The Laugher
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A moment after he heard the insane laughter Weldon Rogers was picked up off his feet and hurled head-first into the solid oak door. He didn’t wake up for two weeks, and when he did the first face he saw was that of his wife, Carolyn. Hers had been the last face he had seen as well, for she had been standing beside him when the lights went out. He startled her when he said – croaked, rather — “Carolyn! What happened?” She had been holding his hand and staring off into space.

“Weldon?” she said when she had focused her eyes. “Oh, thank God!” and she burst into tears.

A nurse heard her and came running. “What’s the mat...oh!” she said, “he’s awake.” She grabbed Weldon’s wrist and began to take his pulse. She nodded her head, put down his arm and said, “I’ll fetch a doctor.” And she was off.

  
 
“What’s going on?” he asked. “Where am I?” He reached up and felt his head – it was all bandages. “Jesus!” It began to come back to him, but it seemed unreal. How could it have happened the way he remembered it?

“You’re in the hospital,” Carolyn said. “You had a concussion, a fracture, and a cerebral hemorrhage.”

Just then the doctor arrived with a trail of nurses. “Ssshh!” he said. “Don’t make him talk yet.” He adjusted his stethoscope and began listening.

“She didn’t make me talk,” Weldon said, “I just want to know what happened.”

“Quiet!” The doctor put away the stethoscope and got out his flashlight to look into Weldon’s eyes. The nurses stood around the bed. Now and then one whispered to another. He straightened up and ran a hand over his thinning hair. “When you feel up to it, the police would like to speak with you.”

Weldon didn’t answer because he was feeling woozy. “Can I have a drink of water?” he asked. One of the nurses poured him a fresh glass from the bedside pitcher and put a plastic tube into it. The doctor stepped aside; she held the glass and put the end of the tube into his mouth so he could sip without having to move.

After a while they all left except Carolyn. “He’s going to be all right now,” the doctor said standing in the doorway. “But don’t tire him out.” The door swung to behind him.

He and his wife were quiet for a moment or two. Then Weldon asked, “Do I remember laughter just before it happened?”

Carolyn looked at him through frightened blue eyes. Her ordinarily thin face looked gaunt. Her lipstick seemed too red for the pallor of her cheeks. She nodded.

Weldon was startled. Then it had been real. “Tell me what you remember,” he said. Tears began to brim in Carolyn’s eyes. She dabbed at them with a tissue. “We were just standing there talking,” she said. “Then...then....”

“Then somebody picked me up off the floor and threw me into the door,” he said, staring out at her from under his swathed brows. He remembered it in slow motion, the door coming at him in minute increments, and then an explosion and blackout. Weldon expected Carolyn to say yes or to nod, but she did neither.

She shook her head. “No.”

“What do you mean, ‘No’?”

“No one else was there.”

Weldon stared at her. After a while he said, “You couldn’t have done it.”

“Of course not!”

“Then...?”

Carolyn shrugged. “I just don’t know, darling. We were talking, there was a horrible laugh, and then you smashed into the door and fell down, unconscious. You were bleeding horribly.” She shuddered. “It was so sudden I was shocked. I couldn’t move. I felt something brush by me, and then I must have fainted too, because the next thing I remember is both of us in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.”

“That’s it?”

She nodded. “That was two weeks ago.”

“Two weeks!”

The door opened and a pair of police walked into the room, one of them in uniform, the other in a dark brown suit. The uniform was a woman. The suit said to Carolyn, “You remember me, Mrs. Baker. Detective lieutenant Boyd Carson.” Then, to Weldon, “We asked the hospital to let us know as soon as you woke up. I’d like to talk with you privately.” He cast a glance at the uniform who motioned for Carolyn to come with her out of the room.

“I’ll be just outside,” she said.

When they were gone Boyd said, “Please tell me in your own words what happened when you received this wound.”

“There’s nothing much to tell,” Weldon said. “My wife and I were talking. Suddenly I heard this maniacal laugh, and then I was picked off my feet and smashed into the door head-first.” He fell silent.

The policeman seemed to be waiting for something further. Finally he said, “Is that all?”

Weldon nodded, and regretted the motion.

“Who else was present?”

“Not a soul that I know of.”

“Do you and your wife get along?”

Weldon flushed. “What the hell kind of a question is that?” he asked. His head began to pound. “Of course we get along. Do you think she’s big enough to pick me up and toss me like a football? How about an earthquake? Was there an earthquake that day?”

“No earthquake,” the cop said. “No hurricane or tornado either. You didn’t get a start and run yourself into that door, did you?”

