Claire rolled over in her bed, shivering, her hand instinctively reaching out for Jamie, her personal heater. Finding the spot empty, she sighed, putting her hand over her face, and tried not to cry. She knew the separation from Jamie would be hard, but she hadn’t been able to imagine how hard it would be. She felt like a car trying to keep chugging along the road missing two wheels and an engine. Everything was hard, even the simple task of getting out of bed.
Even worse, layered amidst the sadness and longing, was an intense feeling of guilt. She silently berated herself for being so melodramatic. Yes, Jamie was gone, but it was temporary. It was only six months. But if she was barely hanging on after only seven days, how would she manage six months?
She rolled over and closed her eyes, conjuring his image. She had fallen asleep in his sweatshirt and she wrapped her arms around herself, pulling the covers over her head. As long as she kept her eyes closed, he was there.
John woke up early and slipped downstairs quietly, though there was really no need to. His whole objective was to lure Claire out of her bed. She'd spent the entirety of the previous weekend shut in her bedroom, and he didn't intend to let her wallow again.
He put the coffee on and shuffled around the kitchen, pulling out pans, cracking eggs, putting toast in the toaster. His cooking skills were far beyond the simple breakfast he was preparing, but he wanted to make it just like Jamie did for her every Saturday morning. Claire had been walking around like a ghost for the past two weeks and he was going to put a stop to it. Even if all they did was watch movies on the couch all day, it would be a vast improvement.
When everything was just about done, he ran up the stairs and opened her door without bothering to knock. He nudged her gently until she peeked her head out from under the covers. "Come on Claire," he said gently, "I made breakfast."
"No thank you," she mumbled, attempting to roll over and pull the covers back over her head.
John grabbed her shoulder. "Please, Claire. You have to at least eat. For me?"
She sighed deeply and turned her head back to look at him. "What did you make?"
"Bacon and eggs, just how you like it."
She huffed and groaned but sat up in the bed. Her hair was wildly sticking up in all directions, and she quickly threw her blanket over the top of her head and wrapped the rest around her like a monk's robe. "Fine," she said, and she followed him down the stairs.
John laughed hysterically at Claire as she wiped her eyes. She'd started out only crying but thanks to John's teasing, she was now laughing as well, adding even more tears to the mix.
"I can't believe you were crying that much over a movie about dogs," he said again, shaking his head as he got into the car.
Claire got into the passenger side and buckled her seat belt. "I saw a couple tears in your eyes too, John Grey. Don't deny it."
"A few tears maybe, but you were sobbing like a lunatic. People were staring." He pulled the car out of the parking space and maneuvered through the busy parking lot.
She started laughing again, fanning her face, flushed red with embarrassment. "They all had so much courage," she said, which set John into another fit of laughter.
John shook his head again and turned up the radio. Claire groaned. "Please, not Mariah Carey again. I can't take it anymore."
"Fine. You pick."
Claire hit the preset buttons until she found the alternative station. The latest song by Red Hot Chili Peppers filled the car and Claire rested her head against the window, her thoughts instantly turning to Jamie.
It's bitter baby,
And it's very sweet.
I'm on a rollercoaster,
but I'm on my feet.
Take me to the river,
Let me on your shore.
I'll be coming back baby,
I'll be coming back for more.
"Nope!" John said, breaking her out of her reverie. "We will be going right back to Mariah if you start wallowing again."
Claire lifted her head back up and smiled at John, reaching out to squeeze his arm. "Thank you."
"Are you sure you don't mind if I invite Hector over for our movie night?" John asked as he and Claire perused the new releases at Blockbuster.
"Can you please stop asking me? I’ve told you a hundred times that I'd love to meet him. Besides, you've been spending so much time with me, I feel like you haven't been able to spend much time with him." She held up one of the movies and showed John. "How about this one?"
"The Sandlot?" he said doubtfully, reading the back of the box. "Sounds like a ripoff of Stand By Me. No thanks." He plucked the box out of her hands and replaced it on the shelf.
"Here," he said, picking up another movie and handing it to her.
