It was a cold and wet November day when a family friend who was also a doctor told Tyler Burbank he had about one year left to live. He was twelve. He’d most likely die before doing the things kids his age fantasize about doing once they are full-on teenagers; the disease in his blood would ultimately seize his major organs. For Tyler, it would not be painful, said the family friend who was also a doctor. For everyone else, it would be brutal.
Tyler was sweet and charming and knowledgeable about many things in the way that boys who are revered by his neighbors are. He was an only child. Dad fancied himself a problem-solver and left to find a cure but ended up renting a room in a shoddy hotel in one of the unsavory parts of the city where the university presided. Mom stayed home.
A short walk from home through their tidy neighborhood, along sidewalks lined with trees, was a modest park where bored teens swung on rusty playground swings, and a pond which had been made inaccessible by a perimeter of untidy vegetation. Except . . . there was a narrow path and punctuating its end by the pond was a round flat stone, like a Frisbee if giants threw Frisbees. Tyler spent a lot of his time here, crouched like a catcher on the rock, identifying every living thing around him, from the bugs in the dirt and grass to the animals in the trees and above.
Everyone remembered Tyler as always being preoccupied with living things and after being told his blood disease was not only rare but would kill him Tyler turned to the life around him for distraction. He set out to find something that had never been found, buoyed by his recollection that scientists thought most of the forms of life on Earth had not been identified even though humans had named most of what they had seen. But most people could not peer into their own reality as closely as Tyler Burbank could. He’d focus on a spot of the pond and stare until his vision softened, then would sharpen into focus, as if he were turning the lens of a camera. He was doing this the day he saw the frogs.
Early spring, six months into the last year of his life, Tyler saw something and made a mental note of it and then walked home. There, he flipped through his battered book on amphibians and looked for frogs because he was certain the thing he saw was a frog. But no frog in the book had the third eye which the one he had seen in the pond had. Yes, according to Tyler’s book, several different types of frogs inhabited Tyler’s part of the world but none of them, of course, had more than two eyes. But the frog Tyler saw in the pond had more than two eyes. He’d seen it with his own.
Never a shy boy and confident in his knowledge and observational powers, Tyler began mentioning the thing he saw to others and, of course, no one believed such a thing existed although those who heard went along with what Tyler said because he was a good and nice boy and was dying. In fact, the doctor who was a family friend was quite certain Tyler would not make it to Christmas.
So in places where Tyler could not hear, people began talking about not only going along with Tyler’s story but collectively supporting and promoting the fabrication that he had discovered a new life form, since his setting out to do so was known throughout town. And not only that but also convincing the local news (the TV station had recently bought the newspaper, as these things went) to go along as well since someone knew someone there and, well, the enterprise was not wholly serious about disseminating factual and objective information anyway, and having the boy think he did something legendary before he died seemed like the good and right thing to do. Everyone got very emotional about it. Except . . . the man assigned to report the story. He called the house and Tyler’s mother said to come on a Saturday and he’d interview her son in the kitchen.
“The red light isn’t on.”
“I know. We won’t begin taping until I take down some basic information, which we’ll need for the story. Okay?”
The newsman removed a pen from the pocket of his collared shirt, which was buttoned to the top as he was wearing a tie and this was his first assignment of the day.
“Tyler, spell your full name for me.”
“Tyler: T-Y-L-E-R. Middle name: Christian, like the religion. Last name: Burbank, like the town.”
“Burbank, California. Where O.J. killed that woman.”
The newsman looked up from his notebook and then at the kid sitting across the small square kitchen table from him. Tyler’s legs dangled above the vinyl floor and he was snacking on Goldfish that were arranged meticulously on the tabletop to form the outline of a goldfish. Tyler was eating the bubbles. The newsman, of course, remembered the main events of that trial and knew the murder occurred in Brentwood and not – as Tyler believed – in Burbank. Everyone in this town thinks this kid’s a genius, he thought. He decided not to correct him, taking into account everything Tyler had been and was still going through.
“I’m surprised you know about that. Were you even born yet?”
“I was due that day. But I was five days early.”
“So your birthday is?”
“June 7, 1994. Wanna know an easy way to remember that?”
“June is the sixth month of the year. Six plus seven is 13, and 2007 minus 1994 is 13.”
“That’s a lot of 13s,” the newsman said. “You know, some people are afraid of the number thirteen.”
“That’s called triskaidekaphobia.”
The newsman looked over his shoulder, in the direction of Tyler’s mom, who was wearing jeans and a yellow sweater and was leaning against the counter in front of the sink. “Wow,” he said. “Okay. You know your phobias, too?
Interviewing children was part of community broadcast journalism that the newsman never liked. But this was considered by those who consider these things a big story (even though it was not even a true story but his editor had told him to get over that) and he liked being on TV. He’d also acquired an acute understanding of the fact that sometimes you have to do things you don’t like in order to continue doing the thing that you do like. Not to mention, Tyler’s mom was cute. He went into play mode.
“You know what I’m really afraid of,” he said, leaning in, “snakes.”
