Second Runner Up! - A woman in mourning shaken to her core by a surprise delivery.
|Ruby shrieked like a cougar caught in a snare as she threw the tea kettle at the television. She heard the shrapnel from the shattered screen tink-tink-tink into the crevices among the landfill of dishes in the sink. Samson, her cat, fled from the room with a howl. Having expelled every wisp of breath from her lungs, she collapsed back into the chair. She felt a slight squish, and her sweatpants stuck slightly to the jam when she lifted herself up from the remains of her toast. She slumped back down in defeat. At this point… she thought, letting the end of the sentence dissipate.
Her elbows dug into the woven fiber placemat as she jabbed her fingertips into her temples. A shaky gasp filled her lungs with bitter, too-hot air. Warm, salty springs trickled down her forearms as her hands moved to her eyes.
I’m so tired of crying. I feel so empty. How are there still tears left to cry?
She wiped the fresh beads of sweat from her forehead with the unbuttoned sleeve of her flannel, followed by a swipe of her eyes and nostrils, upper lip and under-chin. It was a familiar routine. The tears and snot re-moistened the already crusted fabric and she huffed with tired disgust.
She looked up at the television (or what was left of it) and felt a sharp sting of shame ignite in her chest like a struck match. Oddly enough, she could still see the outer edges of the “breaking coverage” that had begged her to serve the television a hot cup of tea. The droning, nasally voice of the newscaster still insisted on piercing her throbbing skull with its commentary through the speakers. She stabbed at the power button on the remote and threw it back onto the table.
She stared at the tv, now slightly capsized backward into the splash guard tiles. The kettle (still embedded in the center of the screen) reflected the aftermath back at her with a scolding tone. She saw herself in the center of the reflection, the room warped around her like Escher’s Glass Ball.
It’s been 3 goddamn weeks and they’re still feasting on this corpse of a story. Fucking vultures. Who gives a shit? It can’t be undone. No one really cares. They just keep talking and talking and TALKING ABOUT IT to make themselves feel better because “at least it wasn’t me”. That’s what everyone really thinks after a tragedy like this. They’ll never admit it, but it’s true. “So awful,” they’ll say, pulling their kids closer to them on the couch and kissing the top of their heads. “I’m so glad it wasn’t us…” they think as they binge on the pain of others.
The tears sprang up again, stinging her raw, chapped eyelids. She remembered when she used to be the one pulling Alex closer to her on the couch as they watched the ongoing coverage of one of the most recent school shootings. Thank god it wasn’t her, she would think with a twinge of guilt, knowing that someone else had lost a child. I couldn’t imagine…
She didn’t have to imagine any longer.
Just as she had begun to melt from her chair onto the floor, there was a BANGBANGBANG on the door in rapid succession. She spasmed and smacked her forehead hard on the edge of the glass dining table. “GAAUUGGHH” she growled, placing her hand on the already forming knot. It pulsed as the blood rushed to the scene of the crime. She used her other shirt sleeve as temporary gauze and tried to stifle the panic that had clenched her heart into a fist. The last time someone knocked on the door like that…
She stomped to the door. She barely had the knob turned completely when she jerked the door open, sunlight exploding into her face and illuminating just enough of the house to remind her how disgusting it was. “WHAT,” she demanded. The assailant stood, rigid and speechless. The young man looked like a frightened little boy in a too-big tan ballcap and a matching shirt/shorts combo.
“Sorry...uh...Miss...I mean…” he paused, swallowing hard. “Ruby White?”
“Yeah,” she softened, her shoulders slumping slightly as she deflated a bit. She reached out to take the little handheld device and scribbled her name onto the screen. In doing so, she had taken her sleeve from her forehead. She felt the blood start to trickle downward.
“Whoa...are you ok lady? Do you need me to call someone?” He rubber-necked to one side to look around her into the house, trying to identify the source of her injury. His eyebrows had sprinted down from the middle of his forehead and scrunched into a thin line above the bridge of his nose. His bony shoulders broadened and his chest expanded in a show of imagined strength and implied brutality.
