This story contains material that may be triggering to survivors of sexual abuse.
He dislikes her now. He will do worse later. Ruby’s nine, and she can see the anger in his eyes. They are two years apart. Little sister, big brother. Bound together by fraying genetic ropes. When Ruby was a baby, her mother says, Neil loved her best. Ruby has reason to doubt this. Mama is an unreliable witness. Mama wants to believe he loves Ruby still.
However, Neil did like her once upon a time. Ruby has the photographic evidence. Picture 1: A laughing buzz-cut blond boy wearing red pants and a multi-color striped sweater pulls a red wagon through the grass of a well-kept yard. Inside the wagon, a baby girl, brown hair curling around delicate ears, is propped upright on pillows. She wears a pink flowered robe with a ruffled collar, and she beams at her brother. Picture 2: The blond boy and the brown-haired girl lie side by side in their pajamas on a rusty orange shag carpet—green eyes, brown eyes, and small matching smiles intent on the Richard Scarry book laid out before them. Picture 3: The blond boy sits, grinning, high atop a boulder on a mountain trail. His arms are pulled tight around the brown-haired girl, who has inched her way up in front of him. Her face shows her safety: He won’t let her fall.
Ruby keeps these pictures on her bedside table in a green wooden box that her mother has painted with yellow flowers and blue butterflies. On Saturday afternoons, she often sits on her bed and studies the pictures, tracing her finger around the blond boy and the brown-haired girl as she tries to figure out where the smiles went.
The change started one summer when Ruby and Neil spent a week at Granny’s house. Ruby has never liked visiting her grandmother. Granddaddy long-legs live in the corners of the ceiling above the bathroom tub. The water comes out a deep red-brown in the sink when you first turn on the tap and, no matter how clear it runs, retains a metallic tang. The bedrooms are pitch-black at night. And there is Granny, who tells Ruby that she’s too fat, too timid, too spoiled, too whiny, too this, too that. Granny sends her a $5 bill on her birthdays. She sends Neil a $20.
On this particular trip, Ruby also was worried about Willie B., the silverback gorilla. Neil had wanted to do something fun instead of the yard work that was their general occupation on these visits. So Granny piled Ruby and Neil into her car, and they’d driven into Atlanta to go to the zoo. They saw Willie B., who sat on a swing and watched TV in his cage. Ruby thought he might break out and follow them home and attack them. He looked bored; it would give him something to do. She was back sitting on Granny’s living room floor, picturing herself hiding in the closet while Willie B. rampaged through the house, when she realized Granny had put down her newspaper and was talking to Neil.
“You do housework?” said Granny.
“Yes,” said Neil, with a sad shake of his head. He sat on the scratchy green sofa, leaning toward Granny’s chair with a confiding air. “Mama’s got a chart, and I can’t get my allowance unless I dust and wash dishes and set the table on the days it’s my turn. I have to clean my room too.”
“That’s not right,” said Granny. “Boys do yard work, not housework.”
“I do both, yard work and housework,” said Ruby.
“You need to do what you’re told,” said Granny. “If your parents didn’t mollycoddle you, Neil wouldn’t be treated this way. My first-born grandson, doing dishes like a housemaid.”
“Yeah!” said Neil. “It’s not fair.”
Ruby’s sick a lot. She gets canker sores, stinging white craters that cover the inside of her mouth, and all she can eat is Jell-O. She gets kidney infections that make it burn when she goes to the bathroom twenty times an hour. She gets the flu so often that Mama makes her swallow a spoonful of cod liver oil every day. She’s even had shingles—an old people’s disease, according to the doctor. Mama and Daddy do her chores when she’s ill. She does them the rest of the time.
“Neil, I’ll have a word with your mother,” said Granny. “They should be as nice to you as they are to Ruby.”
Granny’s word didn’t change anything. Neil continued to wash dishes like a housemaid. He blamed Ruby.
Ruby’s nine. She’s lying on the sofa in the family room watching TV.
Neal comes in and glances at the screen. “I don’t believe this,” he says. “What’s wrong with you?” He stands in front of her, jeans brushing her arm. “Why do you want to see those stupid singing bug people?” he yells into her face.
