Sean – Jo Jones

Sean!” “Aye, da?” Six-year-old Sean McCulloch peered up the great height of his father. Though Da’s expression was hard, as always, his eyes were soft. At length, he sat on a stool and beckoned Sean closer. Da’s large hands landed heavily on Sean’s shoulders. “Ye’re no’ a bairn any longer, but a lad well on his way tae becomin’ a man. I’ve but one birthday gift tae give ye, son, and I charge ye tae treasure it all of yer days, for there is naught more powerful or precious I could give.” Sean beamed, eagerly anticipating this rare gift from his father. ’Twas no secret he longed for the wee knife da kept on the high shelf. He’d even let Sean hold it once, explaining the weighty responsibility of owning such a weapon. What Da dinnae ken were the times Sean guiltily climbed up to sneak the knife from the shelf, savoring the feel of it in his palms, anticipating the day it might be his. He’d secretly practiced gripping the hilt with his too-small fingers and imagined helping Da protect their family by fending off attackers. “The gift I’m about tae give ye will shape yer life, lad, whether ye wish it or no’,” Da instructed. “For all yer life, all ye do will be weighed and measured, according tae its use.” Sean stood as tall as he could manage, pride and anticipation bubbling in his chest. He curled his fingers at his sides to keep from holding his hand out too soon and spoiling Da’s surprise.

Da’s grip on his shoulders tightened. “Listen carefully and never forget the truth and power of what I’m about tae tell ye!” He leaned so close Sean felt the warmth of Da’s breath fan his cheeks. “Nae matter what ye do in life, be it good or evil, ye will forever reap what ye sow in thought, action and deed.” Gone was any softness in Da’s eyes. They were hard as flint and Sean wished mightily to step away, but his da held him fast. “Do ye ken, lad?” That was it? His great gift? No’ the blade? Nae! He dinnae ken at all. “I…I think so.” He couldnae disappoint Da. He wouldnae. Especially on this birthday when Da declared Sean old enough tae start becomin’ a man.

But the truth-gift puzzled him. And in his heart-of-hearts, stung with disappointment. What of the knife? If he was to be a man now, dinnae he need a weapon? Was it no’ his duty to defend his family and all others against harm? How could mere words do that? Sean ducked his head, blinking back the burn gathering behind his eyes. He’d shamed himself with his greed for the blade. Da was right to ken he wasnae worthy of it yet and needed this truth-gift, instead, to build his character. Aye. Da was right. Da was always right. THE YEARS PASSED, and on each birthday Da repeated the truth-gift, charging Sean to hear his words, ken them, live by them. Each year, Sean thought surely ’twould be the year Da thought him finally worthy of the blade that now seemed so small in his wide palm.

He rarely took it down anymore. But he never passed the shelf wi’out feeling its taunt. No’ worthy. And Sean would vow to do better. Be better. And he did. Almost… D C H A P T E R O N E arkness fell fast and hard. The lack of a moon matched Sean McCulloch’s troubled thoughts as he prowled the perimeter of Wickham’s property. Even the usually spectacular display of stars hid behind a blanket of clouds. Weariness from trying to justify his opinions and decisions to the other lads who couldnae or wouldnae understand, had driven him outside where he hoped some crisp air and solitude would clear his head and put his thoughts in order.

Everyone, including Wickham, had pressed him for an answer at one point or another. Where will ye go, McCulloch? What’s keeping ye from starting your new life, 63? What are ye waiting on? Have ye no wishes or dreams? If only they knew! Aye. Wishes and dreams aplenty. And it vexed him to have to keep them tucked away lest they get too large and the temptation to forget his obligations, too big. But he couldnae begin this new life by dragging the debts of the old one along with him. If only he had a sign. Some clue that would lead him to who, where or how he might pay this weighty debt. Oh, how he yearned to make restitution for his sind and be done. Be free. Must he set his own desires aside in this life, too? His fingers itched to take a bit of charcoal and sketch the visions cluttering his head.

Could he actually capture them on paper, or would they be as elusive as the future that stretched before him? “Yer troubles have a weight tae them, McCulloch. Enough that even I feel it.” Wickham’s voice came out of the darkness, boosting Sean’s newly acquired heartbeat several notches. “Och!” Sean gasped. “Ye startled me.” “Ye were too deep intae yer thoughts tae hear the warning noises I made. Have a care in the future. Mayhap ’twill be a time when some who approach willnae have yer best interests in mind.” “I ken there’re none alive but ye, Soni and the lads who would.” Though Sean’s gratitude for Soncerae’s incredible gift couldnae be measured, ’twas still a fact that each of The 79 faced their new existence completely alone.

