Little Sister Song (Wynter Wild #1)

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The Smallest Effort

Caleb sat in Harry’s tiny two-bedroom house in Everett, on the same kitchen stool he’d sat on a two dozen times, staring at the same filth-encrusted sink, the same cracked window pane, the same crate of empty beer bottles that may or may not make it into the recycling cart on the scheduled collection day. In the corner of the living room was the old piano from Caleb’s childhood, which Harry had moved to Seattle at great expense while leaving most of their other furniture behind. Harry was a brilliant player but that instrument clearly wasn’t getting any attention these days—the closed fallboard was stacked with newspapers, mail, and empty beer cans. Crumpled laundry hid the bench entirely.

“I could paint that siding for you, when we get a dry weekend,” Caleb said, scratching Lexie behind the ears when she trotted over to greet him. Harry had acquired the young Border Collie a year ago.

“Don’t need your help with that, son. I can manage.”

In the two years he’d lived here, Harry never had gotten around to managing much of anything. The clapboard house was falling apart, the window frames had rotted through, and the entire place was in desperate need of patching and painting.

“At the very least, you need to put a water-repellent coat on it.”

Harry waved away the suggestion and reached for his smokes. “How’s the Silverado?”

He always asked that. He loved that truck. Caleb had guilted him into handing over the title when he moved out. When Caleb threw him out.

“The truck’s running great. Can we talk about Joy?”

“Sure thing. You say that was her calling me last week? How was I supposed to know? Out of the blue like that. Have you seen her?”

“She showed up yesterday morning. Wouldn’t hang around.”

“Well, how is she?”

Caleb rubbed his temples, struggling to find a way to talk about what needed to be said. “Uh, I’m not sure. She won’t tell me exactly why she left. Miriam moved overseas years ago.”

“Miriam’s gone, huh,” Harry mused. “She’s still in that cult though, I’ll bet.”

“She’s working for them in Thailand. Did you know she remarried and had a daughter after she moved to Arizona?”

Harry shrugged, uninterested, as he lit a cigarette. “No idea what she got up to. Never heard from her again, you know that. Loved having babies, that woman. Made her feel fruitful and connected to Mother Earth, she used to say. The pregnancy part of it, I mean. Can’t say she was very interested in the babies themselves. Still, I’m surprised she stopped at only one more. Me, I thought two, total, was a good number. An environmentally responsible number.” He stumbled over the long words, from which Caleb inferred he wasn’t entirely sober. “But the twins put an end to that. And Jesse, well, he wasn’t my idea. You need to watch out for him. Needs a firm hand, that one.”

Nothing could be further from the truth when it came to Jesse, but Caleb wasn’t going to argue the point. And a firm hand hadn’t exactly worked wonders on Indio.

“He’s calmed down a bit now,” Harry went on, like he was any kind of authority on his sons, “but he only drops by when he needs something signed. As I recall, the momentous occasion of his conception was a little gift from my dear wife when I got a promotion to senior grounds manager at the school. That kid’s always had a few screws loose, eh? Not my idea.”

Harry waved his hand dismissively, which the dog took as a signal to go over for some attention. Harry stroked her head with a smile that conveyed more affection than he’d ever offered his boys. Caleb propped his elbow on the counter and pressed his fist against his jaw to force himself into silence.

At moments like this, he wondered why he bothered with his father at all.

He pushed the conversation back on track. “Joy left the ashram with Miriam’s younger daughter. Her name’s Wynter. She was staying with me up until yesterday.”

“Where is she now, then?”

“Foster care.”

“Hah!” Harry cried with satisfaction. “Karma’s a bitch, eh? That’s gotta burn.”

“What d’you mean?”

“Your mother was always terrified of social workers. They tried to take you away. Did you know that? She used to leave you alone for hours when you were a baby, out singing in bars half the night. They were that close to putting you in foster care. Your Grandma and Grandpa found out just in time, took Miriam in, treated her like their own daughter until I got back from Germany. And now her kid’s with the authorities. Priceless.”

He awaited Caleb’s reaction. Caleb wasn’t going to take the bait.

“I was hoping you had some way to contact Miriam,” Caleb said, “or information on her second husband. Anything at all.”

“Told you, I know nothing about it. How about you concentrate on the sister you know instead of Miriam’s brat? I want to meet Joy. Can you arrange that? Never did get to see much of her, but I remember everything. Beautiful child, was my Joy, with those big blue eyes and delicate hands. Voice of an angel. And stuck like glue to Indio. Remember the way she followed him around? His little shadow. He was always more interested in playing with you, but they had their moments. I never forgave Miriam for…” Harry stared at the cigarette burning between his fingers. “Well, you know all that.”

Caleb did know that. He pitied Harry for his loss, but it was sixteen years ago. Caleb had stepped up while Harry had fallen over almost every day—and was chronically unable to admit or accept that fact.

“I intend to help both of them,” Caleb said. “Wynter’s in foster care in Benton County. She should be with Joy. I’m gonna try and make that happen.”

“You’ll bring Joy to see me, won’t you? Next time you visit. I’m only doing four nightshifts at the marina.”

“I’ll talk to her about it.”

“Why wouldn’t she want to meet her dad again?”

Caleb glanced around Harry’s decrepit shack. “Maybe you can visit with her at my house.”

Your house, is it?” Harry barked a laugh, then let it drop. “Whatever works, son. I’m free most afternoons before work. I got AA meetings on Wednesday morning, Sunday morning, and Monday evening.”

