PseudoPod 641: ARTEMIS RISING 5: A Song for Wounded Mouths
“I wanted to write a story about body glitter, and instead wrote something about teeth.”
A Song for Wounded Mouths
by Kristi DeMeester
It was Brandon who found the teeth. He was the one who picked up the small Mason jar, imagining it to be the perfect thing for B roll, the kind of homespun charm we were hoping to emulate for the video we were shooting for “Litany for Those Who Still Live.” He palmed the jar and rattled it at Derek.
“A jar of buttons. Jesus. My grandmother had one of these in her house, too. It’s perfect. A lingering zoom shot. An establishment of how it used to be. Before everything went to shit,” he said. I tried not to watch the fullness of his lower lip, how it curved around the syllables. But I was the same girl I’d always been, and it was too difficult to rip out the infatuation I’d felt for him since I was fifteen.
Derek shrugged. Forever noncommittal. By the time Brandon shrieked, the jar clattering to the peeling linoleum, I’d already looked away, occupied myself with unraveling the knot of cords in our equipment. Anything to keep from seeing the desperation in Brandon’s eyes when he looked at Derek. How he stared, his tongue touching the tip of his upper lip in a reminder of what his body could promise for Derek alone. It was not for me. Never for me.
So when Brandon screamed, I thought it was for effect, something to get Derek’s attention. The muscles between my shoulders clenched anyway, and I bit down on my tongue. I swiped my index finger across it, but there was no blood. I wished I could be anywhere but stuck in this abandoned house with the band I’d stumbled into and couldn’t leave.
“What the fuck?” I turned, ready to pack it all up before the shoot even began. Brandon had retreated to the opposite end of the kitchen where he curled into the soft parts of himself, his hand clamped over his mouth.
“Teeth,” he said. “It’s fucking teeth.”
“They’re probably fake. Halloween decorations or something,” Derek said. He stood and advanced toward the spot where Brandon had dropped the jar.
“No way. I saw them. They’re teeth. Nothing else looks like that.”
Stooping, Derek peered down at the jar. I didn’t move, my knees aching from the hard floor.
“You guys are assholes, you know that?” I said. “It’s already messed up enough that we’re here. You don’t have to make it worse.”
Derek was the one who’d suggested we film in an abandoned house. To provide a visual for the fragmentation in the song; how corporations and government buyouts had toppled families, torn everything that should be safe to ribbons and then left the detritus behind to fester and rot.
“We should go over toward Bent Oaks. There’s that whole street of houses at the back of the subdivision that either never got finished or that people were evicted from. Do some shots of the overgrown lawns, busted out windows, rusting swing sets. You know. The degradation of it all.” He swigged from the bottle of gin we shared. Brandon said nothing as he took his own pull, but he was eye-fucking Derek the entire time, and when Brandon passed the bottle to me, I drank more than my share. Tomorrow morning, a deep pain would bloom like a dark star at the back of my brain, and my body would ache, but it was better to let the memory fade into a gin-soaked haze than remember everything I could not have.
I hadn’t wanted to come here. I was not the one who brought us here. It’s important to understand that. It was not me.
Derek kicked the jar, and it rattled across the floor. The sound of a child’s toy. A sound long bleached from the walls of this house.
“Holy shit. Those are definitely teeth.”
Rising, I swiped my palms against my shirt and told myself they were kidding. They did this sometimes. Teased me because it was easy. Because there was nothing better to do.
Brandon’s face was a flood of color. Crimson streaks stretched up his neck, and his cheeks had gone splotchy. My body went heavy. I couldn’t move. Couldn’t bring myself to go and look at what it was he had found, to look and acknowledge and understand that jar filled with what remained of someone else.
But I didn’t have to move. Derek did it for me. Crossing the kitchen, he bent and lifted the jar into the light, and it was almost beautiful—the light catching the glass, those ivory-colored pieces tumbling against one another. He tapped a finger on the lid.
