Like tiny soiled mirrors beneath the pressure of big, heavy shoes, Dana’s braces were so tight she thought they would crack her teeth; but the assistant wasn’t done. She’d only replaced the top ligature—and in a moment would return to finish the job.
Dana closed her eyes. Her tongue couldn’t help but to taste the brand new wire.
Her little brother was screaming from another part of the office. She heard a door open. Someone said, “Ma’am, would you come in here please,” and then the voice of her mother, “I thought he’d be fine,” followed by a long pause, and footsteps that went away behind her. “You said you’d be a Big Kid today,” her mother added a moment later, with a tone of annoyance, an embarrassed type of sympathy for the dentist.
But no one said anything after. Dana could only hear the sobs of her brother, the sniffs, the long and laborious sucks of breath, as though powering up for the second round.
“You have to brush, little miss.”
She opened her eyes. The assistant had come back and was watching her from above, behind clear goggles and a crisp white mask. She looked at a separate piece of wire, eyeballing it. “Huh?” Dana said.
“I said you have to brush. Three minutes,” the assistant replied. She looked at Dana, then at the length of wire again, measuring it with a shiny pair of cutters. “Your mom has a timer,” she asked, “for cooking? For eggs? Have her buy you a timer. Three minutes,” she repeated, “no less, okay?”
She put the cutters down on the tray. “Move your tongue,” said the assistant, placing the wire against her teeth.
“I brush,” said Dana defensively. The assistant pulled back and made a noise, like a groan. “Not well enough,” she replied, “not by a long shot. Move your tongue.”
The assistant leaned back again. That must have sounded like a long time, Dana thought, coming from someone else. “You know what happens when you don’t brush?” From far away came the sound of a drill. “Hold him down, please,” a man said. Her brother started to scream. “You see,” the assistant went on, in reference it seemed to her brother, “that’s what happens. He needs a filling now. Do you know what a filling is?” Dana shook her head, her mouth still open. The assistant’s face blocked out the lamp above the chair. “If you don’t brush like I tell you,” she said, “you end up in need of a filling; because of the monsters.” Dana had slid down the chair a little. She tried to look up at the assistant, her eyes rolling to the top of her head.
“Yes,” the assistant said. “They live under your teeth. Right here,” she said, pointing with the sharp and metallic instrument at Dana’s gum line, “and here,” at a different spot now, “and right here. All over, see? And the monsters love when you don’t brush.”
“Why do they love that?” She found herself gripping the arm of the chair. Then the assistant was gone; or not gone, still in the room—not visible. Dana blinked a few times, the light above her hot against her face. Her brother wasn’t screaming anymore. The drilling had stopped; there were voices on that side of the office, but she couldn’t make out what they were saying.
“They get hungry,” said the assistant. “You leave bacteria on your teeth when you don’t brush; the monsters get big and strong from this.” She must have been looking for another tool: Dana could hear that she’d ripped something open, then the sound like silverware as it tinkered one against the other. “But the only way they can get to this food, this bacteria,” said the assistant, “is to punch holes through your teeth. That’s how they get out and feed.” Dana’s hands felt numb, and weak. Her jaw hurt. The assistant stopped messing with the swivel tray and glanced at her. “But if you brush, the monsters have no reason to hurt you. There’s nothing for them to feed on, so there’s no reason for them to punch through your teeth.”
“And they’ll go away?”
“Well,” said the assistant, “they’ll leave you alone. But they’ll always be there, ready to eat. That’s if you’re not diligent about your hygiene. So,” she swung back around, and pulled on Dana’s lower lip, “three minutes, okay? Move your tongue please.”
When she was done the assistant went away again; and Dana lay there with the newly formed pressure against her teeth.
She thought of her brother—maybe they’d gassed him (that was something they do, she’d heard, they Give You the Gas) and that was why he’d stopped his screaming. She closed her eyes and thought of those teeth monsters living inside her mouth; they were probably ugly, with bad teeth themselves, and big arm muscles and lots of crazy, messy hair from living in all the wet and stinking scum.
