Please overlook typos, tense changes, bad grammar, redundancies, and all misspellings...it's late! And bear in mind that I am writing for a fifth grade audience. :)
Note: On Halloween morning a package will arrive at Needham Elementary School for Ms. Singleton's fifth grade. It will contain an old mason jar full of frog eggs and this letter. I have always had a story for Lew's class on Halloween. They expect something weird....
(there will also be frog egg eating and a much tamer story for Della's class)
(there will also be frog egg eating and a much tamer story for Della's class)
Dear that kid who's in fifth grade at Needham in Durango, Colorado and the whole rest of the class too,
That's a strange way to start a letter isn't it?
OK. This may seem weird, but let me explain. It's a long story, so get comfortable. My name is Owen Tarbutton and I am 10 years old. I live on the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp. If you don't know where that is, it's in South Georgia, a long way from Colorado for sure. I live with my dad and my little sister, June. She's 7. My mom left us when I was very young. I only remember her a little bit. My dad says she was beautiful and smart and very funny. If she was so smart, then why would she decide to run off into the swamp with a Frog Man, that's what I want to know. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's back up.
Our house is in the middle of nowhere. I mean NO WHERE. Some people call that 'the boonies'. I don't go to school because it's too far away. I would have to take a boat and then drive for two hours, so I home school instead. My dad helps me a little, but mostly I've taught myself. I've read every book in our house 10,000 times. Geez what I'd give for a new set of books! I'm a good reader and writer, and the lady at the school office in town said I was way ahead of myself, which I guess is a good thing. I help my little sister, too. She's a dang wizard, she's so smart. Maybe we got that from our mom. I sure wish I knew.
My dad is pretty cool, he just works all the time. He works for a company that makes vaccines for pharmaceutical companies, and that might sound like a normal job, but it's not. He milks the venom from poisonous snakes. All day everyday. But before he can milk them, he has to catch them, of course. So he spends his nights out in the canoe hunting down poisonous snakes. He's real good at it and there is no shortage of huge deadly snakes in our neck of the woods. He keeps some of the more rare kinds and the freakishly huge ones out in our barn, but he lets the others go after a week or so of milking. He says we'd have every snake in the southeastern united states if he kept them all. Nice, right? He's obsessed with reptiles. Maybe my mom was obsessed with amphibians. Ha Ha.
So I live in a swamp with a genius baby sister, a Dad who milks snakes, and my mom disappeared with a horror movie character. That's me, Owen. Hi. Nice to meet ya.
Your life is probably feeling pretty normal right about now, isn't it?
So why I am I sending you this box and what the heck are you supposed to do with it?
I'll tell you. It all started last spring. I finally got up the nerve. Or not even that. I finally stopped being scared, is what happened. The 'Mystery of the Frog Man' stopped being a story that scared me to death and had wrecked my life, and instead became a problem to be solved. Like those Encyclopedia Brown stories. Have you read those? Where you try to figure out who did what, and why.
I'd heard the legend of the frogman all my life and it takes on a little extra zing when you live in the largest swamp in the world and your mom becomes the bride of frog man. SO I decided to quit being a baby and do something about it.
I could stop here and tell you the whole legend of the frog man because it's actually pretty cool and a little scary and very entertaining. But if you've heard one local legend then you've heard 'em all. Same old story. Half man, half frog, had a rough childhood in a mossy, oozy, dark swamp and grows up to terrorize the neighborhood eating family pets and all. Then people try to hunt him down but he always escapes, just barely, 'cause nobody knows the swamps as good as he does. At the end of the story there is the part about the nest of frog eggs that are ready to hatch and take over the world with more zombie frog men and how it's just a matter of time till they all come staggering out of the swamp to take over the world.You've heard that one, right?
Only for me, it was a little scarier because... well ...I live in the swamp with him and we are pretty much a singular target because we have no neighbors and he stole my MOM and, UNFORTUNATELY, in this case, the whole dang story is true.
Just a little scary. What do you think?
But like I said, last spring, on my birthday, I'd had enough. Time to stop peeing my pants over the whole thing and DO SOMETHING. My sister, June, was all in. She ain't scared of nothing, never has been. So we made a plan.
