Title: Past, Present and Future
Authors: pacejunkie and sapphirechild
Genre: flangst, AU, future fic
Warning: multiple character deaths
Spoilers: up to and including the end of season three
Summary: One year on from being rescued, Claire Littleton thinks she has finally found solace in her new life away from the island – and the haunting memory of what it was that got her rescued in the first place. But when she receives a phone call from the most unexpected person, they give her some news which threatens to turn her life upside down once again…
Disclaimer: Even after the death of our favourite character, the writers of Lost haven't discouraged either of us from writing fics! There is still plenty of work to be done in the world of AU and we are proud to continue doing it! Why sue us? We write better than they do anyways!
Grief can strike you at the strangest times. When you're on a train, when you're in a room full of friends and family, when you're just sitting quietly or even when you're right in the middle of something completely unrelated to who you're grieving for -- and it always hits you when you least expect it to.
Claire Littleton knew this fact very well but it didn't stop her from being rather surprised when she found herself, almost a year after Charlie's death, standing barefoot in her bathroom, clutching his DriveShaft ring and sobbing desperately into her hands.
The year had gone by so fast it could have been nothing more than a blur. After the helicopter that Desmond had prophesised about rescued her from the island, Claire had endured several harrowing months of paperwork, medical tests and a small frenzy of media activity. When all the hubbub finally died down however, she had gone back to a surprisingly normal -- if slightly difficult -- life as a single mother.
She began renting a small, two bedroom flat and furnished it with second hand pieces from Salvation Army stores. She met a man called Jason through the newsagency where she worked casually to offset her pension, and when he asked her to go out with him for coffee one day she didn't refuse. In October she celebrated Aaron's first birthday and even invited Jason over to share the sickly sweet ice cream cake she bought to mark the occasion.
Now it was late November and she was looking forward to her first Christmas with Aaron post-island. She had bought a small plastic tree and had started to make and buy decorations to put on it. Jason was taking her out to dinner tonight whilst her friend Raya, another single mother who lived in one of the neighbouring flats, took care of Aaron.
Everything in her life was as normal as you could expect -- almost boringly normal. So why was she standing here crying her eyes out?
The sound of a knock on her front door startled Claire out of her reverie, making her jump. She felt more than saw the ring fall from her fingers and a moment later it hit the tiles with a gentle tinkling sound. She immediately scrambled onto her knees to retrieve it but as she snatched the ring up and threaded it back onto the long silver chain she usually wore it on there was a second, more insistent, knock from the door.
"I'm coming, I'm coming…" she muttered as she skittered back into her bedroom and jammed her feet into her shoes, snatching up her purse and wiping the dark smudges of mascara out from underneath her eyes all at the same time. With no more than a single glance over her attire, Claire hurried out into the hallway and pulled the door open, breathless.
Jason looked rather taken aback at her flustered appearance but grinned anyway as he offered her a single, pink rosebud.
"Oh," Claire murmured, touched. "It's beautiful. Thank you Jason."
"A beautiful flower for an equally beautiful girl," Jason grinned even wider as she took it from him and held it under her nose to enjoy the subtle perfume. "I didn't know what your favourite colour was so I just got pink."
"Pink is nice," Claire smiled up at him and then leant up on tiptoe to kiss him on the cheek. "Shall we go then?"
"Sure," Jason said, but then he paused and frowned slightly. "Are you okay Claire? You look a little… upset?"
"I'm fine," Claire reassured him. "I just… I hit my knee is all. You know, rushing around looking for my shoes. I'm okay though."
"Well if you're sure," Jason said uncertainly and reached out to take her hand. Almost as soon as he had taken it however, he glanced down, surprised. "What've you got in your hand?"
Claire pulled it out of his grasp and realised, mortified, that Charlie's ring was still clutched tightly in her hand. Jason stared at it, nonplussed.
"Oh, I forgot about this old thing," Claire tried desperately not to babble as she wrapped the chain around her fingers and dropped it into her purse. "I was just taking it off when you got here – I must have held onto it by accident."
Jason eyed her strangely again. "Are you sure you're okay Claire?"
"Fine," Claire lied and took his hand firmly in hers, beginning to lead him towards the car. "Come on, we'll lose our booking if we don't hurry."
After an initially bad start to her evening, Claire managed to rather enjoy dinner. Under normal circumstances she would have enjoyed it more if it hadn't been for the leaden feeling that had dropped into her stomach when she had been getting ready and taken a moment too long to take off her necklace. Because that's all it had taken, really, a single split second and she'd just…
"How'd you enjoy the fish?" Jason asked, bringing Claire back down to earth with a bump.
"Yeah, it was good," Claire smiled faintly. "I never thought I'd eat fish ever again after working in a fish and chip shop but there you go." And living on nothing but fish for three months on an island didn't help either, Claire added to herself silently.
"Dessert?" Jason offered her a menu but Claire shook her head.
"Oh, no thank you," she wiped her mouth decorously with her napkin. "I'm not much for chocolate gateau or any of that other fancy stuff they give you in these places."
"Well in that case…" Jason fished about in his jacket pocket, his dark eyes sparkling as he withdrew a small package tied with a gaudy pink bow. "I have a present for you!"
"Oh Jason," Claire said, taking it from him with some trepidation. "You really shouldn't have…"
"Go on and open it!" Jason urged her excitedly. "What are you waiting for?"
Claire tugged at the ribbon until it fell away and then she took the lid off the small box.
A small, shiny object greeted her from within a deep nest of crumpled tissue paper. Claire's heart leapt up into her throat to strangle her vocal cords as she shifted her gaze from the key to Jason's expectant face.
"Wh-what is it?"
"It's a key!" Jason exclaimed with the air of telling someone that they'd just won the lottery. Claire almost cringed at his exuberance but stopped herself just in time.
"A key to what?"
"To my apartment of course!" Jason beamed at her. "I figured that maybe now we've been together for a little while that maybe you'd like to, you know, come over a bit more often to hang out or something. And maybe…" he added hopefully, the merest hint of a cheeky smile on his lips. "…Maybe you might like to… sleep over sometime too? I could drop you to work in the morning and everything -- it'd be no worries. I mean, we'd have to check and see if Raya wouldn't mind watching Aaron for you of course…"
Claire stared down at the key, speechless, and Jason's smile finally faltered.
"Claire? What's that matter?"
"N-Nothing," Claire lied. "I just…this is just so unexpected…"
Jason looked utterly befuddled.
"Unexpected?" he echoed. "Baby, I've been dropping hints since before Aaron's birthday that I think its time we started progressing this relationship a little further!"
"Dropping hints?" Claire frowned. "Jason, I haven't seen any…"
"Well then, you must've been walking around with your eyes shut pretty tight for the past few months Claire," Jason looked more upset than angry but Claire flinched all the same. "I've been trying so hard to get you to see that I'm serious about this thing – that I really care about you and Aaron but…sometimes I feel like nothing I do is ever good enough for you!"
Claire lowered her eyes to her lap guiltily. At some point in the last few minutes, she'd delved into her purse without thinking and now she was nervously twisting her hands together around a certain ring…
"What can I do to show you that I'm here for you?" Jason appealed, reaching across the table towards her. Claire reluctantly shoved the ring back into her purse and allowed him to take her hands. "If you could just…tell me what it is that I'm doing wrong, or not doing right or…or whatever it is then I swear to you I'll do everything to fix it. I really wanna make this work Claire." Jason smiled bravely. "And if that means I have to dress in drag and sing show tunes at the top of my lungs then hey, I'm all up for that."
Claire laughed hollowly.
Would you think of me and Aaron before even yourself? Would you love me unconditionally even when I was showing you nothing more than the highest levels of contempt? Would you be the father that Thomas never was and never will be?
Would you die for me Jason? Would you -- could you -- ever fill that empty yawning space in my heart that seems to get bigger every day?
"I've…got some pretty…deep seated commitment issues," Claire apologised. "And I'm truly sorry that you have to bear the brunt of them but…"
"Commitment issues?" Jason laughed bitterly at this and for the first time, he began to look angry. "That's a bit of a, uh, mild way of putting it wouldn't you say?"
"What are you talking…?"
"You're as hot and cold as my mum's dodgy shower in the guest bathroom," Jason said, exasperated now that Claire wasn't following him. "Every time I think I've got the temperature just right, you come and mess around with the handles and suddenly I'm standing in ice water for no apparent reason!"
"You do," Jason said simply. "How could you not? And I sit here and I smile and I act like it doesn't bother me but it does Claire. I'm not getting any younger and when I first met you I thought 'Wow -- here's a girl I can really settle down with!' y'know?"
"You're twenty eight," Claire pointed out. "You're not old."
"I'm old enough," Jason said grimly. "And I'm at a point in my life where I want to settle down, start a family, all that guff…" he nodded at her. "You've already got a son -- if we were together we'd already have half a family! And I'd take good care of you both -- you know I would! You could move out of that dingy flat and…"
"Okay first off," Claire interjected angrily. "My flat is fine thank you very much and I certainly don't need anyone to look after me! How old do you think I am? Six?" Jason tried to talk over the top of her then but Claire spoke again, louder this time. "And what do you mean, 'We'd already have half a family'? What are we, an insta-family you want to latch onto and reap the rewards from?"
