Ruby didn’t want to be there. She had been promised a visit to the park. This place was the complete opposite of the park (she knew all about opposites and this was most definitely an opposite). It was dark and smelt weird and her new sneakers stuck to the dirty carpet. She was not happy and showed her dad this by staring at her sneakers. He didn’t seem to notice.
She loved her new sneakers. They were purple and lit up with sparkles of colour every time she took a step. She liked to imagine she was walking on stars. But her sneakers didn’t light up here – they just stuck stubbornly to the thin carpet. It made her sad. Her new sneakers were for running and sliding and jumping and most definitely not for sticking to dirty carpet.
He had been promising to take her to the park for ages now but there was always an excuse; he was busy or tired or it was raining or he had one of those headaches he always seemed to have. But today he didn’t have a headache and it wasn’t raining and he had said put on your new sneakers we’re going to the park. So she did. She was wearing her new sneakers but this was not the park.
He hadn’t kept his side of the bargain. Ruby knew all about bargains and so far she had done her bit but her dad was letting her down. Again. Like those times Jake would want to make a bargain with their lunches and she would end up swapping a chocolate chip cookie for an apple. Yes, Ruby knew all about unfair bargains.
She wasn’t going to lose out this time.
She pulled on his jacket but he didn’t look at her. She squeezed his hand so tightly it made her screw up her nose but he didn’t look at her. She jumped on his foot, her left sneaker lighting up like a Christmas tree, but he still didn’t look.
She took a deep breath and used a voice louder than any voice she had ever used before; “Let’s go!” She knew it must have been really loud because Mrs Peachy always scolded her for being too loud even when she whispering secrets to Jake in her quiet voice. She was terrible at keeping secrets and she was terrible at being quiet. “I don’t wanna be here,” she said in the loudest voice she had ever used. Ever.
Ruby’s father still didn’t look but the old man sitting behind a table full of empty glasses did. He stared. She pulled her hair over her face and peered at him through the fine curtain. He smiled at her, a toothless smile that made her stomach feel like it was full of angry, mean butterflies. She stuck her tongue out at him, even though she knew it was rude, and got a mouthful of hair. The old man laughed and belched at her as she hid her face in her dad’s jacket. But still he didn’t look.
He was looking at someone else.
Ruby removed herself from the jacket and tried to see what he was seeing. She followed his gaze to the other side of the room, to a table tucked in the corner behind which sat a woman with messy hair and dark eyes. She had her elbows on the table and one foot resting on the chair in front of her. Ruby frowned at the woman’s very bad manners (she knew all about manners and these were most definitely bad ones).
“Who’s that?” Ruby tried to use her quiet voice. It felt like the right time to be quiet.
Ruby looked at the woman at the table again and wondered whether she had put her dad under some spell. Maybe she was a witch. Maybe she had frozen him to the spot with her dark, magical eyes. Maybe she had stolen his voice box.
“Dad …” she was starting to worry that they may never make it to the park. It felt like they had been here for a long time.
“Go say hello.”
Finally, her dad was looking at her. She tried to smile at him but there was something about him, about his voice and his eyes, that didn’t seem quite right. She pulled her hair over her face.
“Don’t do that.” He gently pulled her hair back. “Go say hello.”
“To who?” She hit his hands away, he was always trying to make her hair neat and she hated it.
He pointed to the woman at the table with the bad manners. “We can go to the park after. OK?”
Ruby had never seen her dad look so small but right there, right in front of her, it looked as if he had lost all his air – like the last balloon at a birthday party, sad and unwanted. She was sure that woman was a witch. An air-stealing witch. She didn’t want to say hello to a witch but she didn’t want her dad to look so empty. It made those mean butterflies start doing laps in her stomach again.
She took a deep breath and let her sneakers take her on a sticky star walk across the galaxy to the witch at the table in the corner.
Melinda needed another drink. She got up from the table, steadied herself and took a step towards the bar. Suddenly, right under her feet was a little girl wearing sneakers that flashed like police lights. Melinda winced as the girl said something in a loud, high-pitched voice. She pushed past the little thing to get to the bar.
Ruby turned at looked at her dad and shrugged her shoulders. She told herself she was most definitely OK but somehow all those angry, mean butterflies escaped and burst from her eyes and her nose and her mouth and suddenly she was crying. Ruby never cried. Jake cried more than she did and he was boy and everyone knew boys weren’t supposed to cry so much. Ruby knew all about crying. She hated it but she couldn’t help it.
Melinda tried to ignore the scene in front of her and ordered a double. She gulped it down. It didn’t help. She ordered another.
Ruby watched her father refill with air and rush toward her. As he hugged her she felt butterflies disappear.
“I said hello,” she said. “Can we go to the park now?”
Ruby’s dad took her hand and walked on her stars out into the sunlight and towards the park and didn’t look back – even though Ruby was sure she heard someone call their names in a voice which was trying to be quiet.