By Arden Hunter
We both got around three hundred thousand each, once the lawyers were done. Three hundred thousand, and a few dozen boxes of junk. I got side-tracked, cleaning sticky residue from a large conch shell. It had sat on grandma Evie’s shelf for as long as I could remember; the old bitch had sold us some story about diving in the South Pacific, and like any young fool, I’d bought it. Well, turns out that she had too - the price tag was still on the back until I peeled it off with irritated nails.
“Going to keep that?” Albert asked, fake grief slipping for a moment in obvious calculation.
“Maybe,” I shrugged, fighting with the fossilized glue. “Why?”
I knew why. Early on in the sorting I’d set aside her set of wax seals, and his wiley dry eyes had strayed to them more than once. He shrugged and went back to bewailing the oh-so-sudden death of beloved old Evie. Not sudden enough - we’d been told she’d be popping off for years now, and I’d grown impatient in my waiting. I wouldn’t miss her. We had nothing in common.
The box I finally carted into my kitchen contained my chosen few things; I’d only wanted things I could sell, but that blasted shell somehow got to me. Evie had been so proud in her lies about it. The lip looked like strawberry cream, the spikes and whorls formed intricate patterns my young mind had insisted could not be natural. Thoughtless with curiosity, I had reached for it once. Evie had not been pleased, and my fingers had still been stinging from her displeasure days later.
I lifted it up to my ear and heard the sea. Logically, I know it’s some kind of echo that takes what goes in and spits a distorted version back out, but hearing that noise I had never been allowed to hear, I smiled.
“It’s mine now,” I said into the opening, smug to have beaten her like she used to beat me. I hoped the echo would reach her.
I was woken by screaming, at first not surprised; my neighborhood is full of the kinds of situations that lead to screaming. Usually they were short and sharp and went away, but not this one. I rolled over after swearing in that direction and dreamed of property values.
The second time the screaming had moved to the back: a thin wail of a sound, and for a moment I wished someone would put whoever it was out of their misery. I tried to ignore it, curled on my side, but it soon became unavoidable. I was surprised my neighbor from upstairs hadn’t come crashing down to shut them up.
Cursing, I got up, toting my baseball bat. I couldn’t see anything out the back window so I grabbed the door handle, ready to pounce… but it stopped. Just cut-off, as soon as my fingertips touched the metal.
It started again so suddenly that I jolted my head and my neck spasmed. I grabbed at it, hissing, turned back to the front of the house - but somehow not there? It was closer. Closer and shriller and my ears started ringing. I staggered back to my bedroom, the noise so loud the door was vibrating. There was no-one there, but their scream got impossibly louder, rattling the wall under my palm and my teeth in my head and the conch on the shelf.
I took a step towards it that almost brought me to the floor as the noise level impossibly increased like a warning. The shell rattled in place, bounced on the spires it balanced on, and went on screaming and screaming and screaming…
I shifted my grip on my bat, stepped forward and swung; I swung that thing over my shoulder in a hit any hit-man would envy. It smashed through both shell and shelf and the pieces of each exploded.
Stunned by the silence I stared at the mess, ears still ringing with a high-whining sound from within… or was it without? My mouth was hanging open in shock, a whimper building from the bottom of my lungs. I heard feet on the stairs but the whimper grew louder than those, and I clawed at my throat. I could feel something there, something moving with sharp long legs, and terror forced sound from my gut. My heart was thumping, a thing in a shell, sibling to the crab in my neck. I pictured some spiked mollusc monster that had crept from the conch and into my mouth; how had it slipped past my lips?
“What is going on in there?” my front door rattled. I couldn’t inhale yet the screaming went on; went on in my lungs and out through my mouth and the thing crept up and settled in my soft palate. It controlled my tongue, rubbed happily against my uvula, and if I could have passed out, I would have. My screams had new urgency now that I was dying, breathing impossible, arms and legs tingling. Is screaming genetic? I sounded just like she did, just like she did when she realized what I was doing, that I wasn’t going to wait for her to die, not anymore.
I was still holding the baseball bat with numb fingers. My door rocked again, more violent. My ears were damp, I wiped and saw red - was the crab-thing up as far now as my brain? The scream that had lived in the conch, her scream, was now in my head: restless, louder, so loud… I had to shut it up.
I swung the bat upwards in an arc, so perfect and so strong with intent that Evie would have laughed. I think she did, as my pieces fell to the floor with the shards of the shell. Two shells broken open in one night; such a shame.
I had thought we had nothing in common.
Arden Hunter is an aroace agender writer, artist and performer. With an eclectic range of interests from the horrific to the whimsical, the theme tying all of their work together is an inexplicable and unconditional love of the ridiculous beast that is called 'human'. Arden has words and art hosted and upcoming with Cinnabar Moth, The Bear Creek Gazette and Thi Wurd among other places. Find them on Twitter.