Warning: This is not just a teaser, it’s the whole story (approx. 3000 words–sorry for the length). I’d love feedback on it!
The Nutcracker’s Legacy
She left me a nutcracker. My mother, the woman I’d nursed for the last six years, destroyed by Huntington’s disease, left me…a nutcracker. At the very least, I’d expected the answer to a question I’d asked her my whole life.
“I cannot tell you who your father is,” she used to say. By the time the disease progressed, her mental state was not exactly exemplary, and she spoke of magical kingdoms where toys came alive. At that point, I’d nearly given up, if not for the small hope that she’d left his identity in a sealed envelope to be opened when she passed.
Now, I sat before a starched man in an equally starched pinstripe suit while he read aloud the terms of her Last Will and Testament. I stood quickly, my chair scraping against the pristine wood floor. Mr. Brawler—who couldn’t possibly live up to his name—jumped and pushed his wire-rimmed glasses back up his nose. His thin-lipped mouth opened in surprise.
“I’m sorry,” I stammered. “I have to go.”
Tears flooded my vision and the hallway leading to the exit became a blur as my grief, anger, and frustration warred together.
She was gone.
I knew this day would come; she even knew it. Last week, she called me over just to look at me, holding my hand, in a brief, blessed moment of clarity. When she began blathering about how I should care for the nutcracker, I tuned her out. We argued, and two days later, she was gone.
Grief won my inner battle, and the sobs wracked me as I slid into the driver’s seat of my car and leaned forward on the steering wheel. Minutes felt like hours until my eyes dried, my body emptied of saline. I drove home in a daze, vaguely registering the shoppers on the sidewalks hurrying to get their last-minute gifts for Christmas. My house loomed before me, dark and uninviting, and I stepped from the car, the weight of loneliness pressing down on me. The decorations I’d been eager to put up such a short while ago hung from my roofline and front bushes, silent and still in observation of my loss.
The interior wasn’t any more comforting—the steadfast tree in the corner seemed to droop. The table set for Christmas dinner only reminded me that I will be dining alone. On the mantle, even that damned nutcracker looked sad. I walked to the refrigerator and removed the large bottle of wine I’d been saving for the holiday, a glass from the cabinet, and the corkscrew. Sitting in her favorite chair, I stared into the cold, empty fireplace. Her smell of cinnamon and nutmeg still clung to the damask fabric stretched taught over the cushions.
I forced a sip of wine past the lump forming in my throat. And another. And then a gulp. The more I drank, the more my pain subsided into the recesses of my mind. I didn’t want to take the time to think about the loss of the only real family I had left. Mom’s brother never spoke to us, my grandparents had long since died, and my father…who knew where he was? I certainly didn’t.
The fancy clock hanging above the mantle announced the hour with The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, startling me awake. I stared at the empty bottle on the floor and memories of the past few days assaulted me, so I cursed at the clock for waking me. That’s when I noticed something was missing.
The dim lighting in the room caused me to squint, but I knew I should be able to see the dark outline of the nutcracker standing at attention against the white wall. I rubbed my eyes and shook my head. It must be a trick of the light, or perhaps a result of too much wine.
No. The nutcracker, present several hours earlier, was nowhere to be seen.
What the hell?
I placed the glass on side table, grateful it hadn’t slipped from my fingers and broken, and then rubbed my eyes. How long had I been asleep?
A glance out the window showed that it had begun to snow while I was passed out.
“Mom would have loved this,” I said to the room. It wasn’t often we got a White Christmas, but when we did, Mom’s personality became buoyant, and her joy was infectious.
“Yes, she would have.”
I froze. Did the room just talk back to me? The bottle on the floor caught my eye again. I really drank too much, if I was hearing things. The tension eased out of my shoulders and I turned to go to bed. The week had been long and I had a date with my pillow.
“Please don’t go,” the soft, male voice said.
This time, I saw movement in the darkened corner as a man rose from a chair.
I screamed and stumbled back over the ottoman.
“Alyson, please, don’t be frightened. I’m a…friend of your mother’s.”
He approached, his hand outstretched to help me up. His eyes twinkled, though his expression showed concern. Taking hesitant steps forward, he smiled, perhaps to give me reassurance.
I tore my gaze away from his face to his clothes and my jaw dropped. He wore a dark coat with shiny buttons, a ruffled necktie, and a sword at his hip. His white pants were tucked into gleaming black boots, which came to his knees. He looked like a soldier from my history books, or…like…the…
No. It couldn’t possibly be.
Looking closer at his face, I saw a thin, dark moustache, but no hat.
“Wh-Who are you?” I asked, staring at the sword again, and ignoring his hand.
He pulled back.
“She didn’t tell you.” He wasn’t asking—he sounded disappointed. “No wonder you’re frightened.”
“Who didn’t tell me what?”
“Your mother promised to tell you about me, but she was so ill the last few times I saw her, I wasn’t sure…” With a flourish, he bowed. “I am Fredrick.”
He stepped back when I brushed his hand away, giving me room to push myself off the floor. As I stood, dizziness threatened to take over and I grasped the back of the chair to steady myself.
