All Tobias knew was pain. At first, he could not distinguish night from day, could not discern where he was, only that he was immobilised and in agony beyond his darkest imaginings. He gradually became aware of his surroundings, lighter shades of rudimentary outlines, contrasting with silhouettes dipping in and out of his vision like a procession of waifs.
He reached for them, yet did not move. Unfazed, he exerted himself to the brink of fainting and still did not budge a fraction. His first fleeting thought was that he was a quadriplegic, but with tremendous focus he found he could wiggle his digits from hands and feet alike. That knowledge brought about the realisation he was bound in a body cast, set in place by traction.
With his sense of touch returning so too returned sound. Minor at first, a steady thump of his heart, accompanied by a more incessant, odious beep. Tobias clung to the chirp with the assiduousness that only the doomed and delusional can, hoping its existence would blot out the pain, maybe make him forget his current ordeal. Over time he understand that he was hearing a heart monitor, his heart monitor, reminding him that he had been denied death and was left in the realm of the living, rife with suffering, devoid of respite.
That sound grew to be reassuring, a constant presence, the marker he used to determine if he was awake, or if he were immersed in a drug-forged world of make-believe. In this ominous land of dream Tobias was submerged in an ink-like liquid, a sentient, stagnant black pool with little to illuminate the dismal surroundings.
He would hang suspended, floating in place, a spirit without form, a crippled vessel, condemned to inertia. Then a light would appear, pinpricks that punctured the pitch-black waterscape. These two cones of light marked the surface, their unchecked descent signalled the immense depths of the abyss.
Tobias would watch, a malaise spreading thick and choking in his unseen chest as the pair of lights sank further down. Eventually and invariably they would disappear altogether, consumed in the belly of the black, snuffed as candles extinguished, with the same finality, the same futility of rekindling.
And then the voice would speak.
The words he could (mercifully) never recall when he managed to regain the reigns of his mind and wrest himself awake. But the voice left a lasting impression, a widening stain that his brain and soul could never cleanse itself of, gnawing at him, digging further into his mind and cracking open his resolve, laying waste to what courage he had accumulated.
It was the shrill voice of his mother’s in reproach, and the bestial snarl of his father’s. It was the sound of a dozen former lovers’ accompanied with peals of mocking laughter and others still less definable. The voice of a child, the wail of a baby. The sob of a geriatric and the shriek of a stuck pig. The voice, though disparate and forever changing, seemed to always originate from one source – himself. Reverberating from a fetid chasm within his own damaged mind. It grasped him like the calloused hand of a drunken brute, tightening inexorably until he woke up gasping, dry of mouth and saturated of brow, sweat-soaked and urine-soiled.
He tried to trick himself into believing the recurring nightmares were solely attributed to his delirium. A manifestation of the suffering chasing him from the waking world, to that which Morpheus presided over. But his assurances lacked conviction and he dreaded every night, when he could endure no more and succumbed to the tide of sleep. The passage of time continued, light rose and then faded, precipitating another round of torment, of which he spent the next day futilely trying to recover from.
Yet his condition steadily improved, perception begrudgingly and belatedly returned. A softened version though, as if his own mind wanted to spare him the extent of the harsh reality. Memories ebbed back, edges frayed with hallucination and doubt, accusations from a mind and self at war. Tobias singularly focused on recalling how he had arrived to this special Hell.
The car, the boozy night, his friends stuffed into the back. The rain-lashed windscreen, wipers on overdrive, two plastic appendages frantically trying to staunch the deluge pummelling the glass. His shit-box car submerged in a world of blurred outlines and streaks of weak light. That was all he could dredge from his memory banks, and the ubiquitous pain overrode all, dragging him back from wherever he had tried to envision himself.
‘Signs are promising,’ said a voice, a female voice, owned by a distorted face leaning into his. A thumb of light stabbed his eyes, blinding and unpleasant, he could only squint and wait. ‘Pupils reacting, breathing stabilising, all vitals normal and stable given the circumstances. Can you hear me?’
The words had no meaning, impossible for Tobias to grasp on, for him to process. He mustered every might of his being, trying to project the voice of an irked god, demanding he be left be.
A pitiful snorting sound emerged, taxing all his breath, creating new plains of pain for his senses to roam through. Attempting to speak for the first time in eternity, alerted himself to the fact that something was lodged in his mouth, thick and plastic, coated in a sickly sheen of his saliva. He wanted to purge, to rid himself of the vile object, but it was fastened firmly in place, taped to his emaciated face.
‘Don’t try talking just yet, Tobias,’ the voice lightly chastised. He felt a touch, sensitive and nimble, settling somewhere on his forehead. ‘You are lucky to be here.’
He found that remark highly contentious, spoken by a clueless fool unaware of the ordeal he was nightly subjected to. He swam away from the reality and floated on the tepid waters of pain. He sought a balance, to attain some mental nirvana that always eluded. Blackness enveloped him, the discombobulating, disconcerting haze of a drug-induced slumber, a simple cease-to-be, willing time to pass and fate to transpire. His thoughts seldom strayed from death, that sweet eternal release of all things, the ceaseless agony tethering him to the world. Tobias wished for that demise, welcomed it beyond all measure, beyond any lust he had felt, any drink he had ever wanted to drain.
