Indio found Jesse in his room, at his computer. The printer spewed out page after page. Indio picked one up—a triangular rendition of the flag.
“Bea’s arrived,” Indio told him. “You’re supposed to be helping her in the kitchen. What is this for?”
“We’re hosting a Fourth of July barbecue for another military family. We need stars and stripes everywhere, yeah? This is a DIY bunting.”
“Do you know what a bunting is?”
“I do, actually. I know you didn’t know until about three minutes ago when you Googled OMG help me I need ideas for last-minute Fourth of July decorations.”
Jesse threw him a long-suffering look. He was fiddling with a Happy Fourth of July banner on-screen. “How do I print this on multiple sheets so I can tape it together without gaps? Why didn’t the person who created this thing set it up so I can do that easily?” He clicked his mouse furiously. “Everyone in the world is incompetent.”
“We don’t have to prove our patriotism with crappy printouts,” Indio said. “Why do you care about impressing some random dude Caleb served with?”
“He’s not random. That’s the family he wants for Wynter’s standby carers. I know it is.” Jesse glanced up when Indio didn’t respond. “Aha! You know it, too.”
“Still doesn’t mean you need to impress them. This has nothing to do with you.”
“I know. I’m gonna sit Wynter at the patio table and have her string those flags together right under his nose. Just casually finishing it off as they arrive. To show how patriotic she is.”
“But she’s not. She didn’t know the president’s name until January. She probably didn’t know we had a president.”
“That’s nothing to do with patriotism. I went through the fundamentals of democracy with her. It’s one of the first things I taught her and she agreed democracy is a good thing. Ergo, she is patriotic.”
“Funny how everything you tell her, she agrees with you, for some reason.”
“Not true.” Jesse retrieved his printouts and attacked them with scissors. “We had a pretty heated religious discussion, by text, while she was in Greece. I think she was overawed by the amazing old churches in Athens and now she believes in souls again.”
“I thought I’d convinced her otherwise. She’s going with her feelings on this one. It’s a bad habit of hers. She’s mostly rational but when she gets overwhelmed with new experiences that you and I would find ordinary, she gets mystical about it.”
“Okay, first of all, leave her the fuck alone with her feelings. And secondly, don’t even think of bringing up religion today. Stick to the weather and the Huskies.”
Indio kept it to himself that Jesse had figured out the purpose of the visit.
Their guests arrived at precisely 4PM, as Bea was finishing setting a pretty impressive table outside. Indio got busy lighting the grill while Wynter stood on a chair to tie the bunting from the patio roof, trying to keep Jilly from playing with the string. Jesse dashed to the front door with Caleb, eager to get a first impression of this family that Caleb considered suitable for taking care of Wynter.
Wynter climbed down and replaced the chair, giving Indio a wary look at the sound of their guests’ conversation drifting out of the house. Jesse appeared with a chubby toddler in his arms.
“This is Dante. We’re friends already,” Jesse announced. He turned the kid around to display his dinosaur t-shirt. “Dante can’t say please or thank you, but he can say ankylosaurus. This is my kind of kid.” Then he noticed Wynter had finished hanging the decorations. The parents weren’t going to witness her being actively patriotic after all. “Thought all that would take you a bit longer.”
“I spent my entire life making stuff with my hands, quickly,” she said, like he should’ve been well aware.
Jesse set down Dante, who raced over to the paper banner attached to the fence and pulled it down. It ripped in half. Even Jilly stared at him in horror.
“Hey!” Wynter said sharply, jumping forward.
Jesse got there first, rushing over to carefully extract the banner from the kid’s fists before Wynter could overreact. Which was just as well, because at that moment the rest of the family came out, Caleb and Bea bringing up the rear. As it was, they saw Wynter’s cross face and Dante’s shock at being yelled at.
The older kids, a boy in a button-up shirt and a girl in a ridiculously frilly dress, took off into the yard when they saw the bowling set-up. Caleb introduced the parents, Mateo and Renata. Indio shook their hands while Wynter offered a small smile before gathering up the banner to tape it back together. Caleb had presumably told the couple at least some of Wynter’s history and social difficulties, so they couldn’t be expecting a friendly welcome.
