April 22, 2024 Short Story

At Loggerheads

At Loggerheads Artwork by DALL·E

Kim is curled up in her favourite wingback chair, wrapped in the crocheted blanket her mother made for her decades ago. The cordless landline receiver heats up against her head as she leans her shoulder into it. She listens attentively as she shifts it to her other ear. It’s a respite: these Sunday morning phone chats, second cup of coffee by her side and her mother Margo all to herself. Her pleasure in routine might be just one more indicator of middle age. She keeps using the same expressions as her mother, like “good heavens.” Recently she’s observed little pouches below her jawline and the beginning of a double chin. All those years she’d spent telling herself she’d never turn into her mom, and now here she is, just like her. She’s even just switched the light off in an empty room, the way she’d been taught. Margo’s voice is in her head.

 Margo tells Kim that she’s read all the literature about divorce and depression that Kim sent her and followed the recommendations for developing hobbies, though not with great enthusiasm. “I’ve got no passion left for anything after nursing and…you know, your dad,” she insists. The word “passion” seems to obsess her. She sees it as the key to ending her depression.

“I really tried to enjoy walking those SPCA dogs, but it breaks my heart knowing that most of them will be put down. No more strays. Enough of that.”

Before quitting the dog-walking job last month, she’d responded to a notice posted beside the water cooler at the SPCA about sea turtle rescue teams. “Remember I told you about Henry, the nice biologist who heads the team? Well, we had coffee at Starbucks, and he told me about this Texan project.” 

Kim listens. Will she be the same when she hits her mother’s age? Will her husband Leon take up walking dogs or rescuing turtles with her if she asks him to? Her mother’s given up on finding another partner. 

“Men just don’t look at women over sixty; they’re after the younger models,” Margo claims. “I feel invisible. I used to think that was depressing until I realized that romance is a young person’s game. It’s liberating to be finished with all that and do what I want. Once I figure out exactly what it is that I do want, that is.” 

Kim admires her mother, who’s as admirable and practical as ever. Although resigning yourself to a single life sounds lonely. Maybe she’s just afraid to have any expectations. Or admit she was stuck in dependency when she was married. Her mother is adept at covering up her feelings. But now, on the phone, Margo sounds excited, almost manic.

 “I don't think it’s a great idea, Mom,” Kim says. “Can’t you find something closer to home? You know how weird Texans get.”

But Margo is determined to go to Texas. “It’s not like the SPCA, with all those photos of cute kittens! Henry said that most turtle rescuers never get to see the creatures they’re trying to save. Just imagine, Kimmy, female loggerhead sea turtles are battling the surf, somewhere out there, struggling for their very lives. ‘Margo,’ he told me, ‘people like you can really make a difference.’”

“Mom! You’ve never been out of the Nebraska area before.”

“Well, there’s a first time for everything.”

“So, let me get this straight: I’m supposed to be thrilled that you’re going to be swimming with turtles? What’s next? Skydiving? Bungee jumping?”

“Don’t be so silly.”

“Well, sorry to remind you, but you’re the only mother I have.”


After Kim ends the call with her mother, she phones her brother, who still lives in Beemer and checks in on their mother a couple times a week, bringing her flowers that he grows himself in his backyard.

“What do you think of this idea of going to Texas? Should we be worried that she’s lost her marbles?” she asks him.

“Yeah, she was going on about that earlier. Maybe just another passing thing. She can’t be serious about heading down there on her own when she’s hardly ever been out of town. And she only knows Beemer. ‘The navel of America’—remember that?” 

“‘Asshole of America,’ you mean,” says Kim, laughing. As teenagers, they’d both dreamed of getting as far away as possible from Beemer, Nebraska. Now that Matt is the only practicing lawyer in Beemer—a town that boasts two hundred fewer inhabitants than it had when they were kids—he talks about family values, about not having to worry where his kids are when they’re out playing. Kim rolls her eyes. She only returns home when funerals and marriages and Christmases demand her presence. Since their parents’ divorce, she also needs to check in with Matt about their father’s drinking, which she can’t monitor from Boston.

