Edited by Lillian Boyd

Copyedited by Chelle Parker

July 2021

3048 words — Reading time: around 15 minutes

Samena couldn’t shake the feeling she was forgetting something. Two days ago, Thea had lost her last baby tooth, and Samena could think about little else. Her watch buzzed — she had a half hour, plenty of time to get home and prep the strawberries for Thea’s after-school snack. Frowning, she ran the tip of her tongue along her teeth, bumping around the curves of the U and the O, poking it through the twin bars of her H until it stung.

She adjusted her mask, and— Damn, did she remind Robert about the laundry soap? Mrs. Waters made her own from her garden, and it was so much nicer than the store brand. Instead of liquid flowers made in a lab, hers smelled real, like petals, leaves. Like the sun.

Today, Mr. Ramos had traded her a jar of honey for a bit of her HOUSE magic; really, she’d just helped him install an unmetered home assistant to track his new apiary. She would sweeten Thea’s strawberries with the honey. The glass was smooth under her thumb as she rubbed it absently, going over the list of things she had to do this afternoon. Her boots were a metronome on the sidewalk as she hurried down the street.

“Hellooo!” Her neighbor’s shrill cheer startled her into a stutter step. “Any news, Samena?”

Avril didn’t wear a mask, just let her teeth show in front of god and everyone: C-A-B-B-A-G-E. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t auspicious either. It had taken Samena a few conversations over the mailboxes to get the entire thing; Avril’s mouth wasn’t that large. Plus Samena didn’t want to be caught staring. She had manners.

“Nothing yet. Her gums are sore though, so probably not long.”

Avril gave her a sympathetic smile. “How does it go in your families? Mine and my ma’s, they came in fast, pop-pop-pop, not even three days.” Her silly laugh tinkled out, making the space between them feel crowded. “I was sure glad of that when Desmond lost his last baby tooth.”

“I remember. You both — you three — are so fortunate. RENEW could go a lot of ways.” She talked over her shoulder, desperate to get indoors. She went over her list like a mantra. Put away her outdoor things. Wash berries, hull, slice. Drizzle the honey. Make dinner. Stop worrying. Don’t think about teeth. Make Thea feel safe. Keep a welcome home.

“I know, Donny bought him an engineering kit not an hour after his last tooth came in. My ma gave him a yoga block and biographies of great gurus, I swear….” Avril was looking at her mail, chattering away, and Samena used her distraction to escape.

If Thea was like her, her teeth should come in any day now. Samena was so nervous, she could barely eat. Making lists helped, but she could feel anxiety vibrate her bones.

Her own teeth were fine: H-O-U-S-E. Maybe a little boring but sweetly curved in the middle, sharp on the ends. She didn’t really need to keep them covered in public. It was a plain word, nothing to be ashamed of, but she wore her mask anyways, out of propriety.

Coat in the closet, boots on the rug. She dropped her scarf on the table in the hall, started towards the kitchen, then went back, folded it neatly. Their home was lovely.

As a child, she’d hated being indoors, acting like a proper young lady. When HOUSE had come in, Samena had been crushed. She had spent her childhood playing archeologist, explorer, astronaut, never expecting her adulthood would be anything less thrilling. Instead, she got a lifetime of safe hearths, putting everything in its proper place. Her parents had always encouraged her to be open to possibility, but she saw their poorly hidden disappointment.

Her mother had started her early on proper tooth maintenance; you couldn’t be too careful with the letters that had thin strokes. Everyone knew about the Jeffries over on Seventh, all those kids, so many Ts and Hs, Qs that became Os that became hanging half-moons and then just nonsense. They were too prideful or too foolish to wear masks even before their letters started chipping, and now no decent person would talk to any of them. At least they didn’t switch to dentures full-time. Revolting.

Damn, did they have a new pack of floss in the cabinet? All those seeds.

After Thea had lost her second incisor, Robert had gotten tired of Samena’s fretting. “Whatever Thea’s word is, she’ll be fine. We have good genes; we raised her properly.”

“Your cousin Lisa wasn’t okay. She had to get dentures. She’ll never get a decent job.”

“I don’t think my uncle was as enlightened as he pretended.” Lisa’s mouth had sported a slur so vile she couldn’t open her lips in public. At least Rob’s uncle had known a dental surgeon willing to discreetly fit her dentures. Samena had only heard about it because they had had to postpone their wedding while the whole family was investigated. The American Dental Association always had studies running. They had left several cases of toothbrushes for the family when they had finished the interviews, though.

“Could he really be that xenophobic? Besides, no one knows if parenting or genes actually have any effect on a child’s word. And this is her life, Rob, her whole life.”

“Look at PINKIE Benson, hon. Great life, ridiculous word.”

Samena had snorted in response. PINKIE Benson. He had a very popular variety show on USNews 15, every night at eight. “He’s handsome. And a comedian. And a man.”

“Still, he overcame what he got. And you know we can’t do anything, even if we could afford a scan.”

