Chapter One: Laurel
“All set?” Laurel crouched down and tucked the blanket a little closer around her mom’s legs.
“Stop fussing, darling.” Her mom smiled and tweaked her index finger beneath Laurel’s chin. She was wearing her customary bright red lipstick and a splash of mascara, but her complexion was paler than normal.
“It wouldn’t hurt to wait until it’s a little warmer out.” Laurel glanced at the large glass windows that enclosed the hospital foyer. Still only March, and while it was sunny outside, it was also bitterly cold. Especially when the wind blew.
For a long moment, Laurel’s mother looked at her. Her eyes softened, as if she was feeling sorry about something. But then she said, “Nonsense, come on. I need some air. I’ve been stuck inside for weeks.”
Standing up, Laurel moved to the back of her mom’s wheelchair and flexed her fingers on the handles. Since her return to South Minneha, no one had ventured outside unless it was for hunting, scavenging, or one of their weekly trips to look for townsfolk who might need medical help; it had been too cold for leisurely walks. But the last snow fell more than a week ago now, and the ground was starting to thaw. So Laurel had promised her mother a short outing. Looking at her mom’s diminutive frame, however, she was beginning to wonder whether it was a good idea.
That morning, once the sun was up, and the snow a little softer, Bear and Henry had cleared something of a path around the building using Henry’s special salt mixture and two large shovels. Laurel intended to start at the front, exiting from the foyer, and loop around until they were back where they’d started. She had packed a thermos of coffee and some cookies for them to enjoy when they reached the bench that looked out at the forest. If her mom was doing okay.
Over the past few weeks, she’d been quieter than normal. When she caught Laurel watching her, she made an effort to smile and pretend to be upbeat. But Laurel knew she was hiding the true extent of her discomfort. As Bear pulled open the doors for them, she made a mental note to discuss her mother’s meds with Hannah later. The new combination they’d started her on was never going to have the same effect as the trial meds had, but Laurel would have expected to see at least some improvement.
“See you soon.” Laurel allowed her hand to graze Bear’s as she walked past him. He smiled at her and nodded.
Once he was out of earshot, Laurel’s mom reached up and patted Laurel’s hand. “Things seem to be going well between the two of you?”
Pulling her scarf tighter around her neck, Laurel laughed. “Well, that took all of thirty seconds.”
“What did?” Her mom folded her arms around her middle.
“Asking about me and Bear. We’ve been out of the building less than a minute.”
“Well,” her mom chuckled, “I don’t get any other chance to ask you. Lately, it seems that wherever you are, he’s only a few steps behind you.” She looked over her shoulder and gave Laurel a knowing glance. “So…?”
“So, nothing.” Laurel pushed the chair over a difficult patch of ground and winced at the twinge in her ankle. Although the injury had healed, she was still experiencing discomfort and it was starting to irritate her. She was not used to being unable to shake something when she wanted to. Several times, Bear had offered to give her some PT, but she’d refused, telling him it would sort itself out soon. Now, however, she was beginning to wonder whether she should give in and allow him to help.
“Not nothing.” Her mom’s tone had become sharper, the way it was when she was about to tell Laurel off about something. “Laurel, the world crumbled around our ears. Bear came all the way here from Thunder Bay to find you. You were the first thing he thought of. You. That has to mean something.”
Laurel pressed her lips together and pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose; the cold was making them slip. “Maybe, but do we need to figure it out right now?”
She expected her mom to answer right away, but instead there was a long pause. She watched her mother’s shoulders gently rise and fall as she took several deep breaths. “I’d like you to figure it out before—”
“Coffee,” Laurel interrupted. She knew what her mother was about to say and, not for the first time, stopped her from saying it. She couldn’t hear talk like that. Not now. Not ever. Not after such a long, hard journey to get back here. “I brought coffee and cookies. We’re nearly at the bench. Do you feel up to stopping for a snack break?”
After a short, sharp sigh, her mom replied, “When have I ever turned down cookies?” then laced her gloved fingers together in her lap and remained quiet while they made their way around the side of the hospital building toward the picturesque lawn and forest out back.
“I have to say,” Laurel spoke up—feeling the need to fill the silence with words. “You know I’m not Robert Sullivan’s biggest fan, but it was a good idea to keep this area open. Part of the hospital grounds. It’s good for the soul to be close to nature.”
“Is that a scientific opinion?” her mom asked, slightly sharp.
“Yes, actually.” They were almost at the bench. Bear and Henry had cleared a path directly to it. On the brow of the dip that led down toward the trees, it gave a perfect view of the forest and the sky beyond. “There was a study. I remember reading about it—”
Mid-sentence, Laurel stopped.
