Out of Tune (Wynter Wild #2)

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Caleb was having a hard time getting past what he’d done. He had no right to teach his siblings not to lie when his own lies rolled off of his tongue. But this was for Wynter and he’d missed her graduation and they wouldn’t be seeing her again for a month.

They rode the bikes through the forest, and then it was open road for the last few miles. As they rounded a corner, a ferris wheel rose up in the distance. Caleb pointed to it, and he felt Wynter’s helmet turn across his spine as she looked that way. Her arms gave him a squeeze to tell him she’d seen it.

Yeah, he’d lied, but this was going to be worth it.

They parked the bikes and bought a bunch of ride tokens. They were all starving and headed straight to the food trucks for sloppy chilli dogs, greasy pizza, and sugary churros.

An hour later the sun set and the carnival lights came on in a dazzling display. It was a lot busier now, and Caleb concentrated on keeping Wynter in his sights as she and Jesse went from one ride to another, deciding how to spend their tokens. Jesse had reverted to a ten-year-old kid, which brought on a wave of nostalgia—Caleb had taken over his brothers’ upbringing by then. Jesse had made it easy. He was happy with his books and video games and never balked at doing his homework because to him it was no big deal. For all his goofiness and strident opinions, he listened when Caleb talked, respected his advice, and rarely defied him. It made the contrast with Indio all the more stark.

Caleb watched from behind the railings as Jesse and Wynter went on the rides. This place was not his scene, but that was probably true of half the parents here. They did it for their kids. But they hadn’t deceived someone to be here.

He texted Rosa as Jesse and Wynter stumbled off another ride, dizzy and laughing.

“I told Rosa we’ll get back around one in the morning. We need to leave in half an hour.” He could see Wynter mentally setting a timer.

Jesse pushed Wynter’s dust-covered hair off her face. “You’ve gone pale.”

“Feel a bit sick,” she admitted, but she was bubbling with excitement.

“Okay, no more rides,” Caleb said. “Let’s shoot something.”

They went to the shooting gallery, where Jesse shot at ducks for a few minutes until he won a tier four prize. Wynter, who didn’t want to shoot, was happy enough to pick out a glow-in-the-dark bracelet. Caleb smirked at his brother’s smug look, leaned over the rifle and took his turn. After a couple of “practice” shots to get the feel of it, he hit every duck for a tier one prize.

“What would the gentleman like?” The carny indicated the options with a sweep of his hand—an assortment of huge, grotesque plush toys.

“Let’s let the lady choose,” Caleb said.

Wynter walked up and down the racks and finally saw the one she wanted. The carny pulled it down for her—a plush robot with dangling arms and legs. It was almost as tall as her.

“You’ll have to take him to Seattle,” she said. “Can’t bring the evidence back with me.”

“I’ll teach him to play the harmonica so he can jam with us,” Jesse said.

They went to the coconut shy and Caleb showed her how to throw the ball. She was pretty bad at it, but eventually hit a coconut and chose another bracelet for her robot. Jesse and Caleb competed with each other at a basketball hoop game and by the end of it the robot had multicolored glowing bands around every limb and both antennae, and a necklace as well.

“Time to go,” Caleb said. “We’ve got a long ride.”

Wynter’s mood sank through the ground. Jesse tried to make her laugh by securing the robot’s hands into his belt so it could ride as his passenger. Jesse always made the best of it when things were bad. Caleb knew from Indio that their father had attacked him last month in a bar. Jesse had brushed it off, a familiar routine. Caleb would probably visit Harry in a few days and they’d talk about his Caribbean tour and Lexie the dog, and maybe even the failed wedding if Harry brought up the subject first. But neither of them would mention that punch. Even if Harry alluded to Jesse being an idiot for losing his brother’s cash, the punch would not be mentioned. Yep, the familiar routine.

Caleb felt the weight of Wynter’s helmet against his body the whole way back, through the forest and into Ellensburg, where they stopped for gas.

“Wynter’s asleep on her feet,” Jesse said as they leaned on their bikes, waiting for her to come out of the restroom.

Caleb knew where this was going. “You’re saying it’s not safe for her to ride?”

“Yeah, she could slip right off.”

Caleb scowled. “Okay. You wait here with her. I’ll ride down to Selah and fetch the truck.”

“That’s another hour. See, you could turn up at Rosa’s at 2:30 in the morning, or we could find a motel for the night and do something fun tomorrow. I think she’d like to see the university campus. We could catch a movie. Take the bikes out one last time.”

“And Rosa’s gonna be okay with this—how?”

“The truck broke down again, on the road somewhere along the I-90.”

“I take better care of my truck than this, Jess.” He shook his head. Wynter joined them and he told her what he planned to do. “I’m gonna fetch the truck before you fall asleep on the bike, okay? Let’s ride around and find somewhere safe for you guys to wait for me.”

