by Nicholas Day
A TURTLE THE SIZE OF A SMALL CAR is about to kill me. Figure I’ve got a minute, maybe two.
I was fourteen when Abby got pulled under the water. It’s a snapshot memory. Wide blue eyes and how her mouth hung open. Surprise and pain look a lot alike. Chomp Chomp must have clamped on pretty tight. She went under and no one ever saw her again.
Went under, maybe, sounded too nice. She sank as if a freight train were tied to her ankles. Chomp Chomp was supposed to be damn big and I can verify the rumors. He’s as big as any nightmare I’ve ever had.
We shouldn’t have been in the water then and I shouldn’t be out here now, three months shy of forty, married, kids, bills, though I guess a little of that is why I let Dean goad me into coming out here.
Forget responsibility, he had said. Be a kid again. Feel the rush.
I can see the Land of Lincoln across the moonlit water. Our cars are parked just off the rocky shore. Hell, I could probably throw a stone and hit my Prius. It wasn’t a terrible distance to swim across, but it wasn’t the distance I was worried about. It was Chomp Chomp.
Bad decisions are their own kind of rush, I guess. That’s one of the big steps you take when becoming an adult: making the right decisions and avoiding the rest. I fucked up though.
Poor Dean made the same face as Abby. Wide eyes, open mouth, I couldn’t see below the surface of the water but I’d bet money that he was reaching out to me. Jesus, it was the same expression my littlest would make just before he started bawling. Helpless.
Dean didn’t get a chance to bawl or scream or say anything at all. Like a freight train, here and gone. I wish I’d stayed in Jersey. I skipped all the other reunions, why did I come to this one?
Bubbles disrupt the water’s surface.
Chomp Chomp wasn’t a whole lot different than a lot of bullshit you hear when growing up in a small town. People tell stories about that haunted house. Everybody knows somebody that swears, up and down, that they saw a UFO. Don’t go into the woods at night, the old folks said, because Satan worshippers are cutting up animals out there.
Every place has a story and everybody knows it.
It was 1995, I didn’t have my license yet but Dean did, and he had a brand new convertible Mustang, so he became the de facto leader of our little clique. There was Tommy, Chuck, Abby, a kid we called Pizza—not because of acne or anything like that, but because he was always eating the shit. I rounded out the group. I was the youngest, the punching bag, the kid you dared to crawl into a garbage can and roll down the steps of the science building.
And I was in love.
Abby had eyes like blue ice. Sandals in the summer, combat boots held together with duct tape in the winter. She laughed at farts and cursed like a sailor. If you asked to bum a smoke she’d always say no, said it was bad for you, and she’d run a painted thumbnail back and forth across her bottom lip. She’d hang an arm around you and whisper, “I can’t wait to get out of this town.” We’d nod our head in agreement. She was the only one of us that had a tattoo. She’d show it to you if you asked, and if there weren’t any grownups around. I never did ask. Wish I had.
It was August. School didn’t start for another week. Summer was on its last legs, dying, and the heat was almost unbearable. Let’s go for a swim, she’d said. I hate the pool, Pizza moaned, too many kids and they never let you take food in there. Dean mentioned Chuck’s pool, but Chuck said that his dad never bothered cleaning it. It’s all green and filled with leaves and bugs. Fuck that, Tommy laughed. He hated bugs.
I don’t know what it was, maybe the way she laughed at Tommy, maybe the way she leaned on Dean as he drove us around town, but I suddenly felt the need to look brave.
“We could swim to Turtle Island.” I said.
“Shit,” Dean scoffed. “You’re out of your mind.”
“No way, man.” The other guys shook their heads. “I’d rather swim at Chuck’s.”
Abby looked at me and smiled. “Fuck it. I don’t believe in that big old turtle anyway.”
“You kidding?” Pizza said. “My dad seen it.”
“Yeah,” Tommy said, “my Grandpa said it’s the size of a Volkswagon.”
“Oh my god.” Abby clapped her hands and laughed. “I can’t believe you big babies believe in that crap. Chomp Chomp? A turtle the size of a car? You guys still believe in Santa Claus?”
“That water’s dangerous,” Dean reasoned. “Tons of crap floating in there. Strong undercurrent.”
She sighed. “Bunch of pussies.” She turned in her seat and looked at me. “You’re the bravest guy in here.” That was all it took to change their minds. A Mustang convertible full of crushed teenage egos. There’s nothing dumber than a young man looking to impress a pretty girl.
We stood on the rocks at the edge of the Mississippi. Turtle Island was close. A strip of brown river was all that separated us from the little plot of muddy earth. Pizza crossed his arms. “No way, dude. No way.” Tommy clambered over a large chunk of limestone and kneeled by the water. “Damn, that water stinks. You go in there and you’re gonna smell to high heaven.” Dean turned around and started back to his car. “Lemme know when you idiots want to get out of here.” Chuck didn’t say anything, just followed Dean.
Abby shimmied out of her skirt, folding it and setting it on one of the bigger rocks. She took her flip-flops off and laid those on top of the skirt. “Well, brave boy, you coming with?”
I was out of my shirt and pants in a flash and then we were both in the water, swimming, laughing, and splashing around. She was close enough to brush against. “Be careful,” she said. “I think I kicked a log.”
Then something brushed across the soles of my feet and I felt a chill run through me. Whatever it was, it floated against the current.
“Abby.” I reached out to her.
But she was gone.
The guys pulled me from the water, said I was screaming bloody murder and then just shut up. Police came out. Divers came out. Coast Guard even dredged the waters. No Abby. No Chomp Chomp. Authorities figured she got caught in debris floating with the undercurrent and that maybe a body would turn up down river. It never did.