“Did you hear that?” She stepped sideways, so she was standing next to her mom, and strained her ears. “I swear I heard something.” She looked down at her mother. She too was listening intently, but shook her head.
“No, dear. I can’t hear anything.”
“I’m sure….” Laurel peered down the slope at the trees. The spaces between them were dark and uninviting. She’d ventured in there a couple of times with Bear and Trent on their hunting expeditions, but on the whole, had left food gathering to them; they were better at it and Trent seemed to revel in the alone time with Bear. He hadn’t said anything, he was too sweet a kid for that, but Laurel could tell he was finding it hard to adjust to sharing Bear’s attention with someone else.
She was shaking her head, about to take out the coffee, when something moved in the periphery of her vision. She stepped forward, watching the tree line.
“Is someone there?” her mother asked, following Laurel’s gaze.
“I’m not sure.” She turned and flicked the brakes on her mom’s chair. “Mom, can you wait here a moment?”
“I can’t exactly make a run for it,” her mother quipped.
Striding away from the path Bear cleared for her, Laurel inched through the thinning snow until she was a few feet away from the bench. There. Something was definitely moving.
Reaching for her gun with one hand, she waved the other and called, “Hello? If there’s somebody there, I’m a doctor. This is a hospital. Do you need help?”
For a moment, nothing moved. A cold breeze whipped across Laurel’s face. Then a voice carried forward on the wind. “Help! Help! My sister-in-law. She needs help!”
As Laurel took another step forward, a figure emerged from the trees. A woman. Waving frantically, she called again, “My sister-in-law needs help. Please!”
“Mom,” Laurel turned to her mother. “I’ll be right back. Wait there.”
Then she charged down the slope in the direction of the trees.
* * *
By the time Laurel reached her, the woman was no longer alone. She’d been joined by another, who was clutching her stomach and seemed barely able to stand. When she looked up and moved her arm, Laurel realized why.
“You’re pregnant….” Laurel rushed forward and took the woman’s other arm. In answer, she simply groaned and clutched her stomach harder.
“Her name’s Tory. She’s thirty-six weeks. I’m Kate. She’s my brother’s wife.” The woman who’d shouted at Laurel from the trees adjusted her friend’s weight on her shoulder and winced.
“Okay, Kate. We’re not far from the hospital. Let’s get Tory inside. Is your brother—” Laurel glanced back at the trees, but Kate replied with a solemn shake of the head. Laurel nodded in understanding, then motioned for them to start moving. Slowly, they began to help Tory up the slope.
“Tory, I’m a doctor. Can you tell me what happened? When did you start experiencing pain?”
Tory breathed in hard, gritted her teeth, then replied, “This morning. It just started this morning.”
“Are you having contractions?”
“I don’t know.” Tory gripped Laurel’s arm a little harder. “How do I know?”
“Does the pain come in waves? Or is it constant?”
“Constant. All the time. No waves.” Tory winced and wobbled, but Kate steadied her. Then, stopping, she looked up at Laurel. “This is a hospital, so you can help me? Right?” Her voice wavered and moisture sprang to her eyes. “I can’t lose my baby.”
“We can help you, Tory.” Laurel nodded firmly. “We just need to get you inside.”
As they drew closer to the bench, and Laurel’s mom realized what was happening, Laurel saw her push herself gingerly out of her chair and shuffle to the bench itself. “Mom,” she called, “sit back in your chair!”
But when they reached her, her mother simply said, “This young woman needs it more than I do. Take her inside and send someone back for me. I’ll be fine for a few minutes.”
Laurel bit her lower lip. Her mom had already been outside for almost half an hour. But there was no way Tory would make it to the foyer without the chair.
“All right,” she said, lowering Tory into the wheelchair. “But I’ll send someone right away.” She grabbed the blanket and wrapped it firmly around her mom’s shoulders. “Just hang tight, okay?”
Her mother’s answer was drowned out by another pained cry from Tory. “It hurts,” she moaned. “Please. Help me. It hurts.”
“Help her!” Kate grabbed Laurel’s elbow.
“Okay, Tory. Here we go.” Laurel looked briefly at her mom. “I’ll send Henry right back.” Then she nodded, and began pushing.
* * *
As they approached the foyer doors, Laurel began to shout. By the time they reached them, Bulldog—who’d been waiting for their return—had heaved the doors open and was calling for backup.
“Bulldog, this woman’s in labor. I need Bear’s side room. Is the fire lit?”
