Little Sister Song (Wynter Wild #1)

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One and Only

Jesse was keen to take the wheel for the drive to the restaurant. It would make the social worker anxious—she had to put her life in his eighteen-year-old hands. And in his beat-up 1991 Chevy Caprice wagon, no less. He drove very safely, of course, because Caleb was right there, and talked about the local jazz band he was drumming for. From the back seat Tina queried whether he was old enough to be playing on licensed premises.

Great. One more thing they were doing wrong.

“The law allows minor musicians on stage in bars,” he said confidently.

“I do believe you need to be eighteen.”

“I am—”

“Didn’t you say you’ve been playing with them for eighteen months?” She directed her disapproval at Caleb.

“On and off,” Jesse muttered. “Mostly off.” He changed the subject to the funky smell coming from the roof in the dining room that Caleb needed to check out.

At noon they arrived at Homestead Hills, a family-style restaurant with bland décor and an inoffensive menu. As they waited to be seated, Jesse saw Wynter get out of a red Audi cabriolet in the parking lot. The small, conservatively dressed woman who got out with her did not look like someone who should be driving a red convertible.

Rosa gave him the once-over and he deliberately did the same to her. When Caleb was around he always felt like the little brother. Now he was the big brother, all six feet of him, and he let Rosa know with a glare that he wasn’t happy she was looking after his little sister instead of him and Caleb.

Rosa introduced herself and they went inside. Caleb put his hand on Wynter’s shoulder and Jesse willed him to hug her, but Caleb wasn’t the hugging type. Nor was Wynter, as far as he could tell. He was still in shock over her earlier greeting.

Caleb shook Rosa’s hand. This was so wrong, this pinched-faced stranger taking care of their Wynter.

Wynter looked around. “Where’s Joy?”

Caleb said, “She couldn’t make it. Next time, okay?”

Wynter looked more confused than disappointed. Jesse had been confused all morning. Why did Joy get Wynter out of that place only to ignore her?

They sat at a round table. Rosa was unimpressed with the restaurant but took great care not to show it. Caleb made small talk with the women, displaying those perfect manners that took a man a long way in this world. Jesse had always used his charm in a different way—you could persuade people to do what you wanted by making them like you, which in his case meant making them laugh. Caleb didn’t make people laugh—people did what he wanted, even if they didn’t like him, because he was polite and firm and trustworthy and expected the best from everyone. As for Indio… Jesse wasn’t sure how Indio got what he wanted, but the scruffy good looks and guitar had something to do with it.

Everyone ordered, with Wynter waiting until Jesse ordered and asking for exactly the same. He knew it was because she didn’t know how to interpret the menu. Something else to add to the list of things he’d teach her. When she came home.

And she would come home. Jesse had no faith that Joy would come through—he knew nothing about Joy—but he had faith Caleb would make her come through.

Jesse found Rosa quite fascinating to watch. She was like a bird, tilting her head to listen, fluttering her hands as she talked. He scrutinized her, deliberately double-dipping his carrot sticks in the hummus because it seemed like exactly the sort of behavior that would piss her off. Caleb pointedly moved the bowl out of his reach.

“You wanna go through that math test?” Jesse asked Wynter as they waited for their desserts. “Show it to me.”

She pulled it out of her backpack. It was painful to see the mistakes she’d made. The arithmetic part was perfect, but she had no concept of graphs or algebra, and the worded questions with real-world contexts confused her. She looked at him glumly as he read through it.

“What’s this?” He pointed to some squiggles she’d made in the margins.

“I was just trying to figure them out.”

He looked carefully at her diagrams and realized she’d made visual representations of the questions. “This is good. I can see what you were trying to do.” His mind jumped ahead to how he could teach her using a more creative diagrammatic method.

The desserts arrived. Wynter stirred her ice cream until it was soupy. It was clear she had something else on her mind, and she finally spoke up about it.

“I have some questions about this book I brought with me,” she told Jesse. “Can we go outside and look at it?”

Jesse looked to Caleb for permission. Caleb nodded before any objections could be raised by the women. He’d passed his background check, after all. Not even a speeding ticket. What more could they want? He abandoned a plate of soggy pancakes drenched in hot fudge and followed Wynter outside to sit on a bench near the entrance.

He’d assumed she meant the Hawking book. What she took out of her backpack was a large, thin, hardback book titled Your Body Is Amazing!

“Rosa gave me this to read. It’s got cartoons and jokes, so I don’t know if it’s accurate or just stupid stuff for little kids.”

