Ruby's clinic was vandalized the night before and Ben, the cop she's just started dating drove her to the scene to inspect the damage. Tom, a man from Ruby's past recently showed up to work a sting in her neighborhood. Her first love, Tom disappeared ten years ago after they were involved in the death of one of their school mates at a locked-down high school. Lilah is Ruby's receptionist and best friend.
Last night, Ben told me that things were missing. He wasn’t kidding. A lot of supplies, chairs, and yes even the trash cans were gone. I stood in the middle of the ruined room and ran my eyes over everything, shocked. A muffled sob escaped my lips and I wiped at my eyes angrily.
“Ruby, are you okay?” Tom’s voice made me turn.
Startled, I gasped. “Tom, what are you doing here?”
He raised his eyebrows. “What am I doing here, really? I heard about what happened and came to make sure you weren’t hurt.”
I looked at him and flapped my arms at my sides speechless. Tom’s hair was cut, styled in way that made him look like he belonged in a country club. He still had the stubble though. It was a weird look, sort of high-end thug. He caught me staring, licked his pinkies, and used them to pretend groom his eyebrows. It was a move he used to do to make me laugh in class. I smiled.
“You know who did this.” Tom asked and nodded at the paint on the floor.
It wasn’t a question.
“Antonio Llave,” I whispered. “The gang-banger I was telling you about. I think he did this.”
Anger flashed across his face. “I’ve heard a few things about him. He’s busting through the ranks in La Eme.” Tom scanned the damage. “This looks like a threat from them; minimal damage, but a big warning. You’re probably right.”
In the front room, a second voice echoed Tom’s words.
“Minimal damage?” Ben repeated. “Are you serious?”
He walked in through the broken front window and joined Tom and I in the middle of the clinic lobby. My eyes flit from Ben to Tom. For some reason, I felt nervous with them in the same room.
Tom waved his hand at the room and nodded. “Yeah, I’m serious. Who are you?”
“I’m Officer Farrell, who are you?” Ben shot back.
The same height, Tom and Ben stood facing each other in a weird sort of standoff reminiscent of school-yard staring contests. I expected someone to double-dog dare someone at any moment.
I cleared my throat. “Ben, uh, Tom’s the guy from the alley that you helped me with.”
Ben eyed Tom with suspicion. Apparently no longer sure he believed he was in fact an officer.
Suddenly, Tom smiled and put out his hand.
“I never got a chance to thank you for that, Officer Farrell,” he said as he shook Ben’s hand. “Really, I appreciate you keeping my name out of this. I told my lieutenant about how great you handled that situation.”
Ben nodded dumbly, taken aback by Tom’s sudden change in demeanor. He cleared his throat. “Yeah, uh, no problem.”
Tom turned to me, shoved a piece of gum in his mouth, and winked. I forgot how disarming Tom could be if he wanted, from rival to brother-in-arms with one charming smile. I always used to tease him that he could sell ketchup ice-pops to a lady in white gloves.
“Ben, Tom is an old friend from…before I moved here,” I hedged.
Tom looked at Ben’s face, then at my awkward smile and grinned. He knew that Ben liked me. He took a step over to me, wrapped his arm around my shoulder, and kissed my hair.
“We’ve known each other for what, thirteen years?” Tom asked me.
Ben ground his jaw.
I blew my bangs from my eyes and frowned. Tom loved to poke at tigers. I pulled out of his arms, strode over to Ben, and kissed him on the cheek.
“Thank you again, Ben for being there, and giving me a ride. I’ll be all right now. I’m going to start cleaning up,” I said.
Ben nodded and then shot a triumphant look at Tom. “I’ll be going then,” he said. Then to Tom, “Try to keep from getting dumped in an alley again tonight. I’m not on duty.”
Tom smiled and nodded. He looked like he enjoyed sparring with Ben. “Oh, don’t worry. Ruby is really good at taking care of me.”
“Bye Ben!” I said suddenly and pulled him toward the door.
“I’ll see you tonight, then?” Ben asked in a needlessly loud voice.
“Yes, Ben. Pick me up here at eight, okay?”
He nodded and left. I watched him leave then turned and gave Tom a stern look.
He flashed me a look of complete enjoyment. “Let me guess, coffee?”
I rolled my eyes and pushed Tom down the back hall toward the rear door.
“Don’t you need to be somewhere dangerous?” I thought about his job and my heart wrenched with worry. “What about your cover, Tom? You’re not even supposed to be here, are you?”
