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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.
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Keeper of the Rituals - 9. Chapter 9

It's not Friday, but I'll be traveling much of tomorrow, so... have Chapter 9 a bit early. In case I don't make it home before Saturday.
Thanks to everyone who has been reading and commenting!


TROPICAL STORM ARLENE: NOAA SPECIAL DISCUSSION 700 AM SUN JUN 18 2023

DATA FROM THE AIR FORCE HURRICANE HUNTERS INDICATE THAT ARLENE IS GRADUALLY STRENGTHENING. PEAK 925 MB FLIGHT-LEVEL WINDS WERE 68 KT. AIRCRAFT OBSERVATIONS ALSO SHOWED THAT THE MINIMUM CENTRAL PRESSURE HAS DROPPED TO 985 MB.

THE WESTERLY SHEAR THAT WAS AFFECTING ARLENE HAS ABATED AND THE SHIPS MODEL DIAGNOSES A FURTHER DECREASE IN SHEAR. GIVEN THE LATEST 36-HR FORECAST POINT AND THE EXTENT OF TROPICAL-STORM FORCE WINDS IN THE FORECAST IT IS TIME TO ISSUE A HURRICANE WATCH FOR THE GULF COAST OF FLORIDA.

 

~*~

 

It hadn’t always been Chase protecting me. Sometimes, after Chase had left, it’d been Burke who’d steered me away from destruction. Self-destruction, mostly.

I consider this as he drives me home from Sam’s. I had protested, wanted my car, but at some point, he’d found and pocketed my keys. “You’ve caused enough trouble. Let’s not add to it. I’ll get your car to you sometime later today.”

The events of the past week have generated an inevitability I haven’t felt since I was young. I’m moving toward something, and for the first time in fifteen years, I’m terrified of what I’ll find upon arrival. Ghosts haunt my waking hours. Innocuous conversations hook and reel me backward through time without warning.

I’m no novice at getting myself into dangerous predicaments or making Burke worry. You’ve caused enough trouble. Let’s not add to it. Likely, he said similar words to me more than once in the couple of years after Chase left.

The night at the top of the water tower comes to mind. I recall the incident in sharp detail, despite the copious amounts of vodka involved. As crucial turning points go, it ranks near the top. I was closer to death than I realized when he found me.

 

~*~

 

“What the hell are you doing up here?” Burke asked, tone sharp. The voice startled me, and the empty bottle of liquor slid off my lap and rolled away, clattering across the metal grate of the catwalk.

I turned and blinked at the bleary apparition hovering at the top of the ladder. “Do you have me microchipped or something?”

“Pauline saw you jump the fence. I got the call while admiring the new graffiti outside Mae Harper’s store. Haven’t you caused enough trouble tonight?”

I inspected the smears of spray paint on my palms. “You have no proof that was me.”

“Your hood didn’t fool Mae.” Burke climbed the last few rungs and swung himself onto the platform with more grace and ease than I had. But then again, I’d been seeing double by the time I reached the top.

I scowled at him. I think. The muscles in my face felt slow to respond. “Your spies are everywhere.”

“I pay them well.” Burke sank down beside me, his back to the water tank. He shifted his firearm so it wasn’t wedged under his thigh, bent one leg and rested his arm on his knee. “Where’d you get that?” He jerked his chin at the vodka bottle, which was rolling lazily in the breeze.

“None of your business.” My uncle would have smacked me for my saucy tone. Burke let it break against him and slide away.

“Was it full?”

“Would it make sense to bring an empty bottle up here?”

“It doesn’t make sense to bring one up here at all.” He drew a deep breath, released it slowly through parted lips. I saw it then, impaired or not. Burke was scared. And seriously pissed. I’d been trying to get a rise out of the man since I was twelve. Crack that adamantine facade.

I had no Chase to temper my brashness. He was two years gone by then. Playing fast and loose with my safety was less “occasional mistake” and more “lifestyle choice” at that point. “Worried I’ll fall, Officer Burke?” I taunted.

