Past the Cascades, across Idaho’s rocky jut, through Kootenai and Kaniksu, the railroad brings me to Montana.
We cut through galaxies of stone and wood. The passengers sleep or camp out in viewing cars as the world slips by. I pick at beef jerky, bruised fruit: fuel for a nineteen-hour trip inside a tank of strangers and air-conditioned sweat.
The Empire Builder casts me out in Shelby and I worry I’ve made a mistake.
I am a twenty-one-year-old graduate armed with a thru-hiker’s pack and sneakers.
Shelby is a railroad buzzard whose gullet holds just under 3,400 souls and whose Wikipedia entry reads, “Wind is a constant.”
Outside the Amtrak station, which is just a covered awning by the tracks, I blink away dust and try to remember why I chose this stop. Nothing comes to mind.
I have a tent, but failed to book a campsite. Outside the city limits Montana stretches out her great dry body like a dare.
I start walking.
It’s early evening. Molten sunlight pours across low buildings and cracked asphalt, rich enough that even dead grass looks heavy. There is a breeze, a quiet sweep of wildflowers and gasoline.
Shelby on a July weeknight is very hot and very still. I trudge towards the tightest cluster of buildings, looking for a place with cheap food and cheaper beer.
I’m the only person on the sidewalk, which is good because I’m leaking pressure. Seattle was all salt and gleam and fairytale clamor, greedy for attention; I must have expanded out of myself there, grown bigger than my skin so I could seize enough space.
As Shelby’s Old West silence fits me back around my bones, the heat sits firmly on my neck. My pack weighs forty pounds and the straps, padded though they are, press furrows from collarbone to shoulder blade.
I stop and unload, pull off my t-shirt, heap the pack back onto my spaghetti straps. Warm sweat soaks through the pads and dull pain settles in, but this ache my shoulders know.
Still no sign of human life in Shelby. Trappings of it, yes: cars in driveways, one story houses done in peeling white and coral, a pungent shock of cut grass that hits me sharp as citrus. But it feels like a clapboard town, a nuclear test site trapped in Polaroid.
I do find a bar. Squatting at the edge of town, it’s a boozy rectangle of neon and grime.
Inside is dim or bright according to which side of the room you face. Long dark bar, four small booths crammed up against the wall, a jukebox playing country western music I can’t name. Then more neon, red and yellow, glaring lights: a row of slot machines, all empty save one. An older woman sits with her purse at her feet, her glass crowded with ice and tiny black straws. She jams a finger at the screen.
I take the stool at the right-most corner of the bar, slide my pack between my feet, pull out a paperback copy of Lidia Yuknovitch’s The Chronology of Water. I got the book from a girl in Tucson who let me sleep in her room, which was a shed behind a house packed with other transients; the roof was a sheet of opaque plastic and the floor concrete but the walls were a riot of color. She had painted every surface she could reach.
My last night there she went into the desert to guard a flock of bighorn sheep for a tribe with whom she was friendly, and before she left she pressed this book into my hands and told me, “Read it, it hurts but you have to read this while you’re young.”
Here in Shelby I think I’m ready for it.
“Get you a drink?” The bartender keeps his eyes on the television. He doesn’t card.
Beside me, two men in their fifties drink pale beers and whiskey. They’re interested, I know from the way their eyes slide right and then away, and it doesn’t take long.
“Traveling alone?” It’s the closer one, only two stools down. His eyes are brown, warm, his face a mess of wrinkles. He says I look young.
“I’m on the trains. Heading back east.”
His friend leans over and asks how much my pack weighs, then slaps the bar and laughs.
I put down my book because the closer man smells like horses and iron but there’s a dreamy quality to the way he holds his glass. Stories all over him.
“I did that once.” He dips his head towards my pack. “Hopped rails all the way from New York to San Francisco when I was your age, only I didn’t pay.” Crooked smile, bashful. “My daughter wants to travel now, but her mother’s too scared to let her. What do you think?”
“I think everyone should travel. Especially girls. We have to be scared and do it anyway.”
The men order burgers and shoestring fries. For me, mozzarella sticks and extra marinara. Another round. I tell them how in New Orleans, a boy nearly spilled his drink on me and, apologizing, invited me to join his friends.
“‘Course he did.” Wry and sympathetic to the boy and me both.
“He never tried a thing, though. I took the cable car home at three in the morning and he shook my hand goodbye.”
“Chivalry’s not dead,” suggests the man three stools down.
