The Death of Ruthie Barns

The Death of Ruthie Barns

a.k.a. The Magic of Castles

by Dominika Lein

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chapter one

castles on the ground

 

Ruthie Barns had no friends and she suspected that she never would. She was a city gal, born to a hooker with a cocaine habit and an unknown father who didn’t make it on the birth certificate – after all, “a rapist shouldn’t get that right”, her mother would tell her during the nighttime stories she got at three, six, and eight.

Ruthie was nine when they took her away and she left the dingy studio apartment to live in a two-story suburban home, then a one-story cottage, then a wide estate that even had a pool, then another house in the suburbs and by the time she was sixteen, Ruthie Barns was certain she’d seen every kind of interior design that existed with the exception of a castle.

She loved castles, which was why her notepads were covered in drawings of them. Instead of homework or old textbooks, she’d fill her backpacks with pictures of castles from stolen magazines, posters, and ripped encyclopedia excerpts. Her favorite was Lichtenstein Castle in Baden-Württemberg, Germany. When left alone in the evenings, she liked to imagine herself flying away and living within its stonewalls, hidden in the vast rooms where not even a tour guide might find her.

Each night, when it was pitch dark and the household was asleep, Ruthie would lock herself in whatever room was meant to be hers – though she never got to choose which – and if there were no locks, she’d set a chair or dresser or anything similar against it to prevent nosy adults who didn’t understand the necessity of privacy, or foolhardy foster siblings that’d need something she didn’t want to give, from getting in.

She’d secure the room and clear a space near the center. Ruthie enjoyed night air and as soon as the sun set, she’d open the window – if there was one – as far as it’d go and summon the wind to chill her bones. She would, then, empty her backpack so that she might look at all of her castles in a circle, which she’d stand in the middle of. She’d pretend to fly between the castles, the wind on her face, illusions of stone and nature in her mind.

When Ruthie turned twenty-five, she decided she was too old for all that crap and tossed out her castles because she ought to get on with her life since everybody around her was telling her so. She did for a while, but the emptiness in her heart got to be too much and when she won a jackpot from a slot machine at a random casino that she had spontaneously chosen to stop at for a warm drink after a deathly dangerous trip over icy Iowa roads, it wasn’t long after that she found herself standing in front of her very own castle.

With rolling green hills and speckled grey stones, she held the yellowed deed tight in her fleece-gloved hands as she gazed upon the storied structure. It was every bit magnificent as the pictures she’d collected as a youth. Ruthie had her castle and she was going to live alone; no friends, no family and definitely never any cats.

That’s how the first year and nine days came and went, but on the tenth day of the second year, there was a knock at the front door. Ruthie had just sat down to her afternoon soup – chicken and mushroom broth made from thawed freezer bags ordered from the Internet.

She thought about ignoring the rapping sounds, considered going elsewhere until whoever it was went away. Perhaps she should hide, her instincts mentioned, but instead she got up and peeked out the narrow side window to see the fading image of her mother peeking back, “Hi!” The woman waved as mist on the window blurred her swaying hand.

“Go away.” Ruthie answered, letting the curtain fall as she walked back to her soup. There was another knock and another, her mother’s muffled voice calling for her. She took one bite of soup, but couldn’t stand the continual pounding, besides the broth had gone cold.

Letting her mother in, she didn’t speak. The woman didn’t look as old as she was, despite her tendency for strenuous drugs, and Ruthie did wonder if perhaps her mother had given that life up, then found herself bitter at the thought, then guilty for being bitter. She crossed her arms, rubbed her hands together and complained about how cold it was.

“It isn’t that bad,” Her mother chirped, moving into the kitchen to look through the cupboards, “It took forever for me to find you here!” She exclaimed with a bright smile that did not fit the mood and caused the corners of Ruthie’s lips to pull painfully downward, “I thought maybe you’d disappeared entirely, but I kept looking, and here you are. Oh Ruthie,” She said the words in a dramatic way that reminded Ruthie of TV women with their overly painted faces and expressive eyes, so much so that Ruthie held back a gagging sensation.

