He’s in the newsagents leafing through censored rows of top-shelf magazines when the faint sound of laughter fills his ears. He turns, but his audience comprises only a shopkeeper and an old lady. The shopkeeper’s watching a football match on one of the multitude of screens rigged above the counter and the old lady has her back to him as she rifles through a stack of reduced-price cans.
“I’m sorry?” he says.
The old lady looks up, blue-rinse, indignant. “Eh?”
“You were laughing.”
Her expression grows wary. “I was not.”
Studying her face he concludes honesty. She seemed mystified by his accusation, and anyway the laughter was male. Turning back to the magazines he selects one at random. Then he carries it to the counter and waits for the shopkeeper to acknowledge him. The shopkeeper sidles across – engrossed in the match – and picks up the magazine. He studies it, turns back to the match – then performs a double-take. His eyes drift up to see what kind of a man might purchase a magazine such as this.
The man purchasing the magazine stares back.
The shopkeeper runs the magazine’s barcode over the scanner on the side of the till and a small screen supplies a digital prompt for the amount of currency with which the man will now have to part (The shopkeeper abstains from rendering this information verbally). The man provides a note and waits for his change. Then he says: “Was that you?”
“Was what me?”
“The laughter, a second ago?”
A pause. “No.”
The man shrugs, collects his change and tucks the magazine under his arm. When he turns the old woman is eyeing him with an expression halfway between disgust and fear. She sees what he has beneath his arm, and reacts as though it’s a boiled infant.
He’s sitting down to a dinner of ham and eggs later that evening when the laughter returns.
This time it’s clear and loud and sounds very close. A low male chuckle, though there’s little humour in it. Pausing in the act of raising his fork to his mouth he says, as a question, “Hello.” The kitchen is, apart from himself, empty. It has always been empty. He has never married, has no children or friends. “Who’s there?”
No-one, of course.
After Listening a moment longer, he allows the fork to conclude its voyage to his mouth, where its contents are chewed thoughtlessly. The remainder of his meal passes in silence.
He hears it for the third time as he’s lying in bed with the lights off, beginning to drift into sleep. The sound brings him awake with a start. Fumbling the light-switch his gaze takes in the empty bedroom. “Who is that?”
The laughter answers. It sounds as though it’s coming from the foot of his bed. Pulling aside the covers he lunges. There’s nothing at the foot of his bed, or under it, but now the laughter seems to be coming from the closet in the corner of the room. He crosses the room and hauls the closet doors apart . . . Now the laughter’s coming from behind him. He shouts, “Where are you?”
The laughter finds this hilarious and doubles its efforts. It sounds so close, yet the room is empty.
“I’m trying to sleep,” the man says, angry now. He returns to bed and pulls the covers up to his chin.
The laughter cackles on and on, long past the point where sleep liberates him from it.
The next morning it wakes him like an amused alarm.
His constant companion from this point on finds everything funny.
Each morning the hysterics are there to greet him . . . While he makes coffee and butters his toast the laughter mocks his efforts . . . When he switches on the TV the mouths of actors and celebrities and newsreaders and the weather girl move, but the only sound he can hear is a rhythmic cackling, relentless, mirthful and cruel . . . It follows him to the shops, titters when he buys a scratch-card, giggles in his ear while he tosses bread to the ducks at the local park, guffaws while he brushes his teeth. It applauds his every waking move. Then it begins to seep into his dreams as well.
“I’m going mad,” he informs the doctor.
“We’ll run some tests,” the doctor replies.
They stick tubes into his ears and shine lights in his eyes. They draw copious amounts of blood and scan his brain with huge magnets. The tests come back negative. The laughter is in stitches.
“I cannot help you,” the doctor tells him.
The laughter clutches its sides and roars.
He can take it no longer.
Clearing out his bedroom closet, he runs a rope across the pole intended for hanging shirts and ties it off. Next, he places a chair in the closet and makes a noose at the end of the rope. Then he places the noose around his neck.
Throughout all this, the laughter cackles on, on.
“Stop it!” he says, but the laughter ignores him.
“I’ll do it,” he says, but the laughter doesn’t seem to care.
He pushes the chair away with his heels and the rope goes taught. Blood roars in his ears but nothing can drown out the amused cacophony. Bright spots appear before his eyes and he feels the world rushing away.
The laughter begins to subside, its rhythm becomes intermittent and then stops altogether. It watches the man’s body as it swings in slow arcs. His face is peaceful and there’s the hint of a smile upon his lips. The laughter lingers. For a moment it can find no humour in the situation.
Then it chuckles to itself, and goes off in search of someone else to mock.
James Kester has been published in Mystery Weekly Magazine and Fictive Dream. He has also self-published his first novel, ‘The Garden,’ on Amazon (where it sits unloved among books about greenhouse accessories and hardy perennials), and a collection of short stories under the title ‘Kernel Panic.’
He is currently working on his third novel.