Little Sister Song (Wynter Wild #1)

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Broken Doll

The doorbell rang on Monday morning just as Caleb was preparing to call the Light office in Seattle. He opened the door to a young dark-haired woman, thin and tired, with an anxious expression on her vaguely familiar face.

“Joy!”

“Hello, Caleb.”

She tried a smile. He stepped out and put his arm around her to invite her inside.

“Wynter’s here,” he said, because that must be her main concern. He looked to the street for a car or taxi. Nothing there. “How did you get here?”

The simple question flustered her. “Oh, a friend brought me. Did you get my message?”

“Yes. Thank god you’re here. We’ve got some things to sort out before this afternoon.” He didn’t want to overload her, but the placement hearing was at two o’clock. With Joy attending, it would no longer be “just a formality”. Now they had a real shot at keeping Wynter after all.

“How’s Wynter?”

“She’s great. She’s still asleep.”

“Can I see her?”

He led her down the hallway to Indio’s room and knocked softly. When there was no reply, he opened the door a crack. Joy peeked inside and looked at their sleeping sister for a moment.

“I won’t wake her,” she said.

They returned to the front of the house. Caleb put on coffee and Joy perched on a bar stool.

“Do Indio and Jesse live here?”

“Jesse does. He left for college half an hour ago. Indio’s staying over—he went to the store. I’ll text them. I bet Jesse can skip a couple of classes. They’ll want to see you.”

“No, please don’t do that. I don’t want to disrupt their day.”

“They won’t think of it that way.”

“Let’s talk for a bit, you and me.”

“Sure. You do remember them?”

“Of course. I was thinking about Jesse on the bus ride from Tucson, when I was working on Wynter’s hair. I’m so sorry it was such a mess.”

Caleb shook his head to dismiss the concern, bewildered by what she chose to prioritize.

“I used to tie ribbons in Jesse’s curls,” she said. “He was my little live doll. He even giggled when you pressed his tummy. I remember playing with Indio on that patio at the house in Missoula. Making blanket forts.”

“You always had to have a princess tower.”

A pained expression crossed her face, like she didn’t want to think about those times even though she’d brought it up. For Caleb, they were mostly happy memories—their mom was raising them alone, alternating between neglect and near-competence, and they’d stayed in cheap rental places all over west Montana.

“So, Jesse’s in college? I worked out he’d be a high school senior.”

“He’s in his first year at the University of Washington, studying engineering. Indio’s doing design at Portland State. We drove down there Saturday night to see his band, and he came back with us for the weekend.”

“How about you?”

“I joined the Coast Guard at eighteen. Figured it’d be a good way to see the world, and it has been.” He mentally winced, remembering Joy’s view of the world had been confined to a few acres of desert since she was six years old. “Have you seen Harry?”

“No. I called from LA. He sounded… odd.”

“Drunk?”

She shrugged. “I didn’t get a good vibe. In any case, I couldn’t very well send Wynter there, not by herself—she’s not his.”

“We didn’t know about her. We were never told Mom remarried and had another child.”

“Well, she wanted a clean break.” Joy looked around. “This is a nice house, Caleb. I’m so glad you’re all okay.”

It wasn’t a nice house. It was thirteen hundred square feet of a 1950s fixer-upper that devoured most of Caleb’s spare time just to keep the walls from crumbling. Joy, like Wynter, presumably didn’t know the difference.

He slid a coffee mug toward her. “Where are you staying?”

“A very nice woman from the Seattle office has given me a room in her house in Magnolia.”

“I know you’re finding your feet, but it’s crucial we sort out a few things. This afternoon we’ll attend Wynter’s emergency placement hearing, to make sure she’s placed with you. In the longer term—”

“Caleb, wait.” Joy had gone pale. “I don’t think… I thought you would take care of her.”

“I will. I’ll provide for you both. But you need to live with her, as her court-appointed guardian.”

“Can’t you be her guardian?”

“This hearing has nothing to do with me. It’s taking place only because the ashram won’t have Wynter back. The court will place her with you for now, and I’ll help you get a job so you can apply for custody.”

Joy frowned, shivering in an oversized sweater. She wasn’t going to present well at the hearing in this state—bewildered and nervous. He needed to be gentle with her, boost her confidence, or she wasn’t going to impress the judge.

“You don’t understand. I’m in terrible trouble for taking Wynter out of the ashram,” she said, picking her words carefully.

“Why does that matter? You’re safe now. You never need to see those people again.”

