Feeling Crabby is the first place winner in the Summer 2023 Quarterly Short Story Competition.
It’s been a month since I was taken from my home. I received no warning when Charlie picked me up from my bookshelf and shook off the dust bunnies that coated my joints. It was the first time since a last minute spring cleaning over three years ago that someone had moved me.
She then wrapped me in a crumpled piece of newspaper and placed me in a cardboard box.
I sat quietly in the dark, shaky box for what felt like hours, only having the same words to read over and over again about popular brunch spots on Eastern Long Island. Despite not being able to consume food, the idea of eggs benedict sounded oddly enticing.
I was released hours later, unraveled like a Christmas gift, and exposed to my new buoyant home. Charlie placed me on a floating shelf right beside a romance novel with a dollar store Fabio on the cover. Just like my old spot, I could see everything in this cramped space.
The first night spent here, I was forced to grip for dear life while bay waves rolled our boat up and down. With stiff arms and legs, I tried my best as I hugged onto the glossy-toned paperback Fabio that stared off into a hopeful distance. All while Charlie cried and howled from her bed across the room.
Charlie’s purchase of this death trap was on-the-whim. Every night since Eli left, I watched her from my old ledge in the living room. Every night, she sat on the sectional in one of Eli’s ratty NYU sweatshirts with an overfilled glass of merlot and tear-stained cheeks. She browsed places to live on some website called Zillow, but it wasn’t until she came across a 1980s houseboat on Craigslist that her seemingly harmless interest turned into this vision for an adventure–– one her mother called absolutely insane on the phone. I always knew it was Charlie’s mom who was on the phone because she was so loud. Not soft-spoken like Eli’s mother who I haven’t seen in quite some time.
Charlie put our home up on that Zillow a week later. It brought in all kinds of people. It wasn’t until a young married couple with a baby on the way that Charlie decided they would be the ones to get her keys to the house. She tore me from my fragile ecosystem and brought me to this oceanic purgatory.
I was created by a boy named Eli and he loved the ocean. I started as a lumpy mound that was morphed by Eli’s small hands into an even bigger lumpy mound, this time with beady black eyes, two claws that were unequal in length and weight, and a coat of red paint. I was placed in a very warm room and my body hardened. I was then returned to Eli, and thrown in a backpack, snuggled between a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and some paper folders.
It was a miracle I survived the trip in the backpack. I was then placed on the shelf by a stack of marine biology books in what they call a living room. It was my home for years.
“That should do it,” Charlie says, brushing back loose strands of hair that stick to her sweaty forehead like spaghetti. She attempts to push down on the table, hoping the shaking would stop. As she does it, the table lifts up another couple degrees. Charlie throws her screwdriver on the floor. “Damn it!”
I’ve been watching her try to fix the kitchen’s rickety table since noon. The table with a faux marble top, like most of the gaudy furniture in this room, was inherited from the previous captain. No matter how many times Charlie tries to fix it, tries to readjust the table’s top so it stops rocking back and forth, nothing could one hundred percent fix it.
Charlie has gotten a lot skinnier and her brown hair, which used to be long rings of curls, is oily and flat. Her complexion is now a consistent hue of egg shell white, almost the same shade of my old shelf. I can only assume that all the rocking that this death trap does makes her super uneasy. She was told by multiple sources that she would get her sea legs soon, but at this rate, I’ve watched her run to the bathroom probably about four or five times to hurl like a cartoon character in one of the show’s Eli used to watch as a boy.
Charlie is not seafaring like Eli was. Eli wanted to be a marine biologist. Every day for over a decade, I observed him pick a book from my bookcase. For a long time, he barely reached past the first few shelves. I would always see a tuft of dark hair bobbing up and down below me like a buoy at sea. He would take a seat in the middle of his mother’s prized vintage sky colored rug, lay down on his belly, and read the words off the page. He was a very vocal reader, something I enjoyed. He would list off facts about coral reefs, death-defying ocean depths, and crustaceans– my favorite. It’s what Eli based me off of, a red king crab.
When he wasn’t reading, Eli would spend every waking moment at the beach, especially during summers. As the little hand hit 8:00 AM on the living room’s grandfather clock, Eli would run down the stairs in his bathing suit and return with hair dried with sea salt and skin peeling off around his nose because he burnt too easily.
