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    Libby Drew
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 

Keeper of the Rituals - 11. Chapter 11

“Michael!”

Martina. I lean out of the gloom and back into the morning sun. She’s come around the bend of the perimeter path, and she’s not alone. Members of the Tribal Council walk with her. Three of them, to be exact. We know each other well and are friendly, my brief youthful flirtations with lawbreaking notwithstanding. I tagged my share of graffiti back in the day.

“What are you doing?” she demands.

I can’t reconcile her tone with my actions. I wander through the refuge often, mostly with purpose, but sometimes with nothing more to guide my direction than chance. There’s not a square foot of the four acres that’s off limits to me. Yet the disapproval in her voice is unmistakable. “Just walking the perimeter,” I say, nodding to the elders. Each returns my silent greeting. I don’t explain my actions to them. I can’t imagine why I’d have to.

Martina separates herself from the group, but not before turning and exchanging a few quiet words with her guests. I don’t like the way their eyes slide over me as she does. A wholly different sort of disquiet stirs in my chest. “Michael, can I talk to you for a minute?” Martina takes my arm, spins us both and starts us back the way I came. Numbly, I follow her lead, chafing at the curtness in her voice. She’s angry, and I have no idea why.

“What are you doing here?” She glances over her shoulder, but we’ve turned a corner and the others are out of sight.

“I work here.” I don’t mean for it to come out sarcastically, but it does. Martina drops her hand from my arm. Backs up a step.

“Is that supposed to be funny?”

“I didn’t mean for it to be. I don’t really understand your question. I’m always here.”

“There’s a lot going on right now.”

Is she serious? “I’m aware of that.”

“I know you are.” Her shoulders slump, and she darts another glance over her shoulder. “I’m sorry, hon. I really am. I don’t mean to patronize you. I can only imagine what you’re going through at the moment.”

I doubt that, but I don’t resent her for the sentiment.

“But here’s the thing,” she says and bites her lip. Her deep green eyes dampen with unshed tears, and that’s when I get a hint of how badly I’m going to dislike her next words. “You can’t be here right now. In fact, you can’t come back until this whole investigation thing with Sam is over and you’re…”

In a perfect world, my perfect narrative, she never hesitates. She takes my hand, looks me in the eye and says and you’re cleared of any wrongdoing. In this crazy funhouse reality I’m living, she can’t find the words. Probably swallows a slew of them that would make everything worse.

“They didn’t tell me that,” I say. “The FBI--”

“It’s my decision,” she cuts in, and for several seconds I can’t speak. Blindsided, I flounder my way back to the conversation.

“Why?”

“The Council is giving serious consideration to pulling the lease for the refuge. As well as the offer for the new one.”

“What?” The possibility causes a knot of pain in my gut. Pulls it tight. “Can they do that?”

“Honey.” Martina shakes her head. Offers up a bitter laugh. “How long have you lived here? They can do whatever they want.”

“But why?” I want to charge back along the path. Confront them. Demand answers.

Martina places a delicate hand on my chest, as though she senses I’m close to bolting. “You have to understand the bottom line here. Nothing can be allowed to jeopardize the tribe’s reputation with the tourist population. There’s too much riding on that income. You know that. You rely on it yourself.”

I stalk up and down the path, pacing like Chase would when he’s upset. “The lion’s share of that profit is made from restaurants and casinos. How could one tiny operation like this put any of that at risk?”

“Public opinion is a fickle thing, sweetheart.” Martina sighs. Glances once more over her shoulder to the guests who are waiting around the corner of the path. “It doesn’t matter what the facts are. The truth rarely matters when it comes to what people believe.”

Very true, but I still can’t fathom the causality. What is she trying to say? That the council believes I’m guilty? That she does? Nothing makes sense. “Then we’ll build somewhere else.” I pivot back to her. “We’ll buy land off the Rez. The next county over. Can’t we do that?”

The tears in Martina’s eyes spill over onto her cheeks. “Maybe?” She shrugs. “I’d have to get a lawyer. We’d lose all our tribal government protections. Have to file for permits, licenses. God knows what the US and state government would require. I have no idea what a move like that would mean. Or what it would cost.”

