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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 - 7. Chapter 7

I had nothing left in Wewoka once my mom and Mary were gone, so I didn’t fuss about being shipped to Florida. Few emotions penetrated my depression at the time. The Sunshine State was not the happiest place on earth, in my esteemed ten-year-old opinion. Big Cypress Reservation, with its swamps and wild, untamed areas, felt full of danger, and my aunt and uncle offered little comfort.

My cousins weren’t exactly supportive either. “Acting weird” they called it, when I tilted my head, got that faraway look, and wandered off. I knew what they said about me behind my back, sometimes to my face, but I could never resist the call of a creature in need. One day, a few months after my arrival, a nebulous distress pulled at me as the school bus rumbled up to our driveway, and without a word, I filed off and turned left instead of right. Away from home. Into the swamp.

“Michael’s acting weird again,” I heard Carl yell.

The road grew more overgrown, then disappeared. Eventually, I crept through a tangled nest of cypress to a circular clearing. Within it, overreaching branches softened the sun’s heat and threw dappled shade across a knoll of soft grass. I found the tiny coyote pup alone, whimpering, eyes drooping closed. It snuffled weakly at my hand.

“Hi. What’s wrong?” I scooped the scruffy bundle of fur into my arms without a second thought. “Are you thirsty?” She was. I could sense it. The hand-me-down Spiderman thermos I inherited from my cousin was nearly full. I dug it out of my backpack and poured water into the blue plastic lid.

She wouldn’t drink.

The man found me there in the fading twilight, cradling the panting pup in my lap. I was crying, something I did frequently since arriving in Florida. I know it wasn’t how a man acted—that’s what my uncle said. A man accepted what he couldn’t change. A man moved on from tragedy. I’d made some progress with the first part. Just not the second. But this… this I had the power to change. The coyote’s thirst beat in my veins. She needed water. I had water.

But she wouldn’t drink.

Attescha.” The man was old, wrinkled all over. He wore a simple full cut white shirt with a medicine man’s coat over it, embellished with patchwork on the front placket. He motioned me closer, then hunched down, bringing us eye to eye. “What do you have there, child?”

He carried a halistchaway—a medicine bag—and, awed, I held the suffering pup up for his inspection. He made no move to touch it, but held his palm over her head for a long moment before sighing. “This young one is ready to return to the earth.”

My tears, temporarily dammed when the man appeared, flowed anew. I hunched over, held my cheek to the pup’s scruff. “I can’t save anyone.”

“Some are not meant to be saved. Death has purpose, as does life. What is your name?” The man settled us both to the ground in the growing dark, made a loose circular motion with his hand, and the air changed. Expanded. The tireless drone of mosquitoes around my face ceased. A spark lifted from a fire ring a few feet away, caught and grew. I took in the simple circle of stones that ringed the flames. I didn’t remember seeing it when I arrived.

“Michael,” I answered.

“How did you come to this place?”

“I heard her calling me.” It never occurred to me to lie to a medicine man about my tribal gift, though I’d been encouraged by my mother not to speak of these things to white men.

The man hummed. “She is comforted by your presence.”

I sensed this as well, and it tempered the grief. “How much time does she have?”

“A few hours. You will guide her on this journey. Come, Michael. Waugus cheh.” He coaxed me onto my side. His medicine bag became my pillow. I held the pup to my chest, against my beating heart.

The man nodded in approval. “Good. Now, sleep.”

My eyes closed against my will. While I had come to dread slumber, for it often brought nightmares, no such fear took hold that night. “I don’t know who you are,” I said as I dozed off, for a stranger—even one who is clearly tribe and an elder—is still a stranger.

“My name is Billie Smith. An hisseh elittal mas cheh, micco.”

I am your friend, little chief.

 

~*~


The grove had been my classroom since I’d stumbled upon it twenty years ago.

Medicine men, those fortunate enough to find students, link their teachings to the lunar calendar. Billie holds tonight’s waxing crescent as personally sacred. It draws the earth’s creatures to speak, to share their thoughts. My sudden appearance delights him, as I’m the ultimate divining rod for such things. I know he senses the windstorm of emotions I hold in check and refrains from speaking about them until we take our respective places at the fire.

