Charlie and his son had been away from home for a full three days when he finally decided it was time to head back. It was clear that Jack and Harold knew they were being pursued and weren’t about to be caught. And between Jack’s military training and Harold’s stubbornness, tracking them down in the woods was an unlikely scenario. Besides, he and his son were tired and more than ready to sleep in their own beds. And who knew? Maybe Harold and Jack had returned to the center of their own accord. Charlie could hope. But even that sliver of hope was tainted by his own bitter doubt.
Since there was no point in continuing to trek across the mountain routes to make their way home, Charlie and Daniel were able to enjoy the more leisurely walk along the dirt road leading from the Township of Clive to their cabin near the lake.
Charlie thought back to when Naomi and he had first chosen that plot of land and begun construction on the cabin. It hadn’t been easy at first, living in an area so secluded from civilization. Back in the Old World, they’d lived at the end of a cul-de-sac in a suburban area outside Seattle. In those days, that was just about as secluded as you could get. Their town had a population of 68,000, two strip malls each with their own cineplex, a handful of public schools, a community college, and even a private airstrip, all spread out over twenty-six square miles, and was still considered ‘small’ by pre-Armageddon standards.
It had been hard to leave the suburbs after the Great Day, and that reluctance had surprised him. After all, Witnesses had been daydreaming about paradise life for ages: large houses on huge open plains with nothing but natural scenery as far as the eye could see. But it had taken decades to make the adjustment. There was so much that needed to be learned, especially before the brothers found a way to produce their own clean energy. Clothes had to be hand washed, candles had to be made (once the batteries ran out), shoes and accessories had to be mended, altered, and later manufactured. And the farther you lived from civilization, the more difficult previously simple tasks became.
Charlie and Naomi had moved to the lake when Clive had still been a cozy settlement on the river. Now, of course, things had developed drastically, and Clive had its own post office, library, and sprawling bazaar. The last summer had even seen the arrival of the town’s very own brewery and tavern, and an amphitheater for plays and music concerts was on its way. It was a good time to be a resident of Clive. If only Harold and Jack had taken the time to realize that, too, Charlie thought wistfully.
“How’s lunch sound?” Charlie asked, checking his watch. They’d been walking for three hours and it was nearly noon.
“Sounds okay,” Daniel said from over his shoulder. Charlie noted the tiredness in his son’s voice. His disappointment at the result of their three day adventure was almost palpable. He realized that Daniel had seldom faced failure in the past, and those times had been little more than mere opportunities for improvement. Lessons learned. But this was different. This failure would bring grave consequences.
In their heads, they’d both been through the myriad of decisions made and things said and situations handled between themselves and their guests, and though they doubted their calls had been perfect, it wasn’t yet evident what could’ve been improved upon.
Charlie slipped out of his backpack and rolled it over in the grass, removing a canteen and a sack of fruit and fresh cheese and bread. He set the items on a small cloth towel in a shady spot under an evergreen and took a seat next to his son. They said a prayer together before eating. Like the others that had been said since Jack and Harold’s disappearance, Charlie begged for guidance and wisdom and pleaded on behalf of the unrighteous men’s lives.
When Charlie finished, his voice was trembling and neither him nor Daniel felt much like eating. They sat quietly for a few moments as a trio of cardinals swooped onto the path next to them, eyeing the loaf of bread mischievously.
“Well, at least we’ll get to see your mom and sister soon. I sure miss them,” Charlie said, ripping a few crumbs from the loaf and tossing it to the birds.
“Yeah, I guess so. I wonder how Adrina and Liping are doing?” Daniel said.
“One can only hope.”
“Yeah. I wonder what it is that makes it easier for females to accept the truth?” Daniel said, grabbing an apple and turning it in his hands before taking a bite.
“What makes you think its easier for them?”
“Something mom once told me. Back in the Old World, didn’t the sisters always outnumber the brothers? Weren’t most Bible students also females, and didn’t the organization always have a need for qualified brothers?”
“Well yes, I suppose that is true,” Charlie said, thinking back to his previous congregations. The women had indeed been a large army.
“So it must be in some way related to gender. Accepting the truth, that is. Even here, with this first wave of resurrected, as far as I know the girls were making some progress when we left, whereas the guys... Well, who knows where they are...”
