Lightning Frog

Emma Baltz
April 12, 2023

The afternoon breeze fills in around you, replacing the emptiness of your lanky body and hollow stomach. Dinnertime, you think. You watch as the first mosquito lands on the bone that juts out from your wrist. Drink up. This makes you feel needed.

Lighting the candle that kills those friends, its scent burns the hairs in your nostrils. You sniff anyway like it’s a delicacy that shouldn’t be denied. The mosquitoes fly away, back into the marshy creek behind the patio. A home for the creatures near the rusty, red painted deck with molding planks of wood which have yet to be replaced.

Your husband, “the jack of most trades,” promises to fix it with a smile, marking the calendar for a day he would dedicate. Yet, it’s been months of creaking, and wood slowly chipping with each rainfall, even though you remind him twice a week. You pinch your inner thigh for each day he forgets like he’s ignoring you on purpose. But you know that’s not the case, when, every other night he kisses the bruises between your legs.

You forgive, because maybe things like this don’t really matter.

After all, it is a pleasure to see the splintered wood become a nest for bumblebees and red wasps. You like to watch them sunbathe during bright mornings. In the hazy shine of the sun’s glow, pairs fly up and down and mate. Their buzzing bodies flip in circles as if the clouds are their beds. You laugh at their shamelessness and find it beautiful. Until, at once, you’re disgusted by your own voyeurism.

Your husband, “the breadwinner,” takes your son to school like he does every morning. It’s on the way to the office, he always says. With his lips, he pecks your shoulder, before shuffling out with lunchboxes for himself and the tiny replica. Your family carries on without you.

The doctors said you have postnatal depression, but your son is 6 years old. It’s seasonal depression, they decide. You know that’s not true, and so does your husband, “the mind-reader.”

- - - -

In the afternoon, the midafternoon: post-nap and pre-family-returns-home, you float back to the deck, not caring if it’s the same space they left you that morning.  

After a day of feigning productivity, you have a drink. Gin. Because that’s all the liquor left in the cabinet. Soda water and ice, with a squeeze of lemon juice. Fresh, at least. Lips kiss the glass and pucker at the zest where you accidently missed the cup.

You’ve taken three Advil, and the gin goes down in four sips. Too much ice, you justify. Wondering if you’re like your father, and his father, and the father’s before them. Feeling strangely connected, through this simple, perhaps, dangerous act. Disappointed your blood is tainted with theirs.

When the sun goes down, it’s time for your companions to feed. The only time you are significant. Useful. You sit motionless, even though you hear the car crunch into the driveway, the front door swing open, and the patter of happy baby boy feet.

He bursts through the back door and smacks a mosquito off your arm.

- - - -

Tanner’s smile brightens the darkening day.

“Lightning bugs, mommy!” His round cheeks aflush with Cheeto puff dust, he somehow, says your name with a lowercase m.

Your husband, the “knows-what-you-need-before-you-even-do,” grabs a jar and tin foil. A thin layer will be scrunched around the opening, with poked holes from a sharp knife. Probably the same one you used to cut the lemon.  

Tanner runs down the patio steps. His tongue sticks out when he concentrates, and you feel your mouth pull into a smile. Stopping at the last step, he takes a deep breath and jumps to the ground as if there is a chasm below. Your husband, “the lover,” rests his hand on the small of your back, and together, you stand, observing what you made. Watching Tanner’s jovial and clumsy pouncing around the yard. Your cheeks burn like a muscle after a workout; the soreness which only comes from not being used very often.

Tanner falls and scrapes his knee, and you tense, bracing for his wails. Your husband’s hand slips from your back, ever-so-gently, and unintentionally brushes your ass as he lunges off the patio towards your son. You walk down the steps to meet the crumpled mess in the yard. Dirt must be brushed off and a tiny rock, lodged in Tanner’s knee cap, plucked out. It didn’t even break the skin. Funny how children are so gummy and pliant. You cup your son’s snotty, teary face in your hands.

“I couldn’t catch any, momma,” he sniffles. He lets his hands drop at his sides like they failed him, like they’re useless.

