The Laughing Skull
Ed and I saw when the laughing skull came and shot up the night with radioactive fire. The skull spun above the skyscrapers and the hospitals and the schools, its eyes glowing green and red, Christmas colors in the Halloween head. The police, the Air Force, the scientists could do nothing--it couldn't be arrested, jets couldn't hit it, and technology was useless against its magic. Ed was so upset he eventually began firing at it with his shotgun from his roof, after another sleepless night from the skull's constant laughter.
"Ed," I said, "That ain't going do shit. Come off there and have some barbecue with everyone else. I've cooked some nice ribs."
"That damn thing," he said. "I'm going to get it. I know I will."
I looked up at Ed, dressed in denim overalls without a shirt, his straw colored hair dirty and messy like the inside of a stable. Above him in the sky was the chalk white emblem of evil that everyone wanted to disappear, winking with a bright light every five minutes and chuckling to itself about something no one could even guess. In my backyard, next to his house, our next door neighbors dined on my famous sausage and ribs. Most everyone was tired and angry, too. We all drank brown bottles of whiskey and occasionally swore loudly, but we didn't resort to firearms like Ed.
"Ed, you're my best friend, and I don't want to see the police come down here to get you."
"Screw the pigs," he said.
"Now, you're not in your best mind right now. Sleep deprivation can do these things to you."
"Yeah, well I'm not imagining that thing."
"There's some theories on that, LSD in the water, an alien brain wave, a terrorist plot--we don't know. We may never know. It's something we got to live with, like getting older and dying, a fact of life."
"Fuck that! I'm blasting it out of the sky."
I sighed. "Take some of those sleeping drugs!" I yelled, but all he did was swear back. He was an anti-drug nut and would never touch Ambien. I headed to my own backyard, while looking back at his disheveled house, with its peeling paint and overgrown lawn. My house was still tip-top, the grass looking like a green you could putt off. My wife Evelyn was waiting for me, munching a kielbasa off her plate, staining her mouth red with sauce. In her left hand was a cocktail that she swung in my direction like a trapdoor opening.
"That nut going to get down?"
"He's my best friend. He's not crazy. Not anymore than the rest of us," I said, pointing to the wrecked crew of neighbors around us. Harry the tubby accountant had his tie wrapped around his head and was feeling up his neighbor Lee's wife Angela, who looked like a hot dog in her red pants and blouse. Andy, a skinny bureaucrat for the government, was puking in the azaleas. It was a tableau of personal disaster, and in the background was the sound of crazy, maniacal laughter.
"I want a new sofa," my wife said, slurring her words. Her glass was mostly filled with gin instead of tonic; I could tell from the powerful fumes coming from her breath.
"You can't have one," I said. I kicked an empty bottle of whiskey over my fence to Ed's yard, hearing a satisfying crack on the other side. I considered jabbing my wife, but she was pretty quick, and that was domestic abuse, one step I was not willing to take. Yet.
"You can't make life just a little bit better for me. After all that shit, can't we live a little?"
"I had this cookout. For weeks you said have a cookout. Now, look at every one. It's all fucked up!"
"Get me a new sofa," she said. She stared me down with those dark brown eyes, like chocolate I had once wanted to taste. I turned away and climbed on to a wobbly chair and orated to the sloshed neighbors before me, most of whom I'm sure did not listen to me.
"I hereby would like to make an announcement. My wife would like a new piece of furniture. She knows that we're in debt because of the new car we purchased a few months ago, and because of the doctor bills for our sleep meds. I am asking for donations to this worthy cause. This queen, my wife, who right now is more pickled than a jar of kosher dills, wants to have a nice place to put her fat ass. Maybe if she went out and got more than a part-time job, I'd feel more generous, but she's a lazy bitch. So, who wants to buy her an ugly sofa?"
My wife pushed me off the chair and I fell down on the concrete patio. My knee opened up in a bloody cut, and I scraped my hands and arms. Once I got over the initial pain, my wife kicked me in the ass, opening up a new pain stimulation front in my body. I yelled, "What are you doing, you crazy slut?"
"I am tired of your shit!" she screamed.
