Gram slipped his tongue into the empty socket and winced. The pain tasted like the jolt of a D-cell battery. Maybe he shouldn’t have pulled so hard to get his last baby tooth out. But Mom had promised cold hard cash and the illustrated Strange Stories anthology had been calling his name for months. Yesterday, with blood pooling in his mouth, he had texted Jeremy: Kazam!Comics @ 9AM!!?! Mom was working but he’d ride his bike.
Gram flipped onto his stomach and ran his hand underneath his pillow. The sheet on the other side was cool and smooth. No tooth.
No cash either. “Mom!”
He dodged a pile of magazines and nearly tripped on a dusty box of knickknacks in his race to the kitchen. Mom sat at the breakfast table in her waitressing uniform, reading on her phone and drinking a liter of coffee. She didn’t look up. “You’re up early.”
Gram poured himself a glass of orange juice. “Money?” he prompted.
Mom she held up the palm of her hand by her ear like she was holding a tray of drinks. “Tooth?”
“I don’t have it!”
“No tooth, no twenty.” She sipped her coffee, still not looking at him.
He said, “I put it under my pillow.”
Mom’s shoulders stiffened. She gazed at him over the rim of her enormous coffee mug like he was telling a bad joke. “Under your pillow?”
“Look, I’ve got twenty bucks with your name on it if you kill some boxes in the basement while I’m at work.”
Blood and OJ swirled in Gram’s mouth like bile. “But I’m meeting Jeremy in an hour!”
Mom’s eyes shot to the clock blinking on the microwave. “I’m late.”
“I hate this house!”
“At least you didn’t have to grow up here.” Mom clenched her jaw and for a second Gram though she was going to yell. But her face softened and she said, “It’s only for the summer. Once we sort it out, we can sell the damned place and get something of our own.”
“Why’d grandma have so much junk anyway?”
Mom sighed. “Your grandmother was very ill. She hoarded stuff to fill a hole inside herself.”
She looked so sad then that Gram forgot all about his tooth.
“I’ll help when I get back.” Mom rifled through her purse for her car keys.
She paused, lost in though. Then she crossed the kitchen quickly and kissed Gram on top of the head. She squeezed his shoulder and said, “The tooth fairy never visited me in this house either. I’m sorry.”
After she had peeled out of the driveway Gram texted Jeremey again: cancel that. there is no tooth fairy.
Gram crept down the basement stairs like he was slipping into someone else’s dirty bathwater. Unpleasantly tepid air slid against his skin and gummed up his clothes. This was no way to spend summer holidays. But Mom would be home after lunch and then he’d be biking to Jeremey’s with Strange Stories in his hot little hands. How bad could it be?
At the bottom of the stairs, though, any thoughts of material possessions fled, evaporating into the decades of accumulated stuff towering around him. The rest of the house was a cluttered mess. This was something else. He tongued at the empty socket again. How much stuff must Mom must have gotten rid of already while he stayed with Dad? Gram opened the first box, surprised to find that he actually wanted to help.
He worked methodically, opening boxes, sorting out the trash from things they might actually be able to sell. There wasn’t much of the latter. The deeper he got into the stacks the fewer salable items he found. Most of the junk was much older than his grandmother. Was hoarding hereditary? Gram imagined his mother burrowing into all this junk like a dragon with its gold. The image creeped up on him as he dug, rising unbidden, as if from the boxes themselves. He made endless trips up and down the stairs. Every box he set on the curb felt like a scab picked off an old wound.
Gram had never been close to his grandma. But the basement was thick with her presence. She lurked behind towers of mouldy newspapers and peered out of boxes stuffed with disintegrating yellowed lace, urging him ever deeper into the stacks. Cold sweat oozed out of every pore but he pressed on, Strange Stories completely forgotten. Every box he opened was one Mom didn’t have to deal with.
Like an archaeologist excavating an ancient burial mound, Gram dug in. At the centre, in the deepest reaches of the hoard, he found his prize. A wooden chest, ancient but curiously well cared for. The layers of dust that hung like a shroud over everything down here didn’t touch it. Grandma’s special place. The thought came out of his brain as if he were possessed. His mouth filled with the sour battery taste again and his jaw ached.
He opened the box.
A swarm of smiling faces stared up at him. Dolls, with strange misshapen buttons for eyes and crooked grins. Each had a little heart shaped necklace with a name printed in spidery letters: Anna, Beth, Susan—his aunts. Mary, Mom. Older dolls with names he didn’t recognize peered up at him. Gram reached into the box and took out a doll with short, dark hair like his own. This one wasn’t smiling. It wore a shocked expression, its tiny mouth a lumpy “O” of surprise. His own mouth fell open. The cold damp air made his socket ache.
Stuffed into the doll’s mouth was a molar. Fresh blood blossomed on the fabric like lips parting around the tooth. Smaller teeth made tiny, unblinking eyes. The buttons on its little jacket were made of teeth. And there was a little heart, just like the others.
Except it was his mother’s clean, sharp lettering that spelled the name.
This piece was written for the #BlogBattle Stories flash fiction challenge. February’s theme was “Loss” at 1000 words or less. This piece is 999 words. Check out the other submissions HERE! And, as always, let me know what you think. Thanks for reading!