As if to spite him, his health continued improving, transitioning into a new era of highly-attuned senses, his immobile state sharpened them, bestowed him preternatural abilities. His hearing became keen, so too his vision. Smell flooded his nostrils, exquisitely foul, the stench of sterility, of disinfectant, imbued with an indelible stench of shit, of piss. The miasma was a harbinger of recognition, identifying the wretched place he presently languished in.
‘How are you?’ The same voice as before asked, tone unreadable, reduced to impassivity, that of a trained and seasoned professional. ‘Do you feel up to talking?’
The owner of the voice stepped into his eyesight, his burgeoning vision rendered a young woman, garbed in a pristine-white coat. A stethoscope around her neck held the reverence of a crucifix which she occasionally thumbed, as if to draw solace against the grotesque sight he made.
‘You are awake.’ She remarked, a brief smile brightened her features. ‘I’m Erica, no need to tack on any officious-sounding titles to the front of that. Erica will do.’
‘What happened?’ Tobias asked, the words jumbled together in one guttural croak, the plaintive cry of a felled beast. They were a mess even to his ears.
She somehow understood him.
‘Those are questions for later.’ She said, producing the penlight from the ether. ‘Paramount priority is seeing you make a speedy recovery.’
The light prodded at his eyes, claws that raked, he could only stare into them and lament. She was mercifully quick.
‘How about seeing me?’ Demanded a voice.
The doctor did not shift her attention. Tobias tried his best to maintain her gaze, to project some fortitude, as if he were not forever on the verge of wailing out in a manner better suited to a child afflicted with a skinned knee.
‘Be with you shortly Mr Luscombe.’ She assured, fiddling with one of the many machines huddling a congregation around Tobias’ bed. He only knew of their existence because they kept him aglow in their pallid, twinkling lights when all others in the room were extinguished.
‘I’ll check on you tomorrow,’ she assured Tobias, giving him comfort that he could never hope to articulate. ‘You are making decisive steps forward, don’t exert yourself. It’s a slow, tedious process.’
Erica took her leave then, off to tend to the complainant. Tobias concentrated, expending whatever energy he had accumulated to track her movements. It was only a short journey across the room, where another bed-ridden patient waited in woe. Tobias distinguished a wizened man, sunken into the sheets, a pale streak of a geriatric, with features drained of all colour, save the slash of a mouth and the pearly, almost iridescent glow of his eyes.
Tobias dozed off again, grateful for the interaction with the doctor to while the time away. For an age he slept soundly on his own accord and was spared the umpteenth session of a nightmare.
The respite was ephemeral.
He was awoken, by a wetness on his face. Something slick and corporeal, swept indolently from one side of his brow to another. His eyes opened tentatively, still too befuddled by sleep to feel any fear. It must have been in the dead of night, for the room was draped in darkness, an abundance of shadows ran rampant, creating a hellish place where the imagination roamed and the malignant whim of fantasies took shape.
Tobias’ pulse quickened as his dread commenced in earnest. He implored his eyes to adjust to the gloom, but they were weak and traitorous. He peered upwards, trying to identify the origin of what was touching him.
‘Wanted to wait a while,’ a voice advised, it sounded like it was shaped with a smile, wide and perpetually on the precipice of laughter. ‘Until you had regained some of your mental faculties before I paid you a visit. Revealing myself takes a toll on a mind as feeble as yours. Suggestible to such fanciful things, a puppet tugged on strings.’
The voice was familiar, but incongruous, and given the location – impossible. It belonged to Hamish.
‘Hamish?’ Tobias asked, more to validate his disbelief than anything else.
‘Hamish is here,’ the voice said.
‘So is Alex.’ Alex identified.
‘And Tristan.’ Tristan said.
‘Paul here too.’ Paul said, his throaty voice sounding oddly alien, hostile, bereft of any warmth cultivated by a decade of friendship.
‘How?’ Tobias asked, the word a whisper, barely audible. The question an entreaty, a prayer, one that he sorely wished would not be answered.
‘You know how.’ This voice was a fusion of all of his friends, merged into one dissonant din. All of them speaking the words individually, simultaneously, a maddening babel that twisted in Tobias’ like a rusty blade.
The sopping digit lingered around the bridge of his nose, leaving a trail of foul-smelling sludge. A cry from the other side of the room shifted Tobias’ attention. He found Luscombe, sitting upright, rigid as rigor mortis, pointing, aghast.
‘What is it Luscombe?’ Tobias demanded, managing to produce a voluminous voice, terror had gifted him a fresh set of lungs. ‘What is it? What? What?’
Luscombe slowly shook his head from side to side, the lone finger pointing toward him shaking violently. Tobias saw the old man’s throat bob, his mouth shaping words yet producing no sound.
