The Ring (Short Story)

Julie Baker

I landed, disoriented. I checked the silver watch on my wrist. I was right on time: January 16, 1999, 2:33 a.m., downtown Chicago.

I found myself in an alley between two run-down buildings that surely had been torn down since then, or, I guess, now. I gathered myself up before I jogged into the street, my mind blank and my body on autopilot.

The city was finally settling down, bars setting last call and lights flickering out interspersedly.
My lungs were tight as I looked around at the people on the sidewalks on either side of the road. I twisted the wedding ring around my finger out of habit.

I stopped when I realized what I was doing. This was more nerve-wracking than I had previously let myself believe. I had done this before, sure, but it had never been … personal. I had never been so far back.

I shouldn’t be here, I thought. I should be at home. I shouldn’t have left, I shouldn’t have gone to the lab, I should make nice and stay. I should—I would have spiraled out of control if my tender ribs would not have screamed out when a stranger bumped me gently, murmuring an apology as he passed. I touched the skin under my eye. It still stung.

I looked back down at the ring. He vowed to protect me, to love me. I pressed my arms to my chest to try to look casual, to try to warm up, to apply constant pressure to the only thing keeping me from going back to him, apologizing for nothing, and living in misery for the rest of my days.

Before long, I found her. Cathy McClain. 22 years old, all old-school clothes and without a clue of what destiny held in store for her. She was on the same side of the street that I was, two blocks to my left. Quickly, I ducked back into the alley. I messed with my appearance—unbuttoning my jeans, disheveling my jacket and hair—until I was satisfied with my work. I pressed myself against the brick wall, and I took a few breaths in a failed attempt to soothe myself. I counted down in my head. Three… Two … One.

I bolted out of the alley and straight towards her, almost knocking the small woman down.

“Help me! Oh, please, miss, you gotta help! This man—he just—he came at me—”

“Woah, woah, slow down. What happened?”

Though it was jarring to see her without her wrinkles, I stared at her with practiced doe eyes. This time, they didn’t feel as fake as usual.

“I was walking to my apartment when this man, he grabbed me, started tearing at my clothes. I just got away and —”

“Where was he?”

I pointed behind me.

“Alright. My apartment is down there too, but we’ll double back a few blocks and go the long way. You can crash with me tonight.”

“Thank you, miss, but I can’t —”

“You will.”

She put her arm around my shoulders and led me away. With simply a few words, I had prevented the worst night—and most challenging nine months that followed—of Cathy McClain’s life from happening.
As we walked towards her apartment, several minutes later, I was having a silent breakdown. She rubbed my shoulder, trying to comfort me, assuming I was in shock about that man. I certainly was in shock, but not about that man. I’d never meet him, and now neither would she.

Her voice came like sugar and honey.

“What’s your name?”


“Hi, Marianne,” she said with a smile that seemed to come easy, which was new and strange on her.
“I’m Cathy.”

“Hi,” I breathed. It occurred to me that she was younger than I was. That fact sunk like a stone in my

“Do you want me to talk or do you want quiet?”

I swallowed. “Quiet, right now. Could we talk later?”

“Sure, baby.”

We walked for what felt like hours. I tried to focus on putting one foot in front of the other, but he kept coming back to me. I had actually done it. None of the things I’d been through these last years would ever have happened.

Would I remember everything? Would I remember anything? Would I remember him? What would be different? How would I feel?

My mind was clouded, my senses numb. I hardly noticed that we were in her apartment until she pointed to her bathroom, and I locked myself in there automatically.

My fingers gripped the sides of the sink. I stared at my face in the mirror. I didn’t recognize myself; not because of the red and black lining my left eye, I’d seen that before; not because I was scared, I knew that look well; it was because I’d done something about it.

For so long I had helped others all while suffering myself. Now, for the first time, I was feeling what those people probably felt when they asked me to go out into the field. I understood their confused faces now, and I remembered every one of them perfectly. The fear and relief and guilt and hope that blossomed in their eyes was forever scorched into my memories.

A sudden heat pressed in on my chest. I ripped off my coat, balled it up and tossed it on the tiled floor. The heat persisted. My shaking fingers rapidly undid the buttons of my work shirt. It fell on top of my coat. My undershirt followed. My chest convulsed as I hyperventilated, which pained my ribs.

I could see now that they were bruising into purples and blues. Vertigo took over as I sank to the floor.

Everything would be different now, I thought, trying to ease my mind as the walls closed in. I was free. I knew that one thing for sure. Free, but from what? Everything was a blur. I wasn’t sure which way was up and which way was down, let alone what I was to do or what was going on inside me. There was a feeling in my gut that wouldn’t dissolve. It felt like my entire body was confused. I was meant to be ecstatic, but that wasn’t the case. I certainly wasn’t sad, either. Perhaps it was simply the nausea.

There was a knock at the door.

“Marianne?” Her voice dripped through the crack below the door. “Is there something I can get for you?”

I groaned as I tried to lift myself up off the floor. I looked at my pile of clothes on the floor.

“Could I borrow a shirt?” “Oh, sure. I can wash what you had on if you need.”

“Thanks.” I sat myself up leaning against the bathtub. It took up nearly half the bathroom, so my feet pressed up against the cabinet below the sink. My head buzzed as I tried to put myself together piece by piece. By the time she had come back with something for me to wear, I had managed to pull myself off the ground, just soon enough so that I could crack open the door enough for my hand, take the soft blue sweater, and close the door.

