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Our Lives Illuminated

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December.

The month usually reserved for twinkle lights, ugly sweaters, and copious amounts of food and drink, this December was turning out to be a rather uncomfortable one.

Claire sat in her flat - well, her and her roommate Jamie's flat - staring at the manila envelope that had come in the mail earlier in the week. Her classes finally over for the day, she'd decided to sit down, have a glass of liquid courage in the form of some of Jamie's whisky, and finally look at the documents she'd requested months ago.

The envelope sat on the aged brown coffee table, the tv humming in the background, though Claire had no idea what was on. She'd grabbed the remote and hit the power button purely out of habit. The sofa was soft under her bare legs - she'd stripped down to a night shirt and silk pajama shorts after returning home, eager to get comfortable. Bras were a bitch, and so were pants. She knew she wasn't going anywhere, dinner having been delivered and eaten. So, she sat, sipping the whisky, the liquid burning her throat as she contemplated her options.

She could open it right now. She could tear open the envelope and find out who her mother is.Was? Where she, Claire, came from. Or, she could sit on the information inside, close herself off to her history. Did it really matter, she wondered, if she knew her birth mother? Knew her full name, her age, her location? Perhaps, she thought, she was better off leaving it be. Claire was fine now, had come a long way, gotten into university without the help of a parent. Did she need this in her life?

She took another sip, half wishing Jamie would come home, do it for her. It would be like ripping off a band-aid, eyes shut, teeth clenched. Claire's fingers raked through her wavy hair nervously, catching on knots at the end as she tugged. Jesus, she thought, I need a shower.

She stood, setting the glass down firmly on the table next to the envelope, and pulled her shirt over her head as she went into her en suite bathroom, tossing it on the floor next to the towel rack.

A shower it was. The envelope could wait. Taking off her bottoms, she caught sight of herself in the mirror, her Medusa curls haphazardly framing her face. It had always been a mystery to her - her face. Where had her eyes come from? Jamie called them whisky eyes. She blinked at herself once, smiling as she imagined Jamie's attempted winks: they made him look like an amused owl, the way both eyes would shut instead of one.

Claire scrunched her nose up, then pursed her lips. They were pink, full, hiding her white teeth. Thankfully her last and final foster family had been a good one: four years there had nearly erased all the damage the others had done. Almost. She still jumped at loud noises, hated when people yelled, and couldn't stand the smell of cigarette smoke. They’d taken her to the doctor, the dentist, she’d had her first gynecological exam while her foster mother - Claire called her Joanie - held her hand. It was the first time in her life she’d felt as though she mattered to someone. That feeling had at first been jarring, surreal, but soon Claire let the warmth cover her. She had known for the first time that she wasn’t somehow defective; Jamie had picked up the torch, in his own way, and she would forever be grateful. His support meant everything to her, and when she’d announced she wanted to search for this big unknown in her life, he’d thrown himself behind her, ready to catch her if she fell.

It made Claire wonder: what would her biological mother be able to offer her now, even if she wanted to be found? Claire had told herself, though, when beginning her search, that it was merely out of curiosity. She’d never told anyone, but she’d always secretly yearned for a mother. A real one, one that would allow her to crawl into bed at three in the morning after a nightmare; one that would hold her, no matter the time or place; one that would speak of comfort, safety, home. Claire was always envious of people with loving mothers. She’d see babies in prams at the park and avoid them out of some weird feeling she was never able to put into words. Surely she wasn’t jealous of a tiny infant, but it was the only word that fit.

Her insistence that this was mere curiosity to anyone who asked - though many people didn’t even know about it - was a mere illusion. Her whole life, if Claire were honest, she’d daydreamed about her mother, that elusive ghost always in the back of her mind. She would get out of school as a young girl and scan the crowd outside, just on the off chance that a familiar face would be waiting for her. Even now, Claire would sit on the small patio she and Jamie shared and imagine her mother behind her, cooking something for the two of them in the kitchen.

I know you love a good curry, Claire. Come in, dear. Dinner’s ready!

