Hundreds of hermit crabs wearing toothpaste caps as shells shuffled through the dirt at the construction site, dirt so full of broken glass that it sparkled even at night, even with no light. Aref knew probably only he saw that seemingly infinite sparkle, just like he knew the hundreds of hermit crabs were really only one because you’d never find that many crabs wearing toothpaste caps for shells.
He’d been born with injuries in his eyes from the constant bombs. The scientific name for his sight condition made it sound awful. Did his kaleidoscopic vision make what his eyes saw less real? He shrugged and squatted next to the lone hermit crab.
The ground where he and his mother had once lived in a house had been bombed into a giant crater. Hundreds of people had disappeared here. Because no one was allowed to speak against the government, rumors spread that demons killed and ate those who entered the dark hole. Aref figured the bombs had killed those hundreds. Rumor about the unseen people-eating demons grew because it seemed that people kept disappearing even after the bombs stopped, even though no one knew when those people disappeared or how many there had been to start with.
A group of far away, friendly countries created a program to rebuild Aref’s city because the news refocused its 24/7 eye away from the demons to all the orphaned children who’d been born and aged 0-5 years old amid the forever bombs. These friendly countries sank wealth into rebuilding and gentrifying Aref’s old city.
These friendly countries had pet projects and one of them was an orphan education and training program that used Aref as their poster child. When Aref was three, a journalist took a picture of him in an Ironman t-shirt and shorts, covered in dust and blood, in the back of an ambulance. Aref remembered seeing hundreds of journalists and hundreds of flashes. Squatting beside the hermit crab now, he realized it’d probably been only one. But that one got him out of his ruined country, away from the dying city where he’d been born, where his mother had been killed by a stray shell, to go live with an aunt in a friendly country that had invested in rebuilding his city.
Aref looked foreign. His aunt, who was a lawyer and wealthy, took notice of this and was afraid for his life in the friendly country where Aref had come to live with her. She insisted that he friend her on Facebook when he took a trip with classmates to the south of that same friendly country. His classmates were all college students. But only he was of mixed race. They were white. His aunt was terrified that the police were going to kill him. After college he was hired as an architect at the friendly country’s military agency. He designed a building that could withstand multiple bombs. That was when she knew she had to let him go back to his birth country and build again in the mass grave that was his old neighborhood.
The four star generals needed someone like him and were happy to get him back there as quickly as possible. They told him it was the least he could do for the friendly country that had saved his life. They didn’t care if his building was a home or a hospital, only that it had the ability to withstand mortar fire. The generals tasked him with razing and rebuilding an area where the reign of darkness had to come to an end. That area turned out to be his birthplace. His construction team liked him because he was smart, hard working, and brave. When they told him about the crater and the demon that swallowed people whole, he said he’d check it out and make it safe for them again.
That was how Aref came to find himself watching the lone hermit crab with the toothpaste shell. He stood at the entrance to a pit that went deep into the ground. When he’d first gotten back to his old country, he realized that there were many problems that could not be solved by building buildings that could take single or multiple bombings. Water had disappeared and many of the people who remained had gone down into the craters looking for it. They didn’t return.
Aref decided if there was still a hermit crab here, there had to be water and he’d go down after it. “You shouldn’t be wearing plastic. You can’t breathe through plastic. Plastic has BPAs and BPAs cause cancer.” He gently picked up the crab and removed the plastic cap. The crab stood stock still, its antennae trembling. I will find you a real shell. He put it in an empty paper matchbox he found on the ground, and carefully putting the box in his pocket, started down into the darkness. He picked his way down in the rocky darkness and came to an open area lit by what appeared to be hundreds of fires. He walked into the cave and faced hundreds of giants who were likely only one.
Bot fly larvae crawled out of numerous holes in the giant’s cheeks and arms, disturbed by the giant’s scratching at a dark fungus on his neck that even in the dim light of the cave looked purple-black and raw. The giant’s smell reminded Aref of his first job, cleaning out an apartment where someone had left behind on a counter a piece of meat knotted in a plastic bag. It was 105 degrees outside. The bag had become a balloon. A fellow worker popped it. Disregarding the foreman’s warning, the bag popper grabbed aerosol air freshener and sprayed until he’d emptied the can. Everyone rushed to inhale the poisonous freshener as they gagged rotten meat. Except him. He knew the aerosol caused cancer. The rotten meat reek didn’t. It won’t kill me, Aref told himself then, doubling up on a face mask and breathing shallowly through his mouth.
