The Mississippi flooded that spring as we all knew it would, though we hadn’t taken any precautions. My father was that kind of man—he could stand outside in the middle of January, a blizzard just across the horizon, and insist that snow was a thing of the distant past. None of us begrudged him his stubbornness, because all of us had either inherited it or learned to live with it, as one does a peculiar mole or rash.
It was Andy who first noticed the toads; the youngest usually do, and Andy always had a thing for amphibians and reptiles. In his eight years, he had collected more toad and water moccasin specimens than some of the people at the University where Father worked. We lived just outside town, so there were plenty of animals for Andy to find, and they usually wound up in my hair (except for the poisonous ones; he had some standards, though not many). He never got punished for it either, because Father thought it was amusing and Mother had no control over her “little wildcat.” I usually had to punish Andy myself, but he didn’t take me seriously.
The water had risen as high as our porch. No thunder, just rain, and even that had slackened in the past hour. The last flood, two years before, had come with a twister, and that had been a hellish nightmare, because the storm cellar had been flooded, so we had to huddle in the bathroom while the funnel passed just a mile north of us. Andy had cried for a week afterwards; I’d had to sleep in his bed with him, which I hadn’t done since he was four.
There were no storms this time, so no one really complained when Andy went out onto the porch. Mother put up a feeble protest—”You’ll let the rain in the house”—but she wasn’t very convinced, mainly because Father wasn’t worried. So Andy went outside, and after a couple seconds we heard him shouting.
We all joined him out there, even Titus, our retriever. We had thought Andy was screaming in fear, but I knew as soon as I got outside that it was delight, and that only Andy could be happy in such a situation.
Our porch was covered in toads. The railing, the floor; we had to nudge them out of the way just to get outside the door. Our entire yard, and the countryside beyond, had been consumed by the river; there were trees and barns and houses, but the landscape was now more a seascape; the water probably came up to my chest, and Andy would have near-drowned had he stepped off the porch.
The toads, just like us, had sought refuge at our house. I didn’t even try counting them, because as soon as my eyes swept off one toad and onto another, I forgot exactly how many I’d seen. Our porch, normally off-white, had become a mottled greenish brown.
The sight was too disgusting for my sister Melody, two years older than Andy and three years younger than myself. She made a retching sound and turned back into my house. Titus followed; he was really Melody’s dog, after all.
Melody was too squeamish. That’s why Andy always played his pranks on me. “You’re less like a girl,” he’d say, “but still kinda like one.” I would slap him a little anytime he said that, though I took it as a compliment. If, on the other hand, Craig Buchanan—who had been annoying me less and less recently, as I began to realize how big and open his eyes were, and how his smile curved a little more on the left side than the right—had said that, I would’ve punched him in the stomach. I guess that meant Andy was right.
Our mother stayed a moment longer than Melody. She said, “Just don’t let them in the house. God.” Then she went back inside.
I glanced at Father. He was shaking his head, looking not at the toads but at the river. He didn’t say anything, just went back inside. He taught literature, and apparently found nothing poetic in stranded amphibians.
Hesitating a moment, I decided to stay on the porch. I shut the door so none of the toads would get in. Andy had nudged a few more aside, and was now standing next to the railing, which was alive with croaking, frightened animals. I joined him, feeling the toads brush against my jeans. It wasn’t as unpleasant a sensation as I would’ve expected. Combined with the light rain quickly seeping through my clothing, I felt as though I were in a swamp—and since I had never been to a swamp, the illusion was thrilling in a way.
Andy had already picked up a handful of toads. He was holding them before his face, staring them down. The toads, through sheer terror at being manhandled in the midst of the Apocalypse, didn’t try to escape.
“Careful with them,” I said. “You’ll give them all heart attacks.”
“Toads don’t have hearts,” he told me. “They just have slime.”
“They have hearts. Bet you five bucks.”
“No they don’t. They don’t love.”
“That’s just a metaphor.”
“Ask Father. Be careful you don’t get any warts.”
A strong wind kicked up, ripping across the river basin. For a moment, the rain blew horizontal, and I shut my eyes against it, turning away. I could see the candles burning in the house. I figured the water wouldn’t rise any higher than this, even if the clouds southwest of us threatened more rain. The forecast on the radio said only three to four more inches were expected; when you already had three feet, that didn’t make much difference.
Out of curiosity, I picked up the nearest toad. They’d never disgusted me as much as I let Andy believe, although I didn’t care for them any. Slimy things. I could even understand Andy’s logic—toads didn’t have the capacity for feeling, at least not as a young boy understood it. I thought of the frogs we would be dissecting next year in biology, and then of the rumor that we would actually be using cats, as they did at my cousin Melissa’s school. Frogs, I could handle, although logically there wasn’t a difference. Something about a creature in fur, however, makes it more realistic, like it’s an actual living being and not just a thing.
Still, I could feel the toad’s heart beating in my palm. Despite its calm exterior, its pulse was racing. I lifted my other hand and ran one finger across its back, slowly. The pulse quickened. Proof, I wanted to tell Andy. See, you can feel its heart. Beneath the slime and mud and skin, there was a sign of life. An actual organism, Andy, not just an icky thing to throw at your sister on summer afternoons.
“They’re not so bad,” I said, smiling apologetically at my brother’s profile. “Kind of cute, in a way.”
“Yeah,” he said. He picked up another handful. They were so small, even in his hand. The one in mine looked miniscule. They weren’t babies, either; the babies, if there were any, had died as soon as the waters came, swept out of their sheltered watering holes and into the hungry mouths of the countless animals that preyed on them. Perhaps that was for the best; these toads, the hundreds, maybe even thousands, that dotted our porch, were destined to die more slowly, waiting for the waters to recede, baked in the sun or picked off by birds. For toads, survival came with a grim price.
“We’d better go in,” I said. “The rain’s picking up.”
“Okay,” he said. His voice was low, barely a whisper, as though he were entranced by the toads. He’d only seen sights like this in his imagination—and perhaps not even there.
He leaned over the railing, being careful not to dislodge the toads resting there. He extended his arms slowly, theatrically, and although I knew what he was doing, I didn’t try to stop him. He slowly upturned his hands, and the toads he clutched rained into the floodwaters, hitting water’s surface with small, delicate splashes. Not a downpour but a drizzle, one toad at a time disappearing under the water.
Andy stared down at where the toads had vanished and I watched him. He grabbed another handful, still being careful not to knock any from the porch railing. I turned away from him, and a gust of wind hid the splashing sounds from me. I grabbed another toad, and then another, as many as I could, and used my t-shirt as a basket. The toads wriggled against the fabric, my swampiness. I could feel their hearts, perhaps a dozen in all, pulsating against my belly. I used my free hand to open the door, and I went inside. The wind pulled the door shut behind me, closing off Andy and his toads from me and mine.
I stood just inside the doorway, clutching my shirt with one hand, the other hanging limply by my side. My hair was matted to my head, and my shirt and jeans clung to my body. My family stared at me. Titus came over and sniffed my belly, and I gently pushed him away. He rejoined Melody, and I slumped down against the wall. The coolness of the toads seeped into my skin, as the drifted downward like tears across my face.