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Ruby between the cracks, p.33
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       Ruby Between the Cracks, p.33

           P.D. Workman
 

  Chapter Twenty-Six

  THE NEXT FEW DAYS were nightmarish. They kept on the move, Max giving Ruby no chance for escape. He even got his hands on a pair of handcuffs to ensure that she couldn’t go anywhere. Ruby kept between him and Sheree, making sure that he couldn’t get his hands on her. Sleeping with Max made her sick, but Ruby refused to let him hurt Sheree.

  After a week or so, they finally stopped moving and Max rented a dirty little flat full of cockroaches and rats. There was no phone. No way to contact the outside world. Ruby had always refused to carry a cell. Max occasionally went out for supplies, but brought back more booze than food.

  Sheree cried a lot to begin with, but over time, she got listless, eating next to nothing, never talking, and not playing. She just lay around all day, uninterested in anything.

  Ruby despaired of ever getting away from Max, and felt herself sinking into deep, dark depression. More and more often, she found herself considering permanent solutions to getting herself and Sheree away from Max’s evil influence. Sheree was getting thinner and thinner, no longer a happy, bouncy baby who wanted to know about everything. Max used a straight razor, and Ruby found herself staring transfixed by it in the bathroom, thinking about using it to set herself and Sheree free from their captivity.

  Then Sheree got sick. Her forehead was burning hot, but her limbs were cold. She didn’t even look at Ruby when she was picked up. Ruby cradled Sheree, her chest suddenly tight. When she looked at Sheree, she saw Stella. Stella before she died. Sheree was going to die, and it would be Ruby’s fault again. Ruby took Sheree out to the front room where Max was watching TV. He didn’t look at her.

  “Sheree’s sick,” Ruby told him.

  “Too bad,” he grunted.

  “She needs a doctor.”

  “Kids get sick. She’ll be okay in a day or two.”

  “No,” Ruby protested, “she’s going to die!”

  Max looked at Ruby in amusement, taking a drink from the bottle in his hand. He looked at Sheree, listless, her pink cheek pressed against Ruby’s chest.

  “How gullible do you think I am? What’s she got, huh?”

  “I… I don’t know. But my other baby… she got sick and died!” Ruby’s voice rose as she tried to convince him.

  “Nice try, Ruby.”

  Max turned back to the TV. Ruby took Sheree back to the mattress they slept on and put her down gently.

  “You’re going to be okay, baby,” she soothed. “So that we can go back and see Charlie.”

  There were tears in Ruby’s eyes. She went into the bathroom and got a cold cloth and the razor, and sat back down beside the bed, watching over Sheree and sponging her hot face.

  Ruby didn’t realize she had fallen asleep sitting there, until a crash on the front door woke her with a start. There was shouting in the front room, and before Ruby could get up or look around, there were cops in riot gear at the door of the bedroom. They swarmed in, yelling at her to lie down and put her hands behind her head. Sheree whimpered. Ruby looked at the cops blankly, wondering if she too had a fever and was imagining this.

  “Get down!” one of them shouted, and Ruby obediently bellied down beside the mattress. One of them kicked the razor blade away from her, and landed his big boot in the middle of her back while another one screamed at her until she laced her hands behind her head and somebody grabbed her wrists and twisted her arms into handcuffs. They pulled her to her feet and hustled her out of the apartment and down the halls and stairs to the waiting squad cars. Max was being folded into another car. One of the cops was coming out of the building with Sheree in his arms. Ruby sighed in relief and leaned back, closing her eyes.

  Bates looked Ruby over. She’d lost weight since the last pictures were taken, and she’d been skinny even then. Ruby’s eyes were bruised hollows, her face painfully thin. She had an uncertain, sleepwalker air, as if she wasn’t quite sure where she was. They all knew now that Ruby had not been one of the kidnappers, but he had to interview her anyway, get as many details as he could about what had happened.

