JULY 2023, SHORT STORY, 4900 WORDS
After the greenteeth took our parents, me and Squirrel moved in with Lady Lucy, who owned a bookstore before the water came and turned most of her inventory to muck. Lady Lucy had moved as many books as she could to her upstairs apartment, left her most prized volumes to dry out on the windowsill in the sunshine before shelving them in the various nooks and crannies she’d previously used to store alarm clocks and oven mitts and other things she no longer had use for. Squirrel called her Lady Lucifer behind her back, because our benefactor grew cold and cruel every time she drank blackberry wine. She’d indulge in bitter tirades about how lucky we were to be children because we hadn’t enough hard life experience to draw the greenteeth to us. But I knew that was bullshit. I was living proof that despair didn’t wait for old age.
Black clouds squatted low against the city on the day Squirrel went missing. Cold rain splattered the windows, and we lounged around Lady Lucy’s cave of moldy books, imagining summer days when we might swim through the saltwater streets and dive from the third-story windows of beach hotels. Lady Lucy searched an hour for her copy of Dandelion Wine before remembering she’d loaned it out in exchange for a dry pack of Marlboro Reds and a book of matches. It’s how Lady Lucy supported herself, and us. A one-week loan of a mostly intact copy of Beowulf could be had for a few unexpired cans of cream corn. Or maybe you wanted to borrow her copy of Lonesome Dove. That would cost you a six-pack of bottled Dasani water for the pleasure. Ever since the hurricane cut through Galveston and the waters refused to withdraw, entertainment was at a premium. So, Lady Lucy had quite a racket going, and we all benefitted.
Me and Squirrel had the run of her shelves, and she constantly shoved books in our hands, telling us we simply must read this or that.
“You’ve read Cat’s Cradle, haven’t you, Rowdy?” she’d ask. I’d say no, and she’d climb up on a tottering stool and pull down a copy. One day she gave me a soggy science book, convinced I needed to learn all about how climate change melted the glaciers and raised the sea levels and caused storms—like the one that came through Galveston—to become exponentially more violent. She had a notion that one day I might grow up and figure out a way to reverse all this, but math and science were never my thing, and the book caused my eyes to glaze over.
“Are you hungry, little darlings?” she asked. “Perhaps a tin of Spam?” She always called us little darlings, like we were storybook urchins who washed up at her door, which, I suppose, is exactly what we were.
“Yes, please,” I answered.
Squirrel ignored the question. She’d spent most of that afternoon with her palms on the window glass, peering into the gloom. The apartment above the drowned bookstore was hardly large enough for one person, let alone three, and the open spaces always called to her. Lady Lucy’s rowboat was lashed to the railing of the second-story balcony, bobbing in the swells. Lady’s black cat, Bathory, lazed on the windowsill in front of Squirrel. When he heard the lid peel away from the tin of canned meat, Bathory came to life, bolted to the kitchen, and was rewarded with a salty bite from the end of a fork. Lady Lucy portioned out the rest for our meal, looking half a witch with her tangled gray hair, green hooded cloak, and the amiable black cat navigating the space around her ankles. It was an impression she cultivated. And on the day Squirrel and I had arrived at her window, orphaned and alone, she’d joked that it was lucky for us she no longer had a functioning oven, else fairytale law would demand she cook and eat us.
Lady Lucy was not entirely sane, but I was almost certain she would never eat us.
When we finished our food, she uncorked a bottle of blackberry wine and, as she often did, told stories about Miracle, the woman she’d loved more than anything in the world. Miracle had shared the apartment with Lady Lucy before the storm. They read books to one another by candlelight, stories about lost kingdoms and talking animals and ancient forests full of black-hearted wolves. Lady Lucy often conflated these fictions with their actual time together, though both had lived their whole lives on the island, and there were vanishing few talking animals native to the Texas coast. I was glad she had her fantasies; even imaginary pleasure was better than none. By the Lady’s account, Miracle was storybook-beautiful, with the soul of a saint. There was no way to know for sure if Miracle even existed, or if that had really been her name, but it hardly mattered. The storm changed us all. Lady Lucy had been Lucy Brown before. Squirrel was Tina. My parents named me Adam, but now I was Rowdy. Because, why not? If the city could become something new, so could we, and it was easier to forget who we’d all been before than to sit around lamenting what we’d lost.
