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aTonya trudged down the street with Cora, feeling as if her arm were missing.  No, worse than her arm: Her head.  No, not her head: Her heart.

She had to find Darrell, that was all.  Every thread of her being was trained on this goal.  She had to find her son, bring him home safe, and not let anything bad happen to him ever again.

Cora’s phone buzzed and she stopped and stared at it.

“Medhi and Hugo say they haven’t heard from Juliette, so I don’t think they’re trying to get to France, not yet anyway,” Cora told her.

France?  Darrell might have some kind of crush on this girl, but LaTonya could not imagine him having the gumption to go to France, no matter how hard he might want to get away.

“Darrell’s a homebody,” LaTonya told Cora.  “I have a feeling he hasn’t gone far.  I bet he’s hiding out near here, somewhere.”

“I wish I was as confident about Juliette,” said Cora.  “I’m afraid I have no idea what that girl is going to do, anymore.  I feel like I don’t even know her.”

LaTonya wasn’t sure whether she should like Cora, with her rarefied history and her foreign airs, but she did.  In high school, they couldn’t have been more different, LaTonya already pregnant sophomore year and by graduation the mother of toddler twins, while Cora was Miss Ambition, racking up A’s and running all the clubs and working at her parents’ restaurant and then going back East to college, an experience that to LaTonya at the time seemed as unknowable and, more to the point, unhaveable as riding your very own rocket ship to the moon.

Now, though, they were just two single moms stuck in Hot Springs, trying to do their best.  And it was not Cora but her wild, foreign daughter who seemed like the enemy.

“Do you think your daughter would try to convince him to leave Hot Springs?” LaTonya asked, fear rising in her chest.  “To hitch a ride to Little Rock, or maybe Memphis, or somewhere?”

Darrell had never even been out of Arkansas, and showed not much gumption about ever leaving, a fact which usually dismayed LaTonya but now was of some comfort.

“Honestly, LaTonya, I wish I knew,” Cora said.  Then her face crumpled and she started sobbing, covering her face with her hands.  “I feel like everything I’ve done in my entire life has been a mistake.  And now the worst thing of all has happened.”

Hearing these words, so like what LaTonya herself was feeling, made her blood run cold.  But Cora having said them meant that LaTonya didn’t have to.  And seeing Cora standing all slumped over like that, not moving, not searching, only strengthened LaTonya’s resolve.

“Come on, sister,” she said, laying a hand on Cora’s shoulder.  “Let’s go back and get the car.”

They’d already been to see DaShawn, who said he thought he might have seen somebody who looked like Darrell, except wearing a suit, walking down the street with a white girl earlier in the evening.  But it was dark, they were far away, and when they didn’t come in the place, DaShawn figured it wasn’t him after all.  He volunteered to help search, but LaTonya asked him to just sit tight in the Go Go for now, figuring that if Darrell was going to ask anybody for help, it would be DaShawn.

She and Cora had covered the entire center of town on foot.  If the kids were crouched in an alley, they thought, or sitting in the gazebo on the edge of the park where they’d met, she and Cora would have a better chance of finding them this way.  They’d asked everyone they passed, had called their names until they were hoarse.  But apart from DaShawn’s sketchy sighting, no one had seen anything.

There was so much more territory to cover: the outskirts of town, the park, the hills that stretched for hundreds of miles in every direction.  Even if there had been hundreds of them looking, and not just LaTonya and Cora, it would have seem overwhelming.  She would not let herself think the word impossible.

“I just don’t think he’d go far,” she said for the dozenth time, as much to herself as to Cora.  “When he was a little boy, no matter what you asked him, what he wanted to watch on TV, what he wanted to eat for dinner, he’d answer ‘leggary.’  I had no idea what he was talking about until his big brother DaShawn translated it for me.  He meant ‘regular.’  He wanted everything to be exactly like it was before.”

Darrell was still like that.  He wore the same jeans every day to school, used his favorite pencils till they were almost too short to hold, ate the same corn flakes drowned in milk for breakfast, the same pasta or pizza for dinner.  That’s probably why he’d gone out that night, because none of his favorite foods were home.  He loved his normal life, his everyday routines, and LaTonya could only imagine how desperately he wished he were home in his own bed eating his nightly bowl of vanilla ice cream while watching a Simpsons rerun he’d watched 50 times before.

That’s what LaTonya wanted too.  She wanted the whole world to rewind to the night before Darrell sneaked out of the house and went to the park, met Juliette for the first time, the night all this trouble started.  She’d sit up in the living room awake with her books, studying for the MCats, instead of letting herself fall asleep.  She’d hear him if he tried to leave the house, shoo him back to bed.

Because what did any of it — MCats, sleep, life — matter if she lost Darrell?  It didn’t.  If anything happened to him, if he should….

She wasn’t going to let herself think that.  But she’d driven over a bridge once, in Tennessee, and she’d already decided: She’d go back there, and jump off it.

“Oh my God,” said Cora.

She stopped in her tracks, bent down, picked something up.

“What?”

“It’s my mother’s shoe.  When she left the house, Juliette was wearing this shoe.”

Read LaTonya’s side of the story.

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