CHAPTER ONEEsma Hale dropped two bags of her special blend into the teapot and put the lid back on,imagining the water swirling with streaks of red-brown until the color became uniform. She addedmilk to her china cup, waiting patiently after that, because a good pot of tea was always worth thetime it took to prepare it.Two cookies on a side plate, and everything was ready for her precious daily ritual, theceremony that announced to all dissenting voices that civilization was not yet dead. With as muchdignity as eighty-five years of living in the same body would allow her, she sat down and pouredfor herself. Sipping, she stared out the window across the fields, now barren except for the brownfragments of stubble that stood out like the surviving tufts of hair on a bald man. She relished theflatness of this rich river delta full of farms and surrounded by the mountains of the Coast Rangeand the Cascades. Cold today. Maybe snow by nightfall.Carefully, she sipped from her cup, pleased that the temperature of the tea was just right.Her kitchen was looking fine now that Walter had painted the cabinets - beige with yellow trim -and Alice had added a border of small blue flowers. She suspected the new decor was the reasonwhy her tea time gave her such pleasure today. Eating her cookies, she hurried slightly, knowingthat Alice would be calling at 4:15, more of a bother than a help really.Esma knew she was old, but not aged, not doddering. Her mind was sound, and her body,despite not being twenty anymore, seemed to work just fine. Why did everyone assume...She paused in mid-thought as a few snowflakes began falling outside."I knew it was too cold for rain," she murmured.