Jack was lost. He had followed a toad across the yard and into the little patch of woods behind the house. It was a large toad, as big as his dad’s fist, which is what scared him at first—how much the old, knobby toad looked like the fist, splotched, lumpy, clenched, rising out of the dirt, after him.
He nudged it with his bare foot when he first saw it and noticed immediately that it was soft and had eyes—so not a fist, but an ordinary toad with stubby arms and splayed toes. He nudged it again, and the toad hopped across the grass, calling to him in a plaintive, bleating voice. Come, come, it said and hopped again. He almost lost sight of it in the leaves, but the rustle of its movements helped him find it, and after a few more hops, Jack learned to see the toad in the mulch of twigs and pine straw on the forest floor—for now they had left the yard and were in the woods. The toad bleated only one more time, but it was enough to lead him on.
Most boys would try to catch the toad, torment it with a stick, throw it against a tree, perhaps take it home as a trophy, but not Jack. In spite of being a curious boy, he had learned not to touch what was not his; he had learned to keep his hands off everything; he had learned not to speak unless spoken to. He knew it was wrong to touch the toad with his foot—but he had kept his hands off—and he was very, very gentle.
“I won’t touch it again,” he said out loud and continued to follow the toad that hopped deeper into the woods. Nobody had ever told him not to follow a toad. He had been told never to leave the yard, but he didn’t notice when he crossed that boundary, and then it was too late. Even a very good boy can make a mistake when there is a toad involved.
And now the toad was tired, and Jack was lost. He rested on a log that sagged to the ground when he sat down; the toad hopped close to his foot and sank down too, all hopped out. The toad’s body inflated and then deflated as it tried to catch its breath. Jack couldn’t take his eyes off it—he’d never realized that even a toad could be tired of running.
He picked it up then, put it on his knee, and kept one hand gently over its back so it wouldn’t slip or hop off and began to talk to the toad that looked like his father’s fist. “We went too far,” he whispered, “so we can’t go back now.”
The toad closed its eyes to show it understood and fell asleep. Jack used his free hand to push his hair back from his sweaty face, reminded himself to breathe, and tried to think about what they should do next. He knew they were really lost, but he was happy, not scared, happy and hungry at the same time. After a while he carefully moved the toad to a soft place in the dirt, placed his cap over it to keep it warm, lay down beside it, and went to sleep.
© 2011 Kathleen Coskran