14 Sep Smiles
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Estimated reading time — 14 minutes
The Town of Willowing Hills
A collection of true stories surrounding a mysterious town nestled between a mountain and valley, in the middle of nowhere.
Taken from residents of this town, who have written in wishing for someone to investigate the strange occurences of which they report on.
These residents wish to have their names changed, should their stories be published, for their own sake.
They urge I write under an anonymous pen name as well.
I write here in total darkness, the only light coming from the lantern I’ve “liberated” from an old farm I crossed a few miles back. It seemed abandoned, so I didn’t see any wrong in taking the light, but as I kept skirting along the edge of the wood I realized that if the farm was devoid of life, then who left a lit oil lantern out on a fence for me to find? I believe I’m being watched, even now, even after my escape. These people are powerful and all-knowing, so it’d be no problem for them to keep tabs on me. Perhaps even they have left this out for me, toying with me to further their studies. But I’m getting ahead of myself, and I suspect my time is short if they really are watching me. There’s no way they’d want this to get out, so I should start.
My name is [Samantha] and I’ll be turning 17 this December. I used to live with my older sister along Brookford Avenue in the older part of Willowing HIlls, which is where most of the town’s residences are located. Down the road is the high school I used to attend, Willowing HIlls High, which isn’t the most creative of names but, our corner of the world is pretty small. My sister graduated 6 years ago, and should be taking classes at the community college farther north (I say this because I have no idea what she is doing after my departure). She took care of me after the death of our parents, via car crash some years ago, but I was pretty young and the memories of them are hazy, so not much of a loss there. At the high school, people regarded me as a rather smart kid, not too bad-looking and able to hold her own in whatever physical activity we did in P.E. I had some advanced placement classes and I played volleyball my sophomore year. This was my life. But this crazy place, everyone just got so weird and I still don’t know what happened to them.
It all started early one morning when I got up for school. My sister used to take me, but after I got my license, she gave me the family car and took the bus to the college, usually waking up before me and leaving just as I was getting ready. That morning I didn’t see her off, and I’m kind of glad I didn’t. I would hate to see her acting all schizo like everyone else. Nonetheless, I showered, got dressed and ate, but as I walked out of the door the wind suddenly picked up and blew the car keys out of my hand. As I bent down to pick it up, the strap on my bag ripped and I had to go back inside and get some industrial tape to hold the thing together. I was kind of annoyed, in a “this won’t be a good day” kind of way, leaving me not as happy as I usually am. I mean, it was a Monday morning too, so that already was cause for me to wake up hating the world.
I got in my car and started my morning commute to school, turning on the radio and getting nothing but static. I thought it was pretty strange as Willowing Hills had their own radio station, and played some pretty OK music when it wasn’t broadcasting some nonsense. But as I fiddled with the dials on my dash, I looked up and saw I was already downtown and just a few hundred yards away from the school. Since it was so close and I arrive earlier than most, I usually sat in the parking lot and listened to the radio or read, but as it was out of commission, that wasn’t an option. I resigned myself to just going inside whenever I got there, but I almost didn’t make it- at that moment, a deer leaped out of the neighboring forest on my right and bounded across the road. I had to grip the wheel with both hands and jerk the car out of it’s way, missing the animal by inches. I slowed down but didn’t stop after missing it, looking in my rearview mirror to see if it was alright. It just…stared at me, then continued into town. I almost called it in to the police, but I suspected that some shop-owner would see it rooting around the square and do that himself. I got to school.
After parking, I walked inside and found myself thinking that it was strange that I didn’t see any other people around. No students lounging lazily against a locker, or a teacher on duty to make sure the early-birds didn’t start up any trouble. Classes weren’t supposed to be starting yet, the bell was to ring in about seven minutes. The halls were empty, and so was the front office when I peeked inside. There were several adjoining rooms to the office, so I assumed the administrators and assistants were simply in a meeting, or just away. I should’ve known something was up. Instead, I decided to go on to 1st period.
When I walked inside, the class was full of kids staring down into their history textbook. No page turning or acknowledgement of me entering, just…silence and studying. The only thing on the page was a picture of Abraham Lincoln, and a short summary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Every single one of them looked joyful, as if it were the most interesting thing in the world. It creeped me out. The teacher was sitting behind her desk, her lips curled into a small smile when she heard me walk in but still not looking up to see me. She was shuffling papers, moving them around and adjusting them, and as I took my seat near the front of the room I noticed that they were all blank. At this point, some red flags were going off in my head, and I felt immensely uncomfortable with all the silence.
