Chris was going insane. Sophia's situation had somehow made him and Seth closer. Yet not in a way that made their marriage any better, if that was possible. They had no choice but talk and it gave them a distraction from their marital problems. Sophia, however, spent the better part of her days in her room and the smallest things caused trouble. Dinner, every night, was a war. In fact, getting Sophia to eat at all was a struggle. Even with that, Seth and Chris couldn't ignore the hairline fractures in their marriage that threatened to crumble under the steady weight of their building problems.
He wasn't going out nearly as often, not sleeping with nearly as many men. And he had been trying his best to quit the pills. In fact, that was his most difficult feat yet. It was difficult to hide the cold sweats, the nausea, the shaking hands from someone that he shared a house with. Someone that was a doctor and who could easily read the symptoms of a withdrawal.
The only thing that would take the edge off would be a refill. Even though the thought disgusted him thoroughly.
It happened one chilly October day. Chris had been clean for three weeks and he almost couldn't take it anymore. The chills and aches. The fever and the shortness of breath. But he had to get clean. He couldn't support a drug addiction and four kids at the same time.
Addiction, the word sat sour on his tongue.
Willow started to sob and Chris held her in his shaking arms, trying to calm her in vain, though she continued to wail. He heard his pulse and sweat broke out on his brow again. Her cries were drowned out from his heartbeat pounding in his ears and he couldn't take it anymore. Chris put Willow back down in her crib where she stood and screamed, lifting her arms for Chris to hold her again.
Instead, Chris went right back into his room, and paced, phone in hand. One more bag, is what he told himself. One more bag and I'm done.
He still heard his baby crying from the other room and his heart dropped in his chest.
"Yeah," Nick answered on the third ring.
"Hey, it's, um, Chris."
"I know, I have caller ID."
He couldn't speak with Willow crying so loudly. "I need you to hit me up again."
From the other end, Nick laughed once, humorlessly. "I'm all out of perks," he explained. He could pretty much hear Nick smiling.
"Give me anything. I'm desperate." Chris breathed, almost losing it. There was absolutely no way Nick was completely dry. Or didn't know of anyone else who had anything that Chris needed.
"Your husband's a doctor, isn't he? I should be the one hitting you up with that prescription pad he's got."
"Please, Nick." Chris begged, sinking to the floor, whispering. "Please."
Silence on Nick's end and his hands shake even more with anticipation. Then, "I've got morphine. But it'll cost you."
Happiness inflated suddenly. "I've got money."
Another laugh. "I'm not talking money, Chris."
Then, he felt a lead weight crush on top of him with the realization of what he just said. Tears broke through his closed eyelids. Willow was still screaming. "When?" and Chris's voice came out trembling.
"Be here tonight at eight."
"My husband will still be home by then, Nick, I-"
"Look, Chris. How bad do you want this?"
He had to pull the phone away from his face, cover the receiver with his hand and let a small cry escape, leaning back on the wall. Chris was about to whore himself out for drugs. About now, Chris wished Seth knew everything. About now, Chris wished he had never started any of this.
"Okay," his voice cracked again. "I'll be there."
Seth heard Willow screaming and lifted her from her crib, bouncing her gently. "Shh, it's okay." He whispered, rubbing circles on her back. "What's wrong?" but she wasn't going to answer him. Just when he was digging around for a toy to distract her, the doorbell rang.
Exasperated he turned to shout to the hallway. "Chris, can you get that?" There was no answer and no sound of footsteps. "Chris?" Seth called, walking out of Willow's room. Again, nothing. The doorbell rang again. Seth sighed, Willow still in tow, and headed downstairs.
He was expecting a door-to-door salesman or the girl scouts. The UPS man or the kids from the middle school doing magazine fundraisers for their sports team. Certainly not the person it turned out to be. Anyone else, in fact.
"Seth," said the woman just after he opened the door. Seth froze, staring at the woman on his doorstep. Her gray hair touched her shoulders and she wore no makeup. She had to be about sixty, wearing a boxy sweater and shapeless jeans with flat brown shoes. The woman was smiling at Seth and the baby on his hip, staring intently on their features. Willow had curled her hand around the collar of his shirt and was busy gurgling in his ear. Neither of them said anything for a long moment, but she kept on smiling sweetly.
