Thursday, April 22, 1982

I glanced at the board announcing the arriving flights and saw that Al's plane was on time and due to pull up to the gate in two minutes. I took a deep breath and quickly walked through the terminal, dodging travelers coming and going as I purposefully moved to his gate.

When Al had called to tell me he'd be arriving the following morning, I wanted to call the girls in and tell them, but Al asked me to keep it a surprise. So I waited until the girls went to sleep before I filled my parents in. While they were thrilled that things were improving in my marriage and for our children, it was tempered with regret that we would be leaving. We made plans for me to pick Al up at the airport alone, while they kept the girls occupied. I did, however, keep my promise to tell Bridget first when Al was ready for us to come home, pulling her aside in the morning to let her know we'd be going home the next day.

Now I waited nervously at the gate as passengers from the flight made their way into the terminal thoroughfare. My stomach wouldn't settle down. Sam had allowed Al to call daily; the first couple of days he sounded terrible, like he'd been stretched to his breaking point and then some. We'd agreed not to allow the girls to speak to him when he was edgy and irritable like that. Then there'd been Easter Sunday, when he'd promised the girls he would call only to end up trapped in a flashback when I called to check on him. He'd kept his promise, however hard it might have been for him to keep up a happy façade for the girls' benefit. It took a lot out of him, though, and he had so much to focus on to get himself straightened out.

Of the past week, though he wanted to, Al had felt up to talking with the girls only once, and most days his conversations with me were brief. Last night had been an exception as we'd spoken for nearly an hour, but I wondered. His dependence had increased over the course of a few months—would he be able to dry out so easily? I knew Al had been certain what was at stake, but part of me still worried what I would see when I looked in his eyes.

Al, wearing a pair of khakis and a red polo shirt, stepped into the terminal, a garment bag slung over his shoulder. The same hesitation was apparently coursing through his own mind, because Al looked around uncertainly before spotting me. Waving, I smiled warmly at him and a huge grin broke out on his face. He took purposeful strides that just verged on a jog and stopped before me. Awkwardly, we took measure of each other.

"Hi," I said.

"Hi." Al rubbed the side of his ear, hesitation coming forward again.

For my part, I looked into his eyes and searched for confirmation that this change was permanent. He returned my gaze steadily, seeking acceptance.

"This is for good isn't it?" I asked. He nodded. "Thank you." I reached up to his cheek—the cheek I'd slapped the night I left—and gingerly pressed my hand there. With my thumb, I softly stroked his skin. He closed his eyes and touched the back of my hand as he exhaled a rough breath.

Al took me into his arms then and hugged me close. "I love you, Beth."

"I love you, too."

"I'm sorry." He pulled back to look at me and slipped his hands into my hair, his thumbs directly in front of my ears as he tenderly cupped my face. "I'm so sorry." He kissed me tentatively; when I responded, he shifted his shoulder to drop the garment bag at his feet and stepped closer as the kisses intensified. Al's hands moved from my head to the small of my back and he drew me against him. I slid my hands up to his head and wove my fingers into his hair.

A passerby jostled us with his bag as he sighed and stepped around us. "Get a room," he muttered.

Al smirked in the middle of a kiss and we both snickered. He dropped his hand a bit lower and said in a sultry voice, "That's not a bad idea."

"Tempting," I said. "But I told the girls I'd be back with their surprise by lunchtime."

Al lifted his wrist behind my head and checked the time. I laughed and playfully poked him then walked my fingers up his chest and hooked my index finger in the collar of his shirt. "I want more than a quickie, Albert," I emphasized, tugging him towards me and giving him a wet kiss.

"Well, when you put it that way…" He kissed me again and then bent to retrieve his garment bag. We made our way to the exit, hand-in-hand. Every few moments Al would turn and stare at me, reaching to touch my cheek, or to tuck a curl behind my ear. The fifth time he did this, I gave him a light kiss and a reassuring squeeze around the waist.

When we got to the parking lot, I opened the back of the car and Al tossed his garment bag in. He closed the door and rested a hand on the metal.

"This was the last thing I saw—the back of this car and the taillights getting further and further away." Al shut his eyes for a moment. "Oh, Beth."

I hugged him and framed his face in my hands. "I didn't make it three blocks before I broke down and cried," I confessed. "I hope I never have to do that again."

"You won't have to. I swear."

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I stopped a block from my parents' house and pulled to the side of the road.

