She looks at me and her eyes are watering.
“If you don’t wish to abdicate, then you will be king. Sooner than you think, sooner than we all hoped. With all you’ve put this family through over the years with your partying and your women and your damn adrenaline sports, you need to step up and be the man we want you to be. We need you to do the right thing and marry someone and start a family and do all the things that a king should be doing.”
This is too much to take. My stomach is starting to twist. I sit back down, my foot tapping rapidly against the floor.
“Have you talked to father about this?” I ask quietly.
“I did,” she says. “He agrees.”
“This is like an arranged marriage.”
“It isn’t when you have a pick of who you marry,” she says stiffly.
“It’s an arranged marriage,” I repeat, looking at her hard. “A marriage of convenience. Or inconvenience since you very well know marriage has never been on my agenda.”
“You’re twenty-eight. It had to be eventually.”
“Why? Because that’s what society says?”
“Phhffft,” she says with a dismissive wave of her hand. “You’ve spent your whole life bucking what society says. Maybe this is about something else. Maybe you need someone, Magnus. You need someone in your life instead of all these, these things.”
“I can guarantee you’re not going to be telling any of my sisters this spiel. You’ve always encouraged them to do what they wanted, to date whomever they wanted, girl power and all that.”
“You’re different, Magnus, and you know it. I encourage them to do what they want because society is always there to try and hold them back. You have no one holding you back. I think it’s time that maybe you did.”
“Right. You’re really selling marriage right now.”
“Do you want to die alone?”
I get up again. “Okay, Mother, no offense, but I think this conversation took a turn for the worse seven minor heart attacks ago.”
She closes her eyes, seeming to compose herself, then gets to her feet. I offer my hand, but as usual, she ignores it. “This went about as well as I thought it would.”
She walks past me, heading to the door.
“That’s it?” I ask. “You’re not going to yell at me? Threaten me?”
She puts her hand on the knob, takes a moment, her shoulders seeming to grow heavier before my eyes, then glances at me. “Come over for dinner tomorrow. It’s been so long since we’ve had the whole family in one place.”
Then she opens the door, steps out into the hall, and the door shuts behind her with a resounding click that seems to echo inside my head.
At six-thirty the next evening, Einar and Ottar practically shove me into one of the royal cars parked around the corner from my apartment and take me to the palace in the city center, which is really only a short drive away. Too short, in my opinion. I told them I could have walked but I think they both imagined me running off into the sunset. My friend Viktor, the Prince of Sweden, got to do that, to run away and pretend to be someone else, and I don’t think I’ve ever been so envious than I am at this moment.
We go through the large palace gates and Einar parks at the back entrance, a lush park surrounding us on both sides. With it being September now, the leaves are slowly turning from green to gold and the nights are getting chilly.
Tor, my mother’s butler, greets us formally and then leads me to the dining room. It’s funny, even though I grew up in this house, I still feel like a commoner in it. The moment I turned seventeen I moved out, and ever since then I’d felt like this place belonged to strangers.
Or maybe it’s because I turned into a stranger to everyone else. This couldn’t be more apparent than when I enter the dining room and see three of my sisters’ blonde heads swivel toward me in eerie synchronicity. I supress a shudder, remembering that Village of the Damned movie I saw when I was young.
There’s Cristina, who is only one year younger than me, though I know she couldn’t be more relieved that I’m next in line and not her. All Cristina wants to do is live with her long-term Italian boyfriend on a Greek island somewhere, living off the land.
Then there’s Britt, in her mid-twenties, a real party animal with mile-a-minute tendencies and grandiose plans for herself which seem to change every minute. At the moment, Britt is planning her move to America where she wants to get an internship in New York, though I can’t say what for since she’s always changing her mind.
There’s also Irene, who is the spitting image of our mother and also finishing up at university for political sciences or something like that. Irene is about as reliable as you get. Some might say boring (I might say boring), but she’s smart and efficient and honestly would make a much better queen than I would a king. There doesn’t seem to be a scheming bone in her tiny little body, but if there were, I bet she’d wish I’d just abdicate already and give the throne to her.
