When I was a little boy
Like really little, like eight or so
I was playing in my father's study
A place in the house
I wasn't supposed to go
River Monroe knew he wasn’t allowed in the study. His father, per usual, would tell him off for it, too protective of his decor on the walls, the degrees that hung behind his desk. The bookshelves, covered in books, as was expected, but also ships in bottles, old nautical decor that he had an affinity for collecting. Old ship flags hung in the corner, salt-worn and tattered, but he was proud. River knew that. It was how his parents had met, after all, and they didn’t shy away from telling whomever they wanted about it. His mother was the president of the Hatchetfield Boating Society, after all, and even after his father had retired from sailing for a profession in rhinoplasty—nose surgery, as they explained it to him—sailing was important in his family.
He was only eight, and although he knew he wasn’t allowed in the study, he couldn’t resist. There was a thrill in it, he found. A little bit of rebellion in such a picture perfect household with his mom and dad and three brothers. After all, his father never explained why exactly he wasn’t allowed to play in the study. If it was because of grown-up paperwork and gross pictures of noses, River didn’t mind. He was mature for his age, like so many people had told him, and that didn’t scare him.
What did scare him, however, was the sound of the garage door opening. A grating noise came from downstairs, and from the window in his father’s study, he could see an expensive blue car pulling in, one he knew too well.
Immediately, River jumped off of his father’s armchair and ran towards the door. He thought that the fuzzy green socks he chose would have quieted his footsteps, but they were too loud, and he could tell. They were going to find him, and boy, was he in for it then–
And then he skidded, stumbling forward on the slick floor. There was a moment, before he fell, where River felt a sort of peace. A calm acceptance of the inevitable pain that would come when he fell into the floor, but that moment never came, because he fell against the shelf by the door. It was tall, taller than even his father—which was hard to achieve, his father was tall —and on top of it balanced a ship in a glass bottle, with dark blue sails and white wood carvings.
The ship on a bottle that was falling to the floor right before his eyes. In a heartbeat, he tried to grab it, but was a moment too late. River’s heart dropped as tiny shards of glass ricocheted across the floor, spinning and skidding to the door, the door that was now open after a thunk on the wall of the study had alerted someone to his situation. High-heeled boots stood in the doorway, and River looked up to meet his mother’s eyes, narrowed. Not exactly angry, Linda Monroe contained her anger around him well, but stern nonetheless.
Immediately, it was like a dam broke, and River’s eyes welled with tears as he ran to his mother. “Mommy, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to, I’m sorry-”
“Oh, River.” His mother knelt down and put a hand on his shoulder, looking up at him. There was a slight smile on her red lips, one that told him that she wasn’t mad, not really. “River, honey, don’t cry. It’s okay, we’ll fix this. Mommy fixes everything, okay? We’ll fix this. When he comes home tonight, we can make everything okay. Okay?” She reached a hand up to his cheek, brushing her thumb across his cheek. He always liked it when she did that, her nails tickled his face, and he giggled softly, nodding. “There’s my sweet boy.”
“How are you gonna tell him?” His voice wavered, but Linda just smiled and cupped his cheek, kissing his forehead before standing up. “Is he gonna be mad at me, Mommy?”
“No, honey, he won’t.”
Dinner that night was quieter than usual. River figured he’d had something to do with it, his father had finally figured it out and was going to explode at him at any moment. He’d heard people—his mom, specifically, and the man with the glasses who said he handled laws and stuff—saying that something felt like a ticking time bomb, counting down second by second, and maybe this was how that felt. Waiting for the explosion to shatter the plates full of casserole and to break the table in half.
“So, Riv, how was your day?”
Already holding back tears, River looked up, his eyes wide. “I- it was- good.”
Gerald laughed a bit, looking at Linda and back to River. “You don’t sound sure, kiddo, what’s up?”
“Don’t go in the study!”
Linda shook her head, looking to River. “Honey, we didn’t want to tell you this way, but when we got home from the PTA meeting, your model of the Azure was on the floor. The glass shattered, the wood splintered…” She really was painting a picture in Gerald’s mind, River could tell, and he swallowed, nodding, as he watched his father’s face shift. “We know you loved it, we’re so sad it’s broken, but neither one of us was even home.”
A lie. River knew it was a lie. He knew lying was bad, at least, that’s what his teacher said to the little girl in class who said that a woman in white was talking to her and telling her to take the yarn from the craft closet. Lying wasn’t good, and yet, his mother spun a web of lies so perfectly, telling his father that they went to get a little treat at the bakery before they came home.
