The Calling - Merry's Apprentice

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Chapter 4

Month Four

Elves and Holiday

_____________________________

At the beginning of December a light snow had fallen on the lake. This snow highlighted the mountaintops with white caps and left patches of white on the ground to mix with the winter brown and fading green. The average high temperature on Watauga Lake was usually near fifty degrees with lows in the thirties, but so far this December the temperatures were running colder, as if the Aes Sidhe was causing a chill to fall on the area in their search for me. For reasons known only to Merry, he also allowed it to be chilly on the isle and for some snow to fall, too. Chota and I were bundled in sweats and hoodies, as we practiced the war club, or as I called my club: a shillelagh. The weapons were made by Chota from Blackthorn wood in honor of my Celtic heritage.

“Never swing wildly, but swing with purpose, even if the purpose is only to confuse your opponent. Confusion, like surprise, can be a powerful tool in battle, so make use of it,” instructed Chota, as he wielded his war club with style and flair causing the thick heavy stick to disappear in a blur of speed then he stopped as it landed hard on head of the straw stuffed dummy we were practicing on.

“And that wasn’t wild,” I remarked.

“That was style, buckaroo, pure, unadulterated style. I was a master of the war club in my time. I used it against the Yuchi’s enemies on many occasions.”

“Were you a great warrior, Chota?” I asked him.

“Great, now that is a tough adjective to live up to, isn’t it? I was a talented warrior, had a gift for battle, if that is a good thing. I didn’t like battle, but I had a gift for it. But was I great? I think I missed out on great because I failed as a leader.”

“How did you fail as a leader?”

“That is a story for another day. I still have to dazzle you with my expertise with the war club,” bragged Chota.

“Oh, so that’s what you call what you do,” I said then I wielded his blackthorn wood stick first hitting the dummy in the gut then smacking it on the head.

“It seems you have an easier time picking up this weapon,” observed Chota.

“Yeah, I sort of like this weapon.”

“Merry fills your mind and I mold you into a warrior. Teamwork, that is how it is done,” Chota laughed. “Let’s go get something warm to drink.”

“Coffee?”

“I was thinking hot chocolate.”

“That sounds better,” I agreed then I started to speak but stopped.

Chota smiled. He walked up to me and took his club and gently bopped me on the head with it: “You have a question but you don’t want to ask it. I consider you to be a friend, Sean. But more than a friend I consider you as part of my tribe. We are like brothers, so questions are never wrong between brothers. What is it you wish to know?”

“Well, you mentioned that your brother cursed you - why did he do that?”

“Ahh, why the curse, huh?” he said to himself then his face became dark with memories. For a few moments he seemed lost diving in the deep waters of remembrance then his consciousness came back to the surface.

“He had his reasons, I suppose. He did it when I was twenty-one. I stopped aging after that. Maybe he had good reasons, too, but I’m no longer sure. I know I failed my tribe. I was to be our next chief and I failed them. I didn’t want to be chief. It cost many of my tribe their lives, including my father’s life. My brother’s reaction to this great loss was anger, which I understood, but after anger came hate and with hate he cursed me. He placed a shaman curse on me that stays with me until this day.”

“Can you ever break the curse?” I asked him.

“Merry once told me that all things are possible, you just have to be patient and wait for the answer to come to you. Maybe someday I’ll find the answer to break my curse,” he told me then he bopped me on the head with his war club again. “Let’s collect all our gear.”

The two of us rounded up the gear and tools and started off to the cabin. As we approached the cabin, which had dark smoke coming out of its chimney, Merry, dressed in work clothes, came out of the cabin and began chopping wood for the fire.

“Merry,” I called, “do you want me to do that for you?”

“No, no, no, no, I can do it, handle quite well, than you very much,” he said over and over again and shook his head, as he kept chopping wood.

It was odd behavior, but Merry could be odd when he wanted to be. Dropping our practice gear beside the front door, Chota and I entered the cabin. Sitting at a table, a black robed Merry sat reading what appeared to be an ancient, leather bound book, while another Merry also in work clothes cooked our dinner, Irish stew, and even another Merry cleaned up the cabin with a feather duster. Chota chuckled: “Merry, how many other selves can you use at one time?”

“I think eleven,” he replied, “though it might be more than that. I’ve never really tried to push it all the way to my limit.”

“What are you reading?” I asked.

“A rule book,” he answered then he closed the leather bound book, which had gold writing on it in a language I didn’t recognize.

“What kind of rule book?”

“A rule book on the treaties, protocols, and etiquette of the all the realms. It seems that the light elves are upset with me and have requested for me to make retribution to them for my great insult.”

“What did you do?” I asked.

“When I attempted to save you and your parents that fateful night, I crossed through several realms to get to Maine quickly. You need permission to pass through a realm, if you are going to be polite. I had no time for politeness that night. Now I thought all the realms I had used forgave me for this mild abuse, considering the circumstances, but suddenly the light elves want retribution for an act they think discourteous,” he said then he put the book down on the table. “I believe the problem goes deeper than that, though. I believe that the light elves are jealous that the Fey had a visit from the next potential Cathal and they haven’t had one yet and want one.”

“What do they want for retribution then?” I asked.

“To have you for dinner,” Merry answered.

“They want to eat me?” I asked in horror.

“Oh, no, Sean, you miss understood me. I am a little flummoxed. All the other selves are a strain. No, they want to have you as a guest for one of their group dinners.”

“Okay, that doesn’t sound too bad,” I said.

“Well, Sean, are you sure about that?” Merry asked me.

“Merry, I want you to tell him what he is getting into if he dines with them,” Chota demanded.

“All right, I shall try to enlighten him,” sighed Merry. “The elf realm, Alfheim, is not like the Fey Realm. It is more enclosed, much more cramped, and a bit more strange than just about any realm I’ve been to, which is saying a great deal. However, it is not so bad.”

“Oh, come on. Lay it out real for him. It is a bunch of caves, tunnels, and caverns,” added Chota.

“Yes, caves and such. Their realm is made up of cold, dark, dank caves, which they are constantly digging out, expanding, and mining for materials. Besides the fact that their realm is caves, they eat only meat, no vegetables, and it is very undercooked meat at that.”

“How undercooked?” I asked.

“Nearly raw, I dare say. I try never to go into their realm on an empty stomach,” answered Merry.

“Let’s put it this way, I like it when I’m in dog form there, but not in human form,” laughed Chota.

“Is that it? Cramped conditions and bad food?” I asked.

