It’s Emilie who spots it first, a baby turtle, motionless at the end of the cul-de-sac. She almost misses it entirely, dusted as it is with the dry dirt of the pavement. The size of a quarter, the hatchling lies low to the ground, an insignificant disk lost among the grit of the road. A few dull yellow stripes run down the sides of its neck.
Emilie and Rachel squat around it, Emilie poking it gingerly with a stick. The turtle doesn’t respond.
“Do you think it’s alive?” Emilie asks, tugging her denim skirt more snugly around her knees. She hopes her underwear doesn’t show.
“No,” Rachel says. “It’s dead and it’s gross.”
“Where’d it come from?”
“Probably the pond over there.” Rachel gestures vaguely down the street toward the houses opposite her own. “Must’ve walked through the backyards.”
Emilie tucks a blond strand behind one ear as she gazes down the street at the split-level houses with sagging fences and dandelion-dotted lawns. It’s a different neighborhood from hers, and although she has been here many times, it still doesn’t feel familiar.
Playdates at her own house are always indoors, in the bright yellow playroom with board games and puzzles stacked quietly on the shelves. But at Rachel’s, the girls stay outdoors in the cul-de-sac, playing games with no rules, at least none that Emilie can discern. It’s always a little daunting to Emilie, the swath of unstructured and unsupervised time, but she doesn’t complain. It’s Rachel’s house and Rachel’s rules, according to the generally accepted code of playdates.
Emilie pokes the turtle again with the stick. It retracts its head.
“Hey, he is alive. Look how dusty he is. He must be thirsty.”
“Turtles don’t get thirsty,” Rachel says. “They carry water in their shells. Like little camels.”
“I don’t think that’s true,” Emilie says, although she doesn’t know for sure. Rachel does sound very confident and Emilie doesn’t like to contradict her.
Rachel shrugs and crosses to the edge of the street, where the old stone retaining wall begins. She likes to walk, balance beam-style, across the top of the stones, starting at one low end, gradually climbing higher, until she reaches the highest point of the wall, taller than Emilie’s head. At that point, she’ll jump back to the pavement and grade herself on how well she sticks the landing. She never scores lower than a 9.5.
Emilie has seen this routine before and isn’t watching. “We should name him. What about Shelley? That would be funny.”
Rachel wrinkles her nose. “That’s dumb. His name’s Moose.”
Emilie tries out the name in her head. Moose. She has to admit it’s a good name, better than hers. Getting down on all fours, she lowers one cheek to the pavement. “Hi Moose!”
She sits back up to look at Rachel, now halfway up the wall. “Maybe we should take him back over to the pond.”
Rachel shakes her head. “I can’t. I’m not allowed to go off the street.”
“My mom and I could bring him back when she comes to pick me up.”
“Better not. If you drive him back in a car, it won’t be the way he came and he’ll lose his sense of direction. Then he’ll be screwed up for the rest of his life.”
Emilie considers this for a minute.
“Well, he’s already lost, so it can’t make it any worse.”
“Yes, it could. He could get more lost.” Rachel reaches the top of the wall, an area of tangled brush and thorny vines that leave fine scratches on Rachel’s arms and calves. Rachel never seems to mind. Jumping off the wall, she lands feet together with only the slightest wobble when her sneakers skid on the sandy pavement. She thrusts both arms in the air and arches her chest. “9.8!”
“You can’t get more lost. You’re either lost or you’re not lost.”
“You can so be more lost. Like if you got lost in a store. You’re looking at shoes and then all of a sudden you can’t find your dad. If you stay with the shoes, at least you’re only a little lost and your dad will probably find you again. But if you go out in the mall, you’re a lot lost and you’ll probably get kidnapped.”
“I guess.” Emilie adjusts the Velcro straps on her sandals. “But we’d be bringing him back to where he should be, so we’re not making him more lost. We’re making him less lost. Or not lost,” she adds quietly. She can feel her heart thumping and her face getting warm. She doesn’t risk looking at Rachel.
“You’re so stupid. You don’t know where in the pond he came from. You could put him on the wrong side and then his mother would be looking for him and he wouldn’t be where he’s supposed to be. She’s probably following his scent right now to find him. You better just leave him where he is.”
Emilie tries to imagine a much larger version of Moose creeping through the backyards, sniffing in the grass. Did turtles actually do that? Jake the Snake Man had visited their school at the beginning of the year. He’d shown them lizards and snakes and turtles. She can remember him holding up a large turtle, its shell broad as a dinner plate, its stiff feet paddling in the air. She tries to remember what he said about turtles, whether they stayed with their mothers or whether they were on their own after they hatched. She tries to remember but all she can recall is the sight of the pinwheeling feet and her own vague feeling of nausea and pity at being held helpless in the sky.
