When Tao was young, his father gave him a small knife with a single red ruby set in its hilt. The father then went away and Tao did not see him again.
One day at school, a boy stabs another boy in the gut. The boy who is stabbed falls to his knees and the first boy and his friends run away. Something shiny is dropped behind them on the asphalt. Tao thinks to walk across the school quad and retrieve this shiny object. Tao thinks this too late though because the boy on his knees then falls to his back and a circle of girls gathers around him. The boy bleeds profusely from his side. The girls join hands. They form a ring of blue and white school uniforms around the red body of the boy.
Tao believes that the shiny object dropped in the school yard was his father’s knife. He thinks the knife was stolen from him by a boy to stab another boy in the gut. Tao thinks this walking home from school that day, his head held down to scan the sidewalks. Everything metal glints at Tao and stabs him in the eyes. A girl grabs his hand as he walks by her.
Liam, she says.
Tao looks up. She is a girl he knows. She does not let go of his hand.
What do you have there? the girl says.
Nothing, Tao says, opening his hand.
At the base of his palm, a single ruby is embedded in the skin. The girl strokes it gently with her finger.
Tao’s mother’s boyfriend puked on the dashboard of the car one night when Tao was picking them up from a bar, his mother and the boyfriend. The vomit seeped into the air-conditioning vents and Tao couldn’t get it out.
The next day, when he was driving his mother to work, Tao asked if he could take the car to the wash, get detailing done. She refused.
Those places just steal your shit, she said.
We don’t have anything to steal, Tao said.
What do you need air-conditioning for anyway? his mother said. She elbowed the crank of the car window and chucked a cigarette butt.
Tao looked out his window. A pregnant girl in flip-flops was crossing the highway overpass.
The ruby looks round at first, when it is just a red dot in the palm of Tao’s hand, but as the ruby grows, Tao sees that its roundness was an illusion. The ruby’s surface is pointy. Whenever Tao closes his hand, sharp vertices poke into the soft flesh of his palm.
Tao likes to feel the ruby’s points. The ruby is his secret. It has been with Tao since the day he lost his father’s knife, the day a boy at school stabbed another boy in the gut and killed him.
A girl stopped Tao on the sidewalk that day. They stood together, Tao and the girl, and admired the ruby in his hand. Tao knew the girl. She stroked the ruby with her finger and he saw that her fingernail was painted red. The girl’s red fingernail, the ruby, the fingernail again. Finally, he said, Stop. Please. The girl dropped his hand and moved away.
When Tao got back to his mother’s apartment that day, he could not find his father’s knife. It was not there under the mattress where he kept it.
Tao hated the park at night. Used condoms glutted the gutters, police sirens howled, and babies cried weakly in the dumpster. They were probably raccoons, but Tao thought the worst. Back at the apartment that he shared with his mother, his mother and her boyfriend were in a fight, yelling, drunk, knocking over furniture. Tao took a beating from a folding chair once when he was younger. The chair wasn’t meant for him, but he got in the way, and his mother landed a few more hits just for the hell of it. Just to teach him a lesson, she had said.
Tao’s favorite place to sleep in the park was the tunnel slide, but a kid was already curled up in there, so Tao sat on the swings and thought. Beside him on the swing set, a girl with puke or semen dribbling from her mouth was passed out. Her thighs looked fat and pale under the orange light of the street lamps. He should get her some water, Tao thought, but he didn’t. He left her there on the swings and walked across the park.
Some guys by the baseball cage called Tao over to the dugout. He ignored them and walked on, over the wet, overgrown grass. When he had walked far enough, the stadium lights from the baseball diamond fell behind him and the field went dark. Before his eyes could adjust, Tao felt just for a moment that he was elsewhere, outside the city, outside of time. As if he had entered some kind of portal. He closed his eyes to make the moment last longer. Then he opened them again and kept walking.
Tao has a headache. His headaches have been getting worse since the ruby began to grow. He feels weak, faint, a lighter imprint of himself. The walk to and from school wears him out. The stairs to the apartment he shares with his mother feel steeper every day. He is always thirsty.
It’s the sugar in Tao’s blood. The sugar sweetening that red fruit in the palm of his hand, embedded in the skin, so his skin becomes the peel of the fruit and the fruit becomes him. He can hardly close his hand around the ruby now, it has grown so large. Tao lies in bed, on the mattress which once hid his father’s knife, and he thinks of the boy who was stabbed to death at school. Tao thinks he will die, too. The ruby will kill him.
The first time Tao kissed a girl on the mouth, the girl bit his tongue. They were at a nightclub, the Milky Way. She was goth and he was underage. As they were kissing, the cold nub of her tongue stud locked with the hoop in his lip and Tao held the girl’s damp, netted body still in his hands, afraid she would rip the ring out from his lip.
