Anne Lynn was thirty-four years old when she decided to let the toad decide.
It was a small toad, dirt brown, slightly lumpy, and she wasn’t entirely sure in times after that it wasn’t actually several toads seen on separate occasions. Toads didn’t exactly possess distinguishing features, except perhaps to other toads. But it was, so far as she knew, the only toad, and if not there was always the whimsical thought that they probably all talked to each other in any case, especially about humans like her.
It started and ended like this: It was seven o’clock in the evening. The windows were open to a night breeze, because it had been a hot day for spring that felt like summer. Anne was sitting at her computer, disillusioned about Facebook and trying to read something about the history of copper-smithing instead, for no other reason than it held more substance than the whole of Facebook. And at the moment when she was just losing interest, Anne heard a wail outside.
It was a child’s wailing, and it echoed oddly around the street. There didn’t seem to be anything particularly unusual about it. Much like toads wails of this nature were indistinguishable from one another—it was young enough that she couldn’t tell whether it was the cry of a boy or a girl, and it had reached that certain amount of upset at which all wails seem the same. But because it seemed to be coming from outside, and because, among the unintelligible words, the child was crying that something hurt, Anne decided it was her duty to investigate.
She abandoned the internet and leaned into the office where her husband had not yet to.
“I heard a sound of a child crying outside. It’s been going on a bit, so I’m going to look into it.”
Flynn pulled down his headphones.
Anne had already returned to the kitchen between the rooms, so she raised her voice.
“I’m checking something outside,” she said, accentuating. She caught up her purse and strode to the hallway. As she opened the door, she reconsidered, and dumped the purse for just her wallet and keys so she could stuff these into a pocket and carry her short, sturdy walking stick instead. No use being a concerned about something if you were an idiot along the way.
It was a weekday night and Anne and her husband, Flynn lived on a back street where everything was usually quiet. Now that she stood out here, Anne couldn’t hear any sound at all, but for the occasional car passing the intersection a couple blocks down. A few crickets chirped with some hesitation, as if unsure the summerlike heat required as such music from them. That was all.
The time it had taken to get outside had been the time for the reason to get out to leave.
Anne hefted her walking stick a little and stood in the porchlight. At last she decided to take the wooden stick around the block just in case. There was a park nearby, a flat, dusty rise, leveled despite the slight hill, with some steps on one side. Reason told Anne that it was good sense to check in there. The forest was close by, and there was a train station too, and there had been that trouble a month ago, with some maniac in the woods with a knife.
She clutched the walking stick a bit tighter. She thought about knives in the dark and guns, but she thought about a child too and so walked onward, her footsteps crunching on the gravel of an unseeded soccer lot. To investigate thoroughly felt only natural.
Eventually she stood in the soft, dim lights of the park by the water fountain made to look like a pelican. She waited for the echo of crunching gravel in her mind to die away so she could hear real noises and not just possibilities for just a moment longer of investigation.
At last she sighed. It was a relief, wasn’t it? A family was eating dinner with the window open one block away. There were occasional enthused, childish shouts about the meal and school and life’s current thing of greatest interest, and those were good sounds. Perhaps she’d just overheard some bit of drama. She wouldn’t know, after all, would she? She had no kids of her own, did she?
Anne stood alone a moment more with this thought. There were things to do back home. There were chores that had been put off for the sake of sitting down. Laundry to fold. Beds to turn down. Still Anne stood, and looked out across a dirt patch washed with yellow light, and saw the toad.
Anne hadn’t seen a toad since college. They had been everywhere then, hoping in and out of the manmade ponds at the center of campus—the ones displayed on all the college’s glossy catalogues. Toads were always going about their toady business there, except when a pedestrian late for class or an inattentive cyclist seriously inconvenienced them. She’d only ever looked out for them because of memories from summer camp as a child. There was little they were good for, especially if you didn’t intend to keep them as pets, and yet she’d loved how she could catch them, how they would, after a little wriggle of panic between her fingers, settle down into her cupped palms and accept their turn of fate, letting her stroke their surprisingly soft and lumpy backs.
