"Alright sweetheart, this is it. Time to say goodbye- oomph!" A little boy collided with her legs, wrapping his arms around them and burying his face between her knees. She reached her hand down and patted the tawny curls atop his head.
"Mommy, don' go! I don' wanna go ta school!" His voice was muffled by her slacks and Sharon gave a rueful smile, similar to the other parents dropping their children off for the first day of Kindergarten. The intense nerves and hastiness that raised the hair on the back of her neck were most likely not a shared experience, she mused.
"Riley, baby…" She crooned, voice gentle enough to get him to look up at her with wide, wet, brown eyes. "It's time for you to be a big boy. Remember the backpack and lunchbox we got you because you because you are so big now?" The little boy sniffled before untangling his arms from her legs and steeling his eyes at the Captain America themed lunch box gripped tightly in his little fingers. She had to get him to let go.
Her little boy looked around at the other pairs of parents and children. Some children ran toward the classroom with excitement, leaving proud parents asking each other where the time had gone. Others were experiencing similar difficult goodbyes with tears and little hands clinging to whatever garments they could find to avoid being left behind.
Sad eyes looked back up at her. "Mommy, I wanna stay with you." He'd lost the hysteric note in his voice and was whispering now, just as he did when he told her a secret for her ears only. Sharon's heart clenched painfully, sending waves through her chest and down into her stomach.
The temptation to give into her son's wishes, to pick him up and take him away, to take him with her… it squeezed her insides and her voice caught in her constricted throat. But the minute wiggle in her lower abdomen, highlighted with flashes of screaming, shattering glass, and a fist like a vice grip on her upper arm doused her like a bucket of ice water.
Leaving was her option. If she wanted to keep herself and the young life growing inside of her safe, leaving was her only choice. Riley would survive without her. Keith had never been angry or abusive toward their son. She had to trust that he would be okay. Taking him simply was not an option for her family… her new family. They needed a fresh start away from the monstrous presence of her ex-fiance, and Keith had guaranteed that if she took their son, he would hunt them both down and take them back by any means necessary.
A bell echoed against the brick school structure, precipitating the final goodbyes of parents and children. Teachers could be heard ushering the Kindergarteners into their new classrooms.
The time had come to leave. To say goodbye.
"Ri, baby… it's time for you to go be a big boy. Can you do that for your mommy?" She knelt down and cupped his cheek in her hand, wiping a tear with her thumb. Riley righted his posture and sniffled, nodding, though the tears did not cease.
"That's my boy." She kissed his forehead and each freckled cheek, taking in each and every feature and hoping to imprint it on her memory. "Go on baby, your teacher is waiting. I love you Riley." The lump in her throat felt close to bursting and Sharon lost the fight against the tears stinging her own eyes.
Riley looked back at his teacher, who waited expectantly as he was the last child left outside the classroom before bringing her back in for a quick, tight hug.
"I love you Mommy." He said hurriedly before turning and running toward the teacher, Captain America's shield bouncing up and down with each step on a backpack that dwarfed him.
The teacher welcomed him warmly, guiding him into the classroom as Sharon stared through her tears, watching intently until she couldn't see her son any longer.
Turning away, Sharon could hardly breathe through the tidal wave of despair that overcame her. She rubbed the growing bump that gave another wiggle, trying to glean comfort from the future ahead of her.
The booted kick to his ribs sent him sprawling across the floor, all the air leaving his lungs at once. He gasped, struggling for oxygen as his torso felt alight with fire. Bringing one knee at a time, followed by each elbow under him, Riley rebelled against his father's orders.
Through his heavy gulps, leaden footsteps approached him. Before he even had time to anticipate the assault, an identical kick caught him in the stomach again. This time, he was in too much pain to even gasp for the air that was robbed of his lungs.
"I said STAY DOWN you stupid son of a bitch."
Riley was incapacitated longer this time, unable to move from his prone position on the grimy wooden floor. Once he was able to draw in breaths of air, though each was more painful than the last, he crawled back onto all fours. Fractured ribs protested with a sickening crackle, but he fought through it, determined to not let his father take this victory.
His vision was dizzy and unfocused, the patchy finish of the wood whirling under him. An evil cackle cut through the white noise buzzing in his head.