Rachel turns to face the opposite direction and begins what she calls her “tumbling pass”—three cartwheels followed by a round-off. Emilie watches her. Rachel keeps her legs perfectly straight and spins so effortlessly. Emilie can’t do cartwheels. She tries them sometimes on the playground and Rachel grades them, giving her low scores of 3s and 4s. Rachel always says, “You’re too slow. You have to push off with your arms more.” She always ends up demonstrating a series of perfectly executed cartwheels and round-offs, feet whipping through the air, while Emilie watches. Most of their school recesses involve Emilie watching Rachel. Emilie doesn’t mind, though. She’s secretly surprised and proud that Rachel even wants to be her friend. She feels sorry that she can’t keep up.
Since moving to Warrenford the previous summer, Emilie has found it hard to make friends. At first it wasn’t bad—the teacher introduced her as the new girl and asked her questions about her old school, about packing and unpacking, about getting used to a new town. Emilie both squirmed and reveled in the unfamiliar spotlight. At recess and lunch, the other kids asked her more questions—what kind of pets she had (none), whether she could ride a horse (no), how many times she’d been to Disneyland (twice!).
While the other kids were clamoring to get to know the new kid, Rachel hung back, eyeing her warily. Rachel had a wilder look than the other girls, her jeans soiled at the knees, her reddish brown hair cut short, the tight coarse curls sticking stiffly out from her head. Emilie felt Rachel watching her while she sharpened her pencil or checked out her books in the media center. Whenever she looked at Rachel, it seemed that Rachel’s dark eyes were already on her.
By the end of the first week of school, the excitement of having a new kid in class had faded. The girls who had wanted to sit next to her now drifted back to the friends they’d had before and Emilie found herself alone. It was then that Rachel made her move.
“Let’s cartwheel,” she’d abruptly said, and strode off to the far corner of the dusty playground without checking to see if Emilie was following her. Emilie was, of course. In the months to come, there was never any question of what they were going to do on the playground. They were going to do whatever Rachel wanted to do.
Emilie knows her parents worry about her. She hears them at night, her mother’s voice quavering, her father’s tensely reassuring. She knows what they say. That she has few friends. That Rachel isn’t a good influence. That she’s too passive, she needs to participate more in school. At her ballet class, Emilie takes her time fixing her hair and adjusting her leotard in the dressing room mirror. She pretends to notice a stray hair or frayed seam, delaying the time when she will have to turn away from the mirror and find something to do with herself, some way to look like she’s not helplessly alone. She sneaks peeks at the other girls, jostling one another and laughing. The girls don’t exclude her. They don’t include her. She is nothing to them.
Her mother encourages her to talk to the other girls, but she doesn’t know what to say. Emilie tries asking the girls if they know the steps yet. They do. The conversation ends.
Her mother loses patience with her. “You can’t wait for people to seek you out, for things to happen to you. You have to make things happen for yourself. You gotta have a little gumption!”
Emilie doesn’t know what gumption is, but she likes the sound of it. She repeats it softly to herself at night and the word feels big and round in her mouth, like chewing five sticks of gum at once.
Now she watches Rachel’s quick cartwheels across the cul-de-sac—one, two, three, and the final emphatic round-off. She’s seen it so many times by now, dozens of times a day, every day since she’s known her. Sometimes Rachel cartwheels through Emilie’s dreams.
The street is covered with tiny pebbles, white and beige, many with sharp edges. As Rachel’s hands hit the pavement, Emilie winces inside, imagining each sharp stone pressing its edge into soft flesh, leaving little red dents all over her palms. Watching her, Emilie wants to brush off her own hands, massage the palms tenderly. She doesn’t know how Rachel can keep going, impervious to the stones.
Moose is still lying in the same spot by the stone wall. He doesn’t look good. At least Emilie doesn’t think so. He looks tired and dry. She reaches out one finger and touches his shell. Gathering a little more courage, she picks him up with one hand, forefinger and thumb pinching his sides. The shell is surprisingly pliant, giving under the pressure of her fingers like the soft plastic limbs of her Polly Pocket dolls back home. The springy vulnerability fills her with pity and she eases her grip around him. He weighs so little, is so insubstantial, she has to concentrate on not dropping him.