Bulldog nodded firmly. “He’s been keeping it lit for emergencies.”
“Good.” The chair was moving easier and faster now that it was on the shiny hospital floor. Laurel was already halfway across the room. Looking back over her shoulder, she yelled, “Bulldog, please go get my mom! She’s out there alone. I had to take her chair.”
Bulldog wavered for a moment. “You don’t need help?”
“I’ll fetch help. You fetch my mom.” She turned around and backed into the double doors, wheelchair in front of her, pulling Tory through them. As they swung closed, she saw Bulldog stride off into the snow. He didn’t have a chair with him, which meant he was planning on carrying her mom back inside. Mom will love that!
In the hallway, Laurel stopped and pointed at a closed door. “Kate, take Tory in there and sit her by the fire. I’m going to get some nurses to help us. I’ll be right with you.”
Kate’s eyes widened, but Laurel placed her hand on the woman’s arm. “I’ll be right with you. But we can’t do this single-handed. We need help. Okay?”
“Kate, I’m okay. Let her go,” Tory panted.
Looking at her friend, Kate nodded. “All right. But hurry, doctor. Please.”
Laurel waited barely a second before sprinting for the dorms. As she burst into the room, a few dozen faces looked up at her. Some were playing cards, some reading. Her eyes landed on Chris Jenkins. “Chris, where are Hannah and Janet?”
Chris slowly stood up, worry creasing his face. “Cataloging medication, I think. Is everything—”
“I need them.” Laurel had already turned and was heading back to the door. Over her shoulder, she called, “Tell them I have a mother in premature labor and that we’re going to need to deliver a baby.” She paused at the door and fixed her eyes on Chris.
“Tell them to hurry!”
Chapter Two: Bear
“It starts here.” Henry pushed open the door to the second-floor corridor and instantly wrinkled his nose.
Bracing himself, Bear sniffed the air and slammed a hand over his mouth. “That’s foul.”
“Oh my god,” Trent groaned, stepping behind Bear as if it might shield him from the smell. “What is that?”
“My guess would be skunks.” Henry had taken a rag from his pocket and was holding it to his face.
“Skunks? In here?” Trent looked from Henry to Bear.
“It’s possible,” Bear replied. “They usually mate when the snow starts to thaw. Could have come here looking for somewhere warm and cozy to do their business.”
“Like a stinky skunk love pad?” Trent chuckled at himself and then began to cough when the smell reached his nose again.
“Something like that.” Bear pulled his fleece up to cover his nose and tried to breathe only through his mouth. “We need to find their den, and figure out how they’re getting into the building.”
“Do we?” Trent looked as if he was ready to run back the way they’d come. “Can’t we just seal off this floor?”
Shaking his head, Henry answered, “Don’t want them finding their way into other spaces.” He jerked his thumb, indicating that Bear and Trent should follow him, and stepped farther into the ward.
“Which ward is this?” Bear asked, tugging Trent’s elbow to make the young teenager follow him.
“Oncology.” Henry had stopped in front of a slightly open door. “This was Deb’s room.” He pushed it and watched it swing open, then walked in and checked under the bed. When he stood up again, he looked toward the window. “Most nights while you and Laurel were gone, she watched for you from this window. When she couldn’t make it upstairs to the roof.”
Leaving the room, Bear indicated that Trent should go check the nurses’ station opposite while he and Henry continued to check patients’ old rooms.
“How’s she doing?” he asked after a few minutes of silent searching. “Deb? How is she?”
Without turning to look at Bear, Henry’s shoulders tensed. “Not good.” He released a small sigh. “But she doesn’t want Laurel to know.”
Pressing his lips together, Bear swept his fingers through his hair. It needed a good trim, as did his beard. During the winter months, they had been keeping him warm. But now the cold snap was starting to break, he might be brave enough to go for a more clean-shaven look.
“She’s tired, Bear.” Henry turned to face him and looked up to meet his eyes. “She thinks she has to keep going for Laurel, but she’s tired.”
Noticing Trent was back at his side, Bear patted the boy’s shoulder; he’d grown very fond of Deb and, although he was aware she wasn’t well, this might have been the first time he heard anyone talk about her like this.
To Bear’s surprise, Trent said quietly, “My nan got tired toward the end.” His usually broad grin had dropped into something sadder and smaller. “She had cancer too. One day, she said she’d had enough and didn’t want the drugs anymore. She stopped taking them. She was happier after that, but she didn’t stay long.”
Closing his eyes, Henry nodded and turned his face away.
Bear gripped Trent’s shoulder. As they continued their way down the ward, he took a deep breath and said to Henry, “I’ll talk to Laurel.”
