I posted chapters 2 and 3 together. If you haven't read chapter 2 yet, this may not make sense. :-)
Topanga rolled over and looked at the time, sighing when she saw that it wasn't even one in the morning. Dozing off for more than a few minutes at a time seemed impossible, as she still felt unsettled after the conversation with Riley earlier. She didn't need to wonder how Cory was sleeping. The snores coming from the other side of the bed answered that question. After tossing and turning for a couple more minutes Topanga gave up and got out of bed. This was the kind of night that called for ice cream- lots and lots of ice cream.
On her way to the kitchen she took a peek in at Auggie. She smiled and shook her head when she saw him spread out in the middle of his bed, arms and legs everywhere, with his pillows and blankets long since knocked to the floor. He had always been a very active sleeper. She covered him with a light blanket, careful not to wake him, and tiptoed out of the room.
As she continued down the hall Topanga spied a light coming from under her daughter's bedroom door. She debated momentarily whether or not to check on her or give her some space, but something inside of her- mother's instinct perhaps- said that space was the last thing Riley needed right now. She gave a courtesy knock before opening the door. "Riley?" She spotted the teen scrambling to get into her bed from the window seat. "Relax. You're not in trouble."
She stared at her mother with wide eyes before hesitantly sitting back down in front of her window. "Really? Even though it's so late?"
"I promise." She closed the door and came further into the room, choosing to sit at the foot of Riley's bed. "It's not a school night and I'm sure you probably have a lot on your mind."
"Maybe a little bit"
"Anything you want to talk about?" A shrug and mumbled gibberish was her answer. "I didn't quite catch that."
"I don't know. It's weird to know that the way you've always thought of your family was wrong."
"How is it wrong? You have two parents who love each other and love you. That has never changed."
"You and dad almost got divorced."
"Almost, Riley, almost. I know people like to say almost doesn't count, but think in our case it counts for a heck of a lot, don't you?"
"I guess so."
"Would it help if I told you I understand how you feel?"
"What do you mean?"
"You know Oma Rhi and Papa Jed are divorced and that they got divorced when I was in college."
"I didn't-I didn't exactly take it well. I broke up with dad and called off our engagement. I had based everything I thought I knew about relationships and love on my parents and I was terrified of ending up like them. They had done such a good job of hiding their problems and acting disgustingly perfect around me that the only argument I ever saw them have was over who loved whom more. Eventually I came to my senses, but for a while my entire world felt off kilter."
"I know what you mean," Riley remarked with more than a little bit of sarcasm in her voice.
"You and dad have been acting perfect for years. How is that any different than what Oma and Papa did to you?"
Topanga tried to think of a way to spin it, but even with years of legal expertise and having to come up with ways to get around sketchy activities, couldn't wiggle her way out of this. She'd done the same thing she resented her parents for doing to her. "It's not any different."
"Then why did you guys do it to me?"
"Honestly, it never occurred to me that we were treating you the same way by isolating you from what happened. I think we felt guilty. At least I know I did. And I suppose that guilt manifested in this desire to create this illusion of perfection, a world where nothing bad could ever touch you again."
"What did you feel guilty about?"
"It was such an emotional roller coaster back then. As I said earlier, it wasn't how I expected to begin parenthood. It wasn't what I wanted for the first years of your life. We were shuttling you back and forth between here and Philadelphia. We tried to remain civil and keep a degree of consistency, but it was so hard. I wanted better for you."
Riley took a few deep breaths, trying to work up the nerve to ask the question that had been on her mind for most of the night.
Topanga seemed to sense her daughter's internal struggle. "What is it, honey?"
She shook her head and blinked back the tears that suddenly clouded her vision. "It's nothing."
"It's obviously something," she said, getting up and moving to sit at the window as well. "You know I'm always here to talk about whatever is on your mind."
"Was I…do you…"
"What is it?"
"If you could change anything, would you," she asked, staring directly at her mom. "Do you regret the way your life has turned out?"
"Do I-" She slid over and pulled Riley into a tight hug. "Is that what's keeping you up? You think dad and I regret you?"
"I don't know," she mumbled. "A lot of things seemed to change for people when I was born, most of it not good."
"Do not, for one moment ever doubt that you are one of the best things that has ever happened to me. No, I don't regret you. I could never regret you. And I know dad feels the same way."
"And you wouldn't change anything?"
Topanga sighed. That was, by far, a more complicated question to answer. "To be honest, if I could change a few things, I might."
She pulled back a little, not expecting that answer. "Really, what?"
"Please remember that this is not a reflection on you and has everything to do with me and what I dealing with."
"You're scaring me a little bit."
"If I could've been promised by the gods, the fates, or whoever controls things out there, that I would end up with you- the exact same Riley Matthews as you are right now- I probably would've waited until dad and I were a little older and had our lives more together before we had you."