Ruby pushes him away and sits up. “Move,” she says. “I can’t see the TV.”
“‘Mr. Science’ is doing experiments with magnets, important experiments. I have to watch.” Neil moves to the TV and starts turning the dial.
Ruby jumps off the sofa to fight for her channel.
“This is my Saturday. I want ‘The Bugaloos,’” she says as they struggle. “Stop it, stop it, stop it.”
The dial clicks toward “Mr. Science.” Neil is stronger.
“Mama, make Neil stop,” shouts Ruby. “Mama!”
Their mother appears in the doorway, her silver frosted hair a beacon of sweetness. Mama has a measuring tape in her hands. They’ve interrupted her sewing. Neil and Ruby both let go of the dial.
“Neil,” says Mama, “it’s Ruby’s day to choose TV shows. You know that. I put the days on the chore chart. Be fair, and go outside if you don’t want to watch.”
Mama leaves. Neil pinches Ruby, twisting her skin between his thumb and forefinger.
“Ow!” says Ruby.
She slaps at him. Neil pushes her to the floor and walks out. Ruby gets up and switches back to “The Bugaloos.” I.Q. is singing. She loves I.Q., with his green shirt and green-and-white striped pants and English accent. And his blond hair. I.Q. sings that they are “happy as a summer breeze.”
Ruby lies down on the sofa and rubs the red spot on her arm. Once Neil trapped her on their parents’ bed and was smothering her with a pillow when Mama called a time-out. Neil didn’t let go of her arms, so Ruby drew up her legs and kicked him in the stomach. Mama got upset. Ruby felt bad afterward for breaking the time-out. She felt worse for enjoying the feeling of her foot driving into Neil. In the normal course of events, Ruby hits and kicks and scratches because she’s trying not to die. Neil usually laughs at her efforts to retaliate and calls her a sissy; that time he curled up in a ball and moaned.
She won’t tell Mama about the red spot. Mama was an only child. She thinks Ruby likes to “argue” with Neil because that’s what brothers and sisters do. It’s true the other brothers and sisters they know get angry and fight, but Neil fights even when he’s not mad. “You deserve to hurt,” he says. Ruby won’t show Daddy the spot either. Daddy would whip Neil with his leather belt. He never whips Ruby, and that makes Neil mad. Ruby has tried to tell him that Mama’s metal flyswatter hurts too. He’s seen the welts on her legs. “It’s not the same,” he says.
Ruby’s ten. Christmas afternoon. Santa brought her books and a jump rope and a Holly Hobbie dollhouse. He brought Neil books and a jacket and a science kit with a microscope. Neil was happy before he went across the street to show the science kit to his best friend Ethan. When he comes back, he throws her bedroom door open so hard it bounces against the wall. Ruby is on her bed playing with Holly Hobbie. Mama and Daddy are at Mr. and Mrs. Stamey’s open house down the street.
“You got what you wanted,” says Neil.
“What?” she says. Holly Hobbie is frozen in mid-air. “You did too. Your science kit. The microscope and those special slides with the fixative.”
“That’s no good. Ethan got three competition-level Duncan Yo-Yos and a magic kit.”
“Science is your favorite subject.” Holly Hobbie bounces a little in Ruby’s hand. “You never use your Yo-Yo.”
“It’s not a Duncan.” Neil leans over the bed and pushes her shoulders against the wall. “It’s a knockoff. If I had a real one, I’d go to competitions. I miss out because they buy you so much crap. They love you best.”
“Santa loves everybody,” says Ruby. “You’re hurting me.”
“You twit. Mama and Daddy are Santa. Dumb twit. You always get what you want.”
Neil pushes her shoulders one more time before he leaves. Ruby’s head thuds from the impact with the wall. Holly Hobbie falls face down on the bedspread.
Ruby gets up and closes her bedroom door. Then she picks up Holly Hobbie and lies down with her on the bed. Ruby uses her bear Brownie as a pillow and strokes Holly Hobbie’s bonnet while she cries. Ruby won’t believe Neil or anyone else who says that. Santa is Santa, and Neil’s stupid about most things. She likes to read books and jump rope, and Holly Hobbie, with her long patchwork dress and giant blue bonnet, reminds her of Laura and Mary Ingalls from the Little House on the Prairie books. She wishes she was like Laura, full of spunk and friends with everyone, but she’s more like Mary, a quiet girl who ended up going blind from scarlet fever.