“It does matter. It matters to me. The followers at the LA office and here in Seattle have been very kind to me, but the leadership in Arizona has already excommunicated me from the temple for what I did.” She twisted her hands together in anguish. “Truth is, they’re probably secretly glad I took Wynter away—they don’t want her there—but still, I broke vows by leaving and went against Miriam’s explicit wishes. She’s very upset with me. She has a lot of influence.”

“Have you spoken with her?”

“No.” Joy bit her lip, which made her look like Wynter for a moment. “Someone in LA spoke to her. She’s refusing to speak with me. I’m sure… I’m sure she’ll come around.”

Caleb was rather hoping Miriam didn’t come around. He needed her to stay out of it. His heart went out to Joy, though, who was feeling for the first time what the rest of them had already been through—their mother’s rejection.

“I feared this would happen,” Joy said. “Living out here in darkness, with Harry or with you, I knew I’d pay a price for getting Wynter out of there.”

“Why was it so important to get her out? Did they not take proper care of her? She’s scared of that place. She’s underweight—”

“Oh, she’s always been very healthy. Probably just a growth spurt. I was skinny at that age, too.”

Caleb was too polite to point out she still was.

“Joy, please tell me—was she mistreated? Were you?”

That pained expression was back and it made Caleb’s heart sink.

“She doesn’t belong in the Light. They said she has… No, it doesn’t matter.” Joy fiddled with her mug. She hadn’t taken one sip. “You won’t understand. You can love her just as she is, can’t you? Just as I have, from the day she was born.”

“I need to know what happened to her. She was clearly neglected and had almost no schooling. She said she worked for hours a day in a warehouse.”

“Oh, that wasn’t really work. The kids liked doing that, helping out.”

Caleb pushed his hand through his hair, getting nowhere. Joy was brushing it off, yet she’d risked everything to get Wynter out.

“Okay, never mind about that for now. The hearing’s at two. I’ll call my lawyer to run through the procedure with you.”

“I can’t do it, Caleb,” Joy said despairingly. So different from Wynter, who had faced everything bravely. “You’re talking about going to court? I can hardly breathe out here and you want me to convince a judge I can take care of Wynter?”

“If you don’t come forward, today, this afternoon, she’ll be placed in foster care by default. Her social worker’s already set the time to take her away.”

Joy was horrified. “Oh! I didn’t know that would happen. For how long?”

“As long as it takes for us to get a custody hearing. Even then, Washington doesn’t have jurisdiction to award permanent custody for six months. Foster care isn’t what Wynter needs. She needs you.”

“I can’t do it. I’m so sorry. Not today. Not for a while.”

Caleb searched for an alternative. “Miriam could recommend me as Wynter’s guardian, then. It might be enough to convince Social Services.”

“She won’t want to get involved with the authorities.”

“That’s her child! What the fuck is wrong with her?”

As Joy blanched, Caleb turned away, disgusted with himself. Joy was a broken doll, incapable of accepting help from anyone but the people who broke her and who would grind her pieces to dust. Yelling at her wouldn’t fix anything. He clenched his hands on the counter. This was like dealing with Indio—her manner was very different from her twin’s, yet Caleb felt the same frustration as his words rolled off her without effect. What could he do? Joy was in no state to appear in court, even if she wanted to take Wynter. He needed to plan ahead.

“Okay, even if you’re not ready right now, you need to start the application process for custody or she’s going to get stuck in the system.”

Joy gave a quick smile that he knew was intended to placate him. “We can talk about that later, of course.”

Later. Caleb would have to accept that for now.

“I know this is difficult for you,” he said. “Harder than I can imagine. I know that. They’re taking Wynter away today, but you can stay. You can have that room. Please stay.”

“No, I couldn’t impose.” Joy pushed back her seat and he realized she wanted to leave.

“I want to help you.” Caleb heard the edge of desperation in his voice. “God, you’re our sister. Your family is right here. Not… those people. Just let me know what you need. I’ll do anything.”

“I’ll be fine, Caleb. Give me your cell number and I’ll call you later, when I have a phone of my own.”

He grabbed a scrap of paper and wrote it down.

“Did you think to bring Wynter’s birth certificate with you? I can use it to prove she’s my sister, and there’s a small chance they’ll give me the emergency placement today after all.” Joy shook her head. “Can you get it sent to me?”

“I don’t think she has a birth certificate.”

“Everyone has a birth certificate.”

“Miriam used to say she was a child of the Light. Not of this world. She was born at the ashram. I don’t think her birth was registered.”

