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Autumn 2020 Prose

The Tortoise and the Harry

by Cassidy McCleary

Harry perched on the loveseat in his family’s rarely used living room, or as his mother liked to call it “the parlor” and braced himself for the most awkward conversation of his life. He reached up to wipe away the bead of sweat trickling down his forehead from beneath the brown shaggy curtain of his hair and tried to subtly rub it into the dusty slipcover without his mom noticing.

“Honey, I know it was hard, especially because I knew you weren’t expecting to, but your father and I are so proud of you for waiting until marriage,” his mother cooed, posed on the opposite loveseat next to his father, who looked even more uncomfortable than himself, if that was possible.

They wish…

Harry tensed up and his eye started to twitch, a nervous tic that had cropped up about three years ago. Whenever he fell asleep too early on school nights before he had prepped his lessons and had to teach his sixth-graders chemistry on the fly, rather than his favored zoology, his eye twitch spontaneously appeared. Apparently, it also popped up when he was hiding things from his mother.

She reached over and daintily grasped his father’s hands in her own, “When we got engaged it was just the hardest thing to wait, but we knew it was for the best. And it was just perfect in the end, wasn’t it honey? I don’t think we said a word out loud our entire wedding night.”

That is a frightening thought.

Harry shifted around as they gazed into each other’s eyes for a sickeningly long time, looking uncannily like two Agapornis roseicollises. Watching your parents cuddle like lovebirds was not Harry’s picture of an ideal afternoon. He glanced down at his feet where his pet tortoise, Darwin, had parked himself a few minutes earlier, in a much-appreciated show of moral support.

You’re twenty-seven years old, for tortoise’s sake. You can handle your parents.

Deciding he had suffered through the silence long enough, Harry finally said “Yup… It will be great, but Mom, can you please send your adoring thoughts to Dad on your own time. Also, did you happen to think about what I asked you before, which, by the way, had NOTHING to do with waiting to mind-meld until marriage.”

“Well, yes, honey, I think Darwin as a ring bearer would be adorable, but I expect you probably have a lot of questions about the mind-meld, and I just wanted you to be able to ask them before your father leaves to make his tee time at the club.”

He rolled his eyes as another bead of sweat trickled down, trying to feign nonchalance. Even the kids in his classes knew about the mind-meld; once they had figured out that he was engaged, they spent the first five minutes of every class speculating what thought he would send to Wren first, once their thoughts linked up. Little did they know…

His eye twitched as he squeaked out, “Mom, I’m pretty sure the logistics of it are not so difficult to understand, given that humans have been joining and amplifying the waves from their cerebrum and prefrontal cortexes since before we even evolved into homo sapiens. We think at each other and then we can think to each other. Pretty simple stuff.”

“You and your biology talk. I’m still surprised Wren even agreed to go out with you with you blabbering on about this and that all day long. Fine, I guess if you don’t need anything, we’ll just see you tomorrow. Eight o’clock sharp, honey.”

“I know, Mom. I’m not gonna be late to my own wedding. Also, for your information, Wren loves it when I talk nerdy to her.”

He quirked up the corner of his mouth at his little inside joke that had begun when he had met Wren wearing a talk nerdy to me t-shirt.

“Well, since we’re done here,” he jumped to his feet, “I’m gonna head back to my apartment with Darwin before the rehearsal dinner tonight.”

He bent down to give his mom the requisite kiss on the cheek, and then bolted out the door, Darwin following as fast as he could. Once he and Darwin were securely situated in his car, he exhaled. T minus 18 hours until it was Wren confession time.

Honestly Harry, I don’t know how you’re gonna get out of this one.

***

Seven thirty p.m. saw Harry sitting to Wren’s left at the head of the long rectangular table that dominated the formal dining room of his parent’s club where they would be holding their reception the next day. Tomorrow the room would be filled with small round tables and slightly tipsy guests who had imbibed one too many drinks from the open bar, but at the moment, he only had to face down their two sets of parents, his best friend, Paul, who would be serving as the best man, Wren’s bridesmaids: her younger sister Larken and her two girlfriends from college, and of course, Darwin.

Not that many at all. You’ve got this, probably…

The eye twitch was back, and he felt himself tense up at the thought of disappointing so many people the next day. He felt a familiar hand rest on the clenched fist he had hidden under the tablecloth and tilted his chin up to meet Wren’s sympathetic gaze. Her raised eyebrows asked him questions he didn’t want to answer at the moment. He shrugged.

“You gonna tell me what’s going on in there? Or am I gonna have to wait until tomorrow when I can weasel it out myself?” She asked, her voice teasing, but her stiff shoulders belayed a little stress. Odd.

