Ray pulled up his sleeve, allowed the barcode on his arm to be scanned. The system processed for a beat, the black screen flickering with pale yellow numbers and letters. A green bulb flickered on the screen, meaning he’d been granted access. The doors shuttered in front of him and the tube at eye-level spritzed the cool mist of oxygen booster. Ray took a deep breath of the mist, and the second green bulb glowed.
As the door opened, the stunner rod retraced from his side. Ray had never been stunned while in this facility and counted himself among the lucky few. No doubt his good behavior points were racking up.
In the exam room, the spotlight shone on the dental chair. Ray hadn’t been in one of these since he was a boy but relaxing in the chair was like riding a bike. Sit down, lean back. The doctor’s foot would ease the pressure and the chair would lean back. Ray wanted to stretch the sudden exam as long as possible since the chair was three times as comfortable as the stone cot he’d been sleeping on, the cot that was to be his home for the next six years.
With good behavior.
Eyes closed, Ray felt the prodding at his mouth and opened his eyes to see the bright bulb shining down on him, that spotlight that featured his mouth’s cast of characters, all 32 plus the Wisdom Wizards, the teeth that just didn’t want to let go.
He couldn’t see the doctor, who had been listed outside as “Dr. Framm”, but Ray knew that’s who was prodding at his mouth.
“Starting already?” Ray asked. No answer, just a plastic placeholder pressed into his mouth. “What about the lead bib?” He tried to ask this, but heard his words come out as a mumble around the plastic, “Wha’bot da llldd bub?”
“Do not move. S-stay still.” The voice was male, serious, and had the intonation that if you did move, you would be knocked into unconsciousness.
The X-Ray machine hummed for a second.
There was silence, the distant spritz of oxygen mist in the next exam room. Then a rod descended from the ceiling and sprayed at Ray’s face. He breathed deep. The one thing he hated about this planet was the constant feeling that he was underwater and had to come up for air every few minutes.
The spotlight bulb above Ray fizzled to a dim beige and the X-Ray screen flickered to life, showing the inside of his mouth and zooming into one of his upper incisors.
“Your tooth number two: Lateral Incisor, is dying. Is dead and is dying.”
Ray stared at the screen. The pale gray images of his teeth, the cross-sections of his incisors. “A tooth can do that?”
Dr. Framm’s mouth flicked to a grin, intonation adjusting. “The human body can do anything it wants. It wants to do. Have you seen gymnasts? The God only knows hey they contort themselves the way that they do. Into shapes not as human. I saw one woman, must’ve been five-foot tall, if that, perhaps shorter, and she twisted herself in ways —”
“What are you talking about?”
Dr. Framm continued, “Anyways, anyway, right now, your body doesn’t want anything to do with that tooth; that tooth is not welcome. So, well, it is being evicted.”
Ray felt confused, realized his tongue was poking at the poor, failed incisor, and swallowed. “So, what’s that mean? I mean, what do you call it? Bad Eviction Tooth?”
“Oh, it is just a bad tooth but does not make you a bad guy. You are a good guy with much good behavior. The tooth, your Number Two, is going through a root resorption. Your body is saying, is proclaiming, ‘hey, hello TOOTH NUMBER TWO, we do not like you, this tooth. You, TOOTH NUMBER TWO, you are not, not our guy. Like Fredo. From the movie so beloved. So, as such, we, the rest of your body, the body, wants to take the cells we like and kill the rest.’ Much like farmers who burn land to replenish the soil. We want a good crop of teeth, not decayed, empty bone in there.”
“So, what, I just have an empty shell for a tooth?”
“An empty pink and brown shell, yes. What we are going to do is remove it, we are going to take it out gently and with care, and put in a fresh look-a-like. So realistic, it will feel so much like the real thing even your mother will not be able to tell.”
“That’s your big selling point? Mothers who can’t recognize their children’s smiles?”
“I will see you again in a few weeks, Mr. Roeflburger. And when you do come back, try not to ask so many questions, I do not handle questions well, I only prefer to provide information needed at any time. All I see is, I focus on, that pink-stained dead tooth. I have been doing this, settled here, since this planetary facility opened, over twenty years, and the look of that tooth,” he shook, “gives me the creeps. I am unsettled.”
Ray was soon out on the sidewalk with the information pamphlet in hand, mind still in a whir, and credit card with a $100 hit. He’d taken care of his teeth, brushing, flossing, swish-swishing mouthwash, three times a day every day since he was six years old. How could one of his teeth be dying? How could his body just treat it that way?
What’s so bad about this one tooth?
He looked back on his years of having permanent teeth, immediately sneering at that word. Permanent. What’s permanent mean, anyways? If your teeth could just up and quit, decay so hard that your body just sucks it dry of any helpful cells, then what’s permanent? The earth wasn’t permanent. The sky, the grass, the solar system. Eventually the planets would spin and whirl around each other and break into smaller and smaller rock and stone eventually engulfed in a supernova and swallowed into a black hole of nothingness.
What difference could a tooth make?
Ray decided he didn’t need to show up to work on time. He would accept the deduction of Good Behavior, and he instead strolled to the park to watch the landers set in and the new arrivals and recently released come and go. He was one of the thousand long-timers, “Old-timers” to some, “Permanent Residents” in the eyes of the Facility.
Ha, that’s a joke, he thought to himself. Permanent resident. He had a deadline, a time frame. He’d be off planet by 2042. No question about it. Any longer and he’d start to suffer, lose his lung capacity, and his brain would bubble out of his ears. He’d heard of it happening to some of the folks who felt like they had no one to go back to. No one waiting for them. Their minds gave up and the nerves fizzled in tandem.
