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Toothless Joe

Toothless Joe

Estimated reading time — 16 minutes

Miss Green wiped away the thick layer of condensation that had gathered on her classroom’s paper thin-window. She flicked away the droplets from her hand, peered out into the misty morning schoolyard, and was instantly stalked by Toothless Joe’s big cartoon eyes.

The great, dumb statue sat smack-bang in the middle of the playground, as solitary as a tombstone. Placed amongst the swings, slides, and chalk drawings, Toothless Joe looked like the mayor of a strange, colourful town. Benign, cheerful and harmless. The morning sun that was rising over the school gates bathed his perfectly round head with a golden halo and stretched his shadow across the ground, moving closer and closer towards Miss Green. The only feature bigger than Joe’s leering eyes was his tunnel-sized mouth, which hung open in a gasp of pain – exposing a set of rubber banded, very toothless, pink gums. But the eyes were the main thing. They bore into you. Forever watching and waiting.

Apparently, Joe was meant to look like a dog, but whoever sculpted him had done such a crude job that it was hard to say what creature he truly represented. All Miss Green knew for certain about Joe was the palpable anxiety that the childish ornament instilled in her whenever their paths crossed. But as for the kids, they adored old Joe with endless mirth. He was an icon, a timeless figurehead of their youth. Even the older children, who should have aged-out of being impressed by such an object, still gave him a cursory pat on the head as they trotted by to their lessons.

The steam from Miss Green’s cup of tea slowly began to re-fog the glass. She let the vapour build, grateful to obscure the creepy statue once again, if only for a moment. But the lurking fear had already produced the chemical reaction required. The customary tingle at the base of her neck soon followed, and she felt a chill settle in the air. All that from just one five second glance at the statue. Surely that was evidence enough that there was something entirely and thoroughly wrong about the thing’s existence, here at Woodlands Primary School.

These feelings of dread she had experienced continued to grow over time, but the grassroots of the unease had always been present, even from her very first day on the job. Why then, did no one else feel the same way she does about Toothless Joe? She had grown tired of the weird looks and palmed off comments she received from the other teachers whenever she raised the issue of Joe’s strangeness, and the effect he was having on the children.

Her friend Hannah, who taught Maths, quite simply told her, “Helen, these things…just go away by themselves. It’s all the post-stress build up towards the end of term. Things will be back to normal once the children have spent some time away from the school”.

Mr Fern, the head of history, was far more blunt.

“It was probably that Sex Ed class they had last month. They all get a bit weird after the Sex Ed class. Hormones start flying all over the place. Hits them younger and younger each term. The ‘new normal’, they call it.”

But what the children were doing to the statue wasn’t normal, not by any quantification of stress, or pre-teen hormones. Why was she the only one who could see sense? She would never share with anyone her most paranoid observations about Toothless Joe. Like how she could swear blind that the thing was moving a little closer towards her classroom every day. Just by an inch or two, nothing that would stand out to a casual viewer, only to those who paid very close attention. She had stopped herself several times from taking a tape measure and recording the length precisely. There would be no coming back from that. It would spark questions she could not answer without raising ‘concerns’. And ‘concerns’ on any Teacher’s records may as well be written in their own blood. Also, it would mean getting intimately close to Joe, and Miss Green had already taken steps to avoid any form of contact.

For months now she had made a habit of entering work through the back entrance, via the designated smoking area, and far away from Toothless Joe’s domain. The old cigarette butts of smokers past always ended up sticking to the heels of her smart shoes as she walked through. The proximity to a tobacco heavy area inevitably led to the resurfacing of her own addiction, and she would now treat herself to a post-morning-puff before entering the building of healthy little lungs. Rationally, she knew this only tarnished her reputation as a teaching role model further, and several of the children had already commented on the ‘strange smell’ that began emulating from her clothing. What they tell you during your training is true – the small people notice everything. But it felt like a justifiable habit given the circumstances and ‘The Developing Situation’.

That is how she entitled her email to Mrs Taylor – the school’s long standing Headteacher. It was a title she hoped was neither too hyperbolic, nor complacent. The email had been sent more than two weeks ago, and she had still not received a reply. It seemed like The Head was doing everything she could to avoid Miss Green in person, as well as digitally. Whenever she tried to get five minutes alone with her, Mrs Taylor would always instantly remember ‘something’ that had to be dealt with ‘right away’, and then make a half-hearted attempt to reschedule their meeting before escaping promptly. Were they all as secretly scared as she was?

