short stories. Merry Christmas, you! Hope your holidays are shaping up to be warm (but seasonally chilly out), bright (one can never have too many Christmas lights), and spilling over with joy for the birth of our perfect Saviour. Don’t forget the reason we celebrate this gift-giving holiday -for the one who gave to us grace, the greatest gift of all.
This season, I’ve been writing a little bit, although my schedule has been altogether swamped. I wrote this little thing on my early mornings waiting for my shift to start at the local Biblestore. Life is never too busy to neglect the things we find the most joyful, and margin is so very valuable when it comes to mental health in this uncertain time.
This little story started with two ideas. First, the line “love makes people do stupid stuff,” a phrase jotted frantically in one of the margins of a notebook of mine during a period of melancholy. I cannot tell you precisely what I was feeling in that moment, but I will tell you that I alternate through periods of being smothered by love (for instance the overwhelming weight of God’s redemptive love, or earthly, the phenomenon of happy tears) and feeling its cold absence. Despite the heart palpitations and leaky eyes of the former, I’ll take it any day opposed to feeling the lack of love. Often, I find myself spiraling in thought I don’t deserve love, which I think is rather true, but God has chosen to give it to us anyhow. Wallowing in self pity can become a god and sort of pride in and of itself, and I for sure battle it always, particularly so far in my twenties and on-going single-hood (I giggled typing that one-it’s not even a word, Reader).
Second, however, is Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. If you know anything about me, you know he’s my favourite classical composer. I listen to Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker year round. There’s something about his pieces that oozes magical, and each time I hear “The Waltz of the Snowflakes” it’s as if I’m right in that forest with Clara and the Nutcracker. I’ve wanted to use that music to write for a long time, and upon stumbling across the original Nutcracker story, written by E. T. A. Hoffman, I knew I had to do something. If you haven’t read the original, it’s delightfully weird, and any fantasy lover will adore it.
I enjoyed peeking at it through my adult eyes. It certainly read differently, and I think it’s pretty apparent what exactly I pulled out of it once you read it.
“Sugarplum” follows a woman reflecting on a memory from her childhood that weighs heavy on her mind even in her older age. She muses on love, loss, and all through a familiar story I shamelessly borrowed from Hoffman’s original work. I hope you’ll enjoy this little piece, and have a merry Christmas!
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no records of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.
For now, we see only as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
-1 Corinthians 13:4-13 NIV (all italicized additions are my own)
The year I turned thirteen, Ainsley’s momma got married again. You’ll have to forgive my lack of details, as my memory fails me because it was so very long ago. But like memory always is, I seem to remember some things as vividly as yesterday. It was hot outside so my best guess is it was July or August. She chose me and Ainsley to be the flower girls despite the fact we already wore bras and knew where babies came from, and the dresses she got us were itchy and all tulle and lace. I remember still the way the lining stuck to the backs of my chunky “baby fat” legs, so it must have been August, with that southern heat that’s sticky and humid and stays in your lungs.
She didn’t have a little girl- as Ainsley was her little girl, yet we’d swear we weren’t little anymore- so we were the best she had for someone to sprinkle flowers down the aisle before she walked. Ainsley was beyond excited even if we weren’t junior bridesmaids.
“Nobody ever gets married anymore.” She said the day we picked out dresses. “Who cares if everyone thinks we’re babies.”
Her sister snickered above us. Mirabella was always cynical, with her science and perfect grades and logical reasoning. “You’ll always be the babies regardless.”
She was picking out dresses for us, placing them on a wheel-around rack. Her mother was busy somewhere else, and I think that she was letting Bella -she always made us call her by that nickname and never Mirabella because it sounded too “prim” she said- pick them out in a means to assuage the unseen guilt of marrying another man.
Bella never talked about her father, although Ainsley always brought up the man she never knew. Ainsley never got to meet him, her mother still heavily pregnant with her when their father was on a business trip to New York City. He’d been in the World Trade Center on that day, and so Ainsley had only had her mother and Bella since she was born. Bella was six when it happened, and whenever someone mentioned her dad she got a funny look to her eyes and got real quiet.
She seemed to uphold him in this way like a god who needed to be revered always, as if even mentioning memory of him failed him in some way. Needlessly said, she was not excited about her mother’s marriage to a new man even if it meant wearing a flouncy red ball gown. Bella was eighteen, and her head was full of dreams of beyond, a future wide-eyed and eager to eat up the past.
It didn’t help that the man Ainsley’s momma had fallen in love with was odd.
He was truly weird in that way that Ainsley and I would always steal away to the dark corners or undersides of tables doused in tablecloths just to hide and watch him romance her mother on their evening dates at the house. He was in all means dark, with black hair and pitch black eyes, but pale snowy skin. He wore black, too, a black leather jacket always over his back and his T-shirt was always dark. Most people thought he was a Yankee, but to this day, I have no idea where he came from. It was like he spawned from nowhere, and dressed in head to toe black.
He wasn’t scary, though. His hair and beard were peppered with gray, and sometimes, when it was cold out, rather than his usual leather he wore trench coats and fancy suits like in the old black and white movies. He’d spoil me and Ainsley with odd little wind up toys and dolls and sweets from his travels “elsewhere” that tasted like nothing you could buy at CVS or Walmart or the brand new Target on the other side of town.
He had an odd air about him, with a wisdom that came from a flick of his thick jacket (and despite that stifling Carolina heat he wore it always). He’d often consider us with a tilted head, crinkles at the corner of his eyes as if he’d seen a million laughs and cries and days go by. Strangely enough, I still remember the way he smelled. Like the candies he’d give us but warm and spicy like cinnamon and something I couldn’t place but Ainsley and I joked was magic.
Nobody knew his first name, just his last. Drosselmeyer. It was a weird one, and he always insisted that we call him Meyer instead of the whole thing, and “certainly never mister” he’d insist with one of his lopsided smiles.
None of us could understand what Ainsley’s momma saw in him. He was dark where she was all Laura Ashley pale pink and blue patterns and puffed sleeves. She was cotton candy, and he was black coffee, but somehow they worked. We’d catch them stealing kisses and holding hands when we went out to eat in the evenings. He’d make her these little puzzle boxes for presents with funny notes inside that made her blue eyes sparkle and sometimes spill over.
In January, she’d opened the box and a little ring had been nestled inside. Ainsley was too excited, screaming to ask when the wedding would be and then pulling Meyer into a hug. Mirabella had rolled her eyes, but eventually gave in to letting her anger go. It wasn’t worth the wrinkles, she’d said, but deep down I wondered if she had begun to warm up to Meyer. He’d joked and told her she’d never have to call him “daddy,” and certainly never have to take that awful last name. And all of a sudden that warmth turned cold as ice. Bella seemed to freeze over even with the spring.
It was when we were standing in the dress store that March when Bella said something that stuck out in my mind for years and still makes me shudder sometimes when I’m walking by myself at night. Ainsley’s momma was trying on wedding gowns, all of them made out of white fabric so bright it leaves shapes all over your eyesight when you finally look away. My grandma would say it was “angel white” like wings, you know, but all I can say is standing there, watching her spin around in a dress it was like I could see her as a child and a teenager and a young woman and her middle aged self all at once. Something seemed to have taken a hold of her and you could see it in her warm eyes, like she was brimming full and spilling over with something so natural but sweet.
Ainsley must have seen it, too, because she immediately snatched up my hand and squeezed it the way she did when she wanted to get my attention. But this time she didn’t say anything. We just looked.
Our mouths were hanging open when Bella shook her head and nestled farther down into her seat.
“Love makes people do stupid stuff.” Mirabella said.
Well, except she didn’t say “stuff,” but in my childish mind I couldn’t believe the girl I’d looked up to for so long had a “potty mouth.” Bella never swore, and at the sound of her words, I shivered. Grandma would say those were devil’s words, and Bella knew at the very least never to use them in front of us, but the sour look in her eyes was what I think made me remember it after all these years.
