by Patrick Winters
Cassie Turpin turned her head all about, fingers in her mouth and spreading her lips open, trying to find the right angle under her bathroom light. After several sighs of frustration and dubious rotations of her head, she finally spotted what she was looking for in the mirror. Leaning closer towards her reflection, she peered into her mouth and saw that the tooth that had been giving her so much pain and trouble lately was splotched with black.
Cassie gave a woeful groan and immediately regretted it — the vibration sent a sharp jab through the tooth and set it to throbbing once more. Cassie looked at her bottom right molar for a few seconds more, taking in its chipped surface and the dark stain across its top. She pulled back from the sink and stared at her reflected self, seeing her own loathsome look of irritation and worry looking her over, thinking: Shit . . . shit . . . fuck.
She flicked off the bathroom light as she strode back into her bedroom. The little clack the switch made bore through her ear and straight down to her tooth and she flinched with the sensation. Then she trudged out into the hall, down the stairs, and into the kitchen. The house was still and silent, and thankfully so — the pain of her tooth was now radiating up into her inner ear, making it sensitive to every little sound. It had gotten so bad in the last hour that she was even dreading the slight creak of a loose floorboard underfoot; she was making sure to step gingerly as she set to making an impromptu icepack. Her mounting irritation mounted all the more when she opened her freezer to see a nearly-depleted bag of ice wadded up in the door’s shelf. She’d motored through the bag quickly this past week, just about every chip and cube of it going to the icepacks she’d been nursing her tooth with. The packs and their chill had given temporary relief to its spasms and pangs, but hadn’t done much to rid her of the discomfort for good. Combining the packs with two little used-up tubes of Orajel and an unknown number of pain pills also hadn’t ceased the tooth’s endless ache. She was running out of remedies and didn’t know what else to do to help herself. So, she made her little pack and sat down at her kitchen table to think things through. She nestled her elbow on the table’s top and eased the pack onto her cheek, holding it there while she considered her options and thought her upset thoughts.
She knew what she ought to do, but what she couldn’t bear the thought of. Ever since her toothy troubles started, the dreaded “D-word” had crossed her mind now and again: dentist. But she hated the idea of going to one. Between having to schedule an appointment around work, her loathsome views towards all things insurance, and the general horror stories surrounding the experience, Cassie wanted to save going to the dentist’s as a last resort. But before she decided for certain what was best to do, she figured she should look into her troubles herself. A-Googling she would go.
Cassie rose up from the table, pulling the chilling icepack from her numbed face; if only her molar were as blissfully numb. She turned about and trudged across the hall and into the living room. Her laptop sat on the edge of her curio table. She gingerly sat down onto her couch, curling her legs up under her and bringing her laptop to bear. Keeping her pack to her cheek, a one-handed Google search of her symptoms and the blackness on her tooth gave Cassie her own diagnosis of the situation. It wasn’t promising.
According to a couple of different sites, she very well had an abscessed tooth. An infected molar. The more she read up on them, the more she hated the sound of it, let alone the possibility of having one. The name alone sounded biblical. Demonic, even. “Our name is Abscess, for we are a pain in the ass.” Seeing all the nasty and gnarly images of these things didn’t help matters either, nor the fact that all of the sites recommended keeping such a tooth heated rather than cooled — the cold could only worsen matters. After reading that, Cassie had dropped her soggy icepack with a self-reproaching grumble. Stupid, she thought. So much for her top-notch tooth care.
After a few more clicks, websites, and paragraph skims, Cassie had had enough and shut her computer off. She gave it a disgusted toss onto the opposite end of the couch. As it bounced hard onto the cushion, it gave the couch a shake and even that slight tremor was enough to send another jab into her jaw. She winced and fought the urge to scream out her frustration.
Dentist’s chairs and drill-bits loomed in Cassie’s mind, and though she felt flushed at doing so, she admitted to herself that she’d have to make an appointment. She wanted to get it over with as soon as possible, but it couldn’t be tomorrow; if she tried to get off work with that late of notice, Katherine Garner — Cassie’s boss — would never let her hear the end of it. The day after tomorrow would be the soonest it could be arranged with Katherine’s begrudging acceptance; Cassie just hoped that she could get an appointment that soon. She’d check for nearby offices during lunch tomorrow and see about calling and arranging an appointment. As Cassie’s thoughts turned to work, she sighed again. Trying to get anything done the way she felt would be a tremendous hurdle and pain . . .
