Shelly’s Experiment

What was initially fear and astonishment on the part of Hillside residents marinated to a wary confusion. No authority seemed willing to take responsibility, or conclusively claim jurisdiction. Local government officials felt that they probably ought to do something, but they weren’t sure exactly what. Town medical professionals, though fascinated, appeared well out of their league. The only group whose proper course of action was immediately clear was the journalists. After the Herald broke the story, the ensuing influx was the greatest in the town’s history, there being, according to natives, at least three reporters for every Hillsidian. And while the story itself did not disappoint, the interviews could not have been less interesting. Richard, he was sorry to say, had no more insight into the matter than did they.

Harrison, whose face soon appeared on televisions across the country muttering the same ineloquent refrain, was a most unremarkable child thrust into a remarkable situation. “I was outside in the back yard playing soccer,” he said, though he had, in actuality, been using a sharp stick to investigate its bugs with extreme prejudice. “I kicked the ball, and then I heard someone say something, and then I didn’t see anyone, and then I heard them say it again, and then I saw him, and I went to get my mom.” No one would have believed him, but there was his mother, nodding along, and there, too, standing on a table and looking dead into the camera, was Richard. “Yes,” Richard repeated to the American people. “To the best of my understanding, I am indeed a turtle.”

Human (and, for the first time, turtle) interest stories with accompanying photographs of the two looking chummy painted Richard and Harrison as fast friends, connected at the hip from the start. Richard, however, was not particularly fond of the boy. In the small window of time every day when the lights went down and the cameras turned off in those first few weeks, Richard spent most of his time at the Miller residence doing his best to avoid him. Mrs. Miller was extremely sweet, making accommodation after accommodation for him. When it became clear that Richard had nowhere to go, and no friends or family that he knew of, she embraced him fully as her own. She appropriated the unused laundry room for him. In the sink, a pan full of warm water covered one side, while a little patch of grass borrowed from the yard covered the other, allowing Richard to move freely between aquatic and terrestrial beds. She filled the room with plants and covered the walls first with pictures of ponds, and then with images of 1920s Paris and Pamplona as Richard consumed more and more Hemingway. Mrs. Miller rejected his repeated thanks and insisted that he call her Dorothy or, after a few months, Mom. The novelty wore off quickly for Harrison, and he seemed not to appreciate the new burden upon his mother’s time. When Richard was standing on and reading his paper in the morning, sipping coffee out of the pink extendable straw Mrs. Miller had customized to suit him (Harrison demanded that she make him one, too), Harrison had taken to pinching the straw mid-sip, only allowing the coffee to flow freely once Richard had opened his mouth to ask him politely to let go. Having seldom been in the laundry room before, Harrison insisted that he now must wash his hands there, especially after finger painting or eating messy foods. Humans matured more slowly, Richard recognized, but it was hard for him to use that as a justification when he had been only three hours old upon their first meeting.

Richard came from a little pond not far from the Millers’s property. “When I was born, I didn’t see anyone around,” he told the news teams. “So I figured I would go find someone to talk to.” In an attempt to provide him some relief from the questions and the spotlight, Mrs. Miller walked him back to the pond whence he came. He swam with the fauna, turtles included. Quiet breezes dimpled the water, complementing the thin warm layer at the top. The other turtles were friendly enough, if not very engaging. He watched them wade back and forth, nipping up nutrition from the water’s surface and resting, now and then, in groups on the small rocks lathered in sunlight. No one was in any particular hurry, and the pond was more than large enough to accommodate them all. Even the ones with eggs to look after had repetitive regimes, focusing mostly on pond qua pond, and not the meaning of the pond or its place in the universe. There was limited inter-turtle dialogue, for better or worse, and what was communicated was in large part strictly logistical. To be sure, this was mostly hypothesis on Richard’s part. He was embarrassed to admit that his Turtle was not what it had been even weeks ago. But all he could hear were the rumbles of toads perched out of sight and the whine of dragonflies cruising by. Mrs. Miller sat on a bench a few yards away, giving Richard some privacy behind a book that stayed open to the same page. Every now and then, a “Hello,” would float up to her, and she would look down to see Richard facing another turtle. They would walk on, or stare off. One on occasion, a yellow and brown shelled fellow looked right back at Richard. He opened his mouth and stuck out his head, and she was sure he would respond. But then he closed him mouth, and withdrew, leaving Richard wondering and Mrs. Miller’s contact lenses bothering her, causing her eyes to tear.

Richard would return to that pond frequently, when he was not absorbing as much as he could about the new world in which he found himself. He was full of questions for Mrs. Miller, about everything from hand-sanitizing dispensers to NATO. She sat with him for hours at every meal, long after Harrison had run back to his computer. She didn’t teach him per se, but answered him honestly. Even Richard, who still had so much to learn about humans, could see the care and seriousness she put into each response, when the telephones and marriages she was describing were probably as natural to her as the pond was to Richard. He loved her as a son does a mother, and the only disservice she did him was leading him to believe that the rest of humanity was just like her.

The question of how Richard should occupy himself was first raised when Mrs. Miller asserted that he ought to be educated. She felt that he, already an excited reader, should receive more intellectual stimulation. But should turtles go to school? The perplexed and divided board concluded that they could not offer him a spot at Hillside. The decision turned into a lawsuit, then an appeal, then further appeals. As the case climbed the legal ladders, it drew more and more attention from the media, whose audiences were already so familiar with Richard. The case presented an unprecedented challenge to long-established law. Constitutional lawyers and talk-show personalities alike debated vigorously. Politicians on both sides of the aisle used the case to demonstrate the kinds of horrific affronts that would by visited upon the legal system and the country were their opponents to be elected. Richard himself, often forgotten in all this, was frankly bored by it, his curiosity in this public, contentious aspect of human life quickly exhausted. He just wanted to go to school, or, at the very least, be left the time to read. His once great desire to meet people and engage them in conversation was waning. He felt that he could learn about them in other ways, through school or, if need be, on his own. Yet again he was bombarded by the press, answering questions and taking pictures from dawn until dusk. He couldn’t help noticing that he had not done anything to warrant this attention—his responses grew terse, his smiles taut.

