“Mouths” is a fiction story presented in installments. Look for a new chapter each Monday morning throughout the summer.
I feel a sudden jolt and groggily realize that I no longer am in the green meadow with the greedy little pig. It was a dream. I stare into the silent darkness, which is interrupted, suddenly, by the sound of grinding teeth and a darkly whispering moan. It’s an ugly sound. I look toward Sheila, but see nothing. She still had her therapist-recommended blackout curtains. It hadn’t just been a phase. The total darkness must have helped her sleep better after all.
I elbow Sheila. “Stop it, please.” I can’t remember what the pig was doing, but in my half-awake state I persist in wanting to feed it. “I want to sleep.” I hope emphasizing please will stir her to a merciful and brief resolution of the situation. She doesn’t reply. The sound continues, a grating and almost metallic buzz of teeth sliding against each other. I try again, touching her lightly with my hand. Her hip is warm and soft, and I feel slightly stirred by the experience even as I know that my persistent somnolence would interfere with my performance.
“C’mon, baby. Relax. Let’s sleep.” She breathes shallow breaths. There’s a silence. I smile. And then, just as I feel myself slipping back into sleep, it starts again. There’s a timelessness to the early morning hours that interrupts my ability to know how much time passed. It could be ten seconds. Ten minutes. I’m irritated. Then angry. I groan. “SERIOUSLY!” I yell. I want to wake her enough to get her to stop. Not even apologize. Just stop. She complains about her sleeping, anyway. She’ll thank me in the morning.
“WHAT?” She screams back. She’s awake, and just as happy as I am. “I’m so fucking sick of your mind games. Okay? Just stop! Let me sleep!”
I try a conciliatory approach. “You’re grinding your teeth again, baby. I just want you to sleep better.” I rub my hand down her thigh, wanting to calm her.” The noise grows louder.
She slams a fist into her pillow and I feel her shift to sit up, leaning over me. “I’m not doing anything! I know I have a problem. I’m getting help. Just because you bury your head in the fucking sand and ignore your problems doesn’t make you a saint, and just because I acknowledge that I have a problem sure as hell doesn’t give you the excuse to mock me. We’ve talked about this.”
I bite my tongue, knowing that asking the question emerging in my mind will cause a fight, and knowing that I want to sleep. The whispering moans, the grinding jaws continue. Is she mocking me? I attempt to ignore the sound, but it remains persistent. I speak. “Seriously, Sheila. Knock it off. I’m not trying to do anything but sleep. I’m not making fun of you. But you need to understand that I need to sleep. Please? Can you wear a mouthguard or something? Please stop?” I’m pathetic. I’m almost whimpering. I can’t even remember my dream anymore.
I hear her voice: cold, cutting through the small space between our bodies. “It isn’t me. Knock it off. Stop it! Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!” The noise stops. The silence is thick, like the darkness had taken on a velvet skin during our argument. We shift our bodies to opposite sides of the bed. I hear her breathing, ragged. She’s awake. I’m awake. We’re too tired to fight, too keyed up to sleep. My hand still rests on her hip: I want to make a bridge between us. She’s complicated, but lovely. Usually. I can’t understand her motivation. She screams, suddenly. “Seriously! Not NOW. I’m not in the fucking mood.” The noise returns under her words — the whispered moan, the grinding. “Stop it!” Her voice is almost a whimper.
I take my hand from her, roll over, turn on the light. Sheila’s sitting up, sobbing into her hands, blinking blindly. I look at her thigh where my hand had been. There’s an ugly red welt. She stares past me, tears staining sleepy cheeks. “What’s wrong with you?” Fear. The noise continues.
It’s not from her. Not at all.
It’s coming from me.
My left wrist.
Everything makes sense. A certain kind of sense. There’s a mouth on my wrist. A little mouth — an inch, maybe, in diameter. Its teeth move up and down, up and down; a groaning whisper curls from the blackness between the jaws. Sheila can’t see it. She’s crying. I stare at the mouth. I need to leave.
“I need to leave.”
“WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU TONIGHT?”
I grab my jeans from her floor and pull on my shirt. She’s crying. She’s inconsolable. Everything is confusing. I touch her shoulder with my right hand. “I don’t know, Sheila. I’m sorry.” The moan groans louder. “I don’t think this is working out. I don’t think we should see each other.” She stares at me, vacant. She’s still not quite fully awake. I couldn’t explain it anyway, no matter how alert she was. Not just because we are each other’s fill-in lovers, between real relationships. Not because we’d only just started sleeping together again after a year off. How do you explain a mouth on your wrist to yourself, much less someone else? I can’t talk to her tonight. She can’t listen. She can’t breathe. Or speak. Or argue. The groan sounds again. Cloth rips. I look at my wrist. The little mouth has eaten through the shirt. Fuck. I put my other hand on her shoulder. It seems conciliatory, given the circumstances. “I need to go. Now. I’m sorry. Maybe we can talk again sometime. I’m sorry. It’s not you, it’s not this, it’s not us. It’s me. I’m sorry.”
I close the door. The hall light blares down. I pause to stare at the blackness under the shirt, the flashing of the teeth as they consume. I wince. I don’t want to touch it. I’m hungry. I go to the car, reaching across my body with my opposite hand to grab my keys. I don’t want the mouth any nearer to my clothes or body. I open the door and start the engine. The graveyard DJ sounds unhappy to be working, and the Sturgill Simpson song she chooses is the wrong kind of troubled. I turn it off, and then back on again to try to cover the sound of the mouth. I change stations, reveling in the anonymous loud shit I usually hate. I need to hate something else now. I roll up my sleeves, careful not to touch the steering wheel. I don’t trust the mouth not to consume whatever is before it. It seems indiscriminate.
Drive to my place. Park. Run up the stairs. Push the key into the lock. Open the door. Enter. Close. Safe. I look at the mouth on my wrist; I feel the sound of its chewing. It craves more. I turn on the lights and the noise seems louder. My shoulder is cold. I look over and realize there’s a hole in the shoulder of my shirt. And on the chest. I take off my shirt. More mouths. All the same size. Same teeth. Same sound. Same hunger. They want more to chew.
I go to the fridge. Nothing. I open the cupboard and pull out the half bag of generic jalapeno kettle chips left over from Tuesday night and pour them onto my wrist. Crumbs fly. The moan deepens. I feel the mouths on my chest and shoulder start to chomp, the vibrations pushing into my bones. It wants more. They want more. I grab some bread and feed my chest, pour some cereal on my shoulder. Feed them the box. Finally, the mouths close. Peace at last. I look at the clock: it’s 4 a.m. I collapse on my bed, on my back, my wrist facing up. I fall asleep to forget the fact that morning will come soon.