Her mother didn’t seem to notice, or care, as she took Ruthie’s cheeks between her gloved hands and smiled up at her taller daughter, “I’ve missed you so much.”

A flood of red washed over Ruthie’s thoughts as her mouth twisted, lip peeling back to reveal overly large front teeth. She pulled back, away, from her mother’s touch and turned to escape into the sitting room. It was furnished in royal blue – left from the previous occupants – and had high vaulted ceilings with stained glass windows that let in the sun from time to time. She went to the fireplace, tossing a couple logs in and searching for lighter fluid.

“Ruthie?” Her mother followed, setting a couple pink and white square-shaped bags next to the armchair as she hurried to either help with the fire or simply bother Ruthie more. It was the latter. She rambled on about how happy she was to be here – even if the castle was so dour – and that ever since they’d taken poor little Ruthie away, she couldn’t stop thinking about her darling baby girl. The fire started, warm flames licking the chimney grate.

“Look,” Ruthie finally spoke in a sharply determined voice, sitting the farthest from her mother as she could, “I don’t know how you found me, but I don’t need to visit or anything, I’m over it.” She declared.

A droning moan returned to her, her mother taking the seat closest to Ruthie, “Darling girl, a daughter always needs her mother.” With that, she lifted one of the bags she had brought – the outside a glossy milk color, reminding Ruthie briefly of pearls – but the gift wasn’t enough to simmer the emotions that arose from the statement the woman had made.

Standing, Ruthie snapped, “I haven’t needed you for seventeen years and I don’t need you now.” Without waiting for a reply, as she wanted to have the last word, Ruthie took off, hurrying around the corner and up stone steps that spiraled into the second, third, fourth floor.

Jogging through the fourth corridor, tears wound down her cheeks. Ruthie felt weak for shedding them so quickly, so easily. She didn’t cry often, but when she did, it came in uncontrollable sobs. Choosing a familiar room, she slammed the door behind her. She swiftly locked the black antique keyhole with an old silver key that she’d gotten with the deed. Sliding down to sit with her back to the door, tears gushed from her eyes as sadness dripped from the corners of her mouth, and frustration choked her throat.

“Are you hurt?” The voice came from ahead, but seemingly nowhere as the castle was empty. Ruthie stared through a veil of tears at a large figure that stood beside the window. Roundly buxom, the stranger was garbed in a moss green robe and merely glanced at Ruthie before returning to looking out the window.

“No, but I’m not alright,” Ruthie snapped, though it was muffled by her sobs and she wondered why she wasn’t more upset that there was a fat woman in a strange dressing gown standing in one of her rooms, “I’m definitely not alright.”

“Not many of us are.” The stranger answered in a faded way, “Who are you anyways? What are you doing here?”

Ruthie was certain that she should be the one asking those questions. Confusion calmed her tears and she wiped the wetness from her cheeks with the back of her hand, the mound of her palm, frantically switching between them as she stood and glanced around the furnished bedroom. She’d been to this room before, but there’d never been a woman along with it, “Ruthie… Ruthie Barns.” She answered quietly, then added, “I could ask you the same thing, this is my castle.”

“Is it, really?” The woman’s tone was defeated and it made Ruthie feel safe as she moved to sit on an ottoman, “Did you build it?”

“Well, no.” Ruthie admitted, crossing her arms tightly, “But I bought it. I have the deed.”

“So?”

“So, what?”

“So, what does that mean exactly?” The woman contemplated, “The deed?”

“Well, it’s a piece of paper that confirms I bought this property, me, not anyone else.”

“So, you have a piece of paper that says you own the castle?” The woman sounded sincerely confused, “Did you write this paper yourself?”

“No, no,” Ruthie clarified, though she was starting to get confused about what she was saying herself, “I have a piece of paper that says I paid someone for the castle.”

“You paid the person who built the castle?” It was a honest question.

“No, I paid the person who owned it last.”

“And did they pay the person who built the castle?”

“I don’t know. Maybe?”

