Damnation of the Red Eared Slider

by Will Brendza

I don’t think Sam Levitt meant to murder that turtle as slowly and as cruelly as he did. But, then he didn’t mean to get himself killed, either. No, the turtle’s death was the result of his own downright laziness. Neglect.

It was fucked up and we all saw it coming. We’d all regularly sneak into his swampy smelling room and sadly watch the poor little amphibian swimming around in the rot and acrid of its own waste. We told Sam, “Get rid of it, man”,  “Someone will gladly take it, just give it away”, “It stinks I can’t take it anymore!” … All to no avail.

There were six of us at the time of the turtle’s death. And we lived in a four-bedroom second story shanty apartment that had been built in the seventies by a carpenter who’d been smoking too much weed and didn’t give a damn about building codes or safety regulations. It was a nice enough place. Except for the fact that the year was 2016, which made our apartment building nearly 45 years old and it was aging about as well a sunken ship: the deck was held up by damaged four by fours, our bathroom ceiling had collapsed twice, the front door jammed hopelessly, and the oven was so smoky that we had to disable every fire alarm in the house – lest they start screeching every time someone cooked a pizza (which was often).

 But a home is what you make of it, and for a full year, the five original roommates who’d agreed to live in the four-bedroom house made it a warm and cozy place to hang our hats – despite the conditions.

When the lease turned over after the first year, one of the original five moved out leaving an empty room. And along came Sam Levitt – a southern boy from Mississippi who was kind and sweet natured and new to the world of living away from home. He and his girlfriend, Tish, were a few years younger than the rest of us. 

For a while, things remained pretty normal. Aside from your typical roommate irritations like leaving dishes un-done here and there, life was relatively unperturbed. Until Sam brought home a red-eared slider turtle – and that was the true beginning of the end.

Sam quickly realized that carrying the massive tank he’d bought, out of our tiny apartment, down the stairs and draining it just to replace the water was an arduous task – but one that had to be done every few days, according to his turtle handbook. I think Sam did it once, and I helped him carry it down. As the noxious water sloshed around with each step I choked and gagged. The smell was so bad – and that was after only a couple of weeks. Since then, that poor turtle had been living in a cesspool of its own filth and the smell was getting worse and worse.

One day, I came home as Sam and Tish were hauling a truckload of furniture into our apartment. Inside I discovered an oversized microwave and a couch I’d never seen before suddenly occupying our living room, and the patio was littered with shelves and cabinets. When I asked what the hell was going on, they both fed me some bullshit story about “donations that someone was picking up soon, just a day or two really”.

The truth of the matter was, Tish had been exiled from her second set of roommates in one year, and Sam was moving her into our house without so much as a word of warning to anyone. And that was how we became six people living in a four-person apartment. 

Now, let me get something straight for the record: Sam and Tish were really good people. They were generous. They were friendly. They were innocent and generally amicable. Tish had nowhere to go, she didn’t know anyone in the state except for her boyfriend Sam, and her family-life had been full of abuse and turmoil. Tish had been legally emancipated since she was fourteen – which I respected. I was twenty-four and my parents were still picking up my car insurance. My point is, they were nice and I liked them. We all did. They were just terrible roommates. And it wasn’t just the fact that they baked taquitos at 2AM every morning and rarely cleaned the dishes – it was the fact that they weren’t always honest with us, and the fact that Sam seemed to be slowly killing an innocent red-eared slider for no apparent reason.

In the background of all of this, the swampy odor of the turtle-brew was getting more potent by the day. I could smell it in my room almost constantly unless both windows were fully open. When Sam’s door was ajar the stink would leak down the hall and suffuse the entire house. The stench was like a foul orchestra building in intensity towards some mortal crescendo…

When the smell had become almost unbearable, Sam came out of his room and addressed everyone. We were quietly watching Finding Nemo.

“Everyone,” he began, “Sheila is dead. I can finally get rid of that disgusting tank.”

And that was it. He walked back into his room, then, and closed the door.

