To say I was dreading the family dinner was the biggest understatement since the start of time. Yes, it was bigger than those who said Hitler wouldn’t hurt anyone. I wasn’t scared of my father and I had no reason to be, but based on the facts that we were talking about our country and it only involves the males it was particularly concerning. I felt if it were anything important that I shouldn’t have to worry, considering I was the youngest boy of the family with two older brothers to take the hit.
That reminded me; I’d be seeing the eldest of the family, Royce, for the first time in a little while. He’d decided to live on campus at university and hardly came home to visit. That put me in a slightly better mood. I got along with all of my siblings well but Royce was the one who I spent most of my formative years growing up with.
By the time Ada and I got home from school our mother’s car was in the driveway, meaning she’d already be at work in the kitchen. The place which I would remain in for the next couple of hours if necessary.
The clear sky was beginning to cover with thick rain clouds, raising hope that there would be a storm tonight. I found storms to be comforting in times of distress. My sister, like the majority of the population, felt anxious around storms. One look at the sky brought worry to her face as she sunk further into the seat.
I stepped outside and waited for her to gather her bags, before she rushed to get to under the porch shelter. Not that it was raining. Yet.
“Are you going to help Mutti and I cook?” I asked her, trying to take her mind off the storm.
“I don’t want to mess anything up,” she mumbled, pushing through the unlocked door. I set my backpack on a hook inside the entrance and made my way to the kitchen, Ada in tow.
I didn’t say anything, not after the last time she was in the kitchen. She had managed to not only make a mess, but to burn the chocolate chip biscuits she was making and her hand from grabbing the tray out of the oven without oven mittens. She was smart, but when it came to cooking she was clueless.
The radio filtered through the house, echoing in the kitchen and into the entrance. It brought a smile to my lips that Mum was listening to the oldies station, filled with songs from the time when she was a teenager.
As I had predicted she’d already began cooking, varieties of food spread from one end of the shiny island to the other. Mum had her back to us, stirring something in the fry pan. Her graying blonde hair was pulled back tightly, not a strand loose, wearing a dress under her simple black apron that I wasn’t allowed to touch. She’d had it since she learnt to cook from her mother, so I had my own hanging beside the fridge.
She turned when she heard us walk in, a smile lighting up her entire face like it did whenever she saw one of her children. “Hallo my darling kinder.” Her German accent was thick and difficult to understand to anyone not used to it. I still found it easier to understand when she spoke in German but she rathered to speak in English with us. As if we would somehow forget how to speak it if we stopped. “How was school?”
“It was great, Mutti,” I smiled, kissing her on both cheeks and then giving her a hug, letting her squeeze the life out of me.
“Very good,” Ada agreed, following suit once I got out of the way.
“Good. Now, I do not like to be difficult but Jacob, you need to help me prepare. Your father will be here in two hours and I can not get this done on my own.”
I was already washing my hands, followed by the routine of putting my apron on. I let out a light chuckle. “You told me that on Tuesday. And last night. And again this morning.”
She stared up at me, her eyes crinkling at the sides from her smiling. She pinched my cheek in between her thumb and forefinger. “Do not be smart with me. Or else…”
“Or else what?” I tested, unable to wipe the smirk off my face.
“You do not want to know what or else is, junge.”
I pretended to be scared, eyes widening. “I’m horrified.”
“You should be,” she chortled, then ordered me around the kitchen for the next hour and a half. During that time Ada had gone off to the living room to watch a movie, Milena had come home with news that Dad would be home at seven and Luca, my brother a year older had returned. He was at university studying sports science but in my opinion he was in the city studying alcohol and it’s effects on getting women to go home with you. This was evident by the sunglasses he wore to cover the bruise like shadows beneath his eyes. Also, because he was still hungover and too much light hurt his head, as he had explained when Mum had left the room.
“You should never get into alcohol,” Luca told me, reaching for a taste of the apfel grutzer I was making. I batted his hand away and he just laughed, hopping off the stool and excusing himself to go see Ada.
Mum got back into the kitchen shortly after he left with the serving plate to put the chicken schnitzels on. She looked at me with a frown which was explained a moment later.