"That's not what I meant…"
"Well what did you mean?"
"I-I well," Jason began to splutter. "Aaron needs a father figure in his life and I was kind of hoping…if you'd let me…I'd like to…"
Claire stormed onto her feet. At five feet and six inches (four of which were from her shoes) she was hardly imposing, but the glare on her face certainly seemed to give Jason pause.
"You are not Aaron's father," she snapped. "I thought that you were patient enough to wait until I was ready to commit to something that was more long term and permanent but apparently all you really want from me is to play happy families!"
"It's not like that!" Jason stood up too and in his case it was certainly more impressive. At nearly six feet, he towered over Claire. "I really do care about what's best for you and Aaron both and I think that he needs a positive male influence in his…"
"What the hell do you know?" Claire yelled, completely forgetting herself. "You don't have any children, you have no idea of the responsibilities of being a parent and here you are just assuming that you'd make a wonderful father…"
"Fine. You know what?" Jason snapped. "Maybe I don't want to be his father -- not if it means that you'd be my partner!"
Claire rocked back like she'd been slapped.
Jason took her stunned silence as his queue to snatch up the key, still in its box, and begin storming off. Determined to have the last word and ignoring the warning quaver in her voice, Claire turned around to yell at his retreating back.
"Aaron's only ever had one father," she yelled. "And you could never measure up to him in a million years!"
The restaurant door slammed shut and Claire suddenly blanched when she realised just how loud she had been rowing with Jason -- and in a crowded restaurant no less. The other patrons looked just as embarrassed as she did as they returned to their meals, casting furtive glances at her in case she decided to start yelling again. Claire sank onto her seat again, her whole body trembling, as the waitress who had served them came over surreptitiously with their bill.
"The manager has requested that you and your partner please vacate the premises," she said blandly. "No offence intended or anything -- it's just that you're upsetting the other patrons and making them uncomfortable."
"Sorry," Claire mumbled, certain that her cheeks were now a brilliant colour of magenta to rival her lipstick. She took the bill with shaking hands and scrutinised it carefully for a moment before letting her head fall into her hands.
"You bastard!" she swore.
"Stupid bloody keys!" Claire hissed. Juggling Aaron in her arms, she bent down, teetering ridiculously on her shoes and finally managed to snatch up the elusive keychain which had fallen from her hand as she had tried to unlock the door one-handed. Taking care not to overbalance, she stood again and tried once more to open her front door. Once inside she flicked on the hall light and locked and bolted the door from the inside, sighing heavily as she did so.
At least the night couldn't get any worse she amended as she bumped her way down the hallway, trying desperately not to wake Aaron who was fast asleep, his head lolling against her neck and his tiny hands gripping the satiny fabric of the dress she was wearing.
As she passed the table in the hall that her phone rested on, Claire automatically rewound the ancient answering machine she had picked up from a second hand store and pressed play as she carried Aaron into his room and began to tuck him into his bed. After several moments a disembodied voice carried through the hallway and into the room.
"Hey…Claire…" it was a man speaking, his voice thick and accented. "It's uh…its Desmond here."
In Aaron's room, Claire froze, one hand still at the edge of her son's blanket. It had been faded from sunlight and salt water before they had even gotten home so that now it was more grey than blue but Aaron had refused all other blankets and in the end Claire had given up. The recording was still playing.
"I uh…I'm in Sydney at the moment. Penny finally found us about a month ago and well…I haven't been able to get in contact with you until now. I've had a hell of a time trying to track you down but there's…look I need you to call me okay? I've got something to…look just call me okay? You can get me on…"
Claire exploded out into the hallway, knocking the jar of pens off the battered table the phone sat on in her haste to scribble down the number as quickly as possible. Thankfully, he had repeated it a second time before hanging up and so Claire got a chance to double check the number before turning the answering machine off.
Desmond. Desmond was alive. The others had been rescued. Claire felt a series of small explosions in her stomach region -- it took her a moment to realise that it was not her spleen rupturing but rather, the combination of being completely ecstatic and completely terrified at the same time.
She picked up the phone receiver -- her hand was shaking so much that she almost knocked herself out with the phone -- and then she typed in Desmond's number with trembling fingers.
It rang ten times before anyone answered.
Claire felt her knees go wobbly with relief -- if she'd been standing up she probably would have fallen over. There was no mistaking that accent.
"Hello?" Desmond asked again. "Hello? Are you there?"
"Hi," Claire croaked. She cleared her throat and then tried again. "Hi. Hello Desmond. It's…it's me."
"Oh my God!" The voice on the other end sounded ecstatic. "Oh my God it is you! Oh thank Christ…I was terrified I might've gotten the wrong Claire Littleton somehow…"
"How are you?" Claire asked the first thing that came to her head but then her mouth seemed to run away without her and she started asking questions nineteen to the dozen. "Did the others all make it back? Did you meet up with Penny again?"
"I'm okay -- yes I found Penny -- we ended up with some casualties," Desmond tried to answer all her questions at once. "But on the whole we did well. They thought they'd be able to find us again easily after they took you but it took them bloody forever. We had a few brushes with those damned hostiles as well but that's not the reason I called you. There's been…well after you left, something happened."
Claire's throat went dry. "What sort of thing?"
Desmond was silent for a moment, as if steeling himself for what he was about to say -- or perhaps allowing Claire a chance to brace herself as well.
"It's…well it's about Charlie. Claire…"
Claire's throat, already dry, went Saharan. In contrast her hands were sweating so profusely that she was worried that she might drop the phone. The hand that wasn't holding the phone to her ear jumped to the place where Charlie's DriveShaft ring usually hung and left the sticky residue of a perfect handprint against her skin.
"What about Charlie?" she whispered, hardly daring to believe, to hope...
"It's just that…you're never going to believe it but…well, he's alive Claire. He turned up about a month before we got rescued but…"
"…he doesn't remember anything about…"
"Claire? Are you there?"
"Oh my God…" she breathed and then, without any preamble, Claire fell sideways off her chair, passing out just before she hit the floor, Desmond's frantic voice still in her ear and only one concrete thought in her mind.
Charlie is alive.
Despite how badly she had wanted to leave the island, Claire had felt displaced since she had been back, and seeing Desmond again was strangely like coming home. It was as if her world had gone topsy-turvy -- the people that she had known for three months or less now felt like her closest family. They were the only ones who would ever truly understand what she had experienced, because they had experienced it too. Like childhood friends, Claire felt a tug on the bond that she and Desmond shared the instant their eyes met.
There he stood in the lobby of the Sydney Psychiatric Institute, handsome as ever -- clean shaven, thick wavy hair still long but groomed, a crisp clean shirt and trousers, a hint of a smile, but his face bore the same tired, slightly weathered look that she remembered. It was an expression that transmitted chronic anguish just below the surface. It began in his eyes and radiated out.
When Desmond had returned to the beach on that fateful day nearly a year ago, bearing the news that Claire had felt in her heart before her ears had received it, she had sworn that she would never forgive Desmond. She had needed someone to blame for Charlie's death, and it seemed too cruel to blame Charlie, even though she knew the man who had taken it upon himself to protect her and Aaron would have given his life in a heartbeat if necessary. That part of Desmond's story was entirely believable, yet still she had no place for her anger, so she decided that Desmond should have stopped him. He should have done something. She closed herself off to the pain in Desmond's eyes, the crushing burden of guilt he already carried on his shoulders, and wore her anger on her sleeve like a badge of honour.
She had spoken little to anyone on the island from that day forward. Charlie's absence was like a ghostly imprint felt everywhere -- Hurley felt it alongside him when he wanted someone to hang out with but didn't know who to ask, Desmond felt it in his thoughts whenever he had a nagging sensation that he needed to tell someone something but he couldn't recall what, and Jack felt it when he came around asking after everyone's well being but never quite finished, as if there was one more person he needed to check on but couldn't.
Jack had joked to Claire that the island had never felt more like purgatory, but there was no humour in his voice. No one laughed any more. Any joy there had ever been on the island had died with Charlie.
For Claire, Charlie's absence was felt deep inside, as if a vital organ had been excised. She believed that Aaron must have felt that way too, because he had always been such an easygoing baby but since returning to the beach from the radio tower he was too often fussy and uncomfortable. He began waking at least once each night, wearing away Claire's already frayed nerves.
A few weeks after Charlie's death, a helicopter had arrived, just as Desmond had foreseen. She should have forgiven him then but Claire had been unable to break through the resentment that by that point had built up around her like a stone fortress.
The helicopter was small and apart from the pilot and a rescue worker, it contained room for only one additional passenger. The camp had taken a quick vote and all agreed unanimously that Claire and Aaron should go, most saying that it would give meaning to Charlie's death. Sayid had told her secretly that he just wanted to see her smile again.
The pilot left a few relief supplies and promised to send a ship large enough for the rest of them as soon as possible, now that they could make contact with the island and reach it.
