Short Story of the Month: Keeper

By Heather Gordy


            I wake up to see his eyes are open. Just like every morning he’s already watching me. I lie here looking back at him. He doesn’t move. I stare at his webbed feet and tiny claws. Shades of green, brown and black mesh together covering his shell. His mouth doesn’t close all the way; there’s a small sliver of an opening. The rest of his body is in a stripe-like design. Lines of forest green run across his face to his tail. He still fits in the palm of my hand but he’s growing. Thin flakes of skin hang from his neck and around his face. His shell peels in thick layers, and sometimes I find small fragments along my floor or in my bed.

His name is Clyde. His tank sits next to my bed because I want to be close to him. Clyde sleeps in the corner in an open space between his rock and the glass. Even when I rearrange his tank he always sleeps in an area where he can still watch me. Whenever he sees me he begins swimming frantically into the glass like he’s reaching out to me, yearning for me. I let him crawl around on my bed while I work. He heads toward the warmest place which is under my stomach. I try not to breathe too heavily, even though I know he’s fine and already asleep. He’s only there because he needs my warmth, but I like to think he wants to stay close to me too. I like to think he would rather use me for warmth than his lamp.

His water needs to be changed every two weeks. He is fed every other day. I make sure to bathe him regularly, checking his shell for any soft spots. I keep in mind that soft spots indicate a reduction in health, which could potentially lead to rotting shell. If not taken care of he could die. I turn his basking light on every morning. He has six inches to swim freely and a climbing rock on one side to bask. Additional rocks form stairs up the side to make it easier for him to climb. He never ate the shrimp treats I bought him. He doesn’t like carrots or broccoli. The one time I tried giving him live fish he was too slow to catch them. I figured he would eventually catch them, but after a couple days I ended up having to take care of them myself. He lives alone, but I try to provide the attention and care he needs to be happy. I hope he’s happy; the least I can do is make sure he’s happy

* * *

I still haven’t met anyone more motivated than my brother, Mark. He has always been someone who knew what he wanted and made sure to get it by making his own path to his goals. When Mark describes what he wants in life he compares it to different levels. He says, “Life gives everyone a level. For the average person they will stick to this level and that’s it, but I want more. I want everything that’s better. I want it now and as fast as I can get it.” He’s a foot taller than me, four years older, and I’m his favorite. I don’t know if it’s because I’m the only one he can pick up and twirl around, or if it’s because he knows he can still influence me to make better decisions than other people in my family have. Coming out of college my sister said she would go onto graduate school, but she never did. She’s twenty-four and still living with my parents. My mom married young because she was pregnant. My dad was an alcoholic from the day they were married until I was twelve years old. Although he’s sober now, I still don’t know if he’s happy. Mark wants more for me.

I learned how to ride a bike when I was seven-years-old. I remember I was watching TV when my brother walked into the room. “Heather do you want to learn how to ride a bike?” he said.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Okay,” he said, “let’s go.”

“Right now?”

“Yeah, you need to learn.”

We went outside and he let me practice on his old bike. Pointing my feet, my tip toes just barely brushed against the ground. We started in the front yard because it was the only flat area around our house. Once I managed to stay on past a few peddles across the yard, it was time to test out the hill. I sat on the bike while Mark held it balanced for me. I counted my breaths while he said, “You ready? Now remember, to slow down all you have to do is move the peddles backwards a little.” I paused before I took in my third breath, then I was off. I kept going faster and faster turning over leaves behind me. I couldn’t believe I could ride a bike now. “Okay, you are going to want to slow down. There are trees in front of you,” Mark said, yelling out to me. But I wasn’t slowing down. “Just keep dodging the trees and you’ll slow down yourself.” But I couldn’t do that either.

Next, the bike was left stuck between two trees with me lying on my back. I heard my brother run over. “You did it. You just need to watch out for that tree next time, but we’ll work on that,” he said. I felt my eyes become heavy with tears, but I knew I couldn’t let him think I was hurt or that I couldn’t do it. I wanted to be strong like him. “Come on, you’re all right,” he said. “Suck it up. You have to laugh at yourself when you fall. You have to tell yourself it doesn’t hurt.”

* * *

While I was in elementary school, my family raised Rat Terriers and Labrador Retrievers. At one point we had fourteen dogs that were ours to breed and sell. I knew the name of every one of them and their genealogy. I never had to ask for a dog, but what I really wanted was a reptile. Their skin is layered to where you can feel each scale on top of the other. There’s a certain way a snake will look at you while swiveling toward you. Or the way an alligator doesn’t move at all. They lock eyes with you, waiting for you to make the wrong move. I don’t get that same expression from Clyde. He might have looked at me in this way his first day home, with a sort of disgust, but now his eyes are gentle. There’s a feeling of peace when I look at him.

I hate the days I don’t get to see or hold him. I feel like I’m not offering all that I can. What’s the point in him being out of his natural environment if I can’t offer more? I want to make sure he’s healthy; as healthy as he can be. I remember the day I thought I saw a dark spot on his shell and immediately assumed it was rotting shell. I took him out to check for any soft spots, analyzing his shell from every angle the same way I analyze my teeth when I’m convinced I have a cavity. I added more calcium to his diet, and for the next week I made sure he basked every day. Finally, I came to the conclusion that his shell was only peeling in that area, and he was perfectly fine.