“Why are you still here?”
“I’m helping you cook,” I answered, not sure where she was going with this.
“No. That is enough, I can do the rest. You go upstairs and take shower. Then spend time with your brother and sister. Ja?”
“Okay, mutti,” I smiled, hanging up my apron and washing my hands. “Danke schon.”
She didn’t know how to accept a thank you. I jogged up two flights of stairs to my bedroom on the third floor. The door was open, revealing the mess I called my room. There were no clothes on the floor, but a variety of books and cds and and films and more books scattered across the carpet. My room, like ever other in this place, was massive, with two levels. The first was even with the hall and had my bed and a few shelves in where my books were supposed to lay. The second floor level was raised just a step, but had all the other important things a teenage boy would need in his room. A huge oak desk for homework and study purposes that sat beneath the wall length windows, a couch against the far wall opposite a television which I seldom used. An odd lamp sat along the wall above the couch, my place of reading.
At the back of my room was a door to my walk in wardrobe and ensuite, which is where I was headed now. At the end of the hanging rack were all my nice clothes of which I would have to wear to dinner. I checked my watch which read quarter to six, meaning I didn’t have time to change into sweats and then again into nice clothes. So I took my shower and dressed in slacks and a dress shirt , fitted with dress shoes and a tie. I gelled my hair into style and went back into my room, contemplating what to do.
Rain was gently splatting on the roof which brought a smile to my face, and it was then that I decided to pick up one of the many books I was in the middle of. I chose the one at the end of my bed with a bookmark towards the end. It was one of the many German novels I had but this one was by far the most interesting.
I sat on the couch and read the remainder of the book which made me want to throw something. I would have thrown the book for killing off the main character and just having a shitty ending in general if I wasn’t so against book cruelty. Instead, I gently placed it on one of my near empty bookshelves and left the room, not wanting to be tempted.
Ada was still in the living room when I got down there except now she was in a dress with her heels at the base of the couch. There was a movie running but her eyes were glued to her phone and every so often, she would smile or laugh and tap on the screen.
“Who are you texting?” I drawled, going over to sit on the couch beside her. She jumped a little at the sound of my voice and proceeded to hide her phone behind her back.
“No one? You seem pretty suspicious for not texting anyone.”
She just rolled her eyes but her hand stayed securely locked on the device.
“Is it a guy?”
“It doesn’t matter, Jacob.”
“So it is?” I prompted.
“So what if it is?”
“Nothing. I’m just curious.” I had to work to keep the atmosphere light. I wasn’t scared to admit that I was a protective big brother but I didn’t want her to think that. Then she would hide things from me like she did with Dad and Royce. I didn’t want that to happen.
“Sure you are,” she muttered, forcing her attention back to the television. “Are you ready for Vati to be coming home?”
I looked out the window, trying to calm myself by looking at the water drops on the window. “I’m excited for his return, not so much his reason for it.”
“Don’t be. What’s the worst that could happen?”
“Do you really want me to list them?”
She rolled her eyes, kicking me lightly with her bare foot. “Stop being so pessimistic.”
“That’s a big word,” I acknowledged.
“Thanks. I learnt it in English.”
“Smarty pants,” I mumbled, standing up when I heard the front door open. I walked out of the room and through the hall to where my big brother was taking off his rain jacket and hanging it on the hook.
He looked exactly like Luca except with hair a bit more black and eyes a bit darker. The difference between the two boys was that Luca was a party guy with an alcohol problem, only in university for the women, whereas Royce was smart, kept his nose in his books and was studying medicine. He wanted to become an oncologist and if that failed, king of Celti. Not that he could fail.
He turned with his usual serious expression which would take him a few minutes to get rid of.
“Is that a smile I see?” I joked, poking his cheek like the annoying younger brother I was.
“Is that a little shit, I see? Oh wait, that’s just your face.” He flicked me on the ear then pulled me into a hug. “Good to see you, man.”
I laughed, patting him on the back and stepping away. “You too, bruder.”
“I would ask how high school is treating you but it seems vati is home and I still need to wash up.” I looked over his jeans and hoodie and nodded.
“You’re right. You look pathetic. Go get changed.”
