A cool wind blew across the playground at Wooddale Park, stirring up dry leaves and blowing Sandy’s hair into her face. Sighing, the teenage girl pulled a handful of it and put it behind her left ear while she listened to her mother’s nagging voice in her right ear.
She desperately wished for a hair tie.
“…time to learn responsibility,” she was saying; it was the same lecture she’d heard on repeat over the past two weeks, and the teenager had already stopped listening. Of all her friends she was the only one who had to have a job and why, because she tapped a fire hydrant. Tapped it. There was only one little scratch on the bumper and if the stupid fire hydrant wasn’t designed to breakaway no one would have even known she’d hit it. Now she had pay Coal Ridge seven hundred stupid dollars to fix it.
It wasn’t fair.
Turning into the wind to keep the hair out of her face and to fill her mother’s ear with a roar of wind through the microphone, she said, “I have to go…they’re here.” She hung up without saying goodbye.
Three long pings told her that she had three new texts.
Nick: [are you going to the game tonight?]
Crissy: [My life sux, I’m grounded!;_;]
Kohls: [25% all sweaters, tonight only!]
To the first two she responded.
To Nick: [Yes, after work]
To Crissy: [For what?]
The last one she deleted, there was no point in even thinking about shopping.
When she looked up, little Timmy O’Connell was running towards the swings and his mother was chasing him with a stocking cap. It was going to be a long two hours.
* * *
To Crissy: [I can’t believe you got grounded for that!]
She was sitting on the edge of sandbox desperately trying to keep the hair out of her face, when she looked up the blond hair swirled around and covered her eyes. Again, she grabbed a handful of it and tucked it behind her ear and then looked at the little girl, trying her best to put on a friendly smile. “What is it sweety?”
A ping from her phone, she glanced down at it.
Crissy: [It’s not fair]
“I wanna go see the toads.”
To Crissy: [Tell me about it]
“The toads are all grown up, sweety,” she said, without looking up, “they’re all frogs now.”
“I wanna see the frogs.”
Sandy took a deep breath and looked back at the little girl. “Wouldn’t you rather go down the slide?” she asked, pointing at the jungle gym. There was a line of toddlers waiting to go down the slide; little Donny Lawson was sitting on top of it with a white-knuckled grip on the rails looking like he was about to cry—his older sister Dawn was trying to push him down the slide. She should probably get up and do something about that, but her phone pinged again.
“No, I wanna go see the frogs.”
The annoyed teen’s lips twisted in a sigh and she stood up. “Okay…come on.” Before putting her phone in her pocket, she read the message.
Crissy: [OMG my grandma is coming to ‘keep me company’ while they go to the game, what am I a child?]
“Froggies! Froggies! Froggies!” The glee with which the small child repeated the word carried to the jungle gym, where a dozen small faces turned towards her.
* * *
With arms crossed over her chest, Sandy looked over the group of small children gathered at the edge of the short concrete bridge and whispered, “Well, I think that’s all of them,” with a degree of sarcasm typically reserved for clueless guys. A glance up to the empty play area confirmed it. She took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and then pushed her lower jaw out while grabbing a handful of hair and tucking it behind her ear. How did she not remember to bring a hair tie?
“Are you going to be okay with taking them all?” Mrs. O’Connell asked.
The woman was wearing a winter jacket, mittens, and a stocking cap with a stupid little ball on top. Jamie’s little brother, Joey Sharper and his sidekick Mick Santana had ridden their bikes through the play area a little while before and they were wearing shorts. Mrs. O’Connell looked ridiculous. “I’m okay,” the willowy blonde replied, specifically not answering the question.
Mrs. O’Connell glanced down at her son, who had beads of sweat rolling down his face from under his stocking cap and said. “I think I’ll tag along just in case.”
Oh yay. Sandy clapped her hands together to get the children’s attention. “All right, we’re going to Miller’s Pond…” A series of high pitched squeals interrupted her, followed by what could best be described as a froggies chant. The teenager closed her eyes, feeling her hair hit her in the face and, not for the first time, wished to trade places with the fire hydrant she’d backed over. Pulling her hair into a pony tail that she had no way to tie, she shouted to be heard over the chant, “We’re only going to see the froggies if you listen to the rules.” They quieted down at once. “We will all walk together on the path over there, and we will stay together at the pond. If anyone runs off on their own or gets too close to the pond, everyone comes back. Got it?”