As for Charlie, she was a different story. Along with her sea sickness, I’ve watched her come down to the brig soaking wet because she fell off her new house. She even managed to mess up tying the boat to a dock and let the home float off into the middle of the bay to the point we were towed back more than once. Let’s just say Liam, the boat towing guy, has maybe become her best friend through this endeavor.
Charlie abandons the kitchen table to scroll through some videos on her phone, keeping away from the streaming light coming through the circular windows like a vampire. Eventually, she manages to get up to go to my shelf to dust me. She loves dusting me so much that the spray polish is starting to take off some of my red paint. It’s become a little obsessive. I’m okay with it though as long as she’s not throwing me like she does some of the other objects around here. A week into living here she screamed, threw a dish at the wall, and then cried for a good few hours on the floor.
After dusting me, Charlie picks up one of the framed photos on the floating shelf below mine. It’s a picture of her and Eli from when they were kids. It was taken right after the infamous incident of Eli and the hermit crabs. It’s how he met Charlie collecting hermit crabs on the beach during the summer of 2008. I remember the year because Eli’s father was watching a lot of news on television at the time— some politician named after a shrub got a shoe thrown at him. Let’s just say the incident ensued some lively family discussion later that Thanksgiving.
“I made this in art class last year,” Eli explained to Charlie, holding an ice pack up to his nose where a hermit crab pinched him. He used his free hand to point to me.
Charlie nodded. She used to be a small thing with her brown hair always in braids. “Ah huh…And what’s it supposed to be?”
If I could frown, I would’ve. Eli scowled for me though as he pointed to my claw. “A crab. Can’t you see?”
“Oh. Now I can see it…”
“C’mon, let me show you the beta fish my parents got me for my birthday,” Eli said, grabbing her hand and leading her upstairs to his room.
Charlie never left after that. Unlike Eli’s friends who’ve come and gone over the years,
Charlie was consistent. Always there.
Since coming here, Charlie is always alone. Not only is she alone, she did the same thing we did back home, which is anti-climatic if you ask me.
Charlie manages to stumble out of bed every morning about ten minutes before her job begins. She throws on a blouse, keeps her sweatpants all day, and wastes every second in front of her laptop screen. For eight hours, her nails clack against her laptop’s keyboard. Sometimes she talks to people about things I don’t quite understand like revenue and brand awareness. She stays on her computer until 5:00 PM. After that, she crawls into bed watching little videos on her phone until she falls asleep. I don’t think she spends her time in a healthy manner. Even on the sunniest days she’s in this death trap.
When Eli was around, Charlie never spent this much time inside. Only when the sky was gray or there was frost coating the ground. They jumped on furniture as if the rug was lava or read books from my shelf. Eli liked to read to Charlie. She would be perched on a large fluffy pillow and let Eli’s voice fill the room. This continued from childhood to adulthood. Over the years, the two slowly inched closer across the rug until one day Charlie was snuggled into Eli’s side, her head on his shoulder as he softly read words off the page of a novel.
The sudden sound of “a’hoy” outside catches Charlie and my attention. I share a look with dollar-store Fabio and turn back to Charlie who is now smiling. She quickly shakes out her mousey hair and dusts off any lint clinging to her oversized overalls.
Charlie comes back down fifteen minutes later and she’s not alone. Right behind her is
Liam, the boat towing guy. They’re talking about something and laughing.
“I have peppermint or black tea, or coffee,” Charlie says, walking over to the electric kettle she has plugged in. “There’s some lemonade too if you’d like.”
“Coffee’s fine,” Liam says. He’s got a strong jawline and muscles as toned as my dollar-store Fabio. If I could arch an eyebrow, I would.
Liam’s gaze takes in Charlie’s habitat. It’s the first time I’ve seen someone besides her enter these quarters. “You’ve done quite some work around here.”
“Not as much as I would like,” Charlie confesses. She laughs a little. “My husband, he was, well he was so much more of a go-getter than I ever was.”
“Is that him?” Liam points to the only picture hanging on the wall. It is a photo of Charlie and Eli from their wedding. Eli’s got Charlie scooped up in his arms and they’re both laughing. The wedding was held in the backyard, and boy, was it something. Eli’s parents organized the whole thing, and even gifted Charlie and Eli the home. His parents planned to move to Florida and be something called snowbirds.
