Ch 1

47 7 12

It was the worst ritual we'd ever experienced. Energy was high, but it was entirely from our own tensions. The upset goblet lay like a shimmering corpse in the puddle of red wine. Our original purpose, to celebrate Beltane, was now the furthest thing from my mind as I processed the fact that I would have to get that stain out of the cream-colored carpet or else I would lose some or all of my security deposit.

My sister was going to kill me.

"Damnit, Rowan!" I snapped.

He winced. "I'm sorry. I was just...I didn't mean to spill it."

Everyone froze. The staring and grimaces acted as an unspoken agreement that this was a bad omen.

Gertrude bit her trembling lip. Her eyes darted between me, Rowan, and the wine.

"I'll get some towels," Zehra murmured as she scurried toward the kitchen. She returned a moment letter, a whole roll in hand, and stooped to blot the excess liquid.

I stared at her lamely until my sense of hospitality returned. I knelt beside her. "Here, I'll do it. Don't worry about it, Zehra. It's not your fault."

"I'm sorry," she squeaked and sat back on her heels.

"You're fine," I assured. I wanted to order Rowan to get his ass down there instead, but when I looked over my shoulder, he was heading out the door. "What the hell?" I grumbled.

The others glanced at each other.

"Is there anything I can do to help?" Ash asked, joining Zehra and I on the floor.

"No," I muttered. I gave what I hoped was an apologetic smile. "I'm sorry, everyone... I shouldn't have snapped like that. I just..."

"This isn't working," Luke said when I let my words trail off long enough. "We might as well call it a night. I have an essay to write anyway."

"We should thank and release the quarters," Gertrude insisted.

Luke huffed. "Just because you send invitations doesn't mean anyone comes. If I were a spirit of any kind, I would avoid a mess like this. Not worth it."

I glared into the stain. I felt Zehra's shoulder brush against mine in silent consolation.

The big man sighed, and it sounded like a final puff of rain through the trees following a storm. "Look, it's nothing personal. You know..." his eyes darted to Zehra's before fixating on the mess. "Never mind. Hey, I'll see you later." He followed Rowan's path.

Zehra stood and watched him go. Gertrude opened her mouth, but any words of solace burrowed back down her throat. Instead, it was Ash who went to comfort Zehra while I finished sopping up the excess wine. I had a pile of crumpled, soaked paper towels. All the dark red made for a ghastly sight. Despite our failure of a ritual tonight, I felt myself sinking into a dreary trance as I reflected on where everything went wrong.

Ever helpful, Zehra broke the spell when she handed me an empty shopping bag. She must have seen my dilemma and remembered my sister's plastic bag of bags hanging from a kitchen cabinet.

"Thanks," I said as kindly as I could muster.

I glanced at Gertrude. She looked befuddled, stepping from one foot to the other, eyeing the pentacle she'd placed by the candle on my coffee table we were using as an altar. I shoved the towels into the bag and stood. I looked at Michael and Jake. The latter appeared so confused by everything. I think that's what I felt the worst about. Jake wasn't even part of The Circle. He'd come to support his boyfriend, and I was not only giving him a bad impression of myself, but also of Michael's evolving worldview. I looked at Ash. They were frowning beside Zehra. I had tried so hard to make this a comfortable Beltane for Ash, and now they looked regretful for even coming. In agreeing to this event, I may have jeopardized them ever joining another ritual ever again, and not just with The Circle, but with any group of any tradition. I felt as if a whole barrel of wine had been dumped on me and I'd never be able to get it out of my skin. I wanted to crawl into that barrel and hide.

"Hey, um... I'm sorry, everyone, but I think I really need to be alone right now."

Ash grimaced at me. "Do you need any other help?"

"No, no," I whispered. "It's okay. Thank you."

Gertrude stepped toward Ash but reconsidered. She hugged herself and stared at her feet.

Michael nodded from Jake to Ash. "Well, that's our cue, then. Um, thanks for having us over, Nora. I'm really sorry about... Well. I'll see you on campus."

I was vaguely aware of Ash offering Zehra a ride, and then her accepting. She gave me a fleeting hug and followed them out the door.

When it was just the two of us, Gertrude whimpered. "I'm so sorry, Nora. That was such a mess! I know... I know I made everything awkward, and it disrupted the flow... You worked so hard! Everyone sees that! And Rowan, he-"

"I know. He was just trying to lighten the mood." It was his specialty, and it's part of why I was falling for him. It's what made his sudden departure hurt so much. "I shouldn't have snapped at him."

"Hey, Nora?"


"I really think we should close the quarters. And ground. We should definitely ground."

I exhaled loudly. I just wanted to be alone. "May the circle be open but not unbroken," I recited blandly. "There. I will ground but I need some space to think."

Her eyes grew glossy, and she sniffled into her sleeve. "I understand." She slid her pentacle plaque into her bag.

"Oh, Gertie." I temporarily pushed my unusual reticence aside and wrapped her in my arms. "I'm not mad at you. I'm just... frustrated with the situation. I thought I had found a family, a tribe to belong to, but then I tried to contort everyone into something we were never meant to become. Are you going to be okay going home?"

Tears rolled down her cheeks like pearls of rain against pink rose petals. She meant well, I knew. That was the most frustrating thing of all, and I simply didn't have the patience for her after everything. I frowned at myself in the little circular mirror hanging in my living room. I walked her to the kitchen table and lifted foil from a tray of lavender shortbread cookies I'd made for everyone to enjoy following ritual. "Eat something to help you ground."

She plucked a cookie from the tray but nodded at the door. "I'll get out of your hair. I think I should be alone with my thoughts, too."

I listened to the click of her heels as she descended the short flight of stairs, then watched from my second-story window to ensure she got in her car safe. As she drove off, I felt an odd juxtaposition of regret and relief, folded together like dry and liquid ingredients. I became the languid lump of dough that formed. I grabbed a handful of cookies and trudged back into the living room to glare at the wine stain. I knew I should get my phone out and research how to remove that awful blemish, but I suddenly felt so tired.

Rowan had tried to make me giggle to relax me. He was supposed to offer me the choice, a chalice of water or wine. He was supposed to say, "May you never thirst," then let me drink. Then it would have been my turn to relieve him of the other vessel and repeat the same procedure for the person on my left. Instead, he attempted to tease me by pulling the wine away as I reached, but in doing so, his opposite hand moved forward enough to collide with my fingers. The goblet of water knocked into the wine.

A feint. A misguided attempt at making everything a little more bearable. It was typical of my life. I flopped on the couch and continued to stare at the stain, wondering why I ever agreed to this in the first place.

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