Rosa was already at church when Jesse went down for breakfast. Wynter joined him soon after. She wanted to play the guitars. Jesse wanted to suggest math but didn’t want a repeat of yesterday, so instead they finished her science homework. Rosa returned and didn’t disturb them, which left them both confused as they were expecting a scene.
“You told me Indio would send me something today.” Wynter glanced at her silent phone.
“I also told you he’d forget.”
“What was it?”
“Today’s the birthdate of William Morris, almost two hundred years ago. He was an artist, so ordinarily I would’ve overlooked him. I asked Indio to send you some of his designs. They’re pretty distinctive, if you like that sort of thing.”
“Do you like that sort of thing?”
“Not really. Never mind about it.”
While she worked on a book review for English, he snuck a look on his laptop at Morris’s bio in case Indio came through at the last minute. He’d intended to show her some pretty pictures and be done with it, but now his interest was piqued.
“Morris was an early socialist and a medievalist, and he loved Iceland, of all places. Never knew any of that.”
“Do I need to know it?”
“It won’t be on the test,” Jesse said with a sigh. “Knowledge is good for its own sake, remember?” He found some Morris designs to show her. “He was famous as a poet during his life. Now he’s remembered for his textiles. He lived during Victorian times, but a lot of his designs are medieval-inspired.”
“I don’t know what those words mean.”
He drew her a timeline of the major civilizations in human history, starting five thousand years ago in Mesopotamia. They stuck three sheets of paper together to keep it to scale, ending in the twenty-first century with tiny marks to show their own birthdates, and by the time they were done they’d both forgotten why they started.
Medieval-inspired Victorian textiles, of course. They admired the photos of Morris’s fabric swatches.
“You hate the fact that you find these beautiful,” she remarked.
He slid her a look. “Yeah. I thought the TB bacterium was beautiful.”
“It was a pretty color,” she admitted.
He pushed his luck with, “You have to name it.”
“I’m not gonna name it.” She checked her phone. “Hey, Indio did send me something after all, in an email… Oh.” She stared at her phone.
“Well, he sent me a picture but it’s not another textile.” From the look on her face, Jesse had a momentary fear that Indio had sent her something he shouldn’t. Surely not…
“I’ve shown you heaps of pictures,” he said, indignant at the idea Indio had bettered him in some way when it came to pleasing Wynter.
She showed him the image—a medieval-style painting by Morris of a woman standing beside her four-poster bed.
“It’s called La belle Iseult,” Wynter said, reading from Indio’s email. “I like this. She looks so sad.”
“You like it because it’s sad?”
“Belle means beautiful, doesn’t it? Who’s Iseult?”
“Look her up!”
Jesse wasn’t too interested in it, so he moved to the floor to work on their Lego construction. Wynter sat cross-legged beside him with his laptop to read the legend of Tristan and Iseult, retelling the story for him. She was so enamored of it, he became concerned she might be a romantic at heart—disturbing, if true.
“The story is silly on several levels,” Jesse said, in the hope of dispelling those romantic notions. “Firstly, no one drops dead from grief. That’s melodramatic and unrealistic. Secondly, and I should’ve said this first, there’s no such thing as a love potion.”
Wynter had a faraway look in her eyes. But she said, “You’re right. The love potion ruins the whole thing because they were compelled to seek each other out by magic. I’m rewriting the story in my head. In my version, they fall in love in the usual way.”
“What’s the usual way?”
“You know—the way you hear about in songs. She has to marry King Mark to unite two kingdoms, and he’s not a bad guy, but she and Tristan are drawn to each other by true love. A forbidden, irresistible love that can never bloom. That’s much more tragic.”
“Or… you could rewrite the story so they never loved each other,” Jesse said, quite reasonably. “Then it’s not tragic at all.”
“Is that realistic?” she asked in all earnestness. “What if they can’t help loving each other, even though they’re not supposed to? They can’t choose how they feel.”
Jesse shook his head as he added the finishing touches to their Lego jamroom—setting tiny microphones in stands, pressing tiled pictures to the walls. “So how does this sorry tale end?”
“They must’ve found a way to live with it. It’s not like she can divorce a king. So there’s no hope in this world. But in death, the lovers are together again. That’s why the briars that grew from his grave went wild and entwined with the roses that grew from hers.”
“I guess, in your fictional world, life after death can be a real thing. Sure.”
“What in heaven’s name are you talking about?” Rosa said from the doorway, wiping her hands on a dishtowel.
Beside him, Wynter drew in her breath as she anticipated Rosa’s reaction to last night’s little escapade, and Jesse remembered too late that Rosa was a church-goer and the afterlife wasn’t fictional for her. He was supposed to be behaving himself, which meant religion, sex, and politics were not to be mentioned within earshot.
“Ah, William Morris,” Rosa said, coming over to see. “How pretty. Is this a school project, Wynter?”
“No. Jesse’s teaching me all about… well, random stuff, I guess.”
