Be brave. For sixty seconds. Twenty breaths. I could do anything for twenty ins and outs. The springs on my mattress squeaked as I swung my legs over the side of my bed. I froze. And listened.
There were lots of things I hated about growing up here. But there were things I loved, too. Things I was grateful for. Like how attuned I was to every whisper. I’d know in an instant if a sound didn’t belong.
I waited. Heard the screen door rattle in the wind. The call of an owl. Even the hum of our refrigerator in the kitchen. I didn’t hear my brother or dad. Mom had been gone for days, helping a baby come into the world. But I wished for her now. She was the only one who had a chance of stopping the craziness. But she wasn’t here, and I wasn’t sure what tomorrow would bring.
I pushed to my feet, praying my mattress would stay quiet and not give me away. The springs didn’t betray me again. I moved to my closet, careful to avoid any floorboards that creaked. Pulling a pair of worn jeans from a shelf, I slipped them on. I tugged the nightgown over my head and reached for a t-shirt.
The breeze picked up through my open window. It had been unbearably hot today but just a few hours into the night and a chill had settled. I grabbed a flannel just in case. Slipping on socks, I picked up my boots. I knew better than to put hard soles on this floor.
My dad had taught me how to move without a sound to avoid any kind of predator. And tonight, I was thankful for each and every lesson—even the ones where I’d had to roll in mud to disguise myself.
I reached for the doorknob, but my hand stilled on the metal. I could just go back to bed. Forget my attempt at being brave and wait for Mom to come home. To bring my dad down from his paranoid state where everyone was the enemy and we were at risk from it all—the government, neighbors, even my teachers.
I’d watched as our lives got smaller and smaller, with fewer and fewer people to trust. I didn’t remember a lot of the normal. But I remembered some. The second grade and Miss Christie before Dad had pulled Ian and me out of school. Visiting Mom’s family in Portland before he’d decided they were heathens. The town fair before he became convinced that it was evil.
I closed my eyes and turned the knob. Stepping out into the hall, I listened again. Nothing out of place. I created a dance to avoid every problematic board in my path, sometimes tiptoeing, other times stretching my legs to the point I worried I’d tip over.
Finally, I reached the front door. Our old dog, Bruiser, raised his head, but I held a single finger to my lips, begging for silence. Feeding him table scraps must’ve paid off because he lay back down and let out a soft snore.
I eased open the door and stepped through to the first true rebellion I’d ever embarked on. One that might make me like my older sister—an outcast. I closed the door behind me with a soft snick, but it was deafening to my ears, echoing off the mountain itself. I let the screen door fall closed, too, only a small rattle in my wake.
I hopped over the porch steps entirely, knowing each and every one would give me away. I landed with an oomph but held in my cry of pain. Slipping on my boots, I glanced at the shed in the distance. The motion lights on its exterior meant I didn’t dare try for it. So, I started for the barn instead.
One of the doors was open a hair to let some of the night air in, and I pulled it a bit more, just wide enough so Storm and I had a path. As I moved down the aisle, our few horses nickered or lifted their heads to see who was about. I paused at the tack room, picked up a bridle, and then continued until I reached Storm’s stall.
She must have scented me coming because her head was already over the stall door. I gave her nose a rub and then urged her back. “Gotta let me in.” She did as I asked, and I left the door open, knowing she wasn’t going anywhere…not without me.
I eased the bridle over her head, and she accepted the bit without complaint. “What do you say we go for a ride?” She seemed to nod her head in agreement. It would’ve been so much simpler if we were just taking off for one of our afternoon adventures, exploring the mountains.
I led her out of the stall and towards the exit. We made our way out, and I hoisted myself onto the fence so I could climb onto her back. She stayed steady as I threw a leg over and adjusted my grip on the reins. “Nice and easy.”
I guided her down the path that stayed far away from the house. One that led to the mountain switchbacks. I glanced up at the sky, thanking the heavens for a nearly full moon. I just prayed my sense of direction was as good as I thought.
