pamphlets, weighing several ounces apiece, caused considerable startlement, and some disruption of traffic, but only one casualty has been reported. A south-central matron who was shopping in the Open-Air Market lay stunned in the fruit aisle for fifteen minutes before she was discovered, half buried by improperly piled cantaloupes which had collapsed under the impact of one of the booklets. She is listed in fair condition.

I first discovered that frog when I was fishing in the Greengum Bog, at the up-gulch end of Gulch. The wind rattles the trees considerably up there, and of course there's lots of frognoise, but through it all I heard it: a wee smack-smacking behind me back on the bank, in the whereabouts of my baitbox. I looked around slow and saw that frog for the first time, just swallowing the last of my bait.

Now another man, a perfectly good man, might have just shot and forgot that frog, made nothing of it and let that frog go by. But I am a man who keeps a close eye to things, and I noticed something blood-curdling right away: that frog knew exactly what he was doing.

I looked closer then, and I discovered the really horrible thing: he knew that I knew it. That frog knew that I knew he knew what he was doing, and moreover he didn't give a toad-turd that I knew and let me know he didn't. For this reason I didn't mess with my automatic. I snatched the pin from an iron potato and lobbed it on him: square hit.

So square I'd turned back to fishing before the swampgrass stopped raining down. But it seemed I couldn't shake the chill of that meeting off, and the fish had stopped biting besides, so very soon I packed up and started back down the gulch.

I soon got back as ease, following Greengum Crick back down-gulch from the bog. But it didn't last, because after a few minutes I heard it - a croaking. A particular and undeniable croaking. The nasty, knowing croaking of that identical frog I thought I'd blown up.

I have to point out, for anybody who is a stranger to Gulch. Along that stretch of crick, why, by a modest reckoning, there are between seventeen and eighteen thousand million frogs. Yet, without boasting, I honestly could pick out each and every single croak that frog uttered.

He was following me, staying just behind. Each croak was like a bullying little nudge in the ribs, sarcastic, like from someone who knows you can't touch him. He was alive in there, without question, sneering undercover, tailing me. It was a cold feeling in all truth, until, very soon, I got entirely warm again with the heat of my unfriendly feelings for that frog. I decided, this frog was the kind of thing that everyone knows is there and just hopes doesn't cross his path - but since he had crossed mine, why it was up to me to show him he'd definitely pick the wrong individual to have a free-for-all with.

And, friends and citizens, those feelings stand to this moment. I was dead serious then, and now that frog owes me a damn sight more. Now he has Fred to answer for, and Joe Widdles, and Joe Widdles' farm, all of Gulch Lake, and the town of Gulch itself. Fred, and Joe Widdles, that frog owes me personally. The rest he owes to society.

I can't say which of these personal losses was worst. Fred was closer, of course, but his end was quicker, while I had Joe Widdles' fate staring me in the face for a week running.

The way that that frog destroyed Fred taught me how ruthless and clever he was. He started by spending the first couple of weeks after our confrontation working me from a distance. Always at dusk or a little later he'd start his croaking, from just outside the fringes of my place. One of his favorite times to start his needling of me was when I went out with the evening slops to Fred and Oscar's pen. In fact that was a sneaky clue to the disaster that frog was planning, and it must have added a foot to his evil grin to know that I'd never read that clue till too late.

He started his needling fairly regular, as I say, but through the second week he began to develop the trick of croaking for an hour or so for openers and then trailing off to a more and more erratic croaking for the rest of the night. When he had started, and gone steady, I could sometimes half ignore him. But with his start-and-stop method, he had me waiting for the starts, listening for the stops - he had me concentrating more and more on him. Of course what he was doing was tightening my nerves like an expert tuning a banjo.

On the night of Fred's death, I was listening so hard and fierce that everything else got in my way. I decided he'd quit a dozen times, and each time he started up again it wrung more sweat out of me. By midnight my concentration was so fine that my watch suddenly got loud. After two ticks I pulled it out and smashed its springs out on the table and went on listening. I was tuned. All that frog needed to do then was to get Fred to throw a grunting fit.

Of course, Fred often enough took to grunting of his own free will, usually along near moonrise, and when Fred threw his fit, the half-moon was just coming up. And of course this is just precisely the giveaway. The timing was too perfect, just too damn convenient.

But none so blind as those who see nothing. At that moment all I knew was that I meant to keep my ear on that frog. I pulled out my quadrophone, guaranteed audible over a race riot, stuck it out the window and roasted Fred's ears with it, to shut his jaws. My warning didn't quieten Fred. On the contrary, it startled him so much he raised up a grunting louder than two race riots. It was like my ears were the handles of a crosscut saw that two devils were shoving back and forth across my brain. It drove me so mad I could have chewed up my own teeth and swallowed them. I had my air-cooled 50 cal. out there and had spent seven belts on Fred's head before I knew what happened. It was over before I even saw it coming.

