Little Sister Song (Wynter Wild #1)

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Turning Pages

Jesse was pretty proud of himself. He’d brought home Joy. Plus, Wynter was thrilled with his harmonica-playing snowman out the front.

Over lunch Wynter told Joy about her classes and the cold snap in Richland and her foster mother’s allegedly incredible meals. Jesse was fairly sure Wynter would describe any halfway decent home-cooked meal as gourmet. He was forced to concede Rosa’s competence in that department was a blessing because Wynter needed to eat well. He kept the concession to himself.

“How was that job interview last week?” Caleb asked Joy.

Joy put down her fork and took a sip of water. “It didn’t go anywhere, unfortunately.”

“I told Joy about the waitressing job at Sticky’s,” Jesse said, to get it on the record, in front of Caleb, that she had other options.

“I asked Patricia for help, too,” Caleb said. “She’s a family friend. She may be able to give you some shifts at the diner. And her cousin has a bakery just a few miles from here—he’s looking for a sales assistant, if you’re an early riser.”

“That’s very kind of you to ask around for me,” Joy said. “I don’t think I can do sales or waitressing, but I’m sure something will turn up.”

“Well, you think about it. Wynter says you know bookkeeping. That’s a useful skill.”

“I did think of that. I asked my friend about it and discovered the software I was using is fifteen years out of date. Things move so fast out here.”

“The community college will have courses to get you up to speed.” Caleb had an edge of nervous desperation to his tone that Jesse had never heard before. “I’ll help you. I’ll do anything to keep the two of you together and close by.”

Joy gave a wan smile but didn’t answer.

Jesse went to help Wynter clear up the kitchen.

“Did Indio tell you why he couldn’t come?” she asked him.

He wondered how much to tell her. He was angry with Joy but he was boiling mad at Indio today. As her one and only source of accurate information, he owed her the unvarnished truth.

“He planned to come. He had a gig last night and got wrecked. You know what that means?”

Her jaw dropped. “He wrecked his bike?”

“No, although he would’ve if he’d ridden today. He partied too hard and now he has to sleep it off.”

“Oh.” She was devastated, and trying not to show it because, after all, what right did she have to expect Indio to behave on the one fucking night it mattered?

“This time tomorrow he’s gonna be feeling really, really disappointed in himself,” Jesse said.

“I don’t want him to feel bad. I just want him here! He hasn’t even met Joy yet.”

Jesse didn’t think that was such a big deal, given his own lack of connection with his older sister. Then again, maybe Indio and Joy would get along. They were twins and both were kind of pathetic in their own way—on this weekend, anyway.

“We could drive up the mountain,” Jesse said. “Let’s build a huge snowman in the truck bed and bring it home to keep the little one company.”

Wynter brightened at the suggestion. “Can we do that?”

“If we make him, or her, exactly eight times bigger, we can call them Frostbyte and Frostbit.”

She screwed up her face, not understanding. So much to teach her.

“Joy’s not keen on a drive,” Caleb said quietly, coming into the kitchen to make coffee. “I already asked her.”

Of course she wasn’t keen on a drive. God forbid Joy let herself experience the joy of a simple family trip.

“She was telling me about the time I burrowed into the snow stark naked,” Jesse said as Joy brought in the last of the dishes to rinse. “I’m hoping you remember the story differently, bro.”

“Sounds about right.”

“He thought he was an eskimo, so we made him an igloo,” Joy told Wynter. “It was huge. Grandma kept bringing out soup and hot chocolate while we worked.”

Jesse was astonished by the change in her as she dwelled on the memory—for the first time, her voice was animated.

Caleb did his best to encourage her. “We rolled dozens of snowballs and stacked them in a dome. It held together for days.”

“It was so warm inside!” Joy almost laughed. “You and Indio wanted to camp overnight in there.”

“I picked up a couple of photo albums from Harry’s,” Caleb said. “There might be a photo of the igloo.”

He went out to the garage to fetch them from the truck. He hadn’t told Jesse about the albums, which was kind of neat—he’d planned to show them all together, as a surprise. Instead, Indio hadn’t shown up and now Joy was looking nervous. Jesse watched the flicker of life drain from her.

“Jesse, would you mind driving me back?”

“Now?”

“I have things I need to do.”

“I thought you were staying for dinner,” Wynter said. “You can stay the night. I’ll sleep on the couch.”

“I really can’t, darling, I’m so sorry. I have an appointment this afternoon and a meeting tonight.”

