The panic was evident on Chris’s face as he tried to digest the words Scott had just spoken. Somehow they just didn’t register. He glanced over at his mother and noticed she was crying, the tears were streaming down her face and her eyes were red-rimmed. All at once it hit him and Chris felt as if he’d been shot. He dropped to the steps, putting his head in his hands and repeating the word “No,” over and over until it came out in a scream.
His head shot up and he looked at Scott, “Please tell me that you’re not saying she’s dead?” Chris stood up and reached for Scott’s shirt, balling the fabric in his hands and getting in Scott’s face, “Tell me she’s not dead, Scott!”
Scott’s face displayed the fear and anguish that he knew was only magnified in his brother’s grief. “I wish I could, Chris,” Scott tried to hold off the tears. He hated to tell his brother this type of news, and more so, he hated to see the pain in his brother’s eyes. “Man, I am so sorry.”
Lisa Evans reached out and touched her eldest son’s shoulder, “Let him go, Chris. I know it hurts, but let Scott go and come sit down a minute.” As Chris let Scott go he turned to look at his mom, she was gesturing for him to sit on the step. Lisa took a seat next to him and wrapped her arm around his shoulders, “John called and gave Scott the news and then he called me to come over. We don’t have all of the details, we just know that Henry was in school and not in the car. Evidently, Darby was with her when it happened, though.”
Chris’s head snapped and he looked at his mom, “Is Darby alright? Were her kids in the car?”
Scott spoke up to give the information he knew, “John didn’t mention his children, but he said that Darby is alive and she’ll be okay. He didn’t go into details about her injuries, and I didn’t ask. He was real upset, though.”
Chris rubbed his hands on his thighs, “I need to get a flight to Atlanta. I need to be there for Henry.”
Lisa pulled Chris a little closer to her, “We’ve already got it covered. I called Jim, he’s arranging to get a chartered flight to get us all down to Atlanta. He and Meghan will fly down and be on standby for you and handle any media issues that come up.”
“I’m not concerned with that right now,” Chris said in a biting tone.
“I know that, but they need to be prepared and take care of anything that comes up because you won’t be able to. Don’t be angry because we’re trying to protect you and Henry from the media, Chris.”
His head dropped and his shoulders slumped, “Sorry, yeah I didn’t think about that. Oh God, this isn’t happening.”
Lisa rested her head on Chris’s shoulder, “Carly and Ryan are getting everyone together and they’ll meet us at the airport. Carly called your dad and Guillermo.”
Chris rubbed his hands down his thighs and without saying anything, untangled himself from his mother’s embrace and stood up. “I had just finished packing for Disney, so I need to repack my bags. I’ll be back downstairs in a few minutes,” he turned and slowly walked up the steps without saying anything further.
Scott watched as his brother moved up the stairway and towards his bedroom, “Why isn’t he lashing out?” He looked over at his mom, shock mixed into the sadness in his eyes.
Lisa stood from the steps and walked towards her youngest son, pulling him in for a hug. “He’s in shock, Scott and he’s not really sure how to react. In a matter of seconds, his entire world was turned upside down. It’ll hit him and we just need to be there for him when it does.”
Scott pulled back, “Is anyone calling Josh to tell him what happened?”
“I think Carly was going to ask Guillermo to do that. There’s a chance John might have already called him, though,” Lisa offered as she turned to look up at Chris’s room.
“Ma, is he going to be okay?”
“I hope so, but this is going to hurt for a while.”
~ * ~
Scott and Lisa waited for almost thirty minutes for Chris to repack his bags and return downstairs. He didn’t speak as he walked out to the car and put his things in the trunk and got into the backseat. Chris never argued or attempted to drive. Usually, he made a big deal about wanting the be in control and drive and not feeling safe when Scott or Lisa drove. Today, however, he was willingly handing over the keys. He quickly texted John, he had his number thanks to the missed calls, and let him know he was on his way to the airport to fly down. Chris didn’t have the courage to speak with John at the moment; he wasn’t sure his voice or his emotions could hold it together long enough to handle the conversation.
