Girl Scout Cookies
Jesse felt like he’d entered an alternate universe.
Ever since he’d read that paper on parallel universes, he imagined each moment in his timeline as a fork in the tree of his life. Every incident or decision created a new branching line of possibilities. Those moments were easy to see in retrospect. Only rarely did the universe offer the chance to witness them in real time. Answering the door that Thursday evening had been one of those moments—but instead of crossing to a different branch, he’d climbed a whole different tree.
He’d thought she was selling Girl Scout cookies. In that moment, his brain couldn’t come up with any other explanation for a teenage girl to be on his doorstep—despite the fact she wasn’t in uniform. In fact, she was in summer clothing on a freezing night, no Thin Mints in sight. But Girl Scout cookies was the only way to make sense of it.
The misinterpretation had lasted about five seconds, long enough for her to ask for Caleb Henry Fairn. And that had made about as much sense as the cookies thing. So now he was sitting in a new tree, the one where he had a half-sister—this strange creature from another world, a creature he’d dragged into this world with her first taste of hot chocolate.
She was the alien who’d crash-landed on his porch, a raw bundle of untapped potential, ill-equipped to live among humankind. Twenty-four hours later, he’d already made an extensive mental list of the things he needed to show her ASAP in order to ground her in reality and begin the long process of getting her acquainted with this world. If Caleb was her rescuer, he would be her mentor.
The universe didn’t come to a standstill just because it had sent an alien/sister into his life. On Friday, his last free day before the new semester began, he went out with his friends, including the girl who considered herself his girlfriend, and for a few hours things were normal again. They watched a very silly horror movie—not his choice, but it was nice when Natalie buried her face against his chest during the scary parts. They all ate at a cheap Vietnamese diner in the University District. He made fun of those among the group who thought the movie was good, and they made fun of him for complaining, not for the first time, about the B he’d received for a paper last semester—entirely the fault of the professor, who’d failed to fully appreciate his subtle yet admittedly controversial approach to the topic. They went to a club for an hour. He made out with Natalie outside her dorm room and she wouldn’t let him in even though her roommate was away for the weekend.
On Saturday morning he made the coffee and emptied the dishwasher so Caleb wouldn’t have to bug him about it, and did an hour’s study before Caleb got up—for the second time, as he’d gone to the bus station in the wee hours to check for Joy. Jesse asked him about his visit to the lawyer.
“Washington isn’t her home state,” Caleb explained, “but until Arizona reports her missing, Social Services here will make an initial placement decision. They prefer to place kids with family, so she can live with Joy.”
“No, an emergency placement pending a custody hearing. The court will notify Miriam, if they can find her. If she suddenly decides to step up, she could dispute custody from Arizona.”
Not what Jesse wanted to hear. “Then Wynter would end up back at the ashram.”
“That’s the worst-case scenario. I’m hoping Joy brings some paperwork with her, or everything’s going to take longer. The important thing is we need Social Services on our side.”
It was starting to sound complicated. Jesse felt it should be simple. Wynter was their sister and needed a home. Case closed. But it wasn’t that simple.
Then there was her health—physical and emotional. She hadn’t been fed properly, that much was clear. More than that they could only guess. Jesse had heard horror stories about cults, of course, although he knew little about the Light, and like any cult the Light didn’t consider itself to be one. When he looked them up online, the Arizona ashram seventy miles east of Tucson was described as a “communal residence and temple headquarters for devotees”. The website touted the brand-new retreat on the property where you could pay fifteen hundred dollars for a weekend of “spiritual awakening and replenishment”.
“What if they hurt her?” Jesse said. “Did the doctor examine her for… you know, for sexual abuse?”
“Not specifically. And I don’t want to put her through that for no reason. Let’s back off from the questions, okay? Be gentle with her, and maybe she’ll talk.”
Jesse wasn’t one to back off from the questions. Asking questions was the only way to make sense of the world. Ubi dubium, ibi libertas. Where there is doubt, there is freedom. Jesse lived in a state of doubt—the only honest way to live. Doubt everything, question everything. Wynter had fading bruises on her body and was ten pounds underweight. Jesse wanted to know why. He spent every free moment on his phone or computer finding out as much as he could about the Light. He’d never bothered before. He’d turned three years old that summer Miriam and Joy left and had no memories of either of them. Never felt the loss or the desire to know what happened to them. Now he had a reason to find out.