He punched me on the arm and slung his duffel over his shoulder. “I’ll take that over being the first to greet vati.” Footsteps were nearing the door, thick and heavy and distinctly our father’s. “Good luck, motherf-“
“Royce? Is that you?” It was our mother’s voice coming from the kitchen. Royce’s eyes widened and he ran up the stairs, holding a finger to his lips to tell me politely to shut the fuck up.
Then the door opened and in stepped my father. Black suit, coat, scarf, dark hair combed back, tanned face wrinkled. To say my father scared me would be an understatement, but to say he was the best father in the world would be an understatement as well.
“Jacob, my junge. It’s been so long.”
I let out a low chuckle, shaking his hand as was expected and polite. “Ja. A whole week is so long.”
He removed his coat and hung it beside Royce’s. “It is for me. Did you help prepare dinner?”
We walked slowly to the dining room where Mum and Ada were finishing setting the table. I nodded. “Ja, Vater.”
“And school? Are you learning?”
“Ja, Vater. School is-“ I struggled to find the right word, so I settled for “-good. I miss home though.”
“Your education comes first.”
“I know, Vater, but I want to come home as soon as I can.”
“You didn’t miss your friends?”
“I did. I’m happy to see them. I just like being home and everything feels strange here, after being away for so long.”
“I understand,” he nodded. That was something I loved about my father. He understood everything, could see things from everyone’s point of view and if he couldn’t, he would work until he could. “But you must go to university first.”
Fifteen minutes later we were all seated around our dining room table, the women dressed in their nicest dresses and the men dressed in slacks and shirts. The chandelier reflected off the crystal wineglasses and lit the room with a dim light. It was how my mother liked to eat; she thought she dim lighting made it more intimate. I wasn’t one to disagree with my mother but I preferred the lights turned up.
My father had his seat at the head of the table, a smile on his face crinkling his crinkles, telling us he was happy to be home. He used to tell us, “Home is where your family is, not your house,” and he was always happy to be with us.
Mum was happy he was here, too. She missed him when they were apart, always writing to him as if they were teenagers without the available connection they had to each other. Milena said she thought it was “cute”, and I suppose it was. I more so found their marriage as something to aspire to. I wanted to find someone I loved so much that I would hate to be separate from them. These days, that love was rare to find and hard to keep.
We enjoyed the lovely food Mum and I had prepared while catching up with everyone. The room was lively with conversation that this house had been empty of of late. With Dad in Celti, my brothers living on campus and my sister at university more often than not, we hardly saw each other anymore. It was nice to see what everyone was up to, including Luca who gave very diplomatic answers. Dad would have been proud, if the reasons for his diplomacy were different.
Mum and I brought out apfel grutzer and apfel strudel we had made for desert, including the milch and custard we ate them with respectively.
“Delicious. Danke schon, Claudette,” my father thanked Mum with a loving smile that I felt intrusive to be looking at. I averted my eyes to my empty bowl. “You too, Jacob.”
“Bitte sehr,” I nodded, a peaceful silence ensuing. Or, it would have been peaceful if not for the conversation everyone could feel in the air. It made me think about how I would steal the jet to get away. I could take my car to the small airport about fifteen minutes from here if I sped. That would be long enough for me to be gone without my family noticing. They wouldn’t be able to contact the pilot in time. On the way I would contact the pilot, Fred, and ask if he could make a trip tonight which he undoubtedly would. His family were back in Celti so he’d have no business here. Then I would ask him to fly me back and I’d be home by midday tomorrow.
“As you all know, I have been meaning to talk to you for some time,” Dad started. I gulped. It was too late. I ran my hands up and down my slacks, a nervous habit I’d inherited from my father.
I flicked glances at my sisters, both with frowns creasing their faces. My eyes went to Luca who looked flippant about the whole situation, like he did with any situation, and then to Royce. He sat very still, looking as if he were hardly breathing. That was his tell; he was nervous as well, but he held himself excellently. He’d be a great oncologist. Or King.
“Milena, Ada,” my mother half whispered, but the room was so silent you’d be able to hear a pin drop. “Come. We will give the men space.”
