Annie opened her eyes slowly and blinked at the late winter sun. She stirred languidly, breathing in the cypress-scented morning air and rising from her prone position with the blurry contentment of a woman well-rested. Beams of wan sunlight filtered through the crisp muslin curtains, softening the harsh whiteness that dominated the bedroom. With a happy yawn, Annie turned her attention to what seemed to be the only spots of color around. Eyes of yellow and deep violet peeped out from a sea of white anemone petals, all sitting neat and fresh on the little stand between the bed and the window.
“Well, Hazel, I don’t know how, but your father found us some gorgeous flowers. Aren’t they pretty, sweetie?” Annie cooed, looking at the sturdy white cradle on the opposite side of her bed. “Don’t they just look like spring?”
A happy giggle bubbled forth, beautiful enough to be a songbird’s tune to the young mother’s ears. Annie slid out of bed, rustling her downy sheets and upsetting the hospital-like neatness of the room. “Hazel, baby, you’ll just love spring. I know all you’ve seen so far is winter, but when the chill lifts and the flowers bloom? Oh, there’s nothing better.”
“Annie? Are you up?”
The woman looked up as the bedroom door opened, admitting a man in a somber three piece suit who bore a small tray of dishes.
A beaming smile broke out on Annie’s face. “Good morning, love,” she said, closing the distance between them and giving her husband a quick kiss on the lips. “I thought you would have left for work by now.” Her tone was questioning, and she cocked her head to one side.
“Remember I started taking on fewer hours?”
Annie twisted her lips and scrunched her forehead in concentration, but no memory came forth. “No, I don’t recall. But if it means you have more time at home with the baby, I’m all for it. Oh, and thank you for the flowers. How did you get them so early?”
“It’s not so difficult,” he replied, scratching the back of his neck.
“You just don’t want to admit that you paid a fortune to get them shipped from further south,” Annie teased, enjoying the way her husband shuffled and gave a half-hearted grin. “Now what have you got there, Ray?” she inquired as she peered over the tray.
“Your tea. It’s rose hip – I thought you might want some.”
Annie lifted the delicate teacup and inhaled deeply through her nose, a blissful smile spreading across her face. She hummed contentedly. “Eglantine?”
Ray nodded, looking fond. “Your favorite.”
“You knew!” Annie exclaimed delightedly, twirling and skipping over to the window.
“Always the tone of surprise,” Ray muttered sadly behind her, and Annie giggled.
Mind alighting on a new and pressing issue, Annie spun again and looked at her husband with breathless cheer. “Ray, don’t you think we should open up the windows? Just a bit?”
Her husband stared at her incredulously, cocking his head back as if she had just flicked water in his face. “Are you sure?”
Annie smiled at the befuddled expression, and shrugged with the chagrin of someone who knew they were being silly. She toyed absently with the hem of one snowy curtain. “I know it’s probably too cold to keep them open long, but I swear it gets so stuffy in here. Really, it’s almost March! I’ll bet you the folks in Richmond are all gearing up for spring, and we’re barely farther north than they are. And can you believe the house still smells so much like that cypress lumber? Honestly, the remodeling was done ages ago. We must not have been airing out the rooms enough. Come on, let’s open some windows!”
“But don’t you think…” The sentence died in Ray’s throat, and he pursed his lips with a distinctly uncomfortable look. Annie followed his gaze as it flicked over first the shrouded window, then the cradle.
“Oh. Well, I suppose you’re right,” she said with a wistful sigh. “Hazel’s still so little. She probably couldn’t handle the cold.”
Ray had furrowed his brow slightly at the words, and before he could smooth the expression Annie noted a certain tiredness in his eyes. She was suddenly filled with concern for the man, and the longer she looked, the more washed out he appeared. Compared to the glowing whites surrounding him, Ray seemed tired and sallow. “Are you sure you’re not working too hard? Why don’t you come back to bed, spend a morning with me and Hazel?”
Annie gazed at her husband earnestly, but there was no hesitation in his weak smile and gentle refusal. “I really have to get to the office,” Ray explained with a glance to his watch. “You’ll be alright without me all day?” he asked with a sudden intensity.
“Yes, I think I can manage.” A hint of uncertainty crept into Annie’s voice at her husband’s strange behavior. She blinked as her eye was drawn to the glint on his wrist. “When did you start wearing a wristwatch, Ray? You just got a new pocket watch,” she observed idly.
The discomfited look was back. “All the officers who were in the war–well, are in, I mean–said this model is more efficient. It’s getting popular.”
