“Find us a car,” I tell Jack. He stares at me for a moment, but leaves without a word, as if this is all somehow inevitable. I don’t know why he keeps coming back; we’re not lovers. I’m not even sure we’re friends.
He reappears in due course behind the wheel of a huge Buick, red and old, which creaks as it pulls up by the curb. He leans across the vast trackless expanse of the front seat, crossing oceans and continents, and opens the passenger door. I don’t know why he does that kind of thing. He must know how much it pisses me off.
“Get in,” he says. Rain pours down my face, tasting of chemicals. It soaks through my hair and through the fabric of my shirt. I should be cold.
I stare at him through the rain. He’s wearing a hat. He must have found it with the car. It’s a bowler hat—or a fedora, or something like that—and it must be fifty years old. It’s as old as the car. I can picture the hat and the car wrapped around their dead owner, down in the watery dark. Jack stares at me, patient as stones, and the wind picks up, and he doesn’t say a word.
I think he’s doing me a favor, but it’s hard to be sure.
“A man died in this car,” I tell him, sliding in. The leather seat sticks to the wet skin of my legs, and when I look down at it I can see spiderwebs of cracks extending like veins through the seat cushion. The carpet on the floorboard is wet, and a dank, aquatic smell fills the air.
“It’s not the car’s fault,” he says, as we drive away. The car sways as it moves, rocking from side to side in the deep, wet grooves of the highway.
I want to say something cruel, about the hat or the car or traffic accidents or Cleveland, but I stop myself. I need him to drive.
He knows he has the upper hand. He’s wearing the stupid hat, and when he looks at me his right eyelid flickers shut in a conspiratorial wink, as if he understands all kinds of things that I’m still a little unclear on. He grins at me from time to time, warm and sly and silent, all the way to Florida.
This is a story about alligators. Scaly things that live in canals, tucked away in orderly rows at the end of streets built on reclaimed marshland. Most of the time they’re harmless, lurking on the banks, soaking up the sun, eating a few unlucky things that stumble into their path. Every now and then, though, a big storm washes up and overflows the canals, and water spills out onto the streets, carrying the alligators with it. It’s not the canals’ fault that they can’t contain all that water. The land was always supposed to be marshland. The canals are just going back to their native state, rising up and spreading out, covering the land we thought we’d stolen fair and square. It’s not their fault we built houses where mangroves should have been.
And the alligators. It’s not their fault, either. They wash up out of their quiet, straight-edged world into a whole universe of canal, spreading as far as their lizard eyes can see. God’s gift of wetland, full of rusting trucks and floating dogs. If they occasionally eat a few things that they find there, well, it’s not really their fault. It’s just what they are.
Alligators are simple creatures. They don’t love, or mourn, or dream. All they do is swim and eat.
He pulls the car up in front of a rundown house that I don’t recognize. Sheetmetal roof, overgrown weeds in the front yard, small yard buildings leaning drunkenly against one another. A small dog runs up, yapping.
I never pictured a dog. I never imagined much of anything, really. The dog coalesces out of the rain as he runs toward us, tufts of fur sticking up at odd angles, small and wet and real. It’s almost too much to bear.
“Are you sure this is it?” I ask, leaning forward to see past the crack in the windshield. He shrugs.
“This is where the road goes,” he says. Jack understands roads, but only in the rain. “Are you going to do this, or not?”
I get out of the Buick, that huge metal dinosaur, and stand there in the mud. The grass is waterlogged from the ever-present rain. It’s led us here, all the way down the coast, trailing arms of low pressure leading into the spinning heart of the storm. I like the rain. It suits my mood.
Jack leans across from the driver’s side, reaching out through the open door. His fingertips are cold where they brush against the inside of my wrist. “Do you want me to come in?” he asks.
“No,” I say, but what I really mean is yes.
“Okay,” he says, and pulls the door shut behind me, sealing himself in from the wind and rain. I envy him, locked away in that huge coffin of glass and steel, safe and silent.