She’d sighed. God, how she’d wished they were rich enough to try diagnostics. The truly wealthy had tried to buy a way out of waiting to see if their offspring would embarrass the family. Dental x-rays, MRIs, nano-mapping of hard tissue, anything their doctors could dream up. Unfortunately for them, all children born after the US borders closed had two small bony plates just above the gums in their upper jaws. X-rays were useless, MRIs showed solid bone, and nanites couldn’t get in between the plates. Though it rankled, the fact this was the same for them all, rich and poor, had given Samena a certain amount of grim satisfaction. Even though she would’ve done the same if she could.

The strawberries were small but jewel-red in Thea’s favorite bowl, the one with the face of a pensive-looking owl. Samena drizzled the honey over them, a teaspoonful, and then another.

She’d met Rob in college. Her parents had wanted her to be educated, HOUSE be damned. She’d abandoned the idea of a major, taking whichever classes interested her most. Disasters, Catastrophes, and Human Behavior. Punk Technology. The Politics of Refusal. Discordant Biology in the Golden Age. Expression of Self Within American Exceptionalism. Robert’s advanced accounting class had got out at the same time as her math class (Narrative Mathematics) on Tuesdays and Thursdays. He’d had an on-campus job in the student center, she in the library next door. He’d found that a convenient excuse to start walking with her.

Revealing your tooth word was an intimacy that most ordinary people didn’t share lightly. On their fourth date, Robert had been helping her into her coat outside the crowded cloak room at the ballet. In a sudden surge of bodies, his hand had gotten tangled in the loop of her mask. Her mouth had opened in a gasp as she was exposed, and he’d read her. He’d met her eyes, a little shocked and very embarrassed, but she’d also found approval. They’d started off for his apartment, rushing a little more with every block until they were running. Breathless, Robert had pulled his own mask off to reveal S-O-L-I-D. Acceptable. Dependable. Samena had already liked him. She could do much, much worse than SOLID. She’d kissed him, and he’d held her tightly along his body. They’d married six months later.

She snapped the wall screen on to distract herself. The food segment of This Afternoon With You! had a new host, a woman who looked impossibly young. When she smiled over her absurdly red tomatoes, her teeth read Y-U-M-M-Y, clear as day.

“Oh, come on,” Samena said to the screen, rolling her eyes.

She had talked to Thea last week about how mutable language was, how many layers of meaning could be found in just one word, but maybe she should tell her again. She didn’t have to live under other people’s expectations.

She didn’t have to be a coward like her mother. Samena sighed.

Thea was a compromise. Samena had never wanted children. She’d felt entirely unprepared to shepherd a new life through the world, waiting for the time when she could do nothing to protect her child but only try to mitigate the damage. Dread had seemed a bad place to start parenthood.

Rob hadn’t pushed her. Instead, he’d made a prayer of her body. He’d whispered little worships along the curve of her neck, the inside of her forearms, where her belly was the softest, where her thighs were smooth and warm. Bit by bit, he’d built her a place where she could forget the ugliness of the world outside. His confidence had let her believe that maybe trouble wasn’t a guarantee, and one night she’d held his face in her hands and looked into his eyes.

“Yes,” she’d said. “Yes, let’s make a baby.”

One of the toy magnets fell off the refrigerator as she shut it with her hip. She picked up the plastic broccoli and snapped it back onto the door.

Three years ago, she had had a conversation with Thea. She remembered her daughter’s six-year-old body, quickly stretching from chubby toddler to girl but still soft. They had been speculating about her word after she’d lost her first baby tooth. “I think it’s gonna be SPARKLES, mama.”

SPARKLES, huh? What will you do with that?” She’d handed her daughter one of the stuffed animals squished in the small blanket cave with them. “Will you be a champion tooth-brusher?” She had given a big cheesy grin.

“No way! Maybe a dancer, with a fancy costume.” Thea had carefully sat her family of floppy bunnies in a half-circle.

“What if it’s… CARROT? We’d have to plant you in the garden!”

Thea had giggled and Samena had laughed with her, trying to hide the hysteria she’d felt pushing up at the edges of her voice. Her daughter deserved more — a life that was hers because she chose it, not ordained by what was in her mouth.

Marisol TRUST on USNews 08 interrupted This Afternoon With You! to read a breaking report that Timothy STAR was not, in fact, a STAR, but rather a STARE with a carefully engineered denture on one end. Oh, that was bold. Samena didn’t understand how he thought he’d get away with it; someone would always talk if they got paid enough. She counted back — almost four years since the last alteration scandal. Had it really been that long? Jess LADY was the last one she could remember. She’d had the original Z pulled and replaced with a manufactured D. The public vitriol at her fraud trial had been shocking.

Samena started preheating the oven and pulled out a pan, letting her thoughts wander. Did people in Japan have kanji? She knew people whose primary languages weren’t English, but all their words were still in the Latin alphabet. For the millionth time, she wished they got actual news from outside the US. She turned the television off.

When she was a girl, she’d begged her grandmother to tell her about when people had had plain teeth their whole lives. Her grandparents hadn’t like to talk about those times, but on her birthday one year, she’d decided to ask.

