Little Sister Song (Wynter Wild #1)

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Rant

Wedged between the spare drumsticks sticking out of the holder attached to his cymbal stand was Jesse’s phone. He glanced at it every thirty seconds during the first set. Every fifteen seconds during the second. Right before the gig, Caleb had called to quickly fill him in. Thailand was off. Joy was devastated. Wynter might be in Eugene. Indio was riding down to check. Jesse’s head was spinning and then he had to hang up because it was time to go on.

At 9:04, the screen lit up.

>> Indio has Wynter. She’s safe. Call me ASAP.

They were a few bars into their penultimate number, Herbie Hancock’s Watermelon Man, with six bloody minutes to go. Jesse managed another two minutes before forcing it to a close, pulling his confused bandmates along with him. He stumbled off the drum throne, grabbed his phone, and stuck his drumsticks into his back pocket.

“Sorry guys. Sorry. Gotta go. Sorry…”

He jumped off the low stage and pushed through the tables on the floor, past startled patrons. He dashed out the front door of the club, punching his phone, and talked with Caleb while unlocking and getting into the Caprice, starting the engine, and backing out.

“Where is she? Is she okay?”

“She’s okay. Indio picked her up in Eugene and he’s taking her back to Portland on his bike. I’m gonna drive down there and meet them.”

“No, no, no. Are you at home? Wait for me. I’m leaving Wallingford. I’ll pick you up on my way through.”

“You’re done for the night?”

“Yes. Done. Great timing, dude. We just finished.” He wasn’t going to tell Caleb he’d fled the place—Caleb would make him return and complete the set like a professional and he’d drive to Eugene without him.

Jesse rushed home to find Caleb waiting on the street.

Caleb opened the car door and said, “I’ll drive.”

“I gotta pee.”

“I locked up the house. Pee in the yard.”

Jesse dashed into the far corner of the front yard and did as instructed. He got back in the car and Caleb drove off.

“So, she’s out of the state on the back of a motorcycle in Indio’s unsupervised company,” Jesse mused, beating his drumsticks on his thigh. “Tina’s gonna have a conniption.”

Caleb said nothing.

“What did Indio say?”

“Not a lot.”

“You didn’t talk to Wynter?”

“No. She didn’t want to. I’m thinking she’s feeling a bit ashamed of herself.”

Ashamed of herself? You’re confusing her with brother number two. That’s not it.”

“What, then? Why would she run? We never blamed her for the lies at school, did we? I was trying to be supportive about Thailand.”

“Why would you do that, anyway? Why the hell would you encourage her to leave?”

Caleb flinched to hear Jesse cursing him. “That’s not accurate. I didn’t want to influence her either way, especially after she found out she’d be living on the other side of the country. She told me she thought she’d been greedy, all her life. Greedy for her mother, for attention. For love.”

“She deserves to be greedy, after what she suffered.” Jesse made up his mind, there and then, to spoil Wynter rotten once they got her back.

“I thought…” Caleb shook his head sharply. “I thought we’d all have time to come to terms with this, and instead she just ran away from it.”

“She didn’t run away. No matter what’s going on at school or with Joy, she wouldn’t run away from us.” He’d been an idiot earlier, to allow himself to believe, in a panic, that Wynter would leave them. Leave him. “No. She was running to something.”

“To… the Light?”

“Never.”

“Well, I’m all out of ideas. Stop that.

Caleb whacked Jesse’s forearm and he tossed the sticks on the back seat, irritated he wasn’t allowed to work off some nervous energy. Caleb had been punching that bag in the garage a lot more than usual lately, a sign he had some frustrations of his own.

Jesse scratched at his curls and stared out the window for a while. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he was somehow part of this. Had he pushed her too hard? Did she hate him for those texts about Thailand? Was he supposed to not tell her about her impending exile at the amazing international school? Mostly what he felt was raw frustration that Wynter had been taken from them, forced to deal with everything alone. Compelled to keep secrets, apparently, and plot another escape.

“You should’ve never told Social Services about her,” he blurted out.

Caleb watched the road with a hard, uncompromising gaze.

“The ashram never even reported her missing,” Jesse persisted. “We could’ve just kept her. Who would’ve questioned it? We’d send her to school and just act like it was legit. I lived with you for eighteen months as a minor. You weren’t my legal guardian. No one ever questioned it. She’d be living with us if you hadn’t brought in Social Services.”

“The clinic called Social Services. Should I not have taken her for a check-up?”

“She wasn’t sick!” Jesse’s throat closed up as tears threatened. He was going to die of humiliation if he cried in front of Caleb. “Everything was fine. That first weekend… She was learning to be happy, she felt safe, and they took it all away and you let them.”

“It’s pointless to think that way now. We have to look ahead and figure out what to do next.”

“She should’ve been with us. She’s had no one—”

“Okay, I’ll let you rant,” Caleb muttered.

“—her entire life. Not even Joy, evidently. You should’ve made sure she could stay with us. You’re supposed to fix everything. You’re supposed to make people do what you want. I could’ve helped her find real friends instead of fake ones. I could’ve—”

“Wait, what? Fake friends?”

“She said she made some online friends.” Jesse’s sense of unease grew.

“Can you log into her email account and see if there are any clues in there?”

“Uh, isn’t that a violation of her privacy?”

“Do it.”

Jesse tried logging into her account on his phone. “She’s changed her password. Which I did tell her to do.”

“I should’ve told her I wanted her to stay because of…” Caleb flinched again. “Love, not duty. I should’ve said that. Didn’t want to put pressure on her. Miriam has a duty, too. I’ve no right to take away her mother’s opportunity to have her. That’s what I was thinking. We will bring her home, Jesse. But we have to play by the rules.”

“That’s bullshit. The rules say she can’t even have a permanent custody hearing for six months. You think Tina’s gonna just hand her over?”

Caleb swerved sharply onto an exit ramp.

“Are you pulling in to give me a lecture?” Jesse said, ready to stand his ground.

“I’m pulling in to get gas.” Caleb threw him a sympathetic look to show he understood, even if he didn’t agree.

They went into the store for a sandwich because Caleb hadn’t eaten since lunch. In front of the counter were discounted long-stem roses in a bucket, chocolate hearts wrapped in pink foil, and fluffy white teddy bears holding love notes.

“I’m gonna buy her a Valentine’s gift,” Jesse said.

“Those little bears are cute.”

“You’re crap at gifts, you know that? She’s not a teddy bear sort of girl.”

Jesse went to the back of the store and found what he was looking for.

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