(Story by the awesome incognito ‘The Uffish Thumb’ (with permission); illustration by Moi)
“Of course I know you. We were in first grade together.”
Jemmy stared at the old man squatting next to her on the blonde sand. She knew she wasn’t supposed to talk to strangers. This man didn’t look scary though. He looked kind of …lost.
‘I’m six. You are old,’ she wanted to say. That would be rude. She dragged the yellow bucket over.
“Look; it has stripes.” She lifted the fat sea snail from its watery abode and held it out.
He took it; put it in his mouth.
“No! Don’t do that,” she squealed with glee. Josh had dared her to do just that a few minutes ago. She wondered where Josh had gone.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
He spat the snail back into the bucket with a wet squelch. It wriggled into the thin layer of sand.
“I’m Danny. But you know that Meg. Why do you ask?”
Jemmy looked into his eyes. They were old eyes, a cloudy yellow. She noticed that his chin was trembling. In fact, he was shivering all over. It made her think of Sparkles after he’d been for a swim. She almost expected him to shake himself like a dog.
“Are you cold? Look, you have goose bumps.”
Danny rubbed his blotchy arms. He sagged suddenly, folding in on himself like one of those stepped-on puffer mushrooms. He was dribbling grotesquely.
“Where am I?” he croaked. Jemmy freaked. She jumped up, scattering sand. She abandoned her spade, her bucket and precious Mister Snail. Ran, the fluster monster breathing down her skinny neck, his hot exhalations in her ears.
A hundred or so paces up the piping sand she glanced back. Old Danny was just a blob at the waves’ edge. He looked as if he had toppled over. Fear flamed up again. She took off through the underbrush, squashing the little black ants she normally so carefully avoided. Through the tunnelpath strewn with broken shells and knobbly milkwood tree roots. She stubbed her toe on a sharp rock, blood oozed out from under the nail, but she didn’t stop. The fear of Wicked, her mom would have said, was hammering in her chest.
“Mommy!” Jemmy screamed, stumbling up the worn, splintered stairs to the deck. “There’s a dead man on the beach. He was talking to me. He almost ate Mister Snail!” She was crying now.
The conversation on the deck stopped mid-sentence. Jemmy’s mom pulled her close.
“Now, Baby. Calm down. What are you talking about?” Her dad was at the barbecue, the tongs in the air a question mark. The fire was smoking badly.
“Jim,” her mom said.
Jemmy ran over to him.
“Daddy! He was talking to me, and then he fell over.”
The grown-ups scrambled off their deck chairs, drinks still in hand. Jemmy retraced her steps down to the beach.
“Slow down, Jemmy, I’m not wearing the right shoes for this,” her dad huffed.
At last they reached the dunes. The shoreline was empty. But. Her yellow bucket was lying on its side near the lapping water.
“Snail! Mister Snail.” She scooped up the bucket. “Oh!” There were two snails in the bucket. One had a bright purple shell, just like…
“So, Jemmy. What exactly did you see?” Her father was breathing heavily from the mad scramble.
“Daddy. There was an old man here, really. He said his name was Danny.
“Jemmy. It’s okay. It was probably just a visitor. We don’t get many folk coming here this time of the year though. Did he do something to you?”
Jemmy scowled. “No! He wore shorts. Purple ones, like this snail,” she said. “And he said he knew me.”
“Well. He’s gone now. Come; let’s go home. You shouldn’t come to the beach on your own. Where is Josh in any case?”
Jemmy swung the bucket in her fingers, picked up the spade. She looked around for footprints, but the sand was all trampled and messed up. She looked inside the bucket again. Well, at least Mister Snail had a friend now.
“It’s getting dark, for goodness sake.” Jemmie’s mother sounded worried.
“When did you last see him?”
“He was with me this afternoon, before…”
Dad sighed. “Well, he’s been out like this before.”
“ I told you. I hate this place. Why did you insist on coming?” Jemmie’s mom burst out.
Jemmie snuck away to the window box. From there she could keep an eye on the path that led to the beach. The path that Josh would use to come back. Now Josh was missing, – no, not missing surely, just somewhere else. She scratched at the red welts on her sunburnt legs. Fleas. The house had been infested with them this year.
Her parents raised voices caught her attention. She wished they wouldn’t fight. Mom had never liked coming to the cottage. Dad loved it here. She did too, and so did Josh. He’d disappear for hours, fishing or hunting for shells.
Their house guests had left after an awkward lunch. No one had wanted to make a “scene” about Josh not turning up. He was almost sixteen after all, and stayed out fishing often. No cell phone reception around here either. Jemmie knew Josh’s phone battery would be flat in any case; he’d left it on his side table.
