Anne can hardly believe it. Cars honked around her and every breath is heavy with unnatural smog. She meets eyes with a human stranger, who lifts a phone very quickly and stares bug-eyed at her. Not at her, no, at her family. She turns to Hop-pop, Sprig, and Polly, all scratched, bruised, tired, afraid, and looking at her with trust in their eyes. Hop-pop croaks and coughs and Anne notices her frog family's skin is graying. She has to get them out of here. Off the hood of the car, over five lanes of traffic, hopped over the guardrail, down the hill, through a sparse copse of trees, to the sidewalk under the bridge and-
"Anne?" A pink hand tugs on her wrist. "Anne, stop. Please." Her feet stumble to a stop and her socked foot landes on something sharp and cutting and she gasps. "Anne!" Two sets of hands catch her torso, and she faintly feels a wet touch pulling at her ankle. Her family carefully let her down, so she lands heavily on her butt instead of her nose. Anne's next breath is a punch of air and her lungs brighten with pain as she loses control of her inhales and exhales. Her eyes hurt and burn. When she wipes a dirty hand across her face, she winces as hot tears and snot sting her injuries. A light weight settles onto her back and rubs in a circular motion. Anne clings to the sensation. Between sputtering breaths, she begins to hear. "-in...and out...in...and out," Hop-pop's soothing, raspy voice repeats and then she can hear Sprig humming. It's a song Wally wrote about a silly snail getting lost and he had sung it at her Frog of the Year party. A laugh bubbles up into a sob and Anne reaches out her arms to pull all three of them close.
"I love you guys," she chokes out, and Polly pats her cheek.
"We love you too, Anne," says the polliwog, normally so energetic now wrung out and too bright-eyed. She needs to pull herself together. Anne releases her grip and her family takes a step back. She runs her hands through her hair and shakes her head, dust and dirt and surprisingly long twigs falling to the broken concrete.
"Alright, froggy fam," she begins, "I'm going to take you to meet my human fam." Sprig whoops, but he's clearly flagging.
Anne grimaces and looks at Hop-pop. The old, orange frog meets her gaze steadily, but she can tell how much he is missing his cane. "Hop-pop, you got Polly, I got Sprig?" He nods. "Alright. Let's make our way to the highway, follow along till we hit an exit, follow that till we hit town, figure out where we are, call my parents. Sound good?" No one protests and Anne helps Sprig up to her shoulder as Hop-pop collects Polly.
They're maybe ten minutes into their walk, and every step is a jolt to her nervous system. Her skin feels prickly, her jaw too tight, her muscles ache like never before. The pressure of her Newtopian breastplate, once reassuring, weighs her every step like a lodestone. The heron-leather straps pinch at the underside of her arms. Sprig's cool, damp skin is refreshing against the back of her neck, but it's not slimy enough and it concerns Anne. She bites her lip and tries to time her steps so that her sneaker hits the rocks and roots, while her socked-foot hits bare earth. She isn't always successful, and everything is starting to throb. Her temples pulse loudly in her head and her knees are weak and her mouth is parched.
"Shh, shh, it's okay, Polly..." Hop-pop murmurs behind her. She can't see him, but she hears the dragging footsteps crunch the dry grass and the low comfortings of the grandfather to the polliwog. A stabbing pain shoots through her chest, and Anne forces her legs into a march. Focuses on the act of raising her thigh, swinging her calf forward, shifting her weight, repeat ad infinitum.
In seventh grade health class, there had been only one day dedicated to 'mental health issues' and something mentioned was meditative breathing. In multiple P.E. classes, Anne heard the teachers talk about making sure to breath while exercising. One, two, three. In. One, two, three. Out. Anne can do this.
The clouds parted a bit as they walked and the sun is nearly blinding Anne, as she squints at the sign. DALY STREET EXIT, it read in giant white text on green. Okay, so now they can get out of the weird in-between highway area they've been hiking. She points at it. "This way."
Something is mumbled behind her back.
"Huh?" She stops to turn and looks at Hop-pop. "What's up?" The elderly frog's face is twisted in a very non-confidence inspiring way.
"Well...Anne, I can't help but notice you don't have your backpack. Or...or your phone. So-" All Anne could hear was a piercing, ringing sound. Her hands clenched and unclenched.
"Right," says Anne, interrupting whatever the old frog had been saying. "Right. I don't have my backpack or phone." She blinks rapidly and Hop-pop's brow furrows deeper grooves. Her fingernails dig grooves of equal depth into her palms. "Okay, so," she claps her hands and ignores Sprig and Polly startle, "we will keep going. We will find someone kind and nice who will be willing to call my parents. End of plan."
