Little Sister Song (Wynter Wild #1)

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Twins

Indio was used to screwing up. He was used to Caleb’s recriminations—those times Caleb found out about it. He wasn’t used to screwing up, and Caleb knowing about it, and then getting silence. He was sick of the recriminations but the silence was worse.

For the first time in a very long time, he found himself thinking about what Jenny would think of him. Until that evening at Patty’s, he hadn’t seen her in two-and-a-half years. Jenny would never know what he’d been up to this past weekend but that didn’t ease the shame.

By Sunday night he felt ready to contact Wynter. She’d be back in Richland, maybe finishing homework before bed.

A woman answered the phone.

“Hello, this is Rosa.”

“Where’s Wynter?”

“Indio, is it? I saw your name on the incoming call and thought I’d better answer it. Wynter told me you couldn’t make it to Seattle this weekend. She seemed quite upset. I’m just confirming everything is okay, so I can tell her, and then I’ll hang up.”

“Let me talk to her.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t allow electronic devices after 9PM. But I’ll certainly let her know you called, right away, to ease her concerns.”

Indio gritted his teeth. “Let me talk to her.”

“I have rules, and Wynter knows the rules. It’s a pity you didn’t call earlier. She’s been home since three.”

Indio pressed his fingers against his temples to massage a tension headache. He felt like crap and he needed a shower and he had two tests next week and a project due in twelve hours that he’d forgotten about until two minutes ago. And Piper was tangled up in it all somehow. Friday night was very unclear, Saturday night not much better. Turk was going to kill him.

“It’s important I talk to Wynter,” Indio said slowly. “I need to apologize. Can you please let me do that?”

“No, I can’t do that. Perhaps next time you’ll be a bit more responsible and think before you disappoint—”

Indio hung up. Jesus, with that cultured accent and holier-than-thou attitude she was worse than Caleb at his worst.

He debated whether to call Piper. He never called so-called groupies afterwards. Never, never, never. Piper wasn’t a groupie, she’d just behaved like one for some reason that involved an undisclosed A-bomb cigarette, tequila shots, and a private lap dance culminating in the weirdest blow job of his life. Crazy bitch. Turk was better off without her.

He scrolled through his contacts and reached Joy’s name. Jesse had sent her number a few days ago.

His sisters had been out of that place for almost three weeks and he’d seen Wynter once, and Joy never. When was the last time he saw Joy? The entire family had been together for a week or so at Harry’s house that summer in Anaconda. On the day Miriam left, that morning Harry had promised to take them all to the new Discovery Center in Yellowstone if they got up early enough the next day for the long drive. Little Jesse was excited about seeing bears. Indio wanted to see the wolves. Miriam warned that three hours was too long to sit in the car, especially as the four kids would be squashed in the back with Jesse’s car seat.

Indio had gotten up early enough the next day, pleased there would be only three of them in the back after all, two if Caleb sat up front, because Miriam and Joy had left the previous afternoon on an unspecified vacation of their own. He packed snacks and colored pencils and sketch paper. He even got Jesse’s breakfast organized and helped him hunt around the yard for a missing sneaker.

They never did go, though, because Harry wasn’t in a fit state to drive.

In retrospect Indio realized Harry probably drank himself stupid the previous night, and almost every night thereafter for the rest of the summer, because his ex-wife had just taken off with his daughter and no clear indication she intended to ever return. Or maybe he was just a drunk regardless of the circumstances. At the time, this was Indio and his brothers’ first direct experience of what they soon learned was their father’s standard behavior. Indio’s anger at not seeing the wolves had mellowed over the months and years into the sickening ache of constant disappointment punctuated by random bouts of rage.

“Don’t hope for anything and you’ll never be disappointed!” Harry would say, like he’d uncovered the secret of life.

It was good advice. Indio had slowly learned to trust a small number of people but he knew better than to ever hope for anything from his father or from the universe in general. Or from himself. This evening’s sickening ache was directed inward and wallowing in past disappointments wasn’t helping. Nor had it succeeded in calling forth his last memory of Joy.

Didn’t really matter. She was back in their lives—reluctantly, according to Jesse—so he’d make a small effort and be done with her.

He tapped her name, expecting to get voicemail. He’d leave a message, she’d never call back, and that would be that.

“Hello?”

“Joy, it’s Indio.”

“My goodness, Indio! How wonderful. I can’t talk just now.”

Well, that was short and sweet.

Something made him persist. “Sorry I didn’t make it to Seattle yesterday. I want to meet up with you—maybe Tuesday or Wednesday night?”

“I’m rather busy during the week. I’ve signed up for an evening class.”