“I’m just saying, the world is not that big. People aren’t that different. We want other people to see us as better than we see ourselves. Maybe it’s more dangerous for women on their own, but I think deep down everyone just wants a stranger to like them. Being good to people you won’t ever see again is an easy way to tell yourself a nicer story of your life.”
“I can’t decide if that’s naive or cynical.”
Because it’s both, I let them leave first. The brown-eyed man pays my bill. We never exchange names.
I wait a little longer, inching towards the bottom of my glass. The old woman at the slots takes a call: “Just put foil on a plate for me.” Hangs up fast.
Her drink has gone to pale water but she doesn’t buy another, all her focus on the screen. Watching her makes my teeth ache. When I shoulder up my pack and walk past she loses her game, slams one fragile fist against her thigh. Her rage batters me with coconut shampoo and cigarettes.
That night I sleep in a playground. I pitch my tent way back against a fence that separates green lawn from thicker sable grass. Two bushes squat between me and the street; they’re not enough but I’ll be gone by the time any children show up. If Shelby has any children to offer. Washed in dying desert light, the swing set strikes me as another prop.
I lay on my back and try to read, my flashlight hanging from the apex of my tent. The light judders every time I shift. It’s so quiet I feel adrift, like I’ve caught hold of something strange and magical: a playground at the end of the world.
Sleep comes in sly, rolling waves. I find myself re-reading paragraphs, then set the book aside and cushion my head with a crumpled sweatshirt. Everything is so warm, my tent a little oven barely cooled by the promised wind. I can’t escape this sense of unreality, that my time here has been a dip outside the world.
In the morning I am at the train station by seven, held up by strong coffee and an overwhelming need to run. But there is difference in my heart. A tenderness, a bruise I look for always.
The Empire Builder sweeps in on clouds of black exhaust and gleaming silver steel.
It carries me east, and Shelby stays behind.
They filled a room with balloons the day Elanore died. The trains were running again, or at least one was; Sadie’s ticket came hand-delivered in a crimson envelope so Joy drowned them all in helium and silver plastic.
That morning, when the sun was just a cracked egg on the horizon, the new rail man sat on the light tower platform. He still had more than half the bottle he’d accepted from the general’s man, but this fine whiskey was lagging on the job. Even if he couldn’t see that hole in Bill’s head anymore, he could damn well smell the gun smoke.
Oh. Right. Cigarette. He flicked the ashes down on black metal. Beside the tracks, four crows hopped around a deer gone mostly to bone. Usually the night crew took care of bodies like this so close to the station but they weren’t back on shift yet.
The new rail man poured whiskey onto the deer’s yellow smile. All four crows puffed up like tarred meringues, hopped back but didn’t fly away. One skidded on the rail where his brave and stupid predecessor had smashed the general’s “gift” of olive oil.
The new rail man laughed to himself and the crows and his contraband smokes.
He could respect things that wouldn’t leave when they ought.
When Joy came back with thirteen balloons she said, “I’ll keep them in our room once you’re gone. We can see how long they stay up.”
“Will you tell me?” Sadie wrapped plastic strings around both wrists and let her slender arms float skyward. “When they fall.”
“If they still take letters through.”
“They’ll take yours.” Sadie unwound the balloons. They drifted up until they hit the ceiling beneath Elanore’s bedroom. She and Joy flinched. “I’ll make him write a decree. The general isn’t concerned with you.”
“Why should he be?” Joy went to the stairs and walked up, one hand white-knuckled on the railing. “He got what he wants.”
In the upstairs room, everything smelled of chamomile tea. They’d tried compresses for the sickness, and later for comfort. Sadie knelt by the mattress. Elanore rolled her head around, her face a child’s scrawl, all jagged lines.
“I have to.”
“Don’t let her, Joy.”
“She’s going to get you medicine.” Joy released a balloon from behind her back, big and bright and, with its fellows, worth a canister of salt. “Look how pretty.”
“Expensive. Take the rest of my cards.” Elanore waved her thin fingers to the ration tickets on her bedside table. “When Sadie goes they’ll erase me. You know that. But I’ll be ready for them.”
Joy put her hand on Sadie’s shoulder, thumb smooth and warm on Sadie’s neck. “She’ll come back. He’ll let her come back for us.”
That night the train carried Sadie out. She kept her eyes on the window while the general’s soldiers whispered about the cut of her dress. Her home, Joy, Elanore, all of it peeled away. Some poor creature had nearly made it past the light tower. A blur of bones, now, and broken glass.
At the house they said she didn’t own Joy sat in her room and sucked in helium while her mother slept with one eye open, waiting, and then didn’t anymore.
