“Mouths” is a fiction story presented in installments. Look for a new chapter on Mondays throughout the summer. (Perhaps you would like to start at the beginning?)
I am not wearing a shirt, but this is the least of my worries. At least he won’t look at my face. The mouths remain quiet. The stairs creak. I tread softly. Nobody in the hallway. I’m clear. I knock on Freely’s door. “Mr. Freely? I have a question.” My eye stares into the peephole. Maybe he can see himself in my eye, if he looks through.
I approach the door, hoping that I can enter softly for a private conversation. The floorboards advertise me. I hear the lock turn, mechanisms clicking to deny access. The hope it would be easy? Wishful thinking. I laugh to myself. “Mr. Freely?” No words from the other side of the door. Just the sound of the ragged breathing, an old man’s excitement. Fear. Anticipation. My mouths start to click. I smell sweat. His, not just mine. His heart rate must have increased. “It’s my mother,” I say. “I need your help.” A cough, but no reply. Sounds of shuffling, leaving the door. No more time. I throw my shoulder against the door, but it doesn’t budge. His front door is the one quality part of the building, evidently. Good to know. I turn the doorknob, frantically, back and forth. I hear the sound of plastic, the sound of a rotary dial being turned, turning back. Something drops, clattering onto the ground. His hands were shaking, perhaps.
I stare at the deadbolt, and then at my finger. I smile. I concentrate on it and it comes to life, its small jaws whirring with fast excitement. I push it into the deadbolt, and then into the doorknob. It eats gladly, consuming all. The door creaks as it swings open a crack. The phone drops again. I feel myself smile and realize that I am happy. The mouths begin to open and close in appreciation, like some sort of applause. A surge of hunger. I feel strong.
The security chain is no issue for my finger. I tickle it into disintegration. “Oh, you are home,” I say. He has a speaker hooked up to his phone. I hear the voice: “Hello? Is there an emergency?” I extend my left hand to take the phone from him.
Freely, seeing the mouths on my chest moving like singers in a choir, in perfect humming unison, metal teeth flashing in the harsh florescent lights, hands me the phone. No argument. I lift it to my lips, careful to use my fingertips. “No emergency, sir. My neighbor was short of breath. I was outside and didn’t hear him call to me in time. I’ll help him out — I know what to do.” I pause, winking at the old man’s wrinkled face. “Everything here is fine.” I can hear the operator offer a sympathetic sigh. It is not the first such call she has taken. Perhaps not the first today. Perhaps not the first from Freely. It’s plausible. It buys me time. I need time.
“Thank you, sir. Have a nice day.” Boredom in her voice. The connection breaks. I clench the phone in my hand, allowing my palm to consume it. It’s not being fed. The mouth knows it is a game and plays along. Something euphoric is moving through my body, connecting my mouths with my brain. It’s an odd high, one that stems from my muscles rather than my brain. Nothing is distorted. Everything has become focused and clear. The whole world has begun singing along to the dark melodies produced by the movement of my mouths. Even though I know it isn’t me, I cannot help but enjoy myself.
Freely’s glasses are on the floor. His nose shines with sweat. His hair is darkened by it. His pallid face seems defeated. “Are you having an emergency, Mr. Freely?” I feel as though I am floating, like my insides have become nothing but shadow. He says nothing. I put my hand to his mouth and pull his dentures away. I use my right hand and put them to my left palm, which devours them. “My teeth are very, very real, Mr. Freely. But I know that good teeth are hard to find. I don’t blame you for trying.” His mouth is shapeless. It flaps and mumbles. He can’t articulate well. He has nothing to say, anyway.
My smile expands. I haven’t felt this good in years. But I can’t take too long. Sheila and the old woman will recover themselves. It’s always possible that the dispatcher will send someone to this apartment. Or that someone may recognize my face. I can’t leave evidence. Freely is evidence. Standing. Still. I have a little time. I look at his room. A card table for his dinners. Folding chairs. The soap opera is still playing on the television. A few framed pictures from the war. Old marriage photographs.
I place my left hand on his arm, but my palm and wrist stop moving. The rest of my body vibrates with the motion of the jaws. He looks pale. I need to offer inspiration. “Did you love your wife?” I look him in the eye. He can’t speak, especially without his teeth, but I don’t really care about the answer. His eyes remain strong. Confident. My left hand cannot break his flesh. He did love his wife. There’s no room for my mouths through this question. It’s a safe domain for him. I have to find his weak point.
The clock ticks. I try again. “War hero, huh?” His eyes shift. I feel his pulse tick. My mouths roar to life in response. “Good soldier? Brave?” He looks at me again, confusion growing instead of the necessary fear. Wrong questions. “Did you follow your orders?” The mouths slow down. I sweat. There has to be something. “How were you to the enemy? To those who surrendered? What did you do to them?” He looks at me, shocked, but remains unresponsive. I go to his framed photographs, but my mouths do nothing to the glass frames. Nothing shocking. I walk back.
“You’re a real American hero, aren’t you. What did you do to the prisoners?” Nothing. He smirks. He knows something is wrong. I’m not in control, even if he isn’t. He has courage, still. “To civilians?” He flinches. The mouths on my chest start to hum together once again. I see his eyes glance at them, but with a veiled indifference. Maybe he can’t see them. Maybe he saw worse in the war. It’s hard to say. I keep my palm on his arm, but the mouths stay shut. Something lingers. Something unresolved. They’re willing to eat, but it is not time yet. He’s a possible. He’s not like the woman. They won’t hurt me. Not this time. “Women?” Nothing. “Children?” His eyes open, his empty mouth starts flapping. He lacks teeth. I lack for nothing. I sense it now: It is time.
I lift my hands to his head and push them against his damp white hair, my thumbs caressing his bald spot. The mouths on my palms dig in, my wrists near enough his fleshy cheeks to start as well. He can’t scream. There’s too much pain. I pull his head to my chest, then his shoulders, an embrace he will know for the remainder of his life. No blood. My mouths suck in everything. Waste not, want not.
I fall onto him, arms moving over his arms, my back absorbing his legs. I smile for the joy of it, the urgency of pleasure, the glory of satisfaction. It is an embodied pleasure that goes beyond anything erotic, an actual merging with another. Wholly visceral. My mouths whir and click, their low moan echoing inside me. And then he is gone. My mouths close, satisfied. Quelled. I groan along with my mouths, simultaneously spent and sated. Nothing has felt as good as that — not even the kid at the burger store. I recognize it better now, appreciate it more. I no longer am afraid.
I leave, not worrying about the door. It’s too late to help him. I hope they arrive too late to find me. It’s time to see how the women are. I whistle as I go upstairs, marveling at the way I bound up them. My body feels lighter, still, as though the more I eat the less I have to hold me down. Or maybe it strengthens my muscles. Everything seems bright and sharp. I am better than I have ever been. I smile the way I think my mouths would smile if they could. Maybe today won’t be such a bad day, after all.