“Here, let me show you something.” Your voice sounds and even feels distant. This is what you’ve become.

You grab hold of his tiny hand and lead him to the creek. Tanner excitedly bounds after you. He flails around, shaking with anticipation as you scour the trickling marsh.

You scream, a little too loud, not only surprising yourself, but surprising Tanner. His hand had left your grasp so quickly to cover his ears in alarm.

“I’m sorry baby, I got excited. Look, do you see?” His expression shifts from confusion to glee as his gaze finds the toad your long finger points to.

“A frog!” he says, and you laugh at his stupidity.

You find yourself plopping onto the damp grass, not minding the reality of more laundry to do later. Tanner follows suit, and he listens to your storytelling.

“When grandpa was younger, he and his brothers would catch fireflies and feed them to the toads in their backyard.”

“Woahhhh,” he says with an awe that only comes from children who don’t know what cool really is yet.

“And guess what happened?” You say, and his eyes grow so wide.

“Their bellies began to glow,” you whisper ominously, and Tanner laughs.

“Why don’t I help you catch some fireflies, and we can see if it makes this toad’s belly glow?”

“Oh-my-gosh!” He says, mocking maturity with this phrase, emphasizing every word. He sounds so precious.

“Dad!” he yells, “Where’s the jar?”

- - - -

The same rhythm is heard every morning. The kiss on your shoulder. The door swinging open, then closed. The car pulling away. The brilliant hum of bugs and tree leaves whipping in the air, muffling your ears.

Your husband, “the enabler,” restocked the liquor cabinet, and a glass condensates in your limp-like hand. You didn’t know you were pregnant again.

Weeks are going by quickly. Soon, the weather will chill. Shifting to the kind of bitterness felt all the way down to the bone. The chorus of bees will turn into the crackling of iced tree branches, and you know you won’t be able to stand sitting outside once it gets cold like that. Then again, shivering didn’t stop you last season. When it was really bad.

There’s even something satisfying about seeing your breath produced in a cloud. The sight and sensation reminds you of smoking menthol cigarettes in the back of college friends’ cars.

Friends remind you of strangers, and strangers remind you of therapy.

Therapy isn’t sitting in a circle with a bunch of unfamiliar faces complaining about unfamiliar issues. This. This buzz. The warmth of a drink in the pit of your belly. Something you’ll soon miss, a bit too much, when you do find out you’re pregnant. But, it’s the rattle of creatures around you. They listen. That’s therapy, and no one understands.

Clinically, these kinds of thoughts mean the end is near, but no death wish trumps the smile on that boy’s face and the way your husband, “a good husband,” loves selflessly. Even when you can barely have sex, or carry out conversation, or eat more than two meals a day.

Spoon-fed love might be the only kind of love you can receive.

Your son, at least he’s getting heaping spoonful’s. Pints, quarts, gallons of love. Does he

still feel that? The sugar rush-crash-stomachache of love, even after you yelled at him for eating the lightning bugs?

- - - -

The ambulance had rushed your family to the hospital. You remember your son groaned and ached, and you knew it was your fault. He laid in the stretcher with his arms crossed over himself as if he was already in a coffin. Your husband called poison control on account of some strange bile he found in the toilet. You recall Tanner weakly calling out for your husband, “the Papa.” Somehow even in sickness, he managed to say this name with an uppercase P.

The paramedic had asked questions, though you couldn’t decipher, like they were speaking in tongues or a dialect you didn’t know. All you could do was stare at your son. He was so pale. His eyes lazily opened and closed against the florescent inner lighting of the ambulance. With one hand you had shielded his face like the lights were the sun, and with the other you had shakily brushed his sweaty hair from his forehead. Useful, you had to remind yourself.

You recall a few phrases thrown around from your husband’s conversation with the medic.

“It was glowing? In the toilet?”

“That’s what I saw.”

“It’s a good thing you called.”

- - - -

The hospital visit almost ended in mystery. Probably a bad reaction to some stomach bug, nurses thought. Tanner did make a full recovery within 48 hours, but the vision of a child getting their stomach pumped will never be forgotten.

