The Smiling

📅 Published on January 20, 2022

“The Smiling”

Written by Brian Martinez
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

Copyright Statement: Unless explicitly stated, all stories published on are the property of (and under copyright to) their respective authors, and may not be narrated or performed, adapted to film, television or audio mediums, republished in a print or electronic book, reposted on any other website, blog, or online platform, or otherwise monetized without the express written consent of its author(s).

🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available


Rating: 9.50/10. From 6 votes.
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I grew up in a family that always struggled with money.  I wish I could say we made the best of our situation, but that would be the worst kind of lie: the kind that lets my father off the hook.  He was a destructive, overbearing force in our lives, and he had a temper that made our house feel like we were living with a sleeping bear that no one dared poke.  My mother, sweet and caring as she was to me and my sister Addie, was no match for him.  She barely managed to hold onto the light in her eyes, and it faded year to year.

The worst part of my father, thinking back, was always the time just before the yelling.  It was the look on his face, that expression that meant he was about to start shouting and throwing things.  It wasn’t what you’d think it might be, a flash of angry fire in the eyes, no- it was just the slightest hint of a smile.

A smile that told me he enjoyed being the monster.

As rough as life was, growing up with a little sister meant I couldn’t let myself sit around and wallow in misery.  I may have only been three years older than she was, but I felt fully responsible for her.  It was my job to protect her, most of all from my father, who for some reason picked at Addie more than he did the rest of us.  Maybe it was her trusting nature, her innocence.  Leave it to my father to see kindness as a weakness.  Almost daily he would find something to yell at her for, and since I wouldn’t dare defend her or yell back, I started acting out.  I would do things that pulled his attention away from her and put it on me.  I was a good kid once, a well-behaved kid, but for Addie, to protect her the way an older brother should, I didn’t just seek out trouble- I became it.

I did anything and everything I could think of to upset and disappoint my father.  It made him so angry, in fact, that he practically forgot Addie existed.  He spent so much time screaming at me for this thing or that, he hardly said a word to her.  For most parents to forget a child would be neglect, but coming from my father, it was the opposite.  The more he ignored her, the better she did.  For every spanking I took, Addie read a book.  Every hour I spent in detention, every ride home I received from the truant officer, she had time to breathe and grow.  I lied and cheated and stole for her.  It wasn’t much, but it was dishonest work.  Away from my father’s blinding spotlight, Addie flourished.

One summer, though, the year Addie turned eight, that all changed.  And for once it wasn’t my father’s fault.

It was a particularly hot Friday night.  My parents were watching one of the documentaries my father liked so much, something about dictators.  I was reading comics under the covers after being sent to bed early – writing on the wall at church, I believe was my crime – when the most awful scream I’d ever heard broke the quiet.  It was so brutal, an almost inhuman shrieking, that it took a few seconds to register who was making the sound.


I burst from my makeshift tent and tore out of my room so fast I nearly pulled my arm out of its socket on the door frame.  My parents were already ahead of me, crowded around Addie’s bed at the end of the hall.  For a second I thought it was my father making Addie scream like that, and in that second, no matter what consequences would follow, I was prepared to pound my fist into the side of his head to get him away from her.  It probably would have been the last thing I ever did, but it would have been worth it.

Except it wasn’t my father doing it.  He and my mother were actually trying to get Addie to stop screaming, both of them shaking her arms and asking her what happened.  It sounded as if she’d had a nightmare, but she was speaking so fast and with so little breath that I could barely make out a word of what she was saying.

The only thing I could tell for sure was that she was looking at her window, with an expression on her face like she was looking at Hell itself.

I tried asking her what had happened, but my father only shouted for me to get back to bed.  My mother, pale and thin in her nightgown, led me back down the hallway to my room.  She assured me that Addie had just had a bad dream, and everything was going to be fine.

Before she left to return to Addie’s room, she gave me a kiss on my forehead, the way she did when my father wasn’t looking.  It was the first time in a long time I’d seen my mother without the long sleeves she always wore.  As she leaned in, I saw a small collection of bruises on her arms and shoulders.  Some were old and gray, some fresher, thumbprints painted in purple and yellow.  She must have noticed me looking, because her eyes went wide and then she closed my door and hurried away, back down the hollow hallway.

