Once upon a time in or about the year 2000, my dear husband and I had a conversation over a cup of coffee on one of those rare, quiet mornings when we beat the kids – then 8, 6, and 2 – out of bed. We made sure (and still make sure) to have this particular conversation every once and a while, when we kick around the whole concept of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (I have a rather emotionally unstable respect for our Constitution. Yes. It is on my iPhone).
We kick around these concepts a few times a year, as they apply to us as a couple and to our family. It is important to point out here that we are not always this self-centered when it comes to the Constitution, and indeed reference it, more generally, quite often. Unfortunately, it is usually around the dinner table when my Dad-In-Law says something like, “I don’t care if they didn’t find his DBA (translation: DNA) stuff at the crime scene. If he was arrested for it, he must have had something to do with it!” And that is his justification for not taking a guy off of death row. I take the bait, invoke my cherished Constitution, and – somehow – we end up talking about… unions.
I’m totally serious.
All political talks around my dining room table inevitably end with my Dad-In-Law huffing, crossing his arms over his chest, and telling my nearly perfect husband that unions put him through college. I don’t know why all discussions in our family lead to the pros and cons of organized labor. But, since coming to this realization, I do admit to having fun little contests (that only I know about … but now you do … don’t tell) where I throw out topics and count how many sentences it takes to get to the union discussion. It’s sort of like counting how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop. But more painful. I have actually said, “You know what one of my favorite words is? It’s Namibia. I love saying that word.” and then I waited. It takes seven sentences to get from Namibia to unions at my dinner table.
My nearly perfect husband and I are kicking around the whole life happiness thing in the year 2000 and we are surprised to find out that we would both like to write a book and we would both like that book to be a thriller. So we decide that we are relatively intelligent individuals and we should be able to do this and we do research and ask experienced people good questions and we begin to write the book. Together.
So my character is the protagonist and his character is the bad guy. My nearly perfect husband is free with the compliments. He is telling me things like, “Wow! She seems so real and three-dimensional and funny and wise and you are the best writer the world has ever seen!” and I am reading his words and not saying very much to him, but lying awake at night and staring at him and wondering – based on the sick and twisted things that he is making his bad-guy character think and say and do – if the man sharing my marital bed is a psycho just waiting for the right moment to off me in the most heinous of ways.
Perhaps one should not write a thriller with one’s very special significant other.
Okay, so I’m wondering if John is a psychopath. But he could be a sociopath. And you may be thinking that they are the very same things. But they are not. (Remember, we did research.). There is a very big difference between psychopaths and sociopaths (and they are not even called sociopaths anymore, like they were in 2000. They are people with “anti-social personality disorders”. Which sounds softer and more fluffy and nice to me. I would have stuck with ‘sociopaths’ (but no one asked me)). The difference between the two can be summed up in one single word – conscience. A psychopath might, say, viciously attack an innocent bunny and feel bad about it afterwards. No way with a sociopath. This guy won’t feel bad at all. This particular guy would have watched Fatal Attraction and cheered on the lovely Glenn Close when she BOILED the bunny. I’m not lying. These sociopaths are very scary individuals – and when you meet them they can seem so normal, and nice, and even…charming (shivers up your spine? Me too.)
And you know how lots of experts say you are supposed to “write what you know” if you want to be a good and authentic writer? Well, unless my nearly perfect husband really did have a shadow life that I didn’t know about at the time, we were just guessing our way through the bad-guy aspect of our story. This did not go unnoticed by me. How do you write a bad guy character if you have no bad guy experience?
Hmmmm. So my worry of inauthentic serial killer writing goes on for several years (along with the lack of sleep that, of course, builds up when you are searching your bedroom nightly for knives, piano chord, and exotic undetectable poisons after your husband falls asleep. Just in case). It was exhausting.
Sometimes life tosses you just what you need, at the exact moment you need it.
Scene: Beautiful summer day in chic and trendy Dunstable. Blue skies, no humidity, flowers blooming everywhere, humming birds at feeders, cows mooing on distant hills. Perfection.
Action: My daughter had just gone out for a run with her wacko canine sidekick, Fred. And yet, after about three minutes she is bursting through the side door proclaiming she has found the “BIGGEST TURTLE EV-AH!” which, of course, ignites a maelstrom of shoe-putter-on-ing and shouts from myself and her two brothers and we are off down the driveway following their sister toward what I was certain would be an exceedingly large snapping turtle making his way across Thorndike Street.
But when we turned the corner out of the driveway, I did not see such a turtle. I saw a large, turtle-like thing for sure. However this turtle-like thing was more akin to something on the Discovery Channel’s coverage of the Galapagos Islands than a nice, normal, albeit gargantuan and probably pissed-off Dunstable-based Snapper.
So we walk, very carefully, up to this turtle-thing and I say – with great confidence because I actually did watch the Galapagos special on Discovery Channel – that what we are looking at is not a turtle, but a tortoise. And there was a whole bunch of wow-how-did-it-get-here, and wow-it-looks-so-prehistoric and all of those types of exclamations. And you know what happened in the mean time? Said tortoise never even went into his shell and he never even turned the other way. He walked right up to us and sniffed our feet!
I’m not lying!
