Playing Frog

Justin wanted to get up from the floor board, but the game wasn’t over. He was still the turtle, and until Maggie called “frog” he had to stay there or he wouldn’t get the chicken nuggets she had promised him at the next stop. “It’s hot,” he said, his voice muffled by the floor mat. “Say frog! Say frog!” he whined.
“You have to be the turtle for another minute, okay, and then I’ll call frog,” Maggie said from the front passenger seat.
“Call it now!” Justin pleaded.
“Do you want ice cream with your nuggets?” Maggie asked.
“Okay then, be the turtle just a little longer, okay?” Maggie’s voice was sweet and Justin did like pleasing her with the games because she loved games even more than he did.
Justin felt the Toyota braked suddenly and he rolled into the back of her seat.
“Sorry,” said Josh. “Traffic.” He accelerated quickly and Justin heard him mutter something else under his breath.
Justin was about to protest once more when Maggie said, “Frog!” Justin shot up from the floor and landed on the backseat. “Yeah! You are the best frog ever!” Maggie said, clapping her hands.
“Do I get the chicken nuggets now?” Justin asked, leaning over the console.
“As soon as we see a Chick-fil-A,” she said.
Josh eyed her but said nothing.
“Why don’t you take a nap until we get there?” Maggie suggested.
“I’m not sleepy,” said Justin.
“Of course he’s not sleepy. You give him a Pepsi every five miles,” snapped Josh.
“It keeps him quiet,” said Maggie.
“It keeps him jumping all over the damn car like a Mexican jumping bean,” said Josh.
“What’s a Mexican jumping bean?” Justin leaned further over the console and into the front seat.
“It’s a little bean that goes like this.” Laughing, Maggie whirled around and tickled Justin’s ribs, but she cast a quick look at Josh whose hands gripped the steering wheel hard. On his right bicep was a tattoo of a Chihuahua that had always fascinated Justin, and while Maggie tickled Justin his face brushed up against the bare-armed Josh and his Chihuahua. It was warm against Justin’s cheek, and he thought the Chihuahua must have been what made Josh’s arm so warm. “I know,” said Justin, giggling. “That’s a Mexican jumping bean.” He poked Josh’s arm. Maggie gave an uncomfortable little laugh and released Justin.
They were on the highway once more, but Josh sometimes turned off into towns and drove down main streets and even neighborhoods before making his way back onto the interstate. Justin had ridden in a car with them before. Josh had driven them to Dairy Queen, the mall, and once to see “Spiderman.”
“Where are we going?” Justin asked for the first hundred or so miles until Josh threatened to spank him for asking so many questions. Justin cried and Maggie told Josh to “do it like we talked about.” He calmed down after that and let Maggie handle Justin most of the time, stopping when she told him it was time to get something to eat or take a bathroom break. She had brought Justin a shopping bag of games to play with, all new. His favorite was a traffic puzzle game in which he had to move a tiny plastic car through a traffic maze. It had kept him busy for over 70 miles.
“There’s one over there,” Maggie said, pointing her finger at an overpass just as they passed the exit. “Josh!” she whipped her head toward him and frowned.
“Sorry, I didn’t see it in time.”
“That’s ‘cause you’re going over eighty miles an hour. You wouldn’t see a monkey’s butt if you passed it on the side of the road,” said Maggie.
“Well I’m sorry! It’s not like we can just lollygag along,” said Josh.
Justin finally figured out what was going on as he caught sight through the rear window of the Chick-fil-A’s red and white façade growing smaller and smaller. “Hey! You passed it. You passed Chick-fil-A. Go back!”
“I’m sorry!” boomed Josh. “There’ll be another one. Maggie! You better take care of this. I can’t handle this!”
“Josh didn’t mean to,” said Maggie with her teeth clenched. “He won’t miss the next one.” Her eyes were locked onto Josh.
“But you said I could have chicken nuggets. You said I could if I did the turtle game like you said. Go back to Chick-fil-A!” Justin began to cry.
