When V gives M the tooth they’re little more than children, sixteen years old and on the playground at school. He’s just finished a volleyball game and when he’s done high-fiving everybody he steps aside, sticks his fingers in his mouth, and gropes about furiously. The other kids are too excited to care when he walks up to M, who’s sitting under a tree beaming at him. He sticks his sweaty fist out to her and uncurls his fingers to reveal his last baby tooth.
“I want you to have it,” he says.
M takes it from him. It sits in her palm, a squat little thing that’s very white at the top but bloody at the root. She tries to remember what the different kinds of teeth are and which one this is. Around them, the other kids are screaming and prancing but M and V are still, staring at the tooth.
“Keep it forever, OK?” he says. “We’ll see each other again when we’re old, like forty fifty, and if you still have it we’ll hook up again.”
“I will,” she says. “I’ll keep it forever.”
He grins, the newly empty patch of gum leaking blood into his mouth. She tells herself this means he must love her. She doesn’t quite believe it but she wants to.
After the game the bell rings, sending the crowd of kids running towards the school buildings. M curls her fingers around the tooth and follows them slowly. When she gets to the classroom she wraps the tooth in a piece of paper and tucks it into the change pocket of her jeans. She makes for the school bus, and when she gets on she sees that V isn’t up front waiting for her. He’s at the back instead, with his arm around a girl. He catches her eye when the girl isn’t looking, and M returns his grin. She pats her pocket to make sure the tooth is still safe, then sits down and takes out a book. She reads through the entire ride, trying to ignore V’s conversation with the other girl, their voices drifting up to her from the back of the bus.
For months, V and M have snuck off to the biology lab to make out, grabbing at each other among anatomical models and animals in bottles of formaldehyde. Sometimes V opens a window and smokes a cigarette after he comes, letting her take a drag or two if he’s feeling generous. The lab is at the end of a line of empty classrooms and leaves a chemical fug on their bodies and their clothes, drowning out the smell of tobacco. The school they go to is small but alternative enough to not monitor the children too closely, especially the older ones. It’s easy for M and V to get away for as much as half an hour. On the floor of the lab and in the school bus afterwards, they giggle and whisper, confident that they’ll never get caught. They don’t see each other outside school.
M gets home and unwraps the tooth, picking it up and inspecting it closely. She remembers what it’s called: it’s a molar, a cusped thing made for grinding and crushing. She scratches at the blood that’s dried at its root, but the stain doesn’t budge. She consider washing the tooth and then decides against, imagining it slipping through her fingers and down the drain. Instead, she finds a velvet jewelry box to put it in. Against the deep red walls of its new home, it doesn’t look as white as before. She admires it anyway, picking the tooth up and turning it so that light glances dully off the enamel. She puts it back in the box, shuts the lid, and gloats. V can do anything with anybody now but only she will have this.
Months go by and she forgets about the tooth. It sits in its velvet carapace, witnessing M’s seventeenth birthday, the fights she has with her parents, the breakups and reunions she has with V, and the exhilaration of losing her virginity and getting accepted to college in the same week. Still, when her dog knocks things off her table one night, she lunges for the tooth over her high school diploma or her Cure CD. She grabs it before Shadow does, puts it back in its box, then puts the box on top of her bookshelf. Behind her, Shadow’s begun chewing up the only letter V wrote her. She doesn’t really care. The tooth is several feet above them both, safe from hands and paws. She has a vague belief that the tooth has power, but she has no idea what that might entail. She only knows that she has to keep it safe.
V and M break up once more before she leaves. They spend hours hissing at each other on the phone while their parents sleep, spitting out insults and rebuttals they’ve heard in movies, on TV, from adults. It’s trite and frustrating, but when it’s done she returns to packing her bags. She leaves behind everything that reminds her of him – the empty cigarette pack he left in her bag and the notebooks that he doodled and wrote obscene come-on notes in. She forgets about the tooth, too upset to deal with anything that isn’t already scattered on her bed. She tells herself the breakup is for good this time.