"Great plan," Sprig yawns in her ear, and she can't help the yawn in return. It stretches her neck muscles and she yawns again for good measure. Polly yawns, then Hop-pop, then her and Polly at the same time. They all smile and the moment of brevity gets the family going again, the plan -no matter how little Anne believes in it herself- solidly in mind and the goal spurring them on. Not too much further now.
The sign for 7-11 flickers and there is a closed down Redbox sitting stoutly next to a ash-tray/trash can. The ad in the window advertises Berry Glam Blitz Bomb and a two for four hotdogs sale. Her stomach rumbles.
Her family is crowded together outside the storefront, and Anne doesn't know what to do. She's loathe to leave the Plantars by themselves, but maybe the cashier won't be the most cynical soul in Los Angeles. Then the frogs won't go under the risk of wandering the streets, talking to strangers. She can't bring them in though, what if the employee freaks out (like...any reasonable person confronted by talking frog people would). A clammy, orange hand taps her arm twice. She looks down.
"We'll be okay for five minutes, Anne," reassures Hop-pop. "Hand me Sprig." She doesn't hand him Sprig so much as the pink frog melts off her back and flops down next to his grandfather, but either way transfer successful. Okay now it's just time to interact with a human who isn't one of her two childhood best friends. She can't be totally out of practice right?
Marcy's eyes had been so wide when she died. Her pretty, dark brown eyes glittering from the light of Andrias' sword. From the flashing blue of the portal home. From tears.
Anne swallows roughly and steps toward the entrance. She scolds herself when the self-automated doors startle her, and she glances around the store. Someone tall and bald by the coolers, someone on the phone in the back, besides them and Anne the place is empty. Well, and the cashier. She approaches the register before she can one-eighty out the stupid doors, and she clears her throat. The cashier, a young guy with bright green and black hair and a name tag reading 'Jared', looks up from his phone.
"Hey-o, ready to check out?"
"Um, no actually," Anne starts and stops. What is she supposed to say? "I...dropped my phone and it cracked badly," she lies. "I was supposed to meet up with my mom but I can't get the dang thing to turn on." She laughs, short and high-pitched, rubbing her neck. "Is there like, a store phone I could borrow to call her?"
Jared raises his eyebrows. "No, there isn't a store phone. If you buy something I could exchange dollars for quarters, I think there's a phone booth near here." The lights are buzzing really loudly, Anne notices. She takes a deep breath.
"Sorry, that doesn't work. Could I borrow your phone?" She sees how the older guy assesses her. She sees her dirty torn school skirt, her scorched copper armor, the twigs that she can't stop finding in her hair. "Or could I give you her number? Please, I just want to get back to my mom." Jared's frown softens and his mouth opens to speak, but is cut off by a voice behind Anne.
"Annie Bone-choy?" Her neck complains at the speed she turns to look. The bald person she saw earlier. Face contorted in open surprise, finger pointed in her direction, he says in a nasally SoCal accent, "Your parents have been looking everywhere for you."
"Do I know you?" Anne asks. Bald guy shakes his head. "No. I like your parents restaurant, amazing noodles by the way, and they have your missing posters all over the front. Yours and two other girls."
"I thought you lost your phone and were meeting up with your mom," Jared unhelpful interjects. Anne looks between both of them.
"Can I please use someone's phone to call my mom?" The two adults look at each other.
"Tell me your mom's number," says Jared tentatively. Anne rattles off the ten digit code with ease. She remembers sitting in the kitchen and her mom helping her arrange plastic magnet numbers in the order of her cell phone number. Jared puts the phone on speaker and the dialing tone begins to ring. Once, twice, three times, four...
"Hi! This is Madee Boonchuy. Not here right now, please leave a message!" The messaging system beeps and Anne just shakes her head at Jared. He ends the call.
"Can you please try again?" She pleads. Jared frowns, but does as requested. The dialing rings again. And gets voice-mail, again.
"I could call the restaurant," the bald guy offers. "It's not exactly rush hour but they are open right now, right?" Anne blinks away the stinging in her eyes. She has no idea what time it is, no idea what day or month or even if it's the same year. Who knows how Amphibia time lines up with Earth time?
"Can you? Please?" He nods and pulls out his phone. A minute while he finds the contact, and now for the third time, the phone rings on speaker. Anne knows what they say about third tries, and she crosses her fingers tightly.
"Hello? Delivery or pick-up?" Familiar, accented English, and Anne has to resist falling to the floor.
