Her left canine tooth turns grey and goes painful, her dogtooth she calls it, so Christian takes her in the dark back room of the Qwik Chek and knocks it out with the butt end of his wrench. He leans her back in Jimmy’s rolling chair under the desk lamp and peels up her lip with his thumb and aims, and Corina closes her eyes, and he pounds it straight out and into the back of her throat with one blunt blow. She sits up fast, gagging on blood and wrench metal and the sick smell of the tooth, and leans over to spit into the trashcan he put next to the chair. Christian wipes the end of the wrench on his pants and tucks it into his back pocket where he keeps it. Safer than a gun, he says when asked, and legal, and lethal.
“Thank you, baby,” she says, and coughs her morning cough, and he says, “Yup.” He hands her some of those brown folded paper towels, the stiff ones that go in restrooms, and she holds them to the tender hole where the tooth was and watches him leave the back room and take up his place behind the counter. You wouldn’t know he is her son, he’s so clean-cut and upright and healthy, he looks like a Marine with his short hair and the way he never reacts. But he isn’t. He’s just another neighborhood boy that bounced from foster home to foster home after the county took him from her until two years ago when he got this job at the Qwik Chek from Jimmy, who has helped her out too in other ways. Now he rents a room above the insurance place down the block. Growing up in the system made him tough but it also kept him fed and warm so she feels okay about losing him, because he came up better without her. She always knew where he was but left him alone until she had her shit together, and then she came into the Qwik Chek one day after getting clean in that church program that aims to save women, and said to him, “I’m your mama,” and he stared at her long and slow with his hard blue eyes, leaning on the counter with his arms crossed like he does to show off his biceps, and he said, “Okay.” He doesn’t dote on her but he does pack her cigarettes the way she likes and he keeps her in lighters for free and she can count on him every now and then for little things like knocking out a tooth that she can’t afford to have looked at.
She hears her cigarettes pounding steady as a metronome against the heel of his hand so she gathers her things to leave, spitting one last time into the trashcan, and in the spotlight of the lamp she catches sight of her dogtooth in a slick of blood and spit and reaches down to retrieve it. It’s an old impulse from when she was in lockup, hurting and crazy from withdrawal, and she saved all her hair and fingernail clippings to keep from getting left behind piece by piece in places she never wanted to go to begin with. She wraps the tooth in one of the brown paper towels and tucks it in the pocket of her short coat and stands, slinging her purse over her shoulder.
In the florescent light of the store she sees that there is a dot of blood on Christian’s collar. He always wears those white long johns shirts with the sleeves cut off and rolled up almost to the shoulder and grey work pants like a mechanic and steel toed boots. His clothes are tight, tighter than most men, and she knows that’s because he’s queer, or at least part queer because she’s heard firsthand from some of her friends that he fucks girls too when he feels like it. She thinks the foster homes probably made him queer – the pretty ones always get touched – but there was nothing to be done about that.
Anyway, queer or not he’s still a hard man like men should be, and he’s accepted in the neighborhood which is what really matters. He works out every day at this place off Center Street that’s really just a basement apartment with punching bags and weight benches owned by that felon ex-boxer Mendez, and that place is dangerous, but only if you’re not invited. And Christian is always invited. Corina has had her run-ins with Mendez and would cross the city just to avoid walking past him on the street but it makes her feel proud that her son is part of his crowd. It means he’s safe, something she’s never been able to give him. What else it might mean, she doesn’t think about.
She reaches for the blood on his collar and he moves back without moving back, it’s all in a shift of his jaw muscles, but he allows her to touch briefly. He taps out a cigarette without looking at his hands and passes it to her, and then the pack with a new lighter stuck in the cellophane. Corina fits the cigarette in the hole the tooth left behind and winces a little from the twinge of pain. She’ll have to get used to that. Her body takes forever to heal up after so many years of drugs and shitty living. For a while her filters will be bloodstained. She doesn’t mind it. Like a calling card, like lipstick, but better.
“I got blood on you,” she says around the cigarette. She wants to trace the angles of his face carved out hard by the sharp light overhead but doesn’t dare. In her pocket is a crumpled five dollar bill, which she digs out and hands him. He stands up straight and pops the register drawer.
“It’s no thing,” he says.
“Thanks for taking care of my dogtooth, baby,” she says, and pulls out the lighter.
“Light that outside,” he tells her. “Jimmy says no smoking.”
“Oh, I know what Jimmy says,” and she smiles at him with one side of her mouth, but he doesn’t react. This is the only way to make the point that she has some pull on these streets, that she’s been around and knows how it all works, is to remind him of who she’s fucked – which is everyone, either on the job or on her own – but he never says a word. She keeps doing it anyway, like a tick. She looks up to him so much it’s almost like they’re flipped, like he’s her father, and that’s not how you impress your father, but it’s all she’s got.
