The green numbers on the alarm clock are the first thing he sees when he opens his eyes. That’s how he knows it’s just past midnight. It takes him a second to realize he woke because his wife is no longer sleeping next to him. He raises himself on one elbow and peers into the room. With the little light in the room he soon spots a shadowy figure halfway to the bedroom door. Not the one that leads to the bathroom; the one that leads to the hallway.
“Honey? Where are you going?” he asks, still groggy with sleep. “It’s the middle of the night.”
“I hear Lilly crying.”
The words hit him like a ton of bricks. He can feel his heart twisting and tearing itself apart. The pain jolts him wide awake. “Oh, honey.”
He gets up and walks to his wife. Wrapping his arms around her, he pulls her close and hugs her tight. He can feel his tears streaming down his cheeks. He gently guides her back to the bed.
“No, wait,” She protests, bewildered. “Listen. Can’t you hear it?”
The house is dead quiet. Not even street noise filtering in. As if the whole world is holding its breath, trying to hear Lilly’s cries.
Brandon tenderly stokes his wife’s hair. “I miss her too,” he whispers hoarsely. “God, I miss her so much.”
“But I swear I heard…” Susan sounds pleading, but can’t finish her sentence when her voice breaks and she buries her head on his shoulder, sobbing uncontrollably. He takes her back to bed and holds her while she cries herself to sleep.
For weeks Susan has been waking up at midnight, thinking she is hearing the baby. It is painful to see her suffer this way. But the cruelest thing is how Brandon is adjusting and getting used to her sitting up and then tossing and turning as she tries to find sleep again. It hardly disturbs his own rest anymore. In the mornings, when he sees her dark circles around her eyes and her look of utter exhaustion, he is overcome with guilt that he has learned to sleep through Susan’s distress.
When he wakes one night, a little after midnight, he is disoriented. Something is…normal. Familiar. And it is this familiarity that has him on edge. He sits up. The first thing he notices is that he is alone in the room. And then he hears it. The soft but clear singing that was a nightly occurrence not too long ago.
Brandon slowly gets out of bed. His breathing is quick and shallow. His heart is pounding in his ears. As in a trance he walks down the hallway towards the room that used to be his daughter’s nursery.
Standing in front of the door, he can now make out the words to twinkle twinkle little star. He raises his trembling hand and rests it on the doorknob. Fear lies as a metallic taste in the back of his throat. In his mind he can see the scene he walked in on many nights before; Susan carrying the baby on her arm singing to her trying to get her to sleep. Lilly’s bright blue eyes peeking at him over his wife’s shoulder. He grabs on to this image, willing the universe to make it happen, that somehow, this will be what he finds once more.
“Susan?”he asks as he turns the knob and pushes the door open. His voice comes out much softer than he intended. Barely above a whisper. “Susan?” he repeats, a little louder.
The room is dark. The little light filtering in from the hallway is just enough to make the silhouette of his wife stand out from the rest of the room. She is standing in front of the empty crib, her shoulders slumped under the weight of loss, arms dangling uselessly by her sides. She is swaying slightly back and forth. The contrast of her clear, soothing voice to her helpless form is heartbreaking. Brandon gently puts his hand on her shoulder. “Honey?”
She turns her head towards him. The light reflects in her wide, terrified eyes. “Singing to her is the only way to make the crying stop.”
He embraces her, wishing there was something he could do to take her pain away. “You can’t go on like this, Susan.” She looks tired. So incredibly tired. “Come, try to sleep”
“I’m trying to deal” Susan says, turning her head back towards the crib. “Please give me this. I need to do something to make the crying stop, or I will never sleep.”
She starts singing bah bah black sheep to the empty space in the baby bed where Lilly had slept for a joyful three months. Brandon can’t stand to witness it any longer. He flees the room and locks himself in the bathroom. He sits in the corner of the shower, with his arms wrapped around his legs and his head on his knees, and cries until he feels dizzy and light headed.
In the morning Brandon makes an appointment for Susan with a therapist.
Susan got a diagnosis. Complicated grief, with underlying postnatal depression. Brandon picked up the medication, since his wife refused to leave the house after she saw the therapist. Sleeping aids and antidepressants. The lady behind the counter explained how Susan is supposed to use them and warned that both pills are dangerous to take with alcohol. Brandon nods. He isn’t worried about that, there hasn’t been any alcohol in the house since his wife got pregnant. He hasn’t had a drink in over a year. Now would be a really stupid time to start.
