Carson met her serious gaze. “Harland was your father, so I won’t say anything that’ll disrespect him…except my issue with him was how he treated my wife—his sister. I never wished the man ill, but I never thought he’d done right by his family either. So darlin’, I’ve always been happy that you ain’t a chip off the old block.”

“Me too. As I was driving here, thinkin’ about all the times I spent with Aunt C, and how wonderful she’s always been to me, from the time I was a kid, then after Dag died, and especially how accepting she was—you both are—after me’n Trevor and Edgard became a family…” Her chin wobbled and she looked away until she regained control. “Anyway, I remembered that last time me’n Keely and Ramona went to church camp. Keely ended up in a fight—no surprise, but the real surprise was learning that she hadn’t gotten that fighting mentality just from you, but from her mother.”

“Few people know how much of a scrapper Carolyn West McKay really is beneath that sweet and proper church lady persona.”

“I saw it firsthand and, man, was I ever impressed. I’ve never forgotten it. As a matter of fact, when we were dealin’ with all that bullying a few years back with Westin, I remembered that incident at camp and how fierce she was and I’d promised myself I’d be exactly like that when it came to my kids. And now I am. Because of her.”

Choked up, Carson patted Chassie’s leg. “Girl, you’d better be tellin’ your aunt that to her face because it’d mean a lot to her comin’ from you.”

“I will make a point of blubbering all over her while she’s recovering.” She lightly kissed his cheek. “Take care of yourself. You need anything, just call.”

After she’d left, he helped himself to a cookie. He’d polished off two by the time the nurse informed him to suit up and head in.

As corny as it sounded—hell, as silly as it felt—for the last five days he always started those five minutes the same way, hoping the repetitive words would get through to her.

“Hey sugar. I’m sittin’ here beside you. I know you can hear me. I need you to hear me. Come back to me. I need you to know that I’m right here, I ain’t goin’ anywhere.”

He paused, but kept stroking her arm.

“I must look like a man with a sweet tooth, ’cause Lord Almighty, woman, everyone’s bringing me cookies. So I ain’t gonna lie, I’ve pretty much been existing on cookies and Dr. Pepper the past few days. I’ve gone to the cafeteria a few times, but the food is shit. I figured you let the grandkids eat as many cookies as they can shove in their greedy little mouths whenever they visit us, so no passin’ judgment on me.

“The latest cookie fairy was your niece Chassie. That little gal has always had a tough row to hoe, so I’m happy to see she’s doin’ well and she’s come into her own. She invited us over to see her new goat grotto. I reckon I might even try that goat cheese you all have been raving about. The funny thing? As thick as she and Keely have always been, she’s ticked off at our daughter. Then she went on to remind me of that time Keely got kicked out of church camp. Do you remember that? After she left, I got to thinkin’ that you never really told me what happened that day. As far as I know, you might’ve punched a nun. Or socked a priest. But I’d like to think you would’ve told me since you know how hot it makes me when you get your back up and come out swinging.”

“Mr. McKay. Time’s up.”

“Come back to me. I’m right here. Where I’ve always been, where I’ll always be. I love you. Please. Come back to me.”

Punched a nun? Socked a priest? Really Carson?

Carolyn hadn’t strayed far from the last time he’d visited—or maybe she had and she just didn’t know it. But it seemed as if she’d been right there this time, hearing every word from the moment he started to speak. And she felt that pang of separation as acutely as he did.

I want out of here. Please. Let me go. Find a way to bring me back.

But whenever she fought against the darkness it enveloped her more quickly.

She batted aside the cobwebs in her mind, focusing on the memory until the thread appeared that led her straight to the phone call that started it all…

“Mrs. McKay?”

“Yes. Who is this?”

“This is Sister Grace from the Holy Rosary Church Camp in Grass Springs.”

Her heart about stopped. “Has something happened to Keely?”

“No, she’s fine, considering. She’s…”

Carolyn waited for the nun to stutter out the issue.

“Directly to the point, your daughter has become a bit of a discipline problem.”

Not exactly a newsflash. In the past two years, Keely resented going to church camp, even when she attended with her cousin Ramona, who she didn’t get to see often. But Carolyn had warned her to suck it up; it was only fourteen days out of her summer. “Is Keely playing pranks again this year?”

“Not to my knowledge.”

Carolyn didn’t want to ask, but at age fifteen, Keely was already turning male heads. “Has she been visiting the boys’ cabins? Because I’ll remind you that she does have five older brothers and a dozen male cousins, so she tends to prefer the company of boys to girls.”

“Mrs. McKay, that is not the problem either.”

“Then please tell me what my daughter has done to earn the discipline problem phone call.”

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