“Well, no, there is something else. Well, you see, they are... how do I say it without coloring your opinion of them,” muttered Merry.

“They’re short and it annoys them, buckaroo, so they are feisty, too,” Chota told me.

“Short? How short?”

“The tallest, and I mean tallest, as in he is historically tall for them, is four-feet six-inches. The average height is four-feet two-inches. They are very, very sensitive about their height, or lack of it. Light elves have known to be insulted just because you look down on them, as if you could look up and see them. Once insulted they want to fight with cudgels until blood is drawn,” Merry explained. “Should I tell them you will have dinner with them?”

“I take it’s best to have the elves...”

“Light elves,” corrected Merry. “There are also dark elves with their own realm. They are associated and allied with the Aes Sidhe.”

“Okay. I take it we need the light elves on our side in order to deal with the Aes Sidhe?” I inquired.

“It would be nice to have them. You see they make the very best weapons out of the iron they mine, which has properties in it that makes their weapons deadly to all preternatural races,” Merry stated.

“I’ll have dinner with them. If I am the Cathal, then I have to learn to lead, which includes showing respect to those willing to follow you. I can’t refuse dinner or their hospitality,” I agreed.

“Very, good, Bear, very good. I knew I could count on you,” said Merry.

“I think he’s starting to come around in all ways,” Chota added.

“I am not allowed to come with you, but they will allow Chota to act as chaperone, but only if he stays in dog form. They prefer him as a dog,” Merry told both of us. “Are you willing, Chota?”

“They still are holding a grudge that I laughed at them the first time I met them.”

“Yes,” answered Merry.

“Oh well. Why not? I hope I don’t get any fleas from them while I’m there.”

“I shall inform them that dinner is on then and that they should prepare for you,” Merry said with relief.

*************

Merry opened the doorway to Alfheim in the trunk of a tree. Though it appeared to be a narrow doorway, he explained that there was no way of getting stuck in it, so there was no need to worry. He then stepped aside as I, wearing black jeans, work boots, a T-shirt and an Irish knit sweater, walked through the doorway with Chota in dog form following closely behind me. The first thing I did as I came through the doorway was hit my head on a low hanging stalactite, much to the amusement of the light elves, who waited to greet me, then I turned and stubbed my right foot on a stalagmite that rose to a height of at least five feet tall. Chota snickered as a dog, as I tried not to curse or be rude.

“Welcome potential great one to our home,” softly said a male’s elf voice.

As they were in a cave and sound tended to reverberate, the elves spoke in low soft voices until they were either angered or feasting then their voices became boisterous and rowdy. I turned myself around and first looked at where I was standing, which was a very, very large cave. This particular cave was lit by glowing white crystals, which were embedded in the walls and gave off enough light to see by. As for where the elves lived I saw that this cave was filled with mud dwellings, scaffolding, mining holes, and elves carrying picks, shovels, and other mining tools. The air smelled slightly stale with the hint of cooked meat and sweat, and was both humid and dank at the same time.

As for these elves, they were truly remarkable to behold. Standing no taller than four-foot two-inches, just as Merry said, their limbs were perfectly proportioned, their appearance attractive with everyone sharing V shaped faces, skin that was milky white pale, and wearing leather clothes with fur trimming. The other thing that I noticed was that the elves’ faces and hands were smudged with soot and dirt from constant mining. It would take several hot soapy showers to even start to get their skin cleaned.

My greeting party consisted of two males, each with white to hay colored hair, and two women with the same colored hair. Their age couldn’t be judged, as they all seemed to be youthful in appearance, so that the only way you could tell a child from an adult was height with children being the smallest creatures around them. The male elf who spoke first spoke again: “I am Tyite. We are honored by your presence in our home, as well as your pet’s presence.”

Chota growled at the elf, who stuck his tongue out back at Chota. It appeared that the elves still held a grudge against him. I suppressed a laugh: “I am honored to be here as your guest and wish to compliment you on your fine home.”

“We have prepared a great fresh feast for you. It will be a glorious feast for those attending,” one of the females said. “My name is Shaneen.”

“In anticipation that you fulfill your greatness, we wish to share food with you. We elves view you as a rough stone, who needs to be mined and polished, a thing of worth and potential but only in the future,” the other female said. “My name is Tyreen.”

“Yes, we honor your potential this one time only in hopes we can honor more than just potential later when you have matured and taken the first step at Bealtaine,” the other male stated in a friendly tone. “My name it Pymite.”

“I hope that I fulfill my potential, so that I can even further honor you for this invitation, as well as future invitations,” I said not sure that what I said made sense or not.

“Are you looking down at me, maybe great one, who has yet to prove himself? Do you look down on this elf?” asked the first male with a harsh tone.

“I look at you, but I do not look down on you,” I responded.

“I think you are looking down on me and you merely hide behind words,” reiterated Tyite.

“I would never look down on you, sir. You are an elf, a great miner, the greatest of weapons makers, and a gracious host, whose invitation I honor and accepted with joy in my heart,” I attempted to calm the situation.

Chota was so impressed with my ability to avoid a fight with the elf that he rubbed up against his leg in support of me. Absentmindedly, I reached down and patted Chota’s head, forgetting he was Chota. Chota nipped my fingers, as a reminder that he looked like a dog, but he wasn’t one.

“Still, I think you look down on me and insult me and my kind. I do not like that. It is tall arrogance, height inspired superiority, which I have disdain for,” said Tyite.

“I look at you. That is all, sir,” I answered.

“He has answered you well and with more respect than you deserve. I think you want a fight from our guest and will not be satisfied with the truth of his words,” Pymite stated.

“Are you accusing me of bad behavior to an invited guest?” asked Tyite.

“Yes, I am,” he answered him.

“I demand blood.”

“I answer it with blood,” Pymite said.

“I shall get the cudgels,” said Shaheen with excitement then she off to one of the mud huts.

Tyite and Pymite moved into the center of the cave, while a crowd of elves started to surround them. The noise in the cave became louder and voices started to echo off the walls causing a cacophony of sound. Chota and I joined the circle watching them. Shaheen returned with two black cudgels. She handed on to each and then joined the crowd to watch.

“First blood!” called out Tyite.

“First blood will be mine,” answered Pymite in a scream of emotion.

