Shadow Animals

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by Stephen Graham Jones

Stephen Graham Jones is the author of sixteen novels and six story collections. Most recent is the werewolf novel Mongrels, from William Morrow. Next are the comic book My Hero, from Hex Publishers, and Mapping the Interior, from Tor.com Publishing. Stephen lives and teaches in Boulder, Colorado.

~~~

If Ally hadn’t called in sick that day, there would have been no monsters in her world. She wouldn’t have had to know about them, anyway, and that would be about the same. Close enough. She could have just kept on keeping on: work, boyfriend, life, in a completely normal cycle. Nothing to write home about, but that would just be because it was a slightly updated version of her parents’ own twenties, their own first jobs in the city, their own lives starting to happen.

And, thing was? She wasn’t even really sick. Just, there was going to be a sales meeting for most of the morning, and Gerold would do his “Let the light in!” thing of rattling the blinds in the conference room up, and Ally, not wanting to be in that meeting even one minute more than necessary, would of course get stranded directly opposite those blinding windows, that cheery bright sun, and the glare would leave her with a pounding headache she’d be trying to tamp down for the rest of the work day—and probably beyond, over dinner with Travis.

So, calling in—why not? It was self-preservation. She shouldn’t be taking important calls with a headache perched on her shoulder, should she? She didn’t want to snap at Travis out of hand just because of Gerold, did she?

No, she shouldn’t. Calling in, it was good for her job, actually. Good for her client list. Good for her love life.

After Travis kissed her on the cheek and left for work, playfully chiding her for playing hooky, doing that thing where he acted like his own tie is pulling him back to her, Ally decided this day would be her gift to herself.

She poured enough creamer in her coffee that it was nearly hazelnut-white. She didn’t brush her teeth until ten. She belted Travis’s thick soft robe tight around her and dialed up the trashiest reality television she could find.

Two hours later, she was bored.

By the time lunch was over she was nervous with energy. Not guilt—Gerold had pretty much chased her from the office, hadn’t he?—just jitters. Okay, maybe guilt, but not about work. About being a slug. About crying at the teen mom’s closing Spotlight Chat on that show she kept promising she was going to quit, at the next commercial.

Let the cleaning commence.

It was how Ally always settled herself.

Kitchen first—thirty minutes: Travis was neat to the point of scary—then a cursory pass across the living room, then the entryway, as small as it was and as little as they used it, and then finally upstairs, for their bedroom. Their cave. The den.

It smelled like laundry and eye crust.

It was good she’d stayed home.

And, to irony things up a bit, Ally even untangled the strings on the blinds and racked them up to the top of the window. It was maybe the first time they’d even been up, at least since her and Travis had moved in. Too much light didn’t give her migraines like it would Travis, but, given her druthers, she’d usually just get along with unnatural light, thank you very much.

That was how her and Travis had first started talking, even. They were the two museum-goers keeping their sunglasses handy, for when the tour traipsed them through one of the rooms at the outer ring, where the windows went floor to ceiling—where the bronze statuary was, as it didn’t care about sunlight as much as acrylic and oil did.

That’s what Travis had asked her, at first: if she—forgive him—was she a painting? Was she part of the tour? Would her colors run if left too close to the heat of the window in the summer?

It had so obviously been a line that laughing at it had calved them off from the main group, made a pair of them. A couple.

And so it began.

Kismet. Fate. Love.

And this, Ally said to herself, surveying the bedroom, was love’s rancid nest.

Ally started at the closet, pulled enough cast-off clothes from the doorway that the folding door could actually fold, as some architect had once intended, and then worked her way steadily across, collecting socks and bras and the extra blanket she always insisted on, that she always kicked off at some point in the hot night.

Speaking of, she considered … yes, she probably should wash the comforter, shouldn’t she? Yes. Washing the comforter required vigilance. If you let it sit in the machine too long after its last rinse—like they had to with them both working—it would get that sour smell. And it usually took two cycles to get all the way dry anyway. It why they always had to run the comforter on the weekend: because there wasn’t enough time after work, before bed, when they would need the comforter.

