Out of Tune (Wynter Wild #2)

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Filling Up

“We’ve got six hours,” Caleb announced as Wynter opened the door for him the next morning.

Balled up in his hand was the item she’d left in the other room after her shower last night. He gave it to her, and Wynter stretched out the bra between her hands, thanking him without embarrassment before heading to the bathroom. He, on the other hand, slid Jesse an involuntary sheepish look that made Jesse laugh out loud.

“You’re gonna be doing her laundry soon, dude. Get used to handling her unmentionables.”

Caleb wasn’t a prude, but he found himself overly concerned about appearances when it came to convincing himself, not to mention Social Services, that all the correct boundaries would be observed in his household. “She can do her own laundry. So can you, by the way.”

“I’ll write a roster for chores. Finally, someone else to take out the garbage.”

They went to the movie theater as soon as it opened for the day. They ate lunch at a Chinese restaurant. Wynter had had Chinese takeout before, but she loved the import of the dining-in experience, the elaborate décor, the twelve-page menu. At the front was a huge tank of lobsters.

“You can order one and have it boiled alive on the spot,” Jesse told her.

“Ooh, let’s do that!” She considered the lobster’s fate for a moment. “Wait, does boiling it alive kill it?”

“It’s not a bad way to go. It fulfills the lobster’s purpose in life, and I hear it’s delicious. There’s no downside.”

“The downside is the price,” Caleb said. “Let’s choose something cheaper off the menu.”

They walked around the university campus. Jesse extolled the virtues of all the courses Caleb could take if he wanted to improve on the two-year associate degree he’d completed part-time. Furthering his education was an idea Caleb had flirted with for years. The time was never right. Wynter was more interested in people-watching, because it looked so different from school.

Then they rode to Selah and secured the Beast in the bed of the truck. Wynter said goodbye to Jesse, a lingering hug because they wouldn’t see each other again for ages, but hope-filled because after Greece she’d be moving home for good. He set off for Seattle on his bike.

Caleb and Wynter got in the truck to drive to Richland, intending to stop at the same place to offload the bike so Rosa wouldn’t see it.

“I don’t think she’ll be too mad,” Wynter said, as if to convince herself. “I still have time to study for tomorrow’s test.”

What?

“You have a test tomorrow?” Caleb looked over. Her mouth was clamped shut. “Answer me!”

Wynter swallowed nervously and said, “They’re letting me do make-up tests this week. The school will adjust my report card so it’ll look better when I start high school.”

Caleb felt that old surge of annoyance that Indio’s antics had so often brought on. “You have make-up tests and you spent the entire weekend doing… doing nothing!”

Her face went pale at his tone. “It wasn’t nothing,” she said quietly.

“You should’ve told me. Why didn’t you say something? Did Jesse know?”

“I sort of mentioned it to him. I didn’t say anything because you’d have taken me home on Saturday. I wanted to go to that carnival. We had fun, didn’t we?”

Caleb counted to five and lowered his voice. “A good report card is more important. At your age, it’s more important than anything. Your grades define your life until you graduate college.”

“You didn’t even go to college.”

“Not in the usual way, but I’m trying to fix that.”

“Grades defining your life is silly.” Now she really did sound like Indio.

“It may be silly, but it’s reality. You have to go to college. Which means doing well in school.”

“Why do my junior high grades matter?”

“It’s the principle, hun. You have to pay attention to your education. You’ve done great but you’re still behind in most subjects. You need to catch up. You’re smart—you can catch up. But you have to commit to it.”

She nodded miserably.

“Does Rosa know you have these make-up tests?”

“Yes.”

“Jesus.” He pulled out his phone, taking care not to let his concentration wander from the road, and handed it to her. “Turn it on. Has she messaged me?”

“Um, yes. Four times. And there are two messages from Bea.”

Caleb bit down a curse word. He’d called Bea from the east coast twice a day since he got back to the States, and told her on Friday that he’d be unavailable through Saturday. But he’d completely forgotten to update her, to let her know he wouldn’t be back until Sunday night. He was supposed to have had dinner with her and her parents last night. How could he have forgotten?

One problem at a time.

“Read me the ones from Rosa.”

Wynter read through them, aloud.

>> Give me the motel address. I’ll pick up Wynter.

“That’s from late last night,” Wynter said, “in response to the last message you sent.”

“Great.”

“The next one is half an hour later—”

>> Calls going to voicemail. Wynter not picking up. She needs to be here and she needs to study. CALL ME.

