What is in Relief

Kira Houston is a digital & traditional artist, writer, and advocate. In his free time he likes to write D&D campaigns. You can find his work at https://kiyye.com/. His piece below, “What is in Relief” is a unique and unsettling take on the horror genre.

What is in Relief

Kira Houston

When I was younger, my teeth fell out all at once. I had been waiting since the third grade to lose my first one. My classmates, when they lost a tooth in school, went to the teacher for a special lost-tooth-necklace. A plastic box attached to a string where the tooth would clink around until they brought it home. I was jealous of that special necklace and jealous of their teeth. I felt my own teeth each night, fitting my thumb underneath them and wiggling, hoping for one to budge. Sometimes I couldn’t tell if a tooth was shifting in place, whether I’d imagined it, or whether it was just the leeway of my young gums. None of my teeth ever got any looser from this nightly ritual.

When I did lose my first, I was watching a hockey game with my parents. A teacher was sitting next to me, one who taught at the high school, named Mister Zen. He made smalltalk with my parents during the game. He had a quiet voice and a bit of thin, blonde hair, although he wasn’t very old. He looked more to me like someone who might sell computers at the department store rather than a teacher, but high school teachers didn’t look like elementary school teachers.

While my parents followed the bouncing puck, I ran my tongue around my mouth and one of my teeth popped out. It swung forward like a doggy door when I touched it from behind and then it dropped into my mouth. I was shocked to feel it rolling around on my tongue. There wasn’t any blood, or even any tugging; it dropped right out as if it was never attached at all. I carefully pulled the tooth from my mouth. My parents weren’t watching. I didn’t want them to fuss over me and make an inconvenience in the middle of the game, but I didn’t know how I’d carry the tooth. Without a special lost-tooth-necklace, I was sure to lose it by accidentally unclenching my fist.

When I clenched my fist tighter, the high school teacher Mister Zen leaned over and gently held out his hand.

He said, “I can hold onto that for you.”

I ran my tongue through the empty spot in my mouth, pulling back from the warm gum and then probing it again. I didn’t know what to do, so I gave my tooth to Mister Zen, pressing my small hand into his.

I hardly noticed when the game ended, since I was engrossed in my new mouth-hole. As I walked out with my parents, I kept Mister Zen in my line of sight, expecting him to approach me, to joke with my parents about my lost tooth, and return it. But Mister Zen just walked out with the rest of the crowd.

That evening, I told my parents about my tooth. I told them I swallowed it at the game. They cooed at me, patting my shoulder and peering into my mouth.

“Next time you lose a tooth, be sure to hold onto it. If you put it underneath your pillow, the Tooth Fairy will come with a gift for you,” said my father, sharing a smile with my mother.

“Wha’s that,” I asked. My tongue was still busy poking around my mouth.

My mother explained about the Tooth Fairy. I made a noise like I understood. I’d known about the Tooth Fairy before, but I’d made a decision to act willfully ignorant. I was worried about being punished for giving my tooth to Mister Zen. I knew I should have kept my tooth to give it to the Fairy, so I felt guilty for losing track of it. I somehow didn’t expect Mister Zen to ever give my tooth back to me.

The next time I lost a tooth, two days later, I was in the school bathroom. I had been feeling the backs of my teeth cautiously, checking carefully for any movement, and just before lunch I found one ready to drop. I made it to the bathroom before it fell out. In front of the mirror I pulled it easily from my mouth. It was one of my back teeth, shaped so differently from the last one I lost. I was fascinated by the deep recession where the tooth met my gum, which gave it the appearance of a tiny couch with four little white legs. 

While I was turning it over between my fingers, the tooth slipped and fell into the sink. I panicked, afraid it would fall down the drain, and managed to slam my hand down over it. It clattered like an earring against the porcelain sink bowl. Painstakingly I closed the drain stopper, just to be safe, and then scooped the tooth back into my hands. I held it securely in my clenched fist and walked back out into the hall.

Coming my way I saw Mister Zen. He was carrying a messenger bag and walking in his slightly stooped way, his little tuft of blonde hair stuck to his forehead. He stopped to look at me, smiling a kind, serene smile. I suddenly felt ashamed, as if he’d seen me fumble the tooth in the bathroom.

“Hello Maria. It’s good to see you,” he said pleasantly, pushing up his glasses.

Wordlessly, I shoved my hand forward and opened my palm to reveal the tooth. Mister Zen came forward, looked at it with interest, and plucked it from me. He smiled again, even more kindly, and walked off down the hall.

Over the next month, he was there every time a new tooth fell. Sometimes I would even see him before I discovered the tooth, and I would make a quick inspection of my gums to find the loose one, spit it out, and hand it to him. Mister Zen was always kind upon receiving my teeth. Once he even thanked me. I saw him everywhere: at the dog park, at soccer practice, waiting for the bus in the rain with another high school teacher. At night, now, I was afraid to poke around my teeth. If one fell out in my sleep, would he come to my room, shake my shoulder and wake me up? I started sleeping on my side with my face pressed down into the pillow because I had no idea what would happen if I swallowed one.