Two octaves up Joy’s voice sounded more like Sadie’s. “I’ll come back for you.”
Nothing from the balloons. At the light tower, the crows moved on.
It wasn't going well.
They just weren't getting the kind of volunteer force necessary to really put together a usable sample. Leonard was arguing for advertising in the tertiary townships that just barely edged onto university land. He'd wanted to spread out from day one, but LePonte just could not understand where he thought he was getting the funds.
No number cruncher in the world would be able to pull that out of their tiny starting grant, but somehow Leonard was convinced that if they just set up outreach clinics in Maryland and - god forbid - West Virginia, the work would be saved. Which was probably true, really, but with just the two of them it was hardly even feasible for one clinic to take subjects.
More subjects, more data, more proof. That was the mantra.
Or, as it stood, few subjects. Some data.
'Maybe we should try New York again,' Leonard said. His cowlick was at full attention. Beneath it, his pinched face had gone sallow weeks ago.
'Why? What's the point? We have nothing.' LePonte was tired, it made him snappish.
'But the center at NYU said -'
'It doesn't matter.'
Silence filled up by the dripdripdrip on tin. Not an aggressive rain, but one with no sense of purpose. Outside, the ground would be just damp enough to stain their leather shoes.
'We don't have to set up clinics,' Leonard suggested. 'We could just travel in the area. Advertise on our own.'
'We're not minstrels, Kilmer,' LePonte remarked with a pinch at the bridge of his nose. 'Besides. We need to bring them here. It's no good if they're not here. No readings, no evidence, no new review at NYU.' For a second he thought Kilmer might smile at the rhyme, and he thought that if that happened, he'd probably have to punch his teeth in.
'What about Bonnie Tedesco?' Leonard said instead. 'She's promising. Let's just focus on that.'
'Bonnie Tedesco is going home to her mommy in twenty-three hours,' LePonte reminded him. 'We're not going to last much longer without results.'
'We have more time.'
'We don't,' LePonte broke out, and brought a hand down on the tabletop with a smack. 'We are all out. Leo, this is it.'
Everything was eggshell in the study. The carpet, the walls. It was supposed to be cleansing, to suggest space. It made LePonte feel as though he were sitting in a padded room banging his head against air. The space it suggested was smothering.
Leonard folded his arms. His bug-face contracted even tighter beneath his youthful swipe of hair, and there was quiet.
The typical dose of clozapine - their brand, anyway - was just enough to produce a mild sedative effect. Long-term use could induce tremors and low white blood cell counts, which had, in some patients, caused immune disorders and death; the drug had been recalled in the late '70s. The doctored dose Kilmer and LePonte were using was a mixture of a few more modern atypicals, designed to act as an antipsychotic that would (or could, they hoped) bring on a more productive seizure.
This was not exactly what they were disclosing to their small batch of study subjects.
Bonnie Tedesco was thirteen. She had a retainer, and had carefully placed a yellow and red plaid backpack below her bed on the first evening. Inside, they had discovered over the course of the tests, she kept a teddy bear (never to be seen save on camera), a notebook, and an expensive pack of drawing pencils.
Bonnie's mother was a nonentity. From the medical records Kilmer and LePonte had requested before accepting her as a trial subject, they knew that she'd gotten pregnant when she was seventeen. It was unclear as to whether she'd since died or - as Leonard had put it - done a runner. Her father worked in a veterinary clinic, though not as a doctor. It put him in an awkward financial position, which he'd taken several uncomfortable moments to explain to them when he brought his daughter to the clinic.
LePonte had not admitted the pang of guilt he'd felt after that. He'd looked at Leonard, and when Leonard had not looked back, he'd understood that guilt was not something the two of them would discuss.
They gave the girl a double dosage at 11pm and waited. Ostensibly, the drug was supposed to positively affect her night terrors, to soothe her mind and cull away whatever it was that kept her up at night. She was also being given supplements to keep her white blood cells from depleting to a dangerous level. That was the surface of the study.
The bedroom was dark. It was kept that way, to help the patients sleep. LePonte sat in a wicker chair he'd brought with him from his small apartment, a notebook on his lap, and watched. She was out, her breathing steady, the IV drip in her left arm an eery transparent glimmer against her skin. She snored slightly. It was oddly comforting, that gentle huff and release. LePonte knew that Kilmer was opposite the one-way glass to his right, and that their every move would be recorded on the two cameras mounted in respective corners of the room... but there was a stillness to it all that had the power to unnerve. Given enough time in a dark room watching someone else sleep, every breath becomes surreal.
