“Mouths” is a fiction story presented in installments. Look for a new chapter each Monday morning throughout the summer.
They say that you get used to any noise if you live with it for long enough: jackhammers, sirens, alarms. Clocks ticking. Water dripping. I doubt if I will ever become comfortable with the mechanical whir and snap of my mouths opening and closing, the brush of metal grinding against metal, its dry inorganic rasp. Each movement affects me. I can feel the lips as they twitch, as the pull slightly from my flesh, how they make my skin tighten, my muscles move, at least slightly, each time. Waking up to their song is always a nightmare. It frightens me that I could become used to it. If I live long enough.
I count: thirty-five mouths line my chest, twelve move down my arms, one on each palm. Those on my palm are slightly larger than those on my chest and arms. Each mouth has twenty tiny teeth, ten upper and ten lower, precisely pointed teeth. I take another shot of vodka and touch the lips on my left palm with the index finger of my right hand. The lips are smooth, warm with some sort of oddly synthetic heat. I do not register the pressure of my finger as I push against the lips. I feel nothing at all.
My body aches. I sit up from my bed and notice my mattress is shredded. They have begun to sprout on my back. Down my spine. Forty of them. They grind and whir. I wonder if they talk to each other in their own language. The mouths on my palms open and close with increasing rapidity. I scream at them to stop. They do not respond. I hold my palms before my eyes, staring at them. “I will feed you soon,” I say, hoping to placate them with promises. There is no response.
I try to remember the meditation group Sheila dragged me to a week before.I picture food. I imagine for them the taste of meat. Hot blood. Chewy muscle. The mouths grow quiescent, resting into my flesh instead of twisting out from it. The implication disturbs me. I do not let myself linger on the thought.
I throw on a long sleeved shirt and my heavy jacket. Gloves. I am instantly drenched in a sheen of sweat. I hate July. I find my keys, lock the door to my place and head down to my car. It was almost parked correctly. I start it up, continuing to send thoughts of blood and flesh down to the mouths, hoping to maintain at least this facade of normalcy. Relative normalcy.
My sunglasses do a decent job of blocking the sun. My eyes hurt. Too much vodka. I realize I am also hungry, but I shake my head and focus on the mouths. They need fed. I drive to the burger joint on the outskirts of town. “Patti’s Patties.” Sheila and I had talked about seeing if the low Yelp scores were justified. We hadn’t. I hope for apathetic workers now for a different reason. It’s there. It’s open. It’s two in the afternoon. Nobody else is hungry. Not for that, anyway.
The floor is streaked with someone’s half-hearted attempt to clean in the last few days. A bored kid stares at me with glazed eyes. Tinny speakers mangle the stillborn generic country hits of the eighties that were packaged and sold cheap to such franchises. I pause, and cannot make out the artist through the shitty speakers that strangle the song. I feel bad for it. Songs, even bad ones, deserve better fates.
I sigh and walk up to the kid. Act casual. “Sixty burgers. To go.” The kid looks up at me. His face makes a stupid, snide expression. Resentful. I realize I don’t like him, even though he probably wonders if he heard me correctly. I wish he hadn’t. “Now.” I demand. He’s working alone.
He hits a few numbers on the register in front of him. “Uhh … it’s $73.” I can’t tell, but I think he mutters “Fucker” under his breath. He nods to himself and leaves the drawer closed, moving into the dirty kitchen to start heating the patties. I hear him grumbling. I realize I have no money. And no time. The mouths are starting to wake up. I look up above the register and see a mechanical eye, but no light blinking. There’s a decent chance that the owners don’t care enough to monitor things too closely.
I take out my wallet carefully and throw it on the stainless steel counter smudged with greasy handprints. “I need those. Now.” The kid scratches under a bloodshot eye and stares before turning back to the ovens. I understand his logic. Work with what is easiest. I take off my gloves and push my hands against the counter. My mouthpalms moan and start to grind, filling the store with a loud, eerie sound. It is not beautiful, although an improvement over the torture of otherwise decent music. The kid twitches, as if he senses it is best to not turn around. “Now,” I say again.
He heads to a room to the side, probably an office. I shrug off my coat and leap over the counter, amazed at my own agility. I feel lighter than I have. Gravity is loose around me, somehow. I tackle the kid, and strip off my shirt. The mouths click and whir, groaning in unison. The kid’s eyes open wide, then shut again. His mouth hangs open in a loose sort of way. “How about a hug, kid? Will that be payment enough?” His eyes squeeze tight. He’s starting to drool into the scruffy beard that seemed more an indication of laziness than fashion. I feel pity. I remember when I could close my eyes to things. The mouths, sensing flesh, move faster. His face repulses me, for a moment. My mouths sense the flaws within him, can taste the fissures of his flesh and his soul. I realize it is okay.
I straddle him, holding him down, and place my palms on his arms. Warm blood splatters on my fingers and I have the brief, happy realization that my mouths lack tongues. He screams and blacks out. Just as well. I lower my body to his, lying atop him, and feel instant gratification. My whole body trembles. Euphoria. I hold his head between my palms and watch it dissolve — brains, hair, bones. He shreds into the nothingness lurking within my body.I lay my back down on his legs and feel my mouth — my own mouth — twitch into a smile. Ecstasy. Satiation.
He’s gone. They’re done. I feel terrific. No blood or clothing on the floor. Nothing of him remains. I look at the ground. I feel watched. Somewhere, a mechanical eye is recording this. No: there’s a woman at the cash register. Sixty. Her face is pale beneath her blue eye shadow and reddened cheeks. She has the pinched face of someone used to casting judgment, and the hardiness of someone who was probably right. I don’t like her.
“We’re closed,” I tell her. My mouths, quiet, remain present. Visible through the shreds of my torn, blood-drenched shirt. She faints. Her body hits the floor with a fat, soft sound. Nothing wet or slick. She’s alive. Probably uninjured.
I’m still watched. I look to the corner by the ovens and see it, the live camera. Of course — it only covers the register. I let my palms disable it. They don’t mind plastic or wire, although they chew it dutifully, like kids eating vegetables. They love blood and muscle. Carnivorous bastards.
I find the garbage bags in back and fill them with frozen hamburger patties from the freezer. I hope my mouths won’t mind snacking on them. Even if it isn’t human flesh. Or real meat — this place doesn’t seem to mind cutting corners. I pull on my shirt and carry my jacket over my shoulder. My mouths are still. They’ve fed well. The woman’s body is motionless on the ground. I find some strong plastic take out bags. My palms feel my need and cut the thick plastic into long threads. I bind the woman’s hands and feet and gag her. I feel a strength or vitality inside of her pulse, but my mouths, fed, do not respond.
I sigh and lift her over a shoulder. I am stronger than I have ever been. She is fleshy rather than birdlike, probably overly fond of Patti’s Patties. It’s the kind of food that kills you, sooner or later. I haul her out of the barely air conditioned interior and out beneath the afternoon sun, placing her in the trunk of my car. I return for the sack of meat patties and place them in the passenger seat next to me. I turn on the radio, rolling down the window. “It’s just a dream I keep having,” sings the radio, “and it doesn’t seem to mean anything.” Just a dream, I sigh. I smile, again, and drive home.