The Turtle Wore Mascara
Gregory Stuttle sat on brown grass near a pond so thick and scummy it looked more like a putting green than water with fish in it.
A snapping turtle crawled out of Skinner's Pond as Greg daydreamed of saving Tiffany from the burning science lab at school. Greg imagined draping her over his back and crawling through roiling black smoke to the school's front steps. As he performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, Tiff would wake up while their lips were pressed together and respond.
Greg was basking in her giddy adoration when pain electrified his arm. His left hand jerked reflexively upwards with an eighteen-pound snapping turtle clamped onto his little finger. He leapt to his feet, jittering, gasping with pain. He slapped at the dangling turtle with his free hand, but the snapper tightened its jaws and hung on with beady-eyed persistence. It held on as black spots whirled before Greg's eyes, as his legs weakened, and he fell to his knees. It held on until it bit through the terminal joint of his little finger.
Its mission accomplished, the turtle marched back into Skinner's Pond with the tasty finger snack clamped in its razor jaws. A string of bubbles marked its progress into deeper water.
Greg bumped open the screen door with his shoulder. Blood dribbled down his forearm as he clamped his injured pinkie with the thumb and index finger of his other hand.
His mother's eyes widened."Don't you mess up my clean floor!" She pointed at the door behind him. "Outside, now!"
Greg waited in the back yard, leaking blood on drought-stricken grass. After two light-headed minutes, his mother strolled outside carrying a first-aid kit. In times of emergency, she always moved with deliberation. She ripped open a packet and handed Greg a white square of gauze. "Hold this over the wound. Press down and don't be a baby about it."
She ambled back inside the house and returned with a bottle of alcohol, a saucer, a tube of Neosporin, and her sewing kit.
"Mom-m." The image of a needle and thread being shoved through his skin made him feel faint. "What're those for?"
"You know we don't have health insurance anymore. Be a man." She glanced through the screen at her husband hunched in front of his computer at the kitchen table and scowled. "If I can take this, so can you," she told Greg. His mother's idea of "being a man" meant not making a fuss. It meant surgery in your backyard. It meant no morphine, no painless sutures. "This is what you get for playing with knives."
"A snapper bit it off."
When his mother splashed alcohol into the saucer, the fumes stung Greg's nose and made his eyes water.
"Now you know better than to tease animals." She plunged his abbreviated finger into the cold alcohol.
He went to school the next morning a bit red-eyed because pain had kept him awake much of the night. No one noticed his bandage until he opened his hall locker.
"So, Stuttle, what's with the bandage?" Peter Prime's voice boomed down the noisy hallway. "You damage yourself clipping off a fingernail or what?"
Greg cringed. Peter was the scourge of smaller males, a senior, a linebacker who thought tackling meant not getting out of a runner's way.
Five kids gathered around them with the expectant look of people waiting for a show to start. Peter was never one to disappoint an audience, especially when Tiff was part of it. He grabbed Greg's bandaged finger in a fist the size of a grapefruit and squeezed, laughing when Greg sucked in his breath.
"Peter!" Tiffany acted shocked but her lips twitched into a tiny smile. The big lug was showing off for her. Peter beamed. Any attention from Tiff, even the kind with a minus sign in front of it, was worth getting.
"Aw, Stuttle's tough. Ain't you, boy?" His comradely slap on the chest shoved Greg against the lockers. "So Stuttle, were you playing lumberjack with a toy chainsaw or what?"
"It was part of an initiation," Greg answered, not opposed to attention himself, and in fact hungry for it if brown-eyed Tiff was part of the audience. He so wanted to rescue her from a burning science lab. "It was to join a special club. Very exclusive. Yeah, you've got to cut off part of your little finger."
Peter's face squirmed as he thought about this. "Club? What kind of club would want you for a member?"
