Archie and Ruby were dead silent as they drove to the hospital. Archie maneuvered the streets with the precision of a secret service team taking the president to an undisclosed locale. Ruby worried her nails, chewing them until they were jagged stubs and jiggling her knee to release her anxiety.
When they got to the hospital, Archie followed Ruby to the third floor where Granny's room was. Dr. Whale greeted them outside the room. His handsome face was hard to read.
"What happened?" Ruby cried. "Is she okay? Did she—?"
"She's fine," Dr. Whale said. "She took a fall down the stairs and got a little bruised up."
Ruby put a hand to her mouth. "Oh, God!"
"There are no broken bones, no bleeding . . ." Dr. Whale paused and glanced at Archie from over Ruby's shoulder. "We did have to give her morphine, though."
"Why? What happened?"
Dr. Whale rubbed the back of his neck. He looked at Ruby hesitantly. "Well, she was a little feisty when she got here."
Ruby sighed impatiently. "Can I see her, please?"
"I don't think you'll—"
"Step aside, Whale!" Archie demanded.
Ruby looked at Dr. Hopper, and even Whale seemed thrown off and impressed by the timid man's shouting. Dr. Whale nodded and stepped to the side.
"Fine. See for yourself."
Archie stayed behind as Ruby dashed into the room. Granny was in her bed, the bed sheets wrapped around her like a confused snake. She had a dazed, confused look on her face, the ceiling telling her secrets that no one else could hear. A petite nurse set a cup of chipped ice on the pull-down table before Granny.
Ruby clutched her purse, the only thing holding her to the earth. Tears blurred her vision but she refused to let them escape her eyes. "Granny?" she whispered. "Are you okay?"
Granny's head lolled towards Ruby. She narrowed her eyes and motioned for her granddaughter to come near. Ruby cautiously moved closer. She had never seen the old woman so out of her gourde, not even when she had a few too many to drink at her Saturday night poker games.
"Ruby . . ." Granny's voice was hoarse, barely a murmur.
Ruby knelt to her grandmother's side and took her hand. "I'm here, Granny."
Granny blinked, her face scrunching in anger, and she took the cup of chipped ice and hit Ruby over the head with it.
"Ow!" Ruby clamored back.
"You awful, awful girl!" Granny cried. She scooped a handful of ice chips and threw them at her granddaughter.
"I was worried sick! I thought you were kidnapped!"
"Doctor!" the nurse cried. She tried in vain to hold the old woman down, but Granny had the strength of ten men, even while doped up.
Ruby shrieked as more ice chips were thrown at her. She ran out the door and past Whale as he charged into the room. "I told you!" he said.
Archie was there to catch Ruby. The young girl wasn't so much upset as she was blindsided by her granny's sudden outburst.
"What's going on?" Archie asked.
"I don't know!" Ruby touched the bump on her head Granny had given her. "She's gone crazy!"
From inside the room, a string of obscenities flew from the old woman's mouth as two nurses and Dr. Whale tried to calm her down.
"Ruby, I'll tan your hide!" she yelled. "This is the last time you'll see daylight, you little—!"
"Mrs. Lucas, please calm down!" Dr. Whale pleaded.
"Up yours, Fabio!"
Ruby screamed as her grandmother threw a bedpan at the doctor. He ducked in time for it to fly past his head and hit the wall. The other nurse stuck a needle in Granny's IV, and within seconds the old woman fell asleep.
"My God!" Archie cried.
Ruby couldn't contain it any longer and flung herself against Archie's chest. He held her close and stroked her hair as she cried.
"Yeesh, what'd I miss?"
Ruby released herself from Archie and turned to the voice. Leroy appeared from the men's room. "What happened?" she asked him. "Did you bring her here?"
"Calm down, sister! Yeah, I brought her. She took a tumble down the stairs after seeing you had snuck out. I tried to stop her, but she was like a hurricane."
Ruby touched her face. "This is my fault. God, I shouldn't have snuck out!"
"You told me Granny thought you were at Mary Margaret's," Archie said.
"I lied!" Ruby cried. She threw her face in her hands. "I'm a terrible person! I almost killed my grandmother!"
"Calm down, Ruby," Archie said softly. He put his hands on her shoulders. "She'll be all right."
"No!" Ruby jerked herself away from Archie and shook her head. "I can't keep doing this. I can't keep lying to her just so I can go off dancing with you!"
"Dancing?" Leroy raised his brow.
"I've been so selfish," Ruby continued. "I need to grow up."
Slowly, ever so slowly, Archie's face fell into a frown. "What're you saying?"
Ruby sniffled her tears making her doe eyes look even bigger. "I can't dance with you anymore, Archie. I'm sorry." She turned to run to the bathroom, to find a place for solitude where she could have a good cry, but Archie grabbed her arm gently and stopped her.
"Ruby, this was an accident," he said. "We can explain to her exactly what's been going on—"
"What has been going on, Archie?" Ruby asked.
It was a quested that flirted with the truth, a question that made Archie's blood stop and his heart drop to his knees. Tell her, he thought. Tell her the truth.
"I . . . I, uh . . ."
Ruby pulled herself away from Archie again, tears falling down her cheeks as she shook her head. "No. I can't do this anymore. I'm sorry." She brushed past him and ran down the hall.
Archie watched her go, an unbearable sadness weighing on his shoulders. He should have stopped her again, should have held her tight and said those three words he had been dying to utter for so long—
"Women, huh?" Leroy snorted. "Drag."
