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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 - 2. Chapter 2

CHAPTER 2

Burke guides me across the refuge by the arm. His grip is firm, not tight. I don’t feel trapped by his hold, or restrained, and I think he must be taking great care to make sure I don’t. The wolves are silent. So is he, although he dials, then redials a number on his cell several times before punching the end button and slipping it into his pocket. I don’t ask him again about the identity of the person in Kane’s pen. I don’t think he knows who it is, but it’s a topic I expect will be broached soon.

A pair of EMTs pass us as we approach the main building, guiding a stretcher between them. I sense little urgency in their step. Eyes downcast, they acknowledge Burke’s curt greeting as we squeeze by each other on the too narrow path. I assume they’ve been briefed on what to expect, although no amount of preparation can blunt the horror of the scene. I try to say a few words, but they’ve already turned the next corner and are out of sight. Burke urges me onward.

The refuge staff use the museum building for more than displays and postcards. It’s for meetings, office work, storage, and the occasional late night vodka bender when the mood strikes us. Burke steps through the glass sliders and hesitates. People mill restlessly around the small space, a few other BIA officers and two local cops. I see Rory and Frank, one of our other volunteers. I realize, now that my mind has decided to start churning out rational thoughts, that it was probably Rory who found me in Kane’s pen and made the call to Burke, urging the rusty wheels of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to start rolling. Burke is a competent member of law enforcement and a respected member of our community. But this corner of the reservation isn’t a haven of crime or violence. Vandalism and domestic disturbance calls are the meat of his normal day. Likely he feels as horrified and off-balance as I do. The thought spurs me to stand straighter and make extra effort to shake off the residual anxiety. I’m no child, but a man. Time to act like one.

I place my hand over his, and he meets my eyes, measures the message, and uncurls his fingers from my bicep. I nod my thanks and take two deep, cleansing breaths. Two is all I have time for, as bodies close in on me from all sides. Burke manages to get between me and them.

“I’ll need to speak with you alone, Micco. And then, the others.” Burke accompanies this pronouncement with a pointed look at Rory and Frank. He can be an intimidating man when he isn’t smiling. The weathered skin of his face and the touch of gray at his temples reveal his age, but he carries it as a medicine man would, with a calmness and clarity of manner and speech that make most people respect him on sight and scurry to do his bidding. His hair is gathered at his neck, as mine is, but forms a loose plait halfway down his back. A lone blue bead swings from the tie at the base.

“Michael.” Rory’s voice wobbles as she steps forward. She’s still shaking. “I—I didn’t know what to do.”

“You did the right thing,” I tell her. Certainly more than I was capable of, thanks to the ghosts of my past and the damned PTSD I’ve never been able to conquer. “Thank you.”

“But…” Whatever she wants to say, she can’t. Words can’t find their way around her short, hiccupping sobs. Her hair has come undone from its messy bun. The ends cling together with dirt and tears. Her hazel eyes, usually luminous, are round with shock and bloodshot. “I didn’t want—didn’t want to…” Stymied by grief, she looks to Frank. Gets little in return but the same raw distress.

Strangely, their floundering helps ground me. I instinctively want to protect her from the horror of what’s occurred. “We’ll be okay.” I take her hand. Squeeze it in mine. “We’ll get through this.”

She presses her tiny fingers into my palm. “Did he hurt you?” she whispers.

Kane? I can barely fathom the possibility, though I clearly need to. “No.”

“Michael—”

Burke cuts her off. “He’s fine Rory. Give him some room.”

“I’m okay,” I tell her. It’s an inadequate, weak response, and she sees it. Shakes her head. Her cheeks are still damp with tears.

“Where can we speak privately?” Burke asks me.

I point toward a closed door off to the side. “But the animals need cared for,” I say as he moves past. “May they do that while they’re waiting?”

Burke chews on the question, glancing back at a very pale Rory and slack-jawed Frank. “How long can it wait?”

“They’re hungry,” I say. And all kinds of agitated—a volatile combination.

“As long as they can attend to them without direct contact, then yes, it’s fine with me.”

But is it fine with them? I didn’t consider that before I volunteered Rory and Frank. How much did Rory see? I suppose it would be entirely justified if she never came back after today, let alone feed the animals as though this were any other morning. “Rory?” I ask, despising the shake in my voice.

“I’ll do it.” She nods, pulling herself straight. “At least today.”

Ominous and unwelcome, that proclamation. Not that I could have hoped for a different one. “Thank you. I know this isn’t easy. I appreciate it very much.”

“Don’t talk to anybody about the incident this morning. Please,” Burke adds. “No phone calls. Nothing. Until we release the identity of the victim.”

Rory squeaks at the word. Glassy-eyed, Frank nods.

