Out of Tune (Wynter Wild #2)

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What If...

“Did you ever wonder what it would’ve been like if Wynter grew up with us?” Jesse said as they walked a couple of blocks away from the venue, toward the train tracks. “If Mom returned with her when she was a baby, and collected us from Harry’s, and all of us grew up together?”

“I’ve never thought about it, no,” Indio said. What if’s were a waste of mental energy.

“Or if we’d all gone to the ashram…” Jesse mused glumly. “I woulda had a brain aneurysm trying to make sense of all that Light crap. No need to run away in the dead of night. They’d’ve thrown me out. What about you?”

Indio had no idea why he was persisting with this line of thought. “I’m a lazy S.O.B. You know that. I’d have taken the path of least resistance and gone along with it.”

They arrived at the train station, which was closed but a little too near the street for privacy.

“Let’s go to the river,” Indio suggested, pointing across the tracks.

Jesse balked at the chain-link fence running parallel to the tracks on the other side, as far as they could see in both directions. Beyond that was the river.

“It’s only eight feet, no barbed wire,” Indio said. “We can scale that, just like old times.”

Finally, a flash of anticipation in Jesse’s eyes at the challenge. That was more like it.

They ran across the tracks and scaled the fence in unison. Indio slowed his momentum as he briefly straddled the top, hoping Jesse would drop to the ground first, then changed his mind and beat his little brother after all. That was the way it was supposed to be. Jesse would see through any attempt to hand him a win.

The river bank was soft from the afternoon’s rain. Rather than sit in the mud, they walked along a few dozen yards and found a patch of sand with rocks to sit on. Indio lit the first joint and they passed it back and forth in silence for a while. On the opposite bank stood a majestic modern building of pale stone, its lights reflected in the dark, slow river.

“Heidi was nice,” Jesse said eventually. “Scary as hell, but she brought me some poppers and jello, and ice.”

“She propositioned me after our soundcheck this afternoon.”

“Whoa.”

“She has an office up top of the club with cable TV and a sturdy futon. Her words.”

“Isn’t that called workplace sexual harassment? You should report it to your union. Or… hang on, did you accept the proposition?”

“I did not. I drove across the river with the guys to eat.”

“We chatted for a bit just now.”

“Please don’t tell me she propositioned you.”

“No. She looks like a hellraiser, though. She’s from Louisiana. She used to own a club in Everett. Harry would come in on jazz nights and drink alone. You got this gig because of him—did you know that?” Indio shook his head. “He suggested she invite Blunderbelly to play.” Jesse gave him a careful look. “You don’t seem too cut up about the cash. I’m still alive.”

“I’m miserable about it. I don’t blame you. You tried to hand it over to me last week.”

Jesse kicked at the sand. “I should’ve said that. I should’ve explained. If Harry knew that…”

He fell into silence again. If, if, if… They both had a lifetime of ifs. A lifetime of wondering if there was something they could’ve done or said differently that would’ve generated a different outcome.

“What happened earlier, in the club?” Indio asked.

“He asked me for cash to buy another drink. He had a credit card on him, so he was just trying it on. Told him I needed what I had for gas, to get home. I guess I got annoyed when he insulted my bike. According to him, it’s a scooter that runs on the smell of an oily rag. He said I wouldn’t need to fill up. He actually reached around my ass to grab my wallet in that weirdly playful way he sometimes has. Like he thinks it allows him to do anything because he’s got a grin on his face. What d’you need cash for? You’re still mooching off Caleb. So I sort of blurted out that I had five hundred dollars stolen. Didn’t tell him it was yours. I wanted him to know what a shitty day that was for me, too. And he clocked me for being stupid. Can’t believe he managed to land one. What happened to my karate reflexes? But, y’know, it was unexpected cuz it’s been a while since he… And we were in a public place.”

“When was the last time he hit you?”

“I guess it’s been three years. Was starting to think he didn’t care,” Jesse said with a shrug. “That summer you visited before your trip to Mexico. Harry wanted me to go with you, to get me off his hands. Even offered to pay. I was dating Meg Whitfeld—no way was I gonna abandon her.”

“Your first girlfriend that counts.”

“What?”

“According to Wynter.”

“I probably tell her too much.”

“Probably true.”

“Anyway, turns out I should’ve gone. He slammed me against the pantry door and the handle jammed into my kidney. Fucking painful. Then he threw me to the floor and I sprained my wrist. I don’t remember what brought it on. I mean, he was drunk, but I don’t remember why he was mad. Every time I open that pantry, I get this weird flashback.”

“Shit. I’m sorry.”

