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The Shell Collector

Hugh Howey

  The Shell Collector

  by Hugh Howey

  For Stewart Brand and Ryan Phelan

  You make the world a better place

  “The sea is emotion incarnate.

  It loves, hates, and weeps.

  It defies all attempts to capture it with words

  and rejects all shackles.”

  — Christopher Paolini

  — Prologue —

  My earliest memory of the beach is of it being a harsh place for a wheelchair. I remember the ruts the rubber tires made, how the sand grabbed and tugged. My mom would cuss and struggle and lean against the handles to get Grandma down to the sea foam and shells, close enough that she could hear the waves crashing. I would try to help, but I mostly got in the way. I remember the sweat dripping from my mother’s nose and evaporating off the hot sand while Grandma sat wrapped in her blanket. She was always cold toward the end.

  The shells were hard to find back then, but not impossible like today. Mom would tell us stories of what the beach was like in her time, and every now and then Grandma would tell us older stories still. Stories of bounty. Of seas teeming with fish, beaches crawling with crabs, skies dotted with birds.

  She would whisper of shells with minor flaws that were left behind, of days when shellers picked over all that washed up and tumbled in the surf. I remember thinking Grandma had lost her wits the way Grandpa had before he died. I remember wandering down the beach, just six years old, hunting for shells rather than watch her waste away, rather than listen to stories of a world I did not believe in. A living world.

  They say cancer runs in the family. In our family, it doesn’t run so much as chase. It caught my mom the year I turned thirty. I feel like I became her as I watched summer sweat drip from my own nose, her turn to shiver beneath a blanket, crooked ruts in the sand stretching behind us toward the boardwalk.

  It didn’t feel right, going through that a second time. It didn’t feel right, being in my mom’s skin, feeling what she’d felt those years before. It was the sudden realization that my dying granny, who had been distant and alien to me, was my mom’s mom. The sudden realization that she had been anyone’s mom or anyone’s daughter. I never knew until I had to push my mother through that blasted sand and saw how more than half-buried wheels go in painful circles.

  Sweat and tears and sunscreen. Stories about the shells we remembered.

  My mother was from Antigua, a small island in the Caribbean. She used to say her greatest find was my father, this crazy white shell who washed up on the beach one day. She said if you put your ear up to him you could hear traffic and car horns and people from Boston talking funny. She said they were made for each other like the wind and the sea. Opposites, but unable to be apart.

  Mom had this amazing way of describing the world, of seeing the interconnectedness of all things. She called her wheelchair the “stroller,” said we’d come right back to where we’d started, her and me. But the part that tore me up about this cycle was the hole I could feel in the pit of my being. It was the missing child who was not scurrying about, not getting in the way, not there at all. Because Michael and I had lost her. And because of that, we’d lost whatever connection we had between us.

  I knew it was over when he called me a shell. He said there was nothing alive inside me, that there couldn’t be. He was drunk at the time, which maybe means he didn’t believe what he was saying, or maybe means he finally spoke the truth. Either way, I couldn’t forgive him. Because part of me agreed. It was the shameful part of me that thought I was broken, the part that grew up bombarded by insults because of my mixed race, the part that heard it often enough when I was young and impressionable that I couldn’t let it go, no matter how hard I tried.

  Because of our loss, there was no child to run along the beach with me and my mom as she wasted away in her wheelchair. There was no one there to hold. No one to have cling to my neck the day she passed away by the sea foam. There was no one to stay with her while I ran back to the car to fetch my phone. No one for me to comfort, to tell that it would be all right.

  But that wasn’t why I bawled that day. It wasn’t why I screamed and shook my fist at the dead sea and the dead all around me and the dead space within me. It was for selfish reasons that I cried. There should always be another generation confused by the sadness, so new to life that dying is alien, tottering down the beach, looking for treasures among the swaths of broken shells.