I’d never ridden all the way to town before. It was at least fifteen miles, and several paths ebbed and flowed. But I knew where I was headed. I’d memorized these mountains every day of my life. They were both a refuge and a prison. Solace and tormentor.
Tonight, they were on my side. Each trail’s crossroads seemed to give me the next logical step until switchbacks turned to wide, worn paths, the dirt packed by hikers and riders. Soon, I reached the road into town. I stayed just off it, my heart hammering against my ribs as the forests turned to neighborhoods.
I adjusted my grip on the reins, seeking out a peek at the lake on the outskirts of town. The moon made the water almost glitter. “Just a few more minutes,” I whispered to myself. I could be brave for a little longer.
I moved Storm onto the blacktop, her hooves echoing against the buildings along Aspen Street. Every store was dark with limited streetlights so residents and visitors alike could see the stars. Normally, I loved seeing them, too, but tonight I fought a shiver. Wolf Gap felt like a ghost town.
I slowed Storm as we approached the street I knew held my next battle for bravery. I wondered if I was already past the point of no return or if I could guide Storm back up the mountain and go home. I turned her onto Spruce.
The light from a building poured out into the night. It wasn’t harsh, more like a soft beacon, guiding me home. Only if I walked inside, I had a feeling I’d never see home again.
I halted Storm in front of that soft light and slid off her back. My hands trembled as I tied her reins to a lamppost. Patting her neck, I nuzzled in close. “I’m doing the right thing. Right?” She pushed into me as if to agree. “I’ll see if we can get you some water.”
I didn’t want to step away from Storm’s warmth and comfort. I wanted to stay there forever and ignore the rest of the world. Instead, I took a giant step back and turned. “Twenty more breaths.” It would all be over in just twenty more breaths.
I felt the harshness of each concrete step through my boots. I paused as I reached the glass doors, glancing to my left, seeing a bulletin board with all sorts of notices. Missing pets. Town functions. An event at the library. But one piece of paper made my chest tighten.
I reached out and plucked it from the board. My empty hand reached for the door, but when I pulled, I found it locked. A young man behind a desk looked up at the rattle of metal and glass. His eyes widened for a moment, and then he must’ve pushed a button because the door made a sound.
I pulled again, and it opened with ease. The soles of my boots echoed on the linoleum floor. Just a few more breaths.
“Are you okay?” the man asked.
I laid the paper on his desk, the photo on it staring up at us, the stark letters—Missing—a glaring accusation. The face on it was only a little younger than mine, but it was smiling and carefree. It had been a long time since I’d been that. It was too exhausting trying to read Dad’s moods or being on alert for one of his drills that could happen at any time.
I touched a finger to the side of the photo, not wanting to get dirt on the girl’s face. “I know where she is.”
The man’s mouth opened and closed. “Where?”
“At my house. In the shed with the green roof.”
His eyes narrowed on me. “How old are you?”
His gaze traveled over my shoulder, out the glass doors. “Did you come here alone? This isn’t something to joke about. Is that a horse?”
A side door opened. “What’s all the fuss out here, Nick?”
A man with tanned skin and salt-and-pepper hair appeared, and his gaze immediately moved to me. “Now, who’s this?”
Nick scowled. “She says she knows where Shiloh Easton is. Probably a prank. You know how these kids are.”
The older man came towards me and crouched. “What’s your name, little one?”
“Everly. Everly Kemper.” I did my best to keep my voice from shaking.
The man shared a look with Nick. “You live up on the mountain?”
I nodded. “The girl. She’s there. My dad…he said he had to save her from the evil and that she would be in our family now. But she doesn’t want to be there. She wants to go home. And Mom’s gone. She had to go midwifing, and no one can talk Dad down when he’s like this. But it’s been five days, and the girl…she won’t eat or drink. And Dad keeps getting madder. I didn’t know what to do.”
All the words tumbled out of me. It wasn’t anything like I’d practiced on my long ride into town. I fisted my hands, my nails biting into my palms, to keep from letting everything else fly.
