The Ear


Kelly walked the beach with her head down, scanning the sand for unbroken shells. It was early, the clouds hovering over the Atlantic, glowing orange and red as the sun began to peak out over the horizon, her favorite time of the day to be out shell shopping. An occasional jogger would glide by, nod with a smile or time a brief good morning between breath cycles as they pass. On the rare occasions that she had been out here later in the day during the summer, all she’d gotten were whistles from boys and young men that hadn’t yet figured out that that is the surest way to eliminate any chance of the fantasies inside their salacious minds becoming a reality. Even when she didn’t hear the degrading cliché whistled in her direction, she felt their eyes on her, trying to dig beneath her clothes, as if there’s anything there that isn’t on every other human being of her gender. She always tried to ignore this type of attention. It made her feel uncomfortable, like she’d been put on display. So the early mornings before going home to work with her finds had become her routine.

The mornings also provided her best finds. First crack at anything new that the tides brought in during the night, before they get trampled by children, sun worshipers, and wanna-be surfers. There were no real surfers on this side of the country. Once they actually got good enough to stand on their board for a short ride on a Carolina wave, they usually packed up and headed west for the other coast where the waves lasted longer than a handful of seconds and the curls occasionally broke above one’s knees. But this was their training ground, for the attitude as well as the sport. They’d be running towards the water, surf board tucked under one arm, and stop in their tracks to watch Kelly walk by, undressing her with their eyes, oblivious to the look of disgust directed at them with her own eyes. So certainly during the summer months, Kelly stuck with the mornings when the wanna-be surfers slept off the previous evening’s beach activities and the vacationers were still gathering for an over-priced breakfast at Rosie’s Cafe.

There was nothing new about New Lake, North Carolina. In fact, after living here for three years, Kelly was yet to even see a lake. But the town’s stagnant growth had been part of the appeal to her when she had first arrived. This was a place that had chosen not to move on with the rest of the world. There were no McDonald’s or Burger King or Denny’s. And even though New Lake’s continued existence depended on its annual draw of vacationers, there was no Ramada, Holiday Inn, or any other chain of any kind within the borders of the quaint, little town. The town’s forefathers had long ago voted to keep out all brand name chains in order to sustain the feel of history and simplicity; however, several chains owned by some of the names just mentioned had opened for business a few miles outside the town’s border, where the Freeway intersected the State Highway that led to New Lake. Every now and then, some brand name company like Blockbuster or Tru-Value would come to town and try to petition a need for their particular expertise, but they never stayed long. New Lake was not going to change.

Rosie’s was the only restaurant in New Lake that opened for breakfast. Most of the others were open by noon. There were four more restaurants in town, eight small motels with names like "The Sea Breeze", "Waterview", and "Motel." There were also three Bed and Breakfasts, and two gas stations with rickety old dispensers that still showed the gallons and price on a spinning wheel and didn’t take credit cards at the pump. There was Missy’s Hair Salon, Bob’s Hardware where you could also rent beach supplies and surf boards by the day, and Crystal’s Market where townies could still get credit if they came up a little short at the checkout. There was an eighteen-hole putt-putt golf course in bad need of repair, and an adjoining small race track lined with old tractor wheels to keep the kids and the go-carts on the pavement. The only theatre in town had just one large screen and only showed second runs of films, shortly before they were released on video. All were locally owned and family run, some going on their fourth generation.

New Lake consisted of little more than 5000 year-round residents, but the population more than doubled from the beginning of June to the end of August with a constant onslaught of ever revolving vacationers. Money was tight in the off-season, but throughout the summer, everyone worked and usually made enough to get them from one season to the next. Kelly made things out of seashells and gave them to Rosie and Missy and several other local shops that were willing to put them on display in their stores and then sell them to admiring vacationers. It was purely a consignment deal, Kelly’s take being 75%. Most of her creations sold for less than ten dollars, but she had to work very hard during the off-season to keep up with the summer demand of her trinkets.

