By Marshall Geck
“And how come you haven’t been to the dentist in so long, Eddie?” Suzie the hygienist asked as she looked up at me with those stunning grey eyes. She was now writing halfway down her clipboard, sitting in the chair across the room.
“Are you kidding me? Between commuting, meetings, emails, negotiating deals, business trips, working out, and sleeping, some days I barely have enough time to eat, let alone think about when I’ll go to the dentist.”
“You’re a busy guy,” she said with a smirk. Her perky lips were ribbed at even intervals and coated in black lipstick. “And when did you first notice your toothache?”
I shifted in the dentist chair, resenting the invitation to relive the painful moment.
“I s’pose it was a week ago. It was a crazy stressful day, and I was grinding my teeth like usual. But this time I must have gone too far because it suddenly felt like someone had driven a nail straight in to my jaw. It’s been agony back there ever since.”
“So, you have a grinding problem?”
“By ‘lately’, do you mean it’s a new problem?” Her pen tapped along the clipboard as she made her notes. The fluorescent lights of the ceiling shone off her polished black nails.
“Well…yeah. An exhausting move will make anyone want to grind their teeth,” I said flatly, eager for her to stop asking questions and just get on with fixing my tooth.
“Oh, where did you move from?”
“New York City.”
“Ah, I should have guessed by your accent.”
“Yeah. That and the fact that I speak at twice the decibels of everyone else around here. You Rhode Islanders all sound like you’re whispering.”
She giggled squeakily, prompting me to smirk and loosen my shoulders.
“Well, welcome to Providence. You picked a great dentist. Dr. Knochen has been in business for over 60 years. What brought you to Rhode Island, Eddie?”
I pursed my lips and straightened my Italian cashmere tie. It was such a benign question, and yet the answer was anything but benign. Perhaps,if the trauma and frenzied activity of the previous weeks hadn’t taken up every ounce of my attention, I would have had a made-up story prepared for her. Unfortunately, all I had was the truth.
“If you must know, it was a breakup. A very bad breakup.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.” She set her clipboard down on her knees, crossed her flawlessly-shaven legs in her white medical coat, and looked back up at me sympathetically. “Must have been pretty bad if it made you move.”
“You don’t know the half of it,” I said, exasperation wheezing through my voice. “Liz and I were together for ten whole years. We merged our checking accounts. We bought a house. We were a package deal at every social event.”
My throat tightened as I said this, and a surge of sadness bubbled up from my chest. I should have just stopped right then, but I had already told Suzie more than I intended, so I just kept going.
“But after the incident, I had to get as far away from Liz and everything that reminded me of her as possible. She was burying me under a pile of excuses about why she did it.”
“You mean, why she broke up with you?”
“No, I mean the incident. That was her doing. She came up with every reason imaginable for why what she did was my fault. It was like twisting the knife she stabbed me with. I couldn’t take it. I had to get out of Dodge. But my useless employer said the best relocation they could do for me was Providence. I would have preferred to move to a foreign country, but any place is better than NYC right now. I packed up my stuff and left as fast as I could.”
I wiped away the tears that oozed from my eyes onto the sleeve of my cotton-satin dress shirt.
“So, that’s why I’m here. You look shocked. I’m sorry, I’m oversharing. You don’t need to know all this. You’re a dental hygienist, not my therapist.”
“You don’t need to apologize, Eddie.” Suzie said, her eyes now widened to reveal their full gentleness. “I just can’t believe how awful that sounds. If you don’t mind me asking, what was the incident about?”
I exhaled and ran my hand through my hair, which felt thinner than a month ago.
“You really want to know this?”
“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”
I gazed at the floor. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have shared a sliver of my personal life with a complete stranger. And yet, there I was, about to divulge everything to Suzie. I can only attribute the way I felt to the fact that I had barely talked to anyone about what had happened. The desire to let it out and expel the weight I had been carrying, regardless of who I shared it with, overwhelmed me. Besides, she seemed harmless and genuinely interested. What was the worst that could happen?
I inhaled to the bottom of my lungs and slowly peeled my lips apart to speak.
