An hour after lights out, Caleb walked past Wynter’s door after using the bathroom and heard her cry out, a wordless, strangled cry in her sleep. He opened her door as she was reaching for the lamp on her nightstand. In her confused state she managed to knock over both the lamp and the open bottle of water next to it.
He came into the room, picked up the bottle from the puddle on the rug, set the lamp right and switched it on. She sat up, hugging her knees.
“Hey, what happened?” he said softly, squatting by the bed. In the glow of the lamp she looked dishevelled and frightened, a sheen of sweat on her pale face.
“You had a nightmare.”
She looked at him with glazed eyes, not yet fully awake.
“You want me to sit with you for a while?”
Her brow furrowed in confusion, and then her expression cleared. She kicked the quilt down and shifted on the bed. For a moment her behavior totally confused him. Realization hit when he noticed the bottom sheet was stained with a dark patch.
“Is that…?” She tilted her head to examine the stain. “I think I finally got my period.”
Well, this was something he’d never had to deal with before, in quite this way.
“You okay?” he managed.
“I dreamed… I dreamed…” She kept staring at the blood. “It’s okay. Rosa put stuff in the bathroom for me.”
“Why don’t you, uh, deal with that, and I’ll change the sheets.”
“You don’t have to.” She gave a shaky smile. “I mean, I made the mess.”
“Go on.” He jerked his head toward the door.
She grabbed clean PJs and left. By the time she returned, he’d found another set of sheets in the closet down the hall and had everything tucked in. He indicated the pillow slip where he’d shoved the old sheets, and she added her soiled PJs.
She turned to him, still troubled. “Will you sit with me now?”
He sat up on the bed, leaning against the headboard, and put his arm around her. Her thin body vibrated against his chest with each thumping heartbeat. He’d grown up in a house with no women, but he’d helped girlfriends change bloodied sheets before, he’d been sent to the drugstore for emergency tampons, he’d learned to accommodate this particular bodily function into his relationships. But he’d never been there for a girl’s first period and he had no idea what Wynter was feeling right now.
“There was a mattress protector under the sheet,” he explained, with the need to reassure her.
“I don’t understand.”
“Well, mattresses are expensive, and blood is hard to clean, so it’s a good thing…” He stopped before the conversation turned even more ridiculous. “Don’t worry about it. It’s all cleaned up. How are you feeling?”
“Is there a way I’m supposed to be feeling?”
“No, hun.” He squeezed her shoulder. “This is a first for me, too, so I’m not sure what to say or do or…”
She patted his chest. “You’re doing fine. I’m glad it’s you here, and not Jesse. Jesse would be giving me a biology lecture right now, which I’m sure would be interesting but I don’t feel like it.”
Caleb chuckled. “He means well.”
“What do boys think about all this?”
“I can’t speak for all boys, but… this whole process is mysterious and maybe a little scary for us at first.”
“I think you’re right. I heard a joke at school that made me think they’re scared of it.”
“What was the joke?”
“Why should you never trust a woman?”
Caleb groaned. It was an old joke and he didn’t need to hear the punchline.
“The answer is,” she said, “because you can’t trust something that bleeds for five days every month and doesn’t die.”
“God, that’s awful.”
“I thought so, too. All the girls thought it was awful.”
“The way I see it, we guys are lost for words—intelligent words—because we’re pretty much in awe of a woman’s ability to grow a new human being inside of her.”
“I’m never having children.”
The way she said it, with such simple finality, made his blood run cold. Yet he had no right to question her conviction. He’d leave that to Jesse.
He risked asking, “What did you dream?”
“That someone was punching me in the gut.” She rubbed her stomach. “It hurts. I took ibuprofen.”
“It’ll take a few minutes to kick in.”
“I dreamed other stuff, too.”
“Can you tell me?”
“I keep dreaming I’m drowning.”
She pressed her face against his chest and didn’t answer. He couldn’t bear to think of her in this huge soulless house, waking up alone from nightmares in a cold sweat.
She said, “I didn’t dream much in Arizona. I think I was always too tired. Why is my brain doing this to me when I had a good day today?”
“If you have bad dreams again, you can call me to talk. I don’t mind what time it is.”
“I’m not allowed to use the phone after nine, remember?”
“Sorry, forgot. You could sneak downstairs and fetch it.”
