“Portrait of the Artist” (detail), gouache on paper, by Mary Cassatt, 1878.

by Shannon Ready

We are living in Josephine’s mouth. I can feel it. I am pretty sure Josephine put a curse on my mom for dumping her son, Stan. The other week my mom said, “Pack up your stuff we are getting out of here.” So me and Lizzie packed up our stuff—it didn”t take long; we have it down to a science now—and we left Stan’s place and moved here. Here to Josephine’s mouth.

To anyone else it looks like a regular old cheap cinder-blocky cottage. My mom has this friend—this real estate agent who specializes in short term rentals—and she heard about this listing before anyone else. My mom said, “Linda found us the cutest cottage,” and I was like, “Linda lice?” and she smacked me across the mouth so fast I didn’t know what happened. I only said this because once, maybe a year ago, I heard my mom on the phone with her sister and she goes, “My friend Linda has body lice! Can you even believe it?” And, I swear, it wasn’t even like I was trying to listen, I was literally trying to vacuum the living room and dining room rug so I would be allowed outside. But when the phone rang my mom yelled out, “Turn off the vacuum, I’m on the goddam phone!” So I turned off the vacuum and waited for her to get off the goddam phone so I could finish, and that’s when I heard her say, “Oh gawd, Linda’s got body lice, of all things. Can you believe that?”

When my mom was with Stan, we used to have to go to Josephine’s house for early dinners on Sunday afternoons. Josephine has all these missing teeth and when she talks, pretty soon her breath makes the whole room start to smell like mothballs. One time I thought I was going to faint or die from how bad the smell was, so I pulled the neck of my shirt up over my nose and kept it like that. Then I kept making this “ahem” noise trying to get Lizzie’s attention, and when she looked at me I sent her a message with my mind that said, Do this and you can’t smell it, and finally she got what I meant and pulled her shirt up over her nose, too. But my mom figured out what was going on so she kicked me really hard under the table and gave me this look and we had to put our shirts back to normal.

When we first walked into the cottage the air was hot—like human breath-hot—and the whole place smelled like mothballs and that’s when I was like, oh my god, we are inside of Josephine’s mouth.

Even the 5 or 6 teeth that Josephine did have were not very good teeth. One front tooth was rotten, and the others were either chipped or really crooked. Twisted almost. Before I met Josephine my mom had to remind me all the time to brush my teeth, and I used to lie and say, “I already did!” But after I saw Josephine’s mouth I started brushing my teeth every night, like no one ever had to remind me again.

Josephine always referred to Stan as My Stanley like she had to constantly specify for us which Stanley she was talking about among all the Stanleys that existed in the world. She also always brought up how smart Stan was in school but I couldn’t see how this was possible. He doesn’t even know some of the big words I’ve already learned and he’s an adult. Josephine showed us one of his report cards to try to prove he was some kind of genius. The report card was from when he was in third grade and Josephine was actually using that as evidence of his intelligence but, come on, you better at least show me a high school report card with classes like biology or algebra because who can’t get good grades in elementary school? He did get an “M” in penmanship, though, which stands for “More improvement needed” but other than that, his grades were fine. But still—third grade. And he did not go to college. If he was so smart, then why didn’t he go to college and why was he now doing customer service phone calls out of an office in a strip mall? He kept telling my mom he was getting promoted to shift manager but then he never did and that’s when she decided she was dumping him. I heard her say, “How did they promote Angela, a 19 year-old drop-out who hasn’t even been there for three months, and you can’t even become an assistant manager after two years?” He said it was because the boss had a big crush on Angela but by then my mom was already like, forget it.

I tried to tell my mom we were living in Josephine’s mouth but she just rolled her eyes like I was trying to annoy her. Then she held up her hand and went, “I don’t want to hear it.” But right away Lizzie got what I meant and we became obsessed with trying to find any clue that could prove that we were really cursed to live inside of this mouth for all of time simply because my mom broke it off with Stan.