Cassie stopped that line of thought and stood up. She was hungry, but didn’t dare to eat; she wanted to watch some TV, but worried over how the noise would hurt her ears and thus her tooth; she had some housework to see to, but who wants to do chores feeling like stomped crap? Though it was still early, she decided it may be best to try and call it a night, to get some rest and see if that brought some ease to her sufferings. Cassie left the living room, tossed her icepack in the sink, and headed upstairs, taking them slowly and moving extra cautiously after a single step creaked, sending a needle of discomfort into her ear. With that same caution, she inched to the bedroom and lay down, leaving the sheets down; she felt her forehead starting to burn with a slight fever and didn’t mind the coolness of the room to counter it. She lay on her side, resting her non-throbbing cheek on her Queen pillow.
A dull yellow glow shone through the curtains, keeping the bedroom in just enough light to make falling asleep all the more difficult. Cassie tried to clear her mind of all worries and ignore the whoomp-whoomp-whoomp of her throbbing tooth. A long half-hour later, she finally managed to fall asleep.
No one ever accused a life in Customer Service of being a glorious occupation; people that worked in it could regale all those who didn’t about all the flack and brunt of rages they took, and all the general shit they dealt with on a daily basis. Those were burdens that Cassie had grown to bear with as a representative for Bolt Toys, and she normally wasn’t one to complain about her work. Her toothy troubles, though, had worn her too thin today.
Cassie couldn’t recall a time when she’d been happier to leave work. Today’s eight hours nearly did her in; between all the rising and chattering voices in the call center, the clacking of keyboards, and having to suffer her boss’ patented “pissy-face” each time she happened to trudge by Cassie’s desk, there had been no shortage of irritation. After Cassie had managed to find a nearby dentist’s office on the web, she’d worked up the nerve to ask Katherine for time off. After boldly entering the dragon-lady’s den and pleading her case, Katherine had hesitantly granted Cassie a sick day for tomorrow. Nevertheless, it didn’t prevent Katherine from showing off her great irritation at the impromptu request; so, the reviled “pissy-face” had been brought out and brandished Cassie’s way the rest of the long, tiresome day.
As Cassie drove back home, she thought she knew a bit of what it felt to be road-kill. Now, stepping out of a hot shower meant to relax her, she knew what it must feel like to be wet road-kill; the warm waters and vapors hadn’t helped at all, nor had the pain relievers she’d taken the moment she made it home.
She saw to putting on her pajamas (very gingerly slipping her shirt over her head, trying not to rock the molar-boat), and then took another gander at her tooth. She stepped up to her mirror, pulled back her lips, and tried to ignore how ignorant her reflection looked. She found the right angle and stared woefully at her molar. Was it just her sour mood, or had that disgusting blackness spread further across the tooth? She stupidly considered touching it with her tongue — and then she stupidly did just that. She let out a cry as her jaw erupted in pain, and she nearly bit down on her fingers. Tears welled in her eyes. She pulled away from the mirror and groaned as her tooth throbbed on. It felt like it was growing in her mouth, pushing against her gums and threatening to burst out like those little creeps from the Alien movies. And the pain was killing her.
Wiping her eyes, Cassie took only a little comfort in thinking: After tomorrow, you’ll be gone, you little bastard. Because no matter how much she dreaded the idea of a root canal or extraction or pulling or whatever would need to be done, she was just ready to be free of the sucker. Can’t fucking wait to get rid of you. As though in retaliation, her tooth sent a jabbing jolt through the side of her face. Cassie squeezed her eyes shut to fight off the feeling and went back into her bedroom.
Her stomach grumbled, but she still didn’t feel up to eating. This was the second day that she’d gone without anything save water; it no doubt contributed to her poor mood and weak limbs, but she still didn’t want to risk it. And TV was out of the question; she relished the stillness of her house, and she wanted to keep things quiet. So, with nothing much else to do — or at least that she felt up to doing — Cassie lay down. Scenario after scenario began running through her thoughts as she wondered what her appointment would have in store for her. She contemplated it until the sun finally fell away outside her window and she began to doze off.
