Paige Williams harbored a restless kinship with the living dead.
Sleep, that nurturing, blessed state of subconsciousness, eluded her again this night. Almost 2:00 a.m., and rather than slumbering bliss, old memories nibbled at her like raggedtoothed wraiths.
With a defeated sigh she rose from bed.
Wrapped in a large towel, she moved through the darkened house, bare feet faintly scuffing across worn wood floors. Out of her room and down a short hall, passing the second bedroom — barren and needing to be filled — and the one bathroom, into the small kitchen.
She unlocked the sliding glass door. Stepped outside onto the back deck. The grating rhythm of cicadas rose to greet her. Scents from the woods — an almost sweet earthiness — wafted on a slight breeze.
The dry Idaho air was still warm.
A large hot tub sunk into the left corner of the deck was her destination — a soothing womb of heat to coddle and comfort.
There, looking out over the forested hills and Kanner Lake, Paige could feel sheltered from the world. The closest neighbor on either side was a good quarter mile away.
But first, captivated by the night, she padded to the edge of the deck’s top step and gazed up at the heavens.
A slivered moon hung askew, feeble and worn. Ice chip stars flung themselves in all directions. The Big Dipper tipped backward, pouring into Kanner Lake, which seemed to brood under the spangled sky. Across the sullen waters a few downtown lights resolutely twinkled.
Intense yearning welled so suddenly within Paige that she nearly staggered in its presence. She clutched the towel tighter around her body, swaddling herself. The universe was so vast, the world so small. A mere speck of dust, Earth churned and groaned in the spheres of infinity. Upon that speck, mothers and fathers, children and friends laughed and cried and celebrated one another. No bigger than dust mites they were, compared with the vastness of space. Their lives, their loves — insignificant.
So why did she long to be one of them?
Paige stared at the downtown lights across the water. In eight hours she would return there, among the families and the lovers. Surrounded by people who belonged. Separated from them by a mere two feet of counter space . . . and a chasm. Behind the Simple Pleasures counter on Main Street, she would sell gift items and pretty home accessories to tourists and local residents. Parents with tagging children, couples, and friends.
Sometimes from the corner of her eye she would watch them shopping, especially the young women. Pointing out an oil lamp candle to a girlfriend, exclaiming together over a glitz-studded handbag. And something inside her would swell and ache like bruised skin. God knew she wanted a friend like that more than anything else in the world, someone as close as a sister —
Stop it, Paige.
She lowered her chin and gazed at her feet. Slowly she turned away from the lake and town.
God, if You’re up there, send me friends. Send me a sister — someone lonely, someone with a childhood as miserable as mine.
Her daily prayer. The one she’d brought with her to Kanner Lake. The one that had kept her going ever since she fled the Williams family hometown in Kansas.
Not that she deserved an answer.
As she edged across the deck, Paige consoled herself that all would be well. She might be parentless and alone, but wouldn’t people expect a twenty-five-year-old to be capable of making friends? She’d settled in Kanner Lake only a month ago. She would make a life here, build her own family to love —
Your sister is coming very soon.
The stunning thought filled Paige’s mind as forcefully as if the words had been shouted. Paige blinked, drew to a halt. For a moment she couldn’t move. Could only tilt her head, listening. She must have imagined it.
But no. The knowledge bloomed within her all the more, as captivating as a vibrant flower in the desert. Her new friend, her sister, would soon enter her life. How Paige knew this, she couldn’t begin to fathom. Where had such a strong premonition come from? Was it God’s voice she’d heard?
She drew a hand across her forehead, anticipation mixing with perplexity. Whatever it was — God, fate, or some other force in the universe — she shouldn’t question it. What if the power took back its promise as quickly as it had been sent?
Paige shivered in the warm night. She crossed to the hot tub, seeking its heat, her mind still singing with The Promise. What would her sister-friend be like? Had she grown up in Kanner Lake, or would she too be a newcomer? What kind of childhood had she experienced? What had happened in her life at age seven? Ten? In her teenage years? All these experiences — and the girl’s secrets — Paige would soon share. They would encourage each other, do things together.
She would protect this “sister” with her life.
Paige reached the sunken hot tub, which protruded from the deck about one foot. A heavy vinyl cover, divided down the middle, rested over the tub, protecting its heat. Letting her towel fall, Paige leaned down and used both hands to fold back the cover, revealing half the water. No need to take the cover all the way off. It was heavy, and the tub was large enough that even half of it provided her with plenty room to relax. Inviting steam rose into her face. She would not turn on the jets — she never did. She wanted quiet solace, not roiling waters, as she thought about The Promise.
Paige held on to the smooth side and stepped into the tub. At that end a “couch” seat, formed like a recliner, ran its length. There she lay back, sinking up to her neck in the hot water and pillowing her head against the black vinyl headrest. She closed her eyes. Stretched out her legs and floated her arms in the warmth, her mind still filled with the prophetic words.
Her thigh tickled. Paige flicked her fingers over the spot.
Amid her new hope, persistent ghosts of old memories materialized. Whispering of her days in despair, nights on the run. Even if you do find a sister, Paige, she too will be taken away.
No. Not this time. Paige gazed with rising determination at the silver-studded sky. She would cling to The Promise with every fiber of her being —
Something sinuous brushed against Paige’s knee. She jerked her leg away.
What was that?
She rose to a sitting position, groped around with her left hand.
Fine wisps wound themselves around her fingers.
She yanked backward, but the tendrils clung. Something solid bumped her wrist.
Paige gasped. With one frantic motion she shook her arm free, grabbed the side of the hot tub, and heaved herself out.
Her body hit the deck with a wet thud. She rolled, whipped around to face the tub. Her eyes stabbed the black water. What was in there?
Paige pushed to her knees and cautiously leaned toward the hot tub.
A head surfaced.