Little Sister Song (Wynter Wild #1)

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Floating Away

Stacey and her friends were making a pretty good effort to be nice to Wynter. Before the movie they went for pizza and no one made fun of her again for not knowing anything about Star Wars. Sharmila asked if she wanted to split a dessert and they bought a chocolate sundae between them. Keira, who had never paid her much attention before, knew more about early pop and punk music than Wynter did so they talked about The Cure and Green Day.

“I’m going to Sri Lanka over spring break,” Sharmila told the group. “I can’t wait! My uncle lives in a mansion—seven bedrooms. My cousin’s taking me to a cricket match.”

“What’s cricket?” Keira said in that croaky monotone she used to express disdain.

“I know about cricket,” Wynter said. Xay had explained the game to her. “It’s a bit like baseball, but a match lasts five days.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Stacey said.

“She’s right, though,” Sharmila said. “I’m just going the first day. I’m not wasting my entire vacation at a sports stadium. They don’t even have cheerleaders.”

“Do you know anything about baseball?” Stacey asked Wynter, without acknowledging she’d been right about cricket. “Football?”

“My brother Jesse likes ice hockey.”

“Ugh. Hockey is horrible. You missed the entire football season. Which high school are you going to? We’ll try out for the cheerleading squad together in September. Sharmila’s mom won’t let her and Keira’s not interested so I’ll need someone to come along with me.”

“I’m not going to high school here.” The way Stacey had dismissed her, and Jesse, made her defensive. “I’m going to live with my mom in Thailand.”

The girls stared at her.

“Your mom’s dead,” Keira said bluntly.

“She’s not dead.”

“I’m sure my mom said she’s dead or something and that’s why you’re in foster care.”

“She lives in Thailand, on a tropical island called Ko Samui.”

“You’re lying,” Stacey said, rolling her eyes at her friends. “Thailand? Where did you dream that up? Where is Thailand, anyway? Is that in China?”

Wynter pressed her lips together. This doesn’t matter. Cricket and ice cream sundaes and Stacey’s creative geography… none of it mattered. In a few weeks she’d never need to talk to these girls again.

They bought their movie tickets. Wynter didn’t really expect Joy to turn up, but she appeared just as they left the concessions stand.

“Did you buy a ticket?” Wynter asked her.

“Not yet. I’m late—I’m so sorry.” Joy nodded to the other girls as Wynter introduced them. “Wait here for me? I’ll buy my ticket and come right back.”

The girls didn’t want to wait, so they went to find seats. A few minutes later Joy returned and she and Wynter went into the theater. Wynter thought about making Joy tell the girls they really were going to Thailand but she wasn’t supposed to have told anyone. The girls were halfway down the auditorium, which was quickly filling up, and they hadn’t saved seats. Wynter and Joy sat in the row behind them.

“Isn’t this exciting?” Joy said, settling into the seat.

Her excitement was fake. Joy was excited about Thailand but Wynter already knew she had no interest in Star Wars. Neither did she, but Jesse was going to love talking to her about it. Not that it mattered. Jesse didn’t matter.

“I sent you a link—did you see it?” Joy said under her breath. “It’s the school Miriam’s chosen for you. She’s already downloaded the application form. A wonderful international school. You’ll meet kids from all over the world.”

Wynter checked her phone as the theater lights dimmed. The link took her to a website full of pictures of clean smiling children in blue uniforms and neatly dressed teachers. Everyone looked like they wanted to be there. Wynter wanted to be there. She glanced over the introductory text, which talked about developing a lifelong passion for learning and the school’s exceptional senior academic results. Jesse would definitely be impressed. She sent him the link with a quick message.

> I’m going to this school in Thailand. It looks amazing, doesn’t it?

Instead of the promised 3D movie, the huge screen started showing advertisements. After the fourth one, Joy began to fidget.

Wynter’s phone rang—Jesse.

Stacey turned around in her seat and hissed, “Turn it off!”

As her phone rang out, the very next ad showed some cartoon characters telling the audience to switch off their phones. Wynter wasn’t sure how to do that. Moments later it pinged and Stacey glared at her again. She looked at Jesse’s message.

>> That school is in Pattaya City on the Gulf of Thailand

So what? The retreat was on an island in the Gulf of Thailand. She could take a ferry to school every day like people in New York. She didn’t like the idea of floating on water but she’d get used to it. A ferry to school might be fun, although probably slow. She could catch up on homework or listen to music.

Her phone pinged again. Jesse had sent a map, a screendump showing the locations of Pattaya City and Ko Samui on opposite sides of the Gulf. And between them, going all the way around the gulf, was a blue line. There was no ferry. The blue line was the route by road.

There would be a bus, probably, like here in Richland.

>> 560 miles

Wynter stared at Jesse’s words in the little gray bubble.

