Dad isn't coming.
It’s not the first time. Ms. Hernandez had felt sorry for him when she got off the phone, but he knows that Dad’s job means he can’t always be there. At his last school, they told Dad that if he couldn’t be there on time he would have to find somewhere else. That was fine: Chris didn’t like it much there anyway. He likes this school much better.
He scratches at his neck—the shirt Dad made him bring for the show was itchy. Chris thinks he probably forgot to wash it; he does that a lot. His Dad is the best, but Abuela is always saying that it’s hard for him to be a single father and work full-time, especially because Dad has to take him to so many appointments. Maybe he should work harder and then he couldn’t have to go anymore and then Dad wouldn’t need to work so much.
“Are we ready, musicians? We’re almost up!”
Ms. Hernandez is always happy. Chris likes that about her—even if he’s having a bad day, he knows that at 2:05, Ms. Hernandez will smile at him when he walks into the music room and it will make him feel like he just drank a big mug of hot chocolate.
They line up and when Chloe whispers that he can hold her hand if he wants, he does. He doesn’t need the help, but knowing that all his friends have their parents there, watching them with big smiles and taking pictures makes his heart hurt and Chloe’s hand is warm and she squeezes once they walk out into the bright lights of the stage.
And then Chris hears his name shouted—“yeah, Christopher!”—it’s Bucky. All his shivers melt away and he smiles as big as he can, takes a deep breath when Ms. Hernandez holds her hands wide, and starts to sing.
He hardly remembers the words. The lights are hot, but once his eyes adjust, he can see Buck’s familiar silhouette in the auditorium doorway. He wants to go off the front of the stage after the song is over, wants Bucky to lift him up and hug him tight, but he bows and follows his class—still holding Chloe’s hand—backstage.
Buck is already in the doorway and Chris doesn’t wait for permission to leave before breaking away. Buck meets him halfway and as soon as he scoops him up, Chris buries his head in Buck’s neck. He smells like dirt and fire, but it doesn’t bother him.
“Christopher,” Buck says softly. “You did such a great job, buddy. I’m so proud of you.”
Chris clings harder. “Thank you for coming,” he says. “I didn’t know how sad I was until I didn’t see Dad.”
Buck’s hand is rubbing his back. “Your Dad isn’t here?”
Chris shakes his head. “He called. There was a big accident and he has to help people.” He sighs, but doesn’t pull away from Buck. Instead, he whispers his worst secret into Buck’s ear. “I wish Dad didn’t want to help people so much.”
Bucky never judges him. Chris knows that his secret is safe, that Buck will hold it in his heart and never, ever tell anyone.
Chris feels Buck kiss his temple. “I know it’s hard for you,” Buck says. “I got a video though. Want me to send it to him?”
“Yeah,” Chris says. He wiggles around, pulls away a little so he can look at Buck. “Are you taking me home?”
“I’m still working, buddy,” Buck says. “Not with Dad, though, I’m with the 136 today. I’m just glad we made it here in time—there was a fire a few miles away and I was afraid I’d miss you. We have the truck out front, want to come see?”
It’s okay that Dad didn’t make it.
Tuesday is not a Buck day.
It’s a therapy day.
Chris hates therapy day. He leaves feeling like his body is a leaf, shaking, trembling, ready to be blown away. Dad always makes him walk to the truck after therapy, even though Chris says his legs feel like jelly.
Dad says it will make him strong, but all it does is make him feel weak.
Tuesday isn’t all bad; it’s also dinner-out day and Chris loves that part. Dad says that after work, school, and therapy, they deserve to not cook. Privately, Chris believes that he should get dinner out every night (because the alternative is that Dad cooks and no one deserves that).
He chooses Indian tonight. Buck was the one who first brought him to this restaurant, one cold day in November when Dad had to take Abuela to the doctor’s and Chris didn’t want to go. He hates how the clinic smells and he’s pretty sure that all the old people coughing will make him get sick. So he got to go to Buck’s that day (even though Dad looked at him with an irritated face and told Chris not to whine) and after they spent all their energy playing at the park, Buck brought him here.
These are the only kinds of vegetables that Chris likes. Dad calls it a modern-day miracle and Chris laughs even though it’s not funny.
