Bristle

Their toothbrushes were fighting again.

They shifted positions in the four-toothbrush holder as Luka and Tom replaced them, and often Luka thought the toothbrushes were carrying on a relationship at least as complex as their own. Sometimes they angled toward each other, bristled faces meeting in a night-long kiss. Sometimes both brushes stared straight out like strangers on an elevator. Often their heads came together peacefully, sleeping content in each others’ company.

This morning, both brushes seemed miffed. They stood in the farthest slots, bristles outward. The bends in their handles were slumped shoulders, the thicker area around the bends crossed arms.

Tom would accuse her of anthropomorphizing. She’d shown him her series of black and white toothbrush portraits, and he was supportive; he always was. He complimented the composition and light, but she knew he didn’t see what she saw. One toothbrush seemed to roll its nonexistent eyes.

Luka flushed the toilet and splashed cold water onto her face. She plucked her green toothbrush from the holder and regarded it quizzically before applying toothpaste.

What did toothbrushes have to fight about, anyway? They had no use for money, no worry about rent or grocery bills. A toothbrush couldn’t fail, couldn’t be fired. Certainly, a toothbrush could never get pregnant.

Sheets rustled as Tom rolled in his sleep. Luka brushed her teeth, rinsed the brush, and dropped it as carelessly as she could into the holder. She didn’t look to see how it had landed.

With the vomit taste gone, she was free to slip back into bed, but the twisted mountain range of blankets hiding her lover made her uneasy. She could wake him, shake him from bed like an earthquake. He should get up anyway and go to work, bring home bacon and hopefully lots of it. She could make him breakfast like a peace offering. Or make herself a pot of coffee to sip all day long. Or not. Was coffee bad for the baby?

Luka stepped into slippers and pulled her bathrobe tight over her pajamas. The paper would have arrived, even if the sun hadn’t. There’d be classifieds; maybe she’d find a new job. Maybe she’d solve the crossword puzzle.

• • •

After Tom left for work, the day ticked by in increments that felt endless. Luka paced and puttered. She rooted through cupboards until she found some old black tea bags, nuked a mugful of water, and gulped it down even though it tasted like sticks. Then she went online and promptly learned that it was all caffeine, not just coffee, that fetuses disliked, and mentally flogged herself for the oversight.

She dusted off her old film camera and aimed it at everything in their little apartment. She thought about going to the park to shoot still-lifes of blackened snow and leafless trees. But she wasn’t sure the film in the camera was still good, and even if it was she couldn’t remember if it was black and white or color, and there wasn’t any more of it. She needed a digital camera. But with no job she couldn’t afford that. Never mind all the other things she couldn’t afford. Like college educations. Children were expensive.

And anyway, all these things would mean showering and getting dressed and maybe even taking the El somewhere, and that was much more than Luka could bear.

It was winter and Luka lived in a third-floor walkup; there wasn’t even grass for her to watch grow. Only one thing was growing in the apartment, and Luka didn’t know yet whether she should be interested in it. Tom didn’t seem interested; didn’t want to talk about it. In his mind there was no baby. It wasn’t real.

It was real to Luka, though.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say she could feel the fetus growing inside her — according to her research it was approximately 10mm long, far too small to feel — but her body felt different. Her mind traveled new circles. Luka wondered what the baby looked like right now (an alien), whether it was a boy or a girl, even (impossibly) what it was thinking.

The new thoughts clogged her mind; it was too much for one person to think. Without really meaning to, Luka found herself dialing Tom at work. It rang once before he picked up, his crisply professional tone startling Luka. “Thomas Clarke.”

“Hi, honey. How are you?”

There was a pause, in which Luka imagined Tom’s eyes rolling. “I’m fine, Luka. But I’m at work. What do you need?”

Luka didn’t know. “I just wanted to talk. About dinner.” She paced, making a lopsided figure eight from kitchen to dining/living room, through the tiny hall into the bedroom, back through the hallway into the bathroom and back out. Now she was in the kitchen, looking into a mostly empty refrigerator. “I was going to make a quiche, but we’re out of milk.” Luka tried to listen to Tom’s thoughts, since he wasn’t speaking. “And eggs.”

In the silence, she heard him think what is this really about?