“Well, men and women are different creatures. Even in the beginning, they were made with complimentary traits and tendencies. Women are naturally more feeling, more emotional. Perhaps that makes them more in tune with their spiritual need. On the other hand, it might be a pride issue. In the Old World, many men had a problem accepting the idea of God because it made them feel inferior to something. Maybe they felt threatened or belittled. Women are probably less inclined to feel that way.”
“You think that’s why Harold and Jack ran away? Maybe they felt threatened?” Daniel said.
“I suppose it’s possible. At least at an intellectual level, I believe Harold did feel that way. His previous life and career were at complete odds with any sort of religious thinking. I think he’s been on the defensive since day one.”
“And Jack?” Daniel pressed.
“What do you think, son? You spent more time with him.”
“I just don’t know. I’ve gone over that question again and again, and I just don’t understand why he’d leave. And especially with Harold. I mean, they’d been at each other’s throats just days before suddenly teaming up and running off. It just doesn’t make sense. I have such a difficult time understanding their actions.” Daniel’s elbows were on his knees and his fists were clenched at his temples.
“Well, that’s to be expected, Daniel. Even I have a hard time understanding them, and I lived in their world for decades. But this place, this society, this New World had changed us so much. There is a huge gap between us and them. And we have to do our best to bridge that gap.”
Charlie broke off another piece of bread and jammed it into his mouth. Daniel watched him intently as if to say, So what do we do now?
Having awoken their appetites, the father and son finished the last of the simple meal and washed it down with a small bottle of wine that had been given to them by a friend in Clive. Charlie threw the remaining crumbs to the birds, who happily danced and chirped to the sudden shower of food.
As they packed up their things and prepared to finish the last leg of the journey home, they froze in their tracks. Coming down the hill in a horse-drawn carriage were three familiar faces. The driver was an old friend from town they’d known for over thirty years. He grinned and waved with one hand while the other gripped the reins. His wife sat in the carriage bench, and beside her sat a face they’d never expected.
Jack and Harold laid behind a fallen cedar, poking their heads up to get a clear view of the kid sneaking through the high ferns. Hyde was gutsy, they had to give him that. He stepped cautiously through the campsite, carefully avoiding dried leaves and fallen twigs, anything that might make a noise. Spread in a semi-circle around a smoldering campfire were four occupied sleeping bags. Hyde moved around them, approaching a nearby picnic table where cans of non-perishables, bottled beverages, and several water canisters could be seen. Hyde kept his eyes on the sleeping campers as he moved.
“Seems like he’s done this before,” Jack muttered.
Harold grunted in agreement, then added, “Wish they had something other than that canned stuff, though. I could go for a decent meal.”
Jack considered mentioning the Lewis’s cabin and the hot meal they could’ve enjoyed if they’d returned as he’d suggested. Their current predicament had been brought about solely by the stubbornness of Hyde and Harold. Jack let it pass. “Yeah, that would be nice,” he said simply.
Forty yards in front of them, Hyde scooped the items from the picnic table and placed them one at a time into his backpack. When one of the campers turned over suddenly, Hyde froze but gave no sign of flight. The man continued to sleep. Hyde turned back to his companions and signaled with a thumbs up. Jack was mildly impressed. Moments later Hyde had returned to Jack and Harold’s concealed spot at the edge of the camp.
“Piece of cake,” he said with a shrug. “Done it a million times. They’ve never spotted me.”
Keep up that cocky attitude and they will soon enough, Jack thought.
The team silently retraced their steps back to the creek crossing and headed back into the woods, off the beaten path and straight for the cave.
The stolen supplies didn’t last long. After a mere fifteen minutes of prying open cans and gulping down their contents, only a few items remained, including a half jug of drinking water. Hyde threw the emptied cans at the back cave wall where they clanged against the stone and dropped into a strewn mess of assorted garbage. Harold winced disgustedly as he noticed a small cloud of flies swarming above it. Jack saw it too.
“We should find a way to clean up that trash,” Jack suggested.
“Ok, mom,” Hyde said.
“I’m not kidding, Hyde,” Jack insisted. “Food garbage will attract wild animals. The last thing we need is a snooping bear traipsing in here while we’re asleep.”
“Not to mention the hygienic aspect,” Harold chimed in.
Hyde shrugged. “Been here two weeks, without any issues. I don’t think there are bears out here.” Hyde wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve and laid back on one elbow.