The man’s jaw looked as if it were carved out of granite, but he patted me on the shoulder. “Everything’s going to be just fine. I’m Sheriff Hearst. I’ll figure everything out.” He turned to Nick. “Let’s call in our team. As fast as they can get here.”
Nick jumped on the phone, and Sheriff Hearst guided me towards the side door, but I halted halfway there, looking towards the doors. “Storm, my horse. She needs some water.”
“Did you ride all the way here?”
I nodded. “She’s probably thirsty.”
“And I’m sure you are, too.” The sheriff waved at Nick. “Get the horse some water.” Nick gave a lift of his chin, and the sheriff looked down at me. “Let’s get you something to drink and maybe a snack, too.”
He seated me in a room with two vending machines and a little kitchen. “Have a seat.”
The chair made an ugly sound as I pulled it back, and by the time I sat down, the room was getting a little fuzzy. I barely registered Sheriff Hearst placing an array of items in front of me. Water and a soda. Some crackers, and a candy bar.
I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had packaged food. Maybe when I was seven? About the time Dad pulled me and Ian out of school. He’d demanded that we live off the land as much as possible. Nothing store-bought. Those companies were trying to poison us.
But I remembered the chips Mom used to pack in my lunch, and they were my favorite. My hands trembled as I went for the crackers. But I could barely taste them.
Everything went in and out of focus as a female deputy came to sit with me. I watched from my spot at the table as officers assembled in the main room. They donned vests and guns. My stomach cramped, and I squeezed my eyes closed. I did the right thing. I said it over and over in my mind, just hoping I might believe it.
When I opened my eyes, the armed men and women were gone. I toyed with the crackers as the woman asked me questions. “Has your dad ever hurt you?”
I shook my head. He’d been strict, but his punishments were training. Teaching us to go without because we might not always have access to the comforts of home.
The woman shifted in her chair. “Has he ever touched you anywhere that made you feel uncomfortable?”
I blanched. “No. He’s not like that. He just…” I didn’t know how to finish the sentence. “His mind plays tricks on him.”
It was the best way I could think to explain him. His brain told him lies. Like the one that decided a family was evil because they were going to a town fair, but their daughter could be saved because she hadn’t wanted to go. So, he’d stolen her away.
I tuned the deputy out and stared into the main room, letting my eyes go unfocused. That same side door opened, and a group of people filed in—a family. The mother was red-eyed and panicked, while the father tried to calm her and hold onto the girl in his arms, who couldn’t have been more than six or seven.
Two boys followed, looking around the room. The oldest was probably in high school. His fists clenched and flexed, and anger lit his eyes. But the younger wasn’t more than a few years older than me. Worry lined his face. He looked from the room back to his parents, taking his mother’s hand and squeezing it.
It had to be the little girl’s family. Shiloh Easton. I said the name in my mind, shaped it with my mouth. She would go home to this family who loved her.
I watched as the mom kissed the boy on his head. He didn’t dodge away like Ian did when my mom showed him affection. This boy let her love on him, seeming to understand that she needed it.
Our gazes locked from across the room. There were a million questions in his eyes. I wasn’t sure I had any of the answers he needed, but I couldn’t look away. I stared into those dark depths as if he held me hostage.
The bang of the door against the wall broke our trance. The entire Easton family was on their feet in a flash, surrounding Sheriff Hearst. He held Shiloh in his arms. I couldn’t hear what he said, but the mother wept, and I caught tears streaming down the father’s face, as well. The siblings hugged their sister tightly. But the boy with the haunting eyes kept looking back at me where I sat. All alone.
My hands tightened on the wheel as I guided my SUV onto Aspen Street. Everything looked remarkably the same. The slight Old West feel still clung to the buildings and antique lampposts. Many of the institution spots like The Cowboy Inn and Wolf Gap Bar & Grill were still here, just with a fresh coat of paint.
But while it looked as if there were some new restaurants and shops, as well, I knew hoping for a spot to order my favorite Thai dishes might be too much to ask. There was no question that coming back to eastern Oregon meant I’d be giving up some things.