"Mom," Anne whispers in Thai, and the voice on the line speaks rapidly.
"Anne? Sweetheart? Oh my god, Anne? Anne?"
"It's me Mom. It's Anne," Anne sniffs and hiccups. "
Some sharp, unintelligible yelling comes out the receiver, and there is a rustling and slamming sound before Anne's mom replies, "Where are you?"
Anne blue screens for a second. "I'm..." She struggles to remember. "I'm at a 7-11."
"What? Where? What street?"
"Daly Street," Jared pipes up.
"Who is that?" Her mother says sharply.
"That's just the cashier, he was, he was helping me. Well and another guy who comes to the restaurant apparently? I uh, he says he recognized me from my posters, huh, I didn't realize I'd have any," Anne rambles.
"I'm coming to you, Anne," Her mom promises. "I'm going to hug you so much. I'm coming to you. I have to hang up now, to get in the car, but do not go. Please."
"I promise," says Anne, and when her mom ends the call, she starts crying.
She exits the 7-11 once she gets the bald guy and Jared to distract each other (i.e. purchasing a bottled soda), and she spots the Plantars immediately. They're on top of a parked USPS truck. When Anne peers around the vehicle to see the other side of the street, she spies the mailman making his way towards the truck. Crap.
"Guys!" She hisses through clenched teeth. She raps her knuckles against the truck's side and hear Polly yelp. "Guys, get off the truck!" A moment later, Hop-pop and Sprig land beside her, Polly in her brother's arms. Anne pulls them over to the Redbox and huddles on the side opposite to the store entrance. She steps in front of them, hoping her body will shield enough of the frogs so nobody looks closer.
"Your mom is gonna be here soon?" Sprig asks. Anne nods.
"Yep, she'll...she'll be here soon." There's no response, and there is a take-a-tab paper taped to the trash can advertising singing lessons, and it's all Anne can do to not remember the time Sasha threw a karaoke party and they all started singing badly and together, and Anne blinks and keeps talking.
"My mom will come, and she's probably in her mini-van, oh man she's gonna tear through like twenty stop signs and scare other drivers so bad," she snorts, "and maybe there'll be a loose water bottle or a chip bag in the car, and oh man, you guys don't know what sour cream and onion chips are I can't wait to show you-"
"Anne," Hop-pop cuts her off. "Don't forget to breathe." She sucks in a deep breath and feels bile creeping up her throat. She tries to swallow but her mouth is so dry it just hurts. She can't imagine how her frog family's is feeling compared to her, they must be feeling so much worse than her, and they haven't said anything yet. Anne exhales forcefully. When a hand squeezes around her own, she squeezes back reassuringly.
They all jump as a dark red mini-van screeches to a halt in front of the 7-11. The driver exits the car, not wasting time to even park, and runs towards them. "Anne!"
"Mom!!!" Anne cries and she takes only a few steps before she's barreled over.
"Anne, oh my god, thank the heavens it's you! Anne, Anne, oh my baby," Anne's mom sobs into her shoulder before pulling back. Anne stares at her mother. Lets her eyes trace the deepened wrinkles, notice the shining, brown eyes the same shade as her own, the beauty mark on her chin. Her mom's glasses are new. Anne can't remember what they'd been, but now her mom wears tortoiseshell frames.
"I like your glasses," is the first thing to tumble out of Anne's mouth, and she nearly slaps herself. Her mom laughs wetly.
"Oh, Anne, oh, I've missed you so much." Her mother folds her back into her arms. Anne hugs back as tightly as she can for a second before her mom stiffens with a surprised grunt. "And you're so much stronger, when did that happen?"
Anne smiles. "I'll tell you about it." She steps back and grabs her mom by the shoulders. They're the same height now. "I'll tell you all about it." And that means... "Mom, let me introduce you to the Plantars," Anne steps to her mom's side and reveals her froggy family.
Her mother gasps and says something in Thai that Anne doesn't know. She would bet it's one of the worse swear words. "I know it's a shock, cuz, well, two foot tall talking frogs," says Anne and motions for the trio to come a bit closer. "But they protected me, fed me, and loved me while I was stranded in their world." Hop-pop shuffles the closes with Sprig and Polly poking their heads out behind him.
Hop-pop extends his hand. "My name is Hopadiah Plantar, it's an honor to meet you Mrs. Boonchuy." Her mom looks down at the wrinkly, orange hand and then back at Anne. She nods encouragingly and her mom steels herself before meeting the hand with her own.
