In the rearview mirror of the car the baby is smiling and so is the thing beside him. It’s gone though, in the next second, back into the shadows that it may or may not have come from in the first place. The baby gives that huh-huh-huh chuckle that all babies have before they really learn how to laugh and you forget about the thing, chalk it up to a trick of the light or whatever else horror-movie protagonists blame weird shit on right before they get fucking murdered.
The thing, whatever it was—or wasn’t, you remind yourself, because it was never really there—has thrown you off, made you miss your exit. The baby in the back huh-huh-huhs again as if it’s funny that there isn’t another off-ramp for four miles. Weird how alert he is; the kid’s usually out cold driving home this late.
The road again, dark because no streetlights. Hard to tell where you’re going. Squinting in the night, making sure you don’t get distracted again. You look in the mirror, check on the kid. The shadows blanket him from view and a cold wave hits you; you know he’s still there, probably, but there is the chance that the shadows are concealing nothing, that the baby is gone, that he’s been taken. You reach back to feel for him, but a second is enough to let you know that you can’t drive in this darkness single-handed. The panic is almost enough to make you pull over, but then comes the huh-huh-huh and everything is okay.
The thing again. Hard to see in the pitch-black of the mirror; both the rearview and the child mirror are nearly opaque, but it’s there, discernible amid obscurity like clouds against night sky. It’s shape clearer this time. Humanish, maybe. Something like eyes. Huh-huh-huh. The kid reaches out for it and the little baby hand disappears into the thing-body, all five fingers splitting from the stump in a bloody shower like he just stuck his arm down a garbage disposal.
A scream—yours—the word “fuck,” then swerving. Off the road for a little bit, stopped just before hitting a tree. Turn around ready to fight whatever it is but there is nothing to fight, there is only the baby sleeping, sleeping with both hands resting calmly over his chest, intact.
Huh-huh-huh, in his sleep. Funny, daddy. You thought I was irrevocably maimed. You thought I was going to bleed out before you could get help. Huh-huh-huh. Got you daddy. Funny.
The darkness again, full and total save reflectors and glints of starlight. No oncoming traffic. It feels like there should have been an exit by now; did you miss this one as well?
Phone; Google Maps. No service.
In the blackness a light emerges, tiny, orange, shaped like a little gas-can. Fuck.
Ten minutes of driving and you find an off ramp to a gas station, the first full lights you’ve seen since you missed the exit home. You don’t recognize where you are, but your phone has service again and you find out you’ve overshot your house by about twenty minutes. No worries, you’ll get on the opposite ramp and drive straight until you find it. Home soon, no worries. None.
You get a chill and check the back seat while the gas finishes filling up. The baby is there, asleep, and for a moment your heart freezes but then the little guy breathes and things are okay again. Funny, daddy. You thought I’d stopped breathing. Got you.
The pump clicks, done filling. You tell the machine no, you do not need a receipt for this transaction. It says, have a nice day. You hang up the pump. Reach for your keys. Turn around.
Through the back window of the car the baby is smiling and so is the thing beside him.
Instinct: you go for the door handle. Locked. The smiling baby reaches for, grabs the smiling thing, coaxes what might maybe be its arm into his tiny mouth and chews, swallows, the same as babies do with everything.
Jimmying the door handle, still locked. You push the unlock button on the keychain and it doesn’t work. Hit the glass with your arm, doesn’t break easy. Why would it; this isn’t the movies. About to hit it again; a thought occurs: glass shards raining down on the baby like an ice blizzard. Not happening. You go around to the side with the thing on it but by the time you get there the thing is mostly gone, mostly eaten by the baby. Once it disappears entirely, the door comes open easy.
Huh-huh-huh, gone now daddy. I ate it. It gone now.
Inside the child’s mouth, nothing. No marks on the body, no shift in mood. Nothing wrong.
There was never any thing, daddy, you made it all up, like in playtime. Nothing back here, nothing inside my tummy, nothing anywhere, never was. Made it all up daddy, like in playtime. I sleep now. Huh-huh-huh.
The drive back is somehow darker than it was the first time. The opaqueness of the road only marginally less terrifying than the darkness in the back seat, the complete blackness of the rearview mirror. The kid, asleep. Nothing to worry about. He’s fine.
Then, huh-huh-huh, but not from the back. Look to your side; there in the passenger’s seat, the kid, unbuckled. Skin a raven black, otherwise recognizable. Humanish, at least. Something like eyes.
You are what you eat, get it daddy? Funny. His head turns to you, but not the body. Not physically impossible like in the Exorcist, but unnatural, especially on an infant. The huh-huh-huh again, this time distorted like something speaking through him that isn’t him. It doesn’t stop either; just goes huh-huh-huh-huh-huh-huh-huh-huh-huh-huh-huh-huh and doesn’t stop.
There you are, teetering on the precipice of madness, right there, right on the edge. Then the little hand raises except for it isn’t a little hand, it’s a stump; all five fingers missing, irrevocably maimed like it’s been jammed into a garbage disposal.
That’s it; a delicate nudge and you’re off the ledge onto the other side. Comforting more than anything, not at all the unpleasantness that the movies would have you believe. Almost preferable to sanity, in some ways not even almost. There’s some freedom here that rational thinkers could never dream of and it is this freedom that makes you not even care that there isn’t another exit for four miles because you are fully capable of making your own.