“I haven’t talked to anyone about this, but you seem nice enough. I caught Liz cheating on me. If that wasn’t bad enough, she was cheating on me with a scrawny stick-man barely half my size. The day I walked in on them, I had gone to La Guardia to catch a 7 AM flight for a business trip. Must have been my fourth or fifth that month. I’ve lost track. Anyway, right as the airline attendant called for business-class passengers to board the plane, I got a call from my boss. Our client had unexpectedly died, so our meeting was cancelled. I literally went all the way to the airport just to turn around and drive right back home.”
My throat tightened again, and my heart raced as the emotions of the horrible day returned. Had I not been sitting right in front of a dental hygienist, I’m certain I would have started grinding my teeth.
“When I got home, I opened the front door and announced I was back, just like always,” I continued. “I knew something was off when I didn’t hear her greeting. It wasn’t even 8 AM, so she couldn’t have gone to work. That’s when I heard a strange rustling coming from upstairs. I went up and opened the bedroom door, where I found Liz still in bed. She was naked, wide-eyed, and frantically trying to cover herself with the sheet. There was no question about what had been going on. It was like a club to my face.
I was so gutted I couldn’t even speak. I just stood there like a statue, locked on her with my eyes blazing in anger and my mouth hanging open in disgust. She said nothing and just stared back at me in rattled hysteria.”
Suzie touched her hand to her cheek, listening intently and nodding at intervals as if encouraging me to go on.
“Then I felt a cold breeze and noticed the window was open. The coward had only just escaped. I rushed over to the window, leaned out, and scanned my backyard. He wasn’t hard to spot. This pale, gangly, emaciated excuse for a man was running across the grass in his tighty-whities. And when I say pale, I mean he might as well have been glowing, he was so white. If I’d only had the presence of mind to jump out the window right then, I probably could have chased him down and snapped him like a twig. Instead, I watched in horror as that bag of bones disappeared into the woods like a ghost.”
I was hyperventilating and making fists, reverting to fight mode by the mere thought of pummeling the low life. Suzie remained silent, leaning in as she hung on every word.
“To this day, I’m haunted by the image of that bony bastard sleeping with Liz. All I could think to myself was ‘Really? That guy?’ I mean, I know Liz had been complaining a lot about my not making enough time for her. We had been going through a rough patch for a while. But was she really so desperate she’d chosen that skeletal creep? Actually, I think the part that hurts the most is that she didn’t waste any time at all. The second I left for La Guardia, she had him in my bed with her. It was a Monday morning before the sun had even come up, for Christ’s sake!”
I put my hands over my eyes, emotionally overwhelmed from recalling the still-raw events of that God-awful day. A moment of silence passed. I could hear nothing but the hum of the fluorescent lights. Suzie patiently sat in her chair with her face still on her palm, bearing an expression of concern that might have other wise been reserved for an injured puppy.
“Well, now the teeth grinding makes complete sense,” she finally said to break the long, painful pause. “I’m sorry for bringing it up, I didn’t realize it would upset you so much.”
“No, don’t worry about it. I’m the one who should be sorry. I’m the one over sharing here.” I wiped more tears on to my sleeve.
“I don’t mind, really. It sounds like you’ve had a lot weighing on you lately,” she said. “Tell you what, why don’t we change the subject and just worry about what’s going on in your mouth today? I know a therapist in Providence I can recommend at the end of your appointment. In the meantime, since you haven’t been to the dentist for a while, I suggest we do a full cleaning in addition to fixing your toothache. Does that sound okay?”
“Sure, do what you gotta do.” I waved her on, struggling to calm myself. “How long is this going to take anyway? I have to be at work at nine.”
“We’ll be as efficient as we can, Eddie.” Suzie made a few last notes on her clipboard and stood up from her chair. “The first thing we’ll do is an X-ray to get a better look at what’s going on with that angry tooth. I’ll be right back with the bite-blocks.”
Her white medical coat floated past me as she left the room. I sat in the dental chair, slowly starting to breath regularly again.
My eyes wandered around to the framed pictures of New England autumn scenes on the walls. They were a poor substitute for windows. After being in business 60 years, I would have thought the dentist could get himself an office on an upper floor with real windows instead of that under ground bunker. I shifted around in the chair. My eyes continued to wander to the tray on the little white desk next to me, which was filled with silvery sharp instruments that made my bad tooth throb and pulse just from looking at them. I became impatient as the minutes dragged on. My teeth creaked as I ground them in the silence of that fluorescent dungeon.