Brandon knows the medication would take at least two weeks before taking affect. Perhaps that’s why he wakes at midnight, a few days after Susan’s doctors appointment. Something he was expecting, didn’t happen. He reaches out with his arm in the darkness and touches on his wife’s warm body next to him. She is fast asleep. For the first time in months Brandon manages a smile that’s not wry. He kisses her cheek and wraps his arm around her waist. His last thought before drifting back to sleep is how they weathered the worst of the storm.
One morning Brandon wakes to the smell of coffee and the sound of his wife singing. No nursery rhymes this time. As he lies in bed, the sun shining through the gaps in the curtains, it takes him just three words to place the tune. It’s Living On A Prayer. A wide grin comes to his face. He has often teased his wife for liking Bon Jovi. This morning it sounds like the most beautiful song he has ever heard. In the bathroom, while he shaves and brushes his teeth, he finds himself humming along with Susan’s singing drifting up from the kitchen. He vows to never complain about Bon Jovi again.
When he gets down to the kitchen, toast and scrambled eggs are waiting for him on the table. Susan walks over to him when she sees him standing in the door. “Good morning, my love,” she greets with a bright smile. And then leans in to kiss him. He slips his hands around her middle and kisses her back.
“You seem rested,” he remarks, happy to see some of the old Susan again. He sits down at the table to eat his eggs.
“Oh yes,” Susan responds cheerfully, “I’m so happy she is sleeping through the night now.”
Brandon drops the fork from his shaking hand. A chill runs down his spine. He turns to Susan in his chair. “…What?”
For a fraction of a second Susan’s face is devoid of any expression, except for her eyes that are wide in panic and terror. Then she blinks and snaps out of it. She once again beams her bright smile at Brandon. “I said I’m happy I’m sleeping through the night.”
He doesn’t trust her smile, or her upbeat tone of voice anymore. And she definitely said ‘she’. She is sleeping through the night. As six month old babies would. As Lilly would have, had she still been with them.
Brandon has not been able to shake the nagging worry about his wife. It disrupts his thoughts and breaks his concentration at work. Finally he decides staying in the office is pointless. Luckily his boss is understanding. After lunch he cleans up his desk and heads home for the rest of the day.
At the front door to their house, Brandon’s anxiety starts to increase. Susan’s car is in the driveway, but the house is too quiet. No radio playing, the television is dark. The kitchen is empty and the coffee in the pot is cold. Probably still left over from breakfast. “Susan?” He can feel his heartbeat slowly increasing. Where has she gone?
He quickly walks though the rooms downstairs. The Library is empty, curtains still drawn. She’s not in the garage with the laundry. His study is unoccupied as well. “Susan?” he calls out louder, panic creeping into his voice.
Upstairs, she must be upstairs. Maybe she is napping. She must still be tired from months of sleep deprivation. Brandon tries very hard to ignore his mind recalling the suicide warning labels on the antidepressant pills he got her. Still by the time he is halfway up the stairs, he is taking two steps at a time and his heart is beating like crazy in his chest.
He rushes towards the bedroom. Halfway through the hall, he freezes in his tracks. A noise. A noise coming from the nursery. He turns towards the door that goes to Lilly’s room. It feels like he is being turned by some sort of outside force. Everything in him screams to not go into that room. Don’t see what is in there. His hand reaches out, violently shaking as he tries to will it back down to his side. It grabs the door knob. As his fingers close around the knob it feels warm to his hand. It almost seems to pulsate under his touch. He is trying to let go. Instead, he watches his knuckles turn white from gripping it so hard. His hand turns and pushes. The door slowly opens. “Honey?” he hears his voice croaking from his mouth.
As soon as he sees her, relief washes over him. She’s sitting in a chair, her hair loose and flowing over her shoulders. The sun lights it from behind, making a golden halo around her head. She is alive and well.
Just as fast as the relief came over him, it is gone. His heart, racing just a second ago, seems to stop mid beat. The fear that consumes him now is not the hot, panicky fear he experienced earlier. This is a cold, immobilizing fear that freezes him to the spot. Susan is alive, but she is not well. She is reading out loud from a children’s book. The warm smile and loving voice don’t match with her wide, terror filled eyes at all. She stops reading and stares into the empty bed at her side.
“Look, Brandon, you see that?” she says softly and with pride. “She has your smile.”
