Andreas J. Britz grew up in West Cork, Ireland and currently lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota with his wife Sarah. His work has recently appeared in Mystery Tribune, The Chamber Magazine and The Honest Ulsterman. He is a Truman Capote Fellowship recipient and won the 2012 University of Chicago Emerging Writer Award.


by Andreas J. Britz


He was in the chair, sound asleep. I shifted the tank of knock-out gas at my knee and came around to his right side to take his vitals. He was breathing even and steady.

I lifted his wrist and let it fall back into his lap with a quiet thud. I did it again with the other hand and this time he flinched. He looked so ridiculous with his crumpled paper bib, tousled hair and his mouth hanging partly open where I touched his gum with the Novocain pad. I was going to remove one of his premolars that had, through lack of brushing, become infected and slowly died at the root.

I had assured him it would be a simple, painless procedure and that anesthesia was unnecessary. Well, I’d no sooner administered the Novocain than Carl started thrashing around in his chair like a fish flopping around in the bottom of a boat. So I had him count sheep while I flooded his lungs with nitrous oxide.

Drool was beginning to run down his chin. I was reaching for my saliva ejector when there suddenly came a knock at the door.

“Frank?” It was my secretary, Michelle.

“Yes, Michelle, what is it?”

“Your three o’clock is here,” she said.

“Did you offer him coffee?”

“Machine’s broken.”

I grunted. “All right. Shouldn’t be much longer.”

I turned back to Carl’s limp, comatose body. He was dressed in his usual work jeans, flannel shirt and leather bomber jacket with the lamb’s wool collar that must have been a hand-me-down from an older sibling. His big, dandruff-laden mop of hair flopped down over his right shoulder.

I didn’t want to look in his mouth. There are things a dentist sees in his lifetime—horrible, ungodly things. The kind of enamel that lives rent-free in your head for weeks. I once extracted nine teeth from a single mouth, performed root canals on chain-smoking old ladies whose breath stank worse than any latrine, and regularly went home with blood-soaked cotton buds stuck to the heels of my shoes. It paid well, sure. But it was the dirtiest job I’d ever had, and I come from a family of blue-collar sanitation workers.

Yet my reasons for not wanting to look in Carl’s mouth had nothing to do with oral hygiene. The sad, shameful truth of it was that I was afraid. Afraid of silence. Afraid of being ignored. Mostly, I was afraid she’d start talking to someone else.

“Are you there?” I whispered softly into Carl’s unconscious, gaping maw. His nose twitched. I cocked my head and felt the man’s warm breath graze the rim of my ear. For the briefest moment I thought maybe she wouldn’t reply.

I was wrong.

Frank?” the tiny voice peeped. “Frank, is that you?

I’d forgotten to pull down my surgical mask again. “It’s me,” I said. “Where have you been? You had me worried.”

Sorry. Been working on a new picture.

“Is that right?”

For Mr. Frank Capra,” Shirley announced proudly. There was a brief silence. “He said it’s gonna net me my second Oscar.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. I never knew what to say to Shirley when the subject of business cropped up, which it did often enough. It wasn’t her arrogance that offended me, though it didn’t exactly please me either. Like most folks around here, I’d been brought up to regard humility as a saintly virtue. People in this community rarely tooted their own horn or suffered to have others toot it for them. Like when Daryl Katz got a story published in Harpers and his mother had the preacher announce it at church on Sunday.

It wasn’t that. I knew how these Hollywood types were—especially those with the clout and laurels that Shirley had. I mean, there was a damn drink named after her for Pete’s sake.

It was rather her apparent total lack of interest in other people—i.e., me. Though, could you blame her, really? My life was hardly what you’d call exciting. Running out of ozone for cleaning the water lines was what rated as a big event in my day. Riveting stuff.

I wanted to tell her about my week, but there were other, more pressing issues to discuss.

“So, uh…I did that thing you asked.”

No, you didn’t,” Shirley replied, sharply. “You only did part of what I asked. There’s still one more—”

“I don’t want to do that,” I snapped. “I won’t do that. It’s wicked.”

Come on!” Shirley whined, her voice tinny and faint. “I never ask you to do anything. Don’t you wanna be my friend?

“I turned that road sign around, didn’t I? Had to wait until it was dark and everyone was in bed so I wouldn’t be spotted.”

Shirley tittered. “Funny! All those cars are going to get lost.

“I left that mouse in Mr. Zimmerman’s mailbox. The old geezer got an awful fright from what I heard.”

Nasty Mr. Zimmerman!

“Look!” I yelled, reaching into my pockets and pulling out fistfuls of bonbons. “Look what I got for you. Candy from the newsagents. Smuggled it out when the old woman’s back was turned.”

One shouldn’t have to pay for candy!

“If I ever get caught, I could lose my dental practice. My livelihood, Shirley.” I was becoming flustered. “Don’t you see the risk I’m taking on for you?”

