“Mouths” is a fiction story presented in installments. Look for a new chapter each Monday morning throughout the summer.
I return to my building, using the carport. It’s rented by 2B, but I don’t care anymore. I don’t want the old woman to roast. It’s close to 4 p.m. now. My mouths are still sated. I permit a smile.
I grab the bags of meat patties from the car, and freeze for a moment. It will look odd, even in this neighborhood, to carry that much meat. I shrug.
I enter my apartment. I see the red light blinking on my answering machine. I have other problems today, but push the button as I throw the meat patties into my freezer. “You have two new messages!” I always wondered why they bothered to make the voice sound perky. It never made me feel better about my life. I think of the woman in my car. She will be okay. Night will make things easier.
“First new message. Received at 11:04 a.m.” It’s Sheila’s voice: “Look.” It’s her stern voice, but without the angry overtones. It covers her confusion. “I’ve been thinking and thinking and I don’t know what happened. It must have been a bad dream.” She inhales. “I mean, our relationship is usually shit, but things were weird in a whole new way last night. Different. I don’t get it.” There’s a handful of silences. She inhales again. “Anyway. I’m assuming we’re still on. So whenever you have something figured out, let me know what’s going on. And if it was just a bad dream, let me know, and we’ll forget it ever happened.” I can’t help it. I laugh. Then sigh. Things were already complicated.
The red light begins blinking one, and the cheery voice announces: “Next message. Received at 12:19 p.m.” I hear a dull mechanical hum, white noise, as something clicks. Dead air. No message. I feel the mouths on my wrists and palms begin to snap as I fumble to turn off the machine. They’re hungry again. Or not. It’s not easy to know. I’m hot. I take off the shirt and throw it next to my jacket.
The apartment is a disaster. It reeks of vomit and vodka, wood shards and dirty scraps of clothes strewn over the old carpet. It’s 4:15. I need to retrieve the woman. It will be too hot in the trunk. The car smells bad enough without rotting flesh added to it.
I look at the shirt. It’s long-sleeved, but still exposes my wrists and palms. I can’t help this. I’m already too hot. I lock the door. I need to keep this habit. I enter the hallway. Most of the other renters are at work. I’m safe.
Work. Fuck! I need to call my boss. I need to get the woman, and then call Sheila and my boss. I think of work: “I haven’t been myself today. I will be better soon.” I wonder if that’s true. I doubt it. The staircase is deserted. The renter downstairs is retired. I hope it’s nap time. Or time for soap operas. I go to the carport. Why did I take her? Cars pass by me, in no particular hurry. They all look at me. I feel their observation. Fuck.
I sweat. Must be the sun. I open the trunk. Red lights at the corners. I don’t know about the house across the street. The woman is groggy, but when she sees me, her eyes go wide with fear. I hear a car. Cop. I shut the trunk. Sweating. Heat reflecting off the pavement. I am thankful for the sunglasses. My head hurts. Too much vodka. I need better booze. I need to think clearly.
I unlock the backseat and unfold it to access the trunk. I gesture to the woman, then remember to speak. “This way. Out here. Now. Unless you want to stay there and roast.” She’s drenched with fear already. I don’t blame her. I’m sweating too. She starts crawling. Nobody is noticing me. Eyes tend to look the other way in this neighborhood. She’s in the backseat. “Here’s the deal,” I say. She struggles. I hold up my palms, showing her my mouths, and she stops resisting. “I will untie you until we are in my apartment. If you make a noise, or any sudden movements, I will eat your heart and leave you on the ground.” She hears the moan, the rasp of metal snapping. She nods. She doesn’t black out.
Her legs are unsteady. I cut through the plastic, releasing her gag and her hands. I still my chest and keep my arms around her as I lock the car. I talk us through the process, one step at a time. She looks worse than at the burger place. Maybe it’s the sun instead of the lights there. She has purple sweat pants and a sweatshirt with some sort of cross-stitched applique. Her makeup is smudged, hair crazy. It looked like we’d just brawled, or fucked. Nothing could be farther from the truth. That’s how truth is, sometimes.
Forty steps. In the building. Theme music for the afternoon soap opera spills under the door. It opens. The old man comes toward us. Mr. Freely. “Who’s that?” he asks, pointing at the lady. He interrogates as if his smile makes his questions less nosey. I hate him. He’s seen Sheila, and senses that this isn’t the kind of woman I’d sneak around with. If I were the type. I’m not. Everyone has to have at least some standards. Mine might be low, but they exist.
I look at him with what I hope is my usual expression of feigned politeness. “My mother.” As awkward as this is, I somehow think it better than having been caught with the meat. There’s at least a hope that I’m offering a lie he’s able to believe. I glare from behind my sunglasses, hoping that the fuck you attitude he associates with me will provide a sense of normalcy. “She’s not feeling well.” The old man stares and pretends not to see us. “We need air conditioning.” My palms press against the woman, but they aren’t feeding. Don’t look too close. He’s a war vet. A survivor. He wears VFW t-shirts on Fridays. Glasses. Bad eyes will hopefully protect us.
“Ah,” he says. Fake smile. Suspicious. “Do you need help? I can call the..”
I interrupt, remembering not to wave my hand with a dismissive gesture. Hands need to stay low. “No. It’s just the heat. We’ll be fine. The air conditioner in my car is broken.” I keep walking, and pass him, moving to the end of the hallway where the staircase is. Cheap plywood separates the hallway from the stairs. “Thank you. Have a nice day.” I force the smile. It’s as fake as his. I hope it’s convincing enough. It should feel familiar. He grew up when false politeness was the norm: Don’t ask questions.
I open my apartment. She’s already seen too much. The foul smell spills into the hall, released. I can’t open the windows. Too much noise, even before I had her. Maybe the mouths will sleep during the day. “I’m sorry,” I tell her. I still mean it. She didn’t do anything but go to the wrong place at the wrong time. I remove my shirt. A few of the mouths move sporadically. She stares. She faints. I move her to what’s left of my bed. Palms stay quiet. I tie her and gag her again. You can’t trust anyone. Her sweatpants and shirt and drenched. She pissed herself at some point. I worry about the bed, briefly, but know that I won’t be staying in the apartment long at this point. It’s a strong smell. She’s dehydrated, I’m sure. I think of getting her water, but decide against it. It’s harder to scream when you’re thirsty.
I stare at the phone. I have to call Sheila. And my boss. My mouths open and clothes, writhing against my flesh, but not offering much by way of conversation. The old lady’s quiet, too. I exhale.