welcome home 22

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  1. The question sure came out of the left field.
  3. Most of the leftover anger in Riley's system was quickly replaced with confusion and befuddlement, the girl's slightly venomous response expressing all she could think of in response-
  5. "What is there even to talk about?"
  7. "Plenty."
  9. Riley's head snapped towards the door as the other grandparent announced herself, thankfully leaving the door slightly open behind herself as she slowly walked up to the bed and took a seat next to her husband, smiling warmly up at Riley.
  11. "Why haven't you asked Rick to give you my papers if you really are that curious?" She responded indignantly, definitely not looking forwards to digging all the old stuff back up from the recesses of her mind.
  13. "Oh we asked, and he gave it to us, and we and gave it a good read and then did some... independent investigation on top. Suffice to say we know a good chunk of your story, more so than even Ricky." Marvin answered calmly, the later addition putting Riley slightly on edge.
  15. "Then this all makes even less sense!" Riley was on her wits' end, having no idea why would her grandparents dig that old can of worms back up, *especially* since they already supposedly knew all about it.
  17. Liz took a deep breath, slowly stringing together a sentence, already opening her mouth to respond as her husband cut her off-
  19. "Well, the most straightforward reason is that we eventually had to have this talk with Rick, and from what he's told us so far, we think that you need it even more than he did back then."
  21. Riley was about ready to snap back at that, the other grandparent answering the question she was about to bark out with quite a few nasty words.
  23. "What Marvin meant by this talk is, it's not about just looking back at what objectively happened, leave that for cops and their ilk. The real point of our talk with Ricky all these years ago, and with you right now, is to go over how do you feel about all these memories, and about your mother."
  25. The indepth answer certainly defused her most imminent hostility, but she was still on edge, attempting to solve the entire discussion with a single quip-
  27. "Well I don't like thinking about them, don't like being reminded of them, and hate her to the point that if I knew where she was buried I'd go there and piss on her grave, how's that sound? Can we go now and pretend this didn't happen?"
  29. Much to Riley's surprise both grandparents chuckled heartily at that, her angry determination unprepared for such a... unbothered of a response, the image of Rick not even flinching as she brought out her knife in their interview coming to mind.
  31. "W-w-what's so funny?"
  33. "Hah, I remember Ricky getting so pissed off when we started this talk that his tail looked like a feather duster, and you certainly look close even without fur." Marvin answered, sighing at the memory as Liz pushed the conversation forwards-
  35. "Oh yes, Ricky didn't enjoy that whole thing one bit, even if did help him a lot in the end."
  37. "H-how did it help him?" Riley brought up the elephant in the room, Liz smirking happily before answering-
  39. "He was able to let go."
  41. "O-of what?"
  43. "His past, his father, the reasons he couldn't grow as close to us as he wanted to, because every time he tried to think of us as parents all that came up was his father and he mentally only pushed himself further away." Liz spoke unusually firmly for her, making Riley gulp as she chewed on her words.
  45. "You know what I'm talking about Riley, aren't you?"
  47. She felt like a gust of freezing air had blown not just onto her but through her body, innards freezing as the appropriate words struggled to make themselves apparent to her mind.
  49. "R-R-Rick told you, hasn't he?"
  51. "No, not Rick. Andrew did sent us a message, but we were well aware that something like this would very well be an issue regardless." Marvin cut in, not letting Riley even mull on his response as Liz continued-
  53. "Of course Riley, it's all up to you. As much as it may seem like we got it all figured out, it's you who matters here sweetie. Just say a word, and we can just all head back downstairs and forget all this happened."
  55. The girl nodded slightly, figuring out how to respond as she stared at the ground, whispering out after a few good moments-
  57. "W-what do you want me t-to do?"
  59. "Feel better with yourself, come to terms with what happened, get rid of the demons that threaten to send you into an anxious fit under any pretense, no matter how flimsy. But right now? Take a nice, long breath sweetie." The grandma continued, reaching into her bag of holding and pulling out a small water bottle, passing it over to Riley who took it with a small nod, downing the half of it in just few gulps.
  61. She gripped the bottle tightly as she tried to steady herself, deep breaths gradually slowing down, the plastic squeaking pathetically in her hand as it flexed in her hand. the girl eventually gathering the strength to look back up at her grandparents, nodding firmly to tell them to proceed with whatever they had in mind.
  63. "Are you ready sweetie?" Liz asked softly, her voice slow and deliberate, giving Riley a clear out just in case.
  65. Riley was... afraid, definitely afraid. Every bone in her body screamed at her to get out of that room, to not bother, to just try to pretend her past wasn't a thing-
  67. But for what? Only to scare Timmy some more every time he asks an innocent question? To not even be able to conceive of Rick and Ella as parents?
  69. To hate her own reflection because she looked just like her mother?
  71. "Yes, I am." She felt a sudden push of determination as she forced the words out, the grandparents smiling in admiration before Liz slid just a bit closer towards her granddaughter and starting the whole shebang-
  73. "I'm so glad to hear Riley. What we want you to do now is to try reach mentally as far back in the past as you can recall, and tell us how it makes you feel. Is that alright?"
