“Arnold 1790” / Doug Fortier
Nine-year-old Jeremy pulled his gaze from the dusky sky above the clouds to grab the handle of his dad’s bicycle pump and force air into the rocket he'd made from plastic pipes and rubber rings. On paper taped to the outside were the words, “I Love You,” that he hoped his mother would in heaven would see. After ten pushes he launched it into the air. This time it landed in the far corner of the yard beyond the ashes he’d dumped from the wood stove.
Kitchen windows at the back of the house outlined his dad’s girlfriend, Birdy, at the sink. The failing light forced him to look hard for the rocket. He hoped it hadn’t landed in the tall potato plants.
He stomped through the ash pile, pushing up dirty clouds that limited his view. As the dust cleared, a shape startled him, a little football bobbing in the potato patch. He stepped closer. There were eyes on the pointed head, and behind it, a round lump bigger than his dad’s barbecue grill.
It stopped moving and blinking in the sea of green. Fear of being so close to something that could chase and eat him pushed Jeremy backward onto the ground. He lifted his head to stare at the little football. It didn’t move or blink. Without taking his eyes from the dark lump, he slowly pushed himself onto his feet and backed away a few steps before turning to run toward the house, arms flailing.
From the back door came a shout, “God damn it, Jeremy, what are you doing out there?”
“I saw something with eyes.”
When he reached the house his dad said, “What?”
Jeremy fixed his eyes on his shoes. “Nothing, Dad.”
“Get in here.”
That night in his bed under the window, instead of naming stars and constellations upside down above his head, he saw the dark eyes on the lump in the potato patch. The thrill of a monster close to home kept him replaying his glimpse through the ash curtain, the football head, and how fear pushed him backward to run away without finding his rocket.
In the bright light of Saturday morning, Jeremy wanted to discover what had scared him the night before. He sat quietly through breakfast to keep from attracting Birdy's attention.
The foot-long rocket appeared in the grass a few feet from the trees at the edge of the yard. He shoved it in his pocket and moved toward the patch where he’d seen the creature.
At the far edge, flattened potato plants formed a circle. He followed a path of matted grass to the meadow, wondering what would happen when he found the thing.
Into the distance, the lane was as wide as his outstretched arms. There were prints in the dust, in a row from side to side, but it was hard to tell how many legs the thing had. He followed the direction pointed by the claws.
Flower blossoms and greens were chopped off at the backside of the neighbor’s property. The trail led him beyond the meadow, through trees to another open area.
He lost sight of his house. Each step took him farther from the safety of his yard where someone would hear him yell for help, and farther than he’d gone in the two years since he and his dad had moved here. Beyond another clump of trees, the path continued over a rickety footbridge. Flat and narrow, it had no railings to stop him from falling onto the rocks below. It creaked with his first step and groaned when he put all his weight on it. Pebbles and dirt on the wood caused one foot to slip but he kept his balance and crossed to the other side.
He picked up the tracks again as they went through a much bigger meadow to trees surrounding a dark ravine. The marks led into the shadows, but he didn’t follow. Instead, he sat on his heels and considered turning back before something with big teeth came roaring out to attack him.
From the top of the ravine, through thick foliage, he saw a pool of water below and a spot of blue from deep inside. He stayed alert, now tensed and ready for a warning sign that he should start to run. He edged closer, a few steps at a time, slowly enough that his eyes began to adjust to the darkness.
The area around the pool became clearer. Water trickled over the pool’s edge into the ravine. A big tarp of blue plastic hung from a rope between two trees.
He advanced, like the scout ahead of a hunting party, into the trees and down the slope to the pool, then flinched when a stick broke beneath his shoe.
The blue tent shook, and Jeremy jumped back two steps before someone yelled, “Wait.”
He couldn’t move. It wasn’t the command that stopped him but the sound of the voice, not low like his dad’s, more like his own.
In a heavy jacket with the hood up, and a foot taller than Jeremy, the person came closer, “Who are you, coming into our camp?”
The face inside the hood had no wrinkles. Puffy, misshapen features framed clear blue eyes. Jeremy stammered, “I saw something scary last night and followed a trail here.”
That stopped the hooded person for a moment. “What’s your name kid?”
“Where you live?”
Jeremy’s trembling arm swung out, “Back that way.”
“What you think you saw?”
“Something alive. A huge lump behind a smaller one with eyes.”
A big laugh showed the person had no teeth. “You followed tracks?”
“I'm not a sir,” came the loud reply, along with a hidden hatchet that hit the ground between them.
A question popped out of Jeremy, “What do you mean, ‘You're not a sir?’”
There was a long silence.
The blue eyes appeared amused. “I'm not a sir because I’m a woman. My name is Kayla, and I'm old enough to be your mamma.”
Jeremy gazed at his feet. “I didn’t know.”
