Little Sister Song (Wynter Wild #1)

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Valentine's Gift

Indio parked outside an all-night pancake diner in Portland.

“Hope you’re hungry,” he said, strapping down the helmets.

Wynter remained utterly bewildered by his sudden appearance at the bus station. “How did you find me?”

“We figured it out.”

She waited while he tapped a message to Caleb, to tell him the address. The rattle of the motorcycle had knocked the trembling out of her, leaving numbness and confusion over the incomprehensible rules of the outside world.

“But how?” she persisted.

“We can thank Rosa, actually. She thought to check her credit card transactions. Caleb will be here in about an hour. Let’s eat.”

“Can’t we wait in your apartment?”

His gave a crooked smile. “I don’t think so.”

“Is it not an appropriate place for me?”

“Probably not. I couldn’t tell you from one minute to the next who’s there or what they’re doing. Come on. I’m starving.”

They found a booth and dumped their jackets on the seat between them. They ordered pancakes from a server who knew Indio by name.

“This is the sister you told me about?”

“Yup, this is Wynter.”

“What a cutie. You both get extra ice cream.”

“You told her about me?” Wynter said when the server had left.

“Of course. I’ve told everyone.”

“What did you tell them?”

“That I have a cool little sister I only just found out about, and she’s a musician.”

“I’m not cool. Nobody would say that.”

“I just said that. You rock the guitar, so you’re cool.”

“Is that why you play guitar? To be cool?” She tried to sound interested—she was interested—but her voice came out flat and quiet.

“I wanted to play piano. Not keyboards. A real grand piano in a concert hall. Caleb had free lessons in elementary school for years but they didn’t have space for me. I taught myself from his books, using Harry’s old piano.”

Wynter was hypnotized by his voice, the intense wistfulness so different from Jesse’s earnest, animated explanations.

“Pretty soon I was better than Caleb,” Indio continued, “and more interested in playing rock n’ roll. Harry was always promising to pay for lessons. His promises weren’t worth shit, of course. One day, he won big at the races and I thought it was finally gonna happen. He spent most of his winnings on liquor and a new scope for his rifle—he’d just lost his job as a prison guard, so he probably should’ve put it to better use. He bought me a guitar with the last few bucks. I was disappointed at first. Turns out, he knew what he was doing. That’s the guitar I gave you.”

“Oh.” A flush of despair heated her face. “I sold it this morning.”

“Hmm. How much for?”

“Fifty dollars.”

He scowled, sucking in air through his teeth. “That’s a Fender Montara cutaway from the early ’nineties. Strat neck, convex back. Very rare.”

“Very expensive?”

“Harry got a bargain. They go for four or five hundred bucks these days.”

“Then why did you give it to me?” she cried.

“Why would I give you a crappy guitar?”

“And I stole money from Rosa, too. I’ll have to repay her.” Wynter pressed her hands over her face as the reality set in. “How am I gonna get ninety-three dollars?”

“Rosa can spare ninety-three dollars.”

“Maybe she won’t want to foster me anymore.” Wait, that was a good thing. A sliver of hope made its way to the surface. “Maybe Tina will find me a new home, closer to Seattle.”

“I don’t think that’s gonna happen. You have to accept living with Rosa until Caleb can get custody.”

“What if he fails?”

“Caleb never, ever fails. I told you that already.”

“What about Joy?”

“She’s not gonna take care of you, baby. You have to accept that, too. Caleb used to say, people can only give as much as they’re capable of, and it won’t always be as much as you need. He was talking about Harry and Miriam, and maybe even himself.”

And now Joy.

The food came. Indio showed her how to make pancake tacos stuffed with ice cream and strawberry “salsa” and drizzled with syrup.

“These are good. Not as good as Caleb’s,” she said. “Where do they get strawberries in February? Oh!” She clapped her hand over her mouth. “Jesse was looking forward to giving me my first strawberries in the summer. I’ve spoiled it for him.”

“I won’t tell him.”

No secrets, no lies.” She bit her lip, remembering all the secrets she’d kept and the lies she’d told.

“Not everything Caleb says is the law,” Indio said. “Not everything Jesse says is the truth.”

“That’s the best I’ve got, though, isn’t it? Out here where I don’t understand anything. Caleb said I was strong enough—but I’m not.”

“You were strong enough to reject Miriam once you found out the truth. What she was offering, that was never gonna be enough for you. Nowhere near what you deserve.” Pain hardened his expression and his voice went very quiet. “I understand why you were tempted to go to her. I would’ve gone, too. I don’t think they would—Caleb’s tied to his life here, and Jesse doesn’t care about her at all—but I would go.”

She pictured the six-year-old boy in the photo album, the one who didn’t know yet that his mother wasn’t coming back. How long had he held out hope? When did he realize he’d become nothing to her?

“She never said your name, or theirs. Not once,” Wynter said. “She’ll never ask you.”

He touched her hand on the table, smiling grimly. “You understand plenty out here. You gotta trust yourself. You trusted yourself tonight. I watched you figure that guy out.”

“Who was he?”

“He was nobody.”

“Why did you hurt him like that?”

Indio exhaled heavily. “He wasn’t quite nobody. He was somebody who was gonna hurt you.”

She didn’t want to think about that, about the hope that had buoyed her up for the past few days, and the disappointment that followed.

