She wiggled the last tooth free and placed it on the rectangular silver dish on the bathroom sink counter next to her other teeth. She thought the way they had arranged would look nice strung around her neck. She looked at the mirror on the wall in front of her to imagine what it would look like. She shook her head to move her long black bangs from her line of vision. Then she noticed the blood that had appeared on her ivory shirt in droplets and streaks that began as angry tears before slowing to a quiet trickle. She had been so focused on her task that she had not been careful to protect the shirt. Her foster mother had bought it for her to wear on her first day in her new school. Still, Valina thought the shirt looked a little more interesting this way.
It wasn’t that she was unable to hear her foster mother as she pounded on the bathroom door, or her older brother as he shouted her name. It was that she had no real desire to respond. She had stuffed gum in the keyhole for a reason. She picked up her foster mother’s make-up mirror and examined her magnified gums. She ran her tongue over the gaps, which released fresh trickles of blood. She let the blood fill in her mouth. She appreciated how the blood on her chin was smeared as if she had been messy while eating chocolate. She spit blood in the sink, the splatter resembling of a flock of mangled birds as they expanded their bloodied wings.
A loud clatter behind her shocked her to inhale a wheezy breath. She lifted her head and saw the copper doorknob on the ground as it skidded a bit on the linoleum.
Through her thick bangs, she watched her brother at the door as he waved his arms in frenzy, a screwdriver in one hand. He looked blurry, as though a pane of frosted glass separated them. He shouted something about how this time was the very last time, and if she didn’t bleed to death how they were going to be sent to different homes for sure. Her foster mother, Mrs. Cobal, however, looked terrified, dark smudges under her eyes from her smeared makeup.
Valina thought she heard a tooth fall, and she spun back around to see her final tooth slide just under the drain stopper. She fumbled her fingers to retrieve it, but just when she thought she had a grip, she felt her head jerk back.
Valina saw her foster mother’s reflection as she gripped Valina’s elastic hair band. Ignoring Valina’s protests, she thought Mrs. Cobal looked very much like her real mother had the night she smacked Valina’s back with a kitchen dining set chair.
Her foster mother sputtered words not bridged with intelligible thoughts, and pulled Valina by the hair to her chest. Valina said nothing as her foster mother loosened her grip and instead cradled Valina’s head. She rocked Valina as she controlled her tears.
With one ear pressed to her foster mother’s chest and one ear dulled by the excitement of her jounced jaw, Valina thought the room sounded like things did when she swam underwater. Her pronounced heartbeat seemed slower, longer and louder than usual, and she closed her eyes. She felt warm everywhere. Safe.
As if she just noticed the blood that streamed from Valina’s mouth, Mrs. Cobal stuffed cotton balls where Valina’s teeth should be until her mouth was full. Her brother had a phone to his ear and explained into the receiver about how his sister suffered from a disease where she can’t feel pain. Right, congenital insensitivity to pain. Yes, it is very rare. Of course she really was born with it, and could they send someone right away to stop the bleeding?
Her foster mother said through her racked sobs, “so much blood for such a small mouth” as she pulled out a wad of crimson cotton that dripped glistening strands of saliva down her chin. Fresh cotton balls were pushed with force through her pursed lips. Valina coughed, the scratchy material irritating her throat. She grinned through the sticky, wet wads of cotton, her head light and fuzzy. When she closed her eyes, she could see the fizz like in a glass of cola popping as it rushed up to the top.
Valina felt like she could lift from the floor, part ways from these people, and mingle with the clouds and, before long, the stars. She had never felt quite so light, in fact, though she came close when she would hold her breath until someone would make her breathe again. It was as if before her teeth had just weighed her down, and maybe now that they were in a pretty pile on the bathroom counter, she could be free.
Valina felt pinpricks on her face as if she had been slapped there. She realized it had gotten dark only after she opened her eyes. “Stay awake, Valina. Oh, please stay with us until the ambulance comes,” Mrs. Cobal’s voice was clear.
Valina did not want the ambulance. The ambulance meant she would be hooked up to machines and covered with bandages that she never wanted. It meant that everyone would cry because Valina had gone and hurt herself again and why would she want to do that? Why did she let the neighbor boy run over her fingers with his bike? Why did she take off all her clothes and lay in the snow? Why would she jump off a tree branch up so high onto a fallen beehive? Why did she do such nasty, damaging things to herself when, she very well knew, she had enough problems just forgetting to tell people she bumped into a sharp corner so they could make sure she had not bruised her kidney?
