It’s Wednesday and that means words. Today’s prompt comes only from #ThursdayThreads…for reasons. Our inspiration is “I’m on my way.” That led to 250 words and the barest bones of what’s below. As promised, here’s a free Christmas story that’s become something of an annual thing for me. I hope you take a moment to put your feet up, sip your beverage of choice, and enjoy. And I hope my coding-foo worked and the bult of the tale is behind a clickable link that will simply expand the post–no having to find another page or document. We’ll see. 🤞🏼
Lochlan O’Toole was not a sentimental man. Loyal, yes. Responsible, certainly. A trained soldier, absolutely. He believed in brotherhood—and that included sisters-in-arms. He occupied a stool at the end of the bar located inside the iconic Key West watering hole, Mother Goose’s Bar.
Bear, a giant ginger of a man, swiped a sweat ring off the bar with a towel. When a waitress appeared, Bear took her order, filled it, placing the drinks and bottles of beer on her tray. Still, Loch knew the big man’s attention remained focused on him.
Loch sat up a little straighter and stared at Bear. “Do what now?”
“Do ya wanna talk?”
“Yup.” Bear lifted his shoulders in a negligent shrug then pulled another Guinness from the tap and placed it in front of the Irishman, complete with a perfect shamrock drawn in the foam.
“Gettin’ fancy, aint’cha?”
Grinning, Bear nodded. “Tis the season. Plus, I’m still working on my holly leaves.”
Taking a sip, Loch swallowed. “I’m good, Bear. Truly.”
“If you say so. Change your mind, you know where to find me.”
“Aye,” Loch agreed. He knew Bear had a cottage tucked back on a side street not far from the bar but he doubted the man spent much time there. Like Loch, Oswald “Bear” Berwyn was a Wolf. They didn’t need much sleep. In addition to being chief bartender, bottle washer, and bouncer for Mother’s place, he was also the woman’s XO—executive officer. Mother Goose ran a deep Black Ops team. The bar was a cover and it worked well enough.
A group of college girls spilled in through the door, giggling and stumbling their way to an empty table. Single males scattered around the bar perked up.
“Aye, an’ there’s trouble brewin’ in the pot.” Loch said after noticing that one of those males was Dalton Thomas, a member of the Hard Target team.
More people sauntered in and the place got crowded. Loch caught Bear’s attention. “D’ya need me behind the bar?”
Bear shook his head. “I’ll draft Dalton if I need help. Where you off to?”
“Gonna find some fresh air.”
He left the bar and joined the throngs of people crowding the sidewalks and streets. Festive lights twinkled on every building and Christmas wreaths, swags, and decor festooned doors and windows.
Loch didn’t hate Christmas. Truly he didn’t. His childhood in Ireland had been filled with family and traditions of the season. Then he’d gone off to military and the trips home for the holidays grew fewer and father between. Now, when this time of year rolled around, melancholy raised its head. Perhaps it was living in Key West. Current temperature a balmy 25 degrees. Celsius. Or 77 Fahrenheit to his Hard Target teammates. Tourists flocked to the area for the weather and the ambiance.
As it happened, Christmas was a grand thing in Key West Everything was covered in lights—buildings, houses, trees. Even the boats in the harbor. There were walking tours and trolley tours to see all the decorations. Far different from frigid temperatures yet cozy celebrations of his childhood. Not that he missed the chill in the air or the fragrance of peat smoke on the wind. Or so he told himself.
This year, though, he just wasn’t feeling it. On a rare surge of optimism, he hopped on one of the decorated trolleys and rode it down to the harbor. If he remembered correctly, there’d be a boat parade tonight.
Sure enough, the docks and wharfs were packed with participants and tourists alike. Christmas music coming from myriad locations clashed with different songs creating a cacophony that hurt his ears. He turned on his heel and walked away.
There were too many people but he didn’t really want to be alone. What was a Wolf to do? He decided to head to a secluded beach for some lone wolf time. So that’s what he did. He found a sheltered place where he could hide his clothes so he stripped, stashed, and shifted. The sand was warm and felt good under his paws. He loped up the beach, chasing the waves as they curled on shore. He woofed and even howled once—not in frustration but in freedom.
