Toad found the tiny imprints on her palate one day after school. Working her tongue to gouge out the peanut butter that had gotten globbed on the roof of her mouth from a snack, she felt something odd. It was like the hieroglyphic imprints you get when you fall asleep on your bedspread, only this wasn’t across her face, or up her arm, this was inside. Her eyebrows knit a stitch and her lips hang loose as she delicately pressed the pointed end of her tongue back and forth across her palate. It tickled a lot, but she became deft at applying just enough pressure to feel the oddity without causing a sensation she couldn’t withstand.
They were studying reptiles in school that week. It was kind of creepy, all of those snakes and frogs and toads. Just the pictures made her skin crawl. Toad’s nickname wasn’t generated because of her interest in those kinds of things. Toad was what her oldest brother called her when she first started to crawl. She had this kind of foot-to-knee roll that motivated her around the house, and she’d end in a squat with her hands between her feet.
“Such a toad,” Chip would say. “Baby toad, baby toad,” he’d tease. At the time, she didn’t know he was teasing. She clapped at his sing-songy attention, and the name stuck. It didn’t bother her much. Her given name – Elizabeth – seemed too long and snazzy for her. Eventually she adopted Lizzy as her moniker, but at home she was always Toad.
Toad continued tickling the tender flesh in her mouth. She ran upstairs to the bathroom and pulled a hand-mirror out of the drawer. The square mirror was large, but she managed to get one of its rounded corners between her teeth and maneuvered it to see the roof of her mouth reflected in the mirror above the sink. After several frustrating attempts, she held her breath to prevent fogging the glass.
There they were: two little dimples, on either side of the center ridge of her palate. Surely they were outlets for venom-filled tubes hidden in her head. She placed the hand-mirror on the counter and looked at her reflection straight-on. Peeling her lips back revealed teeth that looked normal enough. But weren’t her incisors pointier? She stuck out her tongue and curled and flicked the tip. It wasn’t forked. But then, she had good eyesight, and a prominent nose, and maybe that meant her species didn’t need a forked tongue for whatever it was forked tongues were good for.
Would it be possible to poison herself? That didn’t seem right—other venomous creatures didn’t just die in their dens after dinner. It must be that venom is lethal only to prey. She pulled the tip of her tongue across her palate again. It still tickled. Was that a drop of something she just picked up? She spit; not much, just a small spray, some of which hit the mirror on the wall. She leaned in closer to study it. It seemed discolored. She wiped it with her sleeve, and then spit in the sink. Peanut-butter tinted saliva swirled to the drain.
“Hey, Toad,” her brother called as he threw his backpack on the kitchen counter and pulled open the refrigerator door. “Where’s Mom?”
“Over at the Maclellan’s, to get Prissy,” Toad answered as she came into the kitchen. Tabitha was her sister’s real name. No one could remember why she was called Prissy, except it might have had something to do with Grandpa.
Toad watched her brother carry a juice carton, a brick of cheese, and a package of cold cuts from the refrigerator. She didn’t realize she was staring until he looked up and made a face at her, but not a face of sibling detestation; this face registered alarm.
“What’s up with you?” He sounded concerned. “What have you got on your chin?”
Now Toad was alarmed. She swiped her palm up her chin and looked into her hand. It was the discolored goo she’d been spitting into the sink upstairs. “Peanut butter, I think.” How could she tell him what she suspected that she’d become this venomous human, with leaking poison pits in her mouth?
“Gross,” Chip answered. He was supposedly a “chip off the old block,”technically a junior, carrying an exact replica of his father’s name on his birth certificate. But his mother did not agree with calling him Junior, as his father suggested, or Little Dale, as his father’s mother had suggested. Somewhere, she had known a Chip, whose name honored his father but whose nickname gave a hip individuality to the son. So Chip it was. “You are such an animal,” Chip continued, teasing his sister.
“Why do you say that?” Toad snapped, a bit alarmed that he would notice such a thing.
Her response startled her brother. He expected whining and complaining, not a serious inquiry. He gave her a double-take look then shrugged. “You just are,” he said, snarling with an exaggerated disgust to lighten her mood. “You slobber and your hair’s a mess…”
Toad ran her hand over her head. Her frizzy brown plaits were escaping their hold, sticking out at all angles. She tried to smooth them as Chip watched, puzzled, then muttered “weirdo” as he left the room. Toad stood motionless in the kitchen. She couldn’t seem to arrange her thoughts, but one idea stuck out: she was thirsty. All that peanut butter. She looked in the fridge at the cartons of juice and milk and shivered. The second thought that bubbled to the top of her brain was that she was cold: not cold cold, just chilly, a goose-bumpy kind of cold. She didn’t want a cold drink now; she wanted hot chocolate.
