Little Sister Song (Wynter Wild #1)

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“It’s a long drive, but we’ll be there before bedtime. I’ve packed snacks and drinks.” Tina indicated a grocery bag on the back seat next to Indio’s canvas bag. “Your foster mother’s name is Rosa. She’s a lovely lady and she has a lovely home. Today she enrolled you in the local middle school.”

Wynter stared out the window. “What grade?”

“Eighth grade.”

“Jesse said I should be in ninth grade.”

“I’ve talked to Rosa and she feels it would be better to wait until September before you start high school.”

“Doesn’t matter anyway. I can’t even do eighth grade math.”

“Rosa will help with your homework. She’ll always be around to help you. And to listen to you.”

Tina glanced over at Wynter, and back to the road, and to Wynter again, looking increasingly irritated. Wynter wondered what she’d done wrong.

At last Tina said, “That was your brother, Indio? The blond one?”

“Yes. He came home with us on Saturday night.”

“I’m very unhappy Caleb allowed him to stay in the house.”

“It’s Indio’s home.”

“It shows a blatant disregard for my wishes and your safety. Had I known, I’d have collected you yesterday and put you in a youth shelter for the night.”

Put. Wynter hated that word. Put was for things. She hadn’t felt like a thing in Caleb’s house. Was she a thing to Tina?

“When can I see Caleb again?”

“I’m going to arrange a supervised visit for this weekend. See? Not long to wait.”

“Why do I need to be supervised?”

“It’s standard procedure, until Caleb has been cleared.”

She realized the supervision was for Caleb, not for her. “Cleared of what?”

“He needs to go through a background check for any criminal history.”

“And Jesse?”

“Jesse too, if you want unsupervised visits.”

And Indio? She was suddenly terrified. Indio assaulted someone and went to jail. He had a criminal history. Tina knew this and was already making a big deal of it. Wynter wouldn’t be allowed to see him without Tina being there to supervise, ruining everything with her suspicious questions and unspoken accusations.

Wynter closed her eyes and pretended to sleep so she wouldn’t have to talk to Tina again.

They turned into the driveway of a majestic two-story house. Every window in the front was lit, and strings of glittering white lights crisscrossed the porch.

Tina switched off the engine. “How lovely. Her Christmas lights are still up. Aren’t they pretty?”

The front door opened before Wynter was out of the car, and a woman stepped onto the porch. She was in her fifties, with dark hair cut short, and she wore a brown skirt and jacket on her petite frame. Tina took the bag from the back seat and they approached the house.

“This is Dr Rosamund Meyers,” Tina said. “And here’s Wynter.”

“Hello, Wynter. Call me Rosa.”

The woman held out her hand, just like Caleb had that first day. But when Wynter shook it, the hand was cool and thin.

They followed Rosa inside. The entry hall was enormous, with a ceiling that went all the way up to the second story. Large rooms were visible through archways on either side. A wide staircase wound up to a balcony, with doors leading off it. Wynter had never imagined you could have a balcony inside a house. But this was only the second house she’d ever been inside.

“Let’s go straight to your room, shall we?” Rosa said, after she and Tina had exchanged pleasantries.

They went upstairs. Wynter’s new bedroom was three times the size of Indio’s. Even the bed was huge. There were two floor-to-ceiling windows in the far wall. A floor lamp and a second lamp on the nightstand illuminated the room with a warm glow.

Tina put the bag on the bed. “How lovely.”

Wynter was tired of everything being lovely.

“I expect you’re exhausted after that drive,” Rosa said. “Let’s have supper and then you can get to bed. I’ve arranged for you to start school on Wednesday, so we’ll have tomorrow to ourselves, to get everything ready.”

Downstairs, Rosa spoke to Tina for a few minutes at the front door while Wynter wandered through the rooms, bewildered by all the stuff. Glass-doored bookcases that covered one entire wall. A fireplace, a fancy clock under a glass dome, overstuffed armchairs and tables with carved legs. Rugs and lamps everywhere. Odd, unidentifiable trinkets on the side tables and window sills.