John texted back and let him know that he was staying up at the hospital with Darby, but Noah’s parents were watching Henry. Chris was welcome to stay at John and Darby’s home if he wanted, they were prepared for him. Chris sent him a text back and said he would find out from Henry where he would be comfortable, and they would let John know. Chris asked about Darby’s injuries, John said he didn’t want to discuss them right now, he wanted to just get Chris settled and to take care of Henry. This made Chris think that Darby’s injuries were quite severe and he worried if she would pull through. He didn’t want to ask that question of John, at least not right now, and certainly not via text.
When Chris looked up, he realized Scott was pulling onto the tarmac at the airport and saw his entire family waiting for their arrival. He noticed that Guillermo was standing off to the side talking with Josh. The realization slammed into him, Josh and Mallory were close, and this was a jolt for him, too. He hadn’t even thought of Josh.
As the car stopped, Chris pulled himself out of the backseat and pulled his shoulders back. He braced himself for the onslaught of the family that would move forward to give their condolences, most likely to the point of practically smothering him. However, it was as if they didn’t approach him. Well, there was an exception or two. As Chris began walking toward the plane his nephew, Miles, and his niece, Stella, came running toward him. Ryan and Carly reacted and came toward them, but Chris waved them off. He bent down and the kids wrapped their arms around his neck.
“Hey guys,” Chris choked out as he stood, both kids hanging on and wrapping their legs around him.
“Momma say you sad,” Stella murmured as she placed her hand on Chris’s cheek and wiped away a tear. “Me sad now.”
Miles put his head on Chris’s shoulder, “I love you, Uncle Chris.”
“I love you both,” Chris gave both of them a kiss and then turned back to his niece, “I don’t want you to be sad, Stella.” He hugged the kids a little tighter and then started walking toward the plane. He couldn’t see his mom standing behind him, she was crying into Scott’s shoulder.
As Chris approached Carly and Ryan, they each took one of their kids from him and moved to board the plane. Chris walked away while everyone else boarded the plane. He didn’t want to talk to anyone and didn’t want them staring at him with pity in their eyes. When everyone had boarded, Chris stepped up and into the plane, taking a seat at the front. This wasn’t his usual position when he flew on the private plane. He generally sat toward the back in one of the seats that were grouped together. Instead, he was seated in a chair that faced forward, his back to everyone else. The only other passenger that sat up front with him was Josh, and he was across the aisle from him.
All conversations halted when Chris took his seat. In fact, everyone on the plane remained quiet until after take off. When they were in the air, and Chris put his earbuds in, Robert Evans leaned forward and spoke to his former wife, Lisa. “How’s he holding up? Has he broken down yet or is he still keeping it all bottled up?”
“He’s doing about as expected, keeping it all bottled up. I think he’s still in shock,” Lisa glanced toward the front of the plane. “Maybe you can talk to him, Bob. He needs to break down and get it out of his system. I’m worried about him, and I know Scott is, too.”
“I am, too,” Carly chimed in, “I’ve never seen him look so lost before. It hurts to see him like this.”
Ryan, Chris’s brother-in-law, leaned forward and joined the conversation, “He has a son to be strong for, maybe he feels like he can’t afford to breakdown right now because of Henry. I’m not saying it’s the right thing to do, but Chris is an emotional guy, and maybe he needs to fight that for Henry.”
“Well, Henry needs to cry,” Shanna spoke up. “Maybe Chris thinks he’ll let his emotions out with Henry. Instead of judging what Chris should do, let’s just support him. He’s in pain, that’s for sure.”
Lisa glanced forward again, “Yeah, and so is Josh. Were his parents not able to come along?” Lisa looked over at Carly and Ryan to see if they knew the answer.
“No, they couldn’t leave tonight, so they’re packing up some stuff and heading down tomorrow. They’re bringing the attorney Mallory had in Boston, I guess it has something to do with the inheritance she had from her parents.”