The two elves began circling each other slowly, at first, and then they picked up speed until they were almost a blur. With their cudgels they swung causing a whiff sound as they did. Whiff, whiff, whiff. The sound of the clubs grew constant then suddenly the elves attacked each other by rolling on the ground and coming up swinging at each other. I was fascinated by the acrobatic way in which these elves fought. They did rolls, back flips, cartwheels, splits, whatever it took to avoid the cudgel and try to get a clean blow on the other. I was shocked by the speed and agility they possessed. It would take a great effort by me to even touch one.

Chota began to growl with excitement as he watched. It was a spectacle to see and everyone gathered appeared to be enjoying it. I could see that the combatant elves actually thought out their moves in advance, so that which looked spontaneous was in actuality, calculated moves. This impressed me the most about them. This was fighting as chess, a game Merry was trying to get me interested in playing. Now I understood why Merry wanted me to play chess so badly.

Where Tyite seemed to plan three moves in advance, Pymite seemed to plan five movements in advance against him. With a roll, a back flip, followed by a swing of his club to move Tyite into a better position, then another roll and a swing, Pymite slammed his cudgel down on Tyite’s toes of his right foot, causing Tyite to fall to the ground and Shaheen to exit the circle of spectators.

“Review. We must have a review of the wound,” she called out then she walked over to Tyite and waited for him to take off his right boot.

Once the boot was off, she examined the foot. After she checked the foot thoroughly, she stood up and announced: “A bloody piggy toe. Pymite wins. First Blood!”

The crowd burst into a great cheer, as they were satisfied by the battle then everyone walked away and quiet returned. An annoyed, but now silent, Tyite put his boot back on and stood up. With a limp he walked over to Pymite and shook his hand. Pymite then proudly strode over to me: “Come. We must make our way down the caverns to the special feasting hall and your dinner of honor. I shall lead us.”

Through the tight, chilly caverns, Pymite led me in a downward slope towards their great feasting hall. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to slip through certain tight squeezes. On one occasion I got stuck and needed both Chota and Pymite to pull me through, but finally we squeezed through the caverns and exited into a great open space, where eighty elves sat at large concentric tables with on circling another. I counted six tables in total. A space in the middle of these tables had a small table waiting for me and me alone, though Chota went with me.

Trying to not to bump into anyone or knock anything over, I made my way through the small openings, which each circular table had, until I got to my place of honor. A female elf brought me a plate of barely cooked red meat and poured me some kind of hardy brew into a wooden goblet on the table then she left the way she came. I began to sit down for my meal, when an elf at the first table stood.

“We are honored to have you here, potential one,” he spoke. “I am Mirite, the leader of this great cave and you are our honored guest. We have looked forward to feasting with you.”

“And I with you, sir,” I answered him.

“If you are who they say you might be then some day I hope this cave has the honor of forging you a fine blade to use against the Aes Sidhe, as all Cathal need to have legendary blades,” he said then lifted his goblet.

I lifted my Goblet to return the toast: “I would be greatly honored and hope to wield a blade from this cave made by your best craftsmen.”

Mirite smiled: “Then drink and enjoy.”

Mirite drank down the brew. I sampled the dark liquid. It tasted of dirt and wheat with some spices added to it. I didn’t like it, but I knew that I must drink it, so I drank down half the goblet. Mirite noticed some of the brew spilling down my chin and laughed.

“You like it. Your kind usually doesn’t like our brew. It is too much for them. But you do. Good. Bring him more,” he called and the feast began.

The meat was greasy, cold and tough, though I noticed the brew became easier to drink with each succeeding sip. Whenever I could I snuck a piece of the meat under the table to Chota, who seemed to like it. When my plate was empty, a female brought me more, though not as much as before.

Once this plate was empty and I had drunk three goblets of the elf brew I was afraid I was going to be sick. As elves stood and told me stories of their heroism, I felt my stomach beginning to revolt against what I had just eaten and drunk. With great effort I tried not to look sick, though I was sure that I had turned green. Fnally I could not hold back the food and drink. I stood up, bent over and vomited onto the floor of the cave. A great cheer arose in the cave. It was deafening. When I was done vomiting I looked to see Mirite laughing and applauding me.

“You enjoyed your food and drink so much you made room for more. We are greatly honored by you. Finally, we feast with a human who could live as an elf!”

I attempted to smile at the elf, but only managed a weak grin. Chota, who was under the table, made a whining noise. He, too, was ready to go home.

*********

It took Chota three days to get over his stomach ailment from eating the elf food. It took me a week to get over my own distress from their food. During that week, I asked Merry to teach me how to play chess and play it well because I finally understood its importance. This delighted Merry to hear. He then explained that chess was a game of complexity, which included geometry, math, strategy, and, above all, a willingness to look at the whole board and not just focus on a few spaces. It was a game for great tacticians and strategy makers. For most of my convalescence I received chess lessons from a very happy Merry.

Once I was well enough to move about again and able to eat solid food, I returned to the training of mind and body. My viewing of the way elves fought, as well as learning to play chess, increased my understanding of the training with Chota, who saw that I had become a more thoughtful warrior in one leap of observation. Merry was more than satisfied with the advancements I was making, as was Chota.

With that in mind Merry decided to make some changes for our Christmas holiday plans. Originally everyone was going to come to the isle for a visit and a meal, but now Merry thought it would be better if I spent several days’ at Kieran’s house reintroducing myself to my former schoolmates and showing everyone the advances I had made on the isle, then he and Chota would visit on Christmas eve and stay for Christmas day as Kieran’s guests. Here was a chance for me to relax and to gain confidence from letting everyone know how well I was doing. Merry understood the importance in me impressing my old schoolmates, who I had stumbled with in the beginning. With that decided he left the isle to inform Kieran of the plan, leaving me in the care of Chota.

“He thinks you have made great strides and deserves a reward,” Chota told me.

“Why do you say that?”

“He’s letting you off the isle. He wouldn’t do that unless he thought you had made great strides and that you could handle things better than before, and you can. Look at you, Sean. You’ve grown at least three inches, put on fifteen or more pounds of muscle and, most importantly, you have become a good student, one who observes and thinks. Yeah, I think you deserve a Christmas vacation from Merry and me,” Chota praised me. “I have one request, though, before you leave. It is an important request and one that I do not make lightly.”

“What is it?”

“I want to go on a spiritual journey with you. Are you willing to do that, Sean? Are you willing to take a spiritual journey with me?” he asked me.

“I guess so. It doesn’t sound like a bad idea. How do we do it?”

“I prepare a sweat lodge for us then You and I strip down to our underwear, stand around in the thirty degree cold until our body temperature drops enough, then we enter the hot lodge, smoke a chanunpa...”

