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Ruth has spent most of her life feeling on the verge of tears; happiness, excitement, devastation, the rare and sacred tears of anger. Her parents were constantly fielding disaster with other parents, and teachers and playmates.

 

Ruthie is a sensitive girl , that’s all -

 

She never felt it was disparaging. Maybe that’s all was a little reductive, but it wasn’t like she was insulted by her mom and dad. She loved them.

 

“Cause it’s fuckin’ funny, right?” Sam wags the candy bar at her, bobbing it loosely where it’s held between his thumb and first two fingers. She stares dumbly at the creamy wrapper and red block letters, her hand automatically reaching out to take it.

 

“I used to get that shit for ten cents when I was a kid,” Sam continues, gruffly ignoring her silence. He sits down in one of the ringside chairs, splaying one leg out from the other so he can fish for his lighter. He pulls the cigarette from behind his ear, cupping his hand around it. “Now it’s what? A fuckin’ dollar? For that piece of shit? It probably costs them a penny to make...”

 

She curls her fingers around the candy bar, listening to the last few words of Sam’s sentence mumble around the scraping sound of his thumb on the lighter wheel.

 

She moves her foot slightly, and the ice bag on her ankle shakes a bit, half melted cubes sagging onto the chair she’s propped her leg on, the tape slipping. They told her that it would be stiff for a while, and they weren’t kidding - even with the brace she knows she’s probably been pushing it harder than she should.

 

“I thought you didn’t like my name,” she says, running her thumb over the Baby next to Ruth .

 

“When the fuck did I say that? Oh, yeah, here,” Sam sighs, blowing smoke out of his nose and fishing into his pocket again, this time to pull out the tube of Aspirin he got her from the glorified concession stand inside the Hotel behind the Concierge. When he hands it to her she can see his eyelid, the lazy one, is drooping down because he’s tired. It also does that when he chews. He pulls his leg back in and leans forward over his knees, cigarette dangerously close to his jeans. His hands are pointing inward, posture horrific. His hair on one side is cowlicked from headphones and his constant nervous raking and probably being a side sleeper.

 

“Ruth is an ok name,” he says, shrugging, taking another pull off his cigarette. “It’s, uh, Biblical, you know. That’s fine.” He shrugs again, looking at her with his eyebrows slightly raised.

 

“Sam’s fine too,” she says slowly, nodding her head up and down, lips pursed in a little smile. “Also Biblical,” she wands the candy bar at him for emphasis before glancing back down at it. She isn’t really hungry, but whatever. She pulls the wrapper apart and takes a bite of the chocolate and peanuts.


“I bet you’ve never heard that one before, right?” Sam says. His eyes crinkle up.

 

“This?” she says around the mouthful of caramel. “Oh no, never…”

 

“Yeah, yeah,” he growls, smiling before he brings the cigarette back to his mouth.

 

“Kids used to say it was a name for a grandmother,” Ruth continues, finally swallowing.


“Kids didn’t really make fun of me for my name,” Sam says, and Ruth resists the urge to roll her eyes. “You know, they were pretty busy, uh, calling me a pussy and uh, you know, breaking my cameras and all that shit.”


“Stuffing you into lockers?” she squints at him, resting the candy bar against her bottom lip before taking another bite.


“What?” Sam flashes a look at her. “No. They’d just beat the shit out of me in the ShopRite parking lot like regular sociopaths.”

 

She can’t help but giggle, watching him shake his head and sigh.

 

“They’re all cops now, so, you know, that’s pretty fucked up,” he goes on. “Protect and serve, right?”

 

Ruth nods.

 

“I bet you were really popular,” Sam rails, restlessly leaning back in the chair, sprawling his legs all the way out now, arms crossed across his stomach. He has this thing of talking like you’ve accused him of something. Oh yes, defensive. She smiles around the candy bar, halfway finished.

 

The top buttons of his shirt - the short sleeved plaid one - are unbuttoned more than usual from being in the hot office behind the light booth and she can see the salt and pepper of his chest hair and the thread of a gold chain snaked over his collar bone.


“You were probably one of those girls who wanted to be a horse or some bullshit,” he continues, content to rib her into oblivion. She considers it for a moment, pretending to look thoughtfully at the ceiling, still chewing. She balls the wrapper in her fist.


