User:Leasara/Whims of Fortune

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This was done for another contest on The Lab, and once again I wrote it right up to the last possible moment. Completed August 1, 2008

Whims of Fate

Author: Shannon Robertson

Frank O'Sullivan had always loved the ocean. After some thirty years, he could still remember the first time he had seen its blue expanse when his parents had taken him to the Boardwalk in Atlantic City. Of course, time had tempered those memories with the knowledge that they were more interested in the casinos that lined the side opposite the ocean, but to him it was a treasured memory from his early childhood. The effects of that single family trip had taken him to the beaches of dozens of tropical islands and the coastlines of various countries. As nice as they all were, however, they couldn't compare to that first evening leaning on the rail, looking out to sea as the sun dropped below the horizon behind him and the night's chill set into the air.

His mother had squirreled away whatever she could of her husband's winnings, and by the time he was old enough she sent her boy to an Ivy League school. That memory kept him warm all the way through the long New Hampshire winters at Dartmouth College and the Tuck School of Business. The singular memory had served him through the tedious times saving up the funds to launch his own business in real estate development, though he was slowly adding scenes from the many more luxurious locations he visited to his treasure. By the time O'Sullivan Holdings was starting to find itself in direct competition with The Trump Organization and the Rockefeller Group, Frank had seen most of the loudest and quietest coasts of the world. It really shouldn't have surprised him as much as it did when he finally returned to the boardwalk along that New Jersey shore to find the stark reality that lay at the foundation of his fondest memory.

It was almost as if someone was playing a prank. The lights were too garish, the sounds of the slot machines battered their way out of open casino doors to intrude on the evening air. He was wandering the walk considering how different everything seemed from the way he remembered it, and wondering how well their proposed hotel would actually fit in with its surroundings. Suddenly he recognised the stretch of beach beyond the rail where he had come to rest, and turning around confirmed that he was almost in the exact spot where he had first laid eyes on that impossibly blue horizon. Here the clattering and clamouring of the casinos was dampened. Their cacophony was still audible, but seemingly held back by a thick concrete wall or the like. He could hear the sound of the surf again.

Turning back to his first crush, he watched her waves play over the sand like the lace hem of a lover's skirts in the breeze. Their rhythm was hypnotic, almost lyrical to his ears. It seemed to be calling him to walk along the wet sand at the tide's edge. The tide had been going out for some time now, leaving a broad band of sand with a surface as even as glass. He was nearly at the bottom of the steps leading to the beach before the thought occurred to him to doff his shoes and socks. The sea breeze had already claimed its victory over the afternoon's heat, so the cool of the wet sand felt even colder against his bare feet. It was refreshing and soothing, rousing him from the unpleasantness of the contrast borne between the dream that had replaced his memory of the boardwalk and the reality he had found himself in. On the beach, the casinos had all but disappeared.

He lost track of how long he walked in that soothing sand, carrying his Italian shoes, going from one pier to the next. Before too long, however, he began to hear singing. It was distinct from the lulling and retreating waves, but it sounded like it almost used them as a harmony to its wafting melody. Soon the song held so much of his attention, he could have been walking along a bullet train and not have been distracted from the delicate music. The source of the ballad must have been drawing closer, but Frank couldn't tell weather it was coming from the beach or the boardwalk, or maybe the sea itself. He began peering into the darkness under the boardwalk, into the far horizon, anywhere and everywhere looking for the fountainhead of the fantastic notes, but couldn't find their origin.

His search grew more fevered, almost picnicked, the longer he was unable to find a focus for the music. Suddenly he stumbled over a concrete footing for one of the boardwalk's supports. Turning to curse the impediment he found that, in fact, none of the supports appeared to have concrete footings. Instead his stumble had uncovered a very improbable shell. It was almost double the size of the largest conch shells he had seen used through the South Pacific. He couldn't imagine what such a thing was doing buried on a New Jersey beach, but stranger still was the sound emanating from the shell.

