This is the only feeling left in my consciousness now. I am cornered from all sides, and the only way out is one. So, if you are reading this and are thinking of ever visiting this godforsaken town, take it as a precautionary tale. But if you have already arrived, get out when the going is good, before it is too late for you like it is for me.
I am getting ahead of myself, so let me start from where it all began…
…from the moment I stepped into the town of Myst.
Myst did not feel like a strange town at all. It was a simple, quiet corner in a part of the world that nobody bothered to look. It was nothing out of the ordinary and yet, it was the perfect place to live in, despite the slight monotony, not to mention that everybody was happy.
Yes, to be honest, everybody in this town was very happy and content with what they had. No matter where I went or what I did, not even one face possessed a combination of a frown and upturned lips. And they loved to extend their happiness in the form of abundant help.
I remember the first day when I had arrived here, right from the first stop sign that read ‘Verve with a Curve’ up to the doorstep of my temporary accommodation, the people in this town were not only pleasant but also kind, too kind for a human. The wave of positivity that washed over me had made me step into my comfort zone right away.
I settled in and slipped into my casual attire, ready to step out and prepare for my stay. The first stop that I drove to was the grocery store. As I picked up the supplies from the shelves and placed them in my shopping cart, I could not help but notice the excited chatter around me. But I thought nothing of it and continued to shop.
“Hi! Do you need any help with anything?”
I jumped, startled, and looked behind to find myself facing a jolly young man.
“I am sorry?” I frowned in confusion.
“I apologize for startling you,” he laughed, “I hope you forgive me. My name is David and I had noticed that you seemed to have a bit of trouble over here…”
I stared at him in befuddlement. If grocery shopping in the fruit’s aisle was trouble, then that made me a superhero. And, his amicability made me uncomfortable, but that was probably normal for an introvert like me.
“No, it is okay,” I smiled back, probably not as much as him, “I have somewhere to go. Nice meeting you, I guess…” I took a deep breath and turned out to walk away.
“See you, Steve,” he answered back cheerfully. I stopped in my tracks.
How did he know my name?
I turned back and narrowed my eyes, eyeing him. I could swear I saw him clench his jaw a little bit. He gave me a little laugh and walked towards me. “Actually, I am sorry for giving you such a start. I know your name because I was told that you were sent here by HQ to work on the project with me. So I recognize you from your public employee info on the website!”
“Oh,” I smiled back in relief. The bad feeling in the pit of my stomach may have taken a backseat, but it was still around to keep the warning bell ringing. Yet, I could not put a finger on it.
By the time I had checked my groceries out, the rays of the sunset gave the scene a warm reddish-purple hue, just right for a relaxing evening stroll and sight-seeing.
David passed by me, dashing my arm and almost making me fall in the process. He offered to help me up, but I smiled and helped myself up. He gave me a cheerful nod and was on his way. He passed a woman who looked at me as she walked in the direction towards me.
At first, the woman gave me a big smile, as if she had known me her entire life. I smiled back and looked away when the long stare made it a little awkward for me, only to find another smiling face staring back at me. After my two-year bout with clinical depression, a change of place with people noticing me and smiling at me was more than a welcome change. And that brought a small smile on my face as I looked up back again at her.
She was passing me by. Not only were eyes staring back at me but her smile stayed the same, never twitching even once. That is unsettling, I thought to myself, as my eyes swept past her.
That was when I had noticed it.
The woman and another one in front of me and another one behind me, and another, and another. Every single person on the street had the same expression as her. The same eerie unblinking stare with the same creepy smile. And all of them were directed at me.
Even as they walked past me, their unblinking gaze seemed to be fixated on me, while their smiles did not waiver. My anxiety had begun to act up again and I had begun to pick up a little speed as I rubbed my clenched fist nervously. Every step that I had taken, was accompanied by a staring smile…
…till I had shut the front door behind me.
That night, I could barely sleep. Each and every smiling face had kept me awake. And, to top it all, I could not shake off the feeling that someone had been watching me. Slowly, I removed the covers off my head and looked around, but it was only me. My gaze moved towards the windows as I took my time to stand and walk slowly towards it. I looked out. And it was a big mistake.