Lady Lucy finished her story the same as always. “Miracle stood unafraid on that very balcony, night black as a barrel of pitch. She let her hair down long, like a princess imprisoned in a tower. Let the strands rest on the current as she sang sad songs. I watched her without interfering, certain she was going to leave me, and too in love with her to stand in the way. Eventually they came, the greenteeth. They felt her despair and they drew her down to her death. And she was never heard from again.”
And she was never heard from again.
The way Lady Lucy spoke the words, it sounded like Miracle was a character in one of her true crime books.
She became quiet after that, just sipped at her wine with heavy eyelids. I read a chapter or two of American Gods before growing tired. Bathory lounged in my lap, and we listened to the ocean as it moved through the bones of the city. The sound of the undertow eventually put me to sleep. I woke to black night. Cold air chased in through the open window. I expected to see Squirrel’s slim, anxious form still fogging the glass, but she was nowhere in the room, and there was no conclusion to draw other than she’d gone out through the window, into the darkness.
And she was never heard from again.
I roused Lady Lucy from her recliner. She’d fallen asleep too, the empty wine bottle gripped in her hands.
“What has your darling sister done?” Lady Lucy slurred her words, and there was a knife-edge to her voice that indicated the wine had taxed her patience.
“She left, I think.” I ran over to the window, poked my head out into the drizzle. “The boat’s gone. She sailed off somewhere.”
“She took my boat?”
“She must have,” I said.
“You are certain the greenteeth didn’t take her?”
I was certain of nothing, but it made sense that if the greenteeth had drawn her down, she’d have no need for a boat.
I grabbed my jean jacket off the hook, then climbed out the window and onto the balcony. Lady Lucy followed, her billowing hood up against the drizzle. Ocean water lapped at the underside of the balcony. Standing beside the black sea caused my heart to skip. We never went out on the water at night. The despair was too close. The afterlife was too real. The greenteeth were harder to resist. I grabbed the railing to steady myself, leaned out and looked. And there she was. Squirrel with her skinny arms and black tangled curls, chopping into the water with an oar, making steady progress toward the open ocean in Lady Lucy’s tiny rowboat.
Lady Lucy grimaced. “Had I a spell for making difficult children vanish, I’d cast it in an instant.”
“Ignore me,” she said. “I’m bitter. We must follow your sister and bring her home.”
“I’m afraid we’ll have to enlist the aid of my would-be suitor.”
She meant Mr. Cortez, who lived in the building across the street. His balcony was opposite ours, but crowded with flower boxes, where he grew yellow squash and green jalapeños that he’d shared with us in the fall. A warped piece of plywood covered his window, and he moved it aside whenever he needed to exit or let the sunlight in. The glass panes had been broken a few months back by a band of teenagers who fancied themselves pirates. They terrorized the neighborhood for months, boating from window to window, smashing glass with baseball bats. Ravaging living rooms for Michelob Light and Slim Jims. Dealing out bruises and broken bones. The rascals tried such an assault on Mr. Cortez, and he met them halfway through the window with his pistol. Put a bullet between one pair of beady pirate eyes. That was enough to send the others paddling away with their lives and nothing more. Lady Lucy jokingly called him Cortez the Killer. She got the name from some old song. That was the last we heard of pirates. They might have continued their crimes, but if so, they’d sailed to another neighborhood.
Lady Lucy called. “Mr. Cortez. Are you awake? We require your assistance.”
The plywood board covering his window slid aside, and he peered out. “What’s the matter?”
He wore a smashed cowboy hat and a blue pearl-snap shirt. His chin and cheeks were furred with gray, and his skin bore the deep cuts of time. Wrinkles and spots and old-man bruises. But his eyes were friendly, and they shone bright as a lighthouse in a storm every time he saw Lady Lucy.
“One of my little darlings has sailed away, and we need to retrieve her before…”
Lady Lucy didn’t need to continue. We all understood what came after before. I motioned up the street, and Mr. Cortez saw Squirrel paddling madly, growing smaller every second.
Cortez the Killer did not hesitate.
“We’ll take my boat.”
He nearly tipped the rowboat over scrambling into it. His long gabardine slacks were tucked into his cowboy boots, like he’d been out walking through the scrub brush.
