The salty wind whipped my hair around as I made my way down the rocky path. One of the locals suggested that I check out the cave below my rental by taking the overgrown trail behind the house, so I decided to make the trip before getting too settled in for the evening. My retreat to the small coastal town in Maine was meant to be an opportunity to focus on my book. The deadline for finishing my novel was looming over my head, and I was getting tired of the constant bombardment of emails from my publisher asking if I was going to be able to hit the target date. I needed some fresh air after the long drive before I stared at a monitor all night, so I decided a quick walk wouldn’t hurt. Maybe it would even inspire me. I laughed cynically at myself as this thought ran through my mind. I’d need more than a long walk on the beach to figure out all my problems.
It took me around 20 minutes to find the end of the windy, worn path that led me down the granite cliffside. The drunken local at the pub didn’t lie. It really was a beautiful spot. The sun was setting over the horizon, its remaining light creating a beautiful glow of blues, violets, and oranges. I stared into the open ocean listening to the waves lashing against the rocks, allowing myself to fall into a trance. I didn’t notice the large cave until I heard the squawking of a seagull behind me. It hopped around the cave entrance in a peculiar manner, almost as if it was inviting me to enter. The light was fading quickly, so I decided I’d entertain the grungy bird’s request and make a quick detour before returning to the house.
As I followed the bird into the dimly lit cave, I noticed three rocky tunnel entrances in the back of it. The seagull bounced towards the tunnel entrance on the left so I started following it. The weak light still cast by the sun faded away as I explored so I pulled out my cellphone and turned on its light. I trailed the bird cautiously, following the phone light reflecting in its eyes as it journeyed ahead. My brain still hadn’t quite registered whether this was a good idea or not, but the strange actions of the bird had me just curious enough to stay on its tracks. The tunnel had slowly been narrowing to a point where I was about to turn back due to the inability to continue, but right before I made this decision, the tunnel opened up into a large cavern. As I looked down at my phone to turn up the brightness, I heard the caw of the seagull and the trickling of water. It sounded like there was a small waterfall in the area. I raised my cell phone, the light now a bit stronger than it was before.
That’s when I noticed it.
A dark shadow in the back of the cave.
I stared at the spot, my eyes straining to make sense of the black blur. The inky silhouette appeared to be about my height, but I couldn’t make out any other features. When it moved, my instincts kicked in and I ran. The adrenaline was pumping so hard that my legs seemed to be acting on their own accord and didn’t stop until I had returned back to my rental. I hunched over in the front entryway of the house, my hands resting on my knees. I thought about the locked door behind me in an attempt to stabilize my breathing. After a few minutes, doubt and embarrassment crept into my mind. I’m a grown man. How could I let myself become so frightened? It was surely a trick of the cave shadows and my phone. That damn bird.
I headed to the kitchen, wiping the cold sweat off my forehead. A new idea started forming in my mind for my book. If something like that scared me enough to run like a schoolgirl, surely I could twist the events enough to make an interesting passage in the book. I opened the cooler I brought with me and took out my dinner, sitting at the old table in the corner of the kitchen. What would I put in the cavern awaiting my protagonist? A zombie wolf? Vampire demon? No, too cliche. I didn’t want my book to go supernatural. A dead body with bloody messages written on the wall? I might be able to work with that. I headed over to the sink to wash my hands after finishing my meal. The water sputtered out of the faucet for a few seconds before it started smoothly falling. I reached for the soap, my eyes observing the cherries assorted in various positions on the window curtain.
That’s when I noticed it. Again.
A dark shadow slowly passing by the kitchen window.
I froze in terror, paralyzed by the creeping outline of a figure. It continued its slow pace, eventually exiting my view. My body and mind reconnected when the water started burning my hands, steam rising from the bottom of the sink. Quickly turning the sink off, I wiped my hands on my pants and reached for my phone.
“9-1-1, what’s your emergency?”
“I...I believe there’s somebody at the house I’m staying at. Please send a cop.”
After giving the house address to the lady on the phone, I double-checked the doors in the front and back to make sure they were locked. A quick jolt of fear struck me when I noticed the back one wasn’t, but I would have noticed if it had been opened. Right? I slapped myself a few times in an attempt to remove the crazy. Stop overthinking things, Nate. This book is making you crazy.