The more she tried to figure pain out, the less she understood what made everyone else hurt. They always stopped her before she could.
She heard her brother speaking to their foster mother now. He said, “Please don’t be mad at her. She doesn’t know any better. I don’t know where she gets these ideas but she’s not a psycho.”
And their foster mother responded, “Oh, honey, I know. I know. I’m not mad. Really, I’m not.” And Valina sunk into the women’s arms a little. Not now. Not right now, she thought. But you will be. After the blood stops and you get the bill from the hospital, you will be. They always are.
Valina knew it would come, but for now, it felt nice. Mrs. Cobal coddled her, said how sorry she was, how sorry she was that she had reacted that way and how she had only been scared. She stroked Valina’s cheek and smoothed her hair. She didn’t even seem to care about getting blood all over her work blouse.
Valina listened a little longer as her brother made apologies for her, and then, they spoke about her as if she was not there, as if she could not understand them. She waited until they were busy with conversation, then she wriggled fast out of her foster mother’s grasp and she scooped up the tray that contained her teeth. She made a few fake-outs at her brother, who blocked her at the door. The teeth rattled as she ducked under her brother’s legs and one tooth fell to the tiled floor with a satisfying clink as she tugged her foot free from the clasp of his thighs.
She thudded around the corner in the hallway, heavy with fatigue, her brother close behind. She held one hand over the tray, which she huddled close to her as if it was an infant’s head. She hardly felt like herself as she was tackled to the ground, like she was not in her body. She watched as her teeth flew through the air like shards of a shattered red teacup, and last heard a sharp crack as her chin made contact with the thin beige carpet.
Valina was in her bed with no memory of how she got there. She could only keep her eyes open for moments at a time before she stole into sleep, it seemed. She recalled flashes of her foster parents, paying her no mind as they argued. She remembered “concussion” and “hemorrhaging,” words as familiar to her as “Sweet Sixteen Dolls” were to other girls her age.
She woke this time feeling like a bear out of its cave for spring, aware of her brother in the corner of their room, playing a soundless video game aside from the clicks of the plastic buttons on the controller. She pushed her tongue up, finding teeth. She furrowed her eyebrows. Her tongue fell into a few welcome gaps, the rough surface of new teeth poking through her gums. A trace of metallic clung to her taste buds as she frowned. Baby teeth. The rest had been re-secured. All that effort for squat.
She shifted, and the coil of the bottom bunk bed mattress creaked. Kevin turned around and got up, not bothering to pause the game, and sat on the edge of the bed beside Valina. The look of worry that she saw more often than not creased his face. He took his hat off, brushed at it, and placed it back on his head. “Feel okay?”
Valina closed her eyes, and Kevin continued. “Sure you do. Hey, I know you’re mad at me. I get that. But I hate seeing you like this, and if you would just listen to me in the first place - I mean, you’re old enough to cut this out and be careful. I mean really. Can you just behave so you can survive and we can both stay here? I’m starting to make friends here, and I like the Cobals.”
She opened her eyes to her brother’s I-know-better-than-you expression. She coughed, and swallowed hard to soothe her throat dry. She nodded for his appeasement, and he hugged her around the neck. “And if you stop being so weird, you’ll be able to make friends, too.”
Valina thought about Gladys, the oldest girl at their last foster home. Gladys was the closest thing to a friend, other than her brother, that Valina had. But Kevin wouldn’t let them talk. “She beats you up!” Kevin yelled at her one day. “If she was your friend, she wouldn’t do that.” Valina thought Kevin was being dumb. He said the same things about their mother. It’s not like she could feel the pain.
Kevin ended the hug and sat up. “I worry about you. So much.”
Valina wished she still had that ivory shirt with the bloodstains on it. Her foster mother might have taken it to wash. She looked at her brother while she used her thumb and index finger to try to move a bottom tooth. It was in there to stay. Her tongue ran over the teeth again. They felt like they didn’t belong in there more now than ever. Her tongue passed over a gap she was sure had housed an adult tooth.
Valina waited until Kevin’s breathing changed slow and deep before edging out of bed later that evening. It was just like it had been last year, when her parents were still alive, when she would pretend to be a secret spy on an even more secret mission. She imagined she had been recruited by an agency who knew that if she was ever caught and tortured, she would never give up any valuable information.
Her book light clutched in her newly-grafted teeth, she flattened herself against the wall as she slid down the hall. She scanned the hall for her renegade tooth with fastidiousness. She found spots of blood where she had fallen earlier, but there was no sign of her tooth.