"Jason Goes to Hell? No. Have I ever told you that you have terrible taste in movies." Claire shook her head and continued her search.
They finally settled on Robin Hood: Men in Tights, and headed for home. As soon as they got inside the phone was ringing. Claire dropped her bags and ran to pick it up. "Hello?" she answered breathlessly.
John watched as Claire’s face relaxed and erupted in a smile. Jamie. As much as John tried to keep Claire’s spirits up, there was nothing he could do that would make her face light up like a simple phone call from Jamie. He braced himself, hoping she wasn't going to fall apart after she hung up.
The doorbell rang and John hurried to answer it. He embraced Hector as soon as he opened the door and pulled him in for a lingering kiss. When they broke apart, Hector looked nervously over John's shoulder. "Don't worry," John said, shaking his head. "Claire knows. I told you that."
Hector's caramel skin flushed pink. "Sorry, I just didn't want to make her uncomfortable."
John laughed and led Hector into the house. "Trust me. Once you see her with her husband, you'll see she doesn't have a leg to stand if she complained about that."
Claire hung up the phone just as Hector and John joined her in the kitchen. John could see the tears welling in her eyes but before he could even say anything, Hector jumped in. "Oh no, I always seem to have this effect on women."
Claire burst out laughing and the tension in the room eased. "You must be Hector," she said. "And I can see why John likes you so much."
She reached her hand out to Hector, but he pulled her into an embrace instead. John gave Hector a thankful smile.
"Honey, your hair is to die for," Hector said as he pulled away from Claire.
"Oh, I like him!" Claire laughed.
John let out a sigh of relief, smiling at Hector as he fawned over Claire. 56 days down, only 125 to go.
“She’s absolutely gorgeous,” Claire cooed as she held her new niece, Katherine, in her arms.
She had driven up to Lallybroch on her spring break to meet the newest Murray baby, and the visit with her family was a balm on her soul. The moment she'd stepped into the farmhouse in Upstate New York she was surrounded by love and laughter.
“Ye look good with a bairn in yer arms,” Jenny told her. She sat on the couch next to Claire, watching the two of them.
Claire rolled her eyes. “You sound like your father now. The first thing he asked me when I walked in the door was whether or not I had a ‘wee bun’ in my oven yet.”
“I ken ye’re not ready yet,” Jenny told her. “I just canna wait fer when ye are. It’ll be nice to finally get to be an Auntie. I need a bairn that I can spoil.”
Claire stared at baby Katherine’s face and kissed the top of her head. “To be honest, Jenny, I can’t wait to be a mother myself. I just know the timing isn’t right.”
“Ye need tae finish school, Claire,” Jenny said, suddenly taking on a serious tone. “Everything is so much harder with bairns.” The year that Jamie and Claire had moved to Maryland, Jenny had started going back to school to become a teacher. She took a few classes at a time at the local community college, leaving Brian, Ian, or her father-in-law in charge of Jamie and Maggie. Claire would have paid good money to see that in action.
“I know, Jenny. And I’m so incredibly proud of you.” Claire told her. “I know I have to finish school first, and besides, can you imagine me going through almost an entire pregnancy without Jamie here?”
“It would damn near kill my brother, I’m sure. He’ll want tae wait on ye hand and foot.”
Claire smiled and tried to hold back her tears. She just missed him so damn much. Everybody in her life was being wonderful and helpful and trying to keep her spirits up, but there just wasn’t anybody who could fill the emptiness she felt without him near. She tried to swipe the tears away before Jenny could see them, but absolutely nothing got past her sister-in-law. “I ken ye miss him.”
Jenny’s words opened the floodgates. Everyone had been tiptoeing around the elephant in the room, trying not to mention Jamie’s absence or her feelings about it. It was a relief to have those feelings acknowledged and the tears flowed freely. Jenny took Katherine from Claire’s arms, holding the baby in one arm and putting her other around Claire. “It’s okay to miss him, ye ken? I ken ye’re a strong woman, but ye dinna have tae be ashamed that ye need him.”
