It was just after midnight when he returned to the home he previously shared with his best friend, the house she had purchased for them, with his eyes heavy, fatigued by sleep deprivation. Slowly, he scuffled up the two uneven steps that lead to the brownstone on Acorn street on Beacon Hill. As he fumbled with the lanyard that held his keys and attempted to find the right one that would unlock the large opaque forest-green wooden door. For a moment, he paused to gaze up at the house. She had bequeathed him her dream house, the only home she had ever known. At least that was she had declared the day the realtor had shown them the residence.
He remembered that day clearly, her whisky colour eyes shining as she toured the eighteenth-century structure. She had said it felt like it belonged to her. Like it was meant to be hers. As she stood in the centre of the then empty house, he listened as she chattered about the different hues she wished to paint the walls, which room would be his and which would be hers. She found herself falling in love with the charm of the old house. Unable to envision her life in Boston without residing there, she signed the documents that same afternoon after the showing. Purchasing the home without a second thought, she was creating a life for herself. She began setting roots in a city she knew she wouldn’t be able to stay in. A city, a life, he knew she desperately wanted to keep.
A small yawn escaped across his lips as he shifted his concentration back to the door and slid his key into the lock and leaned his frame against the door, opening it. It had been a long day; in fact, his entire month had been long. Draining was a more suitable word; he momentarily thought of how to describe it. As the first several weeks of his residency at Massachusetts General Hospital concluded, he couldn’t help but reflect each night as he returned to his home about how different it was from when he had first envisioned it. It wasn’t that the program was inadequate or unmanageable. It was that ever since that first fateful day of his undergraduate program at Harvard University when he sat next to the girl with the wild coffee-coloured waves and whisky eyes, Joe Abernathy had constructed an image of life with his best friend. He knew from that moment what the years following would look like. They always included her.
No matter what had intersected their path, she was a constant in his life. And he was one in hers. There was no future where they would be separated. At least, that was what Joe had assumed. He thought they would be working through the same exhausting weeks. The identical fourteen hours shifts. They were meant to compete and support each other to be the best surgeons they would be. They were supposed to discuss what surgical specialities peeked their interests, together, in the same country. In the same house, while working in the same hospital. Not over texts or weekly FaceTime calls. She was the Meredith Grey to his Christina Yang. She would eternally be his person, and he was hers. She had been the best woman at his wedding. He and his partner had planned on her being the Godmother to their prospective children.
He groaned softly as he stepped through the threshold of his home, abandoning his knapsack to the hardwood floors and flipped on the light in the hall. He closed his eyes, running his hand down his face and counted to four before reopening his brown eyes, adjusting them to the sudden glow. With all the effort he could manage in his bones, Joe slipped his aching feet from his sneakers and wandered towards the stairs that would lead to her room. He left it exactly how she had left it, hoping she would return to Boston. Return to her home. He stood outside her bedroom door for a minute, trapping his breath in his lung before he released it and placed his palm on the doorknob, twisting it and propelling the door open with a soft creak as his phone sounded.
Startled by the noise, Joe neglected to check the ID as he pressed the talk button and held the phone to his ear as he entered her old room. Encompassing himself with her familiarity.
“Is she there with you?” An accented voice slurred. Demanding his attention away from the herb garden in her windowsill, perceiving that his husband must have been minding the still-green plants.
He knew immediately who the caller was, just by his speech. There was no greeting; there never was with her husband. There was never any small talk. He leapt into the underlining reason for his call. Commanding to know her whereabouts as if he was still her keeper. As if he was ever her keeper.
“Is she there?” The voice repeated, impatiently.
“Who, CB?” Joe questioned as he touched his fingers across her record player as he relaxed into the velvet winged chair positioned adjacent to it, in the curve of her room.
“Yes, Joesph, did Claire return to Boston?”
Joe rolled his eyes at being called Joesph. Only his parents and Frank Randall addressed to him with such formality. No matter the various times he had put emphasised on being called Joe. Frank never respected his request. Nevertheless, he had learned to accept it, allowing it to slide for the sake of Claire. He always strived to be cordial with her husband. Not allowing him to be the reason any wedge was driven into their friendship, he had a better reason to have an objection over who her husband was. The man she irrationally worshipped, as Joe had never been convinced she had truly loved the man. A man that would never be her equal, never challenged her to push herself. He was the man she gave up her dream house for, the residency program she worked her ass off to be admitted in too. Joe felt Frank Randall would have been happier with her giving up her dreams, converting into a housewife and tending to his every demand as if she was a gentlewoman of the 1950s. Alternatively, he seemed to be satisfied keeping her back from reaching her full potential.
“Why would CB be back here, Franklin?”
His question was proceeded by a lengthy interlude of uncomfortable silence as a jolt of anxiety rippled through his wearied body. He had been operating on roughly four hours of sleep and leading up to this phone call, Joe had intended on saying goodnight to the memory of his best friend and then climbing into bed with his own husband. Now, he was becoming alert, attaining a secondary wind while on the phone with a man, half in the drink, questioning the whereabouts of one Claire Beauchamp-Randall.
