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by Nick Sweeney

It was Jerry’s love of having the last word that killed him. The nachos, burgers, fries, root beer and ice cream he pigged out on, the evening of his last swim, probably didn’t help. I guess if a coroner’s happy to call them incidental, though, then nobody else can complain.

There was little point in blaming poor Mendel, disappeared a year by then. It was a touchy subject with Jerry’s parents, Pam and Marcus, who had never been convinced of the … necessity of Mendel. They’d wanted Jerry to have a dog, a much more suitable companion for a boy, they never failed to say.

Jer-ee, Jer-ee! I miss that call of Pam’s that used to echo round the yards in the evenings, I can’t think why. The repetition of his name was a sign of life, maybe, and of the assurance of a future. I miss too the sight of Jerry slopping his wet way across the road from the jetty, leaving the traces of the flat feet that would, I thought, keep him out of Vietnam — it seemed like it would go on forever at that time, August of seventy-four. I noted the footprints of his cousins when they stayed; they would have to use other means to stay away from the war, or would have to go to Canada. A fate worse than Vietnam, as pro-war people seemed to enjoy repeating.

I thought about all the gung-ho politicians keen to have the last word on Vietnam, and the prints they left all over those little countries there.

It was always startling to see Mendel’s wet prints, but I didn’t see them the day he left.

I wondered if the stars took up all Jerry’s attention after he hit his head on the jetty. I think his mind was on that last word he was going to have, as he drifted down into the green landscape offered by the ocean. I imagined the labored motions of his chest as he sought out the turtles.

Whatever he got to see in those last seconds, when they recovered his body he was clutching the home once lived in by Mendel; the baroque M in yellow gloss left us in no doubt of that.

Jerry had always known that Mendel hadn’t just made his careful steps along the road to be creamed by a truck, as his cousins teased. Why would he do a thing like that, Jerry had asked. No: Mendel, he was convinced, had given in to a yearning to live among his aquatic cousins, just as those cousins of Jerry’s made their way to spend every summer on the coast with Pam and Marcus and him.

The car headlights whitened the tan faces of those cousins, made them all open eyes and mouths and long, agitated limbs as they waited near the jetty that evening. They really shouldn’t have laughed at Jerry’s last word on the fate of his tortoise, and definitely shouldn’t have challenged him to prove it.

Nick Sweeney’s novel Laikonik Express was published by Unthank Books in 2011. Much of his work shows his fascination with Eastern Europe and its people and history. When he’s not writing, he plays the guitar with Clash covers band Clashback. You can find out more than any sane person would want to know about him at nicksweeneywriting.com.