Charity was five and a half. Mr Charles (her father) was forty one and three quarters. Every Sunday they fed the ducks, then went to the tea house where they ordered a coffee, a warm milk and a piece of cake to share. This was Charity’s favourite time of the week, but today she was staring out the window with a furrowed brow.
“My tooth.” she said.
“Yes, it’s just about to fall out, darling. I know it feels annoying but if you keep wobbling it with your tongue it will loosen enough for me to pluck it free.” said Mr Charles, tapping the little wooden tooth box he had been carrying for the last week.
Her little eyebrows creased further. “No daddy, my tooth is gone.” She opened her mouth to show a bloody hole where there had previously been a small grey canine.
Mr Charles paled. “That’s not funny Charity, are you hiding it in your palm?”
Charity shook her head. Mr Charles lent over the table and grabbed her hand, forcing it open. “Where is it?!” he hissed. Tears welled in Charity’s eyes. He grasped her face with both hands, pulling her mouth open and peering inside. “Spit it out darling, spit it out!” he said.
Charity stared back at him with wide eyes. “Ah swallow’d et” she said
“No! No! Spit it out!” He pushed his fingers into her small mouth and began to dig around for the tooth.
“Ahhh, oor urting ‘e” she said, the tears spilling out to drip down her cheeks.
By now, the room had fallen silent and was observing Charity’s father with disapproving eyes. He quickly sat back down. “I’m sorry darling, never mind.” He gathered a terrified smile onto his face. “Let’s hurry home, now.”
Mr Charles walked very fast on the way back to the house. Charity could tell that he was upset. She decided to be awfully mature and apologise, even though nobody had asked her to, even though she had done nothing wrong.
“I’m sorry I swallowed it, daddy.” she said
“That’s fine darling, you didn’t mean to.” said Mr Charles without looking down. They walked on in silence. Charity was puzzled. He had no reason to be upset. She was the one who would suffer the consequences. With no tooth to hide under the pillow, there could be no visit from the tooth fairy, which meant no coin. A wasted tooth. She only had a few left, maybe a hundred? Once all of them had fallen she would grow adult teeth, and her friend Sarah said that adult teeth couldn’t be exchanged for coins.
She explained this to her father in one great burst of words, tears once again gathering in her eyes. He crouched down and grabbed her by the shoulders, and Charity was surprised to see that her father was crying as well.
“Oh no darling, the tooth fairy will come, the tooth fairy always comes!”
At home, Mr Charles placed Charity in front of the television and swept into the kitchen to exchange explosive whispers with Mrs Charles. Charity listened carefully. She heard “swallowed!” and “I tried!” and “one of ours instead?” and “it can tell!” and “well there’s no other way, then” and “I’ll call my sister” and “the tooth fairy always comes” and then the television started to play her favourite episode of her favourite show and she lost interest.
That evening Mrs Charles was very nice with Charity and even made her favourite dinner and served ice-cream for pudding. Both of her parents seemed very happy, and smiled all night. Mrs Charles was so happy at one point that she began crying, heavy tears sliding down her cheeks past her smile to drip into her macaroni cheese. Charity was already dreaming of the things she would buy with the money (sweets, a hamster, a necklace for her mother). She changed into her night-gown all by herself, had her bath without complaining and even got the bedtime story ready before daddy came up to read to her. They read seven stories that night – every time they finished a book, Mr Charles jumped up and grabbed another until finally Charity found her attention fading in and out, missing words then pages, the stories all blending into one as sleep settled over her like warm snow.
Charity awoke, the room was dark but for the red glow of her nightlight. She rubbed her feet together and turned over, impatient for sleep to take her again. She felt cold. She shivered. Her covers were missing. Her pillow was gone. Her little form was huddled in the middle of the bed, curled tightly for warmth. She felt a subtle change in the position of the mattress. The weight shifted slowly, like when her father reached over to tuck her in at night and didn’t want to disturb her. Then she heard a scratching near her head, like a rat might make. She sat up at once, scrabbling her legs towards her, too scared to breathe. Something skittered in the darkness. She pressed herself into the corner, still holding her breath lest a rat crawl over her face and into her mouth, her eyes searching the dark red shadows that crowded around her. Her hand found the switch on her bedside lamp. She hesitated – should she just lie down and go to sleep? She didn’t really want to know what it was. Maybe it would go away if she closed her eyes? It usually did. But she was almost six, she needed to be brave. She pressed the switch.
The light was angled low and threw long shadows through the room. On the floor she could see her duvet. At the foot of her bed was her pillow, it had been torn open, the filling spilling out onto the carpet. Behind the pillow, something crouched, bigger than a rat, flinching from the light. Charity’s heart marched faster and faster in her chest as the thing crawled out from its hiding place, one gnarled arm raised to cover its eyes. Its face was dark and shrivelled like an orange left in the sun. Its body was round and swollen, suspended loosely among too-thin limbs like a fat fly in a web. Ragged wings twitched wetly on its back.
Then it scuttled at her, crossing the distance in seconds, crawling onto her face, its hands reaching up and pulling at her lips to reveal the hole in her teeth where the tooth had been the day before. She tasted iron and salt. It looked up at her and she saw that where its eyes should be there were only two wet, red holes. It opened its jaw, revealing a mouth overfull with mismatched dead teeth – loose, wobbling. When it spoke, it was with a voice like dice being shaken.
She shook her head, silent tears pouring down her face and whispered “I ate it…” and before she could move the creature was turning and scrambling down her body, it’s fingers digging into her neck, and it was pulling up her pyjama top to reveal her belly and a single long claw was slipping out of its left index finger and it was raising its arm over its head and plunging it down toward her tummy, and she knew just how it was planning to get her tooth back and finally Charity found her breath and screamed, and –
The door slammed open and her father burst in holding a cricket bat. He crossed the room in two steps and swung and hit the creature with a sound like a beetle being crushed.
Mrs Charles ran in, grabbed Charity and pulled her out of the room and into the hallway. The light was on. There was a long scratch down the middle of Charity’s belly, but she didn’t feel it yet. In her room, she heard her father grunting as he swung the bat again and again and again. Charity was shivering and crying too hard to speak.
“Don’t worry honey, it’s going to be fine.” said Mrs Charles as she pushed Charity into a coat and slippers. “We’re going on a little trip to the hospital, to find that tooth.”
Charity shook her head violently. “Let’s just go somewhere it can’t find us, mummy. Let’s hide somewhere” she said through her tears as Mrs Charles bundled her down the stairs to the car.
“Oh honey, it’s no good, one of them would find us anywhere we went.” said her mother. “The tooth fairy always comes.”