"If you want to see what it does so badly," he smirked, "why don't you lick it?"
Ian shook his head. "You don't understand. You're smaller than we are." This was not true—he understood perfectly that they were taller than he was; it was undeniable. Ian alone was probably a couple of heads taller than he was, even without the limp. The other two, stony and silent gargoyles that they were, doubled his girth. "It will circulate faster through your bloodstream. I mean, we don't want to wait all afternoon, do we?"
Milo looked at it once more. It looked like a ripe tomato, all red and bloated, but with two gleaming, unblinking black eyes. It jerked in protest in his hands, its legs flailing in the air haphazardly, searching desperately for ground. "I don't want to," he said.
"For Chrissakes," Ian said. "It's just a toad. I mean, it probably won't work anyway—you're such a wuss."
Milo closed his eyes and dragged his tongue across the toad's broad back. It was vile, like licking a spoiled fruit. His tongue recoiled, but it was met only with the bitter taste of battery acid. "Ech!" he said, spitting on the ground.
"Don't spit it out!" Ian cried. "If you spit it out, it won't work!"
Reluctantly, Milo swallowed. "Can I have a glass of water?"
"I don't think so," said Ian. "I think it's like cough medicine. It has to coat your throat to work, and if you drink a glass of water, then it won't work because it'll all wash away. And then," he said chuckling, "you'd have licked a toad for nothing."
"Do you feel anything?" said one of the other two.
Milo thought for a second and then shook his head. "Nothing at all." This was a small lie. He had a slight headache, but that could be anything at all, and his leg hurt, but that was because rain clouds were forming and the pressure was building. It would stop hurting when the rain came.
They waited for a while. They sat on the stumps in the clearing behind the school, and Ian told a couple dirty jokes about prostitutes that Milo didn't get, but he laughed at anyway. They talked about the new Korean exchange student, and how she talked funny, and how ugly the biology teacher was. Ian told them about the time that he threw eggs at her house, and when he tried to run away he tripped over one of her potted plants and broke his leg. "What about you?" he asked Milo. "How did you break your leg?"
"I fell down the stairs," he said. "I fell down the stairs and when they put a cast on it, it didn't set right."
Ian sneered. "I heard your Dad hit you with a golf club."
"No," said one of the other two, "it was a baseball bat. I heard it was a baseball bat."
Milo clenched his fists. "I fell down the stairs."
Almost serendipitously, the rain came tumbling down in a sudden crack of thunder. It sounded like a stampede of wild animals beating against the savanna floor, and nearly drowned out Ian's words. "Come on, Milo, do you feel anything at all?"
"No!" Milo yelled over the din of the rain, hobbling to his feet.
The others got up as well. "What a waste," said Ian. They began to run from the clearing, covering their heads with their jackets. Milo walked as fast as he could, but with his bad leg it wasn't nearly as fast as any of the others. He didn't call out for them to slow down, because he knew that wherever they were going he would not be welcome. He had served his purpose for the day. He knew how things were; he did not delude himself into believing that they spent time with him out of friendship, or even some altruistic benefit for those with meager social graces. He was the gull and guinea pig, the one that they convinced time and time again to go snipe hunting, and he would always go because no one else would pay him even such spiteful attention.
The road to the house was not paved, and so it quickly became a sluice of dusty mud. It was thick and viscous, and pulled his every step down with a suck. It made him slower than usual, and by the time he arrived at his house, every fiber of his clothes and skin was inundated with rainwater. His hair hung in heavy tendrils and his books were soaked.
When opened the screen door and felt the warmth of the fire on his face, he realized he was lightheaded. It wasn't that he became so suddenly, but that the great effort of walking home had taken so much of his attention that he hadn't the time to notice. Even minor physical exertion made his tiny frail tired and his mind stressed. He did poorly in his studies because the dead weight of his limbs was so difficult to carry around the school hallways. He got little rest and less sleep. And so he did not find his lightheadedness odd—it was rare, but not unexpected.
"Milo!" said a voice from the living room. The words were soaked in by the wooden walls, returning to his ears gruff and distant. "Milo, for God's sake! I'm trying to sleep, can't you be a little more quiet?"
