By Lina Rather
Laura watched from the window while Mama took the salt packets they’d pocketed from a Speedway and sprinkled a circle around the house to hide them from the monster. She tore the top of each one off with her teeth and spread it as far as she could, then dropped the white paper scraps on the ground. Laura had stuffed her pockets with packets, so she knew Mama had enough to walk around the whole perimeter of the property. Not that it was much—the next mobile home sat just ten yards away.
When she came back inside, she swept her hands together to brush off the salt and sat next to Laura at the table. “Okay, honey, show me again.”
Laura opened her mouth. She’d been probing the sore spots (one in front, on the bottom, and one on the top right) and now her mouth tasted tinny. Mama touched her swollen gums.
“These just fell out today?”
Laura nodded. She pointed at her top front tooth and the canine next to it, and tried to say, “These are loose, too” but with Mama’s finger in her mouth it came out all garbled. Mama pinched the front tooth and her hands were shaking hard enough to wiggle it. When she touched the canine, it popped out in her hand easy-peasy. Mama stared at it.
“You said I should’ve lost them before.” Most of her classmates started losing their teeth in first grade, and that was a whole four years ago.
Mama got up and took a cereal bowl out of the dish drainer. She pressed a Kleenex to the raw spot in Laura’s jaw, puffy and red like a hangnail. They moved their folding chairs next to the sink, so Mama could make warm salt water for her to gargle. It was way after both their bedtimes. The canine went ping when she dropped it in the cereal bowl on the kitchen counter.
Ping went the front tooth that came out next.
Ping went the incisor from Laura’s pocket that had fallen out during gym class, while she was jumping rope.
The cereal bowl was half full, a week of lost teeth. Too many teeth, Laura thought. They’d learned about the body in her last school and she knew that kids had twenty teeth, more or less. Her teacher back there was what Mama called a free spirit and she liked to say Humanity is infinite variation so you’re just the way you’re supposed to be, but Laura was pretty sure there was an upper limit on teeth.
Laura was nine-and-a-half and for her entire life it had been just her and Mama, and for her entire life they had been running from the monster. She was six before she realized that other people’s mothers didn’t salt a ring around the house every full moon, and that other kids were told to stay out of the street more than they were reminded to wash their hands and feet with black soap so their scent didn’t track behind them. The year she was seven, they lived in Alabama. Laura loved the heat that sat around her shoulders like a baby blanket all summer and hated the humidity that made her hair go to frizz.
They left when the monster caught up to them, when the skulls of small things appeared on the doorstep and the air tasted of the monster, of deep, wet loam and burnt green branches. Mama stayed as long as she could, but Laura still missed the last week of school, the pizza party and the yearbook signing. Even after she saw the trail of footprints in rotted grass around the perimeter of the trailer they rented, she still resented missing the pizza party.
Now they lived in Indiana, right by the water. Laura was small for her age and she had no winter clothes. The other kids at school didn’t understand her nowhere-accent or why she wore tennis shoes to school in the snow. Mama got a job at a call center where she sold kitchen gadgets from the TV to old women with not enough money.
Mama said all the water made it hard for the monster to find them, and that might have been true before Laura’s teeth started coming out.
The day after Mama salted a circle around the house on a half-full moon, she packed Laura mashed potatoes and pot roast shredded to tiny pieces for lunch the next day because it hurt to chew with the new teeth coming in. Laura’s face was different now too. She could tell the new teeth had pushed her jaw out and changed the angles of her skull.
Once she’d gone on a field trip to a natural history museum where they saw the skeleton of a kid who’d died of some disease nobody got anymore (“consumption” her memory said, or maybe “influenza”). All their adult teeth were inside their facial bones, waiting for their little teeth to fall out. That day in school, the pressure in her face nearly unbearable, Laura imagined that her whole skull was made of teeth, honeycomb bones stacked with incisors and molars and premolars instead of marrow.
She sat in the cool, dark space under the play escape at recess, in a pile of woodchips. Down here it smelled dank and earthy like the monster did, and she crawled in sometimes to remind herself to be afraid of it. Now, though, she only wanted the quiet.
Something scratched next to her. She opened her eyes to find a boy pulling himself through the same hole in the play structure she had. They were in the same class. His name was Jonas, he was ten-and-a-quarter, and he took what wasn’t his. She didn’t like him very much.
“What’s wrong with your teeth?” he said, instead of hello. They sat at the same table and had to share the same box of crayons. She imagined now that he’d been staring at her mouth all day and blushed. “They’re all pointy.”
Laura ran her tongue over the sore places. He was right. She tasted blood when she scraped the tip of her tongue on the sharp, serrated edge of what should have been a molar. Carnivore teeth, she thought. Omnivores had flat molars for plants, and she had these, for biting. “Everybody’s different.”
