Little Sister Song (Wynter Wild #1)

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Nine Guitars

A distant alarm woke Wynter. It was still dark outside. She was used to getting up in the dark at this time of year, so she dressed and meticulously made her bed. She wasn’t by nature a tidy or well-organized person, and many of the adults at the ashram hadn’t particularly cared—the rooms where the kids lived were much dirtier and messier than Caleb’s house. The dorm, though, was always spotless because Miss Althea was in charge of it.

She peeked out the door. The house was dark, too, except for the far end of the corridor where one of the two closed doors had a crack of light under it.

She sat on the edge of her bed, waiting.

A few minutes later, Jesse walked past and stopped in her doorway.

“Up already?”

“I heard the alarm.”

“That was just for me. I gotta get to the bus station in case Joy’s on the 4:35. Did you… did you make your bed?” He stepped in for a closer look, incredulous. “Caleb’s gonna give you a medal for that.”

Good to hear. She didn’t want to fall short of expectations on her first morning.

Jesse was looking at her oddly yet again. “So… why are you just sitting there? I’ll make you more toast, if you’re hungry.”

She was famished, but Jesse was supposed to be getting to the bus station. She shook her head.

“Won’t Caleb want to see the bed?” she said.

“Is that what they did at the ashram? Checked your hospital corners every morning?” He chuckled, cutting himself off as her face heated. “Well, there are no bed inspections here, I promise. You don’t have to do that. I mean, you can make your bed—that’s great. You can make my bed or it won’t get done. But you don’t get graded on it.”

Wynter smoothed the quilt defensively.

“Go back to sleep, okay?” Jesse said. “It’s not natural to get up at four in the morning.”

He walked away and she heard the front door open and close, and the truck driving off.

Wynter managed to fall asleep again. She woke to weak morning light filtering through the drapes and drew them open. Outside, a low fence ran alongside the wall of the house, close to the window, with trees and bushes on the other side blocking the view of the neighboring house. The sky was overcast, the hidden sun lighting up clouds low on the horizon. More often than not, mornings in Arizona had been clear other than during the monsoon season. The sun here in the north was supposed to be kinder, and she was looking forward to seeing it. She remade her bed and took Jesse at his word that she didn’t need to wait for Caleb to approve it.

Outside her room, she almost tripped over a tiny girl in bright pink leggings and a blue sweater with mouse ears and whiskers on the front. The little girl looked up at her, startled, and toddled off to the front of the house. Wynter followed to find a woman in the kitchen with Jesse, who was adding powder to a big plastic tumbler of milk.

No sign of Joy, which meant she hadn’t been on the bus Jesse checked earlier.

Jesse grinned at Wynter like he’d known her forever. “Morning again. This is Beatrice. Bea. She’s Caleb’s girlfriend. She’s brought over some clothes for you.”

Bea smiled and said, “Hi, Wynter. Come see what I’ve got.”

Wynter followed Bea into the living room, aware of Jesse watching her like he might find something else to laugh about. On the couch were plastic bags with clothes spilling out. The child stared round-eyed at Wynter.

“This is Jilly, my little one,” Bea said. “Okay, let’s take a look. I didn’t know what would fit.”

Bea sorted through the clothes, talking enthusiastically in a way that required no response, and handed Wynter a few pairs of jeans and tops and skirts. Wynter headed to her room to try them on and passed Caleb in the hallway.

“You okay with this?” he said. “I thought Bea could help.”

“Is that baby yours?”

“Jilly? No. Bea and I have only been dating a few months.”

“Do they live here?”

“No, Wynter. Like I said, we just started dating.”

“Why is she helping me?”

“I asked her to.”

“I don’t think I should take her stuff.” She indicated the clothes in her arms.

“Just for today, okay? Bea will take you shopping for your own clothes. I’ll give you some money.”

“I don’t want to go with her.”

Caleb opened his mouth to speak, hesitated, and changed what he was going to say. “I’ll come too. And I made an appointment for you to see a doctor this afternoon.”

“I’m not sick.”

“I know. Just a check-up.”

“Okay.” It wasn’t okay, not really. She wanted to stay here, in this house, and wait for Joy.