Halfway through his tikka masala, Dad’s phone beeps.
“Is it work?”
“No,” Dad says, “just Buck.”
Chris cannot believe that just came out of his Dad’s mouth. Just Buck? Buck is everything. “What did he say? Does he want to come over?”
Dad rolls his eyes and Chris sticks his tongue out at him when he’s not looking. “He just sent a picture, Chris. Want to see?”
Of course he wants to see, but he’s disappointed when the picture is just of two different shirts with a question mark underneath it. “Why is he asking you about a shirt?”
“He wants to know which one is nicer,” Dad says and Chris is about to tell him that the green one is better when Dad says, “for his date tonight.”
He tightens his grip around his fork. The chicken in his stomach turns to stone, making him sink down, down and he feels so heavy. “The white one,” he says and he doesn’t feel bad at all for hoping that Buck spills something on it.
He tries to eat his food again, but it feels like dust in his mouth. After a few minutes, Dad’s foot nudges his under the table.“What’s goin’ on, buddy? You’ve usually cleared two plates by now.”
He’s not going to say anything. He doesn’t want Dad to worry about him, but he’s been working on his plan for so long and Buck is about to ruin it. “If Buck gets a boyfriend or girlfriend, he won’t come see us anymore,” he blurts out.
“Hey, Buck would never forget about you,” Dad says, reaching for his hand and squeezing it. “You're his best buddy. I’m pretty sure he likes you more than he likes me.”
Sometimes, he cannot believe that his Dad is so oblivious.
“I’m not hungry anymore,” Chris mutters, pushing his plate back.
“Not even if I ordered rice pudding?”
“Maybe a little hungry,” he allows and Dad shakes his head and laughs.
“Get to it,” Dad says. “I gotta drop you off at Abuela’s in an hour. I have some stuff to do tonight, so you’re staying with her tonight.”
“I don’t wanna go without Bucky,” he whines and Carla clicks her tongue at him.
“Christopher Diaz, you have done this plenty of times without Buck. You cannot fool me into thinking you aren’t capable, so get your little butt into the water.”
Chris sighs. Buck usually brings him to his water therapy appointments and sits on the edge, his legs dragging through the water. He started coming after the tsunami, when it was hard for Chris to get into the water, when he could still remember it throwing him around like he was weightless. Chris remembers crying so hard that Dad had jumped in the pool with him, still in his uniform, the first time back.
He begged Dad to quit, but Buck said he couldn’t because he couldn’t let fear win. The next week, Buck was waiting for him at the door. They went in the water together and even though Chris could feel Buck shaking against him, Buck never let him go.
Buck says he’ll always have his back.
He stops at the stairs and Carla sighs behind him. “Get in the water and we’ll send Buck a picture.”
Chris takes the first step.
When the phone rings in the middle of his math lesson, Christopher ignores it. He hates multiplication because his fingers don’t like to draw out the arrays the right way. Dad says: “sometimes you have to work harder than other people, that’s just life.” Chris knows he’s right, but he doesn’t have to be happy about it.
It surprises him when Mr. Pierce says, “Christopher, get your things. Your father’s here to take you home.”
Dad never picks him up early. He thinks that a good education is the most important thing a person can have.
Christopher thinks the most important thing a person can have is love.
It’s not Dad in the office, though, it’s Buck. Chris throws himself at him and he thinks Buck must miss him because he squeezes him extra hard. “Yes, he has an eye appointment,” Buck says to Ms. Cheri, the secretary. “He’s going home for the day, you know, because they do that dilation stuff.” When she turns around to get the sign-out folder, though, Buck whispers “jailbreak!” in his ear and Chris giggles.
Buck shushes him until they’re in the car, then he rolls all the windows down and whoops while Chris cheers in the back seat.
Chris thinks his heart might explode with happiness. He feels like his body is a firework and it’s the Fourth of July. “I can’t believe Dad let you get me!”
“Uh,” Buck says, “kinda didn’t tell your Dad.”
“You’re going to get in trouble!” Chris almost feels bad for Buck because he knows Dad is going to bring out his mad voice when he finds out. That’s later, though. He doesn’t need to worry about that now. “Where are we going?”
