A Bucket of Shells

The Shell Collector

Vanessa woke up with sun streaking in through the blinds and an uncomfortable feeling in her lower back. She sat up in bed, glanced down at her phone for the time and sighed. 7:58am. Waking up this early was exactly what Vanessa was dreading about being in this room. That, and now apparently, the incredibly uncomfortable bed. She wanted to turn over and go back to sleep. She wanted to cover her head with the sheets, but with the amount of sunlight in the room and the booming voices of her mother and grandmother, it was nearly impossible. So, instead, she shuffled her way out of her room and was hoping desperately that her mother had seriously toned down her energy.

“Good morning, V,” her grandmother said, handing her a steaming cup of coffee. Vanessa did not usually drink coffee, but there were a lot of things that Vanessa did not usually do like wake up before 9:00am during the summer. She took the cup and mumbled something back in response.

“Did you sleep well, dear?” Her mother, Cami, asked, lifting a hand to brush her hair from her face. Vanessa shrugged herself away and plopped down on the bar stool across from the other two woman begrudgingly.

“Yeah, I guess so,” she muttered in response, taking a sip of coffee and trying to force herself to like it. “When are you leaving?” She asked.

“The car is all packed. I was just waiting for you to get up so I can say goodbye and eat a little breakfast,” Cami said, staring down at her own cup of coffee. “Grandma here is going to cook up some biscuits and gravy. We haven’t had that in a long time.”

Grandma Sherry was indeed stirring a pan over the stove full of gravy and bits of sausage. The smell of biscuits baking was wafting around them. Biscuits and gravy always did remind Vanessa of her grandmother. It was her trademark, along with shells and crisp $5 bills. She made biscuits and gravy as if it made every morning a little brighter. She made them as if they did not instantly make you gain 5 pounds. She made biscuits and gravy, most likely, because it was the only thing she was really good at making.

Grandma Sherry was not paying attention to anyone else at the moment, but was instead, humming as she stirred. She looked almost exactly the same as she did yesterday. Her hair was long and went halfway down her back and she was wearing a tank top and cloth shorts that were a size too big. Everything about her seemed small and yet, it filled the room. The scents of her food and the sound of her humming were the only thing that Vanessa was really paying any sort of attention to. She simply nodded in response to her mother and closed her eyes to breath in the scents.

“I think we’re almost done here,” her grandmother called. “I started a lot earlier than I thought you’d wake up cause I figured that worst case scenario, no one can be too grumpy when they’ve got biscuits in front of them.”

They ate breakfast the same way they ate the pizza, a sense of calm and happiness settling over them. These were the few times that Vanessa felt happy in recent months. Everything about her life had become jumbled and dirty. Yet, here in this kitchen with her mother and grandmother, it didn’t feel so bad. She felt a bit hopeful and bit sad. Then again, her feeling a bit sad had become normal lately, so she would settle to be content with this feeling.

This feeling on content did not last long though because soon enough, her mother was heading out the door with the promise to be home soon. Then, it was just her and her grandmother staring and standing in silence as her mother drive down the street. Vanessa crossed her arms over her body and felt a bit of chill despite the sweltering sun. When the car was far out of sight, Grandma Sherry turned to her with a soft smile.

“Want to go for a walk?” She asked.

Soon enough, they were on the beach, walking endlessly down the stretch of beach. They were shelling, of course. Grandma Shelly seemed to live for it. She carried it with her an old velvet Crown Royal bag that belonged to her late husband. She had quite the eye for the pretty shells and as they walked, she easily reached down into the sand and grabbed a shell that Vanessa would have never seen.

“This is my favorite thing to do,” her grandmother said. “I know it’s hot, but I like to collect these things. You can make so many things with these shells,” she added with a smile.

“I realized. Don’t you ever get tired of this?” Vanessa added, washing the sand from her feet in the warm water of the ocean.

“Oh, no, dear. Plus, you know, it gives me a little exercise which is important at my age. Gotta stay fit, gotta keep moving. Keep moving and death can’t catch up with you,” she said with a chuckle. “Or at least, that’s what I tell myself. Hard to be too convinced when half your friends are dead and your husband. But, you know who isn’t dead.”

Vanessa winced a little. The talk of death so casually made her insides sink a little. She glanced at her grandma, waiting for the rest of the sentence. There were billions of people in the world that were alive. That was easy enough. Vanessa had a feeling Grandma Sherry was going for something more positive and something bright and cheery. She was falling into the same dialect that her mother left off with.

“You’re not gonna say something silly like ‘you are alive’ or something, are you?” Vanessa asked, kicking up a shell that ended up being too broken to be picked up.

“Well,” Grandmother Sherry said, “I was thinking about it, but if you’re gonna go all teenage on me then I won’t say anything at all.” She turned and kept walking then, leaving Vanessa to stare after her.

Instead of following, Vanessa plopped down in the sand and rested her head against her knees. She found it to be so exhausting to talk about death, even if the conversation only lasted a moment. Every since the beginning of the summer, death became a constant in her life and she could not handle it. These were the moments where grief became overwhelming. Vanessa dug her hands in the sand, pulling up a broken sand dollar and twisting it in her fingers to distract herself, but she really couldn’t distract her mind for too long.

She thought of her friend, Marissa, almost constantly since she died. She thought about that party almost constantly. She thought and wished she was the same person that she was just a few months ago, before Marissa died. She wanted to be care free and fun. She wanted to be drunk with her friends and not worried about alcohol and what it could actually do to you. She wanted to laugh with Marissa in her room, flopping upside down on her bed. She wanted to rid herself of all this pain, but she couldn’t. It festered deep inside her alongside guilt and shame.

