Little Sister Song (Wynter Wild #1)

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A Philosophical Discussion

Jesse texted Wynter for the third time in two hours with an ever more precise arrival time. Rosa had invited him and Caleb to Sunday lunch, asking them to arrive at noon because that’s when she got home from church. Jesse had persuaded Caleb to leave an hour early “in case of traffic”, and so at eleven o’clock they were on Rosa’s porch ringing the bell.

Wynter opened the door a second later, as if she’d been waiting on the other side. She threw herself at Jesse, catching him by surprise, and accepted a kiss on the top of the head from Caleb.

“Did you bring your guitars? Where are they? We have one hour alone! We have to play.”

They fetched two guitars from the back of the Caprice and went upstairs to her room. Jesse and Wynter sat cross-legged on the floor, and Caleb sat on the little vanity stool, and they jammed for a while. Jesse couldn’t compete with either of them for chops but he played well enough to have some fun. Mostly he sang, which he didn’t get much chance to do behind the drum kit.

“This room is pretty neat,” Jesse said during a pause in playing. “Not too girly.”

“Is girly bad?” Wynter asked.

“For a teenager, yeah. I mean, I think so. At least it’s not pink and purple.”

“I like Indio’s room better.”

“That’s nuts. This room is great. This house is a mansion. It’s huge. She has Zulu masks in the dining room, and a didgeridoo. Did you see that, Caleb? I’m dying to play it. You have to breathe in through your nose while you blow out with your mouth. It’s called circular breathing.”

“I like your house better,” Wynter said.

Jesse grunted, knowing she was both being contrary and telling the truth, at least from her perspective.

“She keeps asking me if the boys and the men at the ashram touched me,” she said, out of the blue. “Why does she keep asking me?”

Caleb flicked Jesse a look before telling her, “She wants to be sure you weren’t hurt. When children are hurt that way, it can cause other problems as they grow up.”

“It’s because she deals with sexual abuse cases,” Jesse said. “She sees it everywhere. She even thinks we’d hurt you.”

“She doesn’t think that,” Caleb said.

“Then why won’t they let her stay with us more than one night a month?”

“How’s school going?” Caleb asked Wynter, frowning at Jesse’s negativity.

Wynter drew breath to speak but said nothing. Jesse sensed his brother’s radar ping.

“I was gonna say everything’s fine,” Wynter said at last. “But it’s not.”

“What happened?”

“Rosa said not to tell you. I don’t want to keep secrets from you.” She fiddled with her guitar strings, very uncomfortable.

“I’m not a fan of secrets, either,” Caleb said carefully. “You know you can tell me anything.”

Before she could speak, they heard the front door open and Rosa called out her name. They sat in silence, listening to Rosa checking the front rooms, and then mount the stairs. She would’ve seen the car, of course, and was on the hunt to find them.

“Ah, there you are.” Rosa paused in the doorway and surveyed the scene. “You brought guitars. What a good idea. Perhaps next time you could use one of the rooms downstairs?”

“It’s more comfortable here,” Wynter said, which was true. From what Jesse had seen of the other rooms, they were all rather formal.

“Still, it’s not appropriate to have people in your bedroom, Wynter.”

Jesse felt a flash of anger. Caleb warned him with a look not to speak his mind.

“They’re not people.” Wynter already sounded like she wasn’t going to argue the point.

Rosa gave a bright smile. “Let’s eat lunch, shall we? I left a casserole on all morning.”

The food was incredible—some sort of pork that melted in the mouth, with bits of bacon and apple in it. Jesse tried to mind his manners while gobbling down as much as the other three put together. He scooped out a fourth helping onto his plate.

Caleb said, “Upstairs just now, Wynter was about to tell me something about school.”

Rosa put down her fork and looked at Wynter “Oh? If it’s what I think, there’s no need. You’re not in any trouble—we already talked about this, dear.”

Jesse ground his teeth at the endearment.

Wynter went ahead anyway. “I made up some stories about my past. I didn’t want to tell my friends about the Light, so I said the five of us were orphans and all grew up together in Montana with horses. I said you were married with a baby, and that Indio and Jesse were rockstars.” Her words tumbled out as she looked directly at Caleb, transfixed by his gaze—as if that gaze compelled the truth from her. “I said Rosa was my aunt and I only lived here during the semester to attend that school. I didn’t want them to know I’m in foster care, that I don’t even have a birth certificate. But they found out on Friday it was all lies.”

Jesse felt instantly defensive on her behalf. His life had been a dream compared to hers. In her shoes, he’d have done the same thing—wiped the cult and Miriam and all those bad memories, whatever they were, from existence.

