Caleb was never going to tell himself that signing up with the Coast Guard for another three years was a mistake—he loved his job—but it was proving inconvenient now. Choosing to become a single parent in the military was fraught with difficulties. His EO at the base was willing to work with him, and Wynter’s caseworker had shown tentative support, so he was prepared to push ahead.
The threat of Miriam summoning Wynter to Thailand appeared to be neutralized, for now, and Caleb was counting on their mother’s continued disinterest in Wynter’s life. In four months Wynter would become a Washington resident and the family court would make a permanent custody decision. Until then, Caleb could be charming and accommodating to Social Services and to Wynter’s foster mother. He had to be.
Sitting at Rosa’s dinner table, he took care to keep his tone even, his questions innocuous, his answers respectful. He helped Wynter with her English homework—he still remembered how to construct an argumentative essay, while Wynter was still learning the basics of formal education. She did, at least, understand the requirements of the first paragraph—”Define your terms”—per Jesse.
Rosa had put him in a guest room down the hall from Wynter. He called Bea, ever mindful to make her feel wanted and included. One month ago he’d been anticipating asking Bea to marry him, thinking Wynter would soon be on the other side of the planet. Wynter had done something—he was starting to suspect what that might’ve been—to change Miriam’s mind, and now Caleb must split his time. He would still marry Bea in a heartbeat, but it had to be on his terms. His terms included Wynter. Bea had made it clear she had a strictly nuclear family in mind.
“Haven’t you done enough cleaning up after your parents?” she’d said, after he told her he’d be petitioning for custody when he returned from his upcoming deployment.
Caleb had no children of his own but he’d do as much for his siblings as Bea would for her child. There was no “enough”. He had sacrificed for Indio and Jesse. Now it was Wynter’s turn.
He got ready to turn in and sat on the bed fiddling with his phone.
“No electronic devices after nine.” Wynter was in the doorway. “It’s the law.”
“House rule number nineteen—knock before entering.”
“This isn’t your house.”
“I think Rosa probably has the same rule.”
“Your door was open. May I come in?”
He patted the edge of his bed and she perched on it.
“Can I ask you about something that happened in Eugene?” she said.
Caleb tossed aside his phone. “Sure.”
“Could Indio go to jail for hurting that man?”
“That man can’t report the assault, hun. We have the evidence—those text messages—that he lured you there. He wouldn’t bring that trouble on himself.”
“Is he gonna trick someone else? Hurt someone else instead?”
“I made an anonymous report to the local sheriff’s office, with his license plate so they can ID him. Maybe they’ll do something, maybe not, but I don’t want either of you involved further. Indio agreed to that.” In fact, Caleb had been surprised when Indio admitted to the assault and asked for advice.
“Indio deserves a medal, but instead you’re still angry at each other. I can tell. You played together at Patty’s for me, but other than that you hardly said one word to each other.”
“I’m grateful he stepped up when we needed him to. He knows that.” There was also the small matter of the large sum of money his brother owed him, a silent source of friction between them.
“Why can’t you fix things with him? You fix everything.”
“Those things took fifteen years to break down. It’s gonna take time to fix. But we’re getting there. He moved closer. He visited at Christmas, showed up for your birthday. And we pulled off that amazing gig for you.”
She folded up her legs to sit cross-legged, facing him. “And kept it a secret from me. Is that allowed? You said no secrets.”
“That was a surprise.”
“What’s the difference?”
“A surprise is intended to be revealed. It has a short and predetermined lifespan. And, of course, the revelation is something good, not something bad. Speaking of revelations, what do your friends think of your new family history?”
“I didn’t need to tell them anything. Rosa put the word out that I grew up on a commune. Was it a commune?”
“A religious commune, yes. Jesse’s done some research and it started out that way in the ’seventies. We’d call it living off the grid now. He calls it a cult because that temple headquarters in Arizona was isolated and—” He stopped himself saying the word abusive. Talking about it tended to make Wynter shut down. “—and you were taught a lot of stuff that isn’t true.”
“Jesse says everyone’s taught a lot of stuff that isn’t true, and that’s why the only way to know for sure is to go back to basics, back to science.”
“My point is you didn’t have access to that knowledge. I don’t know if Jesse’s right, that all the answers lie with science, but I do know it’s fair to give you every opportunity to decide for yourself. And that’s what you didn’t have, growing up there.” He hesitated before pushing ahead. “Wynter, there’s so much I want to ask you about that place.”
She tensed, picking at the embroidery on the quilt, and her reaction was enough to make him not want to ask after all. He tried a different approach.
“Okay, I’m not gonna ask you about the Light. But I want to ask if Joy told you not to talk about it.”
