While pursuing a computer science degree, Abrar Ahmad gained a love of creative writing. More about Abrar at the end of this section.
It is a stormy evening in a forested area. Downpour is torrential. There's a bus stop where a peculiar female waits. Unfortunately for her, she doesn't have an umbrella or a proper raincoat. So, she has no other choice but to endure the large droplets beating down on her black hair that has an odd color of purple. She clutches her worn, black leather jacket tightly as she shivers and growls.
(GRR! I should've bought a heavy trench coat when I had the chance. Pfft! I should've stolen one from that convenience store, but that old lady was too hospitable... a malicious being would take advantage of that and ransack the place.) She looks around and growls again. (I swear if that wretched vehicle doesn't hurry up, I'll- I'll... ugh!)
Just when she decides to leave, she hears approaching footsteps. Her ears perk up; her eyes widen, and she goes on full-alert mode. She hunches, ready to pounce at her possible attacker until a bright light blinds her. She huffs, steps back, but to her surprise, holding the flashlight, is a man, wearing a trench coat. He looks at her, investigating all her strange features, like her purple hair and her pale white skin. Fortunately, the man doesn’t seem to care too much.
The girl straightens her posture and stares awkwardly at him.
He breaks the silence. “Oh! Err, Hello there! Sorry if I startled you! I noticed something here at the stop, but I didn’t realize it is actually someone,” The Man speaks casually, like an old-timer.
The girl continues to stare.
“Not much of a talker, are you? Well, it’s alright. We all have that one time we just don’t feel like saying anything…” The man trails off and gazes at the road, before speaking again, startling the girl. “Say, I just realized something. The way you hunched up looking at me, are you alright? You looked kind of—feral.”
The girl’s eyes widen. (Oh, hell! He’s onto me, isn’t he?! I can’t give away what I truly am! But I can’t leave now! That’ll look unusual! Fudge, looks like I have no choice but to stay here…)
He looks unnerved by her yet retains his cheerful demeanor.
(Wow, he reminds me of another old-timer I met. Though, despite his scruffy beard, he seems young…) “What’s your name?” she asks.
The man speaks abruptly. “Well? I’d like to know who you are,” he says cheerfully as he pulls out a waterproof tablet containing a list of people’s names, much to the surprise and horror of the girl.
“... B-Blaire… It’s Blaire, with an e at the end.”
“Ah! Good to know! Looks like I was a little paranoid there. I thought you were some demi-human!”
The girl’s eyes widen out of fear. She shivers crazily. The man notices.
“Oh, Merciful Lord in Heaven! Where are my manners? You need this umbrella, don’t you?” He turns off his flashlight and hands her the umbrella.
Blaire looks at the man with intrigue, but out of fear, she refuses. “N-no thank you…”
This surprises him. “Ok. Hmm… You know, you’re starting to remind me of a type of demi-human that I had trouble with…”
“W-what do you mean?”
“Oh, well, there’s these humans that sometimes don’t have the distinguishable features, like horns. Those demi-humans are demons in human skin.” he says as he places his hand in a pocket.
At this, Blaire’s heartbeat skyrockets. “Um… You don’t happen to be some sort of Demon Hunter, are you?”
The man stares her down intensely for what feels like an eternity for Blaire. “Although I do have concealed weaponry on me, I actually am not. I don’t hunt demons, for fun or for pay. The only time I hunt them down is if they do mischief, especially toward me or my family. I suspected you might be one. But, if you are, I won’t attack you, unless you strike first— which it looked like you were going to.”
(Ha, it did look like that, didn’t it?)
She embraces the man, much to his surprise. He chuckles and places an arm around her. “You know, now I don’t care how long the bus is taking,” she says.
Just then the bus pulls into the stop. Blaire stares at it in disbelief.
“Welp, here it is!” the man quips, sensing the irritation from Blaire.
The doors open, revealing an old man with white hair in his 80s or 90s, smiling widely. He motions Blaire toward the bus. She heads in and looks at the old driver with contempt. She breathes in and is about to slap the driver for his tardiness but decides not to. The driver doesn’t take notice, showing some sign of senility. The man notices Blaire’s behavior and is surprised but pleased. He pays for both as he sits with her as she looks off into the night.
Abrar Ahmad is a student at Texas A&M University of Corpus Christi, majoring in Computer Science under the Game Programming concentration. In his sophomore year, he gained a love of creative writing and picked up a minor in Creative Writing.
Alamgir Hashmi is the author of numerous books of poetry and literary criticism and is Founding President of The Literature Podium: An Independent Society for Literature and the Arts.
I briefed my camel
on good behavior.
He was mouthing
No one knew which way
the wind blew,
or which side
the camel would sit.
I pulled the reins.
Corpus Christi sat
by the Gulf of Mexico
dipping its heels
in the water.
Window-pane shatters too noisily...
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Alamgir Hashmi is the author of numerous books of poetry and literary criticism. His poetry and prose have also appeared widely in journals and anthologies and won him high honors. He has taught as a university professor and is Founding President of The Literature Podium: An Independent Society for Literature and the Arts. He stayed in Corpus Christi in mid-1970s and gave a reading of poems along with a couple of other local readers/poets. He notes that "It was a most poetry-friendly audience. My morning and evening shoreline walks in the area were a special pleasure for me, with only an occasional norther keeping me indoors at my desk or chatting with friends."
Alan Berecka was the Poet Laureate of Corpus Christi from 2017 - 2019. His work has appeared in numerous publications. More about Alan at the end of this section
the next time the universe and time conspire
to bring you back to work in Waco at that library
run by that maniacal director with an iron fist,
the woman who fired your predecessor the day
he closed on his house, the woman who just put
into policy a draconian measure—a ten dollar fine
for each library item that sets off our anti-theft system—
accident or not—please be smart enough to ask
the first kid with accidently bagged books for his ID
before you explain the new policy. This simple act
will keep that look of hope from suddenly forming
on the his face just before he runs through the giant
loophole you provided and out the front doors.
Note to my future self, if you see
the wily and wispy kid take off,
do not chase after him, or, if
in the white heat of the moment,
you feel you must, please remember
you are now a middle-aged couch potato;
your soccer playing days are long,
long in the past, so do not attempt
to vault over the circulation counter;
it will not work, and your foiled attempt
will give the escaping kid a healthy
and unneeded head start.
Note to my future self, cinch up your belt
before you bolt through the library’s doors;
your dress pants have gotten a bit too small
and will work their way down your ample
sumo-sized hips with each ponderous stride,
so just as you begin to gain on the fugitive
and reach the brick stairs near the main fountain
on campus, you won’t find yourself running
on the inside of the knees of your falling britches,
so you will not learn that tripping down brick steps
can shred skin on exposed knees and elbows,
nor will you learn that pain and the sight of blood
will kick in even more adrenaline as you tumble
out of your literally half-assed Aikido roll.
Note to my future self, do not vocalize
your anger. Yelling at the top of your lungs,
“You better run you son of a bitch,
because if I catch you, by God I’ll kill you,”
will not encourage a book thief to stop.
So you will chase him through parking lots,
as he hides and crawls beneath parked cars
in an attempt to get away, until in total
desperation he begins to sprint down
the middle of the busiest street in town.
Note to my future self, you are about to learn
you have exercise-induced asthma.
Your past athletic career, poor as it was,
was a minor miracle. It wasn’t a lack
of conditioning that kept you winded
during games. You should see a doctor
about your lungs years before this fit sets in,
so the rescue inhaler you now so badly need
will be in your pocket when you find yourself
gasping for air miles from the library.
