His head was pounding. He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, his pressing his temples between the heels of his hands, his eyes tightly shut, so that the spinning red lights only lit up the insides of his eyelids.
It was a father’s job to protect his family. To dream for his family, and to make their dreams come true. It was a father’s responsibility to ensure the safety of his family. He had failed. Oh, how he had failed.
A small head worked its way under one of his arms, between it and his chest. Ben grunted and nudged at the cat, who happily nudged back, a low rumbling purr starting deep in the creature’s chest. The animal worked his way through the tangle of Ben’s limbs to attempt a curled position on his lap, claws digging into the fabric of his jeans, and into the flesh of his thighs beneath, to maintain balance. So concentrated was he on the combined battering inside of his head and the tiny pinpricks in his flesh that it took him a moment to realize the officer was addressing him.
“… understand that you have one that’s more recent?”
Ben raised his head. The man was looking at him expectantly, rocking a little on his feet. He couldn’t have been more than 22, 23 tops, with a crust of pale blonde hair that still stood up in the back, adding an elf point to the man’s cherubic round face. Hell, his chubby cheeks were even rosy. He couldn’t say this guy seemed like he could do much protecting. Serving, maybe. Protecting no.
Shaking his head to banish the intruding, distracting thoughts, Ben cleared his throat and asked, “Sorry, could you say that again?”
The officer flashed a picture at Ben. It was his daughter’s most recent school photo, and showed her eager, partially-toothless grin above a ridiculous, ruffled shirt. “Your wife said this was nearly a year old now, but that you have one that’s more recent? On the computer or some such?”
Ben grunted and nodded, pushing to his feet and letting the grey tabby drop to the ground in a huffy lump. As the cat stormed off, pausing to glare over one shoulder and angrily lick at his spine, Ben stumbled across the rug. He felt drunk from the emotion, his head stuffy and heavy and his body numb and not his own. He dragged a laptop bag from beside the console table, “Yeah I have digitals…” he muttered. “Don’t have them printed yet, we were going to do a bunch but…”
The young officer cut him off brightly, “Oh that’s all right. If you can email it, we can print them off right at the station, get them out on the wire too, all round the area.” He produced a little white rectangle from a pocket, and Ben stared at it with blank eyes. “My card,” he explained.
Ben extended fingers that felt too clumsy for such a small thing, and carefully plucked the card away. He didn’t even have business cards at work, and he’d been there over a year now, how did such a young kid have them? But there it was; his name and rank, the phone number of the local station, a cell number, and an email address. Huh. He tried to put the card on the arm of the couch, but it fluttered to the floor. The displaced cat returned to bat at it as Ben lugged his computer out of its case.
“I have probably a hundred,” Ben offered, prying the machine open and waiting for it to start, bending to snatch the card back from the cat who glared at him once again, as though Ben were personally out to ruin his day. “I have some from just this week. From the yard, just..” The overly sympathetic look the cop was giving him dug at him dully. There was something in his eyes that made him think the guy was humouring him, just here to keep him busy. Hey, go placate that dude, he looks like he’s falling apart. Give him a job to make him feel useful; let him imagine that he’s doing something to help out with the situation. His throat felt tight suddenly, and the compression stole his ability to speak. He tried to swallow, and made a queer gurgling sound, which seemed incongruous with the dryness of he felt, like layers of rough cloth rubbing together. It should sound like corduroy, he thought. Like those stupid corduroy overalls that both girls wore as toddlers, their chubby thighs making that unmistakable zigging and zagging sound as they waddled around.
The cry that escaped Ben then was unmistakable; pain and horror at the situation and his helplessness, and surrender to the agony that had been his head ever since the moment that he’d heard the news that day. He dropped the laptop, and then dropped himself, blood pouring from his nose as the young cop started screaming somewhere very far away, for someone to come and help him.
One line. Always one line.
Meg threw the little plastic stick into the bathroom trash can with such force that the little mesh can skidded slightly on the tile, knocking into the wall and prompting the sunshine-coloured silky lump at her feet to raise her head and chuff lightly, questioningly. Leaning down, Meg ran a shaky hand over the dogs soft head, then slid off the edge of the tub and onto the bath mat with her, gathering the curious animal into her arms and burying her face into her fur.
“You’ll always be my baby, though, won’t you Emma?” she murmured as the dog twisted, trying to lick her face. “Even if I never get a stupid positive test, you’ll always be my baby, won’t you?” Emma huffed again, and nudged her wet nose into Meg’s face, pushing the curtain of her raven-dark hair back to better lick the other side of her face.
She waited for a minute, holding the gentle Emma close to her, letting the emotions wash over her now, so that she could be calm later, when Ben would ask. He knew she would test today. It had become part of their rituals, testing for fertility, testing for pregnancy, the shots he helped her with, the doctor visits. She didn’t think she could take many more months of the horomones making her so crazy, but the only other option was to look into in-vitro and she wasn’t ready to think about that. It was a line they had said they wouldn’t cross, with the expense so high and Ben having to pay child support and alimony and her income gone, now that she’d dedicated herself full time to just the idea of motherhood. They’d thought if she left her veterinary practice she would leave stress behind, making it easier to cross that finish line and achieve a pregnancy. If anything, though, she was adrift now, with no outlet for the stress of the negative tests over and over again.
Pushing to her feet, Meg stretched her tiny frame over the sink, yanking on the cold taps and rinsing her hands, then her face with the chilly water. Tiny spots appeared on her pink tee-shirt, multiplying as she shook her hands out before growling at herself in the mirror, lank strands of what was once a stylish bob sticking to her damp cheeks, shadowed dark eyes glaring back at her in hurt and disappointment. She shook her head vigorously, grabbed a fresh towel from the neatly rolled stack on the shelf and scrubbed at her face, tossing it into the basin and forcing a smile in the mirror.
Emma rested her chin on the towel rack and stared up at her, no judgement in her watery brown eyes. Meg puffed out a breath and laid one hand back on the dog’s head. She had become her touchstone in many ways in the last year. She was her connection back to her career; Meg carried so many memories of bringing sweet Emma to the office every day with her. She was her support, always there, so sensitive to Meg’s every turn of mood. And she was the bridge to reaching Allison, Meg was sure of it. The sullen girl had ignored her from their first introduction, pointedly picking at the red and white plastic tablecloth in the pizza parlor where they’d met, directing every question and answer only to Ben. It had been the same for months, til Meg started to wonder if she was actually invisible when they tried to spend “family time” together. But one day, Meg had brought Emma with on a trip to the park, where they’d intended to break out some kites Meg had found at a local discount store. Putting together the kites had been a disaster, but Emma had been a star. Allison talked directly to Meg for the first time; all questions about Emma, but Meg didn’t care. It was something.
Meg started as her phone vibrated against her hip. She’d forgotten to turn the sound back on after their trip to the movies last night, and she wasn’t accustomed to the sensation. “Stupid critter,” she muttered at the screen as she jabbed at it, fumbling slightly as she simultaneously tried to thumb off the tab on her case that would allow her to switch from vibration to ringer. Her narrow brows furrowed as she scanned the display, absently wandering out of the bathroom and down the hall. She blinked curiously; the hospital never texted her. They either emailed or phoned Ben, but this was clearly from one of the nurses, asking her to call ASAP. Meg fired off a quick text to Ben; she would ask him what it was all about. Maybe he had changed the emergency contact procedures without letting her know.