I heard shots from Ed, who was still on the roof, and I heard him yell, "I know a way I can get you. I know a way." I could see him going down the ladder quickly, and I wondered what moved him to leave the roof--the police maybe? Meanwhile, I tried to crawl away, but Evelyn jumped on top of me and began smacking my head with her tiny fists. I flung her off and made for the bushes around the house, hoping to squeeze in where she couldn't get to.
That's when I noticed that the neighbors were fighting, too. Our battle must have unleashed the anger of everyone else. I heard Harry pounding on Lee with his fatty fists and Angela screeching for them to stop. Andy had Mike, a department store manager with red hair and a horsy face, in a headlock. Eyes were blackened, teeth knocked out, faces scratched red and bloody from wildcat hands. The grill was overturned and fire spread from the coals to the grass. I watched as the flames spread to the bottles of whiskey lying on the ground, ready to explode their glass all over the yard. Evelyn punched my back as I fled into the pine bushes, scratching my hands and arms, getting sticky with the sap. I heard a yelp of pain as Andy ran past us on fire. He threw his Rolex to me, as he rolled on the ground like a dog trying to get off fleas. Evelyn told me to come out and face my beating like a man, and that when we did get a sofa, it would be an expensive leather one with vibrating seats. Throughout we heard the dead cold laughter of the skull, taking pleasure in our pain. Its strobe lights altered the scene, making us look like we were in a sliced up piece of film, disoriented in time.
That's when I heard the explosion from Ed's garage, as the roof blasted off and Ed flew up into the night. I saw him rise in a miniature rocket he had apparently been building. It streamed upward with fire and sparks behind it. I thought he had been building a new cabinet, and had seen him bring in wood and other materials, but this was remarkable. The fighting of all participants stopped, and Andy had stopped moving, and we all watched the beautiful red aircraft shoot toward the laughing skull. It must have been spontaneous what happened, we couldn't have been reading each other's minds, but we all kneeled down and started praying. I heard Evelyn say, "Please get that skull so I can sleep without drugs and I can listen to my favorite music again without that crazy laughter."
I heard Harry say, "Please grab that skull so that light stops flickering and driving me crazy. I want to believe that God doesn't want to torture me like this."
I heard Lee say, "Please catch that skull and throw it back into space where it will hurt no one. Also, curse Angela with some sexually transmitted disease, as I'm leaving her as soon as this is done."
I heard Angela say, "Please remove that skull from our world. Also, have Lee be rendered impotent and unable to reproduce every again, that limp bastard."
I heard myself saying, "We are all angry and hurt and sad. We are all what we don't want to be. Once this came into our life, we could never be the same. Remove it from us. Remove this burden from our bodies and minds. We love you God. We trust you to do the right thing."
Ed flew past the skull and it looked initially like he would miss it to the left. Steering with black strap handles, he pushed his craft to the right and stretched off the rocket with his long arms and baseball catcher hands. Like he did in our softball leagues, he caught the "ball" and brought it to himself. Once it was in his hands, the skull stopped glowing, the mouth fell silent. None of us were used to the quiet that ensued; it was like we could hear all these things we didn't know existed--crickets, water faucets, and sizzling meat. We cheered, the whole city cheered, a giant living organism noise, and we jumped up and down, even as the fire spread to the house and climbed up to the roof. Behind me my past life was burning up and I was happy. Evelyn drunkenly hugged me.
"We'll get a new house," she said. "We'll start all over. I get to decorate again. That'll be fun."
"We'll get the insurance," I said. "I'm sure of it. This was just a grilling accident."
We held each other gently, careful with each other's bruised flesh, and watched Ed disappear into outer space, toward the aliens he believed put this skull down here. The windows cracked and melted in our home; the old sofa whooshed up in blazing flames, like a sacrifice on the altar of the gods. That was okay; we'd get a new leather one. I thought about Ed in his little rocket, seeing the stars close up and whooshing around comets sparkling past him like spinning diamonds. He was going to bring back that skull to the flying saucer that put it on earth and teach those spacemen a lesson. He had his shotgun with him. He was going to get those aliens. I had no doubt.
About the author:
Don Illich is a technical writer for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in Rockville, Maryland. He has a master's degree in English from Illinois State University and he has been published in verge magazine, Druid's Cave, and the Internet editions of McSweeney's and Pindeldyboz.