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Cutting Teeth


It’s not true that nothing bad has ever happened at Little Academy. Not entirely. There was the boy last year whose hands slipped off the monkey bars. Next thing the mother knew his collarbone was popping clean out of his skin. (His father right there, he could have caught him!) At least once a school year, when the temperatures still reach well into the nineties, some mom or other accidentally locks her keys in the car along with her baby. The school is just around the corner from the fire station and the truck arrives within minutes, but the mother still sobs, unable to believe she’s been so careless; it could have been worse. Not that it ever is. Not here. Not at Little.

Maybe all preschools are designed to be adorable, but Little Academy is particularly so. Children’s handprints outline a cement walkway where on a typical day the baby classes ride around in covered hippo wagons. The children help to maintain a garden; in it grows an impressive display of knockout rosebushes and jasmine and other sorts of flowers that attract real, live butterflies. To step on campus is to feel your heart lift just the slightest bit in your chest, almost as if there’s less gravity there. A shrine to these final few glimmering months when none of the kids are too old for enthusiastic hugs at pickup, when big, fat tears are still cried while waiting for mommies.

Inside, the walls echo with the shrieks of tiny voices, muffled behind closed pony doors. Teachers clap—one, two, three—and announce that it’s time to change centers, to clean up, to keep hands to yourselves.

It smells like graham crackers. The memory of chubby wax crayons white-knuckle pressed between small fingers. That’s how it looks, actually—melted wax creeping shadowlike from beneath the door, out into the empty hall. The reflection of a fluorescent ceiling light wavers uncertainly on the puddle’s slick, red surface.

The door at the foot of the corridor hasn’t been closed properly. The way it hangs ajar feels lazy; somebody should put up a note, ought to be more careful. The supply room is where all the pointy things live—grown-up scissors, industrial paper cutters, letter openers. With all the tiny curious hands, it’s a bad situation waiting to happen.

The soft sound coming from the other side of the door is hard to place. A gentle wet sopping noise, like a puppy trying to suckle. A too-wet tongue. The smell of saliva like mouth sweat in the air.

The light flips back on, motion activated.

There is blood everywhere, but on the gray-flecked tile most of all. Viscous and slippery, it squelches and slides. Heat leaks out along with it and the room feels dank. Used up.

But even here, cold creeps across skin, puckering it into goose flesh. An electric current charged with disbelief hums in the deafening quiet. The wrongness of it, plain as day. Car seats, child-proof locks, Consumer Reports, swim lessons, they’ve worked so hard to avoid danger, to ward it off, and yet somehow, some way it’s snuck right past them.

First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby carriage. And now, now at last, the fear arrives.



The blood kept coming out of her. She was going to die. People died. She knew that intellectually and yet she couldn’t believe it was going to be her.

Rhea’s teeth rattled around in her skull like one of those wind-up chatter-jaw toys with the little feet.

“It’s going to be okay. You’re going to be all right now.” Behind her, the orderly with the James Earl Jones voice tapped the rubber grip on the wheelchair handle. She hadn’t seen his face before he whisked her down the corridor, following the intake nurse’s instructions.

How much blood was in her body? How much could she stand to lose? Of all the stupid things she’d been forced to learn in school, shouldn’t this at least have been one of them?

The elevator lurched up and Rhea felt her vision narrowing to pinholes, the whole world shrinking. When the orderly asked if she could stand to get into the hospital bed, she wasn’t sure her legs would hold her. He took her beneath an armpit and an elbow. As he lifted, she felt sure the bottom of her would fall out like the base of a soggy brown grocery bag and what would spill out was her own insides.

A new nurse came in and immediately started messing with the cords and tubes behind Rhea. Her back was on fire. Her body felt like it was begging her to evacuate, get out, leave now, before it was too late, but she found all exits blocked.

“How long have you been bleeding?” A female doctor looked deep into her eyes. She and Rhea were about the same age and Rhea had never seen this doctor before in her entire life.

