Little Sister Song (Wynter Wild #1)

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One Promise

The morning spun by in a blur. While Caleb made some calls in the house, Indio asked Wynter to show him the exercises Jesse had told him about. She went through a routine on the deck, not really knowing if he was enjoying it or simply indulging her. He had studied karate, like his brothers, but not stuck with it in Ohio. He followed her moves and showed her a couple of his own.

After her shower, she found Caleb pulling clothes out of one of the two machines in the utilities room.

“Why do you have two washers?”

“This one’s a dryer. I guess you didn’t need dryers in Arizona.”

Wynter was very familiar with laundry equipment. It never occurred to her there would be an entire machine she’d never heard of. Most of the clothes in the basket were dark blue t-shirts along with more of those collared shirts with his name on them. Caleb picked out a collared shirt and put it on a hanger.

“Gotta hang ’em up while they’re hot, so they don’t crease.”

“Is that your uniform?”

“My work clothes, yeah. I have fancy jackets and pants for important occasions. Find your stuff so you can pack.”

He said it with a tense smile, because packing her stuff was an essential step toward leaving. She ran her hands through the warm clothes and found the jeans Bea had bought her on Friday. They worked in silence for a minute, Caleb hanging his shirts and Wynter folding her clothes.

“Everything will work out,” he said at last. “Joy’s scared, I imagine, and overwhelmed right now. I’ll help her find a job and persuade her to move home, and then she’ll be ready to seek custody.”

“Why not you? I want you to be my guardian.”

“Hun, it’s not that simple. Single parents and the military don’t mix. If Jesse was a little older, or if Indio lived nearer as a back-up…” He shook his head. “For now, I’m not the right choice to—”

He stopped at Wynter’s gasp as she grabbed a dark gray t-shirt from the basket. She’d noticed a half-hidden logo on the shirt. Shaking it out, she held it up and stared at the full image.

“You are! You are the right choice,” she said, her eyes hot with tears. She blinked them away. The universe didn’t speak to her. She knew that. But here it was—a message plain as day. The logo was an elaborate design featuring a skull and wrenches and the words, If you break it, I will come. But the message wasn’t in the words. “Why does it have this shape on it?” She pointed to the cogwheel integrated into the design.

“It’s the MK insignia—machinery technician. That’s my class shirt from when I graduated A-School in ’07. I wear it around the house sometimes.”

He took the shirt from her and closed his hand around hers, to stop it shaking.

“It means I belong with you,” she stammered.

He watched her closely, trying to understand. “Why does it mean that?”

“I’m supposed to stay. I’m supposed to be here.”

“You can’t, hun, not right now. You can’t.” His eyes flashed with that same look of pain she’d seen in the shopping mall, when he’d asked her about Miriam.

Wynter withdrew her hand, staring at the bracelet on her wrist. She could show him, right now, what it meant. Would he understand? Would anyone care that the universe wanted her on a different path from the one they were forcing her onto?

Jesse had laughed at her description of the signs that led her to Caleb’s door, and at the numbers in the grocery store. He would laugh at this, too.

She couldn’t bear the thought that Caleb might laugh at her.

“Doesn’t matter. It’s nothing,” she muttered, grabbing her pile of folded clothes. “Do we have time to play in the jamroom for a bit?”

“Sure. Indio’s already down there.”

He left his laundry, even though she’d seen at least one more collared shirt in the basket that was going to get creased now.

They jammed for a while, waiting for Jesse. Wynter wouldn’t sing but she loved listening to her brothers’ voices harmonizing. Her chest was tight with fear at the thought of going to some other house, far away from this safe place. Every time she looked at Caleb, he seemed calm and accepting. She needed to be like that, to cut out the emotion and wait patiently for Joy to change her mind. Indio’s expression was a mask and she couldn’t tell if he cared one way or the other.

“You can have that.” Indio indicated the acoustic-electric guitar she’d been playing.

“I can’t take your guitar.”

“It’s just gonna lie around here doing nothing. Let’s find a case for it.”

He rummaged around in a metal cabinet and found a soft guitar cover. Wynter followed him upstairs. In his bedroom, he pulled a canvas duffle bag out of his closet.

“Pack your things in here.” He sat on the edge of the bed, next to her. “Jesse and I shared this room when Harry lived here—did he tell you? For three years, until Caleb headed off to bootcamp and Jesse took his room. There was a bunk bed here.”

“I didn’t know Harry lived here.”

“This is his house. He bought it when we moved to Seattle. But it always felt like Caleb’s house. Caleb wore the pants.”

“Didn’t everyone wear pants?”

“Just an expression. Harry wasn’t much use to anyone, so Caleb took over. Then he left for a few years, deployed all over the country, all over the world. He’d crash on the couch when he was home on leave. When he got assigned to the Seattle base, he kicked Harry out. Can’t say I blame him.”

“Are kids allowed to kick their parents out?”

“You wouldn’t think so.” He shrugged. “Caleb had the nerve to do it, but more remarkable is that Harry let it happen. Justified it to himself, somehow, so he could live with it.”

“Like Miriam.”

He gave her a long look, his mouth a hard line. “This sucks. You want to stay—we all want you to stay. I couldn’t wait to get out of here. I’ve been back, I think, three times in three years.”

He unzipped the bag and emptied out its random contents on the bed—a hardback notebook, a couple of paperbacks, various receipts and bus tickets, a scrunched-up hand towel and a pair of worn, red leather gloves.

“What are those?”

