Matt is a retired US Marine officer who deployed in support of combat operations in Afghanistan and Kosovo. He currently lives and works near Dallas, Texas. His fiction can be read in Thuglit, Pantheon Magazine, and Blight Digest, among others.
Bianca showed me a picture of the dead kid, telling me I’d end up like him.
“Dios mio,” she muttered. “Look at this poor boy, Charles.” Bianca held her iphone in my face while I stood flossing over the sink. “Look at him.”
An African-american boy in a peewee football uniform smiled at me on her phone’s news feed.
The stainless steel hook attached to my polypropylene transradial prosthesis—compliments of a booby-trap four decades earlier in Quang-tri province—gripped the end of the mint green strand. I whisked the floss between my teeth, dislodging entrenched bits of Chicken Kiev from the crevices.
“It started out like yours. The kid’s mom never took him to the dentist.” She shook her head. “Turned into a brain tumour the size of a grapefruit.”
The floss bit deep into my gums while I looked at him. Thick, bloody saliva welled up between my teeth and I spit into the sink.
My wife looked at me in the mirror. “Oh, viejo,” she said, rubbing my back. “Even with all your brushing and flossing, you can’t avoid it forever.”
The burns that covered the right side of my face and neck — from the same VC ambush that took my arm — was the mood ring my wife used to read me. The puckered, pale scar tissue pulsed pink in time with my heartbeat while I thought about my two options.
It didn’t make sense. I brushed and flossed after I ate anything, all in a futile effort to avoid what WEBMD said was probably a pocket of pus eating away at the root of my number thirteen bicuspid.
If I had an after-dinner mint, I’d use one of those plastic disposable toothbrushes with the pod of toothpaste in the bristles. Tea with my bank’s regional manager called for a gargle of Listerine. Bianca’s carne asada? Ten minutes with the credit card-shaped floss dispenser that fit neatly between my American Express Gold and Yacht Club Preferred Member cards.
Just a few minutes with bits of food wedged between my teeth and I could practically feel the streptococcus mutans and porphyromonas gingivalis breeding and growing in the dark, wet cavern under my nose. What they say about the mouths of Komodo dragons and stray cats are old wives’ tales. Go ahead and punch a human mouth, break the skin of your knuckles on their teeth, and not get it cleaned out right away; if Lady Luck isn’t with you, two days later your hand will be a pus-filled sac of gangrene.
“Even with all your brushing and flossing, you can’t avoid it forever.” After voicing her opinion, Bianca walked away, leaving the lingering silence behind with my thoughts. She rummaged
through the drawers of her sink on the opposite side of the bathroom. Her eyes assessed me through her mirror as she applied her pea green facial mask.
I brushed tiny circles over my teeth with the soft-bristled brush. My steel hook was perfect for applying the right amount of pressure. Scraping away the enamel with a tense fistful of toothbrush would only necessitate more trips to the dentist.
“I put the appointment reminder in your phone,” Bianca said. “The dentist is just across the street from your office. I picked Doctor Sikorski. Bishop Tower. Eighth floor.” She looked like a Gorgon in the mirror, her scalp bulging with curlers—sent not to turn me to stone, but to nag me to death. Her voice sped up, interlaced with Spanish, as her instructions became more authoritative. “Just across the street from your office, mijo.” She shook her finger at my reflection in her mirror. “Don’t make me miss my meeting to check on you tomorrow, por favor.” She rolled her eyes. “Ay yai yai … you’re going to make me miss my meeting, aren’t you?”
“No, dear,” I said. My shoulders sagged under the weight of both my prosthesis and the cumulative disappointment of the Manhattan Women’s Club.
I closed my eyes while eradicating the staphylococcus epidermis with anti-bacterial paste. I vanquished the hordes of streptococcus salivarius while humming “Happy Birthday” three times in my head.
The cold water I swished accidentally washed over the bad tooth — it felt like I’d bitten down on an aluminum foil sandwich. I tried not to wince and Bianca sucked her teeth.