I peeped at first, waiting to see a pair of eyes and a creepy smile staring back at me, but the footpath was empty and so was the road and the vicinity. I heaved a sigh of relief. Maybe, I was just imagining it, maybe it was simply the effect of what had experienced in the evening, or maybe what I had seen in the evening was simply something that I had made up, maybe…
I shook my head and yawned. My sleep was finally taking over my eyes and I turned to walk back to my bed and stopped midway. Slowly, I took a deep breath and hoped that what I had glanced at was simply part of my imagination.
It was the window of the apartment, in the building across the street, directly in line with mine. And standing in front of it was a man wearing the same creepy smile and the same wide eyes, which met mine. And, he was not the only person.
I shifted my gaze to the next window and found another one. Slowly I averted my gaze to the floors below and, to my horror, my instinct was not disappointed. At every window of every floor of the building and the ones adjacent to it, were people standing behind them. Each of them staring back at me with their signature stares and wide smiles. I gulped, as my hyperventilation had kicked into gear and beads of sweat had begun to slowly trickle down my forehead. My shoulder froze as I kept a watch on all of them, wary of any movement on their part. But, the lot of them were completely still. Like statues. Frozen. Yet, I could feel their gaze piercing through every pore of my skin.
I did not realize the time passed since I had stood by the window and had locked my gaze with those who would not leave mine. At some point, exhaustion must have taken over me, because the next thing I knew, the rays of the sun had rudely knocked me out of my slumber. I checked my watch and jumped up with a start.
It was my first day and I was going to be late.
I hurried out of my apartment and jumped into my car, as I drove well within limit and had still managed to reach a minute before time. I settled by my desk and heaved a sigh of relief.
“What happened to you?”
I jumped in my seat and clenched my teeth. I knew exactly who that voice belonged to.
“Will you please stop doing that?” I asked him in an irritated tone.
“That is a bad attitude, Steve!” he laughed, “A frown is never good. It is always better to smile!”
“You are kidding, right?” I laughed incredulously.
“No!” he smiled back, “Now, come on!”
Slowly, I smiled back at him. “That is the spirit. A smile can be the solution to all problems!” He patted me on the back and went back to sit at his desk.
Once work was done, I brisk walked my way out of the building into my car and drove out of there as fast as I could. On my way back driving, I could see everyone staring at me with that same smile. Be it by the sidewalks or crossing the roads or in front of the shops lining the streets or some crazy shop of mystical items, they were ready like they were waiting for something to happen. I really had the strong urge to sucker punch David in the face!
That night, I got up from my bed and walked to my window, hoping that last night was simply an unwanted nightmare. Please let me be imagining, please let it not be true, please let it be a bad dream…
There they were, wearing that same expression. Just for me. Unwavering. I was afraid of moving my eyes off them, but I stole a glance at my watch. Three in the morning. The darkest part of the night. I looked up, hoping that they would be gone. And…
…I was wrong.
This happened every night. At three in the morning, I walked to the window and would always find them smiling back at me. And, with time, I noticed something else.
Every time I would find them at any corner of the city, they would smile and look at me whenever I exhibited any signs of negative emotions. As long as I smiled and laughed in the office, I was ‘out of the woods’. As long as I smiled back, they would go about their business of ‘happy interactions’ with other citizens.
Except at three a.m. in the night. I did not know why. And that scared me even more.
Till that day. I was on my way home from another physically painful smiling day at the office. As I drove back, I did not know why but I was paying more attention to the concrete scenery around me, when I had noticed that shop once again.
Its name was ‘Unexplained Myriads’ and it had that occult feel to it. I looked through the glass windows and was not disappointed. The store within had a lot of mystical items, what with dreamcatchers hanging in every nook and cranny, crystal pieces of different shapes and colours placed in neat rows over wooden shelves, strange statues and voodoo dolls hanging off hooks on display, jars of strange-looking substances in them and whatnot. Now, I do not believe in that ‘what cannot be explained’ stuff, but I wanted to get to the bottom of this and this seemed to be one place that, maybe, just maybe, I could get some answers. So, I put on my best smile and opened the door of the store…
…to find myself on the other side of the barrel of a rifle.
“Hey, Smiley, get out!” a woman in her mid-twenties shouted back at me, “This place is not for creeps like you!”
