Eight Years Ago
Two years slip by. Faster than the previous three, with Nick at his side, but still achingly slow. Every day Ryan is aware that his sons are growing up without him. He’s missing so many things.
Chris is ten now, he’s in fifth grade. He’s probably had dozens of school plays, or sports events, or club meetings, competitions. Who knows what he’s into. Not Ryan.
Alex is five. He’ll be starting first grade.
Ryan is missing his first day of school.
Nick watches carefully as Ryan struggles not to cry at the ‘back to school’ commercials, but he doesn’t ask. Ryan isn’t sure if he’s grateful for it or not.
When Nick leaves on another Business Trip there is no one to stop Ryan from haunting parks and driving past schools. He is careful not to attract attention or suspicion, but his heart leaps every time he sees a boy with similar features to the sons he’s lost.
He could imagine taking them to these parks, picking them up from these schools. Alex telling him excitedly about whatever it is first grader’s do these days. Baking soda volcanoes and spelling tests written in clumsy writing.
But he always goes home. Back to his and Nick’s apartment. Where the walls are blank, no pictures, no good grades, no childish scrawl in crayon or marker.
He sits in the rocking chair and remembers holding them for the last time. Chris crying, begging Ryan not to let the social workers take him away. He’s too young to understand that Ryan is just as helpless as him, and Ryan was still too naive to accept that he had lost, that he would never beat Barnett. He’d promised that he would get them back, that he would never stop fighting for them.
He swore that he would see Chris again, that he would bring him home. Him and Alex too. Alex had slept through it all, peaceful for the first time in weeks.
The social workers had brought police officers with them. Men that Ryan had worked alongside for years. Their hands held him back as the social workers took away his sons. Their ears deaf to his begging, pleading, screaming as his heart is ripped away, torn to shreds.
Ryan takes a shaky breath. His hands are clenched, white knuckled on the arms of the rocking chair. Five years. Its been five years.
He opens his phone and checks his email. Its an old address, he got rid of most things when he moved with Nick. To hide. But not this. He couldn’t get rid of this.
Its the contact listed with Social Services. The one that they would use if they needed to speak to him about his sons. They’ve never used it. Ryan has sent them countless emails, begging, threatening, apologizing, begging again, an endless cycle that only results in silence.
Ryan’s heart skips a beat.
Its spam. It’s always spam.
He looks at the subject line.
He feels frozen, he feels like he’s watching from a thousand miles away as his finger taps the message and it opens.
I ran away from my foster home. I need somewhere to stay.
It can’t be real.
It doesn’t feel real.
But Ryan doesn’t care. His fingers tap over the screen, typing a reply.
Come to me. I’ll keep you safe. Where are you? I’ll buy you a ticket to get here, no matter where you are.
It must be Chris, Alex is only five, Ryan doubts he can read and write very well yet, much less–
Chris ran away from his foster home. He ran away. Where is he staying? How bad was it that his baby ran away? Chris is fucking ten and now he’s somewhere on his own. Oh god. Oh god. His baby.
His phone buzzes and Ryan lunges towards it.
His son is only three hours away.
Ryan doesn’t stop, doesn’t think, he gets to his feet and runs for the car. Time passes in a blurr. Vaguely he’s aware of messaging Chris. Telling him he’s on his way. Asking him where exactly he is. He knows that he must drive, and it must take awhile, but he has no memory of it.
He blinks, and he’s pulling up in front of a library and he is shaking and his heart is stuttering in his chest and he feels like he’s going to pass out. He gets out of the car, the keys are still in it, its still running but he doesn’t care. He flings himself through the doors.
The librarian looks up, shocked when he bursts in. “My son,” Ryan croaks. “My son is–he’s here. He said–”
A boy steps out from the bookshelves. He has brown hair, curly, like Toni’s had been, he has brown eyes too, Chris always looked just like his mother. Oh.
Oh that’s Chris.
That’s Chris. His Chris. His baby.
“Oh,” Ryan gasps. His knees feel weak. He has to brace himself on the librarian’s desk.
He wants to fall to his knees, wants to pull Chris into a hug and never, never, let him go. But Chris’s face is blank and cold. He walks towards Ryan at an even, unhurried clip. “We need to go,” he says, his voice is blank. Uncaring.
Ryan is pulled effortlessly in his wake.
There’s a ragged backpack on Wibur’s shoulders. Likely stuffed with clothes. Gods, he’s probably outgrown all the ones Ryan sent with him. The soft yellow sweater that was his favorite. He’d liked to put it on and pretend to be a little duckling. He’d follow Ryan and Toni around the house quacking.
Ryan’s car is haphazardly parked on the steps. Chris only glances to him for confirmation before he gets in the back. Ryan–Ryan gets in the driver’s side. He feels shaky and off balance.
His son is here. His son. His baby. But he won’t speak. He won’t look at Ryan. he’s here but he feels like a ghost. Like a figment of Ryan’s imagination.
“Are you–” he croaks, “are you okay?”
“Chris?” He tries. His voice sounds thick and wet.
