Little Sister Song (Wynter Wild #1)

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Voice

As soon as Caleb and Jesse were gone, Wynter wanted to go down to the jamroom.

“Shower and clothes first,” Indio said.

“I had a bath on Thursday.”

So, daily bathing apparently wasn’t a priority in the Light.

Without blinking, he said, “Shower every morning. That’s one of Caleb’s house rules I happen to agree with. When I’m up before noon, anyway.”

She nodded because, of course, if Caleb said something it was the law. As she stood up to leave the table, she said, “How many house rules are there?”

“Thousands. Millions.” At her look of horror, he added, “Sure seems that way sometimes. Why are your PJs wet? Have you been outside?”

“Yes. We did exercises every morning, so I thought I’d keep that up.”

“Exercise is good, but not in bare feet when its forty degrees outside, baby.”

She did a double-take and he realized it was because of the term of endearment he’d used without thinking. He wondered if anyone in the Light had ever shown her any affection at all.

He said, “You can’t be used to this cold, surely?”

“No. I’ve never been this cold. I don’t mind.”

“So, winter suits Wynter,” he said, and they exchanged a little smile at the pun. “Jesse texted me about you, so I know it’s spelled with a Y. I’ve spent my life saying, Indio, like the country but with an O.” She acknowledged that with another smile, of sympathy this time. “Why couldn’t she give us regular names like Bob and Sue? Or, y’know, Caleb, Joy, Jesse.”

Wynter looked away, fiddling with her braided hair, evidently not wanting to talk about, or even hear any mention of, Miriam. Well, that made two of them. The old resentment toward his mother—their mother—surfaced. He pushed it down. He wasn’t going to let that ruin their time together.

“Go on,” he said. “I’ll get the gear ready.”

He went downstairs. This basement held bittersweet memories. Harry had bought the house when they moved from Montana, when he was having one of his good runs. Didn’t last, of course, and Caleb, at fifteen, had taken over again. After all those years with Harry failing to provide, all Caleb had wanted to do was take care of them. He did so with military precision that suited Jesse. Indio, not even three years Caleb’s junior, had resented it. Not that anything about his life improved after Caleb left to join the Coast Guard.

After his stint in juvie and scraping through his senior year at a different high school, Caleb promised financial support if he went to college—any college. He got a map and picked half a dozen options as far from Washington as possible. Ohio made an offer and Caleb paid up. Indio rewarded his brother’s generosity by almost never coming home, which was best for everyone, all things considered.

But this basement—they’d had some good times here. Music was the way he and Caleb communicated because they sure as hell didn’t have much success verbally. There had been fights, too. In the end, Jesse had decreed they not talk down here about anything but music. Everything else, take it upstairs. At least that house rule wasn’t Caleb’s.

Wynter came down and he talked her through his guitars. He’d acquired them through all manner of schemes, buying them cheap from friends or persuading Harry to pitch in. Harry was persuadable and generous after a few drinks and his sons knew how to take advantage of it. A few more drinks and he was an ugly motherfucker, so you had to play it just right.

Wynter loved the look of his black Les Paul in particular. He handed it over and turned on the amp. She sat on the stool to tune it.

“It sounds different from that one.” She indicated the Strat she’d played with Caleb. “Richer or something. Like a growl.”

“It’s my favorite. Also the most valuable.”

“Why didn’t you play it on stage?”

“I don’t take anything on stage that cost more than a hundred bucks or so.”

“How much was this one?”

“Got it second-hand for about fifteen hundred. Yeah.” He grinned at her reaction. “The one I want is eight grand. One day.”

“You could buy a house with that much. Couldn’t you?”

Her naïveté about money was something they’d have to fix before someone took advantage of her.

“A car, maybe. Just you wait. When I get it, and you hear it, you’ll realize it was worth the money.”

“How long does it take to earn eight thousand dollars?”

“Flipping burgers, about a year—if you sleep on the street and don’t eat.”

“What is flipping burgers?”

He laughed, but gently, so she didn’t think he was making fun. “You are truly unique, Wynter. It means a short order cook.” She was no less confused. “A low-paying job where you do basic cooking in a diner or a burger joint.”

His phone rang—the ringtone made her sit up and take notice.

“Why does it sound like that?”

“It’s Led Zeppelin.”

“Oh! I know four of their songs.”

