Eulogy for a Cracked Shell

Submitted into Contest #119 in response to: Start your story with an unusual sound being heard.... view prompt

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Coming of Age Fiction Sad

CW: death, grief, mature language.

It sounded like a shoe crushing a bag of chips or a pair of glasses. A crushing, cracking sound. From the cab of her dad’s pickup, two sizes too small for the passenger seat, Andie craned her neck to see the road below them. She pressed her face to the glass, trying to angle her head just right to catch a glimpse of what they had hit. Her dad swore in the creative way he always did, some bizarre combination of words that hinted at what he really wanted to say, and pulled over to the side of the road. 

“What is it, daddy?” Andie asked, squirming in her seat to try another angle in an effort to see the roadkill casualty. 

“Don’t know, Bug, but I’m gonna find out,” Red said as he opened the driver’s side door. The blistering cold of a New England afternoon in mid-December bit at Andie’s nose and made her feel a little sneezy. Red grabbed his canvas Carhartt coat, the one that had the liner inside so he could stay warm while working outside, and stepped down out of the cab.

“Daddy!” Andie squealed. “I wanna come!”

“You sure?” Red asked. “It might be bloody.”

“Yeah, I wanna see it.”

Andie punched the red button that released her seatbelt that her dad insisted she wore even though he didn’t wear his, and used all her strength to push open the truck door. In a practiced routine, she grabbed the handle above her head for leverage as she lowered her right boot onto the step bar, then turned and placed both arms across the seat to step down like climbing on a ladder. Using both mittened hands, she pulled the door closed and scurried around the bed of the truck to meet her dad at the carcass lying in the middle of the road. 

The turtle’s shell was cracked, like the pothole infested road they were standing on. When Andie reached her dad’s side, he was standing over the body with his hands clasped behind his back and his Timberland-clad feet spread wide. She recognized this stance from years of watching him work. He would take this position when he was deep in thought, puzzling over the angle a 2x4 had to be cut in order to fit in an irregular corner or a construction issue that required math beyond addition or subtraction. Andie was pretty sure her dad could solve any equation and knew the answer to every question. When he looked like this, she knew not to bother him with any of her “pesterin’.” 

There was a little leak in the fracture of the turtle’s brown shell and hot air was escaping, visible like Andie’s breath meeting the cold air. She crouched and shuffled her feet to get a closer look at the damage. It was a big turtle, the kind that lived in the pond outside her home. It had eyes that bulged from the sides of its head like a cartoon character, and wide, webbed feet that reminded Andie of canoe paddles. The intricate pattern of diamonds and hexagons on its shell was disrupted by a long canyon that stretched from top to bottom, where the tire had hit. 

The sight of this mangled creature both horrified and delighted Andie. She was already eleven and still had never seen a dead thing, if you could believe that. Sure she had seen dead fish when her dad would cook what he had caught in the pond, and she had seen a sow hanging from its back feet on a hook at the butchers’ once, but that was different. Those were killed on purpose, their deaths were needed for something. Even though she lived in hunting country and all her classmates and friends had seen at least one thing wash up on the shores of the pond or fall from a tree, Andie still had never seen something dead. It was because of her dad. He always shooed her away or cleaned things up before she could see them, but he was letting her inspect this turtle without saying a thing. 

Then she noticed a flicker of movement from deep within the turtle’s body. It accompanied another little puff of steam. A closer look revealed a tiny fleshy thing, beating to an uneven tune. It was so dark inside the valley of the turtle that its oozing blood looked black like ink, and Andie realized that the little jelly bean sized thing was the animal’s heart.

“Daddy!” she gasped, looking up into his pinched face. “It’s alive!”

“I know, Bug.” He exhaled one long stream of vapor that looked like cigarette smoke. “I know.”

“What do we do now?” she asked, looking to her dad expectantly, as a child who believes her father holds all the answers in his calloused palms does. 

“I think...we get it out of the middle of the road before we get squashed by a truck too,” he said. 

Andie swiveled her head up and down the road, checking for danger, but all was quiet. In the stillness of a country road, an incoming truck would be obvious from miles away. She turned back to consider the turtle, whose eyelids had begun to flicker slightly.

“It’s waking up,” she pointed out. 

Red didn’t respond, but just pulled off his jacket and knelt down beside Andie and the turtle. He tenderly nudged the turtle onto the canvas and used it as a stretcher to lift its body. Andie wondered why her dad wasn’t cold without his jacket. He was only wearing a long sleeved T-shirt over a regular sleeved T-shirt, not even a sweater or sweatshirt. Andie got to her feet and followed her dad, who was walking slowly and deliberately with the turtle suspended before him. The turtle hadn’t moved except to pull its head in. When they reached the cold, packed earth on the side of the road, Red paused and looked down at his daughter.

“I’m going to go in the trees,” he told her. “I’m gonna bring this little guy with me. You wait in the truck and I’ll come get you when I’m ready, sound good?”

Andie puckered her lips like she tasted something sour. She wasn’t little anymore, she understood what was happening. 

“Are you going to kill it?” she asked.