Click clack click clack
I turned my head to face the odd metallic noise that tapped along the floor behind me, and nearly fainted from shock. There, right next to my chair, was a skeleton. A complete human skeleton—skull, spine, rib cage, arms, pelvis, legs, toes, and fingers. Its bones were milky white and dry, with various etchings running up and down them. Its eye sockets and nasal cavity were shadowy black caverns. The unsteady figure quivered eerily, as if it were about to fall into a pile of bones on the floor at any moment. It was smiling at me with sinister, pearly white teeth.
“Good morning,” its jaw and skull pulled apart to speak. “I’m sorry if I startled you. I’m Dr. Knochen. And you must be Eddie?”
It had the voice of a breathless old man. Tingling adrenaline swept through my body as the fearsome creature spoke.
“What is this, some kind of Halloween prank?” I managed to blurt out.
“Pardon? I’m sorry, I could have sworn you said something about Halloween, but that wouldn’t make any sense! At my age, I don’t have ears like I used to, you see, so you’ll have to speak slower and more clearly for me.” The skeleton gestured with a pointy phalange to the side of its skull where its ears would be. “Anyway, I just want to introduce myself before Suzie does your X-rays and cleaning. I’ll be back to do a close inspection of that aching tooth afterwards.”
It gazed at me with a wide, menacing grin that unnerved me to my core. The fluorescent lights bounced off its perfectly straight, shiny white teeth. I was too stunned, dumbfounded, and petrified to say anything in return. All I could do was stare, eyes so wide I could feel them drying out for lack of blinking. Finally, the skeleton pivoted on its heels and staggered towards the door behind my chair with several trembling steps.
Click clack click clack
I sat there motionless, breathing heavily. What the hell was going on? I thought. Are these guys trying to mess with me? Did I just imagine that? Am I going crazy?
Before I could process my thoughts any further, Suzie walked back into the room holding an X-ray bite-block.
“Suzie!” I started. “What’s the deal with that skeleton that just came to talk to me? I don’t know what’s going on here, but if you guys are pranking me, it’s not funny. And after the story I just told you, too!”
“Skeleton? What skeleton?” she said, cocking her head with a curious expression.
“The one that just came in here and said he was Dr. Knochen!” I nearly shouted, annoyed by the way she was playing dumb with me.
Suzie frowned and went cold as a freezer.
“Hm. Well, open your mouth please,” she said as she extended the bite-blocks towards my face.
I was about to protest further, but she held the bite-block up to my lips. Even if I’d tried to speak, I would have only gotten a mouthful of awkward-shaped metal and plastic. I reluctantly opened wide. She inserted the apparatus and instructed me to bite down. The rims jutted uncomfortably into the roof of my mouth. She pulled the radiography machine hanging over my chair downwards and positioned it close to the side of my jaw that contained the bad tooth.
“Sit still, please,” she instructed curtly as she walked out of the room.
I sat there in discomfort with the bite-block cutting into the roof of my mouth, mind racing and heart thumping. The machine hummed and made a low beep. I saw Suzie’s white coat float back into the room out of the corner of my eye. She told me to open again, to which I gladly complied.
“Suzie, please listen,” I began. She ignored me and turned back toward the counter across from my chair. “I’d like to know what was going on with that skeleton. It really creeped me out, okay? If you’re messing with me, it’s not cool. I’m your patient and I have a right to know if there’s weird stuff going on in this place.”
“Now you listen here!” she spun around in a swift pivot and pointed a sharp, threatening black fingernail at me. She seemed to have transformed into something monstrous. Her delicate, pale face was suddenly ashen grey. Her stunning eyes were demonic black slits, and her perky lips contorted into a snarl that revealed threatening gnashers.
I jerked back against the chair again, my eyes going so wide they felt as though they would pop out of their sockets.
“It’s not appropriate to talk about a kind, frail old man like that,” she lectured me, her gentle feminine voice gone and replaced by a rumbling growl that echoed off the walls. “You’re not in New York anymore. It’s one thing to be blunt, it’s another thing to be rude.”
And then, just as quickly, she resumed her previous form as the dainty, pale hygienist. A smile crept across her face and she held up a shiny dental hook instrument.
