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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 - 6. Chapter 6

Chase collects me soon after, and Calhoun even offers a sincere sounding apology as we walk out. “Sorry for upsetting you, Mr. Garrett,” he says.

“No problem,” I mutter. A true warrior walks the high road.

I feel no closer to knowing the truth about Sam’s death. Chase’s silence as we navigate out of Clewiston gives me time to pick at the mystery, but I never was much good at them. That was his department.

“Do you want to go home?” he asks as we reach the highway.

I picture my small, empty house. My spirit shies away. “No. Can you drop me at Billie’s?”

“Sure.” Chase’s shoulders unlock, relax slightly. He approves of my choice. I wrack my brain for a subject of conversation that isn’t loaded with landmines, find nothing, and content myself with staring out the window. In the past, our time together would often be filled with long silences, but they had nothing in common with this tense, creeping dead space, where there is much we should discuss, but won’t.

As teenagers, we would quiet our minds to meditate on the rituals of birth, death, and healing. On beneficial and harmful magic. On ceremonies and the teachings of tribal lore. And sometimes we would just let our minds wander, our spirits anchored together by affection and friendship.

I loved him so much.

The wave of loss and grief, as fresh as it was when I was fifteen, surprises me. I stifle it, but not fast enough. It carries to Chase. Scary, that our bond hasn’t diminished enough to prevent such a thing. He draws in a deep, trembling breath, exhales just as shakily. Both hands are on the wheel, arms locked. He watches the road as if it holds all the secrets of the universe.

“Sorry,” I say. I truly didn’t mean to upset him. I don’t expect he welcomes any reminders of our history together, especially considering the circumstances. “Are you okay?” The question is strictly academic. He’s far from okay. I can see that, if nobody else would.

His eyes close, then snap open. He shakes his head. I doubt it’s in answer to my nonsensical question.

I say no more until we pull up in front of Billie’s house. “How did he get that file? Calhoun,” I clarify as the kicked-up dust settles around the tires.

“I apologize for that.”

That’s no answer. I wait, but it isn’t until after he slams the gear shift into park and punches the parking brake that he answers. “It came up in your background check. Calhoun ordered the file.”

“He can do that?”

Chase nods. “Yes.”

“I was a minor.”

“They’re not criminal records, Micco.”

“Still—”

“You’re a person of interest in a homicide investigation,” Chase snaps. “He can get pretty much whatever the hell he wants.”

Which means what? I want to press him, but I’m not sure I’ll like the answer. I attack from a different direction. “He asked if we’d ever been romantically involved.”

Chase slumps in his seat, rubs at his forehead. “I thought he might.”

“Why?” I have an extensive list of questions about this whole screwed up situation. This one just shot to the top. “Why would he ask that?”

Jesus, Micco. Because he wants to know if my involvement in the investigation poses a conflict of interest. Haven’t we covered this?”

“We didn’t cover it. We lied about it. Of course your involvement poses a conflict of interest, unless I’m misremembering something about our little friendship.”

Chase slaps his hand on the dashboard. “Don’t call it that.” He touches me then, our first skin to skin contact in fifteen years, and it’s only a hand on my arm, but electricity jolts to the tips of my fingers and toes. “Nothing about what we shared was little, Micco.”

I swallow. Force the words from my throat. “Why would he ask that, Chase?”

I’m not sure what I expect to hear, but it doesn’t matter, because he says nothing. Just stares at me, eyes wide and incredulous.

I yank free and get out of his fancy government SUV. Concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other until I reach Billie’s door. I don’t look back.

~*~

I’d loved him, but had no idea what to do about it. I agonized over it for a year.

I planned and rehearsed my speech, but in the end it popped out accidentally in a helpless rush I could no more control than my physical reaction when he stood too close. Since that was pretty much all the time, I knew my window of opportunity—the one where I decided how he found out—was closing. Then one day, with fists and blood, in the back lot of our high school, it slammed shut.

“Hey, Garrett! Your aunt pregnant again yet?”

Except for turning and giving Dylan the finger, I ignored the taunts.

