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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 - 22. Chapter 22


The Hendry Regional Medical Center in Clewiston isn’t as impressive as some hospitals. Dwarfed by Naples Community and the majority of those in Miami, it still manages to pack a punch into its modest block-wide footprint, boasting medical offices, testing centers, and an emergency room. The front desk directs me to the second floor, and I walk down the long hall of the east wing to Burke’s room. There, I pause in the doorway, taken aback by my friend’s appearance.

In all my years, Burke has never been anything less than colossal in body, intelligence, and action. Here, his physical size remains undiminished, but his presence is tempered by the light blue hospital gown and bandages that circle his arm and the crown of his head. An IV drips fluid steadily into his arm. He is sleeping, and I debate leaving and returning later that afternoon. Before my indecision resolves, he opens his eyes.

“Micco,” he says, voice uneven with disuse. “How are you?”

“I think the question,” I say as I step inside and pull the door closed behind me, “is how are you?”

“So much fuss for a bump on the head,” he grumbles.

“It’s more than that.”

He turns away, mumbling.

“What?”

“I need Billie’s medicine,” he says, speaking up. “This is bullshit.”

I laugh and perch on the edge of his bed. “Just follow the doctor’s orders. You’ll be out of here in a day or two. I’ll pick you up and drive you to Billie’s.”

“I want to go now.”

“Now, now, Officer Burke.” I smirk and cross my arms over my chest. “Would a lollipop help?”

His inscrutable gaze settles on my face. Even prone and injured, he intimidates. I drop my eyes. “Stop minimizing it,” I say. “You could’ve died, and I—” Can’t lose you. I leave this unsaid, but he uses his damn tribal mind-reading skills to discern the thought. Bastard.

I expect him to tell a joke to diffuse the strong emotion swirling between us. Distraction is a particular strength of his. But another, I remember as he speaks again, is forthrightness. “I didn’t die, Micco. But you’re right. Death can come for any of us when we least expect it.”

“Uplifting. Thanks,” I mumble.

His lips quirk into a brief smile before seriousness returns to his eyes. “Which is why I need to tell you some things. I’ve kept them to myself for too long. For years, I waited because you were too young. Then, because you were content. Settled. And I thought you had successfully put the past behind you and shouldn’t be reminded of it.”

Unease builds in my throat and a small tremble rolls through me. I stifle it with a deep, cleansing breath. “All right,” I say. Not a request for him to speak nor a demand to stop, but an acknowledgment. Whether he continues will be his decision.

He takes little time to deliberate. “I want to tell you about your mother.” He stops, swallows, then licks his lips. “And your father.”

Now? “Okay,” I say, wary. “What about them?”

Burke pushes himself higher in the bed, frowns at the IV, then folds his hands in his lap.

“Your mother, your father, and me. We were friends. In school, and sometimes outside of it. It was different then, Micco. Even you should remember the tail end of that time, when poverty was the norm and there was little to look forward to in life if you were Seminole.”

I remembered. Money was tight at my aunt and uncle’s. I never resented it. It was simply the way of our people before the tribe gained wealth. I never expected much and so was rarely disappointed. I told him so.

He nods. “A wise introspection. But not everyone shared your opinion.” With another deep sigh, he says. “Your father—”

“What’s his name?” I interrupt. “Mom never told us.”

“I will not speak it,” Burke spits, the words pure venom. I recoil, and his eyes soften. “He was charismatic. He charmed your mother. She got pregnant. They married, and that’s when it started.”

“When what started?”

Burke doesn’t answer immediately. He turns his gaze from mine to stare out the window. It’s a picture-perfect day, and for several seconds we watch the pillowy clouds pass overhead through a blinding blue sky. Then, Burke says, “The drugs. The crime. And the beatings.”

Shock and anger cut through me. “He beat her?”

“Yes. And worse.” He pulls himself straighter. “I’m sorry, Micco, but that’s the truth of it. He was not a good person. It was your mother who gifted you with virtue and kindness. Not him.”

I heave in a cleansing breath. Then another. “His actions aren’t your responsibility.”

He cringes and closes his eyes. “When Maria found out she was pregnant with you, she ran.”

I take this in. “To Oklahoma?”