"How did you know where I live?" he gasped.
Chris walked down the stairs after his phone call to see Seth standing at the door with Willow, looking at the person on the porch as though he was looking at a ghost. He watched Seth's chest rise and fall heavily and his eyes glass over. "Hey, who is it?" he asked, rounding the corner to stand next to him and get a look at who made Seth act this way.
The woman formed a little "O" of surprise and seemed to take a step back for a second, realizing before saying, "Oh! I'm sorry. I didn't…I didn't realize."
"This is my husband, Chris." Seth said as though she hadn't backed up, as though she remained silent. He didn't even blink. Chris grinned nervously, wondering who the hell this woman was and why she was staring at his daughter like that. "Chris," Seth said, not turning to look at him, "This is my mom."
* * *
"I'm so sorry to intrude," Helen said after a while from sitting at the table. Willow was in her lap, giggling as the woman tickled her. "I just had to see you."
"Why now?" Seth murmured darkly, watching her carefully from across the table. Chris poured coffee at the counter, shooting a look.
Helen was silent for a moment. "I never stopped thinking about you, Seth." She whispered. "I always wanted to visit. But I was afraid that after all these years, you wouldn't want to see me." She bounced Willow. "I read about you in the newspaper all the time." Seth watched a smile blossom on her face, one he remembered only from photographs.
Chris set down a cup of coffee in front of Seth and his mother, sitting next to him quietly. He watched a thousand thoughts race through Seth's mind suddenly. But he didn't voice a single one. Instead, his hand wrapped around the warm ceramic of the mug.
"You're a doctor. I had heard that from the paper." Helen observed, setting down the coffee in front of her, jigging Willow on her leg. "What field?"
"Emergency." Seth said tensely.
"I always knew you'd go far. You're so bright, Seth."
"You missed everything, Mom." Seth said suddenly. "My entire childhood. My graduations. My acceptance into med school." His hand fell atop of Chris's. "My wedding. My children."
"Seth, honey…" Helen said, tears filling her eyes. "That doesn't mean I ever stopped loving you, that doesn't mean I never thought of you. Every birthday, every Christmas. Every time I thought I saw a little boy who looked like you or a little girl who looked like Danielle. I never stopped being your mother."
"That means nothing to me."
"Seth," Chris tried, hand on his shoulder. Seth shook him off.
"You left us alone. You didn't even bother to write. Dad died of a heart attack four years ago, and I bet you don't care. I bet you didn't even know."
"I knew," she whispered slowly, turning away as tears streamed down her face. "I understand why you hate me. I'd hate me, too. But I'm trying now, Seth. Please, let me in."
Seth stood abruptly and left the room. Chris heard his footsteps overhead. For a long time, Chris stayed silent and so did Helen. Tears continued to stream, but she wiped them away with her sleeve. He bit his lip, torn between going after Seth and wanting to give him some time.
"You have a beautiful home," Helen said with a sniffle, stemming the tears.
"Thank you," Chris said, forcing a smile.
"How long have you two been…married for?" she asked after a pause, figuring she would get more answers out of her son-in-law than she would out of Seth.
"Twenty years." He replied. Helen smiled softly, looking down at Willow's face and stroking her cheek serenely.
"How many children do you have?"
"Four. Willow's the youngest. Luke is nine and he's at soccer practice. Lacie is seven and she's at a play date with a friend. Sophia's the oldest. She's almost sixteen."
"And where is she?"
"Upstairs in her room." Chris said, turning as though she'd be there.
"Why don't you tell me about you and Seth? You two look so…happy." She said, glancing around at all the photos.
Chris grinned at the prospect. What was he going to say? They used to be perfect when they looked flawed. And now they were flawed when they looked perfect. "There isn't much to tell. We met at UVA. He was pre-med, I was pre-law. We started dating and, two years later, we were married."