Before she slipped into sleep, she sent a vindictive thought her tooth’s way: Tomorrow, you little sucker. Tomorrow . . .
Pain. White-hot, stunning pain. That’s what Cassie awoke to.
She gave a cry and shot up in bed out of sheer reaction, and she immediately started gagging and hacking as she swallowed down a warm, wet, coppery glob swishing in her mouth. Her room was dark with the nighttime. Her heart was pounding a mile a minute. She was sleeked in sweat. Her jaw was singing with excruciating agony, and as she opened and closed it, struggling to clear her throat, it radiated with a further stabbing sensation. She clutched at her soggy, sweat-covered sheets as she cleared her throat, swallowing down more of the warm fluid in her mouth; she finally realized that it was her own blood. With teary eyes, she leaned over to the drawer beside her bed and switched on the lamp, a stream of blood spilling out at the corner of her aching mouth. The sudden light was more than she expected, and she squeezed her eyes shut as another wallop of pain hit her jaw. She reached a hand up to caress her cheek, sitting back down in bed and setting the tip of her tongue to her aching molar, hoping to probe it gently. She gave it a quick touch or two before she realized her tongue was touching a bare, bloodied gum.
Her tooth was gone.
Cassie opened her eyes, keeping her tongue to her still-pulsating gums. Though her pain persevered, her tooth was indeed gone; as she swallowed down more of her bloodied spit, she wondered if she’d swallowed the tooth in her sleep — if it had somehow . . . come loose, and then down it went. Or maybe she spat it out when she woke up and didn’t realize it. But how in the hell could it just fall out like that . . . ?
Cassie turned her head about, looking at her sheets to see if the blackened, infected molar was anywhere in sight. But there wasn’t a single pinpoint of black on her lightly-colored, floral-print sheets. She looked back to her pillows, at the head of the bed — and saw something peculiar. The pillow she’d been resting her head on just before waking had a thick, coaster-sized pool of blood soaking through the rose-stenciled fabric, no doubt staining the pillow right beneath it. Seeing that that much blood had somehow managed to flow from her gaping gum was sickening to Cassie, and quite odd; but odder still was the thin line of red leading from the circular stain and down the pillow, a streak that crept right over the pillow’s edge. Craning her head to look at the pillow, Cassie saw that the streak didn’t end there; the line of drying blood extended across her bottom sheet, a full foot away from the pillow and leading right over the edge of the bed. Like a line of slime left by a slow-crawling slug — only with Cassie’s blood, in the slime’s stead.
Confused, and feeling more of her blood welling up in her mouth, Cassie tossed off her sheets and made to get out of bed and head to her bathroom to rinse. She’d slipped her legs over the bed, her feet touching floor, when she heard a sound. It was quiet, but rising some — a scritch-scratch sound of something crunching and grinding. She looked to the floor, and that’s when she saw it.
A black mass lay plopped on the hardwood, a pile of something as big as a Great Dane’s droppings and disgustingly similar in shape. What was worse, it was moving. In the light of her lamp, Cassie saw that the stuff was pulsating like a heart’s beat and wiggling to and fro like a turtle trying to right itself. And the scritch-scratch noise was coming from it, and it became louder as the pile began to form into something else. As it kept rocking about, five stubby bits began to stretch out from it, and the pile began to rise up like a worm sticking its head out of the dirt. It then stood on two of its nubs — its legs — and bared its others — its arms — up over the final nub — its head. In a matter of seconds, it looked like a hunchbacked, black gingerbread man. And through her stunned confusion and disgust, Cassie realized that the blackness looked rather familiar to her; it looked like the gunk that had been on her tooth.
As the thing grew tiny little fingers and slowly grew in height, now standing about a foot tall, it turned around to face Cassie. Imbedded in its chest, around the relative spot where a person’s heart would be, was a bump of white jutting out from the rest of its body — Cassie’s molar. Its little face gazed up to Cassie, who sat still on the edge of her bed. Its eyes weren’t so much eyes as they were little indentations in its small head, and its mouth cracked open in a jagged, tiny maw.
The thing crouched, as in defense, and took a step forward. Then it screamed at her, letting out a pig-like squeal of a war-cry. And then it came running at Cassie.
