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“Isn’t the view amazing,” Gloria said.
She looked over her shoulder at her best friend Julia who stood further back from the cliff edge. Julia didn’t look enthused to be there. The women had hiked to the lighthouse at the urging of the owner of the bed and breakfast. The old man had said that the 300 foot high cliffs provided an unequaled view of the ocean. He described the lighthouse itself as unexceptional; it was the cliffs and the ancient winding trail that were magical.
“Yeah, it’s beautiful from right back here,” Julia said.
Her voice shook. Her acrophobia would not let her approach the edge and even spiked her heartbeat when her friend moved close to the perilous drop.
“Can you be careful?”
Gloria laughed at her friend’s discomfort but after a final look down at the crashing waves she relented and moved to Julia’s side.
“You missed the coolest view,” she said.
“No. No I didn’t. I have no clue how you do that. Aren’t you worried about falling?”
Gloria just laughed again and shook her blonde curls.
“OK scaredy-cat, I think we’ve seen everything we can see up here. Want to head down now?”
“Sure, but let’s take the other path down. I want to see more of the flowers and birds.”
The two linked arms and strolled toward the gravel path, smiling with the sheer joy of being alive.
Julia snapped pictures of colorful butterflies, darting lizards and more plants and flowers than she had ever seen in her life. The hillside was covered by flora and fauna well suited to the arid environment. The wildlife preserve surrounding the lighthouse could keep Julia busy taking pictures for days. She only had a few hours left before they ended their vacation. The frantic pace of shutter clicks increased as their remaining minutes in paradise ticked down.
“Julia, look at that,” Gloria said.
Julia turned from a flowering cactus to see what her friend had found.
Gloria crouched in the middle of the path and pointed downhill as Julia approached. Julia crouched down beside her and after a moment saw the focus of her friend’s excitement.
A snail shell, almost two inches across, sat in the center of the path. It was unremarkable in appearance, a dull brown with swirls of darker black tracing the whorls at the shell’s center.
“So? It’s an old snail shell,” Julia said, and then the shell shifted.
“See?” Gloria said.
The shell rocked back and forth and then hitched itself half an inch to the left. It moved with a jerky motion, utterly unlike the motion of a snail.
“Is it a hermit crab?” Gloria said. “I thought I saw a limb poke out the first time it moved.”
“Could be; you know, I’ve never seen a live hermit crab in the wild before. I mean I’ve seen them in pet shops and we had one in our classroom when I was a kid, but I've never seen one in the wild.”
“So, are you going to get a picture or not?”
Julia looked at the camera in her hand as if she had forgotten it. She shook herself and then moved forward in a crouch around the snail shell. She wanted to be right in front of the shell’s opening to capture the image of the crustacean as it emerged.
She leaned in closer bringing the camera within inches of the shell. This was going to make an awesome nature shot. The shell shifted again and a tiny yellow limb emerged. Julia clicked the shutter and then moved the camera away from her eye to see for herself. The appendage stretching from the shell was not a crab leg. She could see what looked like three knobby fingers and a thumb. The miniature hand clawed at the gravel and dragged the shell another portion of an inch to the left, and then it retreated into the shell once more.
She rubbed her eyes. She couldn’t have seen what she thought she did. Julia waited a minute for the arm to emerge once more but the shell remained quiescent. The camera; she had a photo. She brought up the menu and the last image soon appeared on the screen. There it was, unmistakable; a tiny yellow arm and four fingered hand. She could make out tiny fingernails in the high definition photo. Pictures didn’t lie.
“Gloria, look at this,” she said.
Gloria joined her and stared in confusion at the image on the proffered camera.
“What the hell? That’s not a crab.”
“Thank God, it’s not just me. What the hell is it?”
“I don’t know,” Gloria said. “Let’s find out.”
Julia opened her mouth to protest but Gloria’s hand darted downward and snatched the shell from the ground. Julia thought she heard a squeak as Gloria turned the shell over to reveal its opening.
The women stared, dumbfounded. It was definitely not a crab in the shell. Instead a small face peered back at them. It looked like an old man with large pointed ears and a bulbous nose. The tiny man’s eyes were as black as night and set deeply between puffy lower lids and a protruding brow.
“Release me,” it said in a piping voice.
Gloria almost dropped the shell in shock.
“It talks,” Julia said.
“Please let me go,” the tiny man said.
“What are you?”
“I am of the Fae, the people under the hill. Please set me free.”
“Fae? Like a Fairy? That is too cool. Gloria, put him down.”
Gloria looked at her friend like she had gone insane.
“No way. This is huge. He can make us famous, and rich. No way I’m losing out on that, I’m keeping him.”
“Gloria, he’s a person. You can’t keep him like a pet. Let him go.”
Gloria stood and held the shell farther from Julia who also stood to confront her friend.
“No, he’s mine.”
“Release me or feel the wrath of the Fae,” the tiny voice said. The Fae’s voice was almost inaudible beneath the rising voices of the arguing women.
“God, you’re such a bitch,” Julia said.
She threw her hands up in disgust and stomped downhill. She had to get away from Gloria before she smacked her.
“You’re all mine now,” Gloria said to the tiny man in her hand.
“Release me or suffer.”
Gloria could have sworn that the tiny man’s eyes had been black but now they were a brilliant scarlet.
“Oh, I’m so afraid. You’re going to be a YouTube sensation little man.”
The Fae spoke a string of words that Gloria didn’t understand. His eyes glowed and Gloria felt a flush of heat race across her skin. The shell began to grow in her hand; no, the shell wasn’t growing, she was shrinking.
In seconds the shell was larger than her. The Fae crawled from the shell which clung to its back like a turtle shell. He stood on spindly legs and towered over the now tiny Gloria.
“I warned you,” he said.
The Fae opened its mouth wide. Within the rubbery lips row after row of needle teeth glistened. Gloria began to scream.