Rachel Thompson

The Tortoise Shell Code by V Frank Asaro (Excerpt)

The Tortoise Shell Code by V Frank Asaro (Excerpt 2)

Anthony stretched out on his beach towel and squinted out at the surf line. The breakers seemed unusually big today, even scary, shouldering in against an east wind, a desert wind, a Santa Ana. Three of his friends sprawled about him as if they’d been deposited there by a tidal wave: Joe Cruz, lanky and tan, resembling the great Portuguese bullfighter Carlos Arusa; John Parkins, chunky and already getting burnt, wearing the pathetic mustache he’d nursed along for six months; and Nate Adams, pale as the sand. They recharged themselves like solar panels in the rays of the sun.

A hundred yards offshore the green translucent tubes of seawater grew and fell over, smashing themselves into frothing heads that raced and collapsed toward Anthony in overlapping lines. As he shaded his eyes he noticed dark stains on the heel of his hand—blotted ink from the pages of his final exam blue book.

He and his friends had jogged to Black’s Beach from the UCSD campus, descending hundreds of steps carved into the sandstone cliffs before plunking themselves down on the sand north of La Jolla. He let his muscles absorb the warmth of the sun-struck Southern California air. The beach was almost deserted today: a weekday before tourist season. Within shouting range he saw only one small boy and his mother. The child played happily in the sand. Anthony had noticed that children instinctively started to draw pictures or build sand castles the moment they were turned loose on the shore. Man, the Great Modifier, always changing his physical surroundings to serve his needs or whims. Something seems to drive us to compete with nature, he thought. Or maybe we think we’re enhancing nature, cooperating with it.

John reached for their sandy Nerf football and bounced it off Nate’s head amidst a halo of sprayed grains. “Oooh,” he said, “The field goal hits the upright!”

Nate clutched the ball and jumped to his feet. “Go out, go out!”

He and John tore off down the beach, tossing passes back and forth against the wind.

“Not even playing with a real football,” Joe Cruz muttered into his beach towel.

Anthony chuckled and eased onto his back. The surf thundered and died, thundered and died, as rhythmic as breathing. We deserve this day—and the big party Joe’s throwing tomorrow night, too. Yet he couldn’t entirely relax. Couldn’t quite crowd out a certain uneasiness.

As if reading his mind, Joe said, “So are you going to take the scholarship or not?”

Anthony sighed. “I’d be a fool not to. Law school’s not cheap anywhere, but Berkeley? I’d be stupid not to accept.”

Joe sat up, his dark eyes pensive. “I thought Dr. Smith had you all lined up to stay here and get your Ph.D. in Poli Sci.”

“Yeah. He went out of his way for me. But the law appeals to me, too.”

“What about those published papers of yours in the school library? Or the book you were going to write about our trip to Costallegre last year?”

Anthony laughed. “Yeah. My Summer Vacation; or, How to Get Caught in a Failed Military Coup Without Really Trying. I don’t know; I might still write about that someday.”

“You wouldn’t have the time, judging from the young lawyers I’ve met”

“Hey, I’m not going to be just a lawyer any more than you’re going to be just a…what is it you’re going to be again?”

“Ha, ha. A tuna fishing mogul, even bigger than my dad.” Joe brushed sand off his arms. “Okay, what about the other little problem with going to Berkeley?”

“I knew you were going to get to that.” Anthony sat up. “I know Berkeley’s a long way off. I know it means Cheryl and I will have to split up for a while.” He pried a chalky clam shell up with his toes, grabbed it and spun it toward the water. “And she’s talking about marriage.”

Joe’s head turned. “Already? She doesn’t want to finish college first?”

“I guess not. She’s intelligent, but it looks like we have different goals right now. Not like you and Sylvia.”

“Well, I got lucky.”

“Lucky, hell. You knew what you wanted and went after it every step of the way.” Unlike the rest of the gang, Joe had already made his toughest decisions and done his hardest labor: worked nights so he could spend his days in school; put in his military time; got a job; got Sylvia; even got little Mikey. All he had to do now was relax and live his family life.

