First published in Twisted Anatomy, Sci-Fi & Scary, 2021
Republished in Reflections, Wild Wood Books, 2022
Content warnings: depicts body horror, dental trauma and self-harm, profane language
Her tongue finds it first, by accident, as she runs it, absentminded, across her gums. It feels massive, a gigantic protrusion. An unexpected fresh addition in her mouth, nestled behind her front tooth.
She turns to the mirror, wide and backlit by an array of high-strength bulbs. She opens her mouth and leans back, back. So far, it feels uncomfortable. But even at this angle, she can’t see. She rummages in her handbag for her powder compact, puts the second mirror to her mouth, and tilts it to forty-five degrees. She peers at her reflection; searching, intent. Then she spots it. A tiny, white pustule, no bigger than a pinhead, poking through the pink skin of her palate. She picks at it with a fingernail, curious but perturbed. It’s something new. Something wrong. Something… alien.
“Katy, what the hell are you doing in there?” A shout of frustration is echoed by a thump, an assault on the hardwood of the door. “Damn it, Katy. You’re already late. Come on!”
Daniel, her long-time assistant and onetime bed-fellow. Much more than a lover, but not quite a true friend. Their relationship is complicated by work. He is diligent and useful but always so anxious. Such a slave to the clock and calendar. She suspects that he’s in love with her, but she doesn’t feel the same. She can’t bring herself to lower her boundaries. To give someone else her trust.
She grimaces and presses her lips tight together, then closes her eyes and exhales. She will take exactly as long as she needs. She can’t be late, it’s simply impossible. The show cannot start without its star.
She brushes an imaginary speck off her pantsuit and checks the line of her scarlet lipstick. She runs her fingers through her dyed blonde hair, and flicks her head so it cascades around her shoulders. These are meaningless gestures, of course. She looks totally fine, perfect even. The flawless, gorgeous face of ‘Petals and Pearls’ cosmetics. Well… ex-face. Now, the inimitable Katy du Campos; talk show host, actress, television producer and celebrity.
“Katy! Get out, now!”
She unlocks the door and opens it and is greeted by a raised fist. Daniel yelps and pulls back mid-knock, thrusts his palms to his sides.
“Darling!” she says, with saccharine sweetness, laced with a deliberate smile. “Whatever are you so wound up about? I’m right here.”
Daniel groans and waves a piece of paper in her face.
“D’Nae is waiting onstage already. Tarah Johnson, the writer, is next, and then you’ve got a heart-to-heart interview with…”
“With Sir Robert Flanagan. Yes, darling. I know my schedule.” She sweeps past him in a wave of warm scent and soft fabric and pauses before she heads to the stage door. “Oh, Daniel, could you be a dear and book me in to see Frederick as soon as possible?”
Daniel stalls, his expression blank. She sighs.
“My dentist, Daniel. Thank you.” Then she turns and struts away down the hallway.
The strange lump is not bothersome, at least, it doesn’t hurt in any way, but she finds herself frequently pressing on it with the flat part of her tongue. It feels so much bigger than she knows it is, an intrusion in her personal space.
Daniel does his job and arranges an appointment, but Frederick Wahls is enjoying fine weather further south on his favourite golf course. There is a wait; five days. She is enraged.
“God damn it, Daniel! Five days? Five fucking days!”
“He’s in another State, Katy. What do you expect me to do? Demand he cuts his vacation short just for you?”
“I expected you to express the urgency, Daniel. To do your damn job! Not blithely assume that five days is an acceptable delay. For God’s sake…”
“I’m sorry…” he begins, but she raises her palm as well as her eyebrows and he falls into a guilty silence.
“Enough. I suppose I shall simply have to wait, won’t I? No thanks to you.” She waves to the door, dismissing him. Doesn’t even watch him leave.
She pours herself a glass of neat Scotch, sips it, and runs her tongue around her mouth. The lump has grown, almost pea-sized now, and appears to be echoed by a second. Tiny, yet solid. A faint swelling behind her incisor.
At least it’s hidden inside, she thinks, as she drains the glass in one deep swallow. No one else can see that it’s there. Nobody knows but me.
Three days until her appointment and she knows she can’t wait any longer. Five lumps of various shapes and sizes crowd together on the roof of her mouth. It’s too much. She cannot bear it.
Daniel calls the practice again for her. There is another dentist she can see as an emergency patient. To hell with the cost. She accepts the appointment, and in a few hours, she is lying backwards in a black, vinyl chair.
The dentist, Erin, is young and pretty. Barely a few years older than Katy’s own daughter. Around the same age as her ex-husband’s new wife. Her teeth are so perfect and so blindingly white, they look almost unreal. Katy hears the snap of latex gloves, prepares herself for their touch. She’s always detested the feel of them. Clammy without being wet. When they catch her lips and brush her cheeks, it sets her teeth on edge. It’s a visceral feeling she can’t control. It makes her want to vomit.