“Shut the hell up if you want me to stop anywhere!” Josh glared back at Justin who shrank back into his seat, sniffling.
“You’re not helping the situation,” said Maggie in a voice that was all forced calmness. Her big gray eyes took in Josh as if she wanted to consume him. “Being a happy family is what we talked about, remember?”
“Then keep him quiet! That’s your job.” Josh returned the same all consuming stare that she was giving him. “And why does it have to be Chick-fil-A anyway? We’ve passed at least three KFC’s in the last hour.”
“He likes Chick-fil-A the best, and besides, that it’s the way we can show our love for Jesus,” said Maggie.
“How does eating at Chick-fil-A show love for Jesus?” shouted Josh.
“They’re a Christian restaurant, you know.”
Josh moved his mouth around as if he were going to argue with her but didn’t. When he did speak he was almost contrite. “What about Popeye’s? They’re up ahead. Are they Christian?”
“They’re open on Sundays, so I doubt it,” said Maggie.
For at least ten minutes the car was silent. Something strange had transpired, but Justin couldn’t figure out exactly what. Maggie was okay; she watched movies with him and let him eat buttered popcorn even when his mother had left instructions that he was only to eat the slice carrots, cucumbers, and raisins that she left in a dish in the refrigerator. He didn’t like Josh who came over sometimes long after Justin’s bedtime. He could hear them in the den making noises. Sometimes Maggie would laugh, but sometimes she sounded like she was mad. Once when Justin got out of bed and stood in the doorway of the den he saw Josh with his shirt off on top of Maggie. When the two of them spotted him, they both jumped up and Maggie shooed him back to bed. There was something about what he saw that made him keep seeing the picture in his head for a long time. He asked his mother later if his dad ever took his shirt off when he lived in the house. His mother just shrugged and asked him why he thought of a question like that. Justin said he didn’t know.
“There’s one,” Maggie said, clapping her hands. Josh eased the car over to the exit ramp and then made the right turn onto the service road where a Chick-fil-A restaurant sat in the gleaming late Monday afternoon light.
Josh placed their order and even remembered to ask for extra honey mustard, Justin’s favorite sauce. With no other cars at the drive-thru, Josh whipped around the corner of the building and stopped at the pick-up window. A pudgy woman with a name-tag that read “Chevron” reached out to take Josh’s twenty dollar bill. Her eyes locked on Justin who leaned over the console, watching the window in anticipation. Josh tensed up and cast a glance at Maggie who responded with a touch on his arm. In a few seconds Chevron returned, her eyes still on the boy in the back seat. She leaned out the window a little and put $12.71 in Josh’s hand. “Shouldn’t he be in a car seat?” asked Chevron.
“He’s eight years old,” Maggie said, her face tight with a smile. “He doesn’t need a car seat.”
Justin was six years old and all three of them knew it, but for Justin, being declared a full two years older sounded important somehow and he didn’t want to change it. That lady at the window must have been nosey or something. That’s what Maggie always said when people said stuff like that. Once when they went to the movies at night, the ticket lady, who must have been about a hundred years old, said how late it was for a little boy to be out at the movies. Maggie told her that he was really sick and he wasn’t going to live to see very many movies so she’d better keep her mouth shut. When Justin asked her why she told that lady he was sick Maggie said she was playing a game with the lady and it was okay because they all thought it was funny, but he hadn’t seen anyone laughing when Maggie took him by the hand to lead him down the carpeted hall to the movie.
When Chevron came back to the window she was now staring down into the car at Maggie. She held onto the bag of nuggets inside the window. “I got grandkids, you know. I just like to look out for the little ones, and he really should be in a seatbelt, at least. If you was to have a wreck your little boy could really get hurt back there, and I know you’d never forgive yourself if something happened.”
“We’ll get him buckled in,” Maggie said quickly, but Chevron stood there shaking her head, still holding the white bag.
