“Decay” by Allison Mulder
He slipped over the sill of the open window, his toes clicking on the hardwood floor before he quickly stepped to the carpet.
He had crept through many windows, but this was one was new to him. A new house. A new room, though it looked like many others. Glowing plastic stars were stuck to the ceiling, and toys were strewn across the floor too densely to walk around without care.
He chose not to take the trouble. His feet hovered a few inches above the stuffed animals and toy train tracks as he drifted toward the bed on the right side of the room.
In the bed, a lump under the Buzz Lightyear covers swelled and diminished. A patch of brown hair was visible at the very edge of the sheets, on the very corner of the pillow. A good sign; many lumps tended to make the space under their pillow as accessible as they could. But the most promising ones were always lolling half-off the bed with their necks twisted at odd angles, as if to get as far as possible from the thing that had come out of their mouth.
The tooth fairy stood above the bed, watching the lump rise and fall, then slipped his hand under the pillow and coaxed the tooth from its resting place. He held it up to the faint light of the green spaceship nightlight, but that wasn’t the real test. Not every tooth was a seed tooth, not one in a thousand, maybe one in a million. But when he found one, it was easy enough to know it for what it was.
He pulled the covers back from the lump’s face and cradled the tooth in his palm. He brought his hand closer and closer to the mouth gaped with sleep and held it there, so close the moisture in the child’s breath fogged on the tooth fairy’s skin. The tooth turned, like a magnet toward its twin, and gave the slightest twitch toward the parted lips.
The tooth fairy clapped his hand over the seed tooth – the lump never stirred – and knelt on the toy-littered floor. He moved the seed tooth two and a half feet down from its former resting place, to the floor beneath the bedframe. He adjusted its position, thought, then wedged it upright between a slim crack in the flooring. Then he opened his own mouth and removed one of the gleaming quarters he kept on his tongue, wiping it off on the bedspread though there was no need. The metal was dry.
The quarters came from other houses – the ones where parents made the switch before he got there, robbing him of potential seed teeth. He stole the coins and left them at other houses because it encouraged the legend to continue. It kept teeth from going into the trash before he’d had a chance to look at them. It kept kids opening their windows, even if he didn’t really need them to.
He jabbed the quarter beneath the pillow and the lump’s head lolled further on its side. Its teeth glinted in the night light’s gleam, and the tooth fairy’s finger drifted forward to draw the jaw down and touch a likely canine. Sometimes more than one seed came from the same mouth, and that was always grand. They grew so fast, building off each other, strengthening hour by hour. It would be so much faster to pluck out all the teeth on each trip.
But no. The stories would die too quickly, the teeth would go in the trash.
Kneeling again, he moved the quarters into his cheek with the ease of habit and whispered to the seed tooth. Just a few words.
Then he left by the window, closed it behind him, and drifted down to the front yard.
The next house on his nightly rounds was fifty miles away. If he’d taken the sheltered and shadowed routes, he could have been there in ten minutes.
Instead, he walked like a man through the city streets, past late-night walkers and staggering drunks, past those who didn’t know or care when most people should have been asleep.
Tonight, he would walk, at least part of the way. It was probably the last time he’d walk like this, and he wanted a reminder of what it felt like. Also, his mood was too good; he needed to prepare for the end of the night, and he couldn’t do that while being pleased about the new seed tooth. He’d been pushing the anger down for so long, a forgettable ache, but that wouldn’t do tonight. He had to remember. It was almost time.
The tooth fairy walked through the busiest part of the crowd, and people only glanced at him when their shoulders brushed his own, when their jackets rustled and their buttons scraped against his smooth skin. They’d look his direction for a moment, then continue on their way. Sometimes, they turned and walked away from him in a perfectly straight line, taking long steps out of their way before veering back toward their original intentions. Every averted glance was a drill through his core, a spark igniting his temper, and he embraced the anger that flooded through him.
It wasn’t that they couldn’t see him.
It wasn’t that he blended in.
He wore nothing. He carried no tools. The only thing he brought on his rounds were the quarters, and those were held in his mouth, on his tongue, the metal bitter in the back of a throat meant only for speech, not for swallowing. His bare feet on the sidewalk were loud as a dog’s nails on linoleum, and gashed the concrete with scratches that closed up again, one by one, behind him. Even the physical world did not acknowledge him enough to be marked by him.