Claire let herself relax into Jenny’s arms, thankful to have the force of this wonderful family, her family, behind her.
Day One hundred and twelve
“Honey, I am sick of seeing your gorgeous ass leaving an imprint on this couch.” Hector pulled at Claire’s arm to lift her out of her seat. “You are going out with us tonight.”
Claire groaned and tried to resist, but he was surprisingly strong for being such a slight man. She stood up and put her hands on her hips. “Hector, please. I’ll just be a drag on you guys. Nobody wants a sad, straight girl sitting at the bar drowning in martinis while they’re trying to have a good time.”
“That’s not going to happen, because we are going to dress you up, fix up that gorgeous hair, and get some drinks into you before we even leave this house. By the time we get to the bar, you’ll be ready to dance your ass off with us.”
Claire looked to John for help but he just shrugged his shoulders and walked away. “Fine,” Claire grumbled, “I can see that I’m outnumbered.
Hector dragged Claire up to her room and rummaged through her closet. Claire sat on the bed and listened to him comment on her wardrobe, throwing things on the bed that he deemed suitable. “My friend Gillian used to do this for me,” Claire commented with a smile. “I miss her. You would really like her.”
“I’ll have to meet her sometime and see if her taste in clothes measures up,” he teased.
“Well, she’s working on her MFA in fashion design, so I think you would approve.”
“Oooh, I definitely need to meet her then,” Hector said. He held up a tight purple dress, eyeing it closely and then tossed it to Claire. “That’s the one.”
“Oh Lord! I haven’t worn this in ages! I don’t even know if it fits anymore!” Claire looked at the dress skeptically and cringed at the thought of it. It was an old dress from her single days, and she actually couldn’t believe she’d ever worn it.
Hector walked toward the door. “Try it on now,” he commanded before shutting the door behind him.
Claire sighed and started to undress. She’d barely put a thought into anything she had worn in the last three and a half months, sticking to comfortable jeans or leggings and bulky sweaters or long t-shirts. She slid the dress over her head and wiggled her way into it. It was a little snug, but, looking at herself in her full-length mirror, she saw that it accentuated her curves, making her look far more voluptuous than she ever felt. She quickly pushed away the thought of wishing Jamie was there to see her in it, and called out through the door, “Alright, you can come in now.”
Hector walked in and let out a loud, “Woo!” He looked her up and down. “Girl, you look A-mazing. John, get up here and see this!”
Claire blushed as she waited for John to run up the stairs. “Wow, Claire,” he said when he walked in the room. “You really do look great. I forgot you had a body under all those layers,” he teased.
“Enough!” she said in mock exasperation.
“Alright, alright,” Hector said, waving his hands at John. “You go on, now; I’ve got more work to do on our girl.”
An hour later, Claire was covered in a layer of make-up and so much glitter she was afraid she would blind someone if the sun reflected off of it. Her hair was piled on her head in a curly mass, with a few tendrils purposely pulled out to frame her face. It was a teeny bit overdone, but she was genuinely having fun with Hector and decided to just go with it.
Hector drove them into DC and they dropped their overnight bags off at Hector’s apartment before walking the several blocks to the bar. “Nellie’s Sports Bar?” Claire asked skeptically. “Are you sure we’re in the right place?”
“You’ll see,” John told her as he nudged her toward the door. She laughed once she stepped inside and saw that the walls were adorned with pictures of shirtless athletes. Hector dragged John away from the TVs playing basketball games.
“Let’s go up to the patio,” he said, pointing toward the ceiling.
They elbowed their way through the crowd and walked up the stairs to the second floor. Pushing through even more people, they finally found their way to the patio. It was packed, but the air was at least a little easier to breath. A DJ booth off to one side was blasting C & C Music Factory, and there were as many people dancing as there were standing around and socializing. Hector took off to get drinks, and Claire smiled at John. “I know I’ve told you this a hundred times, but I really like him.”
“Me too,” John replied, giving her hand a squeeze.
