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The Dentist, The Bootlegger

Meghan Louise Wagner


The drops went the same each month. I kept my hair under my cap and let Julian do the talking. After the boss counted the crates, he’d crack into a random bottle to sample. He’d take a couple glugs, swish, then nod to one of his guys, who’d toss us a sack of cash. He was only thirty but wore vulcanite dentures. Big clean ones. I always wondered why a person so young needed false teeth. Decay, infections, blunt trauma. Maybe before he became a bootlegger, he’d gone off to war like my brother. Maybe a German rammed the butt of a rifle in his face.

            Our last run went the same as the others: Julian and I unloaded the booze and stepped into the corner. A bird cage sat on the floor, the grates brown with rust. At first, I thought there was a kitten inside—silver fur, dark eyes, black paws. But it was actually covered in spikes. Sharp, shining quills.

            Julian saw it, too. “Hey,” he said, “that a lucky pig?”

            “No one calls them that,” said the boss, sniffing a bottle.

            “I heard about them overseas,” Julian said. “It for sale?”

            The boss capped the bottle and clicked his dentures. “You can trade this batch,” he said, nodding at our crates. “But that’s it. No exchanges.”

            “I’ll take it,” Julian said.

            He carried the cage and I followed. As we walked to the truck, I wondered how he planned on paying everyone back at the orchard with that creature.

            The boss had his guys escort us. Usually, they trailed beside us on the path, chattering away, rifles over their shoulders. That night they kept quiet, a few steps behind, holding their rifles with both hands.


            A cold, dry breeze followed us home. I parked the truck next to the cider mill and Julian remained in the passenger seat, staring at the creature. He must have burned through two boxes of matches on the drive.

            I hopped out and snatched an apple from the grass. It was still hard to the touch. However, I felt enough pressure to know it’d be a sweet one. I returned to the truck, carved off a slice with my pocket knife, and pushed it through the grates.

            The thing had little black hands to go with its little black eyes. It clasped onto the fruit and snatched it away, taking big bites until it vanished. I sliced off another piece. Then another.

            On the fourth, Julian swatted my hand. “Emily, stop,” he said, taking the knife. “Let me.”

            Afterwards, Julian brought the creature to his and his wife’s house. I headed to the guest cottage. The orchard had been in Irene’s family for generations, but it had never been profitable. After her father passed, nobody stepped in to take it over until Julian came along and married her. The fruits were too hard for eating, too sour for canning, and too small for making applejack.

            In the morning, I ate breakfast with them. There wasn’t a kitchen in the guest cottage, just a tiny fireplace. When I entered the big house, Irene stood at the stove, stirring a sticky pot of oatmeal. She was six months pregnant, her belly swollen as if growing a giant pumpkin. She was a small woman to begin with, a little over five feet. She knew Julian and I were selling booze, but always pretended we were humble apple farmers like her father had been.

            On her way around the table, she tapped my shoulder playfully. “Emily,” she said, “you let your brother buy a pet rat?” 

            Julian snapped, “It’s a hedgehog.”

            Irene returned to the stove. Less playful.

             “Where is it?” I asked.

            “Over here,” Julian said, kicking the cage beneath the table. I curved past Irene and crouched. In the light of day, I saw the creature clearly. It was the size of a small kitten. Its quills were more golden than silver. When I touched the cage, it rolled over and purred.

            “It thinks you’re gonna feed it,” Julian said, lifting a book from the floor.

            “Careful,” Irene said, waving her spoon. “It’ll snap your thumbs off, Emily.”

            Julian wiggled the book. “This was in the cage, but I can’t make sense of it.”

            I peered at it from the floor. The cover was cracked and brown, written in strange font. Then he flipped it over and tucked it in his back pocket before I could study it any further.

            “I can’t believe you paid five dollars for that thing,” Irene said, serving him a bowl of oatmeal.