“Chanunpa?” I asked.

“Peace pipe, buckaroo, we smoke the peace pipe then we purify ourselves, and allow for the spirits to visit us and set us on the right path in our life,” Chota finished explaining. “I believe, Sean, that something good will happen if you take this journey with me.”

“Okay. It sounds kind of cool to me. I’m up for it,” I told him.

“It is many things, but a sweat lodge is not cool,” laughed Chota. “I’ll make preparations. It’ll take me most of the day, so meet me once the sun has truly set here.”

“No problem, Chota,” I responded then I paused. “Why me? Why do you want to go with me?”

“My people are virtually gone. What few Yuchi are left, they are part of other tribes, but not a tribe of their own. Yet, I think of you as part of my tribe. I have bonded with you, Sean, which is something I have done with few since the day I was cursed. That is why I feel this journey will be good to take with you.”

“Wow, Chota. I’m honored.”

“You should be,” he winked. “Now I have lots of work to do for tonight.”

The preparations that Chota made were to build a wickiup for the lodge. The wickiup was comprised of slender withes of willow lashed together with root cordage, which was covered by animal skins and some mud to make sure that the heat would not escape. It had a low dome, no higher than five feet high, with a rock pit in the middle for the hot stones. The entrance to the wickiup was a long tunnel facing east and several feet from the entrance he built the sacred fire pit where the stones for the lodge were to be heated.

Merry thought the sweat lodge would be a good experience for me, a chance for both further bonding with Chota, as well as expanding my experiences in the preternatural planes, so he volunteered to make sure that we had plenty of rocks. Once the sun had fully set, Chota and I met at the wickiup and prepared to go into the lodge. Chota had prepared a loincloth made of animal skin for me. He also wore one. It was a chilly thirty-eight degrees, once the sun set. As I was prepped by Merry, I brought some tobacco leaves to offer the sacred fire, which I offered to Chota, who placed them on the fire.

Chota took a handful of Mexican sage bush and lit it on fire then gently blew it out. With the smoke of the sage he anointed both himself and me then he took some of the sage ash and smudged my forehead with it then his own. Standing away from the fire and allowing the cold to set into our bones, we were now ready to enter the lodge. Chota led the way. Before getting down on all fours and crawling into the lodge, he bowed to the sacred fire, which represented the Great Spirit. I did the same then we crawled into the lodge where we sat crossed legged around the stone pit. The lodge was dark and extremely cold. Chota spoke: “You are free to leave if you wish.”

I did not speak nor did I leave. This pleased Chota, as he spoke again: “We shall have a short contemplative silence then the stones will be brought in.”

In the dark and silence, Sean sat in the cold, emptied my mind, and listened to the silence. I heard very little, some crackling from the great fire outside of the tent, the wind blowing against the animal skin, Chota’s breathing, and my own. The cold was starting to creep deeper and deeper into my bones, when Chota called: “Awaken the Stone People spirits. Please, bring in the stones to heat the lodge.”

Merry opened the flap to the lodge and crawled into the lodge bringing a large stone. He wore fireproof gloves, and he placed the stone in the pit then he left. Immediately, another Merry brought in another stone then another and another until using Other Selves he filled the stone pit then he left and closed the flap behind him. Besides bringing warmth the stones brought luminescence. Sitting beside Chota on his left was the water drum, which he now sounded by beating on it then on his right was a wooden water bucket with a large wooden ladle. He scooped some of the water out of the bucket and poured it over the stones causing a great release of steam. Chota did this four times for each of the four directions then he prayed: “Sacred One, put our feet on the holy path that leads to you and gives us strength and the will to lead others past the darkness we have entered. Teach us to heal ourselves and heal the world. Great Spirit, please assist us in our journey. Clear your mind and let the journey begin.”

He then put another ladle of water on the hot stones brining about even more steam and heat. If outside of the sweat lodge was cold, the inside the lodge was now a cauldron. I felt my body produce sweat. It felt as if my every pour was now sweating and my body was completely covered in wetness. I closed my eyes and let the heat envelope me, overwhelm me, take me on a journey.

“Here,” he heard Chota’s voice say and opened his eyes. He was extending the Chanunpa to him. It was a long wooden pipe with symbols painted on it and a white feather hanging from it near the mouthpiece. “Take a puff or two of the pipe then hand it back to me.”

I did as I was told then I handed the pipe back Chota, who took several puffs of it. He then placed it down beside him. I closed my eyes again and allowed myself to open up to whatever was to come. I wasn’t sure how much time passed, since time became meaningless after awhile, but I heard a low growl come from inside of the wickiup, so I opened my eyes. A pure white wolf stood beside a man, who looked very much like Chota in appearance. The man was older than Chota, but not old and also wore a loincloth. He patted the white wolf and the animal stopped growling. I looked over to Chota, who was staring at our visitor.

“Hello, my brother,” the man said in a deep voice.

“Hello, Tansi, Shaman of the tribe,” Chota replied with a hint of nervousness in his voice.

“It has been a long time, brother,” Tansi said.

“Yes, it has,” was all that Chota replied.

Tansi looked at me and said: “You are my new brother, huh? I hope you honor the family that Chota has allowed you to become part of. We are a proud people, a great tribe, who expect our people to do us proud. You may not be born into the tribe, but you are now part of it and will be judged so.”

“I will honor it and bring pride to the tribe in my actions,” I said.

“Good. My brother has done well you with you, which is why I am allowed to visit this realm. He has shown that he would have been a great chief, if he had become one,” he replied then looked at Chota. “There is much pain between us, many mistakes. Some are yours, but some are mine.”

“You cursed me, brother. The pain of that curse has lingered with me, my brother,” Chota stated with a pain in his voice that was fresh.

“I know that it has. It has lingered with me, also. I am ashamed that I cursed you, my brother,” he answered with regret. “A shaman curse made cannot be unmade, though. It must be overcome by good acts and purification. I wish I could make the curse fly away on the wind, but I cannot do that.”

“But my curse can be overcome, brother?” asked Chota excitedly.

“Yes, it can.”

“How can I do this?”

“The Great Spirit expects much of you now, if you are to be allowed to live the rest of your life out without the curse then reside with the tribe in the afterlife, you must defeat the evil spirit Jumlin, the blood drinker, who continues to prey on those in this realm. Defeating Jumlin, sending him to the spirit realm forever, or by dying in a great effort against him, and you will bring honor to the Yuchi and overcome the curse I placed on you.”

