A splash, followed by a giggle and those baby blue eyes lit up.
Her child had always loved bath time. Now, at six months old and able to sit up with minimum support, it was even more fun.
These days, she could relax and enjoy it too. The nagging fear had gone. It was no longer a time of vulnerability. No need to worry about being caught off guard.
They had told her it would not work.
They had been right. It had not worked. But it produced something special that was the source of so much love that it made up for everything else.
The baby chuckled as his mother pulled out the plug and the water babbled down the plughole. It was his favourite moment of the whole process. Seconds later, she wrapped him in a soft towel. The one with the blue teddy bear on the hooded corner. His favourite.
He curled into her, his head resting on her uncovered neck, downy tufts of hair tickling her chin. She listened to his breathing, felt his heartbeat against her own.
They had told her she would not manage on her own.
They had been wrong about that. She was managing just fine. Better than if the father was still around.
She lay down the baby on the bathroom floor and unwrapped the towel. His creased legs waved in the air. Uncoordinated hands reached up towards her. One managed to grab her nose. An untrimmed nail scratched at the skin, but she did not mind.
They had warned her to be vigilant; told her how dangerous he was.
She had always known it, even when they were together. He had shown an almost supernatural ability to know what she was thinking and found it easy to slip into her mind. It was a skill that had entranced her at first but it did not take long for it to become unnerving. Frightening, even. Now, her mind was her own again. Mother and son were safe now.
There was a soft thump from downstairs. The sound of the late summer breeze blowing closed the back door that she had left open while the tumble drier was grinding away in the utility room. It was good to feel secure enough to leave the back door open, safe enough to not jump out of her skin at the merest sound.
Gently and slowly, she rubbed lotion all over her smiling baby. He looked back up at her. It was true what they said about a baby’s real smile being identifiable by the sparkle in his eyes.
He had been to see his child. She had not been able to deny him that. Nor had the authorities. There was a moment, as he had cradled his boy, when she had wondered if he could change. It soon became clear he could not. Or would not.
It was not an issue any more.
A creaking sound was no cause for alarm. The draught was just easing through and caressing the stairs. Now, she barely registered any of the settling murmurs from the old house that had once put her tender nerves on edge.
The baby blues focused on her. She often wondered what went on behind them. They were the only reminder of his father that she did not mind facing. Her son had more control over the movement of his eyes than any of his limbs. His gaze followed the rocking motion of her head as she sang softly to him while she massaged his small body.
Sweet Child O’ Mine. The song had once belonged to someone else. Now it was theirs.
Carefully, she picked up her son and headed into the bedroom, shouldering open the door that had been eased shut by a whisper of wind that sneaked through the window. The cot was next to her bed, close enough to reach out in the night and soothe him, without getting up. Not that he needed much soothing. He had been a good sleeper from very early on. Unlike her.
Only now was she able to sleep as comfortably as her son. No more did she feel the need to have one ear primed; not just to hear a night-time distress call or demand for food from her son, but waiting for signs of danger, a noise from someone trying to get in.
The threat had gone. So had the scars.
They told her they were waiting for confirmation from dental records, but the detective said they were certain it was him.
He could not hurt her. Or their baby.
With no sense of hurry, she eased the infant into his sleep suit. Another favourite. It had blue and white stripes, along with a picture of a giraffe on it. As she fastened the press studs, she wondered why giraffes were so popular among babies.
It was time to put her son into the cot. He went down happily, mouth curled in the same smile he had shown when getting into the bath. A reflection of her own smile. Next to him was Chi Chi, an ancient toy panda she had treasured when she was a child. She would need to remember to remove the bear before leaving the room, as it would not pass any safety test for babies, but she loved the fact he liked Chi Chi. It reminded her of her own childhood and its simple innocence.
She reached over the cot to switch on the blue nightlight positioned on the bedside table. Its primary purpose was to provide reassurance to her son, but later that evening it would guide her to her own bed.
Turning back to look at him, her heart filled with happiness. His eyes grew wider. She loved the way his pupils dilated to show recognition. She could dive into those baby blue eyes.
Too late, she realised the eyes were not looking at her, but at the wardrobe behind her and the door that was opening.
First published in Writing Magazine, January 2016.
Paul Speller is a freelance journalist and aspiring writer, based in the myth-filled Isle of Man. Paul, who lives with his wife and two boys, has loved the horror genre since his own childhood when, while peering through a gap in the living room doorway instead of being tucked up in bed, he saw a trailer for the television adaptation of Salem’s Lot. Find out more at paulspeller.com.