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Shades of Truth
By Naomi Kinsman Downing
ZondervanCopyright © 2011 Naomi Kinsman Downing
All right reserved.
The old-fashioned candleholder made shadows cartwheel across the walls as I tiptoed toward the stacked boxes. My new bedroom was dark. Middle of the forest, middle of the night dark. Dad had promised to turn on the power tomorrow, but for tonight we were eighteenth century — or whenever it was they read by candlelight. The hundred-year-old log cabin creaked and popped. Bullfrogs and crickets sang outside. I'd been in Owl Creek only a few hours, but my life had already become a grand adventure.
The presents waited on top of the pile, each with a card taped to the top. I'd pinky-promised the girls I wouldn't open them until I was alone in my new room, so all day, as I sat in the Jeep's back seat, getting closer and closer to Michigan, I'd thought of nothing else. Now, slowly, so the candle wouldn't flicker out, I carried the four wrapped boxes back to bed. I snuggled under the covers and lined up the presents.
I can't believe you won't be here for seventh grade. We will miss, miss, miss you.
Deep in the box, she'd buried her top-secret brownie recipe with a note:
No matter what, never, ever share this recipe. Especially with Pippa. You know she's only my friend for the brownies.
I choked back my laugh, not wanting to wake up my parents.
Remember when we filled Juliet's closet with balloons for her birthday? Here's some more, just in case.
She'd wrapped bags and bags of balloons, enough to fill five closets.
I had to get these for you. They had Sadie written all over them. Miss you already, Bri
They were perfect. Purple Pumas with silver laces.
One present left. I picked it up and ran my fingers along the shiny paper. Pippa.
Don't cry. I know you won't. I'm sure you're having adventures already. Since you love dragging things out for as long as possible, here's the deal with this present. It's the top ten reasons you'll always be my best friend. Look at the tenth reason now, but save the rest. Look at them one at a time, only when you really need them. And write me. Write me, write me, write me.
x's and o's to infinity, Pips
I blinked back tears as I turned to the first page of the photo album.
Why Pippa Reynolds and Sadie Douglas will always be best friends.
Reason 10: We've always been there for each other, even when things were really, really bad.
The first picture was Pips on her second birthday, crying as she spit out her cake, because the thick layer of coconut felt like sandpaper against her tongue and ruined the frosting. I sat beside her stabbing the cake with my fork. Pips hates coconut to this day.
In the next picture, we were seven, side by side on a bench in Disneyland, drooping miserably in Mickey Mouse ears. I'd refused to ride Space Mountain because I was scared to go into the dark. Pips stayed with me while our friends rode.
In the last picture, we stood grinning in ski gear, arms around each other. Dad had snapped this photo just before the ski patrol found him, two years ago, when Mom had collapsed on her way down the mountain. She was still sick.
I put the album on my bedside table, feeling full and empty at the same time. One day, Mom sped around, shuttling us to soccer and tucking me into bed before working an eight-hour night shift at the hospital. The next, she could hardly stand up without collapsing. Mom used to be like an armful of fireworks, blasting into a room. Now she was like my candle's flickering flame. People held their breath to keep from accidentally blowing her out.
The cartwheeling shadows had turned into monsters. Their whispers filled the darkness: Your mom will never get better. No matter what you try, your life is totally out of your control.
"No," I whispered as I blew out the candle. "You're not allowed here, in our new house, in our new life. Go back to the monster world and leave us alone."
I stared, unseeing, at the ceiling, trying to fall asleep, trying to convince myself tomorrow would be better. It would be, if I had anything to do with it. I would chase all the shadows away.
Chapter TwoMoose Tracks
I woke to the smell of freshly ground coffee, scrambled eggs, and maple syrup. Pale pink sunlight spilled into my room. I threw off my covers and hurried to the window seat, impatient to see the yard, which had been too dark to see in the sliver of moonlight last night. Tall pine trees guarded the house, and instead of grass, a carpet of needles covered the ground. Dad wasn't kidding about living in the forest.
I slipped on my fluffy purple slippers to protect my feet from the ice-cold floorboards and headed downstairs. In the kitchen, Dad stood over the stove in a ruffled pink apron. His sandy blonde hair was doing the usual, every-which-way morning thing.