Jesse gazed at the building across the water, took another drag, flicked the ash, passed it along. “This is good stuff. Are we smoking it in full view of the county courthouse?”

“Freebie from Eduardo. Won’t happen again if he finds out your opinion of his drumming.”

“He’s not that bad.” Jesse pushed a hand through his unruly hair. “Caleb came back to Seattle a few months after that happened. He asked me exactly the same thing, and I told him everything was fine. The first night he stayed at the house, he and Harry got into a full-on fight. Not physical—Harry wasn’t gonna risk that—but they were yelling in each other’s faces. Harry told him to get out. Caleb said, You’re the one who’s leaving. And somehow he made it happen.”

Jesse looked around him all of a sudden, shifting gears.

“Did your guys leave? How are you gonna get home?”

“There’ll be a train in the morning.”

“I’ll take you, when I’ve sobered up. If you don’t object to riding on the back of a scooter. Or do you wanna take the driving seat?”

“I lost my license.”

Jesse’s jaw dropped. “Since when?”

“Since February, for six months.”

“But you rode up to Seattle for Wynter’s birthday in March. You took her out at Rosa’s.”

“Yeah, well, I wasn’t supposed to.”

“You’re riding without a license with a fifteen-year-old on the back—”

“No one knows about that. Don’t bring it up.”

“My point is, who’s the moron here? Why did he call me dumb? My IQ’s one hundred fifty-two.”

Indio sneered. “Says who?”

“The school sent me to a psychologist in sixth grade.”

“Why’d you never tell me that before?”

“Didn’t want to make you feel inferior.”

“Maybe mine’s higher.”

Jesse chuckled. “Dude, one hundred fifty-two is highly gifted. I’m a genius in common parlance. You couldn’t even wrap your head around anti-differentiation. I’ve probably dropped a point or two since then, of course, cuz of the weed.”

Indio burned the joint down to the roach in one lengthy draw. “There ya go, I took the fall for you.”

“Thanks.”

“I always will, y’know.”

He got a fleeting smile of thanks. “Let’s fire up the other one. I’m not caring so much about protecting my IQ tonight.” Jesse wrapped his arms around his knees, hunching up like a little kid. “My genius opinion is you should get that record from Dad. You can sell it for three or four hundred. I looked it up.”

“Huh. I paid sixty for it. He texted me, the day after. Didn’t say a thing about the wedding itself. All he said was, I’m keeping the record. I guess that was his way of saying thanks.”

“The money, though… Do the tour and have them funnel your paycheck directly to Caleb’s bank account.”

“That’s never gonna happen. I have other plans for my summer.”

“Such as?”

Indio sighed as he lit the second joint. Tonight, more than ever, he was keen to plan on spending more time with Jesse this summer. “Blunderbelly. Hanging out. We could go camping, you and me and half an ounce of weed. Knock a few more points off that IQ so I stand a chance with you at chess.”

“Here’s a revolutionary idea—you could get a job like a regular person.”

He’d had job until last month, ten hours a week at the community center doing the audio-visual for lectures and concerts. They fired him when they found out about the arrest. No one had ever asked about a criminal record, but once they knew they couldn’t keep him on when there were kids hanging out at the center and using the pool. More recently he’d been helping out a friend of Turk’s, a sound tech who worked all over town, but given he was rarely available for weekend gigs he wasn’t getting much work.

“I have three guitar students,” Indio said, which was true—students from the university who paid him fifteen bucks a week.

“You could register with a tutoring agency or work through a private music school. You’ll make a fortune.”

“Private schools do background checks.”

Jesse pulled a face and dropped it. “I’m so sorry about the money, bro.”

“Jesse, it’s okay—”

“Been feeling like crap all week. Didn’t know how to tell you. I emptied out my backpack after I got home from Portland that morning and forgot about the envelope in the bottom. Felt like the biggest dick in the universe, calling to tell them one of their guests was a thief. And then eventually, Charmaine’s mother admitted another guest found cash missing from his wallet. He left his coat in the same room.” He sat up straight. “Oh, god! She took it!”

“Charmaine’s mother?”

“The bridesmaid! I hooked up with a bridesmaid in the almost-stepmother’s parents’ bedroom, where all the coats were. I told you that. I left her there, taking a shower. And now she’s on a beach in Fiji planning her own wedding with your cash. Why would she do that?”

“Maybe you were so bad in the sack, she felt she deserved compensation.”

“I wasn’t that bad! I did exactly what she wanted me to do, which admittedly wasn’t much. And she might not’ve known it was my money. Still, a thief’s a thief. And there I was, more concerned about my unethical behavior because I knew she had a boyfriend and I didn’t care. I had two champagnes and I didn’t care. I can’t believe I didn’t care. It’s almost enough to make me believe in karma.”