He was in the crowd’s midst, and he did not belong, and they rejected him the way the body rejects water in the lungs: reflexively, without a conscious thought.
The anger built and ate away at him with each averted gaze, and he let it, clenching his jaws around the coins in his mouth so that sounds like grinding stones filled the air. Once, his hand strayed forward just as it had to touch the lump’s tooth, and it grabbed the front of a man’s coat. The man blinked rapidly, raising an arm as if to fight a strong wind, though the gale affected no one around him.
The tooth fairy relaxed his grip, and the man backed up to get away from him. But their eyes never met. The man never looked straight at him. The man hadn’t seen how close a hard, hooked finger had come to the veins in his neck.
That was the only way to leave a lasting mark: to spill all the life from them at once, so fast and so sudden that they pumped the blood from their veins before the wound had time to close. There was no coming back from a killing, no matter how strongly the world rejected his actions. It would be so, so easy now–
As usual, it took a moment to process when someone was speaking to him.
He turned to find one of his kind perched at the base of a fountain, water streaming down his shoulders, the disturbance in the water flow going unnoticed as their kind always went unnoticed. He didn’t look familiar, but that meant nothing; routes only crossed each other occasionally, often by accident. Only once had the tooth fairy been in a large group of them. The memory wasn’t unpleasant, but the results had been…chaotic. Disorganized. Less efficient.
“I nearly thought you were going to do it,” the other tooth fairy said, rising. Water slipped off him more quickly than it would off most things, and he left no damp footprints as he walked up. “It’s almost your time, isn’t it?”
Not yet, the tooth fairy reminded himself.
“Soon,” he said aloud. “Tonight.”
The other one nodded. “You have successors yet, to take the route?” He looked young, like he’d only just taken over for his predecessor.
“One.” Or he would have one, by the end of the night. “What brings you here?”
The other one uncurled his fist to reveal seven gleaming teeth, still and plain, one silvered with fillings. “Duds. Triplets on a farm. Lots of teeth to check, but disposing of them…”
He turned and absent-mindedly tossed the teeth into the crowd, easily as if he were tossing bread to pigeons.
“It’s more fun with lots of people around.”
They watched with faint smirks as a woman paused on the sidewalk, digging around in her scarf and then holding something up to a streetlight. She shrieked and threw the human tooth away from her, clawing her scarf free to check for more. The process repeated itself several times in mere moments.
They acknowledged that at least.
“I’m leaving,” the other one said when the stirrings had stopped. He glanced at the older tooth fairy one last time before melting into the shadow ways. The last thing left behind was his voice. “Don’t build up the anger too soon.”
That’s right. He’d gotten carried away, thinking of blood already. The night was early yet. There was plenty left to do.
The secret ways brought him to the next house moments later, and the familiar exterior calmed him. The interior was even more familiar, the same books on the same shelves and the same butterfly border on the wall even though the girl in the room was almost too old for them now. The girl herself sprawled on top of her sheets, one leg hanging off the bed, completely mindless of the thing she’d put under her pillow years and years ago. She was a lump, too, but a lump that didn’t realize it was missing something. A lump that lived like it was more than a lump.
The tooth fairy knelt by the side of the bed and put his head to the floor, observing the garden of teeth that sprawled across the carpet mere inches from the girl’s foot. Not that she would have been able to see it.
Not ready yet, but growing well; the heaps of teeth swelled as he watched, leaning from side to side like teetering stalagmites, unstable where they sprouted from decay-ridden bases. Canyons of rot laced the main body of the teeth. Teeth on teeth, growing like a cancer, growing off the tops, the sides, crowding in from below. Some of them already pricked the bottom of the mattress.
But it wasn’t ready yet.
He leaned close and whispered heated things under his breath, things too quiet and repulsive for the child above to hear, over and over and over again.