Rosie had been encouraging Kelly to open up a little knick-knack shop of her own to sell them in, but Kelly didn’t want the responsibilities and headaches and worries that usually accompanied ownership of a business. She didn’t like the selling part, just the creating. Her creations sold like hot cakes during the towns prosperous months and every June she was ready with hundreds of little shell configurations that she had diligently put together for that purpose. She made tiny shell people and shell animals and shell furniture, carefully gluing tiny shells together to form their shapes and designs, mounting them on small blocks of driftwood. She made shell necklaces and bracelets and earrings. Her best seller was the simplest idea of all, shell bookends. Whenever she found a particularly large, heavier wrap-around shell (technically called a ficidae, but Kelly wasn’t interested in what the different shells were called, just what they looked like and that they were intact) she would glue it to a varnished wood mount and voila, a book end. If she found two that were very similar in size and color, even better, a set of bookends. Vacationers bought her bookends as fast as she could find them and put them together. She didn’t make a lot of money, but it put food on the table, paid the rent, and most importantly, it kept her busy.

It was the beginning of June and the vacationers had just started their annual invasion of the little ocean-side town. The seashells seem to be slim picking this morning and Kelly’s mind wandered as she slowly scoped the area on the north side of the beach near a natural rocky border, an area where she usually found her best shells. The vacationers tended to stick to the southern side where it was all sand and water.

Kelly was alone in the world. She was an only child and her parents had been killed by a drunk driver on her nineteenth birthday. Two years later she had married. Her husband, a young New York City attorney fresh out of grad school with a very promising future, had been shot and killed when refusing to relinquish the keys to their new car to a mall parking lot mugger two weeks after they’d returned from their honeymoon. After the funeral, Kelly had taken the Greyhound south with no particular destination in mind, just a strong desire to forget and to start over. Somehow she had landed in New Lake. It was opposite everything she had experienced in her life in the city and felt it would be a good place to start a new life of solitude. She didn’t own a car. She bought a bicycle for any treks too far to walk, but the town was small enough that her bike stayed locked up in the garage for the most part. Three blocks from the beach, she had rented out half a duplex from Rosie, who lived in the other half and had also become her best friend.

It had been Rosie that had given Kelly her first job as a waitress when she had decided to stay in New Lake. Waiting tables for the locals in the off-season hadn’t been so bad, but once the vacationers started rolling in during her first summer in New Lake, she knew she wasn’t cut out for the job. Rosie had agreed but was still willing to keep her on if she had wanted to stay, but Kelly only continued waiting tables long enough for Rosie to find a replacement. She had already started toying with seashells as a hobby to pass the time and occupy her mind, piecing them together into little figurines and stringing them into jewelry, and it had been Rosie’s suggestion to display them for sale in a glass container by the cash register. Three years later, it was hard to walk into any place of business in New Lake and not find some of Kelly’s creations displayed for sale somewhere within the shop.

She hated thinking about her past, what might have been, and Rosie was the only one she had ever told her depressing story to. She didn’t want people feeling sorry for her, wasn’t comfortable with their pity. To most who asked, though thankfully few ever did, she simply explained that she was from a big city and had desired a change of scenery.

Walking the beach usually helped her fight off the melancholy that occasionally tried to invade her thoughts. She found a larger, unbroken shell and put it to her ear, listening for the echoes of the ocean that had brought it ashore. A simple pleasure for a simple life. Feeling a little better with a good find, she carefully placed the shell in her tote back and continued her search. Another shell caught her eye and she picked it up, wiping away the caked wet sand. As she flipped it over in her hand, she immediately dropped it back into the sand as though it had burned her fingers.

At first she thought she had found a severed ear, but it felt no different than any other shell she had ever picked up as she had brushed away the sand. Regaining her composure, she stooped over the shell for a closer look without touching it. It looked like none she had seen before. She could tell that it wasn’t actually a severed ear, but its resemblance to one was uncanny. Even the color had a fleshy pink tone to it. She flipped it over with her toe, still hesitant to pick it back up again. The smooth, rounded back side looked like any other seashell. She toed it over again in the sand. The hollow side had the same ridges as a human ear and swirled into a dark, small indention in its center. Tentatively, she picked the shell back up and, as she always did with each new find, put it to her ear.

