Ruth, by Jack Flynn

The day after it happened, fourteen-year-old Ruth looked across the kitchen table at her baby brother. Adorable little David, who would be three in another month, was babbling about dolphins and sea turtles and decorating the table with milk and soggy cereal. Her own bowl was empty, just a circle of milk remaining at the bottom; she hadn’t been hungry but had forced herself to at least eat a few bites.

Their da’ walked into the kitchen. He had dark circles under his eyes and his clothes were messy. His tie was straight but the tail of his shirt had come out and was stuck under his belt.

Ruth frowned.

Mom wouldn’t have let him leave the house like that so she walked over and tried to fix it. Her hands brushed against his back and he jerked, banging the carton of orange juice into the glass, which tipped into the sink and shattered.

His face was white, the circles under his eyes as purple as bruises and his lips almost unnaturally red against his pallid skin. It took him a few seconds to focus his vision and see his daughter, standing there with her hands clenched to her midsection and her eyes wide with fear and surprise.

He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close, whispering apologies into her ear. She hugged him back, as well as she could with her arms almost pinned to her sides. She could feel the bandages under his shirt and tried not to squeeze where they were.

Ruth closed her eyes and pressed her face against his chest. He smelled like fabric softener and green soap. The spicy soap, not the soft pink soap.

The pink soap was…

The pink soap had been Mom’s soap.

Before her tears fell and messed his shirt up, Ruth stepped back and looked up at him. Her smile was forced but she was trying, and his shoulders relaxed, just a little. A bit of color had returned to his face. When he cupped her cheek, his fingers were ice cold but his lips were warm, soft against her forehead.

He had shaved but not very well. The stubble was pokey on her skin, but she didn’t flinch.

“I’m sorry, baby,” he said. “I didn’t sleep so well last night.”

“Me, either.” She gave him a peck on the cheek and brushed past him. She unhooked the little sprayer from behind the sink and turned on the water.

“Oh, no, Ruth,” her dad said. “I’ll clean that up. You go eat.”

“It’s okay, Da’.” She shooed him towards the table with her free hand. “I already ate.”

He stood there for a few seconds, watching his daughter stand there, her back to him. When she didn’t turn to look at him, he grabbed a banana and sat down in the chair she had vacated.

Ruth turned the water all the way to hot. She watched the orange juice as it swirled around the drain, tiny bits of pulp swept away by the force of the water to be carried down into the darkness. The water heated up quickly and soon steam was billowing up out of the sink, making her think of the fog that had been so thick the night before.

She realized she was holding her breath.

Forcing herself to exhale, she turned off the water and let the hose retract. Using a sponge and a paper towel, she cleaned up the broken glass, careful not to cut herself on the sharp edges or burn herself on the hot water pooled in the little dents in the bottom of the sink.

Using a fresh paper towel so she wouldn’t drip water onto the floor, she carried the glass over to the wastebasket. She let everything fall into the trash and tried not to see what was already in there. When that failed, she tried to ignore the brown stains on the shirt – she remembered that they had been so very red when she’d thrown it away last night – and moved the paper towel so that it hid the worst of them.

Her dad was slumped over the table. He was snoring, the banana peel on the table next to him.

“Up!” David reached towards her. “Want up!”

***

Four days after it happened, Ruth went to school. There had been an in-service day on Monday, so she had had only missed the one day of school. Da’ had told her that she could stay home today, too, if she wanted, but what she wanted was to go to school and see her friends.

That want lasted until she left the house. When she realized the path she had to walk to get to school, her stomach started to hurt; she didn’t want to go back in and have her father ask if she was okay again, so she walked to school anyway.

She kept telling herself it would be better once she got to school. As she joined her classmates in the hallways, she did feel a little better. A little closer to normal.

