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Punch-line
by Ken W. Castle


          “Come on babe, we’re gonna paint the town, AND ALL THAT JAZZ!”
          It was just before dawn, and wan light was softening the sky to a warm orange in the distance, as the red motorcycle streaked along a back road, and Sylvia could see none of this. In fact, at times like these she was glad for the muting of sound which her current home, an ornate wooden box they’d gotten from a grateful recipient of their private crusade, provided her, especially after Jana had taught herself how to sing and become hooked on musicals she’d found in an i-pod that she’d found, which Sylvia had estimated should run out of power in day or…
          “I’ve got some aspirin from United Drug, AND ALL THAT JAZZ!”
          Groaning, Sylvia recalled that she’d taught her how to power devices using magic.
          “…AND ALL THAT ZAAZZZ!! That jazz, yeah!”
          In a past life, in Sunday school, a nun had told her that she would go to hell after she died, and all because she took money from a collection plate to buy sweets, owing to her argument that she was in fact the needy one was what earned her the additional descriptions of how her body would rot, yet still she would be tormented.
          Suddenly pulling that nun back into any sort of existence seemed like a cruel thing to do… when you thought of the children who took Sunday school there.
          As Jana launched into The Sunshine Song from Hair, she wondered if the dinner had been hit by a nuclear weapon and she’d been vaporized. Though if the nun was right, the fact that she didn’t even attend that church or follow that faith made it more ironic still. (In truth she’d just started the discussion while her parents were fixing the ducted vacuuming system in the church.)
          “So where’s the next stone Slyvia?” Jana asked in a chipper voice as she hit pause and fished the box out of her bag. “It won’t smell as bad as last time will it?” Her voice sounded hesitant as she said that.
          “That was just a poorly worded wish Jana, I’m sure there’s no chance of seeing that again… I hope.” There was a distinct shudder to her voice as the box was opened and Jana peered in. “All right kiddo, let me get our bearings. Time for the Shakespear bit.”
          With a flourish, Jana took Sylvia’s skull out of the box and slowly, with her arm fully outstretched, spun around till she’d pointed in all directions. There were fewer stones out there now, and that brought a little satisfaction to her. It meant there was only a few dozen left to deal with, and the next few were much closer to them.
          All right, the nearest one is about half an hours ride up the road. There’s only one in that area so that should make things quick… actual lack of any other noticeable magic, so it looks like this one hasn’t got many nasty surprises waiting for us. I think I’ve got a good shot at this just being an old-fashioned talk-down… unless he’d wished to become some sort of insane martial artist… or an insane inventor… or something resulting in either insanity, or insanity, or insane amounts of lethality. Still, it’s better than winding up in a town that Vengeance has already turned against us, or wound up being in a death trap a la Stephen King.
          Now she thought about it, If she and Jana wound up being unable to reverse the wishes, she could tolerate a retirement spot where going insane from a lack of sleep would be an asset, as well as being in a place where talking skulls would be able to hook up with a date from time to time. She’d possibly set up a web site… www.otherrealmsromance.org?
          “It looks like a single individual and there’s not much in the way of magic for miles around. All we have to do is let our mouths do the talking. Ready to ride kiddo?” With a smile, Jana put the skull of her mentor back in it’s box and rode the bike again.
          Sylvia was trying to think of a mental list of people who were in the diner and cross reference it with the people who had already either given up or “lost” their wish stones when suddenly:
          “Give me some kind HAIR! Long beautiful HAAIIR!”
          I think I’ll date a tentacle monster, however he has to bring dead flowers or I’m leaving him for a ghoul with fashion sense.


          This place was like a snapshot from the sort of publication one would expect to have a name like “Town and Village Monthly”, even the sign on the road into town said its name was “Potter’s Field: A place where anyone can be happy.” The streets were wide, adjoined front yards were clean, and the houses behind the yards were wide and clean. There were trees every few meters along the street in the yards, and there was a clear blue afternoon sky overhead that held no hint of clouds or rain. In the distance the sweet, light song of birds filtered down to give the entire place a tranquil air that suggested that one was riding through a wooded area.
          “Wow… this place is nice.”
          That’s when she saw a police car with a crowd around it. It was sitting behind a parked car and a pair of police officers were inspecting the vehicle, one checking the tail lights, one by the driver’s side door. Jana rolled to a stop on the opposite side of the road as one of the police spoke.
          “All right sir, can you please assist us with a road-worthy check? I need you to demonstrate your windshield wipers effectiveness.”
