I hear her cooing from her swing, a tiny voice sweet and crisp as an apple, tinkling and fresh as only an infant’s can be. It brings a wide smile to my lips and I can almost taste its sweetness. How I could be blessed with such an angel baffles me. Miniscule ringlets of golden white hair, feathery and bright, cover her little head. Her soft, chubby body is warm and almost electric with new life, the rich scent novel and enchanting. I beam at her as her sapphire eyes sparkle, her rosy cheeks and plump lips stretching into a little grin as she giggles.
I turn from my adorable little distraction, still enraptured but ultimately determined. My bright yellow gloves don’t come quite up to my elbows and pinch my fingers – damn that store for being out of my size – and my arms are slathered in warm suds. My dress is splotched with haphazard damp spots, and the hem is drenched as I kneel in a puddle in a dip in the floor. The muscles in my arms ache from hours of scrubbing. My fingers cramp up so I can hardly keep my grip on the toothbrush in my hand.
I glance around the kitchen from my perch on the slick linoleum, desperate to stop and relax. Instead of seeing the gleaming knobs on all the cupboard doors, the shining appliances on the counters, or the spotless steel of the faucets, however, I am only capable of seeing all the work still left to do. The windows need washed, the wooden dining table polished, the insides of the cabinets wiped down…
He will be here tonight, I tell myself. He’s coming home, and everything will be perfect. Not a speck of dust in sight. My hair will be immaculate, my make-up unblemished, and my dress without a single wrinkle. Our darling little girl, so well-behaved, will be in her best dress as well, and the cute little patent leather shoes I bought for her. I will tell him they were given to her and hide the receipt. He will never buy that the steaks I’m preparing for dinner were items at the food pantry. I’ll have to tell him I ran extra errands this week for our neighbor and earned enough for a small splurge. Perhaps he will believe it.
I scrub harder, throwing my back into it. My pretty little girl begins to grow restless. It’s time to feed her, I’m sure she’s hungry, but I’m almost done. Just a few more unfinished tasks…
Her whimpering turns to small little cries of dissatisfaction and discomfort. “Shhh,” I murmur to her as I fix a stray hair in my otherwise perfect reflection, my diamond necklace he purchased for our anniversary winking mischievously at my neck. “Daddy will be home soon. We must be on our best behavior.”
Just a little longer, I think, as I juggle her squirming body in one arm and the tray of hors d’oeuvres in the other hand as I try to slide them into the oven. She is wailing now, pealing and hellish in its fervor. She is demanding attention. Just a bit longer. Just let me finish setting the table.
I am running late, I realize in horror, but then so is he. The clock on the wall ticks on as the candles burning on the table slowly melt.
“We must be patient,” I try to soothe her. “Daddy is coming and he expects a good little girl. Not a little brat that won’t shut up.”
The light from the windows begins to disappear, slowly fading to black. I glance at the clock. He’s late, as usual. Perhaps later than usual, though. Has something happened? Is he safe? I begin to worry.
The clock strikes twelve, and in defeat and concern, I blow out the candles and carry her upstairs to her nursery. I settle into the rocker, her heavy little form nestled in my arms, and I rock her to sleep. She’s exhausted, as am I. I thank the heavens that she’s too young to feel the overwhelming hurt of abandonment.
“He’s coming,” I whisper softly into her blonde curls. “He’ll be home anytime now, and he’ll be so happy to see us.” It’s almost a prayer, a passionate plea, but I can barely admit that to myself, let alone her. “He’ll be so proud to see all my hard work. He’ll love us, I promise. He just has to come home and see us. And he is. He’s coming.”
I slow the rocking chair just a bit, realizing as she begins to stir that I might have been too forceful in my movements.
Closing my eyes, I hold on to my hope, because it’s all I have left. “He’s coming.”
“What’s she muttering about?” an orderly says to another as they watch her rocking back and forth with nearly enough force to break the fold-out chair she’s sitting on.
The other shakes his head sadly, somewhat disgusted. “She’s waiting for her husband to come home. She putters around all day talking about how he’s away on a business trip and he’ll be returning soon. She’s harmless but completely delusional,” he sighs.
“And the bundle of blankets she’s always carrying around? She never puts it down.”
Another gust of air whooshes out of the senior orderly’s mouth, his shoulders heavy with the burden of his job. “She thinks it’s her baby daughter.”
“But she’s seventy-four!”
“Doesn’t matter when you’re that wrapped up in your own fantasy. From what I’ve pieced together, her husband left her after a midlife crisis. They were unable to have any children, and she got it into her head that if she’d been able to give him a baby he might have stayed. So she locked herself in her own house, convincing herself that he was just away on business, creating a baby for him to love and care for. She waited for him for months. By the time they found her and brought her here, the place was covered in dust and growing mold, and she wouldn’t let go of that bundle. She insisted she take it with her when they took her away. We forced her to let us wash it at least. She damned near killed a man when we did that, and spent the rest of the day locked in her own room sobbing. She was perfectly fine when we gave it back. We make sure to wash it at night now.”
Saddened, the younger man frowned as he watched her rock her imaginary baby. “She seems sweet, though.”
“Oh, she is. Most of the residents usually are. But there’s a reason. There’s always a reason.”
The youth nodded, this thought making perfect sense to him. “Always a reason.”
The elderly woman shot them a look, smiling but seemingly distrustful. “Don’t listen to the funny men,” she whispered, kissing her daughter’s sweet little forehead. “They don’t know what they’re talking about. Daddy will be home any minute now. Just you wait. He’s coming home.”
He’s coming home.