Ruby Ashby clawed sightlessly at the flimsy dollar-store trellis puttied onto her wall when the parents first moved with late night murmurs of “need more space” and fond cooings over a “growing baby”. Her eyelashes seemed stitched together with tears, tongue coated no longer with saliva but with the singed remnants of her world. Ashes. The name he gave them, the name now reduced to the one syllable she could manage before choking on the absent taste of his cigarette smoke- only to forget at midnight, as it no longer cloaked the duvet with familiar bitterness. Ruby sawed at the space between letters, eager to sever his from her own yet hesitant to unclench the fist that held the syllables all too close.
Fingers raked metal, like the points of the ‘A’, the tail of the ‘y’, and upon noticing the crimson beads at their tips she swirled the pigment into her gray-pale cheeks. From the mirror lurked a reflection, which looked somehow more whole than Ruby felt; she imagined unclenching her left fist and reducing the same reflection to less-than with the heel of her palm, then resented herself for being a cliche.
Served her right for wasting before-it-happened hours giggling hopefully to Netflix romcoms, revolving over-buttered popcorn within her mouth until it transformed into another tongue. Now she was reenacting the angsty-heartbreak-flop-helplessly-on-the-bed scene, though she didn’t expect a suave teenaged hunk to show up and reveal the beauty behind her ponytail-and-glasses disguise anytime soon. Not that it would help-she’d probably end up smashing his (hypothetical) tastefully lopsided smirk instead of the taunting mirror. You’re not supposed to aim for the teeth-unless you’re fine with knuckles sheared of skin-which was the case, for maybe they’d feel like shards.
She knew this thanks to the self defense class he payed for, ironically enough, before she’d be roaming campus (which again he payed for), alone in darkened alleyways or (more likely) studying with a trusted friend, suddenly stapled to her comforter with a bleeding pen, jabbing, leaving bloody ink next to burst capillaries. Her mid-neck vertebrae tensed at the knowledge of indebtedness, but she knew better than to saw at the last thread linking them, however coldly monetary.
Like father like son; she was no son and there was no sun upon checking the window-her reflection was slightly less present within, features blurred without her glasses or a lack of something else, but the resulting figure was worse: lilting hips and divet between breasts took precedence over facial features. Like Ancient China, daughters were more expensive and reaped fewer benefits, and now he was belatedly burying her in favor of another product of another womb. Maybe if she was born with the opposite genitalia they’d have something in common. Testosterone rather than tests of faith in which both were destined to fail.
She cursed herself in a way she knew her mother would blame herself for, wished she didn’t try to think in poetry or irony or like she was special or even enough. Wished she didn’t wish for something worse to happen. Like when you slice your finger and pinch your earlobe to dull the pain. Like hurt with a side of opportunity instead of just plain hurt. Like food for novels and speeches and inspiration. Her hurt was trivial; she wasn’t justified in voicing it; she throws away a page of her journal whenever one is filled because she hopes someone will check the trash before asking if she’s okay. The garbageman waits for weekly installments.
Ruby watched as her mother lit every candle in the house, discarding two matches before reaching each wick without the flame having burned down the entire shaft, charred wood edging its way under frayed nails. When the ashes turned out to be magnets and torn paper fragments refused to drift to their death, her mother drifted in their stead. She paused with the door half open, sweating despite the hail pellets slipping down her unshaven legs and clattering on entryway tile.
“Would you blow those out?”- the murmur was almost lost to Ruby’s ears in the following whoosh of the door, which consequently extinguished one candle for her.
“Do it yourself”, Ruby exhaled into one, neglecting to censor her air with an index finger as her mother used to demand so as not to loose great puttering clouds of smoke.
“What if I don’t want to”-
“What if I don’t want to have to”-
She inhaled smoke, his smell but not, exhaled truths. Who needs a therapist when you have your mother’s forgotten candles?
The final was her mother’s favorite- she used to shove a sleep-eyed Ruby into her faded, almost-outgrown car seat, securing the bobbling toddler to the head rest with an emergency silk scarf kept in her glove box. Her excitement would overwhelm the closed space, eventually filling
Ruby’s lungs and nerves and making her light-up sneakers twitch with anticipation. Ruby would cling to the same silk scarf, twined through her mother’s belt loops as they maneuvered the Bath & Body Works Semi-annual Sale.
They’d make it a game,
“Who can find more Sugar Cookies?”
Then join forces at the register to beat last year’s record.
Her mother would divide their identical purchases-some resided in the Gift Graveyard, to be passed on to friends and relatives so Ruby could smell home wherever she was, some were stockpiled and rashioned, the rest scattered throughout their home for maximum scent distribution.
Ruby’s father claimed he didn’t see the point of burning them past the month of December, but up until last year Ruby could tell from the drooping of his eyelids that he found their quest endearing. Three weeks ago she caught him smuggling some to his new apartment.
The sole remainder of their collection stood sentry on the bathroom ledge, more wax pooling around its decorative mason jar than was left inside.
The wick gave up before it could be vanquished-died on its own terms; Ruby scraped some wax film off the neighboring shampoo bottle, huffed in the scent-a stark contrast to smoke- and slipped the crumbles into her pocket.