By lisa h
Sally took a clean bottle from behind the sink, stifling a yawn as she reached for the formula milk. The baby alarm came to life as the infant upstairs found his second wind and started howling again. For a moment she thought about the codeine pills she’d tucked away in the back of the cabinet. She could grind a few of them up and mix the powder into the formula milk.
She shook her head, and put both hands on the counter, fighting exhaustion, avoiding him as he screamed in his room. He’d taste the drug and throw the bottle back at her. She’d disguise the bitterness with chocolate milk. In the morning. Put it in his sippy cup so he wouldn’t be suspicious. She just needed a little rest. Not be worrying all the time about what Walter might do next. A few minutes, half an hour… Sally started, her eyes had been closed, only for an instant, but something had changed. She made up the bottle quickly, screwed on the lid and covered the teat with a finger as she shook the contents.
Yes, something was wrong. Sally knew it, felt it in her tired bones, and as she left the kitchen, she realised what it was.
Walter was quiet.
Sally froze, bottle in one hand as she dug in her dressing gown pocket for the baby alarm. Maybe the volume knob had twisted down as she’d moved about. She flicked the dial up to maximum and tentatively raised the speaker to her ear. There was no noise, not even the quiet sound of the baby as he breathed.
“Shit,” she muttered, and without taking her eyes from the stairs, she reached out and flicked on the light. A dim glow replaced the shadows as the bulb warmed up. Sally started moving once again, lightening her steps so she moved silently on the hall carpet. At the bottom of the stairs she gazed up into a darkness that seemed visceral. Something up there moved – she knew what it was. Walter. She’d taken too long, and now she’d get punished. His scent wafted down to her, filling her nostrils with an earthy odour. Almost pleasant, if she ignored the underlying stench of decay.
The shape on the landing moved off to the right, and for a second, Sally relaxed a little – maybe he’d returned to his room. Everything would be okay. He’d seen the bottle, was climbing back inside his cot at this moment, willing to play the helpless six-month-old for a little while longer.
The baby alarm, forgotten in one hand - volume still up to the max, suddenly crackled into life again and the child’s giggle blasted from the speaker.
Sally shrieked and dropped the unit. “Why are you doing this to me?” she yelled up the stairs. “What did I ever do to you?”
After a moments silence Walter answered. “Ba-ba.”
“I’ll bring it… just promise not to hurt me.”
Sally stared at the front door. She could let herself out and walk until the house was far behind. Bill had the right idea, but she didn’t have the courage to choose his method, and she didn’t have the courage to leave.
“BA-BA!” screamed out of the speaker.
“I’m coming.” Sally turned away from the door and flicked the switch for the landing, but nothing happened. The bulb had burnt out. Or the baby had set her up. She suppressed a sudden laugh. Maybe she’d gone insane – Bill wasn’t in the cemetery. He was stuffed in the chest freezer in the garage and Walter was an abused and neglected child. But the scars. She fingered the marks on her arms, so fresh and pink they still hurt to touch. With a quick shake of her head, Sally stepped onto the bottom stair, her eyes wide as the shadows deepened. Then quickly, she climbed, leaving the comfort of the light below.
“Walter,” she said. “I’ve got your ba-ba.” She reached the last step, and peered down the hall. The baby’s door was closed. Bill had told her what to do before he locked himself in the bathroom and sliced open his wrists – given her instructions she’d kept with her since. But he’d chickened out on their plans. How could he leave her alone with Walter? The folded piece of paper in her pocket was soft from rubbing. She didn’t need to read the words, they were so familiar, she just had to close her eyes and they appeared. Take a pillow. Press it down on Walter’s head. Hard. But she daren’t glance at the paper now. The baby might not be in his room, he might be elsewhere. Waiting for her.
As if in answer, an impatient cry came out of the alarm. The sound arrived in stereo from the unit at the bottom of the stairs and the baby’s room.
Sally took a deep breath and tiptoed down the hall until she was beside Walter’s door. She grabbed the handle, pushed it slowly open, but only dared enter a single pace. The air was thick, filling her lungs almost to choking point, the stench of earth and decay stronger here. Bill would have run in, shouting. She couldn’t do that. The light switch flicked up ineffectually under her finger. Another bulb burnt out. Sally waited while her vision adjusted to the dark.
The cot stood across the room. Her son lay on the mattress, his head rolled to one side, his eyes meeting hers. Blue eyes, soft with silent tears, and for a moment she forgot the past, the words a baby should not be able to utter (I want you, Mummy, come here NOW), the disturbed nights as she and Bill took turns sleeping, always one of them on watch. Now Bill had gone, taken by the child before her, and Sally no longer dared to sleep. She just dozed and listened. From the cot, Walter stared at her, his expression confused and lost. Sally grasped the milk bottle tighter and stepped into the room.
Too late she realised what was happening. As she released the handle, the door pulled away then whipped back at her. The impact knocked her to the ground, the bottle skittering across the floor and under the cot. It spun a few times, formula painting a creamy halo on the floorboards. A rat-like creature sprung out from the shadows behind the door and raced towards the baby. It glanced back at her, fixing her with glowing yellow eyes. Sally covered her mouth and nose at the foul stench, surprised into immobility as the creature launched off the ground and onto the headboard of the cot where it balanced precariously, sharp claws digging into wood.
“No!” Sally screamed as the creature tightened its scrawny haunches, steadying with its long tail.
“Get away from my baby!” Sally threw herself towards the cot. Time slowed, saving this instant for when Sally was crying into her pillow later that night, for next week when driving to the pharmacy in search of more TCP and bandages to cover the scratches, for next month when Walter whispered in her ear after finishing his bottle, “While you’re sleeping tonight, I will cut you.”
The creature dove headfirst off the edge of the headboard and into the cot.
“No!” Sally was almost there, her hands stretched out to grab her son.
She slammed up against the bars as the creature reached Walter. Timed perfectly with his cry, it slid into the baby’s mouth. The leathery tail trailed out from between the baby’s lips, then vanished inside with the rest of the creature. Sally made to grab Walter when his head snapped to one side. The soft blue colouring of his eyes had gone – replaced by steely grey. Sally snatched her hand back, and fell hard on the floor.
Walter sat up, slowly at first, his movements becoming more fluid by the second, and stood. He grasped the railing, and through the bars, fixed her with his gaze and said in his cute baby voice, “Ba-ba.”