  Ruby stubbed her toe on the table as Bates maneuvered her into a chair. She had been taken from the apartment in her bare feet. But she didn’t seem to notice. She sat down acquiescently and didn’t look at Bates.

  “How are you feeling, Ruby?” he questioned.

  “Okay.”

  “Can I get you a coffee?”

  Ruby shrugged. Bates went to the door and had one of the officers go get one for her, then sat down across from Ruby.

  “Would you like to tell me what happened?” he said gently.

  There was no response.

  “Did you know Max was going after your daughter?” Bates questioned.

  “No... I just realized that he was gone...” Ruby shook her head, “and I had a feeling...”

  “A mother’s intuition?”

  “I guess.”

  “You didn’t know that he was the one who had been following you, watching your family?”

  “No. I should’ve,” she said in a harder voice. “Things he said.”

  “How did Terrace treat you?”

  She shrugged it off, not answering.

  “Ruby, did Terrace hurt you? Or Sheree?”

  “I didn’t let him near Sheree.”

  “And you?” Bates prompted.

  “I took care of her,” Ruby reiterated.

  “I know you did. You’re a good mom. Max had a gun?”

  Ruby nodded.

  “He threatened the two of you?”

  “Uh-huh.”

  “I’m sorry it took so long for us to track you down.”

  Ruby didn’t say anything. An officer came in with a cup of coffee, and Bates motioned to Ruby. He stood up and left the room, leaving Ruby to drink the coffee. Charlie was watching her on the monitor in the next room. He looked at Bates in concern.

  “Can I go talk to her?” he questioned.

  “Well, I don’t think she’s going to tell me anything.”

  “So I can?”

  Bates nodded.

  “Sure, go ahead.”

  Ruby looked up when the door opened again, and saw Charlie. She looked back down at the table, not wanting to meet his eyes. Charlie thought that she had taken Sheree. He thought that she had hurt Sheree, or let Max hurt her.

  “Ruby, are you okay?” Charlie whispered.

  Ruby glanced up, surprised by his tone of concern.

  “I’ve been so worried about you, baby.”

  “About Sheree,” Ruby corrected.

  “I’ve been worried about you, Ruby. Sheree too, of course. But you’re my girl. I didn’t know if I’d ever see you again.”

  Ruby looked at Charlie and met his eyes for the first time. He was telling the truth. She could see the pain and fear in his expression. A lump welled up in Ruby’s throat, and her eyes started to burn. She thought about holding the razor blade in her hand just hours earlier, despairing of ever returning to her life with him again.

  “I didn’t think I’d see you either,” she said lowly, trying to keep the tears out of her voice.

  Charlie took a few steps towards her, holding his arms out.

  “Ruby, honey...”

  Ruby got up and put her arms around him. They held each other close, so tightly it hurt. Tears welled up in Ruby’s eyes and flooded her cheeks. She couldn’t control them.

  “Sheree—is Sheree okay? Did you see her?” she begged.

  “I haven’t seen her yet,” Charlie murmured. “They took her straight to the hospital. But the doctor says she’s fine, just dehydrated and a bit of a fever. She’s sleeping comfortably.”

  “Not like Stella?” Ruby questioned, pulling back slightly to look up at his face, but still holding on.

  “What happened to Stella?”

  “She got sick... and she died.” Ruby swiped at the tears escaping her eyes.

  “Sheree will be home tonight. She’s just fine,” Charlie assured her.

  Ruby rubbed her fac
e in Charlie’s shoulder, soaking it with her tears.

  “Will I?” she questioned.

  “Will you be okay?”

  “Will I be home?”

  Charlie stroked Ruby’s hair, tipping her head back to look at her face.

  “Honey, you’re coming home with me right now. Why wouldn’t you?”

  “I didn’t know if...” Ruby couldn’t even put her fear into words.

  “You’re my sweetheart. You didn’t do anything wrong. I want you to come home.”

