The accident had happened exactly one year ago today. Shannon hadn’t been to the beach with her 8-year-old daughter Holly since that terrible day. The whole family had been going to the beach every Sunday afternoon during the summer since Holly was born. They would pack a lunch, the beach chairs, and four towels and spend the whole afternoon soaking up the sun, walking and collecting seashells, or playing in the surf. As she lay awake last night listening to the thunderstorm, Shannon couldn’t help but remember the accident and how their lives had been changed so radically in just a moment. She knew what they had to do.
A sleepy-looking Holly trudged into the kitchen, lured by the smell of frying bacon.
“Morning, Mom,” she muttered as she pulled her long black mop of hair into a sloppy bun on the back of her head. “What’s with the hot breakfast?”
Holly was used to fending for herself for breakfast, especially on the weekends. This was when her mom usually slept in.
“I thought we might head to the beach today, honey. What do you think?” Shannon glanced over her shoulder at her daughter, trying to gauge her reaction. The last thing she wanted to do was to upset her daughter, today of all days. She wasn’t even sure if Holly remembered that today was the anniversary of the accident.
“Sure, Mom. If you want, that’s fine with me.” Holly flopped down on a stool at the kitchen counter. Shannon set a glass of orange juice in front of her and she sipped it slowly, savoring the cool sweetness. “Why do you want to go today, Mom? I mean given that today is — ” her voice trailed of, afraid to finish the sentence, not wanting to upset her mom.
Shannon set a plate of bacon, scrambled eggs, grits, and toast in front of Holly. She poured herself another cup of coffee, fixed her own plate, and sat down across the counter from her daughter before she answered.
“Holly, my sweetheart, we’ve been through so much this year. I thought it would be nice for us to — ” The emotions surfaced quicker than Shannon expected. She took a deep breath and pressed on. “I think it’s time we scattered their ashes, honey. I mean, it’s been a year and your Dad really wanted — ” Her voice was shaking and threatening to break, so she left the rest of the though unspoken.
Holly met her mother’s gaze. Tears were welling up for both of them and she knew that her mom was right. It was time to let them go.
“Ok, Mom. Let’s go as soon as we finish breakfast.”
They ate in silence, each lost in their own memories of the family that they once had been.
The sun was shining brightly in the near-cloudless sky that morning. Shannon and Holly had set their chairs up just beyond the high tide line. The beach was peppered with all sorts of shells that had washed ashore during the previous night’s storm.
“Let’s go for a walk, Mom, and get some of these shells before they wash away.” Holly wasn’t quite ready to face the reason they’d come.
Mother and daughter casually strolled along the water’s edge, intently focused on the seashells that were strewn all over the beach. Shannon picked up a shell, studied it closely, then dropped it back in the sand. There was a quiet camaraderie between mother and daughter, though it was clear that they had different standards for their shell collections as Holly adds shell after shell to her bucket. Shannon finally finds a shell that she deems worthy of keeping.
“Holly! Come look at this one!”
Holly walked quickly to her mother’s side to see what she’d found. Shannon held a perfectly intact whelk shell.
“That’s really cool, Mom. What kind of shell is it?”
“I think it’s a whelk. We can look it up together when we get back home.” Smiling down at her daughter, Shannon deposited the shell carefully in her bucket and they continued combing the beach for more shells.
Holly spotted part of a shell sticking out of the sand near the water’s edge. She knelt next to it and pulled from the sand a fragment of what once was a very large triton shell. She stood and took the fragment into the water a bit and rinsed the sand from it. She studied it closely, turning it over in her hand, caressing the smooth surfaces, feeling the thickness and weight of the broken shell. Just as she was about to add the shell to her bucket, Shannon appeared at her side.
“Honey, that shell is broken. Look for the whole shells. They are the ones you want to keep.”
“But Mom,” Holly whined in typical pre-teen fashion, “Don’t you see how beautiful this shell is? Just look…”
Holly insistently handed the shell fragment to her mom. Shannon tried, but all she could see was a broken shell. She shrugged and handed the fragment back to Holly and started to walk back toward the dunes.
“I don’t see it. It’s just a broken shell.”
“Look, Mom,” Holly followed Shannon, “Look at these rings of color. I’ll bet they are like the rings in a tree. Remember how Dad told me you can tell the age of a tree by the number of rings it has? I’ll bet that the same is true about this shell.”
