Becka did not want Hayden to hear her.
She balanced on her tiptoes atop a wobbly old stool, stretching as high as her arms would reach. Her slender frame had a height to match, but she tried desperately to use every inch in an attempt to mark the wall in front of her. The fireplace was 58 inches wide, so she measured 29 inches from the left side over. She closed one eye, unconsciously biting her tongue between her front teeth as she raised her right hand, grasping the worn out nub of a pencil. She estimated what would be directly above the midpoint of the mantle. After nearly falling over, she made a mental note to replace the padding which was evidently absent from one of the stool’s legs. She speculated that it must have fallen off in the move and now the lopsided stool threatened to take Becka’s life with each shift of weight.
Carefully backing up onto solid ground, she walked over to where a painting sat patiently, sitting propped up against the wall. Aware of the precariousness of the stool this time, she carefully used both hands to raise the painting high in front of her and align it with the pencil marking to assess her work. She frowned in chagrin as the bottom of the frame collided embarrassingly with the top of the mantle, and let out a frustrated sigh as she lowered the painting in front of her. Maybe she could find a taller stool in the boxes somewhere… did they even own a ladder?
“What are you doing?” came a familiar voice behind her. Hayden slouched against the doorframe with his arms crossed, displaying that look of smug amusement that drove Becka absolutely mad. Startled, she jumped and lost her balance on the stool that she was now convinced was trying to kill her. Landing awkwardly on her left foot, the stool clattered across the floor sending echoes throughout the unfurnished office. He was by her side in two long strides. “Whoa, sorry,” he said as he supported her elbow. “It’s just... that’s not how you hang a picture.”
They locked eyes. His, trying desperately to blanket his enjoyment with concern. Hers, filled to the brim with utter annoyance as she shook off his grip. “How long were you watching me?” she demanded.
“Long enough to see that you needed help.” He reached into the back pocket of his worn-in jeans, pulling out a level as he raised his eyebrow with a smirk.
“I wanted to surprise you,” she said with a pout.
“That you definitely did. Wait one moment.” He walked out of the room, returning a few moments later bearing the tufted blueberry armchair that Becka had found at the thrift store last week. Hayden had sent her along in their 2011 Honda Accord, assuming that the lack of interior space would restrict her from any large purchases. He remembered the mess of bungee cords he had left in the trunk an hour later as she arrived home with the chair haphazardly attached to the roof. Now, he set the chair at the corner of the room, angled diagonally to face the fireplace. “I’ll finish. You sit.”
She begrudgingly took her place, dramatically resting her cheek on her left palm with a pout. Her motive to stay disgruntled melted as she watched Hayden take careful measurements, his architecturally trained hands methodically assessing the situation until the final resting place of one perfectly placed nail was established where it proudly supported the painting of their new home. With an outstretched arm, he welcomed her to join him in the center of the room, embracing as they intently watched the painting as if expecting it to move. From an outsider, the house in the painting would seem unextraordinary. But for Becka, it was a memorial for the promise Hayden made to her many years ago. As newlyweds he would listen to her fantasize about picket white fencing and accenting flower boxes as he went to bed at night, slowly sculpting the image in his mind of what would be Becka’s dream home. He presented her with the painting on their first wedding anniversary, two weeks after the fertility nurse had told Becka that her chances of conceiving were low enough to “start considering alternative options”. He had brought the painting to their bedroom, holding it in front of his chest as he gauged her reaction.
“I’ll build it for you one day,” he tentatively breathed - and he watched helplessly as she crumbled into pieces.
It was nearly ten years later. Becka had spent that time building herself back together as Hayden mimicked her in building their new home, brick by brick. Hayden’s beard, still as unkempt as it always was, now lay peppered with silver. Becka recently had to exchange the golden glasses she once wore as a fashion statement for a pair actually serving a purpose. Today was June 20th, five days before Becka turned 32.
“What now?” she asked, looking up at him. But his hand was slipping off her shoulder, and he was stumbling over to the wall for balance. “HAYDEN!” Becka cried. She followed him, eyes wild with fear as he clutched his head with both hands, elbows propped out to support him against the wall. Sensing his lack of balance, she reached her arms up under his elbows while slowly lowering him down to the floor.
“Owww,” Hayden moaned as they awkwardly descended onto the floor. “Fu-, OW!”
“Are you okay?” she asked in distress, her right leg pinned under the weight of his body. She turned his torso slightly to the side so she could look into his eyes. “What do I do?”
But his eyes were glassy as they looked through Becka, unresponsive to her question. He quickly jerked his body, vomiting onto the newly waxed hardwood. He lay on the floor, barely aware of Becka wriggling out from under his weight and searching her sweatshirt pocket for her cell phone.