Claire would sit and sip her drink - she usually drank when she was in one of these moods - and replay the short scene over and over, like a movie stuck on repeat. Not even Jamie knew this. She also kept a diary, full of these little scenarios, ones she couldn’t let go of, no matter how hard she tried. She felt she had always been fragmented, a jigsaw puzzle that had never been put completely together.

Turning on the water, she let the shower steam up before hopping in, letting the water ease the tension in her muscles. She would likely need to do some relaxation tonight, she thought, running a bar of soap under the water as she lathered her hands. The niggling feeling that she was avoiding the inevitable quieted, and when she was clean, she got out, wrapping a towel around herself. She heard the front door open, then Jamie's laugh reverberating through the thin walls of the flat.

Claire heard someone else, too - a female. Claire rolled her eyes, but let the vague annoyance roll off her back as she put her pajamas back on. It wasn't that she didn’t like Jamie’s girlfriend - she was always friendly enough, if a little standoffish when Claire was present. Claire always got the feeling, though, that Anna did not care for the fact that Jamie had a female roommate. Claire supposed she couldn’t blame her. She’d never been in that position, but she wondered if she wouldn’t have some reservations if she were Anna.
Anyway, Claire thought, rubbing lotion into her skin, it would be an excuse not to open that envelope. She'd stay in her room, quiet as a mouse, watch a movie, and go to sleep. She'd find out about her mother tomorrow. It would be Saturday, and she wouldn't have anything else to worry about.

Burrowing under her duvet, she picked a Christmas movie and settled in. A few minutes went by, then she heard Jamie calling for her, her door opening a crack. Jamie stuck his face in. His eyes were shut, and his red, curling hair was plastered to his face. Claire hadn't realized it was raining.

"Are you decent? I've got company - is that okay?"

"Oh, yeah, I'll be in here."

"Have you eaten? I brought food. Come out and have some."

"You can open your eyes, idiot," Claire said, laughing. "I don't know.. I'm in my pajamas..."

"Oh," Jamie said, opening his eyes, "we don't mind."

"It's okay, Jamie. Enjoy your date."

"Okay, suit yourself, Sassenach," he said, withdrawing his head and shutting the door.

Claire sighed, laying back on her pillow. She glanced to her right, Jamie's room a few pieces of drywall away. She hoped she didn't hear anything tonight.

The door opened again, a hand holding the dreaded envelope jutted through the door.

"This yours?" Jamie asked, wiggling it a bit.

"Yes. Leave it on the coffee table, would you?"

"Oh, okay," he said, opening the door wider so Claire could see him. "Do you want me to ask Anna to leave? Are you okay?"

"I'm fine. Just go, Jamie. I'm missing my movie." She shooed him away with her hand and he shrugged, frowning.

"I'll see you tomorrow, Claire."

The door shut, Jamie presumably returning to his girlfriend, and Claire threw the covers over her head, holding in a scream. She wanted to get up, beg him to spend the evening with her, beg him to open the envelope, tear her life into pieces, help glue her back together again. She couldn't do that to him, though. It wasn't his responsibility to carry that weight. So she bit her tongue, and went back to her movie.

Prancer always made her cry, and now she regretted her movie choice. She turned it off before the waterworks began, and picked something lighter. Safer.

-------------------

It was several days before Christmas, and Jamie had his bags packed by the door.

"Are you coming or not, Sassenach? Shall I call and tell mum you're not coming? She'll be crushed," he said in a sing-songy voice that irked her. Claire was in her bedroom, pulling her boots on.

"I'm coming. God!"

"I'm not God, but I thank you for the compliment," Jamie said, a cheesy grin plastered on his face.

"Shut up. Let's go," Claire groaned, pulling the strap of her bag onto her shoulder.

She wasn't sure why she was so irritated today. This would be the third Christmas she'd spent at the Fraser's and she had always enjoyed herself in the past. Jamie's family had slowly become her own over the years.

She and Jamie had become fast friends at university, and though they were in different programs, they'd spent time together whenever they could. Claire enjoyed Jamie's sense of humor, and his practicality. She had a tendency to fly by the seat of her pants, and she valued Jamie's ability to anchor her, to keep her grounded when she got too hung up on some small detail or task. She couldn't see the forest for the trees, as he would say, and he'd put his hands on her shoulders, steadying her whenever she'd stumble.

