by Emily Daniels
Plump fingers probed. The baby was trying to clutch its mother’s torso, bare and leaning against the sticky vinyl of the waiting room chair. The ancient window AC had quit working, and the air hung in a thick sheet around us. The baby did not cry. Milky blue eyes blinked into the dim light of the Clinic. Something was caked to its lashes, glittering in the faint sunlight.
Its gummy mouth searched for a nipple, suctioning pieces of skin to its thin lips, a tiny algae eater. The mother caressed the back of the baby’s bald head. She guided it to her breast. The baby had trouble breathing through its nose. It sniffled, coughed. A tear ran down its cheek. I was sitting five seats away, gawking, in love. Small bubbles of snot collected on its nostrils. The mother wore a long black skirt and no shoes. Her shirt was bunched, pulled down around her waist. She was talking to herself, or maybe to the baby. She was looking ahead, muttering.
I had been coming to the Clinic for three months. That’s when I started pulling out my teeth with pliers. Just the molars, nothing noticeable. I had read a book about manifestation. It was sacrificial, the teeth pulling. I wanted a baby that couldn’t die.
Winnie told me the pliers were easy to steal. I gazed at the tool gleaming in her hand like a sparkly toy. I rubbed my jaw, clenching at the pain that would soon come.
One of the teeth in the back of my mouth was starting to rot, that’s where we started. Winnie warned me I might pass out. I was terrified. She reached toward the back of my throat. I nearly vomited, choking on the hunk of metal. She counted. I heard three, then nothing. It was only dark for a second.
Winnie handed me a small pocket mirror. The inside was cracked, but I could see the blood pooling around my tongue. It felt hot. I spit on the ground – little roses blooming in the cement. She handed me the tooth. I cradled it in the palm of my hand. It was pretty and pink. I tore out a hunk of hair near the nape of my neck, using the strands to swaddle the tooth before placing it under my pillow. I smiled and prayed, licking the metallic taste from my lips.
I walk to the Clinic from our building since there is no public transit. We live in a small town, maybe 3,000 people. There is one hospital. For people like me and Winnie who have no money, no identification issued by the government, no inherited names, no insurance, there is the Clinic.
The first time I went, I passed a trailer park. I was going the wrong way. Two women were sitting in the grass, smoking long cigarettes and filling up a plastic kiddie pool with a water hose bleached by the sun. The bright green made my eyes sting. They took turns drinking from the hose, spilling water down the fronts of their shirts and splashing it into their faces. Cheap mascara ran down their cheeks. Heat tightened my skin, burning it. I could hear insects buzzing near my ears, felt one land on my arm, tickling.
“They’ve been awful, especially with all this rain. Good lord,” one of the women said, lifting her chin toward me.
They were in front of a single-wide propped on cinder blocks. It sagged to one side, like it might tip.
“Well, have a good one,” the other woman said, waving.
The Clinic is housed in a decrepit building on the edge of town. From the outside, it looks abandoned, one of the windows boarded up with a piece of plywood.
Inside, a haggard-looking woman sat at a card table. She glanced at me, then went back to her typewriter. A pitcher of highlighter yellow sat beside her with a note: “Please have some.” A lopsided smiley face was drawn next to the message. A gnat squirmed in the cloudy liquid, dying.
“Hi. Um, my name is Alex. I, uh, I need to see a doctor,” my throat squeaked halfway through, making me blush and cover my mouth.
“Who sent you?” the secretary asked, not looking up at me when she spoke.
“Winnie. She knows Lucinda, a nurse who works here.”
“OK, Cinda will be with you in a minute. Have a seat.”
After several moments, a thin woman wearing a vinyl coat came through a door next to the secretary. The secretary whispered something to her, eyeing me.
“Name’s Cinda. Nice to meet you. I been friends with Winnie a long time,” the woman said. I could see busted blood vessels in her red cheeks. She wore black lipstick that cracked at the corners of her mouth.
“Follow me,” she rasped.
The lights in the long hallway flicked a few times. I could hear a fly buzzing in the distance. It smelled like bleach, too strong. I coughed into the crook of my elbow and sneezed.
She led me to a room at the end of the hallway. There was a metal table with a sheet on it. I had brought the tooth and the hair, nestled in a brown paper bag.
“I think it’s a girl,” Cinda whispered, a warning. I cradled the gory sac, my newborn, a little old thing.
They had to cut her out of me. I didn’t even wince at the pain, just grinned, my mouth straining, curling up into slits.
She looked like a pebble, perfectly round and beautiful, slick hairs protecting her insides.
“Well, I’ll be goddamned,” Winnie said, softly crying.
They sliced her open. I didn’t want them to hurt her.
“It’s OK,” they said.
I had never seen anything so pure.
A tooth, my miracle. I smiled and prayed.