Estimated reading time — 11 minutes
Amy felt as though she could float forever. The water was warm and soothing; she stretched out her arms and allowed it to embrace her fully, drifting serenely on the surface like a toned, bikini-clad starfish. Her hair, shoulder length and darker than the Halloween night which peeked in through the skylight like an inquisitive child, billowed out behind her; she closed her eyes, letting her head sink back into the gently roiling water.
After what could have been hours, but was more like minutes, a monotonous voice announced via the poolside speakers that the pools would be closing in thirty minutes, please exit the pools. To Amy the voice sounded muffled and distorted, but she knew the announcement by heart; she swam two, maybe three times a week at the minimum.
Five minutes later, Amy was padding along the corridor leading to the ladies changing area, the tiles icy cold against the warmth of her feet. There had been other people in the pools earlier in the evening, but the last of them, a teenage couple who had frolicked in the shallow end, had left at least forty minutes before her. She passed the on-duty lifeguard, Roger or Steve or whatever his name was, at a junction in the corridors. He was heading right, towards the main entrance; she left, towards the changing area. He smiled at her as their paths crossed, but made no attempt to conceal the way his eyes ran appraisingly over her, lingering on her breasts – smaller than most, but this didn’t bother Amy – before sliding down to her flat stomach and toned legs. She turned her face away, focusing on the floor-length poster to her left – an advertisement for a circus that would be stopping in town over the weekend, its glossy surface flush with figures garbed in all manner of vibrant colours – until the sound of his footsteps had diminished, and the echoes had faded away into nothingness. With a rueful shake of her head, Amy slipped around the corner into the changing area.
The room was a large rectangle, with a bank of lockers running down the centre and the individual cubicles on either side of them. Amy headed to the right – she’d read somewhere that when lost, you subconsciously picked the direction of your dominant hand, and wondered if the same could be said for picking lockers – and unclipped a stubby looking key with a fat square head from where it hung around her neck. Number thirteen; unlucky for some, lucky for others. Amy belonged to the latter group; born on the thirteenth of August, it had always been her lucky number. She opened her locker, picking up the neatly folded stack of clothes with one hand, grabbing the straps of her rucksack with the other. This done, she headed to the closest cubicle, which happened to be the family sized one.
She had done no more than step through the door when she felt the floor slip from beneath her feet, and her last image was of the washed-out orange fluorescent above rising away from her, before something cracked the back of her head and everything turned to blackness.
Amy is sitting at a long wooden table, over which is draped a tatty red and white check cloth. The table is pine, the cloth a thrift store purchase; this table is where she spent the hours when afternoon turns to evening every weekday for the first sixteen years of her life. It is her mother’s. The kitchen, too, is as she remembers: yellow and red checkerboard-style tiling on the walls, drab green drapes at the window and a sparkling white work surface. Before she has time to take in any further details – not that she needs to, every inch of this room is etched into her memory, and she could build a perfect replica given the time and materials – a subtle movement off to her left in the phone alcove catches her eye.
Amy whips her head around and there, sat on the cheap plastic stool, the one that tilts to one side because the legs are uneven, is a little girl in a black dress, with ringlets the colour of late harvest wheat dangling down to the small of her back. Because it is her back that Amy can see; the girl is facing the wall, assuming the position of her mother, who would spend hours at a time yattering away on the phone to Amy’s aunts. But the girl is too short to reach the phone, so the cherry red handset hangs on the wall above her head like an unreachable plastic bauble.
The girl giggles, and the sound is unnatural and distorted, like an electronic laugh machine with a failing battery. Amy finds herself unable to tear her gaze away from the swooping contours of the girl’s shoulders and upper arms. There is something about them; they are so pale, and the way the light seems to glance off them is so-
‘’Smiler’s coming,’’ the girl rasps, and turns around on the stool. Now Amy can see that the girl is not a girl at all, merely something confined to the shape of a girl. Skilfully concealed joints wink in and out of existence with every movement of her limbs, and the skin that Amy thought of as flawless is smooth, emotionless plastic. All except her eyes; one of them is missing, leaving a yawning black socket in its absence. The other is a burning scarlet beacon, flaring with hellish intensity. The girl that is not a girl grins; it is a hideous, unnerving sight.
‘’Smiler’s coming, little Amy,’’ she says again, and this time she sounds more human, more urgent, as though she is learning how to use her vocal cords for the first time. ‘’He’s here now, little Amy, and you need to go before he finds you.’’ Her eye is fixed on Amy, an insidious headlight searching her soul.
Before he finds you. Those last words hang in the air for several seconds, and then the golden-haired girl’s gaze flicks to the doorway at the end of the room, and back to Amy. The girl that is something else presses a single three-jointed digit to her lips in a gesture universal to all. Now Amy is staring at the doorway, a rectangle of Stygian blackness cut in the wall, unable to tear her gaze away.
