Ruby Leander’s third life ends with the flip of a page. The photograph catches her eye first. Then the words shriek at her, in stark black and white. Lines of type shift on the page, curl into a tight ball, somersault, gathering sentences, whole paragraphs, gaining momentum. And just like that, on an otherwise ordinary Thursday, this life is over.
She slams the weekly tabloid shut, sandwiching the article between weight-loss ads and pictures of celebrities misbehaving. As her client, Antoinette, approaches, Ruby tosses the magazine aside.
Antoinette bustles up to the nail station, oversized tote bag banging against her curvy hip. Thursday is Ruby’s late day, to accommodate the working women. Antoinette has a standing appointment in the last slot. Margaret’s partner, Molly, baby sits Lark—though nine-year-old Lark would cringe at that word. And Antoinette and Ruby go to dinner. This is their routine.
“Sorry. Sorry. Shakespeare had it right. I want to kill all the lawyers.” Antoinette plops down on the seat across the narrow table. Her thick hair is tamed into a demure bun, her white blouse closed a button higher than before her recent promotion from the court clerk’s office to judge’s secretary. She pauses, looks at Ruby. “You okay?”
No, Ruby is not okay. The photograph, the words, are burned into her brain. From a serendipitous thirst, a wrong turn, and a chance meeting—and a big lie—she built this Santa Fe life for herself and her daughter, Lark. This is no sand-castle life that could wash away in the evening tide; this is a mountain life, strong and tall and solid. Yet even mountains erode, and this one is crumbling at her feet. She is definitely not okay.
“Yes. I’m fine.”
Without a doubt, that photograph is of Lark; a similar shot sits in a frame in their living room. This life is over, but what she does about the article will define what the next life will be—for her and for Lark.
“You sure you’re okay?” Antoinette’s voice sounds tinny, as if traveling from a soup can and string, what with having to penetrate that photo before reaching a piece of Ruby’s brain. “It’s not . . .”
“I’m fine. Really.” Ruby tries to ignore the worry creasing Antoinette’s brow and avoid meeting Margaret’s eyes in the mirrored wall that lines the hair stations. Margaret doesn’t miss much in her salon.
“You know you can tell me anything.” Antoinette’s voice is soft with concern.
The kindness soaks into Ruby’s skin, rises to a lump in her throat. “I know.”
As Antoinette turns to the rack on the wall to choose her polish, Ruby picks up the tabloid from the floor beside her chair, fans through to the page. She rips out the article, folds it into a tidy square, then gestures to the sudsy manicure dish. “Soak a minute. I’ll be right back.”
In the back room of the salon, Ruby braces her arms on each side of the sink, fights the nausea pulsing against her throat. She turns on the faucet, splashes her face, the cold water a welcome slap against her hot cheeks. Over the past decade, she has never once thought of herself as a criminal; Ruby did right by that child, even if the law doesn’t agree. But now a boulder is careening their way.
Ruby flings the door open at the first crunch of gravel on the driveway. She gnaws her lower lip as Molly’s car parks beside the porch. Clyde bursts from the car first, a flash of four-legged auburn highlights leaping up at Ruby for a quick lick before bounding around the corner into the backyard. Lark’s butt emerges next, followed by the rest of the child tugging out a purple backpack.
As Molly pulls away, Ruby waves and mouths “thank you,” pretends not to see the questioning look in the woman’s eyes. Lark barely reaches the porch before Ruby grabs her, pulls her into a tight hug. Ruby draws in a deep breath through her nose, savors the hint of Larkness buried under scents of horse and a day outdoors.
“Mo-om,” Lark says into Ruby’s shirt. “You’re squi-ishing me.”
Ruby loosens her grip, moves her hands to Lark’s shoulders. “Sorry, baby.”
“What’s the matter?” Lark steps away from Ruby and into the house.
Ruby picks up Lark’s backpack, follows her inside. “Nothing’s wrong. I just needed my Lark fix.”
“You were jonesing, huh?”
Even in her terror, Ruby can’t help laugh. “Jonesing? Where on earth . . .”
“I’m precocious, remember?” Lark tucks a wisp of angel-wing hair behind her ear.
Ruby crosses the living area, moves to the sink nestled in a corner of the tiny kitchen. Through the gap in the curtains behind the sink, a sliver of the Sangre de Cristo mountains is awash in purple evening light. Reaching past the herb garden and Lark’s latest project, an avocado pit suspended over a glass by toothpicks, she tugs the curtains closed against any possibility of prying eyes.
A door slams. Ruby startles. She drops her hand from her throat when she sees Clyde, who nosed open the screen door to the back porch. He pads over to her, rubs his sleek doggy body against her legs. Normal, she tells herself. Just act normal.