Movement between the tent flaps revealed the football head and eyes, followed by a big, dark shape that moved into the light.
Jeremy thought, a turtle; a monster turtle with scales on its legs and neck, big enough for him to straddle without touching the ground. This time he didn’t feel the urge to run.
Kayla's grin showed her empty mouth again as the turtle moved toward them. The creature's four legs quickly gained enough ground to bring the boulder of a body near them.
Its dark brown shell had scratches on it. Its head, on a long thick neck, came close enough to bite Jeremy, who’d stopped breathing and didn’t dare move. It stretched to stare into his face. He tried not to run away. The creature's brown eyes met his before it turned to scan him up and down, sniffing his clothes, touching him.
It turned away, and Kayla shouted, “Arnold this is Jeremy.”
Arnold stopped, bowed his head once, looked Jeremy in the eye and moved away to drink from the pool.
“It knows it’s meeting me?”
“Why did you yell?”
“Tortoises don’t hear well.”
“What’s a big turtle doing here?”
“Ain’t you full of questions. Same thing I’m doing here.”
“You live here?”
“Yeah. I take care of myself okay and keep Arnold warm. He ain’t from around here.”
“He gets cold?”
“Probably not, since he’s cold blooded, but he warms himself in the sun when it ain’t cloudy and moves close to fires I build when it is.”
“What kind of turtle gets this big?”
“Tortoise. He’s an Arnold’s Giant tortoise. A book in the library had pictures of ones like him.”
“That’s why you named him Arnold?”
“I didn’t name him. It’s on his shell in big letters below a date. Look right there: 1790. The scratches get easier to read after that since they’re newer.”
Jeremy moved closer and saw the scratches were names and dates. “Why are these here?”
“My guess is they’re people who owned him. Most times it’s twenty or thirty years between, sometimes fifty. They ain’t no longer ones."
Jeremy studied the back of the shell. “Does that mean he was born in 1790?”
“Hatched. That’s what I think.” Kayla poked Jeremy in the ribs. “Wait here.”
She came back from the tent with paper folded into odd shapes, thicker than a big phone book.
“What you think of this?” She unfolded it part way. Inside was a duplicate of the scratches on Arnold’s shell.
“You made this?” Jeremy said.
Kayla nodded. “You know how?”
“With a pencil.” Jeremy thought a little more. “You rubbed it, like on a quarter?”
“Yeah, it’s a rubbing. People been doing it since the pharaohs in Egypt.”
Jeremy’s eyes jumped from Arnold’s shell to the paper and back. The scratches were all there, but reversed, with the shell the color of pencil lead and the names and dates white. The paper, folded along lines that divided the shell into a rough star shape, showed more detail than he could read on the shell. “It’s good enough to be in a museum.”
Kayla told him how, on the oldest parts, she had to guess at some of it. She read the names and years. The earliest had lots of ooo and aaa sounds. They became more familiar, some sounded Spanish, then English. The last one was a bunch of lines in four groups, and was the most interesting. “Japanese or Chinese, maybe.”
“It’s got to be something like that,” Jeremy said. “The date’s from ten years ago. Do you think the person died, and that’s why Arnold’s here?”
“I first met Arnold two years ago in the middle of December. He showed up at my fire in the old camp. I made him welcome and he stayed.”
“But what about the last marks? Does that mean Arnold lived where they write like this?”
“I don’t know about that, including if the owner was a woman or a man. Why don't we make you a rubbing of those lines. I got pieces of grocery bag and the pencil.” She handed Jeremy the thick paper to fold and walked away.
When she returned with a scrap of brown paper, they bent over Arnold’s shell to hold it in place while Jeremy rubbed the pencil stub over the four groups. In two minutes they were done.
Jeremy stared at the scrap, amazed by the detail of the foreign writing, itching to know who scratched this into Arnold's shell, and how he got to Kayla’s camp.
The tortoise lumbered back to the tent.
“I'd better go.” Jeremy took two steps. “Can I come back?”
“You want to?”
“Then, you're welcome, boy. Arnold likes you. Come any time.”
After his run home, the sun brightened the farthest edge of the yard where sheets of yellow light rose from the clouds of wood ash stirred by his wake. He was in his room before Birdie noticed he was gone.
He did his homework at the kitchen table until the TV began blasting the college football games that played the rest of the day.
In the yard he launched and retrieved his rocket, hoping the next one would go through heaven and land in the ravine.
That night, Jeremy lay in his bed under the window--not tired, but not allowed to stay up any longer. He counted his constellations and thought about making another visit to find out more about the big tortoise named Arnold.
Tired or not, he fell asleep. Deep within wacko dreams, he came upon Kayla's camp again. This time at the pool it was dark as night. Wherever he looked there were things he didn’t notice, now lit by the beam of a bright flashlight though his hands were empty. The light moved to a piece of metal dangling a pot over a fire pit ringed by rocks. It shone on a shovel sticking out of the ground at the downhill edge of the ravine. A roll of toilet paper covered by a coffee can hung from a branch. The light shook when he shivered.
