The soft-shelled turtle had been scrambling against the cloudy wall of the tank, clawing against a slippery mass of shells. Then it had surrendered, bulbous snout still raised, staring at Annalise through eyes rimmed pink with infection.
It was this turtle she was bringing home in a large styrofoam container, the top of which she had punctured with her keys. The employee at the seafood counter had been more than willing to assist her. "Are you here alone? With your family?" he'd asked, pointing to an elderly Korean woman struggling with her cart. "Is that your mother? She's beautiful like you."
Annalise had nodded absently, requesting that the turtle be given to her live.
"Do you know how to cook it?" the employee had asked. To which had Annalise had lied: "Yes, it's my favorite."
It was only after she reached her apartment that she realized she had nowhere to put Toby. She had decided to call him Toby. A murky smell emanated from the container. She gingerly put it on her kitchen table and opened it, half-expecting the turtle to have died in the car.
He extended his head and regarded her coolly. Her father had once told her that these turtles could bite fingers off. Annalise clamped the container shut, brought it to the sink, and opened it so that Toby landed with a plop. His triangular, flat head oozed out again, nose flaring.
She reached out and touched his shell—with one finger, then two. Her arm shot back to her side.
“You seem different,” Lydia had marveled when they’d bumped into each other at the coffee place the week before. “There’s something so mature about you now.”
Annalise had given her the smile she reserved for acquaintances. “Good to know. Come by for dinner sometime,” she’d said. They’d exchanged their new phone numbers before Annalise left. To her mild surprise, she’d received a follow-up text later that evening: When can I come over? I’m so excited to catch up.
She’d only bought groceries the day Lydia was scheduled to arrive. The doorbell rang an hour early. "I haven’t finished cooking," Annalise said by way of greeting. Lydia, with classic flippancy, answered: "Oh, I figured you wouldn’t mind if I came early."
Annalise refused to respond as Lydia took off her shoes and coat, but she didn't know why she bothered with these small punishments. They had little effect on people like Lydia, who was already sinking into the couch. "You haven't changed," Annalise finally said.
Lydia rolled her eyes. "Just because I haven't seen you in ages doesn't mean we have to be all formal, okay?"
Maybe this was a relief. There was something satisfying about Lydia’s childishness. And something perversely charming about the way she was draped over the couch in her work clothes, her ankles dangling over the armrest.
"Sit with me," Lydia commanded. "We need to catch up."
"I can't," Annalise said. "I'm making rice."
"Suit yourself." Lydia took her phone out and thumbed through it. "But I want to hear everything. What've you been doing? I can't believe we're in the same city and you didn't tell me."
"I was busy with work stuff. Sorry." Annalise went to add water to the rice and started at the sight of Toby, basking, zen-like in his quiet ugliness. She found herself easing the pot under the tap, careful not to disturb him.
"You've always been such a workaholic, Annie. Ever since high school. Remember when we pulled all-nighters to do essays? I can't do that shit anymore." Lydia stretched, already too much at home. "When it's five, I'm just done. Contracts! Every day."
"Being a lawyer does sound tough," Annalise said. She popped the rice in the cooker and leaned against the counter. Everything else just needed five minutes of stir-frying. She stared at the sink, the bottom already streaked with Toby’s grime.
"I like your apartment," Lydia said all of a sudden. "It reminds me of your parents' house. The wall decorations and everything. So cute."
"Really? I hated that place," Annalise said. Lydia gave a slight laugh, and Annalise tried not to feel too pleased with herself. Once, she had loved how easily she could shock others with her unexpected scorn. Lydia had always shared her cynicism—it was the reason they had been such good friends.
The moment passed. A younger version of Annalise would have felt uncomfortable with the silence. With detached satisfaction, she watched Lydia shift around on the couch. Her mother would have offered tea by now, and maybe Annalise would have too, if it had been anyone else visiting.
"Did I tell you about Jared?" Lydia finally said, studying her nails with affected casualness. "He's this guy I met at work."
"I feel like people named Jared can't be lawyers," Annalise said. "It seems wrong."
"He deserves better, honestly. He's brilliant. Like a literal autodidact. Law's just something he took up for fun one day."
Annalise crossed her arms. A younger version of herself had taken pride in being close to someone who used "autodidact" in conversation. That version would have introduced Lydia to others as "my lawyer friend." "Have you ever seen a soft-shelled turtle?" she asked.
"What?" Lydia looked genuinely surprised. "Why?"
"Come to the sink," Annalise said. A ripple of glee ran through her. The last time she felt this way about Lydia, she'd been mildly drunk in a frat house. She'd been hyperaware of crafting an incoherent text to her, wondering how much shock she could elicit.
Lydia approached the sink. "Oh God!" she gasped, jumping back.
"I got it at a supermarket in Chinatown,” Annalise said. “You know, the grungy ones with the tanks full of frogs. I've always wondered who actually buys these things."
