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Authors: Julie Cantrell

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BOOK: The Feathered Bone
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We approach the café, where tourists and locals scramble by us. I scan the crowd, something I've done for years, searching the faces for my dull brown eyes or dirt-floor-brown hair, as Carl calls my unruly strands. I find no one with the familiar hitch in my step or the crooked curve of my nose. No one who might be my birth mother.

One road-worn young woman does catch my eye. She is squeezed into a tight, low-cut tank top and a miniskirt that's more than a few sizes too small. With a cocked hip, she brushes against men, dropping temptation their way. Although her smile
might be described as captivating, her gaze is heavy, hungry. I am tempted to pull Ellie and Sarah to the side. Come up with something to say to ensure they will never end up like this.
Pay attention, girls. See this woman.
As soon as I think it, I chastise myself, wondering if this street-hardened girl has ever had a mother whisper to her at all.

On the same corner, the old man from the ferry now slumps in his wheelchair. He shoots me a strange look, one that puts me on guard. His wiry hairline recedes nearly six inches back from the mark of his youth, and his teeth are worn down and yellowed, like his eyes. The young girl I assumed to be his granddaughter is nowhere to be seen, but by his side the short-skirted woman, no more than twenty at most, throws me a bold, whatcha-lookin'-at stare. I assume they're together. I turn my head, ashamed.

While I've been lost in a mother's worst fears, Raelynn's focus has been on something else entirely. She drops her arm around my shoulders and gazes toward a handsome saxophone player in front of the café. “NOLA,” she says with a grin. “Does a body good.”

She doesn't notice my dramatic sigh. The dark-eyed musician has her full attention, performing with his hardscrabble jazz group beneath the boughs of a billowing oak. Peppered hair, cleft chin, Gypsy vibes, he is a beautiful mix of Johnny Depp, George Clooney, and Jared Leto with enough years on him to be fair game for my wild-hearted friend. Sensing the possibility of a tip, he offers Raelynn a flirtatious gaze, pumping his tunes for the travelers who sip café au lait and spill powdered sugar from heaping piles of beignets.

Raelynn tosses another corny line my way. “He's
saxy
!” Then, to make sure I didn't miss the punch line, she nudges me with her elbow. “See what I did there?”

I give her the laugh she's after and turn my attention to the opposite corner. There, three school-age boys tap the sidewalk with rapid rhythms, competing against the lively bucket drummer one block down. Lucky Dog vendors and plein air painters fill the gaps between bartenders, drag queens, and paper boys, making it hard to tell who is in costume for the charity luncheon and who would look a little wacky no matter the day.

Tuning out the chaotic clash of sounds, I follow the girls through the open patio and into the café. The soothing smell of sweet dough and fresh-brewed coffee works wonders. Outside, the clouds build, while inside, an attendant keeps the restroom line moving, ushering the students through as quickly as possible.

“Mo-om.” Ellie says this in two syllables, with a hushed tone. I'm flying too close. I'm the only parent standing in line with the kids for the restroom, so I take the hint.

“I'll go see if Miss Henderson needs help with the food.” I convince myself we are safe enough here to give them some space. “Hold my pack? You've still got water. The first-aid kit, too, if anyone needs it.”

I drop my cumbersome bag and head for the counter, finally able to handle the small space without bumping into people. Behind me, Ellie and Sarah start rock-scissors-paper, giggling at the end of the line. I stop for a second to watch them play the innocent game of chance. Despite being surrounded by all this commotion, they seem completely content within their own simple world. Just the two of them.

After grabbing bags of beignets from the teacher, I make my way across the patio, where the wind tosses paper napkins like tiny white kites. Above us the storm swells, but this hasn't stopped a
second line parade from forming on Decatur Street. People young and old pile out from the crowded shops to join the impromptu party. Without warning, umbrellas begin to bob up and down as people dance to the beat of the renegade brass band. Tambourines and trumpets, tubas and trombones sprout from out of nowhere, pulling a song and a story from every side street, every alleyway. Beneath scrolled-iron balconies, folks wave handkerchiefs, some with the fleur-de-lis.

Just as the parade begins to wind away, a white split of lightning jags the dark divide. Thunder announces the downpour, and torrents begin to fall with force. The savory smells of roasted coffee and sugared treats are now replaced by the metallic scent of steam rising from rooftops. Mere feet away, the rain-speckled river rolls on.

“Take a bag,” I instruct the students. “We'll eat on the way home.”

Hurriedly, one of the moms takes a group to the bus. They scurry ahead as Raelynn looks out toward the Mississippi. “Mark my word. That river's gonna burst right through someday.”

“Let's hope not!” I serve the last of the beignets and rush through the rain.

As we reach the bus, Miss Henderson's levee lesson echoes in my mind.
“Here in the bottomlands and bayous, we have built our lives on soggy soil, perched below sea. The water is always eager to regain its domain.”
When she said this, we were crossing back to the east bank, cutting across currents too deep, too powerful to tame. Raelynn's not the only one who believes it's only a matter of time before the Mighty Mississippi claims her stake and all of New Orleans washes away.

But not today.

Today, the musicians splash through soggy streets, and the boys remove their tap shoes to run with bare feet. Umbrellas protect the brass from the rain, and the music plays.

And the music plays.

Chapter 4

S
IXTEEN
,
SEVENTEEN
. . . M
ISS
H
ENDERSON COUNTS HEADS AS THE
children shake water from their matching green shirts. Strong winds sway the bus as the last student jumps up the steps and Gator snaps the doors shut behind him. He has agreed to drop the parents back at Mardi Gras World, where we've left our personal vehicles for the trip home to Walker. The annoying school district policy kept Raelynn complaining for nearly the entire drive down.

As she slips in to share the front bench, she carps again, “Still don't understand why we can't just ride with the kids. They're so afraid of lawsuits they've lost all common sense.”

