“I can’t do this anymore, Clair.”
Clair Meloni sat on the side of the bed while her boyfriend, Justin, of three years packed up his clothing. “I’m sorry.”
She couldn’t look at him nor could she cry. For the past few months she knew this break up was coming. How could she not? She was sick again and had known, deep down, once Justin found out, he would leave her. He wasn’t the kind of man able to be with a sick woman.
“Take care of yourself,” he said as he left, closing the bedroom door behind him.
Clair sat there staring at the wall. She didn’t even flinch when she heard the apartment door slam shut. She’d finally told him about the return of the cancer and, after being in love and living together for three years he’d made his choice.
Closing her eyes the tears finally fell, but it had nothing to do with him. Sadly, she felt a bit relieved that he’d left. The tears she shed were due to the news she’d received earlier that day of her grandfather’s death, her last living family member. As she sat reading the letter from her grandfather’s attorney, informing her that all his assets had been left to her, including the house where she had grown up, she reminisced about the fond memories she had growing up there.
She looked around knowing Justin would be back for the rest of his things—eventually. Hell, everything in the apartment was his. She finally stood up feeling numb as she went to her closet and took out her large duffle bag. She packed only what she’d brought to the relationship. As she was leaving, she placed the keys on the table next to the door. The one thing they hadn’t shared was a bank account. Justin sure as hell had wanted to share one, but she’d refused, which was the smartest thing she’d ever done for herself she now realized. Walking down the steps instead of taking the elevator, she smiled softly as to what he would have said if he knew she’d lost her job.
Outside, the city buzzed with people shopping. Snow started to fall, or, more like spit on everyone. Turning to her left, Clair began to walk away from the life she thought she wanted, and the city she had loved at one time. She stopped at an ATM and withdrew every dollar, she had, than hailed a cab and went to the bus station.
The trip took all day, and into the night, before the bus pulled into the depot in a small town called Roseland. Cold wind slapped Clair in the face, but she didn’t mind. She welcomed the cold and took in the crisp air.
Roseland was a small farming community with a population of nine-hundred. Her family had owned a farm as well as most of her neighbors. Every street, every corner, she knew by heart. She started the long walk to her grandfather’s house on the outskirts of town, but the walk didn’t bother her one bit.
Unlike the city, Roseland had a nice thick sheet of snow and more was falling. Every year they were blessed with a white Christmas. In town the streets and sidewalks were kept clear, but once you started moving toward the outskirts, snow covered the roads, obscuring them. Clair found herself walking through snow up to her knees.
Walking without snow, Clair could make it to the house in less than an hour, but with the snow it would take an hour or more. Her toes, legs, and fingers were numb by the time she saw the house—an old, two-story farmhouse surrounded by trees, and fields no longer harvested.
The first time she stepped foot on the porch, Clair had been five. A plane crash had killed her parents. At the time, she didn’t even know she had a grandfather. Something had happened to make her father and his stop speaking to each other before her birth. For the first couple of weeks after she came here to live, he didn’t know how to talk to her.
Years later, as an adult, her grandfather, Ken Meloni, told her the story about how he didn’t know what to do with the five-year-old girl who sat staring at nothing, eating very little, and crying herself to sleep each night. The week she’d arrived on his doorstep was around Christmas time.
Clair learned that her grandfather never celebrated Christmas—until she came into his life. That Christmas, he bought a tree, which he hadn’t done in over twenty years. Clair remembered as she put the key into the lock, how he even put lights up outside the house, roasted a turkey the night before, and had placed presents under the pine tree.
She stopped crying on Christmas, started talking again, and he starting smiling more often. Her grandfather opened his heart and his home to her, making sure from then on that every Christmas was special.
Clair smiled when she finally arrived on her grandfather’s stoop, unlocked, and opened the front door. When no warmth or food cooking greeted her, the smile disappeared as she remembered her grandfather had died.
The house was cold, and lifeless. The hallway was dark, leading back to the kitchen, the stair rails white with dust. The living room had sheets over every piece of furniture, and wood piled high next to the fireplace, which waited for life once more.
Kicking the door closed, Clair went over to the fireplace. She dropped her bag next to one of the sheet-covered chairs, knelt down, and began to work at starting a fire. Her hands shook from the cold. After a few tries she finally had the fire she needed to warm herself—and remembered...“Hurry up, Grandpa!”
“I’m hurrying angel,” he replied as he hurried to make a fire.
The living room lights were on, a fire burning brightly and in the corner, the pine tree sparkled with lights and decorations. Over the fireplace, two large stockings hung, as did garland and other decorations.
“Where you want it?” Ken Meloni smiled down at her. In his steady, old, wrinkled hands, he held a cup of milk in one and a plate of cookies in the other.
