It will all be over soon.
Julia Cates had lost count of the times she'd told herself that very thing, but today--finally--it would be true. In a few hours the world would know the truth about her.
If she made it downtown, that was. Unfortunately, the Pacific Coast Highway looked more like a parking lot than a freeway. The hills behind Malibu were on fire again; smoke hung above the rooftops and turned the normally bright coastal air into a thick brown sludge. All over town terrified babies woke in the middle of the night, crying gray-black tears and gasping for breath. Even the surf seemed to have slowed down, as if exhausted by the unseasonable heat.
She maneuvered through the cranky, stop-and-go traffic, ignoring the drivers who flipped her off and cut in front of her. It was expected; in this most dangerous of seasons in Southern California, tempers caught fire as easily as backyards. The heat made everyone edgy.
Finally, she exited the freeway and drove to the courthouse.
Television vans were everywhere. Dozens of reporters huddled on the courthouse steps, microphones and cameras at the ready, waiting for the story to arrive. In Los Angeles it was becoming a daily event, it seemed; legal proceedings as entertainment. Michael Jackson. Courtney Love. Robert Blake.
Julia turned a corner and drove to a side entrance, where her lawyers were waiting for her.
She parked on the street and got out of the car, expecting to move forward confidently, but for a terrible second she couldn't move. You're innocent, she reminded herself. They'll see that. The system will work. She forced herself to take a step, then another. It felt as if she were moving through invisible wires, fighting her way uphill. When she made it to the group, it took everything she had to smile, but one thing she knew: it looked real. Every psychiatrist knew how to make a smile look genuine.
"Hello, Dr. Cates," said Frank Williams, the lead counsel on her defense team. "How are you?"
"Let's go," she said, wondering if she was the only one who heard the wobble in her voice. She hated that evidence of her fear. Today, of all days, she needed to be strong, to show the world that she was the doctor they'd thought she was, that she'd done nothing wrong.
The team coiled protectively around her. She appreciated their support. Although she was doing her best to appear professional and confident, it was a fragile veneer. One wrong word could strip it all away.
They pushed through the doors and walked into the courthouse.
Flashbulbs erupted in spasms of blue-white light. Cameras clicked; tape rolled. Reporters surged forward, all yelling at once.
"Dr. Cates! How do you feel about what happened?"
"Why didn't you save those children?"
"Did you know about the gun?"
Frank put an arm around Julia and pulled her against his side. She pressed her face against his lapel and let herself be pulled along.
In the courtroom, she took her place at the defendant's table. One by one the team rallied around her. Behind her, in the first row of gallery seating, several junior associates and paralegals took their places.
She tried to ignore the racket behind her; the doors creaking open and slamming shut, footsteps hurrying across the marble tiled floor, whispered voices. Empty seats were filling up quickly; she knew it without turning around. This courtroom was the Place to Be in Los Angeles today, and since the judge had disallowed cameras in the courtroom, journalists and artists were no doubt packed side by side in the gallery, their pens ready.
In the past year, they'd written an endless string of stories about her. Photographers had snapped thousands of pictures of her--taking out the trash, standing on her deck, coming and going from her office. The least flattering shots always made the front page.
Reporters had practically set up camp outside her condo, and although she had never spoken to them, it didn't matter. The stories kept coming. They reported on her small-town roots, her stellar education, her pricey beachfront condo, her devastating breakup with Philip. They even speculated that she'd recently become either anorexic or addicted to liposuction. What they didn't report on was the only part of her that mattered: her love of her job. She had been a lonely, awkward child, and she remembered every nuance of that pain. Her own youth had made her an exceptional psychiatrist.
Of course, that bit of truth had never made it to press. Neither had a list of all the children and adolescents she'd helped.
A hush fell over the courtroom as Judge Carol Myerson took her seat at the bench. She was a stern-looking woman with artificially bright auburn hair and old-fashioned eyeglasses.
The bailiff called out the case.