“That’s great. What’s the class?”

“It’s a lecture series, actually. The Seattle chapter is running it from a community center near the office.”

So, just stupid Light crap.

“I’ll come along one night, and we can talk after.” He could hardly believe the words coming out of his mouth. “Tuesday?”

“Really? You’ll come to a lecture with me?”

Great. Now she thought he was interested in the Light.

“Sure.” Whatever.

“It would be best to come tomorrow, for the very first lecture. If you like it, you can finish the series in Portland at a later date.”

“Okay, Monday it is.” So much for studying for Tuesday’s test.

“That’s wonderful. I’m so pleased you called. I’ll text you the address and meet you there. It starts at seven. And it’s $19.95 for the one lecture.”

Of course it was. He wasn’t above paying for spiritual enlightenment if it gave him the chance to see his long-lost twin. That would fix one-third of the mess he’d made of this weekend. He’d have to find another way to make it up to Wynter and to Turk.


At the community center, Joy introduced Indio around to her Light friends, clinging to his arm like she needed the support. He wanted to get her alone to talk, to make up for screwing up. First, he had to sit through an hour of Light nonsense with other members of the gullible public at various stages of their spiritual journey.

Ten minutes into the lecture, his phone buzzed and he checked it, anticipating a message from one of his other siblings. Something from any of them would’ve been nice, even Caleb. It was Piper, of all people.

>> Hunny were did u go u know were to find me

He winced at her spelling and the lack of punctuation and the eggplant emoji. He blocked her number and thought about what to text Wynter or Jesse. He’d been thinking about it all day and done nothing. While Joy made copious notes beside him, he spent the rest of the lecture slouched in the chair with his arms crossed, trying to remember which Disney princess had been her favorite and which one Wynter would’ve liked at age six, if she’d had a normal life. He was fairly sure there were no Disney princesses in the Light.

“Let’s go for a coffee,” Indio said when it was finally over.

“I’m just going to chat with the presenter.” Joy was already making her way over there.

“I don’t have long. I have a two-hour ride back and a test tomorrow.”

“Two hours to Portland? That doesn’t sound right.”

“I ride fast.”

She laughed, following him outside. “Oh, Indio, you shouldn’t do that.”

They walked a few blocks and talked about the city, which she hadn’t yet had time to explore.

“You haven’t been up the Space Needle? Come on,” he said. “We’ll get an Uber and I’ll buy us tickets. I’ve never been, either, and it’s open ’til midnight.”

“I’m sure I’d be scared of heights.”

He couldn’t persuade her.

“Why didn’t you come on Sunday?” she asked.

“Rough weekend.” He wondered what she’d been told and whether she disapproved, like Caleb, or was merely angry, like Jesse. “So, what d’you think of the great big world?”

“I’m bewildered, to be honest.”

“We’ll help—you know that. Just ask.” He didn’t sound like himself, saying those words. He would help her, of course, but why was he giving advice he’d failed to follow himself? He’d never asked Caleb to help him.

She didn’t ask, either.

“So, Harry moved you all here nine years ago?” Joy said.

“He was heading into a good patch—took a managerial job with a cleaning company, started taking responsibility. Three years later Caleb joined the Coast Guard and basically vanished for four years, so I guess he thought Harry was doing okay with the dad thing.”

“Was he?”

“For a while. But, no, not really. We survived.” He decided not to tell her about things falling apart and the assault charge, and the other things even Jesse didn’t know about.

“Caleb said you’re playing in a college band—?”

He had to grab her arm suddenly, because she’d been about to cross the street without checking for traffic. Growing up in a fenced compound had left her with no road sense.

“You should come see us,” he said, guiding her safely across. “Ask Jesse to drive you—he won’t need much of an excuse.”

“Jesse is… quite determined, isn’t he.”

“You mean opinionated? He’s eighteen, only just out of high school. The world’ll knock him into shape soon enough. He had an easy time of it. An easier time of it.”

“You mean with Caleb?”

“With things in general. Jesse takes everything in his stride or finds a way around it.”

“That’s what tonight’s lecture was about, I suppose. Tapping into your inner light to navigate the bumps and scrapes of life. Keeping the source of your spiritual food close, and the rest of the world at arm’s length.”

“Honestly, I wasn’t listening to it, Joy. Keeping the world at arm’s length—that’s fine, I guess, but I think you’ve lumped Wynter into that category. She’s the one you should be keeping close.”

“Wynter isn’t in the Light. She never truly was and never will be. Has she told you the things she did? She was quite obstinate. Quite wild.”