Caleb leaned his elbows on the table, his fingers steepled against his lips. Had Jesse told whoppers like that, Caleb would’ve chewed him out for sure. But this was Wynter, and from day one he’d been gentler with her.

“You don’t have to tell the kids at school anything you don’t want them to know,” Caleb said. “That’s your life, your past, and you can keep it private.”

“But I didn’t know what to say. They kept asking questions.”

“We can figure that out together. Something that’s not a lie, but maintains your privacy. Okay?”

She nodded gratefully.

Caleb reached across the table and slapped his hand down on Jesse’s wrist because he’d been unwittingly tapping his knife handle on the table as he contemplated her situation. Beside him, Wynter ducked for cover, an instinctive reaction to Caleb’s sudden movement. Her hands went up as her butt slid back in the seat.

“It’s okay,” Caleb told her, realizing what had happened. “Jesse, you’re being annoying.”

Wynter inched forward again and moved food around on her plate with her fork.

“How did the kids find out the truth?” Jesse asked.

Wynter’s gaze shifted to Rosa. Jesse met Caleb’s eye and saw his brother figure it out the same moment he did.

“Did you talk about her?” Jesse told Rosa. “You can’t go telling people about Wynter’s private stuff.”

“It wasn’t at all like that.” Rosa’s tone suggested that having to explain anything to Jesse was beneath her. “I’m friendly with someone associated with the school, who said a few things that made me realize she had incorrect information. So, I corrected her information and I suppose it got back to Wynter’s classmates.”

“You admit it, then. You violated Wynter’s privacy. You told her to keep a secret because of your guilty conscience.”

“Nonsense. In any case, it’s more important to establish why Wynter felt the need to make up the stories. We can learn a lot about a person’s issues from the stories they choose to tell, or not tell.”

“She had a shitty childhood and she doesn’t want people to know,” Jesse said. Caleb glared at him for the cuss word. Jesse wasn’t done. “She doesn’t want to talk to them or you about it.”

Rosa said, very calmly, “If you would kindly respect my professional expertise in this matter? Wynter needs to talk these things through with someone who can help. This is a textbook example of suppressing the—”

“She’s not your fucking research project!”

“Jesse!”

Caleb’s voice cut between them. Wynter hunched her shoulders and stared at her plate. Caleb put his hand over hers on the table, but he was looking at Jesse, waiting.

Jesse mumbled the required apology. Caleb jerked his thumb at the doorway.

“Excuse me,” Jesse said, very politely. He took care not to clatter his fork against the plate as he put it down. He pushed back his chair. “I liked the part about being a rockstar.”

He got a tiny smile out of his sister.

There was no door to slam on his way out—not that he would have because Caleb had a house rule about that, too, and it probably applied to any house. There was just a ridiculously tall archway with carved columns. He hunkered down against the wall, out of view. He’d seen apple pie on the kitchen counter and wondered if he’d be getting any. Oh well. Small price to pay for the privilege of putting Dr Rosamund Meyers in her place.

“Well,” he heard Rosa say, “what a shame to spoil our nice lunch like that.”

Another chair scraped back. “Excuse me,” Wynter murmured.

She came out of the room, saw Jesse on the floor and sat with him, her shoulder pressed against his. He gave her a sympathetic smile and squeezed her hand.

“Don’t ask her again to keep secrets from me,” Caleb said from the dining room.

“We simply didn’t want to bother you with it,” Rosa replied coolly.

We? You mean you. Wynter volunteered to tell me. You should know, better than anyone, that teaching kids the habit of keeping secrets doesn’t end well.”

“She was embarrassed when a few tall tales came out. You can hardly draw a parallel between keeping that from you, and someone telling a child to keep abuse secret.”

“I don’t care. No secrets. I won’t compromise on that.”

“I hardly think you have the authority to dictate any terms.”

“Would you like to argue that secrets are a good thing?”

“Of course not. But—”

“Then don’t make an argument out of nothing.”

Jesse had to smile at that. He’d given up having rhetorical or philosophical arguments with Caleb a long time ago, much as he enjoyed those discussions with his friends. If you wanted to engage in an argument with Caleb, you’d better start out on solid ground.

Wynter stood, tugging at Jesse’s hand, and they went out the back. The yard was tiny, entirely paved over in different shades of gray, with an array of cast figurines and a bird bath. Other than a couple of hanging plants, there was nothing green. No doubt it was supposed to look modern and serene. To Jesse, it looked like a miniature prison exercise yard.

They sat on a wooden bench under the roof overhang, watching rain drip on the gray stone.

“What am I gonna do?” Wynter said. “I don’t ever want to go back to that school. Those girls all think I’m crazy.”

“It’ll blow over.”

She shrugged. “I don’t care. I don’t need friends.”

“Friends are important, Wyn.”