The following house on his route provided a complication, but not an unexpected one. The family’s move had taken place as anticipated, and all that remained in the house was a stained, worn carpet and the toothbed, exposed but unseen by the house’s former occupants. It quivered in the open air, and in the absence of its original source, but luckily the growth had stabilized as predicted. Every molar had morphed, ending in an incisor. It was a bed of needles, a strip of sea urchin-like spines. The spaces between each tooth had nearly vanished, and smooth white enamel hid the rot beneath. Hollow decay lay just beneath the surface, and the lack of anything at each point’s core made it easy enough to snap sections apart at the base and gather them up in his arms.
With his mind on the sunrise, the tooth fairy quickly moved across the country, reaching the family’s new house before they did. Some of their boxes had been sent ahead, and he quickly found a room where the ones labeled “Brian” were clustered.
Sitting down in front of the closet, the tooth fairy stacked the pieces in his arms back together like a puzzle, whispering all the while.
By the time he left, the sections had nearly grown together again, the spaces filling like they’d never been there but that hollow space always remaining within. The sprout would be there waiting when Brian moved in, though he wouldn’t see it, even as he filled the closet with a preteen’s possessions. At least, he would never notice it.
Finally, the tooth fairy reached the last house on his route, though there were two tasks left. By a fortunate chance, the first task slept down the hall from the second. The front yard looked just as it had for years, and even Mitsy’s grave was still there, marked by a thorny rose bush that hadn’t yet managed to die. For nostalgia’s sake, he went through the front door, and that nostalgia burned through his limbs as he walked down the hallways, past pictures that had always hung on the walls, past scratches and gashes on the floor that he remembered making. Not the temporary scratches his body now left, but scratches and scuff marks from roller-skating indoors as Mom yelled at him to go outside and cried when he wouldn’t listen to her. He paused by the heating vent in the hallway and remembered pressing his fingers against the warm metal during the winter (his warmest option after they’d taken all the matches away from him). All he felt now when he traced his fingers along the vent was the spine-tingling edge of metal against something just as unyielding. He pushed too hard, and left a long pale scratch on the old metal. The line began to vanish even as he watched.
He rose, curling his fingers into a fist, and continued down the hallway.
He walked into the first bedroom and strode to the closet, ignoring the grown lump in the bed and the college propaganda strewn across the floor. The closet door opened from the inside the moment his hand touched the knob.
His successor stepped out of the closet, her white skin gleaming under the string of lights that framed the lump’s mirror. She was the first of his charges he’d seen grow to maturity – just in time, when most tooth fairies had two or three successors by the time their night came. The thing called a tooth fairy tilted his head slightly as he took in her enamel-white skin, and the way her hair didn’t drift around her face the way you’d expect; too solid for that. Other than those features, she matched the lump in the bed exactly, down to the shape of the mouth (though his successor’s lips were white, of course, instead of pink).
He began to speak, but his successor’s white eyes had followed his to the lump in the bed. Before he could react, she threw herself at the bedframe, face twisting in rage. He grabbed for her shoulder but missed, and then his successor was on top of her source, clawing at her mouth, her face, her hair, and the girl in bed was waking up with a scream – or she would have screamed if the successor’s knee wasn’t pressed against her throat. The silencing was not intentional. Just an accidental blessing fueled by anger.
The tooth fairy watched, furious, and waited, until his successor jabbed her fingers into her source’s mouth and a bright flash of light filled the room. The successor was thrown backward, slamming into the opposite wall with a crack even as her source slumped, exhausted and unconscious for the moment. Like all the others who’d faced premature attacks, the lump would consider it a nightmare. The scratches would be harder to explain, but it was astounding what levels of injury people would take credit for themselves, so long as it happened during sleep. And the scratches were almost always nearly gone by morning.
He crossed the room to where his successor was rising unsteadily. Her arm had nearly cracked off at the shoulder, and the hollowness beneath the skin was visible, empty, black. He grabbed her by the other arm and hauled her to her feet.
“Not yet,” he said. “You know you’re not strong enough yet. Not powerful enough. The anger needs to grow first. And you have a job to do. There’s an order to things. You need to keep the others alive and keep them growing. Keep them angry.”
“But she needs me,” his successor said, eyes wild, gaze flicking back to the lump in the bed. “If they were born with us, they must need us. They can’t just throw us away.” If she were a different kind of being, she would’ve been crying.
