“You’re a good girl, Ruthie,” Ma says, placing hands on my arms. She’s looking at them—really looking at them—for the first time in longer than I can remember. “You’ve always been a good girl.”
The cadenced beeping of her heart monitor rises up from the background noise of the ward, intrusive, and it seems to me that the lights are getting brighter in the room, so bright it’s making my eyes water. It feels like I’m the fragile one, like she’s gonna crush me into pieces while examining my scars.
She asks about them, of course.
“When’d you get these?” she whispers. She sounds concerned, but weak, and I know she’s not gonna make it through the next few days.
“I don’t remember, Mama. It was a long time ago,” I answer, lying, but the memories are welling up in my mind after all the years. I’ve never been all that good at keeping them buried.
“You came back to see me, Ruthie,” she says. “You’ve always been the best girl.”
I don’t go by Ruthie any more, but I don’t correct her. There’s old anger inside of me, even though I know there shouldn’t be. It’s not her fault that she’s getting names and places mixed up, but I’m still feeling mad because it’s not like she was ever around, not since Dad left us behind. How would she know if I was good or not, anyway? So there it is—it’s been stewing deep down inside of me for almost two decades-along with all those memories of the bad winter.
Here she is, dying before my eyes, and it’s taking all I’ve got not to walk out the door, leaving her to wither away, alone. There’s too much guilt, too many years between us.
I pull my arm away from her, like I’m saying what’s mine is mine and it’s none of her business.
“I want you to know that I feel bad about making us leave Arbor Park, Ruthie,” she says, looking at my face now.
God, she’s so old, so small and worn down by life, and I can see myself in her shadow. I feel afraid of the day when I’m in her place, knowing there’s not gonna be anybody at my bedside while I lie wasting away, forgotten. I know she’s in bad shape too, ‘cos we never talk about Arbor Park. I wonder how long she’s been holding on to that.
I want to tell Ma that I feel bad about how things ended in Arbor Park, just like she does. I want to tell her why I feel that way, that I’m angry but she’s not the one to blame. I want to tell her why I stopped talking to her, but I don’t think she’ll understand me. I don’t think she’ll even hear me. I close my eyes and concentrate on the droning buzz of the hospital. I take a deep breath of the recycled, antiseptic air and I reflect on the times leading up to when we left.
There was a day before the bad winter, right around Thanksgiving. That’s when everything started to shift, the beginning of one of those life-changing phases that happen to everyone, obvious in retrospect, but at the time, a struggle. I was fifteen and excited about the holidays and school break. I’d been babysitting for the neighbors, late at night, but it was a Friday so not that big of a deal. When I came home, I found Ma sitting at the kitchen table with a bottle of Dad’s bourbon, a half-smoked cigarette dangling from her fingers, and this blank look in her eyes. My first thought was that Dad had been in an accident or something.
“Mama, what’s the matter?” I asked, cautiously, letting my backpack drop to the floor.
It took her a minute to answer, like she didn’t even know I’d come in the room. She didn’t look at me; she just told me that Dad wasn’t coming home again. Like part of her was gone, checked out even, and I wasn’t all that sure of how to deal with that, especially since she’d said it like it wasn’t even that big of a deal. So I went to my room, the one Dad added to the basement.
I closed the door, and I cried for days.
Ma never once came to check on me that first week, and by the end of it I’d cut myself a few times—just to make sure I was still alive, you know, nothing serious, nothing all that deep. I just wanted to feel something concrete, make myself feel something that I had control over, and I happened to have a sharp enough pair of scissors to serve that purpose. The scissors were a gift from Helen, the first time that I’d been to her house.
I should have stayed home that day; I should have stayed in that dark add-on room in the basement that was so much like a prison.
“I want to show you something,” Helen said, opening a door to stairs that led up to an attic. “You can’t tell anyone about this place,” she’d warned me.
“Of course I won’t, Helen,” I assured her. “Your secret’s safe with me.”
“Promise me. Swear on your mother’s life,” she demanded, blocking the doorway.
I didn’t think anything of it, you know. We were kids. Kids say things like that all the time, don’t they? So I promised her; I swore on my mother’s life. We went up the stairs and passed through a second doorway into a room filled with scissors.
