Out of Tune (Wynter Wild #2)

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Wynter focused on the plain wood table before her, on its smooth surface, on the tiny scratches and lines of blue and red ink from stray nibs, each mark a reminder of other forgotten people deciding the fate of other forgotten children.

The buzzing in her ears became a ringing sound.

Tina said Caleb had only known Wynter since the start of the year, had spent only a few hours a month with her, had not seen her at all for two whole months, and had failed to attend her graduation.

Wynter wanted to scream at the judge that it wasn’t Caleb’s fault, it was Tina’s fault they hadn’t spent more time together. But the lawyer had told her not to say a word, not to react, because it would give a bad impression. All that mattered was impressing the judge so he’d know which way to turn that sign in the inequation. Wynter pushed the emotions down. She sat still, except for the shaking.

Now Tina was talking about a history of family violence. She claimed “young people” were drinking and smoking pot in Caleb’s home under his supervision. She talked about motorcycles and an unauthorized two-day excursion where Rosa feared Caleb had kidnapped his sister and “taken her over state lines.” What did that mean? Why didn’t Tina mention the time Wynter ran away in February and her brothers brought her back?

Sometimes the judge told Tina that what she said was irrelevant, and other times he listened in silence, his expression a mask. Sometimes he asked Caleb if things were true, and Caleb spoke the truth. Caleb always spoke the truth and it was going to ruin everything.

Wynter clutched the table edge as her vision swam.

Tina went on and on about why Caleb was an unsuitable guardian. He had “made unreasonable requests” and “acted presumptuously”. He’d deserted his house, leaving Wynter to stay overnight without adult supervision. Wynter had put on six pounds and it was no thanks to Caleb, who evidently could not be bothered to keep his pantry properly stocked. Tina reeled off a list of what she’d found in his refrigerator on her last visit. No milk. No juice. Little more than take-out containers, bacon, butter, and three tomatoes. Tina didn’t know about Jesse’s scientific cooking schedules, about trips to the store for their carefully planned menus. No, Caleb’s pantry was inadequate.

Caleb was inadequate.

Social Services had an assault complaint on file from when Caleb was fifteen. This was news to Wynter. First Indio, now Caleb?

She was fragile and damaged and traumatized by her childhood, Tina said. Was she? Then why did she feel stronger every day? Tina talked again about her perfect placement with Rosa, who had taken a particular interest in Wynter’s well-being, who could provide professional and maternal guidance, private tutors for her education, and a structured environment to improve her physical health and emotional wellbeing, as opposed to Caleb, who barely knew her, had not been observed to show a suitable level of affection, could not provide the necessary stability as a single parent in the military, and who encouraged her to read inappropriate websites…

Wynter couldn’t breathe.

One glorious afternoon in Rethymnon, sitting at a quiet cafe tucked away in an alley, eating cinnamon and honey loukoumades, Rosa had said, Aren’t we having a wonderful time! We could go to Italy next year. And Wynter had been overcome with nauseating panic at the realization Rosa wanted to keep her. Forever. Did you have a little girl who died? she’d asked, when she could breathe again. It was the only reason she could think of why a woman would want to keep a child who wasn’t her own and who didn’t love her, when that child already had a family she loved, who loved her and wanted her for themselves. Rosa had ignored the question, and commented on the weather, like Wynter didn’t exist…

The judge spoke for a few seconds, or maybe a few minutes. Wynter lost track of time, of her surroundings, of herself. She didn’t exist.

Everyone tucked their paperwork back into folders and briefcases.

Caleb took Wynter by the arm and led her mechanical body out of the courtroom. He sat her on a bench in the hallway and moved away to talk to his lawyer. Jesse sat beside her and put both arms around her. Jesse was pale. She couldn’t tell if the shaking was him, or her, or both of them. Somewhere, Joy was crying quietly.

“Let’s get you home.”

Who said that? It was Rosa, hovering a few feet away. She didn’t mean home. She meant the big house in Richland with the blue-and-white bedroom, lights out at ten, and the new high school with the massive gymnasium. Maybe a trip to Italy next year.

“Can we take her for ice cream?” Jesse said.

It was the silliest thing Wynter had ever heard. Ice cream? Ice cream?!

She managed to say, “I don’t want ice cream,” and pushed Jesse away.

Caleb knelt before her and took her hands in his. “We’ll see you this weekend, okay? Don’t worry, hun, I’m not giving up. I’ll never give up.”

Unlike Jesse, who had turned into someone else, Caleb was being exactly himself. He didn’t look upset or angry, although there was something different about his eyes. There was a deep vertical furrow between his eyebrows. But he was otherwise acting normally. He told her to stand up because it was time to go, and she did, and he walked with her to Rosa’s car. He gave her a normal hug and he smelled the same and sounded the same.

She was very upset with him—but still, she didn’t want him to let go of her.

Jesse kept saying, “It isn’t fair, it isn’t fair.”

Shut up, Jesse!

Wynter got in the car and Rosa drove away from the courthouse and Caleb and Jesse. Wynter realized she hadn’t seen Joy outside the courthouse, or said goodbye.

Rosa was very talkative. She talked on and on and on. Wynter couldn’t hear much over the ringing in her ears. She closed her eyes and emptied her mind. When they were almost “home”, they stopped to eat.

“It’s for the best. You do understand, don’t you?” Rosa said. “Now, eat up, dear. You hardly ate any lunch—you must be starving.”

Wynter knew what starving felt like.

She remembered her first few days in Seattle, when Caleb and Jesse were so worried about how thin she was. That first overwhelming trip to the grocery store and the awful cereal she chose, and the barbecue before they drove to Portland to see Indio’s band. They’d encouraged her to eat. Eat more, try something different, have another serving. Almost everything had tasted good, and Rosa’s food tasted even better, and she’d learned to eat more. She was no longer “two tiny tits on a sack of bones”, as Roman once called her in one of his mean moments. She was “at the lower end of normal”, according to the nurse at the clinic where she went for her shots.

“Your food’s getting cold, Wynter.”

Wynter pushed her fettuccine boscaiola aside. “I’m not eating.”

“Aren’t you hungry?”

“I’m not eating until I can go home.”

“Don’t be silly.”

“And I’m not speaking to you. Ever again.”

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