By Trisha McKee
Ruby slowly moved the box to the edge of the shelf, tipping it carefully so that it leaned against her hands. Once she had a good hold on it, she coaxed it down further until she was able to properly grip and carry it into the living room.
And she sighed when she opened the box. More Christmas decorations. She tried not to see the items, tried to make it one big blur of silver and red and green. She did not want to remember, especially any good times.
So Ruby set the box in the junk pile. That was the pile she planned on tossing without picking through.
By lunchtime, she was filthy and exhausted. As she looked around the rusty, sagging trailer, she mused at the junk her mother had accumulated through the years. The basement was full of boxes and miscellaneous items.
Thinking of her mother made any remaining energy whoosh out of Ruby’s body, and she stumbled backward, falling into a ratty chair that leaned precariously to the side. She knew her mother, she should have been prepared. She should have braced herself against any emotions, especially after not speaking to her for ten years.
Just as she shut her eyes for a rest, a pounding on the door cut through any relaxed state she had been able to achieve. Struggling out of the chair, she remembered the buyer of this property was stopping to go over the timeline and last-minute details.
“Sorry, this place is a mess-” She swung open the door with a mouthful of apologies, but they got swallowed mid-sentence when Ruby was face-to-face with the one thing that almost kept her from coming back. The one person representing the shame she carried around daily.
Ruby sucked in her breath, feeling as if she had been struck. She had planned to drive out of town for any essentials just to avoid this. But there he was, right at her front door. She had no right to shut the door and close out anything he had to say. If he was there to yell and accuse and demand, she would have to stand and endure it. She brought this moment on ten years ago.
Mitchell disarmed her with his grin, and she was suddenly swept back all those years ago, being a teenager and falling into that gaze, being stunned by that grin. “Ruby! You look amazing. Wow. I knew you’d look good. But ….” His gaze softened, and she realized he was being honest.
Self-consciously, she touched her newly cut hair, styled into a shoulder-length bob and given highlights. “Thank you. You…” What could she say? He looked amazing. The same except a few lines around his eyes that whispered of his escape from boyhood, the curves framing the corners of his mouth that tattled about the hardships.
But his dark brown hair still fell into those golden-brown eyes. His cheekbones were still expertly carved, his boyish good looks still intact.
Ruby sighed, shutting her eyes with a small smile. Then she glanced up at him and tried again. “You look really good too, Mitchell. I – um, I figured you might want to see me. Get some last words in. But I can’t right now. I’m waiting for the buyer to-”
He said her name softly, carefully like someone holding a precious diamond, and she tried not to physically react. “You think I want to have words with you? No, Ruby, listen. We were kids. All good now.”
All good now. Ruby wanted to laugh bitterly at that. There was nothing all good about now. “Oh. Well, I have someone coming-”
She stared up at him, her mouth a small circle as she tried to decipher what he was trying to tell her. They used to be able to finish each other’s sentences, but at this moment, she could not figure out what he wanted. Then he motioned toward himself, and with a jolt, she realized.
“You bought this …?”
Ruby drew back in shock and hurt. Was this his way of torturing her? Buy the home that had embarrassed her her entire childhood? Most of her classmates had beautiful, large homes with double-paned doors that were red or tan and porches held up by columns on a road that ended in a cul de sac.
And Ruby had grown up in the tin trailer that leaked when it rained. It was set on a back road to a dead-end that no one traveled to. It was not the best part of town. “Why are you doing this?”
“May I come in?” He sounded tired as if her suspicion drained him. She blinked but then waved him in. Mitchell walked into the living room, glancing around at the boxes. “I didn’t do this to hurt you. I eventually want the land. It’s perfect for a town store. This area is actually getting pretty popular. For now, I think I’ll fix this up enough to rent out or use as an office while getting everything ready.” He stopped and studied her, brushing his hair out of his eyes impatiently. “You all right?”
“Of course. Not my business what you do with it. We should talk details. I don’t want to stay here longer than necessary.”
Within twenty minutes, the details were ironed out, and Mitchell’s expression cleared, his gaze intensifying. “So. Ruby. How are you? I’m so sorry about your mom.”