“Baby teeth. That’s all. My mom kept mine and my sister’s, too. In an envelope in her sewing kit. I always thought it was weird, but she said it was sweet. Like keeping a part of who we used to be alive. All of our cells die off. Regenerate. So the adults we would become wouldn’t even be made up of the children we once were. She said she wanted a reminder that we were small once. That we had come from her and lived under her care.”
“Should there be that many though?”
Derek shrugged. “Maybe she had a bunch of kids. There’s like thirty-two teeth in our mouths or something, isn’t there?” Derek tossed the jar back to him. Brandon caught it, his mouth stretching into a momentary grimace at the touch of the glass.
“I guess,” he said and turned the jar over in his palms, his touch suddenly gentle. Reverent. As if by touching the jar, Derek had created a holy relic. Those long, pale fingers sanctifying the missing portions of someone else’s children.
“We should start if we want to finish before it gets dark,” I said. Brandon and Derek didn’t even bother looking up, and I thought again of how easy, how simple a thing it would be to just quit—tell them to get fucked and go out on my own or find another band and let them come up with their own lyrics—but I knew I wouldn’t. There was something too alluring in the torture. I wasn’t ready to give up the edge of that blade. Not yet.
“It should be the closing shot. All of this normalcy, and then the teeth. How it ripped out every part of us that was innocent. Our children ground under the heels of the corporation,” Derek said, and Brandon squeezed his upper arm. I went back to untangling cords, pretending not to focus on how my fake leather pants squeezed too tightly around my midsection or how already I’d started to sweat, the eyeliner and glitter I’d gooped on not even three hours ago starting its gradual progression down my face. By the time we finally filmed our individual shots, I was going to look like Alice Cooper’s microwaved asshole.
We’d not gone further into the house than the living room and kitchen, but even those rooms were haunted. The furniture had been left behind, and dust veiled the leather couches, the dark, heavy wood of the coffee table, the books still artfully stacked. Everything held the appearance of a showroom, as if the rooms had been scrubbed clean of the usual detritus of day-to-day life. The appearance of family without any of the reality of it. It was unnerving. Like falling into a dream; everything tinged a shade darker than it should be.
“I’m going to look at the rest of the house. See if there are other spots we should shoot,” I said. Derek and Brandon nodded, their heads tipping ever closer, as Brandon’s hands fluttered at his hair, his throat, his belt.
I thought about leaving them here. Taking the keys and leaving them behind to wither in their skins inside that dead house, but there would be the following day, and the day after that, and they would not vanish no matter how much I longed for them to. Instead, I rose and wandered toward the hallway that led to the bedrooms, my boots thudding against the hardwood and leaving prints, a reminder that I had walked in the silence settling over those rooms.
The walls were smooth, no outlines or holes from where photos once hung, and a dampness wormed against my skin. Where the living room and kitchen were still furnished, the first bedroom was starkly empty, the carpet worn in the areas that once held a bed and dresser. An ochre stain bled outward in the corner next to the sliding closet door.
Behind me, Derek and Brandon’s voice dipped and rose. The low murmurs of their conversation should have made me feel less alone, but standing there, in the center of that blanked-out room, I shivered. We are not meant to move among death, and that’s what this house was. Death. Or at least, the false sense of it. The edges of it that sloped downward.
“Find anything good?” Brandon’s voice was light, and I shouted back.
“No. Empty room. Nothing like what’s up there.”
“What about the other rooms?”
“Haven’t looked yet.”
Footsteps shuffled down the hallway, and still they whispered together. I dug my fingernails into my palms. It was only Brandon who came into the room, his eyes taking in everything but me. His cheeks were flushed, and I understood that an answer of some kind had passed between him and Derek.
“Boo,” he said.
“I guess. No ghosts here though,” I said, but of course, I didn’t believe that. We carry them tucked inside of our hearts or curled on our tongues. Those past things we wish we could call back into ourselves but cannot. This house was just another form of loss.
