Baby Teeth

by Stephanie Thurrott

Brenda and Linda stood at the threshold of Marissa's bedroom. The room had sat untouched for six months. An uncapped lip gloss rested on the bureau, its pink edge dry and cracked. Brenda's feet were anchored to the floor. Linda tapped her sister on the arm but Brenda didn't move, didn't seem to notice. Linda said, "It's time. You'll be glad you got this done. You'll feel better."

Brenda gazed at the sunny walls. She had painted them twelve years ago, when she was pregnant. Now the surfaces were pocked with nail holes and scarred with stickers. Was it something she did back then that made Marissa sick?

"I know it's hard. But it will be good for you to get this done. You need to move forward." Linda stepped in first, then turned back towards her sister. Brenda placed one foot on the pink carpeting, gingerly, as if she expected the floor to give way. It supported her weight, and she felt the stale air shift around her. Marissa's bedroom, like the rest of the house, felt both solid and vacant.

"We'll go around the room and sort everything." Linda took charge, just as she had for the funeral, when Brenda was paralyzed by the countless decisions she should have made months earlier: which funeral home, which casket, which songs, which outfit? Linda reached back for four cardboard boxes, already labeled "trash," "recycling," "donate" and "keep." She placed them in the middle of the room.

"Thanks for helping me with this." Brenda felt rooted, useless.

"What about these. Can they go?" Linda picked up a stack of Geo Kids magazines that Brenda didn't remember Marissa ever reading. She nodded, and Linda dropped the pile into the recycle box.

"Good. See? That wasn't so hard."

Marissa had taped her class photos above her bed, a line of 5x7s stretching from preschool through sixth grade. Linda peeled the photos from the wall, working her way back through the years. Brenda stepped next to Linda and took the fourth-grade class photo from her hand. "She already looked frail, even back then. I thought her eyes were just expressive. Why couldn't I see how sick she was?"

"No one saw it," Linda answered gently. Brenda tried to find the comfort she knew was behind her sister's words.

"I should have seen it. I'm her mother. I should have known."

"You couldn't have known. The doctors said."

"Of course that's what they said. But I could tell they blamed me. Everyone blames me. John blamed me."

"John needed to grieve in his own way."

"You always take his side."

Linda didn't deny it. "A lot of couples don't make it through something like this," she said.

"Especially when one of them doesn't need to look too far to find a shoulder to cry on," Brenda said.

"There is nothing going on between him and me," Linda said.

"It doesn't matter. There's nothing going on between him and me either."

Linda pulled down more photos, gently peeling the tape from their corners and tossing the sticky pieces in the trash box. As she went back through the years, Marissa looked stronger, posing alongside her childhood friends with her head held high. Linda stacked the oldest photos on top. Brenda took them from her and looked at them one at a time, searching for a sign she had missed.

Linda picked up a Raggedy Ann doll from the bed. Its clothing was lost long ago and she could see where a heart was stitched on the chest, tiny red crosses sewn by hand.

"I want to keep that. I'll donate the stuffed animals. I just want to keep this one doll," Brenda said. Linda gathered the stuffed menagerie—lions, giraffes, unicorns—and swept all the animals into the donate box.

Now Marissa's bed looked stark, the bedspread no longer anchored by the animals. "I should probably wash this before I donate it." Brenda looked at the bedding but didn't move.

"I'll take it." Linda balled up the blankets and sheets and placed them outside the bedroom door.

Brenda lay down on the barren bed. "I spent so many nights here with her." She hugged Marissa's pillow to her chest. "It doesn't smell like her anymore. It doesn't smell like anything."

"Do you want to keep it?"

"I don't think I'm ready to do this."

"I'll do it. Just stay there." Linda took the pillow from Brenda. She peeled off the yellow pillowcase, folded it into a tiny square, and set it in the bottom of the keep box. She put the pillow in with the trash.

"No. Don't get rid of the pillow."

"Brenda, she's not in the pillow. She's gone. Holding onto her things isn't going to make her come back."

"You don't know what it's like. You don't even have kids."

"Not for lack of trying."

Brenda turned away, avoiding her sister's eyes.

Linda moved on to the bureau and began clearing knick knacks from its surface. She tossed the lip gloss in the trash. Brenda said nothing. Linda picked up a tiny jar that looked like it once held baby food. It was filled with tissue.

"Can I see that?" Brenda took the jar and unscrewed the cap. She gently lifted out the tissue. Dusty flecks speckled her hands as the yellowed tissue started to disintegrate.

"What is it?" Linda asked.

Brenda spilled Marissa's baby teeth out onto her hand. They clicked against each other. She counted 17. When Marissa died, she still had two back teeth that hadn't fallen out. And years earlier, she had swallowed one of the first teeth she lost. Brenda remembered the note Marissa had written to the "Toof Farie" explaining what had happened.

"Are those her teeth?"

"I saved them all. A few years ago, she figured out the truth about the tooth fairy, and I gave them back to her."

"You saved them?"

"Of course. What else would I do with them." Brenda tried to arrange the teeth along the mattress in two rows, but she couldn't tell the difference between the top and bottom teeth. She arranged them by size instead, smallest to biggest. "I'm going to keep them."

"I don't think that's a good idea," Linda said.

But Brenda rose from the bed, careful not to jostle the teeth on the mattress. She stepped out into the hall and looked in the closet. On the top shelf was her old jewelry making kit. She hadn't had time to pull it out in years, since before Marissa got sick and John left. It was too cumbersome to bring to the hospital. There, filling the hours, she had tried knitting, but she would lose count, ripping out and restitching the same row over and over. She couldn't concentrate on Suduko. She took to reading back issues of People and Us, stories that she couldn't remember reading, though they filled the minutes between the doctor's rounds and vital signs checks. She would read the same issues again and again, distracting herself with stories about movies she would never watch and songs she would never hear.

Brenda took down the wooden box. It looked like an old-fashioned tackle box, but instead of lures and hooks its compartments were filled with glass beads, metal chains and clear filament. The last piece she had made was a bracelet for Marisa, topaz beads alternating with silver squares that spelled her name. Marisa had worn it every day; she was wearing it still.

The bottom of the box held Brenda's old drill. She pushed the button and the drill spun. It still held a charge. She placed the tiniest bit in it and carried it back to the bed, where the teeth were still arranged in a row like pearls.

"What are you doing?" Linda turned from the closet, her arms full of dance costumes.

"I'm making a bracelet."

"No. Just put them back in the jar."

Brenda started the drill. Its whine pierced the quiet of the house. Linda looked on, speechless. With her jeweler's tweezers in one hand, Brenda gripped the largest tooth. In her other hand, the drill spun.

"I don't think this is helping you. Let's just take a break," Linda said. "We can try again later."

Brenda did not reply. She touched the drill to the tooth and broke the surface of the enamel. The room filled with the metallic scent of a dental office. A cloud of dust rose from the tooth and sparkled against the yellow walls. Brenda held the tooth gently with her tweezers, and put the drill through it with the lightest touch. The tooth held firm at first, but it was too fragile. When the drill broke through the other side, the tooth fractured. Its white flakes disappeared in the pink carpet.

BIO: Stephanie Thurrott's stories have been published in The Shine Journal and Blink-Ink, and she earned second runner-up honors in the 2010 Boston Book Festival's alternate ending contest for her take on Tom Perrotta's short story, "The Smile on Happy Chang's Face." She studies fiction at Grub Street in Boston.