Exberliner and The Reader proudly represent the first of three runners-up in our Berlin Short Fiction Award – Callie Payne’s “Tooth”. Each week, expect a new summer short story for your enjoyment. The winner, “This Story Is Probably Not About Coffee” can be found in our July/August double issue.
“Is my tooth bleeding?”
“You bit me in the head, woman,” said Pete. “It’s my blood!”
“I think you chipped it.” Helena felt the jagged line of her front teeth with her thumb.
Pete took his wife’s hand to one side and peered into her mouth.
“No,” he said, “it’s always been like that.”
But it hadn’t.
A few days later, there was a lump on Pete’s forehead about the size of a frozen pea.
“Look,” he said, crossing the room in great strides. “Look where you bit my head.”
“You’re starting to look like one of those…what are they, again? Those narwhals!” Helena called back over the clattering of dishes in the sink. “And besides, you’re the one who bit my head. Headbutted my tooth, I mean.”
She noticed the look he gave her, but she smiled and rolled her eyes as she turned back to the sudsy sink. It had been a clear case of accidental collision. Anyone could see that. They were just messing with each other, as usual. In a few days the bump would be gone and they’d forget all about it.
In a few days the lump had doubled in size. It had grown from the size of a frozen pea to the size of two frozen peas, one stacked on top of the other. Acid rose; Helena’s stomach squeezed. She tried not to look at it.
“Does it hurt?” she asked, pressing a freshly laundered white shirt to her nose. She looked at her husband from behind her temporary mask. He was reclining on the bed, still in his work trousers.
“Yeah actually,” Pete said, not meeting her eyes, “it does. More than it did in the sea.”
They had been play wrestling when it happened. After work, they’d met in their local for one or two, and after three or four, they had emerged, drunk. One of them suggested a late night skinny dip as they passed the glimmering lights of the pier.
It was a warm July night, so they both ran onto the dark sand—racing to be the first to discard their office gear. Then they were gliding through the water and towards one another. In each other’s arms, the summer evening grew silent and still. Helena could see the pale moon of Pete’s face suspended in the glittering black water. In that moment, it felt electric to be so near him, with her legs wrapped tight around his slippery underwater body. She could have kissed him.
Pete’s fingers tightened around her waist. There wasn’t time to protest before she was blowing bubbles in the wriggling shadows beneath the sea. She surfaced, gasping. Soon they were crashing and shouting together in the water. They must have gotten a little carried away because she found herself sailing through the air, and perhaps he was too, because they had impacted—hard. Her body weight alone wasn’t enough to create that kind of force, was it? They had both recoiled: Helena clutching her face; Pete, his head. It had been a shock, and it had hurt like hell.
Helena abandoned her sorting and folding and moved towards her husband. She gripped his shoulder with a rush of feeling.
“Oh hun,” she said. “I’m sorry, that’s rubbish.”
“Sorry for what—for biting my head?”
She started to laugh, but stopped when she realised that she was the only one.
The next day, she woke up before him. She loved being the first one up. The gentleness of naturally waking with a warm body beside her and the opportunity to ease her husband into consciousness with kisses and coffee was preferable to the alternative. Pete had an unfortunate habit of abusing the overhead light and rooting loudly through drawers for missing tie clips.
With a grim sense of domestic triumph, she turned off the alarm and made her way to the kitchen and put some coffee and toast on for herself and Pete. She even turned the radio on, very low, and swayed a little to Classic FM on the cold linoleum in her cleanly laundered white cotton knickers.
When the toast popped up, she frowned. Pete still wasn’t yawning in the doorway, arms stretched tall, bed shirt rising to expose a dark and furtive nest. He never wore underwear if he could help it. After a bite from the corner of her piece of toast, she carried his slice and mug into the bedroom and placed them on the neat bedside table beside his head.
He still did not stir.
The curtains were drawn, the room was muggy. She noticed that the room had an odd smell—salty and chemical, perhaps a little rancid.
Wrinkling her nose, she stepped over to the window. She drew the thick pleated blue curtains and pushed open the heavy metal frame with its flaking white paint and 1970s’ practicality. The quiet ebb and flow of the traffic of their little seaside town washed into the room along with the gentle glow of the morning sun.