When you told the doctors what Tanner might have actually ingested, they tried to warn him never to do it again. It’s been a few weeks since then, but he hasn’t given up on the lightning bugs. To him, the hospital and the pain, it meant nothing.

Tonight, Tanner eats his pizza with urgency, and you know what demands will come next.

Your husband, “the bad joker,” says, “Slow down pizza man,” as Tanner turns to you, cheeks full and mouth still chewing. “Can we please go out to the fireflies tonight? Please.” Silly how desperate children are for their useless wants they see as needs.

You punish yourself for showing him what he calls the “lightning frogs.” He’s obsessed. Hyper fixated. And worse, he’s experimenting, despite knowing certain consequences. Playing with nature can be dangerous, but growing apart from your son and denying the one thing bonding you together right now, may be even more cruel.

So, when Tanner asks to go outside almost every night, you say yes.

“Let me finish dinner first.” It’s a reprimand, but also builds the suspense and excitement for Tanner.

Two more bites, and you leave the dishes at the table. Tanner grabs your hand, this time leading you to the creek.

Together, you successfully catch a few fireflies and cap them in a jar. Squatting down by the water, you hear him say, “I see one!” His chubby fingers point to a toad lazing on a small stone. You both hobble over, quietly, so you don’t spook or stir the creature.

Holding the jar out, you swipe away mosquitoes threatening to nibble Tanner’s flesh. He peels away the tin foil lid, painfully slowly. As gently as a child can, he squeezes a lightning bug between his thumb and forefinger, holds it in front of the toad, and waits.

Tanner squeals with excitement and a fair bit of shock when the toad produces its long, sticky tongue to capture the prey.

“We have another one for ya,” he says, and repeats the process. Again, he jumps back  slightly, and declares a, “Ha!,” when the toad unpredictably tongues the beetle between his fingers.

“Last one,” you say.

“Look!” He points at the toad’s flickering, glowing belly with such pride, like he’s seeing something entirely alien and interesting and new, even though you sit right next to him and watch with the same wonder.

“Okay, last one,” he says, repeating your words. This time, he doesn’t hold it out to the toad. He stares at it. He turns his hand this way and that, to look at the lightning bug from every possible angle. You know the difference between contemplation and observation.

He jams it into his mouth.

“Honey, no!” You swat at his hand and realize your reaction is too slow. Prying his mouth open, you scrape the lightning bug off his tongue with a fingernail. “Baby, that’ll make you sick. Remember?” You lightly press a hand on his belly, trying to give him a tangible memory of where the hurt was last time he ate the lightning bugs.

Sloppy, sharp inhales, predating sobs, affect his speech. He places his hands over yours on his stomach.

“But I want them to make my belly glow too, mommy.”

- - - -

It isn’t until you are wheelchaired through the front doors of the waiting room, you’re hit with the reality this pregnancy has successfully come full term.

Despite the drinking in the early days when you didn’t know yet. Before you felt off. In an unfamiliar way. Then the pee stick drew perpendicular lines in hot pink, so you locked the liquor cabinet, swallowed the key, and now, here you are, a door waiting to be opened.

You breathe through dilating pain as you wait in the delivery room.

Tanner places a drawing on the protrusion of your stomach. It displays a scribbly, messy person sitting on what looks like a scarlet red patio.

You hear yourself speak weakly, “Who’s that sweetie?” You’re pointing with your pulse-oximeter-wired finger.

“Can’t you tell?” He looks at you with wide, loving eyes, desiring to be applauded for his crayon masterpiece.

The woman’s hair in the drawing is the color of beaver brown. It’s disheveled, and you don’t know if that says something about you or Tanner’s illustration skills. A drink is sideways and spilled at the feet of the woman. A cerulean creek runs disproportionately in the background. Shamrock mixed with granny smith green covers the page. The sky is all grass. Toads are spread across the landscape haphazardly like they’re sprouting flowers.

