“Mouths” is a fiction story presented in installments. Look for a new chapter on Mondays throughout the summer. (We’re almost at the end, now — but the fear started creeping in back in June.)
I have no real animosity toward the woman. Like me, like Sheila, she was pushed into an unimaginably strange place. It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t her fault. It is the logic of the mouths.
I move toward her, palms up. I can dispatch her quickly. She stares at me. Brave. Her old eyes have nothing left to lose. I push my mouths onto her flesh, only to feel them slam shut. “Shit.” I say. I inhale, and realize that my apartment still reeks. Sweat. Vodka. Vomit. It’s hot inside. The air conditioner hasn’t worked in a few weeks. The landlord kept insisting he’d get right on it. A month ago. It’s part of why I started sleeping at Sheila’s. But only part.
“We’re leaving.” I tell the old woman. She stares. She doesn’t move. “Now. Not an option.” She stands her ground. I sigh and punch the wall. “Now!” She smirks and shrugs her shoulders. Stares at me with uncowed eyes. Her lack of compliance is a game. I need to leave. I may need a hostage. More, though, I don’t think of myself as a killer. Not exactly. The mouths have their own motives. “Walk in front of me,” I tell her, and she shuffles forward. She knows I can’t eat her. Probably senses that I can’t do anything else. She’s still afraid, though. But not as afraid as she should be—especially because I’m terrified. Fear makes the best of us behave as the worst. At times, anyway.
She walks out the door of the apartment into the hallway. I follow. Immediately, a bright light shines into my eyes. “FREEZE!” I hear. I blink, blind, trying to discover what was happening around me. Sheila is sobbing, somewhere close. The old woman is thanking someone repeatedly. It sounds like a prayer. I close my eyes, then open them. I want to see. I hold my hands up to show that I am not armed. The voice that yelled speaks again: “What the fuck is that smell?” The light quivers. Laughter. I see him pointing at Sheila. More laughter. Asshole. The voice is fainter, as if the head had turned away from me. “Check the hands. The woman mentioned something about him having mouths? Yeah, beats me. Chief said to check it out.” My palms are closed. My wrists are shut. It looks like I have scars—not mouths. They’re clever, when they need to be.
I hear the voice of the old woman speaking, her smug voice creaking through my concentration. “While you were fucking that tramp, I looked through your mail. Idiot. They knew exactly where to go.” My eyes adjust. Three of them. One holds the light, moving for his radio. Probably requesting backup. The woman stands near another one, close enough to yell. He has a pair of handcuffs, intended for me, moving forward. Sheila’s by a third, close to the stairs. It’s clear they didn’t exactly believe the woman, especially when she started ranting about mouths, but they weren’t taking any chances. I can’t afford time to berate myself for my own stupidity. Smug bitch. Even if I can’t kill her, I want to watch her die if only to see her smugness melt off her face like cheap makeup in the bright sun.
The door to the apartment is behind me. The light is on a slant, leading toward the stairs. The cop stays out of the light line as he approaches, cuffs in hand. My hands are still up. My body is quiet, but poised, ready to spring into action.
“What’s that noise?” the cop with the light asks hearing a low moan and a whir as the woman starts to scream the warning “Watch out fo …” but I’m already diving toward the cop with the light and the finger offers no resistance but guides me into his left eye, eating through it into his brain until my knuckles push into his eye socket and he’s screaming and the old woman doesn’t finish “for” but starts screaming, instead and Sheila stays ice fucking cold and I can feel her pride.
This isn’t feeding. This is preservation. My other mouths are on stand by. They will direct me, where necessary, just as I guide them as I can. It’s a tricky dance, but I’m starting to figure it out. The light drops and shatters and my finger is covered with wet brain as I dive toward the one with the radio by the old woman. Cuffs are mine. So’s the gun. It’s my first time shooting a gun, but my muscles know what to do, somehow. Or the mouths. It’s hard to know what my body is anymore. I pull the trigger. It hits his leg. The third cop keeps his gun out, pointed at Sheila.
The old woman reeks of fear. Bullets can kill her.
I push the old woman into my apartment. I grab the cop standing by her as his leg starts to crumple. The third keeps his gun on Sheila. I don’t hear any back up mentioned on the radio, but I know it’s only a matter of time. My mouths didn’t require the deaths of the other two cops. It’s best not to argue with them.