“What do you say we go out for dinner? It’s been ages.”

Tom sighed. Luka could tell he was trying not to sigh, maybe for her, maybe for his coworkers. She’d never seen his office; didn’t know whether to imagine a big room full of people, a private office, or a gray plastic cubicle. Today she pictured a cubicle. “Do you think it’s wise to spend money like that when you’re out of work?”

Luka sighed too, wanting to scream. “Of course it isn’t,” she snapped. She wandered into the living room, pausing to wipe a thick layer of dust from photographs on the shelves. “I just thought it’d be nice. Besides, I won’t be drinking, so we’ll save money there.”

Tom’s silence was thick as dust. When he finally spoke, all he said was, “I have to get back to work.”

“Okay,” Luka said softly. “I’ll make dinner. But would you stop and get some milk and eggs? Oh, and cereal?” She headed toward the kitchen to take inventory.

“Luka, I’m at work,” said Tom, exasperation getting the better of him. “I’m busy. Why don’t you go to the store?”

Luka stopped in her tracks. “Sorry to interrupt your important day, Thomas Clarke.” She started pacing again, much faster, down the hallway to the bathroom.

“Luka, you’re overreacting. You’re going stir-crazy in that apartment. Do me a favor; get out of the house and get the groceries yourself. It’ll do you good.”

The friendly veneer over Tom’s words was wearing thin, his contempt for her peeking through. Luka laughed bitterly. “God, that’s patronizing. You know what’s best for me, don’t you, Tom? Or are you just practicing to be a distant and condescending fa—” Luka stopped once she realized he’d hung up.

Her fury was immediate. She hung up the phone, barely suppressing the urge to throw the handset against the bathroom wall. She started to scream, but choked it back into a strangled growling groan, something the neighbors wouldn’t hear. Luka needed to throw something. Her eyes searched the room, landed on the toothbrushes. Her green one had settled into a friendly position, facing Tom’s orange one with head outstretched. But Tom’s toothbrush faced away, arms folded.

She snatched the orange toothbrush from its home and threw it, hard, into the toilet.

It made a wonderful plunk as it splashed, and Luka felt instant relief. She walked back to the living room to restore the phone’s handset to its cradle. She hadn’t yet decided if she’d leave the toothbrush in the toilet for Tom to find — he’d have to go to the store then, wouldn’t he? — or, worse, if she’d rinse it off and put it back in the holder. She had hours to make up her mind.

• • •

The door burst open and Tom stumbled in. His hair was matted with something like mud, his face was smudged, and the thick glasses without which he could hardly get out of bed were missing entirely. He was wrapped from the shoulders down in a dingy blue blanket, which he clutched like a life preserver. When he splooshed his briefcase in the entryway, a trickle of dirty water seeped out. He looked like a swamp monster.

Luka was alphabetizing their books, but she stopped on the letter p when she saw what had become of Tom. “What happened …” The smell caught up with her — like a Porta-Potty at the end of a weeklong festival. “Stay right where you are,” she said, holding up a finger. She found a ratty towel and spread it on the floor in front of him.

In the bathroom Luka helped Tom strip off layer after layer of foul-smelling, water-logged clothing. “It was a sewer line,” he said. “It just burst, as I was leaving my building. Like a tidal wave.” He tested the shower water with his hand and stepped in.

Luka sat on the closed toilet lid, watching the pinkish outline of his body through their semi-opaque shower curtain. She hoped he couldn’t see her struggling not to laugh. “A tidal wave, huh?”

“Yeah. A tidal wave … of shit.”

The ensuing pause tested the limits of Luka’s stoicism, before Tom started his great bellowing laugh. Relieved, she joined in. “And your glasses?”

“Gone. We looked — I mean, other people, who could see, looked — but they were gone. A policeman drove me home.”

“So what you’re saying is, you didn’t get the milk and eggs?” Luka meant it as a joke, and in the seconds of silence that followed, she willed Tom to take it that way.

When he laughed again, again she was relieved. “Didn’t make it to the store.” He paused. “You?”

“Me either,” she said, apology in her voice. “Pizza?”

Luka heard Tom sigh under the pattering of water droplets. “Okay.”

Luka sat on the toilet listening to Tom shower. “Tom?”