His wolf didn’t understand melancholy. To his animal half, if you were unhappy you killed it, ate it, or played with it. After an hour of dancing in the sea foam, and still in wolf form, he dug out a wallow in the sand and settled in for a snooze.
About to drop off, he froze when something touched his tail. Opening his eyes to mere slits, the wolf checked around them. There it was again. Something small, hesitant. He raised his head as he flicked his tail. A tiny form covered in black fur somersaulted in the air and landed a few feet away. He growled. The thing bared tiny teeth and hissed. He stretched his muzzle to get a sniff and wuffled. The kitten meowed.
The wolf froze. The man inside? He bloody well hated cats now didn’t he.
The kitten stalked toward him. The wolf watched. The kitten batted his tail and looked expectant. He flicked it. The kitten somersaulted again and then pounced, twisting and turning all the while attacking his tail like it was some ferocious prey.
Bugger this, Loch thought, the man surfacing. The wolf agreed but wasn’t quite ready to relinquish control. Nosing the kitten off his tail, the wolf rose, stretched and in one quick stab, grabbed the bit of fluff by the scruff of its neck. The wolf padded down the beach, carrying the kitten in its mouth. Up ahead, a group of people sat around a bonfire on the beach. The wolf deposited the kitten and nosed it in their direction.
The floof didn’t move. He nosed it harder. The kitten protested with a loud yowl. That drew the attention of the humans. Two of the males rose and pointed. A female yelled and threw a beer bottle at him. Her aim was off so he moved to deflect it from the cat. The three started toward him so he turned tail and took off. Once he was back in the shadows, he watched as they surrounded the kitten and the female gathered it in her arms.
Duty done, he padded back to his wallow in the sand. It was a nice night. Quiet. Lots of stars, enough of a breeze off the Gulf to keep the air cool, relatively speaking. He’d just sleep here until just before dawn. Then he would shift, dress, and return to humanity.
The wolf awoke with a sneeze caused by a nose full of fur. Soft, purring fur curled up tight against him. He was a wolf, dammit, not some big fluffy dog to be used as a bed by an upstart cat.
The kitten yawned, showing all her tiny teeth and spread her murder mittens—with all her extra toes. A polydactyl from Hemingway House. A colony of things lived on the grounds. Fine, at least he knew where it belonged. He’d shift, get dressed and shoo it off home.
Dressed and feeling a bit scruffy, he set off down the beach, cat following long in a kittenish scamper that included chasing a crab, attaching a piece of drift wood, and trying to weave in between his feet.
When they hit civilization, he walked a few blocks toward Hemingway house. When he saw a couple of cats, he shooed the kitten their direction and stood to watch while the little thing approached these others of her kind.
Loch backed away, thinking she might not notice he was moving. She froze and so did he as she looked back at him. One of the adult cats meowed. The kitten looked forward again and he took that moment to simply poof. Using of course, every bit of derring-do he possessed from both his training and his wolf’s instincts.
On his way back to the Barracks, the large house the team called home, he glanced over his shoulder a time or four. No sign of the blasted cat. Good. He kept walking a brisk pace, sidestepping those who were out for an early morning stroll.
He was a block from the house when it heard it. That plaintive and pitiful meow. He looked back and there she was bounding toward him like he was the rainbow and she was a leprechaun coming to defend her pot of gold.
He kept walking. She kept following.
Loch could still hear her plaintiff yowl of a meow. How she figured out which was his window, he didn’t know. Every time he opened the window to shoo her off, he’d catch only a glimpse of a black shadow high tailing it around the corner of the house.
Two days later, Cory confronted him as he walked in the front door. He figured she would go off on him for ignoring the little creature but she surprised him.
“You,” she said, blocking his way. “Need to turn right back around and go get our Christmas tree.”
He stared at her, more than dumbfounded. “What Christmas tree?”
“Duke tells me that Mother Goose puts up a tree at the bar. Why haven’t we had one here at the Barracks?”
