Chapter 22: Wasters

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"The Rings of Memory have been stolen!" Burnish cries. He hops off his ride and frantically buzzes about, as if just stressing will bring these magic rings back.

"Wasters have been here," Cord says, picking up a large sheet of crumpled paper. It's waxy and oozes a foul smell. "This is one the three signs that the species Tribespeople call God has been here. Wasters litter the ground wherever they go."

"You think God did this?" Burnish asks incredulously.

"Not my God; She would never cut down a sacred tree, or any tree for that matter." Cord gestures at the murdered stumps littering the clearing. All the species around them have been disturbed too. The clover and grasses lie bruised and battered. "The second sign is noise from heavy machinery and the third, loud voices as deep as thunder." We listen, but all we can hear is the particularly sad call of a morning wing. It sounds as if it's crying for the trees.

"There's been some giant equipment here," I say, gesturing at the ground where the largest tire marks I've seen dent the earth. If these are from a truck of some kind, the people who drive it must be massive.

"Definitely Wasters," Cord states.

"Look-" Burnish points. High up on the ridge above the clearing is a gigantic sign with a picture of some dwellings. Words in a strange language blaze across the top. It's not Tribespeak or Troutspeak at least, those I can read. The odd letters are enormous.

Cord snaps photos of the crime scene on his phone while Burnish steps up to the largest stump where the saws have left a jagged circle. "The Rings of Memory were kept hidden here for generations. Now they are gone. I'm sorry I can't help your mother, Fuchsia."

"Thank you for trying," I say. "I'm sorry I blamed you; it wasn't really your fault that she would sacrifice herself for me. I should have known that, not you."

"And I'm sorry I was so selfish to think you could save my papa. It was too dangerous an idea. And now I've harmed Quin Brook, the most courageous Tribeswoman of all time." We are both crying and he reaches for a hug. I shake in his little arms, our own pity party for two.

"Uh, guys, I hate to break this up, but we need to start looking for the heartwood."

"The heartwood was chopped down," Burnish says.

"But it may still be on site, stacked somewhere. Wasters always do that when they clear a site, at least that's what they did where I used to live, before I got - never mind - just help me look, okay?" He was going to say beheaded. Our secret from the rest of the Grove High students.

"Messenger needed to escort Magenta of Brook Primrose Tribe from Memorial Hospital to Grove High," blares from Burnish's bike.

"Burnish, this one's yours," a different voice follows.

"My Boss," Burnish explains. "She can't know I'm here. I logged out at the hospital."

Magenta must have gone to visit me when she thought I was donating the nutrients for Lemon. She is my friend. I hope she was able to help Dad from freaking out since Mom took my place.

"Go," Cord commands. "Burnish, I'll take care of Fuchsia, don't worry." He looks into my eyes. "I'll make sure nothing happens to her."

"And we'll find the heartwood, if it's still here." Mom has to survive. The alternative is not an option.

"You know what to do if you find it?" Burnish asks. He pulls a pocket knife and a vial out of his vest and gives them to Cord.

"Yes, Mr. S showed me."

"As you wish," Burnish bows. "Find the rings, for both our parent's sake." And he's gone, his spokes whirring through the clearing and out of sight.

Cord takes my hand. "Let's look by the sign. That's usually where Wasters stack their killings." I follow him up the bank of battered grasses onto a trail. "Look at this. The path has been worn by logs." Cord points to the mashed ground like we're on an exciting treasure hunt and not a desperate quest. We huff and puff our way to the top of the ridge.

The view from here is amazing. The whole valley is laid out below; I can see the tiny High School and the Park and the Hospital. Main Street crawls with color and surrounding it all is the leafy canopy of the Grove.

Cord hugs me from behind. "It's a cool place, your Grove."

"I'm glad you think so." I lean back into his arms. His breath warms my neck and he plants a kiss there. If I turn around I'll have to return the favor.

"I'm glad you moved here," I whisper into his ear.

He finds my lips. I melt into him and all the sadness evaporates. This is not a Promise Kiss, all organized and proper. Desire opens between us and pulses like rain in the steamy sunshine. A rainbow of wants colors our movement. There is no turning back. He lowers me to the ground and we continue this frenzied dance. I need him from my rooty toes to my branching core to my budding crown. He pulls me under.

At some point we realize where we are and what day it is, probably because my phone chimes. It's Lily. By now news has spread of Mom's switcheroo and she wants deets. I sit up and text Lily back as the guilt of delaying our search soaks in.

"We need to keep looking," Cord says as I brush off the soil caked on his back.

"Yes, we do," I say. He offers a hand to help me up and we continue our daunting task of saving Mom by finding a pine needle in a haystack.

He scans the other side of the sign, but no heartwood logs can be found. "Wait a minute. If the Wasters have already taken the heartwood from the site, it must be...I know where to look. It's dangerous, but it's our only hope."


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