“Where’s Derek?” I tried to keep my voice light, but it trembled. Another thing to hate myself for.
“Checking the other rooms to see if there’s anything worth using. Guess we can cross this one off the list.” He knocked against the wall. I expected something to knock back, but nothing is ever that simple. Things that are sleeping don’t wake up just because we ask them to.
“I just want to shoot this thing and get out of here. It’s creepy, you know?”
“You’re wrong. It’s beautiful. It’s what tragedy does. Creates a kind of holy ground. You couldn’t feel it when we came in?”
“It’s a house, Brandon. Just a house where people used to live and now they don’t because everything went to hell, and we’re here to make a video about that, and that’s all. Jesus. You sound like Derek.”
Brandon lifted his hands—a gesture of surrender—and backed toward the door, toward the darkness that had swallowed Derek. I opened my mouth to call him back, to ask him not to leave me in the way he was always leaving, to tell him that I’d been stupidly in love with him since Ms. Cook partnered us together in Chemistry when we were Juniors and didn’t understand the people we would become.
“Brandon—” He glanced back, and I remembered how he’d carried me into my house after graduation when we’d gone to a party where I’d gotten drunk for the first time in my life, the flutter of his lips against my forehead as he tucked me in. “Let’s just pack up and go. Film somewhere else. Or not at all. It’s not like we need a video. We’re not exactly booking anything spectacular. Ed’s is cool and all, but it’s a shitty gig, and you know it. Go get a sandwich and out of this creepy house.”
“It’s gonna be great. You’ll see. A fucking transcendent experience. People will eat it up and talk about it to everyone, and we’re going to blow the fuck up. Derek says this is the thing that’s going to elevate us. Make everyone see what it is we’re trying to say. And he says this is the perfect place to do it. That this place is special. I felt it the second we got out of the car. Like it was singing to my blood.”
“Yeah. Derek says. Derek always fucking says,” I muttered, but Brandon had already retreated, scuttling back to Derek, his desperation heavy as a coat on his shoulders. I didn’t follow him.
Turning to the window, I stared into the side yard where a large rosemary plant grew wild and leggy. Once, there would have been someone to prune it. I closed my eyes, forced myself to think of how the rosemary must smell, the fragrant, almost medicinal sharpness of it, but whispers floated through the walls, and it was worse that they were not breathed out by ghosts. Far worse to be invisible to the living.
Dipping low, the sun cast twisted shadows against the uncut grass, and I remembered a line from some poetry class I’d taken before I dropped out of college to be a failed rock star for a shitty local band. Something about the hair of uncut graves. In the other room, someone sighed, and it was like hearing the walls draw breath, the dampened recesses of lungs pulling air in and out. When I left the room, I listened for the sound of the latch. I did not want the door to that empty space to open again. It felt obscene to think that anything could enter without an invitation. Including us.
The hallway had grown darker, and I reached out my hands and waited for my eyes to adjust.
“Where are you guys?” I called. A low susurrus rose and fell, but Brandon and Derek didn’t answer, and I took one shuffling step forward, shifting my gaze over the floor as I tried to determine which of the other doors they’d disappeared behind. This was no funhouse, no labyrinth with a monster hidden in its heart, so there was no reason for the sweat working its way down my chest. No reason at all for my breath to hitch as I took another step, breathing deep as I stared down at the carpet where something shimmered.
The teeth. Either Brandon or Derek or both had laid them out in a line, leading me down the hallway before stopping at the final door. I wrinkled my nose and kicked at one of the teeth with my boot—a perfectly tiny molar—and it went skittering off into the shadows. Another piece of this house lost to the dark.
“This isn’t fucking Hansel and Gretel, you enormous twats,” I shouted, and my voice echoed back to me as if the hallway went further than I could see.
“We’re in the last room. You have to see this, Camryn. It’s insane,” Brandon said, and I pushed my body against the wall, carefully sidestepping the teeth. I did not want to touch them again, even if it was through the faux leather of my shit stompers.