With a forced grin, she busied herself with a packed box, prying open the flaps and peering inside. “I’m fine. I mean, I didn’t have a relationship with her.”
“You did. Once upon a time, you did.”
Straightening, Ruby rubbed her forehead and squeezed her eyes shut. “Mitchell.”
“Okay.” He waited and then asked, “So you’re here until the end of the week?”
“So… through Christmas.”
She glanced up with a forced smile. “I don’t really… the holidays aren’t a big deal to me.”
“They used to be,” Mitchell whispered, his eyes narrowed in concern.
“Yeah, well,” Ruby paused to heave the box into the junk pile. “When it is the only time as a kid that your mom isn’t beating you or ODing on drugs then yeah, you cherish the ridiculous tradition.”
Again, he whispered her name, and despite herself, she remembered those nights he would hold her and reassure her that things would improve. Those times in his arms… so young and infatuated, so trusting and full of dreams.
But then Mitchell averted his gaze and asked, “How is he?”
It was the question she had been expecting, but it still made her freeze for a full second before she turned and grabbed another box. “Uh, I wouldn’t know, Mitchell. It seems everyone was right about him. We parted ways after a year. Don’t know where he is or …” Her voice cracked and cursing, she turned and faced the man whose heart she had crushed ten years ago. The very man who’s memory kept her up at night, wondering and wishing. “I never said… I’m really sorry. For how it all went down.”
“Sure you did. The night you left town with him, you apologized. Look, it’s in the past. We were kids. You were a kid in a shitty situation desperate to get out.” He glanced around the room. “Can I help at all?”
“No, you don’t have to-”
“Hey, it’s me. I’ve known you since second grade when you beat all the boys at kickball and then cried when you fell trying to jump rope. Remember?” He laughed as she blushed. “Right. So what can I do?”
“Um, there are more boxes downstairs. If you could bring them up….thanks.”
They worked side by side for the next two hours, lugging up boxes and quickly scouring the contents to see what pile to toss them in. They worked mostly in silence, breaking the tranquility to ask about contents or to request some tape. The pure simplicity of being together, of the years and issues melting away, put Ruby on edge. Why wasn’t he shouting? Why wasn’t he walking away? She had destroyed him by running away with his best friend, and yet here he was helping her get her mother’s house packed up.
“Where are you staying?” Mitchell asked as they slowed down. He caught her expression and pointed, “Here? Damn. You sure you’re okay with that?”
She wanted to scream and tell him of course not. But as good as she did for herself, money was still tight. She could not just afford several nights in a hotel. With a carefully placed smile, Ruby answered, “I’m going to be fine.”
“You know. I have tried to find you. I wanted to make sure you were okay. But you’re not easy to track down.”
That bit of news surprised Ruby and alarmed her. The last thing she needed in her life was someone from her past tracking her down. It was hard enough that she had to return to pack up her past, the very reason she ran. She had to say goodbye to the woman that still haunted her. “I’m tired. I’m going to go lie down.”
Mitchell didn’t look surprised, and Ruby imagined he had become used to her escapes by now. She kept a safe distance and merely waved when he said his goodbyes.
Because his easygoing grin and golden brown eyes still had an effect on her. Ten years of struggling, ten years of fighting the memories back so she could make a clean break, so she could work at getting her life in order. A college degree in English, a teaching job she loved, Ruby cherished her life and did what she could to protect it. The last thing she needed was to be detoured by the past.
That night Ruby dreamed of a childhood full of contradictions and confusion. She dreamed of a mother that could barely hold on to any semblance of sanity long enough to truly be a parent. She awoke in a cold sweat and for a frazzled moment, as she stared at the cheap wood paneling, she feared she was back to being that little girl at the mercy of a bitter woman.
But then the memories came crashing back. Her mother had passed away the week before from an overdose. It was the most predictable way she could have died. Everyone in town had assumed that would be how she would go, even when Ruby was little. The only surprising thing about her death was that she did not die sooner.
