Little Sister Song (Wynter Wild #1)

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Heartbeat

Jesse slid behind the drums and played a beat. Caleb watched Wynter eye him curiously, perhaps astonished by the volume. She leaned over and touched the skin of the bass drum, feeling its vibrations. Jesse grinned at her reaction, twirled a drumstick, and crashed a cymbal. Jesse’s infectious smile could melt ice. Caleb hoped it would help Wynter relax.

That afternoon, waiting to see his lawyer, Caleb had texted Jesse a brief update—not Indio, because Indio had shown no interest. The old bruises and minor scars, the doc said, could be a sign of abuse or could be normal childhood accidents. The mild sore throat, probably from some lingering infection, wasn’t out of the ordinary—they’d get the bloodwork results next week. By Wynter’s account her diet had been unvaried though not unhealthy, but clearly she was underfed and needed to put on ten pounds. She wasn’t pregnant, thank god.

Wynter hadn’t mentioned any abuse, but the suspicion of it, and the neglect, were enough to convince the doctor to report her case to Social Services. Caleb had an uneasy feeling about that. He and his brothers had spent their childhoods fearing intervention that might remove them from home and separate them. His opinion of the authorities had matured since then, but that didn’t mean he wanted to deal with them again.

Wynter’s eyes were drawn to the guitars. Caleb stood beside her.

“Which one do you like?”

She pointed to an acoustic. “That looks like the one I had.”

Jesse made a noise of disbelief. “You played a steel-string? Show me your hand.” He reached back from his drum throne to take her left hand, turning it palm-up, and ran his fingers along hers to straighten them. She hunched her shoulders at the touch, as if preparing to draw back, but let Jesse have a closer look. “Look at this, Caleb. Proof’s in the calluses.”

She twisted her hand free and pointed to a Strat. “This one looks like Indio’s in the photo.”

“Let’s start with what you know,” Caleb said, “and I’ll show you the electric guitars after.”

He handed her the acoustic and indicated a couple of stools in front of the drums. She hopped on one, her feet finding the crossbars, and got comfortable. Softly, she picked an arpeggio and quickly fine-tuned the guitar like a pro. Caleb took another acoustic and sat opposite her. She’d stopped playing once it was in tune.

He said, “Tell me a song you know and we’ll play it together.”

“I don’t know what songs you know.”

“Try me.”

“There were some songs in the old tutorial books I had. I never heard any of them on the radio, though.”

“Such as?”

He expected her to say She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain or Frère Jacques. He was pleasantly surprised.

Here Comes the Sun? I like that one. I thought about it this morning when I opened the drapes.”

He couldn’t help smiling. “The Beatles. Great start. You wanna sing it?”

He wanted to know if she could sing. That slight huskiness to her voice would sound gorgeous if she knew how to use it. She shook her head and he didn’t press her.

“Okay. Key of A?” he said, and she nodded. “Can you do the intro?” Another nod. “Go ahead. I’ll follow your lead.”

She fingerpicked the intro with a surety that surprised him again, and he came in with vocals and rhythm, along with Jesse playing drums with a light touch. Her head popped up and she stared first at Jesse, then him. If she’d never heard the song before, other than strumming it herself, she’d be unprepared for the music they were making. When Jesse joined the vocals with that sweet harmonization of his, she actually cracked a quick smile. She handled the odd timing without faltering.

The song ended and they sat for a few seconds in silence. She was breathing deeply, her eyes bright with excitement.

“What are those things on your guitar?” she asked after a moment.

“That’s the EQ—the equalizer. This is an acoustic-electric, which means I can amp it. The EQ adjusts the tone.”

“Show me?”

Caleb plugged in a cable, switched on the amp, and strummed it to show her the new sound.

“I like it,” she said with satisfaction. “But it doesn’t sound like rock music.” Her gaze drifted to the Strat.

Caleb said, “Wanna try it?”

“Yes, please.” She hopped off the stool as he fetched the electric guitar. “Is it Indio’s? Will he mind?”

“He will not mind.” Caleb arranged the strap on her shoulder. His eyes met Jesse’s over her head. No, Indio would not mind loaning his guitar to a pint-sized musician whose eyes lit up at a drum beat and who just wanted to play rock music.

“It’s heavy,” she said.

“Sit for now. Just hold it normally. Have you used a pick before?” She nodded as he handed her one.

She sat and played a few chords. “Why is it so quiet?”

“The body’s solid, so there’s nowhere for the sound to go.” He flicked on the amp behind her stool. She jumped at the popping sound it made.

“Those pickups convert the string vibrations into an electric signal, which the amp amplifies,” he said, pointing to each part in turn. “Go for it.”

Wynter played a chord, a single strum. The amp blared at her and she jumped again. She tried a basic chord progression, strumming like she was playing folk music. She stopped, shook her head.

“How do you play rock music?”

“It’s all in the rhythm.” Caleb took back his acoustic-electric. He strummed a simple three-chord progression, then repeated it with an R&B vibe. “Use a lot of barred chords, and half-barred, so you’re using your left hand for rhythm as well—see, lift up to mute the strings, to keep it snappy.”

Her foot was already tapping. She followed along, a little stiffly at first, but quickly caught on and experimented with the left-hand muting. He tested her, sliding into a new progression. She was watching and listening carefully and within two beats had changed to match him. Impressive.

Jesse picked up the beat, which made her glow with pleasure. Caleb was determined to get a real smile out of her if it took all day.