I raised my hand timidly, but the teacher still didn’t see me. Then I cleared my throat, softly calling her name. That’s when things went bat-shit.
She finally turned her head to acknowledge me, and her facial expression went from “happy” to “smiles overload.” Her grin grew bigger, showing all her teeth and her eyes widening. It was already unnerving, but what really got me was that I could tell she was upset. Her face was twitching and a vein on her temple throbbed. But she still kept smiling.
“Samantha!” She screeched, and I cringed. I couldn’t tell if I was in trouble or not, because of that damn grin. “Just what do you think you’re doing?!”
I was just a little bit scared to answer. I shrugged in reply.
“This is an outrage, girl!” She yelled, standing up and moving towards me. At this point I could see in my peripheral every other student look up from their books, watching the scene in interest. “You’re indecent! Show some restraint and consideration for the boys!”
Extreme confusion replaced the fear. I looked down, inspecting my modest purple t-shirt under a baby blue jacket and red skirt, which was fingertip length. I even checked my blue flipflops. No cleavage was out or excess skin. I looked back up at her to see her shaking in quiet fury, and yet, she still had that smile painted on her face. She grabbed my arm, forcing me out of my seat. “You’re coming with me, young lady!”
As we left, protests spilling out of my lips, I remember the students finally making some noise, some acknowledgment of me. I heard their whispers.
“What would her sister think?”
“She’s gone off the deep end, hasn’t she?”
It wouldn’t have bothered me so much if they didn’t….keep….grinning like the fucking Chesire Cat. My teacher dragged me down the hall, not releasing me of her vice-like grip, still smiling. When we got to the front office, moving to one of the adjoining room’s known as the Principal’s Office, she kept grinning and our principal did, too. In fact, when he saw me, he lit up even more, standing up immediately.
“Samantha! Show some modesty child, you’re in school!”
I meant to ask just what was going on, but all that came out was a pathetic whimper.
My teacher was shaking her head next to me. “I never expected such behavior from such a smart girl. ‘Tis a shame, I have half a right to call the police down here.”
At the mention of the police, I found my voice. Turning to her, I screamed “Why?! What did I do?!” My pent up aggression and stress of the whole thing was reaching a boiling point. And yet, they didn’t answer me, glancing at each other and talking about my “punishment” as if I wasn’t there.
“You know, the police may just be what she needs.” The principal stated, reaching for his cell-phone.
“It’d do her some good, we don’t even need to concern her sister with this.” My teacher finally released me, but left the room, calling over her shoulder “Bless her heart, her parents die and now her little sibling is acting up…”
By the time I looked back up at the principal, he had already dialed the number for the police and was muttering to them over the phone. I didn’t know what to do – he kept throwing dirty glances my way and nodding. While I stood there, unable to speak or move, I thought about just what was going on. I was dressed the way I usually was, my long brown hair was undone and clearly not some rule violation, and I hadn’t cursed or anything. I wondered if I came to school late somehow and my clocks were wrong, but the penalty for that was getting a tardy note. All of this was completely unnecessary and I knew I’d done nothing wrong. Part of me wanted to call my sister to get me out of this, and another part didn’t. I had no idea why.
About ten minutes later, the police car arrived outside the front of the school, and by the look of the trio of officers that stormed inside, you’d of thought there was a bomb threat or something. They rushed into the front office and into the room, two of them grabbing me by the arm and practically (well, literally) dragging me outside. I started screaming, and pleading with my principal, my teacher, and anyone who happened to be watching to help me. I looked those officers in the eyes, and they just smiled at me, before one of them dropped my arm and threw a punch at my head. I immediately saw stars, my vision fading in and out and my screams getting caught in my throat. I could feel them forcing my body into the back seat of the police cruiser, then heard the door slam shut. The last officer was conversing with the principal, shaking his hand when we drove away and Willowing HIlls High School vanished from view. Then I blacked out completely.