“She never mentioned a strange man visiting her. And she would have told me about that so I wouldn’t freak out.” Like I am right now.
“I’m sorry for your loss. And for scaring you—it couldn’t be helped.” He paused, watching me. “Did your mother ever tell you anything about your father?”
My grip on the chair tightened. “No,” I said, in barely a whisper.
He motioned for me to sit, and he pulled his chair closer. The scent of peppermint drifted in the air.
“Would you like to know him?”
I nodded slowly, unable to speak.
“They met when your mother was young, fifteen. They both came from upper-class families and your father was a friend of your mother’s godfather. That Christmas Eve, your father was attacked by some ruffians and your mother distracted them long enough for him to gain the upper hand. He wanted to give her a reward, so he took her on a sleigh ride through the woods to his home. She met his family, and over the next few years, they fell madly in love. When she was eighteen, they married.”
I sat upright, not realizing I’d leaned forward to listen to him. “She was married?”
“It was never legalized in any country—it was more of a religious ceremony.”
“So where has he been all these years?”
At that, the man stood. “I can show you, better than I can explain.”
My mind screamed at me not to go with him. I had no idea who he was or how he got into my house. He was dressed weird, and for all I knew, he could be a serial killer.
But, he had information about my father. How many years had I dreamed about who he was, where he was? How many times had I begged her to tell me something about him?
He waited at the back door.
This might be my last chance to learn anything, and that alone propelled me forward, grabbing my jacket at the last moment. I followed him into the snow and the wind picked up, tangling my hair around my face and swirling the flakes into thick bursts which decreased my already impaired vision. We moved to cross the yard and enter the wooded area behind my home. My steps slowed, my cautious mind taking charge.
At one point, the snow fell so thick I lost sight of Fredrick completely, until a white, gloved hand grasped mine. The warmth I felt through the fabric was reassurance enough. Whether it was my wine-muddled judgment, or my insatiable curiosity about the man who sired me, I stepped beyond the tree line. Promptly, the wind died and my ability to see returned.
He guided me to a small clearing, and pointed upward. I raised my face to see a full moon shining down on us. Where had all the clouds gone? Why wasn’t it snowing here?
I opened my mouth to ask him, just as I noticed a small number of animals nearby. I wasn’t surprised to see animals, though they were closer than I would expect. No, it was the type of animal they were. I blinked a few times. Standing before me were five of the most iridescent blue peacocks I’d ever seen in my life. They shimmered in the moonlight, looking as though nature had frosted them for the holidays.
“I’m never going to drink again,” I vowed.
Fredrick just smiled and lit a lantern hanging from a low tree branch. Firelight illuminated the clearing, reflecting off jewels on every tree. I stepped closer to find glittering fruits, covered in what appeared to be thousands of tiny diamonds. I reached out to a deep violet-colored fruit, brushing my hand along the surface, as the miniscule sparkles showered the ground.
Wrapping my fingers around it, I plucked it from the branch. “Now that is a sugar plum.”
“Bring it with you,” Fredrick said. “Our ride is here.”
I looked up to see a sleigh pulled by a deer entering the clearing. Fredrick helped me into the seat and wrapped a heavy wool blanket around my shoulders and placed a second across my lap. He stood on a perch behind the sleigh and as soon as we were settled, the deer raced through the woods, pulling us so fast the trees became a blur.
Suddenly, the wood disappeared and I looked around in wonder. Snowflakes dusted the air and in the distance stood a large castle. People in frosted clothing danced and sang in holiday cheer, and in the center of a frozen pond, a beautiful ballerina pirouetted on ice skates. As the sleigh slowed to pass, each person paused in their revelry and bowed before us. I turned to look at my traveling companion, who waved at the people the way one does from a parade float. His bearing was almost regal and his smile looked painted on. He looked more like the nutcracker than he had before, in my living room.
Under the blanket, I pinched my arm, not really wanting to wake up, but feeling the need to test myself.
Nothing happened. I didn’t wake up.
Fredrick leaned in. “What are you doing?”
“I have to be dreaming. We’re not that far from my house, and I would have known if this existed. I drank too much. I fell asleep. This can’t be real.”
“What if it is?” He shouted a foreign word and the deer stopped before the castle. Fredrick hopped off the sleigh and came around to help me out. “Alyson, did your mother ever read you the story of The Nutcracker Prince?”
“Yeah, she was obsessed with that story.” I paused, blinking, as images from the story came to life before me. The plum in my hand felt as though it had just grown. Squeezing it in reassurance that it was a solid, non-imaginary object, I returned my attention to him. Earlier, I thought he was dressed like the wooden nutcracker on the mantle, but now the similarities were too great to ignore. His face remained patient, as though waiting for a young child to realize something obvious.
My gaze travelled back to the pond of skaters, and I saw a few more individuals had joined the ballerina. At first glance, they did not seem extraordinary, but as I watched, the skaters became fantastical—two bears, a faerie princess, another man dressed like Fredrick, and a soldier glided onto the ice. Music floated on the air—light, tinkling bells—and the snowflakes that drifted along the breeze seemed to dance in time.
