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Shell - Jack Durant

Water pooled under Patrick’s foot as his boot pressed into the wet sand. Inside each hard leather case, he felt his toes tingle at the thought of exposure. His whole body felt that way. Worried that winter would break through his layers and make him as uncomfortable as he thought he should be. Somewhere in that worry though was hope for an excuse to stop what he was doing with enough claim to have tried.

 

But the water could not penetrate the boots Patrick’s father had given him and neither could the air breach the protection lining the rest of his body. He held a long rake in his hands and was combing the rocks, sand, and shells littering the shore. The rake had metal netting behind its nails. With each swipe, its thick claws would sink into the rough surface and make an ugly sound. Then, he’d pull. When the rake was too close to pull anymore, Patrick would lift it up and watch what slipped through the grates, waiting to see if there was anything to put in the bucket behind him. Each pull was heavy and becoming more so. The lack of success would have made him believe it futile, if not for seeing the others around him reaching into the nets of their rakes. So, Patrick sighed and turned the rake over to empty what could not fit through the holes, then dropped the rake into the sand again.

 

It had not been his idea to come out here. He had even successfully protested it for a while. The whole thing had been his father’s suggestion. His father, who had for years chosen a Sunday on the couch over exercise or outdoor activity, had retired and changed with his new residence. Out of the cul-de-sac, he and Patrick’s mother had gone into the woods of Maine, too far north to have any of the tourist season the State’s motto promised. Land was cheap, though their house had stayed the same size, giving their new space an economic feel compared to the suburban quarters of before.

 

A lot had been sold for the move, but the house wasn’t empty due to the tools they had bought for this new lifestyle. Now filling their halls and closets were bikes for the pine-littered trails, hiking boots and poles for the nearby mountains, fishing equipment and a canoe that went out on the local lakes, as well as seeds for their backyard farm. In addition to the tools needed for their change in leisure, they had also bought appliances that had swapped out automatic and modern for manual and old-fashioned. First, to Patrick’s inconvenience, had been them trading in their car for a manual pick-up, which he had needed to learn to drive without stalling. Then the change had moved into the house with things like abandoning coffee pods for what a prospector would use and storing rainwater to save on bills. Then, finally, the change entered territory that Patrick considered right out of antiquity. The most austere being their wood-burning stove they now preferred over simply pressing a button for the heat.

 

His parents had disappeared into the cold north and left behind the people Patrick had known. More shocking than the change though had been their success. The excursion itself had always been something they’d talked about and longed to do. But the two had been so typical of their sterile, manicured environment, that Patrick had always taken their exaltations for a life so removed as an idea they’d leave unspoiled by reality. So, after his surprise of seeing them actually start putting such change into motion, had come a fear that his parents were in for the rude awakening those naive were damned to suffer. But years had passed, and his parents were not only thriving in their far-flung realm but happier than he’d ever seen them.

 

Patrick had not cared for the house nor the town. But it hadn’t mattered since he had already accrued the means to live on his own and had gone in the opposite direction towards New York with many others his age. For years, what the young urbanite saw as his parents’ frontier lifestyle was as far removed as could be. Too distracted by the many offers of the city; he fell into the comfortable trend of being unable to consider anything else. However, the city closed to him around the same time the remote revolution severely cut his compensation. And with insufficient savings to pay for what had always been overpriced, Patrick found himself confronted with the reality that retreating to that jerkwater house was probably the right decision.

 

That’s what had led to where he was standing now. His father believed he’d appreciate getting some fresh air, even going so far as to claim the winter cold made the experience more refreshing.

 

There had been begrudging points to consider. Since moving up into the wilderness, Patrick had taken little advantage of the possibilities offered around him, relegating himself to his computer during and in-between the remote work he did throughout the week. Then, even though his eyes were always burning and tired on his days off, he still found himself glued to a screen instead of taking a break from one.

 

And this lifestyle was taking a toll. Patrick’s color had faded, his eyes were withered, and his middle had grown a new layer of soft squishy skin to uncomfortably force itself against his pant-line. He knew his parents saw what was happening to him, but had rejected their many suggestions to curb his downward trend. At first, these rejections had been venomous, using the ache of missing his old lifestyle as a cross to yell down from. But his loving parents persisted, and the edges of these rejections slowly blunted, eventually resulting in his agreeing to this activity.

 

The others digging were still finding success. Patrick saw their buckets filled part-ways even though they had all been out here just as long. That included his father who stood ankle deep in the water, bringing the same heavy talons of the rake down with a speed and energy Patrick thought should be lost to someone of retirement age. Feeling partly shamed, Patrick stepped a little deeper into the water, feeling the ocean current pull at his ankles as it flowed down the channel towards the harbor. He, of course, was still dry but nevertheless hated the feeling of the world outside his thick insulation. He wanted to be away from it. To be able to ignore it and pretend it didn’t exist. He had once been able to, and that had been taken from him. Or maybe he had lost it, failed, come up short. That would make where he was a banishment. An exile from the civilization he’d continue to live for in quiet longing.

 

Anger found its way into his next swing and the rake sank deep into the borderland being lapped upon by waves. His pull came with just as much of what had brought the talons down, making the whole motion much faster. He shook the rake in the air, expecting nothing again, but stopped. In the metal basket attached to the rake was what they were all looking to find.

 

Patrick put a rubber glove into the net and clutched the round clam. It was dark with a blue hue and about the size of a golf ball. The little thing was surprisingly heavy on its own. For the first time, Patrick looked closely at one of these shells and saw how it was never completely shut. Along the ends of its two conjoining rims were lines that were lighter than the rest of its armor and looked like it would squish if poked. Patrick held the quahog close to his face and examined the walls it had probably felt safe behind just a minute ago, tucked away in the false security of the network of tunnels these things dug into. It had maybe even felt the warmth Patrick desired inside its cramped, tiny shell. Not now though, now it had been found and the precarity always lurking around its feeble defenses had shown itself. He felt pity for the creature trapped in its little world and a part of him wanted to put it back, before the screeching of a seagull stopped him.

 

It had dropped a clam of its own down to the ground. The impact upon the rocks was loud enough for Patrick to hear. The gull swooped down towards its prey and pecked viciously at the soft, vulnerable creature that had been exposed.

 

Patrick dropped his own clam into the bucket, strangely relieved to not be suffering the fate of that bird’s beak. He waded slightly deeper into the water and raked again, this time finding two more as he lifted his rake. Excitement started to move through Patrick’s muscles and his swings increased in speed. In this drive, he thought less of the cold and even began to feel warm from the swinging. He still paused to look at each quahog he caught, fascinated at how much its hard shell contrasted with the squishy, pale creature hiding inside.

 

The knowledge that he could eat them was satisfying. As was that he had gathered them himself and not had them somehow delivered. It was good he had come out here. He reminded himself to thank his parents once his basket was half-filled and sweat had started to dampen his hat.

 

Jack Durant is an ESL teacher who has taught in Chile, Japan, Spain, and New York. He now lives in Boston and writes fiction in his spare time. Some places to find his work are Ponder Review, Written Tales Magazine, and The Ulu Review.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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