Little Sister Song (Wynter Wild #1)

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Worthy

Indio pushed his hands into his pockets, moved to the edge of the crowded sidewalk to keep out of the way, and wondered if he was about to be made a fool of.

The text from Wynter must’ve come while he was in the shower. He hadn’t seen it until a few minutes ago.

>> What is love?

What the hell did that mean?

No, he knew what it meant. He didn’t know the answer to the question, but he knew what it meant. She was drowning. She was asking for help. So he’d called, and she was speechless, which left him feeling inadequate, and she’d hung up.

He’d call her tomorrow after school to check up on her. He’d avoided making contact since the arrest and he didn’t know what to say about Thailand. Thinking about it opened old wounds, pains he wasn’t willing to suffer. It seemed likely she was going back to Miriam—even if it meant boarding school. He didn’t blame her for that. He knew it must be hard for her to leave Caleb and Jesse. Maybe not so hard to leave him, the one who wasn’t even allowed to be alone in a room with her. He was going to miss the opportunity to make music with her, assuming she ever would’ve spoken to him again after his latest misadventure.

He’d shown her the blues turnaround, so that was something.

Earlier in the day, he’d been thinking of riding up to Seattle for Jesse’s gig tonight but there was the pesky issue of his suspended license. His brothers didn’t know it, but the least serious charge from last weekend—a citation for that half-smoked joint in his pocket—was going to cause him the most grief.

Just as he’d decided to risk the trip to Seattle anyway, to debrief with his little bro, Jenny had called. Despite taking his number weeks ago she had not kept in touch and he hadn’t expected her to. Tonight she was visiting friends in Portland and wanted to meet him for a drink.

On Valentine’s Day.

So here he was, standing outside an Irish pub a short walk from his apartment, waiting for her, his heart light with anticipation yet not truly believing she’d show. But this was Jenny, who never played games—unless you counted slow-dancing with him while dating an actor. Of course she would show.

At 6:30 on the dot, she walked up to him with that smile that made him want her in a way that had nothing to do with the reasons he wanted all the girls he’d ever been with. She tilted her face to kiss him on the cheek with a touch of shyness that convinced him she was still with Stefan.

“So, why are we here?” he said pleasantly. “Did Stefan cancel on you?”

“He’s in rehearsal. I was sort of relieved he was busy tonight, of all nights. A Valentine’s date puts a lot of pressure on a fledgling relationship.”

“What’s this, then?” He indicated the two of them.

“Let’s call it catching up with an old friend on a regular Thursday night.” She reached for the door handle. “Shall we?”

He held the door closed with his foot, making a show of it. “Are you old enough come inside?” he quipped.

“I came of age last month.”

He should know that. He used to know that. January nineteenth, which was Martin Luther King Day that year, his senior year. The week before, he’d overheard Kevin Tsang telling her he’d take her to see some R-rated horror flick on her birthday, which Indio was pretty sure she’d hate. She’d told Kevin she was born at four minutes to midnight so she would still be sixteen while watching the movie, and they’d have to bring her mom with them to make everything legal. They’d laughed about her breaking her first law. Even though she really wasn’t.

Indio and Jenny stood inside the doorway with half a dozen other couples hopeful of getting a table on this busiest of nights.

“You left a gift taped to my locker on my seventeenth birthday,” Jenny recalled, reading his thoughts. “Sheet music for The Devil Went Down to Georgia, rolled into a scroll with a wax seal.”

“You never thanked me for it.”

“There was no card. No one to thank.”

“Did you ever learn to play it?”

“I did. Grandpa loved it, as you’d expect, but it freaked out my parents. They pretty much forbade anything but classical music at home.” She smiled. Damn, she was so beautiful and he still couldn’t have her. “I knew it was from you, of course, but I couldn’t say anything. Kevin was so jealous. I almost left you a gift on Valentine’s Day, as a sort of thank you. But that would’ve been…” Her mouth twisted with what he hoped was regret.

“Fucking cruel,” he finished for her.

“Kevin’s gift to me was a Mozart Pez dispenser. I hate Pez.”

“That makes me feel better.”

“When’s your birthday?”

“September fourth, the day I met you.”

