In Wynter’s pocket was the key to Caleb’s house in Columbia City, Seattle. The key was attached to the rocketship keychain Jesse had given her. But she was sitting in the truck with two of her brothers traveling in the opposite direction. To Rosa’s house in Richland.
“I can’t believe they canceled your visit this weekend,” Jesse said for the fourth time. He was skipping classes to join them—three hours each way—as a show of support.
“They” were Social Services—specifically, Tina, Wynter’s social worker, who had dropped in that morning to find out why Wynter had run away the day before and taken a bus to Oregon. Wynter had told the truth, because Caleb was right there, although not the whole truth. She’d told them she didn’t fit into this world. The girls at school didn’t like her, which she admitted was partly her fault for lying to them. Their mother in Thailand didn’t want her. Their sister Joy wouldn’t take steps to file for custody. Caleb had said he would, but he was about to be deployed so it would be months before that happened. So, she’d run. She’d thought she was running to Roman, her friend from the ashram in Arizona.
She told them all this, but she kept Xay to herself.
“I’ll visit the first weekend in March,” Caleb said. “And you’ll be in Seattle for your birthday. After that, I’m pretty sure I can fit in one more visit before I leave.”
“You don’t have to,” Wynter said quietly. “You have to teach your karate class on Saturdays.”
“I can run that class,” Jesse said.
“But then you won’t be able to visit.”
“We’ll alternate.” Jesse thumped his fist on the side window. “She can’t just cancel your visit, though. That’s gotta be illegal.”
Wynter stopped herself whining aloud about it. Indio had told her to accept the way things were, and she was trying to do that. He’d also told her to make one promise to herself—and she had. She’d promised herself to find Xay. Now, she set the promise aside. The universe had put up a clear roadblock on that path. When she could think straight again, she’d find some other promise.
“Let’s deal with what we’ve got,” Caleb said. “Wynter, I’ll be home in June. I’ll petition for permanent custody when you’ve been here six months. That’s when you become a Washington resident.”
Wynter did a quick calculation in her head. Six weeks ago, in early January, she’d arrived on Caleb’s doorstep. Six months was early July, and until then…
“One hundred forty days.” She sighed, wondering how many of those days it would take to make the girls at school like her again. After that, it wouldn’t matter. In September she’d be going to her brothers’ old high school in Seattle.
And how many days until Joy forgave her?
“Let’s stop for lunch.” Caleb took the off-ramp.
“Tina said we had to go straight to Rosa’s. We’re not even halfway back.”
Caleb threw her a look in the rear view mirror. “Tina also said you need to put on ten pounds. There’s an Italian steakhouse down the street here.”
“The one with the carpeted floor?” Jesse said. “I don’t trust a restaurant with carpet.”
“Are you seriously saying no to spaghetti?” Caleb said.
“I’m saying no to eating on carpet. Who thought that was a good idea?”
Wynter smiled to herself at Jesse’s habit of being contrary for the sake of logic, which didn’t bother her at all because it was usually good-natured. She made the effort to put herself in a better mood, too. She had the key to Caleb’s house in her pocket and in one hundred forty days she’d be going home forever.
Jesse hadn’t corrected Wynter, but it was one hundred thirty-nine days. She must’ve rounded up or made a mistake somewhere. Every day counted, of course, but today wasn’t the day to criticize his little sister, whose mental arithmetic was generally pretty good.
He ordered a sixteen-dollar spaghetti entree. The carpet looked surprisingly clean, its bright detailed pattern presumably hiding the stains from a decade of spaghetti sauce accidents. He showed Wynter how to wind the noodles neatly on her fork.
He had to rethink her education. Table manners weren’t high on his list, but Caleb considered them important and Wynter’s skill in that area could use some work. Right at the top of his list, as of yesterday, was the dangers of the internet. He’d been taught about it since second grade but Wynter had never been to school until last month. Jesse had begun to fill her mind with the things he thought were important, but he’d gone about it the wrong way.
“We’re going to start at the beginning again,” he told her now.
“The Big Bang wasn’t the beginning?” Wynter said through a mouthful of bread.
“The beginning of humanity,” Jesse said. “Human nature. Emotions, friendships, social norms. Stuff the rest of us learn as kids. Winding spaghetti and not talking with your mouth full—I never thought those mattered at all, but…” He gave Caleb a nod. “Social acceptance, getting along with your peers, those things are pretty important.”
“Thought that’s why you were teaching me video games.”
“There’s more to it than that.”
Jesse had never had trouble making friends, had never had to think twice about it. Wynter was from another planet, for all intents and purposes, and she needed to start with friendship cliques and school politics, popular culture, memes, all those cartoons he and his friends watched as kids that put their shared sense of humor into context…
“Is that why we’re going to watch science fiction movies?” she said.
“Well, not really. We’re watching those because you’re gonna love them.”
“I think you mean you love them,” Caleb pointed out. “Maybe Wynter would prefer something else.”