As she raises him toward her face, she’s startled to see his bright orange underside. She hadn’t expected such a flash of color from his drab exterior. She’s about to show Rachel but thinks better of it. Let it be their own secret.
Instead she gently rocks him side to side to see if she can hear any sloshing sound. There is none.
“I don’t think there’s water in there,” she calls to Rachel. Rachel lands her round-off with a flourish and walks over, brushing her hands off on her jeans.
“You know, you shouldn’t touch him. The moms won’t take care of the babies if they smell like humans. It could be a snapping turtle, too. They can take your finger right off.” Rachel snaps her teeth together a few times to demonstrate, making hard clicking sounds.
“He wouldn’t do that. He’s nice,” Emilie says, but she puts the turtle back down. The thing about a mother animal rejecting her baby sounds familiar. She hadn’t thought of that.
Studying Moose, Emilie can hear Rachel’s cartwheels begin again, each foot grinding the pebbles as it lands. One, two—Emilie is only vaguely aware of counting them off in her head. Suddenly Rachel’s hands land on the pavement in front of her, one on each side of Moose. A shadow passes overhead as Rachel’s legs arc through the air and land grittily on the street beyond.
“Hey, be careful!” Emilie yells. She bends forward and puts her face down close to Moose’s. Moose withdraws his head into his shell. “You scared him,” she says softly.
”I’m not scaring him,” Rachel laughs. “Your big fat face is what’s scaring him. Come on. I’m sick of the turtle. Let’s go back. I think my dad picked up a giant bag of Pirate Booty at Costco last night.” Pirate Booty is Emilie’s big weakness.
Emilie doesn’t answer. She is murmuring encouraging words to Moose, who hasn’t re-emerged from his shell.
Rachel sighs loudly. “You know he can’t understand you, right?”
Emilie sits up and spins to look at Rachel. “Do you have lettuce?”
“I don’t know, but we have Pirate Booty.”
“He can’t eat Pirate Booty.”
Rachel rolls her eyes. “Turtles don’t eat lettuce either, dummy. Where would they get lettuce in a pond?”
“Come on—let’s go see what’s in your fridge.” Emilie picks Moose up and places him on her palm, carrying him down the street to Rachel’s house. She can wash him off later to get rid of her scent, although she’s pretty sure his mom isn’t coming to get him.
Rachel catches up with her at the bottom of the concrete stoop. “You can’t bring him inside. My nana won’t like it.”
Emilie scans the front yard for shade, finally placing Moose on the sidewalk by a low spindly hedge. She runs back up the steps to the house, brushing past Rachel.
It always takes Emilie’s eyes a minute to adjust to the house’s dark interior. Only a sliver of daylight penetrates the gap between the heavy plaid curtains. A thin blue haze hovers in the center of the room and Emilie recoils at the smell of stale smoke and ashes. From the television come the solemn sounds of a daytime soap, voices heavy with the mysterious perils of adulthood.
The screen door bangs shut as Rachel comes in behind her. On the sofa, Rachel’s grandmother startles at the sound and clutches at the striped afghan, her hands thickly veined and swollen at the knuckles. Raising her head, she glances at the girls, her pale blue eyes red-rimmed and watery. She mumbles something and goes back to sleep.
Emilie has never met Rachel’s dad, isn’t even sure she has a mother. The only adult she ever sees at Rachel’s house is the grandmother, always silent, always peering at her from the couch. Emilie hurries past the living room and into the kitchen.
She already has the refrigerator door open when Rachel elbows her aside and yanks open the vegetable crisper. “Told you. No lettuce.”
Emilie peers over Rachel’s shoulder at the shriveled bell pepper, the strawberries coated with white fuzz. “How about the carrots?”
”He doesn’t have any teeth—how’s he going to eat a carrot?”
“What’s this?” Emilie reaches over Rachel to pull out a cellophane package filled with dark limp leaves.
Rachel snatches the bag out of Emilie’s hand. “It’s spinach. It’s gross.”
“It’s green, though. He might like it. Let’s bring him some water, too.” Emilie opens the cabinets and drawers, searching through soup bowls and Tupperware containers. Everything is too large for Moose.
Rachel stands to one side, stone silent, as Emilie rummages through her kitchen. Emilie can feel Rachel watching. She knows she better not look back.
Emilie opens the refrigerator again and takes out the grape jelly jar. She unscrews the cap and washes it, running her finger inside the lip to dislodge the old sticky jelly. Filling it with cool tap water, she heads out of the kitchen, telling Rachel to bring the spinach.
