Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 45
The Cloaca Maxima
by Rob Steiner
The Species of Least Concern
by Erica L. Satifka
Lost and Found
by Christian Heftel
IGMS Audio

Lost and Found
    by Christian Heftel

Lost and Found
Artwork by Nick Greenwood

When Forrest Long was 33, things that he had lost long ago began to return to his life. That day, he and his crew were trashing out foreclosed homes. They usually did construction, but ever since the recession, this was the only work they could find.

They'd just reached the last house of the day. From the outside, it looked like it was in decent enough repair, but that was no guarantee of what he'd find inside. Last home he'd done, the family had left food sitting in an open, powerless refrigerator for weeks. The whole house had smelled of it, and the kitchen had been full of mold and maggots.

The bank hadn't given Forrest a key, so he had to find his own way in. He called over Pete, who had worked for him longest. "Have a couple of the boys check the windows. Get the rest working on the yard."

Pete nodded and called out to the men, once in English and once in Spanish.

Forrest watched as the men carried lawn ornaments and potted plants to the dumpster. He sighed. This was going to be a big job. The yard was full of crap -- lawn gnomes, bird feeders, wind chimes, suncatchers, ceramic toadstools -- and people with cluttered yards had cluttered houses. You sometimes found hoarders with immaculate yards, but you never found a cluttered yard and an immaculate house. Ah well. Maybe he'd find some interesting stuff at least.

There was a call from the back of the house. Someone had found a way in.

Forrest wandered around the side of the house, looking in the windows. The curtains were all drawn tight, and they were made of sun-faded fabric that looked like it was decades old. Coming around the back of the yard, he saw Pete standing with the back door open.

"Wasn't even locked," Pete said.

Forrest nodded and walked in. It was hot and muggy and dark inside the house, but at least it didn't smell like feces or vomit or rotting food. It didn't seem like squatters or hobos had been here, or like some abandoned dog had been forced to fend for itself in the house since its owner was evicted.

Forrest pulled out his camera and started taking the "before" pictures for the bank. He'd been right. The house was packed. In every room, there was one piece of furniture too many, and every available surface was covered with knick-knacks of some kind or another. Shelves overflowing with books lined the walls. He reached out a hand and touched a chair. It was sturdy, made of heavy wood, not like the modern furniture that was all pressboard and padding. It'd be hard to carry to the dumpster, and even harder to break and carry out in pieces. The boys were going to love this.

The house began to grow lighter as the boys started pulling the curtains off the windows. Forrest walked to the bookshelves and confirmed that there was nothing of worth. There were old books, but nothing that looked really rare or collectible. It was all new age crap, with titles about crystals and chakras and sex magicks.

"Junk everything on this floor," Forrest called. "There's nothing worth saving."

Forrest walked up the stairs to check the second floor. Here things were stranger. A large mural had been hand-painted on the wall in the upstairs hallway, showing a white skeleton and a black woman curled around each other to form a yin-yang. The numbers of the clock ran around the outside in a circle. Gold lines connected the numbers, creating a 12-pointed star. They'd definitely need new paint.

There were only two rooms upstairs. Forrest entered the first. The main floor had been full, but there had been an order to it. Here, there was only chaos: shells and crystals and bird's eggs filled the shelves and littered the floor. He ascertained that there was nothing of value, then moved out of the room. From downstairs, he could hear the crashes, tinkles, and rustles as the boys shoveled trash into bags.

One room left. One last chance to find something worth taking. Forrest opened the door. A sea of dreamcatchers hung from the ceiling. The wind from the door set the dreamcatchers gently moving like tree branches in a breeze. There was something hypnotic about their movement, and light from the doorway glinted off of their beads like eyes.

Forrest felt his skin rise in goose bumps. He stood in the doorway until the dreamcatchers stopped. Then he blinked and shook his head. Weird house. But he'd seen weirder, and at least this place didn't have fleas.

Forrest entered the room. A four-poster bed with white sheets sat in the middle of the floor. To the side of it, he saw a dresser. Maybe there'd be some jewelry in there, something that would actually be worth trying to sell.