I glanced at myself in the mirror yet again. I was a sorry sight. I tucked the sweater she’d provided me and flicked on the tap, gathering the water in my palms before soaking my face. I rubbed the droplets into my cheeks, my forehead, my neck, my collar. I wiped away those that had gathered in my darkened eyelashes. I took the sweater, stuffed my arms in and pulled it over my head. I picked up my clothes and left the bathroom.

Cathy was awaiting me in the sitting room. It was cramped, but homey. Mismatched blankets and pillows covered the seats and little coloured tea lights were littered across the coffee table. It was impressive how she made a little look like a lot. I sat down on a too-well worn love seat trying to pass as a couch. My hands clutched my sides as I looked up at my host. She nodded to the right.

“There’s tea, if you want it,” she said. “I made it a few moments ago, just in case.” I reached for the little red mug sat on the table beside me.

“Thank you, for all of this. You’ve really gone out of your way.”

“Don’t worry about it; it’s nothing. I’m just here to help.”

“Well, I’m feeling at home already.”

She smiled a bit. Neither of us said anything for a while. I sipped my tea. It cleared up my sinuses as well as my thoughts. I stared at this fidgeting bird of a woman that was taking care of me. It was almost unsettling seeing her like this, young, bright-eyed. I had known Cathy as a quiet, polite woman. She was never cold, just closed off. It was only recently that she’d opened up to me, someone she’d known for several years. She had always reminded me of a child star past their prime. The idea that her best days were behind her never left her mind. I had thought that, much like oil on water, age did not sit well with her. Now, I see that it was not her age, per se, but her past.

A whisper came. “Did he…”

I said nothing. I hadn’t had enough time to solidify my story, and it seemed the best thing to do either way.

“I’m so sorry, I must be intruding—”

“No,” I insisted. I swirled around the contents of my drink. Cathy looked at me with this sort of pity that was unbearable to be on the receiving end of, the kind of look I knew her to be used to getting.
The words came out without thought. I fed her what little details she had given to me a million years ago and added some from my own experiences. My mind was numb, and I poured out everything in front of this woman to seek my own salvation. She sat still, shaken, nearly tearful. I babbled until the dregs of my tea could no longer reach my parched throat. I kept talking until nothing else would come.

“I don’t know what to say.”

“You shouldn’t. It’s good you don’t.” She was uncomfortable. Perhaps I had gone too far. I inquired about her to try to ease the tension, even though I already knew most of the answers. Waitress, college student, nobody special to speak of.

“Are you married?” She asked, nodding at my hand.

I looked down, a little disoriented.

“Oh, I—um… It’s complicated.”


“Don’t be,” I said with a twitch of my lips. “It was a simple question.”

“Oh!” She exclaimed, looking over at the clock. “It’s late.”

“It was late when we met.”

Her eyes smiled. “We should get some rest. You can crash on the couch, if that’s cool. I’ve spent many a hangover sleeping there, so it’s pretty comfortable.”

“I can’t thank you enough.”

“Yes, you can,” she replied, getting up to gather some blankets on the other side of the room. She returned to the couch and motioned for me to get on it. I set down my teacup and did as such. She laid the blankets over me.

“There you go. My room is over there if you need anything.”


“Stop,” she warned. “No more thanking.” She walked in the direction of her room and shut off the lamp that lit the whole apartment.

“G’night, Marianne.”


I don’t remember sleeping that night, but I must have. When I blinked, the clock jumped from four to six. That was a kind of traveling in itself. The sun still had not risen, yet my body was wide awake. The only light came from the nightlight in the small hallway. I sat up and got out of the seat. I didn’t want to leave, but I had no choice but go without warning. As I scanned the room one last time, it occurred to me I couldn’t remember what I had traveled back to do exactly.

The details were typed words stained with tears, blurring until they were hardly recognizable. I checked my watch to check my field notes, but I found nothing that matched what I vaguely remembered doing in the early hours of the morning. I rubbed my forehead, when with the warmth of skin after sleep came the cool of metal. I flinched and jerked my hand away so that I could look my hand. A ring adorned my fourth finger! It was well-worn and left a groove when I pulled it off. I didn’t recall ever owning a diamond like this one; no family heirlooms, no extravagant shopping sprees came to mind. I put it back on and looked away, trying to brush off the uneasy feeling it left me with.

Just then, I noticed a pile on the table next to me. My clothes were folded neatly, in a way that was clearly done with care. As I gathered my things, I caught a whiff of detergent on them. She must have stayed up extremely late to have done this. I felt a surge of love for this woman who took me in though she had no idea who I was, and now she never would. Undoing her destruction was the least I could do for this wonderful person. I changed briskly right there. I folded her sweater back up and placed it where she had put my clothes.

I looked once again at the cramped room of mismatched patterns and tea candles. Whoever this woman was, she deserved better. There on a chest of drawers by the door sat a pad of paper and a ballpoint. I crept over, careful not to misstep on a creaky floorboard.

I wrote what by daylight would probably appear to be scribbles, but hopefully she’d get the idea. I drew an arrow when I finished the note, and after a beat, I slipped off the ring and placed it at its point. She’d get more use out of it than I would, I thought. Hopefully, it still is valid in this time. I stepped away from the chest of drawers.

I glanced around this apartment I was strangely attached to. Closure. I took a breath, closed my eyes, and pressed the button on my watch. I was gone in a flash.