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Estimated reading time — 13 minutes
I was sitting in an AA meeting when I found the tooth in my pocket.
This was two and a half weeks ago. I always hit the Saturday night meeting in the city – it’s fifteen minutes from the apartment I share with my girlfriend, but mostly I like the ambiance. It’s on the third floor of a place junkies and drunks call the “Hilton of rehabs”, a fat five-story hospital on the outskirts of the inner city, on a row populated mostly by mid-range hotels, cut apart from the main CBD by a big, sprawling park. It’s run by long-time sober folks but because of the location you get a lot of newbies, and I like that, because sometimes you forget things, you know? Like what made you trade the bottle in for a little bronze medallion, some lukewarm coffee and a stale cookie.
An older lady was near tears, halfway through her share, when it occurred to me to check on how many cigarettes I had left – I was thinking already about the gas station on the corner by my apartment, and how I shouldn’t be smoking at all and need to quit – and I reached into my pocket to look at my pack of Parliaments and I felt it. A little lump, smooth and hard yet with an odd almost rubbery texture to it. Like a pebble left underwater for a long time. I took it out of my jacket pocket and looked at it and couldn’t believe it. It was a fucking tooth. How does this happen?
I must’ve been making a face – and rightly so, how goddamn revolting – because Richard, a guy I usually sit beside at this meeting leaned over and asked if I was alright.
I put my hand back in my pocket with the tooth and smiled and whispered, “Yep, all good,” and he nodded and turned back to the lady at the front. She was wrapping up, talking about how things were so different now – her kids were back in her life, her job hadn’t let her go after all. All that happy horse shit. She was smiling while she spoke, a big smile, lips split wide. I’d heard her story before – right down to the bottom, she’d been a baglady and in bughouses and here and there. Now she was in a nice sweater and skinny jeans, nice shoes. But her teeth betrayed her.
They were yellow and black and gapped. They were drunk’s teeth.
* * * * * *
Half an hour later I begged off from getting a cup of coffee with Richard and booked it to my car. A relic from my drinking days – a beat-up Ford truck with a taped-on rearview mirror and a broken right-side window lever, bumps and gouges and scratches all over it from driving drunk all over the place. I just couldn’t get rid of it. I don’t know why.
I lit a cigarette in the cab and took the tooth out again and looked at it and wondered why I hadn’t said anything to Richard, why I was already thinking about keeping it from my girlfriend. It was a weird occurrence, for sure, conversation-worthy at least. Hey, Jim, what’s that in your hand? Oh, this, Richard? A fucking tooth I found in my pocket. What’s up with that? Laugh, end conversation. Maybe he could’ve helped me figure out how it had gotten there.
It wasn’t a particularly interesting tooth, anyway. It was white with a slight yellow hue to it, like whoever’s mouth it had been in had been healthy enough but maybe not the type for a whitening treatment or bleaching or whatever. I couldn’t tell which tooth it was, like where it came from in the mouth, ‘cause I’m no dentist. Nor did I know any, offhand – but my girlfriend was a nursing student, and maybe she did.
I always liked mysteries, odd things that can’t be explained. When I was drinking – and this routine rarely wavered in all the years I spent staring at the bottoms of bottles and tumblers – I would start the night off reading some novel or other, but by the time I was in my cups pretty well it always ended in the same place: detective stories, unresolved things. Ripley’s Believe it or Not.
I figured I’d ask my girlfriend when I got home if she knew somebody from school that could help with a tooth problem I had (with her studying and me in an entry-level industrial job, we didn’t really have the money or insurance to cover dental costs). Once I got with the friend, if there was a friend, I could figure something out from there.
So I drove home, into a buzzsaw I didn’t expect, that made me forget about the tooth entirely, for a while, anyway.
* * * * * *
She was gone. The apartment was empty – save the cat, Apollo, who walked around yelling as soon as I came in the door, his tail twitching, bright green eyes level and dispassionate like always.