Jesse thumbed through it and quickly discovered it was, in fact, for much younger kids—colorful pages featuring cartoon characters having silly conversations. He laughed outright at the absurdity of an almost fifteen-year-old learning about sex and puberty from a cartoon bee.

“How much of this did you already know?” he said.

“I knew the names of the body parts. I did learn new things about puberty.” She turned ahead a few pages, to a spread depicting egg-and-sperm diagrams and surreal illustrations of fetuses. “I liked this chapter. I did not know babies looked like that in the womb.”

“Pretty freakish, huh? Like goofy aliens with those huge foreheads and tiny arms.”

“I thought you liked science?”

“Uh, I didn’t mean freakish. I meant… interesting.”

“Look at the last chapter.”

He flicked to the back of the book. The last chapter was called “Different Kinds of Families” and explained various configurations—mom and dad, single parent, two moms, two dads, grandparents, foster families, adopted families.

“There’s no siblings-only family,” she said. “Is that why I can’t live with you?”

“No, that’s not why. And our family is still a family, Wyn, even if we don’t all live together.”

Out of curiosity, he turned to the page on conception. His own knowledge had been accumulated from many sources throughout childhood, followed by a sit-down with Caleb when he was about twelve. That had been more about respecting girls than the mechanics of it, which Indio had already explained in meticulous, mostly accurate, detail. He was curious how seven-year-olds were formally introduced to the idea.

Mommy and Daddy are cozy in bed,” he read. “They cuddle up so tightly that his…” He stopped, aware of Wynter looking at him. “Uh, did you know this stuff already? The anatomical side of it, I mean.”

“Yes, I know which bit goes where during… you know.”

“During sex. It’s okay, you can say the word. This book is silly, Wyn. Sex isn’t much like that. It’s okay to explain it this way to little kids, I guess. At your age… Your friends at school would be laughing at this, too.”

He could see she didn’t understand. She had that edge of panic in her eyes, once again discovering how far behind she was. Then he had another thought about what the panic might mean.

He turned to her on the bench. “Can I ask you something about the ashram?”

Wynter huffed out a breath as if to steel herself. But she didn’t say no. She bowed her head.

“Wyn, please look at me. It’s important.” He waited for her to look up. “Did anyone do this stuff with you? Men or boys asking you, or forcing you, to do things that made you uncomfortable?”

She shook her head, surprised, like she thought he was going to ask something else.

“No? You sure about that?”

“The men and older boys lived on the other side of the compound. We didn’t see them much at all. The kids were all in the dorm near the kitchen and the classroom.”

“Okay. I just needed to ask. Because the thing about this—” He tapped the page. “—is it’s supposed to be between consenting adults. Otherwise it’s wrong and illegal.”

“How old do you have to be?”

“Well, teenagers do it, so I guess it’s not just for adults. You have to be sixteen in the state of Washington.”

“What about in Arizona?”

“I don’t know. It’s different in every state, for some stupid reason.”

“So it could be fifteen or fourteen?”

“Pretty sure that’s illegal.”

She looked down again, sucking on the inside of her cheek.


“Okay, I’ll remember that,” she said flatly.

He desperately wanted to know what she was thinking. He turned through the pages. “This book isn’t gonna help you. Give me your phone.”

She handed it over and he searched for a website specifically written for teens. He dismissed a couple of them as too clinical or too judgmental before finding one he considered suitable.

“Okay, I’ve bookmarked this one for you. It talks about—” He read off the menu. “Puberty, Dating, Relationships, Sex, Contraception, STDs, Slang Words. The last one here is Sexual Abuse. That’s what I just asked you about. When you get around to reading that, if you do think maybe something like that happened to you, you need to tell someone. Me or Caleb or Bea. A counselor at school. Or Rosa, I guess.”

“I don’t think anything like that happened to me, but I’ll read it tonight.”

“And if you have any questions about the rest of it, ask me.”

“You won’t tell me to ask Rosa, like Caleb did the other night?”

“Nope. You can ask me anything.”

She looked very relieved.

“Just bear in mind,” he added, “the info you get from kids at school isn’t necessarily accurate, even from the ones already having sex. And the teachers are just gonna give the politically correct answers so they don’t get fired. I am your one and only source of accurate information.”

“Thank you. I do have a question for you. At school the girls wanted to know if my brothers were hot, and I said yes. And they laughed like that was the wrong thing to say. Was I supposed to say I have ugly brothers?”

Jesse chuckled. “The thing is, the question was just a joke. Sisters don’t think their brothers are hot. You could’ve said something like, My brothers’ girlfriends think they’re hot.