“How about a nightclub?” Jesse joked. “It’s a college town—gotta be some night life.”

Caleb ignored that and thumbed the seat to tell Wynter to get on. He was angry with himself now, for setting up this situation. Shouldn’t have been lured to the carnival. Shouldn’t have lied to Rosa.

“The movie theater back there was still open,” he said. “You can wait in the foyer.”

They rode a few blocks down the street. Coming up on the left, a huge neon sign flashed Vacancies. Caleb thought about the lie he’d already told and the new one he’d have to tell. He thought about Jesse’s plan and the hope in his voice, and when he pulled over opposite the motel it was as much for Jesse as for Wynter. Jesse, who his entire life had relied on Caleb to protect him, but never once complained all those times Caleb had not been there to do that duty—Jesse deserved this. He was a pretty cool kid.

Jesse pulled up beside him. Caleb looked across the street at the motel, waiting for his head to catch up with his heart. Then he pointed at it. Jesse gave a nod, his expression hidden by his helmet. Caleb waited for a car to pass, and rode across the street into the motel driveway.

Jesse knew, as soon as Caleb pulled the bike over, that they were going to stay in that motel, and they were going to have another good day tomorrow. He and Wynter sat with the bikes while Caleb went into the 24-hour reception to book rooms.

“White lies and rule-breaking for the sake of your emotional health,” Jesse mused. “Wyn, I think our brother has finally raised his moral development to Stage Five.”

“How’s your emotional health today?” Wynter said, tired but happy. “He’s doing it for you, too.”

“If he cared about my emotional health, he’d get me a puppy.”

“You want a puppy?”

“Everyone wants a puppy—what’s the matter with you?”

She was, fortunately, too exhausted to take offense, settling for pulling a face at him.

Caleb came out of reception holding a grocery bag and the room keys. “We’re in 104. Wynter, you’re right next door in 105. I got us toothbrushes and snacks. There’s a convenience store one block away if you need anything else. We can check it out in the morning.”

First things first. “Is there free wifi?”

“Yes, Jess, and cable TV and a microwave and an outdoor pool if you wanna skinny dip in the moonlight.”

The moon was hiding tonight—in fact, it looked like rain. They took the motorcycles around the corner to an undercover area, then climbed one flight of steps to their rooms. Wynter got her second wind when she saw her room, waltzing around the king-size bed like they were at the Ritz. Well, she didn’t know better and frankly neither did he.

“Look at the tiny shampoo and body wash!” she squealed from the bathroom alcove. “Are we allowed to use these?”

“Of course,” Jesse said. “Everything’s included.”

“Even the refrigerator is tiny!” She squatted down to take a look.

“Uh, stay out of there, okay?” Caleb toed the door shut, almost trapping her nose. “Its contents are not included, and nor are they suitable.”

“I saw candy in there.”

“You saw three-dollars-a-bar I bought Twinkies and ramen noodles from the front desk.”

“That’s disgusting,” Jesse said.

“That’s all they had. Hungry?” he asked Wynter. “Noodles for supper at our place.”

“I’m gonna take a shower.” Wynter went to turn on the water, and inspected the little bottles and soaps again.

Caleb and Jesse went to their room to dump the helmets and the robot and the contents of the saddle bags, including their phones.

“Guess I need to text Rosa.” Caleb sat heavily on the edge of the bed.

“I can do it,” Jesse volunteered, knowing Caleb wouldn’t allow it. He didn’t see the big deal. Yes, it was all a lie, but so what? Wynter didn’t even want to go to Europe. She’d rather come to Seattle for the summer, and instead they weren’t going to see her for weeks. She was going to miss his birthday. Plus, he’d willingly text a lie to Rosa to save Caleb from having to lower himself to that level.

Caleb tapped at his phone. When he was done, he turned it off.

“I told her we’re stuck halfway to Richland, which is pretty much the case. Turn off your phone so she doesn’t contact you.” He found Wynter’s phone among their stuff and turned that off, too. “She’ll think they’ve gone dead. Which they almost have.”

“Wow, more subterfuge. You’re getting the hang of this. There are worthwhile lies, y’know.”

“Maybe.” Caleb didn’t look happy.

“Don’t let that guilty conscience drag your mood down tomorrow, or I’m gonna wish you’d remained noble.”

Caleb threw his boots into the corner, stood up, and growled, “Boil the kettle. I’m taking a shower.”

Jesse had a quick shower after Caleb. As he dried off, he heard Wynter in their room, praising the ramen noodles to the heavens. He went out in his boxer shorts, dangling his t-shirt from his hand.

“You think this will dry overnight if I wash it out?”

“Put it on.” Caleb jerked his chin toward the back of Wynter’s head, like he was offended on her behalf at Jesse’s bare chest. Seemed like an overreaction. “We can stink for one day.”