  I bawled that day because it hit me with the surety and finality of cancer: when my time comes, there won’t be anyone to push ruts through the hot sand, no one to help me out of the car, no one to tuck in my blanket when I get a chill. I’ll die beyond the boardwalk, alone, with not even the crashing sea to comfort me.

  Part I:

  We Don’t Belong Here


  The trees are a decadence. They line the gravel driveway on either side, staggered to look like they march on forever. Oaks, cherries, willows, and palms. They don’t belong here, the palms. They were probably grown down in the Carolinas, or even farther south. I have no idea how they survive the Maine winters. Perhaps they don’t. Perhaps these are million-dollar annuals whooshing by.

  I consider the expense of transporting mature trees, one by one, and all the labor involved. Flatbeds rumbling up the interstate with “wide load” signs on the back. Or barges tugged up the coast and unloaded with giant cranes. All for trees that will succumb to the next ten-year storm or the next super freeze. Just to decorate the impossibly long driveway of a filthy rich man. Just to stand there as a giant screw-you to reality, a bold claim that seems to say: Your world has gone to ruin, but not mine. I can afford to make any world I choose.

  It’s excesses like these that brought me here to destroy a man.

  It’s the palm trees; it’s the shells in my purse; it’s all the things that don’t belong here, including me.

  The tires of my beat-up electric car crunch down the miles-long gravel road. I flinch with every pebble that kicks up against the underbody. I hate driving out of the city. The offer to be flown out on Wilde’s helicopter seems less insane now, almost worth swallowing my pride for, almost worth the ridiculousness of it all. Other reporters have probably said, “Yes. Hell yes.” And why wouldn’t they? How many came out here hoping to get screwed rather than to do the screwing?

  A rock hits beneath my seat, and my knuckles whiten on the steering wheel. Ahead, twin rows of crape myrtles dot the road. They’re losing their flowers. Purple petals ring the trunks, fallen mementos of a past bloom like photos from college years. But unlike people, trees flower again in the spring; they age in great looping circles. We ride a roller coaster once around, shuddering up clacking tracks and then screaming our fool heads off all the way down.

  You’re only thirty-two, I remind myself.

  I feel every day of it, I think back.

  Another guard gate looms into view down the dusty road. It’s the second gate I’ve had to go through, despite there being no way to access the road between the gates. If the first checkpoint was a testament to seclusion and privacy—with its tall, camera-studded walls marching off in either direction—this second blockade feels more like a padlock around a deeply paranoid mind. Why lock away even further what no one is allowed to see?

  Ness Wilde used to live in the limelight. He seemed to bask in it for three solid decades, practically since the day he was born. But he hasn’t been seen in public in four years. This from a man who once graced the cover of practically every gossip rag and shelling magazine, who was on every other TV channel, who must’ve been interviewed a thousand times.

  And then, one day, he’s gone. He refuses all interviews. Until this week, when the Times ran the first of four pieces I’ve wri
tten on him and his family. Now, suddenly, he wants to talk. And even if I don’t care to oblige him, there are powerful people who insist that I do. People like my editor at the paper. Other people with badges and guns. The kinds of people you listen to if you want to stay employed and on the right side of the law.

  I slow to a stop at the second gate, and a young guard steps out. He looks the part: broad shoulders, narrow waist, chiseled jaw, military buzz cut. He motions for me to roll down the window. I press the button, and the smell of honeysuckle and coconuts and the nearby sea fills the car.

  “I checked in at the other gate,” I tell the guard.

  “Identification,” he says.


  I mutter this under my breath, and if the guard hears, he doesn’t react. Rummaging in my bag on the passenger seat, I find my Times credentials and driver’s license. I hand them to the guard and do little to conceal my annoyance.

  “And the registration,” he says, motioning with his hand.

  “For the car?” I ask.

  He waits. I curse him as I pop the glove box. This can’t be normal. Some kind of punishment. I try not to be paranoid, try not to think that Ness knows who sent me here.

