Because of Him - Prologue

Five Years Ago

Claire

 

The screen on my laptop was black, waiting for the connection to start. In just a few minutes, the most handsome man in all existence would appear.

“Dad!” our youngest, Jackson, yelled the second he saw his dad. On the computer was my husband, Jimmy, dressed in his uniform, looking like he just stepped off duty.

His brows pinched together as he eyed our son. “Claire, who’s that sitting next to you? He called me Dad, but I don’t recognize him.”

Jimmy made the same bad joke every phone call, and despite its lameness, a chuckle slipped past my lips. Our three older ones groaned. They had grown bored with Jimmy’s jokes quickly, but Jackson was always an easy target for a laugh.

“Dad, it’s me, Jackson. Look! I lost another tooth at school yesterday,” he screamed, leaning into the camera to show off the new hole in his mouth.

At the sight, Jimmy shifted from feigned confusion to parental amazement. “Wow! Did the Tooth Fairy stop by last night?”

Jackson’s head nodded adamantly like a Reds bobblehead. “Yep, and she left me a dollar. See!” He pulled a crisp Washington from his pocket.

As our call progressed, I watched as Jimmy eagerly listened to each kid give an update on the most recent events in their world. Even though he was miles away, I could feel the joy radiating from his face as he soaked up every last detail, just as he did when he was home. I knew this time with their dad was important, but my patience was wearing thin. With each passing minute spent focused on the kids, my own time with my husband was shrinking, and even though I knew it would never be the same as alone time at home, I itched for his undivided attention.

Glancing at his watch, he said, “I love you guys. I only have about five minutes left. Let me talk to your mom?”

How those words simple words could elicit such erotic feelings deep within my core, I may never know. One by one, goodbyes were given, and the kids cleared out of the room, leaving me alone with my husband.

"Hey, honey bee," he said with a glint in his eye and that same confident smirk I fell in love with over a decade ago. No matter the number of miles between us, that look made my thighs squeeze together under the table.

"Hey," I croaked out. It was the same pet name he had used since high school, but when he paired it with that smirk, my entire system would crash. Even after nearly a dozen calls, I still wasn’t used to him using it in public, and I could feel the heat rising in my cheeks at the thought of him possibly being overheard. 

"I've been thinking a lot about what it'll be like after I come home next week."

"Me too," I quietly admitted, pulling my lower lip between my teeth. This seemed to be the only thought that took residence in my brain as of late. Each previous homecoming was followed by a romantic trip to a nearby city where we’d spend more time in the hotel room than out seeing the sights. In all honesty, the only things I remembered were the names of the cities and how gloriously sore my lady parts were when we got home.

"I was thinking of taking some leave when I get back. What do you think about a week down in Hocking Hills? Or maybe a weekend at Kings Island?"

"Oh! The kids would love that."

"I was also thinking,” Jimmy glanced over his shoulder and then leaned in close to the screen. “What do you think about making Jackson a big brother?"

My eyes went wide, and my hands flew to my mouth trying to conceal the gasp that escaped. After finding out we were expecting Jackson, Jimmy and I had decided to wait on having any more kids until after he finished with active duty. He had hinted during previous calls about looking into transferring to the Reserve, but I had never put two and two together. 

"O'Brien!" a voice boomed from off-screen. No! Not again. For once, I would have liked to end our chats without being cut off.

"Shit. Claire, I have to go. I love y-" The feed went black.

“I love you too,” I whispered to no one. As upset as I was about being interrupted, I also knew it was our last video chat for the foreseeable future.

Jimmy was coming home.

"You ready?" a voice asked, pulling me from my reverie. Standing next to the open car door with his hand out, ready to escort me, was… Jimmy.

No. Jimmy was dead. It was his final farewell we were gathering for today. He couldn’t be standing here reaching for me.

After a couple of blinks to rid the extra wool-gathering, the face I thought was Jimmy’s melted away, revealing that of our eldest. Looking up at him dressed in his suit, it was as if I were reaching for Jimmy’s hand. Other than my yellow eyes, James could have passed as his father’s twin. 

Outside, the clouds were dark, and the leaves were blowing madly. Mother Nature seemed to be just as upset as I was to be spending our morning at St. Mary’s. If we were lucky, we’d make it from the car to the tent before she unleashed her wrath upon us.