As she flipped the bathroom light switch and saw the faucet, she had a vague recollection of one tooth slipping into the sink. It seemed so long ago now. She looked to see if it was there, but saw nothing near the drain. There was a chance it had fallen in. She removed everything from under the sink, careful not to raise the noise above the drip of the faucet. Her eyes fell on the rusty wrench atop the tattered blue towel she had pulled from under the sink. She picked it up and clamped the pipe, and remembered to jiggle it first the way her father had showed her to make sure it would not slip. That had been the same day she had branded her own stomach with the imprint of an iron. It had tingled in that nice way where if she closed her eyes, she imagined it was like fairy dust settling on her skin.
She liked to run her fingers over the raised skin the imprint made, even better than an ink stamp. She thought it was an even cooler tattoo than her uncle Leroy’s battleship. Her scars were interesting that way. The grooves in her hands where she chewed them, the various stitched and healed cuts on her legs, the bump where her nose crooked from breaking it twice.
She didn’t tell her father what she had done that day, but her mother would find out later when she did a body check. Her mother only used to shake her then, shake her and shout about how bad it made her look as a mother. Kevin said she only said that because she was a bad mother. But Valina didn’t know why Kevin thought so. She had always been nice to Kevin.
In fact, as Valina put all of her might into loosening the nut on the drainpipe, her earliest memory came to mind. Her brother’s red scrunched-up face, plastered with tears, a bruise already surfacing on his forehead. Her mother had scooped him up and kissed him over and over. She sputtered “it’s okay, you’re fine, you’re going to be okay,” and they disappeared together into the kitchen. Valina then made her own way to the top of the stairs. With the bravery of a three-and-a-half year old, she fell forward. Twelve wooden stairs later, she lay on the floor, her tiny limbs twisted to the point where she could not move. She had waited for the tears, for the noise to erupt from her throat, and stared at the kitchen door for her mother to appear. She remembered that door so well; the pale grainy wood etched with pale yellow, a gouge in the corner shaped like an upside-down heart.
After some time, the nut moved and the wrench slipped. It made a sound much louder than a secret spy should ever make when it clattered to the cabinet floor. She pretended her father was behind her, telling her to hush, that he heard footsteps. She held statue-still, pulse pounding.
She decided to continue after a few minutes of only hearing her own breathing. She freed the nut, and a bit of water gurgled from the seal. More trickled out as she separated the curved drain pipe and tipped it to its side. Water cascaded out, and her missing tooth came along for the ride. She snatched it up and held it to the light. It had no trace of blood. She almost dropped it when a gentle knock on the door surprised her.
“Valina? You okay in there?” she heard the voice of Mrs. Cobal.
Valina fumbled the tooth, then tucked it in her sock cuff. She grabbed the pipe and stashed it under the sink and closed the doors on the cabinet as quiet as she could. She swept her foot over the water in an attempt to wipe it up with her sock. She scuttled to the toilet and flushed it. She opened the door and tried to move past Mrs. Cobal. Mrs. Cobal stood in Valina’s way. Valina did not look at Mrs. Cobal as she placed the back of her hand on Valina’s forehead. “You feel okay.” Valina looked at the woman, whose eyes looked much softer when they weren’t painted with black goopy makeup. Valina nodded, and looked away.
“I know I scared you before, and I’m sorry. Do you forgive me?”
Valina nodded again. Mrs. Cobal continued. “Good. I want to show you something.”
Mrs. Cobal took Valina’s hand and led her down the stairs. She took her into the living room, and Valina thought it smelled different there at night. Less like the strong cinnamon candle that burned during the day, and more like freshly washed linen. Mrs. Cobal let go of Valina’s hand as she opened a cupboard above the television set and brought down a shoebox. She sat with Valina on the couch and lifted the lid. She took out some photographs and sifted through them. She found one she seemed to be looking for and held it up to Valina.
In the picture was a young girl wearing a full body brace. The grinning girl looked like a metal robot puppet. She stood next to a tall man in a tuxedo with a large head and full beard, his arm around as much of her body as he could reach.
Mrs. Cobol said, “That’s me. I was a little older than you, maybe eleven or twelve. The man next to me is a famous concert cellist. He was my hero when I was growing up. I listed to every record he ever made. Anyway, he was coming to play a concert near me, but it was in a big city and my mother would not let me go because it would be too expensive. I was devastated. Then I heard about a contest on the radio. They were giving away tickets to the concert, as well as transportation to the show and food and everything. But the catch was, you had to be disabled in some way to win the tickets.
