Little Sister Song (Wynter Wild #1)

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Caleb pulled up in the driveway to find Jesse chatting excitedly on his phone as he worked on a small snowman in the middle of the front yard that was otherwise devoid of snow, as was the entire city. The front door stood wide open.

“…I swear I’m not making it up. I’ll send you a photo when he’s done… No, a tiny one. Two feet tall. I got sick of waiting for snow so I drove up the mountain and fetched some.” Jesse patted the snowman’s shoulders into shape. “Yes, pretty sure he’ll last until you get here. I’ll wrap him in a thermal blanket. In any case, we can take you to see the snow in situ on Saturday.”

Caleb caught his eye as he walked up the path, giving a little shake of his head. They really shouldn’t make promises they might not be able to keep.

“Let me talk to her.”

“She says it’s even colder in Richland, but no snow there, either,” Jesse said, handing over the phone. “We have to take her to the mountain. Where’s the harmonica?”

“Do we have one?”

“Yes! I’m sure we do…”

Jesse disappeared into the back of the house. In the front yard his creation sagged lopsidedly, its carrot nose drooping, a woolly hat pulled low over its head. Indio would’ve sculpted something spectacular just to show him up, and Jesse would’ve been perfectly okay with being mocked over his objectively poor artistic talent.

“Hey, hun,” Caleb said. “Has Rosa talked to you about the visitation schedule?”

“Tina says you’re allowed to visit me twice a month,” Wynter said, “as long as it doesn’t interfere with Rosa’s plans, whatever that means. And I can visit Seattle once a month, starting this weekend. She says more than that would be overdoing it because I’ll be so busy with schoolwork and friends.”

“She could be right. Your life is about to get real busy.”

“But I don’t have any friends. I don’t understand anything those kids are talking about.”

“It’ll get better.”

“So the good thing is I can stay the night on Saturday because the evening bus gets in too late. But then I have to catch the bus back at nine on Sunday morning.”

“Plenty of time for pancakes first.”

“And Tina says you have to pay for the bus!” she said indignantly.

“I know. I already spoke to her this afternoon.”

“You have to book the ticket in advance, to get the best price.”

“I’ll do it tonight.”

Tina had made more demands than just paying for the bus. No leaving the state. No unsupervised visits with Joy until she completed her background check. No unsupervised visits with Indio ever because of his history. And not just his criminal record. Tina had unearthed other problems that Caleb needed to talk to his brother about, and which he hoped she hadn’t mentioned to Wynter.

Wynter said, “She told me Indio’s not allowed to stay overnight in Seattle or when he visits here, or drive me around or even leave the house with me. He’s not a bad person. Why are they acting like he is?”

“He’s not a bad person but he’s done some irresponsible things. He had a few rough years, hun. He’s away from that crowd now. He’ll do great at Portland.”

“Please don’t make him feel bad. He might not want to see me.”

“Of course he will.”

“Will you bring Joy with you when you visit? She hardly ever replies to my texts and she never picks up when I call her. I sent her photos of my room and my school and I don’t know if she got them.”

“She’s busy sorting things out.”

“Have you seen her again?”

“Yes, just once, to give her the background check forms.” He’d also given her cash for the fee, instructions on how to get a fingerprint card, and an affidavit form for her statement that she was present at Wynter’s birth, which was one of the many necessary steps to getting Wynter a birth certificate. And that had been the only time he’d spoken with her, because she didn’t respond to his messages, either.

He said goodbye as Jesse came back with the harmonica and a couple of drumsticks for arms. He’d sacrificed one to the cause—it was broken in half with the pieces taped together at an angle.

“So the little guy can hold the harmonica, see?” Jesse said, holding it up for accolades.

Caleb handed back the phone. “What do you know about the trouble Indio was in at Ohio State?”

A flicker of irritation crossed his youngest brother’s face. “Uh, what trouble?”

“Drugs, drinking, fighting. Sound familiar? Tina told me about it today. She must have contacts in Ohio because those were internal sanctions at the university. The police weren’t involved.”

“Well, I didn’t know about it, specifically, but I guess it doesn’t surprise me. Is that a good answer?”

“A good answer would be a truthful one.”

“That’s the truth. I didn’t know about the sanctions.”

Jesse went outside before Caleb could interrogate him further. Caleb didn’t pursue it—it really had nothing to do with Jesse, who hated even thinking about what Indio was up to because it scared him.

Caleb braced himself to call Indio, going into his room so Jesse wouldn’t have to hear. Indio sounded like he was in a pretty good mood until Caleb got to the reason for the call.

“Five sanctions—and I’m guessing those were only the times you were caught.”

“You already knew I had good reason to transfer to Portland.” Indio sounded like he’d rather be having a cavity drilled.

“I’m not calling to chew you out. I’m calling to tell you the consequences. Wynter’s caseworker won’t let you see her without my supervision. I have to be physically in the same room.”

“How the fuck would Social Services know if you were in the same room or not?”

“That’s not the point. I’m saying all the shit you pulled is gonna haunt us for a while.”

“What can I say to get you off my back? Two weeks ago, we didn’t know she existed. I couldn’t have predicted this.”

