“A Shell in the Sea”–Matthew Brennan

Guadalcanal, The British Solomon Islands, 1965

Carrie’s toes pressed deep into the soft, wet sand and curled down over something buried there. Standing at the water’s edge with the waves gliding up the beach to play around her ankles, she felt this cool, solid object by bending and unbending her toes and sliding them over its smooth surface. Each wave pulled more sand out from under her feet when it surged back into the sea and soon she was standing in a small pit; she stepped out and knelt and reached her fingers down into the sandy water and pulled up a piece of metal a little longer than her hand. It was long one way, round the other like a thick pencil. Carrie ran into the water up to her knees and washed the sand away. Most of the object was a dull gold in color, but the end that narrowed to a blunted point was copper. Holding it up in the strong tropical sunlight, the light catching in the beads of water that clung to the metal, it could almost have been shiny.

Farther up the beach, her brother had waded out into the water, shirtless, fishing with a rod he’d made out of a stick and string. He was tall and wiry, his skin smooth and pink from the sun, which had highlighted his brown hair with streaks of whitish yellow. He was ten, and he knew about everything; Carrie would be six next week.

“Michael!” Carrie ran towards him. “Michael, look. I found it in the sand.” She held it out for him to see. “What is it?”

“It’s a bullet, silly. From the war. Let me see.” Michael walked back onto the beach and took the bullet from her. He looked at it carefully. “You shouldn’t play with this, Carrie.”

“There’s no gun.”

“Remember the fire last month? Something like this started it. Dad told me about it.”

“Oh.” Carrie reached for it, but Michael held it away from her. “I just want to show Anita,” she said.

Michael considered this. “Okay,” he said. “Just be careful. And don’t tell anyone about it.”

“I won’t.”

They walked together back up the beach to where their house-girl, a native islander named Lia, sat in the shade of the palms, her hair and skin dark against the white of the sand. She was seventeen and looked after Michael and Carrie while their parents were away at work. Their father was a geologist for the United Nations, their mother a nurse. Lia looked up at them and smiled and handed them towels for their legs; Carrie was careful to keep the bullet wrapped in the edge of her towel.

Trotting along the dirt road that led them back into town, Michael told Lia about fishing, then the nurses their mother was training, and the surveys their father took, some from the air with special cameras, to help him find new places to mine. That was how their weekends were: with both their parents at work during the week and weary in the evenings, they spent Saturdays sharing stories from the week before. Now it was Monday, the past week’s stories fresh in their minds, and Michael liked explaining the things he’d learned. Carrie was quiet. On other days, she would have interjected details Michael had missed or not yet reached in his version of the tale, but today her mind was occupied only with things she couldn’t say: the bullet hidden in her towel, and what Anita would think when she saw it tomorrow in school.

Anita’s family was from India, her father a merchant who imported clothing and other textiles. They had moved to Guadalcanal two weeks after Carrie, and the girls had become comrades as the new students at the local school. That was a year ago. Carrie had spent much of her summer vacation at the Club, taking swimming lessons and playing with the other children there. Most of them attended the island’s private school, Master’s, which, like the Club, only accepted white children and Carrie didn’t like them much because they wouldn’t welcome her into their circle of friends. But she didn’t like everyone at her school, either. Simon went there, and Carrie didn’t like him at all. He was a bully. Now that school was back in session, she could be with Anita and her other friends every day. They sat together in class, whispering when the teacher turned to the blackboard; at break time, they watched the boys playing football, which would turn into rugby as soon as one of the boys – often Simon – got frustrated and picked up the ball. They talked about the boys and cheered for the ones they had crushes on that week, while silently Carrie cheered for Michael, her heart racing when he got the ball, hoping no one would hit him.

Before she could see the town, Carrie heard people in the street. Michael ran ahead and was soon beckoning for her to follow. The street was crowded with people walking down toward the harbor where, rising above the people around her and the houses and shops, there was a supply ship. They arrived every month or so, bringing the island’s mail and ice and frozen food along with many of the goods merchants like Anita’s father imported; it had been nearly two months since the last ship. Native islanders were busy unloading the ship’s cargo and the townspeople stood around in small groups watching them, waiting for everything to be unpacked. A tall man in a business suit and hat, the kind Carrie remembered seeing in London, took one of the dockhands aside and paid him. The dockhand lifted a crate of ice onto his shoulder and followed the man in the suit away from the harbor against the flow of traffic.

