Sam thought about spadefoot toads. They were a dream so real he could hold them in his fist. His parents had gone out to see them when they’d first come to the apartment. They’d trekked into the woods and found the crater that filled with water one night a year every April. On that night, they’d stood at the water’s edge, watched the spadefoots climb up from their ground homes, and deposit eggs in the pool. It was a beautiful thing, his mother told him, the promise of life passed from parents to their young.
His parents planned to take him one day to see the spadefoots, but that promise was given before his father left on assignment.
In the meantime, he amused himself as best he could. He squeezed his toes together and pretended they were the shovel-like toad feet and dug up pennies and fluff from beneath the sofa cushions. Often, he croaked. Sam was that type of kid who felt moved to croak -- in his bedroom, at the laundromat, and in his school. Kids called him names and his teachers shook their head at him, but he didn’t care.
His mother didn’t mind the noise. She built him a forest out leaves that she taped to his bedroom walls. On winter nights, she strummed woodland melodies on her ukulele. She encouraged Sam to supply the lyrics, and they’d dance around the room.
When Sam was nine, his mother told him that Cheyenne and Troy were moving into the basement apartment. Sam was not impressed by this development. Cheyenne, a nurse his mother worked with at the hospital, phoned his mother at inconvenient times to complain about her ex-husband. Troy, her son, wasn’t any better. He belonged to a crew who called him retard. They were the reason Sam stayed inside at recess and read nature books.
“Help Troy feel welcome here,” his mother said.
“He’s very loud,” Sam said.
“Okay, frog man.”
“It’s toad man,” he corrected. “Get it right.”
His mother clasped a hand over her heart in mock embarrassment. “How could I get that wrong? What is my penance?”
Sam deliberated for a moment. “Five gummy worms.”
Two weeks later, Sam went outside to count fireflies. Troy was whacking tennis balls at rabbits.
“Wusses,” Troy said.
“They aren’t,” Sam said. “Rabbits are tough.”
“They kill their babies,” Sam said.
“The dads do,” Sam explained. “They get jealous of the babies. The mom rabbits give them too much love.”
“What dicks,” Troy said.
Dicks was a dirty word. It’s what Sam’s uncle called his father.
“My father is a dick,” Troy said.
Sam handed him a stray tennis ball. They were teammates without a coach.
On nights when his mother worked late, Sam filled the indoor forest with a tribe of new friends. Troy, Aunt Cheyenne, and a few kids from the neighborhood ate pizza and watched the weather report. It was April and the first downpour was around the corner. On the night of the first rainstorm, the spadefoot toads emerged. This year, Sam, his mother and the other boys would find them.
On the night of the rain, Sam’s mother had to work late, but told him he could go as long as he stayed with the other boys. They were a band of wellie clad explorers, and the spadefoots were calling them to join them at the enchanted pool.
As they traveled deeper into the woods, the apartment building vanished from view. The only light came from their flashlights, and the soundtrack was the throaty tune of the spadefoots. They were close. Sam felt it.
“What are you doing?” Troy asked. “Stop dancing.”
Sam hadn’t realized he had been dancing, but he couldn’t stop. He was happy, and it was okay to dance. His mother and father danced on the night they’d seen the spadefoots.
“It’s fine,” Sam said. “My father---
“He’s crazy,” Billy Stoner said.
Troy’s lips twitched into a smile. “Just retarded.”
Sam flushed. The music inside him died. It had been months since they’d called him a retard. Retarded was too much homework, deflated soccer balls, when his father failed to call.
Sam grabbed a rock and tossed it at Troy’s chest.
War descended upon the woods. Troy hurled a rock in his direction, and then they launched themselves at each other. Sam fought for the woods and the spadefoots. He kicked, punched, and scratched his way through the wall of belligerent boys, and when he broke free, he ran after the music.
The woods seemed darker with every step. The others were ghosts of a past world. The music was his future, a fragile one. This future was pulling in different directions. The music was everywhere and nowhere. He strained his ears for the throaty melody, but it eluded him. He turned right, then left. He was back at the sight of the brawl, but the boys were gone. They were walking back to the house, or they’d never really come. Either way, he’d promised to stay with them, but he couldn’t go back. The spadefoots had been counting on him and they were boys that ruined the night.
Sam sat down on a stump and waited for her to find him.
She arrived after the rain, but face was streaked with black rivers and her smile was missing.
“Troy?” he asked.
Sam nodded. He’d fought with the group and left them.
“I’m sorry,” She said.
She didn’t answer. “Climb on my back.”
He wrapped his arms around her neck and allowed her to carry him through the woods. He imagined he was a robin with a broken wing and she was returning him to their nest.
“You know,” she said. “Everything’s going to be okay,”
Sam nodded. He could see the square top of their apartment building and beyond it, the moon with craters deep enough to shelter a dozen spadefoot toads.