She’s right. Operating on the reservation allows us all sorts of rights and freedoms we wouldn’t enjoy elsewhere. “But we could do it.” The possibilities charge through my head, and the stampede is so loud I miss how her expression shifts, closes off.

“Michael...” She squares off against me. Tiny hands fisted at her sides, eyes blazing, she’s more formidable than our fiercest wolf. “The investigation’s not the problem. You are.”

I stagger back. She plows ahead, words spilling out in a torrent. “I’m sorry. But until things are resolved, you can’t be here. You’re a suspect. Don’t you understand? Please tell me you understand.”

I think I do. I’m honestly not sure what I know or understand anymore. “I haven’t done anything wrong.” Even to my ears, the words sound weak. Unsure.

Martina pins me with a cool gaze. “You were in Luna’s enclosure alone this morning.”

Damn that woman and her ability to creep about the place undetected. “Whisper--”

“There’s no excuse for putting yourself in danger like that. None. Especially after what happened to Sam. I can’t lose you too. I can’t!” Her mouth thins into a hard line. “I’m sorry. I never know how to act with you these days, Michael. What Rory and Frank have been saying… you scare her. Frank too. You’re making unsafe decisions. Your judgment this morning was clearly questionable. I’m not sure I know you anymore, hon. And I have to put the refuge and the animals first right now. Keeping this place open; that’s my priority.” She gives a tremulous sigh. A few tears spill over. “Now, please leave. Don’t come back until I call.” Her bluster abandons her. She sags, scrubs her hands over her face. “You have enough to worry about anyway.”

That’s how we part. With accusations and innuendo. She turns and strides away, back to the three men who hold the fate of the refuge in their hands. In a fog, I head the opposite way, cutting through the property to the museum as quickly as possible. I feel the wolves’ questions in the air. Clock how the panthers’ agitation swells to meet my own. Ruthlessly, I cut myself off from them all.

Rory and I startle each other in the parking lot. She’s been trying to get me alone since the morning of Sam’s murder, but I haven’t had any appetite for the confrontation. Whether her goal is to offer condolences or shout accusations, I have no idea, but I’ve been successful at dodging her these past few days. My elaborate game of duck and cover hasn’t been easy, and there’s no escape now. She scrambles out of her car and moves to stand in front of my driver's side door. “Michael.”

“I can’t talk now,” I say and walk right into her personal space. Stare her down. “I have to leave.”

“Wait.” She holds up both hands, and while she hasn’t shied away yet, I notice she’s trembling slightly. There’s a stain on the front of her FGCU T-shirt. Her socks don’t match, and her hair, normally pulled into a neat ponytail, is a loose tangle around her face. Frankly, she looks like she slept in a ditch last night. “Please wait. Can I talk to you?”

“About what? My fight with Sam? My strange behavior? My questionable judgment? My temper?” Anger and resentment coat the words. I don’t recognize my own voice.

“No.” The word drains out of her, like air from a balloon. “But about that. You need to know--”

“Rory?”

We both spin at the summons. It’s Martina’s voice, calling from some distance away, but still I flinch. Push past Rory to my car door. She moves aside without another word, but stands watching as I pull away, arms crossed across her chest in a loose hug, hands scrunched in the material of her university T-shirt.

~*~

My heart has been shredded more than once. Grief. Loss. These things shouldn’t be feared, for they shape our path as much as joy and triumph. But I can’t deny feeling overwhelmed at the moment. A castaway. Stripped of friends, family, livelihood, and in the near future, possibly my freedom. Despite that laundry list of misfortune, it’s Chase I can’t shake from my thoughts. The catch in his voice when he saw I was hurt. How he stood closer than necessary when we spoke, a vexing habit he hasn’t outgrown. His impossible talent of making even a rumpled suit and tie look seductive.

My restless agitation, I realize with both horror and embarrassment, is arousal.

I’m giving serious consideration to the suggested CAT scan when I arrive at Billie’s house. Burke pulls in a minute behind me, and I roll down my window. He jabs the button to lower his. “I hit my head harder than I thought,” I say when he leans out.