“I did read a lot of Misty of Chincoteague ,” she nods, fishing a peanut out of her back molar while she does so.

 

Sam laughs, a raspy little cough, mouth spreading into a grin. His eyes crinkle again.

 

“Oh,” he shakes his head, still laughing. “I bet you were the fucking worst .” His hand comes up, still pinching the cigarette, and he rubs at a furrow in his forehead with the edge of his thumb. “God, you were probably so insufferable. God .” He laughs some more.

 

Ruth has to smile very hard to keep from laughing too and giving herself away, flexing her sore toes.


“God. We probably would have been friends. You’re such a fucking try hard.” His hand comes back down to his knee, his eyes staring into the dirty carpet between the row and the ring.

 

“You think?” she says, genuinely surprised.


“Oh, yeah,” Sam grunts, flicking ash off the end of his cigarette. “That’s the best for a fucking manipulative egomaniac piece of shit like me - I like people who do what I say.”

 

“You would have terrified me,” she replies, and he shoots her a look again.


“Nah,” he says, shaking his head, dismissing it. He leans forward, staring at her foot, gently prodding the tape. “Did you fuckin’ tape this up yourself?”

 

“Yeah -,” she says, and she realizes she’s mirroring him, hugging herself across her middle.

 

“Yeah, that was rhetorical,” he interupts, looking at her over his shoulder. He squats and scoots his chair up behind him, dragging it so that it’s closer to the chair her foot is sitting on, his knees splayed on either side of it, cigarette dangling out of it. She can see from the angle that his glasses are greasy, but he works intently on gently pulling apart the ace bandage and ice.


“This shit is all melted,” he grumbles, holding the limp bag in his hand and gesturing at her like she's stupid.

“Well, it’s still cold,” she says back, and he mutters something under his breath, arranging the bag oddly over her ankle again, winding the tape back around it. In all honesty, he’s doing a terrible job, but what did she expect.

 

She squeezes herself more, trying not to think too much about how he’s touching her or how he’s bent over her foot and cursing about which way it’s supposed to wrap under her arch. He rolls her foot between his hands like it’s a prop, but she can tell that he’s trying to be gentle.

 

She tries to imagine Sam as a kid and can’t really do it at first. It looks so much like just a smaller version of him, as he is now, with hairy arms and wrinkles and nicotine stains on his fingers and hair that is bordering on a mullet because of badly he needs to get it cut in the back. Her parents would take one look at him and smiled, stressed out.

 

Ruthie , they’d say. Oh no, Ruthie he’s very nice, we do like Sam, but just, don’t you think he’s a little -


She can see her dad searching for a word, and her mother chiming in from where she’s chopping lettuce for a cobb salad. Abrasive ?

 

Abrasive. Yes, exactly. Abrasive. Don’t you think that maybe he’s a little - I mean the way he talks to you - it really isn’t the way a boy should talk to a girl, honey -

 

“Jesus fuckin’ Christ,” he mutters, pulling her foot closer to him, lifting it and setting it on the edge of his knee. She watches him, her head tilted, her large coltish eyes fixed on him.

 

She wonders if he would have listened to her talk about Misty . Probably. She’s learned that Sam will listen to just about anything if not for the opportunity to give his opinion on it. Not without making fun of her, of course, but he would have listened, maybe even remembered something somewhere in there.

He would have known that her favorite pony was Sea Star, the orphaned foal from the third book, or that she was obsessed with Paul - the hero of the first book who jumped in to save Misty from drowning. He would have put up with her writing her stories and insisting every boy also had hair like a forelock .

 

She can see him bent over a desk with a table fan ruffling a spiral notebook or a legal pad and the window open, sucking down cigarettes he stole from his mom’s purse, scribbling notes, or repairing a typewriter he found in a dumpster. She thinks maybe has an older brother. Maybe an oldest sister. He seems like the youngest. Or maybe the middle kid, happily forgotten in the shuffle but bitter about being ignored.

Ruthie, would you shut the fuck up about fucking horses for two seconds?

 

She would have put up with him, too. His obsessions. Only child Ruth, perched on his bedroom carpet, making a spot in the middle of film magazines and dirty socks, always unsure of how to take up space that wasn’t her own, share rooms with other people.

