The Boy with the Braces
This piece was written as a response to the following writing prompt: "Write a story about a dentist in a post-apocalyptic world".
He stood there: dusty, dirty, possibly deranged.
The boy had followed me for about five or six miles now. I had first caught glimpse of him as I rummaged through debris on the freeway, peaking out from a pile of wreckage that had once been a tow-truck.
His hair was disheveled and so thick with grime it was hard to tell what its true colour was. To be honest, at this point I doubted anyone left on Earth could call themselves “clean”.
I asked him if he had lost his parents – he said nothing. I asked him if he had come from San Diego – or the pile of twisted buildings and smoking rubble that had once been San Diego – he said nothing.
I’m not sure why I let him follow me; it could have been some trick, some ruse to lead me into an ambush. I long ago decided that travelling on my own was far safer than to trust the tattered remains of “civilisation”.
Finally, whilst trekking through a small suburban town, I sat myself down on gnarled tree stump. Somewhere something was burning – something was always burning. A thick miasma of smog rolled behind us, bringing with it the acrid smell of irradiated air.
“Okay, kid, I’m sick of this now.”
He was about nine or ten and had piercing green eyes. From the looks of it he was still wearing the clothes he had on his back the day everyone piled into the shelters.
“I ain’t got any food, you hear?” That was a lie, but it would also be a lie to call the lumps of carbon in my backpack 'food'.
The boy, in his first communication to me since appearing on that rusting freeway, shook his head.
“Finally, we’re getting somewhere!” I leaned forward, placing my hands on my knees. “You looking for your parents?”
Another shake of the head.
“Someone to travel with?”
“What is it then?”
He pointed at my pants. Confused, I looked down. “What about ’em? They’re a bit dirty, but I haven’t found anything better since…”
I trailed off as the child took a step forward and poked at me. Or rather, at something hanging from my belt. He prodded at my ID, burnt and dirt-encrusted, but still hanging in its laminate pouch.
“Are you hurt? I’m not that kind of doctor.”
The child seemed to sigh, before peeling back his lips to reveal a set of yellowing teeth. Attached to them was the mangled remains of what I presumed to be a dental brace. The metal had twisted and warped, but whoever had stuck them on the poor kid really glued ’em on. Bits of old food clung to it in clumps, while broken shards poked painfully into his gums.
I whistled through my teeth. “Jesus Christ. No wonder you’re so skinny.”
The boy pointed at his open mouth, and again at my badge.
“You’re kidding me, kid,” I said, running a hand through my hair. “I’d like to help you, but I haven’t done anything like this since before-“
He cut me off, taking my hand. Confused, I was led by the boy through the winding streets of the suburb, until we came to an aging dentists office. The white facade had rotted, the doors blown off their hinges, but it seemed to be mostly intact.
“How did you… Did you live here or something?”
The boy nodded to me, though somewhat sadly, before leading me in.
In the end I’m not sure what happened to him, honestly. I fixed him up the best I could with what was left over: cut off the broken metal, filed down the adhesive. I couldn’t do too much because there was no power, y’know?
After that he gave me this sad smile and left. Just like that. I tried to follow him but the kid knew his way around and lost me pretty quick.
After the sun had dipped into the gaseous muck we called a horizon, I camped out near the town’s hall. The next morning you know what I found? There, next to my bedroll, a little beaten up but still in good condition, was a little brown teddy bear.
Even now I wonder about
the kid. I dream about it. In all the years since the end of the world, it’s that one kid, that one act of random kindness, that has kept me going. I’ve still got that bear.
I hope he’s okay.