Some of them nodded, most of the rest just stared at her; Timmy O’Connell put his hand up. “Miss Sandy, if one of the froggies comes to me, can I catch it?”
She dropped her hair and crossed her arms over her chest, shaking her head. “None of the frogs are going to come to you.”
“But if one of them does?” He was staring at her expectantly, with wide eyes and his mouth agape.
“Sure,” she said, rolling her eyes, “if it comes to you, you can catch it.”
* * *
As a park attendant, the town of Coal Ridge paid Sandy a pittance to make sure that the restrooms were locked in the evening, the lights were turned on, any broken equipment was reported, and that none of the younger children wandered back to Miller’s Pond alone. Located behind the pavilion, the pond sat on the far end of the upper field behind a small grove of trees, with only one trail leading to it. Originally home to a World War II memorial donated by the family of George Miller—a local man who gave his life serving aboard the USS Houston in the Battle of Sundra Strait—the memorial was moved to the front corner of the park in 1966 and integrated into a general war memorial, but a tributary to the Miller family remained at the center of the pond. It had long been a place for teenagers to go to avoid prying eyes and had been where many tasted their first beers and smoked their first joints, but a series of motion activated floodlights installed in 2002 had forced them to find more private places.
The pond was almost seventy feet around, made of concrete, and ringed by a strip of grass bordered by a footpath; it was less than three feet at its deepest with the worn tributary at its center. The place held fond memories for many of the generational residents, as such, great effort had been taken to clean up the area around the pond and the path to it had been paved over in 2009 to make it easier to follow. It had become a place for small children to explore imagined adventures, but that brought with it the possibility of one of them falling into the pond and drowning.
Although no child had ever actually drowned there, people treated it like some malevolent child eating beast that would reach out and grab them if they got too close. How anyone could be so stupid, she just couldn’t understand, but so many people had stressed the importance of keeping the little ones away from it that she took it seriously…at least as seriously as a teenager could.
Her phone pinged in her pocket as she pulled her hair out of her face, but for the moment, Sandy ignored it. She stepped onto the edge of the short stone bridge that linked the play area with the pavilion, with fifteen kids and one parent behind her, and started across.
This was so stupid, she felt like a tour guide in the most boring tour destination ever.
Before making it halfway to the other side, Dawn Lawson pushed her brother down and he started crying. Sandy was about to abort the entire miserable little field trip, when Mrs. O’Connell intervened, threatening to take them both back to their mother who was busy gossiping with several of the other moms over at the gazebo. Suddenly it didn’t seem so bad having her along, the less she had to deal with, the better.
Walking up the trail to the pavilion, the young park attendant began to repeat some of what old man Hoover had babbled the day he’d hired her and explained the job. “While the wood doors of the pavilion were replaced a few years ago, the stone columns are like sixty years old, or something,” she said, gesturing towards the massive red and white painted structure. Several children oohed, bringing a brief smile to her face, encouraging her to continue. “It holds like sixty picnic tables and…”
The children oohed again, interrupting her, and one of them said, “Look at the big bird.”
Turning and following the small fingers pointing up, she saw a fairly large bird of some type sitting on the front edge of the pavilion’s shingled roof. Of course they hadn’t been listening to her, she wasn’t sure why she bothered talking to them at all. Grabbing a handful of hair and pushing it behind her ear, she fished her phone out of her pocket to read the text.
Crissy: [She’s here -_-]
Knowing how much Crissy hated listening to her grandmother talk about how short the skirts were these days, she felt a pang of sympathy for her friend, but at least she wasn’t out here dealing with these stupid kids.
“Kids, that’s a red tail hawk,” Mrs. O’Connell said, kneeling amongst them. “Do you see how the white feathers on his chest are so puffy, it’s because he’s cold.”
Of course she thought the bird was cold…
Several of the children let out sympathetic ahhs.
To Crissy: [It’s like they don’t trust you]
“Its tail isn’t red,” Dawn Lawson observed, “it’s more orange.”
This was followed by several assents.