“No, Micco. I’m terrified you’ll fall.”

Such bald fear and honesty. I hated him then. The way he made my heart churn out an emotion untinged by bitterness. Acerbity was my armor, and the reminder that someone cared punched right through it. Pain of that sort was unwelcome, and I hit back, quietly, but with equal candor.

I leaned away from the plate of metal at my back and peered over the edge of the catwalk to the ground sixty feet below. “Be a pretty painless way to go.”

“Painless for who?” Burke tilted his head backward. Fixed his gaze on the night sky. I somehow doubted he was enjoying the view. “Have you been thinking about suicide, Micco?”

Had I been? The question caught me off guard. Enough so that I struggled to answer.

Burke reached over and gripped my arm, holding firm when I flinched. “Answer me.”

“I’m thinking,” I ground out. My warm alcohol flush trickled away. I shivered despite the muggy air. “I don’t think about killing myself. But…” I rolled my head to meet his gaze. His nonjudgmental and very kind gaze. “I do think about death.”

Burke swallowed once, Adam’s apple bobbing in slow motion. “And how do you think that would be?”

“Peaceful,” I whispered.

I’d failed in shaking Chase’s ghost from my life. I’d tried. Dear God, I’d tried. Made the resolution dozens of times to let him go. Sometimes it worked, for a day. A week. Once, for a month. But he always slipped back under my skin, his memory too tempting to resist. Pathetic speculations would follow. Somewhere, he was enjoying a whole and complete existence. Nothing like this half-life I was managing.

I said this to Burke. I told him everything. All my secrets. All my fears for a future I couldn’t control. The words spilled out against my will, despite my attempts to hold back the most mortifying parts. Even sober, it would have been a clumsy recounting. How Burke made sense of it through my slurring and tears was a mystery. But when I finished, his hand lay heavily on my shoulder, and he was whispering under his breath in Maskóki. “You’re safe, Micco. You’re not alone.”

“Do you know,” he asked me later when my tears finally dried up, “why we constantly remind ourselves to seek peace?” A bottle of water appeared in his hand, as if by magic. He cracked the cap and handed it to me. “Because it doesn’t come naturally. The world is chaotic. And cruel. And lonely. It’s through the search for peace that we learn its value.”

The water felt like heaven sliding down my throat. “Seems like a lot of work for something that should be easy.”

“As with everything, there’s little satisfaction in a reward we don’t work for.”

So Billie had always said. Though I hadn’t seen him in months. The thought shamed me. “I’m tired all the time.” It wasn’t meant to be an excuse. Burke, of course, refused to let it slide.

“Your fatigue comes from being mired in self-pity.”

“That’s sensitive.”

“I’m a sensitive guy.”

I tipped the last of the water over my forehead, relishing the cool drops that fell over my face and down the long strands of hair to my neck. “So your advice is just stop feeling…” Abandoned? Alone? “Sad?”

Burke gave a low snort. “If it were that easy, your therapist would be out of a job. Balance the scales, Micco. Go back to Billie. That’s where your spirit has always found succor. Nothing has happened to change that.”

“What if it doesn’t work?”

“Does it have any less of a chance for success than your usual remedy?” When I arched an eyebrow, he added, “Blowjobs from Scott Haskins behind the gas station?”

Embarrassment stabbed me in the gut. “Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it,” I mumbled, looking away.

“You’re almost eighteen, Micco. It’s no business of mine who you choose to be intimate with. Just don’t fool yourself into believing that transient pleasure will cure you.”

I pondered these words as Burke stretched out his legs. A gentle tug on my arm brought my head to rest on his shoulder.

“You have the strength of the panther, the intelligence of the wolf, and the vision of the eagle. I believe you’ll be a powerful medicine man one day. But remember that healing is not all herbs, teas, and chants. It’s also about finding your place,” he said.

“I don’t know how.”

“The journey will be long. Tomorrow morning, you’ll wake up still certain that you’ll be broken forever. The next day you’ll be slightly less certain. One day you’ll awaken to realize you survived. Forever changed, perhaps. But alive. And at peace.”

