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Like he’s arranging marzipan flowers on a masterpiece, Ben laid down one of his babies, and then the other. Brushing his fingers through their cloud-like curls, he kissed their foreheads. Dre sat in the rocking chair in the corner, his hand pushed through the bars of the crib to grab onto Sam’s foot. Ben seemed resigned, his shoulders drooping as he shooed Dre off the chair and settled himself into it.
“I’ve got a new book for you guys.” A smile tried to take up residence, but quickly gave up, and Dre sat a little straighter.
“What’s wrong, Dad?”
“Daddy, Daddy, Daddy,” Sam babbled, her lips puckered and her eyes huge. The amber one was so like her brother’s, though without the squint of fatigue. Cross-legged on the floor next to the bed, Dre reached for her hand. When Summer offered a tentative reach, both of her siblings grabbed one of her hands.
“Things are going to change around here, kiddos.” Ben heaved a huge sigh. “Some of the changes will be good, but it will probably just be really hard for a while.”
Dre’s hands tightened on his sisters’, and his face lost colour. “No. Dad, you can’t do this.”
Ben looked at him for a moment, his eyes flat and dull, like slate. “It’s not something I want, but it will make things better in the end. Your mom and I will do much better if we aren’t living in the same house anymore. It happens to a lot of parents. You’re not alone, Dre.”
“This isn’t fair, Dad. You guys are married. You can’t just leave because things are hard. That’s exactly what mom did last year.”
Ben looked like he’d been slapped, but he rallied and brought his attention back to the book: It’s Not Your Fault, Coco Bear. “Dre. Please. I’m not explaining it right. That’s why I got this.”
Dre crossed his arms, looking away. Small hands waved through the bars, trying to grab onto him again. “We’ve read it at school. I told my friends that my parents would never get a divorce.”
“It’s not always bad, Dre. Sometimes people can grow better when they aren’t together. And your mom and I…we’ll always love you guys, and we’ll always be there for you.”
“Jaylin and Fletcher say divorce is a sin,” Dre muttered. “You guys are both going to hell. So if you’re going to be together anyway…”
Bemused sorrow softened Ben’s exhausted demeanor. “Aw, Dre.”
The chair creaked as he got off it and sat against the crib next to Dre. Immediately, the toddlers grabbed onto their father, babbling in excitement. Even though it was almost bedtime, Ben reached a long arm up and over the crib, plucking them both out and snuggling them tight against his chest. Sam sucked on his collarbone and Summer buried her head under his chin. Pressing them both with one of his arms, he pulled Dre in with the other. At first, the preteen was stiff and angry, but as Ben rubbed circles into his back, he slowly lost himself until he was sobbing quietly. Wrapping his lanky arms around Ben’s waist, he pressed his forehead against Ben’s shoulder.
“I don’t want to lose you again, Dad. Please don’t go away.”
“I won’t be far, son. I’ll never be far from you, and we’ll be together as much as possible.”
“I’m not your son, though. Not really. That’s why mom was able to take me away. What if she takes me away from all of you? What if I never see my sisters again? They’re your real kids.”
Ben’s tears soaked into Dre’s hair, and the murderous rage briefly flashed in his eyes as he pulled Dre closer, as though he could meld them together. But he forced a smile onto his face, then pinched Dre in the back.
“Ow!” Surprise briefly cleared the fear in her son’s eyes as he looked in befuddlement at Ben. “What was that for?”
“Just proving that you’re real. Do you have a fake I.D. or something? Cause if you’re not a kid, I could really use a drinking buddy.”
“I am a real kid, Dad. You know what I mean. You know what the law means.”
“Then know what I mean. You are my real kid, no matter where you came from or how long we’ve known each other. That’s why I won’t stop fighting for you. I’ll do anything I have to so that no one can take you away from me, or your sisters. I promise, Dre. You can trust me.”
“You promised mom you’d stay with her. You promised you would love her forever.”
Sam and Summer had both fallen asleep, little snores coming from their noses as they held hands across Ben’s chest. Ben nuzzled his lips against his baby daughters’ hair, then laid his cheek on Summer’s head as he looked at Dre. “I will always love your mother, Dre. It’s not something that will ever go away. But remember what we talked about a long time ago when you visited me in the hospital and you stole those notebooks?”
