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Ruby



Ch. 01

Bastion

The room is dark and cold. I’m laying on my bed, in the same sweats as the day before. I’m too empty to crawl under the covers, so I lay there, cold, tired, and filled with too much sleep. I turn my head and look across the room.

On the opposite side of the room, tucked in the leg space underneath my desk, there is a small wooden crate I once used for apple picking. A thick plush blanket fills its interior, smushed down in the center by a series of cuddle filled nights. It used to be the warmest blanket in the house. Now, it’s cold too. The box's exterior is painted blue, with the name Ruby etched in red across it. I close my eyes and try not to think about it. It's no use. The images of her, of what they did to her, of what she did for me, and how I abandoned her, are all burned into mind. I think that maybe, if God doesn’t kill me for my cowardice, tomorrow I’ll avenge her. It’s a twisted thought, but it settles me enough to fall asleep.

Eventually the sun rises. There’s something healing about the morning light. Its warm glow offers a new mercy, a fresh opportunity, and a chance for a new beginning. But I look over at my best friend's bed and feel deep down in my core, that I cannot have a new start without her.

I sit up. These clothes have worked for the last two days. They’ll have to do for a third. I stand, and as soon as I do, my body wishes it was sitting. All the same, I keep standing, there’s business I have to take care of. I’m sorry, Ruby. I shouldn’t have run.

I brush my teeth, steal a few slices of meat from the fridge when my parents aren’t in the kitchen, and hurry off with my bag to the bus stop. It rained last night, and the grass of the forest between my house and the closest bus stop is thick with water. Mud sloshes onto the shins of my pants as I pass through it. 

Trees too are healing. Healing enough to make my anger turn into weeping. Healing enough to make me want to surrender the crusade and mourn the loss of my dog. Healing enough to make me think I have the strength to look for her. So I do.

I begin combing through the forest. I refuse to yell her name, lest I be heard by them. Who knows if they’re there already, waiting for me, at the stop. Who knows if they left her in the woods or took her somewhere. Who knows if I can find her. But I have to look.

I scan with my eyes, stepping quietly so as not to disturb her if she’s alive and hiding. The good news is, I smell like me. My clothes, too, are thick with my scent. Hopefully, if she’s out here, she’ll smell me coming and make herself known.

When I find her, my mourning is switched back with rage. A dead corgi in the woods. My dead corgi. Her fur is still soft as I scoop down to grab her. Her body is still small. Her face is still kind. But she’s not there. Her eyes are empty. Her body is swollen with bruises and cuts from stones thrown at her.

“Ruby,” I cry into her fur. All I can think is that I’m the animal that should have been put down. Not her. I squeeze her, hold her, and weep. Between sobs I listen, hoping against hope that somehow, she’s playing a prank on me. Relief never comes.

I miss the bus, so I walk to my school. It’s about an hour and a half away by foot, but I’m used to it, and prefer being alone. Today, the path is a harder one to take. Harder because all I can picture is how Ruby would normally walk it with me.

Eventually my mind returns to yesterday’s trek home. That memory is the inevitable destination of all my thoughts today. I remember how they chased me from the bus stop into the woods. I think about how they threw rocks at me. I remember how she appeared, biting, barking, and nipping; saving me. They were visibly scared of her for a minute. That was a good minute. But then, they started throwing stones at her too, and I kept running. Guilt weighs on my frame as I reflect on it.

As I wander through the cornfield nearest my school, I begin to wonder if I should take my life. End the misery. Plead with God for mercy. I wonder, would he see my suicide that way? Or as rebellion against the story I’m telling. But then it hits me, that if I take my life, I take the life Ruby died for. It’d be as if she died for nothing. To my shame, I feel she may have died for nothing anyway. I head into school.

Everyday is the same here. It’s hell. But at least in this hell, there are places to hide. Behind the curtains in the auditorium and in the second floor bleachers near the pool are excellent locations for lunch. Those moments are the closest I come to peace.

Sometimes, I pass my siblings in the hall. I don’t acknowledge them, because they don’t acknowledge me. I don’t meet their quota. I’m not smart enough, athletic enough, or good looking enough. I embarrass them. Take your pick. For each of these reasons, I’m dead to them.

I see them. I see the trio that killed my dog. They’re standing in front of my locker, laughing. They’re waiting for me. I decide that I don’t need my books today. I go to class without them.

On my way there, I pass by Ervie Scuttlemire. A weak and small kid with a bad name. Maybe the only name worse than mine in the whole building. I look at him, and I see everything my family, my peers, and my school hates. I see me. I see an opportunity to maybe belong to the community. A chance to not have rocks thrown at my head anymore. The thoughts take over. I want to hurt this kid. I want him to bleed.

“Hey, Ervie,” I call to him as I walk his way.

“Hey, Seabass,” he answers, looking my way through his wide rimmed glasses.

I jab my fist into his nose. He falls over, blood and tears coming out. I don’t feel better. Maybe that part comes later. I look up to see if I belong. Faces stare at me with shock and disgust. The pack that killed my dog walks by, bumping into me.