“I have to put it out of its misery,” Red answered. His face showed a flicker of amusement at his daughter’s intuition. “It’s what I would want, if I were in this bad shape.”

“I’ve seen videos of people saving turtles with cracked shells,” Andie protested. “We should bring it to the hospital.”

“Doctors around here wouldn’t know what to do with him,” Red countered. “There’s no point in prolonging his pain.”

“We could call Dr. Lindsay?” Andie suggested. “He’d know what to do, I bet.”

Red’s forehead creased and he looked to the trees like he was itching to get out there and be done with this. 

“Dr. Lindsay only works on people-patients, Bug. He can’t help us.”

Out of ideas, Andie just wagged her head with the weariness of a person much older than her. The blades of grass, stiffened from the early winter frost, crinkled and crunched under the tread of Red’s boots as he made his way towards the tree line. Andie followed a few paces behind, and despite her best efforts to be stealthy, the grass gave her away. Red didn’t ask her to wait in the truck again, though. Maybe he thought she was old enough to stand by while he performed his duty for a fellow creature of God. Maybe he knew his stubborn daughter would just give him a hard time and he’d have to get stern with her, something he didn’t have the energy for. 

They walked a few paces beyond the first few saplings, into a cluster of more mature pines. Red placed his jacket on the ground and reversed the movement from earlier, gently nudging the turtle back off the fabric. Once freed, the jacket returned to warming Red’s torso. 

“What are you going to do?” Andie asked, surveying the weak shell and the blood pooling up under the surface. 

“I’m going to have to crush it more,” her father answered in a hoarse voice. She hadn’t heard his voice sound like that in a long time. 

Andie simply stepped back and squeezed her eyes shut. Her hands balled into fists and she flinched when she heard his boot fall heavy on the turtle’s back, but she did not cry out. There was a moment of quiet darkness between the sound of crushing death and the confirmation from her father that it was done. She blinked her eyes back open and took in the gory scene. What used to be a turtle with a broken shell was now a mess of bone, cartilage, and punctured organs. A whimper almost escaped, but Andie swallowed it. She didn’t want to make her dad feel bad about killing this thing. She knew he didn’t like death. It was the curse of being dad that he had to face all the death and wield all the weapons when he hated it as much as everyone else. 

“Can we bury it?” she asked. “Like mom?”

Red let out a rough chuckle and nodded. 

“Yeah, Bug. We can bury it.”

He went back to the truck to grab the shovel he had among his tools. 

“Lucky we were doing demo today, huh?” he said to Andie, as if they had both been working at the site. Andie giggled, she always liked being included in her dad’s crew.

 Red set the blade of the shovel at a 45 degree angle and used his foot to plow it into the tough ground. While he worked, Andie perused the brush and collected weeds that looked close enough to flowers. She bundled up the stalks of bulbous seed pods and strands of gossamer leaves and used some grass to tie it into a bouquet. Once the hole was about a foot deep, Red used the spade to scoop up the turtle's remains and laid him in his grave. Andie placed the bouquet upon its body and stood back to admire their work. 

“Would you like to give the eulogy?” he asked her, his hand resting on the hilt of his shovel.

“What’s a eulogy?”

“It’s when you say a few nice things about the deceased.”

“Oh, like you did for mom?”

“Yeah, like I did for mom.”

“Okay, I can try,” Andie said and cleared her throat before beginning. “Dear…We don’t know his name.”

Andie looked up at Red, her eyes wide with worry. Red thought for a moment before replying, “How about Frank?”

“Like Uncle Frank?”

“That’s what I was thinking. He kind of looks like a turtle, doesn’t he?” Red said, grinning down at Andie who hid her giggles behind her blue knit mittens.

“Okay, Dear Frank,” Andie continued. Her face drew into a look of concentration and sorrow. “If you hadn’t been crossing the road today, maybe you would still be alive, but I guess you had to get to the other side.”

Andie paused, then erupted in giggles again.

“Why did the turtle cross the road?” Red said, picking up on the accidental joke. 

“To get to the other side!” Andie replied, clapping her mittens together in muffled joy. 

“Would you like to continue?” Red asked.

“Um...I don’t really know what I’m doing,” Andie confessed. “Can you do it?”

“Sure, Love Bug,” Red said, using Andie’s full nickname which he only did when he was being very sincere. Andie noticed the tone change and quieted down, turning her attention back to the turtle carcass in the ground. 

“Frank, I’m sorry, buddy. If I could go back in time I would make myself pay more attention to the road. I would make myself swerve, or better yet, take a different route home. If I could go back in time I would save you and let you go back to your happy life of swimming in Myer’s Pond, basking in the sun and eating aphids and whatever else crossed your path. I would make sure you got home to your turtle wife and turtle babies who must be waiting for you now, wondering where you’ve gone. You could all get cozy together underwater, getting ready for the winter freeze. I hope your last moments were peaceful and content, I hope you had a full belly and a calm mind. I hope you are in a better place now, up in Turtle Heaven. I’m sorry I couldn’t save you. I’m sorry you’re not here with us anymore. I’m sorry your baby won’t know you as she grows up, I’m sorry--” Red coughed, clearing something sticky caught in his throat. He didn’t want his daughter to see him cry, not like this. He had been so brave and stoic through the last year, he couldn’t let this damn turtle get him now. He had to stay present, remember who he was talking about. After a moment, he went on, “Goodbye, Frank the Turtle. We wish we could have known you longer.”