It won’t kill me, he repeated to himself now. He forced himself to remain still. The giant stood over him, broken teeth bared, fetid saliva dripping on Aref’s face. This giant, who’d perhaps been a man before one or all of the bombs had dropped, howled.
Aref’s hand unconsciously gripped the matchbox in his pocket. The giant held something out to him. Aref stared at the skeletal remains of something much smaller than the giant, a skeleton clothed in a shredded, filthy gown, a gown that appeared in the candle light to have once been pink. Had he kidnapped her? Had he raped her? Had he—Aref realized the giant held the bones so carefully even as he offered them out with watery eyes to Aref. Aref knelt and said, “I’m sorry,” wanting to apologize for his dark thoughts, which might have come from the friendly country or the bombs, he didn’t know.
The giant’s eyes turned to the skeleton he clutched in his arms. “Tell me, man who shall be dead, what do you think of my…” His lips slid back over his rotted teeth, and he crooned. The giant tried to kiss the tiny skull. But his mouth was so big it only damaged the delicate skeleton further. Aref saw its head hung off the remains of its spinal column. The giant sobbed and cradled the head. “My wife?”
Aref remembered the humanitarian aid workers at the apartment door, gloved arms to their noses even as one of them tried to lead him out. But his mother had always taught him to be polite, so he let them take his arm, his eyes fixed on his mother’s form under the sheet on the floor. Another officer cleared the rubble away from his mother’s body. He wished he hadn’t let the officers in. “Bye, mama, don’t worry, it’s gonna be ok, I’ll be back soon.” And he waved. He was sure his mother’s hand had waved to him, even though she was still under the sheet. Another bomb hit, and everyone scattered under still more falling rubble. Now Aref tried to control his sight which showed him hundreds of hideous skeletons and giants’ tender looks to make it see what was real as he responded, “Truly sir, in this universe or any other, you would not find such another.”
The giant smiled and said, “You are an honest man, young master, the only one of your kind who sees her infinite beauty. I wish to give you a present as we have so few visitors.” He carefully lay the skeleton down next to Aref, taking a long time to do so so that no part of her would crumble away. “My wife loves company. I will return.” The giant disappeared.
Aref held the skeleton’s hand. The fingers threatened to crack in his touch. He wondered if she’d known his mother. If she was his mother.
The giant dropped an armload of cash, artworks, certificates of authenticity, jewelry, weapons. “I brought these for you, treasures that your kind values—why have you touched my only wife?”
Aref gently released the skeletal fingers. “I wanted to comfort her that…that you would come back for her.” He took the matchbox containing the hermit crab out of his pocket. “I was going to show her my pet.” The box was bent. Frightened, Aref started to gently open it, but the giant took it to show his wife. In the process, the giant crushed the box and when he tried to take out the crab out, Aref could see the creature was now only a bit of smear and flaky dried husk of skeleton.
The giant took the little body and gently opening his wife’s hand, laid the dead crab in her palm. “It needs a present, too.” The giant then nodded. “My wife and I will go. You have kept us company and we will always remember and talk about your visit.” He got up and ever so slowly picked up his precious skeleton. “I have lighted the way for you to leave this place. These treasures and more remain for you to do with as you will. We are leaving and will never have use for them. The lights will remain at your command or disappear at the same.” The giant strode off, the bones in his arms. At the last corner where he could see them, the giant raised his wife’s skeleton hand to Aref and waved it.
It might have been a moment or many moments later, the giant returned without his wife. Motioning to Aref, the giant gestured for him to open his hand. Aref did so. In it, the giant laid the remains of the hermit crab. The giant directed Aref to open his other hand. Aref did so. In that hand, the giant laid a pristine white shell, its spiral filled with clean water. The light of the fires sparkled in that tiny pool as Aref sat there, weeping for his mother and the hundreds, or the one hermit crab.
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