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The Hermit

by Jake Deluca

The following story won 2nd place in our Scary Short Story Contest.

His mother’s head, which had been hollowed out, served host now to a hermit crab. Sharp-limbed and bristly and shiny-eyed, it hugged the walls of her skull like a shell. It did not speak like his mother once did— it did not look at him the way that she had, though it occupied the place of her eyes, her lips. Rather, it burrowed back into the shadow of his mother’s skull whenever the boy approached it. Glared black obsidian eyes beyond the sallow skin, stained bone, the brittling hair. It did few of the things that his mother had done before death. In the evening it possessed the gray body to walk out on the balcony, stand there over the edge with her back to the boy looking out at the ocean. Her shoulders shuddering limply in the tidal breeze, gone the way she’d turn to greet him smiling white.

In the night he could hear the scuttling of its limbs and the dragging of hers. The way it carried her body through the house without grace— left the doors and windows open wide but not in the way that his mother once had. Not for her love of fresh air. When it crept behind the boy it did not wrap her long arms around his neck, wring the skin of his shoulders, pull him close. He could not feel the filling of her lungs against his back. Now the static cloth of an old nightdress, the prominence of her ribs like knives.

One night, her body lying in the old bed, he crept beside the creature sleeping. The sound of its limbs like teeth breaking and a low hiss in which perhaps he could still hear his mother breathing. He lay there facing the dark and he listened— he listened the way that one does for the sound of the ocean scattered and lost to the depth of a shell. The memory of her voice, drowned, resounding. The smell of her hair among the bitter muck that perhaps resided only in the gray spaces of his head. He turned and reached for her face in the dark and the creature waking shot her body from the bed, her neck reeling back and snapping and going loosely with the rest of her body but for the mesh of hair left behind, caught within his fist. In the morning a dent in the wall and a vase of flowers knocked to the floor. Dead petals crisped to a dark pink, no more than stains of a long gone solace.

The creature moved less, then. Spent its days twisted at the neck, longer hours out on the balcony and sleeping in the yellowed bed. When it did move it slugged her body through the gray dunes and the beach looking for a new shell to occupy. The trace of her legs like drawn, endless breaths in the sand. It swung her arms over the shore and the thinning bodies of birds, of dead creatures plastered and turning in the surf. The boy watched it ponder the carcass of a gull the way that he could often feel it pondering him; black eyes beating at the back of his head, her hands, repurposed, grasping at frayed bones, throwing them to the ocean.

The creature grew restless and frantic. Chattering, its limbs, and bits of her skull breaking off like dull china. Skin beginning to rot to the bone. The boy grew unafraid the way he did in the days before her death. Stayed with her. Walked alongside her in the blinds of its sight. Picking at things that glinted in the sand as if somehow they could have been another body. One that perhaps breathed easy, would not cast out the thing which lived within it. Now he feared for the day her legs, her spine would split, give out, and he’d find her like a relic sunk in the sand, perhaps collapsed on the floor— the way he’d found her in death. He feared for a silent house and shut windows. He feared for the day he’d find her still and at last absent.

Jake Deluca is currently a sophomore studying architecture at Washington University in St. Louis with a minor in writing. His work has appeared in Flash Fiction Magazine and Apocrypha and Abstractions, but he still considers himself a very new writer.

Lead image“{unidentified} hermit crab” (via Flickr user Rushen)