Maddie was a widow who lived by the beach. Every morning and evening she walked along the shore remembering her husband David and their daily walks. She missed hearing about his day and watching the sunrise and sunset together.
One of their favorite things to do on the beach was collecting seashells. Their lamps were filled with seashells they had found, and they had glass containers of sand dollars, shark teeth, and starfish on their shelves.
On the tenth anniversary of David's passing, she went on a morning walk along the beach. About halfway into her walk, she saw the most beautiful conch shell she had ever seen. She looked around for someone to share her find with, but she was completely alone. She picked up the shell, knelt at the edge of the water, and washed it out.
David used to joke that he could hear voices talking to him from inside the shell. He would make up fantastic stories about hearing mermaids and pirates telling tales of their adventures in the deep seas. He always had a way of making Maddie laugh and brightening her day. His joyful presence was one of the things she missed most.
Maddie put the conch shell up to her ear to listen for the sound of the ocean when she heard a voice speak to her.
"I knew you'd find me."
She was so shocked she dropped the shell onto the ground, but then quickly picked it up again. She looked around another time to see if someone was playing a prank on her, but she was still the only one on that stretch of the beach.
She put the shell up to her ear again, this time she didn't drop it.
"Is that the way you repay me for coming all this way to talk to you?" the voice inside the shell said.
"I'm sorry," Maddie said instinctively. "I won't drop you again."
"It's good to hear your voice. I have missed you."
"Missed me? Do I know you?"
"Ah, I guess my voice sounds a bit different in this shell. It was the only way I could think to talk with you."
"No, it's one of your other husbands. Of course, it's me."
"But how is this possible?"
"When you spread my ashes in the ocean, I became part of the ocean. I've taken many forms since then. At one point I was seaweed, then I was a jellyfish, and now I am a shell."
"It doesn't matter how I guess, what matters is I found you. I can't believe it's you. I missed you so much."
"I missed you too. I've tried talking to fish but they aren't the best conversationalists."
Maddie laughed, then got serious. "I think about you every day. The love we had, the time we spent together. I don't regret a single moment."
"Neither do I."
"Do you want to come to the house? I've left everything like it was before. We can have our morning tea and breakfast. You can help me with my crosswords like you used to. It will be just like it was."
"I'd love to, but I have to stay by the ocean. If I leave the beach, I won't be able to talk to you anymore."
"That's not fair!"
"I know it's not, my Maddie, but at least you were able to hear my voice one more time. Most people don't get that."
"I'll stay on this beach until I die so I can talk to you every day."
"Don't do that Maddie. You must live your life. Enjoy every moment you have of this amazing world."
"It's not the same without you. Nothing tastes as good. Nothing feels right. Nothing makes me laugh as much as you did."
"Then you need to get out more."
Maddie laughed again.
"Seriously, Maddie, I want to let you know it's OK to move on. Travel. Find love. Go scuba diving. The ocean is a magnificent place!"
"I gave my heart away once. I have nothing left to give to anyone else. You'll always be my one and only."
"And you're my one and only. I did have a fling with a piece of driftwood, but it didn't last."
"David, I miss you so much." Tears ran down Maddie's cheeks.
"I'm with you in your heart always as you are with me in my heart. How's Gloria?"
"She's still struggling with your death and in and out of bad relationships. She comes around when she needs money, but that's about it. I worry about her."
"Please, tell her that her father loves her very much and I know she’ll find her way."
Maddie stayed on the beach the rest of the day and into the night hearing stories about David's time as a jellyfish and recounting their favorite memories together. Several people walked by Maddie and gave her strange looks for talking to a shell, but she didn't care. This was a miracle, a moment she may never have again.
"Remember the time you bought a metal detector and you found that wedding ring on the beach?" Maddie asked.
"Yes, you told me it was a waste of time and money. I showed you! I hope you finally pawned that ring so I can say we made our money back."
"It's still in a jar on the shelf! I couldn't part with it because it reminds me of you."
"You've always been a hopeless romantic."
"And you've always been the object of my affection."
"It's getting late love. You need to get some sleep."
"No, I don't want to leave. I don't want this dream to end."
"Tomorrow will be a brighter day. Trust me."
"I'd give up all my tomorrows to have one more day with you."
David whispered one last thing into Maddie's ear, they said goodbye, and she hurled him into the ocean.
Maddie told Gloria that she talked with David in a conch shell and her daughter thought she was going senile. Soon after, Gloria had her committed to an old folks home. Gloria sold Maddie's beach house for over a million dollars and got rid of all the shells they had collected over the years. She even pawned the ring they found on the beach.
Maddie withered away at the nursing home. The staff called her the "crazy conch lady" behind her back. Maddie started to wonder if she was crazy. Maybe she had imagined the whole thing.
On the twentieth anniversary of David's death, ten years after finding the conch shell, she died. Maddie asked to be cremated and for her ashes to be sprinkled in the ocean. Instead, Gloria kept her ashes in an urn on her mantle.
When Gloria grew old, she decided to return to the beach where she had grown up. She brought Maddie's ashes with her and scattered them in the ocean like her mother had requested.
Maddie's ashes sank into the ocean, and she became part of the ocean. After many years, she became plankton floating around in the saltwater. Fifty years after that, she became a clam and she made her way to the place David told her to come find him when he whispered in her ear. He was still a shell, so she climbed inside him, and they lived together for another 500 years. Their future was bright.
Shawn Casselberry is the cofounder and editor of Story Sanctum. This story is from his forthcoming book, Strange Fire: a peculiar collection of short stories (2022) and is dedicated to the memory of Margie and Ben Robertson who lived by the beach and were deeply in love until their dying days.