Around him were dishes, pots, pans, scattered papers, and haphazardly piled boxes, "Sugar, spice, and everything nice?" I asked, reading the embroidery on his apron.
Dad grinned. "Couldn't find anything else, and I couldn't bear to open another box."
I gathered and smoothed paper. Once the kitchen table was clear, I found knives, forks, and plates. "Where are the napkins?"
"Only one way to find out." Dad turned off the burners and dished up three plates. "Think of it as a treasure hunt."
"Yeah, right." I decided to go without.
He piled the pancakes higher and higher on each plate.
"Dad! Mom won't eat that much."
"Wilderness air makes everyone hungry." Dad whipped off the apron with a flourish.
"What are you doing today?" I helped Dad carry the plates to the table. Dad had given up his mediation job in Silicon Valley to find a quieter place for us to live. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources — otherwise known as the DNR — had hired him to help the hunters, the residents, and a bear researcher agree on a way to coexist. According to the stories, they couldn't agree on anything. Today was his first day.
"Off to meet Helen Baxter, the scientist researching the bears. She called this morning and invited me to follow bears around the forest with her."
Halfway to the table, I almost dropped the syrup container. "Is that safe?"
"Helen says the biggest danger is being eaten alive by mosquitoes." Dad turned to the doorway and attempted to smooth his hair. "Ahhh. The princess has awoken. Lured by the coffee?"
From the doorway Mom narrowed her eyes at Dad. "Ha, ha."
He handed her a steaming mug. Mom never was a morning person, even before she got sick. It took at least two cups of coffee before she woke up. Contrary to me and Dad, however, Mom looked perfect in the morning, just like every other time of day. It wasn't fair. I inherited Dad's untamable blond curls and freckles, instead of Mom's silky red layers and china-doll face. At least I had Mom's bright green eyes, but sometimes it's hard to be grateful for the little things.
"Let's eat. I'm starving," I said.
We all sat down and dug in.
Dad cut his pancakes into triangle wedges. "After I go to Helen's, I think I'll go over to the DNR to meet my new boss, Meredith Taylor. She's the ranger for this area. I'd like to take the local temperature before next week's meeting." He looked at me. "Any plans for your last day of freedom? Do you want to come?"
I pictured us, crashing through bushes, swatting mosquitoes, sneaking up on a bear. "Ummm ... Maybe I should unpack. You know, before school starts tomorrow." I poured maple syrup onto the exact center of my top pancake until it pooled and spilled over the sides. "Plus I have to write to Pippa and the girls. Then maybe Mom will take me downtown to explore."
I looked at her hopefully, but she still stared into her cup of coffee.
"Well, possibly when she wakes up." Dad elbowed Mom.
She elbowed him back. "We'll see, Sadie."
Already it was a good day. Mom must have slept well last night. Maybe Dad was right. A change of pace, and she'd be better in no time.
I helped clean up breakfast, waved as Dad pulled away in his Jeep, and headed upstairs to unpack.
After a couple hours Mom called, "How's it going, Sadie?"
I went out to the landing, which overlooked the living room with its stone fireplace and thick wooden beams. Mom faced an enormous pile of boxes.
Last night's shadow monsters crept onto my shoulders, crowding my mind with worries. Just settling into our new life would exhaust Mom. I took the stairs two at a time. "Let's go downtown, Mom."
"But there's so much to do here."
"I'm almost finished with my room. I'll help with the rest when we get home." I threw my arms around her. "Come on, please, please, please, please?"
"Oh, all right. Get your coat. It's cold."
The coat was the last thing on my mind. I hurried upstairs, thinking only of my new purple shoes. After stripping out of my dust-streaked clothes, I put on my favorite jeans with the silver-star pattern, and a long-sleeved purple shirt. I soaked my curls and twisted them into two braids, and then I slipped into the shoes. The perfect outfit — Bri would have been proud.
"Sadie!" Mom called.
"Coming!" Still needed a coat. I grabbed my lime-colored ski jacket and shoved my arms into the sleeves.
Mom's car waited for us in the driveway. The moving company had dropped it off when they unloaded our pod, which had been stuffed full of everything that hadn't fit in the Jeep. When we climbed in the car, I noticed Dad had taped an envelope onto the steering wheel.
Mom winked at me. "Mad money."