“Why ain’t it called a orange tail hawk?” one of the boys in the back asked.
“Well,” Mrs. O’Connell started, but was interrupted by a chorus of the same question.
The teen smiled cruelly to herself; she enjoyed watching the woman squirm under the kid’s relentless questions, but more than that she wanted to get this entire experience over with so she could get to the game. “Come on, let’s go see the froggies before it gets dark.”
Her hair slapped her in the face; at this point she’d even take one of her mom’s lame scrunchies.
“Miss Sandy, what does it eat?”
“What does what eat, sweetie?” Sandy asked, not bothering to look at the little girl.
“The orange hawk.”
The teenager shrugged. “I don’t know, mice, rabbits, squirrels…probably whatever it can catch.” Her phone pinged again.
Nick: [me, Jamie & Sara will be over by the Seventh Street end zone when you get off work]
“What about froggies?”
To Nick: [Ok]
“Does the orange hawk eat froggies?”
Had she been paying attention to what the little girl was asking, she may have been able to avoid that particular trap, but the distracted teen was thinking about Jamie and his dimples and meeting him after she got done at the park, so she said, “Yeah, probably.”
“Noooo!” the little girl cried, “not the froggies!” She turned back to the pavilion pointing up at the bird as if it were a misbehaving toddler. “Don’t you eat the froggies you mean old orange hawk!”
“It’s a red tail hawk,” Mrs. O’Connell corrected from behind.
Not knowing how to react, she stood there with her mouth hanging open as Timmy’s mom tried to calm the kids down, most of whom were now yelling at the hawk, who in turn regarded them indifferently. Sandy wasn’t sure how this job could possibly get any worse.
The wind blew her hair into her face.
* * *
After finally getting past the pavilion, the park attendant led the way along the paved path. While many of the kids called out the names of things they saw, she ignored them and stared at her phone.
Nick: [are you up for some fun after the game?]
To Nick: [What do you have in mind?]
To Crissy: [She’s really telling you stories about when she was in school?]
Mrs. O’Connell grabbed her son as he tried to run after the rabbit.
“That’s not a duck, it’s a bag!”
“It’s got a duck on it.”
Her phone pinged.
“That’s not a duck, it’s a chicken.”
Crissy: [Yeah apparently she got grounded for smoking behind the stadium]
“Look, it’s the orange hawk!”
“No, the orange hawk eats froggies!”
Coming up to the small grove, Sandy put the phone in her pocket and clapped her hands again to get their attention. “The pond’s up ahead, everyone will stay together, or we’ll march back down that path and no one will get to see the froggies.” From the tone, inflection, and even choice of words, she sounded a lot like her mother. The realization was more than a little unnerving.
Near the pond, the wind didn’t get through the trees as well and for the first time since getting to the park after school, her hair laid flat on her shoulders.
None of the kids said anything.
Her phone pinged twice; she fished it out of her pocket.
Nick: [we got some stuff to smoke]
Crissy: [Why do I care about her being in trouble like 100 years ago o_O]
Moving on, the group rounded the grove and the pond came into view. The wide cement footpath that surrounded it had aged to a dark gray over the years, but the concrete pond was still off-white, same as the marker at its center. A thick green moss grew on the sloped wall just beneath the surface and in the cracks along its ledge; the water had taken on a dirty green color that reflected the surrounding trees like a mirror. As they approached, a dozen frogs leapt off the ledge and into the water. For whatever degree that the children had managed to restrain themselves up until this point, seeing the frogs leap into the water was simply too much for them to handle. En masse they ran forward, ignoring Sandy and Mrs. O’Connell, but surprisingly all of them stood on the edge of the footpath and not a one moved towards the pond.
“Look!” one of the kids shouted as a frog’s head broke the surface.
“Froggy!” another squealed.
Hands clapped, and giggles erupted from the group.
From out of the grass, a frog jumped onto the footpath, right between little Timmy O’Connell’s legs. The boy reached down with both hands, capturing the frog and pulling it up to his chest. “It came to me!” he squealed.
“Can I pet it?” a boy next to him asked.
A snort of surprise fell out of the teenager’s mouth.
“Put it down, Timmy,” Mrs. O’Connell said from behind.
