By Paul O’Neill
2020 Horror Short Story Contest- 2nd Place
Arlys watched her little brother kneel in the crackling underbrush by the swamp, a slimy frog hopping into his cupped hands. The green air billowed in her lungs, making her cough as Zack brought the frog slowly to his face, his eyes lighting up like he wanted to lick the slimy thing.
Zack sighed, and his thin legs wobbled under him. She leapt forward, laying a hand on his shoulder, steadying him, a warm smile playing on her lips as she pictured him splatting face-first into the thick goop of the swamp. She patted his shoulder, the bony ridge hard on her palm – she always kept him at arm’s length.
Wet twigs snapped under her boots as she turned to face him, his pale skin reflecting the brilliant green bouncing up at him from the pond. She could see the bones of his ribs even through his baggy Legend of Zelda t-shirt.
His severe anaemia had made a guardian of her. It made outcasts of them both and she had no problem getting into a scrap whenever anyone at school picked on him. She swallowed the rising acid in her throat, the acrid air stinging her eyes.
“I’m leaving,” said Arlys.
Flies danced frantic squares above the surface of the water as a cloud of leaves above them rustled, shielding them from the brightness of the September sun. They’d stumbled upon the swamp years ago. No matter how often they came, she still couldn’t get used to the mossy stench that wound its way round her tongue.
She leaned over, staring at her brother’s chest, making sure he was still breathing. It was like he was made of jelly, always at risk of keeling over, his skin forever clammy, almost see-through. He stared at the frog with dream-hazed eyes, not blinking. The thing looked up at him like it beamed some psychic message at him.
“Did you hear me? Zack? I said I’m leaving, I—”
“They say you can tell what weather they’ve experienced just by their colour. This one’s been in the rain recently. Look, it’s brown. Not surprising really, it is Scotland after all.” He snorted, then stretched his hands out to show her the frog. “They turn a yucky shade of yellow when they hit the sun.”
The frog opened its gaping mouth and rolled its pale pink tongue at her. She averted her eyes, staring at the moss and mud on her brother’s knees, knowing their dad would go through her again for letting him get dirty. She inhaled a lungful of cloying air. That was the least of her problems.
“You listening to me? I’m moving out. I’m . . .”
Last night, she’d waited in their warm living room, the old paper smell of a hundred books lining the wall wrapping its way around her heart as she wondered where her dad had got to. He wasn’t one for staying out late. She’d helped Zack to bed, ready to call for help after a bad coughing fit, her heart in her mouth as he hacked up a clot of bloody mucus. Luckily it passed and he was soon asleep, a sheen of sweat on his forehead as she kissed him goodnight.
She kept the TV off and the living room door open. The only sound was the chirping and buzzing of Kazooie, her blue budgie.
Her dad crashed through the door, stumbling about in the dark, trying his best to be quiet and failing miserably. She chuckled, put down her copy of Skagboys by Irvine Welsh, and walked to the hall. The warmth fled out her face when she saw his ashen expression – it was like he’d aged twenty years since he stepped out the door. The wine rolled off him in waves and his knuckles were bloodied, as was his shirt.
“Rough night?” said Arlys.
Her dad scowled down at her, a look she’d never seen on his normally open, bookish face. “Get away from me.”
“What’s gotten into you?”
“Turns out your mother was a whore. I did everything for that woman. Thought the sun shone out of her . . .” He coughed into a balled fist and turned away. “You’re not mine’s. Found out yesterday. Had myself a little drink to come to terms with it. That so bad?”
“You do not call me that!” He covered his mouth with a trembling hand. “Don’t call me that anymore.”
He stumbled past her, evading her confused gaze, stottering off the doorway and into the living room. He paced back and forth in front of the bookcase that took up an entire wall.
She followed him, feeling like someone had just smacked her in the chops and did a runner. “Just how pished are you? What’s going on?”
