At the front office at school, a woman behind a glass wall with a name tag, Myra, gave Wynter some forms. They were pre-filled with her details, with asterisks all over them where she had to add missing information. She gave up after five minutes and Myra took the forms back with an impatient frown.
“Rosa will deal with this,” Wynter said. “The woman who… my foster…” She couldn’t say it. Couldn’t say the word mother.
“That’s fine. Come with me. I’ll take you to your class. Your homeroom teacher is Mrs Ling.”
As they walked, Myra talked about timetables and hall passes and rules and lunch orders. They arrived at a locker and Wynter put her bag and coat inside.
“What a lovely coat,” Myra said. “The other girls will be jealous. Is that wool?”
“Camel is a color, pet. I think that’s wool.”
They walked to a classroom door, and Myra knocked and opened it.
“In you come,” Myra said.
The teacher had stopped talking to the class, waiting for her to enter. Wynter felt hot all over. Her feet wouldn’t move.
Myra made some apologetic comment and shut the door. She took Wynter’s arm and directed her away from the door.
“Whatever is the matter? Are you ill?”
Wynter nodded, her head in a fog.
Myra took her to the nurse’s office. Wynter lay on a narrow bed and the nurse put a cold washcloth on her forehead and asked questions. The room spun.
“I need to call someone,” Wynter said.
“We don’t allow phone use during school hours,” the nurse said. “Have you been given a rule sheet about electronic devices?”
“I have to call my brother.”
“Well, all right. You can use the phone in my office.”
“I don’t know his number. I have to tap on his name on the screen.”
The nurse thought about it and finally said, “As it’s your first day, I’ll let you fetch your phone. You come right back here to make the call, okay? Here’s a hall pass.”
Why did she need a pass to walk down a corridor? Wynter went to her locker and grabbed her phone, slipped outside the building and hunkered down against a wall. She called Caleb and almost screamed when he answered.
“Hey, Wynter.” He didn’t sound annoyed that she’d broken all kinds of rules. No phones during class time, no text message first to arrange a time, and hadn’t that message from Rosa said she’d call after school, not during?
“Caleb.” She couldn’t say more. Just his name.
“Hun, what’s up? Aren’t you supposed to be at school?”
She took a few deep breaths. “I am at school… Can’t go in.”
“I mean, I went in. They gave me forms and a locker. I couldn’t go in the classroom.”
There was a long pause.
“Caleb? Are you there?”
“Why can’t you go in?” he said at last.
“My feet wouldn’t move. I don’t like… I don’t like the classroom.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t see inside.”
“Then how do you know… You mean, you don’t like classrooms?”
“This classroom is different. I promise. You’ll like it. You’ll learn lots. You’ll make friends.”
Caleb was so far away and his voice sounded odd, tight somehow. She hated that she was stressing him out with her fears. Her pounding heart made it hard to draw breath.
“Wynter, tell me why you don’t like classrooms.”
“Teachers. I don’t like teachers. They were angry all the time. They didn’t want to be there, and we didn’t want to be there.”
“What’s your teacher’s name at the new school?”
“Okay. Mrs Ling is different. She wants to be there and she’s not angry. She won’t hurt you.”
Wynter snatched the phone away from her ear and stared at it. Why would he say that? She’d never said the teachers hurt her. How did he know? What else did he know?
“…and you’ll do fine, you’ll settle in soon,” he was saying as she put the phone back to her ear.
“Why are you saying that? Why do you keep saying everything’s okay when it’s not?”
“I’m so sorry, hun. I know you don’t want to be there in Richland, but that’s where you have to be. You need to find a way to make it work, to make the best of it. And so do I. Now listen, you’re coming to lunch with Jesse and Joy and me on Saturday. We’re meeting halfway at a restaurant. Tina just confirmed it this morning. Rosa will drive you down.”
His voice calmed her down a bit.
“How long for?”
“A couple hours, I guess.”
“Will Tina be there?”
“Yes. We’re waiting on the background checks, so until then she has to be there.”
“Are they… will they find something bad in the background checks?”
“Of course not.”
“What about Indio?”
“Well, she knows about his juvenile record but hopefully it won’t count. He was sixteen.”
“Oh.” Relief swept through her. “But he’s not coming on Saturday?”
“No. He won’t always be able to make it. He has band and study commitments. You need to hang up and go back to the classroom, okay?”
She’d do what he said. Caleb had never mentioned consequences for disobedience but if she didn’t behave at school Rosa would find out. Rosa had an entire list of consequences that Wynter hadn’t yet dared look at.
