The Shell's Game

The Shell's Game

Robert Hardy was out on the beach wasting time, doing nothing. Not that this was anything new. He had wasted thirty- five years worth of time already, as much of it as possible doing nothing.

He had been coasting through college with very little margin when his father's older brother died and left Robert an inheritance that would allow him to avoid working steadily, though not enough to avoid work altogether. But he could buy a little place in a climate where the weather was always warm enough to hang around the beach, and he could do little odd jobs. Sometimes he worked in a store, sometimes in a restaurant. Sometimes he lived off women. Sometimes he told stories and passed the hat afterward. Sometimes he looked on the beach for things that he could sell.

He knew what the ordinary seashells looked like, and the less ordinary ones that could sometimes be sold to tourists at high prices. There were stores in town that sold those, and on some good days Robert could get a couple of hundred dollars just for a day of walking.

Robert Hardy did not know what to make of this shell. It certainly did not match anything he had seen before, not even anything he had just seen a picture of. It was black with a dark green edge, and it looked like a hand with four fingers, half- closed. Or maybe a paw, he thought. And when he picked it up, it felt more like rough skin than like a mineral excretion.

He should have been able to see all the way inside when he picked it up, but somehow he couldn't. He couldn't quite turn it the right way to get the light inside, but after all it was black in there so there wasn't anything to see.

It was deep enough inside to create that familiar illusion of the roaring sea, and he held it to his ear for a moment. But he didn't get what he expected. Instead there was what seemed to be a voice, which he could not quite make out, saying what were not quite words. In a spirit of play, he held the shell as if to listen carefully for a moment. Or Robert thought it was a moment; but his arm was a bit tired when he lowered the shell.

At the end of the day, he took the bag of shells to his usual tourist trap and put several twenties into his wallet. But he kept the black shell. That night he put it on his dresser and had strange dreams.

In the morning Robert Hardy put on swimming trunks and took a blanket and some gear and spread out on the beach. He was beginning to look his age; he was still in good shape, but he was starting to strike out with women more often than he used to, even if it seemed to him that they were often easier to get to bed than they used to be.

He tried to talk up a blonde in a red two-piece outfit, maybe twenty-three, and he was getting nowhere. Then he had a sudden impulse to ask her to listen to the shell, which he had brought with him for no reason he could remember.

She gave him a cynical smile, but she listened. Within a minute or two she was walking with Robert back to his cottage, leaving her blanket and beach umbrella behind. Within twenty minutes she was standing in his bedroom, peeling her swimsuit and reaching for him.

She did not speak while she was walking back, not even responding to his comments, not even when he asked her her name. Only when he touched her intimately did she utter any sound, and then only what an animal might. But she made noises at everything that he did to her, at every motion Robert made. And soon those sounds reached a frantic peak.

For the rest of that day she did anything that he asked of her, wildly and enthusiastically. At night he took her back to where he had found her; her blanket and umbrella were still there, but everything else had been long stolen. When he was a hundred feet away from her, she looked around in confusion and wondered at how it had gotten so late.

The next day Robert saw her again, but she gave no sign of recognition. He did not know what to make of what had happened, but he decided to go with the flow, as it were. There was a little bite on his leg this morning, more like from something with teeth than an insect, but still small. And he felt a little light-headed, but God knows yesterday could account for that. Or the ...

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