Meanwhile, his primary concern was helping Wynter navigate this new world she found so fascinating. Every time she touched something in the house—from the TV remote to the doorbell to the bread bin—he recognized it as a signal she didn’t know what it was and explained it for her, taking care not to be patronizing. He teased her gently and even managed to make her giggle as she watched a bag of popcorn expand in the microwave. Popcorn for breakfast had never been permissible in this household, but it was for educational purposes.
After breakfast, she found him in his room at the computer. He figured she’d have questions but she showed little interest.
“You’ve used a computer before?”
“A bit. They had them in the warehouse for spreadsheets and bookkeeping.”
“Did you go online?”
“No. But some computers were online. That’s how Joy printed out the map and the page from the phone directory.”
“Well, let me know if you want a tour of the internet.”
“How long will that take?”
He laughed. “The rest of our lives.”
“What do you use it for?”
“You can find out anything you want. Ninety percent of it is rubbish, so you have to learn how to figure out what’s true.”
“Like the Light.”
That caught his attention. He’d been wondering how seriously Wynter had taken it.
“How much of the Light do you think is true?” He felt daring for delving into it, knowing Caleb would disapprove of him questioning another’s religious beliefs.
She pursed her lips like she knew she wasn’t supposed to speak badly of it. “They said it was all true.”
“But what do you think?”
Now she looked troubled. “Is there a way to tell?” she said at last.
Wow. He loved that she asked that question. How do you know what’s true?—the entire basis of modern science.
“Religion’s a tricky thing,” he said, settling for an answer Caleb might approve of. “I think it comes down to your worldview—whether you believe something’s true because of strict standards of evidence, or because it feels right. Head versus heart.”
“What’s my worldview?”
“You’re gonna have to figure that out for yourself.”
“Are you head or heart?”
“Head, all the way.”
She thought about that. “I could try both, and see.”
“Good idea. Put it on the back burner. Plenty of time.”
She looked at his screen. “Is that the internet?”
“Yep. I’m just chatting with friends—they want me to fill in for a gig next week. The internet’s great for keeping up with things. World events, new music, friends on social media.” He could see he’d lost her. “Never mind about all that for now. Saturday morning is for grocery shopping. Caleb gets beer and jeans and household stuff from the Exchange, but for food we go to the regular store. You ready to go?”
He’d cancelled laser tag with Marcus so he could come along, even though he and Caleb usually alternated weeks and it wasn’t his turn. Caleb handed him the keys. He’d taken Jesse’s driving instruction seriously, sending him to a driver education course at fifteen and encouraging him to drive as much as possible for the practice.
At the store, it took Wynter ages to walk down the first aisle because she stopped to look at everything. Caleb left her there with Jesse and went off to start filling the cart.
“Why are there so many kinds of bread?” she asked Jesse.
“They’re different brands and different flours. White, whole-wheat, grain, buckwheat, rye, sourdough. We get bread from the bakery around the corner so don’t worry about it.”
She stared at the packets of factory-made cakes and cookies.
“You wanna buy those?” he said when she picked up a box of cookies. He and Caleb didn’t have a sweet tooth but they were happy to feed her anything at this point, just to put some weight on her.
She smiled shyly, shook her head and put it back.
“You can have anything you want,” Jesse assured her. “This stuff is crap, to be honest. And that one has palm oil, which we don’t buy because of the orangutans. We’ll get something fresh at the bakery.”
At the end of the aisle she stared at the two-dozen kinds of milk in the refrigerator. Jesse grabbed a gallon of their usual. The ridiculousness of modern grocery excess hit him again as they started down the next aisle—cereals.
“Okay, what d’you like for breakfast?”
“I liked Caleb’s pancakes.”
“He only makes those on special occasions. Usually we eat cereal or oatmeal.”
She pointed to a box with colored loops on it. “That one?”
“God, that stuff is dreadful.” He grinned and took it off the shelf, along with two more cereals with much less sugar.
Caleb found them, the cart half full, and Jesse dumped the cereal and milk into it. Caleb was trying not to roll his eyes at Wynter’s choice.
“What do you like to eat?” Caleb asked her. “We’re not cooks, I’m afraid, but we can give it a try.”
“If you don’t cook, what do you eat?” Wynter said, confused.
“We just grab takeout, like what we had last night. Bea’s been spoiling us on Sundays lately—she usually comes over with Jilly and makes a casserole. So, what about today? We’ll eat early before we head down to Indio’s gig.”
“What are you used to?” Jesse asked.
“Rice or tortillas and bits.”
