The girl's name was Kai. Her tribe dwelt in a forest by a plain. A few days before, she rode on the back of a raptor with her aunt through the woods. Something spooked the raptor. It reared back, and Kai fell. She expected to fall into soft grass. Instead, she fell into a raging river—a river that had not been there the moment before. Kai couldn't swim. She fought to stay above water, but it was a losing battle. Fortunately, she drifted into the shallows and sputtered out onto the bank. She waited for her aunt to rescue her. After a day of waiting, she followed the river, hungry and scared. She found the town of Holcomb soon after.
Kai seemed eager to tell her story to Eddie, refusing to look at anyone else.
"And then the big mean lady put me in this cage," Kai said. "But you came and told me you would free me before the bad man could take me."
"What did she say?" the Sheriff asked.
"She said you put her in a cage," Eddie said.
"Ask her what happened to our mayor. Ask her what happened to our town."
"She doesn't know," Bryce said. "She's as confused as you."
"Ask her anyway."
Eddie crouched lower and leaned closer to the bars. "Do you know why everything has changed? Do you know what has happened to the world?"
Kai leaned in closer as if she were speaking conspiratorially. "The Kinsha says the Rotta'mies would come to make the world burn. Kinsha says it would burn the future. That's who did this. The Rotta'mies has awakened."
Eddie stared at her. These were words he didn't understand, despite his translating knack. As he translated her answer, Eddie noticed the woman prisoner watching them from where she lay on her bench. She stared at the little girl, then went back to filing her nails.
"Rotta'mies. What does that mean?" asked the Sheriff.
"If I knew, I'd tell you."
As they spoke, the frogs in the cell opposite gurgled water from buckets and splashed it over their skin. They grunted and groaned with desperate delight.
"Let's see if these two chuckleheads are ready to say something," the Sheriff said.
Eddie turned to them. The instant they saw they had his attention, the frog in the polo shirt stood up. "More water."
"They want more water."
"Not until I get answers," insisted the Sheriff.
"We don't know anything," polo shirt said.
"She won't be satisfied until you tell us something about how you got here."
The frog language involved a lot of gurgling and flapping lips. Eddie understood their words, but they spoke quickly, and it was difficult to keep up. "What's to say? We were in our swamp. Precious swamp, laying back on the reeds, telling jokes, catching flies, life is good. Good good. All's good and then the reeds are gone and the swamp is gone and everything's gone but dry dirt and we hate dirt because it's dry and it's dirt and..."
"I don't understand something," Eddie interrupted.
"And we don't understand something. Lots of somethings like how we got here and why our swamp is gone and..."
"Why are you wearing clothes? I mean, that's a cotton polo shirt. If you wore it in a swamp, it would be filthy." He shrugged. "So why bother?"
The two frogs shared a glance. The one in the striped t-shirt said, "That's an awfully personal question that you're asking. Don't you agree that it's personal?"
Eddie stared at him a moment, then turned to the Sheriff. "I don't think they know anything either."
"Are you sure?"
Eddie asked them about what had happened, how they'd come there, and what happened to the world. All he got were more diatribes about needing water, missing their swamp and how much they hated dry dirt. They begged and pleaded for more water.
"They're clueless. Whatever is going on, we're all victims. No one here is responsible."
The Sheriff squinted at him. "Say that again."
"What? I said we aren't responsible for what's happened to the world."
"Are you responsible?"
Eddie recoiled. "No."
She stared a moment longer. "That feels like a lie."
"I'm not lying," he said, stepping back into the bars.
She stood motionless, her eyes fixed on Eddie's. Eddie tried to match her gaze but found he couldn't. He cast his eyes to the ground, feeling invaded.
"Earlie," she called over her shoulder.
A distant voice: "Yeah?"
"Fetch the keys."
"Are you letting these people out?" Eddie asked.
"No, I'm putting you boys inside."
Bryce stepped forward, his face flush with indignation. "For what?"
She pointed at Eddie, "Him, because he's not telling everything. You, because you stole that cart of yours."
"Stole it from who?"
"I'll keep my ears open on the wireless. When the other stations report in, I'll see what's what."
"What other stations?" Bryce said. "There's no one out there."
"Then you're gonna be in jail for a while."
"I want a lawyer," Bryce insisted.
"The mayor's nephew is a lawyer," the Sheriff said.
