As I sat on an awkwardly reclined dentist chair in the kiddie room, a trio of plushies watched me from the top shelf. When I checked in for my appointment that morning, I’d been told the system had accidentally double-booked one of the rooms, so I’d be getting my annual check-up in the children’s room instead. This was a big issue for me, not because of the brightly-colored walls that threatened to burn my retinas, not due to the multitude of disturbing posters of kids showing off their pearly whites, not even because of the tiny chair and its tight armrests that dug at my sides. No, my problem was with those damn plushies. Those horrible, terrifying, motherfucking plushies. They were the reason I’d avoided the dentist for so many years when I was growing up.
I was about eight when it happened. Like any kid, I was afraid of going to the dentist. Unlike my peers, however, it wasn’t because of the needles and sharp instruments. No, I was terrified of the dentist’s puppet, Mr. Tartar. The dentist used him to show children how to brush their teeth and floss properly. He was an eerie-looking stuffed giraffe with a full set of humanoid teeth—something straight out of the uncanny valley. His frozen and dead eyes starred at me, unblinking, as the dentist went about poking and prodding my gums as though they were pincushions. Don’t get me started on that grin of his. That chilling, toothy, permanent grin made it seem as though he enjoyed the show. His neck, too weak to hold the weight of his head, used to slowly buckle as the appointment progressed, causing him to crane over the edge of the shelf. He looked more like a vulture looming over its prey than an educational tool.
That day was the first time my mom stayed in the reception area. She felt I was old enough to be left without a hand to hold. The dental assistant brought me to the room and sat me on the chair, cheerfully telling me to stay put while she tended to another patient. I was left alone with Mr. Tartar, who grinned at me like he always did. We watched one another for a few minutes, before I lost interest and turned my attention to the large bay window overlooking the busy boulevard below.
Suddenly, there was a clattering sound, which was followed by a light thud and a grunt.
The giraffe was on the floor, face flat against the cold linoleum tile.
“Oh, did you knock Mr. Tartar over?” asked the dental assistant as she walked in.
She beamed at me and picked up the toy, sitting it on the counter. She then slipped her hand into the opening in the back of its head, allowing her to open and close its mouth, which produced the same clattering sound I’d heard moments before.
“Don’t worry, I’m not mad! Let’s be friends!” she said, using a somewhat masculine voice that didn’t quite match the creature’s appearance.
I shuffled uncomfortably in my seat, “B-but I didn’t,” I tried to say, but the assistant didn’t seem to be listening.
She returned Mr. Tartar to his proper spot on the shelf, then proceeded to tilt my chair back. I couldn’t move my head any more, not with her little torture hooks jabbing me and scraping the surface of my teeth. The nail-on-chalkboard noise gave me mild goose bumps, but something else turned the molehill-sized lumps into the Rocky Mountains: Mr. Tartar had moved.
I wasn’t entirely sure if I was seeing it right. Maybe I was imagining things. Had he been on the very top shelf, or the one underneath? She must have put him on the wrong shelf, I figured. Toys can’t move, I thought to myself, feeling silly about my paranoia. I wasn’t a baby any more: I was brave and strong, like a grown-up.
The assistant finished her preliminary work, then excused herself to tell the dentist I was ready for her exam. Just as she disappeared around the corner, I heard the clattering of teeth coming from the other end of the room. I winced as I lifted my torso to try and see. Mr. Tartar was now watching me intently from the guest chair.
Now, I confess I had a pretty active imagination as a kid. I had plenty of imaginary friends, I liked to act as though my toys were real, and I gave them each distinctive personalities. That said, they never moved of their own volition. I was always well-aware that I was the one controlling them. This was different. I wasn’t doing it. I wanted to cry and scream for my mom, but this was one of the first time she’d left me on my own, and I didn’t want to blow it.
“H…hello?” I whispered tensely.
The giraffe did not respond. Instead, it looked at me with its beady little eyes.
I heard the dentists’ footsteps approaching, and turned my head towards the cubicle entrance. In the mere seconds it took for her to come into view, I felt something brushing up against my leg. Mr. Tartar had found its way onto the chair.