“Brother, I will then be allowed to age like any other man and eventually rejoin the tribe?” Chota asked with great emotion in his voice.

“The great dogman will be allowed home,” Tansi stated and the white wolf growled.

“Where can I find Jumlin?” asked Chota. “I will slay him right now if he is close.”

“He is allied with our new little brother’s enemy, the Aes Sidhe. Fight with your new brother and Jumlin will find you,” Tansi told him. “I must go now, brother.”

“Thank you, Tansi,” responded Chota.

“Do not thank me, Chota, thank the Great Spirit and do our tribe a great honor.”

“I shall try my brother,” Chota said in a soft voice.

“We await you, my brother. You are missed,” Tansi said then faded away leaving us.

I noticed that Chota had a smile on his lips and tears in his eyes. I sat quietly letting him have some time.

“Thank you, my new brother,” Chota said to me.

“You don’t have to thank me. It was an honor,” I replied.

“Yes, I do. I could not have made this journey alone and I could not have chosen a better companion.”

“Then I should thank you. I always wanted a brother and now I have one,” I told him. Chota was teaching me things about family I never knew and it made me feel both more connected and stronger.

“You’re welcome, my little brother,” said Chota.

**********

In his cherry red Oldsmobile Merry dropped me off at eight in the morning for my Christmas vacation. The house had a Christmas wreath hanging from almost every one of the many windows, and two of the trees outside of the house were decorated with gold bulbs, red ribbons, and lights. Suddenly, it felt like Christmas to me. My mother loved decorating for Christmas, so seeing the ornaments and the colors of Christmas made me feel as if a part of her and my father survived in the spirit of the holiday. I took a deep breath and waved goodbye, as Merry drove away to return to the isle.

I didn’t have any bags, since most of my belongings were still in my room at Kieran’s. With a new sense of confidence and of feeling at home I walked up the steps of the house and knocked on the door. Within moments, Lucan opened the door. When he saw it was I he broke out in a big smile.

“Hey, Bear, it’s got to be almost two months since I’ve last seen you,” he said then stood aside and let me into the house. “You’ve gotten big.”

I walked in and then offered Lucan my right hand and said: “A warrior always offer a friend his sword hand, or so someone told me once.”

We shook hands. I noticed that the first floor family room had a fully decorated seven foot tall Christmas tree with an angel on top and dozens of gifts underneath it waiting to be unwrapped. Also, there were stockings hanging from the fireplace mantelpiece. From the hall I read the names on the red Christmas stockings: Kay, Fin, Lucan, and there was one with the name Bear on it. I smiled then slowly walked over to the stockings. I touched the one named Bear then my eyes drifted over to the gifts. My name was on several of the packages gift tags, which surprised me. I had gifts waiting here for me. They hadn’t forgotten about me.

Memories of my parents came flooding back to me unwrapping like presents of Christmas day. These memories were not so much burdens causing me to feel pain, but gifts of remembrance. Images of going to Christmas Eve Mass with my parents then returning home and being tucked into bed, but not being able to sleep for thoughts of morning gifts and my parents’ joy at watching me unwrap my presents. More memories of Christmas of the past, time spent with my beloved parents, gifts appreciated but never more than those who gave me those gifts. I found tears clouded my vision, but they weren’t tears of sadness, yet they were tears of fondness and thanks. In their time my parents had given me everything I needed to become whatever it was I was to become.

“Hello, Sean,” I heard my uncle’s voice behind me. “I hope you don’t mind that we put up a stocking for you and got some gifts for you. Merry said you probably wouldn’t fit into any of your old clothes because you’ve grown so much and you have.”

I turned around and looked at my Uncle Kieran, who noticed the tears. Suddenly, I realized that Kieran raising a son alone under unique circumstances and he had brought me into his family without any hesitation or qualms. He could have let Merry take me, especially when I seemed not to want to be part of any family, but he was willing to give it a try. Wiping away my tears, I walked over to my uncle and gave him a warm, heartfelt hug.

“Thank you for making me part of your family, Kay. I really do appreciate it more than I can say and more than I have shown you,” I said.

“Oh, you’ve always been family, Bear. No need to thank me, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Family doesn’t have to explain itself,” Kieran hugged me back.

I took a step back and grinned slyly at him: “I haven’t been the best nephew in the world.”

“You had your reasons for the way you acted, good reasons,” Kieran said then he wiped back a tear of his own. “Now your cousin is in class, so do you want me to make you some breakfast?”

“Actually, I thought of visiting the class just now. I think I have a few things to say to everyone. Fintain and the rest have grown up in a world where early on they knew they had a purpose, a purpose they have never been allowed to avoid, seem to never have doubted, and they haven’t complained about it. I haven’t shown them the proper respect, so I was thinking of going over to the barn and...”

“And re-introduce yourself to them,” Kieran said with great pride.

“Yes.”

“I think that is a good idea. Go ahead.”

Strolling out of the house, I made my way to the barn. Instead of knocking, I opened the door and entered the schoolroom. Morgana was teaching them a history class by presenting them a slide show on Scottish Highland history with a Merry-other-self adding facts and insights for them. The class stopped when I entered unannounced and they turned their faces towards me. Although none of them had a reason to wish me well or give me a second chance, I knew that they would. They had been raised that way, especially since I was the potential Cathal.

“Hey, Sean,” Wayne called out happily. “Geeze, what is Merry feeding on that isle of his? You’re getting big, grande even.”

I nodded towards him and then walked to the head of the class, where Morgana gave me a hug and the Other-Self-Merry dissolved away. I turned to face my former classmates. The first eyes I caught were Branwyn’s. She was beaming with delight that I was there. For reasons I didn’t understand staring at her made me feel uncomfortable and my cheeks began to burn, so I looked away and ended up staring into the eyes of Etain, who blushed. This also made me uncomfortable so I tried to avoid all eye contact.

There, everyone sat: Lance, Wayne, Garth, Fintain, Cedric, Etain, Branwyn, and Benedict. I took a deep breath, cleared my throat, and spoke: “I just wanted to come here and say that I’ve been kind of a jerk since I came here and I wanted to apologize to all of you for that. Since my first day here, I’ve acted like a bit of a brat, not really wanting to fit in or get along with anyone, and I’ve shown a lack of understanding for what it is you are all preparing for here, what you are learning and becoming. Now I do understand. And now that I really do understand, I just wanted to say I’m sorry and that I hope that soon I will be ready to join you in your training and schooling here. Also, I wanted to wish you all a Happy Christmas and hope that we are able to enjoy the festivities together before I go back to the isle.”