 

~*~

 

Sleeping until noon leaves me out of sorts and muddled. I blame Burke, who wouldn’t go home until after dawn and insisted on waking me out of a restless doze every hour throughout the night. Groggy, I peel open gritty eyelids and immediately regret it. Brutal midday sun spears through the window into my bedroom. I roll out of bed, take slow, even steps to the kitchen and claw my way through a childproof cap to some Ibuprofen. I’m chasing my breakfast of champions with a stale roll and a half a banana when my cell phone buzzes.

Martina, surely. Wondering where the hell I am. I scoop the phone off the table, settle into the deep cushions of my couch, then check the text. I pause at the lock screen, first at the phone number, which I don’t recognize, though it’s local, and secondly at the beginning of the message.

I know what you did...

The phone goes dark a moment later, but I don’t notice. It seems I’ve been thrust into a bad horror flick. Is this a threat? If it is, I honestly have no defense. I have no idea what I’ve done if you go by what certain people are saying.

Obviously, the phone itself isn’t evil, but I toss it away, feeling irrationally better for the few inches of distance. I consider calling Chase, though our parting words didn’t suggest he’d welcome me reaching out. For any reason. There’s Burke. He would have an action plan at the ready, with all the proper steps prioritized. The text has probably come from Danny, who is either sober or freshly high. Clear-headed enough to stir up trouble, at any rate. But what if it’s nothing? Innocent. A business matter. One of the architects working on our project. A message about an animal for the refuge. Then I’ll look crazy. And I haven’t been doing myself any favors on that front recently.

My fingers hover over the phone. Of course, the only way to know for sure is to read the text in its entirety. I don’t consider myself a coward, my difficulties with post-traumatic stress notwithstanding. Yet I’m terrified. Full of a completely different fear than what’s plagued me in the past. The incident at Sam’s I can write off as being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This is a direct attack, and it portends more trouble than I care to imagine.

I’m getting ahead of myself. Speculation accomplishes nothing. Any kind of serenity is beyond my reach, so I simply swallow thickly, pick up the phone and unlock it.

I know what you did to Sam, is what the text reads. Followed by, I saw you kill him.

The meaning is incontrovertible, though it doesn’t carry the weight of truth as it would from a known source. For that reason alone, I breathe through the rush of shock and work the problem. Why an anonymous message? Is it a warning? And since one of man’s more tenacious attributes is manipulation for personal gain, I wonder what the sender hopes to achieve.

Before I have second thoughts, I type out a return text. Who is this? What do you want?

The answer comes back quickly. Do the right thing.

It cuts deeper than it’s probably meant to. That’s all I’ve been trying to do since the beginning. “I saw you kill him,” I mutter, gliding past the horror of the idea to pick apart the words underneath. Who has access to the sanctuary after hours? Only a handful of people, really. Less than five, and I don’t believe a single one capable of such hateful theatrics. Unless… maybe Sam brought someone inside with him. Maybe he brought Danny. My mouth goes dry. The grim certainty in Danny’s gaze when he accused me of murder. Is this where it came from? Likely so, And, if that’s the case, what does he believe he saw?

I’m in way over my head. Chase accused me more than once of being too naive for games of intrigue. “That’s because I believe most people are good at heart,” I always told him.

“You don’t have to worry about most people. Only one,” he’d reply each time, exasperated, as though I were a small child incapable of grasping the simplest lesson. Perhaps I am.

The phone buzzes again. You’re going to prison.

I've come to believe that might happen no matter what the truth is.

The phone buzzes again. Murderer.

I suppress a shiver. Stare at the word, study it, because it embodies the core of my dilemma. My other questions and their answers are ancillary. White noise. Background to the central issue, which remains: Did I hurt Sam? Did I kill him? I’ve fought the idea at every turn, but it lingers. Insidious. Chilling. Keeping these texts to myself is dangerous, deadly even, but I don’t know who to trust.