He awoke in his bed, warm under the covers, and wondered if Kayla and Arnold were cold.
Sunday was the same as Saturday except the pro teams played on TV with the volume loud as always. Jeremy’s dad sat in his recliner with Birdie reading nearby.
Jeremy took his bike out riding, He didn’t go near the ravine; he didn’t want to be a pest, something he heard at home all the time.
On Monday he had trouble paying attention in school. The day was like any other except now he had the brown scrap of paper with his own rubbing; his secret.
Tuesday he rode to the ravine after school. He said a loud hello to Arnold, who moved toward him for a sniff and a nod, then went back to his spot.
Once inside the trees, he called to Kayla and heard a faint “Jeremy” from the tent.
At the flaps of the tent entrance, he said her name quietly. This time he heard a moan.
It was too dark inside. He pulled back each flap and threw them over the rope above. His eyes adjusted and he saw Kayla under a blanket on a broken cot held together by wire.
“Will you help me?” she said.
“If I can.”
“I got me a splinter in the thigh where I can’t see it. I need you to get it. Can you do that?”
“Just pull it out?”
“Yes. With this here.”
She handed him a pair of pliers and pulled back the blanket to expose her torn jeans and the back side of her right leg. A splinter as big as his middle finger was stuck in her bloated, red and blue flesh. It looked so much like chicken guts left in the sun that he fell forward, unconscious.
Her moldy, foreign smells came to him lying on the cot in her arms. She put her mouth to his ear, “I ain’t going to no emergency room. They call me gomer. You know what that is?” Her voice rose from a whisper, now angry. “No, you wouldn’t know. It’s short for ‘Get Out of My Emergency Room,’ like I’m faking something even if they can see I’m hurt. They’re hateful people.”
After a minute of quiet, Jeremy felt better and stood. “You tried to do this yourself?”
“I couldn’t see it, and the pain went from bad to worse.”
“You’ve got to at least put hydrogen peroxide and bandage on it. I earned a first aid merit badge in Cub Scouts and we’ve got stuff at home. I’ll go get it, okay?”
She looked up at him, “Please come back.”
Fifteen minutes later he returned with his book bag stuffed with a brown bottle of peroxide, a lunch bag of bandages each wrapped in blue paper, and a stretchy Ace bandage from the time his dad hurt his ankle. He had his lunch thermos filled with the hottest tap water, a small piece of soap, and a clean kitchen towel.
“Put this blanket outside the tent in the best light,” Kayla said from the cot.
He was on his hands and knees laying the blanket out when she screamed. She was trying to stand. He ran to her and threw his shoulder under her outstretched arm. Together they stepped to the blanket. Each movement brought spasms of pain to her face.
With the pliers, he sat cross-legged behind her lying on her side. his stomach flip flopping. At the opening, the wound was bright red. He concentrated on the broken nub sticking out though the ooze. Nothing else mattered. All he had to do was grip it between the jaws and pull. He could do that.
Kayla yelped each time he tried. His grip held on the fourth attempt. Out came a bloody blur of yellowy pus, pressurized like his rocket, shooting all over his shoes and splattering the crotch of his jeans.
The smell hit him hard. He stood and turned to puke in violent waves he couldn’t stop.
Kayla’s loud moans pulled him back. Her breath came in quick catches. “I ain’t no gomer,” she growled. The urgency of her pain cleared his head. He wiped his mouth and went back to work.
There was nothing in his stomach, but it took a lot to ignore the bloody wood on the blanket. He soaked up what he could of the ooze and wet a bandage from the thermos to wipe around the wound. Under the skin, the infection left a bulge that can't stay. He pushed it toward the opening. It flattened, spilling the dark, bloody contents onto the blanket.
Kayla whimpered. His nose stung and tears rolled from the corners of his eyes.
He used small parts of the towel wet with more hot water to soap and clean twice around the opening in the shape of the missing splinter.
The peroxide in the brown bottle had to get to work inside the wound.
“Kayla, you need to move your knee higher, above your hip.”
Jeremy held the towel against her tilted leg and poured the peroxide slowly into the hole. It burst out, propelled by the bubbles it made as the liquid hit her decaying flesh.
“It’s cold,” she whispered. The best he could do was to put a dry part of the towel onto her skin to catch each of the next six rounds of pouring, bubbling, and cleaning. Each one made fewer bubbles until there were none.
He covered the hole with a gauze bandage and held it with a double wrap of stretchy Ace bandage around her jeans. The toothy piece of metal held it together.
He wiped up the mess on the blanket and covered her. She winced and made a choking sound when she stretched her legs again.
Jeremy buried the towel in the trees using the shovel he’d seen in the dream lights from his eyes. He ached knowing Kayla was in pain.