It must be getting close to lunch time; her stomach is rumbling. Only a smoothie for breakfast and now acid reflux from too much coffee. Kim’s just told Matt about the turtles, using her Wild Kingdom announcer’s voice; it was one of the few television programs they’d watched as a family when they were growing up in Beemer. She hums the program’s opening tune and then says, drawing out patronizing syllables, “And now we can observe that there are many creatures in the animal kingdom who behave as strangely as humans do. Just watch this!” She’s grateful when he laughs. 

“Don’t take it too seriously,” he repeats. 

“Okay. Gotta go,” she says. She won’t point out how insensitive and dismissive he sounds. Matt doesn’t get feelings. 

“Keep me up to date,” he says.

Kim turns off her phone and hugs herself in the blanket. She shivers even though she’s not cold. She hasn’t got the courage to tell either her mother or her brother about her mammogram results. Only Leon knows about her cancer, how afraid she is. He’s a good man. 

Speak of the devil! She hears him opening the door downstairs.

“How was your run?” she asks.

“Great.” Panting, he heads over to where she’s curled up and plants a kiss on the top of her head. He’s sweaty and radiates heat.

“Shower,”she reminds him, not looking up.

“Right,” he says, pulling his sweatshirt off over his head as he moves toward their bedroom. She hears the rest of his clothes hit the floor. Following in his wake, she picks up his socks and shorts where he dropped them, and tosses them in the laundry basket as she shouts through the bathroom door: “Mom’s heading to Texas!”

“What? I can’t hear you. Give me five.”

Kim sits on the edge of their bed. He emerges from the shower cabinet wrapped in a towel and haloed in a cloud of steam, throwing himself on top of her as she falls back onto the bed, laughing. He wrestles her nightie off, covering her neck in smacking kisses.

Afterwards, Leon holds her damp body beside his, his hand resting on her breast, the one that might soon be gone. His weight comforts her, but it’s her mother she really wants right now.


“Hmm,” he murmurs. He’s drifting off to sleep again.

“How would you feel if I went to see her in Texas?”


“My mother! Were you even listening?”

“Sure. Go. Of course. Do whatever you need to do, Kim.” He twists toward her, onto his side, and his hand remains on top of her breast as he slips off to sleep. 

She’s remembering that her mother took her to the local pool in the early mornings for an entire year, teaching her how to swim. How old had she been? Eight? How tenderly her mother had dried her off, wrapped her in a towel, calling her “my little sausage” as she combed out the tangles in her hair. She’d told her that she was a good, strong swimmer now. They always stopped at the French bakery for a chocolate croissant before Kim was dropped off at school. She remembers looking, while Mom paid the cashier, at steamy windows framing elderly faces that hovered over coffee tables. The persistent smell of chlorine on her skin later in the school day would remind her of the morning with her mother. How can she tell anyone now that she wants to be swaddled tenderly in a towel and told that she’s good? 



The following Sunday, Kim calls her mother to ask her if she’s still serious about the turtle trip. 

“Yup, I am. I can't say what it is, Kim. An expectant mother turtle weighs a hundred pounds more than I do. Imagine: she waits for the sun to set, heaves herself slowly ashore, digs deep in the sand, and lays a hundred eggs! And they might—just might—hatch a few months later, and if she’s lucky, one in a thousand will survive long enough to do it all over twenty-five years later!”

“Why are you telling me this?” asks Kim. The thought of a mother turtle leaving her eggs behind in the sand, never to see them again, makes her sad.

“I know I’ll never ever find another mate,” Margo whispers. “Watching that kind of commitment, even against all the odds, is inspiring.” 

Commitment? Leaving all your babies behind and walking back into the sea? She shudders at a vision of Margo strolling the beach at sunrise and sunset at Boca Chica Beach in Texas, a large old woman in a bikini, waiting for a turtle the way some women wait for a man. 

“My flight to Texas leaves on Tuesday,” says Margo, giddy. Kim hangs up reluctantly, then goes to find Leon in his study. Through the door’s open crack, she talks to the back of his head.

“My mother’s involved with turtles. She’s going to Texas.” 