“She said I wouldn’t fit in if I did.”
“That might be true at school, but you can talk to me. I’m trying to figure out how to help you.”
“Questions like this don’t help. I don’t need help. I need you and Joy and Indio and Jesse. All five of us, together as a family. I need to live in your house and play rock music.”
A knife twisted in his heart. If only life were that simple.
“Okay,” he said. “We can do some of that. As much as possible. Joy’s hard to contact sometimes.”
“She’s mad at me.”
“Because of Thailand?”
She nodded. “I made sure Miriam doesn’t want me. I didn’t realize Joy wouldn’t be allowed to go, either. I didn’t mean to ruin things for her.”
“I understand that. Will you tell me what you said to change Miriam’s mind?”
Wynter hunched her shoulders as she chewed her lower lip. “I made a threat. I’m sure you don’t approve of threats.”
“You threatened to talk about what happened to you at the ashram,” he said, and she gave a tiny nod. Even though he’d guessed correctly, his heart sank because he needed her to tell him about it. He would give her some time, but eventually, and despite Indio’s warning, he wouldn’t be able to resist pushing again.
“The thing is,” Wynter said, frowning with uncertainty though she wouldn’t meet his eye, “I’m not so sure Joy interpreted what I said properly. I did make a threat, but I think she thinks it was about something else.”
“I don’t know. I don’t know anything else.” She sighed. “It doesn’t matter, does it? As long as Miriam doesn’t want me.”
“No, it doesn’t matter.” Was that the right thing to say? “Can you tell me about this boy, Roman? Indio says you thought he was in Eugene, and that’s why you ran away.”
“Doesn’t matter, either.” Her fist clenched the quilt. “He wasn’t in Eugene. It wasn’t him.”
“But why was he so important to you? We could find him, if that’s what you want.”
“I don’t want that. I think I’m not supposed to find him.”
“Not supposed to?”
“What about Jesse?” she said suddenly. “Is he still coming next week?”
Caleb considered forcing the issue, demanding more. He recalled the day she’d shown up on his doorstep, thin and shivering but rising to her feet through sheer determination to face him. His compassion for her was a direct reaction to her strength, and to the simple truths she spoke. It was compassion that stopped him now.
He leaned against the headboard and let her win. “Yes. And you have one more visit to Seattle before I’m deployed.”
“Can I visit Seattle while you’re away?”
He’d already talked to Tina about that. “If Joy’s there to provide adult supervision, and if Indio doesn’t stay overnight.” He hated speaking those words out loud. He resented Tina for her rules and he resented Indio for his past mistakes that made the rules inevitable.
Rosa looked in. “It’s late, Wynter. Say goodnight. Off you go to bed.”
A momentary frown crossed Wynter’s brow and Caleb prayed she wasn’t going to disobey. Nobody would benefit from her making a scene tonight. And it was late, so he’d have to side with Rosa. He mentally breathed a sigh of relief when she slid off the bed. No goodnight kisses, though. Maybe she didn’t know about them. She left, and, thank god, so did Rosa, closing the door behind her.
Wynter’s bass player, Ethan, showed up early on Saturday morning, raring to go. Caleb introduced him to a real bass guitar, plugged in the amp he’d brought along, and sat with Ethan for three hours. The kid was more than a little intimidated, which kept him focused and insured he tried his best.
“You might want to lose the pick,” Caleb suggested. “For guitarists who are used to it, that’s fine, but you’re coming from a different instrument. Let’s try fingerstyle.”
He demonstrated on a guitar, and Ethan gave it a try.
“How does that feel?”
“It feels better. A bit like pizzicato on the cello.”
“You’ll get a different tone this way, and better control over the dynamics.”
“Which do you use?”
“Depends entirely on the sound I want. Heavier stuff suits the pick. From what I’ve seen of your song list, it’s more… let’s call it post-punk-nu-metal, so fingerstyle should work.”
“Fingers do seem easier for me. Thank you, sir.”
Given their age difference, Caleb appreciated the term of respect. This was a well-raised kid who recognized authority, which was all well and good. Caleb wondered if Ethan counted Wynter as an authority when it came to the band. Her band.
Wynter hovered in the hallway outside. She’d been finishing her homework upstairs, careful not to intrude. “Are you guys hungry yet?”
Ethan set down the guitar like it was made of glass. “I’m starving.”
“Rosa made sandwiches before she went out—come on into the kitchen.”
Halfway through lunch, Wynter answered a ring at the front door. Moments later she reappeared with another boy in tow, this one with floppy dark hair, a thrash metal t-shirt, and cargo shorts—in stark contrast to Ethan’s neat appearance.