I can’t stop trembling. The phone feels oven-hot suddenly, and I drop it to the cushion then inspect my skin for damage. No burns on my palm. Just three parallel scars I’ve had for seventeen years. Mementos I’ve always treasured. The scars are a pact. A promise. In my youth they were the cornerstone of my life. Maybe they still are.

Yet today, at this moment, they mock me.


~*~


Tchahsee,” I said. Brother. I took up my cup, stood and faced east while I sipped. Then I sat down behind Chase, faced west and finished the tea. Finally, I turned to my medicine bundle and withdrew my scratcher. The ritual began.

For Seminole, manhood was achieved through tests of courage, skill and ingenuity. These virtues were never to be abandoned but exhibited repeatedly through a man’s life. All boys endured the trials of manhood. Select few were granted a blood brotherhood ritual. Chase was not tribe, so his indoctrination was impossible on any level. Billie said so, and he never lied. I meditated frequently on this topic, however, and had come to disagree.

Earlier in the day, I had added a clean layer of white sand to our circle, addressing our inherent imbalance and impurity. That night, our bond, our human-induced order, would prevail over the chaos of the natural world. I moved to sit directly in front of Chase. Our knees touched. He was shirtless, as was I. At thirteen, our builds matched precisely. Later, he would grow taller, broader, but at that moment, we were brothers in all things, physical and spiritual.

My scratcher was crude. Three sewing needles embedded in a piece of carved wood, but it was handmade and purified under a new moon. Scarification was an important rite of purity, usually tied to black drink, but I didn’t yet have the skills to brew such a potent tea. In my heart, I believed our bond, which would soon be stronger than ever, could withstand this omission.

I held the scratcher to my left palm, then drew it across the skin. “Cathe,” I chanted. Blood. The three needles cut easily through my flesh. Blood welled to the surface. Without being prompted, Chase held out his right hand, and I made the ritual scratches on his skin, careful to angle them exactly as mine were. Then I laid the scratcher on the ground and held out my hand toward Chase, palm up.

Chonkeh,” I said. My hand.

Chase’s eyes glittered in the low fire burning a few feet away. He hadn’t spoken since arriving in the grove thirty minutes before, but his gaze burned through me as he laid his palm over mine. His skin was warm, the blood slick.

Chinkey,” I said, breathless. Your hand.

Hinklah mastchay,” Chase whispered. It is done.

“We’re bound together forever now,” I told him later as we watched the fire fade and die. I was still upright, cross-legged. Chase lounged on his elbow, shoulder pressed to my leg. The embers of the ritual, smoldering like those of our fire, danced across my skin. Hyper-sensitive, I felt sure I could hear Chase’s heart beating in time with mine. “Do you feel it?” I asked, voice soft.

Chase nodded, then tilted his head back to give me a lopsided smile. “Guess I’ll be fetching your walker for you when you’re eighty.”

“I’ll probably need it to find your dentures.”

Chase laughed. Tossed a small stick at the fire. The flames leapt. “Sounds like a plan.”

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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Another profoundly moving chapter. I have to wonder if there is a correlation between Micco's gift for communication with his non-human brothers and sisters and the depth of his feelings of sadness, abandonment and loss. I strongly suspect there is. Would he be affected so deeply by life's high and lows had he not seen his mother and sister murdered? I would hazard a guess and say yes. He is my favourite human creation from any one of your stories I have read @Libby Drew.

It appears most of my fellow "critics" are inclined to believe Sam was murdered for his money or to stop his fortune dwindling further. I recall a comment in a prior chapter (perhaps made by you I think @weinerdog), that what if the murder of Sam was the means to inflict pain on Micco, believing that Micco was in love with him? Perhaps his mother and sister's killers? This school of thought struck me as a distinct possibility in this chapter with the torturous texts Micco is receiving.

I believe @pvtguy's comment that if Micco can focus and communicate with the animals he may gain some insight is very much needed. I have felt all along this gift may be what will save Micco; the wolves and the panthers do I believe know who the real murderer was. Whoever it is must pay heavily for Kane's death at least. 

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