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Pulling Teeth MAG
The coffin was wide open. She was so small, the body could have been a child's. But it wasn't. She was old. I didn't want to be there and it didn't matter because she was dead.
On the car ride over, my older brother, Brent, had told me what it was going to be like.
“There's always blood … a lot of it. They just scoop 'em out of their bed or wherever they died and put 'em right in the coffin.”
I thought of Lizzie from school, whose cousin had drowned in a hotel pool the previous summer. I pictured him in a coffin, swimsuit still dripping wet, goggles around his neck.
“And you have to hold your breath when you get close,” he continued. “Otherwise …,” he pulled his finger across his neck and rolled his eyes back.
“You're lying,” I said, pulling at the run in my nylons. I hated nylons. You always have to wear them for something awful, like a grown-up party or a funeral.
The room was worse than I had imagined. Not only was there a dead body at the far end, probably bobbing around in its own blood by now, but all the grown-ups kept calling it a parlor. Happy rooms are called parlors. Happy, bright rooms with ice cream.
This room was long and narrow like a tunnel, and everything seemed to be in various shades of brown. All the grown-ups were shuffling around talking in whispers. The only thing I hated more than whispering grown-ups was crying ones.
The only light came from the end of the tunnel, where the stinking body lay. Lamps stood on either side of the coffin, casting a fuzzy glow around it like the kind you see around the manger in nativity paintings. I thought it was pretty mean of whoever put those lamps right next to the coffin because your eyes were drawn to it. I could just imagine her: all bloody and crumpled, and she probably had worms where her eyes should be. Brent lied about a lot of things, but he had been to the funeral for that man from church, so he knew what he was talking about.
Suddenly I realized I was no longer near my mom. Instead I was surrounded by tall, gray, whispering grown-ups. Then someone my height emerged from the nearest clump of them.
“Hi, Emily,” she said with a wave. Beth was actually a little shorter than me, but everyone is short when they're eight. “Do you want to see my tooth?” she asked.
When I didn't answer, she started wiggling her lower front tooth back and forth with her tongue.
“It's been like that forever, but I'm too afraid to pull it out,” she explained. “Wanna go to the bathroom and try it?”
I was dumbstruck. Her grandma, who I'd never even met, was lying dead and bloody in a coffin not 50 feet away, and she wanted to show me her wiggly tooth? Granted, it was pretty darn wiggly, but I had imagined Beth would be at home, far from her rotting grandma – not here, forced, as I was, to get into an itchy black smock dress and peer at death.
I grabbed the opportunity to get out of that room. The whispering was getting to me, and I could have sworn the coffin was closer now.
When we pushed the bathroom door open, I had to squint. The fluorescent lights were much harsher than the fuzzy ones back in the tunnel. No one goes to the bathroom at funerals.
I leaned back against the door as Beth examined her stubborn tooth in the mirror.
“Have you lost any teeth yet?” she asked, still snarling at her reflection.
“Yeah, I already have two bucks.”
She nodded, impressed, and closed her mouth.
“Were you there when she died?” I asked her reflection.
She didn't look at me, but resumed wiggling her tooth without saying anything.
I waited a couple of seconds and then grabbed a wad of paper towels. “I'm really good at this,” I said walking toward her. “It won't even hurt.”
She turned toward me and eyed the paper towels suspiciously.
“Oh,” I said, shrugging. “They're just for, you know, germs.”
She nodded and opened her mouth.
I shoved the paper towels in and braced my other hand on her shoulder. The tooth was extremely loose, but I didn't want her to feel like she had been a wimp.
“One, two, three!”
I twisted the paper towels and pulled with enough force to be dramatic.
For a moment we stood silent, me staring at the pool of blood starting to form on her lower lip and she looking at the paper towels in my hand.
“Right,” I started. “Here!”
She tilted her head to look at the tiny off-white tooth that I placed in her palm, and a red droplet hit the tile floor. I winced. She smiled.
Entering the room was even worse the second time. If possible, it was darker and browner than when we'd left it. There were no more whispering clumps. Now, even more unbelievably, the grown-ups were in a long, quiet line making their unhurried way to the coffin, everyone waiting for a turn to reach the light at the tunnel's end.
I stood bewildered for a moment before Beth hurried past, still smiling like a madwoman. I followed her closely, afraid I would somehow be forced to join the line. I felt safe until I realized where we were heading. She was making a beeline for her parents who were standing right smack in the middle of that Christmas glow. It was too late to turn back, and before I knew it, I was within an arm's length of the festering body. I sucked in my breath.
As Beth tugged on her mom's dress, my head turned itself to the left, forcing me to look my fear in the eye.
Her yellow dress was pristine. Her small hands rested on her stomach, and her wedding band hung loosely from a wrinkled finger. My eyes skipped to her face and the gore that surely awaited there. Her hair, however, curled in silver wisps around her wormless, closed eyes. There was something strange about her mouth. It was relaxed, almost smiling.
Shocked, I realized I'd stopped holding my breath and turned to look at Beth. There, at the very head of the long line, was my young, living friend, tooth in hand. Her parents hugged her and turned back to the murmuring adults.
Staring straight ahead, blood now dripping steadily down her chin, she stood smiling next to her sleeping grandmother.