He thought about that for a moment. “Because most of us are off on leave this time of year?”
“Precisely. Except not this year. Everyone is sticking around so we need a tree.”
“And your man can’t do this fer ya why?”
“Because he’s busy. You’re here. You need to go to the Christmas tree lot and buy a big tree. I’m off to buy decorations.” She picked up the suitcase she called a purse and nudged him back out the door. “Go. Be gone. Off with you now. I expect a tall, full tree when I get back and tonight, we’ll all decorate it. Just like family.” She cast a wicked grin over her shoulder. “Even Mother and Bear are coming.”
“Bloody feckin’ hell,” he muttered, following her back to the sidewalk. Where was he supposed to find this imaginary tree lot?
He started walking toward the bar. Surely one of the regulars would know. About halfway there, a scent teased his nose. Fir? He inhaled deeply, sorting through the scents. And pine! He turned right and followed the illusive thread of fragrance until he stumbled upon MARC Plant Store. He marveled at all the live plants and accouterments—everything a gardener would need. Not that he knew much about gardening.
An older woman in a green apron approached him with a sunny smile that turned her pretty face beautiful “You look a bit lost. May I help?”
“I’ve been sent on a mission,” Loch explained. “T’find a Christmas tree.”
“We have those.” She beamed at him. “Follow me, please.”
He did. He also noticed a counter that held trays of decorated cookies, a steaming pot of something that smelled a lot like mulled cider. His guide waved her hand. “Feel free to partake. I thought about serving eggnog but the hot cider puts me more in a Christmas mood.
“Aye, ma’am, and I thank ya. I will before we’re done.”
He wandered through the trees for a few minutes and then saw one laying on the ground near of stack of trees. Netting corralled it’s branches. He stepped off its length. A bit over two meters, he guessed. Even bundled up it looked fat. He caught the lady’s eye. “This’ll do.”
“Wonderful. I’ll have one of the boys carry it out to your car. You can have some cider while I ring you up.”
He blinked at her. “A car? I didn’t bring one.”
She blinked back. “Oh. Well, we can deliver it for a slight charge…” She let the suggestion hang.
He looked at the tree then bent and hooked his fingers in the netting. He hefted it. Heavy but now more than the equipment pack he carried on a military mission. “No worries, ma’am. I can handle it. We don’t live far.”
Her brows knitted in concern. “Are you sure?”
He flashed her a smile. “Active duty, ma’am. For sure and certain it might be a bit awkward to get through a crowd but no heavier than m’pack.”
Loch swigged two cups of the spicy apple cider, savoring the warmth. He also wolfed down several of the cookies. With one last “thank you but no” to the offer of assistance, he hefted the tree again and headed back to the Barracks.
Once there, he faced a dilemma. He had no idea where Cory planned to put the tree, and he realized he’d need some sort of stand to hold it. He called Duke.
Three hours later, the tree was in a stand—with water—branches slowly falling back into place. Cory had finally decided on placing it in the large room that opened onto the enclosed patio and pool area, next to the French doors. Dalton and Bo were still shuttling in boxes and bags while Cory sorted through the merchandise already on hand.
“Y’all know you have to go shopping now, right?” she asked, her face full of mischief. “I couldn’t decide if we were going to do a dirty Santa or a secret Santa so I’m going to do both.” She grinned impishly as the men exchanged uneasy glances.
“Let me explain.” And she did. Everyone would draw a name, buy a present for that person and then on Christmas morning, they would take turns opening a present. Once opened, anyone could steal that present by forfeiting their own present. If their present hadn’t been opened yet, the one who’s gift was taken got to open that one. After two steals, a person got to keep the third present they opened regardless.
Cory had no idea the men decided that everyone would keep whatever the hell they opened.
She grabbed a box of lights and handed it to Loch. “You start putting the lights on. Begin at the top and work your way down. Keep the rows really tight because I have like five thousand lights. I’m so glad you got such a huge tree. It’s perfect!”