The dog barks again, bouncing and snapping. It’s a terrier of some kind, long-haired and bedraggled like a wet rat. I look at the dog and think about alligators, rising up from the canals with their mouths open.
I’m still fending off the little dog when the door opens. A woman with white-blond hair peers around it, searching for the source of the disturbance. When she sees me, she waves at me through the rain, beckoning me to come in.
“How about this weather?” she asks, as I come inside. Water pours off me in sheets as I pass through the doorway. She’s old and small, thin-boned like a bird or a lizard, with leathery, scaly skin.
“It’s terrible,” I say. The bad winds haven’t started yet, but I don’t say that. I wait for her to ask my name, but she doesn’t. I stand awkwardly in her kitchen doorway, dripping onto the worn linoleum.
“Your friend in the car,” she says, “doesn’t he want to come in? It’s cold and wet out. I’m making coffee.”
“I don’t know what he wants,” I say. “I like mine with milk.”
I’ve never had coffee before, but it doesn’t matter. As the words come out of my mouth, they become true.
“I only have cream,” she says. She looks at me kindly. She still hasn’t asked why I’m here.
She makes the coffee with powdered creamer from a can. The house is full of clutter, and she moves some newspapers off the top of a milk crate, gesturing me to sit.
Everything here is solid and dry. I am out of my element, and I don’t know how to begin.
“You didn’t evacuate for the storm,” I say. It’s not a question, really. The words fill empty space. My hands close around the coffee cup.
“Oh no,” she says. She looks surprised. “I never do. Every few months in the summer, one of these storms comes through, and the wind blows and the canals rise and flood. But it’s just wind and rain. This house has been here fifty years, and it hasn’t floated away yet.” She pauses. “Is that why you’re here? For the evacuations? Because I already told them, I won’t go.”
A lightness passes over me, the intimate cousin of vertigo, and I keep my eyes down. “No,” I say. “Not for the evacuations.”
If I were to look at her face now, I’d see the shadow of impending death. Waterlogged and swollen, bleached and bruised from water damage, recovered by crews days after the water has receded. It’s as real as anything I can lay my hands on, even though it hasn’t happened yet. This is the vision that brought me here, but it’s not why I came. Not exactly.
“Did you know a man named Henry Morgan?” I ask, too abruptly. I have no experience with this kind of thing.
She pauses suddenly, as though I’ve pulled her battery.
“It’s been a long time since I heard that name,” she says. She folds her hands around her coffee cup, measuring out her words like spoonfuls of sugar. “I heard he died a long time ago. In the Philippines or Japan, or some such place.”
“Malaysia,” I say. It was on a mountainside in thick jungle, shivering away from a disease that fled Europe ahead of the rising tide of Western medicine. He died in a shack beside a river, on a bed full of biting insects, dreaming of the Connecticut house he’d lived in when he was young. He’d been too full of fever to remember much, or to regret anything at all. The stolen memory presses in on me, sharp and intimate, tying me to the sodden earth. This is my gift, the same way that Jack has the gift of things that were lost in water.
“Ah,” she says. “Yes.”
I expect her to say something else, but she doesn’t. She just sits there, sipping the coffee which tastes of ash, waiting for me to speak.
“My name is Jillian,” I say, awkwardly. It’s getting hard to concentrate. The air is filling with a vast murmuring, rising up ahead of the approaching storm. The newly dead will float up among the stagnant water, and their voices are already seeping out in all directions, attracting all kinds of things. The storm is starting to spin, and I’m running out of time.
The old woman blinks. Her name is Margaret; I remember that, now.
“Jillian,” she says. “Ah. Yes, it would be, wouldn’t it?”
I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t this. She faces me patiently, calm as the eye of the storm. Outside, the wind is really starting to pick up. A drift of small objects clatters against the side of the house like voices, and the little dog barks.
“Shh,” Margaret says, leaning down to run her hands through the dog’s wet fur. It rubs its head against her leg. I feel sorry for it, suddenly. The water will rise, soon, and this is no time for something so small to face the world alone.
