The Turtle Rescuer
It seemed like school had just let out last summer, when Mom screamed that she needed a break from us little fuckers. Mimi got slapped for sassing and was sitting in the corner on the kitchen floor, crying her head off. Dad yelled at both of them to shut the hell up, so I went outside on the porch and hunted smash bugs until it got dark.
The next day, Grandpa Hank came to get me. He frowned at mom and didn’t talk to her much. I could tell he didn’t like her, but me and him got along real good. I had just turned nine, but Mimi was only three, so she had to stay home. She reached for me, of course, and I felt bad leaving her behind. But we had important business: Grandpa Hank was a turtle rescuer.
“Buckle up, partner,” he said, and we bumped along in his truck, looking down over the cornstalks. All of a sudden he slammed on the brakes.
“Where?” I asked him. Their shells blended in with the black-top, and I could never see them until I was right up close. Grandpa Hank pointed to a turtle as big as his hand, inching its way to the yellow line, and he showed me how to pick it up. You have to grab it on the sides of its shell, behind its front legs, and hold on tight. Turtles can kick like crazy, or they’ll just hide inside. Either way, you have to hold them low to the ground, in case you drop them.
That turtle was a kicker; I couldn’t believe how strong it was. It threw its weight around in that shell and punched the air with all four legs, and I could barely hold on. When I set it down, it stopped fighting and hid inside. Grandpa scratched at the whiskers on his chin and pointed to the other side of the road.
“Set him over there, Charlie. He’ll just turn around if you head him back where he came.”
I tip-toed over, picked it up, and slowly carried it to the other side, where it had been heading. The turtle stayed tucked in.
“Now what?” I kicked a pebble off the road and into the dirt, whipping up a little cloud of dust.
The old man sat down and got comfortable. Took off his glasses and cleaned them on his shirt. Said, “Now we wait ‘til he finds his legs.”
It took forever for that turtle to peek his stubby head out, then his wrinkled feet. He sniffed the air and started walking like he was in no hurry at all, and after a while disappeared into the corn. Grandpa gave me a high five and slapped me on the back.
“You’re a real turtle rescuer, partner,” he said.
I liked hanging around with Grandpa Hank because he taught me all kinds of things, like fishing, and feeding horses and stuff. And it was a good thing he taught me how to rescue turtles.
One night Mom and Dad had a party in the backyard, and their friends, Leah and Tommy, came over. Dad stuffed Mimi’s plastic swimming pool with ice and cans of beer. Loads of people came, and the backyard filled with loud voices and music and the sweet smell of the smoke they passed around. I had gotten Mimi to bed, but she didn’t stay there with all that noise. Mom let her play outside for a while, which meant I had to watch her, and Dad smiled at me with that fuzzy look on his face that he always got from beer and sweet smokes.
Mimi’s favorite thing was to hang on me ‘til I got mad, so I gave her my kick ball. I watched as she hopped, bounced the ball, and chased after it. Hop, bounce, and chase, over and over. She went around the side of the house and didn’t come back, so I went after her. Lucky I did, because the ball rolled into the street, right in front of a car. She headed for it, not even looking. The car’s tires screeched, and I grabbed Mimi’s arm and dragged her back. A lady, who looked really mad, got out of her car and followed us into the yard.
“Where are your parents?” the lady said. So I went and got my mom, and she yelled at the lady to mind her own damn business. I told Mom what happened and how I saved Mimi, but she yelled at me to stop playing in the street and go put Mimi to bed. Not long after that, some policemen came over, and I got scared, thinking I might go to jail for running in the street. So I hid by the window and listened. It turned out that they just wanted Dad to turn the music down, and everyone had to go home.
The next morning, Mimi whined until Mom finally woke up and slammed the bathroom door. I could tell that Mom was going to be cranky, so when she came out, I took Mimi in for a bath. I made the water nice and warm, not too hot, but Mimi just kept on whining. Mom stormed into the bathroom, pushed me out of the way with one arm and grabbed Mimi with the other. I could hear the splashing and Mimi choking, and I knew what Mom was doing, dunking Mimi in and out of the water, telling her to stop her whining. Mimi didn’t even have a breath to cry.
A few weeks later, we were staying with Tommy and Leah in a cottage with a lake right behind it. I was sitting out back on an old wooden picnic table, watching Mimi groggily eat some crackers that I gave her. She had just gotten up from her nap. Dad and Tommy had been drinking beer on the dock. Tommy came over, set his bottle down and lit a cigarette.
“Don’t touch that, Chuckie, you’re not old enough,” he said, pointing to the bottle. He laughed and hacked up a foul-smelling spit, and some of it landed on me.
“Lick my hairy balls,” I said to him, scooting away.
“What’d ya say there, piss-face?” He leaned in on me, but I ignored him.
Mom and Leah were in their swim suits, sunbathing, passing a sweet smoke back and forth. An old garden hose sat coiled between their blankets. Dad stumbled over to the spigot and motioned for me to be quiet. He turned on the water full blast; and the hose leapt up and danced like a snake, spraying water all over Mom and Leah. Mom shrieked, grabbed the hose, and chased Dad around the yard. He gave up and turned around with his hands in the air; and she sprayed him right in the pants. Dad made a kooky face and cracked me up.