Julia wished suddenly that she had asked someone to join her here today, some friend or relative who would stand by her, maybe hold her hand when it was over, but she'd always put work ahead of socializing. It hadn't given her much time to devote to friends. Her own therapist had often pointed out this lack in her life; truthfully, until now, she'd never agreed with him.
Beside her, Frank stood. He was an imposing man, tall and almost elegantly thin, with hair that was going from black to gray in perfect order, sideburns first. She'd chosen him because of his brilliant mind, but his demeanor was likely to matter more. Too often in rooms like this it came down to form over substance.
"Your Honor," he began in a voice as soft and persuasive as any she'd ever heard, "the naming of Dr. Julia Cates as a defendant in this lawsuit is absurd. Although the precise limits and boundaries of confidentiality in psychiatric situations are often disputed, certain precedents exist, namely Tarasoff v. Regents of University of California. Dr. Cates had no knowledge of her patient's violent tendencies and no information regarding specific threats to named individuals. Indeed, no such specific knowledge is even alleged in the complaint. Thus, we respectfully request that she be dismissed from this lawsuit. Thank you." He sat down.
At the plaintiff's table, a man in a jet-black suit stood up. "Four children are dead, Your Honor. They will never grow up, never leave for college, never have children of their own. Dr. Cates was Amber Zuniga's psychiatrist. For three years Dr. Cates spent two hours a week with Amber, listening to her problems and prescribing medications for her growing depression. Yet with all that intimacy, we are now to believe that Dr. Cates didn't know that Amber was becoming increasingly violent and depressed. That she had no warning whatsoever that her patient would buy an automatic weapon and walk into her church youth group meeting and start shooting." The lawyer walked out from behind the table and stood in the middle of the courtroom.
Slowly, he turned to face Julia. It was the money shot; the one that would be drawn by every artist in the courtroom and shown around the world, "She is the expert, Your Honor. She should have foreseen this tragedy and prevented it by warning the victims or committing Ms. Zuniga for residential treatment. If she didn't in fact know of Ms. Zuniga's violent tendencies, she should have. Thus, we respectfully seek to keep Dr. Cates as a named defendant in this case. It is a matter of justice. The slain children's families deserve redress from the person most likely to have foreseen and prevented the murder of their children." He went back to the table and took his seat.
"It isn't true," Julia whispered, knowing her voice couldn't be heard. Still, she had to say it out loud. Amber had never even hinted at violence. Every teenager battling depression said they hated the kids in their school. That was light-years away from buying a gun and opening fire.
Why couldn't they all see that?
Judge Myerson read over the paperwork in front of her. Then she took off her reading glasses and set them down on the hard wooden surface of her bench.
The courtroom fell into silence. Julia knew that the journalists were ready to write instantly. Outside, there were more of them standing by, ready to run with two stories. Both headlines were already written. All they needed was a sign from their colleagues inside.
The children's parents, huddled in the back rows in a mournful group, were waiting to be assured that this tragedy could have been averted, that someone in a position of authority could have kept their children alive. They had sued everyone for wrongful death--the police, the paramedics, the drug manufacturers, the medical doctors, and the Zuniga family. The modern world no longer believed in senseless tragedy. Bad things couldn't just happen to people; someone had to pay. The victims' families hoped that this lawsuit would be the answer, but Julia knew it would only give them something else to think about for a while, perhaps distribute some of their pain. It wouldn't alleviate it, though. The grief would outlive them all.
The judge looked at the parents first. "There is no doubt that what happened on February nineteenth at the Baptist church in Silverwood was a terrible tragedy. As a parent myself, I cannot fathom the world in which you have lived for the past months. However, the question before this court is whether Dr. Cates should remain a defendant in this case." She folded her hands on the desk. "I am persuaded that as a matter of law, Dr. Cates had no duty to warn or otherwise protect the victims in this set of circumstances. I reach this conclusion for several reasons. First, the facts do not assert and the plaintiffs do not allege that Dr. Cates had any specific knowledge of identifiable potential victims; second, the law does not impose a duty to warn except to clearly identifiable victims; and finally, as a matter of public policy, we must maintain the confidentiality of the psychiatrist-patient relationship unless there is a specific, identifiable threat which warrants the undermining of that confidentiality. Dr. Cates, by her testimony and her records and pursuant to the plaintiffs' own assertions, did not have a duty to warn or otherwise protect the victims in this case. Thus, I am dismissing her from the complaint, without prejudice."
