By Ekta R. Garg
Prompt: Ruby took a breath and, with a shaking hand, signed her name to the list.
(From The Writer magazine)
Ruby stared at the banner behind the student at the table. “Upcoming hike-and-camp!” it said in neatly lettered words on butcher paper. Someone had drawn a mountain below the words with a smiling stick figure make its way up the side, several other stick figures following like ducks in a row.
Her heart fluttered. She hadn’t been camping or hiking since she was 10. Not since Jonathan. After the one-year anniversary of the accident, she begged her parents to take her. He would have wanted them to go, she said. But her parents burrowed deeper in their work, their excuses, and their grief and said no.
“Hi there,” the student called from the table. Ruby shook herself back to the present and smiled in response.
She should have walked away. Her parents would have propelled her right past the table if they’d known she’d stopped at it. Firm hands on shoulders applying enough pressure to remind her that they didn’t do those things anymore. But they’d left the night before, and Ruby could finally breathe into her freshman year of college.
“Hi,” she said, stepping closer to the boy. Within arm’s distance, she saw the kindness in his eyes and face. The ease of his body language made Ruby relax, her shoulders dropping a little.
“Do you like outdoorsy stuff?” the boy asked. He rummaged through a few of the fliers on the table. “We usually make a big overnight trip in the fall and winter, and every weekend we go for shorter treks.”
“Sure,” Ruby said.
He handed her a flier; as she glanced at it, he craned his neck to look at it while he continued talking to her about the club.
She knew her family had lost someone precious. She and Jonathan were best friends, and if her parents had lost a son, well, she’d lost the most amazing brother. They used to fight, but it never lasted long, and she and Jonathan loved all the time their family spent in the beauty of Utah’s Wasatch Front.
Within three months of losing him, her parents packed up everything and moved the family to downtown Salt Lake. The Rockies still leaned over the valley, but inside of offices in tall buildings they could forget. And it seemed like they did. They forgot Jonathan, the accident. Ruby.
Not at first; not completely. They remembered parent-teacher conferences and to sign her up for driver’s ed. They signed all the permission slips and gave her money for field trips. But they didn’t look right at her. They stopped doing that after Jonathan died. Even though they were fraternal twins and different genders no less, Ruby got the sense that whenever Mom and Dad looked right at her all they saw was who they lost instead of who was left.
“…and we’ll be taking the first hike this weekend,” the boy finished. “Oh, sorry. I’m Jack, by the way.”
He held out a hand and Ruby took it, his warm, confident grip making her heart flutter again.
“We’d love to have you along,” Jack said, still holding her hand. She tugged it back a little, and he dropped it as color started to seep into his face. He laughed in embarrassment and scrubbed the back of his head.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to make that weird,” he said. “I just—I didn’t freak you out, did I? God, I’m such an idiot.”
“No,” Ruby said in a soft voice. “You didn’t freak me out.”
Jack grinned with relief. “So you’ll come?”
She swallowed hard and nodded before her common sense told her to say otherwise. Jack handed her a clipboard that asked for her name, email address, and cell phone number. There was also a waiver to sign, he said, but considering they never did anything even remotely outrageous it was more of a formality.
Ruby took a breath and, with a shaking hand, signed her name to the list.
“Okay, great…Ruby,” Jack said, reading her name off the clipboard. “Have you ever done any hiking before? Do you need help with boots or anything?”
“Yeah, I used to…I mean, I think I’ve got it covered,” she said. “Thanks, Jack.”
“No problem,” he said, giving her a salute with two fingers. “Good to meet you.”
This time Ruby could feel her own face getting warm as she nodded a goodbye, trotted out of the student union, and went back to her dorm.
She thought about hiking boots—her mother’s, specifically. When her parents moved them to the city, her mother had taken the boots she’d worn on that last hike and put them in a box for charity. The night before Mom drove all the donation items to the Salvation Army, Ruby sneaked down to the garage and rummaged through the boxes.
She rescued her mother’s boots, leaving her own. Even at 10 years old, Ruby knew that a day would come when her own boots would no longer fit, but maybe Mom’s might. Maybe, someday, they’d hit the trails together like a family again. They’d share Mom’s special trail mix and stop to talk about plants and trees. Her parents were sad, she knew, but they’d come around.
In the new house, Ruby dropped the boots into the back of her closet to hide them from her mother. Then, as time passed and no one wanted to hike or even talk about Jonathan anymore, she tried to hide them from herself. It was on a hunt for a favorite sweatshirt that she saw the boots again and, on impulse, packed them for the dorm.
Her family didn’t hike anymore, but Ruby could. At the University of Utah, she didn’t have to be the girl whose brother died. She could just be herself; just Ruby. And just Ruby loved the land and the serenity of the mountains.
She trotted to her dorm now knowing exactly where she’d find the boots. She even knew they were almost a perfect fit. Nothing a pair of socks couldn’t fix, anyway. And she knew within days she’d be back among the beauty of the land she and her brother loved so much.