Vanessa could have surely helped that night in ways she did not. She could have searched for Marissa longer. She could have asked for her keys and put them next to her own. She could have caught her before she left. She knew that was silly. Marissa was supposed to spend the night. She was never supposed to leave. She was never supposed to go anyway, but she did. Within a moment, everything her parents and television and Driver’s Ed warned you about became really real. Vanessa shook her head quickly and chucked the broken sand dollar into the lapping waves.

“What’d you do that for?” Grandma Sherry asked. “Sand dollars are really rare to find here.”

“It was broken,” Vanessa said.

“Doesn’t mean it wasn’t valuable,” Grandma Sherry said.

The rest of the week passed by in a similar fashion. Every morning Grandma Sherry would wake up, eat an orange and drink a cup of coffee and then go on a walk that lasted until lunch. She would come back, make a sandwich and then go to her craft corner where she would arrange shells in various vases and decorate projects. Then, she’d grumble about something wrong with the house. She’d go outside and work on that and then come back inside for dinner. Grandma Sherry, in fact, spent a lot of time moving

Vanessa went on a few walks, but otherwise remained inside. She read the books that were on her reading list from school. She cleaned her room and the living room. She went to the store when Grandma Sherry asked. She would spend some time on the beach, laying out to get a little tanner. It was a little lonelier than she thought it would be. She wanted to be alone, but she was so used to be in constant contact with her friends and family that this was quite a change. Either way, her days were full of sunshine and relaxation.

The night passed in the same kind of routine. Grandma Sherry came inside and started cooking dinner. It was mainly pasta and veggies. She promises to make something more extravagant, but never actually did. The cheesy pasta and broccoli felt comforting like she was a child again. Grandma Sherry’s stories filled the room and made her laugh. She had a story or a comment for everything, even talking back to the news. In fact, being here with Grandma Sherry felt safe and secure, like the blanket she used to hold onto when she was a child.

Even the routine of it all felt comforting, from beginning of the day to dinner. After dinner, Grandma Sherry would go outside to watch the sunset. “I’m old, deary. We eat dinner early and then we enjoy the world,” she would say. She almost always poured herself a drink, which was something Vanessa had a feeling Cami did not know about. She would pour herself a glass of vodka with water and a little bit of the limes from her tree. She would smile as she mixed her drink.

“Gotta drink when you’re my age religiously. Though, I’m not really one for God, so I guess I just like to drink,” she would mutter, with a shrug.

In truth, Vanessa really did enjoy these nights outside. They were peaceful and quiet. Sometimes Grandma Sherry would offer her one glass of wine. Vanessa continually denied it. With everything that happen, alcohol did not really feel right. It was the third night of Grandma Sherry insisting that Vanessa finally caved in. It was only one glass of wine. It made her feel warm and tasted sweet on her lips. It felt right mixed with the sunset and the company.

“It’s really not so bad here,” Vanessa commented as the sun dipped below the clouds.

“Well, I could have told you that from the beginning,” Grandma Sherry said. “Though, it might be a bit boring after awhile.”

“I don’t mind boring. I’ve been up to my ears in fun for the last two years,” she said, taking a sip of the wine.

“I know. Your mother told me,” Grandma Sherry said with a soft expression in her eyes which only made Vanessa blush. “Not a bad thing, you know. Kids are supposed to have fun and be a little irresponsible.”

“A little irresponsible is a hangover, Grandma. A lot irresponsible is people drunk driving,” Vanessa responded, a little ice in her voice.

She hated when people tried to pacify the situation. As if it wasn’t illegal. As if it wasn’t stupid. As if Marissa’s parents did not get some serious inquiries for minors drinking in their home, on top of everything else. All the adults in her life tried to tell her to not feel too harshly about it, but that only made her feel worse. It made her feel as stupid as she was that night.

“I know that,” Grandma Sherry responded, the ice clinking her glass. “I did not say anything about Marissa. I just don’t want you to feel guilty forever. Besides, I have too lost my share of my friends. I know…”

“You don’t know,” she snapped back. “It isn’t the same.”

Grandma Sherry sighed, looking a bit tired and older than she ever had before. Vanessa was sure this was her ‘going all teenager’ again, but she did not care. It wasn’t the same. Losing a friend as you got older made sense. Losing a friend at 18. Well, it just didn’t.

Vanessa always felt so invincible when she was with her friends. She never felt happier than when they were all together. She loved sitting in the trees with them, getting sun-kissed and a little drunk. She loved sitting in her room late at night, phone pressed to her ear as she and Marissa talked endlessly on celebrities, boys, volleyball and more. She loved it all so much, but now none of it felt like it was any fun. The nights being drunk on the beach suddenly felt colder and sketchier. The nights driving full speed on the road felt irresponsible. It all felt distant to her.

Grandma Sherry stared intently at the now darkening sky as Vanessa simmered next to her. “Maybe it isn’t the same, but it is similar. Can’t knock me on that. We all feel similar things,” she said, matter-of-factly as she finished her drink. She stood then, because she only ever had one drink, and walked back inside.

Vanessa pulled her knees closer to her chest as the screen door slammed shut and the sound of grandmother’s feet faded away. She sat there, resting her head against her legs as she watched the colors of the sunset change like sherbet ice cream melting together. She heard her grandmother washing some dishes and she sighed. Being here felt really simple, but there was no way that this could last forever. Once school started and her parents finally moved down, everything would change. The routine her and Sherry settled into would fracture and change. The comfort she found in it would be shattered and she would feel raw again.

Vanessa was not sure she was ready for those feelings, so for now, instead of crying, she stood and went inside.