“Lia, can we get ice cream?” Carrie asked.

“Maybe your parents can bring you back tonight,” Lia said, watching the man in the suit.

Carrie looked out past the docks to the edge of the harbor where the rusted hulk of a shipwreck from the war was still visible above the water; she remembered the bullet in her towel, checked to make sure it was still hidden.

“Can we bring the mail home?” Michael asked, running back to them.

“I’m sure your father will stop on his way home from work. Come on, let’s get you washed up before your parents get home.”

Carrie was washed and dressed and playing in her room, the bullet secreted safely away among her pencils for school, when her father arrived home with her mother in her crisp, white uniform, and a box of mail from the past two months. She and Michael ran to meet them and sat eagerly at the table while their father put the box down and began sorting through its contents. He was tall and slender and always wore a light-colored suit – khaki, cream, white – and small glasses when he read, which he did often at home. He was the kind of man that grew restless in one place and traveled often with his work. He and their mother had lived for several years in Africa, and Michael had been born in Cape Town; Carrie had grown up in London, and this was her father’s first trip since she was born. Carrie wanted to believe that they had come to Guadalcanal to stay, but Michael insisted they would move again in another year or two. Their mother kept her dark hair long, but only wore it down at home, putting it up in an intricate bun at the back of her head for work. Whenever Carrie thought of her mother during the week, while at school or at the Club or the beach, she pictured her in their apartment in London where she had always worn long, brightly colored skirts, not in their house here on Kola Ridge. Here, Carrie knew that her mother’s work was important, and she liked her school and Lia and being with Michael, but in London, her mother had been hers.

Her father reached into the box, paused, and looked up at them. “It seems your grandmother misses you terribly,” he said and handed them each an envelope.

They grabbed the letters and tore them open, laughing with delight when five-pound notes fell out of the cards. Michael read the inside of his, smiling to himself; Carrie studied the outside design of hers until he was done, then pushed it in front of her brother.

“Read it to me.”

He did, in a rapid, bored monotone; Carrie lost interest. She was watching her father sort the mail into piles, the closest one a stack of the official envelopes he received with every ship. They were his assignments that told him what to look for and photograph and had the Queen’s seal stamped on them. Carrie wondered if the Queen signed the letters herself.

Carrie kept her grandmother’s card with her at dinner, the piles of mail pushed to one side. “Father, could we go get ice cream?” she asked. “We have money.”

“Burning a hole in your pocket already, is it?” He laughed. “All right, I’ll take you after dinner.”

“Carrie, dear,” her mother said. “Next week is your birthday, so think about who you’d like to invite to your party.”

“Anita! I want Anita to come. Please, Mother? I never see her out of school.”

She smiled, but seemed tired. “Just make me a list and I’ll send the invitations tomorrow.”

When they had finished dinner, Carrie and Michael walked with their father down toward the harbor from the enclave of homes on the ridge. The sun had set and twilight settled blue over the island; except for a bar near the docks, where the low rumble of voices drifted out across the street, the town was quiet, the supply ship gone. The sky was clear and moonless, and Carrie liked that there were more stars here than in London. They went into one of the shops that had freezers and chose their ice cream, and when Carrie took out her five-pound note, her father leaned down and whispered that she should save it for another day, then paid the shopkeeper. Carrie noticed that the man was looking at the money in her hand and wanted to tell him about her grandmother back in London, but her father ushered her out of the store. They ate on the docks, Carrie sitting on the end of one and kicking her feet above the black water while Michael walked on the rocks below among the pilings. Carrie was tired when they began walking home, holding her father’s hand, and he picked her up and carried her and, with her sticky lips pressed against his suit collar, she fell asleep in his arms.