“Yes,” Burke affirms with a mod. “For years, we heard nothing from her.” Now embarrassment clouds his features. “Those years… I’m not proud of them. I drank, helped Billie with odd jobs from time to time. But mostly I languished. I won’t hide my mistakes, or make excuses for them, by trying to explain life on the Rez back then, Micco. But never, not once, no matter how bad it got, or how low I got, did I break the law.” He reaches for the plastic cup of water near his bed. His hand, I notice with alarm, trembles.

“But he did,” I say quietly, filling in the blanks. “Break the law.”

Burke doesn’t comment on my guess. “When word reached us, through the tribe, that Maria was in Oklahoma, he went after her.”

The significance of his confession takes a minute to penetrate. I shake off the implication. “No. I remember those men. None were Seminole. He couldn’t have been there.”

“He was there, even if you didn’t see him. He arranged it.”

I grow dizzy as I absorb his words. “How could you know this?”

Burke snorts, disgust and despair twisting his features. “He bragged to me about it. Showed me pictures.”

I shake my head. The enormity of his confession opens up questions I never realized I had. Then again, unless forced to speak about it by my therapist, I have avoided this very subject for twenty years. “But…they never found them. The ones who did it.”

Burke’s lids droop over his deep-set, dark eyes, and he answers, voice pitched so low, I nearly don’t hear the words over the normal ruckus of the hospital beyond the door. “I found them,” he says. “I found them all. Including,” his eyes bore into mine. “Him.”

“Oh.” Oh.

“This is what I need to tell you, Micco. So you can rip me off that pedestal you seem so keen to keep me on. What I did, I did to get revenge for people I cared for, but it was against every law and teaching I hold in my heart. I am a hypocrite, to the bone, and I do not deserve your love.”

No one deserved it more, in my opinion. “That’s ridiculous. You’ve always taken care of me.”

He nods. “It’s been my sole focus from the minute you stepped foot in Florida. I know what you’ve struggled with. How you believe you failed to save your mother and sister. But you were a child, Micco. You have no culpability for what happened.”

I shrug. He knows me well.

“Maybe this will help,” Burke says, voice gentler now. “When you came to live with your aunt and uncle, I felt like the Great Spirit had given me a second chance. Your presence here gave me purpose, do you understand? A reason to stop drinking. To get a job. To return to Billie and the rituals that define us. To become a role model and a de facto parent. You did save someone, Micco. You saved me.”

Tears fill my eyes at his words, and I say, “Whatever you did, I don’t judge you. They were evil men.”

Burke starts to shake his head, then winces and lifts a palm to his temple. “You should hate me. I robbed you of your father. He was your blood, and one day… maybe….”

“You robbed me of nothing. You are my father, Matthew.” I take the hand he holds over his bandage and place it on my chest, over my heart. “You always have been, and you always will be.” I cut him off when he tries to speak. “Wikvs! It is truth, and we will debate it no more.”

~*~

Calhoun strides up the hall as I exit Burke’s hospital room. Impeccably dressed once again, the only glitch is the stark white sling cradling his right arm. Still, the linen suit coat is present and accounted for, if only draped over the right shoulder, and his tie is a perfect half-windsor.

“Situation normal,” I quip, looking him up and down.

“All fucked up,” he finishes. The profanity is out of character. But not the smug smile, nor the way he strokes his mustache.

“This is normal for you guys?” I ask.

“There’s no formula for our work, Mr. Garrett. It has its moments.”

“Dangerous moments?” I ask, then feel stupid immediately.

Calhoun doesn’t mock, simply nods. “Part of the job description.”

I suspect so, and Calhoun has proved he’s damn good at his job. I can’t say we’ll ever be best friends, but we’ve come a long way. That’s a peaceful thought, actually. Still, thinking of Chase in danger dampens my mood.

“You look well, Mr. Garrett,” Calhoun says.

“Better than either of you,” I say, inclining my head toward Burke’s door.

“Officer Burke is stronger than Chase and I put together.” Said sincerely, the words spin my thoughts back to the conversation Burke and I just shared. I nod absently. Calhoun must think my lackluster response is disagreement. “He is, and his character is of the highest caliber.”

I make my nod more definitive. “I couldn’t agree more.”

