Different towns. Different malls. Different cars. Daddy smiles at Ruth in the passenger seat. “They can cast tire treads, you know.” He winks, slow. Ruth’s too little to understand, too excited to care. They’re off to find a new sister.
The girls always cry. Ruth lets them hold her rag doll, use the one china cup during tea party. But they still want to leave. Daddy says they have to pay the Tooth King first. He’s more powerful than any fairy; he can take them home. They shove the bloody tokens beneath the pillows.
Ruth dreams the girls tell their mommies how much fun they had with Ruth. In the morning, the teeth and the girls are gone.
Ruth drives. Daddy–older, shriveled with sickness–says his usual line about the tire treads. She nods, understands.
The new girl weeps. Ruth reads her an old book of fairy tales, gives her chocolate for dinner. But the girl wants to go home. Relieved, she slides her loose tooth under the pillow.
Daddy smiles, says Ruth must finish what the Tooth King started. He winks, slow.
She always let herself suspect; she never let herself know.
Ruth digs at their land’s edge, uncovers the moss-covered jar of tiny teeth. Sick with shame, she spills the teeth into her palm. Tokens paid for a freedom never received. She scatters them onto the ground, plants seeds of bone.
She drops Daddy’s teeth into the jar, buries it deep.