She looked at her mother like she was doing a bad thing, like marrying Meyer was wrong in all aspects, and not just wrong but, it almost looked, from the hurt sparkling under her eyebrows, that she felt it was impossible, implausible, and by all means silly.
Her pale brows knitted together, and for a moment Ainsley and I stood beside her stunned to silence. Bella had always been cynical, but just then she seemed downright mean. I considered it, and was ready to leave it be when Ainsley dropped my hand and stomped her foot like she was little again.
“You’re just mad about Daddy!” She screeched.
A few of the ladies helping her mother get dressed in the gown turned their heads toward us, and I, ever the shy and embarrassed one (in those days my skin remained forever in a shade of shamed scarlet), snatched up her hand again, squeezing it so tight in mine I felt her muscles twitch beneath my grasp.
Bella scoffed at her sister. “It’s nothing to do with Father.” She said flatly. I have no idea if her words were true or false, but she had that same quiet reverence to her voice like she was talking about some saint that was easily riled from his seat in heaven. “It’s love.”
Ainsley looked at her all funny, face scrunched up and mad as fire. She didn’t get it.
I’ll admit I didn’t get it then either. Here was this beautiful woman, literally glowing with love she’d been deprived of since that terrible September day, and yet her own daughter was squashing out the light like smothering an unwanted candle flame. She was far from happy, and the unease was written in her tight shoulders and wrinkled forehead, but it would take me years to understand exactly what Bella was feeling in that one moment faced with romantic love she’d never really seen before.
“Can’t you just try to be excited?” I muttered, unusually daring. “We ought to be at least a little bit excited for her and Meyer.”
Something flashed across her face, straightening her features for one second and then gone. She crossed her arms, defensive and considered me in one of her usual stares as if to say “you’ll see,” but she didn’t say a word.
She wasn’t excited at the wedding, and I couldn’t say what became of her in the months after it. She moved into the college at the top of the state, and we didn’t see her for a while. She drove her daddy’s old station wagon down the road in a big puffy grey cloud, and I almost felt worried for her standing on my porch. In those days I lived in the house next to Ainsley’s, a real pretty cottage type thing that matched all the other houses in the neighborhood. Bella always called them “Hobbit houses.”
She had a way with stories and was always giving me her beat up paperback copies of classics (some of her favorite lines underlined in sharp mechanical pencil or highlighted in green), and I treasure some of them to this day. She was always good with school, and had graduated top of her class. She was studying science at the university, though.
If you’d asked me and Ainsley then, we would have told you we didn’t miss her one bit. But we were both so very young, still eating Trix yogurt while sitting on the living room carpet, laughing at the Your Changing Body books we found under Bella’s bed. The truth was Bella was more to our little friendship than we knew, so when the leaves started to turn and Halloween had passed (I think I was Tinkerbell that year and Ainsley was some other fairy or vice versa), we were all excited for Bella to come back for Thanksgiving.
And return she did, with her long hair cut short and clad in a university sweatshirt with tight leggings underneath. For a moment, she looked so different (I think she was wearing makeup or eyeliner or something). I didn’t recognize her, but she turned to me and Ainsley, sitting on the steps of their porch as she got out of the station wagon. And when she smiled, that tiny gap between her front teeth visible, I knew it was her.
She waved, running up to the porch and wrapping her arms around us. She must have really missed us because Bella hated being touched. When she let go, I remember that I could smell her usual powder-fresh scent (I think it was Secret deodorant now that I think about it because I begged my mother for that particular scent one time after spying it in Bella and Ainsley’s joined bathroom). But once the smell had fled my nostrils, I took note of her face.
She looked tired, which Ainsley had told me to expect because, after weeks of probing her for the juicy details, Ainsley told me that Bella had called often with a teary voice complaining about her chemistry professor. It was true that there were dark circles under her eyes like fading bruises, but she seemed a bit relieved to be here, and I don’t know why I did it, but I reached for her hand and squeezed it.
I, like Bella, am not too big on touch (sappy cards were and are always more effective at getting me to cry and feel loved), so what possessed me I have no idea to this day. I remember flushing pink when Bella snatched her hand away with a sharp hiss of pain. I thought I’d done something wrong or, in my vivid childhood imagination, which often plagues me on quiet walks or moments even in my twenties, Bella had become some kind of monstrous creature like in the movies.
Ainsley, always faster than I, had already noted the wrapping on her sister’s wrist where I had just touched, and she quickly snatched her sister’s arm back to her. Bella looked dismayed for only a moment before she relinquished her arm almost pridefully.
“No way!” Ainsley squealed. “Momma’s gonna freak!”
Bella’s arm was slathered in something like vaseline, covered in something plasticy. When I rubbed my fingers, I could feel a bit of it on my own skin, but what my pale flesh lacked was the dark letters inked into Bella’s skin.
There, scrawled evenly over bouncy veins and tendons, were four words tattooed evenly. I recognized them instantly.
I AM NO BIRD
“Jane Eyre?” I said softly in my usual shy way.
Bella smiled proudly and snatched her wrist away from her sister’s grasp before straightening to full height. She ruffled my hair, freeing some of the strands from the long ropy braid that hung down my back.
“That’s right.” She smiled. “You’ve been reading those books I left you, huh?”
My skin flushed, ashamed at the attention I was drawing. I’ve always hated recognition, even when it is very deserved, and even as I won the praise of Bella, who was more of a role model to me than I knew at those years, something inside me flamed at the words.
Ainsley, who told me often that my adventures in novels were only giving me bad eyesight (all the better to wear nerdy glasses like the reject kids that sat at the front of the classroom) and forcing me toward those aforementioned kids, scrunched up her pert nose.
“A book?” She said, all nose. “You got a tattoo from something in a book?”
Bella snatched her wrist from her sister’s grasp with a hiss. “Yes, a book, Ains.” Bella’s eyes rolled up so far back into her head I figured they’d get stuck that way. “You wouldn’t get it. Maybe if you took some initiative and read like-”
I cut her off quickly. “It’s just a sad story about some lady who finds a crazy woman in somebody’s attic.”
Bella’s eyes flashed in something like pride or hurt that I’d brushed it off so lackluster, but I was so determined and caught in the battle between whose attention I craved more, I didn’t know what else to say. I could have muttered on and on about what those words meant, for I had enjoyed reading the books and feeling as an adult with these grown up stories people talked about, but my lips remained closed. Part of me wonders if Bella knew what I was thinking at that moment, that I understood the words she’d paid to get inked on her skin, that I knew they were some declaration of freedom from the restraints of society Bella believed held her captured like nets and cages, but I am no keeper of her mind. Her fair eyes only held mine tensely before Ainsley’s nasally voice sounded once more.
“Sounds freaky.” She murmured.
“You wouldn’t get it.” Bella said softly before she turned to the station wagon. “Help me with my bags?”
We did. She had packed only two small duffels into the trunk of the station wagon because Thanksgiving break wasn’t but three days and a weekend. One bag was filled with clothes (I assumed more sporty and laid-back leggings and T-Shirts like the college Bella wore already) and the other was heavy as a ton of bricks.
Of course I grabbed the heavy one first, and it nearly clattered from my arms, taking me to the ground in a clumsy heap.
Bella laughed. “Textbooks. Here, take this one instead.”
I flushed red, and she handed me her computer bag. My bookbag at school was heavy, but nothing like Bella’s bag of books. I shuddered. College didn’t seem like much fun.
Once Bella’s bags were situated inside, I was effectively shooed away to my own respective Thanksgiving next door. My mother was excited to actually be home to cook, as her job at the hospital and Dad’s job travelling to inspect homes and sell insurance often landed us eating a store-bought rotisserie chicken and some canned vegetables. That was if we were lucky enough to all be in the same place for a few days.