The front door slammed. She jumped up and ran down the hall. But it wasn’t Josh.
“Dad’s gone into town. I’m sure this is just nonsense.” Her mom stared at her. “Is this a joke Jemmie? Did you and Josh cook up something just for fun?”
Jamie shook her head. Her mother wrung her hands. “Where do you think he can be?”
“I can go and look for him….”
“No! You stay here. He’ll be back.” “I’m going to lie down. I have a tremendous headache. Call me when he comes in. I’m going to murder him for making me worry so much!”
But, Josh never did come home, did he? Jemmie put her hand on her throat. She could feel the muscles move as she swallowed. Josh, Josh. Swallow. Josh.
It had been four weeks now. The police had sent out a search party; everyone had been questioned. Again and again. The dunes had been searched; they’d even brought sniffer dogs. A newspaper reporter had come by. She wondered if she’d wake up one morning and see Josh’s picture on the milk carton. The family skirted around the big black hole that seemed to have opened up in the middle of their house.
Back at school, she was treated like someone important for a couple of days. Then everyone just sort of forgot. Except, she could not, could she? She felt that she herself had become invisible.
Jemmy pulled the box out from under her bed. It was a large plastic one on little coaster wheels. She had put Mister Snail and his colorful friend in there. It was a secret. She knew her mom would not approve, but this way she felt that she still had a connection with Josh. He had given her Mister Snail after all. She was surprised that the snails had survived the hot car ride. Previous pets had not been as fortunate.
Jemmie stirred under the sweaty sheets. She tossed back the covers. Even with them off, she still felt hot. She got up and went to the bathroom and drank some water from the faucet, musing about her parents. Things had gone from bad to worse; they weren’t even talking anymore. She felt like a ghost in her own home. Josh. Oh, Josh. No, she mustn’t think about him.
She sat down on the bed. It felt strangely hot to the touch. She stroked the surface of the crumpled blankets. The snails! She kneeled next to the bed and rolled the snail house out. She could see them, even though it was dark. They glowed a luminous yellow. She picked up Mister Snail and dropped him straight away.
“Ouch!” she stuttered. “You burnt me!”
Mister Snail’s eyestalks swayed. Jemmie felt weird. She looked at the other snail. Thing Number Two, she had named him.
“Jemmie!” She glanced around wildly. I’m not going crazy, she thought. That had sounded like Josh. Her eyes smarted at a memory of Josh whispering scary stories whilst babysitting. She shoved the snail house back under the bed.
Jemmie dragged herself to the kitchen. She felt groggy, sore from sleeping on the bathroom floor. Her dad must have left early. Her mom wouldn’t get up for breakfast, she never did anymore. Why should I even bother to go to school? she asked herself.
“I’m not going,” she said aloud. She grabbed a wrinkly pear, feeling better than in a long time. She went back to her bedroom and pulled out the snail box. The two snails were gone.
“Oh no,” she wailed. She checked carefully, turning the rocks over. Then she spotted the tell-tale silver trails on the hardwood floor.
“Ha! Think you can escape!” She followed the trails. They ran all the way down the passage and to her parents’ bedroom door, which was partially open. Hesitantly, she pushed at the door and glanced inside. The bed was crumpled, but she couldn’t see her mom.
“Mom?” Somehow she knew the room was empty. Weird. A magazine was lying on the covers, open at a full-page picture of a giant snail. She picked it up, started reading.
Cher-no-ble’s vi-gi-lant snails showing no signs of cancer after seven years… There are some cu-r-i-ous… She looked at the picture again. Hey, that looked like Thing Number Two! The same shiny purple shell…
She went back to the door where she’d seen the snail tracks before. There. They led to the bed, seemed to disappear. Then she spotted them continuing off to the little inside garden. That would be much nicer living there than under someone’s bed! She spotted Thing Number Two straight away.
“Thing. Come here.” Thing Number Two’s shell didn’t feel hot; it was melding to her hand, a nice, warm, comforting feeling. Jemmie felt sleepy. She lay down on the cool terra cotta tiles. Carefully she lifted Thing Number Two to her ear and felt his soft body slip into her ear shell. She could hear the waves lapping on the beach…
“Listen to me carefully.” It was Josh’s voice again!
“Is that you talking to me, Thing?” she whispered.
“They say the whole family just disappeared.” The boy rested his bicycle against the derelict fence under the dim streetlight.
“Come, let’s go check it out. The girl used to be in my class. She was really weird.”
Danny pushed in front of his three friends. They followed him as he lifted the rusty latch on the gate.
“Uggh. It’s all slimy,” he said and giggled nervously. “Look, the path is covered in snails. They look like they’re glowing. It must be the moonlight. Gross. Let’s squash them!”