            I held my tongue. A whole batch sold for at least a hundred. Even though I was the one who did the cooking, Julian only paid me five dollars a week. The one time I challenged him on it, he threatened to send me north to marry a fifty-four year old horse farmer. “He thinks you’re pretty,” Julian had said. “He promised me the pick of his stable if I let him marry you.”

            Irene walked back to the stove and dished out two more bowls—one for me and her. I joined them at the table and we ate in silence. Each time I snuck a glance at the cage, I saw the creature gaze back at me.


            A few years ago, when Julian was off at war, Mom got sick. Dad spent every moment at her side, spoon-feeding her his tonic. He’d originally developed it for his dental patients. It was strong and numbing. Could knock a two-hundred pound man out in ten minutes flat. Technically, it was alcoholic, against the law in Maine. But Dad didn’t care. He always said, “Ever try to yank a sober tooth?”

            We both wore his surgical masks around Mom, as if she was a patient. When Dad got sick himself, he taught me his recipe so I could make it for both of them. He’d cough orders from bed, instructing me on which tool to use for which process. How to grind the apples, how to push the juice through the sieve, how to cook it down into a syrup, how to let it ferment.

            Once, when I squeezed an apple with a pair of pliers meant for pulling teeth, Dad got so mad I thought he might spit the influenza right out his lungs. “You dimwit,” he said, “you want to grind an apple or yank a molar?”

            It took a few tries before I got his recipe right. Eventually, I figured it out. The first time he dozed off, I danced.

            But when he woke, he was always frantic. Fevered. He claimed good health started in the gums. Bad teeth could rot your entire immune system. He was convinced the influenza had burrowed inside the roots of his teeth. Each time he struggled to cough or hold down a bowl of soup, he’d slap the spoon from my hand and say, “Get my tools.”

            When I returned with his medical bag, he’d bark more orders. “Put the bite block in first,” he’d say.

            Pulling his teeth took a surprising amount of force. He insisted I save them for him, bloody roots and all. When he awoke, still fevered, he’d examine them. His hands were too shaky to hold the tweezers and so I had to lift them to the light. He’d shake his head, gums swollen. “It’s still there,” he’d mumble.

            In the end, it didn’t matter how many of Dad’s teeth I pulled. He died all the same. First Mom, then him. By the time Julian returned from France, the bank had put a lien on the house. I tried keeping Dad’s practice running, but no one trusted a girl to yank their teeth. Sometimes Dad’s old patients came by looking for a bottle of tonic. I’d also offer to help with their gingivitis or decay, but all they wanted was the booze.

            Since Julian didn’t have a trade, I tried to teach him Dad’s. The town needed a dentist, after all. I showed him how to hold the forceps, how to twist at his waist, how to scrape around inflamed gums without getting blood all over the place.

            Once he was ready, we spread word that he’d taken over Dad’s practice. When our first patient arrived, I kept my head down and pretended to be Julian’s secretary. The man had an abscessed wisdom tooth I could smell from the front porch. I invited him inside and poured a tall glass of tonic. After he drifted off in the examination chair, I showed Julian how to secure the infected tooth with the forceps. But right as he touched tines to tooth, he dropped the tools and clambered out the back door, hacking.

            The patient was dead to the world so I finished the job. When he woke, I pretended Julian had been called off on other business and sent him home with tooth powder and tonic.

            After Julian returned, I proposed a new idea: he could pretend to be the dentist, but I’d do all the work once the patients were knocked out. No one would know the difference. We could keep Dad’s practice going. Help the town. Pay off the bank. Live like this as long as we wanted.

            But he had another idea. “Emily,” he said, “how’d you get that fellow drunk so fast?”

            I explained how Dad’s tonic worked. Julian grabbed a notepad and asked what I’d need for a big batch. Lots of fruit, I said. Apples were best, but grapes or pears would do. I’d also need a big grinder for the juice. Strainers. Vats. Barrels. Mashing sticks. A warm area to ferment it and a cold place to store it.

