Cecily could find her way to the bathroom perfectly well by herself, thank you very much. She might have been only seven, but she could tie shoes, climb trees like a boy, and ride bikes through the leafy streets of their neighborhood back home in Lawrence. She didn’t need any big sister escorting her to the ladies’ room. She scowled at her father, who relented, shrugging.
“So go, then,” said Sophie, the superfluous big sister, who was eleven.
Quivering with insult, Cecily pushed down from the table and strode off across the restaurant. Sophie watched her go. Cecily’s soft brown hair was cut in a bob with bangs, something simple their father could manage, but Sophie could take care of herself. She could braid her own hair or put it up in a swinging ponytail or twist it into a neat low bun like their mother used to wear when the girls were small. “Good-bye to vanity!” their mother would laugh on the phone to her friends. But she stayed vain, even at the end, in the hospital, carefully penciling a fresh pink mouth over her own before they arrived, holding hands and standing hushed beside the bed, their cardigans buttoned all lopsided, their barrettes crooked, while their father stroked her hand and spoke in a low, strained voice. Once she had forgotten to put it on, and Sophie had worked hard not to stare at her pale, cracked lips, but not hard enough, because their mother had put her hand up to her mouth and said, “Oh.”
Now they had visitors from time to time, nice women who appeared at breakfast and were introduced by their father as “my promising student.” One of them, Amber Waybridge, had come along to New Orleans with them—“as an au pair,” their father said. Amber was twenty-five and an MFA student, which her father usually called “a dime a dozen,” but he didn’t say that about Amber.
It wasn’t just a vacation for fun. Their father was there for inspiration, because his work was suffering. He couldn’t seem to produce the kind of sculptures that had made his reputation—the kind that kept Sophie, disgusted, away from his studio: single masculine legs standing on the floor with their big things jutting out or hanging down, all painted in swirling bright reds and greens and blues and blacks, with splashes of silver and gold, so that you could hardly tell what they were. But Sophie knew, and thought they were gross. Since their mother’s death, all his pieces were just the color of plaster, a color like sawdust or putty.
Sophie thought the new sculptures were even more gross, but Cecily didn’t mind. She was quick and happy in general—she’d “adjusted well,” their father would murmur confidentially to adults—and ran around his studio laughing. Sophie thought she laughed an awful lot. Sometimes it seemed like she didn’t even remember their mother.
“Don’t brood,” their mother would have said. “Daddy won’t like it.”
His next show, “Surrealism(s) of the Body,” was already scheduled for the university gallery’s fall calendar, and Sophie knew he was counting on New Orleans to recharge him. He was on spring break, as was Amber Waybridge, and he’d taken the girls out of school for the week. They had been to numerous galleries as well as out in a flat-bottomed boat for an alligator tour in the bayous, where tall white waterbirds flapped into flight at their approach. When the guide cut the motor and tossed marshmallows onto the slick, shining brown skin of the water, they all sat silently on the metal benches, squeezed among the other tourists, as the rampant green foliage and the insects’ whine seemed to close in upon them. “Hands inside the boat,” the guide had barked suddenly into his microphone, and long, muscled bodies had slithered along beside them and risen up. The scaly pale flesh, the lizardy eye. Vast jaws had opened and snapped. “Daddy!” Cecily had screamed, but it was Sophie’s arm she’d grabbed.
That had been Saturday. Now it was Monday, and they were getting a fresh start with breakfast at the Copper Pot, a cheerful restaurant with waitresses who joked and grinned when they took your order. The walls were a bright, warm yellow, and the fronds of potted palm trees nodded in the ceiling fans’ breeze. It felt tropical, so different from the long, gray Kansas winter. At the table, her father sifted through maps and tourist guidebooks while Amber leafed through the Times-Picayune—SECOND BODY FOUND, blared a headline so large Sophie could read it upside down. Their father had explained that New Orleans was one of the murder capitals of America and given them lengthy instructions about safety and the buddy system and always staying close to him or Amber Waybridge—though Sophie would never willingly get close to Amber Waybridge, who kept pausing to lift her tanned wrist, tilting it in the light to admire the new bracelet their father had bought her, a slender gold chain studded with tiny diamonds, “for watching the girls,” he’d said loudly. As if Sophie were stupid.
Sophie ran her fingertip across the elaborate castle, all purple turrets and red spires, that Cecily had been crayoning into a sketchpad. “No electronica on vacation,” their father had said firmly, but Sophie had heard, under his dictatorial tone, the plea, almost a whine, and she knew that with a little pressure he could be overcome—that he secretly longed to continue the quiet, familiar isolation of all of them absorbed in their Game Boys and iPods and iPhones and laptops, their bodies moving along together but their minds in separate worlds, the way they had been ever since “the pancreatic” began. Sophie knew she would have to complain only a little for their father to give in, to collapse and let them retreat into their unsharable distractions. So she said nothing. She wanted more. She wanted a real vacation, the kind they’d had with Mommy at Yosemite, when the girls wore matching head scarves and Daddy carried their supplies in a backpack. Their mother never would have let the girls wear the kinds of shirts Amber Waybridge wore, black T-shirts cropped short to show her smooth belly. When would the food come?
