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“I’m so glad we get to spend some time like we used to in college,” Alex said, sighing as we trudged down the dirt road under the glaring sun.
“I know…Let’s forget about the law firm. I don’t want to ruin our friendship because of work.”
“You’re right. Sorry for being weirdly competitive and stuff. Let’s forget about it here.”
Alex flashed his crooked grin and pulled me through winding, narrow roads, stopping at the gates of a town called “Lexville.”
As soon as I stepped through the doors, a plump woman with a radiant smile jumped at Alex for a hug.
“Alex! You’ve grown so much,” exclaimed the lady. At least ten other townspeople gathered and took turns hugging Alex, and even me. They all carried the scent of home, something like warm candles and pastries--a scent that resembled Alex’s friendliness.
“Hey Sam, these are my relatives,” Alex explained eagerly, pointing and waving at a couple that resembled the Clauses. The Claus-like couple (the Jones’s) led us toward an average-sized, pastel yellow house that seemed to call us in with open arms.
“This is your house for your stay! I’m sure you two will love it here,” Ms. Jones said, playfully poking my chest and winking. I mustered out an awkward laugh and she handed me our keys, flashing the same warm smiles.
Alex and I unpacked our suitcases, shoving our clothing into the wooden closets.
“Hey, what did you bring gloves for? It’s, like, a 100 degrees outside,” I said, frowning as I noticed that Alex had brought a pair of black gloves with him.
“Oh, uh… I don’t know. I think I just forgot to take them out of my suitcase from my trip to Russia,” he muttered, hastily shoving them back into his suitcase.
Shrugging, I peeled off my sweaty clothes and slipped into my silk pajamas, jumping onto our freshly made bed.
But a few hours later, I woke to the sound of whispering from the living room. Alex was not in bed. I hastily tiptoed to the doorway of the bedroom and peeked my head out--standing in the kitchen was Mr. Jones. I could see that he was moving his arms vigorously, sharpening what looked like a kitchen knife.
I held in a shriek, gasping as I tried to bolt back into the bedroom as Mr. Jones turned around. His face was stone cold, the blade of the kitchen knife piercing through my mind as I stood paralyzed. Yet as he made eye contact with me with his eagle-like eyes, his face morphed back into that of the friendly man from the afternoon.
“Wh..what’s up, Mr. Jones…?” I stammered.
“Oh hey Sam--did I wake you up?” he replied cheerfully, flashing a bright smile.
Alex was sitting at the kitchen table too; he peeked his head out so that I could see him and waved, his crooked grin spreading across his face. I let out a sigh of relief and smiled back--as long as Alex was there, it was all good.
“Sorry, I invited Mr. Jones over to have a midnight snack together. The knife’s for the ham,” Alex said as Mr. Jones also took a seat at the table with a can of beer. I grinned and went back into my bedroom to fall back asleep.
I woke up at 8 a.m. with the sun beaming on my groggy face.
Alex was already at the kitchen counter when I walked out to the living room.
“Sorry about last night, we didn’t mean to wake you up.”
“Sorry… about what?”
“Mr. Jones was here, remember?”
It had completely slipped my mind until then.
Yet as we went about with our morning, I could not help but think about the instance from the night. As we arrived at the town hall again for dinner, I could feel a strange gravity all around the room--wherever I glanced, I saw glimpses of people switching from serious, cold faces to those warm smiles. Perhaps it was just me getting wrapped up in my own paranoia from the previous night, but something seemed awry.
Alex and I took a seat at a dining table and devoured our dinners, delectable homemade pasta.
“So,” he said, his mouth full of pasta. “How are you liking this so far?”
I could hear his words, but I could not process them. My mind was entangled in the thought of Mr. Jones’s stone cold face.
I looked around the room and saw people laughing, but I began to wonder if they were truly laughing. I quickly turned my head in the opposite direction and caught a couple staring straight at me; but as soon as I saw them, they broke into natural laughter and resumed their conversation, if they were ever having one in the first place. Nausea swept over me as I observed at least thirty different faces in the room that shared the same, bright smile.
“Sam? Hello?” Alex waved his fork in front of my face.
“Yeah? Sorry. I… I was just zoning out for a second.”
“Is something wrong? You keep looking around suspiciously”
“Dude, why is everyone here so… happy? It’s literally like everyone’s on drugs and it’s kind of creeping me out right now…”
And more so, why was everything so perfect, I wondered to myself. How this town was not facing any natural or economic disaster, hidden in this thick forest, was beyond my understanding. All of the houses, the people, the food, and simply everything about the town was flawless.
“Like last night… Mr. Jones really freaked me out. You know how everyone’s always smiling? Well, I saw him not smiling and then switching to his smile which was super creepy.” I shivered as I pictured it again.
“Yeah my town’s kinda weird, but it’s a good weird. Mr. Jones is, like, a really sweet guy. Just stop being so paranoid and enjoy your time here with me Sam,”Alex said, and I nodded along.
But as we left, I could have sworn I had seen all twenty of their faces turn from the smile to stone cold in the reflection of the glass doors.
Once I got back home, I let out a sigh of relief and fatigue. I felt strangely safe inside, where it was just Alex and me--and none of those smiles or stares. I immediately collapsed onto my bed, and so did Alex.
“Goodnight Alex. So, we’re leaving tomorrow in the evening?”
“Yeah. Unless you wanna stay longer?”
“No, I think I’m good. Thanks for this vacation, though,” I said, yawning and turning off my nightstand. “Goodnight.”
At around midnight, my eyes opened to the sound of shuffling feet in my bedroom. Something was moving for sure, and I assumed it was Alex going to the bathroom. A shiver ran down my spine but I just pulled my sheets up to my chin and tried to fall asleep again.
But when I turned to my side, I noticed that Alex was still in bed, fast asleep.
‘Oh crap,’ I thought to myself, praying that I had misheard the noises. ‘Please not a ghost--I’m too tired to deal with this.’
But something, I sensed, was moving closer to me. The soft breathing of a human being in my room was crawling up onto my throat, and I held my breath, slowly opening my eyes just enough to catch a glimpse of what was going on.
I recognized a face--Mr. Jones. I hated myself for not trusting my intuition. My heart was beating too fast for me to catch up, and I could not breathe. It was a dead end.
I opened my eyes fully and gradually sat up.
“Hey… Mr. Jones… what’s going on?” But I knew what was going on. At least ten other townspeople stood beside him with the same stone face. I gulped and quietly shook Alex awake with one arm.
Alex groaned and got up, rubbing his eyes.
“Sam, it’s like 2 a.m.,” Alex began to say, but he shrieked before he could finish his sentence. “What… what are you all doing here?”
The townspeople silently moved closer to our bed, and I grabbed onto Alex until my knuckles turned white. He grabbed my arm, shaking slightly as we both inched backward.
But the people abruptly stopped moving, and their smiles suddenly spread across their face from ear to ear; their eyes were still stone cold. All ten of them now stood with freshly sharpened kitchen knives pointed at me. I slammed the brakes on my screaming, instead making a strange grunting noise as I clung to Alex for my life.
Alex’s grip of my arm suddenly tightened.
“Sam?” A calm, deep voice spoke into my ear from behind me. I turned around and saw Alex. “I guess I’m getting that promotion now.”
He had a crooked grin on his face, a black glove on his hand… and a kitchen knife in his tight grip.