My parents eventually noticed my lack of teeth. They brought me to the dentist to find out what was wrong.

“Well, it’s an anomaly to lose all your teeth at once,” said the dentist, “but everything looks healthy to me. We’ll check up on those new teeth when they start to come in, and hopefully we won’t see any problems.”

They also brought me to a doctor to do an X-ray, because they were convinced I’d swallowed every single tooth. The doctor didn’t find any teeth in my stomach, which was a relief to me as much as them.

“I just keep losing track of them,” I lied, when my parents asked where all those teeth had gone.

Finally, my parents kept me home from school to keep watch on my last tooth. I was having trouble talking and eating because of my gums. The dentist ordered a special set of dentures fitted to my mouth, but they hadn’t arrived yet. That night, as I was wiggling my final front tooth with my finger, it came loose and fell into my palm. My parents were ecstatic to see it. They didn’t say anything about the Tooth Fairy because by now they were too preoccupied with imagined medical scenarios, so I left the tooth on the counter.

I slept fitfully, but I didn’t feel so guilty about that tooth as I did with the others. I was so upset with my parents’ worrying that I hardly thought about Mister Zen. I dreamt that all my new teeth had come in, but they were in the shape of lego action-figures, so I couldn’t close my mouth without making a horrible crunching noise and poking lego men into my gums.

In the morning, without a tooth in my mouth, I woke up and went to the bathroom. On the counter I found a small, wooden box. It didn’t come with any note. Inside, there was a set of teeth.

These teeth weren’t exactly like my teeth. They were bigger, the size of adult teeth. They weren’t set into a mold like dentures; instead, each tooth was lying in a small recession in the bottom of the wood box, fitted to its own individual shape. They were lined up in proper order, and not curved in a jaw’s shape but sitting rows like gravestones. What’s more, the teeth came in a variety of red, orange, yellow and green colors, like a box of crayons. Not a single one was white.

I picked up one of the top front teeth to look closer. Engraved into the tooth, with the most fantastic precision, was a little drawing: a lady holding a bean-shaped swaddled babe. The drawing was bordered by an incised frame of sorts which followed the shape of the tooth. Each tooth in the box, I saw, bore a different miniature scene. On another there was a lady kneeling before an angel. On another there was a thin, pointy man laying in the lady’s arms. Every tooth was carved in this way, even the squattest back molars.

Although my hands shook, I was careful to close the drain, and then I delicately fit one of the front teeth into my mouth. The new tooth fit perfectly into my gum and, to my surprise, held there without much wobbling. I ran my tongue around it, wiggling it slightly. It felt precarious, like I needed to touch it with my tongue every once in a while to keep it from sliding down. I started to insert the other teeth, but I had only put in about four before I felt violently sick. I barely managed to pull the teeth back out and shove the box to the side before I was leaning over the sink.

First I let out a wet belch. Then up my throat climbed a sensation like rolling marbles. I wretched, and out of my mouth flew a sputtering stream of white teeth. They rushed out of me with terrible speed, clattering against the sink and the counter like coins in a piggy bank. They were wet with something reddish yellow and pulpy. My eyes became blurry with tears as the teeth kept coming up; I held my chest because it felt like my lungs were the spasming organ, not my stomach. I felt like I would suffocate. The sink filled higher and higher until teeth began to clatter onto the floor.

With my blurry vision I could only make out a shape behind me in the mirror. Someone stood there, someone with a stooped neck, his head cocked to the side as he watched me.

“Thank you, Maria. I can take those,” said the figure, and he took a few steps toward me with a hand outstretched.

At that moment the geyser of teeth ran dry and I screamed, whirling around and rubbing my eyes to clear my vision. When I turned, it was my stomach which felt queasy again, not my lungs, and there was no man in the room with me. Behind me the counter was pristine, the sink empty, and the floor completely clear. The wooden box remained at the side of the sink, as innocuous if it might have been a soap dish.

My parents came rushing up the stairs to ask why I had screamed. I told them I’d poked my gums with a hangnail. They cooed at me, ushering me downstairs to breakfast, although I didn’t have an appetite. As soon as I could get away, I stumbled back up to the bathroom. To my relief, the wooden box was still sitting on the counter.

I kept that box. I didn’t know where to put it, or what to tell my parents, so I hid it under my pillow. I was comforted by the hard rectangular shape, feeling it with my hand as I slept. Eventually, as my adult teeth started to come in—and thank God they did, so my parents would stop fussing—the vibrant colors of the teeth in my box started to fade. Eventually they all bleached to a pure, pearly white. Every night I open my box to feel them, to consult their little pictures, and to wiggle them around in their slots like gums. There is something about that feeling, that precarious, wiggling feeling, that I just can’t seem to shake.

Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

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