After centuries together on the moor, Sean kenned the loss of this forged-family would require getting used to. No’ that he wasnae up tae the task. He was, in fact, eager to get on with it. If he could only ken what it was. Wickham fell into step beside him and they walked a bit in silence. “I overheard ye speakin’ with some of the lads about a task ye must accomplish,” Wickham finally said. “A debt of honor ye’re anxious tae address if I understand correctly. Yet ye remain here. If ye’re so eager, what is it that holds ye back?” Sean’s jaw ached from clenching his teeth and somehow an invisible vice held his skull in its grip, producing a monster of a headache. “Ye heard correctly,” he snapped.

“Ye’re angry about the task, then?” “Nae!” Seconds passed before Sean sighed and consciously tried to let go of the tension in his shoulders. “Forgive me. Nae, ’tis no’ anger I’m feeling. No’ at the task, anyway. But at myself for selfishly creating the need of it in the first place. I’ve been given this incredible gift from Soncerae; a chance tae do my life right, pursue the things I dinnae get a chance to in the last one. But because of my earlier choices, I’ve old debts tae pay, first.” He gestured into the darkness. “Beyond this spot all of Scotland, and more, awaits my exploration and discovery. Yet here I am wasting my days because—” “Because…?” Sean grunted almost painfully as he searched for the right words.

“Because I dinnae ken where tae start. Where or how do I find the deed that might meet the level of restitution I must make? How will I ken when ’tis met? I only know I’ve got tae accomplish it before Fate comes knockin’ wi’ a terrible plan of its own.” He turned to Wickham. “I dinnae suppose ye have a crystal ball tucked away with the answers I need?” Sean laughed, though he half-wished Wickham would actually produce one. “I do not. Nor would I offer ye such a crutch,” Wickham snarled. “What use is a life that’s wholly predictable? Are ye wantin’ tae live yers or simply watch it play out inside a misty sphere?” Sean stopped and faced Wickham. “I want tae live it!” “Then quit stalling and go live it.” Both Wickham’s face and voice betrayed his impatience as he turned both palms up. “Do, or don’t do.

’Tis that simple.” “But I explained. ’Tis no’ simple a’tall.” Had Wickham no’ listened to anything he’d said? “Laddie, ’tis as simple as walking away from yer past and intae yer future. ’Twill take a wee bit of bravery, tae be sure, but I ken ye’re up tae the task.” Wickham’s stare was hard. Unforgiving. “ ’Tis cowardly tae waste yer days wallowing in indecision, Sean McCulloch. Ye’ve just spent almost three centuries in limbo. Wouldnae even a misstep be better than more of the same?” Wickham dropped back, started to turn away and paused.

“Go. Find your destiny. ’Twould at least take ye in some direction, aye? Take that first step. If ’tis wrong, the world willnae end and besides, ye have the power tae correct it, aye?” The corner of his mouth lifted slightly. “Who knows? Mayhap ye’ll stumble onto an amazing life.” As Wickham blended into the darkness, his words echoed in Sean’s head. Go find your destiny. Alone in the inky darkness, Sean laughed at his foolishness. He’d been so caught up in making the perfect move, he’d become afraid to make any move. He’d let indecision paralyze him.

But no more. He’d bloody well take those first steps! And more. He turned his face to the heavens. “Da, if I’d listened tae what yer truth-gift dictated, I wouldnae be in this position. I vow never tae turn my back on anyone in need, ever again.” Aye. He’d take those first steps and remain vigilant of every opportunity he came across to make amends. And mayhap, along with his daily searches for someone to serve, he might find the opportunity to put a bit of charcoal to paper and see what comes of it. And if his luck held and his actions and determination to keep his vow proved true, mayhap the Fates would steer him down the right path. A C H A P T E R T W O rmed with a small pack containing enough food for several days, some cash Wickham insisted he take and three days of hiking anywhere his legs took him, Sean stumbled onto the ruins of a crumbling, centuries-old kirk.

