Out of Tune (Wynter Wild #2)

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Priorities

Caleb put Bea out of his head. He knew that was wrong, because he loved her, but he could only prioritize one girl at a time. His Friday evening and Saturday were Wynter’s, and Bea could have his Sunday and Monday. Despite the negative impact his deployment would have on the two important women in his life, he was looking forward to it, as he always did.

Friday morning, and the pancakes were turning out great. Wynter and Jesse sat at the breakfast bar accepting each one as it came off the griddle, and he ate every third one standing over the stove.

“I have two secrets I need to tell you,” Wynter told Caleb, squeezing fresh lemon onto her plate in anticipation of the next pancake, after resisting Jesse’s efforts to try them with peanut butter. “I think you might be mad about both of them, or not at all mad about either. I have no idea.”

Caleb looked to Jesse for a clue, but his younger brother shrugged. Caleb flipped the pancakes and put on what he hoped was a stern-yet-approachable face. “Okay, go ahead.”

“When Indio came to Rosa’s last weekend, he sort of kidnapped me from my sleepover the night before and we went to see a band in Pasco. On his bike. And Rosa hasn’t found out yet.”

“Did he have a spare helmet?”

“Of course.”

“Was it a good band?” Jesse asked.

“No, terrible. It was a fantastic evening, though. He didn’t tell you about it?”

“No.” Jesse looked peeved about that. “So, I guess he’s keeping secrets, too.”

“I’ll deal with him later,” Caleb said. Dealing with Indio had a low chance of success, of course, and Caleb couldn’t entirely quell a wicked sense of satisfaction that his reckless brother had given Wynter a little adventure behind Rosa’s back.

“Please don’t,” Wynter said. “He rescued me. The sleepover was awful. You’d have done the same.”

“No, I don’t think I would’ve. What happens when Rosa finds out? You have a lot to lose, hun. She could stop him visiting if she knows you went out on the bike with him.”

“She loves Indio. I mean, literally—she’s in love with him.”

Jesse said, “You gotta admit, dude, that’s an unexpected turn of events.”

Caleb gave Jesse a warning look. “Let’s move on. What’s the other secret?”

“I have a tattoo.”

“Whoa, Indio got you a tattoo?” Jesse cried.

“No! I got it about a year ago.”

“Oh, okay.” Jesse slapped his forehead. “Cancel the plans for fratricide, Caleb.”

Caleb forked out the next batch of pancakes. “This was an amateur job in Arizona?”

“Yes.”

“We need to get you blood tests.”

“Why?”

“Because I can’t imagine it was done in sanitary conditions.”

“He put the needle in a flame. Anyway, I had a million blood tests when you took me to the doctor that first time. And then a million vaccinations.”

“I don’t think they did Hep C. I’ll take you to the clinic tomorrow.”

“Who’s he?” Jesse said.

“Do you want to see the tattoo?” Wynter said, and Caleb understood that no-questions-asked was the price they’d pay to see it. She took off her bracelet and showed them. “Indio designed a cogwheel logo for the Clockwork Toys and I freaked out a bit cuz it looked like this. His is more artistic—it uses the golden ratio.” She glanced at Caleb. “Are you angry?”

“I’m… something, but not angry.” He was concerned, first and foremost. Homemade tattoos weren’t safe, and then there was the question of who did it and why.

“I saw something like this on your t-shirt,” she said, “the day Tina came to take me away. I thought it meant I belonged with you.”

He felt a wistful smile form on his face. “I wish you’d told me at the time.”

“Wouldn’t have made a difference.”

“No, it wouldn’t.” He reached across the counter to close his hand over hers. “But I wish you’d told me.”

“Just a coincidence,” Jesse said. Way to ruin the moment, kid.

“That reminds me,” Wynter said, turning to Jesse, “Indio told me to ask you about fractals.”

“Fractals are the coolest thing! Art and math in one hit. I’ll move it up on the curriculum.”


Once Caleb got to work, his day began to slide downhill.

After lunch he called Bea to make new arrangements. Then he texted Joy to reiterate he’d like to see her before he left. He still held out hope.

To his surprise, she called him a couple of hours later.

“I’m free after all,” she said, “on Sunday afternoon. Can you pick me up from Magnolia?”

“I’ll be gone by then. I have to catch a plane to Florida at three, Sunday afternoon. Two days earlier than expected.”