"A secret one." Greg closed his locker, twirled its dial, and dodged through the small crowd before Prime's synapses had time to radio along another question. Greg noticed after a few steps that he had picked up a companion--Melanie, an aspiring witch with thin black hair, black glossy lipstick, and crescent swashes of thick mascara. She dressed in short skirts to show off her lovely legs and a thrift-store leather vest. She always wore a pair of black lace gloves.
"Prime's a moron," she said. "Being around him is like dropping a skillet on your toes."
"He's not going to ruin my life," Greg said. "Not some hulk who'd have to stop and think for five minutes if you asked him to spell "mom" backwards."
"So you chopped it off for a secret rite?"
"Stupid snapper ate it," Greg answered. "Nothing lower than a turtle, unless it's a cockroach."
"Turtles are part of nature, too," she said in the tone of a miffed senior talking to a junior. She walked with him the rest of the way to band class in grim silence.
He decided it wasn't the right time to ask her to go to a movie with him.
And Greg awoke and found a great silence had come over the night. His body was lifted up, and his flesh filled with energy. From his bed he rose to go to the room's window and look full upon the rounded moon, which appeared alabaster as a turtle's shell, and he looked upon it as though it were an ancient goddess. Its light was thick glory, as new snow thrown over their lawn, as ice flakes on the leaves of trees. And Greg did sneak downstairs, going out under this moon clad only in his underpants. And the night's cold did refresh him, its stillness bringing gooseflesh to lie upon his arms.
He went unto Skinner's Pond where he did sit near the water's edge on grass brittle and dry as chaff. And he wondered still at this moon and prayed for rain to drum upon the earth and drive worms up from out of the ground so he might eat of their flesh. And lo, a carapace round and weighty did grow upon his back, and the pimples of his face, the marks of a teenager, did dissolve, for his skin did become as leather.
He crept as a reptile to the pond of water, and it cooled his body and welcomed him. And his underpants did cling to him for a few fleeting seconds before they did drop away from his hind legs. Thus he went forth and a string of bubbles did show his movement along the muck of the pond's bottom.
Ere the cock did crow the dawn, Greg did become again human in form and fled to his home, his body wet and naked. And none did mark or hinder his flight.
In his room, he did lock the door and pitied himself, saying, why a wereturtle? Why has this come upon me? Of all the animals of creation, why a beast that crawls upon the ground and is a terror only to guppies? Why should I now eat on raw fishes and plants green with slime? And why should I now wish to consume worms that wriggle? Great was his sorrow, for instead of the hero of daydreams, he had become a nightmare, a laughable thing.
Three weeks later when the school nurse tried to give Greg a flu shot, the needle kept bouncing off the leathery skin of his stringy deltoid. This was so cool. He wished some girl had seen him not flinch, had seen him "be a man."
Everybody else was so normal, so mundane, except for Melanie, who started eating lunch with him every day. Now that he was a wereturtle, she didn't seem overly abnormal. Like him, she worshipped nature, and her sense of humor delighted him no end. Biology became his favorite subject. The history teacher took advantage of his calm demeanor by seating him next to an overactive behavior problem. Melanie nicknamed him Gandhi; Peter called him Slo-Mo. His mother stared at him sometimes as if his behavior mystified her. Only their lack of health insurance saved him from being tested for autism.
He was sitting alone at his desk after math class, watching a fly bounce against window glass, wondering what it would taste like, when he heard Tiffany's angelic voice, "Greg, Greg."
He looked up into her brown eyes and sniffed to see if she was in season. Then he remembered she was human, and besides, it wasn't spring. Her perfume smelled of cinnamon.
"Could you help me with my biology homework?" she asked. She flipped her long blond hair and gave him a wistful smile.
"Sure. I'd like that."
He swaggered out into the noisy hallway, wanting everyone to see him talking to Tiff. They were going to do their homework together.
"I'll just give you the assignment," she said, swinging her backpack down to the tiled floor in front of her, "and you can give me my homework tomorrow when I get to school."
"Oh, but don't you need to learn it?" Their assignment had to do with the stages of egg development, a subject sacred to him.