"Sorry, Dad," Milo said, gently laying each of his wet books out on the kitchen table. The only light in the house was coming from the fireplace in the next room and so he stumbled a bit getting around. Making no noise was impossible.
When his mother died, she had left the house in disrepair. The last moments of her life were marked by an abandonment of responsibility due to a crippling malaise and a severe affinity for alcohol—not the harsh and guttural alcohol that Dad preferred, like beer or whiskey, but the erudite kind of alcohol that cost her a great deal of money that they didn't own. This was, in the end, what did her in, not the slow poison of the alcohol itself. She could have lived twenty years while silent vultures devoured her liver, but it was the bills that came crashing down on her head in the guise of an angry fist.
They told the doctors that she had fallen down the stairs, and no one had any reason to disbelieve.
The house that she left behind was run down and squalid, infested with cockroaches and silverfish. Dad did not sweep, and toward the end of her life neither did Mom, and so the floor did not get swept. Milo had done it for a while—but after his leg went bad, it became too much of an effort. The cobwebs were no longer cleared, lightbulbs were no longer replaced.
Venturing toward the cupboard, Milo found that he could not focus. He had a slight case of double vision, like everything had an identical mirror image only centimeters displaced, and he wasn't sure where to place his feet, so he held his hands out before him. This, as he learned, was a mistake, as they crashed into a set of dirty pots and plates.
"Christ, Milo! Quiet down or I swear to God I'll beat the shit out of you," said his father's voice.
Milo stayed motionless until he heard his father begin to snore again. The rain had only grown heavier, and so he decided that he could move around again carefully without waking him. He felt like a cockroach scurrying around so low to the ground.
The room got colder as the fire began to die. Milo knew that this was his cue to stoke the fire—if his father awoke to the cold, he knew there would be Jesus Christ Milo, come stoke this damn fire, or For God's sake Milo, put some more wood on the fire or I'll throw you on it instead.
He had reached the threshold between the kitchen and living room before stopping in shock. There before him was a grisly sight—it was all red and bloated like a ripe tomato, but gigantic, almost twice as big as Milo himself, and it was lying supine in his father's armchair. Its body heaved with every breath, and it looked straight at him with black olive eyes.
"What are you doing here?" Milo whispered. "What do you want?" But it was clear what it wanted. It had slipped inside the house while Milo was standing motionless in the kitchen, unheard through the rain, and it had eaten his father. He had know way of knowing, but Milo was sure that in its monstrous belly was Ian and the two gargoyles, digesting slowly. Maybe his mother was in there, too, and all of his teachers at school.
You have nothing to fear now, Milo. Its lips did not move when it talked, nor did it make any real sound. But Milo knew what it said, the way you can hear the low hum of blank televisions and radios. Come closer.
"No," Milo said plainly. "You will eat me."
His leg ached from walking home, and struggled against the muscles in his hips when he forced it to move. That's it, come closer, said the cane toad, the same flat expression on its face. Milo grabbed the poker from beside the dying fire and held it in his hands. It was slightly crooked—it had given way, just a little, when it smashed into bone. It was poor to stoke the fire, but Milo's father kept it as a grim warning and reminder.
Milo climbed stood beside the toad, still lying comfortably. The rusted poker shook in his hands.
The cane toad looked him squarely in the eyes and said, Milo, you are almost there. Come closer and I will set you free. Milo inched closer little by little, and when the toad finally grinned at having caught its newfound prey, Milo hid the poker in his voracious belly. He did not scream, did not shriek, only let out a little cough. The loudest presence in the room was Milo's leg, which screamed indignantly.
From his wound and from the corners of his mouth and eyes ran a milky white poison, the fetid battery acid that Milo could still taste on his tongue and feel stuck to his fingers. It washed the chair and stained the carpet.
Not wanting to see the sight of his freedom any longer than he had to, Milo's aching head pulled his aching leg to bed. And after a sleepless night of rain, Milo awoke and wondered briefly to himself how all of that milky white poison had caked the chair and carpet bright red.