“Mouths” is a fiction story presented in installments. Look for a new chapter on Mondays throughout the summer. (The journey started here.)
She passes out three times as I talk. It’s okay. We have time. None of us need to leave anytime soon. My mouths are sated for now. They open and close lazily. Yawning, maybe. No pattern. They only become uniform when hunger drives them. I stare at the teeth, razor sharp. My finger no longer hurts, but I remember the shock of the tip being consumed.
“I’m sorry about your arm, Sheila. And your leg.” She whimpers. I touch her jaw and look her in the eyes. Crystal blue. Beautiful. “I don’t have any answers. I don’t know what’s happening. I don’t know why. Last night, when I left you, it was because I saw I had a mouth. That’s what bit you.” I look at the mouths moving across my body and offer a half grin. “It turned into a lot of them.” I think I catch a glimpse of the old woman moving, and I don’t want her to hear. I motion to Sheila to join me in the other bedroom. We walk in. I never had finished putting my weight bench together. I couldn’t use it now — the mouths would chew it. It was a cheap find in the classifieds, anyway. The least of my concerns. She sits on the bench. I pace. Worried. “Wait here,” I say to Sheila. She’s still gagged, so I don’t wait for a response.
As I walk to check on the old woman, I realize that I’m finally taking control of my life. Sheila was always critical of me about that. About how I would just let things happen, how I was “reacting” and not “proacting.” I had changed. I hope she appreciates it.
The old woman isn’t dead, but she isn’t doing well. The ropes had been too tight. Her wrists are raw and bleeding, although the blood does not excite the mouths. Her eyes are still not aligned. The right stares at nothing, the left drifts in different lazy directions. Her breathing is slow. Jagged. I take two fingers of my left hand and act like I can take a pulse. My fingers aren’t good barometers. Her lips are cracked. They move in a croaking whisper. “They’ll look for me.” Breath. “They will. They’ll find you.” Breath. “Find you. And then.”
“Who would look for you?” No answer. She has collapsed, again. It was the wrong question. I leave her there, on the remains of the mattress. I see the ring on the ground where I left it, and pick it up carefully with my left hand. No response from the old woman. I look at her. “You’re safe, okay? I can’t kill you. Not even these bastards want you. So you’re safe. I just need to stay here until I know where I’m going. Just be quiet, okay? Nothing will hurt you.” Silence. I sigh, giving up, and walk back to the other bedroom. And Sheila.
She seems less terrified when she sees me this time. Maybe even a relieved. A little, at least. “So. The woman. You’re probably wondering about the woman.” It feels like I’m rushing. I breathe deeply. The mouths stay calm. “She was a customer at Mr. Burger. Remember, we were always going to check it out? See if the reviews were exaggerated? They weren’t.” It’s an attempt at a joke. She doesn’t smile, although the gag may be hiding it. She’s trembling. She’s still scared. Or angry. I think of the mouths, opening and closing. Fear makes sense. As does anger. Either would take time I cannot afford. “Anyway, the old woman saw too much. I freaked out. I grabbed her. It was instinct.”
Sheila moves her mouth, eyes blazing. I take a finger and pull her gag down, keeping it close enough to return if necessary. She swallows a few times, smacking her lips together. “What did she see?”
I pause and consider my options. I don’t want to tell her about the kid. I don’t want to think about the kid. Thinking about the kid will make me hungry. Think about Sheila, instead. Think about her fingers. Her mouth. Her solitary, moist, human mouth. With a tongue and a throat.
“Nevermind the woman. It’s okay. She’ll be fine.” Sheila looks like she’s going to say something, but bites her bottom lip for a moment, instead. It’s how she makes decisions.
“What’s going to happen? What’s going on?” She stares. She’s with me, now. It feels like we are on the same page, at last. At the very least, neither of us can pretend to know the answer. We’re both lost. She gets it. We’re in this together. I think of the ring. The old woman was probably a widow. The ring deserves a new home. Sheila will love it. But that will be later, after we get away from this place. From the woman. After I feed again. The word invites moans. I look at Sheila in a new way, feeling how their hunger changes my eyes. I shake my head. No. She’s not for them.
“I have to feed.” She stares up at me. Blankly. Like she knows but wishes she didn’t. I know that I will need to tell her at some point. Now is as good a time as any. “They need meat. Human meat.” She opens her mouth, but I don’t have time for that question. I touch her jaw and look into her eyes.
“Don’t ask now. Please.” She’s quiet. “I can’t feed on the old lady for some reason, so we will have to figure out something else.” I pause. “I will, I mean.” Sheila stares. Numb. “If I try to kill her, my mouths punish me. I don’t want that again.” Sheila stares. Silent. “My mouths want you. But I don’t want them to eat you. So we need to have distance for awhile. It’s why I didn’t want you to come over.” Part of me wishes that she would give me some credit for being considerate. But I get it. Everything’s too overwhelming right now.
“What are we going to do?” It’s a specific question. It focuses me. Helps me think. Nobody is panicked.
“Mr. Freely saw me bring in the old lady, so we have to bring her out alive. A hostage might come in handy, anyway. We’ll take your car. There’s no public record that we’re dating. It’s cleaner than my car.” She hesitates. “Are you with me, baby? I can’t have two hostages. I don’t want you as a hostage at all. I want us to be together. Okay? And I really don’t want them to eat you. But if you’re not with me …” She looks, suddenly horrified. My body vibrates. I realize my mouths have started their frenzied movement once again. I blink, and imagine the feeling of her filling my mouths, all of them at once, her blood surging through me. The mouths moan over the sound of their grinding, the dark groaning sound almost musical. My finger moves twice as fast as the rest, its small teeth almost buzzing. The rest continue their low, dark, grating hunger, teeth scraping on teeth. Sheila, horrified, passes out.
I pass my left index finger along Sheila’s jaw line. I feel bad. I relax my muscles. I want to communicate to the mouths to wait. Tell them they can trust me. They need to trust me. They subside. I pace. I decide to turn on the television while I wait for Sheila to wake up. I see my own face.
I turn up the volume. The newscaster’s bland vocal pattern articulates my worst nightmare. “Although the camera was damaged, police recovered this image from the tape. The suspect is said to be armed and dangerous, and police believe that he has a hostage. If you see him, please call the hotline posted on your screen.”
I hear something from downstairs. A door slamming. Something. I want to believe it isn’t Mr. Freely’s door’. I want to believe that he doesn’t watch the local news. I want to believe that he is senile and does not recall the strange woman who accompanied me upstairs.
I cannot afford to lie to myself.
Every lie is a chance for me to die.
Sheila is still out cold. I walk into the other room. The old woman is lumped where I left her. I have time. I open my door, leaving the apartment. I lock it again behind me. I need time, and the Mr. Freely needs to be encouraged to provide it. I can’t take any risks.