“You’ve grown a bit, Sean. I think you got some real muscles now. They must be working you hard,” Fintain said with a tone of appreciation.

“Yeah, it seems you’ve grown not just in height, but in other ways, too,” added Benedict.

“I heard you visited the elves,” remarked Branwyn, who a smirk. “How did you like the food?”

“I was sick in bed for a week. It was disgusting. I think it was the drink more than the food, though. Chota was sick for three days. It was horrible actually, but it did give me a chance to learn how to play chess from Merry.”

Everyone laughed at this. I exhaled and most of my discomfort had left me.

“We’ll have to play a game of chess then,” Benedict stated.

“Sure.”

“If you beat me then you can play Lance. He is the champ among of us,” Benedict told me.

“I’ll try my best,” I retorted.

“I heard you drank a whole bottle of their brew and two plates of their meat,” Branwyn laughed, “you’re lucky you were only sick for a week.”

“You’ve been to two realms. Most of us have never been to one, except for Branwyn and Lance,” said Benedict.

“Yeah, I’ve been to the Fey and to the Otherworld Realm once for a visit,” Branwyn stated.

“Where have you been?” I asked Lance.

“The Fey and to Avalon to visit my mother,” Lance answered me much to everyone’s surprise.

“Avalon, really? Avalon?” I said with surprise that Avalon was an actual realm.

“I was born there, but I’ve been raised here by my father,” Lance told me without having it pried out of him.

“I heard that Chota made you an actual member of his tribe,” said Lance, “at least, Merry told us that. He was proud of you.”

Though he excelled at most things, Lance usually remained silent in class and quiet out of class, but suddenly with me he was speaking. This surprised everyone.

“Yes, he did make me a member,” I replied.

“That is really amazing,” commented Wayne. “Can you make me a member of the tribe?”

“I’m afraid only Chota can do that.”

“I want to join, too,” Wayne retorted.

“All right. I can see where this is going,” Morgana said. “School is cancelled until after Christmas. Why don’t you all go decorate something?”

*******

It was four o’clock on Christmas Eve and Kieran basted the roast, while Lucan, Morgana, and Thomas Lake waited on the porch for Merry and Chota to appear for their visit. Though it was chilly outside, everyone had a sweater on and didn’t mind the cold. It also helped that Merry seldom made visits such as this one. On holidays I’d been told he could be found on his isle and if you wanted to see him to wish him a happy holiday, you went to him. He said that this was one of the privileges of being considered an antique.

Along with the rest of the class, Fintain and I had gone off with a football to play a game. Not far from Kieran’s house there was a cleared out area large enough to play a game of touch, or tackle, as Fintain preferred, football. Fintain preferred to play the roughest form of every sport. He said it was part of his heritage as a warrior. We walked through the woods to get to this field. Everyone was excited to play, especially me since I wanted to test my burgeoning physical abilities against those who had been developing theirs for som many more years than me. I wanted to see just how far I had come and how far I had to go.

As we walked Branwyn teased Fintain and Cedric, who both enjoyed her ribbing, while Wayne and Garth argued over nothing important, which it appeared that they did more and more as they got older. Since Benedict and Etain were in a deep discussion over the moral ethics of using spiritual or mystical powers to gain success in the real world, Lance and I ended up walking together at the end of the line.

“Um, so,” Lance started to speak to me, “did you like the Fey?”

“Yeah. The Fey were amazing and that place is mind blowing. I drank wine pressed from flowers and skated on water. It was delicious.”

“Yeah. The flower wine made me a little drunk. My mother was embarrassed because I became too talkative.”

“Me, too. When were you there last?” I asked.

“I was there about six months ago. My mother had made one of the Fey my godmother, so I get to visit there occasionally to visit my godmother. I kind of like it there. It’s peaceful, reminds me a little of Avalon, though it looks nothing like Avalon. It just has the same peaceful feel to it, like nothing bad can happen there.”

“I can see why you like it there. I hope to visit again,” I replied. “So, what is Avalon like?”

“Well, um, do you like living on Merry’s isle?”

“Yeah, I do. It’s fun.”

“Well, um, Avalon will make you forget that his mist isle even exists. You see it is, um, like home to me. I love it there,” he admitted.

“Really? You don’t like it here in the human realm?” I asked him.

“No, that’s not it. Here is okay. I just don’t feel like I fit in here. You see, um, everyone here started to gain their added gifts in the last year or so and are just starting to develop them. They had years where they were normal, though their parents knew to start training them for the inevitable jobs ahead of them. Because of my mother, because of who she is, I was born with my gifts, so I’ve never really fit in. I’ve always been different.”

“I’m not sure that is such a bad thing, you know, being different,” I told him.

“Really, why?” he asked in return.

“I never knew what was going to happen to me, never knew that I had hidden gifts, which would some day come out. My parents kept it from me to protect me. I mean it kind of blew my mind when I finally found out. I just wasn’t prepared for it; I didn’t want to believe any of it. I acted like everything was cool, but I’m still kind of freaked out by it all,” I explained.

“I guess,” replied Lance, who then looked down at the grassy trail. “I guess you and I are kind of similar in a way, as neither one of us feels completely comfortable with who we are. We’re kind of misfits.”

“Yeah, in some ways, we sort of belong on the island of misfit toys, but we don’t have a choice, do we? It’s not like we can be someone else,” I told him. “Can we?”

Lance smiled: “I guess.”

As we came out of the woods into the field, we saw that some college students, wearing Duke T-shirts, were playing there own game of football. Three guys on three guys played, while four college girls cheered them on. Fintain groaned with disappointment.

“There goes that. And I wanted to play some football, hit some people,” he said.

“So show off your strength,” Branwyn teased him.

“Why do we have to leave?” asked Cedric.

“Because we can’t play in front of them or play against him, Cedric. You know that,” he said.

“Yeah, we would show them up if we played them. We aren’t supposed to show people up and make them suspicious,” Branwyn added her opinion.

“Why?” Cedric asked again.

“Cedric, do you ever pay attention in school,” Fintain exhaled in frustration.

“No... I mean yes. You guys don’t get it,” Cedric defended himself. “Why do we have to hide from college students? Let’s play them and kick their butts. They won’t want to tell anyone that a bunch of thirteen and fourteen year olds kick their butts. They won’t tell anyone anything.”