* * *

When they arrived at school the next day, Michael jogged off to play football while Carrie waited for Anita outside the entrance. She was excited to show Anita her discovery, energy she’d had to keep inside all morning because there was no one else she could tell about it. Michael knew, but when she told him on their walk to school how she couldn’t wait to show Anita, he hadn’t shared her enthusiasm. “It’s just a bullet, Carrie,” he’d said. “It’s not that big of a deal.”

Anita arrived a few minutes later wearing a bright red sari and a necklace of small spiraled seashells strung through. Carrie took her aside and slipped the bullet out of her pocket, where she’d transferred it from her pencil case. They sat on a small outcropping of rock that overlooked the field where Michael and the other boys were playing football, a mild distraction that both girls would glance up at every now and then.

“I have something to show you,” Carrie said. She extended her hands, palms together with the bullet between them. “I found it buried on the beach.” She opened her hands.

“Wow!” Anita said. She picked it up and looked at it, turning it. “My Dad showed me pictures of things like this. Some people collect them.”

“Why?”

Anita shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“Do you think it still works? Michael thought it was dangerous.”

“I guess it might.”

Carrie took the bullet back and tucked it away again in her pocket.

“Last night my father said he wants to take us back to Calcutta to visit. I’m so excited! Wouldn’t you love to visit London?”

“I don’t know,” Carrie said. “I like it here.”

Anita glanced up at the boys’ game. “Hey, look,” she said. “They’re playing rugby now. Michael has the ball.”

Carrie looked in time to see Michael running before he was tackled hard from behind, the ball flying out of his arms, but Simon brought him to the ground anyway, and when Michael tried to get up, Simon pushed him down again. Carrie jumped off the rocks and yelled at the players on the field, but no one paid attention.

“I hate Simon,” she said. “Is it true he was kicked out of Master’s?”

“I heard they didn’t even let him in.”

Simon hung out with the other kids at the Club, and Carrie and Michael had spent their summer trying to avoid him. At the pool, he would splash people that were dry, dunk kids under, and once he had pushed someone in. He always got away with it. On the field, he was even more violent. He was a year younger than Michael, but bigger, and Michael had never stood up to him, preferring to ignore him until Simon got bored and left him alone.

When Carrie’s teacher, Sister Evangeline, a nun from the Philippines, rang the bell to signal the beginning of school, Carrie tried to get Michael’s attention to ask if he was all right, but he wouldn’t look at her.

* * *

Carrie awoke earlier than usual on Sunday morning, her sixth birthday. Her mother and Lia spent the morning decorating the house and yard with balloons, and with orchids that Lia had gathered in the jungle; Carrie tried to help, but couldn’t focus long enough to complete the tasks given her. Her father spent his morning reading in his study; it was a busy time for him with the two months of mail to work through, but by noon he had emerged enthusiastic for the party. Michael had been withdrawn all week, brushing off Carrie’s questions with a blunt assurance that he was fine. Since Tuesday on the field, Carrie had wanted to tell him that it wasn’t such a big deal, and that she hated Simon too and didn’t see why he was carrying on like this, but he didn’t want to talk about it. He slept late on Sunday, and begrudgingly complied with their father’s request to help set up a game in the backyard that they kept a secret from Carrie.

When two o’clock came, Carrie watched through the front window as her friends began to arrive, though it was Anita she was looking for, offering a quick greeting to each newcomer before returning to her vigil. At first it was all the children from the Club that came – Susan, Anna, Johnny, Ewan, Margaret, Ricky – which Carrie decided was because they all lived nearby while her other friends from school lived farther from Kola Ridge. But aside from Anita, Carrie couldn’t remember exactly who she had put on her list. It wasn’t until she saw Simon walking toward the house that she knew there was something wrong.

“Mother,” she said, going into the kitchen, “why is Simon here? He wasn’t on my list. I don’t want him at my party.”

“Sweetheart,” her mother said, taking her apron off and leaving it crumpled on the counter, “I had to make a few little changes to your list. Simon’s father works with me at the hospital. I had to invite him.”

“I don’t like him.”

“I’m sorry, Carrie. Is everyone here?”

