The Laughing Stranger

There is a stranger in his head, laughing…laughing.

He sits, silent in his corner as the children play in the next room over—the neighbor kids who are loud and boisterous and seemed to always argue over trivial things like ‘she won’t play what I want to play,’ or ‘he’s touching me,’ or ‘she making faces,’ and other nonsensible things.  They laugh a lot, but not as loud as the stranger in his head.

Water drips in the toilet.  Someone should jiggle the handle, he thinks.  It’s annoying and torturous, but he doesn’t move from his corner where he sits with arms wrapped around the knees that are pulled up to his chin.  No, the stranger in his head tells him to hold still, young man, hold still.

A thump comes from the next room over.  Laughter follows, as the two kids play—no arguing on this night—their game of whatever it is.

‘Listen, listen,’ the stranger says.

And he does.  Or tries to.

The children are louder now, the thumps heavier.

They’re going to come through the wall, he thinks.  Maybe they will.  Maybe they won’t.

The stranger’s laughter grows quiet.  ‘Listen, listen.’

He strains his ears and his neck is craned up; his head goes against the wall to his right.  It is cold on his skin, but he hears them better.

A thump.

A bump.

Children laugh.

‘What am I listening for?’

‘Just listen.  Listen.  You’ll know.’

The voice is dark, and it scares him.  He closes his mouth and presses his ear harder against the wall.  He doesn’t want to hear the voice again.

Several bangs are followed by more laughter.  The knocks grow louder and louder and he wonders where are their parents.  He doesn’t know, he’s not even sure he’s ever seen the kids or the parents who live next door, but he hears them now, he hears the children.

Then it happens.

The wall shakes with the boom of a body smashing into it.  A scream ensues.  A girl?  Boy?  It is too high-pitched to tell.

‘I’m sorry.  I’m sorry,’ the other child says, and then the distinct sound of feet running across the floor trail away, a ‘Mommy, Mommy,’ on the lips of the unhurt one.

Seconds pass and the screaming grows until the mother’s voice joins the fray.  He listens as she consoles him—yes, it is a him and his name is Jeromy, and he is apparently hurt, but not as bad as his screams would make you think.  A moment later and the boy is no longer screaming, but crying and sniffling, and those, too, fade as the mother leads him from the room.

Then all is silent.

He moves his head from one wall and sets it against the one behind him.  His body relaxes, then tenses as the stranger begins to giggle…and in the background, the toilet still trickles.

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