“I got an appointment,” she says. “Maybe I’ll see you later?”
Christian says, “Maybe,” and he’s looking past her at some kids in big coats who are clustered in the chip aisle. She pushes the door open and the cold air soaks into her clothes like water, but finally she can breathe through her mouth again if she wants to because the dogtooth with its terrible pulse of sensitivity is folded up into a brown paper towel in her pocket. And now her cigarette has a place to ride. She feels good.
The appointment is one of her long term clients and he always wants the same things in the same way, so she moves through it without thinking. Then he’s done and walking his sagging ass to the bathroom and he tells her that her money is under the Kleenex box on the nightstand and she should let herself out. She dresses in his bedroom, watching herself in the cheap warped mirrors along his wall. There is shit piled up in all the corners, bulging plastic bags and jerkoff magazines and jars of Vaseline and crusted Styrofoam food containers. He is disgusting, but he always pays and he’s never raised a hand to her, so whether or not he’s disgusting doesn’t factor.
She leaves the room, closing the door after her, and turns to see a boy sitting on the couch in front of the television. She stops short. There has never been a boy here before. He looks to be somewhere from ten to twelve, she isn’t sure, these ages blur together. When Christian was that old she was way fucked in the head and then in lockup so she couldn’t track him like she usually did. This boy is skinny as death and slumped down on the couch so far that his head is almost against the seat cushion. His huge feet in oversized Nike tennis shoes are splayed on the coffee table. She looks at the television. He is watching one of those shows where black people do backflips when they find out they’re not the father of someone’s baby.
“Hi,” she says, and he slides his eyes from the screen to her and then back to the screen again. “Are you Jerry’s son?” she asks, and wonders why she is asking, and then realizes it is because the thought of Christian is riding high and bright inside her and she wants to say the word son, she wants to tell this ten year old that she also has a son and his name is Christian.
“What makes you think that?” he says, and she feels confused. “How do you know I’m not here for the same reason you are?” he asks, and she takes a moment to think about that, and then finally it strikes her what he means.
And yes, that happens. There are places you can go, people you can go to, she knows. People who will find a little boy or a little girl for you and, if you pay enough, serve them up however you like. Like food delivery, but children – children who know enough and have seen enough to keep their mouths shut and their bodies limp. It’s mostly kids in foster homes, kids no one cares about, and as soon as she thinks this she sees Christian in her mind and turns her face from that thought, it is too much, to imagine him as one of those little boys delivered up to some chomo baby raper. If that had happened she would know.
Would she know? She would know.
“Don’t joke about stuff like that,” she says to him.
“Lady, that stuff is no joke,” the boy says, his eyes still on the television and his voice is slack and bored in a way that makes her think he must be lying. He is just some kid whose parents got divorced and he’s stuck at his dad’s against his will and out comes this lady so this is how he’s occupying his time.
“I don’t believe you,” she says, walking towards the door, searching in her bag for her cigarettes and the lighter Christian gave her. “That’s not his kink anyway.”
“What do you know about it?” he says.
“Not as much as I do,” the boy says, and he runs his hands up his thighs along the crotch of his jeans and gives an exaggerated shiver and then turns his big eyes on hers and suddenly they look hollow and sick in a way that makes her throat close up. She imagines the boy on the stained floral bedspread that has not been washed in forever, staring into the mirrors with any number of men rising up behind him, and then irresistibly she sees a much younger Christian in his place with his back held stiff straight no matter what happens to him and that blond in his hair from his asshole father who’s doing time on a meth lab charge but of course Christian doesn’t know that, doesn’t know who gave him that pretty blond hair that sealed his fate and made him a target in those horrible places from day fucking one, he doesn’t know anything, and then the realization hits her like a bucket of cold water, like a backhand across the face, that she doesn’t know anything either. And it seems like it could be true. About this boy, about Christian. About both of them. It was certainly true about her. Her father’s face floats up swollen and red, hanging above her in the dark, and no no no no no, she spent years and years learning not to see that. So many years.
Dark, lost years.
She swallows and tastes blood. Nothing ever heals. Her hands are limp on the cigarette pack and the lighter. She pulls one out, shaking, and lights it to steady her nerves. She glances at the closed door of the bedroom.
“Well then come with me,” she says, low. “Come on. I’ll find you someplace to go.” And she has no idea, of course, what she will do, but maybe Christian knows someone, maybe he can talk to Mendez, maybe he can talk to Jimmy. She’s used up all her favors but surely Christian hasn’t.
“I can’t,” the boy says, “he’ll find me.” His eyes are back on the television.