Besides the constant mothball smell in the cottage, there was also strange condensation that formed on some of the walls. All of these little drops of moisture that collected from who even knows where. It was just like the spit that would collect in Josephine’s mouth and then fly out all over the place while she was going on about her Stanley.

Another clue was that the rug in the living room was always damp and warm. The first night at the house Lizzie and I walked onto it with bare feet and we both started screaming like crazy and then ran into the kitchen and immediately put these plastic grocery bags on our feet and fastened them at the ankles with rubber bands. It was about 100 degrees that night and our feet instantly starting sweating. We tested the bags by walking across the rug to see if we were protected from the dampness and my mom was like, “Now what?” So I said, “We think the rug is Josephine’s tongue. Feel it. It’s wet and warm. Slimy even!” She got mad and told us to go to bed even though it was only 8:30 and not even dark outside.

Actually it was a good thing we got sent to bed when we did, though, because Lizzie took off the bags and her feet were turning blue because the rubber bands were fastened way too tight. Neither one of us were tired so we just laid there whispering at first, then I started making up this song:

We’re living down south
In Josephine’s mouth
I sez we’re living down south
In Josephine’s mouth
You better leave us alone
Cuz we ain’t got a phone
Ain’t no song to be sung
Cuz we’re standin’ right on her tongue
Yeah, we’re living down south
In Josephine’s mouth
We’d rather move west
Cuz that would be best
Instead we’re living here in Josephine’s mouth

I must have started singing way too loudly because my mom screamed: “Shut up!” at the top of her lungs then like a second later she kicked the door open and was like, “If I hear one more sound I’m going to roll you both up in that goddamn rug and you can sleep there. I mean it!” Then she slammed the door so hard that if we had hung up any pictures yet, they would have all crashed to the floor.

After that we both shut up really quickly because no way was I sleeping rolled up in that rug. I seriously would have drowned. I turned around and faced the wall and tried to force myself to keep my eyes closed but this hot breeze kept blowing through the window and I knew that meant that Josephine was somewhere out in the world just breathing in and out, in and out.

The first time we ate dinner over at Josephine’s house she put these cabbages on our plates and Lizzie and I looked at each other and we were like, What is this? And Stan said, “Try it! It’s good Polish food. I grew up on the stuff and you can see how strong it made me.” That was supposed to be a joke, I hoped, because Stan is kind of scrawny and not strong at all. Like, I swear, he could break his arm picking up a pencil. Then Lizzie started unraveling the cabbage and Josephine said really loudly, “It’s pigs in a blanket” and right then I saw this gray meaty chunk inside the cabbage and jumped out of my chair and yelled, “Oh my God! Dead baby guinea pigs in a blanket!” And Lizzie screamed because that’s truly what they looked like—and really how am I supposed to know what Polish people eat? We have an uncle in Pennsylvania, a coal miner, and he said he once ate a squirrel, so really anyone anywhere could be eating anything.

My mom was like, “Sit down both of you and eat your dinner right now” but Josephine was already mad and sighed really forcefully, like a low growl sigh, and took our plates away and said, “I’m not going to have ingrates in my own kitchen when I cook a nice meal for them.” So my mom told us to just go outside.

If there was anything good that came from moving out of Stan’s house and into Josephine’s mouth it was that we were too far away for our babysitter to get to us so my mom let me and Lizzie stay home alone. I had already been kind of off-and-on babysitting Lizzie after school, but this was summer vacation so it was an all day long thing which we had never done before.

On our first day alone we found this rusty three-speed bike out back in the common area of the cottages and the lady next door told us to go ahead and use it, it had been there forever, she said. So I doubled Lizzie into the main part of town and we saw it had all different kinds of shops and an old diner and was close to this public beach where people came in from other cities to go swimming.

We also found a little library so we went inside and stayed put for hours because it was the only place we’d been to in a long time that had any air conditioning. We tried to check out a book about diseases of the mouth called Adventures in Odontology, but our library card didn’t work there so we had to make a Xerox copy of one of the pages that had a medical drawing of this sore that we thought for sure we had seen inside Josephine’s mouth. The sore was called a gum boil. We took the copy back home and scouted around the cottage for anything that looked like it could be a gum boil. Sure enough, we found one. It was in the bathroom on the wall near the shower. To anyone else it would have looked like a regular old paint bubble, but we knew it wasn’t. It was definitely Josephine’s gum boil.