“This is Hunter, my guitarist.”
“Lead guitarist,” Hunter said.
“That’s my brother Caleb. You wanna eat first?”
“Sure. I already ate, but this looks good.”
He swiped the last four sandwiches, leaving Ethan looking disappointed, and slid into a chair. As he ate, Hunter gave Caleb several long looks, sizing him up. Caleb had never watched Wynter interact with her peers before—and these were two teenage boys who’d recently met a talented girl they were desperate to impress. Caleb put on his Jesse-hat and settled back for some people-watching.
“How’s your masterclass going?” Wynter asked Ethan.
“Good. I’m glad I learned those arpeggios you showed me. And thanks again, sir, for loaning me your bass guitar,” he told Caleb.
Hunter choked on his sandwich. “Are you a drill sergeant or something?” he said through a mouthful of food, trying to be funny.
“Today I am,” Caleb said mildly.
“Hey, Wynter,” Hunter said, “I’ve been working on some lead breaks. You gotta hear them. I brought my pedals.”
“I asked you to concentrate on the rhythm parts for now.”
“I know. That’s too easy, don’t worry.”
“It’s not just about strumming chords. Today we’ll work on building our riffs.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He grinned. “So, I brought the entire first season of Game of Thrones on a flashdrive. We’ll watch it after. Stacey told me you hadn’t seen it.”
“Why would Stacey tell you that?”
“I asked her. She’s jealous as f… heck cuz she’s not allowed to watch it. What shows do you like?”
“I haven’t seen any.”
“D’you like movies?”
“I’ve only seen one movie.”
“One movie total? Doesn’t your mom have a TV?”
“She’s not my mom.”
“I mean your aunt, your foster mom, whatever.”
“There’s a TV back there, and one upstairs. I don’t watch it much.”
“I don’t understand those shows.”
“No wonder they call you retar—” Hunter cut himself off, sliding Caleb a guilty look.
“Retarded. They call me retarded.” Wynter’s hands curled into fists on either side of her plate and her expression turned hard. “Why do they call me that, Hunter?”
“Uh, do they?” he bluffed, looking to Ethan for help. Ethan had gone beet red.
Caleb touched Wynter’s hand. She flinched and drew back.
“Your friend called me that, right in front of you,” Wynter said. “And you laughed.”
Hunter groaned, playing for time. He caught Caleb’s eye again. Caleb wasn’t going to rescue him. “See, it’s the way you talk, I think. I guess. I don’t know.”
“What’s wrong with the way I talk?”
“Nothing. You talk fine.”
“Hunter!” she demanded.
Now it was Hunter’s turn to flush. “You got this simple way of talking. Well, not simple… Direct.” He shifted nervously on his seat. “You don’t use the lingo properly. Or understand the other kids.” He appealed to Caleb with, “She didn’t know what a gif is. I mean, my mom knows what a gif is.”
“What else?” Wynter said.
“I dunno. Sarah told me you turned fifteen, which is a year older than most of the kids. And they say you’re a bit lost in most of your classes. So we… uh, we started wondering if maybe you were… you know…”
“So what if I am?”
“You’re not,” Ethan stammered.
“But what if I was? Why does it matter?”
“Doesn’t matter!” Hunter said, finding an out. “Doesn’t matter at all.”
“It does matter, though. It matters to them.”
“Fuck them. Sorry,” he muttered in Caleb’s direction. “Screw them, seriously. We’re here for the music, yeah? You play amazing guitar. But… it’s like you just climbed out of a bunker.”
“Let’s pretend I did.” Wynter glared at him. “Let’s pretend I’m a clockwork toy. I was wound up for the first time in January this year.”
“Uh… okay.” Hunter looked at Caleb, startled. “Is that, like, true?”
“Who knows?” Caleb said evenly. “It’s true I only met her for the first time in January.”
“They wound me up and put me in an arena to fight,” Wynter went on. “Like some sort of retro videogame, only the arena is life. This life. School. Math and movies and gossip and the lingo.”
“What about music?
“I came pre-programmed with music.”
“Cool.” To the kid’s credit, he was making a serious effort to play along, earnestly hoping to understand her.
“The rest I have to learn, day by day.”
“That’s awesome. No way you’re retarded if you came up with all that.”
“I’m smart enough to know driver ed is for fifteen-year-olds.”
Hunter chuckled. “Yeah. I’m fifteen. Repeated fifth grade cuz it took ’em a while to figure out my meds. Now I’m on methamphetamine. How cool is that!”
“I don’t know. How cool is that?” Wynter deadpanned.