“I don’t think that seashells show their age the way trees do, honey.” Shannon dismissed her daughter’s idea.
“Where’s your imagination, Mom?” Holly’s voice was pained, “Just think about what it took for this piece of shell to end up here on this beach with us today.”
Finding the anxiety in her daughter’s voice irresistible, Shannon sat in the sand and patted the ground next to her inviting her daughter to join her. Holly flopped down beside her mom. Shannon lovingly brushed a stray strand of hair from her daughter’s face.
“Tell me about your shell, sweetheart. Tell me what you see in this broken shell that has you so determined to keep it.”
Holding the shell fragment tenderly in her small hands, Holly began to tell the shell’s story.
Shelley had at last reached the age of awareness and suddenly became conscious of her surroundings. She was also acutely aware that she was not in control of herself. She was slowly gliding along the ocean floor, taking in all of the sights and sounds of a typical sea environment. Schools of fish darted past; light flickered as it filtered through the water, a pair of dolphins danced with each other off in the distance, when she noticed a family of anemones waving gently at her.
“Oh!…Um…hi!” Shelly spoke shyly to them.
“Hello there, young one.” The anemones all spoke as one. “Do we know you?”
“No, I…um…I don’t think so.” Shelly said hesitantly. “I’m…um…Shelley.”
“Welcome to the reef, Shelley. And who is that handsome snail of yours?”
“Whaddya mean, who? Girl, have you snapped a coil?” Roger spoke with the self-assured arrogance of a preteen boy. Turning on his Southern flirty charm, he turned to the anemones, “Hello there, ladies. I’m Roger.”
Turning on their own special charm, the anemones waved shamelessly, “Hello, Roger. You’re new here, aren’t you?”
“Yep. Just got here this mornin’ and I’m starvin’! Where can a man get some food ’round here?” Seeing a flashing sign up ahead, Roger answered his own question, “Never mind, ladies! I see what I want right there! Nice meetin’ ya. Maybe I’ll be back for ya later on!” He winked and began making his way toward a hole in the reef. The flashing sign read ‘˜Goldfish Bowl ‘” A Real Dive’.
“Farewell, sweet Roger! Do come back!” The anemones waved eagerly at him, paying no attention to Shelley at all.
Shelley whispered, “Um…good bye.”
Almost no light penetrated the dim diner. Roger and Shelley were among only a handful of characters that gathered around what appeared to be a fishbowl behind the short wooden bar. Oscar, a sea turtle, was taking orders and showing off. Using a small net, Oscar pulled three goldfish from the bowl and began juggling, a la Tom Cruise in ‘˜Cocktail’. Around in circles, over his back, spinning, clearly in total control of the little goldfish, Oscar slapped them one by one onto the bar in front of Roger and two other snails. As soon as the goldfish hit the bar, Roger opened his mouth and slurped the tiny fish in. Shelley shuddered as she witnessed Roger’s eating habits for the first time. With cheers of encouragement from the other two snails, Roger belched loudly and called for another round.
“Oscar, my man, that was great! Lemme have another one!”
“Take it easy there, young fella! Give that first one some time to get out of the way before chasing it with another!”
With a knowing chuckle, Oscar scooped a few more goldfish from the bowl and continued his floor show as Shelley looked on in horror.
As they exited the Goldfish Bowl, Shelley was compelled to confront Roger.
“Um… Roger? Was…was all of…THAT… necessary?”
“All o’ what? What’re you mutterin’ on about, girlie?”
“Well…um…those…um…things that you ate in there…weren’t they still… um… alive?”
“‘Course they were, darlin’! That’s the only way to eat ’em! How come?”
“It just seems so…um… cruel. Barbaric, even.”
“Girl, you need to grow up! That’s just the way things are. Kill or be killed. That’s the way of the sea. Someday you’ll understand.”
As they were talking, Roger had been making his way around a corner of the reef.
“Um…Roger? Where are we going? Where are you taking me now?”
“You need to see the way things are done down here. I’m gonna show ya what things’re really like.”
Roger found some tall grasses growing low on the reef and parked himself and Shelley in their midst.
“Now, just take a look over there. Keep an eye on those weird lookin’ ones with the bubbles comin’ from ’em.” Roger told her knowingly.
Shelley gazed off in the direction Roger had turned them. She saw two dark shadowy images with bubbles occasionally coming from the tops of them. They appeared to be shopping among the bounty of the reef. Each carried a mesh bag and they kept picking up an assortment of other snails from the far side of the reef.
