Little Sister Song (Wynter Wild #1)

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The Only Lie

In Ohio, Indio had fallen into the habit of getting wasted every weekend. Every. Single. Weekend. His record over the past couple of months in Portland was actually a great improvement. Not that he was congratulating himself. He had a long way to go.

Last weekend was Blunderbelly’s drummer’s cousin’s birthday. Indio didn’t even know the guy but he had nothing better to do after Saturday’s gig than hang out in a park in Lake Oswego with his bandmates and a dozen others, including a girl from out of town he’d met the night before.

Indio hadn’t been in a party mood. What Jesse told him about Rosa would normally have rolled off his back because Rosa didn’t mean a thing to him—he’d never met her and never wanted to. So he was caught by surprise when her implied accusations left him infuriated. He worked it off by partying. There was a lot of alcohol available. He’d always hated excessive drinking, although that didn’t always stop him. That night he took a tab of acid instead because… Well, why not? Wasn’t just Caleb’s expectations he was living down to now, but Rosa’s, too.

When the cops showed up, he was sitting in the driver seat of someone else’s coupe, messing around with the laser pointer keychain. Pointing a laser at a cop was a Class A misdemeanor. Who knew? The drunk eighteen-year-old with him, who’d been trying to persuade him into the backseat where he was frankly never going to fit for the purpose she had in mind, had a Smirnoff Ice that she decided to tell the officer he’d given her. He probably had. He didn’t recall in this instance but it wouldn’t be the first time he’d furnished a minor with alcohol. He wasn’t usually stupid enough to do it in a public place. Another misdemeanor. Resisting arrest, which was presumably the cause of his hand injury, added one more. The cops weren’t done. There was Disorderly Conduct and a couple lesser misdemeanor charges on his ticket because, among other things, a local reported a group of them had wandered into a nearby parking lot at three in the morning and relieved themselves against the wall of a building that turned out to be a church. Indio accidentally admitted he was among that group. And just because the arresting officer was a dick, he added a citation for possession thanks to the joint in Indio’s pocket.

All in all, the unopened letter in Caleb’s hand was starting to look a lot less dramatic by comparison.

“Open it,” Caleb said.

Indio had reached his limit. He could tell Caleb to fuck off out of his home or he could get it over and done with tonight. At some point he was going to have to get that background check and everything would come out anyway. Even if he got his juvenile record sealed, nothing was going to make the Buffalo thing vanish.

“You open it,” he said, a final, pointless act of belligerence.

Caleb slapped the envelope on the counter. “Open it.”

Indio ripped it open and handed Caleb the letter without looking at it.

Caleb’s brow went up as he took it. “You already know what it says?”

Yes, he knew what it said, more or less. “I owe the state of New York nine hundred dollars.”

It could’ve been worse—so much worse. A sick feeling came over him as he recalled that Christmas vacation in Buffalo. Another party, another arrest, only this time it was a felony possession charge and he’d faced prison time. He plead it down, which was the way these things usually went for polite white boys—and he had been polite that time—but he hadn’t known it would be that easy. He’d spent the night before in a cell, shaking in fear yet unable to call Caleb or Harry for help.

Indio flopped onto the recliner in the living room, mentally steeling himself.

“This was two years ago,” Caleb said, incredulous as he glanced over the letter. “You haven’t told me in two years? Does Harry know? Does Jesse?”

“No one knows. You’d just been stationed at the base in Seattle, just kicked Harry out. Didn’t want to ruin your homecoming or burden Jesse with a ‘secret’.” He air-quoted the word as a nod to Caleb’s stupid house rule. Well, not stupid, but highly inconvenient and often unrealistic.

“What was the conviction for?”

“In the end, a Class A misdemeanor for possession—a few PCP tablets. Weren’t even mine. I was literally just counting them out on the table when—”

“Jesus Christ, Indio, I don’t care about the details. Is this why you never filed the paperwork to get your juvenile records sealed?”

“The conviction made me ineligible for two years.”

“And now, just when the two years are up, you’ve managed to screw up again.” Caleb breathed deep, that self-control thing he did when was pushing it all down. He came into the living room and set down the coffees. “Do you have any intention of paying the fine?”

“It’s New York. I figured they wouldn’t chase me across the country for it.”

“Clearly they are chasing you. You could be arrested for this.”

“For nine hundred bucks? Not likely.”

“Interest makes it almost eleven hundred dollars now.”

“May as well be eleven thousand. I can’t pay it.”

