LEGEND OF THE PROTECTORS

•July 20, 2009 •  (Edit)

“In ages past, our old ones were the storytellers. This was the way things were passed along to the generations that followed. For this reason the aged people made it a point to remember every detail so they could relate it at a later time. They were the word and picture carriers making history and spiritual values alive and important. In recent times, we have made our old ones think they are not so important. We spoof their stories and make them feel foolish. The truth is that we are ignorant of what is precious and how to ‘a da li he li tse di’–appreciate age….”

A Cherokee Feast of Days- Daily

Meditations, Joyce Sequichie Hifler

1. BEGINNINGS

Weightless and fast, I bolt through the deep woods. Hunger—unquenchable. The tent is a welcome sight. My outstretched hands are cold. Steel. They slice through the nylon with ease, making no sound. A man and woman sleep, backs to each other.

She’s too large, his liver will be healthier. I wonder where that thought came from. Why am I looking at these people like they’re food?

With no more effort than it would take to drag a doll across the floor, I pull him from the tent.

#

I leaned back in the booth and scanned my grandpa’s favorite diner. Not much had changed since the last time Paw-pa had brought me here. Old wagon wheels and lanterns on the walls, the concrete floor stained to resemble stone. Homey. Or was that homely?

Four men at the counter joked and acted obnoxious. Before their roaring laughter got any more out of control, a man, well over six feet, rose and sauntered over to them.

Wow.

My palms sweated and my leg started twitching. I felt compelled to run my fingers through his rich black hair, a little long on top with a hint of curls. He wore a brown deputy’s uniform.  His tanned muscles, visible beneath the short sleeves of his shirt, sent my heart into a frenzy. He placed a hand on the back of one man and spoke.

I twirled a strand of chestnut hair around my finger and smiled. He didn’t seem to notice me at all.

“Sam, pay attention. This concerns you.” My best friend’s dad, Brian, tapped his fork on the table in front of me, but I didn’t respond.

My stare was glued to the hottie in the uniform. The men smiled and quieted down and he returned to his booth, where another officer sat.

I still didn’t look away. “What?

“Don’t snarl at me, young lady. We all have adjustments to make. Don’t take your frustrations out on us.”

I bit my lip, turned my focus back to my table, and smiled in an attempt to be pleasant. He was right after all, it wasn’t like he or Paw-pa were responsible for the accident. “Sorry.”

“Thank you.” He took my hand and said something about a file box with important papers in it at Paw-pa’s house.

Whatever.

I looked back at Officer Hotness.

I didn’t know if Brian gave up talking to me, or if I just stopped listening, but that was pretty much the end of our conversation. He paid our bill, and I tried to walk out seductively, shaking my hips with a slight exaggeration, until I almost tripped over Paw-pa in the attempt.

Okay, not my most graceful moment. But maybe Tahlequah won’t be such a bad place to live after all.

#

I sucked in hot, humid air as I stood on the front porch, waiting. Paw-pa’s hand shook a little as he felt for the knob. I followed him inside the small grey house, with paint flaking off the wooden clapboards. I held my breath—it smelled like a nursing home. Pine Sol and old people.

How do I get used to this?

I wanted the salty air of home.

When I’d walked through this door yesterday for the first time in over seven years, I’d been shocked at the cramped living room. So much smaller than I’d remembered. My grandparents’ faded wedding portrait hung on the wall, and Mom and Dad’s photo sat on top of the old television.

And just like yesterday, I flipped my parents’ picture over as I walked past.

Paw-pa stopped in the kitchen doorway. His long grey braid fell over his shoulder as he turned in my direction. “It will all work out, you will see.”

I sighed.

“Sam,” Brian said, but I ignored him and went to my new room. It had been my grandparents’ bedroom, but Paw-pa wouldn’t sleep in there after Grandma died. Mom had helped him move his stuff out after her funeral.

I opened the door and stared at the Pepto-pink walls. I’d have to paint them in earth tones in order to have peace.

To think, I’d liked this when I was ten.

I flopped across the bed, until I heard Brian on the phone. Hoping to talk to Stacy, I went to the kitchen and sat at the table, waiting for him to finish. Brian had shared the driving with me from California.

He hung up and sat beside me, resting his large hand on my shoulder. He scratched his stubbled cheek and said, “I’m sorry, honey. Stacy’s out. She won’t be back until late.”

“Of course she is.” I slumped in the chair and folded my arms across my chest. “This sucks. Why did I have to move here? Why couldn’t I just stay with you guys?”

“We went over this before the funeral.” Brian looked me straight in the eyes. “Your parents wanted you with your grandfather. They thought it would be best if you lived here, and we need to respect their wishes. He’s your family.”

I sat up, hands on my knees. “You guys are family, too. I’ve known you my whole life.” As reality hit me full force, I threw my hands in the air and yelled, “I don’t even know him. He’s just some old man I haven’t seen since I was ten!”

