Moral Character by Jasmine Beyer

I woke with a start. My room was cast in a soft, sleepy blue light, but I felt alert, aware, nervous. I looked underneath my bed, reaching behind old stuffed animals, softball trophies, and participation ribbons, grabbing a shoebox. I opened it up, examining my loot–a package of unopened dental floss, three used toothbrushes, and mint gum. None of these were mine–I stole the floss from a store, took the toothbrushes from my friend’s house when I spent the night, and swiped the mint gum from my mother’s purse. The familiar feel of dread weighed in my stomach; my palms were sweaty. I needed something new.

I didn’t want to take anything, I promise. I definitely didn’t need it as often as I needed to brush my teeth. Or floss. Or chew gum. I tried to avoid stealing, but it was like trying to starve myself. The more I abstained, the hungrier I grew for something that wasn’t mine. Restricting myself made me a little crazy–in the past, when I tried to abstain, I was plagued by inescapable visions of my dentist drilling holes into my gums, or my teeth growing mold and rotting. I never used anything I took. I just needed the security that I had it.

 At school, the mounting dread became unbearable. When I was eating lunch, all I could imagine were my teeth shattering into tiny, enamel shards with each bite I took. I needed to take something to protect my teeth. I know it didn’t make any sense, but I knew that if I didn’t steal, something terrible would happen. My dad was a dentist–as a kid, he used torture me with horror stories of people who didn’t take care of their teeth. Maybe I would get gingivitis, or I would have to get a root canal, or my gums would bleed and bleed, and I wouldn’t be able to swallow, and I would drown in my own irony, soupy blood–in a sudden flurry of movement, a person appeared in my view, interrupting my thoughts. Throwing her backpack on the table, my friend, Sophia sat in front of me, looking at me expectantly.

“Notice anything different?” She flashed a grin at me, revealing rows of evenly-spaced, straight teeth.

“You got your braces off!” I said. I stopped eating my food–I was too scared to break my teeth.

“I do have to wear a retainer every night,” Sophia said. “Well, technically I’m supposed to wear it all day for a month, but I just wear it when I leave the house so my mom doesn’t get mad.”

She dug in her backpack and pulled out a little green container. She opened the container, revealing two atrocious pieces of blue plastic; they molded to the shape of Sophia’s mouth, wiry, metal legs poking out at the sides like a misshapen spider. With sudden, sharp certainty, I knew needed to take her retainers. I needed to take them away from her, hide them beneath my bed where it would be safe and secure and mine.

When we had gym later, I watched Sophia put her backpack in her locker. I kept glancing over her shoulder, hoping to catch the combination of her locker, but she just slammed the door shut, leaving it unlocked.

“I’ll meet you outside,” I said, my voice wavering. I fiddled around with my shoelaces as the other girls filed out of the room. I knew that it was wrong. I knew that it would cost Sophia’s family a lot of money. But I also knew that the agonizing itch that I couldn’t seem to scratch would be satisfied once I had that little green box. I opened up her locker, carefully unzipping her backpack. My heartbeat wildly against my chest as I rummaged through pencils, books, binders, candy wrappers, old bobby pins when suddenly I felt a rounded box. I grabbed it and clutched it to my chest, trying to get behind my breath. Relief rolled like a wave inside me, releasing me from the tension that had seized me since the morning. I felt giddy, like I was floating in a sea of dizzy euphoria. I had it! It was mine.

The euphoria kept me high throughout the rest of gym. It faltered a little bit when Sophia went through her bag, searching for her retainers. And it evaporated once she began frantically retracing her steps, worrying about what her parents were going to do when they discovered she lost her retainers. I searched with her, the green box weighing heavy and guilty in my coat pocket.

I didn’t want to do it. But when I returned home, I put the retainers in my shoebox, adding it to the collection of objects that didn’t belong to me. I wasn’t ever going to use it. I just needed to know that I had it, that it was mine.