"How do you want to do this?" I asked.

Al thought, his expression brightening. "You go in first," he said, "and then I'll ring the doorbell after a minute or so."

"I'll make sure the girls answer it," I grinned. I leaned in to him and passionately kissed him. "Al, honey, I'm so glad to have you back."

We kissed for several long minutes, and then reluctantly pulled apart to continue the short drive. I pulled into the driveway and parked the car, shutting off the engine. Trying to act nonchalant, I gave Al a kiss and then left him sitting in the passenger seat while I walked to the front door and knocked.

Dad came to answer it and I whispered to him what Al and I had planned. He grinned broadly, leaned out to wave at Al, and then closed the door behind me. I followed him into the kitchen where the twins were helping Mom make sandwiches. Grace was clumsily stirring a pitcher of Kool-Aid, and Theresa dropped ice cubes into seven glasses. Relaxed chatter filled the air and Grace greeted me enthusiastically.

The doorbell rang and a stupid grin spread across my face. "I think your surprise just arrived," I told the girls. "Why don't you go get the door and see what got delivered?"

Grace climbed down from the barstool with Theresa's help, and they followed the twins to the door. My parents and I trailed after them, standing at the back of the foyer. When we nodded an okay, Michele reached to open the door.

Al greeted them, "Hi, girls."

All four girls screamed, "Daddy!" and threw themselves at him. One by one they started crying, each of them holding on to him. Grace clutched his right leg and buried her face in his pants. Theresa had hold of his right hand and was rubbing it against her cheek. The twins each had grabbed onto his left leg and they stood nose to nose, their cheeks pressed against him.

"My girls, my angels," Al said. He brushed his left hand across Bridget's head and then Michele's. "I missed you all. Oh, my precious babies, how I missed you." He turned his right hand to cup Theresa's cheek, his thumb stroking away her tears.

Behind me, Mom sniffed and dabbed at her eyes. I caught my own tears with my index finger and cleared my throat. "Let go of Daddy long enough that he can come in and have lunch, girls."

The older three reluctantly released him, but Grace still clung to his leg. Al bent and scooped her up into his arms. She kissed his cheek and threw her arms around his neck.

"Me make Kool-Aid," she confided as he carried her inside.

"You did?" Al grinned at her and snaked an arm around my waist as we went into the kitchen.

"Daddy needs a cup!" Theresa shouted, as she climbed back into the stool and resumed her task of filling glasses with ice. Mom, still wiping at her eyes, retrieved an eighth glass from the cabinet and passed it to Theresa.

Al put Grace down in the stool next to Theresa's and crossed to my father. He bounced on his toes and took a deep breath before speaking. "Pete, I want to apologize to you and Lillian. I was horrible to you both on the phone, but even worse, I hurt your daughter. I'm so sorry."

"Thank you, son." Dad gripped Al's extended hand and then pulled him into an embrace. When he released him, Mom kissed Al's cheek.

"We love you, Albert," she said simply.

Al's voice was unsteady as he thanked them. He blinked furiously and then excused himself to the bathroom.

The girls watched him go, and we could practically feel their breath being held until he returned. I was glad we were driving back home. I didn't think they'd let him out of their sight for a moment.

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Grace was on Al's lap, her face pressed against his neck. She insisted he carry her everywhere and shrieked hysterically whenever he started to put her down. She wouldn't leave Al even for her precious Papa—the collar of Al's polo would need to be pressed again to take the crimp out of it from where Grace had clenched it when her grandfather had tried to relieve Al. She'd screwed her eyes closed and had screamed, holding on to Al for dear life, so they'd abandoned the transition, even though it meant none of the other girls could sit on Al's lap. Fortunately, the older girls didn't openly complain about their baby sister's obsessive need to be near their father.

Bridget had claimed a spot on the couch next to Al, and she pressed against him, wrapping her arm around his middle and nestling her head on his chest in what little space wasn't being taken up by Grace. Michele had started out on the other side of Al, but when Theresa began quietly crying, Michele had silently switched places with her middle sister. Theresa laid down on the couch with her head on Al's knee and he rested his hand on her shoulder, gently stroking her arm in idle patterns. Michele leaned against Al's calf, her head resting on the sofa cushion, and she closed her eyes.

My parents, though they wanted to spend as much time with their granddaughters as they could, retreated to the backyard to work on the garden, leaving us all alone in the living room. We could hear my mom sniffling as they headed out the door.

