–A short story by Azra Rahman
Ruby looked ruefully at her wrists. She was handcuffed but that wasn’t the cause of her gaze. She pinched the underside of her arm lightly, but firmly. Years of habit of pinching nerves before injecting herself had finally reduced to mere pinchings. She had been clean for some years now. Five years and three months to be put roughly. Joy had turned 4 around six months back. A week later, Ruby had laid him to rest with her own hands. She smiled a wet smile.
‘Soon…soon baby boy…Mama will see you again soon…’
She heard the doorknob twist, opening the door. The lawyer, Roy entered. She smiled at his name. Roy and Joy. Joy and Roy. Roy smiled back at her. A dry smile, taut, which clearly communicated that her chances were little to none. Marred by her own testimony. Ruby had made no show of pretense of being innocent, neither through her words nor her actions. She had been composed, wasting no time in speaking the truth. Unhesitatingly answering the questions that were flung at her by the prosecutor. She had answered every single one of them. The prosecutor, a female, possibly a mother, had been passionate in her addressal, stressing effectively on the quite obvious nerve of:
‘How could a mother do that to her child?’
She had been right. In normal circumstances she would have hugged Joy tightly and wondered the same. Who knew it would come to this?
Ruby still recalled the moment Joy had been placed in her arms for the first time. She hadn’t known what the child would be called. Until then. A warmth had sept into her body from the tiny little human. Happiness…immeasurable joy. And love. So much she felt as if her heart would burst. Ruby had wept shamelessly while the nurses around her had let her.
“Do we have a name?” one of them had asked. She had taken one look at that tiny, peaceful face, and softly declared. “Joy.”
“How have you been?” Roy asked her as he pulled a chair, deposited his folders on the desk with a thud, choosing to look at her instead of taking a seat. He looked exhausted. Ruby shrugged at his question. What else was left to be said? He placed his hands on his hips, observing her for a few moments. Ruby sat still. Comfortable. Easily. Waiting for him to speak up whatever was on his mind.
“I met your friend.”
“Sammy?” She asked, smiling fondly. Her only friend. But the only friend she had ever relied upon. “How is she?”
Roy took a moment to answer. “Devastated. She still cannot comprehend why you would kill your own child. According to her, Joy was your whole world. You turned your life around for him. Why then…?” He leaned forward; hands placed on the desk before him. “Please tell me…I am here to help you…”
“Then help me get the death penalty. As soon as you can.”
“I can’t do that! You’re my client! My job is to help you out…in a way protect you…but I can’t do that unless you let me…”
“I was protecting him.” Ruby looked down at her hands, refusing to look at Roy’s penetrating gaze.
“Who? Joy?” Roy took a seat before her. She nodded. “How did you think you were protecting him?”
Flashes of her own childhood clouded her mind. She almost didn’t answer. Roy waited patiently for her to open up. Finally, she asked, staring in her lawyer’s eyes, gaze steady.
“Has it ever happened to you during your childhood, that the door of your bedroom would open, revealing someone standing in its frame?”
Roy nodded. “Yes. Plenty of times.”
“Who stood at the other end?”
“Either of my parents…sometimes both. Usually to check on us.”
Ruby nodded solemnly at Roy. “It used to happen to me too.”
“And…?” Roy leaned in; eyebrows knit together.
“There’s a question you need to ask. Who stood at the other end?”
“…‘Who stood at the other end?’..” Roy echoed, mind working faster. Ruby nodded, leaning back in her chair.
“When you can answer that, you will know.”
Roy walked out shortly. He had been working this case for a few months now. From the start he knew this woman was doomed for life. Initially he had taken up this case as just another part of his job. Detached himself from emotions, focusing on his sole objective of saving his client. Yet, eventually, this woman’s behavior had puzzled him. Intrigued him. Made him wanting to know more about her. Being married to a crime journalist hadn’t helped either. His wife, Lina, had been relentlessly pursuing this story. He hadn’t liked it at first, both of them working on the same case from different angles might not play well at any level. But if there was one major issue in their marriage, it was the inability of both of them to not bow down regarding their professional front. They recognized it, and hence never discussed their respective cases at home if it had the potential to influence the other.
Yet that day as Roy sat in his study, brainstorming over possible arguments he would present in court the following week, Ruby’s face kept interrupting his thoughts.
‘Who stood at the other end?’
“Who stood at the other end?” Lina’s voice startled him, almost causing the pen to drop. She walked in, two mugs of steaming coffee in her hands. It was their nightly ritual. No matter how crazy their schedule (which was mostly), they always had coffee post-dinner. Coffee and conversation. It was a much-needed break from a hectic job profile.
“Did I startle you?” Lina approached, extending a mug in his direction. Roy took it from her, closing his laptop and diary with the other hand. Lina sat at the corner seat, pulling her legs under her. “You have been mumbling that. What does it mean?”
Roy exhaled, exhausted. He pinched the bridge of his nose. “It’s something Ruby said.”
Lina looked at him, that intelligent gaze observing his tired one. “Are you ok to talk about it?”
“Have you given up on this coverage?”
Roy bolted in attention, surprised. This was so unlike Lina. “You have never done something like this. Is…is everything fine at your office?”
