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Authors: Felicitas Ivey

Nøtteknekkeren

BOOK: Nøtteknekkeren
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Nøtteknekkeren

 

 

By Felicitas Ivey

 

Thijs and his older brother, Rik, are spending Christmas Eve at their uncle Yvo’s annual gathering. For Thijs, it’s the first time he’s been there in almost a decade.

Thijs has vague memories of the magical Christmases spent with his uncle. But he doesn’t know if the images in his mind of the enchantment that happened while he waited for Santa are dreams, memories, or the product of years of therapy for an accident he doesn’t remember. He just knows when he stopped visiting Uncle Yvo, the dreams stopped too.

Are his dreams of a prince waiting for him every Christmas Eve just dreams? Tonight might finally be Thijs’s chance to learn the truth.

I
TOOK
one more deep breath in the bathroom, like my therapist taught me, to combat stress. I had been in therapy after an accident when I was younger. I’d had all sorts of issues then. I liked to think I had fewer of them now, but I was sure my brother Rik would point out I just had different ones.

All I had to do was go to a Christmas party. I just had to walk out this door, have a nonalcoholic drink or two, and pretend to be normal. I could do that for a couple of hours. Hell, I did that for most of my life now, since I wasn’t comfortable around large or even small groups of people. I would force myself to not remember how strange and magical Christmases at Uncle Yvo’s house had been for me when I was growing up, and the hope I had that it hadn’t changed.

Before my accident, Christmas had been an even more wondrous holiday for me because it was always here. After Rik decided it was better if we celebrated Christmas away from here, Christmas had become dull and colorless. Rik always had an excuse not to come here, citing business or illness or “forgetting” about the invitation, until this year. This year Rik had decided to accept Uncle Yvo’s invitation, and I had been overjoyed.

Christmases with Rik hadn’t been enjoyable for a number of reasons, and part of me wanted to say it was because I’d grown up, but I thought that was a lie. Rik and I were brothers, but we weren’t really close. And most of the time, Christmas with Rik had been some sort of awkward party filled with his friends, people I didn’t know and had nothing in common with. Those days had been more stressful than joyful, and I was always overjoyed to slip back to my life when the holiday was over.

It wasn’t like I didn’t love my brother Rik, because you were supposed to love family. It was more that Rik and I had never agreed on anything, and the ten-year gap in our ages didn’t help. Rik didn’t think I should be gay. Rik didn’t like that I wasn’t interested in working for the family company. Rik didn’t like that I was in some small town in Vermont repairing computers and not living in New York City with him, doing something important. But we’d never been close, so I wasn’t going to turn my life around to please him.

I had sensed the Christmas magic that filled this house as soon I walked through its door, which was why I was having the small nervous breakdown in the bathroom right now. I breathed in and out, thought soothing mantras, and wondered why I had left my Valium at home.

“Do you need anything?” Uncle Yvo asked on the other side of the door.

“I’ll be out in a second,” I assured him, even though my brain was stuck on the screaming-helplessly part of this evening, wondering why I had agreed to come, because I hadn’t been comfortable around people since I woke up from the accident. I’d gotten better, but I’d been at too many bad college parties and Rik’s parties not to instinctively panic at the thought of facing a bunch of strangers, even here. One more breath and I felt in control enough to get through the party. I opened the door and almost walked into Uncle Yvo.

“Um…,” I hummed in embarrassment.

Uncle Yvo looked up at me with a mischievous smile. It wasn’t that I was so tall, it was that my uncle had a twisted back, which gave him a permanent stoop and shortened his height about a foot.

Yvo had been a fixture in my life while I was kid, even if he wasn’t a blood relative but only an honorary uncle. I hadn’t seen the man in a decade, but I would have sworn he hadn’t changed a bit. It could just be wishful thinking on my part, but Yvo seemed ageless.

“It’s just Christmas,” Yvo teased.

“Christmas,” I echoed with a sigh.

I never got excited about the holiday anymore. It was just another day, and not a happy one, dealing with Rik’s snobby friends and their vicious tongues.

“You used to be more excited about it,” Yvo told me, looking a little concerned. He hadn’t seen me for several years, so he was a little surprised by all the changes I had gone through during that time.

“He used to wake us all about six in the morning,” Rik complained, coming up the corridor. “Even after he was old enough to know better. He finally outgrew that after….”

Yvo nodded, his eyes shadowed for a second. “I was there.”

We were both missing my parents. Uncle Yvo and I had talked a lot this afternoon, when I had arrived. It had sounded like he was talking me off the ledge once or twice, but it was nice to talk to him. I had thought I would be able to get through this evening, but the panic-type attack in the bathroom convinced me I might not.

“He always woke me up first,” Rik groused.

I flushed. I had been a kid. Children were usually sleepless the night before Christmas, wondering what they were going to get even if they knew Santa wasn’t real. Or at least that he wasn’t the one dropping off presents for children. Rik had been a jerk for telling me Santa wasn’t real when I was six. But Rik had been a sophisticated sixteen-year-old and not interested in indulging his younger brother’s flights of fancy, or wanting him to wake up before dawn to look for Santa.

There was a suddenly awkward silence, and then looks passed between Rik and Yvo. I felt my face get hot. Uncle Yvo’s house was a strange place, and it had always been decorated for Christmas even during other parts of the year. The house was actually more of a mansion, filled with curious knickknacks, out-of-the-way rooms, and the strange finds Uncle Yvo had made over the years. As a child, the place had fascinated me, and I’d gotten into a few places I shouldn’t have. Many a Christmas Eve I had snuck down under the tree to sleep, waiting impatiently for the morning. It hadn’t always been the best thing to do. From the look on Rik’s face, he was remembering my antics, and not fondly.