“That can’t be concern I hear.” Tom turned and stopped himself with is arms across the doorway. He smiled down at me and my face flushed. He put his forehead against mine. “You’re not staying here alone, are you?” He whispered, breath brushing my eyelids.
Tom never liked any space between us.
I stepped back, my hands going to my hips. “What makes you think I’m staying here?”
Tom cocked his head to the side and folded his arms. He already knew.
“How…?” I asked.
“It’s my job to know about people, Ruby. I can’t believe you gave up your apartment to keep this place open.”
I took another step away from him and looked back down the hall toward the ruined office. Anger flaring, I shook my head. “I couldn’t just abandon these people, Tom.”
Pain flashed behind his eyes, and I regretted my choice of words immediately. I tried to backpedal, but I only managed to stammer incoherently.
“Shhh,” Tom whispered. He took my hand in his and kissed my palm sending a ripple through me.
“I, I didn’t mean…” I tried, my face flushed.
“Its okay, I know what you meant, Ruby. And you’re right about what you said the other night too,” he breathed and leaned closer.
Barely able to think, I stood frozen by his nearness. “What I said?”
He smiled, so close now that I could feel his lips move. “You said that I don’t know you anymore. That I need to get to know you all over again.”
“I’m pretty sure that’s not what I said,” I breathed.
Tom’s hand slipped to my face, cupping my cheek in his palm. He ran his thumb over my bottom lip and it sent heat thrumming through me. I gripped his sleeves, my fingers digging into the material.
A wayward warning flittered somewhere in the back of my brain, but I closed my eyes instead of moving.
Tom brushed his lips against mine, barely touching, his breath soft.
Up front, Lilah shouted. “This place is a wreck!”
Startled, I pulled away from Tom. Lilah had either had rotten or impeccable timing. I hadn’t decided which just yet. “I – I’m back here,” I shouted back. “I’ll be right out.”
Tom groaned and let go of me. He looked up at the outer door with frustration. I followed his gaze to Lilah rooting through the debris.
Trying not to show my breath was ragged; I bent and picked up a broken mug off the floor. “I have to get started if I want to be done by eight.”
Tom already taking the shards from me flashed a crooked grin. “You’re gonna break his heart.”
I put my hands on my hips, indignation growing in my gut. “You don’t know that.”
Tom leaned against the door jam. “He’s not your type.”
I scowled. “And you are?”
He shrugged. “If memory serves.”
Anger at his teasing and my own weakness flooded my face with heat. “That was a long time ago, Tom. If my memory serves, we didn’t turn out so well.”
Sorrow momentarily flit across his perfect features but he recovered and smiled winningly. “A lot has changed since then, Ruby. You’ll see.”
I put my hand to my hot cheek and shrugged. “I don’t know if it matters anymore, Tom.”
He looked at me with sad eyes. “Don’t write us off completely just yet, Ruby.”
I shot him a look of shock. Poking myself in the chest I shouted. “Me…you’re telling me, not to write us off…you – you’re the one who left!”
Thrown his hands up in surrender, Tom backed up. “I can see that was the wrong choice of words.”
I pointed to the back door with a shaking finger. “Go.”
I grabbed a nearby magazine and hurled it in his direction.
Ducking it easily, he smirked and pointed it at me. “You still have great aim, I see.”
“Tom, I’m serious.” His amusement sent ripples of irritation through me. “Go.”
“And you don’t want my help?” He smiled again, clearly not intimidated by my reaction.
I rubbed tears from my eyes with the palms of both hands. “I need you to leave right now, Tom. I just can’t think with you in the room.” I looked at him with a deep sigh.
His smile faltered. “I’m sorry.” He took another step away from me. “I’ll leave.”
I blew the bangs out of my eyes and frowned upset with myself. I craved Tom. Like an essential component, my body ached for him. “That’s probably the best,” I whispered.
Pain darkened his green eyes, but he smiled at me gently. “I’ll see you soon.”
Crossing my arms over my chest I refused to feel bad. I couldn’t let myself get a taste for him again. Too much rode on my shoulders for me to abandon reason. “Bye, Tom.” I said softly.
“Dr. McKinney!” Lilah yelled again from outside. “Dr. McKinney!”
Reluctantly, I turned from Tom and walked back down the hall to the front lobby. “It looks worse than it is, Lilah.”
“What are you talking about? This place is jacked-up!”
She spun slowly around with her arms out at her sides. Behind me, I heard the rear door swing shut and turned to look for Tom. My heart sank. He was gone.
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Photograph by Katie Tegtmeyer, Uploaded on April 6, 2006.