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Attack of the Froguanas! Chapter 4
Chapter 4: A Tail in the Woods
"So then I told her that I didn't care how many pageants she won or football players she dated, shooting Nazis always beats the stuffing out of spelling words with your arms."
Ash's punch line was greeted by shouts of shock and glee from her audience. They--Ash, Matt, Michael, and Em--were in the Kerrs' barn, sitting on or against hay bales, having coffee and donuts. The Sun was shining through the high windows, making carpets of light on the dusty floor, and the gaps in the conversations of her friends was filled by the soft noises of the horses in their stalls. All in all, Ash couldn't think of a better way to spend a Saturday. Junk food, no homework, and the chance to perform for her brother and her friends. But where was Jess?
Michael was shaking his head. "You wanna be careful about what you say, Ash. You don't wanna get the head cheerleader mad at you, 'specially when she happens to be Nellie Campbell."
"Yeah," Matt chimed in, picking up the joke. "You might find the severed head of the school mascot in your locker one of these days. Campbell be cray."
Ash widened her eyes belligerently. "Come at me, bro!" she taunted the air before her, leaping up from her hay bale. Rearing back dramatically, she slapped at the invisible cheerleader. To her delight, her pantomime was a hit with her audience. At least, with Michael and Matt. Em, as she always did, sat as quietly as if she were in class. Ash felt a flash of awkwardness, but quickly pushed it away. She was just shy--that was all. She was just feeling awkward without Jess there. Where was Jess, anyway?"
Carrying on with her routine, Ash flipped her hands wimpily back and forth in front of her until they became a blur. Turning away from her imaginary slap-fight, Ash explained, "The reason I fight like this is because, although I have virtually punched Hitler in the face many times, I am a truly wussy fighter IRL."
She flopped back down onto her hay bale as her audience giggled.
Em stood up. "I'm going to get some more coffee. Anybody want anything?"
The boys mumbled about more donuts, while Ash shook her head. After Em had departed with the mostly-empty coffee pot, Ash felt it was safe to ask. "So, how come Em's here? I didn't invite her."
"Wow! Harsh, A!" Matt yelped.
Ash waved a hasty hand. "That's not what I meant," she insisted, feeling her stomach clench with guilt. "It's just that she's really Jess' friend, isn't she? Normally, she doesn't hang out with us unless Jess is here."
"I invited her," said Matt. "I mean, it's gotta be lousy having to go straight back to hanging out with her mom after traveling all over the world. Right?"
Ash nodded; that was certainly true. Mrs. Kramer was a confirmed homebody ever since her divorce from Em's father. Not exactly stimulating company. "It's not that I mind having her around," Ash explained, "It's just that I never know what to say to her. I mean, Hitler-punching jokes are my best material, and she didn't even so much as snort!"
"Where is Jess, anyway?" Matt asked, turning to Michael, who shrugged.
"Dunno, I called her house, but nobody answered."
"Well, that's a shame," said Ash. "I happen to have some awesome news for y'all."
"What?" Matt looked accusingly at his sister. "When were you planning on telling me?"
"Whenever you planned on shutting your gob and listening," replied Ash primly. "Since Jess is part of this awesome news, I was hoping to tell y'all when she got here, but since she's not, that's just too fetchin' bad for her. My friend, my brother…" she paused for dramatic effect, looking rapidly from Matt's to Michael's faces, "We will be going to the 45th annual Choice Music Festifal in Portland next month!"
Their reaction was just what she'd hoped for: jubilant. "No way!" cried Matt, thumping his sister on the arm.
"Oi, watch that twin telepathy," Ash groused playfully, rubbing her arm. "You'll be feeling that in a bit."
"How'd you get tickets?" asked Michael.
"You know those radio commercials where they ask you to send them a tweet in the next thirteen minutes to win two tickets to the thing?"
"Well, I sent them a tweet in the next thirteen minutes, and it happened to be during their Daily Double event, so they gave me four!"
"Sweet!" crowed Michael.
"But…" Matt looked doubtful. "What about--"
"And then," interrupted Ash. "I emailed the DJ guy and told him about how my brother was stuck on this one girl and could he pretty-please have an extra ticket to give to her."
"And?" prompted Matt.
Ash smirked at him. "And the DJ guy said, 'Anything for love,' and sent me another one."
Matt grinned. "Aright!"
"I didn't know you were stuck on Em, Matt," Michael teased.
"I'm not stuck on her," said Matt carefully. "I just think it'd be a bit harsh, if we just straight-up didn't include her. I mean, we're all going to different schools in the fall. It'd be nice to do one last big thing together."
