One summer day me and some friends got together to have turtle races.
“Where we gonna have the races?” Henry asked.
Chris’s eyes lit up. “On the roof of the school.”
“I don’t know” Darrell shook his head, “My mom will kill me if she finds out.”
“What are you chicken?”
Ahh, well, that settled it.
“How do we get up there?” I asked.
“Come on,” Chris said, “I’ll show you.”
We put our turtles in a box and went around to the side of the school. There was a chain link fence, and where the fence met the building was an easy climb right up to the roof. None of us had ever climbed up there before, but after one look we all saw how easy it would be. It was practically a ladder.
Chris went up with no trouble at all. I climbed up to the top of the fence and Catfish passed me the box of turtles, which I then passed up to Chris. Even Henry shimmied up it like he was walking upstairs. And Henry hates climbing.
The roof was wide and flat, covered in tar and gravel. And hot. We found a spot in the middle so nobody could see us and chalked out the boundaries for our track. The rules were simple. You hold your turtle above the starting line, someone says ‘ready, set go!’ and you set your turtle down. The first turtle to cross the finish line wins.
So there we were, cheering on our turtles, lost in the excitement of the races. Even Darrell and Henry were getting into it.
After awhile we were all feeling the heat.
“It’s gettin’ hot” Henry said, “we should go home soon.”
“Stop being such a wuss” Chris said.
“Henry’s right” I said, “we gotta get these turtles back in some water soon or they’re gonna dry out.”
“Alright alright. One more race” Chris said, and we all agreed.
Catfish held his turtle cupped in his hands, shading it from the sun. “I’m gonna sit this one out” he said, “my turtle’s too hot.”
“Alright” Chris said, “you be the caller.”
We lined up our turtles. Me and Chris were on either side with Henry and Darrell in the middle. We were sweating buckets. Our shirts were plastered to our backs. I was dreaming of going home and having a nice tall glass of Kool-Aid. Catfish called out “Ready-” we knelt, “Set-” we held our turtles just above the line, their claws scratching the ground. “Annnnnnnnnnnnd-” Catfish drew it out as long as he could. “Go!” We let go of our turtles and off they went. They looked disoriented. Henry’s turtle turned around half way and headed back to the starting line. Darrell’s turtle kept going towards the sideline and stopped there in the shade of his hand. Only me and Chris’s turtles were left, and they were neck and neck. We were all cheering now. Darrell and Henry picked up their turtles and picked sides.
They were inches from the finish line when my turtle lost heart and slowed down. I couldn’t blame him, it was really hot up there. Chris’s turtle kept going and as he crossed the finish line Chris was doing a victory dance. I picked up my turtle and was about to congratulate Chris when I heard him yell “Hey let go of me!”
Suddenly everything stopped. We turned to stare at Chris who was being held by a police officer. Three more stood beside him. Busted. My heart fell into the pit of my stomach. Darrell’s face sunk.
“Time to go” an officer said.
We just stood there in shock as the other three officers grabbed us and ushered us over to the edge of the roof. There was a firetruck parked nearby and a ladder leaned up against the building.
“Wait” Chris cried, “I gotta get my turtle!”
We’d all forgotten about Chris’s turtle in the surprise of getting caught.
“You’re not going anywhere but down that ladder” the officer holding Chris said.
“But he’ll die” Chris said, with a tremble in his voice. Chris was the toughest kid in the world. I’d never seen him shed so much as a tear. Not even when he fell out of a tree and broke his arm. But he loved that turtle, and he was about to cry for the first time since I’d known him.
“Yeah, we gotta get Chris’s turtle” I tried to break loose, but it was useless. I could see Chris’s turtle walking around on the hot roof, looking for water, looking for shade. I knew it was going to die up here. I felt horrible. It was all my fault. I should’ve seen them coming. But I didn’t.
“Please” Chris begged, “he’ll die. Just let me get him. I won’t run, I swear it.”
But the officer refused. “Sometimes lessons gotta be learned the hard way son. Maybe next time you’ll think twice about climbing onto the roof of a building.”