This would be her good deed for the day. A surprise for Travis. She’d even leave it in the dryer until right before they went up, so she could run it ten more minutes. It would be warm for them. It would be perfect.

Stripping the bed down, then, trying to magician the whole comforter off in a grand swoop, she—of course—managed not to just spill the glass of water Travis always stationed on the nightstand, but everything else parked around the lamp.

Oops.

A pen, the paperback he’d been pretending to read all month, the base for his charger, and—oh no—his bite guard. The one he was always so protective of, since it cost three hundred dollars, and, more important, took four weeks to have made, which would be four weeks of creeping migraines, from grinding his teeth in his sleep.

Ally left the spilled glass of water—it was just water—rushed the bite guard to the bathroom sink. Five second rule, right? If she washed it first thing, he’d never have to know. Such are the shaky foundations relationships are built on.

Don’t think like that, she told herself. Travis is good. He might even be—gasp—the One.

No harm, not much foul. Not if she washed it off quick and careful.

Because hot water seemed dangerous but cold felt cruel, Ally twisted both taps open all the way, let the lukewarm water course over and through the whole apparatus, tilting it up and around so every cranny could get some of that cleaning action.

And she finally, then, looked at it.

Alone in the house, playing hooky from work, she studied her boyfriend’s bite guard for the first time since they’d moved in together four months ago.

She’d always assumed it would be some version of what athletes wear to keep from biting their tongues off—soft rubber you boil and bite into, to mold to your teeth. Just, Travis’s would be harder, more permanent, “dental.” And expensive.

It was harder. That meant less temporary.

And it did look expensive.

But it was more, too.

Her dad with his sleep apnea, he’d had a big apparatus that looked like he was plugging himself into a science fiction story: a corrugated clear tube that ended in a mouthpiece he’d had to strap over his nose and mouth like life support. Which is exactly what it was.

It would breathe for him all night long. Keep him alive. She was thankful for that stupid, awkward machine.

Travis’s bite guard, though—bite guards weren’t supposed to have charging ports. Ally was like ninety percent sure of that. Ninety five.

Travis’s had a charging port, and, buried deep in that cloudy-blue molded plastic, a cylindrical presence she assumed must be a battery.

He could either charge his phone on the nightstand, or, she guessed, his bite guard. Was that why his phone was dead in the morning, some days? One charger, two devices.

But he carried a charging block in his briefcase, she knew.

He’d have to, wouldn’t he?

Ally looked up into the mirror behind the sink, completely ready for if her lips were going to actually be shaped like a question mark. And then she realized what she was doing: running an electrical device under water.

She flinched her hand back, fumbled the bite guard, just managed not to drop it onto the tile floor of the bathroom.

But … this went in his mouth all night. The land of saliva.

It had to be waterproof, didn’t it?

He’ll never know, Ally told herself, and kind of hated her tone, because now she was talking herself into it—into not telling him she’d messed with his bite guard. She could tell she was trying to convince herself by the way she was whispering, even in her head.

She shook the bite guard dry, got a clean washcloth from the cabinet to pat it dry, erase all evidence she’d been there, and then, because she wasn’t a snoop, because she was a good girlfriend, because Travis had never done one single thing to invite this sort of treatment, Ally walked the bite guard back into the bedroom, carrying it before her like a platter of cookies.

The comforter was still pouring off the bed, as she’d left it.

The water she’d spilled was a dark stain on the beige carpet.

She stepped around it, lowered her hand to deposit the bite guard back into its place, but, at the very last moment, she sat down on the edge of the bed instead, her hands in her lap, the bite guard in her hands.

A charging port? A battery?

Why would a bite guard need electricity?

She flicked the lamp on, held the guard up against the lampshade to try to x-ray the electric guts molded into the opaque plastic.