She gets to college and is placed in temporary accommodation: a cramped room in the post-grad women’s hostel that she shares with other undergrads. Midway through her second week she learns that she’s one of the lucky ones, among the second batch of girls to be moved into the undergrad women’s hostel. The new hostel is still only half-constructed, and machinery drones both outside and inside the building for several hours a day. She hasn’t really made friends since she got here, so she drags her bags up two flights of stairs by herself. The staircase may not have banisters but in her new room she has her own bed, and two roommates instead of four.
Her roommates already know each other, having moved into the room before M did. They often talk in Bangla in front of M even though she doesn’t know the language, and she can’t remember which name belongs to which girl. Still, they seem nice enough. They chat with M as she unpacks and puts clothes into her wardrobe. Her hand bumps against something solid tucked between two t-shirts, and she pulls out the velvet box. At first she doesn’t remember what’s in it, so she opens it while she’s still talking. She falls silent when she looks inside.
“Hey,” Anita says. “What’s wrong? You find a lizard or something?
“No, everything’s fine,” M says, shutting the box. “I just found something from my ex.”
“Oh my god,” says Tania. “You have a boyfriend? You never told us!”
“Nah, it’s nothing,” M says. “It’s over now.”
“I’m sorry,” says Anita. “That sucks.”
“Nah, it’s alright. He cheated a lot,” M says.
“Yuck,” Tania says.
“It’s OK,” M says.“Do you guys have boyfriends?”
To M’s relief, the conversation meanders away from V. As the girls talk, she’s still holding on to the box, gripping it a little too tight. She’s not sure where to put it.
After Anita and Tania have gone to sleep M finds her way to the wardrobe, feeling her way through the darkness with her hands. She finds the box resting on a pile of jeans. She takes the tooth out and holds it up. It seems less white than before, barely standing out against the nighttime color that fills the room. M puts the tooth back in its box and puts the box on her bookshelf. It’ll be closer to her there than in the shadows of her wardrobe. She goes back to bed and realizes that this is the longest she’s gone without talking to V. She tells herself she doesn’t really miss him, she just misses being touched. She reminds herself that she has the tooth. She’ll always have the tooth.
In a few weeks, everyone seems to find their rhythm except M. She spends a lot of time in the room, unsure of what she’s supposed to do with herself. She starts going to the cafe after class with Anita, where they drink coffee and eat cheap Chinese food with a group of affable, willowy Naga boys. On Friday nights the boys take them to parties on the men’s hostel roof. To Anita and M, the men’s hostel is a behemoth, three buildings connected by passageways between their respective roofs. The buildings are almost twice the size of the women’s hostel and they are still rising to accommodate the flood of new undergrads. The lower floors were built in the 70s, but the upper floors are unfinished, construction crawling at an even slower pace than in the women’s hostel. The two girls talk as loudly as they can while climbing the staircase that leads to the roof, their voices a shield against the strange quiet of metal and concrete that fills the labyrinthine upper floors. They emerge into crisp night air on what everybody calls the North wing. The boys hand them bottles of Kingfisher lager before leading them to a circle of wooden planks laid on the dusty floor. They sit on the planks and watch a small, friendly group of Northeastern seniors build a fire and hem it in with bricks. All of them play guitar and love hair metal. The night passes in song and gossip.
M and Anita get invited to the next party, the next one, and then the one after that, until they end up spending at least two nights a week there. They develop crushes on all of the boys in turn, bawl along with “18 and Life”, eat axone and pork, and brave the vertiginous staircase together when the party winds down. If they have no morning classes the following day, they only leave after sunrise.
M feels happier on the roof than anywhere else. She hangs out with Anita between classes but it doesn’t feel the same. They don’t see the boys as much outside of the parties, and when the seniors have papers to turn in the parties grow less frequent. Tania’s become something of a ghost, flitting into the room a couple of times each week, chirping brief hellos, then ignoring Anita and M before she disappears again.