“Bits of what?”
“Just whatever there was. Vegetables, beans, chicken.” She chewed her lip. “I know how to cook that, but you won’t like it. It doesn’t taste like takeout. It doesn’t taste of anything much.”
“You like steak?” Caleb said. “We could barbecue.”
She nodded, looking uncertain. Jesse figured she’d never had steak and didn’t want to admit it.
“Why don’t the two of you get some salad stuff and I’ll get the steak.”
Caleb handed off the cart to Jesse, who took Wynter to the other side of the store. They wandered through the produce section. Jesse dumped salad ingredients into the cart while she walked slowly past six kinds of potato, nine kinds of lettuce, a huge rack of fresh herbs…
“What’s this?” She held up a string bag.
She sniffed them. “Are they good?”
He ripped a small hole in the bag and handed her one. She inspected it, and he wondered if she knew what to do with it. He took it back and peeled it.
“Is this allowed?”
“I’ll buy the bag anyway. Eat.”
She broke it open and pushed one entire half into her mouth, chewing and screwing up her face at the tartness. Then she swallowed, nodding enthusiastically.
“Are they expensive?”
“Don’t worry about it. I made eighty dollars last month on YouTube.” At her puzzled look, he added, “I’ll show you when we get home. Another wonder of the internet.”
While he picked out tomatoes, she wandered off to something that had caught her eye in the corner. When he looked up, she was standing at the wall of nut and coffee dispensers. She twisted the knob on one of the dispensers and stuck her hand underneath the flow, letting the nuts spill into the trough below.
“Whoa!” He rushed over to stop her. “We don’t need those. Don’t touch stuff without asking me, okay?”
At her shocked expression, Jesse realized his voice had come out harder than he’d intended. Caleb was approaching and Jesse knew exactly what was going to happen. Sure enough, Caleb tore a plastic bag off the roll and handed it to Jesse, raising his eyebrow in a sort of sympathetic scold. Yep, they were going to have to buy a pound of pistachios scraped out of the trough.
“Are those expensive, too?” Wynter said. “I’ll pay for them.”
“With what?” Jesse said, scooping the nuts into the bag. He was more annoyed with himself, for not paying attention, than with her. Still, ten dollars’ worth of pistachios wasn’t the way he’d have chosen to spend the household budget.
“I’ll make some money on YouTube,” Wynter said with an air of desperation.
“Uh, sure, okay.” It had taken Jesse four years to build up a following that barely covered his gas money. Currently he was riding around on his dirt bike, which Natalie hated, because he couldn’t afford to renew the tags on his car until Rob paid him for last week’s gig.
Wynter wasn’t happy with Jesse’s response, perhaps picking up on the sarcasm.
“We love pistachios,” Caleb assured her. “We’ll add them to the rest of that popcorn with some M&Ms. Instant trail mix.”
Now she looked a lot happier, although the odds were vanishingly small she knew what trail mix was. Or M&Ms.
Caleb poured a pound of coffee beans into another bag, with Jesse directing him to a new fair-trade brand—”because of slave labor,” he told Wynter. He had so much to tell to her. He might have to write an instruction manual.
They went to the self-checkout, which he thought would impress her. She didn’t know enough about grocery shopping to understand it was cool. Still, she was interested in how it worked, especially when their tangerines set off the indignant Voice because the bag was underweight. The total came to almost one hundred dollars, which wasn’t unexpected considering they’d bought pistachios and steak—still, it was more than usual.
Wynter was staring at the screen. “That’s my birthday,” she said. “Ninety-eight dollars. I was born in 1998.”
“What about the thirty-two cents?” Jesse pointed out.
“And those pistachios were $9.80 a pound,” she said, ignoring his perfectly reasonable question. “That’s why I touched them.”
“When you see repeating numbers, it means something, doesn’t it?”
Jesse grabbed a bag of M&Ms from the rack behind him, scanned it and dropped it in the grocery bag. “Now we’re at $99.71. What does that mean?”
“I don’t know. What does it mean?” she asked in all seriousness.
“Nothing, Wyn. It means nothing at all.” At her look of dismay, he added, “What did you think it meant?”
“I thought it meant I belong here.”
“Belong where? In a Safeway?”
“Just… here,” she said, deflated. “With you.”
Caleb swiped his card to pay, and said, “I already told you that you belong here.”
“Sometimes the universe has other plans. It sends messages if you listen. It puts up roadblocks if you’re on the wrong path.”