‘What is it?’ Tobias repeated, louder this time, more commanding. The moistness on his head was burning his flesh, corrosive-like.
‘Stay out of this old timer,’ menaced the voice, though it had changed, now no longer belonging to Tobias’ friends. It was inhuman, a buzzing as if made from a million insects imitating human speech and failing miserably. ‘I haven’t forgotten about you either. I’ll get to you later.’
Luscombe folded in on himself, his gaunt frame vanishing behind a sheet he pulled upward. The sounds of an elderly man weeping inconsolably only unnerved Tobias more.
The slippery appendage that violated Tobias’ helpless face was removed, complete with a slurping sound, a comical smacking as if the owner were savouring a fine meal.
‘Tasty,’ the hybrid voice, remarked. ‘Very, very tasty.’
Though he wanted to look away, Tobias kept his eyes locked firmly at their extremities, wanting to catch sight of whatever had licked him. A shape shifted, and floated over his head with the languid, graceful motion of someone, something, submerged under a still sea. A moment later, Tobias beheld what it was.
A mouth, larger than any mouth should be, swam into his field of vision. Absent were lips, though the mouth itself was amply stocked with two rows of teeth, polished to a blinding radiance and perfectly spaced.
But the dimensions were off, each respective tooth’s shape unlike any humans, that of the artistic rendering of an alien drawing what they thought a human’s mouth might look like. It was a maw of maleficence that split the very fabric of the atmosphere, all light seemed to shrink away from the abomination as if fearful of being devoured like plankton to a whale. The mouth was twisted in a perpetual insidious sneer, a tongue thicker than Tobias’ arm danced around, at ease in its expansive lair, sliding around the teeth, pink as dawn, forked and serpentine, tasting the air, savouring the reek of fear emanating from Tobias.
The travesty of an orifice sensed Tobias staring, despite lacking any discernible eyes. It opened wide, exposing darkness beyond all reckoning, an oblivion that did not end, that could not be measured. Tobias stared into the ominous abyss nevertheless, feeling like he had dived past the event horizon of his own demise. This was not a human darkness, not one in which could be located anywhere on Earth, for that sort was tameable, capable of being defeated with torches.
This extended far beyond.
Tobias knew he was peering through the gateway of the damned, a realm of no return, where suffering untold lay.
Realising that the longer he stared, the less likely he would be able to ever look away, Tobias manoeuvred his gaze downward. He discovered that the monster supported itself on a myriad of legs, some thick and stable as the trunks of a tree, others gossamer-thin. All of which worked in sync, digits of some gripped, others pumped to create motion, others with unknown purpose were tucked in, fists like those of a foetus, retracted but ready to be put to use. It descended from its perch slowly, with the ease and gait of an arachnid stalking its web.
‘Nine months of traction my boy, this whole body cast,’ it said. One of the cherub-sized hands rapped its tiny knuckles on the plaster of his foot, as if a prospective customer kicking the tires of a car. Tobias could see his own stupefied reflection in the gleam of the teeth, impossibly shiny, poised to bite his face off, swallow his head whole. ‘We have plenty of time to get to know each other. Before the rest of your life that is, however long you decide that may be.’
Tobias refrained from speaking, because to respond in any way would be an admission that what he was studying was real, a being that inhabited the same plane of existence that he did.
‘Don’t be childish,’ it scolded, playfully, the smile seemed to widen, more teeth proliferated. ‘We are bound to one another now, you and I are inseparable.’
Tobias resorted to snapping his eyes shut, pretending they were sealed with airplane glue. Anything to rid him of the reality, to keep hysteria at bay.
‘Now, now,’ the voice, his mates’ voices reduced to a perversion. ‘You cannot outrun yourself Tobias, eventually you’ll always trip over your own feet.’
Tobias felt something prodding at his eyelids, several digits, nimble and sturdy. They pried his lids open without difficulty, forcing him to stare straight into the gaping mouth of the monster an inch before his face.
‘Luscombe.’ Tobias begged.
‘Leave me alone.’ Luscombe’s muffled voice derided. ‘You’re on your own.’
‘That’s right,’ said the monster, chuckling. ‘No one here but us, you best get used to that now.’
Mercifully, Tobias fainted.
A scream brought him back, a moment later Tobias registered the chilling sound did not belong to him. He opened his eyes to discover daylight, glorious daylight, had flooded in, heralding the providence of a new morning, where shadows were merely that and cast to the corners of the room in resignation. Tobias gathered his bearings as quickly as he could, noticing a commotion on the opposite side of the room, where several nurses and assorted others were situated around Luscombe’s bed. The doctor, Erica, stormed in, her coat flapping her consternation.
‘Get her out of here.’ She demanded, pointing to an inconsolable nurse shrieking in the tight embrace of two others. ‘All of you clear out. You, stay.’
She pointed to a grim-faced man standing close by, his face furrowed in pensiveness and directed toward the unfolding scene. His body and those of the others were an obstruction preventing Tobias from seeing what lay beyond.
‘What’s happened?’ She asked when the others had left, ostensibly having forgotten of Tobias’ presence.