 

She hugs her arms around her like she used to hug her school books. She looks at him, the same unflappable energy he had when he unlaced her boot for her in the hospital, and imagines him lacing up a roller skate for her.

 

Russel, she thinks, comes from a big family.  She forces herself to remember it. Two sisters. Angelica. Lisa. Two boys. Russel and Pete. Russel second oldest. She’s seen pictures of him as a kid, browning, faded, punch-cut square ones in albums at the bottom of his bookcase: wild curly hair and ridiculously skinny legs. He’s seen pictures of her, glossy framed ones - department store portraits her mother had made every year for her birthday and distributed proudly to friends and family to show off her increasingly heinous haircuts.

 

Russel tells her no, they’re very cute - they are !

 

Russel, calls her Ruth - never - Ruthie at her insistence because Ruthie makes her itchy, makes her feel sappy about her parents and being home. She pictures Russel as the boy in another neighborhood who sits in front of her on the bus in this bizarre fantasy she’s carving out. She watches his curly head over the seat, shy.


Sam Sylvia, boy across the street, cramming himself into the frame, his head bobbing over her foot, cigarette  nearly chewed up. 

Sam watching her, watching Russel, Sam sitting next to her on the bus and crowding her lap with binders full of storyboards and buying her a Baby Ruth every afternoon on their walk home for seventy cents, which is how much it cost when she was a kid.  Sam sneaking into her window late at night to screen new gore effects on her blank bedroom wall.  Sam calling her Ruthie because it makes her so mad she cries. Sam being her friend. Sam being her friend .

 

Sam being the sort of person her parents desperately tried to protect her from because he is as critical as she is with herself.

Ruthie is just a sensitive girl -

 

Ruth feels tears spilling down her cheeks.

 

“Did I hurt you?” he snaps it, glasses sliding down the bridge of his nose. He’s still holding her ankle on his lap. She shakes her head, shocked at herself, bringing her hands to her face stupidly.

 

“I,” she starts, but can’t finish it. She feels like she’s slid to the edge of her chair on accident, or like the edge of a cliff, on the verge of flying over it. He’s looking at her like he always does - like he’s about to fire a hard question at her. Something fearless and crazy. Something he’d say was only a joke if it went badly.

 

Her hands fall flatly into her lap with a slap and she shakes her head, laughing wetly. Helplessly.

 

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” His voice is edged with breakable concern. Something fragile and distraught. Worry.

 

“I’m just glad we’re... friends,” she says, shrugging at him, laughing again. “I’m just. I’m glad we’re friends.” She wants to wince, because she knows that isn’t what she means. It’s a cop out.

 

He scowls at her, at the bullshit.

 

“Are you out of your fuckin’ mind, Ruth?” he puts her foot back on the chair. “I thought I’d fucked up your foot or something - Jesus…”


She just closes her eyes, brushing tears away from her face, sniffling and laughing.

 

“You’re my favorite pony,” she says.

 

“What?”

 

“You’re my favorite pony, Sam. You’re my favorite…” she gestures emptily at the air. “Person. You’re my favorite person in the world.”


He shakes his head, squinting at her, disregarding everything she’s just said.

 

“You are a lunatic, Ruth. I mean that,” he puts his hands on his hips and then immediately takes his right one off to point his finger at her accusingly. “Don’t fuckin’ - dont’ scare me like that, alright? Don’t just start crying for no reason. It’s creepy. And don't drag me into your weird,” he waves the hand. “Weird, horse girl bullshit either.”

 

“Alright,” she says, all tear wet, looking up at him moonily.

 

“Alright,” he says, nodding, glancing at his watch. “Alright, now come on, it’s time for you to be in bed and we have to get up at - fuckin’ ass o’clock...”

 

Ruth thinks it over and over, as he takes her hand and helps her out of the chair. The wrapping falls apart as soon as she touches the floor, unfurling. He balls it up and throws it in the trash can.

 

She smiles at his back, hopeless, and knows that she’s in love with him and there isn’t anything she can do about it.

 

You wanna know why?  She thinks.

 

He turns around, hands on hips again.


“God,” he says, seeing her toe on her keds and nearly lose her balance. “God you’re a disaster. Just. Everything you do makes it worse.” His eyes crinkle.


Here’s why.