4. Tiger Lillies
I sent Soy home and told him not to say a word until we could come up with a plan. He was too frazzled to argue. Soy walked home along the path behind my house that crossed the woods to his, while I headed inside. When I slid the back door open, I saw my mom and the man in the bowtie sitting in our living room. She sat by the fireplace, and he sat closest to the front door. My mom and the man were mid-conversation when I walked in. He looked at me from the corner of his eye, but kept speaking.
“They’re absolutely beautiful, Mrs. Caelum. I don’t believe I’ve seen lilium bulbiferum that vibrant since my last trip overseas,” said the man as he touched the lilies that were on the table between them.
“Oh, you’re too nice!” said my mom with a giggle.
My mom wasn’t known for giggling, but flowers were one of her most favorite things in the world. She filled the house with them whenever she could. The most that my dad would say about it was that fake flowers cost less.
“Does your son have an appreciation for flowers as well?” the man asked, turning to look at me.
His blond hair was pressed firmly against the top of his head, and his pale skin looked almost shiny. The thing that stood out the most though, was his toothy grin. I felt uneasy. I wished that I was still talking to the frog instead.
“Ah, there you are! Come have a seat and say hello to mister…,” my mother said, stopping for a moment.
“Ream,” he finished for her, “and it’s a pleasure to meet you, young man.”
“Hello,” I said.
“Good job,” my mom whispered happily, “that’s exactly where a ‘Hello’ goes! Mr. Ream is from the school board,” she said louder, “and he’s here to…”
Once again she wasn’t sure how to finish her sentence.
“I’m here to speak with you about Miss Weaver’s class,” he interjected, “we’ve begun an initiative where we, the board members, speak directly with students to learn more about their experiences in the school system. We’d like to have an open dialogue between the administration and the children.”
“I think that’s just wonderful,” said my mom.
She was smiling ear to ear, looking for me to agree. I gave a nod, then I waited for someone else to speak.
“Mrs. Caelum, we’ve found that students tend to be more free and honest with their feelings when their parents can’t hear. I assure you, I’ve been trained in creating an atmosphere where students can speak their mind without fear of unjust punishment,” said Mr. Ream.
“I see,” said my mom. She turned to me and spoke in her usual kind voice, “I’m going to be right here in the kitchen if you need anything, sweetie. Remember that you can be honest with Mr. Ream, and nothing bad will happen. Okay?”
I nodded and watched my mom leave for the kitchen. I looked at Mr. Ream's clothing. He wore a blue suit with a yellow bowtie. It wasn’t a regular yellow, though, so I could see why my mom had mentioned it. As he moved, the light reflected off of it in every direction. It didn’t move like clothes usually do. In fact, it didn’t move at all. I also noticed just how tall Mr. Ream was. He was taller than my mom, even when he was sitting down.
“Has anything strange happened at school in the past couple of days?” he asked right away.
I shook my head hard and fast.
“You can tell me. I’m here to help,” he said in a friendly voice. “You see, I didn’t tell your mom this because I didn’t want to worry her…”
Now Mr. Ream leaned in closer. His mouth looked larger by the second. I was almost positive that he could eat a whole sandwich in one bite.
“There’s a…” he said, pausing, “person who has been bothering students. Some little birdies told me that perhaps they’ve been bothering you. ”
He gave the largest smile I had ever seen. Two sandwiches, at least. I knew, deep down, that he meant the frog. That’s why she had acted so funny when she heard about his bowtie.
“Well, what does the person look like?” I asked shyly.
“That’s the tricky part,” he replied, “This… person likes to disguise themselves in different ways. Ways that might even seem impossible.”
He was only a foot away now. Three sandwiches and a side of fries, I decided.
He continued, “They may even be disguised as an animal."
My eyes got wide. Mr. Ream’s got small.
“You have seen them!” Mr. Ream said, trying to hide his excitement.
I shook my head.
“I didn’t say that, you did,” I said defensively.
“But you have, haven’t you,” he said sympathetically. “Tell me what happened. It’s for your own safety.”
I didn’t know what to believe.
“What’s so dangerous about her, anyway?” I asked.
The moment I said it, I wished that I could take it back; that I could grab the words out of mid-air and zip them right back into my mouth. But that’s not how words work.
“‘Her?’” he said.
I couldn’t look at him. I had said too much.
He spoke sharply in a whisper. “So, it’s true. She has come to see you. Tell me why.”
