Weeks passed, and spring turned into summer. Ben was hoping that it might be some kind of sign, Leslie making a miraculous recovery as the remaining flowers bloomed and opened themselves to the sun, but that was too much to ask for.
Some days were better than others, but how good could it possibly be given the circumstances?
He spent more time with Chris and Ann, and not to say he was ungrateful for their love and support, but it was hard sometimes. He saw the way that Chris looked at Ann, the glowing pride of a father-to-be, the way he’d unconsciously brush his hand over Ann’s belly, and Ben felt that pang in his heart.
They were in love. They were expecting a baby. They were a family.
They were everything that Ben didn’t have.
He knew they did their best to include him, to try and tone down their behavior out of respect, but there are some things you can’t hide no matter how hard you try.
And Ben was happy for them. He really was, but when they went to bed, it was curled in each other’s arms. It was with sweet, loving words to their baby.
His bed never seemed to be warm enough.
And every day the prognosis was the same: no change.
“She’s perfectly healthy,” they said. “We just don’t know why she hasn’t woken up.”
And every day after work, he came to the hospital and held Leslie’s hand until they kicked him out.
At least the baby was doing well. That was his only consolation. Given this completely shitty situation, his child was okay. For now.
He hated it, but his mind always added that last bit. For now . Because it could change just like that, in the blink of an eye. That’s how long it took for Leslie to get hit, how long it took for her to slip into a coma. How long it could take for everything to fall apart.
But just like every other day, all he could do was wait.
Ben was at Leslie’s bedside when Marlene walked in, another frequent visitor to room 5331. He prepared himself for the usual well-intentioned lecture on how sleep deprived he looked or how he needed to eat more, but it didn’t come.
Today was a bad day for her, too.
Her eyes had their own rings around them, her clothes a little looser than before. She just kissed Leslie’s forehead and took a seat next to him with a weary smile and didn’t say a word for nearly twenty minutes.
“It’s Robert’s birthday today.”
Ben didn’t know what to say. There wasn’t anything to say. He had been wallowing in his own grief that he had forgotten that Marlene had dealt with so much worse. Being a young, single mother literally overnight.
She knew what it was like to lose a spouse far too early. She knew the grief that came with it, and now she might lose her daughter and grandchild, too.
“It’s harder today. Usually Leslie comes over and we look through old photo albums and laugh and cry together. I tried doing that on my own, and I just couldn’t. It’s too hard.”
Her voice cracked, and Ben nearly lost it. The only time he ever saw her cry was right after the accident. When they didn’t know if Leslie would make it. Not once since then.
“When Robert died, after that initial shock, I didn’t think I could do it. I almost didn’t want to without him. But I had Leslie and together, we did. She was my rock in a lot of ways, which was an unfair burden for a ten year old, but she was. She’s always been so strong, and she never gave herself enough credit. In a way, I was able to be strong because I had her.”
Ben was only a little bit shocked when she reached out and gripped his hand. He squeezed back.
“I’ve already lost my husband. I can’t lose my little girl, too.”
“She’s strong. You said so yourself. She’s strong enough to pull through this. For you, for me, for the baby. For herself. She knows how much we still need her.”
Marlene sniffed and nodded, still staring at her unmoving daughter. Ben saw her bag on the ground with a worn photo album peeking out.
“I’ll let you have some time with her, okay?”
“Thank you,” she said with a grateful smile as Ben stood up and grabbed his jacket. “Oh, and Ben?”
He stopped at the door and turned around. “Yeah?”
“You look like shit. You’re coming back to the house with me and I’ll make sure you eat some dinner.”
Despite everything, he smiled
It felt weird being back in Leslie’s childhood home without her. It was the first time he came here since the accident, and he felt more than a little guilty about that.
He didn’t like thinking about how selfish he had been, but that didn’t make it any less true. Marlene was his family now, and he needed to act like it instead of wallowing in his own self-pity.
He folded his hands at the kitchen table while Marlene worked at the stove.
“Are you sure there’s nothing I can help you with? I’m pretty handy around the kitchen.”
She laughed and shook her head. “Oh, I know you are. You wouldn’t believe the phone call I got from my daughter the first time you cooked for her. Actually, you probably could. But no thank you. You look like a strong wind might knock you down if you stand up.”
He smiled when he remembered the night Marlene was talking about. He hadn’t thought anything of it. Leslie had a hard day and so he snuck into her house and surprised her with dinner. Leslie was so happy she actually cried.