She heard the door close, and then she remembered the guitar in the trunk.

She raced past Rosa and tugged on the front door in a panic. She banged her fists on it.

“Wynter, it’s all right. Calm down.”

“Don’t let her leave. I have something in the trunk. Please!”

Rosa spent precious seconds trying to calm her. The car engine started up. Headlights flashed across the window.

“Open the door!” Wynter screamed.

Rosa unlocked and opened the door and Wynter rushed out, catching her bracelet on the handle. She yanked herself free, snapping the braid, and ran down the driveway just as Tina finished backing the car onto the street. Wynter thumped on the hood and on the windows.

“My guitar!” she yelled through the glass.

Tina got out and opened the trunk. “What a close call. We almost forgot it.”

Wynter pulled out the guitar, taking care not to bang the soft case on anything. Tina gave her an apologetic smile, closed the trunk and drove off.

“I won’t make noise,” Wynter said raggedly, marching back to the house with Rosa on her heels. “I won’t disturb you, I promise.”

“That’s quite all right…”

Wynter made it to her room before her knees went weak. She sank cross-legged to the floor in the corner and shifted a trash basket and a huge bean bag to make room for the guitar.

“Here, you broke your bracelet.” Rosa handed her the frayed braid. “Can you tie a knot to fix it?”

Heart pounding, Wynter tossed the bracelet aside and concentrated on what she was doing, leaning the guitar against the desk and pressing the bean bag against it so it wouldn’t fall.

“I have some sewing supplies. I’ll help you fix it.” There was a hopeful note to Rosa’s voice, like she thought this would be a perfect bonding activity for them.

Wynter didn’t want to bond and she didn’t care about the bracelet. She’d woven thousands of them and couldn’t recall weaving this particular one. Still, it served a purpose and she should repair it.

“I can do it myself.” She retrieved the braid from the carpet, careful not to expose her wrist to Rosa.

“Supper?” Rosa said.

“I want to go to bed.”

“Of course. The bathroom is two doors down. I’ll leave a snack out in the kitchen, in case you get hungry in the night. Would you like to have a little talk before bed? I’d like to make sure you know what’s going on.”

“Tina explained.”

“We’ll talk tomorrow, then.”

Wynter pulled out her phone.

“Oh, I do have a house rule, dear. No electronic devices after nine.”

The clock on her phone said 9:09PM. If Rosa denied her, she felt she might throw something heavy at the woman. It was an odd feeling. She’d never considered violence against a total stranger before.

She said, very slowly, “I’m going to call my brother.”

“Well, just this once, to let him know you’ve arrived safely. Five minutes, okay? You can talk to him again tomorrow.”

Rosa went away at last, her footsteps fading down the hall.

Wynter curled up on her bed and tapped Caleb’s name on the screen.

In the morning, Wynter put her bag in the closet, unpacking only enough to find clothes to wear for the day—jeans, t-shirt, sweater. She put Jesse’s worldview book and Indio’s sketchbook on the nightstand. She fixed her bracelet and slipped it on. As she returned from her shower she heard dishes clinking downstairs in the kitchen.

She took another look around the bedroom, at all the things she hadn’t noticed last night. Novels on the bookshelf, stuffed animals on the end of the bed, a desk in the corner and a pretty rug on the floor. The décor was a nice shade of pale blue with white wood. Everything really was lovely, like those magazine photos. She wondered how many other children without adequate guardians had lived in this house, in this room. She preferred Indio’s sparse, plain room with its faded drapes and normal sized bed.

She went downstairs. The hallway floors were slate tile, the bannisters dark wood, and the windows tall and arched. Everything was large, neat, and perfect.

Rosa had made waffles, which Wynter had heard of but never seen or eaten. They stuck in her throat.

“I think Tina told you, I’m a psychologist,” her new foster mother said. “If something is ever troubling you, you can tell me.”