Fighting to catch her breath, Ruby scrambled out of bed. As she dressed, she heard a rustling out in the living room, and she remembered Mitchell had asked if he could stop by in the morning to get a head start on some projects.
But when she entered the living room, Ruby tilted her head back, taking in the tall tree that somehow just fit. “Wha- I… no.”
“For if I show the place to potential renters.”
“Bullshit, Mitchell! Christmas is in a few days, and you think I’m going to believe that you’ll have this dump ready to show by then?”
He drew back with an amused look. “You’re meaner than you used to be.”
Mitchell sighed. “I wanted to do this for you. Because I remember. I remember that blond-haired girl sitting in front of the tree, those sky blue eyes just staring up at the lights…. I remember the teenager that would glow while wrapping gifts for everyone. It was the one time of the year you were without that tension. Your mom -”
“She loved the holidays. She was on her best behavior.” She shook her head. “I don’t have any ornaments.” When she saw where Mitchell was pointing, she shook her head. “Oh no! I don’t want to be reminded.”
“You deserve a good Christmas. Maybe… just hear me out… maybe this can be your way of saying goodbye.”
She blinked, hoping the tears did not fall. “Is that a jab because I wasn’t at the funeral?”
“Not at all. It’s a concern because I know you.”
“You knew me. You don’t know me now.”
There was such a long stretch of silence, that Ruby stole a glance at him. Mitchell was staring back so intently that she got shivers. Her nerves bounced against her skin at the thought of him in front of her again, close to her….
“I know you,” he repeated evenly. “I won’t ever not know you, Ruby Eleanor Barnes. You still twist your hair around your finger when you feel guilty. You nip at the inside of your mouth when you’re agitated. And you … you look so wounded when your past comes up. I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking. Of course, you don’t want to go back to that time. It was horrible for you.” He stepped so close, she could feel the heat radiating off his skin. “I”m sorry, Ruby.”
“Stop apologizing. I’m the one that …. Look, I thought I could do this, but I can’t. I need out of this house. Maybe the hotel on Birch Street-”
“For Christmas? You want to stay in a hotel over Christmas?”
The panic whitened her already pale skin, and her eyes darted back and forth. Mitchell recognized the signs and knew she needed out. “Okay. Let’s go get breakfast.”
“Wait- what? No. I -”
“Come on. My treat. Then we can go look around the shops. You used to love to look at the decorations. Chet’s hardware store still has that spooky old plastic Santa that lights up.”
That perked her up. “Really? Okay. I could eat.”
As he drove further into town, Mitchell noticed her reluctance slipping away as she stared at the familiar streets and business. She would point out a new building or one that changed names, and he gave her the history on it. They both remembered how behind the small general store, they had shared their first kiss. How on nights after that, they returned to the high grass behind that rickety building and went further than kissing. But as they stared at that building, much the same except for a new roof and siding, they became silent.
He took Ruby to the heart of the town, a diner where almost every retired person came for breakfast and every teenager came to hang out in the evenings. The place was full, and he led her to the back corner with his hand on her back, his fingers pressing lightly, familiarly.
As they sat, he noticed her face had its color back. “It’s a lot,” he observed, and he noticed her body relaxed.
The waitress had been their teacher in grade school, and not ready to retire, Suzanne had taken a job at the diner ten years ago, her hustle better than anyone half her age. She smiled warmly at Ruby, who greeted her shyly. Fortunately, Suzanne was smart enough not to bombard her with too much exuberance.
Ruby was quiet as she ate, and he knew she was overwhelmed. He knew her, how could he not? They had been passionately in love. They spent hours sharing dreams and fears, goals and promises. They had spent hours exploring each other mentally, emotionally… and physically. He knew her intention had been to come to town, pack up her mother’s house, and leave without being seen. It hurt him, but he understood. This town held too much trauma for her.
“Thank you,” she said softly, setting her fork down.
Mitchell leaned back, studying her. “I have a proposition.” When she widened her eyes in question, he continued, “Stay with me. I have a guest room all ready for someone to stay. No one’s there, just me. So no one will get in your way. That way you don’t have to be … at your mom’s. And no impersonal, shitty hotel. Because you know we have no decent hotels here.”
