Chapter 97

Homecoming

Nolan 13, Ryder almost 9, Olivia 5

Annabelle and Victoria, 52 weeks, 50 weeks

January 11, Wednesday. Evening.

"Remember not to overwhelm him or attack him with giant hugs. Be gentle," Amelia anxiously instructed for the umpteenth time. "And, Olivia, don't forget – it's not ok to climb onto Daddy's lap."

"Mommmmyyy…I knowwww," Olivia responded impatiently.

"And don't forget – it's ok to have questions about his wheelchair or his injuries. You can ask him all the questions you want to ask when we get home, but let's not ask them here," Amelia suggested as they waited along the runway at McChord with the other families.

Nolan put his arm around Amelia and whispered, "Mom, we know. Don't worry."

Ryder was captivated by the C-130 as it approached and landed. He was speechless with wonder as he took in the sight and watched the large aft door open. He counted the propellers and wheels, memorizing each detail and filling his phone with pictures.

Amelia explained the order to the kids, pointing out that the critical patients were offloaded first. This particular flight included the bodies of three fallen soldiers. Their caskets, draped in flags, came off the plane next. The crowd, except for the sobbing young widows and soldiers' mothers, was silent. Amelia thought to herself how close she'd come to being a part of that group.

Next, those needing assistance deplaned. They were loaded into vans and ambulances. Owen emerged just after them with a soldier accompanying him. Owen propelled his wheelchair forward by himself, the Private carried Owen's folded walker and his crutches.

Owen's eyes searched the crowd and quickly found the Shepherd-Hunt brood. The size of the family made locating them fairly easy. Owen beamed as he pushed his wheelchair faster. The kids ran out to meet him, but remembered not to attack him with hugs. All three screamed some version of "Dad" and celebrated. He curled his arms around them and showered them all with hugs and kisses. Tears of joy slipped down his cheeks as he greeted them.

The twins pulled toward their siblings as Amelia attempted to keep hold of them both. In what the family had begun to call Annabelle language, Anna proclaimed, "No up. No up. No no no up. No up." It was her way of asking to be put down on the ground so she could walk. Amelia admitted to herself that trying to contain Anna was a lost cause. She set her down and watched her walk toward Owen and the kids.

Owen's face was covered in surprise and delight as he watched Anna walk toward him. Ignoring how much it hurt to bend over, Owen reached out his hands and encouraged Anna toward him. He cheered when she reached him. Even though it was a struggle, Owen succeeded at picking her up. Ryder and Nolan told her it was Da. "Da? Da?" Anna wondered with a smile as she pressed her hand onto his cheek and analyzed the man smiling at her.

Owen pulled Anna to his chest, closed his eyes and grinned as he held her, "Yeah, it's Da, baby. Daddy's home. Daddy's here." Anna, only vaguely familiar with the person holding her, looked back at Amelia. She tolerated him picking her up, but the hug was too much. Her bottom lip began to quiver as she moved her hands toward her mama.

As she traded babies with Owen, Amelia shared a grin laced with pity. Reassuring her daughter, Amelia pointed out, "Annabelle. It's Daddy. See, Daddy's holding Ria. It's Da." Ria lowered her brow and touched Owen's nose. As he feigned surprise with a silly expression, Ria laughed. Owen touched her nose and she imitated his reaction when she'd done likewise, causing him to laugh back.

Owen subtly reached out one hand and placed it on Amelia's baby bump as he grinned and caught her eye. For now, the kids didn't know Amelia was pregnant. The couple had decided to tell the kids about the new baby once Owen returned home. Amelia placed her hand softly atop Owen's with a peaceful sigh.

Turning his attention back to Victoria, Owen balanced her on the arm rest of the wheelchair as he held her tightly. Resting the top of his forehead on hers, Owen kissed Ria and she covered him in slobbery, wide-mouthed, baby kisses.

"Private, would you mind showing my sons to my pack and duffel?" Owen grinned slyly, knowing the plan he had concocted.

"Yes, Major," the Private acknowledged as he looked at Nolan and Ryder. "You two want to come with me?"

Once the three stepped away, Owen disclosed the surprise to Amelia. The pilot happened to be an old friend and had agreed to give the boys a brief tour of the plane. She grinned and whispered, "You're a great Daddy." She stroked Owen's head as she pulled him close.

Meanwhile, the Private walked the boys not only toward the baggage and plane, but up the enormous aft door and into the plane. The pilot met them there and gave them a quick tour of the C-130. He invited them to sit in the cockpit, try on his gear, and even push a button that adjusted the interior cockpit lighting. After their tour and volumes of pictures, the boys were shown to Owen's baggage. The huge backpack dwarfed Nolan and Ryder garnered all his strength to carry the heavy duffel. When they returned to the family, Olivia unconsciously realized everyone had a role but her.

"Daddy! Daddy! Umm… Dad? Can I push you to the car?" Olivia begged.

"I've got it, sweetie, that's ok. You can walk next to me, though," he smiled. Olivia reluctantly grasped the free arm rest.

Amelia leaned down to hug Owen and whispered in his ear, "I know you want to do it yourself, but she needs a role."

"You know, Olivia," Owen added, "my arms are really tired. I do need your help."

"I can push?!" Olivia confirmed.

"Please, Livs," Owen requested with a grin as he assisted her with his free hand.

And I won't look back. I'll just smile at the world in a different way.

The Private accompanied the family to the car, ready to assist however necessary. As Amelia buckled in each baby, Owen and Olivia waited beside the car. The boys and the Private loaded Owen's bags in the back of the Buick, then the boys climbed through the back and into the back seat. Olivia, with half open eyes, was holding Owen's hand and resting her sleepy head on his arm.

"May I?" the Private asked Amelia as he motioned toward Olivia.

"Please," Amelia smiled with relief.

The Private knelt down and picked Olivia up, "I'll bet you're pretty happy your dad is home."

Sleepily, Olivia rested her head on the soldier's shoulder and muttered, "Super, super, duper happy." He slipped Livie into her carseat and buckled her in.

Then the Private turned to Owen, "Sir, are you ready?" Owen nodded as the Private wheeled him against the side of the rig and set the walker in front of the wheelchair.

With focus, Owen stood up and incrementally moved the walker until his back was against the side of the seat. Looking over his shoulder, Owen sighed and chuckled, "This is going to be tricky. The seat's much higher than a hospital bed."

The Private stepped in front of Owen and the two brainstormed a solution. Eventually, Owen set his hands on the Private's shoulders and pushed himself up onto the seat.

As the couple buckled themselves in, Amelia realized that they'd have no assistance at home to unload the car. She mentioned it to Owen with regret, feeling guilty for not having arranged anything.

Owen reached out and grasped Amelia's hand, "Hey, none of that. Besides, I won't have half the challenge getting out of the rig that I had getting in. We'll be ok."

With glossy eyes, Amelia squeezed Owen's hand tightly. Gazing deeply into his eyes, she echoed. "Yeah. We'll be ok."

The End

Book Two, Just Family begins where Just Friends concludes.