What, exactly, did they expect? Indio and his brothers were growing used to Wynter’s quirks, but how did strangers see her? Strangers who were considering taking her into their home?
Renata sat on the bench near her, taking Dante into her lap. He still had a piece of paper in his fat fingers and Wynter wasn’t happy about it as she responded quietly to Renata’s questions about her vacation.
Indio got the meat and skewered vegetables on the grill, resisting Bea’s efforts to take over. As long as he had a job to do, he wouldn’t have to join Caleb’s small talk with Mateo. The lieutenant commander, retired, was at least fifteen years older than Caleb and it was clear the two of them had never met socially before. Indio kept expecting Caleb to add “sir” to the end of everything he said.
“You did great with the bunting, Wyn.” Jesse glanced at Mateo to make sure he heard. She had, in fact, done a better job than Jesse ever could. She’d cut out a dozen white paper stars and dangled them between the triangular flags, a simple but effective addition.
“How much did the flags cost you to make?” Wynter asked him.
Irked she’d handed him the credit, Jesse said, “I got them for free on the internet.”
“I meant, how much was the ink to print them off? This is solid color. It looks like you used up an entire cartridge. Cartridges are twenty dollars each, aren’t they?”
“Looks fantastic, though, huh?”
“You could’ve bought bunting from the grocery store for two dollars.”
“Those are made in Asia.”
“So are your printer cartridges.”
Indio smothered a smile at Jesse’s exasperated look.
“It looks lovely,” Bea said.
“I’m rather crafty, too,” Renata said. “I got out my sewing machine last year, to save a bit of money when Mateo retired and we weren’t sure if the consulting job would come through. I made Ariana’s dress.”
Everyone dutifully admired Ariana in her frilly dress. The two kids had progressed from bowling to fencing with the plastic bowling pins. Ariana whacked her brother in the head. He responded by swinging at her shoulder. She fell on her backside and howled.
“Emmanuel!” Mateo barked. “Put that down and behave yourself.”
Ariana stumbled to the patio in tears. Her handmade dress had a green stain on it, thanks to the freshly cut grass Indio had generated that morning. Renata fussed over her.
“She hit him first,” Wynter said.
Caleb frowned at her for tattling. Wynter wouldn’t see it as tattling, of course. Her sense of justice had been offended because only Emmanuel had been admonished, and she was setting the record straight. Indio was frankly surprised Jesse hadn’t gotten there first with a similar judgment, but Jesse was admirably subdued—for now. It must be killing him.
Bea handed Jilly to Caleb and hurried over to the grill. “Let’s get those drumsticks on the table, shall we?”
“I like chicken nuggets,” Ariana said, still sobbing about her dress. “Why are we having another Fourth of July barbecue anyway? We already did this two days ago and they had balloons!”
“I don’t suppose you have chicken nuggets?” Renata said in that polite, apologetic way of someone at the mercy of her children’s demands.
Bea went inside to see. Wynter looked at the girl like she was an offense to nature. Wynter always ate whatever was in front of her, without complaint. Ariana was old enough to suck it up when it came to eating food at other people’s houses. Then again, what did Indio know about acceptable eight-year-old behavior in a normal family?
Were these people a normal family? Could Wynter ever fit into a normal family, if such a thing existed?
Mateo went out to the yard to supervise Emmanuel tidying up the bowling pins and balls, and the boy obeyed without fuss. Indio caught Jesse’s eye and knew what he was thinking—how Caleb would boss them around as kids, and how Wynter had quickly accepted his authority. Indio imagined Mateo ordering Wynter around like that, and it made him feel sick. Or would Mateo side with her, as he had with his own daughter moments earlier? Would he and his wife spoil Wynter, fuss over her, cater to her every whim? Neither scenario felt right. In fact, Indio was pretty certain Wynter would manipulate these people if they weren’t careful—not because she was mean, but because she was gradually learning how to get what she wanted.
