FROG CIGARETTES by Brendan Gillen

Two at a time, take the steps ’til I’m out of breath. Mom doesn’t know. Attic stiff with heat. Cobwebs like lightning. Know I’m after something important, just haven’t found it yet. Up here there’s a tool chest by the mannequin. Been around long as I’ve been sneaking up. Since I was seven maybe. The years feel like gym class. Around and around and leave me dizzy. The dust is thick and my eyes itch. 

Not supposed to be up here because it’s where Dad used to come and hide. Maybe Mom thinks part of him is still up here and that I’ll find it. Plus, it’s dangerous. Least that’s what she thinks. Ladder is rotted, creaky, and there are nails and stuff. I even found a dead frog one time, buried it in the backyard with my baseball cards.

All kinds of junk. Typewriter with keys like busted teeth, switch knife with a comb for a blade, empty birdcage from when Nell and Coffee were alive. Mom keeps saying she’s going to clear it all out, sell some of it, but she never does, just sits and reads magazines and drinks her iced tea. Who’d want to buy this crap, anyway? Besides, I’d never let her.

There are splinters. Got one underneath my thumb skin once two years ago. Hurt real bad and I tried to fish it out with a pin from an old sewing kit, but I only jammed it in more and made it bleed. I didn’t tell Mom until a week later because my thumb started looking like a grape. She took me to Doctor Aimes who used little pliers to take it out and drain the pus. I only cried a little, I swear. 

Mom took me for ice cream after and then she spanked me at home in the kitchen with the metal spatula. Almost hurt as much as the splinter, but I didn’t cry because I knew what to expect by then. Mom would start off hitting pretty hard, but by the fifth or sixth whack, her heart wasn’t in it anymore and I could tell she just wanted to go back to the magazines and iced tea. When she hits me now, she looks a little scared like she thinks one day I might start to hit back.

In the corner where the slanted roof meets the floor, there’s a TV with a hole punched through it. I’m glad it doesn’t work. TV makes people stop talking to each other. Like when Dad was still around, he and Mom would leave me the dishes in the sink and then go watch Wheel of Fortune and pretend they didn’t hate each other’s guts.

Once I even asked Mom did she hate Dad’s guts and all she said was, “Of course, but he hates mine too, so we’re even.”

Then I asked her did she hate my guts, and she smiled and said, “Not yet.”

I find a rumpled pack of cigarettes I can’t believe I never saw before in an old shoebox behind the busted TV. The pack is green and I open it up. There’s two left and one of ‘em is pretty squished. I take that one out and smell it. Smells different than when you smoke it. This was the kind Dad used to like. Or probably he still likes them, I don’t know. 

I think about eating the cigarette, just something about it, but instead I tear it open and all the brown leaves sprinkle on the floor. But then I get nervous because what if another frog comes up and eats the leaves and he dies too? I make the leaves into a neat little pile and lick my fingers so the leaves stick to my fingers and I put them in my mouth. It’s gross and tastes like spoiled dirt, but I swallow it down so at least the frogs will be safe.

I go over to the mannequin and sit on the floor and pull my knees up and think about how I wish it wasn’t the first day of summer break. Summer just means trying to find things to do that aren’t the two of us pretending like Mom isn’t still sad about Dad being gone. I hate school but at least it’s something to do. That’s why I like when Mom goes out for more iced tea so I can come up here. I’ve never shown this place to anyone.

There’s a girl I like in my grade, her name is Katie Wray. She wears braids and doesn’t know I like her. It’s better that way because if I told her and she doesn’t like me back it would all be ruined. I think about bringing her up here someday. I’d tell her to watch her head for the slanting roof and be careful touching the beams because of splinters. I’d tell her I got one in my thumb a few years back and that it hurt pretty bad, but no way I’d tell her about the crying or getting spanked. 

I think she’d like it up here. Who wouldn’t? I know she likes books because she’s always raising her hand to read in Mr. Foley’s class. I like hearing her read. She’s got a voice that would be nice to listen to on the phone. There are some books up here I could show her. There’s one about gardening, and a real beat up one called Find Your True Calling, and one about the birds of the Southeast. I set aside the bird one because it seems like the kind of thing Katie would like.

I stand up and stoop so I don’t bang my head. My gut gurgles and lurches to the left.

Uh oh.

I burp and taste old dirt and my stomach feels like going over a dip in the car. If I hurl up here, Mom will find out and I’ll never get to come back up again. I get a lot of spit in my mouth like when Mom makes hamburgers, except I’ve never been less hungry in my whole life and the thought of burgers makes me burp again. I pick up the bird book and take it with me and make my way backwards down the ladder. 

There’s a bubble in my head and I run downstairs and through the kitchen and out into the backyard just in time because I bend over and spew right there in the grass near the birdfeeder. My eyes burn and my nose runs. I breathe and breathe until my stomach finally stops being pissed.

I sit there in the grass and start to cry because this day is nothing and summer only just started and I got spew on my t-shirt. Mom will see it when she does the wash so I think about chucking it, but then she’ll notice it’s gone because it’s the Braves one I wear all the time and if I tell her I traded it to Jasper Nicks down the street, she’ll either smack me for lying or smack me for trading away a good shirt. I feel like a dummy for crying, and that only makes me cry more. 

I see something move in the grass by my shoe. It moves again and the grass sort of twitches and I see what it is. A frog.

“Hey buddy,” I say real soft and it hops closer to my foot. I want to hold it, so I move really, really slowly and carefully and don’t even dry my face. I lean over so carefully and the frog doesn’t move. He lets me pick him right up in my palm. His eyes slide around like he’s not so sure about this and his throat is moving real fast, so I say, “Hey, it’s okay, I got you.” 

He’s heavier than I thought, the weight of a baseball maybe, and he feels a little like the way an orange out the fridge feels. I really want to pet him with my other hand, but I’m afraid to scare him, so instead I think about how I’m going to tell Katie about him when school starts up again in August. It’s a long way away, but I’ll remember. I’ll tell her the frog liked being in my hand because he trusted me.

There’s the pop and crunch of gravel, the sound of Mom turning into the driveway. I’ll tell her about my t-shirt because I don’t care anymore and she’ll get the spatula anyway, but for now I lower my hand and before I even get to the ground, the frog knows what to do and hops off into the grass. I lose him for a second, but then he hops again and again and off into the summer, like he’s telling me something as big as love, Thank you, thank you, thank you.


Brendan Gillen's fiction has appeared in Longleaf Review, South Carolina Review, Molotov Cocktail, Corvus Review and elsewhere. Originally from Charlottesville, VA, Brendan lives in Brooklyn, NY and recently earned his MFA from the City College of New York.

Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower

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