She walked into the studio. There were only a couple people inside. The announcer was down by the cameras going over some procedures for the show. On the stage, two smiling men were sitting in chairs. There was an empty chair too: hers. She approached the announcer.
“I’m here for the smiling contest,” she said.
The announcer turned and smiled at her. If he had been in the contest, he would have won. “Fantastic! That’s just great! Have a seat and we will get started shortly!”
She took her seat. A few minutes later, the audience filed in. None of them were smiling. They all had identical expressions: the coldest faces she had ever seen. They didn’t make a noise. There was uncomfortable shuffling as they lined up in their seats. It felt like they were all staring at her with their peccary, unblinking eyes. She had never felt so unsettled in her entire life.
The show started. “Welcome, ladies and gentlemen,” announced the announcer, “To the Smiling Contest!” No reaction whatsoever from the audience. Had the show even started? “Here, our contestants will battle it out in the ultimate test of physical and psychological endurance, as they try to be the last one smiling!”
That was wrong. She was in the wrong contest. She was freaking out inside. People had told her she had a pretty smile but there was no way she could hold it for very long. She had to tell the announcer that she had made a mistake and needed to forfeit. How could she? The audience had her strapped to her seat. It was fortunate she had taken her anti-depressants that morning.
Some bouncy theme music was playing. The announcer asked if the contestants were ready. They all smiled. The announcer said, “begin!” All the happy fanfare stopped and the lights over the audience snapped off. She couldn’t see into the darkness beyond the spotlights. She could have sworn she heard the audience panting, like perverts rubbing in the shadows, hungry to tear her apart. But it was silent.
It’s okay, she thought to herself, I just have to think positive thoughts. I just have to ignore anything that they are doing. The show people. They are just trying to make the show interesting. The audience is just a gimmick. Those are normal people out there and they are just trying to fool you. Oh god, what else are they going to do? They’re probably going to show something really scary. Like a monster or something. Or a snuff film. Maybe they’ll try to torture us. No. No everything is okay. Stop thinking about that stuff. Don’t let it get into your head.
She couldn’t see the other contestants and her head was locked in place. She dared not turn and look and see their bright and smiling faces, ready to go on for another couple hours. She wanted to stop and say that she gave it her best shot, but she had no idea how long she had been going. There was no indication of how much time had passed. It felt like forever. It could have been a minute. She would get off after one minute and look like a complete idiot who was wasting everyone’s time. She was an idiot, wasting everyone’s time with such a fake and ugly smile.
The claustrophobia was getting to her. Sadness was leaking into her brain. She was already tired and she knew it. A moist glaze lined the back of her neck. It was very embarrassing. She knew the hundreds of people staring at her were thinking, What a disgusting lady. She should be ashamed. She wanted to scream back that she knew, and she was, and that she was very sorry for doing this. How could she let herself get into this situation? What could come next?
“So how’s everybody’s parents doing?” asked the announcer.
Why did they have to ask that? They could have shown someone being drawn and quartered and that would have been better. At once, she was reminded of the last time she had been with her family. It was at her father’s funeral. She hadn’t cried at all over the matter. Her brother called her a heartless bitch.
Why didn’t I cry? He was my dad. I’m not a heartless bitch, I just didn’t feel like crying. But I didn’t even say anything about it. Why didn’t I cry? I am a heartless bitch. I just smile and smile because everything’s going wrong. I can’t stop thinking about it. I have to but I can’t. I can never stop worrying. It’s always like this. There’s a reason that they gave me those meds. It wasn’t enough. You’re hyperventilating. I can’t breathe. I’m going to cry in front of all these people. Then they’ll see I’m fucked up. They know I’m fucked up. Everyone does. They all see it. They can see right through your smile. You’re so full of shit. Everyone can see how stupid I am! I’m so fucked! I hate myself. I hate me. Why am I so stupid? I can’t do this anymore! I never wanted to be here at all!! Just let me off this stage!!!
The announcer picked up the mic. “And we have a winner!” Brilliant music sounded through the auditorium. The audience came alive and they cheered and they clapped. She looked around and was dumbfounded.
“But I haven’t stopped smiling.”
After the show, she had an interview with the announcer.
“That was amazing!” he said.
“Tell us, how did you do it? What did you think about that kept you smiling for so long?”