“First things first,” I say. “Cop on the floor. Throw me your radio and your gun.” He does so. He seems relieved. Sometimes it’s best to just give up. No more responsibility to act in a world that left you behind. He just groans. I cuff him, hands behind him, leaving him prone on the floor. “Now you,” I say, pointing at the old woman. I cuff her to the cop, hands behind her. Sitting on him. He has a while before he bleeds out. My mouths tell me this.
“You, out there,” I yell. “Here’s what I want. An exchange. You get the old woman and your friend on the floor. Nobody else needs to be hurt. You can get to a hospital. Your friend and the woman will be fine. Just give me Sheila. Let us walk out of here. Nobody else gets hurt.” Silence. Gunshot. The light in the hallway dies to blackness. Fuck. No door opens. No movement. Cop on the floor moans a prayer. He sees my palms. Shits himself. “… please help me god please help me just do what he says god let’s get out of here this is fucked just do what he says man.” The woman looks disappointed. Like I spoiled her birthday party. Outside, the body of the policeman whose eye I ate lies bleeding into the hallway. He’s not twitching now. The light from my apartment shines a vacant stare right at the cop I’ve taken. It’s warning enough. I hope.
I uncuff the old woman, make her stand. No movement. I can sense Sheila rustling uncomfortably. She’s with me. “I’m coming out,” I yell. I can’t stay here. “The woman will be in front of me. Don’t shoot.” No answer. I’m sweating. It smells awful. The woman is trembling. The cop on my floor has passed out. Eyes closed. He’ll be fine, as long as I clear out now. I’m sweating. The old woman trembles. I push her into the total darkness. “Do not shoot!” I say. Silence. Seven steps until the turn to the stairs. I’ve walked it. He must be close. Did they leave? No. I hear silence. Another step. My mouths come alive, an angry moan, belching darkness with whirring clicks and clatters. Chest and wrists and palms and back, full speed. I can’t stop them. My shirt is gone. The air is clammy on what is left of my skin. Another step. The old woman must be at the top of the stairs. Fuck. Where are they?
I need to find Sheila. “We’re going downstairs. I will let you go as soon as I am free. I need Sheila.” I pause. “Sorry that you’re involved in all of this.” I only half mean it. Maybe less. But it seemed important to say. We move down the stairs, past Mr. Freely’s, toward the exit. “Okay. Ready. Move. Now.”
The door flies open. I see the twilight sky shimmering with latent heat from earlier. The cop is there. The gun is to Sheila’s head. My mouths are frenzied. The cop is laughing. It isn’t good laughter. “Gonna play hostage games with me, are you?” He smiles. He points the gun at the old woman. Shoots. The old woman spins, looking with panic for a second before death calms her. Her blood covers me. The mouths reject it. “It’s you and me now, freakshow. You took my gun from me. Killed her. My department doesn’t want trouble. It’s my word against yours.” His teeth are too white. Mouth is too big. Smile is too crazy. My mouths desire to devour him. They whir, jaws clenching. My body vibrates. Trembling. Humming with anticipation. “Too bad you’ll die. With your girl. She ain’t bad. Deserved better than you.” Sheila’s staring at the woman’s bleeding, staring at the death surrounding us. “I’ll have to take out the pretty missy, first.” The leering expression explains his plan. I’m sick. “Can’t have witnesses.” Sheila whimpers. The gun is pointed at me. “Drop your gun, freakshow.” I drop it.
He laughs. It’s a dirty laugh. I hate him. My mouths want him. He keeps Sheila’s body between his and mine, using her for cover, pointing the gun at me. It levels. His hand is over her breast. I feel dirty inside, seeing it. Time slows. “Time to die, freakshow …”
He squeezes her breast again and Sheila’s eyes flare and she turns her head and I see the arm holding the gun, the underside of the elbow, the vein, and she sinks her teeth in, hard, a death clamp, and rips like she’s an animal and the gun drops and she gags and pukes out his blood and her bile and she’s crying. The gun drops and the cop’s eyes wide with surprise, realizing he had underestimated her and I’m moving but he’s moving to the right, toward the injured arm, toward the gun on the ground. Sheila’s pushing him that way and screaming that she wants to kill him but there’s so much death. I take her with my good fingers. Too much death. “Run!”
A laugh. Sheila keeps moving toward the car. A click. A gunshot. Point blank. From behind me. Fuck.