The popular girls at school will laugh at books and jump ropes and Holly Hobbie. They’ll have the new Dawn doll that’s been on the TV ads and silver charm bracelets and monogrammed T-shirts from the expensive store in the mall that Mama won’t step foot in because it’s a waste of good money. Ruby wants the books, the jump rope, and Holly Hobbie because she knows she’ll never get the presents the other girls get. She will never fit in.
Ruby’s eleven. Overnight, Neil’s blond hair turns kinky, an oddity the doctor attributes to hormones. On the next trip to their grandmother’s house, Granny eyes Neil’s head the minute the three of them are alone in the living room.
“Why did you get a perm?” she asks him.
“I’d never do that, Granny, never. It just happened.”
“You did.” Her lips purse. “Your hair was as straight as a board. Now you’re a woolly-headed mess.”
“Neil didn’t get a perm, Granny,” says Ruby. She’s heard him cry in his room late at night because guys at school have been teasing him. “He woke up with his hair like that.”
Granny reaches out and pulls a hank of hair away from Neil’s forehead. Tight, frizzy curls unwind in perfect spirals. She lets go. The curls snap back.
“A perm.” She shakes her head. “I thought you had more sense, boy.”
“But, Granny,” says Neil.
“Don’t tell tales.” Granny lifts the newspaper from the arm of her chair and bends toward the print.
Ruby sits on the rug, next to the bookcase. She feels Neil looking at her, at her hair, which is silky and flat against her skull. She hates her hair because it’s too fine to braid or make a nice ponytail or hold a curl. Neil won’t care. He’ll make her pay for having the hair Granny wants him to have.
Ruby’s twelve. She accidentally tapes over the beginning of Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana” on the tape recorder.
“You ruin everything!” Neil screams. “You’re a loser. Why are you such a fat idiot?”
“I’m sorry,” she says through tears. “I didn’t mean to.”
“It’s not fair. You cry, and Mama and Daddy take your side no matter what you do. Even Granny sees it.” He slams his bedroom door in her face. The lock clicks.
Ruby calls the local radio station to request the song so she can tape it again. She manages to miss the first few seconds when Barry Manilow opens his mouth. She keeps calling. The song shoots to No. 1 on the local charts, but she can’t fix what she’s done. The buttons on the tape recorder are bulky and hard to press. She can’t get “Her name was Lola, she was a showgirl” on tape.
Ruby’s thirteen. She is sitting in one of the squishy swivel chairs in the living room. Neil stands behind her with his hands wrapped around her neck. He squeezes. Ruby can’t breathe; she sees black spots; she pulls at his fingers, scratching deep.
“Harder,” says his new best friend Todd. He sits down in the swivel chair opposite Ruby to watch the show. “Harder. She’s still breathing.”
Ruby hears a shriek. Air rushes into her lungs as Neil lets go. Mama’s home early from work.
“Neil, what on earth?” says Mama.
“It’s her fault,” says Neil. “She was bothering us. She …”
“Go to your room.” Mama glances at Todd.
“Get out of this house,” she says. “You’re no longer welcome here. Get moving, the both of you.”
As Neil and Todd depart, Mama looks at Ruby’s neck.
“Are you OK?” she says.
“Why won’t they leave me alone? I wasn’t doing anything.”
“Teen-age boys need their space.” Mama hugs her. “Leave Neil be when he’s in a bad mood. He gets carried away, and Todd eggs him on. I’ll talk to him. Do you want a compress?”
Mama doesn’t understand that Ruby’s existence is what riles Neil. He choked her because she was in the living room, and he wanted her out of the living room. Her brother hates her. Todd hates her. They’re not alone. Some of the kids at school hate her too. Ruby’s not cool. She’s not even average. Something about her makes certain people on the fringes of popular want to dig and pick until she bleeds.