She gave a silent little laugh that made her body quiver against his. “You’re telling me it’s okay to break Rosa’s house rule?”
“Eh, special circumstances. Only my house rules are immutable.”
“What does that word mean?”
“It means absolute, unbreakable.”
“All those house rules… Why were you so tough with Indio and Jesse?”
“Didn’t I tell you earlier they didn’t even have a curfew?”
“But in other ways. Jesse told me you were obsessed with them learning table manners, and with politeness and not cussing. Those things seem trivial.”
“I was trying to give them a head start in the world.” Growing up motherless was a handicap he’d felt obligated to address.
“Was your dad like that with you?”
“Harry had rules, I guess, but they tended to change every day. That sort of unpredictability is far tougher to live with than my house rules—which are all perfectly fair and reasonable. What rules did you grow up with?”
She had been relaxing against him, but now she tensed. Damn, he need to stop being so inquisitive.
After a moment, she said, “I’m looking forward to your house rules.”
“Good, you’ll fit right in.” His lips moved against the top of her head. “And maybe inspire Jesse to keep his elbows off the table when he’s eating.”
“I’ve seen your elbows on the table, y’know.”
Two minutes later she was asleep and he was contemplating how to extract himself from the embrace without waking her. He wanted to take her home now, where he could always be there for her. Yet his hands were tied. His ingrained respect for the authorities was so much harder to maintain when their decisions directly impacted his family. Long before Harry moved them to Seattle, the three brothers had become adept at handling Social Services—so much so that Caleb had never envisioned a scenario where they might land in trouble. When their father failed to appear for the third parent-teacher conference in a row, when he turned up drunk at the Christmas concert, when he picked a fight with another parent at the school fair, when Indio played truant on yet another Monday before showing up the next day with a fading black eye… the social worker came calling, and Caleb had all the necessary lies packaged up for delivery.
People trusted Caleb and they always believed what he said. Of course Harry’s still going to his AA meetings. Mrs Martinique across the street is mistaken if she thinks he disappeared for two whole weeks last month. Yes, Indio did fall off his skateboard again and the reason Jesse wore the same unwashed stegosaurus shirt three times in a row for school is that he’s a little obsessed with dinosaurs right now.
Little Jesse would bob his head in agreement, offer the social worker a gap-toothed grin, and begin an informative lecture about dinosaurs of the late Jurassic. How could anything be amiss with such a well-read first-grader in the house? Harry, if he was home, would turn on the oven, place an empty casserole dish on the kitchen counter, and, whistling a tune, make a show of exploring the contents of the pantry like he was going to make a nutritious gourmet meal from scratch for his boys. When the social worker was gone, he’d grab a beer and head outside, yelling something degrading through Indio’s bedroom window if his mood was particularly sour, leaving Caleb to figure out how to make a palatable dish from mayo, cornbread mix, and half a bag of Funyuns.
Caleb was out of practice. He’d failed to impress Wynter’s social worker when she visited his home—standards must be somewhat higher in Seattle than turn-of-the-millennium Anaconda, Montana. And he’d managed to antagonize both Tina and Rosa from the moment he’d met them.
The door, left ajar, swung halfway open as Rosa poked her head in the room, presumably to comment on the lamp as it was well past lights out. She noticed Caleb on the bed and frowned.
“Goodness, it’s late.” She spoke quietly, aware Wynter was asleep. “Can I have a word?”
Caleb knew exactly how that conversation was going to go. He’d been about to leave in any case, but now a streak of stubbornness surfaced and he didn’t move.
“Caleb?” she prompted.
Caleb ignored her, his arm tightening reflexively around Wynter. With his free hand he switched off the lamp.
Rosa stood there in the dark another ten seconds before retreating.
He wasn’t normally this pig-headed, and hated that Rosa made him so. Where possible he avoided anyone who made him feel worse about himself, but this woman was going to be an unavoidable part of his life for a while. He should probably play her game for now. Then he thought about Wynter having nightmares with no one to hold her at her most vulnerable, and he closed his other arm around his sister.
Rosa must’ve had an abrupt change of heart because she was suddenly in the doorway again. She switched on the main light.
“Christ,” he hissed, momentarily blinded.
“I’d like to talk to you, please.”
