“The Escape Artist”

(Submission for the 2014 Rehoboth Beach Reads Short Story Competition)

      The girl with brown pigtails, strappy sandals, and a sunflower dress had named him Shelly, and he had lived in a hollow under the boardwalk since the evening he crawled his way out of her life just moments after he had been bought into it. A hermit crab will do that if you don’t secure its crabitat and then leave it beside your bookwormish mother to go dig in the sand with your new pail and shovel. Live and learn.
      And if this were a cautionary tale about the dangers of raising a spoiled child, it would be important to mention that daddy replaced his little girl’s chartreuse-painted pet in the blot of a teary eye with another crustacean critter from Ryan’s, one in a larger, neon pink shell. But this is Shelly’s story, and though the name “hermit crab” belied his gregarious nature, the escape artist got along fine by himself.
      Actually, he was more of an opportunist than an expert at escaping confinement, but he didn’t need to be Houdini to climb a short piece of driftwood, poke his legs through a ventilated lid, nudge open its cheap, plastic door, and claw his way out of an aquarium that was better suited for tadpoles, crickets, and grasshoppers; Shelly was no throwaway pet. With proper care, land hermit crabs can live for years, a fact that might surprise indulgent parents, but if the snail’s cast-off shell that Shelly called home hadn’t protected his soft abdomen when he tumbled off the bench and thudded onto the sandy edge of the boardwalk, he quickly would have become disposable, anyway.
      But instead of lying dead in the trash, he had made a tenuous, crabby scamper to a life of freedom around a wooden walkway by the beach.
      A scavenger by nature, he had no trouble finding the food he needed to survive—beach grass, crunchy leaves, discarded apple cores and banana peels, littered dregs of popcorn and trail mix, and hard ends of vinegary French fries; an occasional dab of ketchup would have been a treat, but on certain fries that condiment provoked scowls and derision. Shelly’s instinctive “brain” never meditated on the quirks of the noisy, two-legged giants he hid from during the day, but in the dark of night, when the air was cool and the boardwalk was quiet, his satisfied stomach appreciated the human propensity for gluttony.
      His nocturnal adventures rarely took him beyond the dunes and to the dangers of the open beach, where a keen-eyed plover, sandpiper, or seagull could peck him to death although he had withdrawn into his brilliant yellow-green home. Long before the first fingers of dawn caressed the shore, Shelly’s party time had already ended, and after reveling in the moist sand around a foot washing station or taking a drink of rain collected in a bottle cap, he returned to the boardwalk and tunneled back into his shady hollow.
      For how long he could have lived the beach life only Mother Nature knows, but Shelly’s gone now, enjoying a life of luxury inside a natural, coiled shell with a pearly interior. He molted a few weeks after moving into his new home, a 10-gallon aquarium with a glass lid and a dome light with a timer so he can sleep away the day and party all night. An under-tank heater and misted Rehoboth Beach sand maintain that tropical feel a healthy crabitat needs, and there are plenty of toys to play with and shells to choose from when it’s time to shed his skin again. His days of scavenging for food are over, and he has a ceramic bowl for fresh water and another one for saltwater, from both of which the chlorine has been removed. The kind, local insomniac who heard him clinking around for food and gently scooped him up knows how to treat a hermit crab right.
      And if Shelly had known the life he had in store for him as the man carried him home, he might have poked more than his antennae out of his shell and bravely explored the bottom of the empty cup of French fries. But look as he might, he wouldn’t have found a drop of ketchup.