Exactly thirty-two minutes after administering the dose, the stillness changed. Not a sound but a movement of air, a vibration that skittered over LePonte's clean-shaven cheek like a thousand imagined insects. His eyes jumped from his lap to the bed, marking each wrinkle in the sheet. It took a moment to find the source of the shift, and when he did, LePonte felt his skin begin to crawl.
It was nothing they hadn't seen before. A common side effect of most antipsychotics: tremors. Her hand, the one with the IV in it, was shaking. Not profoundly, but rather just enough to send the line into a series of soft undulations that rolled across the room in minute, near-indiscernible waves. It was a subtle thing, but LePonte hated it. The whole situation made him paranoid, but there was something grotesque about that silent jerking of the fingers; it looked unnatural and somehow threatening. The death rattle of a puppeteer unwilling to give up his toy.
He glanced towards the mirror on the wall above the bed, and waved a hand. Two raps back. Kilmer was watching, too.
LePonte bent to his notebook, squinting, and wrote down the time and the symptom. He was still peering at the yellow legal paper when Bonnie Tedesco started screaming.
'Shit!' LePonte remarked, less loudly than expected, and dropped the pad. 'Leonard, get in here!'
'I have to monitor - '
'Shut the fuck up and get in here,' LePonte barked. The shock was over now, and he was trying to get his belt out of the goddamn loops because she was thrashing and her mouth was opening and closing, her tongue was in there somewhere but it might not be in a few seconds. Leonard burst in.
'Fuck,' he said, and lunged onto the bed. 'Get her head!'
LePonte got the belt out and shoved it between Bonnie's jaws. The stuffy room was filled with new sounds, guttural punching cries, muffled by the belt but still so wet and loud they seemed to mirror LePonte's pounding heart. She was seizing hard, the IV swinging wildly. He managed to grab the tower before it toppled and ripped the needle right out of her vein, putting all of his weight on the girl's shoulders.
'Her legs,' he grunted; Leonard promptly sat on Bonnie's thighs.
'Jesus,' Leonard said, and that was when the equipment on the other side of the mirror started to explode.
'Oh, what the fuck,' LePonte moaned, because Bonnie was still trying to tear herself up from the inside.
'Straps,' Leonard reminded him. There was a series of quick popping noises from the other room: the lights? Something else cracked and splintered onto the floor, it sounded plastic. LePonte reached down, pinning her with half his torso, and got ahold of one of the leather straps that dangled from the borrowed hospital bed. By the time he'd gotten it up and put it along the line of her shoulders, it was all over.
They secured her anyway. LePonte left the belt in her mouth. It seemed safer that way.
The monitoring room was a wreck. The halogen lights that lined the ceiling were all shattered, bits of glass littering the floor and sticking in the grout. The TV was on the floor as well. It was still smoldering.
'What the fuck,' LePonte said again. Leonard's face was shining.
'Johnny,' he said. 'Johnny, we did it.' He took LePonte's hands and brought them to his face and kissed them. It was a moment of such rare intimacy that LePonte would remember it years later, when other things were shattered than glass.
And when they went back into the study bedroom and realized that Bonnie Tedesco was dead, that moment would stay too.
They closed up the clinic. It was impossible to do anything else. The grant went with it. So did their positions at Johns Hopkins. Leonard didn't seem to mind as much, but LePonte felt something leave him when he left the school.
They weren't living together when he got the call. For a few days immediately after the incident, LePonte had considered cutting off all contact with Leonard Kilmer. It felt good, thinking that. But it also felt cheap. Like bargaining, except so petty an act of contrition that it would almost make everything worse. And, in the end, there was the fact that Kilmer had been right.
They had done it.
It wouldn't get out. Their findings would never appear in weekly journals or be defended before the Board. But they knew.
And, as LePonte learned several weeks after his dismissal from the PhD program at Johns Hopkins, so did someone else.
I have nightmares about mouths. This month’s therapist is saying it has to do with my chronic lying; that’s what I’m here for, after all. Some subconscious guilt manifesting itself in big bad nightmares where I’m chased by those little fucking plastic jaws, you know, from gas stations, the ones that clack-clack-clack on your desk until your supervisor comes over and wrenches them apart so the springs snap all over the floor. Gruesome.
When I was little, my pop told me a story about teeth. He said that when I lost a tooth and put it under my pillow, the tooth fairy came along and took it to sell to old people. Imagine: all the little childteeth lined up on big black tables, so when you get old and your gums go barren, you can just… buy a new set. Stick ‘em in, work ‘em around for a bit, make sure they get good and up there so they won’t fall right back out again. He was never clear on how the tooth fairy got paid, but when I heard this story, I thought of things that would be comparable to my teeth and decided that I probably didn’t want to find out. I was... troubled by it.
