Ruby had been four when Max was born. She'd resented him when he was a baby. She'd always been the little princess. The one her parents had spoiled and fussed over. She'd been the little lady, and her parent's pride and joy.
But after Max was born, she'd had to share her parents. And that was hard at first. But soon she began to like him.
She got new toys because, after all, she was a big sister now. Dolls, like Rapunzel, Curly Shirley, and Sally Swims-A-Lot. Big sisters need big girl toys, not baby toys. And she got a new room. They put up yellow wallpaper, with pink flowers. Max only got her old room. And she got a huge big girl bed, not a baby bed. And she started dressing like a big girl, with new dresses. And she got her very own make-up vanity in her very own room.
Best of all, she got to help take care of Max. She soon discovered how much she loved doing that. Her parents let her dress him sometimes, and soon she had a new role. Not the Little Lady, but Mommy's Little Helper.
Ruby decided she loved babies. They were adorable, and they made cute noises and needed to be taken care of. One night in bed, Ruby made a wish on a star that she could be a mommy some day, and have a nice baby like Max. She had no idea how true that wish would become soon.
She had been six. Max was two. They played together. Max was talkative and outgoing. It was so much fun to play together. They were friends and brother and sister. Ruby had no idea that in only a few weeks she'd be forced to take a much different role.
It had been late at night. Her parents were only going to be gone for half an hour, to the grocery store. After much convincing, they'd let her stay home with Max, all by themselves.
"Please, Mom? I'm very old now, and I take good care of Max." Ruby stated.
Her mother knew it was true. Ruby was very mature, although she was inclined to be silly and a bit irresponsible a lot of the time. And they were going to be back half an hour before Max's bedtime. "Well... I suppose it would be alright. But Ruby," Her mother squatted down to her level. "Promise me you will take good care of Max? Promise me!"
Ruby nodded solemnly. "I promise, mom."
Mrs. Bunny stood up, nodded, and smiled. "Alright, let me finish putting on my makeup. You know, Ruby, the secret of good makeup is never using too much." This sounded funny coming from over-done Mrs. Bunny, but Ruby didn't care. Her mother trusted her to care for Max. And that was all that mattered.
Ruby and Max played for half an hour. Then Ruby got out cookies, and had a cookie feast with Max. They played a while longer, and Ruby looked at the clock. It was 9 o'clock! A whole half hour past Max's bedtime!
Oh well, she decided. It wasn't as if those rules really mattered anyway.
Ruby told him to go to bed, and Max went after a small scuffle. Ruby looked out the window and ate more cookies. She wasn't worried. Everything would work out fine, after all.
But Ruby grew worried as an hour passed, then two. It was midnight when Ruby finally heard a knock on the door. Ruby ran and opened it, expecting her mother and father. But there stood her Grandma, instead.
"Come in, Grandma." Ruby said in a polite voice.
Her grandmother walked in. Ruby could see she'd been crying.
"Ruby, could you sit down for a minute? I have some bad news." Grandma said cautiously. Ruby nodded bravely and sat.
"Ruby... your parents won't be coming home. Tonight they were in a car accident. They... they died." Grandma said.
"Like Grandpa did before I was born?" Ruby asked.
"Yes, like that." Grandma said.
Ruby knew what that meant. She and Max were on their own.
Ruby took it like a trouper. Things were going to change around here. She was going to change. She'd always been a good Mommy's Helper. Ruby hoped that carried into being a good mommy.
Telling Max that their parents were dead was hard, really hard. She'd sat him down the next morning, and hoped he understood.
"Max, Mom and Dad... they aren't coming back. Not ever. They died and went to a special place that good people go to after they die. That's the place Grandpa is. It was time for Mom and Dad to go there too."
Max looked into her eyes, and then looked down. Ruby reached over and hugged him.
"Don't be scared, Max. I'll take good care of you, I promise. I promised Mom, too. We'll be okay."
Things were a whirlwind for a while. Lots of old relatives they'd never met came, and they wanted to stay at the house. No way was Ruby letting that happen. Max was scared enough. They didn't need strange old people staying in their rooms, their parent's room, forcing them to cook and clean for them... No. This was her house now, not the relative's. In the end, Grandma saved them by "insisting" all the relatives come stay with her to "help her through the grief of losing her child only a few years after her husband". And it was okay.
Then Social Services came along. They wanted to put the two bunnies in foster care. Split them up. No way would Ruby ever let that happen. They were staying right here, just the two of them. No-one could force them apart. And with a little fast talking from Grandma, they got to stay home. The place they belonged.
Things were a whirlwind for a little while. The funeral, relatives, people crowding all around them, telling them how sorry they were about their parents... Ruby just wanted it to be over, so she and Max could try to shape a new kind of normal, so they could grieve without all this pressure.
Eventually it ended. Social Services left them alone, thinking their Grandmother was going to care for them. Ruby didn't want that. She wanted to take care of Max, her Max, by herself. And their Grandma had enough faith in Ruby to let her.