>> It’s a boarding school

But Miriam wanted her close by, didn’t she?

Ping. Ping. Ping. All three girls in front of her were shushing her now.

>> 13 hours by road

>> Great program though

>> You can take French just like you always wanted LOL

>> Award-winning music teachers

>> You could learn to play one of those Thai lutes

>> I’m feeling jealous already

>> Students from all over the world

>> Nothing like it in boring old Washington

>> Only 2 hours from the bright lights of Bangkok

Wynter pushed her way out of the seats and stumbled up the aisle, out the door, down the corridor and into the foyer. Jesse’s messages came every few seconds.

>> Wow, some awesome extracurricular activities

>> Kayaking and art gallery trips on weekends

>> Last year the kids visited a turtle sanctuary!

>> Don’t know if I mentioned this, but I’m partial to turtles

>> Or if turtles aren’t your thing, choose from ice skating, kayaking, zip-lining in the rainforest

>> The beds in those dorms look real comfy

>> I bet you’ll get extra credit for your hospital corners

Outside, Wynter drew in lungfuls of cold wet air and wished those gray bubbles would stop rolling up her screen.

“Wynter? Wynter!” Joy was right behind her.

>> $29,000 fees per year

>> Our mother wants only the very best for you

His words drove icicles into her chest. Was this what brutal honesty felt like?

>> She must love you so much.

Wynter found herself in the parking lot, weaving aimlessly around cars. She couldn’t hear Joy calling her anymore. Must’ve lost her in the dark.

She’d had one clear path ahead, the path to Miriam. Now that path led somewhere she didn’t want to be. She didn’t exist on that path. She would not take it.

Which left her standing still, nowhere to go.

She needed to talk to someone. Felicity had been so understanding in the past and certainly more genuine and helpful than the girls at school. Surely she’d be there when Wynter needed her most? She sat on the hood of a car, called up the homework forum on her phone, and jabbed at the tiny keyboard to tell Felicity she wasn’t going to Thailand after all. She didn’t elaborate. No point wasting energy if Felicity really wasn’t her friend anymore.

Seconds after sending the message, Felicity wrote back.

>> Hi littlesistersong. What happened to your sister and your mom?

> I found out they don’t really want me.

>> That’s too bad. But guess what? I think my uncle found Roman! This afternoon he told me there’s a Roman living in Reno NV, born in Australia. He’s exactly the right age. Could it be him? Do you want his number?

Wynter’s breath caught as hope filled her heart. The first thing Roman would’ve done, after running away from the ashram, was try to find Xay. Maybe he had found him. Or if not, they could search for him together.

She ran her fingers over her braided bracelet. It was already frayed in places and repaired with tiny knots from where she’d broken it earlier. Pushing the bracelet up revealed the tiny cogwheel tattoo on her wrist. She’d thought it meant she belonged with Caleb because he had a matching symbol on his t-shirt.

The universe doesn’t speak to you, Joy had said.

If she couldn’t interpret signs, maybe she’d gotten that sign wrong. The tattoo was the only part of her that belonged to Xay. Not Caleb. No interpretation necessary. Xay had put this mark on her skin because he’d loved her and wanted to stay with her.

She’d tried to leave everything about that place behind, washed it away, even the good parts. But the fear she’d lived with much of her life was threatening to resurface—those terrifying pieces pushing their way up from her stomach to her chest and heart, to her throat. Here on the outside, where she wasn’t allowed to be where she needed to be, where Joy didn’t want her and Indio was too busy for her and Miriam wanted to shut her away again, she had to reassess her priorities.

Make one promise to yourself and keep it.

She whispered, “I promise myself I will find Xay.”

She wrote back.

> I want his number

The number came through, along with another message from Felicity.

>> Text him your pic. If he recognizes you, you’ll know it’s him! Again, don’t tell anyone, okay? This is our secret. My uncle could get into major trouble and he’s been so nice about helping out.

“Do you mind?”

Wynter raised her eyes from the screen to see a woman standing right in front of her. She had plastic shopping bags bunched in each hand. Her three young children were staring at Wynter like she’d done something unforgivable.

“This is my car. You can’t just sit on someone’s vehicle.”

Wynter slid off the hood as Joy’s voice echoed across the lot.

“Wynter!” Joy hurried over. “I’m so sorry,” she said to the woman, gripping Wynter’s arm and pulling her away.

“Did you know?” Wynter said. “Did you know she doesn’t really want me?”

“What are you talking about?”

“That school is hundreds of miles away. I’m not going with you if Momma doesn’t want me.”

“Wynter, that’s a very good school. Very expensive.”

“I’ll be all alone. I won’t exist!” She wrapped her arms around her head and yelled, “You did know, and you kept it secret just so you could get what you want.”