Hunched over, Forrest passed to the dresser and began opening drawers. In the first, there was only a small twig that had grown into a knot. Who kept that in their dresser? He shook his head, tossed the twig aside and looked in the second drawer.

Success. In the dim light, Forrest saw something small and yellow against the black background of the drawer. Even if it was just another piece of new age crap, if it was a gold piece of new age crap, there might be some worth to it. He reached in to grab it, then startled back and cried out. Whatever he'd touched was soft and rough, and it moved. What on earth was that?

"You okay, boss?" Pete called from downstairs.

Forrest didn't reply, just strode to the window and pulled down the curtains. Wincing at the strong light, he returned to the dresser. What was it that he had touched?

Looking into the drawer, Forrest saw a small yellow toad. He blinked. How strange. How long had the toad been in that drawer? What had it been eating? How had it stayed alive? The toad moved, crawling slowly along the black velvet of the drawer.

Forrest looked more closely at it. It was so familiar.

The stomping of boots up the stairs heralded Pete's arrival.

"Hey," Pete said.

Forrest turned and saw Pete's head sticking in through the doorway.

"Everything all right?" Pete asked. "I heard you yell."

"Yeah," said Forrest. "I'm fine. Just got startled."

"Okay," said Pete. He looked around the room.

"I'm fine," said Forrest. "Back to work."

"All right," said Pete. He went back downstairs.

Forrest turned back to the toad in the drawer, then brought his head down to get a closer look. It looked exactly like the toad he'd had way back when he was a kid.

Forrest had found it in the back yard, where it shone gold in the green grass. He picked it up, held it to his eye as it croaked and its legs waved in the air. He studied its black, empty eyes, and discovered that it was missing a toe on one of its back legs. Then he took it carefully into the house, moving quietly so Dad wouldn't hear him. Dad would just tell him he couldn't keep it, would yell at him and say that he lost everything anyway and the last thing that they needed was an amphibian loose in the house.

Forrest grabbed a jar from the kitchen and carried it up to his room, where he shut the door. He punched holes in the lid and put the toad inside, then collected worms and crickets and bits of grass, because he didn't know what toads ate. He kept the jar under his bed for several days, each day putting in new food and water, until the toad sat perched on a mound of food. Each night, he pulled it out and held it in his hands. At first, it croaked every time, and Forrest turned on the fan in his room to mask the noise. But eventually, the toad stopped croaking when Forrest held it.

Then one day, Forrest fell asleep holding the toad, and in the morning, it was gone. He searched his room, and then the house. He didn't want Dad finding the toad and killing it, then yelling at Forrest. But he never found it.

That had been so many years ago. Now Forrest sat and stared at the toad. He could swear that it was the same one he had found before. As far as he could remember, the markings on its back were identical, as were the black eyes. After a moment's hesitation, he picked it up and inspected its back legs. The right foot was missing a toe.

It had been twenty years. Toads didn't live that long. His toad had probably just crawled behind the couch and died, and they'd never found its dehydrated carcass. There was no way this toad could be the same one. But even though Forrest knew that, he still smiled. It was a nice thought, wasn't it? That he'd found his toad again after all these years. And even though it wasn't actually the same one, it was the same type, a type that he'd never seen since.

Forrest looked into the toad's eyes. They were just like he remembered. The toad waved its arms and legs and watched him silently.

The toad still in his hands, Forrest quickly checked the other two drawers for valuables, more for form's sake than anything else. Finding nothing, he turned and walked down the stairs. The first floor was pretty well gutted now. All of the knick-knacks were gone from their shelves and standing places. The couches had been taken out to the dumpster, and the bookshelves were empty. Should be done and out of here in an hour.

Forrest stopped and looked at the toad again. He wondered how late the pet stores were open. He could get a better cage this time, and maybe buy some food from the pet store. He found Pete standing in the kitchen, dumping bottles of alcohol down the sink.

"There's unopened jello if you want any," Pete said. "Orange."

