None of Betsy McCormack’s teeth fell out; they just grew in on top of each other like a shark’s. When she finally got the baby teeth removed this spring, that’s when the surgeon found the extra ones. Embedded all along her soft palate and even into her nasal passages, Betsy’s head was full of teeth. Every time she sneezed after that, I flinched. Sean Marzoa calls her Betsy McSarlacc after the fanged pit-monster from Star Wars, and though he’s mean to do it, I always laugh along with everyone else.
When I hear the familiar rattle of teeth in a jar, I turn and face the concrete wall of the school building.
“Wanna buy a tooth?” Betsy asks. She’s already managed to sell a few teeth to the stupider kids, who then try to trick their parents into slipping a dollar under their pillows.
“No,” I say without turning around. “I already lost all mine–my mom would know I’m lying.” Not wanting anyone to see me talking to her, I just focus on picking at the palm of my hand where an angry splinter lodged itself last night.
“What’s wrong with your hand?” she asks, after a minute.
I don’t look at her. “Nothing.”
“Lemme see it.”
That’s when Betsy sets down her jar of teeth and grabs my wrist, her fingers cold against my skin.
“Why didn’t your mom dig it out with a needle?”
“I didn’t show her. I hate needles,” I added, looking in misery at the pretty girls on the swings in the distance, their legs pumping in choreographed triplicate, long hair flying behind them like the tails of comets.
“I can get it out for you,” Betsy says, “without a needle.”
I turn away from the swinging girls and look at her. In fourth grade, we were almost the same height, but now, just a year later, I tower over her.
“How?” There’s no one around us, there never is, on this side of the building, pressed up against a grove of alder trees, always shady and cold, even in June. I like to come back here by myself and poke at the ant holes in the hard-packed dirt or try to break open agates.
“I can suck it out.” She smiles then, and she would look just a little bit like Shirley Temple if I didn’t know what her mouth used to be like.
She shrugs. “It’ll get infected otherwise, and then you’ll have to get a tetanus shot. That’s a huge needle.” She turns to pick up her jar.
“OK,” I say.
When she turns back to me, her eyes sparkle.
She takes my hand in hers, examines the splinter, then runs her pinky along the length of it, the skin there so thin and sensitive I gasp. When she raises my palm to her mouth, I look over my shoulder one more time to make sure no one’s watching. The boys are chasing each other and cheering on Sean Marzoa in clumps around the tetherball court; the girls are still swinging or gossiping along the fence. Then Betsy’s lips touch my hand, and the noise of the playground narrows to an insignificant hum.
Warm and wet, her mouth is less mouth and more exotic animal, one that sleeps at night beneath a canopy of prehistoric leaves. She tongues the same ridge of skin, navigating the intricacies of the puncture. Then she begins to suck. Under her tongue, my pain transforms into something new, something I can’t pretend to ignore. Her lips splay wetly across my palm like jellyfish, her nose pressed into the fleshy bottom joint of my thumb, and all the while, as she sucks at the splinter with a pressure that seems to build and build, her eyes are closed like she’s somewhere else entirely.
And then, with one last flick of her tongue, the pressure stops, and Betsy lifts her head, her blue eyes look right at me, but my hand is still hanging there, wet and vulnerable. The boys are yelling about something, and one of the pretty girls howls in mock outrage.
Betsy pulls something from her mouth. Thinking, for a horrified second, that it might be another tooth, I step back, withdraw my injured hand.
She flinches. “Here.” She reaches out. Between her thumb and forefinger is the splinter, half an inch long and jagged on one end.
The recess monitor blows the whistle. It’s time to head back to class. When our fingers meet, mine linger, both of us holding the damp splinter. “Thanks,” I say.
Betsy opens her mouth, but before she can speak, Sean Marzoa’s voice interrupts.
“Hey, it’s McSarlacc’s teeth!” he yells, and scooping up the jar, he shakes it so hard I’m sure he’s broken all the teeth inside.
“Stop it, Sean,” I scream, but Betsy is quiet, her face white, hands unmoving. “Give it back,” I say louder, as his eyebrows scrunch together and then ricochet apart, his deep guffaw echoing off the walls.
“Two little lesbos sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G.” He shakes the jar to punctuate each letter.
The recess monitor blows the warning whistle and Sean runs, opening the jar as he does, pitching the whole thing high over the school fence and into the alder trees that seem to reach a little higher to catch the pattering constellation of tiny white teeth.
A graduate of Bennington College, Julie Cadman-Kim currently lives and works in Seattle. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Fourteen Hills, Jellyfish Review, Witness Magazine’s Dark Holiday Issue, and Sonora Review, where she was selected by R.O. Kwon as the winner of the 2019 Fiction Contest.