Finally, it really seemed to all be over. The relatives were gone, their parents were buried, and finally Ruby could begin to shape their lives again. Until she noticed something. Max had stopped talking.
It was hard, very hard, at first. Ruby was only six years old, and she still hadn't gotten the space or time she needed to grieve her loss. Taking care of a house and cooking and cleaning, all when she'd just suffered a huge loss and her world had fallen apart. She had to, as best as her six-year-old mind could, help her poor baby brother through his grieving process when she hadn't had time to grieve herself.
So Ruby grew up. She grew up fast, way too fast. Because she had to. She rose to the challenge and did everything. She cooked, she cleaned, she took care of Max. She lost all her silliness, and grew, far too fast, into a very serious young bunny.
She didn't take the time for friends anymore. She didn't take time for herself. Not anymore. There was Max, only Max. But, mainly because of Ruby, they began to heal.
After three months, Ruby decided she had had enough grief. Their parents were gone forever. Their time to grieve was done. They needed to look forward, not grieve forever. So Ruby took down the pictures. All of them that included their parents, except for that one above their sofa. She left that one. Because they needed to remember. But not grieve forever.
Then she cleaned their parent's room, made it neat and tidy. Folded the clothes, made the bed, put away all theirs things in drawers and closets. She looked at their room one last time, and then she left. And she shut the door behind her. And she said goodbye.
Now Ruby felt fresh, and clean, and happy again. And after their grief was over, things were okay again. Different. But okay.
She cleaned the house, and became... well, rather good at keeping things all in order. And she cooked for Max and herself. She grocery shopped. And things were okay.
Max began to speak again. Only a few short words, but he was speaking. Ruby remembered his speaking again, for the first time since her parents- their parents, died. "Ruby?" he'd said. His voice was so tiny, so quiet, so different. But it was Max. She'd wanted to shriek "Max!" and throw her arms around him. But she couldn't scare him, or he might not talk anymore. So she'd had to settle for "Yes, Max?" Max had smiled and said "Book?" And things were okay. Max was talking.
And soon, their life really was in order. Ruby took care of him, and he was her rock. They were so, so close. And for once, their life was more than okay. It was great.
And Ruby joined Bunny Scouts. She made friends with Martha and Valerie, and made a very Best Friend. Louise. And she'd started ballet and piano.
Ruby played again. She remembered the first time she'd played since their parents died. She'd sat down her dolls. And they had a party. And Ruby felt so happy.
Things were so, so much better.
By Max's third birthday, they'd settled into a new kind of normal. Ruby was in charge, and Max was hers. And they loved each other. And they were happy.
They pretended. They pretended that this was how life had always been. They never mentioned "before". Before their parents died, before Max stopped being a chatter-box, before Ruby grew serious instead of silly. And it was fine. This was their life now. And they were happy how things were.
Ruby knew she bossed Max around. She made him eat healthy food, not candy. She made him go to bed. She made him take a bath. But if she didn't, who would? She was his mother, really. They were friends and playmates, but she was also the one to take care of him.
Sometimes Ruby wondered what life would be like if their parents were alive. Would Max chit-chat your ear off? Would Ruby be sneaky and joking? What would it be like? But Ruby found she didn't care. She loved their life. This was how things were. This was how they were meant to be. Max and Ruby. Not Ruby and Max, not any more. And Ruby was okay. Ruby was happy.
Once, Ruby wondered if Max remembered their parents. She brushed it off. But she kept wondering. So she asked him.
"Max, do you remember Mom?"
"Yes, Max. Mama."
Max pointed at Ruby.
Ruby paled. He had to remember, he had to! He couldn't forget! If he forgot, only Ruby would remember. And Grandma. There were relatives, but Ruby, Grandma, and Max were the only living people who could really know her- their- parents.
"No, Max. I'm not your mom. She is."
Ruby took his arm and led him to the picture above the couch.
"That is your mama, Max. Not me!"
Max looked so confused. Ruby sighed.
"Yes, Max. I'm your mama."
He was only three, after all. She could make him remember when he was older. And maybe, maybe it was better this way. Maybe the door really needed to stay closed. Maybe it would hurt them too much to remember.
Ruby was tired a lot of the time. She loved Max, she really did, but...Every day, in and out, she had to care for Max. She fed Max, clothed Max, played with Max, watched Max, put Max to bed, and managed to find time left over to buy groceries and clothes!
She had to budget their money, and find cash out of nowhere to buy Max snacks and toys. And he was only going to get older, and outgrow the toys he already had, and need new books, and he was going to need even more things when he went to kindergarten... money was a constant worry. They had only what their parents had left them. No way to get more. So Ruby raked leaves and sat for Baby Huffington. Because it didn't matter whether she got so, so tired sometimes. She had to keep going, for Max.
School. Ruby loved school. She liked to read, and write stories, and learn. But Ruby had to miss a lot of school. To take care of Max.
Work. She always had to work. She worked her fingers to the bone, watching her brother, caring for him, and cleaning. She was happy, but sometimes she got tired. But Max needed her. So she kept at it.