“Okay, Katy, if you can just relax and open up a little wider for me?” The dentist rubs her fingers across the nodules. Katy breathes deeply and tries not to recoil. Resists the urge to bite down. Next comes a succession of lights and mirrors, of tools and more exploratory touch. Finally, satisfied, Erin rights the chair and brings Katy up to her level. She removes the gloves and tosses them in the trash, then flashes her sparkling grin.
“Well, Katy, the good news is I don’t think this is anything to worry about. It appears you are experiencing some kind of hyperdontia.” She sees Katy’s confusion and explains. “It’s when you grow some extra teeth. But these aren’t real teeth. These are more what we would call microdonts. They share some physical similarities with fully formed teeth, but they don’t have quite the same root structure. We’ll take an X-ray just to be sure, and I suspect the next step will be a simple extraction.”
Katy listens, but the words confuse her. Erin’s voice seems odd and unclear, like she’s speaking from the bottom of the ocean. New teeth. Growing new teeth. She fumbles for the words she needs.
“How is this even possible?” she asks. “I’m forty-seven, for Heaven’s sake. I’m far too old to be growing teeth!”
Erin chuckles. “Not at all. There are quite a few reasons why it might occur. Do you have any underlying conditions? Any genetic disorders or the like?”
Now it’s Katy’s turn to laugh as she says, “Good God, no. Absolutely not.” She’s in fine health. There’s nothing underlying in her.
The dentist’s expression turns suddenly strange, like she’s swallowed something distasteful. Katy wonders what she’s said that could have possibly offended her. But it passes swiftly, and the girl smiles again.
“Okay, well, let’s do an X-ray and we can get a better idea of what’s going on.” She holds out a small metal pan and gestures to the diamonds in Katy’s ears. “I’m going to need you to remove your jewellery, please.”
“Oh,” Katy says, and puts her hands to the studs. “I’ve never had to take them out before.”
“That’s probably because you only had bite-wing X-rays previously. I’d like to do a full, extra-oral one to check out your whole jaw. I’m afraid your earrings might affect the results. They could hide things we need to see.”
Katy plucks at the backs with nervous fingers. These adornments aren’t just any old studs, they are valued antiques. Her ex had gifted them to her on their third wedding anniversary. Two carat princess-cut diamonds set in fourteen carat white gold. Twelve thousand dollars’ worth of sophistication and style. He’d wanted them back in the messy divorce, but Judge Henson had overruled him. It was an amusing, joyous win for her, and a slap in the face for him. She is reticent to remove them, and she certainly won’t entrust them to a stranger. Sticky fingers might be tempted to touch what’s not theirs. Lessons learned from leaving items in old dressing rooms.
“I’d rather keep them in.”
“I’m concerned we might not get a clear picture. You can hold on to them yourself if you prefer?”
“No. They stay in,” she says resolutely, and glares at Erin, daring the girl to counter her decision. It’s the principle of the thing that matters to her. The dentist nods, tight-lipped.
“Okay. That’s your choice,” she says. “Now, if you’d follow me to the X-ray room?”
They walk together down the corridor. Erin moves faster, a few paces ahead. The radiography machine is much larger than Katy is expecting. She is required to stand in front of it while its structure surrounds her head. It feels ridiculous and more than a little claustrophobic.
“You said you were forty-seven?” Erin asks her.
“So, no chance of pregnancy?” The question stings, although Katy isn’t sure if it’s meant to. You’re old, it says. Washed up and infertile. No room in that womb for new life. More than that, it’s a sharp reminder that she’s never had that experience, and now she never will. Too posh to push, but a mother nonetheless. Mellie was born via a surrogate. She’s often wondered if that’s why they’d struggled to connect. Why the girl always seemed to prefer her father.
“No,” she replies through gritted teeth. “I’m not pregnant.” Erin nods and moves her gently closer to the machine.
“Stay still,” she says, and Katy hears the low hum of what she assumes is the machine powering up. Then Erin leaves the room and there’s a heavy clunk and more noise, but this time it’s like a haze of sound. She’s disoriented for a moment, feels pressure in her head, then Erin’s cupped hands on her shoulders.
“Katy? Miss du Campos? Are you okay?”
“Yes, of course. Why wouldn’t I be?” The dentist’s face seems somewhat pale. Her tone is different. Concerned.
“Come on back to my room, Katy,” she says quietly. “We need to discuss your X-ray.”
Daniel arrives in a private car, not one sent by the studio. She called him, not knowing who else to trust. Hysteria makes her voice sound shrill. He’s never heard her unravel quite like this, and he comes as quickly as he can. He runs red lights and pushes the speed limit. Skids as he takes corners in the rain.