“Do you have a girlfriend?”

“Yes, and she thinks I’m hot.” Not hot enough to sleep with, apparently.

“How come I haven’t met her?”

“Caleb hasn’t met her either. It’s not that serious. Mostly we hang out with a bunch of other friends from college. Natalie’s pretty cool and open to reason. I convinced her Friday the thirteenth, which is tomorrow, doesn’t mean bad luck.”

“Why would it mean bad luck?”

“It’s a superstition, an emotional crutch. I explained confirmation bias and now she’s about seventy percent less superstitious than she was on Friday morning.”

Wynter looked at him, wide-eyed. He’d utterly lost her.

“Never mind. I’m just saying she’s receptive to my perspective, for the most part.”

“And your perspective is the correct one,” she said, mimicking him from a few days ago.

“Exactly. You’re a quick learner. And so is she. She listens to me about all kinds of things. I think she might be worth putting a lot of work into.”

“Does Indio have a girlfriend?”

“Uh… not really. He likes girls. He loves girls. Lots of girls. Has trouble with the girlfriend side of things.”

“What sort of trouble?”

“I just mean… Since high school, he’s in the habit of moving on as fast as possible.”

“What about Jenny?”

“Well, she was different.” Jesse snapped the book shut and handed it back as he considered how to explain. “Jenny saw something else inside him. I can see it too, and Caleb would if he’d focus for one second on what goes on inside a person’s head instead of only their actions. I think Mom—” A sudden sense of discomfort stopped him. Well, that was new. He never had trouble talking about anything and here he was not knowing how to continue. He had no idea how Wynter would react to a conversation about Miriam.

“What about her?” Wynter asked quietly.

He pressed on. “I have this theory—Caleb thinks it’s irrelevant but I know it’s true. See, I don’t remember her at all. I have no emotional stake. And Caleb just got on with what had to be done. But Indio was kind of messed up by it. He once told me he and Mom had a big fight, right before she left with Joy. That’s his last memory of her. Little kids blame themselves for stuff like that and it can follow them for years.”

“And that’s why he doesn’t have a proper girlfriend?”

“It’s complicated, but that’s the gist of it. He’ll get over it eventually.”

“I don’t have a last memory of her.”

“Why not? You were ten, right?”

“I didn’t see much of her. I just sort of realized she wasn’t there anymore. Joy told me she’d gone to Thailand so I found a map and… it was so far away. It didn’t seem real. I tried to think back and find the last memory, the last time I actually talked with her rather than just seeing her around the place. But it was weeks earlier, and I guess not very significant. I never found it.”

“Do you want her back?”

“Do you?”

“She’s nothing to me.”

“I used to.” Wynter drew a deep breath and gazed across the parking lot. “At some point I stopped hoping for it.”

“What about Joy?”

“She always wanted to join Miriam. She lied to me, to make me leave the ashram. She said Miriam was flying in from Thailand. I’d tried to stop caring about her, but suddenly I did care. Suddenly I wanted to see her. But it was just a trick. And I thought maybe Joy wanted to leave the Light. But she went right back to them. So, now I don’t know why she made me leave. I’m glad she did. I’m glad I met you. For a few days I thought I was on the right path, but the universe put me in Richland where everything feels wrong.”

“It’s just for a little while.”

She gave him a tiny smile, more to make him feel better.

He sat up and said brightly, “Did you know today’s Caleb’s birthday?”

“No. Is that important?”

“Most people think birthdays are important. To be honest we never made a big deal of them in our family. I’m the only one who cares. I got him a gift but I don’t want those awful women to be there when I give it to him. When he goes up to pay, we have to whisk him out of the place before they notice. Just for two minutes.”

She nodded conspiratorially.

Caleb could see why Dr Rosamund Meyers spent four days a week teaching and only one with clients. She came across as flighty and cold. He couldn’t imagine how she put her patients at ease with that demeanor. Not that he had the bedside manner to make it as a shrink, either. At least he knew his limitations.

Fortunately, he wasn’t trying to be at ease. His only concern was Wynter.

“Her blood tests were all clear,” Tina was saying, “but she needs to put on some weight.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” Rosa said. “She’s eating very well. I’ll be taking her to the clinic over the next few months for vaccinations—”

“The next few months?” Caleb couldn’t help interrupting. Surely Wynter would be Joy’s responsibility by then. He turned to Tina. “We need to talk about Joy’s custody hearing.”

“Where is Joy today?” Tina said.

“She has a job interview.”