“Just because you don’t see them doesn’t mean they aren’t here. And bears aren’t my only concern. This area could be home to wolves and mountain lions, and we’re not armed. If one of them decides to attack we’ll be in trouble.” Jack spooned the remaining droplets from a can of beans into his mouth.
“Speak for yourself. I’ve got my knife,” Hyde said, swiping it from his belt and flicking the blade out for them to admire. Harold and Jack looked at him with blank, unimpressed stares. “Look,” Hyde went on, “just because I’m the youngest doesn’t mean I can’t hold my own in a fight or take care of myself. I was doing just fine until you two came along. I mean, the professor here was the one that ended up in my trap, didn’t he?” Hyde wore a smug look.
“Just because you can build a trap doesn’t mean you’re ready to take on a wild animal.”
“Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. But at least I know how to survive out here. Where did the professor say he was from, England? I doubt he could survive a day out here on his own.”
Jack wasn’t about to argue the point, but Harold shrugged. “Ok, I may not be the hunter-gatherer type. Fine. But I do have some life experience.”
“Life experience. Good one. See if that life experience can help you build a shelter in the wild or hunt a deer. Life experience means squat in a place like this. And let’s not forget that the only reason you two aren’t starving to death right now is because of me,” Hyde said as he pointed the tip of his folding knife at the two of them.
Jack sighed. “Look, Hyde, you can drop the Rambo act. We appreciate the food and the shelter. You did that. Thanks. But this isn’t sustainable. Ignoring for a moment the garbage piled next to where you sleep, you can’t possibly expect to be holed up here forever.”
“You say you’ve been raiding campsites around here, right?”
“Yeah. And I’ve never been caught. Not even seen.”
“And where do you suppose they think all their stuff is disappearing to?”
Hyde shrugged, “What they think isn’t my problem.”
“Sure it is. Because eventually they’ll figure out what’s happening, assuming that they haven’t already. And when they do, it’s just a matter of time before they’ll track you down. I mean, I spotted this cave in the rain and I wasn’t even looking for it.”
“How did you find it?” Harold asked.
“The smoke from the fire. You can see it from a good distance.”
Hyde glanced over to the fire pit and pouted slightly.
“It’s just a matter of time, Hyde. Eventually someone or something is going to stumble on this little hideout of yours. You’ve gotta have a plan. What’s your next move? Have you even thought about it?”
Hyde avoided Jack’s stare and scowled. “Not really.”
“Well, how much of these woods have you scouted out? Have you been into the town in the valley?”
“I’ve watched from a distance. Never went in. Figured they had wanted posters up for me or something.”
“I doubt it,” Jack said. “I didn’t see anything. Plus, the people seem pretty laid back, not at all wary of strangers.”
“Well, I don’t think you can possibly know that by spending an hour in a market,” Harold muttered.
“Maybe not, but I’ve got a good sense for this kind of thing. I stayed in dozens of towns in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, and I know what it feels like to be watched and distrusted. I didn’t get any vibes like that there.”
“Other than the town and the campsites, have you spotted anything else around here of interest?” Harold asked Hyde.
“There are a few compounds in the woods where people live,” Hyde said.
“Compounds? You mean, like prisons?” Harold asked.
“Well, no, not exactly. They’re just little groups of houses where people live together, like a little commune. The biggest one has about five or six houses. Some have stables with horses and most grow their own crops,” Hyde explained. Jack noted how he’d perked up when asked for his input. Clearly, his brother was encouraged by the fact that the others were beginning to take him seriously.
“Have you ever entered a compound to take a look around?” Harold asked.
“Nah, I figured it was too dangerous. They might have weapons, and like I said, they might be looking for me. Campsites are much safer.”
“Anything else?” Jack asked. He was leaning against the wall of the cave with his arms crossed, studying his little big brother. He was seeing many things for the first time, things that his younger eyes had missed in times past. He was insecure, defensive, and scared. Jack could see desperation.
“There is one more interesting place, but it’s on the other side of the mountain and it takes most of the day to hike there. I overheard Trey and Margaret talking about it–those were the people whose cabin I first woke up in–and decided to check it out for myself.”
“What kind of a place?” Harold asked, intrigued.
“It’s an airport,” Hyde said.
