"I have some grading to do," he told Ruby, "So sit tight. You can draw a picture with the markers and paper in the arts-and-crafts area."
Ruby smiled and sat down at a desk.
Michael sighed and took out his phone, dialing a number he’d thought he’d long forgotten. It went for three rings before- “Hello?”
“Banker? I have to ask you to do me a favor…”
"I’m on the phone, Ruby. Wait a moment.”
She obediently sat down again, waiting for him to be done.
“Okay, now.” He looked at the girl.
"I have something for you!"
She pulled her little backpack from her cubby and opened it, pulling out the green paper. She handed it to Michael. "Here! I made it for you!"
She smiled giddily as he took the card and opened it. He smiled at her. "This is beautiful, Ruby! I love the apple inside," he said, pointing at the messily-cut paper apple. "It's almost as big as you are!” he reached behind his desk and pulled a shiny red apple from the half-eaten lunch he left behind. "Here's a real one, but I only have one, so don't waste it."
“Ooh! I know! I should grow an apple tree! That way I can have as many apples as I want!"
Michael smiled. "Then you should plant it," he suggested.
"Yeah!" Ruby bit the apple, but didn’t chew. She slowly opened her lips and pulled the piece of apple out, then looked at the chunk. "Ah-ha! A seed!" she pulled the little seed out. "Can you help me plant it?"
"Sure thing," he said, leading her out of the classroom.
When he reached the back door, he opened it for Ruby and led her to the school greenhouse. There, he found a pot and filled it with soil. Ruby giggled and pushed the seed in, drizzled some water on it, and showed him proudly. "Will it grow now?"
"It might," he said, "If you put it in the sunlight and take good care of it!"
She nodded earnestly and skipped back to the classroom. "I will put it in this window! It gets the most sunlight!"
"Good idea," he replied. "Now I'm going to finish. You can do your coloring now, okay?"
"Okay, Mr. C!"
"Come now, Ruby. it's time to go home," he told her.
"Okay," she said, yawning.
"I think it's time for bed," he said softly.
Ruby didn't argue, she just quietly followed her Mr. C out the door of the classroom.
Suddenly, he froze.
"Mr. Carter, why hasn't that little girl gone home yet?" the secretary asked as he clocked out.
"Um... her parents... uh... asked me to bring her home.
There was a deathly silence. his heart throbbed, threatening to break free. Was the secretary going to call him out on his lie?
Finally, she spoke. "That's nice of you," she said. He sighed a breath of relief and took Ruby's hand. He led her to his car, which was a small black Mitsubishi. "Uh oh," he said.
"What is it?" Ruby asked timidly.
"It's just one problem.. I don't have a carseat for you."
"Do you have a booster seat?" she asked, as if that was so much different.
"Well... Mama never lets me go without one," she said.
"That's okay. We'll make do," replied Michael. "I'll figure something out."
He glanced around the car. He saw his college textbooks for Calculus plus, and creative writing, and for technological studies. He noticed his little cushion in the trunk, and had an idea.
Five minutes later, they were on the road- Michael in the driver's seat, driving with white knuckles, and little Ruby, sitting atop a stack of textbooks with a pillow on them. He never drove with two hands, let alone clenching the wheel this hard, but then again, he never had carried something so valuable in his backseat, either.
She slept most of the ride. Michael couldn't help but watch her from the rearview mirror. She looked so angelic there, sleeping on his schoolbooks and leaning heavily on the locked seatbelt. He smiled at the cherubic half-smile playing on her chubby face. She sighed and shifted her weight, and he snapped his eyes back to the road.
His thoughts eventually caught up to him. What the heck was he thinking, taking in this little kid? How was he going to give her what she needed? How was he going to keep this a secret? Why did he do what he did? His head buzzed with "hows", "whys" and "what ifs" until he thought his mind would combust.
He pulled into his driveway and pulled the key out of the ignition. With a sigh of relief, he popped his out seat belt and got out of the car. He unbuckled Ruby and lifted her out of the car with one arm and repacked his backpack with the other. He slammed the door with his foot and limped towards the door. Fumbling with his keys underneath Ruby, he struggled with the door until he was able to get it unlocked. He set the snoozing child on the couch and the books on the coffee table in front of it. Ruby stirred, mumbling softly.
"Shh..." he told her, stroking her cheek. "Just sleep."
Michael brought his books to his small bedroom and dropped them on the little desk in the corner. He lived in a small condominium complex, set up like a motel. He was door one. Down from there, room two was Ito Alice, the redheaded young girl, room three was supposedly haunted and nobody ever lived there, and room four had a single mother of three.
