When I was a kid of seven, we lived in a place infested with soft shell snails. It was common knowledge those little monsters were poisonous. You swallowed one, you were gonna die.
This was before helicopter parents, child safety locks and seatbelts. When kids ran in packs like wild dogs, played games in the street, swarmed over backyard fences, rode bikes without helmets and shoplifted with impunity. I was the youngest, but my brothers were there to protect me. When somebody declared a snail fight, I didn’t yet know enough about death to be terrified.
We sought out ammo in the damp places, plunking snails in coffee cans. We divided into two teams on separate street corners. I was picked last.
The heaving started and shells smacked into heads and arms and chests with crackerjack crunches, exploding into knots of slime. Oozing corpses were flung back and forth until they disintegrated. The fight kept on until Randy reared back to throw, mouth open. An incoming snail channeled right down his gullet. I saw it in slow mo. He held his throat, eyes bugging. Screamed. Too late.
Everyone yelled at him to barf. He looked ready to hurl until he took off running toward home. Coffee cans ditched. Kids scattered.
My dad was a medical professional of some sort at that time. Randy’s mother asked should she get his stomach pumped. Dad said it was a myth that the snails were poison, the French eat tons of them, stomach acid the great sanitizer. Whatever was left of the mollusk would pass in the next day or so.
Randy was sent to school against his objections. At recess a kid poured a circle of salt around him and dared him to crawl through. The day after that, Randy began to ooze from every orifice. The day after that, he’d hunched forward, arms and legs fused into a single foot, skin calcifying to shell.
He disappeared from school and the streets, from the backyards, eventually from our memories. Except for mine. We never had another snail fight. I stopped running with the wolf pack and read a lot of books. We all knew Randy died.
Dad was sued for malpractice. Mom and Dad split up. Dad moved to another state and bought a convenience store.
Years later, after Dad died, we siblings gathered together at a makeshift wake in his office in the back of the store. We drank gallon jug rose out of Dixie cups and reminisced.
“I remember seeing the snail go into Randy’s mouth as if it happened yesterday,” I said. “He knew he was dead.”
My brothers and my sister looked at me funny.
“Not this again. You’re the one who swallowed the snail, Randy,” my eldest brother said. “You screamed for a week straight.”
“Not a week,” my sister said. “Three days, tops. It seemed like a week.”
“You had to be sedated,” my second brother said. “Snot came out your nose like a slug trail. Remember the circle of salt I poured around you? That was funny.”
“What about the court case?” I said. “Dad’s malpractice suit?”
“We’ve been over this,” my sister said. “Dad was a chiropractor. Mom caught him manipulating a female client in a way that wasn’t exactly therapeutic.”
“It’s time you let that snail pass,” my second brother said.
That got a laugh. But not from me.
“You were a mess for a long time,” my sister said. ‘You retreated into your shell.”
I stared at my siblings, convinced they were lying. Yet another conspiracy or practical joke that wasn’t funny, inflicted for the crime of being the youngest.
The discussion moved on to Dad’s estate. It wasn’t long until the arguments started.
That night I woke up on the pull-out bed in my sister’s living room. I saw the snail go down Randy’s gullet, as it had a million times before. Felt the slimy lump in the very center of my stomach. Felt it try to crawl out of the acid, back up through the esophagus. I gathered the blankets over me and retracted my feet and arms, knowing that in the morning I would crawl away under the leaves and escape the fight.