That year, my mother burnt the turkey. I made sure to eat a little of it, as I didn’t want her to feel bad for attempting to give me something normal, but, the poor dear, it tasted how I would think the burnt pieces of frozen pizza glued and blackened to the bottom of the oven would. Dad made a shotty work of cutting it too, accidentally ruining the fancy electric cutter when he shattered the leg bone. I didn’t tell a soul that there was bone in my turkey.
The whole dinner had ended in an argument (though my parents loved each other, they did argue frequently, which I assumed came from the distance often wedged between them). And after a few more bites of undercooked dressing, still wet with water or milk pooling at the base of my mother’s fine wedding china, I suggested going next door.
Ainsley’s momma always bought fireworks to set off on the back of their little dock. Our subdivision had a pond that joined all the houses, albeit dividing. In hindsight, it was beyond dangerous to shoot those fireworks off that wooden deck (it was always slightly soggy and soft, for the wood was old, but part of the experience was fearing you would be the person to be on the deck to finally fall into the muddy water below). My father hated the racket, but upon seeing how Thanksgiving had turned out for me, disappointing and lonely as usual, he took my mother and I next door.
The sun was setting on the pond, water shining like my mother’s crystal punch bowl, the light scattering a million different directions from the rings left behind by skipping rocks. Ainsley and I had twirled around barefoot in that plush grass more than a thousand times, pretending we were fairies or sprites or princesses waiting for our princes. Of course, at thirteen, that time of play-pretend was less acceptable, and my horde of dolls (which I loved and would still play with were it not socially unacceptable), were pushed carelessly face down in a box in my closet.
I immediately abandoned my parents upon seeing Bella and Ainsley sitting alongside Meyer on the dock. Meyer had bought a case of Cokes in glass bottles to celebrate and everyone was sitting on the dock sipping their drinks. I sipped iced tap water in a mason jar, as I’d already gotten it into my head I was fat and ugly and needed to lose weight (which seems so frivolous a thought now with the stretch marks and saggy arm-skin).
We watched the sun set, Meyer and Bella locked in some conversation Ainsley and I had initially ignored, but as the sun was only a sliver on the horizon, it seemed much louder than it had been, and much more interesting than whatever boy band Ainsley and I were discussing at the time.
Meyer was pushed back on his seat, brave on that soggy little dock, and he had that wise look on his face, lips tilted in that little smirk that taunted he knew much more than we did. Bella was going on and on about some of her friends, whom she deemed “boy crazy,” and she claimed were risking acquiring only their MRS degree rather than their BS (At the time, I had no earthly clue what an MRS degree was. I probably figured it was some clever term Bella had learned in one of her smart-person classes).
Meyer’s handsome deep chuckle sounded, pulling Ainsley and I fully from our idyllic nonsense. “But what of true love, Bella? Is there not more to life than money and work?”
“I don’t believe in that kinda stuff.” Bella said, reclining in her chair and taking a swig from her glass bottle of Coke. “Besides, I’m too ugly for anybody to ever take notice. It’s why you’re paying twenty grand for me to get a good degree and support myself, isn’t that right, Meyer?”
I was about to tell her it was foolish to think so, for I’d always thought Bella was beautiful with her full golden hair and dark eyes, but it was he that answered.
“You deny yourself the right to even dream?” He smirked in his usual unreadable way -I’d love to be able to remember the meaning of all those glares- and he tilted his head to the side, considering Mirabella. “Such things are beyond our control. What of faith you’ll be provided a deep desire of your heart?”
Bella mocked vomiting. “Careful, Meyer, you’ve been reading too many Jane Austen novels.”
I wanted to say that Bella had been taking too many college classes, but I remained blissfully silent. She acted like she knew everything, like she was in control, but after spending months getting to know Meyer, with his quiet, reverent wisdom, I was more inclined to believe him than Bella.
“Call me naive, a dreamer.” Meyer smiled, eyes twinkling and the gray at his temples sparkling. “But the only one keeping you from what you desire is you. Lie to yourself, make of yourself a little goddess who can at least feel she controls her own little life. Bella, in doubting, you’re the only one keeping yourself from that which you seek.”
Considering Meyer’s wise words, I thought about that tattoo now. What a lie it had been. Bella may not have let the nets of the word ensnare her, but her own -the lies she wasn’t worthy of love, wasn’t pretty enough, smart enough, normal enough- had kept her caged since she was born. Did we always keep ourselves tethered? Did we not realize that wallowing in self pity and self consciousness was its own sort of pride?
What if it was really our own mind that kept us tethered to earth? What if we lived always in the net of impossibility of our own mind’s creation, and we never even noticed it? What if we were the ones who kept ourselves from love simply because we had deemed it impossible?
The moment my mind began to wake up, my imaginings were shattered by Bella’s cold voice.
“I never said I wanted it.” She snapped, and huffed from her seat.
Bella didn’t stay for the fireworks, and the conversation, as simple a tiff I believed it was, had truly perturbed her mind. She was gone before I woke up and headed over to Ainsley’s house the next morning. In my dreams, the sound of that fragile engine stuttering to life had been a dragon puffing great big clouds of steam.
Ainsley said Bella didn’t call for another few weeks. Her momma cried every night, sometimes coming over to talk with my mother about it. A few times I was over on Saturday to catch cartoons with Ainsley and I caught Meyer cradling Ainsley’s momma, face red and puffy from tears, but stabilizing from the sturdiness of Meyer and the soft words he whispered into her hair that I couldn’t hear.
We were beginning to wonder if she’d bother to even come home for Christmas. I was excited because I’d get to spend it with Ainsley’s family. Dad was out on a trip to inspect houses after a bad hurricane, and Mother had gotten stuck working the night shift at the hospital on Christmas. I feigned tears at the news, but secretly I was excited to watch Ainsley open her gift from Meyer. It was a wind up castle, filled with characters that waltzed in dizzying circles. Meyer had built it himself from a kit he’d gotten on a trip “elsewhere,” and he’d let me paint the little figurines inside. I’d even picked out the little tinkling box that played the Swan Lake suite to which the figures danced.
But on Christmas Eve, presents piled up under the tree Ainsley’s momma had spent hours decorating with bows and tinsel and lights, we heard the little devil engine sputtering up the drive in the cool, but still humid air. Had it not been for the dragon smoke trail (we often joked that the station wagon was Puff the Magic Dragon), I would have assumed it was Meyer’s nephew, whom he had told us for weeks would be coming.
But after opening the door, it was Bella, hair cut even shorter to her chin, and smiling as if she hadn’t been ignoring her mother’s phone calls for weeks. She was dressed in a short red velvet dress, and at first, I figured her momma was going to slap the fire out of her for dressing like that (my parents often said nobody’s child was too old to spank), but she simply ran out of the door, nearly tripping on the sidewalk before she embraced her baby, tears streaming from her cheeks.
Bella, embarrassed, pulled her mother’s arms off of her quickly, red lips smiling awkwardly. Meyer edged his way out of the house with hands shoved deep into his pockets, in the only sign that he was ever nervous, and he nodded to Bella, wordlessly opening her trunk and grabbing her bags out.
Ainsley rolled her eyes beside me and gagged. “She better have a good excuse for ruining my life this past month.”
I shrugged and tilted my head to consider Bella, her face cradled tightly between her mother’s hands, Ainsley’s momma no doubt telling Bella to never do that to her again because she was worried sick. And after seeing Meyer watch them from afar, bags still loading down his hands, I got the funniest feeling in my stomach that something was coming.
Ainsley’s family always opened their presents at midnight on Christmas Eve (or is that Christmas? I’m not sure). And we figured it good just in case Meyer’s nephew decided to show up. Still, come midnight there was no sign of him, so we went ahead with presents.
Meyer got me a doll from “elsewhere” (he never would tell us where he acquired the treats he gave us). She had a pretty teal blue ball gown and delicate porcelain features, with dark hair just like mine. At first, I wanted to act unexcited. Ainsley had told me a few days prior that dolls were for babies, and we were no longer babies, but after seeing Meyer’s twinkling eyes, cheeks almost bashful and hoping I’d like it, I grinned and set her delicately in my lap, happy I’d been given any gift.