  “So how often do marauders get past the first gate and make it this far?” I ask. I hand him my vehicle registration.

  The guard ignores me and studies the ID. I watch his lips mouth my name: Maya Walsh. It’s hard to tell if he’s whispering for the benefit of the wire hanging out of his ear or if he’s one of those people who can’t read without sounding out the words. He glances up at me, checks something on a small tablet, and then holsters the tablet beside his gun. The IDs and registration are returned.

  “Pull up in front of the main house,” he says, pointing down the drive with the rigidity and precision of a crossing guard. “Do not drive any further.”

  The bright blue metal bar in front of my car’s grille swings up. When I glance back to the guard to make sure I can go, I catch him staring down inside the car and at my chest. I cover myself with one hand and hit the gas and speed away. Once I have some distance between myself and the guard, I glance down at my blouse to make sure I’m decent. For a moment there, I’m terrified the wire the FBI made me wear is showing. But it’s tucked safely away.

  I take a deep breath, try to relax. While I’d love to curse my boss, or Special Agent Cooper, or Ness Wilde, or his creepy guard, the truth is I’ve got no one to blame for this assignment but myself. I got into this mess all on my own—and it’s up to me to get out of it.


  The Day Before

  “What the hell is this?” I ask, slamming the morning edition onto my boss’s desk.

  Henry—the editor in chief of the Times—noisily sips his coffee. His mug has [REDACTED] printed on the side in blocky red letters. He glances at the paper and smooths his mustache.

  “Where’s my story?” I ask. “It was running when I left here last night.”

  Leaning to one side, Henry peers past me and out his office door. I don’t need to turn and look. I can feel all the heads behind all those newsroom desks watching me. I heard the whispers during my murderous march down the aisle. Henry sets his mug down. He wouldn’t be so calm if he knew how close I was to either quitting my job or jumping over that desk to rip his silly handlebar mustache off.

  “I take it you haven’t checked your email,” he says.

  “You mean since I left here at two in the morning?” I look at the clock above his desk. It’s a little after eight. “No, some of us do actual work around here.”

  “Close the door and sit down,” Henry tells me.

  I cross my arms instead. Henry pinches one side of that ridiculous mustache, shrugs, and gives up, realizing he isn’t going to win the Battle of the Door and the Sitting of the Down.

  “Ness Wilde wants an interview,” he says.

  The temperature in the office soars. I can feel my pulse throbbing in my neck. “Are you serious?” I ask.

  “Dead serious.”

  He seems relaxed—like what he’s saying is a good thing, like I’m supposed to be pleased.

  I rest both palms on Henry’s desk and lean toward him. “So the first piece in my series runs yesterday, and you get a call from Wilde asking you to yank it, and you just fucking yank it? Just like that?”

  I have to turn away. As I do, forty-three heads snap back to their computer screens so fast I think I can hear a whooshing sound out in the newsroom.

  “He better not have paid you,” I add, turning back to Henry. “Because I’ll quit, and the Post would love to run that story.”

  “You’re not going to quit,” Henry says. And I consider that maybe, just possibly, over the last eight years, I’ve threatened to quit a hair too many times.

  “When you gave me the arts and culture section, you said I could still do hard-hitting journalism—”

  “And you can,” Henry says.

  “—that I wouldn’t be running the birdcage and paint-splatter section of the paper—”

  “You’re not. Calm down for a second and listen to me.”

  “I’m goddamn calm!” I shout.

  A few heartbeats pass. Henry smiles at me. I pray to god I’m not smiling back.

  “Will you listen to me for just a second?” Henry asks. “You know, because I’m your boss?”

  I cross my arms. “Fine. So how much did Ness Wilde pay to bring our august presses to a screeching halt? Pray tell. I can’t wait to hear this.”

  “First of all, I didn’t speak with him directly. I spoke with his assistant—”

  “Figures,” I say.

