Caroline came into the kitchen the while I was making dinner.
“Mommy, my tooth feels funny.”
I had her open her mouth and I told her to point to the one that felt different. She did. It was one of the bottom incisors. I touched it with the tip of my finger. It wiggled.
“That’s normal, honey. Remember when I told you you’d get big girl teeth? You’re gonna lose your baby teeth and the Tooth Fairy will give you a dollar!”
Caroline smiled. “I’m a big girl!” she announced.
“You can wiggle it with your tongue if you want,” I suggested. I’d read that helps the process along.
Caroline worked her tongue around inside her closed mouth, then scampered back into the living room.
A couple days later, as she munched away on a chunk of apple, she dropped the piece and gasped. I glanced over. There were a few drops of blood on the plate.
“Was that your tooth, honey?” I asked.
Caroline nodded, then drooled a teaspoon of blood and saliva onto her snack, followed by the tooth.
“Congratulations!” I said. “The Tooth Fairy is going to visit tonight!”
She beamed and resumed eating. The next morning, all Caroline did was talk about how rich the Tooth Fairy had made her.
Time went by and Caroline lost more of her baby teeth. I brought her to the dentist to get her six-month checkup and cleaning and was told everything looked good. He said to expect her to complain about itchy or sore gums as the adult teeth came in. If it looked like she was in real discomfort, I could give her some Tylenol.
After Thanksgiving spent with our extended family, Caroline and I were in the car heading home. I could tell her mood wasn’t the best. Her father hadn’t been able to make the trip over. He and his girlfriend Skyped with Caroline early in the day and apologized, saying they weren’t feeling well. I knew it was bullshit. In her own way, I think Caroline did, too.
I tried to lighten the mood.
“Hey Car, did you tell Jilly about your new loose teeth? I bet the Tooth Fairy visited her pretty recently too.”
Caroline nodded. “I showed her. She said her Daddy tied a string around hers and pulled it out with the door. Can we do that?”
I cringed a little at the thought. “Maybe if you’re having a hard time losing them, ok?”
“Okay,” she agreed. Then she paused and said, “these ones hurt.”
“More than the other ones?” I asked. I’d worried that would be the case. It’s been a long time since I lost my own baby teeth, but I remembered having a hell of a time with my canines. Two of hers were loose.
“Yeah. And the ones in back.”
“Your back teeth hurt too?”
That surprised me. Everything I’d read suggested the back ones were the last to go and usually happened to kids who were older than Caroline.
“Did you eat anything that hurt your teeth when you were at Grammas?”
Caroline thought for a second. “The pie.”
“Of course,” I thought to myself. My mother’s a great cook, but her baking can be hit-or-miss. The sticky toffee pie had some weird, hardened caramel on it that made me worry I’d pull my fillings out while I chewed. That must have been awful for a kid who was dealing with loose teeth.
“Well, I’ll check when we get home, okay?”
“Okay Mommy.” She was half asleep.
We finished the drive in silence. I pulled in the driveway, carried my sleeping kid into the house, and shook her awake so I could help her brush. She woke up in a wretched mood.
“My mouth hurts!” she complained. “I don’t want to brush my teeth, I want to go to bed!”
“Just five minutes,” I assured her. “Then we’ll be all done and you can go to sleep.”
“No!” she yelled, and pushed away. She ran up the stairs and down the hall to her room.
“You little s**t,” I thought. I checked the time. It was 10:30. More than two hours past her bedtime. Half an hour past mine, too. I sighed. F**k it. She can win this round. I closed up the house, turned off the lights, and headed upstairs.
I stopped at Caroline’s room on the way to mine. She was fully dressed and unconscious on her bedspread. I took off her shoes and tucked her under the covers. I could see her working her jaw as she slept, as if she were uncomfortable.
“Car, do your teeth hurt?” I whispered. She didn’t answer. I kissed her forehead, turned off the light, and went to bed. Twenty minutes later, I was asleep.
The voice jolted me awake. Caroline stood at the edge of my bed, silhouetted by the hallway night-light. I checked the clock. It was after two.
“What? Car, are you okay?”