She leans back against the kitchen counter. “You hungry?”
Lark throws herself onto the sofa that they inherited with the house. “We were just finishing our burgers when you called. We were going to the movie.” Petulance mixes with concern in Lark’s voice.
Molly hadn’t asked any questions when Ruby called her. Ruby’s tone had probably put her off. Back at the salon, Antoinette’s face had registered somewhere between hurt and confusion when Ruby asked for a rain check from their regular Thursday girls’ night. Ruby didn’t intend the edge in her voice, but it cut Antoinette just the same.
Ruby is going to have to explain everything, to Margaret and Molly, to her boyfriend, Chaz, to Antoinette. To Lark. First, though, she has to understand it, believe it, herself.
“Can we watch one here? A movie?” Lark asks.
Ruby nods. “Your pick.”
Lark slides off the sofa, opens the oak armoire, runs her finger down the videocassettes stacked beside the TV—Ruby has yet to upgrade the collection to DVD. “Singin’ in the Rain?”
“Again?” Ruby says. “What ever. But bath first. You reek of horse.”
“We rode out at Rancho Enchanto.” Lark still uses her years-old mispronunciation of Rancho Encantada, the fancy horse stables and residential development just north of Santa Fe. “I got to ride Gus.”
Ruby follows Lark into the bathroom sandwiched between the two bedrooms. When the tub is filled, Ruby sits on the toilet lid while Lark soaks the dirt and sweat and summer off her lithe body. Clyde sits at Ruby’s feet, his chin resting on the edge of the tub.
“You got camp tomorrow,” Ruby says. Lark has attended the twice-a-week Girls Inc. day camp for the last few years, part of Ruby’s patchwork of care for Lark while school is not in session.
“Yeah. The image lady is coming again.” Already a crisp line divides Lark’s legs into the creamy part shielded from sun by her shorts and the bronzed lower limbs.
“Images?” If Ruby can keep Lark talking, she might be able to fake her way through a cheery bath time.
“Of us. Girls. Last time she showed us pictures from magazines and stuff. And asked us what we thought the pictures said about the girls in them. She showed us how the people who make the clothes put us into either ‘Girly girl’ or ‘Naughty girl.’ Like the T-shirts that say ‘Boys Will Be Toys.’ The ones you won’t let me wear.”
Ruby shakes her head at Lark’s bubble beard. Sometimes the kid is nine going on forty, sometimes nine going on four. “The ones you wouldn’t be caught dead wearing.”
“Well, anyway, we’re making our own shirts. Tomorrow we get to draw what we want on them and then she’s going to take the pictures and put them on the shirts.” Lark pauses to scrub her face with the washcloth. “We’re supposed to draw things that show who we are. Like it’s okay to use ‘Princess’ or ‘Flirt’ if we want, but what else are we?”
Lark washes her “toeses,” chanting the “Moses” song from the movie they’ll watch after her bath. “Do you think the other kids will think I’m a total nerd if I put old movies on my list of things I like, on my shirt?” Her elfin face is earnest.
“Some of them might.” Ruby folds her arms in her lap. “You can’t control what other people think, baby bird. Sometimes you can’t even control what you think. You can only control how you act.”
“Rinse, please.” Lark tilts her foamy wig backward, ropy collarbones jutting out, the shampoo aroma a halo of that peculiar mix of strawberry and banana that the makers call kiwi. Ruby fills the plastic cup again and again from the faucet, and pours it over her daughter’s corn-silk head. “Besides. Why would you care about the thoughts of someone silly enough not to like old movies? Okay, stand up.” Ruby holds up a blue towel. “Just be your own wonderful self.”
The phone rings as Ruby enfolds Lark in the towel. A second ring, a third, shriek. Ruby rushes to the kitchen counter, picks up the receiver as if it might bite.
“Hello?” Her voice is old-man gruff as much from fear as the instinct to disguise. “No, no. There’s no one here by that name.”
Slamming the receiver onto its cradle, she lays her hot forehead against the cool counter. A telemarketer, just a pesky telemarketer asking for Mrs. Levy.
She raises her head, clasps her hands behind her clammy neck, then she hurries into the living area. A yank on the cord beside the large picture window sends the rarely closed blinds crashing to the sill. Coughing through a cloud of sparkly dust, she leans over the sofa, peers through the slats, down the street, looking for cherry-topped cars or big, black government sedans.
Ruby’s brain scoffs at her flailing heart. They’re not going to call first; they’re just going to kick in the door.
Excerpted from Mothers and Other Liars by Amy Bourret.
Copyright © 2010 by Amy Bourret.
Published in 2010 by St. Martin's Griffin.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.