Little Sister Song (Wynter Wild #1)

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Caleb had spent most of his life dealing with the unexpected. However things turned out, tonight was going to be a tale for the future grandkids.

“Move your books out of the front room before morning, okay?” he said, leaning against Jesse’s doorway.

Jesse’s room was a disaster area. As a kid he’d kept it fairly tidy—kept the floor clear, in any case—to avoid confrontations with Caleb. These days Caleb was less concerned about it as long as Jesse kept the rest of the house tidy. Not that he was going to encourage bad habits by telling Jesse that. Tonight, Jesse had emptied the contents of his closet all over the floor. He was sitting cross-legged in the middle of it, surrounded by files and shoeboxes.

“Look at this.”

Jesse handed him an old photo—three brothers in shorts and t-shirts, a few years before they moved to Seattle. They were on a riverbank, Caleb and Jesse with fishing nets, Indio holding up a mason jar of murky water.

“Where is that—Lost Creek State Park?”

“I don’t know, but look at Indio.”

The shape of his chin, his brow… the resemblance was unmistakable. Indio’s ratty hair was almost down to his shoulders, so it must be the end of summer. Before school started Caleb and Harry would’ve wrestled him into the yard to clip off those locks.

“You’re right, she looks a lot like him,” Caleb said. “Did you doubt her story?”

“No. Just thought maybe you’d want proof.”

“I believe her, Jess. Didn’t need a photo of nine-year-old Indio to see she belongs with us.”

Jesse nodded, satisfied. “Have you told him yet?”

“It’s been four hours—thought you probably would’ve, by now.”

“Nope.” Jesse grinned. “You haven’t spoken with him since Christmas, have you.”

Caleb set his jaw. Indio had been home twice in the last year—a few days in the summer for Jesse’s high school graduation, and a few days over Christmas. On that occasion, Indio and Caleb had gotten into a vicious argument. Nothing out of the ordinary. They argued a lot.

“You could text him,” Jesse said. “Nah, I guess this isn’t really textable news. It’s okay, I’ll call him.”

“No. I’ll do it.” Caleb handed back the photo.

“D’you think she’s okay?”

“I don’t know. I don’t really know the first thing about the Light or what she’s been taught.”

“Her eyes are all hollowed out and she’s so thin.”

Caleb nodded agreement. He’d seen the sharp bones of her shoulders in the tub. “Set your alarm early and get to the bus station for the 4:35AM, okay? I’ll do it tomorrow night.”

“I don’t even remember Joy.”

“I’m sure she’ll remember you.”

“That goes without saying. I was a memorable toddler.”

“You could come with me when I visit Harry next week. He might have a few stories.”

Jesse grunted. “Do I have to?”

“Thought you liked visiting Harry?”

“I like visiting his dog.”

Caleb stared at Indio’s name on the screen of his phone, thumb hesitating over the call button. Caleb assigned the blame equally for their strained relationship. He’d spent his life bearing the responsibility for his younger brothers. As kids, it was the three of them against the world and he’d pulled more than his share of the weight. Which was fine—he was the oldest, it was his job. Yes, he’d been harder on Indio, because Indio could be irrationally stubborn. Caleb didn’t like being defied. It just made his job harder.

By the time Caleb graduated high school, Harry was going through a relatively good patch—same job for three years, drinking only on his days off, staying away from the horses. Caleb enlisted for six years in the Coast Guard and was largely absent for the first four. He should’ve paid more attention to his gut instinct—those lingering reservations about Harry’s ability to cope. It didn’t take long for things to fall apart. Much of what had happened in this house, Caleb only learned about later from Jesse.

With Indio established in college in Ohio, Caleb had two years to go on his contract with the Coast Guard and requested a relatively stationary assignment at the Seattle base. Caleb knew nothing of Indio’s life in Ohio—nothing good, anyway. He concentrated on Jesse instead, and to that end threw Harry out of his own home in order to give Jesse a fresh start for his junior year of high school.

When Indio transferred to Portland State before Christmas, Caleb entertained some hope his brother was finally making the effort to reconnect. Hadn’t taken long to learn the real reason. It wasn’t about being closer to his family. It was about being the front man in his friend’s college band—a trivial reason to change colleges mid-year, especially as it meant repeating much of his junior year.