Tommy picked up a fishing bucket and headed to the water to fill it. That’s when I noticed that Mimi wasn’t at the table anymore. She was tottering around near the edge of the lake, and then she wasn’t. No one else saw her slip in, and she didn’t make a sound.
I stood up and started yelling, “Mom! Dad! Mimi’s in the water!” but they didn’t hear me. Tommy had dumped a bucket of water on Leah’s head, and she was soaked and swearing at him. Mom and Dad were laughing, not looking. I ran to the lake, to the spot where I last saw Mimi.
A few wisps of her blonde hair floated to the surface, but that’s all I could see of her. “Over here!” I yelled and waved to my parents, trying to get their attention. But my voice came out more like a croak because I was scared--I didn’t think I could save Mimi all by myself. I needed someone bigger, someone to take over; but nobody heard me. That was the problem with my mom and dad. They didn’t ever hear me. They didn’t know how much I hated being the one watching out for us, or how scared I was sometimes that no one was watching out for me.
I didn’t know how long Mimi could hold her breath. I had practiced in the tub sometimes, and I knew I could hold my breath for a whole minute. But Mimi was so small. I wondered if it had been a minute already. I wanted to run back and get Mom and Dad, pull them over to the edge, but I didn’t want to leave Mimi. She sank a little further, until I could barely see her hair.
I got down on my knees in the grass near the edge and stretched my arm out as far as I could, but I couldn’t reach her. I looked for Mom and Dad; they were playing tug-o-war with the hose. Tommy had turned up the music. Dad had that fuzzy face again. I wondered how many more seconds went by, or if it had been minutes, and I knew I had to be fast for Mimi. I took off my hat and placed it by the spot where I was standing and ran halfway toward my parents.
“Hey! Listen to me! Mimi fell in!” I shouted; but I might as well have been a puny little bug in the grass.
“Cool it, Charlie,” Mom said in slow-motion, and she kicked Dad in the butt. They wrestled to the ground.
I knew I’d have to rescue Mimi myself. I ran back to the edge and stared down into the dark lake, trying to think fast. I wasn’t a very good swimmer; but I could open my eyes under water. I counted to three and jumped in, and Mimi was right there in front of me. Her body stood straight; and her eyes were wide open and staring past me. I grabbed her under her arms and lifted her up, and our heads came up and out of the water together. But I couldn’t stay up.
“Help!” I screamed before I went under. I kicked my way back up, splashed and screamed again, holding on to Mimi with one arm, paddling with the other. Her head rolled in the water. I hollered one last time, as loud as I could, took a deep breath and went under. I lifted her so that her head and shoulders were out, and I stayed below, holding her up. I closed my eyes and started counting the seconds. When I got to 57, I wondered if I would drown in there with Mimi, but someone pulled us out. I looked behind me to see my dad’s crumpled face.
The music stopped, and all I could hear were my own jagged breaths. Dad laid Mimi on the grass. Her eyes were still open, her face was sickly white, and her lips were purple. Mom sobbed and held Mimi’s hand while dad pressed on her chest. An ambulance roared up, and then two police cars. I wanted to go to the hospital with Mimi, but I had to go to the police station with Mom and Dad instead. Grandpa Hank came and got me.
That was the last time I saw them. For days after, I kept pestering Grandpa Hank about when I could go home. I missed Mom, Dad, and Mimi so bad; and I wanted to know why I couldn’t go back. Grampa wouldn’t talk about it; and he didn’t get upset if I kicked the walls, or cried like a baby, or holed up in my room for days. He didn’t mind when I sassed him either.
“Come here, partner,” he said. He wrapped his big arms around me and hugged tight, and I had to wriggle away. He was trying to squeeze out all those memories, and I wanted to keep them, even the bad ones, because it was all I had left of our family.
“You’re better off now, you’ll see,” he told me a few days later. He had just patched a hole that I made in my bedroom wall with the baseball bat that he gave me.
“Am I?” I screamed at him. “Then why do I hurt so much? Why don’t they come back and get me? Don’t they miss me too? What happened? Where are they?” I flopped down in a pile of tears. And when he finally explained it to me, that Mimi died, that mom and dad were in jail, I couldn’t stop crying, and then I let him hug me, and I didn’t try to get away. The next day we took flowers to Mimi’s grave, and Grampa cried too.
After that, Grampa Hank wouldn’t let me sit around and mope. He put me on a little league team and signed me up for school near his farm. I learned how to throw, and I was a pretty good hitter. Gramps started calling me “slugger.” We played catch after dinner and watched the sun sink behind the corn. He said he was proud of me.
We rescued a couple more turtles, and I met a snapper. They’re easy to recognize by their long tails. You’d better not even try to pick them up; you just gently nudge them in the right direction with a broom or something to get them on their way.
For a long time after, I still thought about Mom, Dad, and Mimi, but I got used to living with Grandpa Hank. He told me that I was just like those turtles in the road. He had picked me up and helped me across, but I was going to find my own legs. And he was right. Some days, I looked in the mirror and saw Mimi’s face. We’d grin at each other, and I’d feel guilty for being so happy. She kept smiling, like it was okay. Pretty soon her face disappeared, and now it’s just mine.
About the author:
Jan Ramming was a freelance journalist until she decided to write her own stories. She lives in Geneva, Illinois, with her husband, daughter, and doggies. Her flash fiction, Red, was featured in the May 2014 rock and roll issue of Bohemia Journal.