A Child’s Laughter

The baby had been giggling for over an hour.

“Maybe we should stay a few more minutes,” said the mother. “Just until the munchkin calms down.” Her eyes wandered to the basement door.

“Mrs. Pratt,” said Judy, “I’m a professional child observer. I have my babysitting certification, and I was a junior lifeguard. He’s in good hands.” Judy avoided using the baby’s name because she didn’t remember it.

“We don’t mind staying,” said Mrs. Pratt.

Mr. Pratt sighed but said nothing.

“You hired me for a reason,” said Judy. “Let me take it from here. You kids have fun.” That kind of cheeky charm got her the job. Most jobs, really. She smiled sideways to complete the effect.

Mrs. Pratt smiled back and said, “Well, okay. I’m sure you know what you’re doing.”

“I do.”

“We’ll be back late so don’t wait up,” said Mr. Pratt.

Oh, I won’t, thought Judy. She looked forward to a Netflix marathon with the Pratts’ sixty-inch flatscreen, baby or no baby.

After the front door slammed shut, laughter invaded the momentary peace of the parentless house. The crib was in the basement, which was where new parents always seemed to put their babies in the hot days of summer—as though they’d melt otherwise. Even though Judy wanted nothing more than to collapse in front of the TV and finish catching up on her shows, she figured she should check on the kid first. Besides, she had to know what was so damn funny.

As she entered the laughing maw of the basement door and descended those throaty steps, her curiosity was slowly replaced by creeping dread. She imagined that the wooden stairs creaked, but she only heard laughing. She had to pause for a moment to remind herself that there was nobody home except the baby.

When she finally reached the bottom, she saw a crib crouching in the middle of an unfinished rumpus room. A nightlight on the far wall bathed everything in a rusty orange, obscured only by the crib’s wooden bars. More and more the crib shook with the force of the laughter, throwing shadows like prison bars everywhere.

Cautiously, she approached and looked inside. Two little blue eyes saw her first and out came a new burst of laughter so loud and harsh it overpowered Judy’s surprised shriek. The baby squeezed its eyes shut, curled its pudgy limbs inward, and rocked back and forth as it laughed and laughed. That wide, drooling mouth, inconsistent teeth, hacking cackling. It made Judy’s head pound and skin crawl.

She hurried upstairs, but the laughter didn’t fade with distance. She shut the basement door, but that didn’t help either. So she called Mrs. Pratt and said, “Listen! Listen!” and held her phone to the door.

“Aww!” Mrs. Pratt cooed. “Sounds like you two are having a great time. We’re walking into the movie now, so we’ve got to go.”

“But it won’t stop laughing!” Judy said between her teeth. She was only dimly aware that she referred to the baby as “it.”

“I’m sorry, Judy, did you say something? Oh, he’s just laughing up a storm isn’t he! Okay, thanks for calling. We’ll be back in a few hours. Bye now.”

Judy considered calling again, but decided against it. Instead, she marched to the master bathroom, filled up the tub, and dunked her head under the water. She soaked her shoulders and banged the top of her scalp on the bottom of the tub and still the swallowing, drowning sound of laughter remained thick in her ears. The water was no use, even while she screamed a Jacuzzi jet of frustration and horror. So she whipped her head out of the tub and padded back to the basement entrance in a daze. She didn’t know what she would do, but she had to do something.

What was so funny? Was it her? Was the baby laughing at her? Was it laughing at the world? Was it laughing at all? Or was she losing her mind? No, Mrs. Pratt heard it too. Judy wasn’t crazy. The baby was.

It wasn’t an infant’s laugh. It was an adult’s. No, different. It was demonic. No, not that, either. It wasn’t superhuman or supernatural or super-anything. It was a laugh that could only come from the mouth of something that saw what Judy couldn’t see. Maybe something nobody could see. Something rendered invisible by language and logic and self-awareness. Something familiar, but forgotten. Something maddening.

She dripped bathwater all down the basement steps and approached the crib. Somehow, somehow, somehow the baby laughed LOUDER when it saw her. No sound like that could come from that little pink mouth, no matter how wide it got. Not from a baby that looked like every other pudgy white baby in the world—with those puffy cheeks and tiny frown as it squeezed its eyes closed to make room for a wider mouth. All the better to laugh with, my dear.

Judy reached into the crib, at first to pick it up, or to gently put her hand on its forehead, or something, but she covered its mouth instead. She needed to use both hands to cover the whole thing, and its nose too, to keep all the noise in.

“What’s so funny?” she screamed. “What’s so fucking funny? Tell me!”

The noise died, but the laughter remained. She could feel it in the palm of her hand, crawling through her skin. Every burst of remaining breath, every last HA.

Mr. and Mrs. Pratt walked in at midnight. Judy was sitting on the sofa, watching the TV, but the TV wasn’t on. The door to the basement was open. The sound of the Pratt’s kicking off their shoes was deafening in the silence.

“How was he?” Mrs. Pratt asked Judy.

Judy turned her head away from the TV, smiled her cheeky smile, and laughed.

And laughed.

 

 


 

 

Day 305’s three random writing prompt categories were, “Professional baby,” “Irrational fear,” and, “Death.”

Figured I’d add infanticide to my stories after all the other effed-up stuff I’ve written.

– H.

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