Fiction · 02/14/2018

Natural Hazards

On their third date, beholding the object itself, Mellie said to Brooke, “Your clit is a perfect purple turtle.”

“Don’t,” Brooke said, and stirred away.

Later, when Mellie had claimed a spot in the nook under Brooke’s arm, the reason: “My ex is a turtle.”

What’s more, Brooke’s ex still lived with her.

“His name’s Andy,” she said. Brooke and Mellie stood in bare feet and underwear on the filmy floor of the garage as Brooke pulled the period-stained floral bedsheet off a four-foot glass tank. Mellie worked the knuckle of her big toe into a large chip in the cement.

Things that Mellie would Google in the next three days:

eastern box turtle life span,

eastern box turtle natural hazards,

eastern box turtle penis.

(Note: eastern box turtles keep their penises inside their tails.)

Brooke was a night owl. Mellie was a woodpecker, sitting in front of Andy’s tank, knuckle-rapping on the glass, mornings while Brooke slept. Andy moved into and out of his shell without reference to Mellie’s presence, only sometimes shifting his prehistoric neck to glance at her, or maybe just at his own reflection. He was impenetrable.

Mellie concentrated her efforts on speed: fast fucks, evening sprints, moving into Brooke’s in under a month.

“Whoosh!” Brooke said, emptying half the closet, hunting the newly rearranged kitchen for a tablespoon. “Baby, keep moving so quick and you’ll miss it all.”

“What all?” Mellie said.

All all,” Brooke said, circling an arm in the air.

Mellie took on the shopping, and felt a romantic thrill at consulting the list and placing Brooke’s three packages of goldfish crackers in the basket, carefully selecting unrumpled bags to prolong the moment of intimacy.

When Mellie returned home, Brooke was catching caterpillars from the garden for Andy’s supper. “Oh, those are for Andy,” Brooke said, squinting at the goldfish from under her straw hat. “He’s such a fiend for them.”

In the kitchen, Andy craned up from his perch on the counter to look at his own reflection in the window, then went back to his afternoon snack of salted mustard greens.

Mellie dropped the goldfish on the counter and went for a run, during which she counted the days until she and Brooke had been together as long as Brooke and Andy had: six-months-three weeks to go.

Six-months-two-weeks: Mellie claimed that the market was out of goldfish.

Six-months-one-week: she bought the goldfish, but put them in the highest cupboard she could reach.

Six-months-zero-weeks: Brooke said, “I love you too, A — Mellie.”

Five-months-three-weeks: Mellie bought a giant houseplant for the kitchen counter.

(Google search: plants poisonous to eastern box turtles.)

“It’s okay,” Brooke said, rubbing a waxy leaf between her finger and thumb. “Kinda blocks the window, yeah?”

At night, fighting sleep beside Brooke and her booklight with five-months-two-weeks to go, Mellie looked around the room at her receipts, her laundry, the tumbleweeds of her hair, her cracked-open books; she measured herself in houseplants and tablespoons and judged herself too large. She would pull everything to her, keep her things contained.

Mellie put her toothbrush in her gym bag. She moved the houseplant to her bedside table, where it strained its stems toward the window across the room. Brooke didn’t mention it.

Andy’s death was an accident, however much of a relief it was. Mellie was indisputably to blame: carrier of the laundry basket and bleach bottle, bump-er of the glass tank, spiller of the chlorine bleach, natural hazard to the eastern box turtle. Raised on sitcoms, Mellie replaced Andy with an identical turtle in the hopes that Brooke wouldn’t spot the difference.

And then… she didn’t.

Brooke fed the impostor grass and red worms; she murmured to the impostor as she did the laundry; she sat out snacks of goldfish crackers. She picked up the impostor to clean out the tank, not noticing the smaller size, the reddish tint to the eyelids.

Mellie visited the impostor some mornings. She was the only one who held the impostor’s secret. She rapped at the glass and the impostor took notice, creaking her mountain of wrinkles in the direction of Mellie’s hand. Her expression appraising.

Mellie kept everything wrapped around and inside her, and Brooke never noticed that she got out of bed so early. But maybe Brooke ought to have realized that Andy had been replaced.

One Tuesday, Mellie got out of bed early and lifted the impostor out of Andy’s tank. The impostor was alert already, head out of her shell. Neither needed to pack. On their way out of the garage, Mellie whispered into the impostor’s ear, and gave the imposter a name.


Erin Kate Ryan’s fiction has been published in Glimmer Train, Conjunctions, The Normal School, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Copper Nickel, and others. She is the 2017 James Jones First Novel Fellow, a 2017 McKnight Artist Fellow, a 2017 Jerome Foundation Minnesota Emerging Writers grantee, and a 2016 Minnesota State Arts Board Artist’s Initiative grantee. Her work has received awards from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Vermont Studio Center, and the Millay Colony, among others.