"Thanks," Forrest said, grabbing a packet from the counter. "Hey, I need you to stay after and take the 'after' pictures for me."

"You leaving, boss?" Pete asked, turning to face Forrest.

"Yeah," said Forrest. "I got a really bad migraine and I need to get home."

Pete eyed him for a moment. "Okay."

"Tell the boys to junk everything upstairs, too," Forrest said.

"All right," Pete said. "If you've gotta go, go."

Forrest turned to leave, then stopped.

"Hey," he said. "You notice anything strange in that room upstairs?"

"You mean besides the three hundred dreamcatchers?" Pete asked.

"Yeah," Forrest said. "I mean, did you feel anything up there?"

Pete unstopped a bottle, then spun and upended it in one quick movement, sending the liquid inside smoothly vortexing down the drain. "Nope," he said. "I don't dream."

Forrest drove back toward his house, but stopped at a pet store along the way. He grabbed a cage, showed the toad to the blue-haired clerk, and asked her what he should feed it.

The worker raised a pierced eyebrow: "Never seen that kind before. It's so bright! I have no idea how to keep it alive, or even whether or not it's poisonous. If I were you, I'd put it back where you found it. You want a pet, buy one of our fire-bellied toads or Pac-man frogs. Those I know how to take care of."

Forrest took the cage, asked for a bag of crickets, and returned home. He unlocked the door and walked in. He placed his keys and wallet on their shelf, then put the orange jello away in his pantry between the packets of lime and strawberry. Then he walked to the kitchen and put the toad's cage in the middle of the table. This time he didn't have to hide it. The toad wandered around the cage on stubby legs, exploring the edges of its confinement. Forrest dropped a cricket in. He thought he'd read somewhere that toads ate bugs. Hopefully he was right.

Forrest made a simple dinner, then sat down to watch TV. He'd picked up the flatscreen at a house a year or so back. He couldn't believe that anyone would just leave something behind like that. Losing a house was unthinkable, but just leaving your valuables behind was even worse. Forrest pulled The Sandlot from his stack of rescued DVDs and watched until he fell asleep.

Forrest awoke when it was still dark, with the DVD menu endlessly looping its 30 seconds of title music. Something was digging into his back. He reached under him and pulled out an action figure. He stared at it for a moment, then shut off the TV. He mechanically ejected the DVD, put it back in its case, then put it back in alphabetical order. He walked through the kitchen, dropped the action figure on the table, then wandered off to bed, where he fell asleep within moments.

When he awoke the next day, he'd forgotten the action figure, but when he came down for breakfast, he saw it again. Where had that come from? His collection was in a box in storage, and he could swear that he hadn't unpacked any of them since the day he'd moved out of his parents' house.

Forrest moved to the table and picked up the figure, then almost dropped it in surprise. It was the one with the bazooka, and it had been his favorite. When he'd played as a kid, it had taken out whole platoons of his other figures.

But he had taken this figure to school one day in third grade, and a bully pushed him down and took it, and he never got it back. Forrest cried and told his Dad, but Dad just told him to stop whining. He didn't have enough time to solve all of Forrest's problems, and if Forrest had things that were really important to him, maybe he should take better care of them.

Now Forrest turned the figure over and saw "F.L." in Sharpie on its foot. It was his all right. Forrest was confused and a little scared. He stood quickly and went to the front door, checking the lock. Well, that was stupid. Did he really think that someone had broken into his house and, instead of taking something, had returned a toy to him that he had lost decades before?

Forrest fingered the toy. He must have just remembered wrong. It had been some other toy that the bully had taken.

But he knew that he wasn't remembering wrong. It had been this figure, not another, and now somehow it was back. But that was absurd. Clearly, he'd gotten the toy back before, and it had slipped his mind. Then it had ended up in the couch somehow. Strange things happened during moves.

The clock in the kitchen chirped a series of rising and falling whoops. Forrest had collected the Audubon singing bird clock from a house back when he'd just started up. He could never remember which call went with which bird, but he did know that this particular call meant that there was no time for breakfast. He was due to trash out another house in fifteen minutes. He tossed the toy back on the table and went out the door.