Andie felt  a tugging in her gut like she was going to be sick, but she knew that wasn’t what it was. It was a sensation she had felt many times, it signaled a yearning for change. She was so tired of feeling helpless. Her mom used to say anything Andie’s mind could think up, her hands could create, but it wasn’t true. It wasn’t that her mom had been wrong, but she hadn’t been thinking big enough. Maybe Andie could make things like her dad did, but she couldn’t make the future different. She had tried so many times. When her mom was in their living room shivering and chattering despite the centralized heat that Andie had turned up to high and all the blankets and sweaters in the house. When her mom was sleeping in a hospital bed, and Andie would stare at her body and will the sickness away. When she would collect the clumps of her mother’s hair and try to sew them back together so she could wear them again, but it never worked. When her mom had told her she could do anything, she hadn’t been talking about saving a life. 

“Goodbye, Frank the Turtle,” Andie echoed her father. “Sorry.”

Red handled the shovel and replaced the dirt he had moved for Frank. Andie wondered if her dad, who she believed really could do anything, had tried to save her mom’s life too. If he had, why didn’t it work?

“Daddy?” Andie squeaked. 

“Yeah, Bug?” 

“Did we miss something? I mean, could we have done something?”

Red turned, clearly lost. “When? With Frank?”

“No,” Andie said. “With mom.”

“Hm.” Red patted the dirt pile once with the back of his shovel before turning away and taking his daughter’s hand, leading them back to the truck. When they reached his forest green pickup, he tossed the shovel back into the bed and opened the passenger door. In an effortless move, he picked up Andie and plucked her back in her seat next to his. He closed her door, crossed to his side, and climbed in behind the wheel. 

For a moment they sat there, quiet and still. Then Red replied, “No, baby. There was nothing more we could have done. The doctors tried their best, your mom tried her best, we gave her all the love and help she needed, but when God decides it’s your time, you don’t get a say.”

“God didn’t know mom, though. If He had--”

“God knew her well enough to know he wanted her by His side,” Red said and turned the key in the ignition. 

“Oh.”

Red gripped the wheel with his chapped hands, and looked over at Andie. “Seatbelt.”

Andie obeyed, and once he heard the click, he shifted into drive and turned back onto the deserted country road. Andie leaned forward and turned the heat up to high, then removed her mittens and sat back in her seat to watch the trees rush by as if they had legs and were running alongside their racing truck. Images of Frank’s mangled body mingled with images of her mom, gray and sallow in bed. Andie decided she was like her dad, she didn’t like death all that much. She was grateful he would always be there to handle the grittier parts of life for her. Life behind his shield suited her just fine. She lay her cheek against the cold glass of the window, and her smiling mouth fogged the glass until the trees were hidden behind a veil of wintery smog. 

November 06, 2021 00:02

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14 comments

Virginia Childs
20:41 Nov 13, 2021

Well done. I love the imagery and the point of view. Really engaging!

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John Hanna
23:28 Nov 17, 2021

Hi Sydney, I got your story from the critique circle and am glad of it, else I might have missed it. I'm supposed to critique but I can't find anything I could improve. You're a better writer than me. The dialog and descriptions were believable. I hope Bug has a nice life.

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Renda Brooks
19:45 Nov 15, 2021

I really enjoyed the POV and imagery of this piece. Being a formal hospice nurse and grief counselor, as well as a nurse in general for over 32 years, the topic of grief and the way it is perceived has always been interesting to me. You did very well with this story. Thank you.

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Sydney Atkin
20:21 Nov 15, 2021

Thank you so much, I'm glad it resonated with you especially because of your intimate experiences with the topics.

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Renda Brooks
19:05 Nov 17, 2021

You're welcome. Keep writing!

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Kate Winchester
05:52 Nov 15, 2021

I love the way this story evolved from the death of a turtle to the death of the mother/wife. You evoke many emotions. Well done!

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Sydney Atkin
20:20 Nov 15, 2021

Thank you!

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Kate Winchester
20:44 Nov 15, 2021

Welcome 🤗

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Alexandra Smith
22:15 Nov 13, 2021

Evocative, real, nice segues. Really captures a childs’ POV- feeling protected and being on the cusp of understanding more.

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Sydney Atkin
20:20 Nov 15, 2021

Thank you :)

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19:56 Nov 13, 2021

I really enjoyed reading this. Quite emotional during the eulogy when the father transitions from talking about the turtle to talking about his wife. Thank you for sharing!

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Sydney Atkin
20:19 Nov 15, 2021

Thank you!

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Beth Jackson
17:21 Nov 13, 2021

Wow, Sydney… I’m actually lost for words… What an amazing piece. Thank you for sharing.

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Sydney Atkin
18:08 Nov 13, 2021

Thank you, that really means a lot!

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