I spread my arms wide and smiled, twirling around. The air was sharp, but not with an edge that would cut me. My skin tingled, invigorated, and I soaked up most of the available energy, while being careful to leave a little behind to regenerate in the atmosphere. I watched it sparkle its crackling color, the one we called Ruby, with a capital R, like it was a name rather than a label.
It was nothing like the color of the shiny ruby in Teresa’s necklace, the one she wore every day, which dangled pendulously between her large, squishy breasts. I don’t know why we called it Ruby, when it was so different from an actual ruby. But we all – well, most of us – knew what we were talking about.
“Eloise!” Teresa’s voice startled me from my thoughts. Now that was sharp, and unlike the air, this razor edge felt like it might leave a mark. “What are you doing out there without a coat?”
I heaved a giant sigh and my shoulders sagged, but I turned around and walked toward her before she could tell me to ‘get inside this instant.’ I wasn’t cold, I almost never was, but good luck getting her to believe that. It would probably be easier to convince her of the existence of Ruby, which I’d tried to do a million times with exactly zero success. I nodded at Eldritch on my way in, and he shrugged sympathetically. Couldn’t convince Teresa of him either.
I snaked my arms into a jacket, because it was just easier than fighting about it. My energy level was filled to the brim and bursting at the seams, and now here I was indoors and sweltering in a puffy purple down feather coat. Lydia beckoned me over and we bent our heads together. “Teresa’s driving me crazy today,” she confided. “She keeps blaming me for everything that’s gone wrong. I told her Shenanigan escaped again, but she’s having none of it. Keeps calling me a little liar and making me sit on my hands. I wish I could go outside. I’m doing everything I can to get him stuffed back into his hole, but I’m exhausted. Can you help me out?”
I peered around Lydia and narrowed my eyes at Shenanigan. When he’d first shown up, we’d tried being friendly. When it became obvious friendship wasn’t in the cards, we’d attempted to be civil. For days Lydia and I tried to ignore him, but now we were just hoping to survive. He was a little jerk. He took particular glee in ruining projects we’d poured our hearts into. He shoved or tripped us as we walked. Once, he’d even bitten Hollis, sinking his single wicked sharp, curved fang into the meaty part of his calf. Teresa, of course, blamed a bee. As if a bee could create a puncture wound half an inch deep that seeped a sizzling pus. A pus Teresa claimed didn’t exist. Either she really didn’t see or hear it, or she was the world’s best actress. Teresa wasn’t stupid…the woman was actually very knowledgeable about a wide variety of subjects. But she sure was blind.
I whispered in Lydia’s ear, cupping my hand around my mouth so Shenanigan couldn’t read my lips. “Get Teresa into the bathroom. Do whatever you need to do to make it happen. I have enough Ruby to wallop him right back down into his hole and maybe even seal it up for good, but you know it won’t work if she’s watching me.”
Lydia nodded sagely. “My Ruby barely works at all anymore,” she whispered.
I’d noticed that as well, but I hadn’t said anything, it felt too rude. “We’ll talk about that later,” I said kindly, no longer bothering to cover my mouth with my hand.
Lydia toddled slowly to the back of the room, clenched her fists and screwed up her face. “Oh. Oh no. Teresa, I need you.”
Teresa craned her neck, spotted Lydia, and figured out what happened instantly. Her face fell in dismay. “Oh, Lydia. I’ve got you.”
I cheered mentally. Good old Lydia. She was always willing to take one for the team. No shame in her game.
I moved cautiously, keeping Shenanigan in my peripheral vision while appearing to gaze intently at the bookshelf. I trailed my fingertip along the spines, bumping in and out as it caught the edges of books of varying width. When I reached the end of the shelf, Shenanigan was less than three feet away. I hooked my finger around the top of the last book on the shelf and yanked. Luckily it was a heavy one. I raised The Definitive History of War – how appropriate! – over my head, leaped, and lunged.
* * *
“I don’t understand how on earth this happened, Ms. Blackstone.”
Eloise lay quietly, under heavy sedation, her left leg elevated in a cast. Her stitches began at her chin, stretched down her neck, and disappeared inside the pale green hospital gown at her right shoulder.
Teresa visibly quaked. “I was only out of the room for a moment, helping Lydia Robertson with a bathroom emergency.” Teresa’s eyes darted from one stern face to another, the room crowded with quietly authoritative people. “She has a well-documented history of issues.”
“I don’t care about Lydia Robertson’s bathroom dilemmas, Ms. Blackstone,” the woman snarled. “And if they are a well-known problem then I can’t understand why you wouldn’t have two people on duty in this area. I care about a broken leg and seventy-nine stitches. My god, she practically looks bitten. How on earth,” she repeated, “did this happen?”
* * *
Eloise and Lydia sat next to each other, Eloise in a wheelchair, Lydia in a chair across from her. “Do you have any eights?” Eloise asked.
“No, go fish.”
Eloise reached with trembling fingers toward the pile. Shenanigan, perched saucily at Lydia’s right hand, made a false start, as if to nip at her, and Eloise blanched. Glaring at him, she moved as fast as she could and drew a card.
“Do you have any eights?” Lydia asked.
“That’s the number I just asked you for,” Eloise said crossly.
“No it’s not. You asked for fours.”