Michele looked up at Al. "Why is Nana crying?"

"Because we're going home tomorrow and she's going to miss having you all here."

"We're going home?" Michele beamed. "So, Daddy, Mommy's punishment worked!"

Al lifted his eyebrows and turned to look at me. "Mommy's punishment?"

I gave him a sheepish shrug. "It was the only way I could think to explain it to them."

Al returned his attention to Michele and gave her a reassuring smile. "Yes, honey, Mommy's punishment worked."

"So when you remember the terrible things, you're not going to try to forget by drinking alcohol?"

"The terrible things?"

Michele nodded. "Mommy said terrible things happened to you in a war."

Al blinked but recovered quickly. "No more trying to forget things with alcohol," he agreed.

"Good." Michele said. She leaned her head against his knee and wrapped her arm around his calf. "Now maybe Uncle Rob will be nice to you again."

"Beth? What is she talking about?" Al asked, unable to hold off his questions any longer.

I closed my eyes and sighed. Opening them again, I looked at him with regretful tears welling up. "It was a while back, the night you called and had it out with Rob. He stormed out and said some things in the heat of anger and Sheli heard them. It upset her." Al's face showed that he wanted to know what Rob had said. I knew the two of them had apologized to each other on Easter—but I wasn't about to get into the names my brother had called him to satisfy his curiosity. "He apologized to me—and to Sheli—for what he said."

Theresa rolled onto her back and looked up at Al. "I missed you, Daddy. Promise we won't have to leave you again."

"Oh, Resa," Al said, tenderly rubbing her tummy, "I promise."

"I'm never leaving Daddy again, for any reason," Bridget declared.

"What about when you get married?" asked Michele.

Bridget shook her head emphatically and snuggled closer to Al. "I'm not getting married. I'm staying with Daddy forever."

"You can't do that!"

"Yes, I can, can't I, Daddy?"

Al chuckled and brushed a kiss against her forehead. "Bree, you can stay with me and Mommy forever if you want to."

"I'm getting married," Michele said.

Theresa piped up, "I'm marrying Daddy!"

Bridget sat up straighter at that and took her own turn at disdainful argumentativeness, "You can't marry Daddy!"

"Why not?"

Al caressed Theresa's cheek, smiling as he gently told her, "Because I'm already taken, honey. I'm married to Mommy."

"Well, then I'm going to stay with you and Mommy forever like Bree," she decided.

"Daddy hold me forever," Grace said without moving her face from its place pressed into Al's neck. "Want Daddy hold me."

"Gracie, you know, your sisters would like Daddy to hold them, too," I gently suggested. "Why don't you come sit with me—?"

"No!" she shrieked, causing Al to wince as the piercing sounds went right into his ear. "Only Daddy!"

"All right, Grace, baby, it's okay," Al quickly reassured her. "I'll hold you."

The doorbell rang and the older three girls looked toward me. Bridget asked, "Is that another surprise, Mommy?"

Al had a twinkle in his eye as he said, "If I'm not mistaken, that's a surprise for Mommy."

I gave him a suspiciously amused look as I got up and went to the front door. I opened it to reveal the same florist's delivery boy who'd been there the day after Al had finally called me sober and every other day for the last week, presenting a tall vase of calla lilies.

Without even asking me what he already knew, he presented a clipboard. "Would you sign here, please, ma'am?" I signed and he passed me the flowers, commenting, "Someone obviously thinks the world of you, ma'am. Flowers practically every day, and I don't mind telling you it's almost wiped our stock of calla lilies clean out. Well, I hope you enjoy them." He tipped his ball cap and returned to the delivery van.

This was the largest order yet and even though there was no question they were from Al, I lifted the small card from its envelope and read,

"Beth—

My love. My reason for being.

Life without you is meaningless.

I love you,

Al."

It was the longest message he'd sent with any of the flowers. The others had simply said "I'm sorry" or "I love you." But this—this one came from deep within him and it touched me that he'd dictated it to the florist and exposed his soul in such a way. I set the flowers on the foyer table and, card still in my hand, I returned to the living room.

"What did you get, Mommy?" Michele asked.

"Flowers from Daddy, honey."

I headed straight for Al and cupped my hands around his face, bending to kiss him slowly and passionately.

"I love you so much, Al."