The next thing I remember was waking up in a stark white room, which only had a hard bed with one thin-bare blanket and a writing desk. An equally white metal door was in front of me, with several bolts and a screen of glass awarding any passersby the image of a scared teenage girl lying on the floor with a black-eye. It was my first one and throbbed like hell. You can imagine all the thoughts rushing through my head. I knew I was not in the station or the dirty jail cells that they had in the basement. My first idea was that I’d been kidnapped, but I still had all my clothes (minus the flip-flops) and cell-phone.
Wait, a cell-phone! I reached into the pocket of my jacket and pulled it out, giving it a kiss before dialing 911. But then I realized that they were the ones that got me here, so there was no way they’d get me out. Then I remembered my sister. I quickly punched in the number and pressed the call button, holding the phone up to my ear and praying she wasn’t in class so she didn’t ignore me. It took a few rings, which seemed to last a lifetime, but she picked up, saying a crisp and low “hello.”
“[Anna],” I cried my sister’s name, as tears began flowing down my cheeks. “[Anna], I’m in some kind of trouble and I don’t know why. The police came to the school and they took me somewhere and-and I just need help, please come….please…”
There was a pause on her end before I heard her sigh heavily. “Honey, I can’t.” She said. Time seemed to stop at that moment, and I could feel my heart slow down. My one lifeline, telling me she couldn’t help.
“Why?!” I demanded angrily. “I don’t even know what’s going on! No one is telling me why!”
“How could you not?” She answered, sounding annoyed. “I honestly didn’t expect this from you, and to be honest, it’s kind of sickening. What would mom and dad think of you?”
The sobs caught in my throat as I felt her words pierce me like a knife. “I d-don’t-”
“Look, wherever you are, I’m sure you’re getting help for your problem. You should trust them, [Samantha], they’re only here to preserve our sanctity and keep the peace.” With that, she disconnected, and even if I wanted to call her back, I couldn’t as my phone chose that particular moment to turn off. The battery had no charge, and this let me know that I’d been out for a long time as it’d been on 100% this morning. I could only look at the black screen in shock before I hurled it at the door, screaming in rage.
After a few minutes of crying, a voice flooded the room. I looked up and discovered the intercom perched in the corner of the ceiling, settled next to a video camera. I was under surveillance. The voice spoke again, calling out my full name. I sat up, wiping my nose. “What do you fuckers want with me?” I croaked.
My captors paused, then spoke again. “We want to observe you.” They said finally. It was a man’s voice, surprisingly light and refreshing but still sending chills down my spine.
“Oh yeah?” I asked, narrowing my eyes. “Why? What have I done? Where am I?”
“Your answers will come soon. Are you calm?” The voice asked sweetly.
I answered no, I fucking wasn’t. It was several more minutes until he spoke again. “Are you calm now?”
Playing his game, I nodded, knowing they could see it. The white door’s bolts immediately came undone, and the metal thing swung open slowly. Outside, in a startlingly white labcoat amid a white-tiled hallway, was a handsome young man with trimmed hair and a beaming smile. I was getting sick of those. He extended a hand. “Come with me.” It was the same voice from the intercom.
I was obviously skeptic, but I didn’t see a point in refusing and staying here. I stood up and walked to the door, not taking his hand or looking at his face. He shrugged, then led me down the hall, which seemed to extend forever. More white, metal doors filled the hall on either side of us, and I wondered just how many other people they had in…wherever we were. Were they like me, confused and scared? I didn’t get a chance to look in any of the slim glass windows on the doors to sate my curiosity, because we turned a corner that was devoid of anything except the white walls, ceiling and floor. The lights were excruciatingly bright, and I could not stop squinting. The man seemed to be used to it, as he strided across the floor looking happy as can be.
We turned a final corner and was met by a single metal door, this time not painted white, but black, with a strange curling symbol painted on the middle. The man opened it by punching in the code on a neighboring keypad, and then pushed it open. I made a note to remember what numbers he used. 7902. They’d save my life.
This room was full of machines and people operating them (all smiling, no less). There were a few people sprawled out on tables, being poked and prodded at by scientists in labcoats. They were unconscious, and the first people I’d seen today who didn’t have grins painted on their faces. It made me worried about them. I didn’t even realize the man was taking me to my own table until we were right in front of it and a another group of scientists, eagerly awaiting me.
“Lay down here.” The man requested joyfully, patting the cushioned top. I shook my head, adrenaline filling my veins. “I insist. You want answers, don’t you?”
“Why can’t any of you just tell me what’s going on?” I demanded, beginning to back away. No one stopped me.