The woman reached into a box next to her, took out something, and kept on talking. “My cousin’s little boy got killed six years ago ‘cause they had him sitting up front, no seat belt or nothing, and he went right through the windshield. I’m telling you, it broke my heart. I’m just saying this ‘cause I gotta a heart for kids, you know.”
“Yeah, okay, we got it,” said Josh, reaching into the window opening and snatching the bag from Chevron’s hand. Startled, she looked at down at her empty hand.
Maggie was hissing in a low voice, “You better calm down,” while she took the bag from him. Then she thrust herself over Josh’s lap. “We’ve got a heart for kids, too. He just took his seatbelt off not one minute before we pulled in here, so don’t you worry, he’ll be fine. He’ll be strapped right in before we get out of the parking lot.” Josh hit the accelerator before she got the last sentence out. Behind him he could hear the fading sound of Chevron yelling out the window, “Hey!” The tires squealed just a little as they made the left turn around the building, and Justin had to clutch the back of Maggie’s seat to keep from being slung into the car door. “Now that was just stupid!” Maggie was yelling now. “Everything was fine until you grabbed the bag and started acting a fool!”
“She was suspicious, Maggie,” Josh said, turning his head left and right before pulling quickly into traffic.
“The only thing she was concerned about was him not being in a seatbelt, which I could have handled just fine if you hadn’t overreacted like that!”
“You think she’s calling the cops?” Josh’s voice had the smallest thread of fear.
Maggie looked back at Justin who had seated himself as far back in the seat as he could, the first two fingers of his right hand in his mouth. “Of course she’s not calling the cops,” said Maggie, her face now smiling and settled on Justin. “There is not one thing to call the cops about because everything is just fine. Now here’s your nuggets,” she handed the bag over the seat to Justin. “We got you the big size, okay?” She was speaking in the high, loud, melodic way she did when she wanted Justin to behave. “And here’s your drink.” She reached into a plastic bag in the floor, took out a half-consumed bottle of Pepsi, removed the cap, and handed it back to Justin. The drink was warm and had lost much of its fizz. Justin took a sip and it hit his stomach, sour and sickening. “Don’t spill anything? Okaaay?” Maggie called over the seat.
“Okay,” Justin said.
The two adults sat rigid and quiet in the front. Their car was passing almost every other car on the road. Justin put a nugget in his mouth and chewed. There was no honey mustard in the bag. “Where’s my sauce?” Justin said, his mouth still stuffed with chicken.
“Didn’t the lady put it in the bag?” asked Maggie without turning around.
“I want honey mustard.”
Josh exhaled hard and the car went faster.
“Mama always makes me wear a seat belt,” Justin said, his voice louder.
“Then put it on,” Josh snapped.
“Here you go, honey.” Maggie turned all the way around and rested on her knees in her seat. “Let’s get you strapped in.” Her fingers were sweaty and warm against Justin’s shoulder as she pulled the seat belt across him and fastened it over his lap. “Now you’re safe and sound, okaaaay?” The shrillness of her voice seemed to Justin like a muffled scream and he felt the tremor of oncoming tears make his mouth quiver. The chicken nugget on his tongue tasted like the bag it came in. Maggie stared hard at Josh, her profile illuminated by the setting sun to the right of the front windshield. It left her nose and mouth obscured in the harsh light of late afternoon. They’d been traveling all day, maybe longer. Justin could remember only being led to the car by Maggie just after his mother left for work that morning. She carried a small suitcase that she had quickly thrown some of his things into. We’re going to Six Flags Over Georgia. You’re going to ride a roller coaster and eat hotdogs and see animals and then we’re going to stay with my sister for a vacation. Don’t worry. Your mama said it was okay. She’s so happy you’re going to get to have so much fun.
