The first time that it happened was in the supermarket.
You hadn’t been back in town that long. A few months, maybe. You were at the store to get produce. Your parents were always on you to eat healthier, and you thought you’d give it a shot. You stood before the shelves of lettuce, daunted by the scope of your options. Back at your apartment, you were used to choosing between frozen pizza and microwavable burritos. Who cares about the difference between baby spinach and regular spinach?
That’s what you were thinking when it happened.
You sensed, more than saw, the old woman in your periphery. She was down at the other end of the aisle, but she seemed to be looking in your direction. You kept your eyes straight ahead. Small talk, to you, was suffocation.
Another glance. The woman’s head was still turned in your direction. She probably was looking at you. Maybe she knew you. Maybe she had dementia. You ventured to look over at her.
She was staring at you and smiling. It was a wide smile—unhealthily wide. Wider than the woman’s face should have allowed. Face splitting, wild-eyed. Maniacal. It was a smile you’d see on a psychotic clown, on the killer at the end of the movie as the depths of his insanity are revealed.
You blinked, looked back at the lettuce. That couldn’t have been what you saw. You took a breath and glanced at her again.
She was a regular old woman smiling a regular old woman smile. She was definitely staring right at you, not waving, not saying hello. You’d never seen her before.
You knew you should smile or wave, but you couldn’t. You turned and walked past the registers and through the sliding doors. You’d already opened the car door when you realized you were still carrying the shopping basket.
You took a moment to laugh at yourself. Getting creeped out by a harmless old lady. It must have been a trick of perspective or something. Or maybe it had something to do with the way your brain fills in images. Like the time you came home from school, probably sophomore year, and for a split second saw your mom stooped over, sitting down crying at the kitchen table. Turns out it had just been her raincoat, draped uncharacteristically over the chair.
Or maybe you’d been smoking too much.
You went back to the store and bought chicken strips and packaged ramen. You didn’t return to the produce aisle.
By the time you finish the chicken, chasing it down with a cop show from your parents’ DVR, you’ve all but forgotten the old lady and her smile. All that’s left is a feeling—a slow thread working its way up your stomach to your chest, so thin you barely notice it’s there.
You came back to your hometown to take a beat. Also, because your parents had died.
It was a car crash. You hadn’t been on the outs with them or anything. But you hadn’t been as close as you could have been. You didn’t call them often. Your visits home were rare and fraught with awkward peril. What would you have to talk about? What would you do together? Mostly you holed up in your childhood room. You’d blow bong hits out the window and play on your old Nintendo 64 until it was time for dinner.
On your last visit home, you accidentally overheard your father complaining to your mother about you. He said you were directionless and ungrateful. What did we pay for three years of college for, et cetera. It’s stuff you’d rather not think about now.
The funeral was small. Neither your mom or dad had much in the way of family or friends, and you were an only child. You worried for a while that you didn’t feel as sad as you should have. Gradually, you stopped worrying.
The house and their money went to you. They’d been thrifty your entire life: middle-class house, middle-class suburb. Every family vacation within driving distance. Store-brand everything. You assumed there wouldn’t be much. You were wrong. Your dad, always circumspect, would sometimes mention that he’d made some good investments. You guessed those were what had filled your paltry bank account.
You thought about your place in the city, a cramped apartment with roommates you didn’t like, paid for with a job that made you stressed and unhappy. Why had you been so eager to run away from the house you’d grown up in? It wasn’t big, but it was open, generous with its space. The beds were wide and comfy. The cabinets and the freezer were still full.
You didn’t renew your month-to-month. You realized you didn’t have to live that way. Your immediate future didn’t always have to be an anxious mystery. You could stay here for a few weeks. You could apply to new jobs, figure out what you wanted to do with the place, with your life. You would stay, you told yourself, until the cabinets went empty. But your folks had some generously stocked cabinets.
Weeks turned into months. At some point you stopped applying for jobs. Entire days passed without you leaving the house. You were dimly aware that your old friends were out there and might want to hear from you, but even the thought of that made you feel exhausted. You can’t imagine what you’d talk about, or what you’d do. Your Nintendo 64 only has one controller.