My older sister, Jacey, thought I was crazy. Sure, that I’d step back into town limits and get sucked back into all the drama that surrounded our family. I understood her fear. Especially since she’d been more mother to me than a sister, taking custody of me after my father went to jail, and I’d begged my mom to let me leave this place.
All that determination to break free, and here I was, a decade and a half later, coming right back to where I started. My pulse picked up speed as I drove past Spruce Street and caught sight of the sheriff’s station. I knew Sheriff Hearst had to be far into retirement, but I wished I’d have at least one friendly face to count on.
It didn’t take long for me to pass through downtown. No more than twenty of those brave breaths I’d come to rely on. I’d need them now more than ever.
I thought about stopping at the hardware and grocery stores but knew I needed to get the lay of the land first. I’d called the water and power companies and had them check the lines to our old property, making sure things were still in working order. After a few repairs, they assured me that all was good on their end.
That meant the rest was up to me. The letter from my mother burned a hole in my pocket, but I hadn’t been able to simply keep it in my purse. It was as if the words inside could give me the final kick I needed to finish my task.
I hadn’t been crazy enough to think that Jacey would help. She had two children and a husband who had a solid job in Seattle. They’d given me more than I’d ever expected. A safe and stable home. One where I was free to go to school and didn’t have to fear being woken up in the middle of the night to practice for a raid. They’d made sure I knew that I was loved and cared for. But I wasn’t theirs.
As soon as Jacey became pregnant, I’d started to feel like an interloper. They were building their family, but they were still stuck caring for me. I’d tried to be helpful. Cooking and cleaning. Babysitting when they needed a break. But I always felt like a guest. Like I never truly fit. It was as if I didn’t quite belong anywhere. It was part of the reason I was back. To see if I could finally lay it all to rest and find my place in the world again.
The main road turned into a two-lane highway, and within a few minutes, I was looking for my turnoff. Street signs on these kinds of roads weren’t exactly common, and I was sure the landmarks I’d known as a child had changed. I almost missed the large boulder, the young pine tree in front of it having grown wider and taller over the years.
I braked and made a hard turn. Gravel flew as I hit my mark, but it wasn’t the hairpin turn that had my hands dampening on the wheel—it was all the memories. The countless times we’d taken this road to venture into town or to The Trading Post. The afternoons my father had made us run its steep inclines to prepare.
My SUV jostled along, exposing new potholes and old, familiar ones. The pines towered alongside the road, almost creating a tunnel. The only thing that hadn’t changed was the mountain herself. The blue planes and snow-capped peaks welcomed me with a reassurance that there was good here. I only had to look for it. The only real grounding point I’d ever known.
As I veered off my gravel path onto an even narrower road, I was glad that I’d thought to go ahead and get all-terrain tires before I left Seattle. The winters here could be vicious. There were times we hadn’t been able to get off the mountain for weeks at a time.
When I took in the final climb my SUV needed to make, I wondered if getting a snowmobile might be a good plan. I’d managed to get a job at the local vet’s office with my same vet tech title and only a slight pay dip. I imagined they’d frown on me not showing up due to snow.
I pressed on the accelerator to make it past the final rise, and as I did, the property came into view. My heart seemed to take up acrobatics in my chest, flipping and tumbling, expanding and contracting. My hands gripped the wheel harder as my foot eased off the gas.
The house itself was in worse shape than I’d expected. One of the walls had a gaping hole in it. But the small guest cabin didn’t look too worse for wear. The cottage had been in my mom’s family for generations, but the house had been my father’s construction after they married. She hadn’t stayed long after he went to prison, choosing to move us down to the flats to live on some land my uncle owned.
While the generations-old construction of the cabin had held steady, the barn and paddocks hadn’t fared nearly as well. The entire structure seemed to lean to one side, and a storm had taken down more than half of the fencing. My back hurt just looking at all the work that needed to be done.
I sighed and pulled to a stop in front of the cabin, releasing my hold on the wheel. My phone dinged, and I sent up a mental thank you to the gods of technology that it seemed I had service up here.