It was a hard day's work. One house had vagrants that needed to be evicted. Another had been actively sabotaged by the previous owners. All the mirrors were broken, hammers had been taken to the walls, and all of the faucets had been left on until the utilities were disconnected. At a third house, the floors were littered with cigarettes, condoms and hypodermic needles. Forrest worked hard, and he mostly forgot about the strangeness of the morning and the toy that had inexplicably returned.

But when Forrest came home from work, he saw something black in the gutter. He stooped and looked at it. It was a wallet, and the old, beaten leather looked strangely familiar. It couldn't be. He picked it up out of the gutter and opened it. A sixteen-year-old version of himself smiled vacantly from the driver's license. In the back section, there was a thick wad of bills, an old video store membership card, and an ancient, lonely condom still in its wrapper.

Forrest remembered losing this wallet. It had happened just after a big payday at his first job. He meant to deposit the money at the bank, but had gone to the movies with a date. The wallet must have slipped out of his pocket, because when he got home, he didn't have it. He called the theater and retraced his steps, but he never found it. Dad never yelled at him about that one, because he never found out. Forrest chewed himself out pretty well, though, and for years afterward, whenever he found something that he wanted but couldn't afford, he found himself thinking of the wallet and the money he'd lost.

How strange it was to find it now. Forrest carried it inside and sat down by the kitchen table to count the money. Four hundred and fifty-two dollars. Not a single bill was missing. He'd always assumed that someone had picked up the wallet in the theater and kept it for his own. Clearly he'd been wrong.

What were the chances of its ending up in the gutter by his house all these years later, with all of the money still intact? Maybe the hordes of movie-goers had inadvertently kicked it out into the street. Although in that case, the odds against its randomly being kicked and tumbled and blown right in front of Forrest's house were astronomical. And even assuming that that happened, the leather would have worn away more over the past fifteen years. It would have been scuffed with every kick and soaked in every rainstorm. There'd hardly be anything left of it to recognize. But it looked no more worn than the day he'd lost it.

Maybe someone had taken it. But then after a decade and a half, the thief had grown a conscience and had decided to return the wallet, which he apparently still owned for some reason. He'd replaced an identical number of worn bills in the wallet, looked up Forrest's current address, come to return the wallet and then . . . dropped it in the gutter? None of it made any sense.

Forrest fanned through the bills again, trying to tell whether they were the same ones that had been in the wallet when he lost it. Had there been a $5 bill with a small grocery list scrawled on it in blue pen? He tried to remember, but it was too long ago. He couldn't recall.

In the end, Forrest shrugged and moved the money into his current wallet. He really was going to go the bank this time. He didn't make mistakes like that anymore. As he slid his wallet back into his pocket, he glanced at the toad in its cage and at the action figure sitting next to it. The toad watched him back.

Forrest picked up the action figure and tried again to think of a viable theory for its return, but all the ideas he came up with were just as stupid as before. He set the toy down, then undid the clasp on the toad's cage. It made a brief, abortive bid for freedom. Forrest grabbed the toad and stroked its back. It chirped in response. Forrest put it back and added a couple more crickets to its cage.

"What are you?" he said. "My good luck charm?"

Then Forrest took the action figure and climbed up to the attic. He passed between the rows of neatly stacked boxes until he arrived at the one labeled, "Action figures, baseball cards, toy cars, and shells." He opened the box, carefully wrapped the action figure up with the others, then taped it shut again.

Over the next week, Forrest came across many things that he'd lost. While depositing money at the bank, he found a pen that looked exactly like the one he'd won in the spelling bee in second grade and lost two days later. While selling jewelry from a house he'd trashed out, he found a toy car that looked just like the one he'd loaned to Jeremy just before Jeremy moved. Browsing at a thrift store, Forrest found a bat that looked identical to the one that his Dad had given him when trying to get him into baseball. He had left the bat at the park, and by the morning it was gone.

