by Paul Weidknecht
The moment Billy and Ronnie wrestled the snapper into that fifty-five gallon drum, we knew they didn’t belong. Minutes before, the six of us stood in a circle staring at this turtle—for sure the largest we’d seen in our twelve or so years of life—wondering what they’d do with it. Billy had been after catfish when his line moved away with a slow steady pull, not at all like a fish goes about fighting for its life. Soon we saw the turtle, somehow hooked through a webbed hind foot, its three good feet digging away through the lake’s tea-colored cedar water. When Billy grabbed the tail and dragged the snapper ashore, Ronnie ran to the picnic area nearby, stripped the liner from a garbage barrel and kicked it onto the ground. The drum hissed as he rolled it over the packed sand toward us. Billy ordered us to get a half-foot of lake water into that barrel using anything we had: canteens, tin cups, empty pop cans. Those two wanted to keep the turtle, at least for a while, maybe if only to prove they had power over an animal that could pinch a finger into a nub with one quick bite.
Billy and Ronnie weren’t even supposed to be there. They were orphans—camp orphans—kids at summer camp without their original group. As a favor to the program director, our leader invited them to join us rather than see both sit at home. Our leader was a good guy, so we never blamed him.
After the evening campfire we returned to our tents, ancient coverings of waxed canvas set onto wooden platforms. The air was dead and the night sticky, everyone drifting to sleep shiny with bug spray. I tied the flaps open and listened as our camp settled in—the flex of someone’s cot springs as they rolled over, the click of a flashlight on and off, the whine of a stray mosquito in my ear. In their tent across the way, Billy and Ronnie laughed about something, or more likely, someone. Lying on my sleeping bag, hands behind my head, I thought of the turtle in the drum, knowing he was too big for it. With his head against the sides and neck bent backwards, he’d look up at the stars, then die by morning.
I closed my eyes and imagined other animals, how they lived and died. Eagles and sharks and tigers and many more. I thought of lions and wildebeests, how the wildebeests always ran. No matter if there were fifty or a hundred or three hundred of them, they always ran for their lives. If they ever joined together they could turn on the lions and trample them in a dusty stampede.
Paul Weidknecht’s stories can be found in the anthology Once Around the Sun: Sweet, Funny, and Strange Tales for All Seasons (Bethlehem Writers Group, LLC). Publications include work in Best New Writing 2015, Gray’s Sporting Journal, Rosebud, Shenandoah, and Structo (UK). He has recently completed a collection of short fiction.