“Call me after six and let me know how it went,” Caleb said before hanging up.
Wynter walked slowly to her locker. Her phone pinged—a message from Caleb.
>> You’re strong enough.
She found her way to the classroom. If she pushed down those dark pieces from that other classroom, the pieces she’d washed away, she could trust Caleb to know about schools and teachers and classrooms on the outside. She knocked and waited for Mrs Ling to open the door. Her feet moved her into the room.
“Here’s our new student,” Mrs Ling said. “This is Wynter.”
“Like the season?” said a girl in the front row.
“Yes, with a Y—isn’t that right? Wynter just moved here from Arizona. Why don’t you take a seat there, next to Stacey.”
Wynter sat next to Stacey, a plump, freckled girl with pretty brown eyes, and returned her smile mechanically. She would make it through. She would learn new things and make new memories to flood out all the dark pieces that threatened to surface. Mrs Ling kept talking. Wynter concentrated on breathing slowly until her ears stopped ringing.
When the bell went, Mrs Ling asked Wynter to stay behind, and Stacey said she’d wait outside for her. Caleb had said the teacher wouldn’t hurt her. She held onto that. Still, she was nervous to be all alone in the room with a teacher.
After the children emptied out, Mrs Ling came over with a few sheets of paper.
“Here you go. This is your timetable. You’re down for French and technology systems for your options. Does that sound right?”
Wynter didn’t know a word of French and she didn’t know what technology systems meant, so she just nodded.
“And here’s the homework your teachers assigned for this week. Take a look through it and do whatever you can manage. We’ll talk next week about catching up, once you’ve settled in. Your next class is math in room 409. That’s building number four. Stacey will take you there.”
Stacey and Wynter walked to room 409.
“Mr Yannis is the math teacher,” Stacey said. “He’s not too bad. So, you’re from Arizona? That’s funny, that you’re called Wynter, because Arizona is a desert—like, summer all the time, isn’t it?”
“It gets cold at night.”
“I like your bracelet. You should cover that with your sleeve or they’ll make you take it off.”
Wynter pulled her left sleeve down over the braided cuff.
“Did you place a lunch order? You have to hand it in before ten or you might not get what you want.”
“I have lunch in my locker.”
Stacey twittered away until they reached room 409. The teacher had already started and they slipped into an empty desk. Wynter knew she was behind in math and braced herself. After Mr Yannis finished an incomprehensible fifteen-minute talk at the board, he told the class to work on some problems and came over to Wynter.
“Where were you at with math at your last school?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Give these problems a try and we’ll see.”
Wynter stared at equations for the rest of the lesson, clueless, and escaped when the bell rang before Mr Yannis had a chance to talk to her. Stacey caught up with her and they sat together for English and social studies, which for the most part made sense, and then it was lunch time. They went outside to a paved area with benches where half a dozen girls gathered around, interested in the newcomer, and bombarded Wynter with questions.
Where are you from?
What was your last school like?
Do you prefer Katy Perry or Lady Gaga?
The questions came so thick and fast, Wynter could pick and choose which to answer.
What does your dad do?
Do you have brothers and sisters?
“Three older brothers and a sister.”
Which school do they go to?
Are your brothers hot?
Wynter thought her brothers were very handsome, so she answered, “Yes.”
The girls laughed, their eyes wide, and some clapped their hands over their mouths as if that was the most outrageous thing they’d ever heard.
What’s it like living in the desert?
What do your parents do?
As the questions continued, she realized she could make up whatever she liked about her past and they’d never know. It was the perfect way to not talk about the Light, which she wasn’t supposed to do, and it might help her make friends. She’d have to be careful, though, and not contradict herself and make mistakes. For now, she fended off as many questions as she could and answered the rest carefully.
Next, she had French in room 114. Stacey had something else so she found her own way there. Wynter arrived a minute late and listened outside the door as the teacher talked in French. Pointless to go inside if she didn’t understand what was being said, so she walked away.
The corridors were empty. Wynter heard distant music and followed the sound. Someone was playing violin, very badly, in a room around the corner. She peered through the window in the door. A woman was instructing a boy, making him repeat scales over and over. Not only was he out of tune, he couldn’t get his melodic minor sequence right no matter how the teacher tried to explain the different ascending and descending notes. Wynter couldn’t bear to listen.
She wandered around until another teacher found her, a younger woman with round cheeks who scolded her for not having a hall pass.
“It’s my first day,” Wynter said.
“Where are you supposed to be? I’ll take you.”
“French. But I don’t speak any French.”
“Why did you choose French, then?”
