As I inch up to the dinosaur descendant plodding across the asphalt, I’m having second thoughts. I glance back for reassurance.
Mom turns and hangs out the Nissan’s window.
“Just pick it up and put it on the grass! Hurry, honey!”
I stare back down at what looks like a log sticking out of a slimy shell, take a deep breath, and grab both sides. My little happy dance to the side of the road draws laughter from the crammed school buses stopped mere feet from my road-centered performance.
But the alligator snapping turtle isn’t laughing. In fact, it whips its head around — mouth widened, ready to swallow my middle finger like a Combo. I shriek and throw, listening to the disturbing thwack it makes as it lands carapace up on the grass.
Everyone laughs. I wince.
Damned to be crushed asunder by a twiggy middle-schooler, the crusty reptile juts out its legs, rights its curmudgeonly self, and turns its thick head in my general direction, hissing loudly before loping downhill toward a pond. I skulk back to the truck, where Mom sits patiently and my friend Stan slouches down as far as he can.
I can tell he wishes for a shell of his own. Then again, we’ve been down that path before.
My felt Ninja Turtle mask is amazing: its eye holes are nearly symmetrical and it’s the perfect length to wrap around my head.
Raphael would be proud.
I round out the mask’s edges and toss the scissors back into Mom’s stenciled butter cookie tin before sprawling across my shag-carpeted bedroom floor to admire my handiwork. My mask is a thing of beauty.
On to the scythes.
A labor of love later, the kitchen is devoid of tinfoil and I have two lumpy excuses for weaponry. Still, when I lay them next to the mask, I can almost see Raphael leaping to life — out from the shag. Now, once Stan’s mom makes our strap-on turtle shells, we’ll be set.
First place is practically ours, and I can feel it.
A month before, our second grade teacher announces the talent show. Social cliques scurry off to room corners — each group humming with ideas about award-winning segments. Mulling over the idea of an action-packed, weapon-wielding, Ninja Turtles-themed act, I briefly disengage from a competitive game of Topple.
I place my final piece on the unsteady plane. It levels — a sign!
But before I finish congratulating myself, Sophie — chemically unbalanced and fiercely violent — drop-kicks the entire game across the room, sending the pieces flying in all directions.
I shriek into her upturned Keds.
She shoots me one of her quintessential I will kill you, motherfucker stares, and walks away. Seeing as how even the teachers are terrified of her, I conclude it’s best to right the toppled Topple, and piece together ideas for who with play my reptilian counterparts.
A handful of my friends live in my neighborhood — a seventies-era subdivision dotted with pines and insidious sweet gums. Stan’s place is a few houses down, and Jess in a townhouse around the corner. After school, I meet with them to hatch our plan.
Soon, our entire group starts meeting religiously in the woods behind Stan’s house to discuss headway we’ve made on our costumes, and any new moves we can use to wow the audience — scissor-kicks, jabs, flips are all crucial components.
We. Must. Win.
Mostly so I can crush Hanna Drake and her baton twirling trio.
Hanna and I have recently had a falling out. Mostly because her father got moved to a different bank branch and now she knows her parents’ money can afford her a space in second grade’s upper echelon. I get no respect. Just blonde hair flips and cackles.
But after our winning show, she’ll beg to be my friend again — realize she’s made one of the worst mistakes of her life.
Groveling, then victory. Delicious.
I can’t wait to take her down.
And we’re ready. Sort of.
But who needs real costumes anyway? People with no imaginations, that’s who! Our whole strap-on turtle shell idea falls apart, and store-made costumes are too expensive.
So, here we are — night of the show: clad in our best forest green sweats, dark shoes, and homemade felt masks. At least our masks are different colors. And our weapons aren’t half bad.
Donatello has a makeshift tree branch staff. Michelangelo has actual nun chucks, which he disguises with a layer of tinfoil. Leonardo arrives with a plastic sword. And I, the illimitable Raphael, have my tinfoil scythes.
As we wait for our turn, we run through our Turtle moves.
And I measure up the competition — glimpsing snippets from behind she school cafeteria’s large stage.
Amateurs. You cannot fathom our greatness!
As it stands, our routine is strung together with a number of well-rehearsed punches and kicks. Donatello assures us he’ll do a few flips, especially since the rest of us are too short to have enough clearance to do so without face-planting.
But to ensure that no single Turtle hogs the limelight, each of us has our very own weapon-centric mini-performance.
And for the finale, we’ll scream “TURTLES” — as we hold up the lettered cardboard cutouts we’ve positioned onstage.
It’ll. Be. Epic.
Hanna’s baton twirlers end their show to a roar of applause. I snort.
Her father probably paid them all off.
Hanna passes me on the way out and mouths, “Good luck.” Then flips her hair.
Onstage, we face the packed cafeteria. Camcorders and cameras are at the ready. My knees get a little weak.
Murmurs in the audience die down.
The music starts.
And it happens.
We freeze — the rehearsed routine unraveling into a blank mental void.
Panicked, I do the only thing I can: jump up and down, like a poo-throwing monkey. And wave my scythes. Sweat trickles down my forehead.
And then I get smacked in the head by one of Michelangelo’s nun chuck butts. I turn, but Michelangelo’s not paying attention; he’s staring ahead, petrified in place — swinging wildly.
Next to him, Donatello whooshes his branch through the air, as Leonardo swings his wobbly sword back and forth.
My head throbs.
I slowly inch away. But Michelangelo moves with me — all while spinning his death sticks.
Every move I make, he’s there — skill-crushing nun chuck close behind.
And then, the truly painful part.
Like a contagious pox, smiles spread across everyone’s faces. Whispers and chuckles build in volume, crescendoing through the audience like a cacophonous wave.
The audience roars. And only grows louder as the theme song winds down.
We can still win!
We run to the cardboard letters laying face-down. And right as “Turtle Power!” crackles over the speakers, each of us holds up our letters.
The bottom falls out.
I spy my grandfather, father, and sister doubled-over in laughter; my mother and grandmother scold them, but stifle laughter themselves.
Flummoxed, we slowly lower the letters, and I turn mine over.
My successful maneuvering to avoid a concussion has moved me so far out of place that I’ve picked up the wrong letters.
I turn green. Knowing that I’ll forever be known as one of the Teenage Mutant Ninja URTLETS!
Mortified, we run offstage, the laughter following us.
Hanna and the baton twirlers win. I take my battered scythes home.
Even now, whenever I’m in front of an audience, I expect the Ninja Turtles’ theme song to blast from the closest speakers and a phantom nun chuck to whack me upside the head. And my parents still insist the whole thing could’ve qualified on America’s Funniest Home Videos.
“That damn tape would’ve won, hands-down.”
“Oh, our little Urtlet.”
The only evidence I have of the great Teenage Mutant Ninja Urtlets’ performance are two Polaroids: one of me and Stan frozen, wide-eyed; the other of me dodging a nun chuck.
But as I learned that night, sometimes the only way to get through a storm is to deal with whatever may come.
One blow at a time.