Old habits, I guess.
Mr. Cortez rowed across to our balcony, helped us into the boat. He smelled of clove cigarettes and sandalwood cologne. He wore his pistol in a leather holster. When we were situated, he shoved off from the balcony with his oar, and Bathory leapt from the railing and positioned himself at the bow. Moonlight painted the water and caught fire in the cat’s eyes.
“A cat on a boat brings good luck,” said Lady Lucy.
Mr. Cortez huffed. “I’ve heard the opposite.”
Cortez the Killer had struck an uneasy peace with Bathory, one the cat often broke with tooth and claw. Lady Lucy told Squirrel that Cortez was a werewolf, and Bathory was an ancient vampire king who’d paid a withered crone to channel his essence into the body of a cat so he might live forever. And, of course, there is old enmity between vampires and werewolves, so why would the two of them have anything but disdain for one another?
“Bathory has already brought us luck,” said Lady Lucy.
“How do you figure?” asked Mr. Cortez.
“Bathory shows himself and the clouds part. We are on a night hunt. Now the moon lights our way.”
“The better to see you with, my dear.”
“Do you intend to eat us, Mr. Cortez?”
“No, I don’t believe I will.”
“Splendid. Then let us proceed.”
And we did, Mr. Cortez at the stern, paddling, Lady Lucy in the middle, whispering spells into the night with tears in her eyes. Drink and darkness made Lady Lucy melancholy, but it was more than that. Muted singing carried across the surface of the water; greenteeth songs were always sad. I ran my fingers through Bathory’s fur, took comfort in the low rumble of his purring. Squirrel grew smaller against the black horizon, and if not for the moon and the candlelit windows on either side of the street, she’d have vanished entirely. We were a year removed from the hurricane, from the day our parents were taken, and in all that time Squirrel and I had never been apart.
We were a matched set, me and Squirrel.
I wasn’t sure either of us could exist without the other.
The boat cut a path between two palm trees, fronds poking up above the surface of the water. Somewhere below was my mother’s bakery, my father’s auto repair shop, the weedy alleys where Squirrel and I chased one another on bicycles, and the convenience store where we bought fried burritos and orange sodas. Somewhere below was the low-slung pink bungalow where we’d lived until the water came in a rush and erased our lives. The four of us had made it onto the roof, but that wasn’t high enough. Our parents sent Tina up the oak tree that leaned out over the house; she moved up it fast as a squirrel, earned the nickname I gave her. I followed, feeling the whipcrack of the wind against my cheeks. Then the water broke over the roofline of the house like a conquering army. Our parents were gone in a moment. We told everyone the greenteeth drew them down, like that was a better way to go than dying in the storm. Regardless, we never saw them again, though I was afraid one day we might.
Mr. Cortez navigated between buildings, their windows glowing with candlelight. Occasional faces peered out, likely certain we traveled to our doom. It was a couple of miles from the bookstore to what used to be the shoreline, and the water ahead rippled with fish or with greenteeth; I couldn’t say which. Nothing broke the surface, but the air smelled like a beached whale left to die in the sunshine. Bathory clawed at the cold air, hissed at the horizon.
“Bathory insists you paddle faster,” said Lady Lucy.
Mr. Cortez had already worked up a sweat, and I was certain we were traveling as fast as his strength could carry us.
“I won’t take orders from a cat,” he said.
“Bathory is more than a cat.”
“We agree on that,” he said. “He’s something worse. I’ve seen that animal lap up a saucer of warm blood.”
“You have not.”
“Well, I saw him drink something.”
“Call in the witchfinder.”
Mr. Cortez smiled. “You know I bow to your whims, Lady, but the cat can go hang.”
Bathory hissed again, but this time with more urgency, and he drew our attention to the water ahead.
A face broke the surface.
It was a greentooth woman with her chin barely above water, long hair trailing in the current. Green moss grew along her teeth, clogged her nostrils, and rimmed her eyes, like the stuff had taken root inside her and was working its way out. She was bloodless. Ashen. Her mouth opened wide in song, and the sound burrowed into my chest. Cut my nerve. The oar stopped, and Cortez the Killer had his pistol in hand. Would a bullet harm a greentooth? Lady Lucy often compared them to sirens, creatures who sang sailors down to their deaths, except the greenteeth were different. They wore the faces of people you knew. They weren’t monsters. They were the dead come back to help us cross over. Mr. Cortez mumbled in Spanish, eyes wide and teary. And a name appeared on his lips, one he repeated over and over: Marta, Marta, Marta.