It was vague, but direct.
Find the frog man. Find our mother.
We needed some supplies for what could be a long time in the swamp away from home. We made a list:
food (June eats only two things: raw ramen and pickled beets...how nasty is that?)
flashlight and candles
bug spray (for the mosquitos that are as big as your waffle)
a map of the swamp (my dad had been mapping things out for years, we took his)
coca cola (dad says this is my drug of choice, i say it's pure awesome in a can)
a rope ( not sure why)
Most of that list was easy to get. We just took what we needed out the house and put it in the extra canoe. The last item was a little tricky...weapons.
But the wizard sister had an idea. A good one. We went out to the barn and found my dad's snake stick. We read the notes on all the cages and used the stick to fish out six of the meanest, deadliest, most venomous snakes and put them all into June's Barbie Doll carrying case on account of it being clear. We could see what they were up to and grab them without being killed dead. Keep in mind that we are pretty familiar with snakes....you have Lego's and Polly Pockets, we have cotton mouths and diamond backs. Everybody is different, right? My dad always says that.
We waited till after my dad had left on the night of the first full moon in April and paddled into the swamp to find our mom and do whatever we had to do with the 'frog man.' I say that because I really was planning on talking this thing out, assuming that frog men can talk. I was willing to stuff a copperhead down his shorts if I had to, but i thought that if he had any ability to reason that he might feel sorry for us and just hand her over. That's me being optimistic and it usually works, but I've read enough stories to know that sometimes the bad guy is just 'misunderstood' and why not be reasonable at first instead of coming in with your snakes 'a blazing'.
We paddled all night and saw nothing. In this case, nothing included thousands of red alligator eyes staring at us all night long. We paddled all day, breaking for cokes and beets and to carefully stretch without tipping the canoe over. If you ever get a chance, do some research on the Okefenokee, it's pretty amazing and never boring and I've lived here my whole life, so that says something.
The water in the Okefenokee is black as night except when it's totally clear. There is absolutely no current except when there is a very rapid current. The current and the crystal clear water are both caused by under water springs that pump out millions of gallons of freezing water a day. There is no land, but there are bizarre trees with 'knees' that pop up all around them. There is nowhere to dock and nowhere to run. Every now and again you might find a wooden platform built by research scientists way back when for camping, but you're still stuck in the middle of a black swamp full of gators and snakes and frog villains.
The sun set and we were getting sort of discouraged because we were further than we had ever been from home, and I was pretty certain that we were TOTALLY LOST (we were off my dad's charts), when we both heard a really weird sound. I mean weird. June quickly balanced herself from the front of the boat to the back with me and I was glad to have her.
"What was that?" she whispered in my ear.
I just shook my head, almost too scared to talk.
We heard it again. How to describe? I once heard a black panther scream, and it's the worse sound that you'll ever hear. It sounds like a hyena being murdered, end of story and pardon the violence. I've heard frogs before. Duh. It's all we ever hear, all day and all night, millions of frogs doing their frog thing...loudly. This was a cross between the two. Frogs screaming bloody murder. That sounds stupid, I know. And not scary, but from one fifth grader to another, it was as scary as the worst Goosebumps ever written. EVER.
For a minute, me and June, we were both paralyzed with fright. Just stuck there on our canoe bench whimpering silently like babies. She had hold of my arm and was squeezing so hard that I couldn't feel my fingers but I was happy that she was, because I felt less alone. After a few minutes, she put her lips right up to my ear and whispered the truest thing any seven year old has ever said.
"We're very close."
And I knew that she was right and that was good, but Holy Crud I wished I was home in bed with the covers pulled up over my snout and that this was all just a bad, bad dream.
Dad was probably missing us by now and I wished that he would suddenly appear. Our full moon was all used up. All of a sudden it seemed like a bad idea to want to reason with a mutant frog. It seemed like a job for someone with facial hair or muscles or at least a college degree. I don't even have playground smarts! I've never even officially taken a test, and I wanted to rule the swamps?! What the heck was I thinking??!!
While I was drowning in self doubt, June picked up the paddle and started silently pushing black water. I followed her lead. We hit a funny current that turned the boat between two huge Cypress trees and sent us, irrevocably, into a marshy dark corridor that I would not have chosen were I steering. But I wasn't steering, nor was June.
