I’m sorry I can’t find the tiny hole in the metal contraption in the back of your mouth. Even with a flashlight and your head tilted back, I still can’t make contact. The opening disappears. I’m sorry I keep stabbing your gums with the key that is meant to turn the device, to expand your palate.

Ow, you say each time I miss. Other parents don’t hurt their kids, you say.

 

I won’t tell you what my friend shared the night before at dinner. A carving knife laid beside an uneaten red velvet cake.

Each time I see a knife, my friend said, I imagine picking it up and slicing my tongue. I can’t stop having this vision.

I nodded because I understood. I’ve had such visions with other objects, or with you, when you were a baby. I imagined how easy it would be to snap your tiny arm in half. Another friend back then confided she fantasized about throwing her screaming baby out of the window. Not that we’d ever do any of those things, but those of us who were honest shared our darkest thoughts.

 

When I finally get the key to stay in place, I take a deep breath and push it up. They say turn the key as if you’re unlocking a vault, but really it’s more like opening a garage door. As I push it back, I imagine you getting smaller, younger, shrinking back to that helpless baby who couldn’t talk back.

Ow, you say again, your voice deeper — closer to my tone than a baby’s squeal.

I’m almost finished, I say.

Your eyes look in mine, as if searching for a different key. Maybe you wish I would turn it the opposite direction. To speed things up, to give you a growth spurt.

But that’s what I’m doing. I’m widening your jaw. I am making you bigger.

 

There was another time I remember sitting in a window seat in my bedroom nursing your baby brother. You were playing with a ball outside, and I heard the squeal of rubber trying to stop on pavement. I ran outside and saw that your ball had rolled down our steep driveway and into the center of the road. You’d run after it. A man driving a pick-up truck had pounded on his brakes hard enough so that he’d just missed hitting you.

I could have killed her, he yelled.

I know, I yelled back.

You held tightly on to your ball and we both stared at the thick black skid marks that the tires had made on the road. Your baby brother cried by himself inside, and I couldn’t wait for you both to grow up.

 

Have you ever looked at a person’s face, you ask with your hand covering your sore mouth, and seen exactly what they’ll look like when they grow up?

I nod. I have.

That happened to me yesterday, you say, with a boy at school while we were doing math.

I wonder what that means.

It doesn’t mean anything. It was just weird.

Then why did you bring it up, I want to ask as you turn away, as if you’ve turned a key in my mouth that caused me to regress to your age.

Instead, I shrug and tuck the thought away. I stare at your face and try to imagine you as an adult turning a key inside the mouth of your child.

What are you looking at, you ask.

Nothing, I answer, and pull you towards me so I can kiss the top of your head.

Though you squirm, you lean in to me and say: Don’t lose the key again.

***

Liz Matthews received her MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and her writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Brain Child, Quality Women’s Fiction, Brevity, and is upcoming in Spelk and The Tishman Review. She teaches writing at Westport Writers’ Workshop in Connecticut.