“Yeah?”

“I’m sorry about earlier.”

After a pause, Tom said, “I am too.” He turned the water off, and the shower’s hiss dropped away so abruptly that everything else seemed loud — the last drops falling from the faucet, Tom’s careful steps as he turned around, especially his voice. “I’m trying to be understanding. You just lost your job …”

“But that’s not it.”

“And you’ve got all these new hormones racing through you. It would be enough to make anyone a little crazy.”

A wave of anger surged through Luka, but she swallowed it down.

Tom laughed. “Stupid sewer line. You know the worst part?” he asked, swiping the shower curtain to one side. Luka shook her head. “The taste. Man do I need to brush my teeth.”

Luka looked to the toothbrushes, both in their homes. Her stomach knotted. Now was not the time to come clean about his toothbrush’s toilet adventure. Maybe in ten years, if they were together then, she could tell him and they could tell their son or daughter — if they had a son or daughter — and it would be a silly, harmless story.

If there was a time like that, maybe everything would be okay. Luka didn’t know. All she knew was that tomorrow she’d get dressed and go to the store. And while she was there, she’d buy them both new toothbrushes.

• • •

Luka woke thinking about coincidences.

She’d thought it funny, yesterday, that the day she threw Tom’s toothbrush in the toilet was the day a sewer line exploded on him. But overnight her sleeping mind had taken the two events apart and re-arranged them, and when Luka woke, they no longer seemed like coincidence.

Luka left Tom sleeping soundly and crept out to the bathroom. What were the toothbrushes doing now? She turned on the light, half-expecting to see them scurry back into the holder like guilty children. But of course they didn’t. Tom’s faced straight ahead, at Luka. She felt unpleasantly like it was judging her.

She examined the toothbrush. It looked normal, but then Luka didn’t know what she expected to see. Her thoughts were crazy. But still. She’d thrown the toothbrush in the toilet, and across the city Tom had been thrown into a sort of toilet.

A test would be required.

Luka took the toothbrush in hand and — gently, lest she really hurt him — rapped its bristled head against the wall.

Tom’s moan startled Luka and she nearly dropped his toothbrush, fumbling and finally catching it before it hit the sink basin. The covers rustled and she heard him shambling toward the bathroom. She replaced his toothbrush as Tom peeked around the bathroom door. “Morning,” she said. “Need the bathroom?”

Tom nodded, eyes almost shut against the bathroom light. “Woke up with a headache just now.”

Luka gave him some aspirin, and Tom shuffled back to bed. Luka leaned into the counter for support. Wow, she thought. What have I got here?

• • •

In the top drawer of his bedstand, Tom kept a flashlight, a plastic pistol he swore would scare off burglars, three broken watches, and a few years of pocket detritus, including at least ten dollars in loose change. None of this was a surprise to Luka. In the bottom drawer, under his boxer shorts, hid a few issues of Playboy, the most weatherworn dating back to October 1992. She hadn’t known that, but chose to find it endearing.

Luka didn’t consider it snooping. She thought of it as due diligence — a term Tom would surely approve of — and wondered why she hadn’t done it earlier. Was it respect for his privacy, as she wanted to believe? Or had she simply been indifferent? Luka wondered if Tom had ever gone through her things. She’d bet he hadn’t and she felt a little offended by it.

Luka opened Tom’s middle drawer and a fuzzy face looked up at her with one plastic eye. She’d never seen the stuffed bear before, white fur stained an uneven gray, bearing scars from numerous surgeries. Clearly this was a childhood favorite, one even older than the Playboy. First Luka was charmed that he’d held onto such a precious artifact. Then she was hurt that he’d never shown her. Was he embarrassed by the old bear? She picked it up and leaned it against Tom’s lamp. The bear’s head flopped to the left and his one-eyed gaze seemed to say that he wasn’t the one Tom was ashamed of. She sat him face-down so he couldn’t judge her.

The space under the bear — most of the rest of the drawer — was filled with familiar objects. A bundle of letters, addressed in her sloping hand, and the little photo album she’d made him for their first anniversary. A stack of photos she’d taken, printed, labeled, and immediately thrown away, back when she was just out of art school.

