Every night, precisely at six PM, Ryan lays out a nutritious meal for four. Children need good, balanced meals, they need schedules to keep them on track. The social workers said so.
Every night, Ryan sits alone at a table, a nutritious meal for four slowly going cold. The plates are empty, the chairs are empty. All but one.
Ryan is alone.
Ryan is so alone.
By seven, Ryan has picked at the food and eaten about a portion. The rest he boxes up. Uneaten.
Most of the building is empty, but there is a single mother down the hall from Ryan who is always grateful for the food. Her baby cries in the night sometimes, and Clem always apologizes, but Ryan tells her he doesn’t mind.
He doesn’t, really. He understands how it is with babies. Some nights he is comforted by the sound, but most nights the baby’s wails rub against a still raw wound.
Its been three years since Ryan saw his sons. Chris will be eight now. They were going to go to disneyland for his eighth birthday. Alex–Alex, Ryan’s little baby. He’s three now. He’s learned to walk, he’s said his first words. Someone else saw his first steps. Did he call them ‘dada’?
Did he have another mother now, too?
Was he happy? Did he get adopted into a good family? Did either of them?
Alex has the best chance, Ryan knows. They always say that babies get adopted quickly. Everyone wants babies. But Chris, Ryan’s loving, intelligent son. Did nobody want him? Did nobody see how good he was?
Was Ryan’s son in the system somewhere, getting passed from house to house?
Ryan draws in a trembling breath. His hands shake on the cheap Tupperware. Everything here is cheap.
He used to live in a big house, one that he and Toni built themselves. For their family. He sold it, he needed the money to keep up his battle.
Ryan was a lawyer, but he was criminal prosecution, not family court. He learned all he could, but it did him no good. All the lawyers in the world did him no good.
Not when the deck was stacked against him from the beginning.
There are heavy footsteps outside. The gait stumbling and limping.
He’s the only other person on this floor besides Ryan and the young mother. He’s an infrequent occupant. He leaves in the middle of the night and is gone for weeks–even months–at a time. Sometimes he returns injured, other times not. He pays his rent in cash, and keeps to himself.
It pings on every instinct Ryan has. He wasn’t a cop, but he knew criminals.
It doesn’t matter. Not anymore. Now he is just background radiation in Ryan’s life. He no longer believes in the delusion of justice.
But his apartment is lonely. The food is put away. Three uneaten portions.
Ryan gathers them in his arms and takes a deep breath.
He knocks softly on his neighbor’s door and waits. He knows this is probably dumb. If (it isn’t much of an if) this guy is in some deep criminal type shit, he won’t like Ryan paying attention to him.
But Ryan is lonely, and it isn’t as though he has much to live for these days.
Limping footsteps approach the door. “What,” a man’s low voice grunts through the wood.
“Uh,” Ryan says. His voice cracks, he wrinkles his nose at how hoarse it is. He doesn’t know when the last time he talked to someone was. He usually just drops off the Tupperware at Clem’s door. He clears his throat. “Its your neighbor,” he says, “I have–I have some extra food. I noticed you just got in, I thought you might like something.”
He winces at how ridiculous that sounds. At best, he’s going to be told to get lost and the guy will find a new safe house. At worst, Ryan will be trying on some new shoes down at the harbor. Cement ones.
Its probably a bad sign that he’s more worried about the first thing than the second.
The door creaks open and Ryan gets his first real look at his neighbor.
He’s. Tall. and broad. Muscular. Very muscular. Very scarred. His hair is long.
Ryan does his best not to stare and just hands over the Tupperware. “Here,” he says.
The dish hovers in the air between them for a moment, and then the man takes it. “…thanks,” he grunts.
“You’re uh. Welcome,” Ryan says. “Welcome back.”
Fuck he sounds like an idiot. A weird idiot.
He used to know how to talk to people. He used to be charming.
Ryan swallows. “I’ll leave you be.”
He shuffles away from the door, and it closes softly behind him. He hopes his neighbor won’t disappear into the night. Sometimes he watches TV and the voices through the wall are comforting.
Ryan shuffles his way down the hall to Clem’s door.
The man with the long hair doesn’t leave. He brings Ryan back the Tupperware dish and thanks him. It might just be Ryan, but he seems just as awkward as Ryan did standing at his door.
