"Jill, who's party did you say this was?"
"And, is Bobby, I don't know, a wee bit insane?"
"I don't think so." Jill looks around the room while she reapplies her lip gloss, scanning the crowd for her ex, I'm sure.
I turn my own eyes back to the walls around us. There are cages. Big cages and little cages. Some are along the edges of the room and some are hanging from the ceiling. I can't believe Jill isn't freaked the hell out.
"This is crazy," I tell her, but then she isn't there. I'm talking to myself. Out loud. At a party. Lord help me; I should be home with my book. Jill must have spotted her ex after all. Why did she insist on bringing me along if she was going to abandon me?
"Suze, is that you?"
I haven't been called Suze since high school. I cringe at the sound of the cutesy nickname.
"It's Suzanne," I answer, finding a tall man in a ball cap standing in Jill's place.
"Suzanne then," he puts a hand forward to shake, and I try to see his eyes beneath the hat's brim.
"And you are?" Screw being polite. I haven't been Suze in close to twenty years; there's no reason I should recognize a man who calls me Suze.
"Oh, sorry, Rueben Sloan. We had math together senior year."
"Rueben," I repeat. The name rolls around inside my head. I don't remember a Rueben.
"I had the biggest crush on you."
I step back nervously, and my shoulder bumps one of the metal cages. I curse and Rueben bounds forward to right the cage.
"Who is this guy, Bobby?" I ask, peering into the cage I almost upended.
"He's a CEO of something or other, but he collects untouchables."
"You know, spiders, snakes, bull frogs…"
As he explains about Bobby's pet obsession, I watch his lips move and slowly I remember. Untouchables. Bull frogs...
Rueben Sloan. He did sit behind me in math senior year. He was quiet, and he was gawky, like a deer just being born and falling all over itself trying to stand up. The other guys called him Ribbit. Ribbit Sloan. His wide mouth did give him a frog-like appearance. He once caught the hiccups in front of the entire school. He was supposed to be reading his essay, because it won an award.That's when he earned the nickname, Ribbit. He helped me pass that math class, though. Or, he helped me cheat, anyhow.
"You saved my life," I say now.
He blushes and takes off his ball cap. "Nah, it's a sturdy cage. The snake wouldn't have escaped."
"I didn't mean the snake. Though, I could have done without knowing it was a snake in there. I was pretending it was a bird or a hamster or, well, just about anything besides a snake."
Rueben laughs, and his eyes shine. He isn't so gawky anymore.
"I meant in math," I finish. "I would have failed without you."
He shrugs nonchalantly.
"What are you up to now? You still live around here?"
"I was living in Denver. I just moved home."
"What dragged you back to this hell hole?"
"I own a chain of bookstores. I'm opening one downtown."
Rueben nods, and that's when I know. This frog I once thought of as untouchable is sure to be my prince.