Sophie sipped her grapefruit juice, pressing her lips close together to keep the pulpy bits out. With her fingernail, she picked at the corner of the laminated map Daddy was studying, peeling the plastic back from its edge.
“Stop that,” Daddy said, writing in his tiny notebook. He was plotting their day. The French Quarter had plenty of galleries they hadn’t looked at yet, and the Cabildo was full of historical things, including things from slavery days that he’d said he wasn’t sure the children were old enough to see. They’d already groped through the dark historical dioramas of the Musée Conti Wax Museum and hurried down Bourbon Street, their father muttering, “Well, this was a mistake,” and ignoring their questions about why anyone would want to wrestle in mud, while Amber Waybridge laughed into her hands. Sophie pushed the tiny black ball of the compass that was built right into the map, pushing the N all the way round, then letting it spring back. North could be south if you just kept pushing.
“Where’s your sister?” Daddy said.
She looked up. It had been a while. Maybe Cecily was making number two. She always picked the most awkward times to do it, instead of just waiting until they got back to the hotel.
“Go check on her,” he said. Sophie rolled her eyes, sighing loudly.
“I’ll go,” said Amber Waybridge quickly, smiling, laying her hand on his arm. She pushed back from the table and set off.
Sophie knew the word for her. Ingratiating. And it seemed to be working on their father, who smiled briefly, watching Amber Waybridge walk away. He liked to talk about how new and bold her work was. On the strength of his recommendation, she had won a summer artist’s residency in Vermont. Sophie couldn’t wait for her to leave.
Just as the eggs and toast and bacon arrived, Cecily trotted back to the table and climbed into her chair, her small purple tennis shoes swinging.
“Where have you been?” Sophie said in annoyance, not expecting an answer, and not receiving one. Bright wedges of orange rimmed the plates. Good. She was hungry.
But when she picked up her fork, her father frowned. “Wait for Amber.”
“Where is old Amber, anyway?” asked Cecily, already biting into an orange.
Their father looked at her. “She was with you.”
Cecily shook her head and spoke with her mouth full. “Nuh-uh.”
“She went to the ladies’ room to find you.”
“I didn’t see her.”
Their father sighed heavily. “Soph, would you go see what’s keeping her?”
Sophie sighed in return, sliding slowly from her chair, her every exaggerated motion a protest. It felt good to skid her rubber toes across the tile.
She rounded the corner into a long corridor paneled with dark wood and lit by a single dim sconce. The floor was dark cement, and doors flanked her on both sides, closed doors with faded gold-painted letters that said PRIVATE and EMPLOYEES ONLY and EXIT, and doorways branching into other hallways, narrow and dark. “A veritable warren,” her mother would have called it. No wonder it had taken Cecily so long. Near the end of the corridor, Sophie pushed open the glossy black door to the ladies’ room. “Amber?” Sophie bent and peered under the doors, but saw no tanned ankles, no strappy sandals, no toe ring. “The food’s there already,” she said, pushing open one metal door after another, but her voice echoed, and all the stalls were empty, and she knew she was alone. In the wide cupboard under the sinks, there were only big white wheels of toilet paper.
Annoyed, Sophie headed back down the dark corridor, trailing her fingers along the paneled wood. When the kitchen door flashed open and a waiter hurried out, a swath of fluorescence lit the hallway for an instant, and the whole corridor flashed into brilliant relief. In the sudden illumination, Sophie could see a curl of lemon rind on the dark cement and the sticky spots a mop had missed.
And there, on the floor near the door marked EXIT, lay a small and broken gold chain, its tiny diamonds glinting.
* * *
Then things got very loud and frantic, with Daddy shouting for the waiter, then the manager, and running with the employees to push doors open with a loud, fast slam, not just the ladies’ room but the men’s room, the storage rooms, the walk-in, the kitchen, where all the cooks peered curiously, their knives stilled in midchop. All the other diners were on their feet, looking, saying what they’d seen, who’d left the restaurant, a woman with blond hair, a man with a big duffel bag, three loud college boys who looked hungover, but no pretty twenty-five-year-old with dark hair and a cropped black T-shirt. When the police came, Daddy was out on the sidewalk, yelling, and the people said it all again, and Sophie told her story to a big officer who nodded and blinked. Their father yelled, Stay there! Right there!” at Sophie, and so she stood next to the restaurant manager, gripping Cecily’s hand, while her father and the police searched everywhere again, the whole building and the street outside, the alleys and the shops next door, but Amber Waybridge wasn’t there, she wasn’t anywhere.
Copyright © 2012 by Joy Castro