“The washing machine broke today!” Chris said angrily. “That’s the second thing to go this week, Seth!” He rang out one of Seth’s faded t-shirts and tossed it in the laundry basket with all the other soaked clothes.
“We don’t have the money to fix it.”
“Is that my fault? I’m the one working!” he huffed, squeezing out another shirt then a pair of boxers, throwing a glare over his shoulder to his boyfriend.
“I’m full-time in school, Chris. I’m busting my ass for our future-”
“Okay, but we need money now!” Chris snapped, shaking his head and slamming the door on the broken washing machine. For a moment, he just stared at the wet clothes in the green laundry basket that he rung out by hand. His job waiting tables paid shit and he was barely able to pay the rent. Let alone leaving room for things like repairs.
“I’m trying, babe.”
Frustrated, Chris sank down on the chair next to the laundry and buried his face in his hands. It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. Granted, school was expensive, but they had to live somehow. “I don’t want to have to ask my dad for money again, Seth.” Chris muttered.
“I don’t want you to, either. This isn’t his responsibility.”
“This isn’t mine, either.”
Seth pressed his lips together and he flinched as if Chris slapped him. “You’re as much a part of this as I am.”
“We need two incomes.”
“If I get a job, the school drops my scholarship. Then I would have to drop out.”
“Seth, I don’t know what to tell you…”
“You want me to drop out of school and just work waiting tables?”
“No, I don’t want you to do that, but face it. I can’t do this by myself anymore.” Chris groaned, glaring at Seth hard. This situation wasn’t easy, money was hard to come by and it went quickly to things like rent and groceries.
“I can’t lose my scholarship.” Seth whispered. “That’s all I’ve got right now.”
“Well, all I’ve got now is you and look how far that’s gotten me!” Chris exploded. “Broke! Fucking working long ass hours just so we can keep this shitty little apartment that’s not even big enough for the both of us!”
By this point, Chris stood in front of Seth, both of them were shouting at each other.
“I have school-”
“So you just push me off to do all the work and support the both of us when I don’t even know what the hell I’m doing!” Chris screamed.
Seth slammed his fist against the doorframe, making Chris jump, his heart racing. “Then if it’s so bad for you, why don’t you just leave?!”
“Because I love you!” Chris shouted, making Seth’s face soften. “And because it’ll hurt me more if I let you go then if I stay.”
Sophia woke up at an ungodly hour to her father calling her. With sleep still occupying most of the space in her mind and her arms unwilling to work properly, she fumbled with the sheets and comforters on the bed, looking for her cell phone. By the time she grasped it, the call had gone to voicemail. Not even three seconds later, the phone was going off again.
“Sophia, oh my God. I’ve been so worried. Where are you?!” Chris demanded suddenly, his voice sounding on the edge of panic.
“I’m at Jace’s house,” she said in a whisper, turning to look at him, still sleeping with his back facing her rising and falling gently. Immediately, she picked up her bra from the floor, shimmied out of Jace’s boxers. “I went there after the movie last night and I accidentally fell asleep. I’m sorry. I’ll be home soon.”
She hung up, sliding the shirt off and tossing it on his floor next to the boxers. Her clothes from the previous night, dry now, was lying across the sofa. Padding across the room silently, Sophia pulled her jeans on, conscious that every moment she attempted hurt.
Before sliding out of Jace’s room, she looked back at him, still asleep. Still horribly aware that she made a huge mistake.
“Do you have any idea what you put your father and I through?” Chris shouted at her the second she walked through the front door. Sophia didn’t say anything, instead marching right past her fathers and striding up the stairs.
“Sophia?” Chris called. “Sophia!”
She continued to ignore him until she was in her room and able to take her sunglasses off. The bruise over her eye had worsened and she immediately went to her makeup drawer, searching for concealer and foundation to make it disappear from view.
“Thanks for the help,” Chris grumbled, bypassing Seth and heading into the kitchen.
“What was I supposed to do?” Seth sighed, going after him.
“I dunno, Seth. Maybe be a parent? She’s your daughter, too.” Chris snapped, stirring mashed up bananas for Willow and setting it on her high chair.
Seth sighed, pulling a hand through his dark hair and checking his watch on the underside of his wrist. “Can we please not do this right now?”
“Then when are we going to ‘do this,’ Seth? Tell me, when does it conveniently fit into your schedule to be a father?”
“Don’t do this.”
“Don’t do what?!” Chris snapped angrily just as Willow slapped her whole hand in the bowl with the bananas, giggling.
“Don’t attack me like this, okay? I’m trying my damn best to provide for you and the kids. I give you everything. I give them everything-”
“Except the fucking time of day!” Seth stared sharply down at Chris for a few moments before he continued. “Raising kids isn’t easy. It’d be nice if I had some help from time to time.”
“My job is worth the bulk of my time.”
Chris glared hard. “You can’t afford to replace me, Seth.”
* * *
It was the last day of summer that Chris and Seth stood on their back porch, listening to the sounds of their kids laughing. Sophia and her friends were playing water volleyball in the pool. Luke and his friend Jared were busy shooting each other with Nerf guns while Lacie and her group of little girls took turns styling Barbie’s hair. Seth was grilling with Willow bouncing in her walker next to him. Soda cans and juice boxes littered the patio table next to open bags of chips and a cell phone here and there, belonging to the teenagers goofing off in the pool.