“He has a point,” Benedict agreed. “Their egos won’t allow them to talk about it and we get to test ourselves against fully matured individuals. I like the idea. Sometimes it gets tiring holding back.”

“Me, too,” added Wayne.

“What do you think, Sean?” asked Garth.

“Sounds pretty good to me.”

“Excellent!” exclaimed Fintain, who then walked boldly over to the college students. Branwyn followed after him, as did Benedict, who was burning to do something other than practice the druid arts.

“Hey, wanna play us?” called Fintain.

One of the students, a tall brown hair guy, playing quarterback for the team of three with the ball, laughed. He looked at smallish Branwyn, tall Benedict and brutish Fintain and cracked a joke: “baby hillbillies come out to play.”

His friends laughed, which made Fintain all the bolder: “Listen, I bet six on six that we could beat you by at least two touchdowns. And we are willing to play tackle, too, if that makes you feel better.”

“That’s sound like a brag that could get you into trouble, kid. Why don’t you go home and play the banjo?” the quarterback goaded Fintain.

“You haven’t either the skills or the intelligence to beat us,” Benedict spoke up.

“Intelligence,” one of the other college students laughed. “Football doesn’t take intelligence.”

“It is that thought process which shows your lack of mental endowment and understanding of a complicated warrior’s game.”

“I think we should play these kids some tackle football and shut them up,” another of the college kids said.

“Who is your quarterback?” the quarterback asked.

“Him,” Fintain said and pointed to me.

The quarterback threw a long pass to me, which I almost dropped it. Although football was my favorite sport, it had been some time since I hand played it. I gripped the football and pretended to take a hike with it then I dropped back and threw a bullet pass all the way to Benedict, who caught it softly with one hand.

“Whoa,” said one of the college students.

“Fintain, Benedict, Wayne, Garth, Lance, and myself will be the team,” I called out, as I started to jog onto the field. Branwyn glared at Sean and marched right up to him: “Why not me?”

“Branwyn, it will be embarrassing enough for these guys to lose to us. If we let you and Etain play against them then they will have to start wondering if we are on steroids or something, as you kick their butts. Remember, we don’t want too much attention.”

“I wanted to play,” she glowered.

“I’m sorry. I guess I have a way of disappointing you,” I said with a shrug.

“Yes, you do,” she answered.

With a dark cloud over her head, she marched over to where Cedric and Etain sat on the grass to watch and plopped herself down. I saw Etain smile blandly and tell her: “Sorry.”

The game lasted less than an hour and the final score was an embarrassing 56 to 14. The college students couldn’t keep up with us running, throwing, or even tackling. We were a unique and special group of thirteen and fourteen year old boys. The best effect the game had, though, was to show to me that I could lead them, if I really was the Cathal. I called the plays, threw the passes, and even called the defenses and no one argued with me.

We returned to Keiran’s house to find that Merry and Chota, as well as parents of the rest, had arrived and dinner was ready. I was amused to see that Chota wore jeans, a plaid work shirt and jean jacket and cowboy boots that seemed to be from 1880s in style, while Merry dressed as a college professor. It was so chilly out we had our meal inside instead of outside. The dining room, as well as another room, was used. With plenty of cheery conversation and banter, the meal consisted of one twenty pound turkey, one large roast, backed potatoes, garlic mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, roasted sweat potatoes, green beans, and biscuits. Before desert was served Merry stood up and called for an announcement.

“Can you hear me in the other room, as I have an important matter to share with all of you,” he called out.

“Yes, Merry,” I called back.

“Good. I have an announcement to make that is quite good. The Otherworld Realm Kings Arawn and Gwynn Nudd have made a formal invitation of the one who might be the one for a visit to their realm, which I have accepted on your behalf, Sean. So at 12:03 on New Year’s Eve, Sean and I will travel to Annwyn, the Otherworld Realm,” Merry announced and motioned me to stand, which I did.

“A visit to yet another realm,” Kieran spoke up, “should he really do that, Merry? Aren’t they putting a lot a pressure on the lad before he even is given the test to see if he is the Cathal?”

“At first, I agreed with that particular point of view, as I had my qualms about putting too much pressure on Sean, also. I feared that applying further pressure to our young Bear would be detrimental to his advancement, but after seeing how well Sean has handled the Fey and the elves, I believe this will add no more pressure to him at all, but will stimulate further growth,” argued Merry.

“But the more realms he visits the more the Aes Sidhe will be forced to make another move on him. Who knows what they’ll try next or where they will try it?” Kieran countered.

“I agree with him,” Chota spoke up. “We should be careful how much danger we put Sean in. He is a member of my tribe.”

“I shall put him in as much danger as need be for him to be in to become who he needs to be. Now that was an ugly sentence, wasn’t it? Anyway, getting many of the realms behind Sean will only benefit him in the end,” Merry stated in a tone that let everyone knew there was nothing more to argue about.

“He is one of my tribe now, Merry. I must look out for him. I am bound to do so, you know that,” Chota stated.

“I understand, Chota. Family is family, as you are part of Sean’s family now.”

“I just say we should be cautious with Sean and not push him too quickly or too hard. The Aes Sidhe do not want to face another Cathal,” Keiran added.

“That is understood,” Merry agreed then he looked over at me. “Now this visit will last several days, as Annwyn, the Otherworld Realm, is home to several races and each will expect a short visit from you. Each will want to see the boy who would be king. Arawn asked if you would like to bring a friend, a companion, with you on this visit, Sean, for comradery and support. Would you like to take someone with you?”

I looked at the faces of my classmates wondering if I should bring one of them with me to this new realm. Benedict, who could handle himself, seemed uninterested to visit; Etain, I didn’t know her well enough yet; Fintain was my cousin and it might seem like favoritism if I brought him; Wayne had been supportive of me since I came here, but I was rowdy and got into trouble easily; Garth didn’t go anywhere without Wayne; Cedric wouldn’t want to be bothered to make the effort; Branwyn would love to go, but she made me feel uneasy and that made it hard for me to be himself; and then there was Lance. He had been to two realms already. I looked at Lance, who stared down at his half eaten plate of food.

“I’ll take Lance with me, if he wants to come along,” I announced then I looked over at him.

“That would be great,” Lance replied with surpise in his tone.

While the adults congratulated Thomas Lake on his son being chosen; Fintain, who sat next to Lance, slapped him on the back to congratulate him, while Wayne applauded him from his chair. Lance looked up from his plate and stared with surprise at me. I nodded at him and he returned the nod with a grin, then I looked over at Branwyn, who glared at me. I blushed and then I sat back down.

