Sofia doesn’t remember her father. She knows that they met, because there are some truly embarrassing sink bath pictures her mother likes to remind her of sometimes, but she was very small and has no memory of him. He looks nice, though, in pictures. Kind. Sometimes she thinks she’d like to know him.
Henry doesn’t know his father, either. Different reasons (adoption versus plane crash), and he doesn’t even have pictures. He likes it that way; he has no interest in knowing his birth parents. Addison (he’s in a phase where he’s calling his mother by her name instead of Mom and she’s doing an amazing job of not being annoyed; which is good, because he never grows out of it) has been everything he needs. But sometimes he wonders.
They bond over that, the No Dad thing. It’s an odd thing for teenagers to bond over, but odd describes their lives pretty well. Sometimes Sofia feels like she has a surplus of mothers, and there are nights Henry doesn’t have even one (though on those nights Sam will knock on the door if he sees the TV on past eleven).
It takes them a few years to realize that Lucas should be part of the No Dad thing too. He’s kind of a weird kid (Henry thinks it has something to do with the circumstances of his birth because, as Sofia puts it, what self-respecting teenage boy wears a freaking beret?) and it’s tough to even talk to him sometimes. Lucas remembers his father, sort of, and they wonder if he shouldn’t count because of that.
Lucas wonders if he actually remembers his father, or if he’s inventing memories based on stories and pictures. He asks Amelia if there’s any way to know for sure and all she gives him is a shrug, a soda, and a suggestion not to think about it too much. He starts reading Proust after that.
Zola sometimes feels left out from the group when the adults have gathered everyone together for one reason or another. She has her father. Lucas and Henry both have one parent each, so she gets that, but Sofia has two parents. It’s not so bad when it’s just her and Sofia (they have best friend charm bracelets in junior high and later, in college, when they’re fed up with boys they’ll change their Facebook status to In A Relationship with each other for a few months), and they’ve never actually excluded her, but she’s aware of the informal secret club the other three have established.
She’d hang out with other kids at these massive, insane gatherings, but Tuck’s not around that much and everyone else is younger. So she puts up with it and it eventually becomes less bothersome, though she’s never not aware of it.
Henry pretends he doesn’t care about the interpersonal drama that shrouds his mother’s workplace, but he funnels it back to Sofia when he hears it. Sofia, in turn, keeps him updated on Seattle gossip because watching Seattle Grace Mercy West unfold is better than cable. Plus there aren’t any commercials. She and Zola get kicked out the day they bring in popcorn.
They keep in touch through Facebook and Skype, Twitter and texting. Senior prom passes and they’re all otherwise occupied (except Lucas, who boycotts his), thankfully not having to invoke the “drive nineteen hours for a school dance” clause of their friendship. Through sheer skill and survival instinct, the four of them graduate high school unscathed by the rumors and drama that plague their parents. It’s a minor miracle that they’re in one piece come their eighteenth birthdays.
(Well, Sofia has a few bruised ribs because of a pole vault crash, Henry’s right arm is finally out of the cast from a lacrosse incident he and Addison don’t discuss, and Zola’s left foot is in a boot thanks to a platform diving miscalculation. Lucas has a scrape above his left eye and doesn’t tell anyone where he got it.
But those don’t count.)
When she’s old enough, Cristina tells Sofia about the Dead Dads Club. Sofia feels like she doesn’t have the right to claim membership except on a technicality. She tells Lucas about it over Skype when she’s feeling especially lonely one night her freshman year of college and Lucas immediately gets weirder. She goes invisible every time he comes online for two months and claims homework, busy when he asks where she’s been.
Lucas knows she’s lying – he talks to Henry – but doesn’t say anything about it. He changes his major to philosophy and throws out everything in his wardrobe that isn’t black. He’ll be in school for another year because he switched later than is recommended, but academia suits him anyway.
Henry pretends not to be annoyed by the air of I’m-in-an-existential-crisis superiority that permanently settles over Lucas (and it’s not too much effort to pretend; he’s constantly buried under a mountain of physics and bizarre calculus and spare time is not in surplus) but decides to call Violet when Lucas picks up smoking and stops going to class. He figures out pretty quickly that the reason he hasn’t talked to Lucas recently is because Lucas blocked him after that. Sofia listens to Henry complain about it for a while before telling him that tattling is a thing they grew out of at the age of seven and if he wants his friend back, he has a car, a phone, and a computer and not all is lost if he would just do something already.