When she returned to the living room a while later, Bea was bouncing Jilly on her knees and making her giggle. The little girl kept leaning in for kisses. She was a cute thing with rosy cheeks and huge brown eyes. Wynter watched, fascinated. She’d never heard a baby laugh like that before. Never seen a mother cuddling a child like that.

“Oh, look at you!” Bea said when she noticed Wynter in badly fitting jeans and a long-sleeved top. “Here, put this on for when we go out.” She handed over a purple zip-up puffy vest. Wynter hated the color, which reminded her of the robes the leadership at the ashram wore, but it felt warm and comfortable.

Caleb walked in with a coffee mug. “I’m coming with you. I’ve taken a few days’ emergency leave from work.”

“You’ve managed to get Caleb to agree to come shopping. Good work!” Bea teased Wynter. “We’ll get you a bra, too,” she added under her breath.

“What is your job?” Wynter asked Caleb.

“I’m in the USCG—over at the base. A desk job. Pretty much a nine-to-fiver.”

Wynter wrinkled her nose. “I don’t know what any of that means.”

Bea’s eyebrows went up and Wynter wondered how much Caleb had told her. She should probably stop displaying her ignorance in front of strangers.

“Caleb’s a Coastie,” Jesse said from the kitchen, where he was fitting a lid to his milkshake. “He rescues people for a living.”

Wynter said, “Is that true?” Jesse’s offhand manner made it hard to tell when he was joking.

“I occasionally help rescue people, among other things,” Caleb said. “Now I mostly push paper and do a little teaching.”

A shiver went through Wynter. She did not like teachers. Maybe Caleb was a different kind of teacher. He seemed too self-controlled to act like the teachers she knew.

“What d’you want for breakfast?” Jesse asked her.

“Toast and soup,” Wynter said.

“Soup for breakfast?” Caleb said.

“Sure, why not!” Bea said, giving Caleb a look that made him go into the kitchen to prepare it. He had a little smile on his lips—still, it was odd to see someone telling Caleb what to do instead of the other way around.

Caleb’s phone pinged and he checked it. “That’s Indio—Joy’s not on the bus that just arrived in Portland. Jesse, you need to check the 4:30.”

Jesse nodded. “I can do that. I just have an astronomy club meeting today. You ever been to a mall before?” he asked Wynter as he shrugged on his jacket, preparing to leave.

“No, but I know all about them.”

“Such as?”

“If your friend distracts the sales assistant, you can put a t-shirt down your shorts or a lighter in your pocket. Or just wear a bracelet right out the door, but peel off the price tag first.”

“Uh…” Jesse exchanged a look with Caleb. “All true, I guess.”

“I know it’s stealing. I know it’s wrong. I’m just saying, you can do that at the mall. Shoe stores are no good because they only have one shoe on display.”

“Anything else?”

“At night you can skateboard in the parking lot, and on the disabled ramps, until Security throws you out.”

“Who told you all that?”

Wynter stopped, realizing her mistake. She wasn’t talking about the Light, so that was okay, but Xay and Roman had been her friends in the Light so everything was mixed up. She should probably not mention them.

When she didn’t answer, Jesse grinned again, slung a backpack over his shoulder, and said, “I’m outta here.”

“Should I go make your bed now?”

Jesse froze on his way to the front door.

“What?” Bea said with a laugh.

“You said it wouldn’t get done unless—”

“No, no, no…” Jesse gave Caleb an uneasy look. Caleb glared back at him. “She made hers—really nicely, too—and I made a joke about it. Just a misunderstanding.”

Caleb said, “Wynter, you don’t ever have to make anyone else’s bed, okay? New house rule.”

“What about my bed?”

“Well, I don’t insist on Jesse making his, so it’s up to you.”

“I think I will make it. I don’t want to make your house untidy.”

“Thank you, that’s very considerate of you.”

Jesse looked like he was going to burst out laughing. Caleb jerked his chin at him, dismissing him, and Jesse opened the front door to leave.

“Have a fun day, Wyn. I’m a thirty-six long, if you wanna pick out a nice suit.”