Archie closed his eyes and let the ocean of sadness wash over his heart. It was a tide that didn't ebb, whose waters were cold and relentless. His eyes stung and a single tear escaped and fell down his cheek. He sighed, gripped his cane tightly, and used it to walk down the hall without falling into a heap of despair.
Granny only stayed one night in the hospital, and when she got home, Ruby was the model granddaughter. She waited on her hand and foot, bringing her water and aspirin and blankets at a moment's notice. Granny gave Ruby the silent treatment, didn't even talk about the night Ruby slipped out or how she fell down the stairs, but Ruby was grateful. She didn't feel like apologizing anymore, not when she was already beating herself up every waking minute of the day.
The next few days, Ruby reassured Granny that she was done dancing. She brought Granny a cup of tea as the old woman knitted in her rocker in the living room and knelt before her. "I won't see Archie anymore," she said, gazing up at her grandmother with pleading eyes.
"I'm done dancing, too," Ruby continued. "I'm going to take some double shifts at the dinner to make up for all the time I wasted."
Granny pursed her lips, her knitting needles clicking together. She finally looked at her granddaughter.
"I'm so sorry, Granny. About everything."
"I need your word that you won't sneak out again and scare me like that," Granny said.
Ruby took her hand. "I swear, Granny."
Granny dropped her knitting and squeezed her granddaughter's hand. "I just don't want anything to happen to you. I love you. You know that, right?"
"Of course I do." Ruby leapt up and scooped Granny into a hug.
The old woman patted Ruby's back reassuringly. When Ruby pulled away, she thought she saw the glimmer of a tear on Granny's cheek. But it was probably just the light playing tricks.
True to her word, Ruby stopped dancing. She stopped watching videos online, turned the radio off in her car, and whenever one of the other waitresses at the diner started humming, Ruby told her to be quiet and get back to work. It was a hallow, bleak way of living, and the only thing that made it bearable was that Granny had forgiven her.
Still, every once in a while, Ruby snapped her attention to the door whenever the bell rang, hoping Archie would walk in. After a week, she stopped looking when the bell atop the door chimed.
Archie was miserable. He never knew how dark the world could turn, how colors could just mute themselves and voices sounded dull and tinny like those teachers on Charlie Brown—wah wah wah. He refused to listen to music at home and in the office, not matter how much Henry begged him during their sessions. He drank scotch every night before bed and ate nothing but takeout.
It was the day before the talent show and Archie was curled up on the couch in his office, his face against the cushions, feet dangling off the side. He had never felt such emptiness, such depression. He thought about writing himself a prescription for Prozac, but he was never very fond of swallowing pills.
A light knock sounded at the door. Footsteps entered.
It was Marco.
Dr. Hopper sighed heavily. "The doctor is out. Please leave a message with my secretary."
"You don't have a secretary," Marco said. He sat down on the arm chair next to the couch and folded his large, Italian hands in his lap. "What's going on? Are you sick?"
"Yes." Archie faked a cough. "Contagious."
Marco leaned over and pressed the back of his palm to Archie's forehead. "You feel fine. What's a matter? I don't see you at Granny's these days—"
Archie let out a loud groan and turned his back to his friend, burrowing himself deeper into the couch.
"Does this have to do with Ruby?" Marco asked.
"Please, please don't say her name."
"Ah, so it does." Marco chuckled in that charming, annoying way he did that made Archie envy him for his suaveness. "You are lovesick, my friend."
It wasn't a question, but a statement. Archie flipped over onto his back and sighed. He supposed it was pretty obvious—then again, he had never had his heart broken to the best of his memory—but to everyone else, it was probably an effortless diagnosis.
"She hates me," Archie muttered.
"No. No one can hate you, Archie. You are too good." Marco stood. "Come, you tell me." He went to the door and closed it. "Doctor-patient confidential."
"I think this kind of role play is in breach of my code of ethics," Archie said.
"Just—come," Marco clapped his hands together. "Only for a moment. Tell me what's bothering you."
Archie sighed again. He clutched the tan throw pillow against his chest and said, "I love her, Marco." It was the first time he ever said it out loud, but instead of feeling rapturous, he felt like crawling into a hole and dying. "But we can't be together."
Archie lowered his eyes. "We're too different."
Marco waved his hand in disagreement. "No, that's not true. You're both young. You both love to dance, yes? You're not a different species. What else do you have in common?"
A small smile tugged at Archie's lips. "We both like old movies." He chuckled. "And she likes my cooking. Can you believe that?"
"No, I can't," Marco said.
Archie laughed. "And she's very sweet. And so smart—a lot of people don't realize how smart she really is. And kind . . . and fun . . ." Archie's smile faded, thinking about all the things he let slip away. Her smile. Her laugh. The way she treated Pongo like her own dog and cut Archie's sandwiches at Granny's diagonally, even if he never asked. And the dancing. God, he missed the dancing.
Archie looked at his friend. "What do I do?"
"You can't stay here waiting for something to change," Marco said. "Go talk to her."
"I can't. Granny hates me."
Marco smiled slowly. "If you could talk to Ruby right now, would you?"
Archie nodded. "Yeah, sure."
Marco stood. There was mischief in his eyes, a twinkle that made him look especially sneaky. "You leave Granny to me," he said. "I'll make sure you get a chance to talk to Ruby."
To be continued