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Authors: Elle Lothlorien

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary

The Frog Prince

BOOK: The Frog Prince
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The Frog Prince

ELLE LOTHLORIEN

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For my daughter, Myranda, and my son, Corin, who have never loved me any less for the hundreds of hours I have spent away from them in my own fictional worlds. If they had a dollar for every time over the years they have heard me say, “When I finish the book…” Thank you for understanding that even moms have dreams.

 

Chapter One

 

 

 

Everyone agrees that my Great Aunt Tina looks fabulous dead. Great Uncle Morris has picked her favorite violet pantsuit for her, the one with the gold buttons. I hear nothing but murmurs of approval as a beaming Great Uncle Morris works the crowd, accepting the quiet pity and sartorial admiration of the fifty or so relatives and friends gathered around the casket for the occasion.

“She looks just
lovely
!” gushes my mother’s cousin’s wife. “I just can’t get over it… If I didn’t know better, I’d think she was just sleeping!”

My mother’s cousin’s wife is an educated woman, so I know she
does
know better. Great Aunt Tina is so stiff with rigor mortis that you could flip her over and use her as a table for high tea at the Brown Palace Hotel downtown.

If I didn’t know better
…linguistic code for “Listen up, everyone! I’m about to say something profoundly stupid.”

Roger Duke, owner of Duke and Duke, (and our family’s undertaker of choice) steps into the room. “Friends, loved ones,” he says, licking his lips and twisting the thick gold chain around his wrist. “I want to thank you all for coming here today.” He clasps his hands together and raises them in front of him as he speaks, showing us the gold rings that cover nearly every finger. I’ve heard Duke’s death speech preamble at least ten times in the last fifteen years, so I only half-listen. The rest of me scans the crowd, making a mental list of people I want to talk to when the show is over.

“Tina would want us to remember her, I think, as a lover of life,” begins Roger Duke.

I can barely keep my eyes from rolling. Duke’s “Lover of Life” eulogy is as recycled as the non-potable water irrigating Denver’s City Park. I tune out, and instead mull over the word “non-potable.” Where the hell do these words come from? “Non-potable.” Any reasonable English speaker would immediately suspect the word to mean “unable to put in a pot.” I amuse myself for the next few minutes by envisioning crowds of sleek, thirsty Denverites crowding into City Park with their high-end cookware, trying in vain to capture sewer-laced water jetting from sprinkler heads in the ground.

A tickle at the intersection of my sinus cavities and nasal pharynx distracts me from my reverie. My brain often misreads my seasonal allergies as a full-fledged germ assault and responds by launching a sneezing-fit counter-attack. I reach up and brutally pinch my nose. This usually works, but just in case I have to blow a bacterial and mucus suspension into the air, I take a step backwards to move to the rear of the room. My four-inch stiletto lances something spongy…maybe a shoe. I pull my foot up and do an about-face to see what I’ve stepped on. On a foot between the straps of a black beach sandal is a bleeding circular indentation where a small artery use to be.

The first thing I think:
sandals
. I can hardly believe it! I look up to inspect the peasant who would wear sandals for such a somber occasion. Potential cutting remarks bubble up and prepare to take form. Suddenly I am being scrutinized by eyes the color of Ty-D-Bowl water, and my cute comments go as flat as a day-old soda. At this point an observer might think that I’m still looking this stranger in his pain-filled eyes as he grimaces and hisses in agony. But I’m actually checking out the rest of him with my superior female peripheral vision. His longish, dark brown hair is parted on the side, and faux-disheveled in a sort of Ooops-I-Didn’t-Know-I-Looked-Hot style. Who says laying people to rest can’t be fun?


Sorry
,” I say. Now he’s smirking at me as I fumble around in my purse for something to put on his bloody foot.

“What about this,” he says, touching the fabric belt cinching my black silk blouse at the waist. “We can use it for a tourniquet.” He shoots me a lopsided smirk before dropping down to apply direct pressure to the hole in his foot with his hand.