The individual condos didn't really differ in set up. You walk into the living room with a cheap couch and maybe a TV, a kitchenette with a small refrigerator and oven-stove unit and a one-compartment sink, and a small hallway branching off into a small bedroom with enough space for a queen-sized bed and a table, a closet and a bedside table. The other room was a bathroom, with a small toilet and a stand-up shower and sink. There was a small guest room with a lumpy futon in the back. It was small, but it was good enough for a single man living alone.
But now he had to worry about Ruby. Was he being fair to her? Was he giving her what she needed? Would she be better off in the system?
But even she had said she wanted to stay with him. If she showed even the slightest hint of unhappiness with him... but she didn't.
I'll wait it out a few days, see how she does.
"Mr. C..." Ruby's small voice broke into his thoughts.
He followed it to the living room where Ruby was sitting up on the couch, rubbing her eyes. "Is this your home?" she asked.
"Yes, Ruby. This is my home. But it's your home too, now. You are going to live here with me, remember?"
"I remember." she looked around. "It's a nice home. I'm going to like being with you."
Michael smiled softly. "I sure hope you are."
And with that, Ruby curled up on the couch again and was out like a light.
Michael found the softest blanket he owned and draped it over her sleeping form, then found an old, oversized T-shirt and placed it next to her, in case she needed to change. aWithout waking, she curled her fingers around the hem of the blanket and pulled it snugly around herself.
He smiled again, and retreated to his room to study, leaving the girl alone on the couch.
BZZT. BZZT. BZZT.
The high-pitched buzzing of his alarm clock drove away his blissful, sleepy subconscious. He groaned and rolled over, slapping it to make it stop.
Another Wednesday morning... wait, no it wasn't! He still had Ruby! He had totally forgotten about her, sleeping on his couch.
He sat bolt upright and realized he'd slept in his day clothes. He quickly changed suits and rushed out to see the tiny girl in the same position he'd left her in, still sleeping soundly in the oversized T-shirt he'd let her sleep in. He'd have to remember to get her some real pajamas.
For now, he just had to get her to school.
He stepped into the kitchenette and found a bowl and some cereal and milk for her. Then he grabbed his protein shake and brought all of it to the coffee table out in the living room.
He gently shook Ruby awake. She sighed softly and rubbed her eyes.
"Mr. C? What- oh... right," she seemed confused until she remembered where she was and why she woke up to her teacher's face and not her parents'.
"Breakfast, Ruby," he said, pouring a bowl of Cheerios for her.
"Yum," she said, and sat forward to the coffee table.
He downed half of his protein shake and left her to her Cheerios while he found his books and stuffed them in his backpack. He met Ruby back in the living room, finishing her breakfast.
"I'm going to go start the car," he said, patting her on the head. "Can you get ready to go to school?"
"Okay, Mr. C," she nodded, heading to the bathroom where she'd changed last night.
Getting out the door was a hassle, but it did happen, with the same seating arrangement as the afternoon previous.
He drove, again, with two hands on the wheel, and without music. Nothing risking an accident.
Ruby chatted happily in the backseat the whole way. She talked about Rye, and her butterfly life cycle project ideas, and the Kidz Bop album that had come out just before the accident.
Michael tried to engage in her conversation, but it was so cute hearing her talk, he didn't say much. He just nodded and "mmm hmmm-ed" and "uh huh-ed" and asked some basic questions to let her know he was listening.
When they pulled into the school parking lot, Ruby looked at the empty spaces confusedly. "Mr. C, are we the first ones here?"
"Yes. I have to come early, because I am a teacher," he replied.
"Is that okay with you?" he asked.
"Yeah, I guess. Does this mean I can get first pick at where I sit, before Rye takes the seat next to Hammy?" (Hammy is the class hamster. The kids always fought over who got to sit near him.)
"Sure, I guess." He shrugged.
It's so easy to please her, he thought, smiling.
He turned the car off and led Ruby to the classroom, dodging the office ladies so as not to seem suspicious.
She skipped and chatted the whole way there. When they reached the classroom, she made a beeline for the 'Hammy Seat' and sat down triumphantly.
"You can work on your life cycle project, Ruby, okay?" he said, smiling at her adorable face.
As she pulled the poster out from her cubbyhole, Michael sat at his desk and tried to focus on the papers he was grading.
