Sophia sat curled on the couch with a worn book. Her hair was pulled back and she was wearing pajama bottoms and a hoodie, turning the yellowed pages serenely. Chris bit his lip, watching from the kitchen briefly before striding into the den and trying to make eye contact with her. “Soph,” he started lowly. “Can we talk?”
She raised her eyebrows and let them droop, pursing her lips and not taking her eyes off of the page she was on. All in all, she ignored him pointedly. Chris sat beside her.
Again, she gave him nothing. Chris watched her intently for a good few minutes as tears slowly filled her eyes. Sophia dragged the sleeve of the hoodie across her eyes and blinked hard, finding her place back on the book.
“I have nothing to say to you.” She said darkly, her voice wavering with sorrow. Even as she said it, she didn’t look away from the book in her hands. With his heart seizing in his chest, Chris clasped his hands together.
“We should talk about it. I just want you to-”
“I don’t want to talk about it, okay?!” she cried suddenly, dropping the book and letting her tears fall openly before staunching the flow with the hoodie sleeve. Chris watched her, unsure, mouth agape. He tried to find the words he wanted to tell her. But they would not bubble to the surface, no matter how hard he tried to get his throat to work. “You…you ruined everything.” She hiccupped.
“I made a mistake. I’m so sorry. I never meant to hurt you kids. Or your father.”
“But that’s exactly what you ended up doing.” She snapped, standing and stomping towards the stairs. With her hand on the banister, she hung her head and half turned, whispering so he had to strain to hear her. “I wish it had been you that left and not him.”
Her words cut through him like a dagger, ripping through him easily. She was gone before she could hear his murmured, “Me, too.”
“Regency Medical Associates?” Asked the cool voice on the other side of the phone. Chris paced slowly in the kitchen. The house was empty except for him and Willow, the usual for a Monday. The kids had gone to school and Seth…
Chris cleared his throat. “H-hi, I’m Christian Grafton and I’m calling about my blood work? I, uh…I had missed your call on Friday.” He said nervously.
“One moment please,” the voice replied and then the line went blank. A cold sweat broke out over the back of his neck and he felt his heart race under his shirt. Jesus. How long could it take to pull out a stupid file?
He felt like he had waited for hours when another voice answered the phone. “Mr. Grafton?” she asked.
“Yes, yes. I’m still here.”
“Okay, Mr. Grafton. Your test results look good. Everything is clear, you’ve tested negative.”
Sudden relief washed over him and he exhaled slowly, a grin spreading on his face. “And…you’re sure?” he breathed.
“Yes, sir.” The woman said, slight laugh. “We’re quite sure. Is there anything else I can help you with?”
Chris took a second to regain himself. “No, thank you.” He said, because he couldn’t think of how to tell her that she had just released him from hell. In the wake of the news, Chris had seemingly forgotten basic social intercourse.
“Have a good day, Mr. Grafton.”
“Yes, you, too.”
He placed the phone back in its caddy and took deep, cleansing breaths. Everything was okay. If he wasn’t infected, then neither was Seth. He had nothing to worry about. Neither of them did. But then everything came crashing down on him suddenly. They did have things to worry about.
Like the fact that Seth more or less moved out.
Even though Chris was past elated about the news of testing negative for HIV, he couldn’t help but think that if he had never gotten tested, his life wouldn’t have fallen apart. If he hadn’t gotten tested, then Seth wouldn’t have accidentally intercepted that phone call that tipped him off to Chris’s bad behavior. Then all of his dirty secrets could’ve remained just that.
The thought clutched him roughly. Secrets. He couldn’t do that to Seth. He couldn’t keep secrets from him like that. Even though that was what he had done for months as this whole ordeal was going on. Chris swore, though, even while it was happening, that he would indeed tell Seth eventually. After all, he couldn’t let it drag on. He couldn’t keep breaking those wedding vows he made to Seth so very long ago. He couldn’t keep silently cutting him like that, either.
* * *
“Willow, please. It’s time to go nighty-night.” Chris tried, desperate. It was ten at night and Willow was throwing another tantrum, jumping up and down on her bed and crying. He heard Luke and Lacie in the bathroom, fighting over elbow room as they brushed their teeth. Sophia was in her room, watching a movie on her laptop.