Her brooding thoughts were broken by a tuneless whistling that echoed softly from the main corridor and steadily got louder and louder. The whistling burst into a new key as the door of Miss Green’s classroom flew open, and the friendly face of Harry, the school caretaker, appeared, spreading some much needed warmth upon the chilly environment.

“Hello, Miss Green. Beautiful morning.” His loud, bellowing voice could be heard across the entire school. It was always a beautiful morning for Harry, no matter the weather. If there was a figure that the children loved just as much as Toothless Joe, it would be Harry; He was like the best granddad, uncle and cousin, all rolled into one. There was never a mess, breakage or problem the man couldn’t solve. He often moonlighted as the teaching staff’s personal therapist too. More than once, he had found a greenhorn trainee sobbing into their desk, and always had the right speech prepared to spur them on and stop them from handing in their resignation. Accompanying him, as always, was his large trolley full of chemicals, mops and brooms, ready to tackle any chaos that the children could unleash. He nicknamed this metal station on wheels ‘The Tank’, because, as he often joked, “working at a school is like going into war – you never know when you’re going home”. Ironically of course, Harry would never work a minute past his set shift and he encouraged the rest of the staff to do the same. “Life’s for livin’, not for sitting” – another saying of his, that caused mild irritation to Miss Green, referred to the many overtime hours all the Teachers spent sitting at their desks, working themselves into stress spirals. Easy enough to say, when you don’t have ten lessons to plan, fifty tests to mark and your own revalidation work to complete on top of that. Despite his ignorance, it was extremely hard not to like Harry, and Miss Green had grown especially fond of him these last few months.

“Good Morning Harold, How are you today?” Miss Green said back warmly.
“Oh, just marvellous. I’ll be even more marvellous come three o’ clock mind you”.
“Won’t we all. And your wife, Geena, how is her leg doing?”
“Much better tar. She’s up’n’about and chasing me around again. Good thing too, she was wearing out her finger from all the pointing she was doing”.

Another classic Harry laugh set the room rocking as he started unravelling the cord of his vacuum, but his laughter was stopped short when he noticed Miss Green’s pensive state. He could see her thin frame trembling as she stared out at Toothless Joe.

“If you don’t mind me saying Miss, you look like you’ve got the weight of the world on your shoulders there”. The old man remarked, everso matter of factly.

She had to be careful what she said next, as kind and understanding as Harry was, he was a self-confessed gossip. Any theories she let slip wouldn’t stay within these four walls for long. She took a large gulp of her tea to clear the fear from her throat.

“Harry, can I ask you something? I don’t mean to be rude, but you’ve been here a long time, probably longer than any other teacher…or even the Head.”

She hesitated, “Sorry, I’m making you sound ancient aren’t I? What I mean is, if anyone knows the answer, it’d be you”.
Harry smiled – as if someone calling him old wasn’t just stating the blooming obvious, “Of course Miss Green. Happy to help if I can. What do you want to know?”
“Well, I was wondering, do you remember when Joe was put in the playground?”
“Toothless Joe? Oh, well now…”, and in that moment Harry’s eyes seemed to glaze over, as if a spell had been cast upon his mind. The very same spell she had witnessed taking hold of everyone else she had asked this same question to. A few seconds passed before the mirage scattered and Harry snapped back to reality.
“….well seems to me like old joe’s been here with us forever.”

‘Seems like he’s been here forever’. That was the same answer everyone she dared asked had given her – word for word. Frustrated, Miss Green tried again.
“Ok, but can you put your finger on a year when he…IT, was put in the playground? Who commissioned it? Who built it?”
“Well…No, I’m sorry, I really can’t say Ms Green.”
“But you went to this school when you were young, correct? Was Joe in the playground then? Or was he put there after?”

Harry’s brow creased to form the shape of a shovel. The pressure built over his eyes, like a wall had been placed around his memory. That same magic fell upon him again and his mind was gone with the fairies.

“Harry?” Miss Green said sharply, checking he wasn’t about to have a stroke. The old caretaker shuddered back into reality, “I’m truly sorry Ms Green, this is so unlike me, I really can’t recall the whens-and-wheres of it. But like I say, it just feels like Joe has always been here with us. Why do you ask anyway?”
How much did she risk telling Harry? How much of a headcase did she want to look? No one else at the school shared her suspicions, she was all on her own. It was her versus Joe. She unbit her top lip and let loose her thoughts – Life’s for livin’ not for sittin’, after all.