“In caps. Then, two from this morning.”

>> Contact me at once. This lack of communication is unacceptable.

“She likes that word, unacceptable. And the last one says—”

>> I’m ready to call the authorities. This is completely unacceptable. Where is Wynter? She has tests all week. You are now fifteen hours past our agreed-upon curfew.

Wynter breathed out a long sigh. “Can she do that? Call the police?”

“Call her. Tell her we’ll be there in one hour.”

“Will I need to lie to her?”

Caleb gripped the wheel. He’d been so concerned with his own lies, he hadn’t thought about the lies Wynter would have to tell.

“I don’t like lies, Wynter. We shouldn’t have done this and I shouldn’t have put you in this position. I won’t tell you to lie to her. It’s your decision.”

Fear flickered in her eyes at the realization he wasn’t going to rescue her this time. He couldn’t fix it.

He went on, “Think for a minute, before you call, about what you want to tell her. Here’s what she thinks: we spent Saturday driving around the national park, left late because of car trouble, broke down on the highway, stayed the night in a motel waiting for the vehicle to be fixed, and lost touch because our phones went flat. She doesn’t know you rode a motorcycle. She doesn’t know Jesse was even there.”

“If I tell her the truth, could it affect the custody hearing?”

Shit. His intention to ask Rosa to be a character witness was going up in smoke. “If she’s pissed off, I guess she could use this weekend to make me look irresponsible.”

Wynter looked distraught. “I don’t know what to do!”

“I don’t know, either.”

“How can you not know?” Her voice rose in dismay. “You’re twenty-five years old!”

A twenty-five-year-old idiot with no fucking clue what he’s doing!

No. He knew what he was doing. He’d raised Jesse, who was awesome, and Indio, who was turning himself around one day at a time. He would raise Wynter, in the short time they had left before she became an adult, and a carnival was just the start. He’d been seduced by her childish wishes, and he didn’t regret one moment. She had every right to those wishes.

But none of that erased the consequences.

“I don’t know what Rosa will do,” he said. “I don’t know if this will turn out okay. But no matter how much we wanted this weekend, and no matter how much we enjoyed it, we got here because of a lie. We can’t get out of it with more lies.”

“So, I have to tell her the truth.”

“I want you to do what you feel is right.”

“I think I’d rather talk to her face-to-face.”

“That’s fine. Text her that we’ll be there in an hour.”

She nodded, still upset, and sent the text from her phone. It pinged three times before they reached Richland. She ignored it.

Caleb didn’t stop to offload the bike, which would be as good as telling yet another lie. But as they drove up Rosa’s street, he gave fate a chance and parked outside the neighbor’s house, where bushes hid the truck from view.

Wynter fiddled with the door handle, hesitating. Quietly, she said, “Did Rosa tell you yet about the bus ticket she found?”

“What bus ticket?”

She gave him a sidelong glance. “Okay, I guess you’ll be hearing from Tina about that. They know about that night you spent at Bea’s.”

She got out of the truck before he could ask another question and he followed her to the front door in silence. He wanted to get started on the long drive home. He wanted to see his girlfriend. But Rosa asked him in and he couldn’t abandon Wynter until he found out how the woman was planning to react to their unauthorized excursion.

Rosa was tense with bottled-up anger. “Wynter, you have a test tomorrow. Say goodbye to your brother and go upstairs to study. I need to talk to him.”

“May I talk to you first?” she said.

Rosa inhaled deeply, her nostrils flaring. “Very well. Let’s all sit in the front room.”

Caleb quickly took one of the chairs so he wouldn’t end up on the loveseat next to Wynter. He didn’t want to feel like the two of them were misbehaving school children under the principal’s glare. Rosa took the other armchair.

“Why were you incommunicado for almost an entire day?” Rosa demanded.

Wynter frowned. “What does that word mean?”

Rosa threw her hands up. “Out of touch. Why were you out of touch? Clearly your phone wasn’t dead, because you texted me an hour ago.”

“It was switched off.”

“Why? You must’ve known I’d want to know what was happening. Our arrangement with Social Services,” Rosa said, directing her comment at Caleb, “is that you abide by our prearranged visitation hours. Was there no phone at the motel?”

“I didn’t think,” Wynter said.

Caleb caught her eye, and he knew what she was thinking. Rosa was buying the lie. She was upset because they hadn’t contacted her, not because she suspected any of the rest. Quite aside from the possible repercussions if the truth came out, he was genuinely interested to see what Wynter would do next.