  Ruby hugged him again, hard and tight, trying to convince herself that this was real. That she was really back. She wasn’t going to wake up and find herself back in that living nightmare.

  “I didn’t think I could ever come back,” she whispered, her throat aching.

  “Sweetie…?” Charlie said.

  “Yeah?”

  “I want us to be together for good. You, me, and Sheree. I want us to be a family.”

  Ruby put her face against him again and nodded.

  “I do too.”

  “Do you?”

  Ruby nodded.

  “Ruby? Look at me for a second.”

  Ruby looked up at Charlie’s face. He kissed her lightly on the lips.

  “For good, Ruby. I want to know that you’re my girl. Just mine.”

  “I know.”

  “I want to be Sheree’s father.”

  Ruby nodded.

  “Okay.”

  Anything he wanted.

  “And I want to be your husband.”

  Ruby swallowed, staring at him, understanding finally dawning. She felt heat wash over her face.

  “You want... to get married?” she said finally.

  “Will you?” he questioned.

  Ruby nodded, unable to find her voice. Charlie grinned and hugged her tightly.

  “I’m sorry for how it’s been, Ruby. I’ve been so angry... I didn’t realize how much I was just afraid. I don’t want to risk losing you ever again. Ever.”

  Ruby was unable to slow the tears flooding down her face. A detached part of her brain observed that she should have been too dehydrated to cry anymore.

  “I never thought anyone would ever want to marry me,” Ruby said hoarsely.

  “I don’t ever want to lose you.”

  They hugged for a long time, just repeating those words. Finally, Charlie loosened his grip.

  “Let’s go get Sheree and go home.”

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  Preview of “June and Justin”

  JUSTIN WOKE UP GROGGILY. He kept trying to go back to sleep, but the persistent noises wouldn’t let him settle back in again. He rubbed his eyes, still disoriented at being wakened out of a heavy sleep. He tried to sort out the noises. He thought he could hear his mom’s and June’s voices, and running water. He looked over at the other bed, where June still usually slept, even though their parents had moved her to Ronnie’s old bed in Chloe’s room ages ago and didn’t want her sleeping with her twin. Girls and boys weren’t supposed to sleep in the same room anymore once they were school-age.

  But the night light provided the light that he needed to see that she hadn’t snuck back in. The bed was empty. Unslept in.

  Justin swung his feet over the side of the bed and crept down the hallway to the bathroom. His mom’s and June’s voices were more clear now, and the loud noise of water running into the bathtub. Justin turned the handle and opened the door silently to see what was going on. June was in the tub, their mother sitting on the edge, washing her. The woman turned around, maybe feeling a draft from the open door, or sensing that someone was there.

  “Justin. Go back to bed,” she ordered.

  Justin ignored the command.

  “What’s wrong?” he asked. “Is June sick?”

  “Yes. Now back to bed. Go back to sleep.”

  “Did she throw up?”

  “Bed. Now. You’re making it cold in here.”

  Justin looked worriedly at June. She was crying. She looked small and forlorn, like she was a toddler instead of eight. Her face was washed clean of the makeup that she had started to wear lately. Her dark hair, wet, straggled in rat’s tails down her back. Justin ran a hand through his own dark hair, shorter than June’s, but still long for a boy’s. June didn’t look at Justin. He wasn’t even sure that she was aware he was there. Their mom told June impatiently to hush, swishing the washcloth in the tub water and wiping the tears from her face.

  “Close the door,” she told Justin again, raising her voice but not turning around again.

  Justin withdrew and closed the door. He stood for a couple of minutes in the hallway with his ear pressed against the door, listening to June sob and their mother repeatedly shush her and tell her she was okay. Eventually, Justin turned around and returned to his room. He pulled the blankets over himself and curled up, trying to warm himself up again. He wiggled his toes under the pile of his old teddy bears and plushies to warm up.

  He lay there, listening to the sounds down the hallway, waiting for his mother to take June back to bed.

 
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