"Oh." She tried to pull away, but her mother practically had her in a bear hug. "Mom, let go."
"No, not until you understand what I'm saying."
"Why can't you be like dad and say you wouldn't change a thing and that stuff is perfect just the way it is right now?"
"I was under the impression that you were over hearing things watered down to the point where even Auggie knows its lame," Topanga countered. "Was I wrong?" Riley shook her head. "Okay then."
"So why would you have waited to have me?"
"It's not because of you, but it would've been for you."
"I don't get it."
"I wasn't a very good mother to you in the beginning." She choked back the lump in her throat. It was hard to admit this out loud. She never had before. "I feel like you got whatever I had left to give instead of me at my very best. If having you a little later in life could've changed that, I'd do it." Her voice wavered as she continued, but she maintained her composure. "That's it. That's my regret. You didn't get the mother that you deserved, the one I wanted to be for you. And I'm sorry for that."
Riley had never seen her mother display this level of vulnerability before. She had always been in complete control of her emotions. It was almost unnerving. Her parents weren't perfect. She'd certainly gotten a crash course in that tonight. "Maybe it was rocky at first, but I still think I got a pretty great mom out of it. And believe me. I've seen some of the other moms out there. No comparison. I win."
She nodded. "Really."
Topanga sighed in relief and held her tight. "Thank you. You know, you're pretty great, too."
"Like mother, like daughter, right?"
She smiled and brushed Riley's hair out of her face. Out of parental habit she leaned over and grabbed a comb from the dresser and began to slowly work it through some of the small knots in her daughter's long, dark hair. "In your case it's always been a little more like father, like daughter, but I'd like to think I had something to do with how amazing you are."
"I can do a hair toss better than anybody," the girl said. "That didn't come from dad."
"Definitely not," she agreed with a laugh. "You know, I've always been a little jealous of you guys."
"Of me and dad? Why?"
"You have always been so close and bonded and had such a great relationship. It became strained a bit once he started teaching you, but you are still thick as thieves. I know that bond came from him having custody in those early years. I saw you almost every weekend and we talked on the phone just about every night, even long before you could talk back," she continued as she absentmindedly braided Riley's hair, "but he was there every day. He was your safety net. If you were scared or upset you ran to him. Even after we got back together it was always, 'Daddy, daddy, daddy.' I would do if he wasn't around, but you are daddy's little girl in every way."
"There's nothing for you to apologize for. I'm the one who-"
"Mom, if I don't have to apologize then neither do you. You've done enough of that tonight."
She wasn't sure that was true, but whispered, "Thank you."
"Can I confess something now?"
"I've always been jealous of you and Auggie."
The braid slipped from Topanga's fingers just as she was securing it with a ponytail holder. "You have? Why?"
"Pretty much for the same reason you're jealous of me and dad. You just always seem to spend so much time with him and are obsessed with whatever he's doing. I don't really remember a lot about you and dad being separated, but I do remember you working a lot and that most of my early memories are just dad and me. Things make more sense now that I know the whole story, but sometimes it seems like we get different versions of you guys, like I'm dad's and Auggie's yours'."
Parental guilt weighed heavily on her. It was soul crushing and made it almost impossible to breathe. She'd love to say that she and Cory treated Riley and Auggie equally, but that simply wasn't true. "You're right. Things were different when Auggie came along. Dad and I were older, wiser, and went overboard to ensure Auggie's baby years weren't like yours'. We tried to learn from the mistakes we made."
"Is that why you took so much time off after he was born?"
"Yes. I didn't get to enjoy that stage with you and I regretted it. In hindsight I think I was exhibiting some subtle symptoms of postpartum depression or even postpartum anxiety. But even when you were born it wasn't talked about much. It wasn't until I was pregnant with Auggie that the doctor gave me information about what to watch for. That's when what I went through with you started to make some sense. I suppose I thought of Auggie as a chance at a do over, which I now realize wasn't fair to either one of you."
"What about the working part time from home now?"
"I'm trying to be there for the both of you. I want to be there for you, Riley. I know how scary and exciting it is to be a thirteen year old girl. I want to be a part of that journey with you, not just feel like I'm watching it on the sidelines." Until tonight she hadn't realized how deep the chasm that still existed in their relationship was and she was determined to fix it. "I want you to let me in."
"I want you there, too. I'll try."
She offered a small smile. "That's all I can ask." She looked at the clock and was surprised to see it was now nearing two o'clock. "I don't know about you, but I'm still not tired."
"Follow me." Without another word Topanga got up and headed for the door.
"Mom, where are we going?"