Leon doesn’t lift his head from the computer or turn to face her. 

“Did you hear me?”

“Kim, can we talk about this later? Almost finished this report. It’s overdue.” His voice is steady. What Kim has loved best in him—his calm—has lately begun to irritate her. 

“Don’t you get it? It’s serious, Leon!”

“Sure you’re not overreacting, just a bit?”

She sighs. Biting her lip, she closes the door.

 Over the next weeks, her mother calls often, reminding Kim to check her Facebook posts to see the newly hatched baby turtles rescued from opened nest cavities. 

“Kim, you have to see the tracks on the beach, and the wee ones…”

Kim goes online and notices that the turtle tracks look like they were left by alien spaceships. Gone from her mother’s Facebook page are family group photos; gone is Margo celebrating birthdays and anniversaries; gone are Kim and Matt and grandchildren. Instead, there’s a whole album of Margo embracing fellow turtle team members, as if she were at summer camp. Kim leans in to look more closely at the flushed and glowing faces of the participants, their unabashed smiles. The loggerhead turtle logo is stamped on the upper right hand of all the photos. Kim frowns, trying to remember something. Once she’d watched a documentary about the more unsavoury aspects of Scientology. That’s it. It looks as though Margo has joined a cult.


Kim books a flight to Texas for a week in August. Leon sulks when she tells him. “I can’t believe you’re giving up a week of our summer holidays to check on your mother. She doesn’t need you as much as you’d like to think she does.” He yanks the dishwasher open and tosses his leftover coffee in the sink before slamming his cup into the rack. 

On the plane, she admits to herself that maybe she’s just feeling a bit left out of her mother's new life as she accepts a second vodka from the airline attendant. Why not? After she swallows it, she feels tears flowing and turns her face to stare out the window. 

By the time she gets off the plane at Corpus Christi Airport, she’s wondering why she came at all. Sweating profusely in the sudden blast of heat, she wades through muddy air. She must be more anxious than usual: her heart flutters when she doesn’t see her luggage after the carousel has done several loops. It goes around one more time while she checks her cell phone impatiently. Taking deliberately deep breaths, she squeezes her eyes tightly. She won’t burden her mother with her own needs. Her mother has her own life. When she opens her eyes again, she sees her suitcase slip past the flaps and disappear. Alone at the carousel, she fumes. Hunger pangs grip her as she types the address Margo gave her into the GPS of the rental car. Siri corrects her driving as soon as she pulls into traffic.

By the time she arrives at the restaurant her mother chose, her linen slacks are wrinkled, barely holding onto the sharp crease of her early morning ironing. Kim waits. The rental car keys are fanned open on the Formica tabletop in front of her. There’s a jukebox! Kim hasn’t seen one for years, and here in this diner with its barstools, she feels like a teenager again. Should she pick a tune while she’s waiting for her mother? No. She wants a serious talk with her. Maybe convince her to come back home if this project is too crazy. First she must listen. She orders a Greek salad and picks at it until she sees Margo, wearing soft pastel colours that don’t suit her, through the window. 

Margo doesn’t say hello. “What, you couldn’t wait to start eating until I got here? Afraid the salad might get cold?”

 “Hello to you, too, Mom.” Kim stands up to give her a hug. Her mom leans in and taps her politely on the back before she slides across from her in the booth. The ancient wallpaper is red and gold embossed velvet but mostly intact. Kim gives the waitress a friendly smile when she approaches with the menus. 

“I’ll have a black coffee and a Greek salad too. You can just leave the menus.” 

I’m here to be positive and supportive, Kim thinks. She swallows hard before speaking.

“Tell me all about what you’re doing here.”

“Women’s work, again. Just like everywhere in the world,” she chortles, “the females do all the work. The males never even come ashore! The nests are so amazing, Kim—like small cathedrals—remember the shape of those chemistry flasks in high school? The cavity grows out of the bottom of this narrow tunnel, and she digs the whole nest with her rear flippers, then dumps the eggs and covers up the hole to hide it from predators.”

“Okay, you’ve done your research, Mom.”