He looks like a puffed-up tan little bird about to stomp around in a circle, she thought. No Knight In Shining Armor is gonna fix this one, pal.
“I’m fine,” she snarled, reaching for the small brown parcel that was tucked under his armpit. He quickly lifted his arm like a chicken wing as she plucked it, reinforcing the mental bird image.
“Alright, well if you need-” She slammed the door behind her, already walking back into the kitchen.
“What the hell is this?” She turned the dijon-mustard-colored mailer over in her hands and scraped up the flat metal prongs with her fingernails, pinching them together to release the top flap. She pulled a book from the orange shadows into the morning sunlight that was now forcing its way through the shades. She rubbed her hands over the textured leather cover of the 8x8 volume. She bobbed it up and down in her hands, getting a feel for the significant weight of it.
Did I order something, before… No. Probably some sympathy gift meant to “lift my spirits in this trying time” she mocked, her lips curling sarcastically as she mumbled. Like some trashy romance could make her forget her daughter was dead. She flipped the empty mailer over to inspect the shipping label.
SENDER: EVELYN WHITE
She brushed the crumbs from the placemat and unwound the leather cord that was woven around the cover, setting it on the table and cracking it open. It didn’t have that familiar new book crunch. The thick spine gently gave way as the front cover landed with a thunk on the table.
She stared at the first cover page, blank except for an inscription scribbled in pencil. The letters were large and scrawling, inappropriate kerning between each letter and word. Ruby’s brain almost refused to translate the words scratched into the dense paper with the pressure only a small child would think necessary. She ran her fingers over the page, feeling the impression of the strokes that had formed the words.
A L E X WH I TE , AGE9, GRA D E 3
Ruby still hadn’t allowed herself to enter the moment. She imagined Alex, a familiar sight with her tongue pressed against her top lip, eyes squinting, fingertips white at the point where they squished into the pencil. She remembered how she used to get so frustrated when she heard her sharpening a new pencil because she knew it meant she had snapped another one in half.
“Hey now, those don’t grow on trees ya know!” she’d joke from the next room.
Plup, plup-plup. 3 drops of blood splashed onto the page, snapping Ruby back into reality.
“Shit.” She snapped her arm back up to her forehead and tried to soak up the blood from the page with her other sleeve. It was still wet and the paper started to roll into damp little roly-polies as she started rubbing frantically at it. “SHIT.” She stopped scrubbing the stain and ran to the sink, twisting the cold water knob. She flung enough dishes onto the counter to be able to get her forehead under the faucet. Holding her tangled hair back with one hand, she touched the left side of her forehead to the cool stream. She watched as pink water circled the drain, and let some of the heat from her stress fever escape with it under the flow. When the water was clear again, she grabbed a dish towel and tentatively dabbed at the wound and the skin around it, then applied pressure with a wince. When she felt like enough time had passed, she picked up a pan to use as a mirror and analyzed the damage.
It feels worse than it looks, she decided. She looked back over her shoulder at the book on the table. What is Alex’s handwriting doing in a book I’ve never seen before? Where did mom get this? Why am I just now seeing it?
She dragged herself back to the table and sat down in front of the book. Too shocked and full of questions to cry, she turned the page. A folded piece of stationery was tucked into the crease of the main title page. She opened the note cautiously.
I had to wait until I thought you wanted an escape from the pain. It’s time to stop torturing yourself, even if just for a little while. I hope this can bring you at least a glimmer of peace. This was her favorite bedtime story when she stayed with me. She loved it so much, she decided it shouldn’t have ended, so she kept it alive in her own way. I had it rebound. You’ll see why.
I love you,
Ruby stilled her trembling hands over her lips, taking shallow breaths through the gaps between her fingers. The title was not one she recognized, but beneath it, below the author’s byline, it continued “A ND ALEX !!!” in the same blundering script. Ruby let exactly 5 tears fall onto the page before she sucked the rest of them back in and returned them to the well in her chest. She turned the page and began to read.
