“Shell-Shocked,” by Patrick Siniscalchi

Apr 20th, 2024 | By | Category: Fiction, Prose

The cloudless morning sky failed to lift Harold’s slumped shoulders as he walked along the shoreline. At thirty-five, he assumed he would be married, yet he hadn’t dated anyone in ten months. And none of the prior ones had spawned a second date. With the reach of the waves lapping at his feet, he counted the time since his relationship with Cynthia had disintegrated. He rechecked his math and muttered, “Eight years.” His face wilted; his unfocused gaze drifted to the sea.

A band of seagulls screeched and circled narrowly overhead. While shooing them, he stumbled over a conch shell. He grasped the former protective covering and raised it to his ear. Amid the swooshing of wind through its whorled caverns, a deep voice announced, “Harold, love awaits at land’s end.”

He clutched the shell to his chest and scanned the beach, finding only a jogger and a man with a metal detector in the distance. Again, he placed it to his head and heard, “Harold, love awaits at land’s end.”

“God, is that you?” Harold asked.

Rather than an affirmation, the shell repeated the phrase. Harold accepted this as confirmation that it was God’s voice and that His message was solely for him. He frowned, realizing land ended in every direction on Key Largo. Shell in hand, Harold sprinted to the parking lot. In his VW Beetle, he adjusted the mirror to examine his face. His white and black make-up created impossibly arched eyebrows and a permanent smile centered by his red ball nose, which squeaked as he pinched it. “Squeaky, you need to figure out God’s message right after class.” He embellished his painted smile with a real one. “Love awaits!” Squeaky the Clown crowed.

A two-hour lecture on the finer points of clowning did not dampen his excitement. Upon arriving home, he breathlessly relayed his tale to his mother while pacing back and forth. She listened intently, then grinned as if she had always expected her only son to be blessed by a miracle. When he finished, he plopped into the La-Z-Boy recliner and asked, “What do you think it means?”

She opened a fresh pack of Marlboros, shook one out, and lit it. As she exhaled a cloud from the corner of her mouth, she raised one eyebrow and nodded. “I think I know.”

“Really, Mom?”

“Yeah. Didn’t your old girlfriend, Cynthia, move to the south end of Key Largo, right before the bridge to Islamorada?”

“You think it’s her?”

“Yes, I do.”

Harold jumped back into his car and sped down the Overseas Highway, screeching the tires while turning before the bridge. Pieces of gravel pinged the wheel wells of the VW as it skidded to a halt in Cynthia’s driveway. Carrying the sacred shell, he raced up her walkway and jabbed his finger at the doorbell. He glanced at her car in the driveway and pressed it again. A frizzy-haired woman in pajama bottoms and a tank top appeared. She furrowed her brow and squinted at the clown on her doorstep.

“What the hell do you want?”

“Cynthia, it’s me, Harold.”

“Harold? What are you dressed up like that for? It ain’t Halloween.”

“I’m training to be a clown, but listen, I had the most incredible religious experience earlier—”

“That’s nice. Bye, Harold.” Cynthia started to close the entryway.

“No, wait!” He thrust his oversized shoe between the door and the jamb.

“Harold, this may not have come up when we were going out, but I really hate clowns. They scare the crap out of me. So get your big-ass shoe out of my doorway!”

“Okay, okay, but please listen for a minute.” Harold gradually withdrew his foot and presented the shell to his former flame. “I was walking on the beach and found this shell. When I put it to my ear, there was God’s voice telling me that love awaits, and He was pointing me to you!”

“There’s no way in hell love awaits you here, especially since you’re a goddamn scary clown now,” she said with increasing hostility. “Get out!” Cynthia shoved a hand in his face, squeaking his nose, driving him backward. Once he stumbled from the threshold, she slammed the door.

“Cynthia, please, please listen,” he said while pounding his palm on the door.

“I’m calling the cops!”

Harold pleaded about God’s will until the sheriff’s deputies arrived. While being cuffed, he dropped the shell. Once they secured him in the cruiser’s backseat, Cynthia returned outside. His muffled cries of her name continued as they drove away. She rolled her eyes at the encounter, lifted the shell to her ear, and heard, “Love awaits at the county jail!”

Cynthia hurled the shell onto her concrete walkway, shattering it into a hundred tiny slivers. “The hell it does.”


Patrick Siniscalchi is a former electrical engineer living in Asheville, North Carolina, with his wife and scruffy dog. His work has appeared in the Great Smokies Review and Hedge Apple and is upcoming in The Sunlight Press.

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