"Smile"

New Deli High never feels right, even to those people who don't know the stories. The teachers have heard them and can't help but believe, and like everything else they know, that belief and that fear pass along to the students.

And when, finally, the students are told the story of Mr. Smyle, they walk to school with a heavy heart, never trusting again the town that has sheltered them.

People leave New Deli feeling haunted, and part of that haunting never goes away. They all know what happened to Wendy, and no matter how long the story is told, Wendy will always feel like your little sister and you'll always feel that you could have done something to protect her.

People leave New Deli feeling helpless.

I don't really understand where it all started, but the best I can come up with is that the famous pirate captain Blackheart Smythe was captured, jailed, and finally executed in New Deli square, where now a statue stands to celebrate his colorful and exotic life.

Why would a town build a statue of a famous pirate? They did it because, sadly, nothing else of interest had ever happened there. Blackheart Smythe was their only uniqueness, the local culture, the only thing that might draw an outsider with just the right set of interests to the backwoods coastal town.

The statue is easily ten feet tall, a greenish copper man, larger than life, wearing the garish coats and belts and leathers of a rich and criminal man. The flamboyance of a pirate, the solemnity of a monolith, and all the history of a town wrapped into a metal monument. Smythe's name is engraved at the bottom, although it's been vandalized to read Smyle instead.

The pirate's mouth is, in fact, a point of some interest. He's otherwise normal in dimension, but his copper grin is disproportionate, huge and leering, nearly ear-to-ear. Some say the pirate himself looked like this, lending him his terrifying appeal, where others insist that it was a biased artist who warped the criminal's visage.

Either way, Smythe seems locked in an eternal laugh, teeth slightly parted as though speaking through a hearty chuckle. His blank copper eyes make the detailed smile that much more unnerving; who ever heard of a statue smiling?

People leave New Deli feeling relieved.

Only one of the four students involved with the incident of '02 will speak about it, at least to me, and so I came to the reluctant conclusion that his was the only first hand account. His name is Bruce last name withheld, he is now twenty-two years old, and he still lives in New Deli, in fact strangely close to the park where the statue stands.

I found him on his front porch, one day, sitting in a rocker and writing, which has become his profession. He did not look surprised to see me, although I had not made any attempts to contact him before. When I called to him from the street, he simply looked up at me, sighed, and motioned for me to come.

"So," he said to me, "You, of all people, you've got an interest in this place?"

I told him that yes, I'd been looking in to it, researching paranormal events for a paper, and stumbled across newspaper references to the New Deli Séance Incident. It seemed extraordinary, impossible even, and so I'd come to town to investigate.

"It does seem extraordinary, you're right, but that's not the right word at all. Terrible is more like it. Extraordinary has such a positive feel to it, and this isn't a positive place.

"The thing of it is, Nate won't talk about it, Corrinne won't talk about it, and Wendy… well, you know about that. But I feel like I have to talk about it, you know? Like if I don't say something, it'll happen again.

"Maybe I'm just nuts. Maybe there's a lot more, or maybe a lot less to this than I think. But I know what I saw, and I'm not shy about talking about it."

I asked Bruce if I should sit, and if he'd mind my use of a recording device. He shook his head, motioned to another chair, and settled back into his.

I noticed, for the first time, what a worn-out young man he was. Although I knew my subject was only twenty-two, ten years younger than myself, I sensed an old soul before me, aged by experience and sadness. His eyes lacked the spark of the young, that light I've begun to identify as hope.

I asked him if he could tell me the story from the beginning, he nodded, and after a huge sigh, began to speak.

"I was seventeen at the time, a junior in high school, just like Nate and Corrinne. The three of us were best friends, this was back when I had friends, and the two of them were definitely as in love as kids can be.

"I mean, it was so bizarre to see them together, Nate being that scruffy guy with the leather coat, Corrinne the high honors student." He laughed. "I don't know if we even knew any other honors students, but he never gave her a hard time about it, and she never bothered him to try harder. They just loved being in the same room, and to hell with everything else.

