“Don’t Feed the Animals” by Claudia Ferreira

They say you should never give a wild animal food. It will teach them to be relaxed around humans.

It’s why we have to close all the windows when we go down to the coast to visit Grandpa and Grandma. The baboons down there are fearless and will steal anything because people keep leaving old scraps of food for them.

They’ve started shooting the baboons now since they became more aggressive. I heard Dad whispering about it one night when he thought I was in bed. They tore off the face of a girl who was having a picnic with her parents. I thought about Googling it afterwards but chickened out. The image in my head was enough.

I didn’t know baboons could do that to someone. Sure, they have those scary jaws but I always thought it was all for show. Dad always tells me baboons are dangerous but I figured it was one of those lies parents tell you, like how that green gunk on your plate actually tastes good or how your face will stick that way if you keep making those expressions.

Sometimes I play along and pretend I believe it when they tell me something fake. Mostly, I don’t though. Like Father Christmas or the tooth fairy.

Last week, my last baby tooth fell out. It lasted a lot longer than the rest, despite my efforts to jiggle it out with my tongue.

I was going to throw it away but Mom saw me with it in my hand before I got to the dustbin and took it from me.

“Aren’t we going to leave this for the tooth fairy,” she asked in that icing sugar voice moms do when they’re talking down to you.

“I’m too old for that kind of stuff,” I told her. I know it’s her leaving the coins on my pillow. I’ve known for ages. But R5 seems like a lot of money when you’re a little kid. Not so much now that I’m older and I get real pocket money—what can you even buy with coins anyway?

“You’re never too old for the tooth fairy,” she said handing me back the tooth. I rolled my eyes.

“Mom, I’m not a baby anymore. The tooth fairy’s just a made-up thing.”

She seemed disappointed as she gave me back the tooth. Whatever. When isn’t she nowadays?

That night, I felt guilty. Maybe, I reasoned as I lay in the dark, it was more important that she believe in the tooth fairy than I did. Parents need that sometimes, for you to pretend you’re a dumb little kid again. So to keep them happy, I got out of bed to find the tooth and put it under my pillow.

I woke up the next morning and went to the bathroom. When I came back to check under my pillow, the tooth was gone. No R5 coin though. Nothing.

“You forgot to leave the money,” I told her later at the breakfast table. “From the tooth fairy,” I added when she looked puzzled.

“You said you didn’t want me to,” she said. “That you were too old.”

“Yeah, and I put it there anyway, then it disappeared. Not many places it could have gone.”

“Meg, I promise I haven’t been in your room this morning. Maybe you just meant to put in under your pillow and forgot.”

Unless I’d started sleep-walking, there was no way that had happened. I went back to my room to see if the tooth had fallen off the bed. I didn’t find anything. Was she playing a prank to teach me some cheesy lesson?

But that made no sense. She’d never done that before. Plus she really did seem confused when I asked her about it.

So I went to school and forgot about it. It was just a tooth after all—I had plenty more of them.

Until the nightmares.

In my dreams, I can’t move and there’s something bending over me. It’s got a long face and teeth for eyes and its breath smells like rotting food. It’s holding my mouth open and tapping on each of my teeth with its bony fingers. I want to cry but I can’t. I can’t do anything except stare. It grabs one of my teeth and starts to pull.

That’s when I wake up, as sweaty as if I’ve just run laps around the field. I realise that the tapping is just the ticking of my clock but I’m so spooked, I can barely sleep for the rest of the night.

I tell myself that it’s just a nightmare, but it doesn’t help. The face flashes in my head during the day sometimes, when I’m so tired that I almost fall asleep in class.

Mom and Dad keep wondering why my marks have gotten bad. What am I supposed to tell them—that I’m scared of nightmares like a baby?

Earlier tonight, it happened again, same as it always does. Long face hovering over me, testing each of my teeth to see which one’s ripe for the picking. Tap. Tap. Tap. Finger moving across the gap where my last baby tooth used to be and settling on an incisor.

I woke up, same as I always do, dripping with sweat as the taps turned to tick-tocks. Just a bad dream. Monsters don’t exist. Like Father Christmas or the Easter Bunny.

Except this time, I noticed something standing at the foot of my bed, just for a second. I couldn’t see the eyes but I could tell it had a long face. I saw it draw a bony finger to its lips before stepping back into the shadows.

I’ve been trying to stay awake for hours now, turning up the volume on my earphones every time I find my eyelids start to droop. My head feels really heavy now the music keeps fading into the background when I try to focus on it. I keep poking at the gap between the tooth with my tongue.

They say you should never give a wild animal food because it makes them relaxed around humans. But that’s not the only reason. At school, they once told us about these lions in Kenya who started eating human flesh. They had to shoot them because they killed so many people, over a hundred of them.

Because once something gets a taste of you, it’s not going to be satisfied with anything else.

I can’t even hear the music now. I feel my head falling to my chest.

I don’t think I can last until morning.

Born due east of Johannesburg, Claudia Ferreira has been putting words to paper (and other surfaces, much to the frustration of her parents) since she was a small child. At some point, she learned how to put them in configurations that people could actually read. Like most creatives, she works at an agency to be able to afford food and has a well-stocked mind palace that helps her keep sane.

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