by Max Griffin
Ruby's beloved children spend a day at home from school.
approximately 1300 words
Author remarks. This is now 1300 words. I'd like to pare another 200, but I don't see how without seriously impairing the story. There are further problems, but I'll post those at the end, after readers have completed the story.
approximately 1300 words
Ruby blinked sleep out of her eyes and peered at her wind-up alarm clock. Six in the morning. The furnace rattled to life and blew hot air onto her face. At least the electricity must be working. Their cat lay cuddled next to her husband, Joe. She murmured, "Did you miss me while I was away, Patches?" He stretched, narrowed his eyes, and nuzzled her.
She rose, put on a robe and slippers against the chill, and peered out the window. Snow fell in a conveyor belt of flakes, smothering everything, even the burned-out shell of the house next door. White, puffy pillows had accumulated on the seats of twins' swing set.
Street lights flickered and went out, along with the furnace.
Ruby sighed and lit a candle. It had been months since the epidemic had left Tulsa. You'd think simple things like electricity would be back to normal. But deep down she knew nothing would ever be normal again.
Patches head-bumped her ankles. She whispered, "Are you hungry, fella?"
She headed down the hall, pausing at the door to the twins' room. Stuffed animals stood in a neat row under the window, waiting for small arms to hug them. A wan smile bent Ruby's lips.
In the kitchen, she fed Patches and started breakfast. At least the gas was working. Before long, the aromas of coffee perking and bacon sizzling filled the room.
Joe shuffled in, bleary-eyed and tousle-haired. "Morning, honey bug." He fished cups from the cabinet and poured coffee for each of them. The lights flickered on, and furnace rumbled. "Looks like things are on again." He clicked on the TV and turned to the local morning talk show.
The TV people babbled about the flu epidemic coming back for another round, even worse this time. She didn't see how it could be worse. She concentrated on cooking the eggs. Over-easy, and not too done.
Joe poured two glasses of orange juice while she served breakfast.
Between bites, he said, "It's quit snowing, but it still looks like the roads might be slick. At least there won't be much traffic. Not like before."
Ruby drew a shuddering breath and bit her lip.
Joe touched her hand. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean--"
"I'm all right." She hated the tremor in her voice. "Don't worry about it."
He hesitated. When he spoke, his tone was matter-of-fact. "It's almost seven. I've got to get ready." He left her alone.
Ruby poured another cup of coffee and stared at the TV without listening. School closings ran across the bottom of the screen. Union Public Schools. Tulsa Tech. Saint Anthony's. That was the twins' school!
Ruby couldn't help grinning. That meant she'd have a whole day alone with them. What could be better? She'd missed them so. It was good to have something to look forward to.
Joe popped into the kitchen, hair slicked back and his necktie askew. He leaned down and kissed her. "I'm glad you're back." He strapped on an isolation face mask.
Before she could tell him the good news about the school closure, he said, "Maybe you and Alice can do something, now that you're home." The mask muffled his voice. "Gotta run. Love you." With a parting wave, he rushed out the door.
Alice. Ruby hadn't thought much about poor Alice since the funeral for her husband.
Ruby fixed breakfast for the twins while she still had gas and electric. She used syrup and sausages to draw happy faces on the waffles.
When she went to wake them, the door to their room was closed. Joe must have done that.
She pushed it open and announced, "Time to get up, my angels!"
Patches bounded into the room and settled in a sunbeam among the stuffed animals. Ruby pulled the covers back and said, "Rise and shine, sleepy heads. It snowed last night, and your school's closed. Eat breakfast and then you can play outside. Maybe sled down the hill, or make angels in the snow."
While the children ate, Ruby searched for their snowsuits. Men! She could trust Joe to put things in the wrong places while she was gone, but why put the twins' winter clothes in the attic? She couldn't find child-sized isolation masks, but decided it couldn't matter.
Mid-morning, just as Ruby finished pulling the last of her chocolate chip cookies from the oven, a knock rattled the back door. A glance outside told her it was Alice, bundled in a ruby-red overcoat and wearing a jaunty Tam-O'Shanter.
Ruby bustled to open the door and met a blast of arctic air. "Alice! It's so good to see you. Come in. Sit, and have cookies and coffee with me."
Alice stomped into the room, shedding snow, mittens, coat, and Tam.
Ruby looked away while Alice removed her isolation mask.
Alice spoke with infectious insouciance. "Great to see you, babe."
They settled at the table in the dining nook while Alice spent the next hour catching her up on gossip about friends and church.
Eventually, Ruby glanced outdoors and said, "The twins' school closed today. Children love snow days. Remember making snow angels?"
Alice frowned and stared into her coffee. Silence stretched before she stood. "This has been great, but I've got to go. I was in the middle of doing the payroll for Arbuckle's Grocery."
Ruby nodded. "You're so smart. I don't know how you do it."
"Necessity is the mother of...well, necessity, I guess. Had to do something after--" Her words quavered to a halt.
Ruby stood and hugged her. "I know. It's hard." She pushed away and gripped her friend by the shoulders. "You take care of yourself."
After Alice left, Ruby stepped outside and called, "Children, time to come in." Where were they? She walked to the swing set, where the twins had left behind two snow angels.
A gust of wind lifted her hair, and the back door slammed shut. That must be the twins, going inside. She rushed to fix lunch.
The day passed as she'd hoped, even though the electricity went off again. Lunch, then a game of Clue. Finally, she read the children a chapter from Alice in Wonderland.
While they napped, she fixed a cold dinner and set the table--four places, just like before.
It wasn't quite six when a car crunched into the driveway. That had to be Joe. Ruby wiped her hands on the apron and stepped to the living room to greet him.
Joe stripped off his mask and grinned. "Hi, honey! How was your day?"
"Wonderful. How about yours?"
"Well, it was work." His gaze fell on the snowsuits Ruby had left on the sofa. "Ruby, why are those out?"
"For the twins, of course. We had the best snow day together."
Joe collapsed at the dining table. "Ruby, what are you talking about?" His eyes widened when he looked at the dishes. "Why did you set four places?"
"Why, for us, of course. You, me, and the twins. Our little angels." Silly man.
Joe's face turned ashen, and his voice trembled. "Ruby, when the doctor sent you home, she said you were over this delusion."
She couldn't look at him. Fear chilled her stomach. She turned and stared out the window, at the swing set, searching for the evidence of things not seen. Yes, the snow angels were really there.
Tears pooled in Joe's eyes. "Ruby. Sweetheart. We lost the children to the epidemic months ago. Remember?"
Lost the children? Impossible. She'd been with them all day.
Ruby shuddered. Shards of memory lacerated her soul. A tear trickled down her cheek. Joe caressed her shoulder.
In the twilight, wind blew wisps of snow across two forlorn, child-sized snow angels imprinted in the drifts.
Soon, too soon, they would be gone.
Author remarks. The other problem with this story is tension. Ruby's goals are clear: a normal day at home with her twins. The problem is that there's not a lot of natural tension in having a normal day. To try to create at least some tension, I've tried to thread bits about failing infrastructure and hints of a return of the epidemic. There's also the visit with Alice, which ends with a reference to her husband's death--a reminder that death could come at any time during a plague.
Of course, readers will also discern many hints about the other obstacle to Ruby's goal before the reveal at the end, but I still wanted to maintain some semblance of suspense on that.
Finally, I wanted to at least suggest that Ruby spent the day with real angels when she looks for the "evidence of things not seen."
In addition to the length--a target set externally--this story presents challenges in that nothing much happens until the ending, and then then the ending tries to suggest two opposed explanations for the day. This may be too much for such a paltry tale.