The study was undisturbed. The ship shattered of its own accord.
And it's our word
Yes, our word
“What do you mean you didn’t make it?”
Tim Houston sat across from River outside the cafeteria. They were in high school, nearing the end of their sophomore year, and the sun outside warmed the small benches that the boys sat on. He didn’t fit in with most other people his age, much to Linda’s dismay, and after moving up two grades because the “gifted” program wasn’t even good enough for him, he’d found at least someone to talk to. Even if Tim was sixteen and River fourteen, the two were good friends.
It was interesting, really. His mother’s affinity for telling “stories” had led him here. River wasn’t the brightest student, he knew that, even if he was going to graduate high school at sixteen. It wasn’t the education that led him to move up, it was how badly the other kids bullied him. That was what started the chain reaction of him taking on his mother’s tendencies for lying, tendencies that showed up in his father as well. It wasn’t bad, like most people would have said, it was just how the Monroes lived.
Well. Linda, Gerald and River. His brothers didn’t know enough to try, and they were part of the problem, really.
Tim knew about the bullying, at least. That was part of the reason the two of them had tried out for the baseball team, to try to make names for themselves. And yet…
“I mean I didn’t make it.” River insisted as he unwrapped his sushi, the lunch his mother had prepared for him. “I don’t know why, I threw well enough, right? Was it my coordination? Or the running? Seaton always said I was bad at running, but Dad said I was good enough-”
“Shit, how’re you gonna tell him?”
…Oh. That wasn’t something River had thought about, not until Tim had mentioned it. And yet, there was something so odd about the thought of telling his father the truth. That he hadn’t made the team, what he’d been banking on.
There was a moment of clarity that washed over River then, something that awoke a little voice in the back of his mind. One that sounded eerily like his mother, from ages ago. The words themselves sent a shiver up his spine, thinking about it. “When he comes home tonight, we can make everything okay. “
River turned to look at Tim, shaking his head. There was a slight smile on his lips as he replied, one that, to anyone else, would immediately connect him to his mother. It was a Monroe smile, one passed down from grandfather to mother to son, no matter what anyone said.
“We’re not going to.”
I was told to keep their secrets,
And in turn, they kept mine.
“I’m having an affair with my attorney, River.”
It was quiet in his bedroom besides Linda flipping through a magazine at the foot of River’s bed. Cosmo , she’d called it, telling him that she’d tell him more when he was older. The words she uttered weren’t shocking to him—this was what he was to her, a secret-keeper, one that his mother would tell anything and everything she wanted tucked away to. It was nice, really, to have a definite place in the family, and his mother always told him he was her favorite. It was all he could have hoped for.
This wasn’t Linda’s first affair. There’d been loads of men, and some women, and some neither—which, thinking about it, River kind of liked, but that was a thought he’d get back to later in life—throughout his short time as her confidante, and he knew deep down that there would be many more.
“You know I love your father, right?” There were tears in her voice, and River felt a pull in his chest. He wanted to comfort her, tell her that it would be okay. That was what he was meant to do here, but before he could say anything more- “I love him, he’s the only one I’ve ever loved like this. But he loves me, and it’s not enough.”
“Isn’t love supposed to be everything, Mom?”
She looked over at him, and despite her watery eyes, her face was stone-cold. The face of a woman who knew how to conceal her feelings, no matter what. “No, River. That’s bullshit. I promise, there is so much more than love. Adoration, completion, triumph…”
That was something River hadn’t called her in a long time, and even as he said the word, there was something odd about it. The vulnerability, the need for approval that he so desperately clung to from Linda. She responded, he knew she would, and turned around in her swivel chair from her desk, giving him a smile. “What’s going on, sweetie?”
“...Can we please talk about something kinda serious?”
Immediately, her smile faltered, and Linda nodded, gesturing to the couch. She got up and sat down there, next to him, and River- he looked down at his hands, they were shaking. Shaking harder than he’d expected them to. Breathe in, breathe out, one, two…
Linda paused, and for a moment, River expected a snap, an explosion, something. Something , but there was nothing, and Linda was wrapping him in her arms and pulling him to her chest. “Oh, sweetie, I am- I’m so proud of you for telling me, okay? I love you so much, no matter what, you’re always going to be my favorite.”
And, for a moment, he believed it as he let himself melt into his mother’s arms.