“Stay in your bed tonight,” Rik had snapped.
Behave for once
went unsaid, as well as
act fucking normal
. “I’ll tell you when to get out of bed.”

I’d nodded, my throat tight. I’d had the oddest dreams when I had slept under the Christmas tree here. My dreams had been of hostile mice, dancing dolls, strange candy, and a handsome prince. It was weird that I’d had almost the same dream every time I was here, until I stopped coming at eighteen. It was those dreams that had given me the big hint that I was gay, since I always dreamed of a prince and never a princess.

“He never caused any harm waking us up that early,” Yvo said mildly, “which is more than I can say of you.”

Rik’s face took on a plum color, one that didn’t look good with the suit he was wearing. I sighed, thinking of the incident. Rik had snuck out of bed when he was eighteen to raid the liquor cabinet, and he had been sick the next day because of it. Our parents hadn’t been too happy.

“And now we should be getting down to the guests,” Yvo said, pleased he had put a crimp in Rik’s bullying.

Uncle Yvo looked over at me, and I suddenly felt terribly underdressed compared to Rik’s designer suit and Uncle Yvo’s odd Victorian one. I was in green dress pants and a white button-down top—nice but not formal.

“You look fine,” Yvo assured me, as if he could see what I was thinking.

“Do you even own a suit?” Rik snarled impatiently, looking down his nose at me.

I shrugged. “I left it at home. I didn’t think I was coming on a job interview.”

My one suit was nice, but I would be even more out of place wearing it here, because it was something I had picked up off the rack, in case I needed one. I usually wore it to Rik’s parties and was mocked for it. But I didn’t care about what they thought, and I wasn’t going to spend much money on a suit I was only going to wear once a year.

“You—”

“You are the only one with a problem,” Yvo snapped.

Rik huffed and stalked down the corridor to the grand staircase, off to the ballroom where the party was being held.

“Your brother is very much like your father,” Yvo said thoughtfully as he eyed his retreating figure. “And you have your mother’s serenity.”

“I don’t feel serene,” I muttered.

I felt embarrassed and out of place. A sensation I’d had most of my life. But it had never happened here before, and I hated feeling like that in this place. Before, this had always been a sanctuary—my awkward teenaged self hadn’t felt out of place here. I think.

Yvo laughed and hugged me. “You have… magic, for lack of a better word. Rik is very centered in this world.”

I frowned, wondering what my uncle was talking about. “Rik is good at what he does.” I defended my brother, since it was the right thing to do.

Rik had been all about the bottom line, the big picture, and whatever other business buzzword he had been brainwashed with, ever since he’d gotten his MBA. He’d had to take over the company when our parents had died, and I had been useless to him after the car accident. He liked the pressure and the lifestyle, and had grown the company wildly during the decade he’d been in charge. And Rik felt that I was a failure because I didn’t want to live that way.

“And angry you don’t have the same interest in the family company that he does,” Yvo said tartly. “I simply pointed it out to him earlier that it was better you didn’t. Then you might be a rival.”

“Shit!” I cursed. Rik wouldn’t want to hear that either. His screwup younger brother might be worth something. I would never hear the end of that from him, in cutting words and mocking tones, about how Uncle Yvo thought I could be useful in the family company. “Oh crap… I didn’t mean….”

“I assure you I’ve heard and occasionally said that word,” Yvo said with a smile, probably wondering why I wasn’t taking the compliment very well. “As crude as it is.”

I nodded and vowed to watch my words around my uncle in the future. This wasn’t a place where such language was acceptable. I had felt like I had stepped back a hundred years in time. There was electricity, but no Internet or other modern amenities. Rik had been annoyed by the lack of net connection, even after Yvo had pointed out there wouldn’t be anyone doing business on either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.

I could have hot-spotted his phone, and turned it into an Internet connection, but I kept my mouth shut. I liked being out of touch with the world for a couple of days. But I wasn’t into business like Rik was. Rik was one of those people who lived and breathed while constantly connected to the Internet.

“And now that your brother has made his entrance,” Yvo said with an odd chuckle, “it’s time we made ours.”

I
WALKED
into the ballroom, trailing after Uncle Yvo. We didn’t make the splashy entrance Rik had. We didn’t need to, because every eye went to Uncle Yvo as soon as he walked into the room. If I had thought I was underdressed before, right now I felt as if I should flee to my room, because there seemed to be butterflies the size of SUVs in my stomach, from my nerves. Everyone in the ballroom was dressed up, and they were all staring at us as Uncle Yvo and I moved into the room. I wondered if it was too late to run even as Yvo reached out an arm and looped it through mine. Yvo smiled up at me, and I resigned myself to whatever he had planned. I hated being in the spotlight, and Uncle Yvo shone like a diamond.

The men were in suits from the era of Uncle Yvo’s or even older. The women were in ball gowns, the cut and style ranging from Georgian to Edwardian. I only knew all this because one of my college roommates had been really into costuming. No one besides Rik and me had dressed in clothing from the twenty-first century, and I wondered if I had missed the memo that this was a costume party as well as a Christmas one. I didn’t remember the parties being this formal before. But I would be the first to admit my childhood memories were spotty, and I knew a child didn’t always see the world the same way adults did. This was still more formal than I remembered, but it had been ten years. Things change.

The ballroom was decorated with endless strings of lights that looked like lighted candles until I realized they were LEDs. I hoped. That much open flame would be dangerous. There was a fifteen-foot-tall Christmas tree in the back right corner of the room. It was lush and green, an overgrown fir on steroids from the breadth of it, with more lights and ornaments on it than I thought was possible. On the left side of the room, a buffet table, which smelled delicious, was laid out and there was a dining area that wandered into the conservatory. I swore I could smell the sweetness of flowers over the smells of food and people, even if I didn’t see them.

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