“I was coming by to check on him, but I also have a bit of information you might be interested in,” Calhoun says. “We picked up Frank Dodds, right outside of Tallahassee. He was northbound, doing ninety-five in a stolen Lexus.”

Sagely, I say, “Not the best way to avoid getting caught.”

Calhoun barks a laugh. “He’s no Frank Abagnale.”

I don’t ask what comes next for Frank. Or for Rory. The consequences of their actions are out of my hands, and I have no interest in giving emotional energy to either of their plights. Still, it’s a relief to know Frank isn’t lurking in the bushes of my backyard. “Thank you for the information,” I say.

My next question is more delicate, and at first it refuses to pass my lips. Calhoun waits patiently, sensing my struggle.

“And Martina?” I blurt finally. “Any sign?”

“No.” Calhoun shakes his head. “None. All we have is her car, which was left at the back gate of the refuge. Prior to the storm, judging by the tree lying across its roof.”

Calhoun may believe she’s on the run, but I suspect not, and I doubt Chase believes that either. If I know Chase, he’s shared a completely transparent account with his partner of what happened while we were in Arlene’s eye. What I don’t know is how much of that retelling went into the official report of the incident. I suspect none. Calhoun laid eyes on Long-Ears, but it was dark, and he was injured. He’s a facts man. So, I have no idea where he stands on the situation. And I’m reluctant to ask.

“I suspect we won’t see her again,” Calhoun muses. “Her loss was profound, but her actions were inexcusable. It’s a tragic situation for all involved.” There’s aching nostalgia in his soft words, the third time since I’ve sensed it since we met.

“Did you lose someone?” I ask. “I don’t mean to stir bad memories, but you’ve implied as much a couple of times.”

“Mmm.” More mustache stroking. Then he says, “Yes. My wife. In the first wave. She was a trauma nurse, and, not unlike Jacob Landis, refused to leave her charges during the worst of the pandemic. A gamble she eventually lost.”

I catch my breath. “I’m sorry for your loss.” It sounds inadequate, but Calhoun thanks me graciously. It’s tempting to add, Congratulations for handling the situation appropriately and not turning into a back-stabbing murderer, which fits my impetuous nature, but I’m not heartless. I hold my tongue.

With all settled between us, Calhoun turns away, but swings back a moment later. “I, ah, almost forgot.” He extracts a folded piece of paper from his lapel pocket and hands it over. “I saved this for you.”

“What is it?”

“One of Samuel Kincaid’s letters. The last one he wrote, if I’m not mistaken.”

I almost drop the thing. “Isn’t this evidence or something?”

“Technically,” Calhoun drawls. “But between you, me, and the bedpost, I believe it will serve you better than it will the case.”

~*~

Dear Michael,

You told me once that there are two wolves inside of us. One good, and one bad. And that the one who wins is the one we feed. I understand now how true that really is.

You probably believe I never listened to you when you talked about things like that, but I did. I always did. And I want you to know that I’m going to make this right. Tonight, as a matter of fact. I’m going to tell them the deal’s off. I’m not going to hurt you or your animals, or risk anyone else, because I’ve made mistakes. It’s time to face the consequences, whatever those might be, and I’m ready.

I feel like I’ve been feeding the bad wolf all of my life. Like, until I met you, I didn’t even know there was a good wolf. All I’ve ever known is lies, greed, and addiction. You taught me peace, humility, kindness, and truth. Thank you.

It’s two a.m. Time to go. I’ll see you tomorrow.

I love you. I hope you give me a second chance to prove that I can feed the good wolf.

Always,
Sam

~*~

I don’t see Chase for another two days.

It takes an entire morning and afternoon to rig enough enclosures to house the wolves. Ultimately, I salvage five and stuff my wolf contingent into four. Saffron and Dagger take the fifth. It’s a dicey gamble. Nero is a loner who needs and wants his own space, and Acadia is just as prone to make trouble if she’s bored. But my choices are few. They can’t stay where they are.

With Burke under observation for a severe concussion for another day, and Chase off dealing with the fallout of the murder, the storm, and everything in between, I slog through these tasks alone. In less than a day, I become immersed in the language of my brethren, speaking no words for hours on end, communicating only in physical and mental touch. I’ve done this before, sunk deep into their psyche, taken my place as alpha in thought and action, but never for this long. It’s dangerous. Too easily, I can lose myself in the noise and emotion of the pack. And though there’s comfort in the thought, for it is a simple existence, I must never forget that I am, in fact, not a wolf, but a man. One with his own slew of problems, which have grown since the morning I found Sam dead in Kane’s pen.

