ressing hard on the knots in the pink shoulders of the woman down from Memphis, LaTonya let her mind wander to what lay ahead. The minute this session was over — she stole a glance at the clock: in exactly 17 minutes — she had to rush out the door and drive to the college, then drive like a bat out of hell back for her tutoring session with George.
Should she cancel tonight? She should really go home, make dinner for Darrell, get that boy back on the right track. Remembering how she’d slapped him this morning, she felt guilt and remorse wash over her.
“Ow!” the Memphis woman yelped.
“Sorry, sweetheart,” LaTonya said. They always said they wanted it firm, but when it came down to it, they just wanted to be petted.
The MCats were less than a month away now. She really needed this lesson with George. There was only one night in the week when they were both available and the office at the spa was free for them to use. It had to be tonight.
She’d call Darrell, right after this session and again after her class, check in and make sure he was all right.
The woman from Memphis tipped ungenerously but LaTonya barely registered that. Things that would have crushed her a few years ago didn’t matter anymore. All she cared about now was getting Darrell out of high school in one piece, and getting herself into medical school.
She had worked so long and hard for this, taking years to get through the local community college when Darrell was younger, and then driving more than an hour each way to work on her bachelor’s, deciding she wanted to be a doctor, the grinding amount of studying to get ready for the tests while she finished up her degree. No time to waste, at her age.
She listened to the recording of the last class as she drove to college, then taped the evening’s lecture as she took notes, doubling up because she was so distracted. Darrell was fine, he’d assured her. He’d cook himself some pasta. Yeah, he was studying, not just playing XBox — trust DaShawn to pull that foolishness out of a hat for his little brother at Christmas.
Had anyone seen Darrell near the fire, LaTonya worried, hardly conscious of the words her hand was writing. Were the police looking for him now? At her house?
Under her desk, she checked her phone for messages, texts, but everything was clear.
Then, in the parking lot, before she drove back to town for her lesson with George, she called Darrell and he didn’t pick up. She waited a few minutes, called again, and then texted him. Sometimes he wouldn’t pick up the phone, but he always checked his texts. She dialed her son’s cell phone, then the home phone, but there was no answer at either.
Driving back to Hot Springs, her heart hammering, she kept dialing the phone, checking for texts, though she knew it wasn’t safe. When she still couldn’t reach him, she tried her other sons — Dwayne first, then, DaShawn — but couldn’t reach them either.
When she pulled into town, she was already late for George. He’d be waiting, most likely with his little daughter with him, outside the locked spa.
But she couldn’t meet George without checking on Darrell. She just couldn’t. Leaving the car double-parked, she ran up the stairs to their apartment, her hands trembling as she put the key in the lock. If he wasn’t there, she tried to think of where she’d look, how long she’d wait before she called the police, whether she’d even call the police….
She heard the XBox as soon as she was inside the door and walked into the living room, stunned to see him sitting there, intent on his football game.
“Darrell,” she said. “Why didn’t you answer the phone?”
“Oh,” he said, eyes still trained on the screen, thumbs working the controls, his tongue sticking out. “Sorry, Ma. I think I ran out of juice.”
She took a deep breath, counted to ten, was not going to let herself lose her temper again.
“Did you eat anything?” she said.
“Nah, well, there isn’t anything here.”
“There’s pasta. Or you could heat up some soup.”
He was spoiled. It was her own fault. He was her baby, the one she’d had more time and energy for, the one she’d tried to raise right. Though she still wasn’t sure whether it had done any good.
Most nights, she would have broken down and cooked him the pasta herself. But tonight, there was George and her lesson.
“Here’s some money,” she said, taking the ten the Memphis woman had given her from her pocket and putting it on the table. “You can call for a pizza, but that’s all, do you hear me, Darrell? You get the pizza delivered, you give the guy the money, you lock the door back up again, all right?”
“Sure, Ma. When are you going to be home?”
“I should be back in an hour.”
Relieved, she raced outside and drove quickly to the spa. Still, George was not at the door of the building, and she didn’t see his car in the parking lot. It was chilly now that the sun was down, and she was so late. Maybe he’d made it there before they locked up the place? Maybe he was waiting inside? Everybody knew him; anybody might have let him in.
But he wasn’t in the marble lobby, and he wasn’t in the office where they usually had their lessons, or in the staff room. The lights were off, and the place was deserted. He’d probably come, waited for her, finally given up.
Odd that he hadn’t called her, though. George was so reliable, so conscientious. Feeling terrible that she’d let him down, she called his cell and, as soon as he picked up, started to apologize for being late.
“Oh, LaTonya, oh no, it isn’t your fault,” said George. “I’m so sorry. I’m afraid I forgot.”
“Oh,” she said, surprised. George never forgot, never slipped up. “Is everything all right.”
“Yeah, great, wonderful,” he said. “I guess, well, I just indulged myself with a day off today, and I lost track of time. But I can be there in twenty minutes.”
“I hate to bother you…” she started to say. And she did hate to bother him, especially since he’d been so kind. But it had been so many years now, when everyone else always came first: Her parents, her sisters, the twins, her sorry excuse for a husband, Darrell, her boss…..
And now, finally, she had her medical school tests and graduation in sight. She couldn’t afford, when she was so close, to make a mistake. She had to put herself first.
“To tell you the truth, if you can still make it, George, that would be great,” she said. “I really need your help.”
George said he would be there just as soon as he could.