Tyler looked up at the fan. It was spinning too fast. Mornings are still cool in May. “That’s called ophidiophobia. I love snakes,” he said.
“I bet you do. They are a lot like frogs, right?”
“Snakes are reptiles. Frogs are amphibians.”
“Yes, I know,” the newsman said, pausing for a drink. Tyler’s mom had made iced tea that morning. He sipped it, glanced at Mom and nodded.
“When are you going to turn the red light on?”
Turn the camera on, you mean, the newsman thought, successfully keeping those words where they belonged: in his head. Where’s the dad in this picture? He could not remember.
“Right, I think we are ready now. . . . Okay, Tyler, well, we are all here because you know so much about frogs. So tell us: How do you know so much about these little amphibious critters?”
Tyler gazed out an adjacent window. A pigeon dove was calling from a serpentine, blotchy bough of a sycamore. “My grandfather gave me a book,” he said.
Of course, the newsman had heard the whole story before: the grandfather buying the secondhand encyclopedia about amphibians at the library book sale; the boy latching on to it like oxygen and subsequently being able to identity most of the frogs and salamanders in the world by their Latin name by the time he was six; the bleeding during the baseball game; the diagnosis; and, the supposedly super-seeing frogs. But, he needed the words to come from the boy in order to print and report them so he sat there and jotted some notes and glanced at the recipes and photos on the fridge and at Tyler’s mom and the rotting bananas hanging from the banana holder and then at Tyler’s mom again and then at the decapitated Goldfish on the table. Tyler had reached the part in the story when he saw whatever he did see that day in April.
“You wanna see?”
“Sure, let’s go for a walk. It’ll be quick, right?”
“It’s two minutes’ away,” Mrs. Burbank said.
“Right. I’ll just leave everything here. You coming?”
“No. You and Tyler go.”
Tyler’s town was located near the shoreline in New England. It was a nice town, with good schools and reliable garbage-collection workers, and it had a long, sordid industrial past.
Many manufacturers were located there and in the years following World War II, like so many companies that made things, they did not dispose of the waste they created in a way that would be considered beneficial for the environment or the people who lived there in the future. But companies and people did not think of things like this then; they just dumped their waste anywhere: along the beach, in the water, and in the marshes and pastures which, decades later, would be filled to become popular playing fields for kids. Growing up, Tyler and his friends witnessed the painful whittling away of life thrust upon many grown-ups as a result of cancer and other diseases caused by living in a place where industrial waste crept into the water you drank and the vegetables you sometimes ate. Perhaps that is why Tyler did not absolutely break down when he was told he was going to die young; death was part of life in his town.
There was one area in particular that one of the manufacturing companies had an unusual affinity for – dumping so much waste into the soil that the town, many years later, sealed off the field so that men in fluorescent yellow space suits could dig, extricate and cap the playing field. There was a park by the field and also a small pond and in the height of summer a very bright conglomeration of algae would cover the pond, and there was a myth about town that strange things grew in the pond as a result of the park’s past. But, no one had ever seen anything. Then again, no one had ever looked at such things with the intensity and focus that Tyler Burbank could bring to such ordinary acts of human observation.
“I don’t see anything,” the newsman said, crouching on the big Frisbee rock.
“Just keep looking. Focus on one spot, and just stare. Eventually, usually, you see something.”
He stared. And stared. It seemed warmer here than in the neighborhood, and he hadn’t noticed the humidity before. And then he could not really tell what was happening: Mist off the pond or haze from the air. Things got slightly blurry. Then he thought he saw a darkened area of black over the surface of what was already a blackish part of the pond, surrounded by tall vegetation and masked in shadows. It looked something like a rock. With bumps. Could it be a frog? He didn’t say anything. He looked more closely.
The walk to the park had been spontaneous. The newsman had left the camera in Tyler’s kitchen. What he saw, was it real? Or was it an illusion he could not explain. He looked more closely. Like Tyler was doing. It looked like a frog, and it looked like on top of what would be the frog’s head were three bumps and occupying the space within those bumps were what looked like pupils.
“I think I see something.”
“Over there,” he said, pointing.
“I don’t see anything.”
“Yeah. I guess it’s gone.”
A three-eyed frog? Could be. It certainly looked like a frog and it certainly looked like it had three eyes. But, without the camera, how could he know? And who would believe him if he told people – or even reported – that while with Tyler he in fact witnessed the thing that the community had fabricated. Who would believe that story? (And where, they would say, was your camera?) But that, he realized quite quickly, was moot: He did not have to convince anyone because everyone wanted to believe anyway. Everyone wanted to believe in the story, the story his editors wanted to run, the extravagant story about a genius dying boy who sets out to discover some new form of life before he dies and then does discovers a new kind of frog, practically in his own backyard. But now it wasn’t just a story invented by the community. It was real. Maybe. He saw it, he thought. So what was the story?
He mulled that question all the way back to Tyler’s house, and to the newsroom, and to his apartment and, finally, to the dive bar downtown where he often ended his nights. He had decided not to say anything to anybody. But that was before drinking whiskey. The man next to him was also drinking whiskey. He decided to share his story.