After my evening dental hygiene routine — and right around the time (police would tell me later) that Dr Sikorski’s wife was being lobotomized on her dining room table—i lay in bed, trying to pay attention to a Time article on Colombia’s rising GDP. But what lingered in the back of my mind was the two hours I’d spend the next morning being drilled and scraped with steel instruments that looked suspiciously like tiny tools of the Inquisition.
My executive assistant told me how tired I looked as I entered the lobby the next morning. “Let me get you some coffee.” He took my coat and opened the door to my corner office. “You’re gonna need it, Mister Dobry. Tokyo has called three times already. Hope you had a nice weekend — It’s gonna be a long day.”
I sat down behind my desk, facing twenty-six new emails from our struggling Far East affiliates, plus the amber voicemail light blinking on my office phone. My internal countdown to Friday had already begun.
While skimming the first email from my frantic colleagues across the Pacific, my cell phone buzzed, vibrating across my glass desktop. It looked like the novelty teeth that you wind up and turn loose to chatter in a blind circle. I pulled it toward me with my steel hook to read the calendar notification.
I’d forgotten about Doctor Sikorski in my preoccupation with hedge funds, P&E ratios, and quarterly earnings estimates. I sighed, already tasting vinyl fingers jammed in my mouth. My jaw cramped, anticipating the rubber block that would hold my mouth open. Like a vegetable, I’d drool down a bib fastened by alligator clips while trying to spit into a sucking straw.
As soon as I dismissed the alarm, the “Imperial March” played at full volume — an incoming text from Bianca. Don’t be late! I pushed away from the computer and poured a scotch on the rocks. Normally, I saved the hard stuff for Friday afternoons, but with a root canal and a Tokyo IPO flop, I figured I rated a glass. Or two.
I’d been in the habit of chewing and drinking on the right side of my mouth, but a bit of the ice-cold scotch sloshed onto the bad tooth. It felt like an icicle hammered into my sinus cavity. I set the glass down hard.
Next to my wet bar and the north-facing office window stood a Celestron brass telescope — a gift from Bianca. A 31-inch optical tube mounted on a mahogany tripod. Good for stargazing, but in my downtown office, even better for Bianca to people-watch when she came to have lunch on Mondays before her Women’s Club meetings.
Bishop Tower rose above 38th Street, straight across from my office window, over the stream of beeping taxis and buses. I looked through the telescope viewfinder and counted up from the street to the eighth floor.
A partial view of the lobby appeared, so clear it appeared to be just an arm’s length away. A chunky woman with a bob cut sat behind the reception desk filing her nails. Her neck was cocked with the office phone wedged between her ear and shoulder.
Only two men in suits occupied the spacious lobby. Not enough people to warrant a reschedule.
“Charles, you could have at least showed up,” Bianca would say that night. She’d make me another appointment with the same guy and hound me until it got done. More text reminders and missed work.
I scanned the rest of the floor. A few windows over from the lobby, a figure in a white coat, his back to me, sat hunched over somebody in an exam chair. The patient’s feet twitched. The dentist looked over his shoulder, a scowling old man with white hair and a tired, slack face. He drew a curtain across the window.
I walked back to my desk and sat down. My tooth still pulsed from the errant sip of scotch. I punched in my assistant’s intercom number with the point of my hook, told him I’d be stepping out at lunch.
My cell phone rang—a Tokyo number—but I leaned my head back in my seat and wondered if my feet would be twitching in the exam chair, too.
Down a dim, eighth-floor hallway—past the offices of a psychologist, an empty space for lease, and a divorce lawyer — and
into the lobby for Maxim Sikorski, DDS. A standard waiting room of taupe walls and vinyl guest chairs. Dog-eared issues of Fortune and Time were fanned over the coffee table. The day’s stock news played at low volume on a flat screen mounted high in one corner.