Cortez the Killer was transfixed. I thought of Miracle on her balcony, waiting to be drawn down while Lady Lucy watched. Mr. Cortez holstered his gun, turned the boat so that the greentooth woman floated right alongside.
Marta, Marta, Marta.
He put a trembling hand out over the water, nearly close enough to touch her, like he wanted to make sure she was real. I believe he’d have left us there, climbed out into the water and allowed himself to be taken down, if not for Lady Lucy.
She put her hands on his cheeks, cupped his face, and drew his eyes to hers. “Today is not the day to follow, sweet one. Your Marta will be there for you. When you’re ready. You have reason to live yet.”
Mr. Cortez closed his eyes, kept them closed tight until finally the greentooth woman sank below the waterline. The itchy feeling of her enchantment relented, and he pressed his face against Lady Lucy’s neck and cried.
“Can you paddle us for a bit, Rowdy?” she asked.
She handed me the oar, and I did my best to get us moving again in the right direction.
“It was my wife,” said Mr. Cortez.
“I know,” said Lady Lucy. “I met her a few times before the storm.”
“Of course. I’d forgotten,” said Cortez. “She loved to read. Nothing fancy, though. Trashy romances. Horror novels with blood and skulls on the cover.”
“A woman after my own heart.”
Mr. Cortez wiped his eyes with a shirtsleeve and straightened his hat so it fell at the correct, rakish angle. I’d overheard enough of their conversations to know Marta had been one of the first storm survivors to be drawn down by the greenteeth. Their grandkids had been visiting for the summer when the water came and carried both children away. That loss broke Marta, and when they came bobbing up at her balcony, singing a nursery song she’d taught them from her own childhood, she followed without a second thought.
“Rowdy, have a care,” said Lady Lucy. “You’re splashing about with that oar, and my cloak is getting wet.”
The rain had started in earnest again, and I figured my splashing was the least of her worries, but I wasn’t one to argue.
“I don’t want to die,” said Mr. Cortez. “Not yet.”
“Of course you don’t,” said Lady Lucy. “That’s why I stopped you.”
“But I should want to die, shouldn’t I? They’re all gone. And here I am, with you. I should have let her take me.”
“You should do precisely what you wish. The dead have no say in our lives apart from what we give them.”
Bathory climbed over Lady Lucy’s lap and squeezed in beside Mr. Cortez. He scratched the scruff of Bathory’s neck, in spite of himself.
Lady Lucy had a story about the greenteeth. It started with a hurricane so bad everybody remembered it a hundred fifty years later. Close to ten thousand dead, and the worst thing to happen to the island until last year, when the ocean swallowed it up for good. She believed Galveston was a place where the dead never left. They just waited. She called the greenteeth embodiments of our collective despair, which I took to mean they were there to make sure we never forgot we’d be with them one day, beneath the waves. The storm we survived changed the island’s nature, thinned the barrier between life and afterlife. I wasn’t sure if the Lady’s take on the greenteeth was as fanciful as her other stories, but it was one we believed.
The greenteeth never took anyone by force. But they were there to help you die, whenever you were ready.
I paddled harder, hoping Squirrel wasn’t ready.
I had no desire to leave this world yet, no matter the weight of my memories. But anxiety kept reminding me that tragedy burdens us all in different ways, and there was really no way of knowing how close Squirrel was to leaving all of this behind.
We reached what used to be the shoreline. The Hotel Galvez rose high above the water, several of its stories consumed forever by the sea. Debris crowded against the walls of the old hotel: shredded bits of wood that used to be a pier; the partial arc of a fallen Ferris wheel; street signs and broken concrete and coils of electrical line.
Squirrel was closer now. The water became choppy, and she had to slow her pace. Dozens of greenteeth swam in the deep waters, circling her boat, heads poking above the surface like shark fins. They sang their ghost songs. Cried with grief. The sounds they made carried over the surface of the water like slow winter fog, and froze my insides.