"Are you all right, miss?" the rescue worker asked after they had lifted off.
"Fine," said Claire, willing herself to keep her eyes straight ahead.
The man glanced down at the squirming infant in her arms.
"Did you leave your husband back there? On the island?" he asked.
Claire reached up to the ring on the chain around her neck and grasped it. Her eyes filled with tears.
"No," she said. "He's dead."
Claire saw Desmond now, looking as contrite as when she last saw him and took him in an embrace without a moment's hesitation.
"Desmond," she said. "I'm so sorry. I'm sorry I blamed you…"
He put a hand on her head to quiet her before pulling back just enough to speak to her. "It's all right, Claire. I understand. But that doesn't matter now. Charlie's here."
Claire dropped her arms and looked around the lobby as if expecting Charlie to jump out from behind a potted plant and surprise her, scruffy in a torn t-shirt and sporting a goofy grin like the last time she saw him. But all she saw were visitors and hospital workers dressed like angels in white. She shuddered a bit as she remembered where she was and what Desmond had told her over the phone.
"How is he? Can…can I see him?" she asked.
Desmond glanced away and then back again before leading her by the elbow to a pair of chairs in the reception area. Claire wondered why they were sitting when Charlie was here somewhere, within these walls, waiting for her. They had lost so much time she didn't want to waste another minute. She perched herself lightly upon the edge of the upholstered chair, ready to spring back up the moment Desmond finished with whatever he had to say.
"There are some things you need to know first," he began, "about what happened…or what we think happened anyway. I'm afraid there's quite a bit we may never know..."
"It's been eight months since Claire left," Sayid lamented. "Why have they not come back?"
Desmond was sitting around the campfire with Jack, Sayid and Hurley, keeping watch for a ship that was long overdue. After a month had passed without rescue, they tried sending repeated signals with the satellite phone until the batteries died and they were now left with no option but to wait and hope.
"Something must have gone wrong or they'd be here," said Hurley. "Maybe they can't find the island again. You all remember what Ben said."
At Hurley's words, Jack flinched and glanced over at the camp graveyard on the mound overlooking the beach. It had nearly doubled in size over the past nine months. Harnessing Jacob's powers, John Locke had unleashed a new kind of purge on the island. Not long after Charlie's drowning, their prisoner Ben had been found one morning with a knife in his chest. Then a few months later, Sun had been taken in the night, Jin's broken body left behind in the tent they shared. Just last week Kate and Sawyer were found huddled together in a cave, the cause of their deaths still a mystery but Desmond had rather thought it looked like fright.
Jack was barely holding it together, the losses too much for the once strong doctor to bear. He blamed himself for everything these days and was so paralysed by doubt he could no longer make decisions for the camp. His hands shook constantly and more often than not he was at a loss for words of comfort for his fellow survivors. Sayid and Desmond stepped up together to lead but most were too weary to follow. The time for leaders had passed.
Now they simply waited.
A sound of movement from the nearby trees brought Desmond to attention. He looked at his mates to see if they heard it too. All had turned their gazes from the shoreline to the tree line, tensed like Danielle's trigger traps. On the edge of his perception Desmond noticed Sayid's hand move to his waist where he always kept his gun these days. The sound from the jungle grew louder and was soon joined by short, rapid breathing. The men stood and Sayid raised his gun. Desmond thought that were it not for Sayid's training he would have shot as soon as the body came into view, obscured by shadow, but instead he paused, just long enough to see the impossible…
A dead man come strolling back into the camp.
"Do you mean Charlie just wandered back from the jungle?" asked Claire, her mind still reeling from the list of the dead that Desmond had rattled off so quickly.
"Aye," said Desmond, "and before you ask, we have no idea how he got out of the Looking Glass station. I was there with him. I saw him drown, yet there he was, a bit worse for the wear but alive."
"Well, where had he been all those months? Was he able to tell you anything?" she asked.
Desmond shook his head. "He didn't know his own name, Claire."
Charlie stared like the blind, no life shining out from his eyes. Rail thin, he was limping and had a head wound that was bleeding badly. He staggered a short distance from the trees and promptly collapsed in the sand as though he was being operated by remote control and someone had switched him off.
Desmond and Sayid reached him first. Lifting him easily, they carried him to Jack's tent which was still considered the island infirmary. Hurley and Jack followed close behind.
"Dude, is that Charlie?" Hurley asked as he lumbered in tow. "Is he like, real?"
"Desmond, you told us he drowned," Jack said, flashing the Scot a furious look. "You were there with him. You said you saw it!"
"He did, Jack," said Desmond, taking in the wasted form that was shivering and barely breathing in his arms, a stark contrast from the strong, brave young man that he remembered. "I can't explain it."
"Well that doesn't matter right now," said Sayid, as they reached the tent and laid Charlie down.
"This is awesome," said Hurley, rejoicing despite his friend's clearly precarious condition. "We're gonna get out of here now I know it. Everything's gonna be okay now."
The Iraqi turned to Jack who appeared as if he had sprung to life nurtured by this new purpose. The doctor reached for a clean cloth and pressed it to the gash in Charlie's head, feeling for a pulse at the same time with the other hand.
"Is he all right?" Sayid asked.
"He's burning up," said Jack, shaking his head.
By now a crowd had gathered and Desmond could hear their anxious mutters. The little rock star had returned from the dead. It sounded to his ears like a sound he had almost forgotten. It sounded like hope.
But hope was shattered once again in the weeks that followed. For days Charlie drifted in and out of consciousness, feverish, never speaking a coherent sentence. Nights he screamed in holy terror, unsettling the camp to the point where one frustrated survivor actually wished aloud that he had stayed dead. Through all of it Desmond stayed by his side, sensing a second chance being handed to him but once again unsure of his path.
Things became even less clear when Charlie began to recover and they realized that he recognized no one, not even himself.
"When I was taken I lost all memory of my time on the island, but I remembered being on the plane," Claire noted. "Charlie didn't remember anything at all?"
"Nothing," said Desmond. "All he knows is what we've told him -- his name, where he came from, how he came to be on the island. But he's had no true memories since he returned. I helped him as best as I could until we were rescued and since that time he's been here."
"Well what's wrong with him, have they said? Why is he in a psychiatric hospital when you said he had a head injury? Or it could have been the fever," said Claire.
Desmond sighed. "He's had brain scans and tests but they haven't been able to find the cause. It's a bit difficult not knowing what happened to him during those months, but the doctors are doing all they can. They were able to determine that his leg had been broken at some point and healed badly, but as for his memory…they're just not sure. At first they suspected meningitis, then oxygen deprivation, then they ruled those out and now they think it may be some form of post traumatic stress. They're attempting many forms of treatment but so far there's been no progress."
Realization dawned on Claire as Desmond's words reached her like a silent plea.
"Is that why you called me?" she said. "Were you hoping I could help him, that he might see me and remember?"
Desmond smiled. "It couldn't hurt."
Yes, thought Claire, perhaps she could help him. Charlie had loved her once, he would remember and they would have the chance to start again, to share the future they were meant to have. Since the day she was told of Charlie's death Claire blamed herself for squandering their brief time together, unable to commit to a relationship that she knew in her heart she wanted as much as he did. She had thought she was protecting herself from pain, but to her horror Claire found that preventing herself from loving Charlie openly did nothing to lessen the grief over his loss, but only compounded that grief with the pain of regret.
She didn't know what she had done to deserve it but her Charlie had been given back to her. She felt giddy with optimism as she rose, bouncing on her toes, not the least put off by the terrible tale Desmond had told, or the challenge it foreshadowed.
"Lead the way," she said.
They took the elevator to the third floor, and made a right off of the lift, passing the communal wards to a separate wing with private rooms for the long term patients. She wrinkled her nose at the whiff of antiseptic in the air, taking in the sight of the nurse's station, instantly reminded of the institution where her mother spent her final years on life support. Stealing guilty glances in through the cracks of the open doors at the patients wasting away in their beds, Claire thought back to the pledge she had made to not give up on Charlie. I'm going to get him out of this place, she decided.
Desmond reached a closed door halfway down the hall and stopped.
"Are you ready?" he asked her.
Claire took a deep breath and nodded. Desmond knocked on the door and then stuck his head in. "Charlie? I've brought someone to visit you."
"Well good," Claire heard, "because I'm so bored I'm about ready to lose what's left of my sodding mind. When am I getting out of here Des?"
Desmond opened the door fully but Claire held back in the corridor, telling herself that she wanted to take Charlie in from a distance first, to observe more before intruding with her presence. She could scarcely believe her eyes. She didn't know what she expected but she knew what she had feared, and to her relief he didn't seem like a patient at all. He was fully dressed, his back to the door as he stood and leaned on a ledge, staring out of the window while he spoke. Silently she willed him to turn around, longing to see his face, as the final proof of his return. Her pulse quickened.
"Soon, mate," Desmond replied. "The sooner you start getting your memory back, the quicker you'll be out of here."