Mari, the youngest, isn’t at the table. She’s seventeen, just finishing up school and still living with our parents here at the palace. Because she’s the last to leave and was a complete “miracle baby,” she’s probably the closest to our parents right now. She’s sweet, compassionate, and always willing to go above and beyond for anyone. But there’s no mistaking her for a pushover either.
I’m not sure how long I seem to stand here at the head of the table, maybe no time at all, but Britt clears her throat and says, “Well, well, well, look who it is. Mr. Sex Tape.”
I pinch my eyes closed, pretending she didn’t just say that.
“Oh my god,” Irene mutters. “Can we not talk about that?”
“It’s the elephant in the room,” Britt argues.
“It’s not proper dining room etiquette,” Irene argues back.
Cristina snorts. “What is etiquette anymore than just an antiquated set of rules set to control our society? It’s a prison of manners, that’s what it is.”
“Hello to all of you too,” I tell them, taking a seat beside Cristina. “Now that it’s out of the way, the elephant has been revealed and shit on all the rules of etiquette or whatever, let’s just go on and pretend it never happened. Okay?”
All three blonde heads nod. Creepy. Do they know they do it in unison?
Suddenly Mari appears at the doorway, giving us all an anxious smile.
“Hi, Magnus,” she says quietly, then addresses everyone else. “Father is coming. He’s, uh, feeling pretty good because of the drugs the doctor gave him, but they don’t give him much of an appetite and they tire him out. He’ll only be here for the soup and then I’ll take him back to his room.”
Here is beautiful young Mari helping my father, the fucking King, like she’s his nurse. Not only is she way too young to be doing this, but it’s reminding me that I’ve been a fucking moron, living my life without a single thought to others, oblivious to the lives straining around me. This is my family, in pain, and I’ve absolutely let everyone down, including myself. Maybe my mother is right. I really should get married. I spent all last night and all today stewing over what a horrible idea this whole thing is and how terribly unfair, and how I wouldn’t agree to it no matter what…
And now I’m thinking maybe this is the kind of punishment I deserve.
As Wayne Campbell says, marriage is punishment for shoplifting in some countries.
So I sit here, tongue-tied and feeling like garbage while Mari disappears around the corner, presumably to get my father.
I glance over at my sisters, and all their brows are furrowed, lips being bitten and gnawed on in fear and sympathy. How much do they know? More than me? Am I the odd one out, the prodigal son with his head in the clouds?
I’m about to open my mouth to ask them how he really is when their attention is diverted to the doorway and my father appears, with Mari and my mother on either side of him, arms hooked around his elbows as he slowly shuffles forward.
My first thought is that it isn’t my father. That they’ve hired some actor to portray him as “sickly” and they’re doing an overdramatic version of it. The way he’s hunched over, the ashen pallor of his skin, his hairline that seems to be reduced to wispy tufts. He’s changed a staggering amount since I last saw him and that honestly was only a few weeks ago. Has he always looked like this only now I’m actually seeing it for what it is?
“Father,” I say, the words escaping me in a hush and I’m ready to get up and help him, embrace him, tell him I’m sorry for bringing all this fucking trouble and shame to us when he’s barely hanging on.
“Sit,” he says with a smile. “You just stay put there, Magnus.” And with those words, his warmth flows through him. He is my father after all, buried beneath an exterior that seems to shrink from pain.
I hang on to that because I can’t let myself fall to worry. If I do, it will be the end of me. I’ll obsess over it, as I often do. I’ll let myself luxuriate in darkness, in pity, in the travesty of it all. I know myself enough to keep out of those low spots when I can.
“I hope dinner is klipfisk,” he says, looking at my mother as she holds on to him. “The Lord knows I have to be nearly dying for you to let Gette indulge that delicacy.”
The word nearly springs some hope into my heart, and of course, we all laugh in relief that there’s something to be laughed about. My mother was raised in a fishing town on the coast where klipfisk is a specialty. It’s salted cod, which makes for a tasty stew or even pizza. No one else in Norway really eats it that much, but when my father was dating my mother, he tried to impress her every chance he had by making it.
Turns out my mother detests the stuff, all while he was growing a real appreciation for it.
Mari pulls out a chair for him at the head of the table while my mother eases him into his seat. I’m surprised they’re helping him and not a private nurse. After all, he is the King and I know he has the best medical care.