“That was the time before last.”
“Girls, girls, no fighting,” Teresa murmured as she glided past.
“Fine, whatever,” Eloise grumbled. She plucked two cards from her hand and shoved them across the table towards Lydia. Lurching forward, Shenanigan picked them up, whirled around, and threw then in Lydia’s face.
“Missus!” Lydia howled, tears welling in her shocked eyes. “Eloise threw her cards at me.”
Eloise reached across the table and gripped Lydia’s wrist. “It was that little devil, Shenanigan. Can’t you see him? He’s right next to you, for goodness sakes!”
To add insult to injury, Shenanigan leaped to the center of the table and began a frenzied dance in the middle of the fishing pond of cards.
“Eloise, stop that,” Teresa snapped as she stalked across the room towards them.
“But…” she buried her face in her hands. “Lydia. Your Ruby’s really gone.”
* * *
Eloise’s leg healed slowly, and her scars faded. She and Lydia didn’t spend time together anymore, and one day Lydia was simply gone. But Shenanigan was there, a constant evil presence. Eloise didn’t get outside much. When she did, she soaked up as much Ruby as she could, but she found she couldn’t absorb nearly as much as before. It was as if her injuries had sucked away her abilities. Or maybe she just didn’t care as much.
* * *
“We have some special visitors today,” Teresa said, three weeks later. Her voice was a sing-song trill, an octave higher than normal.
Eloise barely raised her head as Teresa propped open the rec room door and a herd of small children trooped gamely through it. They milled at the front of the room.
“Go on, go on.” A round-faced woman who must have been their teacher guided a little boy by the shoulders in the direction of a knot of residents. A few of the braver children began to make their way deeper into the room.
“Pretty chillies.” Shenanigan leapt pertly onto Eloise’s shoulder. She no longer had the strength or the mental energy to fight him off, but at the nasty tone in his voice, she swatted at him weakly. He nipped her finger and it began to bleed. Eloise clutched her finger tightly with her other hand and rocked forward in her wheelchair.
“You!” a child’s voice shrieked. “Get out!”
Eloise lifted her head in disbelief as the little voice got louder. “Get out right now!”
A young girl with disheveled light brown hair climbed up onto Eloise’s lap and smacked Shenanigan’s head, ringing his bell good. His head clocked against Eloise’s with a hollow ‘tock’ sound.
“Leave her alone!” The little girl and the horrified round-faced teacher shouted at the same instant, their voices blending together. The teacher charged across the room as the little girl wrapped her hands around Shenanigan’s throat, throttling him and shaking, while his eyes bulged.
The little girl moved to clamber off Eloise, but Eloise wrapped her arms around her in a bear hug, stronger than she’d been in months, and settled her in her lap, her arms criss-crossing the girl.
The teacher reached Eloise’s wheelchair and grasped at the little girl, trying to pry her from Eloise’s grip. “Reanna! You get off that nice lady this instant! Stop it, stop it right now!”
“You stay right where you are, sweetie, and you kill that little bastard,” Eloise said in a strident voice.
The teacher whacked herself in the forehead. “My god, I swear, it never ends.”
Teresa, late to the party as usual, came hurrying up.
“I am so sorry,” the teacher apologized hurriedly, “I couldn’t stop her. Reanna’s on the spectrum,” she explained in a rush, continuing to try to peel her off Eloise’s lap.
Shenanigan’s face turned purple and blood vessels began to break in his bulging eyes. “You can do it, Reanna. Kill him,” Eloise encouraged.
“As you can see, Eloise isn’t altogether here herself.” Teresa paused and her eyes darted around. “Dementia,” she stage-whispered.
“Hand-wringing,” the teacher said, stepping back and falling into conversation with Teresa, apparently giving up on trying to dislodge Reanna now that she had another adult to gossip with. “Classic spectrum disorder. She does it all the time.”
Reanna tightened her grip and twisted Shenanigan’s neck again, her little fingers stiff and determined, her face a mask of concentration. Eloise murmured encouragement. Holding the girl on her lap with her left arm, she stroked Reanna’s hair gently with her blue-veined right hand. “Good girl,” she soothed. “Such a good girl.”
“I haven’t seen Eloise this animated in months,” Teresa said.
“And Reanna’s practically non-verbal. She said more just now than she did all last week,” the teacher marveled.
Reanna reached forward, Shenanigan’s limp, lifeless body in her hand. She tucked it in the front pocket of her teacher’s sweatshirt. “Hands to yourself, Reanna,” her teacher snapped. Her eyes widened and she jerked her head to the right. “Joey!” she cried. “Take that nice man’s teeth out of your pocket RIGHT NOW!”
She charged across the room, and Reanna chuffed a little chuckle. “She’s gonna smell funny later.”
Eloise hugged Reanna as tight as she could. “Thank you honey.”
Reanna turned and put her arms around Eloise, burying her face in her neck. “Nobody sees them but me.”
“I see them, honey,” Eloise said, smoothing her tangled hair. “I see them. Let’s go outside. I’m going to teach you how to get Ruby.”
Eloise fumbled with her joystick and drove her wheelchair across the rec room, Reanna clinging to her like a tree frog. No one noticed as the old woman and the small child slipped through the doors and rode out into a dazzling, sunlit day.