* * * * *

The sun was high in the sky when Kelly awoke. A boy, no more than seven, was standing a few feet away staring at her curiously. "Jake! Get over here! Don’t go bothering other people, now. Come back here right now!"

The boy turned to the voice of his mother who was lying on a blanket forty yards south, a book resting open on her chest. "Her face is all red!" he exclaimed loudly, as he trotted back towards his mother.

"Well, that’s why we use sunning lotion," she said as the boy approached. But the boy was just a few feet away from his mother by then, her voice had been discretely lowered, and Kelly briefly wondered how she had heard that reply from so far away.

Still shaking the cobwebs out of her mind, she tried to make sense of why she was waking up on the beach. She wasn’t a sun worshipper. Her skin was fair and burned easily. She loved the beach and the ocean, but she never stayed out too long for fear of turning into a lobster. The sky was filled with large, white clouds shading the beach, the sun playing hide and seek behind them. A cool breeze came in off the ocean running its fingers through her long auburn hair. Looking at the placement of the sun, it had to be almost noon. She calculated that she had been asleep for more than three hours and had probably burned the side of her face that had been exposed. She glanced worriedly at her left shoulder that would have been equally exposed to the sun during her nap, and was surprised to see that it looked fine. A little extra color, but certainly not burned. She touched the left side of her cheek. No pain. No burn.

Brushing the sand from the right side of her face and out of her hair, off her right arm, and both her legs, Kelly stood up and tried to remember falling asleep on the beach, but she couldn’t even remember lying down. She’d been looking for shells when…when what? It took a moment’s pondering, and then she remembered. She’d found the weird looking ear-shaped shell. But that was all she could remember. Next was the boy standing over her, staring at her.

She looked around in the sand next to where she had been lying for the odd seashell, but didn’t see it anywhere. She picked up the tote bag that carried her morning finds and dumped it out into the sand, thinking maybe she had dropped it in before she had fallen asleep. It wasn’t there.

Shrugging it off, deciding it really didn’t matter anyway, she piled her morning’s take back into the tote back and started the three block walk home. Dropping the tote bag on the kitchen table where she did most of her work, she went to the refrigerator. She suddenly felt very hungry, as though her morning nap had drained most of her energy. Usually she skipped lunch, not because she was worried about keeping her trim figure, but merely because she wasn’t a big eater. A light breakfast and a healthy dinner was her routine. But when she opened the refrigerator, she spied the hamburger she had been thawing for dinner and her mouth was practically watering for it. She pulled out the hamburger and placed it on the counter while turning on the stove. She grabbed a frying pan out of the cupboard and put it on the burner. She opened the package of hamburger and started molding the meat into a patty with her hands. The scent of the fresh meat made her mouth water even more. She raised the raw patty to her nose and closed her eyes as if beholding the fresh smell of a succulent rose for the first time. She took a large bite. Somewhere in her mind, she knew she should be disgusted by this, but instead she took another bite of the uncooked hamburger. She thought she’d never tasted anything better and before the stove had even warmed, she had devoured the entire patty as well as the rest of the raw meat from the pound package she had pulled out of the refrigerator.

She stood there in the kitchen for a moment, frozen as though in a trance, as her eyes shifted from the clean frying pan to the empty cardboard bowl that the hamburger had been packaged in. Had she really just eaten an entire pound of raw hamburger? Her mind refused to accept it as fact. She looked at her hands. They were sticky and smeared with remnants of raw hamburger and suddenly she felt sick to her stomach. She ran to the bathroom and saw her reflection in the mirror. Raw hamburger was smeared all over her lips and cheeks. The left side of her face was bright red as though it had been severely burned during her nap on the beach. Her brown eyes looked wild and wide mixed with panic and disgust. She leaned over the toilet, quickly opened the lid, and threw up before passing out on the floor.