“I had a few ideas,” Buck says, “but I found a place where you could try indoor surfing. They’ve got a board you can use and they’ll let me stand next to you. But if that’s too-“
“I want to do that,” Chris says quickly, before Buck can talk him out of it. He’s wanted to learn to surf since Buck started taking lessons. He loves when he can be just like Buck.
The indoor pool is loud but he’s not scared until the water starts rushing over his feet on the board, then he grabs at Buck. The vest he’s in helps him stay up, but he still feels safest with Buck.
“You’re safe,” Buck says. “We can stop any time. I’ve got you.”
“What if I fall?”
“Then we get you right back up,” Buck says. “You ready, Superman?”
The mad look on Dad’s face when Buck brings him home that night is totally worth it, but it’s gone by the time Chris gets into his pajamas and Dad is asking Buck to stay for dinner.
Chris starts to dream up his best plan yet.
“What do you mean I have to go to Abuela’s?” Chris wails. “It’s movie night!”
Dad is using his patient voice. “I’m really sorry, Chris, but I have to work. We’re a little short at the station right now with everyone being sick.”
Christopher crosses his arms. It’s not fair. Last week, they missed movie night because Buck didn’t feel good and Dad had to go take care of him and he doesn’t want to miss two in a row. “Stupid work,” he mutters. He almost kicks the chair, but then Dad will give him The Look and tell Abuela not to let him have any horchata at dinner.
Unless Chris doesn’t go with Abuela ...
“Can I stay with Buck instead?”
“He’s working with me, buddy.”
Chris hates their work. “You don’t even care about me, you just care about other people,” he says, sinking down in his chair. He needs Buck to come over tonight. He has a plan. He was going to put on a scary movie, sit on Buck’s lap, and have Dad put his arm around them. He knows they love each other and he doesn’t know why they won’t just say it, but he’s been trying things for weeks now and he really thinks this one will work. But even if Dad has to work, Chris can still go to Buck’s and tell him all the best things about his Dad.
Dad’s voice is sad when he says “you know that’s not true,” but Chris is so mad that he puts his head down on the table and won’t look at him.
“You’re ruining everything,” he says.
“We can do movie night tomorrow,” Dad says. “I promise.”
Dad doesn’t get it. “Buck might have a date!” he says. “Then he’ll never come again and it’ll be all your fault.”
The chair scrapes and Chris feels himself moving backwards, but he keeps his head down so Dad can’t see him. “Is that what this is about? Chris, I told you the other day, Buck will always make time for you.”
“I want him to make time for you,” he says. Everything is ruined. None of his plans have worked and now Dad’s stupid work is going to make it so Buck falls in love with someone else.
Dad is quiet for so long that Chris looks over at him really quickly. Dad is staring at him, frowning. He looks worried. It’s not something that Christoper likes to see. Finally, Dad says “I think there’s something you’re not telling me. You know perfectly well that I see Buck just about every day so tell me: what’s going on?”
“I want Buck to be in love with you,” he says. “I want him to be in our family forever. And I keep trying to make you love him and I don’t know why you won’t. Don’t you love him?”
Dad’s mouth is open and then he’s laughing. He’s laughing so hard that he leans against the kitchen counter and it’s so mean that Christopher starts crying. Even if he doesn’t love Buck—which Christopher really thinks he does—he doesn’t have to make fun of Chris.
He must see him crying because Dad wipes a hand over his face and stops. “Chris, I’m sorry. I am—I’m not laughing at you, I promise, it’s just—hold on. Let’s call Buck.”
“No,” Chris wails. Even if Dad knows, he can still make another plan, he just might have to be sneakier. If Dad tells Buck and they laugh, then Christopher is never going to get what he wants.
Dad ignores him and a minute later, Buck’s face is grinning from the screen. At least he looks concerned when he sees that Chris is crying, Chris thinks, unlike his Dad. “Hi Bucky,” he says quietly.
Buck starts to ask what’s wrong, but Dad cuts him off. “Buck, tell Chris what you were doing on Tuesday night.”