Her idea had been to set up a tripod looking out her window — capturing the window itself, a tiny potted ivy plant, the top of a tree across the street, the sky — and take a picture at the same time every day for a year. Of course, it hadn’t worked. By the third week it was every other day at best, never at the same time of day; by the fifth she’d bumped the tripod hopelessly out of position, and shortly after that her roommate’s cat had knocked the ivy plant out the window to shatter in a burst of green leaves, clay, and peat moss on the sidewalk below. Luka smiled to see these refugee photos. She still liked the idea.

She shuffled the photos back into order and set them aside. Next, she pulled out a rubber-banded stack of business cards and flipped it over, her breath catching in surprise. Luka Layne Photography, the cards read, Weddings, Portraits, Fine Art. Luka had almost forgotten that brief, vain attempt at being her own boss. Just the thought made her dizzy, like she was flying too high. She had flown too high, too near the sun, and she remembered how she’d fallen, all the way down into that stupid job, and she was about to cry again, but the stack of business cards kept her from crashing. She’d thrown them away but Tom had kept them, secreted away in a drawer behind his raggedy old teddy bear.

“What’s wrong with me?” she asked, louder than she intended in the silent apartment. She thought of the years Tom had stood by her, how he’d loved her, how he loved her still. She thought how much she depended on him, how much she loved him — it surprised her a little, but she saw that it was true. She’d known and loved him for almost seven years, and she had almost thrown him away for someone who’d been with her, near as she could figure, for forty-nine days. Luka laughed at pure senselessness of it all.

Luka had no doubt who was more important to her. She knew then that she would gladly do whatever it took to keep Tom in her life. If it meant having an abortion, then so be it, and she would never look back in regret.

And then, in the very back of the drawer, she saw a four-color glossy brochure, folded up and jammed behind a bundle of letters. She pulled it out and unfolded it, seeing the familiar blue logo of Planned Parenthood and, in a bold sans-serif font, Abortion Services. There was writing in the margins, numbers and quick notes in Tom’s messy scrawl. He’d actually talked to someone about it.

Tears formed, and Luka felt her sinuses filling up. She went into the bathroom for some Kleenex. Hazarding a glance at the toothbrushes, she saw Tom’s orange one standing proudly in its slot. Next to it, her own green brush leaned toward it, its compact head resting on the other’s shoulder. “How can you trust him like that?” she asked. She separated the toothbrushes, standing hers up free of Tom’s.

“And you,” she said, pointing to Tom’s toothbrush. “Why don’t you want our baby?”

The toothbrush ignored her. It occurred to Luka that she was talking to an inanimate object. The realization made her laugh, but also cry even harder. “I can’t blame you, can I? You’re not Tom, even if you are connected to him. You’re like Tom, though. Neither of you will answer my questions.”

Luka picked the toothbrush out of the holder, keeping it upright in her fist like Fay Wray to her King Kong. She felt good holding it, like she had some measure of power over Tom. Unfortunately, it seemed the only way she could use her power was to punish him. If only there were a way to change his mind, make him want their baby as much as she did. What she needed to do was plant the idea of wanting a baby in the toothbrush’s mind.

Now there was a thought. Luka recognized it as a crazy thought, but that didn’t stop her. At worst, nothing would happen. At best, they’d be a family. She contemplated toothbrush voodoo until she formulated a plan.

Luka went to Tom’s desk and tried drawing a tiny picture. The first couple didn’t look much like babies, but the third try seemed clear enough. She encircled it in a tiny heart then cut the picture out and rolled it up. The rolled-up image was very thin and just shorter than the bristles of Tom’s toothbrush.

She slid it between the bristles.

• • •

Tom’s eyes fluttered open — or rather, his left eye did. The space that had contained his right eye was taped shut with a bandage.

“You’re awake,” Luka said, gripping his hand.

“I suppose so,” he replied, winking and reaching groggily up to his face.

“Don’t touch it,” Luka warned.

The call had come minutes after Luka’s voodoo toothbrush attempt; one of Tom’s coworkers babbling about a picture frame, blood, the hospital. Luka had rushed in to find Tom waiting in the E.R., a red-soaked towel pressed against his face. It seemed he’d been helping his boss hang a portrait of her two young kids when the frame slipped from their grip, hit a side table, and shattered spectacularly. According to Tom’s assistant, a surprisingly long, thin shard of glass had leapt from the wreckage and skewered Tom’s eyeball.

