Every day she brings her son to see the turtles. He carries a small jar of turtle food in his hands. She dislikes leaving the apartment and the comfort of the air conditioning, entering this foreign world, but these small trips down to the guardhouse she can manage. The turtles weren’t there when they moved here a year ago. One day she came home from the grocery store, shopping bags digging into her palms, and saw the plastic container outside the guardhouse.
She was about to walk past it. She nodded to the security guard; she couldn’t wave because of the bags in her hands. Then she saw a little head poke above the lip of the container. She found turtles inside, some swimming in the water, others perched on rocks. The container was the type you might use for under-the-bed storage, sweaters tucked away until winter but there was no winter here.
The guard shuffled out of his little house, which did not have air conditioning, just a fan mounted on a wall. This seemed cruel to her and she thought one day she would talk to the apartment manager about it, but it seemed to be common in Singapore: these old men sitting inside guardhouses with no air conditioning. They weren’t capable of guarding much of anything. This particular man spent seemingly half of his shift in the bathroom, the other half asleep in his house. Cars would arrive at the gate and honk until he woke up, startled, perhaps unaware of where he was, of how much time had passed.
She asked if the turtles were his and he said yes, smiling, revealing the few teeth he had left. He seemed so proud of the turtles. She nodded and continued on to her apartment, walking three flights of stairs because the elevator was broken.
Since then, every afternoon she and her son walk down to feed the turtles. He is three and this small daily adventure is thrilling. He had been asking for a pet, but she did not want to get one, didn’t want the responsibility of another living thing, but in this small way, he has many pets now. Although they belong to the guard, her son has named them: Lenny, Bob, Jeff, Linda, and Jack. She does not know where he comes up with these names. There had been a Susan as well, but she died the first week.
Her son sprinkles the turtle food into the plastic container. Mostly the turtles seem uninterested in the food from the small jar her son carries. She thinks maybe the guard fishes the pellets out after they leave, maybe he feeds them something entirely different, lettuce or worms, she has no idea what turtles are supposed to eat other than this jar of food from the pet store.
Every day that she makes this trip downstairs with her son, she worries that another turtle will be dead. She offered to replace Susan, but the guard waved her off, saying, “these things happen.” And she knows this is true, knows her son must learn these things too. She wonders about the guard sometimes, about his life: where does he live, does he have a family, was he a young man once? What does he dream about when he falls asleep at the gate?
Each turtle will die eventually, she knows. One day they will come down to the guardhouse and find no container. Or maybe one day they will come down and find no old man. Maybe then, they will pick up the container of turtles and take it home, carry it up the stairs carefully so the water doesn’t slosh out. They will look online for information, maybe she’ll brave the heat and take her son to the library. Together they will learn how to care for turtles, what to feed them, how to keep them safe. Together they will make a new habitat.
Shasta Grant is the author of GATHER US UP AND BRING US HOME (Split Lip Press, 2017). She won the 2015 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest and was the 2016 SmokeLong Quarterly Kathy Fish Fellow. Her work has appeared in cream city review, Epiphany, Hobart, MonkeyBicycle, and elsewhere. She received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and has been awarded residencies from Hedgebrook and The Kerouac Project. She lives in Singapore and Indianapolis.