It was a wholly unnatural sound for a piece of nature to be making. Something like a soft french horn made from porcelain. The tone was rising and falling in a syncopated rhythm that was just out of sync with the the rolling of the waves. Picking it up changed the tone very slightly sharp, but it was still just as beautiful. He had no idea how a shell this large might have become buried under the sand this far north off the Atlantic, but that mattered very little as he toted it back to the hotel.

He couldn't find any way to stifle the sound of the shell's music, as the whole thing seemed to be reverberating with its tune. Feeling a little embarrassed, he walked into the lobby carrying the thing stuffed with his socks and shoes and wrapped in his coat, but the clerk at the desk didn't pay him much more attention than courtesy required. The rest of the lobby was mostly empty, save for the screeching of the slot machines and their players just out of sight around the corner. The couple that rode up in the elevator with him didn't seem to notice anything out of the ordinary either.

That night, with the seashell singing softly on the nightstand, he dreamed of the ocean. The strange song was there as well, or maybe it was the cause of the dream. He could not see himself, but he was bobbing in the water as a storm approached and there was no land in sight. Strangely calm, he could feel the waves that passed around him gaining height and coming more frequently. The storm moved terribly fast, and the deafening thunder and rain from his time above the waves was counterpointed by the relative silence from below them. Still the song kept him company, changing it's tune and timbre with his time in the air or under water until eventually he left the maelstrom in favor of the cool calm of the depths.

O'Sullivan Holdings did not win the contract for the resort, but it did wind up going to another smaller company. His friends and investors noticed he was strangely unmoved by the loss, but most took it as a positive sign that he had his sights set on a bigger, more profitable prize down the line. No one knew of the effect his souvenir had on him. In fact, he found, none of them could hear the music at all. He felt a sort of pity for his friends once he realized this, then set about to figure out why it was.

The shell was subjected to every test he could imagine, and when he heard of tests he hadn't imagined, it underwent those as well. None of them ever concluded the shell was anything more than it appeared. He ran as many of the same tests as he could on himself and his housekeeper, but no demonstrable difference was found in either of them that might explain a difference in audible perception. When he finally started to get into the more destructive tests, she finally quit. It came as a minor shock to him to have her leave after a happy twelve years, but she had become more obstinate as of late. He never noticed the concern she expressed for him.

After the minor setback, the tests continued, this time with various vagrants to provide the baseline for comparison. Still nothing would turn up to show why he might be able to hear something other people couldn't. The more demanding the test, the more he wound up paying the technician to run it, though there were always more doctors that were all too happy to pour over the results. The sale of O'Sullivan Holdings left him with more money than he thought he would spend in a lifetime as well as all the free time he would ever need. There wasn't that much left to test when his accountant for the past twenty years left him as well.

He was still well off by most standards, he still had enough to live fairly comfortably if he moved out of the city and made a couple investments that would need to turn out more lucky than wise. However, if he continued the way he had over the two years since he found that haunting music, he might make it another three months before he joined the vagabonds he had been employing. It was a startling way to wake up to the remains of a life that had such promise. The social columns as well as the tabloids rang with the rumors of how far he had fallen, and he had to admit they didn't quite hit the mark as to how bad it really was.

After some hard thought, all he could see was that the shell had consumed his life the way his memory of the sea had bolstered it. Packing the thing in the mahogany box that had been built to protect it, he took a drive back down to Atlantic City, and the ephemeral melody became served as a homing device, becoming more urgent as they neared the place they had first met. It had come from the sea, and it was his intention to return the shell to its original owner. It was after midnight when he made it to the beach, and the tide was coming back in.

Freeing the shell from its case, he carried it down the few steps to the sand, cradling it as he had so often since their return to New York. Its tune returned to the same joyous melody he had heard that first night, and for the first time he wondered at the way the song kept changing. Over the short time they had been together it had always sung to him of the sea and its glory. He could recall now how frequently its tune had brought back memories of the various beaches he had visited, but not once from that day to this had he actually gone back to the shore.