“I see. How do you feel about her readiness to accept custody?”

“I’ve no doubt she’s ready.” Caleb did have doubts. Of course he did. Joy had clearly told him she didn’t want custody. She’d been hard to contact over the past week and she hadn’t shown up today…

“Let’s be realistic,” Tina said, with that I know best, so please shut up tone that raised his hackles, just like it raised Indio’s when Caleb used it with him. “From everything you’ve told me, it’s going to take a while for Joy to get herself organized. Wynter has a safe, settled place with Rosa. Let’s see how she does there.”

Caleb gritted his teeth. “The girls can live at home with me. What is unsafe or unsettled about my home?”

Tina and Rosa exchanged a look, and Tina said, “Wynter has unique issues. She’ll benefit from being under professional care. We couldn’t have hoped for a better home than with Doctor Meyers.”

“I’ll find her a counselor, if that’s what she needs.”

Rosa leaned forward. “Let’s consider this an assessment period. I’m in a position to observe her every day and decide on what treatment she may need. I understand she hasn’t been forthcoming to you about her time in Arizona.”

“Has she to you?”

“Not yet. We’re making progress but these are sensitive issues. There’s the possibility of sexual abuse.”

“She hasn’t mentioned anything like that.”

Rosa gave a patient smile. “Would she even recognize sexual abuse? Her experience is so limited. I’m sure I’ll get it out of her, and then we can start the healing process.”

Get it out of her. Her wording made Caleb’s skin crawl. “She needs her family. And it’s my job, my duty, to—” He stopped talking because Jesse and Wynter were heading back to the table.

Wynter said, in an odd tone, “I’m going to the restroom,” and walked off again.

“D’you wanna come over and pay?” Jesse said. “I have a coupon. Let’s see if they’ll take it.”

Caleb excused himself and followed Jesse to the cash register at the front. “I know you don’t have a coupon for this godforsaken place.”

“Come outside for a minute?” Jesse took his arm, threw a quick look over his shoulder, and hustled him out.

Wynter was on the bench outside. She jumped up, a gleam in her eye. Jesse guided him across the parking lot at a quick pace, Wynter alongside, and they ducked behind a van.

“Okay, bro, I got you a gift. You need to overreact—squeal with delight, give me a wet kiss, you know the routine.” Jesse winked at Wynter. “Them’s the rules.”

Caleb gave him a warning look.

“Is it a real house rule?” Wynter asked Caleb.

“It’s a family tradition that no one follows,” Jesse said. “Me giving thoughtful gifts on special occasions—that’s a house rule.” Jesse pulled out a small flat packet. “Happy birthday, bro.”

The simple phrase made Caleb’s chest squeeze. Birthdays were a sore spot for all of them. Even when Harry had bothered, he’d do something embarrassing or stupid that always involved alcohol. In recent years Jesse had done his best to create better memories, and Caleb forced himself to go along with it.

He opened the package and tipped four tiny figures into his hand.

Wynter leaned in. “What are those?”

Caleb knew. “It’s our family, see?”

“Our family in plastic,” Jesse said. “This one’s you, Wyn.” He picked out the shortest figure, with long light brown hair and blue shorts, holding a tiny mug. “That’s the hot chocolate I gave you. These are the Fairn boys. I tried to match our hair. Caleb’s got a wrench, see? Indio’s got a guitar, and I’m holding A Brief History of Time. It’s a tile with a sticker.”

“Where did you get these?” Wynter asked, fascinated.

“It’s called Lego,” Caleb said. “We were desperate for Lego when we were kids. It was too expensive, so we only had a few bits. Thanks, Jess. They’re very cute.”

“Where’s plastic Joy?” Wynter said.

“When I’ve met her, I’ll make her figure. I gotta match her hair and think of something she can hold,” Jesse said.

They sat together in contented silence, enjoying their moment of freedom.

Caleb’s phone rang. Freedom over. “Tina.”

“Where on earth are you? Wynter is not in the restroom.”

“We’re right outside.”

He ended the call and stood, signaling for Jesse and Wynter to do the same, and they emerged from behind the van. Rosa was in the restaurant doorway, scanning the parking lot. Tina joined her looking flustered. And behind them, the server, even more flustered because it looked like they were all about to do a dine-and-dash.

Caleb, Jesse and Wynter walked over.

“I need to get back to Richland.” Rosa was annoyed with all of them. “Say your goodbyes, Wynter.”

“I’m going to the restroom first.” She stood on tiptoe to put her lips to Caleb’s ear. “To make what I said not a lie.”

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