She goes into her bedroom. Her cat Maggie is waiting on the bed. They settle in, and Ruby reads. Each time she turns a page, she touches her neck to feel the sting.
Ruby’s fifteen. She dropped out of Girl Scouts, badge-less, years ago because the other girls teamed up in little groups to earn their merit badges and left her out. Neil’s working to make Eagle Scout; Mama and Daddy are so proud. Neil watches Ruby when she does wind sprints and jumping jacks in the back yard. Several times a week in mid-afternoon when Mama and Daddy are at work, he asks her to tie him to a ladderback chair with a rope.
“It’s practice for a merit badge,” he says, or sometimes “I want to be an escape artist, like Houdini.” Then he smiles at her. “Will you help me?”
“Sure.” It’s weird, but Ruby’s happy because Neil is being nice. Ruby weaves round and round Neil until he’s engulfed in a rope cocoon.
“Now go away,” he says. “I need to concentrate.”
Neil strains and twists. Sweat runs, and his face grows red. He flexes muscles, with an occasional squirm and grunt thrown in as well. Ruby, on the sofa and facing the TV, observes him from the corner of her eye.
Usually, Neil manages to work the rope loose after twenty or thirty minutes.
If he can’t, he says, “Untie me, quick!” and “Faster! Get that knot, Ruby!”
In either case, he races out of the family room and disappears into the hall bathroom for a good forty-five minutes to an hour.
One Saturday Mama and Daddy are out running errands; Neil comes in her bedroom and closes the door. That first time, Ruby fights. It doesn’t stop him. He uses the rope to tie her hands. Her brain, recoiling from the pain, loops on a single thought: Does he finally love her, or has the hatred gone supernova?
Ruby doesn’t date, but she’s learned several words for sex at school. She’s not sure what to call this. Putting aside the question of love and hate, she considers the options while he’s inside her. Emotion is tricky. Better to be objective, a scientist assessing the evidence. Molestation doesn’t seem quite right. Ruby associates that with either less serious acts performed by the hands and mouths of squirrely authority figures or, conversely, more violent acts committed by greasy-haired strangers who use puppies and Donald Duck impersonations to lure young children. Rape doesn’t fit either. TV characters who are raped have black eyes and split lips, not rope burns around their wrists that can be covered up with makeup and bracelets, not raw, aching pain in body parts that no one in Ruby’s family has ever named out loud. Fucking denotes pleasure, as do the other words the boys sitting in the gym bleachers use: boinking, diddling, banging, screwing, and getting laid. Incest seems too biblical.
She wants to tell Mama and Daddy. She can’t find the right words.
Ruby’s sixteen. Neil doesn’t make her want to vomit any more. He is what he is; they do what they do. But she won’t trust his condoms again. A girl at school is pregnant because a condom broke. The No. 23 bus takes her to the health department.
“I need to get on the Pill,” she tells the nurse whose scrubs are the same shade of pink as the zinnias Ruby planted in the front yard for her mother. Her voice grows fainter with each word.
“The doctor will need to do a pelvic exam,” says the nurse. “Are you sexually active?”
“Yes, I have a boyfriend. We want to be safe.” Ruby’s hands a straightjacket around her elbows to hold her truth silent.
To Ruby, it’s a matter of endurance rather than acceptance—controlling what she can helps her freeze out what she can’t. She enjoys the sex, after a fashion. She can’t help it. Now that she doesn’t fight, he takes care to make her come. He thinks that makes the sex consensual. He doesn’t know or care that her soul shrivels like a slug touching salt with each orgasm.
Ruby’s eighteen. Neil’s a sophomore in college. He visits at Christmas, but stays with Granny in the summer. He has a girlfriend and doesn’t touch Ruby. Mama comes home one day with a puffy sky-blue taffeta and cream lace gown.
“I thought this would be nice for prom,” she says.
“Right,” says Ruby.