With each lash of the bone-chilling wind, a fresh sob threatened to escape, but I needed to stay strong for my children, at least until I was behind closed doors. We were led through the field, carefully avoiding the neatly lined rows of precious slabs of marble set in the grass. Waters from an earlier rain threatened to fill my black pumps and soak the black stockings I wore under the only black dress I had ever owned. I hated the color black, and I really hated wearing dresses. They were never the right length and always fit the wrong way. But Jimmy loved my curves and long legs, so for him, I wore the damn dress.

Taking our seats in the front row, I began busying myself, pulling stray hair and lint from my fleece-lined stockings. From my peripheral, I could see people passing in front of us to pay their respects to Jimmy. Inwardly, I couldn’t help but laugh at how upset he’d be at the sight before us. Other than his mother, he only ever let me fuss over him. But even then, I still couldn’t bring myself to bring my eyes forward to look at him. Thankfully, Jackson came to stand in front of me, needing his tie refastened. 

As he moved back to his seat, the priest called for everyone’s attention. I couldn’t resist the pull any longer. Seeing the casket hidden under an American flag, I was certain this would finally trigger the emotions I’d fought to hold back. As the priest droned on, I waited and waited, for the tears to build and spill from me but none came. Suddenly, the heavens opened, shedding the tears I was still refusing to offer up. I guess Mother Nature is going to have to cry for both of us.

A small part of me was grateful, though, that I was able to continue being strong for my kids. I had been strong for two weeks now, what was another few hours in the grand scheme of things?

The weekend before Jimmy’s plane was scheduled to land, the kids and I had decided to make some banners to celebrate his homecoming. This deployment had been the longest he’d ever been away from us, and as excited as we were for his arrival, I knew he was even more anxious to get back home. Video chats were only as good as the satellite access and never private enough, taking any thought we ever had of ‘sexy time’ out of the equation. It had only taken one moment of false security on my end to realize we would never have the type of privacy needed for those kinds of conversations. There really was no replacement for the intimacy of actually being with your partner.

Our daughter and I had just opened the glitter to shake onto the wet paint when a sound from the front of the house caught my attention. The doorbell rang, and a sense of panic swept through me, as it did every time Jimmy was deployed. With each step closer to the door, the pit in my stomach grew. When I saw Max, Jimmy’s best friend, relief blossomed within me, but as the door opened wide, I saw the chaplain. Whatever momentary solace I had felt vanished.

There was only one reason Max would be standing at my door with a chaplain. Shaking my head, I took a step back muttering no over and over again like I was one of my dad’s broken records. Matching me step for step, Max walked me back against the wall.

“Claire,” Max’s normally strong voice cracked as he tried to give sound to the words he knew I didn’t want to hear.

“NO!” I screamed in his face as he reached out to pull me into a hug.

Trapped, I looked around for somewhere else to escape, but he was too close for me to make an exit without being grabbed and pulled into the embrace I refused to accept. There was only one way for me to go. Falling to the floor like a ragdoll, I laid there, violently shaking my head back and forth. The screams erupting from me had the kids sprinting through the hall.

Needing an outlet for all the pain threatening to consume me, my hands slapped the hardwood. After what felt like hours, an arm wrapped around me, pulling me up, trying to console me. Max’s voice shook as he shushed in my ear, his own resolve ready to snap. I didn’t care who held me, my slaps turned to fists. Max did nothing to stop me as he became my punching bag, both verbally and physically.

“You’re wrong!” I yelled over and over again, pounding his chest with each outburst. Eventually, my voice went hoarse, and my body grew weak. The screams turned to sobs, and when my strength waned, sniffles replaced the tears.

Still wrapped in Max’s strong arms, he moved me to the couch, allowing new sets of arms to engulf me, one on either side. To my left was Raelynn and to my right was James, the twins. I could see the tears falling from their eyes and hear the sniffles coming from their noses. Having them with me, holding me, brought on a new wave of tears. My kids were my world, and now, the only link I had to my husband. At that moment, I needed them as much as they needed me. Through the blur of tears in my eyes, I could see Max had traded me for Anthony and Jackson, taking them into his arms. The way he held on to them, I could tell he needed the comfort of my kids just as much as I did.

As a mom, I was supposed to be the strong one for my kids, especially in times of grief and pain, but in that moment and the hours that followed, I had no strength to give. Hearing that Jimmy’s homecoming wasn’t going to be as planned sucked every ounce of life from me. My best friend - the father to my four children, my soul mate, and the only love I ever had - was gone.

