A short story by Tina Konstant
Ruby Rusko woke knotted in sheets. Trapped so tight, it took a moment for her to accept that she was in her own bed and not strapped down, tied up and buckled into a straitjacket. Three weeks and four days. That’s how long it had been going on for. The same bloody dream. She wriggled and kicked the bedding until it lost its grip and fell in a heap on the floor. Frost on the windows told her the room was close to freezing. She didn’t care. The sweat coating her body like a slippery onesie needed competition.
She had no clue what triggered the dream. Normally, she hardly dreamed at all, now suddenly, the same one over and over? Being the practical sort, she wasn’t a great believer in dream analysis. Always figured it was a little like astrology where the “reading” was general enough to let people interpret things any way they liked. One message. Multiple happy customers. She looked it up anyway.
According to a random website, dreaming of a straitjacket meant that she “must not listen to what someone will advise. Instead, be guided by her opinion and perceptions.” Great. Dreaming of drowning or flying or shoe laces could mean the same damn thing. Who made this stuff up? The only reality is that she’d been waking up, dripping wet, trapped in a boa of sheets, tired, pissed off, pounding headache and not really caring what it all meant. Just wanting it to stop.
A shrink? Maybe I need a shrink. Who’ll tell me what? Oh, “you should not listen to what someone will advise you. Instead, be guided by your opinion and your own perceptions. That’ll be £90.”
Ruby got up and marched across the room letting the air cool her skin, stepped into her bathroom and stopped. Dammit. Unbelievable. She kept forgetting. The landlord, in his genius wisdom, had changed the floor in the bathroom from soft, warm wood to tiles. Tiles were so damn unforgiving at dawn. She wriggled her toes. The floor had been changed the day before the dreams started. Maybe that was the trigger.
“Anything traumatic happen in your life recently?” That’s what the shrink would ask for his £90.
“Oh yes,” she’d say. “The landlord changed my bathroom floor. Wood to tiles.”
“Hmmm.” The shrink would rub his chin, deep in thought. “Wood means you’ll grow poor and if it’s burning, then someone close to you will die.”
“And tiles?” she’d ask, all impressed.
“Tiles don’t mean anything,” he’d say. “That’s why your life has tanked and you’re having nightmares of being manhandled by four monsters.”
Ruby scratched her scalp with all ten nails to get the images of the men out of her head. They were huge. Or three of them were. The older one wasn’t so big and he had kind eyes. But they were all dressed in Halloween style nurses uniforms. In the dream, she fights and screams until the old one takes out a needle and smiles. A friendly smile, like he doesn’t see what’s wrong with what they’re doing to her. Then he stabs the needle in her arm and everything goes dark. It’s the same every time. In the dream, she wakes on a metal bed, hard and cold. She can’t move her arms or legs. She can’t move her mouth. She’s gagged? Can’t be sure. Try as she might, she can’t ever get out of her body so she can look down and see what’s going on. She’s always trapped until things go dark and she wakes up, soaking wet and knackered.
Ruby shoved the curtain aside and stepped into the shower. New too. All new and cold. She’ll get used to it. It’s home after all. No way could she afford to buy her own place. She’s lived here for four years. If she takes a shortcut through the park, it’s a fifteen minute walk to work and three minutes to a tube station that will take her anywhere. Not that she goes. She could live her whole life in six blocks and not miss a thing.
Ruby turned the taps on and let the hot water tumble to the floor. A good shower. Heavy spray. In seconds, the room would be full of steam and Ruby could stand in it like a sailor lost in fog or a kid in a misty forest calling for help. “Hello?” Her words would bounce through the mist. Someone would hear her and call back. “Hello! Can you hear me?” Ruby would call back. “I’m in the fog. Come find me. Find me in the fog.” Then, when the unsuspecting Samaritan came looking for the poor little lost girl, she’d grow fangs and nails and wings of steel and hover above the trees, watching, waiting, panting with the effort of not grabbing him too soon, ripping his soul out of his body and leaving him a limp, broken, shredded human being.
Ruby closed her eyes and let the water wash over her. She liked being the monster. Nice change. She should be it more often. Her mother would agree. “You’re too sweet, Ruby. Too trusting.”
Ruby turned the water off and stepped out of the glass cubicle and onto the wet, but warm, tiles. Nice. She wiped mist from the mirror and smiled at her shining, clean, pink face, then turned both hands into claws, lifted them to either side of her head, drew her lips back over her teeth and growled.
She dropped her hands and laughed. More like a peckish chipmunk than the return of the Raging Dead. Speaking of which… hungry. That was something else about the dream. She wasn’t a breakfast person, but since the dream started, she woke up starving. Not cornflakes and skimmed-milk hungry, but full fry-up with chips ravenous.