Brian slammed his hand flat on the table. “Samantha, stop it!” His tone chilled. “You aren’t the only one hurting. He lost his only child and I lost my best friend.”

“Yeah, but neither of you had to pick up and move halfway across the country,” I yelled. “You get to go back!” I scooted the chair out hard, scraping the floor, and jumped up.

Brian caught me before I had a chance to get away, wrapping his massive arms around my shoulders, and I sobbed into his chest. “I haven’t seen Paw-pa in years. I want to go home. Please. Take me back with you.”

Brian smoothed my hair out of my face.

“You’re like my second dad. Why couldn’t my parents have seen that? Daddy moved us to Ramona to be near you. Not to Oklahoma to be near him.” I pointed to the living room. “Why did they send me to the middle of nowhere?”

I realized I was mad at my parents. They were the ones who died and left me with some person I didn’t know.

Brian held me, moving my hair out of my face. “Sam, this’ll be for the best. You’ll see.”

#

Paw-pa told us a friend of his would pick up Brian for the airport around five. I came out of my room as Brian opened the front door and the smokin’ deputy from the diner walked in.

Paw-Pa knew the hottie?  The appeal to this town just increased.

Running my fingers through my waist length hair, I tried to comb out the knots. And why had I changed from jeans that made my butt look good, into running shorts?

First my neck burned, then my cheeks.

“I’m Andrew.” He stepped into the living room and extended his hand.

Brian shook it before grabbing his bag off the couch. He turned to me and smiled. “I love you, kiddo.”

“I love you, too.”

A tear fell down my cheek. My mind reeled. I didn’t know what to think. How to feel. Scared? Left alone with a stranger in a town I hadn’t seen in ages. Angry? Everyone I loved had left me. And now, Brian was too. As I wiped my eyes, I noticed Andrew watching me. Or should I feel embarrassed? Because I look like crap and am crying in front of him.

I turned away as Brian pulled the door closed.

As I wandered toward my room, Paw-pa stopped me. “I wish this wasn’t so hard on you, Samantha.” He pulled me into a hug. “Please let me help. Don’t try to handle this alone. I understand you don’t know me, but I want to get to know you. I love you.”

I looked into his kind, hazy eyes. He had such love for me—a stranger. I did love him, but wasn’t sure how to talk to him.

#

My lungs tighten as I wheeze. Snarls echo all around me. I push myself to keep running. The growls close in and my legs protest against moving any more. Still, I run.

Something swoops over my head, bee-lining to the animals behind me. As fast as possible, I scale a tree. Don’t even care if I ever come down again. Once settled, I see my pursuers—wolves. Lots of them. At least twenty. What the heck? Wolves? In Oklahoma?

On another pass, I realize the swooshing creature that saved my butt is a bald eagle. And a massive one at that. I’ve never seen anything so majestic. So beautiful. It lands on the branch next to me. And when it turns into Officer Andrew, I fall off the branch backward.

A layer of white mist surrounds me, choking, pressing. It lifts me through the treetops. Growls twist up toward me, intensifying with each passing second. Out of nowhere, something jumps up, nipping my feet. I try to scream, but only a silent gasp leaves my lips.

Kicking my legs and flailing my arms, I try with all my might to keep from falling back toward the ground—to the beasts that want to eat me. I fight harder, panic grips me. Will it be enough?

My heart pumps erratic beats. My lungs feel full of water instead of air. I gasp in desperation while the muscles in my chest tighten. No way can I keep this up. My arms and legs quiver. About to give in to the fear—a light comes and brings with it air and a calming music. Relaxing, I float toward the brilliant blue glow. Wrapped in the soft light, I yearn to be held.

#

After showering, I dried off and combed out my long, straight hair and blew it dry. Dressed in my favorite capris and the hot-pink shirt my dad bought me for my last birthday, I studied myself in the mirror.

“That works,” I said and left the bathroom.

Paw-pa sat at the kitchen table, sipping a glass of orange juice. “Does it always take you this long to get ready in the morning?”

I looked at the clock on the wall, seven-forty-six. “Not usually, but since I’m starting a new school, in a new state, and don’t know a single person, I wanted to look good.” I smiled, something lost on Paw-pa, and opened a cabinet. “You want some breakfast?”

Paw-pa hit a button on the radio, which announced the time. “No, Cara will be here in about twenty minutes. She cooks for me and cleans the house. If you’d like to wait, I’m sure she would be happy to fix you something as well.”

“You don’t have to pay someone to come in anymore. If I’m gonna be here, I might as well be useful.”

“Don’t be silly. I enjoy her company. She doesn’t just cook and clean; she takes me places, reads to me, and keeps me company. She’s really helped me since I lost my sight. I don’t know if I’d have made it without her.”