“I guarantee you did.” Burke props an elbow on the dashboard. “What brought on this sensible realization?”

Inappropriate, ancient romantic feelings. “A little bird told me.”

“You know I have to take that seriously, right?”

I want to both laugh and cry. I fold over the steering wheel instead. Burke’s engine shuts off. His door opens, closes, and a moment later his hand settles on my bowed head. “Come on, Micco. Let’s go inside.”

I hadn’t seen Billie’s bicycle propped against its usual tree. “I don’t think anyone’s home.”

“Billie’s door is always open to you.”

Fumbling the keys out of the ignition expends what’s left of my strength, and I slump backward. “Martina…”

“I know. She called and told me. She was worried about you. That’s why I’m here.” Burke opens my door. “Come on.”

Billie’s house embodies simple comfort. He owns nothing he doesn’t use regularly. As for everything else, he does without or improvises as the need arises. It’s a remarkable trove of artifacts, tools, items of magic and ritual, herbs and medicines. In spite of the competing scents, the first breath I take upon entering leaves me feeling clean and clear of worry. Usually.

“He thinks I killed Sam.” The time to mince words is past, and I don’t bother clarifying who I’m speaking of. Burke knows who’s been occupying my thoughts lately.

“No. I don’t believe he does.”

“Martina does.”

“Not a chance. She’s caught in a difficult balancing act, is all. She trusts you.”

“It was Danny,” I blurt. “I’m sure of it.”

“Danny?” Burke tilts his head, not unlike a wolf. “Danny Parks? Sam’s friend?”

“He hates me, Matthew. He’s been stalking me. Throwing accusations around. This morning he sent me some threatening texts.”

That gets Burke’s attention. “What kind of threats?”

“Never mind.” I regret the outburst immediately. The last thing I want to do is share tangible evidence of anything, bullshit or otherwise.

“Micco--”

“What if it was him? I saw him at the Publix, and he was clearly high. What if he killed Sam while under the influence?” Or not under the influence. I didn’t know the kid that well, or his predilection for violence.

Burke shakes his head. “Micco, Danny Parks is in rehab. He has been since the day before yesterday.”

In rehab. Since his parents picked him up at the grocery store, probably. The timeline matches. Which means, “He couldn’t have texted me.”

Sam had done a few stints in rehab as a teenager. Occasionally he’d waxed poetic about the spirituality of the place. And the rules. No contact for seventy-two hours after being admitted. “How do you know he’s there?”

“Chase. He was following up a lead on the kid.”

I close my eyes.

“Want to tell me a bit more about those texts from this morning now?”

No. Even less than before. I keep my eyes closed as I shake my head. “So you’re talking to Chase?”

“He’s been touching base once a day or so.”

I snort.

“He cares, Micco. He’s worried about you.”

“Worried.” I hate that I want to believe it. “Why does he act like he cares so much? He’s the one who left. He never looked back. I keep thinking--feeling...”

Burke knows about Chase and me. Or rather, how I feel about Chase, so I rely on his preternatural acuity to understand the words I can’t seem to spit out. He takes his time replying. Meanders around the kitchen while I stew in misery, but I don’t push. Contemplation is a lost art, Billie says. People don’t think before they speak. These are the seeds that grow into forests of misunderstandings.

Billie’s fridge holds a variety of mason jars, each painstakingly labeled in Maskóki, a jug of something that looks suspiciously like berry wine and a twelve pack of coke. Burke hands me a can. He keeps another for himself, tilting an ounce into Porridge’s bowl before joining me at the table. The cat appears out of thin air to lap up the treat, then rubs himself all over Burke’s pants.

“Remember the night I found you on the catwalk?” he asks.

With mortifying clarity. I nod.

“I’d been up there before. Two years prior.” He takes a loud sip of his cola, places it on the table before adding, “With Chase.”

What’s been most disconcerting about the last few days is how portions of my past have been peeled back, both by myself and others, to reveal whole untouched and unremembered -- or misremembered -- parts underneath. I’m not positive I want to hear this story Burke is going to tell. I’m also desperate for it.