Fifteen years ago, I was ten. I had a real prepubescent hard-on for a set of braces, because my friend Ray Giamatti had them and his were shiny and blue. But my teeth, to my endless disappointment, were perfect. Nothing like my pop’s aging tombstones, which were chipped on the corners from--he claimed--opening beer bottles in his wild youth. I asked him to demonstrate, but he grew quite prim about the matter and said his college days were over. He always teased me about this, though, telling me that if I wanted to finally get those braces I’d better start working on some Buds. I never did take him up on it. My teeth are perfect to this day.
Anyway, back when I was ten, I was just about done shedding my baby chompers. My real grown-up front teeth were in, and a bunch of the other ones, but there were two teeth way in the back that were getting real loose. They were the last ones, and I was kind of hanging onto them. I knew all the tricks for making loose teeth looser, but it was the end of an era and I wanted to draw it out if I could. Also, it had been a good year or more since I’d lost the last few, and I didn’t want to admit it to myself but I was a little concerned. These were my last offerings to the Tooth Fair, after all. What if the collector was, as Ray might say, “pee-oh’d”?
I admit, I didn’t really think my fear through. No reason for the tooth fairy to get annoyed that I didn’t have any more to give up. The world was full of little boys and girls just spitting old teeth all over the place, right?
So I had these two goners. Pop knew about them, of course; my mama liked to make a big deal whenever I showed any signs of growing up and so as soon as she noticed me working my tongue at the back of my mouth at dinner, she started clapping her hands and smiling. Her little boy, losing his last baby teeth.
“Well, you know,” Pop said over his roast beef, “I know an old lady at work who’s gonna be just tickled pink to hear about that. She’s been waiting for another fang or two.” Mama rolled her eyes, and he cut another chunk of meat. “Can’t eat anything but mashed cat food, poor old bat.” When he said that I imagined an old lady waiting outside my bedroom window, rubbing her hands together like a cartoon villain.
When the first tooth came out, I almost cried. I didn’t want to chuck it, because what if I ended up needing it in a few years? But I was damn skippy sure I didn’t want that tooth under my pillow. I’d been fine with the tooth fairy before the story, and had happily traded my little baby teeth for quarters for years; now it was different. Now there was some kind of threat to it, the sort of dread that comes from walking home after you see a scary movie and you know there isn’t anything behind you but you walk just a little faster anyway because gosh, what if there is? But what is a ten-year-old going to do with a tooth but stick it where his parents expect to find it in the middle of the night?
Now, this next bit is the part where my therapists start perking up. Everybody loves the stories of how we were traumatized as kids, but they love the early signs of schizophrenia even more. I’ve done the pills and the shots and the bed rest. Hell, I even started swearing up and down that it never happened, but come on, you know I’ve got that thing with the lying.
The night I lost the first tooth, I eventually decided that I was too big to be scared by a kid story. Under the pillow it went, and when I went to sleep, it was with the covers all the way up to my chin.
When I woke up, at first I thought I’d had a nosebleed.
I’m leaving the office now. I have an appointment soon, and I don’t want to be late. I’ve promised Marcy--she wants me to call her just Marcy, says it takes away some of the awkwardness of talking to a shrink--to actually take the sleeping pills I’m not really keeping in the medicine cabinet. I figure maybe someday I should let on that I never bought them to begin with, but I feel like that’s really more of a third-date confession and I’ve only seen Marcy twice.
The car’s out back. I like to park in the lot of a minimart around the corner, so it looks like I’ve just come out of one of the other stores in the little strip mall instead of out of Dr. Bay’s one-story office. I’ve got enough connecting me with madness for now, I think.
It wasn’t a nosebleed.
Under my pillow, a tiny bit of rusty stain peeked out on the sheet. Someone had left me a present.
When I saw them, at first I didn’t understand. I even poked the top nail, right where the quick stopped in a bloody curve. Then, the knowledge of what exactly I was looking at came in a hard squeezing shock and I scrambled off the mattress. I wanted to be screaming for Mama, or crawling under the sheets between my sleeping parents. Instead, I stepped back up to the bed and looked at the fingernails. There were three of them, full things, not just clippings. I didn’t want to touch them or turn them over, but the morbid curiosity of childhood made my hand reach out to scoop them up. In my palm they looked larger, and I remember doing one of those almost-puking things where you swallow it back down and then feel worse.