 “Most of them never hatch. A raccoon can dig up the nest, or a ghost crab will hide out in the cavity, gorging itself on yolks and embryos. But after six weeks or so, the surviving nestlings will pip their shells, rest a couple days in the egg cavity to absorb the yolk, then dig their way to the surface. You should see them come out at night to make their way to the surf! They follow the reflection of the moonlight on the water!" 

Kim sees her mother's eyes mist. Margo's face glows. Kim only remembers her grim face, reserved for patients. Margo liked to dig down deep into their vitals, their family histories, the perilousness of mortality. Wasn’t it an invasion of people’s privacy for her mother to reveal so much about them to her family? As a child, Kim hated knowing the messy particulars of strangers' bodily functions. Maybe all nurses were just nosy. 

“So, when do I get to meet these turtles?” 

“Not sure I’m prepared to introduce you to my loggerheads yet. You’re so full of negativity.”

“What? I’m not! I’m here, aren’t I?” Kim spits. She hunches her shoulders. 

   “What am I gonna do, infect your precious reptiles with bad vibes, diminish their chances of survival even more?”

“You’re here cause you want me to change my mind. Why else would you fly all the way down here? Hardly because you’re actually interested in turtles!”

Kim sighs. “I thought we might enjoy some time together. And I am curious about your new hobby.” She reaches across the table to pluck a long hair from her mother’s chin, but Margo leans back and swipes Kim’s hand away.

“Why are you always doing that? Can’t you just leave me be? And it’s not just a hobby, by the way.”

“Well, excuse me! You never minded before. You even joked that we were monkeys grooming each other.”

“Don’t you get it, I don’t care what I look like anymore. Actions matter more than looks.”

“Fine. Suit yourself.” Kim’s stomach churns. Deep breath. Be supportive, be supportive. 

They are quiet for a moment.

“Could I at least meet the people you’re working with?”  

Her mother wipes her mouth with her napkin while looking Kim directly in the eyes, assessing the depth of her sincerity.

“You’ll like them. Once you learn what’s at stake, you’ll get it, Kim.” Kim sees the creases around her mother’s eyes and mouth, and thinks, I’m losing her. She’s getting old.

“Mom, we miss you at home. Matt likes having you close by just in case anything happens.”

“What could happen? Any of us could have health issues, wherever we are.”

 “All right, that’s true, but we could get to you faster if you had an accident or needed something.”

 “I’m just fine by myself, honestly. And I don’t worry about you or Matt at all. You have your own families, and I’m grateful I raised you to be independent, strong people.”

The backhanded compliment. To tell Margo that she needs her is to admit weakness, something her mother despises. What about her own needs? She’d retract into her shell if Kim were to ask. What was it she always said? “No sense digging up a painful past.” 

She wants Margo to take her in her arms so she can exhale fully, from her chest, nestle into her mother’s comforting folds of flesh. It’s been ages since she’s smelled her mother’s salty tang. 

 She parks her rental car at the trailer park where her mother now lives to be closer to "her turtles", putting her suitcase on the bed of the musty spare room. Staring out the window of the mobile home, she only takes in half of her mother’s prattle about turtles. After Margo goes to bed, Kim sits out on the porch, legs raised on the railing, and calls her brother.

“It’s scary. She’s sort of manic, Matt. Fanatic, anyway. Not depressed like she was before. I feel like I need to stay, see just how far gone she is. I’m worried.”

“Stop it. Mom’s just fine. Why can’t you just let her do her own thing?”

“But these people are obsessed. It’s weird.”

“Kim, we’re all obsessed about something. Maybe you need to quit being obsessed with what other people are doing with their lives and focus on your own.” Matt is rarely this blunt. “Sorry, Kimmy. Long day. Didn’t really mean that. I appreciate your checking everything down there but honestly, you worry too much.” 

She says goodbye and yawns. The air is thick with humidity. Sleep will be a long time coming. She peels off her shirt, matted to her tank top, lifting her arms wide above her shoulders in a V. The sharp pain under her right armpit is swift and intense. She’ll tell her mom, first thing in the morning.