"You never learned when to quit, did you?" Riley arched his neck, daring to meet his father's glassy, inebriated glare. The man's upper lip curled at his show of defiance. "I used to think you were stubborn, just like me." Riley's stomach curdled with dread as Keith bent down and cruelly grabbed the hair on each side of his head. "But it turns out you're just a stupid fucker who never learned his place. Dumber than your slut of a mother!"
Keith drove a rage-backed knee up into Riley's nose and mouth. A galaxy of stars exploded in front of his eyes as his nose cracked and spurted blood. His teeth sliced deep into his lips and the side of his tongue. This time, his lungs worked overtime to bring in oxygen, but he couldn't breathe through the blood flooding his throat and nasal passages. Blood sprayed his father's weathered work boots as he coughed pathetically.
The pressure on his scalp eased as Keith let him crash to the floor like a puppet with cut strings.
Heavy foot landings grew softer and Riley felt something akin to relief at the signal of the assault's end. He wanted privacy to either lick his wounds or pass out in peace. With the only sound being his own raspy breathing, Riley surrendered to the pull of his heavy eyelids.
Riley's relief was painfully short-lived, however, as the soft sounds of Keith's footsteps returned, growing louder and angrier instead of fading away. He groaned, mourning the loss of his chance to suffer his wounds in silence. The beating was supposed to be over, but the footfalls, now closer to stomps, stopped short next to his head. He could barely force his eyes open to brace himself for however his father would launch his next attack.
"When I tell you to stay down…" Riley only just managed to regain his faculties as the knife was driven into the back of his hand, run through, and embedded into the wooden floor.
"YOU STAY DOWN."
His eyes bulged at the grotesque sight. His brain tried to convince him that this wasn't actually happening. He didn't immediately feel the impossibly intense pain and he couldn't understand…and then he screamed as the grisly offense was committed with his other hand. The entry, the slicing, the exit, and the hollow "thud" as the wood was impaled by the knife tip-he felt it all, and suddenly, Riley's brain understood.
Sprawled, prostrated, and fixed to the floor by knives penetrating both of his hands, Riley screamed and cried himself hoarse. He didn't bother crying for help, because there was no one who ever would come. Mercifully, his beaten body didn't let him stay conscious for long. His final thought before unconsciousness took over was that he wouldn't mind if he never woke up.
Coming to, Riley feels the nauseating sensation of the knife being pulled from his right hand, and then his left in quick succession. He retches and vomits before the second knife is dropped to the ground. The pain roils through his hands and up his arms to his torso, a raging inferno and a heavy block of concrete mixed into one.
"Get the fuck to school," came the gruff voice, obviously too hungover too continue his sadistic streak if the stench of stale whiskey was any indication. Riley couldn't even move his hands from the site of where they'd been speared to the floor. He couldn't imagine mustering the exertion he would need to go to school. Another wave of nausea overcame him and bile rose in his throat. He coughed and sputtered as a meaty hand fisted the stretched collar of his shirt and pulled him into a sitting position.
Riley's world spun. Head lolled to the side and arms slack with horrific pain, he swayed like a tower on the verge of being blown over. Subconsciously, he knew his father was still in the vicinity and that he should be afraid, but for the first time in recent memory, his suffering won out over his fear. Riley couldn't raise his defenses if he tried.
Distantly, he considered that his father's lesson of "Stay down when told" was seared into him, both in his soul and in the form of twin sluggishly bleeding through and through wounds on his hands.
A black sweatshirt was whipped into his face, catching his broken nose. Against his will, he whimpered as the broken appendage shifted under the impact. Hot fresh blood streamed down, no doubt covering the dried, flaking blood from last night.
"Put that on. Don't let anyone see your hands if you want to eat this week." By muscle memory alone, Riley nodded. "Nobody gives a shit about you, so don't bother hiding that nose." Riley nodded again. He couldn't refute that point.
A vice grip on his emaciated bicep pulled him up to stand on jelly legs. When he dropped the sweatshirt, unable to use his hands to grip anything, his father scoffed in disgust before wrestling it over his head and roughly pulling his arms through the sleeves. He couldn't stop himself from emitting a guttural shriek at the rough treatment.
