The Last Laugh

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic
The haunting encounter between a hunter and a strange woman.

Submitted: February 09, 2019

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Submitted: February 09, 2019

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Copper and white collide in a spinning vortex, spoon clinking against the mug as he swirls them together.  There are several thumps from upstairs, the pitter patter of small footsteps and the barks of an excited dog.  He feels a tugging on his leg, a small hand in his, and before he knows it, he’s lead into a room, patterned every shade of green and brown, and then to a small bed.

 

Son: Mom says she’s getting the twins ready, and she told me to get you and tell you that you have to tuck me in and you have to tell me a story.

 

The words flow out in a single sentence as his son slips under the covers and waits for his father to comply.  He is more serious than his brothers, solemn even, and certainly more apt to follow the spinning of a wandering tale.

 

Dad: Well if that’s what the boss says, that’s what we better do.  Scooch over a little. What kind of story would you like tonight?

 

Son: A scary one!  In the forest…

 

The little voice fades into an even smaller whisper, so soft his father can barely make out the words though he knows the answer already; it’s always the same request.  He can hear his wife ushering their other sons to bed. The battle between her scolds and their shrieks is loud and lively in the fading evening. Father and son shift slightly, readying themselves for an adventure.

 

Dad: Scary you say, it’s always a scary one with you, isn’t it?  Here we go then… Once upon a time, a little girl and her wolf lived in the forest-

 

Son: Not that one!

 

Dad: What?  That’s a classic!  Fine, how about the one with the moving forest?

 

Son: No, a new one!

 

Dad: He wants it scary, he wants it in the forest, and now he wants it to be new?  All right, all right, let me think… Okay, here it goes… Once upon a time, there was a hunter.  He lived with his wife in a little cottage on the edge of the forest. This forest was gigantic, so big some said you could start crossing it at one end when you were just a little boy, and you wouldn’t even reach the middle by the time you were a rickety old man!  Many creatures lived in the forest like deer, and wolves. There were owls, and songbirds, lots of bugs and grubs, and whole armies of ants. Some said there were scarier things too, like headless monsters, wailing ghosts, shadows that liked to snatch up little boys and eat them whole…  

 

He grabs his son suddenly, pretends to take a bite, and makes chomping noises.  With a surprised giggle, his son squirms away.

 

Dad: But the hunter wasn’t afraid.  He was brave and strong and smart, and the best hunter around.  He would go into the forest, and he would always come out, safe and sound, carrying dinner, and he and his wife would enjoy great feasts.  One day, he was preparing to enter the forest, getting all his gear ready. Before he left, his wife came to say her usual goodbye. “I will miss you so much.  Hurry back! And please husband, be careful in the forest. Here’s a big kiss for good luck! Mwah!”

 

Son: Ew, dad!

 

Dad: What, it’s for good luck!  Anyway, all set, the hunter entered the forest.  Now, like a good hunter, and he really was the very best, he knew that the trick to a successful hunt is patience.  So the hunter went to his favourite clearing in the forest, got comfortable, and waited for the deer to come around.  He waited, and waited, and waited, and then he waited some more. But it was very quiet in the forest that day, and no deer came to visit.  

 

The memory swims before his eyes, and he can feel his footsteps tracing that same route, falling into the path that leads to his favourite destination.  How quiet it had been indeed as if the whole world had given a great shake and sent flying its countless inhabitants, emptied itself out of everyone and everything except him.  Or so he had thought.

 

Dad: The day was shrinking and the night was growing, so the hunter decided to stop for the time being.  He would try again in the morning. He started a fire, warmed his hands, and settled down for sleep. But in the middle of the night, somewhere in the dark, something was moving…

 

Like she had so suddenly appeared that night, she is summoned again, crawling from the crevices of buried memories to the front of his mind again.  It’s as if no time has passed, so clearly can he see her. She stands in his son’s bedroom, looking like all of them and more, dark, and dreadful, and dangerous, with a wicked smile stretching her lips.  His son sinks so deep into his bedding that just his blue eyes are visible, but they see only his father. Forcing strength into his voice and barely suppressing a shiver, the man continues.

