This entry is part 8 of 15 in the series The Gift of Markree Castle

Do what you want to be.

“OK, so we each get five shots and we’ll keep score with, uh,” Lu looked for something to keep score with. “With our shoes.”

“We only have two shoes each,” Dan counted.

“Oh yeah, I was counting that we had eight shoes, but that’s all of us together,” Lu admitted.

“How can we each get five goals with only eight shoes,” Dec asked.

“There are four of us and five goals. How many is that?” Li asked.

“Bro, you’ve been having too many math problem breakfasts with grandpa,” Lu said.

“Whatever, Lu, we need 20 of somethings,” Li looked around. All the boys looked around.

“Hey, there are white stones around that statue over there,” Dan pointed.

“I’ll get ’em,” Lu trotted over to the statue. The statue was a bronze sculpture of a tall man with a book, the name was Máirtín Ó Direáin. “I can’t carry twenty, could you guys help?”

Dan came over. “Who’s that guy?”

“Martian Delirium,” Lu said.

“Who’s that?” Dan asked.

“No idea. OK, I have ten. Can you carry 10?”

“Yep. Got ’em,” Dan counted.

Each boy set up his stones in front of himself in a pile of five. They decided to go in a weave of a round so that almost every time each kicker would have a different goalie. They weren’t sure it was going to pan out, but it seemed logical and that was good enough to start.

“Youngest first,” Lu said.

“I’m youngest,” Dan said.

“When is your birthday?” Lu asked.

“July,” Dan said, “2006.”

“OK, you’re first, then me, then Dec, then Li. Right?” Dec and Li figured out birthdays and it was settled. The rules were agreed upon with much back and forth, the ball placed at a spot exactly 30 paces from the goal and the boys started reciting the announcer scene from the YouTube sensation of Scott Sterling.

Shoes were piled high on the gravestones of ‘d’ and then ‘p’ and the boys were ready.

“This is way more fun than some stupid secret room in a castle,” Lu said and nodded and smiled.

“You’re going to be begging for some of Killian in a dark room when I’m scoring on you,” Li taunted.

“You may think you’re Messi, but I’m Casillas,” Lu named the Argentina superstar and the Spanish national team goalie. “And you’re not going to get through me.”

“You guys watch way too much World Cup,” Dec said.

Lu had a look of horror on his face and his only comeback came from the deep truth of what he really thought, “You guys don’t watch enough World Cup.” He got a fist bump from big brother for that one.

Ducks lining up in a row, they each took their shots. The goals were missed, blocked and sneaked in through the side. The other two players were the judges about close calls and there was much discussion, laughing, yelling and high-fiving.

It wouldn’t be a penalty shoot out without running away from a score with arms up, shirt raised up to the chest, a stiff 500 Euro penalty immediately attached and talk of futures with national clubs and passports and nationalities. It was safe to say that leaving four young boys to their own devices for a weekend had its benefits. Memories were being built, friendships established and bragging rights built up like card houses–changing every few minutes.

Dec was up against Li and he focused and took a few deep breaths. He needed to make this one to stay in the competition, so it was extra stressful. He knew he had to kick it strong and upper right. There had been some controversy about how high the goal bar was since there was no goal bar and they decided that it was up to the judges.

Dec took a few steps and booted the ball with such a force that it seemed to launch like a bottle rocket from his foot and took off towards Li’s head so fast that even with Li’s panther-like reactions, he couldn’t get his arms up in time and the ball sailed past his head and through his outstretched arms like a fireball.

“Gooooooaaaaaalllll!” Dec screamed and took off towards the ball with arms raised high and legs high stepping and practically yodeling like an Austrian maiden in distress. Li fell to his knees, Lu thought about what he would have done differently and Dan looked for the ball.

But the ball went so far that it went down the next slope. Dec was still high stepping it in that direction and his yodel was drowning out into more a wail of an old man with emphazema so Dan made his way behind Dec to get the ball. The two Beijingers walked over a small hill and down the other side, but the ball was nowhere to be found.

“Li, Lu, come over here,” Dan yelled back. “Help us find the ball.”

Li and Lu moped over like boys who had just played a long morning of soccer.

