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A short story by Steve Rice

The day-to-day household cleaning hadn’t happened since Ruby was suspended from school five days ago. Daily upkeep had taken a backseat while Beth and Ken tried to figure out why Ruby attacked Debbie and what they could do to stop further assaults. At their current level of success, the house would soon go to seed.

Ruby walked through the kitchen to get some orange juice and it reminded her of walking barefoot on the boardwalk at the beach. Fine grit stuck to her feet and there were a variety of smells; some not so pleasant and some pleasant, like the smell of bacon off the griddle from breakfast for dinner last night. Ruby crinkled her nose smelling the stale, crusted ketchup and barbeque sauce from the plates stacked by the sink.

She finished drinking the juice from the carton and dropped it on the stove top where it leaned precariously on a burner that hadn’t been used in days. Thirst quenched, Ruby decided it was time for a shower, and went upstairs to the bathroom.

Finding the closet empty of clean towels and washcloths, Ruby headed to the living room. Swerving around a stack of unread newspapers, she made her way to the piles of clean, unfolded laundry and pulled a towel with a flourish like the party trick, trying not to disturb the dishes. The towels scattered all over the living room and Ruby bowed deeply, smiling. Not seeing nor hearing her parents, Ruby decided to look upstairs to see where they were hiding.

The plush, tan carpet felt good between her toes, not tickly at all, but soothing. She continued to walk around her parents’ -Beth & Ken’s- bedroom, when she discovered they weren’t anywhere upstairs.

Ruby was making finger tracks through thick dust on their furniture, stepping over blankets and piles of clothes, flicking coins onto the floor, knocking over perfume bottles and pictures; paying no attention as the latter broke when it hit the corner of the dresser. She made her way around the room, tightly twisting her hair out of unconscious habit.

Ruby needed to grab the lamp to keep it from falling as she hit the bedside table stumbling her way to the window. She felt anger building inside her, like when her blood pressure is measured at the doctor’s office. There they are -Ken & Beth- cleaning the cars while the snow was still falling, fast and heavy. Over the past few days, they just kept nagging her about what happened at school and -Debbie-. She was supposed to go back to school today and get out of this house but they -Beth & Ken- said school was closed.

Ruby felt the carpet squish between her toes-the pressure began releasing. After a few minutes, she stopped staring at her parents. She was surprised to see the lamp gripped in her hand and put it back on the bedside table. As she left the room, enjoying each toe-flex in the carpet, Ruby didn’t notice the tuft of her hair fall from her finger to the floor.

Later in the evening, Ken and Beth sat amongst the clutter of the living room, as snow covered their cars again.

“Have any of her friends called asking about her?” Ken asked, starting his second bourbon.

Dry tonight, Beth replied, “That’s part of the issue, Ken, for both of us. When was the last time anyone called? Came over? Invited her over? Do you know, because I don’t. What are we going to do? This isn’t like a couple of weeks ago, when she pinched you and spit at me when she got mad.” Before Ken could respond Beth continued, “The incident report said she grabbed her hair, pulled her to the ground and kicked her in the head.”

Beth watched as Ken opened and closed his mouth like a goldfish, gasping as he tried to formulate a response. “No one’s called!” she yelled, frustrated by their lack of understanding of their only child. Looking around the room Beth added, “This place is a dump-hole,” as she noticed the stacks of unread newspapers and the towels strewn all over.

Sipping his bourbon, transfixed by the heavy snow that continued to fall, Ken wondered, Will tomorrow be a twofer? If school is canceled again that will push Ruby going back to school until Monday. Without turning from the window, he asked, “This is the same Debbie, right? The one she would do 4-H projects with. I thought they were friends.”

Beth began, “Yeah, it’s the same Debbie but that was--” she stopped when she heard the unexpected sound of the table chair scraping across the linoleum and Ruby came into the living room, a box of saltines tucked under her arm.

Talking through a mouthful of crackers, bits of food spraying from her mouth, Ruby commented, “She was the worst at basket weaving,” as she made her way across the living room, stepping through the clean laundry. Without turning her head, Ruby asked her parents, “Have any of your friends called to check on how you’re doing? To see if you wanted to go out for dinner?” Ruby turned her head to keep from showing her grin and before her parents could wipe the gobsmacked look from their faces, Ruby ascended the stairs.

A few moments later, they heard Ruby scream, Ken and Beth propelled themselves upstairs . They found her in their bedroom, crying, clutching her barefoot; a piece of glass sticking out of it and blood streaming onto the floor. Without hesitation, Ken scooped Ruby off the floor and Beth, already heading toward the stairs exclaimed, “I’m driving.”

Beth drove and Ken was in the back seat with Ruby who continued to cry and stared at her foot as blood pooled in the towel it rested on. Looking at her in the rearview mirror, Beth asked, “What happened?” After a few beats, tears streaming down her face, Ruby blurted out, “I didn’t mean to do it! Two weeks ago, Debbie stopped talking to me and only looked at me and giggled and soon all the other kids were doing it too,” after a breath, Ruby continued, quieter, “I was all by myself, no one would talk to me.” Looking at her dad, “I know I should’ve said something to you instead of acting like a big jerk, I just…” She wiped her nose on her sleeve and went on, “ I just wanted to talk to her. I grabbed her backpack, to stop her. I must’ve gotten her hair too, but when she pulled away I pulled back and she fell.” Almost pleading, Ruby said, “It was an accident! I didn’t want to hurt her and when she fell I tried to run away and I hit her head with my foot!”

Ken hugged Ruby and kissed the top of her head. “That glass will come out lickety split.” Beth said from the front of the car, wiping her eyes with her coat. “Everything is going to be okay.”

Art Academy of Milton will be featuring short stories written by the students of Michael Rash's Prose Writers' Workshop. To learn more about the next workshop and other events, visit our classes page!


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