“I didn’t.” She supposed Rosa or a random person in the office must have signed her up for French.
The teacher smiled, suddenly sympathetic. “Let’s take you to the office and you can change your options.”
The teacher’s name was Ms Driscoll and she reeled off a list of subjects. At the front office, Ms Driscoll explained the problem to Myra, who handed over a printed list.
Woodwork. Spanish. Domestic Science. Music…
“Music.” Wynter hoped it wouldn’t mean practicing violin scales.
“Excellent choice,” said Ms Driscoll. “I’m one of the music teachers, although you won’t be in my class. But if you’d like to join the band, just ask me.”
“A rock band?”
Ms Driscoll laughed, a light ringing sound. “No, we have a marching band. Do you play an instrument?”
“Guitar and a bit of piano.”
“Well, we don’t need those for the marching band. You could pick up something else. We’re always short of trombone players. For now, let’s put you down for music in place of French. I’ll take you to Ms Gerald’s class.”
Wynter sat in Ms Gerald’s class and started to feel better about her day.
That evening, Rosa asked her for the signed behavior contract, so Wynter had to fetch it. Before going back downstairs, she glanced at the second page only to discover Rosa was somewhat lacking in imagination when it came to consequences. Grounding, removing phone and TV privileges, paying for careless breakages… Had Caleb imposed similar consequences on his brothers when they were younger? Did Jesse still get grounded? Did Jesse still misbehave?
If the worst that could happen to her was losing TV privileges, perhaps living with Rosa wouldn’t be so bad. If she could make the girls at school like her, perhaps school wouldn’t be so bad. It wasn’t going to be for long. Just until Joy found her feet.
Wynter had it all figured out. At school she couldn’t talk about the Light because Joy had told her it would prevent her fitting in with the outside world. In any case, she didn’t want to relive any of that or get teased about it. Rosa and Caleb thought it was important she make friends. And Jesse, who had vast numbers of friends, thought it was important, too. She quickly developed a way to achieve this, and some of it was even true. She constructed a detailed past based on what she knew of her siblings’ childhoods, and added a few details from Xay’s idyllic life in Australia as well.
“We lived on a horse ranch in Montana,” she told the kids at school, growing more confident with the embellishments once she established that none of them knew much about Montana and couldn’t contradict her. “After our parents died on a sunken cruise ship, we lived in an orphanage until Caleb was eighteen. Then he bought a huge old farmhouse with our inheritance for us all to live in.” She knew the appeal of being an orphan when it came to storytelling, having read Jane Eyre and Oliver Twist years ago.
“Do they even have orphanages anymore?” someone asked.
“In Montana they do.”
“I thought you were from Arizona,” Stacey said.
“We were in Arizona for a few weeks before we moved here. We were visiting our grandmother but she died of consumption.”
Thus, with the death of her fictional grandmother, she wiped Arizona from her backstory.
“Why don’t you live with your brothers and sister now?”
“I do, during vacation time. Last summer we went to California and surfed all day, every day. During the semester I live with my Aunt Rosa so I can go to this school. My brother has a house in Seattle. He’s a petty officer first class.” She didn’t know what that was, but it was absolutely true. The rest, not so much. “He has a wife and a little girl called Jilly. My sister Joy runs a diner on Cougar Mountain. And my other brothers are in a rock band.”
“No way! What band?”
“They’re just starting out so you won’t have heard of them. They’re gonna be famous.”
She made it through the week and felt she was making good progress. She told her newfound friends she was going to Seattle for the weekend. In fact she was only going as far as the restaurant in Yakima to meet up with Caleb and Joy and Jesse, and Tina had to supervise because they were waiting on their background checks.
What would her family think of her lies? The Light did not generally approve of lying, so Joy would be unhappy about it—although judgment wasn’t allowed in the Light, either. In any case, Wynter wasn’t in the Light anymore. Jesse would think she was very clever. Caleb? He would be disappointed in her. That was an uncomfortable thought. But there was no reason he’d find out.
Mr Yannis quickly discovered Wynter didn’t know math and made her sit a seventh-grade test.
“I got forty-five percent,” she told Jesse over the phone on Friday evening, in a panic because it seemed all the more awful to have a number on it.
“We’ll go through the test when I see you tomorrow, and look at where you went wrong. I can’t believe they put you in middle school. You won’t graduate high school until you’re nineteen!”
“Does that matter?”
“We’re gonna do summer school, okay?” he went on, without answering her question.
“I’ll tutor you in every subject. You’ll test out of ninth grade and you can start tenth in September, with kids your own age.”
“What if my brain just can’t do math?”
