All Good Things

Little Ruby Morrell was a tragedy just waiting to happen... Mr. Michael Carter has her happy ending, if he has the courage to write it... When tragedy strikes for a small girl, that's when two different sides of the story emerge. Will such a small child change his life forever?

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3. Michael Makes The Second Biggest Decision of his Life

Over the next few weeks, Michael got used to having Ruby around. They developed a system. In the morning, they'd eat whatever Michael could scrape together. Ruby would go next door, and Alice would help her get dressed and do her hair- the usual little red jumper over a white polo, with high-rise socks, brown sneakers and pigtails. Then they'd meet in the car and drive to school. Ruby would chat happily in the backseat, or sing a song, or just sit quietly, staring out the window.

Whenever she did that, he always wondered what she was thinking about. Her parents, probably. No matter what her understanding level was of the situation, there was no way she couldn't feel any sadness. She did cry a lot, mostly at night. He could hear her sobs from the couch-bed.

It broke his heart to see Ruby this way, but he couldn't do anything. No matter how hard he tried, he would never really be "Daddy" to little Ruby. It just didn't work that way. 

One particular day, Alice and Michael found themselves with a few extra moments on their hands. Neither one knew what to do, but Ruby did. 

"Hey! Weren't you going to teach Miss Alice to play the piano?"    

"When did you say that, Michael?" Alice questioned. 

"Um, I didn't. In fact- Ruby, how did you know I could play the piano?"
"I heard you playing at school one time. You were playing on the one in the music Mr. C's piano after we had music class with him. I was gonna wave hello, but you were playing such a pretty song, I didn't wanna bug you." Ruby beamed angelically at him, as if to prove her point. 

"Oh."

"So can you play something for me?" Alice asked.

"Uh... sure."

He disappeared down the hall and returned a few minutes later with a keyboard. "Here." 

Michael sat down at the keyboard and took a deep breath. He stretched out his fingers, then began to play. Ruby sighed as the notes flowed from his fingertips, wafting through the air and leaping and twirling like dancers. The melody that was woven like a tapestry could've melted the coldest of hearts. It was a soft tune, full of notes that anyone listening would've felt full of hope and peace. Then he started to sing. His voice never created real sentences, just phrases of love, of longing, of sadness and joy. Some words made sense, some did not. 
When he finished, it felt like someone had slipped a tranquilizer in. Ruby and Alice had identically dreamy, peaceful expressions, like they'd just had the best dream ever. 

"Wow," murmured Alice. "You're... really good."

He blushed and stepped away from the keyboard. "Oh, no. I'm not that great. I just taught myself to play as a kid, and never really let go of it. Music is my outlet."

He was stunned. This was the second time Alice had gotten him to reveal his innermost feelings. It was almost like he felt more compelled to open up to her, as strange as it seemed. She had this aura of peace, that made him want to confide in her what he'd never told anyone before.

"Well- um- now. We should get going, Ruby!" he grabbed the little girl and rushed out the door before he said anything else, leaving Alice alone in his apartment.

Michael’s heart was still pounding when he reached the school. Ruby looked at him curiously. 

"You look sick, Mr. C," she said. "Do you need a nurse?"

Michael glanced in his rear-view mirror and realized that his face was ashen white and beaded with sweat.

"No- I'm okay, Ruby. Thanks for wondering, though."

"Okay."

They crept into the building- like usual- and came to the office, where the lady was typing furiously at her dinosaur of a computer. 

"Mm. Mr. Carter, yes. Just check in now, Hon," she said, her voice oozing with over-the-top sweetness. 

He silently signed in, then met Ruby back in the classroom. 

"Hello, Mr. C. How are you?" a voice met him. 

"Rye? You're early," Michael exclaimed. 

"Yeah. I wanted the Hammy Seat all to myself," he said proudly. He shifted in the Hammy Seat, as if to show off. "So I told my mommy I was meeting you here early today!"

"Um, that's nice."

Ruby looked ready to cry. "I finally get it, and Rye has to take it," she pouted. 

"Now, now, Ruby. There's no need to get fussy. If Rye gets here first, he gets the seat, okay?"

"I saw you get out of Mr. C's car today, Ruby. Isn't that not allowed?"

Michael paled. "Um. No you didn't, Rye. You didn't see that at all," he said hastily. The lie made his tongue swell up in his mouth. He hated to lie- even just to Rye.