            Within a week, Julian introduced himself to Irene. He told me she was a small, ugly girl, over thirty. Her uncle wanted to be rid of her and the land. The apples were hard and sour, but they might cook down for tonic. He made marrying her sound like a sacrifice on his part, which I thought was fair if I was going to be the one doing all the work.

            However, when I finally met Irene, I was surprised by her loveliness. She had crooked teeth that poked out of her lips. Her tiny jaw wasn’t big enough to hold all of them, so they had to fight for space. One of her bicuspids was longer than the other, making her smile appear delightfully wolfish.

            On the day of their wedding, Julian left her back at the house and walked me through the grove. I hadn’t seen him so cheerful since before he left for the war. He gave me a tour of the cider house and said to make a list of everything we’d need to start our operation.


            Years later, there we were. Julian gave the seasonal pickers an extra dollar a week to keep their mouths shut. I’d arrive early in the morning and light the vats. Grind the apples. Half would go to regular cider, the other half I’d pack into barrels for fermentation. During harvest season, it meant we were working sixteen hour days, sometimes more.

            The day after Julian brought the creature home, I was mashing cooked apples for a new batch. He entered the mill, carrying that strange, small animal in a gunny sack around his chest. As they approached, I saw its little black paws and little black eyes.

             “Get down,” Julian said. “I need your help.”

            I reminded him of our schedule. He reminded me he ran the place, not me. I released the crank climbed down the ladder, mashing stick in hand.

            When the creature’s eyes met mine, it crawled out of Julian’s bag and galloped across the table. He reached out to stop it, but it was too fast. It hopped right over the bottles and rubbed its head against my chest.

            “Piggy,” Julian said, snapping his fingers.

            “Hey, there,” I said, resting the mashing stick against the table. I kept my gloves on to pet its quills. Even through the thick fabric on my hands, I could feel that it was soft and silky.

            “It thinks you’re gonna feed it,” Julian said. “I told you not to feed it.”

            “Sorry,” I said, lifting it from the bottles. It weighed no more than a ball of cotton.

            Julian snatched the creature and tucked it back in his sack. Then he produced that same brown book that came with the cage. “I think it’s a manual,” he said, “but I can’t figure out how it’s supposed to work.”

            “What makes you think it’s supposed to do anything?”

            “Back in France,” he said, “guys paid big money for them. They helped you dodge bullets, skip battles, get transferred five hundred miles from the front. And once—after I got back—I even saw a guy in Atlantic City with one. He had it right here,” he said, patting his shirt pocket. “He walked straight up to a roulette table and put all his money on one slot.”

            “What happened?” I asked.

            Julian closed the book. “He won.”

            I glanced between him and the book. “But what do they do?”

            “Emily,” he said, “that is what I’m trying to figure out.”

            I took the book from him and flipped through it. Up close, I recognized the lettering, the way certain consonants jammed together. “It’s Irish,” I said. “Dad had a patient with a bunch of books like this at his house.”

            He arched a brow. “Who?”

            “Mr. Cassidy,” I said. “I used to deliver tonic to him. Bloody gums. Terrible gingivitis.”

            “You think he can translate it for me?”

            I turned another page. “I’ll take him a bottle.” 

            After Julian left with the creature, I remained in the cider house, flipping pages. I couldn’t make sense of the words, yet there were figures and drawings that resembled the creature. In one image, a woman used a tooth brush to clean its bristles. In another, a man scrubbed it like a teacup. In one figure, the creature slept soundly in its cage.

            Some of the pictures reminded me of Dad’s dental manuals. Same style of drawings. In the appendix, there were even images that looked as if they could have been taken right of out of his reference books. They showed human faces, jawbones, tongues, tonsils, canines, bicuspids, molars, wisdom teeth. An entire page was devoted to tools: forceps, pliers, tongue depressors, scalpels, bite blocks, bristles for cleaning between teeth.