"Why should I?" she asked. "I'm not going to be a chicken farmer."
Peter loomed up beside them, and Tiff bestowed a radiant smile on him.
"I don't mind helping, but. . . ." Greg shrugged.
"You'd be doing me a big, big favor. Just this once?" Again she offered him the wistful smile, a weak reflection of the blazing one she had just offered the alpha male beside them. "Pl-please?"
Was he supposed to drop to his knees in devotion just because she had chosen him to be her drudge? "It's a matter of taking responsibility," he said curtly.
She probably would spend the time he freed up for her with Peter the Lump.
"I don't need a lecture," she said.
"What's your problem, Slo-Mo?" Peter asked. "She needs your help, and you can't be bothered? What else you going to do? You already spend 90% of your time mooning around and the other half being a dooferd."
Greg snorted at Peter's faulty arithmetic. "You want to be the white knight, Prime Time, why don't you do it for her?" The only thing Peter knew about eggs was how he liked them cooked.
"Hey, you don't talk to seniors that way." Peter knuckle-rapped Greg's chest. Greg sighed and started to amble away. "I try not to talk to some of them at all."
But Peter the linebacker wasn't going to let anyone run away from him. He grabbed Greg's shoulder, yanked him back, and shoved a face bristling with testosteronic beard growth close to Greg's. "I'm talking to you, Slo-Mo."
Passing students stopped to form a semi-circle around them.
Greg slapped Peter's meaty hand off his shoulder, hunched down, and tried to sidle away.
Peter shoved him up against the metal wall lockers. They wrestled a moment before the hulking senior put Greg in a head lock. Peter preened and rolled a bicep the size of a softball against Greg's ear.
Instinctively Greg clamped his teeth onto Peter's oblique muscle. He hung on as Peter twisted and bellowed, and the crowd backed away; he hung on as Peter beat the top of his skull with a fist; he hung on as Peter sobbed and writhed, as the football coach, who was also their biology teacher, yelled into his ear and tried to pry his mouth open. He hung on when Melanie pinched his nose shut . . . and only let go six minutes later when he felt faint from a lack of breath.
The school nurse sent Peter to the hospital after she stopped the bleeding. Greg had nearly bitten the muscle in two.
He sat quietly in a steel-frame chair with a headache so throbbing his eyes watered and his ears rang. The nurse ignored the blood crusted on his face and examined him for concussion. She asked him three times if he felt disoriented. He sat stunned by the fact that he had scuffled with a senior, a linebacker who outweighed him by more than seventy pounds, and had not only survived, but maybe even had won.
In Principal Irving's office half an hour later, Coach Ross waved his fists around as he stuttered with red-faced rage. Greg had ignored his authority, had disobeyed him in front of other students. He pointed at Greg's chest and told the principal this was what they could expect from a boy who wore a green T-shirt with the picture of a red-eared slider on it and the slogan, TURTLES WEAR LEATHER. But what hurt Greg most was when Tiffany came into the office as a witness and accused him of starting the fight.
Greg didn't tell his parents about his three-day suspension until the next morning. His dad sat hunched at the kitchen table, smiling at some inner joke, probably thinking this was a rite of passage, while his mother made him tell the story twice, checking for lies.
When he finished, she studied his face, waiting. "That's all? You want me to believe they suspended you when the other guy started it? You want me to believe your biology teacher is stupid?" She stood with her arms crossed, ready to argue with his answer.
He almost said Coach Ross wasn't stupid, just vindictive, but he kept quiet to shorten the discussion.
She huffed. "Well, I'm off to work. And don't think, young man, I'm not wise to you. You waited to tell me this when there was no time to deal with it. We'll talk about this tonight." Her expression became pained. "And why can't you fight like a man, hunh? Only babies bite. Are you listening to me?"
He glanced at his mutilated finger. Were babies like animals?
After she had gone, his dad said, "Your mother gets upset because she cares about what happens to you. Anyway, I can almost guarantee, that bully won't mess with you again. You got in the blow, or bite, that ended the fight."