“But Miss Sandy said I could catch it if it came to me,” the boy whined.
A sound like glass shattering in an empty room seemed to roll over them and echoed into the distance.
Mrs. O’Connell cast a questioning glance at Sandy. The teen shrugged—how was she supposed to know what it was; Joey or Mickey probably found a bottle in the woods and broke it on a rock. Except it didn’t sound like a bottle breaking on a rock, it sounded…bigger or older, and most certainly more important.
The floodlights clicked on.
After a moment in which they both stood flummoxed, Mrs. O’Connell asked, “Are those supposed to come on during the day?”
“Um…no,” the park attendant replied, looking up at the lights. “I’m supposed to turn them on before I go.”
Her phone pinged; she ignored it.
“Could they have been left on today?”
Sandy shrugged. Why did this woman keep asking her questions for which she had no answers?
“Where’d all the froggies go?” one of the children asked.
A cold wind swirled around the pond, blowing her blonde hair into her face, leaving gooseflesh on her arms and up her back. Tucking her hair back behind her ears, she said, “Maybe we should go back to the playground,” to no one in particular. She put the phone away and raised her hands intending to clap them together when her phone pinged—once, twice, three times; it didn’t stop until she fished it back out of her pocket. It had pinged at least a dozen times, but there were only three messages.
Crissy: [9_9 everyone gets in trouble, I get it!]
Nick: [can you forget to turn the lights on at the pond tonight]
No Caller ID: [yum yum yum]
She’d never seen a text message listed with no caller ID; she didn’t even know it was possible to send a text with no caller ID. And what the heck did yum yum yum mean?
One of the kids screamed; it was a high pitched, terrifying sound that caused her to drop her phone as her head whipped around. She half expected to see the pond eating one of the kids. Instead, she saw a frog break the surface belly up. Another joined it.
“Noooo! Froggies!” It was the little girl who had begun this entire excursion. Tears flowed down her cheeks as more frogs floated to the surface. A chorus of distraught voices filled the air.
Stooping to pick up her phone, Sandy stuffed it in her pocket and rushed over to the girl, trying to pull her name from memory, but the girl’s family was new to Coal Ridge. “It’s okay, sweety,” she finally managed, taking the girl’s hand, “they’re just…um, sleeping.”
“Ew, it’s breaking open!”
Sandy looked up in time to see the belly of one of the frogs slice open, as if someone had run a knife from midway between the legs up to its chin. The skin peeled back on its own to reveal the organs beneath. Their little hearts were still beating.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Sandy wasn’t sure if she thought it or said it.
Terrified, high-pitched screams filled the air.
Mrs. O’Connell was doing her best to gather the kids up and move them away from the pond.
“Who’s hurting the froggies Miss Sandy?”
Picking up the little girl and turning her away from the pond, she said, “I don’t know sweetie, but we’re going back to the playground now.”
Her phone pinged.
Carrying the little girl wasn’t easy and for a moment she felt like there was a hand on her shoulder, trying to hold her back. She glanced back, but there was no one there.
“Get over here now!” Mrs. O’Connell shouted in a commanding mom tone. The kids were almost climbing over one another to get to her on the path.
That cold wind swirled around her, again blowing her hair into her face.
The flood lights snapped off.
Sandy stumbled forward as the weight of the little girl fell away. “Sweetie?” She pulled the hair away from her eyes. The wind had died and once again her hair lay on her shoulders. The path was empty. An echo of the kid’s panicked voices hung in the air for just a moment and then there was only silence. It wasn’t just the wind that stopped, it was like the world had taken a breath and held it. For a moment she was back in the car after she had just backed into the fire hydrant, waiting to hear the crash of cast iron on stone as it hit the sidewalk, but the sound never came.
The flood lights clicked back on; the teenager turned back to the pond. Its unblemished surface reflected the trees in perfect detail. A little girl in a white dress stood by the pond’s edge, not on the sidewalk, nor even on the strip of grass between, but on the off-white concrete at its edge.
“Oh, sweetie, you shouldn’t be that close.” It was going to happen; the pond was going to eat the little girl. Sandy couldn’t shake the thought. She didn’t recognize the girl. “Come away from there, sweetie,” she said, moving back onto the footpath.