Chip came back into the kitchen. “What are you doing?” he asked.
“Making hot chocolate.” A mug of water was spinning in the microwave, and the jar of mix was on the counter.
“It’s almost a hundred degrees outside!” Chip squealed, exasperated.
“Whatta you care what I drink?” Toad asked. She didn’t usually talk back to Chip. Much of the time she would take his teasing, waiting for it to pass or yelling for her mom if he didn’t let up. But Mom wasn’t here, and she had a power Chip didn’t know about.
“Whatta you care what I drink,” Chip repeated, his voice squeezed into a sassy whine meant to imitate Toad, but Toad knew it was nowhere close to how she really sounded. “It’s just stupid is all,” Chip said, in his own baritone. The microwave dinged, Toad removed the cup, and stirred in the dark mix. The warm liquid felt therapeutic. She hadn’t noticed the roughness in her throat before, but there was a distinct rawness now. She grew alarmed: had the venom trickled down her throat? What would it do to her stomach? She still wasn’t sure if she would be able to poison herself. She sat solemnly at the kitchen bar and sipped.
“Toady!” Her four-year-old sister bounded through the back door and grabbed Toad’s leg.
“Is your brother home?” her mom asked, peering into the mug of hot chocolate. “What are you drinking?” she asked, looking curiously at Toad. “Is that hot chocolate?”
“Yeah,” Toad answered.
“Honey, it’s got to be eighty-five degrees outside!” her mother exclaimed.
“I dunno, I just felt like having a hot drink. I was kinda cold.” Prissy had released her leg and was bounding around the kitchen, waving her superhero blanket cape. “Where’d she get that?” Toad asked. She hoped her mom would stop paying attention to her. So what if she wanted hot chocolate? What was the big deal? The distraction paid off— her mom began chasing Prissy. Toad sipped a bit more of her drink, but it was too sweet, or too watery, or too…something. It didn’t satisfy. She slipped off the barstool, grabbed a hoodie from a hook, and headed outside.
It was hot. The sweatshirt she’d zipped on felt too prickly in the hot sun, and she shed it on the patio. She wandered over to a small, rocked-in corner of the yard that her mother had allowed her to use as a garden. She’d planted seeds (and let Prissy plant the sprouted lima bean from preschool), and she’d planted the corsage her father got her mother for Mother’s Day. That just turned brown, and her brother bent double laughing when he heard she’d tried to make it grow. Her mother helped her plant flowers from the nursery, to have some color before the seeds sprouted. She’d also put a shallow dish of water in the garden for a birdbath. She’d seen squirrels drink from it, and a small reddish bird dip and splash.
Today she saw tiny shoots rising from the soil in an orderly row. She followed the line toward the neighbor’s fence, which created the back border. There, what was that? She stepped closer and lifted a viney weed growing along the fence. There! She inhaled suddenly when a slender bit of green and black tubing formed an “s” then slithered deeper into the grass no mower could get to. Could it be? She leaned in again, brushing her cheek against the wildflowers and vines nestled in the fencerow, using both hands now to part the greenery. She saw the snake burrow under a mat of composting leaves next to a chipped, overturned flower pot her father convinced her to place there. The pot was supposed to attract toads. She’d seen a couple, daring herself to gently stroke them from knobby head to tail, which made her shudder.
But snakes weren’t toads, and slithering wasn’t like hopping, and creepy was just plain creepy. Hesitant but intrigued, she burrowed her hand, wrist, and arm into the corner to part the weeds for a better look. Suddenly, the garter snake slithered like lightning out of the greenery, across her bare toes, across the rocky border and onto the lawn where it disappeared. Toad’s heart was pounding, and her mouth tasted funny. She straightened and gasped like she’d jumped into a cold swimming pool. She brushed the dirt and grime from her hands and went into the house.
“What have you been doing?” her mother exclaimed. “Come wash your hands! You’re filthy! Were you trying to plant yourself in that garden out there?” Toad concentrated on her hand scrubbing, her mother’s hands cupping her own, getting sudsy together. “You need to be careful along the fence,” her mother cautioned. “Some things you don’t want to get into.” Her mother knew! Her mother knew about the snake! “Leave those muddy shoes by the door and set the table. We’ll eat soon.”
