Ottawa, IL. 1930
Annie carefully handled the watch faces. Looking at them for ten hours a day could make it seem as if she dealt in frozen time. When she finally glanced up at the clock on the wall, she couldn’t help but think it was strange when the hands moved. She had become more comfortable with time when it was stopped. She dipped the brush in the glow paint and did one slow stroke along the minute hand. Then she put the brush between her lips to gather the bristles to a point and painted the stubby hour hand. She had to apply a certain amount of pressure without any assisting resistance, which was always difficult.
“I’m so tired, I could fall asleep with my eyes open,” Vikki said.
“Mhmm,” Annie hummed in an effort to keep her lips taut.
They had two hours left in the day, which would go slower the closer it came to an end. Of course, every job was like that, but the factory acted as a vacuum for time. Inside they kept the lights lower to better see the paint. The work was monotonous but needed a steady hand and an eye for detail. Small, small details. The women—all of them were women—talked to each other, but they did so quietly, fearing if they made louder noises, it might knock their strokes out of line.
Vikki had been slowing down lately. Her bin was coming up shorter, and Annie would give her some to meet the quota. She slumped next to Annie, and her spine curved out from her dramatically, folding her down to the table. Annie tried to straighten herself out in response, trying to press herself up for as long as she could until she forgot. She always had fine posture. Years of her mother prodding with boney fingers at the middle of her back, or pulling at her shoulders, ensured it. Unconsciously, she must have been mimicking Vikki, the way couples start to look like one another after a while because they pick up each other’s mannerisms. Or how some people’s dogs to look like them. She hated the idea that Vikki might have more of an imprint on her than Frank, but it made sense. Annie had counted it out once. One-hundred-and-sixty-eight hours in a week, and the saying went, “eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, and eight hours for what we will.” It would be nice if time split so perfectly, but Frank worked third shift at the glass plant. He slept until dinner, and Annie hesitated to call his first hour waking, but she needed the time so it would be four hours until he left at 10:30 p.m. Then she slept alone. She didn’t even need the waking distinction; she spent more time with Vikki without question.
“I need a new brush,” Vikki said, holding the pulled-out bristles in-between her teeth.
Annie reached for the jar of fresh ones, her fingers aching as she stretched them out for the first time in hours. She picked one out and handed it over without looking, but Vikki didn’t grab it. She waited, pushing it closer, and still nothing.
“Here,” she said.
But Vikki stared down into her own hand, in which she held something small. Annie leaned closer, rocking on her tailbone. It was a tooth. Not a piece of one, but whole. Wet and with roots, it shined in Vikki’s hand like a pearl. For a moment, Annie got the sensation that she was dreaming. She had never seen a whole adult tooth apart from the body before. She had always taken care of her teeth. She looked up at Vikki who still studied it. Vikki swept a finger in her mouth and it came out with very little blood.
“I don’t know,” Vikki started.
“Let’s go to the bathroom,” Annie said.
She got up, grabbing Vikki’s other hand so she could continue cradling the tooth. They walked to the bathroom, Annie trying to go as fast as she could so no one would see. Inside the small pale room, she had her sit down on the toilet.
“Open,” Annie said.
Vikki shook her head.
“Come on, now. Let’s see what happened.”
“Nothing happened,” Vikki said. It came out strange as she tried not moving her lips, like a ventriloquist.
“You must have bit on the brush, that’s why the bristles came off.”
She shook her head again and started to cry. Annie kneeled in front of her, folding her fingers over the tooth so she couldn’t look anymore.
“It’s just a tooth, dear. Let me see.”
Vikki let out shaky breaths and opened her mouth a little. Annie could barely see, but she found the dark spot.
“It’s a back tooth, you’ll hardly be able to notice,” she said.
Then she saw another blank space on the other side.
“Vikki,” she said.
Vikki closed her mouth, rolling her lips in, making a straight, colorless line on her face, and shook her head as she started to cry. She brought her hands up to cover her face, but then the tooth was there.
“I don’t know what’s happening. Two this week. I thought it was an accident the first time. I was eating and maybe I had bitten down wrong. I thought it was strange that the whole tooth came loose, but I have had a terrible ache. I thought, just a cavity.” She shrugged, her hands starting to shake.
“Did you make an appointment with the dentist?”
“I thought, since the tooth fell out, that I didn’t need to anymore.”
“What about the toothache? Still there?”
“It’s everywhere.” Vikki put her fingers to her jaw but held them just over the skin, afraid to touch.
“Let’s go after work, okay? I’ll walk with you.”
Vikki nodded, rubbing the tooth in her hand with her thumb.
