Sharon left the hospital exhausted, and with a heavy heart. Emotionally, she was burnt out, and physically, she felt ready to drop. The reunion with her oldest son, however brief, had been incredibly demanding, and once she got back to her car, she sat in the driver's seat with her eyes closed and hands on the steering wheel for ten minutes before feeling recovered enough to drive home.
She felt bad for making Riley cry. No matter how detached she was determined to remain from him, it hurt her to see him cry when he realized she had a family.
And then there had been the situation with the food. That had been awkward and painful for both of them. Though he was helpless to feed himself, his hands wrapped generously with gauze and an IV in the crook of his arm, he hadn't asked her for help. And she hadn't been able to bring herself to offer.
She'd only lasted another minute in the hospital room under those conditions before she left, telling Riley that she had to go pick up her son from preschool. Which, not entirely a lie, she reasoned. Andrew's pick up time wasn't for another hour.
The rest of the day, Sharon was emotionally spent and just running through the motions. The guilt ate at her when she found herself unable to control her stress around her children. Andrew had screamed the entire drive home from preschool because he didn't want to leave the dinosaur toys (it didn't matter that they had a sizable dino toy collection at home.) That grated her nerves down even further.
By the time she had picked up Matt, having to sign his failed spelling test that he told her he studied for made her snap and ground him from his weekend sleepover. Matt had stewed quietly in the backseat all the way home. She thought she caught sight of welling tears when she looked in the rearview mirror at a red light, but by the time they were in the garage she didn't see any traces of crying. Just a moody, upset nine-year-old boy.
And then Audrey had come home, dropped off by her friend's mom, declaring that she wanted to quit the clarinet. The argument that ensued between them had been one for the record books, and it had only ceased when Brad got home from work and played mediator. Audrey stomped up to her room and slammed her door, which upset Andrew who was coloring in the living room.
When he started to cry, so did Sharon.
She put her head in her hands and wept, the stress that had started the day before when a police officer showed up finally catching up with her.
Brad calmed down their youngest son before talking to Matt about why he failed his spelling test.
Her own tears were calming down when she felt a heavy, comforting hand on her shoulder and heard a clink as Brad sat a glass of red wine in front of her.
"So I take it that seeing Riley didn't go well?"
Her sigh released all of the day's stress and upset. Just being around her husband made her feel better than she had all day.
"Well, I saw him for maybe 20 minutes. He asked what was going to happen to him. I told him he was coming to live with us, and he cried when I told him about you guys." Sharon took a generous drink of her wine before setting it down and making a self-deprecating scoff. "Oh, and then some nurse asked me to feed him, and that went over great since he was still crying. I couldn't do it so I just left." The alcohol burned the back of her throat, but she took another sip before saying, "I'm pretty sure we hate each other."
Brad pulled out a chair at their dining room table for her, and she practically collapsed in it. He sat in the one next to her and took her hand comfortingly.
"Honey, you don't hate him."
"No, I don't." She acquiesced. "I just hate the idea of him. I hate that all of the pain that I left behind is being dug up and I have to see a reminder of it every day." She didn't know when she started sobbing, but Brad brought her in for a hug and tucked her head under his chin, kissing the top of her head.
"I hate that Keith lied and hurt him. And it feels like my fault that Riley's there."
She continued to cry into her husband's chest, and he rocked her until she calmed down. Sniffling, she pulled away and wiped her eyes.
"It isn't your fault that he's in the hospital sweetheart. That's completely on Keith. I don't know what that son of a bitch did, but nothing about this is your fault." His calm, commanding voice was grounding for her. It had been since she was a young mom getting ready to leave her abusive partner behind and start anew.
"I left him there, and I knew what Keith was like." She refuted, feeling swallowed by the tidal wave of guilt.
"He promised that he wouldn't touch Riley. And he was going to leave us alone and let us have our life. That was the agreement. We talked in circles about this for ages back then, and at the end of every talk, we decided that this was for the best. Riley would still have a parent, and we would be safe to start our life." Sharon remembered the stressful discussions vividly. "And you were already pregnant with Audrey. If he had found out about her, no one would have been safe. You did the best you could in a terrible situation honey."
Sharon considered Brad's words, and the logic behind them. It was true that if Keith had found out that she was pregnant back then that he would have never stopped trying to hurt her and her family, no matter the consequences. They never would have been safe. So in that respect, she had done the right thing and felt at peace with her choice. But it had all come at the cost of Riley and his childhood.