“See them? They’s the worst sort of varmit.” Roger sneered. “They don’t even live here an’ they come down an’ take what they want. They took my whole family. Only reason they left me was ‘cuz I was too small an’ they didn’t see me. Rumor is they take ones like us outta the water an’ they eat us alive. So see there? Just like I was chowin’ down on them fishes at the bar, there’s others that’ll chow down on us if’n we give ’em half a chance. But you ain’t gonna let that happen, are ya, girlie?
“What? How can I…? Um…I don’t understand, Roger.” Shelley was confused and beginning to feel sick.
“That’s your job, honey. You was made to protect me. You will grow with me. I’ll eat what I have to and we’ll grow big. You’ll be beautiful someday, once you learn to deal with how things are. You just leave me be when I’m eatin’.”
“But …um…how am I…um… supposed to…um…protect you?”
“How come you don’t know anything ’bout who you are? Don’t you have any instincts of your own? Here. Let me show you.” Roger pulled himself fully inside Shelley’s protective covering. His voice now muffled, Roger spoke from inside Shelley’s spiral, “See, darlin’? Now nobody can see me. All they see is you.”
“This feels…um…okay. Yes. This…um…seems right.” Shelley began to relax a bit.
Roger emerged from Shelley’s spiral cover. “Darn tootin’, it’s right. Now let’s go find a place to settle in for the night.”
Shelley was drifting in the powerful current of the Gulf Stream. She was delightfully happy and laughing out loud. Suddenly, she was pulled into a swirl of dark water and lost all sense of direction. Feeling that something was horribly wrong, that something significantly bad had occurred, she was about to cry out in desperation, when she awoke with a start. She was breathing rapidly and was aware of Roger’s loud snores. She took a deep breath to try to calm her frazzled nerves. The dream had seemed so real. Roger mumbled something unintelligible and resumed his snoring. Shelley closed her eyes and drifted back to sleep.
Holly had laid her head in her mom’s lap as she told her the earliest part of Shelley’s tale. Shannon gazed tenderly down at her daughter and encouraged her.
“That Roger seems like a real piece of work!”
“Oh, he is, Mom! He’s every bit as mean as Shelley thinks he is. She just doesn’t realize how awful he is just yet.”
“It’s a shame that such a sweet, pretty shell has to endure the roughness of a parasite like Roger.”
“I know, right?!” Holly chuckled. “It’ll be ok, though. He’ll get what’s coming to him.”
“No doubt you’ll make certain of that!”
Shelley and Roger were at the bar. Oscar was putting on his usual floor show with the helpless goldfish. Roger is being his usual obnoxious self, sucking down fish after fish, punctuating his meal with loud belching. Shelley cringed with each fish he took in, growing ever more frustrated with her life as the protector of such a lunk.
“Um…Roger? Can we go now? Haven’t you had enough?”
“Hush up, girlie. We’ll leave when I’m dern good and ready. Lemme have another, Oscar, my man!”
“Dude, this is it for ya… last call!” Oscar put the net under the bar and began wiping things down.
“Whaddya mean last call? It’s still early yet!” Roger was furious and still very hungry.
“I mean it’s last call for YOU, dude. I’m running low on these little fellas and you’re tossing them back like they’re nothing!”
“Well, whaddya expect, Oscar? I’m a growin’ boy! Now hook me up with some more o’ them fishes!”
“‘Fraid not, my man. I gotta cut you off. Otherwise I’ll have to shut the whole place down until I can restock.”
“This is discrimination! You’re just cuttin’ me off cuz you got somethin’ against snails!”
“That’s crap and you know it, friend. Now just settle yourself down and drag your shell on outta here quietly. You don’t want me to call in reinforcements.”
“C’mon Roger…um… let’s just…um…go.” Shelley had no idea what Oscar meant by ‘˜reinforcements’, but she didn’t want to hang around and find out.
“I been a good customer here, Oscar. Why you suddenly putting limits on me?” Roger tried to sound hurt, trying to pull some sympathy from the turtle.
“I think you’ve outgrown my stock here, dude. Used to be, one or two fish and you’d be satisfied. Now you’re taking in half a dozen or more at a time and I just can’t keep enough in stock for your appetite.”
“Well, I guess this is it, then. So much for rewardin’ us loyal customers. Whatever. We’re outta here. C’mon, girl.”