He traced along my jawline with his finger, pausing at my chin to gently rub my lips with his thumb, his eyes intently looking into mine all the while. He didn't let up his heartfelt gaze as he softly said, "I love you more."

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Michele was the first to stray from Al's side. It was no farther than to climb into my lap and she didn't take her eyes off her father for quite a long time, but it was a small step towards normalcy. They all seemed to fear that if Al left their sight he would vanish, and I felt a pang of guilt. I kissed Michele's temple and smoothed her hair and whispered, "Everything's going to be fine now." She turned to face me and beamed.

Theresa had fallen asleep, her arms folded over Al's hand on her chest as if to hold it in place. Her cheek was pillowed against her father's thigh and she breathed the deep steadiness of contentment. Grace was still refusing to leave Al's lap, and she had one arm wrapped around his neck and the other gripping the opening of his polo shirt. My mother smiled as she came in and sat down in an empty chair.

"That's a wonderful sight," she said to no one in particular.

Al smiled and rested his cheek against the top of Bridget's head. "Lillian, it's a wonderful feeling."

"Nana," Bridget asked upon noticing Mom's eyes misting up, "are you and Papa sad we're going home?"

Mom made a wistful grimace. "I'm always sad when it's time for you to go home."

"Or when it's time for you to go home," I gently teased. "The last time you came to see us you looked the way you did when you dropped me off at college when it was time to leave."

"You'll see," she said wisely. "One day—sooner than you want, you'll see."

I kissed Michele again. "I know," I acknowledged.

"What's college, Mommy?" Michele asked.

"School. It's where I learned to be a nurse, honey. You'll go to college one day and study to be anything you want."

"Anything?"

I nodded, "Anything at all, precious."

"Speaking of college, Beth, I've got a box of your old school things up in the attic, if you wouldn't mind going through them this afternoon? Pick out what you want to keep. Janie went through hers last time she was here, and I need to get Rob to go through his, and then I'll be able to start getting the attic in shape the way I want it."

I glanced at the clock on the wall. There wasn't much afternoon left. Gently nudging Michele off my lap, I stood and told Mom I might as well get started on it now. As I left the room to go upstairs, Michele went to sit in her Nana's lap.

I passed Dad on my way up; he was just coming down from his shower cleaning off the gardening dirt. "Grace still hanging on to Al for dear life?" he asked.

Glancing back towards the living room, I nodded. "We were wrong in thinking my leaving had affected her least. She's scared he's going to disappear again so she's making sure that won't happen, I guess."

Dad nodded thoughtfully. "She'll have to fall asleep sooner or later. I'll give Al's neck a break when she does. That little girl is getting so big!"

"Yeah, she is," I agreed, thinking of Mom's prophetic words regarding how quickly our kids would grow up. As if he could read my mind, Dad chuckled and patted my cheek.

"She'll always be your baby, Bethy. Even when she's forty-three years old."

We hugged right there on the stairs and told each other "I love you," then continued on our way. The trapdoor access to the attic was directly in front of the linen closet, and I tugged on the string to lower it. It dropped with a creak, and it took another tug to get the stairs extended. I wondered how long it had been since Janie had visited because the stairs certainly felt disused to me.

The steps creaked as I made my way into the attic, and I blindly felt for the chain to turn on the lights. The bulb was right in front of my face and I was temporarily blinded when it came on. I had to blink several times before I could see clearly enough to make my way to the large box labeled "BETH'S COLLEGE STUFF." I chuckled at the way I'd peppered my printing with flowers, especially when I compared it to Rob's box, on which he'd sloppily scrawled "ROB'S…DON'T TOUCH."

I tugged the box out and sat on the floor in front of it, slowly opening the flaps and glancing at the memorabilia contained within. The scent of old newspapers came out strongest, since they were on top. I lifted the yellowing pages and laid them in my lap, idly scanning the decades-old articles. My gentle but quick flipping abruptly came to a stop when I came across a photo of myself and three other nursing students, announcing our intentions to go into the military. Two of us had chosen Navy, the other two Army. I couldn't get over how young I looked—and how naïve. I set that particular paper to the left side to keep, and dropped the rest in a "toss" pile on the right of the box.

The next layer was easy to identify as trash—old tests that I had no idea why I had kept. Beneath that were invitations to socials and old photographs, and I began to lose myself in the memories each brought back. I heard the creak of the steps but they didn't register with me as I focused on the photograph in my hand. Al brushed his lips against my cheek and asked, "Who's that?"