In early September, V calls and tells M he misses her. They start talking again, whispering out of habit even though she no longer lives with her parents and he spends much of his time at friends’ houses. They do what they’ve always done: get along until they don’t, break up dramatically, get back together, and then do it all over again. It’s starting to feel different to M. Whatever kept the cycle going for her is growing increasingly tenuous. She returns fewer of his calls, spends less time lying awake in bed thinking of the smell of the biology lab and the roughness of its concrete floor against her skin. She forgets about the velvet box on top of her bookshelf.
One morning she’s awoken by a sound she’s never heard before. Tania’s in the room, pacing with her phone to her ear, yelling at someone in Bangla. The person on the other end of the line is yelling back loud enough that M can hear their voice, a series of unintelligible crackles. She looks around and sees Anita slumped on her bed frowning at a book, earphones stuffed in her ears. M drags herself out of bed, around Tania, and out of the room. She only realizes that her hand is curled around the velvet box as she steps onto the grimy pink bathroom tiles. Slowly, the events of the previous night come back to her. She remembers lurking in the shadows of the uninhabited upper floor, arguing with V about something she can’t recall. She remembers the text he sent her: im done with ur bullshit man. im going back to varsha, she isnt a bitch like u.
She picks the cleaner of the two mirrors over the sinks and stands in front of it. She doesn’t look in the mirror until she’s after opened the box, tipped V’s tooth into her palm, and looked it over. The tooth has changed, turned a pale ocher, much darker than she remembers. She looks up, meets her own eyes in the mirror, and puts the tooth in her mouth. She closes her eyes and sucks on it, feeling it press against her tongue and the roof of her mouth, then pushing it slightly forward and letting it clink against her own, still anchored teeth. She wants it to taste like V but it doesn’t. It doesn’t taste of anything.
“Oh my god,” says a voice behind her. “Can you believe that bitch?”
She starts and coughs. The tooth bucks in her mouth, digging into her flesh. She spits it as discreetly as possible into her hand before turning around. Anita’s standing a few paces away, looking concerned.
“Shit,” Anita says. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“I’m okay.” M says, slipping her closed fist into her pocket. “What happened?”
“Just Tania being Tania. I couldn’t take her screeching anymore, man. I’m going to the park or library or something. Just anywhere away from here.”
“Yeah.” M says. “It was so much better when she was gone all the time.”
“Seriously. I think we should talk to the warden about changing rooms, man. She’s too much. She fucking woke you up, no?”
“Ugh, yeah, she did.”
M tastes blood, realizes that the tooth must have cut her when she coughed.
“Hey, you sure you’re okay?” Anita says. “You look weird.”
She sees Anita’s gaze move downwards, towards the balled-up fist in one of her pockets and the lump of the jewelry box in the other.
“I’m fine,” M says quickly. “Everything’s fine. Tell me when you want to talk the warden. I’ll come with.”
She leaves the bathroom before Anita can reply.
M starts spending more time on the men’s hostel roof. She goes to the parties alone since Anita’s decided to cut back on her drinking. She doesn’t stay there long, nursing her way through a few beers before drifting across the roof of the North wing and wandering the narrow passageways that connect the three buildings. She has a feeling nobody notices when she’s gone. She always comes back before the party winds down but no one asks where she disappeared to.
One night she makes her way to the West roof, usually the quietest of the three rooftops. She’s drunker than usual and wants to be alone, but when she steps off the passageway she sees a shadow, dark against the murky pink sky. It’s all the way at the edge of the roof where the railing is lowest. She hears music playing that she thinks she recognizes, but it’s too soft and far away to tell. She breathes in the cool air and smells something vegetal and familiar. She can’t quite tell what it is.
“Hey,” she yells.
The shadow turns around and becomes a person. The person – tall, skinny, and androgynous – blows a plume of smoke from their mouth. The person comes closer and becomes a boy. In the dim light and the haze of cheap beer flooding M’s body, his face looks ridiculously pretty. He’s holding a joint, its end a tiny star burning orange. She feels stupid for not recognizing the smell earlier.
“What was that song?” she asks him.
