Wynter put her phone on speaker and listened patiently to Jesse’s informative lecture on Animal Farm and the Russian Revolution.
“I just needed to know what the sheep and the crow mean,” she said when she could get a word in.
“You need the background to understand the novel in context,” Jesse insisted.
“Are you sure about that? Because for the last ten minutes you’ve been mostly talking about American politics.”
“Sorry, the topic did morph a bit. I voted for the first time last year and I’m still bummed that my best friend didn’t bother.”
“What difference does one vote make?”
“What difference…?” His voice rose in horror. “Okay, I’ll save that rant for another time. Do you have what you need?”
“Yes, thank you. I was taking notes whenever you said something relevant.”
“Awesome. We’ll watch the movie next time you’re here, the original ’fifties one.”
“Would Rosa approve of the movie?”
“What’s she got to do with it?”
“She didn’t approve of that website on sex. I didn’t tell you this on Sunday because your visit was already going off the rails, but she took my phone to look through it and deleted that bookmark and a few others.”
“Why did she want to look through your phone?”
“Something about Indio’s text messages. Is she allowed to do that?”
“No. It’s an invasion of privacy.” After a pause, he added, “What’s wrong with Indio’s messages? Didn’t we already talk about this?”
“She asked if I sent selfies to him. Why does she care?”
“Nothing wrong with selfies, but that’s not what she meant.”
“Well, that’s what she said—selfies.”
“She assumes Indio’s a pervert because he’s not a saint like Caleb. Well, she doesn’t like Caleb either, but for different reasons. Shit, I wonder what she thinks about me?”
“She asked me if I moved her garden statues. I didn’t, so now she knows you did.”
“Did she tell you how I moved them?”
“Hmm. Do you wanna know?”
“I think you probably made them have sex.”
“I’m an open book to you.”
“So now she thinks you’re a pervert, too.”
“Jeez, it’s just sex. That fairy was already half naked and busting out of her bodice, giving the gnome come-hither looks… I’ll stop there, cuz I’m sure I’m being inappropriate. I’ll talk you through how to lock your phone with a password, and then I have to go. I’ve got a gig tonight.”
His excitement made her wistful. “I wish I could come see you play. What’s the band?”
“We’re called the Slip Sliders. And it’s a bar, so you can’t come. I’ll get a buddy to video it for YouTube. Don’t talk to Indio about jazz, by the way. He’ll give you wrong information. I’m your man for fusion jazz, rap, EDM, classic pop. Caleb for old timey blues and for free jazz, which normal people gotta be stoned to enjoy. Indio for classic rock and blues, and indie rock, and pretty much anything from the ’eighties.”
“Hang on. I have to write it down.”
“There’s some overlap in our expertise, obviously.”
“That’s dance music. I’m gonna teach you to dance.”
“Caleb already did.”
“In a manner of speaking. We’ll go clubbing when you’re a bit older.”
“Will you teach me to hit a bong?”
After a brief hesitation, he said, “D’you know what that means?”
“Something to do with drugs. I know it’s supposed to be fun but I don’t want to get high if it’s scary.”
“No reason it should be scary. We’ll talk about this again when you’re a lot older. It’s now legal in Washington, no thanks to my buddy who failed to vote in the referendum. Well, not quite legal until we’re twenty-one but even Caleb would rather you had a blunt between your fingers than a tequila shot. Do not tell Rosa or your social worker I said any of that.”
After Jesse hung up, Wynter still had social studies and science homework to complete. She looked up a few things online but there was so much information it was impossible to filter. She needed Jesse’s help just to figure out how to get the internet’s help. After an hour she was ready to give up.
Help me with my homework! she typed into her browser in frustration.
She scrolled down the page of hits and clicked a link at random. She found herself on a discussion board for kids with homework questions. Perfect. Jesse would certainly approve, because he’d told her to find online friends with common interests. She signed up.
She spent the rest of the evening looking up questions on the eighth-grade forum, posting her own, and sifting through the answers that other users produced for her. After a while she found herself on the general discussion forum, which was even more interesting. Kids posted about their lives, their families and friends, their hobbies and favorite TV shows, their problems on everything from pocket money to pregnancy. She found sad tales of foster kids and added her own woes. She found music lovers and would-be philosophers, and kids with awful parents and bullying siblings and cute pets.
She wrote a few posts and replies, too, careful to follow Jesse’s guidelines about not giving out identifying information. It was so much easier to chat when she could think about her written answers and choose who to respond to and who to ignore.
In the morning, when Wynter logged on to see if anyone had responded to her post about behavior contracts, a tiny green flag was flashing at the top of her screen. She’d received a private message.