“It just went straight, how hard can it be to find it?” Li asked.

“Yeah, straight through your arms,” Lu teased. Li was too tired to make a comeback or even tackle his brother.

“Yeah, I know, but I don’t see it,” Dec said, scanning the grounds.

They all walked down the hill a little more, peering behind trees and under longer clumps of grass.

“Are you guys hungry?” Dec asked.

“We just had breakfast, didn’t you?” Lu said.

“Well, we did, but we did way before you sleeping princesses,” Dan said.

“We went to bed late,” Lu said. As often happened with conversations with kids, they just ended. It wasn’t that it was the logical place to stop, but it was as if the others were too tired to finish it off, just couldn’t be bothered to complete the thought. Maybe they were so tuned to each other’s senses that they didn’t need the words to know the outcome of the next sentences. Perhaps in the way that an expert chess player can call the game 27 plays before it’s over because he can see all possible moves before they happen. Yeah, that, or they’re just lazy and stop conversations midway through.

“I’m hungry,” Dan said.

“Hey, what’s that?” Li said and pointed.

“It looks like a little wall,” Lu said.

“But what’s it for?” Dec asked. They all walked closer to it and were standing around it.

“Look, there are two sides to it,” Dan noticed.

“Oh, and a bottom, also in stone,” Lu said.

“It’s like a slide,” Li said and looked around. “We’re sort of in a valley here. I mean, all of the area around here comes down into this.”

“Maybe it’s like a drainage thing” Dec said.

“But look, it goes towards the castle,” Dan pointed to the castle, which was within view just over the incline of the grass.

“Maybe it’s a secret exit,” Dan said and he walked onto the bottom stones. “Hey, it turns, see?” He pointed towards more grass.

“I only see grass,” Li said.

“No, stand here,” Dan said and Li came over to look.

“Oh yeah,” Li conceded, “It keeps going underground, but it turns here and the stones go away and they’re covered in grass, by the hill.”

“It’s still like a slide,” Lu said. “Guys, I really, really, no, really don’t even want to say this, but … ”

Dan cut him off, “But the ball probably went down this slide.”

“Yeah,” Lu said, dejected. He rumpled his lips as he thought hard about what to say. He said nothing. No one said anything. They all just stood there and looked down the stone slide.

“It actually gets bigger right there, see?” Dan said, pointing again to the turn in the stone.

“Dude,” Li let out a sigh. “Please tell me you’re not thinking what I think you’re thinking?”

“How do you know what I’m thinking?” Dan said.

“I know what you’re thinking, Dan, and there’s no way,” Dec said.

“No way what?” Dan asked, pretending (and not doing a very good job of it) to not understand what they were getting at.

“There’s no way we’re going down that tunnel thing,” Lu stated what everyone was thinking. Everyone but Dan.

“Guys, the ball is probably just right around the corner,” Dan said extremely convincingly.

“Oh, well, that’s a relief, Dan,” Li said. “Then it won’t take you long to go get it, will it?”

“I’m not going in there alone,” Dan said.

“I thought the ball wasn’t very far at all,” Dec said.

Dan looked at Dec then looked down the tunnel. Then to Lu, then to the tunnel. Then to Li, the back to the tunnel.

“Lu,” Li started, “Do you remember what happened the last time we lost a ball down a tunnel?”

“You mean Kite Hill?” Lu answered.

“Exactly,” Li said.

“What happened at Kite Hill?” Dan asked, worry in his voice.

“It’s a long story,” Li said.

“We almost lost our dog when we went down a dark tunnel. Then we almost lost Li, then we almost lost me. Then we almost lost my dad,” Lu explained as if this would make it clear that they should just go back to the castle and rustle up some yogurt.

“But did you make it out?” Dec wondered aloud for what both he and Dan were thinking.

“Yeah,” Li said.

“See?” Dan said.

“See what?” Li responded.

“Guys, we’ll be fine,” Dan reassured his fellow explorers.

“What with the ‘we,’ dude, I thought it was just you? Just skip into there and we’ll wait right here. Just keep talking or making noise or something so we can keep track of you, OK?” Li said, moving to sit down.

“You can leave a trail of popcorn,” Lu suggested.