At his words, Charlie turned from the window with his eyes to the ceiling, ready to argue, but when he looked back down his exasperated expression faded. Confusion clouded his face as he peered around Desmond and addressed Claire, still standing out in the hallway like a frightened child.
"Hello?" he called to her. "You can come in you know. I won't scare you, and if I do you can easily outrun me anyway."
Claire stepped up and entered the room on his command, softening her hesitation with a warm smile at the sight of him. Charlie took a step toward her and she noticed that he wobbled a bit, as if his left leg were shorter than his right. It was then that she spotted the cane on the bed. After one more tentative step he grabbed hold of the bedpost and halted his approach. Other than that he seemed fine, apart from the fact that he was staring at Claire like a stranger and waiting for her to say something.
"Hi, Charlie," she said.
Charlie's face was a blank sheet of paper.
"Hi. I'm sorry," he said, "have we met?"
She had no reason to doubt Desmond but still her heart sank at the realization that what he had told her was true. Claire turned in desperation to the man who gave her a look of apology and said, "I'll wait outside. Take as long as you want."
When he left she turned back to Charlie who was still studying her and waiting for an answer. It couldn't have been more unlike the romantic reunion of her girlish fantasies.
"I'm Claire," she said.
When Charlie continued to stare at her, she added, "I was on the island with you."
Charlie frowned, still staring intently at her face as though willing himself to try and remember her. "I don't remember you being there when we got rescued…"
"I got rescued almost a year ago," Claire explained. "And if you don't remember anything from before Desmond and everyone found you then there's no way you'd remember me."
Charlie looked earnestly embarrassed then. "Oh. Right. Look, I'm sorry that I don't..."
Claire smiled painfully. "That's okay. It's not your fault Charlie."
"Well," Charlie smiled back and took his cane off the bed to assist him as he limped forwards, offering his free hand to her. "I'm pleased to meet you. Again," he added with a chuckle.
Claire's hands were shaking. She tried desperately to still them and in the end, practically lunged at Charlie's hand, shook it quickly and then pulled it away and hid it in her pocket. Charlie looked befuddled at her strange reaction but smiled pleasantly enough at her and gestured at the bed that took up most of the room.
"You wanna sit down? There's only one chair but the bed's big enough for us both to sit on. I can't really stand up for very long…" he added, glancing down at his game leg with a trace of bitterness.
Claire nodded and as one, they made their way over to it and sat. The bed was low and there was also a low, wide step next to it -- obviously to aid Charlie's ease in getting in and out of it. Between his short stature and his injured leg, Claire deduced that he probably found a lot of everyday things difficult now -- he was certainly a far cry from the energetic, bouncy man she had known on the island.
Claire toed her shoes off and tucked her feet up underneath herself as Charlie laid his cane aside and settled himself into a more comfortable position. And then, quite suddenly, Claire found herself sitting shoulder to shoulder with a man she had thought dead for almost a year.
It was a strange sensation to say the least.
"So…" Charlie drummed his fingers nervously on his knees. "You were on the island too huh?"
"Yes," Claire said. Then, feeling she had been too blunt, added, "Yes I was. We were both in the same plane crash."
A lengthy and uncomfortable silence fell between them and Claire searched desperately for something to say.
"And…and so you got rescued then did you?" Charlie tried again, looking slightly desperate now.
"Yes," Claire latched onto the conversation. "I've been home for almost a year now."
"A whole year?" Charlie gave a low whistle. "Lucky you. I've only been back a few weeks and already I'm starting to wish that I'd just stayed lost."
"Why's that?" Claire pressed.
Charlie shrugged. "I've gone from living on a tropical island and eating mangoes everyday to living in an all-white, super clean hospital Claire. It feels like I've been put in prison sometimes."
He shrugged her pitying look off. "It's okay. It's not like I've got much say in the matter anyways. I'm a danger to myself apparently -- what with the not knowing who I am business. I had enough trouble on the island with that but back here…"
"So there's…nothing?" Claire asked, trying to keep the despairing note out of her voice. "All you know about yourself is what other people have told you?"
Charlie smiled at her sadly. "That's right."
Claire felt a sob forcing its way up her throat to choke her and ignored it.
"What about before the island? Do you remember anything at all from before?"
"Well I know how to live and function as a human being," Charlie said tiredly. It seemed that he'd told this story to many other people before Claire. "I know how to brush my teeth and how to walk and talk and interact with people. I even seem to have retained somewhat of a sense of humour," he smiled dryly at her. "But apart from that? No. As far as I know I have no living relatives, no friends, no memories to speak of apart from what I got told by the rest of the guys who were on the island and got rescued with me."
"And what did they tell you?"
Charlie shrugged. "Not much. My name is Charlie Pace. I know I was in a band, a pretty famous band. I played bass and I did back up vocals. Apparently I was a drug addict…" he looked momentarily disgusted with this piece of information before pressing on. "I grew up in England, in Manchester…and there's not a lot else really."
"What, they didn't know anything else about you?" Claire frowned.
"Nope," Charlie said flippantly. "Seems I wasn't all that important -- in the grand scheme of things, you know."
"Not important!" Claire almost shrieked with indignation. "Not important? You were one of the first people to go exploring after the plane crashed! You went on all sorts of hikes and missions -- you were friends with pretty much everyone! How can they have not known anything about you?"
Charlie looked taken aback.
"Hey calm down a bit," he reached hesitantly to touch her hand, looking worried. "You'll get yourself kicked out if you're not careful."
"I'm sorry," Claire said angrily. "But just the fact that…ugh! I can't believe that they didn't know anything else about you!"
"Well they did tell me I was the one who ultimately got us all rescued," Charlie said musingly. "I went on some fools errand with Desmond apparently and that's when I disappeared. A helicopter came, they told me, but there was only room for one more person on it so…" he turned his gaze to her, putting two and two together. "I guess it must've been you was it? That first person who left? That I rescued?"
Claire felt a deep pain in her chest.
"Yes. That would've been me."
Charlie grinned lopsidedly at her. "Well, I'm glad to have helped. Were the two of us close on the island or…?"
This was the question that Claire had been both expecting and dreading. What was she meant to tell him? That the two of them had been technically "together" at the time of his disappearance? That he had actually died to save her? "We were…" she paused, Charlie was watching her closely. "We were friends."
"Friends?" Charlie frowned. "Were we close or just, you know, more acquaintances?"
"We were pretty close," Claire amended. "We…we hung out a fair bit."
"I thought so!" Charlie said triumphantly. At Claire's frown he added, "Why else would Desmond have gotten you to come and talk to me?"
Claire nodded. "Yeah. I guess so."
"So," Charlie slapped his hands against his thighs cheerfully. "If we were as close as you say you must know something about me that I don't and I'd love to hear it."
Claire was momentarily stymied. "Something…about you?"
"Well," Charlie looked embarrassed. "I hate to be all 'me, me, me' but really, I have no idea who I am and I'd like to know that I did something worthwhile in my life apart from surviving a bloody plane crash."
Claire paused for a long moment, thinking. "Well you were the one who got me rescued…"
"Yeah I figured that bit out already," Charlie said mildly. "Remember?"
"Oh, right. Um…" Claire frowned, thinking. "Well you were a great musician -- you always used to play your guitar. You were…" she paused suddenly and Charlie prompted her gently.
Claire glanced down at her hand where it had instinctively curled around her necklace. A sudden inspiration striking her, Claire pulled Charlie's DriveShaft ring out from underneath her shirt and dangled it towards him. Charlie took it between curious fingers and examined it.
"This was yours," Claire undid the chain and handed him the ring. Charlie brought it up level with his eyes and scrutinised it carefully. "You left it for me when you…when you went away. Does it…does it seem familiar at all?"
Charlie grimaced as he handed it back to her. "Not at all I'm afraid. Sorry." When yet another awkward silence fell between them, he asked, "Do you always wear it?" Claire blushed and Charlie looked horrified at himself for having embarrassed her. "Oh! God, I'm sorry Claire! Bite my tongue…sorry if that that was a bit personal…"
"That's…that's okay." Claire continued to blush furiously. "Not…well I don't wear it all the time. Just some days. Well, most days but...yeah."
It was Charlie's turn to flush then. He dipped his head to hide the worst of his shame and then caught her eye again. A moment later the two of them broke out into nervous giggles.
"Bloody hell…I feel like I'm fourteen again!" Charlie laughed nervously but then turned serious. "Please tell me I'm not the only one in this room who is busily feeling mortified every time they open their mouth?"
"You're not," Claire reassured him.
"Thank God," Charlie murmured. "This must be what its like to be asked out on a date by the prettiest, most popular girl in school and not knowing what the hell to say -- only ten times worse."
Claire blushed again and tried to cover her embarrassment by threading the DriveShaft ring back onto the chain before clasping it around her neck again. "You know, it's funny," she said, not quite meeting Charlie's eyes. "When you…left I was constantly thinking about everything that I left unsaid -- everything that I never told you. I ended up with quite a list in the end. But now…" she shook her head. "Now I've got you back again and I've got the chance to say everything I want to…I can't."