“Here’s what’s going to happen.” Caleb sat heavily on the couch. “I’ll pay it and—”

“I don’t want your money.”

“You’ll pay me back.”

“Or what?”

“There is no or what. That’s what you’ll do. You’ll probably owe the state of Oregon as well, after last weekend. Sell some of those damn guitars or the bike.”

“I’m not selling my guitars.”

Caleb gave that slow shake of his head that meant there was no way past him. “Listen to me. You fucked up. You pay the consequences, you clean up your mess, and you move on.”

Indio thought of all the things he could say to prolong the fight. He was good with words that way. He used to talk circles around Harry, poking the hornet’s nest for fun when he could be bothered. Other times he just walked away. Choosing between the options gave him some control over what happened next, where ultimately the aim was to deflect violence. And it actually left Harry with a smidgen of respect for his middle son. It was different with Caleb, though. Whereas Harry was always wrong, Caleb was usually right and in any case violence was off the table. No fun battering Caleb with words and cleverly twisted logic when it wasn’t going to make Caleb respect him or diminish his own shame.

So he simply said, “Is the lecture over?”

Caleb tipped back his head as he rubbed his hands over his face. “Lecture over. Oh, and you owe me a hundred for the bail because they never return it all. Administrative charges or something. I’ll pay for the lawyer, so count your blessings. Jesse and me can eat instant noodles for a few months.” He took one last look at the letter on the coffee table. “That isn’t you, Indio. You’re a musician, an artist. You have an incredible future. You could be someone Wynter looks up to.”

The only people who looked up to Indio were the girls in the front row. He frowned at his bruised knuckles. Caleb could be right. Something had happened in that basement a few weeks ago. A connection was made, not only with a fellow musician but with a girl who was going to be a part of his life for the rest of his life. He could nurture it, if he made the effort.

Which was ridiculous. Being a role model for Wynter was a whole heap of pressure he didn’t need.

“Isn’t that your job?” he said lightly.

“Here’s my job.” Caleb leaned forward, elbows on knees. “Given Joy skipped the meeting today, given she’s shown no interest in taking Wynter in, I’m going to seek custody.”

“How’s that gonna work?”

“I don’t know yet. I have to try.”

“You took care of Jesse since he was three years old. You’ve done your duty to this family.”

“This family just got bigger, and so did my responsibility. I have exactly the same duty to Wynter—and to Joy, for that matter—as I had to the two of you.”

Indio wasn’t going to argue the point. He wanted Wynter out of foster care as much as Caleb did. “Don’t you ever get tired of being perfect?”

“You know, better than anyone, that I’m not perfect.” Caleb tipped forward to take something from the rack under the coffee table—a photo album. “I was looking for this at Harry’s. Didn’t know you had it.”

“Don’t know why I have it. You can take it.”

Caleb gave him a look as he settled back to open it, a look that said he understood it was no accident the album was here. Indio had taken it years ago, hauled it around with the rest of his stuff from Washington to Ohio to Oregon. It was the only one without her in it.

“Christ, Harry was right. I really did dress like an accountant.” Caleb tilted the first page in Indio’s direction—a photo of him dressed in a suit, a cute blonde on his arm. “That was the school Winterfest dance, my sophomore year. Anita Green—still the sweetest girl I ever met.”

“Doesn’t everyone say that about their first?”

“How d’you know she was my first?”

“Wasn’t she?”

Caleb set his jaw, like he was going to refuse to answer. “Yes, although I wasn’t hers,” he admitted, turning the page. “No Christmas photos that year. Did we even celebrate it?”

“Not really. Harry was doing great, though,” Indio said sarcastically. “We’d been in Seattle half a year, he had a good job—bragging cuz he was middle management. I don’t work for the man, the man works for me! As if he owned the company. But he was a weekend drunk, all the same. You came home from that dance and got into a fight with him cuz he insulted your date. Not in front of her, so you really should’ve let it drop. He walked out with a shiner and didn’t come back for a week, and you had to call the cleaning company every morning to tell them he was still bedridden with the flu.”

Indio relished the story, and relished retelling it, to remind himself as well as his brother that Caleb was no stranger to pre-emptive violence. Not that Indio could think of a single time after that incident where Caleb and Harry had come to blows.

“And then Harry waltzes home like he’s been on vacation,” Indio continued, enjoying Caleb’s discomfort, “a crate of beer, smiles all around, and it was never spoken of again. We all sort of forgot it was Christmas morning.”