"Yeah-huh! I saw it, fair and square!" he protested stubbornly. "And my mommy says that teachers aren't allowed to drive students to school, 'cause of something called 'surance."

Michael didn't bother to correct Rye with "insurance". He was too busy trying to figure out a logical explanation. 

"Um. No. It's not against the rules- if you have the parent's permission," he said hurriedly.

"Oh."

Just then, he was saved from having to answer, because a melee of students had suddenly burst into the classroom. He breathed a sigh of relief and started class.

XXX

When class was over, Michael packed up and brought Ruby home. It was a tiring day, and Ruby was a bit cranky. 

"What's wrong, Ruby?" he asked. "Aren't you excited for vacation?"

Ruby looked at him sadly. "No," she said.

"Why not?"

"I don't wanna leave Mr. C," she said. 

Michael laughed. "Oh, Ruby. If you live with me, you don't have to! It'll be just like Saturday- all week!"

Ruby's eyes widened. "Just like summer at my old home!" she laughed and clapped her hands. "Only I get to stay with Mr. C!"

Her laugh and obvious joy at the idea of staying with  melted his heart. He must be doing something right, because Ruby was obviously happy with him. 

"I'm glad you're happy to stay," he said, lifting her up and hugging her. 

He knew at that moment that little Ruby was officially the most important thing in the world to him. He'd do anything to protect her, go anywhere and do anything to make her happy and safe and be the best daddy he could. 

She held onto him like he was her real daddy. Michael knew that for the rest of his life he would cherish that feeling, being close to the child he cared so much about. 

If only he could be sure it would last.

XXX

Summer vacation came at last. Michael was relieved. Now he didn't have to sneak Ruby home and back again, or worry about the nosy office lady or Rye's big mouth or school or grading until next fall. 

Next fall, he thought suddenly. Ruby will be in third grade. He was startled. He had taught her since kindergarten, because in the elementary school system, the teachers switch off grades to teach the same students from kindergarten to fifth grade, before they move on to junior high. He'd never thought of life without her. He'd never contemplated teaching another group of students when she moved on.

He was relatively new at the system himself; he'd really just started teaching elementary school with Ruby's kindergarten year. Before, he'd taught college history courses. When the history courses were moved to online at night, Michael had nothing to do but grade online papers and tutor during the day, so he got an elementary school job.

But then he'd found Ruby, his favorite little kindergartner. At first, it was just because she was adorable and hard not to love. Then it became more- she was so little, and sensitive. She was so easily hurt and much to naive to know how to not be. She was so trusting, and Michael always felt the need to protect her. Then her parents died, and she became like a daughter to him. He'd never even been in a relationship before- and now he had a daughter. 

Michael had no idea how to be a parent. Neither did Alice, but she tried to help. Micheal could sense a part of Alice that loved Ruby maybe as much as he did himself.

For example, one day, when he had a teacher's meeting at night and needed someone to watch Ruby, he called Alice over. When he returned, he found them curled up on the couch, asleep, Alice's arms around Ruby, whose arms were around a teddy bear. He'd never seen it before, but upon examining the messy stitches and the fact that Alice had brought her sewing machine over, figured that they had made it.

Alice was a really great person, he realized with a start as he placed his keys and briefcase down on the table. She was beautiful- with long, red hair that contrasted the dark blue color of her eyes. She had to be the prettiest girl Michael had ever known. She wasn't extremely smart, but she wasn't an idiot either. She was always so nice to Ruby. She was like a mother to Ruby, in all the ways Michael could only be a father. The thought of Ruby having two parents again struck him. He didn't know why, but the idea of Alice staying here with Ruby seemed to be a nice idea. 

He sighed as he slipped his suit jacket off. There was no way he was going to go there. She was next door, that's close enough for him. Besides, as long as she was there, who cared if she was Ruby's mother figure?
Then again, having  a real mother might be good for her. He himself didn't have a clue about parenting. He wondered quietly if Alice did.

He walked over to where Ruby was snoozing on the couch and picked her up gently. He brought her to the back room, where her makeshift bedroom was. He set her down on the guest bed and pulled the blanket around her.

When he returned, Alice had woken up and was quietly folding her blanket. Michael kept quiet.
Alice placed the blanket on the couch and stood up. When she turned, she didn't seem surprised by his presence. 

"She's a sweet one, Michael," she said. 

"Yeah. I know."

"Have you ever thought about getting her a mother?"

The question caught him off guard. "Why would you ask that?" he questioned her.

