Fiction · 08/24/2016

The Boy Who Turns to Toads

When I drop out, I go where all the drop-outs go. The jungle is full of beasts with teeth, but at least there are no detentions, no pop quizzes, no ink smudges trailing down wrists, no teachers locking me in quiet rooms.

My first night as a drop-out, I turn into a plague of toads. I balloon my neck taut and bellow at the walls of the School for Insecure and Underfoot Woodland Creatures. I bellow all night. I make sure no one sleeps. I urinate on the freshly cut lawn. I burrow holes in the zinnia gardens. A barn owl eats one of me, but I don’t care, because there are so many of me.

I think, This is it. I’ll never have to be human again. No more algebra, no more locked doors, no more being in one skin when I could be in many.

+

The teachers said I have an insecurity problem. They told me that I didn’t like my human body. They told me that I didn’t raise my hand enough in class. They told me that that is why I turn into creatures that hide in mud at the bottom of ponds and flatten their bodies under heavy grey stones. When they found me crawling in the showers, puddling my body under the spray of the showerheads or splatting myself against the tiled walls, they would gather me in nets built to catch butterflies, take me to the Panic Room until I turned human again.

For homework, every student was supposed to do confidence building exercises. We were each provided with a full-length mirror. For 20 minutes every night, we were instructed to stand naked in front of the mirror with our arms raised in a victory pose. The pose was supposed to trick our brains into believing we were victorious. “Victorious like a lion?” we’d say. “Victorious like a hawk?” But the teachers dissuaded us from using such similes. “Victorious like a human,” they’d say.

+

I thought I’d never have to be human again once I entered the jungle of drop-outs.

I’m surprised when the morning after I dropped out, I wake at the base of a banyan tree naked and fleshy and with only one pair of eyelids. My skin goosepimples with nakedness. I cover myself with my hands. The jungle is dark even though it’s daytime. The light filtering through the canopy leaves is swampy. I feel for the part of me that the barn owl at last night and find it: a hollowness under my kneecap, a loss I could live with.

I set out to find the other drop-outs, the other wild children, the ones that teachers warned us changed into animals and never changed back. I imagine them living in a hollow tree like Lost Boys, giraffes and peacocks and beavers and mastiffs coexisting in their wildness.

All day I look for them. Poison ivy rashes up my bare thighs, my feet blacken and blister. Sometimes I catch glimpses of bodies between the leaves. A plume of blue feathers, an explosion of antlers, a bowed tusk. I call out to them, thunder through the underbrush with my clumsy human feet, and they disappear.

When I get tired, I sit on my knees on a fallen log. I close my eyes. I listen for the pat-pat-pat of my heart’s chambers condensing from four to three, reach for the bubble in my throat that grows and grows until it chokes me. These are the signs that I am about to turn into toads. At school, I practiced this in my dorm room in the early morning when I knew the hall monitors had fallen asleep at their posts. If I wanted it enough, I could turn into toads in thirty seconds flat. It was like all day I’d been holding the toads back, and turning was as easy as unclenching my fist.

Now, though, I can’t feel the toads. My heart is big and wet. My throat is dry. My stomach growls with human hunger.

I open my eyes. I think of a girl from school who could turn into a line of ants just by breathing. She was the only student I knew who would change only when she wanted to. She didn’t change in the middle of improv lessons when she tripped over a mic cord and we all snorted into our elbows. She didn’t change when she got her period during gym class and we all saw the spot of crimson grow against the baby blue cotton of her shorts.

The girl who turned into ants spent more time in the Panic Room than any of us, because the teachers knew that when she changed, it was always because she meant to.

The girl who turned into ants would never turn into a queen ant: fat and fed and worshipped. She’d only turn into the worker ants: small and strong and dispensable. She sat in front of me in Social Studies. Her hair was brown and uncombed. I didn’t think much about her then, but I think about her now. If I was toads and she was ants, all of me would eat all of her up.

+

Everyone’s Panic Room is different. In my Panic Room, there were no corners. In my Panic Room, even the ceiling was round. And on the walls, heat lamps like panting mouths. Red hot, unrelenting. They prickled my skin dry. They made me hop in circles, hop myself bruised. I tried to turn myself into stones that I could hide beneath, but I didn’t work that way.

+

When I’m a toad, I have memories that don’t belong to me. Frosty winter dreams of my blood crystalizing in my chest, my body becoming mud. Wet, slippery, tailed memories of sliding through puddles, my body indistinguishable from my brothers’, algae filling my mouth, the taste of green. Memories of yellow teeth, curled talons, sharp beaks. Memories passed down to me like pebbles.

+

In the middle of the darkest part of the jungle, I find a black pond covered in giant, rimmed lily pads as wide as I am tall. It’s not a large pond, and I wonder how I’ve managed to find it. I hope that it isn’t a coincidence. I hope that it is the part of me that is always toad drawing me to the water. I hope this means I’ll be able to change again.

I am feeling painfully hungry. The pain creeps into my throat and behind my eyes. It makes me dizzy, it makes my vision shimmer. Mosquitoes hover like smoke over the water. If I was a toad, I’d zip-snatch them into my belly. But as a human, they eat me. Red bumps rise on my arms and my only consolation is that the bumps make me feel almost toady.