Toad’s nose twitched from the heady aroma of loam and weeds she’d inhaled. The roof of her mouth tickled, too, and, scratching the itch with her tongue, she again felt the pits that she’d found on her palate. She sniffed an anxious breath, and as soon as the silverware was placed, she bounded upstairs to her room.
Her teacher had given handouts on all of the reptiles they were studying, and Toad looked them over, hoping to spot the snake she’d seen. But the pages were in black and white. It was difficult to discern one snake from another in the pictures. She threw the papers across the foot of her bed and rolled on her back. She felt ickier and ickier with each passing minute.
“Dinner!” her mother called.
Her father wanted to see her garden after dinner. “No!” Toad answered, urgently. Her father stopped clearing the dishes, holding the chicken platter suspended over the table.
“What’s gotten into you?” her mom asked, taking the hovering plate from her dad’s hands. “Go show your dad what’s going on out there. I think I saw some stems peeping through the ground!”
“Come on,” Dad said. “Maybe you’ve got a visitor…” Toad was so startled by his words, she didn’t hear him finish “…in your toad house.” She had a visitor in her garden all right; it had infected her.
Toad followed several steps behind her father as he took long strides to the corner of the yard. “Looks good!” he said, kneeling near the rocks. “Better water it,” he suggested. “It’s been dry.” Toad followed him to the spigot to get the hose, shoulders drooped, head low. Her throat really hurt now, and she was sure it was the venom she’d swallowed with dinner, which hadn’t been very appetizing. Snakes (like her) don’t eat people food, she’d decided. Prissy scampered across the yard, running through the spray Dad made by splitting the water stream with his thumb. He’d spray Prissy, then the garden, then Prissy, then the garden. Toad watched anxiously as her sister pranced about, closer and closer to the corner garden to get the full force of water.
“Don’t let her get all dirty, Hank!” Mom called from the back door. Toad and her father had turned to hear her mom when Prissy yelped, then wailed a long, angry cry of pain. Toad’s dad dropped the hose and ran to the little girl. It had happened, Toad was sure. The snake had attacked her sister. The snake was jealous. The snake was out to get them all.
“Oh, she’s just cut herself a little on the edge of a rock, that’s all,” said Dad as he carried Prissy inside. “We’ll get her washed up. Time for a bath anyway.”
Toad was left alone outside. She felt a sudden cool trickle at her heel and jumped. Water, running from the hose, began to puddle at her feet. She turned it off at the house. A peachy fog formed in the twilight, making funny shadows in the yard. She needed to get inside, to feel secure, to get warm (she was chilled again), but she made one last visit to her garden. She found a sturdy stick and poked in the weeds at the fence.
“Toad? Lizzy honey?” Her mom was calling. “Come inside, honey. You need to wash up, too. Get upstairs and get in the shower,” her mom said when she reached the door.
Toad enjoyed a long shower. It was warm, cozy, safe. She shampooed twice, letting her hair hang like a mask around her as the suds rinsed away. Usually a late-night reader, she was sleepy and couldn’t wait to get into bed. Dried and dressed in her favorite night shirt, she put on knit footies, too, and slid under the covers.
“What?” Her father came into her room and looked at Toad curiously. “In bed already? No ice cream tonight?”
“I don’t feel like ice cream,” Toad answered. Just the thought of it made her shiver again. “How’s Prissy?”
“Oh, she’s fine. We put a big bandage on her cut, lots of gauze, tape, made a big deal out of it,” he smiled. “Remember when we used to do that with you? No cartoon bandages for you. You were all business, with wads of cotton balls and several lengths of tape to cover a scrape on your knee.”
Toad smiled, just to be nice. She wanted most of all to be alone right now.
“What’s this?” her dad asked, picking up the reptile handouts that had fallen to the floor when Toad got into bed. “Is this your homework?”
“Not exactly homework,” Toad answered. “Just stuff we got at school. We studied most of it today already.”
“Ah, reptiles!” Her dad was delighted. “I loved learning about frogs and toads and snakes – boy did I love snakes!”
Toad sat up in bed. “You did? You loved snakes?”
“Yes! They are the coolest creatures! I even had one in an aquarium. Just a garter snake, but he was cool.” Toad’s father told a story about catching a garter snake at his grandfather’s cottage and bringing it home in a shoebox to keep as a pet. Toad began to wonder about her dad. Why would someone love such slimy, icky creatures? Was there a deeper connection?
