“When I write stories I am like someone who is in her own country, walking along streets that she has known since she was a child, between walls and trees that are hers.”
Natalie Goldberg

author: Nicole J. LeBoeuf

actually writing blog

Notes from the author:

This was another prompt courtesy of Mur Lafferty's podcast Patreon. I won't requote the prompt, because it'll be fairly obvious by the end of the third paragraph. It involved a lot less resistance than the one about the snow storm. It hit me where I live: portal stories where the main character doesn't actually realize they've passed through a portal. The world looks just like the world they know, but one seemingly trivial detail is wrong.

I actually had a telephone solicitor say to me precisely what Mike says to our narrator. Once it became clear I wasn't buying what he was selling, he got snarky and insulting.

"That's no way to talk to a customer," said I.

Said he, "But you've got no intention of becoming a customer, so who cares?"

I've had scammers call me back after I hung up on them to verbally abuse me, but I have never, before or since, heard one quite so explicitly state the mindset by which they justify their behavior.

"This is Mike with Bright Smiles! I'm calling to confirm your appointment tomorrow at two o'clock."

The voice was firm, a no-nonsense voice, the voice of someone whose mind was already on the next phone number in his list. And it was a voice I didn't recognize at all. Ditto the dental office it referenced. I see Dr. Charles Rental, of Rental Family Dentistry. Call me old fashioned, but I appreciate a dentist's actual name on the shingle. Those cutesy DBAs some offices use sound like they'd rot your teeth.

"Funny thing," I said, "I do have an appointment at two tomorrow. Only it's not with Bright Smiles. I think you have the wrong number."

Mike's voice went from no-nonsense to sharply sardonic. "No, little miss, I think you have the wrong office." This was the voice of someone who didn't like being contradicted. Not by a mere customer, anyway.

And the sad thing was, it almost worked. He sounded so sure, and the coincidence was too weird. You know how sometimes you're inexplicably uncertain that the word you're reaching for is actually a word? It just sounds wrong, for no reason at all? It was like that. What were the chances...? But in a moment I got a grip on myself and went on the offensive. "You're going to get yourself fired if you keep talking to the patients like that, Mike."

"You just said you're not one of our patients," Mike shot back, "so who cares how I talk to you?"

Wow. What a grade-A asshole. I hung up on him. What else do you do?

It wasn't nearly as easy to hang up on my doubts. They plagued me all morning. What were the chances that some other dental office would call my wrong number to confirm the precise date and time of my appointment elsewhere? I stewed on that until I was sick of stew. But the smell of the stew, you might say, hung around. What were the chances...

Enough already. I pulled my appointment card out of my nightstand drawer and dialed the number that was printed directly beneath the familiar name of my dentist. Carlie would answer the phone, everything would be settled, and I'd get on with my life.

"Bright Smiles! Mike speaking. How I can help you?"

I hung up on the double.

OK. Think. Possible explanations? Well... I could be delusional. Ten years of visits to Dr. Rental's office might be nothing but a memory invented by a malfunctioning brain. The appointment card was a hallucination and I couldn't be trusted to read the English language. Not a comforting thought, but then not a plausible one either. I ran my fingers over the front of the appointment card, felt the raised print, and remembered the paper cut it had given me when Carlie handed it to me six months ago. The bloodstain was still on the card, if you knew where to look. No, my teeth might need a check up, but my mind was sound as ever.

The only other explanation I could come up was that a competitor had hacked Dr. Rental's phone number and stolen his appointment database. And I hate conspiracy theories. Reality should not make me feel like a conspiracy theorist.

I got to thinking about Carlie, the scheduler at Rental Family Dentistry. She had that gift of making every patient feel they were an unexpected delight that made her day. By your second appointment, she'd recognize you when you walked through the door and greet you familiarly by name: "Hi, Anita! How're the bees treating you? Did you get that hive's troubles sorted out?" "Hey Joe, we got some new coffee in. Nothing like what you serve down at the cafe, but I think it's pretty acceptable for a waiting room. Give it a try?" "Lauren! How'd you do in that last roller derby bout? I was sorry I couldn't come watch!"

It occurred to me that anyone who wanted to steal Dr. Rental's appointment book probably had to go through Carlie to get it.

I think that's why I finally got in my car and drove the five miles to Rental Family Dentistry on the day before I was scheduled to go in anyway. I needed to talk to Carlie and make sure she was OK. It hammered in my head the whole drive down. And it's not like I even knew the woman. But she was a reliable bright spot in a day that, what with having a dental appointment in it, could really use one. She made people smile, like a daffodil growing from a crack in the sidewalk or a butterfly that lands on your nose. Messing with someone like that was a sin.

The drive was familiar enough to do on autopilot. I usually went the back roads, which added twice the travel time but subtracted half the traffic and tripled the quality of the scenery. Today I was a bundle of nerves and in a hurry, so I took the highway, where the scenery consisted of other people's rear bumpers. That was familiar too; I often didn't have time for the pretty-but-slow route. My destination was a mile down the street where the highway exit deposits you, a mile of familiar store fronts and familiar stop lights and familiar billboards too.

But the familiar office building was gone.

In its place was a modern retail hut painted in such brilliant primary colors that it could have passed for a McDonald's. The huge neon sign said BRIGHT SMILES! with the exclamation mark and everything. Next to it grinned a cartoon tooth. Parts of the sign lit up at alternating intervals to give the impression that its cartoon arm was moving up and down. It was wielding a cartoon toothbrush like a back-scratcher.

I didn't even think of parking. I drove right past the building, and in my head the leftovers of this morning's stew were scorching in the pot. Some asshole competitor had taken over my dentist's office. No hacking required; they just bought Dr. Rental out, phone number, appointment book and all. But why hadn't I been told? Wouldn't Dr. Rental have let me know? Surely it wasn't normal practice to silently hand your patients off to another dentist without their consent? Shouldn't Carlie have called me up and told me?

Would I ever see Carlie again? Suddenly the loss of her cheerful smile seemed the hugest tragedy in the world.

I went to sleep that night with my appointment card on the nightstand beside the alarm clock. I had no answers and I could think of no way to get them. I wasn't even sure that tomorrow's appointment was still on. I wasn't going back to that abomination of an office, that's for sure. I definitely wasn't going to give that little shit Mike a chance to smarm at me.

And in the morning, the appointment card on my nightstand, the one with the bloodstain from giving me a paper cut six months ago, said BRIGHT SMILES! and sported a grinning cartoon tooth.

This has been the Friday Fictionette for March 6, 2015. It is also the "Fictionette Freebie" for the month of March, which means you can download it in its entirety as a PDF from Patreon.

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