“What’s with all the scissors?” I asked, looking inquisitively over the hundreds of types of scissors hanging from the rafters by strings and wires. The walls were a solid mass of sharp metal shears, layered so thick I couldn’t see the plaster or boards behind them. Several light bulbs hung from the ceiling in different parts of the room, casting ominous shadows that stretched across the worn hardwood floor.
“These are for you,” she said, handing me a black, medium sized pair of expensive-looking scissors. I studied them for a moment then placed them in my pocket.
“Thanks,” I said. “But really, where’d you get all of these scissors?”
“This place is magic,” she said, avoiding my question. She pointed to a circle drawn with chalk on the floor that I hadn’t noticed. “If you close the door, stand in the circle, and wish to go anywhere in the world, this room can make it happen, as long as I’m with you.”
I laughed at her. I thought she was joking.
“Your room’s really cool, Helen, but don’t expect me to believe that kind of kid stuff.” She scowled, tilting her head down, her eyes dark.
“Why wouldn’t you believe me?” she whispered.
“Because you’re talking about magic. Fairy tales. It’s just make-believe.”
A part of me wanted it to be real. I wanted to think that such a thing were possible. There were so many places I’d never seen, so many places that I knew I’d never travel to. Ever since I was little, Ma said I’d always be a small town girl, that I’d never get away from it. There were so many places I’d heard stories about that seemed better than Arbor Park.
“Let me show you, then,” Helen said, taking my hand in hers. Her touch was electric and exciting. I didn’t want her to let go, so I followed behind her. She closed the door and led me into the circle.
“You have to close your eyes,” she informed me, reaching for a pair of scissors that were hanging nearby, so I did.
Suddenly, I felt a sharp pain in the palm of my hand.
“You cut me!” I snatched my hand away from her, watching the bright blood well up from the slice in my palm and drip to the floor.
“Why?!” I exclaimed, stepping away from her, confused and angry.
“It’s not that deep. I’m sorry. I had to do it to make this work,” she explained, reaching into her pocket for a handkerchief.
Had she planned this?
“Where was it that you wanted to go?” she asked, changing the subject. Perhaps hoping to distract me from the drops of blood as they fell to the floor. “New York? Paris? Tokyo? Somewhere exotic?”
“Home,” I answered, snatching the handkerchief from her hands and wrapping it around mine. Any place but the attic.
I opened the door to the stairs and part of me still hoped that Helen’s magic had worked, that we’d somehow been whisked away to another land, to one of the great cities that I’d always read about in magazines, where movie stars and rich people spend their days. I wanted to feel the sunshine blasting in through the doorway, blinding and warm, to hear sounds I’d never heard before.
But outside it was still Arbor Park.
It was the same cold, overcast sky, dumping out the seemingly endless drizzle that soaked through everything I wore.
“I’m sorry, Ruthie,” she apologized, reaching out for me without leaving the circle. Her lithe fingers stretched towards me, and despite the pain she’d caused, I wanted to feel them on my skin.
“It’s okay, Helen. I’ll talk to you later on. I need a couple of days,” I said as I walked down the stairs. “I’ll let myself out.”
I look down at my arms, seeing the scars Ma was asking about. Scars that came later, on the week we left town, right before spring but still cold enough that I could wear long-sleeved shirts and sweaters to cover my arms. The cut in my palm and the cuts that I’d given myself had never really left any marks.
“What happened in Arbor Park’s not your fault, Mama,” I say to her. “It was a long time ago. I don’t even think about it anymore.” I lie to her again. I think about Arbor Park all the time. I think about the day that we left and how Helen cried when I told her that I could never see her again. That I never wanted to see her again. Sometimes, though, it feels like she’s near, a shadow just out of sight in a dark room, watching me, or in a crowded place, standing still, studying my movements.
“Still, Ruthie,” Ma says, “I know you and that little girl were good friends. I shouldn’t have made you split up how I did,” She hesitates a moment, licking her thin lips. I reach for the cup of water on her bed stand, but she shakes her head dismissively. Her voice is so quiet, like she’s breathing out a little life with each word she whispers. “It’s just that I was trying to look out for you, best as I could, and that girl was leading you down a path I knew you’d get hurt on.”