“But-“ Ada started to protest, but knew better than to continue. Milena stood up, smoothing out the skirt of her dress and with a polite nod toward our father, left. Ada followed in a less gracious manner, and then my mother, who closed the doors to the dining room behind her. The sound resonated through the room, making my stomach quiver.
My father took a deep breath, sitting back in his chair with a calculating glance at each of his sons. “Do you boys remember what I taught you about the throne?”
When we moved back to Celti, he had taken it upon himself to educate us on the history and future of Celti but more specifically, the monarchy. The throne. The eldest man must become King after his father has retired or passed. If there are no sons, the King’s next sibling’s eldest son will take it. It was part of the fundamental information we needed to know as royalty. I used to pride myself in knowing it, because I was a show off who liked showing people up. Now, I wished the information had gone in one ear and out the other, like it did Luca.
“My apologies, Vater, but I don’t recall.” He kicked back in his chair, hands behind his head in a posture that belonged at the beach, not the dinner table.
Dad scanned Luca up and down disapprovingly but decided to ignore him. “Royce? Jacob?”
I caught Royce’s eye, a flicker of a smile dancing across them before disappearing. “Ja,” he nodded, speaking to our father now. He recited word for word what we both remembered, earning a satisfied smile from Dad.
“Very good. That has been the tradition or rather, the expectation, for generations and generations, since Celti became a country. But I’m going to change that.”
I took in a quick breath, unable to look my father in the eye. I didn’t want to hear what he had to say but I had to. I couldn't not.
“You three are my sons, and I want to give you all an equal chance to become King. So, over the next two months, I will make it mine and your mother’s priority to be monitoring your behaviour, your lives, to see if you are fit to be my predecessor.” He paused, looking at each of us before continuing. “Of course, if you find something you would rather do here, we will not force you to leave that behind. Whether it be a job, a girl, a life. We won’t deprive you of that. But unless you convince us there is something in this country worth staying here for, you have a thirty three percent chance of becoming the next ruler of Celti.”
The room was filled with this deafening silence, one that sent a shiver down my spine.
I couldn’t become king. It wasn’t the fact that I was too young, rather I couldn’t do it. As much as I loved my country there were too many situations I had seen my father go through that I would not have coped with. I knew in my bones I couldn’t, but my parents wouldn’t see that.
I would feel comforted in the fact that I had two older brothers, however Luca wouldn’t have a shot in a million years. My parents were not oblivious to who he was, not were they ignorant to what he did. Royce was different, but that left it at a fifty percent chance of me getting it, even higher because Royce had the promising career of oncology ahead of him.
It only left one option. I needed to find something that I would rather stay here for. A job. A girl. A life. I was too young for a job that would be enough to keep me out of the throne, as well as a life that would do the same.
I had to think of another way out.
I needed some help.
Nanna was my mother’s mother, a short, passionate woman who got into other people’s business without being invited. Caring was an accurate adjective to describe my grandmother, invasive was another.
Every so often she would invite herself over for dinner, claiming she was lonely while hiding that she was checking up on us. Atlas was twenty years old and Parker, born in January, was eleven months older than my seventeen years. We were perfectly able to take care of ourselves, but Nanna didn’t see that. She saw three children that needed a guardian angel, so she signed herself up for the job.
Tonight was one of those precious nights she was coming over for dinner. Louise, our beyond adequate chef we treasured as part of our family, was almost finished with her famous roast she cooked whenever we had an important meal. She was beyond talented, and for the past few hours she had been teaching me how to prepare it. When she learnt of my culinary skills she set me on the other side of the counter with a cup of tea and a solid foot between me and the nearest knife.
She talked as she cooked, moving effortlessly through our marble kitchen. It was like watching a ballet dancer in Swan Lake instead of a fifty something year old woman cooking. I loved watching her cook, but more so I loved talking to her. She understood me, saying it was because of how similar I was to her daughter of twenty four. I took it as a compliment. Anyone she raised must have turned out good.
Her hazel gold eyes flicked up to the clock above the doorway, then back down to where I was sitting, cross legged with my eighth cup of tea.