Sharon had no idea what the extent of the abuse was, but Riley's thin, gaunt appearance and the severity of the wounds he was in the hospital for, she couldn't imagine that it didn't stretch back several years.
She couldn't hold back the next wave of tears and Brad held her once more.
"Sharon…" He began cautiously once she was calm enough to speak again. "Have you considered not taking him? Letting him go into foster care? This is just dragging up so many painful things for you, and I don't want you to go through something you don't have to."
Sharon smiled, eternally grateful for Brad's compassion and care. But she knew the situation wasn't as simple as not agreeing to take him home.
She pulled away from him and reached for her wine again, this time draining the rest of the glass in one go.
"Of course I considered it. It was the first thing I asked Child Services when I got to the hospital last night." She recalled the woman's biting tone and judgemental stare with a sick feeling. "She said that I still have parental rights, and since I am a suitable parent that signing away my rights would open us up to charges and investigations. Especially considering his current state. She basically threatened me, but I called our lawyer this morning, and he corroborated what she said."
"We don't have a choice. We have to bring Riley home." Sharon felt a detached finality in her statement. She felt trapped, forced into another decision that she didn't want to make.
"Then we will bring him home." Her husband said, hugging her tighter.
Sharon wasn't sure if the sick feeling in her stomach was alcohol or foreboding.
Riley was alone in his hospital room for the rest of that day, through the night, and well into the next morning. After his mom had abruptly left yesterday with a hurried excuse of picking up someone from somewhere, she hadn't been back.
The nurses on shift kept asking him about when she would be returning, and the nurse who had checked on him to make sure that his lunch was settling without had been especially concerned when she saw him all by himself, staring at an untouched tray of food, unable to eat it even if he'd wanted to.
When she'd asked about where his mom had gone and why she hadn't helped him eat, hot humiliation blasted through him. He was too ashamed to tell her that his mom had left because he wasn't important. And that he didn't even know if she was even coming back…
"Oh, um, she had to go take care of my little brother. I- uh-, fell asleep after she left, so that's why I didn't eat yet."
The lie had rolled off his tongue with practiced ease. You didn't grow up in an abusive and neglectful household without becoming skillful in the art of lying. He'd been making excuses for years to cover up for the marks and limps Keith left him with when he was around, and for his absence from events that required or encouraged a parent to attend when he would leave for weeks at a time.
So making excuses for his mom's absence came naturally when she didn't come back that afternoon. Or that evening when his dinner was delivered and a nurse asked if he had anyone to help him eat.
"My little brothers and sister keep her really busy. She told me she would be back as soon as she could."
"She got called into work. She works for a charity and they just got a really big donation, so she's helping people. I don't mind."
"She told me these chairs hurt her back to sleep in, so she went home to go to bed. She'll be back in the morning.
Each time he had to spout out an excuse, it was to a different nurse, so no one bothered questioning why he'd been utterly alone for nearly an entire day.
He tried not to think about how depressing it was that he fell so easily into the habit of lying for both of his parents to hide how they treated him like garbage.
The truth was just too hard to swallow. And other people's pity when they realized how little he meant to his parents was humiliating. And the lies helped bring him a semblance of comfort sometimes if he made himself believe them.
Dad being busy at the car dealership was easier to think about than the fact that he'd left three weeks ago and Riley had run out of food, and the lights got turned off, and he was scared that no one would ever come back for him. Being hit in the face with a baseball while playing catch with his dad was a lot easier to stomach than having his lights punched out because the fridge was out of beer.
The situation of covering for his mom started to get dicey, however, when his doctor came around to check on how his injuries were healing and started talking about his discharge. About sending him home.
"Your mom will need to sign some forms so we can get you home. I also need to speak with her about your discharge instructions. The nurses will need to show her how to change your bandages, and they will need to go over your prescriptions." His doctor looked up from the chart he'd been reading over. "Do you know when she'll be back?" He asked expectantly.
Riley swallowed roughly, trying to formulate a lie that would line up with the last one he told. But it was hard. The small tendril of fear that she just wouldn't come back, and that he'd ruined everything had grown into a thick, intrusive root that coiled around his stomach.
At what point would his card house of lies fall down around him and everyone would realize that no one was coming back for him. That he'd been abandoned. Again.
"Um… I'll ask my nurse to help me give her a call." He said, a little too quietly. "I think she's planning on coming later." It was lame and unconvincing, but Riley was tired. And heartbroken.
The doctor looked skeptical, but he nodded and hemmed in acceptance.
"I know the head nurse has her number, so I'll ask her to call. I'd like to get you out of here so you can rest at home in your own bed."