I pulled out my laptop, sitting in the chair in the far corner of the house. If there was some creeping thing out there, I’d get a good long look at it before it devoured my brains. It took a few minutes, but my jittering fingers finally settled down enough to open the book outline so I could add some more notes to the storyline.
The shabby cat led the woman to the back of the—
My thought and fingers were interrupted by thumping at the front door. I didn’t move until I heard a gruff voice from behind the door.
“Bar Harbor police. We received a call from this location.”
I made my way to the front door, opening it to a tall, older man in a worn police uniform. Tufts of gray hair protruded from under the back and sides of the police cap.
“My name is Officer Greyson. We received a distress call from this number.”
I felt my face turning red from embarrassment. Did I really have to call the police because I couldn’t handle myself?
“Yeah, uh, thanks for coming. I saw somebody by the kitchen window. I thought I’d have someone come look at it.”
“Do you have a description of the intruder?”
His usage of “intruder” didn’t ease my mind much, but it showed he was taking the call seriously. Maybe it was because I was a grown man, and I should know better than to call 9-1-1 without trying to handle a situation myself.
“No, he was quick, I just saw the shadow of him run by. Then I heard some rustling at the back door.”
I fibbed a bit to make the matter seem more serious. I didn’t mention anything about my earlier encounter by the sea.
“Would you like to walk the perimeter of the house with me?” the officer asked.
“Yeah, that would be fine. Let’s do it.”
I grabbed my jacket from the back of the chair in the living room and followed the police officer out the front door. We made one quick sweep around the outside of the house, not finding any evidence of footprints or anything out of the ordinary. The officer looked over at the grove of trees located around 50 yards behind the house.
“Let’s check those out real quick,” he said, motioning with his left hand towards the grove. Halfway there, he pulled out a flashlight and handed it to me. He pulled out his nightstick and we headed into the trees. It was nearly pitch black when we entered, but the powerful flashlight created a strong beam of light that allowed us to see ahead clearly. I felt the damp ground beneath my shoes as we weaved in between the trees. I glanced behind us, noting the footprints we were leaving behind. If there was something in here, we’d definitely see traces of it.
“Maybe it’s the smiling man,” the police officer said, staring ahead blankly as we walked. I didn’t like the way he said that.
“The smiling man? What’s that?” I asked hesitantly.
“He’s the local legend. The one that seems to stalk all outsiders that come to these parts.”
“So you get calls like this often?”
“On occasion. I’ve been to this house a few times after the temporary residents make a call. The description of the intruder is always different. Can’t say I’ve had one like yours though. I’ve never had anyone describe the smiling man as fast. If he was as fast as you claim, you’d really be in trouble.”
He said these words as we exited back out of the grove, causing me to stop walking. I stared at him incredulously.
“What do you —”
The police officer turned to me, causing me to end my sentence. I raised the flashlight up until my arm froze when the light hit his face. His smiling, maniacal face. I didn’t know whether to run or to swing the heavy flashlight at his head. Before I could decide, he slapped my shoulder and started laughing.
“I’m kidding man, lighten up. I think you’re good here. The wind gets strong up on this hill. That’s probably what rattled your door. Lot’s of wildlife too. That’s why I wanted to look at the grove with you. Wanted to see if we could see any animal tracks.”
“Oh...right,” I stammered, still in shock at the police officer’s actions.
“Sorry, kid. That probably wasn’t the nicest thing to do to you right now. It’s been a long, boring day. Had to bring in some excitement.”
I was initially pretty pissed when he did this, but after our conversation on the way back to the house I had cooled down a bit. I really couldn’t blame the old police officer. It sounded like it was pretty boring in Bar Harbor. If I was in his shoes, I’d probably mess with the crazies that came to my town for a getaway too.
“Call if you need anything else. Stop by Maryanne’s Diner in the morning, too. It’s the best place in town to get breakfast.” With those last few words and a wave, Officer Greyson slid into his patrol car and headed back towards town.