“Lady in the Radiator,” he says. “It’s by the Pixies.”
It’s the first time since school that M’s heard anyone mention them. Back then V was the only other kid who listened to music like that.
“I thought it sounded like them,” M says. “I love them. I’ve never heard that song before though.”
The boy nods.
“Yeah, they’re a good band,” he says. “What’s your name?”
“M? What kind of name is that? Do you hate your real name or something?”
“No, it’s just what everybody calls me. What’s your name?”
“What, like the letter? Do you hate your real name?”
The boy shrugs.
“I don’t love it.”
M giggles and is immediately embarrassed. She doesn’t want to come on too strong, but if she has the boy doesn’t seem to have noticed. He’s talking again, his voice low and breathy, rambling about the Pixies, the song he was listening to, the movie that it’s from. He seems smart even if he talks a little too fast. M watches the breeze fuss with his curly hair. He pauses mid-sentence to take a drag, then holds the joint out to her.
“I don’t smoke,” she says, quickly adding. “I mean, I’ve never smoked before.”
“Well, there’s a first time for everything and all that.” he says. “But if you want to smoke and it’s your first time, we probably shouldn’t do it up here.”
He steps closer to the railing at the edge of the roof. It only comes up to his hips.
“Look at that drop,” he says. “It’s brutal. Not a good place to get high for the first time.”
M is terrified of heights, so she stays where she is and watches H lean over the railing. Her skin prickles as he stretches out into the air like he’s reaching for something only he can see.
“Tell you what,” he says. “You wanna go smoke in my room?”
She can’t tell if she’s being hit on, doesn’t know what to hope for. A gust of wind raises goosebumps on her arms.
“Won’t your roommates mind?” she says.
“I don’t have roommates,” he says proudly. “And we’ll go slow, just a hit or two to start with. You’ll be fine. Oh yeah, so that song? And that movie I was telling you about, Eraserhead? It’s perfect for when you’re stoned.”
As he talks, his teeth catch the light spilling over from lamps on one of the other roofs. She looks over at the North roof and sees that the bonfire’s either gone out or been extinguished. Her friends must have left already. There’s no reason for her to go back. She turns around and follows H, who’s already halfway across the passageway. She feels the railing judder as she runs to catch up with him.
They go to his room, the only inhabited one on the seventh floor. He pushes the door, which he’s plastered with movie and band posters, open to reveal a room much larger than hers. She’s thrilled by the sight. H turns on his nightlight and puts on music, looking impressed when she recognizes a sample in one of the songs. She tries to hide her excitement, sitting next to him on his bed as he rolls a joint, then guides her through the process of taking her first hit. M breathes in, then doubles up coughing, but he seems unruffled. She stares at the nightlight, its red glow warping as THC swirls through her brain. H puts on Eraserhead and they sit perfectly still through the whole film, only stirring when he decides he wants a cigarette and rummages under his bed until he finds one. By the time the credits roll, sunlight’s begun to creep through the curtains. H sees her down the stairs and to the doorway of the men’s hostel but no further. She tells him she had fun and he smiles and nods.
M stands in the doorway until she sees him disappear up the stairs, drifting back towards the labyrinthine upper floors. She walks into the sunlight and is hit by a wave of exhaustion. She realizes she should have suggested hanging out again. As she squeezes past the security amma whose snoring body blocks the doorway to the women’s hostel, she decides she’s heading back to the West roof again. If she doesn’t find H there, she’ll look for him in the dusty corridors of the upper wings. It doesn’t matter to her that she’s already forgotten where his room is.
She takes the stairs to her floor two at a time, more than ready to flop into bed. She walks up to her room and hears muffled noises. When she knocks, the door swings open to reveal Tania huddled on her bed, sobbing and raging, her pajamas pulled up as far they’ll go. There’s a lattice of cuts on Tania’s thighs, most likely made by the paper cutter in her shaky hands. Anita’s flailing her arms and hissing at her in Bangla. M stands silently in the doorway until they finally notice her. Anita nods in her direction, switching briefly to English to tell M to come in and not worry. Purely out of politeness, M asks if she should help. Anita shakes her head. No, it’s better that M doesn’t get involved; she can handle this on her own. Relieved, M shambles past her roommates and into bed. She pulls the covers over her head and tries to absent herself from the scene.