“Sometimes love isn’t enough,” Dre whispered, gazing in horror at his father. “So, it follows that it might not be enough for you and me, either.”
“No, son. The love between a man and his wife is different than with children. When parents love their children, it’s a love that can never be taken away.”
“But that doesn’t matter if means that you can still leave. Murphy only sees his dad a few times a month. So love doesn’t matter. You still can walk away.”
Ben stared out the window, still holding onto the children like he was worried they would be snatched that very minute. “Dre, I don’t have the answers to all your questions. I’m sorry. I don’t think you’ll understand until things settle down and you can see for yourself that just because I won’t be here as much anymore, that doesn’t mean that I don’t love you. It really won’t be all bad. We’ll find a new normal, and you’ll like it even better.”
“But I wanted you guys to get married so that we could all be together forever! Getting married is a promise, and a promise is forever. Isn’t it…?” Confusion and devastation swirled in Dre’s eyes. “What’s the point of getting married if you can just leave later?”
Not looking at the boy, Ben gently pulled his arm away and stood, depositing the twins once again into the crib. Lanie shifted so that she stayed out of sight as he settled back in the rocking chair, his elbow on the arm rest and his chin under his hand as he gazed at the blinds, still having trouble meeting Dre’s eyes.
“The day I married your mother was one of the best days of my life, Dre. And I hope you get married one day, and that your promises do last forever. I hope you never, ever find yourself in my position. I hope you take time to get to know someone very carefully before you commit to them, and that you never have to worry that they’ll leave. But sometimes things change, my dude. Things you don’t see coming. Sometimes it’s dangerous to keep a promise, and all it does is cause pain. Breaking a promise is a very serious thing, and it should be given lots of serious thought. You should do everything you can to keep it, but if breaking it will cause the least suffering, sometimes you just don’t have a choice. I know this is complicated and hard to understand. To be honest, I don’t understand it completely myself. But I know I love the three of you, and I’m doing what I can to protect you and make sure it’s not too hard on you.”
“But that means if I do something horrible enough like mom did, you’ll decide that I’m no good, too!”
Ben closed his eyes. “Dre, I told you. You’re different. You’re my son.”
“But I’m not. I’m just like mom. You chose me. We don’t come from your family. Of course you can’t leave the girls, because they came from you. But mom and I didn’t. If you could leave her, you can leave me. If I do something bad enough, promises don’t matter.”
“That’s not true – ”
“Did you do everything you can to keep your promise to mom?”
“Of course.” He shifted, glanced at Dre, then away. “But the promise was already broken when she took you guys from me. There’s nothing I can do to change that.”
“Try harder, Dad. I don’t want to lose you.”
“Dre, I’m tired. And I’m very sad. I can’t keep talking about this, not tonight. Can we both just get some sleep? Your mom will be home soon, and she’ll expect you all to be in bed.”
Ben’s openly plaintive face seemed to finally reach the boy, who nodded slowly. Lanie slipped away just as Ben and Dre shuffled hand-in-hand out of the bedroom. Unable to stand being in her and Ben’s room, she flew soundlessly downstairs, collapsing in the dark corner of the living room and pressing her fist to her mouth. Her body shook as she curled into as small of a ball as she could. Her brain was drowning and her stomach roiled with the absolute wrongness of all of this.
Cowering into the cushions of the couch, she held her breath when she heard him come downstairs. In the kitchen, he took a deep breath, then opened the cupboard. A glass gently clanked against its neighbours, and water ran into the sink, followed by a series of gulps.
What was he thinking in the quiet? Was he leaning with his hands on the counter, his head bowed in defeat? Was he once again staring outside, wondering whether she was back from her meeting with Bel? Was he sinking into an ocean of regret the way she was?
He poured more water into the glass, and then his socked footsteps came into the living room. Still not turning on any of the lights, he sat right beside her, one arm spread along the top of the couch, coming within a foot of her head. He stared ahead at the new television, rubbing his thumb over the condensation on the glass.
Lanie’s terror was palpable as she waited, every muscle tensed into stillness, her head growing dizzy from holding her breath. When she was sure the uncertainty would kill her, he spoke. “You shouldn’t have heard all of that.”
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“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him.”
~ Romans 15:13