“I need an ambulance, NOW!” she panted into her phone. She lifted his head to lay atop her lap as her tears fell onto Hayden’s flushed cheek. She combed his hair the way he always liked as he lay there moaning until the paramedics arrived.
The peculiar thing about any room is that, at a certain point, it lacks the ability to be completely silent. Quiet, sure, but never silent. As time moves on, the imprint of human lives become absorbed by the spaces they inhabit.
The seconds pass with a gentle tick of a grandfather clock.
Radiators whine as they warm during their morning programming.
The gentle hum of a refrigerator is interrupted by the tumbling of ice blocks.
But this room had had no chance to absorb Becka and Hayden. So for 37 days, the room waited in patient silence. On a rare occasion, noises from outside the room, typically the rusting of cardboard boxes, floated around the empty space in search of somewhere to settle. Once, the room was startled by a burly older gentleman, carrying an overstuffed duffle bag that was too pink and too embroidered with flowers to be his own. The room stood hostile, taken aback by the sudden entry of a man that was neither of its rightful owners. But this man had Becka’s eyes, and so the room welcomed him in as a guest, allowing him to address the yellow stain that was left to dry in the center of the floor.
On the 37th day, that same man led another into the room, connected at the shoulders by an antique rug rolled up like unsliced sushi. This tasseled rug became the third piece of furniture to adorn the room, a welcome accompaniment to the unextraordinary painting and the blueberry chair. The burly man slowly furnished the rest of the room with two end tables, a bookshelf, a record player, and a loveseat. Still, the room stood skeptical that any of this would be to Becka’s tastes, until finally a twin bed rolled into the room. It was ordinary in every aspect except that it carried Hayden - a Hayden who looked like he had been asleep for the past 37 days. It was followed by Becka - a Becka who looked like she hadn’t slept for the equivalent.
And the room watched helplessly as it felt like crumbling to pieces.
Hayden awoke in a vast void of space. He stood above an invisible floor, seeing emptiness in all directions. He felt nothing but his heart incessantly hammering below his breast bone as he whipped his head around in search of anything at all to cling onto. There was nothing to see besides the blurry presence of his own nose at the center of his vision. A sudden feeling of warmth spread through his hand as he heard the smooth harmony of Becka’s voice dancing along with Elvis Presley’s.
“Shall I stay?
Would it be a sin,
If I can’t help falling in love with you.”
Hayden found himself clutching his head in remembrance. The smell of freshly laid oak flooring stung his sinuses, transporting him to the day he collapsed on the same floor he had polished a week prior. Falling to his knees, his head hung limp above his chest as he listened to her voice like an anchor that would keep him from being swept out to sea.
“Take my hand.
Take my whole life too,
For I can’t help falling in love with you.”
He was desperate to see her face again, to look into her chestnut eyes that were his home before he ever built their house out of wood and nails. Before he knew what he was doing, he found himself painting. He fell into the pool of her voice as he sketched the curve of her nose, sprinkling it with almond colored freckles which creased every time she reached for a high note. He colored in the wave of her hair as he pictured it pouring around her face. As one can only do with an endless assortment of colors, he practiced until he perfectly captured the way her chocolate hair reflected just barely burgundy when caught by the sunlight. By the time he was finished, the singing had stopped, and so he painted her sleeping in her blueberry chair and draped her with a blanket. He sat by her feet before drifting off himself, protecting her from the nightmares.
The days went by like this for a very long time. Hayden’s body lived limp in the room he had built by hand as his mind worked tirelessly to provide something to match. He rebuilt the walls, coloring them the shade of pale lemon that Becka had insisted was more like a statement than a color. He reconstructed the fireplace with the marble she had chosen, hanging his painting above the mantle in remembrance. He constructed a fire one day when he heard the crackling of burning wood and prayed to whoever was listening that someone had been there to help Becka build the one outside of his imagination.
Hayden had no way of knowing how much time had passed, instead counting the amount of times he successfully squeezed Becka’s hand upon the request. Her giggle, watery through forming tears, assured him of his success. Before collapsing into sleep from exhaustion, he would muster the strength to carve a notch upon the windowsill, a clear reminder of his progress before it all went dark once again.
The sound of Christmas carols startled Hayden from an unusually deep sleep. From across the room, he saw Becka asleep on her blueberry chair - something about his room registering as odd. The morning sun stung his eyes, putting Becka out of focus while he blinked to recalibrate. An unfamiliar lamp sat on the end table by Becka’s head. It was white, ceramic, and looked at a distance as if it was made of knitted fabric. Perplexed, he racked his brain to recall painting the lamp in his mind’s room. He melted deeper into his bed, eyes searching for other peculiarities when a vase of lilies came into view atop his bedside table. He strained to touch one, but a cinder block was attached by string around his wrist, making the attempt impossible. With a grunt, he dropped his arm, exacerbated.
