Each night a mold developed around her retainer, blooming from the gap between the plastic halves. She awoke to dime-sized patches of green fur along the inside of her cheeks and running up over her lips and chin. A peach fuzz grew along her hairline. In time the mold spread further. It speckled her bedroom wall like spat tobacco, then hung in white stalactites from the bookshelf and the Christmas lights above her bed. She went to sleep with her lamp on; she kept a dehumidifier on the pillow beside her. But nothing worked. One morning she had to break off a dense ridge of mold that had built up along her jaw like a mushroom cap, and another morning she couldn’t open her eyes; they had been sealed shut by mold. She had to feel her way to the kitchen before her parents were up and open her eyelids with silverware. When she could see again, and with her parents still in bed, she slipped her retainer into its case and walked to school early.
Each morning on her walk to school the girl crossed a footbridge covered with chain-link fencing. Train tracks lay below, alongside a pile of ties, an outhouse, and, directly beneath the bridge, a dumpster. Standing above the dumpster now, making sure first that there was no one behind her, she swung up one of the padlocks scratched with lovers’ initials and aimed her retainer at the diamond-shaped gap in the fence. But the retainer was too wide. Every way she angled it the wires made to grip her molars caught the wire mesh. She left it wedged there in the fencing. The padlock fell over it, and, resolved to tell no one, she walked to school. On the mornings that followed she checked the retainer as she passed it. It was always there, coated in bird droppings, then spotted with silk cocoons. Someone had written their name on it in paint. Gradually the retainer’s color faded. The sticking pads of a climbing hydrangea were glued to its side. It looked like a piece of gum, and then it was difficult to find at all.