Wynter had woken up with a start, a hand over her eyes to shield them. Caleb slid out from under her and settled her down. He was furious now. He kissed Wynter’s forehead, because he did know about goodnight kisses, and pulled up the quilt.
Rosa switched off the light and he followed her out, closing the door behind him, to join her down the hallway near the stairs. She was a tiny woman and he sensed her instinctive fear of his size even while she must know he wouldn’t hurt her. He wasn’t above using his height to his advantage tonight. He folded his arms and stood a little too close.
Rosa drew herself taller. “Surely you understand it’s not appropriate for you to be in her room at night.”
“I helped her change the sheets. She got blood on them.”
Her eyebrow lifted as that sunk in. “I see. That’s kind of you, but no excuse to—”
“She had a nightmare.”
“There’s nothing wrong with offering a word of comfort, but you were on the bed with her. That’s not right.”
“I gave her what she needed—she’s probably never been held in her life. That’s not right.” His uncharacteristically belligerent mood made him push a little further. “I’ve told her she can phone me at night if she needs to.”
“Absolutely not. She can always knock on my door if she has a nightmare. I’m responsible for her needs now.”
“Well, you slipped up tonight, Rosa. Tonight was my turn. If she had a mother, that’s what a mother would do, isn’t it? Sit with her child? You need to let me play that role when I can. I already took care of two motherless kids. I can take care of this one.”
Rosa didn’t have a quick comeback for that.
“I wasn’t going to mention this,” she said, as Caleb was about to walk off, “because in other circumstances it would be confidential. Tina felt it necessary to tell me something after going through Indio’s case file to help her decide what involvement he should be allowed to have. She found a report, from several years ago, of a violent incident in your home involving you.”
“Why would anything about me be in Indio’s file?”
“It says you assaulted your father’s girlfriend, who happened to be friendly with someone in the department. I suppose that’s how it ended up on the record. It wasn’t actioned because she never reported it to the authorities.”
“A note in Indio’s file is none of your business.”
“It helps build a picture of your family environment.”
He remembered the incident, of course, with perfect clarity. It had been a turning point for Harry—the first time in a long time he’d actually stood up for his boys and put some effort into being a father. The turnaround hadn’t lasted long but it showed Harry had potential. The man was still a work in progress at forty-six years old.
“Exactly what does this report say I did?”
“That you attacked the woman, Zoe, and threw her against a stove. She suffered a badly burned arm.”
“Does it say why I threw her against a stove?”
“Do you honestly think you can offer any justification? My point is, I’m not happy to see someone with sexual assault in his background, even as a teenager, touching a child under my care. In my experience, violence is never a one-off occurrence.”
Caleb spanned his hand over his eyes to massage his temples, incredulous over a nine-year-old game of Chinese whispers.
“Okay, if that’s what you think of me, then I understand your concern. I truly do. The only sexual assault was on Zoe’s part. Why do you think she never reported it? I walked in on her groping Indio—not for the first time, either. I’d spent that entire summer trying to keep her away from him. He was twelve years old with no clue about the significance of what was happening. So, yeah, that last time I did assault her, if you want to call it that. I pushed her across the kitchen and her arm hit the stove.”
“I see.” Rosa took a moment to adjust her thinking. At least she was listening. “I’m glad you’ve explained your side of things, and I apologize for jumping to the wrong conclusion earlier.”
Well, that was unexpected.
“I’m going to bed. Goodnight, Rosa.”
He was three steps down the hall when she spoke again.
“This does give me new concerns, however.”
Caleb sighed and faced her.
“I’m sure you’ve heard,” Rosa said, “that the abused can become the abuser. What was the nature of her inappropriate interactions with Indio?”
“That’s none of your business. And don’t you ever ask him about it, or tell Wynter a damn thing. This conversation was private. I dragged a pervert off my kid brother, and he once beat up a bully in high school. That’s it, that’s all there is. Neither of us would ever hurt Wynter.”
Wynter knew exactly what to do, thanks to Jesse’s website which had all kinds of tips on how to deal with the blood and the pain, as well as a suggestion to mark the calendar. None of which Rosa’s book for little children had mentioned.
She felt she should tell someone. Tell a woman. Girls told their mothers, didn’t they? Rosa already knew, because of the sheets, and had plenty to say. Unlike her book, she was actually quite helpful. She gave Wynter a microwavable heat pad and went out specially to buy chamomile tea.