A few days after finding the bat, Forrest went through his coin collection and found the rare 1926 Buffalo nickel that Uncle Leroy had given him for his twelfth birthday. He could have sworn that he had lost that one, that there had been an empty slot in the cardboard there. Yet there it was, right next to the 1927. Maybe he'd been wrong.

In a second-hand book store, Forrest found a copy of his senior year book. When he opened it up, he found that it was his. There weren't many signatures in it, but they were all addressed to him. When he took it to the register, the clerk seemed confused and said that they didn't usually carry yearbooks. After searching fruitlessly for a price, the clerk sold it to Forrest for a dollar.

Less pleasantly, there was his first pair of glasses. Or at least a pair that looked like them. He found them in a medicine cabinet in a house that he was gutting. They were child-sized and had the same horn rims that he remembered. He had worn that pair of glasses for all of about a week in the third grade before he took them off at school and forgot them. Dad really ripped into him for that one. It took six months before Dad would buy him another pair.

When Forrest found the glasses, he slipped them into his pocket and took them home, where he took out his contacts and tried to look through the lenses. Were these glasses really his, or did they just look like it? But his eyes had changed too much in the intervening time. Looking through the glasses, his vision was nearly as blurry as it was without it. They couldn't have been the same pair. Of course there was more than one pair of glasses with that style in the world.

But when Forrest found the letter that his first girlfriend sent him when she dumped him, he was flummoxed. He came home from work and found the envelope under the toad's cage. He reread the letter, even though he knew what it was before he even pulled it out of the envelope. He remembered the words. He remembered her handwriting. He even remembered the damn perfume she'd put on the letter she'd sent to tell him she was seeing someone else.

It wasn't pleasant to remember. But far more unsettling was the fact that he knew he'd destroyed the letter. He remembered tearing it into pieces as small as confetti, then flushing them down the toilet. He had thought about burning it, but had been afraid to set off the fire detector, to have Dad come in and say anything to him.

But here the letter was now, complete and not even wrinkled. Forrest wanted to throw it away again, or actually burn it this time. But the letter had come back once already. Forrest looked at the toad, but it just looked back at him with that mindless toad expression.

No, throwing the letter away again wasn't the answer. What Forrest needed to do was keep possession of it, but keep it somewhere that he would never see it.

This was foolish. There was an explanation. There had to be an explanation. He hadn't thought of it yet, but it existed.

Forrest carried the letter to his safe and locked it up.

He began to dread the things he found. Sometimes he found them at work and sometimes in stores, but increasingly they came to him at home. They sometimes appeared while he slept, and sometimes he found them waiting for him when he returned from work. Sometimes they appeared in the time that it took him to get back from showering or using the bathroom.

Sometimes his lost items appeared on the table next to the toad. Sometimes they appeared on the couch. Sometimes they arrived in the mail or showed up just inside his door. Once Forrest poured himself a bowl of cereal and found his favorite childhood decoder ring inside. Another time, he entered his bathroom and found his old life vest floating in his bathtub.

Often the things that reappeared were welcome. Some had monetary value. Some reminded him of long-held memories that had somehow slipped away from him. But sometimes they weren't pleasant, and Forrest had no control over it.

After work one day, he drove by the house where he'd found the toad. There was a "For Sale" sign up in front. The house looked bare and devoid of personality with its suncatchers and lawn ornaments gone. Forrest got out and went around back. The drapes were gone now, so he could see into the house. Everything was gone. The doors and windows were locked. He didn't know what he'd expected.

When he arrived home and went to bed, he found something hard under his pillow. He pulled it out and looked at it. It was the copy of The Velveteen Rabbit that Mom had given him before she died. He blinked and touched the cover gently.

