In the car, Chris popped the last of the little white pills in the baggie Nick gave him a week ago. That was impossible, he hadn’t been using them religiously. The last time he took those pills were…god, yesterday. Then the day before that. And the day before that.
Was he addicted now?
It wasn’t until then that he realized he had no idea where he was going. Chris supposed he could go to a bar, but that seemed to take a lot of effort and he just wasn’t feeling up to it. So, he called Nick.
After the most brief conversation of his life, he found himself driving the route to the rundown apartment.
Sophia laid on her back in bed, staring up at the ceiling numbly. Ethan had been calling her nonstop, but she didn’t want to talk to him then. Not ever, if she had it her way.
She would have to pay for ignoring him, she knew that. But the reason she wasn’t answering was because she was trying to think about how she would leave him. His mood s wings had become more and more frequent and violent that she was sure he would kill her.
At the same time, if she left him…
“Hey,” Jace said, startling her. The window had been left open since it was still August and nice enough outside to do that. “What’s up?”
“You scared me.”
He took the liberty of climbing completely through the window without her invitation. It was only then that she realized she was in her pajamas without any makeup on. Blushing, she reached up to touch her hair piled in a messy bun, succumbing to the fact that there was nothing she could do about it.
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to spook you.” He flashed her a smile and flopped next to her on the bed.
“You’re lucky my dads love you. Or else they’d throw you out the window if they saw you up here.”
Jace rolled his eyes.
Sophia’s phone rang again, startling both of them. She didn’t have to even glance at the screen to see who was calling. She knew it was Ethan, and she knew she wasn’t going to answer.
“Lover-boy?” Jace said with distain.
“Don’t call him that,” Sophia murmured.
Jace groaned and moved so he was laying on his back. “Come on, Soph. The guy is a prick.”
“He loves me,” she argued quietly. “If I wasn’t such a bitch all the time then he wouldn’t do it.”
Shocked, Jace twisted to look at her, face contorted into a look of disgust. “Oh God. You’re actually being serious…” he whispered. Sophia blinked at him as though he had six heads. What she said was true. She does something stupid, every time, that’s what it is, and Ethan gets angry. He’s possessive and jealous because he cares about her. That’s all it is. “Do your dads know?”
She shook her head.
“Then obviously it’s a problem!”
“It’s not!” she near screamed. “They just wouldn’t understand.”
Jace scoffed. “I can’t even believe what I’m hearing right now.”
“Then you don’t have to sit here with me.”
“Fine. I’ll leave.” Jace replied finally. Sophia’s heart leapt. She didn’t want him to leave, but she didn’t want to look desperate by asking him to stay, either. So neither of them said anything and Jace didn’t make to leave.
For a while, they both sat there and stared at each other.
“I thought you were leaving.” Sophia said.
“I thought I was, too.” Jace whispered. Before either of them could speak again, he leaned forward and pressed his lips to hers.
Sophia gasped suddenly, pulling away quickly. “Jace!” she cried, touching her lips with her fingertips and staring at him wide-eyed. “Ethan would-”
He looked at her with as much shock as she felt. “What do you mean?”
Instead of replying to a question she found ridiculous, she just continued to stare at him in utter disbelief. Slowly, she backed up off her bed and stood in front of the mirror as if there was some sort of physical damage.
“After that night-”
“That was one night, Jace. Just a one-time thing.”
She was able to see his face in the mirror and she wished she couldn’t. He looked stung and she watched in silence as the hurt flashed across his face in a way she had never seen before. Then, he swung his legs over the bed and headed to the window.
“I’m glad that’s all I mean to you, Sophia.” He whispered.
Before she could apologize to him, he was already making his way down the ladder. He meant business. She knew that because it was rare to ever hear him use her full name. Mostly, she was just Soph to him.
“Jace!” she called to his back, watching him trek across their neighbor’s yard on the way to his house. “Wait, Jace!”
He wasn’t going to turn around. That much she knew. It was pointless to keep calling after him but at the very same time, she desperately did not want to be alone with her constantly ringing cell phone.
Chris stumbled in the door, high, at around one thirty in the morning. Nick had provided him with another baggie of pills that Chris promised himself he would be easier on. He couldn’t very well be a father on drugs.
After slipping into the shower as quietly as he could, he dried off in the bathroom and put on boxers, conscious that Seth was asleep and not wanting to disturb him. The sight of Seth sleeping alone in their bed saddened him. He stayed perfectly on his side, leaving room for Chris’s absent body. Almost like Seth would always make room for him. No matter what.
He slithered underneath their down comforter discreetly and laid with his back facing his husband, trying his hardest not to move too much and shake Seth awake. No matter how hard he tried, Seth awoke. After a few moments, Chris felt Seth’s arm drape around him before his lips were on his neck. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered.