Caleb stood back, stunned. “So, she doesn’t exist. She could’ve died in that place and no one would even know she’d lived. I would never have known.”

Joy sat in miserable silence.

“There must be a way to register her now. What’s her birthdate?”

“We don’t do birthdays.”

“I need to know, Joy.”

“March eighth. She’s turning fifteen.”

“Middle name?”

“She doesn’t have one.”

“We all have one.”

“Well, she doesn’t have one.” The hint of defensiveness in Joy’s tone was the first sign of strength he’d yet seen.

“What’s her father’s full name?”

“Malcolm something. I don’t really remember him. He and Miriam were only together a few months.”

“How about a marriage certificate or divorce papers?”

“It wasn’t that sort of marriage. The Light has a spiritual commitment ceremony but it’s not a legal thing.”

Caleb mentally ran through his options. “If you speak to Miriam, please find out his full name, and his date and place of birth. And tell her I want to talk to her. Not for recriminations—that’s over and done. I just need to sort out the legal issues.”

“She won’t want to speak with you, Caleb. She’s left this world behind.”

“I’m painfully aware of that.”

Joy fidgeted with the strap of her purse. “I’m waiting for the universe to illuminate my path. I know there are things I have to do, to survive out here. I know I have to join the outside world. Do you have my birth certificate and social security number?”

“Not here. Harry will have them.”

“I can’t see Harry.”

“I’ll get them for you.”

“Thank you.”

“Wynter said you were married.”

“Yes. I’ve done a terrible thing by leaving like this.”

“Will he come after you?”

“Oh, no, it’s not like that. He’s not a bad man. I must go. I’ll just pop my head around the door again.” She indicated the direction of the bedrooms.

Caleb followed her to Wynter’s room. Joy sat on the edge of the bed and stroked Wynter’s hair until she stirred. Wynter sat up and gripped her sister’s arm.

“We made it, darling,” Joy said. “Here I am. What do you think of your big brothers, then? You were a bit of a surprise to them. I’ve had a good long talk with Caleb.”

“You came just in time!”

Joy gave Caleb a nervous look over her shoulder. “I have to go. I’ll visit you later.”

Wynter was instantly devastated. “But you have to stay and be my guardian. We’ll live here. You can have this bed and we can put a mattress on the floor for me. Can’t we, Caleb?”

“I’ll talk to you soon.” Joy extracted herself from Wynter’s grasp. She couldn’t get out of the room fast enough.

Wynter tossed off the covers and got out of bed, unsure whether to follow. The look on her face broke Caleb’s heart.

He followed Joy up the hall. “Do you want me to call a taxi?”

“No, thank you. There’s a car waiting for me up the street.” She stopped at the front door and touched his arm. “Take care of her.”

And she was gone.

He turned to see Wynter standing in the hallway. Once again, he was struck by how small and thin she looked, like a gust of wind would blow her away. But she’d turned up on a freezing evening in shorts and sandals and she was still standing.

Then he remembered she was nobody. Didn’t exist. He couldn’t even fathom why their mother wouldn’t register her birth. Miriam had always been eccentric and preoccupied, but this was unforgivable.

“Why wouldn’t she stay?”

Caleb went to her, put a hand on her shoulder. “She has some things to sort out. She’s staying with someone from the Light.”

“But she left the Light.”

“She left the ashram. I don’t think she’s ready to leave the Light. I’ll do everything I can to help her, hun. Breaking free—that’s got to be her decision.”

“I don’t understand. I would never go back to them.”

“I believe you.”

She stared at the front door. “She’s not gonna take care of me?”

“She can’t do that right now.”

“I have to live with that woman in Richland?”

“For now.” He made tiny circles with his thumb on her thin shoulder, with no other idea how to offer comfort. “I know this isn’t what we wanted. We’ll get through it. You’re strong enough, Wynter. Maybe Joy isn’t, yet. I know you are.”

She returned to her room to get dressed. Caleb stood for a long time there in the hallway, leaning against the wall, with nowhere to direct his ire.

He’d convince Joy to step up—even if her sense of duty was lacking, she surely loved Wynter. She’d do the right thing and he’d help her. Still, he felt weighed down by failure, and Wynter’s distress magnified his sense of powerlessness.

Indio let himself in through the front door, a grocery bag in his arms, and went into the kitchen. Caleb rapped on Wynter’s door.

“Hungry? I’ll make pancakes. Indio’s back with the bacon.”

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