“We have popcorn?” Dec wondered aloud.

“Or a string,” Li suggested.

“Uh huh, you have a ball of string on you, boy scout?” Dan challenged Li. Li didn’t respond but starting twirling blades of grass in his fingers and put one in between his lips.

“Could you hurry it up, Dan, I want to see what’s for lunch,” Dec said.

“Fine, I’ll go,” Dan spouted off and made his way, slowly, down the stone path.

“Wait, you’re going to go?” Lu asked.

“Well, yeah, do you want our soccer ball back?” Dan asked, accusing Lu.

Lu didn’t say anything but bobbled his head as if to say, ‘OK, fine, like, whatever smarty pants.’ Lu lay down in the grass near Li.

Dan took a few more steps down the stone path, but then stopped. He turned around.

“What’s the matter?” Li asked. “Scared?”

“Scaredy panties?” Lu said but immediately doubted if he had gotten it right and words tumbled around in his head: smarty, pants, cats, panties. It was too late.

“Did you just say ‘Scaredy panties,’ Lu? I gotta write that one down, I love that,” Dec said. “Dude, you’re my name-calling hero.” The boys laughed and even Lu laughed as he really didn’t know which one it was anymore, but he was among friends close enough that he didn’t have to worry about being made fun of–at least not in a mean-spirited way. As they calmed down, they noticed that Dan wasn’t laughing and wasn’t moving.

“Yeah, I’m scared,” he said with even a slight shiver in his voice. “But I’m also going,” Dan said. “Who’s coming with me?” He asked and looked around. No one said anything.

“Guys, I want to play soccer, too. I want to eat ice cream, watch movies and eat popcorn. I want to run around the castle and hide and, I don’t know, be a 9-year old,” Dan stopped and realized they were all actually listening to him.

“But,” Lu helped him. “It sounds like you’re about to say ‘but.'”

“You’re right, Lu, I was about to say but,” Dan continued. “But you know what, guys?” he asked and didn’t wait for an answer. “I also want to know what’s under that castle.”

This struck a chord in each boy, but for each one in a different place. Sure, they all wanted to know what was under the castle, but for their own reasons and at their own level. For the other three, what was missing was the sense of urgency. Dan had exactly that.

“We can always play soccer, we can even watch movies when you guys are in San Francisco and we’re in Beijing, I don’t know, we could Skype it or something. But we’re in this castle today and there’s something weird that’s going to happen tonight,” he paused, but the other boys didn’t move and didn’t take their eyes off of him. He kept going.

“I don’t know what it is and I don’t really know how or even if we’re involved, but it seems like it. Guys, maybe we can help Alastar. These guys have lived here forever, their fathers and grandfathers and they’ve all known about this, well, this whatever it is under the castle and I’m sure they’ve all tried to get to it and Alastar is saying that maybe the four of us can help him get it,” he stopped. No one said anything.

“OK, since you guys aren’t saying anything, my brain is working double time and here’s my thought and you guys can take it or leave it,” he spoke with an eloquence and authority that he wasn’t quite used to, but somehow knew was the real him.

“Here’s the thing,” he said and wondered where he had heard that. “If we go watch a movie and have popcorn, we know what’s going to happen, right?” At this, he at least got some nods. “Right, but if we help Alastar tonight then who knows what could happen, right?” More nods.

Dan had a flash that maybe the others just weren’t up for adventure as he was. Maybe they truly would rather take the safe road and watch the movie and eat the popcorn and not take the possible risk of the unknown. No, he thought, that was impossible. How could any 9- or 11-year old not want adventure? How could they take the known over the unknown? That’s what parents were for, weren’t they?

“What’s the best that could happen if we watch a movie? What, like we get to watch another movie, maybe? Maybe it’s a really good movie and we could talk about it tomorrow. Totally cool. Nothing wrong with that,” he took a breath. He thought back to the classroom in Beijing where they were learning about persuasive arguments. He was pretty sure he was getting a top grade and this was possibly even extra credit.

“But what might happen tonight under the castle? Who knows, right? I don’t know. I mean, sure it kinda scares me that even Alastar doesn’t seem to know what’s going to happen, but in a way, that makes it even more exciting. Right?” No nodding from the boys. Not even signs of life. But maybe this is right where he needed them.

