Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw
Cat’s insanely rich trust-fund playboy friend Phillip has arranged for permits to a Heian mansion. It’s a destination wedding for their mutual friends Faiz and Talia as it’s always been Talia’s dream to get married in a haunted house. As they explore the enormous mansion, Phillip warns Cat not to look for ghosts, but Cat can’t help but be a little creeped out by the place. The walls are pristine with immaculate murals covering them, yet the spaces were filled with ruins of pottery, the corpses of books, and dolls with mouths lacquered black.
Faiz and Talia are constantly making googly eyes at each other which is nauseating. Faiz is Cat’s best friend, they had a thing years ago for a few weeks but literally nothing happened, they didn’t even kiss, but Talia is constantly suspicious of Cat which causes so much tension. This is heightened by the unsettling nature of the mansion. The group talks about a myth where, in one of the Heian mansions, a bride was buried alive in the walls because she wanted to wait for her groom’s ghost after he failed to show up for their wedding. Every year after, a new girl is buried alive in the mansion walls, feeding the house and the bride. But that’s not this Heian mansion, right? RIGHT?! Standing in a room by herself, Cat imagines the walls are now made of calcium from the bones of each girl over a thousand years of sacrifice. What is under their feet?
Lin, the last of their party, arrives with a feast, including a particularly huge and varied amount of cheese. Lin isn't bothered by Phillip, Faiz or Talia, he just came to see his old friend Cat. Before they sit down to their feast, Talia says she and Faiz have a surprise for them as a thank you for arranging the holiday and wedding in Japan. Faiz comes running in with packages for everyone. The gifts are jade statues of a woman with her head bowed, her legs fading into the column, like she’s being buried alive. Considering they were supposed to elope and this was a last minute surprise, their gifts are portentous.
Talia suggests after dinner they play A Gathering of One Hundred Ghost Stories, an ancient Samurai game to see who is the bravest. The idea is that they take turns telling spooky stories, and after every story they snuff out a candle. The loser is the first one to flinch. In a side room away from the happy couple, Lin accuses Phillip of sleeping with Talia saying that the coincidental statues for their destination are glaring red flags. Phillip and Talia “used” to have a thing but "don’t" any more. Phillip loses it and attacks Lin, telling Cat that Lin always rubs him the wrong way. When Phillip goes after Lin to apologize, Cat hears a female voice that makes her want to run. She imagines a warm, damp breath by her ear. Pulling herself from it, Cat fights panic but in a full-length mirror in the room, she sees a girl standing behind her, resting her chin on Cat’s shoulder, her arms around Cat’s waist, fingers digging in, her mouth filled with ink, her teeth black, the smell of vinegar on her breath. At the sound of Talia calling her name, Cat jolts back to reality and the figure disappears. After some bitchy comments and wishes that the house eats the other, they separate.
Later, after much eating and drinking, they start their game of A Gathering of One Hundred Ghost Stories and now have one candle to go. The room they are in is creepy with dolls strung up everywhere and Cat is drunk and can’t look away from one that has a fly crawling around it and volunteers to tell the last story. As she starts describing their own situation at the mansion, the last candle blows out. Smartphones are whipped out of pockets for flashlights and Talia dashes out of the room hunting for the ghost, Faiz and Phillip on her heels while Lin pulls and traps Cat saying the mansion is too unstable to go running around in the dark like those assholes. Soon Talia comes back, manically excited and trying to get Cat to come see what she has found. Faiz and Phillip aren’t far behind her. Lin tries to keep Cat back, suspicious of Talia. While Talia leads Faiz and Phillip away, Cat tries to point out that the door and corridor she came from shouldn’t exist. It wasn't there when they explored earlier, but her drunken pleas are ignored. Cat races after them and Lin follows.
