The child appeared quite normal when Matthew first saw her. It was only a momentary glimpse as he passed the open door to the waiting room, where she sat on a chair, turning the pages of a book. Matthew guessed the prim woman sitting with her was the mother.
“Your first patient is Veronica Marsden,” the nurse read from a single sheet of paper clipped to a pad. “Six years of age, and recently moved into the area, this is her first visit to the practice.” She pushed a pair of gold framed glasses more severely on her hose with her middle finger. “Her mother says she was unable to feed the child last night due to chronic tooth ache.”
The dental surgeon washed his hands and slid them into a pair of disposable gloves. “Ask her to come in will you, Liz?”
While waiting for the patient to arrive, Matthew arranged his instruments on the tray attached to the chair. Humming a nameless tune, he fitted the obligatory mask over his nose and mouth.
Mrs. Marsden ushered the small girl into the surgery followed by the nurse who closed the door. “Hello Veronica.” Matthew tried to keep his voice jovial. “If you jump up into the big chair, we’ll have a look at that nasty little tooth, shall we?”
He thought she seemed a little small and thin for her age. Undernourished. She wore a red coat, a red, woollen hat pulled down below her ears and covering her hair, and a red, knitted muffler. The skin of her face was pallid, anaemic looking, and pinched around protruding cheek bones. The most unusual thing about her was the eyes. Larger than any he had seen on a child, they seemed too big for her face. An amber pupil filled the wide, staring eye socket like a coloured marble. Apart from the extreme corners of the eyes, the whites were invisible. The black iris, more than two thirds the size of the pupil was not circular, the vertical dimension being significantly greater. The girl’s unblinking, cat-like stare made Matthew feel uneasy.
“No good talking to her. She can’t hear you.” The mother’s voice twanged with an accent Matthew was unable to recognise. “She’s been deaf and dumb since birth.” The woman grasped the child about the waist, and none too gently, plumped her into the leather recliner.
“I’m sorry to hear that. What a shame for the poor child.” Matthew felt even more saddened by the woman’s apparent lack of affection. “Can you take her hat, scarf and coat off so I can fasten the bib?”
“She won’t let me take the hat. She’s grown very attached to wearing a hat. Probably because the older kids make fun of her ears.”
“That’s not very nice. Children can be so cruel sometimes. I’m sure, in a few years, those ears will look quite normal.” Matthew added the last comment in consolation for the girl before he remembered her deafness.”
“Not very likely.” There was a hint of sarcasm in the woman’s voice. “She has none.”
“Born with no ears? How awful.” This explained why she was deaf. “The poor little girl. That is so sad.”
Matthew sat in the swivel chair attached to the patient’s recliner and reached to adjust the bright lamp. “Could I get you to open her mouth, wide, Mrs. Marsden?”
“Of course doctor.” The woman jabbed her thumb and fingers into each side of Veronica’s cheeks forcing the jaws apart, while at the same time, opening her own mouth wide for demonstration.
Matthew guessed Veronica knew what was required by the ease in which she complied. “Do you know which side of her mouth is causing the problem?”
“The right, I think.”
With his free hand, Matthew adjusted the light to get a better view. The brightness of the beam, he noticed, had caused the iris aperture in her eyes to narrow into slits. How strange he thought. Unable to suppress a shudder at the intensity of Veronica’s stare, he leaned forward to examine the inside of her mouth.
The hiss of inhaled breath through his teeth was audible across the room. “What the…?”
Eyes bulging wide in amazement, he sat back in the chair aghast, staring. “I’ve never seen anything so bizarre in a patient, particularly not a child. Mrs. Marsden, is this some sort of sick joke?”
“What do you mean doctor?”
He could sense the false innocence in her voice. “I mean the weird surgery that’s been inflicted on her mouth. You can’t tell me this is natural.”
“I assure you it is. That’s exactly how her teeth grew.”
Matthew leaned forward again, as if to confirm his initial reaction was not due to hallucination. The upper and lower incisors appeared to have been ground into needle sharp points. Her lower canines, twice the length of the incisors were similarly modified, while the upper canines, even longer, and wickedly curved, looked similar to stilettos embedded in the gums. They reminded Matthew of the venomous fangs in the mouth of rattlesnake.
Even through his mask, her breath stank of decomposing flesh. A reddish tinge, like rust, was visible in the gaps between her teeth, as if her gums had recently bled.
“Does she regularly clean her teeth?”
“We’ve not been able to for a day or so because of the pain.”
Matthew would have believed her if she admitted to months rather than days. Taking a mirror and periodontal probe, he held his breath while prodding the tip tentatively against the inside of each molar. “Ah! This looks like the cause of the problem.” He looked up at the nurse standing behind the patient. “I think we can fix this with a composite resin filling if you could mix one for me.” Turning back to the reclining patient, and without thinking, he asked. “Does this hurt?”
The gargled, choking shriek of agony, and the speed at which her mouth snapped shut, startled Matthew. For several long moments, he felt nothing. Mesmerised, he watched the trickle of blood oozing from the corner of her mouth. His blood! A numbing ache edged into the palm of his hand before chaos erupted in the room.
The girl’s mother screamed. From the sound of the slap, she must have hit the girl, and then Matthew was aware of the jaws being forced apart. His hand came free, and he felt a burning sensation, as if he was holding it in a flame. He staggered to his feet sending the tray of dental instruments clattering across the floor.
“I’m sorry doctor! I’m so sorry…”
Mathew hardly heard the words. He clutched his lacerated palm in attempt to quell the flow of blood. Liz was at his side with napkins trying to assist. Neither of them saw Mrs. Marsden bundling Veronica into the red coat, then, clasping the girl against her chest, run from the room.
“I’ll be alright, Liz. Could you get me a cup of tea?”
Liz disappeared through a door into the adjoining room. Matthew felt sick. He could feel the room spinning. The pain, like molten steel, engulfed his whole arm and shoulder. He leaned back against the wall. His knees gave way and he slid into a sitting position on the floor.
Liz returned with the tea, pushing the door open. For a moment, she stood gawping at him. “Oh, Mr. Roberts, are you alright? You’ve gone a funny colour.”
He could feel perspiration running from his forehead and around his neck. The last words he was able to utter were, “Not feeling so good. You’d better phone for an ambulance…”
© 2012. Robert A Read.