“Now, time for your cleaning,” she said in her normal gentle and unassuming voice, as though nothing unusual had just happened.
All I could do was stare. I opened my mouth to speak, but no words came out. Confusion and disbelief seized my tongue.
She must have taken my silence as acquiescence because she promptly sat down next to my chair and thrust the instrument right up to my lips just as she had done with the bite-block. Though still shocked cold, instinct took over and I opened my mouth. She put the sharp little instrument up against my teeth and began scraping, the metal screeching along the enamel and my gums cowering in fearful anticipation of a puncture from the hook’s point.
I stared at the fluorescent lights and white foam tiles on the ceiling while she scraped, my mind scrambled by the accumulating absurdity. Sweat built on my forehead, and my neck and shoulders tightened to the point of pain. There was something deeply unnerving about what had just happened and it wasn’t just because of Suzie’s sudden transformation into a witch. It was the way she spoke to me. Her accusation that I’d been inconsiderate, the posture she struck when she scolded me, the way she made me feel like the crazy one for questioning the bizarre spectacle I had just witnessed—they all had the distinct echoes of Liz in her deepest discontent.
Worse, I was sure the similarity wasn’t a coincidence. Neither was the creepy skeleton man. What if I was truly losing it, traumatized by Liz’s infidelity and her scrawny albino lover? What if I’d hallucinated them into a skeleton dentist and witch hygienist? What if I was far more emotionally damaged than I’d thought? What if this was just the beginning and I was condemned to being haunted by those who caused me so much misery at every turn in my normal life?
“Shit!” I screamed as a bolt of pain shot through my jaw.
Suzie jerked her hook instrument out of my mouth and looked at me in wide-eyed surprise.
“I’m sorry Eddie, did I get too close to that achy tooth? There’s a build-up of tartar back there.”
“That hurt like a mother!” I said, grasping the side of my face. The gums underneath pulsated angrily.
“I’ll do my best to avoid those sensitive areas around your injured tooth, but we need to get things clean back there to give it the best chance to recover.”
I continued to hold the side of my face, grimacing as I waited for the throbbing to subside. When it finally ebbed, I slowly opened my eyes to face her.
“Ready to try again?” she asked with a grin which, on a better day, I would have thought to be incredibly sweet. But before I could respond, the hook was up against my lips again, and she was back in there scraping at my teeth.
I closed my eyes and tried to go to a happy place. I thought about lying on the beach at the Jamaican resort where Liz and I went last winter. Was that the last non-business trip I had taken? Was it really that long ago? No wonder I was so wound up. Maybe I wouldn’t be imagining nonsense at the dentist’s office if I just gave myself a chance to relax once in a while. Maybe I needed to go on another vacation once I settled into Providence so I could create memories that didn’t involve Liz. Maybe I would look at some flights during lunch that day instead of working through it.
“Jesus!” I screamed and grabbed my cheek again as the pain erupted from my tooth a second time.
Suzie smiled cutely and put her palm up to her mouth as if to say, “Oops!”
“Sorry Eddie, those sensitive areas are more extensive than I thought. The good news is I’m all done with this guy,” she held up the hook instrument to show me. “But the bad news is I still need to spray and polish your teeth to complete your cleaning. This shouldn’t hurt as much as the scraping, but because you’re a bit jumpy today I’m going to recommend we buckle your arms. Don’t worry, this is standard procedure. I almost cut you the last time you jumped up, and I don’t want to hurt you during the rest of the cleaning.”
“You won’t hurt me if you stay away from that bad tooth!” I managed to spit out, angry and still clasping my pounding jawline.
“I know it’s no fun, but you have to be brave for me.” She lifted my arm with her soft white hand and beamed at me with those inviting grey eyes. After suffering from her hook twice, I should have just stood up and left. Surely there was a dentist in Providence with a steadier hand? And yet, that look of hers was so familiar. It was like that of a girlfriend encouraging her stubborn boyfriend to loosen up, stop being so melodramatic, and just listen to her for once. It’s hard to explain, but at that moment I just wanted to finish the cleaning. I wanted to show her I could do it.
“Let’s just get it over with,” I sighed resignedly.
Suzie smiled again and gently wrapped my arms into belt buckles attached to the sides of the chair.