“Really?”

“I’m gonna get corny for a second,” he said, keeping his tone playful. “The sight of you, that first day of school when you opened your locker two doors down from mine, was the best birthday present I ever had. That’s what I thought at the time.” Meeting Jenny had been his only birthday present that year, other than the Pop Rocks that Jesse snuck into his lunch box, purely an in-joke. Nothing from Harry, who was still not talking to him since his release from juvie a week earlier. Nothing from Caleb, either, who was on his way home from a four-month deployment in Alaska.

Jenny looked like she was going to say something. She was distracted by the hostess announcing there was a one-hour wait for a table.

“Let’s go to the bar,” Jenny said, indicating a couple of stools that had just been vacated.

Her Sidecar and his bourbon straight were served with superfluous heart-shaped swizzle sticks and a wink. The bartender thought they were a couple. Jenny’s smile saved it from being awkward.

“How’s your sister?” Jenny asked. She must mean Wynter, because he’d never told her about Joy.

“She’s going to live in Thailand with our mom. Last I heard, anyway.”

“That’s good news, isn’t it?”

He struggled to explain. “Our mother is… She isn’t… She’s not great. I think maybe Wynter can’t resist the chance. She’s been giving us the silent treatment for the past few days, so I don’t know if she still wants to go.”

“What would you do, in her shoes?”

Indio stared into his drink, swirling it around the glass. He was six years old, hiding out in the back alley with the Super Soaker he stole from Caleb’s suitcase while Caleb and Jesse were at the park. They were living out of suitcases, staying at Harry’s for the summer. Most of his toys were back in Missoula. Even if he’d brought all his toys to Anaconda, he’d still have taken the Super Soaker that afternoon—the most coveted toy in the family. Indio would’ve traded all four of his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for it—a trade Caleb had no interest in making.

Indio had about two glorious hours with that gun, all to himself. He was shooting his turtles off the wall when Miriam came to say goodbye because she was going out with Joy. All he remembered about it, that last time he saw her, was that he’d accidentally blasted her skirt with water. On another day she might’ve laughed about it. Her reactions were often unpredictable. That day, she yelled at him and he squirted her again, deliberately this time, and she went away.

What kind of kid turns a Super Soaker on his mother for no reason? Evidently, the kind of kid who grows up to become the kind of man who pees on a church wall.

She never said goodbye to Caleb or Jesse. She didn’t say goodbye to him, either, and yet something had made her seek him out. He’d always held onto that, hoping it meant something. Hoping he was important to her in the smallest way.

Indio cleared his throat and said, “At Wynter’s age, I think I would’ve gone to her.”

He’d still loved her at fourteen, long after the hope faded. He’d looked for a mother in every friendly neighbor, every kind teacher, every girlfriend Harry brought home. Just once he thought he’d found her, that summer they moved to Seattle.

As Jenny stroked his hand on the bar counter, he opened his mouth to talk about that one, about how it turned sour, and found he couldn’t burden her with it. Not when the odds were high this evening was going to end in disappointment.

Jenny’s phone buzzed and she checked it. “Hmm. Stefan’s bought tickets for Benaroya Hall next week. Best seats in the house, he says.”

“Yay, Stefan.”

“We’re keeping it casual, but this was a big deal to him.”

“Looks to me like he’s taking it to the next level.”

Jenny turned her phone face-down without answering Stefan. “There’s a Jackie Prouser gig tonight, just down the street. I saw a poster earlier. She was one of the supporting acts at that outdoor concert—our second date, remember? Would you like to go?”

“Uh, sure. I’m sure Stefan won’t mind,” he said with gentle sarcasm.

“No more Stefan. You’re the one I’ve been thinking of, ever since that dance at Patty’s. And plenty of times before that, if I’m honest.”

She was always honest. And kind. And sweet. And genuine.

Perfect.

He needed to be honest in return.

“I made this promise to myself,” he said, slipping his hand out of reach of hers, and leaning his elbow on the counter. “I keep breaking it. I think maybe you asked me here tonight to see if I’m ready yet. Ready for you. I’m not.” He was in danger of talking himself out of it. A chance with Jenny, and he was blowing it all by himself.