“I know they’re important to you. You have eight hundred and twelve friends on Facebook. Should I go on Facebook?”

“No, that’s not gonna help—you have to start with real-life friends for that. Maybe you could join a discussion board and make some online friends.”

“What do they discuss?”

“There’s a million different ones. Find one that sounds interesting. Don’t give out identifying info—we went through that, right?” He sighed. “Why didn’t you tell me about this when it happened? You can tell me anything, and ask me anything.”

“I didn’t want you to know. Or… I didn’t want Caleb to know.”

“Well, now he knows and it wasn’t so bad, was it?”

She gave a rueful smile. “Not for me, but he’s mad at Rosa.”

“Well, he’s never gonna be mad at you.”

“How do you know that?”

“I just know. He’s different with you—compared to how he was with me and especially with Indio. You saw what he did because I cussed at Madame Headshrink. He’d never throw you out of the room or raise his voice. I bet he’d never punish you at all. When we were kids, if we did something wrong it was Drop for twenty!

Wynter gasped and pressed both hands over her mouth, cowering against the bench. Jesse remembered the way Joy had done that, in the car after he’d pretty much demanded she come home with him. And the way Wynter had flinched earlier. She stared at him, wide-eyed.

“What? What’s the matter?”

“Twenty what?” she mumbled from behind her hands.

Jesse suddenly realized how she’d misinterpreted him. “Push-ups, Wyn. Twenty push-ups.”

“Oh.” Her hands lowered. She was very pale and breathing fast from an adrenaline surge.

Jesse slid across the bench and put his arm around her. “He never hit us. Never.”

She nodded, head bowed, hands twisting in her lap. “I thought for a second you meant… something like six of the best, when they… Do you know what that means?”

“That British school thing with a cane? Did you ever get six of the best?”

“I panicked for a second, thinking he… I know he wouldn’t do that. I know he wouldn’t. But just for a second…”

“Wynter, please, answer my question.” But Jesse knew she wouldn’t. The moment had passed and he was left not knowing how angry to feel.

She drew a deep breath and exhaled slowly, carefully. “Why push-ups?”

“It’s just a harmless punishment.” Jesse picked up a handful of gravel under his feet and threw the pieces one by one at the back fence, aiming at a knot in the wood. “It’s no fun but it’s good for you, makes you stop whatever dumb thing you’re doing that got you in trouble. Actually, it was fun, sometimes—if we both had to do it, we’d race to see who could get it done fastest. Indio usually won because he’d only dip halfway when Caleb wasn’t looking.”

“Isn’t that cheating?”

“Yes. And he didn’t have to cheat—he’d have beaten me anyway. He’s four years stronger than me. The only thing I can beat Indio at is an argument.”

“Not even karate?”

“He’s probably the better fighter. He hasn’t committed to the testing. No, I would not fight Indio. Wanna learn a game?”

Jesse crossed the yard in the rain and squatted at the fence to select a few flat pebbles from around the base of Rosa’s rockery.

“Is it tic-tac-toe?”

“That’s lame.” Jesse laid out the pebbles on a paver in front of the bench, in two rows of six. “This is an ancient game called mancala. These stones are supposed to be little pits, so we’ll have to pretend. We need four chips of gravel on each one.”

She sat on the ground opposite him and helped set up the board. He went through the rules and they played a couple of practice rounds.

“Let’s play for real,” Jesse said. “You’re picking it up fast.”

“You explain things well. I’m gonna lose, aren’t I?”

“Most likely.”

“Don’t let me win just to be nice.”

“I won’t. Told you, I’ve never beaten Caleb at chess—he didn’t let me win, just to be nice, even when I was four years old.”

She giggled. “I’m imagining that and it’s very cute—four-year-old Jesse and ten-year-old Caleb playing chess. What are Indio and Joy doing in that picture?”

“If I’m four, then Joy’s gone.”

“Oh. I forgot.”

“Eight-year-old Indio is defacing Caleb’s homework with cartoons.”

“I wish Joy was in that picture, growing up with all of you, and with two parents.”

“Our lives would all be a lot different.”

“There would be no me at all.”

“True.” He grinned at her. “Don’t worry, I wouldn’t know there was supposed to be, so I wouldn’t be cut up about it.”

She threw a chip of gravel at him. “That’s mean. I’d be cut up if there was no you.”

“But you don’t exist in this scenario. I think, therefore I am. Conversely, if you are not, there is no you to be thinking about being cut up about anything.”

“Are we having a philosophical discussion?”

“Yes. Is it fun?”

“It’s more fun than the previous subject.” Wynter picked up the chips for her turn. “Did your dad hit you?”

“I have to answer that, when you wouldn’t answer my question?”