He squinted at her in the dark, leaning so close she could smell his breath. Goldfish crackers and bubblegum toothpaste. Her stomach roiled. She knew she’d been right—there was a limit on human variation.
“You’re like a crocodile,” he said. He grabbed her arm and his face was right up in hers. “Like a dinosaur. Lizard Laura.”
“Let go of me,” she said, even though it wouldn’t do any good. It wouldn’t do any good to say Dinosaurs and crocodiles aren’t lizards either, and if she screamed she’d have to explain to the lunch lady what had happened. She’d have to show her teeth.
“Is this why you talk funny?” Jonas’s fingers dug into the soft spot under her arm. His other hand hovered by her face, almost touching. “Show them to me again.”
She smashed her head against one of the beams when she tried to yank away and she couldn’t breathe because all she could smell was him and the earth, all she could smell was the monsters. He grabbed her cheek and pulled up her lip with his thumb.
Laura bit him then. But she never heard him scream. All sound fled from the world when she tasted his blood. It filled her mouth—so, so much of it even though she knew it was just a little cut. Salt and iron and bitter sweat. And him. She saw straight through him, through clothing and skin and bone. She saw his memories and his future and his death.
“Jonas Wilder,” she said, and did not recognize the sounds or the throat that made them. “I know all of you.”
He lurched backward, tripped over himself, and tried to scramble away. But the hidey-hole was too small, and he couldn’t make his arms and legs work together well enough to crawl out. And she was so big, she could pin him down if she wanted, she could eat him up if she wanted.
“You are very stupid,” she said, and got to her feet, and brushed the woodchips off her jeans. “And you will never learn how to not be mean. You will die being stupid and mean. I can see the maggots crawling around in your skull.”
She left him crying there. Afterwards everywhere she walked, even in class, she smelled the wet ground under the play escape, the decaying cedar. She cleaned off her shoes in the bathroom and walked around in wet socks for the rest of the day but the smell of the monster still followed her home.
That night, Mama found a turtle skull on the front step. It crunched under her flip-flop when she took out the trash. The bones were so dry that Laura heard the snap from inside. She also heard Mama fall against the side of the motor home and her gasping breath. Her nails scrabbled along the siding by Laura’s room, and Laura lay flat on her bed very quietly so that she could not see out the window.
When Mama came back inside she shut the door softly and began packing. Laura heard her take the stack of boxes out from under the table and start putting the essentials inside. Toaster, silverware, Laura’s Children’s Illustrated Classics series and Mama’s H.G. Wells fancy hardback. Their car was a pick-up truck from the 80’s, but they still didn’t have room to keep everything. Clothes they could get for cheap wherever they landed, so they would bring only the favorites that could fit in Laura’s backpack. Furniture was too big to move.
Laura crept down the hall to the kitchen and watched from the doorway as Mama packed up the cans of soup and spam in the cupboard. “Are we leaving again?”
Mama stopped with a can of Homestyle Chicken Noodle in her hand. She leaned on the counter for a second. “Yeah. He’s coming.”
“It’s too soon.” Laura twirled her hair around her finger and gave it a sharp tug, so the pain would convince her this was real. Her hair was still damp from the shower. She’d scrubbed and scrubbed, first with a washcloth and soap and then with Mama’s pumice stone so her skin bled, but she still smelled like dead grass. “We’ve only been here two months.”
“He found us.” Mama hefted the soup can like she was testing it for a weapon, then sighed and put it in the box. “We’ll stay for a day or two to wrap things up here, but he’s already close.”
“Because of me.” She hadn’t told Mama about Jonas, but the teeth were enough.
Laura had known all her life that the monster was her daddy. She couldn’t remember Mama telling her. It was just a fact. She had to have come from somewhere, everyone did. She’d never considered what he’d given her. It was only her and Mama who were family, after all.
She’d seen the monster only once. She was eight and they’d waited too long in Idaho. By the time Mama revved the truck they could hear it breathing, huffing, scratching at the ground. The soil turned red under the tires and Laura choked on air so heavy with moisture and decay that it clogged her lungs. Mama hadn’t buckled in even though it was one of her rules. Laura curled up on her seat. They were going so fast and all she could think of was when an oil truck had overturned on these roads and everyone died including a bunch of animals poisoned by the petroleum.
She’d gathered all her courage up and peeked out the back window. She saw only the shadow, so big it blocked out the moon and the stars and the air around it shimmered like the world coming undone. It made her sick to look at. She’d begged Mama to go faster.
“Can he follow us better now?” She helped Mama get the shoebox full of switchblades and hunting knives out from under the sink. They’d done this all before.
“I don’t know.” Mama’s tone said probably.
Laura got out another box and packed up the laundry detergent and dish soap, which they always took with them because it was expensive. They worked in silence, with only the whistle of the wind outside and the creaks and groans of the aluminum siding to keep them company.