"Good. I demand to speak to him."
"He's disappeared, like the mayor and a bunch of others."
"You can't keep us here."
Earlie stepped in from the front office, holding a ring of keys and a revolver. He aimed the gun at Bryce.
"Sheriff can do what she likes," he said.
* * *
As the sunlight faded to dusk through a high barred window, Eddie held his hands over his ears, huddled on the bench, one stockinged foot on the wet floor. He'd made the mistake of telling the frog boys how to say "Water" in English. Now polo shirt stood at the bars, banging them with the shoe he'd borrowed from Eddie, wailing "Wahhhh-dder. Wahhh-dder." Every time Earlie conceded and brought in a bucket, the frog boys sloshed water everywhere.
Bryce was trying to keep a cool exterior. He tapped his foot, frowning, eyes closed. He'd wince occasionally when polo shirt's voice got especially shrill.
He'd tried to strike up a conversation with the woman in the other cell. She'd finished her nails and tugging at loose threads on her sleeve, re-weaving them with a single hand. Bryce complimented her on her dexterity, but she showed no sign of hearing. Once the frog started shouting, he gave up trying to engage her.
" Wahh-dder! Wahhhhh-derrrrrr!"
The sky went black. Earlie placed an oil lamp on a table by the door. The light was barely adequate for the jail, flickering by itself. The deputy left quickly.
" Wahhhh-dderrrr!" "Wahhhhhhhhh—"
Bryce let out a frustrated roar. He jumped to his feet. "Enough! Cut that crap or I'm going to pour salt on you." He glared down at polo shirt.
Polo shirt retreated to the corner, his eyes wide and horrified. "Wah-der?"
"No. No water. And if you keep this up, I'm gonna kick your ass."
Bryce slumped back down next to Eddie. "This sucks."
"Do you think they've done something to my car?"
"I don't know."
"How long do you think they'll keep us here?"
"I don't know. The Sheriff seems pretty paranoid. If we're lucky, she'll boot us out of town."
"But she thinks we might have abducted their mayor or something," Bryce said. "I wonder how many people have been taken."
"They talked about people disappearing on the radio too."
"Yeah. Dragon attacks. It sounds weird."
"If there are more abductions, they'll know we had nothing to do with it."
"If the dragons take everyone, there won't be anyone left to let us out."
They were quiet for a minute. Then Bryce said, "She thinks you have something to do with everything that's happening in the world."
Bryce's eyes gleamed in the lamp light. "Aren't you?"
Eddie's mouth went dry.
"You seem nice enough, Eddie, and you've helped me get through a couple scrapes, but what is it about you that brings on so much trouble?"
"I don't know. I guess I just have that kind of face."
"I don't think so. I think that somewhere in that head of yours, there's something you know about why everything went wrong."
Eddie couldn't think of anything to say. He'd tried to remember what had happened before the desert. Every time he reached for the past, he found himself confused and afraid. He'd learned not to try. The past was too difficult.
How could he have caused the insanity around him? How could anyone?
But what if he did?
He turned away from Bryce, staring out into the bars. On the other side of the room, he found the little girl staring at him with nervous anticipation. Her eyes didn't stray.
"I hope I didn't do this," Eddie whispered. "I hope I'm not to blame. If I am, I hope I can undo it."
"How could you possibly undo anything," Bryce asked.
"I don't know."
The little girl continued to gaze at him. Eddie stood and crouched next to the bars. Kai gave a wan smile. "I'm ready to go, mister," she said.
"My name is Eddie."
"I know," she said. "You told me."
"When did I tell you?"
"When you said you would get me out of here."
"When did I say that? Were you dreaming?"
She frowned thoughtfully. "I don't think so."
"Kai, I haven't been here before today."
"But you'll help me, won't you? I don't like it here. Something bad is going to happen."
"What's going to happen?"
"The bad man."
A shout from the front office cut him short. Eddie and Kai turned towards the illuminated door. A gunshot brought both of them to their feet. The frogs crouched lower, moving to the corner furthest from the door. Only the woman prisoner didn't react.
"What's going on out there?" asked Eddie.
A single strobe of blue light pulsed through the door. Earlie screamed. The Sheriff shouted. Footsteps pounded against the wood floor. Another blue flash was followed by the sound of a body hitting the floor.
Eddie took a step back. Bryce stood, frozen. "Someone's coming," he whispered.