‘Something rather dreadful I’m afraid,’ the man replied, duly sombre, scratching at the bristles on his double-chin. ‘It appears that at some point in the night Mr Luscombe here gouged out his own eyes. Subsequently dying of shock or blood loss or possibly a combination of the two.’
‘Remains to be seen. I was under the understanding he was incapable of such feats of strength, given his severe condition.’
‘Neither.’ Erica’s head snapped up and she noticed Tobias trying to steal a glance. ‘Go back to sleep Tobias. Rest. This doesn’t concern you.’
She did not wait for an answer, instead dragging the curtain around to cordon the area off. Tobias had no choice but to do as instructed, though he was far too energised to actually attain sleep. The day was punctuated with further visits from necessary personnel, though Erica, now wise to Tobias’ attempts at snooping, was vigilant to have every interview, every exchange, conducted outside of his earshot. He strained himself trying to hear the hushed voices of the police outside the room, but could glean no information.
He supposed they would want to speak to him at some point, though no one did, likely they were forbidden under the explicit instruction of Erica. The day faded, its passage marked by the ancient and decrepit television suspended over Tobias’ bed.
Tobias wanted to sleep so he could feel refreshed and ready for another evening of staving off its allure. The rest did not come and Tobias’ imagination wandered, composing grisly images of the his former roommate’s remains, gaping sockets stared at him, blazing with intense energy of hatred, flinging fiery accusations. The more Tobias wallowed in the image, the more his other senses were incorporated, he began smelling the sickening, pungent stench of violent death, sinking in the pit of his stomach, tightening his bowels and constricting his throat. He spent the next few hours trying to refrain from vomiting, worried that he would choke to death if he relented to the impulse.
Erica eventually arrived with several burly orderlies in tow.
‘How would you feel about being moved?’ She asked Tobias. He appreciated her posing it as a question, though the implication of an order was abundantly clear.
‘Fine.’ He mumbled, labouring with the plastic tube lodged in his throat.
Which was the truth, Tobias had no desire to be kept in the room of such carnage, though more crucially, he hoped that a relocation would spare him another visit from the monster.
Erica nodded to the waiting men and they steadfastly set to task, dismantling all of Tobias’ machines as Erica removed the IV drips attached at his hands, the tube remained secured in his mouth, much to his chagrin. The event was over soon, with Tobias wheeled into another room impossible to distinguish from the previous, save that he was now the only occupant. When moved into position, the same machines were there to be reattached to and a fresh set of IV drips were gently inserted into his hands. The orderlies were dismissed and Erica lingered, a woman with a face full of conflict and a mouth empty of words, neither profound nor inane.
Tobias waited, hoping she would soon shatter her own self-imposed silence.
‘Did Mr Luscombe say anything strange to you last night?’ She asked. There was a curiosity shaping her normally neutral voice. ‘Do anything peculiar? Anything at all?’
For a fleeting moment, Tobias resolved to confide all, no matter how absurd his story sounded. That passed quickly. He reasoned that Erica would dismiss his ramblings as that of a madman, perhaps merely from a drug-induced fever, or from a pre-existing, undiagnosed mental condition. Plus to do so would be an open admission that he believed what he had seen, that it was not merely a figment of his morbid, relentless imagination.
‘No.’ He replied, wishing he could shake his head to stress his conviction.
‘And how are you? Overall?’
‘Do you have anything that will knock me out all night?’ He tried to keep his tone indifferent, devoid of desperation.
Erica shook her head. ‘I’m sorry, but no.’ She tapped the chart at the foot of his bed and gestured to the two IV bags hanging overhead as ghosts tethered to his tortured soul. ‘You are already on a very serious concoction, anything additional would risk slowing your heart.’
Tobias had expected as much, but could not conceal his disappointment. The realisation of another night of sobriety and whatever that entailed was a bitter pill to swallow.
‘It’s an adjustment, I know,’ Erica said. ‘Learning to accept that you will be in such a situation for several more months would be tough. I understand.’
‘What about visitors? Why has no one visited me?’ The question for some inexplicable reason had not sprung to Tobias’ mind earlier, but now he was consumed by it, all his friends shunning him beggared belief.
Her mask of professionalism faltered, exposing something raw and worrisome underneath. Erica swiftly set her face right, features hardening, to someplace cold and impenetrable.
‘There will come a time for that later. For now you are my patient and this is where you will be spending the remaining duration of your stay. Concentrate on that, and only that.’
Curiosity piqued, Tobias implored her, trying to peel back the façade, to learn the truth.
‘What’s happened? Am I in trouble?’
Erica’s rattling was not replicated, she shook her head, the resolute action of a person shutting a conversation down.
‘That’s information I cannot divulge Tobias. I’m sorry. And for now, you should only be concerned about getting better. You still have a long way to go.’
Tobias went to say more but was cut off by her curtly raised hand. Erica favoured him a tight, enigmatic smile and she departed from the room, leaving the air heavy with questions unspoken and unanswered.
She returned once more, haltingly, as if battling her better judgement.