I had never felt more silly in my life. I headed back to the house and picked up my laptop from where I had left it. The only place I hadn’t seen in the house yet was the bedroom, which is where I headed after grabbing my bag. The stairs creaked and groaned as I climbed up. At the top, I found that the stairs led to a single bedroom upstairs. It was strangely shaped like an elongated rectangle with a bed and nightstand located at the very end of it. It reminded me of the long hallways that you see in large hotels. There wasn’t much else except the window that overlooked the front of the property. I set down all my things and took out the equipment needed for the rest of the night, which wasn’t much. I mainly needed my laptop and the charger. The plan was to write until my eyes wouldn’t stay open any longer.
Ideas came easier than I anticipated. I guess you could say I really was inspired by the events of the day. My outline was complete, and I had made it to the halfway point in my book before noticing it was 2 AM. I had all day tomorrow so I decided to call it a night. After tucking the laptop and charger under the nightstand, I changed into my sleepwear.
It was a long walk to turn off the light. Whoever built this house didn’t think about their design choice very well. I didn’t bring my phone with me either, so I had to stand by the light switch for a minute before my eyes adjusted to the darkness. The bit of moonlight seeping in from the window also guided my path as I made my way towards the bed.
I tossed and turned in the small bed, my mind still racing from the events of the day. The book had been driving me crazy. There was plenty of evidence for that today. I’m not sure why I was so stressed out about this novel. Maybe it was because it was a sequel and the expectations were high. The first book had done very well and the publisher quickly noticed that, which was probably why they had been so adamant about me meeting my deadline. Writing under intense stress was a skill I would definitely need to develop. There was probably a book about it. I’d have to check in the morning.
My eyelids finally became heavy, my mind entering the dream world. Or trying to at least. Something dark was blocking its path. Something standing in front of the doorway at the end of the long, long hallway. Not sure if I was in a dream or nightmare, I sat up in the bed. The dark figure remained. I pinched myself hard, doing everything I could to wake up. A voice in my head told me I wasn’t sleeping, and I knew it wasn’t lying.
“No. No. No, no, no.” I repeated the word, barely audible to even myself. If someone really was there, I would have heard the cry of the steps as the intruder made their way up the stairs. It had been silent. It was another hallucination. My drowsiness was pumping me full of crazy drugs. I closed my eyes, holding them shut as I counted to 30. It’d be gone when I opened them. I willed this to be true.
That’s when I noticed the shadow was closer. Except it wasn’t a shadow this time. It was clearly a humanoid figure. It had closed half the distance to me, but it was standing there unmoving when I looked at it again. I didn’t keep my eyes open long enough to take in any details other than that. I laid down in the bed, closing my eyes so tight it hurt. There was nothing there. I would have heard the footsteps of it moving. Right? Right? The attempt at reassuring myself with these thoughts bounced around in my head, doing their best to create a plausible explanation.
But all I heard was—silence. The loud, eerie noise of nothingness.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
Three distinct, noiseless times I felt something tap against my forehead. The same feeling you have when someone taps you on the shoulder to get your attention.
My eyes opened instinctively at the request. I wish they hadn’t. Oh, I wish they hadn’t.
The first thing that registered was the noise. The moist, crackling sound of the giant smile echoed in the room. Revealed were rotting teeth, fresh blood still trickling from the gums that barely held them in. Then the eyes. Black voids of nothingness, eliciting the feeling of being lost in space forever, floating for all eternity in a cold, open coffin. Wispy, white hair adorned the wrinkled, yellow head. I couldn’t even be sure it was actually attached since the scalp was practically falling from the skull.
I closed my eyes.
No noise once again. Dead silent.
I opened my eyes to an empty room. The only change being the open door, which I remember closing when I had turned out the lights.
. . .
The book was a smashing success. Even more so than the first. It turns out that people agree with what I learned that night. One of the scariest things we experience as humans is doubt. Things that border reality and imagination. Fears that can’t be vanquished because they live in our minds. To conquer them would require us to remove the source from where they are born.
I head to my mailbox on this beautiful day, looking forward to the mail. One of my favorite parts of writing is the fan mail that follows my books. One envelope stands out from the rest. It has no writing on it at all, but something thick rests inside. I open it and remove the feather from inside. A seagull feather. “Smile” in crimson lettering is displayed on the side. The liquid glistens in the sun as I stare at it. This couldn’t be fan mail. Or even a sick joke. The seagull in my book was a cat, not a bird. There was only one thing that knew the reference behind Mittens.