“An airport? With, like, a terminal and planes coming and going?” Jack asked. He found it hard to believe. His ears had been trained to pick up sounds and movement overhead. During the war, spotting an approaching plane or chopper before it spotted you often meant the difference between life and death. But so far he’d heard nothing of the sort.
“Well, I guess more of an airstrip. The planes are small, and they don’t look like anything I’ve seen before. The wings are really long and have a strange shape to them, and they’re completely black. Weird, huh?”
Military planes? Jack wondered. If that was true, it’d be the first signs that all was not well in utopia. Maybe Harold had been on to something after all. “What’s the security there like?” Jack asked.
“Didn’t really get too close, but it doesn’t seem like there were a lot of people there. Didn’t see any guards or anything either. In fact, there wasn’t even a fence around the place. Kinda seems like you could just walk right in.”
“Well that’s strange,” Jack said, rubbing the stubble on his face. “Anything else?”
Hyde tilted his head and did his best to recall things. “Oh, the planes are really quiet. I watched for awhile and saw one come and go, and they barely make any sound, other than the wheels against the ground.”
“Did you take a look at the engines? Are they jets or props?” Jack asked.
Hyde stared back blankly. Jack explained, “On faster planes, like commercial liners and fighter jets, the craft is propelled by jet engines attached to the underside of the wings. They burn through fuel like crazy and make a lot of noise. Prop planes use exposed propellers, either mounted to the wings or the nose of the craft. They’re a lot quieter, but don’t have the power of jet engines, so the craft moves slower. So which was it, do you remember?”
But even as Jack asked the question he realized the answer wouldn’t be much help. Propellers, while quieter than jets, still made a lot of noise and could be heard from miles away. If Hyde’s observation had been correct, this was something else entirely.
Hyde shook his head again. “Sorry, I really don’t remember. But it was slow, I do remember that.”
“Do you think you could get us there?” Jack asked.
Hyde smiled. “Sure. I can take you tomorrow.”
“Good,” Jack said. “If it’s as far away as you say we should leave as early as we can tomorrow morning. Depending on how long we take to scout the place out, we might have to spend a night out in the woods tomorrow and head back the next day. You coming, Harold?”
Harold paused for a moment, absorbing both of their stares, and was struck by a resemblance he hadn’t before observed. “Sure, I’ll go,” he said. “But what’s the plan when we get there?”
“I want to get a look at these planes Hyde told us about. If we can get close enough, we might just be able to find the answer to getting out of here,” Jack said with a smirk, which he could see puzzled the other two.
“I’m a certified pilot,” he explained. “Before the army I was in the U.S. Air Force. I’ve flown everything from four-cylinder Cessnas to F-22 fighter jets.”
“You’re going to fly us out of here?” Hyde asked skeptically.
“We’ll see. But first we need to find this mystery plane of yours, if it actually exists.”
Naomi reveled in the silence by the lake. Charlie had been wise moving out here. Despite being six hours on foot from the nearest town, they entertained often. Almost two centuries in paradise had naturally resulted in thousands of new friends and hundreds of family members.
Guests would often make hundred-mile detours to pay them a visit and might even end up staying a week or two if they weren’t on a tight schedule to reach their destination. And although these guests were always welcome, so were the rare quiet moments sitting by the lake, sketching or reading in peace. With Daniel and Charlie still out looking for their runaways and Liping off with her new friends, Naomi was looking forward to spending some time with her daughter and Adrina, who was finally showing the signs of adapting to her second life.
Naomi glanced over at her now. Her eyes were closed and she was soaking in the sun and the light, cool breeze brushing over the lake and the tall grass. A loose sandal dangled from the toes of her bobbing foot. Warbled music streamed from a hand-crank phonograph a few feet away.
Naomi thought about the little green book in her knapsack, the study guide that she’d eventually need to discuss thoroughly with Adrina. Naomi knew the contents well. She’d studied the book from cover to cover four times when the first Resurrection Notices for the unrighteous had come through. But the instructions from the branch had been clear: although the book needed to be studied, it was up to the discretion of the hosts to determine when and how to begin the lessons. Some would need more time than others. This was not Old World institutionalized education.
“How do you feel?” Naomi asked Adrina, her voice gentle and measured. Adrina spoke without opening her eyes or moving her head, which was now tilted back and facing the sun.
“Relaxed,” she said. “Can’t remember the last time I felt this way.”
“I’m really proud of you,” Naomi said after a few minutes of silence.