“Maybe this is our chance, maybe this is our night. How often do you think people have opportunities like this? Li, Lu, I bet you don’t get asked every Saturday night in San Francisco to be, I don’t know, a part of the history of a castle? Or, OK, maybe it’s not the history, but maybe it’s something, maybe it’s just something exciting, maybe it’s huge, maybe it’s not, but that the thing, we don’t know. Anyway, dudes, that’s what I think is cool and I hope you guys think it’s cool,” Dan was finishing up, but there was still no response.

“OK, you guys are totally zombies and don’t say anything. I’m going down there to get the ball,” he stopped, but couldn’t stop. “OK, fine, I’m scared and I want you guys to come, too. But also, well, also what I said. It’s what I mean.”

Since the boys didn’t say a word, Dan turned and walked slowly but steadily down the stone path. It was narrow, but he could fit, although an adult would have to be quite thin. He looked back at the boys and they were getting up. Maybe they were with him. He kept going.

He held his hands out to his sides to help balance himself as the stones were mossy and easy to slip off of. Soon there was a ceiling of stones as well and ahead it was dark, but rays of light shone through.

He looked back, the boys were standing and following him. He went into the part that was now covered in a ceiling of stone and it was quickly getting darker. Finally, a word from another boy.

“Do you see the ball?” Dec asked.

“Not yet,” Dan turned and called back.

Li looked and Lu and if he knew what it meant, he would have said, ‘déjà vu’ but he didn’t know what it meant, so he didn’t say it. But that’s what he was thinking: another ball down a dark tunnel: this can’t turn out well.

“I’m just going to a little bit further,” Dan said in what seemed like a whisper. It was so quiet that the boys could hear the movement of rocks under his feet and even his fingernails occasionally scratching he stones on the sides of the tunnel.

“Hey, I know,” Lu offered his help. “Does it keep going down, you know, sloping down? Because if not then the ball couldn’t have rolled much further and maybe it’s not even down there.”

“Thanks, Lu, but it keeps sloping down and the rocks are small, so I think it could have kept rolling,” Dan said.

“Could you please be careful?” Li pleaded. “Because if you fall down some slippery slope, we’re not coming after you. You know that, right?”

“Dude, I won’t slip,” Dan replied, annoyed that Li was acting like a parent. “My shoes have super traction soles.”

Dec thought for a second, then spoke up, “Dan, you’re not wearing shoes. Remember, we used them as the goal posts.”

“How can someone not know if they’re wearing shoes or not? I mean, you feel them on your feet or not, right? Dan’s being weird,” Lu rationalized.

“You shouldn’t be the one to talk, Lu,” Li started in on his little brother. “You can’t even find your shoes in the morning before school. Then it takes you like seven minutes per shoe to put them on. I think dad timed you once. That’s almost 15 minutes and that’s starting the time once you actually find your shoes. Why don’t you just get velcro shoes or those stretchy lace thingies and then just slip your feet into them? Think about it, that would save you 15 minutes per day times five times per week, no, seven times per week because you can’t find your shoes on weekends either. That’s like,” Li stopped to calculate in his head, but didn’t want to get it wrong and didn’t really feel like doing the math anyway. “It’s a lot of time that you waste every day.”

“75,” Lu said quietly.

“What?” Li asked.

“75 minutes per week if you don’t count weekends, which is an hour and 15 minutes. If you count weekends, then it’s another 30, so 105 minutes or an hour and 45 minutes.”

“Dude, maybe you should spend less time in math class and more time back in kindergarten where you were supposed to learn how to tie your shoes,” Li smirked.

“Dikzak,” Lu said under his breath.

“Opschepper,” Li said right back.

“Guys, listen,” Dec whispered.

“What do you hear?” Lu asked.

“That’s just it, I don’t hear anything,” Dec said.

The boys stopped moving, talking and even breathing and listened, but there wasn’t a sound. They tried to hear harder. Nothing.

“Dan?” Li called out.

“Dan?” Lu yelled like a banshee.

“Dan?” Dec screamed like a big brother.

He was gone.

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