“It’s just a gig, Indio. Can we go, and see what happens?”

He should tell her about the arrests. That would surely put her off. Or would it? Jenny had always seen the person he wanted to be more clearly than the person he was, or had been. Maybe she wouldn’t care about his latest troubles, and that was unsettling. If she accepted the worst part of him, it would somehow sully her. He wouldn’t do that to her.

“I’m not quite as keen on Stefan’s concert at Benaroya Hall as he is,” she prompted.

Indio’s phone pinged on the bar counter. At the sight of Caleb’s name on the screen, his stomach clenched—an almost imperceptible yet familiar, instinctive reaction. The guy’s timing could not be worse. Then he read the message.

>> Wynter’s missing since noon today. Have you heard from her?

“Shit!”

He grabbed the phone and called Caleb, remembering to throw an apologetic look in Jenny’s direction. Caleb answered on the first ring.

“How the hell can she be missing?”

“Listen up. She bought a bus ticket but not to Seattle. There’s a chance she’s on her way to Portland or traveling through there. I’m firing up my laptop to check the schedule.”

Indio was already on his feet. Jenny was already handing him his jacket, catching his alarm. “Does Joy know where she might go?”

“No. Somehow, the whole Thailand thing is off. Can you get to the station?”

“On my way.”

“The bus from Pasco got in an hour ago. Please get over there.”

Indio rang off and shrugged into his jacket. He slipped his hand around the nape of Jenny’s neck, under her sleek warm hair, and kissed her very softly at the corner of her mouth. Then, reluctantly, he let her go.

He was not, by any measure, good enough for Jenny. Most likely never would be. But there was a slim chance he could be good enough for Wynter.


Indio called up a photo of Wynter on his phone, one of those cute selfies Rosa had demonized him for, and showed it to every single person at the Portland bus station, on the benches and in the lines and behind the counters.

At last he found someone who recognized her, a middle-aged woman waiting with her husband. “She was here. No luggage or anything. Got on the southbound bus about half an hour ago.”

“The bus to LA?”

“That’s the one.”

Indio called Caleb to tell him.

“I’m reading off the board,” Indio said. “It stops in Salem, Eugene, Redding, Sacramento, and a bunch of curbside stops in between. I’ll get on the I-5 and catch up to the bus, and follow it until she gets off.”

“Wait one second. I’m checking to see which fare matches Rosa’s credit card statement… Got it. Ninety-three dollars—that’s the one-way fare from Pasco to Eugene for a same-day booking.”

“One-way? Why?”

“Get to Eugene, Indio. I’m gonna call the sheriff’s office down there.”

“You really want to involve the cops? I can beat that bus to Eugene. It’s an hour and a half, at the most. I’ll make sure nothing happens to her.”

Caleb sighed. “Okay. You’re right. We shouldn’t blow this out of proportion.”

Impossible not to wonder what Wynter was up to. Indio had met her once and exchanged a few ultimately meaningless texts and cartoons. He didn’t know what went on in her head and he didn’t know the intricacies of her life. He felt connected to her but she wasn’t as similar to him as he’d first imagined. She wanted to be with her family—she wanted Caleb’s rules and expectations. She wouldn’t run from that.

Yet she had run. Something had pulled her in the opposite direction.


More than an hour later, doing eighty most of the way, Indio overtook the bus on the dark highway ten miles out of Eugene and arrived at the station ahead of it. He parked the bike and walked around the entire block, not quite sure what he was looking for. He checked inside the building, where a few people waited.

As the bus arrived, he crossed to the opposite side of the street and watched from the shadows of a multi-story parking garage stairwell. Wynter was the first one off the bus. A dizzying wave of relief crashed through him at the sight of her. She was okay. He resisted the urge to call out. Caleb would call out and rush over and force her to come back, without even finding out first why she’d run. Indio wasn’t going to do that. As long as she was in his sight, she was safe. He was going to find out what the hell she was up to before he brought her home.

Wynter put her head around the door of the bus station on the street corner but didn’t go inside. She tapped on her phone briefly, desperately.