  75. Riley nodded before the impact of her decision really hit her, a string wrapping around her brain as she realized what was her oldest memory, and just how much she didn't want to remember it.
  77. That was the point, wasn't it?
  79. To finally force her to remember.
  81. "I-i-it has to d-do with that coin..." She managed to stammer out, breathing shallowing further still as Marvin pulled it back out of his pocket and held it out towards Riley, the girl taking a moment to try to take the deepest breath she could before grabbing it blindly, cold metal feeling scalding hot as she was forced to examine it once more.
  83. ```
  86. UNITY       SERVICE
  88.         V
  90.     RECOVERY
  91. ```
  93. ```
  94. GOD
  102. ```
  104. "I... I think I was four at the time. M-my m-mom showed up to p-pick me up from the kindergarten, she looked so, so happy, even told me she got us ice cream and that she had something to show me. W-when we got home..." Riley's knuckles whitened at how hard she was clenching her fists, a handful of tears having already made its way down her chin before she snapped out-
  106. "This hurts!" Her voice was already panicking, why did she agree to all this, what good could even come of it all!?
  108. "I know it does Riley. Why do you think it hurts so much?" Liz asked calmly, her granddaughter too preoccupied to notice her own eyes starting to glisten.
  110. "I-I don't know... it just does." Riley answered to the best of her ability, voice going from anxious to defeated.
  112. "S-should I continue?"
  114. "If you feel strong enough, then yes, please sweetie."
  116. She nodded in response, a couple of small whimpers escaping her as she pushed on-
  118. "When we got home... she, she knelt in front of me and showed me this- this coin. She told me that- that she loved me so much, th-that she's not who she once was, and she did it all for..."
  120. Riley's face clenched shut, throat shutting as she tried and failed to push the word out, bitter tears watering the fabric of her shirt as any attempts to speak only turned into sobbing gasps.
  122. "She d-did it for me..."
  124. She kept weeping, a dam somewhere inside breaking into a flood of tears, a vivid image springing into her mind from behind it.
  126. ***
  128. Their apartment was small, downright tiny, just a single large room with a small separate bathroom and one of the corners serving as a tiny kitchen with just as tiny fridge, so that the sweet baby girl could open it for herself without an issue.
  130. The sizable couch in the middle unfolded into a wide bed, plenty enough for them both. She remembered loving laying down in the evening, snuggling under the massive covers even as she waited for her mom to finish dealing with the adult stuff and the thick notepad she wrote down all her expenses in.
  132. And then, just as she was about to fall asleep, her sweet mommy would join her, hugging her gently and telling her that she loved her, and Riley would hug her back, and tell her that she loved her too before dozing off.
  134. And then she would wake up to her mom's voice, eat some sweet yogurt as she got up, mom would help her put her clothes on and just... just hold her on her lap for a few minutes while they waited for the right time to head out, then walk in half darkness to her kindergarten, where her mom would always kiss her on the forehead before saying bye bye...
  136. ***
  138. Riley wasn't sure for just how long she sat there, her face buried in her empty hand, just... crying. Letting it all out. Every tear she had to suppress in the past at the ancient memory was now flooding out of her all at once, heartwrenching sobs slowly giving way to quiet whimpers as she got herself back under control.
  140. She breathed hoarsely, eyes still clenched shut before flinging open upon feeling something touch her knee, finding it to be a small pack of tissues. She took it from Marvin, whispering out a quiet 'thank you' as she collected herself, thoroughly using up a couple of them before she could finally honestly say-
  142. "A-alright, I... I can continue now."
  144. "Don't push yourself too hard sweetie. Take as long as you need." Liz gently reminded with a nod and a soft smile, Riley acknowledging it with a quick bob of her head before pushing herself on anyway.
  146. "Then she gave me this coin, t-told me to have it remind me that she..."
  148. A couple more tissues later...
  150. "That she will never stop loving me, n-no matter what happens." Riley finally forced the words out, the words that have long since rotted and grown putrid in the depths of her mind, the words that, despite all that happened afterwards, all the pain Riley experienced from her mother, were more than genuine at the time.
  152. "And then... then we sat down together on our couch and had a lot of ice cream together and snuggled, and that-that's about it I think..."
  154. Riley felt... relieved, in a way she hasn't ever remembered feeling. Every time she tried to explore the old memory on her own it only resulted in it getting buried deeper and deeper, the mental scar growing more and more gangrenous every time, to the point where it just hurt even to acknowledge its existence.
  156. "What flavor was the ice cream?" Marvin asked abruptly, Riley's mind going blank at the impromptu for a moment before answer showed itself, clear as day.
  158. "Strawberry... it was always strawberry, hehe..." She smiled faintly at the realization, every time she chose anything to do with fruit it was always strawberry, despite not even remembering ever having one.
  160. Maybe she just liked the color red? Who knows.
  162. "How did you feel at the time?" Liz brought the subject back to the main course, Riley nodding as she gathered thoughts.
  164. "I-I was just happy, I think. Happy because my mom was happy, because she brought ice cream, because she said she loved me and gave me a funny looking coin. I remember now putting it in a sock so that I wouldn't lose it. And then when I found it in one, I just would put it in another."
  166. The grandma nodded, taking a breath before going on-
  168. "And how do you feel right now, having recalled all that?"