Instead of answering, she dropped her gaze, tracing her finger on the paper mat. “No wife?”
“Ex-wife. Divorced for three years after two years of marriage.” He laughed when he caught her inquisitive look. “No one you know. I managed to marry someone out of town.”
“Aw, damn, Ruby, I don’t know. I think I rushed into the relationship. We both did.” He slapped some bills down on the check, glancing up as Mattie made her way toward them, her ample hips swiveling as she tried to maneuver the narrow aisle.
“Is that you, Ruby?” she squealed, ducking her head down and narrowing her eyes.
Ruby’s lips turned up in a small, cautious smile. “It is, Ms. Patton.”
The older woman pursed her lips and shook her head, and before Mitchell could deter her, she leaned forward. “I think it is despicable how you abandoned your mother and didn’t have the decency to attend her funeral. Now you’re back to get what you can. Disgrace!”
Mitchell stood to try to block Mattie from getting any closer, but then she spun on her heel and stomped off. He immediately turned to Ruby. “She’s crazy. You know she’s just a busybody that has nothing to do.”
“It’s fine.” But by her expression, he knew it was anything but fine. He reached out and gently nudged her and then winked when she glanced up. It worked, she grinned, standing and following him out.
As soon as she returned to that soul-draining trailer, Ruby sank back to that lost little girl. He remembered that about her, the utter despair at times, her feeling of inadequacy because of where she came from, and how her mother treated her.
But she was strong if nothing else. She literally rolled up her sleeves and got to work, and he had no choice but to follow suit.
And as she worked, Ruby became calmer, as if succumbing to the memories. Not necessarily welcoming them, but resigning herself to the fact that there would be reminders. At one point, she caught Mitchell watching her and shrugged, “Just need to get through this.”
By early evening, they had the bulk of boxes sorted. She had paperwork to go through, but she explained she could do that at anytime, anywhere. And that was when Mitchell revisited the idea of staying at his place.
With a sigh, Ruby nodded, and he wanted to take her in his arms and console her because she appeared so weary.
Instead, he said, “You know, Mattie isn’t the norm. Most people… we knew your mom. We get why you left.”
She did not respond, only worked at gathering her things. But once they were settled in at his house, she asked, “Do you really understand why I left?”
“I do now, Ruby. I saw how your mom was. How she treated you.”
“But … back then…”
“Honestly? You left with Will. And I hated you. I loved you and hated you.”
In true Ruby fashion, she jumped up and started for the kitchen. “I’m going to make you dinner. As a thanks.” From the kitchen, while she was free of having to give direct eye contact, she continued, “I was so young and immature, and I was hurting. I had to get out of that place. I’m not making excuses. It was wrong to do that to you. But you and I had broken up.”
“I know.” He wanted to respect her need to hide, but he had to see her as he spoke, so Mitchell rounded the corner into the kitchen. “I get that we weren’t together, and you were desperate. But Will?”
“He was wild. He was willing to leave. I was too scared to run away alone. And I knew he would figure things out. He was smart that way. Street smart.”
“And did he? Did he take care of you?”
Ruby turned away from the counter and looked him right in the eye. “At first. But his temper…”
Mitchell cursed. “He hit you?”
“He hit me once, and I left. We went our separate ways. But he was just as young as I was.”
“No. Do not make an excuse for that.” He paused and then stepped forward, catching her hand when she tried to turn away. “Did you love him?”
“I was seventeen. What did I know about love?”
“You and I were in love.”
“Well, what I had with you… no one could touch that. If that’s what you’re asking.”
And staring up at him, Ruby felt like she was staring up at that young boy that was her world, her first love. It was as if the years melted away, and she forgot herself as he swooped down for a kiss. She was tilting her head up, expecting the kiss to be familiar, and it was. But the explosions going off in her body told her this was new territory. She had known Mitchell the boy. Now she was dealing with Mitchell the man.
And as she realized her hands were under his shirt, her fingers rolling over muscles that were new to her, she pulled back and gasped, “Slow. This… what are we doing?”