She watches him from the door, her hand on the knob and the cigarette slotted into the hole where her tooth was. With her tongue she worries it, sucking blood out into the filter. Helping this boy, getting him somewhere safe like she was never able to do for Christian, like no one was ever able to do for her, it could make up for a lot. She says it one more time, “Come on, I can get you out of here,” and then the boy lifts his index finger and presses it to his jawbone and turns his own head towards her and it is a small gesture but haunting and strange in a way that she will remember forever, as though in this moment he is two boys, one who wants to see and one who does not. He whispers, “Save yourself.”
They watch each other for a moment and she feels her heart beating hard and fast. He removes his finger and his head drifts back towards the television and she turns towards the door, thinking maybe she can open it and then grab him and carry him out, he’s skinny as hell and little, she thinks she could do it if she went fast.
That’s when she sees the framed picture on the wall where the door is, her client and the boy seated stiffly on stools with their legs turned to the side and a background of pink and blue lasers crisscrossing over black. Then the boy is laughing behind her, a snotty snickering kind of laugh, and she slams out of the apartment feeling desperate with hopelessness, feeling that no one is good and nothing is as it appears. Nothing can be believed. No one can be saved.
She plunges forward blind on the icy sidewalk with her head down, pulling on the cigarette like it’s food, like it’s air. Everything is stirred up now in a way you can’t put back to bed, it’s irrepressible, this anger that comes up from a place deep inside like a sneeze. She was on medicine for a while that helped but it left her feeling dry-mouthed and headachey and then after the church program quit her she couldn’t afford it anymore so she just has to ride it out when it comes. This is when she aches to use. Hurting, angry, thinking about things she’s not supposed to think about, things she worked hard to turn blind towards. This is when she gets that bad itch to forget.
What is making her sick is not that boy, not the tooth, not her client and what all she swallowed on an empty stomach, but Christian. Like a scab ripped off, this thought so sudden and raw – what she knows about him and what she doesn’t. She thinks about the way Mendez favors him, and the way Jimmy gave him a job just like that, and it feels so obvious to her now that there is something wrong with how easy it happened. She knows firsthand, from all the fucking and sucking and taking the beatings it took to get herself to a place where nobody messed with her, nothing happens that easy.
So what did Christian do to make it that way? What does he do for Mendez after he leaves the Qwik Chek? How did Jimmy know him in the first place — Jimmy, who sells drugs and runs girls and owns a nasty little piece of everybody, suddenly he gives a shit about a seventeen year old kid and sets him up with a cushy counter job at his best store?
And Christian being queer. It’s not just that he’s queer — it’s what she saw. She thinks back to it, coming across him on the other side of town on some doorstep to an upscale brownstone, and she drew in her breath to call his name but stopped short because he wasn’t alone. There was an older man talking to him and Christian was completely absorbed, his face tipped up to the man like a little boy. Then the man took one hand out of his pocket and drew a finger up the length of Christian’s jaw to his chin. He held it there for a minute, smiling, and then ran his hand slowly over Christian’s hair and settled it at the back of his head and Christian rocked just slightly forward on the balls of his feet.
She stared at the man’s palm cupping her son’s head like a baby, his short hair shaved at the nape of his neck and the glint of a gold chain holding a cross that that he wears as a joke because his name is Christian, a name she picked because it sounded lucky. Blessed. She’s heard from people around that he likes to dangle that cross down into the mouth of whoever he is on top of. Girls. Boys. Whoever.
There was something about the way they were looking at each other, the way Christian tipped towards the man but didn’t touch him, that felt intense and private so she turned and hurried back the way she came.
Who was that, this man with grey in his beard? How did Christian know him? It bothered her at the time, nagged at her like an itch she couldn’t scratch. Then the answer came to her, swift and sickening: one of his foster homes was in that building, she remembers hiding across the street watching for him to come out with his backpack and his shirt tucked in for school, and the man with his hand on the back of Christian’s head, possessive, kneading. It was right after she got out of lockup when he was thirteen at the oldest.
She forgot about what she saw, eventually, but now it is back at the front of her mind with that image of little boy Christian on the bedspread, on his knees, and she can see that man from the brownstone behind him clear as day. It makes her nauseous, thinking of Christian like that, thinking of him covered in the fingerprints and breath and fluids of everyone who has ever touched him, laying down, taking the badness inside himself where it curdled to something darker, something like soul cancer. She knows all about that, the crawling hands and tearing pressure into a body too small. A body not ready. She knows how you learn to relax, how you make a decision to teach yourself not to fight, and then they have you. Like that man had him, touching his face the way she’s not allowed to, making him rock forward like a girl wanting to be kissed. Why would he go back, what does it means about him? You do what you need to do to survive it. If you make it out, you sure as fuck don’t go back.
