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The Shell Heap by C.S. Houghton

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The Shell Heap

by Craig Houghton

“When I get to the other side, how do I know which sin is mine?” asked Janice.

“They are all labeled but not in any order,” said Bunyon.

She bared her teeth like an angry terrier. “Could you push me off please? I have a lot of rowing to do and I could use a head start.” She found this whole exercise to be more tedious than useful.

“Are you sure you don’t have your sin already?” asked Bunyon. He looked past her towards the island of Unimaginable Sin. “I would show you mine, to help you, but this sack doesn’t come off anymore.”

She shook her head and stared at the taught burlap bag plastered to his mid-section. He pushed her canoe into the dark choppy water and she held on tightly. “How long did you say I had to find it?”

“If you don’t find your sin I won’t be able to let you in the House.” Bunyon dragged the next boat to the water’s edge. “Oh. Anything past twenty minutes is probably too late. They can be buried deep, and if you don’t find them right away, you probably never will.” The next woman stepped gingerly into her canoe. She held a burnt-out cigarette between two fingers.

Janice checked that her Secret remained securely fastened with duct tape to the small of her back. She rowed until her shoulders ached and the line faded out of sight.

The entire island seemed a waste. The enormous shell heap in the center teemed with black flies. They darted around her head and slammed against her ears. Other than the pile she saw nothing but dirty sand flecked with glass beads. The Secret grew warm against her back and soon sweat darkened her shirt. Neither the oyster nor the scallop shells had any labels. Janice picked through the base of the pile with her foot.

“You look like a nice girl,” whispered a buzzing fly in her ear.

“Thank you. Thank you,” said Janice aloud to the pile. “But what I need is not flattery. I have to find my sin before time runs out or I won’t get into the House.” She closed her eyes for a moment and drew steady breaths. “Can you help me find my sin?”

“What does it look like?” tickled the fly in her ear. “How did you lose it?”

“This whole thing is trouble!” She knelt beside the pile and pushed shells into a heap beside her. “I’ve kept things in line. My sin must be very small indeed, which may be why it is so hard to find.”

“I feel bad for you. Your despair is no secret to me.” The fly flew off from her ear.

Janice dug through the heap until her fingertips scratched red and she reeked of shellfish. She cried out for Bunyon’s help.

When she woke in the morning beside the heap, her teeth chattered and she shivered. Janis pushed away the flies that moved up and down her arms and through her hair. She stood and almost fell dizzy into the shells. She regained her footing and began to run all around the small island. She screamed for help and stamped her feet in the sand as she ran in circles. When she realized no other woman, nor Bunyan, would save her, she ripped the Secret off her back and placed it in the shell heap with the other sins. Janice found her boat and rowed, lighter in heart but with a heavier head, back to Bunyan and the gates of the House.

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