A contraction hits like a wave. It moves you to the tears you felt stuck in your throat after the recognition of yourself in Tanner’s drawing. He wipes your misty eyes with his fingers and smiles at you with a surety that shouldn’t be seen in children this young.

The woman’s pregnant belly in the drawing is glowing, or at least, you can tell from how the yellow scribble represents “light.” You wonder how someone so little, so innocent, has thought of something so horribly abstract.

Your husband says, “I think, by this picture’s logic, he’s calling you a toad.”

Tanner laughs, and you laugh too, through squinted, teary eyes. The heart monitor beeps aggressively. Doctors scramble into the room. Another contraction, and the drawing floats off your stomach from wind produced by the moving bodies around you.

In and out of consciousness, the pain hurts and numbs all at once.

- - - -

It’s been a year since you first brought home a baby girl. You always wanted a girl. Tanner cried for a day or two, mourning the idea of a baby brother. He was fine once your husband, “Mr. Nice Guy,” took him out for ice cream.

You cry too. Mourning the child who didn’t take the pain away. Didn’t reverse the chemical imbalances from baby #1.

Visits to the patio have been less frequent, and you can feel the withdrawal creeping in. Missing the sting of cool air on your toes in thin socks, and the mosquitoes who know you more intimately than you think your husband does.

Back from the ice cream trip, your husband kisses you on the forehead. Tanner kisses your forehead too. You smell the sugar on his breath, and it makes you want to gag. He leans down and messily kisses his sister on her peach-fuzzy head.

“Can I help feed her?” Tanner asks.

You nod and ask him to grab a bottle of milk you pumped earlier that day. This baby girl never really took from your body. It makes you feel slightly rejected. Useless. But these things do happen.

Your husband moves toward the kitchen to help Tanner reach the bottles on the top shelf of the fridge, but before you both can protest, he’s running out the back door with a jar in hand to collect lightning bugs.

- - - -

Tanner doesn’t seem to grasp how lightning bugs aren’t human food, and they don’t make your bellies glow. You try to tell him, “You can’t feed yourself what you know will make you ill.” But all those days on the patio must have shown him something you never realized you were impressing upon him.

After a temper tantrum, he eats dinner with his head low. His nose is so close to the plate it almost touches the mashed potatoes.

Your husband, “the diffuser of tension,” keeps conversation light and manages a weak smile from your boy’s face every so often.

You know now, the lightning frog ritual with your son is ruined.

It is a sweet gesture. To want to feed her. To want to help. You need to applaud his intention but not the execution, and children can’t comprehend the difference yet.

When dinner is over, there is no pleading to see the fireflies. There’s no pulling on your shirt to drag you from the table to the creek.

You put both children to bed, earlier than usual, and take a shower. The water blends in with your tears.

As you step out of the bathroom, the house is filled with the sound of wailing. Your husband consoles Tanner in his bedroom after finding him, bruised knees and all, on the floor of the kitchen. Your husband says he must have slipped off the stepping stool trying to sneak more dessert.

Tanner’s cries prompted your baby girl to cry too, so you go to the fridge hoping a fresh bottle will provide silence.

Opening the door, you’re faced with glowing bottles of milk. Drowned firefly bodies swirl around, flashing their screams for help.

You gather the bottles into your arms, and you hear the hum of the shower again. Your husband has left Tanner alone now.

Taking the bouquet of bottles to his room, you want to confront Tanner for this dangerous stunt. Why does he keep trying?

“Honey, what is this?” You ask. The coolness of your tone mismatches the anger you feel trembling your limbs.

Tanner says nothing, and you break down crying, falling to your knees at the foot of his bed. He hops down and sits next to you, his face screwed up with concern.

Your arms go limp as you hit the ground, and the bottles fall on their sides, dribbling out milk. You see Tanner putting them right side up. It looks like glow sticks have been split open, staining the carpet in bioluminescence.

He scooches up next to you, and you lie your head on his tiny lap. He takes a bottle and places it to your lips.

Useless, you think. Who, really, is the caretaker?

He says, “It’s ok, Mommy.”  

Capital M.


He wipes the tears falling down your face, and you suckle the poison.

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