She pulled away, gently unlocking her stud from his ring, and asked what’s wrong. Without thinking, Tao told her the truth. She laughed. She might have been fifteen or thirty, he couldn’t tell. She pulled him in to kiss again, and then she bit down hard. Tao felt hot blood gush from the wound, his tongue stinging, then softening, then bloating. The girl wouldn’t stop kissing him, wouldn’t stop sucking the blood from his budding flesh. He felt lightheaded. Tao clutched the girl’s neck and her skin was scaly and dry. He scraped at her skin, her neck, shoulders, her naked back. The music was too loud in the club. It hurt his ears. He thought he would be sick. He pulled away from the girl and covered his mouth with the back of his hand. She nibbled his neck. Tao took the girl’s hand and pulled her through the thick crowd of bodies surrounding them. Halfway across the dance floor, the girl’s hand slipped out of his, and Tao was alone. He pushed on, through the squirming bodies, through the wet music, and finally, out a set of heavy black doors into the cool night.
Tao sat down on the curb. He was hidden between two parked cars. He was not hiding from anyone but he liked that no one would find him here. A little boy sobbed silently inside the parked car facing Tao.
When the ruby grows to fit the palm of his hand, Tao thinks it’ll finally stop growing. He strokes its distended, glittering edges with his fingertips, feeling the skin pulled taut over the sugary meat inside. Sometimes he runs his tongue over the skin of the ruby, grazes his teeth lightly.
But the ruby doesn’t stop growing. It grows bigger. Soon, Tao can’t close his hand over the fruit; his fingers separate. The ruby grows too heavy for Tao to carry with one hand. He has to cup it between two. With his headaches getting worse, this makes it hard for Tao to go up and down the stairs to the apartment. He skips school to stay in bed. His mother does not notice.
Lying in his bed, Tao thinks he will bleed to dead if he punctures the fruit. He thinks he will bleed to death anyway, when the ruby grows over-large and bursts open. Fruits ripen and fall from trees and erupt on the ground and insects devour them. Tao licks his palm he is so thirsty. He doesn’t want to die, he thinks, not in this apartment he shares with his mother. He thinks of the girl who stopped him on the sidewalk that one day, the girl with the red fingernails. The one who found the ruby.
He will find her, Tao thinks. The ruby belongs to her. He sits up in bed, and waits for his head to stop spinning. He stands. His body feels so light and the ruby so heavy. He holds it to his abdomen with two hands, and makes for the door.
Tao got his driver’s permit at fifteen and a half because his mother said she had got better things to do than drive him around and can’t he walk, like the other boys? The apartment Tao shared with his mother was at the edge of the city, miles from anywhere but the school, so Tao said, no, he can’t walk, and his mother said, fine then, take the crap car and you drive me.
So Tao did. He drove his mother to the supermarket, the mall, the hairdresser, the hospital. And all these places had drive-thrus now, so the nurse examined his mother through a small window, extending gloved hands into the car to take blood pressure, look inside the throat and ear, obtain a urine sample. It was all convenient for Tao this way because he could do his homework on the steering wheel while waiting on his mother.
The problem came when Tao got lost on a looped highway. Every exit was blocked by construction so Tao kept driving in circles, climbing overpass after overpass, vaulted highways that led up like escalators. His mother did her makeup in the rearview mirror, unperturbed. Driving isn’t easy, she said, takes time to get the hang of it.
In his side mirror, Tao saw only a block of solid grey. A blind color, as if the world were erased behind them.
At first, Tao thinks he will walk all the way to the school and wait for the girl by the gate. But as he stumbles down the stairs of the apartment building, stopping at each landing to catch his breath, Tao knows he will not make it so far. At the bottom of the stairs, Tao leans against the wall and thinks. He does not sit down. He is afraid that if he does he might not be able to stand up again.
Tao remembers the block where the girl had stopped him on the sidewalk. It is not far. He closes his eyes and hurls his body from the wall to the door. Pushes the glass door open with the weight of his body. Leans against the wall outside. After some time, Tao begins to walk.
When he opens his eyes again, he sees black hair falling towards him. Girls’ faces crowded in a circle. He is lying on the sidewalk, the concrete warm and hard beneath him. One of the girls slips her hand underneath his. It is the girl he knows. She lifts his hand and he sees it. Protruding from his wrist, glinting in the sunlight that falls between the girls. His father’s knife. The point is poised right beneath the ruby.
Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint is the author of The End of Peril, the End of Enmity, the End of Strife, A Haven forthcoming from Noemi Press in early 2018. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Caketrain, Triquarterly, The Collagist, The Black Warrior Review, The Kenyon Review Online and elsewhere and has been translated into Burmese and Lithuanian. She is currently a PhD candidate in literature and creative writing at the University of Denver and the Reviews, Interviews and Translations editor of the Denver Quarterly.