Note to my future self, this time as you find
yourself wallowing in defeat as you limp
and wheeze your way back to campus
and that homeless guy with the concerned look
stops you to say. “Hey pal, I think you need this
more than I do,” as he extends a dirt caked hand
that opens to reveal a Halls metho–lyptus cough drop
in a graying wrapper covered in what might be
hair and pocket fuzz, accept his gracious offer.
It will make both of you feel better.
Note to my future self, when you make it back
to campus, do not return to the library,
for you will never be able answer,
“What the hell were you going to do
if you caught him?” and no matter what
you do from that day forward, in Waco
you will forever be known as the psycho
librarian who nearly killed himself chasing
after a couple of cheap paperbacks.
Instead, go straight to your car, drive home,
apologize to your wife and kids,
and contemplate a career change.
“He needs to find a job.”
My boozy mother’s voice
our cabin-sized house
as she worked at the stove
frying breaded pork chops.
“What the hell for? We ain’t broke”
My father home from his shift
at the sheet metal shop,
covered in sweat and grime
sat in the kitchen unlacing
his Redwing high tops, his beer
sweating a ring to his side
as it waited on the table.
“It’ll be good for him.
He’s not doing a damn thing
this summer, let him learn
some responsibility?” “Stella,
I’ve been working like a dog
since I was fourteen. It ain’t taught
me didley about squat yet.” “Albert
it’s time he does some growing up.”
“Stella, he’s got one year of school
left. Let him enjoy it. He’ll be working
the rest of his life. Three months
flipping burgers can’t buy anything
better than time.” She let the argument
drop. I sat on my bed, book in hand,
smiling, grateful for the reprieve.
My friend Pete Merkl’s dad sold copiers.
A salesman’s salesman, the old man’s smile
could turn any stranger into a friend.
His patter was so smooth he could smooze
a Temperance Leaguer into a booze
of the month subscription. I asked
him once why he plied his trade
selling inferior products. He told me,
“Alan, a Xerox can sell itself, but it takes
a real pro to sell an A B Dick copier.”
read the rest in Corpus Christi Writers 2019
How far can a fog lift
before it becomes a cloud?
Whatever it was, it hung
above the causeway,
a few feet above each car
and truck, as we drove
over the shallow end
of the Gulf, consumed
with the needs
of our daily commute.
I noticed how the gulls
and pelicans disappeared
diving up into the thickness
but thought little of it, until
I rounded the long curve
near the final exit,
and there it hung
like a shroud, completely
obscuring the upper two-thirds
of the Harbor Bridge.
While being pulled along
by the constant traffic,
I watched the countless
sets of tail lights
ascending into obscurity,
taking on faith that beyond
it still lies the bridge
into the city of Corpus Christi.
copyright Alan Berecka
Buy on Amazon. From the cover: Berecka's commedia is not so much divine as it is deeply human-a retrospective poetic, accompanied by a wince and a grin. Scott Cairns Author of Compass of Affection: Poems New & Selected Alan Berecka probes his blue collar roots with honesty and insight, depicting, with haunting detail and striking imagery, everything from family members who "smell of cabbage and onions" to the love "that pins us down." Ranging in tone from the elegiac to the hilarious, these impressive poems shimmer with craftsmanship, the work of a poet who takes his art seriously, who works the jagged stones of his poems until they sparkle on the page like faceted gems. Larry D. Thomas 2008 Texas Poet Laureate The hardest task of a serious writer is to be able to write funny, but Alan Berecka not only does this, he does it brilliantly. These are laugh-out-loud funny poems on child abuse and alcoholism, profanity and prayer, via some of the most unlikely subjects: the Pope's T-shirt, the Beatles' appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, Carl Yastrezmski, Jiffy Pop popcorn, Playboy magazine. These poems will both break your heart and alter your vision; I guarantee you will never look at the world in quite the same way again. Barbara Crooker Author, Line Dance and Radiance Berecka embraces the "flaw" without a hint of resignation-never hesitating to administer the sacrament of laughter where others might erect a wall of ridicule. This collection is a Eucharist, beginning to end. Bread and wine have their place; but the sacramental elements might just as well be baseball, popcorn, t-shirts, a puzzled Pope responding to a phrasebook reference to lost luggage-or the poet's old man flipping a bird. He has an uncanny ability to sense the presence of God in such acts, and that is a welcome invitation to take our shoes off and get comfortable on this holy ground we share. Steven Schroeder Virtual Artists Collective
Buy The Hamlet of Stittville on Amazon. "There is much ado about monkey in Berecka and Klossner’s poignant and humorous search for meaning in The Hamlet of Stittsville. It’s monkeys all the way down, with Shakespearian commentary on current politicalevents mixed with the deep, personal observation we’ve come to expect in Berecka’s work. Klossner’s art offers both counterpoint and reflection in Berecka’s tongue-in-cheek universe. Together they pack a knock-out punch that will, for an infinite moment, take our minds off the baloney of our political present and give us the comical perspective necessary to enjoy our dawning days. L.A. Times Bestselling Author Stephen Jay Schwartz Alan Berecka starts with a wily premise of infinite monkeys, infinite typewriters, and time. But the monkeys are us and time is running out as sad little monkeys continue to ring the bell, hoping for a banana. And we all know what the definition of insanity is..."
Alan Berecka was the poet laureate of Corpus Christi from 2017-2019. He is the author of five books of poetry, the latest A Living is Not a Life: A Working Title (2021, Black Spruce Press) which explores the concept of work was a finalist in the Hoffer Awards. His poetry has appeared in such journals and web sites as The Christian Century, The Concho River Review, The Texas Review, The Texas Poetry Assignment and The Main Street Rag. He earned his living for many years as librarian at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi. In January 2023, he finally lived long enough to put down the date due stamp and retire. He and his wife Alice reside in Sinton, Texas where they raised their now two adult children.
Ali Ko, Philosophy Cat, studied at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts. A graduate of NYU Film School, she worked in production and post-production in New York. Presently she lives in Miami . LEARN MORE.
This photo is representative of an idea I had about selfies being artifacts, not of narcissism and vanity of which they are charged, but of self-introspection and feminine control of female perception. I believe that the millions of cell cameras in young girls' hands, will one day result in women becoming photographers, filmmakers, visual artists, etc. en masse. Women then would be able to create their own image and not be culturally governed by the male gaze, which reduces women to objects, who may be muses but not authors of their own art and expression. One day, we will experience full autonomy, in this neo-patriarchal society, but that can only happen when we, as women, have taken back our own representation.
copyright Ali Ko
Alisa Hope Wagner is an award-winning author, editor and publisher of over 20 books she produces on her own label, Marked Writers Publishing. She is aggressive about leading a simple life. She married her high school sweetheart, and together they raise their three children in a Christ-centered home. Visit her site to learn more
I’m losing her
Childhood moments mourn
While secrets shade the soul
Can’t confess to perfection
Striving steals a mother’s role
Listen to what she wants
Switch to a secular station
Young hearts yearn to cry
To songs without redemption
Love can’t conceal the world
And perfection fails at saving
Produces patterns of shame
With safe towers suffocating
Mistakes move adolescence
Life’s troubles slide into view
Trade fear for freedom of failing
Sheltered safeguards devastate too
Canceling my own condemnation
Merry mistakes no longer hide
Grace unites my daughter to me
As perfection commits suicide
I’m finding her
Promises too lofty for me to reach.
Underserving. Lacking. Never enough.
What can I fix?
What can I change?
What can I learn?
What can I erase?
Never enough... READ THE REST IN CORPUS CHRISTI WRITERS 2021
The Mother stood firmly on the base of the mountain. She anchored herself to her sword, alert to the Enemy’s arrows of condemnation flying all around her. One of the arrows pierced her thigh, but she no longer cried out. Half a dozen arrows had already dug into her flesh, and the stings combined to form a continual ache. She gripped her shield, determined to not let another arrow find its mark.
