The cold metal against the lower lip, the exhalation before the first puncture, his eyes darting downward from looking at themselves in the mirror — and then it was through. He had thought the first stitch would be the worst; he was right. It did hurt. After the needle drew blood, he had to look back, to see if it had gone through straight through both lips – anything that was askew would’ve been an embarrassment.

***

Miss. D’souza was not her usual self. Her decisive tone in dealing with a class of impatient 10-year olds had been replaced by a mocking and questioning one. On the raised stage, he stood, with his heart racing. Miss D’souza had caught him in a tangle of escalating lies that had collapsed on each other. He had forgotten to bring his notebook. Worse, he hadn’t even completed his homework. Miss D’souza had picked through his story methodically, with the experience gained from years of unraveling childish inventiveness. “So where is your book that your friend from the other classroom borrowed, hmm? Why don’t you go get it, then… your friend’s absent today, hmm?”. There was no escape. The class watched him, most with curiosity, the back-benchers with a knowing smirk. He walked back to desk, knuckles smarting, unsure if he would ever be able to lie with a straight face again.

***

The second and the third stitches had been equally troublesome. He had had to decide how much space would be needed between them. The suture thread was not very long, but Symmetry had to be maintained in this physiological experiment. Symmetry and Order that were otherwise lost in the words that he spoke. Symmetry and Order he found in these upright black sentinels, arrayed with military precision across his mouth, to prevent those mistimed and misfiring words from spilling out.

***

He backed away from his dad and was finally cornered between the bed and the closet. Looking up in terror, he saw dad slowly lower his raised arm. “You will NEVER call your mother something like that again, you hear me?”. Mom had still not emerged from the other bedroom she had locked herself into. He didn’t know if she was crying. He had knocked the door and said sorry a hundred times, but he hadn’t even heard her sob.He had called her one bad word, just one, and that had made her storm into the room and remain there until dad got home. Later that night, mom served dinner without a word and he ate in silence. He couldn’t think of anything that would make her feel better.

***

One more through the other side, and pleasantly symmetrical too. He was almost done. They had not bled as much as he thought they would, and he was slightly disappointed. The curiosity and the fear in the eyes that had stared back from the mirror were gone, and there was a calmness in them now. How long before he became hungry again? He began to smile at the thought of forcing a plastic straw through the gaps, and winced. Too early to smile.

***

“You never know to say the right things”, she said later, with sadness. That’s not what she’d said when they’d first met. “You also don’t know when to stop”, she added. She was right — the Self-searching and Other-probing words he had hesitantly begun with had bubbled and erupted into an accusatory tirade of directed snark and jealousy. He should’ve stopped before the line had been crossed, but he had no idea where the line was or if he would ever know.

***

The fifth stitch, the last one, was complete. Tie a knot, tie another, snip. The adrenaline has run its course, and he felt weak for a while. After wiping off the trickles of red and patting down his mouth, he was ready to head out. Before leaving, he donned a white surgical mask sold for those who feared the flu season. ‘Protect yourself from harmful oral emissions’, the packaging had said. If it were only that easy, he thought.

On the train, he got a few curious looks, but they were short-lived. From behind the mask, he looked around boldly, and his gaze landed on a hooded man four feet away. It was summer, and he wondered why the man was dressed the way he was. The man looked up, and he knew. The hooded man had a face covered with tattoos in different shades of black. Across his forehead was a snaking line of thorns. A cursive and near-indecipherable script ran from his left temple to his chin and all the way across. Instead of his brows were words written in the same script. He tried hard to read what they said but he was too far away.

The man caught him staring. “You got a problem, asshole? Want me to come over there and give you a black eye?” he shouted, and took a threatening step forward. The others in the train heard the commotion, and looked up at him and the hooded man. And they looked.

He quickly turned away. It was not enough, he realized. The mask, the stitches, the silence — they were not enough. His eyes too, maybe…