“Man, two months has gotta be a record for her. Maybe you should pick up the slack.” Dylan’s groupies howled, took up a chorus of whistles and lewd sound effects. My steps slowed, then stopped. I wasn’t blind to the rising tide of my temper. It had grown short lately, commensurate with my personal stresses.

“Ooh, you got something to say, Garrett?” Someone shoved the back of my shoulder. “Or are ya stopping to get some tips on how to scale that mountain?” More guffaws. I reached for patience, for serenity, and had almost grasped it when Dylan opened his ignorant mouth again. And this time, he went too far. “Or are you saving yourself for that pretty white boyfriend of yours?” Another shove to my back. “He suck your cock, faggot?”

I slipped my backpack off my shoulder. The move went overlooked, but then Dylan was only ever focused on being the center of attention. He had never possessed any affinity for his heritage. Or any respect for his mortality. I turned, smiled, and as I suspected, he stopped chortling and squinted at me. “Something funny, asshole?”

I didn’t pull the punch. Something cracked in my fist as it made contact with his face. I hardly cared. Dylan dropped like a stone, wailing like an infant. “Watch your mouth, asshole,” I snarled, standing over him, throbbing hand pressed to my stomach.

Dylan let out a primal cry, lashed out with his foot. I dodged it easily. Sputtering, he rolled to his feet. Blood dripped steadily from his nose. “I’m going to kill you!”

And he may have. Last I heard, he’d been arrested in Atlanta for shooting a convenience store clerk who’d counted out the wrong change. That kind of depravity doesn’t spring up overnight. But at fifteen, I considered him little more than a bully, marginalized and angry at the world.

Dylan raised a fist, came at me, still reeling from the blow to his face. I unlocked my knees and lowered my center of gravity. I was smaller and quicker, and as long as his trained monkeys didn’t get involved, I had a chance.

I never needed it. My guardian angel appeared, and when Dylan’s fist arced out of the air, Chase caught it in his own, twisted and pushed. Dylan flew backward and reacquainted himself with the oven-hot blacktop. Chase said nothing, just shot his arm across my chest when I tried to wade into the fray.

“What the fuck!” Dylan lumbered to his feet. He took in his new opponent, snarled and backed up a step. His first intelligent move of the afternoon. He pointed a blood-stained finger at Chase. “I can go right through you, Becker.”

Chase gave a one-shouldered shrug. “You can try.”

I almost wanted him to, just so I could watch Chase put him on his back. Alas, Dylan wasn’t stupid enough to make a bad situation worse. He spit on the ground at Chase’s feet. “He’s lucky you showed up.”

“You’re the lucky one. Because if you’d touched him, I would’ve broken both your legs.”

“Don’t like to share your boyfriend?”

“I’m not the sharing type. Got anything else stupid or reckless to add before you fuck off?”

In answer, Dylan spit at our feet again.

Chase laughed. “That’s what I thought.”

Like a quarterback breaking huddle, Dylan snapped his fingers, spun and stalked away, hand cradling his nose. His faithful mutts fell in behind him. One dared to glare at us, but scampered off when Chase crooked a finger, inviting him closer.

“Can’t leave you alone for a minute.” Chase scooped my backpack off the ground and handed it to me. “You knew they were hanging around out here. Why didn’t you wait for me?”

For one, sharing the locker room with him, let alone the showers, was high on the list of things I’d been avoiding. I ranked it somewhere between Ebola and extinction level event. And also, “I don’t need you fighting my battles for me.”

Rather than calling me on my irritation, Chase nodded. “I know. Sorry, couldn’t help myself. I have this goal: make Dylan Marks piss himself before graduation.”

I couldn’t fault such a lofty aspiration. “I can take care of myself,” I muttered as we started walking. Even if the throbbing in my wrist, growing worse by the second, didn’t support that theory. I gave exactly thirty seconds over to the idea of trying to hide it from Chase before fessing up. “Fucked up my hand.”

Chase’s sharp eyes took in how I cradled it in my opposite fist, and he bent close to inspect the damage. “That’s gonna need looked at, Micco.”

