Wynter knelt over the tub. “Does my hair matter that much?”
“In my experience,” Jesse said as he poured warm water over her head and worked the conditioner in, “social workers fall into one of two extreme types. The first type finds fault in everything from a smudge on your shirt to a speck of mold in the shower. The second type wouldn’t blink at a black eye on a twelve-year-old as long as his obviously inebriated father swears the stupid kid walked into a door.”
“Did I what?”
“Walk into a door.”
“Not me. Indio. And no, of course he didn’t.” Jesse scrubbed harder. “My point is, your hair is a problem if this Tina is the first type, because she’s gonna think we’re not taking good care of you.”
His fingers stopped suddenly and he leaned in.
“Is something wrong?’
“No. Just checking for… uh… never mind.”
“For lice? The nurse already did that. Wait! What are you…?” She slid out of the way as he poured a pitcher of water on her head.
“Hold still! I’m rinsing it.”
“You have to wait two minutes,” Wynter retorted. “It says on the label.”
“Didn’t you read the instructions?”
“They write that to make you think it’s doing something so amazing, it takes two whole minutes.”
She narrowed her eyes at him, wet strands of hair plastered to her face. “Are you sure?”
She would have to trust him. She let him rinse her hair and dry it roughly with a towel. He tugged a comb through it.
“Much better, huh?” he said, stepping back to admire his work.
Wynter ran her fingers through her hair. It had never felt so soft. It didn’t feel right, though. It didn’t feel like her.
“I have to braid it,” she said.
“Can’t help you there.”
“I think the social worker will be more impressed if I braid it.” Wynter had only one hair tie—the same one Joy had left her with on the bus. As they talked, she made a single fat French braid down the back of her head. “Why did Social Services come to your house?”
Jesse’s expression clouded. “They came a few times over the years, when a neighbor or teacher reported something. Harry wasn’t the greatest parent, in case you hadn’t picked up on that. But the last thing we wanted was to be taken into care. So we put on our happy faces and told lies.”
“But Caleb told me not to lie to them.”
“You got nothing to lie about, right? Tell that woman you want to stay here until Joy comes, and then live with Joy—either here or someplace nearby if that’s what Joy wants. Tell her you don’t want to go back to Arizona because your mom isn’t even there.”
“She’ll let me stay, won’t she? We made the house look great.”
“We did! And I’m gonna tidy my room right now, and make my bed for the first time ever. If I can figure out how.”
By the time Caleb left for the dojo, where he taught a karate class, the house was immaculate. It had been tidy and clean beforehand, by Wynter’s standards, but now it was perfect. Jesse even put away the half-finished chess game.
“How will you remember where all the pieces go for next time?” Wynter asked him.
“It’s chess. Of course we’ll remember.”
That made no sense. Wynter let it drop.
“Hungry?” he asked her, and she nodded with a guilty feeling because it wasn’t really time to eat. “We’ll have a snack.”
“Are we allowed?”
He stopped halfway to the kitchen to stare back at her. “Yes, Wyn, we are allowed.” He opened the pantry door. “You can eat anything you want, any time you want, okay? You don’t have to ask. Ever.”
He toasted Pop-Tarts, which turned out to be the oddest food item she’d ever seen or eaten. She made it through one, after which he found her some crackers.
“Do you know how to play?” he asked, waiting for his fourth and fifth Pop-Tarts to pop.
“I mean do you know how to play… anything?”
“I play guitar and piano.”
“No. Just playing. Did you ever play games? Barbie dolls and jump ropes—anything like that?”
“Some friends had these metal clockwork toys that you wound up. We would make them fight in an arena.”
“That sounds awesome! Retro, but awesome. What else?”
“Okay. I’m gonna show you something.”
Jesse took her into his bedroom, switched on his laptop, and spent half an hour showing her the gaming videos he’d made online. They made even less sense than chess.
“I get why my hair was important, but why is this important?”
“I’m checking to see if you might be interested in playing games like this.”