“I understand, but I can—”

“How about we decide later when Cara and I can discuss it.” He got up from the table and went to the other room.

Whatever. Less work for me.

The morning news floated in from the living room. “Another mysterious murder. Yesterday morning, near the banks of Illinois River off Old Highway 62, a jogger found the body of a man who apparently had been dragged from his tent and killed while his wife slept. She was taken to Tahlequah City Hospital, were she’s being treated for shock.” I didn’t hear anymore. Didn’t that happen Saturday? Or had I dreamed it? No. I had to have heard it on the radio or something.

Freaky déjà vu.

I ate a bowl of cereal and left my dishes in the sink. Since I didn’t know where to go, I needed to leave for school early.

“Paw-pa,” I asked when I entered the living room, “do you have any idea where I might find this new school of mine?”

After his directions, I grabbed my bag and headed to what was now my Honda CR-V. I stopped and ran my finger over the hood of Dad’s car. He’d let me pick the Borrego Beige Metallic exterior and creamy leather seats. I’d wanted to drive it so badly, but had only got to once.

I made my way into Tahlequah and almost expected Dad to comment on my driving. “Too fast, Samantha, you need to slow down. This isn’t a race.” Like I’d ever drive fast again. Not after the accidents.

Studying the town, I passed Lynn’s Nails, then a bank on the left, and a car dealership on the right. “Freak. What street did Paw-pa say to turn onto?”

I crawled through town, searching for some sign of the high school. Every turnoff had either a gas station, grocery store, or some plaza, but nothing resembling a school.

Why didn’t I ask what business to turn at?

While I inched my way down Muskogee Avenue, red and blue lights flashed in my rearview mirror. “What now?” I pulled over, threw the car into park, and placed my hands on the steering wheel. Inhaling, I tried to calm down. Then looked up at the officer.

It was him—Deputy Hottie.

I stared wide-eyed, my mouth slightly open.

Grinning, he signaled for me to roll down my window.

I fumbled around the door until I found the button. My gaze never left his. Holy Cow. He looked even better up close. His eyes were the most amazing shade of golden hazel.

“Was I doing something wrong?” I stammered.

His smile widened, revealing straight, white teeth. He’d probably had braces at one point. His lips puckered for a half second and then he bit down gently.

I wanted him to touch me. I didn’t care where.

“No,” he said. “But you appear to be lost.”

I nodded.

“Are you headed to Tahlequah High?”

I nodded again. Get a grip. He’s gonna think you’re a complete idiot. Say something—quit drooling. “You can take me there,” I blurted. Maybe my dark Cherokee skin would hide the reddening of my cheeks.

His laugh faded into the most amazing smile ever. “You can follow me.” Shaking his head, he swaggered back to his cruiser.

“Yeah, I’ll follow you anywhere,” I whispered, driving behind him. At the school he waved and drove off. Still laughing.

You’re a moron, Sam.

I parked in the last available spot, a hundred miles from the school, and got out of Dad’s car. My nerves started to unravel as I stood there staring at the large, red brick building, ignoring the other smaller ones behind me.

“You can do this. It’s no different than Ramona High. Just a bunch of kids.”

Who’m I kidding?

I inhaled and walked to the largest building, slinging the door open. Now, to find the office.

Everyone stared, like the circus freak had just stepped into the center ring. Or at least it felt like they did. Maybe I shouldn’t have worn hot pink, a here I am world color. Three boys, who obviously belonged to the chess club, stood in a doorway talking. They gawked as I passed, smiling as if they’d solved Fermat’s last theorem. My cheeks warmed. I kept walking, glancing above each door, hoping for a sign that would read Office.

A cluster of jocks and cheerleader-types stood by some lockers. Even the air around them seemed superior. Though I tried to avoid their gazes, the scrutiny in their eyes made my scalp tingle—and not in a good way.

“Hey—you lost?” one of the taller boys called. “Need the office?”

I stopped and rolled my eyes. Of course I need the office. “Um—yeah.”

“Catch y’all later.” He pounded fists with a clean-cut athletic guy and strutted toward me.

The bleached blonde girl beside him clenched her jaw and glared. Yeah, already didn’t like her.

“I’m Keith,” he said as we walked.

“Sam.”

An unnaturally toothy white grin spread across his tanned face. We hadn’t gone far when he stopped. “Well—here we are. The office.”

“Thanks. Appreciate it.”

He raised an eyebrow and nodded, then tossed his sandy blond hair out of his emerald green eyes.

Little full of yourself, aren’t you, Mr. Jock? Or maybe I projected my dislike for Blondie onto him.

At five-ten, having a boy a few inches taller than me didn’t happen as often as you’d think, so …. Never mind. Not interested. Not my type. Now Andrew—the hot deputy, that was another matter.

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