His scream gets stuck in his throat. All he can manage is a small chocking noise. He pries his fingers loose from the repulsive throbbing doorknob and stumbles backwards. He needs to get away from the nursery. Away from the woman who he isn’t recognizing as his wife.
He scrambles to the bathroom. His whole body is trembling. Fear, but now also a different emotion; rage. He’s not sure where it’s coming from, but he is suddenly very angry.
He throws open the medicine cabinet. The boxes with his wife’s pills are right there, looking just as they did when he picked them up at the pharmacy. He rips them open and shakes the strips out. Each blister is intact. All the pills are accounted for. The prescriptions have gone unused.
Brandon throws the pills back into the cabinet and slams it closed. Then he catches his reflection in the mirror. He stares into his own eyes. His wide eyes filled with terror. He screams and punches the mirror before sinking to the ground, panting.
Susan hurries inside and gently takes his hand “What happened?”
He looks at his wife. She looks scared, the sort of scared caused by finding your spouse on the bathroom floor, with the mirror of the medicine cabinet broken and his hand bleeding. Scared, but sane. “Susan,” he whispers.
She carefully pulls a shard out of his fingers, wets the corner of a towel and starts cleaning his wounds. “Oh my love, what did you do?”
He feels his anger flaring up again. “No!” he says loudly and pulls his hand away from her. Susan moves backwards, startled. “No, you don’t get to be worried about me. I’m not the one having a breakdown”
“Brandon,” she says softly and cautiously, “you just put your fist through a mirror.” she nods to the medicine cabinet.
He looks up. The mirror is shattered. There’s blood splatters everywhere. He shakes his head to clear it. That isn’t the important part. Don’t let her make it about you.
“The pills,” he exclaims, his voice wavering. “You haven’t been taking any of your pills. You have to take your medicine.”
“I’m sleeping through the night, love.” Susan explains calmly, “I don’t need the sleeping aids. When I got them I might have, but not anymore.”
How did she suddenly become the voice of reason? Brandon’s rage tries to show itself, but he doesn’t have the energy for it anymore. He’s tired. And scared. He clamps his hands around her arm. “The antidepressants. Promise me you will take your antidepressants,” he pleads with her.
Susan looks at him for a second, concern clearly on her face. “Okay, Brandon, okay, I promise.” she takes his hand and softly pulls it off her arm. “Let me bandage your hand.”
It’s the doorknob, Brandon thinks as he watches Susan tend to his wounds. The doorknob and that room. I have to get her away from it.
Brandon has been keeping close tabs on Susan for the past few days. He checks the blister packaging twice a day. Each time the correct amount of pills are missing. She seems okay and hasn’t been in the nursery that he knows of. But maybe she has been hiding it from him. He would feel so much better if she would start leaving the house again, get some interaction with people. She’s alone too much. It can’t be good for her.
“Honey, you have to get out of the house,” he says when they are having breakfast. “You can’t keep isolating yourself. It’s Saturday, the weather looks beautiful. You should take some time for yourself. Why don’t you go visit your mom for a while.”
Susan doesn’t look convinced. “Are you sure you will be okay by yourself?” she asks concerned.
“Of course,” he replies a little surprised. Why would that question even come up?
It takes a little more encouragement but Susan does agree to go out for a while. Brandon is pleased he has managed to get his wife out and among people. Maybe, just maybe, they have started their way towards some sort of normal.
He is standing at the front door to see her off. His contentment turns to confusion when he sees Susan doing something on the back seat of her car. He starts to walk towards her. Confusion soon turns to dread when he sees what she is doing. The baby seat is in the back of the car. Susan is adjusting the seat belt. He can hear her talking. No, no, no. Before Brandon can get to his wife, she has closed the back door, gotten about the wheel, and with a quick wave, she drives off.
He watches her leave, defeated. No. It was going so well. I even made sure… Suddenly he is not convinced. He has checked the strips of pills, yes, but just because the pills were removed from their blisters doesn’t mean she actually took them. In a flash of inspiration he gets the adjustable wrench from the shed and walks upstairs to the bathroom.
It doesn’t take him long to loosen and remove the pipes under the sink. He pours the contents of the pipes on the floor, ignoring the stale water and dirt, he searches with his fingers though the muck until he finds what he was afraid he would find. Several half dissolved capsules. She hasn’t been taking any medicine. She has been washing the pills down the drain.