“Perhaps I could get a friend to drop me off anyway, so I can see Wynter for an hour or two.”

“She won’t be there, either. She’s taking the Saturday morning bus to Richland.” He hadn’t told Wynter yet that she had to leave a day early. “But you should come Sunday anyway. Jesse will be there. Or he could drive over and visit with you.”

“Oh…” Joy didn’t sound remotely enthusiastic about that. “No, that’s okay. Jesse and me… Well, he’s a little confronting. So set in his ways for such a young person. I’d feel better if you were there. Let’s arrange something for when you get back.”

“That’s not until June. Joy, please, regardless of your involvement with the Light, we want you to be part of the family. You could take the bus to see Wynter in Richland. I’ll pay for it. It would mean so much to her.”

“I’ll think about it. I’m very busy, and things will only get busier through the summer. I have so much work to do.”

Caleb hung up feeling helpless all over again. The Light’s teachings had failed to stick with Wynter, beyond a few superstitions that Jesse was trying to address. Joy and their mother Miriam, on the other hand… There was something different about them, some void inside that the Light filled. Once captured, they found it impossible to prioritize anything else. Yesterday, a letter he’d sent Miriam weeks ago at the retreat in Thailand—the only address he had for her—had come back, unopened, with “return to sender” scrawled across the envelope in her handwriting. Her own children were so low on her list of priorities she hadn’t even cared what was inside that envelope.

Ultimately, it was for the best. When he’d sent it, asking for paperwork to get Wynter’s birth certificate and for information about her father, he’d held some vague hope of reconnecting with her. But it was better she not get involved. It would complicate the custody proceedings. And in the end, she’d provided the necessary paperwork to Joy. It didn’t matter.

It did matter, though. It mattered that she had no interest in opening his letter to see what he wrote. To see the photos of her three adult sons he’d slipped in at the last minute.


As expected, Wynter was devastated about going home a day early.

“Why can’t Jesse look after me?”

“Dude, it’s just one night,” Jesse put in.

“He’s almost nineteen.”

“Not good enough for Tina, unfortunately,” Caleb said. “Listen, we’ll go out this evening like we planned and make it special.”

“We have a million plans for this weekend!” Wynter retorted.

“I thought you didn’t want a planned weekend?”

“I don’t mean Jesse’s schedules.” She threw Jesse an apologetic look. “We’re making pizza tomorrow from scratch for our movie marathon. I wanted to watch you teach at the dojo. When are we gonna jam? And what about the clinic? You made an appointment.”

“I’ll ask Rosa to take you to the doctor.”

“I don’t want her to know about the tattoo. It’s private.”

“Hun, we need to work with what we’ve got. I’ll take you to the bus station tomorrow morning. I’ve already changed your ticket and told Rosa. Jesse, you’ll teach my class.”

Jesse had his hand pushed into his hair, locked into a fist, his own distress visibly rising to match Wynter’s. He’d given Caleb a detailed description of his visit to Richland, preempting an equally detailed secondhand report from Tina who talked a lot about loss of trust and lack of maturity. Jesse had been horrified to hear himself described in those terms.

“Okay,” Jesse said, more to himself. “Okay, we won’t go out at all. We’ll stay home together and watch those movies and make the pizzas tonight.”

“The pizzas take four hours!” Wynter cried.

Caleb glared at Jesse. “Four hours?”

“Most of that’s waiting for the dough to rise.” Jesse took Wynter’s arm and yanked her toward the front door. “Come on, Wyn. We’ll go to the grocery store and rewrite our cooking schedule. It’s a simple time management problem. It’s gonna work out perfectly. We’ll eat at 10PM.” He threw Caleb a hard look. “Okay with you, bro? I know you like dinner on the table at 6:30 sharp but we need to work with what we’ve got.”

Caleb felt for Wynter, but he was entirely unsympathetic to Jesse who should’ve learned by now to accept the unpredictable life of a military family. He went into the garage to discuss his frustrations with the punching bag.


Caleb distracted himself from his rumbling stomach with a stiff whiskey from the drinks cabinet in the dining room. Wynter and Jesse were at the table, heads bent over an old book that Caleb recognized from his childhood, a heavily illustrated kids’ science encyclopedia.