The woman was coming over and now she looked concerned. “You alright there? Do you need help?” She gave Joy a suspicious look. How could a total stranger see her and want to help her when Joy had tried to trick her and her own mother couldn’t see her at all?

Never would.

“She’s perfectly fine. She’s my sister,” Joy said, taking Wynter’s arm again and marching her through the parking lot. “Calm down, Wynter. Miriam knows what’s best. She finally wants us to join her—what more could we want?”

“I thought we were going to be together, like a real family. Five hundred and sixty miles… that’s too far.”

“Miriam has a busy life. I suppose she thinks the retreat is no place for children.”

“I don’t want to go. I won’t go!”

“Don’t talk nonsense. This is the path we’re supposed to be on.”

Out of habit, Wynter looked around for a sign. She couldn’t think straight. She’d invented signs to make Joy send her to Caleb, but now she couldn’t come up with anything to let her stay. And what use was a sign, anyway? She might convince Joy, but it was Miriam’s decision that mattered.

She stopped dead. “I’ll tell Caleb everything. He’ll call the police. They’ll go to the ashram and arrest people.”

Joy paled. “What on earth do you mean?”

“You know what I mean. If Miriam doesn’t leave me alone, I’ll tell them what happened there. Someone will pay.”

“You’ll ruin everything,” Joy said in a breathy voice full of fear. “You can’t betray the Light. You can’t make trouble.”

“Tell Miriam to let me stay here. You can stay or go—I don’t care anymore. But I’m not going if I won’t exist for her.”

Joy looked so very frail and scared as she stood at the edge of the parking lot, clutching her purse.

“I don’t blame you, Joy. I know you just wanted her to love you again.”

“She does love me. She chose me. She left the boys behind and chose me.”

“Then go!”

“Why are you always so much trouble?” Joy said, pleading now.

“I won’t be trouble for you. You don’t have to worry about me anymore.”

Wynter walked away and around the corner, crossed the street and waited at the bus stop. Joy didn’t follow. Wynter was supposed to call Rosa to pick her up but Rosa wasn’t expecting the call for another two hours.

As the bus took her “home”—that place that would never be home—she wondered if she could carry through her threat if Miriam didn’t change her mind. She imagined being interrogated by severe detectives in a small airless room like she’d seen on TV. She tried to put together the words she’d have to say and found it impossible to form the sentences, even in her head, just as she’d been unable to tell Caleb or Jesse.

But the way Joy had looked at her… Joy believed she’d do it, and that was what mattered. Joy would tell Miriam, and Miriam would back down because nothing must ever tarnish the reputation of the Light.

Wynter got off the bus and instead of going up the hill to Rosa’s, turned in the other direction, down to the river. There was a track to the river bank and from there she walked along the muddy shore in the dark. Rosa had told her this place was beautiful in the spring, when the grass turned green and the birds returned.

Maybe she wouldn’t be here long enough to see it. She had another option now. She had Roman’s number—she should’ve realized the sign, days ago when Felicity first offered to help. She sat on a rock and looked up Reno on the map. More than six hundred miles away. About the same distance as that boarding school from Miriam—certainly not a place she could visit in a day and come back. She needed to run away. She’d need money and a plan.

She found a selfie on her phone, taken during her second week of school—she was holding up the project she’d made in art class that day, where they had to sculpt something from wire. Wynter had tried to make a miniature guitar with six wire strings and tiny tuning pegs, but it was a crooked, tangled disaster. So she’d started again with something she knew she could do well. She’d twisted the wire into a dreamcatcher, complete with dangling feathers. She could weave dreamcatchers in her sleep, although using wire had been a minor challenge. The art teacher had given her the Student of the Week award, which was surely only because she was the new kid. The selfie was intended for Indio but in the end she’d never sent it. If she’d made a successful wire guitar, she would’ve sent it.

She cropped out the dreamcatcher, because Roman would probably make some snide comment about it, and attached just her face to a new message. She wrote:

> Hi Roman. Is that you? I hope so. I got out, too. I’m living in Washington. Do you know where Xay is? If it’s really you, please write back. Wynter. XOXO

Her phone rang. She drew a deep breath, her mind filling with all the questions she needed to ask. But the screen said Caleb.

Jesse would’ve told him by now about Thailand and about the school. The thrill of finding Roman had made her forget what Caleb would think about her leaving. She let the call go to voicemail.

Moments later, a new message arrived.

>> Wynter! I can’t believe it. Yes, it’s me. How are you? You look just the same!

Wynter read the message through twice. She’d found him. She’d found Roman. At last the universe was making sense. Her hand shook as she typed a response.

> Did you find Xay?

>> I don’t know exactly where he is but I have some clues I need to follow. We could do it together!

> I want to meet you in Reno. Are you doing okay? Send photos! Can I call you?