A minute later Riley stood beside her mother in front of their open freezer, more confused than ever. "Is this some sort of mother/daughter, facts of life, birds and bees, period, menopause, hot flashes story? If so, I get it: a freezer will fix a hot flash."
Topanga lightly pulled on her braid. "I am much too young for the word menopause to even be mentioned in this house. Got it?"
"Yeah, fine. So what are we doing?"
"Some nights call for ice cream and this is one of those nights."
Her eyes scanned the contents of the freezer, but all she could see was that healthy ice cream mom ate. "No thanks, I'd rather go to bed than eat your soy stuff. Or is it tofu?"
She took the carton out of the freezer and set it on the table before turning around to face her daughter. "What I'm about to show you is a secret. You can't reveal this to anybody. Not dad, Auggie-"
"What about Maya?"
"Not even Maya."
"Okay, I'm intrigued. What is it?" Riley watched as the lid for the healthy dessert came off, but tucked inside wasn't soy or even tofu ice cream, but name brand. "That's real ice cream," she gasped as her mother pulled out a second container as if it was a nesting doll.
"Yes…yes, it is."
"All this time you've been lying to us!"
"Are you going to whine about it or are you going to get spoons?"
"So, mom," Riley began a few minutes, and a few spoonfuls of ice cream, later, "how long have you been hiding food?"
"I had to start when we first moved to New York. Seriously, I had to. I shared an apartment with your dad, Uncle Eric, and Uncle Shawn until your uncles got their own place. If I didn't hide food I would've had nothing to eat. Boys are walking, talking garbage disposals."
"Does dad know?"
"I've had the same carton of chocolate soy ice cream for 2 years, so I doubt it."
"Why are you showing me your stash?"
"I just thought it would be fun if we had our own little secret between us."
She smiled. "Yeah, it would."
The next few minutes passed in silence and before they knew it, they hit the bottom of the pint. "Oops. My consolation is that it wasn't full when we started eating."
"Like you said, this night called for ice cream."
"Riley, are you okay with everything that happened tonight? Do you have any more questions?"
"Not that I can think of right now."
"Are you okay," Topanga repeated.
"I think I will be. It's just a lot to get used to, you know? Everything I ever thought about our family turned upside down."
"The love never changed. We drifted off course for a while, but we found our way back home eventually. We always do." She caught Riley covering her face in an effort to hide a yawn. "Bed time."
"I'm not tired."
Topanga smiled at the slight whine in her voice. It was very reminiscent of the arguments she would make at age five when she was told to go to bed. "Tough. I'm the mom and I say bed." It didn't work when she was five and it wouldn't work now, at least not with her. Cory would cave and let her stay up at least another half hour. He always was a pushover where she was concerned.
Riley seemed to be having the same flashback and smiled as well. "It's not fair."
She shrugged. "Oh, well. It's something to tell a therapist later in life. Your mean, old mom made you go to bed."
"I'll take my teddy bear and run away."
"Whoever finds you would bring you right back. You talk way too much." They laughed. "I don't even know how many times we had that argument."
"Probably too many if we can recite it from memory."
"Come on. Help me hide the ice cream evidence and then bed time for both of us."
"Mom," she started, distracting herself by rinsing the spoons in the sink, "this might sound kind of silly, but…"
"What is it, honey?"
"Would you sit with me until I fall asleep?"
Topanga wrapped an arm around her shoulders and kissed her temple. "Of course I will. You never have to feel silly about asking that."
"I'm not too old?"
"If you want me to come sit with you when you're seventy, all you have to do is call me and I'll be there as fast as my walker will take me."
"But when I'm seventy you'll be-"
"I'll always be there when you need me to be, okay? I love you."
She nodded. "I love you, too."
Cory wasn't surprised to wake up alone the following morning. After all, Topanga was an early riser by nature and it was almost nine by the time he woke up. It was when he couldn't find her in the common areas of their apartment that he grew concerned. Her keys and purse were still on the table by the front door so he knew she had to be home. Auggie was parked in front of the TV watching Saturday morning cartoons and said he hadn't seen his mother yet.
While on his way back to the room he shared with his wife he realized that Riley's bedroom door was still closed. That was also odd. Like her mother, Riley was also an early riser and he had expected her to already be awake and chattering away with Maya about the events of last night. Instead silence greeted him. He took a chance and knocked softly. When he received no response he opened the door, wincing as it creaked. Once inside he smiled at what he found: mother and daughter were both curled up in the girl's bed. Riley's head was resting on Topanga's shoulder the same way it would when she was a young child. She somehow looked older, as if it suddenly hit him just how much she was growing up. Topanga was right. She wasn't a little girl anymore. Sooner or later he was going to have to face it…whether he wanted to or not.
Cory backed out of the room and closed the door. He and Auggie would go out for breakfast this morning.