Rory is a junior at Gulf Coast University. She works three paying jobs and has a side hustle with Uber Eats just to make ends meet. She’s fierce about her education, though. Says all the hard work is worth it. That she has any free time at all, heavy emphasis on the free—we pay her nothing—says everything it needs to about her commitment to me. Well, to our wolves and panthers. Frank, on the other hand, is a high school dropout looking for meaning. I don’t judge, especially not those actively searching for their place in the world. The journey’s a long one for most.

Neither are Seminole. Just eager young adults who want to make a difference. I respect that. Turning away volunteers isn’t an option, anyway. There’s always work to be done here and not enough money to go around. But neither feels the bond of the tribe, so I imagine this morning’s “incident” will be trending on social media within the hour. I murmur a quiet thanks as they slip out the door to begin the morning feedings.

“Micco.” Burke waits by the small office. I nod and precede him inside. For now, I am still Micco, a nickname from my childhood. Not Michael. Perhaps he hopes to put me at ease. Comfort me. Or maybe not. Thinking too hard about it makes the ache in my neck sink deeper between my shoulder blades.

The office is organized chaos, but a serviceable desk with two comfortable chairs, one on either side, stands in the middle. Burke takes one and I the other, and as I watch, a layer of his inscrutable facade peels away. His shoulders slump. He knuckles at his eyes with closed fists before smoothing his palms over his hair. “Well, fuck.”

God help me, I almost laugh.

“What the hell happened here?” he asks. “I’ve been bored to death more than once by your and Martina’s lectures about how your safety protocols are foolproof.”

I’m sure he has. Martina’s safety standards are impeccable. They’ve been modeled by animal refuges all over the country.

Brother Wolf Sanctuary is Martina’s baby. Her husband, who passed away last year, was tribe. Martina, by contrast, is one generation removed from a clan of Dublin Irish that can make me blush when they start talking, and that’s no easy task. She’s lived on the reservation for twenty years. Has been running and nurturing the refuge for fifteen. To me, she acts more Seminole than many of the young kids at Ahfachkee, the reservation’s K-12 school. I ache for her calming presence. Where the hell is she?

“And where the hell is she, by the way? She’s not answering her phone,” Burke adds.

I grunt and shake my head. “Not sure.”

When I was a kid, I used to count mind reading as one of Burke’s tribal gifts. He has an uncanny knack of knowing when and where there’s trouble. And who’s behind it. And what foul names a young Seminole punk is calling him in their head. But he’s always given me a little extra leeway because of what happened to my family. I owe him for that, at the very least.

“I should know,” I admit. “I’m sorry. She’s been traveling a lot. Trying to drum up donations.” I nudge my head in the direction of the small book on the desk. “That’s her calendar. It should say.”

I’m parched. My mouth is sour with gritty sand and the vestiges of my panic attack. I grab a water from the small fridge in the corner while Burke opens the book and leans in close enough for his nose to touch the page. Despite his shunning of most vanities, reading glasses are one item he continues to resist. I hand him a bottle. “Need me to read it for you?”

“That will not be necessary.” Burke squints at the page. “What does this mean? It’s from yesterday. ‘Michael did it again. Third time this month.’”

I blink at him, utterly confused, and shrug. Burke holds my gaze another second before breaking away. The sound he makes echoes my displeasure. Michael did what again? But the thought’s transient, wiped clean a moment later by the day’s horror.

Burke returns to his study of Martina’s calendar. “Ft. Lauderdale,’ it says for today. ‘Power Luncheon with the Boca Bitches.’” His lips twitch. “Friends of yours?”

“Kind of.”

The Boca Bitches are Sam’s grandmother’s rich widow friends. They couldn’t care less for what happens on the Rez, but they do love cute, fluffy animals. Martina makes sure her portfolio is always full of cute, fluffy wolves. I relay this to Burke. “A couple bottles of champagne over Eggs Benedict and Martina can usually get at least one of them to write her a check.”

Running the sanctuary isn’t cheap. It goes without saying, because Burke has also had his share of lectures from Martina on our funding woes. I don’t make lavish purchases, live with very little, and so donate most of my income to Martina for the animals’ food and vitamins.

Buke digests my explanation. “Who’s Sam and why is his grandmother important?”

His eyes are on Martina’s day planner as he asks, and I’m glad for it. My personal life is no secret, but neither is it on display. I keep my voice neutral. I think. “He’s the third key holder. Sam, Martina, me. His grandmother kind of adopted the place a few years ago. It was her pet charity. She got Sam involved at the beginning of last summer. I guess she hoped it would keep him out of trouble.”

“Did it work?”

“Uh—” Sort of?