Brandon hits the wall in frustration. The not fully healed cuts on his fingers tear open with the impact. The tears in his eyes are there just as much from frustration and helplessness, as from the pain. Why? Why would she do that? The question plays over and over in his mind until suddenly a thought breaks through. Because she was told to. It sounds alien, like some voice got transmitted right into his brain. The idea chills him to the bone. The longer he considers the idea, the more it makes sense. Susan was told not to take the medicine that would help her. But why? The answer gets readily supplied by the same alien voice. It makes her less susceptible.
He stumbles into the hallway, leaving a little trail of blood drops behind him. Susceptible. His mind has latched on to the idea. His wife, in her grief, is a receiver. And something is transmitting. Something, or someone. And the source…Well, he knows what the source is. Susan told him. He felt it himself when he gripped that doorknob.
He stands opposite the door to the nursery, pressed against the wall. The doorknob seems to be glowing. He can almost see it pulsate. There’s something in there. He can’t deny it. And it has set it’s sights on his wife.
“You can’t have her!” he yells at the door. “She’s mine!”
He storms down the stairs and returns with a roll of garbage bags and some cardboard boxes. “Fire,” he whispers, “fire is how I get rid of you.” He knows he can’t burn the house down to get rid of the nursery, but he intends to throw everything inside it into a huge bonfire in the yard.
He grabs the doorknob. Immediately he feels a sharp pain in his hand. Fresh blood seeps from the cuts in his fingers. Brandon groans loudly. For a moment, he is brought to his knees. He forces himself to hold on to the knob. “You will have to do better than that,” he hisses through clenched teeth. He stands up, turns the knob and pushes the door open.
“Brandon? I’m home!”
He hears Susan’s voice calls up, followed a moment later by footsteps coming up the stairs. He feverishly picks up the pace of his work. There is too much still left to pack up before she gets to the nursery, but he doesn’t let that stop him. He’s just throwing a garbage bag filled with baby clothes out of the window, when his wife appears in the doorway.
“Brandon?” Susan asks, “What are you doing?” She sees the pulled open, empty drawers of the dresser and the stripped down to the wood bed, and repeats the question with more urgency, her voice starting to show anger. “What the hell are you doing?”
He briefly looks at her, then picks up a box and starts filling it with the wood toys that were on the shelves lining the wall. “Having this room isn’t good for you,” he explains while he works.
“You’re putting all this away? Without even talking to me about it?”
Somehow Brandon misses the accusing tone in his wife’s voice. “Not just putting it away,” he responds matter of fact, “I doubt that would do much good. I am going to burn it.”
“You’re going to what?”
He doesn’t miss the pure rage that is in her voice now. The fierceness of it takes him by surprise. Susan has never been quick to get angry. He stares at her with his mouth hanging open. Her eyes are wide again, but this time it’s not terror in them. Her eyes shine with hatred. He is slow to react when she grabs the box out of his hands.
“You! You would burn everything we have left of Lilly? What in heavens name has gotten in to you?” she screams at him.
“Honey, we have to exorcise the…” He tries to calm her down, but his efforts have the opposite effect. Susan screams without words, simply an expression of pain and frustration. “I’m trying to help us!” Brandon pleads with his wife, hoping she could see things his way.
Susan snatches a wood block, one of the blocks with “A B C” carved in them and throws it at Brandon’s head. He raises his arm to bat it off, but is again too slow. It connects right above his eyebrow, making his head ring.
“Help?” she screeches. “Help? You asshole!” Her hand shoots into the box again and closes on an other block. “You coward!”
He tries to dodge the second block by running to the door. Susan follows him with her box of toy ammo “How could you do this to me?” A block hits the door frame as Brandon runs through it, hard enough to leave a dent in the wood.
“How could you do this to her?” A toy horse with wheels on its feet and a rope fixed to its head, hits him on the back just as Brandon starts running down the stairs. He doesn’t dare to look around. By the sound of it Susan is still following him. He is almost at the bottom of the stairs when he hears her yell “And another thing…”
Her sentence is cut by a surprised scream and a series of loud bangs. Brandon spins around on his heels. Frozen in terror he watches his wife tumble down the stairs, wood toys bouncing along with her. “Susan!”
He steps forward to try and stop her fall, but before he can get to her, he hears a hair raising crunch and watches her movements change before his eyes. Her body is now flopping like a doll. “No! Susan! Oh God, please, no!”