Wynter tried her best to pay attention, standing beside him while he sat at his desk.
“I have no clue what’s going on,” she said after viewing what Jesse called a “narration” of a “run-through” of a “level” of a “first-person shooter” game.
“Don’t worry, we can start with something simpler.” He twisted to face her. “It’s pretty exciting, though, right?”
“It’s so confusing. All those little symbols and dials and numbers—how do you keep your eye on all of those at once?”
“Takes practice. I’ll teach you.”
“You should probably teach me math first.”
“I’ll teach you both. I’m gonna teach you everything. First things first—I’ll set up an email account for you. When you start school, you’ll need email to talk to your friends and send them stuff.”
“Can’t I call them on the phone?”
“Sure, but everyone has an email address.”
Everyone. Xay had an email address, and Wynter had once memorized it.
“Can I send an email to anyone I want to?” she said.
“Absolutely. Well, there are safety concerns…” He gave her a thorough look. “You can write to anyone you already know, okay?”
“Do you know anyone?” He was poking fun again.
“I know you.”
“And I have an email address! We’re off to a good start.” Jesse typed and clicked at his laptop. “Ready to go. What username would you like?”
“I don’t know what that is.”
“It can be anything. Best not to use your real name. I’m drumheadgamerboy, same as my video channel.”
“Can I be… guitarheadgamergirl?”
“Uh, that doesn’t really… You’re not a gamer girl, although I’ll be doing my best to turn you into one. And guitarhead doesn’t mean anything. So that’s not a logical choice.”
“You said it could be anything.”
“Yes, I did. You can be guitarheadgamergirl if you really want. This is your identity that you’re showing to the world. So think carefully.”
Wynter thought carefully. This was rather more complicated than Jesse had initially made it seem.
Finally, she said, “I don’t have an identity in this world.”
“Sure you do. What words would you use to describe yourself?”
Jesse laughed and tweaked her hip with his fingers. “You’ll grow. I don’t mean physical descriptions. Who are you?”
“I’m your little sister.” It felt very good to say that.
“Who do you want to be?”
“A little sister who plays music with you.”
“I like where this is going. Little sister guitar player. Little sister music maker…”
“Little sister song.”
“Okay, let’s see if it’s available—littlesistersong.” He typed it in. “Your password is columbiacity, lower case, all one word. Don’t tell anyone.”
“But you know it.”
“I’ve already forgotten. You should change it, anyway. Okay, done. You now have an email address.” He slid the laptop in front of her. “Do you know how to send an email?”
“I did it once before.”
“Send me one.”
She started a new message, typed in his address, and wrote, Thank you for my new identity in the subject line. In the body of the email she wrote:
Let’s read the worldview book you gave me.
Her heart raced. She grabbed the mouse and clicked the send button as fast as she could.
“Your hands are shaking,” Jesse said.
He gave her a strange look before turning the laptop toward him and logging into his account. He showed her the unread email at the top of his inbox.
“Send me one,” she said. “I want to get my first ever email.”
He did so, and she switched to her account to read it.
Re. Thank you for my new identity
I’ll read with you for one hour if you play a video game with me for one hour first.
“I did say I’m gonna turn you into a gamer girl,” he said.
“What are those X’s and O’s?”
“Those are hugs and kisses. How can you not know that?” He said it kindly, but she felt her face heating at yet another reminder of how little she knew. “That’s just what kids put at the end of messages sometimes, to their friends or their mom or… y’know, their sisters, I guess, although I never emailed a sister before so I’m not sure.”
“Would you put those in an email to Indio or Caleb?”
“God, no. That would be weird. Indio and me are good buddies, though. We text, more than email.”
Jesse pulled out his phone and clicked Indio’s name from the message app. He held the screen in front of her face and she read aloud from a grey bubble at the bottom of the screen.