When Ainsley opened her present, the little wind-up palace, we all pored over it for at least forty minutes, examining each doll. Ainsley seemed impressed if not briefly. Ever the drama queen, she’d told me earlier that if her sister did show, she couldn’t wait to see what Meyer had gotten her. A sweetheart, I couldn’t believe that Meyer would buy her anything to make her feel ashamed, but Ainsley was simply eager to see her sister squirm awkwardly, I think.
And when Meyer placed the rectangular box on her lap, she did. Her eyes, doused again in some more of that weird dark stuff that I don’t know the name of, impossibly large, perhaps with anxiousness spurned from her outburst at Thanksgiving, met his. He smiled softly, and let the golden box go. She undid the red ribbon from the top, the strands falling onto her lap, and gingerly she tore away the paper. We laughed when it was simply a white box she opened, and her cheeks flushed as she opened it up.
Out slid, in a shiny, almost ugly heap, a nutcracker, clad in a red uniform almost the exact shade of Bella’s dress.
Ainsley giggled loudly, snorting. She figured it was the last thing Bella needed, and by the look of shock and unease on her sister’s face, Ainsley had gotten at least part of her wish to see her returned sister somewhat uncomfortable. I was afraid Meyer would be hurt by Ainsley’s impromptu laughter, but he simply sat back, that vague look of knowing stuck in his eyes as Bella cradled the thing in her lap. She pet his fuzzy white hair gingerly, eyebrows knitted together in a mild confused state.
Now, I was scared, as I often am in situations that are unplanned or unusual, and the anticipation of who would speak next was tearing at my insides. I stared at that ugly face on the nutcracker, teeth horridly large and almost scary, and my breath halted in my chest.
“You read too many stories, Meyer.” Bella finally said, but she was smiling, a breathy laugh wedging itself from between her lips. Meyer took it as a triumph, and soon he was chuckling and grinning, too.
That anxious feeling inside me relented, and Christmas continued. After the presents were finished, paper shoved into trash bags, and effectively, glitter covering every floorboard, Ainsley and I changed into our nightclothes. I wanted to play with her little wind-up castle some more, eager to see my painted figurines dancing gracefully to that swan song, but she was tired of it already, pushing it to the back of her desk. Already forgotten, I had the urge to ask for it, but I’d never dare.
She was instead more eager to terrorize her sister, who had retreated to her room with her odd gift from Meyer and was talking rather loudly on her new cell phone. Ainsley grabbed my hand, pulling me into her sister’s room. Bella was reclined on her bed, clearly unaware of how un-ladylike she looked in that short dress with her legs splayed apart. She looked up and rolled her eyes as Ainsley and I entered.
The nutcracker was sitting up on her desk, blue eyes twinkling and almost lifelike. So much so, that I forced myself to look away, that uncanny feeling of imagination sparkling up inside me.
Ainsley ran immediately up to it, snatching up the dish of nuts beside him. Meyer had taught us how to crack nuts with him, which I had found interesting given I believed nutcrackers only decorative. Now, had I known that Ainsley planned to destroy her sister’s gift, I’d have rushed to capture it from her hands, but naive as I was, I watched obliviously as my friend searched the dish for the largest pecan she could find. She shoved it into the opening, and with her hand she pushed down on the handle as hard as she could.
The resounding crack was so loud that I squealed and Bella shot up in her bed. Her eyes were wide, and upon realizing her scheming sister beside me, lip pinched wide in a devilish grin, her expression flattened to something evil, and she told her friend on the phone she’d call them back.
“Ainsley, I swear to-”
“What, sissy? I was only using him the way Meyer taught me to…” Ainsley used her little-girl voice, and as her sister clamoured off the bed, she turned the nutcracker around to assess the damage she’d caused.
The poor thing was cracked all the way up his spine, wood splintered all the way up the back of his head. Upon dumping out the too-large pecan, the nutcracker’s jaw hung haphazardly to the side, lopsided and broken looking.
Bella gasped, snatching the thing from Ainsley, and holding him close with surprising care. Her face scrunched up in fear, eyes heavy with makeup again, now smeared under her eyes like dark circles. She bit her lip, assessing the damage, and huffing as she did so.
“Ainsley!” She furrowed her brows at her sister. “Meyer’s gonna kill me.”
It struck me then at that moment that Bella wasn’t broken up about the nutcracker so much as she was about the fact that Meyer had given it to her. She seemed, to me, to have returned home on a whim, which I would later find out to be true. Bella had no intention of returning home that Christmas but something had caused her to return, shamed at how she’d acted around Meyer, and here she was, ready to reconcile and finally return to normal, perhaps even heed his advice, but she’d already broken a gift he’d given.
“Get out.” Bella said softly, a manic look assaulting her brown eyes. She scanned the room for something, which I realized was glue or tape or fabric to tie his jaw shut. “Get out!” She screamed louder this time, drawing the attention of her mother, who came running up the stairs for us.
Bella ruffled through her drawers, arms still cradling that wooden figure like a doll baby to her chest. She finally found some glue and started ripping apart an old t-shirt for fabric. Ainsley and I stood frozen at her door, watching the girl fly crazily about to fix this silly little toy Meyer had bought for her. I wondered how Bella really felt about Meyer. If deep down she really did want someone here beside her to be her daddy rather than her saint-god in heaven.
Only the sounds of Ainsley’s momma’s footsteps rattled us from our reverie, watching her work. When her mother finally got there, she pulled us away quickly, unsure of what was transpiring in her adult daughter’s room.
“I think it’s time for bed, girls.” She pulled us away, and I watched Bella the whole way we walked to the room across the landing. Her face was flushed, fingers gently tying a strip of cloth under that poor thing’s chin to hold him together somehow.
When we were finally settled in Ainsley’s bedroom, her in her bed and I in the trundle bed under it, she whispered to me in the darkness.
“College really made her a freak.”
But I wasn’t so sure.
Waking up on Christmas, I could already smell the bacon. On top of other things, Meyer and Ainsley’s momma made a fantastic team when it came to cooking, and their Christmas breakfasts were by far the best I’ve ever eaten. I woke before Ainsley, and I slipped to the bathroom before abandoning her, snoring relentlessly in the bed. I padded downstairs, and my nose was immediately flooded with all things breakfast.
Ainsley’s momma was cooking eggs at the stove, and Meyer was behind her, arms wrapped around her waist and talking to her right beside her ears. They never neglected physical acts of affection in front of us. Meyer claimed it was because he never wanted the girls to doubt he loved their mother, and watching them, swaying gently to the Christmas music playing from a radio in the corner, I felt my heart swell in my chest.
I stopped and just watched them for a while, a grin stealing up my cheeks as I waited for them to find me. I snuck and crunched a piece of bacon before they noticed I was there and turned around.
Ainsley’s momma covered her face with a hand, engagement ring catching the sunlight as her face turned red. Meyer tugged at her ear with a chuckle and turned toward me.
“Ainsley’s sleeping the day away?” He asked.
I nodded, my own face reddening from second hand embarrassment.
Meyer noticed and he shook his head, laughing again. “Want to go fetch Bella for me?”
Meyer always used unusual words like that. “Fetch.” I nodded my head that I would, and I skipped off, excited to be around them on this Christmas morning even if it wasn’t with my mother and father. I jogged up the stairs, and when I reached Bella’s door, I could still hear Ainsley snoring across the landing.
I gently nudged open Bella’s door, peering inside. The pale yellow walls were lit up with the sunshine spilling in through the blinds, but Bella was slumbering still in her bed. I called her name, timid and soft at first. She made no move, and I walked farther inside.
She was tangled up in her blanket, short hair spilled all over her pillow in a golden halo. I called for her once more before I shook her shoulder gingerly. She jolted suddenly, sitting bolt upright in bed, and her brown eyes widened large as tea saucers before they met mine.