“No. Anita’s not, and no one else from school is either.” Carrie thought for a moment. “Is Anita coming?”

Her mother looked sad, the way she had a year ago when she told Carrie they would be leaving London. She knelt down in front of her. “Carrie, dear … I’m really sorry, I know Anita’s your friend. But I couldn’t invite her. I’ll explain later. Everyone’s waiting for you outside.”

She led Carrie out into the backyard where all the children were, some talking together, some chasing each other, some sitting in the grass. There was a table piled with wrapped gifts to the side, and a longer table in the middle of the yard with chairs around it and a white tablecloth. Behind this, her father and Michael had built a football goal complete with a net. This would have thrilled Carrie, and in spite of herself she felt a small leap of her heart at the sight of it, but she realized the horror of the game her father had planned and began to understand Michael’s bad mood. Her father gathered the children together and explained how the game would work, since he only had room for one goal, but Carrie refused to play and instead sat at the table and watched.

After about fifteen minutes, Michael left the game and sat next to her. His cheeks were flushed and sweat had beaded on his forehead and darkened the edges of his hair.

“You knew Simon was coming,” Carrie said.

Michael nodded. “But if you want to play, Simon’s being nice. Father’s here, so I think he’ll behave.”

“I don’t want to.”

“Okay. Jump in whenever you want.” Michael jogged back to the game.

Carrie enjoyed watching them play, Michael especially, who played hard even though he was one of the oldest there, and she realized that this was his way of getting back at Simon. Over and over, Michael took the ball toward Simon and engaged him; at first Simon got it away, but then Michael began to break past him, then began to score, while Simon grew visibly frustrated. Carrie found herself caught up in the game, clapping and cheering for Michael, who would look up at her and grin or give her a thumbs-up.

Later, her father announced that they had ten more minutes for the game and then they would have cake; he and her mother went into the house. When Simon got the ball next, he scooped it up and ran with it. Some of the kids moved to intercept him, but Michael stood his ground.

“Simon, we’re playing football today, no rugby,” he said. “No rugby!”

Simon stopped. “Oh no?” he said and walked toward Michael. When he was a few steps away, he threw the ball at him; Michael didn’t have time to react and the ball bounced hard off his chest. Carrie knew it must have hurt, but Michael didn’t cry. Simon took the few steps between them and pushed Michael, who didn’t fall, then pushed him again.

Carrie stood up, feeling heat flushing her cheeks. “Hey, stop!” she yelled. “Stop it!”

No one listened. She turned and ran toward the house.

“Yeah, go tell, little girl, go tell your parents!” Simon called after her.

When she reached the house, Carrie still intended to get her father, but Simon’s taunt changed her mind and instead she ran past the kitchen and into her room, then back outside. Everyone had gathered in a group behind and around Simon; Michael had been pushed back further across the yard, but was still on his feet. Carrie ran up to them.

“Hey, look!” she said. “I found this on the beach.”

She held up the bullet.

The group’s attention turned to her, and even Simon seemed interested. They crowded around her to look. Carrie was surprised and mildly alarmed with everyone’s attention on her so quickly, but she stood her ground and held the bullet toward them. Simon reached out and grabbed it from her, then dashed away with it, examining the bullet more closely.

“Give it back!” Carrie yelled after him.

She followed, and when she got close, he yelled Ewan’s name and tossed it to him, and they circulated the bullet around several of the boys to keep it away from Carrie.

“Don’t!” Carrie said, feeling tears coming and trying to push them away. “Please don’t do that. It’s dangerous!”

Simon looked at her and laughed. “Dangerous?” He walked to Ricky, took it from him, and marched toward the house. “It isn’t bloody dangerous, stupid. You need a gun. Watch.”