Other soldiers walked past her to make their way up on the mountain. She envied their freedom to climb, and her eyes traveled their direction to the mountaintop. She could see God’s glory radiating the pinnacle, but she quickly turned away when an arrow zipped past her cheek.
A seasoned soldier stopped to look at her.
“I see that you are a strong warrior and that you fight with dignity. I’m leading these new soldiers to the top. Why don’t you join us? You are more than ready,” the soldier said.
“I cannot leave my post,” the Mother said. “I have been called to protect the base of the mountain.”
“But you are no longer a new Christian. In fact, it is obvious that you have already surpassed many levels of the mountain. Why do you stay here at the bottom when you can easily make it to the top?” he pushed further.
The Mother looked away from the soldier and secured herself more tightly to her sword. “I have been called to stay here,” she said resolutely. “I don’t know why, but I must obey.”
“But you haven’t even used your sword,” the soldier countered.
“I may not be wielding my sword like you, but I am using it. It keeps me grounded to my position,” the Mother said.
The soldier wanted to say more, but the Mother turned her attention back to the battle line. He gripped his sword, adjusted his shield and continued his climb to the next level.
A time later, a young woman entered through the base of the mountain and stood next to the Mother, setting her shield on the ground. “Can you help me?” she asked.
“I can’t keep up with the others, and I don't know how to get to the top alone.”
The Mother looked at the young woman, holding her shield up further to protect them both. “I cannot go with you, but I can tell you what I have learned. It will help you reach the next level.”
The young woman thought for a moment. “I wish you could take me, but I’m sure your words will prove useful.”
The Mother reached in her pocket and handed a journal to the young woman. “Here is all I know. Take it with you, and you will find understanding as your travel farther.”
“But I don’t want to take all your words,” the young woman protested.
“Do not worry,” the Mother encouraged. “Every time I reach into this pocket, a new journal appears. I have given out many to other young soldiers like you.”
The young woman smiled and opened the book. The Mother continued to block the arrows as the young woman read. The words brightened the young woman’s face.
“I can tell from your words that you have already made it to the top of the mountain,” the young woman said.
The Mother’s eyes gazed at the top where God’s glory shined. “I haven’t seen the top with my eyes, but my heart has been there many times.”
“But how could you write about the top with such detail if you haven’t been there? How do you know the path to take if you’ve never walked it?” the young woman asked confused.
“I have walked it many times by faith,” the Mother replied. “Since I’m not allowed to leave the base of the mountain, I must use the eyes of my heart and the spirit of belief to visit the top.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to go with me and experience the top for yourself?” the young woman asked.
“No,” the Mother said and drove her sword deeper into the soil. “I have been called to protect the base.”
The young woman stared at the Mother for a moment. “Well, thank you for the words,” she finally said. She put the journal into her pocket, picked up her shield and started her climb to the next level.
Finally, the sky darkened, and the Mother sat down to rest. The arrows halted their flight for a time, but the Mother kept her shield against her body as a precaution. She pulled the sword out from the ground, and it morphed into a small pen. She took out the journal from her pocket and began to write—every now and then she would look at the mountaintop and whisper soft prayers.
As she prayed, she saw a light descending down the side of the mountain. The light became brighter as seconds went by, and suddenly it filled the base of the mountain where she sat. A man stood in front of her with books filling his arms, and the light from the mountaintop reflected off of his gold armor. He unloaded his burden next to the Mother and sat on the ground beside her shield.
“Do you want to sit behind my shield,” the Mother offered, squinting her eyes from the bright reflection of the light.
“No, the arrows no longer pierce me,” he said with a smile.
“You have been to the top of the mountain,” the Mother stated.
“Yes, I have,” he said with a nod.
"Is that why your armor shines?" she asked.
"Yes, but only for a time. I will travel to many levels of this mountain, and the dirt and grime will subdue the glow," he answered.
"Will you be sad?" the Mother asked.
"No, people are more willing to take my words when they are not blinded," he said. "Besides, I can go back to the top anytime and my armor will be like new again."
“What’s it like at the top?” the Mother asked.
“It’s the most amazing place I have ever seen,” he answered.
The Mother looked up. “I wish I could go up there.”
“You have,” he said.
The Mother looked at the man. “I know I’ve been there by faith, but I long to really experience it,” she said.
“You will,” he said. “But now you are needed here.”
“I know,” she said, looking down at her journal. “I must be patient.”
“What you are doing here is very important,” the man said.
“I don’t feel like I do much,” the Mother said honestly. “I share my words with those who are seeking, but other than that, I only protect the base of the mountain.”
The man looked at her surprised. “You are not protecting the mountain,” he said.
The Mother looked at the man’s eyes. The light from his face began to warm her cold skin. “What do you mean?”
“You are protecting them,” he said, pointing to her lap. She looked down and saw her three children curled up safely against her. Her two younger children were asleep, and the oldest looked up at her intently.
“I no longer feel the weight of them,” the Mother said, staring tenderly at her young children. “Their burden is my joy.”
“They are the reason you must wait,” he said softly.
The Mother stroked the cheeks of her two sleeping children and nodded at her oldest with a smile. “I would do anything for them,” she said in a hushed voice.
The man nodded his approval. “You have taken their arrows and kept them safe from the attacks of the Enemy. The two that are sleeping haven’t been awakened to salvation yet, but they soon will be. And you see the oldest? He is watching you, learning from your every move. When he is ready, he will move quickly up this mountain and bring many soldiers with him.”
The Mother put down her pen, so she could wipe the tears with the back of her hand. “I didn’t realize,” she managed.
The man began to gently pull out each arrow from the woman’s flesh. “You are very strong because you have learned to be patient and to obey. Your journey may seem slow, and it may be difficult to see others pass you by; but you carry a heavy load. Your children will be great warriors at a very young age because of your obedience. They will change the world for Christ.”
The woman thought of the many years she waited without knowing why. “Your words have renewed my hope,” she said.
“The Master has sent me to encourage you,” the man replied. "He wants me to tell you that He is pleased with your belief."
“My belief?” the Mother asked not fully understanding.
“Your belief helps you to abide on the mountaintop that He placed inside your heart,” he said, pointing to her. “That mountain is where God’s presence dwells.”
The Mother laid her hand on her chest and closed her eyes, as the revelation began to take root.
“I must go,” the man said, as he got up.
“I understand,” the Mother said, looking back up at him. “Thank you for sharing your words with me.”
“I brought more of my words,” he said, motioning to the stack of books. “Read them and stay rooted in His Word, and you will gain peace and courage to stand strong.”
The Mother took one of the books and flipped through its pages. “Yes, I already feel strengthened,” she confirmed.
“I am glad. It gives me joy in my sacrifice,” he said and turned to leave.
“Wait!” the Mother called out. “I’ll see you at the top someday.”
The man smiled. “Sooner than you think,” he said and disappeared.
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Alisa Hope Wagner
Aryan listened to his parents’ fading murmurs. They had finally receded into thick darkness that separated him from them. His mother’s blanketed sobs had slipped down the cracks of the floorboards into the cellar of his new room. The vibrations of their voices painted vapors of fading colors along the dusk of the ceiling. The emptiness of the cellar only magnified the echoes, like stray rays sneaking out from a cloud-covered sun.
Just this morning his parents declared his brother a man who needed his own space. His older brother, Derik, kept the warm hearth next to their parents, and Aryan made his way down the wood-chopped steps into the earth chamber of their home. No longer would he be able to smell the salt of Derik’s skin next to him. They were now two brothers separated because of their age.