  “—and his assistant said that if you want the full story on Ness’s father and grandfather, that he’d like to fly you up to his estate to answer your questions in person. Three hours. Whatever you want to ask.”

  I laugh. “I’ve done two years of research for this story, and he wants to give me three hours? C’mon, Henry, don’t you see what he’s really doing here? When I got on the train this morning, people were still reading yesterday’s paper. Not staring at their screens, but reading the goddamn Times. Because of my story. And now they’re expecting the second piece I promised—”

  “I know.” Henry raises his hands. “Trust me, I know. Our editorial inbox is full of positive responses. And we’ve already seen a bump in new subscriptions. Which is why I told Ness’s assistant to kindly go to hell.”

  “You did?” Now I’m confused.

  “Of course. I slammed the phone down on her. With gusto. And then it rang again. Immediately.”

  “Mr. Wilde himself,” I say. “So now he has the balls to call you.”

  “I wish it’d been Ness. I would’ve told him off in person. It was the FBI.”

  Before I can ask if I heard Henry properly, he leans forward and places a finger on a white business card sitting apart from the rest of the clutter on his desk. I can see the three letters in a large blocky font from where I’m standing. Looking closer, I see a round seal stuffed with an eagle, an American flag, a ring of gold stars, and probably a slice of apple pie in there somewhere. I pick up the card. It belongs to a Special Agent Stanley Cooper.

  “I tried to save you a trip uptown,” Henry says. “This guy wants to see you. I emailed you his contact info and left you a voice message—”

  “I listen to my voice messages like once a month,” I remind Henry. “You should’ve texted me.”

  “Whatever. Just go talk to this guy.”

  I check the address on the card: 26 Federal Plaza, down in the financial district. “What does the FBI want with me? And what’s this got to do with you yanking my story?”

  Henry takes a deep breath and nods at the card. “I’ll let him explain. It’s complicated. But listen, Maya, the important thing to know is that we’re running the rest of your series. We’re just going to run them weekly rather than daily. You’ve got my word on that. You know I want to nail this guy just as much as you do—”

p; “As much as I do? I spent seven years writing for the science section before you canned it. All those shelling reports I wrote, the sea level stories, the practical disappearance of Louisiana that I covered, the graft with the construction of the Manhattan levees, the day Times Square flooded? How about my editorials about the beaches that are washing away every single day—?”

  “Those are my beaches too,” Henry says, and I can see that his cheeks are red. He’s angry. And maybe not entirely at me. “We’re going to run the rest of the exposé. It’s great work, Maya. You know that. If it were up to me, your second piece would be running right now. But it isn’t up to me.”

  “Sure it is,” I tell him. “Ever hear of this thing called freedom of the press?” I shake the business card and nearly call him a spineless ass, but the door behind me is open, and I haven’t heard a single tap on a single keyboard since I walked into Henry's office. Even my insubordination has limits.

  Henry grabs his coffee and takes a noisy sip. Whatever’s on his face right then is [REDACTED] by the mug. He and I have a long history of throwing barbs at one another, but this is something else. This is serious. By the time he sets the mug back down, the tension is as thick as sidewalk crowds during lunch hour.

  “The FBI isn’t after you or me,” Henry calmly explains, like this should’ve been obvious from the beginning. Like I should know that we at the paper are small fries. And the rest dawns on me before Henry can spell it out. I understand why he pulled the story. And why he wants me to go speak to this Agent Cooper.

  “The Federal Bureau of Investigation is after Ness Wilde,” I say.

  Henry nods. “Bingo. And they want your help in bringing him down.”


  I hail a taxi and give the driver the address for the Federal Plaza downtown. Broadway is jammed. It’s high tide, and of course a handful of pumps are on the fritz. A handful always are. Looking west down 39th, I can see a logjam of traffic backed up from the Lincoln Tunnel and a shimmer of standing water between the cars. People are sloshing through the traffic with galoshes on, despite it being summer and no rain in sight.