“Yeah, that’s Eli,” Charlie says. She clears her throat. “Um let me grab the photos I was telling you about.” She makes a beeline to where I am, her gaze skimming for a large leather bound book on my shelf. She snatches it and then walks to the
“These are amazing,” Liam says as he sits down at the kitchen table. Charlie sits across from him as he starts to skim through the scrapbook. “The detail is incredible.”
“Wish I could take the credit, but these were all Eli’s photos. He traveled all over the world taking photos like these.” Charlie happily taps on one of the photos Liam’s looking at. “This was from his trip to see the coral reefs. He always thought about buying something like this, living at sea for a few years. I don't know…”
There’s a distant look in her eyes I’ve grown accustomed to. Charlie never used to look like that. Even when she and Eli fought, like really fought, I never saw her look like that. The two always made-up somehow or found some kind of common ground.
The look started the day Eli disappeared about two years ago. Charlie received a phone call in the middle of the night and went running out of the house with untied shoelaces and her polka-dot pajamas. Something about an accident. When she returned, she was a blubbering mess in a black dress. I never saw Eli again.
Liam notices Charlie’s distress and hesitantly reaches out to pat the top of her hand.
Charlie smiles at it for a fleeting moment before realization hits her and she pulls her hand away.
“I should get back to work,” Liam says, sitting up. “Hopefully I won’t see you while I’m on the clock. Or, well, you know what I mean.”
“No, I think I know how to tie a knot now.” “You sure? Looked a little loose out there–”
“I’ll see you around,” Charlie said.
Liam smiles at her before leaving. Charlie is then left to her own devices, once more. She then runs to her bed to flop on it, letting out a muffled scream into a pillow.
We are alone again.
That night the waves grew rough. Rougher than they’ve ever been. It’s pouring. Hard. Thunder and lightning, too. I’m thinking back to the old house, how much I miss my old shelf. I wonder if the new couple destroyed the living room and decorated the old Victorian home into some tacky farm-country style I’ve seen designers do on HGTV.
I try to use Fabio to keep me on the shelf as the conditions get tough. I pray Charlie will move me. She is sound asleep with her phone midway playing through a clip and snotty tissues stuck to her arm. I plead with the universe for help. To do something. Anything.
Then thunder struck, and the boat hit the right magnitude, the right angle, that I can’t hold on anymore. I’ve never flown like that before. I imagine I’m flying through an underwater barrier reef. I imagine I am real for a few seconds as I brace for impact.
I assume it’ll be quick. Painless. Or the latter– extremely painful. Like debilitatingly so. I suck in a nonexistent breath and as my claw hits the hardwood, I hear the crunch of my decoupage exoskeleton. Instead of pain or nothing I feel disoriented and a tingle of adrenaline rushes through me. I just stare at pieces of the plate Charlie broke, or are those pieces of me? I’m not sure nor do I care.
I hear a grunt come from a sleeping Charlie and the padding of her bare feet against the floor. When she sees me, she gasps. I feel her collecting pieces of my arm that snapped off in the palm of her hand, which feels warm. Safe. I want to stay like this.
“No, no, no,” she whispers. “Not Eli’s stupid little crab.”
I don’t have much memory of what occurs next. It felt like the first time I was being molded to life. Blurry images in my head. The view of an overhead light. Charlie’s eyebrows scrunched up in frustration. The cool sensation of something being applied to my shattered ligaments. I smelt chemicals.
By the time I come to, I’m greeted by a hopeful glance from dollar store Fabio. My body was fused back together with glue. When I see Charlie for the first time since, she looks different. She’s less pale and her hair is washed. She is fidgeting as she looks down at her phone. After a few moments, Charlie presses a few things on the phone and clears her throat.
“Hello? Liam?” Charlie says. “It’s…Yeah. Look, I was wondering, would you maybe like to hang out or something sometime soon?....Okay, yeah. Yeah, that works for me. See you then.”
Charlie hangs up. Her lips curl into a smile I haven’t seen in a long time. For a second, I swear she is looking at me, and for a second, if I could, I would’ve smiled right back at her. I see
Fabio in the corner of my eye and, suddenly, I feel less alone for the first time here.