Acts of Love
Caleb pulled Wynter up by the hand, picked up her backpack, and opened the truck door for her.
“One hundred miles to Ellensburg, which is halfway,” he said as he turned the truck around in a strip mall parking lot. “Let’s see if we can beat that bus, and you can get back on it. Rosa will never know.”
“Isn’t that a lie?”
“We’re fixing a mistake.”
She could hardly believe it, but he wasn’t angry. She couldn’t figure out what he was feeling. Did he even know what he felt? She’d turned his life upside-down in a way he couldn’t possibly have expected. Maybe he was as confused about the world—this new world with her in it—as she was.
She said, “I thought I was supposed to go. I found a quarter to make up the fare. I should’ve put it in a charity box, like Jesse told me once.”
“Jesse said you wanted to talk to Joy?”
Wynter remembered the photo and took it out of her bag. “I need to return this. I only borrowed it.”
He glanced at it. “You can keep that, if you want to.”
“Take it back, otherwise you’ll have a blank space in your album. I wanted to remind Joy she used to be happy being part of the family.”
“She was happy. She was quiet—maybe overshadowed by the three of us. But I remember her being happy.”
“The happier the Light makes her, the less she’ll want us in her life.”
“I know you’re worried about that.” He looked at her again, and then to the road ahead. “Hun, I understand you wanted to see her, but next time, to avoid these complications, you could mail her the picture.”
She gave a quick nod, then pressed her lips together, gathering courage to ask the next question. “Did you have a fight with Bea for leaving early?”
The flat way he said it made her think they probably had fought. Well, he didn’t want to discuss it neither did she.
“If you marry Bea,” she said, “will you be Jilly’s dad?”
“I’m not getting married any time soon, hun.”
“But if you did?”
“She’d be my stepdaughter. Then, if I adopted her, she’d be my daughter.”
“Would you love her like a dad is supposed to?”
“Bea and Jilly are a package deal. I wouldn’t marry Bea if I wasn’t fine with that. I would decide to love Jilly like my daughter.”
“How can you decide to love? I thought love just… happened. Like in the songs and the stories.”
Caleb thought about her question for a moment. “Look at it this way: we both know you can decide to stop loving. You can decide to abandon someone, even your own child. To break off contact, to stop caring if they’re okay.” There was a hint of bitterness in his tone, She’d never heard it before. “Deciding to love is the opposite of that. You take care of someone, give them attention, do what’s best for them. You decide to take on that duty. And that duty, the act itself, that’s love.”
“When did you decide to love Bea?”
“I think, with romantic love, it’s a gradual thing. You get to know someone, you want to be with them for whatever reason. You want to be part of each other’s world, to support each other and lift each other up. At some point you decide to put in the effort to maintain the relationship. That’s a daily decision but it should be an easy one. In a family… well, it’s different. The duty is there from the start. The decision is whether to accept that duty.”
“Every love song I ever heard talks about feelings. You didn’t once mention feelings.”
“Feelings are all mixed up with that. But feelings alone can seem like love and they can fool you. What you decide to do tells you if it’s love. Jesse tutoring you for school and sharing old movies he’s seen ten times already, instead of partying with his friends on a Saturday night—those are acts of love.”
“Where did you learn all this stuff about love?”
“From my parents, same as most people. But in my case, from seeing what they did wrong. Seeing them make the wrong decisions about love.”
“Do you love me?”
“Yes.” His expression was open and honest, because he expected her to believe him. Caleb didn’t lie. Everyone believed Caleb. But he must’ve seen doubt in her eyes because he added, “You know that, right?”
“You’ve never said it.”
“I’m not good with…” His brow went down. He stared straight ahead and a muscle worked in his jaw as he lined up his words, the words she’d been waiting so long to hear. Then, “I’m saying it now. I decided to love you the moment I found out you belonged with me—with us. That was the weirdest, most unexpected, most incredible day of my life. I will do what I have to, to keep you. That’s an act of love.”
