The following story was the result of a few prompts and 10 minutes of freewriting. It’s rough, and goofy, and sad. Mostly it’s an exercise in voice. But I’m not going to do anything in particular with it, so I might as well pop it in here, right?
My brother did this weird thing with turtles.
We had a pond in our back yard and there were millions of turtles back there. It was my job to babysit him that summer – to make sure he didn’t fall into the water. To make sure he didn’t run off. We’d go out in the mid-morning sun – I’d take a blanket and a book. He’d take his bucket of permanent magic markers and a roll of paper towels.
He would sit on the edge of my blanket, take off his shoes and socks, roll up his pants, and then wade out into the shallow end of the pond, right next to the cattails where the ducks were nested. He’d grab a turtle in his two chubby hands, and bring it back to the blanket. He’d dry it off, turning it over and over so much I wondered how the little things never ralphed on his hands. He’d color the shells. Sometimes with names, usually just designs. I could smell the permanent marker from a few feet away. Maybe the kid was just high.
I tried to tell my mom what a weird kid my brother was, but she wasn’t interested so long as we were fed and clothed. She’d found a diamond bracelet in the back of the car that summer, and was busy divorcing my brother’s dad. Mike wasn’t my dad. My dad was a truck driver who lived in Nashville, Tennessee. I got a birthday card and a Christmas card from him every year.
But my brother’s dad, he was a banker from the city. Guess he was too fancy for my mom, if diamond bracelet lady had been in our car. Too bad his kid colored turtles.
I wasn’t surprised when Mike didn’t take my brother with him. He moved back to the city lickety-split. I don’t know if the kid will get Christmas cards from Mike, or not. He never once told the kid he loved him.
One time, the kid and I went walking in the woods. It was still winter. The pond was mostly frozen – but too crackly to skate on. The frozen grass and mud crunched under our boots. We walked in the woods even though it was winter because we didn’t want to stay cooped up in the house with mom. The cigarette smoke and the smell of beer was too much for both of us.
We were walking in the gangly trees that border the northern edge of our pond, when we saw the weirdest thing. It was a bird. In the middle of winter. But it wasn’t a regular bird. It was a green bird, like somebody’s pet parakeet out in the snow, looking for food.
We spent hours trying to catch it, to lure it to us, to call it over. We made up names. “Here, Emerald!” We called it Polly, we chirped “Pretty bird!” It wanted nothing to do with us.
When it finally flew way high in one of the birches, we gave up. It was a bright speck of springtime on those gray branches. The kid and I, we looked at each other. Our faces were red, clouds of breath puffed around our noses and mouths. My hair was sticking out because I’d tried to catch the bird in my hat. We’d laughed together, then. That once.
I was never what you might call close to the kid. He did move in with Mike when he hit High School, but I was already busy working at Wal-Mart to pay my car note. He graduated high in his class, I remember that. We all went to the graduation. His stepmom threw a party, the kind with punch with sherbet floating in it in pink clouds. I sat right here on this sofa, watching the kid say hi to all of his guests. They were all grown ups. Teachers, friends of Mike and his wife. I was the youngest person there aside from the kid.
It had never occurred to me that the kid might not have many friends. I figured we just weren’t invited to that party.
It never occurred to me to ask him what he was doing with those damned turtles. Now, it’s too late.