Out of Tune (Wynter Wild #2)

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Racing Demons

Jesse pushed Wynter’s most recent math test across the table. “How did you get these questions wrong? I taught you this last time.”

They were ploughing ahead with a late study session in Rosa’s stuffy formal living room. Wynter’s attention was waning and Jesse struggled to keep her interested.

“I got sixty-one percent. Why does it matter if I got a few wrong?”

“It matters because you need to know this back-to-front before you start quadratic equations next year.”

“Then I guess I’ll only be getting sixty-one percent in quadratic equations. That’s okay. That’s a passing grade.”

“Look, I’ll show you another way. You don’t have to memorize the formula. Work it out from first principles.”

Jesse scribbled on her test. She studied his working for a minute, unconvinced.

“I don’t want to learn another way. Explain to me the way we were taught in class.”

“If you learn the underlying theory, you’ll understand it much better.”

“I just want to get it right on the test.”

Jesse made an exasperated sound. “No, this way is better. If you learn the theory, you’ll be able to do any future problems, even the hard ones, by following through.”

“I don’t have time,” Wynter said, equally frustrated. “We spent all that time on some German chemist and I haven’t even started my English homework.”

“This is more important. Anyone can flub their way through English.”

“Show me the normal way to do this, so we can move on.”

“I’m gonna show you my way, which is the best way.”

He started writing out the principles, the clean and beautiful mathematics, the perfect equations that helped mere mortals such as himself make sense of the imperfect universe—

Wynter grabbed the sheet of paper from under his pen and crumpled it into a ball. “This won’t help me. I thought you wanted to help me!”

Jesse was stunned. She’d never raised her voice to him.

“I am helping,” he shot back, more fiercely than he intended, but he was pissed now. “If you rote-learn this crap, all it’s good for is regurgitation for a test and then you’ll forget it. You have to understand it, or what’s the point?”

“The point is the test!”

“The point is to understand it, so you can build on it.” He gritted his teeth, calming himself, but he was running out of patience. They had limited time. He’d had nightmares of her failing junior high, which would be his failure.

Wynter slouched in the chair, petulant all of a sudden. “Forget it. I’ll do my English reading instead. I don’t need your help for that.”

“Let’s finish the math first. If you won’t give my way a chance, what am I even doing here?”

“I don’t have time to learn a new way!” she cried.

“Fine.” Jesse got up from the table. “Waste your time reading a thousand pages of English when you could read the CliffNotes like I did. I got an A, by the way.”

He left her there, ignoring Rosa who’d come out of her study to see what was going on, went up to the guest room and flopped on the bed. Wynter had the brains to be a straight-A student, he was sure of it, but she’d started so far behind the curve. While she explored the outside world with curiosity, eager to learn new things, school was different. She still lacked confidence there, feared stepping off the predictable path her teachers had paved. If she’d just listen and do what he told her…

Maybe she was overloaded. He was too mad to go out there and apologize, and he certainly wasn’t going to make compromises on how he taught his favorite subject.

He spent an hour playing solitaire with a pack of cards he found on the bookshelf. He’d never fought with Wynter before and it felt truly awful. He heard her coming upstairs and moving about in her room and in the bathroom. It was ten o’clock—lights out, according to Rosa’s house rules. Caleb never had such an arbitrary rule. Lights out was x hours before you needed to get up and be well rested for school the next day, where x was a variable subject to experimental determination.

He texted Indio.

> Me and Wynter had a fight.

>> You’ll be fine.

> You don’t even know the details.

>> Let me guess. You’re trying to change her to fit your ideal. Like every girl you meet.

> Just teaching her math.

>> There’s one difference between Wynter and your other girls, aside from the obvious. You can’t dump each other when it doesn’t work out. You both know it. So you’ll figure it out.

> How? Give me a clue.

>> Gotta go. Time for our second set.