Sometimes, out of nowhere, you get this gnawing feeling. You’ll be playing video games, or eating on the couch, or waking up in the middle of the night. It comes on like a sudden itch: pressure building in your chest. Tightness, shallow breathing. Some part of your lizard brain that handles fight or flight, and it’s telling you to run. You look around, try to take a breath. Nothing looks different. No threats that you can see.
Stuff like this has happened to you before, sort of. You’ve had panic attacks. It happened a few times in college, before you dropped out. It happened at work once when you almost got fired. It’s leveled off. You’ve learned to control your breathing, to list things in the room.
Once they pass, you’re annoyed with yourself. You don’t even have anything to worry about now. It’s probably too much weed. Although, since your return, you’ve slowed consumption, not sure where to get it now, not willing to venture out and find it.
It’s probably just the world, you think. Paranoid times. You don’t care much about the news, but it’s hard to escape. Economic collapse, environmental disaster. Decades-long wars. Word of catastrophe seeps in like noxious gas.
You remind yourself that these things are happening, but not here. You’re safe where you are. You start a new game or a show. Memories of the panic begin to fade. All that’s left is a lingering, bristling feeling. It brushes against your spine. It caresses your ears like a whisper, like a scream without a tongue.
Weeks pass after the old lady in the store. Maybe months. It’s hard to tell without the deadening rhythms of working life. You shop at the not-as-nice store across town when you need to, which isn’t that often. You’re ordering delivery or takeout almost every night. It’s showing in the way your pants fit. You’re starting to break out. It’s like high school again. You start to feel an itchy restlessness in the house. Even on cool days, you open windows to clear the smells of lo mein, bong hits, and BO. Jesus. You need to get out for a bit.
You find yourself driving through town without a particular destination in mind. It’s not much of a nostalgia trip. Places you used to love have closed. The dollar theater marquee is as empty as the parking lot it looms over. The roof of the public library caved in while you were away, killing one of the patrons.
Smaller things are missing too: the dogs on the house at the corner who would chase you to the limits of their invisible fence. The panhandler who used to camp outside the Burger King. Even the elderly couple next door is gone. You’re a little surprised. It’s likely your mom would have mentioned if they moved or died. She was that kind of neighbor. Though you weren’t always the best listener.
In their place is a married couple, probably not much older than you. They have two boys somewhere in the five to eight-year-old range. You expect them to be loud as they play on their swing-set or play catch in the adjoining backyard, but they’ve been almost silent every time. How nice, you think, before realizing how weird it is.
Things just look different now. It seems like it rains all the time now. And the grass is paler than it was when you were younger. It would be hard to prove this with any certainty, but you’d put money on it. The lawns look chemical and anemic. The grass lighter, the sky darker. Like some cartoon villain plugged a hose to the neighborhood and started draining color. A storm never feels far away.
You turn a corner and a flash of memory kicks in. Your favorite Chinese place, lodged in an unremarkable strip mall. It’s still here. You ate here almost every week in high school, but you haven’t thought about it in years, not even on visits home. It was like it was sealed away in amber, an irretrievable part of your past.
The owner’s young daughter plays a game on a computer tablet at the table near the register. She’s looking at you and smiling. For reasons you don’t immediately understand, it makes you nervous.
You wait for your order next door at the video store. This was another cherished destination you’d all but forgotten. Incredible that it’s still open. Unbelievable. The owner is a white-haired guy with a handlebar mustache and a Kangol cap, the only one you’ve ever seen working there. He looks exactly as you remember him: like he’s never moved from behind the register. You look through the horror section, like always, even though you’ll probably go home with a buddy comedy or a dumb action movie. You scare easily.
You know movies pretty well—that’s what you studied in college—which is why you’re surprised to see some titles you’ve never heard of. In Danger, Leave Before Dark, Point of No Return. They have directors and actors you’ve never heard of. Indies, maybe, or foreign films. Too many low-budget releases to keep track of. But the packaging is weird too. On one, the case is entirely black, front and back. No synopsis or cast list on the back. No words at all except tiny lettering on the front: Bad Signs. Weird.