The little girl stared into the water without acknowledging her. Something about her was so very wrong.
Her phone pinged.
Without thinking about it, she fished it out of her pocket and stared at herself reflected in the dark screen; it was powered off.
It pinged again.
She pushed the power button, yum yum yum scrolled across the black screen in white letters, and then the screen cracked open. Inside were frog innards, with the little heart still beating.
A small scream escaped her lips as she dropped the phone and looked back to the little girl in the white dress at the edge of the pond. Sandy could see the trees behind her reflected perfectly in the still water, but of the girl, there was no reflection.
A hand gripped her shoulder. She jumped, her breath catching in her throat as she turned; it was Mrs. O’Connell, her face contorted in rage, with blood red eyes and a forked tongue rolling in her mouth. “You irresponsible little bitch!” she hissed.
She pulled away from the woman’s grip, seeing blood trickle from beneath her stupid knit hat.
There was a splash behind her. When she turned the little girl in the white dress was gone. The pond had eaten her. The scared teen took a step towards it, intending to rescue the little girl, when she noticed the hawk on the ground to her right. One of its taloned feet held the edge of her phone while its head whipped backwards, ripping away the tiny beating heart inside with its beak.
The terrified teen jumped back and screamed; she could feel the tears coming to her eyes.
The floodlights snapped off.
“Timmy!” It was Mrs. O’Connell’s voice.
Sandy blinked, feeling the weight of little Marjorie in her arms. That was the little girl’s name, Marjorie. A knot of pain had formed in her back, but the teen ignored it as she tried to make sense of what had just happened. The problem was that none of it made any sense. She could hear herself breathing. This wasn’t right; she still had the sense that the world was holding its breath, like it was waiting for something to happen.
“Timmy, I said get back here!” Mrs. O’Connell stood over on the path with the children behind her.
“I got to take the froggy back home,” the little boy cried, holding his cupped hands in front of him as he rushed to the edge of the pond. He didn’t stop at the walkway, he continued right through the grass to the pond’s edge. Sandy had no idea how he had gotten past her.
No, no, no. “I got him,” the young park attendant said, setting the little girl down. “Marjorie, you go directly to Mrs. O’Connell.”
“My name’s Meaghan,” the little girl said, turning and running towards the path.
A grunt escaped her lips as the confused teen turned and sprinted towards the pond. The little boy knelt at the edge of the pond and set the frog down. He was in too much of a hurry. He was leaning too far forward. He was going to go headfirst into the pond, and the dark water seemed to be reaching up for him.
“Timmy!” The panicked cry of a mother; it was perhaps the most terrifying thing she had heard up to that point in her life.
She was planning to jump in after him when she saw a white sparkle in the water.
Instead of a splash, it was the sound of a cast iron fire hydrant hitting the sidewalk. The world breathed, and its breath blew her hair into her face. She arrived at the water’s edge as the little boy stood up. Pushing her hair behind her ear, she looked down into the water; beside his reflected image was the little girl in the white dress. A shadow in the water retreated away, seeking another victim.
She blinked and the little girl in the white dress was gone.
More than anything else right then Sandy wanted her mother, but in that moment, she knew that responsibility wasn’t about what she wanted, it was about what she had to do. Time would tell if this would be a lesson that stayed with her, but for now the teenager didn’t hesitate, she simply picked up the little boy and quickly moved away from the pond. Lying on the ground, the reflection of her carrying little Timmy crossed the face of her phone as she passed by; it pinged, but Sandy didn’t care how it got there or who was texting her. It didn’t matter; all that mattered was getting Timmy back to his mom and getting these kids back to the playground. Regardless of whether Mrs. O’Connell were there or not, these kids were her responsibility and she wasn’t going to let anything happen to them.
* * *
When she was done for the night, after putting the sand buckets away and locking the bathrooms, the scared teen stood at the door to the small maintenance shed and stared at the switch box. On old white tape under one of the switches was written: M. Pond. It was in the off position; her friends had asked her to leave it that way. She didn’t want to think about what had happened at the pond as she wiped a tear from her cheek. Sandy wasn’t sure if she were going to the game or if she were going home, but there was one thing she knew for certain.
Reaching a hand into the metal box, she switched on the pond lights.