“Two years.” I count backward. About the time I confessed to him. “He told you about me? About what I said? How I felt?”

“He never said a word.” Lips pursed, Burke plays with the drops of condensation that have fallen from the can to the table. I don’t think it’s a deliberate attempt to avoid my gaze. The memory genuinely upsets him.

“What happened?”

“Pauline saw him on the ladder. Same story as when you found your way to the top. No liquor though. He was just sitting, legs dangling over the side. Head against the rail. Crying.”

I blink, positive I misheard. “Crying? Chase?” It’s out of character. Way out of character. In our five year friendship, I only saw him moved to tears once.

Burke nods. “Slow and quiet, but persistent. I sat with him for three hours. He never stopped.”

The very idea elicits a sharp pain in my chest. Despite everything, I can’t bear the thought he was suffering. My hands fold into fists. I want to reach back fifteen years, to that amazing, perfect boy, and rip his demons apart. “You didn’t ask what was wrong?”

He doesn’t answer, and the reason hits me the same moment Porridge jumps on to the table between us and knocks over my Coke. Burke swears and swivels around to grab the tea towel hanging off Billie’s oven handle.

“You knew what was wrong,” I say as he mops up. “He didn’t have to tell you.”

“I’ve only ever felt so helpless one other time in my life.” When the spill is contained, he meets my gaze. “When I heard what happened to you, your mom and Mary.”

Not fair changing the subject. I put aside his confession to be dealt with later. “Answer me. Please.”

“No, Micco. It’s Chase’s story to share, if he chooses to. I know what I’ve just told you probably creates more questions than answers, but I hope it clears at least one thing up. You’ve spent all this time believing he walked away from you without a second thought. Felt no grief at your separation. I guarantee you, son. He did. More than you could ever know.”

Copyright © 2023 Libby Drew; All Rights Reserved.
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I hope you enjoyed the chapter. 
Thanks for reading!
Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 
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My eyes are really wet. Did Chase leave or was he sent away? No weather report this installment but a whole lot of storm. Amazing imagery as always.

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19 hours ago, 84Mags said:

I have a lot of ‘I wish’ thoughts after this chapter. I wish Micco would have taken a breath after hearing he wouldn’t be allowed back into the refuge and really questioned Martina’s motives behind her behaviors as well as banning him from the refuge. I wish Micco would have questioned why the council members were there and seemingly believed whatever was whispered about him. I really wish Micco would have questioned how Martina was also at the refuge after hours thereby knowing Micco had gone into the enclosure to check on Whisper. I wish Micco had not cut off his connection to the animals just when they began to project important emotions. I wish Micco had questioned Rory’s disheveled and sudden appearance, and I truly wish he’d stopped and listened to her. I wish Micco had shown Burke the text messages. I wish Micco had taken a leap and been honest with Chase all those years ago. I wish Burke hadn’t minded his own business on the catwalk and let Micco know Chase was there. I wish next week’s chapter could post tomorrow instead. 

Very astute "wishes" @84Mags. One of your wishes is something which occurred to me hours after writing my initial comment and after reading a comment made by @drpaladin again. Micco accepted at face value what Martina told him the Tribal Council had said. How do we know she was telling the truth. I don't trust her. And after reading her comments again, I am incensed she referred to Micco as "Honey" before digging the knife in. Patronising bitch should have been slapped.

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32 minutes ago, Summerabbacat said:

Very astute "wishes" @84Mags. One of your wishes is something which occurred to me hours after writing my initial comment and after reading a comment made by @drpaladin again. Micco accepted at face value what Martina told him the Tribal Council had said. How do we know she was telling the truth. I don't trust her. And after reading her comments again, I am incensed she referred to Micco as "Honey" before digging the knife in. Patronising bitch should have been slapped.

We don't know if Martina is playing fair. She could easily be the prime suspect.

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Best story yet!  It is a world of spinning plates.  From Micco not being able to be with the wolfs or Chase.  Next chapter soon!!

 

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