When M opens her eyes again, the sun is setting and she’s alone. Before she’s fully re-entered the waking world, she pulls herself out of bed and over to her bookshelf. She finds and opens the velvet box. The tooth has changed again, turned so yellow that it’s almost brown. She squeezes it between her fingers but loosens her grip immediately when she thinks she feels it crack. She puts it back in its box, then lays the box carefully among the shadows that crowd behind the books on her shelf. It’ll be safe there. She only feels properly awake after she’s stumbled to the bathroom and splashed water on her face. By then she remembers nothing about the tooth, growing increasingly brittle and dark in its velvet-lined home.
M starts spending as little time as possible in her room. After classes let out she does her schoolwork in the library, then starts to wander. She walks wide, well-lit main paths and explores partially-hidden passages that lead from one halfway place to another, shadowy spaces between buildings and trees and rocks. In an effort to make her roaming seem less absurd, she stops occasionally to chat with people. She wants to hide the fact that what she’s really doing is searching for H. She only seems to find him on the roof or the upper floors of the men’s hostel, and nobody seems to know a boy either named or nicknamed H. She eventually tells H that only her parents call her Mary anymore, but he just laughs and shakes his head when she asks about his real name. Still, she enjoys this trivial mystery. She’s more or less content to spend Saturday nights getting high and watching movies in his room, and the rest of the week texting him and wandering the campus by herself, hoping to catch him outside his haunts.
One night they get drunk in his room and lie in bed, side by side but not touching. She starts talking about V, repeating things she’s told him before and dredging up others that she thought she’d forgotten. Even though H doesn’t stir, she’s certain he is listening. He only interrupts her when she mentions the tooth.
“Wait,” he says. “He gave you what?”
“His baby tooth. His last one.”
“Wow,” he says. “He was 16 then? Talk about being behind in every possible way.”
They lie in silence for a while, passing a joint back and forth.
“I’ve still got it,” M mumbles.
“I kept the tooth. I don’t know why. I guess … fuck, I don’t know.”
Despite herself, she begins to cry. H props himself up on his elbow, puts a hand awkwardly on her shoulder.
“Do you still talk to him?” he asks. His voice is warm but his hand is tentative.
She sobs a word through her fingers, sometimes or sort of.
“You’ve got to stop, M. You know that, right?”
She nods, hands still over her eyes. He keeps his hand on her shoulder. They stay like that for a while, and then H sits bolt upright.
“Oh man, I just thought of something. I know what you should do. You gotta throw the tooth away.”
“You have to get rid of it,” he says. “Don’t you see? You’ll never actually leave him until you throw it away.”
“What sense does that make? What are you, some superstitious aunty?”
“No, listen to me. You made this promise to him, right? And he gave you the tooth. And then you kept the fucking thing, and you just keep holding on to it, and you don’t even know why. You put it in a jewelry box, man, you’re careful with it. You can act like it’s nothing, but seriously, you don’t think that means something?”
She looks at him. The nightlight deepens the shadows on his face, making his already grave expression more severe. He rarely sounds this worked up.
“Seriously, M. Why are you keeping it?”
She thinks of the tooth, weakening and growing darker in its box. She feels a pang of terror at the prospect of losing it.
“Look at you, man.” H says. “You’re so scared of getting rid of it.”
“What? No. I’m not. I’ll do it tomorrow. You wait and see.”
“You’re not gonna. Let’s do it right now. I’ll come with you.”
“What? It’s past 10. I can’t get you into the hostel now. And I’m tired, man, and I’m fucking drunk. I’ll do it tomorrow.”
“No,” he says. “I’ll come with you. Like we can’t sneak past security amma. She comes to work and goes to sleep, man. You’ve got to do it tonight. If you don’t do it now you’ll never do it.”