“No way.” I hadn’t needed a doctor since the flu outbreak in the sixth grade. “I have a streak going.”

“So do the Dodgers. What’s your point?”

My point was my aunt and uncle weren’t going to drag me to get an x-ray because I couldn’t control my temper. I didn’t have to say it. Chase knew. He smiled through a fond sigh. “Come on. Let’s see if my mom’s home yet.”

Brilliant idea. It wouldn’t have been the first time she’d patched me up on the down-low.

I loved Chase’s mother, in a purely platonic sense. She drank in details of Seminole medicine, though tribal law limited what I could tell her. Her genuine respect for our culture made her popular among Elders and patients alike. I considered her Billie’s perfect complement, the science to his mysticism. He often told me her influence gave me balance and perspective in regards to tribal cures, though of course he preferred his own. Still, he respected her ways. I’m positive he would’ve taken one look at my rapidly swelling hand and insisted on an x-ray.

No signs of life at the Becker residence. Its deep tangerine stucco stuck out over the tops of the trees. One of the few two-story homes in the area, it resembled a candy castle, dripping white trim and decorative railing. Financial wealth is difficult to pinpoint, and I’d never asked outright, but Chase’s home told a story of people who bought what they wanted, though they never seemed to want much. No cheap plastic toys or secondhand furniture for the Beckers. Only the best, but only in moderation. They never flaunted.

Chase’s mother held him to certain standards of behavior and performance. The same ones she expected of herself. He would be a doctor, too, she told me once. And save many people. The bar was set high for Chase Becker. I both envied and feared it.

Chase slapped together a salami sandwich and slid it in front of me, then added an orange Fanta and four ibuprofen. I was still contemplating his culinary masterpiece when he landed on the adjacent stool and gestured for my damaged paw. “Let me see, Scrappy Doo. Come on. I won’t hurt you.”

I wasn’t afraid of a little pain. And all Chase held was a gallon baggie filled with ice. But he’d scooted far closer than necessary, bracketing me between his thighs while he wrapped the makeshift cold pack in a tea towel. No, my fear was for the familiar thought that he’d sense my attraction. And while I inevitably entertained fantasies of us together in the dead of night, I couldn’t pretend those dreams were anything but folly in the light of day. The risk was too great. If I lost him…

Oblivious, Chase cradled my damaged hand in both of his. He might have held a priceless diamond for the care he took in wrapping the ice around the spreading bruise. Sandy hair, spiky from a careless finger combing, cascaded over his brow. Those eyes, always a sparking, electric, pale blue, rose to meet mine.

A sudden desire to confess took hold. Billie had taught me that airing truth sapped negative energy. Maybe it would end my obsession. Revive our comfortable, essential friendship. The idea I could kill the root of all my teenage angst right then, as far fetched as it sounded, overrode good sense. “I need to tell you something,” I blurted.

His gaze held mine. Unflinching. “Okay.”

The words almost stuck. I pushed them out. “I’m gay.”

Something flared in Chase’s eyes. Unidentifiable, unreadable and very unfamiliar. I panicked.

“Don’t—I need to—” I fell back on my prepared speech, practiced and perfected for hours in front of my bathroom mirror. “Chase, I’ll never think of you… that way. I couldn’t. You’re my best friend. My brother. You’ll always be my brother. Nothing more. Nothing else.”

Nothing else. Just my reason for putting one foot in front of the other every day.

I heaved in a breath. “Is it okay?”

Chase’s gaze sank to our joined hands. He unfolded the ice to check my wrist, then rewrapped it. I thought he might be shaking, but maybe that was me. “It’s okay, Micco,” he said. “Of course it’s okay.”

But it hadn’t been. Three weeks later he was gone.


~*~

My apprenticeship with Billie involves more than lessons regarding Seminole medicine. His tasks have purpose. They lead to knowledge and wisdom. Most of the time. Today, he sends me to the grocery store. I don’t mind the errand, really. It’s a mission that requires just enough brain power to keep my mind off my other troubles, at least briefly, and I need that short respite.