“So that was your brother,” a man said. Dana looked up; and this time there were three people above her. “Younger,” the man inquired, “or are you the baby?” The man had glasses on instead of goggles; his white mask was fixed beneath his chin. When he smiled, his teeth were bright and polished. The other two people, one on each side, looked the same as the assistant from before.
“He’s the baby,” Dana said. “He’s seven; I’m ten.”
“Ah, the big sister,” said the man. He took a seat on the rolling chair and spread her mouth apart with his fingers. “Looks pretty good. Nice work, Amber.” The assistant on the other side said Thank you. “So the big sister,” the man repeated, pushing himself away. “You know what that means, right?” Dana didn’t say Yes or nod her head or anything; she just looked at him. “You have to watch out for your brother,” he continued, his hands in his lap, “and that means making sure you both brush just as often and as well as you’re supposed to.”
“I brush,” Dana pleaded.
“I told her about the monsters,” the assistant said.
“The monsters, that’s right,” said the man. “The ones that live inside your teeth.” Then the chair she was in was moving, and a moment later she was straight up. “Your brother didn’t brush like he should have,” the man said to her, face-to-face, “and the monsters were eating his tooth. So I need you to promise me now you’ll look after him and take care of those bad, nasty monsters, got it? He’s the baby; he needs you, okay? All right, I think she’s good to go,” he told the assistant beside him. Then he got up and left the room.
Her brother sat in the front seat on the ride home. He kept rubbing the left side of his face, and complaining that he could hear voices from inside his mouth. Dana’s mother laughed. She said, “I’ve heard of that; it’s because of the filling.”
“It means you have to brush your teeth,” Dana snapped. Her mother gave a sharp, unappreciative look in the rear view mirror. “I got in trouble because of him,” Dana said.
“With who?” her mother asked.
“The man said he doesn’t brush; and then he said I don’t brush, even though I always brush.”
“I’m sure he didn’t mean you were in trouble,” said her mother.
“They’re really loud,” her brother said; and Dana replied, softly, “Yeah, those are the monsters.”
Her mother shot her another look. “Dana!”
“The what?” asked her brother, poking his head into the backseat.
“The monsters,” said Dana, looking at him.
“Stop it right now, you’re scaring him! What’s gotten into you?”
“Mom,” said her brother, “what did she mean—”
“It’s nothing,” her mother answered, “okay? She’s just teasing you.”
Dana put her head against the window. Her jaw was heavy, and sore; her teeth felt as though they could break at any moment.
This was two weeks after Labor Day. It was her parent’s anniversary and they’d gone out for dinner, asking Dana to watch her little brother until they returned. They’d be home by 11 PM, they said. It was 8:04 as they sat on the couch, watching cartoons. Her brother put his hand to his mouth.
“What’s wrong with you?” asked Dana.
“Nothing,” he said. He moved his lips up and down like a fish.
“Then why are you doing that?”
“I can hear them talking,” he answered.
“Who?” Dana had forgotten about the whole thing; but now—she remembered. “You mean—”
“I can still hear them,” he said, more irritated this time.
She turned to face him. She asked seriously, “What are they saying?”
“I don’t know. I can’t understand them.”
“Let me try,” she said, “open your mouth.” Dana put her ear up to his mouth, and tried to concentrate. “I think…”
“What?” he said.
“…I can’t tell.”
“Is it the—”
“Yes,” she answered, “I’m pretty sure. Have you been brushing?” His face scrunched up a bit. “I’m sorry,” he said, so low beneath his breath it was barely audible.
“You have to brush!” Dana said. She thought back now to what the man had told her, about looking out for her little brother. “What do I do?” he asked; and for a moment—she didn’t know; but what if, she wondered, his monsters would come for her? What if they ate all of histeeth and then devoured all of her teeth in the middle of the night?
And then mommy’s teeth.