The boat, on this moonless night, was steering itself.
I wish that I could report that the sound stopped, but then I would be lying. It got louder and it sounded worse. June and I were plastered together. We had set the paddles down because the current was in charge and there was no fighting it. My mind was racing back to all the stories my dad had told us about the swamp and it's mysteries. I remembered him talking about things that could not be explained by nature. He said that there were always things like this, in every culture, that we aren't supposed to understand how every little thing works, that science is not always perfect and man can't know everything.
The night was so dark that even with my eyes wide open, they felt like they were closed. Pitch black dark. I was searching searching searching for anything to register in the darkness. It felt like I was drowning in darkness.
"June, I can't see at all." I said
"I know." she whispered back "But keep your eyes open."
How can a seven year old be so dang calm?
And then she said it. My skin crawled.
"I've been here before."
"BEEN WHERE??!!!" I whisper screamed, "It is blind dark, what are you talking about? Where have you been?"
"Keep your eyes open and hold this paddle. Be ready to wedge it against a tree when you see the hole. So we won't get sucked in."
But it was too late. There was a bizarre flash of light that seemed to come up from the bottom of the swamp, a huge sucking sound, the screaming frog sound, and the canoe flipped, nose down. June and I didn't have a chance. She was still holding my arm and together we were funneled under the swamp. It happened so fast that my only thought was 'at least i can see'. I'll tell you this, though. I didn't think that for very long. We were pulled under the water, but we were in a tunnel of air, so it didn't necessarily feel like we were drowning. Between screams I took deep gulps of air and felt like I was in a cushioned free fall. If it had been ride at Six Flags it would have been awesome, but it was a bad dream coming true so it was more like sheer terror. I was oddly comforted when I remembered June's words about having been there before, but only a little. I looked at her and saw that in the swirling tornado of chaos she had grabbed the clear bag of snakes. They were going crazy. Join the party, right?!
She shouted, "GET READY!"
And I did. I assumed we were going to land, as opposed to journeying to the core of the earth, and we did. In a pool. Underground? Yes, we were underground, how could we not be? But then again how could we be? My mind was swimming.
"June! What's going on? Where are we? Have you been here before?" I demanded.
"Ssssshhhh." she whispered and jerked me towards one of the walls.
It was dim, but not dark and I looked all around trying to get my bearings. We were in an oval shaped room with a pool in the middle and at the far end was what I guess I would call a hallway. What little light there was, was coming from that direction. The canoe was in bad shape and was upside down in the shallow pool. And then I noticed the other boats, lots of them, battered and broken and scattered along the edge of the pool. June was pulling ours out and dragging it to the back of the room....away from the corridor and the light. She was acting like she had a plan or something.
I grabbed her arm. "What is going on, June?" Where are we? Help me out a little here, OK?"
She shushed me.... again.... and pulled me back behind our boat.
"They're here." she whispered. "But maybe they didn't hear our crash landing and your wild animal scream."
"WHO IS HERE???? WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?!?"
And just then a shadow fell across the room. June pulled me down. Someone or something was blocking the light from the corridor. I wanted to look, but I was too scared to look at the same time. Have you ever felt like that? It's weird. I closed my eyes and hoped that the whole thing would pass, but then I felt June inching over to the edge of the boat. It's no good being outdone by your little sister and I had had enough. I decided to face this thing. I was going to do whatever needed doing and get the answers to the questions that had been bothering me all my life. I was scared to death, but i felt strong, too. I told myself, "Stand up, Owen! Stand up and be tough." My legs were shaky, but they were working. I stood up.
And right in front of me, only ten feet away, well, was something that I couldn't quite believe. There aren't words for what I was feeling.
Right there, right in front of me, was my mom.
She almost screamed when she saw me, she was so excited, but she caught herself. She slapped her hand over her own mouth and rushed towards me. I fell into her. June was sandwiched in the hug. Everything was alright. This was the happy ending that I had been hoping for. My mind was racing with questions, but as usual there was no time for answers. My mom jerked to attention and looked at June.
"Did you bring the snakes?" she whispers.
June held up the bag.
