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As much as possible, they avoided each other. Lanie watched him carefully for signs that he might be getting frustrated with the kids, that he might start resenting them. But honestly, it was like the four of them were their own happy little family, and she was somehow an unwelcome intruder. Dre still chatted to her when he was with her, but his eyes absolutely lit up when he saw his father. Ben slept much of the day to make up for the sleep he missed at night, and Dre delighted in caring for his sisters during that time. The four of them usually spent an hour or two outside in the yard together in the afternoons. The babies wriggled on a tummy mat, and Ben and Dre sang songs and read stories for them. Lanie ached to join them, but knew Ben didn’t want her there. He never blatantly rejected her in front of Dre, but the icy hostility of his pained tolerance always ruined the experience.

He prepared several meals in advance a few times per week to minimize the time they spent cooking, and taught Dre how to do some of it. At least he wasn’t resisting the idea that Dre could and should help out more around the house. Possibly because he wanted to minimize contact with her. Even with his new computer and games, Dre still opted to spend time with his family more often than not.

Ben watched her. She knew he was looking for signs that she was going to take off again.

For crying out loud. Hadn’t he heard her when she had explained? It wasn’t like she was going to make a habit of it. She hadn’t done it to punish him. Not entirely, anyway. Sure, she had felt betrayed and angry about Lilah. But that had only been a small drop in the bucket of her anxieties and fears. And she wasn’t entirely sure she had planned on keeping him from the birth, either. It had just sort of happened, as the weeks went by and the thought of calling him felt more and more impossible. She figured she had been gone for so long that he wouldn’t be interested anymore.

This was the lie she told herself. The more she told herself it wasn’t a lie, the less she believed it.

She didn’t know what to feel, or what to think, or what to do. Had their wedding been a lie? All of the moments they had shared, everything they had talked about together? The peace and trust she had begun to feel with him? He had been the closest thing to home she had felt in a long time. Maybe her entire life. But she couldn’t get the image of him with Lilah out of her head. Her thoughts went around and around in endless circles, and she didn’t know what was true, or imagined, or wished. She was losing her mind.

She was in the garage, staring into the freezer, thinking about all of this, when he stepped inside. She jumped, the door of the deepfreeze landing on her hand as she whirled around.

“Lanie! What are you doing in here?” he demanded. He held a stack of food storage containers full of premade pasta, shepherd’s pie, and soup mix.

“I was just looking for some more frozen berries,” she mumbled, rubbing her hand and unable to meet his frigid iron gaze. Her stomach lurched at the sight of him, as it did almost every time. He was stronger now, no longer emaciated. He was cleaner, and as well-kempt as he could be considering he spent much of his time dealing with various bodily fluids and messy foods. But he was still exhausted. And prone to explosion toward her if she provoked him. Provocation encompassing anything from looking at him wrong to breathing too loudly as she laboured about the house. Luckily, she felt stronger now too, and didn’t look so helpless anymore. She was even almost ready to lift the twins, according to the doctor. She couldn’t wait to not feel so weak anymore. Since her last few months of pregnancy she’d barely been able to do anything, and she hated being defenseless.

“Well, don’t let all the cold out,” he snapped, coming down the stairs and lifting the lid of the deepfreeze. The blast of freezing air was warmer than the essence of her husband a few inches beside her. She could easily reach out and touch him. She just wanted him to look at her softly, the way he had before the baby shower. The way he did every night when he woke from a nightmare, for two seconds, before he remembered what had happened. Would they ever get back to some semblance of a marriage? Or was it all over? Though it could destroy her to find out, she had to try before she lost the courage.

“Ben, are you going to leave?”

He flinched slightly but didn’t turn to her. “I could ask you the same thing,” he countered. Answer her questions with a question was becoming his standard response.

“Ben, please.” She started to cry again. Stupid baby hormones. “I hate this. We need to decide what we’re doing. What we’re working towards.”