The neighbor’s, and the dog’s; the teeth of her friends at school.
Her homeroom teacher, Ms Quigley.
That must have been why the man had warned her, she thought. Her little brother’s bad and rotten teeth were going to get them all, eventually. Unless, as the man had said, she stopped them.
She got up from the couch with an urgency, taking him by the hand. “Come on.” Her brother’s palm was hot and wet. He asked what they were doing; she didn’t answer.
They went upstairs and stopped below the attic. The rope hung just enough to where she could reach it with a small jump, and the door fell towards them very slowly. But she couldn’t reach the wooden stairs. “Stay here,” she said, going into the bathroom; and she came back out with the step stool her brother used to see himself in the mirror. Now the stairs were reachable. They swung down with a thud. She turned to him and said, “Go up there,” giving him a shove on the back side.
“What?” he asked.
“Go,” she said again, “I’ll be right behind you.”
He went all the way up, disappeared for a second, then turned the other way and stared down at her. “Pull the light switch,” she said, and he did. She came to the top rung and grabbed the two side struts of the attic and hoisted herself to her feet. Then they stood there, looking around. There were a few old boxes, boxes of Christmas lights, and bags of sporting equipment; there were three rows of blankets piled four high near the rafters at the back, next to a wooden table and some chairs, stacked on top of each other. Beside the table was a tall, brown radiator.
“Come over here,” Dana said. She picked up the box of lights and set it on the table; he was standing next to her but she didn’t look at him. “Listen. We have to stop them,” she said, her tone more weighty than usual, “or they’ll get us all, see. They’ll get mommy, and daddy. Your friend, Todd. Everyone.”
“The monsters,” he said.
“The monsters. It’s too late for you, but we can save the others. Don’t you want to save the others?”
He put his head down. “What do we do?”
She walked over to the blankets and grabbed one; it had cartoon dinosaurs on it. Then she untangled the Christmas lights from the box. “Sit down on the blanket,” she said, “and face me,” as she unfolded the blanket onto the floor next to the radiator, “and give me your hands.”
“How come?” he asked.
“Just give me them.” He sat cross-legged, holding his hands out. Dana got on her knees and plugged the lights into the outlet next to the radiator. They came on in blue and green and red. She crawled back around to him, wrapping the opposite end around his right wrist, careful not to break the bulbs against his skin, let the length of wire stretch out before wrapping it around the foot of the radiator, then finished at his other hand. “Now I need to go grab something,” Dana said, her finger to her chin.
“No!” he said. “Don’t leave me up here!”
“I’m not,” she answered, “I’m coming back; but I have to go downstairs for something. Okay?” His face was scrunched again, those long and sticky breaths beginning to pulsate in his throat. She got to her feet and went down the attic stairs.
Dana wasn’t gone for very long, just two or three minutes; and when she came back up she stood at the top of the landing, and stared at him as he sat there; her poor, pathetic little brother, and those monsters now within him—soon to eat her whole entire family’s teeth. But by the man’s own instruction, she would put a stop to that. She went to her brother and knelt, laying the flat-head screwdriver on the blanket. She held the hammer firm in her right hand and checked his wrists. “I can’t have you moving,” she said. He blinked at her a few times, enough to produce the tears she’d come to expect. She wiped them away. “I don’t have the Gas for you,” she added, “but I have to save them. I’m sorry; I have to get those monsters out of you and crush them before it’s too late. Before they eat us all. Just look at your hands, at the lights. Think about the Christmas lights.”
“Please,” he said, voice wavering; he promised her he would brush. But there was no other way. Dana picked up the screwdriver and set it flush against his top front tooth. He was shivering, his temples sweating. “Do you—” she pulled her hand away; “—do you still hear them?”
He looked into her eyes. “I hear them in my mouth,” he said, finally, quietly; and Dana shook her head. She put the screwdriver back against his tooth, and the hammer made a curious whistle as it swung, many times, through the hot and fetid air.