Little Sister Song (Wynter Wild #1)

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Lecture

At a gas station in Oregon, Caleb tried calling Wynter again. Moments later, Rosa texted him three times in quick succession.

>> Please do not contact Wynter. I’ve confiscated her phone and banned email until Friday because she left the house this afternoon without permission and lied about where she went.

>> She and Tina have completed their meeting this evening.

>> What a shame you and Joy didn’t show up.

Caleb didn’t trust himself to have a civil conversation with Rosa, so he called Tina who told him bluntly that she wasn’t seeing the required level of commitment from either him or Joy.

“I am committed to Wynter. I also have a life to deal with and this was unavoidable. We can reschedule.”

“Yes, we can reschedule but I’m not due to visit Wynter for another month.”

“So we’ll meet up next time she’s in Seattle. That’s… Saturday the eighteenth, right?”

“I have a life as well, Caleb. I prefer to work during normal office hours—”

“Don’t make this harder than it has to be. Wynter doesn’t even have to be there. You don’t have to be there. Joy can go to court without you. And if she can’t get custody, or won’t, then I will.”

“I see. That brings up a whole new set of issues, especially in the case of a high-risk child. In unusual circumstances such as these, you will need my recommendation in court. Given she has a stable home in foster care, it’s very unlikely a judge would award you custody as a single parent in the military. What happens if you’re deployed?”

“I’ll name someone as her temporary guardian.”

“Someone? Who?”

“I’ll find someone.”

“The fact is, while you’re on active duty you cannot take sole responsibility for a dependent. The department would certainly recommend against it. In addition, you have no history with her. I can’t help noticing that you’ve demonstrated no particular affection for her. Rosa has observed the same thing.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“On every parameter, Rosa’s home is the best place for Wynter.”

For two sickening heartbeats Caleb wondered if she was right. His duty was to Wynter, yet he had another duty to his country and he couldn’t throw away his career. Jesse would be a phenomenal influence on her but he was years away from being ready to take sole responsibility for her during a deployment. And if Caleb took credit for that kid, he must also take credit for the criminal drug abuser currently sitting in jail.

On the third heartbeat, Caleb discarded his self-doubt. Tina was one misaligned cog in the machine—a machine he’d always believed in. He would bring Wynter home, somehow, and he’d do it by the book.

He hung up and drove on, with music blaring too loudly for him to hear his thoughts.


Hours later, Caleb was on the road back to Portland, sitting in the center lane on cruise control, which on principle he rarely used, with Indio beside him. He drove in silence, waiting for his brother to explain himself. Indio had nothing to say except that he wasn’t hungry, which couldn’t be true. Caleb contemplated stopping for food anyway—it was nine o’clock and he was starving—then found himself begrudging his brother a ten-dollar meal after forking over half the contents of his bank account to get him out of jail. Shame or resentment held Indio’s tongue, and Caleb wasn’t yet in the mood to prompt him.

Instead, he drove straight to Indio’s apartment where half a dozen people were playing cards and video games and guitars amid empty pizza boxes. Turk hustled everyone out, turned off the music, whipped up a few quesadillas and unobtrusively cleaned up the kitchen while they ate. Indio held his fork awkwardly because of a bruised right hand that he hadn’t offered to explain. Then Turk quietly left to spend the night at a friend’s place, telling Caleb he could crash for the night on his bed.

Caleb stacked the dishes. “I talked to a lawyer while I was waiting for them to process you. We’re seeing her tomorrow at ten.”

“We?”

“She’s hopeful the charges can be reduced or dismissed at the pre-trial meeting.” Caleb leaned on the sink as his gut clenched. “What the hell’s going on, Indio? Why didn’t you call me Saturday night? Why don’t you ask for help when you need it?”

“Your help always comes with a lecture.”

“Have I lectured you tonight? Have I said one word?”

“I feel it coming on.”

“I just want to know what you were thinking.”

“I was high. I wasn’t thinking.”

“Why were you high?”

“What kind of question is that? It’s something I do sometimes.” Indio scrunched a napkin in his fist, working it into a tight ball as he stared at the streetlight outside the window. “Jesse told me Wynter’s foster mother looked through her phone the other day because she thought I was… doing something wrong. Sending stuff to her. Asking her for… I would never do that.”

“I know.”

Indio gave him a sharp look. “How do you know? How do you know what I would or wouldn’t do? Look how I spent my weekend. Maybe I’m exactly the screw-up that woman thinks I am.”