There was a moment of silence as everyone pondered the gravity of college. A bay horse snorted and whickered from somewhere in the barn.
Finally, Ash spoke. "You're totally stuck on Em, aren't you Matt?"
"No, I'm not!" Matt yipped.
Ash almost believed him, but kept teasing anyway. "Dude, we're twins. You can't hide that kind of stuff from me."
Matt rolled his eyes. "You know twin telepathy isn't real, right?"
"Oh really?" Ash taunted. "Then why is my head full of Em smiling in slow-motion like in some cheesy Nick Sparks movie?"
Matt squawked in protest. Ash laughed, and then shouted in a scandalized tone, "Ew Matt, that's gross! Cut it out!"
"Where is Em, anyway?" asked Michael, as Matt gave Ash another shot on the arm.
Ash and Matt barely looked up from their scuffle. "Maybe she's making a cow-pie donut for you, Mattie-boy, 'cause you've got such a big fetchin' crush on her!" Ash stuck her tongue out at Matt and gave him a shove.
"Nah, she's making one for you 'cause you're so mean to her!" Matt retorted, shoving back.
At that moment, Em rushed into the barn, out of breath and pale as milk. Ash and Michael greeted her casually, but Matt said, "What's the matter, Em? You look freaked."
"Get in the house," she gasped. "We need to get in the house right now."
No sooner had Em left the barn than she heard Ash's question to the boys. "So how come Em's here? I didn't invite her."
She thought she'd be used to it by now, but Em still felt the same old embarrassment and shame filling her stomach at Ash's words. She knew that Ash didn't care for her much, and never really had, but it still hurt.
Rather than head straight for the house for the requested donuts, Em decided to wander around the farm for a bit. She didn't have any desire to be where she wasn't wanted.
She would go back eventually, she knew. Because of Matt.
Em sighed despondently, as her thoughts turned, as they inevitably did, to Matt. No matter how much his sister didn't like her, Em didn't think it was possible for her not to like him. He was so sweet, so kind, and so funny. Despite what Ash obviously thought, Em did have a sense of humor; she was usually just too shy to laugh. And he was one of the few people she knew who had a real sense of honor. He was the one--along with Jess--who had helped her to convince her mother to let her study abroad in the first place. If only he had been able to come along…
The day was almost warm, and the Sun beamed down from the gleaming blue sky. It was one of those days where the wind itself seems to sparkle with light and there's a nearly tangible buzz in the air, in anticipation of summer. Oregon springs are energetic entities, Em mused, with every plant and animal gearing up for the languid heat of summer.
As she traipsed through the damp grass, Em remembered the castle she had gone to see on one of her days off. Apparently, it was the castle where Macbeth was set. It was strange to think of that creepy play taking place in that castle, because the weather had actually been nice that day. Hard to imagine witches and ghosts when the Sun is shining down…
Her thoughts were abruptly derailed as she came near the forest. The trunk of a felled tree was lying across the path that led into the forest, covered with moss and the glittering film of snail trails. Em supposed that Ash and Matt's parents had put it there in response to the reports of cougar attacks, to stop people from going into the forest. But what caught her attention was the scaly, green tail with lethal-looking spikes that lay, twitching lazily, out from behind the log.
Presumably, still attached to an animal of some kind.
Mastering the sudden, powerful urge to bolt, Em timidly approached the tree trunk, stepping as lightly as she could over the grassy ground. She was acutely aware of the blood rushing in her ears, and her breathing sounded preternaturally loud. Peering over the top of the tree trunk, she saw the creature at last.
Em's tenth-grade science teacher, Ms. Blaine, had kept an iguana in her classroom named Frank. She used to think that Frank the Lizard was huge, but the creature Em saw sunning itself behind the tree trunk could've used Frank as a toothpick after making a meal out of several dozen other Franks. At least as long as Em was tall, covered in scales that shimmered dangerously in the sunlight, the creature breathed slow, deep breaths that sounded for all the world like an idling motorcycle engine. A line of raised bumps trailed along the ridge of its back, getting sharper as they approached its tail, where a cluster of breathtakingly sharp spikes protruded in all directions.
The creature's breathing stuttered, and Em's gaze jumped frantically away from the twitching tail. She took a step back, but the creature didn't stir. Gingerly stepping forward again, she examined its head. It was triangular, like a frog's head, and she could see slits of yellow that were unmistakably its half-closed eyes. The front paws that were splayed out under its chin were webbed, but were also studded with claws as sharp as the spikes on its tail.