He scrambles the few step up the stairs and cradles the lifeless body of his wife to his chest. “Oh Susan. I am so, so sorry.” He wails.
It is well past midnight when the last cops leave the house. Brandon had told the story, the whole story, numerous times. As it turns out, it is much worse to see concern on the faces of the police interviewing you than it is to see suspicion. He is not under arrest, something he doesn’t quite understand. Susan’s death is clearly his fault; something he kept explaining to anyone who looks like they would listen. It doesn’t matter. In the end, he’s still alone in the house, with a promise someone will check up with him in the morning and a telephone number for emergency psychiatric help.
He is sitting on the edge of the bed, the card with the number in his hands. He is looking at it without really seeing it. “I’m not crazy. I’m not.” he whispers.
He feels a weight push the mattress downwards next to him. A familiar scent engulfs him. He turns his head, fully expecting to see Susan sitting there, but there’s just empty space. “Not crazy,” he repeats.
He hears Susan’s voice, sounding like it’s coming from far away: “Try to sleep, love.”
Brandon lets himself fall on his side, holding much the same position as he had while he was sitting. “I’m not crazy,” he keeps muttering. He stares in front of him in the dark. His eyes wide in fear and panic. After a moment he can feel her breathing on his neck. He slowly turns around. He is alone in his bed.
“I’m not crazy.”
At some point Brandon must have fallen asleep, because he wakes up to the smell of coffee. He slowly walks down stairs with a desperate hope, clinging to the thought all of this has been a bad dream. The hope shatters when he sees the cold, empty coffee maker. He stands there, lost, staring at the glass of the coffee pot, while a cloud of overwhelming, numbing grief covers him.
Suddenly he hears a baby’s laughter. He turns, slowly, as if he is moving through a thick, sticky liquid. In his peripheral vision he catches the image of Susan with Lilly in her arms, walking towards him. When he is fully turned to the spot, the kitchen is empty.
Shaking, he finds his phone. He keeps whispering “I’m not crazy” as he punches in the number of the therapist.
It’s so damned easy to get medication these days, Brandon thinks as he gets into his car. With him, he has twice his usual prescribed amount of sleeping pills. He got those because of his fabricated story about visiting his parents. His therapist never questioned the story. Never mind that both his parents have been in their graves for well over a decade. He tosses his pills on the passenger seat. The white bag tumbles on top of the bigger brown bag already there. He starts the car and drives home.
When he opens the front door, he feels calm and at peace. He closes the door behind him, but doesn’t lock it. He looks around. Everything is tidy, cleaned and arranged just so. Susan would be proud. A stack of relevant documents lies in the middle of the kitchen table, to make things go smoothly later. A small smile forms on his lips.
“I’m home!” he calls to the empty house as he starts walking up the stairs, with his paper bags in his hand. He goes directly to the nursery. With his free hand he grabs the doorknob. The pleasant, welcoming heat spreads from the knob through his whole body. “Where’s my lovely ladies?” he asks while he pushes the door open.
The nursery is filled with sunshine. All Lilly’s toys and clothes are carefully replaced in their proper spots. Her bed is perfectly made. Brandon sighs happily. He can see Susan standing in front of the window, slightly bend over. She looks up and smiles at him. Lilly is standing between her legs, turned towards him. One little fist grabbing each of her mother’s index fingers for stability. She starts laughing and bouncing in excitement when she sees her dad.
“Such a big girl!” Brandon croons proudly at her, still holding the doorknob. He flashes a wide smile to his wife. Then he releases the knob and the image of his wife and daughter fade. He can’t see them anymore, but he can feel their presence. He walks towards his bedroom and feels Susan following him.
“I miss you, love. Lilly misses you.” he hears her voice drifting from the space behind him.
“I miss you, too” he replies.
He gets the glass from the bathroom, carefully placing the toothbrushes on the ledge of the sink and sets it on the nightstand. From the brown bag he pulls a big bottle of whiskey. He opens the bottle and fills the glass. He sits down on the edge of the bed and starts taking his pills out of their packaging, making a pile next to the glass.
“When are you joining us?” Susan asks.
He grabs a few pills, pops them in his mouth and washes them down with the whiskey. The alcohol makes him cough. The next few pills go down easier. He refills his glass. “Soon, honey,” he says as he pours the alcohol, “I will be there soon.”