He thumbed the spine of a book, then shook his head, his curly hair bouncing from side to side as he marched to Kazooie’s cage. The bird chirped at him as he opened its door, a metal ting sounding through the room. He snapped his fist around the budgie who let out a pained screech that made Arlys step forward, holding her palms up.
“A few weeks ago,” he said, “wee Darby mentioned something that got me thinking. I laughed it off at first, but it rung too close to the truth.”
She moved closer, watching her dad squeeze Kazooie, its tiny beak pecking at the hands that had always been so gentle with her. The soup of a bad nightmare made her skin clammy. “Put him down, you’re hurting him.”
“Normally he talks a lot of crap, but it gnawed at me. I sent away some samples to this place, and what do you know, he was right. Looks like your mother played the field.” The budgie pecked and clawed his tight fist. “You’re not mine’s.”
He scowled down at the bird, tears flowing down his cheeks. Kazooie’s little head rocked back and forth, bouncing off his fingers as he squeezed tighter still.
“Stop it!” Arlys stepped forward, pulling at his forearm.
A sharp cry of anguish burst from his mouth and he stomped to the window, opened it, and threw the budgie out. Arlys’s heart pounded as the bird tumbled to the ground, but it unfurled its wings and flapped into the night.
He turned, absently running his thumb along his pierced skin. “Get your stuff packed. I want you out of here. To think, the one I was actually proud of isn’t mine’s. Ain’t that a kick in the teeth.”
A slime bubble plopped in the pond and she stared down at her brother, her pain binding her throat, stifling her voice. “I’m moving to Linwood Home. Just for a wee bit.” With all the other waifs and strays, she thought. “Zack? Say something. Please?”
Zack stared deep into the frog’s eyes as they both breathed a slow rhythm. The frog’s transparent membrane under its neck expanded, and a gentle croak bounced around the shelter of trees. It opened its large mouth, a shriek growing in pitch, making her close her eyes. It was a sound somewhere between standing on a cat’s tale and a balloon deflating out a tiny hole.
She shook her head and looked around the swamp, focusing on the blackened, split-open trunk of a huge tree. They’d huddled together inside its broken trunk, protected from downpours when the rain sluiced off the leaves above like a hundred waterfalls. They’d spent countless days laughing and joking around inside that dark place.
“Maybe I’ll just move in here,” she joked, then coughed when she got no reaction. “I’ll still come hang around with you, alright? You ain’t getting rid of me that easy.”
Little flowers of red anger glowed on his shiny cheeks. He juggled the frog onto one outstretched palm, whipped something out of his pocket that glinted, then sliced it along his thumb. She gasped as runnels of blood flowed from his thumb and down his wrist. Lost blood normally meant hours spent pacing in hospital waiting rooms, holding her dad’s hand as they prayed.
He dropped the knife and held the bloody thumb toward the frog. It flowered open its huge slit of a mouth, enveloped the thumb, and suckled on it like a new-born baby. The wet smacking and slurping noises made Arlys’s stomach flip.
“No,” whispered Zack. “You’re not allowed to leave me.”
Two days later, she stuck a photo of her and Zack in the centre of a bare wall, then threw herself on the single bed in her new room. She lay with her chin on her forearms, staring at the rain pelting off the window, the tops of trees blustering about in the gale-force wind.
She’d walked into the mansion, head down, evading the narrow glares of the residents lining up to take shots at ‘the new girl’. The huge doors and darkened spaces seemed to weigh on her shoulders whenever she went anywhere. It hadn’t taken long for her to get into her first fight. She’d lived through enough to know that to roll over in this place would cast her as the weakling.
Yesterday, she’d raced home, her heart breaking to see Zack, but her dad, her former dad, stood in the doorway, refusing to let her in, telling her to ‘go back to where she belonged’. She’d turned, eyes full of tears, seeing her brother at the window. He’d placed his palm against the glass, a blue plaster over his thumb. He looked so pale. She walked the five miles back to the Home in the drenching rain.
She didn’t deserve all this – her mum dead when she brought Zack into the world, and now stripped of her brother and her dad, stuck inside this prison of thick concrete and echoey halls.