>> Stop polluting my playlist with your crappy EDM. I’d rather fuck a frog than listen to another—
Jesse snatched back his phone. “Whoa, okay, that’s not appropriate. Sorry.” He gave her a sheepish look. “We share playlists from a music streaming site. At the club last night I heard some awesome beats—he’s not so impressed. Anyway, we’ll get you a phone and then we can talk or text any time.”
“But we live in the same house.”
“I mean when you’re at school or… wherever.”
Wynter didn’t know what wherever meant. She was going to live in this house with Joy, wasn’t she?
“I want to send an email to someone else,” she said.
“Do you know the address?”
“I think so, if I remember it.”
“I’ll go set up our video game on the TV.”
He left, and she started a new email to Xay. He had a complicated username with lots of numbers and she wasn’t sure if she got it right. She wrote Where are you? in the subject line, and This is Wynter in the body of the email. As she signed it with XOXO, her hand started shaking again. She clicked Send and sat back, satisfied.
Almost at once, a new email appeared in her inbox. Her initial thrill was quickly dampened when she read the subject line.
>> Address not found.
Wynter tried again, searching her memory for the correct number sequence. Xay had made her memorize it so she could log into his account, because she had occasional access to an online computer and he did not. That was a year ago. More than a year. In another world.
After several more tries, each one returned with the same blunt response, she gave up—for now, anyway. Maybe the correct address would come to her.
Would Xay write back, even if she managed to get through to him? If he thought she was still in the Light, he might think it was a trick. He would’ve gotten on with his life, wouldn’t he? He didn’t want or need her making things difficult. And she was being greedy. She’d known Caleb and Jesse for two days and already felt like she belonged with them. She was going to meet Indio, and soon Joy would be here.
She shut down the browser and went to join Jesse in the living room.
Wynter had never held or seen a gaming controller in her life. She was terrible at the video game. Frustrated by her mistakes, Jesse took frequent deep breaths to keep himself calm as he talked her through the buttons and explained the options.
“I’m not a patient person,” he admitted after she got herself killed yet again in a particularly disastrous manner. “I’m gonna try harder. I’m not used to slowing down for people.”
He did try harder, cheering on her little victories and offering encouraging words when she failed at the simplest tasks. When their hour was up, she was glad it was over because he seemed quite stressed.
“Do I have to learn how to do this in order to fit in? To survive?” she said.
“Absolutely! Not this, necessarily, but something like this. You’re gonna need something to talk about with the friends you make at school. Some of them might want to talk about repeating numbers and other messages from the universe, but pretty soon you’re not gonna believe in that stuff anymore, so you’ll need something else. Did you watch TV at the ashram?”
“Ever been to a movie?”
“How about books?”
“Someone had a little library of really old novels. I liked those.”
“Awesome. We’ll watch some TV tomorrow. And you already know about music, although none of your friends will’ve heard of Status Quo, to be honest. I’ve only heard of them because Indio’s weird like that. Anyway, the social stuff is just as important as the worldview stuff. We’ll find something that suits you perfectly.” Jesse packed away the gaming equipment. “This was a learning experience for me, too. I might get work tutoring high school kids this semester, so I need to practice being calm and patient.”
“You can practice on me. I’m gonna need help with everything.”
“You’ll be my guinea pig. I think you’re the youngest person I know.”
“Don’t you have lots of friends? I saw your inbox—it’s very full.”
“My friends are all a bit older than me. My friend Marcus has a brother your age—that’s about it.”
“What about Bea’s little girl?”
“Jilly doesn’t have a personality yet. I wouldn’t say you could get to know someone until they’re older.”
“I thought she had a personality.”
“I mean she’s not rational. She can’t even talk.”
“Am I rational?”
“I’m sure you are, because we share DNA. If you’re not, don’t worry about it. I’m gonna make you rational. We’ll start by reading Hawking.”
They sat on the living room floor and looked at the book. Jesse didn’t start at the beginning. He flicked the pages back and forth in some sort of order that made sense to him. Wynter didn’t know why he thought she’d understand it—she didn’t—but his enthusiasm kept it interesting. Jesse sounded confident about these strange tales, and Caleb said Jesse was smart, and she trusted Caleb. Still, doubt niggled at the back of her mind.