“Did you—“ Laura always thought of the monster as it, a force of nature, but that wasn’t right. “—love him?”
Mama sat—no, fell—down into a chair. Her hands dropped to her knees and Laura saw every thin, white scar that criss-crossed her palms. The price of holding hands with things with claws. “Yes. But—you’re old enough to know, right? That isn’t always good.”
“Sometimes it’s comforting for someone to see right through you. I never could keep a secret from him. He knew me inside and out. I was never anyone but myself with him, and for long enough, that felt like freedom.”
Mama took a great big breath and then let herself deflate. “Don’t worry about it, baby. Everybody makes mistakes when they’re young, and at least I got you out of it.”
Laura was old enough to know that she only got called baby when Mama didn’t want to talk about something.
This was the fifth town she’d lived in (that she could remember—they’d moved three times before she got old enough to notice), the fourth state, the ninth address. While other kids loved to talk about the places they’d go someday, she was terrified of atlases, nauseated at the thought of globes and geography lessons. All those faraway places she might someday have to go to evade the monster’s reach. In class, sometimes she’d stare at the inflatable globe hanging from the ceiling and try to work out how long she’d have to run before she ran out of land, and if that would be far enough.
That thought depressed her, so she went back to her room and got her stuffed bunny. His name was Wallace and she’d picked him out at a Speedway when she was three. He was missing an ear now but that didn’t matter. She sat him on her lap and chewed on his other ear even though she knew she was too old for it. Mama usually yelled at her about it, but today she didn’t even pluck the ear from Laura’s mouth.
Mama yanked packing tape across the first box and smoothed it down. “Tomorrow I’ll get my last check and we’ll figure out where to go. We can be gone by midnight, I bet.”
Wallace’s black safety eyes stared up at Laura. She’d chewed and chewed on them as a child but they’d stayed on true to their name. She fit one between her front teeth now, felt the shank sewn deep in the plush. A thread snapped. “I’m always going to be running, aren’t I, for my whole entire life.”
Mama’s head shot up. Her lips parted, but there was too long of a pause while she thought of something to say. An unhappy smile stretched her mouth wrong. “No. He’s enough of a man to die eventually.”
“But for a long, long time. Until I’m as old as you even.”
Mama laughed, but not like anything was funny. “Longer than that, sweetie.”
That night Mama mixed up saltwater in the sink and rinsed Laura’s hair with it, even though Laura was too old for being bathed. The salt got in her eyes and the crooks of her elbows and knees and her new teeth ached. When Mama held her hair at the scalp to keep her still Laura imagined how easy it would be to slip Mama’s hand into her mouth. How easy to let her teeth catch on a groove of skin, the sweet taste of blood. Like the dirt here, all iron, it would taste so good. It would fill her up. Her stomach full of grilled cheese rumbled against her ribs. She could hear Mama’s pulse so loud it drowned out everything else, the beat in her wrist so close to the one in Laura’s temple that her skull rattled in tempo with it.
In the morning there was a map on the table. For the past few years they’d chased oil. Boom towns, new faces every other week, the sort of places that lived and died on pipeline money.
“We could go north,” Mama said. “Alaska. If we go far enough, he’d have to swim. Or we could go east. Some of the houses there are built to keep out things like him, because they come from a time when people remembered to do that.”
In the night, Laura had woken to hear something in the trees. One moment it sounded like wind and the next like breathing. Her hands itched deep below the skin like she was full of splinters and papercuts. She pressed them against the window and the glass steamed. For a second, there was only the cold. Then warmth, over one hand and then the other, like someone on the other side of the glass pressing back.
Her hands felt fine today. She rubbed her right thumb over her left knuckles and couldn’t find a bone out of place, but anatomy class wasn’t until high school. She didn’t really know how many there were supposed to be. Would anyone really care if she had a few extra nubs in her wrist or a few less? “Will they let me in?”
“The houses. Out east.”
Mama’s mouth went round like she wanted to say of course but then she came around the table and cradled Laura’s face in her hands. “We might have to file your teeth. Then they’ll recognize you for what you really are.”
That day at school, everyone said goodbye to Laura. The teacher said it was sad she had to leave so quick, and her grandmother must be very sick. Laura only nodded. Jonas waited behind the teacher and only came up when all the other children had lost interest in the momentary drama and drifted out of earshot.
“I’m not sorry you’re leaving,” he declared. The teacher’s head turned slightly at his tone, reflexively. But she had too much to do to worry about every instance of children being cruel to each other. Jonas caught the motion and he put his hands on Laura’s desk so she could see what he was doing with them. His voice went small, like something she might have imagined. “I don’t want to be bad.”
“Can you help it?” she asked. This wasn’t the monster in her. She was just angry. His palms opened to her, helpless.
