The parents paid my brother a visit and I went afterwards to see what was left of him. He answered the door in a black robe that might have fit his frame just days before, but now that the parents had come to collect, it swallowed everything but his bare, pillaged head. Sunglasses formed a plank boarding over the broken window of his face. It chilled me to guess what lay behind the lenses. As if to confirm the worst, he grinned, showing a row of red sockets in his gums. I stammered that they’d been generous, leaving him his molars, which everyone had always agreed were the best in the family. Not to praise my own cunning, but I’d let my teeth rot over the years, each cavity and stain a ward against the day my parents’ cold fingers might come prying.
Not to praise my own cunning, but I’d let my teeth rot over the years.
I brewed and served us tea, an excuse to hear of the horrors of their visit and gather how soon they might come for me next. The side of my brother’s jaw that still had its bone gummed slowly, totally robbed of urgency, as he licked raisins off his palm. Toast was too tough for him, and that seemed to cause him more distress than the thought of what might happen to me.
How did they come into the house?
And you let them in?
They’re our parents.
You know our parents are dead.
Well, I couldn’t leave them outside like that. I threw up my hands.
When I asked what they looked like these days, my brother sighed and dabbed behind his sunglasses with a napkin. The corner of the linen turned pink, then scarlet. You’ll know them by the hospital gowns, he said.
I felt ill, so I stopped at a park on the way home. Children clapped and chanted old, threatening songs on the playground. They were taking off each other’s noses and swapping them, laughing at their new faces. I couldn’t remember ever enjoying myself that way, not even with my brother. On the bench next to mine, a woman nursed her baby. In the center of her chest was an empty hole about the shape of a fist. The baby had a matching hole, but in it floated a tiny pumping heart. While the baby nursed, the heart drifted back and forth between the mother and child through the two holes like a goldfish. I wanted to scream at her, at the children playing, at her dumb baby.
They all acted as if it were perfectly normal and pleasant to give away the most precious parts of themselves.
Finally, I snapped at the mother, Do you have to do that here?
As the woman swerved to rail at me, I spotted them. There they were, visible through the hole in her chest: the parents, taut and gray, coming hand in hand down the path from the parking lot dressed in the same mint green hospital gowns they’d been wearing at the end. My mother raised a pale hand and waved. They each had on half a crown of black hair, freshly plucked, and one of my brother’s pale blue eyes. When they stood side by side, his warm gaze greeted me. Maybe that's what gave me the calm to turn and flee.
I couldn’t go home, so I hid under a bridge at sundown with a camp of runaways—some like me and others so long gone, they’d forgotten themselves. I kept waking in the night, sure my parents would be standing over me, but it was just an old drifter whispering Brother. He offered a biscuit. Pointed to his soft, blackened teeth. I understood. I reached inside my mouth and pulled out three stained molars for him to borrow. Gingerly, he socketed them. The bread rotated. The moon glowed at us, selfless and bright as my brother’s bald head. I didn’t take my eyes off my teeth for a second.
A native of Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, Michael Alessi received his MFA from Old Dominion University. His work has recently appeared in Mid-American Review, Passages North, The Cincinnati Review, and other journals. He is the author of The Horribles (Greying Ghost Press, 2019).