Flash fiction by Diane D. Gillette
Ruby’s dad bought her mom a bleeding heart bush for Mother’s Day that year. He created a special flower bed for it in the front yard, just under the bathroom window. He said he got it for her because he loved her so much. The blooms looked like a string of broken hearts lined up and dangling in the wind.
“Isn’t it pretty?” Ruby asked when her dad went around to the shed to get a shovel so they could plant it. She wanted to reach out and run her fingers along the blooms and send them dancing.
Her mom was perched on the front step. She pursed her lips. The wind toyed with her long blonde hair. It reached out and threatened to tickle Ruby.
“I don’t know if it’ll take root here,” her mom said.
“We can get a book on gardening from the library,” Ruby suggested. “See how to take care of it.”
“Sometimes a plant just doesn’t belong someplace.”
Ruby studied the plant. “It’s pretty though.”
“Don’t be fooled by the pretty, Ruby. He just feels guilty.” Her mom stood up and went into the house then, her hair swishing and swaying down to the small of her back. She let the screen door slam behind her, leaving Ruby to help plant the bleeding heart bush alone with her dad.
While they were planting it, her mother came out of the house with her purse and car keys.
“Where are you going?” Ruby’s dad asked.
“I have an appointment downtown.”
“What? The world stops functioning on Sunday?”
“It’s Mother’s Day.”
“And I think I deserve a break.”
The gravel crunched under her feet as she crossed the driveway to her car. Ruby and her dad watched her slide into the driver’s seat and take off.
She came back with her hair chopped off up to her ears and permed into a glorious crown of curls. Ruby was stretched on the living room rug with Abby, the family basset hound, and reading a book about a girl who wanted to be a gymnast. Her dad was watching baseball on TV.
“Why?” was all he could say.
Her mom shrugged. “I just wanted a change, I guess.”
Her dad looked back at the TV and turned it up louder. “Well, I hate it.”
Ruby closed her book and quietly crawled over to the basement door. She and Abby trotted down the stairs where they found her brother Jack draped over the old loveseat, knees bent over the arm, legs dangling over, kicking in time to the Michael Jackson tape playing on the boombox. He read a skateboarding magazine. Rocky, Jack’s young German shepherd mix, still all gangly and awkward, had balanced himself onto the back of the loveseat where he could watch Jack’s every move.
“Get lost,” Jack said when he saw her.
“No,” Ruby said. “I don’t want to.” She looked up at the basement ceiling. Their parents’ sharp words threatened to cut through the floorboards above them and bury them in emotional debris.
Jack looked up and sighed.
“You ever see Michael Jackson dance?”
Ruby shook her head.
Jack reached over to the boombox and turned up the volume. Smooth Criminal was just beginning. “Let’s make up our own.”
They pushed the loveseat back to the wall to make more room. Abby bellowed and wagged her tail before taking over the abandoned loveseat for herself. Rocky quickly joined her.
By the time they had a perfect dance routine, the yelling had stopped. Ruby followed Jack up the stairs. He went to the kitchen looking for a snack, but Ruby veered off down the hall. She found her mother sitting at her bedroom vanity. An empty wine glass rested on the jewelry box. She was staring at her reflection as if she were trying to make sense of what she saw there.
“I like your haircut,” Ruby told her. “I think it shows off your eyes more.” Her mom was the only one in the family with blue eyes.
“Thanks, sweet pea,” she said, patting the bench next to her. Ruby sat and her mom draped her arm over her shoulders. “Aren’t you a pretty thing?” she asked, looking at their reflection.
“You’re growing up fast. You’re practically a teenager already.”
“Not for like a year and a half,” Ruby protested.
Her mom brushed Ruby’s hair and then pinned it up real fancy. She let Ruby try on her dangly earrings that sparkled with fake diamonds and the matching necklace. Ruby thought she looked like a princess.
“More like a queen. You should be in charge,” her mom teased.
Ruby laughed and rested her head on her mom’s shoulder. She wanted to ask what her dad felt guilty about, but she didn’t want to ruin the moment, so they just sat there quietly and made the moment last.
Ruby’s dad built a shed in the backyard. He spent long weekend afternoons there, but when Ruby peeked in, he was perched on a stool, smoking cigarettes he was no longer allowed to light in the house. The tiny black and white TV was plugged into an orange extension cord that ran from the house. Everything smelled like sawdust and cigarette smoke. Her father’s tools were lined up neatly on the walls.
A calendar on one wall above the tools showed a blond lady with large breasts posing with her top unbuttoned. Ruby felt her face burn hot. She looked away, but immediately glanced back to sneak another peek at it.
“Whatcha making?” Ruby asked her dad, turning her back to the calendar.
Her father blinked a few times as if trying to clear away fog from his eyes. “Oh, just thinking about what I might make for my next big project,” he told her. Ruby couldn’t remember anything he’d made since the playhouse he’d built for her the summer she was six. She remembered it appeared almost magically overnight and her dad standing next to it grinning. He screwed an empty thread spool to the door for a doorknob and then held it open for her to go inside. She peeked out the front window and asked her dad what he wanted her to make for him. He asked for pancakes and she quickly got to work making him an invisible shortstack. He said it was the best he’d ever tasted.
Her playhouse still stood in a corner of the backyard, but she had to stoop now to get inside. Her plastic kitchen and the little round table and matching chairs where she’d eaten many invisible pancakes were all covered in grime. Spiderwebs stretched across corners like warning signs that reminded Ruby she no longer fit.
From the front pocket of her dad’s bib overalls, he pulled out a tiny bottle of Wild Turkey. Ruby recognized the amber liquid and the bird taking flight on the label. He took a swig and put a finger to Ruby’s lips.
“Shhh,” he told her. “Don’t tell your mom this time, okay? Our little secret.” Ruby nodded, but she was thinking about the playhouse her dad built for her, wishing she still fit inside.
Diane D. Gillette (she/her) lives in Chicago. Her work is a Best Small Fictions selection and has appeared in journals such as the Saturday Evening Post, Blackbird, and Middle House Review. She is a founding member of the Chicago Literary Writers. Read more at www.digillette.com.
Flash Boulevard is edited by Francine Witte. Banner photograph Wes Candela.