SHELLED IN • by Bythe Poudre

Johnathan Hallister put the hermit crab in a Tupperware container and pulled up pet stores. They were a seasonal stocked item, and the four stores were all sold out, and all four employees told him a different expectation of dates, none before his daughter arrived home the following day. John called the pet stores in Loveland, sold out. Longmont, sold out. Greeley, sold out. Cheyenne, he imagined, would have one hermit crab in the city and all he needed was one: eight stores, sold out. But all was not lost as the last store told the exasperated caller that Craigslist usually had pets for sale.

There was someone in Ault selling a hermit crab. He called and left the house as the sun touched the mountains. There was no moon to light his way and he recognized a diminished night vision his optometrist had predicted. He drove the speed limit at night now, and remembered his mother afraid to drive at night because she couldn’t see the lines on the road.

Ault was small, a main street, some side streets, and John easily found a sad neglected house, old, a porch in neglect, a doorbell not working and a door which seemed to give way with his tentative knocks.

The man who answered wore gray sweatpants and a white shirt.

“I’m here about a hermit crab.”

“Got one,” the man said and turned his body to invite John in.

The house showed a collective state that John had never seen before, in person or in any media form. There was a narrow space leading away from the front door, a space allowed through colorful liquor boxes stacked waist to shoulder high. On top of the boxes were stacks of newspapers, piles of clothes, boxes of thin boxes. In a moment he felt fear, fear of a trench collapse, fear of a fire, fear of not finding his way out, and a recognized fear of the man standing behind him.

The man was watching him, evaluating his reaction to his house. The Tupperware container in his hand reminded him that he needed to run the dishwasher before leaving for the airport in the morning. John moved down the corridor of boxes, conscious of not touching the wall of boxes and newspapers, and when he reached an area which led down the stairs he passed and turned to let the man lead downwards. But the man stood there, an abdomen protruding into John’s personal space, and they waited for what he could not understand. “If you want to lead the way,” John said, “I don’t know where I’m going.”

“Downstairs,” the man said, incredulous of John’s stupidity.

Again that pang of fear at the thought of descending into the basement with this man behind him. He looked down the staircase and saw the floor and immediately in front of the stairs a white wall which seemed odd as the staircase didn’t look long enough to reach the edge of the house.

“I just need another one of these little guys,” and he held up the Tupperware container and gave it a rattle. “My daughter will be home tomorrow and I don’t want her to know it died.”

“Okay,” he said.

“If you want to just grab me a hermit crab and I’ll pay you for it.”

“They’re downstairs.”

“I’d feel more comfortable staying up here,” John said and felt guilty and vulnerable for expressing this. “If it’s all the same, I just need a hermit crab.”

“Any crab?”

Feeling as though there was some movement, John opened the Tupperware container, wincing at the acrid smell, and picked up the shell, the legs hanging loosely.

“Something about that size. Whatever will fit in the shell.”

“Fit in the shell?”

“I don’t know how this works.”

“It doesn’t.”

“What doesn’t?”

“You need to go downstairs so you can pick out the shell you want.”

In pink nailpolish a heart had been applied to her hermit crab’s shell. “It has to be this shell.”

“You can’t stuff a crab in there when there’s another crab in there.”

“Can we just take this one out?”

“Bury it in the ground about an inch deep and let bacteria eat it out. Leave it there until the end of summer.”

“Summer? I need it tomorrow.”

“Then go downstairs.”

He looked down at the wall at the bottom of the stairs. It looked oddly fresh compared to the stairwell. He remembered the house as he drove up and how unkempt it was. The wall at the bottom of the stairs looked new, fresh paint on fresh drywall. The man showed impatience, whether it was at his time being wasted or John not following orders, he couldn’t tell.

“You go first and I’ll follow.”

Without hesitation the man began down the steps and John kept a walking pace to the front door. He said nothing as he let the door close behind him and didn’t look back while walking to his car.

He drove towards Denver and called Lisa and told her what had happened, from finding the dead crab this afternoon to driving towards Denver.

“John, he was probably some innocent hoarder who invited you into his home because you needed a hermit crab. And you ran out of his house because it was dirty and unkempt. You could have at least made up a reason for needing to leave.”

He remembered the staircase leading to the fresh painted wall.

“So I’m supposed to lie to the guy on top of leaving? And I didn’t run. I walked.”

“Either way, you weren’t very polite. Don’t drive to Denver. It’s Sunday, everything will be closed early. This is a life lesson to be learned.”

He took an off-ramp and at the traffic light he thought back through; maybe the guy was clueless and maybe he was going to chop off his head. The only way to know, really, was to go back and see.

Bythe Poudre works in northern Colorado. In his spare time he has collected 100+ stories and has resolved this year to be a focus on publication.

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