At school, we learned that if you act victorious, you will become victorious. If you act like a human that can’t turn into woodland creatures, you become a human that can’t turn into woodland creatures.

+

All night, I try this process in reverse.

I leap from the grassy bank onto one of the giant lily pads. It wobbles. Ripples spread across the pond, creating a domino-effect of small creatures hopping from the banks into the water. The lily pad remains afloat. I crouch on its smooth surface, my knees at my shoulders, my fingers outstretched.

Act an animal, and become an animal, I tell myself.

I dive into the pond. The water is soupy and warm. It fills my ears and my eyes and I let it, whooshing the air from my lungs in a stream of bubbles so I sink, sink until the mushy pond bottom is in my palms. I try to grasp it like a blanket, and it slips between my fingers. I reach again, find a knot of seaweed. And something hard. Maybe a branch or maybe a skeleton, the skeleton of a frog that didn’t bury itself deep enough in the winter and froze in the middle of a dream.

I wait for the drowning to start. The human body will always force itself to breathe, to inhale, even against its will. A last ditch effort to survive. A toad can hold its breath for four to six hours underwater. A human can hold their breath for, on average, two minutes.

But I’m not changing. White firecrackers burst in the corners of my vision. I kick and kick until my head breaks the surface of the pond and then I breathe with croaking breaths, still just one of me.

+

I chew on a handful of grass. I lick morning dew from a fern. I watch a string of carpenter ants march up a gumtree.

+

On my fifth day as a drop-out, I return to the edge of the jungle. I sit in the shadows, where no one can see me.

I’m still not toads.

I watch the school’s walls change from gray to pink to black as the sun sets.

There is one thing I want. I want to talk to her, the girl who can turn into ants.

I wait until the moon is high and all of the windows are dark, and then I stand and step out of the jungle and onto the lawn. For the first time in days, my feet move easily. The moon turns my skin gray. I feel my nakedness, bumpy and boney all over.

It is easy to find an open window. I hoist myself into an empty classroom and shut the window behind me. I pad down the smooth, cool hallways. I pull down a curtain in a common room and wrap it around myself like a towel.

I climb the spiral staircase to the dorms. Quiet. I’d forgotten how quiet it is here.

I find her room and test the knob. Unlocked. We aren’t allowed to lock our doors at night so the monitors can check in on us, make sure we aren’t changing in our sleep.

She sits up as I enter. I wonder if she heard me coming, or if she was already awake.

Who are you? she asks.

I’m afraid to turn on the lights, so I part her curtains to let in the moonlight. I see my reflection in the glass of the window and I am surprised by what I see, a creature that isn’t human or animal, hair matted, all collarbones and chin.

Oh, she says.

Her hair is in a bun. She is wearing long, button-upped pajamas. Her blanket is folded neatly at the end of her bed, like she’s never used it.

Sorry, I say. Sorry, I didn’t mean to—

How is the jungle? she cuts me off.

I step away from the window, out of the moonlight. I’ve noticed my own stink, and I have this feeling that if she can’t see me, she also won’t be able to smell me.

I say to her, The jungle is full of creatures like me.

I don’t tell her we’re all there because we have something we don’t want to control. A hardening along our spine threatening to calcify us. Our thumbs migrating down our wrists, shrinking into dewclaws. Vestigial body parts busting like fireworks from the places where our joints meet. Instead I say, You don’t even know who you are until you’re out there. I say, I saw some ants and thought of you.

I’ve never spoken like this before.

I think you should come with me, I tell her.

She is quiet. She sits up in bed. I notice that her bare toes are all exactly the same size and shape. They twitch against her sheets.

It’s better in the jungle, I tell her. I can be toads all day.

I don’t know why I’m lying, but the more I talk, the more her toes seem to twitch.

No one tells you how lonely it is to be human, I say. When you’re human, there’s only you. But when you’re an animal, you are many yous. You have all of these memories and voices telling you the right way to be, keeping you company.

As I’m speaking, the girl who can turn into ants turns into ants. She is a girl and then she is ants. She is many ants, all swarming together in a pile in the center of her bed, so dense and black that at first I think she’s just a shadow.

I sit on the floor and watch her. Worker ants are lost without their queen. Is she lost? Whom does she follow?

If I was a little boy, I’d use a magnifying glass and the sun to burn her alive. If I was toads I’d eat her.
I wait for a toady hunger to grow in my gut, for my heart to shrink, for my body to turn into a plague of bodies.

I crawl into the bed. At first I crouch above the ants, and then I lower myself into them. Some of the ants are crushed beneath my ribs. The rest scatter like rippling water, then swarm back. An ebb and a flow. They crawl over my body, between my fingers, into my hair, into my ears, over my eyelids. I try not to breathe. I try to hear their quiet, quiet chatter.

+++

Dana Diehl earned her MFA in Fiction at Arizona State University, where she served as editor of Hayden’s Ferry Review. “The Boy Who Turns to Toads” is a response to “The Girl Who Turns to Rabbits” by Melissa Goodrich, which you can read in a forthcoming issue of Squalorly. Dana’s work has previously appeared in Passages North, Booth, New South, and elsewhere.