Indio poked at the sausages, his unease simmering. He had rebelled against Caleb’s authority, but that structure and support suited Wynter—at least for now. She needed to live in this house, she needed Caleb taking care of her, and she didn’t need to be pawned off on another family at random intervals.
Caleb needed to quit the Coast Guard—Indio knew Jesse had made that unthinkable suggestion and gotten nowhere, but in truth a hardship discharge was a valid out.
As Indio stewed, Mateo was talking about Caleb applying to Officer Candidate School in Connecticut. Caleb gave noncommittal answers that belied his true feelings—he was officer material, he knew it, his CO knew it and had been encouraging him to apply for a while now. OCS was a significant career decision, to put it mildly, and entirely incompatible with Wynter’s needs.
Bea and Renata talked about their toddlers. Each time Renata tried to include Wynter—she was, after all, auditioning Wynter for the role of temporary daughter—Wynter professed ignorance about toddlers, or gave a monosyllabic answer, and Bea wasn’t helping. Bea, of course, would be happy if Caleb’s custody petition was denied. It was the unspoken thing hanging between the two of them. Indio couldn’t begin to imagine continuing a relationship under that kind of tension.
“What are your plans for the rest of the summer?” Renata asked Wynter.
Wynter glanced at Caleb, no doubt wondering if Renata knew the details of her living arrangements, and how to answer the question without using words like foster care and visitation schedule. And what was Caleb supposed to say? Of course Renata and Mateo knew. Wynter wasn’t supposed to know they knew. Indio hated the deception, and so would Wynter when she found out.
Jesse saved her. “I’m tutoring Wynter so she can start high school ahead of the game.”
“Jesse wants me to finish high school in two years,” Wynter announced.
This was news to Indio, and to Caleb as well from the look on his face. Caleb had just noticed that Jilly was transferring corn kernels, one by one, from her plate to his shirt pocket. He managed to pretend it wasn’t happening.
“I’m famous for my nutty ideas,” Jesse said into the brief silence.
“It’s not nutty,” Wynter said in his defense. “The quicker I finish school, the better.”
“That sounds like an awful lot of work,” Renata said. Ariana was on her lap, and the baby was trying to crawl on top of them both. “When will you have time for your friends?”
“I don’t have friends.”
“You’ll make new friends at high school,” Jesse said.
“So far, friends have been too much trouble.” She was daring Jesse to contradict her. Jesse let it drop.
Bea returned from the house with a bowl of microwaved nuggets. Emmanuel heaped them onto his plate, which caused his sister to scream at him because they were for her. Even though it looked like Bea had cooked an entire box.
“You have enough on your plate,” his dad said, without commenting on Ariana’s behavior.
Emmanuel counted his nuggets and concluded he was going to need more food. He came over to the grill to check out the sausages. Indio forked one, cooling in a foil tray, and held it out for him.
“Mijo, come back to the table,” Renata said with an undertone of alarm.
Emmanuel’s fingers hesitated in midair. He caught Indio’s eye, weighing the consequences. Indio flicked the sausage into the tray with a tiny shrug of apology for the poor boy. Between them, Jesse and Wynter were going to upend this barbecue in another five minutes or so—no need for Indio to make a scene as well. Emmanuel returned to his seat empty-handed and confused.
Caleb handed Jilly over to her mother, fetched the tray of sausages, and put it on the table, which earned him a grateful smile from Renata.
Wynter looked like she was going to explode as she figured out the problem. Indio gave her a little shake of his head, grateful nonetheless that she was indignant on his behalf. So, Mateo and Renata knew enough about him to warn their kid away. Then again, they had the right to know. He wouldn’t want his kids hanging out with a juvenile delinquent, either.
He joined the others at the table with the last tray of meat. Wynter slid over to make room for him on the end of the bench. He was directly opposite Jesse, who looked like he was biting his tongue. Indio was pretty impressed at the way his brother had controlled himself, more or less. It couldn’t last.