For the next two mornings, Margo drags Kim out of bed at dawn, two cups of strong cowboy coffee in hand, to join the other volunteers who describe in fervent detail the nest locations, the tracks, and the transportation of vulnerable nests to safer ground. No time for a hug or a morning chat alone with her mother. They pore over maps for several hours, discuss strategies, but don’t leave the main office. All the while her mother shows her charts and explains upcoming tasks. Kim is bored. She’s running out of patience and thinks about booking an earlier flight to go home. 

On the second afternoon, Margo says she can meet the turtles the next morning. She resents the word “ready.” 

“Ready? Mom, I’ve gotta get back to Boston. Leon’s waiting for me, and we have holiday plans.” The flight leaves in three days. She must be brave.

The next morning, Kim watches Margo dig the bottle of DEET out of her backpack, spray her limbs and the back of her neck, then don a ridiculous broad-brimmed netted hat that makes her look like a Victorian matron. "Biting flies," she explains. "Here. Put some on. And don't forget your water bottle." Her mother's commando voice, familiar from childhood. Kim sinks into playing the obedient daughter. She’d half hoped that her mother would apply the DEET to Kim’s own skin, as she’d slathered sunscreen on them when they were children. But Margo merely hands her one of the ridiculous hats.

The “beach” is acres of salt marsh with oak forests beyond. They get into an ATV that meets them near the water's edge. It’s loaded with mesh cages, big plastic, fishy-smelling buckets, and neon orange signs warning beachcombers against interfering with turtle nests. The air is still chilly. as the ATV moves down the beach, a couple of egrets hustle through the water. Kim catches sight of three unusual, slender birds foraging at the shoreline, their heads turned intently toward the ocean's placid surface, and she points at them. Wood storks, her mother, newly expert, informs her. Midges swarm around them in a shifting black cloud as they trudge across the sand. Kim’s running shoes, soaking wet and caked in mud, make squelching noises at each step. There’s something about her mother’s ease in these foreign and unlikely conditions that makes Kim uncomfortable, but she can’t say why. They both jump down from the ATV, her mother more adept, while Kim feels hesitant about her footing. A shrimp boat is trawling at a distance, and a tight formation of pelicans flies low overhead. 

“We’re getting close,” says Margo. “If we’re lucky, you might see one today. The eggs will start hatching in a couple months, then I’ll come back to record the survivors. Lots of dead babies," she announces sharply. 

Dead babies? Is her mother’s way of making her feel guilty that she hasn't provided grandchildren yet? Margo never understood the challenges of Kim’s career: how hard she’d worked to get this far, to prove she was just as good as the guys. For Kim, accounting was easy: numbers were benign, even predictable. No messy feelings. When he’d first met her, Leon, who was her manager, said he admired her for being so contained. After they got married, they even had hopes of taking over the agency together when the aging CEO passed on the reins. It was all about strategy, sticking to it, he’d often remind her. This meant postponing having a family for a few years. Then a few more. 

"Well, that’s a mistake,” Margo had said at the time. “You need to have kids while you're young and still have the energy." 

But having children wasn’t all that important to Kim and Leon anymore. The world was overpopulated. She didn’t want to be responsible for muddled human lives. She was nothing like her mother, who continued to lecture her, loud enough for the others to overhear.

"Loggerheads are endangered. Only a tenth of them survive long enough to reproduce, even under the best of circumstances. Everything eats baby turtles: sharks, birds, raccoons, ghost crabs. But you know what, Kim. The real reason they might go the way of the passenger pigeon is ’cause they swallow plastic bags, thinking they're jellyfish; they get caught in commercial fishing nets, they're poisoned by oil spills and toxic chemicals." 

Margo's voice rises to a fevered pitch. "And these goddamn beach developments! From light pollution. Instead of heading out to the surf, hatchlings head inland toward the light from condos rented by insomniacs. Look at all the glare from that gas station over there! " 

She points an accusatory finger across the road from the beach and turns her chin up. Her neck is mottled with indignation.

  “What can you do?” Kim asks meekly. She doesn’t mean to sound dismissive.

