PART I: BABY TEETH
The summer months are the worst. Six years old, new town, no friends. Sofia spends her time in the backyard, shoving sticks into anthills and gazing at the sky. There are strange objects up there, neither cloud nor airplane. When she tries telling Mommy about them, she’s met with strained smiles and pats on the head.
It was only supposed to be Mommy and her in the new house, but Daddy is there most days, banging his fists against the front door and slurring his imsorries and youwillbesorries.
One late July morning, Sofia discovers her first wiggly tooth. It’s close to the center of her mouth and visible when she smiles—not that she ever does. She sprawls out on the back deck and pokes the tooth with her tongue to feel the sweet ebb-and-flow ache as it wobbles on a single root.
The angry voices from inside the house swell in the oppressive heat.
“We’re over, can’t you see? You can’t come barging in here—”
“I can’t see my own goddamn family?”
“This is my house. Mine. I won’t let you ruin things. Won’t let my daughter see you in this state again.”
“She’s my daughter too!”
“You should’ve thought of that before you hit me and knocked my teeth out while she was watching.”
The air ripples as the sun climbs higher in the sky. The ants she’s chased out of their home look like baked, licorice-black husks. Squinting against the glare, she sits up and swings both legs down into the prickly grass. The tip of her tongue worms underneath the loose tooth, looking for purchase. Her gums taste like hot metal.
Through the open patio door comes more shouting. Another bang. Shattering glass.
“Look what you made me do!”
She opens her mouth wide and pushes probing fingers inside. Her thumb and forefinger pinch the loose baby tooth. They twist and roll it between them for a few moments before plucking it out. The sharp sting tapers off into dull pain, pleasantly numbing; blood blooms in her mouth.
When the front door slams shut, only strangled sobs remain.
Head tilted sideways in curiosity, Sofia inspects the tooth in her palm, off-white enamel and pinkish withered root. Her tongue pokes at the empty space in her mouth, digging around the sleek, oozing hole. When it rubs up against the neighboring tooth, there’s movement there, too—a slight but unmistakable wiggle.
Perhaps pliers will do the job. Square ones, sharp ones, fat-crowned round ones—the milk teeth not budging yet will all come clean out once she’s done with them. Climbing to her feet, Sofia tucks her precious first tooth in the pocket of her shorts. She understands this is important without knowing how. There’s strength in teeth. She understands that too.
When she peers up at the blue-white sky on her way to the garage, she thinks she spots something through the heat-haze. Something glinting and silver. Neither cloud nor airplane.
PART II: PERMANENT TEETH
Summer again in a new house. Dad hasn’t been around since The Incident, and Mom works long hours at the office and has banned all talk of teeth.
The backyard is a small patch of heat-cracked dirt and overgrown weeds. Sofia doesn’t sunbathe like the rest of the neighborhood girls, who grease up in baby oil and flick through glossy magazines. No, she has a ritual of her own. Every morning like clockwork, she steps outside to scour the sky, waiting.
Most days, the boy next door shovels soil or hauls stones to build a vegetable garden for his grandmother. She’s heard he’ll be a sophomore at her new school come fall. He’s blond, tanned, and freckled, and when the sweat soaks his T-shirt, the lean muscles of his stomach resemble a relief map.
She likes him because whenever their eyes meet above the rotting wooden fence, his blink is slow and his smile tooth-achingly sweet.
“Come inside. My mother doesn’t get home until seven,” she tells him one day, leaning against the fence in what she hopes is a flirtatious pose.
He drags his arm across his brow. “You sure about this?”
She nods and smiles like she’s been practicing in the mirror.
They kiss on their way up the stairs. She’s licked every one of his teeth by the time they’ve made it to her bedroom.
“Shit. The condoms,” he says, halfway out of his jeans.
“I’ve got it covered.”
She reaches over to the carved jewelry box on her nightstand and retrieves a crinkly foil package.
