Part I: Before - Chapter 1
At three-twenty-nine, the New Orleans high school campus was still and quiet in the sultry, subtropical climate. The sun-bleached white pavilion was in stark contrast to the lush greenery of palmetto bushes, bamboo palms, ficus, sheffalera plants, and thick St. Augustine grass that spread across the lawn. Not a sound could be heard anywhere. The live oak trees, dripping with Spanish moss, enhanced the overall calming silence and punctuated the oppressive humidity.
This period was a more tranquil and relaxed time…different than most people remember. It was a time before Columbine, before Facebook, before everyone had a cell phone or iPad. There were no campus security guards or checkpoints. Metal detectors and search dogs were a futuristic idea. There were no unauthorized search and seizures. The twin towers were still intact and Congress hadn’t signed The Patriot Act. Hurricane Katrina, one of the costliest and deadliest storms ever to hit the United States, wouldn’t smash the city to bits for another fifteen years.
It was a time when New Orleans was a thriving, bustling city with more than a million residents. The levees protected the people, their homes and businesses from the mighty Mississippi River’s routine flooding as it had done since colonial times. It was a time when people felt safe.
It was a boom period when millions of visitors came to New Orleans for the sole purpose of “laissez les bon temps rouler,” let the good times roll. During the annual Carnival celebrations, that’s exactly what they did. ‘Carnival’ was a time to eat, drink, and celebrate life with music, friends, and good food. The city streets, filled with colorful parades and floats, marching bands, and vendors selling their exotic wares, buzzed with animated laughter and drunken antics. Intoxicated women flashed their boobs and drunken men laughed raucously while they threw colorful beads at the display. Numerous venues around town hosted enchanting balls and other holiday celebrations. All these festivities led up to Mardi Gras or ‘Fat Tuesday.’ After the merriment of wild revelry, parties, and feasts, Lent or fasting began.
Now, only a moment later, a bell rang inside the wide school halls, and within seconds, the triple-doors burst open, shattering the heavy stillness much like fine crystal shatters against a marble mantel. The noise was deafening as students poured outside onto the flat porch, stairs, and lawn. A few minutes later, Alec Winters raced down the front steps two at a time with Chaz Lambert, a good friend, close behind him.
Alec, a sixteen-year-old junior, skillfully avoided the throng of student groups gathered around the school’s entrance. His athletic ability and style was truly graceful, almost elegant, as he deftly dodged and sidestepped the excited, chattering crowds. It was one of the main reasons Coach Taylor, the varsity football coach, had his eye on him. As a freshman and junior varsity quarterback, Alec had never been sacked. He weaved, dodged, and swayed as if his moves were choreographed. The other players couldn’t get a hand on him. He’d make a fine starting quarterback, probably their best chance ever for a winning season and a chance at the 1992 state title.
“Hiya Alec,” a group of giggly teenage girls harmoniously called out as soon as they saw him. Some twirled their highlighted hair around a finger and grinned, others swayed their hips suggestively in an attempt to attract his attention. One, Danaé Chisholm, managed to get close enough to whisper in his ear, “I’m exactly right for you, Alec.” She pressed a small handwritten note into his palm. It repeated the message and included her phone number. Danaé held a hand to her ear imitating a telephone and mouthed, “Call me.”
Surprised by her forwardness, and just a bit overwhelmed by strange, appealing pheromones emanating from Danaé, Alec still didn’t miss a beat. He brushed off the illusive and fleeting attraction that attempted to draw him in. After nodding a quick, polite response to the group, the tall, clean-cut, sandy-haired teenager turned away. The more distance he put between Danaé and himself, the less he noticed her mysterious pull. He handed the note off to Chaz with a bemused grin.
“I think this must be for you.”
“Danaé wants you, not me,” Chaz emphasized as he wadded the note and dropped it into a strategically placed trashcan. “They all want you, but she has the courage to make it obvious. We’ve known each other since middle school, Alec, and it’s always the same story. The girls want you. ‘Call me; call me. Pick me, Alec,’” Chaz teased in a high singsong voice. He bumped his shoulder into his friend to stress the point. “They can’t grasp the fact that you’re already taken, my man.”
