“To hell with these crunches,” Sherry told herself then stopped exercising. She lay flat on her back on the living room floor and squeezed her eyes shut, pretending she finally looked slim and toned like the fitness instructor in her exercise DVD. When the phone rang she opened her eyes and felt the sting of sweat as it blurred her vision. She grabbed the remote from the coffee table, paused the DVD then pulled herself up and ran into the kitchen to answer the phone.
It was Beth, the woman whose name was just above Sherry’s on their church prayer chain phone list.
“Bad news today,” said Beth. She spoke quickly, upset by the message she had to relay. “A twelve-year-old girl is missing. She went out riding her bike this morning and never came back.”
“Oh no,” Sherry whispered. She grabbed her notebook, flipped to a clean page and started writing. A drop of sweat fell from her chin, bleeding the ink on the word missing.
“She left early this morning, around seven o’clock. Her parents said she’d never take off like this and not tell them where she was going, especially on a school day.”
“What’s her name?” Sherry asked.
Closing her notebook, Sherry glanced at the clock. The girl had been gone roughly eight hours. Anything could have happened by now.
“One more thing,” Beth said. “They’ve asked for volunteers to walk the rice fields out there along the bayou.”
“Okay. I’ll pass the word along.”
As she hung up the phone, Sherry tried to imagine what this little girl looked like. Was she skinny? Knobby-kneed? With pigtails or freckles? She felt an odd shudder across her shoulder blades and the back of her neck. She grabbed her phone list and dialed the next number.
The following day was Good Friday. Sherry got up early so she could drive her mother to church. Dozens of people greeted her mother, saying things like, “You look so good!” or “It’s great to see you out and about!” Or “What a perfect hat!”
Sherry smiled, watching as her mom’s eyes literally sparkled. Clearly these people adored her mother. Some of them even told her they were praying for her. Her mother thanked them all, obviously moved by their encouragement. Sherry turned away, unable to watch any longer. In truth, her mother was exhausted. Dark circles sagged under her eyes. Her skin looked almost yellow today. What was left of her hair had started falling out again. This was the tenth month of her chemotherapy.
To say Sherry felt confident about her mother’s chances of recovery would have been a lie. This type of cancer was quite rare, with less than a two percent survival rate. But her mother refused to relegate herself to medical jargon and statistics. She chose faith instead. Turning back to watch as her mother’s friends congregated around her, Sherry felt heartened by their compassion but recognized a burgeoning darkness inside herself.
She was angry and afraid, but she never let her mother see this. A virtual hurricane brewed beneath her calm façade of self-control.
Sherry glanced at her mother’s hands cupped absently against her thighs. They seemed so frail, so ancient and foreign; her veins protruding like little blue ribbons rippling against faded parchment. Those hands had wiped away her tears, braided her hair, and pressed her forehead to feel for fever. Those hands had taught her to sew. To write. To pray. An eternity of love rested in those gentle palms. Sherry couldn’t imagine a world where those hands no longer existed.
While her mother visited with friends in the foyer, Sherry ducked into the tiny prayer chapel adjacent to the sanctuary. A dozen candles burned on the altar beside a photograph of a young girl. Sherry stared at the photo, realizing it was Sky. She had braces and braids. Sherry wondered if Sky was frightened or in pain right now. Approaching the altar, she took a deep breath and touched the photo. Clutching the frame to her chest, Sherry hung her head, sobbing.
During the service, the minister spoke of Sky’s disappearance, thanking those who had helped in the search and requesting more volunteers. Sherry considered volunteering, but decided against it since she had to work that afternoon. After teaching two aerobics classes, then covering the front desk till the gym closed, Sherry knew she’d be exhausted. Maybe next week she told herself then cringed at the thought of Sky being missing for that long.
Driving home, Sherry noticed her mom dozing in the passenger seat so she turned off the radio. Biting her lip, she glanced over at her mother. Several strands of hair had fallen onto her mother’s shoulder. Sherry reached up and plucked them from her mother’s blouse.
Sherry’s husband Jay played sax in a local blues band and tonight they were performing at a bar on Egret Bay called the Cross Eyed Seagull. Sherry showered at the gym then raced to the club, but the second set had already started by the time she arrived. She found an empty stool at the bar and ordered a beer. The place felt like a sauna with moist, sweaty bodies compressed into a small space.
After the final set, Sherry sat with her husband and the rest of the band while they finished their beers and waited for the manager to pay them. At 2:00 a.m. she told Jay she wanted to go home. He asked her to wait for him to load out the gear so she wouldn’t have to drive home alone, but she assured him she was okay to drive. Besides, she knew how long ‘loading out’ usually took; then the guys in the band would want to eat breakfast at the IHOP. It would definitely be after 4:00 by the time Jay got home.
A few hours later, Jay crawled into bed smelling like bacon and cigarettes. Sherry rolled over towards him but he began snoring immediately. She sighed. It was nearly dawn now and she still couldn’t fall asleep. She rolled back onto her side and put a pillow over her head hoping to muffle the sound of Jay’s snores. It didn’t help. She stared out from under the pillow, watching the night give way to dawn as pale light crept through the mini blinds and threw fragmented shadows across the bedroom wall. Wide awake, she decided to get up and watch the early morning news.
The search for Sky dominated the local networks. During an interview with Sky’s family, her mother said in a shaky voice, “I feel in my heart that Sky is still out there somewhere, being protected by her own special angels. And I’d just like to say to whoever has her that it’s time to bring her home.” Then she broke down sobbing.
Hot tears streamed down Sherry’s cheeks. She switched off the TV and stared out of the window. Streaks of orange and pink light dissected the sky. She turned off the lamp so she could sit in darkness and watch the beauty of this sunrise from the window bench. Tomorrow is Easter Sunday, Sherry told herself. At church they would celebrate life conquering death. But coping with her mother’s illness and now the search for this missing child had all but robbed her of the joy she usually felt during Easter.