I stood in front of that door for nearly an hour, feeling the throbbing in my arm, listening to my parents calm Addie down, trying to convince her that bad dreams couldn’t hurt her.  And over and over, Addie told my parents that she hadn’t been sleeping.  That she hadn’t been dreaming.

* * * * * *

The next morning I snuck into Addie’s room early, before my parents came out of their room, to ask her what had happened to make her scream like that.

But she was already gone.

Her pajamas were folded and neatly stacked on her dresser.  Her sneakers were gone.  Even her bed was made, creased the way my father expected us to every morning.  Only one thing was different from how she usually left her room: the shades on the windows weren’t pulled up, leaving the usually bright pink room a dull, flesh-colored hue.  It wasn’t like Addie to leave her room so dark, and it reminded me how she’d stared at the window with that terrible look on her face.

In the kitchen I found my mother at the table.  She quietly stirred a cup of coffee, staring at a spot on the wall.  She looked like she hadn’t slept, especially when she tried to smile at me but came up empty, her eyes heavy with purple skin.  I tried not to think of what else I’d seen; the secret she hid under those long sleeves.

“Where’s Addie?” I asked.  She moved to the refrigerator to retrieve a carton of eggs, glancing at me, almost surprised by the question.  As if she expected me to just forget everything from the night before.

“Your sister isn’t well,” my mother said carefully.

“I know.  She was scared of something.”

The stove clicked on with a hard snap.  My mother paused a moment, picking her words.  “Travis … sometimes, when people are under a lot of stress, they can make up things that aren’t really there.”

“Addie’s not a liar,” I said, angry.

“No, not lies, it’s more like … seeing things.  Things you swear are real, but can’t possibly be.”

“Where’s Addie?” I repeated over the sound of sizzling oil.

She took a breath.  “Your father thought it would be best if she saw a doctor.”

My skin heated up faster than the pan on the stovetop.  “Addie doesn’t need a doctor, she needs help,” I said, then added, “We all do.”

My mother spun, closing the distance between us in a second.  She raised her hand so quickly I thought she was about to hit me.  I flinched.  But she was only raising her finger at me, pushing it in my face.

“Don’t you dare let him hear you say that!”  She hissed, looking like a cornered animal lashing out.  Tears jumped to her eyes as she caught her hand and lowered it.  Before she did, though, I caught sight of another bruise, a new one, just below the wrist.  She alone knew how many there really were, except for maybe God, if he’d bothered to check in.

My mouth opened, an apology trying its best to bubble up from my throat, but I couldn’t get it out.  The moment passed.  My mother wiped her face and returned to the stove as if none of it had happened.  It was a skill she’d been practicing for years.  Avoidance and Denial.  The ability to shut a door and keep moving as if the last room never existed.

With the pan hot enough, my mother took an egg from the carton to start making breakfast.  She paused, an odd look on her face, and turned the egg over a few times as if weighing it.  I asked her what was wrong but she didn’t hear me, shaking the egg once, twice.  She cracked it against the lip of the pan and it sounded wrong somehow, far too brittle.  Then she pushed her thumbs into the cracks and spread the egg open in one movement.

It was empty.  No yolk.  No whites.  Nothing but emptiness.

Placing the empty shell to the side, she grabbed for another egg, but again by her expression I could tell it was wrong.  She cracked it against the pan, and again it came up empty.  She grabbed another but she didn’t bother cracking it against the pan this time, just crushed it in her palm, the sound of dry crackling filling her hand.  One after the other she crushed the eggs, finding not a single usable one among them.

Without any warning she threw the last one down, then rushed from the kitchen, slamming her bedroom door shut.  I sat silently for a few seconds.  Then I got up and turned off the stove, moving the pan away from the heat.  As the oil cooled, I threw out the empty shells and cleaned up all the scattered pieces I could find, including those that had fallen to the floor.

They were hollow shells, every one.

Just like us.

* * * * * *

Our house was small, tiny, even, and when things were going bad it felt even smaller.  Like a belt squeezing around my neck, tightening down on my throat until my lungs burned.  With my father and sister gone, and my mother crying softly in her room, I needed some air.

Our backyard was nothing more than a worn-out deck overlooking a patch of crabgrass and dead tree roots, but it did have one thing going for it: trees.  The far end of our backyard ended at the start of a wooded area maybe nine or ten acres across, that as far as I was aware didn’t belong to anyone.  That meant I had free reign over it.  I could explore it as much as I wanted without risk of getting in trouble, other than obviously my father.  Frankly he didn’t care what I got up to in there, so long as I reemerged clean and without any new holes in my clothes.