“You’re a dick, Seabass,” one of them mocks as they go on their way. Another of them is careful to step on Ervie’s hand.

I look back at the kid I just assaulted. I really am an animal that should be put down.

“I’m sorry,” I mutter. He stares at me, crying, mouth cupping his hand. I walk away.

School ends and I begin making my way home. I manage to get to my bus this time, and am purposeful about sitting in a seat that’s one ahead of the wheel wells, so that no one sits behind me. I put my earbuds in and play music on my phone, staring out the window until it’s my turn to get off.

I wish I could tell you that I was in a hurry to get home. But that only happens on days when I’m chased with rocks. Home is the hell with no hiding places. So instead, I take my time in the forest. I go back to my dog. I go to bury her.

When I return to where I found her body this morning, she’s not there. There is, however, a ring of rocks around the spot, and red clay, drawing out a series of overlapping lines within the circle. I wonder if the sigil was there before and I hadn’t noticed. Maybe my tormentors from school used her corpse for some satanic ritual last night.

The stress in my stomach starts to give me a headache. I feel dizzy, as if I’m going to pass out. I look to the trees for comfort, but instead, they’ve brought forth a man. 

He’s long and lean. His skin and his hair are unusually white. His eyes and his clothes are unsettlingly dark. His aesthetic and posture is that of a dark elf, from the stories I love to read.

“Who are you?” I question, backing up a step. My words slur a little. There’s too much spit in my mouth.

“My name is Malthel,” he answers. He crosses his arms, and as he does, I notice the sharp shaved nails on his long nimble fingers. “I have your dog.”

The words change how I feel. The sickness of mourning is once again lost to anger. “Give her back,” I demand.

“I will,” he tells me, “provided you can demonstrate you care about her.” He smiles. His mouth too is full of contrast, a bold white set of teeth set against a sickly pink and gray pair of gums.

Ch. 02

Bastion

“What do you mean?” I ask the menacing wanderer.

“I’m not just going to give your dog back to you,” the pale figure answers. You left her for dead, and not a natural death either.”

I stare at him. All the shame I could feel has already been sucked out of me, so his words do not cut me further. Instead, it almost feels like I’m passively watching television.

“What do you have in mind?” I investigate.

“What do you mean?”

“You said that I need to prove I care about my dog. How?” The visitor smiles, sharp white teeth, stained with a gradient yellow foam with saliva.

“Your dog put herself in danger for you. Now you will put yourself in danger for the dog.”

“How?”

“You will retrieve an item for me. A stick as white as snow.”

“A dogwood?”

“No, a specific stick, in the Felmore Estate’s graveyard. Tucked between gravestones. And if I were you, I’d go now.”

“And what’s the danger? Trespassing?”

“In part, certainly. But for the rest,” he runs his tongue over his teeth, “you’ll have to see. Just be sure to be back here, before dark.”

My eyes watch his. There’s a wicked delight in their yellow glow.

“And if I don’t?” I ask, hoping to push my fate into a more favorable position. The stranger in black shrugs his bony frame. “Then it appears I will have a new dog. It’s Ruby right?”

His words make acid burn in my stomach. My girl is alive, and I can have her back. Whatever it costs, she deserves to be cared for. She deserves to be with someone who loves her. And despite my failings, I do love her.

“I'll get your stick,” I grunt at him. “Meet me back here, tonight.”

“Very well,” he nods. “Not too late, young calf. Not too late.”

I turn from Ruby’s captor, Ruby's savior, and begin pacing my way toward the Felmore Estate. The thought pierces my heart, to think that this man, visibly a monster, may be a kinder soul to her than I. The sting grows as I consider what his continued kindness to her may cost me.

I pass between houses, careful to stay in the shade. The shadow of trees especially, has always felt like a friend to me. Still, the corners of houses and the dark space between fences make for helpful tools as well. Only in their case, they’ll turn me over to their masters if I’m found. The trees of the forests, the parks, and the ones along the sidewalk take no side. They stand in solidarity with me. They cover me.

I reach the edge of one of the common housing districts in town. Its border is marked by a railway. I take a left and follow it. Its steel lines tear through a stream of small rocks. The stones don’t seem to mind.

The railway passes by fewer and fewer houses, then more and more woods, until finally it opens up onto rolling green hills. It is on these hills that the Felmore Estate dwells. The estate, similar to the other houses on the hilly horizon, is thick and tall, bursting with rooms. Felmore is most probably the oldest of them. At least, it looks the oldest.  It’s a Victorian style house. Generations have grown old behind its purple siding. Its character and history make it beautiful, and frightening. Fortunately, there are patches of large trees between it and I. There is not enough to cover me for most of the journey. Still, it makes me feel less alone. I stride to the first set, and then to the next, making my way to the Felmore manor. In the shadow, I notice small clumps of grass darker than the others. At the third patch, I lean down and run my fingers through the darker grass. The regions of my fingers that pass over them feel cool. I raise my hand to my face. I see nothing, but I smell blood.



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