Every season brings its own form of storytelling. Long winters favour looping, heavily peopled Dickensian or Franzenian narratives, to be imbibed with [your favourite beverage here]in a cozy chair, preferably by fireside. Summers, lamentably short, urge a brisker read, which is why Globe Books has commissioned short stories to run over the next six weeks. This week, Joseph Boyden takes us into the world of an 11-year-old aboriginal boy caught between the rough urban world of gangs and his dawning affection for a pet.
Auntie Wanda wants to take me back to the rez for the summer because Mum's using again. I tell her that I'm old enough to look out for myself and she tells me no 11-year-old is old enough for the streets and I'd better mind my tone because she's an elder and Indians are supposed to respect their elders. I want to tell her that she's only 19 and that my friends think she's a MILF because she already has two kids, but I just suck my teeth instead and turn my ball cap sideways and sit back on the sofa with my arms crossed.
When Auntie finally shakes her head and walks away, I get up to make a quick exit, but my stupid little bro, Francis, with his thick glasses taped in the middle and his retarded pet turtle in his hand, asks if he can come, too. "Yo, shut the eff up," I say, but it's too late, and Auntie comes storming in from the kitchen, pointing her finger to my room and telling me to get packing.
I narrow my eyes at Francis and tell him I'm one hundred per cent gangster, and he's nothing but a wangster. I consider ripping the turtle from his hand and tossing it in the garbage but he'd scream so loud it ain't even worth it. I'm Posse. I'll just slip out my window because I'm Indian Posse. Francis follows me into our room, and I tell him to get out and take that diseased animal with him before it gives me warts.
"Island can't give you warts," he says. "Those come from toads." Talk about the stupidest name for a turtle ever. When Mum was sober last year she got all traditional on our asses and started burning sweetgrass and telling us stories about how the Indian world is built on the back of a turtle, or some crap. That's when Francis changed the name of his pet from Toby to Island.
The world can somehow live on the back of a turtle? Whatever. A gangster can't build no empire on some slow-ass turtle's back, ya hear me? Good for soup, maybe. Not for business. Francis puts Island back into its green and nasty tank that stinks like a swamp and then gives me the finger before running out the room too fast for me to whip a shoe at him.
It's time to move, so I lift up the window quiet as I can and just when I've got one leg out I see the slimy tank. Quick now, I grab the turtle from it and stick it in the pocket of my hoodie, worried it's going to ruin this fine piece of merchandise that cost me two jacked car stereos. Street rule # 1. Never take a diss.
With hood up and my face shadowed so no creeping po-po can snap a good photo from his undercover car, I limp-walk in my best Posse styling up to Wolf and his soldiers sitting on their stoop. They hoot and snicker when they see me. I sneak to see if Wolf is looking at me, but he's all crouched over, his long arms wrapped around his legs, staring at the ground at his feet.
"Yo, look at mini-Tupac," the fat one called Two Tone says. He's fat in a strong way, has got big white blotches on his dark face, same disease as Michael Jackson, I guess.
"What ev, halfbreed," I say. The others grab their guts they laugh so hard. Two Tone just stares me down.
"Yo," Wolf says when they get their breath, "I think he's ready." He stands, and I swear, he straightens up like one of those beautiful plants I seen once on Nature Channel, the ones that they film growing up in fast motion. Unfurls is the word Auntie Wanda would use. He unfurls in the sun in front of my eyes like it's a camera trick. He's tall full height, and don't get me wrong, I love the ladies, but the word beautiful is the only word that comes to mind when I see him. Two long black braids, one hanging down over each pec, his arms like ropes with the veins sticking out. I clench my arms in my hoodie, wanting my veins to pop, too. He turns and goes inside the house. I follow. So does Two Tone. I've never been inside before.
It's dark in here and it stinks like weed. Tinfoil covers all the windows. Wolf watches from a corner as Two Tone counts out small plastic packages filled with white powder. When he's done, he counts them out again and slips them into an empty pack of Player's Light. I been trying to teach myself to smoke, but man, that tobacco burns the lungs.
Two Tone hands it to me. I hesitate a sec before taking it. I've jacked car stereos for them, I've been lookout for po-po for them, but I ain't ever been their mule. Two Tone tells me the corner I'm to bring the package to, only five blocks away. I nod, lick my lips, and take it. It's light, but heavier than I imagined.
I turn to leave but catch Wolf nod his head to me. I walk to him, want to look up to him, look him in the eye, but I stare at the floor instead.
"You got a bright future," he says. "Ya heard? Don't f%*# it up." I turn to go but he reaches out and takes my shoulder. "Put that in your pocket," he says, looking to the cigarette pack. I do, am shocked to feel the cold shell of the turtle, Island, there. I totally forgot about it. It doesn't move. I want to take it out because I worry it's dead. But I can't do that in front of Wolf. I rub the turtle to warm it. Nothing. I tuck the pack under Island, grab its foot to see if it's OK. Nothing. Cold. I can see my brother Francis's face when I tell him the news. I worry I'm going to cry.
I tough up, nod at Wolf. "Aah-ite," I say. "I got this covered." He smiles, and his teeth are so white.
I wish it was night time so no one could see me, but the sun is bright and I'm sweating in my hoodie. I'm a block away now and every step I take, I feel like a hand will reach out and grab me from behind. Every car that passes is po-po, ready to snatch me. Island still hasn't moved, even though I've been holding it with both my hands stuffed in my pockets, trying to give it heat. What am I going to say to Francis? To Auntie Wanda?
Up ahead I watch as three cop cars scream up, sirens blaring, po-po jumping out with their guns drawn, just like in the movies. But some of the cops are fatter than movie cops, and one of them can't even get his gun out of its holster. I stop in my tracks. They're grabbing Indian kids from a stoop and throwing them on the ground, stepping on their heads. The ones I'm supposed to give the package to.
More sirens scream behind, and a couple of cars screech up beside me. Not knowing what else to do, I turn to the wall, feeling for the cigarette pack, looking for where I can throw it away. My hands, though, they find the cold shell of the turtle. I take it out instead. I don't know why. My hands shake.
Island's shell, green and black and ringed in red and yellow, is pretty in the sunlight, even though some of it's starting to peel up. The thing's gotta be dead, its head and feet pulled up somewhere deep inside. Cops are talking behind me. I can hear one of them say how he hopes a wagon burner will pull a gun so he can pop him.
I whisper to Island, "Wake up, little friend," and as if my words are magic, its head slowly comes out. It's got a piece of fuzz stuck to its beak-looking mouth. Its eyes blink in the sun. The turtle barely opens and closes its mouth. It needs water. I want to turn to the cops and ask for help, but I'm scared.
"Just keep breathing, little buddy," I whisper to it. The cops behind me have stopped talking, and I can feel their eyes on my back. I can hear the squeaking of leather, of them reaching for things. "Just breathe," I say, lifting one hand to pull my hoodie from my head.
Blinking in the sun, now, too, I turn to them. I want to be slow, but it feels like a high-speed camera filming a flower unfurling in the light. It's not a movie, though, it's me, me with my turtle, Island, and I'm pointing it at them, and I'm hoping that they understand.
Joseph Boyden's most recent novel, Through Black Spruce, won the Scotiabank Giller Prize.