He watches me on the days I don’t leave my bed. I don’t leave because I’m sick, but because I have no energy for that day. No emotion or care to leave or move. I may not eat that day. Chances are I cry until I fall back asleep without a true reason to cry. The day before I might have been completely fine. Maybe I had lunch with my best friend Karina and she told me about how she almost swallowed a cockroach because it had crawled into her water bottle without her knowing—she nearly cried. Or maybe we spent our day in the library and laughed so much Karina had to walk away so we would stop. Knowing this only makes me cry more for not understanding myself. I become frustrated and annoyed. I feel selfish for having these emotions, especially on such a good day, and then the thoughts start up again. I think about my brother and how hard it is for me to feel that drive and motivation to want something for myself. I can’t escape from the thought that there’s nothing tangible to hold onto. There’s nothing that I want more than what I don’t want. They’re the same; a neutral feeling. Images flash through my head. A tree, then a rope, then a noose, and then me. At this point I have no other choice but to make myself go to sleep. When I wake up he’s watching me. He swims frantically into the glass, but I turn away. He doesn’t bask that day. He doesn’t eat.

* * *

                When I was younger I followed Mark everywhere. When my dad would tell him to go pick up the sticks out of the backyard I would join. If my brother didn’t wear a shirt, I didn’t wear a shirt. He taught me everything I needed to know: how to build ships out of Legos, which Pokémon cards were better than others, and how to hit a baseball. I remember him calling me into his room one day, sitting me down and saying, “Heather, I’m going to tell you about Star Wars. It’s a series of movies, and you need to know everything about it.”

At the beginning of my senior year of high school Mark came to me and asked if I wanted to go for a drive. It wasn’t unusual; he kept most things to himself without an explanation, so I didn’t ask or think anything of it. We pulled into a developing neighborhood where he began to talk about how he liked the area. A couple turns and we reached a dead end at a cul-de-sac with one house. It had a long driveway leading up to the house with trees following both sides.

“I like this house,” he said, shifting the car into park.

“Yeah, I said. “It’s nice.”

There was a silence while both of us took time to notice the beautiful features that made this house different from the rest. For one, it was by itself and still had a backyard with plenty of trees like the ones I used to climb. There was a pond in the distance making it more desirable as I imaged myself sitting on the porch with a cup of coffee in the morning looking out onto the water.

“Heather,” he said, “we need to talk.”

“About what?” I said. This I did not expect. I’m sure my eyes grew wider like they do every time I’m nervous.

“You need to start applying to colleges,” he said. “Have you even thought about where you would like it go?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“I mean I can help you, but you need to start thinking about what you want. What do you want to do? How much money do you want to make? Do you want a house like this one, in a small neighborhood in North Carolina? Or do you want something bigger?”

That house was great, but I couldn’t say where I wanted to be. My ultimate goal was to just be happy.

I went to the first college I was accepted to—the University of North Carolina of Wilmington. My original plan was to major in Marine Biology, and then I would go to graduate school or something. My family thought this was great; it’s hard to go wrong with a science degree. I was okay with this too, but then I took a creative writing class. At first, because I needed to take it as a university studies requirement, but then I took another one. When I told Mark about my creative writing class, he told me to go for it. He didn’t ask, well what are you going to do with that, like my parents did. He told me, “Heather, I would let you write my emails for me, and you know I would never trust anyone to write my emails.”

* * *

                I knew Clyde was watching me the night I came home thinking it was over. I told him “I’m sorry” because I didn’t think I was going to have a chance to tell anyone else. I had already not eaten that day, and I had decided that when I forced myself to sleep that night, I wasn’t going to wake up the next morning. Earlier that day I had been completely fine, but I couldn’t tell myself it didn’t hurt anymore. I didn’t know how to suck it up or laugh at myself.

My first worry was Clyde. Who would take care of him? I wrote a letter to my friend JD—a biology major and someone who often took care of Clyde when I went out of town. He would surely take care of him.

Next, I had to settle things with Mark. I needed to make sure he would be okay and remember the things he loves to do other than work, like play the guitar. I always loved listening to him play the guitar. I was the only person who he would let listen. He sent me a recording one night after I told him I missed hearing him play. Sometimes, I’ll listen to it to calm me down or help me fall sleep so that I’ll have good dreams. That night, I listened to it on repeat; I wanted it to be the last thing I heard before I fell asleep.

I stared down at the open prescription bottles with the pills spilled out across my bed, and the music playing in the background. I thought back to when I used to sit outside the door of Marks room just listening without him knowing I was there. With Clyde looking at me, and red, white, round, and oval assorted pills mixed and scattered in front of me, I couldn’t even write “Dear Mark.” Tears dripped onto the page, so I grabbed a new one. There were too many pills to count. Even more tears covered the next page. I swallowed four pills but my hands were shaking. My own saliva became hard to swallow. I couldn’t do it. I threw the pills into the trash. The music stayed on repeat until I fell asleep. I woke up to the same light that pierces through my window every morning. I turned to Clyde to see that he was already awake, watching me.

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