"Sarah Jane Hancock. She was my roommate."

"God, you two look so young," Al commented.

I turned to look at him. "Are you implying that I look old now?"

"Never," he declared, leaning forward to kiss my mock-pouting lips. He nibbled gently on my lower lip and captured it between his, gently drawing it into his mouth as he lifted a hand to cradle the back of my head.

I kissed him so hungrily it startled him for a moment. He quickly recovered and matched my passion. Al kept one hand behind my head, his fingers twined in my hair, while the other snaked around behind me to draw me close and pull me hard against him as we kissed. Rapid hard kisses gradually transformed to fiery, lengthy French kisses, and I held tightly to Al even when we paused for breath. I pressed my forehead into his neck and panted, then shifted position so that I could kiss his throat. My fingers fumbled with the buttons at his collar and I pushed the sides of his polo apart. I rubbed my nose against his chest hair and then kissed my way back up to his mouth, kissing him deeply and slowly easing myself back against the floor. I held on to him and pulled him down with me so that he was on top of me.

"Al," I murmured as he nibbled on my earlobe and kissed a tantalizing pattern along my neck. "Al, make love to me." He paused in his attack and I began unbuttoning my blouse, ready to divest it.

Al kissed me and reached for my hands, gently moving them away from my sensuous task. I smiled and lifted my arms over my head and arched my back, inviting him. "Make love to me," I urged again.

Al shook his head, and sat up with a regretful sigh. "Your parents are just downstairs, Beth."

"So?" I reached for him and pulled him down to me again, raising my head to kiss him as I tugged his polo shirt free of the waistband of his pants.

He kissed me, but gave me a small smile and shook his head. "So it's disrespectful." Al let out a frustrated breath, "This is why I wanted to get a room earlier. Someone might come in—your parents, one of the girls…"

"Used to be there was a time that would turn you on more—the chance of getting caught," I said. Undeterred, I sought out his belt and began unfastening it. "I changed my mind about the quickie," I said as I tugged meaningfully at the waistband of his slacks. "I want you."

"Oh, Beth," Al said, and it was both a groan and a sigh at the same time. He kissed me and caressed the inner curves of my breasts. I was positive I'd finally convinced him, when we heard creaking on the stairs leading to the attic. We both froze and I couldn't help giggling.

"It's not funny!" hissed Al as he quickly adjusted his clothes and gestured for me to do the same. I already had my blouse buttoned most of the way again, but we each realized a moment apart that our hair was mussed and our faces flushed. I was just reaching for my hair to try to smooth it when Angie's head poked into the attic and the rest of her soon followed.

"Beth, your mom said you were up here, do you need any—oh!" She rounded the corner and saw me and Al. Her eyes went from one of us to the other in rapid succession and she turned a light shade of pink. I glanced down and saw that I'd misbuttoned my blouse. Shifting my gaze to Al, I saw that his polo shirt was only partway tucked in and his belt still hung loose and unfastened. I pressed my lips together in an awkward smile that Angie never saw because she'd turned and quickly left, calling a quick, "I'll see you at dinner," over her shoulder.

Al and I exchanged a slightly stunned and embarrassed look with each other and then began to laugh. He kissed my cheekbone and finished fixing his clothes. "You might want to start over on that blouse," he advised me.

I gave him a look as I unbuttoned it and prepared to redo it. Before I slid the first button into its hole, I said, "You know, we've already been walked in on; what are the odds that--?"

But Al interrupted me with a kiss. Gently tugging my shirt closed and fastening the bottom two buttons, he told me, "I'm the one that doesn't want a quickie now."

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Grace pitched a fit when we settled her into her booster chair at the dinner table. "Want Daddy's lap!" she screamed, her face turning bright red. She kicked her legs furiously and arched her body against the safety straps.

Al grabbed her ankles and bent in front of her. His face was stern but gentle as he firmly said, "Grace, stop this right now."

She stopped kicking but didn't cease straining against the plastic straps. "Want sit wif you!"

"You can sit beside me," Al explained, "but not on my lap. You had plenty of lap-time with me earlier. I can't eat with you on my lap and even if I could, it's not fair to your sisters."

Grace's lower lip jutted out and she looked pleadingly at her father. "Want sit wif you, Daddy."