“How did Josh take the news?” Scott asked, wondering if the reaction was similar or different from his brother.
“He broke down, or that’s what Guillermo said. I guess he hadn’t talked to her in a few days, she had called him and he told her he didn’t have time to talk. He had told her he wasn’t interested in hearing about the drama with Chris. So, he’s got some guilt over his last conversation with her being short and snippy because he never called her back,” Carly explained to them.
Ryan raised his chin at the front of the plane, “He’s been tearing up the entire time. He hasn’t talked to Chris at all and I think their relationship is still awkward. This might actually be an opportunity for them to mend their fences.”
Chris was listening to music, but he was sure that his family was talking about him behind his back. He had stolen a glance at Josh a few times and noticed his friend had been crying but had recently dozed off. The thoughts that kept running through his mind as he stared out the window at the evening sky had to do with how he would handle talking to Henry and how he would keep his emotions in check. He also figured he would have to talk to Josh at some point; that conversation worried him more than he was willing to admit out loud to anyone.
The flight attendant stepped forward to let everyone know they would be making their descent into Atlanta very shortly. She wanted them to prepare themselves.
Before preparing for landing, Guillermo appeared next to Chris. Tapping him on the arm to get his attention, he began to speak, “Sorry to bother you, man. I wanted you to know I have several cars at the airport for us. There are hotel reservations for everyone but you and Josh, I think you two were going to head out to John and Darby’s, right?”
Chris cleared his throat, “Um, yeah. We’re going out to get Henry,” Chris said, looking up and over at Josh.
“Ok, well I talked to John, he said Henry is at Noah’s. He’s been told the news, Chris and he was pretty shaken up, as you can imagine. They had to give him a sedative to calm him down.” As Guillermo said the words, Chris’s heart began to break even more. The fact that he wasn’t there when he son had to be given the most devastating news was more painful than everything else he was feeling. Guillermo could see the pain register on his friend’s face, “Do you want me to drive you guys out there? I’ve got no issue doing it, that’s what you have me around for.”
“No, but thanks. I think this is something Josh and I need to do alone.”
Guillermo stood and took his seat and waited for the plane to land. As the wheels hit the ground the plane pulled to a stop on the tarmac, everyone stepped off the plane and noticed the waiting vehicles. Chris took off for the sedan, leaving the SUV and the minivan for everyone else. Scott and Lisa started to follow Chris, insisting they were going to ride with him.
He turned to face them, “No, I want Josh to ride with me. The two of us are heading to the same place, the rest of you are heading to the hotel.” He could see his mom preparing to protest. “Ma, look, I know you’re worried, but Josh and I need to do this part alone. We both need to see Henry. I’ll call you tomorrow, okay?”
Lisa nodded, although she absolutely hated what he had to say. She could at least understand where he was coming from.
Chris slid into the driver’s seat of the sedan and waited for Josh to get in. Josh appreciated the invite, but this was awkward. He hadn’t talked to Chris since the night they all went out and Mallory got the wrong idea about the girl. Even though Josh was the one who smoothed it over for him, Chris never called him and talked to him about it. And Josh was confident that Chris knew he had put distance in his relationship with Mallory as well. As the drove, neither man spoke. Both of them were afraid to talk and they didn’t know how to start a conversation. It wasn’t until they were close to Mallory’s house that the realization hit Chris, he didn’t know which house was Noah’s. He remembered Mallory saying it was across the street and down a few houses but she didn’t say in which direction. Or did she and he didn’t remember? And how many houses was it? His head was swimming, he was having a hard time concentrating the closer they got to her house. She wasn’t going to be there. The pain in his chest became more prominent, he had to pull off the highway.
“What’s wrong, Chris?” Josh asked suddenly, “Are you okay?” Josh knew that Chris wasn’t okay in the sense of losing Mallory but he was clutching his chest and that signaled something entirely different.
