“I’m going to apply to become a foster parent,” Caleb said, “a regular licensed foster parent. Then I’ll ask for you to be placed in my care. With Patricia as our backup, everything will work out.”
“But I’d still be a foster kid.”
“That’s not right. I’m your sister. Anyway, Tina will stop you.”
“She can’t stop me getting licensed. It’s done through an agency, nothing to do with her.”
“Rosa won’t let me go.”
“Nothing to do with Rosa, either. Jesse and I looked through it all last night.”
Caleb stretched out one leg along the stair, the other drawn up, and kept talking like it was all decided, and Wynter found herself falling under his spell. Everything will work out…
“There are no petitions or lawyers or judges involved. You’ve stated your preference to live with me, and once I’ve been through the process it’s like a stamp of approval. I don’t have to be perfect to be a foster parent.”
“How long will it take?”
“Well, there are lots of factors involved. Training courses, home visits. The timing’s out of my control, but probably around six months.”
The spell shattered. “No. No-no-no-no. I’m not staying here for another six months!”
“Wynter, you cannot live with me right now. Nothing either of us does will change that.”
“I don’t understand. You always get what you want.”
“God, that’s not true.” He tipped his head back against the wall and stared at the ugly chandelier overhead. “That’s never been true. I wanted Mom to come home and I wanted Joy to grow up with us. I wanted Harry to open his eyes and to drink less and to bring home a decent woman and marry her. I wanted…”
He closed his eyes and swallowed painfully, and he suddenly looked very young. Not the adult in charge of everything, not the fireman running engines and saving lives on a cutter on the ocean, not the perfect father that Jilly was waiting for. He wasn’t even three years older than Indio, whom nobody considered an adult. He was only ten years older than Wynter.
“I wanted someone else to do the laundry once in a while,” he said, “and someone else to get those boys out of bed and washed and dressed and fed in time for school, and someone else to be responsible for putting lunch money in their pocket and making sure their forms were signed. I wanted to go to college. I wanted Indio to listen to me and I wanted Bea to support me through this. I’ve always done what I had to do, to keep things ticking over, because otherwise I couldn’t live with myself—but I wanted something else entirely.”
Somehow, he said it all without a shred of self-pity. He was simply informing her of the facts. And now it was said, he seemed to regret the words. He bowed his head, shaking it slowly as his fingers dragged through his hair.
“I have plenty that I wanted. But not everything, hun. I’m being realistic. I fought for what I wanted, and when it didn’t work out I accepted what I did get and I learned to live with it. I need you to do the same.”
“I can’t,” she stammered. “Six more months… no. I need to come home now.”
She couldn’t meet his eye. She felt his look of shock, and his sadness. She’d wanted to make him smile every day… What happened to that simple desire?
Jesse was back. Rosa had left the door on the latch and he let himself in, and carried a grocery bag into the kitchen. Then he came up the stairs with a blue drink bottle in his hand and a look of determination on his face.
“Did you tell her? Will she eat now?”
Caleb didn’t answer him. Jesse held out the bottle to Wynter. She shook her head.
He unscrewed the cap and held it out again. He looked to Caleb, expecting him to lay down the law, but Caleb looked away. He’d said he wasn’t going to talk about this, and he was keeping his promise.
“If you don’t drink this,” Jesse said, “I’m not going to Indio’s gig tomorrow. I won’t see him on stage being a rock god. I won’t be able to tell you about it. I won’t be able to take photos for you. I won’t go backstage to shake hands with a bunch of bonafide musicians on a bonafide tour.”
“It’s stupid to punish yourself,” Wynter said. “And I don’t know what bonafide mea—”
“Indio was there for you, for the Clockwork Toys.” A strange, controlled anger colored Jesse’s voice. “Because of you, no one will be there for him. His greatest moment as a musician, a professional musician, and he’ll be on that stage all alone because you can’t even stand up and because I’m not going until you drink one fucking bottle of—”
Wynter snatched the bottle and gulped a huge mouthful. Spluttering, she checked the label.
“This is almost six percent sugar!”
“Sugar helps you absorb the salts.”
“You’re making that up.”
Jesse didn’t even make a fuss that she was questioning his scientific explanation. His voice cracked as he said, “Drink it, Wyn.”
She took a small sip to keep him happy. He sat on the step below her, opposite Caleb, and pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes for a moment.
As for Caleb, she understood what he was saying but he didn’t understand her. So he’d wanted many things in his life, and most of them he’d gotten, hadn’t he? He had Jesse at home, and things were improving with Indio. He had a loving girlfriend and he might soon have a cute little girl running into his arms for kisses and calling him Daddy instead of Cayrub. He had a home, his motorcycle, his karate students. He’d made petty officer first class in a little over five years, which Jesse assured her was quite an achievement. His life was full of things he wanted.
Despite everything she’d accomplished since January, Wynter only wanted one thing—the same thing she’d wanted since her first night in Seattle when Caleb said she could stay and she’d told him, Thank you, I will stay.
She would not compromise on that. A dose of salts to stop the cramps, that was as far as she’d go. She finished half the bottle. Her stomach was too full to keep going and she felt queasy.