Spit flew out from the corners of Rhea’s mouth as she forced the words through her teeth. “A couple of hours. I came as soon as it started, but I’ve been waiting.”

The doctor pressed a jellied ultrasound wand to her belly now. “Has it been about this rate since the bleeding began?”

A warm gush flowed between her legs. Rhea moaned. Her Walmart maternity joggers stuck to the inside of her thighs.

The doctor stopped moving the wand and looked gravely at the screen. “The placenta has completely separated from the uterine wall, Rhea, and I can see you’re hemorrhaging. You’re going to need a blood transfusion.” The doctor reached for a blue button on the panel above Rhea’s head and pressed it. “And we need to deliver that baby. Now. Do you understand?”

“I’m only thirty-six weeks.” She clawed at the nubby hospital blanket beneath her. Copper and earth tinged her nostrils and she registered, impossibly, that the smell was her.

More people filled the room. She could suffocate. She wasn’t even sure if she was breathing. “What are you doing?” She panted. “What’s happening? Wait. You have to stop. Wait.”

The nurse, who’d at some point stabbed her with an IV, now buzzed around her head. “I’m going to slip this mask on over your mouth and nose. Nice and easy. Very gentle.” She adjusted the rubber band behind Rhea’s ears. “How’s that? Comfortable. Breathe normally.”

Pain lassoed her stomach. Another giant gush of blood. She screamed into the hollow plastic.

“The baby doesn’t have oxygen.” The doctor moved so quickly around her. It was as if everyone were paying attention to Rhea and also no one at all. “We have to do a crash section.” This didn’t feel right. Wait. Wait. “We have seconds, not minutes, seconds.”

Rhea could feel her body shutting down. She hadn’t even asked about her baby yet. The fire burned up and down her spine, tearing through her ass muscles.

“No time for an epidural or painkillers. Rhea, you’ll be put straight to sleep. Do you understand?”

No. She was trying to tell them. No. No. She’d miss it if they put her to sleep. She would miss this thing, she would miss everything, everything she was promised. She would miss him. Hers.

“Take a deep breath.” She gasped, more a death rattle than an attempt to cooperate, but the world dissolved around her anyway. Down she sank. Down, down, down, down. Into a deep, salty darkness. Into a rotting cavity with no bottom, a medically induced black hole, bitter-tasting, like Advil with the sweet casing dissolved; she was swallowed alive. Rhea was plunged into motherhood the same way a cat’s drowned in water.

Some days she feels like she went to sleep on that hospital bed and woke up where she is now, with Bodhi four years old. Her eyes travel his classroom as she waits impatiently for his teacher to join her.

When she woke up at the hospital, it was to find that not only was she no longer pregnant but that her heart had been extracted, taken out of her chest, and transplanted into this beautiful little boy. She now watches her heart play trucks with two other boys his age. Her moon baby. Her wildflower. Her ocean soul.

Around her, the classroom is a museum of enthusiastic art displays: colorful handprints, a kindness tree, a guess-the-smell chart on which one little girl answered “wine,” and tissue collages. The colorful rug at the center of the room has all the letters of the alphabet and ten wooden cubbies house ten individual lunch boxes—hearts, superheroes, princesses—each a little dingier than when they were so lovingly selected at the start of the year.

It wasn’t that long ago that Rhea’s experience at this school had been not as a parent, but as a nanny, though she doesn’t advertise that. To a little blond girl who, at just three years old, attended Kumon for tutoring, loved sloths, and hated the smell of yogurt, and Rhea thought, as she took in the sparkling school, slightly dumbfounded, slightly awestruck: If I ever have a baby, this is it.

This is Little Academy, a small, private preschool on the campus of RiverRock Church. Rhea’s not religious, but she sees the value in a strong moral upbringing at this age, good versus evil, wrong and right, and all that.