There was a protracted silence, then finally she said, “But you didn’t do the last thing, did you? We can’t be friends until you do the last thing.

“I told you, I’m not going to hurt anybody. End of discussion.”

To this, Shirley had no response.

As I sat there in smug defiance, proud of myself for not caving into Shirley’s demands, a sudden chill shot through me. I remembered what a wrathful little girl the young actress could be when she didn’t get her way and in no time at all I was sweating through my undershirt.

I was dabbing my neck and brow with a wad of paper towels when the door clicked open and Michelle’s little voice could be heard. “Frank?”

“What is it now, Michelle?”

She looked confused. “I…uh…heard yelling.”

“You heard yelling?”

“I just wanted to make sure everything is all right,” she said.

“Everything’s splendid. Thank you.”

“Your three o’clock—”

“Forget my three o’clock!” I barked, swiveling around in my chair. “Reschedule. This is going to take longer than expected.”

Michelle forced a thin smile and closed the door.

I hated being short with her. It made me feel like a Grade A schmuck. I hung my head in shame and covered my ears, wondering if I hadn’t finally scared Shirley away for good.

Frank,” she soon called from deep inside Carl Thayer. “Frank, where are you?

Carl spasmed and threw an elbow, catching the corner of my instrument dolly, jostling things. Returning to his side, I took his vitals again and laid my head on his chest to listen to his heartbeat. He was okay.

By Wednesday, I’d ticked off all the items on Shirley’s list, save one (the big one). I wasn’t sure if such a task was even feasible. I mean, how does one get hold of that much powdered ricin without arousing suspicion? The dark web, I suppose.

Soon as I placed the order, my computer would be flagged by Interpol and my driveway flooded with police cruisers, helicopters and heavily armed SWAT teams. Probably. And I’d read enough Agatha Christie novels to know that ricin is a tricky and unpredictable poison and if handled improperly could result in more cadavers than intended. I wasn’t going to take that risk. Not for anybody.

Bruce the bull would go on living, chewing cud, fertilizing fields and inseminating his impressive harem of heifers. He never hurt anyone, after all. Never gored a matador or trampled a pedestrian for sport. Bruce was innocent. His owner, Farmer Stold, was the true offender.

How Stold landed in Shirley’s crosshairs is anyone’s guess, though I suspect it had something to do with his amorous feelings towards my ex-wife Rachel. I’d heard stories of Stold’s clumsy attempts at courtship after word got out that Rachel and I were through. Showing up at her door with a bouquet of roses, or leaving gifts for her at the veterinary clinic where she worked weekends. The sorts of gestures Rachel and I would laugh at in those corny rom-coms we enjoyed on occasion.

Imagine my shock then at seeing the two of them walking, arm-in-arm, through the park one Sunday evening with a pack of mangy-looking farm dogs at their heels. As if his true motives weren’t clear enough, at one point in their stroll they paused so that she could inspect one of his pathetic pooch’s paws.

I hated seeing her good nature being so shamelessly exploited that I almost put the kibosh on things myself. Luckily, the gods saved me the trouble by kicking up a nasty storm that lasted the rest of the night and part of the next morning. Who knows what might have transpired had the nice weather held. It was enough to make a person sick.

“Did you…er…miss me, Shirley? I missed you. Missed you terribly.”

I braced myself for rejection. My dismal record with the fairer sex haunted me since my early college days. The bad old days back when I drove an ‘86 Ford Fiesta and slept with a hot pink retainer on my nightstand that my roommate loved to hide when drunk or bored or both. I think if I’d ever brought a girl back to our dorm room, Nick would have checked himself into the nearest hospital, assuming his drink had been spiked with some hallucinogenic drug.

Of course I missed you!” Shirley replied. “You’re the best one, Frank. The very best one. And I sure hope that never changes.”

My heart fluttered. I wanted to pry open Carl’s jaw, reach my hand down his gullet and pull Shirley out by her pretty auburn curls. I could still remember the first time I saw her singing “Goodship Lollipop” to James Dunn in Bright Eyes, or going toe-to-toe with that mean billy-goat in Heidi, the conclusion of which had me and my buddy Francis reaching for the tissue box.

“Shirley,” I said, timidly. “Don’t you think we ought to leave old Stold alone? Give him and that bull of his a wide berth. After all, he hasn’t done anything wrong, has he?”

He fucked your wife.”


I pondered Shirley’s words and let them rattle around in my head like fragments of candy in a sweet tin. I bent forward, put my head between my knees and took a series of deep breaths. “Why do you hurt me, Shirley? Why do you torment me like this?”

Torment you?

I raised my chin slightly, chest heaving. “That’s right.”

