Maybe I would have passed on that second helping of potato logs if I’d known Frog was going to get his thumb bitten off by the deputy mayor. I should have been there anyway, could have guessed things weren’t going to go so well for Frog. But still I sat and ate.
The potato logs weren’t even that good on account of how they’d been sitting under the heat lamps for two hours. If you ask me the heat lamp is the second most abominable invention of the twentieth century surpassed in pure horribleness only by the concentration camp gas chamber. So maybe it’ll tell you a lot about me to know that even though they were mealy and lukewarm, even though I had already eaten nearly an entire pound of the things, even though Frog’s Text Message of Doom had come through nearly fifteen minutes before, I still went back for seconds.
And while I chewed the last of the mushy seasoned potato wedges that the Walmart deli serves instead of actual French fries, I glanced down at the screen of my phone, and read the four word message once again. I told myself Frog was probably being melodramatic, which in his case was almost reassuring behavior.
Frog was always inventing some adventure or other. Once he called me over to his house insisting he was witnessing the beginning of apocalyptic spider outbreak. But it turned out he only had banana spiders building a web in the lower hanging branches of one of his trees. I tried to explain to him that spiders were a beneficial component of the ecosystem, and that they kept the populations of less desirable bugs in check, but Frog only screamed at me that there were no less desirable bugs than spiders and went on torching them with a Bic and a can of hair spray. It should tell you almost everything you need to know about Frog that he shaves his head and he lives alone. Which can only mean that he had a can of hair spray on hand specifically for the purpose of dealing with apocalyptic spider outbreaks.
That story might make him sound like he was a coward, but in fact Frog was one of the bravest people I’ve ever met. Only problem is, he has one of the biggest imaginations I’ve ever seen. I know people talk about imagination like it’s a good thing, but trust me, when you look at the leaves on the ground and think the trees are conspiring to hide an army of killer centipedes, it’s a very very bad thing. Which is why, when I got his text message, when I looked at the screen and saw Frog’s name and the word’s “going in without you” I decided I had time for a second order of potato logs.
It wasn’t until I was finishing the bag that I got the second message. “DGGEdeddgeq”
That at least was enough to at least make me curious. I dialed Frog’s number. He picked up on the first ring.
“Okay, you got me,” I said. “What did you do?”
“What? What is it? Frog?”
No answer. I stood there with the phone to my ear for several seconds just listening. At first there was only silence. But then I heard something that sounded a bit like a groan, and then a scraping sound, and then Frog was screaming and the groaning got louder and just as Frog’s screams kicked into a shrill falsetto, the line went dead. I tried dialing back, but this time the call went straight to voicemail.
Something like fear mixed with guilt twisted in my gut. Something had gone wrong. One way or another Frog was in trouble. An accusing voice whispered in my mind, “You should have been there. You knew he was going to get into some kind of trouble. You could have done something. He needed you, and you knew it and you just sat there stuffing your face like always.”
I closed my eyes and let out a long sigh that turned into a belch halfway through. It tasted of potato logs and broken promises.
With a grunt I pushed back in my chair and stood up. This was more of an effort than you might imagine. The last time I went to the doctor he informed me that I was “morbidly obese” which was somehow worse than him just coming out and calling me fat. Obese. It almost turns your stomach just to say it. But maybe it’s a good word for people like me. Because when you look at someone like me you laugh, maybe snap a few pictures with your phone. Or if you’re one of the nice ones you look away. Maybe if you’re really nice you think, “He’s probably got some glandular problem.”
For the record, you’d be wrong. I got this way the hard way. One bite at a time.
Outside the heat hit me like a blast from a furnace. I felt sweat begin to prickle through my pasty white skin almost immediately and as I sucked in a lungful of scorching hot air, I thought, “Frog this had better be worth it.”
I had good reason to be skeptical. Like I said, Frog was always letting his imagination get the better of him. About a month ago he had called me in the middle of the night and said, “What are you doing?”
This isn’t as dumb a question as you might think. Me and Frog both worked nights, and even on our days off we tended to be up when most other folks were asleep.
“Playing WoW,” I said. “Why?”
“I need you to get down here right now.”
This is Frog-code for the gas station where he works.
“I’m kind of in the middle of something now. Can it wait?”
“The men in black.”
“There are no men in black. That was just a movie Frog.”
“You know why they make movies like that don’t you? To cover up the truth. So people like you will laugh and say, ‘Oh sure, I saw that in a movie,’ and when the real thing shows up you won’t have clue what hit you.”