There were wires in there, misting out from the battery. Maybe a tiny circuit board or a chip as well, a little bit off-center, at the top.

Was this some dental thingamajig Travis’s company had tested and found defective for wide release?

That would explain why she hadn’t heard of it: it wasn’t on the market.

It didn’t explain why Travis would have smuggled it home instead of destroying it, though.

Probably he just wanted to figure out how it worked, Ally told herself. He’s a tinkerer. He has to figure out every little thing, doesn’t he?

She nodded. That was Travis, in a nutshell: staying up into the small hours, a probe in one hand, a soldering iron in the other.

Maybe he’d even figured out how to make this work. How to make it do whatever it did.

Ally angled the bite-guard up against the lampshade and peered under it.

On the backside of the guard, behind what would be Travis’s rabbit teeth—Ally smirked, was no dentist—there was a screen. Or something. A circle of cross-hatched, fine little wires.

Maybe not a screen. A grate? A filter?

To let the machinery in there breathe? Was this an exhaust port?

It didn’t make sense.

Ally weighed the guard in her palm, up and down.

Yes—heavier than it should be, she supposed. Not that she’d ever held one before. But still.

“What are you?” Ally said down to it.

It didn’t answer.

Maybe it was a bite guard and sleep aid? Was it possible to manipulate theta waves or something, by pulsing sound across the soft palette, or humming directly into the brain?

Ally thought that before meaning to, but it made her aware of what that tiny grate looked like: a speaker cover. Like on earbuds.

Maybe it was a bite guard and a, a snore-thing? One of the As Seen on TV gadgets to keep you from waking your partner?

That had to be it.

There was every kind of snore trick a person could want. Nose pinchers, patches, alarms. Ally’d even seen a pad that went under the pillow, and inflated in response to—you guessed it, girl—the sound of snoring. It was all about changing the breathing pathways. Nudging the sleeper into a quieter mode.

Before the life-changing event of her father’s sleep apnea rig, he’d liberated one of Ally’s mother’s bras and put it on himself backwards, then slipped a softball into each cup. It was to keep him from sleeping on his back, waking the whole house with his wet rumble.

This was probably some updated version of that. It had to be.

“But I would have stayed,” Ally said to Travis. To the idea that this was because of her. To the likelihood that a single guy would invest in—would invent—something this desperate just to keep from scaring away a date, the first night she slept over.

She loved him.

She hadn’t said it out loud like that to him yet, but seeing what he was doing just to pretend not to be gross to her—it wasn’t gross—Ally smiled, knew it would be soon.

She settled the bite guard back onto the nightstand, more sure of herself now, and considered plugging it in to his phone charger. It would be her way of telling him she knew. And thank you.

It was good she’d stayed home.

Thank you to you as well, Gerold. Who probably snored like a drunk gorilla, and didn’t care if his partner ever got to sleep.

The way he always asked if he could pull the blinds up, before he pulled the blinds up? He always managed to ask in such a way that you were a bad person if you preferred the darkness. A troll, a vampire, a monster.

Ally snickered to herself, decided not plugging the bite guard in was the way to go—maybe it had a delicate battery, maybe its charge cycle needed to be monitored, just like the comforter needed monitoring in the dryer—and then was almost back to cleaning the bedroom before the possibility crept into the front of her head.

Would it tickle? The bite guard? When it started doing its thing?

She picked it up again.

She was just about the same height as Travis. Did that mean their teeth and mouth would be about the same size? Close enough? Did men have bigger mouths than women, or would it be the other way around?

Only one way to find out.

“I’ll clean it again,” she said, like saying it out loud would hold her to it, and then she clicked the case open, slipped the bite guard up to her lips.

Should she, shouldn’t she?

They were boyfriend and girlfriend, right? Living together? Practically married? They were a lot more intimate than just this. If they were traveling and just had one toothbrush between them—on a train, say—they would share, wouldn’t they?

They would, yes. And it would be no big deal. Zero deal at all.