"It was June, getting warm, you know, and me and Nate had the idea in our heads that we ought to have an adventure.

"This is the stupid stuff that kids talk about, you know? Like, what grown person says hey, lets go on an adventure? It's stupid. But it's also nice, looking back, we did have some good times.

"I read a book once, where one of the characters was asked if he knew what an adventure was, and he didn't, so the other guy says that adventure means being in more trouble than you know how to get out of. I think we tried to get in trouble, just to see if we could hack it, you know?"

I nodded and sat forward, while Bruce took a long drink from a can whose label was hidden by his rough hands. I think I smelled alcohol on him, though considering what he went on to tell me, I couldn't blame him for getting a little sloppy.

He seemed wide awake, however, untouched by booze, and after crushing the can and opening a new one, he resumed his story.

"So Nate says to me hey, I was watching the Discovery channel, and they had this thing on about ghosts in our state, and I said to Nate, so what, you want to be a ghostbuster?

"But he just laughed at me and said, Corrinne's sister, the weird one, she's got one of those ghost boards, the Ouija thing, we should get it and try to talk to the spirit of Captain Smyle. And a big grin lit up his face, like, what a great idea, huh?

"Now me, my mother was real superstitious, I'd heard about these Ouija things, so I said why don't we just go on a hike or something instead, but Nate, he stopped listening to me halfway through. He was already planning how to heist the board from his girlfriend's house, and knowing him he'd try to do it secret-like and it'd get him in trouble with Corrinne, so me being me I said, why not bring Corrinne too, that way she can bring the board.

"Now you can bet your ass I blamed myself for everything that happened after that, 'cause it seems like it was all my idea, right? Nah, I've gotten past that, but it's still hard for me to admit that I was just trying to make things easier. Sometimes I think maybe Smyle was making me say those things, trying to get us to come and let him out.

"But I'm getting ahead of myself. Smyle really doesn't come in till later."

I hold up a hand to stop him, and ask if "Smyle", the legendary ghost, actually exists. He looks at me as though I've just asked him what teeth are for. "Oh he's real, all right. Ask Wendy McMillian."

I nod, having read the articles on various ghost-oriented websites. This is the unifying factor; in every variation on the Smyle myth, the fifteen-year old Wendy vanishes after experiencing various paranormal events. I mention my research to Bruce, and he scowls at me.

"I can't believe this. I've read your books, I know who you are. I figured if you were here, it wasn't as some kind of skeptic."

I tell him he's got to understand that I take my writing seriously, and accuracy is important to me. I mean no disrespect.

Bruce shakes his head. "So should I go on, then?

"It was three days after I'd spoken to Nate about convincing Corrinne to come along, and he came to me and told me her sister would be coming too. Apparently they'd been overheard, and the little one, Wendy, insisted on tagging along.

"I was cool with it, at first, but then I met Wendy and started to change my mind. She was one of those kids they call goth, all dressed in black and wearing as much metal as she could. Big boots, gloves, duster coat. She creeped me out.

"So yeah, Wendy, big bug eyed Wendy brings along her Ouija board, her witchcraft junk, salt and all that, candles, you know. Shit, of course you know. You wrote that thing about it.

So we pile into Nate's car and we head on over to the park, this was nine at night on a Friday. We were waiting for a Friday the 13th, but there wasn't one till november that year. So we get there, and Wendy says in her little voice, we should leave, this place feels wrong.

"That's just how she said it, this place feels wrong. I still wonder what she meant, but after that she just kinda went along with everything. We head over to that creepy statue, Wendy puts all her stuff together, and we get into a circle around the board.

"Now this is when stuff starts happening. See, she says we all gotta get our hands on the little pointer thing, and just touch a little, so like there's no weight on it. Me and Nate, we're grinning like dopes 'cause this is just what we had in mind. Perfect little adventure, right?

"So I've got my fingertips on the pointer, same as everyone else, and all of a sudden it sorta slides. The weird thing is, everyone jumps, nobody's smiling, and right then I decided I was sick of ghosts and crap. Time to go, right?

