// Two //

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Clara brought her hand to her mouth, eyes wide in shock.

"I know," I said. "Ugly, right?"

"No, no." She shook her head. "It's not that." She looked around the bar as though checking to make sure no one was overhearing our conversation. "I mean, gums hurting is... normal." She leaned in across the counter and her voice dipped down to a whisper. "But they aren't supposed to actually fall out like that. When did it happen?"

"Just today while I was on the plane. Wait, what do you mean they don't normally fall out?" My heart pounded, and a dull ache pulsed through my gums. I pressed my tongue against the soft, raw flesh, and pain shot through my mouth. I tasted a hint of blood.

"I've heard of it before," Clara said. "But I've never seen it like this. Shit, I'm going to call Jen after my shift and see if she can take a look at you."

/ / /

After Clara's shift ended, we walked to the far end of town where she lived. The building towered above the streets like a fortress. On the inside, original stonework was left exposed, a constant reminder of how old the place was.

When we reached her flat, she made me sit on the small loveseat in the dimly lit living room, and then she stepped out onto the balcony to make a call. It was three in the morning.

My tongue involuntarily ran over my teeth as I glanced around the room. Thick, black curtains draped the windows. There was no television. Instead, the walls were covered with artwork. An angel with long, dark hair and one wing cried in a forest as demons crept in around her. A man with half of his face burned to the bone stared out of another painting with empty eyes.

The door to the balcony suddenly swung open, and I nearly jumped in my seat.

"She'll be over in twenty minutes," Clara said.

I nodded. I wanted to ask Clara about the paintings. Had she been the one who made them? Was she the angel? And who was the man? I wanted to ask all of that, but nerves overpowered me. Instead, I sat silently as we waited for Jen.

Clara paced around the room, glancing at me every now and then and making me even more anxious than I already was.

What was I doing here? I'd flown halfway across the world to get help from a stranger—someone I didn't have any connection to at all. I couldn't have found someone in the same country that could help me? What was I thinking?

At the back of my mind, I wondered if maybe I'd done it purposefully. Maybe, I had wanted an excuse to get away from my life.

I turned my eyes up to look at Clara. She leaned against the counter, studying the floor.

When I'd first messaged her online, I'd been surprised by how easy she was to talk to. It was like talking to someone I'd known all my life. But, now that I was actually looking at her, my words caught like cement in my throat. I felt out of place sitting in her apartment, surrounded by her life. I wiped sweat from my palms onto my jeans. As much as I wanted to say something, my mind was frozen.

Clara drummed her fingers on the island countertop. "I could put the kettle on or something."

"What?" I shook myself from my thoughts and raised an eyebrow at her.

"Tea. Do you want tea?"

I felt a smile tug at the corner of my mouth. Ever since I was I kid, I'd always smiled with my teeth, but now that my mouth was a mess, I felt self-conscious about it.

Clara's brow furrowed, and she gave me a confused grin. "What?"

"Nothing," I said. "It's just, that's a very British thing of you to ask."

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