It felt like ages ago.
Anne took a few steps forward and the toad hopped a few hops away. She didn’t want to scare it, to lose this moment of past and present connection, so she stopped. Carefully using her walking stick, she tapped the ground first here, then there, until its comings and goings herded the small amphibian back towards her and into a clump of hampering grass. No longer looming in its view, she squatted down and sat still. She reached for it. It hopped away. It blinked at her. She tapped her cane just behind it, and it turned away to inspect the motion.
Very gently, never clutching or snatching, Anne curled her fingers into the grass, once, twice, then again, and she caught the sand-colored toad at last and settled him in her palm. She cupped her hands. As she remembered, and as was inevitable, she got squirted with something she’d have to wash off later, but then the toad blinked its black pebble eyes at her, took stock of its options, and, as toads did, accepted its fate, and sat.
For a long moment, Anne sat too, crouched on her heels in the dim yellow lamplight, alone in the park on a breezy spring night that felt like the future had already arrived. She wasn’t really thinking of all that, just being part of it. She was alone. Her husband was elsewhere. Her family was miles and miles away. She was alone here because they’d moved here for work, and there’d been talk, for years there’d been talk, of building more than a living out here, all while news poured in, day in and day out, of how the world would only be getting worse, and how that worse would soon be everywhere, even here, in this quiet place, where they’d run away to, where she still ran away, whenever a certain question came up.
The toad, who seemed to understand the inevitable, seemed very companionable then.
Before she’d quite thought about it, Anne said to the toad, “I’d like a wish.”
The toad continued to sit and blink at unremarkable intervals.
“Peace of mind,” she said, “if you please. You’re a toad, but I’ve caught you. I haven’t hurt you. I hope you’re no longer scared. Now you’ll have peace of mind, knowing not every human might hurt you. Is it a trade?”
The toad again seemed to pay her no mind.
Anne sighed. “The truth is, we can’t know the future, so we depend on others. I guess I’ll depend on you, Mr. Toad, or Miss.”
The toad sat, pulsing its tiny breaths normally now, and didn’t seem particularly interested in what she was saying.
“Maybe you’re just a toad. I’ll let you go,” Anne sighed. She lowered her hands. The toad sprang free with a tiny flick of tension as it pushed off from the soft skin of her palms. Anne held her position on her heels as with quick, zigzagging little hops, it fled to the shadow of the pelican fountain. She watched it until she couldn’t see it anymore.
Anne stood. She hefted her stick. She listened again, just in case. It was a relief really, to think she’d imagined it, the cries of a child wailing in pain, alone in the dark, in need of help.
She stood a moment longer, and thought about the future, then stared up at the foggy shape of the moon behind the cloud cover.
“On this night, May eighth, in the year 2006 by the western calendar,” she said softly, “I, Anne Flynn, caught a toad in this park and made a wish.” She checked the phone in her pocket perfunctorily. “At about eight p.m.—seven-fifty, to be precise. And what may come of it may come.”
Anne Flynn was not a particularly believing person, but something felt right about this declaration. Only once she’d finished did she toss her cane from one hand to the next, then set it before her and leave the park.
Maybe she’d come back in a while, she decided, if anything came of it, or just to see the toad again. (This author knows she did, and she let the toad know how things were going, as they’d been decided.)
At that time, Anne went home, propped the walking stick by the door, emptied her pocket back into her purse, and returned to the kitchen.
“It was nothing,” she said.
The headphones didn’t answer.
“The cry I heard, it was gone. It was probably nothing.”
Flynn turned briefly as she entered his office, from a screen where YouTube was doing its thing. “Mm?” he offered apologetically.
“I found a toad,” Anne said. “That was all.”
“Mm,” said Flynn, this time smiling, as toads were better than many things.
Anne smiled and kissed the top of his head. She washed her hands dutifully, plucked up a towel, and left the laundry for the morning. It was about time to turn down the bed.