“No!” Willow cried. “I want a story!”
“Okay,” Chris sighed, defeated. “What story would you like me to read?”
“No!” she yelled again. “I want Daddy to read me a story!”
Chris swallowed, bit his bottom lip and contemplated before answering. “Daddy’s not here right now, Willow.” He reasoned softly.
“I want Daddy!” she screamed.
“Daddy’s working, honey. I’ll read you a story.”
“NO!” Willow shouted, jumping up and down, her face red with rage. “DADDY! I want Daddy!”
He pulled a hand through his hair and stood up, “Okay, Willow. I understand. But Daddy’s not here. Okay? Daddy’s working.” She continued to cry and fuss but Chris knew enough that he had to just leave her alone and let her work herself up until she was tired. “It’s time to go to bed now. Goodnight.” He told her before he shut off her light and closed her door.
“You shouldn’t lie to her,” Sophia said icily from her room. Chris stopped, shaking his head.
“What was I supposed to say to her?”
Chris rolled his eyes. “’Willow, Daddy can’t read you a story because he left us.’ No, Sophia.”
“Not us,” she said, her eyes smoldering and her arms folded over her chest. “You.”
Chris was tired. He was tired and he was physically exhausted. He was tired of thinking about Seth and tired of wishing he would come home. He was tired of sitting around waiting for a phone call that he knew was never going to come and getting let down whenever he went to bed with that vast empty space next to him. It was hard, going to bed without his spouse. He couldn’t remember the last time they spent a night apart before Seth walked out and Chris never considered how extremely lonely it would feel.
He strode past her, on the way to the master bedroom.
“She understands more than you think.”
“What do you mean?” he asked wearily, not turning to face her. He didn’t want to see the accusatory look on her face.
“She knows something happened. She knows Dad’s not at work. Give her more credit than that.” Sophia said. Her door clicked shut and Chris begged the tears not to come.
Seth touched Chris softly, running his fingertips lightly over bare skin and feeling goosebumps rising in their wake. Lips found their way to Chris’s neck, then his collarbone, then the hallow of his throat as Seth whispered words he couldn’t hear.
His hand dipped lower, causing Chris’s back to arch. Seth’s eyes flicked to hold Chris’s gaze before a smirk covered his lips. “Miss me yet?”
Chris woke up with his heart flat. There was absolutely no breath left in his body and his throat felt like it was rubbed with sandpaper. Cold tears prickled the sides of his eyes as he realized suddenly that none of that had actually happened.
The alarm clock said it was three o’clock and he found himself wondering what Seth was doing right now. Probably sleeping. Probably at Danielle’s. But still. There was that little part of him that wondered if he was laying wide awake in bed, too. If Seth was having similar dreams about him. If he thought about coming home.
Chris touched the empty space next to him that Seth used to occupy. The cold sheets under his fingertips left him feeling disappointed. Even though it had been two weeks, nothing seemed to be any easier. Not going to bed alone. Not waking up the same way. Not his kids acting like he was nothing more than a chef, a maid, and a chauffeur all rolled into one.
Not even being alone with himself, only left with the haunting ghosts of his horrible decisions.
He went through his life robotically. Mechanically. Chris made the dinners, shuttled the kids to practices and recitals and school. He did the cleaning, he folded laundry and put away toys. Day after day, week after week, he continued his automated routine. And, every night, week after week, he went to bed alone. Chris felt Seth’s absence everywhere from the pit of his stomach to the emptiness on the other side of the bed.
The phone calls came frequently at first. Old hookups, mostly. Some were numbers he didn’t recognize. He wouldn’t answer, instead letting every call roll over to voicemail where the caller would usually hang up. After a couple of weeks of not answering, eventually, they just stopped calling.
Seth would spend the weekends with the kids whenever he didn’t have long hours at the hospital, but hadn’t said a word to Chris since he left. But Chris didn’t complain when Sophia would tell him that they were going out with their dad for a movie or out to dinner. They needed to see their father, and Seth had every right to spend time with his kids. That didn’t stop the heavy lead feeling that washed over him when he would watch Seth’s car pull out of their driveway with their children in tow, wondering if he would ever forgive him.