“ONCE upon a time,”
It was your standard fairytale for the most part. A beautiful princess needing rescued, a handsome prince to whisk her away to their happily ever after. But it differed from most, in that there was real adventure between the lines. The princess had gotten herself into most of the trouble she was in due to a lively, cantankerous spirit and a thirst for danger. That sounds familiar, Ruby chuckled to herself as she followed the princess through her shenanigans. She was legitimately shocked to hear the sound escape her mouth. She looked around the room as if expecting it to have come from someone else in the room. It was the first time she had laughed since…
Ruby was a bit confused when the story seemed to be coming to an end, and yet she hadn’t even made it a third of the way through the pages in the book. Sure enough, she came to the large, decorative calligraphy that signified THE END a few pages later. But it had a single line through the middle of the words, carved in red crayon. Below, it said “NOT yET !” She turned the page. The pages that had been the standard glossy picture-book paper up to this point suddenly switched to blue and red lined notebook paper. It had been carefully trimmed around the edges to match the size of the previous pages.
A splash of color and the smell of crayon wax floated up to her face. The top half of the pages held a painstakingly crafted scene of a certain princess (clearly labeled with P R I N C E S S E L L A and an arrow pointing at her head) flying away from a castle spire on the back of a tiger wearing a tutu. The bottom half of the pages held a dense stack of much smaller letters than before, carefully squished together and neat as possible so as to fit them all in the space allowed. “BUT WAIT, THER IS MOAR!” it began.
Ruby devoured each and every page, slowly caressing every illustration and every word with trembling hands. Her fingers were coated in pink, red and green crayon wax smudges after a short while.
At a certain point, she noticed it was getting harder to make out the words and she looked up at the window. It was pitch black. She looked at the clock on the microwave and was a bit surprised. She had been reading by the ambient light from the living room for the past few hours, apparently. She reached behind her to flip on the kitchen light and kept reading. She hadn’t eaten much in the past few weeks, so her stomach barely protested, knowing she probably wouldn’t respond if it did.
She continued to drink in every word, every drawing, every hilariously unexpected twist that only Alex could have thought up. SUPPRIZ ! THE CAT WAS HER STUPID BORTHER ALL ALONG !” Eventually, she was no longer shocked by the sound of her own laughter. The laughs were deep and loud, coming from a place in her gut she had only used for violent sobs for the last two weeks. The muscles were sore, but it felt good to stretch them this way.
Just as the shades began to take on a blue tint with the rising light, she stopped. She had reached a page that was blank except for the words “T H E E ND !!!”. Ruby’s heart slowly sank back into her stomach. But the pages… There were still so many more pages. And then her eyes traveled down the page to a slightly smaller, pencil scrawled note.
(N OT RELLY! ITS YOR TURN NOW !)
The rest of the pages were blank. Tears began to stream hot and fast down the path they had carved in Ruby’s cheeks. But these tears were different. They felt cleansing. The well was starting to drain, and it wasn’t filling back up as quickly.
She closed the book carefully and held it to her chest. Suddenly the realization of complete and utter exhaustion settled over her. She got up and trudged mindlessly to her bedroom, clicked the door shut behind her, and collapsed onto her bed. She pulled the book close to her chest like a teddy bear, and slowly sank into unconsciousness.
Ruby sat up in bed, not sure if she had heard the sound in a dream, or in reality.
Reality it is I guess… She placed the book on her pillow and silently got out of bed.
She turned the knob slowly, heartbeat hammering away in her neck, and opened the door.
Samson lazed in a sunbeam on the bookshelf in the hallway, his tail happily swaying side to side with no regard for anything in its path. Ruby relaxed with a sigh.
Samson, you big dumb idiot. You’re spare parts, aren’t ya bud? She walked over and lovingly picked him up from the shelf. She forgot how good it felt to bury her face in his fur. She paused her nuzzling and looked at the floor to asses the damage wrought by Samson The Careless Destroyer. As usual, there were a few stray books, but there was also an old can that still had its label for sweet green peas loosely wrapped around its perimeter, and 6 crayons scattered at her feet. She dropped Samson and scooped them up one by one, smiling as she walked back to her bedroom, Samson prancing closely behind.