A few years ago, I wrote a story titled, Broken Shells. (Brief spoiler coming) In it a teenaged boy who recounts the last night he saw the girl he loved and how he believed it was his fault she died. It’s a terribly sad piece about how things are viewed as ugly or beautiful, how people are viewed in that same manner. 

I wrote the story one night around Thanksgiving of 2013. That year we went to Folly Beach for Thanksgiving with my wife’s family. It was insanely cold during the day and even colder at night. We went out one afternoon, braving the cold and the wind that whipped around us. As we walked, I did what I always do: look for shells. I came across this shell that was nothing more than a fragment. It’s edges were purple and faded into pink. I almost threw it back, then stopped. It wasn’t a full shell, but it was beautiful, probably one the prettiest shells I’ve ever seen.

That’s when the story began to take shape. You see, beauty can be found in anything if you look for it. It’s what the main character of the story didn’t know, but what Mazzy did. I tucked the shell into my coat pocket and wrote the story shortly after.

Fast forward to the end of 2021. Cate and I return to Folly Beach on a warm day shortly after Christmas. We walk the beach for a couple of hours. At one point, we pass these driftwood trees to our right. Cate had seen them on one of her prior trips earlier in the year and she wanted to show me. She takes me to this tree, one with all these half shells attached to it with twine or string or anything that people could find. Up a little high, as if it were the star on top of a Christmas tree, was a starfish with some words written on it. She took a few pictures and we left. But a seed had been planted. Now, all I had to do was water it.

That night, I sat at my laptop and wrote the story, Forever Broken, Forever Beautiful. It takes place five years after Broken Shells. It deals with the guilt of poorly chosen words and the perceived results of those words. Below are those two stories. I hope you enjoy them.

As always, until we meet again, be kind to one another and keep taking one step forward. It’s the only way you get anywhere.

A.J.

Broken Shells (2013)

Mazzy wanted to walk on the beach. I thought she was crazy. I’ve always thought she was a little nuts, but this time, she was taking it to a new level. It was bitter cold—twenty-six degrees—and it was well after noon, so the temperature wasn’t going to rise much, if any. The sun was as high in the sky as it would go before making its descent back the other way. The wind blew off the ocean, dropping the temperature another ten or so degrees. We had tried the beach before lunch, but the gust whipped her blond hair about her head. It cut through my coat and sweater and the T beneath it. It made my face hurt and my nose run and my body like ice. We gave up then after only a few minutes.

Still, Mazzy wanted to walk on the beach.

“Why?” I asked.

“I want to look for shells.”

“Shells?”

“Yes. Seashells.”

“I know what you mean. Why do you want to look for them now?”

“We can add them to your collection.”

With that, I donned my long shirt, my sweater and jacket. She pulled on only a thin coat, not enough to keep the chill from her skin, much less the wind off her bones.

“You’ll be cold,” I said.

She regarded me with pale blue eyes that hid a truth in them I didn’t see right away.

It didn’t take long to get to the beach. It was a block from the house her parents rented. My hands shoved deep into jean pockets, I still shivered, even with the layers I wore. Mazzy gave no indication she was cold at all.

Clouds rolled in, brought by the wind. A threat of sleet or ice hung in the air. 

“We shouldn’t stay out long,” I said.

“You can go back,” she remarked, knowing I wouldn’t leave her.

For the next two hours we picked up shells to add to a collection I had started years before, when I was only a child of six. I picked up one with frozen fingers, dropped it back to the sand, and plucked it up again. By then the sun was setting behind the darkened clouds, giving the clouds a purple hue. I stared at the shell for a moment, before flipping it into the incoming tide. 

“Why do you throw back the broken ones?” Mazzy asked. In her hand she held a curved piece of a conch shell—it was just a piece, and nothing more. 

“It’s broken—it’s not worth anything.”

Again, she regarded me with those pale blue eyes. They were sadder than I had ever seen. She held up her piece, turned it over in her hand. “Is that how you see them? Just broken pieces that have no meaning. Pieces so insignificant you can’t see the beauty in them?”

“There is no beauty in broken things.”

She frowned, looked down and whispered, “A shell is like a life—fragile and easily broken. Each one should be looked at for what it is: once something beautiful before the world destroyed it, before people destroyed it.” She dropped the broken shell and turned away from me.

I wanted to chase after her, but I couldn’t. Even if it had been a hot sunny day, my legs would not have moved, and my voice couldn’t be bothered to speak up when I needed it to most. 

