Eighty thousand dollars for the woman with the singing teeth—that was the deal. Give or take the woman.
Eighty thousand dollars was more money than Rocky and Kay had ever had all at once, more than even either of their parents had ever had all at once, and so they figured it was a fair enough trade. Clear. Straightforward. Done. Now the only problem was to find the woman in question and, fortunately for them, it wasn’t much of a problem. Kay had lived down the street from her for the better part of twenty years.
The old woman’s name was Mars, and Kay had always felt sorry for her because of it. Kay had been plenty bored with her own name growing up, seeing as it was little more than a letter, but at least it wasn’t Mars. When it came to her own children, Kay promised herself she’d never stoop to naming them after something as ridiculous as a candy bar. And Kay planned on having lots and lots of children.
“Children,” she often told Rocky, “are the world’s greatest joy. The world’s hope is in the pearly hearts of little children.”
What Kay didn’t know was that it was never going to happen.
She was built well enough for bearing children, sure; even her own father was known to comment that she had the hips for it. Kay was one of those women whose face stayed young-looking while the rest of them filled out fast and then kept on filling. By nineteen, she had an ass that looked like it was trying to dribble a basketball every time she went walking.
It was Rocky who was the problem, though he didn’t know it. Somewhere along the line, wires had gotten crossed inside of him and things didn’t work the way they were meant to. He’d had surgeries to fix the issue of his lungs trying to be intestines and his intestines bellowing hard to work as lungs, but the doctors had never thought to ask themselves whether or not his appendix might be trying to generate semen while his testicles only sat there dumbly in their sac.
They tried getting pregnant many, many times, until their sex wasn’t fun no matter what position they were in: missionary, cowgirl, reverse cowgirl, rocking horse, rocking pretzel, the swing— It all became just a series of mechanical motions, the round peg going in the round hole at a certain round time of each round month. All in hopes of Kay finally becoming round herself.
So when the deal for the singing teeth fell into their laps, it seemed less like a crime and more like a sign from on High: Bring me the teeth, and I’ll bring you a baby.
Thinking of it that way made everything seem fairly simple. With eighty thousand dollars in the bank and God’s own blessing in their underwear, Rocky and Kay didn’t see the kidnapping of a strange old woman; they only saw their ticket to affording a fine house in which to one day bring up their inevitable litter of children, every one of them as confused and voluptuous as themselves.
And who’d ever miss the old Mars woman anyhow? What was she in the face of such a wholesome, God-given dream?
Mars lived out at the edge of town, a hunched, hairy thing who didn’t like seeing people and who most people avoided seeing anyway. And while there wasn’t much known about her apart from the obvious things—the witchy moles popping out of her chin; the peculiar knobbiness of her toes around her old, homemade flip-flops; the countless sailor tattoos that wrapped up and down her wrinkled arms—there was one exceptional fact that everyone seemed agreed on, though they could never exactly say why or how they came to know it: The old Mars woman had an entire thirty-two piece set of wild, singing teeth.
Of course, Mars was no fool, so when Rocky and Kay came knocking at her door with a gun in one hand and pliers in the other, she made sure not to answer. Still, a door is only a door, and hers was almost as old as she was, so the hinges gave in without putting up hardly any fight at all.
Not Mars, though. She was better and stronger than every single one of the world’s pushover hinges, and when she fought, she fought hard.
“All we want is your teeth!” Rocky said, and then Kay said, and then Rocky said again.
“They’re my teeth!” the old woman roared, clicking the big chompers together. “They’re mine and they only sing for me! They only sing for their momma!”
But Kay and Rocky kept fighting her anyway and Mars kept fighting them back, scratching and swinging and throwing whatever she could get her gnarled, arthritic hands on.
As it turned out, she was able to get her hands on quite a lot since she’d long ago taken to stashing weapons randomly around the house. At first the practice had been the precaution of an old woman living alone, but as she’d aged, it bloomed into something more. It became a sort of single-player game of hide-and-seek, something to both amuse and keep her on her toes. She might remember, for example, that she’d once purchased a mace or katana online, but then wouldn’t be able to recall where she’d hidden it. Lost in the pursuit, Mars would while away entire days and nights this way, happily rediscovering all the nooks and secrets of her own home.