Over by the sink, Bodhi’s teacher, Miss Ollie, helps Noelle Brandt unscrew the top of an Elmer’s glue, then comes over to join Rhea.

“I’m glad we could connect finally,” says Miss Ollie, dusting her hands off on a bright yellow maxi skirt as she sits. The tails of a chambray top are tied at her waist. She looks like a Disney princess, with her candy-apple cheeks and pearly pageant teeth. “It’s been hard to reach you by email.”

Rhea runs her fingers through her long strands of inky black hair, interlaced with a few subtle streaks of mauve. A gorgeous willow tree tattoo with deep, intricate roots appears to sway on the pale inside of her forearm. It’s not easy to look dignified while squatting on a tiny chair made for tiny-assed children, but she’s making it work.

“I must not have gotten them,” says Rhea, which might be true, who knows. She gets hundreds of emails a week. Her burgeoning business, Terrene, a curated essential oil collection (super easy to use and accessible) is a one-woman show and she’s that woman.

“Or phone.”

“I’m here now.” Though only because Miss Ollie waylaid her at drop-off this morning.

There was a big fuss amongst the other parents when Miss Erin Ollie joined the staff of Little Academy. She has a PhD in child development and Rhea doesn’t have one clue what she’s doing here teaching toddlers like some kind of Preschool Poppins, but you do you.

Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Bodhi pick up a toy bus and move out of her line of sight. She resists the urge to keep her eyes on him. The instinct to watch over him is nearly impossible to turn off in his presence. She missed his first cry, his first breath. She doesn’t know what the first thing her son experienced in this world was, but it wasn’t her. Maybe it’s because she was still asleep when the umbilical cord was cut that she still feels it tying her to Bodhi like a phantom limb.

“Bodhi’s looking a little thin,” says Miss Ollie. “For his age, I mean.”

“Okay,” Rhea answers carefully. “He was a chunky baby. Now he’s growing like crazy.” Her son has beautiful brown skin and thick, brown shoulder-length locks. If Rhea had a dollar for every person who asked if he’s adopted, she could afford the down payment on a house.

“For sure. One hundred percent. I just wanted to point out that it’s noticeable compared to the other children and I—” Miss Ollie wrings her hands like she’s getting ready to break up with a boyfriend, but feels really badly about it. “Restrictive diets can have a number of health benefits, I know—but in adults.”

“Excuse me?”

“I see his lunches. The dried seaweed and purple cauliflower and vegetable grits. He’s hardly eating any of it. I know you want him to eat healthfully. I just wonder if it would be better, you know, for Bodhi, if he had a few more normal, higher-calorie options day-to-day.”

“Better … for Bodhi?” Rhea’s not hard of hearing, she just wants to give this twentysomething a chance to run that back. Better for Bodhi. Did she really just say that?

Rhea gives nothing away. She is the still pond. She is the tree trunk, unruffled by the wind. She is the horizon in the distance. But underneath, Rhea feels undulations of rage crashing at her seams. Who the fuck does this woman think she is?

“You know,” Miss Ollie continues like this is all just occurring to her, “it might be worth including Bodhi’s father in this conversation.”

“I can talk to Marcus just fine, thanks.”

She knows most people, her friends included, refer to Marcus as her “ex,” though ex-what she has no idea. When she got pregnant with Bodhi, she had only just started a new type of birth control, a last-ditch attempt to curb the chronically vicious menstrual cramps that had been wrecking her world. She chalked up her missing period to the new pills for longer than she might have otherwise. She didn’t get cramps anymore. But she got a baby.

And mostly, single motherhood suits her. She makes what she wants for dinner. She decorates the apartment to her taste. Lets Bodhi watch television or doesn’t, her rules. She starts a business, her money.

“Right.” Miss Ollie chews her lip, waiting for Rhea to make this less awkward. She’s going to be waiting awhile. “I could provide a list of easy lunch ideas. I just want to be a—” But right at that moment, it’s as though the ground beneath her sentence crumbles. Her whole demeanor transforms. “No!” she bellows, jumping from her chair. “No! No! No!”