Riley didn't know if he wanted to laugh or cry at how far off and ridiculous that notion was for him. He coughed to cover up the tears that welled up and looked away.
"Thanks," he choked out and his doctor nodded cordially and left, leaving Riley alone to the swell of depression. He'd been treading through it, but now he was sinking lower, the waves lapping at his chin and threatening to take him under.
If Sharon had thought the initial reunion with her son and the lunch situation had been awkward, when the time came to actually take him home from the hospital, it was nearly unbearable.
She stood next to her husband in Riley's hospital room, barely hearing what the balding doctor was telling them. She was far too distracted by the drastic swerve her life had taken and the feeling of her past closing in on her. Well, in reality, it had closed in, and it was sitting in a hospital bed with glassy eyes that eyed her and Brad with weary curiosity.
She snapped her attention back to the doctor, hoping that Brad had been listening to everything she'd missed in her nervous state.
"His hands are still going to be wrapped up like that for about two weeks. Then we will have you guys come back in to check how the wounds are healing and put on some braces that allow for movement. We might get him started on physical therapy at that point too. But until then, he doesn't have use of his hands and he will need help with just about everything. Eating, drinking, brushing his teeth, maybe even using the restroom."
Sharon saw Riley's cheeks flush like a tomato and she looked away, more for her own embarrassment than his.
"He's going to be on some pretty heavy painkillers for awhile too, so he will probably be drowsy and woozy until that prescription runs out. But he needs to be stationary for another week anyway to keep his ribs healing quickly."
Sharon blinked blankly. She hadn't even known that there was a problem with his ribs. She thought the hands and the nose were the extent of his physical injuries. It occurred to her that she didn't even know what actually happened to him. After she found out that Keith had abused him, she'd stopped wondering what specifically put him in the hospital, so injured that he required surgery.
"Be sure to keep his bandages dry during bathing. I'd suggest either wrapping them up and helping him wash in the tub or shower, or washing his hair over the sink and using a wet rag for the rest."
Sharon was rapidly becoming overwhelmed as the doctor mentioned responsibility after responsibility and all the things that Riley just couldn't do. It wasn't just that she was bringing home a teenager that she had abandoned a decade earlier, she was bringing home an invalid that would need near constant care. And the relationship between her and that invalid could be described as awkward and estranged at best.
Peeking another glance at Riley, he looked about as pleased about the situation as she did, his face still violently red with embarrassment, and a stricken look of horror plastered across his face.
"...did the nurse show you how to change his bandages before I got here?"
Sharon whipped her head back to attention, hardly aware of what had been asked. Brad interjected that they had, and the doctor made another check on his chart.
"Okay, that about sums up his discharge. At this point we just need you to sign some forms and get him dressed, and then we can get you folks on your way."
Sharon was both relieved that she could relax the act she felt like she was performing whenever someone saw her as Riley's mother, and an intense dread at taking Riley home and being responsible for him.
She signed the forms placed in front of her and then suddenly, the three of them were alone. The air was heavy with the weight of painful history.
Riley's eyes were heavily lidded and he looked about as scared as she felt.
"We didn't know what you had, so we brought you some clothes. Just some of my old stuff." Brad, ever the neutral party, stepped forward with a small bag. Sharon felt sick as Riley flinched and fear turned his brown eyes dark.
"Riley, this is my husband Brad." She offered, shaken by his reaction to her husband. Brad raised the hand without the bag in a friendly wave and said a friendly "Hello Riley."
And Riley, eyeing him with tense vigilance croaked out his own mumbled "hi."
"Why don't you get dressed and then we can get home." She checked her watch, looking anywhere but at her son, and then, talking more to Brad, said "We only have the babysitter until five."
Brad set the bag of clothes on the bed and Sharon grabbed his hand and turned to leave Riley to his privacy, but a nervous cough made her turn back around.
"I, uh,-" He tried to laugh, couldn't manage it, so he turned it into a cough. "I need some help to get dressed." He held up the bandaged hands that resembled paws. His voice was bare with disdain and humiliation, and Sharon could tell that if he had any other options, he wouldn't have asked.
Sharon's stomach dropped, feeling nowhere near ready for the intimacy required to change her son's clothes. And she wouldn't put that burden on her husband either.
"I'll get a nurse." Sharon offered, cool and decisive.
