A short horror story…happy Halloween!
“…wife’ll kill me.”
Oscar drained his beer and turned from the TV to his companion.
Derek slid off his stool and laid a ten dollar bill on the bar top. “I said I gotta take off. If I’m late for dinner again my wife’ll kill me.”
“See, man? That’s why I’m single,” said Oscar. “No one to answer to. I think I’ll get another round.” He caught the bartender’s eye and pointed to his empty bottle and shot glass. “‘Nother boilmaker, Sal.”
Derek paused, as if forming — and then rejecting — a response. He threw Oscar a half-hearted wave and left The Tap Room.
Whipped, thought Oscar.
Bored by the low-stakes game on TV, he did a half-turn on his stool and surveyed the Tap. It was quiet for a Thursday. A little cold inside the room, too, now that he thought of it. The Wall Street Gang — as Oscar liked to call them — were gathered around the pool table, jackets off and ties loosened. One of them waved and Oscar raised his fresh beer bottle in return. He hadn’t actually known if they worked in finance when he dubbed them so, but it turned out he was right (he usually was). And he knew they got a kick out of the nickname.
A group of 20-something women — girls, Oscar corrected — were sitting a few yards away. Three passably-attractive brunettes and one particularly luscious redhead. All were dressed in dark colored t-shirts and jeans. As he was sizing them up, the redhead held his gaze for a few seconds.
Oscar raised his eyebrows at her, and gave a quick come-here jerk of his head. She shook her head and mouthed a decisive “no” at him.
Whatever. Probably going next door to that punk show. He didn’t trust girls who liked punk.
Oscar scratched his forehead with his middle finger and slid back around to the bar, shivering a little in the room’s odd chill. Sitting diagonally from him — two stools around the bar’s short corner — was a woman with waist-length dark blonde hair, a half-full Manhattan in her hand. She wore a fitted long-sleeved cotton dress in a deep maroon that reached her ankles, nearly hiding her charcoal grey boots.
Oscar guessed she was in her late 30s. If he was right (he usually was), then he was interested. She went to place her glass down, and he saw his opening.
“Miss,” Oscar called. “Careful of your sleeve, there, Miss. That bar’s wet.”
The woman stared at Oscar, glass still raised, then at the bar top. From behind the bar, Sal hustled over with a dry towel.
“Sorry, Ma’am. Thanks, Oscar,” Sal said over his shoulder, mopping the puddle.
“Thank you,” the woman said to Sal, then shifted her dark eyes — Brown? Blue? He couldn’t tell from where he sat — back to Oscar. “And you.” She returned to her drink.
“I’m Oscar,” he offered.
“Yes,” she said. Unsmiling.
Oscar shivered again and shrugged his coat on. Screw it, he thought. It’s not my night.
He dropped a twenty on top of Derek’s ten and placed his last beer on both bills. The woman took no notice. He headed toward the Tap’s heavy wooden door, then paused. He was mad, but needed a reason.
She said thank you. Can’t scold her on manners.
He took three steps to his left and tapped the woman on her cotton maroon shoulder. She turned.
“You should smile more, you know that?” Oscar told her.
She turned to face him. Her eyes were the darkest brown he’d ever seen. Nearly black. She smiled, slowly. Oscar froze. The expression added years to the woman. Oscar now put her in her late 40s, maybe 50s.
God, she’s like that chick in that 70s movie, he thought. Ghost Story, that’s it. The Chowder Society. What was her name?
She raised her finger to her grinning lips, then traced Oscar’s own — unsmiling — mouth with the same finger. He shuddered, but didn’t move. Couldn’t move.
Oscar snapped to the present. The Tap was suddenly loud. And hot.
When did it get hot?
He was back in front of the door, though he didn’t remember stepping away from the Ghost Story woman. She was facing the bar, sipping her Manhattan.
He shook himself and creaked open the door. Walking home, he replayed the one-sided — one-lined, actually — conservation. Did it actually happen? Did he talk to her?
Did she touch his mouth?
He rubbed his lips with his jacket sleeve as he stepped into his apartment building’s elevator. His place — a tidy L-shaped studio with a walk-in shower and a queen-sized Murphy bed — was reassuringly quiet. Oscar rubbed his face again, then walked to his bathroom (a little too quickly) to wash it. He studied his reflection, touching his lips gently.
You’re fine, he scolded himself. Go to bed, loser.
Oscar woke to laughter at 5:50AM. He was on his stomach, his left cheek pressed into the pillow. An uncharacteristic puddle of drool stained his French blue pillowcase. He did a sleepy push up and flipped over, stretching. The hosts of his favorite talk radio morning show were now full-on guffawing. Something — as best Oscar could gather — about a bat in a kitchen in Ireland. He yawned, then stopped. Something was off.