Eye twitch. Apparently, the reaction wasn’t exclusive to his mother.

You are so dead.

The natural curiosity he had adored since they met was a little less adorable right now. She was going to see his eye twitch and then he was screwed.

“I’m all good. Nothing to worry about,” he murmured, trying to avoid the attention of both of their parents who had been fairly quiet all evening, for different reasons; his parents had fallen into their usual thought-sharing pattern that most traditional married couples used once they decided to mind-meld. Wren’s just glowered at each other like they tended to do these days whenever they were forced to be in the same room, most likely using their connection to privately yell at each other.

“If you say so. No backing out on me though, Mr. I’m-never-gonna-fall-in-love-because-only-my-tortoise-understands-me. If I can get past my fear of the mind-meld, you can make it to the altar,” she replied with a wink of one of her chocolate brown eyes, and shot him the grin that had made him melt instantly from across the bar a year and a half ago. The slow-burn kind that warmed his insides like a Bunsen burner until he was just a puddle at her feet. It was hard to believe a girl as wonderful as she was had fallen for one of his science pick-up lines. He had known she was the one when she had fired one of her own right back.

“You’re never gonna let me live that one down, are you” he said, with a wince, the barest hint of a smile teasing the corners of his lips as he remembered how badly he had bungled their first conversation. It was their mutual love of Jeopardy that saved them.

With his mind far away from their rehearsal dinner, distracted by memories of their first meeting, he almost missed her whole comment. But, after a moment, the second part of what she said sank in.

“Wait, fear of the mind-meld? What does that mean?”

Wren looked like a kid with her hand caught in the cookie jar. “Oh. Well… Obviously, you know about my parent’s issues. I just got really freaked out a few nights ago about us and all the what ifs. Like what if you turn out to be a yeller like Dad? And what if I end up having to take migraine medicine for the rest of my life like Mom, but then I realized that I trust you, and I can do this.” She nodded. The last part seemed more for herself than for him. He winced.

“I love you,” She smiled.

“Wren, I…” He started, but then his eye twitched again, “I… love you too.”

Oh boy… This is worse than I thought.

***

When Wren stepped through the large wooden chapel doors the next morning, Harry’s heart almost stopped. She looked more graceful than a swan, with her simple white dress trailing behind her. The morning sun streaming in through the windows behind him cast a warm glow that brought out the blond highlights in her curly caramel hair, pinned back beneath her veil. As she strode towards him, the soothing chords of Pachelbel’s Canon in D started to feel like his personal funeral march. After her admission last night, he felt even worse. When she found out what he had done, she was going to kill him, or worse, jilt him at the altar.

Wren reached the base of the altar where he was waiting and grasped his hands tightly, which he attributed to anticipatory jitters. She looked up at him with her eyes shining. She was perfect. And after today, if he told her, he was going to lose her.

Most of the ceremony passed in a blur. He responded when prompted, although if you asked him what he had said, he had no clue. He must have said the right things though because before he knew it, he heard the officiant say, “If anyone can think of any reason why these two young lovers should not be bound in heart, and especially mind, speak now or forever hold your peace.”

At the mention of minds, his eye twitched yet again.

Come on Harry. Fess up.

Silence ensued, although Harry could feel the sweat pouring down his neck into his collar, which suddenly felt a lot tighter. He wanted to reach up and loosen it, but his hands were firmly in Wren’s grasp, in preparation for the mind-meld to start.

Harry, if there was a time to tell her, it would be now…

“I neither see nor hear any impediment to this union. Without further ado, I now pronounce you Husband and Wife. You may now meld your…”

“Wait!” Harry exclaimed to the officiant and then turned back to Wren, “I have something I need to tell you.”

He heard a sharp gasp from the congregation; he didn’t even need to look to know who it came from.

“Can’t it wait? We do have an audience, you know” Wren nodded her head towards the guests filling the chapel, whose faces ranged from intrigued to veritably horrified, his mother falling decidedly in the second category, mouth still open after her earlier aspiration. His father sat stoic beside her. No surprises there.

No, it most definitely cannot.

“Ummm, not really,” he grimaced, teeth bared in an expression that was trying really hard to be a charming smile but looked more like a chimpanzee’s grin.

“Not even until after the mind meld?”

“Ya… about that…”

Her eyes got the biggest he had ever seen them, so big she bore an uncanny resemblance to his favorite primate, the Philippine Tarsier.

“Harry, what is it?”

“So you know how I always used to joke about dying alone with my tortoise?”

“Of course. I tease you about it all the time. What does that have to do with our wedding?”

“Well, when I was about thirteen, I hit peak nerd.”