Max, Max, Max. It was always Max. Sometimes Ruby resented him. She always had to be his mother. And sometimes, she just wanted to have a mother of her own. But still, Ruby was happy most of the time. She coped, and she did have her Max to help her as best her could. So, even when she was far more tired that any seven-year-old bunny should ever have to be, she was okay.
Louise. She was Ruby's best friend. She was kind to Max, and she was a Bunny Scout like Ruby. And she was in Ruby's ballet class. But Ruby knew that Louise didn't understand everything. Louise tried to understand about Max, and Ruby, and their parents. But unless you've been there, you really can't understand the bond between siblings who only have each other.
Morris. Ruby loved Morris. She'd wanted Max to get along with the two-year-old so badly. It would give her and Louise another thing in common, and best of all it would give Max a real friend. Not one of Ruby's friends who was kind to him, but a real friend who liked Max first. A friend who wasn't Ruby.
Ruby was a child. She was seven. But looking at her, she seemed more like... at least twelve. She was smart and responsible. But she still played games. She played with her dolls, and she played with Martha and Valerie. She made jewellery, and made crafts, and argued with Max, and bossed him around, and played pretend. Because whether or not she took care of Max, she was a child. An almost grownup child. But still a child. Forever and always.
"Ruby! You can't keep telling me what to do! You are not my mother!" a much older Max yelled. He was probably about ten or eleven.
Ruby, fourteen or fifteen now, looked shocked. "But- but Max!"
Max cut her off. "No 'buts'! Just... just stop it! I'm not a baby. And you need to stop bossing me around like you're some wacko replacement for my mother!"
Ruby gasped. "But Max... Oh, come on Max. Sit down. Eat your sandwich. I made it for you. Lettuce and jam, your favourite!" Ruby smiled. Max slapped her. Ruby began to cry. And Max laughed.
Ruby sat up, crying. She was... in her bedroom! It was dark. She was seven again. Max... where was Max? She got up and put on her robe and slippers. She tiptoed into his room. He was asleep. Good. He looked so peaceful and quiet. But... he looked so cold! Ruby tiptoed downstairs and looked in the cupboard under the stairs for another blanket. She found one, then checked the clock while she was down there. It was around midnight. Ruby picked up the blanket, and tiptoed back upstairs. She went into his room, and put the blanket on him. Red Rubber Elephant had fallen onto the floor. Ruby picked it up and put it in his arms. Max made a small noise and turned over, sucking his thumb. Ruby smiled and kissed his head gently.
She knew she wouldn't go back to sleep, so she went into her room and got her book The Magic Goblin and the Fairy Queen, and went downstairs. She made herself a mug of cocoa and sat down on the sofa. She turned on the light and opened her book, but found she couldn't concentrate on the story, as interesting as it was. Instead, she thought back to her dream.
It had only been a dream, but... one day Max, her Max, would grow up. Would he resent Ruby? He'd understand that she only took care of him, wouldn't he? He'd know that she loved him and only made him do things that would be good for him, right? He knew she tried her best, even though she messed up a lot... right?
Yes he would, Ruby decided. He'd know that she always tried her best. And her quiet, gentle, sweet Max would never slap her. It had only been a dream.
Ruby noticed that she was still holding her book. She laid it down gently, and stood up. She looked at the picture above the sofa. There was her as a young child, and Max as a little baby; and her parents. The one picture they had out, the one with her parents. She looked at her father in his overalls, and at her beautiful mother. She looked, and remembered. Remembered walks, and laughs, and games, and lies, and chores, and yelling, and love and hope. Everything.
She looked at the picture, and said one thing. "Would you be proud of me, mom and dad?" And she nodded. They would be. She was only seven. But she was already smart, good, kind, and responsible.
Ruby lay down on the couch and read the Goblin book. And she felt at peace. Her parents would be proud of her. She read and got sucked into the tale of a powerful and evil goblin bunny who made friends with an ugly beggar bunny-fairy who, unbeknownst to him, was the Bunny-Fairy Queen in disguise.
After a few hours, Ruby closed the book, finally having finished it. She put it on the bookshelf, and looked for something to do. It was about four in the morning. Ruby decided to clean the living room.
After a while Ruby sighed and wiped her forehead. The living room was spotless. And then she decided to start on breakfast. Ruby decided to make eggs, sunny-side-up, and some toast.
Ruby went to the kitchen and got out eggs, bread, butter, jam, and fruit... everything she needed. And then she got cooking. After about a half hour, she was done. She washed all the dishes she had used, and looked at the clock. Seven o'clock. The morning. Ruby smiled and decided to call her brother downstairs. It was time for his breakfast. Then maybe they could take a walk, or clean his room, or play a game. She'd had her "Ruby Time" while reading. Now it was her "Max Time". And she was perfectly fine with that. Because yes, she was tired. But she didn't care. It was her brother they were talking about, her Max. And she loved him.
"Max, time for breakfast!"