He let the call go to voicemail after checking the name on the screen—a girl he’d met at the campus bookstore. They’d exchanged numbers with a plan to swap old textbooks with each other, but now she wanted to take him to a play, of all things. That was a date and he had no intention of responding.

“Which is your favorite?” he asked Wynter, putting away his phone.

Black Dog. My friend… um, I knew someone… He could sing it exactly like the radio.”

“In that case, he’s a talented guy. I couldn’t do it.”

“So, what job will you have when you finish college?”

“Whatever it is graphic designers do.”

“What do they do?” Another one of those earnest questions. Jesse called her an alien from another planet but to Indio she seemed more like a changeling, one of the faerie folk, with her huge mossy eyes and twisted otherworldly perceptions.

“They design all kinds of stuff. Anything visual—marketing materials like logos, brochures, websites.”

“What’s the point of that?”

“That’s a good question. To buy an eight-thousand-dollar guitar, maybe?”

“Wouldn’t you rather be a rockstar?”

He chuckled. “I’d rather make music, that’s true. Okay, what will we play today?”

“The songs you did last night. You did an Aerosmith song.”

Get the Lead Out. That’s an old one.”

“Yes. Show me that one.”

He grabbed a guitar and taught her to play the riffs, surprised at how fast she picked it up. She had the feel of it even when the notes and fingering weren’t quite right, and never skipped a beat regardless of mistakes. He added some licks to spice it up, and sang through a verse or two. The jamming turned to improv, beats and phrases that flowed between them, a give and take of rhythm and melody. He understood now why Jesse had raved about how she was “in sync”. Once she had a little more technical experience under her belt, he’d be able to take it in any direction and she’d follow.

“Who taught you to play?” he asked.

“I had books—classical guitar books and a few tutorial books of folk and modern music. They used to just leave me alone to get on with it, sometimes for hours at a time if they forgot about me. For piano there was a teacher.”

“Do you sing?”

“I sang in the temple. I preferred arranging songs for the prayer meetings, and I wrote some as well.”

“You’re a songwriter?”

“No. I mean, yes, I wrote music for the Light, or arranged other people’s songs. Stupid stuff. I hated it.” She spoke shyly, like she thought she shouldn’t be passing judgment.

“I’ll bet you have songs in your head you didn’t write for the Light,” he guessed.

She gave him a secretive smile but didn’t answer. He didn’t push it. And he didn’t ask about singing again. She wasn’t quite ready to give up that much.

“Can you show me this song you did last night—I don’t know it. This one.” She played a riff.

“It’s called Dead End Rodeo. An original.”

“You wrote it?”

“Our lead guitarist Anže Turk wrote the lyrics, and I wrote the music.”

“I really liked it.”

She played more. He couldn’t believe she remembered so much of it. He showed her the rest, and after that another original from the previous night, which she remembered even better and was soon playing along as he sang it for her.

She asked him theory questions, and that led to a primer on the blues, which she knew nothing about except for what she’d absorbed from listening to rock. There was nothing he said that she didn’t understand. She soaked up everything he told her. He explained the blues turnaround, and a few minutes after that she was instinctively adding her own interpretations to it, and they jammed for a solid half hour.

Then she stared at her left hand like it didn’t belong to her any more.

“My fingers hurt.”

“You must be doing it right.” He examined her hand. She already had calluses from years of playing. Now her fingertips were red and tender. “Hmm. Maybe we should stop for today.”

Jesse was barreling down the stairs. “No way!” he called out. “I came right back so we could jam.”

“If we keep going, there will be blood,” Indio said. Wynter gasped. “I’m joking. But you have to take care of your hands. Don’t overdo it.”

“I can keep going for a bit.”

Jesse was already at the drum kit, and she looked determined.

“Okay. How about we play some of that Aerosmith again?” Indio said.

Jesse was impressed. “You’ve been doing Aerosmith?”

“But it’s gonna sound better with drums,” Indio said.

“Everything sounds better with drums.”


The walls vibrated with music thumping from below. The basement door was open and Caleb sat at the top of the steps to listen for a while. Soon, he’d join them and it would be all four of them for the first time. And then, when he could manage to get the words out, he’d have to tell them Wynter couldn’t stay.

“Wanna try that Status Quo again?” he heard Jesse say when the song ended.

“C’mon, Jess, she needs to rest her hands,” Indio said. “Let’s take it down a notch.”