"So dad, if I need the Camry some evening, is that possible?" "Don't see why not, but I'd wait until your suspension was over."
Greg rode his bike to school on Monday morning, thinking it would feel good when he rode home.
Tiffany walked by him in the hallway with her nose aimed at the ceiling like he was a bottom feeder, which he was for one day every month. Except for two buddies in band who gloated over the fact that Peter had missed Friday's football game, everybody else ignored him, as usual.
At lunchtime, he sat down at a long table opposite Melanie, who was now the girl he wanted to rescue from the burning science lab. With a mournful look, he said, "Guess you heard, my bite is worse than my bark."
She nodded and tilted her head to one side. "Word is that you took a bite out of Prime."
Greg laughed. Damn, bite out of crime. How'd she do that? He had spent at least an hour coming up with his pun, and she just popped one out ad lib.
Melanie started telling him how prairie dogs had their own language when he took a deep breath and said, "You wouldn't . . . you wouldn't want to go to a movie or anything? With me?" He cringed at the quavering in his voice and wondered if Melanie noticed what with the noise of hundreds of kids talking. If only he had a sister, someone to practice on.
"Friends do things together." He realized he was hunched over and had his hands clasped in an imploring manner. He sat up and picked up his peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwich. "That's what the term means."
"Friends," she said as if tasting the word, then with her characteristic honesty, added, "I'd like that. When?"
"How about Sunday?"
"Okay, I'll meet you there," she said, making him the happiest boy in school.
In biology class that afternoon, Coach Ross refused to call on him to answer questions. Greg stoked up his courage and went up after class to apologize and turn in his paper on egg development. Coach took the report, put a red F on it, and handed it back. "You know I don't accept late papers."
Greg knew there was no arguing or pleading with an asshole who had power over you. Besides, wereturtles didn't beg. He shuffled away glad he had called the coach by his title and not sir.
As the next full moon approached, Greg watched Peter for the signs--an air of serenity or toughening skin or a certain shuffling gait, but he saw no changes. Maybe everything was okay because he hadn't been in wereturtle mode when he had bitten Mr. Hulk. Peter's wound had festered and been drained twice, preventing him from playing football in his usual manner of a refrigerator falling on opponents.
Coach Ross gave Greg a failing grade on his next biology paper, one Melissa had read and said, "I didn't know science papers could be interesting."
After class, Greg walked up to the wooden desk where Coach sat on a corner, smirking at him. Greg asked, "Are you going to flunk me because I stood up to the Hulk?"
Coach Ross scowled at him, his eyes half closed, his mouth twisted to one side, clearly not liking his tone. "You know Peter can't play anymore this season, his last year at high school. You busted his chance at a college career. Last week scouts showed up to watch the game and no one even bothered to talk to him. He had a lock on a scholarship until you bit him like a child."
Greg thought about that for a moment. "No, Coach, it wasn't me. His bullying did that, his meanness. I even tried to walk away from him, but he was in the mood to show off by hurting somebody weaker than him."
"Yeah well, you're wasting my time." Coach waved his arm, dismissing him.
"I won't have the credits to graduate if you fail me in both biology and health."
Coach gave him an evil smile. "Ain't that too bad. Maybe you should take it up with the principal."
Greg walked to the door and called back, "Maybe Peter didn't learn how to be a bully just from his parents."
When Greg walked out to his bicycle, he found the spokes broken, the frame bent, the rubber cut off both tires, and the handbrake line snipped.
Peter and two linemen stood on the steps leading up to the school's front door, pretending not to be watching him.
He walked up the steps and pointed across the parking lot at Peter's Camaro. "Nice car, Peter."
"What's it to you?"
"It cost a lot more than my bike."
Even Peter got the threat.
"You touch my Cam, Slo-Mo, and you're stew meat."