She hadn’t moved from lying on her side, except to pull a rock under her head. “Kayla, I’m going home to get you some aspirin.”
She smiled through the pain. “Thank you Jeremy This thing would have killed me.”
“I’ll come back.” He picked up the bloody spike, his secret.
He couldn’t swipe the whole aspirin bottle. Instead he put a small handful into a paper cup and folded it into his hip pocket. The disgusting smell of Birdie’s burned popcorn in the kitchen made his stomach turn.
He found himself thinking of Kayla lying on the ground. He made two fried egg sandwiches for her, his stomach slowly settling while they cooked.
Jeremy passed Arnold, who noticed him but didn’t move.
Kayla was still in the same position on the ground.
He said her name, first quietly, then again a little louder.
Her eyes came open. “You need to get back to your cot. Are you ready to try it?”
She nodded and lifted her head from the rock.
Every movement of her injured leg flashed pain across her face.
Standing above her on the cot, he pulled out the paper cup and grabbed a plastic jug of water from the dirt. She swallowed two aspirin and lay back.
“I put the rest of the aspirin in the cup where you can reach it.” No answer.
The bandage was already bloody. He wished he’d brought another towel to clean the wound again. He pulled off his shoes and used his socks instead.
He put the last sterile bandage under the Ace and wrapped it around twice.
“Are you hungry?” Jeremy said. She groaned into her pillow.
He pulled the sandwiches from his book bag, opened one and held it by her nose. She reached for the sandwich, took a big bite then put her head down while she chewed. Sitting on the ground eye to eye with her on the cot, he held the water to her lips when she wanted it.
“Take the aspirin two at a time, they’ll last longer. After school tomorrow I’ll come with more of them and clean bandages, okay?” She nodded, then finished the first sandwich, before she fell asleep.
He picked up his bloody socks and the thermos. The brown bottle stayed at the foot of the cot.
Without saying her name or a goodbye, he left, hoping the aspirin would keep the pain away.
After school the next day, he brought bandages. Arnold’s brown bulk sat warming in the sun. His eyes opened as Jeremy went by.
At the edge of the camp Jeremy called, “Kayla,” and heard nothing. He moved to the pond to say her name again. No answer.
There was no sound from inside the tent. He went in.
She wasn’t there, but that didn’t make sense since she could barely move.
He looked for clues and found two boxes of clothes, the water bottle, an empty Styrofoam cooler but no cup or aspirin. The folded rubbing sat on top of the clothes. He saw another section of light colored paper rolled into a tube behind the boxes, and took the rubber band from it to unroll a rubbing of a tombstone with chiseled letters.
CHARLEY DARKEY PARKHURST
1812 - 1879
Noted whip of the gold rush days drove stage over Mt. Madonna in
early days of Valley. Last run San Juan to Santa Cruz. Death in
cabin near the 7 mile house revealed 'one eyed Charlie' a woman.
First woman to vote in the U.S., November 3, 1868.
It didn’t look like a clue to find Kayla. He put it back and headed home.
All he had was his rubbing on the piece of brown paper, but he couldn’t read it. A face came to him, a kid he was friends with at school--Akin. His family was Japanese.
At school on Thursday morning, Jeremy pulled the paper scrap from his book bag to show Akin, whose eyes brightened. “Grandfather,” he said.
“This is the word for grandfather?”
“No,” he said with narrowed eyes, “it’s my grandfather’s name. Where did you get this?”
“A homeless person near our house gave it to me.” It wasn’t exactly a lie.
“I know about Arnold.”
Jeremy was stunned.
“He was part of Grandfather’s collection of old things,” Akin said.
“Like trees four hundred years old and two feet tall. Old like Arnold. Grandfather says he lives longer because of the old things around him.”
“What do you mean he was part of the collection?” Jeremy said.
“Two years ago, Arnold disappeared. Grandfather went into the hospital a week later.”
Akin didn’t have an answer and the word hung in the air.
At school on Friday, he looked for Akin; he wanted to know more. He wanted to know where his grandfather kept Arnold. His chance came at lunch break.
“Tomorrow can we ride over to see where your Grandfather kept Arnold?” Jeremy said.
“I’m playing a game online with my team. But they’re always there. I guess we could.”
“I’ll meet you at your house after school,” Jeremy said.
The school bus dropped him off, and he rode away to Akin’s on the route by Kayla’s camp.
Arnold lay in the sun as usual but he’d moved dirt to make a warm basin for himself.
Beyond the ravine and another big meadow, he rode down a steep dirt slope that turned onto the creek road with houses far apart on both sides. He pedaled quickly to Akin’s house then waited by the mailbox.
Akin appeared on the slope of the driveway, standing on his pedals. He swooped by Jeremy, his momentum carrying him on to race uphill. It wasn’t far to his grandfather’s.