For a single, terrifying moment, I am gripped by the urge to warn her. The words bubble up against my lips like blood, and I have to choke them down.
“Do you know why I’m here?” I ask her, instead. It comes out differently than how I’d meant it to sound, turning into a child’s plea for explanation. Why am I here? I can feel the question tearing its way out of me, a new thing, full of barbs. I keep my face turned away.
When she answers, her voice is gentle, almost distant. “Oh, Jilly,” she says. “I’ve always known you’d come.”
And I do look up, then, and I do see it: the vision that brought me here, leaching out into the world as the storm gets closer, and the waters start to rise. An old woman exhaling herself out into the darkness, calling me by name. I’m not like Jack, who carried the remnants of a whole life down into the water when he fell. My name is the only thing I brought with me. That’s how I knew.
“It’s not what you think,” I tell her. “I didn’t come with a message, or anything. I don’t know why I came.”
Instead of answering, she stands up, putting her coffee down and placing a warm hand over mine. “Here,” she says, kindly. “Let me show you something.”
She leads me down a darkened hallway, lined with framed photographs. I see faces: husbands, dogs, smiling children. Grandchildren. I try to imagine her here in this house, raising children to leave, watching a succession of husbands and dogs die.
In a back room that smells of artificial flowers and dust, Margaret digs a photograph out of a dresser drawer. It’s well-hidden. I know without asking that neither her husbands nor her children ever saw it. I am beginning to know all kinds of things.
“This was Henry,” she says, passing it to me. “Your father.”
It shows a young man in high-contrast black-and-white, wearing a uniform and a tilted hat. He looks a little like Cary Grant, but with larger ears and a smile more eager than self-assured. I’ve never seen him before, but I know that it’s him.
Looking at the picture, I feel myself inflating with memories of things that I’ve never seen. A flood of images rises up, floating loose. A dance, held in a big canvas tent. The taste of licorice, and of harsh, illegal whiskey. Cold leather and the itch of lace, frantic fingers and warm breath, steaming up the windows. Arousal. Nausea. Loneliness. Long months of waiting, and a quick retreat, and longer years of regret. Things I’ve never known and never will, except like this.
I sit down on the edge of the bed, cradling the photograph in my hands. I’ve seen so many lives, flickering past at the moment of death. I’ve opened my mouth and drunk them down. But I never lived a single one.
“I loved him a great deal,” Margaret says, quietly.
When I look around the room, I see that it’s true. The weight of her love coats everything, layer upon layer, like dust gathering in all the corners of her life. It catches in my throat.
I am fragile, compared to this. Just bits and stolen pieces, already unravelling.
“He tried to call you once,” I tell her, grasping desperately at the sea of images for the right ones. Memories bite at me, rising up from the depths. “From Manitoba, a few weeks after he was reassigned, after he got your letter. He was drunk on cheap black-market bourbon, and he couldn’t remember your number. But he did try.”
She starts to shake, like the ground giving way. I imagine that I can see pieces of muscle and bone falling away beneath her skin, and I wonder what kind of love it is that lasts like this, through so many silent years.
I find myself thinking of Jack, waiting out there in the car. Jack never loved anyone, and I never had the chance.
“Thank you,” she says at last. Her eyes are wet. Rising water in the canals. Everything overflows, sooner or later.
Is this why I came?
Outside I can hear the wind howling, beating at the walls. The building is shaking under the strain, and the shadows are falling hard across her face. Her skin seems pale and bloodless, now, as though she’s only half-attached to it.
Margaret pulls herself together, wiping both eyes with the tips of her fingers.
“I’m ready to go now,” she says. I can see her death all around her, waiting to cover her like a shroud. The fragmentary pieces of her life are already slipping through my fingers, and in their place I am left with a hollow feeling that I cannot name.
She thinks I’ve come to let her make amends, to carry her up to heaven to take her place among the beloved dead. I taste cherry cola, fizzing against my tongue. I want to tell her that I don’t know anything about the other side of the river. I want to tell her how I died, and how long ago.