Greg called the police from the administration offices. He knew Peter and his pals would walk because there were no witnesses, but he wanted to officially report the damage on school property.
He met Melissa at the town theater for the Sunday matinee. The theater was a brick building built in the 1930s with a large white marquee hanging like a frowning brow over a ticket booth and double doors. Greg and Melissa sat on a green bench out front for a few minutes and waited. He marveled that she was with him. His fighting style, though effective in deterring larger males from further attacks, didn't exactly make him the karate kid of his high school. And his hair was thinning fast. He was going bald as . . . well, bald as a turtle. Luckily, it was an accepted style. Some of the punkers and basketball players shaved their heads, so he wasn't a walking freak show or anything. Anyway, if anybody bothered to notice, and Melissa seemed to, they might find he had some wit and personality.
"You going to college come September?" he asked.
Her face went blank. "I haven't decided. Why?"
He knew she didn't have any money. Her mother worked at a convenience store, and her father was out in California not sending the required child support money. "If we went to the same college, maybe we could share rides back and forth and save money."
She studied his face to see if he was joking. "But you're a junior."
"I've signed up to take the GED. I'm thinking of jumping off into college a year early. High school is a bust for me." He shrugged. "My parents can't afford to send me either, so I called two colleges with work-study programs that take kids from Appalachia almost free. They told me to apply." He sighed. "I mean, don't you get tired of being an outcast?"
"I'd get more tired of trying to be an incast. Besides I'm not invisible. People might laugh, but they know I'm around. They're aware of me. I don't see why you like Tiffany anyway." She waited for his reaction.
"I was just stupid. I didn't catch on to the fact she's as shallow as a dinner plate." He sighed. "Anyway, I think I'm about to become really visible at school. I wrote a letter to the editor of the Piedmont Herald, and I think she's going to print it." He looked at his wristwatch. "Maybe we'd better go on inside."
From a lady behind the booth's tiny window, he bought two tickets. She tore them in half and gave him the stubs. Inside, buttered popcorn scented the lobby. He offered Melissa popcorn or a coke, but she told him no. He liked her for that. She knew just buying her admission had put a serious strain on the money he made busing tables at a local diner every weekend.
After sitting down in fold-up seats, she said, "I like the idea of us going to college together."
"Yeah, but before we go, I've got to tell you something, something about me you might not like, something you might not believe."
"Now is not a good time," he said, his tone brusque with worry. She might decide going to college with a guy who claimed to be a wereturtle was off the weirdness chart.
Their town's weekday newspaper, the Piedmont Herald, printed Greg's complaint letter on Friday. It was under an article about coyotes and deer wandering the countryside almost tame from thirst. Skinner's Pond, as he knew well after another full moon, was only a third of its usual size. Wildfires burned in the drought-dry foothills. Greg read his letter and cringed. What moment of madness had made him think he should make his bully problem public? As the song said, his confidence now had a hole in it you could walk through. He wanted to skip school on Monday but knew cowardice would only push the problem off to another day. And what would Melissa think? On Saturday, a reporter called to say she would interview him at school on Monday. Sunday night he had an attack of the sweats and lay awake on damp bed sheets, enduring the dark.
Melissa met him a block from school the next morning and walked with him. Coach Ross waited on the porch steps, his bowling-pin forearms crossed over his massive chest. At least his presence would deter the football boys from harassing him. Scowling, Coach said, "Morning, Mr. Stuttle. The principal would like a little chat with you, if you can spare the time. You're looking pale. Are you all right?"
"I'm fine, Coach. It's polite of you to ask. But I'm not feeling pale, more flushed, you know, with the excitement of being in your class today."
"You making fun of me, boy?"
"I don't like people playing head games with me, Coach. You know, like saying I'm pale when I'm not. Bald maybe, but I'm not pale."
Disgusted, Coach Ross turned and led the way down the hall to the office area.
Greg was surprised at feeling calm, almost invulnerable. What could they do to him? Melissa patted his arm and veered into a side hallway with a row of lockers set in the puke-green walls.