“I think the neighbor dropped in an apple pie and leftover ham.”

“I remember that. Great ham. Jesse wouldn’t eat the pie cuz there was no ice cream. He was almost as picky about his own food as he’d been about that—” Indio stopped himself and swallowed. Caleb looked up, waiting for the rest. “—that dog’s food.” Indio hadn’t meant to bring up the damn dog. Now he’d done it, he found he needed to finish the thought. “Remember that time in Anaconda—two years earlier, I guess—you sent me and Jesse to the store with a few bucks to buy groceries and we spent it all on dog food?”

“The expensive stuff, too.”

“Exactly. Jesse was—what, seven years old? Standing there in the aisle reading labels on the cans. Had to be at least twenty-five percent protein.” And Caleb had yelled at him, not Jesse, when they came home with three cans of premium dog food and nothing else.

“I think that dog was…” Caleb frowned, getting his words in line. “That dog was when things started going wrong between us.”

“You mean when he ran away?” Indio leaned on the words. He and Jesse had gone camping for a week in July with a family from school, and Skar was gone when they got home. “Jesse used to agonize over the odds he could survive in the wild, and Harry laughed about it when he was drunk. Maybe he was hit by a truck. That dog had the worst road sense. Well, he was a stray. I was still teaching him to stop at the curb.” Indio grabbed a deep breath to quell the hot pressure behind his eyes. “I told Jesse some other family probably took him in.”

Caleb flicked over the pages in silence. At last he said, “That was the only lie I ever told you.”

“Harry took him to the pound, didn’t he?” A twitch of Caleb’s brow told Indio he was right. “That’s what I thought. Was it on that first day we left for camp? Or did he wait a while, maybe until Skar chewed through something or dug another hole in the yard so he could justify it to himself? Did he tell you what he was gonna do, or did you get the same lie?”

Caleb closed the album. “Harry made me take him. I refused to do it until he threatened to drive him out to the mountain with his shotgun. Maybe that would’ve been okay—Skar wouldn’t know the difference. I walked him forty-five minutes to the rescue place on the edge of town.”

A calmness came over Indio. The truth, at last. And now he wanted every last detail. “Why all the way out there? The city pound was three minutes around the corner.”

“I’m gonna guess he didn’t want the neighbors to know.”

“Everyone on our street loved that dog.”

I loved him. It was the toughest forty-five minutes of my fourteen-year-old life. On the way there I was furious. Grieving, too.” Caleb cleared his throat. “The girl who processed him, a high school volunteer, I guess, not much older than me, she couldn’t hide her contempt when I explained it to her. We can’t keep him. He’s too much trouble. On the way back, I thought about how to fix things. Let’s tell them he ran away, I told Harry, and he was good with that. Wasn’t his fault if the dog ran away.”

Nothing was ever Harry’s fault.

“I’ll bet he was put down,” Indio said. “He wasn’t exactly a puppy.”

“Seems likely.”

“Why didn’t you tell us the truth?”

Caleb shrugged. “Didn’t want you to know Harry could do something like that.”

“A wasted lie. Of course I knew Harry could do something like that.”

“For Jesse’s sake, then. Jesse got his first drum kit out of the deal.”

“He did?”

“We were all astounded by Harry’s generosity, remember? Weeks after Jesse’s eighth birthday had come and gone, and suddenly the drum kit appears. I always thought that kit was a guilt offering.”

“Huh. Might be the only nice thing Harry ever did for Jesse. How did that kid turn out so great? There’s Wynter’s role model, right there, if he doesn’t screw it up.”

“He’s been taking it very seriously.”

“Too seriously. That’s my point. I hope he gives her space to breathe.”

“I made a conscious decision to do the best I could do for you and Jesse,” Caleb said. “You could make that decision, too. Wynter wants to learn from you. She admires you. And you both…” Caleb gave a quick shake of his head.

“Both what?”

“Suffered the same loss. You know what I mean. I thought maybe I could help her because we were about the same age when Miriam left. But our situations were so different. I don’t know how to talk about it with her. You two… I think you both feel it in the same way. You could help her get past it.”

Indio silently congratulated his brother on perhaps the most insightful thing he’d ever said. Other than the last part, anyway. How could Indio help Wynter get past it when he himself wasn’t past it?

“I’ve just been charged with peeing in a churchyard,” Indio said, standing to stretch. “She was better off getting guidance from the Light. I’m going to bed.”

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