Henry didn’t stop walking, just nodded again. Slowly. “Thank you.”
Bear swallowed hard. He knew he had to do it: talk to Laurel. But he had no idea how he was going to do it. Usually, she was one of the few people he could count on to be ferociously honest. Frank. Up-front. She’d always believed in being honest and open with her patients. And in return, she encouraged them to be open with her too. With her mom, however, she was different. She wasn’t behaving like a doctor, she was behaving like a daughter. And Bear needed to find a way to help her bridge that gap.
Changing the subject slightly, as they neared the double doors at the back of the ward, Henry said, “Aren’t you two supposed to be heading off soon? To look for your daughter?”
Bear pressed his lips together. Henry was right; they were supposed to be leaving soon. When they returned to South Minneha, they had talked about it. They decided; as soon as the snow began to melt, they’d leave. But for the past few weeks, Laurel had refused to talk about it. Whenever Bear broached the subject of looking at a map and deciding their plan of action, she found an excuse to be somewhere else or to talk about something else.
It was because she didn’t want to think about leaving her mom, he knew that. But he also knew that if Mae was camped out somewhere, she too could be planning to start moving with the turn of the season. And that would make their task of finding her a million times more difficult.
“What’s through here?” Trent asked as they pushed the doors.
“The sky corridor.” Henry waved an arm at the space they found themselves in — a large, wide corridor with glass walls on either side. On one side, the front lawn, the fountain, and the parking lot. On the other, the courtyard space in the center of the square hospital building. Bear walked to the glass and peered down. A slightly woozy sensation gripped his stomach but he pushed it aside. Down below, the snow was thinning, and for the first time in weeks, the sky was pale blue instead of white or gray. He could just about make out the path they’d cleared for Laurel and Deb’s walk.
“Where does it go?” Trent asked. “And how come it doesn’t smell in here?”
Bear looked up and down the corridor. Good question. They’d found no trace of the skunks on the oncology ward, but they had to have come from somewhere.
“Let’s check down here, then we’ll circle back.” Henry had reached the end of the hall and another set of doors. This time, they opened onto a carpeted space that looked like it would be more at home in a movie theater than a hospital.
“VIP offices.” Henry rolled his eyes and walked over to one, sticking his head in, then shaking it.
Trent wrinkled his nose. “Smells here too.”
Ahead, Bear’s eyes settled on a gold plaque bearing a name he recognized: Robert Sullivan. He’d never met the man, but had heard all about what he did to Laurel and her mom. Gritting his teeth, he strode over and knocked the door with his elbow to open it.
Instantly, the smell intensified.
“There.” Trent’s eyes had widened at the stench, but he was pointing at the desk in the middle of the room. He ducked down and pointed again. “There, look. Underneath. A heap of papers all shredded up.”
Bear stooped to look too. Trent was right. The skunks were nesting in Robert Sullivan’s office. Coughing, Bear straightened up and turned to find Henry standing next to him. “Well, well, well,” Henry said, almost smiling. “How appropriate. Couldn’t think of a nicer man to host a bunch of skunks.”
“How’d they get in?” Bear mused, stepping forward, concentrating hard on not letting any air past his nostrils.
“There….” Trent’s voice had gone up an octave, the way it always did when he had an idea he was pleased with. “Is that an AC vent?” He was looking up at the ceiling.
Bear moved over and raised his eyes.
“Sure is.” Henry folded his arms. A tall bookcase was positioned beneath the vent, and the grate that should seal it off was lying on the ground.
“So they’re in the ventilation system?” Bear groaned and turned to march back out, because his eyes were starting to water.
“How the heck do we get them out?” Trent asked, following Bear and Henry as they walked quickly back toward the glass-walled corridor.
“Good question.” Henry folded his arms. They were both staring at Bear, waiting for an answer.
His mind ticking slower than normal, because he was thinking of Deb and Laurel at the same time, Bear reeled through their options. “We need to seal off exits to all the wards, offices, rooms…. Henry, do you have a blueprint showing all the vents?”
Henry nodded in response.
“Good. Right, so we’ll seal off the exits and that should force them back outside.”
“Seal them off how?” Trent asked, raising his eyebrows.
“I haven’t quite figured that out yet.” Bear rubbed his beard and chewed on the side of his cheek. “But I’ll think of something.”
“You mean skunkthing?” Trent hesitated barely a second before his lips spread into a huge grin and he started laughing at himself.
Shaking his head, Bear laughed too. “Yeah, kid. Skunkthing ingenious.”