Girls told their girlfriends, presumably. The girls at school had started their periods in sixth and seventh grade. One more thing she was behind in. Rosa said it was because she was malnourished in childhood. Wynter didn’t care if her friends knew or not.
Girls told their sisters, surely. Should she tell Jesse? The way he guided and advised her, he sometimes felt like the closest thing she had to a sister. She hesitated over his name in her contacts list…
She texted Joy. For once, Joy responded quickly.
>> Wonderful! You’re a woman now. Give me your address and I’ll mail you a malachite crystal for cramps and rose quartz for mood swings.
Wynter thanked her and wondered what Jesse would say about that. People in the Light used crystals for all kinds of things. Wynter didn’t want anything associated with the Light, but she’d seen plenty of crystals on the outside, too, so it wasn’t only a Light thing. Maybe crystals would be okay.
Meanwhile, by Monday her cramps were so bad she went to the school nurse for help. That evening, the medicine wore off and she was clutching her belly in agony by the time Rosa came home.
“There’s absolutely no need for you to suffer,” Rosa said. “I’ll get you something stronger, and if that doesn’t work we’ll put you on the Pill.”
“My sister’s sending me crystals.” The pain was bad enough she’d try anything.
“Really, Wynter, that won’t help at all.”
It didn’t matter anyway, because the crystals from Joy never came.
“I’m having a double sleepover for my birthday,” Stacey told Wynter. “I’m allowed to invite five friends, and you’re one of them.”
Wynter was stunned. Stacey had expressed dissatisfaction with the time she was devoting to the Clockwork Toys. Being in a band was in some ways benefiting her social acceptance—a couple of Hunter’s friends had said hello, and Ethan’s sister had come over with Arthur to chat at the lockers. With Stacey, on the other hand, it was never clear, day to day, whether Wynter was still in favor or not.
“What’s a double sleepover?”
“Two nights over the first weekend of spring break. Bridge night is canceled—yay!”
Two nights in close quarters with five girls from school… Wynter knew she was supposed to be thrilled with the idea.
She said, “I’ll have to check if I’m free.”
“We feel you’re not spending enough time on our friendship.” Stacey vaguely indicated some other girls hanging around the lockers, packing their bags to go home. “You need to spend more time with us if you want this to work out.”
“I sit with you in at least one class every day. I have lunch with you once a week.”
“Did you know Hunter calls you a Nazi behind your back?”
“What does that mean?”
“The point is, friends don’t say that about friends. He’s not your friend, Wynter.”
“He doesn’t have to be, as long as he does what I tell him.”
Stacey’s eyes flashed. “You really have no idea how to—”
“I gotta get to rehearsal.”
Wynter escaped to the practice room, to the boys who liked her for a talent she could rely on, rather than the girls whose friendship was conditional on however her last interaction with them had gone. Hunter didn’t always do what she told him—sometimes he listened and sometimes he told her to shut up and did his own thing—but overall the Clockwork Toys were improving. Caleb had been right about Ethan, who worked hard to please her, excited by his own progress and motivated after the masterclass.
Overall, they still had lots of work to do on playing as a team, keeping time, adding dynamics and flourishes to their songs—all the things that happened naturally when she made music with her brothers. But she was having fun—they were all having fun. Gaining the respect of her bandmates felt good.
They whittled down their song list, thanks to Jesse’s input and careful curation of the other band members’ ideas. Everyone felt they had at least one favorite in there. Hunter, though, was hard to please.
“Only three of these songs have a guitar solo,” he pointed out with an edge of suspicion, like Wynter had planned it that way. “I can do Sweet Child O’ Mine. Why isn’t it on the list? You know how hard that is? I spent my entire Christmas vacation learning those riffs. And I kill the solo with my wah pedal.”
“Isn’t that song old?” Ethan said.
“But the kids all know it. That’s what we want, right? Something they all know?”
“Play me the intro.” Wynter knew he didn’t have the concentration for it.
Hunter spread his feet wide, assuming a rockstar pose, and launched into the opening riff. His fingering was a mess, the notes blurred and stuttered, and three bars in he was making mistakes all over the place. He stopped a few notes later.
“I’m out of practice but I can do it.”
“I’ll give you one month,” Wynter said. “If you can play it perfectly after spring break, I’ll consider adding it in.”
Hunter accepted the challenge.