In their final year, they were both stressed - the real world looming before them. This, she figured, would be their last Christmas together, and she wished she wasn't so bothered by that damned envelope that she still hadn't opened. She wanted to soak in every second with Jamie and his family, this small vestige of normalcy in her otherwise untethered life.

Getting in Jamie's car, she sighed as Jamie turned on some obnoxious Christmas tune or another, one of those about ringing bells or choirs or something. Claire liked Christmas, just not the music. She rolled her eyes as Jamie pulled away from their flat.

"Do we have to listen to Christmas music the whole way there? Last year you tortured me with the bloody Elf soundtrack the entire way. Don't think I've forgotten."

"What's wrong with a little Let it Snow, Sassenach?"

"Uuuugh."

"Fiiine. But I'm not listening to Lady Gaga."

Claire laughed heartily, clapping her hands in amusement.

"Funny you say that - I believe I heard you humming Dancin' in Circles just the other day!"

"Oh, no, I think you're mistaken. I would never,"

"Yes, you would." Claire snapped her fingers, finding the beat of the song as best she could without help, and began to sing.

"In the fire I call your name out! Up all night trying to rub the pain out!" She laughed, unable to continue, and pushed Jamie's shoulder, causing the car to swerve slightly.

"Hey!" he laughed good-naturedly. "I did not sing that song. I don't even know it."

Claire pulled her phone out, finding it on her playlist. She connected it to the car’s bluetooth and hit PLAY, letting the song fill the car. She laughed as Jamie groaned, squirming in his seat uncomfortably.

"Ugh, this song is so...."

"Good?"

Jamie could only shake his head as Claire began to sing, hands over her head, dancing as best she could while sitting in the car. She heard Jamie laughing, knowing he was secretly enjoying the song. She had heard him singing it in the shower the other day, no matter what he said - he'd left his door open by accident and she'd stopped in her tracks when she'd heard the tune. He couldn't sing at all, but the melody was faintly recognizable, enough so that she knew what song it was, without a doubt. She'd laughed to herself, then, and was glad she'd remembered to tease him about it now. Jamie's bright red cheeks were enough to make it all worth it.

Her mind off her dilemma with the dreaded envelope, she calmed a bit, eager to begin her holiday. She’d done what shopping she could, the both of them bringing bags of presents for the family. She loved Christmas morning, and at the Fraser household, there’d be a group photo at breakfast, and Claire had always been invited to join in.

She suddenly recalled Jamie’s sister Jenny - she and her husband Ian had just had her first child, a boy, and Claire was excited to meet him.

“Are Jenny and Ian coming?”

“Always do, don’t they?” Jamie replied, glancing her way with a half smile. She knew he was excited to meet his nephew, both of them having fawned together over the photos they’d been sent.

“God, I’m so excited. I need this.”

“I can tell, Sassenach. You’ve been on edge all month. Did you bring the envelope?”

Claire cringed at the reminder and shook her head.

“No, I don’t want it near me over the holidays,” she sighed, slumping in her seat slightly.

“Well, it’s not going anywhere - worry about it when we get back.”

Claire played another Lady Gaga song, if only to lighten the mood again, and soon she and Jamie were singing along to Free Woman with abandon. Her stomach hurt from laughing by the end, and Jamie seemed pleased to have played the fool, if only to cheer her up.

The ride to Jamie's parents house was a couple hours from university, and Claire always enjoyed it. They lived in a small village just west of Inverness, and the isolation and quiet of their farm always made her want to stay longer than they had planned. It felt like home - as much of a home as she could imagine, anyway, and she revelled in the warmth and safety of the place.

Jamie's parents, Ellen and Brian, were kind, and had always welcomed her with open arms, no questions asked. Every holiday she'd come with Jamie, knowing she'd be well-fed, cared for,and in a way, loved. She secretly craved Ellen's hugs - they were the kind that only a mother could give - soft, all encompassing, and always freely given. Brian had asked her to call him Da last time she'd visited, and she'd quietly practiced it here and there, wondering if she was actually brave enough to do so.