“Right here!” Clair pointed to a table in front of the fireplace. As Ken put the plate and milk down, she curled up on the sofa with a warm blanket. “You think he’ll eat it all?”
“He did last year and—”
“He will again,” Clair said aloud. “Oh, Grandpa, why’d you have to leave me when I need you the most?” She sighed, stood up, and went back into the kitchen.
Everything was just as it had been the day she left. She could even recall the smile on his face, the wave as she headed off for college. Man, she didn’t want to leave him, but Ken had made her go. He pretty much pushed her out the door. Now here she came back, tail between the legs with no family.
She found a few eatable things, like one sausage and some wine, and brought it back to the fire and roasted it. As it cooked, Clair pulled out the family album, flipping through photos, remembering things. When she got to the last page, an old skeleton key fell onto her lap.
With a frown, she picked it up, looking closely at it.
“Never go to the top floor,” her grandfather had told Clair when she was ten. “You’re not ready for that just yet.”
Clair looked at her grandfather as if he’d lost his mind. She found this strange key and began trying it in all the locks in the house. It fit only one door, but before she could turn the lock and see what was behind it he’d found her, taking the key.
“What’s up there?” she asked him.
“Something very magical,” he whispered and smiled. “And one day you’ll be old enough to handle it, but for now it must remain locked.”
Putting the album down, she picked up her wine and stood up with the key in hand. She headed for the stairs, went up, and up again to the third floor where her grandfather had warned her to stay away.
There was only one door on the third floor, and it was always locked. Now she had the key and her hand shook as she pushed the key into the keyhole and unlocked her grandfather’s secrets.
The turning of the key echoed in the quiet house. The door made a loud creaking sound as it opened, and the room was dark as night. Clair felt around for a switch and surprisingly enough there wasn’t one, only a candle in a corner, on the floor. She lit the candle, and saw more, forming a circle around the room and she proceeded to light several of them, but not all for there had to be over a hundred candles.
There was no furniture, no decorations, nothing else in the room, but for something large hidden under a sheet that might’ve been white at one time. There also was a fireplace with more candles on the mantel. Clair went over, lit them, and saw the only decoration in the room—a large, oval mirror positioned over the fireplace.
Turning around she faced the sheet. With a hard yank, it came off and she frowned. A large toy soldier that, if smaller, would be a nutcracker, stood in the center of the room facing the fireplace.It was the strangest thing she ever saw. In fact, Clair never saw a nutcracker this big in her life. They were always small.
A cold draft hit her and Clair had the sudden urge to start the fire. The chill seemed to penetrate the whole house.
She filled the fireplace with logs, found some paper, and matches, and began to work at it. It was weird how the thing didn’t seem to want to light at first. Almost as if, something might be preventing the flame from catching.
“Come on,” she mumbled, striking another match. This time it caught.
A gust of blue flame ignited, shot out, and knocked Clair backwards onto the hard floor. The single flame seemed to burst out of the fireplace, moved around the room, snaked around the soldier. She watched it, fascinated by the way it moved, eventually returning to the fireplace and lighting the wood and newspaper she’d stuff inside the hearth.
It crackled, burned, and heated the room nicely. Clair slowly got back up to her feet, not taking her eyes off the fire.
“Maybe I’ve had too much to drink with my medicine,” she said, pressing her hand to her forehead. “Or maybe the damn tumor is finally starting to fuck with me now.”
Her eye caught the mirror, and her breath left in a rush. Standing behind her, she saw a man—a naked man, watching her as she watched him.
In complete panic mode, she turned only there wasn’t a man just the toy soldier, but she felt as if the soldier was watching her. She could actually feel his eyes upon her, and it was a bit nerve racking. She hated being watched.
“What the hell is going on with me?” Her hand shook as she reached out to touch the toy soldier. Right before she touched it a hand shot out, grabbing hers, the wooden arm and hand crumbled to the floor at her feet. She screamed.
The man she’d seen in the mirror showed from inside the toy soldier. He held onto her wrist as the rest of the soldier crumbled, revealing his entire body. He took a step forward and left the shell of the toy behind as he came to life. Then the wooden shell simply fell apart around his feet and crumbled into nothing more than wood.
She went down to her knees in shock.
“Clair Meloni,” he said once he was fully out of the tin soldier’s frame, the pieces everywhere around him, his voice so thick, and so deep, it made her shiver.
His body was a brick of muscle, not an inch of fat upon him. The hair upon his head screamed sex appeal. Long blond locks streaked with black, touched his shoulders. Big blue eyes looked down at her, long sexy lashes touched his face, his lips full and sensuous He looked like some mythical God—a very naked one, standing before her!
His deep, rumbling voice murmured, “It’s time.”