Loch shrugged it off but to be honest, he was a little bit in love with Cory, as was every other man on the team. She might be Duke’s wife but she was their little sister. He grabbed a step stool and dutiful started at the top. When he had the first string in place, Dalton handed him a second. Loch plugged them together and kept stringing. After a few adjustments, all the light strings were installed and Duke did the honors of turning them on.
That’s when Loch heard it—that plaintive meow. He looked around and noticed that everyone else had heard it too. Thank the gods. He’d begun to think it was some sort of ghost cat or that he’d imagined the bloody thing.
Cory checked out on the patio. Nothing. They heard it again. Loch was staring at the tree when a tiny black face poked out between branches. The kitten launched itself at him, hit him full in the chest, dug in tiny claws and climbed its way up to his shoulder. Where the bloody thing gave him cheek rubs and proceeded to bathe his ear with her tongue.
“Ooh,” Cory crooned. “A kitten.”
“No,” Duke said.
“But,” Cory argued.
“I’m sure it belongs to someone.”
“No, princess. We aren’t equipped to take care of a kitten.” Duke glanced around and found Golda perched on Uri’s shoulder, with Moshe sitting beside him. He nodded at the dog and bird, then Kin and Loch. “Because…critters?”
“Oh,” she sighed. “Yes, you’re right.” She sounded deflated and looked disappointed.
Loch reached up to grab the cat. It sank claws into his shirt—all the way to skin. “Bloody hell,” he growled as everyone laughed.
Cory perked up. “You know what they say about cats, don’t you?” Every man in the room fixed their gaze on her. “Cats choose their own people. I think you’re the chosen one Loch. Happy Cat Dad Day.”
The entire week leading up to Christmas, Loch did his best to shake the bloody cat. He put up flyers. He put ads in papers. He even checked in with the caretakers at Hemingway House, who claimed to have never had a black polydactyl cat so it wasn’t one of theirs. He even went back to the plant store to explain there’d been a cat hiding in the tree he’d bought. The clerk grinned as said there was no extra charge. He bloody well didn’t find that amusing.
The Barracks had changed. It now sported lights along the eaves and the fence. Cory had asked Uri about putting up a menorah but he declined with a smile saying he and God had a long understanding and he occasionally attended the Sabbath at the nearby synagogue.
On Christmas Eve, Cory offered special desserts to the team, along with treats for Golda, Moshe, and the cat. Except the cat was nowhere to be found. “Where’s the kitten?” She narrowed a gimlet-eyed look on Loch.
It suddenly occurred to him that she hadn’t been on the pillow that morning. In fact, he hadn’t seen her all day. He looked around. Moshe munched on peanut butter dog cookies. Golda sat on a branch of the tree tapping her beak against various ornaments, fascinated. She’d already finished eating the chunk of filet mignon Cory gave her.
Shrugging, Loch said, “I’ve no clue. She was gone when I got this morning. Have you seen her since last night?”
Cory’s brow furrowed and her gaze turned unfocused as she thought. “No. I haven’t.” She looked around the room as if she’d spot the kitten. “Have any of you seen her?”
The rest of the team shook their heads. That’s when the hunt began. They searched the house and patio high and low, opening drawers and cabinets, closets and looking under beds. Loch decided it was for the best but Cory insisted they expand the search outside. They did because when Cory’s eyes glittered with worried tears and she looked so plaintive—much like the feckin’ kitten—who could deny her? Not the Hard Target men.
Uri sent Golda into the air and with Moshe and Kin, in wolf form, expanded the search to the neighborhood. The hope was that dog or Wolf could track her scent. The team split up and fanned out. Loch headed toward the beach where he’d first encountered it. About halfway there, his phone played the opening bars of a Beach Boys song. Damn Dalton had programmed Loch’s phone again.
“What?” he growled after stabbing the accept button.
Loch halted, his body going rigid. Dalton sounded subdued. “What?” There was definitely a growl in his voice now.
“Uhm…I’m over at the pickleball courts, on Atlantic? Can you come over here?”
He didn’t hesitate. “I’m on my way.” He broke into a run.