“I called every motel up and down the I-90 looking for you. I was ready to call the police!”

“I was safe,” Wynter said. “Why would you think I wasn’t safe?”

“I have the legal responsibility for your welfare,” Rosa explained with forced patience. “I need to know where you are, every moment of every day.”

“I’m sorry I upset you,” Wynter said like a dutiful child.

“Very well. Go upstairs and study for those tests. You told me you wanted to do well.”

Wynter stood, but didn’t step away. She didn’t look at Caleb. Instead, she waited for Rosa to look at her.

“We weren’t in a motel on the I-90,” Wynter said.

Caleb bowed his head in his hands, awaiting what came next with dread, because it could destroy their future, and with so much love and admiration he couldn’t breathe, because she’d decided she couldn’t sustain the lie.

“What do you mean? Where were you?” Rosa turned her glare on Caleb.

I’ll tell you,” Wynter said. “Not him. I’ll tell you, because it was my idea and I didn’t tell him I was supposed to be studying. We rode the motorcycles through Yakima River Canyon and we saw big horn sheep and an eastern kingbird and a… a chat. That’s another kind of bird. I don’t remember the name. We made a beautiful video on the riverbank. We rode through a dark forest and we had churros at a carnival and Jesse took me on seven different rides until I felt sick. I didn’t mind. I’m gonna write a song about it. Caleb shot some ducks and won a robot for me.”

Her voice was breathless and she was visibly shaking. She wasn’t done yet.

“We stayed at a motel in Ellensburg with tiny soaps and a real swimming pool with funky water. Jesse said it was revolting but I liked it. I loved it. The thunderstorm was the best part. Then we saw a movie with the most beautiful magical things you can imagine. It looked real, but it was made by a computer. Jesse tried to persuade Caleb to enroll for college classes, to give himself a new challenge after so many years fixing engines. I ate Mongolian beef with chopsticks, and special fried rice, and I saw the lobsters they boil alive but they were too expensive.”

She ran out of steam.

Caleb stood up, aching to hug her. Then he realized she didn’t need a hug. She was strong enough, after all, like he kept telling her.

Rosa’s eyes blazed. “We’ll talk about this later. You’ll tell me everything.”

“I’ve told you the important bits. I’ll keep the rest.”

“This was wrong, Wynter. Very wrong. Motorcycles and carnivals? You’re going to Greece, for heaven’s sake. We’ll stop over in Paris.”

“Greece will be fine. But this was the best weekend of my life and you can never take it away.”

A flash of understanding crossed Rosa’s face, as though she realized, for a moment, that there might be some value in giving motorcycles and carnivals and thunderstorms and churros to a girl who’d spent her entire life behind a chain-link fence. Caleb saw it, and then it was gone, replaced by the professional mask.

“Go to your room. You can come down at seven for dinner.”

Wynter went to Caleb and raised her face so he could kiss her forehead. No hug, no words—a clockwork toy going through the motions, impervious to the cold-hearted concerns of a fake mother.

But her head and heart and soul were filling up. The three people who loved her could see it happening, knew how to make it happen. He’d never been so proud of Indio, for taking his place at her graduation, or of Jesse, for encouraging him to make this weekend happen. Or of Wynter, for telling the truth afterward.

Caleb had nothing else to add, so he walked himself to the front door. Rosa rushed after him, her sensible rubber-soled shoes tapping on the tiles.

“This was a serious abuse of trust. She claims it was her idea, but clearly you plotted the whole thing if you brought along the motorcycles.”

She was right. The Canyon Road ride, at least, was his deception. It had all snowballed from there.

“I have to get back to Seattle,” he said, as politely as he could. He let himself out.

She followed him down the driveway and onto the street. “I’ll be reporting this to Tina. It won’t look good at your custody hearing.”

Out on the street, he opened the door of the truck, then stopped to lean on the roof, hesitating a second to wonder if he could get through what he needed to say without losing his cool entirely.

“Wynter won’t talk to either of us about the first fifteen years of her life, and that’s because she lives in the present, not the past, and she survives on hopes for the future. I love her. She belongs with me. That’s the future she deserves. She decided to put that future at risk, just to tell you the truth. Now you get to decide—you can help us, or you can wreck everything.” He got into the truck and called through the open door, “Have a wonderful trip to Europe, Rosa. Take good care of her.”

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