“So, you’re a Cougars fan,” Jesse said, noting Mateo’s cap.
“Washington State, class of ’96,” Mateo said.
“Is that hockey?” Wynter said.
“College football,” Jesse told her.
“You hate football.”
“I have mixed feelings about football. I don’t hate it.”
“You told me—”
“I prefer hockey, that’s true,” Jesse said, cutting her off.
“How about you, Wynter?” Mateo asked with a forced joviality that made it clear he had no idea how to interact with a teenage girl. “You like sports?”
“I don’t have an opinion about sports yet. I think, eventually, I’ll decide I don’t like them. They’re not real.”
“Well that sucks,” Jesse said. “I was gonna take you to a preseason game in September.”
“Hockey. I’m not wasting my money on football.” He slid Mateo a quick apologetic look. “We’ll go see the Thunderbirds and I’ll teach you to appreciate hockey.”
“But it’s not real. It’s pointless. A lot of the ancient art I saw in Greece was sports. The art was nice but the sports were pointless. Like, they did the long jump with weights attached to their feet, so they weren’t even measuring how far a man could really jump. And what’s the point of throwing the discus? That’s not a real-world skill.”
“Neither sports or art have to make sense,” Jesse said. “It’s all a bit of fun.”
“That’s not true. You told me,” she said between gritted teeth, “that you respect innovative creativity. Art can be a way to say serious and important things.” She turned to Indio for confirmation.
Indio kept his mouth the hell shut.
Jesse snorted. “Oh, you’re right. Those Greek phalluses? Pan and the randy goat? So important and serious.”
“Jesse—” Caleb started, somehow out of his depth.
“My point is,” Jesse went on, because nothing stopped Jesse when he was on a roll, “sports are fun but they also signify something important and serious about the human spirit, about the essence of humanity. Pushing yourself to see how far you can go. Adding weights for the challenge. Playing chess blindfolded.”
“Chess is a sport now?” Mateo said with a chuckle.
“Do you play chess?” Emmanuel piped up.
Jesse said, “Sure. Wanna play?”
“Emmanuel, eat your potatoes,” Mateo said.
“She didn’t eat hers,” Wynter said, pointing to Ariana’s plate of untouched mashed potatoes and salad. Ariana was already eating ice cream.
“Ariana isn’t fond of potatoes,” Renata said.
“I like chips,” Ariana said.
Her brother said, “So do I,” and stirred his potatoes unhappily.
“Eat!” Mateo barked, and Emmanuel spooned in a mouthful.
Jesse gave Mateo an openly hostile look and said, “I’ll fetch the chess board.” He went inside. Caleb followed him, which didn’t bode well.
Renata struck up a conversation with Bea about the marinade on the grilled vegetables, detailing her own recipe at length, and Wynter started to take a mild interest as she was learning to cook. Which left Mateo with no one to talk to but Indio. Indio did not like, had never liked, military types—starting with his own father. Mateo was retired but still had the military haircut and bearing. He acted toward his own son like a drill sergeant while his daughter got away with murder. This inconsistency alone was enough to disqualify him as a potential caregiver to Wynter—because she would never stand for it, as she’d already shown.
Indio leaned to the side to grab a couple more beers from the cooler, and handed one to Mateo. He didn’t like the guy, but the awkwardness of the occasion demanded another drink. They assessed each other in silence for a while. Caleb must’ve revealed something about Indio’s life or his past, and Mateo’s opinion was no doubt being refined by Indio’s long hair, unshaven jaw, and sullen silence. The two of them had nothing to say to each other. And, he imagined, Mateo and Wynter would have the same problem.
Mateo wouldn’t be around much, of course. Renata would be taking care of Wynter. Indio hadn’t seen Wynter interact with many people outside the family, so he probably wasn’t the best judge of how her relationship with Renata was proceeding, but anyone could see they hadn’t clicked.