Chris put the car in park and turned off the ignition. He then leaned forward against the steering wheel, his arm still clutching at his shirt. “She’s gone, Josh. I’ve spent the last two weeks having terse conversations just so I could talk to Henry. I loved her, and we spent the final days of her life arguing and fighting.” Chris just stared out the front windshield, but he had not broken down, no tears, just anguish in his voice and pain in his chest. “I’ve spent all this time fighting because I wanted Henry. I wanted to be his father and be present in his life. Well, now I got what I want, and it feels so fucking empty without her.”
Josh was the one who couldn’t hold back the tears. Chris’s declaration was heartbreaking, and he could tell that the pain was real. This wasn’t him acting for a role or trying to impress anyone, this was genuine. “Chris, you can get through this. You’ve got an amazing support system and you need to lean on them through this. For once, don’t try doing this on your own. Henry’s going to need you and he’s going to need his extended family, too.”
“I’m sorry, Josh. I’m sorry this drove a wedge in our friendship. Just so you know, I’m gonna need you, too,” he turned to look at his good friend and assistant in the seat next to him. “You’ve been a constant in Henry’s life for a long time, he trusts you. Hell, he might trust you more than he trusts me.”
Josh gave him a quizzical look, “He still doesn’t know, does he?” Chris shook his head in response to the question. “Oh shit! So, he loses his mom and finds out about you at the same time? We’re gonna have a shit storm you know that, right?”
“Yeah, I know. I have no clue how I’m going to tell him I’m his dad and I’m here to help him bury his mom,” for the first time Chris’s voice started to crack. “Will you help me tell him that he’s my son? I mean, he’s gonna need a familiar face around, and I think if you and maybe John are there, it might go easier.”
A faint smile crossed Josh’s lips, “I can do that, Chris.”
“Thanks, now can you tell me which house is Noah’s? I have no fucking clue where I’m going,” Chris let out a light chuckle as he started the car and put it into gear. As he pulled back onto the highway, the tension in the car was eased, and Chris felt as if the weight on his shoulders had eased somewhat.
Chris pulled the car into the driveway at Noah’s; the lights were on in the living room and Chris could see movement in the house. He didn’t see Henry, but he saw a young boy and he assumed that was Noah. Josh walked around the front of the car and put his hand on Chris’s shoulder, “You ready for this?” Chris gave a nod and the two men walked toward the door.
As they approached the front door, it opened automatically and a tall gentleman stepped out onto the porch. He extended his hand, “Hi, I’m Erik, Noah’s father and you must be Chris,” he then turned to Josh, “Hey, Josh, nice to see you again just wish it was under different circumstances.”
“I agree, Erik. How’s Henry doing?”
Erik pulled the door shut behind him, “He’s asleep upstairs, he had to be given a sedative to calm him down. He’s a mess as you can imagine and he just keeps talking about how he had been causing problems for his mom recently. He doesn’t know where she was before the accident, he just knows it was a car accident out on the highway. He thinks it’s his fault.”
Chris and Josh had exchanged glances before Chris spoke up. “Where was she? I mean, it sounds like she was someplace she doesn’t normally go, so Henry doesn’t know about it. What aren’t you saying?”
Erik bowed his head, “I’m an attorney as well and John confided the situation when he asked me to take care of Henry until you got here. I’m aware that you’re Henry’s father and I’m bound by confidentiality but John made me sign an NDA to keep your privacy intact.”
“Ok, that’s great but it doesn’t answer my question. What aren’t you telling me?”
“Mallory was at her lawyer’s office before the accident. She had a meeting with him and I don’t know the details. Darby was in the meeting with her but her injuries are pretty severe and she isn’t talking yet. John doesn’t know the specifics and I’m not even sure if they’ve told Mark yet about Mallory’s accident. I just know she was there and it had to do with Henry, so presumably, it had to do with you and with custody.”
Chris raked his hand through his hair and fear washed over him in a cold sweat. He suddenly felt sick and sat down on the steps that he had just walked up to the porch. Josh looked down at him, “Chris, what’s wrong? You look like you’re gonna be sick.”