The most dangerous of those problems is resolved, true. But the sheer volume of responsibilities ahead of me overwhelms the relief, honestly.

Now, two days after I rode away from the refuge in the back of an ambulance with Burke and Calhoun, I stand in front of the shattered plate glass doors that lead into the ruined museum and survey the destruction. Little is left. I step inside, carefully picking my way across the debris-littered floor until I stand in the middle of the room.

Just over a week ago, this was a sanctuary. Safe, comfortable, and familiar.

Home.

My chest pinches on a sharp burst of pain as my eyes drift over the rubble. I can’t blame anyone for this. Not Sam. Not Martina. This is pure nature, and she’s a bitch. This loss came by way of wind and rain. The breath and tears of the Great Spirit. “Soukscha,” I whisper, then turn toward the side room where the glass-encased diorama of the new refuge had once stood.

There are, undoubtedly, sharp shards of shattered glass underneath the layer of mud that flowed in on the rising water, and since they’d punch right through the sole of my old sneakers, I delve no further. Two table legs have been swept away, or snapped off, and the diorama leans at a sharp angle to the floor. Miraculously, bits and pieces are still intact. I close my eyes, grieving for that now surely unrecognized dream.

There is nothing to salvage in this place. Not that will help me make the wolves and panthers safe and comfortable. On a sigh, I turn and pick my way across the floor and step gingerly onto the buckled flagstone patio.

The sounds of the Everglades have returned in bits and pieces. I hear the trickle of water, the rustle of wind through foliage, and the never-ending drone of insects and other creatures. Life goes on, as though the storm never passed this way. In fact, If I were to close my eyes, I might convince myself the destruction surrounding me is nothing but a bad dream.

When I open my senses, however, the illusion disappears. There is upheaval in the air, and in the currents of thoughts that come to me from nearby animals, I sense exactly what I am feeling: frustration, confusion, exhaustion.

I take a fortifying breath and open myself as wide as possible as I search for Long-Ears. Nothing. Not even a tendril of hate or malicious violence. Perhaps he is gone for good and will not return. In my heart, I know better. We humans harbor too much anger, greed, jealousy, and resentment for Long-Ears’ spirit to fade. He will ever be a part of this place. And of us.

I hear Whisper yip in the distance and sigh. Coming, I tell her. I expect to find her huddled in the corner of the enclosure she is sharing with Nero, Acadio, Luna and Bane, baring her teeth at whoever dares to approach, with the exception of Luna. She is not used to sharing.

I’ve yet to clear a navigable trail through the center of the refuge and resign myself to the long walk around the perimeter fence to reach her pen. At least here, the exterior fence, while buckled in places, caught and trapped the majority of palm fronds and branches. The path is traversable.

A whistle pierces the air. One that stops me in my tracks, and a grin breaks over my face. I turn and whistle in return, the secret tune of our youth. Chase and I had many such signals as boys, but this one stood the test of time, long past when the ear-tug became obsolete. He whistles again. He’s closer now, and I whistle back, guiding him through the bramble to where I wait.

I fight an acute impulse to throw my arms around him when he appears around the bend in the path. He has no such compunction, walking right into my personal space and drawing me into his arms. This is home, I realize, as we embrace. What’s been missing in my life since the day he walked away. I did my best to replace it and even partially succeeded. But I’ve not been whole since he left. Not like I am at this moment.

“Hey,” he says into the hair tucked behind my ear, nuzzling the lobe with his lips.

“Hey yourself,” I rasp, sliding my hands up and down his back, then lower. His body under my hands sets waves of lust free, and they crest and ebb rhythmically.

With a soft groan, Chase breaks free. Holds me at arms’ length and inspects my appearance. “You okay?”

Cognizant of our newfound promise of honesty, I shrug. “Getting there.”

He nods, eyes pinned on mine, then smiles. “I’m here to help.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.” He glances around. “Is Billie here?”

“Nope.” I take him by the hand and start off toward Whisper’s enclosure, who is broadcasting her displeasure with a series of growl-barks. “He’s with Danny actually.”

