Noxious yellow eyes stared straight into hers, unflinching even as she edged closer, before she jerked back as it suddenly moved twitching nervously. Diane chuckled, motioning her closer, clutching the bullfrog in her hand, her mom holding the frog’s legs scrunched together like a bouquet of flowers.
“He’s so ugly!” she said, a little grin breaking out to the surface as the frog croaked out an angry response, even as the little creature tried to squirm out of her hands. Diane laughed, the sound hoarse and garbled, like she was mimicking the gurgle from the swamp. Lizzie purposely didn’t look her in the face, the red eyes bringing her back to their argument.
“That’s so mean Lizzie,” Diane chastised, a joking tone in her voice as she gently placed the amphibian into her outstretched hands. “I happen to think he looks rather cute.”
Lizzie stared at the frog in her hands, trying to see where her mom got that idea. The dark green skin, the webbed feet, the wet slimy feeling she got from grabbing it, nothing looked cute at all. The frog stared at her, eyes wide before meowing. Startling at the weird sound, Lizzie shrieked, the bullfrog, successfully wrenching itself out of her weakened grasp, making a run for it. Diane wasn’t any help at all, as she was giggling and pointedly looking away as the frog escaped into the bushes.
“Looks like we scared it off.” Diane eventually said, having finally gotten control of herself. “Now, we’re almost to the picnic spot you picked. Are you ready for lunch?” she asked, smiling forcefully, all teeth. Lizzie nodded, suddenly feeling nervous, and looked away, down the side of the mountain where the lake was hiding in the green trees. The dark blue of Devil’s Lake stood out, nestled below them like a spider in a funnel web. She looked down, moving closer to the side. There was something floating in the water. Circular like a sombrero, and bright yellow, the object reminded her of Diane’s flower hat, one that Dad and her had picked out for mother’s day. Lizzie stilled, remembering Dad’s smile as he put the hat on her head.
“Kiddo, what’s wrong?” Diane asked, her voice still a croak as she reappeared several feet away from her. Lizzie shook her head and looked back. “Can you step back please? That looks a bit too close to the edge for me.” Lizzie looked back, and seeing the red eyes nodded.
“I think your hat’s in the water,” she said, prompting Diane to take a look.
Diane moved closer, walking straight up to the edge of the path and looking down, and Lizzie felt her stomach flip flop at the sight. It looked so much worse now that she wasn’t on the edge. Like there was nothing between her mom and the sky or the forest below.
“Huh, I wonder where that came from,” she said, looking down as Lizzie fought to contain her sudden rush of panic. “That’s not mine though. I keep it in the tent for safety.” Lizzie barely managed to nod, looking away as her mother moved away from the edge, away from the dark forest below them.
“Well, are you ready to eat? We’re almost there and I’m starving. That walk really took a lot out of me.” Diane smiled again at her, the same frog like smile that had been on her face the whole day, one with stretched skin and too many teeth.
They laid out their blankets under a gnarled old oak tree that marked the campsite and had sandwiches and soda. Lizzie listened as her mom filled her head with talk of her childhood, Diane talked as though if she stopped, she wouldn’t start up again, filling up the air with facts about frogs, or the trail she was on, or the deer that they’d seen days ago.
Despite it all, Lizzie couldn’t stop thinking of the lake. The light crystalline blue borders surrounding the dark black of the center pool, the one that her mom said went down over 30 feet deep. The jagged stones on both sides, rising up as the lake approached the cliff, the ones that looked like teeth. And floating in the center of the lake, right in the middle of the dark depths, a small yellow hat.