“Well, they closed the borders about ten years before your mother was born. Do you know what that means?”

Samena had scrunched up her forehead. “No one can come in or out?”

“That’s right. No people and no stuff. And that meant a lot of things we got from other countries, we had to make ourselves.”

The ADA had hired thousands of investigators and researchers in the weeks after the first letter teeth had come in. First they’d looked at the new US-manufactured toothpaste; hundreds of factories had popped up to keep up with demand, run by people who had only the faintest knowledge of how to make dentifrice. When that didn’t seem to be the cause, they’d had state agencies run massive testing on water pipe infrastructure. The Department of Agriculture and the FDA had checked soil and farms and food producers. The CDC had eventually gotten involved. Seventy years of research — three generations of children with words in their mouths — and still not a single explanation.

“Your uncle Rav was the first one in our neighborhood. We heard the reports, of course, it was all over the news, but it’s different when it’s in your own home. When we saw that little A pop through, golly, everyone came over and put their guess on the wall in the garage. It was fun, then, seeing what would come up. I guess things around us were so bad, it was nice to have a distraction. Teeth words didn’t seem like they mattered so much.”

The west wall of her grandparents’ garage had been covered in hundreds of handwritten words. She’d used to stare at them for hours. No one would tell her what they said or even talk about them. Her uncle Rav had moved away before she was born and had never come back. There were so many things no one told her.

“So why did Uncle Rav go away, then?”

“Oh, sweetheart, things just got a little too complicated for your uncle. It was a different time back then.” Her grandmother had looked out the window silently for a long minute, twisting her hands together, and then had turned back to Samena. “But that’s something you don’t need to worry about. Your word is a fine one.”

Samena had opened her mouth to ask more questions, but her grandmother had shushed her and given her another slice of cake.

The drawer under the kitchen towels held all their masks. She had made Thea some already — so small, in bright florals, and some with little unicorns and shooting stars. They hadn’t decided yet whether she should wear one. Rob thought it would be a good idea, no matter what she got. Samena wanted to wait and see, and let Thea choose.

When she was pregnant, she and Rob had fought about everything. Her body had been even less her own and it had made her glow with fury. The worst fights had been over names. He’d wanted a classic name, something like Sarah or Emily or April. She’d thought those were unforgivably bland. Samena had wanted their daughter to have a name with meaning.

Their constant bickering eventually got so bitter she’d just stopped talking to him altogether. She’d tidied the house in silence. She’d put dinner on the table in silence. She’d watched Robert eat in silence, hating him a little bit as the green of his spinach had been ground to mush behind S-O-L-I-D. Why the hell couldn’t he just chew with his damn mouth closed? Everything he did had annoyed her. She’d kept it up for two horrible weeks, until it was time to leave for the hospital.

She’d been ashamed later for being so unkind, especially when she’d remembered how sweet he’d been, cradling her and their daughter, sweaty, tearful.

He’d gently patted her face dry. “Sweetheart, they won’t let us leave until we name her.”

“I don’t want her to have a boring name.” Her daughter had given a wide, perfect yawn, arms windmilling gently. “She’s wonderful. She’s not a Sarah or an Emily. She needs a little flair.”

“I surrender! You’re right, she’s not an Emily.” He’d moved aside so the nurse could record her vitals, never taking his hand off her.

It had taken a few days, marveling over her daughter’s tiny little fingers and eyebrows and feet, getting a better sense of this brand new person they had made. And then one morning, Samena had just known. She’d named her Thea, after the goddess of light, hoping the tribute to the mother of the sun and moon would act as a talisman for her future. Thea. Thea.

The berries gleamed under the kitchen lights, and Samena snuck one for herself. The flavor of the fruit was bright, the honey herbaceous and quietly sweet.

She wondered what the Germans carried in their mouths, if this happened there too. They could smile at her a single word for the strange wistful longing she could never escape. Did she doom her child by bringing her into this world? Though maybe teeth like these only happened here, and no one else knew about it. Maybe they all were stuck in these little loops, shoved into them only by the stupid choices they made, unable to find the momentum to break free. Maybe it was just fate. What else could she do but give her daughter her very best and hope that was enough? It didn’t feel like enough to Samena.

The silence pressed down on her. She sagged a little against the counter, head bowed.

Then there was a clatter at the front door and a burst of noise as Thea tumbled into the house, shrieking wildly. “Mom! Mom! It started coming out! My tooth started coming out! You gotta see!”

Samena’s stomach swooped unpleasantly, and she gripped the counter’s edge until her knuckles turned white. No, not yet, she wasn’t ready, her daughter was just a little girl. And then she dragged a deep breath in. Her daughter was a little girl, and there was only one thing to be done. So she plastered on a smile, and went out to Thea.

© 2021 Imogen Archer

About the author

Imogen Archer is a speculative fiction writer living in Michigan with her partner and cats, and is overly fond of run-on sentences. She is on Twitter at @Arch_Imogen.