"Apparently you do!" Lydia gave a half-laugh, standing on her toes to peer at Toby. "What, so it's just gonna live in your sink forever?"
"No," Annalise said in delight. "It's for dinner."
The color drained out of Lydia's face in a way that Annalise found incredibly pleasing. She brought a large pot over to the sink and began to fill it with water. The sound made Toby retract his head. "Good," she found herself saying out loud. "Now he won't try to bite me when I pick him up. Did you know that these turtles can take your finger off?"
"I had no idea. That's interesting," Lydia said. "You know, this really seems like too much trouble. I'm fine with rice and whatever else, honestly."
"I insist," Annalise said. "I've wanted to try this for ages. I hear it's delicious."
She put the pot on to boil. She could almost feel Lydia tensing behind her. "So tell me more about Jared,” Annalise said. “Are you guys together?"
"We've been together for a while, actually," Lydia said. The question seemed to dispel some of her uncertainty about dinner. "Anyways, I think he's going to pop the question soon. Ex-ci-ting."
Annalise's laugh sounded harsher than she intended. "'Ex-ci-ting,' she mimicked. "What's gotten into you? I thought I was supposed to be the romantic."
"Oh?" Lydia said. She seemed genuinely interested, which made Annalise feel strangely guilty. "Anyone in your life?"
"No. Too busy.” She glanced at the pot, arms crossed. She wondered if Lydia remembered the poetry they used to write together, those afternoons spent lounging in their English classroom after school—Lydia chattering to Mr. McDonald about Truman Capote, Annalise drawing on the white board to make it seem like she wasn't listening. It was pathetic in retrospect. She had been pathetic. One evening she'd rediscovered the wire-frame glasses she used to wear in high school. It was only after trying them on again that she realized how ugly she’d been.
Lydia drummed her knuckles on the countertop. "I've actually been thinking about you a lot," she said. "Don't know why. But even before we bumped into each other, I was wondering ‘Oh, how’s Annie doing?’”
“Really?” Annalise asked, and loathed how earnest she sounded.
“Yeah. I wondered if you were making any films, if you had any books out. Silly things."
"Oh," Annalise said. She suddenly regretted not having cleaned her apartment. Lydia’s presence threw every stain in her kitchen into relief, and she wanted to turn off the stove, confess that she hadn’t been serious about the invitation. She wondered why she’d wanted Lydia to visit in the first place.
"I remember how uncertain you were in high school," Lydia said. Annalise could hear the smile in her voice. "You were so awkward and quiet. Now look at you, living in Boston. I always knew you had it in you."
The water was boiling. Annalise went for the sink and scooped Toby up by the sides. She shuffled to the pot and dropped him inside. With dirty fingers, she put the lid on top.
"Thanks," she said, moving to the sink and washing her hands.
Lydia didn't answer. Annalise turned and followed her gaze to the pot. She imagined Toby convulsing, his pink-rimmed eyes going white. Somehow the thought of it failed to disturb her.
"I'm so sorry," Lydia finally said. "I'm double-booked. I forgot I made an appointment with someone."
"Oh?" Annalise said. She didn't quite recognize her voice—it was crisp and smooth, belonging to someone infinitely more refined. "Who?"
"You wouldn't know," she said, and went for the door. "I've gotta go. Catch up with you some other time."
"Okay," Annalise said. She didn't follow, turning back to the sink. There was a pause before she heard the door close. She washed her hands again for good measure, then walked to the stove to turn the heat down.
A murky smell was rising out of the pot. She stared at it, then lifted the lid. The water was clouded over, brown with filth. She strained to see anything other than the dark lump of Toby's shell.
She imagined what it would have been like to make breakfast before work, passing Toby in the tank she’d bought for him. He'd be basking on a rock, snout extended piteously. Maybe he would have angled his head to stare at her. She put the lid back on the pot and opened some windows.
When Lydia had rejected her in high school, she’d talked with maddening pity, performatively, as if beseeching Annalise to consider how hard she was trying. "You deserve someone gentle," she'd said. "Someone who can fulfill all your emotional needs. I'm just too coarse for you, Annie."
The rehearsed nature of that speech had wounded her more than the rejection itself. She’d had to imagine Lydia brainstorming delicate ways to disappoint her. No, she'd wanted to respond, I want to be ripped apart. Boiled alive. You're the only person in this world who can handle me. But even Lydia hadn’t understood this about her.
The apartment was getting cold. She closed the windows and leaned against the counter. The rice cooker warbled its tinny, adorable alarm.
“I’m starving,” she said to nobody in particular.
Ariel Chu lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts. She is an incoming student of Syracuse University's MFA program in fiction.
Cover Image:"Life in my city implies heavy consumption of carbohydrates"watercolor2015Dima Rebus