This short story takes place after Blood Matters, and is part of the Renaissance Holiday Blog roll. To find out more and read more great stories, click here!
There had been light, and laughter, and joy; sweet-scented trees with bright ornaments, with presents underneath, and cookies, smiles, and hugs.
Not in the end, though. The last Christmas had been quiet, and subdued, and he’d begun to understand that they feared him. That fear ate away their love for him, until they had discarded him like an empty box. So, here he was, now, with these people.
They weren’t really bad people; Nicolas had to admit that much. But they didn’t know what they were doing, and he was sure they didn’t want him there. He just made everything in their life miserable; in fact, he would always make everyone’s life miserable because of his stupid ability. Alex – he refused to call him Dad, because that would only make it hurt more when he eventually got rid of him – had been right not to want a real Christmas tree in the house, saying it was a fire hazard. Julie had laughed, because she had thought he was making a joke; after all, why would the man who can summon and control fire at will be concerned about fire? But she didn’t understand yet.
Of course, Alex had been right. It was only a day to Christmas, and the presents had been under the tree. Julie had tried to pretend that everything normal, that they were like a real family, and not a bunch of broken people all taped up together like the memory of a thing that never was, even if the pieces didn’t fit. She had decorated the tree with tinsel, and decorations, and filled it with bright, electric lights. She’d then wrapped presents with fancy coloured paper, and stuffed them all under the tree. It was like a scene from these movies he had watched at the old house; everything looked so perfect and brilliant that Nicolas had gotten excited.
And if he’d been any other six-year-old child, his joy wouldn’t have mattered, might even have been welcome. But he wasn’t any child. He was a beast, a monster, a thing, and the excitement he could not contain had sparked out of him like the electricity it was, from his body and right into the nearest live electric wires, frying them completely. Things had quickly escalated as, just as Alex had said, the dry pine tree had immediately caught on fire. Alex had been quick to extinguish the flames, of course, but not before the damage was done. The branches were burned, the lights and decorations were ruined, the walls were singed, and even the presents had not been spared; the glossy, colourful paper had burned nearly to a crisp.
Nicolas had only taken one look at the shocked expression on Julie’s face before he’d run out; he didn’t know why, exactly, but he couldn’t have stood to see the same look on Alex’s face.
The playground had an old wooden structure built to resemble a pirate ship. It was Nicolas’s safe space, the place he could go when the world was too much, which it was on most days now. As he usually did, he climbed to the highest point, a small bucket at the top of a ladder that served as a sort of lookout. He sat in a little ball with his arms around his legs and his face pressed against his knees, shivering in the late December cold.
It wasn’t very long before he heard movement down on the boat, followed by the unmistakeable sound of someone climbing the ladder up to see him. He braced himself to be faced with Alex’s stern, silent disappointment, or worse, some other kid who would pick on him for being alone, for not wearing a coat, for being different.
But it was neither; instead, Luke’s head popped out of the small opening, wearing a childish, bright tuque with a gaudy pompom on the top, in sharp contrast with his sober, black felt coat. When he spotted Nicolas, he gave him a smile, and climbed all the way up. He shifted over slightly in the small space so that he was sitting next to Nicolas, even though that meant his gangly legs still dangled through the opening, and reached out to wrap a winter coat he was holding around Nicolas’s shoulders.
“I brought you this. Next time you run out to play in the winter, make sure to bring a coat! It gets pretty cold up here.”
Nicolas pushed his arms into the sleeves grudgingly, not looking at Luke.
“I didn’t come here to play.”
“I know, buddy,” replied Luke quietly. Nicolas didn’t respond, and for a few minutes, they just sat there, next to each other, their breath forming steam in the cold air.
After a few moments, Nicolas sighed.
“Why did they send you?”
“I wanted to come. Alex is good at many things, but he isn’t very good at talking to the people he cares about.”
Nicolas bit his tongue against the retort that Alex couldn’t possibly care about him. “You should leave. I’m dangerous.”
Luke gave him one of his warm, honest smiles. “Nicolas, I know you feel bad about what happened, but it was an accident. I’m not afraid of you, and unless you’re trying to hurt me on purpose, I never will be. OK?”
“But I could kill you.” Nicolas felt tears spill out of his eyes; he hadn’t realized he was crying. “I can’t be around people.”
“So, you sometimes have little accidents when you get excited. It happens to the best of us. You know, I used to pee my pants until I was nearly ten. True story.”
“You can’t kill people by peeing your pants.”
“Maybe not. But you haven’t killed anyone. Just things. Things don’t matter. They can be replaced.”
Nicolas shifted uncomfortably. While that held some truth, he was acutely aware they’d already gone through three televisions this year alone, and Alex had decided that they wouldn’t be getting new ones anymore. Nicolas didn’t exactly miss it; he’d never really been able to be around televisions without at least messing up the reception, though he was sure it was a huge inconvenience to everyone else. But the sight of the gifts, and the tree, blackened and smoking, sprang up in his mind again. With it came fresh tears, not only over himself and how impossible to love he was, but also about the ruined anticipation, the first time he let himself hope that maybe thing might eventually go back to normal, and everything had gone wrong.
He pressed his face against his knees again and let the sobs come, rocking his small body with such a force he wasn’t sure he wouldn’t fall off the lookout. Luke wrapped his arms around him and held him close, and Nicolas let him, craving the closeness as much as his lungs craved air.
When Nicolas was feeling better, Luke spoke to him again, his gentle voice soothing him a bit further.
“Let me tell you a story about your dad and your uncle Antoine. You know they’re friends, right?”
Nicolas nodded, wiping his eyes, feeling a little reassured at the change of subjects. “Sure.”