And so, needing to get my mind off of whatever was happening in the house that day, I crossed the backyard and entered into the woods.  It was a noisy kind of quiet to be found in there, with the sounds of birds and bugs and soft dirt underfoot drowning out the nearby traffic.

I must have spent two hours stomping around in those woods, breaking branches, poking salamanders, climbing trees, though without a watch on I had no way of knowing.  It was a place where time seemed to lose all meaning.  If not for my t-shirt and sneakers I could have been a kid from any time in history.  A pilgrim foraging for berries.  The son of a Civil War Doctor, sent to locate an herb for a poultice.  A hippie child communing with nature.  Anything but what I really was: a sixth-grader, hiding from his broken family.

No matter how much I climbed and prodded and explored those woods, though, there was one area I never entered, not since the first time I found it.  It was cold, and dark, and I didn’t like the feel of it at all, like something old lived there.  So I avoided it.  Denied it even existed.

I was my mother’s son after all.

* * * * * *

Eventually my father and Addie got home.  By then my mother had come out of her room and finished tidying the kitchen to my father’s standards.  She hadn’t looked like she wanted to talk, so I sat on the couch and read.  Addie was quiet, not her usual bubbling fountain of words.  My father spoke to my mother quietly and I tried to listen in, but I couldn’t make out a word of what they were talking about, only that it was serious.

I knew my father would be watching me closely, so I didn’t bother trying to ask Addie about the night before.  Not until after dinner, when my mother and father were watching television.

Addie was playing in her room, close to the door, not on her bed like she usually did.  The shades on the window were still pulled down all the way.  A pile of paper was spread out in front of her on the floor, and she was scribbling on them with crayons.

“Hey,”  I whispered, “what happened?”

Addie didn’t look up from her drawing, continuing to make big circles with the black crayon.  “I had a bad dream from watching too much television,”  she said, sounding rehearsed.  I could practically hear my father’s voice in her words.

“Last night you said it wasn’t a dream.”

“I got confused.  I had just woke up.”  She grabbed the red crayon, still not looking at me.  I could see she wasn’t going to say anything to me under threat of my father, so I decided to try something.  It wasn’t right, and I knew it, but I had to get the truth out of her if I was going to protect her.

“Okay, whatever.  I think it’s gonna rain tonight,”  I said, pretending to change the subject.

“Mm-hmm,”  she agreed, making big swoops on the paper with the red crayon.  I moved across her room and toward the window.

“I know you like listening to the rain when you sleep,”  I said, pulling on the shades, “I’ll open this so you can hear it.”

“No, no, no!”  Addie shouted, her whole body twisting toward me.  She looked as if she was going to claw me away from the window.  Instead she clutched her mouth shut, realizing how loud she’d been.  We both waited a moment, full of the usual dread.  Sure enough:

“What’s going on in there?”  Our father called out from the couch.  Addie rushed to the doorway to answer him.

“Sorry, I broke my crayon,” she replied.  It was scary how good we’d both gotten at hiding things from our father.  Anything to avoid his wrath.  We both waited a heart-pounding second to see if he believed her story.

“Be careful, those things cost money,”  he said, not moving from the couch.  Addie apologized again, and then we both took a breath.  I apologized as well, to Addie, for almost bringing our father down on both our heads, but she didn’t want to hear it.  She gave me a look I’d never seen on her face before.  It was cold and angry, and for the first time I could think of, she looked like my father.

I left her room without touching or saying anything else.  Before I did I tried to glance at the stack of drawings she’d been making.  She saw me looking and covered them up before I could see.

* * * * * *

That night I stayed up for hours, listening, my door cracked slightly to hear better.  At first it was the sound of my parents talking, mostly about money, but eventually they went off to their bedroom and our small house went quiet.  I forced myself not to fall asleep so I could run to Addie’s room at the first sign of trouble.  I would get there first, before my parents did, to see what had Addie so scared.  See it with my own eyes before they had a chance to shut me out.

Sometime before midnight the rain started.  At first it was just the pittering of raindrops against the window, a lullaby sound I had to fight to stay awake, but soon it turned.  The rain grew bitter and the wind shook the shutters.  The old house creaked and groaned under heavy gusts.  As angry as the storm sounded, it had a song-like quality that eventually coaxed my eyelids to shut.