  170. "It hurt, a lot, but now... it-it doesn't, at least not as much as it did when I was crying like a baby, heh." Riley chuckled at how silly she must have looked back there, a moment of glee at her own expense cut off immediately after-
  172. "How do you feel about your mother?"
  174. Riley's eyes went wide at the question, the bubbling paradox threatening to blow her skull open. Just half an hour ago she would be barking out words of hate, and she still wanted to even now, but she just... couldn't. Not with what she'd just seen, the memory grinding at her brain with how little sense it all made.
  176. How could her mother have ever loved her with what followed?
  178. "I... I don't know. It j-just makes no sense..." She whispered out, Liz stepping in with a guiding question-
  180. "Why does it make no sense?"
  182. And so the stitching in her mind started to come loose, memories untangling and tearing themselves apart upon a gentle touch.
  184. It took a while for her to sort out the thoughts, eventually figuring out that going in the chronological order would probably shed the most light on it all.
  186. Light that she once dreaded beyond words, that only ever brought more and more pain, but which now, she felt, could finally get rid of it, old gashes finally cleansed and treated.
  188. "I- I don't know, but... c-can I just go through m-my memories as they come t-to hopefully make it clearer?" She asked uncertain as to how her change of plan would affect the whole therapeutic session.
  190. "Of course sweetie. You know best how to dig through all your memories, all I can do is to gently steer you in a direction that I think will help you out the most." Liz answered softly, smiling at her reassuringly.
  192. "H-heh, is being a therapist just st-steering people like that?" Riley asked, appreciating her grandma's openness, feeling better enough to the point where she could take another sip of water.
  194. "As Liz told me one time, it's half listening and half being a private investigator, except digging into your thoughts and not who your wife slept with." Marvin chimed in with a chuckle, Riley responding in kind before taking a deep breath, silencing herself as she tried to recall the next thing.
  196. The memories that came after were much less developed, just snippets of more of their apartment, mom doing mom things, more snuggling... she still must have been four or five at the time...
  198. Before the calls came.
  200. The first one made her flinch at how clear it was, how vividly she remembered it all, her mom looking horrified as she picked up her phone, herself getting spooked as she could just barely hear raised voices and and see her mom starting to tear up and weep, and how despite all her hugging, it didn't seem to help...
  202. How scared she was, and how scared she became.
  204. "I remember s-somebody calling m-my mom, and it made her scared and cry, and n-nothing I could do helped. And then there w-were more of those calls, and my mom c-cried more and more..."
  206. Liz nodded, her expression deep in thought before she prodded to push the story on-
  208. "Do you remember who was it that kept calling your mom and made her cry?"
  210. "N-n-no, I don't, she w-wouldn't tell me, d-don't know why..." Riley shook as she tried desperately to uncover that tidbit, to find out who kept hurting the only person she held dear at the time...
  212. "What happened then?"
  214. "She-she kept getting the calls, and got sadder and sadder, t-then... one day she just c-came home and cried, and cried, and wouldn't s-stop..." She only barely held back the tears of her own at she recalled that day, the day it all started to fall apart.
  216. "How old were you at that time, if you can remember?" Liz's voice was a fair bit less warm at the moment, as if focused on trying to put together a puzzle, while still trying to keep Riley on the right course.
  218. "I-I think I w-was six..." She whispered out, catching onto her grandma's insistence, curiosity further growing in her.
  220. Liz nodded quietly, pulling out a small but very thoroughly used notepad and flipped onto one of the latter pages, taking a breath before asking Riley in a quiet, somber voice-
  222. "We did some digging on our own and... we think we're quite sure who was it that kept calling your mom."
  224. Riley's eyes went wide at that, boiling wrath overtaking the cold sadness, she wanted to know, she wanted to find these people and carve them up into pieces and to keep stabbing until her switchblade gave its last.
  226. "Who was it!?" She almost shouted, body starting to shake in anger, she needed to know, she *had* to know.
  228. To know who had broken her mother like that.
  230. Marvin stepped in, any remains of his jovial exterior gone as he slowly muttered out-
  232. "They were your mom's parents. Has she ever told you about them?"
  234. Riley couldn't help but breathe very, very shallowly for a good moment as the revelation set in, anger evaporating whenever she tried to grasp it.
  236. "N-no, a-all that she ever told me, m-many years later i-is that they w-weren't the kind of people I-I'd like... W-wait, are they alive!? Why didn't they take me in when-"
  238. "They disowned your mother when they kicked her out of their house, and then you once they learned of your existence. Were contacted for taking you in but never responded after repeated requests, and so the social workers were forced to put you in Oakwood." Liz explained calmly, bolstering herself for the inevitable followup.
  240. Riley was aghast at that, pieces of past confusion coming together, fully assembling the gruesome picture.
  242. "W-why would t-they do that?" She could only whisper out this much, her throat clenching up, barely even letting her breathe.
  244. "It's never easy to tell things like that for certain, but... we dug up some things about them belonging to a fundamentalist Mormon sect, and disowning children like that does tend to happen there, whenever they do as little as defying them."
  246. "H-h-how do you know it was them!?" Nothing made any sense anymore, how could t-they do something like that, a-and keep making their daughter's life such a hell.