Tonight, I reach out as soon as mediation has sufficiently cleared my head. Contemplation is not a quiet activity. Our brains are noisy organs. It’s not enough to sit in silence. One must become silent. I live a simple life, want simple things, which eases this transition. Normally. Tonight, my mind is in an uproar, and I meditate for over an hour before the earth’s spirit appears, wavering in a muted rainbow around the swarm of creatures that share our cypress grove. I ask permission to join and drift, and Billie allows it. He knows its healing power.

I find alligators. Snakes. An eagle. The night belongs to malevolent spirits. Fitting, I suppose.

Much later, more at peace, my spirit returns to the fire, and I begin to carefully unfold and stretch my stiff limbs. Billie hands me a canteen. I’m wary, have no desire to be impaired tonight, but it holds only water. I drink greedily.

Tcheehell loseelee?”

“Better,” I reply. “Thank you.”

“No lessons tonight. I fear they will be wasted.”

I’m inclined to agree. Rituals are not translated to paper. Ever. To learn, one must listen. And listen. And listen. This is the way of my people. Our theory of medicine springs from reasoning that we can control the forces of nature and hence make disease yield to our personal efforts. Cures come from reciting medicinal formulas, performing prescribed rites, and blowing on the brewed medicine in a certain way. The complexity is staggering, and Billie is correct that I lack the proper mindset at the moment.

He withdraws his pipe from the folds of his vest. I admire the vibrant red stripes and yellow diamonds of the garment’s patchwork as he packs the bowl. “Estomah, Micco?”

“I wouldn’t know where to begin.”

“There is no beginning or end. Only the mess in the middle.” He touches a match to the crushed tobacco. “Pick a spot and start.”

My court-ordered therapy, carried out in Clewiston for eight years, hadn’t been a waste. I’d learned to compartmentalize. Cope with triggers. But Billie was the one who’d truly helped me. He didn’t have a fancy office and a slew of diplomas, but he’d healed me just the same. Peeled back layers of guilt, anger and defensiveness until I rediscovered my core. I trust his medicine.

“Chase is here,” I say.

Billie nods. “Matthew told me.”

Figures Burke would have run to Billie with the news. I sigh. “I think I’m in danger.” Chase reappearing after all this time is a shock, but the threat of being accused of Sam’s murder is the monster in my thoughts. Rather than shrink, it continues to grow more menacing by the hour.

“From Chase?”

“No, I don— from—” I grasp for the truth. “From myself, I think. From my inertia.” Yes, that idea resonates. I’ve done nothing to dictate my path since finding Sam in Kane’s pen. Only drifted from event to event. Allowed others to direct me. “There’s a mystery. I need to unravel it. I can’t rely on Chase to do it for me.” Nor can I count on his protection. We’re fifteen years and one murder too late for that.

“Patience begets a strong cure. A good medicine man does not rush his brews.”

“I won’t be brewing anything if I’m in prison.” I’m halfway to my feet when Billie stops me with a gentle touch to my arm. Pipe smoke curls about his head. His face is set in an uncharacteristic frown.

“My spirit helper haunts my dreams of late,” he says. “She tells me Hatckotcapko walks the land again.”

I sink back to the grass. Hatckotcapko. Long-Ears. A hairy, wolf-like monster the size of a small donkey, with a dog’s head, a horse’s tail and long pointed ears. The Seminole children’s boogeyman. Our chupacabra. It stalks the swamps and infects whoever it touches with horrible diseases. Your only warning Long-Ears is near is a horrible odor of decay. Evil intent draws him. Violence feeds his hunger.

A child’s fairy tale. Telling myself so alleviates none of my disquiet. Billie’s dreams are often as prophetic as my own. It’s a disturbing omen. I squeeze his shoulder as I rise. “Thank you for your wisdom, uiyik imijosi.”

~*~

I can’t be sure of all the pieces at play in this mystery, only the ones that involve me. My connection with Sam is the key.