After much deliberation, the Supreme Court on a 5-4 decision determined that Hillside must allow Richard to attend. Hillside didn’t seem to mind, but the rest of the country did. On his first day, Mrs. Miller dropped Richard off at the school’s entrance. A baby’s sock replete with his favorite carrot bits and store-bought turtle food was secured to his shell with a rubber band that stretched around his underbelly. The road to the school had become a narrow path between two lines of police officers restraining protesters. They screamed back and forth, chanting and holding up signs, and a few scuffles broke out. Not much learning went on at Hillside that day. This continued for a week or so, then died down. He was placed in the 9th grade, where he was intellectually more advanced than most of his peers, but lacked their informational backgrounds. Richard was exceedingly friendly to the other children, for he hadn’t yet learned not to be. The other students marveled at him, asking to touch his shell and feel the smooth top of his head. But none of them ever seemed to entertain the notion of friendship with him—it simply didn’t occur to them. When they did interact with him, it was mostly indirectly.

“I don’t think he’s actually a turtle, I think he’s a tortoise. Look at his shell.”

“No, tortoises have flippers instead of feet, so he wouldn’t be able to walk anywhere.”

“But turtles can only breathe underwater, so he wouldn’t even be able to live up here!”

“Hey, you’re a turtle, right?”

“Yes,” said Richard, patiently. “But—”

“See, I told you.”

Some were worse. A large, prematurely bearded boy in Richard’s history class, after pretending to step on him, had effectively rechristened him as far as the other students were concerned. “Hey, watch where you’re going Shell-y!” It caught on, but Richard gave them the benefit of the doubt, acknowledging that playful ribbing was a part of adolescence.

He was late to every class, due to his short legs and slow gait. Each time he hoped that someone would offer to give him a ride, but not wanting to be any more of an imposition than he already was, he didn’t ask. He was well-regarded by his teachers nonetheless, as he went well beyond the scope of his assignments, researching and reading from when he got home to when he went to sleep. He impressed so many at the school that by the end of the school year, the deans had determined that he should skip his sophomore year, heading straight into the 11th grade. Richard could barely contain his excitement when he was called into the office, and ran, as best he could, to the exit where Mrs. Miller was waiting to pick him up.

“Mrs.—Mom, I have great news!” he said. When she didn’t respond, he looked at her more closely. She had been crying, and started up again soon enough. She wouldn’t explain why for the whole car ride home. Two men in suits stood when they walked into the house. Richard heard without really listening.

“You have something special, Richard, and we need to know what it is.” He didn’t realize he had been expecting something like this until it was upon him. He found himself totally unsurprised.

“It’s a matter of national security, son. If we can figure out what you have that makes you the way you are, it could change everything. We could save a million lives.”

Mrs. Miller sobbed, and left the room.

“If it were up to me, we’d leave you alone and never bother you again. But the order is straight from the President. I’m sorry.”

The order sparked a new wave of protests and counter protests. The president had initially been convinced by his press office and public relations correspondents that seizing the turtle in the name of research would be a disaster. It took the Department of Defense four months of meetings and a 1,500 page brief on the possible military applications of what they could learn from the turtle to finally change his mind. Some thought that the precedent set by the Court’s previous decision granted Richard inalienable rights which were now being violated by the federal government. Others, particularly those in the medical community (who didn’t know the true impetus for the decision), explained how greatly the society, and even the world, could benefit from the insight that a look into Richard’s brain could bring. Richard felt that the more interesting experiment was seeing the ways in which this world of people had reacted to his being introduced to it. His quest for understanding was yielding results, but the results made him question the value of the quest in the first place.

The men in suits came back a week later to take him to a famous research hospital a few hours away. The Miller family rode with him, mother alternately crying and telling Richard it would be alright, Harrison playing his video games guiltily, speaking up only to complain about being uncomfortable or having to go to the bathroom. The familiar security lines and protest groups, bigger than ever, greeted the convoy almost a mile away from the hospital. When they got out, Mrs. Miller’s cupped hands carrying Richard close to her body, a small group of reporters from reputable newspapers had been allowed through the security lines to ask a few last questions of Richard. To his right, signs read “Science over all” and “For the good of humanity.” To his left, “You wouldn’t kill your son for science” and “YOU HAVE NO RIGHT.” Before he was ushered into the building, Richard was approached by a microphone followed closely by a bespectacled woman.

“Richard, I know this is a hard time for you and your family. I’ll only ask you one question. What do you have to say to your supporters here today?”

A young woman at the front of the crowd took advantage of the silence. Her scream, which was also written in blood-red colors on her large poster, was met with an explosion of noise from the left. “TURTLES ARE PEOPLE TOO!!!”

Richard didn’t hear them cheer. He heard toads and dragonflies, and felt the bumpy smoothness of detritus under foot. The crowd of yelling people gave way to stillness punctuated by delicious gusts, and the isolated companionship of a rock shared in silence. He saw his mother, not shaking as she was now, but reading quietly on a bench behind him, pretending not to watch.

“No,” he replied. “They are not.”



Prose by Andrew Wallace

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