Justin managed to swallow the mouthful of food. The countryside passed by his window in a blur and he began feeling sick. Billboards, fields, houses, trees, and lights, flashing lights, red and blue flashing lights. The car accelerated for a few seconds. Maggie and Josh’s words were so erratic and fast Justin did not catch what either one said. Suddenly the car began to slow down and Maggie turned around. Her eyes were wide and scary looking but she was smiling. “You still want that ice cream? We’re going to get you that ice cream but you need to be real sweet and keep quiet while Josh talks to this police officer, okay? You’re going to have so much fun when we get to Six Flags. They’ve got all kinds of rides and um, they’ve got little cars for you to ride in and you can drive them all by yourself.” Maggie prattled on until Josh got the car completely stopped on the shoulder of the highway. Sweat ran down his temples and he wiped it away with the back of his hand. He and Maggie exchanged hard looks, and when the officer stopped at the window he tapped it hard with the back of his hand. “Roll it down!” he ordered. Josh did as directed, and Justin could see the side of his face and way his teeth showed as he smiled up at the officer.
“License and registration,” the trooper said, glancing about the inside of the car. Justin clutched his Chick-fil-A bag, his mouth shut in fear. Maggie’s face had been grotesque and it made him feel even more confused. She had never looked at him like that before. Maggie was always been nice, most of the time nicer than his mother who came home from work only to start working again. Papers passed between Josh and the officer and some words that Justin could not understand. The officer was telling him something and Josh was nodding and smiling hard. Up until they stopped the car Josh had been angry and now he was smiling like he was the happiest person in the world, but his smile was like Maggie’s. It was like a clown’s smile that you couldn’t tell was happy or mad, and Justin hated clowns.
“I said, where are you going, young man?” the officer was looking between the seat and Josh right at Justin.
“He doesn’t like to talk much,” offered Josh.
The officer ignored him and winked at Justin. “Tell me where you’re headed in such a hurry. Do you know where you’re headed?”
The silence in the car made the whoosh of passing cars hum in Justin’s head. The officer’s eyes were blue, like his mother’s eyes, and his face was smiling not like a clown’s but like a real person. “We’re going to Six Flags Over Georgia,” said Justin. “I’m going to ride a car.”
Maggie gasped and Josh’s hand shot out to catch her hand. He let out a laugh and began squeezing her hand. “He’s got his–”
The officer cut him off. “Why son, you’re headed in the wrong direction. You’re headed toward Canada. Do you know where Georgia is?”
Justin shook his head.
“It’s all the way in the other direction on the other side of America,” the officer said, keeping his grin on Justin.
Justin’s mouth hung open. Josh released Maggie’s hand and waved his own good-naturedly at the officer. “We promised him we’d go to Six Flags later, after our trip up to see my wife here’s sister.”
“My sister’s a missionary!” Maggie’s words fell in a splat against the conversation with such a sense of oddness that even Justin felt something had not sounded right. Maggie had always said her sister worked at TGI Friday’s, and he knew Six Flags had to be near because they had been traveling all day long and Maggie had said they would be there by night time.
“Well, wherever you’re going, your daddy here’s getting a ticket for going too fast,” said the officer, tearing something from a little notebook. He and Josh talked some more, but Justin stopped listening. His heart was thumping and his stomach had hard knots inside. He wanted to go home. He wanted to go home to his mother even if he didn’t even see her until bedtime; he wanted to get out of that car and away from Josh and away from Maggie even though he had liked her more than the other babysitters his mother had brought home to stay with him when he came home from Kindergarten everyday. He didn’t care if he rode in a little car or on a roller coaster, and he didn’t want any hotdogs because if he ate them he would throw them up. As soon as he thought these things he felt the car moving again underneath him, and that was when the Pepsi came chugging back up along with the chicken nugget and the potato chips he had eaten much earlier. The spew went all over Justin’s lap and the back of Josh’s seat.
The vitriol from Josh’s mouth sounded like it was coming from a far away place. Maggie’s face flashed in front of Justin and he laid his head against the car door. She was reaching into the back with napkins in her hand and brushing the mess from Justin’ legs onto the floor that was now covered in sour smelling sweetness and white pulpy pieces of chewed up chicken. The spinning colors of red and blue were fading behind them.
“Just keep driving, damn it,” Maggie sputtered. “Don’t speed up.”