“Frank,” He observed his pitch grow earnest, “Where is CB?”
“She’s gone,” Frank responded, softly, his voice hardly above a murmur.
“What do you mean, she’s gone?”
At that moment, Joe felt every emotion charge through his body as he began to sense panic, establish itself within his brain. He knew his best friend; at times, he knew her better than he knew himself. In complete honesty, he felt he knew her better than her own miserable husband. Having lived with her over the last eight years. Joe shut his eyes at the notion they were separated for a month, and she disappeared. A characteristic that was out of the normalcy for her. She would never go anywhere without at least informing him first, even if she intended on leaving her spouse in the dark. He would have defended her, protected her. Jow would have welcomed her home.
“Frank, answer me.” He said stiffly.
“Claire is gone. Vanished, there is no trace of her. She took nothing with her other than her purse and the contents of it.”
“People don’t just vanish,” Joe concluded, “there has to be a rational explanation. Did she return to Oxford? Your trip was cutting it very close to when her program was starting. I know she was worried about being ill prepare for her first day.”
“I had a neighbour check in on the house, and she wasn’t there.” Frank hiccuped, “The reasonable explanation is that she returned to Boston.”
“She hasn’t,” The younger man sighed, “When did you last see her.”
“Six days ago.”
Joe’s breathing hitched in his throat. His best friend had been missing for nearly a week. Six days. And her husband was just now considered to call him. The one person that could have explanations. Not that he didn’t, but it stung. He promptly pressed the home button of his iPhone and pulled up the texts from her, noticing that he had in fact not heard from Claire in six days. The last text that came through was from her. He had meant to respond but was then occupied by a patient, and it had slipped his cognisance. Reading the text over, she had sent him a snapshot of the unique stones on top of Craigh na Dun, the identical image she had posted on her hardly used Instagram. It was of the massively fractured rock, split down the centre with forget-me-nots at its base. They signified the reason she was there; she found their presence in the Scottish highlands unusual.
“Fuck, have you notified the police?”
“Yes, Joesph, I am not an idiot,” Frank stated, followed by another hiccup.
Joe listened to Frank, in his inebriated stupor retell his accounts of their second honeymoon in Scotland, of the day Claire disappeared and the aftermath that succeeded. Frank wept into the receiver to her best friend, declaring that she was finding her way back to him, back to loving him like she had before she had migrated to America for university. His Claire was returning to him, at least that was what he believed. She was supposed to meet him and the couple they were visiting at an eatery in Inverness after her visit to Craigh na Dun. He knew she intended on gracing them all with her appearance for dinner. He had seen her dress; he had observed as she packed a small overnight back in her oversized purse. She appeared eager for their evening and then she never arrived at the restaurant. All of Frank’s calls persisted to voicemail; his texts remained unanswered. He thought possibly she retired to their Airbnb, although it was abandoned when he entered, looking for her.
“Fairies, Isla said,” her husband breathed, “Reggie’s wife believes fairies took Claire since the last place she was seen on top of Craigh na Dun, it’s known as fairy hill.”
“That seems far fetched,” Joe admitted, nodding to himself.
Frank proceeded to speak, informing him about the matter concerning the police and how they dismissed him when he initially reported her missing. At first, it was still within the window of being too soon to declare his wife as a missing person. The second time, it was because as he gave a history of the relationship, they had spent several years independently of each other. The police of Inverness hinted that she had merely left him for another man. That while she was in Boston, she had taken another admirer and was idling for her moment to leave him. This influenced him to phone Joe, understanding that if she were to have another sweetheart or run anyplace, it would be back to her residence on Acorn street.
“There is no one else,” Joe murmured.
How he wished there was. He had continuously hoped she would come to her senses and part ways with Frank and relocate back to Boston. Joe had wished she would have embraced to the wise words of her Uncle Lamb and realise at the time she was wedded she was far too young to marry a man twelve years her senior or to wed anyone at eighteen. She had outgrown him; it was the simple reality of the matter. Every one of their colleagues in Boston knew that. At times, after one too many whiskies, Claire would admit to her mistake of marrying the first man she loved. However, when sober, she would dismiss declaring such ideas.
The conversation with her husband soon faded after that. Having nothing else to discuss, Frank concluded the call by requesting if he heard from Claire, to please let him know. Joe had agreed, upon his better judgment, he acknowledged Frank cared for her. There was no way to dispute that.
Joe remained in her old bedroom, incapable of communicating to his legs that he was ready to relocate to his own room. He turned to her record player and embraced the pitiful smile that edged upon his lips as he saw her favourite record lying at the ready on the turntable. It was as if it were pleading to be played. His fingers came to life, travelling delicately as he connected to the needle to the black circle and listened to the sounds of Phoebe Bridgers’s ‘ Stranger in the Alps’. It wasn’t long after her favourite song overfilled the small space of the room that he felt his eyes drooped, and a peacefulness flooded over him as he closed his eyes. Sliding into a slumber in velvet winged back chair, his last thought was that he at least hoped Claire was someplace she was happy. Somewhere she could flourish.