Ryan looks at the dish, washed and returned to him sparkling clean. Its nice, cooking for people. He used to love to cook, Toni hated it, and she was happy to hand over the duty.
Ryan hasn’t taken any sort of joy in cooking for awhile, but knowing that everyone on his hall has eaten well because of him is. Nice. Four portions, eaten by four people. Ryan, Clem, the baby, and the man with the long hair.
It becomes a tradition of sorts. Every night, at exactly six PM, Ryan cooks a balanced meal. He eats, and he puts the rest in Tupperware and shuffles down the hall making his deliveries.
The man with the long hair seems just as surprised to see him every night. He always gives his thanks, and he always returns the Tupperware sparkling clean.
On the fifth night, Ryan knocks on his door and no one answers.
His heart sinks.
He knocks again, just in case, but there is nothing. No movement, no breathing.
The man with the long hair is gone again. Off on another one of his mysterious trips. Pathetically, tears burn in the corners of Ryan’s eyes. He takes a deep breath, and shuffles down the hall to Clem’s door. He knocks and leaves a stack of three Tupperware on the floor and shuffles back to his own apartment.
Three days later, as he sets out on his delivery, the door beside his opens. He stops, blinking with surprise.
The man with the long hair blinks too. “Oh,” he says, “hullo.” He nods stiffly.
“Hi,” Ryan says back.
The man with the long hair stands in the doorway, his face is blank, but Ryan was a lawyer, a good one, he can see the subtle tells.
Ryan has lived in this building for three years, and he never once ran into his neighbor. Something about this encounter feels…engineered.
For the first time in a long time, a smile wants to tug at his lips. “I’m glad I ran into you,” he says, “I didn’t realize you were back.” He holds out a Tupperware container.
The man with the long hair reaches out and takes it. “Thanks,” he grunts. “You–you’re a good cook.”
“Thanks,” Ryan says.
The door closes between them, but its–Ryan feels lighter than he has in years. He knows Clem appreciates the food, he knows she’d let him linger and talk and see the baby if he wanted to. But he doesn’t. He can’t bear it. He just can’t.
The man with the long hair is…easier.
Ryan is glad he’s back.
In an hour, there is a knock at his door, and the Tupperware is returned, sparkling clean as always.
The man disappears many times, but he always comes back. If he arrives during the day, he is louder than he needs to be, and Ryan knows to knock on his door that night. If he arrives under cover of darkness, he’ll open his door and greet Ryan himself.
Ryan thinks its nice.
And then the man with the long hair returns. Even thought its late at night (and Ryan should be sleeping, but the nightmares, oh the nightmares keep him awake) the man’s footsteps are heavy and unsteady.
Ryan rises from the rocking chair that he couldn’t bear to get rid of. Not after it was the last place he held his baby boys. He opens his door and hisses a curse.
The man with long hair is sprawled out over the hall, face down.
“Fuck,” Ryan hisses again.
The man twitches and all of a sudden there is a gun being pointed at Ryan. Ryan freezes, his gut swooping, his heart racing. “Its–” he swallows hard. “Its Ryan.” no, shit, wait, he never introduced himself.
The gun wavers.
“I bring you food,” Ryan says hesitantly.
The man with long hair raises his head and blinks at him. “Shit,” he mutters. The gun disappears.
Ryan breathes a sigh of relief as the man hauls himself upwards. There’s blood all over his shirt, and it looks like its his. Fuck. He makes it up to his knees and then starts to keel over again.
Ryan shoves himself under the guy’s arm, staggering under the sudden weight. “Shit, come on, let’s–”
“My apartment,” the man grunts. “I’ve got supplies.”
Ryan isn’t sure if he has supplies enough for a wound like this. There’s blood on the carpet too, squelching through Ryan’s sock when he steps in it, still warm. Fuck.
He grits his teeth and ignores it. Together he and the man stagger to the man’s door, and a key is fumbled out of a pocket and the door is unlocked.
The apartment is…empty.
There’s a TV on a couple milk crates, and a mattress on the floor. Other than that, its just boxes. Ryan imagines that anything visibly illicit is stored well out of sight of the door, but there’s no furniture. Nothing besides the mattress.
He is under no illusion that he is actually carrying the man. He’s mostly here to help him balance. Still, he’s breathing hard when they manage to make it to the bed.
