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Tortoiseshell

 

Tortoiseshell

It has only been a week since I got home from college and my family is already falling apart. Just last night Sam, my older brother, stormed out of the house because of some little thing my father said. I was in my room at the time so I didn’t hear everything, but from what I could figure out it was something about my brother always being a slacker and a burden on the family. Sam has always been hot-headed ever since I could remember. It has gotten worse over the last year since I have been getting close to finishing school. Sam failed out of college and has been kicked out of job after job for his temper ever since. Then the fighting between my father and Sam started. I could escape it at college, but at home it was harder to ignore.

That’s why I moved into the basement room. Now, before you start getting any ideas about me living in some unfinished space stuffed with boxes of unpacked junk, think again. There was a living room that we never used in the basement that was a completely finished room. I found myself spending more and more time down there on our old green couch, so I just moved my bed and all of my stuff down there. It’s a safe space. Quiet. I painted the walls a pale blue last year. Now whenever anybody comes down to talk to me, I can see the stress melt off of their shoulders and erase the worry lines from their faces.

But, I’m not in my room right now. I decided to go to the zoo. I used to love to go and look at all the animals. My favorite were the elephants. They were smart. Some said almost human-smart and they gave burials to the dead. I would run around to the different animals so fast that my parents would have to run to keep up with me or send my brother after me so that I wouldn’t get lost. Now, I raise and lower my tiny point-and-shoot to capture the images of animals. Wolves, restless behind bars, were pacing back and forth. Their eyes were staring out beyond the bars of the cage and beyond the people to the far off mountains behind us. Monkeys rattling their cages at feeding times, mouths open wide and screaming. Snakes were hiding among the leaves of their fake habitat so that we wouldn’t be able to see them easily. The only animal that hasn’t changed was the gigantic tortoise standing in the reptile house. His giant eyes would open and close slowly as he stood there. Breathing. It was the only thing that it was really able to do in the area. If you were lucky, you could see it slowly lumber over to the food bowl and take a bite of watermelon or whatever the zoo keepers decided it would eat that day. Or if you were really lucky, you would catch it right as it was going in or out of its shell.

Everything was quiet in the reptile house. Not that many people were there and the ones that were there didn’t come close to me and the tortoise. I was leaning on the bar and twirling my dark hair between my fingers. How would I break it to my parents that I wanted to take a year off in between college and grad school? I had been the motivated one all these years but I was tired. Tired of grades and papers. The tortoise slowly turned its head towards me. I raised my head off of my hand and stared right back. Then somebody screamed as I felt a sharp pain in my ankle. I flung my ankle widely and watched a snake fly across the room. My hand covered my open mouth and the screaming stopped. That was me. I was the one screaming. The blurring started at the edge of my vision as I slumped against the cold bars of the tortoise exhibit.

“It’ll be ok. The ambulance is coming.” A person knelt down beside me. I blinked and tried to make their face come into focus. Shaggy blonde hair and blue eyes swam into view for an instant. A smile. A black shirt. Then the world went dark.

I woke up in the dark with the musty smell of dirt in my nose. I rubbed my eyes and looked around. The pain in my ankle was gone, but so was everybody else. I heard a thud behind me and I looked around to see the tortoise was lying down on the ground. My legs wobbled as I stood up and I had to grab the bars to support myself. The world spun in front of my eyes and my head pounded. I expected my body to feel really heavy, but it was the opposite. I felt light even though I was wearing my heavy combat boots. I walked out of the dark reptile house into the bright sunshine. Kids swarmed the park, yelling at their parents and at the animals. Small fingers pointing at the containers holding the food pellets, trying to convince their parents to give them 25 cents so they can feed the animals.

I smiled and started to walk around the park, feeling better than I had in a few weeks. Whatever had happened in the reptile house had a good effect. I reached for my purse as I rounded the corner to the elephant pen, trying to ignore the fact that they were cooped up instead of able to roam. My fingers met nothing but air. I must have left my purse back at the reptile house and with my purse, my camera. I looked around the zoo as I heard a kid break out into a temper tantrum. I groaned. The zoo was packed. Earlier, people were just milling around because it was in the middle of a work-day when all the kids were still in school. Now, it was like the middle of a Saturday.