“I mean…I’m sure, you must know better than most, that Toothless Joe…isn’t exactly toothless anymore.”
Harry seemed bemused by the statement. He snorted softly and placed a tanned hand upon his morning stumble, “Oh yes, it’s a peculiar thing for sure, but then I gave up trying to understand children and the games they play a long time ago.”

She had to fight the urge to walk over and shake Harry by the shoulders.
“A game? Is that all you think it is?”
“What else could it be? Just the youth being their innocent selves. Might seem strange to adults I suppose, but I don’t think there’s any malice in it.”
Miss Green could feel her self control slipping, her voice started echoing off the classroom walls and filtered out into the hallway, “You don’t think that the children putting their baby teeth into Joe’s mouth is in any way sinister?”, She half-screamed.

Again, Harry met Miss Green’s anger was a soft dumbfoundedness.
“Well, I suppose the tooth fairy might be a little pissed off. Old Joe is stealing her business”. He let out a hearty, devonshire laugh before continuing, “I’m not a psychologist, but to me it shows empathy doesn’t it? It’s as if they’re all sad that Joe doesn’t have any teeth of his own, so they want to give him some of theirs? Plus, it makes a change from all the rubbish that they used to chuck in his mouth. Lost count of the amount of times I told them off for that. But since this tooth business, truth be told, I’ve not found one piece of litter in him.”
Miss Green pinched the bridge of her nose to relieve the pressure building there, before pressing the old caretaker further.
“But then, how many teeth have you found?”
“Well, I probably cleared a dozen out of their last week”.
It was so much worse than she thought, “A dozen! In a week? Children don’t lose their teeth that quickly, Harry.”

Harry shrugged his great bear shoulders, “I don’t know about that, Miss Green. Me and Carol were never blessed with kids, as you know – I wouldn’t have a clue what the average tooth loss should be”.
She instantly felt a pang of guilt for inadvertently raising such a sore subject for Harry, but a mere pang wasn’t enough to suppress the anger that had been stirring deep inside her for so many months. The cup nearly shattered when she slammed it on her desk. Harry jumped a little, never before had he seen this woman’s temper spill over like her tea just had.

“I’m telling you”, she said through gritted teeth, “They’re obsessed with that thing. The other day we did a bit of biology about the human body. I briefly mentioned how many teeth humans have during their lifetime, and you wouldn’t believe how many arms shot up to ask questions; ‘Miss Green, when will we get our adult teeth?’ ‘Miss Green, do some people get more teeth than others? ‘Miss Green, When do we lose them all?’ It wasn’t fascination I saw in that sea of faces. It was possession. They were possessed with the idea, of…teeth”

Harry crossed his arms over each other and perched himself on one of the small tables, trying to break through the rising tension.
“Well, I put that down to you being an excellent teacher who knows how to engage her students. They’re darn lucky to have such a bright, beautiful and intelligent lady to steer their minds in the right direction”
Usually, Miss Green would find Harry’s gentle flirtations charming, but today they were just flat out annoying. But she did her best to cover her disdain, because she knew he was only trying to help.


“That’s very sweet of you to say. But…what do you think started it? Why are they all doing it now? It’s become like a competition – to see who can put the most teeth into Toothless Joe. You know, I caught Steven Barret and Benjy King trying to pull each other’s molars out the other day. They went behind the P.E shed where they thought no one could see them and came back out with blood pouring from their mouths.”
“How do you know they just weren’t scrapping? I had plenty of good fights behind that shed in my days.” Harry countered.
“That’s what they said they were doing, but when I searched them…I found the tools they had been using on each other. They’d stolen scissors from art class and were using them as…surgical instruments. I mean Christ, at this rate, it won’t be long before the whole class is wearing dentures!”. Miss Green realised she was now fighting for breath. Both her hand and top were soaking wet from where she had spilt the tea over herself during her frantic speech. Harry was moving towards her with his mop to clean up the puddle on the floor, but she raised a hand to stop him.
“I’m sorry Harry, please, I’ll tidy that up. Sorry, I let myself get carried away there.”

She grabbed the mop out of his hands and began swiping it back and forth over the puddle with her head down. She couldn’t bear to see the empathic stare that she knew Harry was now giving her. Red hot embarrassment blossomed on her face and soon she was mopping up her own tears, along with her split drink. Harry, now exhausted of reasonable excuses, took this as his opportunity to leave. But before he exited stage right, he couldn’t resist bestowing one last pearl of wisdom.