"But you know how kids are. If one stays, the rest stay. So we all giggle a little and touch the thing again, and after a second it starts moving again. Nowhere in particular, we decide, just hovering but none of us is doing it.

"So Wendy starts talking out to the air, says, we come in peace and just want to talk, we wish you no harm, et cetera and so on. Now the pointer stops moving. We all look at each other.

"Wendy sighs, says, we're looking for the spirit of mr. Smthye, are you here? And we just wait a sec, then the weird shit happens; the pointer starts to shake a little.

"It jumps us over to NO, and just wobbles there, in fact it wobbles for a second even when we take out fingers away. It's crazy, but we all look at Wendy and she looks around like, what the hell are you lookin at me for?"

I wait for him to keep speaking, but he just looks me hard in the eyes. I ask what's wrong, and he shakes his head. "You've got to be kidding me. You think I'm full of it."

I assure him that's not the case, but he just laughs. He grabs another couple of beers, throws one at me, and grunts. "Yeah I know what you're thinking. Crazy twenty-two year old, already an alcoholic. You'd be too. Damn.

"So are you cool for me to tell the rest? Good. So we all look back at the pointer thing, it's till vibrating kind of, and we all slowly reach for it again. We're dumb and we know it.

"The second we touch it, the thing rockets back around and lands again on NO, but this time we hold on, waiting. Wendy asks, no what, and it starts moving again: HE IS HERE GO RUN LEAVE STOP STOP STO… we're waiting for the P, but Wendy jumps back and shakes her head.

"She says, no way, I'm done, let's go. This is bad, she says. I kind of agree with her, Corrinne says yeah let's go, but Nate grins and says, this is great!"

Bruce leans back in his chair, sighing. "I never could say no to him, so I change my vote. We talk Wendy back into it, she insists on making a circle of salt around us. Witch crap, right?

"We touch the pointer again, and it gets right back to the message. STOP LEAVE STOP GET AWAY HE IS HERE WHY DON'T YOU GO NO NO NO STOP. It just keeps going, now we're just watching. It hits this rhythm, where we really don't even feel it moving, we just see letters flashing by, and then all at once it stops.

"The wind stops blowing, the bugs stop singing, everything gets real quiet, and we're shoulder-to-shoulder, and I can feel Wendy shaking through Nate. She's just beside herself, but still, somehow, we just don't let go.

"And then the pointer moves again. HELLO. We look at each other, and Nate takes over for Wendy, he says, who is this, and it moves again. WHY WHAT AN ODD THING TO ASK WERENT YOU LOOKING FOR ME.

"Nate gets a big grin on his face. He says, Smyle, and it starts moving. OH I AM SMILING I LOVE IT WHEN PEOPLE TAKE AN INTEREST. Nate laughs. I like this ghost, he says, but I look over at Wendy and she's just freaking out, like she's gonna have a seizure.

"The pointer keeps going, IM GLAD YOU LIKE ME I LIKE YOU TOO WHAT ARE YOUR NAMES. Wendy perks up again now, she screams, don't tell him! Nate asks why, she mumbles something about magic revolving around names, but Nate says, that's ridiculous, my name is Nate."

Bruce closes his eyes. I am transfixed, leaning almost off my chair, listening to this bizarre story, seeing it unfold in my mind as though I was there. I've never heard it told this way before.

He goes on. "The pointer gets going, it says HELLO NATE WHAT IS THE GIRLS NAME I LIKE HER, and Wendy drops the pointer. We all start to get weird now, like we all want to leave, but none of us do of course. We get Wendy to touch it again, and right away it gets moving.

"Then Nate says, Wendy, you need to chill.

"THEY SAY YOUR NAME IS WENDY I LIKE THAT NAME I WANT TO SHOW YOU SOMETHING. Now Wendy just stands up and starts to walk away, right, and we all look at her, but just as she passes the statue, she collapses.

