"Rusty or Ruby (or Both)" by Alissa York
About the Brief Encounters series: We asked ten Canadian writers to imagine a vivid meeting or confrontation: A "Brief Encounter" in 600 words or less.
In today's story, a moment of connection in an ER leads to lasting scars, and a reimagined future.
Rusty or Ruby (or Both)
by Alissa York
Paul doesn’t blame the Cadogan brothers for wanting him gone—it has to hurt, your dying father preferring the hired help to his own two sons. They aren’t bad men, just busy. Now that the final emergency’s come, they’re where they should be, at the foot of the barred white bed.
Paul smoothes Larry Cadogan’s bedclothes one last time, then gathers up his coat and bag. No sense upsetting the old man with words. He backs out quietly, one hand held up in farewell.
Alone in the elevator, he closes his eyes, leaning his head back against the leatherette wall. Care worker—it’s right there in the title, no way to do the job without forming attachments. At least no way he’s found.
Ground level, and the chime of the doors makes him jump. He steps out into the shimmering corridor, gets his bearings and proceeds.
Urgent Care is quieter now, the waiting room only three-quarters full. Surveying the crowd, he’s struck by a sudden, bewildering thought: Why not take a seat? There’s one next to a bloodied construction worker, another beside a muttering, glassy-eyed boy. He wouldn’t have to say anything; he could just sit there like the rest of them and wait. He gives his head a shake. He’s tired is all, worn out by the day’s events. Shrugging on his coat, he makes for the entranceway he passed through only hours before.
By rights he should leave this route clear for the professionals. He belonged in the cramped passage between sets of sliding doors when he was following Larry’s gurney; now he’s just another body in the way. An ambulance is unloading beyond the glass. He hesitates, unsure whether to turn back or hurry through.
The paramedic shoots him a glare as the doors draw aside, and Paul nods an apology, flattening himself against the wall. Suddenly the little vestibule is all sound. He’s heard plenty of people cry out—in pain, in terror, even—but never anything like this. The girl on the gurney is bellowing, braying as though she’s being torn in two. Which isn’t far from the truth. The mound of her belly is massive; the baby must be a monster, a big-headed bruiser fighting its way free.
She shoots a hand out from beneath the blanket, grabbing hold of Paul’s arm. Her sea-green eyes are bloodshot. Her hair—plastered to her forehead, ranging across the pillow in damp, twisting cords—is a heartbreaking shade of red. It’s incredible how strong her grip is. To be free of it he would have to hurt her, something he could never, ever do.
He’ll have to go with her. Delivery, recovery, wherever his presence is required.
The baby will do damage, pushing its brutal, tender head into the world, revealing its red crown of curls. He feels certain it will have her hair—her hair and her strength and her story, not a hint of the father to be seen.
She’ll need someone to help out around the house, making meals and giving baths and changing diapers—nothing Paul can’t do in his sleep. She might even need help coming up with the name. Or names—yes, names—she’s big enough for it to be twins, the pair of them redheads, a boy and a girl.....
It’s her loudest declaration yet. She marks him for life with her fingernails, meets his wide-open gaze and lets go.
Alissa York’s novels include Mercy, Effigy (shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize) and, most recently, Fauna. She is also the author of the short fiction collection Any Given Power, stories from which have won the Bronwen Wallace Award and the Journey Prize. She has lived all over Canada, and now makes her home in Toronto.