Lina took a sip, nodding in the process. “Remember the Bungalow case I covered last month?”
Roy remembered it distinctly. A total of five children were found in the basement of an old bungalow. All siblings. The parents who were the owners of the bungalow were arrested and charged. Apparently, the father saw himself as some type of cult leader. The mother blindly did as was told. According to them, the children were all incarnations of Devil. They needed to be ‘sent away’ to make space for the Angel that was to be born. Lina had exclusively covered this case, investigating and making known various facts which proved to be crucial.
“Vividly”, Roy responded.
“Although I don’t express it well…these things affect me too. I wasn’t sure I wanted to write or investigate another tragedy with a child as victim. I asked for the case to be transferred to someone else. For the next two weeks, I am on leave.”
“What did you tell your boss?”
“That my mental and emotional well-being is as important as my physical wellness.”
“If they choose to replace you?”
“They won’t. Even if they do, you know I could get another job. If nothing works, Long live Freelancing!”
Lina was one of those rare characters who were ambitious without being competitive. Maybe that was one of the reasons that attracted him to her. In his cut-throat competitive job, Lina, extensively talented at what she did, brought a serenity with her sense of ease.
“What did Ruby say to you?” Lina drifted the topic away from herself. Roy recounted their short conversation between sips of hot coffee. It was oddly satisfying to relay his work troubles to his wife without a second thought. When he was done, both sat in silence. The only sound emanating from them sipping their coffee. Finally, Lina broke her silence.
“What do you know about Ruby?”
Roy frowned. “She is the daughter of illegal immigrants. They were deported when she was mere five years old. There are no records of them to be found. She was put into foster care. She moved from one foster home to another and ended up on the streets. As happens with most in this scenario, she became a drug-addict, also entered prostitution to sustain her addiction. At 19, she got pregnant with her son, Joy. As per those who somewhat knew her, the birth of her son proved to be a boon for her. She completely transformed herself. Got herself into rehab, was helped to a job and surprisingly held onto it. Until six months ago when she overdosed Joy on sleeping pills, causing his death. It was she who called 911 to report it. She has made no pretense of innocence…which maybe works for her guilty conscience. Certainly, doesn’t work for her case.” The last statement came out a touch bitter.
“I think we both know who would have stood at the other end of the door.”
Roy sighed. She was right. Children being abused in foster care was not unheard of. Children being exploited for monetary gains in every way possible, was a reality few willed to accept and confront. It happened, nevertheless.
“You think her traumatic childhood played a hand in this barbaric act?”
“Yes. You should also ask her about her last medical appointment.” With that Lina left, collecting his now empty mug on the way out.
This last bit of information shocked him. There was nothing mentioned in his files about an appointment. Surely, she went through drug testing, but that had come out negative. So, what was Lina talking about? Reflexively, Roy dialed Jimmie’s number. His assistance since of five years. Roy spilled out instructions as soon as Jimmie picked up. Morning couldn’t come fast enough.
He entered the meeting room, slamming his folder on the desk. Ruby looked at him, slight widening of her eyes showing surprise, but otherwise calm.
“You’re dying.” Roy declared. She neither confirmed not denied this statement. “Is that why you killed Joy? So that he wouldn’t have to live by himself? Go through what you went through?”
Ruby smiled at him. “You now finally know ‘Who stood at the other end…’”
Roy purposely ignored her. “We can still turn this somewhat around. Tell your story in your own words. The jury will listen. Will have to listen.”
Ruby shook her head. “No. You can tell it. Use it to do your job as best as you think. But I don’t want to live. I just want to be reunited with Joy…”
“You’re still young…”
“I have seen enough of life.” She got up, smiled, this time warmth seeping into her eyes. “Thank you…for everything. I don’t have long as I am sure my oncologist must have told you. As…as my lawyer, could you take a message to Sammy?”
Roy nodded, numb.
Ruby hesitated for a heartbeat. “Tell her…tell her that I love her. She was my family, my sister. And tell her to use whatever money I have left to bury me beside Joy. If…if it is possible…”
“You have a hearing in a few days. And I will fight for you till the end.”
Ruby looked at him intently, eyes now wet. “Goodbye Roy…take care.”
The door buzzed shut behind her.
As promised, Roy gave his best to her case. With no result. Ruby was sentenced to life in prison with 30 years without parole. Roy knew she had her wish granted. He had relayed her words to Sammy, who immediately set to work. Roy couldn’t prevent himself but try and help Sammy secure for her a plot beside Joy. A month later, Ruby passed away in jail. Roy, Lina and Sammy were the only people present at her funeral. While Sammy sobbed uncontrollably, Roy and Lina stood beside her, gazing at the tombstone which marked her grave. A woman so extensively damaged by a system of abuse, killing her only child seemed to her the only way to protect him from a possibly similar future.
Was she right? Was she wrong? Who gets to decide that?
How could anyone who has not led her life label her as evil?
Did anyone have the right to paint things in black and white?
Sammy’s body shook beside him. He extended an arm in solidarity, looking at the gravestone.
‘Loving Mother’ it said.
No matter how twisted it sounded, she did love her son the most.
Maybe now, both would be at peace.