I resented Sam as a spoiled, rich, white brat at first, here only to play with his exotic pets. But he stuck with it despite the hard work. Stuck with me despite my pissy attitude. Six months ago, he stepped in front of two snarling wolves, Banshee and Outlaw, in order to shield Rory. He sang to them while I diffused the standoff. The latest Adele tune, although he denies that detail vehemently. Things changed between us after that. I guess I’m a sucker for selfless bravery.

“And where’s Sam right now?” Burke asks.

“No idea.”

Another look, this one not as inscrutable. Cut the bullshit.

“I don’t,” I insist. “We’re not together anymore. But he’s probably with Martina. Especially if they were going to see his grandmother’s crew. She passed away several months ago. Martina loved Charlotte but can’t really stand her friends. Sam treats them all like queens. Flatters them shamelessly. They all adore him. Martina always comes home a bit richer if she takes Sam to brunch.”

A smile touches Burke’s lips, then slides away. “That woman is a flagrant schemer. See if you can get Sam on the phone.” He licks his finger and turns a page of the daytimer. Backwards, to the previous week.

I take a seat for this call. Martina may have her cell off, but Sam is never more than a foot from his iPhone. I’m still not sure what I’m going to say, how I’ll broach the subject of what happened, when the call connects and begins to ring. In one ear, I hear the usual trill, but in the other…

The song is faint, but only one person I know uses “Peace Train” as their ringtone. Confused, I end the call. Cat Stevens goes quiet. Burke looks up, uses his mind-reading superpower, and asks, “What’s wrong, Micco?”

Not, “No answer?” or, “Voicemail?” He already suspects. There’s rising terror in my expression. There must be. I don’t answer him but press the green circle on my screen once more, and Cat Stevens belts out more lyrics, louder this time. Burke frowns. Dread slows my reflexes, but I manage to take the phone from my ear and stretch it out towards him. His eyes focus on my phone, then the door behind me. Again on my phone. His spine straightens like a puppet being pulled upright, and he opens his mouth, but it’s too late. A knock shakes the door, and a disembodied voice beyond shouts words I can’t believe or accept. Someone enters, I don’t see who, and hands Burke a battered and bloody cell phone. It sings, “Oh Peace Train, take this country. Come take me home again.”

The wolves begin to howl. Luna starts and Acadia joins her. Soon, I hear the voices of all my brothers and sisters. Save one—the one who will never howl again. I realize then what I failed to understand before. What I purposefully rejected, whether consciously or unconsciously. The wolves’ grief of earlier hadn’t been for Kane.

It had been for Sam.

~*~

The next several minutes are a blur, but I don’t sink into oblivion again. The stench of smoke and the screams and cries I’ve come to know intimately don’t come crawling up from my subconscious. Thank God. I don’t think I could handle two anxiety attacks in one day. But I’m not unaffected. The tips of my fingers and toes tingle. My tongue is thick, and my face feels strangely swollen. I nod when asked, “Do you know Samuel Kincaid?” And again when a Florida driver’s license is pushed under my nose. “Is this him?”

It is him, smiling a familiar toothy grin, auburn hair cascading low over his brow and deep-set hazel eyes twinkling at the camera. One edge of the laminate is stained dark. A cursory effort has obviously been made to wipe the blood away. Oh Jesus, Sam. My stomach cramps, and I curl forward, put my head between my knees and concentrate on not vomiting.

When I’ve fought it back enough to straighten, Burke and I are alone again. The room is quiet, though the hum of tragedy continues on the other side of the door, a chorus of voices, coughs and clatters. Boots scrape over tile. The vending machine spits out a can of pop with a clang and a thud. Burke perches on the edge of Martina’s desk, hands folded between his knees, and all his attention is on me. “I’m sorry, Michael.” His gentle, firm tone grounds me. I press my hand over my eyes and murmur a meaningless thanks.

“Who can we call for him? Is there family? What was he doing here at that time of night? Do you know? Why would he enter an enclosure alone?”

I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know, I want to say. Although maybe I do. Sam’s moods had been uneven lately, his partying decidedly more risky. I keep my mouth shut on that thought. I rasp, “He only had his grandmother. Charlotte. She passed away about six months ago.”

The only part of Burke that moves are his fingers. In slow motion, they spread then settle back together. “Friends?”

Me. Maybe. And a large contingent of groupies who cling to him for his inheritance. He took me around to parties at the beginning of our relationship, but my distaste for both his “friends” and their habits, which I never tried to hide, killed his buzz, and soon those excursions stopped. At least while we were together. “I really don’t know any of his friends. I’m sorry.” Except… “There’s Danny.”

“Who’s Danny?”

“Danny Parks. Sam’s ex boyfriend. They might be on again. I really don’t know. But Danny’s probably the closest thing to family that Sam’s got. They lived together for a while.”

“Do you have his number?”