Five minutes later, he and Dalton stared down at what was left of a shredded stuffy. A black cat stuffy, true, but a stuffy. Dalton kept apologizing. “I didn’t touch it. I just saw it and freaked a little and it’s dark and…”
Duke and Tank arrived, quickly followed by the rest of the team.
“Should we give it a decent burial?” Dom asked.
Moshe nosed the thing and sneezed. That seemed to decide the matter. It was almost midnight and there was no sign of the cat. They all headed back to the Barracks.
Well, fine then, Loch thought to himself. Didn’t want the bloody thing t’begin with. Except he’d grown used to maneuvering around her so he didn’t trip, and to her soft purrs as she slept tucked in close to him. While he’d tried to give the cat away all week, she’d steadfastly stuck to him. If he left her inside when he left, she found a way to escape and tracked him down. She slept curled up on the pillow next to him or cuddled in against his body under the covers. He didn’t sleep very well. Fine, he didn’t sleep at all for the worrying about the feckin’ cat.
On Christmas morning, Cory was up and cooking early, dedicated to giving the men a “real” Christmas, with all the trimmings. They awoke to the aroma of roasting turkey, pumpkin pie, and cinnamon and oranges. She’d made hot mulled cider and cinnamon rolls for breakfast to munch on while opening presents. She also brewed an industrial sized pot of coffee. She knew her men.
They were subdued as they gathered around the Christmas tree to open presents. Moshe and Golda had discovered their stockings and were happily engrossed in their treats. The stocking with the kitten prints and a little black fuzzy cat on it still hung, full of whatever Cory had stuck in there.
There were filled stockings for all, presents, and Christmas music playing in the background. They ate cinnamon rolls and drank cider or coffee as Cory reminded them of the Christmas game rules once more. Dalton drew the number one so he grabbed his present from under the tree. He shook the box, frowned, then tore off the bow and paper. His Secret Santa had given him a skateboard. Which he promptly used to sail up and down the hallways of the house.
“Ya know, I’m about half tempted to steal it from him,” Bo said.
Shane shook his head. “Dude, broken bones. Not good.”
“You have a point,” Brady said.
The round of gifts continued and despite the slight pall of sadness and their pledge to play fair, their competitive drives took over and the stealing commenced. Before it was over, no one—including Dalton—had their original present. Except Loch, who received a bag of kitty litter and a gift card to the Pet Supermarket. Loch couldn’t give the stuff away. The looks that came his way when they thought he wouldn’t notice didn’t help.
When it was time for lunch, he didn’t have much of an appetite and cursed himself for a sentimental fool. Yet he had grown used to the thing and the kitten had wormed her way into his heart.
Duke did the honors of carving the turkey as they all sat around the large table they’d moved into the lounge area in between looking for the cat. There was cranberry sauce and salad, green bean casserole, candied sweet potatoes, cornbread dressing, a relish plate of pickles, olives, and baby fresh veggies. Mashed potatoes and giblet gravy held pride of place next to the turkey. The fragrance of hot bread wafted from a large basket of rolls.
After every dish made the rounds and everyone had a full plate, Mother Goose stood up from her chair at the end of the table. She raised her glass. “To Cory, for her hard work and for figuring things out.” Mother smiled. “You see, when thing goes to hell, and they always do…” She paused as the men chuckled in agreement. “It’s those who stand at your side, who have your six, and who take point without questioning why, those people are your family.” She raised her glass and took of sip. “Welcome home, family.”
That’s when a black blur leaped from the Christmas tree, startling Golda who took off with a mad flap of wings, causing the tree to teeter precariously. Tank jumped up and steadied the tree, laughing as the black blur streaked across the table, grabbed the drumstick off Dalton’s plate, jumped off the table and zoomed out the French doors to the patio, Moshe hot on her tail.
“I knew that feckin’ cat would be trouble,” Loch groused. He fooled no one. The relief in his voice was palpable.
Cory grinned. “I think Trouble is going to fit in just fine around here.”
And so Trouble the cat chose that Christmas to bring a group of comrades together and turn them into a family. Because that’s what family is: People who stand by you unflinching no matter the trouble.
Merry Christmas, all!