I called Kelly’s name a few times and walked from room to room but our apartment was small – two bedrooms and a living room with a kitchenette, ratty as hell – and she was nowhere. No note on the fridge, on the kitchen table, on the bed, nothing. This wasn’t like her. We were mostly attached at the hip, the two of us – it’d been like that the two years we’d been together and we both liked it, despite what people say about co-dependency. Anything I had to do without her – my meetings, for instance – I always messaged her when I got there, when I got home, and usually I heard back both times.
I checked my phone and she’d texted me back ten minutes after I’d messaged her saying I’d left the meeting. “See you soon, love you” is all it said. Nothing on her Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat. I called her once and her voicemail picked up immediately.
Her car was outside, where she usually parked it.
All of her clothes were in the closet, her Switch and her phone were charging by the bed. Her phone was off – which explained the straight to voicemail call I’d made – and when I turned it on it came to a lock screen that I didn’t know the password too.
Nothing was missing, or amiss.
I went outside for a cigarette, to try to calm down. Our balcony looked out at the little curve of the road we lived by – residential street with a train line running alongside it. The train didn’t shake our apartment but it made noise. The track was quiet that night. I couldn’t hear anything except the trees rustling in a light wind.
There was a guy on the street. Or a woman. A person, I guess. They were wearing a hoodie with the hood up, obscuring their face. They were standing on the sidewalk. They were looking at me.
My hair stood up on end and I thought about another night a long time ago when I was drinking, a time I was in a bar and there was this guy, quiet, standing in front of me while I was waiting to get a drink and he was taking his time counting out change to pay for his beer and I said something dumb to him, to hurry up, and he turned and looked at me and he didn’t say a word but his face was so, so cold. This lone figure in the street gave me the same feeling that guy in the bar had – that I was in somebody’s crosshairs.
Stupid, I know. Irrational. Leftover paranoia from a lifetime of substance abuse. I blinked and held a hand to face, smoke curling around my eyes, and when I took my hand away and looked again this person was still there. I just stared and slowly they turned and walked – no, sauntered – past my vision, up the street somewhere.
It wasn’t much later I called the police.
* * * * * *
The cops didn’t do much. Do they ever? I felt stupid at first for calling them to begin with – she wasn’t even gone twenty-four hours – and they got me to ring up Kelly’s parents and a friend of hers and some of my friends. Nobody knew anything. Kelly’s mom freaked out – for good reason, her daughter and the love of my life had had mental health issues for the past few years – and when I called the cops again the next morning with no sign of her, they took it seriously.
They checked with her work. They checked flight lists and bus lists. They checked her credit card but it was with her wallet, at home. They searched our apartment top to bottom. They went through her phone, with my permission. Nothing unusual save the fact that apparently she’d been looking up wedding rings – news to me, news I would’ve happily welcomed anyway.
I really loved her. Love her. I really did, I really do.
A week passed in a blur. I kept going to work (I fix motors) and tried to keep it out of my mind. The apartment felt dark and empty. I went to meetings every day.
I didn’t tell the police about the guy I saw on the street. I never told them about the tooth – I’d forgotten about both in all the panic.
What do you do when you wait for someone who may never come back? Who left without a trace, a word? I hated myself at first, thinking I’d driven her away. I’m a self flagellant, sober or otherwise. Then I got scared – what if she was hurt? What if she was taken?
I chain-smoked and stared at the walls and the laptop screen. I stayed away from bars and liquor stores – if she came back I didn’t want it to be to a drunk, no matter how fragile I was emotionally, how much I could feel my sanity draining.
On the first day of the second week of her disappearance, I got an envelope full of teeth in the mail.
* * * * * *
I checked the mail diligently every single day since she disappeared in case she sent me a note, or somebody did.
The envelope was plain, white, like any you’d get at a post office. It had no stamps or writing on it. I could feel the little lumps in it as soon as I picked it up, could see the outline on the stark paper. I took it upstairs to the kitchen table – cluttered as it was with missing person posters I’d been putting up myself – and opened it, and watched them tumble out onto the cheap Formica.