In the midst of battle, however, Mars’s memory sharpened to a deadly edge and she found herself reaching instinctively for this weapon and that, knowing precisely under which coat she’d hidden her nunchucks and behind which sofa cushion she’d stuffed her brass knuckles.
Kay and Rocky had only intended to wrestle her down, tie her up, and cart her away. Taking just the teeth seemed like the kind of work a person reserved for a last resort. But after dodging a shotgun blast and taking a boomerang to the head, Rocky decided he was plenty ready for a last resort.
He shot Mars down right there in her own kitchen.
The bullet ripped clear through her head and shattered the pretty painted teapot that sat high on the window sill behind her, revealing a cache of small throwing stars she’d tucked away on her previous birthday. The stars clattered into the sink. The glass and porcelain screamed away from the shot, flying everywhere—but not Mars. She didn’t scream or wail or even cry as she was blown open and exposed to the world. She only bled as she fell backward, suddenly lifeless as the tiles she landed on.
Pearl diving—that’s what Rocky called it, his own pervy little joke. But strangely, that’s almost what it felt like to Kay as she worked on wrenching the teeth up, one by painstaking one. She was hunting for pearls.
She’d started by simply trying to pull them out with the pliers but, even dead, Mars’s gums gripped each molar white-tight. After ten minutes of it, Kay stood, took a blade from the old woman’s knife block, and began carefully paring the thick gum-flesh away from each crown and root as a way of loosening them up. Spit and blood drooled everywhere, but Kay didn’t mind too much. She didn’t see that she had any other recourse.
But even with the knife and pliers, the work of collecting Mars’s singing teeth was no easy chore, and Kay found herself resenting Rocky more and more for making her do it all herself.
“I did the killing, you do the yanking,” he said, and wouldn’t hear a single other word on the subject. Kay had tried arguing with him, tried bargaining—This is for your kids too, you know!—but he’d only gone and plunked himself down in front of Mars’s ancient rabbit-eared TV set and turned on what there was to turn on.
Still, resentful or not, Kay couldn’t deny the bizarre kind of thrill she got at finally pryingthe first tooth free. Her arms ached from the effort and her stomach was cramping, but it was all worth it. She nearly started laughing with the relief of it, of knowing it really was all for a higher purpose. Because bloody as it was, difficult as it was, she’d finally done it: From the slimy bed of an old woman’s old pink gums, she’d finally plucked for herself a tiny, perfect pearl.
Kay held the tooth up to catch the sunshine as it fell through the broken window. The tooth gleamed wetly in the light and Kay stared into it just as fortunetellers often stare into crystal balls. It was tiny—far tinier than she’d expected. Far tinier than it’d looked only moments ago when the old biddy had been snarling and cursing and snapping at them. And it was quieter too. Very quiet, Kay thought, for a tooth that was supposed to be singing.
Curious and, for the first time, a little uncertain, she held the tooth up close to her ear and gave a listen.
It was hard to hear it at first over the din of Rocky’s TV show and the way the wind was pulling through the trees outside like some leafy xylophone. But then there it was—a distant pitch, like a whisper through a wall. And once she’d started hearing it, Kay found that she couldn’t stop. The sound existed there in that tooth and, in her hearing it, it’d come to exist in her as well. It sounded…endless, like the churn of a hidden ocean.
A tooth like a seashell, she thought. Except it wasn’t the ocean she heard. Or at least, it wasn’t only the ocean. Because hanging just over that distant-seeming roar, there was another, keener sound. A wild howling that Kay knew would never, never stop.
Her body hummed as she held the singing tooth up against her cheek. It nestled there on her skin like it had found home again. Like it had been searching for her its entire life.
Kay realized only then that she’d been searching for it as well. As much as she’d always longed to be a mother, to hold fresh life inside herself, some part of her had also longed for these singing teeth. The teeth that only sang for mothers.
“Hey, hon!” Rocky called from the living room. Kay sat up quick, startled and embarrassed as if she’d been caught touching herself. “If you get a minute, check and see if the old woman kept any beers in her fridge, would you?”