Shay: Are you there yet? Text me the second you arrive.
I smiled down at my phone, feeling a little less alone, knowing that I had someone who would drop anything to have my back.
Me: Just pulled up outside. Cabin looks okay. The house and barn are a disaster.
Shay: Are you sure you don’t want Brody and me to come help you get settled? We can be there in two days.
God, I was lucky to have her as a friend, but I wasn’t ready to open all the doors I’d need to if they came to stay. There were too many skeletons I didn’t want to let out into the light.
Me: Thank you, but I’ve got this. Let me get settled, and then you can come for a visit.
Shay: I don’t like that you’re there all alone.
Me: I won’t be alone for long.
Soon, I would have this place crawling with animals. It had always been my dream to build a home for neglected or abused animals of any kind. A sanctuary. It was simply coming more quickly than expected.
I turned off my SUV, rolled down the windows, and the pine air swept in. It was different than any other type, the Ponderosa pines. And as it filled me, tears sprang to my eyes. I’d missed this, more than I’d realized.
I leaned back in my seat and pulled out my letter.
I know much of this will come a day late and more than a dollar short, but better that than not at all. Even once the doctors told me the cancer had a hold, I couldn’t bring myself to call you, to tell you these things face-to-face as I should’ve. So, I’ll take the coward’s way out. That won’t be anything new. There were so many times I should’ve stood up but didn’t.
But that’s not you. You’ve always been the bravest person I’ve ever known. Even before that night. I should’ve told you, but I didn’t—I’m so proud of you, beautiful girl. You made yourself into this amazing warrior all on your own, without any help from your dad or me.
I wish I had a chance to truly see you shine now. That’s the price for my sins. To miss all of your beauty and light shining on this world.
This should’ve come so long ago, but I’m sorry. For not being there for you. For not getting your father the help he needed. For not taking you and your siblings away when things went sideways. I’m so very sorry that I wasn’t stronger. That I wasn’t more like you.
I don’t have much I can give you, but the land’s still mine. I know a lot of pain’s been poured into the dirt there, but there was good once, too. When I spent summers there with your grandparents. As your father and I made it our home. The babies that grew there. The animals we raised.
Maybe you can find your good there, too.
I understand if you can’t. Or don’t want to. But I know if one person is strong enough to do it…it’s you.
I love you forever and always, my little warrior.
A single tear splashed onto the page. She’d been gone before I even knew she was sick. Buried before I even knew she was gone. My family hadn’t wanted me there. Not my brother—who I was sure still blamed me for everything—my uncle, or any other vast network of relatives still rooted in the area.
To them, I was the enemy, the outsider. And now, I’d returned. The only one who might be happy to see me was my cousin, Addie, but I wasn’t even sure about that. We hadn’t spoken since I’d left. All of my letters came back, marked as Return to Sender in her father’s handwriting.
My mother thought I was a warrior, and I hoped she was right. I would need all my armor if I was going to face them again. Because no one would be happy that I was here. And they’d be downright livid when they learned I was staying.
“I’m taking lunch,” I called to one of our newer deputies.
Young nodded, her ink-black hair not moving from its tight bun with the motion. “Calls forwarded to your cell or no?”
“Only if it’s truly urgent.” I paused when I reached the door. “That does not include one of Ms. Pat’s cats going missing.”
Young’s cheeks pinked beneath her tanned skin. “Sorry about that. She was really insistent that you would want to know.”
“She always is. Don’t worry about it. You’ll learn the frequent flyers from the true emergencies with time.”
Her shoulders eased a fraction. “I hope so. I just don’t want to make a mistake.”
I turned to face Young fully. “You’re going to make one, so just let that go right now. It’s how you recover from it that counts. The best officers are the ones who own their mistakes and learn from them.”
“Thanks, Sheriff. I’ll try to remember that.”
“And if you have questions, you only need to ask.”
She nodded, and I headed out the door. I could’ve gone for my SUV, but I needed the walk. I always got itchy this time of year, my skin a little too tight, and muscles aching for a long run. That was on the agenda for tonight, just Koda, me, and the trails for at least ten miles.