Just as breathless, he answered, “I don’t know, but I like it.” But he released her from his embrace, leaning against the counter. “Spend Christmas with me. Please. Let’s not worry where this is going but … Christmas. No pressure. You have your guest bedroom.”
She nodded her consent. “Okay. Christmas.”
And that evening as they sat in front of the fireplace, a blanket around their shoulders, he nibbled on her ear. “Where have you been all this time, Ruby? It feels like you disappeared off the face of the Earth.”
She grinned, shivering as his teeth nipped her. “Rosston.”
He drew back, eyeing her with surprise. “You mean forty minutes away? All this time?”
“You sneaky vixen. All these years I’ve wondered, thinking you were probably all the way across the country.”
“Ran out of money and had to settle down there. I don’t know where Will went when he left. I just know I somehow managed to get a few jobs, save money and put myself through school.”
Mitchell straightened, giving her his full attention. “You did? Wow, Ruby, that’s amazing. Good for you.
What do you do?”
“I’m a teacher. High school English teacher.” She kissed his nose and grinned. “What about you? I wasn’t far away, but I couldn’t try to look you up. I knew that would break all my resolve and … I couldn’t come back.”
“I understand. I went to college but dropped out. I run a construction business.”
“Ah, that’s why you’re free these days.”
“Yep. Not much work this time of year. Just the way I like it.”
“So… I have summers off. You have winters off.” They laughed and then they kissed some more. It was a relaxing night, a jolting night, but when Ruby went to bed in the guest bedroom, she fell asleep smiling.
The next morning Ruby was quiet, and Mitchell feared she was having second thoughts about their reconnection. But then she grabbed his hands, a wobbly smile telling him this was more about her own thoughts than about them. “So I have everything packed up at mom’s. I went through the storage boxes. Everything there is just about done.”
“Hmm-mmm,” he murmured, not wanting words to break her from her thoughts.
“But I think there is one thing I have to do. Can you help me?”
She could not help but notice the muscles threading through his arms as he drew her to him. “I will. With what?”
“Just… after breakfast, can we go there?”
And so when they arrived at the trailer, he watched as she went to a pile of boxes and looked through them. Finally, she pulled several to the side. He jumped in to help her lift the heavy boxes, already knowing what was in them. He caught her eye.
“Yeah.” She opened a box and stared down at the glitter and flash. “See, I don’t regret not going to the funeral. She was …cruel at times, and I can’t let go of that. But this… to decorate for her favorite holiday with all her decorations… that is how I can celebrate the mom that sometimes was good to me. That sometimes loved me.”
Mitchell nodded, tugging her into his embrace. “She always loved you, Ruby. She was just very ill. I wish I had been able to protect you. But I’m older now. I’m not a kid. I can protect you now. Just let me. Give us a chance. Another chance.”
She smiled that mysterious, bewitching smile, and they worked at the decorations up. She showed him the ornaments, sometimes with tears shining in those huge eyes, and told him the stories that went with them. He remembered a lot of them, having spent years with her.
“Oh. She still had this.” She pulled out a Santa figure that was standing beside a miniature tree with lights strung around it. “She had this before I was even born. This one… I think I will keep.”
When they were done, she wrapped her arms around herself and looked around, her expression a mixture of grief and awe. “Okay, mom. Merry Christmas. I hope I did it justice.” The lights were strung over every shelf and counter. The tree was full of ornaments, and there were Santas and nutcrackers everywhere. Just as when she was a kid.
Turning to Mitchell, Ruby lifted a shoulder. “I love you, you know. Always have. I came back here and hoped… hoped I’d run into you somehow.”
“I made sure of it. I love you too, Ruby. Merry Christmas.”
About Trisha McKee
Trisha McKee resides in a small town in Pennsylvania known for Christmas homecomings. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Tablet Magazine, Crab Fat Magazine, The Oddville Press, Kzine, ParABnormal, Night to Dawn Magazine and more. Her short story, Where We Meet has been nominated for the Best of the Net Anthology 2019. Find more of her works on Amazon and be sure to connect with her on Twitter.