Jesse growled a curse. He should go talk to her but his pride was bruised. He changed for bed and waited until he heard her return to her room, then used the bathroom himself. Her light was out when he returned to his room.

One minute later, Wynter knocked on his door. In the time it took him to jump off the bed, she’d already made her case.

“Jesse? Jesse—I’m sorry. Can I come in? I’m sorry…”

He pulled her inside and hugged her fiercely. “I’m sorry, too. God, that was horrible.”

“I’m so scared, Jesse. What happened?”

“Nothing happened. It’s fine. We’re fine.”

“I started thinking you’d never help me again.”

“I’ll always help you. You know that. I’ll always be here.”

“I couldn’t concentrate on my reading. I wasted an hour.”

“Let’s waste another. I have cards.”

He released her, catching her gaze with what he hoped was an imploring look. Waiting for her answer, an answer that would break Rosa’s stupid rule on a weekend where he wasn’t supposed to make trouble, let alone get her into trouble. She hesitated a second before nodding agreement.

They sat on the floor and he shuffled the pack.

“I don’t know any card games except blackjack,” she said.

“That’s the second most important card game on the planet. Where d’you learn it?”

“Where d’you think?”

“Okay… Doesn’t seem very, you know, Light-like.”

“I knew people who came from the outside. Not everyone was born into the Light.”

Jesse dealt out the pack. “We’ll play Racing Demons. It’s fast and vicious, so it’ll help us work out our issues. This was always the one game I could reliably beat Caleb and Indio at.”

He explained the rules, pleased to discover she knew how a pack of cards was constructed—he had friends who had somehow reached adulthood not knowing about suits or face cards—and they began.

After a few minutes of admittedly raucous playing, Rosa appeared at the door.

“Lights out.”

A pall descended as those two words doused their fun.

Wynter bowed her head for a moment, and then, in a huge act of will, said, “Could I please have another thirty minutes? It’s Sunday tomorrow.”

“It’s important to keep your sleep habits on a regular schedule. Put the cards away, please.”

“We’ll finish this round. Three minutes at the most.”

“Wynter, I won’t say it again. It’s already twenty past.”

Jesse’s resentment burned as Wynter’s reasonable request hit the wall of Rosa’s arbitrary, intractable rules. Wynter pushed her cards together into a pile and dragged herself to her feet.

Jesse stood as well. He walked toward the door ahead of her. A flicker of confusion and fear crossed Rosa’s face—she had no idea what to expect. Jesse grabbed the chair near the door. He closed the door firmly in Rosa’s face and hooked the chair under the handle, wedging it shut.

Rosa tried the handle and rapped on the door. “Open this door! Don’t be ridiculous, Jesse. Open up!”

Jesse took Wynter’s arm, dragging her down until they were both seated on the floor, as before.

“Let’s play!” They started up again.

Rosa went on for two whole minutes before giving up.

“This is naughty,” Wynter said as the round ended.

“I know. Feels great, doesn’t it? I’m so proud of you, Wyn.”

“For disobeying Rosa?”

“For everything else. For getting your band together so fast. For your dedication to study, and to homework, most of which is pointless busy-work but that’s a discussion for another day. For standing up to me, too, even though you’re wrong in this instance.”

“How much credit do you take for all of that?”

“All of it!” Not really, but she looked to be in the right mood to accept his bragging. “That’s why I’m feeling proud.”

Rosa was back. “Wynter, open up, please. You’ve had your three minutes and it’s well past lights out.”

“I should go,” Wynter said.

“No, stay. What’s she gonna do? Cancel Greece?”

“I don’t even care if she does.”

“Wynter! Lights out!” Rosa barked.

Jesse huffed and got up to switch off the light. “There you go, lights are out,” he called through the door.

“Open this door! Wynter needs to go to bed.”

“It’s okay, we’ll share this bed.”

“That’s wholly inappropriate.”

Jesse had been joking, but it was even funnier that Rosa took him seriously.

