It was a shell. She got one for every birthday. It was a bit of a family joke at this point, “Michelle loves shells.” Truthfully, at this point she did not love shells any more than the next person did. It had simply become so entrenched in their family that she didn’t know how to stop it without kicking up too much of a fuss.
The shell was oddly shaped, looking more like a bit of volcanic glass than the regular calcium structure she’d become used to. When she found the opening, instead of being blush pink on the inside like most other shells in her collection, it was a cobalt hue.
“What do we say to aunt Maria?” Michelle’s mother said.
Maria looked over her cup of punch. “I didn’t bring that.”
“Oh. Well then, uncle Hubie?”
Her father’s brother was too far across the room to confirm or deny, so Michelle shouted thanks and he waved deferentially.
Long after the other presents found homes, the shell fascinated her. It did not look like something that came from any normal beach. She turned it over in her hands, thumbing the jet black exterior, wiping her finger across the jagged blue lip of it. They said you were supposed to hear the ocean inside a shell. Michelle put her present up to her ear and listened. Rationally, she knew what she was hearing wasn’t really the ocean but some internal sound she couldn’t detect unless she blocked out everything else. But it was still one of her favorite things to do.
With the shape cupped snugly over her ear, she heard nothing at first. Then, as if from a distance, she could hear the cries of some creature. Michelle cocked her head. Was it really…yes, she could hear the buzz of life.
Michelle took the shell away from her ear and curved her finger through the opening as much as it would allow. She felt nothing, not even some hitchhiking crab. She put the shell up to her ear again.
Silence. Then, again, the cries of something. They were almost metallic, and she could not place them to bird or beast. The whispering sweep of something scuttling over sand. Then—
Michelle pulled her ear away from the shell as the crash of a wave almost deafened her. She dropped the shell in her lap and stared at it, ready to throw it from her at the first sign of movement.
Eventually her mother poked her head in through the door. “Lights out, sweetie.”
Michelle looked up the shell everywhere, even the book encyclopedia her father doggedly insisted on retaining. Nothing. It wasn’t a cone, it wasn’t a cowrie, it wasn’t even a crab shell.
Michelle turned it over and over in her hands. The shell did not look like it had come from a regular beach. No, it looked like it had come from a Plutonian shore. That was something she’d read in an Edgar Allen Poe story and had troubled her ever since. What did a Plutonian shore look like? Well, Pluto was cold and dark. So the beach was probably black sand. So black it shone blue under the light of the moon. No sun, not ever. Just a moon, maybe even two, providing cold light to an even colder shore.
“Where did this come from?” Michelle asked her mother, “could I call them and ask them something?”
Her mother was eyeing the flour heaped in a measuring cup. “It was uncle Hubie, we settled that.”
Michelle didn’t think it settled, not at all, but she said, “so can I call him?”
“About your present? Don’t be rude.”
“I’m not being rude. I want to thank him,” Michelle lied.
Her mother rolled her eyes and dialed the phone. Michelle knew he answered when mom’s fake hospitality smile contorted her face.
“Hubie? Hi, it’s Lonnie. Listen, Michelle just loves your present and—” she started pacing. “Yes. She’s already got it up in her window. And the shell—” she stopped, nodding. “Yes, the shell you got her. Really? Well then, I guess we were wrong.” She took the receiver away from her face and mouthed, ‘it wasn’t him’ at Michelle. Michelle nodded, though she’d long guessed that. She dutifully received the phone and thanked her uncle for his present.
“Now can we call the person who gave this to me?” she asked, holding the shell aloft.
Her mother frowned, first down at the shell, then at the batter half-formed in the bowl.
“That will take a while, sweetie.”
It took one and a half hours. Nana had been away from her house on a walk, Michelle had to play musical phones until she found her. Aunt Trisha was away at lunch with her cell turned off. Her father’s friend Josh worked at an office with at least two other Joshes. As Michelle made calls, her mother stirred her batter and a tiny frown line formed between her brows.
“Sweetie, why are you so concerned about the shell?” she asked.
