Excerpt: Judgment

Chapter One

 

“I hate you!” Bernie’s shrill declaration passed easily through the thick log walls of the cabin. Sitting on a low bench outside the door, Martha winced at her daughter’s outburst.

“Don’t worry. He’s heard worse.” Lily leaned over, her black hair gleaming in the late spring sunlight. “That patch looks much better than the last one.”

Martha’s attention wasn’t on the ripped jeans lying across her lap, an uneven patch covering the worst holes in the torn knees. A heavy thud shuddered the cabin walls. When they’d first arrived in Bear Claw National Park and the tiny lalassu community of Ekurru, Martha had been nervous about Bernie taking lessons from Lily’s brother, Andrew. He was a shaman, and while she believed in his skill with spirits, he was also a skin-walker who was able to transform into a giant grizzly bear. The idea had terrified her—she’d wondered what would happen if he lost control during a lesson. The whole family frightened her, along with the other lalassu residents. But she’d come to Ekurru anyway, hoping for a miracle.

A wordless, high-pitched shriek echoed from inside.

“She’s not any worse than I was at that age.” Lily’s attempt to reassure weren’t helping. Martha appreciated the young woman’s efforts. Without Lily’s determination to create a friendship, life in the isolated subarctic community would have been a lot more lonely. But if she was alone, then she would have an excuse to go inside and intervene.

Please, Bernie. Just try. Dampness pricked the inside of Martha’s eyes, and a swollen lump settled at the top of her throat. From the way the lessons had been going lately, it seemed that coming to Ekurru was going to be another entry on her list of ultimately futile attempts to help her daughter.

“I won’t do it! He’s my friend!” The door slammed open, and Bernie stormed out. She was transforming from a little girl into a stubborn teenager.

Andrew followed her out, his short dark hair framing the concerned expression on his lean tan face. “Bernie, Chuck is dangerous.”

“He is not! He takes care of me!” Bernie’s angry gaze fell on her mother. “This is all your fault!”

Martha accepted the blame as Bernie’s furious words struck home, slicing deeply into her parental confidence. I couldn’t have made more mistakes if I’d planned them. Intellectually, she knew it was impossible to expect herself to have realized that Bernie’s voices and visions weren’t signs of childhood schizophrenia. They were actually ghosts, but it didn’t change the reality of eight years of intensive therapy and increasing doses of medication. The overall effects on Bernie had been devastating. The antipsychotic medication sent her into violent emotional swings. The grind of endless therapy had dulled her spirit. In the past two years, Martha felt as though she had gotten her daughter back.

Bernie didn’t wait for her mother to respond. Instead she stomped across the narrow clearing, heading for the trees. The sunlight picked up the golden threads in her sandy-blond curls and mercilessly illuminated the strip of pale skin showing between the low boot tops and her worn cuffs. She shouldn’t be living like this. At twelve years old, Bernie should have friends and pretty clothes, not patched, too-short jeans.

“I’ll go after her,” Lily volunteered, setting aside the mending. “Maybe some time playing with the cubs at the Colony will cheer her up.”

Martha nodded her permission, and the other woman loped away. She caught up with Bernie just inside the forest. At first, Bernie shoved aside Lily’s gentle touch, but she quickly calmed as Lily spoke to her. The two of them were nearly the same height—more evidence of Bernie’s latest growth spurt. As they walked away, they made a pretty picture together among the fresh greens of spring growth. Lily’s tan skin, bright-blue jacket, and dark hair contrasted with Bernie’s pale coloring and red jacket.

This is what it might have looked like if she’d had those friends. The intensive therapy and her violent outbursts had made it impossible for Bernie to go to school or have the usual childhood friendships. And since they’d discovered the truth, they’d been hiding from those who wanted to exploit Bernie’s gifts as a medium. Someday, when Bernie looked back at her childhood, there would be nothing except black marks on Martha’s mothering report card.

“She is very stubborn.” Andrew rolled his shoulders as if trying to relieve tension. It wasn’t the first time that Bernie had stormed away from her lessons, but something in his expression told Martha it might be the last.

“She still won’t banish Chuck.” Martha wasn’t asking a question. Bernie and Andrew had been fighting about exorcism for at least half of the previous year. He insisted it was necessary. Bernie refused to give up the only friend who had stuck by her since she was a toddler. Martha was torn. She didn’t like the idea of forcing a child—even a ghost child—from his home. But he’d been growing more erratic, which made her uneasy. She had to admit that, after over a decade of Chuck-inspired tantrums, the idea of a life without him was tempting.

“No. And I can’t help her and fight him at the same time.” Andrew’s blunt answer didn’t leave any room for misinterpretation.

“I see,” Martha said softly, keeping her voice level and her face blank in the way that only came after long years of practice. Of course, Doctor. Yes, I understand. I know you tried your best.

“Even if…” Andrew’s voice trailed off, and he shook his head. “There’s nothing I can do.”

“I’m sorry.” Martha’s apology was automatic, a reflex from hundreds of unproductive therapy sessions, some of which had ended much more violently than this one.

