The dental hygienist at the end of the world plays solo cat’s cradle with mint-flavored floss. Her fingers go ridged as she builds it tighter and tighter. She makes it to the Jacob’s ladder, forgets the rest. She starts over. She starts over again.
She thinks of the mouths of the dead, thinks of gold teeth and fillings, awkward tongues. She knew people by their mouths; they knew her eyes.
You have such pretty eyes, they always said.
The dental hygienist comes out of the basement where she has been hiding, comes out into the full glare of sunlight, lets drop the cat’s cradle floss from her purpling fingertips, blinks and blinks.
Before the end, the dental hygienist worked for a dentist with a round, pretty wife and three round-faced children. They were always going sailing, the round, pretty wife in long dresses and sun hats, smiling in the pictures the dentist brought to the office, smiling in the way people who have been told to smile did.
Her teeth were perfect.
The dentist’s wife never came to the office, or maybe she did, after the dark of close, her husband shining the overhead light down onto her round face, open wide, and her mouth stretching, stretching till her jaw was sore.
The dental hygienist used to tell people jokes while she scraped at their teeth, why are elephants big and gray and wrinkly, she’d say.
Your jokes aren’t funny, a little girl told her.
Oh, she said.
I thought they were funny, she said.
At the end of the world, the dental hygienist carries a purse full of floss over her shoulder. She sits on bus benches with ads for her dental office: We make you smile wider. There was a picture of a round-faced child beside the logo. The dental hygienist thought it might be one of the dentist’s children, but really, it could have been anyone.
The dental hygienist is going south, she thinks she is going south. She dreams of seasalt spray on her face, wind-rippled sail, sun hats and long dresses and smiling wide, wide, wide. She curls up on bus benches to sleep, she swishes gas station off-brand mouthwash, holds the bottle to her face. The whole world smells of mint and cotton.
In the old days, the dental hygienist would go out after work, she would apply lipstick in the work bathroom, sink pink-stained with rinse. She hoped someone would tell her you have a nice smile, she hoped someone would compliment her choice of lipstick.
Scarlet Empress, she’d say if they ever did.
I know it’s a bit dark, but doesn’t it emphasize the white of my teeth?
In the old days, the dental hygienist would show up early for work and the dentist would check her teeth with his gloved hand, show her photos of his round, happy family on their latest sailing trip. She always thought of them as round and happy, though she noticed the wife didn’t smile in the unposed photos, the wife looked like she might be about to cry.
She never asked after this photo was taken, did your wife cry?
She said: Did you have fun?
The dentist said: I love the smell of ocean air.
The dental hygienist at the end of the world goes south and south and south. She finishes a roll of floss, drops the package on the ground behind her. She smiles. She smiles, smiles, smiles.
Cathy Ulrich always has a hard time spelling the word “apocalypse.” Her work has been featured in various journals, including Miracle Monocle, Trampset and Landlocked.