Wynter leaned her guitar against the piano and stacked her sheet music neatly inside the bench.
I have something wonderful to tell you.
Joy’s voice still echoed in her ears.
All our prayers answered!
Her sister had whispered the words that afternoon when she managed to catch Wynter alone for a few moments. Wynter never prayed for anything these days, and knew nothing about Joy’s prayers. She couldn’t imagine what the something wonderful might be.
With the music part of the program over, people shuffled into a large circle on the temple floor for a Reflections and Intentions session. Wynter took advantage of the few seconds of disorganization to walk down the hall and slip out through a side door, unnoticed. On this last day of the winter solstice celebrations, the temple had been warm with the heat of dozens of bodies swaying and singing. Outside, the night air was cold on Wynter’s bare legs. She wore shorts and sandals, as she did every day in the desert.
She ran across the compound toward the boundary fence. What wonderful thing was so important and urgent it must be said in secret in the middle of the night?
Or was Joy trying to get her alone for some other reason? Wynter was in trouble all the time and sometimes she didn’t even know why. Was she heading for a scolding or worse? She had spilled the laundry detergent last week. And she’d forgotten to set out the sun tea earlier today, but she was fairly sure no one had found out yet.
Wynter slowed her pace, trepidation mounting, as she walked the length of the ten-foot chain-link fence that divided the compound into two. She passed the familiar rip in the bottom of the fence. How many times had she snuck out of bed and crawled through that hole to spend time in her sanctuary? Perhaps as many as one hundred times. What if Joy had found out about that? Wynter couldn’t imagine the punishment for doing a forbidden thing one hundred times.
The moon, almost a full disc in the clear sky, watched her critically. Wynter dragged her feet. In the distance, Joy stood huddled against the perimeter fence near the old crooked gate. It used to be the main gate to the ashram but was rarely used anymore. There were fancy new double gates on the other side of the compound now, for the public to use.
“Ten o’clock! I told you to be here by ten!” Joy hissed when Wynter reached her. She shook Wynter by the arm. “And I told you to wear a sweater.”
Had she said that? Wynter couldn’t remember. She often had trouble remembering things. Her brain felt fuzzy and mixed up much of the time. Joy wore a sweater and a long skirt, and had a tote bag over her shoulder that looked flat and empty.
“I don’t have a sweater.”
“You should’ve found one. Never mind.” Joy pulled her to the gate and produced a key for the padlock. Her voice turned breathy and bright as she said, “You’ll never guess what’s happened. Miriam is flying in from Thailand tonight.”
Wynter’s breath caught. “Momma’s coming home?”
“Isn’t it exciting? We’re going to surprise her at the airport. I told you it was something wonderful.”
Joy sounded more nervous than excited. Wynter could hardly believe her ears. She hadn’t seen or heard from Miriam in almost four years—she was doing important work for the Light in Thailand.
“Help me here,” Joy said. They hauled open the gate, its edge dragging a fresh quarter-circle trench in the dry dirt. “We’ll drive to Tucson and catch the bus to Los Angeles.”
“Do you know the way to Tucson?”
“I’ve printed off a map—you can direct me.” Joy handed Wynter a folded-up piece of paper from her bag, and Wynter opened it to reveal a jumble of crisscrossing yellow lines and green blobs and tiny words.
“I don’t understand this.”
“You’re fourteen years old! You can read a map.”
“Is Momma coming to live with us here?”
“Maybe, maybe not. We’ll ask her. Wait here. I’ll drive the truck out, and then you lock up behind us, okay? Then jump in the truck.”
As Joy hurried toward the three-sided shelter where the farm vehicles were stored, Wynter clutched the gate and stared at the dirt track beyond. She had never set foot outside the ashram, had never imagined leaving even when the Australian boys would tell her stories about the outside. This unexpectedly imminent freedom felt surreal.
Behind her, the truck engine turned over a few times before spluttering to life. Joy steered the truck slowly through the gate and stopped on the other side. Wynter pushed the gate back into place, slipping out at the last moment before pulling it closed. With fumbling fingers she snapped the padlock shut. She looked back through the diamond shapes of the fence, across the vast compound, the flat expanse of dirt and scrub, the farm to the left and a cluster of prefab buildings beyond that, a few with lights on. And to the right, the complex where she lived—the offices and kitchens and the warehouse. In the distance, the temple windows glowed from within.
Wynter turned away from the fence. She was standing on the outside. Standing in the world for the first time, facing the darkness.