It’s in a group rehab session when he first speaks about it. Your mama did what? one of the guys asks.
She took a knife to her hand, carved a cross into it. Real small, at the base of her thumb, the man says, pointing to his own flesh to show them.
He grew up reciting Bible, he tells them. His mama felt guilty. Said it would cleanse her, make her clean, going to church. His favorite verse was about time because it was difficult to bide, though as a kid, you don’t have a language for it, biding time.
He only knew what it was to draw cold water over a paper towel each night, press it to his mama’s shivery forehead. He watched the water trickle like tears down her cheeks. He liked to touch his fingers to them, catch them before they fell to the bed.
She called it baptism when I did that, the man says.
Another guy asks, What was your mama on, anyway?
He understands now why someone would call the sound a squall, watching the baby girl’s throat muscles contract up and up until the sound washes out of her mouth. Shh, he says to her, bouncing her up and down on one arm.
You’re not doing it right, the woman says from her hospital bed. He lays the baby careful as a prayer into the woman’s arms.
They had only known each other a couple months before the woman told him the news and held out a stick damp with urine.
She smells like strawberry shortcake, he says. We should call her Ruby.
Ruby. The woman tastes the name. I like that, Ruby.
Women, lovers, to the man, had always been temporary angels that washed into and out of his life as quick as a tide.
Ruby is heavy as a sack of sugar as he lifts her again from her mother. He hooks a finger in the crying baby’s mouth, slicks it over the bubblegum pink gums. Toothless, all of it brand new. He rubs her saliva between his fingers and touches her forehead.
She has gathered her hair into a bun on the top of her head, a new style that she’s trying out, he notices. Her belly button is a cheerio in her torso. She only needs to pull her shorts up a little, her shirt down, to cover it.
She splays her fingers in a star on the table. Her nails are as red as her hair, though the paint has begun to chip away.
The counselor is making me go to boxing, she says. You know, because I’m traumatized. By all of this. She gestures to the gray bubble of world that surrounds them. Metal bars chop sunlight in the windows. COs stand at the entrance, at the vending machine, even.
He sweats in his bodysuit, feels the ooze of it on his temples. The cuffs clink a little as he wipes a hand across his forehead.
Do you know what the word bide means? he asks suddenly.
Ruby drapes her arm over the table. It means to put up with something. She gives him a look.
I have one more year, Ruby-baby. He holds up his index finger to her.
With his forearm exposed, Ruby can see the lines of pinpricks. And with them, she sees her father’s head slumped to the side, from the wrecked car or from the overdose, she isn’t sure. She lifts a finger to her head, feels the blood puddle at her temples. Sees the spiderwebbed windshield, glass tinkling across her hair like falling stars. Oh God, she hears her father mumble through broken teeth.
The man clasps his hands, the silver cuffs gathering at the base of his palms. His mother used to stoop at the side of his bed, folding her hands over his and praying: thank you, God, for our time on this earth. May we use it carefully, may we never waste it. Though we can’t hold it in our hands like gold or diamonds, may we understand what a precious thing it is.
Squeezing his hands together like that, he understands his mother for a moment. Time as precious as gemstones.
They sit for a while, the man watching Ruby watch him. A CO finally taps Ruby’s shoulder and she stands without a word, as bright as fire, as shimmering as heat waves, a heliocentric thing, who, when she leaves the room, sends the man spinning and spinning.
Macey Phillips is an MFA candidate in fiction at the Ohio State University. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Pinch Journal and The Broadkill Review. She received a BA in English from the Ohio State University where she also completed a minor in Gender & Sexuality Studies. She lives in Columbus, Ohio with her husband and dog. You can see more of her work at www.maceyphillips.com