He had tried to leave the cellar earlier that night, wanting a cool drink of water from the basin. But the opening leading to the main floor had been barricaded. He cried out for Derik, frustrated that he couldn’t see his brother’s form through the wood panels of the door. His eyes could only capture a slight glimpse of his straw-colored hair or a quick glance of his blue eyes that matched a midday sky. The warm fire of the main hearth afforded just enough light to see portions, but no comforting touch could be given from the other side.
Aryan left the locked door and crawled back to his fiber-stuffed mattress on the floor. He peered into the void above and envisioned the blue of his brother’s eyes, displaying them like stars across the wood planks of the floor hovering over him. The underbelly wood surface was smooth and unscathed by the constant footsteps that scuffed the other side. Had his brother’s eyes been rimmed in red? Aryan didn’t understand. Did all boys cry when they were to become men? His mother had wept in the folds of her bed. Time transformed her firstborn into a man, and she mourned her loss. But what of the him, the second-born son?
Aryan knew that the tears shed that night could not counter the cries they beheld only two moons ago. His best friend, Ryun, had been touched by the Walking Disease. A peddler had sold him a kicking stone made of a spongy material from a coastal village. Playing with that stone had been Ryun’s favorite pastime every afternoon until his neck grew a red lesion that wept yellow. The day Aryan noticed his friend’s sore would be the last day he would ever see him again.
Ryun’s family forced him to follow the path that led to the Walker’s settlement. A path that Ryun and Aryan avoided all of their lives. The Walkers moaned every few nights when one of their own embraced death. Their howls were mixed with sadness and joy—sadness for the life lost and joy for the pain ended. Aryan listened for the Walker’s sorrowful harmony every night, wondering if Ryun had wandered into eternity. It was too early still. Ryun’s eyes had no abrasions when his parents banished him. The loss of the Walker’s sight was the first sign that death would shortly come. Ryun was lost to them. He could never return home.
Aryan’s nostrils flared. The winds had brought the scent of fired-consumed flesh. Once a week the Walker’s burned their dead, sparing the living from their disease-encrusted carcasses. They would then bury the ashes several feet underground and plant a single seed from the One Tree. The seeds rarely survived. The One Tree did not grow well in the dampness of Northland. The Southland contained the loose, dry soil needed for their sinewy roots. But the few that did thrive marked the land with the hope of every Walker—a hope of returning home.
Aryan tried to cover his face with the thinly woven fabric of his blanket. It did not impede the smell of scorching rot from entering into his lungs. Previous nights when the fires sent smoke to his hearth, his brother would listen to him while he softly chattered his thoughts. The words he sprinkled from his lips became like a soft covering around him, allowing sleep to finally overtake him. But his brother was no longer by his side, forcing the perfume of the dead to now share his bed. Aryan became angry at time for stealing his brother. Had the moon and sun halted their course, Derik would not have grown up. And things could have stayed like they were.
Aryan followed behind his older brother. He had been so glad to leave the cellar, but after months of searching for his mother’s pregnancy root, he was ready to go home.
“Derik, I don’t understand why we must walk at night,” Aryan said, pulling at the wrappings around his arms. “I cannot see the trees in front of me. Every night is cloudy and dark and then you find a deep cave for us to sleep during the day. I haven’t seen the sun in ages.”
“Stop pulling at your covering. You know what Father said,” Derik whispered sternly in the night. “The sun is brighter in the Southland and our skin is not accustomed to its harsh rays. We have to keep these coverings on, so our skin does not burn. If we get burned, we must go home. If we go home without the pregnancy root, the twins won’t make it to full term.”
Aryan looked toward his brother’s figure walking in front of him. He could barely make out his silhouette in the shadows of the forest. Instead he envisioned the blue of his brother’s eyes glinting in the sunlight. “The sun does not shine at night, Brother.”
“Yes, but it lingers. It’s always lingering. Already, you have a burn on your neck. I see you scratch at it. You are being reckless. Keep your covering tight around your skin. Isn’t this better than being in the cellar?”
Aryan dropped his head. “Yes, I hated sleeping there. I’m glad Mother sent us on this quest to save her twins. I just hope we find the cure in time. She was already midterm before we left.”
“Don’t worry, Little Brother. I know we will find it. I feel it in my soul. The root only grows under the shade the large One Trees that have enjoyed the dryness of Southland for uncountable moons. We are getting close. The air has become dry and the rains have lessened. The land has become flat and the natural springs are growing scarce,” he said, patting the side of his tunic. “But Father gave me a flagon of water, though, for our journey back, but we must resist the urge to drink until it’s time. He gave me specific orders to follow.”
Aryan fixed a memory of the night they left in his mind. “I saw Father talking with you for many moments before we set out on our journey. He even embraced you. Why did he not give me instructions too? Why did I not receive a hug? You are not even three years older than I. I too carry this burden of finding Mother’s root,” Aryan said. He was not supposed to have seen their conversation. Although it was night, it was his first time out of the cellar in many moons. He longed to see his family and absorb its love once more. It would be like diving into a lake after weeks of working the fields. Yet he searched for his mother, he couldn’t find her. She had gone to bed early and her door was shut.
Derik did not answer Aryan’s questions right away. His footsteps slowed but continued south. Finally, he whispered over his shoulder. “Father didn’t want to scare you, but he knew this quest would be difficult. He told me to take care of you and make sure to bring you home safely,” Derik finished. “He wants everything to go back to normal when we return home. Now, let’s quiet our voices, lest we arouse the senses of a nocturnal predator.”
Aryan turned onto his back. The ground of the cave was cool, and it felt good against his skin. Sleep did not come easily. He wanted to scratch at his coverings, but he knew his brother would yell at him. Both his and Derik’s coverings were filthy, but they couldn’t wash them because there was no water for cleaning. He felt dirty and tired and longed for home. He thought of his mother. She disappeared the night they left. He knew it must have been difficult to send her two sons on a mission to save the two unborn babies within her. Maybe she couldn’t bear to watch them leave.
“Derik, are you awake?” he whispered, knowing his brother would wake up even if he were asleep.
“I am now,” Derik said, rolling over.
Aryan stared at his brother but could barely make out his figure in the darkness of the cave. “I was thinking of Mother. Remember when she started crying every night? I thought she was crying for you because you had become a man and now how to be separated. But now I look back on it, do you think she may have cried because—you know—it was the first sign of her pregnancy?”
Aryan waited. His brother was thinking. Derik liked to consider his words before releasing them. Aryan decided to press his point further. “Ryun told me that when his mother became pregnant with his younger sister, she was very emotional. She would cry if a bird fell from her nest. He asked his father about it, and he told him that women cry more when they are with child.”
Again, Aryan waited for his brother to reply.
“You think about Mother a lot, don’t you?” Derik finally asked.
“No, it’s not that. Well—yes, I do think of her. I miss her. Did you know that she used to run her fingers through my hair when she thought I was sleeping? Every night I would rush to bed and wait for her to come in. She’d sneak in while you were still finishing up your evening chores. I’d feel her stroke my head. Sometimes I would hear her whisper words, but they were always too quiet for me to hear.”
“Those weren’t whispers,” Derik said softly. “They were prayers. Mother used to stroke my hair and pray over me too. I told her to stop, though, when I got too old.”
“I never told her to stop,” Aryan said, anger rising in his voice. “She probably stopped for both of us when you told her to. I’m almost three years younger than you. I still wanted those nights with her.”
“I’m sorry, Brother. It was my fault. I shouldn’t have said anything,” Derik said.
