The creek began in the hills, which were nearly treeless, and the comfortable, centuries-old homes there, thickening as it moved down through the dark oak and maple forests. When it reached the endless marsh and its raucous flocks of red-winged blackbirds, it had become a small river. The creek and woods would, of course, though he didn’t know it then, disappear in a few years under the growing capital’s hunger for housing, but for now this was the magical place where he collected the turtles, frogs and salamanders that meant so much to him.
He would keep each animal for a while, a guest in his father’s house, grateful to it for the wonder it was and what it might teach him, and then do his best to return it, though often later than he should, and sometimes not at all, keeping it in one of the terrariums his father let him have in his bedroom. The strength of this desire—to hold onto what he found beautiful, instead of leaving it alone—puzzled him, and yet taught him something that would, years later, serve him in the world of law and, in turn, in the service of two Presidents: That people wanted to possess what they found wondrous; that they could not be happy simply looking at it; and that he, Marcus, was no different.
He had crossed the creek one Saturday in the fourth grade, his bucket full of young sliders, two baby painted turtles, and one baby musk turtle, when he heard voices and looked up. At the other end of the thick wide board he always used to cross back over the creek to get home stood three boys. He knew one of them from school, but not the other two. They were all rowdy boys—he could tell—not book readers or animal lovers, and not good students. They probably had bb guns and made forts to shoot at each other from— the kinds of things in his experience that boys like these enjoyed doing.
They were standing on the board, not moving, watching him.
He started across anyway, bucket in hand, thinking they might move. They did not.
“If you want to pass, Lattimer, you have to pay.”
Marcus blinked at them, understanding it was a game, but unsure how to play it.
“I don’t have any money.”
“You’ve got what’s in that bucket.”
“Good. Give us the turtles and we’ll let you cross.”
He still wasn’t sure of the rules. If he gave them the turtles, would they really let him pass? If he walked up to them and gave them the turtles there, while he was still on the board, would they push him off? The board was here because the creek was deep and muddy.
“I’ll give you the bucket when I’m on the other side.”
“Smart ass,” one of the boys said. “Soooo smart.”
The leader had a flat face and very short hair. The other two had short hair too. The leader didn’t like hearing a condition, but he’d still won, hadn’t he?—and that was the point, wasn’t it?
All three were bigger than Marcus. When he squeezed past them on the board, they felt even bigger. He flinched once when a hand touched him, but they let him pass with the bucket. They knew he wouldn’t try to run. They were faster, and they knew he knew it.
They also knew he knew that if they had to chase him, they’d be mad and who knows what they would do.
When he stepped off the board, he turned. They were coming toward him, but without menace, just stepping from the board. When they were in front of him, he handed the leader the bucket.
“Good boy, Lattimer. Roll over, Lattimer.”
Teasing wasn’t the same as fists, so it didn’t bother him. He was watching them, listening to their words, watching their bodies, as if they were creatures on the other side of glass. They didn’t scare him. They interested him in some way he did not understand, though he also knew that if they started to hit him, the glass would disappear and he would indeed feel afraid. This was how it worked.
The leader knelt down and poured the turtles out. One of the other two grabbed a slider as it headed toward the creek, put it quickly on a small rock, and just as quickly stepped on it. He laughed as he did this, and Marcus stared at the turtle, trying to understand. The turtle was dead now. It had been beautiful, alive and moving, and now it was blood and guts and broken shell. Why laugh? Why crush something that beautiful?