She looked back at her husband. The daylight revealed a pale, pasty man with a yellowish tinge under his eyes. His dark blond hair was plastered to a shiny, bony forehead. The blue and white striped covers, a remnant from Pete’s pre-married life, were tangled up in his legs and his bed shirt had ridden up in his sleep, revealing gently rising ribs and a soft, sloping tummy. There, in the middle of his forehead, as red as a bullseye, was the lump.
Helena’s hands fluttered at her sides. It had grown again in the night. It was sleek and shiny at the apex, as though it had been weeping silent, accusative tears.
She approached his bedside and knelt down, peeling his hair away from his temples.
“Babe,” she said, her voice a low hum. “Babe, wake up. I’ve brought you coffee and toast.”
He made a small grunt, and his eyes probed the darkness behind closed lids.
“Babe, are you unwell? Are you going to take the day off?”
He opened his eyes with some difficulty. Yellow glue held them back. He took a moment to focus, then pushed her hand away from his face.
“What are you doing?” he said, looking around. He moved himself into a sitting position. “It’s seven twenty already? Why didn’t you wake me up?”
“I tried, hun,” she lied, “but you were in a very heavy sleep. I thought you were unwell.”
“What? I’m fine,” he said, glaring at her through a sticky ooze. “Besides, how could I wake up with that soft voice? What happened to the alarm?”
“You don’t look very well. Do you think you should go to—”
“Oh, just pass me those slippers, would you? I’ll be late for this bloody meeting.”
When she returned from work the following evening, she found him already sitting on the sofa.
She sat down beside him. There was that smell again—like rotten leaves, sweet mouldering flowers. His white shirt was rolled up to his elbows and he had dark grey pit stains.
“How come you’re home so early?”
He didn’t reply. She put her hand on his shoulder.
“Hun,” she began, but with an irritated twist of his body, he shrugged her hand off.
“Don’t touch me.” His voice was thick. He faced his wife.
Helena shifted back in her seat.
The protrusion had grown to the size of a baby carrot—a pointing finger of recrimination. The skin had stretched thin over the lump, as if whatever it was inside there was straining to be free.
“Oh hun,” she said, “did you go to the doctor’s? That looks awful.”
“That’s what the guys at work said too, Helena. Go home Pete, you’re sick Pete, you look like shit, Pete.”
Helena waited and watched. He did not wipe away the spittle that flecked his purple lips and stubble-shadowed chin.
“You should have called me,” she said, after their breathing slowed a little.
One of his hands gripped the arm of the sofa, the other his own leg. She couldn’t see the tips of his fingers.
“I would have left work and come and picked you up. I could have taken you to the doctor’s. You’re obviously sick.”
“You’re obviously sick,” he mimicked.
Helena wanted to laugh at his pettiness. She wanted to cry.
“Well, did you go or not?”
His response was calm. “I’ve been waiting for you, Helena.”
“Okay,” she said, after a beat. “Let’s go now, then. Quick, before they close.”
Her voice was an unconvincing puppet of pragmatism. She began rustling through her bag for her car keys. Her dark hair spilled across her face like tulle and for a moment she was unreadable.
“You know, I missed that meeting, Helena.” He picked up a cigarette that had been half smoked and then abandoned in an unfamiliar ashtray on the coffee table in front of them. Helena paused her rifling.
“They wouldn’t let me go in.”
He lit the cigarette and took two short, shallow puffs. The resulting plume circulated and then hung around their paper globe light shade.
“Pete, please,” said Helena, “It’s just gone five-thirty. We’ve got about thirty minutes to get to the doctors.”
“Oh, didn’t I tell you?” he said. “No need. I already went to the doctors. It was very informative.”
He squashed his cigarette out and took one of Helena’s hands, smiling and peering into her eyes. To her surprise, a chord of horror rang through her when she felt the damp coolness of her husband’s touch.
“They told me that I have a chip of tooth embedded in my head. It’s caused an infection. Perhaps someone forgot to brush their teeth that morning!” He wiggled her hands.
“Dirty tooth embedded in the skull. That’s the official diagnosis. I’ve got an emergency appointment with the surgeon first thing in the morning. That’s the quickest they could get me in. They said if it was in there any longer,” he paused to swallow, “I could die. Also, the pain, Helena.”
He broke off here to swallow again. Helena watched his Adam’s apple go through its motions with detachment.