“He is real.” She whispered.
Now, I was so shocked, I couldn’t get out much of anything other than a few fragmented syllables. Bella was gazing wildly around herself, and upon watching her take a hand to her hair, I realized her forearm was bandaged, wrapped in the same fabric she’d used to bandage the nutcracker last night. I spotted redness on the fabric, and I started to ask about it- she hadn’t been bandaged last night. Had she hurt herself repairing the broken thing?
But she seized me by the wrists, jostling out a squeal from my lips, and all I could see and hear was her, this crazed young woman, bandaged and bleeding.
“He’s real.” She breathed furiously. “He saved me- from the mice. You won’t believe me!” She fumbled, grip tightening on my arms.
I didn’t know what else to say, my role model so very disturbed, but I managed out, “no, Bella, I’ll believe you.”
“It’s- it’s insane, but it was real. They were everywhere- the mice, right after the clock chimed, and- well, they were going to kill me, but he saved me.”
It was quite crazy, mice coming alive and sentient, coherent to harm Bella? But, you’ll have to remember, I’ve quite the vivid imagination, and it, having been quashed so soon by Ainsley and the need to fit in, seemed to liven at Bella’s dream. And perhaps it was just that- a dream. But it was much more fun if it were real.
“Who saved you, Bella?” I whispered, eager for more of the story. It was like a fairy tale, and I’d never tell Ainsley, but sometimes, I still read my little book of princess stories before bed at night, so happy to be a child again, so happy to escape the blooming adulthood I saw each day as I glanced in the mirror. You see, I was a child who never wanted to grow up.
She laughed awkwardly, shoving a piece of her hair behind an ear. “You’ll think me mad.”
Mad. A word I only understood in this context because of Bella and her books. I took it as a triumph that she trusted me. “You can tell me.” I said.
“Meyer’s nutcracker.” She looked to her table, the shining red thing smiling it’s ugly wide grin. Her cheeks flushed at the sight of it. “He came alive. I know it sounds insane, but… well, when I saw the mice close to me, he started fighting them. I tried to squash them with my shoes, but they were so fast. They tripped me and I fell, but when I woke up, he was there, and my arm hurt so badly, I must have fainted again.”
I glanced down at her arm. “And he must have bandaged you up?” I asked.
She looked down, astonished at the fabric wrapped tight and neat along her arm. “Oh, he is real!” She said, rather loudly.
I could do nothing more than watch her, starry eyed. Here at last was a fairytale imagination come to life. We must have made quite the disruption because Ainsley’s momma came bustling into the room, eyes wide, and once she saw Bella sitting on the bed, her bandage red and newly wet with fresh blood, she squealed.
“Bella! What on earth did you do-” She snatched up her arm, looking at the white fabric, nearly soaked through with blood.
Bella didn’t seem pained. She smiled and touched her lips with a hand, as if she couldn’t believe she was happy. This was quite a different Bella from last night, and when Ainsley’s momma tried to ask her questions, Bella remained fairly quiet, occasionally murmuring again “he is real” or “he really saved me.”
Ainsley’s momma took this as a sign Bella might have a concussion, and she squealed Meyer’s name and the word hospital. Meyer came running in, dark hair disheveled, but I saw something knowing flash across his eyes as he took in Bella, still fingering her lips dreamily, eyes flashing to that nutcracker in the corner, still sitting on her desk. In all my dreaminess from the imaginative nature of her story, I could have sworn the little wooden thing winked at me, but you’ll have to decide.
Meyer carried Bella down the stairs, her legs too weak to stand upright on her own, and Ainsley’s momma grabbed the keys to the minivan, telling me and Ainsley, who had woken up finally amidst the chaos, to take the food off the stove and go ahead and eat. She’d call us from the hospital when they had news.
I watched Bella carried out to the car, and I still felt like I was in a dream, too. I told Ainsley about what her sister had said, and at first, she hadn’t been inclined to believe me until, with a flash of her tormentor’s grin, she said, “oh, you don’t suppose she’s gotten into drugs at college, do you? I heard pot smokers get this way sometimes.”
My shoulders slumped. Ainsley didn’t believe one bit of it could have been real, so I told myself if she had only seen the sincerity in her sisters eyes, the terror from seeing the mice, the-
“Ainsley, she acted like she was in love with the thing.”
At this, Ainsley burst into a fit of nasally giggles. For her, it was going to be a brilliant Christmas to watch her mother’s favorite daughter descend into madness. I didn’t have siblings, but upon aging, I’ve realized almost all siblings behave this way in some manner. The fall of an opponent for your parent’s affection can sometimes seem sweet to even the kindest of heart.
“In love with Meyer’s wooden doll? Oh my gosh, it’s just too perfect.”
I didn’t want to tell her I truly believed Bella’s story in that moment. And Ainsley’s response made me want to beat down my imagination beast once more, so I did the usual thing and pretended I didn’t still feel like a child in my mind. I laughed, and all day, Ainsley and I pretended to be Bella, fawning and fainting over her silly wooden nutcracker. When she came back from the hospital, cast wrapped around her arm, and eyes muggy from painkillers and sedatives, she didn’t seem to notice us mock-fainting on the sofa.
A determined look I hadn’t seen since before that wedding had taken up residence to her features, face searching for something she couldn’t quite place, and I remember my wrist falling from its mocking place at my temple just so I could focus on her look. Devoid of that odd black stuff around her eyes, she seemed eager, and in that moment I had no doubt within my thirteen-year-old mind that she was truly in love with this wooden doll however impossible it was that he could become human.
I made the mistake of telling my mother about all of Bella’s dream adventures, and, upon my insistent sharing and obsession with the love story, with the idea that she may never see him again, and worse the nightmares of my own and my newfound fear of mice and rats alike (in those days, we always had little brown mice in the garage no matter how many traps we set, and I found them in my closet always), my mother had taken notice to my madness. After I spent hours before bed searching for the things, sure they’d come alive and try to kill me just as they had Bella, my mother called Ainsley’s momma and that was the end of Bella openly discussing her dreams with us.
But even if she wasn’t telling us about it, we could look at her and tell. She seemed to progressively weaken, her days spent in bed sleeping in effort to meet her dream prince again, but the dark circles (which could not be hidden but rather intensified with that dark stuff) had moved in permanently under her eyes.
She dreamed. A few times when I was at Ainsley’s house, she screamed out in terror from a nightmare, which would merit Ainsley’s momma or occasionally Meyer to go check on her. None of us could figure why this particular nightly escapade had caused her so much distress. It was just a dream after all, Ainsley’s momma assured us.
But there was her arm that no one could explain. We’d found her glass doll case in the hallway shattered, the glass coated in something red that made my stomach turn because I knew it was Bella’s blood. And Ainsey’s momma became convinced that Bella simply had a sleepwalking issue. Too much stress from the past semester at school. They took turns watching Bella at night while she slept.
But I didn’t believe it one bit. To look at Bella, her brown eyes heavy with grief for something she’d known for no longer than fifteen minutes, I could tell.
She was drowning in dreams.
And not the good kind. A few times, Ainsley and I would be playing Uno or Spoons or some other card game (we often played B.S., but we were only allowed to say the real word around Meyer. Had my mother known, I’d have gotten a stern slap, but there are some things our parents never need to know, don’t you think?). Bella would come in, short hair spiky around her head, and eyes squinting from any light, as she seemed permanently just woken up.
Ainsley loved to terrorize her, but on occasions like these, Bella would snap at us for no reason. She’d say something mean, which to this day I cannot quite place, and Ainsley and I would freeze in place. We’d done nothing to provoke her this time, and her words were vicious, cutting deep into my mind. Ainsley was so shocked she didn’t bother with her usual retort.
It was this particular time that Bella realized just how mean she was being, and tears sparkled in her eyes, her hand on the refrigerator door forgotten. Her chest heaved unevenly, and for a moment it seemed like she might shatter into a million pieces.
