Out of Tune (Wynter Wild #2)

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Let It Go

“I changed your ticket back.”

Caleb placed a newly printed ticket in front of Wynter as she dried breakfast dishes at the kitchen sink.

Jesse stopped chewing his cereal. “Seriously?” he spluttered. “She can stay another day?”

Wynter picked up the ticket. “But why? What are we gonna tell Rosa? Will you stay, too?”

“No, hun, I have to spend the time with Bea. You stay here with Jesse and do those things you planned to do. I’ll tell Rosa… I guess I’ll tell her I had another change of plans. We can keep the specifics to ourselves.”

Jesse had never seen Wynter look happier as she hugged Caleb.

“You.” Caleb jabbed a finger at Jesse. “You need to get her to the bus station tomorrow at 8:45.”

“Dude, I’ll set the alarm clocks. All the alarm clocks.”

“You don’t have an alarm clock,” Wynter said.

“I’ll set my phone and you’ll set yours.”

Caleb grabbed two granola bars from the pantry. “Okay, I’m all packed and I’m going straight to the base from Renton tomorrow.” He leaned over the counter to shake Jesse’s hand. “See you June seventh. Take good care of her today, set those alarms for Sunday, and don’t call me dude.”

“Wait, June seventh?” Wynter said. “That’s the day I graduate. Will you be home in time for my graduation ceremony?”

“I fly back from the east coast in the morning, so I’ll drive to Richland as soon as I land.”

Wynter gave him another hug, and he gave Jesse a meaningful look over the top of her head—a don’t you dare fail me look—and he was gone.

“Why did he do this?” Wynter pressed the ticket to her heart.

“Told you, you’re turning him into a sweetheart.”

“I didn’t do anything!”

Jesse shrugged. “Hey, I have some stuff to print off for you, too.” He stood and beckoned for her to follow.

“I’m in the middle of something.” She waved the dish towel with a little frown that made him think she was testing his authority somehow. Already. Thirty seconds after Caleb walked out the door and put him in charge.

“We don’t dry dishes in this house,” he said, “even when the dishwasher’s broken. You’re just smearing germs from the towel all over them.”

“This is a clean towel from the laundry.”

“Well, I’m talking about the principle of the thing. Just leave them draining.”

“Why didn’t you stop me five minutes ago?”

“I thought you needed to keep busy this morning. Before the unexpected good news walked in.”

“You risked your health for that?”

“Thought you said it’s a clean towel?”

“You’re talking in circles.”

“Come on.” This time she followed, and stood over his shoulder at his computer. “So, I was gonna give you a stack of stuff to read on the bus today—this day in history—but now I’ll have to redo it for tomorrow.”

“I don’t mind reading it a day late.”

“No, that violates house rules.”

“Which one?”

“Number… uh… sixty-four. We’ll study today’s stuff now, and I’ll find new info for tomorrow.”

“What if I don’t want—”

“This is how it’s gonna be, Wyn.” He swiveled his chair to present his most severe look, which probably looked quite pathetic compared to Caleb’s.

“Are you being like this to test how far I’ll let you boss me around?”

“Maybe. Okay, today is Chinese Language Day. We’ll teach ourselves to write some Chinese characters, starting with our own names.” He hit Print on his computer.

“I could text Arthur for help. He’s learning to read Chinese.”

“We don’t need Arthur.”

“We probably need someone who’s Chinese. You don’t know everything, Jesse.”

“You’re joking, right?” He showed her the printout. “This is winter written as Cangjie, and this is gift, which is the meaning of Jesse.”

“Now you’re joking. Your name means gift?”

“Am I not a gift to mankind?”

“You’re a gift to me, for sure.”

“I’m not liking your tone.”

She smirked, holding back giggles.

Jesse said, “I was also gonna send you home with the three movies that dominated my childhood thanks to Indio watching them a million times—The Lord of the Rings trilogy. We’ll watch them here instead. Reason being, there’s a cool CGI character called Gollum, and it’s the birthday of the actor who plays him. You like CGI, right?”

“I guess.”

“Your enthusiasm’s killing me.”

“Anything else?” she sighed.