The only other patient — an Hispanic man in a suit — walked by me and continued into the hallway toward the exam rooms.
“Good morning. Mister Dobry?” The chubby, short-haired receptionist peered at me over a high, marquee-style station. She held a phone to her ear, covering the mouthpiece with her hand, and smacked a pale nugget of chewing gum as she spoke. “I’m so glad your wife called on Friday. She sounds like a wonderful woman. Now you have a seat and we’ll get to you soon, okay? Just as soon he’s done with Mister Reyes.”
I turned back to the empty lobby and picked a seat as far from her desk as I could. The woman continued her phone conversation, whispers punctuated with high-pitched cackles.
As soon as I sat down, the “Imperial March” emitted from my phone. How’s the new dentist, honey? I turned the phone off. With my head leaning back slightly against the wall, I began thinking through investment calculations, trying to figure out what was going wrong across the Pacific: alphas, betas, CAPMS, price splits, systematic risk. I dozed off with those financial lullabies floating through my head.
“Mister Dobry? He’s ready for you.”
When I opened my eyes, the dentist was standing by the receptionist’s station, staring at me.
My watch read 11:53. Time better spent putting out our Far East financial fires was slipping away like yen into a canned-noodle vending machine.
Doctor Sikorski towered over the secretary’s desk, with shoulders almost as broad as the hall entryway. A white shock of hair stuck up from the top of his head, his comb-over gone awry in obtuse angles. Old, but solid, he could have been a pro football linebacker who’d played back when they wore leather helmets.
The receptionist looked up at him while she filed her nails. “You’re done with Mister Reyes, already? I didn’t notice him leave.”
“Yes, he is done,” Sikorski answered in a thick, Slavic accent. The man’s eyes were hooded and drooping, with gray, baggy skin hanging under them. As I walked up, he looked at my prosthetic arm and facial burns, his thin lips dropping open slightly like he was thinking ‘Eureka’.
“Yes,” he whispered. “It is you.” A smile curled up one side of his thin lips. A line of drool threatened to escape from the corner, but he wiped it away with a hand the size of a catcher’s mitt.
“Yes, it’s me,” I said. “And my appointment was at eleven sharp.” I looked at my watch and tapped my foot.
Sikorski bent down—he stood a whole head taller than me—and peered at my burn like he was assessing a science experiment. He wrapped his fingers around my plastic wrist delicately, as if holding a woman’s dainty hand.
“Yes,” he said. “I knew you would come.” Never before had someone so boldly touched my polypropylene arm. Most people avoided making eye contact, like my injuries were some kind of barnyard pornography that would sizzle the eyes right out of their sockets. I snatched my arm out of his grip. His brow furrowed and he pulled his hand back as if burned. “Look,” I said “I don’t know what kind of place you’re running here.”
I looked to the receptionist, but she picked up a call, smacking her gum every few words. Her laugh felt like someone was running a file over my bad tooth.
Sikorski shot an irritated glance at the woman. He looked back at me and held up his hands. “No, I am sorry. Please. Come,” he gestured toward the back, already hurrying down the hall to the exam rooms. “We don’t have much time.”
He led me down the hall, urgent with his long stride, pushing me to keep up. The empty hallway was bathed in sterile fluorescent lighting, and classical music floated down the hall. A broom closet and several exam rooms lined each side.
A few of the rooms were already occupied by patients. From over the chair backs, I could see the tops of their heads and their feet.
Sikorski was already perched on a wheeled stool when I entered the last cubicle. Behind him, a wide entryway connected to the adjoining exam room. The dentist motioned with his spindly arms for me to sit.
I slid into the room and hung my jacket on a coat rack by the door. Next to Sikorski, a metal tray held a variety of steel files, picks, and mirrors, as well as a hand-held drill and UV light gun.
And a shiny hypodermic syringe, big enough to sedate all of my office’s derivatives analysts.
Sweat slid down my forehead. My knees felt ready to unhinge and buckle under my weight. I grabbed the armrest to keep myself upright as I eased into the chair.
