Reading by Ear:

“What’s the matter with you today, somebody leave a turd under your pillow or something?” Fay plopped the bag of teeth on the counter and started boiling water to clean them. Mike was sitting at the kitchen table, looking sourly at the bowl of Grape-Nuts in front of him.

“I just don’t understand why you need mine. I can hardly eat anymore. You have a whole bag of the damn things right there.”

“I’ve explained it to you before, Mike, these are from a bunch of little kids. I can use these to do little kid things. You want me to do those things you like so well, you have to give me the adult ones.”

Mike’s tongue found the hole where his third-to-last molar had been. His two remaining molars opposed each other, so he could chew his cereal one piece at a time if he wanted to spend all day at it. Grape-Nuts probably wasn’t the best idea, but it was all he had. He needed to go to the store. He needed to buy applesauce and oatmeal.

Yesterday, though, good gravy, it had been worth it. It always was, in the moment, a high that he couldn’t turn down or properly gauge a cost for. One tooth? He still had a lot of them. That was only—what—less than five percent of his teeth? And Fay could do things. She was the goddamn Tooth Fairy, and she had done things to him that special effects men had never conceived.

After these sessions, he’d fall asleep, abraded and dehydrated, and wake up missing another tooth. At least she took them in his sleep, not with pliers while he screamed, but still. The accumulated cost was getting out of control.

Fay threw a handful of salt in the boiling water and rattled the sack of baby teeth into the pot. Stirring it a few times, she set the kitchen timer for ten minutes and went upstairs to change out of her work clothes. She didn’t look like a fairy. She was about 5’9”, for one, taller than Mike, and built more like a powerlifter than a flitting magical creature. She had bright blond hair she kept in a long ponytail, and a face that was oddly, jarringly symmetrical. Not just symmetrical, but perfectly symmetrical. No one looked like that. Sometimes she’d purposely fudge her eyeliner or contour her cheekbones into different places so people wouldn’t stare.

Her work clothes were sort of funny once you knew her. She actually wore the filmy organza gown little kids thought she did, just in case one woke up and saw her. It was blue, and shimmery, and about as in tune with her personality as a swimsuit on a llama. She wore work boots under it, heavy steel-toed things that made her clomp around like a troll when she walked. Good thing she flew during work hours, or she’d be shot by some good guy homeowner.

Mike watched his cereal go soft. Maybe he should warm it up, it said on the box you could do that. He nuked them for three minutes and found out three minutes was about two and a half minutes too long. Protein smoothie again, then the store later.

Fay came back in her civilian clothes, a big flannel shirt, tank top, and sweatpants, with her stupid expensive boot slippers, pom-poms a’dangle. She saw his congealed breakfast steaming in the sink and grimaced. “I don’t know how you eat that stuff, it smells like beaver breath.”

“Obviously, I don’t. That’s why it’s in the sink. I can’t chew it anymore anyway,” he emphasized, to her complete non-acknowledgement. She put her mesh strainer in the sink and dumped the boiling pot of teeth into it. The coppery smell of the water gave Mike a phantom taste in the back of his throat, like a one-capillary nosebleed. It was from the little bit of blood left in the teeth when kids put them under their pillows. Fay boiled the teeth because you couldn’t be too careful these days, even with little kids.

She shook the teeth to get all the water out and put them in a mixing bowl. It was a big haul, she’d had a busy night. She grabbed the milk off the table and a spoon from the drawer, splashed the milk over the hot teeth, and dug in.

The sound of Fay eating teeth was positively nerve-shredding. Mike abandoned his planned smoothie and retreated upstairs. The sound was like a gravel crusher going to town on a load of heirloom china—not just crunching, which would be annoying, but shattering and shrieking as the enamel surfaces scraped together at great force. Fay’s teeth were perfect, and yes, perfectly symmetrical, and made of god-knows-what, because she’d chow her way through that whole bowl by the time he got out of the shower.

He inspected himself in the shower. His privates were a little sore and chafed on the underside, but the skin wasn’t broken, and he’d be okay in a day or two. He was so hungry, though. He hadn’t had a decent meal in weeks. Eventually, he’d have to go to the dentist and get fitted for dentures or something, but he didn’t have a convincing story and he was pretty sure he wasn’t done losing teeth. He still had the eight most visible ones up front, the two molars, and one lonely bicuspid hanging out by itself and getting nervous. He imagined it saying, “Hey, guys? Guys? You want to talk about what’s going on here?” and being ignored by his other teeth. Those teeth had convinced themselves they were too important to be sacrificed. They’d see about that in a week or so when he couldn’t stand just sleeping next to Fay anymore.

Fay was getting a little drowsy when he came back downstairs. A big bowl of teeth did that to her. He thought this would be the best time to bring up his idea, when she was a little sleepy, belly full, comfortable.

“Hey, Fay? I’m glad you had a good night.” She smiled at him and moved a couch pillow so he could sit down. “I wondered if I could talk to you about an idea I had?”

“Sure. What you need?”

“Well, I was thinking, if we keep going the way we are, I’m going to run out of teeth pretty soon. I was thinking, there might be a way to get you adult teeth but not mine?”

Fay’s eyes bore into him. “What the hell are you playing at? You gonna go out with pliers and torture innocent people so you can get in my pants?”

“NO, no, I mean, if that was the only way, maybe I could pay somebody? I mean…people will do anything for money, and one tooth isn’t that big a deal, I could just go down to the homeless shelter and—”

“Oh, hell no. I am not looking for some swiss-cheesy wino teeth that haven’t been brushed in a couple of decades. Gross. You’re disgusting.” She scooted away from him on the couch, and he could see that this wasn’t going well, but he couldn’t let go just yet.

“Well, what about cadavers? I could probably get nice clean teeth from a funeral home or something?”

“Mike? You need to stop this right now, because I am THIS CLOSE,” she held up two fingers about a millimeter apart, “to never fucking you again. If you are that worried about your teeth, I’ll go now, and you can go back to your normal life with what you have left. I told you when I moved in, this is not negotiable.”

Mike sulked on the couch. He didn’t want her to go. She had him by the canines and they both knew it. Fay sprang up and went upstairs to bed. Mike would follow after a while. He had a freelance job that needed to be out today and working all night hadn’t been quite enough. He went to use the bathroom before getting back to work, glaring at his square face and prematurely sunken cheeks.

“Applesauce and oatmeal,” he groused, and grabbed his toothbrush.

The Story: This is a story I wrote last year, on a whim, after an online conversation about which fantasy or make-believe character a person would like to date. The Tooth Fairy seems an unlikely candidate, but if she can “do things,” maybe it makes more sense. It also made sense to me that she wouldn’t “do things” without a trade, and what else would she be interested in?

This is a favorite story of mine for a couple of reasons, and it’s my husband’s least favorite story. His exact quote was, “I hope no one ever reads that.” He has a thing about teeth. I can dismember someone and that’s fine, but he wants nothing to do with a bowl of teeth. I have some great new Halloween decorating ideas now…

PS. I am working on a story that is longer and more complex from a reader suggestion, and it won’t take to serializing very well–working title “Treefall.” The draft is coming along nicely. I have cried more than once while writing it. Welcome to Dark Roast territory.