   “We can take action! When we find a nest too close to the water, or maybe not buried deeply enough, we can relocate it to safer ground. We can dig real slowly, a handful of sand at a time, like this, and keep the egg right side up when you lift it to the bucket. We can rebury them in the same order you take them out. We can put a fence over top of the new nest. Counting the ones that survive is smelly, hard work. Once I came across a baby still alive at the bottom under eighteen dead ones. You can save just one and feel good about it.”

 Margo is flushed, breathless. They’re both silent as they continue to walk on the sand. Margo waves her arm back to keep Kim from advancing. They’re standing right in front of a loggerhead turtle before Kim even realizes what it is she’s seeing. Was this dull, impenetrable rocklike thing really the reason her mother had lost her mind? She’d expected the shell to glow. The turtle doesn’t move for almost two minutes, and then only to stretch its neck, a tough reptilian guile in its eyes. So ordinary in its ugliness. Then it slowly withdraws its head so she can’t see a face. Kim has an inexplicable urge to crack the shell open, to find out what’s inside the shell that’s magically stolen so much of her mother’s attention. She says nothing.

On the last day, Margo introduces Kim to some volunteers she hasn’t met before: half a dozen middle-aged women and four young men in identical turtle T-shirts and ball caps with the loggerhead logo embroidered on the brims. They cram into three Jeeps and drive to the fenced-off research area on the beach. Saul, seated beside Kim, smells of musty sweat and, once on the sand, follows Margo around like a nervous puppy, eagerly doing as she asks, spreading out the nets, sticking signs in the sand. He has that shade of red hair that people call rusty, like a discarded penny, and whenever Kim tries to meet his eyes, he looks away furtively. It disturbs Kim to watch her mother tuck one of Saul’s curls behind his ear—the same gesture her mother used with her when she was a young girl and her bangs got in her eyes.

Margo and Saul come closer to her. There’s something her mother is holding in her hand. She hands Kim a pulsating egg. It feels horrible. She nearly drops the rubbery lump on the sand but manages to transfer it back to her mother, quickly. 

Saul moves further down the beach and strips off his T-shirt in the hot sun, hard stomach muscles rippling below his rib cage. He is tanned and disturbingly handsome. A sadness tightens Kim’s throat and tears sneak into the creases of her eyes. Is there something going on between Saul and her mother? A wave of nausea hits her stomach so fiercely that she bends over. 

“Are you okay, Kim?” asks Margo, although she remains rooted on the beach, facing Saul, not moving toward her. 

“Yeah, fine. Just getting too warm,” she responds, yanking her sweatshirt over her head, as though it were the reason she was folded in half. There is a dull throbbing at her temples. Her hand brushes her armpit: her knuckle has hit a small boil or something and the pain is fierce. Nurse Mom to the rescue? Later. She sucks in the sharp ocean air. Right now, she can barely stand the way that her mother stares at Saul.

Later that evening, Kim suggests going out for dinner. They have cold beer and plain cheese pizza. Margo has become vegetarian. Kim misses the pepperoni. Apparently turtles give up animal protein as they age, too.
    “What do you make of the volunteers who show up here? They seem so young,” Kim ventures. 

“The guys like racing the ATVs up and down the beach,” her mother tells her. "Yup. They like their toys, those boys. Except for Saul, who's too serious by half. He's different. Always thinking. He'll go far, you can just tell." Margo sips her beer meditatively, and Kim lowers her gaze. She’s ashamed to feel jealous of a young boy. 

“I pack an extra sandwich for him in the morning; otherwise, the poor kid would forget to eat. I’d like to see him fatten up. Most nights, if I’m lucky, I get him over for dinner, just so he can have a home-cooked meal.” 

Margo has not made her dinner once on this trip, happily assenting to Kim’s invitations to eat out at local restaurants. Okay. What Margo feels for Saul is merely maternal affection.

“Fatten up? Since when do you encourage that?” says Kim. 

Kim’s proud of having lost a few pounds. Her mom had remarked that Kim was getting pudgy on their last visit. She hadn’t let her mother notice then how much it had hurt her to be treated like a child again. She’d grown up a chubby child who needed to go on a diet so she could meet the AMA weight guidelines that her mother knew by heart. After all these years, Kim was now her correct weight at last.