"I just... it's hard growing up without a mother," Alice said softly.

"I already told you. I'm not interested in romance."

"Whatever, Michael."

"What do you mean, whatever?! I'm serious. I-"

"I see the way you have been smiling lately. You gaze out into empty space, with this sappy smile on your face. Whenever Ruby comes over, she says you've been using funny words in random places- you know, how when you get in a certain mood, your words reflect that? Sounds like your words are reflecting romantic. It's a sure sign," Alice said, a half-smile playing on her teasing face.

"Then apparently, your 'sure sign' is a bit messed up, 'cause I have not the slightest interest in romance. You, Alice, are very mistaken." but even as he said that, he wondered. Who had he been thinking about a lot? Was it that new, incredibly young and attractive teacher who took over the neighboring classroom? (Um, she was a bit too perky.) Was it the office lady? (Goodness, no!) Was it... Alice? (No way. How could he fall for Alice? She had been nothing more than just the girl next door, for years, until Ruby came.)
"Or are you just becoming a pedophile?"

"Pedophile! I'm truly hurt that you would insinuate such an inappropriate thing. I am not attracted to young children.” The thought made Michael's stomach turn over in disgust. He loved Ruby, but not in that kind of way. He was a completely normal, pedophilia-free man with no interest in love.

"I'm not. That's disgusting, Alice!"

"Then who is it? You say you're not into romance, but I can tell you are struggling with yourself. You hate it, but you are into someone. Just admit it- at least admit it to yourself, if not me."

He blinked. 

"Just think about it. My aunt, with who I had lived for a few months after the orphanage-"

"With whom," corrected Michael. 

"Shut up. I'm not a teacher, you know," Alice said.

"Go on," he prodded.

"Anyway, I lived with my aunt for a few months. She is a matchmaker, and I picked up a few things with her. Like, how to tell when someone is in love. And you, my friend, are very much in love. You just haven't admitted to yourself yet."

"I don't need your help. Go home," he told her. 

She smiled, sensing that she had convinced him to at least think about it. "All right, I'll go." 

"Good riddance," he said, closing the door behind her.
When he turned again, standing in the hallway, with a big smile across her little face, was Ruby. She giggled. 

"Are you gonna marry Miss Alice?" she asked.

His face was undoubtedly redder than Ruby's dress. "No, I am not. Go to bed, Ruby."

"Mr. C is gonna marry Alice!" she sang, skipping back to her bedroom.

Michael sighed. Children.

Michael's heart was still pounding when he reached the school. Ruby looked at him curiously. 

"You look sick, Mr. C," she said. "Do you need a nurse?"

He glanced in his rear-view mirror and realized that his face was ashen white and beaded with sweat.

"No- I'm okay, Ruby. Thanks for wondering, though."

"Okay."

XXX

When class was over, Michael packed up and brought Ruby home. It was a tiring day, and Ruby was a bit cranky. 

"What's wrong, Ruby?" Michael asked. "Aren't you excited for vacation?"

Ruby looked at him sadly. "No," she said.

"Why not?"

"I don't wanna leave Mr. C," she said. 

Michael laughed. "Oh, Ruby. If you live with me, you don't have to! It'll be just like Saturday- all week!"

Ruby's eyes widened. "Just like summer at my old home!" she laughed and clapped her hands. "Only I get to stay with Mr. C!"

Her laugh and obvious joy at the idea of staying with Michael melted his heart. He must be doing something right, because Ruby was obviously happy with him. 

"I'm glad you're happy to stay," he said, lifting her up and hugging her. 

He knew at that moment that little Ruby was officially the most important thing in the world to him. He'd do anything to protect her, go anywhere and do anything to make her happy and safe and be the best daddy he could. 

She held onto him like he was her real daddy. Michael knew that for the rest of his life he would cherish that feeling, being close to the child he cared so much about. 

If only he could be sure it would last.

The next day was just like any other day- except for one thing. Micheal couldn't clear his head from all the "romance" nonsense. 

He thought to try Google and find Alice's aunt. Maybe she could help him figure out his feelings. 

Feelings. Hm. Michael had always been more of the quiet, simple type, with no feelings more dramatic than the blase "happy," "unhappy," "contempt," "blah," "tired," "energetic," "bored" and "frustrated"- until little Ruby had come along and shaken him up and turned his emotions upside-down. Over the past few months he'd felt things he didn't realize existed. He felt like they were all different colored sodas, in a big jar, separated by walls. Usually the jar was segregated, but Ruby had come along and poked holes in the walls, and they'd gotten all mixed up, creating new colors and new flavors. Then she'd shaken it up, and it felt like it was going to explode! He couldn't figure out what went where and what it all meant. 

