> I’m figuring out how to get the money for the ticket, Wynter texted Roman. Tell me all about your new job. Send me a picture!
When there was no response, she tried calling him but it rang out.
>> Sorry I missed your call, he wrote on Sunday. Let’s stick to text because I’m on the road with friends all weekend and I haven’t told them about you yet.
As they texted back and forth all day, Wynter was becoming increasingly apprehensive about seeing him again. While she was thrilled to have found him, this was colored by the disappointment that it was Roman who’d been found, and not Xay. Roman was Xay’s friend—in fact they’d grown up together, as close as brothers when she first met them two years ago—but her relationship with him had always been cautious. He seemed different now, friendlier and more open. Roman could be a lot of fun but at times he’d not been particularly nice to her. He’d been jealous that Xay liked her so much. The way he talked about the two of them searching for Xay convinced her he was over that now.
Jesse called to help with homework on Monday night. She told him she didn’t need help, and he didn’t push. Neither of them mentioned Thailand or the school or all those messages he’d sent on Friday night. That subject was a gaping chasm between them. They must either shout at each other across the chasm or not talk at all. It was easier not to talk.
She thought about asking Caleb or Jesse for money, about the lies she could tell. Caleb didn’t have a lot of money. Jesse had his YouTube money but she had no idea how to access it. And the idea of stealing from either of them made her feel sick.
“This is the remainder of your school fees for the term,” Rosa said at breakfast on Tuesday, handing Wynter a blue form. “Don’t forget to hand it in.”
Wynter glanced over the form. The fees amounted to $45—a good start. It might even be enough, if she booked her ticket a few days in advance. She didn’t mind so much about stealing from Rosa. The universe was on her side.
“Where’s the money?” she asked Rosa.
“Right there.” Rosa pointed to the credit card details and her signature at the bottom of the page.
“Oh. We don’t have to give them cash?”
“Goodness, no. I’ve paid with my card, and Social Services will reimburse me. You be sure to collect a receipt, please.”
Wynter’s heart sank but she wasn’t deterred. The universe would give her what she needed, one way or another.
>> I’m sorry I can’t send a pic!!! Roman wrote when she was on the bus on Wednesday morning. My stupid phone camera broke. My buddy says he’ll take some pics later in the week and I’ll send you a bunch.
>> Let me know as soon as you book your ticket. I’ll drop everything and drive to Eugene. It’s 7 hours away and I’ve got a packed bag in the trunk.
She smiled at that word, trunk. The boys had always called it the boot, and the front of the car the bonnet instead of the hood. Roman was learning to speak American at last.
At school, Wynter pinned a flyer for the guitar on the noticeboard. It must be worth at least one hundred dollars because Indio did not play it on stage. Or perhaps it was worth so little it wasn’t good enough to play on stage. She split the difference and put fifty dollars on the flyer.
A niggle of doubt stirred her conscience. This was Indio’s guitar, not hers to sell. But he’d given it to her. He hadn’t said he ever wanted it back. It’s just gonna lie around here doing nothing.
Stacey and Keira came over and Wynter tensed for a difficult conversation. She’d walked out on them at the movie theater five days ago and hadn’t spoken to them since.
“Can one of your so-called hot brothers be my Valentine?” Stacey said sweetly. “Or do they all live in Thailand like your mom?” She gave Wynter a withering look to show she still believed the Thailand story was another figment of Wynter’s imagination. “Got pictures? I’ll pick one for myself, and Keira and Sharmila can have the rejects.”
“I don’t think they date eighth graders,” Wynter muttered, straightening the flyer. She knew that much about dating.
“I like older guys,” Keira said, snapping her gum. “Zac Efron and Robert Pattinson are ancient but still hot. The Harry Potter guy is cute. Kit Harington—oh my god, yes please. And that Aussie guy in The Hunger Games.”
“Hey, let’s get together and watch The Hunger Games at Keira’s house,” Stacey said, like it was the most incredible idea anyone had ever had. “She’s got an entertainment room with theatre seats and everything. Wynter, maybe you’ll actually make it to the opening credits this time.”
“I’m banned from the entertainment room until Easter, remember?” Keira told Stacey. “Cuz of those videos Marshall’s cousin sent me.” She turned to Wynter. “So, who’s your Valentine?”
“She’ll just make someone up,” Stacey said.
Wynter kept quiet. It wasn’t at all clear to her how important it was to have a Valentine. Jesse had called it the day for lovers. Wynter didn’t understand the first thing about love.
“We’ll find you someone!” Stacey said. “Who d’you think is hot? Do you like boys?”
“Boys are fine.” Boys were certainly better than girls, in her experience so far.
“Yeah, but which boy?” Keira persisted. “Tomorrow you have to leave candy on the desk of the boy you secretly love.”
Wynter said, “It wouldn’t be a secret if I told you.”The girls gave up and left her alone, giggling to each other.
Jesse had been waiting all afternoon for Indio’s call. He was suffering from an acute case of survivor guilt—Indio had wanted him to go to that gig and to the party afterward. Jesse hadn’t gone because Natalie hadn’t wanted to. He was being very attentive to Natalie and she was setting the pace in every aspect of their relationship. When she wanted him to watch a Twilight movie marathon with her, he did that. When she wanted him to write her practical reasoning paper for philosophy class, he did that. When she wanted to make out, fully clothed, in the back of the Caprice on the lake instead of driving to Oregon to see his brother’s band, he did that. He told himself it all amounted to extended foreplay.