A few yards down the street from Indio, a man in his forties got out of a parked sedan, pushing his phone into the jacket pocket of his cheap suit. He crossed the street and approached Wynter.

Indio’s heart raced as he realized what might have been.

As the man and Wynter talked, Indio drew up his sweatshirt hood, put his head down and crossed the street, unnoticed by the two of them. He kept walking a few paces, going around the side of the building. The man’s back was turned and he blocked Wynter’s line of sight, so Indio was able to watch as well as hear them, unseen from just around the corner.

“…waiting for you,” the man was saying. “He’s so excited you found him. Come on, I’ll drive you straight to him.”

“Why didn’t he come with you?”

“He went to the store to buy you a gift. He’ll be back by the time we get home.”

“Home?”

“My place. He told you, right? He and my son Corey are good friends. He drove up this afternoon, all the way from Reno, and he’s staying with us. You can stay with us, too, if you like. With me and my wife.”

“I wish he’d answer his phone.” Wynter’s voice quivered as doubt set in. Indio’s heart ached for her. She’d come here full of innocent hope, with no clue she’d been manipulated.

“He went out to the store, like I said.”

“You met him, then?”

“I did. Just met him briefly for the first time today, when he arrived. He knows my son. Come along. It’s getting cold.”

“I don’t mind the cold.”

“Still, we can’t just stand here all night. Roman’s waiting for you.”

Wynter gave a little nod, like she’d made her decision. She spent a moment fiddling with her phone, folding it back into her wallet, while the man walked a few paces to the street corner to cross. He waited for her.

“Is his hair still really long?” she called out. “He never did send me a photo. I’ll be so disappointed if he cut it.”

“It’s long, sure. Not girlie or anything. Good looking guy, your Roman. He’s gonna be so—”

“Really? It’s all the way down his back?”

The man turned and looked at her, very carefully. Now he knew it was a test and he had no idea what to say. “Didn’t really notice, love,” he said tersely. “He was wearing a beanie.”

“I think I’m gonna call someone to fetch me.” Wynter retrieved her phone.

“What’re you talking about? What’s Roman gonna think? He’s driven all the way up here from Reno. He hopped in his car just as soon as you bought your ticket. He drove seven hours to be with you.”

Wynter was tapping her phone. “I’m calling my brother.”

“Your brother? Thought you said… Thought you told Roman you were a foster kid living with some woman in Washington.”

Wynter put the phone to her ear. While her hand shook, her defiant eyes stared the man down.

The man took a couple of steps toward her, and Indio tensed. “This is a fucking waste of time. Come with me right now or I’ll—”

A harmonica riff erupted, startling all three of them. It took Indio a moment to realize it was coming from the phone in his back pocket.

He fumbled for it. Wynter’s name was on the screen.

She’d called him. Not Caleb. Him.

He stepped out just as the man turned toward the sound. Wynter ran to Indio with a cry. The grinding beat of When the Levee Breaks played on as his arms went around her. His gaze fixed on the man in the cheap suit, and in his mind he was punching him into the asphalt.

“What the fuck is this?” the man said, skittering backward. He spun and took off across the street, toward his car.

Indio took Wynter’s shoulders and set her firmly away from him. “Do. Not. Move.”

He crossed the street and caught the man by the scruff of the neck as he was getting into his car. He yanked him out and slammed his face against the edge of the roof.

Once, twice.

He threw him headfirst into the vehicle and left him sprawled across both seats, moaning. Indio snapped a picture of the license plate as he walked off to the sound of the guy retching all over his upholstery.

He returned to Wynter, grabbed her hand, and led her quickly around the building, to his Moto Guzzi in the parking lot.

“I’ve never ridden a motorcycle before,” Wynter whispered, pale with shock.

“You’re gonna love it.”

Indio strapped the spare helmet on her head and fixed his own. Across the back of his hand was a spray of that sick fuck’s blood. He toed down the passenger pegs, mounted the bike and flipped up the kickstand.

“A mile or two out of town, I’ll pull over and call Caleb, okay? Hop on. Hold tight.”

She got on behind him and slid her arms around his waist. Her body trembled violently against his. Indio’s mind raged with blind, unprocessed fury, but he was rock steady.

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