I pulled out my phone and typed a text.
Me: Lunch at the bar and grill? If you can steal away from your precious pole for an hour.
A second later, my phone dinged.
Calder: It’s amazing you cops can even walk down the street with your heads as big as they are. See you in ten, just finishing up some paperwork.
Me: It’s Sheriff. There’s a difference.
I chuckled and slid my cell back into my pocket. Making my way down the street, I could just make out the lake through the trees. The view never got old, and I couldn’t imagine wanting to live anywhere else. I’d done the college thing a few hours away but couldn’t wait to get back home.
Not everyone felt that way. My older brother certainly hadn’t. He’d run out of this town like his feet were on fire. Trading ranch life for every adrenaline-fueled adventure he could find. But I’d been more than happy here.
“Hayes,” a voice called from the florist and gift shop up the street.
“Afternoon, Ms. Honeyman. How are you?”
“I’ve told you time and again, call me Charlene. You’re grown now.”
I gave her a grin. “It’s hard to break old habits.”
“That’s because your mama raised you right.”
“She did her best, anyway. What can I do for you?”
She looked back at her shop and then out towards the streets dotted with tourists and residents alike. “I’m wondering if you have any plans for all of the shoplifters. They’re bad this summer. It’s the tourists, no doubt.”
I’d call my summer a good one if my worst calls were shoplifting and missing cats. Unfortunately, we got our share of car accidents and near-drownings. But, thankfully, things stayed fairly mellow with a community as tightknit as Wolf Gap. “I’m asking the officers and deputies to make their rounds on foot. They’ll be stopping by the shops and will be a visible presence on the street.”
“I hope that helps. You know it’s a fine line to stay in the black.”
Charlene wasn’t wrong. When your town relied on tourists, a rough winter or summer with bad forest fires could mean businesses closing and people hurting. I patted her shoulder. “We’ll do everything we can. And you just call the non-emergency line if you see anything suspicious.”
“I’ll do that. You’re a good boy. Always were.”
I waved her off, doing my best to hold in my laughter. It didn’t matter that I’d turned thirty this year. I’d forever be a good boy in her eyes. I picked up my pace, hoping to avoid people stopping me at every shop along the path. I nodded at tourists and waved at familiar locals. By the time I reached the Wolf Gap Bar & Grill, I wished I’d taken my damn SUV.
Pulling open the door, the air conditioning hit me in a refreshing wave. “Hey, Cam.”
The hostess’s smile turned up a few notches. “Hey, Hayes. Calder’s already here.” She gave a little pout as she led me towards a table where Calder was already seated. “Ignoring me as usual.”
I swallowed back a chuckle. “How are your parents?”
“Everyone’s good. We’re taking the boat out on the lake this weekend…” She shot Calder a grin that spoke of things beyond her years. “Maybe you wanna come with?”
He rubbed at the back of his neck. “I’ve gotta work. But thanks.”
“You know what they say about all work and no play…”
“That it makes Calder boring as hell?” I cut in.
Cammie laughed and waved me off. “He’s not boring. Calder just needs someone to show him how to have a little fun.” And with that, she sauntered off with a sway to her hips.
I let out a low whistle. “She’s not messing around trying to get your attention.”
“It’s bizarre. I feel like Hadley was babysitting her just yesterday.”
“When my little sister has been someone’s babysitter, I feel like it’s an automatic no-go.”
He gave an exaggerated shiver. “Let’s make that one a rule.”
“Adding it to the book.” I picked up the menu and set it at the edge of the table. I’d memorized its contents decades ago, and it barely changed. Even the specials on the chalkboard were predictable. Thursdays would always be chicken-fried steak, and Saturdays some sort of pasta. “Everything quiet at the fire station?”
Calder nodded to his radio on the table. “So far. We had to grab Tommy Bixley off his parents’ roof yesterday. He’d made himself Batman wings that he wanted to try out.”
“Sounds like something we would’ve done.”