“You’re telling me it never occurred to you that punching kids on campus could cause problems down the track?”

“I never punched anyone. Jesus. Those were scuffles. One time I only got reported because the kid’s dad was a professor at—”

“Indio, I don’t care what your excuses are. Excuses don’t erase the sanctions.” Caleb bit back the next three things he was going to say. Castigation wouldn’t help. “On the weekend we’ll sit down together and fill out those forms to get your juvenile records sealed.”

“Awesome,” he said flatly. “I look forward to that.”

“And your background check, too. I’ll pay for everything.”

“What’s the point? That caseworker knows about my record. She won’t let me see Wynter unsupervised either way.”

“You won’t be able to see her at all if you don’t do the background check. Tina’s given you two weeks’ grace.”

Indio sighed. “Fine. But I don’t need your help. I’ll deal with it.”

He never wanted help, no matter how Caleb offered it—except for the financial support that had enabled him to leave home, of course.

A sudden thought occurred to Caleb. “Is there something else a background check is gonna turn up? Something I don’t know about?”

“I said I’ll deal with it.”

“God, please tell me you’re gonna do better at Portland,” Caleb said, more to himself.

“I’ve only been here a few weeks. At least give me a fucking chance to screw up before you start, okay?”

Indio hung up, his go-to response once the conversation devolved into cussing. Caleb regretted the entire call. He wouldn’t be surprised if his brother refused to take another call from him for the remainder of the semester.

He found Jesse sprawled on the couch reading a book.

“How about you clip those hedges while you’re out there?” He’d told Jesse that morning to get it done.

“In the dark? I’ll do it first thing tomorrow.”

“Fine. Call Indio tomorrow and remind him about Wynter’s visit this weekend. I’d like him here by midday.”

Jesse turned a page, not looking up. “Is he not talking to you again?”

“I think that’s probably the case.”

“Well, you had a good run. What was that—ten whole days?”

Fighting with Indio was a very old habit. It was easy to forget how it affected Jesse, who made light of almost everything regardless of his true feelings.

“Sunday after next, you and me are driving to Richland,” Caleb said.

“I know. You texted me two hours ago. Is Joy coming?”

“I hope so. She’s not very communicative.”

“You bust her ass and I’ll bust Indio’s, and between the two of us maybe we can put the family back together again.” Jesse finally looked up. “Whose ass do we bust to get Wynter into our family?”

“I know you’re upset about this, Jess. We have to make the best of it.”

“I always wanted a little brother. A little sister will do. I hated being the baby. Hated it. And I feel bad saying that, cuz I know I took advantage of being the baby. I know you went easy on me.”

“Are you saying I should go easier on Indio?”

“I’m not gonna get involved with you and Indio. I’m saying you’re easy on me. Why didn’t you send me into the roof the other day to find that maggoty rat?”

“Why didn’t you offer?”

“I’m just saying, that’s the perfect job for me. I mean, it’s a disgusting job but I could’ve done it. Since I was a little kid you got me mowing the lawn and taking out the garbage. Lawn, garbage, lawn, garbage. I can do other stuff. If I had a little brother, I’d be sending him into that roof, for sure.”

“I’m fairly certain you’d put your foot through the ceiling.”

“So, you won’t make me do something that’s hard for me? How come you’re always making Indio do things that are hard for him?”

“Such as?”

“Such as being a mini-you. Punctual and practical and unemotional and duty-bound and dependable and monogamous. Like a freakin’ robot. Indio doesn’t work that way.”

“And you know how Indio works?”

“I got a pretty good idea.” Jesse tapped his temple meaningfully.

“Good. Please use that privileged knowledge to make sure he shows up on Saturday. He’ll have a gig the night before and it’s a three-hour ride, so I know it’s gonna be hard for him.”

Jesse groaned, tipping his head back on the couch. “Everything I said went right over your head.”

“I heard you, Jesse. And if he would just talk to me, I would hear him, too. He still needs to be here. Not for me. For Wynter. Then he can go back to Portland and be as impractical and unpunctual, and all the rest of it, as he likes, as long as he passes his classes and stays out of trouble.” Caleb eased back. This really was nothing to do with Jesse. “You wanna lift weights before we eat?” Caleb been to the pool after work so he was already in sweatpants.

“I’m doing something else right now.”

“I don’t see you doing anything.”

Jesse waved his book around. “This is something, dude.”

“Let’s lift.”

Jesse gave in, put his book down and followed Caleb into the garage.

“Did he really transfer to Portland to play in Turk’s band?” Caleb said. “Or was Ohio gonna throw him out?”

Jesse gave him a sidelong look as he loaded the bar with weights. “All I know is they gave him one more chance. I guess he figured he should get out before he was thrown out. Some woman in Admin gave him a little inside help transferring.”

“Why would she do that?”

“She was a long-time fan of his music,” Jesse said with an eye roll.

Caleb could only assume “fan” was a euphemism. Then again, Indio could be very charming when he needed to be.

“By the way,” Caleb said, swinging a leg over the bench and lying down to grab the bar. “What’s his sex life got to do with anything? Why’d you even throw that in there earlier?”

“You’re right. No reason to think robots would be monogamous.”

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