“Dough’s rising. Pizza in one hundred twelve minutes,” Jesse informed him, without looking up. “We’ve timed it to go into the oven as the final credits for the first movie start rolling. And that movie will commence in four minutes.”

“What are you studying there?”

“I hadn’t planned to study anything because we were going out. But, turns out today is the anniversary of the launch of Salyut 1, the first space station.”

Caleb hovered over them. “I remember that book. Must be completely outdated now.”

“Indio used to read me bedtime stories from this book.”

“The crew lived on the space station for three weeks,” Wynter said, “and they were all killed on the journey home. What was the point of that?”

“They gave their lives in the name of science,” Jesse said.

“Would you do that?”

Jesse hesitated a moment before answering, “Not while I’m still in my teens, no.”

“Caleb risked his life on the water all the time in his teens.”

“Caleb’s indestructible. Right, bro?”

Caleb downed the whiskey without responding. He hadn’t given his family the details of where he was headed out of Florida. No point worrying them unnecessarily—the risk was low but it was always there.

Jesse closed the book. “Okay, time to cue up our first movie. We’re starting in the ’fifties with Forbidden Planet. Wyn, it’s about humans on another planet but was released years before we walked on the moon, even before the first man went into space. After that, pizza and Them!, which is about giant ants. If you’re still awake, The Incredible Shrinking Man, where a tiny guy fights off a tarantula with a dressmaker’s pin.”

Caleb said, “How about you let Wynter choose one of the movies?”

“I don’t know any movies,” she said. “I don’t care what we watch, as long as it’s not about high school kids fighting with their parents and gossiping and tongue-kissing.”

In the end, the movies were good choices—plenty of unintentional laughs, which they all needed, and a running commentary from Jesse on the social significance of the screenplays. The pizza was good, too, and Jesse was already planning an elaborate Thanksgiving meal using his scheduling technique.

They went to bed late. Some time later, Caleb heard Wynter’s footsteps and then running water in the bathroom that lasted longer than it should. He got up. The bathroom door was ajar and she was wiping her face and neck with a wet cloth.

“Nightmare?” he asked from the doorway.

She nodded, glancing at him in the mirror. “I’m okay now.” She didn’t look okay. She looked pale and miserable. She turned off the faucet and stared at her reflection. “I know I have to be patient, and that isn’t even the hard part. The hard part is that I hardly felt hope before. I didn’t know what it was, or maybe I forgot what it was. And now I’m full of hope and it’s the scariest thing, hoping for something you have no control over. Like this weekend—I thought we had longer but I have to catch a bus in four hours. I know it’s a trivial thing, but when the trivial things don’t work out I get scared about hoping for the big things.”

“You mean the custody hearing?”

She nodded.

Caleb was no stranger to hope or to disappointment. But hope itself had never been something he feared. “I think it will work out,” he said. “I hope it will. But if it doesn’t, we’ll address that challenge. We’ll find a different way forward.”

“I woke up thinking of the incredible shrinking man, at the end where he melts away and becomes nothing. At the ashram, I felt like that. Only, I wasn’t shrinking—everyone could still see me, scream at me, hit me. But I felt like I wasn’t there. I didn’t matter. I didn’t exist.”

“It will never be that way again.”

“I know. I believe you. It’ll work out.”

She gave him a quick hug, went into her room across the hall, and shut the door. Caleb turned to see Jesse in the shadows, listening, his eyes too dark and hard in a face so young.

Jesse said, quietly, “I want to kill everyone who hurt her.”


Caleb sat up in bed flicking through the book that had been as much a part of his childhood as his brothers’. While Indio dreamed of the stars and Jesse became fascinated by the physics of it all, Caleb had been intrigued by the spacecraft—how they were built, how they worked, why they sometimes failed. Of the three of them, only Jesse had retained a genuine interest in the subject, but looking at the familiar pictures brought on a wave of bittersweet nostalgia. That shared childhood, and its impact on their lives, could never be erased. He was certain even Joy must still feel the effects of it.

Wynter had missed out entirely. He’d seen enough to recognize she’d never been allowed to be a child, had never played, never developed normal friendships with other kids. And now it was too late. In a few months she would start high school—this world wasn’t going to allow her to be a child, either.

She wasn’t legally under his care yet, but his duty toward her was absolute. Somehow he must make it up to her. He had little control over the custody petition. He could control the next twenty-four hours and fulfill one hope of Wynter’s, however trivial.

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