Shopping wasn’t fun. It was hard work. The noise, people, and lights were overwhelming. Wynter tried not to let it show because this outing had an air of importance about it, at least from the way Bea was behaving. Caleb followed them around the clothing stores, feigning interest. Wynter was mesmerized by Bea, by how she clucked over her little girl. When Jilly fell over and cried, her mother pulled her close with soft words and kisses. When she threw food on the floor and giggled, Wynter expected to hear a reprimand, but Bea tut-tutted with a smile and called her silly Jilly in a sweet voice.

Bea took Jilly into the restroom to clean her up after lunch, leaving Wynter and Caleb alone at the table for a few minutes. Wynter watched them leave. Caleb watched her. She felt herself flush and stared at her hands instead.

“Are all mothers like that?” she said at last.

“Like what?”

“She’s always attending to her. Noticing her. Hugging and touching. Laughing. Is it really that much fun?”

“It’s just love. I don’t think she’d say motherhood is always fun, but she’s crazy about that little girl. I guess most mothers are like that. Not all.”

Not ours.

She risked looking at him. She didn’t know if the pain in his eyes was his own, or pity for her.

He leaned forward. “I was nine years old when Miriam left us. About the same age as you were, when she left you.”

A sudden rush of kinship stopped her breath. He held her gaze for a moment. Nothing to say.

Then he sat back and relaxed. “I called Indio last night to tell him about you and Joy. He can’t get away this weekend. Hopefully, you can meet him soon.”

“Do you have a picture of him at your house?”

“Have some right here.”

He set his phone on the table and scrolled quickly through a few photos. When the images stopped moving, the photo showed a guy standing before a microphone stand, holding a guitar amid a splash of lights.

“Oh, he’s a rockstar.”

Caleb’s eyes crinkled at the corners as he smiled. “Not quite. He’s played in a bunch of campus bands. He only just transferred to Portland. Before that he was on the other side of the country.”

He swiped the screen. In the next photo, Indio had stepped back from the mic and she could see his features more clearly. He looked as familiar to her as Caleb, his expression somehow both friendlier and more intense. His hair fell around his face in straggly dark blond locks, not at all like Caleb. He wore a black t-shirt with a strange logo, and blue jeans.

“What do you know about rockstars, anyway?” Caleb said.

“I love music. We listened to rock music on a radio that no one else knew about.”

“We?”

She bit her lip and stopped, and pretended he hadn’t asked. “I love rock music,” she said after a moment. “Is that what Indio plays?”

Caleb laughed. “Oh yeah. Do you play an instrument?”

“I played guitar.” She pointed to Indio’s guitar. “Not like that one. A hollow wooden one.”

“Acoustic. That’s great. I play, too. Not like Indio, I’m afraid. We have some guitars at home.”

Some? How many?”

“Uh, nine, I think, at last count. Mostly his, and he has a few more in Portland.”

“I didn’t see any in his room.”

“They’re in the basement. We have a little rehearsal space down there—we call it the jamroom.”

“Okay. Show me that.”

He grinned. “I will.”

She was already standing up to leave. She wanted to see it now. A place to make rock music—she had to see that.

“Uh, I don’t think we’re quite done here. Bea?” Caleb had spotted Bea walking back with Jilly in tow. “Where to next, Bea?”

“I’m taking Wynter to the lingerie department. You can babysit. There’s a play zone over there.”

Bea handed Jilly to Caleb, who took her gingerly in his arms. Jilly giggled and stuck her fingers in Caleb’s nostrils.

The shopping done, they stopped by the house where Bea had left her car—she lived half an hour away and needed to get home with Jilly. Caleb drove Wynter to the local clinic.

“Birthdate?” Caleb asked her as he filled out a form in the waiting area.

“I’m fourteen. I told you already.”

“The exact date, though?” He tapped the form with his pen.

“I was born in 1998.”

He frowned as he studied her. “Month? Day?”

The Light didn’t do birthdays. Xay and Roman thought it was hilarious she didn’t know her own birthday. Birthdays were a big deal to them.