"Fuckin' pathetic. Wipe your fuckin' face before you go. Nobody wants to look at such an ugly piece of shit." Riley only noticed his father stumbling away when the man was almost out the door. He thought he heard a slurred, "Look just like your whore mother," but he was delirious enough that he couldn't tell what was real anymore.
The first step was the hardest. Finding strength in his legs when all he wanted to do was collapse, he shuffled toward the bathroom. Losing his balance, he caught himself on the dingy armchair and shouted as the lightning bolt of pain shot up from his hand. A smudge of blood marred the gray upholstery and Riley cringed, knowing he would pay for that later.
In the bathroom, he only gave the mirror cursory glances to see how bad the blood was on his face and to make sure he'd washed it all off. Upon trying to clean his face, Riley had found the pain of trying to turn on the faucet and wash his face excruciating. He'd managed to maneuver his fingers just enough to turn the water on, but only barely. Trying to wet a rag to clean the collage of red on his face and neck? Too much to bear.
He fought the shifting of broken ribs to crane his neck and stick his face under the water stream long enough to saturate his face and then used his forearms to wipe the residual blood off. The towel, dingy as it was when he started, was ruined now. Another thing he'd pay for at a later time with blood and bruises.
Back in the kitchen, the staticky news came in with poor reception on the small television. Through the crackle, he could hear the temp: 29 degrees; and the time: 7:31 a.m.; both bad news for him.
Skipping school and just passing out on the couch, free from his suffering was ridiculously tempting. He didn't want to walk in the below-freezing temperatures to his stop to catch the bus that would get him to school with barely enough time to avoid being marked as late. He wanted to rest. But more than that, he just wanted to be unconscious so he didn't have to feel the hot, sick pain that was consuming him.
The call that his father would get from the school, informing him of the unapproved absence would be far from worth the temporary reprieve of staying home though. And there was also no guarantee that his father wouldn't get sent home from work for the Jack Daniels residue that radiated powerfully from his breath and sweat.
Riley could only imagine the beating he would earn if Keith found him passed out on the couch. Considering his current condition, the assault would probably be enough to kill him.
Would that really be so bad? It would all be over. No more pain. Keith was right when he said no one notices you. That would mean no one would miss you if your dad beat you to death.
But the same deep-rooted instincts that made him get back up every time he was beaten down dragged him out the front door and into the dreary, icy wind. Morbid thoughts of freezing to death and bleeding out on the sidewalk served as his only companion aside from the constant presence of pain that tagged along since his earliest memories.
It was only through muscle memory and reluctance to pass out on the city bus that got Riley to school and class. He collapsed into his seat in his literature class slim seconds before the tardy bell rang. The teacher, Mr. Fulk, eyed him with warning at his barely on-time, noisy, and disruptive arrival. Riley tried to care, but he was too drained from the exhausting trek to school and the pain in his hands grew more intrusive by the second.
The sleeves of his black sweatshirt, which fell below his hands, were soaked through with blood. Riley cringed as a red smudge was left on the surface of his chair after only a brief contact with his sleeve.
For what was far from the first time that day, he truly wondered whether he would get through the day. Maybe coming to school so he wouldn't get beaten to death was futile because he was just going to bleed out anyway.
Distantly, he could hear Mr. Fulk instructing the class to pass forward their assignments from yesterday. Through his deliriousness, he thought the man sounded like he was teaching from inside an aquarium.
Riley knew he should feel guilty about not having the assignment to turn in, but he couldn't manage it. In a different life, maybe he wouldn't have been beaten and knifed to the floor and he would have had time to type two pages on themes in MacBeth's first act. But as it stood currently, even if he had the assignment, his broken ribs wouldn't have allowed him to bend down to retrieve it from his backpack. And his pierced hands wouldn't have allowed him to grip the paper, at least without painting it red.
Instead, when his classmate behind him attempted to pass the row's papers to him, he just felt done. He was dizzy, tired, and in pain, and now the weight of failure fell on top of him, crushing his fragile disposition. He ignored the offered papers, instead choosing to lay his head down on the cool surface of his desk.
"No paper Mr. Flanagan?"
His teacher's voice still sounded farther away than it actually was. Barely mustering the strength to sit up again, Riley shook his head. He didn't have the assignment. He didn't even have his backpack.
"You may want to consider putting effort into your homework Mr. Flanagan, lest you be forced to take this class again while your classmates move on to bigger and better things."
