It was predawn, the time of day that comes in waves of ever-lightening grays and purples. Despite the hour, the August heat was thick and humid. A ceiling fan stirred the air, but it wasn't quite hot enough for the air conditioner yet.
A bird chirped once and then all was silent. James jolted out of a restless sleep drenched in sweat. His veins pulsed with an intangible sense of not rightness. The room was dark except for the red digits on the alarm clock.
Not again, he thought. Please not again.
His subconscious knew, even in sleep, that his wife had returned. He'd spent most of the night sweating and twisting up the sheets. Swallowing back tears, James untangled himself and got up. From the bedroom window he could see a light on at the Henderson's, his nearest neighbor. They lived at the bottom of the hill, nearly a quarter of a mile away. For reasons he couldn't pinpoint, the light made him feel lonely and helpless.
'You Are My Sunshine,' softly drifted from his office.
Angry, James threw bedroom door open so hard it hit the wall and left a dent. He stomped down the hall to the last room on the left. James stopped, took a deep, calming breath, and pushed the office door open. In swung soundlessly.
His wife sat with her back to the door, singing. She had carried her grandmother's rocking chair all the way up from the basement and now sat in it, rocking and staring at the freshly painted walls drying under an oscillating fan. The chair creaked, rustier now than when it had belonged to Grandma Lil. Most of the white enamel was gone and Sue kept telling James she meant to paint it, but she never had. Life had a way of delaying projects and pregnancy had a way of delaying of everything, but nothing stopped the world like the death of an infant.
Beside the chair was a sweating glass of sweet tea on the overturned box that once contained a Sesame Street mobile. It had been donated with the rest of the baby stuff in an attempt to move on. His wife reached out and picked up the tea.
"Sue," James said from the hallway.
She sipped and rubbed her belly, humming softly. James could remember the first time he'd seen her like that. The doctors had said there would be no more children, but he had hoped. Now, all he felt was despair, a black ooze that turned his blood cold and thick.
"Don't you know how hard it is to get rust stains out of the carpet?" His voice was steady but underlaid with anger. "Where is my desk? And my computer? And my books?"
These were rhetorical questions. Twice a week he painted the walls white and moved his stuff in. Twice a week she moved his stuff out, painted the walls yellow, and moved the nursery in. This time he would paint the walls black. Let’s see her try to paint that yellow, he thought.
"Shhhh." Sue pressed her finger to her lips. Her right hand rubbed her belly.
"You're not pregnant." James hesitated, entered the room, picked up a paint can, and stepped in front of his wife. "Where did you get this? I threw it all out. We agreed you wouldn't buy anymore."
She looked at the can in his hand, then tilted her head up to him. "I never buy any. It's just there, by the side of the road. She wants the room to be like sunshine."
"Our daughter is dead." He moved in front of his wife, snapping his fingers in her face. "You're not pregnant."
"I know that." She motioned for him to move.
When he didn't, she said, "You make a better door than a window. I need to see the paint dry."
"No." James folded his arms. "This is my office. You get out!"
Sue laughed. "This room isn't mine or yours. It's hers."
"There is no her."
"When the paint is right, there will be." She craned her neck around her husband's thigh.
Unsatisfied, she got off the chair to have a better look. James didn't move so she had to go around him. She was standing inches from the wall, hands on her hips, and chewing her lower lip when the baby cried for the first time.
"Quit that," James said.
"Waaaaaaa, waaaaaaa, waaaaaa."
"I said quit it!"
Sue returned to her rocker and plopped down. "It's not me. It's her. She wants the room the color of sunshine."
"There is no baby!"
Her eyes met his and, though her lips didn't move, the baby still cried.
"I've had enough of this," James said.
Wide eyed—it seemed as though he stepped out of himself and everything turned movie slow—he watched his fist and the paint bucket it held collide with her face. Sue's head snapped back. The weight of her body toppled the chair, which slid forward and struck James in the knee. She landed on the mobile box. Moist from the tea glass, it melted under her weight. She lay on the floor motionless. The room was silent except for the low hum of the oscillating fan's motor.
I've killed her, James thought. Oddly, he felt relief. It wasn't that he wanted his wife dead, just an end to this madness.
Sue's hand twitched, and then slowly climbed to her face. She held it there, eyes filling with tears. As James exhaled, he dropped the paint bucket. It clattered to the floor. Outside the sun rose above the horizon, filling the room with the first rays of light. The new paint glowed like sunshine. A smile crept across Sue's face, not the smooth, easygoing smile, but one contorted by pain. A large bruise was already forming where the paint bucket had struck her.
The low wail of a baby arose, muffled and far away. Sue's smile faded. She rolled off the flattened mobile box and dug out a baby monitor. She pressed the button down. "It's okay sweetheart, we'll find you the right color."
A voice that sounded a lot like their neighbor, Nick Henderson, crackled from the monitor. "I don't know who you are, but you're driving my wife nuts. Stop it!"
"Don't talk to my sister like that," Rachel Henderson said.
"You're sister is dead. It's just some freak on the same frequency."
"Our nearest neighbor is James. Monitors don't have that kind of range. And anyway, the poor guy’s a wreck since he lost his wife and baby. I don't think he's hiding in the bushes talking into a baby monitor. It's my sister."
James snatched the monitor up. "You're crazy. Sue is here."
But she wasn't, not anymore. The walls were wet with the color yellow and redolent with the chemical smell of paint. The mobile box was smashed and the carpet wet with ice tea. The rocking chair looked real enough. James touched it to be sure. Real as the baby monitor in his hand. He could still hear Nick Henderson talking to his wife. "You're nuts. Utterly, batshit crazy."
"Once we get the room the right color, you'll see," Rachel Henderson said.
Nick Henderson shouted, "Our daughter cries like that because of the goddamned paint fumes!"
The Henderson's baby wailed louder as they shouted. Over everything Sue, nowhere to be seen Sue, sang 'You are My Sunshine.' James left the room, removing the batteries as he went. In the kitchen he poured himself a beer and sat at the table, switching the baby monitor from one hand to the other. He remembered Frank mentioning his wife's sister had died of cancer. He remembered his daughter's funeral. Her tiny black casket. He remembered his wife stricken with grief, and the paint bucket. He had really hit her. And she had died, he thought. She's dead. And she's not. The house is alive with her.
From upstairs he could hear Sue weeping. A part of him was tempted to put the batteries back in and return the baby monitor to the room. Instead he carried it to the garbage can and, for the second time that week, dropped it in.