“Whoa, hold up.” He peers inside the box, still straddling her on the bed. His hipbone is sharp where it presses against her thigh. Farther up, she feels a different kind of stiffness reminiscent of tooth enamel—hard and smooth like it’s just been brushed. “You’ve kept your baby teeth? Who does that? And what’s up with the marks? It’s like these were removed by force or some shit.”
She shuts the box containing all twenty of her milk teeth, perfectly arranged in two semi-circles on the blue velvet lining. The ones that came out broken or cracked, she glued back together.
Whether he’s creeped out by the sight, she doesn’t know. She squirms against him, another thing she’s been practicing, and soon, he forgets all about the box and the teeth.
Although she wants to go through with this meaningless rite of passage, a part of her is not done talking.
“There’s strength in teeth,” she says between stuttering breaths as the swing of his hips drives her into the mattress. “In what you do with them. You go through teething, then rip out your old, weak teeth so new and improved ones can grow. And once you remove your wisdom teeth, well, then you will be able to survive anything.”
She wants to impart this knowledge to someone—has wanted to since she was six but was shut down time and time again. His groans, however, are too loud for him to hear her. She lets her head loll to the side. At first, the square of sky visible through the small window is a hypnotic blue, but then it shines and eddies in whites and silvers. With the alien shimmer imprinted behind her lids, she closes her eyes and smashes her mouth against his. A kiss full of teeth.
Sofia is not surprised when they come to collect her. Only wonders what took them so long. She wakes up in a cavernous chamber, cold metal beneath her naked body, vast black sky beyond the curved glass ceiling. The smell is sharp, antiseptic. Every part of her resonates with validation. She knew about the spaceship’s existence, just as she knew that children must pluck out all of their teeth at once before it’s too late.
When a set of doors slide open and the three creatures arrive, she forgets to be afraid. Their naked bodies are translucent and flaccid like the skin of a jellyfish. They don’t walk across the room; they glide.
The jelly at the head of their formation addresses her in a guttural voice. “Get up, Architect. You have a lot of work to do.”
She’s thrust into a white room lined with holographic screens. The One-in-Charge waves their gelatinous arm in front of the biggest display. Footage from the aliens’ planet plays on repeat: avian beasts swoop down from the skies, screeching all the way. Their four-foot tusks spear the flabby chests of the jellies, while clear ichor spews out of the wounds and soaks the ground. Then the beasts flap their tattered crow-wings and carry the jellies back to their nests in the clouds to eat at a later stage. The One-in-Charge calls the monsters something she can’t pronounce. She tries, but the word just scratches the back of her throat. She names them Birdephants in her head, her own private joke.
The One-in-Charge raps their slimy knuckles against the white, opaline wall. The sound brings to mind the slap of flesh during sex.
She forgets to be repulsed.
“Birdephant tooth. The strongest material on our planet,” the One-in-Charge says.
Are you in my head? she thinks at them.
You wanted to impart your knowledge. Now you have your chance, comes the reply.
She’s reminded of all the little cousins she’s made cry; of the kids at school she’s scared away with her unceasing teeth talk; of her mother, who was the one who found her in a mumbling delirium of pain and blood and glee that July morning ten years ago.
And what will happen to me afterward? she scribbles across her mind, her curiosity piqued.
She gets no reply this time, but she swears the One-in-Charge’s face has split into a toothless smile.
She is to create the blueprints for a dome made of Birdephant tusks. The net vault will be fitted over buildings and streets like a shield against the beasts’ attacks. She thinks there’s a certain poetic justice in the act. The beasts attack with their tusks, so why not use their own weapon against them?
And why not remove your own teeth before somebody else beats you to it and robs you of the opportunity to grow stronger?
Aloud, the One-in-Charge says, “You’re the only one who can do it. We’ve been watching you, Architect. Your philosophy has inspired us. You understand teeth.”
That she does.