“Around March,” she said, her best guess given Joy did keep a mental track of it. Joy always seemed to know how old she was, and that number increased after winter solstice each year.

“Let’s say March fifteenth,” Caleb said with a smile. “Two months until the big day. We’ll do something special.”

“Like what?”

“Uh, something. Birthdays and Christmas are Jesse’s specialty.”

The doctor’s appointment was as bewildering as everything else had been to this point. Caleb sat with Wynter for the first few minutes to explain she’d been living with relatives in Arizona. He didn’t lie, but didn’t fill in any details.

The doctor was a pleasant young woman who asked questions, after Caleb left the room, that Wynter didn’t know how to answer. Wynter didn’t know what vaccinations she’d had, if any. She didn’t know if her diet was “good”. When the doctor asked if her periods were regular, she said she’d never had a period. The doctor frowned like that was the wrong answer.

A nurse came to draw vials of blood and to look very carefully through Wynter’s hair. She made her take off her jeans and sweater and step on the scales. Removing that much clothing in front of a stranger made Wynter’s heart hammer, though she dared not make a fuss about it. Trying on bras with Bea hadn’t been nearly so difficult. The nurse took her blood pressure, then made her lie quietly for a few minutes before taking it again. She gave Wynter a little tub for a urine sample. Caleb had told Wynter what to expect, so she told herself over and over that everything was okay. She imagined him saying the words, to calm herself down.

She sat in the foyer to wait while Caleb spoke in private with the doctor. Flicking through a garish magazine, she admired photos of immaculately furnished rooms in other people’s houses that didn’t look much like Caleb’s house. His house was small and plain and old by comparison.

When Caleb emerged he was tucking a piece of paper into his back pocket and he looked upset. But he smiled when he caught her eye. In the truck, she asked what the doctor had said. She didn’t like the idea they were talking about her in secret.

“You need vaccinations—she gave me a schedule. We can start on that next week. And I had to tell her more about your situation. She can see that you’re… well, underweight. Neglected, to be blunt. And because you’re a minor, that means Social Services will get involved.”

Wynter’s blood ran cold. Social Services were an evil force on the outside. It was allowable and often necessary to lie to Social Services.

“I’m seeing a lawyer right after I drop you home. We have to find out who your legal guardian is.”

“Can I still live with you?”

He threw her a tight smile. “I hope so. And I’ll do what I can to find Joy. I called the LA bus station again earlier to see if she’s hanging around there—no luck. The Light office in LA is just an answering machine. We may just have to wait for her to show up. She’ll show up.”

“I know she will.”

They got home and sat in silence for a while in the truck.

“If something happened to you in that place,” Caleb said at last, “anything at all you want to talk about, you can tell me.”

He seemed very uncomfortable, almost scared. Wynter didn’t want to scare him.

“Nothing happened that I want to talk about,” she said.

He squeezed her hand. “You let me know if you change your mind. You belong with my family now. I’ll take care of you.”

She believed him.


Caleb suggested Wynter unpack her new clothes and watch some TV while he visited the lawyer.

For a couple of hours, she was alone in the house. She changed into new clothes, struggling with the bra until she figured out the straps and hooks. She put pretty bottles of nice-smelling toiletries in the bathroom and reread the instructions on the bottle of conditioner, which Bea had told her to use next time she washed her hair. She folded the rest of the clothes and put them into one of Indio’s empty drawers, and used his hangers. She was intruding on his space, taking over. But Caleb had told her to do this, so she did.

She couldn’t work out how to turn on the TV and didn’t waste too much time with it. Those nine guitars were calling her name. She found the steps to the basement outside Jesse’s bedroom, went down, and opened the door at the bottom. Flicking on the light, she discovered a small room with exposed brick walls covered in scraps of carpet.

The jamroom.

It was packed with instruments and stools and microphone stands, yet everything was neatly stacked—tidy and clean like the rest of the house.

Something dug into her feet. Cables lay everywhere. Snakes lying in wait. A sense of dread settled in her stomach as she heard the echo of them whistling through the air. No, the cables were taped down to the floor. It was safe.