“Snakes are good for the yard,” her dad was saying. “They eat mice, and bugs. And they don’t really bother anybody: just don’t bother them!” He smiled at her and kissed her forehead. Toad wondered if he could tell if her skin was cold and clammy.
“Can you send Mom up here a minute?”
“Sure, kiddo. Sleep tight,” her dad said, rubbing her still-damp head and jostling the bed as he rose from it.
“Do you think I’m sick?” Toad asked her mom when she came to her room.
“How would I…do you feel sick?” her mom touched the back of her neck. “Hmm. You feel a little warm, but that’s hard to say.” Her mom began to peel away the covers. “You’re all bundled up! You’ve got your footies on! Honey, you must be boiling up under there!”
“Not really,” Toad protested quietly. “I’ve been kind of cold all day, kind of shivery. And I’ve got a sore throat.”
“Oh.” Her mom looked at her with concern. “Well now, let me get you something, to ease the pain, help you sleep. Maybe you’re getting a cold.”
I’m getting cold-blooded, Toad thought. And poisonous.
The next morning, Toad’s throat was so raw she couldn’t even swallow: it made her cry to try. She called to her mom with a voice that sounded like it had a bubble in it. Before her mom saw her, Toad noticed her skin. Red streaks had formed on the backs of her hand, and spots had bubbled up around her wrist and below her elbow. It was happening: she was getting reptile skin. She was shedding her own human flesh, and forming the bumpy, leathery outer coating of a snake. She wondered what she looked like.
“Oh my gosh!” Her mother exclaimed when she came to the room. She stepped back a bit, then furrowed her brow in concentration and approached slowly. “No, not chicken pox,” she was saying, to some invisible authority. She peered at Toad’s arms, and even her cheeks. At that instant, Toad felt an itching, almost to the point of burning, on her cheek. She raised her hand in a modified claw to scratch it.
“No! No!” her mother exclaimed. “DON’T scratch it! Wait right there, and DON’T TOUCH ANYWHERE!” she yelled as she bounded out the door. Toad became keenly aware of the sticky, zingy itchiness that had caught fire on her arms and her cheek. She wanted to scratch, but the bubbly red marks looked gross, and she didn’t want to spread the poison, or whatever had taken over her skin. That’s probably how it works: first, the pits of venom in your mouth, and as you ingest it, it works its way through your body and out to your skin, and you change forever. Toad’s mom returned with a wet cloth.
“Here, press this up against your face.” Her mother gently placed the cool, wet rag on her cheek. It did feel good. “Oh, my!” she said, and gave Toad a pitiful look. “I’ll run a bath, with baking soda. I wonder if we have any calamine?” Her mother was up from the bed and down the hall to the bathroom before Toad could ask what “kal-ah-mine” was.
“Come on, lazy bones, you’re gonna make us all la…” Chip stopped at the doorway to Toad’s room. “What is wrong with you?” he shouted. “Crap, Toad! You look awful! Yuck!”
Toad’s eyes grew wide. She wasn’t offended by his teasing this time. She knew he spoke the truth: she was becoming a snake. Of course her family would be repulsed by her appearance. She would have to live somewhere else, probably in the garden. Or maybe they’d keep her in an aquarium.
“Just stay out, Chip,” her mom said, embracing Chip’s shoulders and turning him away from Toad’s bedroom. “This has nothing to do with you. Hank,” her mom called. “Can you get Chip and Prissy to school?” In a quieter tone, she spoke to Toad. “Get to the bathroom and get in the tub. I’ll be there in a minute.” She left quickly.
As Toad dropped her feet to the floor, she saw that her ankles and tops of her feet also were blistered and red. Suddenly, she started to burn everywhere, even her throat, which she had almost forgotten about. She felt weak and droopy as she swayed down the hall. Before undressing, she caught sight of herself in the bathroom mirror and gasped. Her right cheek was an angry shade of red, with yellow-ish bubbles dotting it from near her eye to her chin. It itched. It itched so bad. It itched to the point of pain. She carefully put one foot into the tub. The water was cool; not what she preferred. Swirls of white clouded the liquid, and she wondered what that was all about. She pulled her other leg in and stood, hesitant to drop to her seat.
“Get in there,” her mother said, coming in and closing the door behind her.
“What’s this stuff?” With one arm crossing her chest in a minimal attempt at modesty, she pointed with her other hand to the swirling water.
“It’s baking soda. It might help take the itch away. Sit, sit!” Her mother knelt next to the tub, dipped a cloth, then held it to Toad’s cheek. The cool water took her breath away when she sat in it, but it did soothe the burn, and the cloth at her face brought relief.