“Strange.” The woman’s word lingered as if sticking to the frost on the window as she stared out over the rolling green hills. Her hair was pinned in tight curls. She had little pink lips and thick black eyebrows that matched the darkness of her hair, contrasting the pale white of her thick skin.

“What is?” Ruthie queried.

“How much power paper has these days.” She hummed, “There was a time where paper wasn’t even readily available to the common folk, yet here we are, trading money for paper for castles and saying that’s fair and true because paper says to.”

“Well,” Ruthie pondered, “I wouldn’t so much say it is the paper, but the person who signed the paper. It’s like putting promises down to be remembered and such, right?”

“If you say so, dear.” The woman sounded disinterested now. Ruthie huffed slightly, since now her mind was whirling. She shook her head and stood to leave. “Where are you going?”

“Elsewhere.”

“Why?” The woman sounded disappointed.

“I’m fifty percent certain you’re a ghost, so I’m going to go back to being alone now instead of trying to explain how the world has changed to someone that’s dead.”

The woman scoffed, as if insulted, “Well, you’re very poor at explaining anyways.”

Ruthie left the room, shutting the door behind her. Her tears had dried and she felt light-headed. Heading down the hall, she reached another – less haunted – bedroom and fell asleep.

“Wake up, darling!”

She’d slept soundly, like usual, she had no dreams – at least, none that she could recall having – but as Ruthie opened her eyes to see her mother standing with a tray full of food, disappointment and disgust filled her so much that her stomach rolled with nausea and she leaned over the bed to dry heave violently.

“Oh dear,” Her mother set the tray on a nearby table, “Are you sick? Oh, I know what will spur your appetite! One moment!” With that, her mother left the food and ran out of the room. Ruthie groaned, glancing at the assortment of toasts, eggs, slices of ham, pancakes, waffles, biscuits, gravy, and was that a stack of chocolate chip cookies? Tumbling out of bed, the rug underneath was cold and she hurried to change into a warm outfit with thick socks.

By the time she was dressed, her mother had returned with in one hand, a large ziploc bag of ground herbs, and the other hand, a narrow glass waterpipe with a rainbow swirl design. The grin on her mother’s face made it apparent the woman thought the items in her hands were the best possible ideas in the history of ideas. Ruthie felt gravity tug at her face once more and she shook her head, “What is wrong with you?” Toxicity tinged her words as sickness bubbled up in her chest. She leaned over, dry heaving again.

“Oh dear,” Her mother set the items beside the tray of food, beginning to delicately pack the pipe as she watched her daughter heave, “Don’t worry, you’ll feel much better after this. I promise.”

“I–” Ruthie couldn’t choke out the curses she planned to lay on her mother, too sick and after gargled attempts, she gave up and laid upon the floor in defeat to the disgust overcoming her body.

“Here, here,” Her mother encouraged her to sit, pressing the glass up against Ruthie’s lips and lighting the packed herbs, “Go ‘head, you gotta breathe, Ruthie, dear…” She sharply inhaled to demonstrate, impervious to Ruthie’s dark glare.

She tried to wait, but her mother seemed infinitely patient with this task and so she breathed in shortly and as soon as she did, she began to cough. Her lungs ached from hot smoke and she swatted at her mother in an attempt to simply cause the woman some pain – make her feel a fraction of how Ruthie felt, perhaps – but her hand lost the energy part way through the attack and she ended up resting her hands in her lap with a loud sigh that created a cloud of smoke around them.

“I hope you don’t mind,” Her mother spoke, her voice strained, “But I let the neighbor boy in.”

Ruthie frowned, “Huh?” She coughed, shuffling away, “What?”

“Que sera?” Her mother smiled, standing, “Oh,” She rolled her head to the side, seemingly giving in to answering, “He just kept scratching at the door and whining, honestly I thought it was a stray dog, but when I saw him, I couldn’t just leave him out there in the cold. The sky’s so grey, it looks like it is going to ra–hey! where are you going?”

Ruthie was up and out the door part way through her mother’s explanation. She hurried down the hall, not waiting. She had no idea what the woman was talking about, nor did she know of any so-called neighbor boy. In fact, she knew nothing about any neighbors. The green hills went far and wide, there were no houses or living areas in visible range, the nearest town was a few miles south.