I sigh, assuming that it’s because Helen and I are both girls, assuming she was worried about what people in such a small town would say. You know how small towns are; rumors take hold and spread like wildfire.
Ma was right, though. Helen was a troublemaker and a bad influence, but she couldn’t have known about the trouble we’d almost gotten into because we’d never been caught. Once Dad was gone and Ma wasn’t around so much, after Helen apologized for what happened in the attic and I’d forgiven her, we set out against the world. Rebels. Destroyers. I followed her lead. The way I saw it was that Arbor Park owed me for taking my Dad away from me, and in turn, for taking my Ma, too. Helen was just the one who opened the doors, who helped put the ideas into motion.
All of our angst culminated on a night in late February when we found ourselves outside of the Parrish family’s barn. Rumors around town were that the barn was haunted by the ghost of Old Johnny Parrish who committed suicide by hanging himself from the rafters years and years before, and we’d decided it was a good idea to investigate. When we arrived, the only thing we could see through the cracks in the walls were a couple of rusted-out cars under rotting tarps inside.
“Let’s torch it,” Helen said. The moonlight fell across her face, making her blonde hair appear illuminated from within. She took a lighter out of her pocket and placed it in my hand.
“I brought one for each of us,” she said, producing another. Her eyes glimmered and she smiled for a moment.
I returned her smile. When I think about it, she was the only one that I ever smiled for.
When I was with her, I felt like I could be myself; I was as happy as it was possible for me to be, because all of the other things just faded away. When I was with her it didn’t matter that Ma was gone all the time. It didn’t matter that Dad had abandoned us. Helen cared about me. She actually listened to what I had to say, and that was enough to make me forget about all the garbage in the rest of my life.
Helen believed in living in the moment.
“Yesterday doesn’t matter,” she said. “Tomorrow doesn’t matter. There’s only now. This minute.” She put her hand over my heart, touching my chest, and I wondered if she could feel my pulse increasing, if she noticed that I was holding my breath. “Let’s set this relic on fire.”
I shook my head, finding my voice.
“We shouldn’t,” I said. “We could get caught. We could get into a lot of trouble for this. Besides, there’s a horse living in there.” I’d just noticed the horse, standing in one of the stalls. I assumed it had been sleeping, that we had woken it with our intrusion.
Helen looked at me for a long moment, her eyes searching mine for an answer, evaluating whether I was serious or not. Whatever she saw must have convinced her to back down. I wondered if she could see that I loved her. I still wonder. Was she remembering the time in her attic, just a few months before when she’d cut me, and how I’d made her promise never to betray my trust again?
She looked inside the barn, between some of the loose boards, trying to locate the horse.
“Yeah, you’re probably right.” She put the lighter back into her pocket, and I did the same with mine. Maybe we should have burned that old barn down. Maybe burning the barn down and being caught would have been better for us both.
“Let’s go see this horse,” she suggested, and we crept into the barn.
The horse could have been white, but might have been gray. It was hard to tell in the darkness. The sporadic moonlight coming in through the holes in the roof made it seem like it had an otherworldly glow. We were standing next to this impossibly beautiful creature, and my thoughts flashed back to Helen’s hair. I wondered what it would feel like if it brushed across my skin.
“We can live forever, you know,” Helen said, stroking the horse’s mane. It stirred a little, but didn’t seem to mind that we were there.
“What are you talking about?” I asked, mesmerized by the magnificent animal in front of us. “A creature so beautiful shouldn’t be locked in a barn. We should release her. She deserves to know what freedom is.”
“We need the horse to stay right where it is. I’ve done this before,” she stated, then digressed. “You know, I’m older than you think. You can live forever with me. If you want.”
I was used to Helen speaking figuratively by then. She had a fantastic imagination, and there were more than a few times when I wondered if her imagination was crossing over into her reality and she didn’t realize it. I’d laughed dismissively at her ideas in the attic. I chose to play along again.
“How is that possible? Did you find the fountain of youth or something?”
“Something like that. Take my hand,” she insisted, reaching out for me.
I took her hand into mine, waiting. My pulse quickened. Any excuse for contact with her was a good one. Every time we touched, butterflies sprung up inside of me.