“Jesse, can we start on quadratic equations today?”
“I don’t think… You won’t be able to concentrate.”
That was unexpected. Jesse never passed up the chance to teach her anything. She didn’t have the energy to fight it. “You won’t help me with school until I start eating, is that it?”
“I guess so.”
She capped the bottle and put it on the top stair. Jesse glared at the bottle like he could transport its contents into her stomach by sheer force of will.
She said, “So, you’re not on my side anymore.”
“There’s no point in studying if nothing goes in.”
“I’ve drunk half an ounce of sugar. I feel fine.”
“Then come downstairs for a bit. I bought apple juice. Strawberries, too.”
“No, Jesse. I’ll eat when I’m living at home.” She stood up and her brothers rose with her, poised to catch her if she fell. “I’ll do some reading, then.”
Jesse’s expression crumpled. She felt strangely immune to his feelings. Her legs were a bit wobbly but the cramps weren’t so bad. She walked away.
“Go sit with her,” she heard Caleb say, and Jesse followed her into her room.
“Are we doing today’s day in history?” she said, as conversationally as possible.
“I did prepare some stuff but maybe you should just read quietly.”
“Go fetch it. I’m okay.”
His lips compressed stubbornly. In her experience, Jesse was rarely stubborn for the sake of it. He always had a rational reason for everything he did. For a moment it looked like he would refuse. Then he turned on his heel and fetched his backpack from downstairs. Wynter wiggled her toes as her muscles threatened to cramp again, until he returned.
Jesse glanced at a printout without much enthusiasm. “The IBM PC was released today in 1981.”
“I don’t know what that is. Do I need to know?”
He sighed and sat crosswise on the bed, shuffling all the way back to lean against the wall. “King George the Fourth was born in 1762. We could learn about him.”
“Was he a good king?”
“There are no good kings. He was particularly bad. Vikram Sarabhai was born about a hundred years ago—father of the Indian space program.”
“Why do you always manage to find something to do with the space program?”
“He has a crater on the moon named after him. That’s my life’s ambition, to have a crater named after me. Or a comet.” He sounded a little more lively as he shifted into mentor gear. She was not thrilled with the options, so he moved onto the next thing on his list. “It’s William Goldman’s birthday. He wrote novels and screenplays, nothing I’ve read or watched except for The Princess Bride—the only work of fiction that’s on both my Top Ten list and Indio’s. I brought the movie on a USB drive.”
“Is it sci-fi?”
“No. It’s exactly as it sounds—a fairy tale. So you may be wondering why it’s on my Top Ten—”
“We’re supposed to watch The Right Stuff. Doris from the retirement home says it’s full of handsome young men.”
“That’s why she likes the movie, I guess.”
“I thought Doris and Donald were interested in futurism and the space program! Good looks aren’t a reason to watch any movie. Unless it has Jennifer Connelly in it. Anyway, I didn’t bring that movie with me.” He took out his phone. “We’ll read your English novels while listening to The Princess Bride soundtrack, written by Mark Knopfler. Coincidentally, it’s also his birthday today. Double whammy. You know who he is?”
“Of course. Romeo and Juliet. Money for Nothing. Indio’s learning fingerstyle by copying him.”
Wynter sat with Jesse and they took one book each. The novels were from Jesse’s high school ninth-grade syllabus—he’d checked the list weeks ago and was re-reading them so he could help her next year. At the time he’d been certain she’d be going to his old high school and not some school in Richland that might have a different reading list. It hadn’t occurred to either of them she would still be at Rosa’s house in September.
“These songs are sad,” she said halfway through the second track.
“They’re melancholy. It gets better.”
“Does Indio know what I’m doing?”
“I told him as soon as we found out. I texted Joy, too, but she hasn’t responded. We called the office and she’s on some retreat in San Francisco where I guess they’re forbidden from using phones.”
“What did Indio say?”
“He said what I was thinking—that it wouldn’t last. He thought he’d be seeing you backstage tomorrow.”
“Please don’t be upset with me.”
“I’m not.” Jesse’s tone was flat. “I’m upset with everything in the entire universe, except you.”
They read together in silence. The soundtrack ended and she made him put the last song, Storybook Love, on endless repeat. He did so without argument, although she knew he preferred upbeat music. Eyes drooping, she set her book aside and curled up against him.
“This song is the story of Doris and Donald, I’m sure of it,” she murmured. “It’s the story Tristan and Iseult were meant to have.”
“It’s unbearably sappy.”
“You’re wrong, Jesse.”
He barked a laugh of disbelief. “What?”
“What? Have you never been wrong before?”
“I aim to be infallible. For you, anyway.”
“I don’t mind if you’re wrong sometimes.”
“No, you should mind, Wyn. You have to keep me on my toes. Always tell me if I’m wrong, okay? Not that it’ll happen often.” He closed his book and rested his chin on top of her head. “I hate seeing you in pain. You have to drink those salt drinks. And when you decide to eat again, you need to start real slow. Fruit juice first, and then bland carbs like potatoes and rice.”
“You can help me with that—because when that happens, I’ll be living at home.”