His mouth pressed into a thin line. “Maybe, but he could’ve been hurt.”
My friend of thirty years had lost his desire for mischief when his ex-wife, Jackie, had almost cost him his girls. Now, he saw the world through a much more serious lens, and as much as I tried to get him to let loose, I understood. He had sole custody of the girls now, and that came with a weight I hoped I never had to shoulder. “How are Birdie and Sage?”
“Giving me a head of gray hair.”
“Wouldn’t be doing their job if they weren’t. Why don’t you bring them over for dinner on Sunday?”
“Sounds good to me. Ask your mom if I can bring anything.”
I grunted. “You know what she’ll say.”
“Just bring you and those two angels.” Calder grinned. “She doesn’t live with them when they’re about to tear each other’s hair out.”
“Maybe not, but Hadley and Shiloh could get into it pretty good growing up.” My two sisters had fought like cats and dogs, and they could still dip into it now and again.
Calder adjusted the silverware at the side of his paper placemat. “That’s true enough.”
His nervous fidgets were a dead giveaway that Calder was holding something back. His gaze lifted to meet mine. “I heard someone was moving into the old Kemper place up on the mountain.”
I stilled, my hand tightening around my water glass. “I hope whoever was insane enough to buy it levels the place.” I’d like to be the one to go after it with a sledgehammer. Maybe burn up the pieces.
It was crazy how a single piece of property could hold so much pain. Five days that had changed my family forever. There was no way it could be any different. I knew from all the cases I’d worked that mere seconds could change everything. But for us, it had been five days.
We’d gone to the fair as a family, and five days later, we were unrecognizable. For months, my mother had cried every time she had to let one of us out of her sight. My dad had spent his days trying to console her and give us some sense of normalcy. And my siblings had coped—however they could.
But every time I saw Shiloh take off into the wilderness by herself or leave mid-conversation because something triggered her, that anger in me built. I knew Howard Kemper was sick, but that knowledge didn’t help soften my rage.
“Hayes. You okay?”
I cleared my throat and focused on my friend. “Fine.”
“Don’t bullshit me. You’ve been with me at my worst.”
“And you’ve been with me at mine.”
Calder had kept my head above water when guilt was eating me alive. When all I could see was Shiloh’s hand. The one I was supposed to hold on to but had let go of to play a stupid fair game.
He jabbed his finger into the table. “Then don’t give me some dumb party-line. Give me the truth.”
That was the kind of friendship we had—one full of ugly truths instead of pretty deceptions. And I wouldn’t spit on that by lying now. “I hate what having someone there will bring up for my family.”
“I get that. But they’re strong. So much stronger than they were fifteen years ago.”
“We’re functioning. There’s a difference. But Shiloh still runs off into the woods. Hadley and Mom can barely talk without one of them storming off. And I’ve lost track of where Beckett even is.”
“No family is perfect. Everyone has their baggage.”
Calder was right. The Eastons just had more than our fair share. “I’ll take a drive up there after lunch and see what’s what.”
He eyed me carefully. “Let me see if I can get someone to cover my afternoon shift, and I’ll come with you.”
The corners of my mouth tipped up. “I’m not going to start brawling just because someone bought the old place. I’ve got a little more self-restraint these days.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time I had to pull you out of something.”
“I’m not fourteen anymore.”
Calder held up both hands. “I just want you to know that someone always has your back.”
“Appreciate it, man. But I can handle this one.” At least, I thought I could. It had been fourteen years since I’d set foot on that property. I’d gone once when I was sixteen.
I’d needed to see it. The place that had stolen so much from my family. Calder had driven me up there, and he was the one who’d stopped me from doing something stupid like burning the whole place to the ground. Most of our community completely ignored it. As if by doing so, they could erase what Howard Kemper had done. Erase the knowledge that we were all more vulnerable than maybe we thought.
But I didn’t have that luxury. I knew all too well that you were always just one breath away from having your life ripped out from under you. Mere seconds from your whole world changing. Five days out from becoming an entirely different person. And I didn’t need a shed on a mountain to remind me.
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