Leaning back at that awkward slant, where my feet were just higher than my head, always reminded me of stories my grandfather — an undertaker in Croatia — used to tell about how they’d dump dead bodies into an incinerator for mass cremation.
I clenched the vinyl armrest with my left hand while my hook lay useless on the other. Control your breathing. Clear your mind. That’s what Bianca would tell me to do. I closed my eyes and opened my mouth, waiting for the invasion of rubber, latex and steel.
“Let’s put you to sleep first, why don’t we?” he whispered, just audible above the dirge-like chamber music playing on an old stereo in the corner.
I relaxed and opened my eyes. “Don’t you need to see the damage first, Doc?” I forced out a laugh and waited for the air to lighten. It didn’t. Instead, he licked his lips and bent toward a collection of coiled hoses looped next to the chair. His hands shook while he
fiddled with knobs and switches. The dentist held up two masks. “Would you like the pink,” he said, “or the blue?” I just stared at him, wanting to ask if he was serious. “Don’t worry,” he said, dropping the pink mask and moving the blue one toward my face. “It will be over soon.”
I cringed away from the hissing mask. The rubber opening was like a python moving in to swallow me whole. The mask was so close I could smell the rubber and the sweet, felt-tip pen odour of the gas.
Laughter echoed again down the hall and Sikorski froze. Highpitched chuckles were followed by a snort.
Sikorski muttered something in his Slavic tongue, clenching his jaw and scowling. “Sit still,” he said. The dentist turned a valve and the hissing stopped. He dropped the mask and left the room. After a few more spurts of laughter, it halted mid-guffaw. Then, just Vivaldi — his “Four Seasons,” I think. Next, rubber scraped along the vinyl floor of the hallway, louder as it drew nearer. squee, squee, squee, squee Like a squeegee on a windshield, into the exam room next to me.
Something soft but heavy dropped to the ground in the next room.
“Doctor Sikorski,” I called. “How about I come back another time?”
No response but his low muttering.
I stood and put my coat back on. A drawer full of utensils slammed shut. In the adjoining room, where the thump had come from, another patient lay in the chair. He was visible up to his knees — shaded leather lace-ups and a pair of pinstriped pants—but the wall obscured the rest. His legs shook and trembled. One foot slipped off the seat and thumped onto the floor.
I don’t know why I walked in there. Probably felt guilty leaving without at least letting him know I’d reschedule, that it looked like he had his hands full.
I stood there, frozen in the middle of buttoning my jacket, with Sikorski hunched over the receptionist. She sat splayed on the floor, propped up in the corner next to the hall entryway. Her neck was bent so far sideways that her ear touched her shoulder. Broken vertebrae pushed through the skin and she stared walleyed at the ceiling. The woman’s tongue poked from between her teeth and a trickle of blood slid down her nose and over her upper lip.
My first instinct was that she’d fallen, so I took a step toward them to help.
But I stopped when I realized Sikorski was pulling at her teeth with a pair of pliers. “Proch!” said the dentist as he yanked a molar from the woman’s mouth. “Proch, you! Proch!”
The Hispanic businessman in the chair shook, again. His eyes were rolled up in his head, showing only the whites, and his mouth hung open. Blood oozed from the craters in his gums where his teeth used to be. The teeth lay in a pile on the instrument tray, a mountain of thirty-two bloody white Chiclets.
A neat row of dripping holes, no bigger than pinheads, formed a dotted line across his forehead. The dental drill was still inserted into his skull through his temple, hanging from the last hole as if the dentist were interrupted in his task. I backed away. My heel hit a stool behind me. Its wheels creaked as it rolled into another instrument tray.
Sikorski stood and looked up at me through his narrow, baggy eyes. “I told you to stay,” he said, still holding the pliers, which were clamped down on one of the woman’s extracted teeth. The pliers clattered to the ground as he grabbed a handful of his white hair in each hand and screamed. “I said to stay still!”