            Later I rode my bike to the Cassidy’s on the other side of town. When I pulled up, Mrs. Cassidy clutched a wire broom and shook her head—same way little old ladies did when they saw me around town in my work clothes.

            “We’re not interested,” she said, sweeping the porch.

            “Is Mr. Cassidy around?” I kept the bottle tucked in my bag, but removed the book. “He was one of my father’s patients.”

            “I know what your father used to do and I know what your brother does.”

            I lingered on the bottom step and showed her the book. “You’re from Ireland, right? Can you read?”

            She glared at me. “You think you’re the only smart little lady around here?”

            “Do you know what this says?”

            She squinted. “Looks like a children’s book.”

            “It’s not for kids,” I said, handing it to her. “It’s a manual. A reference guide.”

            She wouldn’t take it. “Then it’s a joke,” she said. “Satire.”

            “How do you figure?”

            She leaned the broom against the porch railing. “Because,” she said, “it says: How to Care for Your Magic Swine.”


            “Enchanted, maybe. I don’t know.” 

            “What else can you tell me?” I asked, opening the pages, showing one of a man carrying the creature on his shoulder, feeding it a jagged piece of fruit.

            She stepped closer, but still wouldn’t touch the pages. Her silver hair smelled doughy, with a hint of onion. She snapped her fingers, motioning for me to turn pages.

            And then she laughed. “Emily,” she said, “it’s a joke.”

            “What’s the joke?”

            “It says they eat teeth,” she said, lifting a brow. “Human teeth.”

            I flipped back to picture of the creature nibbling on a piece of fruit. When I looked closer, I recognized roots and divots. She grabbed the broom and returned to sweeping. “Paul’s got bloody gums again,” she said. “Could your brother help with that?”

            I closed the book and tucked it under my arm. “My brother’s not a dentist.”


            That night, it never cooled off. Even after the sun dropped, the air remained thick and warm. I sat in bed, studying the manual. The words blurred together, but I paid attention to the pictures.

            Jaws. Tongues. Teeth.


            The next day, it was so hot in the orchard that most of the pickers took off their shirts. Sweat dripped from their ladders. Julian paced through the cider mill, carrying the creature in the sack around his chest. He rolled up his sleeves and checked the thermometer outside the barn.

            “Eighty-five in October,” he said, shaking his head.

            It was even hotter inside. I fastened my goggles and prepared to climb the ladder over a bubbling vat of apple mash. Julian lingered by the door, breathing the fresh air. He asked if I had any luck with Mr. Cassidy.

            “No,” I said, “his wife says it’s just a children’s book. Means nothing.”

            “You didn’t ask him?”

            “His wife can read, too.”

            He clenched the strap of his sack, keeping the creature tucked inside. “So the boss swindled us?” he said. “What a load of hooey.”

            Steam chugged from the vat, clouding my goggles. “Maybe it’s just a hedgehog,” I said. “Maybe that’s all it’s supposed to be.”

            “It’s useless,” he said, stepping out the door. “That’s what.”

            “Where are you going?”

            “To get rid of it.”

            I dropped the paddle and raced back down the ladder. “No,” I said, “no, don’t. Let me have it then.”

            “It’s just a rodent.”

            “I don’t care. I’ll take care of it.”

            “It sleeps all day. Vomits everything. Irene does not want it around the baby.”

            “It can stay with me in the guest house. I’ll keep it in the cage.”

            “No,” he said, striding out of the cider house. “We’re going back tonight.”

            My instinct was to chase after him, yank the sack from his chest, run off with the creature—but where would we go? It was Julian’s land. Everything belonged to him. All he’d have to do is yell to one of the pickers and they’d stop me cold.

            I climbed the ladder and lifted the paddle. The juice was simmering—liquid gold.