Wynter’s stomach grumbled for lunch. She’d been studying in her room all morning—it was Monday, a week since her brothers’ disastrous visit, and today was a student-free day so she was catching up on her English reading. Later, Tina was coming to Richland to check up on how her placement with Rosa was going. And after that, Caleb and Joy were visiting to talk about Joy’s custody plans.
Rosa had left sandwiches in the refrigerator before heading to the office. Wynter didn’t know what she was going to tell Tina about the placement but if she needed to come up with something positive she’d mention the food, which was always good and plentiful.
Joy called as she was heading downstairs. Joy never called. Stunned, Wynter answered her phone.
“Change of plans,” Joy said. “I’m on the bus to Pasco. Let’s spend the afternoon together!”
“I thought Caleb was driving you over for six o’clock?”
“I didn’t like the idea of spending four hours in the car with him. He’s been pressuring me ever since I arrived in Seattle and I just can’t take it. Can you get to Pasco for two o’clock when my bus gets in?”
“I can take the local bus. But we have to be back here in time for the meeting with my caseworker.”
“We’ll find a nice place to have lunch and talk about things. I have a surprise for you—don’t tell Caleb. He’ll spoil everything.”
“But he’s going to the Light office at 2PM, to pick you up.”
“I’ll text him right now and tell him not to bother about me.”
Wynter was uneasy keeping a secret from Caleb, but she hadn’t spent time alone with Joy since they left the ashram. In fact, she hadn’t spent much time alone with Joy at the ashram, either. Not for years.
She checked the bus schedule and walked down to the bus stop. On the ride, she took out her phone to continue writing back and forth with the friend she’d made on the homework forum. She and Felicity had been chatting for days and had lots in common, from favorite music to a love of ice cream. When Wynter lamented being in foster care, Felicity revealed she’d been a foster kid for a few years. She was back with her family in Oregon now. Wynter wasn’t supposed to give out personal information so she wrote nothing about her own family, but Felicity’s story gave her hope.
>> Hi again, littlesistersong. Have you decided yet if you’re going out with those girls at school? Felicity wrote.
Stacey was being warily friendly with Wynter, who strongly suspected someone—her mother or the school counselor—was making her be nice. She and her friends had organized a movie outing on Friday, and invited Wynter along.
> My foster mother is making me go, Wynter wrote. I’m sure it’s good for me. I need to make friends at school but it’s hard.
>> I know what that’s like, when you’re new to a place and feel like you don’t belong. I’m so glad you and me can be friends!
> I did have two good friends in Arizona. Talking about people from her past wasn’t really giving anything away, was it? I lost touch with them when one moved away and the other one ran away.
>> That’s a shame. Did I tell you my uncle’s a private detective? I wonder if he could find them for you.
> Does that cost a lot of money?
>> I bet he’d help you cheap, maybe even for free. I’m his favorite niece. I’ll ask him! But don’t tell anyone, okay? He’ll get into trouble with his boss if he works for free.
Wynter could hardly believe her luck. Could this be her chance to find Xay and Roman? She’d never told anyone about them—not even Joy. Especially not Joy.
> I won’t tell anyone. I really want to find them.
>> Awesome. Just give me their names and birthdates. My uncle has access to all kinds of databases.
> They were born in 1995, in February I think. Their names are Xay and Roman. Xay’s mother is Ember. I don’t know their second names. They lived in Byron Bay in Australia until 2011, and then in Arizona, near Tucson, for about a year. They might be in Nevada or they might’ve gone back to Australia.
>> Those are unusual names. That means they’ll be easier to trace! I’ll call my uncle tonight.
Wynter fiddled with her phone. Did she really want to bring back those boys from the Light? Caleb was working hard to help Joy with custody. In a few weeks she might be living in Seattle in his house, or nearby, jamming in the basement, attending Jesse’s old school and sitting with him every night with her homework. That was the future she wanted.
But there was no harm in seeing if Felicity’s uncle could find Xay and Roman. They were probably back in Australia anyway. If he could track them down she’d decide then what to do about it.
Joy met Wynter off the bus. She had a smile on her face that made Wynter’s heart leap. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen Joy smile properly.
“We’re going to the Franklin County Clerk,” Joy said as they walked through town. “You’ll never guess my exciting news.”
“Is it something wonderful?” Wynter said dubiously. Joy’s last something wonderful had been a lie.
“Wynter, you know why I had to say that. This time it’s real.” They were passing a spacious park. “Let’s take a nice photo here.”
She grabbed Wynter’s hand and they walked a short way across a lawn dotted with trees. Joy took a selfie of the two of them and sent it to someone. She was acting nervous, although not scared like the night they left the ashram.