Six teeth. Like the one that’d been in my pocket. Small, even looking. I stared at them and then went to the bathroom and kneeled and threw up – thinking of mornings hungover doing the same thing. I did that until my stomach was empty.
Better than the drinking days – no blood. I flushed it away and went to make a phone call.
* * * * * *
I don’t know why I didn’t go to the police. I really don’t. Maybe I distrusted them after the way they’d handled their disappearance and the basically zero effort they’d been putting in thus far. Maybe I was afraid they’d blame me, or think I was crazy.
The teeth had to be connected. They had to be. The same night I find one in my pocket, she disappears. A week later, I get an envelope with half of somebody’s enamel in it. One plus one equals two. I knew that much.
Instead of calling the cops I rang up one of Kelly’s friends who rang up another and another until I got put into contact with a dentistry student she was acquainted with. He was a nice guy, I’d actually met him at some party she’d taken me to once, for the brief time we were together when I was still off the wagon. He hadn’t seen me blind, thank God.
I met with him at the university, at some lab room with big long tables and microscopes and equipment that looked like something a torturer in medieval times would use and he spread the teeth out on a white sheet and he looked at them.
“You say you found these in your backyard?”
“Yeah,” I said, and realized I was sweating. I wiped my brow, wishing we could be doing this at Charlie’s or the Thorned Bush or the Nightcall or any of the bars I used to call my second home. Or that I could at least smoke in this fucking building. “In the backyard. I was just curious as to what they were, if they were, like, human or whatever. You know?”
“Right, right.” I wondered if he knew about Kelly and dismissed the thought. The cops had been keeping it quiet, it wasn’t plastered all over the news or anything, and he would’ve asked me about it in connection to this weird request if he’d known. Then again, why did I care? Why did I feel so odd, and suspicious?
“Well,” he went on, “These are definitely human teeth.”
“Don’t worry – it’s odd, but they don’t look damaged or anything, like I wouldn’t say they came out of someone’s mouth as a result of trauma.” He picked one up with a pair of very thin tongs. “No abrasions. But no pulp or anything either. It’s like they were grown in a lab or something, they’re pretty pristine, if a little yellowed, but that’s only natural if they were outside. I’d say they came out of a mouth naturally. Might be somebody’s kids’ teeth, you know how some parents hold on to them after they do business with the tooth fairy.”
“What did I say?”
I stared at him. Something was rising in me and I swallowed against it. “You say these are kids’ teeth?”
He nodded. “Oh, yes,” he said. “Definitely. Baby teeth.”
* * * * * *
There wasn’t much more he could tell me. I thanked him and took my teeth with me and in the parking lot I threw up as discreetly as I could beside my car. When I looked up – over the hood, at the edge of the parking lot beside the busy freeway the university stood beside – I could see that figure again. Dark loose pants, a hoodie, the hood up. They stood against the falling sun and were in shadow. They were still. They were staring at me.
Noise filled my head. Like a million animals screaming at once – cats, dogs, birds, a menagerie – and I clasped my hands to the side of my head and screamed myself, trying to blot it out, my eyes closed, heart hammering. I heard running footsteps and my eyes clenched shut tighter and I kept thinking – as long as I don’t see it coming, maybe it won’t hurt as much. The footsteps got louder and louder in tune with the screams and then—
It all stopped. I opened my eyes. There was nothing, no one, except a few students staring at me beside their car. I got into my mine without looking at them again, started and drove out of there. My knuckles were bone white, tight against the steering wheel.
* * * * * *
I went to a meeting that night. All familiar faces – no strangers, no hooded figures making noise in my head. I tried to make sense of what had happened to me, but how could I? It did occur to me that I might be in the middle of some sort of nervous breakdown. I’d certainly exhibited behavior like this when I was drinking – delusional, paranoid, upset. But never hallucinations, even in all my blackouts and bar fights. I’d imagined insults, but only out of words truly spoken and twisted by my diseased brain.