The tooth fairy said nothing.
That kind of thinking was a part of maturing too. She’d grow beyond it, farther than it, if she didn’t grow out of the idea completely. She’d spent her days in the dark. She hadn’t walked the world yet. She hadn’t yet felt the frustration of acting on the world but never, ever marking it.
He’d scarred the world once. He deserved to have that right again. To mark the world instead of just slipping through its shadows. They’d been robbed of that chance, but they’d rob it back, one by one, all the cast-off pieces that had been dropped like seeds.
The anger was surging again, nearly overpowering. He put a hand on his successor’s shoulder, focusing on this, his second to last task.
“It’s time,” he said.
And he told his successor the words, the whispers.
She threw you away. She doesn’t want you to be a part of her. She cast you off. Sold you away. But soon, soon, you can take revenge.
Soon, soon, you can take her, and cast off the parts of her that you detest.
Soon you can walk among the others and be seen and noticed, and you can hurt them.
Soon, but not yet. Once you grow.
He repeated the words until his successor could repeat them back to him, and then he did the same with the routes, with the secret ways, with the ways to find the other tooth fairies.
“We’ll cast off all of them someday,” he said. “Soon. But not until there are more of us.”
She nodded, though her gaze flicked back toward the lump in the bed. When he took the quarters from his mouth she accepted them, slipping them between her own lips.
He sent her off, to learn the route. To continue the work.
Then he walked down the hall, to the master bedroom, and went to the side of the bed where a man lay sleeping, his mouth hanging open just slightly.
The thing they all called a tooth fairy had a name. The same name that belonged to the lump sprawled on his side of the bed. Nathan Daniels.
He had Nathan’s face. His frame. His tendency to squint. They even had the same memories of Nathan Daniels’s first years of life. Of learning to ride a bike and of going to kindergarten and of not quite accidentally killing Mitsy and of feeling the heat from a match on his palms until the time he – they – Nathan – was caught. The searing warmth on his skin…
But those few things they shared were the only things they shared. The tooth fairy did not have Nathan Daniels’s skin, he did not have a daughter, he did not have a life. The Nathan Daniels in the bed had everything else. Everything. Everything but the parts of himself that had left his mouth years and years ago, seeped into a tooth that would rot and decay in the dark.
The anger built, higher and higher, eating away at his insides, burning to nothing what it had once helped grow, but the tooth fairy didn’t make a single move toward the man.
He burned from the inside out, staring down at the man who looked like him (or the man who he looked like) and staring at the glint of the tooth that had replaced the seed tooth. It was an ugly tooth. Crooked. Full of fillings. But that part of himself, Nathan had kept. All the other things, Nathan had kept. Nathan kept everything, and he lived, even after throwing away a whole piece of himself – the successor was right, they must have been needed–
He waited until his skin had burned to be thin as frost – thinner. And he waited until the decayed pit inside of him was almost all he was, rot and anger and always always that seed that Nathan had rejected in the first place, so long ago. The seed of something he hadn’t wanted to be.
He waited until the sun shone through the windows – shone through his body without casting a shadow – and he waited until one minute before the man’s alarm was to go off.
Then the thing called a tooth fairy reached forward and touched the pointed tip of his finger to the point of the man’s tooth.
Leaving nothing behind, the empty rot rushed into the man. Nathan jerked once, banged his skull on the headboard, but then lay still until the alarm broke the morning, blaring over and over again as his wife let out a groan and shoved his leg.
Nathan Daniels turned off the alarm.
He got out of bed feeling like death, but no more irritable than usual; he had never been a morning person.
He was the same as he’d always been.
He hadn’t changed into a monster, he hadn’t lost control to a forgotten wildness, he didn’t feel a new hollowness in his head and bones and heart.
About the Author
Allison Mulder has historically been a nocturnal, small town college student pursuing a Writing & Rhetoric major in Iowa. Since starting her last semester of college with a PR internship in Chicago, she has begun to forgo sleep completely and now also pursues simpler things, like writing time or buses she’s just missed. She writes fantasy and scifi, novels and short stories, and far too many tweets as @silent_pages.