 

Dad: The hunter called out, “Who’s there?”  

Nobody answered, but he could hear something, whisperings, mumblings, little words in the night, and then what sounded like laughter.  

“Hey!  Who is that?” he demanded.  

Something came closer, and closer until finally, he could see it.  It was a lady. Just a lady.

‘What’s a lady doing way out here all alone in the middle of the night?’ the hunter thought, and then he asked, “Excuse me, are you lost?”

“What’s brown and sticky?  A stick!” she said, and then she burst out laughing.

“What? What are you saying?”

“I wouldn’t buy anything with velcro.  It’s a complete rip-off!” and her laughter echoed all around them, throughout the entire forest.

 

And throughout the entire room too, hitting all the familiar notes.  It’s haunting, unnatural, inhuman, and it’s a song just for him, an anthem of days best forgotten.  His son awaits, blissfully unaware and burdened only by anticipation for the next step in the story.

 

Dad: “Ugh, that’s terrible!” the hunter scoffed.

But the lady only laughed and replied, “Did you hear about the kidnapping at school?  He woke up!”

 

Like the prick of a needle to a swollen balloon, a finger pokes him, bursting the grim fantasy at its very climax.  The cackling in his ears dissipates, and the figure disappears, and though his son scowls, he can see that the pout isn’t quite big enough to hide the grin peeking from behind.

 

Son: Dad, stop!  Your jokes aren’t funny!  

 

Dad: That’s what the hunter said!  How did you know?

 

He ruffles the fair hair and wraps an arm around the boy, finding comfort in the tangible.  She is gone, and he is with his son again. Already his pounding heart calms, regaining its regular rhythm.

 

Dad: The hunter cried out, “Stop!  Your jokes aren’t funny!”

But the lady’s laughter only grew louder and louder, so shrill that it rang in his ears.  And she grew too. Her arms stretched out, long and strong, reaching for him, and her hair shot out in tangled black strands, coiling around him, tripping and tying him up.  Her eyes grew big and black like two giant holes.

“That graveyard looks overcrowded.  People must be dying to get in!”

He could feel himself falling, weakening to the power of her bad jokes.

“Ugh, her jokes!  They’re so bad, yet so strong!  I’m feeling faint…”

“Laugh!”  she cackled.  “Laugh at my jokes!”

“No!” the hunter cried.  “Never! I’ll never laugh at them!”

She pulled him closer and opened her mouth wide, a mouth full of shiny, white, pointed teeth, ready to feast.  How was the hunter to escape?

‘That’s it!’ he thought, and suddenly he knew how to defeat her.  

And do you know what he did?

 

He turns the query upon his son.  A quick shake of the head, barely a twitch, and his son resumes his statuesque attendance.  He is a master of stillness, and his father can feel him holding his breath in apprehension.

 

Dad: He got closer, let her drag him in, and when she was almost upon him… he tickled her!

 

And he tickles his son’s sides, fingers wiggling, and is rewarded with a gasp of laughter full of innocence and surprise.  His son finally manages to wiggle away, a toothy grin on his face, giggles still escaping him.

 

Dad: He kept on tickling until she finally screamed nooo!  And then poof! She exploded, literally exploded into laughter, and down down down she fell, melting into the ground.  And then the hunter got up, brushed himself off, and returned home. He gave his wife a big kiss, mwah, and they lived happily ever after.

 

A sudden and brief gust of wind blows against the window, causing the tips of a branch to tap and scrape, just like in the horror movies.  In the distance, there’s the soft wailing of sirens, or perhaps it’s the yowling of stray cats, and by the lack of sound, the twins have finally fallen asleep or at least have settled enough that one can believe they’re seeing dreams. And still his son stares.