“Well, Miss Green, these things end up passing by eventually. And sure, the children love Old Joe for now, but something new will come along soon. Some new app, or funny video, or me-me that’ll soon draw their interest.”
She handed the mop back to him with a forced smile.
“I hope you’re right Harry, and I hope this doesn’t escalate any further. And it’s Meme – not a me-me”.
“Is it now? Well, well”

Like a magnet, something pulled Miss Green back to the window to look at Toothless Joe. When she did, she saw to her horror that Joe was no longer alone. Two boys, who she couldn’t recognise from this vantage point, were standing either side of the statue like makeshift bodyguards. They swiftly moved in front of their wooden idol, turning their backs on their Teacher. The smaller of the two boys slung his bag off his shoulder, quickly removed something from within and then emptied the contents into Joe’s mouth. Before she could think better of it, Miss Green hammered her fist on the window, nearly cracking the glass. The boys’ spun around with meerkat reflexes. The white sun slid beneath a cloud just long enough for Miss Green to catch sight of their faces.

It was Steven Barrett and Benjy King, full of fear, with black patches under their eyes. Benjy’s hand was covering mouth, she assumed from the shock of them being spotted. They looked at their teacher only briefly and then the pair of them scattered off towards the main entrance.

“Look, it’s not even the first bell and those boys are already putting in their ‘offerings’.” She sighed in resignation.
“Oh dear, let me get right on it now Miss Green.” Harry grabbed ‘The Tank’ by its rusty handles and started wheeling it out of the classroom.
“Thank you Harry, and I’m sorry for my outburst. You didn’t deserve that.”

Harry waved away her apology, shuffled out of the classroom, and soon resumed whistling that same nondescript tune back down the corridor. Miss Green spent a few more minutes surveilling the area, making sure no other children were about to ‘donate’ something to Joe, before forcing herself to turn away. She had to start laying out the workbooks. She had to get moving as she still hadn’t finished her lesson plans for the period. It was going to be one of those ‘fake it, till you make it’ lessons’. Every teacher is allowed at least one of those per week, she assured herself.

Miss Green had no sooner finished pouring herself a new cup of tea from her thermos when she heard the scream. It was a horse scream, with a depth and volume that couldn’t have possibly come from a child’s underdeveloped vocal chords. Miss Green dived back to the window, already certain that she knew the cause of the disturbance. Looking out across the playground, she saw Harry standing a few feet away from Toothless Joe, hands shaking at his sides, screaming into the statue’s mouth. Miss Green watched as the old man’s legs gave way and he crumpled to the floor.

Miss Green lept from her desk and pounded down the hallway as fast as she could, regretting all those morning cigarettes which each giant stride. Pushing open the double doors that lead out to the playground the morning sunlight hit her with its full glory. She walked blindly for a moment until she could orient herself, but it wasn’t long before those giant cartoon eyes fell upon her. Harry was still spread out on the cold tarmac, kneeling before the totem. She hesitated momentarily before approaching further. Joe was even more leering and terrifying up-close, she could feel the wickedness radiating from him. She refused to use the word ‘evil’, but a definite aura of ‘wrongness’ permeated from the space he occupied. A sorrowful groan from Harry pushed away Miss Green’s own panic, and she set about helping her friend.

“Harry! My god, are you alright?” She crouched down beside him while slowly turning him away from Joe in the process. Harry’s own breathing was shallow, his face was moon-white and she could feel trembles surging through his body. She cursed herself for not getting out her phone and calling an ambulance right away. If he was having a stroke or heart attack every second counts. She pulled her phone from her pocket and made the call to the ambulance service. They had just taken her details when she saw the blood patches that littered the floor at the base of Joe’s feet. A quick visual examination of Harry confirmed that he was not bleeding. Miss Green let the phone drop to her side and allowed herself to gaze upon the statue. She soon clocked several more long drips of crimson that were flowing from Joe’s gaping mouth. As if she had been hypnotised, she rose and began stumbling towards the statue on weak bambi legs. Harry frantically grabbed her arm, but he was slippery with sweat and couldn’t maintain a grip. He muttered out one single word of warning, as Miss Green reached Joe and peered inside.


