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When she was finally able to straighten, she saw him.

Framed in the doorway, fully lit by the sun, she saw him. He stared at her, unmoving. By the way he froze beside her, Jake had seen him too. Dre, wondering why they had stopped moving, looked up, then behind him.

Daddy!” Dre shrieked at the top of his lungs, abandoning the babies and flying across the driveway and up the steps. When he leapt into Ben’s arms, they both collapsed to the stoop.

Lanie’s heart cracked, but she forced herself to ignore it.

Jake and Lanie waited with the squalling infants as Dre and Ben embraced, then Ben struggled to his feet with Dre’s help. Lanie watched wearily as they approached. Ben’s expression was blank, unreadable.

“You’re back,” he said, not quite looking at her. His voice was unrecognizably scratchy and hoarse.

Lanie was stunned. He looked absolutely horrific. His hair was almost to his shoulders, and his beard and mustache were bushy and snaggly, about fifteen centimetres long and brushing his chest. His bloodshot eyes were rheumy and gummy, the silver all but obscured. His lips were chapped and dry. His face and neck seemed nearly emaciated, and his clothes barely clung to his frame. He had a runny nose, and thin, veiny, shaky hands. With stained, rumpled clothes and bare feet, he looked homeless, destitute, and on the stoop of death’s door. She wasn’t sure she would have recognized him if she had passed him on the street. Actually, if Dre hadn’t somehow known who he was, she would have assumed her house had been broken into and inhabited b                                                                                                                                          y a squatter, and nothing this man said in his strange voice would have convinced her that this was her husband.

“What happened to you?” she whispered involuntarily, the horror overtaking her.

When his eyes snapped onto her, she instantly regretted it. Finally, some emotion showed in his expression. She felt the heat of it as though he had suddenly lit a blow torch in her face. “I could ask the same thing about you,” he ground out. “Are you sick, or something?”

She looked down. “It’s been a difficult few weeks,” she mumbled, clinging a little harder to Jake.

Ben glared at her for a few more moments, then slowly turned his eyes to the car seats. One baby had finally stopped crying, but the other continued an angry tirade. The deep grief that dragged at Ben’s face hurt her more than the anger.

“My babies?” he asked with a horrible sort of broken hope

“Yeah, Dad!” Dre broke in, obviously trying to lighten the mood. “These are my sisters. Summer, and Sam. Look!” Bending down, Dre unstrapped Sam, the one who was still screaming at the top of her lungs, and cradled her gently. After a moment, she stopped crying, and her mouth worked, her little fists clutching her brother’s shirt. “She’s a little hungry right now, so she’s pretty cranky. But look, Dad! You can hold her like this.”

Ben stood stalk-still as Dre held the baby to him with one hand, and positioned Ben’s arms with the other. Carefully, he deposited his sister into the cradle he had made.

“Oh,” Ben breathed, a mix of wonder and awe and anguish on his face.

“There you go, Dad. You can hold her tighter, she likes to be squeezed a little.”

If it had been a different day, it would have been funny. Dre didn’t seem to realize that his father had looked after many babies in his life, held them and nurtured them. But it wasn’t funny as Ben slowly brought his daughter up to his shoulder, rested his cheek on her little back, and wept. Shyly, Dre patted Ben’s shoulder.

“It’s okay, Dad. Mom and Jake have been crying pretty much non-stop since they got here. It means you’re happy. Oh, don’t forget about Summer! She’s usually quieter, but she still likes cuddles, too.” Dre was a ball of energy as he flitted to his other sister, unbuckled her, and brought her to their father.

“I just…I need to sit down first,” Ben managed. Dre held both babies while Ben made his way to the grass, then the four of them sat together, Ben holding his daughters and sobbing, not even listening to Dre’s chatter about their “adventure,” and how much Dre had missed Ben.

“Do you…do you want me to help you into the house?” Jake asked, and Lanie realized they still hadn’t moved. Her own face was wet with tears.

Sniffing, she wiped her eyes and held on. “Yeah. I need to lay down.”

“You are not coming into the house,” Ben said from the grass, still holding his daughters, but now watching Lanie and Jake. “Dre, can you help your mom?”

“Sure, Dad!” Springing up, Dre went to Lanie.

“No, honey, it’s okay, I’m a little heavy,” Lanie protested.

“I really don’t mind,” Jake agreed. “I’m really sorry about all of this, Ben.”

