The grass here is imperfect; nothing like the carefully manicured, suburban lawns of Chloe’s own neighborhood. Some blades are long and dark while others are short, scraggly, and dead, pale brown and nearly invisible against the dusty dirt. Only faintly-cast shadows betray the deceased.
The tree is imperfect as well: old, gnarled, twisted, dripping with moss and lichens, its branches stretch towards the pale pink sky with shaky strength.
When the wind blows, the whole tree slowly moves, making a sound like a groan and a violin and an old rusty hinge.
“That’s the creaky teeth,” her cousin, Basil, says, his voice a low, hushed sound.
Basil frightens Chloe, just a little bit. He has bright, bright eyes against pale skin and pale hair; there’s a gap in his teeth, and spider webs of veins splay across his hands and wrists, dully blue beneath his skin. He says things that Chloe never quite knows how to reply to: she usually ends up just saying,
“The creaky teeth,” Basil repeats. He’s seated on the ground, Chloe across from him.
Lily is in the tire swing; her left foot is her only source of movement, as she slowly pushes against the ground with it. Back and forth, slowly and methodically. Part of Chloe wants to ask for a turn in the swing, but in a way, Lily scares her more than Basil.
Basil may be strange, but at least he speaks.
Chloe doesn’t ask for the swing.
“They live in the tree,” Basil continues, and now Lily moves, slipping off of the tire. Her hair is a long, dark curtain, and it ripples oddly at the sudden motion. “They cause the wind and the noise…they’re from the rot inside.”
“The rot inside?” Chloe echoes. Repetition is her second-most often used fallback when speaking with Basil.
Lily stands on her toes, one arm angled up and around a crook in the tree. Dried flecks of moss crumble where she brushes against them; they cascade to her shoulders and the tips of her hair.
“The rot inside your heart,” Basil nods. “Haven’t you heard of tooth-rot?”
“I thought that happens when you eat too much sugar,” Chloe says cautiously. “I’ve never heard of heart-tooth-rot.”
Lily’s found what she’s looking for. She slips back into the dark O of the tire swing and extends one hand towards Chloe, fingers curled over her palm.
Chloe slowly stands, stepping towards the other girl. Lily opens her hand as Chloe approaches, revealing a handful of tiny, cream-colored--
“When you’re sad,” Basil says, “you can put all your heartbreak into your tooth. Then pull it out and leave it here.”
“But they cry,” Lily murmurs. Chloe jumps, startled by the break of Lily’s silence. “The teeth cry.”
“They make the tree creak and groan, and the wind sings lullabies to make it feel better.” Basil smiles suddenly. “If you’re sad, Chloe, you could do it too.”
Chloe glances at Lily, but the dark-haired child has returned to her mute, slow back-and-forth motion on the tire swing.
She wonders if Basil’s lost tooth – she’d assumed it was just one of his last baby teeth, finally fallen out – is actually in Lily’s palm or the tree’s crook.
She wonders what pain would be bad enough to pull your own teeth out for.
The rope of the swing begins to creak softly, and the breeze stirs the branches above; lullabies to the creaky teeth.