Charlie grimaced. "Yeah. Sorry about that. I just…you should know that it's pretty frustrating for me too."
"You don't have to tell me," Claire sighed. "Trust me, I understand all too well how annoying it is to just, you know, not remember stuff. To not remember the people who were important to you."
Charlie was eyeing her curiously now and Claire realised with a pang that he obviously wouldn't remember that she too had suffered amnesia once whilst on the island. When she told him this, his eyes lit up like someone had turned on a set of headlights.
"Really?" he leant forwards eagerly. "What happened to make you forget? Did you forget everything or just some stuff? And you got your memory back in the end yeah? Or at least most of it?"
"I…well…you really want to know?" Claire spluttered. Her amnesia was a subject she had rarely spoken about to anyone -- even when she was still on the island. Even now she wasn't entirely sure that she had remembered everything from the early days after the crash -- and she now realised that because of that, a good deal of the moments she had shared with Charlie might have been lost too. For all they knew, they could have had a lifetimes worth of moments and neither of them would ever remember them for as long as they both lived.
"Yeah I wanna know!" Charlie gazed at her avidly, his face alight with hope. "Maybe it'll help me figure out why I lost my memory too!"
"I…okay then," Claire took a deep breath and then began. She talked for close to an hour, Charlie listening to her with rapt attention. When she was done, her throat was sore and Charlie was staring at her, jaw hanging halfway to the floor.
"Bloody hell," he murmured. "You're quite the storyteller aren't you?"
Claire flushed. "You're very sweet Charlie but..."
"No I'm being serious," Charlie looked positively awestruck, a soft smile gracing his lips just like the one he used to wear. "You could totally be an actress, luv."
Claire felt a funny jolt in her stomach -- the kind you get when you're going down a set of stairs and think there's one more to go when there really isn't. It's a sensation that is neither pleasant nor unpleasant -- a feeling without definition, the art of teetering along a knife's edge, knowing that at any moment you could fall to either side. The endearment he had used at the end of his sentence was so familiar to her; a gentle, sweet word roughened by the huskiness of his voice just enough to make her skin tingle. It hinted at memories of what she had lost -- what he had lost.
What they had lost.
"Thank you," she murmured, finally accepting the compliment, her hand automatically going to her necklace. Charlie nodded, smiling widely at her but then he glanced at the clock on his bedside table and looked inordinately guilty.
"Oh bollocks…you've been in here for ages talking to me and you've probably got other stuff to be doing -- I'm sorry for distracting you so magnificently."
"No, no, it's okay," Claire said but when she saw the time she stood up guiltily. "Oops…you're right, I probably should be going. But I'm going to come back again okay?"
"I hope you're going to come back and tell me more stories," Charlie informed her. "I want to hear more of them." He paused here and when he continued, his eyes were sparkling. "And the fact that you've got the cutest accent in the world just makes it that much easier for me to listen to them."
"Well you're certainly just as charming as you were when we first met," Claire said, surprising herself by giggling. "Some things never change huh?"
Charlie shrugged, grinning. "So…I'll see you soon then?"
"You can count on it," Claire smiled back and then turned to leave. At the doorway she paused and looked back again, unwilling to leave. "I've…got some other stuff at home I could bring in -- stuff that might help you to remember."
"Really? Excellent, I look forward to it," Charlie said earnestly. "But right now you need to go home because visiting hours are well and truly over and I'll get in trouble for waylaying you."
On a whim, Claire took her necklace off and handed it to Charlie.
"This ring isn't mine," she said. "You should have it back."
"No," Charlie said, holding it out to her again. "I gave it to you for a reason. It doesn't mean anything to me, but it certainly seems to mean something to you so…you keep it safe for me for a bit longer yeah?"
Claire sighed and threaded it back onto its chain.
"One day I'm going to give it back to you and you are going to take it," she said stubbornly. "And you won't argue with me about it either.
"I'm sure you will," Charlie smiled ruefully. "Now bugger off home you, before I change my mind and ask you to stay."
He reached his right hand out and Claire shook it awkwardly -- though not anywhere near as awkwardly as she had done when she had first come in.
"I'll see you later Charlie."
"I certainly hope so."
As Claire shut the door behind her, Desmond looked up from the hard plastic seats that were bolted into the floor in intervals down the corridor and he stood up instantly.
"Well?" he asked eagerly.
Claire shook her head. "Nothing. He didn't remember me or about his DriveShaft ring when I showed him that or anything."
Desmond seemed to wilt before her eyes. "He didn't remember anything? Absolutely nothing at all?"
Claire shook her head again. "He said he remembered hearing people talking about me on the island but he didn't know who I was..." She sighed suddenly. "Oh Desmond this is going to be so hard. He doesn't remember anything about himself or me or us or…anything." She blinked back a sudden haze of tears and next moment she felt Desmond's arms encircling her shoulders. Claire leant against him and as she did, her tears took substance and began to slide down her face to soak the front of his shirt. "I just wanted to hold him so badly Desmond. I wanted to run over to him and put my arms around him and just kiss him senseless and tell him that I missed him. There was so much I wanted to say to him, so many things I never told him and I just…I couldn't."
"It'll be okay," Desmond murmured. "One day we'll get him back and then you'll be able to tell him everything." Claire sniffed loudly and he added, "And don't worry, he'll remember you soon enough. How could he ever forget you?"
Claire smiled wearily against his chest and then pulled back. "That's sweet of you to say Des but I think its going to take a bit more than just me babbling on while he listens to me to get our Charlie back."
Desmond nodded thoughtfully then asked, "What did you have in mind?"
Claire chewed her lower lip for a moment and then looked up at him, a smile spreading slowly across her face.
"I'm thinking…peanut butter."
When Claire returned to the hospital, her purse was almost bursting open from the large jar she had forced into it. Desmond had not come with her this time but she felt surprisingly at ease as she knocked on Charlie's door. From within she heard him grant her access and she slipped inside.
Charlie was propped up in bed, fully clothed, with a book on his lap. When she came in however, he hastily put his book aside and sat up a little straighter.
"Hullo!" he smiled at her, pleased. "This is a nice surprise! I should have guessed really -- you and Des are the only ones who actually knock before you come in."
Claire chuckled as she made her way over to the bed, slipping her shoes off and climbing onto the end of his bed, taking care not to squash his feet. "How are you Charlie?"
"Just as confused as the last time I saw you," Charlie said cheerfully and then gestured at the book he had put on his bedside table. Looking closer, Claire could see that it was a crossword puzzle book. "I'm just killing time today really. Avoiding doing my stupid exercise routine."
Charlie nodded. "I'm meant to do a certain amount of physical exercise everyday to make sure I don't get fat. And to keep this buggered leg of mine moving too. I don't see the point really, it's pretty well stuffed already, nothing more to be done for it now but…" he trailed off awkwardly then hastily changed the subject. "So how're you anyway?"
"Same old," Claire sighed. "I had to work this morning so…"
"Where do you work?" Charlie interrupted curiously.
"At a newsagency," Claire said promptly. "Magazine's and stationary and…stuff."
"How exciting," Charlie said dryly and Claire laughed.
"Well it helps pay the bills," she amended. "And it certainly helps to fill the day up."
Charlie nodded and then gestured at her neck.
"You're still wearing the ring," he observed. "My ring I suppose I should say."
Claire glanced down at it, surprised that he had noticed. "I don't often take it off," she confessed. "I've been wearing it for so long now…"
Charlie's ears went pink and he lowered his eyes and Claire changed the subject, sensing his embarrassment.
"Do you like peanut butter Charlie?"
"I-what?" Charlie looked confused. "Uh, yes? I guess? Why?"
"Good," Claire reached for her purse and pulled forth the jar she'd brought. "Because I brought you some."
Charlie stared at the jar in Claire's hand for a long moment and then looked up at her as though fearing for her sanity.
"Uh…Claire? That jar's empty."
Claire frowned at him and then scrutinised the jar carefully. "Is it?" Charlie continued to look confused as Claire opened the lid and peered inside it. "No it's definitely full," she said. She could feel Charlie's incredulous gaze on her as she dipped her fingers into the jar and then brought the imaginary condiment to her lips. "It's really good," she informed him. "You should really try some."
She then proceeded to lick her fingers clean, one at a time.
Charlie's mouth was hanging slightly open now. After a moment, he cleared his throat awkwardly.
"Are you…" he cleared his throat again. "Are you trying to come onto me?"
Claire burst out laughing.
"You know," she said between giggles. "That's exactly what I wanted to ask you the first time you brought me imaginary peanut butter."
Charlie looked confused for a moment longer but then he looked rather delighted and Claire's heart leapt with hope -- had he finally remembered something?
"I did that?" He said wonderingly. "I tried to woo you with imaginary peanut butter?"
"You didn't woo me with imaginary peanut butter," Claire corrected him. "You used it to bribe me to move up to the caves where it was safer."
Charlie laughed. "Sounds like I was quite an actor eh?"