“I’m getting out of here,” she whispered.
“I like what you’ve done with the place.”
She spun round, almost tipping out the bed. Her brother stood in the doorway, a goofy grin plastered up his face.
“How in the hell are you supposed to change that lightbulb?” he said, craning his neck. “Highest ceiling I’ve ever seen.”
Tears pricked the corners of her eyes as she raced toward him, arms stretched wide. He stepped back, holding a palm up, stopping her in her tracks. She squinted at him, then patted his arm. A croak bounced off the walls.
“Tell me you didn’t bring a frog with you, dork-face.”
Zack puffed out his meagre chest. “You mean my wee pal, here? Came home with me after we found him the other day. He’s been living in the stream next to our house.”
“Your house, you mean.”
“No.” Zack’s chest deflated. “It’s our house, and you need to come back. Dad sucks at Mario Kart.”
“Sorry, I’m stuck here in Linwood. A dreamy, castle getaway full of all the lock-in fights and chunky stovies you can ever handle.”
From his bony shoulder, the frog stared into her, light creeping around its large, orb-like eyes. She’d never seen a ruby coloured frog before. When its throat ballooned, she took a quick step back. Swirling liquid billowed in its transparent skin like blood dripping in water.
“Just . . . come back, alright?” said Zack.
“You think I like it here?” She took his wrist and turned his hand over, seeing splotches of purple bruises dotted up his arms. “He’s not been hurting you since I left, has he?”
“You know Dad, he wouldn’t kick a magpie. I, eh, had a stumble in the woods, that’s all.”
He turned his back on her, stepping into the hallway. “I’ll be at the swamp tomorrow. I have something to show you. Something to help bring you home.”
Her skin tingled as she fled down the massive steps outside the Home, stepping out of its clinging shadow and into sunshine. The sun fought for one final summer’s day before autumn flooded the sky. Stone lions perched at the bottom of the steps, and she turned to look at them over her shoulder as she hurried through the iron gates and out onto the street.
She ran her tongue over her swollen lip – the aftermath of another tussle with Pamela, a runaway who acted like she ruled the roost, picking on Arlys on account of her newish clothes. There were no teachers to stop the fights, and Arlys refused to be the one to give in first.
She stuffed her hands in the pockets of her army camouflage jacket, staring down at the boots that had delivered damage she hadn’t thought herself capable of. The Home was dragging her down into a life of zero promises and crime – a fate most of the residents had consigned themselves to long ago, it seemed.
Branches and weeds smacked her calves as she rounded the small dirt path that led to the swamp. She walked up a small incline before reaching a wall of trees that circled the town of Kirkness. She turned, looking down at the sprawling town. From here, it looked like the remains of a squished bug, its streets the zigzag patterns of broken limbs.
Following the edge of the trees, she stopped beside a cracked tree stump. It marked the point where they marched into the density of trees and into their swampy little world. She closed her eyes, took in a steadying breath, then walked through the trees, the air around her becoming wetter and sludgier as she moved deeper into the forest.
Standing at each side of the path, rows of croaking frogs glared up at her like sentinels on watch. They were the colour of purple bruises, their wet skin shining. One muscled frog whipped out a barbed tongue in front of her foot, then licked its own eye. It gave a little jerk of its head and a sharp hiss as creamy puss dribbled down its face. She shuddered and marched under a tree limb.
Zack faced the pond, a pulsing frog on each shoulder. “They showed me how to fix everything . . .”
Sweat rose in a cold wave across her forehead as she stepped closer to her brother, the stifling air making her lungs work harder, her eyes adjusting to the bright green of the swamp.
“You can join me, here,” said Zack, his voice hoarse.
“Quit it, dork-o,” said Arlys. “You’re creeping me out.”
A frog landed by her feet, its thick body slapping moist leaves. It studied her with its buzzy eyes as she stepped back, slipping on slimy ground, almost falling over. She exhaled a sharp note of disbelief when the frog turned and hopped away, looking back over its shoulder, bobbing its head as if beckoning her to follow.