The worst part was, there was only one thing that this could mean. Pop’s story was true. Maybe it hadn’t always been true, because hadn’t I gotten the nickels and dimes and quarters in the past? But that didn’t matter; it was true now and I didn’t stop to think about any of the other stuff. Something had come and taken my tooth and left me a little present, fair trade, and even a deal: three for one.
Now, when you’re ten, you don’t have the same kind of reasoning skills you might develop as a teenager or an adult. You’re a kind of unformed piece of energy, running high on emotion and low on practicality or strategic abilities. And maybe it would have changed things if I’d just handled this a little bit differently, if I’d told my parents or even just thrown the nails away and waited for my last tooth to come out so I’d never have to look under my pillow again. Then again, maybe not. Sometimes things just happen on account of being divined or something, I guess.
Anyway, what I did in the end was to take those bloody fingernails and wrap them in one of the tissues by my bed. I had it in my head that if I kept them safe and clean, maybe I could use them to trade back for my last tooth: maybe I could cut some kind of deal. The shivery-scared part was mostly done with, because now I was determined to be brave and to live up to the stories I’d been reading about kids my age with magic powers who face down ultimate evil and come out on top. It wasn’t hard to turn it into a game, really; the fear was still there, but if I could warp it with make-believe and give the whole situation a plot and a script to follow, it didn’t seem so bad. In fact… maybe it was kind of an adventure, you know? Maybe it was my turn to be the hero in the storybook.
And a week or two later, sure enough, out came that last back molar. Mama and Pop and I celebrated by ordering out for pizza, which we usually only did on Friday nights sometimes when we got VHS tapes, and then I put the tooth in the same spot as before and got ready to stay awake. These days, I use pills and those tiny energy drinks that they sell at the check-out line in grocery stores. Back then, I used Coca Cola and nerves.
The window came up at around two, when the noises of my house had quieted down to nothing but the occasional creak of wood and my own too-noticeable breathing. I was reading some of the comics Ray had let me borrow with the little submarine-shaped flashlight I kept under my bed, but when I heard the soft, pressurized whoosh of the window sliding up I almost dropped both comic and flashlight. When I swung the light around and aimed it at the window, I almost--more than almost--expected there to be nothing there.
He was a smallish thing, shorter than Pop, with neat dark hair and a black turtleneck. Standing right inside my room, knees bent just so, he stared at me and I stared back.
“Are you the tooth fairy?” I asked, helpless against eyes that seemed opaque, refusing to reflect even some of the light I was shining at them. He--it?--smiled, and I saw that his teeth were in the dozens, all needle-thin and pointy. Those gleamed where the eyes wouldn’t; oh, my, did they gleam.
“I won’t say no,” the tooth fairy told me. His voice was butter-smooth and sly.
“I want to trade,” I said next. He made an odd gesture with his hands, lifting them up to either side of his face and spreading the long fingers in some kind of surprise or theatrical alarm. His fingers were too long, I saw then, and there was something wrong with the proportions of them; the longer I stared, the more everything seemed off.
“What for what, boychild?”
I grabbed the folded tissue with the three nails inside it and thrust it at him.
“I want to give these back and keep my last tooth. I don’t want any more fingernails.”
The creature came forward and used those spindly fingers to unfold the tissue. He moved with the kind of delicacy and care that I associated with old people or cats, each finger moving independently from the rest, never once touching my skin.
“My, my,” the tooth fairy said. “These won’t do at all. They’re used, you see.”
“So’s my tooth,” I argued. Another smile. The teeth glinted, and when he worked his jaw, they slid together without a sound.
“Do you really want to make a trade? You should be asleep for this, boychild. You needn’t pay any mind to what happens in the dark.”
At the question, I wavered. He was right, of course. I wasn’t supposed to see any of this. But the fingernails. The fingernails, they had been left for me to find and how was anybody supposed to ignore that?
“Well, I don’t want to,” was my argument. “But I don’t want these. I don’t like them.”
“There are a lot of things I could show you that you wouldn’t like,” he said silkily. “And if you found the true trade… Well, then. Yes.” He looked thoughtful, pale lines appearing between his thin black brows. “Come with me, boychild, for the night. Do that, and I promise, you’ll never find fingernails under your pillow again.”
The fact that he was--it seemed to me, in all my naiveté--bargaining with me gave me a stupid sense of power. Enough to reach under my pillow and pull out the tooth.
“This is my last one,” I said, with all the obstinacy of a child. “You can’t have any more after this. I won’t need to worry about it anyway.”
