A Secret Short Story

Congratulations!  You’ve found a secret short story.  “Shell” was originally one of the creepy tales that Alex tells the witch in Nightbooks, but it didn’t quite fit into the final draft.  I’m happy to give my weird little story a home here, though not forever–click on the lock every now and then for new secrets!


Mom and Dad tell all their friends that our annual trip to the Outer Banks is for me, but that’s just to make themselves sound like good parents; they’re the ones who actually like the beach. For two straight weeks in July they follow the same routine: ten minutes to set up the beach chairs and umbrella, followed by six hours of basking in the sun. Dinner, sleep, repeat. My mom will carry an award-winning novel back and forth each day and won’t make it past page ten. My dad will forget to apply sunscreen at some point and get horribly burned.

As for me, their twelve-year old son who hates the sweltering sun?

I’m exiled.

“Go play,” they tell me, gesturing vaguely in the ocean’s direction as though I might hop on a boat and go exploring. “Dig in the sand. Make some new friends. Meet a cute girl.” As I leave, one of them always adds, “And don’t get eaten by a shark!” which they think is hilarious.

Not me. I know it’s just another way of saying, “Leave us alone.”

It wasn’t like I was the only kid whose parents wanted to be left alone, which made me feel a little better. The beach was basically divided in half. The adults congregated closer to the hotel (and the bar), basting in their own sweat, while the children kicked and splashed and swam in the ocean itself.

Gotta love family vacations.

Anyway, there I was, building a terrible sand castle in the limited shade of some big rocks, when I saw the first kid pick up the shell.

He wasn’t unique in any way, just a blonde-haired boy about my age with a deep tan. I figured, from his pink shorts and polo shirt, that he was the kind of kid who owned his own golf clubs and could name all the parts of a sailboat. I had seen him around all week, but neither one of us felt the inclination to strike up a short-term friendship. The only reason I was even looking in his direction to begin with was because of how loud he was: whooping and hollering, stomping his feet in the ocean, splashing water everywhere.

Suddenly, he grimaced in pain.

My first thought was that a jellyfish had stung him, and I leaned forward, curious what would happen next. It was one of the hottest days of the summer, and I welcomed anything that could take my mind off the brutal sun.

The boy reached into the water and pulled up a shell.

It was a weird-looking thing, larger than his hand. An ear-shaped opening lay beneath a series of whorls that rose to a horn-like peak. Most people would have called it a conch shell. They would have been wrong. There was a little aquarium here that we went to whenever it rained, and they had an entire exhibit called “Conch vs. Whelk.” Both of them were pretty much underwater snails whose empty shells tended to wash up on shore, but there was one major difference.

A conch was an herbivore. A whelk was a carnivore.

This was a whelk shell.

As I continued to watch, the boy did what people always do with shells at the beach. He brought it to his ear and listened.

A lot of people say that you can hear the ocean in a shell, but I know—thanks to those rainy day aquarium visits—that this isn’t the case. The sound is just an echo of the air around us. This boy, however, was definitely hearing something far more interesting than that. The world around him—crashing waves, splashing kids, the distant hum of motorboats—seemed to vanish. His eyes widened, and a smile crept over his face, as though the shell were sharing some kind of secret. He pressed it hard against the side of his head, like my dad when he had a bad cell phone connection.

His entire body twitched.

It wasn’t anything drastic, like he had stuck his finger in an electrical socket or been struck by lightning. I doubted that anyone had noticed except for me.

But it had happened. I was sure of it.

The boy lowered the shell. I thought his eyes might have been darker than before, but I couldn’t say for sure. I hadn’t paid much attention to the color of his eyes. He took a deep breath of salty air, as though he had just arrived at the beach after spending a long time away.

Then he handed the shell to a little girl.

She looked too young to be playing so close to the ocean by herself, but I guess her mom and dad, like mine, were taking a vacation from parental responsibilities. The girl took the shell in two hands and beamed up at the blonde-haired boy. She said something. I was too far away to hear exactly what it was over the ferocious waves, but judging from the smile on her face it was probably “Thanks!” or “Wow!”

She brought the shell to her ear.

Her reaction was different than the boy’s. Her face scrunched up, like she had just eaten something disgusting, and she tried to pull the shell away. The boy placed one hand on the girl’s head and the other on the shell, keeping it in place. The girl clawed at his arm but he was a lot bigger than her. Eventually she stopped struggling altogether.

Finally, she twitched.

The boy and the girl walked hand-in-hand along the beach, like brother and sister, until they found a third child, a teenager who just wanted to be left alone with her phone. She was about to shoo away these strangers when the little girl smiled.   She was too cute to resist.

Soon there were three of them.

Things progressed faster after that. Within minutes there were a dozen children in total walking along the shoreline. The blond boy led them. The little girl walked by his side, holding the shell before her like a ring bearer at a wedding. Other children noticed the group. Afraid that they were missing out on something exciting, they abandoned their shovels and boogie boards and ran over.

The little girl held up the shell. One-by-one, they listened.

The group grew into a tightly packed mob of silent children. It amazed me that the parents weren’t concerned. Most of them were too busy roasting in the sun. The ones who bothered to look up saw their kids interacting with other kids and nodded with approval. In their minds, any sort of social activity that didn’t involve a screen was good.

And then, as though of one mind, the mob of children broke into smaller packs of two and three. They tracked down the children who had not yet joined their ranks and held them in place until the girl arrived. The twitches happened faster now. It seemed like the shell, after years of disuse, was growing in power. All you had to do was hold it close to your ear for a second or two, and then you were one of them.

I crouched behind the big rocks, praying that no one would look in my direction. I wasn’t exactly sure what was happening, but I wanted to keep that shell as far away from me as possible.

I didn’t want to become one of them.

The children gathered all the pails and shovels. It didn’t matter who they belonged to. They were one now; they shared. I watched through a tiny gap between the rocks as they filled the pails with sun-smoothed stones and shards of broken glass. The teenagers dragged oars or rotted planks of wood through the sand.

They started toward the parents.

I didn’t really think about what I did next. If I had, I probably would have stopped myself.

“Hey!” I called out, waving my hands in the air. “Over here!”

The children turned.

The others waited while the blond boy and little girl made their way across the sand.   I think they wanted me to meet them halfway, but I remained by the rocks. I could see my parents from here.

The little girl handed me the shell. It was a lot heavier than it looked. As I lifted it I felt something shift inside. I raised the shell toward my ear and the little girl smiled with encouragement. She really was incredibly cute.

With two hands, I brought the shell crashing down upon the rock.

I had hoped that it would shatter into pieces like a vase, but the shell was made of heartier stuff. The only damage I made was a crack no longer than my finger. It was enough. There was a burst of flames as something inside the shell—something as flammable as a fuel-soaked rag—was exposed to sunlight. A fiery shape oozed through the opening and slithered between the rocks, leaving a trail of green slime and a burning stench of decay.

Looks like I’m not the only one who hates the sun, I thought.

When I turned, the crowd of children had already broken up. Soon the beach was filled once again with the sounds of laughter and splashing water. No one seemed to remember what had happened. I figured it was probably better that way.

I made my way to my parents. My mom was asleep with her book closed on her chest. My dad’s back was lobster red. He had forgotten to use sunblock today.

I had to laugh. What else could I do? They were my parents.

“We’re going skiing next year,” I said.

I left before they could reply and didn’t stop walking until I reached the air-conditioned hotel.