In exchange, she is given everything a sixteen-year-old girl might crave. The aliens haven’t updated their data on Earth since the late sixties, and it shows. Amused, she munches on discontinued Hershey bars and reads vintage magazines featuring pin-up girls and convertibles as red and shiny as cherries. She works at an old school desk, sketching and researching the anatomy and history of the Birdephants.
At bedtime, she lies on her back and gazes at the pure-black sky outside the moving spaceship. Sometimes she sees a flash of silver, neither star nor planet, and waves at the fellow spaceship before going to sleep.
When she’s given her first Birdephant tusk to examine up-close, wrapped in butcher’s paper still dripping with blood from the extraction, she drops to her knees. Reverently, she caresses the unbreakable, iridescent enamel with trembling fingertips. Her cheeks are wet with tears.
PART III: WISDOM TEETH
The construction of the ivory dome is almost complete when Sofia first feels the insistent throbbing at the back of her mouth, at the point where her jaw curves upward to meet her skull. She’s been toiling over the operation through the giant holographic screens in her white room, lightyears away from the aliens’ homeworld. She’s been viewing clips from Earth as well. An apocalypse is coming. Perhaps. She always loses interest halfway through the feed. Her old life pales in comparison to her work here. If it felt to her then like a TV with the sound on mute, now her old life is but the dream of some faraway stellar butterfly.
The One-in-Charge visits her daily to inspect her progress as she adds the finishing touches.
“It won’t be long now,” she says. Her words are slurred because her tongue is straining to press against the sharp nubs of her wisdom teeth, growing bigger every day.
She taps her nails against the white enamel stubs. Once the One-in-Charge disappears through the hatch, she scratches at her swollen gums until her nerves are tingling and her entire body is a mouth, raw and electric.
The unveiling ceremony attracts jellies from every part of the galaxy. They’ve all been waiting for the moment they could finally be free of the monsters infesting their planet. For the crowd of aliens gathered around the town hall where the biggest shield has been erected, this is a homecoming.
The One-in-Charge climbs onto a stage and talks about how the Birdephants have been hunting and killing the jellies since the beginning of time; how this ends now. Their voice rasps and scratches all through the square.
“We wouldn’t be here today if not for this exceptional human and her philosophy. There is strength in teeth.”
There’s strength in them, alright. She can feel it in the languid pulse of the inflamed gums around her wisdom teeth. She can feel it as if she’s holding her old jewelry box full of her baby teeth bearing the scars from the pliers. If you’re the one who creates this pain, this rapture, then nobody can take it from you. She’s known this since she was six years old.
When she climbs onto the stage, the sea of jellies turns manic beneath her. They flap their arms and gnash their toothless orifices in anticipation. Their hands make a wet, suctioning sound every time they clap, which crescendos in the thickening air above the town square. She’s naked, but her hair is swept up in an intricate updo, baby and adult teeth alike woven among the numerous sinuous braids. The teeth look human. She spares a quick thought for the cataclysmic Earth feed back in her white room, but, like the vibrator and the chocolate bars, she doesn’t care to ask where the teeth came from.
She looks up at the sky, presented to her in its celestial flesh for the first time. Perhaps the last. It’s hazy and milky-white, white as enamel.
The One-in-Charge releases a rough, throaty scream. She doesn’t understand what it means, and she doesn’t need to.
Together with the rest of the crowd, the One-in-Charge takes shelter. Throngs of jellies slither inside the town hall or squeeze themselves through the sewer grates. Only she remains up on the stage, directly below the webbed ivory dome she’s designed. She’s about to test the shield’s durability, like a good architect should.
Her fingers are in her mouth, pressing, prodding, digging into her vaults of wisdom. Her free hand curls tight around the set of pliers she requested especially for today.
She doesn’t know whether the shield will hold or if the magnificent tusks of the Birdephants will gore her through the middle. She has faith in teeth either way. And she has a way to occupy herself while her fate is being decided up in the skies. One final, self-appointed rite of passage. Her red-hot gums, where her wisdom teeth nestle, throb like a heartbeat.
Allowing herself a small smile, Sofia raises the pliers to her mouth.