“I told you to be careful,” her mom said. She knew! She knew about the snake! She knew there was some kind of danger being around it!
“You’ve got poison ivy,” her mother announced. Poison! Toad didn’t understand the ivy part, but she’d heard poison. “There’s too much of it growing back by that fence, and I haven’t had a chance to yank it out. Oh heavens, Lizzy. Poor baby!” With a long finger, her mother carried strands of Toad’s hair up and over an ear. “Splash the water all over. Oh my, look at your ankles!”
The cool water did feel good, mostly because the trickle of it had the relieving effect of gently scratching her itchy skin. She dipped and dribbled as her mother rummaged through the bathroom cupboard. She accepted a capsule of medicine and a cup of water, grimacing as she swallowed the pill over her raw throat.
“I’ve got to go call the school. You’ll stay home today. I think I’ll call the doctor, too, just to see what he says…” her mom continued her conversation as she went downstairs, listing tasks for herself.
Toad didn’t know what to think. Despite the initial shock, her mother seemed to know how to handle the transformation of her daughter. The cool bath, the pink pill. Was this something she’d expected? She started to shiver, and rose from the cold water. She felt better — less itchy, anyway — and toweled herself off gently.
“Well, the doctor recommends we do exactly what we’ve done, so we’re on the right track. Oh baby,” her mom whimpered. “I’m so sorry! But, the Benadryl should make you feel better.” Toad had no idea exactly what she meant, but she trusted her.
“Mom,” Toad said sheepishly. “I’ve still got that sore throat from last night. It hurts really bad.” Her mom looked shocked, which was odd. Mom handled just about every kid catastrophe with the bland reaction of a waitress taking an order: what you said and did was interesting, but nothing to get excited about. But this time, she was sincerely stunned.
“Oh, Lordy! You don’t have it in your throat, do you?” It was a question not meant to be answered. “Open up.” Toad obliged. “Oh,” her mother moaned. “I think you’ve got strep throat on top of all of this. Well, now, we do need to see the doctor.”
Toad was in a daze most of the morning. Groggy and weak, she stayed in bed until her mother brought her a mug of broth and told her to sip as much as she could, and then get some sweatpants and a t-shirt on. They were going to the doctor’s.
The doctor didn’t have much to say, except she kept shaking her head and even laughing occasionally. Apparently, they all thought this itchy rash was the result of weeds and plants Toad had touched. The swab of her throat indicated a strep infection. The medicine they’d get at the pharmacy was supposed to make her feel better in a day. Toad heard the words but wasn’t convinced it was all so ordinary.
By dinner time that night, Toad did feel better, much to her surprise. Her throat was not as sore, and her rash not so itchy, although it still looked hideous. Her mother had accepted the doctor’s offer to give Toad a shot of something to help with the itchy stuff. Toad hadn’t agreed, but then whammo! the nurse was in the room with a syringe. That evening, her dad rolled down his shirt sleeves, put on heavy gloves, and attacked the corner garden. He pulled out lots of greenery, and the neighbor finally came around to ask what was going on. Apparently, Dad’s explanation was good enough, because the neighbor joined the denuding of the fence row. All of the weeds went into plastic bags, and all of dad’s clothes went into the laundry. He had to walk in his underwear to the bathroom for a long shower.
Toad was nervous for her reptile friend, what with all of that hacking and tugging and shredding going on. She watched everything from the kitchen window and finally, with permission from her mother, went outside ‘carefully’.
She looked for the snake, even though she didn’t like the idea of it living in her yard. She approached slowly, startling at every twitch of grass the wind caused. She crouched at the rocky edge and observed the tender green sprouts shooting through the dark soil. She couldn’t remember what had been planted, and the surprise in store for her was exciting. She noticed a funny bulge of brown and black that looked like a piece had broken off a large border rock and fallen into the yard. She reached to snap it up and bring it inside the border when it rose up on bent, springy legs, alarming her.
Peering back at her was a toad. He’d been disturbed by the ruckus her dad and the neighbor had caused. Still crouching, she watched him carefully. Neither one of them moved. She covered her hand with a large, supple maple leaf like she’d seen Chip do (“they pee on you when you scare ‘em,” he’d said), and coaxed the bumpy thing onto her hand. She tried not to be grossed out or fidgety. With a scooping gesture, she raised him up and dumped him in her garden bed. He’d be okay when he got in the toad house. She rose and went back inside. She’d be okay in the house, too, and in a few days, she’d be herself again. Or maybe, different.