“Aye, Lassie, lead the way,” she said under her breath.
“Frogs swallow their food whole, kinda like a snake does,” said Zack.
She followed the bouncing frog as it leapt about, its meaty hind legs kicking up sodden leaves and twigs. They stopped at the edge of the brilliant green water, the reek of sewage catching the back of her throat. The frog bent, then sailed into the air, landing on a large boot bobbing in the pond.
A joke about a man having sex and forgetting his boot dissolved in her brain as she followed the boot up to the slimed carcass of what used to be a man. Its mouth screamed open, mossy tendrils swaying from yellowed teeth.
“Jesus!” Arlys stumbled back, her butt hitting the ground.
Zack turned to face her, his pupils like moons. “You always protected me when I needed it, so now it’s my turn. Now that he’s dead, maybe Dad will take you back in, let us be a family again. No reason not to, now. It’s not home without you there annoying the crap out of me everyday.”
She scrambled to her feet, wiping her wet palms on her jeans. “Zack, what happened here? Talk to me. How . . .”
“I suppose you won’t recognise him, now that my friends have finished with him. That’s Mr. Arnold. Remember? He was real close to Mum at one point, apparently. That was before me.” He stared down at the ground for a long moment. “Before I killed her.”
“You didn’t kill her, you dweeb.”
Arlys stared into the pond, at the creamy green circles outlining the man’s floating body. Three more frogs hopped on to the carcass, a rising chorus of happy croaks filling the air, echoing all around them under the dome of shaking leaves.
“Zack?” She stared at her brother. “Did you do this?”
He looked steady, his hands folded behind his back, a smile creasing the rosy spots of colour in his cheeks. “They eat their own skin. Did you know that?”
It was all too much. She spun and dashed through the trees, branches whipping at her face. Behind her, the forest erupted in a song of frog noise, a crescendo of shrieking wails that deafened as she pumped her arms, running as fast as she could.
Back in her prison cell, her clothes still holding the tang of green swamp, she stared out the window trying to piece it all together. What was her brother becoming? Her fingertips itched, longing to be back in their living room, clutching a controller, playing endless rounds of Mario Kart or Crash Bandicoot with Zack, her dad watching behind his newspaper, trying not to laugh too hard at their constant name calling.
Something smacked the window, making her sit up. She yelped as a frog pounded the window. It made a sound like a mushy tomato, its arms and legs splayed, leaving a pink streak as it slid down the glass.
Her upper lip creased as she strode over, seeing a dark figure hunched among the trees in the Home’s garden below. She’d recognise those bony, slumping shoulders anywhere. Zack stared up at her a long moment, then turned and ran. She grabbed her jacket and tiptoed into the hall, sneaking out into the evening’s dying light.
Cold nerves swam in her stomach as she reached her old house, going over and over the things she’d say to her dad. She didn’t care what any test said – he raised them both, and she needed her dad back in her life. They needed to help Zack before it was too late.
She marched to the open front door that swayed in the breeze. “Dad? You there?”
Smashed photos and tipped over tables greeted her as she stepped inside. Her boot squealed as she stepped on a wet patch, her heart booming in her chest. Wet splotches marked the hardwood floor. She checked every room, but no one was home, just more wet marks like some swamp monster had stomped through their house knocking everything over.
“Zack? You here?”
Her foot slipped as she entered the kitchen, sending her sprawling to the floor, her hamstring burning as her leg zipped forward. Her hand slapped a warm pool of inky, black liquid.
A bloody trail smeared the floor and out the back door.
Arlys ran to the trees lining the sorry looking town, the threat of autumn rain on the air as she watched the sun climb down the sky, hanging over the forest. An image of the dead body in the swamp buzzed around her mind.
She found the large stump and burst into the trees, and into an eery, silent world. The sun was dimmed by the curtain of shifting leaves above. The thought of being stuck in here at night with those red, unnatural frogs sent waves of nausea rolling up her gullet.