“Was she worth five hundred bucks?”

“I don’t know. What can you get for five hundred bucks?”

“Quite a lot, I would hope.”

They passed the joint, shivering in the damp night air.

“That entire day was a sort of hilarious nightmare,” Jesse said after a while. “Harry wouldn’t sign the license. He threw up right next to the cake, not that it stopped people eating it. He told me to… I don’t think he…” Jesse gulped and got a stark look in his eyes that made Indio’s heart lurch. Jesse drew deeply on the last of the joint.

“What were you gonna say just then?”

Jesse spent a few seconds pulverizing the stub against a rock. “Do you know why Mom threw him out right after I was born?”

“We don’t know she did—that’s the way he told it.”

“Was he unfaithful?”

“Don’t know.”

“Was she?”

Indio narrowed his eyes as the meaning behind Jesse’s question sank in.

Jesse said, “My whole life, I watched him screaming and cursing at you and Caleb. That mean streak of his—putting you down, with his tongue as well as his fists.”

“He landed plenty of punches on you.”

“But it was always personal with the two of you. He said those awful things, trying to cut you open. And at other times he was bursting with pride over you both. A few months ago I saw a ticket at his place for that festival you did in Olympia.”

“That was right after I moved west. Didn’t know he came.”

“Neither did I. He went to that gig in secret, a rock festival. I play in a jazz band—he would love most of what I play—and he’s never come see me. He used to yell at me every single day, but it wasn’t personal. He was lashing out to release his own frustrations. I would ignore it, stay out of his way. It’s like he doesn’t care enough to hurt me.” Jesse tapped his chest, over his heart. “Here, I mean. Doesn’t care enough to be proud of me. Does he feel anything at all for me, one way or the other?”

“He insulted your bike.”

“Yeah, my bike, not me personally.”

“Come on, a man’s motorcycle is a very personal thing.”

“You think I wanna be riding around on a dirt bike?”

“That’s a nice bike. You’re eighteen years old—you have a bike and a car. I had neither at your age.”

“Does he think I’m not his? Is that why he left?”

“There’s no way you’re not his,” Indio said firmly. “You look exactly like he did at eighteen. He and Caleb look more alike now, but that kooky photo of him in uniform, when he joined the army? You look more like that photo every day.”

“When I was born, though, maybe he wasn’t sure. Maybe that’s the reason they split. Maybe he blames me, somehow.”

“You’re literally making shit up. Whatever he thought at the time, whatever he thought when you were little, there’s no excuse for discounting you now.”

“You agree, then. He discounts me. I don’t count. He doesn’t care. He called me useless for not talking him out of the wedding. I didn’t know he was looking for an excuse.”

“Our parents are broken, but you’re not. You’re pretty cool. I don’t know what to tell you, except that there’s no point trying to win his affection. He doesn’t have any to give.”

“Who’s trying to win his affection here? Why’d you give him that record? I feel like it was to show me up.”

Indio sighed. “It wasn’t. I think it was to show him up. To show him I’ve paid attention and I know him well enough to find the perfect gift. To remind him that he doesn’t know me, not anymore. To show him that I’m better than him.”

“You’re giving him too much credit. He’s not that self-aware.”

“Fine. Another reason I’m better than him.”

“Well, he had tears in his eyes.”

“You don’t have to lie about it.”

“Seriously, it made him nostalgic and sad. It’s the excuse he was looking for, too, so it’s basically your fault the day went to hell. Glad I didn’t bring along Wynter after all. I was taking photos for her, the flowers and shit, all the standard stuff, kind of hiding the fact it was a non-standard wedding. She’d have hated it.”

“You’re absolutely wrong,” Indio said. “She would’ve loved it.”

“Oh, well, you know her best, I guess.” His harsh tone was supposed to sound withering. He was high, though, so it just sounded funny and pathetic.

“Dude, you’re closer to her than any of us,” Indio said, to make him feel better, although it was surely true. “When she… If she ever talks about what happened to her, you’re the one she’s gonna tell.”

Jesse’s bleary eyes narrowed as he considered Indio. “You’re absolutely wrong.” He was dead serious. “It’ll be you.”

Well, that was something to look forward to.

“Anyway, let’s not forget the best part of the wedding!” Jesse chirped. “I came home with a four-slice toaster.”

“You got laid, but the toaster was the best part?”

“Yeah. It shall forever after be known as the Toaster That’s Better Than Sex.”

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