“I’m working towards being the best father I possibly can,” he replied stiffly. “I’m working toward keeping the house in order. Making decent meals. Trying to create some enrichment for the babies.”

She smiled a wobbly smile. “Yes, you’re so good at that.”

Her attempted compliment bounced right off him. “So that’s all I’m thinking about right now.”

“But what about me?” Her whisper was broken in the dim of the garage. “What about us?”

“What about it?” The frosty tone raised goosebumps on her arms and made her stomach plumet. “It seems to me, as far as you’re concerned, there is no us. I don’t matter at all here. It doesn’t matter what I say or do, you’re going to believe what you want. You’re going to do what you want.”

“That’s not true.” She knew it was lame. She didn’t know what to say. He whirled to face her, and she gasped when he gripped her arms.

“Don’t you understand?” She strained away from the yell blasted into her face. “Do you understand that you utterly, utterly broke me? I trusted you. I loved you, I poured my dreams and my fears into you. I tried to be patient with you even though you barely let me in. I tried to understand you, to create a life for you that would make all of your dreams come true. And then you left, and you took my children, and I missed the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I told you was so important to me. You took Dre from me and told the cops I had no right to know where he was. You still don’t believe I love him like he’s my own. And you still don’t believe that I love you like you’re my own. You’re like a part of my soul, Lanie. I love you, and you crushed me in a way I couldn’t even imagine that you ever could.”

She tried to pull away. He was shaking her, hurting her head and sending twinges toward her newly healing incision, and his voice was too close, too loud. He was telling her that he loved her, but his tone was one of utter loathing. “B, stop!”

He shook her again. “Don’t call me that! And don’t tell me to stop! You’re the one who brought this up. You want to ask me about us? Well, you don’t get to!” He pushed her away from him in disgust, not hard, but there just happened to be a hose behind her, and she tripped.

She cried out as the sudden motion shot pain through her stomach.

He towered over her, not seeming to care. “I’m scared every minute of every day of what you might do next!”

His screaming, his menacing presence shot panic through her. This was getting out of control. Though she was weak and in pain, she tried to gather herself into a offensive position. Tried to protect her tender stomach, just like last time, except now, it was empty of everything but her own agony.

“What are you even doing?” The scoff was accompanied by crossed arms. “Are you trying to attack me?”

When he stepped closer, she steeled herself, prepared to try and take him down with a well-aimed blow to the knees. But her hands shook, and she couldn’t stop staring at his big, clenched fists. Should she protect her face, or go for his knees? She couldn’t deal with a broken jaw right now.

“Lanie,” he snapped, incredulous. “I can see you planning. Do you really think I’m going to hurt you?” She tried to look defiant, tried to be brave, less of a target. “How could you even compare me to that guy? I’m not a wife-beater! I would never hit you. You see what I mean? It’s like you don’t know me at all.”

With a punch of the deep freeze that left a shallow dent, he strode back up the stairs. But then he turned around again, his anger always a bottomless pit when he got going. Why had she gotten him going?

“If you’re determined to make me the bad guy of this story, fine. Go ahead, I can’t stop you. But don’t you dare ask me about our so-called marriage ever again. It has been abundantly clear that those vows, and everything between us, didn’t mean a thing to you at all.”

Slamming the door behind him, he strode into the house.

Suddenly, the side door leading to the yard opened, and Dre crept in, looking around. “Mom?” he whispered, rushing to kneel down beside her.

“I’m okay, Dre,” she breathed, struggling against an onslaught of tears. “I just got tangled in the hose, that’s all.”

He grabbed her arm and heaved her up. “Did Dad push you?”

She hissed through her teeth as she got her feet under her. “No, not really. I just tripped.” He peered into her face. He was up to her eyebrows now. He would probably surpass her in the next year or so. And he was now strong enough to almost lift her? When had that happened? She almost started crying again.

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~ Romans 15:13


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