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Excerpt

With Teeth

Kristen Arnett

June 10, 2021 
The following is excerpted from Kristen Arnett's latest novel, With Teeth, a portrait of the delicate fabric of family—and the many ways it can be torn apart. Arnett is the author of Mostly Dead Things, a New York Times-bestselling novel. A queer writer based in Florida, she has written for The New York Times, Guernica, McSweeney's, The Guardian, and elsewhere. She has been a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and a winner of the Ninth Letter Literary Award in Fiction and the Coil Book Award.

The man took her son’s hand and walked casually toward the playground exit.

Sammie had left him on the swing set. He’d just learned to work the swing himself without her pushing, which was a relief, so she let him stay on for a few more minutes while she cleaned up and gathered their things. She’d said,

I’ll be right back

and

Keep pumping your legs, you’re doing great, 

and then she’d walked down to the gate that led to the main exit, passing a woman with a double stroller bogged down in diaper bags and a kid so big that their legs hung down either side. It was stiflingly hot outside, even though it was already December, and the woman was huffing and puffing her way through the silty dirt with all that weight. She had on a pink visor with a palm tree and the word Orlando embroidered in cursive script. She was muttering something Sammie couldn’t make out—“Many, many,” it sounded like, or maybe “Money, money.” It sounded like crazy-person gibberish. Sammie hurried past so she wouldn’t end up getting involved.

There was a garbage can near her car, but it was rancid and overflowing already, so she wadded her son’s half-eaten lunch up tight in its paper bag and dropped it onto the front seat. It was so scorching inside the car that she opened all the doors and stood outside for a minute to let the heat roil out, because Samson would start crying if he felt “sticky,” and she was too tired to deal with it. A cloud of gnats circled her head, thirsty for the sweat beading on her neck, and she swatted at them absentmindedly. She picked up her son’s bottle of overheated lemonade from the floor, grimacing at the chunks of backwash before dumping it out on the sun-soft asphalt and tossing onto the seat. But it bounced and rolled off onto the floor, her back hurt too much to pick it up, so she didn’t. Her back because she’d spent the last three months picking up Samson and him to the bathroom every night after he wet himself. Four old and still wetting the bed—but then every child was different, that’s what the doctor said. Sammie wasn’t sure she believed it.

So she left the bottle there and turned back around.

There was the man, walking away with her son.

“Hey,” she said, because no other words would come. “Hey!”

The man and Samson didn’t stop. They didn’t walk any faster, either. Just kept strolling toward the exit on the far side of the playground. Her son was holding the man’s hand as if he’d known him his whole life. The guy was medium height, in his forties maybe, with thinning dark blond hair and a scruff of beard, wearing a gray polo tucked into dark blue jeans. White sneakers. Her son had on khaki shorts and his yellow T-shirt with Ruff and Tumble, the cartoon dalmatians, on the front. His hair was a real cloud of curls from the humidity; it was well past time for a haircut, but Samson had thrown a fit when she tried to take him.

The man took her son’s hand and walked casually toward the playground exit.

Sammie jumped the fence. She didn’t know she was going to until she did—didn’t even know she even could, really; she wasn’t particularly athletic, and her body was small—but she vaulted it and landed directly on the other side. And then she ran. She kicked up a storm of mulch, and one of her sandals fell off, but she kept going.

“Hey!” she kept yelling, louder and louder, but neither the man nor her son looked back. Her son never listened when she called him, never responded to his name or to her commands. The man had led her son through the gate, and now they were walking through the parking lot, headed toward a big red truck.

She stopped yelling and ran faster.

He opened the passenger door. Samson just stood there beside him. She could see the man’s lips moving, but she couldn’t make out any of the words. Her son, quiet all day every day, looked up at the man and smiled. Actually smiled. Full-on toothy grin.

Sammie started screaming. Not just a scream—a prolonged siren shriek, rising at the end like the wail of an ambulance. Still nothing from the man. Nothing from her son. Could anyone hear her?

When she finally reached them, the man was buckling Samson into the front seat.

She pushed past him and yanked her son out. Then her back, already strained from running, seized up altogether. She crumpled and almost dropped him onto the asphalt, catching him by the arm just in time. She was wheezing. Out of breath. Her foot was bleeding, she saw now, and so was her left thigh from when she’d scratched it hurtling the chain-link.

“You!” she said. Took a breath. Took another breath. “You. My son. You.”

The man put up his hands, as if to ward her off. Ward her off! Unreal. He was about to abscond with her kid in the middle of the afternoon and he was acting like she was the crazy one.

Then again, she probably looked crazy. She felt crazy. He didn’t look scared at all; in fact, he looked concerned. She studied his face, tanned and wrinkled around his deep-set eyes. He looked like the kind of guy who smiled a lot. He looked like someone’s nice neighbor.

“I was just showing him my truck,” he said. “Kid said he liked trucks.”

Samson was yanking at her hand to get away, and she gripped harder.

“Your truck. Your truck?”

“I swear.” The man smiled at her, revealing a line of very large bright teeth. Super white teeth, all even. Maybe not even real teeth. Too perfect for that face, with its crooked nose and scratchy beard and smile wrinkles.

Her son, quiet all day every day, looked up at the man and smiled. Actually smiled. Full-on toothy grin.

“I am calling the police,” Sammie said. But where was her phone? Back in her car, along with her keys, along with all her stuff. Where was her other shoe? Halfway across the playground.