I looked to the sand. The piece of shell was there. I bent, picked it up and had a hard time standing upright, thanks to the cold that had seeped into my bones. With the dying sun sinking further into the horizon, I caught a glimpse of the purple edge of the shell, the way it turned red, then pink. It was a beautiful fragment of something much larger. It was like Mazzy, and right then I understood her grief.

Life had been cruel to her, but she kept going, kept putting one foot in front of the other. At least until then. 

“Mazzy,” I called, but she was gone. I looked up the beach in the direction she had gone but didn’t see her. I saw shoe prints in the sand that led to the water. You can figure it out from there, right? I don’t need to go into all the details of how I called her name until I was hoarse, or how I ran into the water up to my knees, even as the tide rolled in harder and harder, pushed along by the bellowing wind, or how her body washed up on the shore three days later, bloated and blue and nipped at by hungry fish, or how I cried until no more tears would come, and still, my heart lay shattered in millions of tiny pieces. Or do I?

All that really matters is Mazzy is dead, and I can’t help but believe part of it is my fault. The words I said echo in my skull, haunting me daily, keeping me awake until the early hours of morning. 

There is no beauty in broken things.

I was wrong. 

Mazzy was a broken shell, but she was beautiful in her own special way.

I once had a collection of seashells. They were whole and carefully cleaned and sat in boxes in my closet. They were beautiful. They still sit in their boxes, but I haven’t added any to them since Mazzy left. Now, I walk the beach in search of the beauty of broken shells …

Forever Broken, Forever Beautiful (2021)

It’s warm today, even for mid-November. The last time I was here, it was bitterly cold, in the mid-twenties and with a wind coming off the ocean that made it feel like it was below freezing. That was five years ago. Five. Years. Ago.

I can only shake my head at that. 

I left my car in the gravel parking lot. Four years ago, this part of the beach had been wiped out thanks to Hurricane Andrew. The parking lot had been just a dirt road that dead ended at a small building with two changing rooms—one for women, one for men. A sandy path led from the building to the beach; a thin slat fence kept people from going onto the dunes. Now, there’s a building with four ramps leading up, up, up to changing rooms and bathrooms. There is even a deck area with nice wooden tables you can sit at and look out at the ocean. It’s a beautiful view from there. 

Mazzy would have thought it was neat, maybe interesting, but beautiful? I’m not so sure. 

The ramps lead to a long boardwalk that takes you right onto the beach. Real guard rails keep people off the dunes. 

“Are you sure you’re ready for this?”

I look to my right. Kimberly stands there. Her light brown hair moves with the slight breeze. There is concern in her hazel eyes and written all over her face. She holds a small paper bag with both hands in front of her. She’s a good person, my friend, my heart. She’s understanding, and in so many ways, I don’t deserve her. She knows Mazzy no longer had my heart, but a big part of me still missed her … still mourned her. She knows that, too.

“Not really,” I reply. “But I need to do this. I need to put this behind me. If not now, when?”

She nods. It’s a sweet gesture of pure understanding. She also knows this is as much for her as it is for me. We can’t go on until this is done. 

We walk, not quite side by side. She’s a little ahead of me, and I’m okay with that. She can’t see the anxiousness on my face that way. We go up the ramps and to the boardwalk, where the view is absolutely breathtaking. The tide is coming in and the whitecaps roll along the shore. There are a handful of people on the beach. We stand there for a few minutes, then walk down the boardwalk to the beach. There are three steps that lead to the sand. She goes down. I stop. 

“Are you okay?” she asks after taking a few steps and realizing I’m not there with her. 

I take a deep breath, swallow the nothing in my mouth and nod. I’m not okay, but I hope … I hope, soon, I will be.

Kimberly walks back to the steps and reaches out to me. Her nails are light purple and seem to shimmer in the sunlight. “I’ll be right beside you the whole way. Just take my hand.”

I take the three steps down to the sand and grab her hand. It’s warm and soft and everything I need to go forward.

To the left are a row of houses that span about a mile, then a hotel that seems to extend forever. Just beyond that is the pier loves stand on and grumpy men fish from. To the right is just beach. No houses. No hotels. Just beach. We go right. 

There are less people in this direction than the other, mostly out of towners from up north who probably didn’t expect it to be in the upper sixties down south this late in the year. What they don’t know is this is typical South Carolina weather. Today it’s upper sixties, tomorrow it might be lower thirties. Stick around a few days and you can experience all four seasons in less than a week. 

Neither of us speak as we walk along. I try not to look at the ground, at the broken seashells that dot the sand. To the right a few small trees have grown up on this side of the dunes. They look like nothing more than driftwood that sprouted roots and grew into the ground. 