Ben just hoped she didn’t tell her mother exactly how she thanked him…
“Uh, yeah, it’s been hard, but I don’t have to tell you that.”
“No, you don’t.”
“I just…I wanted to apologize for my behavior since this all happened. I haven’t been in a good place, but that’s no excuse for how I’ve been treating the people around me.”
She left something simmering on the stove and sat next to him at the table.
“You’re a good man. I knew that almost from the beginning. And you love my daughter in a way every mother hopes their child experiences. I understand how you feel. I wasn’t the best person to be around after Robert died. I wanted to mourn with my daughter in peace, but after a while, I realized that I didn’t have to go through it alone. You don’t either.” She stood up and went back to the stove. “And you don’t need to starve yourself. You don’t want me to check up on you and make sure you’re eating and sleeping properly, but I will if I have to. Leslie would never forgive me if I let you hurt yourself like this.”
Ben smiled. “Ann said the same thing.”
“Ann’s right.” She stopped stirring the sauce. “You’ll be a good father. I just want you to know that. And if for some reason Leslie,” she paused, “Leslie doesn’t wake up, I’ll do everything that I can for you and the baby.”
He blinked back tears. “I know. Thank you.”
She sighed. “Well, the sauce is ready. I’m gonna carb you up, and there better not be anything left on that plate, you hear me?”
He heard the door close from the kitchen and wiped his hands on his (Leslie’s) apron.
“Ben? Are you here?”
“Yeah, in the kitchen, babe.”
She was smiling that cute, confused smile when she came in and set her bags down on the table.
“What are you doing here?”
“I knew you were having a bad day,” he said with a shrug, “and I wanted to surprise you and make dinner. Calzones!” Her face fell and he laughed. “I’m just kidding. I wouldn’t do that to you. It’s just normal pasta. And I’ve noticed that this apron I’m wearing clearly states “Kiss the Cook” and I have not received so much as a peck since you got home.”
Her eyes started to well up as she walked over to him. “This is so sweet of you.” Her kisses tasted like salty tears, but they were happy tears, so it was all good.
“It’s okay. I just wanted to do something nice. It’s not anything fancy.”
She wrapped her arms around his neck and hugged him tight. “Doesn’t matter. You saw that I was having a bad day and you broke into my house and made me dinner.”
“Well, you told me where your spare key was, so it’s technically not breaking in, but everything else is accurate.” He pulled her over to the stove so he could lower the flame on the saucepan.
“I have the greatest, most wonderful and thoughtful boyfriend in the entire world. And sexy. Super sexy. Looks great in an apron, too.”
“Why thank you. You’re pretty sexy yourself.”
“You’ll make someone a wonderful house husband someday.”
She cackled and he kissed the end of her nose.
“Well, you’re home earlier than I expected and the sauce still needs to simmer some more, so there’s definitely time if you wanted to go take a nice, relaxing bath or something.”
“But what if I want company?”
“As much as I’d love that, I shouldn’t go too far from the kitchen in case the sauce starts to boil over.”
He gripped the end of the counter when she dropped to her knees and unbuckled his belt.
“Good thing we don’t need to leave the kitchen for this then.”
Turned out it was a very good thing.
He didn’t remember smiling this much, or at all really, since that phone call all of those weeks ago.
But here he was, on Marlene’s couch with a family album opened on his lap, a photo of a smiling, semi-toothless Leslie on her father’s lap.
“Oh, she was so happy when she lost her teeth. She didn’t care that it was mid-August. She just kept singing “All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth”. Drove her father and me crazy.” Marlene laughed softly and ran her fingers over the picture with a wistful smile.
“She still sings Christmas songs in mid-August, that one included. Thankfully it seems that she’s expanded her repertoire, though.”
Marlene turned the page to a picture of Leslie dressed up as the original Batman, Robert next to her as Robin.
“Oh, she loves this picture,” Ben said.
“Yeah, it was the last Halloween before Robert died. We did matching costumes every year. I was Catwoman, of course.”
He chuckled, turning to the last page. Ben knew this picture, too. It was one that she pulled out from her memory box and looked at every year.
It was her tenth birthday, and she’s smiling widely in front of her cake, Robert kissing her cheek.
He coughed and wiped at his eyes. “Thank you. For dinner and sharing these pictures with me and everything.”
She rubbed his shoulder. “Of course. You’re family now, and I think Leslie would be glad that we both weren’t alone today.”
Marlene took his hand and squeezed. “She’s going to make it. You can’t stop believing that. She’s coming back to us.”
He nodded. With every passing day it was getting harder to believe, but he did anyway.