  248. "We found archived court documents of a case involving your mother, and it was to put a restraining order on her parents to stop them from calling her any further." Liz answered matter-of-factly, definitely filling up some blank spots in Riley's perception of all that had happened.
  250. "A-and how d-d-did it go?"
  252. "She lost the case, *supposedly* because of lack of evidence, but in reality it's something else entirely. Your biological grandfather wasn't just an important person in his local, fucked up community... but also a deputy sheriff. And if there's one thing you can be sure of about cops, is that when push comes to shove, they'll inevitably stand behind one another no matter what, especially behind people like your grandfather." Marvin added his part, the swear adding some well needed reality to the awful things Riley was hearing.
  254. "But... why where they calling her, why wouldn't they stop, w-why were they hurting her like that!?" Riley asked in desperation, her voice cracking as the tears refused to be contained anymore, at how pointless it all was, all that suffering...
  256. "As for that we can only speculate. But given the kind of people they are, and what your mother told the court- I think I have a good idea, based on my own experience with victims of abuse like that." Liz answered the best she could, despite it still not being enough.
  258. "W-wh-what is it?"
  260. "She likely didn't just start being abused like that out of nowhere, it was an ongoing cycle that dated to all the way back when she was little herself. We will never know what went behind their doors, or what exactly they said to her time and time again. But what I'm near certain of is that they kept degrading her, telling her how worthless she was, and how much she was hurting you by being herself."
  262. "But she wasn't, n-not back then!" Riley shouted in protest as tears flew down her face, arguing against a force ten years beyond her reach.
  264. "Indeed she wasn't. And what I'm similarly sure of- they were doing it to keep her controlled, not letting her move past them, keeping her emotionally chained to them as they kept piling on the abuse. I've seen that sort of thing... far too often during my practice." Liz was almost whispering at the end, emotions getting the better of her as she shared in Riley's the anger over all the pain cruelty like that had caused, all the untold misery.
  266. All for what?
  268. "B-but why...?" The girl was barely audible, the impact of all the pain her mother had gone through stilling her thoughts under the weight of the horrid truth.
  270. "I wish I had an answer sweetie. In therapy, you have to learn quickly to suppress the 'why's like that, that don't lead to anything productive. I can think of fifteen different reasons as to why your mom's parents would want to keep her miserable, but even if I had a way to tell, it wouldn't lead to anything. It wouldn't make it all hurt any less than it does."
  272. Riley couldn't help but to cry at the explanation, so desperately wanting for it all to make sense somehow, wanting answers concrete to the point where they could explain everything-
  274. But there weren't any, there was only more pain. Pain as Riley, for the first time in ages was getting closer to how her mother actually was as a person-
  276. But it was too late now.
  278. "I-I-is that w-why she started t-taking?" She eventually managed to squeak out, her voice not unlike that of a broken squeaky toy.
  280. "In all likelihood, yes." Liz's response was as gentle as it was final, yet another piece of the awful puzzle coming together.
  282. These memories she could remember without even trying to, how scared she was as she saw syringes and needles laying around, her mom sitting on the couch, unresponsive. How her initial fear turned into dread as it kept happening and happening, often after the calls, and how it started happening more and more often.
  284. How their house looked more and more dirty and scary, mom wouldn't even clean it anymore. She would stop buying small things, like ice cream, an occasional small toy. And then bigger things, like food even, Riley being able to remember having to shake her awake just so that they could have something, anything to eat.
  286. How mom had even stopped smiling and holding her, or even looking at her.
  288. Too ashamed of falling down into the pit to even look at her daughter, evading pain from her parents abuse only turning in trying to tune out her own pain, at how much she'd failed herself,
  290. At how much she'd failed Riley.
  292. "Self-destructive addictions like that are sadly all too common with abuse victims, especially with relapsing."
  294. "R-relapsing?" The girl stammered out, having no idea what Liz was talking about.
  296. "That coin you have, it's a commemorative one used in certain branches of Alcoholics Anonymous and related organizations, to celebrate how long has someone endured in their sobriety. The one your mom has is a five year coin." Marvin explained slowly, gears turning in Riley's mind as she realized that her mother not only used to be an addict at an earlier point in her life-
  298. But that she stopped right about the time she would have realized she was pregnant with her.
  300. She quit for her.
  302. "But w-why would s-she, s-start again after a-already quitting once!?" It was all so confusing in a horrid way, her mind coiling around itself as it struggled to find a rational answer, to explain it all away.
  304. "Because quitting any addition is so horribly, awfully hard. Even with alcohol, people who quit don't ever drink it again even in socially acceptable settings, because of how easy is to get ensnared again. Quitting isn't a one and done thing, it's a continuous process that drains you and which you have to constantly focus on, since any lapse can easily lead to a relapse. It requires strength, and when you're already exhausted by the abuse coming from your parents, without being able to get any relief even through legal action... it becomes that much more attractive, promising to block out the pain, and you are too weak to say no." Liz spoke somberly, thankful to whoever was watching over her that she wasn't speaking from her own direct experience.
  306. "It takes a lot of strength to constantly fight back against that while dealing with trying to straighten out your life and taking care of a young child, more strength than what any person should be expected to show and to keep up."