She felt them watching her as she walked deeper into the trees, the air growing hotter. Sitting on a felled tree by the side of the path, five sets of eyes glared at her, blinking in unison, their transparent eyelids making wet sucking sounds. She slowed her step. This close, she could see the layer of slime on them, shuddering at the thought of running her fingertip along their wet, pulsing bodies.
She leaned back, turning away from them as she walked past, not daring to take her eyes from them. One let out a burbling croak, its tongue shooting out its mouth. Arlys felt the air shift as the pink tongue sailed by her cheek. All five frogs opened their mouths wide, rows of silver fangs gleaming, a high wail ascending from them like a cat defending its territory. The sound grew and pierced her brain.
Acid crawled up her throat, her face flushing with heat as she tumbled onwards. Bright red flashes burst from the trees, the frogs landing with wet thuds all around her. Pain sliced her calf, and hot blood trickled down her shin, staining her jeans as she stared down at the frog that had sunk its tiny teeth into her flesh. She stomped on the frog, pink and yellow entrails bursting under her boot. A stench of iron wafted up to her, making her gag.
She ran on, an army of frogs exploding from the trees all around her. The drone of their screams robbed her of the ability to think straight. Her foot splashed the swamp, a wave of turgid green mess sloshing over the toe of her boot as she stumbled to a halt.
Her ears rung as the world went silent. More bodies lay in the swamp. Heavy droplets of mossy sludge swayed off bone as they floated in the water, bumping into one another. She coughed up a mouthful of hot bile.
She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, turning to see the swarm of frogs waiting her next move.
“Arlys . . .” a hollow voice rung in the green silence.
“Zack? Zack, where are you?”
The frogs pounced on her, tearing gashes in her arms and legs and she frantically batted them away. One sunk its jaw into her thigh, making her fall backwards into the pond, a wave of mould-layered water swimming over her legs. The frogs were on her, sinking their tiny fangs into her skin, painting the green swamp red around her. She leapt to her feet, roaring in agony, slapping the slimy creatures away.
“Sis . . .”
The voice came from the old tree that lay split open – where they’d spent so much time over the years huddled together. She kicked a frog, sending it flying through the air, and raced toward the tree, hot pain stinging all over her.
She slid at the entrance of the tree, seeing the words ‘Zack and Arlys were here’ carved into its base.
The frogs stopped their assault. They gathered around the foot of the tree, studying her. Some whipped their pale tongues at the air as she slowly crept forward, blood seeping from a hundred small wounds.
A rustling noise came from inside the tree. She squinted her eyes, trying to see into its cave-like darkness.
“Zack? You have to stop this. Are you controlling them? It’s not a game. I . . .”
She recoiled at the broken quality of her voice. The muscles on her face scrunched up, tears running down her cheeks as she tiptoed forward, a crowd of hungry frogs watching her every move.
“If you don’t come out here, I . . .” She took a deep breath. “I’m going to drag you out by the ear. Y-you hear me?”
There was more movement, and a figure stepped forward, its thin, emaciated form swaying side to side as it walked.
Her legs wobbled and she fell to the ground, staring up at a face distorted by bulging, shining eyes. Its webbed hands had dirty, gunmetal claws on the ends of long, alien fingers. The skin on its face was pallid, coated under a layer of dripping slime. A warbling voice steamed out of its wide mouth.
“Welcome home, sis.”
Moist branches whipped her face as she flew through the trees, willing her stumbling legs to carry her away from this place, from the slime-skinned thing her brother had become.
A cacophony of piercing screeches exploded around the forest as frogs slapped the ground behind her, gaining.
About the Author: Paul lives in Leven, Scotland. He is a PR / Internal Communications professional who tries not to let the horror of corporate-speak seep into his stories. He wrote his first book at nine, his second at eleven, and his third is due any day now. You can find him scrolling mindlessly through twitter @PaulOn1984.
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