Now, as to Joe Widdles, I've pointed out already that he was a different matter. Him, and his farm, and his three prime sows - they were that frog's next victim. That disaster I saw coming - at least saw a part of it coming - for a straight week. I saw trouble like a vulture perched on poor Joe Widdles' rooftop, night after night for seven nights.

The first night was just after Fred's passing. I was walking down-crick from the bogs, and it was late. I was just passing Joe Widdles' farm, where the path runs near his barn, and I was thinking to myself how it had been a couple of days since I'd heard that frog. Exactly then, I heard him again. Where I heard him was a heartbreaking things: his croaking was coming from inside Joe Widdles' barn.

Now in the up-gulch, it was known by all why Joe Widdles had that big lock on his barn door. It was because in there he kept his three sows - three of the sweetest most high-tailed alive, silky little barrels of premium pork such as you could stare at all day long and not even think about lunch. And even as I stood there, those three sows were lost, and no one on earth could help them any more where they lay, defenseless in their pens.

I thought back then to how I'd offered Joe a keg of 400 octane to buy the pleasures of one of those sows' company for my Fred. Joe turned me down. He thought about it, then told me the fact was, that Fred was just a shade too common for his girls. And in no way did I take this bad. I understood, I agreed. Even a handsome, no-nonsense hog like Fred was outclassed by those sows.

But there was no going back to those girls' lost innocence. It would have raised the hair on every neck in up-gulch to know who was with them now, who had probably been with them for who knew how long. I know that my hair stood up. Even my privates stood up, I felt so stunned with the thought.

My heart went out to Joe - he was my long-time decent neighbor. I decided then and there that there was no reason to put this heavy knowledge on him. The girls were ruined. Joe would have to know soon enough how their appetites had been polluted, but at least wait until he had the comfort of knowing they had been revenged too.

And I've never regretted that decision since, because as it turned out, Joe never did have to learn that his girls had been fouled - he was spared that knowledge.

As for me, I started that same night, a Saturday, and laid plans to trap that frog, aiming for the following Friday night to spring it on him. I allowed myself none too much time as it happened, because it took me all of six days to arrange getting a pound of Dismal Jam from a witch in the south bog. On the Friday night following, the witch pulled up to my place in her wagon, a couple hours after dark. I loaded a bushel of coals into the wagon bed, then got up beside her, and off we drove to Joe Widdles' Farm.

I had planned it tight, all to fit into this one night. For Joe Widdles customarily laid blind-drunk on his kitchen floor, from dusk on Friday, to dusk on Saturday. It was all the time I needed, with luck.

The witch drove us to Joe Widdles' still and I helped her start the bed of coals and melt down all his kettles and coils; then I helped her load the lumps of copper on the wagon. She gave the pound of Dismal Jam to me, and she drover back to her bog, while I hurried on down to Joe Widdles' barn.

I carried my Amplified Flame-thrower for Joe's two old dogs who slept in from of the barnyard gate. I meant to have the thrower set at char, but unbeknowing, had it set at ash. At the gate not only the dogs started up, but also both Joe's plough horses, and his two jennies, they all being very curious stock. So when I cut loose at the amplification I had, the whole barnyard was snuffed with less noise than dust settling. The only thing left moving was one hen with her tailfeathers on fire and heading for Joe Widdles' hayrick. But it was plain she'd burn out before reaching it, and I turned to my urgent mission, which was to take some 30 lb. snips to that lock. I was into the barn in an instant. In the six days I'd had to listen, I'd never heard that frog in there before the small hours, which gave me two or three to work in.

I won't deny that I used those three sluts how I wanted to, before I got to business. Hell, that frog had been depraving them for a week running. Those sassy degenerates were so corrupted now that they craved anything you could think of to do to them. I must say I don't know exactly how long I spent at this part of it. Then, in the end, I pulled on rubber gloves and lubricated all three of them with the Dismal Jam. Then I got out of the barn and left a duplicate lock on the door. Joe's hayrick was throwing up twenty-foot flames - it looked like that hen had made it. The rick was well-removed from the house Joe lay drunk in, though, and there was no wind, so I went home to get some sleep.

And I was never to see old Joe Widdles alive again, it grieves me to the soles of my feet to say it, even now. I slept in to the following evening, worn out with my efforts. But meanwhile Joe Widdles himself got up that afternoon and stumbled outside. The boy that was his hand was witness to it. Joe stumbled out and was extremely dazed by what he saw and didn't see. His first thought after the shock was for his sows of course. He gave a shout and rushed to the barn.