Wynter had no plans to tell Rosa anything. She shoved waffles in her mouth.

“Do you have any skirts for school?”

“Bea bought me a denim one.”

“No, not denim for school. We’ll go shopping this morning for some suitable skirts and collared shirts. You let me know if there’s anything else you need. Underwear? Tampons?”

She had never heard of tampons. She said, “I don’t need anything else.”

Rosa talked on and on and Wynter knew she was trying to put her at ease. After a while she started acting like she was at ease, forcing herself to nod and smile, just to make the talking stop.

They went out and bought clothes. Rosa had very specific ideas about what was suitable and Wynter offered no opinions because she had none. She walked out of the mall with bags full of clothes, real leather shoes, and a thick, pale brown coat that Rosa called camel.

“We’ll stop by the salon and get your hair cut,” Rosa said, pulling into a strip mall.

Wynter put her hand possessively on her head. “I don’t want to.”

“It will make things much easier at school, with the other girls.”

Wynter had no idea what she meant by that.

The hairdresser pushed her back at an awkward angle at the basin and washed her hair. Wynter sat still for the cut, except to tilt her head as instructed, ignoring the woman’s chit-chat until she gave up asking questions. It was like being at the doctor’s office but she didn’t have Caleb to debrief with afterward.

“There, you’ve got a pretty wave now we’ve taken some weight off and snipped those split ends,” the hairdresser said.

Wynter glared at her reflection. What did a pretty wave matter when Rosa had already told her she’d have to tie it back for school?

Rosa drove past the school to show her where the bus stopped. Set back from the fence were several long, low buildings with fields in the distance. Kids in sports uniforms were playing soccer. There was no one else around.

When they got home, Wynter said, “I want to call Caleb again. You said I could.”

“Of course. I’ll make us sandwiches for lunch.”

Wynter went to her room and closed the door. She pressed the button on her phone. Nothing happened. The screen was black. She stared at the thing, her stomach fluttering in dismay.

After a while she admitted defeat and went down to the kitchen.

“My phone’s broken.”

Rosa examined it. “It’s flat, dear.”

“I need new batteries.”

“We can recharge it. I have a charger right over there.” She showed Wynter how to plug the phone in next to the fruit bowl. It came back to life.

But now Wynter had to call Caleb with Rosa right there, listening in.

“Hey, hun, how’s things?” Caleb said when he picked up. He sounded completely normal, not tired and upset like last night.

She pressed the phone hard against her ear, as if that would bring him closer. “Where are you?”

“At work. Dropped Indio off at the bus station at seven, so he’s back in Portland by now. What’ve you been doing this morning?”

“I had a haircut. We bought a lunchbox and backpack, a drink bottle, notebooks and pens and sport shoes. So many things. New clothes for school, and a camel coat.”

“A camel coat?”

“That’s what Rosa called it. Maybe it’s made from a camel?”

“Huh. Maybe. You’re all set, then.”

“What am I gonna do about math?”

“You’ll be fine.”

“I won’t, Caleb. I can’t do math.”

He paused and she sensed him realizing the platitudes wouldn’t work. “I’ll talk to Jesse about it. He can tutor you long-distance.”

“I don’t understand how that would work.”

“You could email him any problems, and then he’d call and talk you through them.”

“Yes. I want to do that.” She planned to have daily math problems. Talking to Jesse every day, even about math, would make her feel better.

“You can get together on the phone once or twice a week. We’ll set up a regular schedule.”

“Oh. Okay.” Only time for a few problems, then. Her heart sank.

“D’you need anything? Jesse told me he forgot to give you a phone charger.”

“I’m using Rosa’s. What are tampons?”

Rosa gave her a sharp look.

“Um.” Caleb hesitated again. “Hun, you can ask Rosa about that.”

Wynter’s heart sank just a little more. Jesse could only spend a bit of time with her, and Caleb wouldn’t help her with a difficult word. She felt them slipping away.