“Yes. Your mom has showed me the photos. And…” She waved her left hand signaling him to continue, the ring they had picked out together catching the light.

Come on Harry, Don’t be a dolt. She loves you. You can do this.

He took a large inhale, and all of a sudden, his deepest, darkest, most well-kept secret came spilling out in one giant mumbled burst that only Wren could hear.

“Imind-meldedwithDarwinonaccidentwhenIwasthirteenandstupid. ha ha”

Ha, Ha? Really, Harry?

Oh, shut up, Darwin.

“Woah, slow down. You WHAT?” She exclaimed, blinking.

By the sound of the murmuring of the crowd behind them, her shout had carried farther than he had wanted. He looked down at his own left hand and started twisting his new ring around nervously.

“Can we talk outside for a bit?” he asked.

He turned to his wedding guests now squirming in their pews. He was sure they thought he had cheated or gotten cold feet at the worst time, but both of those things would probably have made more sense to Wren, who was looking at him like he was the tortoise.

“If you could just give us a few minutes? We’ll be right back,” he said, and pulled Wren out the side door near the altar into the hallway.

Away from the appalled audience, he took another deep breath. Her entreating glance gave him the courage to continue.

“I used my one chance at thought-sharing to meld minds with my tortoise. It was a complete accident. We had just learned the particulars in school, you know. The stare into the persons eyes and concentrate until you feel their consciousness type stuff. Well, later that week, I had a particularly bad day. Paul was out with a cold, so there was no one to intimidate the group of jocks who sat behind me in science class. They spent the whole period calling me amphibi-noob and chucking pieces of paper at the back of my head when the teacher wasn’t looking. I had never felt more alone. After school, Darwin was the only person around to talk to, like usual, so I rehashed my whole day out loud more for my benefit than anything else, but it really felt like he was listening this time for some reason. So then, I had my genius idea. Try reaching out to Darwin. I didn’t think it was gonna work. But I thought really hard about Darwin with my hand on his shell to establish the necessary point of contact, and all of a sudden, my voice in my head changed and my thoughts felt really sporadic. Then I realized that they weren’t my thoughts at all. They were far too sarcastic to have originated from me. And I flipped out because my shoddy and stupid experiment worked. I never knew I would meet someone like you who was amazing and everything I could have ever wanted but never knew I could have. I promise I would share my thoughts with you if I could. Will you forgive me?”

He looked up to see tears in her eyes. His stomach dropped. He knew he was screwed. He knew it. He…

“Oh, thank goodness!” She blew out a forceful breath and wiped away the tears dripping down her face, almost giggling with what seemed to Harry like relief? She wasn’t mad? He scanned her over to make sure. Her shoulders had relaxed. Her eyes were no longer of monkey-sized proportions. She seemed suspiciously too happy. Was that bad?

“I didn’t know how to tell you, but I was really trying to put on a brave face yesterday. I didn’t want to meld minds either. You saw what it does to my parents. I didn’t ever want to risk that, not that you’re like them of course, but I don’t want us to have to live with that pressure… so, of course I forgive you. Not that this is really something you can guess about, but I always was a little suspicious of how helpful Darwin was whenever you two were in the same room. What kind of normal tortoise brings you the remote?” She laughed and wiped her cheek, “Can you forgive me, for not being honest with you either?”

“Forgive you? I could kiss you right now for not slapping me and storming out of here.” So he did.

And then he remembered that it was his wedding that he himself had so rudely interrupted.

“I guess we should probably go back out there, right? I think by this point my poor mother has had an aneurism,” He said with a sigh.

“Maybe not an aneurism, but at least a minor conniption,” she said, and they both laughed.

“What should we tell them?” As much of a relief as it was to tell Wren, he wasn’t ready to publish his experiment results too widely yet.

“Leave that to me,” she said and grabbed his hand.

They slipped back through the door, hands still linked, and took their places at the altar again.

“Are you ready to meld minds now?” the officiant asked incredulously.

“Of course, sir. Don’t mind Harry. His tortoise must have rubbed off on him, because he had some cold-blooded feet for a moment,” She winked at Harry, her dimples finally making an appearance again, and mouthed just go with it.

All the guests chuckled except for his mother; she still looked a little shellshocked. But if he had had any doubts about Wren’s genius before now, they would have been erased. They grabbed hands and stared at each other for the requisite ten seconds, willing each other not to laugh while trying to look convincingly telepathic. The officiant proclaimed them married and melded, and after a quick peck, they ran down the aisle to the car waiting outside to take them to the reception.

Crisis Averted, Darwin.

Told you it would be fine. Although, you realize they’re gonna find out eventually, don’t you?

Harry’s eye twitched.

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