Oscar shrugged and continued wiping down the bar as Roger and Shelley began making their way to the door.
“Well, that’s gratitude for ya. I won’t bother to darken his door again!
“Um…don’t you think…um…he’s probably…um… right?
“Not you, too! What is this? Some sort of conspiracy? I can’t help it! I get hungry and I gotta eat! Right now, though, I need me some shut eye!”
Roger found a place on the reef where they were reasonably well hidden by the grasses. This wasn’t as easy as it used to be. Roger and Shelley had grown quite a bit from all of the eating he’d been doing. They settled into the grasses as best they could, Roger disappearing inside Shelley’s spiral. Shelley sighs, exhausted from Roger’s belligerence. Quiet tears began to roll down her shell.
“Hey…you ok?” An unfamiliar voice whispered.
“Wha? Um… hello?”
“Down here, sweetie.” Shelley looked down and saw a bright pink sea star looking up at her with obvious concern. “Are you ok, hon?”
“I’m … um… ok, I guess. Um…who are you?” Shelley inquired.
“Shhh. Not too loud, hon. Let’s not wake him up. I’m Aster. Been seeing how that snail of yours treats you. It’s a shame nobody’s taught that boy any manners.”
“Oh, I’m…um…sorry. I…um…hope we haven’t … um…disturbed you.”
“Oh, no! Not at all! I just can’t stand to see a man think he can just do whatever he pleases without any thought to his woman. Especially one like you who does so much to protect her man.
“Oh, I…um…I don’t…um…do much.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, my lady. You are so strong and so powerful. That snail of yours would be dead without you.”
“I…um…don’t know…um…about that.”
“Think about it, honey. You are his shell – his covering. He can hide in you. When trouble comes – and I assure you, it will – he’ll crawl his vulnerable self right there inside you and let you take the worst of whatever comes.
“Um…Aster? How…um…do you…um…know so much?”
“Honey, I’ve seen it all. Now, I’d best scoot before he wakes up. Just know that I’ll be around if you ever want to talk. You know – if you need to vent about how your jerk is treating you.”
“Ok…um…thanks, Aster. Thanks for…um…well…”
“Aw, hon – no thanks necessary! Just don’t let him run all over you so much! You have a voice, too, you know! See ya soon!” Aster disappeared into the reef just as Roger began to stir.
Roger emerged from his nap and began gliding along the reef.
“Wow! What a nap! I feel like a new snail. Let’s go find some dinner!”
“But…um…Roger… you just…um…ate before your…um…nap.”
“What’s it to ya? I’m starvin’ and we’re gonna go find me some food! Now that the jerk that runs the Goldfish Bowl has banned me, we gotta find a new source and I think I know just the thing!”
“I’ve seen older snails do it. It’s about time I tried. See that cluster of fishes over there? You’re gonna help me isolate a few and satisfy this appetite o’ mine!”
“I can’t…um… I’m no help.”
“Sure ya are, girl! Just do what you’re told. You’ll see. You’ll be my secret weapon!”
“What? Um… Roger, no… I don’t want to be…”
“It ain’t about what you want, now is it? Remember, just do as you’re told!”
Roger moved toward the school of fish that were swimming around the reef. As they neared the fish, Roger suddenly pulled inside Shelley, leaving only the tips of his tentacles exposed so he could keep a careful eye on the fish.
“Now just be still, girl. Not a peep!” Roger whispered harshly.
“Roger, can’t we…um….”
“Shut up, Shell! You’re gonna scare ’em away!”
Shelley gave in and remained quiet. The fish were flitting around them, their conversations running together…
The feeding fish swarmed over the reef and one approached Shelley. The urge to scream a warning to the unsuspecting fish welled up in Shelley, but she was paralyzed by her own fear, unsure of what Roger would to if she were to ruin his dinner. The fish hesitantly approached Shelley.
“Excuse me, miss, but there’s a bit of algae there on your beautiful spiral that I’d be happy to remove for you absolutely free of charge…”
Roger moved quickly, shooting his wide-open mouth from under Shelley and sucking hard in the direction of the poor fish.
“Roger, no!” Shelley screamed as loud as she could, quickly scattering the other fish.
“Oh no. No. Help me! I can’t move! HELP!”
With a loud gulp and belch, Roger finished off the fish.
“That was AWESOME! What a rush! Who knew that fishin’ would be so excitin’! We gotta do that again!”