 

Son: That’s it?  That can’t be the ending!  

 

He shrugs and stares back, but his son remains unchanged, holding his gaze with all the exasperation and stubbornness a child can summon.  Eventually, his father relents and puffs out a sigh.

 

Dad: Okay, okay, I wasn’t lying when I said the hunter and his wife lived happily ever after, you know.  I just… skipped a little.

 

Just a few months, such a small piece of time.  Yet those weeks had stretched into a restless eternity as she had kept him locked inside his own head.  But this is the abridged version; his son doesn’t need to know such trivial details.

 

Dad: You see, the hunter really did tickle that lady to death.  Or so he thought. He really did return home, kiss his wife, and think all was well.  But it wasn’t. Soon he discovered that he’d lost something: his laughter. Nothing was funny.  

 

Nothing.  Nothing his wife or friends had said, none of the silly antics his children and dog had performed.  There had been no joke sharp enough to crack through the impenetrable barrier of her laughter. With impeccable aim and at all the right times, his lips had curled, his mouth had opened, and he had expelled the auditory contractions, hahaha.  But it had just been sound, and it had always sounded like her.

 

Dad: He couldn’t laugh at anything anymore, not even a giggle.  And he knew that he hadn’t just lost his laughter, but that the lady had stolen it because he could hear her.  She was constantly laughing at him, at everything he did. Her giggles were the first thing he heard in the morning and the last thing he heard at night, and his dreams were full of that cackling.  Pretty soon, the hunter, the best hunter there ever was, even had trouble hunting because the laughter scared all the game away. After weeks of this torment, after yet another unsuccessful hunt, the hunter decided that enough was enough.  He was gonna find that lady again and get his laughter back.

 

His wife had protested - wasn’t he going to freeze out there?  Had insisted he hadn’t been himself since that last trip - did all that mud and blood really come from those little scrapes?  Had worried for him - is he sure nothing more happened?

 

Dad: He marched into the forest and followed the echoes of laughter.  

 

Past the tree with a hollow shaped like a heart, around the boulder with a jagged scar, over the fallen, mouldering log.  He had hoped for a faster journey, but that laughter had proved to be the heaviest burden he’s ever carried.

 

Dad: Eventually, they lead him back to the clearing where he had encountered the lady.

 

Finally, he had reached it, the small clearing, that little corner of the world reserved just for him.  All was as he had left it, the rise and fall of fifteen buried bodies looking like gentle waves in the smooth earth.  For a long moment, he had stared at the freshest mound; it was pristine, touched only by him.

 

Dad: “Hey you!” the hunter shouted.  “Give me back my laughter!”

But she just laughed.  He thought for a long time, concentrated hard to ignore the laughing forest, and he could come to only one conclusion.

 

He had to dig her up, had to see her, had to touch her to be absolutely certain.

 

Dad: He told a joke.  “My wife keeps telling me to stop pretending to be butter.  But I’m on a roll now!”

And then there was silence, and it was the sweetest thing he’d ever heard.  Slowly, almost sleepily, she rose from the ground, hair all caught in the trees, big black eyes staring at him.

 

The cold ground had preserved her, and the cold air had chased any odours away.  He’d flung the ruined shovel and grimy gloves away before tentatively entering her grave.  Numb hands had traced what remained of the hard curve of her jaw, and frozen fingers had morbidly poked into the holes in her chest.  Her hair, more of it stuck to bloody patches than attached to a head that no longer existed, had been thick with soil and brittle with death.  He’d never felt anything so soft or smooth.

 

Dad: And she said, “Where do you find giant snails?  On the end of giants’ fingers!”

The hunter opened his mouth and bellowed, “HAHAHA!”