“Mom.” Samson tugged her hand again, sweaty fingers wriggling. “It’s got a CB radio.”

She looked down at her kid, and he looked back at her with that same indifferent look he always had. No grin for Mom, even though she’d saved him from imminent danger. No thought at all to how her heart was hammering inside her chest. She could have a heart attack right there in the parking lot, and he’d just climb up into the truck over her downed corpse.

She looked down again at her bleeding foot. One of her toenails had ripped half off, the littlest one on her right foot, and she was standing in a small puddle of her own blood.

“I am calling the cops,” she repeated. “I am calling them right now.”

The man closed the passenger door. Then he skirted around the front of the truck and opened the driver’s side door.

“Don’t you get in that truck!” Sammie yelled.

Samson was squirming, and she could barely keep a grip on him. She stepped back, dragging her son out of the truck’s path.

“Don’t you dare get in that truck! I am calling the cops, and you are going to stay right here!”

The man didn’t listen, didn’t even look at her, just climbed in and started the engine. He was going to leave; he was going to drive away from this, and there was nothing she could do to stop him.

“Help!” she yelled.

Samson wriggled and nearly escaped, so she caught his T-shirt by the neck and gripped him there, too hard, she knew, because he made a squeak and then stopped moving.

“Someone help me! Child abduction!”

There wasn’t anybody else in the parking lot. She looked around frantically and saw that the woman who’d been pushing the stroller with the kid too big for it was setting out a picnic lunch. Only fifty feet away, maybe less, and still the woman didn’t acknowledge her screams for help.

She looked down at her kid, and he looked back at her with that same indifferent look he always had.

She pulled Samson a few feet farther back, worried the man might plow the truck straight into them. But he just eased the truck around Sammie and her son and pulled out of the lot.

It was a Dodge, a bright, glossy red Dodge. She strained to see the license plate and started repeating the numbers aloud: “GN5 8V6, GN5 8V6, GN5 8V6.”

Samson was on his feet but hanging limp, dragging like he weighed a thousand pounds, the way he always did when he was being forced to do something he didn’t want to do. She kept repeating the plate number as she struggled back to the playground, steering him in front of her with one hand clamped around his neck and a fistful of his T-shirt. There was something in the sole of her foot, glass, maybe, and her toe was throbbing, and her back hurt so bad she couldn’t breathe. It felt like the truck had run her over.

Throughout all this, the mother with the stroller had been sitting calmly nearby, at a picnic table under the park’s solitary oak tree. When they reached the fence, she called out to the woman to call 911. Then she sat down right where she stood and wept.

“Ants,” Samson said, rubbing at his neck. It had a wild red mark where Sammie had grabbed him, and his collar was all yanked out. His face was dirty. He could use a wet wipe.

The woman came over and handed her a cell phone. “I didn’t know what to tell them,” she whispered, as if the situation were some kind of embarrassing secret. Her own kid was still sitting in the stroller, Velcro shoes kicking so hard the bags on top nearly fell off.

Sammie wondered if the kid had some kind of problem that required them to be in a stroller well past the usual age.

But what did that matter? She needed to focus. Sammie took the phone and spat out the license plate number to the dispatcher before she forgot it. Then she backed up and tried to what had happened, calling it an “attempted abduction.” She described what the man looked like, what he’d been wearing. She told them about his too-perfect teeth. How his truck had a CB radio. She ran through everything she remembered, which wasn’t much. She could barely remember her own name. It had all happened so fast, sped by in a blur. Then, in a fit of embarrassment, she hung up—only to realize she hadn’t taken down any information. She didn’t know the dispatcher’s name; all she knew was that it was a woman. Or she thought it was a woman, anyway, with that high-pitched voice. And Sammie had hung up before giving them a number to contact her. How would they reach her? Was the callback number logged automatically? It was the stranger’s cell phone, not Sammie’s. Would she need to call back and start all over with someone new? Already the license plate number had flown from her brain.

Sammie wondered if the kid had some kind of problem that required them to be in a stroller well past the usual age.

She looked down at her son leaning against the fence.

“Ants,” he said again, and he kept saying it: “ants,” “ants,” “ants.”

And then she felt them crawling up her legs.

Sammie leaped to her feet and dusted them off, then moved the both of them around the corner to sit in a spot without any bugs. There were hundreds of dandelions peppering the grass, wild, fluffy things that stirred in the breeze, but her child picked up an abandoned straw from a fast-food cup and started playing with it. She was going into shock, she could feel it. Her entire body was shutting down. She knew she should call her wife, tell her what happened, but all she had was this borrowed phone, and she couldn’t remember the number.

Why don’t I know my wife’s phone number by heart? she wondered. What if there was an emergency?

Samson dug the straw into the ground and scooped some up, then blew into the other end. Dirt rained down onto Sammie’s head, sprinkled down her top. Then he did it again. Sammie just sat there, too exhausted to stop him. Finally, the other woman came over to get her phone. When she saw what Samson was doing, she took the straw away herself and tucked it in her pants pocket.

“Don’t put things from the ground in your mouth,” she said. “That’s not nice.”

As she walked away, Samson picked up a fistful of dirt. He held it over his mother’s head, slowly opened his fingers, and let the dirt land where it wanted.

__________________________________

Excerpted from With Teeth by Kristen Arnett, with permission of Riverhead, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Claimant.




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