Once a year, at eight in the morning, on the Saturday after Memorial Day, Wilson Elementary became a charity clinic, offering free dental work to the first seven hundred visitors. This year, Lisa Sand arrived at five to make sure she was one of them.
The day hadn’t broken, but there was already a line of people. It started at the double oak doors and stretched to the parking lot: a gray rope of many knots. Loosening her ponytail from the collar of her coat, Lisa took her place at the end. She touched her throbbing tooth with her tongue and raised a wince to the sweet air. Trees flanked the old brick building. They formed tall silhouettes, trimmed in a lace of black leaves. The foliage was alive with wind and birds. Calls, peeps, chirps, squawks: a joyful racket.
The people in line stood still and silent. Across the street stretched a plowed field; above the field, a sky the color of worn denim.
Cars trickled in. The line lengthened, and the last star faded. Somewhere ahead of Lisa, a child cried…cried, quieted, whined, cried. A woman shushed and soothed in murmurs.
Who needed the dental work: mother or daughter? If it was the mom, what was her girl supposed to do? Wait and watch? Would the clinic permit that? Lisa wondered if she should offer to help, mind the child while the mother saw the dentist. But she doubted either would feel comfortable with that.
Lisa cupped her cheek, pressed where her molar hurt. Yesterday, Terry, who worked with her at the shred center, had heaved a box onto a stack and joked, “Every time I see you, you’re holding your face that way. You always look worried.”
Mortgage plus electric plus water plus credit card plus propane plus groceries plus gas plus…nothing. Nothing else was allowed. Nothing could break or wear out or go wrong.
Constant worry. That sounded about right. She’d gazed at Terry and said, “I am.”
The front doors parted. A woman wearing a pink lab coat and a net over her hair appeared. She eyed the people waiting, perhaps roughly estimating their number, and then greeted the first in line.
Everyone shuffled forward. One by one, they’d be directed to the cafeteria. Lisa knew where that cavernous room was located. She’d attended Wilson Elementary twenty years ago. She could picture the tiled foyer, the medals and photographs in the glass cases along the wall, and the door to the right that opened into the main office. She could even recollect the school’s smell: old wood, old lunches, old sweat.
“A hard worker.” That’s what the teachers had said about her. It was what she’d believed—what she still believed—about herself. Not smart, not talented. Diligent.
But what had effort gotten her? Ten months of nursing a toothache. A place in a line, among the first seven hundred. Eventually, hopefully, a bit of freedom. Oh, to be free of this cracked molar. She needed it gone.
She took another step toward the door and cringed when the child ahead of her cut into the birdsong with a keening wail.
To not hurt. It didn’t seem like a lot to ask for. Was it? She rubbed her cheek.
Maybe the smart and talented had the answers. Maybe they could explain why the not-hurting had to cost so fucking much.
Melissa Ostrom teaches English at Genesee Community College in Batavia, New York, and is the author of the YA historical novel The Beloved Wild (Feiwel & Friends, March 2018). Her short fiction has appeared in The Florida Review, Monkeybicycle, The Baltimore Review, and Fourteen Hills, among other journals, and her second novel, Unleaving, is forthcoming from Macmillan in March of 2019.