“How’s that working out for you?” Caleb couldn’t resist the jab. Harry hadn’t been sober for more than a few days at a time through Caleb’s entire life, and he wasn’t sober today. Whatever he was getting out of AA, it wasn’t sobriety.

“It’s only been a few months. Met some nice people and some real dicks and some boring fucks. I gotta say, it’s hard listening to a bunch of strangers talking about how much they crave a drink when you’re trying to cut back.” He chuckled to himself. “I’ll give it a few more tries, I guess. There’s a very nice lady at the Sunday meeting who’s been a big help.”

So that’s what he was getting out of AA.

“Listen, Harry, I need a few things from you. I need Joy’s birth certificate and social security number so she can get herself a photo ID. Do you have them?”

“I suppose so. All the paperwork’s back there somewhere.”

Caleb stood up, which made Harry jump up to stop him.

“Now, wait a minute. If she wants her stuff, she can come get it herself. Give me a chance to catch up with her.”

Caleb strode past his father, ignoring Harry’s vague protests, and proceeded to the back room. It was piled high with boxes and other junk that he’d made Harry take with him when he moved out. Some of these boxes hadn’t been opened since they left Anaconda. Some were even older—things Miriam had left behind in Missoula, which her landlord had put into storage until he’d tracked down Harry to collect them.

Caleb whipped out a pocket knife to open the older boxes while Harry stood in the doorway with his cigarette, nursing his wounded pride at being bested by his eldest son. Not for the first time.

“Don’t go expecting any of it to be stored in a neat logical manner,” Harry said. “Your mother was a scatterbrain. I lost count of how many times she forgot to pay the utilities bill or locked herself out of the house. This one time—I’ve probably mentioned it before—she went off to the store with the twins in the double stroller and you riding up on the bar, and she came back without you. I said, Where’s your firstborn, ya mad woman? She wouldn’t admit she forgot you, of course. Wouldn’t call the cops. Oh, he’ll find his way home, she said. They call it free-range parenting these days, yeah?”

Caleb had heard the story a dozen times. As always, he remained silent in anticipation of the rest, where Harry had rushed to the rescue and found him sitting in the corner of the store breaking up candy bars to stuff them into his tiny pockets. Today, Harry skipped over the end. He leaned against the door jam, tapping ash into a mug, scowling as if to say, I dare you to find what you’re looking for.

In the fourth box, Caleb did find what he was looking for—a folder with Joy’s name on it, and her birth certificate and social security card inside. Underneath the folder were a couple of thick photo albums from his childhood.

“Hey, I’ll take these. Wynter and Joy will want to take a look.” Caleb wasn’t entirely sure that was true, but he wanted to see and Jesse would certainly be interested.

Harry came into the room to take one and opened it at the last page. “Your first day of high school. Look at you, in your buttoned shirt. You look like a tax accountant. Miriam would’ve thrown a fit. Indio with the guitar I bought him. That’s set him on the road to fame and fortune—mark my word.” He turned back a few pages. “Ah, that damn Golden Retriever you boys adopted. Nothing but trouble, that mutt. Never retrieved a thing. Thank god it ran off.”

Caleb glared at his father just long enough to signal he didn’t appreciate the comment. He didn’t say anything. What was the point, after all these years? Maybe Harry’s pickled brain had forgotten what actually happened to the dog. Maybe he thought he was telling the truth. The way he’d said it, though, with that little chuckle of his, it forced you to weigh your next move carefully—challenge the lie and risk a blowout, or shut up and take it.

“Where’s Indio’s file?” Caleb said. “I need copies of everything so we can get his juvenile record sealed.”

“Thought he did that ages ago?”

“Well, he was supposed to.” Caleb found the file in a newer box. Too late for Wynter’s social worker but it still had to be done.

“It’s outrageous, that’s what it is, that he has to jump through hoops. He was just a kid. They should’ve automatically sealed those records when he turned eighteen.”

“You take that up with the state of Washington,” Caleb muttered, gathering everything together and preparing to leave. “I’ll let you know about Joy.”

“Don’t suppose you got a twenty on you, have you? I need to buy heartworm tablets for Lexie here.”

Caleb had a self-imposed rule to never give Harry cash. As he headed for the door, he said, “Give me the name of the medicine. I’ll buy it for you.”

“That’s nice of you. I don’t know the name. Anything’ll do, I guess. There’s a vet clinic a few blocks south of here. Still need the twenty, though. I’m out of dog food and she’s chewed through her leash.”

“I don’t have cash on me, sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it. No problem at all. I can make it to payday.”

“I’ll leave the medicine in your mailbox. You want me to take out that recycling?”

Caleb left with the same heaviness in his chest he always felt after a visit with his father. He wanted to help but he wasn’t a pushover. He wasn’t going to give Harry cash. He wasn’t going to take out the recycling or paint the siding without asking first, because it wasn’t his job to force help upon Harry. And he wasn’t going to allow Harry to influence or impose on his life, or the lives of his siblings, until he got his act together.

He might still get his act together. The odds were miniscule but Caleb had spent four years on a cutter and seen people defy the odds a hundred times. Meanwhile, he visited as often as he could and encouraged Jesse to do the same. He offered help, accepted the rebuttals, and waited patiently for his father to make the smallest effort.

Besides, he had more important considerations now. While Harry plodded on, never changing, Caleb’s life had been upended. Last Friday he’d put in for a week’s emergency leave, intending to use the time to get Wynter settled and enrolled in school. This morning he’d canceled it. Wynter was gone and Joy had so far refused his help. Tomorrow his life would go back to normal.

Except that nothing was the same.

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