August burned us up till its bitter end, and then school started. We didn’t know that a funeral could be held without a body. And we cried. September chilled us to the bone, calmed us down, then the snows covered everything and made us long for the hot months of the year. I finally got my license. The guys graduated the year after. Pizza joined the army. Tommy and Chuck went to college in Chicago. Dean stuck around and we hung out a lot. I let him drive. It made him feel good, I think. We never talked about Abby. And we never said goodbye.
I was accepted to NYU. When I left home in 1998, it was like I shut a door on that part of my life. I lost contact with the guys and I didn’t come home to visit. Nobody ever came right out and said it, but I think they all felt like I was responsible for her death.
Life grabbed ahold of me. I finished school, got a job teaching, met a beautiful girl. We had kids, bought a house. Our old lives were torn down and new lives were built from the rubble. I never thought about going home.
Years passed, and then a postcard came in the mail. It was from Dean. Pizza, it turned out, had died in Afghanistan. Thomas and Charles were coming into town for the twentieth reunion, and everyone thought it only proper for me to tag along and reminisce. I told Alice that there was no way I’d go, but she was persistent. “See your friends,” she said, “pay your respects. They obviously want you there. Why else would they invite you?” I’d never told her about Abby.
The reunion was surreal. I hardly recognized anyone there, though everyone seemed to remember me. I was surprised by how many of them had never moved away or how many moved but came back for whatever reason. I saw the valedictorian of my class sitting with her husband. She smiled and nodded to everybody but he never smiled, never nodded. He kept an arm around her at all times. Lucky girl.
There was a table of jocks laughing and slapping each other’s backs and drinking too much beer. They even wore their old letterman’s jackets. Except for the guys that got too fat. They still had the jackets, but they kept them hanging over their shoulders.
One-night stands were taking shape amongst the singles crowd, and then there were the people that wanted to hook up when we were kids but never did. Tonight was their night. Lots of regrets tomorrow morning. Lots of hangovers. Alcohol was one of the only reasons this was even tolerable, though it was also greasing the wheels for a lot of bad decisions. Free booze is hard to turn down.
The most surprising thing was how many of us had died. The memorial wall was easy to miss when you first walked in, as it was positioned adjacent the entrance, so that you really wouldn’t see it until you were leaving. I noticed a crowd forming. Folks that wanted to get out early and go to bed, they were bottlenecking, checking out photos of the deceased. There was a picture of Pizza, in uniform and holding a little boy. I didn’t even know he’d gotten married. The wall was covered in smiling faces. People I used to see every day of the week, reduced to a snapshot. I choked when I saw her picture.
Abby stared at me, smiling, as beautiful as I remembered. I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Dean. He had been standing right beside me and I didn’t even notice. “I think about her a lot,” he said.
“Hey, Tommy and Chuck are gonna ride with me. Follow us. We’re going to have our own little reunion.”
“Where are we going?”
“You’ll see.” Dean grinned. “It’s a surprise.”
My stomach sank and I felt flush. I knew where he wanted to go. “I don’t think that’s a good idea, Dean. It’s late. We’re drunk. Let’s just call it a night.”
“You know I fucked her, right? I was in love with her. Abby loved me.”
A crushed ego was all it took to change my mind.
We stood on the rocks at the water’s edge. Turtle Island was perfectly visible in the moonlight. Tommy and Chuck stood by the water. “Damn, that water smells worse than when we were kids.”
“You first,” Dean looked at me. “Brave boy.”
I stripped down to my underwear. “Fuck you, man.” The water was cold and I yelped when I stepped in. I heard Chuck giggle and say under his breath that I was still a fucking pussy.
The current was rough and I was having trouble treading the water. Dean undressed. He didn’t even keep on his underwear, and I could see his uncircumcised cock. He got in without making a sound and swam until we were a couple of feet from one another. “I never did forgive you for her death.”
There was a crashing sound from the wooded area beyond our parked cars, as if something big were racing toward the river. And it got louder. It sounded like an elephant was running across paved road. Tommy must’ve seen it first. He stumbled and screamed, “Jesus Christ,” at the top of his lungs, then jumped into the water, clothes and all. Chuck stood there, his back to us. I thought I could hear him laughing.
Chomp Chomp came bounding out of the night. Its shell collided with the back bumper of Dean’s car, crushing it and sending the old Mustang skidding at least six or seven feet. Chuck turned towards us and looked like he was going to follow Tommy into the water, but Chomp Chomp was too quick. He snapped Chuck’s left leg off at the knee, and Chuck spilled over, cracking his skull against one of the big limestone rocks. Chomp Chomp stopped long enough to take a big bite out of Chuck’s face.
Then, the giant turtle slid into the Mississippi.
“Where’s Tommy?” I yelled. Dean looked at me. The only thing he said was “Swim.” And oh god did I swim. My shoulders burned and I kicked as hard as I could. Holding my breath was all I could do to keep from taking in too much water. I thought about my wife, then my boys, and then I thought of her. I felt the soft mud under foot and I clawed my way onto Turtle Island.
“Shawn,” Dean said. I turned in time to see him get pulled under.
I thought about the memorial wall, thought about how it would look with all our photos on it, thought about how someone would shrug their shoulders, unable to remember who we were or why we ever mattered.
I crawled back from the water’s edge, then I got up and turned away from the thing rising out of the murky water.
“I can’t wait to get out of this town,” I whispered.
My body quivered, with terror and regret, my eyes wide, my mouth a silent scream.