“Lived up to her name, then,” he joked, uninterested in hearing criticisms of Wynter. They’d stopped outside an espresso café and he held her arm again, this time to make her face him. “Tell me what they did to her when she was wild.”

“What do you mean?”

“How was she punished for being quite wild?” He kept his tone conversational, while his stomach twisted into knots.

“All children need discipline.”

“Tell me what they did.”

“Nothing, Indio. Nothing out of the ordinary. All the children were a bit feral. When I was younger it wasn’t like that. You want me to stay close to her, and of course I’ll do that, as her sister, but she isn’t spiritual food. Can you understand that? She played those beautiful songs, she had that beautiful voice, but she wouldn’t open herself to the Light. We always feared there was something wrong with her. A dark heart, they call it.”

Indio didn’t know what to say. He sure as hell didn’t like what she was saying. He managed to say, in Wynter’s defense, “She was a child.”

“There are no children in the Light, in a spiritual sense. The Light speaks to the soul, and all souls are ancient. She’s cut off from the universe somehow. It doesn’t speak to her. She walked the dark path many times and glimpsed the Light—as we all do, even if our hearts are closed. She glimpsed the Light and still she rejected it.”

Indio pushed his hand into his hair and looked to the night sky, not knowing whether to laugh or cry. “What the fuck are you talking about?”

“I’m sorry, I’m using unfamiliar terminology.” She recovered quickly from his outburst and pressed on. “I looked up the lecture schedule in Portland. There’s a wonderful series starting in March that serves as a sort of primer for those interested in opening their hearts to the Light. You’ll find it really helpful. I’ll call ahead and you’ll get a discount. You were always so creative, Indy. I used to call you Indy, remember?” Her voice held an edge of desperation as she rattled on. “You and me and Miriam—we have that creative streak that makes us perfect vessels for the Light. The Light has used Miriam for a wonderful purpose abroad. And us being twins, that’s a special bond. I sense the Light is going to use me, and I sense it will use you, too.”

He shook his head to stop her. “Please, no more about that. I don’t care. I never will. If that means I have a dark heart, too, I’m fine with it.”

His words startled her. She blinked back sudden tears, tracking the movement of passers-by to cover for it. He tried to drum up some sympathy, knowing a good deal of his resentment toward her should actually be directed toward their mother.

They went into the cafe and she said she didn’t drink coffee. She ordered a lactose-free chai-something that came in a glass tumbler.

“Have you spoken with Miriam yet?” he said.

“No.” Her mouth twisted as her tongue pushed against her cheek, like she was still trying not to cry. “If she can’t forgive me, I don’t know what I’ll do.”

“What does the Light say about forgiveness?”

The question seemed to give her hope. “Oh, it’s necessary. It’s absolutely necessary.”

“You got nothing to worry about, then.”

“It may take her a while to purge those unhealthy emotions. And I have work to do, as well. My new friends at the Seattle office have been so nice to me, giving me a place to stay and allowing me to attend lectures and healing sessions for free.”

“Did it occur to you they’re being nice because of who your mother is? Miriam’s a hotshot guru now, right?”

She frowned at his cynicism. “They’re helping me retune myself to the universe. I made a mistake. Next time, I’ll listen more carefully and make the right choice.”

“Getting Wynter out of there wasn’t the right choice?”

“Miriam doesn’t think so.”

“Think for yourself, Joy.”

“The healers are helping me find my way back to the Light, so I won’t lose everything I’ve worked for. Maybe I’ll never be accepted as a devotee at the ashram again, but I can at least try to make things right with Miriam by forging a path to atonement.”

“Sounds like fun,” he said dryly, picturing her in a hairshirt. “You did nothing wrong in getting Wynter out of there, and they don’t want her back. What’s the problem?”

“I went about it the wrong way. Miriam has a great deal of power among the leadership. To defy her wishes was… very foolish of me. I panicked. I wasn’t thinking straight.”

“What made you panic?”

“I already explained.”

“Her dark heart? Maybe she was due for a bit of atonement herself?”

“Atonement doesn’t cure a dark heart. It’s intractable. Those souls don’t belong in the Light. Bad things can happen.”

She wouldn’t meet his eye and he felt, unexpectedly, disgusted with her. They both had the same blood relationship to their younger sister—yet, whereas he’d felt an immediate and instinctive bond with Wynter, the sister who’d known her all her life seemed ready to discard her over some ridiculous religious belief.

Joy gave a quick shake of her head. “Let’s not talk about this. It won’t help with my spiritual journey. Wynter is where she needs to be.”

“Not quite. She needs to be with you.” Even as he said it, he was no longer sure it was true. “With family, anyway. If you don’t take her in, Caleb may have to curtail or end his career to take custody of her.”

