Toothpaste of Life


Necromancer Ned said, "And now I will breathe life into the vessel and Jenny's deceased mother will speak to us."

More than anything in the world, I wanted a chance to speak with my mother again. I waited on the edge of my seat at Ned's kitchen table, staring as he blew into the doll's face. My best friend, Alice, sat beside me, clenching my hand in what was probably supposed to be a supportive gesture. She squeezed so tight, my fingers had lost feeling.

Maybe it was a trick of flickering candle light, but I thought I saw the doll's fingers twitch.

"The breath of life is inside you. We summon you to speak to us. Jenny calls you from the afterlife to settle unfinished business," Ned said.

The only sound was the ticking of the clock in the other room. Nothing happened. Even from where I sat across the table I could see the brown cavities on Ned's teeth. I didn't know what Alice saw in a man with such poor dental hygiene, but I wasn't about to judge her for her romantic choices like some people I knew.

Ned was an undergrad at Mortimer's School of Dark Arts. He wasn't yet an accredited necromancer, but Alice had seen him contact the dead before. Maybe it was his black magic that drew her in. She'd always had a thing for bad boys.

Ned squinted at the spell in the book, removed his glasses and read the words again, first in Latin and then in English. He breathed into the doll's face again. Nothing happened. Not that I could blame my mother for not appearing. I could smell Ned's bad breath from where I sat.

"It isn't working," Alice said.

Ned dropped the heavy tome on the table with a thunk. "Do you think I don't know that?"

"Hey, it's okay." I rose to my feet, trying to keep the disappointment from my voice. I shoved my arms into the sleeves of my jacket. "Thanks for trying."

"Are you sure?" Alice asked. "You shouldn't be alone at a time like this."

It wasn't like my mother had just died. Still, our last words had been haunting me for months. If I hadn't argued with her, she might not have had a heart attack and died.

"I'm fine. Really." I turned away to hide the way my eyes watered and stepped toward the door. "I'll see you tomorrow at work."

Ned rushed after me. "Jenny, sometimes contacting the dead works in unexpected ways. I've seen a pattern in these things. It might happen at an unexpected time. Or a time you won't expect, anyway."

I nodded. I stared out at the darkness.

He fidgeted with his glasses. "How often do you brush your teeth?"

I tried to puzzle out what he was asking. Did he think I had bad breath? Necromancers were a strange lot.

I bit my tongue and kept myself from shouting that he was the one who needed to brush his teeth. I shook my head. "Goodnight, Ned."

I drove home in a fog. I didn't taste one bite of dinner. It didn't surprise me when I looked in the bathroom mirror to find I'd put my pajama shirt on inside out. I raised my toothbrush to my mouth, about to brush my teeth, and sighed in disgust at myself when I remembered I'd forgot to put toothpaste on it.

I snatched up the tube and clamped my hand around the center, relieved to squeeze something.

My mother's voice shouted out of the tube as I clenched it. "What have I always told you about not squeezing toothpaste from the middle of the tube?"

I dropped the toothbrush and toothpaste to the floor. I stared at the pale blue smear on the linoleum for a long moment before picking up what I'd dropped.

The moment I squeezed the toothpaste again this time from the end of the tube my mother's creaky squeak of a voice came out. "It's bad enough you have to summon me from the dead and interrupt my time frolicking with angels, but--"

The moment I stopped squeezing, the voice stopped. I didn't know how this was possible, but there was no doubt this was the voice of my mother. I pinched the plastic tube again.

"--you had to go with a budget necromancer. You couldn't even fork over the money to hire a professional. What did you expect, an amateur would get it right?"

There was so much toothpaste on my toothbrush it dribbled onto the floor.

I held the brush and paste over the sink. I said, "I need you to know I'm sorry about what I said in our last conversation. I understand you just wanted the best for me. I shouldn't have shouted at you. I'm sorry. I hope you don't blame me for causing your death." I swallowed, my throat tight. "I need you to tell me it's all right. That you're all right. I need to know you forgive me." Tears welled up in my eyes.

I squeezed the toothpaste again. "Of course it isn't all right. I'm dead. And you're still dating that good-for-nothing oaf." A long snake of blue spilled into the sink. There wasn't much toothpaste left in the tube. "The least you could have done is listen to my advice, but no, you have to do everything yourway."

Anger flared up in me. She wasn't any more rational or sympathetic than she'd been in life. I wasn't sure what I'd expected. I waited until I calmed enough to speak.

"Mom, I need you to listen for a minute. I love Gene. I'm not going to break up with him just because he isn't a brain surgeon or rocket scientist. Yes, he is a custodian in my law firm's building. I'm okay with that. We can make things work. Isn't love more important than money?" I closed my eyes, thinking of her and my father. Money hadn't been everything. This was my one chance to make things right between us. "I realize I might make different choices than you would. I need you to accept that and be okay with that. And I need you to know that despite all our differences, I love you. I hope you'll still be able to love me." I sniffled and wiped my eyes on mysleeve.

I pushed from the bottom corners and worked the last of the toothpaste out."I don't even know why you bothered to ask my opinion. You're just going to do whatever you want to do no matter what. I can forgive you for--" There was no more toothpaste. I pushed with my thumbs, my hands shaking with exertion as a tiny bit more squirted out. "loving an imbecile. I just can't forgive you for--"

I stared at the empty vessel. I told myself it was for the best. I didn't need to hear the rest of her diatribe. I had tried to make peace. As usual, she hadn't.

It took me ten minutes to clean up the mess in the bathroom. I reached foa new tube of toothpaste, but I was afraid I would hear her rant start up again. Instead, I picked up the cinnamon dental floss, opened the cap and pulled on the string.

My mother's voice came out of the plastic box. "And another thing--"

I tore off the floss and closed the lid before replacing it in the drawer.

This was going to make dental hygiene impossible until I got that budget necromancer to fix what he'd started. On the other
hand, what if he couldn't fix it? A lump settled in my stomach at the thought. There might be a reason he had bad breath.

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