She almost fell on the stone steps, going too fast before a dizzy spell hit and she had to pat her palm against the wall to balance as she made her way to the kitchen. There were many scents intermingling from her mother’s cooking, overlaid with the thick scent of burning and the garbage was filled with black bacon, her nose wrinkled as she passed it. Ruthie was startled to see at the dining table, a young boy – about nine or ten – sitting in an oversized chair and looking positively frail against the geometric silhouette.

“Who are you?” Ruthie blurted, surveying his clothing for clues.

He had slender limbs, like most young boys that weren’t stuffed full of sugars and processed foods, with bespectacled eyes – the black circular frames were thick and magnified his wide blue moon-shaped eyes – he had thin, peach lips and a button-up beige shirt overlayed with a tartan sweater vest, dark brown shorts and tall stockings that were definitely out of style with brown leather shoes with poorly tied laces. Each wrist had a brown cuff on it that secured his little white gloves. In front of him was a large plate of food, barely touched, and a tall glass of orange juice. Staring at Ruthie from behind his glasses, he seemed to consider her for a moment before smiling with a gaping grin where several teeth were missing.

“Morning, Ruthie!” He greeted her, cheerfully.

All of this unsettled her, but she couldn’t rightly throw such a frail boy back out into the cold… or could she, “Time to go.” She decided she could, her anger for her mother fueling her, “Come on,” Gesturing for him to get up, “Why don’t you get back to your parents?”

“My parents are dead.” The boy answered and that the grin remained was downright disturbing.

“Excuse me?” Ruthie rubbed her eyes, wondering if perhaps she was finally have a dream after all this time.

“I said, my parents are dead.”

What was she supposed to say to that?, “No, they are not.” The words left as if her tongue was momentarily possessed.

“Yes, they sure are,” The boy answered simply, kicking his legs up and bending his knees to his chest, “Died in a motor accident on the way to the theater.” He said it so matter-of-factly that Ruthie tried to recall if his answer was as cliched as it felt, “Your mom is a nice lady.”

Ruthie shook her head, she placed a hand on his shoulder and guided him towards the door, leading the boy outside, “Right, well, back you go to wherever your house is.”

“I can’t,” He said as she began to shut the door. She closed her eyes, furrowing her brow as she slammed it shut and left him outside like one might do to a dog that just ate the turkey on thanksgiving, “I don’t know where it is.” He called through the window pane, rapping on it wildly.

“Ruthie, what are you doing?” Her mother had returned, eyes red and hair astray as she hurried to the door and opened it, “Come on back in, Matty, dear.”

“Thank you, Miss Barns.” The boy grinned up at her, patting her arm before hurrying back to the table to sit where he’d been.

Ruthie swore and stalked into the kitchen.

“What’s the matter, dear?” Her mother followed and Ruthie felt her patience waning. She held the counter and her breath hissed out between her teeth as she gripped the marble – put in by previous owners – tightly, “Are you not hungry still? Did you want me to make something else?” There was a frantic anxiety to the questions, her mother was displaying signs of nervousness in her twitching fingers and wide eyes.

“No, you’ve done enough.” Ruthie grumbled, “I believe it is time for you to go, now.”

“But I just got here.” Her mother defended.

“Yes and why and how, I do not know,” Ruthie began to collect the pots and pans that her mother had left out while cooking, tossing them into the sink, “all I know is that I want you to go, right now. Take the kid with you.”

Her mother watched her, lower lip quivering and seemed to do everything, but go. Ruthie felt frustration well inside her and she tossed the pans down loudly into the sink, “Why can’t you just leave me alone? Don’t you understand that I don’t need you? Why are you even here?”

“I didn’t know where else to go, Ruthie, dear.” Her mother murmured in a quiet voice, suitable for a mouse, “I never wanted to leave you, you do know that, don’t you, dear? They took you away and told me that I couldn’t even visit you, that’d they’d lock me up if I even tried… and I did. A few times. I saw you once when you were leaving school, dressed all pretty in your blue jeans and hoody.”