Chris twisted in his arms to face him.
“I didn’t mean to blow up at you. I’m sorry, Chris.”
He didn’t say anything. Instead, he closed the gap between them. But it was Seth who reached his hand down the front of Chris’s boxers slowly. He felt his heart wildly beat just beneath his skin at the sheer touch. Chris had forgotten what it felt like to be with Seth. In fact, he could not, for the life of him, remember the last time they had slept together.
Seth’s lips, full beneath Chris’s own, did not leave even when their boxers and Seth’s thin undershirt did. Then, a voice broke in Chris’s ear, enough to deflate him. Literally.
“I’m HIV positive…”
“Wait,” he gasped, pulling away. In the haze of the moonlight falling through their window, Chris was able to make out Seth’s face, twisted in disbelief.
“Do you really not want to do this?”
“I do!” Chris said quickly. “I just…Can we use a condom?”
“What?” Seth asked him, brows knitted together. “Why?”
He swallowed hard. How was he supposed to explain that? How was he going to tell Seth that there was a possibility he contracted a life-threatening, incurable disease? How was he supposed to tell Seth, his husband, the man he loved, that there was a chance he could’ve gotten sick, could’ve gotten him sick? That, if he hadn’t, he didn’t want to take any chances? Thinking quickly, he brushed his fingers across Seth’s cheek and did his best to look alluring. “We never got a chance to use those ones your sister gave us for our anniversary.” He murmured, smirking.
Seth blinked, looking as though he was trying to remember. Danielle had put together a basket of gag gifts consisting of “fun” condoms, an adult DVD, handcuffs, body chocolate and a lot more that Chris had forgotten about. When Seth unwrapped it, everyone at the party burst out laughing, including Seth while Chris’s face was flaming. Mostly, he was just glad the kids weren’t there to see any of it.
“Okay, I guess.” He reached over blindly to their end table, fishing around before pulling out a string of foil packets. Seth ripped one off and tore it in one movement.
Relief swept over Chris and he settled back into the pillows, relaxing just as he felt Seth’s lips on his collarbone.
Seth curled around Chris slowly, pulling him tight to his chest. After the briefest of moments, he whispered, “I love you, Chris.”
In an unexplainable way, that shattered whatever was left of Chris’s heart and he laid there for a moment, quiet, under Seth’s arm. He decided, in the end, not to answer. Instead, he pretended to be asleep, even though silent tears rolled across the bridge of his nose.
* * *
Chris didn’t wake up until nine thirty that morning. Normally, the kids had him up by seven, so it was a nice change in pace. Next to him was Seth, laying with his back to him that was slowly rising and falling with red nail marks striping it.
Last night, he remembered, he had actually been with Seth for once. What an odd sort of morning it was turning out to be.
Chris blinked down at the dashboard of Seth’s crappy Honda Accord. It was built sometime in the 70’s and ran like it. The bright summer sun hit the rusted body and the ugly green paint, doing absolutely nothing for the car’s looks.
“Alright,” Seth said. “Push the clutch in, and the brake at the same time.”
Once Chris did, Seth reached over and turned the key in the ignition. “God, this feels so weird.”
Seth smiled at him and leaned back as the engine chugged. “Okay. So, what you want to do is let up on the clutch at the same pace that you step on the gas.”
Pausing for a few moments, Chris gripped the steering wheel tighter. He had never driven a standard before, but Seth drove one with ease. He had always wanted to learn, but when he was actually behind the wheel, it didn’t seem like such a good idea.
The car jerked backwards then forwards, making noises of protest. “Oh my God, I’m going to kill your car.”
“Helen can take it.” He snorted. “That was good though. The hardest part is starting out. That’s nearly everyone’s trouble.”
“Why the hell did you name your car Helen?”
Seth didn’t answer. “Coast ahead. You don’t have to shift gears until you get over ten. Then over twenty, over the thirty and so on. There’s five gears. Make sense?”
Chris nodded, feeling discombobulated as the Honda jerked around the empty parking lot. Seth had his hand on the stick. “This is awkward,” Chris said just as the car launched forward again.
“You get used to it. Okay, now push down on the clutch. All the way.” He instructed as Chris gained a little speed. Once the clutch was down, Seth moved into second gear.
He hit a small dip and instinctively put the brakes on only to hear a pop. “Oh my God. What the hell happened?”
“You stalled out.” Seth laughed. “When you brake, clutch at the same time.”
It was after the third time he stalled out that Chris began to lose all hope in ever learning how to successfully drive a stick shift. “I can’t do this.” He groaned, frustrated.
“Remember when you said that about riding Lace? And now she loves you. It just takes a little time. It’s okay. We’re gonna get it.” Seth said, his hand falling on top of Chris’s on the gear shift. When Chris turned to look, there was sincerity in Seth’s eyes. “Plus, you’re cute when you’re frustrated.”