When I got home that night I resolved to call a psychiatrist in the morning. I texted my boss, told him I wasn’t coming in the next day. He had a vague idea something was happening with me and didn’t press it, for which I was eternally grateful. Then I took a bath and smoked a cigarette and made myself listen to reason – stay sober, stay alert, don’t pay attention to this nonsense. Your brain is trying to hurt you. See a doctor, see what they say, go from there.
Then I saw her in the bathroom doorway.
She looked like she always had, but different. She stood like she always stood, but off somehow. Not like a funhouse mirror. Like a cardboard cutout. She was inert and smiling and unnaturally still. Her hands were clasped in front of her and she was otherworldly in the half-dark from the bathroom light and the living room’s blackness.
She was grinning but her eyes weren’t. She was wearing clothes but they hung on her like on a mannequin. Her skin was olive, dark – in reality, she’d been so pale.
I dropped my cigarette in the tub and it sizzled and floated away. I stared, open-mouthed. From somewhere in my throat I heard a soft strangled cry and I splashed, drawing away from this thing wearing my woman’s skin.
It opened its mouth. Like an animatronic, slow, as though operated by hinges.
Teeth spilled out and clattered on the tiled bathroom floor.
I screamed and screamed and I closed my eyes. I’ve never felt fear like that in my life. It was like being shocked from low voltage, sustained over an eternity. Everything in me seized up and then froze and all I could do was scream.
When my eyes opened again she was gone, and so were the teeth.
I splashed out of the tub and ran to my room – our room – and put something on myself and went out to go sit on the stairs. Anything to get out of there.
I sat out there for a long time, breathing, trying not to throw up, waiting for my hands to stop shaking and my mind to clear. When I finally got the nerve to go back inside, to go back to that bathroom, the water was drained from the tub and there was a carving on the door, near where that thing that looked like Kelly had been.
It was black, like it was scorched into the wood, but smooth to the touch. A depiction of a rudimentary set of scales, like a symbol, and under it one word, or a string of letters:
T E C H M I C T I X N E Q U I
They were both immaculate, like the door had always been that way, and I’d never seen either before in my life. A smell hung in the air, too – something I couldn’t put my finger on, some sort of car smell or outdoor smell, pungent but not entirely unpleasant.
I ran my fingers along the symbol and the letters on my bathroom door again, then took of a photo of them with my phone – partly as a record, partly to check another source to see if they were indeed real. Because it was at this point that I had come to realize that I must really be losing my mind, right? That I must be going insane. My brain must’ve finally pickled from ten years of hardcore drinking and drugs and this was the end of it all. For all I knew maybe I’d killed Kelly, maybe she was riding shotgun in my truck, slowly rotting all this time while I ran around the city enacting some grand drama to mentally distance myself from her murder.
But this felt real. It felt real and true and my fear felt real and true. The scorched carving on my door felt real.
Which in a way was even more terrifying.
A shrink couldn’t save me from whatever this was.
* * * * * *
This has gone on a little long, maybe. But I want you to understand. There has to be some kind of record of this because if I kill myself or I die or God knows, someone has to know I didn’t do anything, that this happened to me. You can understand why I haven’t gone to the police – they’d put me in a bughouse, write me off as some crazy drunk. Or worse, blame me for her disappearing. A partner with a few drunk and disorderly arrests, a few DUIs, a history of alcoholism – perfect suspect in a disappearance, right?
I’ve canceled the shrink appointment. Today, this afternoon, I’m going to go see a friend of mine, a teacher. I’ll write an update once I do. He teaches history and may know what that symbol is all about.
Or what the fuck ‘Nahuatl’ is. See, I googled those letters. That word.
T E C H M I C T I Z N E Q U I.
It’s some language, Nahuatl. Ancient Mexican, Aztec, something like that. I can’t make sense of it.
According to Google, it means, “HE WILL DESTROY US”.