"Beside me," Al nodded. "And only if you sit like a lady."

"Okay," she agreed.

Bridget pouted, "I want to sit with Daddy, too."

"Well, so do I," said Michele.

Theresa didn't say a word, but the frown on her face and the tears welling up in her eyes made it quite plain how she felt.

"Girls, you need to take turns," I said.

"Grace isn't," protested Bridget.

"Grace is a toddler," Al said in a no-nonsense voice over the bickering.

Mom rapped a wooden spoon on the side of the table. The girls fell silent and stared at her with their mouths hanging open.

"Grace will sit beside Al, and Michele, you sit on the other side of him." Before Bridget and Theresa could argue, Mom continued, "Theresa, you sit across from him and Bridget, next to her."

Bridget frowned, "But I wanted to…"

"You sat next to your Daddy all afternoon, Bridget Louise. Your sisters need a turn with him."

Dad laughed. "Ever felt like such a hot commodity before, Al? Everyone wants to be near you."

Angie looked at me and smirked. "You can say that again," she murmured coyly.

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Al and I snuggled facing each other and stared into each other's eyes in the faint moonlight streaming through the window. He stroked my cheeks and kissed me. The old bedsprings creaked as I shifted closer to him and we couldn't help but giggle.

"You would have the noisiest bed," Al whispered.

"Once we hear Dad snoring it'll be safe," I whispered back, reaching around to squeeze his butt.

Al let out an explosive breath of surprise and then started laughing again. "Are you going to be able to wait?"

"I doubt it."

"Poor baby," he murmured, wriggling closer to me and resting his hand in the curve where my hip and waist met. His lips found mine and he pressed me against his body as we kissed. I clung to his shoulders and tangled my legs with his, rubbing my foot along his ankle.

"I love you so much, Al. I've missed you."

"Oh, Beth," he breathed in my hair. "I'm so sorry for everything. I love you."

We stroked each other's back and just reveled in being close to one another. And then, we heard it. The beautiful sound of snoring.

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A rattling sound woke me and I lifted my head from Al's chest.

"Honey, do you hear that?" I whispered.

"Hmmm?" Sleep thickened his voice. "Wha-?"

The rattle came again and I shifted so Al could sit up. A tiny voice followed the rattling as it whined, "Daddy?" As we came more awake we realized it was one of the girls pulling on the locked door.

The tugging became more frantic and the cries picked up a distinct note of hysteria. "Daddy!! Daddy!!"

Al got out of bed and padded toward the door, getting there just as we heard my mother scolding, "Grace! Leave your parents sleep and go back to bed, honey. You'll see them in the morning."

"Want Daddy!!" she wailed.

"I'm right here, baby," Al said as he opened the door. Grace looked up at him and tackled his legs.

"Daddy!" She pressed her face against the fabric of his pajamas as she locked her arms around his knees.

"Okay, Grace, you've seen him, now let's go back to bed," Mom hissed.

"No!" Grace cried. "Want Daddy!"

Mom looked at Al and sighed. "I'm sorry, Al."

"It's okay." Al bent down and scooped Grace into his arms. "I've got it from here, Lillian. Go on back to bed yourself." He leaned close and kissed her wrinkled cheek. "Goodnight."

"Goodnight, Al."

Al cradled Grace like a baby and she had already nestled her head into his shoulder. He smiled ruefully at me in the dim light from the hallway before pushing the door closed with one foot. I turned the lamp on so he could see to navigate his way back to the bed even though it made me squint.

"Grace, honey, what's wrong?" I quietly asked as Al sat on the bed and then swung his legs up. I pulled the sheets to his waist and reached to brush my fingers along Grace's cheek.

"Daddy," she said, closing her eyes and poking her lower lip out.

Al softly chucked a finger against her cheek. "I'm right here, Gracie."

She opened her eyes again and stared up at him, tears forming. "No go away, Daddy."

Al kissed her forehead. "Oh, honey, I'm not going anywhere."

"Love you," sighed Grace. She closed her eyes and snuggled into his hold.

"I love you, too, my little angel." Al slowly began rocking back and forth, one hand brushing against Grace's hairline as she drifted off to sleep.

I had tears in my eyes and Al looked over at me, concerned. "What is it, babe?"

I shook my head and shrugged. "I didn't think she'd be this traumatized by us leaving."

