By Karen Heslop
Kalai dug her feet into the damp sand, relishing the squishy movement of its grains between her toes. The cool morning breeze ruffled her dark curls that were still sweaty from an early morning run. This was her time to reflect and mentally scribble her to-do list for the day. As she inhaled the salty sea air, she burrowed her toes further down. A glint caught her eye each time the waves crept forward and rescinded. Curious, Kalai sauntered down to the water in search of the shining object. She found a large seashell nestled in the sand, rocking to and fro with each pass of the waves.
“Where did you come from, big guy?” she muttered.
She held the unblemished shell up to the rising sun and was struck by the changing colours of its iridescent glow. Carefully she brushed the remaining sand from its surface and gently shook the shell to dislodge any inhabitants. In spite of her proximity to the sea she had never brought a seashell home before—but this one exuded a beauty that begged to be rescued from the water’s persistent pummelling.
With only a moment’s pause, Kalai cradled the shell to her bosom and returned to her house. She chose a spot for the shell on the towering bookshelf in her living room between stockpiles of books. The sun crept up its creamy exterior from the adjacent window, splattering the walls with irregular rays of light.
As she was heading to the kitchen to start breakfast her doorbell rang. Though she knew no one would disturb her early in the morning unless it was important, she still contemplated pretending she wasn’t in. When the doorbell rang again she sighed and trudged to the door. When she opened it she almost slammed it closed. Instead, she stood motionless while her face settled into a scowl.
Kalai’s older sister finally broke the silence. “Can I come in?”
“What do you want?” Kalai asked.
Sebene looked over her shoulder and hugged her coat closer to her thin frame. Her rusty old car would have looked more at home in a junk yard than on this strip of picturesque shoreline homes. This wasn’t Sebene’s first time in the neighbourhood so at least Kalai didn’t have to worry about anyone reporting the eyesore to the security patrol anymore.
“Please, Kalai. Let me in.”
Kalai suspected Sebene was off her meds and wouldn’t be denied, so she stepped aside, allowing the prodigal sister to slink in. She frowned as Sebene quickly appraised the value of everything in reach. Fortunately, Kalai wasn’t as materialistic as her sister so there wasn’t much to look at.
“Okay, you’re in. Now what do you want?”
“I just needed a change of scenery I guess. Things haven’t been going so good for me, you know? I lost my job a week ago, and then somebody broke into my apartment and took the money I was saving for my rent. I wanted to walk away for a bit and kind of clear my head.” She ruffled her bleached curls as if she was trying to shake something loose.
The whisper slithered around the corners of the room. Kalai wrinkled her brow in confusion for a moment before returning her focus to her sister.
“Stop lying to me, Sebene. What happened?”
Sebene paused to scratch her chin and run her finger across the beige coral necklace she’d gotten attached to since her mental health had started to deteriorate. Kalai had never been able to get her sister to disclose its origin.
“Fine. My apartment wasn’t broken into but I was still robbed. In any case, I don’t have the money for my rent and my landlord didn’t believe me when I told him about the robbery.”
Kalai scoffed. “I wonder why.”
She’s off her meds.
Kalai’s eyes narrowed.
“How long has it been since you took your meds?”
Sebene shrugged. “I don’t know. A while I guess. You know how fuzzy those pills make me.”
“Fuzzy enough to hold a job, take care of yourself, pay your rent…”
Kalai’s words trailed off as a mirthless snicker filled the room. Again she looked around before fixing her sister with a glare. This time Sebene looked at her curiously.
“What are you talking about, Sebene?”
Her sister ignored her and wandered around the living room.
“Is she here?”
Kalai rolled her eyes and walked to the kitchen. She kept her lips firmly pursed as she filled the coffee pot with water.
She’s going to wreck your house.
The coffee pot slipped from her hands and Sebene rushed into the kitchen at the dull thud of the shatter-resistant glass colliding with smooth wood.
“She’s talking to you, isn’t she?”
Kalai bent over to pick up the pot and stared at her sister wide-eyed. Sebene had started hearing voices when she was 19 years old, just like her mother and her mother before her. She had started stealing and sneaking into abandoned buildings for reasons only known to her. She had skipped her college classes regularly and Kalai had gotten used to her absence at breakfast and dinner. When she had gone missing for three days the police had gotten involved and Sebene had been found muttering to herself on a beach several miles from home.
Her exhaustion had placed her in an almost euphoric state. She hadn’t realized their father had committed her to an asylum until days later. After a few weeks, she had been diagnosed, medicated and released. Sebene hadn’t truly stabilized though and things had been strained between the sisters for years.
At the ripe old age of 25, Kalai had assumed the curse had skipped her, but she should have known better.
Kalai eyed her sister with suspicion mixed with intrigue as Sebene moved closer to her side. Was it truly a coincidence that she had also started hearing voices after a trip to the beach? She avoided eye contact with Sebene, busying herself with spooning coffee into the filter and switching on the machine.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Sebene frowned and muttered softly.
“I knew she’d come here.”
“What do you mean? Who’re you talking about?”
Sebene took her sister’s hands into her own and asked, “Did you find anything new recently?”