“Thank you,” she whispered.
“Easy decision, like I said.” He flashed her a rare, real smile, the smile she’d once hoped to put on his face every single day but it hadn’t worked out that way.
“What acts am I supposed to do? I’ve got nothing like that to give you or Jesse.” Instead, all she did was cause trouble.
“You can learn to make lasagne for me,” he said, in all seriousness. “Harry had this girlfriend, years ago, who made the most amazing lasagne. I still remember it.”
“I’m a terrible cook, or did you forget the burnt chicken?”
“So, it’ll be a challenge for you. Acts of love are simple, but not always easy. For Jesse you can give your best at school. He has so much faith in you, so prove him right.”
“What about Indio?”
“Hmm, he’s a tough nut to crack. You’ll have to figure him out for yourself. No rush—the act of figuring him out is an act of love.”
Wynter did know what she could do for Indio. She just had to work out the details.
“What about Joy?” Her stomach clenched at the way he shook his head, almost imperceptibly. “Has she stopped loving me?”
“She’s even tougher to crack because I don’t know what she needs or even what she thinks you need. That’s the truth.”
“She needs the Light.”
“She wants the Light. I don’t want to believe she needs the Light if it means giving up on you.”
“Do you love Joy?” she asked hesitantly.
“I want the best for her. And I’ll help her if she asks for help. I’ve always told her that. That’s love.”
If what Caleb said was true, she was pretty sure it meant Joy didn’t love her anymore. Joy wouldn’t do the one thing Wynter needed. Even at the ashram, when had she taken time to do what was best for Wynter? The Light taught that self-love was all-important, forgiving and accepting yourself so you could get on a better path to God. Caleb’s concept of love, of actions and duty, made no sense in their framework. It would make no sense to Joy.
Too painful to think about.
Wynter said, “When you become my guardian, will you be my dad?”
“Not exactly. But I’ll be responsible for you as if you were my daughter.”
“I have no idea what that means. I don’t know what having a dad would be like.”
“I’ve no plans to make changes. It’ll be the same as it is right now. I’ll always be your brother, same as for Indio and Jesse, but hopefully with wisdom gained in hindsight.”
“Did you do some things wrong with them?”
“I’m sure I did. Can’t change the past. I did the best I could.”
“Even though Indio has screwed things up for himself, and Jesse’s annoying sometimes—to me, they both seem exactly the way they’re supposed to be. You did a good job.”
His brow lifted. “Thank you. No one ever told me that before.”
“I guess my opinion doesn’t count, but—”
“It does count. It really does.” He squeezed her knee, genuinely pleased. It hadn’t occurred to her she had the power to make Caleb happy.
“You’re gonna be a fantastic dad for Jilly,” she said. “She won’t even remember not having a father.”
“Do you want to find your father, Wynter?”
The question hit her like a slap in the face. She felt its heat in her cheeks. “He left me when I was a baby. He never did one act of love. He doesn’t love me.”
“The reason he left, whatever it was, was nothing to do with you. Maybe he regrets losing you. Maybe he wants to reconnect.”
“Up until January he knew exactly where to find me.”
“Maybe he didn’t try because of where you were. If he’s left the Light, maybe he’d feel okay about reconnecting now you’re out. If you wanted to, we could try—”
“No. I don’t want him.” She couldn’t explain the dread in her heart, knowing there was a man out there who had a claim on her, who might want her love, who might want to take her away from her brothers. “I don’t want anything that came from the Light, ever again. Can we switch on the radio?”
Caleb fumbled with the controls, his expression set hard, and turned on music, an old-time blues station. For one hundred miles they listened to Ray Charles and Billie Holiday and Willie Dixon, and after a while he began to tell her what he knew about the artists’ lives.
They overtook the bus near Ellensburg. Caleb drove her to the bus station and said goodbye for a second time. He wouldn’t be able to say a proper goodbye to Bea, but he’d catch his plane.
He put her on the bus, and she stayed on it this time and read all about Charlotte Brontë.