Out of Tune (Wynter Wild #2)

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A Thoughtful Gift

“Hey, Wynter!” Hunter ran down the street after Wynter. “Bus stop is back there. You’re gonna be late if you walk.”

That afternoon, eighth grade had been dismissed early so the kids who would be attending the local high school could go to an induction there. The school was a few blocks down the street, and while the others waited for the bus, Wynter had taken off walking. She was not going to the induction. If she visited that school, it was as good as admitting she might be enrolling there in September.

“I’m going to high school in Seattle,” she told Hunter, not for the first time. “And we should be rehearsing for the audition next week. This is such a waste of time.”

Fifty yards behind them, the bus pulled up and the kids piled on.

“If you don’t run and catch that bus, you’re gonna be late,” she said.

“That’s okay. I’ll walk with you. I thought it would be fun to hang out together for the afternoon.”

Wynter pushed her hands into her pockets and marched on. “We spend three hours together every week. Isn’t that enough?”

“That’s working, as you keep reminding us. And we’ll ace the audition. Everything’s sounding good. Everyone says so.”

“Who’s everyone?”

“Other kids. They stand outside the door when we’re rehearsing. Aren’t you flattered?”

“I guess so.” Wynter took a right turn toward the strip mall.

“Hey, this way,” Hunter said.

“I’m not going. I’ll hang out here for a while.”

“C’mon, it’ll be fun. My mom says they have a great music program and a massive gymnasium.”

“A what? Why would I care? I’m not going to that school!” She was yelling now, and instantly regretted it. Hunter was only trying to be nice.

He gave up, walked to the main road, and disappeared around the corner. Wynter spent two hours wandering through the stores and returned in time to catch the regular bus home.

Rosa knocked on Wynter’s door on Sunday morning, when she was still in bed.

“Come down to the study, please. There’s something I need to discuss with you.”

Her portentous tone sent a nervous shiver through Wynter. She pulled on her robe and slowly made her way downstairs. Rosa was waiting outside her study, arms folded, fingers tapping. Wynter had never been inside that room before. Rosa always kept the door closed, whether or not she was working in there. The door was open today. Wynter stopped a few pace away and found she couldn’t take a step closer.

“Inside, please.”

Her breath stopped in her chest. “I didn’t do anything…”

Even so, her mind backtracked over all the little things she had done lately that might get her into trouble. Skipping the high school visit on Friday. The civics test she’d failed on Thursday. The outing with Indio weeks ago. The money Jesse had secretly sent. The emails she’d written to the Light to trick them out of that money…

Rosa waited in silence. Wynter edged closer, until she could see through the doorway. The study was smaller than expected, given every other room in this house was huge. Nothing but a desk and a laptop, a swivel chair, and glass-fronted bookshelves lining one wall. No knick-knacks or fresh flowers or pictures like the rest of the house—only a big wall calendar with nothing written on it. Caleb had a calendar at home and it was covered with his handwriting, along with pithy comments from Jesse on tiny colored sticky notes. The stark decor reminded her of another office, a dark place she’d tried to forget. Rosa’s near-silent severity magnified the memory.

Wynter clutched the door frame. Her feet wouldn’t move. Rosa brushed past her, oblivious to her reaction, and picked up something from her desk, a small slip of paper. She gave it a meaningful shake before setting it down again.

“Please explain this.”

“It’s… a bus ticket?” Wynter said, daring herself to take two steps into the room. She locked her knees to steady herself.

“A King County Metro bus transfer. Look at the date. Look at the time.” Rosa’s fingertip was pressed so hard on the desk that her finger bent backward. “This is precisely when you were supposed to be on the bus to Pasco after your last trip to Seattle. I found this in the pocket of your coat this morning, when I was putting it away for the summer.”

“But I was on that bus. You picked me up in Pasco.”

“That doesn’t explain this ticket.”

Wynter imagined Caleb standing right there by the window, urging her to tell the truth, protecting her from the consequences.

“I missed the bus in Seattle, so Caleb drove me to Ellensburg and I got on there instead.”

“Missed the bus? No, you were traveling around downtown Seattle instead of catching that bus.”

“I didn’t lie. No one lied. You never asked me about it.”

“Very well, let’s call it a secret. A secret Caleb knew about and helped to cover up. Did he know you took the Metro?”

“Not until I called him for help.”

“While you’re in his care, he needs to know exactly where you are at all times. He should’ve put you on the bus and waited until it departed.”

“Jesse took me to the bus station. It wasn’t his fault, either. He didn’t fail. He did put me on that bus and I got off because I wanted to see—”

Rosa was waving away her defense of Jesse. “Why not Caleb?”

“He went to his girlfriend’s house for the night.”

“Caleb wasn’t in the house overnight?”

Wynter realized her mistake. “He found out he had to report early for his deployment. Bea wanted him to spend his last day with her. It was the right thing to do.”

“It was the wrong thing to do. It was irresponsible of him. He violated the terms of his visitation.”

“I don’t understand why it matters. Arthur Yu told me he stays home with his brother all weekend when their parents go away. His brother’s younger than Jesse.”

“I don’t care what Arthur Yu does. We do what Tina says.”

“Are you going to tell Tina?”

“Of course. This is serious, Wynter. If Caleb can’t be trusted to provide appropriate supervision, she needs to know.”