“Your last one?” he repeated, drawing out each word until it was taut and uneasy. “Goodness. There must have been some mistake.” The tooth fairy put the tips of his fingers together and tapped them once, twice, pensive and regretful. “This house is scheduled for several more teeth, I’m afraid. If you’re all out, I suppose I’ll have to look into… other options.” There was a long pause.
“That’s not fair,” I said finally, and there it was, the pulse inside me, almost painful in my throat.
“It’s really not, is it?” There was a sharpness to him now, and I could see it waiting to leap out at me. “Let us try this, boychild, this… compromise. You come with me now, and I will leave your home untouched. Refuse…” He trailed off and slung a furtive glance towards my bedroom door. Even at ten, I followed that black gaze all the way to my parents.
It’s funny, I don’t really think of it as altruistic now. It’s hard to blame a child for being afraid, and for taking the path least likely to cause it pain. It would be nice to call myself a real hero, doing what I did to save my parents from having their mouths torn open with a pair of neat silver pliers. But I think I was really just scared shitless.
The preschool lets out for the day in half an hour. I have to be there early; there’s a special circle for parents to pull up and wait for their kids and it fills up real fast. This is one of those fancy preschools, the kind that has “Prep” in the name, because they bring in foreign art teachers and teach every child how to play the piano before the recorder, so parents--or, more likely, babysitters--tend to be keen on showing one another up as more loving and more on top of things. I’ve seen actual fights break out, people vying for the first spot in the circle. I’ll tell you one thing, my parents never would have put in for that crap.
I stop for gas and check the glove compartment. The box is fine, of course; I’m not paranoid. I take it out just to be sure, though, because it’s always good to be sure. It’s an old cigar box I got at a garage sale a while back. When I first started, I made do with a shoebox lined with paper towels. But this one has a lock on it. Locks are satisfying things no matter how you look at it.
He took me out the window. The details are blurry now, and it’s not because of time. Even the very next day, if you’d asked me to, say, draw a map of where I went that night, I would have just looked at you like I’d been hit with a brick as a toddler. But I remember moving fast, on foot. We lived in New York then, downtown, so “through the window” meant “down the fire escape,” which was a thing I was never allowed to do on my own. But the tooth fairy got hold of my hand and then I moved faster, not because my own feet carried me but because somehow, when he touched me, it was like the things around us just slowed down. Think stepping onto a moving sidewalk in the airport: you feel like you’re going the same speed, but everything on either side just looks like it’s been shoved into slow motion. It was a good thing, too, because it was like that with the ground as well and I wasn’t wearing shoes.
There were a couple times I thought we’d get stopped. I’d never been out that late, and I was certain there would be police everywhere and that someone would notice a little boy being pulled around by this strange, dark man. Oddly, I was more afraid in those surreal moments of being caught out by my parents and getting in trouble than of the tooth fairy himself. Funny how fickle a child’s mind can be.
But we weren’t stopped. No one even gave us a second look. Or a first look, for that matter. All the people we did pass at two in the morning on a Thursday didn’t look up, didn’t notice as we flowed by, and I think now that maybe they couldn’t see us at all.
We ended up at a door. Just a regular door, set into a brick wall between two dark storefronts with the metal grates down. I tried to get any kind of bearings, but my knowledge of the city was limited to the apartment building we lived in and the few blocks surrounding it. Oh, and the museums. I knew where all the museums were. But this door wasn’t near anything familiar, and the tooth fairy still had his long fingers wrapped around my hand like a vice.
Inside were stairs. Everything was colder, an all-over cold, and I didn’t like it. We went down. I remember it being damp. My socks stuck to my feet.
The tooth fairy’s downstairs was a big place. Too big for me to see much of it, really. There was an open hall where we came out, and in the walls there were doors everywhere and some of them were open and through those doors were more hallways and more dark. The main hall, though, was lit up.
There were tables. Lots and lots of tables. Long, and silvery, made of some kind of shiny metal. The floor was shiny too; I think it was marble. And it was full of them. Things like the tooth fairy, I mean.
They lined the tables, dozens upon dozens of slender figures with long, pale fingers and a thousand flashing teeth. There was an odd smell in the air, a sour woodsy musk, and heady; my small lungs were no match for it and within a few moments I was blinking dizziness out.
“Look close,” the tooth fairy said then, the first words he’d spoken since we’d left my room. “This is an Underground, boychild, and few of your kind ever see such things.” So I looked close. The things at the tables were paying no attention to us. They were busy, see. The tables were busy too, holding up all the people.