He shook his head. “I try.”
They were supposed to be doing worksheets. Multiplication and division with fractions. Laura had yet to understand remainders as anything more than random numbers that appeared like magic at the end of example problems. But Mama said that in seventh grade she’d be allowed to use a calculator and she’d forget how to do it all anyway, so she hadn’t really tried.
“Maybe it’s just hard,” she allowed. But she had seen his fate and she believed as all children did in inevitable endings, like in fairy tales and church sermons.
Jonas leaned against her desk and his hair fell over his face. She heard him breathing in and out, in and out, like the last breaths of one of the little creatures that the monster left on their doorstep to scare Mama and to ask her back.
She’d broken him, she realized. She hadn’t meant to, but this was also inevitable. Her hands prickled and she wanted to tear up the carpet and the cinderblocks and the grass because she knew there was a long-dead squirrel right under their feet, and maybe if she gave him its picked-clean ribcage he would understand it as an apology.
But he didn’t understand her silence. His right hand curled into a fist and he rapped his knuckles on her desk only once, with no sound, with every muscle in his arm tensed and ready. This she understood perfectly well.
She screamed so loud when the file hit the first tooth that Mama promised they could wait on the rest until they reached Pennsylvania. Laura didn’t think it would help. They could blunt all her teeth, these and the ones she felt waiting in her gums, and it wouldn’t matter.
She had a nightmare in the car of one of the houses out east locking her out. When she woke, sweating, expecting to find herself walled up in shiplap and bricks, it was dark and Mama was driving one-handed with a thirty-two ounce Styrofoam coffee cup bouncing on her knee. The wind howled and the only light in the whole world was the glow of their headlights. She tried propping her head on the seatbelt and stretching out across the backseat but the wind kept her up.
There was no moon, no stars. Mama slurped coffee and her nails tapped Morse code nonsense on the steering wheel.
The wind stuck its fingers through the cracks in the seals around the doors, the seams of the trunk. Outside the trees stooped over like old men. The car started making a sound like a blender full of ice cubes. The coffee tumbled from Mama’s lap and spilled across the passenger seat.
The windows fogged up. Mama hissed something inappropriate under her breath.
One of Laura’s front teeth wiggled. This one had already popped out once, but she could feel a new tooth underneath, the sharp edge cutting through.
The wind became a voice, and in it she heard her name over and over. Not Laura, but a different name, a name for the monster that waited in her bones and her blood.
Mama let go of the steering wheel and leaned over the dash to wipe the windshield clean with her shirtsleeve. The car swerved. Laura’s head clunked against the door and she saw fireworks.
“You alright?” Mama asked, when she grabbed the wheel again. There was coffee splattered on her cheek.
“He’s outside.” She couldn’t see the trees anymore, or the road. If there were other cars, they were lost in the darkness. Something that sounded like tree branches scraped across the roof of the car, and she knew that they were claws because she could feel her own hands changing shape.
“Just close your eyes,” Mama said.
Laura did, and the tires squealed, and the whole car jerked. She imagined that they’d been swallowed up, and opened her eyes again. She saw Mama with tears on her face, staring into a black windshield.
It will always be like this, she thought. She felt something in her shift. Not because of what her body was turning into. Because she’d never had such an enormous thought in her entire life. It made her feel grown up and scared, and she thought that this was how Mama must feel all the time.
She rolled the window down.
“Laura.” Mama was still pressing on the gas pedal, even though it was obvious they weren’t moving, even though Laura knew there wasn’t a road at all anymore. “Don’t.”
Her fingers left bloody prints on the door when her nails popped off one by one, but she could sense the form underneath now and the pain was better with a purpose.
Too late Mama hit the childlock. She fumbled with her seatbelt but her hands were shaking and Laura had always been fast. Her new legs would be faster when she shed this skin.
Before she left, Laura leaned over the seat and kissed Mama’s head, the only part she could reach. Mama, who always tried to save her, who was always doomed to failure. It wasn’t her fault that she would never understand.
“I’ll be back,” she said, “someday. And I won’t be a bad monster, I promise. Maybe I’ll eat him up, when I’m big enough.”
She smiled, and Mama froze at the sight of her. But there was nothing to be done. This mouth couldn’t speak Mama’s language anymore. She dropped from the window and the shadow scooped her up with hands made of fur and claws, and she left all the rest of herself behind.
About the Author
Lina Rather is a speculative fiction author from Michigan, now living in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Shimmer, Flash Fiction Online, and Lightspeed. When she isn’t writing, she likes to cook, go hiking, and collect terrible 90s comic books. She wishes she could say she has a dog, but alas, she lives under the tyranny of landlords. You can find more about her and her other stories on her website. She also spends altogether too much time on Twitter as @LinaRather.