“I was determined to win those tickets. I decided that I would become crippled to win those tickets. I tried a lot of things. I tried to burn my hands because it seemed easy, but I got too scared. I decided to go down stairs on my sister’s skateboard, and that did the trick.”
Valina’s eyes grew with interest.
“Now, I know you don’t know what it feels like to be in a lot of pain. But it was so – I don’t know, so freeing, in a way. Everything hurt all at once, it hurt so much that it almost didn’t hurt at all.”
Mrs. Cobal looked away from Valina then. “I couldn’t breathe, but because I couldn’t, I fell into this space, this wonderful space where I wasn’t in my own body. I could see myself, stretched in a tangle on the floor, and I knew I would not only be okay, but I would be better. My body would make all new cells, repair all the broken bits, and with each repair I would be that much stronger, that much smarter.”
There were a few beats of silence before Mrs. Cobal turned to Valina. “Oh my, I’m sorry dear, I’m sure that made no sense to you. Boy, I forgot about that. I forgot about how important that was to me. I won that contest,” she shook the picture, “but I was even more glad that I had been able to see what it was like to be so broken. And I couldn’t tell anyone about that. I knew I would sound crazy, and people wouldn’t understand. So I guess I wanted to share this with you so you believe me when I tell you I’m not upset with you.”
I think you and I are a little bit alike, maybe more than you think. Maybe you want to feel pain because you are searching for something. But I want to let you know, you are special. You don’t need pain show you what really matters. Everyone is always telling you how to behave, aren’t they?”
Valina nodded. “Yes, and they tell me I’ll die if I don’t stop. They say a lot of other kids with this disease die a lot sooner than me, so I’m lucky and shouldn’t take it for granted.”
Mrs. Cobal looked almost surprised at Valina’s response. Valina was used to surprised looks when she spoke because she didn’t say much. Mrs. Cobal said, “Yes, that’s what they told me, too. So why do you take it for granted?”
Valina shifted a bit in her seat. “Because the other kids aren’t me.”
“Do you think you won’t die?”
“No. I know I could. But it won’t hurt to die.”
Mrs. Cobal’s eyes bleared. “But once you die, you’re gone. And you leave behind people who will be sad.”
“Yeah, I know. I’m sad my parents are gone. I miss them. Even my mom, and I know I’m not supposed to miss her because everyone says she was rotten to me.”
“Oh, I think you’re always allowed to miss your mother, even if she wasn’t the greatest.”
Valina shrugged. “I guess.” She paused before continuing. “Some kids like watching tv. I like watching what happens to my body when I do things to it. My dad understood. He didn’t like it, because he said it was a dangerous hobby, but he said I had a healthy curiosity. He’s the only one who didn’t make me feel like I was always sick.”
Mrs. Cobal reached over then and hugged Valina around her shoulders, the photograph still in her hand. “I’m sorry your parents are gone. I’m sorry everyone makes you feel sick. I’ll try my best not to.”
“It’s okay, I’m used to it. People are concerned. I’m different, so why should I be treated like I’m not?”
“Because your dad was right. You do have a healthy curiosity. That’s not so different from other people. I’m a lawyer now because I was curious why the law was set up the way it is in the first place. Millions of people become scientists because they want to know how things work. I think it’s very natural.”
Valina smiled. “My dad used to say I’d make an excellent doctor.”
“You could be. But only if you survive long enough to make it there.”
Valina bent over and fished in her sock. She retrieved her found tooth and held it up to Mrs. Cobal. Puzzled, she held her palm open as Valina offered the tooth to her. Valina placed the tooth into Mrs. Cobal’s palm and closed her foster mother’s fingers around it.
Valina woke the next morning, flashes of her dreams invading her mind. She had used a knife to cut into her arm until she reached the bone, and had used a nail gun to staple her clothes to herself. She checked her body to make sure they had only been dreams, and sighed when she found no lacerations. Her father once told her that in dreams, no one felt pain. She liked that.
She sat up on the edge of her bed to find Kevin standing at the dresser, examining something. Valina joined him and watched as he rotated her tooth between his fingers. He said, “We were looking for this. Did you have it the whole time?”
Valina shook her head. “I gave it to Mrs. Cobal. I guess she gave it back.” She took the tooth from him and pressed the root into the underside of her arm. She resisted the urge to push it harder. She rolled the tooth to her hand, cupped it, and looked at her brother.
“Help me find some string,” she said, “so I can make it into a necklace.”