When he had lost this, that had been one time that Dad hadn't yelled at him. Forrest had really had no clue where it went. Most of the time when he lost something he had at least some idea of where he might have left it, or when it might have fallen out of his pocket, but this time he really had no idea. He checked everywhere he could think, but it was nowhere. He looked through all of the bookshelves in the house, looked under every piece of furniture. It had been two years since Mom drowned, and while Forrest had gotten used to only having his father around, the house was still weird and empty without her in it. He missed her tucking him in at night, missed her coming and standing up for him when Dad was cussing him out. But at least he'd had the book, and she'd given it to him, and he could almost remember her voice reading it to him. But then suddenly the book was gone.

Forrest curled up in a corner of his room and tried not to cry, because he didn't want his Dad to hear, didn't want his Dad coming up and telling him how stupid he'd been to lose it because he already knew how stupid he was, and he already hated himself for losing the book. So he clenched his teeth and tried to hold back the tears and tried not to gasp those shuddering breaths.

But then he heard the clomp-clomp of Dad's feet up the stairs and the squeak of the floorboards, and he knew with dread in his stomach that Dad had heard him and was coming. Forrest buried his head in his arms and wanted to die.

"What's wrong, Forrest?" Dad asked, his voice sharp and deep.

Forrest tried to think of a way to say it, but just trying to think of it set fresh tears flowing, made his breath catch, made him sob like a baby.

"What's wrong, Forrest?" Dad said again, impatient now.

"I lost it," Forrest forced out as he tried to control his breathing. "I lost it. The book from Mom. I didn't mean to, and I don't know where it went, and I lost it."

Dad came close, and Forrest flinched, knowing the words that would come. But Dad just sat down and pulled Forrest onto his lap on the floor, holding him awkwardly in his arms and trying to comfort him. And that set Forrest crying even harder. That had been the last time he had cried, the last time that he'd lost control of his emotions.

Now Forrest shook his head, trying to break free of the memory. He stared at the cover of the book. How did it start again? "There was once a velveteen rabbit?" He tried to remember the feeling of his mother sitting next to him, reading him the book, but the memories were too old, too faded. He couldn't remember. All he could do was imagine.

Forrest looked at the cover for a moment longer. No. No, he couldn't open it up. He couldn't read it again. He hadn't read it since he had lost that copy, and he somehow felt that he would lose her again if he read it. He took the book and locked it in the safe, then returned to bed.

It took Forrest a long time to fall asleep that night. He kept thinking of his Mom, of how many times she'd left in the mornings to swim in the lake, and how many times she'd come back. And then there was the one day where she hadn't come back, and Forrest was told that she'd drowned. It was hard not to imagine her floating there in the water, face down, her hair splayed about her like a corona.

"You look awful," said Pete the next day at work.

"Thanks," said Forrest. "You too."

They were clearing out an upstairs bedroom. The posters of sports players and punk rock bands had been pulled from the walls, and the dressers had been emptied and taken downstairs. Forrest reached down under the bed, pulled out a stack of girlie magazines and stuffed them into a garbage bag.

"Hey wait," said Pete. "Let me take a look at those."

"Ew," said Forrest.

"I'm wearing gloves," said Pete.

Forrest kept stuffing things into the bag.

"But seriously," said Pete, "is everything okay?"

"Yeah," said Forrest. He paused for a moment. "You ever go years without thinking of someone and then suddenly, something comes back into your life and brings it all up again?"

"This about a girl?" Pete asked.

"I guess," Forrest said.

"Forget her," Pete said. "Trust me, things always end for a reason. You only want her back because you're lonely now, and can't think of all of the problems."

Downstairs there was an exercise bike that Forrest wanted, but he left it behind. With all of the things that were piling up at his place, he wasn't sure that he would actually have room.

That night, when Forrest arrived home, the house smelled like lilacs. That was Mom's favorite flower, back in the day. He inhaled deeply, remembering the lilac tree that she'd loved in the backyard. He remembered her lying on her back in the grass with the lavender petals falling around her like snow.

Forrest walked into the kitchen. On the table next to the toad's cage, there was a bouquet of flowers. He remembered this bouquet: the spray of lilac and the baby's breath and gardenias around it. He remembered taking it to the funeral. His Dad had told him not to pick at it, and he tried, but he almost couldn't help fingering the petals and worrying the cloth. In the end, Dad took it away. After the service, Dad placed it on the grave himself, then took Forrest home.