Maybe a matchmaker was what he needed. Usually, they doubled as psychiatrists, to help people like Michael that needed to straighten out the big soda mess. 

He broke down and gave in at last, typing in Alice's surname "Ito" and the word "matchmaker" into a new Incognito tab. Immediately, the results popped up. He weeded through ads and junk before he found what he was looking for. "Ito Kanoko- Emotional Analyist, Human Psychiatrist, and Matchmaker Extraordinaire!" blared a headline. He clicked it and was brought to a site listing different matchmakers within Miss Kanoko's business. He found Ito Kanoko, who was in very close vicinity of his house. He jotted down the address, then closed out the window. 

Twenty minutes later, Ruby was happily playing with Alice at her house, and Michael was on the road. 

I hope I'm doing the right thing, he thought nervously. He pulled into the driveway of the building with the address he'd found. No sooner had he knocked when the door was flung open and a very colorful woman stepped out. 

"Yes, dear? Are you in need of help to guide your inner emotions? Are you in need of love?" 

Her voice was chirpy, with a slight cigarette rasp and Indian feel to her otherwise perfect English. 

"Uh... Kanoko?"

"Call me Yenta," the lady said, waving a cloud of cigar smoke out the door. "Yenta is a good name for someone like me. Bah! Kanoko sounds like a young girl, see? But Yenta! Yenta is a good name for me." She was a good head shorter than Micheal, and easily three times as wide. Her hair was braided into dark dreadlocks, which were braided into one braid, with ribbons and flowers woven in. She had dark sunglasses covering her eyes, with way too much bright purple lipstick. She looked like she'd just stepped out of a seventies soap opera. "What can I do for you?"

"Um... Yenta- my name is Michael Carter. I- uh- know your niece, Alice?"

"Ah, yes. She lived with me for a few years as a child, but I haven't seen her in years. How is the darling? Oh, yes, come in, dear."

She ushered Michael in the door.

"Um. Alice is fine. She's my next door neighbor."

"Good, good! That's nice. Poor dear, I was so worried when they came for her and brought her back to her father, my brother. He is a good man... but he is not cut out for children."

She reminded Michael of a gypsy. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "Right."

"So what about you, dear? You seem like you need help."

"Right. I, uh, well..."

"You are being told that you're in love, but you refuse to admit it, no?"

"Um. Well, yes. How did you-"

She cackled. "Yes,, yes. I always know when a lad is in love, dear. I can always tell your story."

"Well, see... it's about this girl. She's about six or seven years old..." 

And before long, Michael was telling the batty old lady his entire story, leaving nothing out. 

When he was done, she didn't even seem frazzled. "Yes, well. That is a complicated one, dear."

"What do I do, though?" he asked. 

"That, my boy, is up to you. But I can give you some advice."

"Okay," he replied, ready.

"Marry her. You are in love with her, Mr. Carter. I can assure you, you are. It's written in every word you say, every look in your eye. Understand? Marry her. It's the only way."

"Marry who?"

The woman glared at him. "Dear boy, are you dense! Marry the one you know you're in love with."

Alice. For some reason, this didn't surprise Michael. I guess I always knew that, he thought. I just refused to recognize that. 

"And Ruby?"

"I cannot tell you what to do, Sonny. But I can tell you this- you are her happily ever after. But remember, all good things come with a price."

Time went by. Michael only got more and more smitten with Alice. He never told her, or Ruby, or anyone, but he was falling head over heels for the sweet little redhead next door. He'd never been in love before, but he knew it was strong. One day, he couldn't stand it anymore. While standing in the check-out line ready to buy the leeks for his leek soup that night, he made up his mind. He had to ask her out.

As he was driving past the florists, he remembered Alice. What better way to ask her out than a bunch of flowers? He pulled into the driveway and got Ruby out of the car. 

"Where are we, Mr. C?" she asked, looking around at the squat little building. 

"A flower store, Ruby. We're going to pick out some pretty flowers for Alice, okay?"

Ruby beamed at him. "Are you gonna kiss her, Mr. C?"

"I don't think so. People don't usually kiss unless they're getting married," he told her. He didn't want to put bad ideas about kissing in her head.