Hot red shame blossomed from the base of his neck to the tips of his ears. Mr. Fulk's disciplinary method of public humiliation and criticism felt needlessly harsh. He opened his mouth to try and defend himself, but the words wouldn't come.
"This wasn't a difficult assignment Mr. Flanagan."
The last jab broke him. He'd barely been holding himself together since his father woke him up by pulling serrated steak knives from his hands, and the disappointed sneer from his teacher, coupled with ill-intentioned laughs and whispered jeers from his classmates snapped his restraint.
"I'm sorry Mr. Fulk." Riley didn't recognize the voice coming from his mouth. It was more resonant than his normal tone and didn't contain his nervous stutter. "Next time I'll have someone pull the knives out of my hands so I can sit down and write your worthless fucking paper."
Riley felt as though his subconscious had taken control of the wheel and thrown him in the trunk of the car. And the Riley in control was stomping on the gas and speeding recklessly toward a brick wall.
Under the subconscious influence, he pushed up his blood soaked sweatshirt sleeves, not even acknowledging the horrendous pain as he flexed each hand, disturbing the wounds and causing fresh streams of blood to escape. Feigning innocence, he held his hands out for his teacher to see and felt twisted satisfaction at the horror that washed over his face like a bucket of ashen gray paint.
"Are these enough of an excuse for not completing your paper Mr. Fulk?" Riley was so entrenched in his tirade that he didn't notice the classroom around him had gone deathly silent. "If not, I'll ask my dad to write me a note. He's the one who skewered me to the fucking floor and left me there all night." His voice took on a dangerous edge. "He also broke my nose, but you can probably tell. And my ribs too, wanna see?"
It had been years since Riley had spoken this much at once, but the words were a raging waterfall at this point. His deep dark secrets were spilling out and he had no way to stop them. The skeletons that filled his closet to the brim fought with each other to escape as the hinges that enforced their captivity splintered.
Riley's vision began to swirl as though he were riding a roller coaster. The burst of energy that fueled his tirade left him as though a balloon had popped. He swayed and suddenly up and down didn't make sense anymore. Mr. Fulk's voice was only a faint caricature of how it usually sounded, and if the man said anything after his name, Riley wouldn't know it.
He was unconscious before he hit the floor.
"Audrey, don't forget your sheet music tonight! I'm not paying Mrs. Hamilton $80 an hour so you can practice scales. Your recital is next week and you need to be sharp!—"
A blonde girl with a high ponytail swept into the kitchen, cutting Sharon off.
"Mom, you don't have to yell when I'm right here." The girl's hands were full with a clarinet case, a drawstring bag, and a cell phone while a bulky backpack perched on her shoulders. At Sharon's interrogative glare, she huffed and pulled a folder out of her drawstring bag. "Sheet music. Right here."
Nodding her approval, Sharon grabbed the car keys from the marble countertop and they hurried toward the door.
"Remember honey, I'll be a few minutes late picking you up because Matt's cross country practice doesn't finish until 5 and it is a 15 minute drive to Mrs. Hamilton's."
"I know Mom. Same as last week, and the week before. Remember?" Sharon could practically feel gravity shift with the power of Audrey's eye roll.
"You say that, and yet last week you sent four texts asking me why I wasn't there to pick you up—" The loud melody of their doorbell, quickly precipitated by the loud barking of their Yellow Labrador made Sharon groan in frustration. They were already running behind schedule and if they were too much later, it would cut into the very expensive hour of clarinet lessons for her 11 year-old daughter.
"It's probably just a salesman. Get in the car and I'll be right there." Sharon said, heel clacking against the polished tile floor as she rushed to the door.
"Murph, will you be quiet!" She nudged the hyperactive dog out of her way and tried to peer through the side panel but the decorative glass distorted her view. Fully prepared to say a firm "Not interested!" and slam the door, Sharon cracked the door open and was instead greeted with a police badge being held up to her line of view.
"Good evening ma'am. Are you Mrs. Sharon McGrath?" The tall, bald officer asked shortly.
Thousands of different scenarios raced through her mind, each worse than the last as she tried to comprehend why a police officer was at her front door. Was her husband okay? Matthew? Andrew? What if there had been an accident at Brad's work? Or at the school? Were her sons missing, or taken? Or at the hospital? Did Matthew forget his inhaler before he started practice? The possibilities were dizzying.