“You don’t have to.”

Jesse did anyway, although he gave her the sanitized version. “He would lash out in frustration, push us around. There were scuffles and black eyes. After Caleb had a growth spurt at thirteen years old and pushed back, things got better. Harry was mostly just lazy and uninvolved. He’s the opposite of Caleb, the anti-Caleb—no guidance, random with the discipline, almost never right. Caleb’s always right, as you know. It was a relief to have someone you could count on.”

“How come Indio doesn’t see it that way?”

“Indio doesn’t like being told what to do.”

“Do you?”

“Caleb’s very conventional and a bit unimaginative, but we don’t get in each other’s way. He deals in facts, which I respect. In some other family, Indio would’ve been fine. In this family, somehow it brings out his worst. He resents Caleb too much to appreciate him. He does beat himself up about it. Harry never beat himself up about anything, even a seven-day bender.”

“What’s a bender?”

“A drinking spree.”

“Is Indio gonna turn out like Harry in the end?”

“No, because he has us to keep him in line.”

“How do we do that?”

“We don’t have to do anything. Just be there for him.”

“But I’m not there.”

“You talk to him, right?”

“Not really. He called to apologize about the weekend. I’ve called him a couple times. I always felt like I was interrupting. And I don’t know what to say, anyway. I’ve only spent two days with him.”

“I’ve spent about six days with you—feel like I’ve known you forever.”

She smiled at that.

“Does he text you?” Jesse said.

“Yes. Pictures, mostly. Maybe he doesn’t know what to say, either. Yesterday he sent me a photo of his gig from the night before. Before that, he sent a comic strip he drew.”

“For a class project?”

“No, just for fun.”

“Ah, was it Dimiti Dime, by any chance?”

“Yes! A talking dime making funny comments about his adventures in people’s pockets and in cash registers and vending machines.”

“He invented that character when he was ten. Dimiti Dime has traveled all over the country. He once spent a decade accidentally stuck with gum to the bottom of a church offering box in New Orleans, listening to all the coins inside the box boast about how they were gonna be spent on charitable works. He would say silly things from underneath the box, and his voice echoed around inside the box so the other coins thought it was the voice of God. Anyway, that’s great, that he sends you stuff. He sends me stuff like that, too.” Jesse reconsidered, given the last thing Indio sent him was a link to a weird ’80s porn flick dubbed from French into hilariously posh British English. “Well, not quite like that. Anyway, it means he’s thinking of us, which is an improvement over when he was in Ohio. You just made an illegal move.”

Wynter picked up the gravel and redid her move. “I wish we were at home right now, playing this silly game, and I’d ask you questions and you’d give me your long-winded answers—my only source of accurate information. You’d help me with my homework and we’d get takeout. We’d play music with Caleb and Indio in the jamroom for six hours every night. No, not takeout—I wish I was a brilliant cook!”

“I wish I was a famous TV star. We can’t have everything we want.”

“That’s really what you want?”

“Specifically, I want to be a cool science educator. I want to tell people about science and space and robots. I also want to be that rockstar in your fabricated backstory, so at some point I’ll have to choose. You gonna explain to me these emojis?” He showed her the message she’d sent on Friday.

“I was responding to your emojis. They made no sense.”

He scrolled up to the message he’d sent her. “What’s not making sense? It’s all perfectly clear.”

“The surgeon and the knife?”

“That’s a doctor, meaning Rosa. They don’t have a headshrink emoji. The shrug is me asking if you want me to murder her with the knife while I’m here.”

“That’s not respectful and it wouldn’t solve any of my problems.”

“I like that, Wyn. I like that you’re so rational. Together we’ll think of a more creative solution for dealing with Rosa.”

“What about the rabbit and things at the end?”

“That’s me sending you nice thoughts. Rainbows and stuff.”

“What’s nice about rabbits? We ate rabbits at the ashram and they don’t taste good.”

He pulled a face. “It’s a cute fluffy bunny. No one eats bunnies. That’s insane.”

“But murdering my foster mother isn’t insane?”

The sliding door opened and Rosa peered out. Jesse could only hope she’d hadn’t heard the last comment.

“It’s very cold out here. Come inside, please, Wynter.” Rosa stepped out to see what they were doing. “I do hope you’ll put those river stones back exactly as you found them.”

Jesse and Wynter exchanged a look, two scolded children who didn’t give a fuck. They brushed the gravel from the pavers and scooped up the pebbles.

“Don’t go out in the rain, dear,” Rosa said. “I’m sure Jesse can manage.”

Jesse took the stones from Wynter and braved the light drizzle to return them. As Rosa and Wynter went inside, he replaced the stones and rearranged a resin fairy and a small concrete garden gnome into the missionary position.

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