“You should be getting ready, Kaia. Your grandmother will be here in an hour.” I followed where her gaze had been trained and saw the hands pointing to six on our rustic analogue clock. I scrunched up my face in response, taking a sip from my mug.
My mug’s name was Willow.
I wasn’t one to name inanimate objects but a year ago I lost my favourite mug. It was the one I would drink out of every morning and every evening, and all the times in between. It was perfect, with the rim just thick enough without being chunky and the handle just big enough without being spacious. When I accidentally knocked it off the kitchen counter where it smashed to pieces on the tiles, I was much more sad than I should have been. It was then I realized I hadn’t given it a name, and it felt wrong that I’d spent so much of my life with this mug which had to die without an identity.
My mug was Willow. She was white and yellow and green and second best to my anonymous mug I’d lost.
Louise chuckled at my expression, checking the amount of time left on her egg timer. “You must. You need to shower and dress and be ready to your grandmother’s standards. I think you need all the time you can get.”
“Are you calling me unkempt?” I joked, raising an eyebrow.
“I’m calling you someone who hasn’t left the house all day or gotten out of her pajamas. Now go. Parker, I’m sure, is dying to help.”
She was. She always wanted to help. Considering a majority of my outfits consisted of shorts and t-shirts, maybe the occasional singlet, she took her pleasure from me being forced into a dress. She took even more from being the one to force me into it.
By the time I had showered and wrapped myself in a towel, she was sitting on my bed in a mid-thigh length lavender shift Nanna would disapprove of. Her hair was pinned so that all of it was falling over her left shoulder, and her face was naturally made up.
“Surprised I’m here?” She asked, standing up with her arms crossed.
“Not in the slightest.”
She chuckled, pushing past me to get to my wardrobe. I replaced her spot on my bed and waited for her choice. In some ways it was easier, as she would chose a dress from my infinite collection to wear. I didn’t have to think about it. I’d just let her take control.
She threw a simple navy dress my way, an A-line one that reached the top of my knees. I slid it on, liking the way it didn’t cling to my body as a lot of the others did.
Parker sat me down in my desk chair and brought out the hair dryer and makeup without a word. It was only when she started to style my hair that she started talking.
“I have two pieces of news that you missed out on today,” she beamed, her voice booming over the sounds of the hairdryer.
“Turn your head upside down,” she ordered. I did as she said.
“The news?” I prompted. It wasn’t often Parker brought anything to attention that was not of relevance to either of us. She liked gossip, but spoke with her other friends about it. I didn’t care for it and she knew it.
“Your ex is bat shit crazy.”
I let out a laugh, resting my head in my hands so to relieve the weight from my neck. She was still drying my roots.
“We already knew that.”
“Yes. But what we didn't know is that he is planning on getting you back. Or at least, trying to.”
“Yay,” I groaned, sarcasm thick in my voice. Why couldn’t he leave me alone? I’d made my feelings clear to him but apparently that wasn’t good enough. “The other piece of news?” I changed the topic, not wanting to ask how he intended to do this.
“Audrey West publicly embarrassed herself in the middle of the main corridor. It was hilarious.”
We didn't like Audrey West. She was the type of person you would rather jump out of a plane to avoid sitting next to. I’d had a strong disliking for her since year seven, where she accused me of trying to steal her boyfriend. I didn’t. We were just friends, but her little year seven brain couldn’t comprehend that boys and girls could be just that. She’d made my life a living hell until Jacob had left – not that he knew that – and even then she despised me. The feeling was mutual.
“I can’t believe I missed that. What happened?”
“She was all over Jacob asking if he was free to catch up and then Hayden comes in and tells her to fuck off because he’s not interested. Then she makes this claim about getting back together with him and she stormed off. It was brilliant.”
“I’m sure I’d find that more entertaining if Jacob wasn't it,” I admitted, frowning as she turned off the hair dryer. She began styling my hair into a loose but elegant bun, with plaits holding it together. My favourite look.
“You really don’t like him anymore, do you?”
I shook my head.
I had to agree. It always sucked losing a friend, which is part of the reason I didn’t have any close ones in the first place. Parker didn’t count because she was my sister; she had to stay with me. We were bound by blood. She wasn’t allowed to leave.