The gallery went crazy. Before she knew it, Julia was on her feet and enfolded in congratulatory hugs by her defense team. Behind her, she could hear the journalists running for the doors and down the marble hallway. "She's out!" someone yelled.
Julia felt a wave of relief. Thank God.
Then she heard the children's parents crying behind her.
"How can this be happening?" one of them said loudly. "She should have known."
Frank touched her arm. "You should be smiling. We won."
She shot a quick glance at the parents, then looked away. Her thoughts trailed off into the dark woods of regret. Were they right? Should she have known?
"It wasn't your fault, and it's time you told people that. This is your opportunity to speak up, to--"
A crowd of reporters swarmed them.
"Dr. Cates! What do you have to say to the parents who hold you responsible--"
"Will other parents trust you with their children--"
"Can you comment on the report that the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office has taken your name off the roster of forensic psychiatrists?"
Frank stepped into the fray, reaching back for Julia's hand. "My client was just released from the lawsuit--"
"On a technicality," someone yelled.
While they were focused on Frank, Julia slipped to the back of the crowd and ran for the door. She knew Frank wanted her to make a statement, but she didn't care. She didn't feel triumphant. All she wanted was to be away from all this . . . to get back to real life.
The Zunigas were standing in front of the door, blocking her path. They were paler versions of the couple she'd once known. Grief had stripped them of color and aged them.
Mrs. Zuniga looked up at her through tears.
"She loved both of you," Julia said softly, knowing it wasn't enough. "And you were good parents. Don't let anyone convince you otherwise. Amber was ill. I wish--"
"Don't," Mr. Zuniga said. "Wishing hurts most of all." He put an arm around his wife and drew her close to him.
Silence fell between them. Julia tried to think of more to say, but all that was left was I'm sorry, which she'd said too many times to count, and "Good-bye." Holding her purse close, she eased around them, then left the courthouse.
Outside, the world was brown and bleak. A thick layer of smoke darkened the sky, obliterating the sun, matching her mood.
She got into her car and drove away. As she merged into traffic, she wondered if Frank had even noticed her absence. To him it was a game, albeit with the biggest stakes, and as the day's winner, he would be flying high. He would think about the victims and their families, probably tonight in his den, after a few Dewar's over ice. He would think about her, too, perhaps wonder what would become of a psychiatrist who'd so profoundly compromised her reputation with failure, but he wouldn't think about them all for long. He didn't dare.
She was going to have to put it behind her now, too. Tonight she'd lay in her lonely bed, listening to the surf, thinking how much it sounded like the beat of her heart, and she'd try again to get beyond her grief and guilt. She had to figure out what clue she'd missed, what sign she'd overlooked. It would hurt--remembering--but in the end she'd be a better therapist for all this pain. And then, at seven o'clock in the morning, she'd get dressed and go back to work.
That was how she'd get through this.
Girl crouches at the edge of the cave, watching water fall from the sky. She wants to reach for one of the empty cans around her, maybe lick the insides again, but she has done this too many times already. The food is gone. It has been gone for more moons than she knows how to keep track of. Behind her the wolves are restless, hungry.
The sky grumbles and roars. The trees shake with fear, and still the water drips down.
She falls asleep.
She wakes suddenly and looks around, sniffing the air. There is a strange scent in the darkness. It should frighten her, send her back into the deep, black hole, but she can't quite move. Her stomach is so tight and empty it hurts.
The falling water isn't so angry now; it is more of a spitting. She wishes she could see the sun.