“Roger…um…that was…awful!” Shelley was trembling. “Isn’t there…um…a better way? A less…um…violent way?”
“I done tol’ you, girl. It’s kill or be killed down here! That’s just the way o’ nature! When’re you gonna get over it?”
Days passed as Shelley continued to endure Roger’s violent feeding habits and verbal abuse. She felt completely helpless, but kept hoping that things would change. She also continued to have nightmares about swirling dark water. One night, after waking from another of these horrible dreams, Aster whispered quietly to her.
“Shelley, girl, you ok?”
“I’m — um — I don’t know.” Shelley couldn’t hold her emotions back anymore. Tears rolled freely down her beautiful spiral.
“Shelley, dear, you need to prepare yourself. Change is coming ‘” big change ‘” and I want you to be ready.”
“Ready? What — um — what do you — um — ?
“There’s a storm coming, Shelley, a really big storm. It’s been ages since one like this came through. You and me, girl, we’re vulnerable in storms like this one.”
“Storm? Vulnerable?” Shelley was sleepy, scared, and confused.
“Yes, dear. I just wanted to make sure you knew and that you’d be ready for whatever change comes.”
“I — um — I still don’t — um — know what you — um — what do you mean, Aster?” Words tumbled awkwardly from Shelley in her frustration.
“Take care of yourself, Shelley. You are beautiful. And Roger’ll get what’s coming to him. Mark my words.”
With that, Aster drifted away, leaving Shelley to try to make sense of what her only friend meant. That’s when the current began to shift.
The current grew stronger and stronger. Schools of fish flashed quickly past and Shelley sensed something was wrong. She felt the panic of her recurring nightmare surfacing. The water grew very dark around her and off in the distance she could see the beginning of a swirl of water. An intense fear consumed her and Shelley cried out, “Roger? ROGER! Wake up! Um — something’s happening — “
Before Roger could emerge from Shelley’s coil, the swirl pulled hard and the snail and his Shelley were pulled in. They were tossed and rolled and thrown aimlessly through the black water. Shelley hardly felt a thing as Roger was ripped from her spiral and she was thrown against the rocks. Everything went dark.
A few hours later, Shelley began to be aware of a gentle lapping against her. There was something grainy rubbing in her coil and she knew Roger was gone. Everything was quiet. Shelley felt an odd sense of peace washing over her and quietly settled into her new surroundings.
“Don’t tell me, Holly, that’s where you found her!”
“You got it, Mom!”
“Holly, you are amazing. How you could see all of that in this broken shell is beyond me! You have a real gift for storytelling, young lady!” Shannon hugged her daughter tight.
The tide was coming in and a wave splashed across Holly’s bare feet. She stood up and offered one hand to her mom, the other still held Shelley. Hand in hand, mother and daughter walked back up the beach to their chairs. Holly gently placed Shelley in her bucket with the other pieces of shells she’d collected. Shannon put her hands quietly on her daughter’s shoulders, looked into the sparkling hazel eyes and spoke softly, “It’s time, honey.”
“Yeah, Mom. I know.” Holly stood in silence while Shannon carried their chairs to the car and returned with two wooden boxes. Shannon handed the larger of the two boxes to her daughter and they made their way to the water’s edge.
“Do you want to say anything, Holly dear?”
“Not really, Mom. Dad and Kevin already know how I feel.”
“You’re right, my darling. You always did show them how much you loved them, just like you show me.”
Shannon and Holly stood in silence for a moment, each lost in their own thoughts. Without saying a word, they moved at the same time, opening the box lids and pouring the contents into the incoming tide. They turned back toward the car and Shannon put her arm around her daughter. They walked in loving quietness to the car and headed home.
Holly went straight to her room when they got back to their house. She opened the door to her curio cabinet packed with a wide assortment of broken items – a teddy bear with a missing eye, a doll with a torn dress, a chipped china tea set – the obvious centerpiece of this collection was a framed picture of Holly, Shannon, Mark, and Kevin. Holly picked up the photo and lovingly ran her fingers over the faces of her dad and brother.
“I miss you, Daddy. I miss you, Kev.” Holly whispered through quiet tears.
She gingerly placed the photo back on the shelf, slid the teddy bear over a little and placed the fragment of Shelley next to the photo of her family. She closed the door of the curio, took a step back and gazed at the new addition to her collection. Satisfied that Shelley was where she now belonged, Holly turned and began unpacking her beach bag.