Up until that school year, Brian had always waited for the bus with his father at the top of the driveway in the Econoline, which smelled like burnt oil and sawdust. But when his father had stopped getting up in the morning after getting fired from Gehring Construction, Brian chose to wait for the bus in the spot where a man had died in a car wreck.
Although lake-effect snow would soon cover the ground in that part of Pennsylvania, it was what his mom called an “Indian summer,” so warm he wasn’t even wearing a jacket. The blistering cold of winter was only weeks away, but Brian didn’t mind being exposed to the weather because it meant he didn’t have to spend time with his father.
While he waited, Brian remembered the lecture he got when his father found out he’d taken one of the bottles of liquor his parents used to keep in the basement and caught him lying about it. His dad went on about how difficult it was to walk the righteous path, and how each time you stray from it—through lying, stealing or whatever—it becomes easier to stray and harder to find your way back. Brian was considering if he still believed in what his father had told him, wondering if there was any way to take the idea seriously even if the man who said it was a cruel joke. He decided it was true, and that the weakness his father had embraced over the past half a year was only evidence to prove it.
He kicked a stone and was fascinated by the sound of it knocking against the concrete then tumbling into the overgrowth in the ditch on the other side of the road. After kicking another, he noticed a sustained rustling, a sound that made him imagine someone in the woods was crinkling a worn, slightly damp paper bag.
He saw the turtle’s smooth head poke out of the tall weeds. Although he watched turtles sunning themselves on logs down at the backyard pond almost every day when it was warm, he’d never seen one like this before. The turtle muscled its way onto the shoulder of the road, its giant claws fanned out as it took jerky steps that made it appear mechanical.
Brian could not believe how massive the thing was—it had a long, oval body and a large domelike shell that could have housed a basketball. The top of the shell was the color of burning charcoal, smoky and dark with splotches of red-hot ember burning through, and the exposed portion of the turtle’s underside was bright orange with a pattern of brown diamond-shaped markings. Its skin was a dirty green with mint colored stripes that ran along its slim, wrinkled neck, circled its eyes and converged at a snubbed nose. It was a fierce and ancient looking beast, and Brian almost succumbed to an urge to run.
As the turtle moved languidly onto the concrete, Brian thought about the crash for the first time in a while. Unlike a typical eleven-year-old boy who might have been distracted by a summer of swimming, fireworks, and amusement park rides, or the start of a new school year, it wasn’t the passage of time that dulled the force of the accident. The memory of it had been worn out—threadbare and comfortable like the stuffed elephant he used to carry around when he was little—because whenever boredom struck, a constant threat for someone his age, he used to replay the whole wreck backwards in his head. He had caressed each moment until they no longer held his interest.
First he remembered the jagged angles of the bare maple branches settled like a taut web against the blank blue of the cloudless sky. Then it was their dance to the whoop of the helicopter lifting off—movement that wouldn’t have been chaos had he attempted to follow a single bough. The jackknifed semi sideways in the ditch fifty yards down the hill from the overturned pickup with its hood and bed touching concrete because the cab had been crushed. No blood or stray limbs. A repetitive hiss and crackle that reminded him of the static from a record when it’s done playing music, and the calmness of it all—the way the sheared pieces of metal and twisted shape of the trucks somehow looked complete rather than broken, like it was more natural for them to be wrecked. Finally, as he’d been playing soldier and crawling through the underbrush for a surprise attack, how initially he mistook the rumbling earth and the shriek of metal raking across the highway for an overzealous imagining of enemy mortar fire. He had replayed it all until it stuck, right down to the barely audible sound that came right before the roar—the delicate pop the vehicles made at the exact moment of impact.
Headlights appeared through the morning haze as a vehicle turned onto the highway from Luce Road. The turtle was halfway across the road and on pace to be in the middle of the lane when the oncoming vehicle had traveled the half-mile distance to where Brian was standing. Although he had been afraid of turtles since his dad had told him that they had jaws strong enough to bite off his finger, he didn’t want the thing to get hit.
When Brian got near the turtle, it stopped walking. Brian approached from the side then circled around back, and the turtle craned its neck further out of its shell to keep him in view. Brian could see a creamy stripe in its beady eye. He turned back to the road and saw, before it disappeared behind a hill, that the headlights from the advancing vehicle belonged to the yellow school bus. He had to hurry.
He stomped and yelled, trying to get the turtle to disappear in its shell so he could just push it off of the road. The turtle wasn’t scared. It watched him with its mouth cracked open in a way that made Brian think it was trying to hiss. The bus crested the hill, and Brian crouched over the turtle, placed his hands on the sides of its shell halfway between the legs and lifted. He could barely get it off of the ground, and because of the awkward way he was carrying it—stooped over straddling the body of the turtle between his legs—he shuffled forward only a few inches per step. The turtle’s rotating legs reached out into the air, claws searching for solid ground.