Inside, Derek and Brandon crouched at the entrance of the closet; their heads leaned together so that they were touching. Clandestine and innocent as two boys bent over a frog or a bug they find interesting. Around them, the walls were covered in floral wallpaper—all delicate, faded pastels and winding vine—and gilded frames holding watercolors depicting still-life scenes. An ancient wood dresser moldered in one corner and on it sat crocheted doilies and several porcelain bowls with potpourri that filled the room with an unpleasant funeral smell. A grandmother’s room. A room that had been lived in, the items carefully chosen and arranged. If the other rooms breathed, this one whispered.
“Look at this.” Brandon turned as if it pained him to put even the smallest amount of distance between them, and held out his hand.
“Pictures. Tons of them,” Derek said, and Brandon fanned them out. A few of them fluttered to the floor, the faces turning away and then up again.
“So? Plenty of people have pictures,” I said. Brandon lifted the stack up to me, but I couldn’t move, couldn’t bring myself to take the photos because I had seen them and my skin had gone cold.
“Kids. A shit ton of them, too. School pictures, you know? The kind that are in the yearbook,” Derek said. The faces reflected back at me, awkward smiles with pigtails and cowlicks and miniature faces. Elementary school. Young. Children.
“Those teeth,” I said, and Derek shook his head. Brandon mimicked him, parroted back his movement, and I scratched at my palms to keep myself from slapping him.
“She was probably a school teacher. Kept photos of her students,” Derek said, and I looked away from those staring, lifeless eyes, those grins with missing teeth.
“Still weird. I wouldn’t want my kid’s teacher keeping a picture. I mean think about it. Someone being so obsessed with her students she keeps pictures?” I said. Derek shrugged. Brandon shrugged.
“She was probably just a lonely old woman. Kept them taped up by her desk and then took them down every year and threw ‘em in a box. Not a big deal. It’ll be great for the video. Show them all piled up. The ruin brought on by a corporation. So many children. Maybe do a shot of them burning, the edges curling up, the flames licking at all of those faces,” Derek said.
I shuddered, opened my mouth to tell him absolutely not, but Brandon was already gathering them up, chattering nonsensically about how brilliant it all was, how brilliant Derek was, how brilliant it would all be because Derek was with us. A headache shattered dark and bright deep within my brain. I closed my eyes. Opened them. Still, Brandon was talking, those pictures bending beneath his touch.
“We can’t do that,” I whispered, my mouth dry, but they ignored me, and I cleared my throat. “We can’t do that. Those are someone’s children. Those are kids. We can’t fucking do that.”
The last words came out in a growl, and Derek and Brandon looked up at me, blinking as if they had only just realized I was still in the room.
“We need to get started. We’re losing the light,” Derek said, and together, they stood and stepped past me, Brandon still carrying the pictures. My chest burned, my arms, my cheeks. Everything on fire as if I could self-immolate and become something new. Something better than a shitty lyricist and even shittier bass player in a failed local rock band. This room was obscene. This house. A gutted abomination. The teeth. The photos. Derek could be right; the woman who lived here had been a mother, a grandmother, a teacher, but it felt that if I tore at the wallpaper, there would be rot hidden behind the walls, the potpourri an intentional mask for something more insidious. There were too many teeth. Too many pictures. This was a place to run from. If they couldn’t see it, that was their problem. Fuck Derek and Brandon. They could shoot their video without me.
I told myself to move. It was suddenly important not to turn my back on the closet, suddenly important to count backward from twenty, to stare at each corner of the room, to be sure there was nothing lingering there. All of these things I had not done since I was small when my mother had imagined the leather belt my father wore was the instrument that would erase my compulsions. Violence can only be a form of deliverance in death. There was no simplicity or absolution in the exorcism my mother was trying to enact.