“True,” Joe said. “I am an incredible human being. But some of that planning was forced be circumstances beyond my total control.”

Anthony sighed. “The problem is, I think I’m seriously hung up on that girl.”

“If you let her out of your sight for long, you know who’s going to try to make a play for her.”

“No. No, she wants nothing to do with Egan. And besides…a while ago Egan started parking in front of Nelson’s Department Store when Cheryl got off work, trying to give her a ride even though she kept turning him down.”

“You’re kidding.”

“She didn’t want me to worry, so she didn’t tell me about it until last Saturday night, when we found something strange on her front porch.”


“A red lantern—you know, the construction kind.”

“Wait. A red light? Are you kidding?”

“Egan seems to have some jealous fantasy going.” Or it just drives him crazy thinking Cheryl and I may be getting it on.

“Jealous fantasy? He’s sick, man. The guy needs to be taught a lesson.”

“No. I’m not stooping to his level, but I do intend to talk to him, face to face.”


Anthony shrugged. “Egan hangs out at Oscar’s Drive-In. I’ll probably just stop by there some night.”

“Well, let me know if you’d like some company. I’ll never forget who got me and the guys through some tough classes over the last four years.”

“Thanks for the offer, but I can handle myself.”

“Not to belittle the NCAA wrestling you did, but Egan’s a gutter fighter. Plus he’s got a four-inch reach advantage and must outweigh you by twenty or thirty pounds.”

Anthony shook his head. “Look, I only want to talk to him. That’s all. I think he’ll talk.”

Joe grunted.

Suddenly Anthony was burning up. Nate and John were running back toward them, sand flinging off their bare feet. Anthony leaped up and raced toward them, Joe on his heels, and the four friends charged whooping into the surf. The abrupt cold zinged through Anthony as he dove over a series of incoming waves, then set off toward deeper water with powerful strokes. Far beyond the surf line he stopped, treading water and looking around for his friends.

A slimy blob slapped the back of his head. Whirling, he saw John, grinning as he reached for another bulb of giant kelp. Anthony beat him to it, whirled the brown tube over his head and let John have it across the back of the neck.

An arms raced ensued as the four friends battled over ever-larger pieces of kelp, forming first one alliance and then another. From shore they must look like a thrashing sea monster, Anthony thought.

That was when he noticed that the strip of beach had become nothing but a white line against the high sandstone cliffs. It wavered in the sun, inviting, like a mirage. We’ve really drifted out. “Last one in buys the beer!” he shouted.

He took the lead, stroking shoreward steadily and smoothly, ignoring the increasing tightening of his muscles, those of a grappler, too compact for swimming. He was relieved when he felt the first shore-bound swell pass beneath him; he’d catch the next one and body-surf the rest of the way in.

Suddenly he heard something, a faint cry. Then again: a pleading sound, not loud, but desperate. He stopped and raised his head, looking around as a wave rose beneath him. He saw John and Nate straggling along ten and fifteen yards behind him, their faces contorted, straining. And they were silent.

Where’s Joe?

The cry stretched across the water again. Anthony scissored his burning legs as hard as he could and scanned the incoming swells. A hundred feet out, an arm splashed and a dark glistening head briefly broke the surface.

“Joe!” Anthony put his head down and began swimming out again, powered by a blast of adrenaline. As he passed John and Nate he shouted, “Go back out! Help him!” But they continued thrashing toward shore as if they didn’t hear. Perhaps they hadn’t. Anthony realized they weren’t making much headway, and realized what was happening. They were in the grip of a rip current, a surge of water following sand channels outward against the surge, dragging everything within it toward the open ocean. This was a big one.

Traveling with the current, Anthony surged through the water like a kayak. He glimpsed a hand breaking the cresting surface several feet away, then dropping out of sight. Ducking underwater, blinking in the stinging gloom, Anthony breast-stroked downward. The surf’s thunder resonated around him, and through clouds of sweeping sand suspended in green he saw Joe, his dark eyes saucered, arms outstretched, his body five feet down and sinking in a stream of bubbles.