When he found that they were still there, he must have fallen to consoling himself with them, because after he'd been in there three hours, the hand and the neighbors went in to see what had happened, and they found him with the Dismal Swelling already started. They dragged poor Joe Widdles to his bed, with his privates like a summer squash and his thighs like a pair of blimps. He passed a half-hour before I even got up, and of course his sows fell apart within the same hour.

As for that frog? He never showed at all that night, he stayed away. Because the next night, back he was, working on me from just outside the pen where Fred used to live and where now there was only Oscar. Choosing that spot, you see, just to rub salt in my wounds.

At this point another man might have folded his hand; another man might have asked himself just how much of a commitment he could afford to make against such odds. As for me, well, that was not my style and I think I can promise you that it never will be my style. What I did was to vow, shaking my fist towards where that croaking was coming from: Mr. Frog, I said, stand back. Because I'm going to find you, and I'm going to go through you like crap through a goose.

But how? I would never have had a clue, if not for the pollster. He was a fat sort of cynic that never looked at anything you said head-on, but always squinted at it sideways. I knew him from previous coming-around, because whenever he stopped in Gulch Town he always came up-gulch afterwards.

He showed up a few days after Joe's disaster, and this time his questions were about sweating, and how I felt about it in various different situations. I was answering him, though I was in none too good of a mood. Then I noticed something about this pollster. His breath. There was something wrong with it. It took me a second, and then I had it: his breath smelled of frog.

Up to now a countless billion frogs hadn't managed to put a froggy taint to the waters of Gulch Reservoir, which was the bath and beverage of every soul in the town below the dam. Why? Because it isn't just any frog who has the concentrated warty spitefulness and nastiness to accomplish it. Not any old frog, no - but that frog. And then I had to sit back and draw breath, stunned as I was to have been so blind, and to face such a threat as I now did.

Gulch Reservoir! Cleanest, coolingest body of water that she was - what else could that frog's objective be? What else all along! Tormenting me and mine was a sideline, just to keep his nasties in trim. His full-time job had been the befouling of that sweet body of water. All along.

I won't run on about how I felt, facing what amounted to a lonely responsibility which I couldn't share, not even with this pollster fruit, because though he sat so near I couldn't risk a word to a man whose breath told the whole story - namely that his judgments were already rotted and his wits reversed by regular systematic doses of frogjuice. Lonely? I guess I understand that word today. But, then, what is a man's life if there's no one thing in it more important that all other things? It's a flat life with no peak in sight, and that's the truth.

In the next few days I converted a lot of property to cash, and it was difficult work. Still, as long as I saw I could do it by myself, I saw no reason to trouble my neighbors with panic. There would be a few, maybe, who would call me a glory-hog afterwards, but I knew most of them would be glad just to have contributed. By a week after the Widdles Farm massacre, I had all the resources necessary, and was ready for action.

I snuck out when it was full dark, leaving the light on in my place to keep the frog there, thinking he was tormenting me. I hurried down-gulch to my equipment cache near the Gulch Reservoir Dam, which I decorated with sufficient dynamite to convert that frog into a fine green fog stretching over this and the neighboring six counties.

Now another man, a perfectly good man, might have planned no further, might have set up his detonator on the hilltop nearby, sat down, whipped out his infrareds and waited for that frog to swim out and settle himself into the reservoir.

But, then, what would have happened when three million cubic feet of water rolled a mile and a half down the gulch and through Gulch Town, which stood at its foot? I can assure you that I kept this in mind and took the vital added precaution of rigging both sides of the Narrows, a half mile below the dam itself. Then I sat down on the hill with my pair of detonators and waited.

It was a good hour later when my infrareds picked him up. He was nothing more than a movement in the reeds, but the cynicism, the swagger of the movement was unmistakable. Then he was a rippling, slow and steady, moving out to the center of the reservoir.

It took every ounce of my strength to wait as he sank himself into that poor lost lake's pure (or once-pure!) and tender fluids. Wait I did, and watch, determined to let that frog settle into her very bull's-eye, let him get into the deepest prime of his sin with all his flags flying and his pants dropped round his ankles then whap - explode him straight out of his socks and into the nastiest, hottest part of hell. Deeper and deeper he swam. I clenched my teeth, hung on - a little farther, a little farther - I groaned and jammed down both plungers. The charge blew.

The dam bellied out like a huge bubble and crumbled away as I heard a big flat shockwave. The water, like an enormous slug, had just begun to move down the gulch when the noise of the Narrows charge reached me, and I turned the infrareds to see where, just as I had planned, the sides of the gulch had caved in together, creating a natural earth dam which would prevent the Gulch Dam Reservoir from reaching Gulch Town.