"Oh, honey…" Al leaned over to kiss me. "Give her some time to realize I'm not going to disappear on her and she'll be fine."

"I hope you're right." I gave him a wan smile.

Al eased Grace to the mattress between us and grinned when she didn't wake up. "How's about that? That's a step in the right direction." He adjusted the sheets around her and kissed me again. He laid down on his side and smoothed her hair, brushing a light kiss across her temple.

I followed suit and turned off the lamp. In the sudden blackness, Al reached across and gently ran his fingers on my arm. Quietly, so softly that I could only just hear him, Al said, "You didn't have a choice, Beth. I know that."

The bed shook as I started crying. Al felt his way from my shoulder to my cheek and soothed my tears away with his thumb. I reached up and held onto his wrist.

"I love you," I whispered.

"I know that, too," Al said, tenderly. "If you didn't, you wouldn't have gone to such lengths to get through to me. No, shh, don't cry, baby. I love you. I think I love you more now than I ever have."

I smiled through my tears. "I thought you didn't want me to cry."

He shifted his hand to run his thumb over my lips. "You're the best thing that ever happened to me, Beth. You and our girls."

My eyes had begun adjusting to the dark and I gently reached down to skim my fingers feather-light on Grace's cheek. I raised my eyes to meet Al's and he smiled. Giving my cheek a final pat, he draped his arm lightly over Grace and closed his eyes. I watched as he joined her in slumber and his face went lax, his breathing deepening. I put my fingers to my lips and kissed them, then stretched across to delicately press my fingertips to his lips. A faint smile lifted the corners of his mouth in repose and I felt a smile on my own face before closing my eyes as well.

A light tap and the creak of the door opening drew me back to alertness. I squinted to see a small figure creeping in the room, closing the door behind her. She made her way across the room in almost total silence, only making a noise when the bed creaked as she climbed in on Al's side. The unexpected shift to the mattress and the small arms wrapping around his middle startled him awake and he gasped.

"Shhh," I cautioned him just before our daughter spoke.

"Can I sleep with you, Daddy, please?" asked Bridget.

Al stretched one arm back to embrace her as he rolled onto his back. She snuggled in close, hugging him as she pressed her head on his chest.

"Okay, honey. Tonight you can sleep with me and Mommy." He yawned and caressed her cheek.

"I missed you," Bridget said, a twinge of sadness in her sleepy voice.

"I missed you, too, sweetheart," Al said. "I love you, Bridget."

"I love you, too, Daddy," she answered, and closed her eyes. She was asleep in moments, and Al looked over at me.

"Want to take a wager on how long it is until the other two creep in?"

"I'm betting less than five minutes on Michele," I said.

The door creaked and Al chuckled. He craned his head to see that, sure enough, Michele was now tiptoeing into the room.

"Come to join the party, honey?" he whispered.

"Can I sleep with you?" Michele asked, sleepily rubbing her eyes.

"Come around to my side, Sheli," I said, reaching down to lift her into bed with us and helping her get settled next to Grace. Al bent over to kiss her cheek and whispered something into her ear before kissing her again. Michele softly giggled and nestled down into the pillows, tucking her hands under her cheek.

"We've got quite the slumber party here," Al laughed, reaching across sleeping children to hold my hand.

"Wouldn't be complete without Theresa," I said, squeezing his fingers.

"As cramped as the bed is sure to get, I have to agree," he nodded.

I didn't hear any signs of movement in the hallway and I frowned. "She'll be crushed if she finds out her sisters slept with us and she didn't."

"You're right," Al agreed. He rubbed his thumb across the back of my hand. "Why don't you go get her and bring her in here, honey?" He indicated Bridget's sleeping form. "I can't exactly get up or I would."

I laughed and softly moved the sheets aside so I could slip out of bed. I padded into Theresa's room and lifted her into my arms. She stirred awake and peered up at me.

"Daddy wants you to come sleep with us, honey," I told her, knowing full well how left out she'd felt this afternoon.

"He does?" she asked around a yawn.

I nodded and carried her into our bedroom.

"There's my Resa," Al whispered when we got into bed. He reached his left arm out to draw her into his embrace, settling her on his chest next to Bridget. "Now we'll have the best night's sleep."

"I love you, Daddy," Theresa whispered.

"I love you, too." Al sighed. I reached to touch his arm and he looked at me. Smiling, he said, "I missed my girls and now I have them back. I have them all back."