On hands and knees, I crept backward out of the room, my lips forming wordless sounds that could have been prayers or incantations to some darker god, and whatever entity lived in that room allowed me to leave but not without harm. I dragged myself over the carpet and my palm pressed down against one of the teeth, a jagged, broken edge meant only for me. I didn’t feel when the point entered my skin, when my blood smeared against the floor. Only when I moved again, folding myself to stand, did I see how the tooth stuck to my skin like some weak imitation of stigmata.
I could not keep the thin whine from building in my throat, the awareness of the wrongness of this place, the heaviness it carried, a sudden, blinding awareness falling over my back. The earth should have been salted, but the house still stood, those photos and teeth tucked safely inside like ritualistic totems.
Back in the living room, Derek and Brandon laughed, high and tinny, and called my name again and again. My identity becoming a litany for the dead.
“What the fuck is it this time?” I called, and my voice trembled, and I willed my voice, my hands to go still.
“Come out here,” Derek said, but there was something in his voice, some deeper register, that didn’t sound like him, and I stayed where I was.
“What is it?”
“You have to see it. Just come out here, Camryn.” Brandon’s voice deepened to mimic Derek’s, and fuck them and fuck this house, and I was done with the both of them, the band, with Brandon and being in love with him while he knew it and strung me along with just enough affection to keep me as his back up emotional support when Derek wouldn’t give in to his deeper needs.
“The only place I’m going is out of this goddamned house,” I said, and something that was not Brandon, was not Derek, laughed.
I froze and listened again to the tinny shrill of it, how it trailed down and down until Brandon and Derek joined in, all three of them laughing as if the sound could take the world apart.
They’d invited someone else. Some other girl. That was the only explanation for that third voice. They’d invited her to be in the video, to be the fuckable eye candy in place of me because I was too thin, too pinched in the face and always angry, and they’d not told me because they knew it would piss me off, knew I would have told them no immediately, but they did it anyway, and I was definitely out of there.
I took a step forward, another tooth crushed into the carpet beneath my boot, and I kicked at it in disgust. Again, that laughter rose and fell, and I forced myself to keep moving. Another step. Pause. Listen. Breathe. Envision myself far from this place.
In the distance, Brandon and Derek dropped their voices to whispers, the cadence of their speech identical, and I stopped, willed my heart to be silent so I could hear. I couldn’t make out the syllables, but it was prayer, it was chanting, and a cold sweat broke out across my back.
“Are you guys practicing or something?” I called, but they didn’t respond. I swayed on my feet, unable to go forward or back.
“It’s here,” they said together. “Look. It knew how to take what was needed. Those small, dying parts. How to wrench them out of squirming mouths. How to keep them quiet even when their bodies needed to scream.”
Still, still, still. Important not to move. Important not to make any sound. Important to close my eyes and count. Twenty. Back down. Not to listen. Not to see.
But there was no amount of pretending that could erase that dark form standing at the entrance to the hallway as dying light streamed behind it, casting the features in shadow. It could have been Brandon. It could have been Derek. It could have been something else.
“Look at it, Camryn. How could we have known what we would find here? But we did. It was always here. Among us. Watching and waiting and taking what it needed. How lovely everything was when it was surrounded by life, by small ones shouting to one another in glee and then in fear, and we can bring it all of that again. It can show us.”
“What the absolute fuck are you talking about?” I said, and behind me, a door opened. Behind me, the closet gaped open as a chasm.
“A god,” Brandon said. That dark form had no mouth, but Brandon’s voice came from it even as Derek also spoke from it and that third voice rose along with them, and there was nowhere for me to go.
“No. Not that. It was never that. Suffer the little children. No one ever imagined what it could actually mean. What it needed to take to live.”
“Cut it out. It’s not funny,” I said, and the form shifted, bent unnaturally at the neck, and I saw then that it did have a mouth, and it was opening. Too many teeth. All of those it had collected. I thought of the pictures. So many children. And it smiled. It smiled, and there was nowhere for me to go but back into that room, the door closing gently without my having to touch it.