I was woken not by screaming, but by wind on my face.

It was an odd feeling, like someone was leaned over my bed and whispering to me, their breath as cold as the grave.  I gasped and sat up straight in bed.  My chest was tight, arms shivering.  It was even stranger given it was summer, but then I remembered the storm, and how quickly the temperature dropped once the rain started.

That still didn’t explain why I was feeling it, though.

Once my eyes adjusted to the dark I noticed the door to my room had swung wide open, swaying in the unnatural wind.  I stumbled out of bed, the wood floor a shock of cold under bare skin.  The wind whistled through the open doorway, and more than anything I wanted to shut the door, put on warm clothes, get back into bed and pull the covers over my head.  But a strange fascination drew me forward.  It would be impossible to fall back asleep with something so strange going on, of course, but there was something even more important than that.

Addie.  Addie and the window that had her so terrified I couldn’t even touch it.

I ran down the cold hallway and toward Addie’s room, the wind going right through me, visions of her open window dancing in my mind, rain blasting in through the soaked frame, the violent night sky, and the storm itself, one finger extended, beckoning me to come closer, begging me to join it in the night.

But what I found was so much worse.

The wind, trapped at the dead end, whipped through Addie’s room, creating a cyclone of tumbling and twirling papers.  I had to shield my face or risk paper cuts.  Her window was still shut tight, the lock at the bottom clasped, but the shades had been raised to the top.  The pane was wet from rain, and it was fogged up as if someone had been breathing against the glass from the outside.  Raindrops threw themselves against the window and flashes of lightning popped and jumped in the distance, lighting up the violent night.  But all that, that wasn’t even close to the worst part.

The worst part was the bed, with Addie not in it.

My heart felt like a stone lodged in my trachea.  Addie’s bed, empty, the sheets thrown aside, was everything I’d been afraid of, everything I’d tried to avoid with my acting out and my standing between her and my father.  Yet in doing so I’d dropped my guard against all else, every threat that came from outside rather than in.

Something slapped against my leg.  I jumped, picturing bony fingers clasped around my ankle, eager to drag me away.  I grasped desperately at whatever it was, ready to fight for my life, and came back with a sheet of paper.

It was one of Addie’s drawings, and it was a face.  It had a round, misshapen head, with the tiniest of eyes at the center, and beneath them the longest, widest mouth I’d ever seen.  The smile was practically carved into the paper in red crayon.  The paper flapped violently from the wind, causing the face to seem alive in my hands.

I looked around then, at the papers flying around me.  They were simple, crude, even, but every one was of the exact same thing: a smiling face.  It was a tornado of grotesque faces, all of them grinning and laughing at me.

The sight of those sickly smiling faces brought the last minute or so into terrible focus.  I knew then where the wind was coming from, and why.  Worse, I knew where Addie had gone.

I ran then, ran harder than I’d ever run in my life, back up the wind tunnel of a hallway, past my room, through the living room and to the front of the house.  The entire way there I prayed not to find what I thought I would, and yet there was no doubt in my mind.  I could see it so clearly, the culmination of a thousand nightmares, and even then, when I saw it with my own eyes, the actual image of it caused the nightmares to pale and whither under its power.

The front door, unlocked from the inside, swung wide open to the wind and rain.  And Addie, little Addie, was long gone.

I don’t remember running outside, and I don’t remember searching for her in the woods, screaming into the thunder.  I only know that my parents found me on the ground, in the mud, calling out Addie’s name with what was left of my voice.  I had a water-logged ball of paper clenched so tightly in my hand that it took the two of them to pry it from my fist.  When they finally did, and they managed to unwrap and uncurl the wet, gummy mess enough to look at it, the face at its center smiled at them, too.

Rating: 9.50/10. From 6 votes.
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available

Written by Brian Martinez
Edited by Craig Groshek
Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek
Narrated by N/A

🔔 More stories from author: Brian Martinez

Publisher's Notes: N/A

Author's Notes: N/A

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Copyright Statement: Unless explicitly stated, all stories published on are the property of (and under copyright to) their respective authors, and may not be narrated or performed, adapted to film, television or audio mediums, republished in a print or electronic book, reposted on any other website, blog, or online platform, or otherwise monetized without the express written consent of its author(s).

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