“Okay, Fireman Fairn. I guess you’re used to stinking after four years in an engine room.”

Wynter turned to Caleb, sucking up a noodle. “You’re a fireman?”

“Not in the usual sense. Fireman was my rating, or my job, before I received my crows—that’s the eagle insignia—and became a petty officer. These days, unless I’m deployed on a cutter, I’m more often in an office or a classroom.”

“What’s a cutter?”

“A big boat.”

“What do you do on the boat?”

“Keep the engines running. Fix things. Very dirty job, like Jesse said.”

“Did you choose that because you like fixing things?”

“I guess so. Lack of education limits your options.” He took the chair opposite Wynter and pulled a polystyrene cup of noodles toward him.

“Do you really like that stuff?” Jesse asked Wynter.

“Yes, it’s good.”

“Tastes like plastic to me.”

“You eat Pop-Tarts,” she muttered, without further explanation.

There was no third chair, so Jesse piled up the pillows and sat on one of the twin beds to eat his noodles. Caleb had a house rule about not eating in bed that apparently didn’t apply to motels, because he didn’t complain. Jesse found an old movie on the TV. When she was done eating, Wynter lay next to him on her stomach with her feet at the headboard, propped up on her elbows to watch. Her feet were bare but she’d dressed fully after her shower. Her jeans were dusty from the ride, with smudges of mud around the bottom of the legs that was kind of wiping off on his sheets.

After a while Caleb sat on her other side and stretched out like Jesse. Twenty minutes later Wynter was asleep, her head turned and resting on her folded arms at the foot of the bed.

“Would you lie to get custody of her?” Jesse asked his brother.

“Why would I have to?” Caleb said.

“I don’t know. But if you had to, would you?”

Caleb looked like he was struggling with a troubling problem. “Today’s one little lie is giving me an ulcer. I think I’ll make it the last one for a while.”

“Your unrelenting honesty is quite sickening.”

“Is that your way of telling me you’ve become dishonest?”

“No. I do try to live up to your example. But I don’t exactly have big decisions to make. If a lie doesn’t have meaningful consequences, may as well stick with the truth. Everything you did, and do, has big consequences. You took on all the responsibility.”

“I never regretted taking it on.”

“Not once?”

“I resented Harry sometimes, for being so useless. And Mom, too.”

“Resented? You’re furious with them.”

“And you’re not?”

“I don’t remember her, so I don’t care. And I don’t remember Harry as being anything but useless, so I guess I didn’t go through a disappointment phase.” He didn’t include his latest disappointments concerning Harry—one punch aside, maybe Indio was right, maybe that was all in his head.

“Well, you’re right. I was angry. When I see what’s happened to Wynter and Joy, I still am angry. When I see how it affected Indio… After Mom left, for years he would ask about her, ask when she was coming home. And I had no idea why she left, so what could I say? I think we both felt unworthy, but I got over it—taking care of you two, proving myself. That helped. He got stuck feeling unworthy, living down to his own expectations and then being ashamed of himself for not living up to mine.” Caleb rubbed his hand over his face. “God, I hope he survives this tour without backsliding. He never tells me anything. Does he have a girlfriend? Is he still writing songs? Is he clean?”

“He doesn’t do the girlfriend thing. You know that.”

“I’m always hopeful he’ll grow up a little in that area.”

“Go ahead and offer your advice. He’s gonna love you for it. Yes, he’s always writing songs. Really good stuff. And yes, he’s clean enough since February.” Jesse kept quiet about the suspended license, settling for, “Turk told me he’s doing okay.”

“Listen, you have to keep that out of the house. When she moves home, they’re gonna do home visits, interviews, spot checks. No weed, no girls overnight, no wandering around shirtless. They freak out about that sort of thing.”

“And no plastic noodles. Pantry full of nutritious food.”

Caleb chuckled. He leaned forward and rubbed Wynter’s shoulder until she stirred. “Go to bed, hun.”

Wynter sat up. “I can’t sleep in there. It’s not safe.”

“It’s perfectly safe.”

“It has a door to the outside.”

Caleb sighed. “Okay, take that bed.”

In bathroom she brushed her teeth and emerged dragging her fingers through her damp hair. She slid under the sheets and wriggled around until she had her jeans off, folded them up and placed them on the end of the bed, then turned on her side, away from them, and settled down.

“I’ll take the other room.” Caleb collected his boots and jeans and phone, and grabbed a toothbrush. “She, uh… I think she still has nightmares sometimes. Knock on my door if you need help.”

Jesse woke to thunder, to rain drumming on the roof. On the other bed, Wynter sat up hugging her knees. She was very still. Lightning flashed, and the thunder rolled by again. He checked his phone, remembered it was switched off, and glanced at the alarm clock on the nightstand instead—four in the morning.