When I was little, Dad surprised me with mad money tucked under my pillow or into my suitcase. Mad money was strictly for luxuries, never necessities.
On the drive into town, I rolled down the window and let cold air rush through my fingers. Wide-open sky. Clean air tinged with sharp pine. I wanted to spring out of the car — to twirl and shout and dance.
We turned onto Main Street. Rustic wood signs topped the log buildings. Moose Tracks Trading Post. Black Bear Java. A post with wooden arrows pointed toward the library, the Catholic church, and White Pine Academy, my new school.
Mom pulled into a parking spot. When she smiled, the lines around her eyes tightened. "Why don't you take the mad money? I think I'll wait here."
She leaned back against the headrest and closed her eyes. I hated, hated, hated this disease: Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, the doctors diagnosed, after almost a year of tests. Meaning she had exhaustion they couldn't cure — exhaustion that came on like a wave, with no warning, so that Mom sunk deep into herself, hardly able to speak or walk or even smile. We'd given up on treatments, which only raised our hopes and then failed.
Swallowing disappointment, I opened my door. Next time, Mom and I would explore the shops, searching for funny t-shirt slogans. We'd find the best local chocolate delicacy, and choose postcards to send back home.
Chimes rang as I opened Moose Tracks Trading Post's front doors and breathed in the smell of leather and wood smoke. A girl about my age with white-blonde hair pulled up in a messy knot stood by a bulletin board.
"Hey." I walked over, hoping to make a new friend. "That's my dad's meeting." I pointed to the flyer she was reading. "Are you going?"
The girl turned around, looked me up and down, staring especially at my shoes, and said, "Your dad is Matthew Douglas?"
"Yes." I backed away from the coldness in her voice.
She folded her arms. "So you're out to snoop around? We're not interested in being pushed around by a big shot from California."
I forced a small laugh. "I'm not — My dad isn't —"
The girl leaned forward, her voice sharp as broken glass. "Bears are like rats. They dig in our garbage, eat people's pets, and scare little kids. Thanks to that crazy scientist, Helen, we can't shoot a bear that trespasses on our property unless it's hunting season. And now your dad's here to make everything worse."
I stared at the girl's chipped red fingernail polish and tried to picture her very ordinary looking hands, hands that could be Bri's or Alice's, holding a gun or maybe even shooting a bear. Back home, no families I knew owned a gun. I'd never even seen a gun in real life, other than behind glass in a museum.
"Ummm." I took a couple steps back.
"What's up, Frankie?" A tall boy wearing an oversized flannel shirt walked over. "Who's this?"
At least I knew her name now.
"This, Ty, is Matthew Douglas's kid checking up on the locals."
Ty's expression hardened. "Give your dad a message for me. The sooner you and your family head out of town, the better."
A gray-haired man joined us, wiping his hands on his jeans. "What's going on?"
"Nothing," Ty said. "Just passing along a message. Come on, Frankie. Let's go."
I watched them leave, trying to match my idea of kids in Owl Creek with the reality of these two. Their anger clung to my skin and echoed in my ears. How could they hate me and my family, without even knowing us?
"You all right?" the man asked.
"Sure. Fine." I walked to the car on shaky legs.
"You didn't spend the mad money," Mom said.
"Maybe next time." I left my window up on the drive home and watched the afternoon shadows stretch long between the trees.
From: Sadie Douglas
To: Pippa Reynolds
Date: Monday, September 1, 9:12 PM
Subject: Do NOT use soap to get tree sap out of your hair
We unpacked today. Mom had OPINIONS about where to hang pictures. :) This new house is good for her. I've already learned important lessons about living in the forest. Like what to do when a woodpecker drills into your wall. And how to get sap out of your hair. Turns out peanut butter is magic. Ha!
Dad saw four bears in the forest today with Helen, the bear scientist. The mother, Patch, didn't like how close Dad was and stomped her paws and huff ed at him as her cubs climbed up a tree. He tried to act like he wasn't afraid, but he must have been. He says I can see a bear tomorrow if I want to. Do I want to?
Tell the girls I love my gifts. I'll write them soon. I love, love, love my album and promise not to look at the next page until I really need to.
Excerpted from Shades of Truth by Naomi Kinsman Downing Copyright © 2011 by Naomi Kinsman Downing. Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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