‘Try and get some sleep,’ she suggested, her eyes conveyed what could almost be interpreted as an apology. ‘You need to rest, it’s the only way you’ll properly recover.’
She disappeared for good and darkness arrived in her stead.
Another night to overcome, now on his lonesome, abandoned by all except his own thoughts. He focused on the television as if it were the giver of all life and knowledge, pretending that he had the luxury of changing the channel, when in actuality he was subjected to the cruel whim of whatever was programmed. Around the time when the last late-night movie had ended and an evangelical priest began a fire-and-brimstone diatribe, Tobias gauged he was no longer alone in the room.
‘Like what I did to Luscombe?’ Asked the voice he had by now grown familiar with. Each time the monster uttered a word was like a bodily blow, something cold and sharp twisting in his innards. ‘Wasn’t even really my handiwork, the poor fool topped himself rather than endured more of me. Happens. Happens the majority of the time.’
‘What are you?’ Tobias asked the burning question, eyes peering at the darkness engulfing the room, prodding for shapes moving, some telling outline that would reveal the location of his nemesis.
‘I’m you, in a manner of speaking,’ it answered, the voice originating from somewhere above. ‘Manifested from you, just like I was for Luscombe. You made me.’
Tobias composed himself and swung his gaze upward. There on the ceiling, lounging comfortably, was the monster. The mouth had grown, spanning meters, the length of Tobias and beyond, it’s many appendages, shifted and swayed, picking at the teeth, cleaning them, beckoning to him, making obscene gestures.
‘You don’t remember any of it, do you?’ The monster slowly descended, the insidious smile broadening, the polished teeth, luminescent. They had a macabre beauty, something mesmerising that Tobias could not look away from, tantamount to a predator luring its quarry to its death with a display of lurid colours.
‘Well I’m not here to provide explanations, only torment, torment unimaginable and torment eternal.’ The creature came to rest a foot short of Tobias, suspended directly above him. ‘The day will come, when you can take no more, and you will gladly dive into the end, the end of this life and the beginning of the next.’
‘Kill me then,’ Tobias felt the ice of his dread melt as rage boiled and breached the surface of his composure. ‘Kill me now, if you are real, go on, do it.’
‘Would that I could.’ It replied, the rows of teeth parted, the tongue splayed out, dangling from side to side with an undulating motion, a pendulum of muscle, red as blood, engorged and exultant. ‘And even then I wouldn’t. Why should you get the easy option? To end it? When they couldn’t?’
‘What’s your name?’ Tobias demanded, outrage delaying the encroaching terror.
‘You can call me whatever you like for all the good it will do you.’ It replied. ‘If I can make a suggestion, I think the moniker most apt would relate to my dazzling smile.’
‘The Smiler?’ Tobias suggested scornfully, meaning it as a vile obscenity, handling the name as if a curse to be spat as hastily as possible.
‘The Smiler.’ It repeated, relishing the word, enunciating each syllable as one would sample a succulent dish. Its myriad of appendages extended in a theatrical flourish. ‘I like it. I like it very much. No one has gifted me a name before.’
The Smiler chuckled for the umpteenth time, the voices of all his friends, mocking him, fused as one, digging into his ears, shredding whatever meagre resolve he had amassed. The sparse few lights illuminating the room flickered and dimmed, creating a phantasmagoria, shadows came alive and found definition, doubtless controlled by the creature. For one moment all lights were extinguished in the room and Tobias was tossed into absolute darkness. Entombed in this absence of all hope, despair reigned, Tobias felt its disease racing through him, decimating him. He tried to assiduously focus on his breathing and willed light to return, that of the room, and the light of optimism that dwelled within him. As if to remind him of the futility of his plight, illumination returned slowly, scarcely enough to pierce the gloom.
The Smiler had vanished.
Tobias could sense the monster prowling around, just out of sight, revelling in the emotions it evoked within its helpless prey.
‘I am guilt and I am shame, I am terror untold and despair beyond belief.’ There was a tangible degree of pride in the Smiler’s stolen voice. ‘I am your mother’s barbed tongue and your father’s fists, I am the children’s ridicule in the playground and the scorn of all your former lovers. I am all your base emotions realised, those which you could not prevent, could not diminish and could not adjust to. I am abject misery made flesh and all that which you’ve hated about yourself. I am you, and we are bound.’
‘What do you want?’ Tobias demanded, scanning his surroundings as thoroughly as he could.
He found no signs to pinpoint the Smiler’s location.
‘For you to suffer, I am not atonement and I will offer you no respite, this is what you deserve and you will accept all that I subject you to.’
The creature glided up from the foot of Tobias’ bed, motions graceful, all appendages working in perfect concert, lifting the smile cynosure, with its colossal mouth pulled taut, too wide, up to face Tobias.
‘You fool, you bumbling, clueless fool.’ The teeth, larger than Tobias’ head, gleamed, neon-bright, shimmering. ‘You need to understand why.’