We poked at the gum boil with a sharpened popsicle stick until it ripped wide open. Then we went around the house and pretended to be reporters on a crime investigation show uncovering all the evidence to prove that this cottage was Josephine’s mouth. How you just couldn’t argue with the facts.

A few days later we made up another game where I would pretend to talk to any random stranger as if I were Josephine, and at the same time I was talking, Lizzie would start screaming to the same imaginary person letting them know that she was stuck inside Josephine’s mouth and she needed them to call for help. I stood on on the tongue rug and said something like: “Oh, yes, hello young man, can you please cut me up two pounds of guinea pig for our dinner tonight, and maybe some of the—” then Lizzie frantically start screaming: “Young man! Young man! You’ve got to help me!! I’m stuck inside Josephine’s mouth and can’t get out!! Call the police! Call the fire department! Call the FBI!”

We were making up all kinds of versions of that game and laughing and screaming so loud that we didn’t even notice that my mom had gotten home from work and was watching us from the kitchen doorway with a pizza box in her hand. When I looked up she just shook her head and dropped the box on the table and said, “I give up. You guys win. I moved us out of Stan’s house to try to make a better life for both of you and all you do is complain about this place. I’m going to bed.”


About a week before school started me and Lizzie pedaled that bike over to the public beach for this Summer Days by the Lake Festival that we had seen all these banners for. We went to a hot dog stand and these people got in line right behind us and I heard somebody go, “Oh JoJo, we have to stop in the antiques shop before they close.” The voice sounded so familiar so I turned around and almost died right there because I was looking directly at Josephine. Like there she was, in our new town. She seemed as surprised as I was and said, “Oh. Girls. Hello.” Then I thought I was having heat stroke or something because what I saw was so hard to believe. It was Josephine, for sure, but she was different. Her face and her hair were the same, but when she talked she had this full set of plain white regular straight teeth in her mouth. Like she somehow had gotten dentures in that short span of time we had been away.

Lizzie and I said hello back and then just sort of stood there with nothing to say. Josephine introduced us to her friend and said, “I think maybe you all met each other at the house.” And we were like, oh yeah, maybe. Then Josephine said something so crazy. She said, “I miss having you girls over.” It was such a shocking thing to hear that without thinking I said out loud, “Wait, you liked us?” and she goes, “Well, yeah I liked you. You got into mischief all the time like a couple of raccoons, but you gals were spunky and you made me laugh.”

It didn’t seem possible. “What about the time we ruined your really expensive doll by dunking it in the bird bath?” I figured she must have forgotten about that, but she said something like, “That was my daughter’s doll, and she passed away years ago, so, no, I didn’t like that you did that, but, hell, I should have packed it up somewhere safe if I was that worried about it.” Then she looked up at the hot dog man and told him, “I’ll pay for the two girls.” After she got her change back she said, “Well, nice to see you girls. Say hi to your mom for me,” and then she and her friend walked off toward the antiques store. Lizzie and I stood there watching them go, but before they got all the way across the street I ran up to Josephine and told her, “Your teeth look really good.” And she got this surprised expression and said, “Well thanks, kid. I shoulda done it a long time ago.”

On the way home Lizzie and I kept riding really close to all the garbage cans at the curb so we could kick at them as we sped by. Each time we hit one we’d yell “We’re raccoons! We’re a couple of crazy-ass raccoons!” Or else we’d chant, “We’re spunky! Spunky! Spunky!” at the top of our lungs.

When we turned onto our street I said to Lizzie, “I dare us to clean up the whole cottage before mom gets home.”

Somehow I could tell the curse had been lifted.


Shannon has written treatments and screenplays for Strange Matter Films and The Lab Entertainment Group while living in Los Angeles. She currently makes her home near the shallowest of the Greats in moody Cleveland, Ohio.