“Don’t you want to see the photos?”

“Of course. Next time.”

Jesse watched Wynter shut down, protecting herself from the pain.

“I’m not driving you back right now,” Jesse told Joy. He wasn’t going to make up an excuse, either.

They locked eyes and he watched her come to the realization that his stubborn refusal was final.

She said, “Well, I’m sure Caleb will oblige.”

Caleb came back with two photo albums and stacked them on the dining room table. “These are ’88 through ’03, up until we moved to Seattle. I know there’s a later one somewhere—couldn’t find it.”

“I must get going,” Joy said. “Thank you so much for lunch. Can you drive me back, Caleb?”

Caleb glanced at Jesse. He looked down, refusing to engage.

“Let’s take a quick look, okay?” Caleb said.

“I’m afraid I don’t have time today. You could drop them off at the office, perhaps? I’d love to take a look, but I have a session.”

The entire point had been to look at them together. Jesse glared at the albums on the table, feeling the air thicken.

“I’ll drive you back in a couple hours.” Caleb’s tone brooked no argument. Joy gave in with a fluttery fake smile.

Caleb took a seat and opened up the first album. He grabbed the edge of Wynter’s chair and pulled it closer, right up against his, then put his arm across the back, not touching her but sending a clear signal that he was there for her. Wynter slid him a look of gratitude and leaned forward to see the first page.

“Anaconda, Montana, January 1988,” Caleb said. “Yours truly. Age: one day.”

Jesse moved his chair around the table and sat on Caleb’s other side. “You had more hair at one day old than I do today.”

“It all fell out, then came in lighter, then turned dark again.”

Wynter stroked baby Caleb’s cheek. He was cradled in someone’s arms—Miriam’s arms, presumably. Jesse wondered how Wynter was going to react when a photo of Miriam came up.

Then he wondered how he was going to react. Harry had never displayed photos of her around the house but Jesse had seen a few pictures. Caleb had sometimes bought disposable cameras with his pocket money when he was eight or nine, and had his own photo album of the family from that era. And Indio once had a picture of her from before she was married. He’d used it as a bookmark when he was in elementary school. When it had gotten ratty, he’d covered it in sticky tape to try and preserve it. Could be anywhere now. Maybe lost in a book in one of the boxes in Indio’s closet.

On the opposite page was baby Caleb wrapped in blankets. “They say I came out at four in the morning, and the heater was broken.”

“You were born at home?” Jesse said. “I didn’t know that.”

“This is the Anaconda house—Grandpa and Grandma Fairn’s house, where Harry grew up. Miriam lived there the last few weeks of her pregnancy, and moved in properly some time after I was born while Harry was stationed in Germany. I was sixteen months old before he met me.”

Joy came around to stand behind Caleb. “Indio and me were born there, too. Mom wasn’t supposed to have twins at home, but she insisted. By the time you were born, Jesse, we were living in Billings for a while and you were born in the hospital.”

“Was I born in the hospital?” Wynter asked her.

“No. Remember, darling, I told you—I was at your birth. They wouldn’t have let me be there if Mom went to the hospital. You came a month early, in the end, so it all happened quickly. It was the most incredible thing. I was the first one to hold you.”

The sisters exchanged a warm smile and for a moment Jesse thought everything would be okay.

Caleb turned the pages. Now baby Caleb was a curly-headed two-year-old on a trike with Christmas ribbons still attached. Serious-looking even back then. And there was Miriam kneeling beside him, smiling at him like he was her world.

“Jesse, he looks exactly like you,” Wynter said.

“Hear that, Jess? She thinks you look two years old.”

Caleb’s voice was tight, despite the joke, and his hand on the page was curled into a fist. Wynter didn’t notice. She was already looking at the photo on the opposite page, Harry and Miriam’s wedding picture after Harry left the army.

Joy excused herself and went to the bathroom. Jesse watched his brother’s gaze lingering on that first photo of Miriam, the picture-perfect loving mother in acid-wash jeans and cowboy boots, a tasseled suede jacket and knitted scarf. Jesse felt nothing but mild curiosity at seeing his mother and the wedding picture, and Wynter also seemed unfazed. She asked Caleb if he remembered the wedding and it took him a moment to snap out of it and answer her.

“No, I was only just two. I have some memories of the twins when they were little.”

He turned a couple more pages with toddler Caleb until he reached a photo of the new babies, blond Indio and brunette Joy. Maybe baby Wynter had looked like a cross between the two of them. Did they even have cameras at the ashram?