The door to Principal Irving's office was open. Coach Ross rapped on its frame and strode in, followed by Greg. Coach threw himself into a padded guest chair while Greg stood in front of trophy case that covered a side wall.
Principal Irving sat behind an imposing mahogany desk, his fingers steepled, his face grim as the plague. As always, he wore a pinstripe suit and had his hair parted down the middle. "Your letter is not the kind of publicity this school deserves. What is your problem?" He slapped the open newspaper on his desk.
"I was only telling the truth. My bike was destroyed on school grounds by bullies. That's in a police report. And coach is failing me because his feelings are hurt."
Principal Irving raised his hand when Coach Ross started to come out of the leather chair. "It seems odd that you are the only one who has this problem. And calling the police out is not something we appreciate. This is not a city school where guards are necessary."
"Principal, the school is not the injured party here. I am. And there are other kids with the same problem. They just don't speak up. I do. And that's why coach here is failing me in biology."
Principal Irving shook his head. "I don't interfere with the grading of my teachers. Don't think you can blackmail me into passing you."
"Can I go now?"
"I want your assurance that you will write no more of these derogatory letters."
"You want me to give away my right of free speech so coach can continue to bully me?" Greg asked.
Coach Ross stood.
Principal Irving raised both hands, palms forward to calm him.
To Greg, Principal Irving said, "I want to make certain you don't provoke our students or faculty further. It's for your safety as well as for the school's sake."
There was a knock, and startled, they all turned to the open door. Melissa stood there with a young woman.
"Yes." Principal Irving was not pleased by the interruption.
Melissa said, "A reporter is here for Greg."
"Can I go now?" Greg asked.
"Don't be a troublemaker, Stuttle," Coach warned. "I can't always control what the other boys will do."
When Greg said nothing, Principal Irving licked his lips and nodded, dismissing him. Greg had to resist the urge to salute before he left.
When Greg stepped into the noisy cafeteria at lunchtime, a punker punched his shoulder. "Nice going, Stuttle." It was a compliment, not a threat. He sat down across from Melissa at the end of a long brown table with plenty of space around them. His chest felt like a rock. Now was the time to tell her his secret. "Don't look now, Cassanova," she said, "but everybody is talking about you. Told you we're not invisible."
"Yeah, but are they saying nice things?"
"Does it matter? Deep down they respect what you did. Even those against you like the drama."
Greg pulled a sandwich, peanut butter and strawberry jam, from a square insulated container. "Well, let me bring some drama, or trauma, into your life."
Her face went blank.
"I was thinking of you last night," he blurted out, then realized how that sounded. "I mean about hair."
She stiffened. "Hair?"
"I mean about my hair, how I used to have a retro Beatles mop, and now it's all gone." He looked at her for sympathy, but her face was now a closed door. "I was at Skinner's Pond the other night, at the full moon. I go there every full moon. Something happens to me out there." Her face opened a little, but the security chain stayed in place. "What with a full moon coming on tonight, I'll go out there again. Do you ever go there?" he asked.
"It's not spooky or anything," he told her, wondering if that was true. "The ghost is clear."
Her face softened into a smile. "Of corpse, I've been out to the pond, and at night, too."
He took a deep breath. "You might not believe this." (Of course, she wouldn't.) "But there really are such things as were-animals." He gave her a few seconds to respond, but she just watched his face, amused. "You won't believe this," he said again, "but I turn into a turtle on the nights when there's a full moon. I know it sounds--"
She hid her glossy black-lipped mouth with a gloved hand and giggled.
"I know it sounds weird," he rushed on, "but it's not a delusion or anything. Honest. I really do become a kind of turtle. That's why I'm balding," he patted his scalp.
"Do you like being a turtle?"
"Yeah, I do. Not at first but now, yes."
"It's sweet of you to tell me this. I know you become a wereturtle."
She pulled off her left glove to show him her mauled hand. "Who do you think bit you?"