“Hm. That’s nice. Well, I guess I shouldn’t keep you.” She rose from her seat on the bed and pecked Ray on the cheek. “Have a good day. And I think I might open a few upstairs windows, and at least all the curtains, so the house might be a bit chilly when you get back.”
Ray stiffened, his hand freezing on Annie’s shoulder. “You’re sure?” he asked again.
“Yes I’m sure,” she said, smiling as she decided to humor her husband’s odd moods.
With a gulp and wide eyes, Ray backed out of the room. “I might hang around a bit longer. I need to make a phone call before leaving,” he forced out before spinning on his heel and practically running from the room.
Confused and slightly hurt, Annie stared after her fleeing husband. “When did we get a phone?” she mumbled dazedly.
Looking around, the wilted feeling that had surrounded Ray seemed to persist in his absence, spreading throughout the room and casting a strange dimness over the various shades of white. A bit of sunlight was definitely in order. With determined steps, Annie walked over to the window and yanked back the curtains.
For a brief moment, dazzling sunlight streamed through the panes of glass, throwing iridescent flecks on the floor and making the walls glow, and Annie took a deep, satisfied breath. Then the light changed. It grew green, far too green, and descended over clean swathes of white like a shroud. A choked noise of surprise clawed out from deep within Annie’s throat. She looked about with panicked eyes. In its new sickly cast, the room appeared dull and hollow. Paint flaked off the cradle, surrounded by swirling motes of dust, and the downy bundle where Hazel had rested was gone, replaced by a browning bouquet of lilies and white roses. Annie slammed the curtains shut, but the room’s ghastly appearance did not change. Every surface, curve, and corner looked dim and neglected, and the flowers near the bed glared at Annie like so many accusing faces. In her mind’s eye, next to the blank, lifeless sight of the room, the hatefully cheerful spring flowers she had seen outside the window mocked her.
“Ray! Ray, are you still here?” Annie cried desperately. She ran to the cradle, staring in horror at the flowers nestled in where her baby should have been.
Her husband burst through the door, skidding up to her on frantic feet. “What’s wrong? Annie, what happened?”
She spun to face him, nearly dislodging his hands from where they rested on her back and arm. “Ray, the baby! Hazel’s gone! Ray, where did Hazel go? And- and-” Annie’s words were swallowed in her panicked gasping for a moment, and a slow look of terrified realization dawned on Ray’s face. “Ray it’s February! It’s February but all the flowers are out. I don’t know what’s happening. What’s going on?” Annie had nearly worked herself into hysterics, clutching at her husband as he shushed her with poorly disguised anxiety.
“Annie, sweetheart, you need to calm down. Breathe with me – can you do that?”
She began to retake control of her breathing, timing her heaves as best she could with the deep, steady pace set by Ray. “Raymond, what’s going on?” she said weakly. “Where’s my baby?”
“I’ll tell you, I will, but I need you to calm down. Doctor Coulson’s on his way.”
“What are you talking about? Doctor Coulson’s visiting family.”
A pained look settled over Ray’s features, and his eyes grew mournful. “Annie,” he murmured gently, “Doctor Coulson came back months ago – do you remember?”
Annie shook her head slowly, deliberately. “No. No, you’re talking crazy. Now where’s Hazel?”
Ray looked as if the words had been bullets to his gut. His shoulders tensed in agitation, and his voice began to rise to a fevered pitch. “Annie, it’s been over a year! It’s not February, it’s almost May, and-”
“Do you think I wouldn’t remember my first spring with my baby girl?” she accused back in a high voice. “Do you honestly think that, Raymond? It’s winter!”
“No it isn’t, Annie!”
“I don’t know what you think you’re saying, but you’re acting like a crazy person!”
“Annie you need to let go!”
“Get out!” she screamed with finality. Her eyes glinted with rage, confusion, and terrified trepidation as she took in a shuddering breath. “Just- just get out.”
As Ray turned and left with a final pleading glance, Annie sat down with knees curled to her chest and gasped in breath after unsteady breath. Her eyes flicked to and fro across the room, and whenever they fell on the disused cradle she fought back a sob.
Eventually, she shifted. Hesitantly, her every motion meditated and skittishly executed, Annie crept towards the window. With a shaking hand, she drew one of the gauzy veils back.
When Ray reentered a minute later, Doctor Coulson at his side, Annie was standing listlessly by the open window, cheeks gleaming with sunlit tears and hair tousled by the breeze. Her eyes skimmed over bright patches of flowers – rosemary, daffodils, honeysuckle, roses – and finally rested on the small grove of year-old cypress saplings shading a little slab of marble.
“Spring,” she sobbed. “It’s spring.”
Annie knew then that all seasons must come to an end; this one ended with the slide of curtains being drawn back to let in the sun.