Free as a Bird (7 page)

Grace was doin it again — makin me get confused. Sometimes I dint understand on account of me not bein so smart, but then sometimes it jus weren't my fault a'tall. Nobody left Woodlands — cept on one of them rollin beds from the amblance. An I sure dint want that to happen. An besides that, if I left where'd I live? With Mom an Harold? I dint think that would be a good idea — I might hit the baby again an make him scream. Nope, I couldn't live no where cept Woodlands.

“C'mon, Ruby Jean. It's time for a little adventure. Let's go get something pretty for your hair.”

Grace took my cup an put it in the sink. I followed her to the hall an we put on our jackets. Outside the sky was grey an the wind was blowin the trees round. But inside I felt like a sunny day.

She grabbed my hand an we walked down the hill — farther than I ever went before — toward the big stone-an-meddal gate. When we got there Grace pulled hard an the gate made a screechin noise that hurt my ears. I dint ever member goin outside the stone wall before — cept before Mom an Harold left me at Woodlands. Outside there was cars goin by this way an that — an goin real fast. Suddenly, I got the jitters an began scratchin my hands, but Grace took em in hers an looked me in the eyes.

“It's okay, Ruby Jean. You're safe with me. I promise.”

We walked for a long time on that road with the loud noises an lotsa cars. One of em cars honked an that made me jump. Grace jus smiled an told me, “It's okay, Ruby Jean. You're safe with me.” I wanted Grace to be proud of me so I tried not bein fraid.

After walkin for a while we got to a buildin with big glass windows an doors. Grace opened the doors — without a key — an we walked inside. I waited for someone to say — get her outta here, staff only. But no one said anything to me — jus stared.

That sure was a shiny place an there was lots of clothes hangin everywhere. I wondered who they belonged to. Somethin else — all em people walkin round was all strangers — dint see a single retard or uniform anywhere. But after a while I gotta funny feelin from em all lookin at me so much.

“Never mind the Lookie-Loos,” Grace told me. She took my hand an we walked round that busy place lookin at shoes an sweaters an lady underwears. After that she said, “Let's go to the accessories department now and see about something for your hair.” The accessories department was very shiny too — yup, it had bright lights an mirrors an lotsa priddy things.

“Hey, this looks like the perfect thing,” Grace said. “Try it on.” She pushed my hair back with a pink band. It made my hair stay up off my face so I could see bedder. “Take a look in the mirror, Ruby Jean.”

I looked in the mirror. It was the same old me cept now there was a pink band on my head. I liked how it made me look an stared in that mirror for a long time.

“Don't you look pretty?” Grace said.

I had bubbles ticklin my insides so I laughed out loud. Then somethin unspected happened. “Looks priddy.” At first I wondered who said them words. Then I looked at Grace an knowed.

“Ruby Jean! You said, it ‘looks pretty.' You talked, Ruby Jean. That's … that's wonderful. Oh, my goodness, wait until I tell everybody!”

She danced round me an we both was laughin. My mouth sure got awful tired cause it wouldn't stop smilin.

After Grace gave some money to a lady we walked back hand in hand long that busy an noisy road to the screechy gate. An the wind dint blow my hair in my eyes no more — nope, not a'tall.

I thought bout all I'd seen an done that day — makin toast an tea, walkin long the scary road, goin inside the place with the clothes an bright lights. Somehow I knowed those things wasn't really new an strange to me. Then words started poppin inside my head — shoppin mall, grocery store, coffee shop, treats, gifts. That's when a funny feelin got inside me an I felt like I was liddle again, holdin Gramma's hand an walkin home from Hudson's Bay with shoppin bags — some of em even had things inside for me. When Grace an me walked through the meddal gate I looked back an hoped one day I'd get to go outside it again.

When we got to Ward 33, me an Grace stomped our feet very hard when we walked up the stairs. The echo was louder than ever before. We laughed too. Then Grace put her arms round me an squeezed me tight. I had a pain in my heart after that — cept it was a good one.

After we went through the locked meddal door, Millie was standin there — waitin. Her arms was folded an her eyes was skinny an mean. An I dint like the way her lips was squeezed into a tight line. I'd seen that look lotsa times before — like when I barfed up my porridge one mornin. Millie said that day, “You did that on purpose, didn't you, Ruby Jean?” Yup, I guess I done it on purpose — but that's cause that porridge tasted awful an made me wanna barf. But this time was different — I'd never seen Millie look so mad at other people before — the ones who weren't the retards. That's when I felt the meltin inside me stop an everythin went hard again.

“Miss Watson, I just got off the telephone with someone who I consider a reliable witness. He told me you were seen outside the institution with Ruby Jean. He said you were walking along Columbia Street. Of course, I could scarcely believe what I was hearing. I thought to myself, certainly a young lady as intelligent as Miss Watson would not ignore procedures, disobey the rules. So please tell me that it wasn't true.”