She sounded very unsure of herself—that, at least, was progress. The less firmly entrenched her superstitions were, the better. In any case, before he could begin her education Jesse was going to have to knock those dumb ideas out of her.
Caleb handed him ten dollars for the bakery while he took the groceries back to the truck. Wynter deferred to Jesse in choosing bread and bagels and a few other things. On the way back to the parking lot, they passed a small used bookstore—one of Jesse’s favorite hangouts. He grabbed Wynter’s hand.
“Come inside with me. I’ll get you something.”
“I thought you could find out anything on the internet?”
“Sometimes it’s nice to hold a book in your hands.”
While she waited by a table of books at the front, he found what he wanted in the Reference section.
“Something to help with your worldview,” Jesse said as they returned to the truck, where Caleb was finishing up a phone call. Jesse flashed the cover at Caleb before handing her the book.
She settled in the back seat to look at it.
“A Brief History of Time,” she read off the cover—the illustrated hardback edition, in pretty good shape. Jesse was pleased with himself for finding it. She flicked through the pages. “Looks complicated. Will I understand it?”
“It’s written for anyone to understand. And I can help you with it.”
“Will I learn about coffee slaves and orangutans?”
“Not in this book. This book starts at the beginning of time.”
“Is it about religion?” she asked dubiously.
“The opposite,” Jesse said, as he backed out and started for home.
Caleb grinned. “You’re kinda coloring her perspective, aren’t you?”
“Because my perspective is the correct one.” Jesse threw Wynter a look over his shoulder. “You can ask someone else for the other side of things, but not Caleb. Unfortunately, he knows nothing about physics or metaphysics.”
She looked surprised, as if she thought Caleb surely knew everything about everything.
“It all goes over my head,” Caleb said.
“Don’t let his modesty fool you,” Jesse told Wynter. “Mediocre high school student and took him four years to get an associate degree, but our Caleb is a smart cookie.”
“How d’you know?”
“I’ve never beaten him at chess.”
At home, Wynter put the book aside to help them unpack the groceries.
“I talked to Social Services,” Caleb said. “A woman, Tina, is coming over at 3:30.” Jesse could tell he’d been trying to find the right moment to tell her.
Wynter froze, a box of cereal in her hand. “Why?”
“To sort out a few things. Tina’s your caseworker. She helps to decide where you’ll live and who’ll take care of you.”
“I thought Joy would take care of me. Or you.”
Caleb leaned back against the counter with a look Jesse had rarely seen on his face—the look he occasionally got when life dealt a blow he wasn’t sure he could deflect. Only Indio’s or Harry’s worst shenanigans brought on that expression.
“It’s not up to me,” he said. “I’m not your guardian.”
“I presume it’s Miriam.”
“Will they send me to Thailand?”
“Would you want to go there?”
“Miriam doesn’t want me. She’s never written or called me in all these years, and even before that…” Wynter looked terrified. “Where will I live?”
“My lawyer told me when Joy shows up with proof of your identity the court will place you with her. It’s called an emergency placement.”
“Joy doesn’t have a job,” Jesse said. “Why would the court let her have Wynter?”
A frown creased Caleb’s brow. “I’ll help her find a job.”
“She’s very good with numbers,” Wynter said. “She kept the books in the warehouse. She can get a job as a bookkeeper.”
“That’s a possibility. Tina will explain what’s happening and ask some questions.”
“Do I have to tell her the truth?”
Caleb and Jesse exchanged a look.
“It’s good to always tell the truth,” Caleb said slowly.
“It’s okay to lie to Social Services.”
“Who told you that?”
“Everyone knows that.” She looked at Jesse. “Or is that a problem with my worldview?”
Jesse didn’t know what to say.
“In this family, we tell the truth,” Caleb said. “Is there something you don’t want Social Services to know?”
Wynter looked uncomfortable. “What do I say so they won’t send me away?”
“They’ll do what’s best for you.” Caleb turned back to the groceries to hide his expression. “Tell the truth, so Tina will have all the necessary information to make the best decision.”
So typical of Caleb to side with the authorities, even though he didn’t believe they always made the best decisions any more than Jesse did.
“We’ll have lunch and then let’s tidy the place up,” Caleb said, forcing brightness into his tone. “First impressions count. I’ll clear up outside and then I have to get to the dojo. I’ll check the bus station as well. Wynter, you and Jesse give the bathroom a once-over. And maybe try that conditioner Bea got you?”