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Die Before Nightfall
By Shirlee McCoy
Steeple HillCopyright © 2005 Shirlee McCoy
All right reserved.
She'd never hung wash out to dry, but that wouldn't keep her from trying. Raven Stevenson eyed the basket of sopping white sheets and the small bucket of clothespins sitting at her feet.
How hard could it be?
Five minutes later she'd managed to trample one sheet into the mud. The other two were hanging, lopsided and drooping, from the line.
"It could be worse, I suppose."
"Could be better, too." A pie in one hand, a grocery bag in the other, Nora Freedman came around the side of the house, her eyes lined with laughter. "Never had to dry laundry the old-fashioned way, I see."
"I'm afraid not. Hopefully it won't take me long to get better at it."
"It won't. And I give you credit for even trying. You wouldn't believe how many renters have turned down this property just because I don't have a clothes dryer."
"Their loss. My gain."
Nora beamed at the words, her deep brown eyes glowing with pleasure. "I knew the minute I saw you, you were the person for this place. I've been praying about it, mind you. So it didn't surprise me when Glenda called and said she might have a renter. Here, I've brought you a welcome gift. Pecan pie and some things to stock your cupboards."
"You didn't have to —"
"Of course I didn't. I wanted to. I'll leave everything in the kitchen. Gotta scoot. Prayer meeting in a half hour. Call me if you need something."
"I will. Thank you."
"See you at church Sunday? You did say you planned to attend Grace Christian?"
The nerves that Raven had held at bay for a week clawed at her stomach. "Yes. I'll see you then."
"I knew it. Just knew this would work out." Then Nora was gone as quickly as she'd come, her squat, square figure disappearing around the corner of the house.
In the wake of her departure, the morning silence seemed almost deafening. Humming a tune to block out the emptiness, Raven bent to lift the dirty sheet and caught sight of a strange print in the barren, muddy earth. A footprint — each toe clearly defined, the arch and heel obvious. Small, but not a child's foot. Someone had walked barefoot through the yard, despite the lingering winter chill from the damp spring morning.
Who? Why? Raven searched for another print and found one at the edge of the lawn. From there, a narrow footpath meandered through sparse trees, the prints obvious on earth still wet from last night's rain. She followed the path until it widened and Smith Mountain Lake appeared, vast and blue, the water barely rippling. There, on a rickety dock that jutted toward the center of the lake, was her quarry — white hair, white skin, a bathing suit covering a thin back.
Raven hurried forward. "Are you all right?"
"Thea?" The woman turned, wispy hair settling in a cloud around a face lined with age. "I've been waiting forever. Didn't we agree to meet at ten?"
Ten? It was past noon. Two hours was a long time to sit half clad in a chilly breeze. Raven's concern grew, the nurse in her cataloguing what she saw: pale skin, goose bumps, a slight tremor. "Actually, I'm Raven. I live in the cottage up the hill."
"Not Thea's cottage? She didn't tell me she had guests."
"She probably forgot. Were you planning a swim?"
"Thea and I always swim at this time of year. Though usually it's not quite so cold."
"It is chilly today. Here, put this on." Raven slid out of her jacket and placed it around the woman's shoulders.
"Do I know you?"
"No, we haven't met. I'm Raven Stevenson."
"I'm Abigail Montgomery. Abby to my friends."
"It's nice to meet you, Abby. Would you like to join me for tea? I've got a wonderful chamomile up at the house." Raven held out her hand and was relieved when Abby allowed herself to be pulled to her feet.
"Chamomile? It's been years since I had that."
"Then let's go." Raven linked her arm through Abby's and led her toward the footpath, grimacing as she caught sight of her companion's feet. Torn and dirty, they looked painful and swollen. Another walk through the brambles would only make things worse. "It looks like you've forgotten your shoes."
Abby glanced down at her feet, confusion drawing her brows together. Then she looked at Raven, and behind her eyes past gave way to present. Raven had seen it many times, knew the moment Abby realized what had happened. She waited a beat, watching as the frail, vague woman transformed into someone else, stronger and much more aware.
"I've done it again, haven't I." The words were firm but Abby's eyes betrayed her fear.
"Nothing so bad. Just a walk to the lake."
"Dressed in a bathing suit? In..." Her voice trailed off, confusion marring her face once again.
"It'sApril.A lovely day, but a bit too cold for a swim."
"What was I thinking?" Frustration and despair laced the words.
"You were thinking about summer. Perhaps a summer long ago."
"Do I know you?"
"My name is Raven. I live up the hill at the Freedman cottage."
"Raven. A blackbird. Common. You're more the exotic type, I'd think, with that wild hair and flowing dress."
Raven laughed in agreement. "I've been fighting my name my entire life. You're the first to notice."
"Am I? Then I guess I'm not as far gone as I'd thought." Despite the brave words, the tears behind Abby's eyes were obvious, the slight trembling of her jaw giving away her emotions.
Raven let her have the moment, watched as she took a deep shuddering breath and glanced down at her bathing suit.
"I suppose it could be worse. At least I wore clothes this time. Now, tell me, where are we headed?"
"To the cottage for tea."
"Let's go, then."
"Here, slip my shoes on first."
"Oh, I couldn't. What about you?"
"I've got tough skin." Raven slid her feet out of openheeled sneakers and knelt to help Abby put them on.
"They're a bit big, but we'll have your own for you in no time at all."
They made their way up the steep incline, Raven's hand steady against Abby's arm. It hurt to know that the woman beside her was being consumed by a disease that would steal her vitality and leave nothing behind but an empty shell. Why? It was a question she asked often in her job as a geriatric nurse. There was no answer. At least none that she could find, no matter how hard she prayed for understanding.
Excerpted from Die Before Nightfall by Shirlee McCoy Copyright © 2005 by Shirlee McCoy. Excerpted by permission.
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