          There was the half-turn of a key, then a pause, followed by a hum as the system kicked into life, and suddenly a jet of water shot into the air and came down again, drenching the officer at the rear of the vehicle. The entire crowd gasped and there was an stunned silence as the driver exited the vehicle, walked up to the drenched representative of the local police force, his head hung and eyes downcast.
          Mutely, he then offered him a towel.
          Jana joined the crowd by bursting into laughter and eventually applause. There was a good natured air in the crowd as the officers wrote out a recommendation for service and then, once reasonably dry, drove off as the crowd shared good natured jibes and further laughs. Jana took that as an opportunity to ask some directions.
          Parking the bike against one of the trees and walking across the street, she approached one of the dispersing crowd, an older man in a grey suit with a matching shade of facial hair. Jana smiled and asked in her usual sweet, and oddly disarming voice.
          “Excuse me mister, but I’m looking for a place to spend the night. Do you know anywhere I can get a room around here?”
          Sylvia had to admit that if she wasn’t a toughened hunter and street fighter, Jana would seem like the biggest tease. It wasn’t till you asked a follow up question or two that you realized that you were speaking with a person who actually meant what she said. Like most children, she honestly asked what was on her mind. As far as being charming and sweet went, that was just Jana being herself.
          The man’s response was hearty and delivered in a thick southern accent that hinted at being from somewhere around South Carolina. “Well Ma’am, ah know that the Carson family lets people board with them. In fact if’n your willing to share a room, you can meet Joey Marcello. He don’t have a proper home ta’ speak of, still folks round here go an’ rotate him around an’ he does odd jobs for most everyone around the place. Y’all know the way there?”
          At the shaking of Jana’s head, he gave her a few directions and told her to say that Bob had sent her. Jana thanked him with a hug and waved as she jogged over to her bike, while he called out a final warning about avoiding the meatloaf.
          He mused as she left: “Ah like that girl… course I used to like my ex-wife… mind you, upside is that with that girl there, you can see when she’s pullin’ ah knife on ya.”
          She kicked the engine to life, and, taking the directions that he’d given her, was soon rolling through the wide, non-crowded streets once more, traveling along their length as people went about their early and late afternoon chores and tasks for the day. People were riding their bicycles home from work, something Jana had seen a lot of since the supply of petrol had been cut off and some places had lost the use for any cars except four wheel drives. That was excluding places that hadn’t been sent back into the stone-age or some fantasy trip.
          Jana soon found the fourth house on Sacramento Street, and saw it was very similar to the others… in fact if it wasn’t for the street signs, and the odd fountain, this place was all too easy to get lost in.
          Jana cut off the bike’s engine and wheeled it up to the house, stopping to lean it against a fence. Walking up to the house she pulled her hands through her hair and dusted herself off as she merely went to press the doorbell.
          What she didn’t expect was the answer she got as the door opened from the inside.
          “DUDE!”
          Laughter had filtered through the box as Sylvia tried to get a bead on the wish stone carrier in the town. The presence always seemed to be filtering in and out of places, like a person moving behind scenery in a play. She was about to ask Jana to open the box so she could take a better look, until she heard her walking away from the bike and up to one of the people in the crowd.
          Upon hearing her asking about a place to stay, she thought: Well it’s good to know that she’s not just digging a hole and sleeping there anymore.
          Focusing on other matters, she turned her abilities to the future, her inner sight manifesting only as sound, as it so often did. To be fair though… she didn’t expect to hear what she did.
          “DUDE!”
          The voice came from a young man, with a messy blonde bowl cut who was about seventeen years of age, garbed in a shirt with a mildly offensive logo, and torn jeans, replete with a tattoo almost visible on his right upper arm. He didn’t see Jana, and turned to the voice which had addressed him.
          "Dude?”
          “Epic dump… dude?” The similar-looking young man looked out at Jana from behind the other. “… whoa, dude!” This elicited a high-five and mutual smiling and many repetitions of the word “Dude.” In various tones before either was able to sound as if they had the slightest hint of intelligence.
          “So… uh, can I help you?” There was a mutual flash of smiles from both guys as Jana found herself blushing at the two surf-side boys, both staring at her in their best pick-up poses.
          As Jana mumbled something about needing a place to stay, Sylvia used a ventriloquist technique she’d been working on to add the words “southern accented man” in Jana’s own voice.
          “Oh, dude, do you mean Mr. Cahill?”
          “Well, he just called himself Bob.” Jana said, still blushing and smiling all the same.
