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38. LaTONYA: The Big Must

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.
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15. LaTONYA: The Mistake

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.
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