Before she could stop herself, Ally clicked the bite guard up onto her top teeth.

It didn’t fit perfect, like it probably did with Travis. But it didn’t fall back off, either. There were little ridges at back that kept it in place, it felt like. There was a kind of dull click when it pushed up over the bulge of the back molars.

“Now what?” she said, her words muffled like Travis’s each night, when he told her goodnight.

She laughed, clapped her hand over her mouth just to be sure she didn’t accidentally spit the bite guard out.

It wasn’t doing anything.

It was just, she supposed, keeping her teeth lined up. Maybe keeping her from grinding her teeth.

She hated that Travis’s work gave him that kind of stress.

Maybe it would get better, though. They would get actually married, he would get promoted from the floor to an actual office or even the lab, and, who knew? Maybe he would start forgetting to put this device in his mouth every night.

How did it work, though? What was it supposed to do?

Ally breathed stagey breaths back and forth across it, and moved her jaw side to side, trying to trigger some response.

Nothing.

Did it glow?

That would be hilarious, she was pretty sure. To look over at two in some morning, see Travis’s mouth spilling light.

She could hold her fingers in front of his lips, make shadow animals on the ceiling.

Because that’s the key to a long and lasting relationship, yes.

Maybe there was some rudimentary version of a gyroscope molded into the plastic? Ally couldn’t imagine where—it wasn’t big—but tech was shrinking everything.

Lying back into bed might be the thing to activate it, then, right?

Ally shrugged, kicked her slippers off, careful of the wet stain on the carpet, and laid back into Travis’s side of the bed, waited.

Nothing.

More nothing.

Imagine you’re sleeping, she told herself, and closed her eyes.

Just like her father, then—like she was always sure was going to happen to her father—she stopped breathing, to try to listen, to try to feel if that tiny screen was going to do anything in her mouth.

Not her father, though. This was getting weird.

Travis.

She cued up his … not snore, but the light, unconcerned breathing that meant he was sleeping well.

Their first few nights together, after signing the lease and committing to this big experiment, Ally had lain on her side, watching Travis’s silhouette. Listening to him sleep.

It was the most girlfriend thing ever, she knew.

Still, it had comforted her.

And now it was her on that side of the bed.

She held her breath, still listening to the memory of Travis breathing, and then she wasn’t having to listen to it in her head anymore.

She opened her eyes, completely expecting to see Travis standing over her, breathing. Watching her. Come home for a forgotten paper or to surprise her with chocolate, only to find her Goldilocksing it up on his side of the bed. With his bite guard clamped in her mouth.

She was alone in the bedroom.

And the breathing had stopped.

Had she just imagined it?

She spit the bite guard out, looked down at it from every angle then held it to her ear.

Had it activated somehow? Somewhy?

“Travis?” she called out, loud enough that he would hear her if he was lurking downstairs, hiding around some corner.

No Travis.

“You’re just freaking yourself out, girl,” she said, and set the bite guard down again, for what she told herself was the last time.

This was just the weirdness of being home alone in the middle of the day. That had to be it. Maybe she was guilty about calling in, and this was how it was expressing itself. This was her punishment.

Okay, then.

She stood, collected the comforter and held it tight against her, and almost made it out of the room this time before coming back to Travis’s side of the bed again, the sole of her slipper soaking into the spilled water.

“What are you?” she said down to the bite guard.

It just sat there. A thing. A device. A nothing.

But that was wrong.

It was a something. Just, a something that didn’t make any sense.

Ally clumped the comforter onto the foot of the bed and laid down in Travis’s place again, just like before, and ceremoniously inserting the bite guard into her mouth, closed her eyes.

Repeat, repeat, she told herself, and like that, her father’s sleeping form came to her again.

Him lying on his back, his science fiction machine pumping air in and out, in and out.

Until it stopped.