“I want to watch what Jesse loves,” Wynter said.
“Those movies are good for the imagination,” Jesse said, “and imagination is a very human thing. To fit in with your peers you need to broaden your musical tastes, too. We’ll start there. I’ll send you some playlists. Don’t rely on Indio—we talked about that, right? No one at school listens to the Stones or Pink Floyd. And I’ll find you some psychology websites. I need to do some research first, figure out a good starting point.”
Wynter nodded, hanging on his every word as she sucked in a strand of spaghetti. The weight of his monumental responsibility settled on his shoulders.
“So you know,” she said, winding another forkful, “Indio told me not everything you say is true.”
Okay, perhaps not hanging on his every word.
A couple of hours later he sat in the truck on the street outside Rosa’s house and watched Caleb walk Wynter to the front door and talk with her for a minute. When Caleb gave her a long hug, Jesse exhaled in relief and realized he’d been silently willing it to happen. Caleb had a few things to learn about social norms, too. Hugging your little sister goodbye when you weren’t going to see her again for two-and-a-half weeks, which Jesse had done in the truck to avoid facing Rosa, didn’t come naturally to Caleb.
The door opened and Wynter vanished inside. The small scowling woman who was pretending to be Wynter’s mother talked briefly to Caleb on the porch. Jesse idly spun a plastic straw from the steakhouse through his fingers, glaring at Rosa. That beautiful house with its carved mantelpieces and marble countertops and didgeridoos would never be home for Wynter. She didn’t even like her huge blue-and-white bedroom or the bathroom with the double shower all to herself. Caleb had told Jesse he had to be positive about it, to help her get through it. He could do that, but he would never warm to that woman.
Caleb jerked his thumb as he walked to the truck, indicating Jesse should take the wheel for the ride home. Jesse slid across to the driver’s seat and Caleb got in beside him. They drove in silence for a while.
“Rosa seems pretty sympathetic,” Caleb said at last. “She has some sort of… uh, therapy weekend planned for Wynter.”
“It’s a long weekend, too. Awesome! Wynter’s one lucky gal.” Jesse was careful to sound super-mega-hyper cheerful. “She’s gonna enjoy that. We all know how much Wynter loves to talk about stuff—”
“Cut it out.” Caleb had his elbow propped on the window, his hand rubbing his lower face as he stared out the windshield.
“You’re getting the hugging thing down, so congrats on that.”
Caleb gave him a sour look.
“What were you talking to her about just now?” Jesse asked.
“Joy told me Wynter threatened to do something terrible if Miriam made her go to Thailand. I was concerned what that might be. So I asked her if she’d threatened to kill herself.”
Jesse’s heart stuttered. “And?”
“She said no, nothing like that. She won’t say what it was. But I couldn’t get that idea out of my head. I had to check.”
“She would never do that,” Jesse said. “I mean, she might’ve threatened to do it, I guess, but she wouldn’t do it. She loves learning. She’s excited about the world. She wouldn’t do it.”
“Listen, I appreciate you taking her under your wing but go easy on the re-education camp, okay? She has enough to worry about with catching up on school work.”
True enough. They’d put Wynter in middle school and Jesse wasn’t happy about it. She should be in ninth grade.
“Figuring out how to make friends is important in eighth grade,” Jesse said, playing devil’s advocate.
“Getting up to speed for the high school curriculum is more important.”
“It’s equally important,” Jesse conceded, eliciting a grimace of appreciation from his older brother. Regardless, Jesse ruined the moment with his next remark. “None of this is anywhere near as important as what she really needs, which is you. You should quit the Coast Guard and get custody now.”
“Christ, Jesse, you don’t quit the military. I signed on for three more years.”
“If I was a few years older, I’d try for custody. If Indio wasn’t such a fuck-up, he’d do it.”
“How is this helping?”
Jesse clenched his jaw and sulked. Also, he wasn’t entirely sure Indio would do it. Indio couldn’t even keep his own life under control.
“Have you told her about Indio’s arrest?” Caleb said.
“Would that be the possession of PCP tablets that weren’t even his fault arrest, or the peeing in a churchyard arrest?”
“No. I’ll bet Tina can’t wait to tell her when she finds out.”
“She’s about to find out about Buffalo because his background check came through. Fortunately, the more recent arrest isn’t on it. I think Wynter should hear about all of it from Indio.”
“Is that what you’ve told him?”
“He’ll figure it out.”
Jesse smothered a laugh. Caleb’s high expectations alone weren’t likely to make Indio do a damn thing. “Give me some good news,” Jesse said, “cuz I’m about done with all this family drama.”
“Our father claims he’s getting married.”
“I’ve seen the ring on the lady’s finger. We’ll see what happens.”The obvious response was, Why would anyone want to marry Harry? Jesse bit down on it and turned up his ’90s punk/dance CD loud. Just loud enough to fall under Caleb’s threshold for retribution.