"Corrinne freaks, Nate barely manages not to laugh. Right then, I hated his guts. Best friends, yeah, but I know when he's being an asshole, he thinks she's just scared. I see it as, she's just a kid, scared is enough to really screw you up for good."

He looks at me as though expecting a response, so I nod, still entranced by his tale. He frowns, eyes far in a troubled past. "Wendy isn't waking up. She's alive, sure, but cold as a dead person, and won't wake up. Corrinne slaps her face, starts crying, saying Nate, what do we do?

"But I'm looking at the Ouija board, and I decide to try something. I touch just one finger to it… and the pointer snaps up like a scared mouse, starts slashing this way and that. I just manage to follow what it says: HELP ME HE HAS ME HELP I CANT SEE HELP.

"And then my blood turns to ice, 'cause the others come over, leave Wendy on the ground, just in time to see the pointer finish up. HELP ME CORINE HELP HE HAS ME HELP… a pause… THANK YOU CHILDREN I HAVE NOT HAD COMPANY IN SO LONG SHE IS SO LOVELY AND PRECIOUS I WILL TREAT HER WELL DO NOT WORRY.

"We look back, and Wendy's gone. I mean gone, as in, not a trace, gone. Corrinne screams, goes to look for her, me and Nate keep talking to the board. Nate says, give her back, Smyle, but it comes back with MY NAME IS SMYTHE MR NATE AND SHE IS MINE NOW YOU OUGHT TO KNOW BETTER BY NOW THAN TO TALK TO STRANGERS.

"Nate looks at me, he has this look on his face like he's going to throw up, so we both look down at the board again. JUST LIKE THE LAST SILLY GIRL TO COME MY WAY YOU DONT SEEM TO TAKE ME SERIOUSLY WHAT WILL IT TAKE FOR YOU TO LEARN."

Bruce sighs into his hands, and I notice that my palms are sweating. I swig the beer he's given me, and he notices and smiles with a grim satisfaction. "I see we're on the same page about this."

I nod gravely. I've heard stories before about this sort of thing, but you'd have to be in person to really understand what I'm feeling. His eyes are haunted in the way of a veteran, or drug addict, as though he's learned some awful truth about the way the world really works when you strip away the sweet talk.

"I did learn though. I never left this town, though every glance at that statue haunts me, hurts my heart like a bullet. I moved here, within sight of the park, where I can keep track of that place and who goes there.

"There's gonna be another pack of smart kids like us, and they're gonna try the same thing we did. And that bastard, whoever and whatever he is, he's gonna take the youngest, prettiest girl they've got, the most innocent, and she'll never see the good world again.

"After Wendy was taken, after the police got involved and life got as close to normal as it ever would, I looked up Smythe in the archives. Sure enough, I found what he was finally convicted for. Kidnapping and… other things. He was a sick son of a bitch. And he's still doing it, even after we thought we were rid of him.

"You can't let your guard down, you know? And I never will. I'm here to protect every Wendy that thinks it's all a game, and keep the kids out of this place for as long as I live.

"Every small town has it's crazy guy, right? Well, I figured why. See, I'm the town crazy now, that's probably how you found me. All the kids know my name, all the adults think I'm a freak, nobody will come near me. But that's all right.

"See, I give them something obvious to fear, so they'll stay away from me. And if I'm parked on the statue, right where they actually have something real to be afraid of, then they won't come here. I've sacrificed a normal, painless life to protect these people."

He drains the can in his hand and crushes it. "I appreciate you listening to me, really. I know I seem a little nuts."

I assure him that I completely believe him, that his story will be a subject of mine, that maybe I can help him keep Wendy's fate from reaching another person. We shake hands, I put on my sunglasses, he stands to go inside.

I see him smile.

People leave New Deli older, wiser, yes, but a little bit dead inside. As I drive away, I feel a small but important part of myself die, the part of me that believes in a decent world.

The danger doesn't stop when the dangerous die; some of them leave hell here with us. And when a smile in a green and beautiful park is a symbol of death, damnation, and fear, then hell is only as far away as across the street.

-Anonymous