Ally held her breath in her lungs, her eyes open now, staring up into the ceiling, and what she was imagining now was how this would have felt to her father, for the power to have gone out in the night. For his lungs to be burning. For his sleeping mind not to be sure what was happening, in spite of his body screaming about it.

And then it came again, the breathing.

From Ally’s own mouth, even though her lungs were heating up, were telling her to inhale, now. To go ahead and just breathe in. It’s time.

The breathing came from her own mouth, but there was no actual breath passing back and forth.

The sound was rattly, even, deep.

It was the sound of a boyfriend, sleeping. It was what she went to sleep to every night. Her touchstone, her rock, her anchor. Travis.

Ally rasped a gulp of air in and the sound stopped.

What? What?

She repeated, figuring it out by degrees, not wanting to accept whatever this was, whatever was happening here alone in the house.

But it was too late to pretend she’d never found it. It was too late to pretend she wasn’t figuring it out.

The little screen in the bite guard, behind the front teeth, it was a speaker. But there was a sensor there too. It sensed when her breath stopped passing across that screen. And then it kicked in with the sound. With the fake breathing. And—and that click she’d felt on her molars, that was to hold the bite guard in place, yes. But those little ridges, they also depressed. Meaning the little speaker, it wouldn’t activate when the bite guard was just sitting on the nightstand.

It only worked in a mouth.

Ally didn’t realize there were tears coming from her eyes until she touched the itch they were becoming with the inside knuckle of her index finger.

What did this mean?

What could it mean?

If—be rational, be rational—if this only came on in a mouth, in the absence of breath, then that would mean Travis wasn’t breathing, wouldn’t it? That he wasn’t breathing all night?

So, so when he was breathing in the daytime, then, did that mean he was faking it? That he was just breathing so he wouldn’t freak her out every minute of every day? Only, when he was asleep, then he couldn’t remember to fake it for her, so he had built something like this? To keep the ruse up?

The ruse of what, though?

Ally’s thoughts were the color of a shriek.

She spit the bite guard out into her hand, sat up fast and threw it across the room, hating all of this, hating cleaning, hating relationships, hating work, hating meetings, hating Gerold for making her stay home today.

It was only when the bite guard didn’t clatter into the corner that Ally looked up.

Travis was standing there, his briefcase in his left hand, his right hand still up, where it had just plucked the bite guard from the air.

“What—what is that?” Ally said. “What does it mean?”

Travis squinted at the bright window like it hurt him, like it was already giving him a migraine, then he looked across the whole of the bedroom, passing across Ally quickly, as if she were the balled-up comforter, the wingback chair, the laundry hamper, the dark spill of water soaking into the carpet.

He couldn’t hold her eyes.

“I was just bringing you … chocolate,” he said.

“What does that mean?” Ally said, pointing at the closed hand he was still holding out to the side, as if preserving the point of impact. The exact place in time where everything changed.

“It means,” Travis said, his voice breaking, “I guess what it means, I’m sorry, I never wanted this for you, you’ve got to believe me, but what it means is that we’re not going to be breaking up in a year anymore, or in five years. Or in twenty, when you figure it out.”

His accent was … Ally didn’t know.

It was old, clipped, the vowels shaped wrong, making her think of crumbling stone temples, of open-air markets, of bare feet scampering away.

“When I figure what out?” Ally pled, on her knees on the bed now, her slippers abandoned on the floor, the comforter drawn up to her chest just to have something to hold onto.

“It means that we’re going to be together forever,” Travis said, at which point he set the briefcase down onto the carpet and crossed to the window, lowered the blinds, each movement deliberate, intentional, almost ceremonial. When he looked back to Ally, his mouth wasn’t glowing like she’d joked about in her head, but it was different, somehow. Brighter. Fuller. More white.

“Trav?” she said, and what came next was a flurry of motion and the briefest, most intimate twinge of pain, and then not just a lifetime of hunger and hiding and lying and monsters, but an eternity. So long as they could stay out of the light.

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