From the darkness comes a high-pitched peal of laughter that slices through the silence like a scythe, the sound of ten-thousand lunatics howling in the depths of a nineteenth century asylum. Something is materialising, floating in the gloom; something wide, something crimson. A shock of purple begins to coalesce above it, below which two silver orbs glint like dollars. The crimson things smack together, a sloppy wet sound like a slug slithering across a pane of glass. The girl that is not a girl is screaming now, screaming in the darkness, and as the thing in the doorway moves forward, there is a hideous tearing sound, and Amy wills herself to wake up, wake up, for God’s sake wake-
-up, everything is up above her, and for a few seconds Amy had no idea where she was. The floor beneath her felt hard and unforgiving; the base of her skull as though it had had a railway spike hammered through it. Darkness clung to everything around her, and her body felt stiff and cold.
I’m dead, she thought, I’m dead, I am, and now I’m lying on a slab waiting for somebody to slice me open, to see which cogs in this particular human machine have stopped turning.
It was the smell that finally brought her round: the strong, acrid odour of chlorine. Then everything was flooding back to her; the swimming; the lecherous lifeguard; the sudden descent into darkness. With her spine screaming bloody murder, Amy pushed herself into a kneeling position. She sent one tentative hand to the back of her head, and was relieved to find that she was not bleeding. There was, however, a lump that felt about the size of Mt Vesuvius.
‘’Goddammit,’’ she muttered, ‘’what the hell happened anyway?’’
There was a pale oval on the floor to her left; when she picked it up, her fingers sunk into it like a piece of rotten cheese.
‘’Soap, slipped on the goddamn soap.’’ For some reason, this made her laugh, and she had to knuckle a fist and cram it in her mouth before a giggling fit overcame her. Abruptly, she became aware of the fact that her towel had fallen away and she was completely naked. Not that it really mattered; there was nobody left in the pools or the changing area to see her.
As she pulled on her clothes – a pair of slim fashionably ripped jeans and a sleeveless white top – a second, somewhat more urgent concern began to gestate in her mind: why were the lights off? Just how long had she been out of it, anyway? Surely it wasn’t possible that she could have been locked in; wasn’t there a security guard that checked the building first? She finished lacing her sneakers, tied her hair back in a loose ponytail and hobbled towards the exit like a woman twice her age.
Amy was just about to turn the corner, marvelling at how easily she was walking after taking such a fall, when she realised why: she’d forgotten her rucksack. It was still on the bench in the family cubicle. She pivoted, not wanting to waste any time in case the staff had somehow managed to lock her in, and was as at the corner of the locker bank before she froze, her heart leaping to somewhere in the back of her throat.
There was someone standing in the cubicle doorway.
Whoever it was had their back to Amy, and didn’t seem to have noticed her. She briefly entertained the notion that it was a security guard, come to check that everybody was gone. But security guards didn’t creep around in the dark, and they most certainly didn’t wear such odd clothes. An oversized striped shirt with a wide frilled collar; voluminous pants that billowed outwards at the ankles; shoes longer than-
The figure disappeared into the cubicle as silently as it had appeared; Amy stood where she was, paralyzed with fear and indecision. It would be back any second, the thing that definitely wasn’t a security guard, but what should she do? Break for the door, and risk having it come at her unawares from behind, or hide and wait for it to move on? She was trying to pull herself in two different directions when the voice spoke up inside her head.
‘’Smiler’s coming, little Amy.’’
Amy didn’t know what the hell that meant, or why she recognised the voice, artificial yet somehow childlike, but the ominous implication of the message was impossible to miss. She darted around the side of the lockers, moving as swiftly as her complaining back allowed whilst trying to remain silent. Amy pressed herself against the cold metal lockers and waited.
She didn’t have to wait long before she heard it: a wet flapping moving away to her left; something like the beat of dying wings against concrete; something like a fish out of water. Or a pair of outsized feet, slapping against a damp floor. Without hesitation, Amy slipped into the closest cubicle, eased the door shut – God, don’t let the hinges squeal – and pulled her feet up onto the bench, curling into the foetal position. Wonders abound, this went someway to soothing her aching spine.
Smiler. The word had seared itself across her mind, a scorching brand. Amy could only sit in the darkness and wait, as those sinister footsteps flip-flopped down the row of cubicles. They were close now; almost right beside her. Then they were moving past, towards the changing area exit. Something like relief started to bloom in her chest, but a terrifying thought crushed it as a child would an insignificant bug. The door to her cubicle was the only one that was closed.
As if her sudden realisation were the catalyst, the footsteps stopped dead. She heard the faint rasp of metal, and oh God, it knew, it was-
‘’Hey! Hey, you turn the hell around, now!’’ Amy recognised the voice instantly: Mr Gurang, the ex-army instructor who managed the gym. A scar-covered beast of a man, with muscles that constantly threatened to burst out of the tight tee-shirts he so often wore. She had heard some of the men refer to him as ‘Nepal’s answer to the Hulk’.