The living room was very quiet for a few minutes. None of us said anything. But I’m sure the same thought was running through all of our heads: Why the hell did he have to wait until Sheila was dead to get rid of that chemical torture cell? Why couldn’t he have done that when the poor thing was still alive? We were angry. I wanted to tie Sheila’s corpse around his neck like some slimy albatross and make him wear it until our lease was up.

That night I offered to help him carry the tank out and drain it. Sam agreed and we hoisted the repulsive box of water and started moving it out. I couldn’t even see my hands beneath the glass through the three inches of foggy water.

We were halfway down the hall when Sam dropped the damned thing.

As we were carrying it down the hall, the smell of the turbulent water was so overwhelming he nearly passed out and the whole tank slipped from his grip, plummeting in slow motion and shattering on the ground. All of that toxic turtle wastewater and broken glass flooded our hallway and almost instantly got absorbed by the thirsty one-inch shag rug that was waiting for it.

The odor hit me in the face like mace, stinging my eyes and burning my nostrils. I felt blind and stumbled, coughing and gagging straight out of the house. When I closed my eyes all I could see were flashes of vivid colors as if I’d taken a blow to the skull.

We did what we could to clean up the mess, gather the shattered glass and air out the house. But the damage was already done. The stink was never going to leave. It was like a curse left by the departing spirit of Sam’s angry red-eared slider.

That night I surrounded myself with three fans on full blast and opened the windows. But my dreams were horrifying – I was floating through a blue-green abyss that burned me like acid and set every orifice in my body on fire. I could see nothing but fluorescence. I could taste nothing but piss. And all I could hear was some infernal laughter echoing endlessly all around me.

I jerked awake, sweating, gasping for air, and trembling in terror. All I could smell was turtle rot. It took a moment before I calmed down, but there was no way sleep was returning any time soon. So I got up to go smoke a little weed – the good herb, my flower friend. As I walked across the hallway the rug squished and squashed beneath my bare feet. I lifted my shirt over my nose to diminish the smell.

I’ll never know exactly what started the fire. My gut tells me Tish was cooking taquitos in the deep hours of the night and forgot about them, or maybe she fell asleep. But that doesn’t really matter much, anymore. When I entered the living room it was so full of smoke I could hardly see – except for the fire billowing out around our oven. I watched wicked fingers of flames wiggling their way up the walls and the cabinets, and spilling out over the popcorn ceiling like surging water. I was hypnotized by the sight. The dancing flames were so bright and unexpected I just stared for several moments – then I heard the house creak momentously, and felt the ground beneath me shake. My trance was quite suddenly broken.

Covering my face I ran down the hall banging on doors and screaming at the top of my lungs: “FIRE!!” Bang, bang, bang! “There’s a fire you motherfuckers! Get Up!” Bang, bang, bang! “GET UP! We need to get out!”

I saw Rebel run past me coughing, saw Aldus stagger out of his room and Ellen out of hers. I banged on Sam’s door again.

“Tish! Sam! We need to go! NOW!”

The structure moaned again, and I thought I felt the floor shift. There was no more time. I sprinted towards the door, as fast as my legs could carry me.

A split second after I’d made it through the threshold and out into the night, the entire three-story apartment came crashing down in an incredible, thunderous collapse that caused car alarms up and down the block to flare to life. The heap of rubble was ablaze, billowing smoke into the starry night sky. We watched, terrified, from the safety of our parking lot.

That inferno persisted for about an hour, before the firefighters finally stopped dousing it in water: Aldus, Rebel, Ellen and I were the only survivors. 

The official report cited nine people having died in the structure-fire/collapse. That was just about everyone else that lived in the three-unit apartment complex – which made us “lucky”, according to the fire chief. They had discovered that our house’s fire alarms had been disconnected. The chief said that if I hadn’t gotten up to smoke my weed, there’s little chance we would have had time to escape, alive. (Thank god for ganja, I suppose)

Anyway, maybe the chief was right. But “lucky” seems like a heavy term to throw around in a situation like that. I think “damnation” might be a better descriptor. 

Will Brendza