Something was off with his mouth.
He flung his duvet aside and padded (a little too quickly) to the full-length mirror inside his closet door. He looked fine. Good, in fact, considering his three rounds of boilermakers and no dinner. He was even smiling.
Except he shouldn’t be. He wasn’t trying to. But smiling he was. Just a little one, but it was there.
Oscar pursed his lips. He sounded out words waterballoon, cornucopia, megalomaniac, wow, wow, wow. His mouth worked fine; it just always seemed to want to go back to that tiny smile when Oscar wasn’t using it.
He stepped out of his pajama bottoms and yanked a clean gray t-shirt over his head. As he dressed, Oscar listened to the radio show, forcing himself to chuckle. Just a normal weekday morning. He stuffed his work clothes into his gym bag, not taking his usual care with the creases. Jamming in his ear buds, he picked up the show via live stream and turned it up.
Just loud enough to push Ghost Story woman’s face — and finger — out of his head.
“Push! Push! That’s it, Oscar! See, Oscar’s smiling. Oscar’s into it!”
The HIIT instructor, Kelli, grinned at him in-between burpees, her baby blue workout tank giving just the right amount of cleavage. She’d never singled him out before. He’d never smiled during burpees before. Why was he doing it now? He hated burpees. Still, she noticed him. Maybe this was the day to ask her out for a drink.
During a 20-second rest he took a pull from his water bottle. It slopped down his chin and onto his shirt.
Real smooth, loser.
He tried again, walking in a circle to keep his heart rate going. Was it a little harder to close his mouth around the bottle? No, that’s stupid. He sipped cautiously.
You’re just breathing hard.
“Let’s go, let’s go. I want to see those jump squats!” A few minutes into the set, Kelli glanced at Oscar again. This time, her return smile looked forced.
Was he freaking her out? He was. He was freaking her out.
Stop smiling, damnit!
He clamped on the inside of his lips with his teeth, forcing them closed. Within seconds, his lungs shrieked in protest. HIIT wasn’t made for nose-breathers. He gasped, gulping in air. His smile exploded across his face, wider than before.
At the end of the class Oscar grabbed his towel, making a show of wiping his face and neck, hiding his grin in the cloth. He jogged to the locker rooms and ducked into the handicap stall, with its own sink and mirror.
He was grinning like an idiot. Like a clown. Like the Joker, even. The Jack Nicholson Joker at that; not the cool Joaquin Phoenix one.
What was he going to do?
Sal. He would go to Sal. He might know where this Ghost Story bitch was. The Tap didn’t open until 11, so he’d hide out in his apartment until then.
Oscar pulled his phone from his bag and opened his work email. I’m sick today. Might be strep throat, he typed to his boss. Getting a test before coming back to office in case I’m contagious.
Keeping his towel around his neck, Oscar slipped out of the gym, trying to avoid Kelli. Or was she now avoiding him? Once outside, he tucked his chin deeper into the towel and ran.
“Hey, man! Watch it!”
Oscar collided with a thick chest covered in navy wool. The impact caused both men to stagger back. Oscar a bit more than his victim. His towel slipped to the concrete.
“Sorry, man.” Oscar tried to walk around him, but a firm hand stayed him.
“Look at me, man,” the stranger insisted. “Look what you did.”
Oscar looked. The man was six foot four at least, Oscar guessed (he was ususally right). Not the kind of guy Oscar tended to mess with. His navy suit jacket — and white dress shirt — were doused in coffee.
“This is funny to you?” The man looked at him, incredulous. “Is that what this is? This is funny?”
I’m sorry, Oscar tried to say. The words didn’t come this time. His grin spread wider.
“OK, OK,” said the man. “I see how it is.” He set his half-full cup on a newspaper box filled with the latest edition of the local alt-weekly. About movies, no less.
What was that Ghost Story actress’ name?
The haymaker’s wind up was slow, giving everything away. Oscar wanted — needed — to run. His feet were rooted to the sidewalk.
“You’re still smiling, huh?” the man said. His immense fist connected with Oscar’s jaw.
His lips split open. The corners of his mouth cracked open. Jagged seams ripped across the jawline on both sides of his face. As he fell, his head lopped comically backwards. His chin thumped onto his chest, his eyes staring upward at the gray morning sky.
I am grinning from ear to ear, he thought.
Screaming. A pink umbrella clattered, its broken prong piercing Oscar’s left hand. Fog clouded into his vision. The screaming grew faint.
Krige, thought Oscar. It was Alice Krige.