Hector returned with drinks for everyone, plus a tray of shots in little plastic test tubes. He set them on the high-top table they were standing next to and then handed one to each of them. “Better get started!” Hector said, raising his test tube in the air. “To Claire’s first night at the gay bar!” They clinked them together and downed the drinks quickly. “There’s plenty more where that came from,” he said, gesturing toward the nine shots that were still left in the tray.
As Claire finished her martini, chatting and laughing with John and Hector, she started to relax and enjoy herself. Her entire body tingled with the alcohol, the music, the buzz of people around her. It was so hard to not wish that Jamie was with her for every mundane moment in her life, but she found it much easier with a bit of alcohol in her.
After another round of shots, Claire grabbed John’s hand. “Let’s dance!” she shouted in his ear.
He laughed and shook his head. “I’m not drunk enough to dance. You and Hector go.”
Hector needed no convincing and they weaved their way to where the other dancers were. She let the music wash over her shaking her hips and throwing her hands in the air. “You’re a pretty good dancer for a white girl,” Hector teased as he grabbed her by the waist and moved with her.
A bit later, John joined them, carrying the tray of shots. There were two left each and they quickly drank them back. John had apparently imbibed enough at that point to dance. and they all lost themselves in the music. Claire hadn’t felt so free in a long time. She let herself go, dancing wildly. A shirtless man carrying another tray of shots weaved his way through the dance floor and they each bought two more. Hector and John sandwiched Claire between them, all three of their hips grinding and butts bumping.
Hours later, they stumbled home, stopping to buy a pizza on the way. Back at Hector’s apartment, Claire sat on the floor with the pizza in front of her, sauce smeared across her face trying to manage the cheese that was threatening to fall out of her mouth. Hector and John teased her for being such a mess and eventually put her to bed on the couch before going off on their own to Hector’s room.
Day One hundred and thirteen
Claire woke up with a screaming hangover. She stumbled into the kitchen and saw that John had left out a glass of water and two ibuprofen on the counter for her. Smiling, she gratefully took the pills and chugged the rest of the water. She found the coffee and put it on to brew before peeking in Hector’s fridge. She found eggs and sausages, so she located his frying pans and started to cook up breakfast for everyone.
John and Hector stumbled down the hall when they smelled the coffee. They moved their chairs close together at the small kitchen table and Hector laid his head on John’s shoulder as Claire put mugs of coffee and plates down in front of them. She seated herself across from them and they all quietly dug into their food, nobody speaking until they had all finished their coffee.
Finally Hector said, “I told you it would be fun, dancing queen.”
Claire groaned and put her head in her hands. “Ughhh. It was fun, but I’m paying for it today. Thank you though, seriously. I didn’t realize how much I needed that.”
John smiled at her. “Only sixty-eight more days to go.”
Day One hundred and forty six
With school over for the year, and John away with Hector for Memorial Day, Claire faced a lonely three-day weekend. They had invited her to go along with them to Rehoboth Beach, but she had declined both that and Gillian’s invitation to take her to Fire Island. Jenny had even tried to get her to make the drive to Lallybroch, but Claire just couldn’t get up the energy to do it. Exams had been exhausting and she just wanted to rest and wallow a little.
She sat at the kitchen island, sipping coffee and contemplating how much she wanted to try to accomplish that day. The lawn needed to be mowed, but she could just pay Allan Christie to take care of that. The house needed a good cleaning, though, so she threw on some shorts and a tank top, put a Queen album in the CD player, and got to work dusting furniture, mopping the floors, and scrubbing the toilet.
There was a knock on the front door which Claire ignored until she heard someone calling, “Hello?” She rolled her eyes and groaned. Tom Christie.
“I’ll be out in a minute, Tom.” She gave the bathroom sink one last wipe and rinsed the sponge, leaving it to dry. Annoyed, she walked to the front of her house to find Tom sitting in a chair in the living room. “Make yourself at home, Tom,” she said, not trying very hard to hide her sarcasm.
“Claire,” he said, standing up to greet her, “I just came over to check on you.”