“You’ve never told anyone about the scissors, have you?” she asked. I shook my head.
“No, no. I never told anyone.” I would never betray her.
“You have to promise me, again, that you won’t tell anyone about this. These are our secrets, not theirs,” she demanded. “If you tell, I’ll never forgive you.”
Yes, yes. I promised. The secrets are safe. Our secrets are safe. Just keep holding my hand, I thought. Just don’t let go. In that moment, I didn’t care what she was talking about. My feelings for her were forbidden. I wasn’t supposed to want the things that I wanted from a girl, and that made me want them even more. All of our secrets are safe, I thought. Any secret you want to have, Helen.
She closed her eyes and tightened her grip. My palm was sweating, even in the cold February air. I watched as she placed her hand on the horse’s chest, running her fingers across its hair.
Then, without warning, without a sound, the horse dropped to the ground. I stepped back, horrified.
“What just happened?” I asked, falling to my knees next to the horse, checking to see if it was breathing. It wasn’t. “What did you do?”
She smiled at me in a strange way, and all of my desire from a moment before turned into fear and revulsion. Suddenly, I was afraid of her in a way I’d never been, in a way I’d never thought possible.
“It didn’t feel any pain,” she told me. “It didn’t even know what happened.” Still smiling, she took a step towards me, and I took another step away.
“Is it… it’s dead, isn’t it?” I asked. I didn’t understand how it had happened, but the beautiful and peaceful creature was dead. I don’t know what she had done to it, or how any human could have the power to take a life with nothing more than the brush of a hand, but the undeniable truth was on the ground before me. Beauty had fallen at my feet, as if to convey a message from some higher force—Helen was dangerous.
I had to get away.
“It’s just a transfer of energy,” Helen reasoned with me, seeing my horror. “I gave us a few extra years. It’s a gift, and I did it for you. For us. Like I said, we can go on, forever.”
I took another step back, bumping into one of the rusted-out cars. I didn’t want to take my eyes off her as she continued her advance.
“This isn’t right, Helen,” I said. “You killed it, just like that. Can you do that to anything? To anyone? To me?” I felt a chill suddenly creeping up and out of my gut.
“This is the cycle of life. People kill animals all the time so that they can eat. So that they can live longer. I’ve just found a way to do that better. You’ll understand as time goes on. Come over to me.”
She took another step towards me and touched my shoulder. I shoved her arm away.
“This is too much,” I said. “First the scissors, now this. You’re scaring me,” When I said that, she stopped her advance, and I knew I’d hurt her feelings, but I continued. “I don’t want to be here with you. I don’t think we should be friends anymore.”
“You can’t walk away from me. Not now. You promised me. You made a lot of promises to me, Ruth,” she said in a threatening tone. “When you love someone, you don’t leave them, no matter what.”
I hesitated. Dad left Ma and they both left me. Did they love me? Had I done something that made their hearts change in an instant, something awful like Helen had done? Had I committed some crime I wasn’t aware of, something so terrible that they had to get away from me?
I brush a few stray hairs from Ma’s face. Her skin feels thin and breakable as my fingers move across it. She closes her eyes, but keeps talking.
“I know about all the things you two were up to,” she says. “Things you think were pranks, but that’s how it always starts. It always leads to bigger things; leads to worse things. I saw the way you looked at her. I knew you’d follow her wherever she went, and I had to step in, because she would’ve done the same for you, and I’m sorry for that.”
How could Ma have known? While I’m angry, I’m also sad for her. I’m sad that I never told her that leaving Arbor Park is what I wanted. Instead I put all my anger, resentment, and fear for wanting that onto her. I’m sad because we’ve both lived without speaking to each other, each of us alone, for so many years, and because I was too cowardly to tell her the truth about what was happening, about what had happened right before we left.
I’m still too cowardly to tell her, even while she’s dying two feet away.
“I’ll always be with you,” Helen said, pulling a gleaming pair of scissors out of her jacket pocket.
“Helen, I’m serious. You killed the horse,” I pointed to the lifeless animal. “You’re really scaring me, acting like this. I think we need to get you some help.”