“The pain level is off the charts. Seems it’s worked its way under a nerve. They wanted to get me seen as quickly as possible, so I don’t go mad with the unrelenting pain. Even torture victims get a break, don’t they?”
The pupils in his eyes were like long abandoned coal pits. The periphery of her own vision started turning black.
“Anyway,” he broke away, releasing her hands and her gaze and shaking two pill bottles at her, “he prescribed me these. One for the infection and one for the incredible pain that I’m in. But what I’ve really been waiting for is an answer. I just want to know one little thing. One silly little thing.”
He reached out to take her face with his hands. It could almost be mistaken for tenderness.
“Why did you bite me, Helena?”
“I didn’t,” she said. She was standing now, when had that happened? She was standing and her breathing was hard and ragged.
“It was an accident—come on, you know that. For God’s sake, Pete.”
He took a deep, shuddering breath and his shoulders slackened a little.
“On the way home, I started thinking. I’m in pain and I can’t wait until tomorrow to get this blasted filthtooth out of my head.”
He made a choking sound.
“No. Impossible. Impossible to endure. So, I stopped off at the local hardware store.”
Here he lifted up a blue plastic bag from the side of the sofa and pulled out a pair of pliers. They had already been removed from their cardboard wrapping.
“I took double the dose of the pain medicine. I tried to remove the filthtooth myself.”
Helena stared at her husband. “Peter, for Christ’s sake!”
“I obviously didn’t go through with it, did I Helena? Alright? My vision went too blurry from the pain meds, my arms were too weak. I didn’t anticipate the strength of the medicine.”
“Well, thank God,” she said, and stretched up a little, shaking her head before turning to fetch them both some water from the kitchen.
“How about I make us some dinner?” she called through the doorway, while the tap rushed forth. “I’ll email work now and tell them I need to take you to the hospital tomorrow. We can watch a film and—”
“No,” he said, as she reappeared in the doorway, his voice quiet and cold. She drained her glass and handed him his. He accepted it.
“I want you to do it. I want you to remove it.”
Helena was silent for a long time before she spoke.
“Am I supposed to be laughing, Peter?”
“This is your fault, Helena. I need you to take responsibility for this.”
She crossed her arms.
“You want me to plier off an infected cyst on your forehead.”
“I want you to remove your dirty tooth from my forehead, yes.”
“For God’s sake, just wait for the bloody appointment, would you? Trust me, it’s going to feel a lot worse and a lot more painful if I do…that.”
“For God’s sake,” he mimicked, “For Christ’s sake. What about my sake, hun? What about Pete? What about Pete’s sake?”
He was laughing, an awful wheezing laugh, the little engine who couldn’t.
“Fuck off, Pete.”
In the bathroom, she splashed water onto her face and dried off. She paused for a moment in front of the mirror. She could distinguish the silver lines of her newly apparent grey hairs. But they weren’t noticeable in the daylight, were they? There were only five or six of them, really. This light showed too much.
Maybe she had bitten him. Perhaps a part of her wanted this. She bared her teeth at herself. She could see the little chip missing from her lateral incisor, that small part of her that was gone forever, implanted like a venomous seed in her husband’s head. She once more ran her thumb over the gap. It was sharp.
She opened the bathroom door, readying herself for whatever happened next. She half expected him to be standing there: arm on the doorframe, menacing leer on his face, sweat dripping onto the floor. But he wasn’t. She found him where she had left him, slumped on the sofa. She knelt down in front of him and took his hands. This time he accepted them, and squeezed her hands. They looked at each other. His cheeks were shiny with tears. She could see his pulse fluttering rapidly in the veins in his forehead.
“Please,” he whimpered. “Please, help me.”
She took him into the bathroom and told him to strip. He started undoing his shirt, but his fingers kept slipping around the buttonholes. She helped, then peeled the shirt off his skin.
She knelt down before him and began unzipping his work trousers. She could smell his saltiness, his sweat, and there is was again—that tang. She pulled his underwear and trousers down to his knees and made him sit on the edge of the bath. There, she fully removed his trousers, boxers and socks. He was naked.
“Get in the bath,” she said. He obeyed.
She retrieved the items she’d need—iodine, bandages, towels—and, of course, the pliers.