“It’s gonna make me throw up if you don’t get that smell out,” Josh yelled. “I can’t stand the smell of vomit. Christ Jesus!”
“You will not take the Lord’s name in vain in my presence,” said Maggie, turning to Josh with a soggy napkin in her hand only inches from his face.
Josh wretched and pushed her hand away. “I swear, I’m gonna kill somebody before we get to Canada.” He put his hand over his mouth but then quickly let go and reached for the window button. Cool air rushed through the car and swirled the smell around Justin’ head. He closed his eyes and felt the freshness on his face. From the front seat he heard Josh wretch once more.
“Blasphemy is one thing I will not tolerate,” Maggie continued. “You know how I feel about that.”
“God Maggie, you can be such a bitch. I’m gonna be sick.”
“Pull over at the next exit, and I’ll get some paper towels. When you find a station, go to the side, not the front,” she said.
“I know to go to the damned side!”
The ride continued until Justin felt the car shift. He moaned and put his hands over his face as Josh wheeled into a gas station, shut off the engine, and jumped out. Maggie sighed and looked nervously back at Justin before hopping out of the car and heading to the front of the store. Stepping past the front of the car, Josh bent over in the weeds with his hands on his knees. Still covering his face, Justin could hear Josh making dry retching sounds and cursing in between. Maggie came running back with something in her hand. She wrestled the door open to the restroom, and in a few seconds came back out with dripping paper towels. If Justin’s seat belt had not kept him strapped in, when she pulled the door open he might have fallen out. She hurriedly began wiping the back of the seat. Josh returned to the side of the car. “This is going all wrong,” he said. “This is going to go down bad, I can feel it.”
“Everything is going to be fine,” she said, moving to the mess on the floorboard. Justin looked down at his lap. His legs were wet and bits of dried food stuck to his skin. One of his hands was sticky, and he saw that something brown and mushy was stuck between his fingers. He wiped it on the seat. “When I get this cleaned up–”
“That trooper was on to us,” said Josh.
“That trooper did not suspect anything because do you know why?” Maggie stood up from the car and put her face up close to Josh’s. “She doesn’t know. It’s been ten hours already and she hasn’t filed any report because she still doesn’t know. That’s how he didn’t suspect a thing because like I told you a hundred times, she doesn’t even get home until after six and she doesn’t even know what’s happened. No one knows.”
“But he told that trooper we were taking him to Six Flags, and when she does report it they’re going to put everything together because you said going to Six Flags was all he talked about yesterday, and she heard him say it right in front of you when she got home. You said so! You should never have used that story on him.”
“She won’t even remember that,” said Maggie, throwing a paper towel into the bushes where Josh had been. “She couldn’t even find his pajamas if I didn’t remind her which drawer they’re in.”
“Well, I’ll bet her memory gets real clear when she realizes her son’s been kidnapped!” Josh and Maggie both turned at once to look at Justin who sat glumly propped against the back seat, his face pale with sweat.
“Fuck,” muttered Josh. “I’m telling you, I got a bad feeling.”
“Maggie,” Justin called, his voice soft and pleading. “I don’t feel good.”
The cruiser passed behind Josh’s car and circled the front of the building, and Josh made a little “huh” sound of panic while pushing the sweat from his lip with the back of his hand. “This is going bad. It’s not worth it.”
“The money will make it worth it. Just think about the money we’ll get. We’re almost there, Josh,” she said, trying to keep her voice a whisper, but Justin could hear her.
Josh pointed a finger at the boy who had not moved. “We’re gonna get caught,” he muttered, and then he reached into the car and tried to pull Justin out, but the boy was strapped inside. Josh jerked the seat belt free and pulled Justin out by his left arm so hard he stumbled. Josh pulled him to his feet, kicked the back door shut, and led him to the front of the car.
“Josh! Stop it!” Maggie was waving the dirty paper towel at him. “No!”
“Get back in the car.”
“What are you going to do?” Maggie ran after him and tried to take Justin’s other hand. “You can’t leave him here.”