When Kalai didn’t answer, Sebene released her sister’s hands and started rubbing the coral necklace again. She seemed to stare at something in the distance as she spoke so softly the words struggled to reach Kalai’s ears.
“I’ve been bargaining with her all these years so she would leave you alone, but it’s been so overwhelming. I’ve lost so much. Dad thought I was crazy and you…you can’t even look me in the eye anymore. I told her last week that I was done being her plaything.”
What does she really want?
Kalai pressed her lips together even more firmly. Maybe if she focused hard enough, Sebene and the voice would both go away.
Ask her what she wants!
The strength of the command was like a physical blow and Kalai’s breath exploded from her lungs as she doubled over. Sebene rushed to Kalai’s side and held her by the shoulders.
“What’s wrong? What is she doing?” Sebene asked.
“What do you want?” Kalai whispered.
Sebene let her sister go and examined the living room again. Her eyes zeroed in on the seashell. Its pristine shine stood out on a shelf covered with a thin layer of dust. She grabbed the shell and yelled into its gleaming mouth.
“Leave her alone you loathsome bitch! I’ll stop ignoring you.”
As Kalai observed from the kitchen, Sebene unwrapped a small piece of paper from around the coral necklace’s chain and ripped it in half. Then she threw the shell down and Kalai flinched as it shattered. The pieces littered the floor and a few fragments flew under the furniture near the bookshelf. Kalai stepped around the shards to her sister’s side and whispered.
“Who are you talking to exactly?”
“Well, if she is to be believed—an old sea spirit our ancestors double-crossed years ago. Her name is Amandala. Apparently they had made some kind of deal where she’d inhabit one of them after she helped them find lost gold at the depths of the sea. They botched the spell on purpose so now she’s stuck in the spirit world and needs someone from our bloodline to free her. We’ve been cursed to find the right spell for generations.”
Kalai scoffed. “Are you trying to tell me we’re witches?”
Sebene shrugged. “We used to be. I think Great-Granny Mae was the last one to actually practice. I guess that’s why it’s been taking the rest of us so long to figure things out.” She held up the bits of papers still in her hand. “All I’ve managed to figure out is a spell to keep her out of my head.”
“Think about it, Kalai. Did you really think it was normal for every woman in our family to end up in mental institutions, complaining about the same thing? That would be one hell of a coincidence.”
“Like finding an irresistible shell on the beach on the day you decide to visit,” Kalai muttered.
“Yeah, like that.”
Kalai leaned against the wall and massaged her temples. It would take time to digest this new information, but in light of what she’d experienced today…she couldn’t dismiss it completely.
“How did you know she was talking to me?”
“You got that same far-off look that Mom used to get. She gets to us through these…” Sebene held up the necklace, “trinkets. I was drawn to this piece of coral when I went on that marine biology trip for school about a month after Mom went off to that…facility. Once I saw the seashell, I knew she had to be here.” Sebene caressed her necklace and stared off into the distance. With a sigh, she wiped her hands on her coat and headed to the door.
Kalai stopped her. “Where are you going now?” she asked.
“I’m going to finish this. However long it takes. You might…you might not hear from me for a little while. Some of the spells I’ve tried needed some pretty hard-to-get stuff. I don’t expect things to get any easier.”
“Look, about your rent…I’ll cover it, okay? It doesn’t matter how long you’re gone, just come back to me.”
“Thanks, Kalai. I’ll…I’ll try.”
Sebene touched her sister’s face and smiled ruefully.
“Take care of yourself Kalai. Don’t take any more gifts from the sea, alright?”
Kalai waited until the old car sputtered away before pushing the door closed. The house now felt eerily empty and silent. She got the dustpan and worked meticulously to sweep up every shard of the seashell she could find. A small piece of the shell caught the sunlight streaming in through the window and enticed her gaze.
Startled, Kalai dropped the pan, scattering all the gathered shards once more. Her face contorted in anger when she remembered how the women in her family had been locked away and exiled because of apparent “illness.” She stalked into the kitchen and grabbed the hammer from her toolkit. Methodically, she smashed the seashell shards until the floor before her sparkled with its powder. As she swept the debris into the pan yet again, she kept listening for that slippery whisper, but Amandala held her tongue.
Once she had thrown the fragments out, Kalai filled her largest cup with coffee and sweetened the slightly burnt liquid with creamer. She stirred the mixture absentmindedly while watching the waves lap at the shore. A tiny glistening speck on the shore caught her eye and her breath. A few feet away from it there was another twinkle. Kalai suspected what they were. The sea no longer seemed as calming and innocuous as it had just hours ago when she had been digging her toes into the sand.
She picked up her cell phone and dialled Sebene’s number, hoping it hadn’t been disconnected. Finally, Sebene answered on the fourth ring, her voice heavy with anxiety.
“Kalai? What happened?”
“Nothing…I changed my mind. I want to help.”
“Are you sure?”
Kalai gazed at the growing number of twinkles on the shore.
“Yeah, I’m sure. Let’s get this bitch out of our lives.”
Karen Heslop writes from Kingston, Jamaica. Her stories can be found in Grievous Angel, Broadswords and Blasters, Apparition Lit Mag, and 4StarStories among others. She tweets @kheslopwrites.