Joy came back in the room just then, and Caleb told her, “When one of you cried, the other one started crying just for the hell of it. I used to pile my Matchbox cars in your crib to try and distract you.”

“I’m sure it helped,” Joy said, patting Caleb’s shoulder and leaving her hand there. Jesse held his breath, knowing Caleb was doing the same. The simple gesture became ridiculously significant.

“I remember this toy.” Caleb pointed to a Christmas photo when he was almost four.

“Is that a parking garage?” Jesse said.

“Yeah, it had an elevator between floors, a spiral ramp right there, and a car wash at the bottom.”

“How come I never inherited that? I’d have loved that.”

“I guess it didn’t last that long.”

“I’m sure you played with it,” Joy said. “I’m sure you ate one of the foam rollers from the car wash. Or maybe that was Indio.”

“No, that sounds like Jesse.” Caleb grinned at him.

Then came the baby Jesse photos. Miriam had thrown Harry out when Jesse was a couple of months old. It wasn’t evident from the photos because, as chief photographer, Harry was in hardly any of the shots anyway.

“Jesse, you’re the cutest thing ever!” Wynter exclaimed.

It was true, too. It was universally accepted family lore that Jesse had been objectively the cutest child. He stood out, as the only extrovert, pulling faces for the camera before he even turned one. The outrageous curls and chubby cheeks didn’t hurt, either. He’d sometimes wondered what being a parent would feel like—he’d be an awesome dad, of course—but seeing page after page of super-cute baby pictures was making him uncomfortable. This was what Miriam had rejected. Not his current self, the hyperactive, sometimes demanding, often annoying teenager, but this adorable tot.

“There’s the pink house in Great Falls,” Caleb said, tapping a photo of the twins playing in the front yard of a tiny two-story clapboard house. “D’you remember it, Joy? We were only there a few months. Indio mixed up a batch of dirt and water and set about repainting it brown so his kindergarten friends wouldn’t make fun of him.”

“I took the hose and washed it all off,” Joy said.

There were several photos of the four kids in both candid and posed shots, the later ones in the Missoula house near the Clark Fork River, with the patio that Caleb sometimes talked about.

“How did Harry get a hold of these photos?” Jesse said. “He wasn’t around.”

“Miriam left all her stuff behind when she moved to Arizona,” Caleb said.

As the years turned with the pages, Jesse felt the tension rising again. There it was, his third birthday. He was wearing a dinosaur t-shirt and grinning behind a rocketship cake with lit candles, one big brother on each side of his chair.

“This is back in Anaconda,” Caleb said. “Harry returned from god-knows-where to live in his childhood home after Grandma died and Grandpa moved into the community nursing home. We hadn’t seen much of him in three years. He was working as a prison guard, twenty-five miles out of town. Miriam took us to stay for the summer. Jesse had a stunning tantrum after he blew those candles out. We never figured out why.”

Jesse shrugged, mystified.

The doorbell rang.

“That’s my taxi,” Joy said.

Wynter took a second to catch on. “You called a taxi?”

“I did say I had an appointment.” Joy slung her purse over her shoulder.

Caleb hadn’t moved or reacted, as if he’d expected it. Even after her hand on his shoulder and her animated reminiscing and smiles, he’d expected it. Jesse had to admit it took some cojones for her to sneak out and call a taxi after apparently succumbing to Caleb’s family bonding plan.

Joy went to answer the door. “Just a minute,” she told the driver. She turned back to them. “Caleb, I’m so sorry, can you lend me the fare?”

Caleb pushed back his chair, retrieved his wallet from the table near the front door, and gave her two bills.

“You’ll let me know if you want help with those jobs we talked about,” he said flatly.

Wynter had followed him, almost hiding behind him as she said, “Thank you for coming.”

“I’m driving up to Richland next Sunday,” Caleb said, putting his arm around Wynter, properly this time.

“Please come,” Wynter said.

“Of course, if I can. Send me the details. Bye for now.” She leaned around them. “Bye, Jesse.”

Jesse stayed where he was, tilting back in the chair, fuming. He was glad when the door closed behind her.

Caleb took the albums and they sat together on the couch to look at the rest of the photos. There were no more pictures of Joy. And the reason there was no Joy in Jesse’s third birthday photo was because a few days earlier, after taking the kids to Harry’s in Anaconda, Miriam had left with her and they never came back.

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