The boy remembered the last time, when his mother’s boyfriend had cracked her across the jaw so hard that her tooth went skittering like a dropped candy across the bathroom tiles, and afterward, his mother had painfully explained that they would keep the tooth in a glass of milk until she could see the dentist the next day, that the milk would keep the tooth fresh and alive. So this time, when the house had been quiet long enough for him to dare emerge from his hiding place, and he found his mother unmoving on the kitchen floor, her head a confusion of blond strands and redness and a leaking substance like cake batter, he stepped carefully around her and bent to pick up the tooth, long and rooted, from where it lay beside the dishwasher. He was crying. Of course he was crying. But he nudged his mother’s leg aside, just an inch, so he could open the refrigerator and get the milk. He retrieved her favorite coffee mug from the sink, rinsed it, dropped the tooth inside and covered it with cold whiteness. He carried the mug into his room, careful not to spill, and kept his eyes fixed on it until the uniform people came.
When he went to live with his grandparents, he took the tooth with him. He had to move it from the mug to a Mason jar so he could put a lid on it, conceal it, but once his grandmother had unpacked his clothes and toys and books in his new room— his mother’s old room, she said— he removed the lid so the tooth could breathe. Some of his mother’s things, teenage stuff, jewelry boxes and yearbooks and CDs in dusty plastic cases, were still in the room. They perplexed him, and he tried not to touch them. His new window was on the wrong side of the bed, and the house smelled like stale coffee and their incontinent dachsund Bing instead of mango shampoo and vanilla. He changed the milk every couple of days, asking his grandmother for an extra glass after lunch and carrying it back to his room, where he drained the old milk into a potted plant and replaced it with fresh. His grandmother commented, distantly, what a good boy he was, to drink his milk without complaint.
Each time he drained and replaced the milk, the root of the tooth seemed to have grown longer, reaching and curling like a seedling. One morning he woke to find a pale pink tendril protruding above the milk’s tensile surface. Slowly, unmistakably, it waved at him.
Soon the tendril had grown into a thin, pale shoot that sent off runners like the peas his mother had planted in the spring. The runners twisted together at either side, forming two arms, and a knot at the top approximated a head. The new milktooth mother did not have eyes, but she seemed to see him anyway, turning her pale face to follow his movements across the room. He talked to her, tentatively at first, then eagerly. He told her about what had happened, the accident, as his grandparents still called it, though he knew better. He told her how the food his grandmother cooked tasted weird, how Bing peed on his shoes. She swayed in the breeze of his words.
The boy returned to school, and when he came home in the afternoons, she would nod as he told her what he’d learned, that tigers were the only cats that like to swim, that some tortoises could live for a hundred and fifty years. Some nights, when he was very sad, he’d hold the jar close as he lay on his saggy bed, and the milktooth mother would extend a damp pink tendril and stroke his forehead until he fell asleep.
His grandmother complained that his room smelled sour. She threw out the dead potted plant and sprayed some stuff that made his eyes sting. The milk in the jar turned cloudy and gray.
The boy had a loose tooth, low in his jaw, that he worried for a week until one night it broke free with an audible snap. He spit it into his palm and held it, wondering about money under his pillow, until he heard a tiny tapping on glass. The milktooth mother gestured urgently. She swayed like a hula dancer and beckoned until he understood.
He drained the milk into an old bowl of his mother’s, a small dish meant to hold rings, until the milktooth mother stood trembling, exposed to the root. She quivered for a long moment, then violently twisted, detaching her body from the tooth with a rip that he seemed to feel in his chest. She sagged against the glass and weakly pointed with a sprig. He took the tooth in his fingers; it felt soft, malleable. As she nodded encouragement, he worked his mother’s tooth into the gap in his jaw, easing the ragged root end into his gums. He felt a faint tingle.
The milktooth mother was already fading, dissolving, as the new tooth took root in his jaw. She shuddered a final time, then stilled. He slept holding the jar against his chest, and when he woke, it held only a spoonful of sweet-smelling pink fluid.
The tooth felt strong, but still he chewed gingerly for the next few days, grateful now for the overboiled foods his grandmother made. When he could bear it, he rinsed the jar clean and stored it under his neatly folded shirts.
When he smiled— when, at last, he was able to smile— the tooth was barely visible, slightly larger and more pearlescent than the baby teeth that fell out and were replaced, new adult teeth growing up around his mother’s, which he formed an unconscious habit of tonguing gently whenever he was thoughtful or uncertain, its cool smoothness a comfort until the end of his days.
About the Author: Primarily a poet, Juliana's fiction has appeared in Hobart and Flash Fiction Magazine. Her third poetry collection, Honeymoon Palsy, was published by Measure Press in 2017, and her humor writing has appeared in McSweeney's and elsewhere. An Alabama native, she lives in western New York and teaches at Alfred University.