The members of the Center and Inner Circles arrive. The crowd inside makes Neil uneasy, so they take the meeting onto the deck outside.
“Cynthia had her trial by fire,” Maribelle Casey said quietly. “After we lost Cliff…. It’s been hard on all of us. We need you, Neil. All of us are counting on you.”
“Thanks, Maribelle, but that doesn’t help a lot knowing,” Neil laughed nervously. “Hell, I’ve had an entire platoon rely on me for direction, bombs going off, taken heavy fire—and I wasn’t nearly as scared then as I am right now.”
“If I may,” Claude said, stepping forward. “I think that just our Circle needs to spend some time together today. Let’s go to the ritual grounds, get to know one another. We’ll go over the ritual with Neil. The rest of you can go over your parts here. We’ll meet at Cynthia’s house just before moonrise.”
“I think that’s a great idea,” Cynthia said, leaping up. “Don’t you, Myra?”
Neil’s mother was somewhat taken aback. She was used to being in charge with every aspect of their lives. She and David had led their Circle, much as Brian and Jordan led theirs. The Center Circle had always been in flux, though Maribelle and Miles led it more often than not. It was a system that worked for them, but she sensed that the power structure was going to shift.
“Of course,” she agreed rather stiffly. “We’ll see you then.”
“Do you need any food?” Dora asked.
“I’m fully stocked, thank you.”
“If you’re sure, dear.”
“Positive.” She gave Myra a kiss, whispering in her ear. “He needs fewer people, Myra.”
Nodding, the older lady smiled. “You’re right, of course. Thank you, dear.”
Those from the Center Circle headed to Cynthia’s house, on the edge of the swamp. They gathered in her backyard, which had been, until recently, the burial ground of the angry dead from the battle that had taken place in Miracle 300 years ago. With their bones destroyed, their spirits put to rest, it was a verdant green lawn with a stone pit in the middle, large enough for a huge bonfire. Wood was laid, aged and ready to ignite. The men from their circle had set it out as soon as they knew Neil was on the way. There were plenty of benches and logs to sit on. They gathered, sitting quietly for several minutes before Claude spoke once more.
“Better?” he asked Neil.
With a visible shiver, he nodded. “Too many people….”
“You start looking for trouble,” Emmett said. “Even though you know you’re among friends….”
“Something jumped me when I came home from Cynthia’s last night,” Neil said. “This is the first I’ve had a chance to tell anyone.”
“Could you see what?” Cynthia asked.
“No. It could have been a cat or something—felt bigger. Definitely feline, it moved like a cat.”
“Scent?” Nadine Pennybaker asked, leaning forward.
Neil closed his eyes, inhaling deeply as he remembered. Exhaling through his mouth, he waited. “No. All I smelled was the foliage and the damp pine straw.”
The others nodded.
“This makes what we need to do more imperative,” Adele Beauchamps said. “I get a hint of what you encountered, Neil. It’s not dangerous—yet. I’m not sure what it is…. It’s good we’re doing this tonight.”
“What do I need to do?” Neil asked. “I saw some of what y’all did when Dora joined, but I don’t remember much. That was twenty years ago, and I wasn’t a part.”
Dora sniffled, folding her hands in her lap. “We didn’t do anything official with Cynthia, because she got tossed in rather urgently. So, tonight, we make a formal request of the Powers That Be for me to step out of the Circle and you to step in. Do you have the ritual?” she asked Nadine.
“Yes. I found it in Mama’s things. I know there’s a copy in the archives, but Cliff’s system made sense to him, not to me. That’s often the way with Chronicler,” she explained to Neil. “That will be your job.”
“Because it was Cliff’s.”
“But Cynthia came in for Cliff.”
Nadine blinked, clearly puzzled. “I forget we’ve switched genders. I guess it goes to a vote. I don’t know. We’ve never lost….” Her lip trembled, her eyes watering. “Sorry.”
“This is hard for us,” Adele stated in a matter-of-fact tone. “Losing one of our Circle, it’s like losing a limb.”
Neil nodded, his temper flaring. “Look, you seem like real nice people. I grew up with some of you, others I don’t know. And I apologize if what I’m about to say offends anyone—but I’ve lost more than one person I was close to. I’ve damn near died more times than I can count. Cliff was my best friend, like my brother. Dora is my twin sister, and this loss has torn her apart. I can feel it to my soul, and I can see it all around her—something I never saw before. So quit telling me how fucking hard this is for you! This is nothing for you, lady!”
© 2017 Dellani Oakes