Buck’s eyes look at Dad, then back at Chris. “I had a date, buddy. We went out to the beach.”
“Buck,” Dad says. He sounds like he does when Chris is being slow to leave the house. “Tell Chris who you had a date with.”
Christopher does not want to hear this. He’s already decided that he’s going to hate whoever it is. Maybe if he hates them enough, Buck will realize how wrong he is and stop dating them. The thought makes him feel better almost immediately. Buck is quiet for so long that Chris starts to worry, though. Maybe it’s someone he really likes already and he knows Chris won’t be happy. Maybe it’s someone Chris already likes and then everything will be even worse.
“Buck,” Dad says. “It’s okay. Just tell him.”
“I had a date with your Dad, Chris.” Buck looks worried. “I hope that doesn’t bother you too much.”
All of Christopher’s words are in his throat, all at once. They all want to come out and he can’t make them, he doesn’t know which want to be said first. All he can do is cry.
“Chris, I’m sorry-“
Dad stops him. “It’s not like that, Buck. I think he’s happy.”
Chris nods as fast as he can, so fast his neck hurts. He can’t let Buck think for a minute that he doesn’t want him dating his Dad. Maybe he can even tell him they should get married instead of doing movie night tomorrow.
“I think I’m lost,” Buck says. “Should I come over?”
Chris says “yes” at the same time Dad says “no,” and Dad gives him a look. “No,” he says again. “He needs to go to school. I’ll see you at work and explain.”
School? He’s supposed to go to school after this, after hearing the best news of his entire life?
Christopher has never been so happy. Buck came over at noon—which never happens on real movie night—and after they talked a bunch about how they were sorry and didn’t want to tell him until it was the right time, Buck took them all to lunch.
He’s not sure what they meant by the right time. The right time, he thinks, should have been the minute they decided they loved each other.
They didn’t use that word, but Chris knows that they do.
He tries to make Buck sit next to Dad when they all pile on the couch to watch a movie, but Buck just smiles and puts him in the middle. “Nothing’s going to change,” he says. “You’re still my favorite Diaz.”
“Ouch,” Dad says. His hand is over his heart, but he’s laughing.
Buck kisses him, just quick, almost like he kisses Chris except on the lips. That’s when Chris knows he really loves Dad. Buck’s kisses feel like a warm bed and honey and his heart feels so happy that his Dad knows that now. He puts his hand on top of Buck’s—the one that’s holding his Dad’s hand—and squeezes.
Buck is wrong. Everything’s changed. His life is so much better now.
The couch is empty when Chris wakes up and for a minute he’s worried, but when he peeks in Dad’s room, he sees Buck’s messy hair just above the covers.
He does his stretches by himself while he watches cartoons, something Dad never lets him do, then he looks into the bedroom again, but they haven’t moved.
Dad has a rule that he can’t use the stove by himself (and he had taught him how to make eggs in the microwave, but Buck had made gagging noises when Dad did that once). Besides, Chris is almost nine and isn’t that old enough to use the stove? Buck even lets him help when he’s making breakfast, so it’s not like he hasn’t practiced.
He wants to do something nice for them. He thinks if he can make everything perfect, then maybe Buck will stay forever.
Pancakes would be his first choice, but he doesn’t remember the measurements that Buck uses even though he makes them every weekend. He wants something better than just eggs—those aren’t special enough.
The floor creaks behind him as soon as he puts a pan on the stove and he freezes. “Chris, are you trying to get grounded? We both know your Dad doesn’t let you cook by yourself.”
“I was waiting for you,” he says. He smiles at Buck, but Buck just snorts.
“Nice try. I won’t tell, but don’t do it again. What do you need help with?”
“Nothing,” Chris says. “I’m making you and Dad breakfast in bed.” He feels Buck’s arms around his waist and then he’s lifted up off his feet. Buck’s nose is tickling his neck. “Bucky!”
“You’re the best kid ever,” Buck says. “I got so lucky with you.”
Chris feels like he’s glowing. He wiggles until Buck turns him around and burrows in, squeezing his arms and legs around Buck the best that he can. “Do you want to stay, Bucky?”
“Forever,” he says, kissing his cheek. “Forever and ever.”