Zola never completely understands the relationship Sofia has with Henry. He’s a perfectly nice guy but the bond they have is something she can’t comprehend. When she thinks about it, it doesn’t even make sense (Sofia’s dad is dead, Henry is adopted by a single mother; the two are not interchangeable), but when she’s asked Sofia for an explanation (one time, drunk, over the phone, a week after Sofia blew off a phone date with Zola for an actual date with some guy in her lit class), all she gets is a verbal shrug and a suggestion to drink some water before she goes to bed.
It takes a full year before Sofia realizes that Henry’s in the throes of a minor drug problem (at least, that’s how he describes it to Addison when she inevitably finds out; he swears Sofia to secrecy about how bad it really was). She spends her spring break sitting with him as he goes cold turkey in his cramped studio apartment. The first night (Henry’s cycling between full delirium, throwing up everything he’s ever eaten, and being passed out in the bathtub), Sofia calls Amelia for advice. It’s an awkward phone call – they’ve never really spoken, and Sofia isn’t even sure how she knows that Amelia used to be a junkie – but Amelia knows a desperate need for help and silence when she hears it and tells Sofia how to walk him through detox.
Henry stops camping out in the bathroom after lunch on the third day. They sleep together, but nothing happens; they’re both too exhausted and his couch is covered in notes and research for a paper on Bose-Einstein condensates.
Zola stays in France after a semester studying abroad and transfers to Charles de Gaulle. Time zones become more trouble than they’re worth, and phone dates with Sofia become lengthy email exchanges and the occasional I hate school comment during a Words With Friends game that refuses to give either one of them a single vowel. She finds herself suddenly chatting with Lucas during her free mornings while he’s staying up late contemplating the universe. She’s not entirely certain he ever sleeps. He annoys her, in the condescending way he annoys everyone, but it’s not as grating as she thinks it probably should be.
He visits over the summer, because France and his brand of pretension go together like plastic cups and the fraternities he ignored, and Zola spends the entire time translating for him (sometimes she scolds him for not bothering to learn a language that’s actually useful; Ancient Greek is getting him nowhere). They have sex on the third night, because that’s the only direction this was going, and wake up in the morning with matching wine hangovers and the realization that the rest of his vacation actually won’t be incredibly weird.
Sofia snorts when she gets that particular email, and it isn’t remotely ladylike. She’s crashing on Henry’s couch this summer when she isn’t in the lab watching slime mold grow as part of her urban development senior capstone (she’s using it to plan out mass urban transit pathways, but everyone outside the lab seems very confused and Henry, despite being overly familiar with laboratory containment procedures, makes her change and shower at the university gym before coming back into his apartment). Henry gets a good laugh out of it when she reads it to him – there aren’t two more unlikely people in the universe – and offers her the other controller and a spot next to him on his bed.
She’s decompressing from a spectacularly awful relationship and takes it out on a group of computer-generated civilians. Henry transfers his grenade launcher to her when she runs out of ammo on the mounted automatic and she kisses his cheek in thanks. They end up at the same university for graduate school and get a crappy apartment together in an equally crappy part of town. After the second consecutive week of police lights at two in the morning, they break their lease mid-winter and move somewhere with a doorman. The three mothers, though they’ll never say it to their children’s faces, are collectively very relieved.
Lucas is ten days into living in a friend’s bathtub (Paris, as it turns out, is expensive and there are no spare couches to be had amongst his friends; the bohemian intellectual lifestyle is not proving to be comfortable), after Zola kicked him out, when he gets the email from Henry. I think I’m in love with Sofia. He blinks at his phone’s screen – he hasn’t heard from Henry in the year and a half he’s been in France (Facebook likes, he has firmly decided, do not count as communication) and things have been strained for a while – and shrugs. It isn’t particularly surprising. What is surprising is the text from Zola a few hours later. I’m pregnant. But I’m still mad at you.
He grabs his duffel bag and walks back to her apartment. He’s still fundamentally against the idea of marriage for reasons he’ll never be able to explain to her, but he’s also fundamentally against the idea of abandoning a kid, even one he isn’t sure he wants. Zola knows she doesn’t want a kid, not right now, and gets an abortion. But she lets Lucas stay.
Sofia spends a week operating on Paris time so Zola can talk to someone in English who isn’t Lucas (she has her head screwed on straight about the abortion thing and the boyfriend-doesn’t-believe-in-marriage thing, but it’s all a little heavy; her pile of papers to grade isn’t going down, either). When she can’t break the cycle on her own once the crisis is over, she takes something experimental from a friend in the pharmacology department to pass out and reset her schedule. She hallucinates pretty intensely for two hours and then crashes. Henry carries her to bed and occasionally checks to make sure she’s still breathing. She wakes up in twelve hours with an easily-curable headache and a question. “Did I try to kiss you?”