Immersed in a light meditation, the drive passes quickly. I pull into the parking lot of the Publix feeling calmer. More controlled. Billie’s list of eclectic items brings a smile to my face, and I grab a cart and get to work, blissfully blind to everyone around me. No need for constant vigilance these days. There had been a time in my life, years-long, when every stranger was a threat. Every acquaintance a spy. Dark times, my late teens. I believed the world was out to get me after Chase’s abandonment. I wanted to hurt everyone and everything, including myself.

Even beyond that time, when I vowed to heal and forget and struggled to grow into something resembling a capable adult, bitterness steered quite a bit of my decision making. Vices cling, Billie says. Self-destruction can seduce the very best of men because relief from responsibility comes with an excuse: suffering. I didn’t learn this lesson quickly. Not many do.

That lifestyle is years in the past, and it leaves me unprepared for the heavy hand that lands on my shoulder and spins me around. My cart, half full, careens into a display of boxed macaroni and cheese. The tower wobbles, and a handful of packages dive for the floor. A collective gasp rises from a few shoppers. An older woman tsks under her breath and wanders away muttering about how the youth of today have no respect. If I weren’t being pushed off-balance to crash against a shelf full of pasta sauce, I’d smile at being grouped in with “the youth of today.”

No time for that now. The hand, which pins me between the Ragu and the Prego, belongs to Danny, and he looks to have murder on his mind.

With the exception of the watery, bloodshot eyes, he hasn’t changed. Blond hair tousled effortlessly and still so fair it’s hard to believe his skin ever sees the relentless Florida sun. He’s wearing ragged denim cut-offs, probably deceptively expensive—Sam did spoil him—and a concert T-shirt for a rock band I’ve never heard of. I take a deep breath, try to remember that he’s young, very young, and place my hand over the one he has fisted in my shirt. “Let go, Danny.”

“I won’t, you murdering bastard!” He tries to give me a little shake. Or maybe that’s him shaking. He is, too, I notice with alarm. Trembling hard all over, and I get the impression I’m the one holding him up instead of the other way around. This could be grief. It’s a kind thought on my part, because most likely he’s high or in withdrawal. I inch my free hand onto his shoulder. “Let’s go outside and talk. You’re scaring these people.”

I haven’t glanced about to test this theory. My carefully chosen words were for the tiny part of Danny’s brain clinging to rationality. He can’t want a scene, not in his current state. Especially if Calhoun’s story about probation was true. When his eyes dart away to scan the aisle, I know I’ve guessed correctly. I speak before he changes his mind. “Come on. You have something you want to say? Now’s your chance. No audience.”

“Oh, you’d like that, wouldn’t you,” he snarls. “No witnesses.”

I push off the shelf. Steer him toward the exit as I ponder his words. He comes without complaint, clutching my shirt like a security blanket now. I try to cover his uncoordinated gait by slinging an arm over his shoulders. “No witnesses for what?”

“To hear how you killed Sam.” No more shouting. He whispers these words in my ear. The menace behind the quiet certainty twists my stomach into a knot. I wait until we’re through the exit and around the corner of the building before shoving him away. He stumbles into a line of waiting shopping carts, laughs as he struggles for balance, then gives up and slides down, landing hard on his ass on the concrete. His rockstar hair falls over one eye. “I’m not scared of you. And you know what?” He lurches forward, tries to rise to his feet. Fails. “I’m better than you. I’m better than you. In. Every. Way.”

I don’t dispute it. Better. Worse. These are subjective concepts. Sadly, they define most people’s actions, their view of others, and most unfortunately, of themselves. “Why do you say that?” I gentle my tone, but don’t reach to help him up. Instead, I crouch to bring us level. Equal for the conversation. “We’re not in a competition, Danny.”

“I am better!” he yells, swinging a fist in my direction and missing by several inches. Deflated, drained, he slumps back. Tilts his head back against the metal cart. Tears fill his eyes and spill over onto his cheeks. “But he wanted you anyway.”