Nearly every night, Seth flooded his dreams. He dreamt that Seth came home and kissed him, promising to never leave again. He dreamt that Seth was laughing. That he was chattering to Chris about his day. That his hands would hungrily pull at Chris’s shirt, at the fly of his jeans. Every time, though, every time, Chris would wake up and for those first few glorious moments, he would forget about everything. Suddenly, it would all come crashing back down on him with the weight of a freight train. That, he figured, was worse than anything else.
This happened for six weeks.
It was on a Friday night after dinner that Chris walked down the hallway, past the bathroom, to look for his misplaced cell phone on the off chance that Seth had texted or called. He stopped, however, when he got to the bathroom door, hearing the unmistakable sound of retching and splattering liquid on liquid. He waited, brows furrowed, and blinking at the white door. Chris listened as the toilet flushed and the tap turned on. There was a pause from inside the room and then the door opened.
Sophia blushed at the sight of him and set her eyes to the floor.
“Are you sick?” he asked her, worried, raising his palm to her forehead.
“No, I’m fine.” She muttered, trying to walk away.
Something clicked inside Chris’s mind. How little she ate. Excusing herself after meals to the bathroom. The fights at dinnertime and her intense exercise workouts. He grasped her upper arm to stop her. Sophia glared hard at him. “Did you…did you…” the words got caught in his throat as a cold sweat washed down his body. How could he not have noticed how thin she got? “Did you do make yourself-”
“It’s none of your business.” Sophia snapped suddenly, wrenching her arm from his grasp and trying to stalk up the stairs.
“Sophia!” Chris cried. “Come back here!” She got two steps up on the stairs when Chris bolted after her.
But she didn’t answer.
“You are going to come back here, Sophia. I’m talking to you! Sophia Grace!” Chris shouted at her back. “We are not through here!”
“Fine!” she turned around and screamed at him. She was red faced, with tears falling like crystal drops down her cheeks. Sophia stepped down the two steps she climbed and stood face-to-face with her father. “You want to know? I did do it. Okay? Are you fucking happy now?!”
He looked stunned, mouth opening and closing, staring at the person who used to be his daughter. “H-how long have you-”
“Oh, you’d love to know that, wouldn’t you? And maybe you would’ve realized a little sooner, but you didn’t. Why was that? Oh, yeah. Because you were too busy being a slut to notice.” White hot pain struck her left cheek suddenly. It took a few moments to realize what had happened. By that time, when she looked back at Chris, hand cupping her cheek, his palm was covering his mouth with tears hitting the side of his hand.
“Oh my God, Sophia. I’m so sorry.” Chris gasped quickly after he pulled his hand away from his lips. He hadn’t meant to strike her. Never had he and Seth ever hit one of them. They were a couple who didn’t believe in spanking or any form of corporal punishment. But frustration, anger, and depression had pulled his personality too far out of reach and impulse took over, and now there was Sophia standing in front of him with her cheek red and fresh tears falling. After everything that had happened between her and Ethan, neither could believe what he had done.
She stared at him, shocked, her hand never leaving her cheek. Broken trust fueled her movements of pushing past him and grabbing the doorknob.
“Sophia, please!” Chris tried. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to. Please,” his apology, he realized, must’ve sounded an awful lot like what Ethan might’ve told her after he hit her as well.
But she just wrenched the door open, glared through her tears and bolted out the door so fast that he couldn’t keep up with her if he tried his absolute hardest. He watched, shouting after her, pleading and begging until there was nothing left but a speck. Immediately, Chris was worried. He headed for the phone and dialed 911.
After explaining the situation, they told him that she wasn’t a missing person and she wasn’t a runaway. At least, not for twenty-four hours. Until then, they couldn’t do anything. Until then, she was just a teenager with an attitude problem and they were just a broken family that needed to get themselves together.
That didn’t stop Chris from worrying. He called Seth’s cell phone twice but got his voicemail both times. It took him an hour to calm down enough to sit down, eyes on the clock, hand on his cell phone, ready to get in the car and go pick her up wherever she was if she called.
And she would call. Soon, she would call and Chris would pick her up. He would try Seth again and explain Sophia’s condition. They would get her counseling and therapy and medication and anything that she needed. He and Seth would work on it, together.
Yes. Soon. Soon, Sophia would call.