Rhea whips around at the same time as a single, panicked cry of agony splits the room. A small pile of children writhes on the story mat. An empty shoe flops out of the mess. Rhea’s eyes dart to every corner—where’s Bodhi? Where is Bodhi?

“Where’s my son?” This time out loud.

A girl whines. Then— “You’re hurting him.”

“Mommy.” His voice is small and muffled. The word throbs inside her. “Mommy?”

“Bodhi? Bodhi!” Rhea drops to her hands and knees and crawls toward the fray. Her own sandal loses its grip between her toes and she slips out of it. The stiff carpet dimples the thin skin over her kneecaps as she stretches an arm into the tangle of tiny limbs. The willow tree disappears within.

A distinct growl from somewhere in the broil and Miss Ollie’s face goes red as she heaves a toddler by the armpits. “Off! Off! There are grown-ups here!”

The two kids remaining scatter, but the bottom one stays put, shaking uncontrollably with silent sobs.


His long hair fans out around his head. He still clutches the large plastic bus in his arms as blood soaks through the cotton collar of a sky-blue T-shirt. Rhea drags him up and pulls him tight to her chest. “Shhhh, shhhhh, shhhhhh,” she soothes. “Mama’s got you.”

“Teeth are not for biting.” Miss Ollie’s voice seesaws as she crouches down to eye level with Zeke Tolbert, a chunky biracial boy with a tight fade and striking, crystal-blue eyes. “You know better.”

“I didn’t do anything,” says Noelle as she plucks her giant pink bow from the floor and clips it back in her curly blond hair. “I told Zeke he better stop it. Also I need a Band-Aid.” She holds up her fingers, which are red from being squished.

“Bodhi wouldn’t share his bus and he’s gotten a super long turn. Like, super long.” George Hall, who is always dressed like a tiny golfer, limps to retrieve his lost club loafer.

Rhea feels an earthquake coming on. Her hands tremble as she pulls her son from her body to examine him. A ring of puncture wounds where Bodhi’s neck meets the curve of his shoulder leaks an angry shade of red, leaving behind a Rorschach test of spots on her linen tunic.

“Oh-kaaaay” is all Miss Ollie manages for a handful of seconds. “That’s—okay. We’ll—everyone’s okay.”

Rhea glares over the top of her son’s head. “I’m sorry, what now?” She feels the heat in her hands first, that sensation of warmth spreading through her veins, shooting up toward her head. Her voice trembles; the sight of her son, her sweet, wouldn’t-hurt-a-fly baby boy oozing blood from an attack in his own classroom makes her feel as though she’s been sliced open herself. She’s waiting for Miss Teacher-of-the-Year over here to show the same degree of horror she’d reserved for Rhea’s cauliflower just two minutes earlier, but look who’s all laissez-faire now. Maybe she deserves to get bitten, see how “okay” she feels about it then.

“It’s definitely not okay. Okay?”

The teacher stares, open-mouthed. Some of the other children have already resumed playing with blocks and plastic food items and pretend cash registers. George tries to pull a picture book off the overstuffed Read-with-Me shelf and the books that fall off make the sound of dead birds slapping the ground. Miss Ollie’s eyes dart over then back. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what’s been getting into them.” She takes Zeke’s hand in her own.

“What’s been getting into them? Like this has happened before? Like this is a normal occurrence?”

“No.” Miss Ollie swallows. “It’s not that— I’m sorry, I’m not allowed to discuss incidents involving any of the other children. But I take it very seriously. We’re working through it. Rhea, I understand you’re upset. I’m upset, too. These are like my children.”

“Yeah?” Rhea says. “Except that’s the difference, isn’t it? They’re not.”

CUTTING TEETH. Copyright © 2023 by Chandler Baker. All rights reserved.

Cutting Teeth
by by Chandler Baker