“The factory,” said the other man.
“The what?” the newsman said.
“The factory. The one that made those parts. Down by that park,” the man said. “They knocked it down. It’s where those duplexes are now. They dumped junk in that pond all the time. I bet if there’s a frog or fish in that pond with three eyes or whatever it’s because they dumped all sorts of junk in there.”
The man had been drinking and so had the newsman so he dismissed the thought and whatever hazy image he had in his mind. He slept.
Two days later the newsman was assigned to some community awards event at the local nonprofit that ran most of the sports programs in town. He was standing by the buffet table when he noticed a box of old plaques in a box behind the table. It was a framed photograph of a boys’ baseball team, from many years ago, when boys wore their hair long, and underneath the photo was the name of the factory which the man in the bar had mentioned and which apparently had sponsored this team of long-hairs. He was dumbfounded. He pulled the plaque from the box and turned to the woman next to him, who was about to bite a small carrot.
“Have you ever heard of this place?”
“What?” she said while covering her mouth. “I’m sorry.”
“This place. The factory?”
“I have, actually. Why?”
“What do you know about it?”
The woman looked at him strangely. He was used to this. When you are a reporter, people do not talk to you as though you are a regular person. That is, especially in a small town, because people are afraid that whatever they say may not only be printed but could in fact be used inexplicably in a headline – because it had happened, many times.
“I’m just curious,” he said. “I’m not writing about it. Don’t worry. It’s just that I was with that boy, you know, Tyler, the other day, and –“
“I know someone who worked there,” the woman said. “And I know what you’re going to say. I’ve been thinking about that ever since people starting talking about the whole Tyler story. I shouldn’t say any more. Please don’t print any of this.”
“I won’t. I don’t even know your name. It’s just weird that I had not heard of this place and then last night some guy mentioned it to me and then I see this” – he showed her the plaque he was holding – “and apparently they sponsored baseball teams in town. It’s just a weird coincidence.”
“I’m surprised they did that. They were pretty secretive. A girlfriend of mine had a brother who worked there. I don’t know where they are now, but all I know is that they made parts for something and I’m pretty sure they made a real mess of that pond. And I’ve been thinking about that ever since, you know, the Tyler thing. That if Tyler did see anything strange, like he really saw something, something that can’t really be explained, if that’s true, then it may be because of all the stuff they put in there.”
This woman obviously grew up in town, had heard the stories. The newsman did not tell the woman that he thought he saw something at the pond because even though he liked being on TV and was even beginning to contemplate the possibility that this woman who was wearing a wedding ring may be in an unhappy relationship he also sought out journalism because he wanted truth or justice or something good and he suddenly realized he was on to something bigger than a feel-good community lie.
For the next week he looked up old stories, spoke to older residents and the town historian, and on a cold autumnal night he drove to the dark quiet street at the southern tip of town, on the water, where the man who ran that factory for thirty years lived. He knocked, the man answered and the newsman introduced himself.
“What do you want?”
“I’d like to know what you dumped in that water,” he asked while still standing at the man’s door. The newsman had his flaws – he knew them – but he could still take his job seriously and he saw himself teetering on the cusp of exposing something important.
“Everything,” said the old man. “Everyone did back then. Why?”
“Because some boy said he saw some frog in that pond that has three eyes and everyone wants to make him the discoverer of some new form of species – but that frog really exists because I saw it. And some people say if there’s a disfigured frog it’s because of what your company did and I think, frankly, that that is the more important story, in the scheme of things.”
Uncovering a toxic polluter responsible for the Frankensteining of animals would be a big enough story to at least make the Internet for a few minutes and from there, who knew. Perhaps this could launch him to bigger and better things, places where he did not have to interview children and attend school award ceremonies in some stuffy old Victorian owned by the town’s parks department.
“But it’s not,” said the older man. “That was years ago. Nearly everyone who threw junk in that pond has died. And that boy – Tyler’s his name? – is going to die and – right? – everyone wants him to die thinking he found some new type of frog. So write the stupid story and make everyone happy and make that little boy happy before he dies.”
“But it’s not true,” the newsman said.
“But who cares.”
The older man shut the door.
Tyler Burbank died the next day, unexpectedly, from being in a car crash. Two days before Halloween. His father was driving him home from the university. Their car slipped on some wet leaves and hit an enormously broad oak tree. The dad lived. Tyler died in the ambulance.
The newsman was assigned to write the story that accompanied the main story about the accident: the story about how the deceased boy had in fact just prior to his death discovered a new species of frog and was in the process of being recognized by a slew of well-known international wildlife organizations. In the story, the newsman quoted some guy as being a biodiversity expert but really he was just a guy who lived in town, had coached Tyler’s baseball team once and had, for 25 years, kept the books at the natural history museum in the city. That was the last story the newsman wrote. He’s now a teacher.
Tyler’s parents moved. No one has heard from them nor do they know where they went. The park, littered with the garbage created by the teenagers who scare away the moms, bears Tyler’s name. And no one has ever seen the frogs and the newsman is not sure he saw them either.