She is waiting down the street from the dental clinic, sheltered from the weather beneath an awning, and smoking a menthol cigarette. She flicks the end with a nervous thumbnail, and a grey snake of ash falls to the ground.
“I thought you’d quit?” Daniel comments.
“I thought I had too,” she replies, and puts herself in the passenger side of the car. He is surprised. She usually prefers the back seat. “Come on,” she urges, and he joins her, taking his place behind the wheel.
They drive in silence but for the swish of the wipers sweeping away the drizzle off the glass. He finds the quiet disconcerting. She’s never normally lost for words. He clears his throat and attempts a conversation.
“So, do you want to talk about it?” he asks.
“About what?” she replies and averts her gaze.
“Whatever it is, that’s got you so upset.”
“I’m not upset. Why would you say I’m upset?”
“Katy, please. I know you. Just… Know that I’m listening, okay?”
She chews a hangnail absentmindedly. Yelps when she pulls it too close to the quick. He can see the tension in her shoulders. The muscles in her jaw pulse and twitch.
“I’m fine, Daniel. Really.”
The rainfall grows heavier, leaving patterns on the windows as the droplets race down the glass. She watches the rivulets run into one another, like the thin tears rolling down her cheeks.
She remembers the image the dentist had shown her. The shock and surprise in her voice. The X-ray, which Katy could scarcely believe was real, let alone belonging to her. It was like something from a freak show in a carnival. From an Internet hoax, intended to disturb. From the very worst horror movie she’d ever seen. So grotesque, it couldn’t possibly be true.
The image; her jaw in black and white, teeming with unusual white space. Rows upon rows of tiny tooth buds scattered inside her skull. Clusters layered within her jaw. Circling both nasal cavities. They were there, in her bones, waiting to erupt. Like parasites buried in her head.
The house is quiet when she enters, made dark and still by the storm. Hestia and Artemis, her two Blue Pointed Siamese, are curled up asleep in their basket, oblivious to her return. She sent Daniel away as soon as she could. Not ready to talk. To remember.
Her smartwatch vibrates on her wrist and she flinches, but it’s just a reminder alarm. Time for her daily vitamins. An attempt to stay healthy and well.
Mellie always said that they were useless. A waste of money. A con.
“Eat less crap, and move your body more,” she’d said scornfully. “That’s the key to a good life, Mother. Not these stupid, expensive placebos.” But Mellie was still in her twenties, and for her, looking good was almost effortless. Such careless ease was just a memory to Katy. Good genes could only go so far. It took piles of money and lots of hard work to maintain her flawless appearance.
A well-meaning acquaintance at the studio had found her this particular brand. Only the purest organic ingredients. The best supplement money could buy. High in calcium, magnesium and vitamin D. All essential for women her age. But the real beauty, the woman had told her, was their secret, unique formula; an elixir that could regenerate old bone. And the proof certainly seemed to be in the pudding. The woman’s hair was thick, shiny and lustrous, and her skin was so clear and dewy it almost seemed to glow. She was lithe and supple, her movements graceful. She didn’t make any of those strange, strangled noises like Katy often did when she stood up after she’d been sitting for too long.
Katy had been immediately envious. She knew the woman had eight years on her but could easily pass for ten younger. She’d bought the entire selection, taken double the recommended dose. She’d been far too gullible, too trusting. Impatient to reap the rewards.
And now? Could they be the cause of her misery? She regards the two pink pills in her palm and tips them back into the bottle. She takes her phone from her handbag and scrolls through her contacts. Finds the one she needs. The line rings and rings but doesn’t connect. An automated voicemail springs to life, and she speaks as requested after the beep.
“Helen? Hi! This is Katy. Katy du Campos. We met at the studio. I’m just…” she trails off. Just what?
Just calling to see if those pills we’re both taking have turned you into a medical anomaly? A freak of nature? A monster?
Just wanted to know if you knew the risks? Or if maybe you lied to me and sold me down the river, you washed-up, jealous, old bitch?
“Never mind. Call me.” She says. She puts the phone down on the breakfast bar and tries to will her heartbeat to slow down. Around and around her gums, her tongue goes, and she feels the irregularities in her skin. Counts them… One… Two… Five… Thirteen… Some tiny, some not so much.
“Like nothing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Erin had said. Complex odontoma. Teratomas. A monstrous tumour. Then the C word no one ever wants to hear. Finally, talk of an operation. Of removal. Of some further study. And she had practically run from the clinic right then. The hideous image of the X-ray burned in her mind.
She pours a drink and runs her fingers through her hair. Tries to smooth away some of her tension. Her left eye feels scratchy, as if irritated by an eyelash. She rubs it with a fingertip and freezes. In the corner, near the tear duct, she feels something solid. She screams like her life is in danger.