And when a car came by, he started toward it and we had to leap forward to grab him (as if his innate tortoise warp speed would propel him into the car in a nanosecond). So we decided we should take him home and figure out what to do (which, of course, according to my nine-year-old son, was to “keep him!”). So we got him home and while my kids patted him (not lying on that one either) and made sure he ate grass but did not get lost (warp speed, remember?), I looked him up on the Internet. Turns out our find, on the road by our house in Dunstable, Massachusetts, was an African Spur-Thighed Tortoise – or a Sulcata – the third largest land tortoise in the world. This critter would grow from the twenty or so pounds it was when we found it, to approximately 100 to 150 pounds and would live about 100 years.
So my nearly perfect husband comes home from a business trip later that day and does not believe me when I say that the tortoise wandering around the kitchen dragging a barstool (his shell was too tall so when he went under the barstool, he just dragged the stool around with him) was found in the road. I believe his exact words were, “What do you do, beam these things into our lives?”
So we put the word out that we have found this turtle …er… tortoise and decide that we will keep him for a week in case someone lost him (turns out African Spur-Thighed Tortoises are real diggers and can dig under their enclosures easily, don’t ya know? Maybe he escaped.). And we do our research and learn that he can’t be outdoors if it is under seventy degrees, and he needs calcium fortification with his Timothy hay and dark green leafy vegetables. Oh, and he should only have fruity treats rarely and he needs to be soaked – yes soaked – in shallow water up to the bottom of his shell for about 20 minutes a few times a week because that’s how he gets his hydration (he is a desert dweller). The work that went into keeping that tortoise alive was stunning.
And we named him.
I know. We weren’t super creative that week. And by naming him, we got attached. And how couldn’t you? He came when he was called, he ate kale and strawberries out of our hands, and the strawberries would get all over his face and we had to wipe his mouth off like he was a little kid. Also, these tortoises need to walk constantly – about a mile a day in the wild – so we had to bring him outside and let him walk for hours. Once, John and I came home and my daughter – sick of following him into the tall grass behind our house while she was ‘babysitting’ him – duct taped a white flag to his shell. It was like primitive tortoise GPS. When we asked where he was, she (from a chair on the deck) looked up, scanned the yard, and pointed at the mini white flag, working its way through the grass about 100 feet away. He was just so cute.
No. Cute doesn’t really cover it.
Fast forward through that week of 24/7 worrying that we’d do something wrong and Shelly would be no more. Shockingly, no one claimed him and – since I could not see myself at 80 using a crow bar to get Shelly into the basement if it dropped below 70 degrees because now he weighed 800 pounds (Okay, a slight exaggeration) – we had to find him a home, no matter how charming he was. So, many phone calls later, Tufts Veterinary School in Grafton, Massachusetts points us in the direction of a wonderful man who says he would be happy to take Shelly because he has another African Spur-Thighed Tortoise just a few years older than Shelly and he says to just come on over.
So this guy was a real expert in the area of tortoises and the first thing he tells us is that our dear little man Shelly is – yep – a girl. And his tortoise Zeus is – you guessed it (name sort of gives it away) – a boy. But that’s okay and we introduce them and
My charming little lady rams right into poor Zeus – who was trying so hard to mind his own business, munch on some grass and ignore her – and she flips him right over!
I was horrified. It didn’t even look like she cared about what she did! We turned poor Zeus back over and he went on eating his grass and we put Shelly in another part of the yard and she turned right back around and shot across the yard (as much as a tortoise can shoot across the yard) and – WHACK! – rammed into him again and again and again and then Zeus – who was bigger than Shelly – got tired of it, turned, worked his little hooky thingies on the front of his shell under her, and turned her over!
And this went on over and over all the time until we left.
So my friend, Grace – who got to know Shelly very well when she was with us and helped out a lot in terms of finding a home for her – gets an update on Shelly about two weeks after that and informs us that Shelly and Zeus are still turning each other over but there is a difference in their modus operandi (thriller writer speak).
When Zeus turns Shelly over – which he does on purpose whenever he feels like it – he leaves her, but within an hour, he goes back and tips her right side up (hmmm. conscience.)
But when Shelly knocks Zeus on his back, she just leaves him.
Never goes back to check.
Lack of conscience.
So, there you have it. Now we have the experience necessary to write an authentic thriller novel (So what if it’s been nearly thirteen years since we had the idea to do it? It could happen.). My dear, engaging, charming Shelly turned out to be a heartless, empathy-less, sociopath bent on murder (although she can only be charged with attempted murder at this point, as far as I know. But give it time. That chick is going to live about 80 more years). And Zeus, who did seem like a nice guy when we first met – though a little quirky, and kind of a loner – is actually a psychopath who, in unpredictable rages, lashes out at the nearest, unsuspecting passer-by. But, checks in on their condition as soon as he calms down. At least he can be medicated and receive therapy.
I don’t think Shelly is rehab-able.
But, on the bright side, the kids have great memories and that year had an awesome ‘what I did on my summer vacation’ story.
I had to ask them to leave Shelly’s tendency toward murder and mayhem out of it though. It just wasn’t appropriate for the kiddies in the classroom.
Thanks for readin’.