It was raining spray on me as that black water snaked down, faster and faster, toward the Narrows. The reservoir was a big empty, shiny bowl in the moonlight when the water hit them.

The right side of my earth dam worked like a charm. It stood solid and square, as planned. The left side, on the other hand, did very poorly. It might as well have been a nickel's worth of gumdrops for all the resistance it put up. The water just punched straight through it, like a fist two hundred feet thick, and wormed on down, faster and faster, to the town.

I ran top-speed over the hills, through the drizzle of the lake that still fell over everything. I reached the out-skirts of town with my 'thrower at the ready.

Three or four blocks of the upper-rent district, which stood on the highest ground, hadn't even been dampened. As for the rest of the town, you could have stood on the up-gulch side of it, and strapped on a pair of mud skies, and skied straight to the down-gulch side of it, enjoying a perfectly smooth ride, without encountering the slightest bump or irregularity in your path. I don't need to describe my feelings. They were what any normal-hearted man would feel, looking upon the grim tragedies that just one destruction-mad frog could bring down on an innocent population.

But you've got to let the dead bury themselves in times like these - it's the bitter truth. I hitched up my torch tanks and set off for the encampment of survivors. The mayor, in his bathrobe, was standing with a couple dozen of his neighbors, trying to calm them. Everybody was staring at the hills and dales of mud where the lower-rent district and civic center had been. As I approached them to report, I scanned around, hoping to find some piece of the enemy to illustrate my story. I didn't realize that I was just about to find something more horrible than a piece of that frog.

The street lighting was out, and the survivors had got out kerosene lanterns, and that was why I had got just in speaking range of the mayor, before I realized the ugly truth. That frog, intact, eyeing me up and down with sarcasm, sat perched on the mayor's shoulder as cozy and confidential as a pet parrot. The mayor said something. A lot of the people gathered behind him said things to me too. Seeing how things stood, of course, I ignored them. This was the big face-to-face, and my mind was more concentrated that I've ever known it. I set my 'thrower to ash, and I spoke my mind to that frog:

"Mr. Frog," I said, "you and me have been through a lot together, and now we face a desperate situation. We've got seven thousand, four hundred and eight tragic casualties behind us, men women and hogs, not to mention extensive property damages. My own position is open to trumped-up charges. I say to you, beware the wrath of a patient man stirred-up. The sneer is about to be worn on the other side."

But I did not fire yet. I did not fire because that frog answered me. He began to croak, a slimy cold sound like a door being secretly opened behind you. He began to croak, and I understood that croak to the tiniest syllable. He said:

"Mr. Morsel, now you have woke me up. I was just loafing and nibbling before. Now I'm wide awake. Now I'm hungry and horny in dead seriousness." That frog's eyes were glassy black holes on turrets - to look at him was like staring into a pair of 75 mm muzzles as they swiveled independently, taking two different aims on me. He said:

"Imagine every crime, every foulness, rottenness, meanness, every raping, buggering and murder that you can. Well, ten times that is what I'll have for breakfast, and I plan to start lunch immediately afterwards. Evil? Your wildest dreams wouldn't get close. I have a million times your imagination and I do absolutely everything that comes to mind. What I don't leave dead, you'll kill out of common decency. You've heard them say that someone has to do it, Mr. Morsel? Well, they mean me."

I fired then, breaking out the the spell of that frog's voice - but I wasn't really hoping. I knew how what I was up against, and I fired only to let him know that I was his eternal enemy, not because I believed that just one man alone could stop that frog. And sure enough, when the mayor's and the crowd's ash was still settling down - plop, he landed with a puff of grey dust in the midst of their remains. He leered, just showing me he was still alive - he croaked once and sprang off.

Dear friends of the city, that is the gist. That frog seems temporarily pulled back - there's been a let-up of ruin and chaos. We've used that time, and now our organization needs your help. I haven't written this idly to beat my drum for the noise of it. I and my colleagues are in need of personnel and semi-skilleds that can only come from you, our fellow citizens. Luck has given us this one day to pull our pants up, so to speak, and we can't sit down on the job.

Many of you will speak against tomorrow's bombing even after they have read this. Alas, but there's no way around this. Tragically, we now know that that frog has reached the water supply of the capital, and those of you who take this attitude are his unlucky victims who have drunk to excess.

Evacuation instructions will be broadcast tonight over all networks. Our recruitment stands will be found along all evacuation routes, to be outlined in the broadcast. Our mission cannot be answerable for any individuals remaining in the city past dawn.

Yours in duty,
Fluke Whatley, Col.
First Anti-Frog Armored

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