M begins to cry again. H strokes her arm, then pulls her gently to her feet.
“Shhh, M,” he murmurs. “Don’t cry. We’ll finish it tonight. Don’t cry, M, alright? It’s going to be fine. Everything is fine.”
It takes them a long time to get to the women’s hostel. They hold hands and stumble, both of them clumsy on their feet. When a train whistle rings out from the railway station nearby, they start and then burst out laughing. They fall silent as they reach the entry to the women’s hostel, let go of each other’s hands, and climb carefully around security amma‘s gently heaving bulk. When they’re past her they dart up the unfinished staircase, their feet raising clouds of dust. By the time they reach M’s room they’re out of breath. They stand in front of her door, panting in tandem.
“I’ll go in and get it,” M says.
“Let me come too,” H says. “It’s important. It’s a ritual, and I want to be there.”
“Ey, I’m not like some VIPs I know. I’ve got roommates, alright? I’ll get it and we’ll go to your room.”
H nods, then sways where he’s standing. She reaches out to steady him.
“You alright?” she says, and he nods, then teeters again. This time his body tilts forward instead of sideways, pushing against her, his arms snaking around her body while his mouth knocks haphazardly against hers. She tastes blood, then pushes back with her lips and tongue. She thrusts her hands into the wild spirals of his hair as he presses her against the wall. It’s a long time before they pull away from each other. His eyes look clearer but he seems no less excited. She coughs and he grins. One of his hands is still on her chest, the other’s pressed firmly against the small of her back. M loosens her grip on the curls she’s wanted to touch for so long.
“Let’s go to your room,” she says.
H chuckles, moves his cold fingers from her breast to her collarbone.
“Alright,” he says. “Get the tooth and we’ll go.”
They uncurl their limbs from around each other and she unlocks the door. When her eyes adjust to the near-darkness, she sees that both her roommates’ beds are empty. She turns around and beckons to H, who steps into the room.
“Where is it?” he says.
She doesn’t have to turn on the light to find it, drifting to the bookshelf as though drawn there by a current, finding the box behind her books without knocking over a thing. In her palm, it’s much smaller than she remembers. H takes out his cigarette lighter and clicks it on, sending a flood of yellow light over them both.
“I like the box,” she says softly. “I kept it for ages so I could put something special in it.”
“There’s nothing wrong with the box,” he says. “The tooth’s what you need to get rid of.”
M takes out the tooth and holds it between her index finger and thumb. In the flickering light it looks smooth and polished, like a pebble worn down by water. H clicks the lighter off, and they climb onto Anita’s bed, the only one near the window. M runs her thumb gently over the tooth while he fiddles with the window. When he gets it open she kneels in front of it and leans out much farther than she’d usually dare. She feels his arms wrapped around her hips, anchoring her body. She takes a deep breath before pitching the tooth as hard and far as she can. It disappears silently into the darkness. M leans out further, squints into the shadows. She sees the faint gray shape of a cement mixer far below. She stays like that, her body half out the window, until H speaks.
“M,” he says. “Did you do it?”
She pulls herself back into the room.
“How are you feeling?” he says.
She puts her hand on his chest, pushes him so he’s lying down, and then gets on top of him.
“You can’t stay here all night, alright?” M says. “My roommates will be back in the morning. Maybe even earlier.”
“Fine by me,” he says. “I’m glad you threw it away.”
M peels her t-shirt off. The room feels much colder than it should.
“I’m possibly better off,” she says. “But I don’t want to think about that now.”
She slides her fingers into his mouth, feeling the wetness of his tongue and the rigid points of his teeth.
After he leaves she sleeps better than usual. Voices cut briefly through the haze, distant noises of crying and yelling, but she turns over and blocks them out with her pillow and her arm. Her eyes stay firmly shut. When she wakes up properly some time in the afternoon she hears Anita’s voice.
“Welcome to Earth,” Anita says. “You slept through quite a thing.”
Anita’s sitting hunched over on her bed, half her face hidden behind her left hand.