But Ray was lucky. He had Francine waiting. She hadn’t accepted the sentence to come along, but that was okay for Ray. The job was five years, maybe less with good behavior. All he had to do was keep up appearances and treat everything as normal. ‘Normal” being understood as “the way things were” back on earth.
He sped to work thirty minutes late to jump right into an online training session, and didn’t bother to announce himself when he dialed in. He kicked open his door, stuffed the paper wad in the door jamb to keep the door from shutting completely, and plopped his phone on mute and leaned back in his chair, his tongue again poking at the suspect tooth. The double agent. The betrayer.
Dr. Framm had inquired about “trauma”, asking what happened: did Ray hit his tooth, did he smack his head, get in a fight, have a run-in with a baseball in the summer. But no, nothing like that. The closest “trauma” Ray’s face had ever seen was a kickball to the noggin in grade school, and a knee to the cheek during a rowdy evening of sex that had lasted less than five minutes in the back of a movie theater, with a lingering six months of hangover crabs.
That woman was not a keeper, and eventually he had evicted the crabs, too.
Ray chuckled at the memory, the silly dalliance with debauchery prior to meeting the love of his life, and he flicked his index finger against his wedding ring, a favorite habit of reassurance that immediately cooled his anxiety.
He leaned forward and turned up the volume on the conference call, and then popped off mute. “Say again, Sam?”
Ray had no idea if Sam just spoken, it was a ten-to-one shot. This time he lucked out.
“I said that the Hundred Oaks branch is shuttering by November, despite the holiday season. Just can’t keep the staff salaries above water…”
Sam kept speaking, but Ray was no longer listening. He was on his knees behind his desk, hand gripping his temples, trying to stop the hissing static that exploded his senses. There had never, in his life, been this much pain in his head, this much incoherent wash of sensation all at once. It was like an orchestra decided to play every symphony ever written at exactly the same time and had turned their instruments’ volume up to eleven.
He crawled up to his desk and turned off his laptop, slamming shut the lid. But the sensation continued. He took out his phone, turned that off, too. But still no luck. He threw his phone into the toilet that stunk up the corner of his room. But still the buzzing continued.
His tongue flicked against the double-crossing tooth and WHAM, like a rock against his neck the sensation tripled in size, sending him to the floor. Something about that tooth was no longer friendly. And his body already knew it. His body had sucked all it could from the tooth, and now it was there, playing out revenge.
But he didn’t want to wait any longer.
Ray stumbled out of his room, shuffling down the hall, past Sam’s office, past the others who were on the online call. They watched him move by their square windows, and one-by-one they reached out to him, calling out his name. No doubt they all had themselves on mute to keep up with the charade, their wall calendars X’ed to count down the days until their own permanent residencies were extinguished.
Ray grabbed the handle to the janitor’s closet, surprised himself by pulling it open, fully expecting the door to be locked. But when he slipped inside, he realized he had no reason to expect it to be full. Emptiness was beyond the door, just like almost every other door he’d been allowed to enter since he’d arrived.
Three years into a ten-year sentence on this prison planet, and what Ray’s tooth was telling him was that it was already time to go. He gripped his tooth in his fingers, but they were sweaty and had no traction. He couldn’t pull it out.
He looked at the door handle, and, hearing the running footsteps down the hall, he let the sensation overtake him and bent down fast.
He awoke several seconds later, just as the Guards were arriving to flip him over. On his stomach, Ray almost felt relieved when the guards locked his wrists together. He was looking at his dead tooth, the pink and decayed exterior, and the hollowed-out center. He could taste the copper, juicy blood from his gums, and the sensation that had infected his brain was gone. The buzzing was gone. The explosion of confusion and cacophony of symphonic torture had vacated.
Back in his office they’d removed the phone and desk chair, and all that was left was his desk, which was in sleep mode, the cot neatly covered in sheets and a blanket. The guards set Ray down on his back, and he asked for a towel for his mouth. They ignored him. He flicked his wedding ring and felt a new sensation in his fingernail. The comfort of his memories of Francine was not enough to distract from the skin on his finger. At his nail. He raised his hand and picked at the nail, and after a few tugs his nail came off. And then Ray could sleep.
The next day, Ray was taken to see Dr. Framm and he felt no sensation, good or bad. He noticed his smile in the window of the car, incisor now gone, and touched his mouth with his nail-less finger. Would his mother recognize him? Would Francine?
Dr. Framm had the same toothy grin on his face, the same perfectly coiffed hair, and the same mechanical undercarriage that brought that face to and from the dental chair.
Dr. Framm’s grin shifted, his programming rejiggering his mouth and eyebrows into a stern look of disapproval. “I see you have taken your own initiative, Mr. Roeflburger. Tisk tisk. Those Good Behaviors are being deducted; you are losing your Good Behaviors.”
“I’ve still got five years. Got to keep things in tip top shape.”
“We will make sure you stay that way. I am here to keep you healthy and working. No more evictions of teeth, you must keep alive your body. Mmkay?”
Framm’s silver, mechanical fingers plucked up a false tooth from a tray above Ray’s head, and twisted rapidly with the false tooth’s root, a screw, aimed directly for Ray’s mouth.
Ray rubbed at his wedding ring. Five more years.
He screamed as Framm’s mouth reconfigured into a grin. A big, bold grin.