“I’m gonna teach your brain to do math.”
It was hard to hear him over the background noise at his end. She imagined sitting in the dining room in the little house in Columbia City with Jesse, talking across the table with their books spread out all over it, working on math together every single evening. Or perhaps she’d be doing English homework while he wrote a paper for college. She ached with sadness that she was stuck here in Rosa’s house.
“What about the rest? I don’t understand what anyone’s talking about in the other classes.”
“You’ll be okay. Math is an easy fix. I’ll teach you some strategies to make it through. The rest—the geopolitical and social stuff, that’s been filtered through the Light and it’s all skewed. You can unlearn it and start to deal in facts.”
His determination made her believe.
“And I know you love science, right?” he continued. “The way the physical world works? That’s how my brain is wired, too. With my help, you’re gonna ace science. Tell me about your music class.”
“They’re doing theory this semester. It’s very easy. One of the teachers wants me to take up trombone and play in the band.”
“Have you heard the band play?”
“Yes, they had a lunchtime practice parade today. It was awful. I don’t wanna play with them.”
“You don’t have to.”
“I want to play with you.”
“When you visit Seattle, we’ll do that.”
Rosa’s footsteps were coming up the stairs.
“When? When am I coming over?”
“Caleb and Tina are working out a schedule. Does Rosa mind you playing that guitar?”
“I haven’t played it yet.” She hadn’t felt like it. The guitar sat in its case in the corner of her room.
“Play it, Wynter, and write me a little sister song.” She heard the smile in his voice on the other end of the line. “Gotta go. Just got to the front of the line at the ticket booth. See you tomorrow.”
Rosa knocked on her open door and came in looking very pleased with herself. “Look what I have for you. We’ve reached the end of the week and you’ve had such a good start. Here’s a little reward.”
Wynter had spent the last two days lying to her schoolmates and failing at math. She wasn’t inclined to contradict Rosa because in Rosa’s hand was Indio’s sketchbook. She wanted that book back. Rosa handed it over and Wynter opened it to the first page, which was blank except for writing in the top corner:
Indio Fairn, September 2005
The page was loose, and fell out when she turned it. All the pages were loose.
“I removed the unsuitable material. You may keep the rest. He’s very talented.”
“You’ve ripped up Indio’s book.” Wynter was horrified, yet her voice came out flat and pained. She didn’t dare express her outrage in case Rosa was right and she was wrong about this. And deep down she feared the universe was punishing her for those lies at school. The universe’s consequences were real and painful, even if Rosa’s weren’t.
“There are some lovely illustrations in here.” Rosa sat, uninvited, beside her on the bed. “I particularly like this one.”
She turned a couple of pages to a heavily shaded pencil drawing of a street by night. Two rows of suburban rooftops stretched into the distance, and the foreground was crowded with intricate details—a trellis on the wall, a garbage can with a crooked lid, a single lit window with a shadowy figure.
“I did a bit of sketching in my younger days,” Rosa said. “This is called perspective drawing, which means representing three-dimensional objects in two-dimensions. It’s like a technical exercise.” She traced her finger along the line of rooftops. “And see how he shaded these areas, and then erased the edges where the moonlight hits? It’s quite beautiful. Yes, I think he’s very talented. I wonder how old he was when he drew these.”
“Fifteen.” Wynter showed her the date. “Only two months older than I am now. So why can’t I see the other things he drew?”
“We’ve talked about that. Let’s not repeat ourselves. Come down to dinner and you can tell me all about the new friends you’ve made.”
Wynter hadn’t made any new friends, unless she counted Stacey who sat by her sometimes. At what point did someone become a friend, anyway? Was Rosa her friend? Rosa took something belonging to her, with no intention of giving it back. That didn’t seem like friendly behavior. Wynter could impose a few consequences of her own. Rosa seemed desperate to connect but Wynter didn’t want or need her friendship or advice or rules or anything else. Wynter would cut her out.
She looked at Indio’s drawing again, drinking in every line and smudge. Was this a street he’d seen with his own eyes? The elevated angle would put him on a rooftop. That didn’t seem right. He must’ve imagined it, like the unfinished dragon roaming across the previous page with its hundreds of scales and glistening teeth. The street looked honest and real but it was a lie, an invented world like the one she’d created for her own past to tell the kids at school.
On one rooftop was a sleek cat, belly pressed to the tiles, face raised to the sky. Wynter smiled because there was so much personality in that simple figure, in its pricked ears, the arch of its back and the kink of its tail. Its eyes glinted in the moonlight.
She turned the page to look at the next sketch.