Chris tried to swallow the lump that was in his throat. The wave of nausea had passed and he stood up, “I had a visit with my attorney earlier this week and filed a petition to be added to Henry’s birth certificate. They were going to send a notice to Mallory advising it was happening,” his voice trailed off.
“You didn’t kill her, Chris,” Josh spoke up, he could tell what Chris was thinking.
“Chris,” Erik spoke up, “I’m sorry, I truly am. But Josh is right, you didn’t kill her, the driver of the truck did that. Henry is feeling guilt and you need to make sure he stops beating himself up. Heed your own advice to him, it’s not your fault either. I’ve got a key to John and Darby’s house for you to stay there. John said the bonus room over the garage is set up for the two of you.”
“Where are John and Darby’s kids?” Josh asked, the thought suddenly dawning on him.
“John’s parents have them.”
“Is Darby going to be okay? I feel bad for not asking that already,” Chris offered quietly.
“It’ll be a long road with rehab, but eventually she’ll be okay. They’re keeping her sedated as well, she’s having a hard time with the fact that she watched Mallory die.”
“Erik, how did it happen?” Josh asked, “We’ve not been told much other than it was an accident.”
Erik blew out a breath, “She was hit by a semi, he slammed into the driver side of her car and spun them through an intersection where they were hit by a few other cars from the opposite direction.” Erik stopped and let the words sink in, watching the realization of the brutality of the accident wash over both Chris and Josh. Both men stood stoic, but Erik could tell they were fighting to keep it together. “She went instantly, she didn’t suffer. The paramedics confirmed it, but Darby had said after the car stopped moving she knew immediately. Henry doesn’t know the details other than it was an accident and she didn’t suffer. We’ve kept him away from the news.”
Erik turned and opened the door to the house and Josh and Chris followed him in. Erik’s wife, Christine, was standing at the entrance to the living room along with Noah and his sister, Hannah; they were all red-eyed from crying. Christine stepped forward and embraced Chris, “I’m so very sorry.”
Chris held on to her sensing she needed the hug just as much as he did. “Thank you,” he replied softly.
As he pulled away, Christine tried to pull herself together and she hastily introduced Noah and Hannah. “Erik, do you want to take him up to get Henry?” As Chris began to follow Erik up the steps, Christine moved to embrace Josh. Chris could hear their sobs as he rounded the top step and walked down the hallway.
Erik cracked open the door to the guest bedroom and the light from the hallway illuminated Henry’s sleeping form on the bed. He was in the fetal position and wrapped up in a blanket; he looked peaceful even though Chris knew it had been a rough day for him. Chris entered the room and stood next to the bed, unsure of what to do.
“If you want to keep him wrapped up in that blanket to take him home, you can. It might be easier than trying to fight to put his coat on him,” Erik whispered over Chris’s shoulder. Chris nodded in understanding.
Chris bent over and picked up Henry who immediately put his head on Chris’s shoulder. Chris pulled Henry’s legs around him and Erik helped tuck the blanket around Henry’s body.
“You got him?” Erik asked, wanting to make sure there wasn’t an issue before they started walking.
“Yeah, I’ve got him,” Chris replied and began moving toward the hallway. When Chris got to the base of the steps, he turned and looked at Josh, “Would you care to drive? I’ll sit in the back with Henry, I don’t really want to put him down.”
“Um, yeah, no problem. Where are the keys?”
Chris gestured his head to the left, “Jacket pocket.” Josh reached into the pocket, careful not to disturb Henry, and retrieved the keys.
“Here are the keys to John and Darby’s house,” Erik offered, extending a key ring to Josh. Christine grabbed a set of keys from the end table in the living room and handed them to Erik. He gave her a questioning look and she gestured for him to go on. “These are the keys to Mallory’s house. John wasn’t sure if Henry would want to be at home and what you might want to do. He was afraid staying at her house might be too difficult, which is why he offered their house.” Erik gave a firm look at his wife.