Aryan noted that his brother’s voice sounded sorrowful. “It’s okay. I know you had become a man, which is why we could no longer share the same bed. And you are the oldest and work the hardest, so you deserved to stay in our hearth. The nights in the cellar were lonely. I only wish…”
“Father said he saw Ryun trying to get into our home. He was afraid that he would try to give me the Walking Disease, so I would be forced to go with him to the settlement,” Aryan said.
“And that’s why you had to stay in the cellar during the day. Mother was afraid that Ryun would get you sick and take you away,” Derik said.
“I’m glad she protected me. I would never want to leave my home. I would rather stay in the cellar than live with the Walkers,” Aryan said resolutely.
“Are you okay, Brother? Is something wrong?”
Derik turned on the cold, stone floor. “No, a little dirt got into my nose is all. Mother would never have sent you down the Walker’s path. Now get some sleep. We are close to getting the cure. I feel it in my soul.”
Aryan didn’t bother trying to move the ripped piece of fabric that flapped in the breeze against his hand. His entire body ached from so much walking and sleeping in caves. His dry lips thirsted for water, but the Southland were parched and windy. Two days had passed without finding a spring of water and no rain fell in the south skies. He listened for his brother’s footsteps ahead of him. He knew that he too was tired and thirsty because his steps also staggered along the dry ground. The darkness engulfed them both, yet they continued to meander forward.
“It’s up here!” Derik shouted. “I feel it in my soul. The biggest One Tree is just ahead, and I know Mother’s pregnancy root will be found growing next to it. We will dig it up and go straight back home.”
“I can barely see you,” Aryan cried.
“The clouds cover the sky,” Derik replied.
“But there is never rain. Only weeks and weeks of cloudy skies. I want to go home! I want to see Mother!” Aryan felt tears begin to wet his cheeks. He wanted to rub his eyes, but he knew his brother would be angry. The eyes could become easily burned by the lingering rays of the Southland sun. But he thought it was too late for him, for they had been hurting for many days now.
He heard his brother’s footsteps stop.
“Listen to me, Aryan. I promise. The root is just up ahead. Mother needs us to do this. She told me not to bring you home until the cure was found. She said we were both strong enough to finish this quest. You are younger and weaker than I. I see that you are tired. But you have more strength of heart than anyone I know. You can do this. Mother will be so pleased. The lives of our two new siblings are counting on us.”
Aryan knew his brother was right. They needed to find the root to save the twins that Mother now carried. He nodded his head. “Yes, you are right. We must find the cure,” he said with determination. “And when we return home, Ryun will have died. I won’t have to be locked in the cellar anymore. We can keep the door open, and maybe Mother will sneak into my room and stroke my hair like she once did.”
Aryan waited for his brother’s reply. He could imagine his blue eyes contemplating his words.
“Yes, I believe you are right. The time has come. I am sure the Walkers weep for Ryun. He walks in eternity now. When we get home, the cellar will no longer have to be locked. Mother will want to stroke your hair and whisper her prayers. I know she cried many nights when she couldn’t see you anymore.”
“No, she cried over you—because you had become a man,” Aryan insisted.
“No, Brother. She cried for you,” Derik said. “Now let us continue our walk.”
Aryan felt his knees buckle. His legs could no longer carry the weight of his body. His lips and eyes were dried shut. The Southland winds cruelly beat across his face carrying grains of sand that scratched his cheeks. Several of the strips of dirty fabric fell from his body, but he no longer bothered trying to tighten them. The sun was no longer in the sky. Everything was black. The only color he saw was his brother’s blue eyes fastened to his memory like a promise of future happiness.
He heard the footsteps in front of him stop. “Brother! Go on without me. I can go no further!”
“It is as I said!” Derik exclaimed. “I have found the biggest One Tree in all of the Southland. And I see Mother’s root springing up all around it. Just a little further. Hurry! Crawl toward the sound of my voice. There is shade under the great branches.”
Aryan listened to his brother calling out. He crawled on his elbows and knees toward the voice. The arid ground scraped against his legs and arms, but he no longer cared. He only thought of going home to the open door of his cellar. His mother could go in now and stroke his hair.
“You made it!” his brother said. “Feel the trunk of the tree. It is massive!”
Aryan pushed up from his elbows and hugged the tree, clasping his hands tightly against the bark. The tree was wide, and his arms were spread out like the wingspan of the great eagles that fly free in the morning skies. “I feel it! We are here!”
“Now, you rest under the tree. Try to sleep. I will get plenty of Mother’s pregnancy root. Then I am going to search for water. When I get back, we will quench our thirst and rest some more. Then we will be revived enough to journey home. Mother will be so happy to see us. She will have her family back again.”
Aryan thought of the twins in his mother’s belly. “Yes, Mother will have her whole family together.” He couldn’t help but smile. His dry lips peeled open. “And she will no longer have need to cry. In fact, I can see her smiling at us.”
“Yes,” Derik said. “She is smiling at you. She is stroking your hair. And she is whispering prayers over you. You are sleeping now in your bed. And I am finishing up the evening chores. I take my time because I know Mother likes to pet you to sleep. Do you feel it? She is petting you now.”
Aryan’s grinned widened. “Yes, I feel it.” He stopped. “I can hear her prayers too!”
“What is she saying?”
“She is praying that I find the One Tree, for He will take me Home.”
“And we have found it!”
“No, this is Another One Tree. He is the Joy.”
“I don’t understand,” Derik said. “Who is the joy?”
“When I slept in the cellar and listened to the Walkers cry out, I heard both sadness and joy as one of their own walked into eternity. He is the joy I heard. His door is always opened to anyone who seeks Him. He is never hidden, and—look! There is water all around Him!”
“You see water?” Derik asked, confused.
“Yes, I see water streaming around the One Tree like waves. And light! So much light shining from Him. And there are people and kids. They are dancing and playing! I want to go to them! Derik, can I go to them?”
“But where? I don’t see them,” Derik said, looking around the Southland. It was mid-afternoon and the hot summer sun had faded to a soft autumn glow.
Aryan clung onto the One Tree as he tried to look over his shoulder toward his brother’s voice. He saw only darkness. He returned his gaze to the One Tree and rested his cheek against the smooth bark. The One Tree bright. And the water was blue like his brother’s eyes. And the clothing of the people was clean and colorful. He wanted to go to them. “And look! It is Ryun! I see him. He is waving to me. He wants to play. Derik! Derik! Can I go to him? Please!”
“Yes, but what should I tell Mother? She will want to know why you did not return home.”
Aryan spoke but kept his cheek against the bark of the One Tree. His torso pressed up against it, and he embraced as much of it as he could in his outstretched arms. “Tell her that I finally heard her prayers. Tell her that I have found the place she wanted me to find. Tell her that I met the Cure.”
Derik said nothing. Aryan knew his brother was considering his words, but he didn’t want to wait anymore. Ryun beckoned for him to come, so they could play. Aryan finally got up from the tree, leaving the filthy strips of fabric behind. He was ready to go Home.
Derik watched his brother’s body collapse onto the ground. The weight he carried finally lifted. He reached into the folds of his filthy, tattered tunic and pulled out the flagon of water his mother had forced him to carry. He had refused it at first, but now his shaking hands ripped off the lid. He brought the tip of the bottle to his lips and drank deeply. He poured every ounce of liquid down his throat. The moisture soothed his parched mouth and revived his soul. He had finished his mother’s quest. He had brought Aryan Home.
Derik walked into the clearing of his father’s land. The cool breeze of autumn greeted him knowingly. Before coming home, he had jumped into the first lake he saw when entering the Northland. The lake absorbed the gathered grime on his clothes and body, and he walked away wetter yet lighter. After his brother died, he had untangled the dirty strips of cloth he wore on his body to protect against contracting the Walking Disease. He laid them on his brother’s decaying body before burning everything within a parameter of assembled stones. He buried the ashes under the large One Tree they found deep in the Southland. His brother deserved to rest under the biggest tree in all the lands. He had died fighting to return home.
