Feels Like Forever


Emilie keeps her head ducked down as she makes her way to the car waiting outside the gate. Niall warned her that people tend to camp out outside his house on occasion, and the last thing she wants right now is her face plastered all over the internet in relation to her boyfriend. If Danielle ever found out who Emilie has spent her vacation with, there would be no end in sight to her demands that Emilie facilitate some sort of acquaintanceship between Danielle and Niall, and not because Danielle gives a damn about being friends with Emilie’s boyfriends - she’d only see money signs. And Emilie would rather die than have the two ever meet.

She’s just reached the airport when her phone vibrates; she waits until she has checked in for the flight and gone through security, sitting on the floor with her back to the wall, to open the message. It’s a selfie of Niall’s pouting face, captioned with I miss you already. Emilie huffs out a laugh, saves the photo, and sends back a wish to still be there. She keeps one ear open for the announcement of her flight, but most of her attention is on the painful twinging in her heart that accompanies the knowledge that this last week has been the most perfect, amazing week of her life.

Ryder will always be her number one priority - being his protector and caretaker has been her role since before he was even born, and that will never, ever change. But Niall has swiftly risen in ranks of importance. It’s been less than six months since they met, not even three since they started dating, and somehow, he’s buried himself so far under her skin that she can scarcely breathe without feeling him in every molecule of her being.

Fireflies dance through the summer-hot air, sweetly tinged with fresh rain and wet soil, as crickets chirp out their songs in the slightly overgrown grass. Sweat beads along her hairline as Emilie makes her way up to the porch. She can hear the screaming and crying before she even reaches the door, and she frowns, fear lancing through her at the sound. Her hands shake violently as she unlocks the door, pushing it open as soon as the lock slides out of place. She isn’t prepared for what she finds.

Shards of glass from a shattered liquor bottle glimmer on the floor in the yellow glow from the lamp, and someone has evidently punched through the plaster of the wall, the gaping maw of the hole stark against the white paint. Clothes and dishes litter the floor; Emilie covers her mouth and nose at the stench of used diapers and body odour, the bite of alcohol and traces of a chemical sweetness. She tiptoes further into the destruction, stumbling to a stop when something cracks under her feet. The fragments of the syringe stare up at her, and she has to swallow a few times to force the bile back down her throat.

Her head snaps up at another high-pitched shrieking, and Emilie is moving before she can think it through. Ryder stands in his playpen in the kitchen, naked but for the diaper that sags down his legs. Snot and tears cover his ruddy cheeks, a blotchy redness spreading along his chest. He tugs his fingers from his mouth when he sees Emilie in the doorway, and she ignores the saliva that coats his hand as she tugs him up into her arms. She can’t breathe through her own tears; she picks her way back to the living room, searches desperately for the diaper bag.

Once the toddler is cleaned up and dressed, Emilie scoops him up again and goes to find his mother. It isn’t a surprise to find Danielle passed out on her bed, face lax with sleep and drugs. Emilie doesn’t bother leaving a note - she just grabs the diaper bag and walks out of the house with Ryder held close to her chest. She forces herself to draw in a couple of steadying breaths then buckles him into his carseat.

“Hey, bud, you hungry? Wanna get some chicken nuggets?”

“Chicky nuggies?” Ryder repeats, and Emilie can’t stop more tears from breaking free at how raw and scratchy his voice is.

“Yeah, baby, we’re gonna get some chicky nuggies.”

Ryder is asleep by the time Emilie makes it through the McDonald’s drive-thru, and she pulls over into a parking spot and climbs into the backseat. He wakes easily enough, though all he does is nibble at the edges of a chicken nugget; her heart hurts, and she wonders how long he was left alone and crying. She runs a hand over his head, grimacing at the feel of his dry scalp. He manages to eat two nuggets before his eyes begin to droop again. Emilie packs up the remainders of his meal then slides into the driver’s seat and points the wheels toward home.

He stays asleep even while she bathes him, scrubs the filth and snot from his body, and dresses him in a pair of warm pyjamas. Emilie tucks him into bed, Lionel the lion pressed close to his side, and tiptoes from the room. Her phone buzzes on the kitchen counter, and she wants so badly to ignore it, but she knows she promised Niall that she would text as soon as she got home. There are four messages from him, all asking how the flight was and if she is okay because it’s been so long.

<< Yeah, I landed. I’m okay. I’m home. Had to stop and get Ry on my way.

>> I’m glad to hear that you’re okay
>> Is something wrong?