            Once the batch was ready to cool, I raced to the guest cottage, sweating the whole way. Julian’s truck was in the drive. I flung my closet open and found the set of clothes I always wore on our runs: Julian’s when he was a teenager.

            After I stuffed my hair beneath the cap, I crouched and searched through the foot locker that held Dad’s equipment: his forceps, bite blocks, dried out clay, model teeth, his recipe journals.

            Then, at the bottom of the box, I found the envelope filled with Dad’s teeth.

            I tucked it in my pocket and ran to Julian’s house. Irene sat on the couch, feet on the ottoman, dressed in a thin, white night gown that was so sweat-soaked I could see the outline of her breasts and belly.

            “It’s too hot to cook,” she said, a hand across her forehead. Her voice was high pitched, tense. “Will you be okay if we just have salad and beans again?”

            “Sounds great,” I said, walking swiftly through the living room.

            She lifted her head and laughed. “Oh, Emily,” she said, her voice returning to its normal calm cadence. “I thought you were Julian.”

            “It’s the suspenders.” I snapped them on my way to the kitchen. The creature sat in its cage, waiting to be delivered home. Julian was right. It looked languid, sad, tired. Of no use.

            As I came close, it rolled over and sniffed. I knelt down, removed Dad’s molar from my pocket, and held it out on the tip of my finger.

            The creature snatched it. Swallowed it in one gulp.

            Julian’s boots clomped down the hallway. “Hey,” he said, “what’s it doing?”

            The creature nuzzled its head through the grates, begging for more. I pet its soft quills and said I went back and convinced Mr. Cassidy to translate the book after all. He said to feed the pet cooked fruit and soft-scrambled eggs from red hens, instead of raw fruit or bread. “He’s translating the rest,” I said. “We owe him another bottle.”

            This satisfied Julian’s immediate urge to return the creature, buying me another night. We ate salad for dinner and Irene retired to the couch, still sweating. I stayed close to the creature. Each time I flicked my fingers through its cage, it reached up and squeezed—sending sparks through my veins. Something was changing within me, but I couldn’t say what.

            “Get to bed, Emily,” Julian said, wiping sweat from his brow. “Got a big haul tomorrow.”


            I returned to the guest house but stayed up all night reading the manual. Warm wind slipped through the windows. The words made no sense, but the pictures took on more meaning.

For the most part, the images were concerned with gambling (roulette, horse racing, baccarat, poker, the stock market), but there was also a section on favorable outcomes in ordinary situations (baking the perfect cake, willing away rainy days, recovering from illness, finding love, selling horses).

            As I studied the drawings, I understood the main ideas. It was just like Julian said: the creatures were essentially good luck charms. They made favorable outcomes for their owners—but required human teeth in exchange. I thought of the boss and his dentures. How stern he was when he said, “No exchanges.” 

            From the diagrams, I guessed healthy teeth were best. An entire section was concerned with avoiding abscessed teeth and decayed roots. Dad’s teeth—despite his paranoia—were fairly healthy at the end. They’d do for now. But this much was clear: if I wanted the creature to work the way it was supposed to, I needed to find it a fresher food source.


            The next day, I found Julian in his office. The creature sat next to his typewriter, pawing at a small chunk of boiled egg. Once I stepped inside, its head immediately rose, its eyes widened, and its snout sniffed like a rat searching for cheese.

            Julian kept typing.

            “Here,” I said, handing him a stack of papers. “More from Mr. Cassidy.”

            Julian snatched them. I leaned against the desk, watching the creature. It butted its head to my hand, purring. Julian kept turning through my phony notes. In addition to feeding it eggs, I wrote to let it sleep beside you. Give it lots of companionship. Use a toothbrush to comb its quills.

            Julian shook his head and grumbled. “I can’t do anything with this,” he said. “I need to know what’s so special about it. It’s just acting like a regular rodent.”

            “It’s all Mr. Cassidy said.”