Whatever had lived in this house had never left. It had saved teeth. It had saved pictures. Its stain lingered. Derek and Brandon called it a god, but I’d learned long ago that gods and devils share faces. In evil, in goodness, there is subjectivity. Prayer as poison. Poison as prayer. What infected Derek and Brandon was all of those things, and it had been biding its time. Waiting for supplicants. And if it could not have children, it would take what came to it, what intruded on its quiet.
Outside, Brandon and Derek scratched at the door. Gently. Soft as a whisper. They did not want to frighten me. It never wanted to frighten anyone. But there were requirements. There were things they must do. They had to satisfy it. It had spoken, and they had listened. They didn’t think they could ever stop listening.
“It can be simple if you let it,” they said.
“They were children,” I said. Because I could not unsee those pictures. Those faces and how they didn’t understand, couldn’t understand what would happen to them. How they had come into this house and stumbled into an open, foul mouth.
Still, Brandon and Derek whispered at the door until they weren’t speaking any language at all, but offering up sounds like warm water, like vanilla, like the sharp tang of blood, and I crammed my fist into my mouth to keep myself from screaming. Eventually, they would find their way into the room, and they would bring it with them. Would they hold me down together? Would they pry open my mouth with dirty hands, their fingers pushing past my tongue until I choked?
There was the window, it’s glass darkening as the afternoon bled into twilight, and I could go through it, could open it and squeeze myself out, away from the stale air, away from whatever faceless god had made its home here, and I rushed for it, my fingers scrabbling against the lock, and it opened, the metal turning, and I could have cried from the beauty of that sound, but it couldn’t be so simple. To be allowed to run. There was a lifetime of stories, of films, that had taught me otherwise, but the window opened easily, and the door behind me stayed closed.
Inside the closet, voices whispered—children speaking in those same syllables Derek and Brandon had uttered—and I hurled myself out the window, the wood frame splintering and catching at my shirt and hair as if it could hold me within, but then I was dropping to the earth, my stomach lurching against the sudden weightlessness and then the heavy pain of my own body crushed into the dirt.
But I was out, and the air around me pressed close, and I drew it into my lungs, and I ran. I did not stumble. Did not fall. Only once, did I look back like Lot’s wife among that crumbling suburbia, the fallen, twisted idols of the backyard playgrounds looming up from the earth. Derek and Brandon stood at the window, their mouths against the glass, their tongues lolling behind as they gnashed their teeth and grasped at the emptiness I’d left behind. Their hands would not find my skin. They would not draw me back inside and teach me how to swallow my pain as they took pieces of me apart.
Whatever moved behind Derek and Brandon belonged only to them, to that house, and I was a moving, beating heart. Breath and bone and blood. Teeth. A photograph. I was all of those things, and I ran so I could continue to be all of those things until I grew old.
I hoped the others had run, too. The children. When my chest and legs began to burn, I told myself they had. Again and again until I believed it. Until I could see their shining faces, the way their bodies grew and changed, their teeth glittering in the dark.
About the Author
Kristi DeMeester is the author of Beneath, a novel published by Word Horde Publications, and Everything That’s Underneath, a short fiction collection from Apex Books. Her short fiction has appeared in approximately forty magazines, including Ellen Datlow’s The Year’s Best Horror Volume 9 and 11, Stephen Jones’ Best New Horror, Year’s Best Weird Fiction Volumes 1, 3, and 5 in addition to publications such as Pseudopod, Black Static, Fairy Tale Review, and several others. In her spare time, she alternates between telling people how to pronounce her last name and how to spell her first. Find her online at www.kristidemeester.com.
About the Narrator
Ibba Armancas is an award winning writer/director based in Los Angeles available for audio or cinematic projects across the board. She still hasn’t found time to build a website and encourages listeners to shame her about it on instagram or twitter.
About the Artist
Yuumei is an illustrator, comic artist, and designer. Her works include “Knite” and “Fisheye Placebo” webcomic series, Axent Wear Cat Ear Headphones, and various art that focuses on environmentalism, fantasy, and human nature.