“I’ve never heard of gravity waves or exploding stars,” she said. “Is it all true?”
“It’s absolutely true. It’s the reason the universe hangs together.”
“But why does this stuff matter to us? We’re such a tiny part of it and we can never visit those places.”
“Knowledge is good for its own sake, Wyn. Doesn’t have to be practical. In any case, every single thing that happens, or has ever happened, or will ever happen, comes down to the physics in this book. Isn’t that right, Caleb?”
Caleb had come home as they were finishing up, and was getting together the food for their barbecue on the kitchen counter. He smiled without answering or looking up.
“He does at least listen when I go on about it,” Jesse said, as if Caleb wasn’t there. “Indio, on the other hand, pretends this stuff isn’t important. It’s mega important. If you have questions, just ask me.”
“I do have a question,” Wynter said. “What’s a guinea pig?”
Wynter did not like the look of the social worker. Tina had frizzy gray hair tied in a ponytail and bustled around as if she owned the house. Her smile for Wynter was friendly enough, but every time she talked to Caleb or looked at Jesse, her face turned into a blank mask.
It became clear to Wynter that Caleb had already explained a lot over the phone, and he repeated more than once that their twenty-two-year-old sister Joy was going to arrive soon to take care of Wynter. Caleb was very pleasant to Tina. Under it, he was anxious. Wynter didn’t like the way Tina made him behave. She gave him some paperwork and said she would explain everything to Wynter.
Caleb sat next to Wynter on the couch and Tina took the armchair opposite. Jesse hung back in the corner directing dark looks to the back of Tina’s head. After a while, his fingertips began drumming a beat on the wall behind him.
Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with Caleb, Wynter tried to take it in as Tina said she’d been unable to extract Miriam’s contact details from the Light, or her whereabouts. She would keep trying. She talked on and on. Guardianship, temporary custody, foster homes, the family court system, wards of state, and plenty of other things Wynter didn’t understand.
Her ears were ringing and spots danced before her eyes.
“Jesse!” Caleb snapped, making Wynter jump. Jesse stopped his drum beat.
“I’d like to talk to Wynter alone,” Tina said.
Wynter had zoned out of the conversation and didn’t know why Tina said that. Caleb patted her hand and stood up. He gave a curt sign to Jesse and the two of them went out to the front yard.
“Well, Wynter, what an adventure you’ve had,” Tina said. “This must be quite a change for you. How are you coping?”
How was she coping? The lights and sounds and crowds in the mall and grocery store filled her head. She felt uneasy in those places, except that Caleb had been right there and she felt safe with him, and Jesse was so good at explaining everything—from cookies to guinea pigs to quantum singularities. Was she coping? What did coping feel like?
Tina waited for an answer.
Wynter wasn’t going to lie, despite a lifetime of conditioning by the Light to do just that. She already trusted Caleb more than anyone at the ashram, except Joy, and Joy wasn’t here. She’d tell the truth. But she wouldn’t talk about the Light.
“Everything is different. I like it,” she said. And she did. The confusion, the choices, the new things—she liked it because it had nothing to do with the Light.
“And Caleb? Is he taking good care of you?”
“Yes. This house is very clean. His girlfriend took me shopping for clothes.”
“Oh, he didn’t mention a girlfriend. Does she live here?”
“So, she visited?”
“Did she stay the night?”
“I don’t think so. She was just here when I woke up.”
“And what about Jesse? What’s he like?”
“He showed me a book to fix my worldview. We watched videos in his room. He told me about—”
“In his bedroom?” Tina’s eyes widened a fraction. “What videos?”
“Shooting and blowing things up. He told me about all the different kinds of bread when he drove us to the grocery store earlier.”
“He drove? How old is he?”
“Eighteen. Can I stay here?”
“We’ll see. Show me your room.”