His usual stoic expression softened as he faced her. “Maybe if we take a break and allow tempers to cool, we can try again.”

She nodded, accepting the polite lie. She’d heard enough professional surrender to recognize yet another death knell.

I’m sorry, Mrs. Anderson, but your daughter has schizophrenia.

The medication isn’t working.

The therapy isn’t working.

Have you considered a residential treatment program?

You’ve been served with a decree of divorce.

There isn’t much money left in your account.

You’ll never see your daughter again.

You can’t stay here. You have to run.

The government is after you.

Hit after hit beat her down. Each one inflicted its own set of scars on Martha’s psyche and made it harder for her to react to the next one. One therapist had marveled at how calm Martha remained when receiving bad news. Martha had wanted to scream, I’m not calm. I just don’t have the energy to panic any more.

“Martha.” Andrew reached toward her.

She stepped back, holding onto her control. “We’ll take a break and see what happens.”

“Michael will be here next week with the supplies. Perhaps he will have some new suggestions.”

She knew he was attempting to be optimistic, but it sounded forced and flat. It made Martha feel even worse. Andrew’s comfort zone was in caustic comments. His awkward sympathy only emphasized the empty ache inside Martha. There were too many disappointments to risk letting herself become fully aware of them. She shoved them deep inside, even though it left her feeling hollow. As much as she would like the luxury of hope, there wasn’t any to be had. Michael had been her therapist for years, and he cared about Bernie as if she were his own daughter. If there was a better idea, he would have shared it. “I should go and catch up to Lily and Bernie. Thank you for all of your help.”

Her words were cold and robotic, and she kept her eyes down, not wanting to see any hurt in Andrew’s face. It wasn’t his fault, and it wasn’t her fault, but they’d still failed.

She hurried to the forest, her head and heart nearly bursting with anguish. Don’t think about it. If she let herself fully realize the truth of their situation, she would lose the control she was barely holding on to. One foot in front of the other. The woods closed around her, shielding her from watching eyes. The awareness she’d been holding off crashed into her, leaving her no shelter in denial.

I can’t do this again. I can’t. The pitiful plea shattered her illusion of calm and locked her chest in a crushing vise. Martha dropped to the ground, unable to draw breath through the pain. Her mouth contorted around a silent scream. Fat tears splattered against the hard-packed dirt.

Her chest felt as if she’d been physically hit. Her bruised lungs slammed against ribs that felt on the edge of shattering. A faint, choked whimper escaped, only to be immediately lost among the surrounding trees. Hot tears continued to drip down her face, melting a path down her frozen cheeks. She squeezed her eyes closed and tried to hold it all inside, but there was too much to squash.

The doctors called them panic attacks. Try to relax and reduce your stress, they’d said, as if she had any real chance at either. Instead, she’d learned to suppress as much as she could and then ride out the inevitable explosion.

Her rough nails caught on the cool earth, scraping along the surface as her fingers curled. Once again, the promise had become a lie. The adventure of life with her baby girl had become a never-ending swirl of worsening symptoms and horrible events. Intentions didn’t count when they caused so much pain.

Slowly, the despair began to lose its hold and settled into the depths of Martha’s mind. She stayed on her hands and knees with her eyes closed, each breath burning into her battered lungs. I can’t give up. I have to keep moving. Bernie needs me. She slowly rose to her feet and the chill breeze bit into the tear tracks on her face. A jumbled nest of sets of parallel, shallow scratches in the packed dirt matched her red and stiffened fingers.

She needed to get herself back under control before she went to the Colony to find Lily and Bernie. Her hazy memory suggested there was a stream nearby where she could at least wash her face. The rest of her wasn’t too bad. Pale dust clung to her jeans, but she was otherwise unmarked.

The stream was more or less where her memory placed it. She splashed the cool water on her face and rinsed the clinging dirt from her hands. The small gesture centered her mind once again. If Andrew can’t help—despair threatened again, but Martha ruthlessly quashed it—then we’ll find something else to try.

She started moving toward the Colony, finding the trail between Andrew’s cabin and the Colony’s cliffs. Frequent foot traffic had crushed any green sprouts, leaving a track of gray-brown dirt. She kept her eyes on the immediate path and her feet, not wanting to trip on any unforeseen roots or snags. Which is how she bumped into a flesh wall.

Martha bounced back from the solid impact, and her knitted hat tumbled forward into her eyes. Shoving the mass of pink wool back, she lifted her head to see what exactly she’d run into.

It wasn’t a “what” but a “whom,” Andrew’s twin brother, Lou.

He glared down at her. Martha wasn’t short, and Lou still towered over her, easily passing the halfway mark between six and seven feet. His sleek black hair fell unfettered down his neck and across his bare shoulders. Despite the post-winter chill lingering in the air, he only wore a pair of dark leather pants, held together with a drawstring. His naked chest was twice as wide as her entire body, sculpted from the sort of thick muscles that should only appear in celluloid. He might have qualified as a model if it weren’t for the scowl twisting his mouth and narrowing his eyes.