“Wait, wait, wait!” I raised my hands and dropped the charade, taking a deep breath, “So, you do not believe in the ‘smiling keeps all problems at bay’ slogan that this town has been crooning to?”
“I believe in the ‘if you show your stupid teeth, I’ll shoot ya!’ slogan. Always works for me!” she frowned back.
“Thank god,” I took deep breaths and calmed myself down, “I cannot believe that I saying this, but I am so relieved and happy to see a frown!”
“Me too!” she shrugged.
“What is with those smiles?” I shook my head, “And why do they stare at me whenever I display any form of negative emotion?”
“I do not have an explanation for it,” she walked back behind the counter and kept her gun, “Just that, they are attracted to negative emotions. They may be able to only see it during the day, but they can surely feel it in the night!”
“Oh, that explains a lot…” my voice drifted off.
“Well, ‘Verve with a Curve’ is the stupid motto of this stupid town!” she grunted and shook her head, “I am sorry for being an idiot. My name is Thabitha Natos.”
“I am Steve Bunch and you do not have to apologize. I can understand how it feels,” I shook her hand back, “And what did you mean by that motto?”
“It means that they believe in enthusiasm with a smile, that it is the key to sustainability,” she scoffed, “What a load of crap!”
“They don’t come after you. How did you manage to elude them?” I asked, perplexed.
She gave me a long look, making me nervous. Without another word, she walked behind the counter and brought a black empty jar to me.
“What is this?” I frowned in suspicion, “What am I supposed to do with this jar?”
“In the night, before you sleep, look at the jar and concentrate on it for as long as it demands,” she stared right into my eyes, “That will keep you safe!”
“And, what if it does not?” I looked, worried.
“Trust me,” she nodded, “Try it out once and see. If you do not like it, you can always return it.”
“How much does this cost?” I narrowed my eyes at her.
“Nothing,” she smiled, “Return the jar to me when you are truly done and I will do the rest to make the problem go away. Just be alert. You have no idea how relieving it is to find someone like you!”
“The feeling is mutual, believe me!” I smiled back in relief, “But, when will I know that it is time?”
“Trust me, you will. Now, go home before it turns dark!” she said and pushed me out of the shop, “And, do not forget to smile!”
The moment I left, my smile returned and nobody could tell the difference. I hopped in my car and drove back home as fast as I could.
That night before I went to sleep, I placed the empty jar on my nightstand. What if she was wrong? What if it would never change anything? I shook my head and decided to try it anyway.
The moment I looked at the jar and placed all my focus towards it, I felt a massive surge coursing through my being and directed towards the bottle. It felt like a strong force keeping me balanced on a thin rope, making sure that I make it to the other side. And, when I was released, I felt much lighter, much more relaxed, much… happier.
I checked my watch and walked confidently to the window, feeling brave for the first time in days. I looked around, scanning the whole place.
Nobody. No creepy smiles, no eerie stares. Nothing.
The next day and the days following that, I felt more confident and happier, thanks to the jar. Every night I would stare at it and it would suck something out of me, something that would make me feel lighter and made all the creepy smiles go away. I was happier, the others were more accepting of me, I could feel all my problems go away to the extent of not even remembering them in the first place…
…till that night.
I stared at the jar that night, focusing everything on the jar, out of habit. I could see the brightest light shining through the lid as the force was directed to it. But, this time, I feel the strength weaken, the force slowly fade away. And in the split moment, before it stopped away, I realized the truth. But, it was too late.
And now, I feel cold. I feel it all leave my body as I pick up the jar and walk to the window. I see them, I see them all, all those smiles looking back at me. I can see the beauty in them now. I can feel them waiting for me. I am where they are. And I can feel what they feel now.
I am home. I am nothing.
Before I leave, I take a last look in the mirror and see in myself what I see in all of them. My Verve with a Curve. As I step out, I become one with them.
I am nothing, as I walk with my family of empty smiles behind me, as I walk into the store to return the jar back.
I am nothing, as I give the jar back to a smiling Thabitha Natos, just as she had predicted…
…because, she was right. It made the problem go away and it was the key to sustainability…
…because, it was her time to collect it and take it away, as she did for all the other smiling, empty shells of humans behind me…
…because I finally knew who she was.
Thabitha Natos, or to sum it up…
…she was Thanatos.
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