Chemistry of Love
Wynter sat quietly through her classes, her toes drumming the floor.
Fifteen minutes before the last morning class ended, she told her teacher she felt sick and got a hall pass and a note for the nurse’s office. She went to her locker to retrieve her wallet, leaving her backpack behind. She walked off the school grounds without a permit, which was entirely against the rules, and caught the bus. This was the same route she took every day to and from school, and she held her breath as the bus sailed past her usual stop. Rosa wouldn’t be home anyway—she was working from her office. The bus took her to Pasco.
Xay had told her that when you stole something it was best to buy something cheap at the same time, to avoid suspicion. She’d rather not have stolen anything, but three dollars was all she had in her wallet and she used it to buy a lipstick from the drugstore. At the checkout, she had one hand in her coat pocket fingering the scarf she’d slid off the rack before choosing the lipstick. It was silky and patterned like the ones Rosa often wore, except this one was made from a cheap shiny fabric.
The entire front part of the store was a display of chocolates, sparkly heart-shaped balloons, and teddy bears atop big baskets of pink and red frosted cookies and mugs. She wondered who had bought candy for all the boys in her homeroom and who had written the silly notes. Then she realized she didn’t care. She didn’t ever want to go back. If she found Roman, and together they found Xay, why would she ever need to go back?
On the way to the bus terminal in the rain, buttoning up her expensive camel coat to stay warm, she walked by the historical museum she’d wanted Joy to take her to. It was open and she’d have liked to take a look inside. No time today, and she wasn’t ever coming back to Pasco.
In the restroom she twisted her hair up and wrapped the scarf around her neck. She spent a long time applying the lipstick—she’d never done it before and it took a few tries to make it look neat. Four weeks ago she’d sat waiting in this bus terminal with Rosa, on her way to visit Caleb, and Rosa had filled out an Unaccompanied Minor form. She didn’t have a form today so she needed to look sixteen years old.
The lunch break at school was over by now. It was unlikely they’d report her missing yet. Rosa would get an email first thing tomorrow saying she’d been absent without a note for the afternoon. Rosa, of course, would discover she was missing when she got home some time after 6PM.
Wynter showed her e-ticket to the driver, staring boldly at him like an adult would. He waved her on board, uninterested even in meeting her eye. She was taking a long bus ride to another state with nothing but the clothes on her back—well, she’d done that before.
The bus set out on the I-84 toward Portland. She loosened her hair. She unwound the scarf and used it to scrub off the lipstick so Roman wouldn’t make fun of her for being inauthentic. She plugged in her earbuds and listened to one of Indio’s playlists. Jesse would tell her disparagingly that half the songs on it were “three-chord rock”, and they were, but she knew why Indio liked them, and why Xay liked them. The beat suffused her body and overwrote her heartbeat. Closing her eyes, she returned to her sanctuary and her fingers blindly worked a dozen tiny, familiar braids into her hair so that Roman would recognize her.
As the bus pulled into Portland, hours later, Wynter jolted upright from sleep, the music still blaring in her ears. She got off to find her connecting bus. Instinctively she looked around for Indio, just in case they’d figured out what she’d done. But how could they know? And what would they do, anyway, when they learned she’d vanished? Caleb wanted her to choose Thailand, and Jesse was mad at her for even thinking about leaving, which was very unfair of him. Indio’s music called to her but he’d rather get high than make the effort to get to know her.
It felt wrong to think badly of them. They owed her nothing. She had no right to blame them for anything.
Yet as she sat on the metal bench waiting for the boarding call, she couldn’t stop thinking about them. From the moment she’d seen Caleb walk up to her in darkness, she knew she belonged with him in that house. She belonged in the jamroom playing nine guitars with Indio. She belonged with Jesse, who had so much to teach her even though half the time she didn’t understand what he was saying.
She’d thought she belonged with Joy, but all Joy wanted was Miriam’s forgiveness and acceptance. Joy was entitled to that. One of them, surely, was entitled to that. And there was one other thing Joy had wanted. Wynter still didn’t understand exactly why Joy acted on that January night, but it was clear she wanted her little sister out of the Light. No matter what happened next, Wynter was grateful to her for that.
Of all these nameless things she felt, was any part of it love?
She took out her phone and sent a message to her four siblings.
> What is love?
She sat very still, watching her screen, waiting for those little gray bubbles. She gasped as a new message appeared. Caleb.
>> Love is doing what needs to be done for the people who depend on you.
He was speaking of duty again. He’d raised his brothers and he served his country—it was all the same to him. Nobody depended on Wynter. How could she love if no one needed her?
Her hand shook as she gripped the phone, desperate for answers. Jesse had a gig later tonight. He might not see the message for hours. Joy rarely answered texts or calls, and Indio’s life was a complete mystery to her.
A minute later, another gray bubble, from Jesse this time. Nothing but a link. Wynter tapped it—an article titled The Love Molecule with a lot of long words in the first paragraph. She pressed her fingers against her lips to suppress the scream in her throat.
“You’re wrong, Jesse. You have to be wrong,” she whispered. Love wasn’t candy and balloons, and it wasn’t science, either.
>> Here’s another interesting one
Jesse had sent a second link that informed her love was a chemical reaction in the brain that could be controlled like any other emotion—
She flipped the screen face down on her thigh and waited, waited, waited for more. For fifteen minutes she waited. The boarding call came but she couldn’t move. Nothing from Joy—after their last encounter that wasn’t surprising, but the Light had a good deal to say about love and even a meaningless platitude would indicate Joy had thought about it for a few seconds.
Nothing from Indio, who had promised to never fail her again.
As she got up from the bench to head for the bay door, her phone rang.
“Are you okay?” Indio said, before she’d even spoken. She couldn’t speak. “I just saw your text. Baby, what’s going on?”
He was somewhere very noisy, with voices and traffic soaking through the line. He was probably only a mile or two away from here. She had the sudden urge to ask him to hide her in his apartment. She could live there in secret. She’d weave friendship bracelets and mandalas and sell them online to help pay her way. She was very good at it. When she was a bit older and the authorities had forgotten she existed, she’d get a job flipping burgers and eventually she’d buy him that eight-thousand-dollar guitar. Every Friday and Saturday she’d go to his gigs, and every other night they’d play music together, just the two of them in their sanctuary. Maybe Jesse, if he promised to keep the secret.
Caleb, of course, did not like secrets—he played by the rules. But Indio did not. Would Indio break a few rules for her?
Outside, the last person in line was getting on the bus.
Indio wasn’t going to let her hide out. She didn’t know much about this world, but she knew it didn’t work that way.
Make one promise, he’d said. Something that keeps you true.
In both this world and the one she’d left behind, nothing was truer than the cogwheel tattoo on her wrist and what it meant. Xay had never said he loved her, but he had loved her. Roman would help her find him and these strange, painful weeks would become a few more dark pieces she could leave behind.
She hung up on Indio and got on the bus to Eugene. Rosa would be home from work by now. Wynter texted her to say she was spending the evening studying with a friend.
>> Which friend? I need his or her parents’ number. You may not organize a study date without my permission and knowledge. Where are you? Call me immediately.
Wynter finally figured out how to switch off her phone.