No, that was silly. They were always right there at the other end of the phone line. Until 9PM, anyway.

“Hun, I gotta go. I’ve got a meeting. How about you send a text next time, if you need to talk during the day, and I’ll text back with the best time to call. Okay?”

Her throat closed up. “Okay,” she whispered.

She rang off and tapped Jesse’s name on the contact list before Rosa had the chance to say anything. After two rings it went to voicemail. She ended that call and tapped Indio’s name. It went to voicemail, too.

She put the phone down, staring at it like it had betrayed her. “Why did I get voicemail? Why don’t they answer?”

“Aren’t they in college, the younger two? They’re probably sitting in class. They have to turn their phones off. You won’t be allowed to call them while you’re in class, either.”

So that was hours and hours every day when she wouldn’t be able to talk to them. And she had to make an appointment to talk to Caleb.

Rosa said, “Now, you asked about tampons. Those are for your period.”

“I don’t have periods.”

“Well, I’ll keep a supply of pads and tampons in the bathroom for you, for when you need them. Do you know what periods are?”

“I think so. The older girls made pads from cotton and washed them in the laundry sink.” Wynter wrinkled her nose, remembering the sight and the smell, and the confusion because she wasn’t really sure what it was all about.

“I’ll find you a book about it,” Rosa said.

Claiming tiredness, Wynter went upstairs and lay on the bed. She drifted to sleep and woke in a sweat, her heart pounding. Gasping for air.

It was getting dark. She stumbled off the bed, washed her face and went downstairs. She found Rosa in the front room, reading a book.

“There you are. Did you nap? Let’s pack your school bag for tomorrow, shall we?”

Afterward, they ate dinner—a tender piece of beef with all kinds of vegetables in the gravy.

“Can you teach me to cook?” Wynter said.

“Of course. That’s a very useful skill to have. Who did the cooking at your last home?”

“My brothers don’t cook. We had a barbecue, if that counts. We ate takeout.” It seemed so long ago. When was the barbecue? Saturday, before they drove to Portland. Three days ago.

“I meant, who cooked at home in Arizona?”

Wynter had never heard it described that way: home in Arizona. It didn’t sound right.

“Everyone helped in the kitchen. Just rice and bits, we called it. And oatmeal. Sometimes bananas and nuts and chicken or rabbit.”

“I see. Well, we’ll have fun with our cooking. You seem concerned about school, about math in particular. Do you feel you might be a bit behind?”

“Jesse showed me his old math books. I didn’t understand any of it.”

“Your teacher will help you. I’ll give you my old laptop for your homework. Did you enjoy school in Arizona?”

Wynter shivered and bit her lip. “One of the teachers had a shelf of really old novels. I liked those. The rest was mostly copying out things and reading grammar books.”

“Ah, grammar!” Rosa said, like it was a revelation. “You’ll be good at English, then. I can tell you’re a bright girl. You’ll pick it all up quickly. Tell me about your teachers.”

“The women took turns minding us in the classroom. We called them teachers. I don’t think they taught us much. I’ve learned more in three days from the worldview book Jesse gave me.”

She was saying too much. Joy told her not to talk about the Light, and here she was criticizing the teachers. Her ears were ringing.

“A worldview book? Goodness, what’s that?”

A Brief History of Time.”

“Ah, I know that one.”

“You’ve read it?”

“No, dear. Let’s have some ice cream.”

Rosa asked her more questions over dessert. Wynter was more careful now. She avoided saying anything negative. She said “I don’t remember” a lot, and sometimes nothing at all. The awkward interrogation went on a long time, until finally Rosa changed the subject.

“Shall we go over the rules?”

She wasn’t surprised to hear that Rosa had rules. Caleb had thousands of rules, according to Indio. She knew Indio had broken quite a few of them and as a result he and Caleb had a strained relationship. Wynter needed to obey Rosa’s rules so Caleb wouldn’t get the idea she was too much trouble. Rosa’s rules revolved around respectful behavior, lights out, curfews, and completing her work before watching TV, all of which she figured Caleb would approve of. Some of the rules she had no idea what Caleb would think—no inappropriate social media, no leaving the house without permission, no loud music.