She led Tina down the hallway to Indio’s room. Her clothes were all put away and she’d made the bed and straightened the drapes perfectly. According to the magazine in the doctor’s waiting room, girls were supposed to have teddy bears and fluffy rugs and tiny string lights in their rooms. This room, with its gray quilt, no rug, and a poster on the wall of a skull wearing headphones, looked like a boy’s room.
Tina poked her head around the door briefly. Then she indicated the room opposite. “Do you all share this bathroom?”
Wynter nodded, wondering what could possibly be the problem with that. She used to share a bathroom with twenty other people. Tina examined the inside of the bathroom door and fiddled with the handle.
“There’s no lock on the door.” She sounded disapproving.
“Why does it need a lock?” The bathrooms at the ashram didn’t have locks. Only the offices and warehouse and store rooms and closets had locks—on the outside.
“A lock is so someone doesn’t come in while you’re taking a shower or a bath.”
“Caleb knocked first.”
“He knocked and then came in?”
Wynter was confused about where this was leading. “I couldn’t turn off the faucets. I didn’t realize the water was rising and I made it slosh over the edge. By accident. He helped me turn them off.”
“While you were in the tub?”
“Yes, but…” Her stomach sank at the look on Tina’s face. “I needed help,” she finished lamely.
Tina’s eyebrow went up. Then she put on a bright smile. A fake smile. “Have you met your other brother yet?”
“We’re driving down to Portland later.”
“Portland?” She frowned again. It seemed every single answer Wynter gave was wrong. “Out of state?”
“It’s not that far.”
“Mmm. His name is Indio Fairn, right? Born September 1990?”
“That’s his name. I don’t know his birthdate.”
“I’m going outside to have a quick chat with Caleb.” She handed Wynter a card. “You call me, any time, if you have a problem or a question, or if ever you don’t feel safe.”
“Why would I not feel safe?” She really did not like this woman.
Tina was already on her way out. Wynter followed, hesitating in the living room as Jesse came back inside.
“What did she ask you?” he said.
“She asked me about Indio’s birthdate.”
“She thinks there should be a lock on the bathroom door, and I think she thinks you’re too young to drive me around.”
“Yeah, she was a type one, for sure.”
“Did she tell Caleb I can stay?”
“You made your bed for nothing. She didn’t even check the rooms at the back.”
Jesse sat next to her on the couch as Caleb had, offering tacit support. Five minutes later they heard Tina’s car drive off. Caleb came inside.
“Did she believe you?” Jesse said.
“Believe you about what?” Wynter said, feeling numb.
“She wasn’t happy to let you stay,” Caleb said. “There’s no proof, you see, that you’re our sister.”
“But we have the same mother.”
“I know, hun, but Tina needs more than your say-so. We can do a DNA test, which takes time and costs a lot of money. When Joy comes, let’s hope she has your birth certificate. The thing is, you’re a runaway, by Tina’s definition, but the place you came from doesn’t want you back. She wanted to take you to a youth shelter tonight.” He waved down Jesse, who had drawn breath to protest. “I showed her Jesse’s photo of the three of us from a few years back. Convinced her you look like Indio, which you do. She’s going to discuss your case with her colleagues, but you can stay for now.”
“How long is for now?” Jesse said.
But all Caleb said was, “Let’s enjoy our weekend and we’ll figure it all out on Monday.”
“She asked Wynter about Indio,” Jesse said. Some sort of signal passed between her brothers. “He doesn’t even live here. What does it matter?”
“Does she know Indio?” Wynter asked.
Caleb drew a deep breath. “No, I don’t think so. Never mind about that. Jesse, you’ve got twelve minutes to get to the bus station and meet the 4:30. I’ll start dinner so we can leave for Portland on time. Tina’s not happy about us driving out of state, and I imagine she’d be even unhappier to know we’re going to a college gig, so how about we keep that part to ourselves.”
“You said not to lie,” Wynter pointed out.
“Yeah.” Caleb gave her a rueful look. “No secrets or lies in this house. Let’s call this a privacy issue. Privacy is just fine.”