Perched on a small hill several miles from the nearest town, only a roofless shell remained of the ancient church, its walls partially intact. Flanking the kirk’s south side, long grasses and wild vines choked several dozen tipped and tumbling headstones, giving the place an otherworldly feel. Sean closed his eyes, paying special attention to any subtle signs of trapped or lingering souls. ’Twas folly to think there wouldnae be some. No’ every soul gets to pass over at death, as each of The 79 well kenned. Though naught stirred in the still, warm air, Sean bowed respectfully. “Good day tae ye. I pray ye fare well and yer stay in this place willnae be too long. If ye dinnae mind sharing yer space for an hour or two, I’ll take my rest in the shade of that wee kirk wall.” Settling in the cool shade at the base of the ancient wall, Sean set his pack beside him and took the liberty of scratching his back on the worn stones, smiling at such an indulgent mortal pleasure as he looked over the graveyard.

An air of melancholy lingered over the scattered stones and decaying markers. Beyond them, only the remnants of a once substantial wall surrounding the kirk and graveyard remained. Dilapidated as it was, it still seemed to keep the sacredness within and the worldliness without. Bolstered by the gift Wickham’s wife had tucked into his pack, Sean had a sudden urge to sketch the scene in front of him. Wickham must have told her of Sean’s secret passion. ’Twas no use wondering how Wickham kenned it. After a long drink of water from his flask, Sean pulled out his prizes: three charcoal pencils and a sturdy sketch book. Willing the tension from his body, he focused on the feel of his surroundings. Could he capture the air of lost hopes and dreams cut short, with mere sweeps of charcoal? Fleeting, wispy shimmers of movement in the air neither surprised nor distracted him. On the contrary, he expected them.

He made a few tentative strokes, letting his hand move at will. “Bugger this nonsense! ’Tis no’ a game. I demand ye show yerself!” Sean jerked, dragging a dark, heavy line down the paper. ’Twas a woman’s voice. But from where? Eyes wide and wary, he studied the scene before him, but naught moved. He hadnae expected the spirits to speak and even if they did, ’twas no’ the type of greeting he’d imagined. Had he no’ introduced himself and made his benign intentions known right from the beginning? A sudden, bright flash of movement came from his left, beyond the corner of the church where the ground sloped sharply toward the crumbling, outer wall. He scrambled to his feet but dinnae move from the kirk. Wild copper curls tumbled down the back of what was most assuredly a female form, clothed in something that looked centuries old, mayhap no’ in age, but in fashion. By all appearances, older even than his own time.

She appeared far too vivid for a ghost but seemed too out of time and place to belong in this earthly realm. What then? Spirit or mortal? A chill snaked up Sean’s back. He wasnae familiar with malevolent spirits. Could they present themselves in such pleasing forms, as trickery? He watched her pace back and forth through what appeared to be an opening in the dilapidated outer wall where a gate might once have been, a look of desperation marring her lovely face. Nae. No evil there. Mayhap a lost soul, somehow unwelcome in this consecrated place? “Pl-ease.” Her voice broke on a frantic plea. “ ’Twill be too late!” Her fractured sob hung in the air. “I must get back!” Confused by her odd movements and the heartbreak in her voice, Sean stepped away from the kirk wall to see her more clearly.

Who was she addressing? “I’m positive ’twas here. Right here!” she cried, turning two full circles inside the opening. “What do you want? What must I do?” Her painful plea, made to naught but the stoic sky, was heart wrenching. Obviously, the lass searched for something, but what? She continued moving back and forth through the gap. Inside to outside. Outside to inside. Pausing after each pass as if expecting something to happen. With each step she became more frustrated. More desperate. Until, on the last pass, she tripped on something in the grass and tumbled, face first, to the ground.

Several seconds passed but she dinnae get up. Dinnae move at all, as any selfrespecting spirit would. Though any of The 79 might curl up in a myriad of fashions in their sleeping hollows, none would lay face down, flat to the mud, exposed for the mortal world to see. Indecision tethered Sean’s feet to the ground for several seconds. But her deep, heartwrenching sobs fractured the still air and settled in the recesses of his heart. The lass, ghost or human, was in pain. And he couldnae let her remain so. Setting his pad and pencil beside his pack, he took several tentative steps toward her, then casting caution aside, strode boldly down the slope. He wouldnae allow prudence, fear, or even inconvenience, deter him. Never again! Besides, had he no’ vowed to assist anyone in need? ’Twould appear the lass was indeed in need of something, even if ’twas naught more than a helping hand out of the dirt.

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