“What happened?” M says.
“Tania. Broke her tooth. Got into a fight with some guy and it happened.”
“I don’t fucking know, man. She came in today morning a little while after I got back. She was all bloody and crying and stuff. I don’t fucking know why she does it.”
“Fuck, I’m sorry, I should have helped.”
“No,” Anita shakes her head. “You couldn’t have helped. She can’t stand you, M. Almost as much as she can’t stand me.”
“What did I ever do to her?”
“Nothing, something, how would I know? I don’t understand her. She’s always been a mess but I didn’t think it would get this bad. Apparently she used to hit him whenever she got mad. He hit her back last night. Fuck.”
M pulls herself to a sitting position. She sees a reddish-brown smear on the wall above Tania’s bed.
“I’m sorry, Anita. I’m so fucking sorry,” she says, knowing that it isn’t enough. She remembers when the two of them used to be friends. They haven’t hung out in months.
“No, it’s alright,” Anita says, more to herself than to M. “It’s alright now. It’s out of our hands. It’s done. Everything is fine.”
“Do you want me to get you anything?”
“No, no. It’s alright now. Everything’s fine.”
“Yeah. She needed help. I hope she gets it.”
Anita takes her hand off her face. There’s a bruise on her left cheekbone.
“Do you ever feel like there’s something dark going on here? In this building? You ever feel like something’s just wrong?”
Her voice is slow and tired. M nods but doesn’t know what to say. She notices the jewelry box on her table and reaches for it. She opens it and there’s nothing inside. Her hand shakes as she puts it back, sending H’s lighter clattering to the floor. M starts at the sound but Anita doesn’t. Construction equipment buzzes and hammers outside, background noise that both girls have grown used to.
The end of semester draws near, and the exams come with it. M doesn’t know how much time she can spend on the roof or in H’s room before the semester is done and people start to leave. It’s been a couple of days since they saw each other, so she tells herself it must be alright to text him. She has a sudden, trivial revelation that she texts to him.
– just realized I’ve never seen u in daylight, nosferatu.
He texts back unusually promptly. He says he’s he’s sorry he hasn’t been around. He isn’t on campus.
–I had what they call a family emergency. Had to head home for bit.
She texts him back frantically. Does he want her to call? No, he doesn’t. He’s fine, everything’s fine. His folks are just going through some stuff right now and he needs to be back home. He’ll take his exams later. He doesn’t care if he has to do an extra semester.
He can’t seem to tell how disappointed she is to not see him before she goes home for the holidays. She’s glad that he can’t. She types something out, deliberates, and then hits send.
-Uh so… thanks for that night, h. I needed that. It was rly good.
-wait what. what happened. oh fuck did we…?
-ah no. I mean not at all the way
Minutes pass before her phone lights up again.
-whoa haha guess i was rly drunk, i cant remember a thing. glad it was good for you tho. you doing ok m?
M considers the question. Her face and arms feel warm, her belly overly tight.
-Lol yeah im good. I g2g now, talk to you later. Good luck w everything.
-thanks m. keep in touch over christmas k? ttyl.
-definitely, h. Ttyl.
She stops drinking through the exam period, swapping alcohol for coffee. She only goes back to her room to sleep. The night before she’s due to return home, she buys a bottle of Old Monk and takes it to the West roof. She drinks from the bottle and watches the sky change slowly over several hours. When morning comes she stops by H’s room. The door is locked and and his posters are gone. She looks closer and spots lyrics he’d scrawled on the wood, now poorly hidden by a thin coat of paint: HELL IS ROUND THE CORNER WHERE I SHELTER. There are no other signs of his existence there.
She finishes the Old Monk as she walks downstairs. By the time she’s back in her room she can barely see straight, but she manages to find her bucket, bath supplies, and pajamas without waking Anita. She drags herself to the bathroom, which smells much worse than usual, a compound stink of excrement and bleach. She stumbles to a shower stall and then stops. The drain in it is blocked with what looks like a mess of blood and hair. Reddish-brown marks extend from it, as though something was dragged across the floor.