“Sure wish you’d thought to put a queen in here, though,” he added through the door crack. “Gonna be real cozy on this teeny twin-sized cot.”

He waited for the rejoinder. Nothing.

“That woman is obsessed with sex,” he said under his breath, sitting on the floor in the dark. He leaned against the bed, which was in fact full-sized, and pulled the big beige teddy into his arms. “Was she ever married? Maybe she’s a virgin. That’s a scary thought—a fifty-year-old virgin who counsels teenage sex abuse victims.”

“She’s divorced.” Wynter gathered up the cards, feeling around to find them all.

Jesse’s phone rang. He reached over to the nightstand for it, expecting it to be a friend or even Natalie begging for another chance. Nope…

“Caleb? It’s late, dude.” He sensed Wynter tense up.

“What’s going on?” Caleb said. “Rosa called me.”

“Nothing. We’re all good here.”

“Cut the crap, Jesse. She says you locked yourself in your room with Wynter.”

“We’re hanging out, playing cards. We… we had a fight.”

“You and Wynter had a fight?”

“I know, hard to believe. We had a fight about algebra. So now we’re spending some quality time together.”

“Let me talk to her.”

Jesse held out the phone to Wynter. She shook her head emphatically.

“Why don’t you want to talk to him?” Jesse asked, aware Caleb could hear.

“I don’t wanna do what he’ll tell me to do.”

Jesse gave her a second to change her mind, but she didn’t take the phone. He put it back to his ear. “Caleb, you know she won’t defy you, so I think I won’t put her in that position.”

Five seconds of silence on the other end of the line revealed how much that statement pissed Caleb off. Jesse had a mental image of his brother’s nostrils flaring and felt an unwelcome shiver of shame because the only way to defend Wynter was going to be waving a red flag at that bull. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d done something to deliberately antagonize Caleb.

“But you’re happy to defy me?” Caleb said at last.

“I guess so. Rosa’s being unreasonable, isn’t she? It’s the weekend. We’re playing cards and having a deep-and-meaningful. Isn’t that why I’m here?”

Another seconds-long silence. Then, “I’m hanging up now. You need to sort this out.” Caleb ended the call.

“Wow,” Jesse said. “Caleb failed to lay down the law. That’s real progress.”

“What did he tell you?”

“He didn’t tell me to open the door.” Jesse found some music on his phone and turned up the volume. “That woman could be back in a few minutes, so let’s drown her out.”

“That’s not loud enough. Do you have earbuds?”

Jesse found them in his bag and plugged them into the phone. Wynter moved next to him, leaning against his left shoulder, handed him the left earbud, and put the other in her right ear. He still had the fat teddy in his lap. She curled her arms around her body rather than let her hands touch its fur.

“This is how we used to listen to the radio,” she said.

They listened for a long time, the music as loud as they could stand. Each time a song ended, in that two-second gap, he thought about asking her…

Who is the ‘we’ that listened to the radio?

What are those dark pieces?

Who hurt you?

Why the hell don’t you like teddy bears?

As she relaxed deeper and deeper into the music, he grew more and more tense. He put his arm around her, careful not to disturb the earbud wires, and she turned against his chest, her head under his chin. When he bowed his head, his lips were almost touching her left ear, the one without the music. Now he could be heard without waiting for the song to end. He could ask the questions that were knotting up his stomach.

He didn’t ask. He turned down the music a few notches, in case she was asleep.

She stirred, murmuring a single, unintelligible syllable. Something like… Zay?

Then she woke up properly. “What time it?”

“A little after midnight.”

“We’re in so much trouble.” She pulled out the earbud and scrubbed at her eyes. “’Night, Jesse.”

Jesse got up with her and unhooked the chair from under the door handle. No sign of Rosa. She went to her room, and he texted Caleb.

> Sorted

He figured Caleb would still be up and he was right. The reply came ten seconds later.

>> I don’t want to know.

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