The monster’s tongue shot out from the mouth, a blur hurtling toward Tobias. He had no way to brace for the impact and it caught him directly on the forehead, knocking him out.
Tobias awoke in a flashback, watching himself behind the wheel. Hamish riding shotgun, Tristan, Alex and Paul in the back. Rap music drowned out all other noise, not that that deterred the group from straining themselves to be heard, screaming into one another’s ears. The whisky bottle was passed, back and forth as its contents rapidly dwindled.
Tobias squinted at the road with disinterest, having reached a level of inebriation where the act of driving was dismissed as a video game. Shards of rain buffeted the wipers, making it impossible for them to wipe any sort of clarity to what lay beyond.
Someone prodded Tobias in the back of the neck, he turned and took the firewater, applying it to his lips and taking a long slug. When he diverted his attention back to the hand the bottle to Hamish his eyes returned to the road and registered a sharp corner that had materialised from the watery ether. One that he could not possibly break for. Tobias’ body operated on instinct, the miraculous hand-eye coordination and sure movement only afforded the insane and the divinely attuned. He opened his door and dived out.
Tobias watched himself land and roll onto the unforgiving road, his body limp with drink rolled dozens of times, as the asphalt broke flesh and bone and bashed one into the other, reducing him to a mangled sack of meat. Tobias, now in the role of omnipresent spectator remained in the car with his friends, as the driverless car left the road, reduced a wooden fence to kindling and dove deep into a creek.
The impact of hitting the water was immediate and cataclysmic. The deceleration trauma sent the four friends flying, none of them had the presence of mind to wear a seat belt, all of them collided with one another. Heads connected with heads, knees found homes in faces, limbs entwined and snapped.
‘They were in your charge, your care,’ all of their voices, now appropriated by the Smiler, addressed him, he could picture its smile, smug and vile. ‘They entrusted you and you cost them their lives.’
‘I did.’ Tobias acknowledged, as he watched the tragedy unfold. Hamish and Tristan were killed on impact when their heads clashed. Paul went flying through the windshield, and died shortly thereafter. Alex however, was in a stable enough condition to gauge the peril Tobias recklessness had ensnared him in. He first tried to open the car door, yet it was sealed tightly shut by a wall of water, more of which gushed in through the opening in the windshield that Paul’s skull had made.
‘Can you taste his fear?’ The Smiler asked. ‘The rampant dread? That realisation that his demise is certain? Can you?’
Tobias could, the malaise tightened and spread. The self-same sensation Alex had felt in his last minutes, they were now sharing, unbearable but unavoidable.
‘How was I supposed to know?’ Tobias voice waivered. ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.’
‘Don’t extend your flimsy remorse to me boy,’ the monster rebuked. For the first time Tobias detected a trace of annoyance, anger even, in its voice. ‘I’m not the one you should be slobbering some apology to. Look at what you have done, process that. Understand.’
‘Could have been any of us driving.’ Tobias shot back, not trying to weasel out of the blame, only to buy his sanity some extra time.
The Smiler gave pause.
Tobias could hear the monster musing within his own mind, an infinitesimal sound of its lithe tongue rolling across the smooth expanse of each tooth, a perversely sexual act akin to fondling one’s genitals to incite disgust in an onlooker. ‘And if any of them were, I would be sharing this exchange with them instead.’
Tobias tried to avert his mind’s eye, to sweep his sight somewhere, anywhere, else, yet his vision remained on the static shot of the car’s interior. When his efforts at forcing the door open failed, Alex resorted to rousing his unresponsive friends, shaking at their broken bodies. After a few moments spent with frenetic and futile motion, the understanding that all life had seeped from his friends dawned on Alex’s features.
‘He’s not far off.’ The Smiler needlessly pointed out, clacking its teeth in immense amusement, the strident sound reverberated through Tobias’ resolve, shredding it. ‘And he knows it.’
The water sluiced through the wreck, amassing, rising until the last pocket of air was no more. Alex lasted until the very end, kicking at the window, flailing around, shouting his final breath, a call for help that went unanswered .
‘That’s it, drink deep.’ Instructed the Smiler. ‘The stopper has well and truly been lifted on this bitter draught. Watch his eyes closely now, the outrage at what you have caused is clear, even when he loses all the fight in him and his life slips away.’
‘Enough.’ Tobias asserted, wanting to have his voice punch like a fist, curled with conviction. ‘Nowhere near,’ the monster refused. ‘You and I are in this for the remainder of your days, however many, however few.’
Tobias steeled himself, refusing to reduce to begging. He was in tumult, torn asunder by the visages of his friends, contorted in castigation at him, at their murderer.
After an eternity, Alex’s thrashing ceased and his body stilled, his fingers unclenched, his mouth agape without a single bubble emerging. Alex’s eyes held Tobias’, not losing a shred of their intensity.
‘You’ll never adjust, never learn to live with me.’ The Smiler promised, as if merely stating facts, though gleefully divulging them. ‘I’ll be waiting for you every waking moment and for every one of your fitful slumber. And after this life has ended for you, I’ll be waiting in the next, and on, and on, until time is dust and everything is nothing.’