“No loud music ever?”

“No. I work from home three days a week and it’s very distracting.”

Wynter was pretty sure Caleb was okay with loud music. In any case, she had earbuds for her phone.

Rosa produced what she called a Behavior Contract and asked Wynter to sign it.

“I’ve fostered teens before, and we’ve found this very useful. Read through it, so you understand what’s expected and the consequences if you break the rules.”

Wynter’s heart thumped in her throat at that word—consequences. The contract on the table glared at her, stark white with tiny typed text. The first page was the rules they’d just discussed. She was unable to move her hand to turn the page to discover the consequences. She could hardly believe a grown-up would actually list all the punishments she intended to inflict instead of making them up on the spot.

To delay the awful moment, she got up in a daze and helped Rosa clear the dishes. Seeing her phone on the counter, she grabbed it.

“Is it charged yet?”

“Yes, it only takes a couple of hours.”

Wynter switched it on. There were eight text messages—two from Caleb, one from Indio, five from Jesse, sent at various times during the afternoon when she was out. The words blurred before her eyes in a jumble.

>> Sorry I missed your call… Call me this evening… How’s everything?… Have you seen your new school?… Missed your call… Do you like the shrink?… Let me know how you’re doing…

Her ears were ringing as if her brothers were screaming at her. She read through it all again.

“It’s past nine, dear. You can call them tomorrow morning.”

“But they’re waiting for me to call.”

“I’ll allow you to reply by text. Tell them you’ll call tomorrow.”

Jesse had shown her how to do that. She hit reply on Caleb’s message and started typing. The keyboard was tiny and she kept hitting the wrong letters.

“Here, I’ll help.” Rosa took the phone from her and spent a few seconds tapping the screen with her thumbs. “There you go. I’ve written, Thank you so much for your kind messages. I will call tomorrow immediately after school. Goodnight. And… sent. I added all three recipients.”

Wynter stared at her, horrified. “But that message wasn’t from me. They’ll think I wrote it and I didn’t.”

“It’s perfectly fine. You head up to bed for a good night’s sleep. I’ll put you on the bus for school before I head to my office tomorrow morning. Take that contract with you.”

Wynter took the contract and stumbled upstairs. It felt very wrong that her brothers would get a message from her that she hadn’t written. Thank you so much for your kind messages. She would never have written that.

She pushed the contract under her mattress where she wouldn’t accidentally see what it said, and reached for Jesse’s book. She noticed the sketchbook was missing.

She ran downstairs.

“Where’s that sketchbook? The book with the gray cover?”

Rosa looked up from wiping the counter. “Goodness, I forgot to tell you—we’ve had such a busy day. I happened to look through it this afternoon and I’m afraid I can’t let you have it.”

“But that’s Indio’s book.”

“Did you look inside?”

“I never had a chance.”

Rosa breathed a little sigh. “I’m sorry, Wynter. The drawings are not suitable. You would find them quite disturbing.”

“What does that mean? Those are Indio’s drawings and he gave the book to me, to write in.”

“Let’s not argue about it. Sometimes you will just have to trust my judgment. Off you go to bed.”

Wynter returned to her room, unsure what to think. Those sketches were created by Indio’s hand, through his eyes, from his mind. How could Rosa decide which parts of Indio’s mind Wynter should see? Would she stop Wynter listening to his songs—the music and words from his mind? Caleb hadn’t cared. He’d taken her to Indio’s gig and played their CD for her.

And now her brothers had been sent a message that wasn’t from her mind or her hands. She didn’t know how to figure out if maybe Rosa was right.

She lay in bed, composing in her head the messages she wanted to send. They all turned into the same thing in the end.

Save me, I’m drowning.

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