They zoomed into the driveway between trees that blocked the house from view.
Akin’s grandfather’s house stood beyond a four-car garage at the edge of the hillside. It was an old, dirty white thing with beams on the outside showing how it was held together. Beyond the house, they turned uphill and came to a building with half of it covered in a shell of wood strips. Inside were rows of benches with little trees. The other half was a greenhouse with glass walls and roof.
They stopped at a fenced-in area the size of his dad’s garage. In the middle is a low dog house looking thing with a wide door.
“This is it,” Akin said.
“It isn’t very big.”
“Arnold was old and didn’t move much.”
Jeremy looked around.
“Grandfather said the only way out was this gate,” He reached to unlatch it.
“What did he eat?”
“I never saw Arnold eat anything.”
“Maybe that’s why he’s lived a long time.” Jeremy said.
Akin moved to face Jeremy. “You know where Arnold is.” It wasn’t a question.
“What if I do?” Jeremy said.
“There’s a reward.”
Jeremy didn’t say anything.
“Will you show me where Arnold is?” Akin said.
“You’ll tell your grandfather for the money.”
“He wouldn’t give it to me. He’d say it was something a grandson should have done.”
“Promise. No reward.”
Jeremy led this time. He pedaled hard up the steep dirt track toward the ravine, pushing himself all the way to the top, the first time he’d done it without stopping.
They followed a path around the trees, through a meadow to the trees surrounding the ravine.
Jeremy smiled at Akin when they got to the huge tortoise. They dumped their bikes and Jeremy did his usual greeting.
Arnold stood then moved quickly toward Akin, who stepped backward toward his bike.
“He recognizes me.” Akin said.
Jeremy stood between the two of them. Arnold looked him in the eye for a long moment, then bobbed his head once and turned back to the hole he’s dug.
“That was weird,” Akin said. “I’ve never seen Arnold stop like that. I stay away from him because he bites. He belongs in a pen.”
Jeremy didn’t say Arnold was his friend, or anything about the missing Kayla.
Akin eased his way back to his bike. “Okay, I’ll see ya.”
“Promise, no reward.”
“I already promised.”
In bed that night, worry filled Jeremy as the stars shone above his head.
The missing Kayla pushed him out early after breakfast on Saturday with two apples in his pockets, hoping she would be back.
He stopped his bike, said a loud hello to Arnold, and called into the camp; “Kayla.”
Nothing. Standing at the pool, he yelled her name again.
Where would she have gone?
He went home to the noise of football filling the house. He took a book into the yard to warm himself in the sun.
After football and after the sandwiches and chips came out for his dad’s Saturday poker night, there was knocking on the front door. It’s Akin. He looked uncomfortable.
When they are both outside, Akin spoke. “I’m sorry Jeremy. Grandfather got me to tell him where Arnold was. He said he knew Arnold would be his again because he asked for help from his dead fathers of a thousand years ago.”
“You told him?”
“He made me.”
Akin’s words came out in a rush. “He could tell I knew. I didn’t say anything to tip him off, but he asked me a question and I had to answer.”
“How did it happen?”
“We were at his house for an early dinner. My mom cooks for Grandfather. He caught me in his den with the cabinets that hold everything he knows about Arnold. I’ve been in there a dozen times and not seen it all.”
“You told him?”
“Worse. I heard him on the phone talking to guys that work for him. He told them, ‘Bring Arnold to me.’”
Akin reached into a bag hung on his bike for a brownish metal gong the size of a plate and a padded stick. “It’s to move Arnold. He can’t hear much but this gets him to follow.”
“Get Arnold to follow where?”
“We’ve got to bring him back to your house. There isn’t any place else,”Akin said.
Jeremy led the way over the creaky old bridge to the ravine. This time Akin stayed away from Arnold. It only took one strike of the gong for Arnold to leave the hole he’d dug and step toward the sound. It was magic. Jeremy walked his bike slowly ahead of the giant tortoise as they move steadily along.
They stopped when Arnold rested. At the bridge, Arnold froze when the bridge sagged more and more then cracked under his weight. The giant tortoise plunged four feet to the creek with the broken pieces all around him. He rocked and moved his legs but he was trapped.
From the bank the boys looked into the rocky creek. Arnold craned his neck to look up to them.
“What can we do?” Akin said.
Jeremy looked around, hoping to find a solution. “We don’t have the muscles to help him.”
Akin stood there with his mouth open.
“My dad’s got muscles.” Jeremy said, and took off on his bike toward home with Akin behind him
Jeremy burst through the back door into the middle of his dad’s poker game. Akin slammed into him when Jeremy stopped.
The guys in the game ignored them. They looked at their cards and threw a few coins onto the table.
“We need help.”
His dad threw two quarters into the pile on the table. “I call.”
The boys stood there silently.
“What do you want Jeremy.”
“We need some muscles.”