Margo ignores Kim’s question. “Saul told me that he’s been able to hear creatures calling to him since he was a young child. He says we can relieve distress if we really pay attention. As a kid, he nursed a dog who’d been hit by a car back to health. After that, he said he knew he had a gift. His whole life he’s been dedicated to helping those who don’t have a voice. We talk about it when we’re out combing the beach. He says he thinks I have a gift for hearing voices too. He says I need to tap into my intuitive side. Probably had it drilled out of me in nursing school.”

“Could you please shut up about Saul? What does he want from you, anyway?”

 Margo glares at her. “What, you think he has a crush on me? Come on.” 

Kim pictures Saul’s expectant face. He reminds her of Matt when Matt was young: snotty-nosed, hungry for approval. She feels flushed.

“Kimberly, are you jealous of Saul?” 

Kim takes a long sip of beer. Cold and numbing. She doesn’t want to talk about Saul anymore.

“Why vegetarian? And who told you about turtles changing their diets over time?”

“Well, it was Saul who convinced me. I mean, it just makes sense, in terms of global warming.” Kim can’t hear the rest of what her mother is saying because her heart is palpitating wildly. Kim has been reminding her mother for three years that there are plenty of good reasons to give up meat.

“Mom, I have breast cancer.”

Margo drops her pizza crust and crumples her napkin on her plate. She nods her head. “Let’s get back,” she says, pulling out her credit card and nodding again at the server. 

Back at the trailer, Margo insists on examining Kim. 

“Show me where it is,” she says, her fingers already palpating the skin surrounding Kim’s breast. “Does that hurt?” she keeps asking. It’s been so long since her mother touched her as an adult that feeling her fingertips move along her skin brings tears to her eyes. Kim says nothing. 

“I’ll come home soon, to check up on you after the surgery,” says Margo, more gently than she’s spoken all evening. Nearly a whisper. She kisses Kim’s forehead.

The next morning, it’s time to leave. Kim has her right hand on the steering wheel, while Margo clutches her other hand, leaning on the open window of the car. Her breath is warm and smells of fermenting apples. "You could get trained and certified too, if you want, and then we could spend more time together." Kim has a strange spasm in her chest: this is the first time on this trip that her mother touched her, apart from examining her the night before. She looks away, focusing on the side-view mirror. Her throat constricts as her mother speaks.

“Why don’t you come back and help? It'd be good for you to get close to nature. We gather a lot of data so biologists know the exact GPS location of every sea turtle nest, the number of crawls, the dead to the living hatchling ratio, mortality causes. Saul likes to say, ‘decay is our destiny, but creativity is our only hope.’" 

Kim puts the key in the ignition and shudders. She'd never consider joining a group of fanatics on their daily pilgrimage, suffering the intolerable heat, the biting flies, the smelly work. Ugh. For what? Disappointment. Despair. She’d never be able to use a probe, which is supposed to help you locate the narrow tunnel leading to a nest cavity without piercing the eggs. No, she won’t drink the Kool-Aid. 

Her mother may be as overwrought as the other hypnotized rescuers and their turtles. It takes a deft touch and a great deal of patience to rescue turtle eggs. Kim would never want to break something that obviously means so much to her mother. She waves to the older woman as she drives away.


When the date for Margo's return passes and there are no responses to Kim’s emails or phone calls, Kim worries that the long days spent in the hot sun contemplating turtle holes might have fried her mother’s brain. Her mother calls one night to explain her delay by remarking that she’s been spending more and more time with Saul. The best nest locator. “He’s the envy of all of us, Kim. He has this knack for sighting the faintest of crawl marks on the sand. We haven’t seen a single turtle yet, but Saul and I are convinced that we’ll be the first ones! He’s so amazing. He's had a hard home life, you know, but he's really found himself here."

Kim is stunned. She recalls his face. Had she imagined that sneering smirk below his small moustache? Maybe he’d just been squinting in the sun. She couldn’t stand him.