Then I see what I’m looking for. It’s still over fifty yards away. One of those driftwood trees stands by itself. It has no real branches and it looks like it could be a wooden person standing there with two arms extended out and a pointy head separating them. Part of me thought the tree would be gone, pulled into the ocean when Hurricane Andrew blew through, but there it stands. And what lies beyond it is our destination. 

I squeeze Kimberly’s hand. She squeezes mine back. 

We approach the tree. About ten yards from it, we stop. Just beyond the driftwood tree is another bank of smaller trees, these with dozens and dozens of limbs. One, in particular, calls to me.

“Is that it?” Kimberly asks.

“Yes.”

For at least a minute, maybe two, we stand there, staring at the tree.

“Are you okay?” 

I’m not. “Yes,” I lie. She knows. 

I release her hand and take a few tentative steps. I pass the driftwood tree that could be a wooden person and stop in front of one that could have been a bush at one time. Like the driftwood tree, I half hoped it had been swept away. Its branches have no leaves. It holds seashells, put there by people over the years, memories of loved ones or important moments. Most of the shells are gray or white, just boring things that, at one time, I would have thought were ugly and not all that special. I was wrong then. Each of those bland shells means something to someone.

“Here,” Kimberly says and holds out the small paper bag. 

“Thanks,” I say and take it. I open it. Inside is a piece of a shell—something I once thought was insignificant. I reach inside, pull out the shell. It’s the curved piece of a conch shell. It’s white and pink and when the light reflects off it, the pink looks purple. Once upon a time, I would have tossed it back—in fact, I had, five years before, on a frigid November night when the temperatures were anything but warm. Mazzy had picked it up and regarded it with terribly sad eyes. 

“There is no beauty in broken things,” I said that night. I’ve lived with the guilt of those seven words ever since. Mazzy considered herself broken, even at sixteen, with what should have been her entire life before her. She looked at the shell and spoke about broken things and humanity and dropped it back to the ground. Then, as I bent to pick it up, she walked into that icy ocean. Her body washed up on the shore three days later. It may have washed up sooner, but she wasn’t found until three days passed. 

And I haven’t been the same since.

Last night I drilled a hole in the thick end of the shell. I ran a zip tie through the hole and connected the two ends, creating a loop. I wrote on it in tiny print, Mazzy. Forever Broken. Forever Beautiful. Forever loved. This morning, Kimberly put it in the small bag. Now, I hold it in my hands. The sun shines off it, making the pink a beautiful purple. 

I lick my lips and swallow hard. My chest tightens and I struggle to breathe. Finally, I hand the bag to Kimberly and take the few steps to the tree. There is a shell on one branch that someone—either Rochelle or Augustus wrote the words: Rochelle and Augustus 4 Ever 11/02/2021. There’s a dried out starfish on the top someone wrote a bunch of words on that I can’t read it. I guess it represents the star on the top of a Christmas tree. Maybe.

I hold the shell up by the zip tie, turn it over and read what I wrote. Mazzy. Forever Broken. Forever Beautiful. Forever loved. 

I slip the ornament on a branch not too far below the starfish and pull the end of the zip tie, tightening the loop and securing the shell in place. 

“I’m sorry, Mazzy,” I say as tears fill my eyes. “I miss you.”

I lower my head, take a deep breath. The floodgate breaks and I can do nothing to keep from sobbing. A warm hand touches my back, then I turn. Kimberly’s arms go around me, pull me into her. One hand goes onto the back of my head when I lower it into her shoulder.

We stay like that for a while, until I have cried my tears out, until I have wet the shoulder of her shirt. Not once did she remove her arms from around me. Not once did she tell me I needed to grow up or get over it or anything else along those lines. I said I didn’t deserve her. I don’t. 

Then I hear it, a soft voice. Not Kimberly’s but Mazzy’s. Two words. That’s all.

It’s okay.

I look up. I pull away from Kimberly and turn around. The sun shines off Mazzy’s shell and I see that beautiful purple. A soft breeze blows through the branches and the sun catches the shell. The pink and purple and white glisten and seem to wink at me. I smile. It’s nothing much, but still a smile. 

“Thank you,” I whisper. 

I wipe my eyes and take a deep breath. For the first time in five years, I feel light; the weight of guilt lifted from my shoulders. I turn around. Kimberly stands in front of me, her eyes full of her own tears.

“Are you okay?” she asks.

I nod. “Yes.” It’s the truth this time. She knows it.

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