Every afternoon on Mondays through Fridays, the children from the first grade at the Theodore Ersiday Elementary school would line up by the side exit near the schoolyard and await their parents. Rowdy young boys and chatty young girls were itching to run off to do something—anything would do—and their irascible shuffling noises filled the chilly October air with a delightful smile that the elderly and the kind-hearted were liable to contract when they walked by.
Young little Marky was not one of the children who would wait. Instead, he would trudge down the mottled gravel slope past the other children who were waiting for their mothers or fathers—sometimes both of them, if they were one of the fortunate ones—to pick them up and bring them home.
Being that several months had passed since he first started coming out of that side exit, he had bumped into many different sorts of parents. Some of the parents were happy and arrived with smiles; the children of those parents would often grimace at the wet smooches besieged upon their little cheeks. Other parents were mean and rushed; the children of those parents often braced themselves for the yanking their bony arms would suffer. Still other parents were distracted by whatever it was that adults were distracted by—phone calls, traffic, or a pretty mother who was single or not; those children would often tug hopelessly at their parent’s sleeve.
Little Mark had none of those problems. He would walk past his fellow classmates and give empty thanks to nobody in particular that he neither grimaced nor braced nor tugged. Instead, he would take his time and walk home accompanied by a large tattered book bag strapped onto his small back.
On his way home, he would take the book bag off every so often and set it down onto the sidewalk. He would do so carefully because he did not want the concrete to scrape the already tattered flaking nylon bottom of his bag. Many times, he would choose to wait to have a rest until he was in front of the big yellow house with the cute little mule that stood guard on the front lawn. It was not a large lawn, and it was not a pretty house, but Marky knew that there was something good inside.
He knew this because the house belonged to Janet Shurl-something. She was always coming to school with a great big smile, and it was one of those smiles that he couldn’t help but catch on his own face whenever she was around. During recess, she always had something nice to share with someone. Some days, it was the orange crackers with peanut butter in the middle. Other days, it would be animal crackers. Most of the time, Miguel would try to bully her into giving him her snack, even though he had even fancier snacks—those yummy crackers and cheese that came with the little red plastic thingie. And most of the time, Janet would stick her tongue at him and say, “Go blow it out your earhole.” Little Mark thought that he would probably get a big red smack across his chubby little cheek if he ever said that to anyone, even if that someone was trying to take his snack. He thought that Janet was awfully brave.
He sometimes waited in front of her house for a while, secretly wishing that Mrs Shurl-something would see him out there and invite him inside for a glass of milk and a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie, the ones that Janet brought to school every Wednesday. But most of the time, he simply caught his breath, twisted himself back into the book bag straps, picked up his load, and continued on his way, satisfied with merely passing through.
On the way home was a side street—an alleyway, really. Mark would always look carefully down the street, all the way down as Mommy had taught him just a few months ago, because there might be cars or bad people doing bad things, she’d said. Most of the time, there was nothing there.
But today, something caught his eye. There was something off in the distance, on the other end of the street. To get a better look at the strange sight, he leaned forward as far as he could without tipping over, sticking his neck out.
In front of him was a bumpy pitted black road with potholes that threatened to swallow his entire leg. On either side, there were red brick walls that looked as though they would come crashing down over his head if a gust of wind should arrive. The walls featured mysterious curves of paint in a garish variety of colors, with bright red zig-zags clashing with dull blue loops and a swish of yellow. Beyond that, off in the distance in front of him was a small gray green-shape that he couldn’t quite make out.
After a few moments of confusion, his eyes decided that it was a turtle. Though he wanted to go pet it, he blinked blankly at it and wondered what a turtle was doing in the alleyway. It looked out of place, but he decided to pay it no mind.
The next day, on the way home, he saw the turtle again in the same spot, all the way down on the other end of the street. He thought that it might be hungry, so he thought for a moment about what to feed it. It occurred to him that turtles might like to eat leaves, and so he looked around for a leaf. Alas, there were no trees nearby. Instead, when he neared his home, he picked some leaves off the ground by the skinny tree on the corner and tucked them away in his arithmetic notebook so that he could feed the turtle the next day.
And so when the next day came, young little Marky set down his heavy book bag at the mouth of the alleyway and opened up his notebook to take the three yellow leaves out. He looked down the alleyway to see if there were any bad people doing bad things. He wasn’t quite sure what bad things anyone could do in an alleyway, but it was better to be safe than sorry, so he searched intensely again with a frown on his face.
When he was fairly certain that no bad things were in the alleyway, he nodded to himself and walked towards the other end where the turtle was sitting. Only this time, a car turned into the alleyway. Luckily for Marky, he had only taken a few steps into the alley, so he was able to step back out in no time. Since the car was creeping its way down the street, he packed his things and went back home, hoping that the turtle would be there the next day.
When he checked the alleyway the next day, his heart skipped a beat. His eyes searched for the turtle, but he could not find it. Had it walked away and found another home?
He could understand that it might move away to some place where turtles belonged, but he fretted nonetheless. Frantically, he focused his eyes, directing his vision as best as he could on something so far away.
And then, there was relief.
His eyes found the turtle. It was hiding underneath a filthy black plastic bag full of holes. He sighed with relief. After scanning the alleyway again for bad things, he walked carefully down the alley to the other end of the street, skipping over the potholes, until he reached the plastic bag. He paused there for a moment, standing perfectly still, forgoing the luxury of breathing. Then, gingerly, he removed the bag and looked upon the turtle.
It was gray and green, a little mossy on the top, and it had a large hump in the middle. Unfortunately, it was also very much a large rock that was shaped like a turtle. Mark sat down next to it anyway. Hunched over, he lamely tried to feed it the leaves he had collected. And though his shoulders stooped, he would go to visit Mister Turtle and pet him every day after school, until the leaves fell rustled and brown.¶