Ryder’s Nightmare

This came from an article/prompt about Indirect Characterization. Per the article, “This is when the author tells a reader about a character through the character’s repeated words, reoccurring actions, or physical descriptions.” Here’s the link:


Ryder has this mannerism that he’s done several times. I didn’t choose it – he did. I didn’t know why, before; I do now. I had to go back into the MS for House of the Black Dog and see when he did it, and why in the context of the scene. And this is what came out:

* * *

It was his last day of school. Not year-end, not graduation; just – the last day he ever went.

He came home and ran up the four flights of stairs to their apartment, feeling good. It was early summer, the sun was out, and he’d gotten an A on his English test. Mom would love that. He let himself in and dropped his backpack on the kitchen chair, reaching out and opening the fridge with his other hand.

“Mom?” He swung around, looking to see what was there. Milk? Juice? Tea! Mom made iced tea, great. He pulled out the pitcher and set it on the counter, then snagged a glass out of the dish drainer. Poured a glass and took a hefty swig of pure, cold sweetness.

“Mom?” He set the glass on the table and rubbed his cold hand on the back of his neck, the cool dampness feeling good. He picked up the glass and took another swig, then nabbed his backpack and headed for his room. “Hey, Mom! Guess what? I got—” The glass hit the floor and shattered, all the sweet goodness pouring away among glittering shards of pain.

“Mom, Mom, no!” He was on his knees beside her, patting her face, rubbing her hands. Putting his head down like he’d seen on TV, listening for her breath.

* * *

He was on the phone, 911. “No, I dunno, look, she’s on the floor, I dunno what’s wrong, she just won’t wake up.” His voice was rising, frantic. The woman on the phone kept asking questions he couldn’t answer, didn’t know the answers to, didn’t know why she wanted to know his age, her age, their names. “I’m fifteen, she’s thirty-something, what the fuck does it matter? You gotta get someone here, you gotta send someone, a doctor, somebody! You don’t need my name, you gotta send someone!”

* * *

They came. A cop, two EMTs. Panting, huffing, four flights up, no elevator, cursing the stairs. They checked her pulse, checked her vitals, kept shoving him out of the way trying to find where the blood was from, where she was hurt. Until they saw it was him that was bleeding. His knuckles, bleeding from the glass on the floor, blood all over.

Then they wanted to clean his hand, pick out the glass, wrap it up. That was when he started fighting, hitting them, screaming at them to help his Mom, he didn’t need help, help his Mom. The cop came in then, jerked him around and cuffed him, hauled him back into the kitchen and sat him down in a chair. Wrapped a kitchen towel around his hand to catch the blood. Hitched a leg up on the table and stared down at him.

“What was that, boy?” The cop waved a hand back down the hall. “Think that’s helpin’ your Ma there, do ya? Hittin’ them? Screamin’? Stoppin’ them doin’ their job?” He shook his head, watching the boy; skinny kid, couldn’t be more than fifteen. Breathing hard like a fight was coming. Watched him staring down the hall where the EMTs were loading the woman up on a stretcher. Four floors of stairs, that’s gonna be a bitch, gettin’ her down, jeez… Kid looked lost. Scared, yeah. “You okay, boy?” The kid never looked at him, never lost focus on that hall. The cop shook his head again. “You know you could go to jail for that, hittin’ them. That’s assault. You don’t want that, boy. You wanna go to the hospital with your Ma, right?”

The kid nodded, surprising him. He didn’t figure the kid could even hear him, he was that focused. “You gonna be calm now, boy? I’ll take the cuffs off.”

* * *

It was all bright lights and harsh smells, sharp and stinging like ammonia when Mom washed the floors. People in and out of the room; doctors, nurses. Hushed voices, cold tones, orders. Words he didn’t know: carcinoma, metastasis. Words he did know, words that didn’t make sense: terminal.

A fat old man in a suit came up; went in the room. Talked to the doctors, checked her vitals, checked her chart. Looked at her, pulled back her eyelids and peered down at her; shook his head. Turned and looked at the kid in the hall and asked a question. “That’s the son, I guess,” came the answer. One of the nurses. “He got his hand chewed up pretty bad on a broken glass. Must have dropped it when he found her.” She shook her head. “Took a while for him to let us treat it.” The fat man shook his head back at her and sighed.