Her friends didn’t look at her any differently; at least, they didn’t look at her any differently when they knew she was looking. She wasn’t stupid, though. She noticed the way conversations stilled when her friends saw her drawing near, how the underclassmen moved away from her as if she was contagious, and how the upperclassmen either watched her through open doorways or fell into step around her like an honor guard. She kept catching glimpses of pity, or fear, or revulsion, or some strange envy or desire when people thought she wasn’t looking.

That was the worst. She didn’t want anybody’s pity, but she could at least understand it. The other looks, though, made her stomach hurt like when she’d first stepped out onto the porch, and it wasn’t just the students, even some of the teachers were doing the same thing…”

She started to wonder if coming to school was a good idea or not.

Lunch was awful. She had packed her lunch that morning: a cheese stick, some chips, and peanut butter and jelly on wheat, just like Mom used to make. Mom would’ve used one of the big kitchen knives to cut it in half diagonally, but Ruth had cut it horizontally. It just seemed like it would be disrespectful to her to try and make it the exact same way she did.

Ruth sat down at an empty table, her back to the emergency exit, and unrolled the brown paper bag. She reached in and, instead of a plastic bag of chips or sandwich, her fingers closed around something cold and wet and slippery. Letting go of whatever it was, she yanked her hand out of the bag.

Her fingers were covered with blood.

She screamed and smacked the bag away. It slid down the length of the table and disappeared over the edge.

The rest of the cafeteria was deathly silent for a long moment. The only sound Ruth heard was her own panicked breath and the pounding of her pulse in her ears.

The smell of paint reached her, and she took another look at her hand.

It wasn’t blood on her hand. It was just red paint.

Her face turning as red as the mess dripping from her fingertips, Ruth stood up and went to the end of the table. Her lunch was scattered on the tile floor, as well as an open plastic butter tub, and everything was covered with paint. The tub had landed upside down and then bounced and rolled, splattering red droplets all over the floor.

Red droplets everywhere, just like that night.

She knelt down and started picking up her lunch. Her sandwich was ruined; the paint had seeped in through the folds of the plastic bag, soaking into the bread.

As she sat there on her knees, cradling the sandwich and trying not to let her tears fall, she heard somebody start laughing, heavy guffaws from across the cafeteria.

Ruth’s head felt like it weighed too much for her neck to lift, but she raised her eyes anyway. One of her classmates, a freshman that she didn’t even know, was pointing and laughing at her. Most of the other people at his table were staring at him in horror but he didn’t seem to notice.

He didn’t seem to notice anything until one of the seniors, a big guy – Ruth was pretty sure he was on the football team – bashed him in the face with a lunch tray. Even from across the room, she could hear the flat noise it made when it caved in his nose, followed by the thud of his head against the floor. One of the other kids at the table got up from his seat and started stomping on the fallen boy. A few seconds later and she couldn’t see him at all; a dozen students surrounded him, shoving the table out of the way to get to him.

None of them made a sound.

One of the teachers came over to Ruth and helped her to her feet. A wet rag was placed into her hands and she absently started wiping the paint off of her fingers. She glanced back over her shoulder at the crowd of students, the silent group still punching and kicking and swinging. All Ruth could hear was the wet, sloppy sounds from the middle of the pack.

As she was guided out of the cafeteria, Ruth let the rag fall from her hand without looking at it.

***

Seven days after it happened, Ruth asked her father if he could give her a ride to school. He told her that she had to walk but that, if she wanted, he would walk with her. She tried to talk him out of it but he already had his jacket on and was squeezing David into his winter coat.

David trundled on ahead, looking like an overstuffed sausage in his winter jacket. Da’ walked next to Ruth, shortening his stride to match hers.

“How’s school been?”

She shrugged; adjusted the strap on her backpack. “Fine.”

“I didn’t think there’d be any more trouble.” He jammed his hands into his pockets and tried to watch her without looking like he was watching her.

Ruth shrugged again.

Half a block ahead, David had stopped by the Old Tree. He stared up at the trunk until Ruth and Da’ had almost reached him. He screamed in fake terror and ran down the sidewalk, waving his arms and yelling at the top of his lungs.