“Oh, please,” he sighed, putting the car in park and unbuckling his seatbelt, opening the car door to which Seth followed.
“Alright. We’ll head home and do this tomorrow or something.”
Sophia walked into school on the first day, filled with anticipation over finally being an upperclassman. She met up with her friends at the usual spot over by the doors, waiting for Ethan to show up. Honestly, if Sophia had it her way, Ethan would not show up to collect her. Instead, he would leave her to be with her friends as they swapped schedules and found out if they had class together.
The gaggle of girls had been chatting and giggling before Sophia approached but stopped immediately as she came into the circle, looking around uncomfortably. “Hey!” Sophia said cheerily. Hope smiled halfheartedly at her just as Jill murmured a hello. “Did I miss something?” she asked.
They looked around at each other before Kate straightened up and said, “Well, Soph…we’re actually sort of surprised to see you.”
Puzzled, Sophia glanced at them individually. “What are you talking about?”
The girls looked down, sheepish. For a long moment, none of them said anything. “It’s just…” Jill said finally. “It’s just we haven’t really seen much of you since you started dating Ethan.”
Her heart dropped in her chest and she could feel herself blanche. She swallowed past the lump in her throat, tightened her hold on the notebooks in her arms and wished that they just complained about the teachers they had for this year instead. “I’ve been around,” Sophia nearly whispered.
“Come on, Soph.” Hope said, rolling her eyes. “Can you even remember the last time we hung out together? You ditch us for him. All the time.”
They sat in uncomfortable silence for a few long heartbeats before the morning bell rang, dismissing students to homeroom. Sophia watched her friends bid each other a goodbye, merely looking at her apologetically before striding to their respective classrooms.
Instead of heading to her homeroom with Mrs. Sanchez, she fled to the girls’ restroom and locked herself in a stall, sitting on the toilet lid and staring at the graffiti puke green door. Sophia hugged her knees to her chest and rested her cheek on them. None of her friends wanted her around, not anymore. That was to be expected. She really had ditched them all those times.
From the depths of her backpack, she heard her cell phone vibrate wildly. Naturally, it was Ethan’s texts, trying to figure out where she was. Just when she was calming down enough to leave and go face homeroom and, thus, the rest of the day, the door opened followed by high-pitched laughing.
“They’re out of town for, like, a week.” Commented Rachel Miller. Sophia watched five pairs of shoes line up at the sinks and makeup bags being unzipped. She was queen bee at the school. The one that all the girls tried, unsuccessfully, to emulate. Rachel had long blonde hair and a figure to die for. The perfect ass squeezed into her too-tight uniform skirt. Standing three inches taller than Sophia, she still insisted on wearing high heels. Really, Rachel was what the guys thought of when “schoolgirl” is turned into a Halloween costume.
“Party?” Asked one of the girls Sophia recognized as Aubrey Stone. Rachel giggled.
The girls chatted about the upcoming party they were planning. Who they were going to invite. Who was going to supply them with what alcohol. Who’s older brothers were bringing their hot college friends. Sophia sat, afraid to just open the door and walk out, being scrutinized under the weight of their glares. But that was when she heard it.
“So I have English with Ethan Connolly this year.” Rachel gloated. The other girls immediately swooned. Sophia heard one of them ask another to borrow lip gloss as she strained her ears for the details.
“You going to invite him to the party?” asked Jessica Quinn.
“Duh. He’s gorgeous.” Rachel snorted. Sophia could imagine her rolling her eyes at the remark, smearing lip gloss on her pouty lips or blush on her porcelain skin.
“Isn’t he still going out with that one girl? Sophia or something?”
“Yeah, Sophia Grafton. She’s like, a sophomore.”
“Junior.” Lily Harding corrected. “She’s in the same grade as my sister.”
“She’s a bitch. She just thinks she’s better than everyone else just because her daddy is a doctor.”
Someone else laughed. “Yeah, which one? They’re gay.”
“I heard she does all sorts of nasty stuff with Ethan.” Gossiped Natalie Tulane.
“Please,” Rachel scoffed, cocking one foot. Sophia could feel heat creep up her neck as she tried her best to pick up her backpack from the floor as quietly as she could. “That little girl couldn’t get him off like I could.” The girls erupted in a fit of giggles. “Did you see her at orientation? Oh my God. I mean, everyone already knows she’s a slut. Does she really have to broadcast it?”
Sophia’s cheeks were red with shame.
“Do you really think you stand a shot with Ethan?” Jessica asked her, zipping her makeup bag shut again.
Rachel’s high heels clicked on the floor. “He flirts with me all the time.” She said, mirth in her voice. “After Sophia, I’d be an upgrade.”
