Four: The First Time

19 4 17

It looked so soft, like that stuff they stuffed pillows with. I bent over to take a handful, and the pain shot up from behind like friendly fire, almost cowardly. I clamped down on myself. Don't move. Don't move.

But I didn't understand. It looked so soft.

What's that stuff they stuff pillows with?

What? I don't know. Feathers? Down? We need to focus. It's getting late.

Yes. Late. The woods were bleeding light. Soon the black trees would lose contrast, run together, as the snow between them faded from white to grey, bone to ash.

◊ ◊ ◊

"Should I close my eyes?"

"No. I don't know. One, two—"

"No, wait! I'm not ready!"


Jake torqued back on the pliers. Ely shrieked. They'd been five and six years old that midsummer Saturday, not yet the seasoned double act they'd become, but clever enough to synchronize their procedure with their father's lawn mowing and mother's evening japa. From the moment she'd started chanting, yoga mat flanked by a tall glass of turmeric root juice and a timer for the vegan meatloaf, the boys knew they had ten minutes to complete the extraction, give or take a few Namu Myōhōs and Renge Kyōs.

The tooth glistened in the needle-nose pincers like something larval in the beak of a bird. The mower droned monastically in the distance. Ely groaned and fell back into a pile of sawdust; they were in the garage, which moonlighted as their father's workshop and mother's erstwhile candle-making studio. He cupped his hand under his chin to catch a dribble of blood. Jake wrenched him up by the elbow, anticipating tears half a second before Ely felt the telltale burn in his throat.

"Don't cry," Jake said. "I didn't cry."

Ely grabbed a rag from the workbench and crammed the cleanest part into his mouth to stem the flow.

"Easthy for you to sthay," he sniffled around the rag. "Yoursth came out all by itsthelf."

"Just like yours." Jake gave him a hard look. Ely gingerly removed the rag from his throbbing socket and held out his hand.

"Yeah. Gimme the tooth."

Their parents were not convinced by the tableau vivant arranged for them in the kitchen: the tooth a bloodless prop on the tile floor, Ely pitching half a step behind as though he had just dislodged it with one particularly forceful hiccup, Jake twisting around on his barstool, lips parted around the gap in his own gums where, two dinners prior, a spoonful of gelatinous succotash had suctioned his wiggly canine right out of his head and left him changed. For two whole days of Kindergarten they'd suffered the ignominy of individuality, of every smile betraying them to their teachers and classmates. Even their parents hadn't been able to tell them apart before (not without exposing their navels, which seemed like a humiliation now that they could talk). But parents weren't always as stupid as they looked.

It wasn't healthy, their mother explained. It wasn't honest, said their father. The tooth fairy didn't come to jealous little boys who wanted a quick buck—nor did she come to those who ripped their brother's teeth out like a medieval barber-dentist. Of course their parents thought it was about the money; the boys weren't about to correct them, not that they had the words to describe it. The need. The itch. They looked into each other across the dinner table, between bites of meatless meatloaf, and the locking of their eyes was as pure and clear as anything they might've said aloud. Who could spot the difference when even they could not? In making a gap they had filled one.

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