Exhaustion settled deep in Riley's bones on the drive home from the hospital. The switch to oral painkillers, the tiredness from leaving the hospital, seeing his mom again and meeting her husband, the white noise of the highway; all of it together pushed him toward the edge of falling asleep in the backseat of his mother's car. Or was it Brad's? Brad was driving, but… Riley's mind strayed toward deliriousness, but the immense discomfort and awkwardness of the car ride refused to let him fully rest.
He tried to shake the sleepiness off by jerking his head from side to side. A deep, impossibly long yawn that agitated his healing nose and ribs was his body's response, much to his frustration.
The car ride was mostly silent, the radio turned off, whether by habit or conscious choice, he didn't know. His mom and her husband traded idle chit chat on occasion about things to add to the grocery list (apparently Matthew wanted to eat ham instead of turkey next week), and various commitments and upcoming practices (Audrey had a recital for something and Andrew had swimming lessons starting Tuesday).
It was all incredibly mundane and domestic, but at the same time, fascinating to Riley, who had little exposure to a normal household. It also offered him a slice of the life that went on without him. The life that his mother had chosen over him.
Through watery, heavy-lidded eyes, he watched them, their normalcy as confusing as it was captivating.
The scenery changed and became more suburban, the houses getting larger and more ornate and the amenities more luxurious; a far cry from the dingy, beat-down neighborhood where he'd grown up. The only store close enough for a little kid to walk to was a 7-11 that was robbed so much that a police officer was permanently stationed there.
Brad slowed down and turned into the gated community on the right, stopping long enough for the black, wrought iron gate to swing open slowly. Just as they drove through, his mom turned around and addressed him for the first time since the hospital.
"Riley, now I'm not sure what kind of rules your father had for you…" He gasped like he'd taken a fist to the stomach. Didn't she know about the abuse? Was she being cruel?
The only rules in his household growing up were to not let the fridge run out of beer and to stay out of his dad's way when he was drunk.
And to stay down when you're told to stay down. But that rule was new.
"But you're going to be following our rules while you're living in our house." Riley flinched at the emphasis that the home he was going to live in was not his own. He understood the undertone that he was not welcome. He was an outsider.
He nodded, gnawing his bottom lip between his teeth, tasting the tang of his healing skin.
"I know you come from a violent background." At this point, Riley lost all doubt about whether her cruelty was purposeful. He felt the familiar ache behind his eyes and tightness in the back of his throat that signaled crying. He didn't want to cry again.
I come from a violent background because you left me in a violent background.
"But if I see any of your violent influence rubbing off on our children, we will not hesitate to show you the door." Riley couldn't breathe through the horrible lump in his throat. "Do you understand?" His mom was looking at him pointedly, harsh enunciation shaping every word.
Swallowing back the heaving sobs that wanted to wrack his body, he nodded his assent.
Riley bit his lip harder and harder until the skin broke and blood flowed, feeling familiar on his tongue. He savored the familiarity. If he focused on that, he didn't have to focus on the pain that threatened to smother him.
When they pulled into the driveway of their home, Riley didn't watch with awed curiosity. His eyes were squeezed tight against hot tears and the harsh sting of knowing how his mother truly felt about him.
You're nothing Riley Flanagan. So, so worthless. Unwanted. Unloved. You're nobody.
Meeting his siblings was a surreal experience for Riley. Considering that he hadn't even known of their existence before yesterday, he had no idea how to react being around three people who shared the same mother as him.
"Audrey, Matthew, Andrew, this is your older brother, Riley."
As his mom introduced him to his brothers and sister with all the warmth and enthusiasm of a driver's bureau employee, he felt like a piece of livestock on display at the state fair. He averted his eyes to the white ceramic floor to avoid their gawking stares.
"What's wrong with his hands?" The older boy, Matthew, he thought, was the first to respond to Sharon's awkward introduction.
"Matt, that's rude." Brad criticized, swatting the kid lightly on the shoulder.
"Why didn't you ever tell us about him before?" Audrey sniped at Sharon, who snapped back with a hushed "Not now!" that he wasn't supposed to hear.
Riley shifted on his feet, trying to dry swallow the pill of unease and hurt. Audrey's question confirmed his haunting suspicion that his mother had refused to even acknowledge his existence after she left him. The nasty feeling of worthlessness settled further into his bones. Of course she hadn't told anyone about him. Why would she? He wasn't worth anything and that was the way it always had been and always would be.
The upset crying of a toddler drew everyone's attention. Riley saw his youngest brother eyeing him with complete terror. Realistically, he understood that he was a total stranger and that most toddlers would react this way to a strange person, but he couldn't help the stinging feeling that no one, not even the youngest of the family wanted him here.
