Wynter clicked Send and waited.
Her inbox was filled with eight pages of Address not found bounced emails. And now, one more. Seconds later, an email from Jesse arrived with links to his new YouTube videos and articles about scientific methodology, strawberries, and Kepler 20f—a recently discovered Earth-sized planet in the constellation Lyra with a surface temperature of…
Wynter closed the article with a lump in her throat. She couldn’t imagine why a planet too hot to live on and too far away to reach was of any interest to anyone, but if Jesse were here she’d have listened to him talk about it just for the pleasure of basking in his enthusiasm.
Her phone rang.
“I’m sorry about Saturday,” he said. “Rosa wouldn’t let me talk to you on Sunday. I called too late.”
“She told me.”
“I understand if you’re mad at me.”
“I’m not. I just wanted a text message or… something.” So I know you haven’t forgotten about me already.
“I didn’t know what to say. I won’t fail you again, I promise.”
“Hey, I saw Joy in Seattle last night.”
“Was she okay? On Saturday she left abruptly and Caleb was…”
“He was what?”
“I don’t know how to explain it. He was… nothing. He didn’t show it, but he was really upset. I could tell. I heard him punching that big red bag in the garage, late at night.”
“Don’t read anything into it. The big red bag can take it.”
Wynter couldn’t help but read something into it. She’d gone out there and watched him, from the shadows, watched the sweat flying off his face, the way the bag swung in a heavy arc, the way he clung to it, exhausted, to catch his breath before starting up again. He’d seen her, at last, his expression melting to concern upon registering her shock. Back to bed, he’d said. Early start tomorrow. He’d hardly sounded like himself.
“Joy’s like the opposite of you, baby,” Indio was saying. “Maybe he thought she’d be the same, wanting to be out in the world, to be part of the family. We all hoped that.”
“Are you giving up on her?”
“There’s only so much any of us can do. We had a pretty nice chat, for the most part. She told me about the photo album and it brought back good memories.”
“Did she talk about me?”
Indio hesitated. “A little bit. She has an odd way of looking at things, but I know she wants the best for you. So, what are you up to?”
“Um, homework.” She didn’t want to admit to sending two hundred emails to Xay, each with a slightly different number or letter combination. “I have to write a poem.”
“Awesome. Send it to me. I’ll turn it into a song.”
“It has to be a poem about flowers, in the style of Wordsworth.”
“Uh-huh.” He sounded a good deal less enthusiastic about it now.
Rosa called from the hallway. “Two minutes, Wynter. Take your phone downstairs to charge.”
Wynter sighed. “I have to go.” She kept talking as she went downstairs. “Will you tell me why you didn’t come on Saturday?”
“I’m sorry. Really sorry.”
“You don’t have to keep saying that. Just tell me why.”
“I did something dumb. Nothing to do with you. I wanted to be there.”
“Jesse said you partied too hard.”
“Does that mean you took drugs and couldn’t get up the next morning?”
He was silent for too long.
“Something like that. It was stupid and kind of accidental.”
Rosa was in the shadows of the kitchen, filling the kettle at the sink. She made a little hand motion to tell Wynter to hang up.
“Send me some more photos, okay?” Wynter said. She wanted to ask him about the sketchbook Rosa had censored, but not with Rosa standing there. In any case, maybe Rosa was right about the sketches. She was allowed to keep six of them and she didn’t want to fight with Rosa over the rest.
Wynter rang off and plugged the phone into the charger.
“What photos does he send you?” Rosa asked.
“Just stuff from his life.”
“By the sound of it, his life is not suitable for a fourteen-year-old girl to be involved in.”
“I’m not involved. He sends me photos from his gigs and selfies with his friends.”
“Do you send him photos?”
“Does he ask you to?”
“I guess so. Sometimes.”
“Does he ask for selfies of you?”
“Not specifically. I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
“You need to tell me if he asks for anything inappropriate.”
Wynter felt the conversation turning into one of Rosa’s weird Q&A sessions. Rosa had figured out she couldn’t extract information by interrogation, so she’d work up to it. An innocent question about Wynter’s classmates turned into a discussion about friends in general, then about boys, then about what boys liked to do with girls. Wynter had read most of the website Jesse gave her and learned more about contraception and sexual positions and the meaning of various slang words than she’d surely ever need to know. She read the pages on sexual abuse. No matter how often she told Rosa nobody had hurt her that way, Rosa found a new angle of attack.
The idea that Indio could be used as another angle of attack infuriated Wynter.
“He’s done nothing wrong. Stop asking about him.”
“Nothing wrong? He just confirmed he was so high on drugs he wasn’t able to go to Seattle to see you.” Rosa backed down, calming herself. “This isn’t your fault, Wynter. I know it’s difficult for you. I know you wanted to see him. I’m going to have to ask to look through your phone.”
“As your foster parent, I have to be very careful about the people you’re associating with. Especially the adults in your life. You understand that, don’t you? Is there anything you want to tell me before I look? Anything that anyone has told you to keep secret?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Take a look. I don’t care.”
Wynter went upstairs, flushed with anger she dared not express. Caleb would say her phone was a privacy issue, she was sure about that.
“Car, house, clock, thumbs up,” Stacey read from Wynter’s screen—an incomprehensible message from Jesse that consisted of nothing but two dozen emojis. They were puzzling it out together before the first bell.
Wynter hadn’t yet told Jesse that Rosa had looked through her phone and returned it the next morning, without comment. Several of his bookmarks were gone. She wanted to ask him about it, but what if Rosa was right? What if those sites were inappropriate?