“Goodness, would he do that?”

“I don’t think he’s thought that far ahead.” Because he still has faith in you. Hopeless faith. Not that it was Indio’s job to persuade Joy to step up. “He’ll do whatever it takes to get her out of foster care. He’ll put a lot of pressure on you to file for custody.”

“I really don’t need any kind of pressure.”

“Just telling it like it is.”

“I see.” After an awkward silence, she made a deliberate effort to change the subject. “Caleb showed us an old photo album. Do you remember that parking garage he had? I loved that thing. I used it as a riding school for my plastic ponies.”

Indio decided to play along. “I remember those ponies. I stole a pink one from your room and redecorated it with a Sharpie. Made you cry.” He forced a grin. “Sorry about that.”

“Caleb helped me color the entire thing black, and we dipped her mane and tail in glitter and renamed her Beauty.”

Yay, Caleb. Fixing things, even back then.

“Mom threw my ukulele in the trash as punishment.”

“Oh! Now I’m sorry.”

“It all worked out fine. I fished it out, hid it under the bed and played it when she was away. I even smuggled it to Harry’s that summer she took us to Anaconda. A couple years later, he took pity and bought me a real guitar.” Indio felt a flicker of happiness. “Wow. Haven’t thought about any of that in years.”

“Miriam let me name her. Did she tell you that?”

“Wynter?”

“I didn’t get Christmas that year she was born, you see. I missed Christmas. I missed the snow and the snowmen we used to build, and that amazing igloo. The snowball fights and the frost patterns on the window panes. It was fifty, sixty degrees all through the winter in Arizona, and not even a frost in the mornings. I missed that untouched pure white blanket the morning after a heavy snowfall. Those freezing mornings when the four of us would pile into Mom’s bed and play footsie under the blankets with our iceblock toes.”

“We used to cut paper snowflakes from old magazines.”

She smiled at the memory. “Yours were always the best. Better than Mom’s. I couldn’t comprehend how a six-year-old could do anything better than a grown-up. At the ashram, I cut out paper snowflakes for Wynter’s crib. Not as nice as yours were, but I did try. Miriam put a stop to it. So I’d sneak out and pin them to the chain-link fence, in the corner of the compound where no one went. But you could see them from the road. At least, I hoped you’d see them.”

“You hoped we’d see them?”

“I thought Harry might drive past with you boys in the back, on your way somewhere. The Grand Canyon, maybe—my sense of geography wasn’t the best. I thought you’d see the snowflakes and know I was there, and…”

“And rescue you?”

“Just a silly childish fantasy. Once I understood the Light, I realized the outside world was in darkness.”

Indio folded a cheap white napkin. Half, half, thirds. “Do you still think that?”

She gave him a tolerant smile and didn’t answer. As Indio began to tear pieces out, she avoided watching his fingers. He realized she regretted talking about their childhoods—maybe that was a Light thing. Maybe her childhood wasn’t spiritual food. He had plenty of awful, disappointing childhood memories, but maybe he shouldn’t have discarded the good ones along with the bad.

“Can I ask you about that summer?” he ventured. “When Miriam left with you for Arizona, what did she tell you? Did you know you weren’t coming back?”

“I don’t think she knew, to be honest. We went there with one small suitcase. I left all my toys behind. We arrived at the ashram and Miriam loved it—the intensity of it, the fellowship. She threw herself into it. And we just… never left.”

“But for a while, you wanted to leave.”

“No, I shouldn’t have said that. I was happy to be spending so much time with her. She always found time for me.”

Her words dragged on Indio’s heart and his chest tightened. It was as incomprehensible to him now as it had been then—why their mother would choose one child to take with her and abandon the others.

“Did you miss us?”

“Oh, Indio, I don’t know.”

“Caleb tells me we were close. I gotta admit I don’t have a lot of memories of us—of you and me.”

“Well, we were very young.”

Yet he had plenty of memories of his brothers from that time, and even earlier.

“There’s no point in agonizing over this. Do you understand?” Joy said, touching his hand as he unfolded the snowflake, gently teasing apart each of the six points. “What happened was for the best. Miriam knew what she was doing.”

“You truly believe that?”

“Of course. It’s clear to me she chose the right path because her life has been filled with blessings. For myself, I haven’t figured out my path yet. I’ve made missteps. I’ve made poor decisions—the universe has made that quite clear. But I’ll get there in the end.”

She allowed him to smooth out the paper snowflake, with its soft ragged edges, on the dark wood table in front of her. She traced her finger over it.

When they left the cafe, she left the snowflake behind.

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