Tom had been “stopping by” to check on Claire periodically since Jamie had left for training, and it would have been a sweet, neighborly gesture if the man didn’t leer at her like a hungry man staring at a steak. It had been bad enough before Jamie left, but without him there, the friendly neighbor act was getting to be a bit much. “I’m fine Tom, thank you,” she said curtly.
“Do you need Allan to mow the lawn for you?” he asked her.
“Please, if you don’t mind. I told him I would pay him when he was finished.”
“And I told you that it wasn’t necessary to pay him.” He took a few steps closer to Claire and she instinctively took a few steps back.
“Well, since it’s Allan doing the work, I think it’s up for him to decide whether or not he wants to be paid,” she told him, crossing her arms over her chest.
“Anyway,” he went on, “We are going to have a small picnic in the backyard tomorrow. Just the family. I was hoping you would like to join us.”
She resisted the urge to groan audibly. “No, thank you, Tom.”
“Oh, do you have plans?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.
“No, I just don’t want to intrude on your family time. Now, I’m quite busy, if you wouldn’t mind-”
“But I think of you as family!” Tom interrupted. “Both you and Jamie.”
Enough was enough. Claire walked past Tom and opened the front door, gesturing for him to leave. “Thank you Tom, but I’m quite busy today. You’ll have to go now.”
Flustered, he walked out the door. Before closing it, she told him, “You know, Tom, you can just call. And please stop letting yourself in.” She didn’t let him answer, shutting the door behind him.
She cursed herself for not taking anybody up on their invitations to join them that weekend as she curled up on the couch and cried.
Day One hundred and seventy nine
June 30. Jamie would be home in just one day. Claire’s nervous energy buzzed through the entire house as she cooked and cleaned and prepared for Jamie’s homecoming the following day. She prepped a lasagna for the next evening, knowing she wouldn’t want to get out of bed to cook anything, once Jamie got home. She chose her outfit carefully, laying out a sundress to slip on in the morning before Jamie arrived.
John planned to stay in with her that night to watch movies together, hoping to keep her distracted. He would head to Hector’s the next morning, before Jamie was set to arrive. Dazed and Confused, The Fugitive, and Mrs Doubtfire were all stacked neatly next to the VCR. She figured she wouldn’t be able to sleep anyway, so they may as well stay up and binge as many movies as possible.
The bed was made with fresh sheets, and she’d aired out the bedroom, opening the windows to try to remove the stench of misery from the last six months. By the time John arrived home from work to start their movie marathon, everything was perfect. They ordered large quantities of Chinese food and cracked open one bottle of wine and then another as they made their way through the movies.
By eleven PM, twelve hours before Jamie was slated to walk through the door, she and John had both gotten a little too drunk and were both on the floor practically rolling with laughter at Mrs. Doubtfire. The volume on the television was so loud that they didn’t even hear the front door open.
It wasn’t until Claire heard, “Well ye two are a fine mess. Is this what happens when I’m no’ around to take care of ye?”
Claire scrambled to her feet at the sound of Jamie’s voice and stumbled to greet him, fat drunk-tears already pouring from her eyes. She threw herself at him and he dropped his bag, lifting her up as she wrapped her legs around his waist.
“Oh my God...you’re home...I missed you so much.” Claire went on incoherently as she sloppily placed kisses over every inch of Jamie’s face.
“And ye are drunk,” he laughed, kissing her back. They completely forgot about John as Jamie carried Claire toward the stairs, growling in her ear, “Aye, yes, I’m here, mo chridhe, and I’m going tae take ye tae bed and make ye forget I was ever gone.”
Claire rolled over in bed. The room was chilly from the air conditioner, but she was warm snuggled up next to Jamie. When he felt her move, he rolled over to face her and wrapped his arm around her. She tucked her head under his chin and buried her face in his chest. His body had changed while he was away, his muscles had become more defined and his frame slightly leaner. He smelled like a different soap, but the underlying scent of Jamie was undeniable.
She felt whole again, as if her soul had been placed on pause for six months and finally started to play again. She was ready for them to move forward together again, with whatever plans life had laid out for them.