She stuck her little dentist spout and saliva vacuum tube into my mouth. Cold water splashed around and evaporated through the tube just as quickly as it arrived. I clenched my sweaty fists as she neared my bad tooth, praying the water wouldn’t send an icy shock wave through every aggravated nerve in my gums. I tried to think about Jamaican beaches again.
Unfortunately, I caught a glimpse of the clock on the wall. It was already 8:40 AM. I had thought my appointment would be over by then. I had a client meeting at 9:30 to prepare for and emails had been piling up on my iPhone before I arrived at the dentist. They must be wondering why I wasn’t responding.
“All done!” Suzie said when she finally finished the polishing, thankfully without touching my damaged tooth this time. “I’ll be right back.”
“Wait! Can you take these straps off first?” I said anxiously, eager to look at my phone. But she had set down her tools and floated out the room before I could stop her.
I sat there again under the fluorescent lights, my arms bound to the chair, unable to do anything but stare at the cliché pictures of New England fall foliage on the walls.
Five minutes passed. Ten minutes passed. Fifteen minutes passed.
I didn’t have time for this. I had a million things to do. My breathing quickened and my now-clean teeth began to grind as the clock on the wall ticked along, tormenting me with each new minute I could have been on my way to work, instead of sitting in a chair doing nothing. My jaw dropped wide in disgust and my anxiety morphed into anger as the clock struck 8:55.
Click clack click clack.
Something entered my mouth. I jolted at the unexpected sensation, but barely shifted in my chair as the straps held me tight. The intruding object slid along my lips, pushed on my inner check, and left the gritty taste of dust as it passed over my tongue. Panic deprived me of all control of my body. Had I any sense, I would have bitten down on the offending entity to make it stop. Instead, I looked cross-eyed and downward in a desperate attempt to see what on earth was violating my mouth.
It was a bone.
But not just any bone. It was a bony phalange connected to an even bonier hand. It fished around my mouth incessantly like someone picking their teeth with the remnants of a fried chicken leg, until it finally found my bad tooth and started poking. The electrifying pain exploded through my jaw and all the way into my brain. I shrieked in agony.
Finally, it let go, and the terrifying skeleton reappeared from behind my chair holding a large X-ray proof. It stared at me through the dark recesses of its eye sockets and smiled menacingly with those big pearly white chompers.
“Yes, that confirms it,” it said in the low and hollow voice of a dying old man. “Your tooth is cracked and badly infected. The X-ray doesn’t lie.”
I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t form words. All I could do was stare at the skeletal monstrosity standing in front of me, my mind twisting to come up with a logical explanation for what I was seeing.
“It can’t be saved, Eddie,” the skeleton continued matter-of-factually. “It has to go. My professional recommendation is immediate surgery. Don’t worry, you won’t feel a thing.”
Just as I was about to demand that he let me out of that chair at once, a plastic mask was thrust over my nose and mouth. A plastic mask held by dainty white hands with black fingernails. The sweet smell of laughing gas filled my nostrils. I shook my head vigorously. I kicked. I yelled until the oxygen was drained from my lungs. But the straps on the side of the chair once again constrained me, while Suzie held onto my head with unexpected, almost inhuman strength. The skeleton, meanwhile, picked up a silver dental forceps and glared back at me with the biggest, widest, most chilling grin I had ever seen.
Those massive white teeth shining under the fluorescent lights of that bunker were the last thing I remember seeing. I couldn’t help but feel foolish in those last moments. Foolish for not trusting my instincts and getting out of there when I could. And yet, there was another prominent feeling I couldn’t quite grasp. I can only describe it as “determination”. Yes, I was determined to never again be deceived by a bag of bones and an alluring, scheming accomplice. In fact, I don’t think I’d ever been more determined about anything in my life.
Meanwhile, a black curtain fell over my eyes.
(Bio: Marshall Geck is an emerging writer, environmental advocate, traveler, politico, and hopeless idealist. He is a dual citizen of Minnesota and California. For his day job, he works on sustainable finance and climate change issues. Apart from The Yard: Crime Blog, his short stories have appeared in “The Hungry Chimera” and “Five on the Fifth“. You can find more of his short stories on His Blog, and can also follow him on Twitter at @MarshallGeck.)