“911, what’s your emergency? ”
“Shit, shit, shit.” Seventeen years old, and River Monroe knelt on his father’s boat in front of the body of his friend. The still body, his green eyes staring, glassy, up at the dark night sky. His lips were parted, as though he was trying to gasp for air… “No, hey, okay, I didn’t- I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean to, it-”
“ Hello? Hello? ”
Waves lapped against the side of the boat, shaking it back, forth, back, forth, in a sickening motion that made River nauseous. He’d never been motion sick before, that was something his mother always prided him on for events with the Boating Society. But now, that all seemed to wash away as he shook Tim, trying to get him to look up and pretend it was a joke.
It was a joke. It was a game they were playing, and River had won, hadn’t he? That was what his mother said, triumph and love, that’s what was important. Triumph, love, all of it, it made a person complete. Or maybe he’d misremembered, and that was why he was dead-
No. “No, come on, I- it was a game , it was- it wasn’t supposed to-”
God. He felt sick. River felt like he was spinning, and maybe that was the alcohol he’d had, but he doubted it. They were two idiots, not legal enough to drink, but who cared? At the very least, his mother could bail them out, but… no, so much was happening at once, and River couldn’t think.
“ If this is a prank call- ”
River hung up the phone and screamed.
"We never rented a house in Clivesdale.”
“We didn't see Tim on the day he died.”
“We haven't been on our boat in some years now.”
Nothing’s the same.
“So we don't care what you found inside.”
And it's our word
Yes, our word
It's our word
Yes, our word
There was a side to everything that River never fully understood until he was 23 years old. 23 years old, finding the papers for the lawyers and interviews as he rifled through the box in his father’s study. He was moving out of Hatchetfield, far too late in life, in his opinion, after getting a job producing up in Manhattan, and there was one file he’d needed to find for a while.
And then the photographs fell out. Scans, photocopies, and as River picked them up, everything clicked into place. How he hadn’t been sent to jail for the death of Tim. How he and his mother had gotten away with everything. Why it all worked.
Payments were documented, to lawyers, to news sources… hell, even to his elementary school. Witchwood Elementary, which seemed so long ago to River.
“Somebody was paid… everybody …” He whispered to himself, flipping through scan after scan of bills, of bribes, of loans never truly given. Of lies, of his mother’s web of deceit that ensnared everyone in Hatchetfield. It was a life of poisoned luxury, one that he’d grown to love.
One that he didn’t have plans to truly escape from anytime soon.
After all, who would notice if a small file of papers disappeared, and a fire was started in the fireplace of the Monroe household that evening?
River Monroe wasn’t exactly a perfect person. Of course, he appeared chipper and welcoming and happy on the surface—living with Linda had ensured that. She had a mask that she donned every time she left the house, or even set foot outside her bedroom. Or, sometimes, in her bedroom. River knew his mother better than anyone, and she knew him better than he knew himself.
He hadn’t meant to spiral. After all, he’d been warned as he left for New York to not fall in with dangerous habits that would lead to problems in the future. The drugs were one thing—he was a man in his 20s with a troubled past, no one would expect otherwise—but this night, it was different.
His mind wasn’t in the right place to begin with. Guilt about Tim, about his family, about everything, it started to pile. Pile, and pile, and pile until he couldn’t take it anymore and needed relief, in some way, from the panic. Baths helped, sometimes. His mother used to wash his hair when River was little, and while she wasn’t here, at least he could get some clarity from it.
The swimming in his mind was hard enough, but there was a split second when River realized that he couldn’t hold himself up. Whether it was the stuff in his system, the exhaustion that plagued his entire body, or his mind fighting back, he couldn’t tell, and then he was slipping, couldn’t keep his head above the water—
In flashes, the words his mother would say came to him. She always said he was her favorite, but perhaps she said that to his brothers, too. Perhaps she said that to her husband, or her lovers, or the people she’d slept with once and then abandoned. Abandoned, just like River.
“Our son, River? No, he moved to New York, he’s very happy there, or so we hear. He’s always been so goddamned independent, the years go by and now we barely see him.” A lie, he knew, he knew that this was always going to be a lie. His mind was racing, spinning word after word, tale after tale, just like his mother taught him to.
And then, a gasp, as River got his head above the water, breathing shakily, coughing.
Was it all a lie? Everything she’d told him, every word? Every second of his life little more than a game of chess for the king and queen of Hatchetfield, him little more than a pawn? Every queen had their favorite pawn, River assumed, and maybe he just got lucky.
It'd be their word
Only their word
His mother could figure it out. Figure out a way to spin herself to be the hero. Or perhaps she was the hero, and River had become the villain of his story. It was up to his family to decide the fate of River Monroe, whether they liked it or not, if he came back to Hatchetfield. There was nothing left, nothing except their word as truth.
It'd be their word
Only their word
On its own