“Excuse me.” The words were automatic, even as Martha suppressed a powerful surge of irritation. He must have been standing directly in her path and deliberately hadn’t moved.

Lou didn’t say anything as she steadied herself, but his gaze followed her. Heat burned in her cheeks because of her disheveled appearance. Lou had been the most determined opponent to her and Bernie’s move to Ekurru. She’d only seen him twice in the past year, and he’d been scowling both times. His obvious dislike would be much easier to take if Martha didn’t end up feeling like a flustered teen girl with a crush every time she saw him.

“Take your daughter home.” His deep, gravelly voice surprised her.

Martha straightened and blinked at Lou. Did he really speak to me?

If he had, he didn’t seem inclined to repeat himself. Instead, he began to shift as if preparing to stalk back into the woods.

“Wait. What?” Martha’s question dropped into the silence like a stone into a pond.

Lou stopped and slowly turned, his scowl growing fiercer. He looked as if he was offended that she dared to ask for clarification. “She doesn’t belong at the Colony. Take her away.”

Take her away. The words made her blood boil. She’d heard variations on them for years as Bernie talked to invisible people. From the librarian at story time: You need to leave. We can’t have her frightening the other children. From the manager at the movies: Please don’t make a fuss. You’re already disrupting the other clients. Wherever they’d gone, she and Bernie were always unwelcome.

Suddenly, all of her pent-up frustration and fear had a perfectly acceptable outlet. Martha forgot that he could probably pick her up with one hand and break her in half with the other. “Excuse me? She can go where she pleases.”

Facing her again, he loomed over her. “This isn’t her place.”

The weight of his attention might have intimidated her two minutes before, but his words made Martha lose the sketchy grasp she had on her temper. “How dare you!”

His eyes widened briefly, a hint of confusion blooming in their depths.

Martha narrowed in on that tiny weakness, eager to shatter his superior sulkiness. “We didn’t ask to come here. You’ve made your feelings quite clear, and trust me, it’s as uncomfortable for us to be here as it is for you to have us here. But this is where we need to be to keep Bernie safe. So you can keep your opinions about our right to be here to yourself.”

He seemed uncertain, his eyes darting to the side in search of escape. But when she paused for breath, he growled. “I am the Guardian here.”

“Then shout it to the trees or the rocks or whatever you have to do in order to get it off that ridiculously muscled chest. But don’t you dare tell me or my daughter that we don’t have the right to be here.”

He opened his mouth, but Martha stopped him with a single upheld finger. “Unless you are about to apologize to me, I am not interested in any more of your opinions. I suggest you go about whatever business you have and let me go about mine.” Martha was rapidly running out of steam and decided it was as good a point as any to make her exit. She walked past Lou with her head held high and her back and neck forming a rigid line of righteousness.

She half expected him to try and grab her as she passed, but he stayed absolutely still, a brooding mountain of man flesh. His disapproval bore down on her like smothering snow, but Martha was used to silent judgment. As long as he kept his opinion to himself, she would do the same, but it felt good to finally lash out instead of meekly turning an embarrassed cheek.

Speaking out felt great after a lifetime of being told to be quiet and not make a fuss. But as she angrily followed the path to the Colony, guilt made her reconsider. He’d been rude, but he hadn’t deserved to be the recipient of all her repressed anger.

Sunlight dazzled her as she stepped out of the shady woods and into the clearing below the Colony’s pale granite cliffs. Dark cave openings dotted the switchback path that ran along the steep rock face. Most caves had reddish-brown masses of fur resting in front—the grizzly bears who called the Colony home. Martha shaded her eyes and spotted Bernie’s bright-red jacket next to Lily’s bright-blue one. They were on the second level, and Bernie was playing with a small blob of fur that was likely one of the cubs.

“Ah, good.” The man’s voice behind her made her jump. “Lou managed to find you.”

Martha inhaled a calming breath, not wanting to vent her remaining fury on an unsuspecting target. She made herself smile at Doc, the elderly biologist who helped to protect the Colony. His wire-rimmed glasses glinted in the sun as he smoothed his long gray-and-white beard.

“Malila is a little protective of her cub. It’s her first one, and like any new mother, she’s nervous.” Doc sounded as proud as any grandparent. “Lily is with them, but it would be best if Bernie finished up before Malila gets anxious. Lou promised he’d find you and bring you back here so that you could take her back to the cabin.”

Just my luck. I finally vent, and it turns out I had the situation wrong. Still, Lou could have taken the time to explain what he wanted rather than tersely barking orders.

Doc continued. “I probably shouldn’t have let her play with the cubs in the first place, but Lily said she’d had a hard day. I wanted her to have something special to cheer her up.”

“Thank you,” Martha said automatically before calling Bernie’s name.

The blob in the red jacket stood up and waved. Bernie and Lily began to pick their way down the narrow path. With her burst of justified anger stolen, Martha didn’t have anything to distract her from larger issues. Bernie needed a medium to teach her, but no one could tell them where to find one. They couldn’t stay in Ekurru, but they wouldn’t be safe outside of it. No matter which way she turned, there were only dead ends.