          “Awsome, he’s awesome. You grab a seat on the couch in the living room, and I’ll put your bike behind the house.” The first boy casually slapped his hand against his brother’s shoulder. “Dude, drinks?”
          “Drinks?” There was a raised eyebrow and a look at the fridge.
          “Dude!” This broke into laughter, and a shaken head.
          As the two left Jana to relax in the spacious living room, Sylvia spoke up. “I didn’t get a lot of that. What were they talking about?”
          Jana sat with a bemused smile on her face. “I… don’t know.”
          So… this is what could well prove to be worse than show tunes.
          The Carson family came home in dribs and drabs and Jana was introduced, smiling all the way through the process. Soon she found herself helping set a table with the two brothers she’d met before, Daniel and Ret, as their father Clark chuckled about his day at work. (Sylvia could almost swear that he was either a pipe-smoker, or wearing a cardigan over a button-up shirt.) Then, in the company of Mrs. Shelly Carson, the main guest arrived, Mr. Joey Marcello.
          The sliding door facing onto the backyard opened to a man and a woman. Shelly was a tall blonde who looked like she’d come back from a board room meeting, while the man with her was a good deal shorter, and looked like his clothing had been taken off a nineteenth century hobo, run through a stonewash filled with buzz saws, patched up, and then worn by a motocross rider tackling a desert course who’d only briefly shaken off the dust.
          “How you’s guys doin’?!” He said with an easy air in an accent that was thick New Jersey with an overtone of ethnic Italian. Now she thought about it, Sylvia wouldn’t be surprised if he was a member of the mafia. It would explain his reputation.
          “Joey!” They all chorused.
          The good cheer was all around as the food was prepared for dinner and Joey caught them up on town gossip, every tale light hearted and with a rib-tickling punch line. That was how he’d already heard about Jana, and it seemed he had his finger on the pulse of the entire town.
          “You know,” Daniel said. “I’ve been having the weirdest dreams, about other towns except they were so much bigger, and they had more stuff in them.”
          “Like your mothers meatloaf son?”
          “Heh, yeah, except they were everywhere.”
          “Like when your pop over-cooks your mother’s meatloaf?”
          The serious thought dissolved in a gale of laughter and even Sylvia found herself smiling… not that it was hard to look like that.
          “So Jana,” Came Mr. Carson’s voice from across a platter of steamed vegetables, which, by way of a veritable shell game of foodstuffs, Jana had managed to avoid putting on her plate. “tell us, what brings a person like yourself to our town? I figure a merchant, or wizard, since gas is hard to come by. Still I figure you oughta know the town hasn’t needed hired guards for years.”
          Embarrassed again at the attention she muttered. “I’m just looking for someone who lives here, I just don’t know what he looks like.”
          Mrs. Carson spoke up in her crisp, bright voice. “Ah, now if your lookin’ for a trophy husband, there’s plenty of good catches, ‘cept for Clark… wouldn’t a looked at him, ‘cept I just can’t turn down a man in a cardigan!”
          I knew it!
          Stealing glances at Daniel and Ret and blushing furiously, Jana was quiet while the family chuckled. Sylvia decided to interject at this point.
          “Could someone please let me out, so I can get some fresh air? If I get moldy, it’s on your head Jana, as much as it’s on mine.”
          “Uh, my skull’s feeling the cold, hold on a second.” Jana said as she scooted her chair back. The family looked on in fascination as she put Sylvia on the mantle piece in the living room.
          Clark arched both eyebrows to cap off the shocked look on his face. “… wow, I can see why you kept that in a box. I guess a closet would be overkill…. And more than a litte hard to lug around. So, I think we have a third guest, and we should call you?”
          “Sylvia… and now I can get a better look at all of you, nice sweater by the way, I can say: Jana, it’s the homeless guy, he made the wish in the diner. Looked like some kinda salesman too, shifty one with bad teeth.”
          Standing up in a split second, Joey snapped “Hey, I always had great teeth, an’ I still do!” Then realizing his mistake only once he’d made it. He’d caught himself out.
          “And that’s the game folks!” Sylvia said in an unusually bright tone. “So, how about we sit outside so as not to disrupt the last half of their meal? Jana, if you would be so kind as to entrust me to the man in the recycled clothes?” The skull was handed down to an even more ruffled looking man who quietly walked out the rear of the house, sliding the glass door shut as he went.
          “All right, tell me, what did you wish for? If it was to live in a non-stop sit-com then you got your wish granted. There hasn’t been five minutes where I haven’t smiled.”