“He drove all the way from Renton to pick me up. He helped me fix my mistake. I wanted to see Joy but the Light office was closed.” Rosa’s expression softened a little. Wynter jumped on it. “She couldn’t come that weekend and I haven’t seen her since my birthday, when she left early. I knew she was upset with me, and I was upset with her… I was hoping to make it right.”

“I see.” Rosa perched on the edge of the desk, folding her hands in her lap. “Well, it’s understandable that you wanted to see your sister. But that’s no excuse to get on a bus without telling anyone. Last time you did that, look what happened.”

Wynter remembered the way Jesse had capitulated after his argument with Rosa. She said, “I won’t do it again. I know it was wrong.”

“Very well. Get dressed. There are waffles in the kitchen. I’ll be leaving for church soon.”

Wynter’s heart was still pounding as she returned to her room. There was no pain waiting for her in any room in Rosa’s house. She knew that. But pain wasn’t always a physical thing. It didn’t always come wrapped in darkness and fear, either, like her nightmares did. What would Rosa do next? Would she report to Tina after all, despite showing compassion for the reason Wynter had got on that bus?

Her school bag sat on the floor next to her desk. She unzipped it and took out the origami gift box she planned to give to Ms Driscoll on Monday. Indio had sent through instructions for a few different designs, and she’d chosen one that interleaved four colors—she’d used two patterned sheets along with two pieces of sheet music—to make a four-inch-square box with a twisted rosette on the lid. It had taken her many attempts over many days to get it right. She’d almost given up, but as the trash basket filled with her discarded efforts she noticed each one becoming better and better, motivating her to keep going. Her determination to make it perfect became more important than any desire to bribe Ms Driscoll.

Could Rosa be bribed?

Wynter went downstairs and found Rosa tidying the kitchen. Her purse sat on the table, ready for church.

“I made you this,” Wynter said tentatively, the box balanced on her outstretched palm.

Rosa took it with a curious expression. She rotated the box, lifted the lid.

“I was going to fill it with candy but I don’t know what kind you like. Happy… M-Mother’s Day.” Wynter’s lip trembled as she spoke those words, but they had to be said.

“I did notice all that crumpled paper in your trash lately. I had no idea you were making something for me. You worked very hard to get it right.” Rosa was genuinely impressed. Touched, even. She smiled, as if assessing Wynter in a whole new light. “Thank you. It’s sweet of you. Very thoughtful. Oh, I have an idea.”

She set the box on the cabinet in the entryway, between the vase of dead branches, the bowl of ceramic balls, and the unused scented candles in glass jars.

“Why don’t you find some pot pourri in the bathroom while I’m out, and fill it up? I need to get going.” She fetched her purse.

“Are you still going to call Tina about what I did?”

“I did call Tina, just now,” Rosa said with a sigh, opening the front door to leave. “It’s not what you did, Wynter. Caleb should not have left you overnight. That’s simply not responsible behavior. Tina says you’re not to visit Seattle again until he comes back and takes responsibility.”

“But I’m going next weekend! Caleb arranged for Joy to be there.”

“She’s proven herself too unreliable. I’m afraid you can’t go until Tina has had a long chat with Caleb so she can be certain you’ll be supervised.” Rosa was edging out the door, unwilling to prolong a difficult conversation that had begun with a handmade gift. “You’ll see Caleb at your graduation and he can for the weekend it he wants to. And then we’ll be off on our exciting trip to Greece.”

Rosa shut the door behind her.

Wynter stared at the little box, clenching her fist as she imagined crushing it, ripping it into tiny pieces and scattering them all over the house. Then she remembered the way Caleb looked at her when she did that with the Lego.

She stumbled upstairs and called Jesse on her laptop.

“Your video’s not working,” she said when he answered, her voice shaking because of what she had to tell him. She needed to see his face.

“Uh, my tousled hair is so cute this morning, my camera broke from, uh, cuteness overload,” he grumbled.

“Please switch it on.”

“Can’t do it, Wyn. You look cute as ever, of course.” He paused before adding, “And… upset? What’s up?”

He was suitably outraged about the canceled visit. He and Indio had both rearranged their weekends to be there the entire time, and Joy had confirmed it, too, if that meant anything. Wynter was too worn down by Rosa and Tina’s constant interference to cry about it. While her stomach clenched in disappointment, Jesse’s outrage served them both.

Two more months of this, and she’d move home forever. She could handle two more months.

“I’m coming to your science fair,” Jesse said when he’d calmed down.

“You’re not allowed to visit without Caleb.”

“I won’t go to Rosa’s. I’ll come to the school for a couple hours. I was gonna come anyway and surprise you. But you need cheering up, so I’m spoiling the surprise. The anticipation of seeing me cheers you up—right?”

“Of course. Also, they won’t let you in unless I put your name on the list. So it’s a good thing you told me ahead of time. I didn’t think to ask you. It’s a long way to drive for such a short visit.”

“Wouldn’t miss it. And I’ll bring along the rest of your ill-gotten gains.”

“I’ll tell you everything at the fair. My entire evil scheme. I’m getting that guitar back, Jesse. I’ll have saved up some allowance by then, I hope, to make up the difference.” She couldn’t wait to hand the guitar to Indio, but there was one problem with that. “Is he gonna sell the guitar to pay Caleb?”

“If you give it to him, he can do whatever he wants with it.”

“I have to. I think I lost my right to keep it.”

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