“Caleb.” Indio answered the phone in a monotone. The jangle of guitars and drums in the background indicated he was probably at rehearsal.

“Hey, d’you have a minute? It’s important.”

“If this is about Christmas again, just forget it.”

“It’s not.”

“Make it quick.” Indio sounded like he was ready to hang up.

“Our sister Joy left the ashram in Arizona a couple days ago.”

“Wow. Have you seen her?” Indio sounded genuinely interested, although it might just be relief that it was nothing to do with him.

“She ran out of money in LA. Hopefully she’ll make it up here soon, but I can’t contact her.”

“Then how d’you know about it?”

“Well, that’s the thing… She escaped. I think that’s the right word. She escaped with a teenage girl who did make it here. Her name is Wynter Wild—Miriam’s daughter.”

“Miriam has another daughter?”

“She’s fourteen. She just showed up at my door this evening. She…” Caleb’s voice went thick with emotion, catching him by surprise. “She kinda looks like you, when you were nine or ten.”

“Huh.” There was silence for a few seconds. “Are you sure about all this?”

“Yeah. She’s our half-sister.”

“What’s she like?”

“Your coloring—Mom’s coloring, I guess. Real pretty, but she’s skin and bones. Scared of being sent back. She doesn’t seem to know much about… well, about the world. Never tasted hot chocolate.”

“That sucks. What’s our mother up to these days?”

“She’s been in Thailand for a few years, on sabbatical or something. Look, I don’t know what will happen with Wynter, but I assume they’ll report her missing and Social Services may get involved.”

“You’re not gonna let them send her back, are you?”

“Not if I can help it. She won’t talk about it, but Joy took her away for a reason. When Joy shows up, I guess we figure out a way for her to get custody. Find her a job, whatever’s necessary.”

“Why not you?”

“A single parent in the military? That’s not easy to do, especially without family living locally.” In fact, Caleb could be discharged for taking on a child without an acceptable plan in the event he was deployed. “I’d like you to meet her before things get too crazy.”

“Okay. I can’t make it up there, Caleb. I mean, I want to, but I got Blunderbelly gigs tomorrow and Saturday night.”

“You need to find someone to fill in for you. Spend the weekend here.”

“Can’t do that.” His tone was edging toward irritation. “I have a responsibility. You’re big on responsibility, right?”

“Sunday, then.”

“I don’t get up on Sundays. I’ll get plenty more chances to see them.”

“Yes. Yes, you will. I’d like to hear a little more enthusiasm about doing that sooner rather than later. These are your sisters.”

“Bring them here, then. The gig on Saturday’s all-ages.”

“That’s not appropriate for a fourteen-year-old.”

Indio chuckled dismissively. “Whatever you say, dude.”

Caleb held his temper as the conversation slipped away from him and the good news—incredible news—morphed into sarcasm and contention.

“There is something I need you to do,” Caleb said. “Please pay attention. Joy may take a bus to Seattle in the next couple of days, and it goes through Portland. We need to be checking every bus, either there or here, so we’ll spread the load. If you can check Friday and Saturday morning at—” He glanced at the schedule Jesse had printed off. “—at 9:15, we won’t have to worry about those buses when they arrive here in the afternoon.”

“Whoa, nine in the morning? I’ll be sleeping in on Friday cuz my classes don’t start until next week. I can’t get there by nine.”

“Indio, you’ll be there at nine.”

Indio muttered a curse. “Fine, I’ll do Friday, but I have a gig in the evening. I told you already. There’s no way I can be up that early on Saturday.”

Caleb would take what he could. “Okay, just do Friday morning. You also need to check the 4.20PM on Friday and Saturday.” Another curse, but no refusal this time. “If for some reason you don’t get a good look at the bus, if you’re not sure she isn’t on it, you need to let me know so I can check the same bus again when it arrives in Seattle five hours later.”

“I get it.”

He hated having to lay things out like that, but Indio wasn’t inclined to admit to his screw-ups. In this case, Caleb needed to know.

“You’ll do it, then?”

“Yes, sir. I gotta go.”

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