“That’s why we must study you,” He answered simply. “So we can all understand.”
“What if I refuse?”
“Then we’ll have to use force.” He stated simply, but I could hear he malice in his voice, and see the gleam in his eye. Smiles could hide a plethora of emotions, it seemed. “It’d be much more…beneficial…for you to lay down.”
I looked from him to the other scientists, all of them holding pencils or some sharp object. When my eyes landed on one of them, who was holding a mask designed to pump anesthetic gases into my system until I blacked out. Until I’d let them cut me open and “observe” me for something wrong, when I knew I was perfectly fine. They’d roam over my body and insides, picking and stabbing until I was dead, probably. There was no way I’d leave from this facility alive if I lied down on that table. So I had an epiphany, I had to play their game if I wanted to live. The idea hadn’t crossed my mind because I was always in despair or so much stress I couldn’t think clearly. But I realized then that, when in Rome, do as the Romans do.
For the first time that day, I smiled, a big, huge smile.
All of the scientists froze, some of them gasping. They dropped their tools and scribbled in their notebooks furiously, and the man that brought me here grinned even wider. Somehow, I knew he was genuinely happy.
“This has been a great breakthrough!” He cried, clapping his hands giddily. “Tell me, how do you feel?”
“Like shit.” I replied, still maintaining my smile.
Despite the response, he continued beaming. “Excellent, excellent! Simply excellent.” He turned to his colleagues to laugh heartily, and I took that as a chance for my escape. I ran through the rows of machines and tables of people who’d fallen for the trap, and made my way to the door, punching in the numbers. No one stopped me- they were all remarking at my “breakthrough.” I made sure to keep smiling as I exited the strange room, and ran through the building looking for the exit. From there, everything’s been a haze – the facility was a maze, and every hall looked the same. The only good thing was that no one obstructed my absconding, so after some searching, I found a pair of red doors with the words “Exit” marked over them. They weren’t locked. I burst through them, noting the cold wind of the night and thick forest that surrounded the giant building I’d just egressed from. I wasted no time, taking no chances, I ran into the woods and, after some time, managed to find an old path that led to the main road.
Since then, I’ve been walking, stealing food from any of the sparse homes I find (all empty, suspiciously) and thinking about my situation. I had no idea where I was, it appeared to be nowhere near Willowing HIlls. I can see the top of a mountain in the distance, over miles of trees, and I know it’ll take a while to get home. But a big piece of me doesn’t want to go home. I had my thoughts that I’d just be thrown back in jail, or the facility since I’ve stopped smiling. But I’ve seen people on the main road, after I hide behind a tree or in the brush to watch them pass by. They don’t smile, at least not all the time; they bicker, they argue, they cry, they laugh, they do normal human things. Somehow I knew that whatever disease had taken hold of the town that day was gone, as mysteriously as it’d appeared. And still, I don’t want to go back to Willowing Hills. I always knew the place was weird, and now my suspicions are confirmed. There was something sinister in that town, and in that facility and I urge anyone reading this to avoid it all costs.
So yeah, I’ve been on my own since then. I see people sometimes, as I’ve mentioned before, but I don’t engage them. I guess my trust has just shriveled up and died. I’m writing this now in the hopes someone finds it, but when they do, I’ll be far away from here. I’m in an abandoned cabin a few miles down the road of that farm I mentioned. I’m not sure what time it is, but it’s been several hours since the sun has set below the treeline. There’s no one else here, but I keep telling myself there is. When I got here, there was a plate of food, untouched, on the kitchen table. I almost didn’t want to eat it, but what choice do I have? I suppose now I know for sure that they’re still watching me, but also helping me, probably to further their studies. As far as I know, I’m the only one to escape, and it was all too easy. They had to have let me done it. Maybe they’ll let my story be found, too.
If I’m honest, I don’t know what to believe anymore, from the start the whole thing has seemed like a sick joke that went too far. I say that because when I found this cabin, there was a slip of paper sitting next to the plate of food. Scrawled on it messily, was a single phrase I’d only heard a few times in my life, but never taken seriously. Someone has though, and thought they’d infect the whole town with the notion. But…not me, and I don’t know why. Maybe I can find my answers one day, but I’m still going to keep smiling whenever I see someone on the road, or in my dreams, or in the window.
After all, you’re never fully dressed without a smile.
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