She knew her mother had given her up when she was born, and at age two, the couple who’d requested to adopt her had been denied, for reasons unknown to Claire. She didn’t recall this couple, but wished she knew how to reconnect, if only for answers.

She'd had parental figures before, sure. They'd been a mixed bag, though. Foster parents always are. Claire heard the horror stories from other kids in the system, and she always assumed the worst when she’d be placed with a new family. There were people who’d neglected her, people who’d merely put up with her presence, and those who were warmer, more welcoming.

At any rate, she'd floated around foster homes when she was younger, put into boarding school by an uncle who agreed to take her in one sudden day the summer she turned eleven. He'd died several years after that, leaving her treading water all over again. The last foster home she found herself in, at age sixteen, was one of the best. A husband and wife team, they'd given her her own room - something she'd never had before, and the other children in the house being younger than her, she took on a sort of maternal role, helping her foster parents out where needed.

She missed them sometimes, but coming to see Jamie's parents filled her again; she felt supported, a whole person with security and a place in the world.

They'd arrived, after battling over the music, and the topic of conversation. He wanted to discuss her envelope, she wanted to...not. The gravel under the car gave a satisfying crunch as Claire's shoes hit the ground - she always loved that sound - and she pulled her bags out of the car as Jamie made his way to the door, pushing it open as his mother greeted him with a hug and a smile.

She watched as he handed over a large bag of his laundry, and she huffed apologetically as she came up the steps, pulled into Ellen's arms.

"I swear he washes his clothes while he's away," she laughs, as Ellen released her and ushered them both into the house.

"I do, but you do it better," Jamie said to his mum, planting a quick kiss on her cheek as he went in to greet everyone else.

His sister, Jenny was there, as well as her husband Ian. Their first born, also named Jamie, was sprawled on a blanket on the floor, emitting baby sounds that made Claire's stomach clench slightly. Brian Fraser was flipping channels on the television, grumbling about the lack of good football games being broadcast that particular day. Jamie’s older brother, Willie, was there as well - he’d missed last year, but Claire was glad to see him join them again. He and Jamie were both tall, red hair wavy and haphazard. Jenny, however, was shorter, with dark hair cascading down her back; it made Claire rather jealous. Claire’s own curls were a mystery, and she’d wondered often if her mother had the same wild hair.

Claire and Jamie both waved hello to everyone, taking seats next to one another on the empty sofa.

"Claire, are you ready to graduate in the spring?" Jenny had picked up wee Jamie, balancing him on her hip as she gave him a teething ring. "I know Jamie is ready to be done for good."

"God, yes. No more classes, no more papers. I'm sick of it," he said, groaning and leaning back heavily, his movements shifting Claire in her seat. Her knee hit his, and she jerked her leg back, her hand holding her knee, rubbing it slightly.

"I think I'll miss it, really, but I'm also rather nervous. I’m afraid I’ve made a mistake, majoring in Literature. I’m terrified it won’t amount to anything. I don't know where I'll wind up," she finished, shrugging her fears away as Ellen offered her a drink. She took it gratefully, the smell of the red wine filling her senses, relaxing her nerves.

"You'll be okay, I think," Jamie remarked. "You’ve always been okay. It's me I'm worried about. Done some searching and there isn't much need for a business major here in Broch Mordha," he said, laughing.

"You're going to come back here, then?" Claire asked quietly.

"I truthfully haven't given it much thought, but, I suppose. Where else would I go?" He smiled then, keeping his tone light.

“You could stay in Glasgow…” she said, her mouth half covered by her glass as she took a fortifying sip of wine, swallowing with it her fear of being left adrift when Jamie left. She dreaded finding another roommate, dreaded not seeing him every day, not hearing his off-tune humming and heavy steps on the floor from her bedroom.

She slapped his knee playfully, holding her drink steady with the other hand.

"What am I going to do on Saturday nights when you go?" Claire asked, smiling, poking him in the ribs with a finger. "Who will watch awful movies with me all night?" She gasped then, thinking of the much more important aspect of those nights: "Who will make that yummy caramel corn for me to eat?!" She let her jaw go slack in fake horror, watching Jamie roll his eyes.