Cassie finally moved, giving a short scream and jumping off the bed, trying to get out of the thing’s path. But it was quick. It leapt up with another squeal and grabbed hold of her bare right leg, its fingers digging into her calf. Its small black body felt wet against her skin as it hugged tightly to her leg, letting out wild, little huffs of ragged breath. Cassie started doing what looked like a terrified tap-dance as she tried to shake the crazy thing off of her, but it held fast, its fingers piercing into her skin and drawing beads of blood. As she screamed again, it reared back its head and brought its tiny jaws clamping into her leg, making ravenous grunts as it bit away at her shin. Cassie’s flailing went up a notch and she spun about, kicking her right leg out with a determined cry. Her shin and the strange creature smacked up against the frame of her bed with a hard smack. Cassie’s leg erupted in pain, from the bites, the scratches, and the kick, and the thing finally let go, falling to the floor with a pained huff.
Groaning, feeling her head spinning from shock and disbelief, Cassie turned and started to make her way out of the bedroom and into the hall. She wobbled on her injured leg, though, and her escape was much slower than she yearned for, practically hopping away as she dragged her hurt leg behind her. She’d only made it to the door when she heard the creature give a wet snarl behind her and then felt its hands clawing away at her left heel. Though small, its fingers were like blades, and they cut fast, hard, and deep into her Achilles. With a holler of dismay and pain, she fell forward out into the hall.
She landed hard on her stomach, knocking the wind out of her. The pain of her jaw was now contending with the pain the rest of her body was suffering through. Still, her fear and instinctive urge to flee trumped her discomforts, and she started crawling away down the hall. Her wounded ankle flopped behind her, and she could feel it leaking blood out onto the floorboards. She let out ragged, strained breaths as she belly-crawled away, not sure of where she was going or what she would do to defend herself from this impossible little thing that was attacking her — just knowing that she had to get away. She’d just reached the stairs leading down to the first floor when she heard another screeching battle-cry from behind her, and then the noise was directly in her ear; the thing had launched itself into her back, and it was now clawing at her arms and her back and her neck. She tried to smack it away, but as she pushed herself up to bat it off, she misjudged her own strength and her positioning on the landing. With a jolt of surprise, she sent both herself and the thing tumbling over and down the stairway.
She screamed and the creature screeched as they both fell head over heels, rolling and somersaulting down the dozen or so steps. Cassie felt her shoulder smash into the edge of a step as her legs went over her, and she caught sight of the creature letting go of her shirt as it went flying; her eyes squeezed shut as she tumbled the rest of the way down. She landed on her back with a smack at the foot of the stairs, her legs draped over the last few steps. She groaned and tears started to fall as she just laid there a moment; then she lifted her arms and arched her back, trying once more to get away.
The creature hopped back into view, giving a cackle as it landed on her chest like a pirate boarding a besieged vessel. Its limbs continued to crack and crunch as it grew larger, now an extra inch or two taller than before. It grabbed hold of her right forearm and sunk its teeth into her arm. Cassie gave a choked cry and brought her arm swinging down, slamming the creature into the floor. It let her go, and before it could get back up and keep up the attack, she swatted it away a few feet down the hall.
Cassie rolled back onto her stomach and started crawling, just barely able get her knees up from the pains of her fall. She panted as she started towards the kitchen, the nearest room in the house that could maybe have a weapon or anything at all to fight off this maddening little bastard. She heard the thing’s feet scraping against the hardwood floor behind her and urged her arms to carry her on faster. She slid into the kitchen and its cool tiles, making her way to the nearest counter and its drawers full of odds and ends. In one of them, there was a hammer. If only she could get to it . . .
The black tooth-creature came at her again, popping up beside her face and raking its claws against her cheek and arm, trying to get its head in between her own and her shoulders to sink its jagged teeth into her neck. Cassie gave an angry cry, grabbed hold of one of its legs, and lifted it up. It squealed and struck her hand, fighting for freedom. Cassie heaved it across the room and it landed a few feet away, its rough body screeching against the tile. Afforded this window, Cassie mustered up the rest of her strength and pulled herself up to the counter. She sat herself up, leaned against the bottom of the counter, and reached blindly up to the drawer, keeping her eyes on the creature. It was getting up slowly, shaking its little head in a daze. She floundered for the drawer’s handle as it turned to her with a sneer. Right as it started to charge across the floor, hopping along, she pulled open the drawer, pulling it right off its rollers, sending it and its contents on the floor. She looked down to the mess and found the hammer. She grabbed it and whirled back to face the creature.