All the guys around the table laughed.
“Arnold is stuck. The bridge broke. He was too heavy.”
That got everyone’s attention.
“The bridge broke? What bridge? Who’s Arnold?”
The card action stopped. Everyone listened.
“Arnold is a tortoise that Akin’s grandfather kept in a pen because he believes old things around him keep him from dying. We’re bringing him here so Akin’s grandfather won’t take him back and mistreat him.”
“Yeah Dad. He’s big enough for me to bend over his shell and barely touch the edges.”
Everybody laughed. The game continued.
The two boys waited.
“Dad,” Jeremy said, “If we don’t help, Akin’s grandfather’s guys will take him back to a doghouse in a little pen where he can’t move around and he doesn’t eat.”
“Where is this giant tortoise waiting for someone to save him?” another player said.
Akin spoke up. “I’ll show you.”
Everybody looked at Jeremy’s dad. “Stop the game?” he said.
“I’d like to see this giant tortoise,” said his dad’s friend, Ray.
“You better not be fooling us.” Jeremy’s dad said. “You need muscle. Why?”
“We have to pick him up and bring him back here, to hide him in the garage where Akin’s grandfather can’t find him.
“Pick up a giant tortoise?”
“He’s caught in the broken pieces of the bridge. The six of you can do it,” Jeremy said.
“I’ve got four strong suction cups I use for my glass work,” Ray said, “They’re locked in my truck outside.”
“We could bungee them to the underside of my aluminum ladder and walk him back here,” Jeremy’s dad said. Everybody grinned and got up from the table.
With the stretchy cords and ladder, all the guys followed the boys out of the yard.
Jeremy was the first to look over the ravine’s edge. The shattered wood was still there, but Arnold was gone.
“He couldn’t have moved without help.”
The group stood at the edge of the stony creek for a moment, looking at Jeremy and Akin.
“Dad, you gotta believe me. He was here. He’s real.”
No one said anything. His dad was the first to turn back.
Akin and Jeremy followed at a distance. Neither one spoke until Akin reached the front yard. “I’m sorry my grandfather made me tell.”
“Now what?” Jeremy said. “Can you find out if your grandfather has him?”
“I’ll try.” Akin headed for home.
Sunday morning dawned with sunlight in the windows.
Jeremy made himself a bowl of cereal and took it out on the front steps in the sun’s warmth, which made him feel better.
He had his eyes closed, seeing the blood inside his eyelids as he looked toward the sun.
“My grandfather called our house last night,” Akin said. Jeremy jumped. “He never does that. He wanted to talk to me.”
“He asked me to come to his office. He wanted to know if I thought Arnold was happy while he was gone.”
“Yeah. I told him about you and he wants to talk to both of us.”
“He’s trying to figure out what happened to Arnold.”
“What did you tell him?”
“Everything I knew, which wasn’t much; that’s why he has questions.”
“When?” Jeremy said.
“Today. The sooner the better.”
At Grandfather’s front door, Akin led the way in. The room had tall cabinets with glass fronts on three of the walls, a desk and two empty chairs. Behind his desk, Grandfather was only a little bigger than Akin, with big glasses and a few wisps of white hair.
“This is Jeremy,” Akin said.
“Sit down boys,” Grandfather said in a quiet voice.
Grandfather’s eyes never left Jeremy’s.
“What do you know about Arnold,” he said.
Jeremy looked out the window and wondered if it would make any difference if he told the truth. “I haven’t known him very long. I followed his tracks from our yard to his camp.”
“The camp he’s shared with Kayla for the last two years.”
“She’s taken care of Arnold and he stayed around, without a fence.”
Both Akin and his grandfather stare
“Jeremy, where is Arnold now?”
“I don’t know. Honest,” he said.
It rained hard that night, thumping the window panes above Jeremy’s head. Where were Kayla and Arnold?
Monday morning was wet. The whole day was wet. He didn’t see Akin at school.
When he got home he dropped his book bag and went to walk in the rain, to the fallen bridge. Water ran between the rocks in the little creek. He stepped from one boulder to another then pulled himself up to the path using broken parts of the bridge. There were no traces of Arnold’s claws anywhere, no sign of what had happened to him.
Arnold’s sunning spot, the hole he’d shaped to fit himself, had a puddle in it.
Jeremy wondered how he could have made all this go wrong. Tears came to his eyes.
He put a finger over one side of his nose and blew out the other side into the dirt, something Birdy would have yelled at him for, if she where there. In the shelter of the trees, very little rain came through. Nothing moved around the pool.
Like he’s done for how-many-days, he called, “Kayla.” This time he heard himself pleading.
At home in his room, Jeremy held the brown piece of paper sack with Grandfather’s name rubbed onto it. Where could Kayla and Arnold be? The whole day he’d thought of nothing else. He saw Kayla’s damaged leg in his mind how horrible it must look now.