She gingerly shakes it. "Pleasure to meet you...Hopadiah," Anne's mom says his name carefully. "My daughter says you kept her safe?" Hop-pop nods.
"To the best of my ability," and his face gains a wry look and he rubs the back of his neck. "When she and my grandkids weren't off chasing trouble."
Anne's mom smiles tentatively. "I'm sure. Are these your grandkids here?" Sprig comes out behind Hop-pop's back and puts out his hand.
"I'm Sprig Plantar! And this is-" A loud honk interrupts him and everyone in the group startles, moving to looke at the source. A silver BMW is stuck behind her mom's mini-van and the one-way street doesn't give any wiggle around room. A shout filters out of the sports car. "MOVE YOUR CAR!" Except with a lot more swears. Anne's mom sighs.
"Introductions later, let's get in the car," she instructs and everyone moves.
All the frogs hesitate as they get closer, Sprig even flinching when Anne hauls open the back seat door with a slam. She gestures inside. "C'mon guys, it's just like a wagon," Anne says. Polly hops in first and settles into the closest middle row seat. She bounces couple times.
"It's comfy," the polliwog reports. The jerk in the BMW honks again, even longer. Sprig and Hop-pop pile in and Anne closes the door behind them. She gets into the passenger seat and the feeling of air conditioning against her skin is like. Magic wind. Super relaxing. Like insane luxury. Oh, Anne missed technology.
"Buckle up." Her mom clicks her seat belt into the lock and starts pulling away immediately. Leaving Anne to explain what 'buckle up' means, and what a seat belt is, and no she doesn't know when they were invented. The questions continue as the mini-van pulls onto the highway, but the group soon quiets down. Anne blinks slowly and looks outside the window. The trees and billboards and other cars pass by her so quickly, so much quicker than Bessie could ever go. A pang strikes her heart as Anne realizes Bessie will be all alone. She hopes the Plantar's family snail is taken care of while they're gone. Anne looks away from the window as nausea grips her throat. She's almost home. She can hold off on falling apart for just a little longer.
"Anne, honey, are you awake? We're home."
Anne blinks and she squeezes her eyes tight and yawns loudly and long. She hadn't realized she dozed off. "I'm...home." She opens the door and doesn't let her twinging feet deter her from getting a good look at her home. The small bushes that lined the driveway, the slightly dented mailbox, the umbrella her dad always left outside the red door. Anne drinks it all in.
For the past several months she had been in a world with fantastical flora and fauna and shocking experiences every day, but Anne feels dizzy at the sight of her home. Her eyes catch on every detail, the once too-familiar not familiar enough. The bristly door mat; the unpolished brass numbers: 301; the creaky porch step; the small, pink, clay owl figurine Anne had given to her mom for Mother's Day in fifth grade and sat tucked in the corner. Her eyelashes are sticky with tears.
"Your house is SOOOOOOOOO BIG!" Anne snorts and is grateful for Sprig. She turns around to look at the small, pink frog.
"It's pretty nice! I've loved growing up here. Three-oh-one Silver Spring Lane." A gobsmacked look.
"You have springs made of silver?" Sprig's jaw drops. Hop-pop's head pokes out of the van.
"What's this I hear of silver springs?"
Surprisingly, it's Anne's mom who answers. She laughs, and it soothes Anne, before saying, "No, Hopadiah. It's just a nice name for a road." Anne tunes out what Hop-pop replies in favor of turning back to the door.
The metal door handle is hot to touch, searing from the oppressive California heat. She breathes out in a harsh whoosh and forces herself to yank the door open. It slams against the wall and the hinges squeak. Anne hears a sound of protest from her mom, but she can't acknowledge it when there's a bullet of fluff running towards the door.
"DOMINO!" The cat jumps into Anne's arms and she catches her, swinging Domino around and around and gosh, will Anne ever stop crying today? She hides her tears in Domino's soft, white belly, and laughs as the cat wiggles around to climb up her shoulders. Domino wraps around her neck and rubs Anne's check with her cute, little face.
Anne collapses to her knees and she pulls her cat around and holds her so carefully and so, so close. Domino allows this longer than ever before, but soon she does squirm and fall to the carpet on all four feet. She chirps and purrs vacuum-like. Anne's hands move on their own accord, stroking down Domino's back, scratching all her sweet spots, reacquainting herself with her Domino, her beautiful angel baby.
"Anne, could you move your reunion a few feet more into the hallway? So we can come in?" Her mom says, her tone telling Anne she's smiling. Anne kisses her baby's head one more time before standing up and moves to the side. Ugh, her knees hurt from carpet burn. That's one thing she hadn't missed.