The feel of the air carried on the back of every wave that crested and crashed on the sand seemed to rejuvenate him. Now he even blamed the shell for having taken this away from him. He was suddenly disgusted by the thing held so gently in his arm, and after only a moment's thought he heaved the shell toward the ocean. Everything he had loved about the shell coursed through his mind as it sailed through the air, and everything he'd offered to it followed as it hit the sand barely fifteen feet away and a good ways short of the waxing tide. For a while he stood there considering what he had just done, balancing it against what he had given to feed his obsession.

He still had enough money, it wouldn't be too difficult to start over. This time he already had a pretty strong network to help him back to the heights he had achieved before. Maybe now that he was aware of the shell's effect on him, he could temper that too. If he only listened to it when he needed to relax, perhaps things wouldn't go so badly this time. As he was beginning to see how things could work out, he found himself a little further down the beach with the shell back in the crook of his arm, and he finally knew he wouldn't be able to take the shell back with him if he was going to have any chance of regaining what he had given up for it. Still, he was torn.

The shell was just a thing, just a souvenir of a trip he'd rather not remember anyway. True, it was the most unique thing he had ever possessed, but no one else could share in its value. If he took it back, he would likely lose everything else, but no one would want his shell. For the first time he thought he knew why he would have to get rid of it, but he couldn't bring himself to take even one step towards the water's edge. The sky over the ocean began to turn lighter before he moved again. Behind him the boardwalk echoed with the foot falls of a morning jogger still a ways away, but drawing nearer. Something in him told him that he would have to make up his mind before whoever that was saw him.

The song from the shell seemed to grow nervous as they stood there together while the jogger drew closer in a steady rhythm. He managed to take three strides between the crash of every wave, and the shell's song became the saddest waltz Frank thought he would ever hear. Finally the moment of his decision was upon him, and he closed his eyes before taking three quick steps of his own ending with the hurling of the shell. It managed an even shorter distance this time, as Frank's blind aim caused it to shatter against a support moments after leaving his hand.

The noise of the shell breaking startled him almost as much as the sudden absence of its music. His hand still felt heavy from the weight of the shell he had held for so long. Absently he started rubbing it as he watched the tide claim the remnants of the shell continue to break down until all that was left of it was a pinkish hue in the sand. In the same moment Frank felt enormous freedom as well as unbearable loss. It knocked him off his feet and he sat hard in the strangely shaded sand clutching the hand that had held the shell. He felt numb all over as his emotions jockeyed for prominence in his mind, but his right hand was particularly empty of sensation.

While he sat trying to take in what had happened, he started humming one of the tunes the shell had sung to him. Before long, he could almost hear the shell's answer to his song. He looked around again for the source of the sound, but this time was more surprised than the last when he found it. His right hand had a glassy quality to the skin, and between the fingers was a fine film with a familiar fluted edge. It was as if his hand was becoming the shell that had so often been its occupant over the last two years.

Frank's every sound was echoed in his changing hand, and he began to doubt the stability of his mind. It had been a difficult choice to let the shell go, and the result of his decision had had the worst outcome he could have imagined, but he didn't think the strain of it all was enough to cause this obvious hallucination. His thumb was sticking straight ought from his altered hand, as if it was determined to be the spire the shell wound around. The jogger was almost there now, and to hide his hand from being seen, he stuck the hand under his knees and rested his chin on them. He almost immediately regretted the decision since there couldn't really be anything wrong with his hand in the first place, and so far as the jogger would be concerned, he was just out to watch the sunrise.

The jogger in question seemed to be taking much longer to pass the scene than Frank would have liked. Soon he found another reason to regret putting his hand under his knees. He tried to shift his position and found that his knees were stuck together, and furthermore his chin seemed perfectly happy where it was as well. His back, on the other hand, was starting to complain quite loudly about being hunched over for so long. To take his mind off of it and calm some of his panic during this strange episode, he resumed humming the song from the shell. The power of the tune was such that he didn't notice when the heal of his right hand began to encircle his back, though at its touch the aches faded. Once it started moving, the whole process went rather quickly as his hand moved to overtake the rest of his form, leaving a very large shell indeed. He wasn't certain at what point he knew what was happening or when he had accepted it, but now he would never need more than the shell that let him sing his love for the sea.