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The Dead Turtle

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I was an avid reader as a child. I spent hours wandering the jungle with Rudyard Kipling and crossing the Arctic with Jack London. One of my favorite writers was Albert Payson Terhune, partly because of his deep love of his dogs, and partly because he had lived in my home state of New Jersey.

I constantly asked my parents to take me to Sunnybank, the estate where Terhune had raised his famous collies. One day, my father announced that we were going for a drive.

“Are we going to Sunnybank?” I asked in an excited squeal.

“Oh, you never know!” my father teased.

He was in one of his rare good moods so I didn’t question him further.

As the green fields swept past us, my excitement grew. We were traveling south, which was the right direction. But when my father pulled up beside a small park, I realized that he hadn’t intended to take me to Sunnybank after all. I swallowed my disappointment, and told myself over and over that my parents had taken me to a park, even if it wasn’t the place I wanted to go.

“Sunnybank isn’t open to the public,” my father explained in his let’s-be-reasonable voice when we got out of the car.

“Look, Krissy!” my mother cried. ”There’s a pond! Maybe you can find a turtle.”

“And after we’re finished here,” my father added, “I’ll take us all out for hamburgers.”

They were both being nice. So I had to be twice as good, and twice as glad that they took me out to this little park in the country.


Oh, I hated the excepts …

Except that the pond was mostly dried up. There were turtles around the edges, all right—a couple dozen, in fact. But the turtles were all dead.

I don’t know how my mother couldn’t see that. I opened my mouth to tell her, but she was looking around with that vapid, just-barely-aware attitude that she took on whenever my father decided she’d sat on the couch watching soap operas for too long, and it was time for an outing. I knew if I burst her bubble the result would be very messy.

“Here’s a nice one!” she said, as she bent down and picked up a turtle.

I recoiled, my face crumpling into disgust. The turtle had a head, but it flopped side to side lifelessly, and its eye sockets were empty.

“It’s dead!” I wailed, unable to keep the knowledge to myself any longer.

Why couldn’t she see that?

“They’re all dead!” I cried, wringing my hands.

“I guess we wasted our time trying to do something nice for you!” my mother snapped. ”Phil! Let’s go. The baby doesn’t appreciate this trip.”

“What?” my father called from where he was relaxing under a tree. “Already? We just got here.”

My mother focused her gray-blue eyes on me, drawing down her dark eyebrows.

“You take this turtle right now, you little brat! Hide it under your shirt so the rangers don’t catch us. I don’t want to hear another word of complaint from you!”

And so I reached out and took the stinky, dead turtle and shoved it under my shirt. My five-year-old mind was boggled—why couldn’t she see that it was dead?

On the way home I started to feel sick. I tried to refuse to eat the hamburgers my father bought at a drive-in, but again, my mother wouldn’t hear of it.

“Oh no, you complain all the time that you’re hungry. You’ll eat this cheeseburger and you’ll like it!”

So, I had to use my stinky hands to eat the cheeseburger.

When we got home I showed my father the turtle.

“This thing is dead,” he said, after examining it.

Finally, someone else understood.

“Mommy said I had to take it,” I muttered, not daring to look him in the eye.

This was usually a good tactic, since my father believed that no matter how unrealistic, I must obey my mother, and I must not know anything more than she knew.

But if he decreed the turtle was dead, then that was it. As the head of the house, he had the authority to decree that the turtle was dead.

He buried the turtle in the backyard.

I spent the next two days throwing up.

“Salmonella,” my father declared after looking up my symptoms in one of his medical books.

“But don’t worry,” he soothed. ”You’ll get over it. And next week, I’ll take you to another park I discovered. Maybe you’ll find something nice to bring home from that one.”

I shivered. If this had been a fun trip, then I preferred just staying home.


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