I never saw Bella cry -save for that one rotten day in September- and the little crystal tears that fell made my stomach flutter like something was dead wrong. Sobs started to tear from her, and she fled back up the stairs into the pit she called a bedroom.
“We really ought to try and cheer her up.” I murmured to Ainsley.
Ainsley for once didn’t say anything back, too stunned by what her sister had said.
To my surprise, it was Meyer’s voice that sounded from the corner hallway where none of us had noticed him standing, arms crossed over his broad chest. “I think you’re right.”
Of course, since Meyer had agreed, I felt it was truly a very good idea. After some talking, we decided that Meyer would take Bella out for dinner and a movie that night (I couldn’t tell you what movie they went to see). Ainsley’s momma had to work, so we figured he was the best option.
They disappeared at five in the evening, Bella leaving with an exhausted look on her face like she’d spent the whole afternoon sobbing, and dressed in a hoodie and jeans. Meyer had actually dressed up, which initially made Bella look like she might swell back into tears again. We all shushed and assured her it was fine and that it would be fun.
She swept a few ringed fingers under her eyes to catch the residual wetness, and Meyer held the door open for her, giving us one last smile that told us not to burn the house down.
When they came back, Bella was much changed. She was smiling and laughing at something Meyer said as they walked back up the drive, and when she walked in the house, she headed for her room with the most determined look on her face, as if she knew how to get this dream lover of hers back somehow. Either that or she was happily over with him.
When Ainsley asked Meyer how it went, he just shook his head and smiled, and we took it as a small victory.
The next day, Ainsley and I woke and Bella was still sleeping. It was one of those unusually chilly days when Campbell’s chicken noodle soup is the only good thing to eat, and Ainsley and I were sitting at the kitchen counter, slurping up noodles and swiveling on the chairs so that our knees hit the cabinets. Her mother was gone to the hospital for a shift, so it was just us and Meyer, who had made us peanut butter and honey sandwiches on white bread to go along with our soup. He always sandwiched Lay’s potato chips or orange Doritos inside in the way my mother always said was nasty and “not for pretty little girls like me,” but Meyer knew I liked it that way, just like he did, and he’d made me and Ainsley sandwiches with the chips already inside, perfectly arranged so not a single bite had twice as much chip or bread.
Ainsley and I were chatting while Meyer remained behind the counter. I was in a rather curious mood, my imagination flaring, and any chance I got, I’d bring up Bella, some fragile part of me desperate for this drama to never end. I’d quenched the parched spirit of imagination inside me, and it was in constant need of being fed.
“It’s past lunchtime. We should wake her up.” I said.
“You’ll not wake her.” Meyer said firmly. He’d never used this particular tone with me, and upon hearing it, I almost burst into tears (I was quite the people pleasing child, and am unfortunately a people pleasing adult). His eyes held an urgent fervor that I’d never seen before. But the hurt sparkling behind my sternum from the admonishment made, for once, rebellion shimmer in my mind. I wanted to disobey Meyer.
We were silent as he put away the bread and washed the dishes. I still possess that childish behavior of getting real quiet when someone makes me mad or hurts me. Silence is my best means of torture.
So when he finally walked off, I slid off of my seat at the counter and waved Ainsley to follow me up the stairs. I tiptoed up to Bella’s room, stopping at the white door with my ear poised to it. It was silent, Bella clearly still slumbering as usual in her little yellow room, and I quirked a smile at Ainsley, who had reluctantly followed me.
I placed my hand on the doorknob, eager to open it when Ainsley’s voice stopped me.
“I don’t think we should wake her.” Ainsley shivered. “Meyer said not to go in there-“
I groaned. For once in her life, Ainsley wanted to obey what Meyer said to do.
“I don’t know… he’s kinda creepy when he tells us things like that, and he’s usually right.”
But my curiosity at Bella and her nutcracker prince was becoming too big a beast to tame. Ainsley gave me one last look, her nose wrinkled up like it usually was whenever she didn’t want to do something, and she turned to head across the landing back to her room.
“I’m gonna go set up another game.”
She knew when she said it that it should pressure me into going. She even tried to walk a little taller like an adult when she went, but once her face had disappeared from view, I turned toward that door, ignoring peer pressure and for once doing what I wanted. I twisted the knob and into Bella’s room I walked.
She was sleeping, breathy wisps sneaking from her mouth evenly, and for a moment as I neared her I simply watched her sleep. Her brow was softened, dark circles for once not so prominent. Her lips were tilted ever so slightly into a smile, and I wondered what she was dreaming about.
Was it her nutcracker prince? I looked down beside her in the bed and it was cradled delicately in her arms. Looking at it, it seemed so silly. Love could spurn even the most logical thinker, like Bella was, into a manic frenzy. But seeing her, I wondered if she really did love him. I wondered if her stories had somehow been real.
Oddly, I noticed a crystal tear formed in the corner of Bella’s eye. Of happiness or pain, I couldn’t help but wonder. Did she meet her prince in her dreams? Before I could stop myself, I reached out, and with the tip of my index finger, I swiped at the tear.
Immediately the world around me clattered to darkness. Like a curtain closing around my vision, I felt as if I were in a play. Slowly, color began to leech back in, and with it came the most beautiful music, soaring violins, blaring brass, everything sounded heavenly. Bright angelic white came first, then the shades of gold and black as I slowly revealed a large palace before my eyes. It smelled sweet as candy; the color of the walls was rich as coffee, and I had the strongest feeling of wanting to stay.
Had I stepped into Bella’s dreams?
It seemed somehow so. As the colors developed like some strange sort of film, I saw, amidst a court of dolls and cookies, a waltzing couple. One, a girl with beautiful long golden hair coiled and tied neatly with a ribbon, smiled brightly, her pale pink gown twirling with her movement. I couldn’t make out her face, but the man she danced with gave it all away.
The nutcracker twirled her, and I nearly pinched myself to see if it was really real. He was still in his wooden form, bulky and large but his face seemed somehow more masculinely human. He twirled Bella, and I wondered if I were truly there or if I were only a spectator before her dark eyes met mine.
Her bright smile faded and melted to something awe inspired.
She did see me, and I looked down at myself, gasping at the long pale purple gown covering my legs, sleeves puffed out and hanging delicately off my shoulders. It didn’t seem real, and at my sudden arrival, Bella and the nutcracker’s waltz came abruptly to an end. He led her to a massive red throne, grabbing one of her hands, dwarfed in his wooden one, and pressed it to his large teeth in a kiss.
I shivered, but Bella only smiled delicately to him, and they took their seats. The nutcracker whispered something to her, and I had the urge to run. Bella simply watched me with a strange quirk to her lips, and suddenly, the violins began plucking once more.
I felt my feet begin to move of their own volition, my tiny slippers tiptoeing to the center of the court, and tiny bells began to ring. It was all a dream, my mind aware I was far from reality, but somehow my body was still confused. I twirled and leapt, and for just a moment, in all my lucidity, I enjoyed myself, a smile creeping across my features.
Bella grinned, and she squeezed the nutcracker’s hand, whispering something to him. I’ve wondered for years what she said, if it was my dance that pleased her, my outfit, the glitter I could feel plastered on my cheeks like fairy dust, but in my adulthood, I think she was saying something about how proud she was of me. At that moment, I’m not sure what it was that made her think this, but there was something about the warm glow in her chocolate eyes, something kind and affectionate in that almost-older-sister way.
Whatever it was, I beamed at it, enjoying the fluidity in my arms, the tightness of the muscles in my legs. I was ready to attempt a pirouette when a strange feeling assaulted my shoulder blades, something like a horde of snowflakes settling atop them. I sprung for control of my dream-limbs, the music spiraling, and pulling me into a turn something like a tornado, and amidst it all, I felt my back.
Panic fought its way up my throat, choking me, as I peered as far behind me as I could, and from the chilled spot I saw purple wings inching their way out of my skin.