“Get a grip,” she told herself. “And stop being so damn morbid.”
She got up and made a cup of herbal tea. And as she sat there dunking her tea bag, she came to a stark realization. It wasn’t the inevitability of death that bothered her; it was the uncertainty of life. It was the chaos. The mystery. All those tiny details which somehow added up to equal a life worth living. How many more sunrises to be witnessed? How many more hugs? How much time was left to do and see and become all we possibly could in this life?
In the back of her mind loomed the fear that her mother wouldn’t see another Easter. Though she knew she should be thankful for whatever time her mother had left, Sherry couldn’t help feeling cheated. Sitting there alone in the dark, she felt dwarfed by the enormity of it all. Death was so much bigger than any one single life. She felt tiny. Depressed. Restless.
“This is ridiculous.” She put the cup down, took off her robe and started her exercise DVD. But before she could even break a sweat, she felt so incredibly anxious she had to turn it off. She sat down on the living room floor and cried.
After her tears subsided, the urge to get out of the house and do something constructive beset her. She dressed quickly in a pair of jeans and a denim shirt and decided to drive to Home Depot to look for wisteria trees for an Easter present for her parents. Sherry had dug out a flowerbed in the back yard last summer when she and Jay first returned home from Los Angeles to help care for her mom during her illness. There was a wooden swing in the center of the flowerbed and Sherry wanted to plant roses and lilies around the pine trees to create a quiet little spot where her mom could go and relax in a garden of her own. Her mother loved the way wisteria smelled when it bloomed, and she especially loved the velvety soft petals that carpeted the ground beneath the trees.
Sherry grabbed her purse and hurried outside, surprised that the air was still chilly enough to see her breath fog. Although it wasn’t quite seven o’clock, it was so gray outside that it felt more like dusk than daybreak. But as she backed her car down the long driveway, her mood lightened and she thought of her hands in the loamy soil creating something alive for her mother.
On her way back home, as she drove over the Coward’s Creek Bridge with two small wisteria trees tucked into her hatchback, Sherry noticed several people down by the creek bank. She counted at least five men in the tall grass, maybe more. They wore army fatigues and knee high rubber boots, and carried long wooden sticks. They each had a loop of yellow ribbon pinned to their shirts. Their tenacity amazed her. It was early Saturday morning and they were already out searching for Sky. Feeling compelled to help search, Sherry quickly unloaded the wisteria trees and carried them to the back yard then hurried back across the street to join the searchers. She waved at the man lagging behind.
“Hi. Mind if I join you?”
He stared at her, confused.
“I live across the street,” she explained pointing over her shoulder. “I grew up here, so I know these trails pretty well.”
He scratched his beard. “Well, you’re supposed to sign up at headquarters. They’ve got to be able to account for everyone, so no one else turns up missing.”
“But…” he hesitated, thinking aloud. “I have my cell phone with me. I suppose we could call in and add your name to our list.”
“Great. I’m Sherry Davis.”
“Hal Lester.” He shook her hand. “Right now we’re looking for anything hidden from aerial view that the search planes may’ve missed. Check inside any culverts or suspicious looking plastic garbage bags. Stuff like that.”
“Okay. Got it.” She glanced downstream at the others, glad to be a part of their group. “By the way, I left my cell phone at home. Should I go get it?”
“Sure. Good idea. Then if we get separated, you can call in if you find anything or need help.”
Sherry climbed back up the embankment and ran home to get the phone. Pulling it out of her bag, she discovered the dead battery. It only required twenty minutes to recharge, so she plugged it in. She went outside to the garage and searched through her father’s shelves of fishing gear for his waders. Finding them at last, she pulled them on even though they were of course way too big for her.
Half an hour later, she returned to the creek but the search team was gone. She stuffed the phone into her shirt pocket and buttoned the flap. Standing there, jamming her stick down into the soggy bank, she watched a plastic water bottle float downstream. She didn’t want to go home so she decided to search on her own. What could it hurt? She knew these trails like the back of her hand.
Following the path down to the pond, she realized what should have been obvious to her all along. It had been over twenty years since she’d seen these trails. The city Drainage District had recently built a new pump station making it impossible to reach the pond from the old trail. A posh new neighborhood now obliterated the bulk of the old trails around the pond. A row of houses backed up to the creek, each yard separated by its own ten-foot fence. Thomas Wolfe was right; you can’t go home again.
Sherry decided to wade across the creek and approach the park from the north. Fetid brown water sloshed up against her, spilling over her dad's waders and soaking her jeans. She knew this place was a breeding ground for poisonous snakes such as water moccasins and cottonmouths, but she pushed the thought from her mind. Reachng the north side of the creek, she scrambled up the bank and checked the cell phone. It was still dry. She pulled off her dad's boots and dumped out all the water. The caked mud smelled like manure.
A mosquito bit her on the neck. She slapped it then glanced at her hand. A bloody pulp of insect remains rested on her palm. Wiping it on the sleeve of her denim shirt, she wondered if that blood belonged to her or an earlier donor.
After walking a mile or so down the trail, she spotted a black plastic garbage bag. She poked her stick at it. It was full. And it stunk. Her heart pounded. She jabbed it again and this time it felt like a mound of flesh. She held her breath and ripped open the bag. It was full of garbage and a dead rat crawling with maggots.
Recoiling, she turned away and nearly vomited, the stench was so strong. As she ran down the trail to escape the odor, she remembered running these trails as a child. She could see herself as a ten-year-old tomboy racing down the trail, dodging low hanging vines and moss- covered branches as her kid brother ran ahead of her, disappearing into the trees around the bend.