I shook my head.
“Why did she choose to reveal herself to you? Tell me!” he demanded.
“It was nothing,” I answered despite myself. “I was just...”
“You were just? You were just what?” he prodded.
I was confused, but I knew that I did not want to tell this man anything more. And I was not going to make the same mistake twice.
“I was just catching frogs in the woods with Soy and we didn’t know it was a special frog when we caught it, I swear, and she asked us to let her go, so we did,” I said in one breath.
Mr. Ream sat back in his seat and listened to me ramble on.
“And she made me promise not to tell anyone. Am I in trouble?” I asked, pretending to cry.
I had learned how to fake cry the year before when I tried out for a small part in the school play. As it turned out, the role of “Weeping Willow” wasn’t even a speaking part. It’s just a tree. No crying required. Still, after forty minutes of standing up on stage, not being allowed to move, I cried a little anyway.
“No,” he hissed, “you’ve just disappointed me. I thought for a moment that you were the…”
My mom walked in smiling, with a vase in her hand.
“Sorry to interrupt but I thought you might enjoy seeing my latest- ” she stopped when she saw me.
“What are you two talking about in here?” she asked, a bit concerned.
“Oh, Mrs. Caelum, your son and I were just —,” Mr. Ream sputtered.
“Why is he crying??” my mom asked more forcefully. She rushed to my side to console me.
“It’s nothing,” Mr. Ream pleaded, “sometimes these talks can be emotional, and if you wouldn’t mind my asking just a few more questions…”
The tears were flowing more freely now. I had become the Weepiest Willow in the world.
“I would mind,” she said firmly, “and if you’d like to keep your job, you’ll leave right now.”
Mr. Ream straightened his jacket and grabbed a briefcase from behind the couch. “Yes, of course. Thanks for your time,” he said.
He opened the door and turned to me.
“Be sure to let me know if your story changes,” he said with an unfriendly glare.
My mom put her arm around my shoulder.
“Out!” she shouted.
I spent the rest of the night listening to my mom speak on the phone with people from the school district. Apparently, Mr. Ream was highly regarded, but my mom didn't care. She was beyond angry. She yelled at some of the school people and even threatened to call the police once. By bedtime she seemed a little calmer.
Whatever Mr. Ream wanted with that frog, it wasn’t good. I decided then and there that I wasn’t going to let him get to her.
The next morning my mom gave me an extra long hug and apologized (for the tenth time) for letting Mr. Ream in the house. I told her (for the tenth time) that it was all right. Soy and I met in front of my house to walk to school, as usual. I hadn’t spoken to him since the treehouse, but it was immediately clear that he had gotten over the backpack-chewing phase.
“How do you think it learned to talk? She, I mean. How come she could talk?” he asked. Without waiting for answer, he continued, “And how did it know my name? She, I mean.”
“I don’t know, same as you,” I said honestly.
“What about the dude with the bowtie?” he asked excitedly.
“His name is Mr. Ream. Soy… he knew about her,” I said.
“About the frog?” Soy asked.
“Yeah. He said that he was looking for someone who could disguise themselves as an animal. She was right to warn us. There was definitely something off about him.” I said.
“You didn’t tell him anything, right?” asked Soy.
I looked down at the ground.
“I accidentally let on that I knew her,” I confessed.
“You did what?” Soy said in shock.
“I didn’t mean to. It came out by accident. And then Mr. Ream grilled me on why she had come to talk to me. Apparently, it’s a big deal that she did.”
“So what’d you do? Draw him a picture of it and tell him everything? Are you recording this conversation for him right now? If you’re wearing a wire, you have to tell me,” Soy said angrily.
“No, quit it, Soy," I said. "I told Mr. Ream that we were catching frogs, found her by accident, and let her go.”
“Oh. Okay, that’s not bad actually,” Soy said.
“Thanks,” I said with my head still hanging.
“And if he looks into it at all, the story will check out since I do love catching frogs. I should catch a few extra this week, just to be safe. So what now?” Soy asked.
“I really don’t know, but we need to find out why that frog’s here and why Mr. Ream is after her,” I answered.
“I’m in,” said Soy, “I’d take a frog in glasses over a man in a bowtie any day.”
I smiled. It felt good to have Soy on my side.
He lowered his voice a little and asked shyly, “If we do see it again, could you tell it that I’ve been really good about calling it a ‘she’?”
“Sure thing,” I said, promising to lie to a frog for my best friend.