On Saturday a mouth opens up on the back of my neck, announcing its arrival with a smacking pop. I’m in my apartment alone, and the sound fills the small space. It is more disorienting than the sudden sensation of the flesh parting.
In the bathroom I turn my back to the mirror and raise my phone up, in selfie mode, to get a look at the thing. I have to zoom in to see exactly what’s happening there but it looks like a small set of lips, pursed, a prim, blushing crevice. To get a better look I pull the two sides of my parted hair tight around my neck.
I’d been thinking of cutting it.
The next morning, the mouth is still there. I can feel the lips part and press together. I can feel the sensation of air on tender inner-mouth flesh when it’s open. I don’t dare reach back to feel for teeth.
I stay in for the rest of the day, astonished at how normal everything I do feels after my anatomy has changed so fundamentally.
I have to strategize for Monday, though. First thing in the morning I call my doctor’s office and am vague with the receptionist about the purpose of my visit.
“Look, your insurance only covers one free wellness check per year,” she tells me, bored. “Is that what you want to schedule?”
“Sure. Yes. The free check.”
“We have an opening next Wednesday.”
“That’s too late!” I cry. “It’s...I really need something sooner,” I tell her. “This is important--it’s urgent--I have a…” I falter, then whisper, “...like a growth?” The mouth issues a soft chortle and I almost drop my phone trying to mute myself.
“Well, should you go to the emergency room?” she asks. She has said this thousands of times before. She has lost interest. Her voice is already far away from the phone, like she’s begun moving to hang it up. I shout at her to confirm me for Wednesday as though across a great chasm. I shout a couple times before I realize I’m still on mute.
I unmute and tell her, imperious as through brokering the time and place for a very important business meeting, “Schedule my appointment for Wednesday, please.”
I straighten my hair to maximize length and then carefully loop it into a fat, loose braid that will hide the mouth. All day I am distracted: the lips move and puff to spit out strands of hair. Luckily, my job involves sitting at a desk and greeting people, with my back to a wall and very few breaks at which time I might get up and leave my desk and find someone walking behind me, someone to whom my secret could easily be revealed by an abrupt indoor breeze.
How would I explain this?
On Tuesday the mouth begins to make noise: I wake up to it talking loudly into my pillow. As its damp, hot breath spreads across my neck (a not unpleasant sensation) I try to decide what to do. Gag the thing with cotton balls? Take a precious sick day to stay home? What is it even saying? I sit up and the monologue immediately fades.
I stir up a Nescafe, dress myself, and straighten and braid my hair with exaggerated slowness, buying time to see what its next move will be. Will it speak? I shudder and then still myself, as though my own movements might prompt a joke, or a laugh, or a scream.
It closes and remains silent for the rest of the morning. I make myself late for work, unsure of whether I should go, but in the end I decide to risk it. I manage to catch the last express bus and wedge myself between two women in scrubs. Crooking one arm to hide the screen of my phone, I hold it up to my face to research what’s happened to me. But the only thing I can think of to search is “extra mouth,” and this does not yield the material I’m looking for.
For the duration of the ride, I sweat from my dash to the bus stop. I wonder if the mouth tastes the salt trickling from my scalp.
The workday crawls by. I limit my intake of liquids to avoid bathroom trips. I try not to speak unless I have to, minimizing stimuli that could awaken the mouth. A group of associate directors stops by my desk to tell me there are leftovers in one of the conference rooms that need cleaning up. I nod, smiling. One of them steps closer, peering at my blouse, and asks loudly if I’m wearing the same thing I had on yesterday.
I shake my head, smiling.
I have to stay late to make copies for a presentation the next day, and end up taking the train home. It’s a local and it’s full. I step in and grip a strap above my head. The maneuver pivots my body into the person behind me.
The person behind me does not yield, even a little bit. He is a large man. He leans. His paunchy hips press into my back.
I stiffen. The train hurtles forward and his weight sags. I plant my feet against it but my shoulder nudges the women next to me. She makes eye contact and then shifts to look intently at the window, where there is nothing to see but the black sides of the tunnel.
Then things happen very quickly. The train jerks to an unexpected stop. The man’s belt buckle digs into my spine. A hot, sharp scream erupts from beneath my hair. I jump and twist and he jostles back, his body falling heavily into the others packed around him.
Judging by his height, it must have caught him right under the chin.
The man stands and tries to say something but a fresh scream rips out of my flesh and fills the car and now everyone’s drawing away, looking around, trying to find the source: Some asshole, phone too loud? An unruly child, previously unnoticed?
Their eyes find me again, my face still clenched shut in shock. A witch, a ventriloquist?
The train kicks back to life and glides into the next station. Half of the car empties, including the man, who is the first to bolt out. My instinct is to join them and disappear into the other side of the platform, so I can double back among a fresh wave of strangers who will have no idea what has just happened. Play it cool.
But I decide to stay. It’s quiet. I think, Is there anything to say right now? I want to know what it is. Say it! But the mouth closes and stays closed.
For a moment, I’m surrounded by a moat of space, the others keeping their distance. Then new people get on and, like water assuming the shape of its container, their chatter closes in around me.
That night, head buzzing, I go for a walk in the park along the lake, a place I never go by myself when it’s dark. I see no one. The street lamps hang fat and fuzzy nestled into the rows of trees on either side of the path.
The breeze is warm, blowing rich and silty off the lake.
I untie my braid and try to loosen my shoulders. I pull the sides of my hair around my neck, freeing the mouth. It opens and closes a few times, tasting the air. Next Wednesday is still so far away.
I walk the length of the park, taking my time. Thick clouds, bellies rusty with light pollution, move quickly across the moon. On my way back, the mouth begins to make bird calls, softly at first, then louder and longer, curdling ghost cries that rise and fall and echo through the park. And birds call back: all kinds of birds I have never heard of, wailing and singing and trilling out above my head. An impossible number of them, overflowing the city’s trees.
I walk back to my building with my eyes closed. Strands of my hair wound between my
fingers, the nocturnal call and response like echolocation, guiding me home.
About the Author: Marie Schutt is a writer and editor based in Chicago. Her stories have appeared in The Collagist, PLINTH, and Sundog Lit.