Weldon was amazed. He just lay there and stared at the officer who hunched his back and shook his head. “We can’t figure it out,” he said. “Your wife’s story is pretty much the same as yours. But something nearly killed you,” he said. “Well, thanks for your cooperation. When you get back on your feet, would you drop into the station and give us a statement? Ask for me.” He put one of his calling cards on the table, nodded, and started to walk out.

“Wait a minute,” Weldon said. The cop turned around. “Has anything like this happened before, that you know of?” Carson shook his head. “Do me a favor?”

“If I can.”

“Run it through your computer system and see what you come up with.”

Carson stood looking puzzled for a minute. Then, “What category should I ask for? Mysterious events? Flying saucer appearances?”

“Try ‘unexplained assaults,’" Weldon suggested.

Carson shrugged. “I can give it a try.”

“Thanks. And let me know, okay?”

Carson didn’t show up again for two days. Weldon was still in the hospital, but “You look a hundred percent better” the cop said as he pulled up a chair and sat down at bedside.

“Did you find anything?”

Carson was holding a manila envelope which he held up and shook dubiously. “Well, yes and no,” he said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I mean that I’ve found some other cases something like yours around the country,” Carson said, “but there are no answers.” He handed the envelope to Weldon who opened it and found a computer print-out and a few news clippings, which were the first things he scanned:

“MAN HURLED THROUGH PICTURE WINDOW,” one of them read. “Daniel Westley, 46, of Morrow Heights, Illinois, was watching television in his living room when he was suddenly and inexplicably propelled through a picture window into his front yard. He suffered multiple cuts and abrasions and a sprained spine in the accident. ‘I heard somebody laughing just before it happened,’ he told authorities.”

Another read, “WOMAN KILLED WHILE HANGING CLOTHES. The body of Mrs. Abner Mulcahy, 32, who was last seen hanging clothes in the back yard of her Cape Elizabeth home, was found floating in her swimming pool. The cause of death, however, was not drowning but a broken neck. The only other marks on her body were bruises under her rib cage, according to police sources. Neighbors did not see or hear anything unusual except a burst of loud laughter an hour before the victim’s body was discovered by her husband when he returned from work at approximately 5:30 p.m.” There were others that were similar. When he had finished looking the material over Weldon raised his eyes to the policeman. “What do you make of it?” he asked.

“Beats me.” Carson cleared his throat and hunched forward, leaning his elbows on his heavy thighs.

“Can you leave these things with me?” Weldon asked.

“Sure. It’s a duplicate set.” He got up. “If you get any bright ideas, I’d sure like to hear them,” he said as he left.

When Carolyn arrived later during visiting hours she found Weldon lying propped against the cranked-up bed, the clippings scattered about him, the envelope and print-out lying beside his hand resting on the blanket. “What’s all this?” she asked.

“Take a look,” he said.

After she had spent some time with the material she said, “It’s a lot of cases like yours,” she said. “But what does it mean?” Her eyes showed puzzlement and something else – frustration or fear or both.

“What do you think it means?” He blinked at her through his black eyes. She shook her head. “I don’t know.”

“Sure you do. I can see it.” She stared at him. “You know the old Sherlock Holmes adage,” he said. “Eliminate the impossible, and whatever is left, however improbable, must be the truth.” She kept staring and began to shake her head slowly. Her eyes got wider. “That’s right,” Weldon said. “There’s something invisible, invisible and insane, some sort of monster that’s going around hurting and killing people.”

As soon as he said it Carolyn took a big breath of air and sighed as she let it out. “That’s silly,” she said. “I don’t believe it.”

“Well, I do,” Weldon said, sitting up and glaring at her. “There’s just no other explanation. And I’m going to track it down.”

A pause, then, “And do what with it?”

“Kill it. It’s got to be stopped. It damn near killed me, and I’m going to kill it.” His voice was trembling with rage. “Nobody has the right to do what it’s doing.

“Nobody?” Carolyn asked. “You think this is a person?”

“Have you ever heard any other creature laugh? Only human beings laugh.”

“Loons laugh, and jackals do too.” Carolyn put the clippings and the print-out neatly back into the envelope and laid it on the bed.

“This was no bird, and no jackal, either.” Weldon’s face was flushed with fury. His lips were so tight and thin and white you could hardly see them.