Walking around the room slowly, she touched nothing. She lingered at the row of guitars in their stands against one wall. One had four thick strings—a bass guitar. Xay had told her about those and how they were tuned. Some of the guitars were acoustic, some colorful electric ones in different shapes like the one Indio had in the photos. There were racks of amps—Xay had told her about those, too. Definitely necessary for rock music. And a drum kit in the corner with a baffling array of drums and cymbals. She had picked apart drum beats while listening to songs on the radio, and now tried to guess which drums made which sounds. She didn’t dare pick up a drumstick to find out. With her knuckles she tapped a couple of drums and cymbals very gently, just to see.

She would make rock music here.


When she heard Caleb’s truck returning, she came back upstairs. It was growing dark. He dropped a file on the table. Lawyers were expensive, she knew that from Roman, whose mother’s divorce had “cost big bikkies”. Was that why he looked so grim?

“Jesse called to let me know Joy wasn’t on this afternoon’s bus,” he said, “and she won’t be on the one after that, which gets in later this evening, according to Indio.” It was now twenty-four hours since Wynter had arrived in Seattle and they were none the wiser about where Joy might be. “Let’s eat, and then I’ll show you the jamroom.”

“I went down there.” She added quickly, “I didn’t touch anything.” Well, the drums, but barely.

“You can play anything you like.”

She wasn’t sure he really meant that. In her experience, the things adults said when they were in a good mood were apt to change on a whim. And she wasn’t used to touching things just because they were there. At the ashram, every item she touched was something she was supposed to touch—every kitchen knife, every pencil, every box and bead and packing slip. She played every note on her guitar exactly as instructed, at least when there were others around.

Caleb pulled plastic tubs of food from the refrigerator and heated them in the microwave. He called the food take-out leftovers and she pretended to understand what he meant. They ate in the dining room, where Jesse had been studying the day before. Caleb said they rarely ate in here. The table had been cleared, except for the board game.

“Is this checkers?” she asked, eager to show she knew something about something. The board was familiar but the pieces were all different shapes.

“Chess. Jesse always has a game set up.” He examined the board and moved a black horse’s head to another square. “Let’s see what he thinks of that.”

Jesse showed up halfway through the meal. Caleb kept the conversation going, so Wynter didn’t have to, with a long-suffering account of his babysitting experience in the play zone. Jesse made fun of Caleb’s latest chess move and Caleb gave a knowing smile that made Jesse stare at the board again, like he’d missed something. Jesse talked about the local schools, and the high school all three brothers had attended. He was excited about Wynter going there because of the science and math program.

“I don’t think I can do math,” Wynter said.

“What grade are you? Ninth?”

“I don’t know.”

Jesse fetched some of his old math workbooks. He opened his ninth-grade book and asked her to show him what she recognized as he flipped through the handwritten pages. Page after page of numbered calculations and graphs and diagrams. Her face heated and her ears buzzed. She shook her head and refused to look at the eighth-grade book at all. She didn’t understand anything. Perhaps Xay was right and real school wasn’t so great after all.

“What did you learn in school?” Jesse said.

“Lots of things. We did two hours in the classroom every morning.”

“Two hours of school a day?” Jesse’s horrified reaction mystified her. “What did you do in the afternoons?”

“Warehouse.”

Caleb had that grim look on his face again, his attention never wavering from her. “What does that mean?”

“We worked in the warehouse. The Light sold all kinds of things. We put together the orders. Made some of the items, too. All kinds of things.” She shouldn’t be talking like this, but their attitude put her on the defensive.

“How many hours a day?” Caleb said.

“Usually from twelve until nine.”

“Nine hours a day. How old are the kids working there?”

Wynter winced at his questions, feeling under pressure. “There are no kids there now. All the kids left a few months ago.”

“Except you.”

“Yes. They turned half the compound into a retreat—lots of new buildings. Once it opened to the public they didn’t want children around. Those families were reassigned to other chapters across the country. Miriam didn’t want me sent away, so I stayed.”

“How old were you when you started working in the warehouse?”

“About six, I guess. But only for a few hours a day then.”

Caleb looked upset again. Jesse looked stunned.

To break the silence, she said, “Can we go down to the jamroom now?”

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