It wasn’t an assumption that all the girls wanted Alec. They did…and everyone knew it. He was the most popular student on campus. Not only was he incredibly appealing to the eyes, he was the next Bobby Hebert or Archie Manning. The girls dreamed of riding on his arm all the way to the National Football League.
Alec’s startling blue eyes searched the swarm of students for the only face he cared to see in the bustling crowd—Sabrina Devereux. She wasn’t part of the various well-liked and fashionable cliques, but she wasn’t into that scene and didn’t let it bother her. She was too studious and focused on her goals for that foolishness. She sat alone on one of the two large, square pedestals at the base of the porch. Alec slowed slightly, and reaching out, gently squeezed her elbow as he passed by.
Sabrina looked up briefly, flashed a dazzling smile before adding the usual self-assured response, “Take your time with Catalina. When you get back, I’ll be in the bleachers. Chaz will keep me company and then he’ll walk me over to the field.” Alec smiled in response and continued on his way.
Chaz, a slender blond-haired sophomore, had known Sabrina since they were toddlers. The Lamberts and Devereux’s had known each other socially for decades. They went to the same church and arranged for their children to play together. Chaz and Sabrina, both only children, had even gone to kindergarten together at Catholic school. It was a long-standing friendship.
Once Alec reached the sidewalk and was clear of most of the other students, he quickly covered the six city blocks to the nearby middle school.
When he first began to walk his younger sister to and from school, he was nine years old and she was five. It had since become their routine. They depended on each other. He laughed softly as he thought about the early days. When Cat, short for Catalina, was in kindergarten, she had tearfully clung to his hand, fearful of the new schedule and being away from home. However, by the second week of each new school year, she had grown more confident and was eager to get inside with classmates to begin the day.
At the beginning of middle school, which at that time was fourth through sixth grades, she began to shake off his protective hand and indignantly chided, “I’m not a baby, Alec.” Then, as she surreptitiously looked around the schoolyard, she whispered, “I like for you to hold my hand, but just not all the way to the front door, ok.” Knowing that independence would carry her far, Alec had chuckled at Cat’s grab for self-reliance. With parents such as Buck and Cassidy Winters, he knew she would need all the freedom and fortitude she could gather.
“Well, what about junior high school?” he had jokingly asked. “You won’t need me anymore by the time you get to seventh grade, will you?”
“Oh,” Cat had gasped as a hand fluttered to her throat, “of course I will need you. I’ll always need you, Alec. You’re my big brother!”
Now, as he neared his sister’s school, he could see Catalina sitting on the lowest step. Her long, naturally wavy, white-blonde hair caught dazzling rays from the sun, and for a moment, it looked as if a halo encircled her head. She waited patiently for Alec’s arrival.
She’s so tiny, Alec silently thought as he watched Cat sitting there alone.
An overwhelming wave of tenderness washed over him. Most of the other students, even those in lower grades, were much taller and larger than his petite twelve-year-old sister was. She was barely four feet ten inches tall and weighed about eighty pounds. The gentle affection he felt for her quickly turned to empathy. Cat had it much tougher than he’d had it at her age. When she needed a mother’s love the most, she hadn’t received the daily nurturing and maternal care he’d gotten from their mother.
It certainly had nothing to do with Catalina, he silently surmised.
She was a great kid and deserved better. She also needed more care and affection than he was able to provide alone. However, when he was younger, Cassidy was different. Then, she had been a good mother, always putting her children first. Alec knew that somewhere, along the path of life, that had changed and it saddened him.
Logically, Alec knew very well that his mother’s current condition was beyond anyone’s control. Nothing he or Catalina did could stir her from the dazed state that had crept up on all of them. She had simply slipped away. He knew he couldn’t force her to change, to awaken—not until she was ready anyway. He understood that people don’t change until they’re willing to do so.