The sound of gunfire pulled me back to the present. Standing off to the right, I could barely make out the funeral detail through the thick curtain of rain drawn outside the tent. A trumpet sounded from the opposite end of the yard, but I couldn’t move my gaze from those poor people standing in the horrible storm, forced to wait until the end of the service before moving from Mother Nature’s wrath.

A squeeze of my hand drew my attention back to the show in front of me. Kneeling at my feet, Max held the flag from Jimmy’s casket, folded and ready for me to take home. As he extended it toward me, I awaited the tears hiding behind my eyes to finally fall, but again, they remained dry. A booming clash of thunder filled the sky as I reached for the flag. Mother Nature voiced the disgust building within me, replacing my grief.

My husband gave his life in service to our country, and all our country could give me and my family was a damn flag. Max knelt at my feet as I stared blankly at the white stars against the blue. I couldn’t bring myself to look at his face. If I had, I was sure to lose my composure and break down in tears. Max was the closest thing I had to a brother, and knowing he was transferring later this month only added to the weight of the loss.

Reluctantly, I took the flag, careful to only touch the fabric, and handed it to James, who was sitting next to me. I knew if I made any physical contact with him, he would take it as a sign I needed to be comforted. But I didn’t. I didn’t need to hear his words again. Nothing he said would bring back Jimmy, nor would it bring me peace. Rising, Max stood at attention and then saluted.

Not wanting to sit around any longer, I rose from my seat and took a step toward the casket. I had already said my goodbyes many times over the last two weeks, but it didn’t seem right to walk away without doing it one last time. Leaning over the spot where his head should be, I whispered, “I love you, Jimmy,” and laid a kiss on the shiny wood lid.

With Jackson’s hand in mine, I retreated to the waiting car, ready to get this day over with as quickly as possible. As the kids piled in, the flag landed on the seat next to mine. I’m still not sure what prompted me to do it, but for the entire ride home, I held the flag to my chest.

Back at the house, I spent what felt like an eternity accepting condolences from family, friends, and coworkers. With a fake smile plastered on my face, I strolled from one room to the next, counting down the hours to when I could finally be alone.

The sun had just fallen below the tree line when I took my first step of the day into the kitchen. Seeing the lunch meats and bread laying out on the counter, I tried to remember if I had eaten at all that day. Unable to recall, I considered making a sandwich, but I had no appetite.  The simple idea of making something repulsed me, so I packed everything up and put it all away.

After making the rounds to say goodnight to the kids, I stood outside my bedroom door, just as I had each night since Max delivered the news. Taking a deep breath, I fixed my gaze to the floor as I opened the door. I knew a single glance at my bed would be my undoing, and I wasn’t ready to let it all go just yet. I needed to keep it bottled up a little longer, at least until my night routine was finished.

I watched as my feet carried me across the floor of my bedroom to the en suite. Over the last two weeks, my bedtime routine shifted from relaxed to rushed. Gone were the bubble baths with glasses of wine and cuddles with steamy romance heroes, and in their place was a jumbled mess of languid movements making each mundane task seem like a chore to complete. Everything was different now except what I wore to bed. That was the one thing I could not bring myself to change.

Going to his dresser, I grabbed one of Jimmy’s Air Force t-shirts and pulled it on. Holding the collar up to my nose, I inhaled deeply, allowing the smell of him to engulf me just as it did every night for the past twelve years. I knew that eventually, his scent on everything would fade, just as the grief would eventually subside, but until then, I was going to cherish the little bits I still had of him.

Lying in bed, I cuddled into one of Jimmy’s pillows and took a deep breath. The scents of cinnamon, orange, and lemon on his pillow, mixed with the musk and vanilla on his shirt, calmed me for a moment. Inhaling a second time, I was hit with the realization I might be exhausting a precious resource. The thought was enough to cause the dam of emotions to collapse, and with it, the tears that had been building throughout the day came flooding out. 

Outside, the storm had passed, and all was calm. It seemed as if Mother Nature had finally exhausted all her tears and disgust, and she was silently giving me the permission I needed to unleash my own wrath. Sobs wracked my body as moisture soaked into the pillows.  A new wave of energy rolled through me, and I prayed it would stop, allowing me to get the rest I desperately needed.  But it continued for hours before exhaustion finally claimed me.