Rosa hardly said a word to Wynter on the drive to the Benton county courthouse, that first Monday in August, for the custody hearing. She was probably annoyed. She’d provided a good home—Wynter had to admit that. She’d taken her on an amazing vacation to Europe. She’d tolerated Wynter’s guitar practice and taught her to cook. And now Wynter, who had not really offered anything in return, was leaving.
Wynter dug deep and could not muster up one ounce of emotion for her foster mother.
After parking the car in front of the building, Rosa gave Wynter a tight smile and tried to take her hand as they walked down the path between manicured lawns. Wynter ran on ahead, seeing Caleb and Jesse waiting at the entrance—in suits. Caleb was even wearing a necktie.
“He looks like a lawyer,” Wynter whispered to Jesse while Caleb made small talk with Rosa.
“I think he looks like he’s getting married.”
“You look smart, too.”
Jesse tugged on the collar of his button-through shirt and grimaced. “Where’s my medal for wearing a jacket twice in the same calendar year?”
“I wanted to pack my stuff and bring it all with me,” Wynter said, “but Rosa wouldn’t let me.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Jesse put his arm around her shoulder. “We’ll drive over after the hearing and pick everything up.”
It was slowly sinking in. Wynter wasn’t going to spend another night in Rosa’s house. She was coming home. Jesse was going to show her around his old school and they’d spend the next month hitting the books to prepare for it. Every evening would be spent in the jamroom making music, at least until school started. Indio would visit more often, and Joy would finally understand what a family felt like. Maybe, now the pressure was off, she’d move in with them.
“Look.” Jesse nodded toward the street, where Joy was getting out of the passenger side of a car.
Wynter ran over and they hugged. “You came!”
“My friend drove me all the way here.” The friend didn’t get out of the car. “I hope this won’t take too long.”
They went in, and Caleb took Joy aside to talk with her. Joy handed him a folder—the paperwork Joy and Miriam had assembled to get Wynter a passport in February. They needed some of those documents today to prove who Wynter was and where she came from.
Wynter kept quiet for now about her plans to have Joy move in with them. She’d ask Jesse to switch to Indio’s room, because Jesse’s room was a little bigger. It would fit two twin beds and she’d share with Joy. Joy would get a proper job and go to night school, and Jesse would help them both with their homework. Wynter would teach her what she’d learned about cooking. And Joy had a lovely singing voice—she could even be a part of their music.
They waited in the hallway until the case was called. It was a closed family court session and there were only a few people there. Joy and Rosa sat at the back, on opposite sides of the room. Jesse sat right behind Caleb, Wynter and the lawyer in the front row.
Tina hurried in, almost late, and sat on the other side, with two people in suits.
“Why isn’t she sitting with us?” Wynter whispered to Caleb.
Caleb didn’t answer.
The air stilled and pressed down on Wynter’s skin, her chest, her eardrums. Tina wasn’t here to help Caleb get custody.
She was here to fight him.
People started talking in normal voices, like this was something they did every day. The judge asked for evidence that Wynter was a dependent. A lawyer for Social Services stood and established that Wynter was a resident of Washington. He explained Wynter’s mother had been served notice of the hearing and had not responded, nor contested a petition to have her parental rights revoked.
The judge said, “The child is determined by the court to be an abandoned child.”
At those words, Caleb’s fingers brushed Wynter’s hand where it lay in her lap, but he looked straight ahead.
The judge asked about Wynter’s current guardianship. He asked Caleb for documents about her identity, about his financial status and debt. Caleb handed over written affidavits from character witnesses, including a colleague who’d known him while he was raising his brothers. There was so much paperwork. There was a home study report, a document from his executive officer about the Family Care Plan that Patricia had agreed to, and Wynter’s own statement about where she wanted to live.
Caleb sat in the witness stand as the judge read over everything, nodding and asking questions. He looked at Wynter without smiling or frowning or acknowledging her at all. She was hardly relevant. She didn’t exist for him. She was nothing but bits of paper. Maybe Jesse was right—this was a mathematical inequation, where the judge decided whether the sign in the middle said greater than or less than. The judge was a machine, taking in data and processing it without emotion.
Wynter was nothing but emotion today. Her mechanical body had survived seven months and three days on the outside, and in that time her brain had filled up with all the things she’d experienced, and each part of it had important emotions attached.
It was time for Social Services to put forward their arguments.
As soon as Tina stood up to speak, Wynter’s ears started buzzing. She had to concentrate hard to hear.
Tina said Wynter had been in foster care for half a year, and the current arrangement was working better than could be expected. Wynter was doing well at school with no serious behavioral issues. Tina had Wynter’s report card, the amended one without all the D’s. She made a big deal about the thoughtful Mother’s Day gift Wynter had made, which made no sense at all—her thoughtfulness had been for Ms Driscoll when she was making that music-themed origami box. Tina listed all the benefits of Rosa’s supportive home—a regular routine, a vacation in Greece, sleepovers with friends—backed up by quotes from Tina’s monthly meetings with Wynter.
Wynter had said those things, but not because she wanted to keep living in Rosa’s house.
Was she going to have to keep living in Rosa’s house?