M doesn’t think much of it. The bathrooms are atrociously maintained. She’s used to seeing clumps of hair, smeared shit, and used sanitary napkins where they don’t belong. She finds another stall, this one only stained with the mold that mottles much of the bathroom. She takes her clothes off as her bucket fills with scalding hot water. She pours it over herself without wincing. Soft noises come from one of the other stalls – crying, perhaps, or slow, heavy breathing – but she’s too drunk to properly register them. She dresses and goes back to her room, where she lies in bed, chewing at the cut that H left the first time he kissed her. She falls asleep with a trickle of blood in her mouth.
When M goes home she keeps in touch with next to nobody. Sometimes she and Anita text and have short, superficial conversations about how bored they are in their parents’ nowhere towns. She doesn’t tell Anita about H. She stays in her room a lot, reading and petting Shadow. At night she drifts to the den, where she stays up late watching TV or surfing the internet and sneaking sips of whiskey from her father’s cabinet. She’s too embarrassed to text H, but in the small hours one night she gets drunk enough to dials his number from the land line. Someone picks up, then cuts the call almost immediately. She puts the phone down and fetches a glass from the kitchen. She fills it with whiskey and takes it to her room, too distraught to care about whether her father will be able to tell that she’s been stealing from his cabinet.
At dinner the next day M’s mother asks if she’s heard the news. What news? They found a dog in one of the bathrooms in the women’s hostel. Someone had smashed its head in. M stares. Her father shakes his head, says how awful it is. There were news articles on Facebook. That’s how her parents found out. M nods. It is awful. She finishes her food and shuts herself in her room, waiting until her parents have gone to bed before slinking to the den to go online on her father’s computer. On Facebook, Anita’s posted a link to an article about the killing. M clicks on it and it leads her to a page full of dingbats. She tries again and sees an article. This one is about a twelve-week-old fetus being found in the drain in a bathroom in the women’s hostel. An investigation is underway, the article says, and no culprits have been apprehended yet. M turns off the computer and goes to her father’s cabinet.
She only returns to her room before dawn, her limbs unsteady and head reeling. Shadow’s on the floor chomping on something. She bends down and wrests it from his mouth, then puts the mess carefully on her desk. Dye leaks from the ruined velvet, leaving a deep red stain on the tabletop. M curls up next to Shadow on the floor and puts her arms around him. She shuts her eyes and chews on her lip until she tastes blood. She begins to cry, her body quaking against the sleeping dog. She doesn’t know why she saved the box, can’t remember what was in it.
The tooth returns to her in the only way it can, slipping into the dreams she has when she’s drunk. When she’s awake all she can remember of her last night with it is drinking far too much, then crying, then leaning out a window, and then ending up, somehow, in bed with H. In the dreams visions burst through the cracks in her memory. In this dream she leaves her body instead of pressing it against H’s, following the tooth as it leaves her hands and falls through several feet of cold, biting air, into the bowels of the cement mixer that disturbed her for months in the waking world. In the dream she has a moment of suspended shock, and then she has a body again and is in a bathroom in the women’s hostel with Anita. They two girls stand side by side, staring a patch of wall that seems no different from the rest of the mold-ridden bathroom. A sound comes from a shower stall, something like wheezing, crying, and bleating at all once. She tries to move but can only turn her head. Anita turns at the same time. The bruise on her cheek has darkened and blossomed into something lumpy and grotesque. She speaks in a voice that is not hers.
“Do you ever feel like there’s something dark going on here? In this building? You ever feel like something’s just wrong?”
Behind them, the crying grows louder. M thinks she recognizes the voice. She tries to speak but can’t. Anita trains a coy smile on her. She watches, transfixed, as dark, viscous blood oozes from Anita’s mouth and down onto her clothes. Anita’s smile doesn’t waver.
“Shhh, M,” she says gently. “Don’t cry. We’ll finish it tonight. Don’t cry, M, alright? It’s going to be fine. Everything is fine.”