I sat up and switched on the bedside lamp. A thin trail of blood ran down the center of Caroline’s chin?
“Oh, honey, did you lose a tooth?”
“I lost four.”
“Four?,” I asked, taken aback. “Caroline, open your mouth.”
She did. I guided her head so I the lamp light would shine inside. Just like she said, there were four gaping holes in her gums. Two lower incisors and two lower molars.
“Good job on the pie, Mom,” I muttered.
“My mouth really hurts, Mommy,” Caroline complained.
I grabbed a tissue and had her open her mouth again. I dabbed the bloody holes and saw hints of white underneath. The surrounding tissue was swollen and hard, too. I figured her new molars were getting ready to come in.
I remembered the dentist’s advice from a few months prior. I got up and measured out some children’s Tylenol. Caroline accepted it with glee; she’d always loved the taste of the stuff.
“Where are the teeth that came out?” I asked.
“In my room for the Tooth Fairy,” she replied. “She’ll still come, right?”
“Of course,” I said. “But do you want to sleep in here with me?”
“Good.” I dabbed the blood off her lips and chin and tucked her into bed. She went back to sleep without any fuss. I was grateful the painkiller worked as quickly as it had.
I had trouble going back to sleep, though. I was watching Caroline’s jaw as she slept. She was moving it around like she had when she’d first gone to bed. Every movement brought a faint grinding sound. I sighed. No wonder she hurts. On top of that stupid pie and the loose teeth, she grinds her teeth as well. Just like her dumb father.
After twenty minutes, I stopped watching Caroline. I picked up my book and read a few pages before my eyelids grew heavy.
Sometime around sunrise, I woke up. I felt terrible. Too much wine on Thanksgiving, not enough water, and too little sleep. I turned over to check on Caroline. She wasn’t there.
I was startled. Caroline never gets up earlier than I do. Getting her out of bed is usually an ordeal.
“Car?” I called, and I got out of bed. I wondered if she’d gone back to sleep in her room.
“Hey Car, you awake?” I glanced in her room. It was empty.
“Caroline, are you downstairs?” I got to the top of the stairs and heard giggling coming from the kitchen. I sighed. Just when you think you know your kid, they turn around and surprise you.
“How’s your mouth this morning honey?” I asked, heading down the steps.
“It’s good!” Caroline shouted back. It sounded like she’d gotten into the cereal; she was talking with her mouth full – something I’d been trying to get her to stop doing.
“That’s great,” I said. “What’s for breakfast?”
No response. Just more giggling. As I reached the bottom of the steps, I could hear her chewing. It was loud and sharp, like the cereal was stale and hard. A flicker of concern passed through me.
“Hon, what are you eating?”
I walked down the hall and into the kitchen. Caroline was sitting at the end of the kitchen table. She was smiling as her jaw worked up and down. Her mouth was ringed with dark blood.
I gasped and ran over. “Caroline, open your mouth. Open your mouth for me now.”
Caroline kept giggling and chewing. “It doesn’t hurt!” she exclaimed, her mouth stuffed. “And the more I chew the more I get!”
I grabbed Caroline’s cheeks and squeezed them open. I shuddered as I was hit by a wave of revulsion. My daughter’s mouth was filled with shards of bloody teeth.
“Caroline!” I gasped, and tilted her head down. Splintered bits of enamel and bloody pulp plopped onto the table. I straightened her up and looked in her mouth. Before my eyes, new teeth sprouted from her puffy gums. They came in so quickly I could hear them.
“It doesn’t hurt!” Caroline repeated, and closed her jaws again. She chewed hard and I heard the sickening crunch of teeth pulverizing teeth as she giggled in her high-pitched, carefree way I’d always associated with swingsets and somersaults.
I grabbed the phone and dialed 911. She dumped more of the destroyed teeth onto the table. She seemed oblivious to the look of horror on my face. The drone of sirens grew loud but never overtook the terrible splintering sound coming from my daughter’s mouth. Caroline stared at me, her eyes wide with excitement and joy. She spit a golf-ball sized clump of blood and bone into her palm and held it out to me.
“Mommy, just imagine how much I’ll get from the tooth fairy now!”