The woman smiled, a small sweet smile that made Ruthie momentarily feel guilty for her outburst, “I was going to say hi, I was, but you got into a car and left… when I went back, an officer caught me and said I wasn’t allowed around the school no more. So, I waited some time and was going to see you when you turned eighteen, but…” Her words trailed off. There was a loud crashing from the dining room.

“But what?” Ruthie asked, but her mother was already hurrying out of the kitchen to inspect the noise. Rolling her fingers into fists, she reluctantly went to follow.

The dining room table was on its side and beside it stood Matty with his hands behind his back and a grin upon his face. Orange juice pooled around his shoes, staining the soles with sticky yellow. The food scattered along the stone floor, sausages still rolling.

“What happened?” Her mother hurried to upright the table, gesturing for Ruthie to help. Sighing, Ruthie did so.

“I don’t know.” Matty answered, his grin not fading.

“Liar.” Ruthie hissed, causing her mother to slap her lightly on the shoulder.

“Come now, Matty, you must have seen something, you were the only one in here.”

“No, I’m not.” He giggled shortly before bringing a hand up to cover his mouth.

Ruthie looked to her mother and her mother back at her and they both appeared confused, then more so when they saw the other was, before Ruthie sighed and shook her head, “This isn’t my problem. And it is time for you,” She took Matty by the arm, leading him towards the front door this time and passing through the hall, “to leave.”

Matty whined loudly, “But I don’t want to go! I like it here!”

“Maybe you should have thought of that before you knocked over the table.”

“I told you, I didn’t!”

“Well, then, how did it fall over?”

“I don’t knoooow!” He yowled loudly like a cat with its tail stepped on, pulling away from Ruthie’s grip and managing to escape as he ran into the sitting room. Pale light was streaking through the stained glass, causing a dim array of colors over the dusty blue interior. She followed him in, but just then, the doorbell rang – which was extremely odd as Ruthie didn’t know her castle had a doorbell.

Pointing her index finger at the boy, she scolded, “Sit down and try not to knock anything over this time.” Stalking away from the room, she fixed her hair and realized that she hadn’t even gotten a chance to look in a mirror. There was one near the door, in the entry hall, but it was cracked and smudged with black to the point where nothing reflected out of it at all. Ruthie made a note that she should replace it, or at the very least, take it down as she moved to peek out the window to see who was at the door. She saw nothing. Frowning, she let the curtain fall and stood there. Then, she nearly jumped out of her skin when the doorbell rang again. Opening the door with a flurry, she stared at a tall postal man dressed in a blue, winter uniform. He tapped the lid of his cap to her, bowing slightly and holding out a brown box that had her name written on it, but nothing else. She frowned, taking the box without looking further at it, “What, but, I just looked out the window,” He hadn’t been there when she peeked, “How did you…”

“Have a good day, ma’am.” He tapped his cap again, turning and walking down the path. Ruthie watched him, suspecting that if she stared long enough, she’d catch him disappearing into a puff of smoke and aha! she’d have figured it out! or so she thought – but he kept walking until he reached the road down the way and blurred out of her vision. In the far distance, she could hear the motor of a vehicle. Feeling turned around, she shut the door and locked it with a frown.

“Who was that?” Her mother had come out of the room, then glanced at the box, “Oh, are those the dishes I ordered?”

“Why on earth would you order dishes?” Ruthie asked in a defeated tone, slinking towards the sitting room where Matty was sitting in the center of the couch, staring up at the stained glass ceiling.

“Thought it might be nice to have a new set, something hip and modern, y’know?” Her mother swayed into the room, taking a seat beside Matty and smiling, “You left quite a mess back there, it’ll take forever to get the juice out, hopefully before the ants come.”

“I told you!” He cried defiantly, “It wasn’t me!”

Her mother laughed and ruffled his hair, then looked at Ruthie, “Well, go on, aren’t you going to open it?”

Ruthie frowned, examining the box – it seemed simple enough, cardboard brown with fraying corners, but the lack of a return address – or any address at all – made her suspect, “No.” She answered, setting it on a nearby table, “Not right now.”