She finished my hair and I put my make up on, then Atlas came and got us because Nanna was here.
I smoothed out my dress before I went down the staircase, my low heels clacking against the marble.
There she was, waiting in the middle of the entrance hall in a basic but expensive looking dress, shall over her shoulders and hair curled into perfect ringlets.
“My beautiful grandchildren,” she greeted, arms held wide open. We each kissed her cheeks and led her into the dining room, where Louise had set the table and left a note under my napkin.
I’ve left chocolate mousse in the fridge behind the fruit salad for dessert. Serve with ice cream or on it’s own. Good luck and see you next week.
I smiled, tucking the note into the pocket of my dress before facing Nanna. She was seated at the head of the table, her posture without fault as she gazed carefully over each of us. Atlas was properly attired in his favourite suit, serving everyone food before serving himself. We all ate in silence, a vast change from when we ate just the three of us. We loved our grandmother, but most of the time we had nothing to say to her. If she kept her visits fewer and further apart perhaps we would have more to say. We all just waited for her to bring up what she came here to say. She never came without intent.
It was after a painful dinner and excruciating dessert that she finally got to the point. She set her half empty dessert bowl to the side and looked toward my brother and sister.
“Atlas. Parker. Would you mind leaving me and your sister alone for a moment to speak?” It wasn’t a real question and they knew it. It was a polite way of telling them to leave. I just shot them a grim smile to let them know it was okay. They nodded, excusing themselves and leaving the room. Knowing those two they would be waiting outside the room with ears pressed to the wall to hear.
Nanna turned on her side so that she faced me front on. I reluctantly looked up at her, waiting for the words I knew were about to come.
“You broke up with your boyfriend, I heard.”
That wasn’t where I was expecting the conversation to drift. “Yes.”
“Why?” She asked, the first time I’d seen her take an interest in my love life. There was an ulterior motive, I was sure.
“I don’t know?” I phrased my statement as if it were a question, as confused as a pickpocket in a nudist camp.
“I do,” she nodded, her lips turning down. “You’re depressed.”
There it was. It’s nothing I hadn’t heard before. “I’m not depressed, Nanna.” I’d told her countless times and I’d tell her countless more.
“Denial is not healthy, Kaia. I hear you stayed home from school today, yes?”
I hesitated. “Yes.”
“Are you unwell?”
“You’re mentally unwell,” she answered for me, as if having a conversation with herself.
I didn’t respond.
“Depression is not something to joke about, Kaia. It is a serious issue that I would not wish upon my worst enemies, never the less my grand daughter.”
“What do you want, Nanna?” I tried to keep the irritation from my tone to little avail. She didn't pick up on it or if she did, she ignored it.
“I want you to do two things. The first is to see a psychologist. The second, is to live with me.”
My stomach dropped. Live with her? I could hardly bare to spend an hour with her over dinner, let alone stay in the same house as her. I wouldn’t be separated from Atlas and Parker either. We had been glued together for five and a half years and I wasn’t about to leave them. I needed them.
“I can’t do those things. I’m happy living with Parker and Atlas.”
“You’re not happy,” she informed me, as if telling me the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell.
I couldn’t convince her of this. I couldn’t even convince myself of this. So I changed my strategy. “What can I do to stay?”
She paused, seeming to think about my question. I’d do anything to stay here, with my siblings, away from her.
“Hmm,” she hummed, clasping her hands together and resting them on the table. “How about this? I will give you two months to stay here and if you can convince me you have gotten rid of your depression by then, you can stay. If you can’t, you are to live with me and that will be the end of it.”
How could I convince her that I didn’t have depression if she didn’t believe me when I said as such? I had no idea, but from her concentrated stare I figured it was the best opportunity I had.
“Two months?” I clarified.
“Mid-April,” she confirmed. “If you can convince me by Mid-April that you are happy, you can stay with your siblings.”
I had two months to convince someone I wasn’t depressed, when I wasn’t. It sounds easy, but I knew it would be the hardest thing I had to do. When Nanna had her mind set in stone and it would be a task and a half to change it.
My shoulders slumped, wondering how the hell I was going to get out of this.
I needed some help.