The trauma of the ordeal taxed heavily on Tobias, his mind reeled, discombobulated and beyond salvaging. Normally he was sharp of wit, so quick to act and with such decisiveness, now he was a child banished in a barren land, jutting with the jagged edges of consequences and preyed upon by his own failing courage. Whenever he took mental breath, and paused for a moment to collect his thoughts, his friends’ faces were there, unravelling him, leaving him stricken with guilt.
Tobias would’ve wept if he possessed his own eyes. He readied for death, to cease to be, succumbing to the sheer shock of the harrowing episode.
‘That should do for now,’ The monster remarked. ‘Wouldn’t want to overwhelm you now, ending things prematurely and all. That would dampen my spirits to no end.’
The procession of his dead friends’ and their scarring, haunting countenances dissolved. Tobias was pitched into a new place, devoid of all colour or fixture, he could only liken this endless expanse to purgatory, the realm where hope had no place, life had no chance and the brain could not persevere. The Smiler materialised, or perhaps was always there, only now making its presence known.
The central fixture of its being, its infamous smile, had broadened, the teeth had multiplied, so too the rows, and had grown into cartoonish proportions, teeth larger than moons, amply sized to grind the galaxy into nothingness.
Tobias found solace in talking, to give voice to his thoughts just might hold off the onset of madness. The words themselves were not much of a comfort, but some semblance could be derived from the delivery, if only to throw back something at the Smiler, a final defiance to prove his sanguine outlook and mettle before the monster steadily defiled him, destroyed all he knew.
‘I have one of those faces that cannot be demolished by a brute’s hand, nor a personality that can be weakened by a intellectual’s tongue.’ Tobias felt insanity-induced bravado blossom through him, buttressing his beliefs, coating his words, moulding them into bullets, turned him into a locomotion. He knew he wasn’t just pissing on the hornet’s nest, he was setting the accursed thing ablaze too, his acerbic wit had returned with gusto. ‘I am one of those few that orbit in the lofty atmosphere of ineffable satisfaction, those handful that possess such total acceptance of their flaws that no one human or creature can cause them harm.’
The Smiler gnashed its teeth in vexation, with its current size, the noise produced seemed to tear all perception into shreds. After a beat the monster donned another smile, that of its norm.
‘That so? You truly believe that drivel?’
‘It is.’ Tobias assented, bristling, wondering if he had any physical form, yearning to lash out. ‘I do. Nothing can be done to unravel my composure. You hear me? Nothing can taint my self-worth. You say that we are bound, good. It’ll take a hell of a lot more to drive me crazy, or do anything to try and escape.’
‘You sound so sure. Spoken with the assurance of a priest reciting gospel.’
‘I’m not Luscombe, or any of the others.’ Tobias was coasting on his assertiveness, a temporary invincibility, that rare kind only bestowed the utterly insane and the hopelessly doomed . ‘So you can do anything, try anything, nothing will work. You picked the wrong one.’
‘I didn’t pick anything,’ the Smiler fired back, its namesake had reduced, whether the result of Tobias’ epic outburst remained unclear. ‘You did. Though-’
‘Yeah whatever.’ Tobias cut in, adopting the unflappable attitude that only those armed with the temerity of youth could wield with aptitude and aplomb. He had been crippled with his own terror, now he was transfixed by his renewed vigour, eradicating resignation, banishing the defeat he had been enveloped in.
The Smiler stayed mute for an age. Tongue indolently traversing over teeth, similar to a rattled academic stroking their beard deep in thought. Tobias felt himself recede, plagued with pernicious doubt with each passing second of the Smiler’s deliberate inertia.
‘You are an interesting one, I’ll admit that.’ The Smiler eventually responded evenly. ‘But the ruse is feeble and a final act, even your voice is telling. You best get comfortable Tobias, we are going to get to know each other very well.’
Clicking, the clicking of fingers.
Tobias opened his eyes to find Erica leaning into him, her trusty penlight poised some half an inch from his right eye. She shrank back, startled. Tobias observed her face undergo a myriad of expressions. She recovered the mask of professionalism soon enough, with the set jaw and the stoic eyes, glazed with indifference. Daylight flooded through the windows, offensive and unapologetic, colouring the room in a rich golden glow commonly found in blissful dreams, those of impassioned sexual encounters and reuniting with loved ones long dead.
Tobias had survived another night.
The first, of the rest of his life.
‘You look like you just had a nightmare.’ He mumbled, throat cracked and wit dry.
A minor curl of her lip.
‘Funny,’ Erica said. ‘I felt the same about you.’
‘You’d be right.’
‘Yes, well,’ she averted her gaze and reached for the water. ‘You look thirsty.’
‘Am.’ He admitted, and allowed the humiliating process of her steering the straw into his mouth.
‘Particularly bad one I take it?’ Erica asked, feigning disinterest, but he noted how her eyes held his, how she was yet to exhale a long-drawn breath.
He attempted to nod, realised that he could not do so in the body cast and grunted a bark of yes.