Yanking out the last of the singing teeth, Kay turned back to Rocky who—after finishing three of Mars’s four beers—had taken to dozing in the old woman’s recliner, the TV still buzzing across from him. Only he wasn’t in the recliner anymore.
She jolted to her feet, her right hand gripping the kitchen knife. She didn’t know what she was going to do when he came in, when he found out, but she knew she’d do whatever she had to.
“Kay, are you finished yet or what?” he asked, yawning as he shambled into the kitchen. The gun hung down at his side like a permanent extension of his arm. “What could possibly be taking—” He stopped solid at the sight of her.
Her entire body was shaking, and her mouth, chin, and hands were all a messy smear of blood and slime.
“Kay?” he said. His own mouth was then much too dry and he felt a horrible pressure twist into his guts. Dazed, he looked down at the old Mars woman sprawled out on the floor. Her head was split wide and toothless as a quartered watermelon. “Kay, what—? Where are the teeth? Where are the singing teeth?”
Kay tried to answer him but couldn’t for all of the shaking and shaking and shaking until finally she broke out into a fit of noise that was almost laughter, but wasn’t. Almost crying, but wasn’t. Almost rattling—and that’s what it was. A rattling.
Like a baby rattle, Rocky thought, and shivered because he didn’t like that thought, not one bit. But once he’d thought the thought, he couldn’t stop thinking it, and the more he watched her jerk and quiver, the more he thought she sounded exactly like a baby’s rattle. Something hollowed out and filled with little loose, jangling pieces.
But if she’s a rattle, he thought, still thinking even despite himself, then who is it that’s rattling her?
Whoever it was, whatever it was, it gave her a particularly hard shake just then—a shake so hard that Kay pitched forward, coughing and sputtering as a tiny white crumb came shooting out from the back of her throat.
“Jesus Christ!” Rocky said. His eyes went wide on Kay and, rather suddenly, so did his gun. Her mouth was alive with blood, and terror flew up in him like a wind-blown flag.
“Rocky,” she said, the old woman’s blood gurgling out and down her chin. “Rocky—”
But she couldn’t get her thoughts to puzzle-piece together in any sensible way, couldn’t even finish her next sentence before everything inside of her was screaming and singing only for that tooth that’d been coughed away. She lunged forward, scrabbling for the lost tooth, and shoveled it back down without a second thought. Dust bunnies and bits of broken teapot all grimed with the blood as she swallowed it down.
“They were singing for me,” she said, looking up at Rocky with all the sincerity of a puppy dog. “They were singing for me, and they only sing for their momma. They needed a mouth again— They needed to be where they could keep singing—”
Rocky aimed the gun in a reflexive, dreamy way, but the fear and absurdity had made him slow. Kay had one delirious thought of the Big Bad Wolf with his big sharp teeth and his stomach full of innocent piggy lives before she was up and burying the kitchen knife deep into Rocky’s gut. The gun let out another noisy shot, but it missed Kay completely, flying out somewhere that was as far as it could get from the blood and the madness of the old Mars house.
Rocky dropped the gun and gripped Kay tight, his eyes bulging and his mouth hanging open. He slumped to his knees. Kay let the knife tear upward as he did so, but he was a tough one through-and-through and the blade couldn’t go too far. But then, of course, it didn’t need to.
The blood made it difficult to speak, gritting up her mouth and mucking up her throat. Still, Kay managed to rasp, “They were singing to me, Rocky. They were singing for me, and they only sing for their momma.”
Kneeling down, she cradled his body there in her lap, holding him and humming the same way her mother had once held and hummed to her. And looking around her then, she thought that maybe she didn’t need all those eighty thousand dollars after all. Maybe she’d already found a suitable nest for herself and her sweet singing teeth, a quiet little house right out at the edge of town.
KC Mead-Brewer is a writer and editor living in beautiful Baltimore, MD. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in Zone 3, Cold Mountain Review, Jersey Devil Press, and elsewhere. For more information, visit: kcmeadbrewer.com or follow her @meadwriter.
Duane Locke lives hermetically in a city called “Tampa, Florida,” that he doesn’t know anything about. He dwells isolated and alone near friendly alligators, gallinules, heron, ibis, egrets.