"I'll not miss that, I must say. you always steal the blanket by the end of it and your sofa is too small." Jamie kept his face blank, Claire noticing the beginnings of a smile as one corner of his mouth went up slightly.

"Please, you'll be at my door every weekend - just watch."

Claire swatted his hand away - it was about to go to her knee - and stood, making her way to the kitchen to sniff out dinner. The wine was getting to her head, as was the conversation. She didn't like to think about it, didn't like to imagine her everyday life devoid of Jamie. She'd never tell him, but she had actually thought about begging him to stay in Glasgow. Now that he'd confirmed his plans to come back home, she felt bereft, like there was this wide open space in her life waiting to swallow her up.

The smells emanating from the kitchen were delicious - a roast simmered, and the smell of onions and celery were enough to make her mouth water. She couldn’t wait to eat, and sat at the large kitchen table as Ellen rolled dough into balls.

“Would you like some help?” Claire asked, getting up to wash her hands.

“Oh, certainly! Here, take over for me, would you? Roll the dough into tight balls like this, and place them in the pan. Put them close together, so they’ll rise. I’ve got the oven ready to go, if you’ll stick them in when you’re done?” Ellen smiled at Claire as she slipped on an apron.

Claire didn’t look up as Ellen left, nor when Jamie wandered in, searching for something to munch on. She rolled the dough between her floured hands as Jamie sauntered to the pantry. She heard him humming one of his Christmas tunes, rummaging in the cabinet.

“Why don’t you bring your girlfriend up here?”

The question was out of her mouth before she knew it. Jamie had been dating Anna for nearly a year, and Claire was surprised that this year she wasn’t included in the Christmas gathering.

“Huh?”

Jamie had whirled around - she caught the movement from the corner of her eye.

“You know… Anna? Did she not want to come?”

“Oh, ummm… I didn’t ask her,” Jamie replied, shrugging his shoulders. He grabbed a bag of crisps from the pantry, ripping it open. He popped one in his mouth, then offered one to Claire. She shook her head as she continued her work. She still hadn’t looked at him.

She wasn’t sure how to respond to that. Didn’t invite his girlfriend?

“I wasn’t ready for her to meet everyone. Not yet.”

Claire heard the crunch as he continued eating. She was finished with the dough now, and brushed her hands against the apron, leaving white handprints on the fabric.

“Dinner will be ready soon. You’ll fill up on those and not eat anything.”

“Do you know me, Sassenach?” Jamie said, laughing as he shoved another crisp in his mouth.

Claire shook her head, smiling.

“Apparently not.”

She shoved the pan of rolls into the oven to bake, then pulled her apron over her head. Jamie watched her carefully, pausing his eating long enough to knit his brow.

“Are you angry with me over Glasgow? It was just an idea, Claire. I don’t truly know what I’ll do. I don’t have it figured out any more than you do.”

“I know, Jamie. I’m not angry,” she said, picking up her wine glass and taking a sip. “Just surprised me, is all. It hadn’t occurred to me that you wouldn’t stay in Glasgow.” She shrugged, hoping her facial expression was safely blank, but she kind of figured it wasn’t. She wasn’t good at covering up her emotions, and Jamie could always read her like a book. She waved her hand dismissively, huffing a bit.

“It’s… It’s not a big deal. Do what you want, Jamie. Not like we’re glued at the hip,” she sighed, smiling at him now.

“I know you’ve got your mother on your mind. I wish you’d have opened that envelope. I think you would’ve found it easier than you think.”

“Don’t bring that up,” she groaned, “I don’t want to think about it.”

“Well, okay, but how about we promise to one another to sit down once we get back to Glasgow. We’ll do it together, okay? Over some caramel corn?” His smile was hesitant, and he searched for her eyes with his own.

She looked up then, sighing a bit, relieved.

“Okay, I promise. We’ll do it when we get back. And I’m holding you to that caramel corn promise, Jamie,” she warned, pointing a finger at him. She poked him lightly in the shoulder as he took another crisp and held it up to her. She took it this time, savoring the salty snack.

“Ugh, give me another. I’m starved.”

He laughed, put an arm around her neck, and pulled her back into the living room with everyone else.