“You okay? Are you scared?”

“No. I love it.” She jumped off the bed. “I’m going out. I love storms.”

She crossed the floor and tugged on the door, unable to figure out the lock.

“Wyn, that’s a bad idea.” She had nothing on but a t-shirt and panties, and they had no spare clothes if she got wet.

“Come on. I used to run around naked in the monsoons when I was little. Have you never done that?”

“No, and I’m not doing it tonight.”

She finally got the door open and peered out. “There’s a little roof thingy over the walkway out here. We won’t get wet. It’s not even cold.”

She went onto the walkway. He threw back the covers with a muttered curse and followed her. They leaned on the railing and watched the rain bouncing off the swimming pool below.

“Could you jump from on top of this railing into that pool?” she asked suddenly.

“Fuck, no!”

She stared at him, shocked.

“Sorry. Uh, no, I wouldn’t make that jump.”

“Wouldn’t, or couldn’t?” There was a challenge in her voice. “The pool’s only a few feet from the wall.”

“I’m not doing it, end of discussion. The water looks kinda funky, too. This place is revolting.”

“I like it.”

He scoffed.

“What’s the best motel you’ve ever stayed in?” she said.

“This one, believe it or not,” he conceded. “I’ve only stayed in two. The first one, we found a half-eaten mouldy pizza under the bed. No box or anything. Who cleans a room and changes the sheets and doesn’t notice a pizza under the bed? Who puts pizza under the bed in the first place?”

“Did you eat it?”

“Yes, Wyn. We ate the mouldy pizza.”

Took her two seconds to realize he was joking. She slapped his arm. “I’m staying in a hotel with Rosa. Four stars, whatever that means. How many stars is this place?”

“Judging by that pool and the hair in the shower drain, I’m gonna say negative three. I’m already composing my Yelp review and it’s gonna put this place out of business.”

“I wish you could come to Greece. Or Joy. If we took Joy, I bet she’d like the outside world again.” She sounded so wistful.

“Rosa will probably cancel your whole trip when she finds out we’re playing hooky.”

“I won’t care.”

“You better care, Wyn. And you have to go to Greece because I never will. If she tries to punish you for this, you tell her it’s our fault. We kidnapped you.”

“She won’t cancel. The tickets are non-refundable.”

The door on the other side, 103, opened. A fat unshaven man in a wife beater and ratty sweatpants lumbered out.

“You think the storm’s not making enough noise?” he said. “Shut the fuck up.”

He gave Wynter the once over, all the way down her bare legs, all the way up again to her damp hair. The wind had blown the rain on both of them and her t-shirt stuck to her skin in patches. The man narrowed his eyes at Jesse and sneered.

“How much is one of those, then? Did ya find her at a truck stop?”

Jesse didn’t bother getting upset, since Wynter wouldn’t understand the insinuation anyway. “She’s my sister, you old perv.”

That raised the man’s ire, which was odd because Jesse was ninety-nine percent sure he was a perv. Truth hurts.

“You mind your fuckin’ manners, you little shit.”

“Mind your own,” Jesse shot back, “and your business, too.”

The man turned red in the face as he drew breath to spew more nonsense.

Caleb stepped out of his room on the other side, distracting the man for a second. Caleb glared at him with that casual authority that made everyone jump to his whim, and the old perv backed down, understanding at once that Caleb was with them and was not to be trifled with. He returned to his room, mumbling to himself.

Caleb leaned on the railing next to Jesse.

“Wynter was saying how much she loves this place,” Jesse said.

“I do love it,” Wynter said indignantly. “I love every single thing about it, except for our neighbor. I love the pool and the noodles and the sugar packets next to the kettle. I love this weekend. I love you both, and once I move home I want Indio to move to Seattle.”

“Uh…” Caleb was speechless beyond that one grunted syllable.

“If we got a puppy, I bet Indio would move home.” Wynter was clearly joking, although she’d been dead serious about what she wanted from Indio.

Caleb found his voice long enough to say, “We’re not getting a puppy.”

Jesse knew he was thinking about Skar, their childhood dog. Indio and that dog had been something special. Jesse had been heartbroken when the dog ran away, but his notoriously emotionally-misdirected brother might actually have a mental breakdown if he was presented with a puppy.

“He pretends to fuss over pets to make girls like him,” Wynter was saying, “but I bet he secretly loves animals. We could get a guinea pig or a ferret. Anything, really. Except for a fish.”

“You know about the fish phobia, huh,” Jesse said. To deflect from their sister’s vain hopes regarding both Indio and puppies, he pointed down at the pool and asked Caleb, “Could you make that jump from here?

On his other side, Wynter leaned forward over the railing, grinning, to watch Caleb’s reaction.

“I’m a Coastie. What do you think?”

“Do it, then,” Wynter said.

“You kids are crazy. Get back inside.”

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