“I see you and Mr. Tartar are getting along well,” said the dentist, amused.
I resisted the urge to scream, though I could feel pressure building in my throat. Ignorant to what was happening, the dentist tossed the puppet aside.
“We’ll play with Mr. Tartar later, ok? I’m going to start the check-up. Open wide,” she instructed.
I remember the intense sensation of fear I felt as I sat in that dentist chair, terrified the puppet was going to get me. I didn’t want to take my eyes off it for fear that it’d move again, but the dentist kept sliding in the way. Through the sloshing and slurping of suction devices in my mouth, I could hear the chittering of teeth whenever Mr. Tartar disappeared from sight. My feet instinctively curled inwards, trying to keep away from the edges of the chair, as though afraid of a monster trying to grab me from the foot of my bed.
As soon as the dentist removed her tools from my mouth, I tried to warn her about Mr. Tartar, but she immediately stuck a spongy duckbill-shaped apparatus in my gob and told me to keep my mouth shut for 60 seconds. I waited as a disgusting banana-flavored foam oozed out and trickled towards my throat. I had to close my eyes and focus so I wouldn’t throw up from the hideous flavor and sensation invading my mouth. By the time it was done, Mr. Tartar had moved closer.
The dentist followed my gaze, and smiled.
“Hi, I’m Mr. Tartar,” she said, on the puppet’s behalf.
My face twisted into a disapproving grimace as she gleefully thrust the toy towards my face, bringing it inches from my nose. I could see its supposedly plastic teeth lined with cracks and imperfections. If I didn’t know any better, I would have sworn they were real. There was far too much detail on each individual tooth for a mass-produced toy.
“Aren’t you going to say hello?” she asked, wiggling the plush in front of my face.
“Umm…hello Mr. Tartar,” I mumbled.
The woman grinned and sat him on my lap, “Here’s what we’re going to do,” she said, motioning to the slit at the back of its head, “We’re going to play a game, okay? You’ll be Mr. Tartar, and I’ll be the toothbrush.”
She reached for an old demo brush, with bristles that pointed in every direction. The clinic had glued googly eyes and drawn a smile across its back to make it seem friendlier.
In a high-pitch girly voice, the dentist spoke again, “Hi, I’m Mrs. Toothbrush. I hear you want to make sure your mouth is in tip-top shape, hyuk hyuk! Open wide, and I’ll show you how it’s done!”
I reluctantly obeyed her, sliding my hand into the puppet and prying its mouth open. One by one, she massaged the teeth and shared a multitude of cleaning techniques I had mastered years ago. She prattled on and on and, with each condescending “tip”, I had to force myself not to roll my eyes at her. Then, she pulled out the dental floss.
I should have known what was going to happen next.
As she slipped one hand into Mr. Tartar’s mouth, I could feel the giraffe’s head trying to clamp down on it. My tiny hand tried as hard as it could to keep his mouth open, but the more I resisted, the stronger it pulled.
“H-he’s going to bite you!” I warned.
The dentist laughed, “Don’t be silly. Mr. Tartar wouldn’t eat me. He only eats little kids.”
I tensed up, my face twisting in horror.
She must have seen the look of shock on my face, because she quickly followed-up with, “I’m just kidding. Mr. Tartar wouldn’t hurt anyone.”
As though on cue, Mr. Tartar’s pearly whites clenched down against her hand with all their might.
I remember the scream. I remember the blood. I remember her half-severed thumb hanging from her hand. People flooded the room in a flurry of panic. I tried to say I hadn’t done it. I tried to tell them Mr. Tartar had bitten her, but I’d been caught with my hand in the cookie jar, so to speak. I could feel their accusatory glares burning me with hatred, and then, the look of disappointment on my mother’s face.
My family was banned from that clinic, and I was sent to counseling. I was eventually forced to admit what I’d done, because no one ever believed my story.
Which brings me back to my most recent appointment, and those three plushies on the shelf: a kangaroo, a crocodile, and a dragon. They watched me, and I watched them. I made sure never to take my eyes off them.
Until I left the room.
As I made my way down the hall, I heard the clattering of teeth like maniacal laugher echoing behind me.