“Definitely.” Agreed Natalie and Lily simultaneously.
Tears poured down Sophia’s cheeks. She pressed her palm against her mouth so she wouldn’t accidentally cry out. Ethan? Even when he’s promised her everything, even when he’s told her he loves her. He spends money on her, takes her out, wraps her in his arms and showers her with affection. Sure, he was intense. But he meant well. And now, all this. After another couple of painful moments, they finally left. Without Ethan, she would have nothing. Really. Her friends were gone. Probably forever. Her dads were too busy with their issues to notice. And her siblings were too young to understand.
She sat there, with her knees notched under her chin and her head titled back to lean on the tile wall, silent tears streaming down her face.
Chris heard the door open as he was paying the bills at the kitchen table. “Hey, sweetie. How was school?” he called from over his shoulder. Instead of an answer, the front door slammed shut and footsteps bolted up the stairs. Alarmed, he turned around. “Sophia?” Chris called up the stairs, looking at her discarded backpack by the door.
He turned back to the kitchen and opened the freezer. Inside was a pint of her favorite Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. Chris opened the drawer for a spoon and took the ice cream, heading up to her room.
As he walked up the stairs and closer to his daughter’s room, he was filled with the feeling that maybe he shouldn’t knock. Maybe, just maybe he should leave her alone to deal with whatever it was she was going through. He stood for a few moments, contemplating, and finally decided to knock.
She didn’t answer. He knocked again.
“Can I come in? I brought ice cream.” Chris said opening the door a peek. Sophia hadn’t even bothered changing. She was face down on her bed, in her school uniform still with her shoes kicked off on the floor. Again, she left him without an answer, so he walked inside her room. “Do you want to talk about it?”
She mumbled something into her pillow and he put his hand on her back.
“What happened, Soph?” Chris asked her softly, touching her hair. She turned so he could see her face that was streaked with mascara.
“Nothing, Dad.” She sniffled. “Just stupid girls in school.” And she flopped back into her pillows and hid her face from him. Chris sighed and straightened out her long hair.
“So what did these stupid girls say?”
She was silent for a long while before peeking back up at her dad. “I don’t really want to talk about it.” Sophia whispered.
“Alright. How about some Ben and Jerry’s, then?” he grinned at her, handing over the ice cream and the spoon.
Reluctantly, she took them from his hands and popped the lid off, digging the spoon into the softening chocolate. After taking a bite she sighed, staring up at her father. “Do you think I’m full of myself?” Sophia asked softly.
Chris looked taken aback and was at a loss for words for a few moments. “No, of course not, honey.” He said. “Is that what they were saying about you?”
She nodded and decided against spilling about the rest. That would bring up an awkward conversation about her sex-life, she was sure. Even though she technically shouldn’t have one considering she was still in high school and everything.
“Their opinions don’t matter. You’re a great girl with a good head on her shoulders. Why don’t you call up Jill or Hope and invite them over this weekend? It’s been awhile since they’ve been here and you could use some girl company.”
She tried to smile at him but the muscles in her face wouldn’t do the job. Instead, she just stared down at the ice cream that was slowly turning to soup. Chris got up, still grinning at her confidently.
“We’ll play a game tonight when your dad gets home. Okay?”
Sophia just nodded. He kissed her forehead and quietly slipped out of her room, closing the door behind him.
* * *
“That’s definitely not a word!” Chris laughed at Seth, turning to get a better look at the Scrabble board. G-I-R-L-I-E-R. Sophia snorted and Seth raised his hands in defeat.
“Yeah, Dad. I’m pretty sure it’s just ‘girly’.” Sophia concluded.
“I’m sure it’s a word!”
“We’ll see.” And the battered old dictionary made its way over to Chris as everyone laughed. He opened it and went to the G’s. The banter continued with the family. Luke, who decided to work by himself this time, studied his letters and attempted to come up with a word. Lacie sat next to Seth, who was helping her, watching expectantly. “Told you!” Chris said finally. “It’s just ‘girly’.”
“HA!” Sophia cried.
“Yeah, Lacie. Why’d you pick that word?” Seth grinned. She slapped his arm.
“That was you!”
It was when the board was turned to Sophia that Chris’s cell phone rang. He got up and walked down the hallway to the front door, whispering into it. “Hey, Ben. What’s up?”
“Why don’t you come over tonight?” the guy on the other end said haughtily.
Chris snuck a glance over to his family just as they erupted in a laughing fit. “That’s a proper noun!” Seth told Sophia. Lacie, who was sitting on his lap, picked up the toy that fell and placed it back on Willow’s high chair.
“No way! You’re just trying to get me back for ‘girlier’!” she giggled.
And he smiled as he watched them before turning his attention back to the phone call. “Well, actually.” He said. “I’m busy tonight.”