Still top-side, I consider telling him that it took me two months to subtly convince a friend that this three-hundred dollar blouse made her look fat so she would give it to me. This potential revelation requires further thought–about three seconds of it–before I decide to leave it bouncing around in my cranium. It has a Creep Factor of about five—that dangerous middle-ground of comedy that makes it just as likely that it will repulse him as it will make him laugh.

“Here’s a napkin. It’s clean,” I whisper, crouching down beside him and handing him a board-stiff Taco Bell napkin that has the absorptive power of aluminum foil. A rivulet of blood is running down the side of his foot and pooling on the dark blue carpet. “Holy crap, Duke is going to flip out when he sees this,” I mutter.

“Who, the gold-dripping death-dealer?” he says, doing a head fake in Roger Duke’s general direction. The aforementioned is still eHHe milking the “Lover of Life” speech for all it’s worth.

I try for what I think is a look of pure disapproval. “My family has been using Duke and Duke for over fifty—”

I cut myself short, my peripheral vision alerting me to a matter that needs closer attention. I look down at the long-sleeved gray T-shirt he’s wearing. “Mean People Suck” it screams in bright orange letters. “Did you get lost on your way back to the halfway house?” I ask. This has an Asshole Factor of about eight, but (as my mother always told me) words are not fishing line you can reel back in after a bad cast.

Luckily he laughs, baring his orthodontically straight teeth. We’re hunkered down with our heads almost touching, and I notice that he’s one of those guys who smell really great to me.

The “to me”
part is important. As a sexuality researcher, I once managed a pheromone study where a dozen different men were asked to wear identical white T-shirts to bed for three days. We then stuffed them into individual Ziploc bags (the T-shirts, not the men) and recruited women to sniff them and give them each a score. There was also space for optional comments.

We found that pheromones were in the eye of the beholder, so to speak. T-shirt #11B in particular drew very different comments from two participants. “Yummy! Christmas trees crossed with pipe tobacco!” wrote one. The second: “Smells like a goat rolled in moldy rags.”

In the end they found out that women who scored a particular T-shirt high had immunity markers that were the opposite of the T-shirt wearer, and speculated a union between the two would result in offspring with a high chance of fighting off, say, diphtheria, scabies, herpes, Ebola, or any one of the other fun bugs in the grab-bag of human diseases.

I reflect on his pleasant scent as the blood from his foot overwhelms the impenetrable fiber barrier of the napkin, and consider saying, “Our offspring would have an increased chance of surviving the impending influenza pandemic because of our contrasting genetic immunity markers.” It’s possible that comments like this led to the creation of the Creep Factor scale in the first place. I rate this one as a perfect ten and break eye contact.

That’s when I notice that people around us are staring. I stand up and motion for him to follow me. We end up in a small, private grieving alcove of sorts with a couch and end tables loaded up with flowers and boxes of tissues. I nearly gag on the overpowering aroma of lavender before pulling the curtain closed over the entrance.

“What are you
wearing
?” I say, waving my hand up and down at his shirt and sandals ensemble like a manic game-show hostess showcasing a prize.

“They said this was just going to be the screening for some great aunt,” he says with total unconcern.


Viewing
,” I correct him.

“Right.” He shrugs. “I thought it was a memorial service where I could just stand in the back. If I’d known it was going to be an all-star gala—”

“For your information, we dress up to show our respect for the dead,” I say, squatting again to pile a wad of tissue on his irreverent, hemorrhaging foot.

He snorts. “The dead should be glad I didn’t show up in a jock strap and a pair of socks. Besides, I don’t think anyone’s interested in what I’m wearing. As far as I can see everyone’s saving the fashion critique for the stiff—ow!”

I smack the last few tissues over his sandal and stand up. Whoever he is, he’s not much taller than me because I don’t have to crane my neck back to see his face. “The ‘stiff’ is my Great Aunt Tina. I’d appreciate it if you’d speak about her with a little more respect.”