“Proud? Of me?” Adrina asked with a raised eyebrow. “Why is that?”
“You’ve only had two weeks here and you’ve adjusted well. I know it can’t be easy, learning all these new things at once and having to make changes.”
“How do you know I’m making changes?” Adrina asked.
“Well, I guess I don’t, not for sure. But it seems you’re willing to keep an open mind, and that’s the first step to all that’s to come.”
“You make it sound so ominous.”
“Sorry, I’m not trying to. They’re all good things.”
“What about the others?”
“Yeah, those that aren’t here. Like my mom. My aunts and uncles. Grandpa. What about them?”
Naomi wanted to say yes, they all would have a chance too, but she knew better than to make promises she had no control over. No one could be sure of anything until the notices arrived.
“I have faith that everyone gets a fair chance. Jehovah will make the right decision.”
“But, what does that mean?”
“It means I don’t really know, Adrina. But it’ll work out for the best, that I can promise.”
“It just doesn’t seem fair to me. They were better people than me. Almost all of them went to church and read their Bibles. I was the worst one of the bunch. Why should I have this chance and not them?” Adrina was frowning now, clearly agitated.
“I’m not saying they won’t have a chance, I just don’t know. I don’t have the authority to make that decision.”
“Well, can’t you pray about it or something?”
“Yes. Of course I can.” And I have been, ever since I read the background information in the files we received with your resurrection notice years ago, Naomi didn’t add. Did Adrina have any idea of the work involved to get her to this point? Naomi was frustrated by Adrina’s lack appreciation for all that was in front of her. Here she was, fully healed and wholly forgiven of her past misdeeds, blessed with a new family and perfect surroundings, and all she could think to do was challenge Divine authority?
“Remember,” Naomi said, struggling to control her tone, “Jehovah always makes the right decisions.”
Adrina was still frowning. “Yeah, maybe. Or maybe I shouldn’t be here at all. Maybe God doesn’t know about my boy.” Adrina choked on the last word and her eyes were instantly red and teary. Naomi reached over to put her arm over Adrina’s shoulder but she pushed it away and stood.
“I know you got a lot of faith and I respect that. You think everything here is perfect and wonderful, but that’s because you’re a good person and you just see things that way. But I’m not. My son, my baby boy, died because of me. You hear that? It’s just a matter of time before my time here runs out. So be careful around me. Don’t get too close,” Adrina sobbed. She wiped her face with the back of her arm and walked briskly away from where Naomi sat, away from the lake, away from everything.
It had been a day of pleasant bewilderment, Liping decided as she stared into the embers of an outdoor brick chimney. The day had begun with a trip into town, which, despite its scant population, held more wonder and allure than Liping could have ever imagined. The bazaar, with its bright colors and exotic smells. A thousand goods and foods Liping had never glimpsed, and all for free! The vendors had been generous once she’d been introduced by Lirui and she’d soon received basketfuls of gifts that would take hours to sort through and examine.
The flour mill, with its towering, red wheel lapping lazily at the river. Who knew there existed so many kinds of flour? And the warm bread rolls baked in the clay ovens–how delightfully flavored and fresh! Not to mention the tavern, the gleaming, glass-walled inn on the river, and the docks. Everything neatly placed and cleaned and polished. And everyone smiling.
Liping had realized that with the Lewises she’d always felt out of place, the oddball, the foreigner. And why shouldn’t she feel that way? The others were Westerners, ate Western food and behaved in ways difficult to decipher. Even Sophie, despite her Chinese appearance, bore no traces of her meeker, more reserved Chinese roots.
But in Clive, it had been different. Everyone was a foreigner. There were Indians and Chinese, Europeans and Africans, and many more shapes and colors Liping had no way of identifying. They wore all manner of clothing and jewelry and headdresses, yet each spoke with words Liping could understand. She was instantly drawn to the crowds, eager to immerse herself and participate in the action.
A smile escaped Liping’s lips as she closed her eyes and leaned her head back, gazing into the night sky as she cradled a porcelain teacup in her fingers.
“What an incredible view you have here,” she whispered to her host. Lirui sat beside her, peeling an orange.
“Would you believe almost every night is like this?” Lirui said, handing Liping a slice of fruit.
“No, but I suppose I’ve never been in a place like this. In Zhengzhou the sky was always grey with smog. Too many cars. Too many people.”
