Weekend mornings were a joyous time around the Spencer household. There was always time for 6-year-old Emma to crawl beneath the great green quilt on Mom and Dad’s bed and play hide-and-go-seek with the kitty. When her parents participated, it got pretty crowded under there, with newspapers, library books, and orange juice and coffee cups all under the place.
School days were a bit hectic, however, and time was precious. Bob Spencer usually left for the office about the about the same Emma was getting up, and always had a coffee-scented kiss for their daughter before rushing out the door. “Yuck,” she giggled and squeezed him lovingly. He adored her, and the sweet essence of her messy hair accompanied him throughout the morning. Now awake, the wee one and her mother, Chet, had less than an hour to dress and eat. That didn’t allow much time to play with Davy, the three-colored kitten. They didn’t know until later that tri-colored cats are always female, and the name stuck.
Emma was a spirited child, with shiny auburn hair, clear blue eyes, and a friendly disposition. There was little that didn’t engage her; sometimes to the point of her being distracted. Some parents worry about inattentive children, but Emma’s folks had yet to receive a note from her no-nonsense first grade teacher, and joked between themselves that she’d manage just fine. Like responsible parents, they’d even begun saving for her college years.
Her room, however, was another matter. It was as if items had been shot from a cannon. “Lego” pieces lay strewn about, and then abandoned when a playmate suggested playing “Barbie.” There the pieces lay—some had been there a week—partially hidden by numerous cast-off dress-up clothes, a few of which were finalists in the what-to-wear for Halloween dilemma.
“I can’t move them,” she’d explain. “Davy sleeps there.” Emma was comfortable in the bedlam that decorated her room. That part of the house was her responsibility but Chet and Bob drew the line when it came to trashing anywhere else.
“She’s going to have to address that mess soon,” Chet thought, her name an abbreviation of Chetingham, her mother’s maiden name and the only family heirloom she owned. “Nobody can live in such chaos, particularly with the rest of the house more or less tidy,” she reasoned, hoping for some miraculous intervention. Emma, meanwhile, was busy flitting about the morning hours while her harried mother prepared a healthy breakfast, made two lunches, and prepared the first grader for school.
“Did you use the toilet?” a recurring line from the leaving-for-school routine. Yup. “How about your teeth? Did you remember to use that flossing thingee Dr. Mike gave you?” Yup. Once Emma sat belted in the back seat, her mom couldn’t detect last night’s pot roast or the morning’s bacon curing between her tiny teeth. Anyway, those aromas wouldn’t mature until later in the day. A blended bouquet of Colgate and the soapy scrubbing Chet administered after hastily braiding her hair had long replaced the new-car smell of their late-model station wagon.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t unnoticed by her classmates, and nicknames like “Emma bad breath” were cruelly tossed about. Brushing after meals helped, but forgetting to floss at the gum level allowed tiny bits of food to decay, but Emma didn’t quite understand all that.
Outside, the leaves were rapidly tiring of summer and preparing for their final stand against an onslaught of cold weather. Traces of red were appearing here and there, and it wouldn’t be long before entire patches would take on the bronze, vermilion, and burgundy hues of autumn. With fall comes Halloween, Emma’s favorite holiday next to Christmas and birthdays. Of the three, however, the Wizard’s Festival was capturing all her attention since it was just around the corner. She had painstakingly considered all the costume possibilities and had narrowed it down to an old lady and a clown.
Adding to the excitement, Emma was soon to lose her first tooth. It was one of the lower ones in front, and she was thrilled about this new adventure and looked forward to contributing to the Tooth Fairy’s collection. Classroom lore had long-prepared Emma for the Tooth Fairy, the tiny elfish sprite that’s as international as Santa Claus. In an effort to speed up its arrival, she considered tying her tooth with string to the hallway doorknob. Chet supported the idea, reflecting on her youth when, she claimed, she had done the same. Bob grunted and continued reading the sports page.
She lost her tooth at school while eating a carrot. “Hey, my carrot’s bleeding,” Emma announced, looking frightened. The lunchroom attendant, after a quick peek and now the center of attention for a dozen curious children, had Emma press a tissue into the space that was once her tooth and plucked the tiny object from the top of Emma’s pizza. During show and tell, the bagged tooth was passed from child to child while the venerable pedagogue graphically pointed out the decayed areas and the necessity for proper hygiene. This completely unnerved Emma, and she played it down by explaining this was merely a baby tooth that would, of course, be replaced with a new one. In the future, she thought, maybe the “string and door” method was the way to go—and certainly not at school.
Once home, the classroom experience was soon forgotten. Emma prepared for the arrival of the tooth fairy and its secret visit into bedrooms to exchange gifts for the no-longer useful teeth. Common lore has it that the Tooth Fairy magically restores these cast-offs and makes pearl necklaces out of them. Emma, a firm believer, complied with every step of the ritual. To compensate for the tooth’s far-from-cosmetic appearance, she spent the better part of an hour brushing, and then scrubbing it with steel wool. She finally succeeded and proudly presented it to her parents for their approval and advice. Surprised by her tenacity, they advised her to wrap it in a clean tissue, and she positioned the packet beneath her pillow in preparation for its voyage into fairyland. To document the arrival of the magical visitor, Emma carefully sprinkled a thin layer of flour on her headboard that would document the footprints of the tiny critter and allow her the excitement of reliving the event the following morning.
“Clever,” thought Bob, nodding silent approval to Chet who masterminded the scheme. Within 15 minutes of the bedtime story’s conclusion, Emma was faintly breathing in peaceful repose, her head securely protecting the treasure beneath her ear.