Ruby padded into her bedroom leaving damp foot prints behind her with her mind focused more on breakfast than on what she should wear. That would be funny. She grinned again. “I’ll have eggs, bacon, sausages and chips,” she’d say to Mrs. Whatever-Her-Name-Is who ran the corner café down the road. Mrs. Whatever-Her-Name-Is would look her up and down and be too nervous to ask this clearly crazy person why she was butt naked in her coffee shop, and whether she really had just walked through the park, on a pitch black winter morning with no clothes on. And Ruby would do her Raging Dead impression and Mrs Whatever-Her-Name-Is would give her breakfast on the house because this time, Ruby was the monster.
Maybe that’s what the dream means. It’s my monster trying to get out and I’m putting a straitjacket on to keep it in. Ha! No more.
Ruby opened both doors to a mass of fabrics stuffed into her wardrobe. Casual Friday. Perfect. Every day was casual Friday for her. She was a computer geek. No one expected any more. Bottom right of the wardrobe was a cardboard box. Her custom made knicker drawer. She lifted the lid, paused a second and glanced into her washing basket. Not there. Her favourite knickers. Ones with blue and red dots. She shrugged. Odd. She pulled out a black pair instead. Sexy. Lovely. Panther monster. She put them on, then scanned her room for her jeans…
This is nuts. Where’s my stuff?
Ruby turned a full circle on her heel. Unbelievable. The landlord changes the bathroom and…
That’s what happened. The filthy, disgusting bastard has taken my clothes. Oh hell no. That’s disgusting. Did he really? He must have.
No one else had been here. She never invited people to her place. That’s the rule. Her place. Her space. That’s it. She’s going to sort this out. He had no right to be in here without her knowing. NO RIGHT to touch her things.
She grabbed black, baggy trousers and pulled them on. Dressed is dressed. Black knickers, black trousers… white jumper with an Indian dream catcher sewn into the front?
Ruby glanced at herself in the bathroom mirror as she grabbed her kicking boots from the floor by the door. Her reflection made her stop. Really cool jumper. Where did she get it? She’d remember that, wouldn’t she? She touched the jumper, lightly running her fingers over the design. Must have been a present. Who’d give her such a good present? Lost in the design for a moment she jumped when a light knock rattled her front door.
“Who is it?” she demanded. There had been a knock. She was sure of it. A light one. A tap really. The door didn’t sit well in its hinges so even a breeze made it rattle. But there was definitely a knock.
The keys. Where were her keys? Did that bastard, sneaking, thieving landlord take those too? No way. Was the guy serious? In a moment, Ruby forgot the jumper. She’d remember who gave it to her eventually. Probably part of some stupid package her mother insisted on sending her with limp notes saying “Please get in touch. Please come home. We’re so worried. Are you alright? It’s too soon for you to be alone.”
How many times did Ruby have to say it? “I’m fine. I have a job, a flat, a life. I don’t need you.”
Ruby reached the door just has it opened. “How dare you!” she screamed. “Who are you? How did you get my keys? How did you get in here?”
The man at her door wasn’t big with Russian words tattooed on his hands like her landlord. He was slight and old. He smiled. A friendly smile.
“Who…?” Ruby said. It was all she had time to say. The needle. “Oh No… No it’s not. NO!”
Angus Button watched the girl’s eyes flutter, then roll back and go still. Using a damp cloth he wiped sweat from her young face. So young. So much damage.
“What you doing, Button?”
Angus turned. Slowly. He’d worked here too long to move fast for any reason. No cause to. He nodded toward Phillip Gnoster, a colleague, a fellow nurse, a warden if they were being honest.
“Don’t know why you bother with her,” Phillip muttered.
“She must have had her reason,” Angus said.
“I don’t think so.” Phillip tightened the straps holding Ruby Rusko down. “Bitch like this you want to keep tight. She stabbed her landlord 52 times. You remember that next time you feel sorry for her. In the back. 52 times, bro. No reason at all.”
Angus wasn’t listening. “Ruby?” he said close to the girl’s ear. “You hear me in there? Can you hear me?”
No response. The girl was out. Had been for the four months since she got here. Would be for the rest of her life if Phillip Gnoster had anything to do with it. Angus loosened the straps Phillip had tightened. They were to protect the girl from herself, not the world from her. The world had already taken its piece.
Then he reached up and straightened the dream catcher he’d hung on the wall three weeks and four days ago. It seemed to calm the girl. The nightmares she had seemed to have stopped. Angus wiped Ruby’s face one more time. “She had her reasons. Must have had her reasons. People don’t become monsters for no reason at all.”