Instead of texting the entire story, Emilie sighs and starts a FaceTime call. Niall answers immediately, his expression one of concern and worry. Her voice shakes with rage, tears, as she explains what happened; she has to set her phone on the counter, perching on the stool and leaning the device against the paper-towel holder so that the video remains steady. It’s comforting - in a sick, twisted way - to see him have the same reaction to the news as she is. She finally falls silent a few minutes later, and her chest heaves with the force of her tremulous breaths.

“What are you going to do?” he asks after a moment, and Emilie shrugs, avoids meeting his gaze.

“I, uh, I’m going to call child welfare services tomorrow. She fucking endangered his life, and I can’t let that go. I can’t always be the one to fix whenever she fucks up. What happens the next time she does this same kind of shit and I’m not there to save him?” She wipes a tear from her cheek, exhaling sharply. “I can’t lose him because she’s a terrible person who can’t put his needs before her wants. If it means I don’t ever get to see him again, it’ll… it’ll be worth it if he’s safe and has a shot at a healthy, happy, normal life.”

“I think that’s the right decision.”

“God, Niall, why the fuck can’t she get her act together?”

“I don’t know, love, but I’m sorry that she won’t.”

“Yeah, so am I. I better go, I know he’ll probably wake up just as early as usual.”

“Okay. Will you be all right?”

“I think so. I’ll text you tomorrow, okay?”

After saying goodnight, Emilie ends the call and heads back to the bedroom. She doesn’t hesitate, just scoops Ryder out of his own bed and sets him down in hers. He curls against her in his sleep, and she stares at his relaxed face, wondering how Danielle could be so damn selfish when she has someone so amazing depending on her. Emilie falls asleep with tears sliding from the corners her eyes to dampen her hair.

Calling DCFS in the morning damn near kills Emilie, but she does it anyway. The social worker on the other end of the line promises an investigation will be launched, assuring her that - providing she and her home pass an inspection - Ryder is best left in her care until a judge can assign a date for a hearing. With one final promise to be by sometime within the next twenty-four hours, the social worker ends the call, and Emilie stares at the screen of her phone before dialling another number, requests that the officer do a welfare check on her former stepsister. She makes sure to stress that if they feel the need to take photographs of the environment, it would probably be best to do so.

The next week passes by in a blur. School has officially started again, which means that Emilie has to ask Derek and Monica for their work schedules so that none of her classes will coincide with their shifts; they have always offered to babysit Ryder if she ever needs it, and right now, she definitely needs it.

<< Happy birthday! I know it’s stupid early (it’s 5 here in Austin, so it’s gotta be early af for you, too). Enjoy this photo of the child who decided to wake up at 3 this morning only to fall back asleep across MY FREAKING FACE which means I’ve been awake for the last two hours.
<< I hope your day is as fantastically wonderfully beautifully amazing as you are xxxx
<< I’m sure if Ry was awake and capable of putting together full sentences, he’d say the same.
<< I miss the fuck out of you

Emilie doesn’t trust herself to drive to the coffeeshop when Ryder finally wakes at eight, so she digs out the actual coffeemaker and brews a full pot instead of using the French press. Once the machine is going, she sends an SOS text to Monica asking for the strongest mocha possible. Her stomach rumbles, and Emilie reaches for the bag of waffles in the freezer. Ryder gives her a sloppy smile when she puts the plate on the high-chair tray. She kisses his cheek and heads back to the fridge, filling a sippy cup with milk for him.

“You’re a fucking godsend.”

Monica passes over the iced mocha with a grimace, and Emilie belatedly realises she still has a waffle held between her teeth. She pulls it away, repeats herself, and the other woman grins then pushes into the apartment. Emilie swallows down a mouthful of the coffee and takes a bite of the waffle. Sitting on one of the stools, she watches her friend accept the strip of waffle that Ryder offers her.

>> Thank you for the message , love
>> It was nice to wake up to :)
>> I’m sorry Ryder woke you up so early but I really loved that picture. I’ll call you later tonight if that’s okay ?

<< Of course it is, sweets. My phone is always on for you

“Mmm, is that the cutie?”

Emilie looks up from her phone, laughs quietly. “You know damn well that he’s beyond ‘the cutie’, Moni.”

“Yeah, I know. God, you’re disgustingly in lust, aren’t you.”

“Why are you even still here? I only needed coffee, not you, too.”