Derik walked past the rows of freshly turned soil. The harvest had finished. His father had done all the work without help. It was a difficult time for all of them. He heard a baby’s cry in the distance. He looked to the porch framing the front of his family’s house. He could see his mother. She held a baby in her arms. He tried to hide from her view, vying for a moment longer before having to speak with her. But she must have sensed his presence. She shielded the sun from her eyes and gazed his way. When she spotted him, she cried out over the baby’s cries. She ran down the steps with the baby tightly in her arms and began to run across the field. His father must have heard her cry because he exited the tool shed and began to race across the field after her.
“Don’t touch him, Lenora! Just wait so I can see him!” his father yelled.
“No, Dustin! I must see my son!” she yelled without yielding her steps.
Derik stopped walking and watched his father run in desperation passed his mother. His father caught up to him first and stood with his arms spread like a wall blocking his mother’s view. “Lenora, stop right now. Let me look at him first to see if there are signs of the disease.”
She finally halted her run. “Derik knew better. I told him not to touch his brother. Only use his words to soothe Aryan, I told him.” The baby fussed in her arms. She instinctually began to rock her arms side to side to quiet her cries.
“I understand but let me just check to make sure. Give me a moment,” his father said gently.
She nodded her head. Her eyes were red, and her cheeks were streaked with tears. She tried to calm her heated breaths.
His father turned back to him. “How are you doing, Son?”
“I am fine, Father. I’m glad to be home. I checked all over. No lesions or dryness. I made sure not to touch him. I think he got used to being alone toward the end.”
“Lift up your shirt and turn around. They start on the neck usually.”
Derik turned around and lifted his shirt over his head. He waited, feeling his father’s breath on his back.
“Okay, put your shirt back on. There is nothing on you.”
Derik pulled his shirt back over his head and faced his mother. He wanted to hug her, but the habit of not touching a human soul for six months was ingrained in him. She handed the baby to his father and her cries deepened as she grabbed hold of him.
“I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I should have let him go to the Walker’s Settlement, but I couldn’t lose my boy. But then I lost both of you. I’m so sorry!”
Derik tried to hold back the tears, but the months of watching his brother slowly die tore away at his resolve. “Mother, I did it. I did what you asked of me. I took Aryan on the quest, and he died under a large One Tree deep in the Southland. I burned his body and buried him there. He is at peace now.”
He felt his mother’s body go limp in his arms. He tried to hold her up, but her arms shook with her sobs. “My Aryan! I wanted to go with him. I would have taken him to the Walker’s settlement. I would have hugged him each night under the stars and stroked his hair until he fell asleep. My boy! My boy! I should have gone with you!”
“Son, come hold your sister for me,” his father said.
Derik got up from the ground and walked to his father. Gently, his father placed the now calm baby into his arms.
His father then fell onto his knees onto the ground in front of his wife and grabbed her into his arms. They both wept. “Lenora, there was nothing you could have done. If you would have contracted the Walking Disease Aydan and Arella would have died too. Look,” he said, pointing to Derik who was holding a now sleeping baby. “Arella is healthy. And Aydan sleeps soundly in his bed after you have lulled him to sleep with your touch.”
His mother released herself from his father’s arms, not wanting to be consoled. She leaned her face into the ground and pressed her cheek against the dark soil. “I know, but it still hurts. My boy! If I would have known that day would be the last time I would ever touch him, I would have held on longer!”
“Don’t cry, Mother,” Derik said softly, not wanting to wake Arella. “I wish you could have heard Aryan. He was so excited to leave. He had been completely blind for almost a month, but suddenly he saw color again. And he saw the One Tree you prayed about. He heard you, Mother! He heard your voice speaking to him.”
His mother lifted her head from the ground. The soft soil clung to her face. “He heard my prayers?”
Derik nodded. “Yes, and he was so excited to go. He saw Ryun playing. And bright lights and water surrounding the One Tree. He told me to tell you that he found the place you wanted him to find. He found the Cure. He is Home.”
Lenora covered her face with her hands and began to weep. Her voice rose up in sadness, and her cries echoed across the Northland. Her husband gently brought her back into his embrace. Derik stood holding his baby sister against his chest and listened to his mother mourn. The breeze pulled at the sadness, and a hint of joy lifted into the fading rays of the autumn sun. He heard another cry coming from the house. Baby Aydan was awake, and he needed his mother. Their family was whole once more.
“God has planted eternity in the human heart…” (Ecclesiastes 3.11).
Alisa Hope Wagner is an award-winning author, editor and publisher of over 20 books.
Devon jumped from the final step of the city bus. He didn’t care what the other passengers thought about his childish gesture. He had waited for this day most of his life. He had achieved something his family had never accomplished. He had graduated from college. In a few days, he would walk the stage and take hold of his best life, but first he had a promise to keep.
He looked around at the tall buildings of the city. When he was a boy, the important sidewalks and bustling buildings jeered at him. Now, the sidewalks would bow, and buildings would stand at attention. His mother had worked in the city all his life, cleaning rooms of elegant hotels with their ballrooms and swimming pools. Hotels never closed. Suits still worked and vacationers still played.
And his mother had cleaned until she became worn and sick.
Once, when he was eight years old, he came to the city with her on a school holiday. She pointed out a man who wore a sleek grey suit with leather shoes and a felt hat. He looked like he belonged in the city, and Devon felt out of place in his jeans, t-shirt and tennis shoes.
“You see that man?” his mom asked.
“Yes, Mamma,” he answered, noticing that the hotel seemed to lean away from the man in awe.
“He’s a businessman. You can be like him someday, but you have to get your college degree. Do you understand?”
The boy quickly moved his gaze from the businessman to his mother’s serious stare. He felt the weight of her words, and they dropped into his soul like handfuls of acorn seeds that scattered the dusty ground of his school’s playground. He nodded solemnly and stared back at the man in the suit. He was stepping into a shiny SUV. “I like his hat, Mama. When I become a businessman, can I get a hat like his?”
His mother gently nudged her calloused finger into the backpack he held. “You can get any hat you want. I overheard him asking the concierge where he could purchase a nice felt hat. They sent him to the hat shop only a few blocks from the hotel. It has been there for almost a hundred years, and it has many hats to choose from. The hats from that shop are very well made, yet very expensive. I’ll take you there after work, and you can look through the windows. Would you like that?”
The boy nodded his head fervently.
“Okay,” his mom said, standing. “Now we must go. I can’t punch in late.”
Tension stole Devon’s childhood memory, as the shadow of the hotel fell across the section of city where the bus let him out. He could have gotten off at the next stop and been closer to the hat shop, but he needed the hotel to take note. Devon levelled his chin and puffed out his chest while swinging his arms and legs in long, purposeful strides. The next time that hotel saw him, he would have a college degree in his hands, not a ratty, old backpack.
As Devon reached the windows of the hat shop, he hesitated. He had never walked into the window-framed image of fashionably flaunted hats before. The scene seemed to him more of a painted illusion, but it would momentarily become a firsthand reality. A sun-faded sign that read, “Selling Hats for 100 Years,” winked at him from one of the glass-pained sections of the door. He promptly groped for the bills in the right pocket of his slacks. He worked on campus to supplement the scholarships and grants he had received. Each month, he’d save every crumb of coinage that fell at his table. Finally, he exchanged the scraps of cash for five fresh Benjamins rolled up like brass knuckles in his pocket ready to break the ceiling of lack over his life.
