The Laughing Man

 

A bright peal of laughter announced his arrival, a bright herald washing over the dingy tavern.  Perhaps the bouncer at the door had told a joke, or he had seen something across the room that struck him as funny.  Or perhaps nothing had happened at all.  He usually didn’t need a reason to laugh.

He made his way to his usual table, joking with the patrons as he passed.  Fredrick at the bar brought over a single tankard of beer, as he did every night.  The man would drink that and no more.  He wouldn’t ask for another but would make the cup last for his entire stay.  The regulars knew him, and many pressed around his table, eager to speak with him.  He had enough laughter to share, and he did so readily.

He had come in every night for the past three years with the same smile, and yet nobody knew a thing about him.  Not even the regulars had a name to call him by.  He talked willingly, but never about himself.  Once, I had asked him if he lived nearby, and had been answered only by a soft smile and a slow shake of his head.

 

 

Craig sank deeper into his drink as the night wore on, submerged in the dark brown liquid.  Beneath the surface, he didn’t have to listen to the screams.  There was only a muted numbness that sound couldn’t penetrate—dullness overwhelming.

There were brief moments when his cup was empty, and the noise broke through.  He scrambled for coin then, throwing the money across the bar without a word.  Frederick knew what he wanted, and the cup would soon be full again.

But once, in the moment before Frederick spotted the coins, something broke through the haze in his mind: laughter.  It made him recoil.  More hateful because he wasn’t sharing in it, the laughter tore through the numbness that he had submerged himself in.

Standing on his second try, Craig found the source of the laughter.  Though most of the tavern shared in the revelry, a single man was it’s source, and Craig stumbled through the crowd towards him, anger rising in his foggy mind.  A target presented itself, a bright smile unwavering in his swimming vision.  That smile taunted him, flaunting the happiness that Craig couldn’t have.

Craig’s fist, balled and hardened by grief and drink, smashed into that smile.

“Shut up,” he growled.

 

Laughter turned quickly to anger.  The crowd surged forward as Craig stood over the laughing man.  They shoved him back, matching his anger with their own outrage.  He struggled, flailing wildly with heavy fists, but the weight of the crowd pushed him back against the bar and pinned him down.

As shouts rang from the bar, I followed another sound.  It was soft against the raucous yelling across the room, but it was unmistakable—a quiet chuckling.

The laughing man lay on his back staring straight up at the dark ceiling.  His smile was shattered—his front teeth broken—and blood ran from the corner of his mouth and pooled on the floor beneath him.  But still the laughter came, sputtering through the blood that lay so thick in his mouth.

Eager to look away from his mangled maw, I raised my eyes and noticed something I never had before.  His eyes were dead.  The laughter never reached them.  I had always been too distracted by his smile to notice, but there was pain there.  Not pain from Craig’s fist, but a deeper pain that outweighed anything physical.  And still he laughed.

 

Flood

A sharp crack shattered the strained silence, echoing though the mid-morning fog.  Other noises followed, but they were quieter—more apprehensive.  A boot scraped the dirt.  Hands tightened on the hafts of spears, and armor clanked as the soldiers shifted from foot to foot.

Twenty strong they stood, sweaty even in the biting cold, surrounded by silence.  To their rear, the town was deserted.  Open doors revealed cold hearths, and the streets were strewn with belongings dropped during the fleeing.  That had been days ago, and the still air smelled of rotting food.

Twenty strong they stood, the only ones who stayed.  Twenty out of ten thousand, they stood at the end of the valley, facing the end of the world.  For before them stood the Last Wall, a god-built monolith of black marble that rose to the heavens and stretched from mountain to mountain.  And it was breaking.  Through the fog, the soldiers could see a web of glowing red cracks snaking across the wall—fissures large enough for two men to enter standing abreast.  Before their bleary eyes, another crack appeared like crimson lightning.  Its thunder shook the valley.

The face of the wall mas now more red than black, so covered with cracks as it was.  Midmorning was made to look like midday by the angry glow.  Another crack shook the valley, and the soldiers stood like ants before a mountain, alone at the End of All Things.

Help had never come, not that the soldiers could blame anyone.  Who wanted to face Death, certain it was coming, but uncertain of its form?  Everyone had heard the stories of what lay beyond the wall.  In that unknown hellscape the skies rained flame, and monsters roamed.  Some said they were beings of fire, with ever changing forms that could not be harmed.  Others were said to be armored in black chitin, with razor claws and suns for eyes.  Others still were nothing but shadows that stole life in silence.  Whatever lay Beyond, the soldiers meant to fight them.

A final crack sounded, louder and more violent than all the rest.  Sensing the end, the soldiers stepped forward and lowered their spears, glad to finally be moving.  At long last, Death was coming.

The cracks began to pulse, and there was a sound like an underwater explosion.  The wall didn’t fall, but seemed to dissolve into the crimson light, which grew more intense and began to rush towards the soldiers.  In the End, there were no monsters, only a cleansing fire that flooded the valley.  There was no fighting Death.