He screamed and shouted at the top of his lungs, forced out the hahaha’s until he didn’t have to force them out anymore because suddenly he was laughing, really laughing, and so was she, and this time it wasn’t wicked cackling.  This time, her laughter was like the chiming of beautiful bells. They laughed long and hard together, and he watched her transform again. The darkness of the forest relinquished its grip on her, her hair tamed, and she had all the happiness in the world on her lovely face.  And he saw her for what she truly was.

 

Dead.

 

Dad: A lady.  Just a lady.

She wiped away tears of laughter and delight and said, “A long time ago, I got lost in the forest.  I walked for days and days, but the forest is vast and dangerous. I was so scared and sad. I tried to keep the darkness away by telling myself jokes, but I guess they weren’t very funny.  I thought for sure I was a goner when you ran away… but then you came back, and you laughed, you actually laughed! You saved me from eternity in the forest! Thank you so much!”

The hunter graciously accepted her thanks, and lead her out of the forest, and all the way to her home.  And they all lived to laugh another day. The end.

 

The end to her endless laughter.  The end to her ghostly spectre. The end to her.  As all-consuming as those torturous weeks had been, how easily he had found normalcy again.  And as quickly as she appeared tonight, she’s forgotten all the faster as he gazes down at his son.  

 

Dad: Will that suffice?

 

Eyes barely open now, the boy still manages a brassy little shrug.  They exchange gentle smiles, and he tucks the covers closer, wishes his son sweet dreams, and slips silently from the dim bedroom.

He exchanges a peck on the lips with his wife and assures her he’ll be quick to follow her to bed before he heads back downstairs.  The thump-thumping of a tail greets him and he gives the dog a pat while searching for his tea. It offers little in the way of warmth when he finds it again, but still, he sips it, taking one more moment to gaze out the window and into the night. It’s peaceful, and still. It’s home.



 

 

It had been a short struggle, almost gentle, and unusually quiet.  He has to strain his ears to recall her desperation, but he finds it, and she plays on repeat in his head.  He focuses on that sweet spot, her crescendo before the inevitable fade, and the memory of her violent thrashes mark the rhythm of his work.  But now is his least favourite part of the piece: the finale. As one must swallow the last bitter dregs of coffee, brewed to dispel the aftershocks of a night spent drinking and sweating and shouting, so too must he accept that the fun is coming to an end, and work will soon come calling.

The sweat gathering on his back only fuels his disappointment.  He takes a moment to shake out sore muscles before adjusting his grip on the shovel and pouring another clump of dirt over the growing pile, quickening his pace until, at last, it’s done.

No wind rustles through the clearing, and nothing disturbs the straight beams of sunlight that pierce through the scattered trees to illuminate the forest floor.  The peace out here in the middle of nowhere serves as the perfect amplifier to her gasps; he can truly believe that this corner of the world exists only for him. Face turned skyward, he watches his deep sigh cloud the fading blue above.  As though he has released a breath of life, his surroundings reawaken with the whistle of the stirring wind.

Not a record, but he’s made good time.  He falls into the routine, gathering everything needed.  Precisely in the centre of the flattened mound of earth, he builds a fire.  It doesn’t take long, seasoned hand that he is, and soon his ears find the comforting cracks and snaps of burning logs.  His eyes trace up the column of smoke to read the darkening sky. It’s calm and clear, no trace of poor weather in sight, and though cool, it’s not truly cold.  Good. He always prefers open air and bright stars above to the dank, stuffiness of an enclosed tent.

He sweeps a last appraising look over his temporary haunt.  Everything in its place, he tucks his rifle nearby and reclines, and before everything fades, before dreams come calling and time picks and plucks at memories, he recalls her melody, all staccatos and soothing and all just for him.  His lullaby.

Eyes snap open, hands instinctively clutch the rifle, a flailing turn, no idea of the time, or what precisely wakes him.  And then he freezes because he knows because he sees her through the dancing flames just as he did once before on that night that he likes to pretend never happened.  

 

Him: You.

 

Her: Me.  Of Course me.