Anthony pulled down through the roaring turbulence and grabbed Joe’s arms; searched for and found a new flow of strength, and kicked hard to pull his buddy toward the surface. Into the light and air they burst, coughing and thrashing. “Just dog paddle,” Anthony croaked into Joe’s ear. “Don’t try to swim. Just dog paddle, Joe!” Joe choked up sea water, then an eruption of vomit.

“Don’t worry,” Anthony said. “I have you; I won’t let you go. Just relax and float.”

He knew the rule about rip currents: do not fight them; go with them, or go across them. But Joe’s face seemed blue and his breathing desperate. Anthony felt his own limbs tightening again as the adrenaline left his system. He could barely keep his head above water as it was; if his legs cramped they were both in big trouble. So he headed diagonally toward shore, swimming desperately with one arm dragging Joe along, lungs heaving, and salt burning inside his nose.

After a minute he cast an anxious look toward shore: was it any closer? Any closer at all? He couldn’t tell. Maybe not. A dark thought flickered through his mind: let Joe go and save yourself? He blocked it out. At that moment, failing Joe frightened him even more than dying. A split-second thought of Joe’s mother’s tragic face if Joe died, hit him.

Ignoring the shore, he kept kicking the egg-beater motion, and pulling. Kicking and pulling.

A wave crashed over them; Anthony struggled to keep his grip on his friend. Then another wave, bigger than the first. And then, to his bafflement, Joe became unaccountably light in his arms, a slight bounce up—and he felt his toes kick against hard-packed sand. The bottom; the bottom! Joe was taller. He released Joe, pushing him toward the beach but with the recoil he found himself surging back out to sea, the current stronger than ever, his body now tied up in a steel knot. His arms and legs simply no longer worked. Saltwater continuously seared his sinuses and a green translucent curtain enveloped him, closing out the sun.

Another breaker, pounding and thundering. Anthony felt trapped, caged in water. He found no up or down, just turbulence and the continuous rumbling. His body tumbled, flailed, and he felt his feet stub the bottom again. Now he thought of his mother. What tragedy would she bear if he drowned. With his last parcel of strength he bent his knees, pushed off against the sand and shot up, bursting through the surface, lungs opening in welcome relief to the air. Then down again. He pumped his arms and legs and managed to stay with the arching crest, bodysurfing or at least being propelled shoreward by the mass of incoming water. At last his feet caught the bottom again, firmly this time, and with all his muscles gathered and locked, he stood and staggered beachward. Slowly, agonizingly, he slogged the remaining fifty paces, up to warmth, and flopped onto the beach.

Joe lay coughing and gagging nearby. Farther up the beach, John and Nate did the same.

For a long time Anthony lay curled on the sand, too exhausted to talk or even think. Eventually he noticed Joe’s eyes fixed on him, black slits in the sun. Through brine-caked lips Joe croaked, “You saved my—”

“Forget it,” Anthony cut him off, as John and Nate were staggering toward them, faces sheepish. He had acted involuntarily, instinctively, he felt. Anthony couldn’t explain it. A fleeting flash of the story of the friend of his father came to him. The friend had been in the lead, competing in the Trans-Pac sailing race to Hawaii, when he heard the radio call of a boat in distress. The friend had selflessly turned his huge racer around, found the foundering boat, and rescued its entire crew—at the cost of sacrificing his win. It seemed as though it all came from nature’s bidding—perhaps an instinctive answer to a call for help.

“You would do the same for me,” he told Joe in a salt-roughened voice.

Nate and John threw themselves down nearby. For a moment nobody spoke, then John blew sand out of his drooping moustache. “Well, what do you say we go get those beers? Anthony has to pay; he was the last one in.”

To his astonishment, Anthony had enough strength left to laugh.

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Genre – Legal Drama

Rating – PG13

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