's 2017 Horror Write-off:

The Smiling Thing

Submitted by Saga

This happened a while ago. I'm not gonna say how long, cause it might make it easier for people to find my personal information, but I remembered because I found the paperwork for it in my file. I won some sort of online short fiction contest and was selected to go on this TV show. Only I wasn't actually going to be on TV... it was weird. I'll get into that in a moment.

The premise of the show was people who weren't "qualified" to explore haunted houses got to do just that. (What constitutes "qualified?" I don't exactly remember.) And these houses were actually haunted, people had died or undergone horrible transformations in previous seasons of the show. It wasn't real footage of horrifying deaths, of course. "Based on a true story" showed up on every title card. How it worked was: people would go alone into whatever the featured house was this time, stay however long the producers wanted to have footage for, then whoever survived would leave the house and recount their story to the show's team of screenwriters. They would then draw up a dramatized reenactment of the events, film it with a big budget, and air this footage instead. People really did die, but since what aired was reenactments, there was somehow never any legal trouble. It might still be on the air - I wouldn't know, I'm really not about that kind of voyeuristic fake horror anymore.

Anyway, I was one of the people who entered this big old house in the middle of some farmland. There were three other finalists present as well - a charming, overweight Indian couple who had collaborated to write their story (which, in my opinion, should have won, it was incredible), and third place went to... someone else. I honestly can't remember her face. She wore a black sweater and had platinum blonde hair, that's all I recall.

The house was disgusting from a d├ęcor standpoint - dusty, garish, battered baroque furniture strewn with ostentatious fake cobwebs, and some real ones. Most of it had been reupholstered or patched at some point with neon, clashing modern fabric with patterns. I remember a lot of neon pink with black stripes. There were three floors and none of them made any goddamn sense with how they were laid out. I slept on the third, in a room by myself. The couple was in the room on my one side, together. Sweater lady was somewhere else. After the first night, I never saw her again. I asked the producer what happened to her and he assured me she was safe in vague terms. I hope that's the truth.

Not much happened during the day. At night, though, the monster came out. I don't remember if anyone told me what its name was - I just remember calling it the "smiling thing." It took the form of a round, yellow metal sign on the usual square post with all the holes. Sprouting directly from the pole in various places were bent, pointy metal tendrils, around a foot long and pencil-thin, with white gloves draped on them. I'm not sure if they were all right or all left, but the thumb on every glove pointed the same direction. At its base, it had a few more, shorter, tendrils that ended in cartoonish boots. It didn't use these to move, just to rest on the ground. No idea how it got around, but it did so without making a sound. The sign itself was blank, but embedded in its steel surface were two eyes of dissimilar size. They had small irises of two different colors, pinpoint pupils, and the sclera was parchment-colored with disturbing burgundy veins. These eyes stared straight out, and if you could see the thing it was looking right back into your own eyes. Below the eyes was a grin formed from hundreds of malformed teeth, also embedded into the metal, that extended up and around to about level with the top of the horrid eyes in a glistening crescent of rotted enamel. It's always facing you, like how the original Doom games handled 3D by having a flat sprite rotate to face the viewpoint at all times.

If you locked eyes with the monster, you would instantly understand that all it wanted was to challenge you to a "smiling contest." You might ask, how on earth would you ever win such a contest? The thing had a terrifyingly effective grin compared to a human. Well, unlike other stories of fey or fiend that stake your soul on a test of skill or wit without your permission, this thing doesn't care about winning or losing. It just wants to see you try. So you try, if only to humor it, stretching your lips wide and baring your teeth which I hope are better cared for than this thing's. I don't know if you've ever tried just grinning dopily at someone else who's doing the same back, but it is weirdly pleasant. That, and the concept that something this good at smiling considers you a potential match for it is admittedly a boost to the self-esteem. You almost forget you're terrified. You do forget, in fact.

And then you feel it. Your smile's already at its normal limit, but something about the circumstances spurs you to try harder. And you succeed. Your face stretches even further to accommodate your jaw, which crackles as it forms a shape more suited to smiling as wide as possible. Teeth grow from the bottom, and then the sides, of your skull, to fill your ever-widening lips. It hurts, and it goes on for hours, but the limitless positive energy of the smiling thing keeps you going. It's so encouraging, so happy to see you succeed and match it, that you can't help but be happy as well. And if it's making you happy, why not keep doing it?

Sometime in the wee hours of the morning, when the night has passed its darkest point but you don't know that cause the windows are boarded, you actually surpass the smiling thing. Your grin curves all the way up to above your eyes. It's starting to encroach on your forehead. Defeated now, the smiling thing doesn't recede or wilt. Instead, you can tell its happiness for you is genuine. Go on, it psychically urges you without words. How far can you get?

Far indeed, as it happens, under this thing's influence. The pain stops abruptly as the two ends of your smile meet again in the middle of your forehead. Your hundreds of teeth gritted together, you grin as hard as you can, and you swear you can see the thing imperceptibly nod. You pull your distended jaws apart, opening your torus of a mouth, and realize the disk that constitutes your face isn't connected anymore. Your eyes, nose and cheeks slowly tip forward, falling out of the gaping hole that is your face, surrounded by teeth. Only the knowledge that at least you won comforts you as the floor rushes up to meet your descending eyes, and everything goes black as the seeing part of your face shatters like a china plate.

And then you wake up in the morning and nothing's wrong.

Who knows if there's something that comes after the smiling thing is gone and puts you back together. If it does it itself. If the whole event is just an uncomfortably realistic dream caused by some paranormal force localized to this one run-down old-money house. But when you wake up, your face is intact and unmarred. Beyond any normal imperfections, that is: I remember having a pimple on my nose at the time and it didn't go away until well after the whole thing was over and done with. Winning the smiling contest gives you a pleasantly relaxed elation that continues throughout the whole day.

And yes, this did happen to me. Three times, once for each night I was there. Apparently, it happened to the Indian couple once each - the third night, they both stayed up all night, clutching each other, and the thing didn't visit them. Maybe it only wants to engage in one-on-one contests, in the interest of fairness. The couple did report hearing my face smash on the floor that night - it woke them from a dazed stupor. They thanked me for it.

Like I said earlier, I never saw hide nor hair of the fourth guest again. I hope she's doing okay.

On the fourth morning, when the couple and I were discussing some political event that had happened recently over tea, the producer and his team knocked on the door and told us we were done. We were interviewed, paid a reasonable sum for our time, and each went back to our daily lives. Apparently, we were also supposed to be paid a miniscule portion of the ad revenue for the show, but I never saw any hint of that money. Maybe our episode never aired. Even if it did, I value my time enough not to bother entangling myself in a lawsuit about the missing cash - I live comfortably enough without what, given the obscure TV network we're talking about, would probably be a single hundred-dollar check.

I'm not sure why I wrote about this. This absolutely happened, but today I find I'm ambivalent about the events that took place in that haunted house. From an objective perspective, they're unsettling and surreal, but I can't keep agonizing over it. Life goes on, and ultimately none of us were harmed.

I guess you can just call this a reminder to keep smiling.