“Frog I’ve been working on this raid for an hour. If I quit now-”
“He’s right outside!” Frog suddenly shrieked into the handset, and slammed down the receiver.
I rolled my eyes and heaved myself up off the couch, ending my game and thinking that I was going to have to start over with a new account, since I was likely to be anathema to everyone in my guild right about now. And if you don’t understand why anyone would care what a bunch of gamers from Korea thinks of them, then you’re clearly not a WoW player.
When I got to the gas station I saw that there was indeed someone outside. It was Karl. Karl was…well I would call him a bum, except Frog says a guy’s not a bum if he has a house of his own, which I guess makes some sort of sense. Anyway, Karl was crazy, a wild-looking guy with hair that stuck out from his head like an explosion. And I’m not saying it was unkempt; he styled it that way with gel or hairspray or something. It might have looked cool on someone younger, but Karl was at least fifty and he had a beer gut that belied any of his attempts to look like a skater. Oh, and he wasn’t wearing black. I banged my head against the steering wheel a few times and then opened the door and headed inside. “Frog won’t sell me my cigarettes,” Karl yelled as I walked past him. “I’m gonna call the cops. It’s a crime not to sell me my cigarettes.”
I walked on, not bothering to point out that Karl didn’t have a phone and even if he did, that the cops wouldn’t come. By this time I’m pretty sure they had a special code number for Frog-related incidents.
The door dinged as I pushed it open but I didn’t see any sign of Frog inside. I called out his name.
“Who is it?” A voice from behind the counter asked.
“Who do you think it is?” I said. “Its me.”
“State your name for the record.”
“I don’t even know what that means,” I said peering over the counter at the space where Frog was crouched holding a wooden baseball bat with nails hammered into the end.
“Again?” I said, “Really? You know what Willie said he would do if he caught you with that thing again, man.”
“State your name for the record,” Frog said again.
“Vincent Bartholomew Price. Happy?” (And, just for the record, yes, my name is Vincent Price.)
Frog (whose real name, also for the so-called record, is Regis Emanuel Lightbringer Camden) relaxed his grip on the bat and poked his head up over the counter. “Is he gone?”
“He was wandering around outside a minute ago, muttering about how you wouldn’t sell him his cigarettes. He was not, I might add, wearing anything resembling black.”
“I might have been wrong about that.”
“You don’t understand, Vinny. That man out there, whoever or whatever he is, isn’t Karl Williams.”
“Yes, he is. I’ve seen Karl. I know Karl. He’s been bumming around this area for as long as I’ve can remember. That’s him.”
“He’s not a bum. We’ve been over this.”
“WHATEVER. The point is-”
“The point is that you know him, right? You’d know him even with your eyes closed. Because he’s the only person you know that smells of Vick’s Vapo-rub and cigarettes, right?”
“Sure, I guess. So?”
“What kind of cigarettes?”
“You’re being weird Frog. You remember what I told you?”
“Just answer the question. What kind of cigarettes does Karl smoke?”
“Camels,” I said.
“Sure? It’s never been anything else?”
“What are you getting at Frog?”
“The man out there, the one you’re so sure is Karl, and I’ll admit it looks like him, came in here and asked me for a pack of menthol lights.” He raised one hand and put the other hand on an imaginary copy of the Bible and said, “So help me God.”
“That? That’s your proof?”
“Don’t look at me like that. I’m not crazy.”
“Some days I’m not so sure. Days like today.”
“Something’s wrong with him Vinny.”
“Because he changed his routine for one night? People change, Frog.”
“No, they don’t. Not like that.”
“I can’t believe I bugged out of a raid for this.”
“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that actually.”
“Oh, right, you’re going to give me a lecture about how I’m messing up MY life? Do you really think this is the best moment for this talk?”
“You know I’ve got nothing against video games,” Frog said, “but there’s such a thing as moderation. You need to get out, experience new, things meet new people. And a little physical exercise couldn’t hurt either.”
That one stung, enough for me to lash out in response, “Frog, your idea of physical exercise is digging a moat around your trailer.
“There’s nothing wrong with being prepared.”
“You put spikes at the bottom!”
I could see that Frog was getting hot under the collar by now, and I wasn’t about to back down. If things had kept going the way they were, our friendship might have ended that very night, in an explosive exchange of biting personal criticisms. But that night we got a reprieve. Because just before it could all get completely out of hand, an angel appeared.
[Hungry for more? The insanity continues in Chapter Two. In which our “hero” encounters a traffic jam.]