“Be grateful for another day. Not everybody made it, so don’t take it for granted.” It was on a bright, humid day in the stunningly beautiful city of Naples, Florida, that I made my first kill. Looking back, I have only regret, shame, and the haunting memories that still stick with me.
The sun was blazing overhead, the sand was scorching, and the salty waves lightly lapped against the sand, a typical day at the beach in Naples, located on the Gulf of Mexico’s glittering waters. I lazily enjoyed the view from my perch on a beach chair. I could see my brothers and dad playing football, moving at a hurried pace to keep the sand from burning their feet, my mother floating in the pool half asleep, and my friend, Abby, sprawled out listening to music beside me as the sun bathed us both in its sultry rays. I was completely relaxed, having no premonition of what was to come.
I reveled in this beautiful day as the previous one had been threateningly gray, with strong winds and torrents of rain. Today no signs of the storms of days past remained. Or so I thought.
As the heat from the sizzling sun became almost unbearable, I gently shook Abby and asked if she would like to walk along the ocean shore, look for shells that sprinkled the sand, and wade in the ocean to cool off. She readily agreed. After a quick reapplication of sunscreen, we headed off.
As we reached the water with our small pail to collect shells, we saw one of the remnants of yesterday’s tempest. About four feet into the alkaline waters rested many beautiful conch shells, shifted close to shore by the churning waves of yesterday. Abby and I, having a special affinity for conch shells, felt absolutely elated. I set down the small green pail so I could wade in with Abby and pick up a few of the alluring shells. We grabbed two shells each, placing them in our bucket. Euphoric with our good luck, we each grabbed two more shells to carry up to our condo for safe keeping. We made the short trek back to the condo building. We clambered into the elevator that would take us to the seventh floor, where our lodgings were located. As the elevator climbed we chattered excitedly about the shells that stood apart from our usual finds. As we reached the seventh floor a cold, sharp object poked at my hand. Panicked, I looked down to discover that our stunning shells still had living inhabitants which had finally figured out that they were no longer in their aquatic home and had begun to stick their single, clawed foot out in protest. A strangled sound of horror escaped my throat as their slimy, oozing, hideous bodies began to emerge from their beautiful shells, attempting to find water but instead wrapping around my fingers. It took Abby only seconds to discover the cause of my panic as the shells in her hands were also coming alive.
As the elevator doors opened, we sprinted to the door of our condo, immediately dropping the shells and their repulsive dwellers. We quickly collected ourselves and found a bucket big enough to safely hold our eight conchs. Once they had been safely contained, we debated on whether to return them to their rightful home in the ocean or selfishly let them die and keep the shells. Unfortunately, our love of unique shells won out. We left all eight shells in the bucket, without water, and returned to the beach, assuming they would perish by the time we returned. The soothing sun quickly erased any thought of the suffering conchs, and we enjoyed the rest of our beach day without guilt. After the sun had set, we returned to our condo. Suddenly, we remembered our tortured conchs when the bucket came into view. We cautiously approached the bucket. No movement occurred from within. I gently prodded the bucket with my toe, and the bucket came alive with frantic clawing as they tried, in vain, to escape their confines. A shriek emerged from my throat, and I realized they weren’t dead as I had assumed they would be after hours without water. It turns out conchs, very similar to snails, have a protective layer of slime to preserve their skin and allow them to survive outside of water for many hours. As the regret and foolishness of our earlier decision sank in, I realized there was no going back on our decision. The beach closed at sundown, and the conchs wouldn’t make it until the morning. They were clearly suffering. So, we decided to put the poor, innocent creatures out of their misery.
After searching the condo, we decided to pour a mixture of bleach and water on the conchs to end this whole horrible ordeal. In a moment of steely courage, we booked it outside and dumped the potent mixture in the bucket. As the sounds of a frantic struggling from within the bucket reached our ears, we ran back into the condo, unable to bear the sounds of our mistake. A few hours later, we emerged to see if the bleach had done the trick. As I shook the bucket there were no signs of life, a small relief. However, knowing how hardy these creatures are, we decided to freeze them to be 100% sure they were completely dead. After tentatively removing them from the bucket and placing them on paper plates, we inserted them into the freezer and went to bed. The knowledge of what had transpired weighed heavily on us.
Eventually, morning came, and we opened the freezer. The conchs appeared to be in the same spot as we had left them. It was time. We needed to remove the dead creatures from the shells we had so desperately wanted the day before. However, you cannot simply pluck a frozen conch from its shell. You must boil them first.
We heated up a pot of water, our stomachs turning at the thought of what we must do. Using a pair of tongs, I dropped the icy shells into the scalding water with a small hiss. As the conchs unfroze, a vile yellow-green foam rose to the top of the water, releasing a horrendous smell. As everybody choked and gagged at the smell, we turned off the stove top. The time had come to remove the conchs. We gathered a trash bag, paper towels, and a pair of tweezers to pull the conchs out. Neither Abby nor I could bring ourselves to complete this final stage. We bribed my little brother into doing it with the promise of two of the lovely shells. He readily agreed, always one to be involved in something others considered gross or unpleasant. It turns out that conchs really do not like being removed from their homes, even when dead. Despite having been soaked in bleach, then frozen, then boiled, those little warriors were not giving their shells up easily, even from beyond the grave. After a solid half an hour of yanking, they wouldn’t come out. We boiled them again, the same noxious foam and smell rising. Finally, nearly twenty-four hours after we unknowingly plucked the conchs from the sea, the conchs were removed from the shells. The moment, void of victory, was a moment of realization that we had just intentionally murdered eight ocean creatures. A fact that still haunts our consciences.
The conch shells sit on a shelf in my room, surrounded by many other trip souvenirs with much less violence behind them. Every time I pass the beautiful shells, it is a weighty reminder of the Great Conch Debacle of 2015.