“I’m not here to save you,” I tell her. I’m not like that. I’m not good. I’m not anything. I was too young.
She stares at me, watery eyes fixed with blank incomprehension. At last, I’ve said something that surprises her.
“I just came-” I stop, and spread my hands, because I don’t know what else to say. To witness, is how I put it to Jack, but that was a lie. The truth is beating its way up through my throat. I took things, just a few things, because I didn’t have any of my own. Because I was hungry. Because I was so tenuous that I would have blown away long ago without the extra weight to hold me down. I haven’t been good.
“I hope you lived a good life.” She rubs her hands, one across the other, and looks at me as if she’s trying to forgive me. “I hope-”
And how can I tell her? I was born, and relinquished, and I died. There was nowhere to go, so I held on. You eat what you can find, alone in the dark. You hold on to what you can grab.
This is why I came.
The wind wails outside. Through the far window, I see a dark expanse of water rising around the bases of the palm trees in the back yard. I want to tell her that it’s going to be okay, but I don’t think that’s true.
“Jilly,” she says, “I’m so sorry.”
Her story suffuses the air around her like a cloud, full of the rich taste of memory and life. I feel hunger, slipping in like an old friend. I could eat and be full. And even as I think that, I know I’m not the only one who’s noticed.
I feel things getting closer, following the scent of death, and for no good reason I find myself thinking of Jack, out there in his car with the water rising. He never should have come here, I realize. It’s terribly dangerous, even for us. The storm is too big for things that live by clinging to the banks.
She stands before me, wrinkled and fragile, nervous and earnest and hopeful, and as I search for the right thing to say to her I realize that it’s not just her story that’s getting ready to spill out into the water like blood. It’s also mine.
I never had anything of my own before.
“Come with me,” I tell her. The decision coalesces in my mouth as the words come out. “There might still be time to leave, if we hurry.”
I don’t know if such a thing is possible. I don’t stop to think.
“Let me gather a few things,” she says. I can’t bring myself to tell her that she won’t be needing them.
When I open the front door, Jack is waiting on the step, soaked to the skin, leaning into the protection of the wall beside him. Wind howls around him, beating at the edges of the building.
“Change of plans,” I tell him. “She’s coming with us.”
“I don’t think so,” he says. He holds out an arm to block the doorway. His eyes are dark, and full of terrible compassion.
“I only want to bring her away from here. Just out of the storm, where things are quiet. Where she can be safe.”
“This wasn’t part of the deal,” he says. His voice is gentle, but firm. He’s already done so much for me. “We’re just passing through. We came to witness, nothing more.”
Behind him, fingers of dark water creep up through the sodden grass, lips and eyes and teeth. The canals have filled. The canals are overflowing. The wind combs through trees and buildings, and the water is rising, coming closer and closer.
“Please.” I meet his eyes, searching for the warmth I’ve always found there. “Please. Then I’ll stay and look after her. It’s not too late.”
“It doesn’t work like that,” he says. “They’ll come for her, whether you’re here or not. She’ll have to take her chances on her own, just like everyone else.”
The water rises. I can see them, spilling over the edges of the canal. Baby alligators on new legs, scaly and quick, scuttling up from the brown depths. There isn’t much time. I can feel myself slipping, becoming insubstantial. Soon I’ll be light enough to wash away.
“It’s just that it’s so much worse, in a storm like this,” I say, pleading softly. When things like us are free to roam. This is why we came. It’s why we could come.
“I know,” he says. “But if we don’t leave soon, we won’t be able to.” And I see that he’s pleading, too.
He takes my hand, then, curling his fingers around mine. His touch is light and cold, and I’m not really surprised when he leans forward to kiss me. I breathe him in, open-mouthed, and his tongue brushes against mine like a sea creature, down in the quiet depths of the ocean. I wonder what his story will be, when he finds it.
“I’m sorry,” I tell him, when we break apart. “But I’m going to take my chances with the alligators.”
I see the shadow of it in his face then, for the first time. The restless clenching of sharp teeth. Scales.