This wasn’t the husband Carolyn knew. Weldon was one of the most easy-going men she had ever met. She couldn’t picture him turning into a sleuth. He was a computer researcher for a small on-line data base company servicing boat people. He knew a lot about where and how to find marine equipment and sailing craft that were for sale, but his favorite reading was sports novels and biographies, not mysteries or science fiction. “I don’t believe it. And neither will you when you get to feeling better.”

But when Weldon got out of the hospital he still believed it. The first thing he did was subscribe to a clipping service. He asked for any and all news items that had to do with unexplained assaults. The next thing he did was to upgrade his already excellent computer and subscribe to the internet. Then he bought a police scanner and a powerful handgun. He put a large map of the United States up on the wall of the family room in the finished basement where he installed his equipment and materials, and he began putting pins in it showing where all these assaults had taken place.

“We can’t really afford all this, you know,” Carolyn told Weldon. When she saw all the paraphernalia, she experienced a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. Her husband had changed radically since his experience.

He ignored her. He began spending all his time in the family room, but he wouldn’t let Carolyn watch television there to keep him company because he wanted CNN on at all times. So that the sound wouldn’t interfere with his listening in on the police band, he bought a captioning machine for the TV set.

“See?” he said to her one evening when she wandered downstairs to see what he was doing. “The pins are beginning to show a pattern.”

Carolyn looked at the map and did notice that the pins in the map were forming a widening spiral expanding outward from a center in the Midwest.

“We’re located here,” Weldon pointed to one pin in particular, “in the outer ring.” Then he moved to the next pin, and the next. “He’s hit two other people since he got me.” His long finger trembled with excitement. His face was nearly recovered from its bruising, but he still wore a bandage on his head, though it was small enough now to show the sandy hair over the intense blue eyes.

He had lost weight and was now too thin, Carolyn thought – he had been on the verge of being well-filled-out when the accident had occurred.

Carolyn shook her head. The dark hair that framed her very fair face with its gray eyes kept its shape while it moved. “I never see you anymore,” she said. “You’re always down here.” She sighed. “Please, Wel, can’t you let it go? Tell the police about it and let them handle it.”

Weldon snorted. “The police!” He spun in his chair to look at her. “I’ve talked to the cops over and over. Carson’s beginning to think I’m the madman.” He paused to pass a hand over his brow. “If I don’t do it, nobody will.”

“You weren’t the only victim. Have you spoken to any of the others? Why don’t some of them do it?”

“I’ve talked to them,” Weldon said. He stared into the computer screen. “Some of them are on the internet. Some of them are helping me. We exchange information all the time.” Carolyn watched for a while longer and then left.

Not long after this exchange between them Carolyn saw her husband come out of the family room with his pistol tucked into his belt and a frenetic energy radiating from him. His eyes darted about excitedly. “I’m on my way,” he said. “I think I know where the thing is going to strike next.” He headed for the front door.

“Wait, Wel!” she said and took him by the arm as he brushed by her. “Please. Don’t do this.”

“I’m meeting somebody there,” he said. “We’ll get him.” And he was gone.

Carolyn stood, confused, in the hall, then she got her light jacket and purse and went out into the summer evening. Weldon was just pulling out of the driveway. He backed into the street, straightened out, and headed east. Carolyn ran for her car parked in the drive, got in, and followed her husband. “I can’t believe he’s doing this,” she said to herself. “It’s too strange.”

Weldon raced toward the interchange where Main Street met I82. He hit the highway doing eighty. Somehow Carolyn managed to keep up, but her heart felt as though it were pulsing in her throat rather than in her chest. There was little traffic, which was a blessing.

After a fast forty miles that seemed to her to take forever Carolyn braked and followed Weldon down an off-ramp to Garretsville. He wormed through the streets until he came to a house in a residential neighborhood, stopped, and piled out. He still had his pistol, Carolyn saw as she stopped behind his car at the curb.

The door opened before he got to the front stoop. Carolyn saw a tall man standing there, and behind him someone else in silhouette against the light. She got to the door before it could close, but even so she was nearly too late to see what happened. She heard the laugh clearly.

As she pushed the door open and stepped inside hard on the heels of her husband the maniacal laughter rang through the house and a middle-aged woman hung suspended in the air in the living room. The tall man had a camera in his hand – the flashbulb went off at the same time as Weldon’s gun. There was a shriek. The woman fell to the floor, and once again something brushed by Carolyn, but this time she could hear it breathing. Its breath came in rasps and it stank.

The front door behind Carolyn was torn from its hinges. A cool evening breeze flowed into the house.