The answer is yes and he tells her so – lying to her is not his strong suit – and then tells her not to worry about it. Drug-induced words and actions don’t count, even if they’re frequently more honest than sober ones. Two months pass before they kiss for real.
Tuck’s working at Alaska Regional and he loves it, but it means he’s woken up at some ungodly hour when Sofia calls him to freak out. He slips out of bed as quietly as possible, leaving his girlfriend undisturbed, and takes the call in the kitchen. He starts a pot of coffee; he needs to be up in an hour and a half anyway.
Half of her panic is a presentation that afternoon which will determine if she gets additional grant funding next year. The other half of her panic is because she and Henry slept together (slept-together-slept-together, not falling-asleep-on-the-same-piece-of-furniture-slept-together) last night. Tuck blinks at the microwave clock display and yawns. The cat rubs up against his leg, wanting to be fed. He tells her to take a deep breath – the kind you can feel in your stomach – and to focus on the presentation.
She runs through her speech while his coffee brews and feels the anxiety fade away as she remembers why she’s so passionate about this. Tuck promises he’ll think good thoughts in the general direction of Massachusetts in a few hours and she thanks him, apologizes for waking him up, and ends the call. She sends off a text to Henry, asking him to not come to her presentation. He was supposed to be moral support, but she knows he’ll be a distraction instead.
Henry forwards the text to Zola and asks for a translation of her friend’s request. Zola responds with a picture of her face with an incredulously-raised eyebrow, followed by a picture of the giant bottle of wine she and Lucas are halfway through. Helpful. He almost calls his mother for advice but stops before he touches the green icon. He is an adult and Sofia is his friend.
Instead, he meets her outside the building when her presentation is over with a cup of coffee and a muffin. She stands on her toes and kisses him. She won’t hear for a few days, but she knows she nailed it.
They all end up back in Seattle when Derek suddenly dies. They’re wearing black (not a noticeable difference on Lucas, except fewer wrinkles courtesy of an iron wielded by Addison, who gets very specific when she’s grieving) and standing outside on the Shepherds’ porch overlooking the lake. It’s unseasonably warm and they ditch jackets and layers until they look like they came from a fancy party, not a funeral.
Mostly they’re dodging the palpable wall of grief inside. They know that Zola’s avoiding dealing with it and will probably hang out in denial for an unhealthy length of time, but they won’t say anything.
Sofia sets an empty beer bottle on its side and gives it a little push so it rolls on the uneven porch. She and Zola used to play games and see who could roll a ball (or, later, a bottle) farther. She knows that her father helped build this porch, is probably the reason it’s not level (well, that and doctors not being particularly good at architecture). She misses Derek, and wonders if it’s possible to miss someone she never even knew. Zola’s bottle stops just short of hers, but Henry’s nearly goes to the end of the porch. He knows about physics, so they kick him out of the game. Lucas is drinking out of a flask, so borrows Henry’s empty bottle.
“We’re all part of the Club now,” Lucas says as the sun disappears behind the trees. It’s meant to be comforting and it is, in an odd way. Zola rests her head on his shoulder.
Henry doesn’t bother to correct Lucas, remind him that he doesn’t know if his father is dead. That’s not the point. Sofia loops her arms around his waist and hugs him from behind.
“I’m not paying dues,” Zola says after a long while. She tries to make it sound like a joke, but it falls flat, sounds bitter instead. Rightfully so. Glasses clink and murmurs and laughter – it’s story time, she supposes – float through the open windows. The only people left inside are family, or friends close enough to be family, which doesn’t make the house seem any less crowded. No one will be surprised if the night derails into heavy drinking.
“No one ever has,” Sofia promises, which is a lie. You only pay dues once, but it’s a lifetime membership.
The cicadas start up and fireflies dance over the lake. Henry ducks inside to grab a bottle of something strong and then they all walk to the fire pit on the other side of the lake, navigating by the bright full moon because they’re too distracted to think about a flashlight.
“This meeting of the Dead Or Nonexistent Dads Club is now in session,” Sofia says with mock gravitas once the fire’s going. She raises the bottle in honor of the men who leant their lives to the title and takes a sip before passing the bottle to Zola.
They drink and tell stories until someone with a flashlight comes to collect them. Some of the stories are true, others are embellished, and some are outright made up (and those become more and more outrageous as the bottle gets lighter), but they’re all happy.
They stumble back to the house where they’ll fall asleep in Zola’s room and wake up with monumental headaches because they all forgot to drink enough water even though they all know better. None of them has ever grieved a father before, but the four of them will figure it out.