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A Man With Pain Behind His Teeth


by M. F. Sullivan


The back of Jeremy's jaw was throbbing too hard for him to listen to Liz bitch about about her job. Nothing had changed from the day before. Everyone still hated her. Nancy still talked behind her back. They still sniggered about her weight the second she left the room.

She was paranoid, and he couldn't focus. His fingertips dug into his cheek, breath hitching with the ache flaring up behind his teeth. By noon today it had gotten so bad that he had to leave work. If he managed to make it in on Monday his workload was going to kick his ass.

When she deigned to look at him, it was only because he hadn't managed a timely response to her most recent batch of complaints. “You're not even listening. No matter how hard I try it's never any good enough. You're just like them.”

There was no figuring where that came from. Which week of the month was it? “That has nothing to do with anything. I'm just...maybe you're being a little too sensitive.” There was no way any group of people hated a single person as much as her workmates seemed to hate her.

“Look, I know these people better than you do. You're not around them all day, you have no idea what they're like. You think you know better than me?”

A sharp breath streaked into his lungs as he fought a grimace of pain. “That's not what I'm saying at all.”

“That's what it sounds like.”

His fingers pushed against his teeth through the flesh of his cheek. The sting had spread to both sides, now. Would the emergency room be able to do anything about his teeth? Did they have a dentist on-call? Jeremy gasped to steady himself, words pouring from his mouth without censor provided by his mind. “Is this about your sister's wedding?”

It was a mistake to bring it up, he knew, but he couldn't think about anything, couldn't stop himself. When he was a kid he fell from a tree; it took a a heartbeat for him to realize he was falling. That second of helpless realization was more terrifying than hitting the ground.

“I'm sorry I can't make it, but—”

“No. You know what?” Liz shot to her feet, long fingers twisting into fists. His jaw twinged while she narrowed her eyes. “I'm sorry that I wasted all this time thinking you cared. I'm sorry that I spent five years with you, under the impression that maybe, sometime, somehow, you'd grow up a little and understand what this sort of thing means to me. I'm sorry that you're too busy to care about me.”

There were furious tears in her eyes by now, but he couldn't see him. The whole room grew blurred black-red. Did the dentist get all his wisdom teeth out all those years ago? Maybe there were still shards in there. He could see them, buried among all the carmine tissue like a pearl in the flesh of a clam. The ache worked its way up to his temple to pound in time with his pulse.

“Jeremy.”

Her voice reached him—how long had she been saying his name?—and he turned to face her despite his watering eyes. Those soft lips twisted like a snake writhing in death throes. “And you can't even bother listening to me when I'm leaving, can you.”

She stormed through the door; before “No, baby, wait,” could formulate in his mouth, she was gone. The entire wall rattled floor to ceiling like an echo of her fury. He reeled back against the arm of the chair to paw at his gums through his skin.

Maybe it was a tumor. Mouth cancer was rare. In someone so young, too. But it was possible. It was starting to swell to the front of his teeth, now, too. He must have looked like the Elephant Man.

He was in such a hurry to get to the bathroom that he slammed his shin into the corner of the coffee table. The impact stung his leg every step of the way until he lurched through the door to grip the sink. He squinted into the mirror, opening his mouth as wide as it would go, tugging open his jaw with two fingers to pull it wide. The sting doubled; his eyes watered, but the metallic glint in the back of his mouth forced him to persevere.

With renewed force, he pushed his fingers against his teeth until both his knuckles screamed with the imprints of the row of yellowing teeth. His mouth watered at the sensation, wet tongue flapping like a dying trout upon the deck of a ship. His hand crept toward the back of his mouth, pushing as far as it could get. The tips of his fingers brushed something with the texture of a rusted padlock. Yes, that was metal, metal on both sides in the back of a mouth that stretched wider with each passing second. His fingers sought to grip the thing and his nerves awoke with pain. The sensation of its coming free rattled through his throat. When he was a boy given to nosebleeds, the sensation of a viscous clot tugging free of his sinuses felt much the same. That sudden emptying in his nose, down the side of his throat.

Like that, the pain on the right side was gone. As his hand emerged, so too came the Swiss Army knife that had caused him so much pain, emerging corkscrew-first with the jagged pen knifes following after. He coughed, tongue worrying the now-bare spot with relentless fascination even as he attended to the other side, extracting one half-inch at a time a metal rosary, the beads popping from his gums like so many baby teeth lost long ago.

When it was gone, he spat into the sink and stared down at the products of his excavations in deranged wonder. His bloodied hand dropped to his pocket in search of his phone. It rang, rang; she picked up, her voice tearful as it was furious.

“Lizzie.” His hyper-salivating mouth filled with blood which he spat into the sink. “Did you put something in my mouth? A— a rosary? A bottle-opener?”

“Don't call me again.”

The line went dead. He stood above the sink, swaying, his wet mouth hanging open like that of a subnormal admiring a firework show.

His jaw didn't ache anymore.

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