“I just can’t figure out what kind it is,” Michelle said, “I can’t find it anywhere online.”
Michelle’s mother said, “oh, sweetie,” like she’d done something wrong.
Michelle looked over her present in the privacy of her own room. The shell stuck out like a sore thumb in her collection, dwarfing the tiger cowrie that sat beside it. Only the conch beat it for size, as well as weight. Michelle hefted it in her hand and realized how light it was for a shell that size. Maybe it wasn’t a real shell at all, but some kind of sculpture?
Hesitating, she lifted the shell up to her ear again. Yes, the sounds of a beach were present. The metallic cries of a bird or beast. The dry scrape of something heaving itself across sand. A thousand and one unidentifiable noises. She tried to imagine the shore that generated those sounds, a dark beach full of squirming, writhing life. Sea birds with dinosaur eyes that lived on sheer cliffsides. Crabs the size of a man, venomous blue and foaming at the mandible. Large, white worms that bored into rocks, waiting for the unsuspecting to pass by so they could strike.
On a whim, Michelle put the shell up to her eye. She knew that it was just a shell, a cast-off home for an invertebrate. She’d done her fifth grade science report on them, after all.
Peering into the blue depths of the shell, something moved.
Michelle’s heart skipped a beat. Without thinking, she clicked off her desk lamp and plunged the room into darkness.
Yes, she could see movement. She could see dark waves licking an even darker shore. Birds flying out from a cliffside home and kiting higher and higher on sea drafts. The sickly fingernail of a moon illuminating something churning the sea just beyond her range of vision.
“…it’s not like it came with a card,” her mother was saying as Michelle crept to her parent’s room. “No note, no wrapping paper, it was just there.”
Good, they were talking about the shell.
Her father sighed. “She’s alone too much. Too much time to obsess over that damn thing.”
Ire sparked in her chest.
“She didn’t even have school friends over for her party. What kind of girl has a birthday without any kids her age?”
Michelle wanted to scream, ‘you’re the ones who invited all your friends!’ But no. That would net her a punishment for eavesdropping.
Michelle crept back down the hall as her father started in on her supposed antisocial nature.
The shell was where she’d left it, sitting between a sand dollar and a turban snail. Michelle picked it up and cradled it in her hands. Reluctantly, she brought it back up to her eye.
The beach was very vivid. It was like she was peering through a window, not a shell. If she stretched out far enough, she could touch the bronze dune grass that grew nearest to her.
Michelle found she was reaching out her hand and stopped herself. The shell remained glued to her eye.
The dance of life on the beach was revolting as it was entrancing. A lopsided crab fed on some kind of carcass until one of the birds descended, hammering at the shell until it broke. Some creature she couldn’t see clearly dragged itself along the sand until a worm slithered out from the rocks and speared it with a set of tusk-like bristles. A seabird dove to the water, overtaken at the last second by something that lunged up and swallowed it.
It was coldly fascinating. Michelle found goosebumps raised on her arms and legs. She wanted to stop watching, but she couldn’t. What was this shell, really? Maybe it wasn’t the shell of anything at all. Maybe it was the container for this beach, this cold world lit only by moonlight. Maybe it was a key she’d inadvertently turned, and now the doorway was swinging wider and wider. The line of thought was like a stretch of freezing water she couldn’t stop herself from wading deeper and deeper into. The seabirds screamed their metallic din and the waves crashes deafeningly and she was turned like a piece of driftwood or sea glass and made smaller and smaller and smaller…
Her mother knocked on her open door. “Michelle? Baby, it’s morning.”
The bed was empty, rumpled sheets cast haphazardly over the mattress. Michelle’s mother frowned and pulled the sheets back.
“Todd?” she called.
Michelle’s father, tie half-knotted, came trotting up.
Michelle’s mother gestured to the bed. “Look at this! She left black sand everywhere! Where is she? You go find that girl and tell her this is not how we leave our beds in the morning. Where is she? Don’t tell me she’s off with that stupid shell again.”