"So, you're lawyer?"
Chris smiled. "No, I changed my major the year I met Seth. English. I was going to edit, but then we had the kids and he was getting paid nicely. So I'm a stay at home dad now."
There was a pause that hung between them again. "I've missed so much." She said faintly, still staring down into Willow's face. "I hope he at least talks to me."
Chris nodded, hoping for the same thing.
Chris and Joey had been inside helping each other with dinner and Seth outside with the horses when it happened. There was a cracking sound and Seth screamed at the top of his lungs. One of the horses cried and then Seth shouted, "Dad!"
Immediately, Chris and Joey bolted outside, the screen door swinging shut behind them. Seth was crouched at Lace's side. She was struggling to get up, whinnying and in pain. "Shh, girl, it's okay." Seth said although he was crying. He placed both of his hand on her right front leg, then to no one in particular, "She fell hard."
"Oh my God…" Chris murmured, watching the tears steam down Seth's face as he desperately tried to calm the horse and to get her to stop moving. Joey had disappeared from next to him. "What happened?"
"I-I have no idea. She was running and then she…"
Lace let out a cry of pain and writhed.
"I know, girl." Seth sobbed, stroking her face. "It's gonna be okay."
Joey had reappeared again, holding a gun that he aimed at the horses face. Seth caught sight of it and leapt in front of the line of fire. "No!" he cried. "You c-can't!" his chest hitched with every breath and Chris could tell that with every whimper the horse made, Seth's heart broke more.
"Seth, you know as well as I do that she's gotta be put down."
"You can't do that to her! Call the vet!"
"He's gonna tell you the same-"
"Call the vet!" Seth screamed again.
It took ten minutes for the vet to race over to the Grafton's. The entire time, Seth refused to leave Lace's side. She still grunted with pain and squirmed, not understanding what was happening to her or why. When the man approached them, wearing jeans and a plain tee shirt, he examined her front leg quickly. The entire process didn't take long. He simply shook his head at Seth. "She can't heal properly with this type of fracture, Seth."
He was still crying, stoking Lace's nose. "Is there anything we can do?"
The vet shook his head again. "I'm sorry, Seth. She's in a lot of pain."
Seth wiped away his tears and nodded. The vet worked quickly, inserting the syringe and pushing down on the plunger. The horse snorted, blinking up at Seth who was crying harder. He refused to leave her side. He didn't stop petting her. Long after her heart stopped beating, Seth stayed there, kneeling next to her face.
Seth didn't say anything the rest of the night. At midnight, an hour after they had gone to bed, Chris heard him sniffling. It was still strange to imagine Seth crying at all, let alone this much or this long. It tore his heart to shreds at the mere thought, at the very sound.
Chris reached for him and Seth curled into his open arms, tears falling on Chris's chest. "I know, Seth. I understand."
He laid there, unable to do anything but offer mute comfort as Seth cried against him. That was it. And that, Chris figured, was what hurt the most.
In his dream, he was watching Seth sob. He was bleeding from a gaping wound in his chest, a hole that was jagged at the edges, dark with blood. The closer he got to him, the more Seth bled, the louder his cries got.
"Seth," he tried. "What happened?"
Then, he held out his still beating heart to Chris, eyes opaque and lifeless. "Take it," Seth said in the dream, arms, hands and torso still bloody. "You've already gone through the trouble of ripping it out." And, suddenly, that's when Chris realized that his own hands and shirt were bloody.
He woke with a start, panting and covered in a sheer layer of freezing sweat, as though his hands would be actually covered with his husband's blood. Immediately, he looked to the sleeping body of Seth next to him, checking for a hole in his chest, an empty space where his heart should be. Nothing.
"Chris?" Seth asked groggily, eyelids fluttering. "What's going on? It's two in the morning."
"B-bad dream," he gasped, leaning back down.
Seth rolled over, pressed against him. Chris felt his lips against his shoulder. "It was just a dream, everything's fine. Go back to bed."
He couldn't. Because it wasn't just a dream. And Chris was all too aware of that.