His frantic scream snapped me out of the surreal image before me, and I backed into the exam room he’d left me in.
“You must sit! They will awaken soon!” He kicked the stool out of his way and lunged after me.
I leaped over my exam chair, just to get some distance between us. The momentum carried me into the counter. Plaster teeth and a computer keyboard crashed to the floor.
Sikorski followed a split second behind, and we ended up a cramped pile of arms and legs between the chair and desk. He yelled another Slavic exclamation and reached out, his grasp brushing against my back as I skittered toward the entryway on my hands and knees. I pushed myself to my feet and dashed down the hall. His footfalls stomped after me. “Come back!” In one exam room a woman in scrubs slouched tight in a
corner, visible only to someone coming back down the hall toward the lobby. She had the same holes drilled in her forehead and a mouthful of what looked like strawberry syrup pouring down the front of her baby blue scrubs.
The office’s main door seemed so far away; a dogleg set of turns, with chairs and a coffee table to manoeuvre around before I could hit the exit.
“Stop, before it’s too late!” he called out behind me. His voice had grown louder, his stride catching mine.
The broom closet door was open a crack, just enough that I could fling it open and slam it shut before he could grab me.
The dentist’s fists began beating on the outside. “Come out! Come out!”
Leaning back with all my weight, I held the door shut with my hook while I used my good hand to dig for my cell phone in my jacket pocket.
Sikorski panted on the other side, but he’d stopped pounding. “Please. It is okay,” he whispered. “Let me help you.”
The curved steel hook was good for grasping small objects, but it fit loosely between the lever and the door, threatening to slip out if he pulled hard enough.
Sikorski twisted the handle on his side, just enough to test it. “It won’t hurt,” he said. “I can still save us. I must!”
I managed to get my phone out, but I had to turn it back on. I held the button down to begin the startup. An uplifting chime sounded, followed by the maddening rainbow of colours that announced the phone was powering up.
Sikorski pounded again, pulling the door harder. “Come out,” he shouted as he jerked the handle. “It must be done!”
A stinging drop of sweat fell into the corner of my eye while the phone’s home screen appeared.
“It must!” He pulled hard, using his weight to try to pry the door open. “Mankind is at stake!”
My hook slipped from behind the handle. The canvas strap that held that prosthetic in place with a figure-eight loop around my shoulder loosened. I bent down to pull the handle with the crook of my elbow while trying to hold the phone, but it only lengthened the slack.
The little antennae icon on the home screen was still refreshing. My arm shook while the lever bit into my elbow as he jerked the handle. The phone slipped from my grasp and clattered onto the floor. I leaned down, still pulling the door handle with my hook’s loose grip, and fumbled on the floor to pick up my lifeline.
My loosened grip was all it took for Sikorski’s weight to win and wedge the door open.
The harness pulled completely loose and the prosthetic was yanked out of my sleeve. It hung from the door handle, as useless as a flaccid penis.
The dentist lunged toward me, catching me in an awkward half crouch. His fist caught the bridge of my nose, sending a shower of sparks and tears into my eyes. My good arm shot up to block my face and the dentist jerked me up like a child, lifting me right off my feet and out of the closet.
The phone buzzed on the floor, telling me it was ready to use.
I flailed my fist at him, hoping to connect as he dragged me back down the hallway. I caught him in the face, but the man didn’t seem to notice. Instead, he jabbed again. My nose gave way with a watery crack and my eyes slammed shut.
He hauled me back into the exam room while I kicked and screamed. I lashed out with one arm at the door frame. He squeezed my nose, just a pinch across the bridge, and my hand flew up to my face again as I howled. The classical music was in crescendo, the raging strings and clanging timpani drowning out our struggle.
Sikorski flipped me into the chair and was on me before I could push myself up with the armrests. He straddled my chest, squeezing my lungs tight. I tried to scream, but it came out as an asthmatic wheeze.