“Did you know…” She stopped, swallowed, and tried again. “At the ashram, there were somebodies who hurt me.”

He squeezed her fingers and let go. “I know you’ll tell us when you’re ready.”

Now, more than ever, she expected questions. He waited, ready to listen, but she felt under no pressure to reveal more.

She said, “I’ve been trying to remember one moment of physical pain here on the outside. One tiny hurt. Anything at all. But there’s been nothing. Even the cold doesn’t hurt. But there’s another kind of pain—this fear inside that I might sink to the bottom and drown. That I don’t exist. I thought I left all that behind. Caleb made me feel like I exist. But it’s still painful. They won’t let me live at his house. The kids at school don’t like me. I can’t talk to Rosa. You and Caleb are fighting because of me. I felt like I was drowning. I thought I found a lifeboat—I thought I found my friend who escaped the Light.”

She handed Indio her phone and showed him the messages on the homework forum and the texts she’d thought were from Roman. He read through them in silence.

“Is this my friend Roman, or was it all a trick? The girl I met online, her uncle who’s a private detective, Roman’s friend Corey, and Corey’s dad—was it all a trick?”

“I think so. It was all that one man. He figured out what you wanted and made you think it was real.”

“The last time I saw Roman, they’d shaved his head. That was a few months ago, right before he escaped. So I knew the long hair was a lie. Roman wasn’t waiting for me with a gift. There’s no way Roman would think to get me a gift, anyway.”

“D’you want to talk about him?”

“I want to forget all of it. The Light and everyone I knew there.” Even you, Xay. “I want to forget what happened today, what I did and… what you did to that man. I shouldn’t have run away. It just seemed like the simplest option. The right path.”

“I understand that.”

“Because you ran away, too. You ran to Ohio.”

“I came back.”

“If you’re not talking to Caleb, then you haven’t come back.”

He tilted an eyebrow at her stubbornness. “I came most of the way back.”

“I should’ve asked Jesse about it before I believed. He would’ve guessed it was a trick right from the start.”

“You’ve been here only a few weeks. Don’t be too hard on yourself.”

Indio directed her attention out the window, where the Caprice had pulled up.

“The first time I saw Caleb walking toward me in the dark, I was so scared,” she said. “For a split second I thought he didn’t see me. I wasn’t even there. I was invisible or I was back at the ashram locked in a room and forgotten, having a strange dream. I’d dreamed up Jesse and the taste of hot chocolate and that wet cold air, and now I’d dreamed up Caleb. He was gonna walk right through me. So I stood very still and I made myself solid. I looked in his eyes and I made him see me. And he did. I was really there. And he was real. He was really there.”

Indio was fiddling with the silverware. He flicked her a look and said, reluctantly, “He’ll always be there. For all of us.”

Caleb and Jesse came into the diner. Wynter got up and melted into Caleb’s warm embrace. He’d never hugged her before and it felt exactly right. How could she ever have believed she didn’t belong right here in his arms? She let Jesse give her a bear hug and, for now, avoided the confusion in his eyes. As she sat, she watched Caleb reach across the table to shake Indio’s hand, knowing it would take more than a ride down the I-5, more than her desperate desire for unity, to patch up their differences. The handshake was a start, or at the very least a temporary truce.

“Pancakes!” Jesse slid into the seat next to Wynter, eyeing what was left of the food. The server approached and he ordered more ice cream. “I’ll show you how to make pancake tacos.”

“Indio already showed me.”

“Cool. You’ve done the country swing, you’ve made pancake tacos, you’ve played music with the Fairn Boys. There’s one more thing you need to become a certified member of the family. Here.”

He handed her a metal ring with two things hanging from it—a silver key and a charm in the shape of a rocketship.

“It’s a keychain, and that’s a door key,” he explained, like he thought maybe she didn’t know. Tonight, perhaps he was right to suspect her ignorance of everything.

“What door does it open?”

Our door, Wyn. Our front door in Columbia City. Jeez. Why would I give you a key to some other door?”

Wynter gave him a sheepish look. “Thank you, Jesse.”

“And the rocketship is because… well, there wasn’t much choice. I picked that because you and me are gonna work our way through four hundred and sixteen sci-fi movies over the next few years, starting with Forbidden Planet. I made the list weeks ago. Okay, on to the pancake tacos,” he declared as the ice cream arrived. “Caleb invented these on June 27th, 1999.”

“You remember the exact date?”

“My fifth birthday, a Sunday. We ate pancake tacos for lunch at Hotcakes Heaven. I was disappointed cuz they were all out of chocolate chip pancakes, so Caleb made the plain ones fun to eat. At five, I was easy to please. Then he took us to see a movie—don’t remember what. We snuck into the theater for free.”

“It was that animated version of Tarzan,” Indio said. “Afterward, you made me tie a rope to the tree in the yard so you could swing on the jungle vines.”

Jesse grinned. “I remember that. The knot slipped and I fell flat on my back. Winded myself. Caleb fixed it.”

“Caleb knows his knots.”

Wynter met Caleb’s eye as their brothers reminisced. He’d been watching her and probably had a million questions. For now he didn’t ask them, or say anything at all. The corners of his eyes crinkled as he smiled at her.

She turned back to Jesse, her one and only source of accurate information.

“What’s a tarzan?”


Book 2 of the Wynter Wild series, Out of Tune, follows. Thanks for reading!

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