If he’d gone to the party, maybe he’d have been among the four kids arrested that night on a bunch of random trumped-up charges. And trumped-up they were, as it turned out.
“They dropped everything but Disorderly Conduct as soon as we walked in the room,” Indio told him when he finally called that evening, following his plea negotiations. “I plead that down to a Class C misdemeanor—Abuse of a Venerated Object.”
“God, that’s an impressive thing to plead guilty to. That’s majestic. Did you pee in the baptismal font or something?”
“Just the church wall.”
“Uh, Lutheran, I think.”
“Lutherans bug me.”
“All denominations bug you. Including non-denominational.”
“Yeah, but Lutherans are all about God’s grace. Like, there’s nothing you can do to influence his decision, no good works or anything. You just have to cross your fingers and hope he’s in a good mood on Judgment Day. And the big guy’s not exactly known for his equanimity.”
“I’m not gonna put much stock in an atheist’s opinion of God.”
“It’s all in the Good Book.”
“Well, someone was watching out for me, cuz all I got was a two-thousand-dollar fine.”
“A two-hundred-dollar-an-hour lawyer on Caleb’s dime was watching out for you, dude. How are you gonna pay?”
“Pray for a miracle.”
“God’s not gonna put much stock in an atheist’s prayers.”
“I’m a heathen, not an atheist.”
“I doubt God discriminates between the two.” Jesse needed to start calling himself a heathen. Not as subversive as the A word. Less threatening to girls. Romantic, even.
“What’s going on with Wynter?” Indio asked.
“We’re sort of not talking. That’s okay. She can sulk for a week. She didn’t even ask about my marathon Valentine’s date last Saturday.”
“Maybe that’s because, like me, she thinks you should dump that girl. Is she going to Thailand or not?”
“I’ve been instructed not to ask her. Not to talk about it in case she feels pressured. And Joy’s not answering Caleb’s messages, as usual. When Wynter visits this weekend I’m gonna pressure her a great deal.”
“Does she know about my arrest?”
“No. Caleb thinks it’ll stress her out. We have a few weeks to change her mind, bro. We have to do something.”
“Change her mind? Miriam’s her mother. Last I checked, parents have the right to decide where their own children live.”
“Are you siding with Miriam?”
“No. It sucks. And there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Wynter brought Indio’s guitar to school on Thursday because Giselle from her music class had seen the notice and shown some interest. They met up in the music room. Giselle spent ten minutes strumming away, looking unimpressed. Wynter took over and played two classical pieces and a blues riff Indio had shown her, and Giselle said she would bring the money tomorrow.
Light-headed with success, Wynter put the guitar away with the other instruments and walked to her homeroom as the bell went.
As soon as she went in, she knew something was wrong. Everyone stared at her. Half of them sneered and giggled.
“You’re pretty desperate for attention, Wynter Wild,” someone said.
Ms Ling arrived.
“Miss, she’s put love notes and chocolate on every single boy’s desk.”
“Settle down, please,” Ms Ling said.
Wynter felt her face heat. “I didn’t do it. I only just got here.”
Ms Ling gave her a sympathetic look. Her classmates weren’t nearly so sympathetic. Wynter found herself back in the library, hiding between the bookcases, skipping social studies which had gotten too complicated for her to follow in any case. She texted Jesse a dozen times in a row until her phone finally vibrated as he called her back.
“They played a trick on me.”
“I don’t know. Maybe Stacey. I hate Valentine’s Day.”
“Join the club.”
“But I thought you had a date on Saturday?”
“The date was great. Didn’t have a happy ending, if you know what I mean. I guess maybe you don’t know what I mean.”
“Did you have a fight with Natalie?”
“Not exactly. I’m being mega patient with her.”
A teacher stormed toward her. “Put that phone in your locker, now!”
“Gotta go,” she whispered, and hung up.
In the restroom, she sat in a stall to check the bus schedules on her phone. A bus from Pasco left at 2:10PM. It didn’t go through Seattle but she’d have to transfer in Portland. A little too close for comfort to Indio but no one would know she was missing for a few hours. She was already hatching a plan.
She went to the front office.
“I handed in a form yesterday and my foster mom says there’s something wrong with it,” she told Myra behind the counter. “Can I check something?”
Myra looked through three different inboxes to find the form, and gave it back. Around the corner, Wynter copied the credit card details into her phone before returning the form.
She sat at a computer in the library and booked a one-way ticket to Eugene with Rosa’s credit card. The same-day purchase cost almost twice as much as she anticipated. That was okay. The universe had put that credit card number into her hands and she was supposed to use it.
She printed out the e-ticket. Then she texted Roman.
> I’m doing it! I booked my ticket for TODAY. I’ll be at the Eugene bus station at 8:50PM. Can you meet me there? Can we stay with your friend?
She was giving him almost ten hours’ notice and he’d said his bag was already packed. The bell went for class.
Wynter walked slowly down the hallway. Waiting…
The little ping made her jump.
>> I’ll be there!!!