“Shhh, listen,” Travis said to me over the phone. “Do you hear it? It’s in my house somewhere, and it’s breathing. Do you hear it? The ragged breathing?”
“I don’t hear it,” I said. “I only hear you. You sound panicky. Did you take your prescriptions tonight?”
“I don’t understand how you can’t hear the breathing,” Travis said. “I hear it all the time, but when I call you, you never hear it. It sounds like…a dog with emphysema or something.”
“No, I don’t hear it. I don’t hear any ragged breathing.”
“Once you hear it, you’ll never forget it,” Travis said. “So maybe you’re lucky.”
“Travis, this thing you hear—you’ve seen it before. You said that already, last week, I think. Right?”
“Yes,” Travis said.
“What does it look like?”
“It looks like a man,” Travis said. “But I don’t think it’s human.”
“Can you describe it?”
“Its skin is flesh-colored, like yours or mine, but it has scales. And it has gigantic teeth. Not fangs—regular human teeth. But they are huge. They’re so big that this thing can’t even close its lips around them. That’s why it smiles all the time, because the teeth force it to. And its hair is long, down past its ears. And its eyes, they shake inside its skull like rattling marbles. It wears an all-black suit with a white shirt, and it wears a bowler cap.”
“Uh huh,” I said.
“You don’t believe me, do you?” Travis asked.
“Travis, last week you called me and told me this thing was in your house.”
“I know, it was under the bed,” Travis said.
“Right, but last week you also said this thing had an alligator’s face and octopus arms. Now you say it looks like a human being.”
“Yeah…?” Travis said, pensively at first. But then: “Yeah! You’re right! This thing must be…some kind of shape shifter or something! Maybe a demon! That’s why it only comes out at night!”
“Travis, do you need me to come over?” I asked.
“No,” Travis said. “The thing might get you. It hasn’t gotten me yet, but I think it might be afraid of me. Maybe because it’s my house, I’m not sure. But no, if you come over, it’ll get you.”
“Nothing will get me if I come over, Travis,” I said. “Because whatever you’re seeing isn’t real.”
“Easy for you to say,” Travis said. “You’re there, and I’m here, and I’m telling you: a monster is somewhere in my house.”
“Travis, have you taken your prescriptions?” I asked again, growing exasperated. “Twice a day, right? Two pills at a time? Did you take all four pills today?”
“Those pills make me drowsy,” Travis said.
“You have to take them.”
“Because when you don’t, you see things that aren’t there.”
“This thing chasing me? It isn’t here because I didn’t take some stupid pills,” Travis said. “It’s really here right now, in my house.”
“Have you called Dr. Farthing?”
“Maybe you should call Dr. Farthing.”
“If you’re seeing things, your doctor should know.”
“How is he going to help me? Unless he has a shotgun that can kill shape shifters.”
“Travis, do you need me to come over? I should come over.”
“No, I told you, don’t. There’s a reason this thing hasn’t killed me yet, but you might not be safe.”
“Why don’t you go to bed?” I asked.
“With that thing in the house?” Travis shrilled. “Not likely!”
“Lock your bedroom door,” I said. “I once read somewhere shape shifters can’t cross through doorways unless they’re invited.”
“No, it’s not,” I lied. “It’s shape shifters.”
“Oh. Think that’ll work?”
“Yes,” I said. “Close and lock your bedroom door and get some sleep. And call me tomorrow.”
“Okay, thanks,” he said. “Good night.”
“ ‘Night, Travis. And take those pills.”
It was approaching early evening the next day when Travis called me, and while his voice sounded panicky again, it was a lot weaker. He barely spoke above a whisper.
“The door thing didn’t work,” he said. “It came into my room last night, anyway.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“It took something from me.”
“It stuck its hands into my guts—through my skin, without breaking it, somehow—and took something. I’m afraid it might’ve been my soul.”
“Travis, I think I should call Dr. Farthing.”
“Let me finish,” Travis said. “After this thing took my soul, it went out into the hallway and began retching all over the floor. I think something in my soul—or maybe the soul itself—made it sick.”
“So why would this thing purposely take your soul if it knew it would get sick?”
“I wondered about that all night, and I think I realized why. This thing—whatever it is—wants to eat me. That’s what its big teeth are for: ripping the flesh off my body in strips and crushing my bones.”
“But it can’t eat my soul because the thing would die. It must be poisonous to it, or something. So it had to get rid of it before it can eat me.”
“Where is the thing now?”
“I don’t know; probably somewhere in the floorboards. I think that’s where it lives.”
I looked out the window and saw that it was growing dark, which gave me an idea. “So, you don’t see the thing right now?”
“Do you hear it?”
“Well, look out your window. It’s dark out. See that? And no monster in sight. Right?”
“You’re right,” Travis said. “It is dark. Which means it’s going to come soon. And it’s going to kill and eat me.”
“No, Travis, that’s not what I meant,” I said. “I think I am going to come over.”
“No,” Travis said. “It’s dark now. You’d never make it in time.”
“Then why don’t you come to my place instead?”
“I would, but I’m too weak. I spent all day in bed recuperating from that thing stealing my soul.” He cursed at himself. “I wasted the whole day. I should have been thinking of ways to kill this thing.”
“Travis, I’m calling Dr. Far—“
“Sshhh!” Travis hushed into the phone, and then I heard nothing. I waited with him, in the silence.
“What is it?” I finally asked.
“It’s here… in my room. It’s looking right at me. Do you hear it? The ragged breathing?”
“What’s it doing, Travis?”
“It’s got a sharpener. It’s filing its top teeth into fangs.”
“Travis, please,” I said, the hair pricking up on the back of my neck.
“You were always a good friend to me,” Travis said. “The very best, for years.”
“Travis, what are you going to do?” I asked, growing alarmed. I pictured the worst. I pictured him climbing into his bathtub with a razor blade, or taking the rest of his prescriptions in one hand and slapping it against his open mouth, or tying a rope around his neck and throwing himself off the roof, or—
“It’s coming at me now,” Travis said. “I should probably hang up. You won’t want to hear this.”
“No!” I shouted. “Don’t do anything stupid! Travis, I’m calling the police!”
“Goodb—“ Travis managed before there was a thickening crunch. I heard something heavy tumble to the floor. I heard the phone topple across the tabletop for a moment before dangling by its cord. I heard the phone tap-tap-tap against the table leg.
I heard dragging. I heard ripping. I heard chewing.
And then I heard something else: silence…for a moment. Silence before someone—or something—grabbed the phone with a hand covered in stony growths.
And before the phone was put back into its cradle, severing the connection, I heard something else.
I heard ragged breathing.