  308. Riley could only nod in acknowledgment as her frail body shook, unable to even imagine just what her mother was dealing with at the time.
  310. "And once you're already tumbling downwards it's hard to stop, even when it leads to you being evicted and relocated to a trailer."
  312. She could only nod slowly as the sobs gripped her body, her every hateful thought towards her mother, for being just another worthless junkie, for doing her own abuse once Riley had frustrated her, for being such a failure her inaction led them to be moved into a rundown trailer- she felt them all turn around, each feeling like it was stabbing her heart, making her want so, so much to, to just
  314. Say she was sorry.
  316. But it was too late.
  318. It was too much, all too much, Riley's sobbing turning into full blown weeping as she buried her face in her palms, each sorrowful whine stinging more and more as she realized how badly she'd missed her chance to make amends, to apologize for all the mean things she said to her,
  320. To hold her mom one last time.
  322. To say goodbye.
  324. The last thing she said to her mom... she couldn't even recall. Near the end they almost didn't talk at all, Riley deciding to spend most of her free time outside, away from her, especially after managing to sneak out some of her money and grabbing a switchblade from a local rundown fair, the kind where legality of sold products was only a minute concern.
  326. The last memory of her was her coming home one way from school, only to find her mom splayed out in her bed. She didn't remember how she felt, or if she even felt anything at all when she tried to feel her pulse and couldn't sense anything. Anything at all.
  328. What followed after... she didn't remember almost anything of it. She tried ignoring it, to avoid thinking of it all, just try to push on normally.
  330. Then the next thing she remembered she woke up at Oakwood, just another kid in the pit, not even bothering to move a muscle all day.
  332. No point in that.
  334. Sorrow slowly turned to anxiety, her mind starting to race as she realized she couldn't even remember her, her face. She tried to focus on the happy memories, but no matter how hard she inspected the old recording, nothing came out, no relief, nothing. Just as she realized that her mom wasn't a monster, was she now really deprived of even being able to remember her face, her smile?
  336. "I-I can't remember her..." She slowly whimpered out, despair seizing her mind, the fear beyond words at having finally forgotten her, just a bit too soon...
  338. "Riley?" Her grandma's voice took her out of her fear just for a moment as she looked up, noticing her holding a small photo frame, smaller than Riley's hand even. She quickly grabbed it, flipping it around as she tried to see what-
  340. There she was.
  342. Her mom, sitting on a simple school chair, with toddler Riley on her lap, both of them looking just, just so happy...
  344. She finally remembered her face, a bit angular but still rounded, straw colored her tied into a ponytail behind, hazel eyes just like Riley's...
  346. Her face as she would want to be remembered, when her life was finally working out, she got her sweet little Riley into a nursery, found a job, finally could rent out an actual apartment of their own...
  348. Back when she could look at her daughter with pride at what she's accomplished despite everything hold her in her arms, back when she wasn't so consumed with shame she couldn't even bear to look at herself.
  350. "Th-thank you s-so much... h-how did you f-f-find this?" Riley whispered out, tears of happiness mixing into the mess already present on her face as she held the framed photo as gently as she could, so at to not make it fade away.
  352. "Took some digging, gotta admit, we ended up contacting every nursery, preschool and kindergarten around where you lived, asking them whether they ever had you as a pupil, since we're now your legal grandparents and all. We did eventually manage to stumble upon your old teacher, and she had all the class and pupil photos archived, and sent yours our way once we told her what had happened." Marvin went through their process, Riley's grip shaking a bit as she tried her hardest to stop herself from holding on even harder.
  354. "I... I can't thank you enough..." Riley whispered out in between small sobs, gently holding the old photo to her chest, tears waning a bit as she calmed down.
  356. "You're more than welcome sweetie. There's... one other thing we found, but we should probably take you to a special place before we give it to you." Liz responded gently, the phrasing perking Riley's interest up a bit despite her confusion.
  358. "W-what kind of a sp-special place?" She stammered out, unsure as to why would her grandparents just take her out somewhere at random like that, but trusting her judgment much more so than she did when they started this whole thing.
  360. The grandparents took a look at each other, thinking through whether to tell her what were they exactly planning, Marvin nodding at Liz after a good moment, who turned back towards Riley as she answered-
  362. "Riley, we want to take you to your mother's grave."
  364. ***
  366. Riley agreed immediately, of course, and a few moments later they were already in the grandparents' car, making their way from the small local road onto the highway.
  368. Thankfully, as they talked, the storm gave them a reprieve, sky mostly clearing up as they drove.
  370. In her focus over this new chance she forgot to even really pay attention to the rest of the family as they quickly walked out, Marvin calling something out to calm them all down as she noticed concerned glances in the corner of her eyes.
  372. Her face reddened by all the crying was probably not looking too encouraging.
  374. But that, all that, could be dealt with in a bit.
  376. Right now they were finally pulling back onto the smaller roads, Liz following the GPS' directions as she slowly drove, the trio eventually reaching their destination, parking the car in front of an open metal gate, a small label on its top-
  378. ```
  380. ```
  382. They left the car wordlessly, Marvin taking a brief moment to grab a small plastic bag from the trunk of the car before they all went deeper into the eerily quiet area.