Ruby doesn’t go to senior prom. No one asks her. Not that she would have said yes. She can’t imagine dancing with a boy, letting him touch her. She spends the night alone in her bedroom. She’s by herself because Maggie died in her sleep last fall while Ruby was at school. Maggie wasn’t human, but she was the one person who knew Ruby past the clothes, the makeup, the circuitous eyes, the wall of quiet. A small black cat saw her pocked interior and loved her anyway. Ruby reads a book while the muffled sounds of her parents’ TV show haunt the bedroom walls. Her fingertips skim the pages, hungering for fur.
Ruby’s twenty. She’s in college 200 miles from home studying zoology. She doesn’t talk to Neil, who flunked out before he got a degree. Their parents blame drugs, but Ruby thinks he got angry when he realized his brain didn’t measure up in college the way it did in high school. Neil cooks at a burrito joint and plays guitar in a band with his girlfriend Melanie. Comforted by his past glories of straight A’s and scouting, Mama and Daddy are sure “it’s a phase.” Family gatherings aren’t comfortable. Ruby reserves her smiles and conversation for her parents and Melanie. She gives Neil no syllable of sound, no glance or gesture that he can latch onto. On Christmas morning, Neil corners Ruby in the hallway when she is on her way to the bathroom.
“What are you trying to do?” He grips her elbow and crowds her into the wall.
Ruby doesn’t speak. The night before, Christmas Eve, she’d opened the door to her old bedroom closet and seen the prom dress stuffed behind her mother’s summer wardrobe, still entombed in dry cleaner’s plastic and waiting for a princess to wear it to a ball.
“Grow up,” he says. “That was a long time ago. Melanie’s asking questions, why you’re acting like a deaf mute around me.”
“Get over it,” he says. “Don’t you ruin things for me.”
Daddy walks into the hall. Neil releases her.
“You’re such a bitch,” he whispers.
Ruby wonders how he has become the injured party, what trick of memory allows him to believe this. She still says nothing.
“Ready to open presents?” says Daddy.
Ruby brushes past Neil, a grunting breath the only answer to her elbow in his gut.
“Sure,” she says. “Let’s see what Santa brought.”
Ruby’s twenty-two. Early in her senior year of college, she meets a black-haired, brown-eyed man who kisses her hand, makes her laugh.
“You’re beautiful,” he says. They’re walking hand in hand to the Saturday tailgate market.
“I’m a mess.” She pulls her hand away.
“Everyone’s a mess, me included,” he says. “But you volunteer at an animal shelter and make great grilled cheese. That’s true beauty, Ruby. You’re sweet balanced with spice, like a good chai.”
“I’m a hot beverage, and my depression is pepper.” She manages a monotone until “pepper,” then laughs.
“It’s just a part of you, not all you are. That’s what I mean,” he says.
Ruby grabs his hand and threads their fingers together. “How do you feel about fractal cauliflower?” she says.
“What? That sounds like ‘Star Wars’ bar food—fried fractals.” They both laugh this time.
“It’s called Romanesco.” She guides him toward a booth. “It’s like a plate full of Christmas trees.”
This man wants to sleep with her, make love, he calls it. He has the right words, but after she comes, she can’t trust it. She leaves his bed before morning.
Ruby wants her soul back. She decides to confront the past and tells her parents what Neil did. Expressions of shock and horror follow a minute of silence. But they won’t confront him. They won’t cut him off. They tell her the story of the prodigal son.
“We have to keep the lines of communication open,” they say. “He could change. We can’t give up on him.”
They made him wash dishes. They won’t ask him to face what he’s done, to apologize, to pay in any way. Housework was one thing. Ruby’s another.
Ruby doesn’t return her lover’s phone calls. There are no words.
She sits on her living room sofa in the dark, her cat Dave in her lap. Ruby decides to conduct an experiment. She puts one hand around Dave’s head with her fingers spread wide so that his ears pop up between them. She tries to exert pressure to see if she can crush his skull, but her hand won’t respond. A soft rub is all she can manage.
Caralyn Davis lives in Asheville, N.C., with her cat Henry and works as a freelance writer/editor for healthcare trade publications. Her fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in Word Riot, Eclectica, Flash Fiction Magazine, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, Superstition Review, Monkeybicycle, Writers Resist, and other journals. She hates kudzu, loves striped Armenian cucumbers, and can be found on Twitter @CaralynDavis.