“Well as you can see, we don’t have that problem here,” Lirui said, and Liping surprised herself with a generous laugh.
“So, how did you get here, then? All the way from China to here?” Liping asked, genuinely interested in the story. Lirui warned her that it would to take time to tell, but she wasn’t to be dissuaded.
“Hongjun and I met in Guangzhou,” Lirui began. “We worked at the same factory assembling electronics. The work was excruciating. Sometimes we’d spend seventeen hours sitting at the same table in one day with only one hour to rest. Some factory workers went crazy from the stress. People jumped out windows every few months. Eventually the managers installed nets outside the buildings to catch the jumpers. But they’d still jump, and sometimes their legs or arms would be broken by the impact. It was a horrible job. But neither of us had done very well in high school, so it was our only option.”
Liping nodded gravely. It was every parent’s worst fear to have a child end up on a factory line. She had even known parents who abandoned farms and shops to move to big cities and find jobs on assembly lines just to raise enough money to send their children to college in the hopes of sparing them the same fate.
“We eventually met one day during lunch. We were both single and in our mid-twenties and our parents had been pressuring us to marry. So we began dating. My parents were furious when they found out. Their last hope for me was to find me a rich husband with a white collar job. The last thing they wanted was for me to marry a man stuck in my same situation. It seemed like all their dreams were crashing down. But I kept telling them that Hongjun was a good man, and he didn’t have a lot of the vices that rich men did. They never really accepted him.
“We worked in the factory for another four years. My parents kept pressuring us for a child but we wanted to wait until we could find better jobs and save some money. And then, one day, our lives completely changed forever.”
Liping listened intently, hanging on every word. This was a tale that she could relate to in every possible way. “What happened?” She asked.
“Well, in the factory dorm, we shared a room with about twenty other workers. Men and women, all different ages. It was a struggle. People were often fighting, sometimes over silly things, missing combs or shoes, talking on the phone too loudly. But there was one man in particular who regularly clashed with just about everyone. His name was Wangbao. He probably spent half his paycheck on cigarettes and alcohol and often caused a big ruckus when he’d come back drunk late at night when everyone else was trying to sleep. When someone would try to say something he’d want to fight them, or curse them until they backed down.
“This went on for about a year. Hongjun and I tried to change to a different dorm but the management refused. But then, quite suddenly, Wangbao began to change. First the drinking stopped, and then the smoking. He stopped fighting with the others and kept his bed and clothes clean. He was like a different person. And strangest of all, he was leaving the factory at odd times at night and on the weekend to attend what he called ‘seminars’. We were happy with the changes, but didn’t understand them. So finally, one day Hongjun carefully asked him about it.
“He explained that he was studying the Bible every week with some people from the city. This seemed strange to us. We didn’t know why he would be interested in the Bible. We didn’t know much about it ourselves, and we didn’t know what it had to do with his changes. So he invited us to attend one of his study sessions.
“Late one night, after our shifts were over, we followed him to an old restaurant a few blocks from the factory. In a small room upstairs, a man and his wife were waiting for us. They showed us the literature that they’d been studying with Wangbao and explained how Bible principles could help resolve difficult problems. Jokingly, I asked if they could help me deal with pressure from my parents. They said it could. I was very surprised about this, and eager to learn more, and so the couple arranged to meet Hongjun and I at the same spot, once a week, until we got the answers to our questions.
“In the next few months, my viewpoint of the Bible changed completely. I began to realize that I had been prejudiced about a book I knew nothing about. When I examined it myself, I realized that the wisdom it contained transcended cultures and backgrounds; it was a book for everyone, not just Westerners. Over time, my husband and I began to make changes. Our relationship was strengthened. The conflicts between us and my parents lessened. We were even sleeping better at night. Our whole outlook on life changed. And now we have all of this. Just from taking a little time out of our lives and learning something new.”
Lirui reached forward and stoked the fire with a long iron tool hanging from the side of the courtyard fireplace. Two children played with a wooden toy behind them, giggling as they raced back and forth in the fire-lit space.
“It takes time to adjust to all that you see here, Liping,” Lirui said gently. “Just as it took time for Hongjun and I to accept the things we learned all those years ago. But in the end, you will be glad you did.”Liping squinted into the fire as she drank the jasmine tea and the night slipped in around her with gentle grace.