“We’ll, it’s pretty cool,” Hunter said, deflated. “So, we’ll watch Game of Thrones.” He glanced at Caleb. “There’s a bit of sex and stuff. A lot, actually. Is that okay? I mean, is she allowed?”
“She can watch what she likes,” Caleb said, “but I think you’re here to play guitar.”
“If you don’t have to be home until eight,” Wynter said, “then we have six hours to rehearse.”
“Aw, come on! You’ll love this show. Sean Bean—girls love Sean Bean, right?”
“He’s the dad,” Ethan said, visibly relieved as the tension in the room dissipated. “Girls like Jon Snow. And some boys do, too.”
Wynter pushed back her chair. “Are you done eating? Let’s fetch our guitars and we’ll play in here.”
“For six hours?” Hunter said, aghast.
“For about two hours. I asked Caleb to work with Ethan until four. If you guys are still standing after that, we’ll all three get together and see where we’re at.”
Hunter looked appalled with himself for failing to lure Wynter into a Game of Thrones date. While Ethan was eager to impress her with his hard work and enthusiasm, Hunter had already realized she wasn’t impressed by his shredding—apparently, medieval sex and violence were his standby. Caleb thought he was a little snot, but he presumably could play guitar or he wouldn’t be here.
The boys were still standing two hours later, and the three of them played together for another two hours. Caleb kept out of it, not wanting to diminish Wynter’s authority, which she’d so far wielded effectively. She ignored Hunter’s every attempt to show off and flirt, sticking to her program.
“I can’t wait to see how this sounds with drums,” Ethan said as they packed up. He’d already called his dad to collect him. Hunter had not called anyone.
“My brother plays drums,” Hunter said. “I already asked him about it.”
“Arthur Yu is our drummer,” Wynter said.
“Yeah, but he’s a seventh grader.”
“So, my brother’s better. He’s free Saturday afternoons. We could rehearse here or at my place.”
Wynter narrowed her eyes and stared him down. “Arthur is our drummer.”
Hunter held her gaze for about four seconds and gave up. “Okay. That’s cool. He’s pretty good, I guess. I’ll stay a bit longer. We can watch the first episode I brought along, or something else.”
“I’m not free this evening,” Wynter said.
All out of ideas, Hunter called his mom. Ten minutes later, both boys were gone.
Rosa had come home earlier in the evening and secluded herself in her study after agreeing with Caleb to order takeout—but he had to get it from a specific restaurant. He drove Wynter to pick up the food.
“Are we awful?” Wynter asked him. “I feel like we’re awful. It sounds nothing like when I played with you and Indio and Jesse.”
“We’ve been at it longer than you’ve been alive.”
“Jesse was drumming at age four?”
“If you count pots and pans and fish tanks and cardboard boxes. It’ll work out. You handled them well.”
“Really? I think I might’ve been a bit mean.”
“You displayed a good work ethic. Ethan’s fine—he trusts you, he’ll do what you say and try his best. Hunter wants you to be impressed but he thinks it’s all a lark.” Caleb pulled into the parking lot of the pre-approved MSG-free gluten-free Chinese restaurant. “It’s supposed to be fun, but he lacks discipline.”
“He’s all over the place. Not only his playing. I mean his attention span. Why would he want to watch a TV show when he’s here to rehearse?”
“Well, hun, to be honest, I think he liked the idea of sitting close to you on a couch for a few hours.”
“Urrrgh.” Wynter banged her head against the headrest in frustration. “What is wrong with these kids? The girls at school turned into idiots the minute they laid eyes on you, and Stacey’s in love with Jesse, and now Hunter’s gonna wreck everything.”
“Stay cool and don’t get distracted. He’ll get the message. You did great with him, hun. Really great.” He was referring to the awkward conversation at lunch, too, and she understood. “Speaking as your big brother,” he added, to keep things light, “I have to say I prefer Ethan over Hunter.”
“Because he calls you sir?”
“Doesn’t hurt. Having said that, I’m not sure you’re Ethan’s type.”
“Never mind. What do you want to do this evening?”
“I don’t feel like going out. I’m tired and a bit achy. Let’s watch some TV.”
“You sure? We could go out to a movie.”
“I have an eight o’clock curfew.”
“On a Saturday night?”
“Every night unless I get prior approval. Did you used to let Indio and Jesse stay out later?”
“When they were your age there was no curfew. They learned pretty fast how much sleep they needed to be fit for school the next day. Well, one learned fast, the other needed encouragement. And lights out at ten, right?”
“I hate living here.”
“I know. Okay—TV it is. What shall we watch?”
“Anything. Everything! This clockwork toy needs a pop culture masterclass.”