“You’re either with them or against them,” he warns. “They won’t be kind.”
“I know,” I tell him. Of course I know. What else have we been doing, all this time? I feel something new, weighting my chest in a place which has always been empty before. Perhaps it’s shame. I can’t imagine that it’s hope. “You should go, while you still can.”
It might already be too late. Behind him, I can see the water lapping at the floorboards of the big Buick. Soon it will be too high to drive. All kinds of things float loose in such a terrible current, and the tide which covers the dry earth for long enough to let us loose is also strong enough to sweep us away entirely. Murders and suicides, and the ones who never lived long enough to become anything at all. Who would notice if a few go missing?
Margaret places a hand on my arm, warm and dry. “Jilly,” she says, “don’t be staying just to keep an old woman company in the rain. I’m no fool. I know I don’t have much longer. It’s enough that you came.”
She’s small and upright in the doorway, smiling faintly, as if she’s already halfway gone. Maybe she really did know I was coming. I wonder if that’s what the vision meant, that called me here from so far away. Maybe this is what happens when you get close enough to earth. Maybe you sit in your house and wait for your last ghosts to come home, to say goodbye.
I try not to think of sharp teeth crunching her frail bones, or mine.
That’s the thing about dying. The body doesn’t matter much. It’s what happens afterward, when you’re standing naked on the bank, waiting for passage. Sometimes the boat gets there first, and sometimes it’s the alligators.
I take a deep breath, and turn back to Jack. “Go,” I tell him, breaking my hand free of his, and pushing him away. “Hurry.”
He still doesn’t move, torn by some terrible indecision. His jaw clenches, and there’s a bright light in his eyes. The water is pooling around his feet, now, lapping against the bottom step. It’s far too late for this.
“No regrets,” I tell him. I lean forward, brushing my lips against his. “Thank you.”
He runs a hand through his hair. Rivers of water fall down between his fingers. I’ve known him long enough to know when he’s planning to do something stupid.
“I could hold them back,” he says, awkwardly. “Long enough for you both to make it across.”
Something shatters inside me, and I meet his brown eyes. Deep as the river. After so long, it would break me to reach the other side without him.
I want to tell him he’s a fool. I want to tell him that I’m not worth anything at all, and certainly not this. There are a thousand things I want to say, but Jack’s looking at me with that terrible light in his eyes, and I can’t speak. Water rises up over my head, pouring out of my eyes. Everything overflows. We are so full of stories, all at once, now that we’re all out of time.
Jack brushes his fingers across my cheek.
“It’ll be okay,” he says, though I know it isn’t true. I know what will happen to him when we’re gone.
“Liar,” I tell him.
But he just shoots me that slow, heart-stopping grin, and it’s only then that I realize that he, too, is in the process of becoming something else. I feel the last pieces of myself breaking away.
I’m nothing, now. Not even an alligator. Only a ghost, weighed down by the last shreds of stolen lives, standing naked at the edge of the river.
“It’s time to go,” Margaret says, distant and clear. Her eyes are fixed in the middle distance, as though she can see something other than the rain. I take her hand. It’s small and fragile in my own.
It’s so easy to cut the strings. She falls away as if she weighed nothing at all. I gather what’s left in my arms to keep it safe.
“Let me do this,” Jack says. Something moves near his feet, flicking from side to side in the dark water.
He steps backward.
“Jillian, you better run.”
Alligators don’t think much about the river. It just is. They could swim to the other side any time they like, but mostly they lie in the sun on the bank that’s easiest to reach, trailing a tail in the water, waiting for something to stumble by. They don’t change, and they don’t ask questions. It’s not in their nature. They scatter when the boat comes, and they don’t tell stories.
Astrid Atkinson is a writer and artist living in northern California. Her prior publications mostly involve software documentation.
I was inspired to write this story during a visit to Florida, during which we drove across the state on tiny backroads that threaded through former marshland. The roads parallel drainage canals, which are lined with thousands of baby alligators.