"Yes officer, I'm Sharon McGrath." She was dismayed at the tremble in her voice.
"You are the biological mother of a…" the officer checked his pocket notebook before looking back up at her. "Riley Flanagan?"
Sharon felt as though all the air had been sucked out of her surroundings. Of all the things the officer could have asked her, that was light years away from what she expected.
Reflexively, she wanted to say "no," slam the door and forget that she ever heard the name. But the police were only here because they already knew the answer to that question, and she had already confirmed her identity.
But Sharon, shaken to her core at the mention of the son she'd long ago abandoned, couldn't figure out how she wanted to respond.
"I haven't…" Haven't seen him in over ten years?
"I don't…" Don't take care of him anymore?
"He's not…" Not my responsibility?
"Ma'am?" The police officer questioned when she kept choking on her words. Taking a deep breath, Sharon composed herself and spoke calmly.
"He is his father's responsibility." The officer appeared puzzled and he looked down at his notepad once more. "I'd offer to get you his contact, but we haven't spoken in eleven years. I'm sorry I couldn't be of more help…" Sharon moved to close the door, eager to be finished with the interaction and the invasive reminder of a life she'd left behind.
"Mrs. McGrath, Riley's father has been arrested on charges of abuse." She froze, long buried worst fears working their way through their confines. "Your son is currently recovering from surgery at St. John's. We need you to come down there to sign some forms and take over his care."
The ground beneath Sharon's entire existence narrowed to the width of a pin. This is what she'd walked away from over a decade before, with solid intentions of leaving it behind and never acknowledging it again. Her ex, their son, the abuse…
Her life had been rebuilt with foundations of love, support, and family covering up the shambles and heartache of her previous life. That life didn't get to tarnish what she had now.
"Ma'am, we've been told he's going to be okay, but we really need you to come down there now. He's an unattended minor in a hospital and you need to sign consents and speak with Child Services about the case against Riley's father."
From the officer's sympathetic expression, he obviously thought she was frozen with worry and concern. If he only knew how much she was trying to figure a way out of the situation… Sharon tried to quell the trembling that she felt from her knees to her fingers, before slipping on the mask of composure once more.
"Officer, I haven't taken an active role in R-Riley's life since he was a young child. I don't think I'm the appropriate person to contact concerning his welfare." The name felt like sandpaper in her mouth as she tripped over it. She moved to close her front door again, but the wood made solid contact with a shiny black shoe as the police officer blocked her.
This time when the officer spoke, all the sympathy had been wiped clean and replaced with sincere authority.
"Mrs. McGrath, according to records you are still a custodial parent of this child and never signed your rights away, regardless whether you've been present in his life or not." Then his voice took a frightening swerve toward threatening and his hard eyes narrowed at her. "With no alternate options for guardians, if you refuse to take responsibility for him, you will be charged with child abandonment and Child Protective Services will open an investigation into you and your family."
It felt as though she had fallen off the pinpoint her world had been narrowed to and that she was heading toward terminal velocity. The implications of charges being brought against her and CPS investigating her family went well beyond overwhelming. Those things she had outrun and scrubbed from her memory loomed on the horizon like black storm clouds with low, rumbling thunder and violent strikes of lightning.
"Mom! Are you coming?" Audrey's voice echoing in the foyer broke her from her spiraling thoughts. She looked back at her daughter, who was waiting impatiently for her to take her to her clarinet lesson. All Sharon could see was her daughter's innocence in all of this. And her two little boys, Matt and Andrew. None of them deserved to be dragged into the mud of her past. She couldn't put them through the painful process of an investigation.
You didn't have a problem putting your other little boy through pain when you walked out on him.
"Mom!" Her daughter called again, crossing the line from impatience to urgency.
Sharon lingered for a moment longer watching Audrey, capturing the last moment before the storm of her past arrived, and then looked back at the stern glare of the police officer. She kept watching him as she called back to Audrey, distracted and reluctant.
"Um, change of plans honey. We have to go to the hospital instead."
As the officer bid her goodbye and returned to his patrol car, Sharon could have sworn she felt icy raindrops, though hardly a cloud shone in the sky. The storm had finally caught up with her.