The drive to Sam’s affluent neighborhood should’ve allowed ample time to plan, or at least to sort my thoughts. I accomplish neither, too rooted in memories of Chase. I’m no closer to deciding my next course of action when I arrive, parking two streets over in the driveway of a house I know to be vacant. Friends of Sam’s who wouldn’t dream of stepping one foot south of the Mason-Dixon after the first of May. He knew many such people.

The night is dark, the stars obscured by clouds. I blame my smile, inappropriate for the occasion, on another remnant of memory. Low cloud cover and a crescent moon. Perfect weather for hunting werewolves, eleven-year-old Chase used to say.

I give myself a physical snake, trying to dispel the memory. I’ll get nowhere if this keeps up.

I plait my hair back, inhale, fill my lungs to their limit, then blow out, expelling my distractions. Some refuse to go. They stick, like drops of dried-up orange Fanta. So be it. I get out of the car, pocket my keys, and start up the street, pace casual. I can pretend my darker skin and long, black hair won’t draw attention, but the truth is I’ve been stopped more than once in this pricey community for looking out of place. My best hope is to escape notice altogether.

My first surprise is the “For Sale” sign in Sam’s front yard. It’s tasteful and elegant, but so out of place I stop in my tracks, despite my intention to steal up the circular drive and into the shadows of the portico quickly. So soon? I think. Sam hasn’t been dead a week. But no, the grass around the wooden posts is slightly longer than the surrounding lawn. Whoever mowed last failed to trim around the sign. The edges of the Sun Realty logo look weathered, the phone number for the agent faded. The house has been on the market for a month at least. That’s the surprise. Sam has lived here since coming into his inheritance at twenty-one and never expressed a desire to move, at least to me. On the contrary, his fourth favorite pastime, after sex, partying, and helping at the refuge, was adding as many bells and whistles to his property as the market allowed. It’s one of these upgrades that will allow me to get inside now without anyone the wiser. I hope.

I ponder the house sale while I slip around to the rear of the property and vault over the four-foot-high black iron gate that surrounds the pool deck. I’m now officially trespassing, at the least, and putting myself in real danger from a murder indictment, at the worst. But going back isn’t an option.

Sam gave me the security codes to his house a mere week into our… relationship. That’s hardly the word for it, but the true nature of our affair defied definition. Sam’s joie de vivre appealed to me. His willingness to embrace the baser natures of his spirit roused a wantonness in me I rarely indulged. Unfortunately, he most often achieved this connection through drugs and alcohol, and that wore thin. I know my disapproval irritated him. As I told Billie, our parting was consensual and free of drama. Or so I’d believed at the time. Now I wonder: had I been wrong?

I can’t be sure what state the primary security system is in, so I avoid the front and back entrances in favor of Sam’s newest upgrade, recently installed when he showed me around the first time we were here together. A slim pane of glass, one of three that gives his breakfast nook a floor to ceiling view of a lush, private courtyard, is actually a door. In the light of day, under close inspection, its existence would be obvious, even to the casual observer. The framing around the glass is thicker, the covered keypad next to it a dead giveaway. But in the dark, few would be the wiser. Sam could control his whole house via his smartphone—he did love his tech—but I have no such luxury. I’ll be breaking and entering old school. Well, entering, if I want to be kind to myself.

I slink through the shadows until I reach the wall next to the keypad. Despite the adrenaline pumping through my body, I have an irresistible urge to roll my eyes. The whole situation is shamelessly noir. Chase would love it.

I dig my fingernails into my palms until the thought fades, Chase’s face along with it.

The light from my cell phone exposes the keypad behind the thick leaves of an oyster plant. I pop the cover and punch in the code Sam had given to me freely. The glass pane pops open with a whoosh. Cool air washes over my face. No alarms. Yet.

Searching Sam’s house was my ultimate goal, and that mission is proceeding without a hitch, yet I hesitate to cross the threshold. I can’t explain my trepidation. I hear nothing, and the air inside is still, smells stale. I feel alone, yet watched. Every second I stand with the door open increases the chances of an alarm, but I take a moment to stretch out my senses. In the canal beyond the house, near the opposite bank, a juvenile alligator coasts through the reeds that dot the shallows. She’s of no use, too focused on herself and her potential meal. A screech owl answers my call, but the complexity of my question is lost in translation. I’d give anything for Kane’s sharp senses and keen intelligence at that moment, but it’s a fruitless wish. There’s no creature close enough at hand to help. Time to stop stalling. I step inside and swing the door shut behind me as quietly as possible. The teeming symphony of the Florida night cuts off.

