We Are Twenty-Six by Tara Campbell

Marko’s teeth swayed. They twisted and rocked and eased themselves out of his gums while he, heavy with that evening’s vodka, grunted and snored in his bed.

On nights when Marko gagged and wheezed in the grips of drink, his teeth longed for their mothers, the baby teeth that had come before them, the first ones to work their way into and out of young Marko’s mouth. The little mothers lived together in the small, plastic box in which the tooth fairy had collected them, and which Marko’s parents gave to him long after he had stopped believing in the legend of the tooth fairy.

And so that night, as a much older Marko slept, his teeth tumbled out of his mouth. Twenty-six canines, incisors and molars, children of tiny enamel mothers, loosened themselves from his gums and tip-tap-tapped across the floor to the shelves where their forbearers now lived. The teeth hopped up the shelves like fleas until they reached the top, where the clear plastic box, now yellowed and filmy, held their brittle little mothers. Their nocturnal adventures always began with these visits: a gentle rap on cloudy plastic, followed by tinkling embraces and enquiries after health.

Because Marko’s tooth fairy hadn’t been especially diligent, and because one or two of his baby teeth had been swallowed or otherwise lost before collection, and because Marko himself hadn’t been exceptionally careful with the box since it had been handed over, not every one of his grown up teeth had its own enamel mother to visit. But all of the teeth were lonesome for a little sliver of a mother, even Marko’s wisdom teeth, who had no real mothers to begin with. Fortunately, the mothers had long since forgotten which spot they had occupied, so it didn’t really matter. They loved all of Marko’s teeth as their own, even the two wisdom teeth who were too severely impacted to ever wiggle out, and had to content themselves with second-hand greetings and kisses upon the return of their siblings.

On this evening, as always, the mothers tut-tutted over Marko’s slovenly care of their children. The sibling teeth knew they were stained and full of chips and holes, but could do nothing about it. The mothers would sometimes cry over the three that had been pulled at the dentist’s office or the one that had been lost to a barroom brawl; Marko had not thought to bring any of them home.

“He is so inconsiderate,” the delicate mothers would complain. “They could have stayed here with us; you could have visited one another here on the shelf.”

“Now, now, little mothers,” they would answer. “You know we can do nothing about Marko’s dereliction, or his thoughtlessness about family reunions.”

“Well, you must think of a way to get his attention,” the mothers would say.

But the siblings knew where making a fuss could get them—namely in the grip of a dentist’s pliers or forgotten on the floor of a bar to be swept into the gutter. And because they knew they could do nothing, they grew impatient of their mothers’ mourning. They always took care to leave their mothers before they became too curt with their replies. They assured their brittle little elders not to worry, they would think of something.

The siblings would gently close the yellowed plastic lid then knock and shimmy back down the shelves, pausing to check on Marko. If his breathing was light, they would sneak back in through his parted lips and ease themselves back into his gums.

But if, as they hoped, his breathing was still a raucous, thundering snore, they would tip-tip-tap in a line across the floor, up onto his chair, his desk, and out through his cracked-open window into the night.

This was one of those nights.

They loved to visit the alleys of the town and watch the men play cards and dice—especially dice. The bright white cubes would clack on the ground again and again, and restless men would scoop them up and cradle them like hope, like lovers, breathe on them like babies, speak to them like brothers, “rattle them bones” and throw them out like prayers on the wind.

The teeth were desperate to be part of this magic, to be squeezed, whispered to and hoped for. They would come to the alley as often as they could to watch the men playing their fortunes. Marko would never visit these alleys. He didn’t believe in the capricious gambling away of one’s future. He believed in the slow, methodical drinking away of it, the comfortable, steady diminishment of one’s horizons.

Not so his teeth. They remembered how it felt to flash and shine. Marko had once been young and believed himself dashing, and indeed had often been able to convince others of the same. But somewhere along the way he’d lost track of what his teeth were for, what spark and life were for. Gradually he closed up his face and his heart, pounding back disappointment at the doors that would not open, the women who would not say yes, the barkeeps who stopped donating round after round. Lackluster prospects and unwilling conquests piled up, along with parental disappointment, until Marko eventually learned to drink, work and love within his means, without hope or illusion of more.

His teeth, however, still believed in more. They harbored memories of gleaming when he laughed. They remembered flicking tongues and slick sweat and holding on to sweet, firm flesh. Now there was nothing more than beer and vodka, bread and cigarettes and bile. And why should that be enough? Although they didn’t realize it at the time, this was the question they asked themselves that night when they tumbled off the windowsill, slid down the railing, and rattled over the cobblestones into the alley and up to the men.

“Use us!” they cried, rolling and jumping. “Scoop us up, breathe on us, speak to us, pray to us, plead with us, trust in us! Use us!”

But the men fled, scattering cards, dice, money. The teeth gave chase through fluttering bills and jangling coins, but their clip-clop hopping was no match for legs made long by fear. The teeth gave up, turning instead into another alley filled with the shouts and grunts and laughter of more men, the tap tap tap of spotted dice clattering on the ground.

“Use us!” they cried again. “We know all about love and hope and chance and despair. Use us!”

But these men, too, were afraid. They bolted out of the alley, abandoning their games, and the teeth knew more about despair than ever before.

“We’ve lost our edge,” moaned an incisor.

“I can’t see a way forward,” said Marko’s remaining eyetooth. “We can’t continue this life.”

A molar clattered for attention. “I am not a wisdom tooth, but I live next to one. Gather up these dice and follow me.”

The teeth knocked against the cool, white cubes in the alley, corralling the dice amongst them and tumbling them down the street. The teeth whispered amongst themselves, pushing their spotted prizes out of cracks and ruts along the way. They lost one die down a grate, but managed to rattle the rest back to the first alley they’d visited that evening.

The molar tapped itself against the scattered cubes the previous group had left behind. “We’ll need these too.” They departed with their enlarged collection and picked up a few more dice at yet another game they interrupted.

A bird wheedled. The night began to lose its black.

“It’s time,” said the molar.

The teeth formed a circle and pushed the dice between them, careful not to lose any more. They clicked over tram tracks, tumbled around storm drains and clattered past cigarette butts. They spooked cats and tappety-tapped around rats with their spotted herd, all the way to Marko’s door.

“What now?” asked an incisor. “We can’t get them inside.”

“We can’t do everything for Marko,” the molar replied.

“But we don’t have enough,” argued the eyetooth. “We are—” It clacked itself against its neighbors to count. “We are twenty-six. We haven’t collected half enough.”

“These will have to do,” said the molar. They bumped and knocked the dice into a pile on the front stoop. “Marko will decide what to do next.”

The molar hopped up the railing to the cracked-open window. The rest of the teeth followed. They rested on the windowsill and watched Marko roll over in his sleep.

“He’ll wake soon,” said the incisor.

The teeth turned to face the bookshelf that held the box of their tiny, frail mothers.

Marko snorted and wheezed.

“Goodbye little mothers,” whispered the teeth. They leapt off the windowsill, clattered down the railing, and hopped down the street, tip-tap-tapping into the dawn.

Tara Campbell [www.taracampbell.com] is a Washington, D.C.-based writer. She’s an assistant fiction editor at Barrelhouse and volunteers with children’s literacy organization 826DC. Prior publication credits include McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Establishment, Barrelhouse, Masters Review, Up, Do: Flash Fiction by Women Writers, and Queen Mob’s Teahouse, among others. Her debut novel, TreeVolution, is available from Lillicat Publishers.