“Boxing gloves. I did mixed martial arts training for a while. I did wonder what happened to them.” He picked up the notebook and flicked through it. The pages were thick and unlined, mostly blank except for pencil sketches on the first few pages. “Do you draw?”

“I never tried.”

He dropped the book in her lap. “You can take it—use the blank pages to write down your lyrics.”

“What lyrics?”

“Whatever you come up with. Or write a poem, or a story. Maybe do some sketches. Don’t tell Jesse. He thinks art’s a waste of time. He makes exceptions for the art he personally likes, of course.”

“Does that make music a waste of time?”

“Music is mathematics, not art. According to Jesse.”

“I think math and physics make him feel something—here.” She pressed her fist against her lower sternum, the place where pleasure simmered and spiraled when she heard music.

Indio cocked his head. “You could be right. I’ve been trying to figure him out his whole life. That’s the first time something makes sense.”

“Maybe I’ll learn to feel that way about math and science, too. His worldview book is interesting.” She indicated the Hawking on the quilt. “Interesting for my brain, anyway. I don’t feel it yet.”

“Jesse will turn you into his clone, if you let him. Figure out what works for you.”

“What works for you?”

“I got only one piece of advice, and it comes from Harry, believe it or not, and while he was under the influence. Make one promise to yourself and keep it. Something that means the world to you, that keeps you true.”

“What happens if you break the promise?”

“Well, you feel like crap and then you recommit to it.”

“The Light teaches us to keep true, but our true selves are made of light, or pieces of God. Our human parts aren’t too important, except to move us closer to God.”

“How do you move closer?”

“All sorts of ways. Prayer and fasting and meditation. And you’re supposed to have a talisman, something the universe uses to talk to you. Could be a number sequence or an animal or a pattern you keep seeing. I knew a boy who talked about it openly, even though it’s supposed to be private—he was convinced his talisman was the gecko. Every time he saw a gecko, he tried to figure out what message the universe was sending. He kept one as a pet. When it died, he said it was a sign he was leaving. Soon after that he was sent to the chapter in Atlanta for a while.”

“Did you find your talisman?”

“Your talisman finds you. I’m still waiting. Don’t tell Jesse. He’d call it superstitious, wouldn’t he?”

“Definitely.”

“I figured out Joy’s, though, years ago. It’s the color white. She always goes toward white.”

“She must get confused—there’s a lot of white in the world.”

“Was that her favorite color as a child?”

“Don’t remember. Don’t remember much about her.”

Wynter wondered if he was upset Joy had visited that morning and not waited for him. Maybe Joy didn’t remember much about him, either. She’d certainly never mentioned him, or any of them, to Wynter.

She ran her fingers over the sketchbook cover. “I don’t think I can write lyrics. I don’t have anything to say.”

“Write music, then. I’ll email you a PDF of manuscript paper to print off.”

“I don’t know what that means. I don’t know how to print. What’s PDF?”

“Someone at school will help out.”

“School…” A tremor went through her. “I didn’t like doing two hours a day. How am I gonna do six?”

“I felt the same way, baby. You’ll figure it out. You’re gonna be something different for those kids. Just remember, each of them is something different, too. They’re all a bit lost in their own way.”

“Was Jesse lost?”

“Well, no.”

“I think I’m gonna miss him even more than Caleb.”

“Yeah, Jesse knows how to make an impression. A brutally honest impression.”

“What does that mean?”

“Just that he’s brutally honest. You’ll learn to love it. Or tolerate it. You’ll still see lots of him. Both of them.”

“And you?”

“I’ll ride up when I can.”

“But you don’t like coming home.”

“Now I have a reason to.”

“To fix those hinges?” she joked, indicating his closet.

Indio chuckled, putting his arms around her in a spontaneous hug. His body was warm and strong and she was reminded of other hugs, from a boy who was otherwise not much like Indio in manner or in looks, except for the straggly light hair, but made her feel just as safe.

“I will fix them,” Indio said, drawing back. “Just so we’re clear, though—I’ll be fixing them for you. Not for him.”

“I don’t think he minds who you’re fixing them for, as long as it gets done.”

“You’ve figured us all out pretty quick. I’m gonna try harder. I’m gonna do better with Caleb.”

“You have three hours to talk to him on the drive back to Portland.”

“Hmm, no, not quite ready for that. I’ll take the bus.”

He left her to pack.

Now it was getting very close, very real. She took a long time re-folding her clothes and packing them into the bag. She fetched her toothbrush and the nice toiletries Bea had chosen for her. She put Jesse’s book on top of everything and zipped up the bag. Then she unzipped it and added Indio’s sketchbook. She didn’t plan to write lyrics but she wanted to see his drawings.

Jesse came home from class early, soon after lunch. He handed her an old phone of his. “Here, I put you on our family plan so you can call or send messages and photos, and browse the internet.”

They sat at the table and he showed her how to use it, going through each step several times. He programmed all their numbers into it.

Tina showed up. She offered no objection to the guitar as it was placed in her trunk. Wynter had hoped she would, so Caleb or Indio would be forced to defend her. As her brothers gathered around the vehicle she wanted to hug them, like Indio had hugged her earlier. She didn’t know how to initiate it and she didn’t know if they’d like it. Most of all, she didn’t want to do it in front of Tina. She found she couldn’t even say goodbye.

She got in the car. Tina promised to tell Caleb as soon as she’d organized a visitation schedule.

As Tina backed out of the driveway, Wynter watched her brothers walk into the house—Caleb with his hand on Jesse’s shoulder, Indio trailing a few paces behind.

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