“I know you’d never hurt Wynter. I trust you on that. The rest of it…” Caleb shook his head, unable to contain his dismay any longer. “Okay, you made a mistake that night. Lots of mistakes. But resisting arrest? What the hell was that about? I’ve told you and Jesse, a hundred times, you do what the cops say. Don’t resist, don’t joke around, don’t talk. If they’re wrong, you sort it out later. Instead, you compounded the problem.”

Indio didn’t react because, of course, this was the lecture he’d predicted.

Caleb calmed himself. “Okay, no more. We’ll talk about it tomorrow with the lawyer.”

Indio hauled himself out of the chair. “I’m gonna take a shower.”

“Does that hand need attention?”

Indio rolled his wrist, assessing the damage. “Wonder what happened there. Pretty sure I didn’t punch anyone this time.” There was the hint of a sly smile on his lips that irked Caleb more than it should because he was only joking. Assault was nothing to joke about. Then again, assault wasn’t among the charges for this arrest.

Indio disappeared into the bathroom. Caleb was desperate to call Wynter to explain himself, but once again Rosa had taken control of their communications. He was about to call Jesse when Jesse called him, returning his earlier voicemail. He denied knowing anything about the arrest. He sounded offended that Caleb would think he wouldn’t tell him. Of course Jesse would tell him. Why was Caleb second-guessing himself again?

“Do I have a problem showing affection?” Caleb said, opening an overhead cabinet to find coffee mugs. “Tina says there’s a problem.”

“You’re kinda closed up, I guess.”

“What does that even mean? Bea tells me I don’t pay her enough attention. Is that why she keeps…” He stopped himself, awkward about discussing this with Jesse.

“Keeps feeling you up in public places? Forcing the issue, so to speak?” Jesse chuckled to himself, but it was a strained sound because he was clearly worried about Indio. “I think it has more to do with things like that one-terabyte portable hard drive.”

“She had two crashes this past year. That was a perfectly practical gift.”

“Oh, sure, I agree it was practical. I’m not the most romantic guy on the planet either, but even I know not to give a girl a backup system for Christmas. As for Wynter, a hug now and then wouldn’t kill you. Although…”

“Although what?”

“C’mon. You know what Rosa would say if she saw you hugging Wynter for one second too long?”

“I haven’t hugged Wynter.”

“—because you have issues with affection. I know that. I’m just saying, if you did, Rosa would freak out. She’s a prude. Which is funny given her career choice. Also, not funny at all because she’s gonna get the wrong impression. She has affection issues of her own. She has issues with sex.”

“So, I can’t win with her.”

“Probably not. Forget about her.”

Jesse was right. They both had to work around Rosa. He needed to concentrate on Wynter.

“The way Wynter flinched at the table when we were at Rosa’s,” Caleb said as he switched on the coffee machine, “you used to do that, when Harry made any kind of sudden movement.”

“I had to reassure her you never hit us.”

“I hate to think she’s scared of me.”

“She’s not. It was just instinct. They hit her at the ashram.”

“She told you that?”

“No. She keeps deflecting questions about it, and Joy deflected Indio’s questions about it, which is how I know it’s true.”

“I was going there today to tell Wynter I’ll seek custody.”

“Yes! You should’ve done that a month ago.”

He was right, of course. Caleb had been resisting all this time because he’d believed Tina and his own lawyer who kept telling him Joy was the better option. He’d second-guessed his own ability to take care of another sibling despite having raised a kid as awesome as Jesse.

“Tina’s going to fight me, so don’t tell Wynter—not yet. Actually, you can’t tell Wynter anything because she’s grounded until Friday.”

“We have homework dates lined up!”

Caleb paced the kitchen, exhausted. “You could drive down on Saturday.”

“Isn’t that illegal or something? We’re not supposed to see her until the week after. Why is she grounded?”

“She went AWOL for a few hours today. Let’s get through the week and on Friday maybe you can ask her what happened.” Caleb toed the pedal on the trash to lift the lid, and dropped in the used coffee filter. “She opens up to you, doesn’t she?”

“If changing the subject is opening up—sure.”

“You’ll get there. We’ll all get there. I’ll talk to Rosa for you about Saturday.”

On top of the trash was a cereal box. Out of habit, Caleb moved it to the adjacent recycle bin. Underneath was more stuff in the wrong bin—handwritten lecture notes, paper guitar string packets, forwarded mail with Indio’s Portland address scribbled over the Ohio one… Caleb stopped with the envelope in his hand.

“I don’t know if Saturday’s good for me,” Jesse was saying. “I need to sort something out with Natalie.”

“Okay. I gotta go.”

He hung up, turned around, and there was Indio in sweatpants and t-shirt, hair dripping on his shoulders, eyes fixed on that envelope.

“Erie County Court, Buffalo, New York,” Caleb read off the return address. “Something else you need to tell me?”

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