"Well you certainly did a better job than I just did," Claire said, watching him closely. There was no flicker of recognition in his eyes however and she felt her spirits sink slightly. Charlie, seemingly oblivious to her scrutiny, reached out a tentative finger.
"Of course," Claire offered the jar and Charlie dipped his index finger in, scraping the smooth glass edge until he had a substantial amount and then he gave his finger a tentative lick.
"You're right," he said after a moment, his eyes sparkling. "This is good peanut butter."
Claire smiled widely as he licked the rest off.
"Did we often play games like this one?" Charlie asked mildly. "On the island?"
"Oh we played games all the time," Claire absent-mindedly reached into the jar again as she spoke. "We used to talk about what we missed from home. You used to write the most ridiculous songs and then you'd sing them at the top of your lungs and scare everyone off. I remember one day we collected shells and then made patterns with them in the sand. That was way back when we first crashed…"
"Sounds like we had some nice memories together," Charlie said regretfully. "Wish I could remember them."
Claire touched his leg reassuringly without even thinking and Charlie glanced at her in surprise.
"Don't worry," she said quietly. "You will remember. Because I'm going to keep coming back here until you do, okay?"
"That's sweet of you but really -- what's the point?" Charlie smiled sadly. "I'm a lost cause."
"Don't say things like that," Claire said reproachfully. "You're not a lost cause. You're worth every minute I spend with you."
Charlie turned a brilliant shade of crimson.
Right before she left, Claire placed the empty jar on his bedside table and then pulled her necklace off again.
"I'm going to give this ring back to you today…" Claire said, taking it off the chain and then taking Charlie's hand in hers as she pushed it onto his middle finger, where he used to wear it. "…because I don't need it anymore. I should've given it to you last time."
Charlie glanced down at the ring on his hand, then up at Claire, seemingly ready to argue.
"Don't you even bother trying to argue with me," Claire said firmly as he opened his mouth. Charlie clammed up immediately. "I told you, I don't need it anymore."
Claire shrugged. "Why would I need a ring to remind me of you when you're right here?"
Charlie's brow creased painfully. "Claire…"
"I'm gonna help you Charlie," Claire said quietly. "And if that means spending the next five years telling you stories until something triggers off a memory then that's okay. I'll gladly do it if it means that I'll get you back again."
Charlie seemed at a loss for words. He began to stutter. "But -- why would you want me back so badly? From what the others told me -- or rather what they didn't tell me -- I wasn't particularly worth much notice. I was just…Charlie."
Claire paused, wondering if she'd just overstepped the mark. She didn't want to scare him off with declarations of love, but she had to give him some sort of explanation for putting so much effort into helping him. But then, inexplicably, she felt her mouth open again and the words came out as perfectly as if she'd rehearsed them.
"They didn't know you like I knew you. You were brave and honest, loyal, selfless, a true friend. You always tried to do the right thing -- even when everyone else had turned against you. You saved me Charlie. And ultimately everyone else for that matter and you did that without any regards to your own life." She smiled warmly at him. "And that's more than I can say for almost anyone else who was on that island with us."
Charlie burned red for the umpteenth time that day and toyed distractedly with his ring as Claire waved her farewell.
"I'll see you soon okay?"
"Yeah," he said, a little dazedly. "Yeah I'll see you."
Claire walked out of the hospital still smiling.
Charlie was asleep on the untidy scrabble of his unmade bed, his head lolling over to one side when Claire crept into his room silently. For a moment she considered just leaving and coming back later on in the week but then he gave a sleepy sigh and Claire sank down onto her knees beside his bed and just watched him for a moment.
There were several new scars on his visage the she hadn't really taken stock of before -- faded now but still unfamiliar to her. The scars that she did still remember were very faded indeed now -- the thick burn over his left eye that he had procured whilst rescuing Aaron from Rousseau, the thin pale line on his cheek from when Locke had hit him and made him fall onto the rocks…
Claire reached out tentatively to smooth his hair but just as she touched him, Charlie gave a grunting snore and his eyes opened. Claire snatched her hand back as half lucid-grey met pale blue and Claire saw surprise register on Charlie's face.
"I didn't hear you come in," he murmured, pushing himself up hastily into a sitting position. "How long have you been sitting there for?"
"Not long," Claire retreated swiftly to the end of the bed and took up her usual position, trying to put some distance between the two of them. "I didn't mean to wake you up."
"No matter," Charlie waved an impatient hand. "What have you brought for me today?" he grinned at her suddenly. "More imaginary condiments?"
Claire smiled. "Nope." She dug deep into her bag and brought forth a small blue book, the thin pages buckled from moisture, and handed it to Charlie.
He took it and then proceeded to turn it over in curious hands, gently touching the beaded bookmark before finally looking up at Claire.
"What's this then?" he asked. "Someone's journal?"
Claire nodded. "It's mine."
Charlie blinked and then brandished the diary at her nervously. "What -- you want me to read it?"
"Sure," Claire said blithely. "I wrote about you a fair bit -- maybe something will sound familiar to you."
Charlie looked unaccountably awkward as he opened the book a fraction and then slammed it shut again, looking scandalised.
"What's wrong?" Claire frowned.
"I just…" Charlie hesitated and then put the book down, just out of his reach. "I don't feel like I can read this. I feel like I'm invading your privacy."
Claire stared. "Charlie, I've given you my permission to read it and I'm sitting right here with you. It's not an invasion of privacy if…"
"It still feels like it," Charlie said firmly. "I can't read it."
"But it might help you!" Claire said, frustrated. "What if this is the thing that helps you get your memories back?"
Charlie stubbornly crossed his arms, tucking his hands into his armpits and in a sudden surge of anger, Claire snatched the diary up and hit him on the nose with it.
"Ow! What was that for?" he said reproachfully, rubbing his nose.
"For being insufferably chivalrous," Claire said tartly. "And if you're not going to read the bloody thing then there's only one thing for it…"
"You're going to keep hitting my nose with it until I start bleeding?"
Claire opened it to a random page and frowned at Charlie.
"No. I'm going to read it out to you."
Charlie stared at her for a moment but then he chuckled suddenly. "You are a very stubborn woman, did you know that?"
Claire tried to mask her own smile as she looked down at the page she had opened it to.
And then she froze.
"Go on then," Charlie said, settling himself down comfortably, oblivious to Claire's sudden discomfort. "If you're going to read it to me then you'd better get started."
Claire quickly went to flip the page over but Charlie reached forward, startlingly fast, and stopped her.
"What's wrong with that entry?"
"Nothing," Claire lied falteringly. "It's just…I don't really talk about you much in it…"
Charlie stared at her for a moment and then he laughed. "You're not very good at lying Claire." He didn't relinquish his hold on the small book. "What don't you want me to hear? Did you write something about me that you think I won't want to hear? Is that it?"
Claire was silent and Charlie sighed deeply and sat back.
"Claire, I already know that I wasn't a model citizen. I was a heroin addict for Chrissakes! I promise you that anything bad you've said about me in your diary will be forgiven."
"It's not…bad stuff that I've written about you though…" Claire said tentatively and Charlie looked nothing short of confused.
"If it's not bad then why don't you want to read it out?"
"Okay, okay," Claire said quickly before Charlie could ponder that particular thought any longer and put two and two together. "I'll read it out to you okay? Just…just promise me that you won't freak out at anything that I've written."
Claire took a deep breath, stilled her shaking hands by gripping on even tighter to the small book in her hands, and began to read.
"Last night took me by complete surprise. I was the one who initiated it and yet it seemed like I was another person altogether, one who was no longer scared and afraid to trust. I haven't been able to get it off my mind but I think that I've finally forgiven Charlie because after the hatch door landed on the beach I was just so relieved that he was safe…"
Charlie was silent for a long time after Claire finished reading. She was certain that her face was bright crimson and the tears in her eyes were threatening to overwhelm her completely -- and that was nothing compared to the yawning chasm that seemed to have opened up in the floor and swallowed all of her internal organs. She determinedly avoided looking at him, instead choosing to stare at the scribbled pages of her diary.
And then he swung his legs over the side of the bed and moved along until he was sitting right next to her. Slowly, silently, she did the same, until they were sitting shoulder to shoulder, a perfect mirror image of each other.
And then, finally, he spoke.
"We…" he paused and then started again. "We weren't just friends."
It wasn't a question but Claire couldn't have answered it even if she'd wanted to.
Claire sighed and shook her head, staring intently at her diary, still clutched tightly in her hands. Charlie paused for another long moment as he stared at her profile and then he dropped his eyes. "Claire…I really don't know what to say…"
"It's okay," Claire whispered, finally finding her voice and allowing her eyes to meet Charlie's. He gazed back steadily. "You don't have to say anything. I didn't expect you to."
Charlie grimaced. "I still kind of feel like I should apologise...or something."
"What for?" Claire asked, surprised.
"For forgetting somebody as wonderful as you," Charlie murmured.
Claire felt a familiar lump rising in her throat.
"Charlie…" she murmured.
The two of them stared at each other for a tense moment. Claire's breath quickened ever so slightly and her hands began to tremble anew. She held the diary tighter to disguise the shaking.