 

Entirely unperturbed, she barely registers him, staring at something in her hands instead.  Her sigh blooms white and ghostly, and it joins the smoke, floating up to disappear into the night sky.

 

Her: We were all hoping for a different outcome, trust me, but was this story really gonna end any other way?  I am the first to recognize my own mistakes though. I mean, the laughing, that was weird, right? You’re away from people for a while and you just forget how to be normal.

 

Him: But- you’re dead.  I saw you! You were- I- you-  You’re dead!

 

Her: I was, for a time.  But then you had to go and turn me into a story and tell it to your son.

 

Finally, her black eyes flick up to him, and it’s like staring into death so devoid are they of thought or emotion or anything alive.  She holds up something small, and he recognizes the square of colour that’s normally tucked in his wallet, the smiling faces all in matching sweaters, arms all wrapped around one another.

 

Her: They’re beautiful, you know.  And you even have a dog…

 

Fluid as a feline, she stands and stretches tall, and with a careless twitch, she flicks the portrait into the fire.  He gives a wordless roar, and finally points the rifle at her. The corners of the photograph are already curling, and the flames lap greedily at his family, and he shakes so badly that he can’t quite pull the trigger.

 

Her: Oh don’t bother.  We’ve already been through this, and it obviously didn’t stick.  Guess there is no killing someone like me.

 

She gestures to her lithe frame and paces closer.  Running spidery hands through a black cloud of curls, she caresses them into the angles of that perfect face and examines skin smooth as silk without missing a step.

 

Her: I must say, I like how you see me.  I feel wild, but also… ethereal. A little paler than I’m used to, but I suppose it’s hard to tell in the dark.  I’ll forgive you for that one.

 

The point of the rifle bumps into her, but she pushes it aside, rips the gun from his grasp, flings it into the forest, sits next to him, and leans close and closer and close enough that his gasping breaths blow into her face.  And then from his own mouth comes the question that he’s heard so many times himself.

 

Him: Are you going to kill me?

 

Her: Yes.  It’s only fair, after all.

 

Him: Please.  No. Please, I have a family.

 

Her: I know.  And that’s the problem.  I thought you could do it.  It thought it would work. I thought you were like me.  But I see now that you’re a man. Just a man.

 

Him: No.  No, no, no, please no!

 

Her: They were people.  They had lives. They had families too, once.

 

Gentle fingers wipe away the tears that fall from his unblinking eyes, follow the line of his jaw, brush against the rapid pulse on his neck.  And then they squeeze, and they squeeze the breath from him, and they squeeze the words out too.

 

Him: No, no, no, they lived on the streets, and they were sick or old or both, and in pain and alone, and they wanted to die, and they didn’t care about anyone or anything, and nobody cared about them, and nobody remembers them-

 

Tighter, and now he can’t speak, can’t breathe, but still he tries to blubber, and he’s pushing her, pulling her, prying and digging, and panicking and flailing, and it’s all so familiar like they all helped him rehearse for this moment, and still, she comes closer.

 

Her: I remember them.  They prayed. They prayed to get away, to breathe, to live.  And when that didn’t work, they prayed that you would die.

 

Both hands wrap around his neck now, and she’s pushed him onto his back, bears down with all her weight and all her strength, and he sees stars of every kind, and he sees all their faces, haggard and hollowed and dead and all looking the same, and then he sees his family, his beautiful family, his loving family, and he thrashes harder.

 

Her: I know.  You’ll miss them, and they’ll miss you.  I’ll say goodbye for you though. I have to visit your son anyways.  Gotta end that story you told…

 

He spasms and the night grows colder and darker and redder as she crushes him until he can’t feel anything except the pain in his neck, and then he’s torn from his world, and a last strangled wail escapes, tears apart his throat, shatters the forest, pierces his ears.  But it’s still not loud enough to block out the laughter that fills his head.


© Copyright 2019 KMartini. All rights reserved.

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