Listen up,” Shirley hissed. “I’ve about had it with you and your pussyfooting, Frank. You’re gonna zip it and do exactly what I tell you, because if you don’t, then I’ll leave and never come back. Then you’ll be all alone with no one but that twit secretary for company. Understand?”

“Don’t talk about her that way,” I said, pathetically.

Do you understand?

Another silence.

A neutral observer, watching the whole silly drama unfold from the shadows with a pen and clipboard in hand—and maybe one of those psych textbooks tucked under one arm—might have concluded that I was trapped in an abusive relationship of my own devising. And they’d probably be right.

Even so, I couldn’t abandon Shirley now—not after all we’d been through. “But what about Carl?” I hear that judgy lady with the clipboard say. “What about that pesky premolar? The day’s getting on. His wife and kids will be wondering where he is.”

The extraction would have to wait. In the meantime, I made sure he was comfortable by hoovering up more saliva and dabbing his brow with some cotton rounds I had laying around. He continued to look peaceful, like a sleeping infant who’d just voided its bowels.

Thayer’s wife was friends with Rachel, which meant that Carl was frequently at the house, drinking our booze and arguing loudly with one of his brothers over the phone. At their core, the Thayers were good, wholesome people who voted right and knew their bible. But the boys were prone to mischief and several of them had seen the inside of a jail cell. Aside from alcohol, Carl had few vices and, to the best of my knowledge, never once had handcuffs put on him. Nor did he suffer from poor judgment like his wayward siblings. I liked Carl, which partly explained the nervous feeling I had at that moment.

“Shirley,” I began, feeling my throat suddenly dry out. “This has to stop. No more pranks, no more tricks and no more asking me to do things that are...morally questionable.”

To this, Shirley could only repeat her threats, albeit in a more composed manner. She reminded me, gleefully, of the penalty for failing to carry out her orders. “Pick up the drill,” she said in that sweet, innocent voice of hers. “Pick it up, or I’ll strangle Carl from the inside. I’ll tie up his guts in knots. Close the valves of his heart and eat his liver for my dinner. Don’t think I won’t! And don’t think I wouldn’t do the same to your secretary, if I had half the chance. Do it, Frank! Do it now!”

Here’s a fact. If it weren’t for Shirley, I would have never made it out of that fire alive. Rachel and I had argued the day before and decided it would be best if I spent the weekend alone at the cabin in Grey Eagle. Let’s call it what it was: a timeout.

There were two bottles of Jim Beam in one of the kitchen cabinets as well as a six pack of cheap domestic beer languishing at the back of the fridge. And, hand on heart, I didn’t touch any of it. I was as sober as a Mormon judge when my bedroom caught fire with me in it.

I awoke to the smell of burning cedar. The quilt weighing me down was smoking and the pattern on it had disappeared, exposing the wool batting beneath. Every breath I took was like a kick to the lungs by a pair of cleats. I couldn’t see anything. Not even my own hands as they shot out in front of me, feeling around for some piece of furniture that wasn’t cherry-red and that could guide me out of the inferno.

I collapsed in the entrance way and was about to drift off into an obliterating sleep when I heard her voice for the first time, calling to me.

Frank!” she cried. “Get up, Frank. You’re dying.”

I lifted my head off the hardwood floor, and winced as the skin of my cheek and jaw sloughed off me. I yelled Rachel’s name, thinking it was her voice I’d heard rising up out of the flames, phoenix-like. I kept calling for her until I was hoarse and the tears stood hot and thick in my eyes.

Stand up and walk straight ahead,” came Shirley’s calm reply. “Don’t touch the door frame or you’ll burn yourself.”

I followed her directions exactly until I was outside on the porch just as the fire brigade arrived with their axes and ventilators and long, serpentine hoses.

I remember being wrapped in a scratchy, brown blanket and asking the nice medic who was checking my pupils with a pen light where my wife was and if she was okay.

“Your wife?” answered the medic, confused. “Someone from the hospital will call her and explain what happened.”

“She isn’t here?”

The medic merely shook his head, put away his pen light and started rolling up my sleeve to take my blood pressure. Later that night, in the burn ward of the hospital, while I awaited the arrival of my soon-to-be ex-wife, as well as the doctor who would inform me of the nerve damage to my face, I spoke to Miss Shirley Temple. The fella in the bed next to me, who was a vegetable and properly mummified, served as her conduit.

“Why did you start the fire?” I asked her. “And why did you then save me?”

Shirley sighed. “Silly. I didn’t start the fire...you did.”

“I certainly did not—”

Don’t worry, Frank. I won’t tell anyone,” she said. “I’m here to fix you, don’t you see? Your life’s broken, Frank, and needs mending. Will you let me mend you?”

“But why do you even care?”

Shirley paused. “Because I do.”

And just like that, the great Shirley Temple entered my life.

She coached me on how to deal with the police. They had questions and I had answers. They didn’t believe a word of it, of course. I would have been slapped with community service or perhaps even a short jail sentence if not for the intervention of a lawyer friend of Rachel’s who had some pull with the judge.