Now what? To my left are three guest bedrooms, laundry and garage access. To the right, the nook opens up into a massive living area. No intimate groupings of furniture for Sam. Bigger is better. A massive u-shaped sectional of theater seating curves around a wall-mounted 100-inch flat screen. While his toys were numerous, his decor is minimalist. Stark, with splashes of orange and azure offsetting thousands of square feet of white walls and pale travertine tile. Not a single personal touch.

As though he was a stranger to himself.

In many ways Sam was an enigma. I was privy to parts of him. I knew how he liked to be touched, and taken, and that he would often break into laughter in the aftermath of our lovemaking. These are qualities I will keep private, celebrate and release on my own, in due course, and with the proper ceremony. But much of him had stayed hidden, and not just from me. He kept the core of himself out of sight. Protected. I was never sure from what.

I head toward the expansive foyer and the office that sits directly off of it, relying on my memories of previous visits to get me there safely. The room is nearly black, and I didn’t bring a flashlight, just my cell phone.

I’m a serial offender, in that regard. Once, a million years ago, Chase and I had rowed out into the mangrove in my uncle’s battered canoe. That day’s goal? Sneak into the abandoned stilt house at the swamp’s edge. Our first treasure hunt. The first of many. Chase had been disgusted with my oversight. “Real detectives don’t forget flashlights,” he’d said. “What kind of a sleuth are you?”

“A hungry one,” I’d said, pulling cobwebs out of my hair. “Can we go? There’s nothing here but snakes and spiders.”

“There’s more to the world than your limitless appetite, Micco.”

That seemed hard to fathom, and I’d opened my mouth to tell him so when he gasped. Froze, grabbed my arm and pointed into the deep, shifting shadows. “What’s that?”

We both held our breath. Water lapped in a steady pulse against the stilts beneath us. The floorboards settled and groaned as we shifted our weight in the doorway. I squinted in the direction he pointed. “I don’t see anything.”

Chase had burst into laughter, linked an arm around my neck and squeezed. “That’s because you forgot the flashlight, moron.”

“Shut up, shut up, shut up,” I whisper now, desperate to banish these ghosts. God damn you, Chase.

I reach the double doors that lead into Sam’s office, and it’s as I set my fingers on the handle that I hear the creak. The house is poured concrete and stucco, just like every other around here. It doesn’t settle as wood shacks in the swamp do. Someone, somewhere close by, has just opened or closed a door. Or maybe, I realize as I lean close and place my ear against the wood, a drawer.

A concentrated beam of light spears across the floor, leaking from underneath the door, then recedes. Someone with more forethought than I brought a flashlight. Maybe my imagination is playing ticks, but I swear I hear papers shuffling, the soft scrape of chair legs over tile and the click of a computer keyboard. Whoever let themselves in is taking pains not to be caught, and I won’t disappoint them. Personally, anyway.

I can invite other more qualified people to the party, however.

One step backward brings me alongside the foyer table, and I reach behind a teak statue of Macuiltochtli to grab the wireless phone Sam keeps there, silently thanking him for keeping such an archaic detail in his modern palace. With a landline, I can summon help straight to the house without uttering a word. I slink through the shadows, duck behind a column that leads into the great room and press the green “call” button. It produces a dial tone that would wake the dead. Mouthing a curse, I muffle the handset against my stomach and creep further away before stabbing 911 into the receiver. It rings and connects immediately. Before the operator spits out, “What’s your emergency?” I stuff the handset between the cushions of one of the leather theater seats.