“About four or five years ago, your dad and your uncle Antoine got into some trouble with some bad men,” Luke said. “They had to fight. But in the fight, your father accidentally hurt your uncle Antoine.”
Nicolas’s eyes widened. He’d seen what Alex could do when angry or frightened: entire rooms engulfed in raging flames, things he’d never thought could burn reduced to a pile of twisted ashes. “Was it really bad?”
Luke nodded gravely. “It was very bad. They thought Antoine might die. And your father felt so bad, just as bad as you do now. Worse, even.”
“But… Uncle Antoine wasn’t mad? They’re still friends?”
“They’re still friends. Antoine understands that it was just an accident. Just like we understand about your accidents.”
Nicolas wiped his tears, frowning thoughtfully. Luke was always the best at talking; he always knew exactly what to say to make it seem like maybe things could be normal again. Not like the man who actually was his father, the man he was stuck with and who was stuck with him.
“I wish you were my dad,” he muttered under his breath.
Luke smiled and ruffled his hair affectionately, just like his adoptive dad used to. “Don’t wish that. Your dad is pretty amazing, and he loves you. He’s just a little rough around the edges, sometimes.”
“He only takes care of me because he has to,” Nicolas said sullenly. “I wish you were my real dad.”
Luke leaned over to find Nicolas’s gaze, smiling. “I’ll always be there for you, Nicolas. We’re family.”
Nicolas snorted. “We’re not related. Even Uncle Antoine isn’t my real uncle. I don’t have any family but Alex.”
Luke pursed his lips the way he always did when he wanted to say something that he hadn’t decided how to say yet. “It doesn’t matter who’s related to who in what way,” he finally said. “Family isn’t about that. Yeah, it happens that Alex is your actual dad. You got lucky that way, even if you don’t think so right now. But Julie, me, Antoine and his wife and his baby girl, we’re still family.”
“Even when you have your own kids, you’ll still be there?”
Luke tugged on his tuque slightly, blushing. “Ah. Well, actually, I won’t be having kids of my own.”
“Because you don’t want kids?”
“No. You see, babies…” Luke cleared his throat again, his cheeks turning an even deeper shade of red. “…well it’s a bit complicated to explain, but you usually need two people to make them.”
“Like a mommy and a daddy?”
“Sometimes, yes, but not always. Um, anyway, two people need to like each other in a special way to make a baby.”
“Like the way Alex and Julie like each other?”
“Yes! Exactly. Me, I don’t like other people that way.”
“Oh.” Nicolas frowned at his boots for a few seconds, thinking it over. “But you still like kids, right?”
Luke laughed. “Of course I do. And I like taking care of kids.”
“Like all the kids you have at the house?”
“Are they your family?”
“Some. Not all of them. See, when you get a little older, you get to choose the people that make up your family. Sometimes they’re related to you, sometimes they aren’t.”
“How can you tell which people will be your family?”
“You can always tell,” said Luke, his eyes twinkling. “They’re the ones who are always there when you need them, especially when you’re having a hard time. They’re the ones who continue to love, and to try. Like me, and like your dad. He will never stop loving you and caring about you, he couldn’t stop even if he wanted to. It’s just the way he is. And he would feel that way even if you weren’t his son.”
“He didn’t care about me,” Nicolas said. “He didn’t try. He didn’t care about me enough to keep me when I was a baby. He’s just keeping me around because he has no choice.”
Luke laughed. “You two are so much alike, sometimes it’s hard to tell you apart. I was there, you know, when he brought you to the people who adopted you. It was the hardest thing he’d ever done in his life. He wanted you so much, but he didn’t feel like he was good enough to be the person to take care of you. Just like you don’t feel good enough to be taken care of right now. I think you’re both more than good enough. I think you’re perfect for each other.”
Nicolas grunted unhappily, but before he could reply, Luke’s cell phone buzzed. Luke pulled it out of his pocket to peer at it, and whatever he saw seemed to make him happy, though he didn’t type anything. He stood, putting the phone back in his pocket.
“Come on, buddy. I got something to show you.”
Nicolas followed him without a word, down the ladder, out of the park, and across the street to the home he still couldn’t quite think of as his. His heart grew heavier with every step at the thought of seeing the sadness he felt at the Christmas he ruined reflected in the eyes of Julie and Alex, and by the time they were at the threshold, fresh tears were brimming in his eyes.
The door opened before Luke even reached it, and to Nicolas’s wary surprise, Julie was there, beaming like she’d just scored the last cookie in the jar.
“There you are! Come on, come on, it’s ready!”
She grabbed Nicolas’s hand and pulled him in. He followed, too taken aback to feel sad anymore. When he reached the living room, he could still smell the smoke and the burned wood, but everything was changed. The burned tree had been removed and replaced by a new one, shorter and bristlier than the last; the gifts had all been rewrapped in shiny, reflective aluminum foil, making them look oddly futuristic under the tree.
Alex turned a bright smile at him, holding up his hand to the tree. “See? This one’s fireproof!” A roaring flame shot from his hand toward the tree, brushing over it without singing it. Julie smacked him on the shoulder. “Dumbass! You’ll scare him!”
But Nicolas wasn’t scared; he was so happy he could barely breathe for fear of making the moment vanish. “You did all this just for me?”
Alex knelt so he could be at Nicolas’s eye level. “Of course!”
Luke put his hand on Nicolas’s shoulder. “Your dad didn’t ask me to come and talk to you so he wouldn’t have to; he asked me to do it so he could prepare this for you. So that you could have a good Christmas no matter what.”
Nicolas finally looked up so he could meet Alex’s eyes, and there was no disappointment there, no annoyance, and no fear. He wrapped his little arms tightly around Alex’s neck. “Thanks, Dad.”