Brisk, fresh air greeted Bob Spencer as he automatically awakened at the usual hour. The light of a glorious morning and a quick glance at the alarm clock assured him there was time to lounge in the warm depths of the bed. Davy joined him without any reaction from the mound beside him, his wife still deep in subliminal bliss.
Emma’s presence in the doorway was announced by an almost imperceptible displacement of air. Instinctively, Chet stirred and peeked from beneath the quilt. Emma slid into the cave between her parents, and wordlessly snuggled into the inviting arms of her mother and the warmth of Davy.
“She didn’t come,” Emma finally announced, tears building in the corners of her eyes.
“Who didn’t?” Bob queried, mildly distressed by this unusual display. “What are you talking about?”
“The Tooth Fairy!” she snapped, draining both parents of any remaining sleep. “The tooth is gone and she didn’t leave anything,” she sobbed.
Chet quickly replayed the previous evening. Spencer had typically read his page or two before dozing off, the book tent-like upon his bare chest, closed eyes oblivious to the reading lamp only inches from his head. She nearly forgot to leave the telltale footprints in the flour. No, everything had been carried out, and Chet speculated that Emma had inadvertently swept the packet from under her pillow. It could be anywhere in that mess of a room by now. After visiting the bank earlier that week, Chet had been given a couple uncirculated half-dollars, shining mint-like among the crumpled bills offered in exchange for the twenty. Chet wrapped the coin just as Emma had trussed up the tooth, and the exchange was made. The tooth now lay in the secret compartment of her jewelry box, of that she was confident.
“The tooth fairy came, Honey. Did you see any footprints in the cornstarch?” Bob asked, stroking the weeping child’s tangled hair.
“It was flour, Dad, and all she did was take the tooth. It’s not fair that she didn’t leave anything in return. I looked all around, and there’s nothing there. For reals!”
Chet sent a non-verbal command to her husband who mumbled something about a shave and, donning a worn terrycloth robe, he slippered down to Emma’s room. After a quick search among rumpled covers, his slipper’s flap, flap, flap followed him down the hardwood hall to the bathroom. He paused momentarily in their bedroom doorway to send Chet a Beats Me message. She drew the disappointed child even closer and tried to dismiss what she felt would surely resolve itself after a thorough search. She also made a mental note to revisit her jewelry box.
After the to-school-to-market-to-the-gym-back home routine, Chet hurried to her closet, opened the secret compartment of her jewelry box, and retrieved the tissue-wrapped item. She was amazed to find both shiny half-dollars, not the tooth. Am I loosing my mind? she asked the stillness of the room.
Later that night an incurably optimistic Bob assured Chet that “It’ll all work out,” and they focused their attention on Halloween. Chet played down the fairy’s nonappearance and their community’s festivities encouraged Emma to move on. That week’s art project was a repurposed shopping bag, cleverly transformed into a cat. Designed for trick-or-treating, the bag’s upper edge was reinforced with duct tape handles, transforming the original handles into tiny kitty’s ears. Chet considered shortening the bag, fearing that Emma wouldn’t want to return home until it was completely filled with treats. Bob assured her that they would return promptly at eight, hardly enough time to fill even a fraction of the bag’s volume.
When the evening darkened, several neighborhood parents joined forces and accompanied a squealing assortment of goblins, ghouls, and at least two clowns from door to door. At familiar homes, several octaves deeper than the playful “trick-or-treat” could be heard one of the father’s “trick-or-beer,” accompanied by cackles that added to the party atmosphere. As promised, Bob corralled the neighborhood group back home for the promised cocoa, hot buttered rums, and a spooky video of The Boy Who Learned how to Shiver. The plan was to culminate an evening of intrigue with a scary finale.
With several other children close behind, Emma rushed into the house and nearly tripped over the broom that Chet, a hastily costumed witch, had dropped after the last batch of trick-or-treaters leapt from their front porch into the darkness. The clown recovered herself and, embracing her “cat” bag as one would an old friend, related the evening’s adventures. Emma then dove into the bag for a double handful of assorted goodies that, she solemnly announced, would be shared with her parents.
As she made contact with the bag’s contents, however, an expression of curiosity replaced the clown’s gaiety. She tentatively glanced at her mom, then her dad, and then back to Chet.
Carefully, so as not to allow a single object to fall from her claw-like grip, she withdrew her tightly clenched fists, holding them for a dramatic moment above the table as if making an offering. The drama of Emma’s behavior captured the attention of everyone in the room; parents and children alike silently stared at the little clown. The tension was broken when some inner pressure, stronger than her tiny fingers could restrain, forced her to slowly release her grasp and, like a hail storm gone astray, a steady flow of small, pebble-sized objects cascaded onto the table, nosily bouncing off glasses and tea cups in their journey to the hardwood floor. The dozen or so neighborhood children responded instinctively, competing with Davy by pouncing here and there and hoping to add to their evening’s booty.
But treats they weren’t. What now covered the table and the floor, with a considerable quantity remaining in the bag, was an odd assortment of teeth—baby teeth, big teeth, hundreds of them, thousands of them, all uniformly cracked, decayed and stained. Emma absorbed the situation and suddenly saw the connection. She found her mother in the crowd and silently mouthed, “She came.” Chet smiled cautiously and nodded in recognition.
Her dad, unnerved by the spectacle, embarrassed in front of his friends and neighbors, and searching for a plausible explanation, blurted out, “What in the world….”
Emma, however, ignored him and the excited chatter of their guests. Composed beyond her years, she locked eyes with her mother and returned a toothless grin.