“You’re all the help I need. Just don’t leave me,” she said, and started to cry.
I stood my ground. My feelings had changed; all the attraction and kinship I’d felt for her just hours before had somehow shifted into loathing. She had taken the life of an animal without hesitation, and I feared what she could do to me if she chose to.
“No,” I insisted. “I really can’t do this. I don’t want to see you again. I’m going home.”
I started walking away without turning my back to her. She stood still, next to the abandoned car, watching me go. I was almost halfway home when she caught up to me.
“I’ll make you regret this,” she hissed, coming up behind me on the street. She said it with such finality, with such venom, I couldn’t reply.
Then she lashed out at me with her scissors.
I tried to block her lunges, holding up my arms, but the blades cut through my sleeves, opening gashes in my arms. I fell to the ground, screaming at her.
“Stop, please stop! Please don’t do this,” I begged, but she kept stabbing. The scissors tore at my skin, slicing deep into my muscles. The blades connected with bone, and she kept pushing into me. I curled into myself, crying in a way I’d never cried before. The sounds coming from my mouth were inhuman, animal. Like they were coming from somewhere far away from me. I stopped resisting her, and she finally stopped slashing at me.
“If you ever tell anyone about me, about what happened, I’ll take your mother from you. I’ll ruin you. I’ll take anyone from you, at any time, until you change your mind about me. If I can’t have you, no one will. Ever.”
She said this as she stood over me, watching me bleed on the sidewalk.
And then she was gone.
I let go of my consciousness and woke some time later in the emergency room, all stitched up. The doctors asked for my information. I made up a name—Ruthie—the first of many. I did the same for the police officer who was waiting to fill out a report on the incident. I didn’t want anyone to know who I was, where I’d come from, or why I was there. I didn’t want someone calling my mother and making her worry about me, about what happened. The incident, the officer kept calling it without looking me in the eyes. I watched the sun rise from a bench outside of the hospital, waiting until I knew Ma would be gone before returning home. I could hide the bandages and bruises behind long sleeves.
The thing is, when Ma told me we were leaving a week later, I wasn’t relieved. I was frightened. I was scared that if we left Arbor Park, Helen would show up and make good on her word. Ma didn’t really give me much of a choice.
I went into my room, one last time, once the movers had taken the boxes and the bed away. On the floor where the bed was, someone had drawn a circle in chalk, just like the one that I’d seen in Helen’s attic when she’d cut me that first time. I’d never let Helen come into my room, not even my house.
That wasn’t the last time I found the circles. Beneath every bed I’ve slept in since Arbor Park, in every room of every house, apartment, or hotel, one of the circles showed up. Even if I erased them, the next day, there would be a new one. I’ve learned to ignore them.
I’ve lived in fear that what Helen said is somehow true, and so I’ve never told anyone about what happened, especially not Ma. I stopped talking to her, angry at myself for what happened, worried that the only way I could protect her and save her life was to shut her out of mine completely.
Helen was right. I’ve never been able to get away from her.
“I won’t be here much longer, Ruthie,” Ma says, sighing out a long exhalation, and I shiver as the old name crosses her lips.
“Ma, I’m sorry I wasn’t around more,” I tell her, taking her thin hands into mine.
“It’s okay, baby girl. You always were a good baby girl,” she replies, and I feel so bad inside, so wrong for how I punished her. I never recognized what she’d lost: first her husband, then her daughter, and as she’s dying here, she still thinks of me as a good little girl.
“I want to show you something, Ma. Something I’ve never shown anyone before,” I say, making a decision to let her in on the secret, Helen be damned. I smile at her and note that there is already color and substance returning to her flesh. The blood inside of her is clearing away her illness and her age.
She opens her eyes and they sparkle, filling with tears. She smiles at me and I realize that I’ve never seen her happy before. I stroke the darkening hair away from her face, noting that the wrinkles and creases in her face are smoothing out. There’s a new strength in her grip as she wraps her fingers around my weakening hand. I don’t tell her that I’ll never come see her again. I don’t confess to all the things I’ve done that will allow her live a much longer life.
Maybe you can be happy in the future, Ma. Maybe you can be safe, truly safe, once I’m gone.
© 2014 by James B. Willard
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