  384. The many headstones felt like they were all watching them as they walked, following the directions Liz had written down on a scrap of paper. Watched them in judgment, the ornate granite masterworks probably costing more each than what Riley had ever seen at once.
  386. It took a while for the few rich graves to start turning into many, many less rich ones, massive slabs of exquisite materials replaced by tiny stone headstones, many of them quite ancient, and all of them only having the bare minimum needed, just a small stone and a dirt mound in front.
  388. Judging from the appearance of most of them, it's not like anyone looked after them anymore, and it certainly extended to Riley's mother's grave once they'd finally found it.
  390. It looked even more miserable than the rest of the row it was a part of, the city not even willing to pay for a tiny stone headstone, a wooden cross instead sticking out of the ground at an angle, a small black metal plate attached to its center, with white, shaky writing-
  392. ```
  393. In Memory Of
  396. 10.22.1982-02.17.2016
  397. Rest in Peace
  398. ```
  400. The whole grave looked awful, some of the wood in the cross already having started rotting, not to mention how haplessly it was stuck into the ground, and judging by the mess around the base, had to be stuck back in after falling out several times, nobody willing to put in the effort to finally do it once and well.
  402. The sight made Riley's blood boil as she saw just in how bad of a shape it all was, the girl walking in between the dirt mounds towards the cross, if nobody would take care of it then she w-
  404. "Riley, grab these first!" Liz called out to her gently, the contents of her message confusing, the girl having expected them to tell her to stop or something-
  406. And not to give her the tools.
  408. She took the pair of thick rubber gloves and a small metal shovel from Marvin, crouching behind the worn down cross as she figured out how to go around affixing it better.
  410. Well that's easy enough, just dig a deeper hole.
  412. She put the shovel on the grass next to her, the slowly setting sun thankfully still shining brightly enough for her to see where to grip the cross to properly pull it-
  414. That was way too easy. All she had to do was just lift the thing, it didn't felt firm at all.
  416. Her turn to correct that.
  418. With a grunt she moved the wooden cross over onto the grass, noticing how the hole couldn't have been deeper than half a foot or so, before taking kneeling down behind the hole, grabbing the sturdy shovel and starting to dig. First she got rid the grass and dirt from around the hole itself, discarding it onto her side, before she widened the loose dirt hole enough to where she could deepen it.
  420. In her focus she didn't even notice all the mud on her legs and arms, focused on doing her mom right, at least this one time.
  422. Finally, after deepening the hole to around the length of her forearm, she walked over and lifted the wooden cross once more, exhaustion making carrying it back to the hole much harder of a task than pulling it out, the girl managing to stick the base back in only barely, and having no idea how would she fill the hole back up while still keeping it-
  424. The grandparents answered her question before she even asked it, walking over and holding the sides firmly, nodding at her in encouragement as she quickly got the message and started to fill the hole back in, the excess dirt spread around the grass with a few kicks.
  426. After making sure that this time it wouldn't come loose on its own, Riley finally got back up, knees complaining about all the couching as she made her way back in front of the grave, finally satisfied now that the shoddy grave site looked like at least,
  428. There was someone who cared.
  430. Riley slid off her gloves and passed them back to Marvin, taking in the sight, unsure what to do now before she reminded herself of Liz's words-
  432. "What was that last thing you found that you wanted to show me here?" She asked, some of the hot determination in her voice freezing as she wondered what was it that would necessitate standing right in front of her mothers resting place.
  434. Liz took a deep breath before reaching into her purse once more, carefully pulling out an old, yellowed out envelope, the dry paper creaking under her touch as she spoke-
  436. "It was found under the table in your trailer, and then taken in as police evidence, and just forgotten about afterwards, despite it being obvious she wanted you to read it." She pulled out a handwritten letter out of the envelope, gently passing it to Riley who took it shakily, the description already putting her on edge.
  438. ```
  439. I'm sorry.
  441. After I woke up after that party I was just confused, confused and afraid. I just wanted to head home, but there was no home to come back to, there was only the trailer.
  443. When I first realized something was wrong with me, all the nausea and heartburns, I was scared, I was so scared.
  445. I didn't know what would I do if I was pregnant. I wasn't ready, not in the slightest, that trailer was no place for a baby, my life, awful as it was, wasn't ready to take on any further responsibility.
  447. But then you showed up anyway.
  449. I was so lost, but when the reality settled in that I would have someone who depended on me with all her life.
  451. And I didn't want to fail you.
  453. I didn't want to do to you what my parents did to me.
  455. It all hurt, hurt so awfully, it was like the worst flu I ever had to deal with, all the pain I ran away from catching up to me. It took almost a month before I could finally get out of bed without the cravings making it impossible to do anything.
  457. I managed to find a shady job in a local grocery, paid little but it was enough, since at least it was something I could start saving up.
  459. And so I did, pushing on even into the 8th month, only finally stopping when I couldn't even walk all the way there.
  461. I had nobody, I just stockpiled some water and cheap food, got a clean blanket, and just waited, waited for almost three weeks. I couldn't call an ambulance, I just wouldn't be able to afford it all.
