A Heather Bay Short Story
“What is it?” Oliver asked, staring down with a mixture of horror and bemusement at the housewarming present from Theo that was currently sitting on our kitchen table.
“I think the better question is what the fuck are we going to do with it?” I asked, prodding the base of the stuffed frog wearing what could only be described as stockings, a garter belt, and heels. It was the weirdest fucking thing I’d ever had the misfortune to lay my eyes on, and I had no clue what to do with it.
“I mean, we could give it back?” Oliver’s voice was vaguely hopeful, but his expression was pensive, like he was debating whether that would count as rude or not. “Tell Theo it’s not really our thing.”
“Yeah…” I rubbed the back of my neck. “I just–”
“Don’t want to hurt Theo’s feelings?”
“Yeah. Not that I think Theo would be offended, he’s just really fucking hard to say no to,” I said.
There was something about Theo that meant everyone I knew had trouble saying no to him, with perhaps the exception of Laurie. I didn’t even know why that was, but it did mean we were probably going to be stuck with a taxidermied frog in lingerie until I could figure out how to get rid of it without him realising.
“I can see that,” Oliver said. He was still staring at the fog with his arms folded, and I could see him trying to work through the same question I was.
“We could put it in the spare room?” I asked.
“That’s not a bad shout.”
“Or the attic?”
Oliver laughed. “Why do I feel like doing that would incur the wrath of the frog gods and we’d wake up to find it staring at us?”
“What, like some sort of cursed doll?” It did look like the creepy shit you’d find in a horror movie, but I wasn’t going to be fooled. That was how all those films started, and every single one ended in bloody murder.
Although considering I’d already decided it was staying in the house for now, I guessed I’d already fallen at the first hurdle.
“I think it’s worse than a cursed doll,” Oliver said. “At least with those it’s just made of china, while that is… was…”
“Once a real frog?”
“Exactly.” Oliver sighed. “Where the fuck did he even get it? Do you think he made it himself.”
I shuddered. “God, I hope not. I know he owns some weird ass taxidermy shit, but I think he buys that.” I scrubbed my face with my hands. Why the fuck did my friends have to be so weird? Why couldn’t they get us normal housewarming shit like bowls or a vase we’d never fucking use.
“That’s one small mercy at least,” Oliver said. He reached out and prodded the frog. It wobbled slightly and I couldn’t repress the little shiver that ran through me. Oliver noticed and laughed. He poked it again. “Ribbet Ribbet.”
“Fuck off,” I said.
Oliver grinned and picked it up, moving it closer to me. “Ribbet… Ribbet… I’m coming for your soul, Lane.”
“Fuck you.” I stepped back, away from the nightmare before me, but I was still laughing.
“Hmm, it’s less creepy now.”
“Why? Because you’re tormenting me with it?”
Oliver rolled his eyes. “I’m not tormenting you. And you said I’m the dramatic one.”
I snorted and plucked the frog from his fingers, avoiding staring at its glass eyes in case it really did steal my soul. I turned it around to face Oliver, who grimaced.
“Okay, it’s definitely creepier when I have to look at it like that.”
“See!” I moved it towards him and Oliver took a giant step back.
“Put it in the box,” he said. “Right now.”
I set the frog back in the padded, cardboard box it had arrived in, closing the lid for good measure. “Still want to put it in the spare room?”
We eventually agreed that the frog, which randomly acquired the name of Bernard, would be confined to the spare room. But when one of Oliver’s friends from London had come to stay for the weekend, Oliver had insisted on moving it so Nils didn’t think that country living had turned him into a soon-to-be serial killer.
It had ended up in my music room, but I hadn’t realised until two weeks later when I noticed him standing among the records and looking like he was trying to chat up Elvis. My reaction had been a startled yelp and then cursing while Oliver, who was stood at the bottom of the stairs, laughed.
After that, moving Bernard around the house to see how long it took the other person to notice became some sort of a weird game between us.
I slipped him onto one of Oliver’s bookshelves in the library, which had taken him eight days, then he’d moved him into the living room behind a pile of tinsel, complete with a jauntily placed knitted hat he’d pinched off an Innocent smoothie bottle.
I hadn’t realised Bernard was there until Christmas Eve, and Oliver had sat cackling by the fire while I swore from shock. After that I’d hidden him on Oliver’s desk, and since Oliver was off work until January, I’d known it would take a while to be spotted.
Oliver’s sigh and exasperated “for fuck’s sake” had been worth it though.
After that it just continued, only at a slower place.
Sometimes it would be months before Bernard would move again, and although we both thought he was something out of a nightmare, we both became oddly fond of him.
He always ended up in the living room at Christmas, complete with his knitted hat and a tinsel boa. At Easter, we put some bunny ears on him, and at Halloween we always gave him a witches hat and put him in the window.
Bernard became a random fixture in our life—one that we referred to like some strange, creepy housemate that we ultimately loved despite everything.
Which was why, several years later, I decided to use Bernard to surprise Oliver again.
It was June, around the time when we’d first reconnected, and Oliver had gone out for coffee with Anders to talk about his latest book. I knew they’d be out for hours, so it was the perfect time to carry out my plan.
I persuaded Gary to drop me home at lunch time, so Oliver wouldn’t know I was here, and snuck into his office, placing Bernard in the middle of his desk, right in front of the keyboard, where he’d be impossible to miss.
“Okay Bernard,” I said, carefully arranging the little top hat I’d found on Etsy on his head. Because apparently I was that sort of person now. “You can’t fuck this up for me.”
Bernard stared at me with his glasses eyes, which still made me feel like he might suck out my soul given half a chance.