"He's really opening up to me,” says Margo. “Such a sweet kid. He failed most of his college courses at Texas State, but he has this natural kind of intelligence, you know. Though he gets tired easily. He had a difficult birth, had to be induced, nearly died in the process."

Margo has always said that people’s personalities are the outcome of their birth process, whether or not they felt welcomed or ready for the world. 

Kim sighs heavily. “I’ve got to go,” she says. “The potatoes are boiling over.”

“I’ll come home in a week,” says Margo.

 A week goes by. Kim finds herself pacing the floor. Why hasn’t her mother come home? Even the Facebook page offers no clues about a return date. Finally, she calls her mother, who is breathless when she picks up the phone.

 “What are you doing down there, exactly?” Kim stammers.

 “I’m doing what I’m meant to do,” she responds cryptically. 

End of discussion. Don’t question your mother’s authority. “I just meant I’d like to know how the work is going.”

“It’s going as well as can be expected.”

“When do you think you’re coming back to Nebraska?”

A long exhale is the only response Kim receives. 

“Soon. I’ll book something for next Tuesday. The redeye,” says Margo.


Kim heads out to pick Margo up from the Boston airport. Her phone rings as she’s walking away from her parked car toward Arrivals. After losing the phone connection twice, Kim gets the recorded message that Margo has cancelled her flight. She stops dead in her tracks at the crosswalk, moving only when a taxi honks at her. A headache emerges at her temples and tightens like a sweatband around her skull. She wants to cry, but instead she shuffles back to her car.

That night she receives an email in which Margo explains that Saul has suffocated in a turtle dig. Exhausted, he’d dug far deeper than was necessary, when no one else was on the site. Apparently, he has no family. She’s in charge of arranging the funeral. Self-appointed. 

“She’s obsessed with this Saul kid,” Kim complains to Leon. 

“Some messed-up teenager who goes digging a hole to China because he’s got a death wish?” Leon loads his dishes in the dishwasher and lets the door lid slam closed. 

“I’m going to get to the bottom of this, first thing, soon as I wake up.” 

“You need to let your mother do her own thing, Kim.” Leon pivots, grasps her shoulders from behind, and kisses her at the nape of her neck, where the muscles remain tight. He’s a good man for putting up with her mother. For putting up with her analyzing her mother to death. 

When she calls her mother the next morning, the phone line is finally clear. Margo sounds shaken. 

      "Saul seemed in such a good mood. But something was different. He wasn't his usual slow, methodical self. He was just flying at the digging, faster and faster. We didn’t notice anything for the longest time ’cause we were measuring tracks at a site nearby. By the time we got to him, his whole head was buried in the sand, and he wasn't breathing or anything. I just can't believe it. I guess the tunnel collapsed on him. It all happened so quickly." 

Kim thinks of the turtle she saw, with its sinister ancient head. She hears her mother sob and struggle to find her breath again. "If only I'd worked beside him that day. Maybe I could've stopped him. He seemed just fine in the morning, quiet as usual. It doesn't make sense. I just can't leave right now." 

“Oh, Mom, I’m really sorry. That sounds just awful. I understand. Of course.” But she doesn't understand. Not really. She’s annoyed that her mother isn’t coming home. She’d gone to the trouble of taking time off work just to accommodate her. Now the long morning stretches in front of her. She tries not to think about the second lump she found under her left armpit. 

Opening the fridge door, she stares at all the little yogurt containers in the fridge she’d bought for her mother. Can you freeze yogurt? She resents having stayed up late last night making lasagna just to please her mother. A whole long pan full of cooked leathery lasagna noodles with their cute curly edges. Disgusting vegetarian lasagna, the spinach stringy as seaweed. Who will eat it now? 

     What she feels in her gut is more than disappointment: it’s some deeper emotion that grates at the edge of her consciousness. That rubbery egg in her hand: it almost pulses, so you know it's alive, Margo had said. She stares at the plastic turtle magnet on her fridge, a gift from her mother that had arrived in the mail a few days before Christmas. The dark markings on its shell are beginning to fade in the strong sunlight that pours into the kitchen, but its tiny head remains brightly painted, finished with a thin horizontal black line that might even pass for a smile. It doesn't look menacing at all.