“What song would you like to play?” He pulled a microphone closer and swiveled on the stool to adjust the amps.

She thought for a moment. “Have you heard of Status Quo?”

“Sure.”

“We used to go crazy to a song of theirs—Whatever You Want.”

“Love it. Let’s do it.”

“Let’s do it loud,” Jesse called out. He was fixing his mic as well.

Caleb played the main riff. She watched closely, matching his fingering on her fretboard without using her right hand just yet. Then she joined in and soon got the hang of fretting the extra notes to build the riff.

“That’s great, Wynter. Okay, keep it up. I’m gonna do something a bit different at times, so don’t follow me too closely.”

She nodded and they kept going. After a few bars, the drums joined in and Caleb sang. The song pitched his voice in the lower, bluesy range that he was most comfortable with, while Jesse hit the harmony on the chorus. Now they were mic’d it would sound quite different to her ear. She kept up her part with flawless rhythm, playing through the chord progressions. She even hit the stops accurately. He and Jesse exchanged a look to acknowledge that. They were used to tight rhythm—Indio had the same precision. Three brothers with the same heartbeat, and now their sister shared it.

At the bridge he wondered what she’d do. Clearly, she had the song playing in her head, because she switched to the new progression on cue and he did a brief guitar solo.

They played on beyond the last chorus. The recorded song had a fade-out. Would she figure out how to end it? He was prepared to follow her lead. After a couple of phrases she looked to him for a signal. Instead, he gave Jesse a quick nod, passing the duty to the drummer. He felt fairly secure now that Wynter would handle it. She was a natural musician and she was already in sync with this little band.

Jesse played a fill to introduce the final four bars—not something a casual listener would pick up on. Caleb saw Wynter’s head tilt toward the drums and knew she’d heard the cue and understood what it meant. They ended the song together.

“Good teamwork, Wynter.” Jesse gave Caleb a meaningful look, as impressed with her as Caleb was.

“You said you had a radio at the ashram?” Caleb asked her.

“Yes. We… I listened to it for hours out in a storage shed at night. I tried to remember everything, and to work out the songs in my head, and on the guitar when I had the chance.”

“You have good foundation. We’ll make a rockstar out of you in no time,” he teased, strumming through a random progression out of habit.

“What’s that chord you just played?” She repeated the sequence.

“That’s…” He took a moment to figure it out. “C minor six.”

“But this is a major sixth.”

“It’s a minor third, and the sixth added. You know some theory, then? Can you read music?”

“Yes. I had a classical guitar book, and a piano teacher for a while.”

“You didn’t mention the piano earlier.”

“I didn’t like it as much.”

He laughed. “Okay. No pianos here, so you’re safe.” She copied his smile, but slowly, like she was out of practice. “Look, if you have musical questions you should ask Indio. I’m not great with the theory.” He couldn’t wait to tell Indio she was a musician. That feeling was short-lived as he recalled the tenor of his most recent conversation with his brother. Indio might not care.

No, that was crazy. Music was Indio’s life. He would care.

“Why didn’t you like the piano?” Jesse said. “I always wanted to learn to play piano.”

Wynter hunched over the guitar. “I wasn’t very good at it, and sometimes there was no one else to play at the prayer meetings so I had to do it even though I was gonna screw it up.” She sucked her lips in, like she regretted talking too much.

“Did that make them mad?” Jesse was pushing for more, desperate to know exactly what had happened to her.

Wynter sat very still and said nothing.

“You can tell us,” Jesse said. “You can tell us anything.”

The atmosphere of discovery and camaraderie drained from the room. Caleb was as keen as Jesse for information, but Jesse couldn’t see Wynter’s face right now, couldn’t see the way her eyes went blank as she retreated into herself.

Before Caleb could think of the words to rescue her, she spoke.

“Sometimes, anything you say is wrong, so you say nothing and you get in trouble anyway.”

“What does that mean—get in trouble?” Jesse said in sheer frustration. “What did they do when you were in trouble? The doctor said you had old bruises. Did they do that, or did you fall over playing soccer or something?”

She ignored him and turned an earnest look on Caleb. “I won’t cause any trouble, I promise. You won’t even know I’m here.”

Jesse opened his mouth to say more. Caleb silenced him with a look, and for several seconds they were locked in a struggle as Wynter glanced from one to the other, growing increasingly anxious.

Jesse backed down. Caleb searched for a way to recover the situation.

“D’you want to see real live rock music, Wynter? We’ll drive down to Portland tomorrow night and see Indio’s band.”

Her demeanor changed in a flash. She sat up, her expression brightening. “Can I? Am I allowed to?”

“I just said we’re going, so we’re going.” His previous objections seemed irrelevant, now he’d heard her play. He knew she’d love the live experience and it was a valid excuse to force Indio to make the effort to meet her. “Jesse, when we’re done here, text your brother and let him know.”

“Awesome!” Jesse said. “Let’s play another one.”

Don’t Bring Me Down by ELO,” Wynter suggested.

“Classic rock fan, huh?” Caleb said. She and Indio would get along just fine. “Let’s do it. Y’know what, if you can do the riffs, I’ll play bass.”

He fetched his bass guitar. As they started up, he watched her look of satisfaction as the added bass tones rounded out the sound. He took the lead vocals, with Jesse adding some hilarious falsetto, and they had fun with it. They played Life is a Highway and then Boulevard of Broken Dreams with Jesse belting out the lead vocals, dutifully censoring himself on the curse word, and by the end of it her smile was as easy and natural as Jesse’s.

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