Carolyn turned to see Weldon bent over the woman on the floor who was sobbing. “Thank you, thank you,” she said. She was middle-aged and on the heavy side. Her hair was prematurely iron gray and she was dressed in slacks and a blouse. Carolyn went to help her up and over to a couch. The tall man tore the picture he had taken out of the Polaroid and handed it to Weldon who, before he looked at it, asked his wife what she was doing there.

“Following you,” she said.

“It was foolish and dangerous.” He took the picture and looked at it.

“Look at who’s talking.” Carolyn could hardly speak. Weldon showed her the picture. The woman hung suspended in the air just as Carolyn remembered. Just then the tall man took a step forward and began to slide. He caught himself before he fell. Everyone looked down at the floor, but nothing was there that would cause him to slip like that.

Weldon stooped to touch the floor. “Phew!” he said. “It’s wet. It smells like blood.”

The tall man sniffed at Weldon’s hand and jerked back his head. “It also smells bad,” he said in a husky voice. But there was nothing on Weldon’s fingers.

“Call 911, somebody,” he said. Carolyn did so, and soon the police arrived, stepping over the fallen door warily, their hands on their holsters.

“What’s the problem?” a sergeant said.

Even with the evidence of the Polaroid shot, the smashed door, and the invisible blood, which a forensics man had collected on slides, no one would believe their story. The tall man, who turned out to be an insurance salesman named Sam Rogal from Weedsport and, like Weldon, an earlier victim of the Laugher, explained things clearly, and Weldon told them how he and Sam and others had put things together so as to be able to predict when and where the invisible being would strike again, but no one believed anything until two days later when the lab reports came back — the invisible liquid was, indeed, blood, despite everything. It had become visible with stains, and it had proven to be, if not quite human, at least humanoid.

“As close as chimpanzee blood,” State Police Lieutenant Boyd Callone said, showing Weldon the microscope photographs. They were sitting in the Rogers's livingroom. The day was warm, so Carolyn had served some iced tea. It sat melting while they stared at the prints and at each other.

“So, what now?” Weldon asked.

Callone leaned forward, his forearms resting on his razor-creased knees. “You say you’ve figured out this thing’s pattern?”

Weldon nodded. “It may be insane, but it’s absolutely methodical. You saw the map.”

“Where is it supposed to strike next?”

Weldon shook his head. “It was supposed to strike again today at 11:45 a.m., but it didn’t.”

Callone leaned back and sighed. “I was afraid of that. You’ve disrupted his schedule, and you’ve wounded it. I wish you had informed us of what was going to happen, then we could have made plans to capture it.”

“What are you talking about? I did inform the police – a local guy named Carson who investigated my incident. Didn’t you know that?”

Callone leaned forward again. He had a brush cut and blue eyes.

“The local police aren’t the state police,” he said.

“Would you have believed me?”

Callone was silent. “That’s what I figured,” Weldon said.

“Now you’re going to have to watch out.” The policeman’s eyes flicked back and forth between Carolyn’s and Weldon’s.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because, unless it’s dead, it may want revenge.”

Something thick swelled up in Carolyn’s throat. Weldon looked startled. “Oh, my god,” she said. “Do you really think so?” Weldon had risen and walked to the mantel. His pistol had been confiscated by the police for evidence, but he had purchased another and a shoulder holster, which he was wearing.

“You’re going to have to let me have that firearm, Mr. Rogers,” Callone said.

“You tell me I have to worry about this thing, and then you want to take away my protection,” he said. “But this gun is legal.” He reached into his pocket and handed the officer his registration certificate.

“It’s a concealed weapon if you put on a jacket.”

“This is my home. I’m not wearing a jacket.”

Carolyn said, “You mean you think it may come after us?” She was trembling. Her question hung in the air a moment before it was answered by a tremendous crash as the front door splintered and caved in. All three of them heard the laugh, and Carolyn was knocked to the floor violently. Weldon had his weapon in his hand. He aimed at nothing and fired shot after shot until the magazine was empty. There were shrieks and a groan. The groan came from Callone who fell back on the sofa, blood spurting from his chest. Caroline heard heavy breathing, smelled the same stench she had smelled the last time the Laugher had appeared. She heard something heavy fall to the floor, and then she heard it dragging itself across the room and out the front door.

Carolyn got up and went over to Callone. “My god!” she said.

“I got him, didn’t I?” Weldon felt the rug and followed the trail of invisible blood to the door. “I think he must be dead,” he said. “That’s one monster that won’t show up without warning to kill people.”

“No,” Carolyn said, looking down at the trooper on the sofa. “But now we have another one,” and she looked at her husband with fear and loathing.

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