It’s so clear now. So ugly. No matter how clean Christian looks he is dirty and sick, and that’s why he was with that old pervert, that’s how he hit Jimmy’s radar, that’s why he’s one of Mendez’s boys, breaking noses, snapping thumbs, cracking kneecaps with the cold, heavy metal of that wrench, and that’s why he could knock out his own mother’s dogtooth without a flinch. It seemed nice this morning, a way of taking care of her, and now everything is different. That’s what hurts worse than anything, how quick good turns to bad. How nothing is safe.
Her body wants a hit with a desperation that goes down into her bones but her dealer is dead and that church program lady taught her it’s no solution anyway, it’s still all there waiting when you come down, so instead she goes to the Qwik Chek. Flicks her cigarette against the wall and her fingers are numb, shaking. She feels it, that terrible combination of weakness and power that comes from anger this deep. It has hold of her now.
She pulls open the door and there is Christian behind the counter, settled down on his elbows like always, and seeing him opens a flood of fear and anger and guilt that roots down into a place deeper than she has ever taken him. The shit she carries inside is rising, like vomit she can’t hold back, and Christian is the target. Christian, who she wants to be better, who she believed was better. Who she was never able to keep safe. Who she trusted. Words come before she knows what they are, loud and harsh, an accusation. “What did they do to you?”
Christian stares at her.
“What made you this way, why are you like this?” Now he is pushing himself upright, slowly. She hears the young couple behind her whisper-laughing, What the fuck. Christian’s eyes land on them, hard and lightless, and they leave instantly.
She scrambles up onto the counter and wrestles the wrench from his back pocket and holds it up in front of his face. He is motionless, a statue. “You sick– what does Mendez pay you do with this? You knock out my tooth like it’s nothing? You fucking street thug. That’s all you are.” She hears herself from far away, her voice at a hysterical fever pitch, she sees herself with spit flying out and blood from the dogtooth hole, her body canted forward like she’s going to fight. Out of control, projecting, the prison therapist used to tell her in group when she got this way. But she can’t stop. “And who was that man I saw you with? Old enough to be your father and I saw how he looked at you, I’m not stupid. Did he fuck your little baby ass in that nice apartment and you just took it and then you went back for more? What is wrong with you? Once you get out you never go back.”
At this Christian draws in a deep, long breath through his nose. She almost hopes he will stop her, backhand her, scream at her, but he is stone.
“God, you’re so fucking weak,” she says, and everything has blurred for her now. She is no longer sure who the words are pointed at, they aren’t doing what she wants, they dart out of her fast and slick and wild as fish. “I know they fucked you but you didn’t have to let it make you like this. You didn’t have to turn out this way, you had a choice,” and with her last throb of adrenaline she swings the wrench back and throws it as hard as she can, heavy and leaden and old, well-made, dangerous, baptized with her blood and the blood of innumerable others, and it cuts close as it passes him but he doesn’t even blink. It will splinter the glass cigarette case into a million pieces and then the shaved back of his sweet neck will run with blood the way blood is trailing down her throat, and he will have dozens of scars on the outside that match the damage scored deep down through him on the inside. And he won’t be able to fool anyone anymore with his strength and perfection.
But the wrench hits with a dull thud and falls to the floor. Corina sees now that the case is Plexiglass and the anger drains out all at once, a sweeping sensation like falling, and she feels it like lead in her veins, the futility, the way she is forever unable to have any effect on the world.
Christian is motionless but his every muscle is drawn up solid and tight and hard as a rock, his veins pulsing swollen on the surface of his skin. His face burns deep red. She can feel the heat of his blood. He says, his voice so quiet she almost can’t hear, his eyes on hers but entirely blind, “Time to go.”
Corina turns, stumbles like she used to when she was fucked up, but this time it’s all internal, all the bad insides, the soul cancer, the past emptied and shaken loose in her like a purse turned inside out. She moves towards the door, pushes her shaking hands in her pockets against the cold, and feels the dogtooth in the brown paper towel. Remembers Christian standing above her with the wrench cocked back like second nature in his steady hand.
She presses her tongue into the salt-hot hole he left, nursing the small sweet hurt, and rolls the dogtooth between two fingers. It is already drying and going fibrous like a piece of bad wood. On her way out she flicks it along the very back of a shelf heavy with Mexican Jesus candles no one ever buys.
Leaving behind a piece of herself, in case this has become another place she can never return to.
Chelsea Laine Wells has been published in [PANK], The Butter, Bluestem, wigleaf, Evergreen, and Heavy Feather, among others. Recent honors include two Pushcart Prize nominations as well as one nomination for Best of the Net. She is the fiction editor for Hypertext Magazine. Currently she lives with her husband Nick and daughter Atlee Harper in the Oak Cliff area of Dallas, TX, and is a high school librarian who proudly leads a stone cold pack of weirdos in a kick ass student writers’ club.