            He smacked my notes against the desk. I worried, briefly, that he figured out the swindle. But then he wiped sweat from his brow. “Bring the barrels down to the cellar tonight. Make sure they don’t spoil.”

            “Dad always left them to ferment. Get the bacteria going.”

            Julian—who knew as much about cooking as he did dentistry—shook his head. “No,” he said, “put them in the cellar tonight. Grab a couple pickers to help you.”

            On my way out of the office, I glanced at the creature. It tore tiny pieces of yolk from the egg and flicked them to the floor. But when it looked directly at me, I felt fuzz in my head, same as when I sipped a fresh batch of tonic.

            While Julian resumed typing, I pretended to bend down and pick the egg bits from the floor. I snuck another one of Dad’s teeth from my pocket and held it out, pretending it was a piece of egg white. The creature quickly grabbed it with both paws and opened its mouth wide—wider than I thought possible—and swallowed it up in one gulp.

            The hairs on the back of my neck buzzed. My head, cheeks, and shoulders tingled. Blood rushed through my body. I could float to the ceiling, suck up the electricity, make the sky open up and rain.

            Julian kept typing, paying no attention to the transformation going on inside me. In fact, the more I willed him to look away, the more he focused on his typewriter. Around us, the colors of the office brightened. Greens, blues, yellows. The windows sparkled.

            “Emily?” he said, breaking the spell. “What are you still doing here?”

            I stepped out of the office. Once I was back in the cider house, the fuzz faded, leaving my skull dry and aching.


            I filled and rolled the barrels without grabbing any pickers to help. Took half the normal time. Despite Julian’s orders, I left them to ferment. With this heat, I figured they’d be ready to move by tomorrow. I scrubbed the vats, sanitized the grinder, and polished the mashing stick until it sparkled.

            Around supper, I headed home. Julian must have stayed at the office. Probably still fretting over the late season heat-wave. I popped my head into the kitchen. Irene didn’t have anything cooking. A stink of lettuce and butter beans still sat in the sink from last night. Rotting.

            Once again, she was draped across the couch, elbow over her forehead. “This heat’s atrocious,” she said quietly, as if afraid to admit it. “I don’t think I can cook.”

            “It’s just me,” I said softly, leaning against the pocket-door. “You don’t have to apologize. Anything I can do?”

            She opened her mouth wide and yawned. “Nothing helps,” she said. “But thanks, Emily. We’re so lucky to have you.”

            I thought of Mom and Dad in their last days. All the former patients who showed up on our doorstep with desperate eyes and swollen cheeks. It was a worthwhile life, alleviating pain. Why did anyone have to suffer?

            When I returned to the orchard, I checked the office for Julian but he wasn’t there. I strolled back through the grove and asked the pickers. None had seen him. Finally, I headed to the cider mill. All the doors and windows were open, but it was still sweltering. A strong stink of rotten eggs hung in the air.

            Noxious. Sulfurous.

            Julian stood beside a barrel in the fermentation area. He covered his face with a cloth. The creature poked its head out of his knapsack, peering at me.

            “It’s ruined,” he said, coughing. He kept one hand over the cloth and waved his other hand at the barrels. “All of it. What did you do?”

            “I don’t know,” I said, wincing. “It must be the heat. It’s too hot.”

            “Why didn’t you take it to the cellar?”

            “I always leave it here to start. It’s how Dad taught me—”

            “I told you!” He dropped the cloth and smacked a barrel. “I’m the one you listen to. I’m the one!”

            I took deep breaths, swallowing my coughs. The creature’s head poked further out of the bag, black eyes on me. I didn’t understand what I had done wrong. I gave it Dad’s teeth.

            “And this thing?” Julian said, flipping the strap of his bag over his shoulder. It fell to the floor with a thump. “Useless!”

            Quickly, I rushed to it, bending at the knee. It was safe, but angered. Annoyed. It crawled out and up my arm, then remained firmly on my shoulder. Its quills were soft against my neck, but sharp at the points, jabbing my chin.