Do I regret any of it? The loss of the cabin (a wedding present from Rachel’s late father), the dissolution of my marriage or the damage to my reputation in the community?

Certainly not.

My hand trembled as it reached for the drill on the tray. In my grip now was not only Carl’s fate, but my own. I felt sick and dizzy and wanted to turn the drill on myself. Put out my eyes or bore a hole through my jugular. Free myself from Shirley’s ever-tightening snare.

To do this, however, wouldn’t be fair to Michelle. She’d rightly loath me for it and spend the rest of her days strategically avoiding the dentist, while her teeth slowly rotted out of her skull. I could see that beautiful smile of hers gone derelict, her shriveled, pale gums a cautionary tale to contrary children everywhere.

I couldn’t let that happen.

I put the drill back on the tray, leaned over and took Carl’s vitals for the last time. Then I gently fitted the rubber mask over his face, opened the valve on the tank of nitrous oxide, and eyed the gauge as that little red needle, like the hairs on my forearms, began to climb and climb.

I was suddenly desperate for a cup of water. I walked over to the water cooler and knocked my hand against the paper cup dispenser, the pain sharp and sizzling. After filling my cup, I stood watching Carl from across the room, waiting for the moment when he...when she...would be gone. There was no struggle, no threats, no bargaining, no desperate pleas for mercy. It was all so gentle, so perfectly quaint.

Honestly, I felt superb. My former equilibrium had been restored. I could have done cartwheels had there been space enough. Outside, on the street, a couple of grade school kids were playing hopscotch. One was blowing, Chet Baker-style, into a kazoo. I wanted to lean out that window and, like some benevolent uncle, shower them with all those tasty bonbons I’d stolen. But I restrained myself.

The moment was almost ruined when a passing garbage truck tooted its horn, loudly, causing me to rear up and knock my head against the edge of the window. It smarted terribly. I shook my fist and cursed the garbage men—my people—who were already up the road a piece and about to turn into the alley behind Callahan’s Barber Shop.

I slid down the heavy, triple-paned window and fastened it. Then I froze. TAP-TAP! TAP-TAP-TAP! TAP-TAP-TAP! My hands gripped the corners of the window sill, the knuckles slowly turning white. TAPPITY-TAP-TAP! TAPPITY-TAP-TAP-TAP! T-T-TAP! T-T-TAP! T-T-TAP-TAP-TAP! Tap dancing. There was no mistaking it, and it was edging closer and closer to me. I swung around, fists clenched, intending to meet my intruder head-on, and what I saw nearly bowled me over.


Bill Robinson, tap-dancer extraordinaire and Shirley’s frequent co-star, stood wearing the same black tuxedo he wore for the staircase scene in The Little Colonel. His face sported a devious grin, his eyes bulging menacingly from their sockets.

It was a singular thrill to be in the man’s hallowed presence, a man who could dance circles around the likes of Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly and with whom Shirley had a unique chemistry. It was all too much.

I wanted to reach out and touch him, make sure that he was real and not merely a figment of my ailing mind. More than anything I wanted to watch him and Miss Temple cut a rug. I would have given the world to see that. To see them transform my office into a well-lit movie set with director, cast and crew standing by in awe, watching them do their thing. That would have made me very happy indeed.

“I don’t understand,” I said. “Where did you—?”

He placed his finger on my lips, silencing me. “Quiet now. I have something to tell you.” He paused, meaningfully. “I’m here with a message from Shirley.”

Upon hearing her name, I began to tear up.

His hand fell to my shoulder and gave it a light squeeze. “She wanted me to tell you that she forgives you for what you did. For all of it.”

I began sobbing.

He said, “You deserve happiness, Frank. You deserve to be loved for who you are.”

“And who am I?” I said, sniffling. 

A smile bloomed on Bojangles’ face. “You’re…unique.”

Something in his voice told me he meant it.

“Hey, Bill?” I looked at the Hollywood star with glistening eyes. “Is everything going to be okay?”

He tugged playfully at the lapels of his tuxedo, grinned and said, “Copacetic, Frank. Now, go get her!”

I flung open my office door, marched over to the reception desk where Michelle sat, looking cowed, and placed my hand gently on her back. “I’m sorry for yelling a moment ago,” I whispered. “You are wonderful, and I’m glad to have you in my...practice.”

I almost said life.

Looking up from her computer screen, which was plastered all over with blue and green sticky notes, she smiled, warmly, and said it was okay. She wasn’t offended.

That was big of her. If there wasn’t a law against it, I would have leaned in that very moment and pressed my lips against hers, tasting the artificial cherry of her lip gloss and smelling whatever department store perfume she spritzed her hair with.

She was still smiling, showing off those beautiful canines of hers, when the phone on her desk started to ring.