“Thank you,” Josh said, accepting the keys from Erik’s hand. “We’ll talk about it and determine what’s best for Henry.” Chris opened the front door and walked out, he was having a hard time keeping it together. “Look, he’s having a really hard time with this right now. Please don’t think he’s rude, I’m waiting for him to break down.”
“I don’t think he’s rude at all,” Erik offered, placing his hand on Josh’s shoulder. “He’s got a lot to deal with and I’m sure this isn’t easy. Just call us if you need anything, okay?”
“Thanks, I appreciate it and I know he does too,” Josh gave each of them a warm hug and stepped outside to get into the car. He noticed that Chris had slid into the backseat and was still hold Henry. Josh started the car and then cleared his throat, “So, do you want to stay at John’s or take Henry home?”
Chris moved his head, resting it against Henry’s. “I’m not sure I can handle being in her house without her,” he began, “But I think it’s where Henry needs to be. He needs to be surrounded by his stuff and have a sense of home, even if that’s changed.”
Josh noticed as Chris was talking that a single tear was streaming down his cheek. The façade was beginning to crack. “I agree, let’s take him home.” Josh put the car in reverse and backed out of the driveway. “I’ll leave the car running and go up and unlock the house and turn on the lights before you get out. That way it isn’t so dark.”
Chris nodded and watched as Josh approached the front door. He noticed that Josh was having a hard time, his hand on the door and his shoulders were starting to shake. After a few minutes, Josh pushed open the front door and Chris watched as the lights came on throughout the house. The garage door opened and Josh stepped out and slid into the front seat, pulling the car forward.
Josh turned off the car and as he stepped out, he pulled open the back door so Chris could exit. “Thanks,” Chris offered as he stood up, all the while keeping Henry wrapped in his arms. “I’ll carry him up to bed and be back down in a few.”
“I’ll get the bags out of the car and meet you in the kitchen. You want some coffee?”
Chris nodded and entered the house, leaving Josh alone in the garage.
~ * ~
Chris walked up the stairs and noticed the door to Mallory’s room was closed. He wasn’t sure if Josh had done that or if John had done it when he came to the house earlier. Whoever had done it, he was thankful. As he had walked through the kitchen and up the stairs her scent was already overpowering. He could feel her in the house and he began to wonder if it was such a smart idea to come back here.
Chris entered Henry’s room and noticed the bed was pulled back; Josh had definitely done this. Chris slowly lowered Henry to the bed and tucked him, then kissed his head. Henry’s eyes fluttered and Chris was afraid he would wake up. Instead, he repositioned himself and went right back to sleep.
Chris sat on the floor with his back against the dresser and just stared at his sleeping son. He wasn’t quite ready to walk out of the room. The thoughts were swirling in his head as to how he would explain everything to Henry and when. Chris remembered that Mallory wanted to wait until after Christmas, she wanted one more happy holiday before she had to worry about her son being mad at her. Now, she was gone, and Henry would be spending Christmas without her. It wasn’t lost on Chris that if Henry didn’t find out the truth about his father, he would spend the holiday thinking he was an orphan.
The tears started to fall and Chris wasn’t sure if he could stop them, even if he wanted to. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone and clicked on his messages. He decided to send a quick text to John and let him know he was in town and had Henry.
Wanted you to know I’ve got Henry, we’re at Mallory’s and he’s still asleep. I’ll call you tomorrow. Thanks and give Darby my love.
Chris had the alerts off, he didn’t want to wake Henry when the response came back. It only took a few minutes for the phone to buzz in his hand, though. John sent a quick text back.
Glad you made it safe, talk to you tomorrow. We’re here for you and Henry, whatever you need.
Chris stayed seated on the floor, pulling himself together and watching Henry sleep. He always snickered when he heard new parents say they watched their kids sleep, but know he understood. He got up and kissed Henry’s head one more time, then slowly and quietly exited the room, pulling the door closed behind him.