The dentist was closed when they arrived, which Annie suspected would happen. Vikki stayed behind as Annie went up to the window and peered into the dark office. The hard dentist chairs and trays reflected some light from outside, but it was otherwise empty. She walked Vikki home; she only lived a few blocks from the factory. Vikki stayed quiet the whole way and stared down at the sidewalk. When they got to her door, Annie noticed that the white paint was chipping off, and the frame was slightly warped. Vikki went in, leaving the door open behind her, so Annie followed. The inside was dirty more than messy. It smelled like the inside of an unwashed laundry hamper. Vikki kept walking toward the back of the house without turning any lights on. She went into her bedroom and laid down, facing away from the door.
“Do you need anything?” Annie asked.
“I just need to rest. I’m so tired.”
“Do you still have the tooth?”
Vikki stretched her arm behind her and opened up her hand, giving it to her. Annie hesitated and held her breath as she grabbed it.
“Where should I put it?”
“Next to the other one on my nightstand, there.”
The other looked just like the one she held. For some reason, it surprised her. She laid it down so it would line up next to its twin.
“You’ll go tomorrow morning, then? First thing?”
Vikki nodded with her head against the pillow. Her brown hair fell out of the bun it had been in.
“Do you want anything to eat before…” But she trailed off.
Vikki didn’t answer.
“I’ll come check on you tomorrow, after work. I’m sure it’s nothing, darling. I’m sure you have nothing to be worried about. Could just be your diet, that’s all.”
As Annie struggled to shut the front door, she thought about what it might take to jam a tooth back into its place.
Frank was asleep in his chair when Annie walked in. The darkness in her house made her think a layer of grime was covering every surface, so she hurried over to the lamp that stood just over his head.
“God, Annie,” Frank said, covering his face with both arms.
He barely opened his eyes as he looked up at her, trying to make her out in those first moments after waking. After he focused, he grabbed her hand and pulled her down onto his lap.
“Let’s sleep a bit longer here, okay?”
She pressed into him for a moment, putting her face against his neck and smelling him before pushing herself off.
“I have to make dinner.”
“Who can eat when they’re this tired?”
“When you are tired. Besides, you have to work soon,” she said as she walked into the kitchen.
“What time is it?”
“And you’re just getting home? Where’ve you been?”
“Vikki’s tooth fell out. Her second tooth, I guess, so I took over to the dentist, which was closed, then I walked her home,” Annie said. “Oh, don’t look like that, it’s not what you think.”
“What is it?” He said, dropping his hand from his mouth.
“I don’t know, really. They weren’t rotted, they looked like perfectly fine teeth.”
Frank shivered. “I’m not so sure I’m ready to eat just yet.”
“You’ll get over it.”
“Well, I thought we might lie down for a bit.” He came up behind her, putting his hands on both of her arms, squeezing just slightly.
She tried not to but tensed against him, and he let go as if she had burned him.
“Nothing will happen if we don’t try,” he said as he walked back into the living room.
She grabbed hold of the counter and leaned over the sink. Her right hand still felt stiff from the day, and she stretched it out. Annie turned on the faucet and splashed some cold water on her face. Thinking about going to bed with Frank terrified her. It had been months since it had been pleasurable. Months since they talked to each other quietly in their own home, as if they were teenagers. Months since they touched each other discreetly and then luridly, with the freedom of not having to be careful. A different kind of fun than before. After the first twelve months, the first twelve disappointments of reaching down and finding that she had not stopped herself, they went to the doctor, who told them, “Nothing to worry about. Sometimes it just takes a while. People always think it’ll be easy, like they can think themselves into having a baby, but it can take work. All good things take work.” The way he said it made it feel as if she was being scolded for being presumptive or lazy. She tried to explain her family history, how her mother had eight children, and how Frank was one of ten, that it didn’t seem to be an issue for any of her siblings. The doctor waved them off. After that, she dreaded sex. She started to see it as something she had to do until they got what they wanted, and then they could stop.
Frank had his head in his hands, and for a second Annie thought he was crying.
“Frank?” she asked.
He looked up at her, dry-eyed and angry.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I think it’s me. I don’t think I can.”
Frank got up and put his arms around her. She thought, then, that it would be appropriate to cry, but she couldn’t force herself to. She had gotten used to the feeling of being empty there. She thought of a dark cavity that was slowly spreading but remembered that Vikki’s teeth were almost perfectly white. Frank moved his hands over her back slowly. He sighed and hummed lowly against her hair. Now would be a good time to do something. To sway slightly against him, not seductively, but enough to respond. She couldn’t, though. The rigidness ran through her, set deep in her bones, and she couldn’t let it go. She tried; she imagined it leaking out and breaking apart in her blood. But, when she shifted, it was there still. Frank let go.