“Jace! Put me down!” Sophia cried, laughing as Jace slung her over his shoulder and walked to the deep end of the pool, ticking her bare ribs.
Smoke spilled out from Seth’s spot at the grill as he laughed at them, Jace tossing her into the pool. Everything had been going great, really. All the way until Chris’s phone rang. When he glanced at the name on the ID, his heart skipped a beat.
Zack King, the first guy he cheated on Seth with all those months ago.
Furtively, Chris got up and slid inside the house without anyone noticing, pressing the phone to his ear. “Hello?”
“Hey. Chris? It’s…Zack.”
“I know.” Chris muttered, staring out the sliding glass doors to make sure everyone was still busy doing whatever it was they were doing. “Look, right now isn’t a good time if you’re looking to hook up or something. My daughter has a bunch of her friends over and I-”
“That’s not what I was calling about,” Zack said quickly.
“Okay,” Chris replied slowly, reaching into the refrigerator for a bottle of water. “But you’ve caught me at a bad time for whatever this is. I’ll try to give you a call back later if I can.”
“Wait, Chris! Please, don’t hang up on me! This is important.” Zack pleaded, his voice just notches away from complete hysteria. Chris blinked a few times and took his thumb away from the End button on his cell phone. On the other end, he heard Zack taking deep panic breaths.
“You okay? What’s going on?”
“Chris, I…I got test results back today and…” Zack faltered and swallowed hard. “And, Chris, I’m HIV-positive.”
Immediately, Chris’s heart stopped. He sank down on the barstool behind him, numb, with the phone still pressed to his ear. “Wh-what are you talking about?” he breathed.
“You should get tested. They don’t know when I got it. I could’ve given it to anyone. I’m really, really sorry. I didn’t know.”
“I don’t understand.” Chris said, his voice a breathy whisper because that was all he could manage. “How can this happen?”
“I’m sorry, Chris.”
And the phone disconnected.
Outside, he watched Seth laugh at something Sophia said as they all sat around the patio table together. Oh, God. This had escalated from sleeping around behind Seth’s back to possibly getting him sick with something incurable. Something life-threatening. He thought of the horror on Seth’s face if his test came back positive. Would Seth have to leave the practice? Because of Chris, would Seth have to give up everything he worked so hard to achieve?
Their children. What would become of them if both of them were sick, got too ill to take care of them? What kind of monster puts himself at risk for something like this, and put’s his family’s safety and wellbeing in danger?
How would he get tested without Seth finding out? What if, God forbid, it was positive? How the hell would he be able to explain that to his husband?
Chris felt his heart racing just beneath his skin, the flood of anxiety rushing through his veins at the sheer thought of getting this test done. He couldn’t breathe. This just wasn’t happening. It couldn’t be. He owned a house in the suburbs. He had four kids all attending private schools. He was married to a doctor. He drove a $200,000 Mercedes. Guys like him didn’t get exposed to HIV.
Before anyone else could notice that he was missing, he went back outside and pretended that he just didn’t feel his life stop in its tracks.
“Soph, your birthday is coming up next month. Any idea what you want?” Seth asked her later that night once their house was devoid of everyone else’s kids. He put away the washed cutting board and handed Sophia the spatula to dry.
“I need a car.”
“You do not need a car,” Chris scoffed, preparing a bottle for Willow. Seth smirked and Sophia sighed heavily.
“Yes, I do! You’re always working,” she nodded at Seth, “And you’re always out. I’m tired of relying on the girls to pick me up for dance class. And for Ethan or Jace to give me rides to and from school every day.”
“Soph,” Chris exhaled, shaking his head and picking up the baby. “We’ve been through this before.”
She crossed the kitchen to put the spatula away. “I need a car,” she said again.
“We’ll see,” Seth said, making Sophia roll her eyes and stalk out of the room. “I think she has a point, Chris.” Seth told him once they heard her bedroom door click shut.
“I don’t think a sixteen-year-old should have their own car. It’s just too much freedom. Not to mention it’s not safe.”
“But she does need some sort of transportation. Her school doesn’t have a bus and it’s only fair to her friends who ship her to and from dance and school.”
Chris looked down at Willow with the bottle in her mouth and remembered not too long ago when it was Sophia sitting in that exact high chair. Now, she was old enough to drive a car and to go to high school.
“Seth. I just don’t like this idea.”
“I find it necessary.”
“God, is this going to turn into a fight now?” Seth groaned, turning to face Chris who was bouncing Willow on his chest.
“What else is new?” Chris muttered under his breath.
“What?” Seth snapped, his eyes smoldering and his jaw set. Chris stared at him tensely, aware of Willow still gurgling next to his ear.
“That’s all we ever do anymore. It’s the only way I feel like we talk to each other-”
“What are you talking about!?” Seth hissed.
“That whenever we’re speaking, we’re just fighting!”
It was then that Willow started screaming.
“Fuck, Chris! Then why the hell did you marry me?! Why did you have four children with me?! If it’s so fucking bad, and if I’m so goddamn terrible, then why are you here?!” His blue eyes were alight with fire as he glared, his voice raising with every word he uttered. It was enough to knock Chris back, maybe not physically, but mentally.
“That’s a fantastic question, now, isn’t it?” he snarled, handing Willow over to Seth and grabbing his car keys.
“Chris.” Seth bellowed to his back, Willow still wailing in his arms. “Chris!”
And either because Chris couldn’t hear or couldn’t care, he didn’t turn around.