Right as it was about to jump up into her lap for another attack, she brought the hammer down on it. It squealed in pain as it fell to its stomach and started kicking like a baby in a tantrum. Cassie wasted no time; she kept on bringing the hammer down, smashing it again and again into the little bastard’s body, some of her wild shots striking the tiled floor instead of the creature. The smacking of the hammer mixed with the pained shrieks of the creature as bits and chips of its black body burst into the air with every strike. One of its arms flicked across the room as it broke off, and of its legs followed quickly after that. Even after the hammerhead pummeled the things head into oblivion, ending its screams and its thrashing, Cassie kept bringing her weapon down onto it. She didn’t stop until the last of its little torso, along with her molar stuck in its chest, exploded with one final hit.
Panting, and her mind and body still lost to a frenzy, Cassie let the hammer slip out of her hands; it landed in her trembling lap. She swallowed down more bloody spittle as she shook and twitched from her pains and her prevailing fear. Her mind grasped for understanding of what the hell just happened and came up with zilch for logical explanations. She took her hand — the one that ached from how hard she’d gripped the hammer — and ran it through her hair, trying to bring sense to something senseless. She stared at the scattered bits of the tooth-creature and she started to cry again.
Then, through the many discomforts and sensations that swept over her, Cassie felt something that made her blood run cold. Her upper left canine started to throb with a familiar ache — one just like what had started giving her molar troubles a week ago. Subtle, but clearly there. She could have sworn the tooth twitched in her gum, a little tick that set it to clacking against its enamel compatriots. Then her lower right incisor started doing the same. Cassie moaned in trepidation and saw the vicious attack from the strange creature in her mind’s eye all over again. She thought of how her last week of hellish pain had been caused by her molar and that — that thing. How it had nearly killed her.
Cassie looked down at the hammer in her lap. Then to the remains of the little creature. Then, she saw something among the strewn items from the drawer. She stared at it nervously, an idea forming in her head that seemed so terribly crazy. But was it any crazier than what had just occurred? Any more wild than a little demon-thing being born from her tooth and trying to kill her, for God’s sake?
After a quick minute of debate, and as her teeth continued to adopt their aches, she decided it may not be so crazy after all.
Cassie’s next door neighbor, Mrs. Carlyle — an octogenarian and insomniac — had been awake at the time the screaming and ruckus started up from the next house over. At first, she thought that the hollering was coming from a crazed crowd member on the rerun of Match Game that was on her television. When she finally realized it wasn’t, she became worried and called the police to inform them of the late-night disturbance.
When two officers arrived on the scene some ten minutes later, they’d rang the doorbell and called out repeatedly for someone inside to answer; after nobody did, they kicked open the door with guns drawn and flashlights on and out before them. They stepped into the house with caution and started searching for signs of trouble, one of the officers giving a quick look into the kitchen before calling the other one to his side. They shined their flashlights onto Cassie, who was still sitting on the floor with her back to the counter. At her side were the miscellaneous items of her drawer, spread out among the smashed pieces of black that the officers mistook for rocks of some sort. On the floor around her outstretched legs were dents and holes in the tiles, with specks and chips of something white scattered around them. A hammer and a pair of pliers sat in her lap. The officers were stunned to see that, along with the cuts and bite marks on her legs and arms, the front of her shirt was covered in a spattering of red, and her chin was absolutely coated with it, as well.
But what shocked them most of all was when Cassie turned her eyes up to look at them, and she gave them a wide, bloody, and completely toothless grin — right before she started to laugh and cry all at once, her mind nearly as gone as her teeth.
Patrick Winters is a recent graduate of Illinois College in Jacksonville, IL, where he earned a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing. He has been published in the likes of Sanitarium Magazine, The Sirens Call, Trysts of Fate, and other such titles. A full list of his previous publications may be found at his author’s website.