Miss Henderson lets the comment slide. She claps three times from the adjacent row and the children settle, welcoming relief from the rain.

“Can I have one of those water bottles?” Raelynn asks, already opening her bag of beignets.

I call over to Ellie, trying to salvage my tousled hair. “Pass my backpack, please.” Wrinkling my nose does little to dim the overwhelming odors of wet and sweaty tweens.

“Sarah's got it.” Ellie turns her attention to the row of friends who are bouncing behind her.

“Whac-a-Mole,” I say, pointing to their jarring motions.

Raelynn laughs. “Somebody needs to give them a few bonks to the head!”

“We need a recount.” The patient teacher claps three more times before speaking again, finally silencing the sugared crowd. “Does everyone have your buddy?”

Children swap spots and pair off into their designated duos. The organized structure collapsed in the café, where they grabbed bags of beignets before darting toward Gator in the downpour. Soaking and shrieking, they had crammed onto the aging vinyl seats without any regard for partners.

Now, as the last kid finds her mate, Miss Henderson still counts only twenty-three students. Not the twenty-four she is responsible for, the twenty-four she loaded onto the bus this morning, the twenty-four she brought together an hour earlier, warning everyone to stay with their buddy. Now that the children have divided back into pairs, one student remains without a companion. My daughter sits behind me, alone.

“Where's Sarah?” I whisper.

Ellie's wide-eyed expression says it all.

“It's not like them to be separated,” I tell Miss Henderson.

Throughout childhood these two girls have lived like twins, sharing everything: sleepovers, birthday parties, homework sessions, summer vacations. Now, as I search the bus, my stomach twists as though I've lost my own daughter. I try not to panic.

“When's the last time you saw her?”

Ellie shrugs. “At the bathroom.”

“Where'd she go from there?” Miss Henderson this time.

Ellie narrows her eyes.

“You never saw her after that?” I ask, hoping my voice holds steady.

Ellie shakes her head. The teacher clutches her clipboard.

“I'll run find her,” I say.

I dash through the rain without bothering to dodge puddles, but as the seconds spin, Sarah is nowhere to be seen. I scan crowds for a bright-green shirt that matches my own.

“Have you seen a blond girl? Twelve years old? Green shirt?” I shoot out quick questions in every direction, raising my voice to a frantic yell above the pounding rain. “Black backpack? Field trip student?” Folks in the café turn their heads as I dart among the tables. I move toward the restroom where I last laid eyes on Sarah. The man who helped us manage the long line is still here, tucking tips into his pocket with a gap-toothed grin.

“We're missing a student,” I tell him, describing Sarah's blue eyes, blond ponytail, green bow.

The man shakes his head and insists he hasn't seen anything out of the ordinary. “Take a look,” he says, opening the door between customers to prove the room is empty. My backpack rests against the corner wall. I grab it and question him again.

“She had this backpack,” I shout. “She wouldn't have left it.”

He tilts his head as if trying to make sense of what I'm saying.

“She was here. In the restroom. Where'd she go?” I'm spewing questions too fast. He shakes his head and draws his shoulders up to his ears, as if he doesn't know anything more than I do.

Frustrated, I rush into the crowded kitchen without asking permission, boosting my voice over singing fry cooks and clanging plates. “Have you seen a blond girl? Sixth grade? Green shirt?”

Many of the employees are first-generation immigrants. With muddled expressions they shoo me, determined to get me out of their kitchen. I don't let them stop me. I search all the way to the trash room, opening the wooden door that leads out to Decatur. Then I
turn back toward the fry cooks. Waiters circle through the pick-up line for orders. Again and again I ask. Again and again heads shake. No one has the answer I need.

Panic clenches my jaw tight. Wiping rainwater from my forehead, I slide past piles of dishes, scanning the chaotic space with a frantic intensity. I hurry back into the dining area, slipping a bit on damp tiles. I rush out back to the alley, past ivy-cloaked walls and rain-soaked hedges. I run up the concrete steps to the riverside parking lot. I loop through cars and run to the river, searching the waters, crying out her name.

Still no Sarah.

Winding my way back past the colorful fountain, through the café, and then out to Decatur, I take in every sound. Every sight.
She's got to be here. Where else would she have gone?

I shout down the sidewalks, screaming her name. A few curious folks turn in confusion, sipping Sazeracs or iced mint juleps beneath the balconies, but most ignore me, carrying on their normal routines as if I'm just another party girl who's had too much to drink.

But this is no stunt, no street show. Sarah is missing, and no one seems to care.

I scan the upper-floor apartments, examining the iron lace verandas that line the sky. I find nothing but ferns, flowers. No Sarah.

The woman with the sparrow!
I race past the artists whose sketches have since been protected in plastic, sealed tight against the rain. Here, beneath the spires, the truth sayer's table has been packed away, and she is nowhere to be found.

The cathedral? It's dry in there.
I open the heavy doors in haste, hollering, “Sarah?” My hopes rise, remembering the flash of light
from her gold pin.
Of course this is where she would have gone. She's got to be here.

To my right are rows of candles, many lit from prayer. As my voice bangs against the sonorous space, the flames bend around the sound. I call again, “Sarah!” The sanctuary is packed with people seeking shelter from the storm. They begin to whisper, to help me search. I explain my way into the gift shop, my backpack clipping others as I rush through the crowd.

“I'll call Father Murphy,” the shopkeeper says as she peers over her glasses to the phone.

I mutter thanks and give her my cell number. She writes it down on the back of a Mother Mary postcard she's pulled from the counter. As she places her call, I don't wait. I continue moving, searching, shouting. Through the cathedral and then back outside. No matter where I look, I cannot find Sarah.

BOOK: The Feathered Bone
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ads

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