“We have some paperwork to deal with at the County Clerk’s office,” Joy said, watching her phone, “and then we’ll have something to eat.”
Joy patted her tote and said nothing. Her phone rang. She held it out, triumphantly, glowing with excitement. The screen said Miriam.
Joy put the phone to her ear. “Momma! Is that you?”
Wynter’s skin prickled as a shiver went through her. She hadn’t spoken to her mother since she was ten years old, had never received a letter or even a personal message. The trees spun around her as she adjusted her world, a world where Miriam suddenly… cared again?
She focused on what Joy was saying—something about filling out forms and getting cash. Joy put the phone on speaker and tilted it toward Wynter.
“She wants to talk to you, Wynter. Say something!”
It was Momma.
“Hello, darling,” Momma said. “Isn’t this exciting? I can’t wait to see you again.”
“We’re going to Thailand!” Joy said.
Wynter stared at the phone, unable to speak. Her hands were shaking, and her knees too, and it spread through her body until she was trembling all over—a deep, stark panic as her instinctive yearning warred with memories of all those times she’d needed attention or reassurance or affection and gotten so very little, and then nothing at all, ever again.
“She’s overcome,” Joy said into the phone. “Maybe we could call you back after we’ve finished the passport applications, and I’m sure she’ll talk to you then.”
“No, no, don’t do that. It’s early in the morning here and I have a class in half an hour.” Miriam’s tone had turned snappy and impatient, which was more like the voice Wynter remembered. Perhaps Miriam didn’t realize she was still on speaker. “You get everything sorted, and I’ll organize the visas and plane tickets from this end. Don’t you dare tell your brother or the authorities. I don’t want anyone else involved.”
Joy gave dutiful answers and hung up.
“Can you believe it? Miriam wants us to join her at last. I’ve waited so long for this.”
“She really wants us?”
“Of course she wants us. She loves us. She took me with her when I was six years old. That has to mean something, doesn’t it?”
Wynter didn’t know what it meant, except it had been very unfair to their brothers. But Joy didn’t see things in terms of fairness. The Light taught that everything happened the way it was supposed to, in the end. Miriam was supposed to follow her own path to spiritual enlightenment. Caleb and Indio and Jesse were supposed to grow up on a different path, a path with no mother. Wynter had joined her brothers’ path one month ago and from that first step it had felt exactly right.
But the universe had other plans. And she was deaf and blind to the universe, always had been. She was the last person to dispute the way things were supposed to be.
Joy took Wynter’s hand again and together they crossed the street.
“We’re going to get passports,” Joy said.
“Why couldn’t you get them in Seattle?”
“Because you won’t be coming to Seattle during business hours.” Joy’s hand was painfully tight on Wynter’s. “It’s because of Social Services,” she said abruptly. “Miriam found out you’re in foster care and that just can’t be. Caleb thinks he can sort it all out. I thought he could. I trusted him when I sent you there. Instead he’s trying to force me onto a different path, tying me down for three more years. How does that help? He’s an idiot, floundering in darkness like all these idiots.” Joy waved an arm toward a cafe where people ate their lunch at tables under heaters.
Wynter held her breath and dared not interrupt. Those people were giving Joy strange looks as she went on and on.
“The authorities will never let you go. They had no right to take you. Someone at the office told her. Some bitch at the office,” Joy spat.
Wynter kept her mouth shut on more questions. Joy must’ve kept the information secret as long as she could, knowing Miriam would blame her for creating the situation. Joy had no reason to be upset now, surely. She was going to get what she wanted.
“You belong with Miriam,” Joy muttered as they entered the building. “We belong with our mother. There are so many forms to deal with, especially as you don’t have a birth certificate, but everything will fall into place. It has to.”
They waited their turn. Inside Joy’s tote was a stack of paperwork for the two of them—from the ashram and from Miriam, who had sent it by courier—neatly filled-out forms and signed statements that Wynter couldn’t even begin to comprehend.
The young man behind the counter wanted Wynter’s birth certificate, asked three times if she was Native American, and then had to consult his supervisor to figure out what to do. The supervisor asked the same questions all over again.
“This is an affidavit from her mother,” Joy said. “The checklist says we can use this.” She was starting to look panicked as she argued with the men for an hour. The clerks had to stop now and then to deal with someone else. Joy’s earlier elation turned to anxiety as she tried to convince these people, the authorities as Miriam had always disparagingly called them, that Wynter was a real person. They had to consult a special list on their computer to make sure the information Joy had provided was good enough to prove she was real without a birth certificate.
Wynter felt herself floating away because she really didn’t exist without that one piece of paper.