Chris squirmed and kicked and cussed and tried to break free of the man’s grip, but it was useless. The more he fought the tighter the man held him.
Darrell and Henry and Catfish had all made it down the ladder by now. Chris was furious. I’d never seen him so mad in my life. He kept looking back. He could see his turtle. Could see it drying out like a raisin up there in the sun. He was bawling his eyes out now. Chris, the toughest kid I’d ever met, climbed down that ladder crying like a baby.
When he got to the bottom his face was red as a beet, with snot pouring out of his nose and tears from his eyes. That’s when I realized we’d gathered an audience. Kids I knew from school were standing around watching us. And their parents. I was embarrassed, and I suppose that was the point.
I was the last kid on the roof. I gave one last look back for Chris’s turtle, but couldn’t see him anymore. I climbed down the ladder.
We were marched across the schoolyard where the two cop cars were waiting. Catfish and Chris were put in the back of one car, Me and Darrell and Henry in the other. They turned on the flashing lights and drove us home slowly, winding up and down unnecessary streets, making a spectacle of us.
Darrell was on one side of the car crying. He didn’t say a word the whole ride home. Henry slouched down in the middle hoping nobody would see him. I sat up straight and looked out the window.
I thought about Chris’s turtle, walking around, looking for water until the sun eventually cooked him to death. I was just as mad about it as Chris, though I didn’t lash out like he did. I was mad at the police. I was mad at myself for being caught off guard. If I’d just been paying attention…
The cops kept saying what we’d done was wrong, and I supposed it was. But I felt the real wrong was the fact that they could leave Chris’s turtle up there to die just to prove their point. To us turtles were just as important as people. Well, to Chris they were maybe more important. That turtle was the one thing he cared about, and they killed it. I felt the way most people would feel if they’d left their dog or cat up on the roof to die.
I was the last to get dropped off. They walked me to my house and knocked on the door. Mom opened the door and looked shocked. “Oh my God” she said, “What happened?”
“We caught your son and his friends up on the roof of the school.”
I lost it. I yelled, “You killed Chris’s turtle!”
I moved into the doorway to stand behind my mom, trying not to cry and trying not to say what poured out of my mouth next. “I hate you! You’re a killer! You’re supposed to be the good guys!”
I might’ve kept going but mom shushed me, ushered me over to the couch.
She told the police thank-you for bringing me home safely and said she’d make sure I never did anything like that again. Then she said good-bye and closed the door. She came over to the couch where I lay crying, and told me she was sorry that happened. She knew how much me and Chris loved our turtles. She also told me that I should not have been climbing on the roof of the school, and to never do it again, but that was more of a motherly afterthought. Losing the turtle was my punishment.
About an hour later I told my mom I needed to take Chris’s other turtle to him. I was lying, but mom didn’t know that.
I ran out the door with a turtle in my hand and headed straight for the school. I dropped my turtle off at the bayou, I could always catch another one. Then I ran. Ran until the sweat poured down my face and my legs ached and my lungs were on fire. I got to the school and scrambled up the fence and back onto the roof like a squirrel. I looked all around, but no turtle. Then I heard someone say “No.” I froze. Caught again.
But, there, slumped on the ground, was Chris. He was holding something in his hands. I looked closer and there, in the cup of his hands, was Stripe, his favorite turtle, upside down and stiff as a board.
“Come on” I said, “Before we get caught again.”
Chris looked up and without saying a word got up and followed me. It’s odd, I thought, Chris following me. Chris was always the one making the plans.
We climbed back down the fence. Chris held his dead turtle gently in one hand. We ran all the way to the bayou. We found a place near the water and Chris dug a hole. He knelt down and placed his turtle inside. He sat there for a long time. Then he said one word before putting the dirt on top of his turtle. Sorry.
We walked home in silence. When we got to Chris’s apartment we sat on the steps.
“Hey,” he said, “Thanks. For coming back to check on Stripe.”
Chris started up the steps to his apartment.
“Hey” I called up to him, “How’d you get out of the house?”
Chris got a little smile on his face. “I told her I had one of your turtles and had to give it back.”