"OK, Owen. June. We have one shot at this and one shot only. Listen to me and do what I do. There is only one way out of here and I have to grab something very important on the way. I need something with a lid.
Floating in the pool was June's empty pickled beet jar. She'd saved the day again.
My mom looked at me. She stopped giving orders and gave me a hug. Boy was it nice. "You are so big! she said "I've only seen you sleeping.Gosh you are tall!"
And then back to business. "Owen, I am crossing my fingers that you put a chunkhead in that Barbie bag."
"Of course, I did, I whisper, "it's my worse favorite snake."
"And he is kryptonite down here!" she said. I know all about Superman and how kryptonite is the only thing that will ruin him and all and I pull that chunkhead out the bag and practically wear him like a sweater vest. If you don't have chunkheads in your parts, you're lucky. They are in the pit viper family and they're not exactly warm and fuzzy.
Mom looks at us and says "We are just counting on luck, boys and girls. Cross your fingers!"
And with that, we started making our way through the strangest maze of caves and rivers that you could ever imagine.
We walked for what seemed like hours. I was tired and hungry and thirsty, but too excited to complain. It started to get a little lighter and I began to notice tree roots dripping down through the ceiling. I felt like I was still underground, but only just barely. It was weird. I was ready for something to happen. I wanted it all to be over and that's when my mom stopped short. Up ahead I saw something. It was green and slimy and moving...sort of pulsing. What ever it was, was in a shallow bowl made out of quartz rock. The bowl thingy was actually very pretty. But the stuff in it....YUCK. My mom was still holding the jar and scooped up all the gunk and put it in it. I was wondering why, when I felt something heavy and cold and clammy lock down on my shoulder.
The something spoke. In the most horrid voice ever to speak.
"Clara, what do you think you are doing?" (Clara is my mom's name, if you haven't figured it out yet)
And pardon my french, but that's when all hell broke loose.
Mom screamed. I screamed. June screamed. I think our screaming might have even made the freak frog thing scream.
Old chunk head and I were best buddies by this time, but I said 'hasta la vista baby' and whipped the frog creature with him. I told Mom and June to run and they were outa there. June threw the bag of snakes to me, and I took off running too, leaving a trail of venomous vipers behind me. Turns out that frogs REALLY don't like snakes. Lucky for us.
We ran and ran and ran and when I really couldn't run anymore well, there we were. At the end. The end of what? That's what you want to know, right? We were just at the end. There was a rotten looking old wooden door in the ceiling of the tunnel and there was nowhere else to go. Mom grabbed a stick and pushed as hard as she could and the door popped up. And you know what? We were in our barn. Right by the house. What the ????
Holy Frog Man, I had 10,000 questions, but mom said first things first. We made our way across the yard. We could see dad in the kitchen. Milking snakes. We held hands and walked through that screen door. He looked at us, and stuffed that snake in a bag, and let out a whoop of joy. We hugged and cried and hugged some more.
Long story short, The frog man had held my mom hostage to guard over the 100 year eggs. That was the crud in the nice bowl. Every hundred years a batch of frog men are hatched and the old ones die. On Halloween night at midnight. There is only one way to stop it from happening.
ONLY ONE WAY.
Legends are legends and unfortunately, this legend is for real.
The frog eggs have to be eaten by humans. Human kids to be exact. There is not a kid in these parts who will touch those eggs. Believe me, I've tried. They've been scared all their life of the frog man and anything to do with him. No kid will even look at them.
So I got to thinking. A few summers back I met a kid. I can't remember his name. He was visiting his grandma in Georgia. We talked at the park. He said he liked the ocean. I said I liked swamps. He said that sounded cool. Really nice kid. Said he lived in Durango. Went to a school called Needham. I really remembered the whole thing because we had the same birthday...April 15th..tax day. I'm figuring he's in fifth grade...just like me.
He seemed adventurous. I'm betting his friends are pretty adventurous, too.
You gotta do it. You gotta eat the eggs. For me. PLEASE!!!
P.S. YOU DON"T WANT THEM HATCHING, NOW DO YOU?
P.P.S. HAPPY HALLOWEEN!
P.P.S. HAPPY HALLOWEEN!