“Get in the car or I’ll leave you, too,” Josh’s face was red, and the hand he had on Justin’s arm was pinching the boy so hard he began to cry. “See, see what I mean,” Josh said, releasing his grip from Justin’s arm. “Now get in the car.” For a second Maggie hesitated and looked down at Justin. Before she could speak, Josh grabbed her by both shoulders, pushed her back toward the door, and into the driver’s side. He kept pushing her until she was in her seat. Justin could see her mouthing something at him while holding her hand to her ear, but he couldn’t understand what she was saying. Josh put the car in reverse and quickly backed out from the parking space. In seconds they disappeared back onto the road. Justin watched them go until he could see nothing but tiny red dots from the back of the car.
The air was very cool, and the mess on his legs had dried to a milky crust. He felt better in the night air. The sick feeling that had settled around him began to lift, and he stood in the darkened silence beside the station. The police cruiser came back around the building, and he instinctively backed further into the shrubbery until they passed by. He’d never been afraid of policemen before, but Josh seemed afraid. Maggie, too. The patrol car slowed at the exit before proceeding onto the road and disappearing in the same direction as Josh and Maggie had gone moments before.
Sitting down between the two bushes, Justin pulled his knees up to his chest and shivered. Cars passed, some pulled in; people got out, went inside, and came out again with drinks, cigarettes, or snacks. He watched the road for Josh and Maggie. They would be back soon, he was sure. Once he had been at place outside with his mother that had candy, games, and rides, but mostly what he remembered was that there had been ponies and an old man who limped. The old man had helped him onto a brown and white pony, and then they walked around in a circle with his mother walking beside him. Justin had been so excited he had wet himself atop the saddle. His mother had been angry, and she left him there with the man and the pony while she went to get something to clean him up with. Justin waited with the man who said, “Reckon she left you for good?” He laughed a high-pitched chuckle, but Justin just felt a sick feeling in his stomach while he waited for his mother to return, the same sick feeling he felt when the policeman told him Six Flags was on the other side of America.
The sky was growing darker, and Justin huddled down in the shrubbery. He kept his eyes on the entrance to the station, looking for Josh’s blue car, the one with the loose trim on the driver’s side. Several blue cars came in, but none with Josh and Maggie. Some came around to the restrooms, but the people who got out were strangers. They couldn’t see him anyway; he was balled up small and hiding. Soon, Justin began to feel sleepy, and his eyes drooped. The sound of the cars became more distant, and he was drifting.
“What are you doing there?” a voice asked. Startled awake, Justin stood up. His knees were wobbly and the cold hit him anew. The man, standing about three yards away at the edge of the parking lot, was zipping his pants up. Behind him another man came out of the men’s room, got into his car, and drove away. Justin watched the man fix his pants and then wipe his hands on his thighs. “You okay? Where’s your mom and dad?” Justin’ mouth hung open, and he tried to remember. The man took a few steps closer to Justin and eyed him carefully. “Are you lost?”
Where did his mother live? Justin knew they lived in a house with a grey roof with bricks on the outside and a garage where she parked her car.
“Do you need a ride, little boy?” The man’s voice was gentler this time. “I’ve got a truck right there and it’s warm.” He pointed behind him at the red truck and wiped his hand over his mouth. “Little boys shouldn’t be out alone in the cold. Come on. We can get you something to eat,” he said, gesturing toward the truck. “Are you hungry? Hey, I bet you like hot chocolate. I could get you a big cup of hot chocolate. What do you say?”
Did he know where Six Flags was? Maybe the officer had been wrong. Josh and Maggie were driving to Six Flags, so they had to be near it. The man held out his hand and grinned. Justin could see that he had no teeth on one side of his mouth and the rest of them were yellow. It looked like a dog’s mouth. “Come on, now. Get in the truck.” The hand came closer. Justin leaned out from the shrubbery, took a step out, and looked around once more for Josh and Maggie. He was tired and it was cold.
Justin took the hand.