They were heavier than she’d expected them to be, less wieldy. She gave them a few test opens and closes. They were stiff to operate; she had to use a lot of her upper body strength. She put them down on a little table. She laid a towel over Pete, who had wilted into the bath, knees akimbo. The lump was now purple, and lines of redness were beginning to stretch away from the protrusion, like blood dripped onto old parchment. She swore, angry at herself and the doctors for leaving it this long.
“Did you take enough pain medication?”
He nodded, his eyelids drooping.
“Are you ready?”
“Yes,” he replied, or perhaps he didn’t. His voice was mashed up.
She waited a few minutes. Perhaps he’d fall asleep and she wouldn’t have to go through with it after all. But then again, who knew how much worse he’d be by the morning? He could be dead. She inhaled, deeply.
When the teeth of the pliers bit into the gruesome lump, she knew she’d made a terrible mistake.
Pete let out a horrible wail as the flesh on his forehead collapsed. At first, the skin was like an overripe peach—the pus burst through the broken skin as though it had been queuing up to exit in an orderly fashion. Out the yellow leapt, onto the handle of the pliers. She let it stay there. After that first layer, it felt hard. Almost calcified. The hardness seemed to be embedded in his skull. It was large—perhaps the size of the tip of a finger.
She gave it a yank with the pliers, but his head came forward with the lump.
Blood and pus were trickling down his face, which had gone horribly white. She began to withdraw, horrified.
“Just pull it out!” he croaked. Despite everything, despite being utterly at her mercy, her husband still managed to sound imperious and scornful of her efforts.
“Lie back down!” she commanded.
She got in the bath with him, using her knees to pin his head and neck, straddling him, her pelvis thrust towards his face. She brought the pliers once more towards the mangled, gory lump. He was trembling violently now, gasping and gulping slightly at the pressure of her body against his throat. She had to be quick.
“Ok,” she said. “One, two—”
She bit down once more and pulled with all the force she could muster, using her body weight to counterbalance the tug. The hard mass came loose with the pliers and fell with a muffled plink into the bath.
Pete had slumped to the side. Thick, dark blood was trickling from the wound. She imagined a bullet hole would not look too different. Helena pressed a clean towel to the wound.
“Pete,” she said. “Pete, wake up. It’s out.”
She prodded him. He mumbled something incoherent. After a few moments, she released the towel and cleaned the wound with iodine and cotton swabs, trying to get every last shard of bone and infection out. She thought she found the chip of her tooth in there, but she wasn’t so sure. The next time she moved the swab around she found something very similar.
She ran clean water into the hole, more iodine, then bandaged it up.
When she saw how much paler he was getting, how his chest was pulsing with rapid, shallow little breaths, she let out a low moan.
“Shit,” she said, and ran to the phone.
“Hello, ambulance. Yes, my husband—yes, 24 Seaview Lane, yes—blood loss, I think, an infected tooth…please, hurry, he’s barely breathing, he’s unconscious.”
When she put the phone down, the silence of the apartment sunk onto her shoulders, squeezed her chest, and filled her guts. She ran to the bathroom.
Her husband was naked, white as zinc, and splattered with globulets of blood so thick it was almost black. A dark red circle was already staining his clean white bandages. Beside the bath lay her makeshift surgery table—a neatly folded towel, a pile of bloodied cotton swabs and the pliers, streaked with blood and pus.
This did not look good.
She rinsed the pliers, doused them in antiseptic, and chucked them in the cupboard with the rest of the household tools. Then she flushed away the cotton swabs and looked back at her husband.
“Shit,” she said again.
She unravelled the bandages, revolted by how warm and wet they were. A small wave of blood, like hot strawberry syrup, spilled out from the hole and over his eyes.
She had forgotten to stuff the hole with wadding. She quickly prepared some, swearing profusely, and stuffed it inside, then reapplied the bandage. He didn’t make a sound.
“Pete, Pete!” She shook him. His body slumped heavily against the side of the bath. He had stopped shivering.
When the ambulance crew arrived 30 minutes later, she was holding his hand. She had covered him with bloodstained towels.
“I’ve been trying to keep him warm,” she informed them.
“Out of the way, Ma’am.”
“He was so cold,” she said, as she was gently but firmly moved aside.
Callie Payne is a writer and avid consumer of the dark and the drastic. She has recently moved back to Berlin after 6 months of traveling to start her own content company. In her spare time she can be found zenning out at Yellow Yoga.