'Keratin' by Tracy Pitts

I will never be able to forget the sound.

We slow down on Highway 19 in Ethel, MS. The speed limit is 45 miles per hour, but tractors outstrip us as they pass us on the narrow, pockmarked asphalt. We have to admit that this is their territory. Even two girls who have grown up in Mississippi are outsiders here, as we crawl down the road that leads away from the pristine, white church where our friend is getting married next Saturday. We know she doesn’t want the ceremony at the church, but her father is a small-town pastor, and what are a couple of millennial bridesmaids against years of backwoods Christianity?

I am in the passenger seat, aiming the air-conditioning vent toward my sweltering body and watching for the turn that will get us out of this unfamiliar world and back onto the main highway, when I see something in the road. We pass it before I realise what I’ve seen.

“That was a turtle,” I tell Shelby, and she stops the car, putting it in reverse and backing up. “I’ll just put him off on the side. Watch for me.”

I can feel the heat from the asphalt through the soles of the flats I decided to wear today. I would have been better off in my hiking clothes from yesterday, but they are soaked with sweat and crumpled in a grocery bag in the backseat. It’s only May, for God’s sake, and already ninety degrees. I take three steps toward the turtle, still making his way across the road, when I hear the horn.

It’s funny how when disaster approaches time slows down. I’ve only experienced it a few times in my life, and it always catches me by surprise. It can’t have taken more than three seconds for the 18-wheeler to bear down on us, but when I think back it feels like it took an eternity to crest the hill.

In that moment, it isn’t an 18-wheeler anymore. It’s a living creature, and I am standing in its path. There is no driver. I am nothing but prey. It screams. I have enough time in this short moment to marvel that “it’s not going to slow down.” And then, “it’s going to hit the turtle,” before, “it’s going to hit me if it can.”

I stumble backwards. I start to cover my eyes, but my hands don’t make it past my mouth. I wish I had thought to cover my ears instead.

When the wheels hit, the turtle’s shell makes a dry crack that is louder than I expected. It resonates against the stillness of the surrounding trees. I watch as what was a living creature just moments ago, bravely making its way across a strip we laid down in its home, is turned into flying pieces of keratin. Red beads against the sky and I am finally able to turn my back as the monster’s breath washes over me.

I can see myself through its eyes, a tiny girl backing out of its path. My skirt whips around my bare legs as it passes. My hands are over my mouth. My eyes are squeezed shut. I am heartbroken and it rumbles its pleasure as it passes me. It wasn’t able to get me this time, but maybe the next. It got the turtle, after all.

When I get back into the car, Shelby’s knuckles are white on the steering wheel.

“He hit it, didn’t he?”

“It’s dead. He didn’t even slow down.”


Tracy Pitts lives in Jackson, MS. By day, go visit her at the Mississippi Children's Museum. By night, she can be found at the local coffee shop either writing or playing Dungeons and Dragons. She is a graduate of the Mississippi University for Women's low-residency Creative Writing MFA program. Find out more at her website: https://www.tracyroot.net/

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