            “I’m done with you,” Julian said, smacking the lid of another barrel. “You can go north. Maybe you’ll learn.”

            “Go north?”

            “You’ll marry that horse farmer. You are not my burden.”

            I laughed. A big, honking laugh. “Your burden? Julian, I’m the one who does all the work and you still pay me like a picker. This is your wife’s land, but you treat her like you own her. You don’t contribute. You want everything but don’t deserve any of it.”

            “We leave in the morning,” he said, walking past me. “Be ready.”

            The laughter left me. The air still stank, but I took big breaths. The creature nuzzled into my neck, sharp and soft at the same time. We’d had batches spoil before. It happened sometimes.

            “Wait, Julian,” I said, “I can fix this. You need me. You’re going to need me when the baby comes and—”

            “You don’t get it,” he says, kicking my newly polished mashing stick. “It’s all over. We’re behind. The bank’s taking the orchard. I’m saving what I can and getting out.”

            “You lost the land?”

            “I’ve been trying to save it. That’s why I bought this thing, why we needed the batch.”

            “Julian,” I said, shaking my head, “you dimwit.”

            He didn’t hesitate. He spun and shoved my shoulders, flinging me against the wall. He followed it up with a sharp knee to my stomach. I fell to the floor, hurt and heaving—but mostly surprised.

            He stood over me, rolling his sleeves. He said something else, but I didn’t hear it. Dust and sulfur caught in my throat. Nearby, thunder rumbled. Rain battered the roof. It would only make it more humid—ruin any last chance we had of salvaging the batch.

            The creature butted its head to mine. The soft, pointless gesture of a loyal pet, checking on its master—but then I finally understood: the book, the pictures, the vulcanite dentures. The creature didn’t want self-sacrifice, sabotage. It wanted someone to care for it. A real provider.

            “Clean yourself up,” Julian said. “Be ready in the morning.”

            The mashing stick had rolled to the floor. I reached for it and sprung to my feet, gripping it like a baseball bat.

            When Julian turned to me confused—I didn’t hesitate.


            Dad was the one who taught me how to keep a steady hand. Once his patients were knocked out, he’d call for me to wash up. He taught me the difference between a scaler and a sickle probe; taught me which forceps were for molars, which for canines and incisors; taught me how to scrape around the gums so they wouldn’t bleed; how to clean them when they did; how to fill a cavity; how to know when a tooth needed to be pulled; how to tie a knot of silk floss so it would stay tight.

            Whenever I faltered with a pair or forceps or a drill, he’d put a calm hand on my shoulder. No one had stiller, cooler hands than Dad.

            “Keep steady,” he’d say.

            “What if I can’t?” I’d ask, shaking.

            “Then pretend.”


            The storm killed the heatwave. The next morning, frost fell upon the orchard. I called every picker to harvest the remaining apples, lest they freeze on the branches. In the chaos, it was easy to get everyone to believe Julian had slipped on a ladder in an icy grove, broke his neck, lost a few teeth.

            No one questioned it. We buried him beside our parents. That winter, Irene gave birth to a baby girl and named her Julia. The creature and I moved into the house to help. She was a good baby, healthy. We made it through winter just fine.

            That spring, I turned the guest cottage into my dental practice. Over the years, the apples have started to grow big and sweet. Perfect for eating right off the trees. Irene runs the orchard as she likes and I stick to my patients. Sometimes Julia helps me boil my tools. Patients never notice the creature on my shoulder or the little girl carrying forceps and scrapers. They see what they want. Of course, every once in a while I have to take a healthy tooth. Something no one will miss much.


Meghan Louise Wagner lives in Northeast Ohio. Her short stories have appeared in such places as Nashville Review, The Journal, Cutleaf, AGNI, The Best American Short Stories, and elsewhere. More about her can be found at

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