When he had passed the tables, Simon stopped and threw the bullet as hard as he could at the concrete wall of the house. Carrie watched, helpless, as her treasure flew through the air, tumbling and spinning over itself in its brief trajectory, then hit the wall with a sound so loud she thought that surely the house would collapse. Her entire body jumped at the sound of the explosion and she stood frozen, her heart beating wildly, until the echo had faded into the jungle. The other kids, too, had frozen in place and Carrie watched Simon, his back to her as he stood facing the house, picturing the look of surprise she hoped was on his face. Her parents came running out of the house, demanding to know what had happened and Michael sprinted over to explain. The other children began milling around the yard, talking quietly; Simon stayed where he was, looking at everyone, but made no effort to join them.

Carrie walked by him and up to the wall of the house. She found the golden casing of the bullet in the dirt, empty, hollow, the metal thin and dull. She went into the house, leaving the gifts unopened on the table, the cake whole somewhere in the kitchen, and up to her room where she set the bullet shell on her bedside table and lay down on the bed looking out her window at the jungle canopy and the blue sky that filtered through. She didn’t care if the kids stayed and ate her cake or played more games, or if they went home early. She didn’t care if Simon ever apologized to Michael or told her that she had been right about the bullet’s danger, because she knew. She was tired of her party and just wanted to be alone.

Her mother knocked and came into the room a while later. Carrie continued looking out the window.

“Are you all right, Carrie?” she asked. Carrie didn’t answer. “Michael told us what happened. I wish you’d have showed us the bullet when you found it. Someone could have been really hurt. Everyone’s gone home now if you want to come out.” Her mother sat down on the edge of the bed. “Carrie? You don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to, but I want to explain about your invitations. I know Anita is your friend, and I wanted to invite her.”

“Then why didn’t she come?”

“Because I couldn’t invite her, sweatheart. There are so many different people on this island now from different parts of the world. Some are doctors while others are fishermen. They’re all good people and that’s why we let you go to school with them, but there are others who want these classes kept separate. Anita wouldn’t have been allowed to come to your party even if we’d invited her, and it would have been embarrassing for her family to have to say no. I’m sorry Carrie. I should have told you before.” She stood up. “I can bring you a piece of your cake if you’d like.”

“No,” Carrie said. “I don’t want it.”

Her mother was wearing a long white dress and blouse; Carrie wished she would wear colors again. Her mother left. Carrie stayed on the bed and listened to Michael and their father come inside, then footsteps on the stairs. Michael came into her room and sat on the floor between her and the window.

“You better come open your presents before I do,” he said.

“I bet it’s all girl stuff anyway.”

He smiled. “Are you okay?”

Carrie nodded.

“Me too,” he said.

“Did you tell Father about Simon?”

“No,” Michael said. “There’s nothing he can do about it.”

* * *

On Monday after school, Lia took Michael and Carrie to the beach again. Carrie brought the bullet shell with her. Michael wanted to build a castle in the sand and Carrie told him to start and she would help him later; Lia sat with a book under the palm trees. Carrie went down to the water and stood where the broken waves could swirl up over her ankles and looked out to sea, bright blue under the sun and darker farther out. She thought of London, which seemed so far away because it was so different than it was here on her island, and she thought about going back one day. Michael could play football in one of the leagues there, and Carrie could have friends come to their flat, and maybe their mother wouldn’t have to work so much anymore.

The sand under Carrie’s feet tickled as it was pulled away by the receding water, and with the last of it swept away, she sunk into the hole where it had been. She stepped out and knelt and looked at the bullet shell – the inside blackened, the edges bent and scratched – one more time before pressing it down into the sand with all of her weight, the metal scraping against the grains of sand that filled it. The next wave curled in and flowed against her, running up her arms still held against the ground. When she stood and the water cleared again, she saw that the hole she’d made had already filled with sand; she wasn’t quite sure where it had been.

MATTHEW BRENNAN is a writer and freelance editor based in the Pacific Northwest. Having earned his MFA in fiction from Arizona State University, he remains on the editorial staff of the Hayden’s Ferry Review, and he is an assistant fiction editor with Speech Bubble Magazine. He has received several awards and fellowships for his short fiction, which has appeared in dozens of journals, most recently in Fiddleblack, Pure Slush, The Eunoia Review, Recess Magazine, and thick jam, and is forthcoming from Cigale Literary Magazine and Glasschord.  You can check out more about his writing here.

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