“And then a calendar and a sun,” Stacey went on. “I guess it means he’s driving up to visit, at midday on Sunday. Then a bunch of music notes and three guitars. You’re going to a concert?”
“I think that means we’re gonna jam.”
“The magnifying glass and six kinds of books and papers mean he’s going to help with your homework. That’s nice of him. Then he’s asking if you want to play video games or watch movies, something like that.”
“How do you know?”
“See? Gaming console, TV, alien monster, question mark. And then about ten party poppers—those speak for themselves.”
Wynter clamped her lips together to stop herself asking what a party popper was. And she was fairly sure Rosa wouldn’t want Jesse throwing a party at her house, if that was his intention.
“The surgeon’s mask and the knife… Not sure what that means,” Stacey mused. “Is someone having surgery?”
“Okay, it gets weird at the end. A shrug and a rainbow, a bunny rabbit and a cookie and a cherry blossom… I don’t know about those. And some X’s and O’s. He seems sweet, other than the knife. Is this the rockstar brother? Are you ever gonna show me a picture? Can I come to your house on Sunday?”
“My aunt says I can’t have friends over until I clean my room.” Wynter had overheard someone giving a similar excuse in the cafeteria a few days ago.
“Clean your room on Saturday.”
“I have horse riding and a piano lesson on Saturday. Then I have to take my cat to the vet, and after that—”
“You have a cat? Me too! What’s its name?”
“Her name is Strat. Anyway, after that, in the evening, my aunt’s taking me to the ballet.” Wynter surprised herself with how easily the lies rolled off her tongue.
“I didn’t know you liked ballet.”
“I hate ballet. It’s her birthday, so I suppose I have to go. It’s so boring. She’s so boring.” Wynter had observed you were supposed to speak badly of your parents as often as possible. Parents were boring, unreasonable, and never stopped nagging.
“I love the ballet! I’ve been four times.”
You were supposed to like the things your friends liked. Wynter backtracked. “I guess ballet’s okay. I like dancing…”
Stacey’s friend Keira was marching over with a determined look that startled Wynter—not so much the look, but the fact it was on Keira’s face. Keira was notoriously sulky and disinterested in everything.
“My mom’s friend Lavinia goes to your aunt’s church,” Keira told Wynter in an accusatory tone. “Or should I say, your foster mother’s church. You never lived in Montana. You grew up with hippies in Arizona. You never even met your real family until a few weeks ago.”
Stacey’s jaw dropped.
“That’s… not true,” Wynter said. The last part certainly wasn’t true. Joy was part of her real family. So was Miriam.
“Are you saying I’m lying?” Keira said.
“Maybe Lavinia is lying.”
“Maybe?” Keira gave a derisory laugh. “Did you grow up in Montana, or didn’t you?”
“Where in Montana?”
Wynter hesitated, trying to recall the name of the town where Caleb was born. Some kind of snake…
“Name one city or town in west Montana,” Keira challenged her. “Anywhere in Montana.”
“Go on, name one,” Stacey said. She looked shocked, and very disappointed.
Wynter closed her locker and headed to class.
“Do you even have a cat?” Stacey screamed after her.
By lunch, the word was out. Wynter escaped the stares and jeers by hiding between the bookcases in the library. She crouched on the floor and typed hundreds of random emojis to Jesse to punish him for his earlier message and for not being available to talk during the day. It gave her no satisfaction to imagine him tying his brain in knots figuring them out.
For the rest of the day Stacey refused to sit by her in their shared classes, and whoever did sit by her, because they didn’t know better, was quickly informed she was a liar. It was definitely the worst day of her life on the outside.
During last period, the school counselor fetched her from class and talked to her for half an hour. He’d been told by a teacher, who’d been told by some of the kids, that she was being teased and ostracized. He wanted to know why. She told him why, because she was done with the lies. She couldn’t bear to imagine Caleb’s face when he discovered what she’d done.
Maybe Caleb didn’t have to find out. She could just… not tell him. Or Jesse. She needed them to like her, but she no longer cared whether or not the kids at school liked her. She had nothing in common with them. She didn’t understand three-quarters of anything they said, and before she came up with her interesting past they’d laughed at most of what she said.
On the bus ride home, she found Jesse had responded to her nonsense messages with a single text:
>> XOXO was all you needed to send.
So, he hadn’t tied his brain in knots after all. She sent him hugs and kisses.
When Rosa came home, she already knew what had happened. Wynter had hoped to at least get through the weekend without having to admit anything, but the counselor had called Rosa that afternoon. Rosa was surprisingly sympathetic. Wynter knew she deserved to be punished. Instead, Rosa made her sit on the couch and asked questions that all started with Why?
“Why did you feel the need to make up stories about your past? You have nothing to be ashamed of. Why did you tell them Caleb was married? Why did you make Joy a successful businesswoman? Why did you say your parents were dead?”
Wasn’t it obvious why she’d said those things? Rosa wanted those questions answered so she could use the answers as springboards to probe deeper, ever deeper. And Wynter didn’t want to go deeper. Rosa could barely hide her frustration.
After a while, Rosa talked herself into deciding it was a minor incident and not worth fussing over. She was more concerned with Wynter regaining the friendships she’d lost.
“Are you gonna tell Caleb?” Wynter said.
“There’s no need to involve him. Now it’s all out in the open, we’ve dealt with it, and it’s over. We can keep it a secret from Caleb.”
Wynter didn’t like that word—secret—when it came to Caleb. No secrets or lies in this house, he’d told her. And now Rosa was asking her to keep a secret from him, which could also mean telling him lies if he asked her about school.
She lay awake half the night weighing the humiliation of disappointing him against the shame of disobeying him.