Kelly dreamed that she was in a forest, hunting. She could smell her prey in the wind. It was not far now and she knew it could sense her presence. She could smell its fear. She was crouched in the tall weeds, silently closing in on the rabbit. Then she leaped and was on it, biting instinctively into its neck, sinking her long, sharp teeth into its squirming body as it put up a useless final fight. She drained the life from it and then she was flying. She had a bird’s eye view of a field, a hawk’s eye view of the gophers running in and out of their homes in the ground. Swooping down, she snagged a fat one, crushing it with her powerful talons before it even knew what had interrupted its day and she soared off into the sky again in search of an aerie to feast on her catch. She felt exhilarated, alive, invincible, and she heard herself roar. Now she was running full tilt on all four legs, chasing a family of deer. The youngest one stopped for the briefest moment to turn and look for its stalker, giving her just the extra second she needed to pounce on it, snapping its neck in one bite. The blood smelled fresh and tasted sweet. Then she was in the water, swimming through a school of small fish, her gaping mouth collecting all that was in her path.

A fly woke Kelly up. She was lying on the floor, still in the bathroom at the base of the toilet. She couldn’t see the fly walking across her cheek and onto her lower lip, but she felt it. And she could hear it. Before she consciously knew what she was doing, she snapped her mouth open and the fly was trapped as quick as a frog snagging it with its long tongue. As she swallowed, another wave of nausea hit her and she got to her knees and leaned over the bowl as if she was going to throw up again, but nothing came up.

Confused, sore from lying on the hard tiled floor, she tried to pull herself together. If it hadn’t been for the fly and the dried raw meat stuck to her lips and chin, she’d have tried to convince herself that it had all been part of the disgusting dream she’d had. She stripped off her clothes and climbed into the shower. The water felt too hot and she turned the knob to the left, unsatisfied until the knob wouldn’t turn any farther and the water was icy cold.

Still unable to understand anything that was happening to her, she dried herself and got dressed. She needed to see a doctor. Lying out on the beach in the sun must have made her delusional. Looking into the mirror, she noticed her whole face was now a bright red and she decided she needed to see the doctor immediately.

She’d only been to Dr. Fendler’s office once, shortly after arriving in New Lake. He had given her a prescription to help her sleep at night as she was still having difficulty at the time coping with the recent tragedies in her life. She hadn’t told him of all that had happened, but merely that she was not getting any sleep. He operated out of his home, living upstairs and working downstairs. The nearest hospital was thirty miles away in Morehead City. He was a kindly old man, semi-retired, but all the townies went to him when not feeling well. She got onto her bicycle and headed towards his home office. A dog came bounding towards her barking as she biked past its home territory on the street. She turned the bike towards it, leaping off as she reached the grass and charged it. The dog, shocked as much as she was by her sudden aggression, stopped wagging his tail and only had time for a whimper before she was on it, snapped its neck with her hands as her teeth sunk into it, all in a single fluid motion, just like she remembered doing in her dream.

It was like she was on auto-pilot. She knew what she was doing but could stop gnawing on the dead dog no easier than one could stop their own heart from beating at will. She was so disgusted she wanted to throw up again, but she continued to rip and tear at the dead dog’s meaty throat, licking the blood from her lips between bites. She thought she was going insane.

A man appeared in the doorway of the house next door to the dog’s domain. He yelled something at her but she didn’t listen. She dropped the dog, forgetting about her bicycle lying in the street and started running towards the beach. The wind blew back her hair. She felt something twitch on the left side of her face and instinctively brought a hand up to wipe away whatever was there. As she reached her left ear, she felt it move under her fingers. She touched it and realized she could only feel the touch with her fingers, her ear felt nothing at all. She pulled at the lobe and it retracted from her grip. If she didn’t know that it was impossible, she would have sworn it had shifted away from her grasp.

Just as she was about to accept the fact that she was truly going insane, she remembered the chain of events from the morning’s walk on the beach. She remembered finding the ear-shaped seashell. She remembered putting it to her ear to listen for the ocean. And then she remembered passing out. She realized at once what had happened. Somehow that ear-shell had been more than a seashell. It had been a living entity. It had attached itself to her head, replacing her ear with itself, and had planted roots into her brain. She would have laughed at such a lunatic idea before today, but in her mind, she knew that was exactly what had happened. She had to get rid of it. She had to get the doctor to amputate her ear. It was the only way and she knew she was right.