Today was also the anniversary of Columbine, which was all over the news when Jesse was four years old. Wynter didn’t need to know about that yet. Also Hitler’s birthday, another one to strike off the list. Maybe next year, if she was still allowing him to guide her education by then.

“I’ll find something relevant for you to read on the bus ride tomorrow,” he said. “These movies will take eleven hours and we’ve got your clinic appointment and karate this afternoon. We should get started.”

Wynter pressed the Chinese printout against his chest, forcing him to take it.

“I’d like that drum lesson now.”

* * *

“How old are you, dearie?”

The fifty-something woman had emerged from her appointment and made a beeline for Wynter to address her. Fifteen minutes earlier, before she went in, she’d been eyeing Jesse and Wynter in the waiting room over the edge of her magazine. Jesse knew exactly what the woman had been thinking, and her question confirmed it.

“Fifteen.” Wynter tilted in her seat to lean against Jesse because the woman was invading her personal space. Wynter’s personal space extended further than the average person’s, but still, the woman was too close. And Wynter had been nervous since lunchtime because of the appointment.

“You poor thing. You have choices, you know. Jesus doesn’t want you to shed innocent blood.” The woman dropped a bright red pamphlet in Wynter’s lap, glared at Jesse, and hurried out of the building before Jesse had time to come up with a rebuttal.

Jesse jumped up, shaking with anger, and strode to the door which was still swinging on its hinges.

“Hey, let it go, son.”

A man sitting near the door had his arm extended, as if to catch Jesse on his way out, though he was too far away to reach. He wore a plaid shirt and had a neatly trimmed red beard with flecks of gray. He looked like a dad and he’d spoken softly, firmly, kind of like Caleb might to a total stranger who was about to do something stupid. The guy gave Jesse a sympathetic look and a tiny shake of his head, and Jesse breathed deep. What was he planning to do, anyway? March out there and yell… something… What, exactly? A hundred pithy retorts and persuasive arguments were already forming in his head, but he’d probably have settled for, “Coward!” because the woman had scurried off so fast.

Half the people in the room were looking at him—he saw sympathy, bemusement, embarrassment, condemnation on their faces. The other half were buried in their phones and magazines. The receptionist looked startled and relieved at the same time.

Wynter was turning the pamphlet over to read it.

Jesse snatched it and dropped it in the trash. He slumped in the seat beside her, glaring at anyone who was still looking his way. An elderly man across the room and a young woman dressed casually like a college student, right opposite Jesse, would not look away. The man was probably too deaf to know what was going on. The woman clearly knew. She was probably a younger version of the pamphlet-dropping lady.

“You should be happy I’m here to support her,” he called to the woman, not caring if he was making a scene. The woman buried her nose in a paperback.

“What’s going on?” Wynter whispered. He realized she was stiff and scared beside him. “I thought it was just a blood test?”

Jesse held her hand and sulked in silence until they were called into the surgery.

“They can remove tatts with lasers,” the technician said cheerfully as she drew a vial of blood. “I’ve seen some great results.”

“I don’t want to do that,” Wynter said, glancing at Jesse in the corner with a look of panic, worried someone might force her. “Is that what Caleb wants me to do?”

“No,” Jesse said bluntly, flicking the curled edge of a poster on the wall. His blood was still running hot from the earlier encounter. “The house rule about tattoos was grandfathered.” She didn’t understand. “It means existing tattoos are exempt.”

“Let’s hope this one hasn’t caused any problems,” the technician said, sliding Jesse a look as if it was his fault.

“I didn’t fucking do anything to her!” Jesse yelled.

A nurse rushed in from an adjoining room and showed Jesse out.

While he waited in the car, he thought about Indio and what it had taken to push him over the edge that late-spring afternoon when word got around the school that Lewis Shanck wanted to fight after the bell. There had been no one to tell Indio, Let it go, son. Least of all his own father.