I watched Grace. She dint have no more smiles on her face. “Well, as a matter of fact we were walking along Columbia Street, Nurse. We went to the department store after Ruby Jean had a very successful morning — she made toast and tea and best of all she spoke. She said ‘looks pretty.'”

“So you admit taking this patient off the grounds? And then you make up some fantastic story that she talked. In all the years I've known this girl she's never uttered a single syllable — nothing except the moans and groans these halfwits usually make.”

Millie's face was gettin red an she was shakin so much I dint think she could hardly breathe. I wished I coulda told her that Grace was tellin the truth, but whatever it was that made me wanna talk before was all gone.

“Tell me — did you have written authorization to take this patient out of the institution?” Millie dint wait for Grace to answer. “Of course, you didn't. Ward 33 residents aren't allowed to go out in public unless there's specific permission —
spe-cif-ic per-miss-ion
. Get it? And I'm the one who gives permission. So what made you think you could just take Ruby Jean out without my permission?” Millie wagged her finger so hard at Grace I thought it was gunna fall off. “Well? What have you got to say for yourself?”

Grace's cheeks were shiny pink. I wondered if she was gunna cry. She'd never had Millie yell at her before. I waited for Millie to start callin her names too.

“You're right, Nurse. I didn't have permission to take Ruby Jean out. But I swear, she did talk.” Grace's voice was awful small an shaky.

“Do you realize that if anything had happened to Ruby Jean while she was outside the institution we all could have lost our jobs?”

I knowed there's lotta things I don't understan on account of me not bein so smart. But one thing I knowed for sure was that I weren't so important as Millie said. That's why I knowed she was lyin to Grace — yup, jus like Gramma use to say, lyin her head off.

“I'm sorry that I didn't follow procedures,” Grace said. “But, after all, Ruby Jean is in the life-skills program. We all hope one day soon she can be moved out of this place. She needs to get used to life beyond Woodlands, to know what it's like to live without locks and bars, to live in the real world.”

Oh-oh. By the look on Millie's face I think maybe Grace said somethin real bad. I'd seen her face turn bright red like that lotsa times an knowed what Grace was in for now.

“How dare you suggest Ruby Jean hasn't been given the best life has to offer. How many can say they have a whole team of people lined up to make their meals, wash their clothes, clean their noses, and wipe their butts?

Nobody — except maybe the queen of England!”

“I'm sure it's true that you all do a good job of looking after her physical needs, but Ruby Jean's more than just a body. She has a mind hungry for stimulation, a soul starving for affection. She wants to be useful and valued. And you don't need to be the queen of England to deserve all of that.” Grace was shakin so much I thought maybe she'd fall down.

“First of all, you'll never teach this one enough for her to live outside this institution — so get that fancy idea out of your head. And second, your disregard for rules is going to cost you dearly — count on it. Ruby Jean, come with me.”

Millie grabbed my hand an pulled me toward my room. I tried my best to keep my eyes on Grace, but they was fillin with tears. Before I knowed it she disappeared through the meddal door — jus like Mom and Harold when I was eight.

That night Bernice had to call for help. “Get the Boys up here again to handle Ruby Jean.” When they came they grabbed my arms an twisted em hind my back. I was tryin to fight em off an that's when my pink hair band fell onto the floor. One of the Boys stepped on it an it snapped in two. That made me even madder — yup, almost as nutso as Jimmy T. I scratched an bit as hards I could, but priddy soon I felt a sharp pain in my arm again. Can't member what happened after that.

When I woke up the nex mornin I was lyin on the cold floor of the bad kid room. Millie came in — she had a bandage on her cheek. “So, Ruby Jean, I heard you were a bad girl last night too. Well, there's going to be none of that today. You hear? I don't have a problem calling the Boys again.” I wasn't gunna be a bad girl that day cause I was too tired an too sad.

I waited a long time for Grace to come for me. It was hard waitin so I started scratchin my hands an made lotsa bleedin sores all over em. After a long time I went to bed, an after nother sleep waited for Grace again. But she dint never come.

When I was liddle an dint listen to Mom, she got angry at me. “You're a pain in the neck, Ruby Jean, and I'm fed up with you.” After she said that lots an lots of times she an Harold left me at Woodlands. Guess I must've been a pain in the neck to Grace too — that's why she never came back.

Uniforms wrapped my hands in bandages so's I couldn't scratch em no more. They dint do nothin for my sore heart — nope, guess they dint have bandages for that. I felt jus like a empty glass jar that had no jam inside. No more liddle brown house, no more toast an tea, an I was never gunna learn to make Mrs. Jiffy muffins. Stead I sat an watched
As the World Turns
.

After a while I started bitin the uniforms again. An when I couldn't do that I bit myself — yup, bit myself hard all over my hands, my arms, an anything else I could reach. I spose that's why the uniforms wrapped me up in a straitjacket an tied me down to a chair. That's when everybody turned fraid of me — even Susan wouldn't sit near me. That made me feel awful sad — yup, cause that's when I knowed I was all alone.

chapter 5

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