How long she stood there examining the bizarre and deadly-looking lizard, she didn't know. She might have stood there a great deal longer, if two things hadn't happened in rapid succession. First, a small brown rabbit hopped out of the forest, its ears and nose twitching in an adorable display of wariness. Second, before the rabbit could so much as squeak, a long purple tongue unfurled from the giant lizard's mouth, wrapped itself firmly around the bunny, and yanked it into the lizard's toothy mouth faster than blinking.
Em's stomach churned as the lizard's jaws worked, crunching dispassionately at the rabbit in its mouth. She felt as if she might throw up on the spot. Pulling herself together, she decided that it was definitely time to leave.
Unfortunately, her exit was a bit too hasty, and she tripped over her feet and nearly went sprawling. The grass muffled the sound of her scuffling footsteps, but not her involuntary gasp of surprise. With a horrible sinking feeling, Em heard the sounds of the lizard's munching cease, then a low growl, and then the lizard itself peered over the fallen log and fixed her with the full force of its savage yellow eyes.
In the second it took her to react, Em felt another wave of nausea as she saw the little trickles of blood that shone on the scales around the lizard's mouth. A bit of furry flesh had lodged itself between two of the creature's fantastically long teeth. A hungry-sounding growl was working its way out of the creature's throat, and it was directed straight at Em.
At that point, Em remembered that the coffee pot was still clutched tight in her hand. With all her might, she hurled the carafe at the lizard's head and--feeling slightly satisfied through her total fear--watched it shatter against the lizard's blunt nose.
Brown liquid, still steaming slightly, erupted across the creature's face. The growl changed abruptly to a shriek and the creature disappeared behind its log. A series of scuffling noises told Em that the creature had taken shelter in the woods.
And with that, she ran.
She didn't stop running until she got back to the barn. Ash, Matt, and Michael were still there; Ash and Matt were tussling playfully, while Michael munched on the last donut, without a care in the world. They looked up in surprise when Em burst through the door.
"Hey Em! What took you so long?" asked Michael breezily.
"What happened to the coffee?" asked Ash.
Matt's brow was furrowed. "What's the matter, Em? You look freaked."
Gulping air, Em gasped, "Get in the house. We need to get in the house right now."
The three friends made noises of confusion. "Get in the house right now!" Em screamed.
The barn seemed too open, too full of animals to be completely safe. A house, with people inside and locks on the doors, was what they needed.
With some persuading and a little pushing, Em managed to hustle the others out of the barn, across the grassy lawn, and into the house. Ash and Matt's parents were both at the market, so the kitchen was deserted as they all pushed through the back door. Ash turned to Em and asked, not unkindly, "What's the deal? You look like you just saw the Texas Chainsaw Massacre in person."
In the fluorescent lighting and comforting cooking smells of the kitchen, Em's encounter with the giant killer lizard seemed almost unreal in her mind. But she knew what she had seen, and she knew she had to tell the others.
"I…saw something. Near the woods," she said, getting her breath back at last.
"The woods? What were you doing there?" asked Michael.
"What did you see?" asked Matt. "Was it a cougar? I heard on the news…"
Em shook her head. "It was a lizard, but enormous. It was--"
"Oh, we get those all the time," said Matt soothingly. "Alligator lizards, they love the forest. They're big, about a foot long, but they're nothing to be scared of."
Em shook her head again. "That's not what this was. This thing was huge, and it had teeth and yellow eyes and…"
She trailed off. The others were looking at her with expressions that went straight past skeptical and bordered on incredulous. Her shoulders slumped. They wouldn't believe her, and she didn't blame them. If she was hearing this story from someone else, she wouldn't believe it either.
"And a long purple tongue?"
Em and the others jumped at the unexpected question. Turning as one to the kitchen door, they saw Ash and Matt's Grandpa Jim standing framed in the doorway, looking uncharacteristically serious. He was waiting, Em realized, for an answer.
"Yes," she said uncertainly.
"And a big old spiky tail?" asked Jim.
Jim nodded, looking more grave by the minute. "You kids better come in here."
He gestured for them to follow him into the living room, which they did. Sitting around the coffee table were Jess, her grandparents Bob and Mary, Michael's Grandma Linda, and Em's Grandpa John. Several beverages sat untouched on the coffee table. Nobody was talking and everyone looked deathly serious.
Em went to sit by her grandfather, and asked him, "What's going on? What was that thing I saw?"
John didn't respond immediately. He knitted his fingers together, seeming unsure of how to proceed. He always was a man of few words. Then, he said, "A long time ago, when I was about your age, something happened around here. And we all saw it. We were part of it."
John looked around at Bob, seeming to ask for help. Bob, nodding at him, addressed the room. "You all had better sit down. This could take some time."