I turned once more to my escort. “What are you saying? That this is the Sugar Kingdom? That you’re all toys come to life?” My voice took on a shrill quality. “That the story is true?”
“What the story does not talk about is that the curse of the Sugar Kingdom can never be broken. If it were, then we should remain toys forever. I am the Nutcracker Prince from the story.”
I don’t remember what I did then, but I’m certain it was not the least bit dignified.
“Alyson, I wanted to tell you so many times, to hold you as you grew up, to celebrate your accomplishments with you. Unfortunately, I only come alive one night of the year, and your mother thought it best to let you remain ignorant of me. I was unsure of the wisdom of her decision, but I have abided by it until tonight. No one should be alone on Christmas, especially after a loss.”
The reminder of my circumstances brought forth warm tears that spilled over onto my cheeks. One tear remained in the corner of my eye, frozen in place. Fredrick plucked it from my cheek and held it in his palm for a moment, then blew on it. The tear grew bright, as though a light shone from within it.
“We share our grief in her death,” he said, mysteriously, as I continued to stare at the bright droplet of ice in his hand. It floated for the span of a blink, before it blinded me, and then vanished.
I swiped the wetness from my face. Whether dream or reality, having another with whom to share the burden of sadness was a tempting prospect. I clasped his proffered hand and followed him into the castle.
The structure reminded me of gothic cathedrals I’d seen in school and on the Travel Channel. Windows set into the curve of the ceiling let in natural light, reflecting rainbows on the opalescent walls. High arches seemed to stand in ceremony as we strode through them down the long corridor.
“I thought you might like to see her favorite room,” Fredrick said, a catch in his voice.
We entered a spacious room, with cream-colored marble floors. Crystal chandeliers hung from the pointed arches and the far wall held a panoramic view of the kingdom. In the distance, I could see the skating pond, and beyond it a village. I rubbed my eyes and looked again. The village appeared to be gingerbread houses. Elaborate, varied confectionary residences.
Fredrick took my arm and led me to the center of the room. “Look up.”
Painted on the ceiling there was a mural of the sky, not unlike many I’d seen before. The difference was that this one shimmered in motion. Staring up, transfixed, I rotated and the clouds followed my movements. I dropped my gaze to relax my neck muscles and took note of the back wall for the first time. A portrait of Fredrick wearing a crown, velvet and fur-lined cape, and his nutcracker suit peered back at me. Beside him stood my mother, dressed in a bejeweled gown with a tiara upon her head. Instead of looking out as he did, she watched him. Her smile dazzled—I’d never seen her so happy. Content, yes. But truly happy? Never.
The image brought more wretched tears to my eyes.
Another mural showed the two of them dancing, surrounded by all manner of fairy-tale creatures. They looked older in this one. Where had I been? Had she left me alone for the night?
Fredrick’s strong, warm hands grasped my shoulders and I leaned back into him. How many times had I prayed for a father? Countless, I’m sure. And though I was unprepared for one to spring up unannounced, I could not deny the benefits of having someone to comfort me.
“We loved each other so much,” he murmured over the top of my head. “Yet I only had one night a year to spend with her. And now…”
I turned and wrapped my arms around his chest. We embraced for a time, eyes fixed on the moment captured on the wall, lost in our respective memories, until another man dressed as a soldier interrupted us.
“Your highnesses, forgive me, but it is nearly time.”
Fredrick pulled back from me and nodded. “We must go.”
He bundled me up in the sleigh once more and leaned close.
“Alyson, will you come back next Christmas? Might I see you again?”
“Of course,” I said without hesitation. Dream or no, it was a lovely place, filled with memories of my mother I’d never known. My regret was that I had to wait so long to return.
As the sleigh raced toward my home, I watched the castle shrink behind me, an altogether different sadness filling my chest. The hollow within it pushed and strained against my ribs like it was trying to reach beyond its confines to envelop me. The clearing appeared too quickly and in a blink, I was standing at my back door once again.
“Good night, my daughter.” Fredrick kissed my forehead and the world around me darkened to onyx.
Birds chirped, and I groaned. My head felt as though Russian dancers were kicking their way out—through my skull. I tried to stretch, only to be met with an arm of the sofa digging into my shoulder. I rolled to avoid the offending furniture appendage, and landed on the floor, the empty wine bottle cushioning my fall.
“Ow!” Now my shoulder, head, and backside ached. This was not a good morning.
I cracked my eyes just enough to make out where I was going and shuffled to the bathroom. It had been years since I’d felt this hung over. Every exhausted cell in my body screamed to go back to bed. Tempting. Very tempting.
Once I’d taken the necessary aspirin and cleaned my eyes of sleep, the dream from the previous night rushed back to me.
I tripped over the runner on the hallway floor in my haste to get back to the living room. The nutcracker was in the center of the mantle, as always.
“Don’t be an idiot,” I said aloud. It was just a dream. A very realistic, strange dream. My subconscious was allowing me to grieve my mother, to experience relief from the loneliness. That was all. And it worked. I didn’t feel so alone anymore.
Regardless, I lifted the nutcracker from his place and whispered, “Thank you,” before placing him back.
I almost didn’t see the painted tear on his cheek.