“Because you love my face.” Monica scrunches up her nose, sticking out her tongue, then her expression grows serious. “But for real, I’m happy that you two made it a thing. You deserve bright skies and sparkles, not the gloom you were trudging through.”

“It wasn’t gloom, really, just… routine.”

“Well, now you’ve got that cutie and this cutie here. So yay happiness! But with that, I must take my leave. I have the closing shift at the bakery, and I have less than twenty minutes to get there. Oops. Think Derek will kill me?”

“Tell him I have wine if he lets you live.”

Her laughter echoes in the otherwise silent hallway, and Emilie shuts the door on the sound. It’s been seven hours since she woke up, and all she wants to do is go to bed right this second. Unfortunately, if she naps now, she won’t sleep tonight, and, worse still, there is no certainty that she will wake when Ryder finishes his own nap. She doesn’t want to be Danielle. She refuses to even come close. So she brews another pot of coffee and hopes it’s enough to get through the rest of the day.

Dinner is a quiet affair; even Ryder is unusually withdrawn as he picks up chunks of chicken and shoves them into his mouth. Emilie leans her head on her hand, pushes her food around her plate. Her exhaustion is at the level that she’s nauseous, dizzy, and irritable. She’s done her best to not snap whenever Ryder has behaved like a typical child, but she know she failed a few times. Thankfully, he doesn’t seem to hold it against her, still cuddling up to her and kissing her whenever he deigned to show affection instead of colouring or playing with his toys.

A loud pounding on the door causes Emilie to jerk to attention. Ryder barely looks away from his meal, and she sighs, pushing to her feet, and goes to greet the guest. Her heart stutters in her chest before starting up a painful pace. She can scarcely breathe, and a freezing sort of numbness diffuses through her. She stares, her mouth opens and closes a few times.

“What are you doing here?” she finally manages to croak out, and Danielle grins brightly, pushing past Emilie with ease.

“I was ordered to clean the house up, make it fit for a child to live there. I did. I was ordered to go to NA, AA, therapy, and parenting classes. I am. Since I’m doing what I’m supposed to do, the courts said I could have my son back. So… I’m getting him back. Can you get his shit gathered up so we can go? I have things to do.”

“You, you neglected him, you nearly killed him, and they still saw fit to let you keep custody?”

“It wasn’t that bad,” scoffs Danielle as she gathers up the diaper bag. “Besides, he’s fine. Is this everything?”

Emilie follows after her former stepsister, tries to protest, but it’s in vain: Danielle scoops her screaming son from the high-chair, disregarding the fact he isn’t finished eating, and exits the apartment without a backwards glance. Emilie stumbles to a stop in the doorway, clinging to the frame to stay on her feet, and Ryder’s crying is heard long after the door to the parking structure closes with a deafening bang. She can’t breathe, she can’t see through the tears.

When it becomes evident that Danielle isn’t going to bring him back, Emilie reluctantly steps back into the apartment, closes the door, and makes her way to the couch, sobbing at the sudden loss. Toys litter the floor, papers strewn everywhere. The star-speckled bucket is on its side, crayons spilling out onto the rug. She wants to text Niall, tell him what’s happened, but it’s his birthday. The thought of ruining the day for him - all because she needs a little reassurance - isn’t one she’s willing to entertain. So she curls into a ball on her side, staring at the mess that Ryder has left behind, and lets herself cry.

>> Hey it’s been a hectic day but I have time if it’s still okay to call ?

<< Yeah…

>> Love? You okay ?

<< Yeah
<< Actually, no. No I’m not ofuckingkay.
<< Fucking Danielle still has fucking custody of Ryder.
<< She just swooped in and took him. She nearly kills him and the judge basically said “Oh that’s fine, your kid ALMOST DIED, but yeah, you can have him back!”
<< I’m angry and I’m hurt and it’s your birthday so I’m sorry to unload all this on you right now but wtf why does she get another chance to ruin her kid’s life????

>> Are you serious ?? That’s awful. Such a horrible decision. Is there anything you can do?

<< Short of kidnapping him and going on the run, no. I don’t think there is. Guess I gotta go back to being the protector from a distance…

>> I am so so sorry, love. I wish I could be there to help you.

<< Nothing you can do. I’m going to bed. I can’t handle this shit right now.
<< Sorry
<< Goodnight

She shuts her phone off before he can respond. Emilie knows she won’t sleep at all tonight, but lying alone in the dark is better than having to talk about the situation. She forces herself to her feet and turns off the kitchen and living room lights before sitting back down, tugging the throw blanket over her. She wonders how this even happened.