Da’ continued on for a few steps before noticing that Ruth was standing in front of the Tree, staring up in, an unconscious mirror of her brother’s stance a few seconds before.

“Ruth?”

“I miss her, Da’.”

“I know you do, Ruth,” her dad replied. “But you have to be strong.”

Her father grabbed her by the arm, his grip squeezing through her coat. When she didn’t turn to him, he gave her a sharp yank, hard enough to snap her head forward and pull her off balance.

“You must be strong,” he hissed, teeth gritted and eyes fierce. “Ruth, please. If you can’t…”

“I know, Da’.” She jerked her arm free and walked past the Old Tree, trying not to look up at the branches or what was still pinned there against the trunk, or the reddish-brown blotches that stained the trunk.

“I know,” she whispered, he didn’t hear her; the muscles in his jaw clenching and unclenching as he gazed up at the withered thing in the Old Tree.

***

Twenty-one days after it happened, Ruth slept in.

It was winter solstice and there wasn’t any school. She went downstairs and started making pancakes, wearing her Mom’s – wearing her white comfy robe, dripping the batter onto the skillet slowly and specifically. By the time David came bumbling down the steps, she had a platter filled with pancake turtles, pancake dolphins, pancake fish, and even what might’ve been a pancake octopus.

Setting the platter onto the table, she hoisted her brother up into his booster chair. He reached for the pancakes as she got down one of his blue plastic plates. Sliding the platter closer, she helped him pick out his breakfast and then let him drown them in syrup.

Licking fake maple off of her finger, she went to the fridge and took out a bottle of apple juice while David made what Ruth assumed were fish and turtle noises. When she closed the door, she saw Da’ standing in the doorway, watching the boy play and eat.

Da’ hadn’t gotten dressed for work but was wearing his white comfy robe, the other half of the set she had bought Mom and Da for their anniversary; the one that matched the one she was wearing now.

“Good morning.” Ruth poured apple juice into a sippee cup. “Would you like some pancakes, too?”

Her father opened his mouth, then shut it without saying anything. He closed his eyes and gave a quick shake of his head. She could see his throat working as he tried to swallow.

Putting David’s cup down within his reach, Ruth went to her dad and gave him a hug, wrapping her arms around him. He only flinched a little bit and then hugged her back. With her head against his chest, she could feel his sobs more than hear them. She squeezed him tighter, trying to make herself feel a little better by trying to make him feel a little better.

She tried not to think about the duffel bag sitting by the front door.

***

Twenty-two days after it happened, Ruth stood in the kitchen, wearing her fuzzy robe and dripping pancake batter onto the hot skillet. She was sore, especially her right arm and wrist. Trying to ignore the twinge in her back, she moved the sippee cup out of the way to get to the pancake platter.

Behind her, Da’ sat at the table, wearing the same soiled jeans and shirt that he’d worn the night before. The knees were caked with mud and clay and other things; Ruth realized she’d have to throw out the clothes; the stains would never wash out.

While the pancakes finished cooking, she picked up the booster seat and put it on the floor next to the trash can. She went back to the sink and washed her hands. It was the fifth time that morning but she was still sure that she’d missed something.

Satisfied, at least for the moment, she turned off the skillet and moved the octopus-shaped pancakes to the platter.

Favoring her right arm, she carried the platter to the table and slid it towards Da’.

“Go ahead and eat,” she said, ignoring the tracks his tears had cut through the dirt on his face. “You have to be strong.”

~~

I may or may not have been born on a stormy autumn night but the cats refuse to confirm it, one way or the other. I am a devoted follower of the Whedon and have been previously published in the zombie anthology “First Time Dead 3.” I look forward to welcoming our future robot ninja overlords, as should you.

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Posted on January 20, 2014, in Issue 12: The Shadows Only Hide the Monsters: Poe & Lovecraft Tribute and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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