The Laugh

When the kids were young and mayhem reigned supreme in the house, I sometimes begged my wife to allow me to go camping by myself for a weekend for a little peace and quiet.
My favorite spot was out in the woods by the Withlacoochee River. My little pup tent took no time at all to set up and a quick trip among the trees provided enough wood and kindling for the fire. Sometimes I could hear other campers in the distance but most of the time I savored my solitude in the silence. It was about midnight several years ago that my contemplations were interrupted by several howls of laughter.
Looking about, I tried to determine where the noise was coming from. The laughter stopped, only to be followed by the crunching of leaves and twigs. I felt my heart in my throat. My mouth went dry. I cursed myself for not owning a gun even though I didn’t know how to use one. Maybe one of the larger logs in the fire would suffice as a weapon. I heard the laugh right behind me and jumped.
“What you all fidgety about, man?”
From the shadows ambled a bear of an old man with a long gray-streaked beard which I supposed had been dark amber when he was young. He had a limp which favored his left foot which looked like it had been mauled by something with sharp teeth. He plopped to the ground up across the fire from me and let out such a giggle-tinged grunt that I could no longer be afraid of him.
“Think there be skunk apes here about?” he asked more as a joke than a question.
“Well,” I replied, “I’ve never seen one.”
“Ever thunk they be ghosts of critters long gone? That’s how you folks can sometimes see them, but never catch one or see a track. Maybe they just love these old swamps and don’t want to go away.”
When he smiled, I noticed his teeth look like yellowed stalactites and stalagmites in a yawning cavern. His tongue darted out like a pink slime creature venturing from the abyss of his gullet.
“That’s an interesting theory.” I covered my mouth with my hand to keep him from seeing the flicker of a smile. “Have you ever seen a skunk ape?”
He let go with another cackling laugh. “You’d be surprised by what I’ve done and seen in these swamps.”
“Is that so?” I replied with my hand still across my lips. I began to think my kids weren’t so peculiar after all.
“You ain’t scared, are you, young fella? There ain’t no need to be.”
“That’s a relief.”
“I can tell you don’t believe in skunk apes, ghosts or nothin’ else that lurks about in the darkness.”
“I don’t mean any disrespect, sir, but, no, I don’t believe in skunk apes, ghosts or things that go bump in the night.”
“Then more fool you!” The old man threw back his head, howled in laughter for several moments before evaporating into the darkness.

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