Framed posters hung in the hallway, promoting good dental hygiene. “The Perfect Smile! Don’t you deserve to feel confident?” asked one of the posters. “Only brushing and flossing can protect you against GINGIVITIS” proclaimed the other, with gingivitis written in jagged red font.
Oddly, I hesitated to investigate the rooms with the dental chairs. I came to the threshold and just…stopped. Something churned in the pit of my stomach. I backed away slowly, scanning the room for danger. Nothing but moving shadows cast by the branches of trees just outside, swaying in the wind.
I took a seat in the waiting room, sinking into one of those dusty orange chairs. The first thing resembling relief so far, since the accident. The plush molar dangled above me, proudly displaying his anatomically correct plastic teeth. Mine could look like that if I’d visited regularly. Perfect as plastic, shiny and straight.
I’d just stopped coming in for checkups at some point. That can’t be what this is about, can it? Am I really being punished for avoiding the dentist’s office all these years? My mind rejected it. No, no. I’ve got to…decide something. Realize, or accept something important.
Like at the mansion. Like at the gas station. That’s how this works, isn’t it? I checked my phone. Still six in the morning. Whatever I was supposed to be doing here, I’d not yet ticked all the boxes. I briefly considered exploring further down the road.
But for what purpose? What should I expect to find there, but another dentist’s office? Insanity is trying the same thing over and over, expecting a different result. I resigned myself to the knowledge that I could not advance by brute force, as I’d tried to so many times before.
The solution to most of the problems in my life was always “work harder”, so I’ve neglected to develop other strategies. Every problem in the world looks like a nail when your only tool is a hammer. I’ve always been rewarded for that approach until now. At last, having arrived at a barrier which I could not simply bulldoze my way through.
What, then? “Is it my teeth?” I asked aloud. It can’t be. That would be stupid, surely. “I really don’t care. It’s not a big deal. I’m fine with my teeth the way they are.” No answer, as ever. Just the subtly flickering light of the street lamps cast in through the glass front door, creeping along the orange shag carpet, nearly reaching my toes.
I gripped the armrest, growing tenser by the minute. This is stupid. Why here? I’ve overcome so much, this can’t be the end. I found a pen among the markers and crayons left in a mug to occupy children. No brand on it, to my utter lack of surprise.
Flipping the cap off, I wrote on a sheet of paper I fished out of the front desk drawers “My teeth are fine”. Nothing happened. Not sure why I thought it would. I shouted it angrily, pounding the desk. Still no result. Finally I took a series of deep breaths, calming myself and accepting that I wouldn’t make it out of here as quickly as I had the mansion.
Something more involved this time. More than skin deep. But what? I scanned the walls for clues, expecting more posters promoting dental hygiene. Instead, they were framed family photos. Generic ones I assumed. Stock photos. Until I examined one up close.
I recognized my father before I realized the little boy in his arms was me. I ripped the photo off the wall and stared at it. How did they get this? The photo next to it was also of me, climbing into the car while my Dad waited in the driver’s seat.
The one next to that depicted the two of us getting out of the car in front of…the dentist’s office I now stood inside of. I began to sweat. Why? Why are these here? Who took these, anyway? Dad was right there in the photos with me, couldn’t have been him. There wasn’t anybody else riding along that day, so far as I could remember.
I did remember, too. Bits and pieces began coming back to me. Fleeting glimpses of the day my Dad took me to the dentist’s office. I’d been too small to peer over the front desk. I could hear the woman my Dad spoke to, but not see what she looked like. Her voice sounded like rainbow music.
I busied myself playing with the wire and bead toy. Then drawing pictures with the markers, and peering through the tall narrow windows. They went all the way to ground level, so I could see insects and other small wildlife hiding in the grass just outside.
It felt so safe. Even moreso than usual. No ordinary grownups ran this place. They wore official, authoritative looking white garments. They had letters after their names that I didn’t understand, but could sense the importance of. Nothing bad could happen to me here, they would make sure of it.
I could remember nothing after that. The memories sort of broke apart and dissolved after that point. Presumably I’d gone into one of those little rooms along the hallway to have my teeth looked at. Even at this distance I felt a faint repulsion. Like a magnetic field pushing me away from those rooms.
I returned anyway, more certain than ever that the key to all of this could be found therein. The churning in my stomach resumed, growing stronger as I forced myself to cross the threshold. The chair itself seemed to be radiating the invisible repulsion field. I could poke around the room, examine the tools, but not make myself sit down.
Boxes of floss. No brand name. Neither was there any sort of logo on the lollipops, nor the stickers. Holding a sticker between my thumb and forefinger stroked some deeply nested fold of my brain, calling forth fragmented images and sounds. I’d…been in this chair once.
I remember it being so much bigger. But of course the chair wasn’t bigger, my body was smaller. I felt anxious and tender, wondering what would happen to me…until a woman wearing white garments and a paper mask over her mouth and nose entered the room.
Her long brown hair was bundled up inside of a hairnet, concealed imperfectly by a blue paper cap. She wore transparent safety glasses. “Relax” she cooed. “You’re in a safe place. Your father is waiting just outside. I’m only going to have a look at your teeth.”
My lips parted, reluctantly. I felt her rubber gloved fingers probing around inside, placing some sort of spring loaded frame in my mouth to hold my jaw open while she worked. In the background I heard the whir of the little electric pump, driving the porcelain whirlpool to one side of the chair which I was instructed to spit into as needed.
“Oh dear. You should’ve come to me sooner. I’ll bet you’ve been eating a lot of candy, haven’t you.” Voice muffled by the fingers in my mouth, I asked if that was a bad thing. She nodded. “Have a look. There are bugs in your teeth, young man.”
She swiveled a mirror on a jointed armature so that it faced me. With the metal frame pinning my mouth open, lips stretched wide, I had an unobstructed view of centipedes and weevils crawling into and out of the narrow spaces between my teeth.
I gagged but couldn’t close my mouth. When I tried to get up, I discovered she’d restrained me to the seat using buckled leather straps some time during the initial examination. “Bugs in your teeth, that’s not good” she scolded. This is what your teeth will look like someday, if you continue the way you have been.”
She showed me a picture book bound with metal rings, filled with photographs of dental diseases. Blood seeping from the spots where the gums normally meet the teeth, but having receded nearly so far as to expose the roots. Crusty yellow growths speckled the gums in another photo, pus leaking out of the largest clusters. “You don’t want teeth like this, do you?” I tearfully shook my head. “Of course you don’t. There’s only one thing for it.”
She twisted the polished metal knob on a gas canister of some kind. I heard a faint hissing, coming from a transparent rubber respiratory mask of some sort which she positioned over my mouth and nose. “Don’t struggle” she whispered. “You did this. I’m only doing what has to be done.”
The ceiling began to visibly breathe. The once rigid lines defining the shape of the room, in particular where the walls met the ceiling, began to soften and fluctuate. The poster nearest me, depicting cartoonish molar men blasting gingivitis invaders with toothpaste rifles, came to life.
Stay Tuned for Part 11!