“Just drive,” Chris says.
“I–okay,” Ryan replies. He feels lost. So fucking lost. He doesn’t–
Is this Chris? Is this his bright, happy boy? Is this the baby that laughed more than he cried? Ryan pulls away from the library and tries to figure out what’s going on.
He doesn’t figure it out in the three hours that it takes them to get–to get home. Chris is home. His baby is home.
Chris is silent the entire ride. Ryan tries to talk, but Chris doesn’t answer. Ryan keeps looking at him in the rearview mirror, but Chris is still there. Still real. Ryan can hear him breathing, shifting in his seat.
He’s here, he’s alive, but he’s–
He’s so quiet.
The Chris Ryan knew was never quiet a moment in his life. There wasn’t a second that he was awake that his chirpy little voice wasn’t talking, wasn’t asking questions, wasn’t singing songs.
Now he’s silent.
Its been five years.
Five years since Ryan’s baby was ripped from his arms.
He stops the car. “We’re here,” he says quietly.
Chris grunts and gets out, hoisting his bag onto his shoulder.
Ryan’s hands are shaking, his eyes are burning with tears that want to fall but no. No, he has to be strong.
Ryan gets out of the car. “We’re upstairs,” he says, and he leads Chris through the building, to the elevator. Chris stands on the far side, looking blankly at the wall of buttons. “Do you–do you want to press it?” Ryan asks softly.
Ryan resists the urge to flinch. “Okay.” He quietly presses the button, and the elevator rises. A minute later, Chris is in his apartment. Chris is in his home.
Chris is home.
“Are you hungry?” Ryan asks, “I can make you something.”
Chris shrugs and drops his bag to the floor. “Whatever.”
“Okay,” Ryan says, Chris can probably hear how thick his voice is, but he doesn’t say anything.
Ryan doesn’t want to leave him. He wants to wrap Chris in a hug. He wants to sob into his hair. But he restrains himself. You’re not supposed to rush people who have–have been through things.
Oh god what has his son been through? What happened to him while Ryan wasn’t there to protect him?
“I–” Ryan can’t stop himself from saying. “I’m glad you’re here. I missed you. I thought about you every day I–”
“Save it,” Chris snaps.
Ryan can’t hold back the flinch this time. “Chris–” he whispers.
Chris scoffs and finally turns to look at him. “Fuck you,” he says.
Its a simple insult, childish, but god it cuts Ryan to the bone.
“I’m not here to fucking–fucking make up and be family or whatever,” Chris says. “I just needed a place to stay for a few days.”
“A few days?” Ryan croaks, disbelieving. “Chris you can’t–you’re only ten. You need someone to take care of you.”
“And what, you think you can? You fucking failed at that last time. I’m not staying here. I don’t give a fuck about you. You’re not my dad. I hate you.”
It feels like his heart has been ripped out of his chest. Ryan makes a wounded sound and his knees give out. “Chris,” he chokes out. “Chris please–”
Chris looks down at him, his brown eyes–so much like Toni’s–are cold in a way hers never were. He stares down at Ryan, as uncaring as the dozens of judges Ryan brought his case before, and like them, he finds Ryan lacking.
“Whatever,” he scoffs, turning away. “I’m gonna take a shower.”
He walks away, poking his head into the different rooms, looking for a shower. His bag is held tightly in his hand.
Ryan needs–Ryan needs to–
Ryan needs Nick.
The bathroom door shuts behind Chris, and the lock clicks. A moment later, the water starts.
Ryan sits, paralyzed on the floor for an unknowable amount of time. Then he stands, his body shaking, his hands clumsy as he pulls out his phone.
Nick gave him a number to call if there was an emergency. Ryan is pretty sure this counts. He presses dial.
It rings. Once. Twice.
Ryan doesn’t know what he’s going to do if Nick doesn’t pick up.
But he does.
“Are you hurt?” Nick demands.
“No,” Ryan rasps. He isn’t. Not physically, anyway. “I–Nick I need help. I need you to come home. I can’t–I need help.”
He can’t put into words the enormity of the situation. He can’t even begin to tell Nick over the phone the layers and layers of mistakes that are weighing down on him.
“I need you,” Ryan rasps desperately.
“Okay,” Nick says, calm, in control. “I’m on my way back. I’ll be there tonight. Can you last until then?”
“Yeah,” Ryan croaks. “Yeah. I–Nick I fucked up. I need–”
“We’ll fix it,” Nick says, steady and unshakable, the utter opposite of Ryan. Shaken and shattered. “I’m on my way back, I’ll be there soon. Just hold on until I get there.”
“Okay,” Ryan whispers. “Okay.”
The shower turns off.
“I have to go,” Ryan says.
“Ryan–” Nick says before he can hit ‘end call.’
Fresh tears well up in his eyes. “Okay.”
“Just hold on until I get there.”
Ryan puts his phone away and goes to the kitchen. He just needs to hold on until tonight. Until Nick gets here. He can do that. He can last that long.
Chris sits in the livingroom, messing with something in his backpack. Sorting things.