Forrest stared at the bouquet. What on earth? He looked at the toad in its cage. It sat, eyes closed, motionless. Forrest reached out and jabbed the cage with a finger. The toad opened its eyes but stayed still as a statue.

What was Forrest supposed to do? Tell the toad to stop making things appear? Who knew if it was even the toad that was doing it? How absurd to even think that.

"Behave yourself," Forrest finally said. "I can squash you."

Then he dropped another cricket in the toad's cage and went to bed.

When Forrest awoke, he was soaking wet. Well done, Forrest, you've wet the bed. Your reversion to childhood is complete. He shivered. No, there was too much liquid for this to simply be urine. The sheets, the comforter, even the mattress were soaked through. His foot touched something cold and slimy, and Forrest jumped and yelped. He slid out of bed, then wrestled the sodden comforter off the bed to see what he had felt.

A thick, green trail of pond weed pulled off with the comforter and fell to the floor. Forrest felt a sick feeling in his stomach. He brought his head to the comforter and sniffed. It was the smell of the lake. His stomach turned.

Forrest walked to the bathroom. He had to wash the lake water off of him. He had to get rid of it. He turned on the shower and let the hot water pelt him. He shampooed his hair twice, then scrubbed his skin until it shone pink. He stood under the hot stream of the water, motionless. Breathe. Breathe. It's okay. Breathe.

He tried to convince his racing heart to slow, but eventually had to give up. He stepped out of the shower and dried his face on his towel. It felt strange on his face: too smooth and thin. He inhaled and smelled sunblock. Looking up, he realized that it wasn't his towel. It was his mother's swimsuit, hung up from the towel rack, the way that she'd always left it to dry.

Forrest stumbled backward. Impossible. This was all impossible. He slipped his bathrobe on and fumbled with the tie. He had to do something. He had to call someone. But who? Who was there to call? Pete would never understand, he wasn't even really a friend, but he was the closest thing that Forrest had. And Dad was dead now, even if Forrest had wanted to call him.

Forrest looked at the swimsuit again. He had to get out of this room. He opened the door and hurried out. Maybe if he listened to some music or read a book, it would clear his mind. He walked into his room and went to turn the radio on, but on the nightstand there was a cassette tape with his mother's handwriting on it: Best of the Carpenters.

Forrest turned and hurried back out. He didn't even know where he was going, but he found himself in the kitchen, staring at the toad. The toad stumped around in its cage, pushing up against the walls, trying to climb them.

And then all at once, Forrest had a sudden, terrifying impression: I'm not alone. There was nothing that he could physically put his finger on, but he felt eyes on him. His skin rose in goose bumps, and he could feel his heart thumping in his chest.

Forrest felt a sudden breeze against his neck, but he knew that he hadn't left a window open. He took a deep breath, trying to calm himself, but when he inhaled, he smelled his mother's perfume.

Turn around. It's her. It's Mother. It's what you've missed all this time. It's what you lost. It's what made you so lost yourself. You can have her back, just like the other things, just the way you remember.

He wanted to turn around, needed to, but he also couldn't, and he knew that he wouldn't. It was too much. It was too much.

Forrest moved quickly, keeping his eyes down. He grabbed the toad's cage and ran with it through the door, and as he ran, he heard footsteps behind him. He fumbled with the cage's clasp, then ripped the lid clear off of the cage and dropped it to the ground.

Forrest fell to the ground himself with his eyes shut, and he felt the wind of something passing him by. It was a warm wind, and for a second he thought he heard a whisper, but could not understand the words. Then he was alone. After a minute or two, he opened his eyes. The night was quiet, except for the chirping of crickets. The toad sat in the grass, watching him with moist dark eyes that reflected the stars.

Forrest took in a deep breath, then let it out. And then in a rush, the tears were there in his eyes, and he felt the sobs wanting to be released, and so he let them go and cried like a child.

And the toad turned and hopped off into the night.

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