Rain beat on the window as he lay on his bed.
He didn’t think Kayla would go to the emergency room and hear the insults, but that’s the only thing that made sense.
In the kitchen with the phone book, he looked up the number for the hospital and called.
“Valley Medical,” a lady said.
“Can you tell me if somebody’s been to the emergency room?”
“How old are you son?”
“Twelve. My name is Jeremy and I’m looking for my friend Kayla.”
“What’s her last name, Jeremy?”
“I don’t know.”
“I can only tell you if someone is in the hospital,” she said.
“I can tell you that we have a female patient with that name.”
“Thanks,” he said and hung up.
There couldn’t be two Kaylas.
He put on his slicker and walked by Birdy reading on the couch.
“I’m going out to ride my bike. I’ll be home before dinner.”
“Okay.” She didn’t look up.
The legs of his pants were soaked before he got down to the busy street with the buses. He locked his bike to the back of the bench and waited for the next bus.
Ten minutes later he walked through the hospital’s parking lot to the big front doors. He heard the same lady talking to somebody else and stood at her desk until she was done.
“I’m Jeremy,” he said.
The lady’s smile reminded him of the sun.
“You’re looking for Kayla.”
“She’s in room 412, and you’re here during visiting hours. You can ride the elevator to the fourth floor. Do you know which buttons to push?”
He turned toward the elevators.
A man in blue pants and shirt, with paper boots on his feet, waited for the elevator. When it came, they went in and the man hit the button with the number three on it. Jeremy pushed on the four button. The doors closed.
Upstairs in the hallway there were room numbers on the walls. Number 412 was on the right, at the end. He passed a place with lots of charts. The two ladies there didn’t look up.
Room 412 had three beds. Kayla was in the last one. He was so happy he felt like shouting her name.
She lay flat on the bed. He moved close enough for her to see him.
“Jeremy.” Her weak voice sounded out the three parts of his name.
“I’ve been very worried,” he said. “What happened?”
She didn’t reply for three or four breaths. “The day you helped me was the worst nightmare I been in.” She took another breath. “Getting the wood out my leg didn’t fix it. By midnight the pain reminded me the thing was going to kill me. I had to get myself to the emergency room.”
Jeremy pulled a chair close. He waited.
“I got the gomer insults all over again, big time.” She stopped to breath and wet her lips. “They called me gomer nine times in the ER. I counted.”
“You were gone a long time,” he said.
“Yeah, they put me in this bed for the big infection. My blood was real bad.”
“Your leg is better?”
“It’s nearly good enough to get out of here. They had to cut out parts all around it. They got the good stuff on it now.”
Arnold jumped into his head. “Kayla.”
She tilted her head, listening.
“Arnold won’t be in camp when you get back.” That didn’t explain much. He tried again, “I let him get away.”
“While you were gone I looked for you every day. I got worried about what would happen to Arnold without you.”
Kayla waited for more.
“I found out the last marks on his shell belong to the grandfather of a friend at school, Akin. He told his grandfather where Arnold was and sent guys to bring him back. I used Akin’s gong to lead him to our garage, but the bridge broke and Arnold disappeared.”
“Can you tell me later?” she said after a long silence. “When I can listen better.” Kayla closed her eyes.
He followed her breathing until he thought she was asleep. He pulled himself up to go home.
“Will you come back?” Her smile said she didn’t expect an answer.
Jeremy felt a lot better with Kayla safe, even though he’d brought bad news. All the way home he couldn’t stop thinking of Kayla’s leg when he threw up after he pulled the splinter.
He couldn’t wait to have the next day over, and return to the hospital. At the end of the bus ride, the same lady’s voice rang out inside the hospital’s front doors. He didn’t stop to talk to her this time.
Kayla was in the same bed, but the other two ladies were new since yesterday.
She looked a lot better. Right away she saw him and beamed her toothless grin. Her eyes sparkled.
“Jeremy,” she said.
He sat in the chair on her end of the room. She was sitting up with the bed tilted behind her.
“You look a lot better.”
“I don’t know what happened between yesterday and today, but you’re right, I feel better.”
“Arnold is lost,” he said.
His legs swung over the floor.
Jeremy’s words came without thinking. He started with his fear of not finding her in her camp and jumped to having Akin identify the rubbing, then he got flustered.
“Start at the beginning,” she said.
One memory followed another to his dream of his eyes lighting up the darkness. He told her everything, even something he shouldn’t have said about finding the tombstone rubbing. At the end he described meeting Akin’s grandfather who demanded to know where Arnold was.
“I bet I know where he is,” Kayla said. She sounded certain and he waited to hear the answer, smiling along with her. “He’s stronger than you think. I bet he went back up that stony creek bed to my old camp. It’s quite a ways, but Arnold’s done that trip enough times, he remembered.”
“Could I go see him?” he said.
