Bad Survivalist: Michele Finn Johnson
Marian’s halfway through her beginner Peloton class when she hears her husband, Luke, scream—What the hell? She slows her pedaling, listens for his lazy follow-up—Have you seen my socks? Did you drink all of the almond milk?—anything that means Marian doesn’t have to try and unclip herself from this mechanical beast.
Snails? Are those snails?
Marian twists her ankles outward just like it showed in the Peloton setup video, but she only manages to clip-out her right shoe. The left one’s stuck.
Marian, hurry! You have to see this. There’s got to be thousands of snails!
The screen door slams.
If they’re snails, there’s really no hurry, now is there? Marian grabs onto the red resistance knob in the center of the bike, tries to leverage her ample body weight while twisting her left ankle. Nothing. She grabs her yoga mat, rolls it into a tube, and uses it to pull aside the bedroom curtain. Luke’s on the front lawn, bent at the waist like he’s pulling weeds. Marian wants to correct the ergonomics of him; in fact, after nine years of marriage, there’s much about Luke that she’d like to correct. She reaches for the window latch, yells—Luke! Your back!—but her left foot’s still a Peloton prisoner. Luke’s upright now, swaddling an armful of small, tannish shells. Had it rained last night? Is that where snails come from—the rain? Marian wishes she paid more attention to nature—so much of outdoor life is Luke’s department—Boy Scout facts, he calls them—even though Owen hadn’t lived long enough for Luke to lead his troop. Owen. He’d loved snails and slugs and tadpoles and all things bug-related. He’d play for hours on the lawn with his blue plastic shovel, scooping and pawing, amazed by the simplest grub worm. He’s definitely not your kid, Luke would tease, back when things were lighter. You’re an indoor cat! If Owen had been more of an indoor cat—Marian stopped herself. No more what-ifs, isn’t that what she’d promised?
It looks to Marian as if Luke’s feet are covered in sand—Where’s the ryegrass?—and now the sand’s crawling, a slow tide that’s already pulled Luke halfway across the front lawn.
Luke! Marian pitches sideways and hears the click of her left bike shoe as it unsnaps. Her jaw rattles against the windowsill, but she’s upright. Outside, Luke’s getting swept toward the storm sewer inlet. Marian’s gait wobbles due to her bike shoes, so it seems like minutes instead of seconds before she’s opening the screen door, leaping onto the front lawn.
Luke’s laughing, his arms outstretched. Marian! Can you believe this?
The air smells of rain and the sea even though they are dozens of miles from any coastline. Snails cover the bark of the weeping willow tree, mushrooming from every branch and leaf. Snails coat the rhododendron and azaleas and underbrush. Snails smash underfoot as Marian works her way toward Luke.
Head to the street, Luke yells. It will take them a week to make it there. He shakes his hands and arms as if they’ve fallen asleep and he’s trying to get his nerves back. Snail shells spray off of him.
When Marian makes it to the street, Luke puts both arms around her, pulls her in tight. He’s musky and cold; there’s a slimy coating adhered to his tee shirt. Her own tank top and bike shorts wilt with sweat, but still, Marian can’t bring herself to tear away.
Did you know snails can see, but they can’t hear? Luke asks.
All of these micro-shells, their tops swirled like perfect cupcakes—none of them processing a single sound, while it seems all that Marian can do right now is hear things—the snap of snails under her bike shoes; that click click click of shells, dozens of them, that had hurtled from Luke’s arms to the ground; scratches of shells rubbing against the houses of their brothers; the scrape of a tiny plastic shovel.
They’re probably destroying our lawn.
Luke loves his lawn. Since Owen, she’d been certain he used yard work as an excuse to drink Bud Lite and get outside—get away from her—but now his voice tins with tears.
Marian considers their lawn as she’d known it, more crabgrass than rye, half-seeded with dandelions. The lawn now, its surface skittering with life. This bounty of snails.
Marian draws closer. She presses her ear into the spot where Luke’s clavicle bone indents into flesh; she’s certain she can hear Luke’s pulse vibrating inside her own cochlea. She wants to ask Luke if he hears Owen sometimes too, but that might kill this moment for both of them.
Oh, I don’t know, Luke. Maybe they’re mating.
His heartbeat swells; the way Luke’s now pressing into Marian, she senses other swellings, those forgotten possibilities thriving between them.
Do you know how snails mate? Luke lifts Marian up off the ground; she swings into his arms. Shells crackle underfoot, but no one hears them.
Michele Finn Johnson’s work has appeared in A Public Space online, Colorado Review, Mid-American Review, DIAGRAM, SmokeLong Quarterly, and elsewhere. Her story collection, Development Times Vary, won the 2021 Moon City Short Fiction Award and is forthcoming from Moon City Press in 2022. Her work was selected for the 2019 Best Small Fictions anthology, won an AWP Intro Journals Award in nonfiction, and has been nominated several times for a Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and Best Microfiction. Michele lives in Tucson and serves as contributing editor at Split Lip Magazine. Find her online at michelefinnjohnson.com and on twitter at @m_finn_johnson.