>> I’m out with friends so don’t call just yet. They’ll get all nosy about it. Let’s keep this between the two of us until we find Xay. Let’s meet halfway, that’s fair. How about Eugene, Oregon? I have a friend there I can stay with.

Wynter’s bus from LA had stopped in Eugene, a couple of hours south of Portland. Not too far away.

> I need to get some money. I’ll let you know.

>> I start a new job Monday after next, so we have to meet up this coming week.

> I understand. I’ll figure out a way. Can we talk tomorrow?

>> I’m camping this weekend and my phone’s almost dead. I’ll talk to you Sunday. I’m so glad you found me!

Wynter headed toward Rosa’s house, brainstorming ideas for getting money. Her allowance wasn’t going to help much and she’d spent this week’s on food and a movie she hadn’t watched. What could she sell? The only thing she had of value was Indio’s guitar. Maybe she could sell it to someone at school. It was, after all, Indio who’d told her to make a promise to herself. Selling the guitar would help her keep that promise.

As she walked up the hill, Caleb called again. She wasn’t going to Thailand but he didn’t know that yet. Would he encourage her to go? Or would he fight to keep her? Curiosity made her answer the call.

“Where are you? Jesse just told me everything. What’s going on?” His voice anchored her, as always, and she was struck by a desperate desire to stay right here until she could be with him, to defy the universe after all, to forget about Xay and Roman, to endure Rosa’s cold unwelcoming house for as long as it took to be where she belonged.

“I thought Miriam wanted me,” she stammered, “but I was wrong. The school…”

“I know.” In the background she heard people talking. He was probably out for the evening with Bea.

“I don’t know if I should go.” Go to Roman, she meant, not to Miriam. But she needed to see if he believed there was an alternative, a path where he chose her. If he could do that, if he wanted her despite the trouble it would cause him, maybe she didn’t need Xay.

“That has to be your decision.”

Wrong answer. He wasn’t going to fight for her.

“She’s your mother,” Caleb went on in a resigned way. “After everything she’s done, I didn’t believe she could be an adequate parent but that’s not my call. I understand if you want to go to her. You’ll see her several times a year. You’ll be at a great school. You won’t be in the Light. It won’t be like before, hun. You’ll be safe.”

Everything he said was true, and yet she couldn’t go. That decision was already made. She would not go to the other side of the world only to be ignored. Now she needed him to give her a reason to stay here, to give her hope he would take care of her.

She said, “If I stayed, would you help me?”

“Always. That’s my duty.”

“Your duty…”

She could barely speak, anguish driving the air from her lungs. Until this moment she hadn’t realized she needed to hear him speak about love. Speak those words that no one but Joy had ever said to her, and when Joy said them it never sounded true. To Joy, love was something to be given and snatched away on a whim, something you had to win back through atonement.

Did Caleb know what love was?

If he knew, and if he said the words, she’d believe him.

He didn’t say what she needed to hear. He said, “Girls need their mothers.”

She thought of teenaged Caleb taking on all the responsibility, of Jesse insisting it didn’t matter because he didn’t remember her, and of six-year-old Indio waiting every day for her to come back, until he stopped hoping.

“So do boys,” she said.

“That ship’s sailed,” Caleb said heavily. “But you have the chance to start again with her, even if it’s not exactly the way you wanted. Maybe you should take what she’s offering, what she couldn’t give us.”

“When I was little,” Wynter said, drawing on painful memories, “I felt like I deserved more. Maybe I wanted too much from her. Maybe I was greedy. Joy was so much easier, always compliant. I think I was a burden. I think you and Indio and Jesse were burdens and that’s why she left you behind.”

“I can’t explain what she did. Things are a lot simpler from where I sit. You have to decide, Wynter. But if you do stay, I want to be the one taking care of you.”

Her throat ached as hope surfaced again, and that same terrible fear that hope always brought with it. “Are you saying you’ll try for custody?”

Silence. She counted her heartbeats. One, two, three…

“That’s what I want,” he said at last. “But right now I have another duty. This afternoon I got orders to deploy. I ship out of Key West in Florida for two months in April. When I get back, I’ll work with Tina. I’ll work with my executive officer to come up with a family plan the Coast Guard is happy with.”

Her mind felt hollow, her body light. She was floating away. She sat on the step of Rosa’s porch, hugging her knees. “You’re talking about… June? I can’t wait that long.”

“We have to work with what we’ve got.”

Behind her, Rosa opened the door. “Why are you back so soon?”

“Goodbye, Caleb,” Wynter said, and hung up.

She went in, ignoring Rosa’s questions about why she was back so early. The path with Caleb on it had been an option, but his deployment was a roadblock. The path with Roman on it was the clear way ahead. She’d found him so fast and it would cost her no more than a bus ticket to meet him.

This was the way the universe wanted her to go.

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