“They won’t harm her,” said Lady Lucy. “And they won’t take her unless she wants to go.”
“Okay, but what if she does?”
“Squirrel isn’t ready to go yet,” she said. “Oh, she’s bored out of her skull like most of us. But there’s still a whole lot left for her to accomplish in life. Might be she wants to leave and go to the mainland when she gets a bit older. I don’t think I’m ever moving on from here. This is my home, flooded or not, and it always will be. But you can take her. Better than living out your life in a cave of books with an old lady who drinks too much. And besides, I know for certain Squirrel has no intention of letting the greenteeth draw her down today. Bathory assures me that is not her intention.”
“Bathory is a cat.”
“Bathory is my familiar.” Our expedition had shaken her sober, but her dark mood still loomed like a storm cloud, ready to unleash a torrent if provoked.
“Lady Lucy, I appreciate you trying to make me feel better, but we need to get to Squirrel.”
“Have I asked you to stop rowing?” she asked.
“Well then, continue apace. And I will tell you a story. It begins with once upon a time.”
“Of course it does.”
Lady Lucy ignored my impatient tone and continued. “Once upon a time, there lived a sad drunk named Lucy who ruled an entire kingdom of books, but was forever thwarted in her pursuit of love. Not for lack of trying, you understand. She was no longer young, and no longer beautiful, if she’d ever been so in the first place, but she had a mind sharp as a samurai sword and certain skills with the dark arts, and so she whipped up a potion in an orange Tupperware mixing bowl and called out to the universe to send her someone to love. And whether by spell or by happenstance, a woman named Marjorie walked into her store the next day, with a midnight-black cat cradled in her arms. The cat’s eyes flashed blood-red and Marjorie’s eyes were deep blue oceans, and Lady Lucy knew that a miracle had happened. Her dream now walked in waking hours. And they were happy, Lady Lucy and her miracle. Marjorie carried a heavy grief, having lost her only child some years before, but her grief and the Lady’s sadness bookended a shared peace when they were together, and for a time they were content.
“But then the water came. A neglected world revolted. And what does the universe care about true love? Lucy and Marjorie moved their lives to higher ground, and even then, the Lady was certain her spell would hold. Their melancholy was enough to sustain them. They read passages from The Tombs of Atuan to one another. Sang mournful songs like “Going to California” and “Black Hole Sun.” They crafted joy from nothing. But Marjorie’s grief was so close to the surface. It was hard to resist. And eventually she couldn’t.
“I’ve told you about Miracle going into the water, but sweet Bathory, with his old soul, helped me understand it was her choice. There was no love I could give greater than the one she’d lost. Who would I be if I stopped her? But less than a fortnight after Miracle left, Bathory spotted my little darlings at the window, with their empty bellies and their sinking boat. Scavengers barely holding on to life. He bid me invite you in, and here we are. A sort of family. All of this is to say, when you have loved someone so very near to death, you come to understand what it looks like. And I promise you, our darling Squirrel is nowhere close to giving up her ghost.”
That may be as close as Lady Lucy ever came to telling her true story, though who can say. It didn’t matter. Our stories were all we had left. Even if they weren’t true, they were still ours.
“Thank you, Lady,” I said.
“Thank Bathory,” she said. “If not for his benevolence, you might still be scratching at my window, begging to be let in.”
We drew within fifty yards of Squirrel’s boat. Cortez the Killer took back the oar, and we soon bridged the distance. Greenteeth swarmed in the water, popped their heads up to look, then dived back down. There were dozens. Squirrel’s tiny boat rocked in the wake of their passage, and she sat motionless. My worries grew teeth. As soon as Mr. Cortez had us alongside Squirrel’s boat, I climbed into it, put my arms around her. But holding her did little to calm my distress. Squirrel’s heart raced. She was hyperventilating. She felt insubstantial, ready to slip away from me again. A pair of greenteeth floated ahead of the boat, commanded Squirrel’s attention, and no matter what Bathory might think, she was drawn to them. A man and a woman. Faces flooded with grief and voices full of static. One had eyes with my same shade of green, and another had long black curls that matched Squirrel’s. And I understood. They looked so much like our parents; how could Squirrel not have followed them? Those faces seemed so familiar, like faded photograph versions of the people our parents had been, but when I looked closer, when I forced myself to see them as they were, and not as I wanted them to be, I knew for certain these were other souls.