  463. All I could hope for that it would all go without any complications.
  465. And thankfully, thank fucking god it did.
  467. The first few hours, few days, were so unreal. When I felt you squirm in my arms for the first time, trying to hold onto me, so small and defenseless, I knew I couldn't go back.
  469. I couldn't hurt you like that. Not then, not ever.
  471. Riley was a name I got from my middle school friend. Out of everyone in there she was the the only one who gave me some benefit of the doubt and actually talked to me.
  473. I've lost contact with her after I was kicked out, I still hope she's still out there somewhere and is hanging on.
  475. You were such a beautiful baby girl. Every time I felt like it was all too much, like I just wasn't able to push on any more, you were right there, looking up at me with so much pure love in your sweet little eyes, I knew I had to push on.
  477. To do it for you.
  479. You were only a few months old before I went back to that awful grocery place, and as awful as trying to work there was while pregnant, doing so with a very young child was even worse. All the pain and soreness, constantly having to feed you and calm you down while still being figuratively whipped around.
  481. Fortunately, it's hard to stop pushing yourself when you have your motivation next to you at all times.
  483. I kept going for almost a year and a half, carrying you everywhere I went, not wanting anything to happen to you.
  485. Afterwards, I had finally enough saved up to where I could try to rent some sort of an apartment, settled on the cheapest studio in the area, thankfully they didn't want any detailed background checks on me.
  487. I had enough saved up for a year at least, but I knew I had to keep moving, keep pushing on to not fall behind, to not end back at the trailer.
  489. Some small local place ended up taking me in as a waiter after I told them my situation, and while the pay still wasn't anything special, it was enough for me to at least subsist on, and it thankfully included benefits.
  491. Of course I couldn't wait with you walking around, and managed to find a small local nursery that would take you in.
  493. For the first time in my life I was on my own two legs.
  495. And I could watch my baby girl grow up before my very own eyes. You were so talkative, just loved to keep babbling on and on, only taking a break when sleeping or eating.
  497. It was the sweetest thing in the world, and all the pain, all the worries, you made it all worth it.
  499. I wish I was stronger. I wish I could have just put down the phone when it inevitably ended up being my father, to just finally cut myself off from them.
  501. But I couldn't.
  503. I'm so sorry.
  505. When you were just a small bundle of blond hair poking out of your blanket I promised you, I promised myself, that I wouldn't ever hurt you, that I loved you too much for that.
  507. But I failed.
  509. I saw the pain in your eyes, sadder and sadder every time you caught me taking again, until I had to take just to stop feeling awful about taking.
  511. I'm so sorry.
  513. I know you hate me now Riley. You have every right to, I promised you the world, I promised to protect you, to not hurt you just like I had been hurt myself.
  515. And I failed so horribly at all of those.
  517. Child services sent me a letter. They want to take you away from me
  519. The pain is too much now
  521. I dont think I can take it anymore
  523. I wish I could turn back the clock to stop myself from falling apart
  525. But its too late now
  527. There's nothing I could say to make up for all the pain you have and will go through
  529. I wish I could just hold you one last time and just tell you I love you I always have and Im just so fucking sorry
  531. I will always love you Riley
  533. Im so sorry
  534. ```
  536. By the time the was done with the letter Riley was already kneeling in front of the grave, weeping so bitterly she had to take the old letter away from herself to not damage it, Liz carefully taking it back as her granddaughter let out all the pent out rage, slamming and punching the dirt mound as hard as she could, her fists hurting.
  538. And all that was left was loss.
  540. She couldn't keep punching anymore, laying face down on the small mound and trying to hold it tightly, knowing full well how insane she looked with the freezing mud on her face.
  542. But she just wanted to hold her mom one more time.
  544. Riley couldn't hold anything back anymore, almost screaming into the dirt as all the old emotions left her out, all the loss and pain and fear and love and longing wetting the dirt under her head even more so than it already was.
  546. "I'm so sorry..." Was all she could sob out as all her pent up emotions were boiling over, the girl only hoping her mom could still hear her, somehow, anyhow.
  548. She just kept shaking and weeping for a good few minutes, Nausea rolling through her as her thoughts raced at a blinding speed. Afterwards they finally slowed down as the tears started to fade, until she just laid there, focusing in expectant silence, saying her goodbyes in only way she knew.
  550. "I-I love you mom, a-and I always will..." She eventually whispered out, her voice breathless.
  552. It took her longer than she wanted to know to finally get herself back up from the grass and look down at the now slightly disheveled grave, looking down at it in confusion, suddenly so... empty.
  554. "W-what now?" She asked nobody in particular, so utterly drained she couldn't even think anymore.
  556. "Well, what I did with my folks was lighting a candle, a quiet prayer, and then just saying goodbye, and that I wouldn't forget them." Liz answered softly, reaching a hand around Riley's shoulders as she passed her a small red lantern with the other one, followed up by a matchbox.
  558. "Sh-should I do that then?" Riley asked, unsure of anything right now.
  560. "If you want to. It's you who knows how you want to grieve the most." Her words didn't clear up much of anything, but she knew she wanted to do... something, at least.
  562. With a half step she crouched once more in front of the grave, numb hands taking a while to fiddle with with the lid before she finally got it open.
