The wind whipped against my face and dust kicked up behind me as I ran through the rows of green and red. The Florida sun pulled salty specks from my skin as I topped the hill. I stopped to catch my breath, taking a seat between the ruby garnished bushes. My heart pounded in my chest as I plucked a strawberry. I knew what hell I would catch if my father found me eating his crop but what ten-year-old boy could resist something so sweet? With a single bite the entire thing was consumed and the natural sweetness of its juices filled my mouth. I brushed away my perspiration as I looked out at the field. It always amazed me how it seemed to go on forever. I was alone at the end of my world and completely free.
I would return to the Ruby Rows, which is what I called them, when times were hard. It was easy to sit on that hill, sample a bit of sweetness, and forget the evil in the world. It took years for me to understand what that really meant. My father was a jealous drunk and mother was easy on the eyes, or so they say. She liked to have her drinks away from home in the company of a livelier crowd. Father just drowned in his whiskey at home. It did not take long for the two worlds to collide. She was unhappy with the life she felt trapped in and he was sure she was running around. I think I was just in the way, so I would go to the Ruby Rows. I would sit on the edge of the world and eat strawberries until the fighting stopped. Then one night the fight went longer than usual and the police found me after. I watched as two large black bags were carried from our house.
Officer Michaels brought me back to the station and gave me change for the vending machine. I settled on an RC Cola even though I really wanted something sweeter. The officer made a few phone calls and after about an hour my Aunt Sylvia came to pick me up. When Mama would get scared we would go stay at her house for a few nights. I could tell by how puffy her eyes were that she had been crying. She had to sign some papers before we could leave. I hoped Mama would be waiting in the car but it was empty. I tried asking about Mama but it made Aunt Sylvia cry. Instead, I decided to look out the window. I watched as we drove past my home and the Ruby Rows. I wanted to be back up on that hill but the car kept going. Aunt Sylvia lived in the next town over and that was where we were heading.
People talk and ears listen. I just wish I had heard it from Aunt Sylvia. They said they found me with the two of them. I do not remember that and Aunt Sylvia could barely look at me without crying. It made it feel unreal. I had to see it with my own eyes. My bike was back on the farm, so I took the one in the yard next door. It took about an hour to make the ten-mile trip back home. Signs had been posted at the driveway to keep people out and the doors and windows were covered in caution tape. Even in the morning sun, the light did not seem to enter the little house on the edge of the field. I pulled the tape barrier at the back door away and stepped into the kitchen. The table had been turned over and dishes lay broken across the tile. It smelled like a mixture of sour meat and my father’s liquor. My feet shuffled through the hall toward my parent’s room, pushing past debris as I went. The air became thick in the summer heat and the stench grew stronger. It was dark but light seeped through bullet holes in the wall of my parents room. This did not feel like my home.
There was a suitcase on the bed and clothes piled in it. Mama’s Sunday dress was on the mound. It was not white like I remember from when she sang in the choir last. It reminded me of the red berries. Something about that made me sad. Before I knew it I was sitting between the bushes again. My cheeks were filled with the sweet taste soon after and I sat staring at the endless Ruby Rows. I sat there eating my fill as the sun passed overhead and warmed my skin. Aunt Sylvia found me that afternoon, covered in bits of red and juice. I do not remember how many strawberries I had eaten. She hugged me and cried. I guess she was too worried about me to ask about the bike I had stolen or why I had skipped school. We went back to her house and again she never said a word so neither did I. I just watched as the Ruby Rows passed by.
Aunt Sylvia ran me a bath, much like she had the first night I came to stay with her. I was sticky and my clothes were stained. She collected them from me and told me to get in the bath. The water warmed me but not like the sun on the hill. I wanted to go back there but I knew Aunt Sylvia would just bring me back. I sat thinking about the strawberries as the water turned cold. Aunt Sylvia came to get me, saying something about getting sick. I did not feel sick. I did not feel anything except cold. I missed Mama. I missed home but most of all I missed the Ruby Rows and how warm it felt up on the hill. That was all I thought about as I dried off and put on the pajamas Aunt Sylvia left for me and got into bed. She watched me from the doorway until I fell asleep. She still seems sad. She must miss Mama too.
I dreamt about the Ruby Rows. It was night and the sky was full of stars. There was a breeze but it was still warm like most summer nights in Florida. The strawberries were even sweeter than I remember. There was no one to tell me I could not have more so I ate until my shirt was stained red. When I woke up to see that I was still in Aunt Sylvia’s spare bedroom I frowned a bit. I tried to return to my dream but it was no use. The house was quiet so I tried to be quiet too. Mama used to sing to help me get back to sleep but I had a feeling Aunt Sylvia would not want me to wake her. I got a glass of milk instead. It was not what I wanted but it would have to do. I looked out to the stars from the kitchen window. It was a lot like my dream. I thought about it as I finished my milk and placed the empty glass in the sink.
Aunt Sylvia’s door was open. She usually kept it closed and I wondered if she was awake too. My steps made the old wood floor creak but I tried to be quiet. I held my breath as I leaned against the doorframe. My eyes peered around the edge and toward the bed. Aunt Sylvia lay still under the white sheets. She must have been holding her breath too because I could not hear her. Then I caught sight of something that reminded me of the Ruby Rows and I wanted to be home. Aunt Sylvia had brought my bike back with us so I would not steal the neighbors again. I do not remember leaving or riding it the ten miles back to the farm. All I remember is the warm night air and the sweet taste of strawberries. Officer Michaels found me there a few hours later. He took me back to the station but he did not give me change for the vending machine this time. He is making a few calls, probably to try and reach Aunt Sylvia. I wish I could just stay at the Ruby Rows. Things do not seem so bad up there.
Officer Michaels brought me to another room to wait. He said someone would come to talk to me soon. There was a table in the room and a couple of chairs. It reminded me of the craft area at school, just without the crafting materials. It would have helped to have something to draw with to pass the time. Instead, I watched the clock and dreamt of the Ruby Rows. It was starting to get easier to imagine myself there. It was almost as if I could escape anytime I needed to. So I stayed on the hill and ate strawberries while I waited. The sun is warm, the strawberries are sweet, and things do not seem so bad up there. My dream was broken by the door opening. Officer Michaels came back in with a woman. She had glasses on like my teacher. She said she was a doctor but she did not look like any doctor I had ever met. She asked me a lot of questions about Mama and Aunt Sylvia. It was the first time anyone asked me about Mama. I was not sure what to say. I thought about the suitcase and the dress. That made me think of the strawberries. I went back to the Ruby Rows. I want to stay there. Things are not so bad up there.
Written by L0CKED334