I closed my eyes and tried to remember what had happened in the reptile house. Pain in my ankle and then somebody holding me, encouraging me to do . . . something. The zoo was getting too crowded and I was getting hungry. Or at least I was supposed to be feeling hungry right now. Instead I just felt dizzy and the world started to spin. I reached out to steady myself and hit sharp corner. I opened my eyes and found myself at home in the kitchen. Only the walls were yellow instead of green like they were this morning. The furniture was slightly different as well. Mom’s country parlor was gone and replaced with a slightly more modern kitchen and dining room set with a glass table.

“Mom?” I yelled as I wandered around the house trying to find people. The house was deserted. I went into the living room and saw that there was no calendar near the door. Mom had always kept three calendars in the house: one near the door, one near the phone in the kitchen, and one in the study. Now, there was only one near the phone in the kitchen with a notepad decorated with teddy bears beside it. The calendar was flipped to a picture of a kitten in a terracotta flower pot. It was September. Somebody had to be playing a practical joke on me. It was June, right before the summer heat was supposed to kick in.

I ran down the stairs only to run into a strange red-haired girl with a splash of freckles across her nose. She went right through me! I wave of nausea passed through me as I grabbed my stomach and leaned against the wall. My hands were trembling as I brushed my hair back. Somebody just walked through me. A stranger, in my own house, walked straight through me and I didn’t feel more than a light breeze. Unless you count the side effects of nausea. I turned to see the strange girl grab a jacket from the coat closet and stick a pair of keys in her pocket. I ran up the stairs and grabbed her shoulders.

“What are you doing in my house?” I wanted to yell at her and throw her out of the door, but my hands slipped right through her. She stopped for a moment and shivered. What was going on with me? I touched my arms and my face to make sure that my body was still a tangible thing. It felt solid enough to me. I glanced at the closet door and punched it, hard, making sure to keep my grip loose like I was holding an egg so I wouldn’t hurt my hand too badly. It went straight through the hard wood and I screamed.

* * *

When I stopped screaming, I found myself back in the reptile house. I ran my hands against the damp stone walls. I could feel the walls here and wouldn’t go through them. My heart was pounding and the only thing I could think of doing was laying my forehead against the stone. I was there. I was me. But at the same time I wasn’t. I felt the back of my throat tighten as if I was going to start crying. But, do ghosts cry? Either I was not real or this was just some horrible dream. But, would somebody dream the same thing day after day? Sometimes I would black-out and other times I would see everything just as it was, but different.

I went back in front of the great tortoise and watched as it poked its huge head out of its shell. It looked at me and blinked. Twice and very slowly, as if it was trying to figure out why I was there. If it knew something I didn’t then it was one step further than I was. All I knew was that in the past few days, I had been trying to piece together what had happened. As far as my family was concerned, they had moved out of the house and my brother had been thrown in jail for starting a fight and injuring somebody. He had always been a hot head, but I had always been there to patch the family back together. This time, I wasn’t. I looked back up to see it tuck its head back in its shell and I was left alone.

I stood there for a few moments before turning around to see a young couple slowly walking my way. It was early in the afternoon and most people at the zoo were at other exhibits. Normally, I would watch a few couples come into the reptile house and make out for a few minutes because it was a quiet place on the weekdays, but this couple was different. They were walking slowly and they both looked sad. The guy was tall with tousled blonde hair was holding hands with that same red-haired girl that I saw at my past house a few days ago. He was holding a single red rose and she was holding a white rose. They both stopped a few inches from where I was standing and looked at each other. The guy gently put his red rose on the floor and the girl did the same with her white rose.

“How long have you been doing this?” She asked him.

“Since that girl died in my arms,” he replied, his voice low. “Three months ago.”

I stared at him as the girl wrapped her arm around his waist, trying to comfort him. Then a brief memory slipped to the front of my mind. I was on the floor and shaking when his arm wrapped around my shoulders. I was staring at him when he said something about an ambulance, but I felt tired. I smiled at him and the next thing I knew I was standing back up.

“That girl,” he said, “that girl died of a black widow bite. Nobody was really here.” He stopped and took a step toward the giant tortoise. His hand brushed the bar and he turned back to face the girl. “She said she had to go, and then she was gone.”

The girl made the appropriate noises and hugged the guy, telling him that he was a good person for doing that and that he shouldn’t blame himself and all the stuff that she was supposed to say. I watched them leave, arm in arm. They could leave. I couldn’t. All I could do was wander the zoo, pacing back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.

 

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