I lifted my nephew out of his high chair, and headed into the living room. He still held a slice of apple but was chewing at it quite contentedly as I lugged him around. His mother was asleep in the recliner, worn out after a night spent seeing to her very ill little boy. Luckily for me, the diarrhea had stopped by the time I arrived at their small house, so I had a much easier time of it.
I could hear my mother-in-law in the kitchen, washing the dishes. Although Sarah had a dishwasher, my mother-in-law was old school and preferred to do them by hand. I think the extra labour made her feel virtuous.
Hunter wiggled as I sat us both on the couch; he'd finished his apple and was already bored. Frankly, I was amazed he was still conscious after a night spent awake and in discomfort. But he seemed much better now, so I let him slide down onto the floor.
"Shhh," I cautioned him in a whisper. "Don't wake Mummy."
He smiled at me, put one finger to his lips and nodded. What a good little man. Honestly, I didn't know why Sarah complained so often about him being a demon. Every time I came over to see them, Hunter was well-behaved and adorable. I put my feet up on the sofa and watched him play quietly with his favourite doll.
I'd given him that doll when he was still a little baby who wouldn't sleep for more than a couple of hours at a time. Sarah had been at her wits' end, so I'd forked out a couple of hundred dollars and bought the latest in baby-soothing technology: a doll with a heartbeat, and the ability to hum lullabies when you pushed on its lips. It had been well worth the investment: 18 months later and it was still going strong.
Now he was pretending to teach it how to walk. Occasionally he'd lift it up to his ear, as if listening, then smile and pat it gently on the head.
It made me hope, for his sake, that Sarah would succeed in getting pregnant again. Shortly after Hunter turned one, she'd told me that they were trying for another child. Ike had some idea that kids did best when close in age to their siblings, so they were determined to give Hunter a brother or sister sometime soon. Watching Hunter now, so loving towards his toy, made me sure that Ike had been on to something. This was a child in desperate need of a sibling to cherish.
Hunter carefully lay the doll on the rug, and loped to the corner where his potty sat. "Need to wee!" he announced, at a volume that made me wince. As I sat up, I looked towards Sarah - still asleep, thank God. She'd earned it. Her mouth was open just a touch, and her breathing heavy without quite being a snore. She looked younger in sleep, all those worry lines relaxed, and it made me smile.
Then I heard a tinkling sound, and whipped my head around. Somehow, Hunter had managed to remove both his shorts and his nappy entirely, and his bare butt poked in my direction as he peed, standing up, into his potty. My mouth dropped open. Surely he was too young yet for this! How had Sarah managed to teach him this?
Hunter laughed, a short and wickedly gleeful chuckle, then turned and ran toward his mother. Urine was still spurting from his penis, splashing over first the bare wood floor then the Turkish rug as he made his way across the room.
"Hunter, no!" I cried, reaching for him before he could go any further. I swept him up, and felt urine soak through my shirt. "Baby, you know that pee needs to go in the potty. Now you've made a mess everywhere. Why didn't you wait for me?"
I carried him to the nearby change table, as he wiggled against me. By the time I put him down, he'd finished, and simply lay back watching my expression. I schooled myself to calm, then gave him a sad face.
"What happened?" said a sleepy voice, and I glanced over to see that Sarah was sitting up, bleary-eyed. "Oh, Hunter..."
"It's okay, hon. You go back to sleep. I got this," I reassured her, rubbing the baby down with wet wipes before securing a new nappy. I peeled off his shirt, which had splash marks sprayed across it, and grabbed another wipe to thoroughly clean him. "Someone will need a bath tonight, though." I poked him gently in the belly with one finger, and he giggled.
Sarah lumbered across the room and lifted Hunter from the table. In resignation, I let her see to him while I raided the laundry for some cloths, a mop and a bucket.
As I re-entered the lounge, Sarah's mother appeared from the kitchen with a can of carpet-cleaner in hand. She said nothing, but began cleaning the puddles on the rug. I followed her lead, and mopped the bare floor as efficiently as possible. When I finished, I knelt to help Joan with the rug, but she shook her head. "See to the baby," she advised.
I stowed the mop back in the laundry, before heading to the nursery to check on my sister-in-law and the baby.
At first, I couldn't believe my eyes. Hunter was standing beside his cot, holding an axe-head. It was the single-bladed type, like a small hatchet without a handle. An axe. Being cradled by a not-quite-two year old. It felt like a dream; or, more accurately, a nightmare. Hunter hefted the axe-head in his tiny hands, smiling happily.
"What the hell..." I began to say, startled into speech, but as Hunter saw me, he let out a screech and ran into the hallway, still clutching the wedge of metal in both hands. Sarah was nowhere to be seen.
"Hunter!" I yelled, and lurched after him. He'd made it back to the living room by the time I caught him, and was hiding behind the television cabinet. Sarah and Joan were nowhere to be seen.
"Hunter, no," I pleaded, straining to slide the cabinet out further so I could reach him. "Give that to Aunty, please!"
He smiled at me, that angelic smile that had won my heart the first time I'd seen it. "Mine," he said firmly.
I reached him, finally, peeled his hands off the dangerous thing, and hauled both him and it back into the safety of the lounge. "This is not a toy! Naughty! Where did you get it?" My voice was shaky with equal parts fear and anger.
Hunter frowned now, and wiggled so furiously that I had to set him down or risk injuring us both. "Mine!" he growled, staring at the axe-head. "MINE!"
When I refused to relinquish it, he began to cry, and finally my mother-in-law materialised again, holding a slightly damp doll. "Nan Nan," whimpered the toddler, and she picked him up, giving him the doll to cuddle, while staring daggers at me.
"What have you done?" Joan asked me furiously. "Why is the baby crying?"
"For Christ's sake, Joan," I responded with some anger. "I haven't done anything. He had this!" I flourished the heavy iron blade at her. "Where the hell did he get part of an axe?"
"MINE!" cried Hunter, seeing his treasure again, so close.
"You have no right to tell the baby 'no'. Give it to him," Joan said, so low and slowly that I had trouble understanding her. "Give it to him!"
I stood there, lips parted in shock. Surely she didn't mean... But yes, that was exactly what she meant.
"Nan Nan mine too," Hunter cooed, rubbing his doll against his grandmother's cheek. "Don't want aunty now. Want toy."
"Give it to him." Joan's gaze had turned cold and deadly, and part of me wanted to do as she said and then leave forever.
I felt, rather than heard, the movement behind me, and turned my head just in time to see Sarah swing the missing handle from the axe towards my head. The blow stunned me, sent me sprawling, and I dropped the axe-head as I fell. As I faded into semi-unconsciousness, I heard her say, "I warned you that he was a demon. What Hunter wants, Hunter gets."