He smiles at me a little, just turning up the corners of his mouth. “Christine told me your family was weird about funerals.”

Christine is my cousin. She lives near downtown Denver in one of those 1920s bungalows that once dotted the city before they were bulldozed to make way for office buildings and walk-up lofts. The house is dwarfed on all sides by high-rises, stubbornly refusing to move, like the Zax in the Dr. Suess poem. I once made up a parody of this poem in honor of Christine’s house. Now, at the mention of her name, it pops into my head and starts running like reel-to-reel audio:

 

It stands there, not budging! At 18
th
& Pearl

With its Birkenstock owner and her boyfriend named Earl.

Well…

Of course Denver didn’t stand still. It grew.

In a couple of years, the new high-rises came through

And they built them all ‘round that quaint little shack

And left it there, standing alone like the Zax.

 

“I’m here with Christine and Earl,” he says. “We were on our way to a movie. Christine got a call from someone in your family reminding her about the viewing.”

“I’m Leigh Fromm,” I say, and stick out my hand. And then I wait. I know what’s coming next: “Leigh
Fromm
? Leigh
from where
?” Badabing, everyone’s a comedian.

But this guy doesn’t take the bait… he just stares at me, a sort of crooked half-smile on his face as my hand hovers in dead air. Then he grabs my fingers up to the second set of phalanges and applies a touch of pressure before releasing it.

I’m still staring at my hand and wondering if he shakes every woman’s hand like a damp hand towel, or if he has some paralyzing war wound that would be rude to bring up when he says, “I don’t remember seeing you at Christine’s wedding last year.”

“I wasn’t there,” I say, and drop my hand. “I had to go on a business trip.”

“Were you at their baby shower in April?”

Now I’m starting to get uncomfortable. Why does this guy care where I was? “Uh, no, I couldn’t make it. I sent her flowers when her son was born.”

“When was the last time you saw Christine?” He grins and then bends down to take over his own field dressing.

“At my grandmother’s funeral,” I say to the top of his head. “And what does Christine mean ‘our family is weird about funerals?’”

“Let’s see…how did she put it?” He stands up and holds the tissues in place with his other foot. “‘The most dangerous place to stand is between someone in my family and a casket.’”

“That’s not true!” I say, quickly performing the arduous mental gymnastics required to nail down the last time I attended a wedding or a graduation. I’m almost certain I’ve never been to a baby shower.

He smiles. “She said the family motto is ‘If You’ve Got a Corpse, We’ve Got a Plane Ticket.’”

“What’s going on?” We turn simultaneously to see my cousin, Christine, peeking her head around the curtain.

“Trying to recover from meeting your cousin here.”

“The wake’s almost over,” says Christine. “Earl wants to know if you want to grab a drink at the Funky Buddha and wait for the next movie.”

He glances at me. “Whaddya say, Leigh? Want to join us for some drinks? I promise not to show everyone my open flesh wound.”

My hand’s already on the curtain, sweeping it aside. “Uh, no thanks. I don’t think binge drinking is an appropriate way to grieve.” I shoot an accusing look at Christine.

“Oh, come on, Leigh,” says Christine with a laugh. “She was your great uncle’s second wife. You didn’t even know her.”

“Funerals are meant to comfort the living,” I retort before stalking out of the alcove.

“I thought this was the viewing?” I hear him mumble as I move out of earshot and head back to the parlor where my Great Aunt Tina’s open casket is displayed.

I mentally kick myself in the mental ass the whole way. Regret is familiar territory. When it comes to dating and men—hell, even having a coherent conversation with people in general—I am something of a social retard.
Funerals are meant to comfort the living
? God, I’m like Emily Post crossed with Debbie Downer. I queue up in the coffin line so I can say my final goodbyes to Great Aunt Tina before going home to spend a quiet evening in respectful isolation. Sort of like every other night.

BOOK: The Frog Prince
13.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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