Chase shakes his head as we turn another corner and Whisper’s enclosure comes into view. “Didn’t see that one coming.”

“Didn’t you?” I had. Billie has a soft spot for lost souls. Lucky for me, or the Great Spirit only knows where I would be today.

Chase watches from outside the fence as I step inside the first, then second gates, and greet the wolves. Petulant, Whisper hangs back, pacing along the far side of the enclosure, soft growl rumbling in her throat. I make sure to give the others the attention they want first. No need to reward her for being a brat, though she is young and still untried in many ways.

“Have you heard from the council?” Chase asks as I finally call Whisper to my side. She comes with tail tucked, and my irritation dissipates. Though she handled herself bravely in front of Long-Ears, the confrontation terrified her. Her prolonged skittishness is proof of that.

“No. Nothing,” I say. I have no idea what to expect from the tribal council but hold little hope for a decision that makes me happy. The most I can do at the moment is care for my brothers and sisters. Shore up what isn’t broken beyond repair and wait. I give Whisper one more scratch around her ears, then rejoin Chase. “How about you? When do you go back to work?” My voice cracks a bit on the final word.

Chase hears it. He sidles up behind me as I lock the gate and wraps his arms around my chest. “I’m taking a leave of absence.”

I shift around to look him in the eye. “Why?”

“Because I want to help you here.”

“I’ll be fine.”

“Okay, then because… I don’t know if I can leave you again.”

I barely hear my voice over my pounding heart. “Chase, this job is all you’ve ever wanted. You worked hard for it.”

“You’re all I’ve ever wanted, Micco. Facts,” he declares when I arch a brow in disbelief. “Let me worry about my career. Our whole future doesn’t need to be decided today. Now, tell me what I can do.”

One more chapter! And since I'm out of town next weekend, I'll probably post it sometime this week. Thanks! Enjoy!
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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7 hours ago, drpaladin said:

Matthew's confession didn't surprise me. He has beaten himself up too long for what he sees as his failure to protect and then taking justice into his own hands. Like Micco, I see no fault in him.

Me either. 😉

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An extraordinary chapter @Libby Drew. I did not expect to be moved by the plight of any of the humans as much as I was by the plight of the animals, but I found myself weeping uncontrollably (and still am as I write this comment) to: 

"Dear Michael, 

You told me once that there are two wolves inside of us. One good, and one bad. And that the one who wins is the one we feed. I understand now how true that really is. 

You probably believe I never listened to you when you talked about things like that, but I did. I always did. And I want you to know that I’m going to make this right. Tonight, as a matter of fact. I’m going to tell them the deal’s off. I’m not going to hurt you or your animals, or risk anyone else, because I’ve made mistakes. It’s time to face the consequences, whatever those might be, and I’m ready. 

I feel like I’ve been feeding the bad wolf all of my life. Like, until I met you, I didn’t even know there was a good wolf. All I’ve ever known is lies, greed, and addiction. You taught me peace, humility, kindness, and truth. Thank you.

It’s two a.m. Time to go. I’ll see you tomorrow. 

I love you. I hope you give me a second chance to prove that I can feed the good wolf. 

Always, 
Sam"

Sam's death was as much in vain as Kane's. I hope he and Kane are together in some afterlife paradise (if only I could suspend reality long enough to be believe in such things). I hate that murderous bitch Martina even more. She is/was one disgusting Marjorie Lauren. As for Frank and Rory, I don't give a flying fuck about either of them.

I warmed to Calhoun in this chapter, in fact, I had another Twin Peaks moment with this story. The image of Kyle MacLachlan (Agent Cooper) arose from the mist to become Agent Calhoun. If only I could hear the dulcet tones of Julee Cruise singing Falling. Perhaps I can apply it to the rekindled relationship between Micco and Chase, although there sweet moment was accompanied in my mind by Roberta's masterful interpretation of The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.

As for the revelations from Burke, the only thing he disclosed which surprised me was that he avenged Maria and her daughter's death (and this act was accompanied by Tony Christie's I Did What I Did For Maria). 

Perfect Libby. Benny and Bjorn could not have written it any better, and Frida and Agnetha could not have "sung" it any better.

 

Edited by Summerabbacat
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