‘What happened with Luscombe?’
Tobias made no attempt to reply. He lay in the pale, exquisite glow of the flourishing day, floating in the amber hue, his lids partially closed. With such freedom in waking he felt like he could cleanse his mind and journey through someplace else, to transport his mind to this sanctuary and simply let the morphine drip do its one job.
Erica was adamant about doing hers.
She leaned in even closer, Tobias could detect a faint aroma of cigarettes and energy drinks permeating from her, a pleasant, intoxicating scent that equally stirred his long-dormant loins and ignited his imagination.
‘Are you going to tell me?’ Erica’s insistent voice intruded on his peaceful musings.
And Tobias very nearly did. He would tell her everything, describing in exhaustive detail all of the encounters with the Smiler, of the nightmares, of the indelible stain on his soul that was growing with each day, rotting him inside out. He would reveal that his body could and would mend but his brain never would. He craved the chance to describe the Smiler to her, if only to burden someone else with the image so that it might make it more bearable for himself.
But he didn’t.
Tobias held his tongue, he resolved to tell no one, for he conceded that war had been waged on the Smiler, and that said war was singularly his. There would be no allies and there would be nothing to tip the odds in his favour.
This determination must have etched into Tobias’ features. Erica’s own face set and her mouth tightened. She leaned back, folding her arms across her chest.
‘Two detectives are outside wanting to speak with you.’ She said, her voice detached, whatever sliver of warmth that once lilted it into affability was absent. ‘Do you feel up to talking to them? They are rather insistent.’
Her face was now so consciously impassive, Tobias had no way of knowing if she was surprised by his reply. She turned to leave, her demeanour had reduced the room’s temperature several degrees.
‘Do you know why they are here?’
‘Yes.’ He would have preferred another few sobering gulps of water, but the damage had been done, his declaration had been made resounding clear to Erica as much to himself – he was alone – and sought no assistance or consul, no sage word of advice or heartfelt prayer uttered on his behalf. That was his punishment and that was his pledge.
‘Good.’ She said, but the word sounded like anything but. She departed from the room without so much as a fleeting glance of appraisal directed his way.
He wasn’t trying to fortify himself, wasn’t thinking up some brilliant performance to give, some plausible story to tearfully recount to win them over. Nothing the detectives could do would instil any sort of fear in him, not when he knew what waited for him in the vulnerability of another night fallen. This night looming, and every night thereafter when light evaporated and the puppet show of his dead friends would occur, with the Smiler artfully tugging the strings.
How it all progressed hinged entirely on himself.
‘Tobias?’ Asked the voice.
‘Yes.’ He confirmed, clearing his throat and opening his eyes.
The Smiler stood attendant at the foot of the bed, its eponymous smile atop the body of Erica, lab-coat and all, her name badge gleaming brilliantly. It spoke with her voice, yet its smile was its own.
‘What’s the matter?’ The Erica imposter enquired.
‘Is this him?’ Another voice asked.
Tobias’ eyes swivelled to regard two figures standing behind the fake Erica. Both of whom were dressed in drab, cheap suits, both of whom had the Smiler’s smile atop their heads, grinning, teeth gleaming, pearl-shiny.
‘Tobias.’ Demanded the Erica Smiler. She stepped forward.
‘Go away.’ Tobias screamed.
‘Where’s your defiance now?’ Asked the figure on the right, the self-same voice of the Smiler, not the voice of his dead friends, but the horrific insect-like buzzing, inhuman and terrifying. ‘Where’s that hefty scrotum that empowered your words before?’
‘Stricken with terror now?’ Asked the second figure, its smile widening, the same voice, spoken through all three of the figures, the agents of the Smiler. ‘You are sure singing a different tune. You think that you could outrun me? That daytime would be your salvation? I can manipulate all time and space.’
‘Go away.’ Tobias repeated over and over, the mantra useless.
‘Tobias stop,’ the Erica Smiler implored, her voice briefly returned to the one he had known, the one he felt assured by, but only for a moment. ‘And accept your fate.’
The three figures advanced on him, as their smiles stretched beyond all measurement, splitting the air, the very fabric of reality, all light was snuffed, reality was a nightmare.
Tobias thrashed as much as he could, screaming himself hoarse, until his frayed vocal cords failed to produce any more sound. The Erica Smiler imposter produced some needle and plunged it into one of his exposed bits of flesh. Tobias vision was blotted with black, he felt himself losing the tendril of reality, of his sanity. His last conscious thought before he was fully immersed in oblivion was of hearing the Smiler’s chuckle.
Bio: Elliott, a twenty-seven year old Sydney-side author, divides his time between a uni degree, a job within the television industry and penning his next novel.
Elliott has been published in MoviePilot, Blue Crow Magazine, Pure Slush, Vertigo and The Australian Times and The Southerly. One of his novels, The Sisters of Satan was published in 2011 and the second edition was published in 2012, a horror novel that is still available internationally and has been translated into six languages. As of August 2016, his crime novel, Hoi Polloi is available from Book Booster.