"Sprig, Polly, Hop-pop! Remember the killapillar?" Anne scoops up Domino and holds her out. "This is Domino One!" Sprig steps closer, squinting. He pokes at Domino's paw and she mrrps! At him. He flinches back for a second before staring deep into her eyes. Anne watches this stare-off with no small amount of amusement.
Eventually, Sprig asks, "So this Domino won't kill us for dinner?" Anne shakes her head and a leaf drifts from her hair.
Sprig oh so slowly reaches a finger to Domino's long-haired back. "Oh!" He says, curling his fingers through the fur. "She's even softer than peatmoss."
Polly joins her brother and jumps up and down on her new, little legs. "Let me pet her!" Anne leans back down, but Domino wriggles out her grip and runs down the hallway, disappearing around the kitchen corner. Polly pouts. "Aw! I wanted to touch Domino One."
Anne pats her yellow bow. "Don't worry. There's plenty of time for that later."
"I believe a good use of time right now," Anne's mom says, still lingering in the open door, "would be for you to change out of your dirty clothes. Go take a shower."
Anne stares at her mom stunned. "Oh my god...," she whispers. "I shall finally be clean." Sprig laughs.
"Are there no showers where you come from?" Anne's mom asks Hop-pop as Anne still revels in the very idea of pressurized water.
"I can't say I know what a shower-whatsit is, but we did bathe," Hop-pop says archly, half at Anne's mom and half at her. Her mom nods understandingly. Then frowns.
"Do you have any spare clothes with you?" She asks and all the Plantars go wide-eyed.
"We..." Hop-pop can't finish his sentence hands twisting his ascot. Sprig looks morose and he's holding onto his slingshot tightly. Polly is similar, tugging at her frayed and dirty yellow bow. Anne's heart twinges, and she cuts in.
"We didn't exactly have time to pack our wardrobes when we came, Mom," she says. "I have piggy bank money, we can go shopping guys! You guys have to see the mall.This time, my treat," she tries to cheer up the little frogs.
Sprig and Polly perk up at the mention of visiting the mall, but Hop-pop and her mom both protest at once.
"Anne, that's mighty kind of you, but-"
"Anne, that's very generous, but-"
Both stop and her mom motions for the frog to continue. Hop-pop waits a second more before saying, "Anne, you don't need to spend your savings on us. We can make do if you just show us to a wash bucket and a needle with thread. When these get worn out, we'll cross that river when we come to it." Anne's mom then lays a hand on Hop-pop's shoulder, slightly crouching to reach. Hop-pop nods at her.
Her mom smiles before saying to him, "I can certainly show you the washing machine, but we'll figure out another set of clothes for you." Her gaze casts over Sprig, Polly, and Anne. "For all of you. And Anne," her mom walks up to her and she smiles with glistening eyes, "when did you grow up so much?" She brings Anne into a tight hug before releasing her. And boops her nose. Anne squeals. Her mom smiles. "I will pay for the shopping. Now!" She claps. "Shoes off."
Everyone looked down at their feet and noticed the frogs didn't have any. "Ah well, shoes and...shoe off. Anne, what happened to your shoe?"
Anne waves it off. "Lost it a few months ago." Her mother grumbles and Anne suspects she'll be getting a new pair of sneakers in the near future. Then it occurs to her, "Where's Dad?"
"He had to stay to make sure the delivery went smoothly since Jackson quit and everyone else messes it up," her mom explains while running her hands through Anne's hair.
Anne gasps. "No! Not Jackson."
"Yes, Jackson," replies her mom. Her fingers tug painfully through Anne's hair and come away holding a handful of leaves and twigs. "Is there an entire forest in your head? Now off you go, shower. Get the dirt off," she commands. Anne rolls her eyes.
"Yes, Mom," Anne says in Thai and kisses her cheek. She looks to the Plantars. "You guys okay with my mom showing you around the house? Show you somewhere to sit and some water?"
Hop-pop nods and Polly wiggles. "I have a mighty THIRST," she yells. Anne giggles.
"Well, alright froggy fam. See you on the flip side," and she starts to head up the steps, her fingers trailing the railing, when a cough causes her to pause. She glances back.
"Anne..." Sprig says, "welcome home."
Tears spill over her cheeks and Anne half-falls down the stairs to give him a tight hug. Quickly, other froggy arms surround the two and are joined by a pair of human arms. All together, all safe, all alive. Anne takes a deep breath, and exhales heavily. She's back home.