          “That’s probably because you aint got no…”
          “Silence mortal!” She’d always wanted to yell that. “There was a reason we sought you out you know.”
          “You need witty one-liners for a party or social event? I can do those, but I charge.”
          Sylvia sighed. “That isn’t why we found you. You may recall a few cities that no longer exist. We intend to bring them back into existence by cancelling the wishes that were made and hopefully that will bring things back to the way they were.”
          “So what is this? Death-by-guilt-trip? I knew I’d do as much damage as anyone else there. All I wished for was a place where all the laughter was real. I aint hurting nobody, and when last I checked, there was even an upturn in results from the hospital.”
          “And that’s fine by us, this will just allow the effect to be broken. It’s like being forced to eat chicken every day, and then you don’t have to eat chicken any more, yet if you WANT to, you can.”
          “Do you know what it’s been like for me? It’s like some kinda dream. Do you know what my life was like up to this?” He said, starting to raise his voice, a hint of desperation setting in.
          Sitting in the diner, Joey was midway through another routine. There was another client, and he was mid way through yet another hawking of his company’s product, and another god-awful joke had been told, with him providing the laugh track.
          His whole life he’d been doing this. If it wasn’t keeping himself from being beaten up at school, it was something else necessitating him to make people think they were amusing him.
          It was as he smiled and chewed another mouthful of salad, he wished that only the really funny things were laughed about.
          “You’s got no right to ask me to become that man again.” There was a hint of a growl under his tone.
          “You know we’ve heard those words before, and it was taken back once that person realized how many people we were talking about.”
          “Were they happy to stop being the man they had become?”
          “Woman.”
          “Excuse me?”
          “You heard me. Now that I’ve said my peace, you have to ask yourself, is it so bad if the laughs aren’t all real? Tell me you never said something that caused someone to fake a laugh.”
          “I hated that. Why do you think I wished for a world where it’s not an issue? Besides, what’s the difference between leaving me alone, and finding somebody who’s wish makes her able to grant other people’s wishes? That’s the whole thing solved right there.”
          “You know my friend in leather there?” Jana could be seen through the glass door as she sat at the table with a relaxed smile. “She wished that we all got our wishes and that’s the closest we got. Oh, and incase you were wondering, there’s no yellow pages listing for wish makers, so we can’t just look up the lot of you and see who can spring us out of this. For all we know things will pick up where they left off, and none of us will recall any of this.”
          “An’ if they don’t you could make for a great Yorick. Something else I’d charge for by the way.” The man sighed and began to feel like he was an old man, despite being in his prime. “I jus’ wanna be happy, no strings attached, and there’s nothing here ‘cept good laughs, and that’s for everybody… I didn’t know it wiped out an entire city.”
          “That’s a lot of people who aren’t laughing.”
          “Has it ever occurred that it might not work? What if we all give up our wishes, and then there’s an even worse world waitin’ for us, or thw world don’t change at all, an’ we lose our thing we got goin’ to hold these places together like we have? Suddenly we’re all stuck in these places, like nothing more than characters in a story… where the laughter’s fake, and we don’t know any more than the Carson’s in there?”
          “What if you can bring back more than a million people and find a way to make them laugh? Have you ever told a joke that made you smile as well?”
          There was a pause as Sylvia, resting on some lawn furniture, watched the man think over his situation. “If I decide to get rid of this wish, I ain’t gonna to have to do some weird ritual am I?”
          “Just saying it, and meaning it is enough.”
          “Great, affirmations. Like I’m on freakin’ Oprah… you know, she may still be out there some where. What kinda wording you need?”
          “How about, some of the laughs can be fake?”
          He sighed and closed his eyes. “Dis better set me up for some great stand-up work and time on the talk show circuit, cause I want to get a decent amount of compensation… aw ta hell with it.”
          Taking a deep breath, and crossing his fingers, he intoned. “Some of the laughs can be HURGH!!” Doubling over, he collapsed onto the ground blacking out as a sizable gem floated out from his chest, a sapphire by the look of it, and with the ill-drawn picture of a tick with a smiley face just underneath.
          It took all of two seconds for the entire family to be outside, tending to the man that was like a sleazy uncle to most of the town of Potter’s Field. Jana and Sylvia were soon issuing explanations, and also asked only to stay for the night, saying they needed to get to another place.
          “Really?” Mrs. Carson asked. “What do you think you’ll find there?”
          “With any luck, tentacles and flowers.” Sylvia said as she settled in for a quiet night of listening to other people sleep. That was also probably the first time in the community’s history that only one person smiled at a joke… sort of.


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