Branwyn continued to glare at me. I could feel her stare burning a hole in me, so I glanced over at her and mouth the words: I’m sorry. She mouthed the words: Not good enough. I’ll make it up to you, I mouthed to her and she responded by saying: you better then she made Lance’s uneaten mashed potatoes be blown off his plate and into my face. Everyone at the table laughed, even I had to admit, it was a little funny.

Morgana, though, wasn’t amused: “Branwyn, young lady, we do not use our gifts to throw food at our friends. Besides being rude, it is unlady like.”

“Why not use your gift to toss food, Morgana?” said Kieran. “I remember when you used to do that sort of thing yourself. Heck, I remember having mashed potatoes tossed in my face as a kid by you.”

“Really, you remember that and you choose to bring it up now to undermine my parenting in front of my child,” Morgana fumed then she caused the little potatoes that were left in the bowl on their table to find Kieran’s face, causing the adults to laugh this time.

“Well, I guess I deserved that,” Kieran said.

“Me, too,” I said in agreement.

“You did,” Morgana and Branwyn said in unison from different rooms.

“Now, can we have the rest of this dinner without a food fight please?” asked Merry. “I have enough skills to dose you all in food.”

“Yes, Merry,” Morgana and Kieran said in unison then we broke out into laughter.

************

In my bedroom off of the kitchen, I slept restlessly in my bed. A nightmare skulked on the outskirts of my sleep. It was a dark nightmare waiting to invade. I saw flashes of images of a large, looming black bird, which I knew instinctively was a messenger from the Aes Sidhe. It hovered there patiently biding its time to deliver a dark nightmare to me, but I fought it back. I kept that black bird from pushing my dreams away and forcing a nightmare on me through the force of will power.

In a cold sweat I awoke with a start in the blue darkness of the bedroom. I expected to see the black bird in the room with him. Wiping the sweat away from his brow, I calmed my breathing, which was huffing and puffing along. An urge to get out of the bedroom overcame me. Quickly, as if my life depended upon it, I got up and went into the kitchen.

“Morrigan are messengers. They force themselves into your dreams with warnings, cautions, fears, and whatever else the Aes Sidhe think will weaken or frighten you. They are nightmare creatures, even when they are not in your nightmares. Be careful xof them and never take them lightly,” Merry said to me from the doorway to the kitchen.

“So you’re awake,” I said.

“Yes. I felt the Morrigan trying to invade your dream world. I wanted to see if you were strong enough to repel it and you were. I was delighted with that. It shows your will is strong. Congratulations, Bear, you are becoming the man I always thought you could be,” Merry pronounced with pride.

“Thanks.”

“The Morrigan will try to invade your dreams again and if that doesn’t work, they’ll attack you when you are awake. They can inflict horrible hallucinations, make you not be able to move out of fear,” warned Merry.

“I’ll fight them off, asleep or awake.”

“I know that you will,” he smiled.

“Are you hungry?” I asked.

“A bit peckish, a tad staved, a smidgen ravenous, a wee bit belly-emptied,” he answered.

“Me, too,” I replied then I walked over to the refrigerator door and opened it.

Scanning the contents i saw a platter of cold roast beef, some cold cuts, a half eaten apple pie, a cold roast chicken, and much more. i was about to tell Merry what they had available when he heard a new voice.

“I want roast beef sandwich. Yeah, that would do me some good,” Lucan said.

“I’m thinking pie with my sandwich,” Chota.

“Me, too. I’m, feeling a little more than hungry,” Kieran stated.

“I’ll have a little bit of everything. I’m real hungry,” Fintain mumbled while still half asleep. A giant yawn broke open his jaw and what sounded like a moose call followed.

“Is it hunting season already?” asked Kieran.

“That was a remarkable imitation of a moose,” commented Merry, causing Fintain to blush.

“Well, since it is two in the morning and official Christmas day then why don’t we grab some food and take it into the Christmas tree and open gifts,” Kieran suggested.

“Sounds like a worthy idea,” remarked Merry. “I, for one, want a roast beef sandwich with some good old English mustard on it.”

“Lucan, get the mustard,” Kieran ordered.

“Everybody who wants a roast beef, please line up behind me,” announced Merry.

“I’m there,” I yelled, who got in line behind Merry, then Chota got in line behind ME.

“I want chicken sandwich and pie,” Fintain said.

“All right, I’ll have the same as my little boy, who is going to be bigger than me,” agreed Kieran. “What about you, Lucan? Are you sure about the roast beef sandwich?”

“I’m having the bloody roast beef after taking all this time to find the mustard,” he said as he finally found the jar of English mustard.

“I’ll put on some water for coffee and hot chocolate,” Kieran told everyone.

With sandwiches, pie, and mugs of hot drinks, the group of us found ourselves seated either on the sofa and the floor around the Christmas tree. Fintain and Kieran sat crosslegged near the gifts eating their food.

“Guests get their gifts first,” Kieran said. “Fintain grabbed Merry’s and Chota’s gifts.”

“Sure, dad.”

Fintain put down his sandwich on the plate and dug three gifts out from behind the tree. He handed Merry his gift then handed one of them to Chota. Each man started to unwrap his gifts.

“Comfy slippers, I love them,” Merry said with great appreciation.

“A dog collar,” laughed Chota.

“We were afraid you might not like the dog collar, as you like to run wild, so we got you another one, too,” Kieran told him. “Fintain, give it to him.”

Fintain gave him the other present behind his back. Chota opened it with gusto. In a clothes box was a Washington Redskins sweatshirt. Chota beamed with delight.

“I think that this is best Christmas I’ve ever had. Of course, I have spent most of my Christmases as a dog running around on a beach avoiding people,” Chota said.

“Well, you’re invited back next year and the next and the next ad infinitum. You are one of us now Chota,” Kieran said to him.

I looked about him. Everyone seemed so happy. This would have been a perfect Christmas if my parents were here. But they weren’t here and would never be here. Yet, I felt their presence, though, and that had to be enough.

“Now, I think we should let the young ones open their gifts,” Kieran said then he looked at me. “You’ll find mainly clothes. I mean Merry told me you had outgrown everything, so I thought we get you some replacements.”

I unwrapped a large package and opened the box. It was a new XXX large new Bill Belichick hoodie. A smile broke across my face. I still had family, a good family.

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