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Five minutes later, Maddie charges out of the house. My girlfriend — I think it’s safe to call her that now — has eye-liner streaming down her cheeks and she’s carrying what looks like a damask curtain. She’s already buckled into the passenger seat when I first notice the silky reptilian head poking forth from beneath the cloth. Fred the Tortoise’s tiny green features display a look of dopey bewilderment. I know this expression well: it’s the same face my relatives wear during their first days on the psychiatric ward.
“Drive!” orders Maddie.
“It doesn’t matter. Anywhere.”
I hit the accelerator. I’m acutely aware that I am now an accessory to turtle-napping, that this is the sort of offense which will be hell to explain to the bar examiners. I can picture the judges on the Character and Fitness Committee asking me, What precisely was going through your head as you drove off with another man’s reptile? How can the citizens of this great state trust you to practice law when we can’t even trust you with our domestic animals? I will have no good answer. Until the moment that the woman you’re sleeping with arrives at your car clutching a pilfered tortoise, you can’t predict how you’ll react.
“What happened?” I ask.
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“I was scrubbing Fred’s shell with his prescription cleanser — Michael never bathes him — and I was telling Fred about our relationship and about how I’d asked you to wait outside for me, and suddenly the unreasonableness of it all overwhelmed me. Through this entire process, I’ve played by the rules — and the rules always end up favoring Michael. I’m the one who had to find a new place to live. I’m the one who had to find a new job because I had no way of commuting to my old one. So I heard Michael drive away now and something inside me snapped. I’m not going to share Fred anymore. I’m just not. I don’t care if I have to run off to Mexico.”
Maddie clutches the swaddled tortoise to her chest, cradling him like an infant and periodically kissing the scaly rump of his head. It crosses my mind that she has planned this venture long in advance — even that our entire relationship is merely part of a scheme whose ultimate goal is reclaiming Fred. But if Maddie thinks that I will be ferrying her to Tijuana, or even to New Jersey, she has underestimated my aversion to risk. Bonnie and Clyde, we are not. So I steer us toward the only hideaway I know, Flamingo Beach, hoping my companion will soon return to her senses. I keep the Buick painstakingly below the speed limit, frustrating the drivers behind me, but I’m not taking any chances.
The seashore preserve’s parking lot stands nearly empty. I weave around a plywood barrier and maneuver along the dusty, meadow-lined trail that leads down to the coastline. Driving here is illegal, as it may disturb breeding whippoorwills, but when you’re transporting stolen goods, protecting wildfowl becomes a secondary concern.
We pull up onto a slab of granite, the shoreline only a short distance ahead. The tide is full. Waves crash violently against stone. I suppose we must look like something out of an automotive commercial.
“Now what?” I ask.
“It’s lunchtime,” says Maddie. A few seconds pass until I register that she’s talking about Fred’s meal, not ours. “I didn’t have a chance to feed him before we left, so he must be starving.” She removes my favorite mug from the cup holder and pours the last dregs of coffee out the open car door into the tidal mud. “You don’t mind if I borrow this? I’m going to hike up to that pasture and dig for earthworms.”
“I’ve had that mug since college,” I object.
“I’ll get you a new one.”