Daniel tries to call her multiple times through the evening and across the following two days. She doesn’t pick up. She can’t pick up. She spends the hours drowning in alcohol.
The dental clinic calls her too. They leave many messages that she won’t listen to. She deletes each one as they come in. She is terrified of what they might say. They’ll want to break her open, she knows. To cut into her face.
She is startled in the morning by a buzz at the gate. She sees Daniel outside on the security camera feed, waving at the house.
“Go away,” she tells him over the intercom. “I want to be left alone.” But he refuses.
“If you won’t let me in, I’ll find a way to gain access, whether you like it or not,” he says. She doesn’t doubt it. He can be as stubborn as she is.
He finds her in the dark with all the house blinds closed. A scarf has been thrown over the oversize mirror mounted in the open hallway. She has draped another over her head. She looks utterly ridiculous, he thinks. He notes the open and empty bottles, the cigarette butts crushed in a crystal bowl. He sees a metal toolbox on the floor by the fireplace. Open and spewing its contents. A hammer. Some pliers. A drill. There’s a pile of towels dumped on the floor too. Brown stains. Is that coffee? Or blood?
“What the hell’s been going on, Katy? Why aren’t you answering your phone? I’ve had Stuart Valliant from the network breathing down my damn neck all of yesterday, and I had no idea what to tell him. I really hope you’ve got a good explanation!”
She makes her usual hand-raised gesture, demanding his silence and attention. He’s too angry, too confused, too tired to care. He’s had enough of her theatrics.
“And what the fuck is with the scarf on your face?” He goes to grab the material, to pluck it from her head, and she shies away from his touch. Her hip collides with the breakfast bar, and she grunts and stumbles before steadying herself.
“Don’t,” she says, and her voice sounds strange. Muffled by the fabric, and something else. She sounds like his young nephew does when he sucks on a giant gobstopper. The candy too large for his mouth.
“Are you sick?” He asks her, a little calmer. “Is that what’s wrong?” She nods and lets out a strangled cry.
“Do we need to get you to a doctor?”
She shakes her head and wrings her hands. “It won’t help,” she garbles. “It’s too late.”
She removes a Marlboro from the carton with shaking fingers and goes to put it to her lips. But she forgets about the scarf that’s in the way. A silken barrier that denies her her craving. She throws the cigarette to the floor, enraged.
“Katy,” Daniel says slowly. “I’m worried about you. Take the scarf off, please. Let me see?” She replies with a furious shake of her head and backs away from him, arms outstretched. “Come on, Katy! How bad can it be?”
“I wanted to take them out myself,” she mumbles. “I couldn’t bear it, you know? Them being there. All of them under my skin. And the itching and the pressure… Oh!” She grows more agitated as she speaks, paces back and forth. “I tried, Daniel. I really tried. But I can’t… I got one. Just one. But there’s so many more!”
“What is? What are you talking about?”
She picks up a glass and upends it. Tips something into her hand. She passes it to him, something small and hard. A tiny round shape in his palm.
“Will you help me, Daniel? To get them all out?” And then he realises what she’s given him.
“A tooth? You took out a tooth?” But this is too small for an adult tooth. Perhaps it’s one of Mellie’s baby teeth she’s kept. But why? Is this a prank?
“What is this?” He demands. “What the fuck’s going on?” And she sighs deeply and pulls at the corner of the scarf. The material ripples and flows like water, revealing the horrors beneath.
From every orifice, and across both of her cheeks, pale pustules erupt and spread. Her eyes are swollen, her lips malformed. Her nostrils are wide and stretched. What skin remains is pinched and torn, freckled by tiny, white dots.
‘Will you help me?” she asks him a second time. Her jaw is crammed with lumps of enamel. Her tongue encrusted with pearls.
A wave of uncontrollable nausea hits him. He vomits on the floor. On his shoes.
“How?” he begins, but he can’t go on.
“The dentist, that new girl, she X-rayed me. I thought she was lying. I wanted her to be lying. Oh God, Daniel! If the press gets hold of that picture… You know I can’t let anyone see me like this. These things, they’re in here,” she says, pointing to her skull. “They’re growing. And I don’t know why!”
She scurries to the fireplace and picks up the drill, proffers it to him with a misshapen smile. One eye is closed, the eyeball obscured, both lids weighted down and distended. He sees buds of ivory peek through her hair, a broad line of sharp points at her scalp. There’s a ragged hole in the lower part of her cheek, plugged with blood that has dried almost black. It looks like a grotesque beauty mark. A dark chasm from which her sanity has fled.
“Help me, Daniel,” she pleads. “There’s just so many. I can’t… Please?” And he takes the drill from her hands.