I sighed, digging the dark green emerald box out of the pocket of my jeans. It had been sitting in a box in my music room for months while I figured out a plan, because I knew I wanted this moment to be special.
I just hadn’t worked out how to do that.
“Do you think he’ll say yes?” I asked, then shook my head. “Why the fuck am I talking to you? Your idea of special would be opening a portal to frog hell or something.”
I still wasn’t sure if this was a good idea, but it was too late now.
I could have just asked Oliver over dinner, but that felt almost boring. Like something he’d see coming a mile away. I’d debated taking him down to Riddle Cove again, but then the Bernard idea had hopped into my head as soon as I’d realised Oliver had moved him next to my record player.
Opening the box, I propped it against Bernard’s stand, and then hung the little note I’d written on folded card over one of Bernard’s arms.
When I was done, I snuck out of his office and closed the door, leaving it just the way I’d found it. Then I crept up to my music room, complete with my laptop, to wait quietly until Oliver got home.
It was a good thing I’d taken the afternoon off work and didn’t have anything to focus on other than watching Netflix, because I couldn’t think about anything other than Oliver’s reaction to finding Bernard. I kept pausing and sticking my head out the door, convinced I’d heard something only to be greeted with the sound of an empty house.
I hadn’t anticipated it taking him this long to come back from his outing with Anders.
“Fuck this,” I muttered to myself, slamming the laptop shut and pulling out my phone to send him a text asking when he’d be back. “I should have just made him dinner.”
The front door slammed and I froze, my breath caught in my throat. This definitely felt like a horror movie come to life, except I wasn’t waiting to be murdered by a serial killer.
My phone buzzed in my hand and I glanced down to see Oliver’s name appear. I swallowed, hoping that if I answered he wouldn’t be able to hear me.
“Hey,” I said, hoping I sounded at least a little bit nonchalant. “How was your meeting with Anders?”
“Good,” Oliver said. “I just got back.”
“Really?” I chuckled and let out a relieved breath. I could still hear Oliver moving around downstairs so I didn’t think he’d heard me. But he hadn’t been to the office either and I desperately wanted him to head there now. I just couldn’t prompt him without arousing suspicion.
All I could do was wait.
“Yeah, we got distracted talking about characters. I was just calling to ask what time you’ll be back? I’m just going to dump my stuff in my office and…” I heard the click of a door and I realised Oliver had just walked into his office.
“Lane…” Oliver said, sounding utterly bemused. “Why is Bernard on my desk? And why is he wearing a top hat?”
I chuckled, realising that Oliver had only seen him from the back. “Why don’t you go around and look?”
“Okay…” I heard a thud as he put his bag down and his footsteps on the wooden floor. Then a gasp. My heart sped up, beating so fast I thought I might pass out. “What the… fuck… Lane is this?”
“Depends. What do you think it is?”
I heard the rustle of card as Oliver opened my note.
“Well,” Oliver said. “I’m hoping that you’re asking me to marry you. At least, I hope it’s you because otherwise I’m going to have to break Bernard’s heart.”
“Yes,” I said. “I am.”
“Then yes. My answer is yes.”
“Thank fuck for that!” I let out a wheezing laugh. “You have no idea how long I’ve been waiting for you to find that. I set it up at lunchtime.”
Oliver snorted. “When you knew I was going out with Anders?”
“I didn’t think you’d be all afternoon,” I said, standing up and stretching. “You met him at ten!”
“Okay, okay, fair point.” I could hear him smiling and my whole chest felt full of sunshine. “Are you coming home soon? I’m not putting this ring on without you.”
“Funnily enough, I’m already here.”
There was a pause and I heard Oliver’s footsteps come out of the office and walk towards the stairs. “Where are you hiding?” he called. I laughed. “Are you upstairs? You better come down or I might just say yes to Bernard.”
“Don’t you dare,” I said, striding out onto the landing, my phone still in hand. “I’m not giving you up to a stuffed frog. I’ll throw him in the sea if I have to.”
Oliver was standing at the bottom of the stairs and shaking with laughter. “I guess I’ll have to break his heart then.”
“I don’t think he has one to break.”
Oliver laughed. “Poor Bernard. Maybe I should make him best man then?”
“Only if it’s on your side,” I said, starting to descend the stairs and unable to take my eyes off the gorgeous man stood in front of me.
The man who’d just agreed to be my husband.
“It’ll save on arguments,” Oliver said brightly, opening his arms to me as I reached the bottom of the stairs. “I love you, Lane.”
“I love you too.”
He kissed me softly and then shook his head, still chuckled as he leant back and looked at me, one eyebrow raised. “I still can’t believe you used a fucking stuffed frog to propose to me.”
I grinned and shrugged. “Well, it was memorable wasn’t it?”
“You wait,” Oliver said. “We’ll tell Theo what happened and we’ll get another one as a wedding present. Bernard will have a frog husband.”
I sighed and rested my head against his. I hadn’t thought of that. Theo would be delighted and it would only encourage him more. Because of course it fucking would.
“Shall I ask you again then?” I asked. “If I do that we can leave Bernard out of the story altogether. I can just say I left the ring on your desk with a cute note.”
“You better do it now then,” Oliver said, heat filling his voice. “Because I want to say yes. And then I want to celebrate. Very, very extravagantly.”
“I can do that. But I need to get the ring first.”
“It’s still on the desk,” Oliver said. “I didn’t want to deprive Bernard.”
I chuckled and kissed Oliver again before striding towards the office to fetch the ring and re-propose to my fiance before I ended up with a whole army of cursed frogs in lingerie.
Either way though, Oliver has still agreed to marry me, and that would make any amount of Theo’s strange gifts bearable.