"Claire," Charlie said suddenly, softly and very seriously. "If you want to kiss me I won't stop you."
Claire let out a nervous laugh and then bit her lip to quiet herself. "Am I being that obvious?"
In answer, Charlie smiled ruefully. "If you want to then go ahead," he repeated. "It can't do any harm right?"
Claire set the diary aside and looked Charlie square in the eyes. He certainly seemed earnest enough. And maybe this would be the thing to trigger off his memories? Maybe simply her presence hadn't been enough -- maybe he needed a tangible reminder of what they had felt for each other…
"And maybe…" she murmured, her voice trembling over every syllable. "Maybe it'll h-help you remember?"
"Maybe." He agreed.
Claire shuffled a hairsbreadth closer to Charlie, sucking in a short breath when their thighs touched. Charlie took in a similarly shaky breath -- the first and only sign that Claire had seen that he was just as nerve-wracked about this situation as she herself was. His eyes said otherwise, they were quite calm as Claire nervously pushed her hair out of her eyes and then licked her lips in an almost subconscious gesture.
"Go on then," Charlie urged her just as Claire leant forwards.
The moment their lips touched together however, Claire found herself choking suddenly on a sob and she pulled back hurriedly, her eyes flooding with tears.
"I'm sorry," she gasped. "I-I can't…I don't think I can…"
The feel of Charlie's hand, warm and calloused and real against her cheek gave her pause and then he was saying, "Come on, at least do the thing properly…" and Claire found herself kissing Charlie again, the salt of her tears dripping into the corners of their joined mouths.
They pulled back almost at the same moment and Claire immediately scanned his eyes for some flicker of recognition, but there was nothing there to see but disappointment and sadness.
"You didn't really believe that kissing me was going to help you remember anything -- did you?" Claire said bleakly.
Charlie shook his head, caught out. "No. But I thought that it might help you."
Claire gaped at him, completely shocked, and when she spoke her voice trembled over the new tears that were threatening to spill over her cheeks.
"Oh Charlie…you're still in there somewhere -- aren't you? You just can't find your way out…"
Charlie nodded, his face pained and Claire began to cry in earnest then. She leant her forehead against his shoulder and he put an awkward arm around her and began to stroke her hair gently.
In spite of everything, Claire couldn't but marvel at the man beside her. Even now, when he was scared beyond all means, when he had no idea who he was, Charlie was still holding strong and putting her wellbeing before his own.
"Sorry to make you cry," Charlie apologized again and Claire gave something halfway between a laugh and a sob.
"Sorry for being such lousy company and crying all over you," she sniffed heavily and sat up.
"Hang on a sec…" free from the burden of her on his shoulder, Charlie pushed himself off the bed and hobbled over to get a tissue for her from the box on his bedside table. Claire gratefully accepted it and wiped her swollen eyes dry again. By the time she'd blown her nose, Charlie had acquired his cane and was offering her his free hand.
"How about we go for a walk in the gardens?" He said lightly. Claire took his hand and slid off the bed. "Clear out the cobwebs eh?"
The trip downstairs showed Claire beyond all doubt why Charlie was so loathe to exercise. Just getting down to the bottom floor took them almost twenty minutes -- and that was not only with Claire helping him but also by using the lift.
The rest of the afternoon passed uneventfully with the two of them wandering unhurriedly through the garden. When she left, Claire gave Charlie her diary and he pocketed it without a word.
"I'll see you soon," she promised, squeezing his hand.
"I look forward to it," Charlie smiled gently at her. "You hang in there okay? Try not to worry too much about me."
Claire smiled sadly. "I'll try not to but I'm afraid I can't promise you anything."
"I'll see you soon Claire,"
"Yes," she murmured. "You will."
Claire woke up to the sunlight burning stripes across her sheets and burst out of bed. It was the day of her weekly visit with Charlie, the day she looked forward to most. They had been meeting for nearly two months, and although Charlie still showed no signs of remembering his former life or her, she felt no less buoyant than she had when she had first taken on the task. Nothing seemed to darken her spirits; she carried on with the zeal of the righteous, convinced that success lay perpetually around the next corner.
As hopeful as she remained, Claire was still concerned that Charlie not lose hope. While he had been maintaining a cheerful demeanour each time they met, Claire could see that behind the façade Charlie was coming to terms with the fact that he may never reclaim himself. The last time they were together Charlie had asked her that very question, as if he wanted to prepare Claire for an uncertain future filled with inconvenient truths.
"Claire," he said quietly as they returned to Charlie's room after a pleasant walk, "you do realize I may never remember anything?"
"Don't say that Charlie," she replied. "You have to stay positive. This will just take time."
"I know," he said, settling back down on the bed. "But still, if I don't…what will become of me? Will I be stuck here forever?"
Claire thought. "I suppose it would depend on how independent they think you can be, even without your memories. I would imagine with some help you would get by."
Charlie nodded, but in the silence Claire could see that he had not yet gotten to the heart of the matter. She waited until he spoke again.
"And what about us?" he said finally. "How would you feel if I never got our memories back? To me you're like this wonderful kind stranger that I've only just met."
Claire leaned over and took Charlie's hand. "You're not a stranger to me. For now, I'm carrying our memories for the both of us, but there'll come a time when we'll be able to share them…"
Charlie shook his head in protest, "That's really nice to say, but…"
She squeezed his hand harder and commanded his attention. "Charlie, I once told you that I wouldn't give up on you, and I meant it. I understand what we want may not happen, but I'm willing to take that risk. I may seem unfamiliar to you but to me you're my Charlie and you're right in front of me. I'm not going to lose you again, no matter what happens. I'll take care of you."
They had ended their visit with another kiss. Claire smiled to herself at the memory as she dressed. A few minutes later, she was humming aloud while making Aaron his breakfast. The toddler accompanied her by banging his spoon on his tray and squealing. At ten minutes to nine her phone rang. It was her neighbour, Raya.
"Claire, it's me," she said.
"I'm sorry I'm running late," said Claire, "I'll be over with Aaron in a minute."
"That's why I'm calling," she said. "I got a call from work. They're short-handed today and need me to fill in. I would have said no but its extra hours and I could really use the money. I'll make it up to you…"
"Please don't apologize," said Claire. "Of course you should do it. It's not a problem."
Claire could hear her friend's sigh of relief through the wireless. "Really? Thanks for understanding. I'm really sorry but next time I promise I'll take him."
"It happens. You've already been so helpful taking Aaron every week. I'll work something out," said Claire.
As she hung up the phone she turned and looked at the sunny child with oatmeal in his hair. It was not the way she'd planned it but she was left with no choice.
"Well," sighed Claire. "I suppose it's time you've gone to see your daddy."
With Aaron in his stroller, Claire pushed her way through the lobby of her building and was almost to the street when she heard a familiar voice.
She turned around to see Jason, heading towards her building. They hadn't spoken since the night at the restaurant, but the sight of him brought back every ounce of emotion that Claire thought she had gotten past. She stopped and stared, waiting for him to catch up. He gave a little wave to Aaron as Claire checked her watch to make sure they weren't going to miss their bus.
"What are you doing here Jason?" she asked.
Jason buried his hands in his pockets and shuffled his feet like an errant schoolboy. "I wanted to apologize for…what happened that night. I didn't mean to come on so strong or to pressure you. I was hoping we could start again."
Claire softened. Apart from that one fight he really was a nice man, and he had been good to her. Claire looked at him as he waited for her response, and then without warning an image of Charlie came into her head. He was sitting in his room, looking at her with his wide blue eyes, scared and utterly alone. For three months he had been there for her. He had given his life for her.
And now he needed her.
"Jason," said Claire. "It's all right. I'm not mad, it's just…this is not what I want right now. I have…other priorities in my life."
"Do you mean Aaron?" he asked, grappling to understand, "because I want to be there for you and Aaron both."
"I know and you're sweet to say so, but it's not just Aaron," she said, struggling for the words. She had never told Jason about her time on the island and she didn't want to get into all that now. "I have to go. I'm visiting a friend in hospital."
"Is that your other priority?" he asked, with a hint of bitterness in his voice.
Claire stiffened. "Yes, it is, and I'm running late." She turned the stroller back around and headed off toward the bus stop without looking back.
Claire pushed the stroller down the now familiar corridor to Charlie's room but stopped just short of the door when she heard what sounded like a row. Two male voices, one English, the other Scottish were trying to keep their voices down but making a right hash of it.
"I want Charlie to come and live with me," demanded the English voice.
"He doesn't bloody know you!" said the Scot.
"I want to help him!" insisted the first voice. "I owe it to him."
"You can't just walk in here and expect him to go off with you! You're a stranger!"
"Don't you dare call me a stranger, I'm his sodding FAMILY! I'm all he's got!"
At those final words, Claire chose to make her entrance. She wanted this person to know that Charlie was anything but alone. Pushing open the door she saw a tall man with glasses standing next to Desmond. Charlie was nowhere to be seen. Both men stared at her in surprise when she graced the threshold with her young child.
"Where's Charlie?" she asked.