* * *

“That your mother in there, son?” The fat man came and stood between him and the door, and the boy stepped aside so he could see her. The fat man sighed. “I’ll take that as a yes.” The man reached out, as if to shake his hand, then realized it wasn’t going to happen. “I’m Doctor Ashburn. I’m your mother’s Oncologist.” A pause; no response. Another sigh. “Your mother has cancer, son. She didn’t tell you?” Another pause. “I’m sorry, boy.”

“When can she come home?”

The fat man was startled; the boy’s voice sounded like he’d gargled with broken glass. Ragged shreds of sound, just barely over a whisper. He hadn’t heard that kind of pain from anyone before, not in all the years he’d practiced. Not in all the years he’d given out the news he had to give now.

“I’m sorry, boy. She won’t be going home. I doubt she’ll last out the day. I’m surprised she’s lasted this long…”

“No. She’s coming home. I’ll take her home. She was fine this morning…” The boy finally looked up at him, looked away from the door and up at him, and the fat man looked away. He couldn’t meet the boy’s eyes. In all the time he’d done this, it was the first time… like he was taking away the boy’s last hope in the world.

The soft beeps from his mother’s room changed to a harsh, strident tone, and the fat man turned and strode purposefully away into the room. Nurses and doctors moved in. Two orderlies came with a crash cart. And the boy stood away from the wall, crossed the hall in nightmare slowness. Came to the door.

One of the nurses saw him and shut the door, then pulled the curtains closed around the bed. “He doesn’t need to see this…”

The boy put his hands flat against the glass door. “Mom?” he said. “Mama?”

* * *

“She’s gone, boy. I’m sorry.”

“No, she’s not gone, she’s right in there. I saw her, she’s right there in that room!”

The fat man shook his head. “I mean she’s gone. She’s dead, boy.”

“No, she’s not! You’re lying, why are you lying?” He tried to shove past the man, to get to the door, to see his Mom once more, but one of the orderlies stepped in the way. The boy slipped aside, but the orderly grabbed him, and the boy went wild, kicking and fighting and shouting. The orderly wrapped his arms around the boy and took two steps forward, pinning the boy against the wall.

“No!” The fat man shouted, pulling at the man’s arm. “Let him go! Just let him go. He won’t believe until he sees her. Let him go.”

After a moment, the man stepped back and simply opened his arms. The boy dropped, then scrambled across the hall and into the room.

His Mom was there, just lying there with her eyes closed. Around her the nurses and orderlies were packing up equipment, starting to clean up the room. “Mom?” he said, a choked whisper. He cleared his throat. “Mama?” It was a little boy’s voice, the voice of a boy who has lost the last precious thing in his life.

In the hall, meaningless voices, meaningless words. “Child Services is here, Doctor.”

“Time to go, boy.” A hand on his arm, pulling him away.

No!” The boy lashed out, one hand clamped on the side rail of the bed, the other a hard fist. The orderly wrapped his fingers around the boy’s wrist and squeezed until the boy let go of the bed rail, and the boy spun around, kicking and flailing. The orderly grabbed him, pinned him against the wall again, and the boy punched the wall over and over and over until the bandage over his knuckles ran red and dripping.

“Stop, stop!” One of the nurses stepped in. “If Child Services is here, it means he’s got no-one else.” The nurse put her hand on the orderly’s arm. “He’s just lost his mother, for God’s sake. Give him a few minutes, you’ll get what you want.” She caught the boy’s hand in hers; put her palm against the boy’s cheek. “Shh, shh. Hush. Enough, you’re just hurting yourself.” The orderly let him go, and she took him in her arms. “Let’s see that hand.”

* * *

The woman from Child Services walked out with him. “What’s your name, son?” The voice held compassion; the hand on his shoulder offered comfort.

“Ryder. Danny Ryder.” His voice held nothing; no pain, no light. He wouldn’t look at her, just watched where his feet were going. After a moment he lifted a hand, and started rubbing his knuckles.