Author's Chapter Notes:
This story takes place in the December following Season 4's "You Can't Handle This Episode." Happy (almost) Hogmanay!
It's the dead of winter, December 31.
She can hear her nephews running around the house below. She can picture her mom and stepdad at the table, surrounded by aunts and uncles and cousins and all those not-too-distant relations who flock to family gatherings but once or twice a year. They'll all be playing cards now, she muses. Rook, Twenty-one, Gin Rummy. Waiting for the ball to drop while the scents of haggis, cock-a-leekie soup, neeps & tatties, and colcannon waft through to the rafters. She can smell it even where she's nestled, covered with a blanket up in the attic.
Loud toasts of Slainte! echo through the kitchen, the adults holding short fat glasses etched with thistles and the kids clinking orange and blue cans of Irn-Bru. The distinctive thump of bass as a Proclaimers tape pumps out a steady stream of latter-day folk music, a strangely comforting blend of love songs, rebellious anthems, and depressing tales of closed factories slipping into the wind…
For a moment, Juliet O'Hara smiles up there in the attic, warm in her blanket with a saucer of gingerbread and her favorite mug in hand. If this were like any other night of the year, she'd be celebrating Hogmanay with the rest of her family, Scottish and proud of it. Waving a saltire, feeling the warm embrace of Clan Robertson. But not tonight. No, tonight, she is alone. And for once, that's exactly how she wants to be. She doesn't want to hear her uncle's heartwarming recitation of the Address to a Haggis. She doesn't want to join in singing Auld Lang Syne the way it was meant to be sung, or opening the last of the Christmas crackers. She just…wants…to be left…alone.
She shivers and pushes herself further under the thick tartan blanket. Everything in her house is tartan, if it isn't pink or shamrock green. It's not proper Donnachaidh tartan, of course, but that's hard to find in America, so the generic green pattern has to do. She shouldn't be cold. It's temperate Southern California, with no snow on the ground, and she's in a stuffy attic with the heat turned up to at least eighty degrees. But she still shivers and at last, she finds the courage to pick up the envelope on the floor to her right.
The envelope has yellowed now where it was once a smooth cream, and it's tearstained with creases at the edges from being read and carried and folded so many times. With her thumb, she opens the flap of the envelope and slides the handwritten letter out. His handwriting is neat, slanted, with an almost mathematic exactness in the angles---the swirl of each S, the curl of each Q, the loop of each cursive L. She chokes. Even his penmanship reeks of military precision; and it has for as long as she can remember.
She finishes unfolding the letter. It had been written on cheap paper, so now it's starting to crumble at the edges in addition to yellowing, but the ink hasn't yet faded with age. After all, it isn't quite that old…yet.
She sighs and begins to read, ocean eyes tracing letters that she knows by heart:
I guess this is my third letter to you from Advanced Training in the Army… Crazy, right? But not as crazy as my little sis joining the police academy. Congratulations, Sis. I knew you could do it. Of course, I always knew you could do anything you put your mind to. You're just like Dad that way---with a stubborn streak, I mean. Not the other stuff. Must be the Irish in us, I guess.
Listen, Jule---I want you to know that I'm thinking about you all the time, okay? I'm not going to be worried about you, because I don't want you to worry about me, and I know you can take care of yourself. But I'm thinking about you and missing you. I'm probably not going to be home again at least until next Christmas, but I'll be back for New Year's at the very latest, so tell Mom not to worry about me either. Tell her that for me, because I think Stepdaddy #4 is tearing up her mail before she gets it. Just a suspicion, that's all.
Things are quiet for me so far, but the weather out here at Fort Huachuca is crazy. It's hot all day and there's snow on the ground by sundown. If I ever get out of the Army, I'm moving back to Miami, or at least to somewhere warm. Maybe California, because at least the people out West are nice. Maybe I'll get stationed at Fort Knox next and I'll get to see all that shiny gold. Maybe I'll bring some home as a souvenir for you. Haha.
Take care of yourself, Jule. And never forget that no fancy copper badge in the world can protect you from the noogie monster!
Love you, Sis.
Juliet swallows hard and refolds the letter. She slides it back into the cheap envelope and lays it aside again. She should've brought a candle up here, instead of using the light from the lone 60-watt bulb. Then she could've burned the letter. She swallows hard again; on second thought, maybe it's best that she doesn't have a candle. She shouldn't do anything rash.
Tilting her head back against the cracked attic wall, she heaves yet another sigh and squeezes her eyes shut. That first year, her first in the police academy and his with the army, she had given up hope of him coming back. He missed St. Andrew's Day and Christmas and Boxing Day---all the little traditional holidays that the Scottish half of her family celebrated every year. But Hogmanay…
New Year's Day was the day he came back. He was first footer that year, and he brought with him---grinning wildly---a cabbage the size of his head. (He'd also brought a backpack full of MREs and a tiny box of chocolate from Germany that was a gift for Juliet, but that was neither here nor there.) And for the first time, Juliet hadn't really cared about the magic of a new year and a fresh start. She didn't notice time passing at all, because her brother was home, and that was the only thing that mattered---that moment, and being present in that moment with him. And from then on, Hogmanay was bigger for her family than even Christmas---the one day, the one moment, when everyone in their lovable, broken family could really be together again. And feel whole again.
But now, Juliet is stuck. Her breath is starting to come in hitches. The letter and the catspaw mug are to her right---and her sidearm is to her left.
Ewan won't be coming home for Hogmanay tonight. Not if he knows what's good for him.
Chapter End Notes:
Since O'Hara is an Irish name, but Juliet's family is depicted to be Scottish, I can only assume that Juliet's Scottish heritage is through her mother, and since we don't know her mother's maiden name, I couldn't resist signing Juliet up into my beloved Clan Donnachaidh. For those who don't know much about Scotland, the thistle is a historic symbol of Scotland, and the chapter title is Clan Robertson's war cry in Gaelic... In English, it translates as "fierce when roused."