I’m right here! I exist!
“You need a certified copy of the mother’s passport,” the supervisor was saying. “You need a signed statement from her, as the guardian, to authorize the child to apply for a passport and leave the country.”
“I’ll get it. I’ll get everything you need and bring it in a few days,” Joy said, breathless with fear. Wynter knew that fear—Joy was terrified she would fail and then Miriam would stop talking to her again. Maybe even stop loving her.
Wynter’s phone rang—Caleb.
Joy saw his name on her screen and said, “Don’t answer that. We need to get this finished.”
A minute later, her voicemail flashed. Wynter stepped away to listen to it. Caleb sounded stressed and upset. He said he couldn’t make the meeting at six. He didn’t say why. Why would he skip such an important meeting?
“It doesn’t matter,” Joy snapped when Wynter told her. “We don’t need a custody hearing. Do you understand? Miriam is your mother, your guardian, and she’s bringing us to Thailand. We’ll all be together again.”
Joy set Wynter in a corner against a white screen to have her photo taken by the younger man. Joy was hopeful again, and Wynter caught her mood. They were going to Momma. Everything would work out. She smiled for the camera.
“No smiling,” the man said.
After the photos, there was trouble again—something to do with money.
“I have forty dollars,” Wynter said, in case it would help. Half of that was her allowance from Rosa, which she was supposed to use when she went out Friday, and half was a gift from Caleb when he was here last week. Using Caleb’s money to remove herself from his life brought on a pang of guilt.
But the problem wasn’t lack of money. Joy had a lot of cash with her but the office would only accept a money order or check for the passport fees. They walked down the street to the post office, passing a museum on the way that Joy agreed they could visit after they were done. Then back to the clerk’s office with several hundred dollars’ worth of money orders. The office would not lodge the application until they had those extra bits of paperwork, so Joy put everything back into her tote and they left at last.
“Can we visit that museum?” Wynter asked her sister.
“I didn’t realize this would be so exhausting.” Joy did look exhausted. “You mustn’t tell anyone, understand? Social Services will kick up a fuss, now they’ve got their claws into you. Once the passports come in a few weeks, and the visas and tickets are sorted out, then of course we’ll explain things to them.”
“Caleb doesn’t like secrets.”
Joy stopped walking and shook Wynter’s arm. “You will not tell him. We can’t take any chances. Don’t cause trouble, Wynter.”
Joy wouldn’t take her to the museum and ignored Wynter’s suggestion about food, even though Wynter offered to pay.
“Are you coming back with me to stay the night?” Wynter asked. There were no buses to Seattle until the morning.
“Didn’t you listen to a word I said? No one must know about this. Don’t you dare tell anyone I was here, or what we did. I’ll stay in a motel.” She stopped and took Wynter’s shoulders, her expression turning gentle. “Everything will work out. We’ve waited so long for this, haven’t we, darling? And now we get everything we’ve always wanted. Ko Samui is the most beautiful place on Earth. It’s a tropical island—imagine that! I’ll email you pictures. I know you’ll find the Light there. I know you will. It’ll be a fresh start.” She hugged Wynter. “You’re shaking so hard. It’s the Light, filling you up!”
Wynter couldn’t feel the Light filling her up, but she did feel the lightness of hope. No teachers. No warehouse. No living in fear all day, every day, that pain was coming. Or worse—the pain of indifference as she faded into nonexistence, where even Joy didn’t see her.
Momma would see her at last.
In a daze, she got on the bus to Richland. A few weeks ago she’d knocked on a stranger’s door and Jesse had looked at her like he was seeing a ghost. But Caleb had seen her clearly, as a solid real person with a story to tell. The bitter tinge of doubt crept in. She was leaving Caleb. And Jesse, too—he saw her now. He was filling her mind with all the true things she needed to know to survive in the world. And there must be a reason Indio had told her, I won’t fail you again. She’d made a small impact on her brothers’ lives. She existed for them.
Was Miriam going to fail her? Wynter drew deep on childhood memories, searching for something to cling to, something that would reconstruct her trust in a mother whose every decision was based on messages from the universe yet not once had the universe reminded her that her own child needed her.
Pointless to look backward. Miriam wanted her daughters at her side in paradise. She’d filled out all that paperwork, sent Joy the money to make it happen. As the bus rumbled on, Wynter scrolled through the pictures Joy had sent. Rainbows of tropical flowers and birds, shallow blue waters, serene buildings with clean lines and peaceful people. In every way, it was the opposite of the ashram in the desert.
Jesse would be very, very upset about this. Indio would understand.
Caleb’s reaction she found impossible to imagine.