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Cult of Personality
About the Author: After three years in the wild-adjacent city of Anchorage, Nick now lives in Connecticut with his wife and two dogs were he works full-time as a physical therapist. His love of the written word is only matched by his love of the outdoors, and when he's not writing he enjoys fly-fishing, hiking, and camping.

The man was built entirely of teeth, and those teeth lorded over the highway in neat, hyper-white rows, sunny yet somehow threatening to all the morning commuters forced to pass underneath. When the billboard first went up there were a series of accidents attributed to startled drivers, their attention diverted by the enormous smile hovering above the exit 41 overpass. After a month, the teeth were just another part of the landscape, no more noticed than the ever-changing graffiti that wrapped the concrete balusters of the elevated highway. More billboards went up. Pretty soon there wasn’t a spot in the city you couldn’t see the super-sized grin plastered on walls and rooftops. Thin lips, the suggestion of two hairless, clinical nostrils, and a simple message. The message was this:


John Fielding checked his teeth in the glass front of the office building and, finding them still crooked and a bit coffee-stained but otherwise passable, gave himself a reassuring nod. A taxi slammed to a stop at the curb and spit out three men in matching sunglasses and suits in slightly different shades of navy blue. Into the big revolving glass door they went and then gone without so much as a glance in John’s direction.

“You can do this,” John said to his image in the glass. His reflection gave nothing.

By the gentle swirling action of the revolving door, John Fielding found himself deposited into a grand lobby with marble floors and decorative roman columns supporting potted ferns twenty feet in the air. Brass fans hung from the ceiling far above, spinning out lazy convections of chilled breeze. The woman behind the front desk watched him approach, her expression one of carefully-selected neutrality.

“Do you have an appointment?”

The receptionist wore a tight bob of midnight hair that terminated precisely at the level of her ears. She sat behind a solid rectangle of black stone that came even with, and contrasted, the pale exposed plate of her breastbone, the desk’s surface bare of a computer or even so much as a pen. Behind her head, a familiar grin, shrunk to a manageable ten feet, assured anyone who might be in the lobby in sincere, red letters:


“Ten o’clock, with Mr. Mathis. Fielding, John Fielding.” John was careful to keep his teeth hidden behind his lip as he spoke. “It’s about the junior prosecutor position.”

The receptionist stared at him for a long moment. She had a similar dreary, imposed-upon countenance to his wife, Barbara, which set John immediately against her in his heart. He imagined he could hear a buzzing cloud of skepticism circling her perfectly-manicured head as her eyes read him from the toes up. Finally, she spoke. “With Mr. Mathis, you’re positive?” She waited while John fumbled his day planner out of his briefcase. In the process he nearly dropped his lunch, an egg salad sandwich carefully concealed inside wax paper.

“Mr. Roger Mathis, at ten o’clock, that’s what the recording said.” John offered an apologetic smile. “If there’s been some kind of mix-up—”

“No mix-up.” The receptionist produced a telephone from somewhere and whispered briefly into the receiver. After a long silence, she hung up. As if noticing John for the first time, she grinned, revealing overfilled shelves of perfectly straight white teeth set within the red cage of her lipstick. “Welcome, Mr. Fielding, and we sure do appreciate your promptness. Mr. Mathis expects punctuality of all his employees, current and future. Elevator is at the end of the hall; take it all the way to the top, twenty-second floor, and they’ll get you squared away.”

“My great grandfather was a watchmaker,” John said, emboldened now that this crucial misunderstanding had been averted. He straightened the knot of his tie. “I guess you could say punctuality is in my blood.”

The receptionist cackled sharp, birdlike laughter, the sound chasing around the empty lobby. She brought a hand to her mouth, and with the other waved him on, her eyes pleading mercy. Halfway to the elevator, she called after him.

“Oh, Mr. Fielding?”

He turned.

“Favorite number, I forgot to ask.”

“Excuse me?”

“Your favorite number, what is it?” She was still smiling. Even from this distance, John thought he could count her teeth if he wanted to.

This story appears in our SEP2020 Issue
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