Ah. I drop my head, rub hard at the bridge of my nose. Danny’s brokenness blunts some of my anger. A string of bad decisions led him here, and I commiserate, but I can’t fix him. That’s his responsibility. His heartbreak isn’t under my control either, but I admit I feel guilty. I didn’t love Sam. I made no secret of that, and Sam seemed to accept it. I imagine that fact cut Danny deeply. “Danny. I didn’t kill Sam. I swear to you.”

He raises his gaze to mine. The tears juxtapose frighteningly with the hatred pouring from his eyes. Hatred and, I’m unnerved to see, certainty. “Liar.” He doesn’t attempt another attack. In fact, he remains so still he could be unconscious. Or dead. “I know what happened. I know what you did. I saw you. And you’re going to pay, Garrett. You’re going to pay with blood.”

Enough. I stand. Back away. The temptation to run overpowers all else for several seconds. Then I take a breath. “Danny?” Danny, unlike Sam, has family. I have no idea if they’d be interested in helping, but I can’t leave him like this. He’s high—a serious breach of his probation—and maybe getting sent back to jail is exactly what he needs, but I can’t. I simply can’t. “Let me help you.”

“Fuck off.”

That’s clear enough. I push the pettiness aside. “Can I call someone, at least?”

“Did I stutter? Fuck off.” His eyes flutter shut and his voice trails off. His body tilts sideways on a slow slide to the pavement. Passing out here will get his ass hauled in for certain. I owe this kid absolutely nothing, but I won’t walk away. I’ve been where he is.

Gritting my teeth, I reach for his back pocket, where I see the bulge of his cell phone, and use the thumb on his limp hand to unlock it. The names in his recent contacts mean nothing to me. But under ‘M’, I see a number for Mom. Surprisingly, somebody picks up after only one ring, and a woman’s wavery voice asks, “Danny?”

“No, it’s not Danny,” I say. “But he’s here with me, and he needs help. Can you come pick him up?”

“Has he been arrested?”

Not her first call on Danny’s phone from a stranger, apparently. “No.” I relay the address of the grocery store. “We’re along the side of the building.”

“I can be there in twenty minutes. Will— will you be there?”

I swallow my sigh because the fear in her voice seeps through the phone and twines around my heart. “I won’t leave him.”

She’s true to her word, arriving in twenty-one minutes with a middle-aged man who frowns a lot but doesn’t speak. To him, I’m just another junkie doing a good turn for a buddy. I let the misconception stand, backing off when he refuses my help getting Danny loaded into the backseat of their sedan. I wait until they drive off to push off the sun-baked cement wall and shuffle back around the corner to the store’s entrance.

The entire experience weighs on me from every direction. I’m physically and emotionally drained but grab a fresh buggy and head back inside to finish Billie’s shopping. As I meander up and down the aisles, Danny’s words spin in my head like an endless, ghoulish carousel ride. Haunting, like a song stuck on repeat.

Or a terrified scream that echoes from somewhere deep inside a burning house.

You’ll pay with blood.

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, VBlew said:

Why Chase left 3 weeks later after his confession has not been explained. What happened during those 3 weeks? Why did they not stay in touch if they had been such good friends?

seems like they both still have feelings for each other and a bond too.

Danny may not know what he saw, but he was jealous of Michael’s relationship with Sam.  We still have no real motive for the Murder, it’s usually money, or jealousy.

Or Sam could be collateral damage by someone out to destroy Micco. We still don't know the details behind the attack on his family. Why didn't they kill him outright and what happened to those perps?

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6 hours ago, Summerabbacat said:

I have found something very "cinematic" about @Libby Drew's writing in most of her stories @drpaladin and this one is no exception. The word sprawling comes to mind when I think of these stories, the characters, their circumstances and the physical environment in which they find themselves, are for me at least, always vast. Perhaps this is why I get the Twin Peaks vibe or now that I give it more thought, a Lana Del Rey vibe too.

 

I agree. Some author's have a cinematic eye for detail, Geron Kees and James Carnarvon come to mind at the moment.

Edited by drpaladin
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