Jesse returned with the chess board, looking somewhat chastised, Caleb on his heels. Jesse chatted with Emmanuel as he set up the board, with Wynter watching intently as if she might decipher the key to human interactions by watching Jesse interact with a seven-year-old. Jesse had minimal experience with children but he was doing an amazing job with this kid.
“What do you like to play, Wynter?” Renata asked, trying once again to include her.
“I play guitar.”
“I love the guitar. My cousin plays in a mariachi band.”
Wynter opened her mouth to say she hated mariachi bands—at least, that’s what Indio assumed she was about to say. She remembered herself in time and clamped her lips.
“What else do you like to do?” Renata persisted.
“Jesse taught me to play Racing Demons.”
“Demons? That’s not…” She glanced at her husband. “Is that a game about… demons?”
“It’s a card game,” Jesse snapped. “Don’t worry, Wynter doesn’t believe in demons. She’s an atheist, just so you know. No gods, no devils—”
“I’m agnostic,” Wynter corrected him.
“No, you’re an atheist. A few pretty churches in Greece can’t change your mind about that. I gave you two essays on the Age of Enlightenment, months ago, and you said they made sense. You agreed you lack a belief in deities. That makes you a weak atheist, on the scale.”
“The scale?” Wynter scoffed. “Whose scale?”
“Jesse,” Caleb said, “play chess.”
Jesse and Wynter scowled in comical unison at the reproach. Caleb’s tone matched Mateo’s exactly. Eat your potatoes. Caleb going to officer school might just be the worst possible thing for this family.
The adults found other topics of conversation while Indio watched the chess game and Wynter watched the players. Indio couldn’t predict whether Jesse would let Emmanuel win, to be nice, or destroy him utterly, which was more in character. He knew enough about the game to recognize that, after the first five minutes, Jesse was leading the kid around in circles to force a draw. Despite his earlier kindness to Emmanuel, his mood was too sour to lose on purpose.
Mateo came to watch over Emmanuel’s shoulder. “Never could get the hang of this game.”
“It’s a beautiful game,” Jesse said.
“It’s so boring,” Ariana said. “Do you have Monopoly?”
“Yes! Let’s play Monopoly,” Bea said, like it would solve every problem under the sun.
“Monopoly is forbidden in this house,” Jesse said.
“Because you disapprove of capitalism?” Mateo said, as a joke.
“Because the game relies solely on one algorithm—buy everything.”
“But I like Monopoly. I always win,” Ariana said.
“I wonder why,” Jesse muttered.
“C’mon, son, thought you were the lower elementary school champ?” Mateo said as the game dragged on. “He beat a third-grader for the title, last semester.”
Emmanuel furrowed his brow as he scrutinized the board.
“Stalemate?” Jesse held out his hand. Emmanuel shook it, relief etched on his face.
“Well, that’s disappointing,” Mateo said. “Problem with chess is there are too many draws. They should have overtime.”
“People who say there are too many draws in chess don’t realize a draw can be beautiful, too,” Jesse said. “Great game, Emmanuel.”
“You need to practice a bit more,” Mateo said. “Otherwise, Dante’s gonna be beating you in a year or two. Ariana here’s already a class ahead in math.”
“She’s a year older than me,” Emmanuel murmured.
“But you used to be in the advanced class. What happened?”
Emmanuel mumbled something into his hand.
“I don’t think you should shame children,” Wynter said.
The women stopped talking.
“I don’t think you should treat them differently.” Wynter’s face flushed because she was using a tone you weren’t supposed to use with adults. “You should love them the same. All exactly the same.”
“Of course we love them all the same,” Renata stammered.
“You love one of them more, and they all know it.”
Emmanuel’s eyes widened and his lower lip wobbled. Caleb leaned on the table, beer bottle in one hand, the other hiding his lower face as he watched Wynter in utter defeat.
Jesse looked satisfied with how things were going.
Renata stood up, setting Ariana on her feet, and took Emmanuel’s hand to pull him off his seat. “The children are tired. I think we’ll go. Thank you so much for the invitation, Caleb.”
Caleb stood to see them out.