Her mother made a disappointed sound, then shrugged, fixing the hair she’d just ruffled.

“Miss Barns?” He asked in a sweet tone that almost always meant a child was going to ask for something they wouldn’t otherwise get, “Could I stay here with you?”

Her mother lit up and glowed, wrapping her arms around Matty and hugging him tight – ruining the hair she’d just fixed, “Why, of course!”

“Hey, wait a mome–” But Ruthie had been outrightly ignored as Matty cheered and hugged her mother back. She frowned, crossing her arms, too taken aback to say anything more.

Miss Barns gestured for Ruthie to join them, but Ruthie held her ground and shook her head, “I’m not having any part of this.” She stated, glancing at the box, then turning around, “I’m changing.”

As she searched through the dressers in her room on the fourth floor, Ruthie tried to devise a plan that would get rid of her unwelcomed guests. Their exuberance was putting a damper on her solitude. Swapping her clothes out for a warmer sweater and a long nylon skirt, she pulled on thick woolen socks before heading back out. As she stepped down the corridor, she paused, glancing at the room with the black antique lock. She wondered if the woman from before would still be inside… it would only take a second or two to check. Licking her lips, it felt like an eternity that Ruthie was staring at the door, thinking about it until a nagging voice reminded her to get going.

“Ruthie? Ruthie? Come help,” Oh, that wasn’t a nagging voice at all. Matty was at the end of the hall, staring at her with a flushed face from running up the stairs, “Miss Barns…” He pointed, exhausted from the sprint. Ruthie frowned, hurrying to him.

“What is it?”

“Come quick,” He grabbed Ruthie’s hand and led her back down the stairs. He let go half-way down, their steps too varied in width to keep at the same pace. Ruthie stumbled forward, hurrying to the sitting room where she saw the top of her mother’s head peeking out from behind the couch. She instantly noticed the brown box wasn’t on the table.

“Ruthie,” Her mother spoke and that was a minor relief, though Ruthie felt tricked into her relief, crossing her arms as she saw the woman was perfectly fine – just sitting upon the floor with the box opened in her lap, “I couldn’t help myself.”

“Obviously.” Ruthie grumbled, then glanced towards the box, “So? What’s in it?”

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LONG BEFORE RUTHIE’S TIME

“Go on, open it already.”

“Patience,” Lady Rosalind reminded her maid, “The words inside will not simply run off.” She took a deep breath, drawing her polished nail under the wax seal and opening the envelope to retrieve folded parchment papers, over six of them, “My,” She murmured.

“Who are they from, mi’lady, do they say?”

Glancing at the servant, Rosalind supposed it was her own fault that the girl had grown so bold. They’d become close friends while her husband was away in battle and one night when she’d had too much wine and the maid had helped her out of her gowns so gently, she’d confessed that she loved her like a sister might – only more so. The message seemed to have swelled the heart of the innocent maid, but also loosened her tongue when they were in private in ways that were starting to grate on Rosalind’s already frayed nerves. She looked towards the letters, looking for the signature at the bottom, “It does not say…”

“You must read it and see if the letter says anything!” The maid exclaimed, “Will you read it to the both of us?”

“No, I don’t believe I will,” Rosalind answered simply, then waved a hand as she kept her gaze lowered, “Why don’t you fetch some wine and olives. Take your time.”

The maid hesitated, then nodded, hurrying out of the room and shutting the wooden door behind her with a thud. Rosalind paused, then stood and locked the shiny new black lock upon the door.

Her hands quivered as she held the parchment between her fingers and gasped softly as she read through the swirling cursive text – her lover in the country far away, it felt, though she knew it was only a few days of a carriage ride to get to him. With the battles, such a trip could cost either of them their lives. She gasped, his words filling her head as she read through it quickly, then again. Oh, she loved her husband, she did as an obligation – after all, the marriage was done for political reasons, but the Lord across the way truly knew how to make her heart sing. She startled when the maid came in, partway through a repeat of the letter.

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to be continued