  564. One match, two matches, three... there we go. The candle's wick finally caught fire, Riley pushing the used match into the loose dirt nearby before twisting the lid shut, the soft, warm flame lighting up the quickly darkening graveyard, the only candle in the immediate vicinity.
  566. Riley slowly pushed herself back onto her feet, feeling how numb they were too at the cold, her determination having shielded her from it until now.
  568. "I-I don't know h-how to pray..." She slowly whispered out, the gentle light drawing her attention to itself.
  570. "There's no one way to pray. You could try just quietly thanking her for all the good moments you had with her, and that you won't ever forget her."
  572. Riley nodded in the deepening dark, closing her eyes as she thought as loud out as she could.
  574. Thank you mom.
  576. For everything.
  578. I will never forget you, I promise.
  580. One more tear had managed to sneak its way onto her cheek despite the girl feeling like she couldn't cry anymore even if she wanted to.
  582. She opened her eyes and took a long look at the light in front of her, a bit like a lone star, flickering and winking at her as she breathed deeply, mulling through the last words before deciding to just go with the most direct way, managing to stabilize herself to the point where she could clearly speak once more.
  584. "Mom... goodbye. I'll never stop loving you."
  586. She closed her eyes and awaited... something. She had no idea what and if anything would even happen, but wanted to take her time, just in case.
  588. After hearing one of the nearby trees rustle softly she took it as a good sign, taking a few more breaths before turning back to Liz.
  590. "I... I think I'm ready to go now."
  592. Her grandma slowly nodded as she lifted up an arm for Riley to hold on to, Riley gently grabbing it as they both started making their way back towards the car, emptiness making it hard to think for the girl.
  594. Liz took a moment to grab some more tissues and help Riley at least wipe all the dirt from her face, the exhausted girl too out of it to notice the issue before speaking up-
  596. "W-what now?"
  598. "Now? Well, you hopefully let the memory of your mom go, and now that you have, it will be easier to accept yourself as a part of your new family. Plus, less painful memories to experience."
  600. "W-will I forget her?"
  602. "Of course not. Letting go and forgetting are two separate things. You aren't gonna forget her, you will just finally come to terms with the fact that she's gone, and have a hopefully clearer picture of her now."
  604. "Y-yeah... I-I think I do..." Riley answered sheepishly as they neared the car, Marvin already waiting for them as he leaned on one of the front doors.
  606. They scrambled into the car soon after, the girl taking a good few moments to realize that something didn't add up.
  608. "H-how did you get here so fast Marvin?" She asked dreamily as Liz turned on the engine, the grandpa chuckling loudly as he answered-
  610. "Oh, just Ricky wouldn't stop messaging and pestering about you, and I've spent the last half hour just telling him over and over again that you're fine and that we took you to your old mom's grave."
  612. Riley chuckled slowly at that, her body not able to stand up to the soft rumbling of the car as it drove, the sheer exhaustion of today quickly knocking her out before they had even made it onto the highway.
  614. ***
  616. "Riley?"
  618. The soft voice had reached something deep in her, the girl struggling for a moment before opening her eyes.
  620. She had been moved onto the living room couch while asleep and had at least the dirty jacket and shoes taken off from her, that much she could make out in the faint light.
  622. "Riley, are you awake?"
  624. She twisted her head towards the source of the voice, very tired and thankfully relieved Rick smiling at her softly as he got up from the armchair.
  626. "Y-yeah, think so... w-what time is it?"
  628. He chuckled softly, reaching down a paw towards her as she lifted herself off the couch, still just so, so tired as she got up.
  630. "Half to eleven. You must be so exhausted Riley, and it's probably best if you head to your own bed now, will probably be more comfortable than this, heh."
  632. "Wh-what happened?" She muttered uncertainly, noticing the massive passage of time, and the absence of everyone else around.
  634. "You passed out while driving back from the cemetery and we moved you onto the couch here. My folks told me what happened, I told Ella and just told the kids you went to visit the grave of your old mom. How are you feeling now?"
  636. "I... I don't know. Just, just so tired mostly, and, and kinda relieved I think."
  638. "Heh, about how I felt after that talk as well. I'm so proud of you Riley." Rick spoke slowly and warmly, evidently exhausted himself.
  640. "T-thanks... c-can we visit it at some point too?"
  642. He chuckled quietly, wrapping an arm around her.
  644. "Of course Riley. I hope you were able to sort it all out."
  646. "Y-yeah..."
  648. After finally making it to the staircase, Riley turned around, not wasting a moment before reaching to hug Rick as tightly as she could herself.
  650. "T-thank you so much for everything... dad."
  652. He slowly pet her back as she held him, quietly answering-
  654. "You're welcome sweetie. Now go get some sleep, okay?"
  656. She nodded half asleep, slowly climbing her way up the steps, thankfully not noticing the handful of tears rolling down Rick's cheek.
  658. An indeterminate amount of time later she was finally back in her room, not even bothering to turn the lights on as she slid off her dirty pants and climbed into bed, the stars filling up her view up as she quickly dozed off, tiredness taking a hold of her once more.
  660. What she didn't notice in her exhaustion, was the addition of the framed photo on her dresser, along with a couple other, the coin proudly displayed in between the photos.
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