Mission accomplished. The cavalry should be en route shortly and whoever is skulking around will have to answer as to why. So will I, of course, as I’m skulking with the best of them. Crossing that bridge when I get there, yada yada. Chase was the brains of our operation, not me. Butch to my Sundance. I’m hoping for a better ending, obviously. Because part B of my plan—don’t die—could prove more problematic. I’m not going to retreat and wait for reinforcements. Not when the cornerstone of this whole damn mystery could be on the other side of that door. The rational voice in my head, which sounds suspiciously like Chase, insists I run. Get out and leave the dangerous work to the professionals.

I don’t listen. What else is new? The thing is… for Sam, for Kane, and increasingly for myself, I need to expose the truth.

I gulp a fortifying breath and start back toward the office. The soft glow I’d earlier taken for a flashlight is gone. Beyond the six-paneled double doors, silence. No one could have slipped out in the few moments my back was turned. I wait thirty seconds. Sixty. Nothing. The heavy silence and my impatience morph into a sick certainty. I’ve lost my quarry. With a curse, I grab the door handle and pull.

It’s the last thing I remember.

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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22 hours ago, akascrubber said:

It appears Micco has broken into Sam's house and has been knocked out by an unknown assailant. Micco has sensed another intruder and has already called the police. If he is found inside alone, it will make him look even more guilty and connected to Sam's death. He seems to know too much about Sam.

Will Micco be found by the police or will someone save him?

All good questions! *whistles innocently*

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20 hours ago, weinerdog said:

If whoever was in that house takes off then Micco is in a world of s__t if the police come and find two there that would be different of course a third  possibility is the person hides Micco and tells the police it was a false alarm.Very good cliffy.

I would think Billie with his unique abilities could do something that makes Micco remember the gaps in his memory

Thanks for reading. Yeah, it doesn't look good for Micco. But have faith. 😉

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20 hours ago, 84Mags said:

“It’s not enough to sit in silence. One must become silent.” ⬅️Truth. Love this thought. 
 

This story is full of little tidbits that came of out of my research, and the topic -- the ways of medicine men -- was fascinating to read. 

Thanks for the comment!

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18 hours ago, drpaladin said:

This chapter is encompassed by a murky shroud of dread. What you don't know can hurt you and there is far too much which is unknown.

There was an abundance of trauma and benign neglect in Micco's young life brightened only by Billie and his friendship with Chase. It's understandable how he drifts back to the fondest memories of his childhood. Children tend to be resilient, but eight years of therapy indicate the depth of Micco's damage. He never had the unconditional love and understanding he needed from these strangers called family and it simply became part of the ongoing rush of tragedy he still suffers from.

I understand his desire to investigate Sam's house himself and Chase will as well, but no one else will. We remain as deeply in the dark as Micco over what is really going on. What would prompt Sam to put his house on the market? A desire or need to get away obviously, but from what?

I'm afraid characters named Billie bring up too many images of females; Billie Burke, Billie Piper, and Billie Holliday to name a few.

So many good questions. And I know you won't believe me, but SOME will be answered soon. 😉

I smiled when I read your comment about the name Billie, and I quizzed my family who were standing in the room. Who was the first person they thought of when I said the name Billie. I got Eilish, Piper, and Ocean. So you're right in that! 

Billie was the actual first name of the man I interviewed during my research. His last name has been changed, of course. It's difficult to explain, but... he had such a presence about him, that afterward, I couldn't picture him as being named anything else. The mind is a funny thing. 

Thanks for reading, as always!

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12 hours ago, CincyKris said:

I am left with lots of new questions.  What if Sam's murder is related to his mom and sister?  At first I thought that Chase was the one looking around with the light, but now I expect it's either related to Sam's murder or one of his party "friends" looking for drugs.  Is Micco collateral damage or was he followed and targeted?  How many people did Sam give his door code?  

I promise that very soon, at least some of these questions will start to get answered. Next week's chapter will resolve a lot of what has been asked about in the comments here. 

Thanks as always for reading and commenting!

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11 hours ago, drpaladin said:

 

We need to remember not much time has passed. We will still have a funeral to study who does and doesn't attend, presuming there is a funeral.

I adore how your mind jumps ahead to all these little details. 