He heard a gasp from across the room and turned his gaze to see Becka staring at him, mouth agape as if staring at a phantom. She stood from the chair in slow motion, allowing a crocheted blanket to drop by her feet and revealing a torso much rounder than he remembered. She waddled over to his side, tripping on the rug along the way and falling on the side of his mattress. “Hayden,” she whispered, tears already threatening to spill out from the corners of her eyes, “are you there, sweetheart?”
Hayden’s tongue felt large and clumsy in his mouth, a muscle that was out of practice. His mouth opened to say something in return, but his throat croaked in desperate need for water. The warmth of Beck’s hand came to his cheek, hushing him back to relaxation. The soft caress of her fingers felt so comforting, he used the last bit of energy he had to cover her hand with his own, falling back asleep with a gentle “Mhhhh” as Becka called for the nurse.
One frigid February morning, Hayden wheeled himself over to the fireplace. Firewood piled within a large metal bowl, each so small he doubted they would keep the fire going for 15 minutes. He strained to grab one, and tried with careful concentration to gently place the log along the burning embers. Clumsily, he dropped the log just outside his target and watched as it rolled. With a frustrated grunt, he reached for the poker and fought to reposition it at its intended location. Becka caught his eye as she shuffled in behind him, clutching a wilted and crispy spider plant in front of her growing belly.
“Nother one?” he asked with a slightly crooked smirk. Becka had a habit lately of rescuing the dying plants at the produce junction. They crowded the long wooden shelf which had claimed the real estate by the hospital bed vacancy. Becka shifted the plants around to make room for their new acquaintance.
“The workers there don’t know how to take care of them,” she said with a purse of her lips. “If I leave them there they’ll die. Besides, they were half off.”
Becka bubbled with laughter, either not noticing the slight pause between each word, or simply not caring. Her laughter sharply shifted to a wince and he watched her clutch her stomach, leaning on the shelf in front of her for support. Hayden slowly wheeled his way to her side, stopping to reach his hand to the back of her arm to reassure her of his presence. They had been through this before-what the doctors called braxton hicks contractions. Twice, Hayden stood by helpless as Becka drove herself to the hospital only to be sent home several hours later. But this one was on the heel of another just 8 minutes prior, and Becka’s due date was now next week.
She stood rigid, a hiss of air escaping between her teeth before slowly relaxing her shoulders and reaching back to rest her hand on Hayden’s shoulder. “Could be another fakeout,” she said as she gently caressed her stomach.
“Could...be real,” he replied.
After what threatened to be an endless parade of phone calls and stop watches, the room patiently waited once again. Not-so-silently, the ceiling fan purred, casually turning pages of an art history book which displayed its content atop the blueberry chair. The room grew worried with each passing day, hoping someone would be by to water the plants if Becka’s absence persisted for much longer. After three days, the unmistakable sound of the front door unlatching was followed by gentle whispers. Becka appeared, holding six pounds and eight ounces of a swaddled baby girl named Isabel. Hayden followed close behind, watching the girls as if his happiness depended on their every breath. There was a new addition to the family, and her parents were introducing her to her home.
It was three o’clock in the morning and Becka realized it was five days before her 33rd birthday. Isabel had woken both of them up with a scream that only teething babies can make. She found herself wandering the room which had walked her through the most turbulent year of her life. The room that once nursed Hayden back to health, now soothed her daughter to sleep. The wooden floor at the far corner was still scarred from the wheels of Hayden’s homecare bed. She stood over that spot, extending a foot to feel the indentation. She surveyed her collection of plants which showed off a vibrant display of green, suffering only slightly by some attention now being spared to the 4 month old human. Head full of thanksgiving, her eyes settled on Isabel, finally asleep in the arms of the man who Becka had once feared would never be able to rock her.
Hayden’s crutches lay by his feet as he sat in her blueberry chair. He lifted his gaze from Isabel to Becka, both of them standing frozen as if terrified to blink. Without a warning, Becka was on her knees in front of him. Cradling the back of his head, she pulled his lips towards hers as if trying to pass him understanding of all the things that words failed to convey. Time lost meaning as they sat in stillness, forehead resting against forehead, listening to the gentle snoring of their sleeping daughter. Her entire world was contained in this not-so-silent room, sitting before her in an ordinary blueberry chair.