The Christmas Witch

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"Wow!" Patrick feigned excitement, "Another teddy bear," he turned the hand stitched ball of fur over in his hands a few times, examining it with what he hoped was well-acted glee.

She gave him a handmade bear every year, and he used to scoff at it, until he was old enough to realize just how old she was and just how much she cared. Now, at nearly eighteen years old, he cherished each one, and he thought of the gifts as a kind of collection of her love.

"Oh, come now," she rolled her eyes, "I am old. But I have not lost my mind yet. An excellent performance, but I know you are over these bears." She laughed, a dry, coughing laugh.

He shook his head fervently. "No, grandma. I really like them. I have one for each year I've been alive. It's pretty cool actually. Maybe I'll pass them on to my own kids."

She laughed again, "Well, I am glad you see it that way. I hope you do pass them on. There's a lot of love in those bears." Her eyes sparkled as she glanced off into the roaring fire lit in the hearth.

Patrick nodded, "I know, grandma," he leaned forward and kissed her weathered cheek, "thank you."

Patrick's mother glanced around beneath the tree. Then she clapped her hands together, "Looks like that was the last gift!"

But it wasn't. Or it was, save the present for Jesus, as Patrick had dubbed it.

It was wrapped in brown, colorless paper as it was every year, and secured with twine not ribbon. It was always the single present left under his grandmother's Christmas tree among the litter of demolished wrapping paper and ribbons remaining from that annual morning's festivities. His grandmother left it for what his mother said was "religious purposes." And, though it was scarcely colorful or thrilling, somehow it was always the most alluring present to Patrick, the present he wanted to open most.

He pretended he didn't care anymore. It was probably just a cross or a copy of the bible or something "religious" like that. But deep down he had to admit to himself that he had wanted to know what was inside since he was three years old—for as long as he could remember.

He was ashamed when, just like his childhood years, just like the Christmases when he could scarcely contain the curiosity, grandmother caught him staring at the present hungrily and repeated her yearly warning: "Patrick if you touch that present you'll be devoured and disappear off the face of the earth, and I would miss you. So don't peal back even a corner of that paper."

It was really a strange thing to say, but he was used to the mantra. He'd heard it every Christmas in memory. He thought he could escape it this year, but it looked like even age—and what he thought was newfound wisdom—couldn't keep the circle from completing itself. And, he realized for an instant, he would miss hearing the strange admonition when she was gone. So he just smiled in response and followed her into the kitchen with the promise of fresh cocoa and homemade sugar cookies—the tactic she had been using to distract him since he was small.

His mother patted his shoulder and followed behind. "Thanks for indulging her," she whispered in his ear.

He shrugged. He caught himself glancing back over his shoulder at the simply wrapped package.

It was after his mother and grandmother had both gone to sleep and he was lying in his own bed, staring at the ceiling, that he realized his curiosity was worse at seventeen than it had ever been in his childhood. To his defense, he laid there for a good thirty minutes or so before he made the primarily subconscious decision to tiptoe into the living room and find out the answer to the question he had been asking himself every Christmas morning.

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