Cat and Lin end up on a bridge outside, how is anyone's guess as they were on the second floor. Lin doesn’t seem to be aware of their strange surroundings, and he wants Cat to stop and think. Cat explains that she has to help her friends because they helped her during the worst part of her life and stopped her from making permanent mistakes. Meanwhile, Lin got married without telling her, never checked on her and got on with his life in New York. Cat doesn’t begrudge Lin his happiness, he’s allowed it, but he needs to understand her loyalty to her other friends too.
Continuing their search, Cat and Lin find Talia wearing someone else’s wedding dress with Phillip dressed and ready to officiate the wedding and Faiz standing next to his bride. They get into a fight about how insane and creepy the situation is, and accusations of being drunk and ridiculous fly until Talia tells them both to leave. Fuck it, they’re gone. As Cat and Lin start to go, Lin curses before rushing Talia and grabbing the veil from her hair. As it rips in their grapple, Talia changes into the ghost. Before any of them can scream, the ohaguro-bettari begins to laugh.
Faiz begs the ohaguro to give back Talia as the ghost repeats a line from a poem in Japanese that only Cat can understand. The walls begin to come alive, the murals of the kitsune and tengu chitter and move, and around the edges of the room, the ghosts of the yokai ripple. Faiz, in desperation, strikes the ohaguro, but it does nothing. When the ohaguro vanishes, the kitsune and tengu stay, as do the yokai, who are bleeding and oozing in from the other rooms, leering at them and making the walls pulsate.
Cat, Lin, Phillip and Faiz begin to fight. Lin wants to leave, which Cat is on board with. Phillip wants to play the hero and tells them all to leave and that he’ll find Talia. Faiz wants to stay and find Talia and insists they either give the house an offering, which he volunteers for, or they find the answers in a book. Though they point out this is real life and not a horror cliche, eventually after more bickering they head to the library which is covered in the corpses of books. Faiz finds a book with the answers. The house demands four cardinal directions, a bit of blood, a bit of bone, a bit of cum and a bit of organ. However, when Cat takes a look, there isn’t any writing in the book, the page is blank save the mold. Once again, they begin to argue as Faiz says he’ll rip out his heart as life isn’t worth living without Talia. Cat slaps Faiz, trying to make him see sense. The house is responding to their panic. In the next room, the ohaguro-bettari is laughing.
Instead of his heart, Faiz pulls out his own tooth and somehow encourages himself to leak out a small amount of cum. Phillip is watching Faiz the entire time with a crazy intensity while Cat and Lin sit off to one side, distancing themselves from the ohaguro-bettari who is inches from them. Lin tells Cat to be careful, things are about to escalate as he can see the tension between Faiz and Phillip rising, and they do. Faiz and Phillip are squaring off against each other and from somewhere Faiz pulls a knife and slashes open Phillip's gut. His intestines pour out of his body filling the room with the smell of urine, feces, blood and death.
Faiz keeps repeating that he’s sorry, that he didn’t mean to do it. Lin antagonizes him, saying sarcastically that of course he wouldn’t take advantage of the situation and kill his fiancée's ex-lover. All the while, Cat cradles Phillip's head and the ohaguro-bettari watches on. Cat, wanting Phillip’s death to mean something, suggests he shouldn’t go to waste. Finding a hole in the wall, they pour Phillip’s entrails down, giving the house a bit of blood, a bit of bone, a bit of cum and a bit of organ. The house seems to sigh with relief and returns Talia still in the wedding dress and smelling of earth. As Cat, Lin and Faiz stare at her slumped form, Phillip dies with no one paying any attention to him. They return home after.
They build a lie and say it on repeat. There was alcohol, there was a fire, there was panic and only four came out of the mansion that they’d turned into Phillip’s pyre. His funeral in Vermont was a closed casket and they all attended. Slowly Cat, Lin, Faiz and Talia drift apart until they become Facebook-only friends. Cat goes back to school to study economics because there is order in numbers, but every now and again, she wonders if the ohaguro-bettari followed them. Then, she catches sight of her reflection. Her eyes are a blur and her face is nothing but blackened teeth.