She saw the two baby teeth first, jammed into the bottom set of rubber gums, amongst the many other indentations where the children had hammered in their own offerings. Then the winter sun disappeared completely behind thick could, availing Miss Green’s strained vision and allowing the young teacher to single in on the other foreign body that lay within the belly of the beast. Snuggled at the back of the statue’s wooden mouth sat a mass of tissue the colour of candy floss, the tip of which had been aligned towards the front of Joe’s gums. A crease ran down its centre, a perfect diving line, and its surface glistened with patches of frothy saliva. It was fresh and had but a single anatomical likeness. Despite the surrounding gore, one could almost be amazed at how large this particular body part was when removed in its entirety, as this one had been.

Miss Green bit down hard on her own tongue, as she stared upon the served one that was on display before her. It had come from a child, that was obvious from the size, but also by how perfect and unblemished it looked, even in this graphic state. Her feet took it upon themselves to move her away from this apparent ‘sacrifice’, for what else could you call it? The organ seemed to have an endless supply of blood contained within it, as more and more red treacle continued to empty from its base and pour over the dog’s dry lips. It had not been cut cleanly, but rather sliced in a criss-cross fashion. Loose flaps of skin where the incision instrument had doubled over the surface showed evidence of a frantic removal. The owner must have rallied against their assault.


Behind Miss Green, Harry had pulled himself up into a squatting position, still shaking like a leaf, but his breathing levelling out.

“Please tell me…is it a prank?” He begged, while tears worked their way through bloodshot eyes.
Before Miss Green could crush the old man’s hope, a sharp tug at the back of her legs caused her to spin around in shock.

Little Abbey Reynolds unflinching smile made Miss Green’s blood run cold. The seven year old girl was looking up at her teacher, poised with all the grace of a ballerina, her arms neatly folded behind her back with not one strand of her golden hair out of place. She was the perfect little doll who had come to life and forced its way out of the packaging. Miss Green hadn’t told Harry about Abbey Reynolds, hadn’t dared to tell a soul about the mistrust she bore against Woodlands Primary’s so-called ‘perfect student’.

Abbey had been the very first child to put one of her fallen teeth into Joe’s mouth, and kickstarted the all consuming cult that surrounded him. She was the ringleader, the master manipulator and intimidator, and yet had managed to hide it all behind a veil of sweet innocence. The other teachers praised her to the heavens, wished that they had a full class of pupils just like her, all except Miss Green, who kept a cold, cautious distance from the girl. But Abbey was wise to her English teacher’s distrust, and watched her with a close eye, seemingly preventing the teacher from interfering with her deity at any opportunity. Miss Green often questioned who really was the leader in this enterprise, Abbey or Joe? Could an adolescent mind be so twisted and dedicated into establishing this false devotion for an inanimate object, and to what end? Power of the playground? Control over the school? It seemed like a stretch. And still, she couldn’t deny the fear that stabbed at her whenever she was around Joe. It felt like an influence was reaching out from within that stupid wooden body, trying to take control. That’s what she imagined happened to Abbey. The girl had been caught and possessed by whatever force controlled the statue’s desires, and the sweet person she once was had been wiped away and replaced with something altogether worse.

“Do you hear him now, Miss Green?” She said, twirling slightly on her heels, awaiting some form of praise.
“Abbey…what have you done? Who did you hurt?”

As the words left her mouth Miss Green suddenly recalled the earlier image of Benjy King outside her classroom. He had his hand clasped over his mouth, she thought from the fright of her scolding, but had he been hiding something else? Like a mouth full of blood?

The horror of the situation took hold and her gapping mouth finally closed shut. Abbey’s smile seemed to grow even further, as she drew dark energy from the truth that was dawning upon Miss Green’s face.

“Joe wanted teeth so he could smile. Now he wants a tongue so he can talk.”, The chilling child stated with no hint of emotion. She then placed her soft hand behind Toothless Joe’s weather bitten ear and gave the brittle wood a loving scratch before placing her perfect mouth against it and whispered something. A moment passed and Abbey began giggling, as if hearing a response from the statue.

“If you listen now, you’ll hear him like we do”. She said with the creepiest inflection possible. And it worked. Miss Green could feel the spoiled tea rising up from her stomach. She turned and retched onto the floor, and then to her utter disbelief, she could in fact hear something else. A faith voice, a dark presence, rich and irresistible, echoing inside her head. It started softly, then rose to an ear cracking scream, forcing out her own inner voice, until it was all she could perceive.

“Join me”, the disembodied voice said from nowhere, “Help me”, it repeated over and over.

Through blurred vision, Miss Green witnessed young Abbey’s lips parting and closing in sync with the noise in her head. It was the young girl’s voice – but it wasn’t her words.

Credit: Alex Blackwood

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