Jesse scowled at her for trivializing his perfectly valid approach to her education. He tidied up the Lego. “Wyn, we’re way off course. Indio’s put us way off course. We still have Koch’s postulates to do. And if you want pretty pictures, I’ll show you the comet breaking apart as it hits Jupiter.”
“It sounds like Wynter would rather do something else,” Rosa said.
Jesse’s hackles rose. This woman didn’t have the first clue what Wynter would rather be doing.
“When she’s with me, we deal in facts not fairy tales.” His assertion fell flat because Wynter was sitting right there reading aloud a bloody fairy tale.
Rosa made a prim turn on her heel and returned to the kitchen, calling out, “Lunch is on the table in two minutes.”
Still nothing about last night? Couldn’t last.
Time to face the music.
Wynter closed the laptop lid and placed it carefully on the table next to the Lego. Dreadful anticipation was nothing new to her. Having a defender at her side, however, was certainly new. Nothing bad could happen while Jesse was here. Right?
“The way she gets all quiet and disapproving like that,” she told him, “it’s worse than screaming.”
“She screams at you?”
“No. She was actually real nice to me last week—I got my period.”
“Caleb didn’t tell you?” Caleb had been slightly uncomfortable with the entire episode. On the other hand, there was very little that made Jesse uncomfortable. “Anyway, it’s not cool. It’s horrible.”
“Sorry.” Jesse grimaced in sympathy, an unexpected reaction. Wynter awaited the biology lecture. Jesse did not disappoint. “That means you’ll grow one more inch. That’s what I read. Girls grow about one more inch after their period starts. Two, if you’re lucky. What are you now—five-four?”
“And a half.”
“Hmm, okay, you’ll still be a midget.”
“Are you gonna grow any taller?”
“Nope. I’m done.” He scooped the Lego bricks into the shoebox he’d brought them in. “Caleb and Indio have two inches on me, and it’s killing me.”
“I don’t see why it matters.”
“It doesn’t,” he conceded. “It was a constant reminder that I was the baby of the family. But now—you are!” He ruffled her hair and got a sharp fingerpoke to the ribs in thanks.
“I told Joy about it and she responded instantly to my text, which never happens.”
“What did she say?”
“She called me a woman.” Wynter skipped the part about crystal healing because she already knew what Jesse would say about that.
“I guess that’s technically true.”
“When is a boy technically a man?”
“I think it’s when the adults around him say so. It’s tough for us, too, y’know. Tough to be a good man like Caleb instead of a lame one like…”
“Like Indio?” Not that Wynter thought Indio was lame, but sometimes it seemed Jesse thought so.
“God, no. I was gonna say like Harry. I thought I was a man when I was fourteen and drumming with seniors, and Chrissie Salinger kissed me. She was seventeen and it turned out she was only kidding. Clearly, she didn’t see me as a man.”
“I wonder what sort of men Ethan and Hunter will be.”
Rosa called them again for lunch.
“Here we go,” Jesse muttered, and they went through to the kitchen. He kept the conversation going as they seated themselves, perhaps to dissuade Rosa from talking. “You know Ethan’s gay, right?”
Wynter hadn’t thought about it one way or the other. She mentally ran through the interactions she’d had with Ethan. “I did not know that. How do you know? You’ve never met him.”
“Caleb told me.”
“Oh, god.” She clapped her hand over her mouth. “Did he flirt with Caleb?”
“Of course not. Nothing like that. By that age it usually becomes obvious. Caleb didn’t think he was trying to hide it. Are you disappointed? Do you have a crush on him?”
“No. He’s lovely and I think he could be a good friend. But I won’t be seeing him again, or any of them, after we graduate in June.”
Rosa joined them with a plate of sandwiches.
“Some of them will be going to the same high school as you,” Rosa said. It was odd to have her join the conversation while ignoring last’s night events that Wynter knew she was stewing over.
“None of them are going to high school in Seattle,” Wynter said pointedly. “I’ll be living with Caleb by September.”
Rosa gave a tight smile. “We’ll see.”
Wynter’s heart stuttered. Why would Rosa doubt it?
“There’s this revolutionary new thing called social media,” Jesse said. “We’ve been through it, Wyn. You could keep in touch with him.”
“I’m curious—what does the Light think of homosexuality?” Jesse flicked Rosa a look as he asked the question, and Rosa put down her sandwich and tightened her lips. Wynter knew from Stacey’s occasional comments that her church taught there was something wrong with being gay. She wondered if Rosa’s church taught the same thing. From the glint in Jesse’s eye, he knew he was needling Rosa.
“I don’t think the Light cares about that,” Wynter said, “as long as you use your time in the physical world to nourish your soul so it can move to a higher level of existence.”
“So it’s not a sin?”
“There’s no sin in the Light.”
“There has to be an equivalent concept.”
“You’re not supposed to blame or judge other people, because it makes them feel bad about themselves, which could harm their spiritual journey toward God.” Wynter fiddled with her sandwich, tearing off the crusts and rearranging them on her plate. She was talking too much, but she felt she was ultimately defending Ethan against what she assumed was Rosa’s judgment. “If Ethan was in the Light, and if he thought being gay was wrong for him, there are mantras he could say and visualizations he could do to get onto a better path.”