Emilie tiptoes past the living room, careful not to wake Rachel’s grandmother again. She descends the front steps slowly, trying not to spill water over the rim of the lid. She silently berates herself as drops fall to the ground, leaving dark splotches on the concrete. Rachel isn’t behind her.
Emilie kneels next to Moose, but he makes no move to the water. She tilts the lid to pool the water to one side, finally picking him up and dipping his head into the lid. He retreats into his shell. She frowns.
The screen door bangs again and Rachel comes slowly down the steps. She isn’t carrying the spinach. She stands only a few feet from Emilie, looming above her, and crosses her arms over her chest.
“My nana says we can’t have the spinach. She says you have to leave the turtle alone. It has germs.”
Emilie squints up at Rachel. The sun is almost exactly behind her head, backlighting each brown frizzy curl. It makes her head look enormous, her face dark and inscrutable.
Emilie looks away. “He’s a brand new baby. He can’t have gotten germs yet.”
Rachel takes a step closer. “You’re at my house. You have to do what my nana says.”
Emilie feels a small lump of anger rising in her, but those are the rules of playdates. She knows this. And her mother wouldn’t like it if she found out Emilie disobeyed. She sets Moose down on the ground, then pulls her back long and straight like she learned in ballet class.
“When my mom comes I’m going to ask if we can bring Moose home. We have an old goldfish bowl in the garage. He’ll like it in there. I can bring him to school tomorrow for circle time. And everybody can play with him at recess.”
Rachel smirks. “Your mom isn’t going to let you keep him.”
“She might. She said we could maybe get a pet when we moved here.”
“Parents always say stuff like that when they feel guilty. Your mom’s never going to say yes to a turtle. My dad will, though. We had a snake a couple of years ago, so he won’t care. I’m going to ask him when he gets home.”
“You can’t—I saw him first. He’s mine!”
“He came from my street. That makes him mine. Besides, you don’t even know how to take care of a turtle. You were going to feed him carrots.”
“You were going to feed him Pirate Booty!”
“You haven’t even touched him. You’re too scared he’ll bite your finger off!”
“No, I’m not. I was just trying to get you to stop bothering him. See?” Rachel plucks Moose off the ground and brings him close to her face, crossing her eyes and making loud bovine sounds. “Moooose! Moooooooose!”
“Be careful with him! He’s soft!”
Rachel turns her back on Emilie and deposits Moose onto the end of the driveway, clearing the sidewalk for another victorious tumbling pass. “I’m definitely bringing him into school tomorrow,” Rachel says, striding down the sidewalk to her starting point. “You’re right. Everyone will love him.”
Emilie is blinking back tears. She knows Rachel is right. Her mother will say no. Rachel’s father will say yes. And Rachel will bring Moose in to school tomorrow. She can picture it so clearly. Rachel smiling triumphantly in the center of the morning circle, taking credit for spotting Moose at the end of the cul-de-sac, dirty and hungry and close to dead. How she nursed him back to health and saved his life. She can see the kids clamoring around Rachel, begging for a chance to hold Moose, her Moose, while Emilie is left on the periphery.
Rachel’s feet are slicing through the air, a careening force headed in her direction. After so many cartwheels, so many round-offs, Emilie has fully absorbed the geometry, the physics, of Rachel. She knows how many cartwheels come before the round-off. She knows the distance between Rachel’s hands and feet. Knows how fast those feet whip around and exactly where those feet will land.
Darting forward, Emilie grabs Moose and places him back on the sidewalk, directly in Rachel’s path. She sits back on her heels and rubs away her tears. She should be trembling, but there is no dread, only certainty about the outcome. She can see it already: the shell crushed flat, cracked into small pieces. Moose’s head ground sideways into the pavement, tiny features erased under a smear of skin, blood, gravel. One rear leg, spared the weight of Rachel’s sole, pushing weakly at the ground. The image churns her stomach, but she swallows the bile down.
This must be the gumption her mother talked about. The strange surge of will, foreign but hers all the same. It’s unsettling to think of it inside her, pitiless and unpredictable.
Rachel finishes her last cartwheel and launches into the round-off. The V of Rachel’s legs vanishes with the final snap of her sneakers coming together. Her hands push off from the pavement, her body unleashed and unfolding in the air.
Emilie stands and steps back from Moose, waits to hear Rachel’s score.
Image: “Chompy” by pwjamro, licensed under CC 2.0.
Wonderful story. The child’s voice evolved to one slightly older, more nuanced, more attuned to the world’s cruelty.