There’s one film that looks like it hasn’t been translated at all. The title is a series of jagged slashes punctuated with half-circles and thick dots. It looks… Nordic? You were never great with languages. There’s no monster on the cover. Just a wide shot group of five people on a hill. They’re youngish and blond, about your age, dressed in jeans and white shirts. They’re standing in a semicircle, looking out on the viewer, and they’re screaming. Creepy. You turn the case over, but it’s all in the same, indecipherable script. You turn to the cover again. A couple of them seem to have the edges of their mouths turned up. Are they laughing? A sudden unease slicks your stomach. It shouldn’t be hard, you think, to tell the difference between the two.
Whatever. You don’t feel like reading subtitles anyway.
You reach to put the case back on the shelf and there’s a man at the window.
You didn’t see him before, but it looks like he’s been standing there a long time. He’s wearing all brown, like an accountant or a retired professor. Normal-looking guy, dark hair, glasses. He’s looking through the window and staring at you. You look behind you. Is there someone else in the shop he’s looking at? Some movie maybe? You look back. No. It’s you. He’s not moving. It seems like he should have moved, at least shifted his weight to another foot. He’s still. He’s fixed on you. You want to go, Hello? or something. Perform some action to break the spell. But you aren’t moving either. You can’t.
Then, he smiles.
And, without so much as a wave, he walks away. Just walks down the sidewalk away from the Chinese restaurant. Too late, you think about what you could have done. Flapped your arms to scare him off like you would an animal. Chucked something at the window. You could go after him now. You’d like to beat his ass. You’d like to ask him what the fuck he was doing being creepy in the window. You’d like to ask if he knows something you don’t.
At home, you try to look up the movie you found, the maybe Scandinavian one. You try weird and ridiculous searches: Nordic movie screaming. Screaming laughing people hill. No results. You try strangers staring and smiling. You get articles for teens on how to flirt with people. You don’t think that’s what’s going on.
You wonder: Why do people smile at strangers besides friendliness or flirtation? You make a list:
Fly is down
Just tripped/did something silly
They are a baby
In on a secret
The last one gives you pause. Could all of the strangers smiling at you be in on a secret together? A secret about you? Something all of them know and you don’t?
That would probably be a pretty horrible secret.
It keeps happening. In the library, the Burger King, the post office. Why the fuck were you at the post office? You can’t remember. It doesn’t matter. Anywhere you go, you find people staring at you. From behind shelves and counters, from tables across the room. You get to the point that you didn’t have to see the smiles. You can feel the heads turn, the eyes upon you. You start wearing a hoodie out, even when it’s way too warm. If you get groceries, you wait till midnight at the 24-hour one across town. You order delivery and leave money outside the door.
You try to come up with rational explanations: Maybe you just look like a friendly young person. People felt moved to smile at you. But it keeps happening. At the gym, the gas station, the DMV. They never call attention to themselves, but they never try to hide it. You have started to stare back at them, to gesture, to mouth words: What do you want? Their only response is to smile. The same one on all of them—wide but mirthless. Hungry.
You wonder if you should call someone, but you don’t know who. You can’t imagine how talking to the police would go. Your friendships in the city revolved around drinking and smoking. What little messages you received you stopped returning months ago.
You lock every door and close the blinds. Whatever’s happening, you can wait it out. You’ll hunker down and beat this thing at home. You’ll subsist on the canned beans and watery soups of your parents’ endless supply. Had they turned into hoarders after you left? Weirdo survivalists? Maybe they were just prepared for something bad to happen.
For a while, no one bothers you. The air gets a little thick. A musty smell tickles your throat. You don’t open any windows. You’re not going to risk it. You sleep with no regard for daylight. You beat the high scores on all your old games.
One morning—you think it’s morning—you decide to explore your parents’ DVR: network dramas, documentaries on jazz, travel shows on Europe and South America. Were they planning to get out in their old age? Saving up for a trip? It shocks you how little you know about them. You watch an old guy in a sweater talking about Rome. You imagine your parents out there among the ruins and the Pope.
A WHUMP interrupts you. Right against your window, hard enough to rattle it.
You bend the blinds and look out. Nothing at your window. Was it a bird? You look down into the backyard. A solitary soccer ball sits in the grass below. The neighbors’ kids. You unclench your ass and sigh. Jesus. One of them has a real leg. You watch as the younger one toddles over to grab it. Okay, you think, false alarm. You’re turning back to the TV when something tells you to look out the window again.