“You should’ve seen it,” she said in awed tones.

Luka was fine with not having seen it. But she was sick with guilt at having caused it. Instead of planting an idea in his mind, her little stunt had half-blinded him. She resolved never again to play with forces beyond her understanding. She had even thrown — gently placed — the toothbrush in the garbage, replacing it with a new orange brush before running out the door on the way to the hospital. Then, terrified of what might happen to Tom if his toothbrush actually went to the dump, she retrieved it, stuck it in her plastic travel case, and stashed it in the back of her middle drawer for safekeeping.

Now Tom was out of surgery, minus one eye.

He smiled up at her. “You look radiant.”

It was so unexpected that Luka laughed through her film of tears. “You’re on drugs. You don’t know what you’re saying.”

Tom laughed too, a little weakly. “No. For the first time, I know exactly what I’m saying. You’re glowing. You’re my beautiful, pregnant goddess.”

“Tom?”

“I know it must sound strange.” He shifted, trying to sit up. Luka fumbled for the button and raised the head of his bed for him. “But when I was waiting for surgery I had a lot of time to think. What if the glass had gone all the way into my brain? I could’ve been killed.”

“I don’t think glass would be heavy enough to do that.”

Tom half-scowled at her, as if to say that’s beside the point. He continued on, gripping one of Luka’s hands in both of his. “I could have died, and all I could think about was how tragic it would be not to get to raise my son or daughter. That’s what’s really important, Luka. I know that now. Even though the timing is bad, we can’t wait. We’ll make it work somehow. I can’t wait to meet this kid. Our baby.” A tear slid out of Tom’s left eye, spilling over the ridge of his cheek.

Luka wiped it away, leaning in to kiss Tom. By the time she pulled away she was crying too, but for once they were tears of happiness.

• • •

At first, Luka welcomed Tom’s change of heart. He was supportive and affectionate, and he no longer pestered her about getting a job. “You need to rest,” he said instead. “Send all your energy to our little greenbean.” He brought her caffeine-free tea and crossword puzzles in bed, and Luka didn’t have the heart to tell him that she didn’t care for either one.

Tom’s socket healed well, and he went back to work with an eyepatch strapped across his head. Luka wanted to weep every time she saw it, but he was cheerful. He joked about pirates and threatened to adopt a parrot. He bought her a fancy digital camera, then used it himself to snap pictures of Luka’s still-flat belly. “I don’t want to miss a thing,” he said when she begged him to stop.

They finally told their friends and family about the baby. They made lists of names, squabbling amicably about the sex of the child. They mentally rearranged the apartment over and over, searching for space to house a third human being. There wasn’t any, of course, and they couldn’t afford a bigger apartment. “Oh well,” Tom said. “We’ll be cozy.”

But Luka couldn’t sleep. If she forgot to buy milk, she lay awake worrying about feeding her child. When she took Tom to the doctor for follow-up appointments, she chewed her nails imagining having a sick kid. She dreamed of porcelain babies that chipped and shattered when she fumbled them.

As much as Luka had hated Tom’s uncertainty, his blind enthusiasm irked her more. His mind had gone, taking with it all realistic thought and prudent worry. It seemed her picture had taken root after all, but the result was a little more psychotic than she’d intended.

After a particularly disgusting display of affection aimed at Luka’s abdomen, she’d had enough. Luka wanted to give Tom his free will back, but she was scared. What if he lost another eye? It was bad enough she’d cost him his depth perception.

Luka dug the old orange toothbrush out of her drawer, examining it. With one finger she stroked the back of its head. She thought it looked scared, and she didn’t blame it. “It’s okay,” she said. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

Back at Tom’s desk, Luka sat tapping a pen against her teeth. She started by drawing another tiny baby. She almost encircled this one in one of those no smoking circles, but thought that was going too far. She didn’t want him to hate the baby. What was the symbol for neutrality? Finally, Luka drew another tiny baby next to the first. She wrapped one of them in a heart, as before, and surrounded the other with the prohibition symbol. After a little internet research, she learned that the logical symbol for “or” is a v, so she put that between the two babies.