When Ruby's came around, he smiled at the little doodle of an apple that she always had next to her name. She was so cute. Why couldn't she be like all the other kids? Why was it her parents that had to die? Why did he not seem to be able to admit to himself that she wasn't supposed to be here today, but in an orphanage or foster home? Did he really care so much about her that he'd take her to live with him?
The melee of children filing in broke into his thoughts. He stood up and tucked the papers into a folder, and opened the door to let in the students.
"Mr. C! Guess what- hey! Ruby's already here?!" Rye's voice was the first he heard.
"I got here early, so there, Rye! I get the Hammy Seat today!" she giggled.
Rye scowled at her. When he had hung his jacket and backpack up, he marched straight over to her and sat down at the next closest seat to the hamster. "Meanie."
Ruby just smiled and pulled out her morning work, and began to do the first problem.
They have the most adorable friendship, thought Michael wistfully.
When class ended, he followed the same routine as the day before. He brought Ruby home, gave her dinner, and got her ready for bed. It was almost seven o'clock, and Ruby wasn't even tired.
"Mommy never made me go to bed until eight," she sang, jumping up and down on the couch in her makeshift pajamas.
"Well, I am Mr. C, not Mommy, and I say seven thirty is bedtime."
"Ruby, you know I have work to do."
"You can work. I'll be quiet! Besides, I can't sleep without my pajamas. And my teddy bear. And a song from Mama’s music collectiojn. And I need to brush my teeth!" she grinned, stretching her little lips out and showing off her crooked baby teeth, as if to prove her point.
It seemed like he couldn't do anything to help her. He, after all, didn't have the things she'd had at her old home. He had to get them back.
"You know what, Ruby? I have an idea. Do you know how to get to your old house from here?"
"Yeah! I live at 72 Babette Avenue!"
"Babette? My cousin lives there! I know where that is. Babette is maybe a ten minute drive from here, at most. I can drive you to your house. If I do that, can we go in and grab some things for you to take home with us?"
"Yeah! Mommy leaves the spare key underneath the mat. She thinks I don't know, but I do."
"Okay, then. Go get dressed again, and we'll get your things."
And fifteen minutes later, they were pulling up into Ruby's old driveway.
"Wow, I feel like I should be just going home for the afternoon," she said. "I feel like, when I walk through that door, Mommy will be waiting for me, with a snack ready and a hug, ready to ask me how my day was." she sounded sad, as any child would be.
It broke his heart to see her like this. He blinked back tears and put on a brave face. He had to be strong for her.
"Okay, Ruby, time to go in! Let's go get some things. Nothing more than what you can fit into a backpack, okay?"
"Okay. I'll use Daddy's big duffle bag."
"All right. Let's go."
She crawled out of the car and dashed to the front door.
“Where did you say that key was, Ruby?” asked Michael when they reached the door.
“Under the mat, Mr. C,” she replied, pulling a small silver key out from underneath the welcome mat.
“Good. Let’s do this, fast, before anyone sees,” he muttered, taking the key from Ruby and shoving it in the door.
He stayed in the doorway as she bolted through her house and disappeared down the hall, her pigtails bobbing. He surveyed the house. It was medium-sized, perfect for a family of three. There was a cozy living room, with a decent-sized TV and warm-looking couch. The kitchen was small, but covered in boxes. There was Nilla wafers, half-eaten, and a bag of oranges, and granola bars, gummy snacks, a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter, some Cheerios and a case of strawberries.
In a split-second decision, he grabbed a reusable shopping bag from the rack next to him, and filled it with the food. They weren’t going to be eating it. They were dead. So why couldn’t he take it? It was going to help Ruby, anyway. So no big deal. He met Ruby back at the front door and they bolted to his car.
“What did you grab, Ruby?” he asked her when they were safely on the road again.
“Oh, just some stuff. My teddy bear, toothbrush, some clothes, pajamas, a few books, my little blanket, a pillow, my Happy the Cat stuffed animal, socks, some hairties, and an art kit Mommy bought me. What is in the bag?”
“Food. I think it was shopping day when the accident happened.”
They were silent the ride home. When they pulled into the driveway, Ruby just yawned and trudged inside.
He followed her. He put the bag of food on the kitchen table and helped Ruby get to bed. Then he put the groceries away and stepped outside for a breath of fresh air.
“Hey there, Michael!” A friendly voice was waiting for him outside.
He looked over at the source. It was Alice. “Hello, Alice. How are you?”
“All right. You?”
“So you’re taking home a little bundle today, huh?”
Michael’s heart nearly stopped. “Huh? Bundle? Me?”