Jesse laughed. “I guess that’s marginally better than being told by a higher power he’s not allowed to be who he is.”
“Stacey says it’s unnatural to be gay, and a sin to act on it,” Wynter said. “She says everyone has a cross to bear.”
“That’s bullsh… bullcrap. Can’t believe I helped that girl with her math. Which church do you go to, Rosa?”
Rosa said, “I belong to the Presbyterian church about five miles away.”
“What do they think about homosexuality?”
“My church welcomes everyone.”
“Good to hear! So many sequels and spin-offs these days—hard to keep track of God’s thoughts on the matter.”
“Let’s not talk religion at the table,” Rosa said. “Jesse, this is not the first time you’ve been deliberately provocative. It serves no purpose and makes Wynter uncomfortable.”
“What are you talking about? Wynter’s never uncomfortable around me.”
“I think we can agree her views on many subjects are not well formed. It would be best not to be dogmatic, don’t you think? So she can form her own opinions over time?”
Wynter watched Jesse’s anger brewing. Her palms went clammy as she silently begged him not to—
“Don’t tell her how she feels and whether her views are worthwhile.”
—not to do that.
“I hate how you treat her. And don’t tell me how to treat her. It’s my job to defend her, isn’t it?”
“There’s a difference between that, an admirable notion, and being a bad influence.”
“I’m teaching her three years of math in six months!”
“We’re grateful for your help.” Rosa was lumping them together as we. “I’m referring to certain other behaviors. I have no authority over you, Jesse. I can’t demand you change your behavior—I must simply put up with it. Until I decide not to.”
A moan caught in Wynter’s throat. Consequences…
“What does that mean?” Jesse said. “She went to bed two hours late on a weekend—so what?”
“You’ve encouraged her to disobey my reasonable rules. You took her to an R-rated movie after I explicitly said it wasn’t appropriate. Yes, I know about that. A friend of mine saw you exit the theater. And you showed her that website, which was very confusing for her.”
“I wasn’t confused,” Wynter stammered.
“You’ve been openly defiant and inappropriate in my home, which isn’t modelling good behavior.”
“Wow, I see you’re keeping a list and sending spies,” Jesse said.
“I’ve spoken to Wynter’s caseworker about it. We’ll to need to see some changes.”
Jesse opened his mouth to retort, and stopped. He sat back and Wynter held her breath, terrified of the implication in Rosa’s words. Jesse’s hands gripped the edge of the table and she felt his rage, and his struggle to contain it.
“Okay. You’re right, Rosa. Sometimes I don’t behave myself like I should. I’m sorry about last night and about the movie. I’ll do better.”
Wynter couldn’t believe her ears. He was saying what Rosa needed to hear, but she hated it. It didn’t sound like Jesse. He wouldn’t meet her eyes.
Rosa was triumphant. “Thank you, Jesse. I accept your apology. Now, about yesterday evening…”
Wynter’s stomach plummeted all over again. Of course Rosa would get around to it eventually, but she hadn’t expected Jesse to be on the back foot before it even started.
“Tina and I agree there must be consequences,” Rosa continued. “This isn’t only about disobeying the lights out rule. You locked yourself in the room for hours and refused to cooperate even after I asked Caleb to intervene. This is completely unacceptable. I don’t wish to disrupt your relationship with your sister, but in the future you may only visit my home with Caleb. At least until you’ve learned to regulate yourself.”
Wynter gasped. “Caleb’s going away for two months! Jesse can’t visit me for two months?”
Jesse’s brow was drawn low as he sucked his lower lip all the way in, biting down so hard that Wynter winced. She waited for him to produce a perfectly logical rebuttal.
Instead, he gave a tight nod. “Sure. Okay.”
Wynter had had enough. Shuttling back her chair, she left the room. She stared unseeing at her books until Jesse came in. He rubbed her shoulder for a few seconds as he sat down, a wordless attempt to reassure her.
“Can we fill in more of your timeline?” She forced out the words through painfully tight vocal cords. “It puts everything else in context.”
“Or we could do that math,” Jesse said.
“I really think it’ll help you.”
She sighed. “Okay.”
They worked for a few more hours. He was so angry—she felt it as she sat beside him, felt the pressure building until he was short with her or cussed at a mistake she made, and each time it happened he gave her an apologetic look or squeezed her hand. And then it would happen again. It was like watching Caleb with Tina—they became someone else around those women because they couldn’t be themselves.
When it was time for him to go, she went out to the car with him.
“Sorry I screwed things up,” he said.
“I’m not sorry about any of it.” She was, though. She was sorry about his capitulation.
“I had to give in to her. She was this close to banning me altogether. We have no legal visitation rights—do you understand that? And they can stop you coming to Seattle, any time they feel like it.”
“Then why don’t you get visitation rights?”
“There’s no such thing for siblings. We’re completely at their mercy.”
“That’s not right.”
“It’s only for a few months, Wyn. I know that seems like an eternity, but everything will work out.”
“Caleb never fails, right?”