“I have to go. They want me in early tonight.”
“What about dinner?”
“Not hungry,” he said as he grabbed his coat and left.
Annie expected him to slam the door, but he didn’t. He closed it as if he were trying to keep quiet.
Annie sat alone at work the next day, possibly for the first time. She couldn’t remember a day before when Vikki wasn’t there on her right. The longer the day went on, the more exposed she felt. Annie couldn’t help herself from checking the clock on the wall, over and over, and it kept going, but slowly. She had never seen it go so slow. When she looked down at the watch face, only the fifth one she’d been able to put in her hand that day, her fingers tingled slightly, or she thought they did. She rubbed them on her skirt hoping the feeling would show itself again, but it didn’t. Against her, her fingers felt normal.
“Are you alright?” The shift supervisor stood above her with her hands behind her back.
“I’m fine, sorry.”
The supervisor tilted her head towards the empty bin.
“I know. I’m sorry, I haven’t felt very well this morning.”
“Ah, must be going around. Your table partner is ill as well.”
“Did you talk to her?”
“No, somebody called on her behalf. I believe it was her doctor.”
Annie looked over at the empty stool.
“Do you need to go home? I don’t want anyone else on my floor getting sick.”
“I think I might.”
The woman smiled in a way that made Annie feel ashamed. She was thick all the way through. Not large, just solid. Sturdy. Someone had once said that about Annie; she couldn’t remember who, maybe her father or an uncle, but it was a long time ago. The woman turned and stepped over to the next table. Annie put the watch face down. She had only painted the hands and half of the numbers. Three to nine. The dot in-between the five and six was slightly off the mark. She would have to throw this one away. She grabbed her purse and walked toward the stairs. On her way, she saw something out of the corner of her eye, something floating in the dark. She stopped and stared, then she understood. Two of the younger girls were in the bathroom, and their giggling made Annie’s skin crawl. The light was off, but she could see their mouths. Their teeth. One had painted her front teeth and smiled in the mirror. The other had painted a moustache that twirled into spirals on her cheeks. Their nails glowed, too, as they touched their lips and looked at themselves, laughing.
Outside was unforgivingly bright, and Annie kept her eyes tight as she walked, only looking up when she came to an intersection. She traced back the way from the day before, and when she approached the block of white rowhouses, she became nervous. She saw Vikki’s, the fifth one in, and she stared at it. Once, when she was a teenager, she was watching her baby brother, and he fell out of his high chair. It was very quiet for a moment, and instead of rushing to him, her first reaction was to step backward. She wanted to run from him, and the feeling was instinctual, a sudden reflex that took over her entire body. Then he started screaming, and she knew she had to move. She liked to think that she waited in the silence because she didn’t think he was hurt, but that wasn’t it. She knew what it was, and she was afraid of it now, but she started moving, anyway.
When she got to the dullest house on the block, she lightly knocked on the door. Someone moved around inside quickly, then they opened the door. For a moment, Annie was relieved. Vikki seemed just fine. She looked healthier than the day before, to be sure. But then, it wasn’t Vikki. Of course, it wasn’t. Her hair was more auburn. Brilliantly auburn, and her eyes, while they were blue and shaped like almonds, were brighter and more animated. They looked around intentionally, their lids reacting appropriately.
“I’m sorry,” Annie said.
The woman smiled and leaned against the door frame. She reached out as Annie started down the stairs.
“It’s alright,” she said. “Are you here for Vikki?”
Annie was on the third step of the little cement porch with her hand on the wrought iron railing.
“Is she home?” Annie asked.
Then the woman did a strange thing. It was almost as if she wilted. She looked down at the ground and then back at Annie.
“No, I’m afraid not. She’s in the hospital.”
Annie didn’t answer right away. She thought the woman meant to say something else.
“Would you want to come in? I’ve cleaned up a little bit since I got here. I’ve been looking for some of her things, you know, toiletries and what not that I could bring her. It’s all been hard to find.” The woman walked inside, leaving the door open behind her, and Annie followed.
It looked different with the lights on. Worse. Every surface, including the couch and the chair, had the kind of clutter that collects after too much time and abandon. It reminded Annie of how Frank’s apartment looked the first time he invited her upstairs.
“I’m sorry, what’s your name? I didn’t ask before.”
“Annie. I work with Vikki at the factory.”
“Nice to meet you, Annie. I’m Viviane, Vikki’s older sister.”
She picked up magazines and books that had seemed to spread themselves out and piled them so they could sit. Annie couldn’t believe that she was older than Vikki, but she wasn’t entirely sure how old Vikki was. She couldn’t have been too far apart from herself in age.