Terror forced my body to finally comply, my lucid mind forcing me from the notion of fairytale into, rather, nightmare. I looked around the court, the golden palace darkening and reddening into something closer to hellfire, and I caught sight of Bella’s face, as panicked as mine.
But with lucidity, fantasy ends. Somehow, I managed to truly pinch myself, and the strange scene slowly but surely melted from my eyes, taking me back to unfortunate reality.
“No!” Bella squealed, sitting bolt upright in bed and somehow grabbing hold of my shoulders, squeezing so tight I hissed in pain. I clawed manically for my back, feeling for the wings that had surely grown there, but thankfully there was nothing but the sweater I’d been wearing before. We were back in Bella’s little yellow room, and that wooden nutcracker was just that- a wooden doll.
Once my initial panic had dissipated, I looked to Bella, hot tears streaming and leaving red tracks down her cheeks. She rocked herself gently, swaying back and forth in soft whispers of “no.” For a moment, I felt horrendously awful, Meyer’s stern warning echoing in my mind in a cruel twist of fate. The one time I hadn’t listened had ended in disaster.
She continued to weep, and I felt my own empathetic tears begin to bead in my own eyes, stinging the whites. Bella’s grip on my arms was still tight, and I had no doubt in that moment we’d somehow seen the same thing. I trembled inside, so unaccustomed to this imaginative world I’d whelved so deep inside me.
“I’ll never see him again.” She muttered. She finally released me only to wipe at her eyes with the heels of her palms. My stomach soured with that feeling of regret, that feeling of knowing something was your fault and there was nothing you could do about it now.
“Why?” I asked. “Can’t you just go back to sleep?”
She shook her head, laughing bitterly. “No…you don’t understand! He’s- cursed.”
The word sent shivers down my spine. It really was just like my bedtime book of fairytales. “Cursed how?” I asked, voice suddenly dry from fright. I’d been there. Was I cursed now, too?
“He wasn’t always this- thing.” She picked up the broken nutcracker from the bed, holding him gently, tenderly. “He’s a prince. A prince with the biggest heart, and that’s precisely what got him into trouble. He was ambitious enough to take on breaking someone else’s curse, and in doing so, he trapped himself in the very same way.”
She rubbed her finger over his cheek delicately, and all I could do was watch.
“Meyer found him on one of his trips and brought him here because he thought me clever enough to break his curse.” She shook her head, face crumpling. “And this was my last chance.”
I looked down at the fragile wooden thing in her hands, still bandaged up from Ainsley’s torment. I couldn’t deny her story, but part of me wanted to. It hurt to believe that I was the one who caused her to wake up, like some slumbering beauty in the forest, tearing her forever from her prince. The dream had been beautiful, a palace golden and pure and sweet. For Bella to have finally found love, the sweet true kind like her mother and Meyer shared, and for it to be me who ripped her from it… it was almost too much to bear.
She shook me from my thoughts. “I-” she sobbed. “I love him.”
Great heaving sobs shook her, and I ran from the bed, shaky hands raking the hair from my face as I was ashamed and unsure of what to do next. At that moment, what happened next made me want to wet myself, but in hindsight, I think it was perhaps the best thing to happen.
Meyer came bursting through the door, eyes wide in a worry I’d never seen on his face, and with one frenzied gaze of his eyes on mine, I scurried out of the room, settling just outside the door so I could still hear what was happening inside, but far enough out of the room so that I could catch my breath of fresh air.
“Bella-” Meyer whispered.
She broke into a million pieces.
“He’s gone, Meyer.”
I watched Meyer slowly take Bella up into his arms, moving bit by bit for her to object at any point. She only clung to him more, the steadiness of his arms sharp contrast to her trembling body.
“You were right.” She said bitterly. “I wanted him, and now he’s gone forever.”
He squeezed her tighter to him, and I felt suddenly horrible for watching them, but I couldn’t take my eyes away. He cradled her in his arms, her head and tearstained face resting on his chest, and her eyes, oh her eyes, so terrified and filled to the brim with fear.
“Some things are beyond us, Bella.” He rubbed the back of her head gently. “We need not be afraid.”
She only cried harder. But in that moment, it was as if Bella let Meyer be her father. Not that she forgot her angel one, but rather she finally trusted this one here. Sometimes I think it’s hard to relinquish control and become vulnerable, to ask for loving hope, a pair of steady arms to hold you when you cry. For so long, Bella had only let that person be herself, but upon Meyer’s open arms, she wept bitterly over her lost prince. She finally relented. She finally spoke.
“But the worst part, Meyer.” She sniffed, finally releasing her arms from around him. “The worst part is that it didn’t matter what he looked like. I’d love him regardless of anything because of his soul. It was good, as I pray for mine to be. He was better than anything I could have dreamed up.”
I watched Meyer’s shoulder’s slump, defeated.
“I love him.” She whispered. “Please, please. I love him despite it all.”
And this is another moment that plagues my mind sometimes when I’m lost in reminiscing. Is it not true that love, the real kind, waits for others? It’s not prideful in that we wallow in self pity or even arrogance of being too good for another. It’s humble and it never gives up. It tries its best to always save, however fragile the control of a human life can be.
And yet, I’d ruined Bella’s chance to save her prince just as he’d saved her from those terrible mice. In my childish futility, I’d ruined her love story. I’d taken away something to be made so perfect by the two of them.
I broke out in a breathy sob, and I saw Bella and Meyer turn to look at me, brows furrowed at the pitiful little demon-child who’d ruined it all, and I fled, hiding from the torment of having to talk about what I’d done. My cheeks flushed with sad heat, and I ran away as fast as I could.
I hid in the bathroom for a few hours. Eventually, Ainsley lured me out with a few remaining Christmas candies, as my stomach was growling like some rabid beast. When I finally emerged from that warm room, she immediately shoved me toward her sister, who was sitting on the little trundle bed.
At first, I was so angry at Ainsley for tricking me with food and instead forcing me to confront my problems. But, after Ainsley had left us together, I turned toward Bella and looked at her from under my eyelashes bashfully.
Her face was no longer red with tears, eyes only slightly puffy from her panic earlier. She offered me a small smile, and it was almost worse than if she’d outright yelled and admonished me for my foolishness.
Instead, she opened her arms, and immediately, as I can never stay mad for too long when things are my fault, I ran into them, wrapping my arms tightly around her waist and shouting a flurry of “I’m sorry”s.
She actually laughed, my ears filled with the muffled sound of her breath, and I don’t think she said anything more. Her action was enough to tell me she forgave me, which blew me away considering all I’d done. I’ll never stop feeling sorry about what happened, but Bella’s response became an aspiration for automatic forgiveness. She grabbed hold of my hand and led me down the stairs and into the living room, no more questions asked. We never discussed the events that had transpired even after what comes next. I never asked her if she’d seen me in her dreams.
While I had been hiding, it had started to snow outside. Quite unusual for December in Carolina, and I assumed to only find slushy sleet outside, but a glace outside from a window revealed a soft blanket of white in the approaching darkness. Meyer had taken to starting a fire in the fireplace, and he said nothing about my disobedience other than ruffling my hair as I walked into the living room.
We’d set up some movies on the T.V., and Ainsley had popped some popcorn in the microwave and divided them up into bowls. We’d just barely gotten the movie started when we heard a car putt up the drive. We all figured it must be Ainsley’s momma, who had made it home from work at last, but a glance out the window proved there was no minivan entering the garage.
We were confused, pausing the movie where it was, and looking at each other with widened shocked eyes, until the most unexpected happened.
In walked Meyer’s nephew at last.
All my days, I’ll never forget this moment, this boy walking through the door, and bringing in the wet southern snowflakes with him, his cheeks flushed with the cold, the tip of his nose bright red. A gray scarf was twined loosely over his black trench coat, dusted softly with fragile snowflakes that sparkled like shattered glass as they melted to raindrops. His hair was dark, and when he turned, his blue eyes wide, I noticed the biggest bright purple bruise on his chin and neck.