"He left for a bit of physical therapy," said Desmond. "He's due back soon. We were just having a…discussion."
"Who are you?" Claire asked the other man.
"I'm Liam, Charlie's brother." he sneered. "Who the hell are you?"
Desmond reached over and touched Liam's shoulder, attempting to guide him to the door. "I think that's enough mate. You tried. You were here all morning. Charlie doesn't remember you. Why don't you hang it up for now?"
Liam shook Desmond's hand off angrily. "Who do you people think you are? You knew Charlie for three bloody months and you're telling me to leave? What makes you think you're going to be able to fix him? It's been weeks and he still doesn't even know who he is let alone any of you! He's a sodding basket case!"
"Get out," seethed a voice.
Everyone turned to see Charlie standing in the doorway, staring daggers at Liam.
"Charlie," Liam began. "Will you please tell these people…"
"I'm not telling them anything," said Charlie. "I'm not a nutter and I want you to leave."
Liam searched the faces around him in disbelief until finally he shrank. Charlie moved aside to allow him to get by. Before he left he leaned in close to Charlie and spoke softly, "Don't you remember mum and dad, Charlie?"
Claire's eyes misted over at Charlie's reaction. The anger faded, replaced by a tortured confusion. Liam might just as well have been speaking a foreign language that Charlie was desperate to understand. Claire assumed it was the first time Liam had mentioned their parents.
When he failed to respond, Liam patted Charlie on the shoulder and muttered, "I'll be back soon. I'll bring photos next time." Then he turned and made his way to the lifts.
Everyone stood stunned for a moment, until Desmond broke the silence, glancing down at Aaron and smiling at the lad. "I need to be going too. It looks like you're in good hands, Charlie."
Charlie stayed just inside the door, staring down at the cane in his hand, clearly embarrassed over what had just happened.
"That must have been a difficult morning," said Claire.
At that moment, Aaron began leaning out of his stroller, begging to be freed. Claire crouched down and opened the child's harness just as Charlie found his voice again over a new topic of conversation.
"Who's this little bloke?" he asked.
"This is…" Claire started, and then hesitated. "This is my son."
"Your son?" said Charlie, surprised. As Claire took Aaron from the stroller, Charlie hobbled to the bed and sat down, watching the boy with curiosity from a distance, trying to put the pieces together. "I didn't know you had a son. Was he on the island with us?"
Claire struggled to hold him but Aaron was wriggling out of her arms. "Yes, he was," she said as she finally gave in and put him down. "He's only just started walking, but he seems to enjoy his freedom."
Charlie smiled, watching the boy find his feet. "I can certainly understand that."
Aaron straightened himself, balancing with his arms up, and they both watched him for a moment. Charlie seemed fascinated by him. Claire was instantly glad she had brought him, because he did wonders for Charlie's spirits. Then the most surprising thing happened. Aaron toddled straight to Charlie, as if pulled by an invisible string. Charlie's smile grew wider as the boy climbed the low step to the bed and then reached up to touch Charlie's face. He leaned down a bit to meet the tiny hand and put an arm around his back to keep him from falling. When Aaron made contact, touching Charlie's chin and then his cheek, Charlie closed his eyes briefly and then kissed the boy on the head. Claire was astounded at how comfortable they both seemed with each other.
Aaron was just an infant when Charlie last saw him. Was it even possible…?
"Is he normally this comfortable with strangers?" asked Charlie.
Claire deflated at Charlie's words. It must have been her imagination.
"No. No he isn't." she said. In fact, he usually clings to me when strangers are near.
Claire came closer and sat on the bed, but she may as well have been on another planet. Charlie sat Aaron alongside him and pretended to tickle him, while the boy tried to grab at his fingers. Each time he pulled them away he made a silly face and a popping sound until the child was in stitches, giggling. The sound made Charlie laugh too. They played for a good while until Aaron began to rub his eyes.
"He's overdue for his nap," Claire explained. "We should go. We'll have a longer visit next time."
Charlie came to attention, as if just remembering that Claire was there. "Oh, okay sure. Thanks for bringing him."
Claire picked the toddler up and draped him over her shoulder. This time he went back into his stroller without a protest, taking his blue blanket in his lap. Claire squatted again to hook Aaron's harness back up when she suddenly heard Charlie mutter behind her.
She spun around in surprise. "What did you say?"
"Turniphead," said Charlie looking even more shocked then she was. "I used to call him that."
Claire smiled and raced back to where Charlie sat. She leaned in close and gripped his knees, tears of joy welling in her eyes. "Yes! Yes you did! You said his head…"
"Looked like a turnip," said Charlie, smiling in triumph. "But I was wrong. He's beautiful."
As his own eyes filled with tears Claire opened her arms and took him in. Over her shoulder she heard him speak with a choked sob.
"Aaron," he said as he cried. "His name's Aaron."
The breakthrough was so overwhelming that they held on to each other tightly as if they were plummeting through the air, the tears unstoppable. He was on his way back to her.
"That's right Charlie," she said. "You remembered."
After a few more moments, Charlie pulled back and wiped at his eyes. He seemed to think a bit more and then blushed, whispering, "I don't think I'm very good at math, but…he's not mine. Is he?"
Claire laughed. "No," she said. "But he may as well be. You're the closest thing to a father that he's ever known."
Charlie didn't seem surprised by Claire's words. He nodded as if he already knew in his heart.
"Why didn't you tell me sooner?" he asked.
"I didn't want to scare you," said Claire. "You had enough going on with to worry about a child. And, I guess…I didn't know how you'd react. I wanted to see if you'd remember first."
Charlie looked over at Aaron again who had fallen asleep in his stroller. He turned back to Claire. "Tell me about him," he said eagerly. "Tell me everything I missed."
Claire chose a starting point and began as Charlie listened, hanging on every word as the hours went by. It felt like a new beginning.
"Claire, have you seen my blue jacket? It's not in the closet," Charlie called from the bedroom.
"It's still on the chair where you tossed it yesterday," she responded as she placed Aaron in his highchair and gave him his cup.
Charlie poked his head around the corner to look at her, jacket in his hand, and said with a smile and a cheeky wink. "Sorry. My memory's not what it used to be."
Claire laughed. It had been six months since Charlie's release from hospital. With his memory slowly returning in bits and pieces and Claire's assurances that he had a place to live, the doctors approved his discharge. He moved in to Claire's flat and over time more memories returned at the rate of a slow trickle. It wasn't always pleasant; one night Charlie startled awake with a gasp from a nightmare that he was being hanged from a tree. Claire held him until he was calm, and then they stayed up together until morning as she told him about Ethan.
Then there were other times when he would recall a name or an object during some ordinary moment like washing up or eating. Claire was getting used to the non sequiturs and out of the blue questions.
"Claire, who's Shannon? Why do I know a Shannon?"
"She was on the island with us Charlie," she'd say casually over her cereal.
"Oh," he'd say.
And life would go on.
Sometimes there were recollections that Claire couldn't help with, so for those they would call Liam. Charlie's brother had finally given in to the idea that Charlie was going to live with Claire and not him, particularly when he saw how happy Charlie was and how well he was doing, but he still maintained regular contact and came by often with his wife and daughter for visits. Claire and Karen got on famously. They both loved having an extended family to spend time with. Megan and Aaron would play together as Liam sat with Charlie and explained about their band and their friends and family in Manchester.
One day Liam brought Charlie a new guitar and Charlie was surprised to find that he somehow had retained his ability to play, even though he didn't remember playing before. Charlie was pleased that he had discovered something he could do sitting down, and he had Aaron as his own private audience.
Before they left the hospital, Charlie had learned that his leg could be improved somewhat through a fairly major surgery, but with his cognitive issues the doctors were reluctant to use anaesthesia on him. Charlie was likewise hesitant, afraid he would lose the few memories he had managed to recover and Claire didn't blame him. It remained an option for the future.
"Oh, I forgot to tell you," said Charlie as he came into the kitchen and reached for a coffee cup, "Jack called yesterday while you were out. He wanted to know how I was getting on. He said he was going to come visit soon and he'd talk to you about it."
"Jack was always a good friend," she said.
"He was," said Charlie, filling his cup. Then suddenly he turned and added, "He saved my life once, didn't he?"
"Yes," Claire said. "Did he tell you that?"
"No, I…" he thought for a moment. "I guess I remembered it," he said, chuffed.
Claire smiled. "You saved his life too. Do you remember that?"
His face drooped as if she had popped him with a pin. "No. No I don't," he grumbled.
Claire put an arm around him. "Give it time."
Charlie nodded. "I know. It's just…"
"It's frustrating. I understand," Claire finished his thought.
"No it's not even that," he replied, struggling to explain. "It's you and…well, us. I want us back."
"You have me back," said Claire.
"But I want it all back," he said. "I want our memories."
Claire thought back to their time on the island, including the moments that were best forgotten. "They weren't all happy ones you know," she said.
"I don't care," said Charlie, pulling her close. "I won't be happy until I have all of you Claire." He leaned down towards her and whispered against her lips, "Past, present and future."