Our parents were close, though. I knew that much.
They watched us every day through Lady Lucy’s window. They pressed their ears against the glass in the deep night, listened to our cackling laughter and our arguments. They drifted just below the water’s surface, in the land of the dead, but within easy reach. So, yeah, they were close. But the greenteeth floating in front of us were strangers. We’d see our parents again someday, but if I knew one thing for certain, it was they’d never want either of us to follow them down below until we’d had a chance to live our lives.
“It’s not them, Tina.”
She wouldn’t stop shaking, wouldn’t look away from the faces in the water. They offered a cold, wet death, and I knew how hard I would fight to keep her from leaving me.
“Tina, listen to me. It’s Rowdy. It’s Adam.”
“I found them,” she said. “Mom and Dad.”
“That’s not them. Look at me, please.” I turned her to face me. I gave her a gentle shake, like I was trying to wake her up in time for school.
“Yeah, it’s me.”
The greenteeth kept singing, but Squirrel rubbed her eyes and slowed her breathing. The effects of the song began to fade.
“I don’t think it’s them,” she said.
“You’re safe, Tina.”
She shook her head. “God, I’m stupid.”
“You’re not stupid.”
Squirrel started to cry. She hugged me. Held on tight, like she hadn’t entirely escaped the greenteeth’s pull.
“They swam by,” she said, “and I could have waked you, but I didn’t want you to die. And I guess I don’t either, but I needed to see them. They just passed by so fast, and it was like they were leaving again, and I didn’t know what to do. And now all of you, having to come out here. I’m so sorry.”
“Nothing is okay, Adam,” she said. “I miss them.”
“They’ll be there, when you’re ready. But you’re not ready, right? You don’t want to go to them?”
Squirrel looked back at the creatures in the water, and I held my breath, hoping the allure was not too much for her to resist. Hoping she felt life had more to offer her than death.
“No, not today,” she said.
“I’m glad to hear it,” I said. “Can we go home?”
“We don’t have a home.”
“Maybe not our old home, but we have someplace we’re welcomed. Come on, okay? Lady Lucifer and her devil cat have missed you an awful lot.”
“What did you call me?” asked Lady Lucy.
Squirrel held back a grin. I felt something loosen inside her, and she no longer seemed to be slipping away. “Thank you. All of you.”
Cortez the Killer doffed his hat. “Always at your service, little Squirrel.”
Lady Lucy had a tight grip on the gunwale of our boat, afraid perhaps we’d drift off the edge of the world and she’d have to follow. “We were given very little choice. Bathory was quite insistent. And as you well know, he is not to be trifled with.”
Bathory hissed a storm and Lady Lucy whispered a few ancient spells, and eventually the two greenteeth vanished into the sea. All the others followed. Squirrel handed me her oar, and I paddled us toward our neighborhood. Cortez the Killer set a pace right behind us, and our travels home were untroubled by pirates or dead memories.
After that day, Mr. Cortez became a regular visitor to the book cave, and despite loud objections, Lady Lucy and Bathory both appreciated his company. Squirrel and I began to plan. We discussed places we might travel when we were old enough to fend for ourselves. I suggested someplace with snowcapped mountains, where rising tides would never trouble us, but Squirrel insisted on a city with an amusement park, and of course there was no reason to limit ourselves. We had a lifetime to explore. We settled in with our new family and made the book-stuffed apartment the best home we could. We’d sing all our sad songs, and Lady Lucy would recite epic poems. Cortez the Killer would tell us time and again about the pirate raid, but no two tellings were ever the same. Squirrel would dig through the shelves, finding books Lady Lucy had forgotten she owned, including a history of that long-ago hurricane that leveled the island, and how everyone came together then, to rebuild what was lost. Squirrel and I would drink cans of flat Dr. Pepper while Cortez the Killer sipped whiskey, and Lady Lucy grew maudlin from her wine. We’d stay up deep into the night, sharing memories of those who’d gone. Mom and Dad. Miracle and Marta. We told stories to keep them close.
Stories, maybe, to keep them away.
And some of those stories, though certainly not all of them, were true.