The kid is there in your parents’ yard. He has the ball tucked under one arm. He’s staring up at your window. His face is expressionless. Get out kid, you’re thinking, please, dear God, get the fuck out of here. But he doesn’t. He’s motionless. You’ve never seen a kid his age stand this still.
Movement from the next yard over. His older brother runs over as if to retrieve him. Thank Christ. He reaches the brother, makes a motion as if to grab his arm, then stops. He looks upward, right at you. He keeps looking.
There’s a shriek from behind you.
You whirl around. You forgot about the TV—more pressing matters. Then you realize what’s on.
It’s the movie, the one from the rental place. It can’t be anything else. It’s the DVD cover: the same five people, the same wide shot. The camera is unmoving as these people stand, mouths wide, and—scream. No, laugh. They’re screaming. They’re standing in place. They’re laughing. They’re crying. It’s awful. You can’t look away. They clutch at their faces, tear at their cheeks with their nails. They’re standing in place.
You turn it off and go to the window. Mom and Dad are there now too. Staring, smiling. You wave out the window. You windmill your arms, hoping for a response. Nothing. There’s movement from other yards. Doors opening in other houses. Other neighbors coming this way, getting in on the action. You don’t know whether to laugh or scream.
You’re going to run away.
You’ve watched enough horror movies to know that most of them would be solved by running the fuck away. You don’t pack your car. You buy the first ticket back to the city. You don’t even check the price. You don’t even grab a toothbrush. You get in your parents’ car and you make for the airport.
You blare whatever station’s on the presets and keep your eyes fixed forward. You don’t relax your grip on the steering wheel until you merge onto the freeway. Only then do you begin scanning cars in the other lanes. Has it followed you? Everyone you watch is switching the radio, yelling back at their kids, staring forward into nothingness. No one’s looking over at you. On the freeway, you’re mercifully alone.
At the airport, you’re herded into the security line. No smiles here. No eye contact. Hordes of people stare at their phones, at flight screens, into space. They walk in sweats wearing pillows on their necks. Intimate and yet entirely impersonal—or maybe the other way around? It’s the world’s living room. No one pays you any mind.
You join this human current, jostled from line to line in complete anonymity. You’re hours early for your flight with nothing to do. The privilege of boredom: it’s beautiful. You stand in line to buy the largest bottled water you can find, and you’re not even thirsty.
Things will be different back in the city. You’ll find a better job. You’ll strive for meaningful relationships. You won’t take things for granted. You’ll smoke a lot less.
The airline clerk announces boarding. You join the line, searching for your ticket on your phone, notifications from other apps clamoring for your attention. You sip from your bottle and scroll through. At some point, you look up and realize there’s no one in front of you in line. You pull the ticket up and offer it to the clerk.
He is smiling the smile.
It’s like before. Too big. A smile that precedes completely unhinging one’s jaw. Shark smile. More teeth than there should be space for. Dead eyes.
You swear loudly and step back. There’s weight behind you, someone grabbing you. You spin around. It’s an old woman behind you in line. You’ve knocked her off balance, and she’s holding to you so she doesn’t fall. You grab her arm to keep her steady as those in line behind her rush forward. Your bottle is on the floor, pooling water onto the carpet and your shoes.
“Sir?” from behind you. The clerk is smiling at you. But it’s a customer-service smile, one now tinged by alarm.
A hush has fallen over the gate. Everyone is looking over at you or pretending not to. The security guard near the entrance has his hand on his nightstick.
“Is everything okay?” the teller asks. There’s genuine concern in his voice.
You turn to the woman behind you. She’s catching her breath. “I’m so sorry,” you say. You don’t think you know her, but she looks familiar. She could be your grandmother, if she were alive. She’s harmless, blameless.
You gave an embarrassed wave to the gate. “Sorry about that, everyone.”
There’s a collective loosening, a little exhale. The security guard relaxes his hand. The clerk beckons you forward. And for a moment, as the tension seems to break, it feels like the entire airport is smiling at you at once.
BILLY HALLAL was born in Cleveland. He has worked as a computer instructor, a group home supervisor, and a claims adjuster. His writing can be found at Thrillist, PopMatters, Gone Lawn, and at billyhallal.com.
Artwork by Novel Noctule team.