He could have waited until his first paycheck to secure his hat. The college career services helped him receive a paid internship with a bank thanks to his minor in finance, but paychecks were for practical things, like rent and food. This purchase, however, was a declaration to the universe that his will would rewrite the unfolding scroll of time. He would buy the businessman’s felt hat and walk the sidewalks that once shooed him away. Then busy buildings would open their arms to him, but only a hat from this shop would do. His mom had said so, and she stressed that they were expensive. Determinedly, Devon grabbed the curved brass door handle of the shop and stepped inside.
Devon’s skin soaked up the smells of the hat shop, absorbing the aromas of wealth and affluence. If ever he designed his own cologne, it would smell like this moment, and he would douse his suit daily in its self-assured essence. An elderly man appeared next to him, and his smile stretched across his aged cheeks into his wrinkled eyes. “My name is Eleazar, but my customers and friends call me Ellie. I am the owner of this hat shop. It has been in my family for over a century. I can see that you are a young man in need of a good hat, and I am ready to assist you in that endeavor. Our hats are each hand-made with the finest natural materials. You will not find better workmanship with more integrity on this side of the continent.”
The intimidation Devon had unknowingly carried into the hat shop dissolved, and he withdrew his right hand from his pocket of money and offered it to Mr. Ellie, the hat shop owner. He had never questioned the cost of the hats. His mom had said that they were the best, and he took her convictions by faith. However, the shop owner’s statement of quality added a measure of assurance to his acquisition. “Good afternoon, Mr. Ellie. My name is Devon DeWitt, and I just earned my college degree. I’m here to purchase a felt hat, so I can begin my career in the city.”
The old shop owner took Devon’s hand into his calloused palm and gave it a few good shakes. Something about his fingers reminded Devon of his mother, and he knew more than ever that he was meant to be there. The rest of his life began here, and suddenly, the weight of his momentary choice fell on him like four years of learning squeezed into a single, dense second. The rows of arranged hats called out to him, and the five-hundred-dollar bills in his pocket burned. Perspiration gathered on his forehead, and an image of staining his new felt hat with sweat stabbed his chest with fear.
The old shop owner seemed to notice the change in Devon’s countenance, and he nodded with understanding. Then he placed his calloused hand on Devon’s shoulder and peered into his anxious expression. “Don’t you worry one bit,” the old owner affirmed. “I’ll help you find the right fit and hat. I’ve been helping my customers for a very long time. There are indeed many hats to choose from and lots of styles and colors to consider, but we can whittle down the choices a great deal once I get your size and you tell me what you are looking for.”
An air of relief filled Devon’s lungs and his heavy chest lifted lightly. “Mr. Ellie, I’m looking for a felt hat, and when I see it, I will know.”
The old shop owner gave a meaningful nod. “I believe you will. Here,” he said, as a measuring tape unfurled from his fingers. “Let me measure you for the perfect fit.”
Devon leaned his head forward. He hadn’t noticed the measuring tape in the shop owner’s hand, but he was an expert hat maker and knew what he was doing. Devon felt Mr. Ellie place the tape’s end above his left ear and wrap the length of it around the circumference of his head just across his eyebrows. Then he released the loose end and pinched the tape at the right measurement.
“Yep, just what I thought, but I wanted to be sure. Now follow me,” Mr. Ellie said. The shop owner made his way into the middle of the showroom and waited for Devon to join him. Then he pointed to the far left. “Those are flat caps,” he said. Then his pointed hand veered to the right, inch by inch, as he listed the rest of the hats. “Those are buckets hats. And those are bakerboy caps. Next are trilby hats and then Panama hats. And finally,” he said, motioning to the far right. “Those are fedoras. There are different designs within each collection, but you can at least make your way to the section of the store you favor most. Within each collection, we have different materials—felt, leather, tweed, linen, straw, silk, and more—but since you want felt, your choice will be even easier to make.”
Devon realized there was more to the word hat than he had considered, but once he saw the shelves of fedoras, he knew where he needed to look. “Definitely the fedoras,” Devon said confidently.
“I thought just as much. Fedoras have a feel for the city. Why don’t you make your way over there and examine each felt fedora closely? They may look similar from a distance, but I assure you they each have a distinctive design and hue. There are no wrong choices. Now that we know your size and desired collection, the rest is a matter of opinion and taste.”
Devon waivered. He had all but forgotten about price. “I must also mention, although I have saved for many years, I do have a budget of no more than five hundred dollars.”
“I respect your budget,” Mr. Ellie assured. “Some folks come in here ill-prepared to hear the price. They either get angry and storm out of my shop or they become embarrassed and apologize. However, your budget should cover almost any felt hat in the store, save the top hats on the racks behind the register. I didn’t mention those because they didn’t fit your need.”
Devon gave a low laugh with relief. “No, I will not be looking at top hats for a while. If you don’t mind, I will look at your selection.”
“Take your time,” Mr. Ellie said. “I’ll be checking my inventory-list behind the register. Let me know if you need anything.”
Devon watched the old hat shop owner step behind the counter of his register. He eyed the top hats lining the wall behind him. No, he didn’t need one of those. He turned his gaze to the rows of elegant fedoras and made his way to their location. Mr. Ellie was correct. There were many felt fedoras to choose from, and he could envision the businessman wearing each one. He reached his hand toward the taupe-colored fedora with a pinched shaped crown and narrow brim, but he stopped abruptly when a hissing voice came from behind.
“Are you sure that is the perfect one?” the tall man sneered. He wore a dark-colored fedora that reflected the celling lights of the showroom. It had an exaggerated pinched crown, forming the two points of the letter “M” and an extra wide brim that shaded the man’s face entirely.
“Mr. Ellie and I decided that I should choose my hat from here. I want a felt fedora, and this is my selection.”
The man scoffed. “Why felt? What a boring material. My silk fedora glows.”
“I am a young man. I want a hat that will last me,” Devon said, trying to dismiss the man.
“Why would the owner even limit you here when there are hundreds of choices,” the tall man pressed, spreading his arms like he owned the shop. “You cannot make this decision lightly. The price is too hefty for just any old hat.”
Devon stepped back. He had been working toward this decision for years, and he didn’t want to choose incorrectly. He did find the man’s hat attractive. He looked to his left, and the other appealing collection of hats beckoned him—every color, every size, every design and every function bombarded his thoughts with what-ifs. He turned back to the man to seek further advice, but he was stunned to see that the man’s silk, cream fedora was now replaced with a checkered, tweed flat cap that flopped across his face like a mourning veil.
“Did you change hats?” Devon asked in disbelief.
“Well, of course I did!” the man hissed. “Why would I want to be stuck with the same hat day after day, week after week and year after year when there are so many hats to choose from?”
Devon did find the man’s hat intriguing. Then another hat captured Devon’s side-gaze. It was one of the trilby hats. It was the same taupe color as the fedora he had picked out, but this one had a leather band around the bottom of the crown. “I do like that one also,” he said, pointing. “It looks a lot like the fedora except the crown is not so pinched.” He closed his eyes, remembering the businessman from when he was young. His hat had been a fedora, but he didn’t have to match it exactly.
The trilby would be nice.
Devon turned back to the tall man to get his opinion, but now he wore an oversized, linen bucket hat that hung over his ears and eyes like a stemless, grey mushroom. That hat truly excited him. “You changed your hat again!”
A sly smile curled along the man’s lips like a greasy mustache. “I don’t keep the same hat for long. It bores me, so I must have something new.”
Devon glanced back at the fedoras in front of him. The leather ones looked nice; although, they probably cost a lot more that the felt fedoras. He could see if Mr. Ellie would allow him time to pay the rest with his first paycheck. “What about leather?” Devon asked the tall man.