Still on the ground, Ben’s expression began to darken. “Get your hands off my wife,” he intoned, his voice still raspy. “Take your car, and all this crap, and go home. We’ve got plenty of things for the babies in the house.”

Nervously, Dre looked between all the adults. “But, Dad, Jake helped us get even more stuff. Some of it is really cool! I helped pick it out.”

Gazing ruefully at Dre, Ben relented a little. “Alright. But Dre, just get your Mom in the house. We need to get everyone inside. Jake, go home.”

Jake didn’t budge. “No offense, Ben, but you don’t exactly look like you’re able to handle all of this. Lanie was really sick, and needs a lot of help, and the girls – ”

Fire crackled in Ben’s eyes now, and she knew that if he hadn’t been holding the girls, and if he had been stronger, he would have physically put Jake in the car and pushed it out of the driveway. As it was, Ben looked like an enraged, trapped bear.

Mustering all of her strength, Lanie let go of Jake. Agony shot through her torso, but she forced herself to stand straight. “Dre, get this stuff up to the nursery,” she said. Relieved, Dre gathered up a big handful of bags and dashed into the house. “It’s okay, Jake. I can walk.”

“But, Lanie – ”

“Really, Jake. You’ve been so kind, and a great help, but we really just need some time right now. You know we have things to sort through.” She shot him a pleading look. After a moment, he rubbed his hand over his face and sighed.

“Okay. If that’s what you want. Will you call me? Call me tonight. And sooner, if you need anything.” He shot Ben a dubious look. “You might need some extra help.

“Please, Jake. Please, just go.”

Jake shook his head, then met Ben’s heated eyes. “I really hope you two work things out. I’m here for both of you, in whatever way you need. Take care of yourselves.”

Ben’s expression turned positively murderous, but he held his tongue, keeping his eyes on Jake as he got in his car and drove away.

“Aw, man, I didn’t get to say goodbye,” Dre whined as he dashed back from the house.

“Dre, put your sisters back in their car seats and put them in their room. I need you to mix some formula for them and feed them.” Lanie tried not to sway.

Dre moved to his dad, but Ben held tighter to the girls, who were almost asleep. “No, it’s okay. I can do all of that.”

Unable to stand it any longer, Lanie sagged to the ground. “It’s okay, Ben, Dre has been taking really good care of them over the past few weeks. He’s a pro.”

“Yeah, Dad! I’m the best big brother ever.” Dre puffed out his chest.

Ben still shook his head. “Lanie, he’s just a kid. He shouldn’t be looking after them. That’s our job.”

Lanie sighed. “Ben, please. Just for right now, give Dre the babies. Dre isn’t strong enough to help me, and I don’t think I can get up off this ground by myself, let alone get up the stairs to my room.” She wished she’d fought harder to have Jake help her inside, but she was too tired.

With a breathy sigh, Ben helped Dre strap the girls in, then watched as the boy carried them inside the house, the diaper bag over his shoulder. Reluctantly, Ben tore his eyes from the doorway, then heaved himself off the ground and went to Lanie. Instantly, she was surrounded by the cloud of his stink. He reeked of alcohol and body odour. She wondered if the babies stunk now, too.

They regarded each other for a moment, and Lanie’s chest tightened at the sallow look of him. All this time, she had been imagining him and Lilah, frolicking and having the time of their lives in her house, going out to all kinds of dinners and movies and walks in the park. Him showing off his shapely, desirable partner, relieved that he’d dodged the bullet of being stuck with Lanie. She had been certain that Lilah would be here, and Lanie would have to suffer through her gloating and preening and touching of her children.

But Ben looked sick. Actually, he looked like he had been on the verge of death.

“Where does it hurt?” he finally asked her. “How can I grab you?”

“It’s my abdomen,” she explained. “Just give me your arms.”

Slowly, painfully, Lanie used Ben to pull herself up. Still reluctant, he grasped her under her armpits and lifted her as much as he could in his weakened state, and it helped a little. She tried to bite back her sounds of pain, but a few snuck out, and Ben’s face registered the smallest modicum of concern.

“C-section?” he inquired tonelessly.

Breathless from the effort, she could only nod. For a moment they stood, almost as though embracing, looking at each other again. There were so many things that needed to be said. So many that they couldn’t say anything at all.

Carefully, torturously, she made her way up to the house.

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