“Um, yeah, I mean the kid. Is she yours?”
Alice slid of the railing, landing softly next to the bewildered Michael. “I was born out of wedlock, too. My mom kept me a secret, but when she died, I went and lived with my dad. He seemed to refuse to acknowledge that I existed. Is it one of those times?”
“Uh, no! Not at all. Um… well…” Michael knew he should tell her some kind of lie, or go along with her wedlock story. But somehow, he felt like Alice deserved the truth. “Not exactly.”
“Then what’s her story?”
“Um… if I tell you, you can’t tell anyone, okay?”
“Oh…kay, I guess.”
“Sure. I promise.”
“She’s my student. But it’s not what it looks like. You know how I teach at the college, and up at the elementary school?”
“I do now.”
“Well, she’s a part of the second-grade class I teach. Her parents were killed in a car accident, but I couldn’t let her go into the system. So I asked her if she wanted to live with me. She said yes, so here she is.”
Alice laughed. “Right. And I’ll bet that’s so legal.”
“I’m not kidding, Alice.”
She fell serious. “You aren’t?”
“No. Ruby is not my child. I’m single, and uninterested in romance. So I took her in.”
He half expected her to laugh again, or call the police, or accuse him of kidnapping. But she didn’t. “And… you’re sure this is the best option for her?”
“I don’t know what the best option is, but I do know one thing. The orphan system in this state is not pretty.”
“And how would you know?”
Michael swallowed. “Um. Movies?”
Alice looked at him seriously. “You grew up in one, didn’t you?”
“Because I spent some time in the systems too. I know an orphaned kid, brand new or all grown up, when I see one. We all have something in common. It’s not something you can describe, but I know an kid like me when I see one.”
Michael didn’t reply. What could he say? He was spilling his innermost emotions with his next-door neighbor- and she was being just as open to him.
“So… about Ruby.” Alice sat back up on the railing.
“What about her?” replied Michael.
“How is she?”
“She’s too young to really know what’s happening. She’s, what, six years old? She doesn’t really understand what’s happening. But she told me herself that she wanted to live with me.”
"Ah. Well, if you ever need some help, I'll be right here next door."
He was taken aback by the sincerity in her voice- as if she really wanted to help him take care of this girl, as strange as the circumstances were. "Thank you," he said.
“Michael, do you think you’re capable of caring for a child?”
“I really hope so, Alice. I truly do."
The next day was Saturday. Michael was looking forward to sleeping in.
First thing Ruby did when she woke up- at seven in the morning- was wake Michael up too. “Mr. C! Mr. C! It’s morning time! Wake up! It’s time to wake up!”
Michael groaned and pulled the pillow over his face, but Ruby persisted. “WAKE UP!”
He sat up and rubbed his eyes. “Ruby… it’s too early.”
“No it’s not! The sun’s already up!”
“That means nothing.”
“Yeah it does! It means that we have to get up and play!
He didn't feel like explaining to Ruby that Saturdays were days to not get up, so he let Ruby drag him out to the kitchen.
"I'm making breakfast today!" she announced.
"You do that," yawned Michael.
"Okay! What do we have?" she rummaged through the cabinet, and found the bag of oranges and strawberries and cereal. She pulled the half-gallon of milk from the fridge and got to work. When she was done, there were two messily-poured bowls of Cheerios with strawberry mush and orange juice mixed in.
She sat down at the table and sighed as they tried the food. "Making breakfast is hard. I wanted to put some pieces of fruits into the cereal, like Mommy does. It didn't work, huh?
He chuckled. "It's hard when you're too little to use a knife. You can't cut strawberries with your fingers."
"Yeah, I guess not."
She talked some more as they ate, but Michael's mind was on Alice. He had barely ever talked to her. She was really nice, that he did know. She was about his age, maybe a few years younger. Her red hair reminded him of his mother- the only image he had of her, from the only photo he had from before his parents died. He hadn't known she, too, had such a rough childhood.
Michael wondered quietly if a girl really could grow up without a mother. Alice did, obviously. But then again, Alice was probably at least thirty five, and still living alone in a tiny apartment. Well, so was Michael, after all. But still. Could he really do this alone? Well, what choice did he have? He said himself, he was uninterested in romance. And you couldn't just ask someone to be the mother figure in a child's life. That was as weird as taking a student home as your own. But then again, Alice had said if he needed help, she'd be there. So, even if she couldn't be Ruby's mother, she could help if Ruby needed a female to talk to.
That was reassuring, as strange as it seemed.