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11 hours ago, drsawzall said:

it's bad enough that Micco breaks into the house, has the foresight to call 911 when he realizes someone else is in the house, think fingerprints on the phone, and then when confronted, is knocked out...really...what else could possibly happen???

One step backward brings me alongside the foyer table, and I reach behind a teak statue of Macuiltochtli to grab the wireless phone Sam keeps there, silently thanking him for keeping such an archaic detail in his modern palace. With a landline, I can summon help straight to the house without uttering a word. I slink through the shadows, duck behind a column that leads into the great room and press the green “call” button. It produces a dial tone that would wake the dead. Mouthing a curse, I muffle the handset against my stomach and creep further away before stabbing 911 into the receiver. It rings and connects immediately. Before the operator spits out, “What’s your emergency?” I stuff the handset between the cushions of one of the leather theater seats.

And then the mother of all 'wait and see hangers'... Brought to you by...

the authentic origin of 'red herring' - word histories

Ha! Okay, yeah, this was a bad cliffhanger. I'm not gonna lie. Sorry?😁

Thanks for the comment!

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11 hours ago, drpaladin said:

Unless he didn't want any video records of what went on there. I don't want cameras inside either.

It's a consideration. But I will say that not all of the action that took place at Sam's house was aboveboard, as Micco has already alluded.  

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11 hours ago, drsawzall said:

At the least the entrances and grounds...for a house that expensive I am positive insurance would require it....I shudder to think what the premium would be otherwise...not that Sam couldn't afford it but....

Right? 

I know this area well. For many, their monthly homeowners insurance payment exceeds their mortgage, if you can imagine. But it's simply accepted as a way of life. 

Could Sam afford it? Hmmmm....  😏

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10 hours ago, drpaladin said:

Unless there is no insurance. You don't have to have it if you own it outright.

True. But frankly, off subject, blindly stupid, in my opinion.

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10 hours ago, Summerabbacat said:

@Libby Drew I did not think you could make Micco any more appealing than what you had already done, but I was soooooo wrong. 

"Hi. What’s wrong?” I scooped the scruffy bundle of fur into my arms without a second thought. “Are you thirsty?” She was. I could sense it. The hand-me-down Spiderman thermos I inherited from my cousin was nearly full. I dug it out of my backpack and poured water into the blue plastic lid. 

She wouldn’t drink. 

The man found me there in the fading twilight, cradling the panting pup in my lap. I was crying, something I did frequently since arriving in Florida. I know it wasn’t how a man acted—that’s what my uncle said. A man accepted what he couldn’t change. A man moved on from tragedy. I’d made some progress with the first part. Just not the second. But this… this I had the power to change. The coyote’s thirst beat in my veins. She needed water. I had water. 

But she wouldn’t drink. 

“Attescha.” The man was old, wrinkled all over. He wore a simple full cut white shirt with a medicine man’s coat over it, embellished with patchwork on the front placket. He motioned me closer, then hunched down, bringing us eye to eye. “What do you have there, child?”

He carried a halistchaway—a medicine bag—and, awed, I held the suffering pup up for his inspection. He made no move to touch it, but held his palm over her head for a long moment before sighing. “This young one is ready to return to the earth.” 

My tears, temporarily dammed when the man appeared, flowed anew. I hunched over, held my cheek to the pup’s scruff. “I can’t save anyone.”

I wept profusely when I read this, even more so than when Kane was executed. Micco's gift is profound. I sense that even without having witnessed the murder of his mother and sister, he would have been emotionally vulnerable to much in life, particularly if related to his non-human brothers and sisters. He is beautiful, inside and out.

There is not much I can say that has not already been said by my fellow critics, particularly the good doctors @drpaladin and @drsawzall, the former of who also made me weep with his moving comments. The only thing I can add is, like a broken record, my suspicions of Martina increase with every chapter.

Thank you for reading and commenting! Yeah, I'm a sucker for an animal lover too. What a wonderful and amazing gift to have Micco's ability. I'm jealous. 😊

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15 minutes ago, Libby Drew said:

True. But frankly, off subject, blindly stupid, in my opinion.

So I'm blindly stupid for choosing not to bet with someone something will happen to my houses?

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