Luka looked at her work. It was as good a pictorial approximation of “you decide how to feel about the baby” as she could manage.

Next was the problem of how to introduce the idea to the toothbrush. She couldn’t risk stabbing it between the bristles again, so finally she simply stuck the image in her travel holder with the orange toothbrush, letting it sink in for as long as it took. She hoped this would be a nonviolent method of de-voodooing Tom’s mind.

• • •

That evening Tom seemed as baby-crazed as ever; he couldn’t wait to show her the geeky onesies he’d ordered on the internet. Luka was calm, though. She knew her plan would work eventually.

She’d been re-educating Tom’s toothbrush for a few weeks when she was called in for an ultrasound. Luka’s doctor was cryptic on the phone, refusing to say what she was looking for, but hinted that the pregnancy might not be progressing normally. Luka hung up the phone in a haze, cold fear spreading through her abdomen.

Immediately she assumed the worst: that her stupid little pictures had caused a problem. She had broken her vow, trying to mess with Tom’s mind again, and it had backfired. Luka could barely sleep that night, paralyzed with fear. It was still early in the pregnancy, and she hadn’t really felt the baby moving yet, but that night the stillness plagued her. Her baby was dead, a victim of dark toothbrush magic. If not for her terrible dreams of sharpened toothbrushes stabbing her, rubbing her skin off with coarse metal bristles, she wouldn’t have known she slept at all.

As the technician smeared goo on Luka’s belly, Tom held her hand, squeezing it and smiling expectantly. She hadn’t shared her fears with him, and if he noticed her panic it made only a small dent in his excitement.

The goo was cold. The tech’s face was blank in a practiced way, giving Luka nothing, and the screen was even worse — it looked like static. Nothing on TV.

Finally Luka’s doctor came in, wearing a smile so huge it covered her face. “Well, it’s like I thought,” she said, then paused for dramatic effect. “You’re having twins!”

Luka barely heard the rest; barely saw the tiny movements of her children’s heartbeats on the screen. Tom’s manic enthusiasm made her hand hurt from the squeezing, but otherwise it hardly touched her. Twins. Her mind raced with a new kind of fear: twice the diapers, twice the money, twice the worry. If she’d been nervous about raising one new human, she was terrified of two.

She knew she had only herself to blame. In her mind’s eye she saw two tiny drawings of babies, one in a heart and one struck through in a don’t circle. She was having both. Yes baby and no baby. Love baby and hate baby.

Good baby and evil baby?

• • •

In all the photos, Tom grins the same grin. A frighteningly happy gleam sparkles in his one good eye, and if it changes at all it’s only to shine more feverishly every day. The circle of his arms widens as Luka’s bared belly swells from normal to big to huge. The part in his hair meanders and stubble ebbs and flows on his chin, but his smile is constant, unbreakable.

Behind them, the days lengthen and leaves emerge from the tree’s branches. White winter melts into green spring, and browns into summer. The ivy plant on the windowsill spills out and down like a creeping waterfall.

Luka tries not to change. She puts her hands in the same place every day, pulls on the biggest smile she can manage. But she’s only human. She can’t help it if she looks more and more constrained by the arms struggling to hold her, any more than she can stop fear from tugging at the corner of her mouth and dancing in her eyes.

She could do something about the increasingly dirty tinge to her smile. But she won’t.

Outside the pictures, Luka’s toothbrush stands in the holder’s farthest slot, untouched. Most of the time its bristles face the wall, as if it chooses to ignore her in return. But from time to time, maybe by accident, the thing gets turned around. And when it does, Luka always sees it smirking.


Emily C. Skaftun’s tales of flying tigers, space squids, and evil garden gnomes have appeared in Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Asimov’s, Daily Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, and more. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and attended the Clarion West Writers Workshop in 2009. Emily lives just north of Seattle with a mad scientist and their Cat, Astrophe. She is the former editor of a Norwegian newspaper and practices bokmål by translating comic strips. She has cuddled a crocodile in Cuba, attended Elf School in Reykjavík, swam in a Yucatán cenote, and flown over an active volcano. If Emily could wield toothbrush magic, she’d spend her days going through politicians’ garbage.