Seconds later, the screaming began, and the last threads of Amy’s resolve snapped; she lurched up from the bench and yanked the door open.
The thing – Smiler – was hunched over Mr Gurang’s sprawled body; the Nepalese man was thrashing like a wild horse, but Smiler held him firmly by the throat with the gloved hand Amy could see. The other, although obviously in motion of some kind, was obscured by the bulk of its body. Gurang’s feet drummed frantically against the floor before falling still. Smiler turned its puffy, makeup streaked face towards her; its cheeks sagged like malleable dough beneath a pair of glinting silver eyes that winked from the gloom like beacons amidst thick fog. Something was hanging from its hand in thick loops and coils, and only after Amy had followed its twisting, convoluted course did she realise that Smiler was holding Mr Gurang’s intestines; the cavernous rent in the Nepalese man’s stomach yawned like a bloody mouth. The painted balloon undulating before her in the darkness seemed all at once to tear itself in half; Smiler’s face ripped wide in a demented rictus grin, exposing pointed teeth more numerous than those of a Tiger shark, a deathly pale sky dominated by a wicked crescent of blood.
Amy stumbled backwards, her bare feet scrabbling for purchase on the slick floor, and ran. She bolted from the changing area with only one goal in mind: to put as much distance between her and the thing with the face like a swollen, liquid-filled balloon as humanly possible. Smiler’s footsteps echoed down the dour brown corridor, slapping along with a hideous quickness that Amy would have thought impossible coming from something wearing such large shoes. There was something green glowing at the end of the corridor; Amy recognised it immediately, mentally scolded herself for not thinking of it sooner, and bulleted towards the fire exit, ignoring the screaming muscles in her back.
Those flat, sodden footsteps sounded like they were practically on top of her, and she didn’t dare to glance over her shoulder for fear that they were. Rancid breath filled her nostrils, the stench of a charnel pit overflowing with decaying corpses. The running figure on the fire-exit sign was visible now, she was that close. Would the door open, or was it secured somehow? Did the fire alarms need to be activated before the locks were released? The closest alarm was back at-
Amy’s thoughts were pushed from her mind like a derailed freight train as she slammed into the door release bar with every ounce of force she could muster. Then two things happened at once; the fire doors were spilling open and Amy was spilling out of them; something was tearing at her hair, grasping at the errant locks streaming behind her. There was a strange noise, something like a snapping rip, or a ripping snap, and Amy was tumbling forward onto a carpet of dewy grass. She righted herself in a fluid motion the equal of any seasoned runner, and, without a notion as to why – perhaps she had realised that if he were still pursuing her, Smiler would have fallen upon her by now – Amy whipped around to face the open doors.
He was there, snarling and salivating on the threshold, inches away from the point where darkness became light, pacing like a caged bear. Beneath the pale mansion of the moon towering in the sky above the purple-haired clown hissed venomously like an exotic tarantula, tossing a handful of wiry black snakes out onto the concrete. Amy stared down at her torn hair extensions with an expression of mute horror; that close, it had been that close. When she looked up again the clown was gone.
One year and several hundred hours of therapy later, and Amy is storming through the house, with a bottle of wine in one hand and her mobile in the other, searching for her purse; she needs the car keys to get to Maria’s Halloween party, but more importantly, she needs the cocaine that is hidden in the bag’s lining. She has turned her bedroom upside down, ransacked the kitchen and searched every inch of the living room, all to no avail. Now she is getting frantic; her hands are shaking; her head is throbbing like a blackened tooth and her heart is palpitating like a wild thing. She is in the hall, resigned to a continuous hunt for her fix, when a floorboard beneath the stairs creaks, breaking the silence as easily as one would a cheap wooden plank. Amy freezes mid-step, and turns slowly to face the cupboard door, which is now creaking open inch by painstaking inch.
Time has slowed to a crawl; the door is open wide now and the cupboard looms before her like an open grave. She can make out the vague suggestion of a voluminous bulk standing motionless in the cramped space.
They regard each other that way for several seconds. A deranged giggling; the flash of steel; the shattering of glass. Amy gazes upwards at Smiler, the blood spilling from her stomach pooling with the red from the smashed bottle, shards of glass digging cruel fingers into her spine. The clown’s grin is beyond unnatural now; it is tooth-shattering, bone-snapping in its enormity.
The repulsive feel of Smiler’s lips against the wound on her stomach; the soft pricking as rows of shark-like teeth are laid against her bare flesh.
The clown with the painted face chomps down, its flabby cheeks quivering, and Amy begins to scream.
Credit To – Tom Farr