Caleb descended the stairs to watch them, staying in the shadows so they weren’t disturbed. Indio started playing a different song—Caleb recognized it as No Doubt’s Don’t Speak.

“This was on the radio on the drive home last night. You know it, right?” Indio said.

Wynter nodded. “Yes, I like that one.”

“Will you sing it?”

“I don’t think I know all the words.”

Indio took his phone out and looked up the lyrics. He set the phone on a music stand next to Wynter.

Caleb wondered when she was going to back out. She didn’t look happy, but he could see she’d developed a level of trust with Indio. Maybe she was going to do it, after all.

“Um, I’ve never sung it before.”

Or maybe not.

“Okay, well… Jesse can sing it. Join in, if you like. And the chords are easy.” Indio ran through them. He sounded casual, but Caleb knew he was mentally crossing his fingers. Indio swapped her guitar for an acoustic and settled back into the seat opposite her, also with an acoustic.

They started the intro together, and Jesse sang the first verse. To everyone’s surprise, she came in after a few lines with the harmony. Quietly, unsure of herself, her eyes on Jesse. Then the drums kicked in for the chorus, and Jesse sang louder, which encouraged her to sing louder, in unison.

Jesse dropped out halfway through the chorus. She hesitated for a beat when she realized. She kept going into the second verse. Caleb exhaled the breath he’d been holding. His head filled with the sound of her voice. A touch husky, like her speaking voice, but the tone was a pure and beautiful contralto, and every note was sure.

Indio caught her gaze, and she returned to him after each glance at the lyrics. Now the groove was going, her confidence picked up. Caleb leaned in the doorway and basked it in. To some extent she was mimicking the recording, but there was enough of Wynter in there to make it distinct.

He came into the room and circled around the back of her. Jesse caught his eye and shook his head with a grin to indicate his amazement. Her throaty voice brought a devastating emotion to the song. Indio wore an expression Caleb had never seen on his brother’s face before.

The song ended, and Wynter’s gaze locked on Indio, hoping for his approval. Indio was looking down, letting the final chord fade out. Caleb felt for him. He didn’t think he could speak just now, either.

Indio gave her a nod and a smile and caught Caleb’s eye, which made Wynter aware of his presence. She swung around.

“You have a unique voice,” Caleb said.

“Is that a good thing?”

“It’s beautiful,” he reassured her.

She gave him a real smile, her first one just for him. He was surprised his praise was even more important to her than Indio’s.

“Hey, Wynter,” Jesse said, “Do you know True Colors? Linger? How about Dido’s White Flag?” He was throwing out emotional songs that would highlight her voice, because like the rest of them he needed to hear more.

“It’s someone else’s turn to sing.” She gave Caleb a meaningful look.

“He can’t sing True Colors.”

“So, let’s find one he can sing.”

Caleb faced the rack of guitars to avoid answering, and picked up his bass. His movements were mechanical. He was still stunned, overwhelmed, by the discovery of Wynter’s voice. And by the news he’d have to deliver soon. He had to say something. She was becoming confused, looking to Indio for reassurance. Caleb didn’t think he could handle hearing True Colors or some other haunting tune right now.

“Let’s keep it upbeat,” he said. “Sweet Home Alabama. You gotta know that one, right, Wynter?”

“Yes. I mean, I know the basic chords.”

“Indio can do the fancy stuff. Just keep that rhythm going.”

“We call this one Sweet Home Montana,” Jesse said, and counted them in.

Indio gave Caleb a little chin-jut to tell him to take lead vocals. He obliged, and it was more his style anyway. They played through the song, with Caleb substituting the lyrics for some silly shit they’d made up as children, and between them it ticked over. Even at the worst of times this room had always been their safe place, the only place where the music was all that mattered. For a few minutes at a time, everything else would fade away. Wynter was enjoying herself, and by the second half she was adding a little fingerpicking to her chords to match the radio song playing in her head. Indio looked more relaxed than Caleb had seen him in years. Jesse looked just a little smug, like he’d figured out how to take credit for the afternoon—and he might just be right, given his rule about no fights in the basement.

No fights, only music.

Caleb didn’t like delaying the inevitable. He always said what needed to be said, outlined the options so nothing was hidden and no one was tricked. But he couldn’t bring himself to tell them the bad news. Not yet.

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