“Where’s your uh. First aid kit.” Ryan asks, wringing his hands anxiously. He never used to do that. He used to be so good at masking his emotions. Weakness wasn’t acceptable on any battlefield, even if that battle was court.
“By the TV,” the man grunts.
Ryan’s eyes catch on a cardboard box. Seriously?
He drags it closer and opens the flaps. Oh.
Despite its humble appearance, the contents of the box are anything but. There’s medical equipment, labeled military.
At least the guy has them, they might be the only thing that would actually keep him out of the hospital. Ryan grabs the box and the man takes it from him. He lifts his shirt and Ryan hisses a breath through his teeth when he can finally see the depth of the wound.
He’s no expert, but it looks like a knife stick. Deep in the man’s flank.
The man tilts his body to the side and gets to work.
Ryan tenses, wincing at the thought of how painful that must be, doing medical care on yourself, he wants to help, but he has no idea what to do. The man only grunts and shuts his eyes tightly. They sit in silence, the only sound Ryan’s heavy breathing.
He’s got blood on his shirt, on his hands. Warm and sticky.
No. No. Focus. Its not–
Its not hers.
Ryan takes another deep breath. He shuts his eyes, trying not to see the blood.
“Are you–” he rasps hesitantly, “are you alright?”
The man grunts. “…yeah. Will be. Thanks.”
“Yeah,” Ryan says. “Um. I won’t–I won’t tell anyone.” he laughs and it sounds pathetic and nervous to his own ears. “I don’t really have anyone to tell.”
“I know,” the man says.
“Okay,” Ryan says. “Do you–can I get you anything.”
“I’ll be fine,” the man says, “You can go. Clean up.”
Ryan shudders. “Okay,” he says softly. “Um–” he feels like he should share some sort of sentiment. ‘Get well soon’ seems a bit under powered for the situation though. “I’ll come–I’ll come check on you at dinner.”
The man cracks open an eye and studies him silently. Ryan waits. The eye closes. “Kay.”
“Okay,” Ryan echoes.
He lets himself quietly out of the apartment. There is blood on the doorknob.
That’s fine. That’s fine.
Ryan’s breath hitches when he reaches for his own doorknob and sees the blood on his hands.
It can’t be messy. It can’t be messy. Children need a clean environment. The social workers looked at his grand house, at the laundry, the juice spilled on the floor days ago because Chris was trying to help and Ryan couldn’t bear to go in the kitchen–
This isn’t juice, this is blood.
Oh god that’s not better.
Ryan chokes back a pathetic whimper and wraps his shirt around his hand and opens his door. He turns on the kitchen faucet with his elbow and washes his hands. He watches the water trickle down to the basin, pink. He washes his hands.
He washes his hands.
He washes his hands.
He washes his hands.
He takes a deep breath.
Its not hers. He never even saw Toni’s blood. They wouldn’t let him see the wound. They just pulled the sheet away from her face–
Ryan chokes on a sob and falls to his knees. The water keeps running, trickling down, down, down. He focuses on it. Just listens to the bump and burble of it. The rattle of the pipes that always happens when the water is on for too long.
He puts his chin to his chest and breathes.
He can’t–he can’t have a panic attack, he can’t sob and scream and wail about how unfair it all is. He needs to put on a good face or the social workers will just have more ammunition.
No, he’s already lost that battle. It doesn’t matter if he drags his nails down his skin and screams his agony to the uncaring sky.
But if he does, then he’ll probably wake up his neighbor and he needs to sleep. He might even wake up Clem and the baby. He couldn’t take it if he heard the baby right now. It would shatter him.
More than he’s already been shattered.
Ryan stands and turns off the sink. He checks his hands. There’s still–there’s still blood under his nails, but his skin is clean. If raw and pruned. That’s fine. That’s fine.
He needs to get changed.
He goes to his bedroom.
He has a mattress on the floor too.
He takes a shower. The water runs cold. He stays under it. He scrubs at his skin, nearly pries his nails off trying to get the blood out from under them. He’s shivering, by the time he gets out.
He forgot to get clean clothes.
He stumbles back to his room, teeth chattering, mind blessedly blank and manages to pull on a robe before he curls up under his blankets. He stares at the wall in the dim light.
He doesn’t remember what time it is, but he’s pretty sure he has awhile before dinner.
He can just. Rest for a bit.
Just for a bit.
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