“Sorry I’m so late.” He shook his head, something awkward and untruthful in his tone. “Got in a nasty wreck and had to take a Greyhound.”
Now, I’ll entirely admit I knew immediately who this man was. Not that he was somehow related to Meyer, but rather that I had seen his bright blue eyes somewhere before. That was in Bella’s dreams I had. I felt in that instant that all I had seen, all of Bella’s story, had been true. Of course, adulthood has made me doubt, but I’ve never lost the wonder of the moment. I turned to look at Bella, sitting sort of defeated and crumpled looking on the sofa beside her sister.
And yet the moment her eyes met his, her lips parted in a soft pop, and she ran to him. Her palms, covered nearly to the tips with the sleeves of her sweatshirt, she placed on either of his cold-reddened cheeks, eyes wide in surprise.
It never gets old. The look between lovers. Their eyes met, and I couldn’t help but grin myself, and to Ainsley’s surprise, Bella pressed her lips so fiercely to the boy’s, I feared they might squish each other to nonrecognition.
Ainsley squealed, and I might have a little bit, too but I caught Meyer’s gaze in the corner of the room. Something almost proud sparkled there, and when he met my eyes, he winked. I’ve wondered since if he always knew what was going to happen, like many fathers do, I suppose, but I’ve never been able to decide. Did he buy the nutcracker with the knowledge he was his nephew? Or had he had him since he’d been cursed? Had he kept him all these years knowing Bella would be the one able to break the curse?
Such things are beyond my comprehension, so I simply giggled at the two. Ainsley and I didn’t dare mutter a word, too in awe at the couple before us. In the kiss, the boy had wrapped his arms around Bella’s waist, and I couldn’t help but think about them dancing in that dream. It was almost like I could see him in his red uniform, her in her long pink gown, twirling the night away.
I felt again I was intruding, but I didn’t tear my eyes away. I snatched up Ainsley’s hand, giving it a tight squeeze, and she squeezed back, watching with me.
“I missed you.” I heard Bella whisper.
“Me, too.” The boy whispered. I never could remember his name. Sometimes I think it started with an “E” like Eric, but sometimes I think it was a “C” like Charles. Perhaps his curse caused him to remain permanently ambiguous in anyone’s mind’s eye.
Edmund or Elias or- whatever his name was- turned her arm over and was whispering to her in tones I couldn’t hear. He was running a finger along the scar we’d found Christmas morning, and she was trying to hold his hand, but her fingers were too shaky.
He settled for bending down and whispering something I could just barely hear.
“Thank you for loving me.”
And I’d pondered those words long after they’d left. The story they’d told everyone else was that they’d met each other in college. Somehow, it never came up that he was Meyer’s nephew (a bit far fetched, don’t you think? But her mother bought it). They’d been dating for a bit, and if anything Ainsley’s momma had merely been upset that her daughter had never said anything about the boy.
For the remainder of Christmas break, they stayed at the house, sometimes not even speaking but just looking at each other like their eyes could tell a million things words couldn’t. A few times, they’d just sit on the couch, his arm wrapped around her, and her head on his chest, listening to the lub dub of his heart.
I searched and searched that house for the nutcracker, but I never could find him. It seemed to me further proof that Meyer’s nephew was indeed the prince I’d seen in Bella’s dreams. I told Ainsley, and she wrote me off again.
“You and your stories,” she shook her head. “He’s just another freak just like her.”
And I watched them as close as I’d read any fairytale. Come mid-January, the two packed up their bags into the back of the station wagon and readied to head back up to university. Looking at them, you’d think they’d known and loved each other for years, not the three weeks I suspected of them. I suppose saving love knows no time.
As he held open the door for Bella, a part of me felt jealous, sad even. He was taking her away, and who’s to say they wouldn’t return just like Bella had initially planned not to? But as he came up to Meyer, standing beside me at the end of the drive, I saw his kind eyes, no doubt just as compassionate as his heart, and I figured there was no one better for Bella to be with. He shook Meyer’s hand, and waved to me before he climbed into the station wagon, and Bella cranked it up with a sputtering cloud of smoke.
She backed out, car screeching as it made its way over the curb, and Ainsley, who’d been standing beside me, skipped back into the house. I remained tethered though, eyes locked on the back of the car, the university parking decal like a beacon tracking them back up the state.
Not thinking, I murmured aloud. “I don’t ever want to grow up.”
“You can’t remain a kid forever.” Meyer said.
I crossed my arms, still peering at the glowing tail lights like red demon eyes laughing at me.
“You think she’ll ever come back and stay?”
“They hardly do.” Meyer cracked a smile. It was true. Bella married the man, who forever remains the nutcracker in my mind, but in my adulthood, I’d never admit. He’ll never know I know. They moved “elsewhere,” which I have no doubt has something to do with Meyer and how he acquired the wooden man in the first place. To my knowledge and their yearly Christmas card they have several children together, all as starry and dreamy eyed as their parents, with hearts too big for their chests.
Still, I shook my head at his grin. It seemed in no way funny at that moment. “Why is it when someone finally falls in love it takes over everything? Why must it all- change?”
Meyer smiled, knowing. “Because it’s one of the only constant choices we can make. People change and grow old. We hardly stay in the same place for too long, and I know it doesn’t seem like it now but life is very short.” He paused, tilting his head. “Love takes us places we previously made impossible, and it all comes in time too perfect for us to understand.”
I bit at my lip. “But what if I don’t want it? What if I’m not good enough?” I thought about all the havoc I’d wreaked. I thought about how close I’d been to separating Bella and her prince forever.
“Oh, Clara,” he smiled greatly. “You’ve just stated the big beauty of it all. We don’t deserve any love at all, none of us do. But somehow, we get to feel it anyway.”
I didn’t grasp those words at thirteen, their heaviness only a catalyst for fear in my childish mind. “Well, that’s scary.” I swallowed hard. “If I don’t deserve it, and I get it anyway, what if I mess something up?”
“You needn’t worry when there’s always someone looking out for you, Clara.” He considered me again with his kind, old eyes. “Besides, you needn’t think about such things at your age. We can’t remain children forever. Enjoy it while you can. There’s more to love than Bella’s story.”
He patted my head and out of nothing, he conjured a small fruit to his palm. I nearly choked on my spit in surprise. He chucked at my stunned expression, and I almost said something to question him. In a way, I wish I had, for at least then I couldn’t question my unreliable memory, but through years and years, this little fragment still remains.
It was a little purple thing, pale just like the color of my dress in that dream, and it was coated on the outside with crystalline sugar. It took me a good long moment to accept the candied thing from out of Meyer’s palm. I was a child after all, and despite the new teenage mindset that I needed to watch my weight, I lifted the thing from Meyer’s hand.
Through years of my studies, a few love stories of my own, I’ve never forgotten this moment and story, watching the taillights get smaller and smaller in the distance. The strange and unseasonal snowflakes stinging my cheeks as I stood beside Meyer. There’s something unsaid about love and where it comes from, the unspoken and humanly confounding notion of it being a crazy choice. There’s truly nothing humanly sensible about love. It really does make people do crazy, stupid things.
But it all comes in a timing too perfect for anything any human could dream up. I think the truth is, things come together much better than anything we could ever have planned. It’s up to us to trust that the impossible is only so within the frame of our fragile minds.
At that age, it was within me to dream and eagerly await a wild love story of my own just like Bella’s, but I’ve learned since that such stories come with patient longing, longing tethered firm to conviction that it could one day be true. Now, I am older, a few gray hairs shooting from my scalp almost like Meyer’s had been all those years ago.
Then, I was only a child, a fairy without her wings. I was just a little girl with a sugar plum candy, left out to wonder in the frigid snow.
I took the sweet sugared fruit to my mouth and wondered when it would be my turn, too.