“Do you–” Ryan asks hesitantly, “do you want to wash your clothes? There’s a washer and dryer in the basement.”
Chris doesn’t acknowledge him for a long moment.
“Okay,” Ryan whispers.
They go down to the basement. Him and his son. His son who hates him. His son who has been gone for five years and come back changed and silent and hurt and Ryan doesn’t know how to help. This isn’t a skinned knee. He can’t kiss it all better.
He doesn’t know what to do.
They start Chris’s laundry and Ryan sets a timer for an hour on his phone. They’ll come and change it then.
They go back upstairs and eat.
“Do you want to watch TV?” Ryan asks softly, holding the remote out to Chris.
He eyes it for a silent moment, then snatches it out of Ryan’s hand.
Their fingers brush and Ryan wants to sob. Its been five years since he held his son. Its been five long, long years. He misses his baby.
But Chris hates him.
And why shouldn’t he? Ryan promised he would come for him. He promised that he would get him back.
He failed his son.
Chris had to bring himself back, had to fight and claw and drag himself out of whatever hell the uncaring social workers had put him in. Ryan’s baby. His little boy. Still so little, so small.
He sits in Nick’s chair, he looks tiny in it when Ryan is used to Nick’s hulking mass taking up all of the space.
Ryan shakily lowers himself into the rocking chair.
He wonders if Chris remembers it. Remembers the nights that he crept out of bed to hover by Ryan’s side as he rocked Alex at night. He’d been enthralled by his baby brother. Ryan and Toni had been worried that Chris would resent the baby, that he would feel left out.
He hadn’t. He’d loved Alex. More than once they’d gone to check on him in the night and found Chris sleeping by Alex’s crib, his tiny hand holding Alex’s tinier one.
Now Chris is curled up in Nick’s armchair, his socks have holes in the toes. He flips through the channels, not settling on anything for more than a second.
There are bags under his eyes, Ryan can see them in the flickering light of the TV. They look like bruises.
Ryan’s gut lurches at the thought of someone hitting his baby. How could they? How could anyone raise a hand to one of the most precious beings in the world? How could they bear it?
But someone must have. Something drove Chris to run away, to come to Ryan, even though he hates him.
“Quit staring at me,” Chris snaps.
Ryan looks down at his hands. “Sorry, sorry. You’ve just–you’ve grown up so much.”
“I had to,” Chris says shortly.
Chris continues flicking through the channels.
Eventually he settles on some kind of documentary. Ryan doesn’t know if he actually cares about anteaters or if he’s simply tired of pushing buttons on the remote. He doesn’t utter a word either way.
“Pretty cool animals, huh?” Ryan says when the documentary is over.
“I hate them,” Chris says.
“Oh,” Ryan mutters.
Chris goes back to flicking through channels.
Eventually they go and put his laundry into the drier. They go back upstairs and flick through the channels some more. They get Chris’s clothes out of the drier. Ryan makes dinner.
The silence is suffocating. Just as bad–or somehow worse–that those hazy days right after the boys were taken. Ryan had wandered the house like a ghost. Checking their rooms for them again and again. They weren’t there.
He’d realized that he’d forgotten to pack Alex’s favorite toy on one of these trips and that had finally broken him. He’d clutched Henry to his chest and wailed until his voice gave out.
He still has it, tucked into his room. Alex’s soft baby scent has long since faded from the fur, but Ryan still holds it every night, his nose pressed to the fabric.
He had to get rid of a lot of the boys things when his debts got too large. Lawyers were expensive, fighting a losing battle was expensive. Ryan didn’t care. He’d spent it all. Sold the house that he and Toni had built together. Their home.
It would have all been worth it if he could get his sons back. But the debts had just gotten worse, and it had looked bad before the courts. Everything looked bad to the courts.
Evening falls, and Nick still isn’t back.
Chris said he would only be here for a few days. Ryan can’t–he can’t let him leave, but what is he supposed to do? He can’t just–he can’t just keep Chris here, can he?
“You can sleep in my bed,” Ryan offers, when Chris starts trying to disguise his yawns.
“I’m fine,” Chris says.
“I don’t mind,” Ryan insists hesitantly. “I’ve slept in the chair before.”
“You’ll probably break your stupid back like an old man,” Chris growls.
Ryan’s heart flares with hope. This could–this could be something, some way to establish rapport. “I’m not that old,” he says, trying desperately for a light, joking tone.
Chris snorts disbelievingly. He doesn’t keep up the banter though.
“Please take the bed,” Ryan says, softer. He wants Chris to be comfortable, warm and safe.
He also wants to be closer to the door. He’s terrified Chris is going to leave in the middle of the night.
“Whatever,” Chris scoffs again, but eventually, he does go into Ryan’s room. He shuts the door sharply behind himself.
Ryan could sleep in Nick’s bed, he has before, when Nick’s trips dragged on and the desperate loneliness ate at him. He doesn’t tonight. He sits in the chair, watching the clock tick through the hours.
He only needs to stay strong, stay awake, until Nick gets home. Nick will have some idea of what to do, surely.
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