A face loomed in the darkness outside our stopped subway train. Outlined in glowing white lines. Xs for eyes. A hand-drawn, rictus grin. A mask. It bobbed along up and down the cars, pressing against the windows, fingertips tapping the glass. Giggling echoed down the tunnel, accompanying a high-pitched voice asking, “Who smiled? Whooo smiiiiled?”
Within, some of us glanced around at each other, wondering who had broken the taboo. At all stations, ancient signs declared, “Do not smile at strangers.” Relics of a time of scams and con artists. Now the tunnels were too dangerous for casual opportunists. Suggestion had become rule.
The voice of the conductor buzzed over the intercom. “Who pulled the emergency brake? What’s going on?”
In front of me, the face had paused, tilted, as if curious. A bare finger rubbed against the glass. Over and over. “Was it youuuu?”
Behind me, a woman stuttered a reply to the conductor. “No one,” she explained. “S-someone smiled at a stranger.”
A curse word sounded through the intercom before the conductor remembered to close the channel. Without the presence of an authority figure, the entire car held its collective breath.
The face watched us like fish in a bowl.
As the engine revved, the train lurched forward. Before me, beside the mask, the white outline of a hand bloomed, fingers outspread. They waved cheerfully at me. As the face receded, the voice sang out, “Byeeeeee.”
Nobody believes you when you tell them there’s a ghost in the basement.
And why would they? The one time the surveillance camera caught me, I was only a quick flash of light crossing the view. “There! Right there!” you said, voice cracking with fear as you pointed me out on the footage playback. I know, because I was watching over your shoulder. Maybe it was my icy breath down the back of your neck that had you so convinced. But your co-workers just smiled, shook their heads, hand-waved. Rationalized. Laughed. Like I said, no one believed you.
So now you’re down here in my basement to prove a point.
I can guess why you crept down those creaky steps after business hours. You’d be embarrassed if one of your co-workers caught you down here, what with your obsessive behavior this week. Your boss already had a talk with you about your productivity drop and the IT department had to report you for excessive internet searches relating to “how to find a ghost.” But that research paid off, because now you’ve got a top-of-the-line (free) EMF sensor app on your phone, even though cell phones are crap at detecting electromagnetic frequencies.
The beam from the flashlight in your other hand shivers as you pass it over boxes full of junk from the ’90s. Don’t you know there’s a light switch right beside you? To my surprise, no one else comes downstairs behind you. What, like you don’t even have a friend to back you up? Wow. Irritated, I push over a stack of files. I swear you jump three feet as you swing your light around, illuminating the yellowing papers slithering across the concrete floor. But you don’t scream. That’s the impressive part. You don’t expect anyone to come help you.
You’re going to be so fun. I let a little giggle bubble from my mouth.
“Who’s there?” you whimper. I roll my eyes; you and I both know no one else is down here. Your voice echoes back at you from deep within the vast basement. “We’re closed.”
“Closing time!” I sing out, mimicking in my raspy voice that popular song retailers like to play to get customers out of the store. I don’t quite remember all the words. “Duh duh duhduduh duh but you can’t stay here!”
You whirl around, flashlight beam swinging crazily, until it lands on that creepy mannequin someone left down here ages ago. You freeze to the spot, your eyes growing huge and your mouth making an O shape when you see what I’ve written in red Sharpie on its bare, silicone chest.
“We’re closed,” I whisper into your ear.
You swallow, gaze jumping to the EMF reader app. I’m right beside you, but it’s not detecting anything at all. Like I said, useless. I let the silence grow heavy. Just your flighty breaths, in and out. In, out.
Then, I scream. “WE’RE CLOSED GET OUT WE’RE CLOSED GET OUT WE’RE CLOSED GET OUT…!”
My chanting matches rhythm with the crash of your footsteps as you dash for the stairs. You’re making some kind of weird “aaahaaaahaaahaaa” noise as you go, but still no screaming. Of course you drop the flashlight and your phone. The bulb shatters on impact, plunging us into darkness, but the screen does not.
I let you go. This time.
After you’re gone, I retrieve your cell phone. You’ve got a pattern lock on it, but that doesn’t stop me. I take a selfie, flashing a peace sign and a smile full of sharp teeth. Then I replace your phone back on the floor, knowing you’ll come looking for it tomorrow.
But when you find my picture, all you’ll see will be a quick flash of light in the dark.