At the knock on his door, Jesse turned down the volume and rolled off his bed. Wynter stood there with her arms wrapped around herself, no doubt uncertain of his mood.
“What does stroppy mean?”
Not the question he’d been expecting. “Is that what you are? Stroppy?”
“Apparently. I wanted to make the most of my visit, but everyone’s doing their own thing. I keep forgetting…”
She wavered on her feet and clutched at the door frame, pressing her other fist to her sternum, struggling for air. Jesse grabbed her arm, thinking she was going to fall. What the hell…?
“I keep forgetting you’ve got your own lives,” she gasped. “I didn’t mean for you to break up with Natalie. I said the wrong thing. I think Bea doesn’t like me anymore because Caleb said we could jam tonight after all.” Wynter gulped for air. “She’s gonna break up with Caleb because of me.”
Jesse didn’t know what to do. Was she having a panic attack? What did a panic attack look like?
“They’re not breaking up,” he said, dealing with the last part first.
“What if I can never live here? What if Tina won’t let me? Do I only get to see you a few days a month for years and years? That’s not enough. It’s not enough.”
Caleb was coming down the hallway. Jesse willed him to cover the eight-yard stretch faster. Caleb touched Wynter’s shoulder and it was like an off switch. She turned and stumbled into his arms, all the strength leached from her body. Caleb picked her up like she was three years old and carried her to bed. Jesse followed, lingering in the doorway.
“You said we could play,” she murmured as Caleb sat on the edge of the bed and took off her boots.
“We will. You’re exhausted. You rest, okay?” He stroked her arm as her eyelids drooped. Jesse had never seen Caleb being… tender. With anyone. “If you wake up, you come get me and we’ll play for a while.”
She was already asleep. Caleb came out and closed the door.
“Did Bea leave?”
“Yeah.” Caleb rubbed the back of his neck. “That’s okay. I’ll see her on Sunday after Wynter leaves. I’m spending a couple nights at her place before I head off on Tuesday.”
“I don’t understand what just happened with Wynter.”
“She’s stressed, and very tired. This is where she needs to be, where she feels safe, but it’s also a ticking time bomb. Every minute she’s here is a minute closer to leaving, so every minute becomes that much more important in her mind. Especially this time, because she won’t be back for a while.”
“I wanted to make every minute count. I made a schedule. I have a million things to show her.”
“That’s too much, Jess. You have forever to show her everything. We have to wait it out, and by the end of the summer she’ll be ours and that stress will be gone. Until then, sometimes it’s gonna blow up in our faces.”
Jesse had to ask the question—couldn’t help himself: “What if you don’t get custody?”
In the middle of the night, Jesse woke to the sound of an acoustic guitar. His room was directly over the basement and the music came up through the floorboards, a cascade of arpeggios played with a light touch. He was tempted to lie there and listen but the need to check up on her urged him out of bed.
He pulled on a hoodie and went down to join Wynter. She sat on the floor, cross-legged, plucking at the guitar. Jesse sat with her, close enough that their knees bumped, which made the corner of her mouth tug upward as she glanced at him.
“Caleb said you could wake him.” It was three in the morning, but he was pretty sure Caleb would oblige.
She must not have remembered, because she said, “Did he say that? I can’t do that.”
“I’m sorry I made fun of your drumming.” He kept his voice soft. “I bet I could teach you the basics before you leave on Sunday.”
“Can we start now?”
“No, we’ll wake the neighbors. Guitars are okay, but drums carry. Which is why they’re awesome.”
“Did Natalie dump you?”
“Yeah.” He picked at a cable taped to the floor. “We were already in trouble—obviously, because I dumped her three weeks ago.”
“Are you upset about it?”
“Not really. We were only back together five days.” He didn’t add that it was something of a relief to end it for good. In three years he’d never gone without sex for four months before. Wasn’t natural. Wasn’t healthy.
“You can reel in that Australian sun goddess,” Wynter suggested.
“Yeah. I’ll ask her to teach me some Aussie slang. I’ll tell her I’m thinking of doing my sophomore year in Queensland.”
“Well, no, that’s never gonna happen. But if I’m dreaming about it, that’s the same as thinking about it, so it’s not a lie.”
“What if she’s already seeing someone?”
“Hmm. There’s Evita, this petite Bolivian girl with a mohawk who keeps trying to partner with me for chem prac. I’m curious about her.” He recalled Evita’s rumored expertise in judo and her severe resting expression. “I’m also slightly afraid of her, so that’s a new challenge for me.”
“I’ll do better next time. Whoever she turns out to be, I won’t mention sex.”
“It was nothing you did, Wyn. Natalie got mad because I told you too much. Private stuff. Maybe I tell you too much about everything. Rosa thinks so.”
“Who cares what Rosa thinks?”
“We have to care for a bit longer. Listen, we have two whole days. We’ll do whatever you want.”
Wynter set down the guitar, reached for his hand, and hunched over. “Jesse, I know Caleb always gets what he wants, but if he doesn’t, if something goes wrong, how will we fix it?”
“You don’t need to worry ab—”
“We need a plan.”
“There’s no way he’ll fail.” Jesse was uncomfortable saying that, when only hours ago he’d expressed the same fear to Caleb. “I’ve read every single relevant document about Washington custody hearings and guardianship. Everything’s in our favor.”
“Documents aren’t everything, are they?”
“In this case, they are. It’s like a mathematical equation—Caleb on the left, with a house and a job and a relationship by blood. Foster care on the right, which isn’t in your best interest and costs the state money. And a big fat greater than sign in the middle.”
She pressed their linked hands to her cheek, her head turned toward him as she searched his face for signs that he believed what he was saying. He did believe it. It was all there in the statutes…
He leaned over and hugged her. “You’re coming home soon, Wyn, I promise.”
She nodded her head against the crook of his neck. “That equation you described is actually called an inequation.” Her voice was muffled by his clothes. “You taught me that after I failed my first math test.”
“Correct terminology is my obsession. I apologize for my error.” They pulled apart and he smoothed down her hair. “Go to bed. We have two whole days. We’ll do whatever you want.”
As she put away the guitar, he let that awful thought enter his head, the future where Caleb lost. It was unimaginable and so he found it hard to predict his own reaction, let alone hers.
“Listen,” he said, as conversationally as possible, so as not to scare her, “if something does go wrong… please talk to me before doing something drastic, okay?”