"Okay guys," Brad's authoritative voice echoed against the high cabinets. Riley tried not to shiver. "Let's get some pizza for dinner tonight." Matt whooped in excitement. "Audrey, find out what everyone wants and I'll call the order in."
The focus shifted away from Riley and the family members went back to what they were doing before his intrusive presence arrived. He stood still and tucked his chin into his chest, the passive stance his father expected out of him for the majority of his life and had beaten into him with severity.
Though his exhaustion was wearing him further down by the second, he didn't move. It must have been several minutes of struggling to stay awake on his feet before anyone in the family acknowledged his existence again.
Three finger snaps took his eyelids from fluttering shut to snapped wide open in terror.
"...Riley." It was Brad who had snapped his fingers at him. And though his voice was not unkind, Riley couldn't help it when he felt his body cowering.
"What kind of pizza do you like?" Trying to be respectful, he leveled his eyes at Brad and gave the barest, tight-lipped smile he could muster.
"I'm not hungry. Thank you." A lie. He hadn't eaten much in the hospital, too miffed at the indignity at being fed by nurses with pity carved into their faces. And he'd been in a significant food deficit when he'd gone into the hospital as well. He was on day two of his father's punishment of starvation for not paying the electric bill in time and letting the lights go out for a day when his father had beaten and stabbed him into submission.
But between the familiar, if unpleasant feeling of sustained hunger versus the painful awkwardness that would come from someone having to feed him, and the distinct feeling of being unwelcome, he would take hunger right now.
Brad raised an eyebrow at him. Behind him, Riley could see his mom tending to her other two sons, the warm smile that had been the bright spot of his childhood gleaming at them. He noticed with a sharp stab to his stomach that she seemed to look at anyone except him that way.
The unpleasant thought upset him more than he expected. And the tightness in the back of his throat returned. Riley didn't want to cry for a third time in front of his mom, so he forcefully swallowed the tight feeling and looked back at Brad.
"Um, if you don't mind, I'm, uh, really tired. Can I go lay down?" Asking the question felt about as natural as swimming in a fur coat, but Riley had to improvise at this point if he wanted to avoid a total breakdown. The exhaustion was taking its toll on his emotional stronghold and he could feel the quivering of his lip as he fought back yet another round of tears.
"Sure kid." Brad eyed him suspiciously, but Riley appreciated that the man didn't try to interrogate him further.
"Sharon, hon?" It took another two tries to get her attention before she would look up from her youngest child. Riley thought he saw her glance over the first time and then ignore her husband when she saw what was going on, but his fatigued mind could have been playing tricks.
"Where is Riley going to sleep?" Embarrassed heat crept across his cheeks. He felt like an unwanted burden that had been unexpectedly foisted upon this happy family. It was clear that his presence wasn't planned.
Sharon spared a moment's glance back at him, and he felt the frigidness in his stomach.
"I think the guest bedroom is ready." She immediately went back to Andrew, looking at a picture book with him and cheering with excitement when he would point a chubby finger and say what he saw.
Riley assumed he should follow Brad when the man walked at a fast clip toward the staircase. He couldn't help but to stare at his mom as he walked by, and he wondered if he made her uncomfortable. Was she purposefully ignoring him or was she just that uninterested in him being there? Riley didn't think it mattered, because both options hurt.
This wasn't how he dreamed that being with his mom would be like. But when did Riley ever actually get what he wanted?
The room was nice, if not plain. A typical guest room in a suburban house, not that Riley had much to compare to, but it was the nicest place that had ever been offered to him.
Brad had shown him the room and then awkwardly asked if he needed anything. Riley had shaken his head that he didn't, even though he didn't have a single possession with him. He didn't even have a toothbrush, not that he could use one with the state of his hands.
"Alright, holler if you need anything," Brad had said before leaving, closing the door behind him.
Blessedly alone, Riley sat on the solid navy comforter. It was soft. Softer than anything he'd slept on in, well, probably ever. And the bed was the right amount of firm. Not thin enough that the worn out springs poked through the fabric. He laid back on the bed and let the exhaustion take hold.
A small shiver worked its way up from his spine, and he wanted to pull back the blankets, climb in, and cocoon himself, but he was disappointed again when he couldn't grip the fabric under the constraints of his bandages.
Riley gave up and curled up on top of the blanket instead. His body going limp, he invited the respite of sleep.
But through the exhausted fog, he could still hear the echoes of the happy family… his mom's happy family, enjoying themselves and not concerned for a moment about him.
As it should be.