Habit

*Wordcount: 1386 words.

It was a small habit he had picked up when he was much younger. He was still a child then, naïve and, though he tried his best to hide it, afraid. Not necessarily afraid of something specific, but easily spooked. Ghost stories, scary movies, and inventions of his imagination plagued him. Sometimes he could barely bring himself to open doors, for fear of what hid on the other side, waiting with claws outstretched and fangs bared. Perhaps a necrotic hand would reach through the door as he opened it, or a sinister tail would slide around his neck as he walked through. Of course, this never happened, but his fear persisted. When he was 7, he stumbled into a trick that helped him. Whenever he was scared, lying alone in his room jumping at shadows and phantom sounds, he would shut his eyes. The monsters couldn’t see him, but more importantly, he couldn’t see them. If he kept his eyes shut, and waited, he would be fine. He would wake up the next morning, unscathed.
So, he learnt to relate this trick to other moments when fear gripped him. He would close his eyes, and open them after a few seconds. When opening doors, walking into dark rooms, switching on lights. Every time, he opened his eyes to a complete absence of monsters.
This trick turned into habit, and the habit stuck.

As an adult he largely forgot about this. The habit stuck around, of course, but the fears faded into memory. He could look back and laugh, safe in the knowledge that monsters aren’t real and that his fears were unfounded. Often, he couldn’t even recall where he had picked up the habit, and he had tried to break it more than a few times. He was never successful, and eventually he stopped bothering; it didn’t really affect much.
At least, that’s what he thought.

At first, he wasn’t sure what he had seen. He stood, dead-still, at the door to his small bathroom. His eyes scanned the visibly empty room. He had seen…
He wasn’t sure, but it moved. He saw movement, he thought. No, he had. For sure. Right? His instincts needled every sense into action, but nothing happened. He had seen something move, and it had been eye-level.
He lived alone, with no pets, and it couldn’t be a rat or a bug. He was sure. Right?
He gave the room a once-over, relieved himself, and left. He closed the door. His nerves were shot, but now he was doubting himself. The room was empty after all, he had made sure. He was sure of it, there was nothing. It was a trick of the eyes or something, obviously.
Still, he couldn’t help but feel some of his old childhood fears surface in some part of his mind.
That night, he had a nightmare.

The next day he was a little on-edge, but it faded as the day went on. By the end of the week he had pretty much forgotten his paranoia. The event had been put aside in his mind for the much more important minutia of his day to day life.
It did resurface though, when he caught the movement again.

He had walked into his living room and switched on the light, abiding by his usual habit, when he saw a blur of movement. This time, he made out a shape. It looked humanoid, but any details beyond that were lost on him. He had checked the rest of the room, and his house, and considered calling the police. Eventually, he decided against it. He wasn’t so sure that this was all just paranoia, but he couldn’t call the police because he thought he saw movement on two different occasions about two weeks apart. Perhaps he could call one of the paranormal investigators that seemed to be ever-present on TV. He chuckled at the thought. Did he really think there was anything to this? He had left these fears with his childhood, and grown up. He was too old to jump at shadows. Still, he couldn’t help but feel uneasy.

These sightings grew more frequent, and he grew increasingly paranoid. Many of his fears from childhood forced their way back into his mind.
It was all irrational, he was sure of it… Sure… He wasn’t sure if he was sure.
But it surely was nothing, logically…
Unsurprisingly, trying to reason through it logically didn’t stem the growing tide of nervousness.
It started occupying more and more of his mind, and he spent all day thinking about it.
The thinking wasn’t in vain, and he had a plan. Or, well, not a plan per se, an idea.
But at least it was something.

He was walking into his bedroom, and stopped. He caught himself mid-habit, and kept his eyes closed.
And he listened.
He stood there for minutes, straining his ears and his resolve. For a while all he could hear was the wind outside, the faint patter of rain at the window.
But there was something else…
He listened.
And listened.
There!
He was picking up the other sound, he was sure he had reliably separated it from the ambient noise.
It sounded like… Breathing.
Slow, raspy, deliberate breathing. Like rocks scraping against each other, like teeth gnawing on bones.
Breathing.
In his bedroom, in his house, with only him there.
It continued, in, out, in. The more he heard it, the more sure he was, the more terror gripped him.
He had to open his eyes, he had to see. By God he didn’t want to, but he had to. He was too old to be scared of nothing.
He opened his eyes.

What he saw did not comfort him.

He saw nothing.
That wasn’t right? He had heard it. He had been sure. He had heard it!
Was he just going crazy? His aunt had gone crazy. They had to put her in an institution, look out for her mental wellbeing they said. He didn’t think it helped her, she just seemed sad (until they upped her meds that is, then she didn’t seem at all).
He didn’t want that. But he wouldn’t need it, right? He was sane. But, if he was sane, then the breathing, the movement, was real…
He didn’t particularly like either scenario.
He slept on his couch that night.

The glimpses of movement continued, and when he dared keep his eyes closed he could hear the breathing. Then he started hearing more. Whispers, footsteps, something that sounded like wet lips smacking together. He wasn’t sure they were real.

Going to sleep became difficult. Whenever he shut his eyes he heard it, the breathing. Closer. Every night, it seemed closer. It whispered to him. He couldn’t make out the words, but they scared him. He stopped going to work. He stopped doing much at all.
He hoped he would starve to death before whatever the hell got him.

He was sitting in a corner in his bedroom. All the lights in his house were off, he didn’t bother with them anymore.
It was there. He could see it, finally he could see it. He wasn’t crazy, and he wasn’t being childish or cowardly. He was too old to be scared of nothing, and this wasn’t nothing.

It was watching him. Spindly limbs, fangs, who knows. He couldn’t tell. But it was there. He could see its slumped form. He could see its shoulders shudder with each rasped breath.
He couldn’t hear the breathing, just see it. He only heard it when his eyes were closed.

Memories surfaced of when he was young, scared in his room. He closed his eyes back then, and woke up safe.
Maybe that’s all it took.

He could be safe.

He slowly shut his eyes, and his vision blurred as tears welled up.

He heard… Nothing.
No breathing, no whispers, no footsteps.
He opened his eyes. Nothing there.
The tears flowed freely, and he sighed and laughed. He was fine. He was safe. Thank God, thank everything merciful and thank fuck.
He was safe.
He slumped against the wall, rubbing the tears out of his eyes.
Sinking into the blackness, he revelled in the silence.

He felt a chill.
He heard a growl.

At least he wasn’t crazy.

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