“Sure. The nurses said I’m going home tomorrow. I can get there from the end of the bus line. Half hour walking, no problem.”
“You’ll be there, after school?”
He had a million questions, but couldn’t stay; he had to get home before Birdy got mad.
She smiled at him as he moved toward the door and left.
Akin looked uncomfortable again the next day at lunch time. He sat down and opened his lunch while staring at Jeremy across the table.
Jeremy ignored him. The noise in the room grew louder in his head because of the silence between them.
“My grandfather doesn’t believe you. He wants me to tell you that.”
“What if I don’t care?”
“Grandfather wants Arnold back at his house with his old trees. That’s what he said.”
“Back in that little dog house in that little pen.”
Akin didn’t answer.
“I don’t have him,” Jeremy said.
“But you know where he is, and he wants you to tell him.”
“Today after school,” Akin said.
“I can’t go for about an hour after we’re out. I’ll meet you at your mailbox, and we’ll ride up there.”
For the next three hours, Jeremy looked at the clock every minute until it was time to ride the bus home. When it dropped him off he went in and found Birdy on the couch. She never stopped reading.
On his way back out he stood in front of her until she looked up. “What?” she said.
“I’m going to Akin’s for a while. Are we eating early or late?”
“Late. Your dad’s in a meeting and said he’d bring pizza.”
“I’ll be back in time.” He didn’t want to miss pizza.
He rode his bike to the last street that crossed the creek. Once he got into the empty creek bed, it was hard going over rocks and sandy areas pushing his bike to where the hills come together.
He wouldn’t have found the camp if he hadn’t seen the smoke. There was another big piece of blue plastic tarp strung over rope between two trees. Nearby are Arnold and Kayla, who waved. “You made it. It wasn’t too hard, was it?”
“It was hard at the end.” He let Arnold sniff him before he continued. “I’m afraid Akin’s grandfather won’t stop trying to get him back. It’s important to him and he has lots of money.”
“If he can prove he owns Arnold, it’s a done deal,” Kayla said.
Jeremy didn’t like what he heard. Gloomy thoughts overtook him. The worst possible news churned his empty stomach. He had to go. “Akin’s grandfather wants to talk to me. He says I know where Arnold is,” he said. “I won’t help him take Arnold away,”
“Thank you,” Kayla said.
Jeremy walked out of the trees to his bike, and rode on to Akin’s front yard where he found him making tight circles up his driveway and down to the road.
Akin peddled fast up the winding road into Grandfather’s driveway, to the house beyond the garages.
Jeremy slowed his steps. His thoughts come back to the reason he’s there. He gets an idea.
The screen door hits him when Akin lets it go. They hurry to Grandfather’s office. Jeremy takes the same seat as last time.
Grandfather doesn’t say anything nice to either of them. “You are in the middle of this Jeremy. I know it. I am sure you know where my tortoise is.”
Nothing will change his mind. Jeremy stays quiet.
“Look around you.” Jeremy’s eyes turn to the shelves behind glass.
“These cabinets hold my research, my ten year investment in learning everything I could about the tortoise.”
It bothers Jeremy he won’t use Arnold’s name. He looks out the window.
“Are you listening to me?” Grandfather says.
“I will not have my property in the hands of homeless people. Do you realize how much that tortoise is worth?”
“Enough that I’m willing to step up my efforts to find him. I have reached back into the histories of six of the eight owners recorded on that shell. I spent years on expensive investigators to find those owners.”
“The paper that says you own Arnold, may I see it, please?” Jeremy says.
Grandfather’s mouth slaps shut. Jeremy wants to laugh.
“The police who come for Arnold will need to see it,” Jeremy says.
Grandfather gets a sour look on his face. “Wait. That tortoise is the world’s oldest living reptile. Did you know that? I must have her back.”
Time slows enough to hear the echoes of Grandfather saying, ‘her.’
“Arnold’s a girl?” Jeremy says.
“That’s what the tests say.”
Jeremy laughs out loud. Everything has changed. He pulls himself from his seat and hurries down the hall with Akin behind him. He waits for the chance and lets the screen door hit Akin on the way out.
Jeremy pedals hard over the streets to where he can go up the creek. He leaves his bike and runs all the way to where he left his friends. Kayla sits next to the smoky camp fire with Arnold nearby. Her face lights up when he sees Jeremy’s huge grin.
“You look happier than I’ve ever seen you. What happened?” she says.
“Akin’s grandfather can’t prove he owns Arnold. Now you’ll never have to worry about her again.”
“That’s the other thing I found out. Arnold is a girl,” he says with a giggle.
“A girl that looks like a boy, just like me.” She pulls him close and gives him a big hug. “Thank you, thank you, thank you. What you’ve done means a lot to me.”
Arnold moves in close and rubs the top of her head on Jeremy and Kayla. They bring her into the hug and laugh until they’re both out of breath.