He fumbled with the tangle of hoses and valves and brought the blue mask to my face. The hose issued its steady stream of liquorice-smelling gas and he clamped it down tight over my nose and mouth, leaning down with his weight as I beat at his forearms and shoulders.
I grappled for a weapon among the scalpels and picks littering the floor, but couldn’t get my fingers to work. They felt like lead weights attached to my wrists. My fist fell with the force of a child’s and the nub of my amputated arm struck at him impotently.
A cloud floated between my eyelids and my body lifted up on a light cushion. I was comfortable, despite the state of things. It was like taking a nap on a cold day, wrapped in a warm comforter.
Sikorski’s wide eyes were the last thing I saw. Drool leaked over his lower lip and I felt the warm dribble on my cheek as the lights went out. He stroked my forehead, pushing my hair back out of my eyes, whispering foreign words in a soothing tone.
My own words of comfort scrolled in front of my eyes like a screensaver: staphylococcus epidermis, streptococcus salivarius, streptococcus mutans, porphyromonas gingi …
I awoke, still flat on my back. Black, fuzzy silhouettes surrounded me. It felt like cotton was stuffed in my brain cavity. My thick, dry tongue couldn’t form the words to ask where I was.
My mind tried to backtrack to where I’d been, why I was so groggy.
I sat up and felt my gums — the reassuring, rigid shapes of a mouthful of teeth. No blood or holes on my forehead. I took a deep breath and wanted to laugh. My vision cleared. The shapes around me became men, seated, wearing suits with patched elbows and holding flip-top notebooks. A uniformed policeman stood behind them. “Where’s Bianca?” I asked. “You’re a lucky man, Mister Dobry. She’s quite a lady,” said one of the suited men.
“Where is she?”
“She’s outside.” He wrote in his notebook, not looking up as he spoke. “Last I heard she was questioning the doc about whether or not you were showing any signs of stage four anaesthesia overdose.” They all chuckled and the uniformed cop rolled his eyes. Once I’d awakened, the room began to buzz with nurses and doctors flitting between the stiff homicide detectives to check my heart rate and IV. The police interviewed me between the hospital staff’s constant check of my vitals.
They knew by then what Maxim Sikorski had been up to in the days leading up to my root canal appointment.
They’d found his wife in their home, splayed out on their dining room table. No teeth, and her brain cut into neat slices like deli cold cuts. The next day, four of his patients, two dental techs, and a receptionist, dead of blood loss and brain trauma.
Maxim Sikorski had left a journal of his findings, dated the night before his rampage. There were aliens in people’s teeth, he’d declared, using our brains as interplanetary antennae to coordinate an attack on Earth.
“Dear God,” I said. As a lifelong atheist, it seemed just the thing to say after hearing news like that.
One of the detectives informed me that Maxim Sikorski was hunched over my head with his drill when Bianca buried a dental scalpel into the base of his skull. “How did she know?” I asked. “The telescope,” said the cop. “She was in your office waiting for you. Looked through it to see if you were at your appointment
and saw him chasing you out of the exam room. Lady called 911 and then ran over there.” Don’t make me come check on you, Charles. I laughed, an awkward guffaw. The cops looked at me as if I’d gone nuts.
Bianca sat next to me while I flipped through the hospital TV channels.
I sipped ice water from the Styrofoam cup while I held her hand. One of the ice chips found its way onto my number thirteen bicuspid. Another jolting bite from the live power cable. I winced and Bianca squeezed my hand. “It’ll be okay, dear.” But I wasn’t thinking about my appointment with Maxim Sikorski. I just wanted to get back home with my wife.
“Oh, dear. I think you have an appointment for a physical on Friday with Doctor Ladislaw.” She looked at me over the top of her glasses while she flipped through Better Homes and Gardens. “When’s the last time you’ve had your prostate checked?” I shut my eyes and sighed. “Don’t worry, mijo. I’ll go with you.”