“Do you know where I might find her pajamas? In case she wants them?”
Annie shook her head.
“Why is she in the hospital? Did she swallow one?”
Viviane’s head tilted, and her darkly drawn-on brows dropped. Annie put her fingers to her lips and started to pull the bottom one down a bit.
“I’m sorry?” Viviane asked.
“A tooth, I mean.”
“Oh,” Viviane said. “No. It’s a bit more serious than that, I’m afraid. Well, she went to the dentist this morning because of her teeth and terrible pain in her jaw. During the…” she shifted in her seat and stared at her hands, picking at the skin around her thumb nail. “During the examination, something happened with her jaw bone.”
“The dentist, he was very beside himself when he called me. He sounded so—so frightened. Very upset. He promised he wasn’t squeezing or doing anything too hard, he said he’s always very gentle with his female patients. It fell apart, like chalk, he said. Such a strange thing to say about it, but he kept repeating that it felt like chalk snapping in his hand.”
“But--,” Annie whispered.
Viviane looked up at her and smiled a little.
“The doctors don’t know for certain, but they think it’s some kind of cancer in her bones. They have her at the hospital now and fixed it so she can sleep. It’s all she really wants to do, anyhow. You said you work with her?”
“Well, I don’t think she’ll be coming back, but please do tell the girls there where she is. I’m sure she’d love the company. Maybe give it a week or so, so she can get used to talking differently. The doctor said that will be difficult at first because she won’t be able to use parts of her jaw and teeth to press her tongue against. I never thought about that until he said it.”
“Sure,” Annie said.
Viviane kept the smile on her face while Annie sat on the couch, confused.
“I should get back to the hospital, though. I’ll tell her you stopped by.”
“Oh.” Annie got up so fast that the corners of her vision started to grow shadows. “Please do, thank you. Let me know if she needs anything or if there’s anything I can do.” This all came out slower because Annie tried to say it without pressing her tongue against her bottom row of teeth.
Viviane seemed not to notice as she smiled and quickly nodded. As Annie got up and buttoned her coat, Viviane stayed seated on the couch. Annie could see a tiny drop of blood coming from her thumb’s nailbed. She walked toward the door, wanting to get away as fast as possible without being obvious about it. She accidentally bumped her hip against an end table, and she made an unintentionally loud noise at the sharp pain that shot up from it. It didn’t matter, though. Viviane wasn’t paying attention.
Frank had a beer in his hand and an empty one at his feet. Annie’s stomach tightened, and she marched past him down the hallway into their bedroom. She took off her coat and dropped it on the floor. She felt dirty like she somehow tracked the grime from Vikki’s house back with her and it was spreading on her skin. She pictured tiny bugs in her hair and under her clothes, and she thought she could feel them crawling with their tiny legs and their tiny mouths making tiny holes in which to burrow. She undressed quickly, popping a stitch at her waist as she yanked the dress over her head. She stepped into the shower and turned it as hot as it would go, standing underneath the water until her hands turned viciously red and steam had filled the room.
“Annie, can I talk to you?”
Annie screamed. She hadn’t heard Frank come in. She turned the water off and stood behind the curtain holding her arms up against her with her hands in fists underneath her chin. Frank pulled the curtain over, and his face went dark.
“Jesus, Annie. What happened to your hip?”
She looked down and saw the spot she had hit before. A large, dark red mark had already formed. It was so dark it looked brown.
“I ran into a table. I didn’t even notice it.”
He knelt down on the tile floor, grabbing the back of her thighs to bring her closer to him.
“It looks like it hurt you,” he said, brushing his thumb over it.
He looked up at her, and she put her hands on the top of his head. He bowed towards her again, pressing against her with his mouth. She stroked his hair, pulling strands between her fingers as he put his lips on it. He leaned back and grabbed her hand, kissed it before standing up, and pulled her into the bedroom. As she walked behind him, she saw the way his fingers were knotted and greasy with oil and how she liked the way they looked against her beet red skin. He turned out the light as she was staring at their hands, but she could still see them. She could still see hers. Her eyes needed no adjusting. There, faintly in the dark, she could still see how her hand held his. She could see how her knuckles bent and her fingers gripped against him. An iridescent light came out from her, illuminating her nails and the bones that raked the back of her hand. She could see herself. She was glowing from the inside now.
Mary Thorson is from Milwaukee, WI. She received her undergraduate degree in Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and her MFA at Pacific University's low-residency program in Oregon. She has been previously published in Milwaukee Noir, Worcester Review, Tough, & Ink Stains Anthology.
Her stories have been nominated for a Derringer Award and a Pushcart Prize.