When I made a noise, the tooth fairy touched one spindly finger to my lips and my voice went away along with my breath. Choking, I stared past the hunching fairy-things to the prone bodies of thirty or forty children. They were dirty, straggly hair tucked beneath their torn clothing. Everything about them was turned off and still, sort of waxy, and I thought they might be dead except for that they were breathing and I could see it and that was awful. I could only find one head, and even then only barely; they had this girl’s mouth open and there were three figures bending over to work around inside it. She was far away, but I thought maybe she was crying.
The tooth fairy let me breathe again after only a second or two.
“Your Upperground is so careless with its young,” he mused. “It’s hard to imagine a species with such low regard for itself; we pluck these straight off your streets.”
I had no idea what this meant, and was too caught up in being petrified to really care.
“This is for overflow, in case you were wondering.” Not letting go of my hand, each of my fingers enclosed in the icy circle of his, the tooth fairy used his other hand to wave at the tables. “You demand and demand, and we… Well, we supply. But we can only do so much, boychild, without taking a little… initiative.” He emphasized each pause with a new twist of the lips, and because of the way his skin stretched across his face this was a horrid thing to watch. I thought of an accident I’d seen on television, where a man in a car hit another car and a piece of metal sheared through his cheek, pulling the skin with it.
At the preschool, I wait for Sarah Masters to climb into the back of my car. Her parents, who are my relatives by marriage and therefore trust me to do this for them, are paying me $100 per week to ferry their ray of sunshine back and forth. I do it for the spending money and because it gives me an excellent excuse to frequent all the places that little children love.
Sarah shows up. She has blond pigtails, and a woman with a red shirt helps her into the special seat. I start the engine.
“Are you hurting them?” I asked. It was a stupid question.
“Hurting them, hurting them,” the tooth fairy repeated. “It’s all relative, really, boychild, they would have starved eventually. Do you know why I brought you here? No, of course not.” He bent to my level and pointed at my chest. I looked at him, suddenly unable even to cry. “I brought you here, boychild, because you have a little shine inside you, something we look for. There are secrets in your family, do you know that? Secrets go back many generations and this one is no different; I would wager your parents haven’t a clue what’s in their blood and do you know something else, boychild? They never will. Because you will cry and you will scream and you will tell them all, and they will never, ever believe you. And then, many thens from now, you will be all grown and that secret will come home. It will come to you in the night, as I did, because you saw the true trade--the fingernails, you recall--and you saw me, and that means one day this Underground will be your Underground too. You’d best prepare, boychild; we always need more workers.”
He put a finger on my chin and pointed my face towards the nearest table, where a teenage boy was thrashing under two sets of long, long fingers. A tooth fairy yanked, spattering red and infected yellow onto the floor, and the boy went limp.
I shut my eyes tight, the musky air making my stomach spin and roil, my hand nearly numb with cold and pain.
When I opened them again, I was home in my bed, the submarine-shaped flashlight pressed up against my chin from where I’d been lying on it. The window was closed. I was alone.
Before I drop Sarah off at home, I swing her by the playground. I take my notepad and my pencils and go to sit on one of the benches near the swings. This place is a mess of kids, really; if I were actually trying to watch Sarah’s every move I’d have a hell of a time. But I’m not all that interested in her. I’m not really interested in any of these little fuckers, to be honest. My eyes are on the fringe players, the children who look a little thinner, a little more wary of joining the throng. It’s hard to tell if they’re homeless, of course, until you follow them a bit. That’s what the pad is for: I like to write down little notes, in case I see them begging around later.
I move to scratch an itch inside my left shoe, and my knee knocks against the box. I hadn’t realized I’d brought it along. I laugh. Silly me. I look around, just checking, but there’s no one near my bench. All the other parents are over by the jungle gym, where the pack is really thick. I go ahead and humor myself, opening the box. I’ve almost got a whole set now. It’s exciting; I have to keep myself from opening it at all sorts of inappropriate times. Like now. But I’ve been good today; I can give myself this little guilty pleasure.
Fifteen years ago, the tooth fairy took me Underground. He told me there was a secret, and that someday I’d go Underground again. It took me a long, long time to figure it out. But I was clever enough in the end, and now it’s almost time. I only need two more and I’ll be done, and then… I can find him again. I can show him my collection. They’re all fresh. They’ll be good enough to trade, I’m sure of it. And then I won’t have to go back, do you see? I won’t have to do the work anymore, not with them, not with the things at the tables.
Maybe then I’ll finally get some sleep.