The idea would be laughable but for the circumstances. “No, sorry. Danny doesn’t like me.”

Burke takes this in with little more than a head tilt and a slow blink. “Why not?”

There’s no quick answer to that question. I mutter something unintelligible, and Burke lets it go. He stands and stretches, his unease plain in his frown and the way he won’t meet my gaze. When he speaks, there’s a new quality to his voice, one I’m unfamiliar with, and I’ve been privy to his gamut of moods since I was eleven.

“I want you to go see Billie. Spend the day there. And the night, if he suggests it. There’s more you and I need to discuss, but it can wait until tomorrow. I’ll keep trying Martina.”

The idea is a balm. Pure, blissful comfort. “The animals.” My voice cracks on the last word. Burke pretends not to have heard.

“I’ll talk to Rory. She can handle it?”

I nod. “Yes. She’s the most competent.”

“I want them to eat, but I don’t want anybody in the pens. Anybody. At least until Martina clears it. There are ways to take care of them without any direct contact?”

“Yes. Rory knows how.” Some of the wolves, the ones we handle more intimately, will be confused by the change. Or not. Underestimating a wolf’s intelligence is a common mistake, and one I rarely make. Missteps breed tragedy. It’s the first lesson taught to everyone who works at the refuge. One Sam himself is excellent at remembering. Usually. I begin to earnestly question what the hell he was doing in Kane’s enclosure alone.

I’m sure others are doing the same.

“You’ll stay with her?” I imagine she’ll welcome the emotional support, though honestly, I despise the thought of putting her through it at all.

“Every step of the way, Micco. She’ll be safe.”

I use the arms of the chair to push to my feet. Burke straightens but doesn’t move to help. “Go see Billie,” he repeats. “Reflect and seek peace. We’ll speak tomorrow morning.”

It isn’t a request. And while I would normally bristle at being ordered around, the clear direction helps the tiniest bit. Still sick to my stomach and shaking, grief licking at the edges of my outward calm, I do as bid.

I leave the sanctuary to visit my medicine man.


 

Copyright © 2023 Libby Drew; All Rights Reserved.
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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. 
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9 minutes ago, drpaladin said:

How long is loooooong?

You could always do like an unnamed author here and just inexplicably end a chapter, perhaps with one of those intermission notices they used to do for really long movies. lol

I just checked and it's close to 7k. Which, not gonna lie, is nearly twice as long as I prefer, and I could split it down the middle, but it would be a clunky transition. So... you're just going to get it all at once. Sorry? 🙂

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1 minute ago, drpaladin said:

I recall hearing a story about a state trooper here who decided he'd go ahead and have the cars towed from a fatal wreck scene where the victim had been ejected. The coroner arrived, looked to the left and right, looked all around, looked down at the body, and then said to the trooper, "Well, obviously this man fell from a plane since there are no wrecked cars here."

Amusing in a macabre way. I expect better from a statey. 

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3 minutes ago, Libby Drew said:

I just checked and it's close to 7k. Which, not gonna lie, is nearly twice as long as I prefer, and I could split it down the middle, but it would be a clunky transition. So... you're just going to get it all at once. Sorry? 🙂

Well, that's not so bad. When they start getting longer than that, it's too much. I still haven't finished a chapter which ran over 130k words because my browser kept crashing and I'd lose my place.

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5 minutes ago, Libby Drew said:

Amusing in a macabre way. I expect better from a statey. 

Alabama troopers are instilled with an attitude at their academy that they are gods.

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1 minute ago, drpaladin said:

Well, that's not so bad. When they start getting longer than that, it's too much. I still haven't finished a chapter which ran over 130k words because my browser kept crashing and I'd lose my place.

130?? I can't even. 

This whole book isn't even two-thirds of that.

I'm considering. It may post as one very short chapter, and then a long one the next day, towards the end of next week. 

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3 hours ago, Libby Drew said:

Good question! It will be answered eventually, of course. 😉

. I learned, for instance, that the tribe never technically surrendered to the United States in 1842 after the Second Seminole War. No peace treaty was ever signed; the US troops simply withdrew. 

That no peace treaty was ever signed doesn't really matter in history the U.S. was notorious for not keeping their part of the bargain on these treaties

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3 minutes ago, weinerdog said:

That no peace treaty was ever signed doesn't really matter in history the U.S. was notorious for not keeping their part of the bargain on these treaties

FACTS.

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5 minutes ago, weinerdog said:

I just got done not too long ago reading a story on GA by an excellent author and he did a chapter a little over 7k and I like the smart a** I am commented  in the chapter comments saying "only 7k words you weren't feeling well when you wrote this chapter" it really was his shortest chapter. But it didn't matter it was great stuff and not a wasted word which I'm confident will be the case here

Thanks for the vote of confidence.  ☺️

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