Running down the beach, Dr. Fendler’s beach-front home office only another two blocks ahead, she saw a young girl playing in the sand with her plastic shovel and bucket. Her course changed and she couldn’t stop herself. She was running straight for the girl, fresh blood, fresh meat, overwhelming her mind.

No! This isn’t happening, she screamed at herself. She was going to attack this little girl and didn’t think she had enough control over herself to stop. "Run! Get out of here! Go!" she started yelling at the girl as she charged.

The girl looked up from the bucket she had been busily filling with sand and smiled innocently, giving Kelly a shy wave. She didn’t understand. Her five year old mind couldn’t grasp the approaching threat for what it was. She wasn’t going to move. Kelly was going to do to this little girl the same thing she had just done to the dog, snap her neck and have a taste of her flesh and blood. Running full tilt, Kelly purposely tripped up her feet sending herself flying face first into the sandy beach twenty feet before reaching the little girl. By now the little girl was figuring out that this wasn’t the way adults usually acted and she started to get up to run away. Kelly pushed herself back to her feet and continued her pursuit.


It was the mother. She had just noticed her daughter running towards her, away from a madwoman who appeared to be trying to chase her down. The mother began running towards her daughter.

One part of Kelly’s mind thought that was fine, all the more blood to drink and all the more meat to eat. The girl was almost within her reach. Another couple of seconds and her need would be sated. The other part of Kelly’s mind, the part that couldn’t understand what the hell was happening, the part that was terrified beyond belief and seemed to be watching her own actions as though from a different body, did the only thing it could think of that had worked before, if only for a moment, and crossed up her running legs causing her to take another dive into the sand. As she pushed against the ground to get back to her feet, her left hand fell on a large stone in the sand and her fingers wrapped around it as she stood. As she started running at the child again, she brought the stone up and smashed it into the left side of her skull, aiming for her ear. She missed and her own blood started running down her face from the gash in her skull just above the ear. With one hand she reached out for the girl, just out of reach from her finger tips. Another step, maybe two and she’d be on her. The rock came smashing against the side of her head again, this time knocking her back to the sand. She pounded a third time, then a fourth, sure she was killing the ear. She pounded once more with all of her might and the world went dark.

The little girl ran into her mother’s arms, tears now streaking her terrified face. Her mother hugged her tight, burying her face in her shoulder so she couldn’t watch the madwoman stoning herself to death with a rock. When the woman in the sand stopped moving, she backed away, slowly at first, then turned and ran as fast as she could towards town, leaving her purse and blanket forgotten in the sand.

* * * * *

The event didn’t make the news. The police hadn’t believed the mother when she had told them that Kelly had been planning on murdering her child. Nor did they believe the old man when he told them Kelly had killed his neighbor’s dog with her bare hands before starting to feast on her kill. That type of thing just didn’t happen in New Lake and they certainly didn’t need that kind of publicity if they were to survive the off-season. Her death was labeled a suicide brought on by severe depression once Rosie had informed Dr. Fendler and the sheriff of Kelly’s recent tragic past.

Later that evening, just before the sun was dipping back out of sight for the night, a little boy was sitting next to his Dad on the beach, watching the waves roll in. He had a bucket full of collected shells sitting on his other side. He noticed a shell of a slightly different color, kind of a pretty pink, peaking out of the sand at his feet. He dug it out and rolled it around in his little hand. "Look, Daddy," the boy said to his Dad. "This one looks like an ear!"

Not taking his eyes from the hypnotic motion of the evening waves, his father chuckled. "Well, you should certainly be able to hear the ocean good from inside that one then."

"Yeah, I bet you’re right" the boy replied excitedly, as he brought the oddly shaped shell up to his own ear to give it a listen.

* * * * *

April 16, 2024

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