That fight was nothing to do with Lewis Shanck, not really. Indio had gone to school that morning primed to fight. Already shaking with rage at another injustice, like Jesse was right now. In this case, it was because there was never going to be enough time to teach Wynter everything she needed to know. How did he explain that woman’s judgment—both on her and on the entire concept of women’s rights—to someone who’d grown up unaware she had any rights at all, fearing she was going to vanish? How could he make up for all those years she’d lost? No matter how hard he tried to think positively, he couldn’t quell the rage at the people who’d done that to her. Made her feel like nothing. Hurt her. Not bothered to teach her anything beyond basic arithmetic and hospital corners and how to shoplift.

He did want to kill everyone who’d hurt her, and that was the scariest thought he’d ever had because it all started with their mother. Their mother, who all four of his siblings remembered, was nothing to him but a name and a few photographs. One didn’t kill one’s own mother.

The car door opened, breaking into his thoughts.

“Why don’t I understand what’s going on?” Wynter said, settling into the seat.

“I’ll explain everything later, at home.”

“But why don’t I understand? Is everything always gonna be this hard?”

Jesse pulled onto the street and headed for the dojo. “Knowledge is interconnected. I’m starting to see how intricate it is. I thought we could start at the beginning but then it’ll be years before you get to anything truly relevant. I thought we could start with human thought but to make sense of that you need all this context you don’t have. So now we’re jumping all over the place with random bits across every subject, but that means there’s only a tiny chance any of it will be useful in day-to-day life. I don’t know how to do it.”

“Please don’t give up.”

“God, I’m not giving up. That woman made all kinds of assumptions about you, about me, and I wasn’t mad about her assumptions. I was mad because she thought throwing a flyer of dead fetuses in your face was gonna help you when all it did was help her. Made her feel like she was doing something important with her time on this earth. Then she ran off without facing the consequences. I don’t even care what she believes is right or wrong, I care that she thinks she’s a useful human being when she’s actually a coward hiding behind Jesus’s skirts. And if you had been there for the reason she thinks, why was she shaming you on what might’ve been the worst day of your life? That’s bullying, pure and simple.” He was working himself up again. Wynter stared wide-eyed at him, still not understanding. “I should’ve asked Joy to take you to the clinic.”

“Did that nurse think you gave me the tattoo?”

“Either that, or she thinks it was my fault for not preventing you getting it.”

“You’d never even met me when I got it.”

“The point is, her job was to draw blood. That’s it, and she should’ve stuck to it. The woman in the waiting room—she decided her job was to prevent what she’d call a murder but nothing she did helped. She’d be throwing condoms, not pamphlets, if she cared.”

“You’re making even less sense now.” Wynter was becoming annoyed with him.

“Who gave you that tattoo?” His tone was still sharp with frustration. He knew the question would annoy her further, but he was desperate to know the story behind it.

“I’m not ready to tell you.”

“Did you tell Indio?”

“No.”

“Why won’t you tell us?”

“I broke a law, so I don’t want to talk about it.”

“At the ashram?”

“Yes.”

“You mean a Light rule?”

“No, an actual real law. I didn’t know it was wrong.”

“Are you talking about the tattoo itself? I think you have to be eighteen to get one, but no one’s going to jail over it.”

“Something else.”

“Kids aren’t responsible when they break laws, especially if they didn’t know it was wrong.”

“Indio was only seventeen. He went to jail.”

“He knew what he did was wrong.” Jesse cranked on the parking brake outside the dojo and turned to Wynter. “I don’t hold you responsible for anything you did at the ashram. Not one single thing. Okay? I never will. Even if you knew it was wrong, you get a free pass. No one else on the planet gets a free pass from me, by the way, but you do.”

She smiled shakily, and the tension drained from his body.

“Will you write it up for me, like a hall pass?” she asked.

“If you want. And any time you’re not sure what’s right or wrong, you can ask me and we’ll work out the ethics of the situation from first principles.”

“You can do that?”

“Of course. Ethical choices are all math problems, in the end.”

She looked dubious.

“Wyn, I’m gonna spend the rest of my life proving to you that’s true. I’m real sorry I got mad at the clinic. I’m supposed to be taking care of you today, which is a huge responsibility, and I hate that anyone was mean to you right under my nose. Today was supposed to be amazing.”

“The rest of today will be.”

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