"Then marry her!"

"Maybe if the dates go well." He was only half joking.

They stepped into the flowery store and were immediately bombarded with the smells of numerous flowers. 

Michael inhaled. "Um, hyacinth, wild bluebell... and a hint of cherry blossoms," he said. 

The vendor looked curiously at Michael. "How did you know that?" she asked. She flicked a long dark lock behind her head. She had a pink Japanese kimono on, with a flower tattooed on each hand, the bud blooming over the back of her hand and the stem curling over her wrist and forearm, laced with leaves and vines.  

"I- uh- spend three years studying abroad in Korea. The guy I stayed with, his girlfriend owned a florist shop. She used to make perfumes for me to sell to support my school funds. I learned a bunch of flowers' scents and scientific names and stuff."

"That's really neat. My dad died and left me this florist shop. Flowers are my life." she smiled blissfully and inhaled. 

"I like flowers too!" Ruby cried. 

"Do you? That is so cute! Do you want a flower too, Honey?" she addressed Ruby adoringly. 

Ruby's eyes widened. "Yes please!" 

The girl laughed and took Ruby's hand. She found her a small red narcissus and fixed it into her pigtail. Ruby laughed and giggled. 

"Thank you, Miss," she said. 

"My pleasure! Flowers are to be shared. My name is Lily Dire."

"Thank you, Lily." Michael stepped forward. "I am Michael Carter. I am looking for a perfect gift to give the girl I want to ask out."

Lily smiled and laughed. "Then you came to the right place, Mike. Forgive me, is it okay if I call you Mike?”

"Please. I don't mind. I just need some perfect flowers."

"Yes, flowers! I love them. What does she look like?"

"Well... she is really beautiful. She has long red hair, and blue eyes."

"Mm, red hair is always hard. So many red flowers you can't use."

"Why not?"

"For pictures, of course! If you take a picture of a redhead with orange flowers, it'll clash! But orange hair goes well with a green base with yellow flowers."

She disappeared into a maze of flowers. When she returned, she was holding a bouquet of green stalks, twisting into a sort of lattice. It was laced with yellow flowers, like buttercups. In the middle three yellow daffodils twisted and settled, making it look like a little explosion. 

"What do you think?"

"Wow! I think Alice will love it!" Ruby chirped.

"Do you? I'll take it." Michael said. 

"Great! It seems like flowers are slowly being replaced with e-cards and stuff," Lily said sadly. "It's nice to see someone who appreciates them! That bouquet is a total of twenty-five dollars, but I will give it to you for fifteen, for someone who really knows his flowers. And if you need a babysitter for your date night, I'm free," she offered.

Michael mentally cringed. Fifteen dollars? But it was only five dollars more than what the supermarket charged, and Lily looked like she really needed the money. Her tiny business didn't get much attention. It was worth it, anyway. None of the bouquets at the store were as amazing as this one. 

"Okay." he pulled out his wallet, paid for the flowers, and let Ruby carry them to the car.

All through the ride to the apartment, Ruby was gazing at the flowers. Michael told her as long as she was careful, he'd let her hold them. She didn't so much as touch one flower, yet she looked like they captivated her.

When they pulled into the driveway, Michael sent her ahead inside and he took the flowers. Stepping nervously over to Alice's door, he knocked and hid the flowers behind his back.

She opened the door and smiled. "Hey. Need me to babysit?" she asked.

"Um... no. Actually... I was wondering..." he pulled the flowers out and handed them to her. "Would you like to go out this evening?"

Alice looked stunned for a second, but her smile broke through. "Oh, Michael. I thought you'd never ask!" She took the flowers and grinned. "These are lovely!"

"Yes, well, not as lovely as you," he said. 

She smiled slyly. "Where are we going, Michael?"

"I have a nice idea," he said. Truth was, he didn't. But the new restaurant downtown would be a good place, he thought. 

"Let me go get dressed and I'll be right out. How fancy is your idea?"

"Uh, somewhat? Don't overdo it, though."

She laughed. Her laugh was like bells chiming in the wind. He smiled at the thought. 

He was going on a date with his dream girl!    

Michael knew in his heart that Alice was the one for him. He remembered all those years ago, when his mother had passed away. She had passed onto him her ivory and topaz wedding ring. He could do it. He could marry Alice.

Months passed, and he worked up the courage to say something. But it never seemed the right time. So he just kept the ring tucked away in his pocket and waited for the right time.

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