This story is by Rebecca Reed and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The tooth had run its course, its intended purpose long since passed as anything more than placeholder in the upper rear of her mouth. Jaundiced to a spotty brown, an enormous chip on the side facing the incisors, complete with a split down the chewing plane fashioning the tongue-side half into a swinging saloon door. As a tooth, it had nothing else to give.
She made up her mind. If she were to say goodbye after so many years, multiple procedures, considerable pain, and the bubbled-up abscesses on the gumline appearing before life’s big events, this sort of departure required a parting gift: the tooth must take what she wished to rid herself of along with it.
The obvious culprits first: the bad mojo of old relationships, regrettable purchases on credit, the resume submitted for a position someone younger and unduly educated filled and left after three months to “find themselves” or “seek life’s purpose outside of corporate culture.” Can’t forget the spendy little black dress worn once and afterward found to be so full of tangled memories it never left its hanger again and, of course, without ceremonial sendoff, those stubborn last pounds.
Her faith was strong in this tiny cube of compromised enamel and its underlying burnt-rubble dentin to pack it all up and more, leaving her cleansed, renewed, purified.
“Seriously, you gotta try this,” the proverbial last words a friend-of-a-friend spoke about white-button mint candies consumed simultaneously with cola to cause a cataclysmic, volcanic-type response inside one’s mouth capable of inducing a life-altering experience. A self-inflicted prank certain to give you adolescent street cred if one is willing to ignore the obvious juvenile hubris of it all.
She popped the candy, chewed through its crunchy shell down to the minty, refreshing softness inside. Soda pop followed, slammed in repeated swigs with her eyes squinched closed for the impending doom. Ripples and pops—some more intense than others—occurred riotously, unexpectedly. Was that a crack she felt? This chaos caused her to sputter foamed soda in bursts of caramel-colored lava projected outward, onto the front of her shirt and jeans, then toward the floor where it plopped and splashed onto her favorite shoes. The multitude of micro eruptions subsided, but not before the mixture flowed from her nostrils and caused her eyes to water. A sacrificial loss of dignity without boost in her peer group status. More insidious, unbeknownst to her, the damage was done.
All forgotten and years later, while eating an innocent enough baby carrot, she felt a crashing inward at the rear of her mouth, a sudden change in her oral architecture impossible to dismiss. Cranking her mouth askew at the bathroom mirror revealed the tooth’s grinding surface caved in. An angular chunk of enamel along with a shard of the offending carrot now afloat within a huge and previously undetected cavity formation. Like pinballs zinging around flippers and bumpers inside, every breath, sip and bite caused her to recall the deleterious effects of chewy mints combined with soda.
The dentist’s x-rays revealed exaggerated substrata that supported the tooth. How was it, she asked herself, such an immense foundation could undermine its fragile and exposed counterpart? These sentinels of her toothy kingdom failed their mission miserably. Structurally vulnerable, it required a professional who fiddled with, drilled, then fabricated a blue-white amalgam more brilliant than the natural tooth. What followed was an evolution of sharpening color contrasts as a continued legacy of poor personal decisions. Dismantled and renovated, the composite impeded the tooth’s natural growth, the result of which was a closed but still erosive continuation of what transpired before. Over time, the tooth ate itself.
What sorts of terrible things might happen when one removes their own troubled molar is a subject steeped in urban legend and folklore. Copious bleeding, of course, but as an integral part of the healing process and would usher in better days to follow despite the whistling, open gap from where the evil entity made its exit. Bits of root could remain causing festering infections that languish unhealed. Most horrifying, a cavernous hole up into the sinus called a fistula could form, which is as unsavory a word as the dental community could apply to describe an open and precarious tunnel in close proximity to the brain.
Over time she proclaimed it the Sad Molar. A troubled teen, the kid your parents and guidance counselor warned you about. Always up to something and none of it good and averse to anything productive like smiling. It sat hidden far enough in the back to exist unnoticed until it was full of venomous pain after yet another ill-advised trial of chewing gum, taffy, or gummy bears. The sweetness of life duly limited by the molar’s surly temperament.
Reclined in the examination chair with a headset on, she decided she wanted the dental staff to always select her music for her. She bolted upright at the drumbeat intro of Brian Setzer’s “Rock Boys Rock” and startled the assistant prepping for the procedure. Her mouth packed with cotton soaked in topical numbing agent, she pointed to the earphones and muffled her words. What came out was more like “brain seizure” and “lock eyes lock” which caused her to wheeze laugh, deep and throaty, due to her mouth propped grotesquely wide. Professionally unphased, the assistant told her to relax a bit longer, the doctor would be in momentarily, then beat a quick retreat out the door.
It occurred to her as the effects of the soothing agents co-mingled, she never once received anything more than a dollar from the Tooth Fairy. All of those perfect, white baby teeth, unfettered by the mistakes of living—mistakes outsized and made more complicated over one’s lifetime—for a measly buck. An unfair exchange made worse given the swindling of a naïve child seeking remuneration for a lost tooth.
This moved her to consider an expansion of her list of irritating and unwanted refuse—the stuff that stewed over time, never to return to the way it was originally. Remarkable how it all resembled this tooth: an aggravated tyrannical toddler capable of undermining one’s peace of mind, a fanatic for bad timing, always demanding one’s full attention and cooperation while never quite returning to desired status quo despite the miracles of modern dentistry. The list of things she wished done and gone forever overflowed and the tooth grown to a steamer trunk of past insults against her happiness.
What was the Tooth Fairy doing with all of those teeth, anyway? Is there a market for those empty pearls lacking any of life’s wisdom and devoid of the foibles of insight hard won? Had she herself been a child ornerier than most and therefore, her teeth discounted? Tainted? Put in the half-off bin? In what remote corner of the real world did the Tooth Fairy possess any idea about the purity of her baby teeth?
The door opened and in stepped the oral surgeon and the buoyant assistant, both ready to make this happen. Groggy but adamant, perhaps panicked, “No hoof hairy! Wanna see lah hoof affer!” Placated with assurances having nothing to do with the Tooth Fairy or viewing the evidence of her lifetime of remorse, the induction of dreamy gas ensued.
A squeaky gloved hand fumbled with damp gauze. She dozed awake to the assistant cleaning blood from her lips. What brought her back to earth was a tinny version of Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” the headphones pushed partially away from her ears.
“Lah toof?” sputtering blood to the consternation of the assistant.
“We don’t usually do that.”
“Wha—? Ah wanna see eh. Ah neeh uh see eh!”
The assistant considered, then maneuvered and reached behind the dental chair. There was a noisy shish-shash in a something-hard-against-something-plastic manner and she brought forth the remains of the Sad Molar.
Four bloodied spikes crowned the dismantling of her unseemly past. In shaded rings like those of a tree, an escalation of decay moved upward to their pointed origins. The roots fought a valiant battle. It was the tooth that sabotaged the roots. Shocking in its size and ugliness, hardly worth hanging onto. A gunky, lifeless, and diseased nugget crammed with unworthy bits of her existence. At some future date, she assured herself, she would grow to forget them.
She felt with her tongue inside her upper jaw which was blocked with packs filling with oozing blood. She grabbed at the gauze with both hands as she wobbled and stood.
“No, no, no! You don’t want to—” the assistant too late with the warning.
Once standing she could see the red-plastic biohazard bin on the counter behind the exam chair. Scrawled in curling, handwritten black marker, Tooth Fairy, and a childish drawing resembling a flying, buzzing insect. Out came the plugs of cottony fluff, along with a gush of fresh blood. Her tongue probed the spot, and she was as she hoped: redesigned, realigned, recalibrated.