When he turned back, he was unable to suppress his shock as the man now wore a towering crimson top hat. Devon had to suppress the urge to take the red hat for himself. “You changed it again!”
“Yes, and you can too. You shouldn’t have to stick with just one hat. You can have any hat you choose. I have loads of credit as this store. Just put them in my name, and you can pay me back over time.”
Devon’s chest clinched as images of hats scattered his mind like cards flying out of a bad shuffle. He looked toward the cash register to find Mr. Ellie, but the shop owner was nowhere in sight. Suddenly, he no longer trusted the tall man’s advice. He felt anxious and confused, like he was drowning under an endless pile of would-be hats. “No,” Devon declared, directing his thoughts. “I will pick from the selection that Mr. Ellie and I already agreed upon.” He looked back at the taupe felt fedora he had examined first. He did like it, but it was a little bland.
“Would you like me to put a band around it?” the old shop keeper asked.
Devon looked around. The tall man was gone, and Mr. Ellie stood at his side.
“Yes, I would like that. Will it be leather?” Devon asked.
“The leather band would go over your budget, but I have a fabric band that would look just as nice,” Mr. Ellie said.
Devon took hold of his new hat. “Yes, that will be perfect.”
“I’ll box it up for you,” the old owner said, taking the hat from Devon’s hands.
“I’ll take the box but don’t pack up the hat. I want to wear it out,” Devon said.
“I think that is a fine idea,” the shop owner agreed. “You have chosen well.”
When Devon exited the shop, a sunray reflecting off a city window shined on him like a spotlight. The sidewalk became his stage and the buildings his audience. He tilted the fedora with a gesture of greeting.
“Welcome to the city, Devon DeWitt!” the traffic roared.
Allyson Larkin is a family physician specializing in wound care. She reads and writes voraciously in her spare time. More about Allyson at the end of this section.
Matt Still retreated to the tiny sliver of shade provided by the emaciated salt cedar growing behind his trailer. This day was shaping up to be the same as every one that had preceded it in Dryfall, Texas. The sun baked the asphalt, cracked the dirt, and leeched the spirit out of every living thing. The air was so hot and dry it burned the back of his throat.
He watched the three men readjusting the huge truck-mounted drill bit in his back pasture, driving it into the rocky soil. They’d been at it since seven and hadn’t hit a drop of water. He’d sold his father’s F-250, the only thing with any cash value on the place, to raise the money to drill. He’d been sure they’d hit water if they just went deep enough. The Sandovals had and so had Mr. Smith down by the river—and Smith didn’t know his ass from his nose.
When Rudy, the drill mechanic, lumbered over wiping his face with a dirty rag, Matt knew the news wasn’t good.
“Nothing at 200.”
Matt frowned, “Of course not. Nothing with this place is ever easy.”
“You want us to keep on?”
Matt worked the stubble on his chin, his gut churning. He was gambling on water just like his dad used to gamble on Eight Liners, and it looked like his luck was shaping up to be just as crap. If this well came up dry, he was flat broke. Maybe Ally was right. Maybe he was following his dad’s footsteps straight to hell.
“Too late to back out now,” Matt peeled ten twenties out of his wallet leaving one lonely bill behind. Rudy and his guys were working off the clock as a favor, so it was a cash deal.
“Keep on to 350. But that’s the end of my money, so make it count.”
Rudy slapped him on the shoulder. “We’ll find it, boss. I feel it in my bones.”
Matt snorted. “When was anybody ever your boss?”
“The man with the dinero is always the boss. Even when he’s a candy ass like you.”
Matt shook his head, “Whatever you say, but I can’t watch. I’ll be in the shed. Let me know when you hit it.”
When, not if, as if believing could make it happen. What was it his mother used to say? If wishes were horses…
True to form, Matt’s father had died at the worst possible time, right in the middle of finals in the fall term of his senior year. Matt was just one semester away from his mechanical engineering degree. This had surprised no one more than Matt, himself, who’d pretty much only gone to college to follow Ally.
Her mom had gotten him the college admission and scholarship applications and stood over his shoulder until he filled them out at her kitchen table. Mrs. Sandoval didn’t have a high school degree herself, but the woman believed in education. After Matt’s mother left them, Mrs. Sandoval picked him and his brother, Dave, up at the bus stop along with her own four kids every day and sat them all down at the kitchen table to do homework—every bit of it, no breaks, till they were done. Then she fed them dinner and dropped Dave and Matt at their front gate in time for bed.
Her efforts for education succeeded. All of her own kids went to college, and Ally was now an intern in emergency medicine in Lubbock. Dave was the lone holdout refusing college; but even there, Mrs. Sandoval managed to get him enrolled in a welding program. Now he made damn good money working offshore.
Matt, it turned out, was good at math. More than good. Numbers and engines made sense to him in ways people never did. He’d kept the pumps, trucks, and generators going on his place and the Sandoval’s from the time he was twelve. So at West Texas State, engineering was a good fit. He managed to slog his way through, working on the side to pay his bills.
He had been planning to drive to Lubbock to visit Ally after exams, when he got the call from Mrs. Miller, the owner of Dryfall Feed and Hardware.
“Matt, I’m real sorry to tell you, but your daddy passed,” Mrs. Miller said in her low smoker’s growl.
“Dad? Dead?” Matt stopped cold in the middle of the walkway sure he’d heard wrong. The throng of students parted and pushed past him like a rock in a river. “You’re certain?”
“Wouldn’t call if I wasn’t. Sometime on Saturday we think.” Mrs. Miller continued, her words reaching Matt like echoes down a long hall. “Your dad went to the annual Wild Game Supper at the general store and was stewing himself in Jack Daniels per usual, when he got in a fight with Mr. Garza. Called him a wetback.”
Matt winced. The Garza family had lived in Dryfall at least as long as the Stills, but his dad considered them interlopers by virtue of their last name and preferred language.
Apparently, Mr. Garza’s son-in-law didn’t know Mr. Still was famously full of shit and took offence. A fight commenced pretty much along racial lines, and at some point, his dad took a beer bottle to the head. He was off his rocker after that. So Greg Ferguson, the closest thing his dad had to a friend, dragged him home and put him to bed. The next morning, his dad didn’t get up to move his horse or fill his troughs, so Greg looked in on him. His Dad was dead, stiff in bed.
“We need you to come home right away and make the funeral arrangements,” Mrs. Miller finished.
Matt closed his eyes struggling to make sense of it all. He’d had a huge blowout with his dad the last time he saw him. He’d been planning to propose to Ally after graduation, and for reasons beyond all reckoning, decided to share his plans with the old man. His dad hadn’t liked the idea, and one thing led to another, and he ended up giving Matt a black eye. Matt hadn’t spoken to him since. Matt had figured things would blow over. They always had. Now, he’d never get the chance to say sorry or even screw you for that matter. It left him feeling unfinished like a half-eaten meal.
Matt called Dave right away. “Just fly back and get things set with the funeral home,” Matt pleaded, “I’ll come as soon as I finish exams.”
“Screw em,” Dave replied. “Bastard can rot where he lies for all I care.”
It was the response Matt had expected. The old man had been shit for a father with a heavy hand, and Dave was not the type to forgive. So Matt arranged to take the rest of his finals after break and headed home that same day.
As soon as Matt arrived in Dryfall, the sheriff, their cousin from way back along the family tree, came to see him. He wanted to know if Matt wanted to pursue an investigation. According to the pathologist report, his dad had died from a bleed in the brain. There was confusion as to who’d struck the fatal blow, but it was likely Garza’s son-in-law. The pathologist’s report also noted that his father’s liver was shriveled and his right lung had a mass the size of a baseball. He’d have been dead in a year, two at the outside, regardless.
Matt shook his head. “Done is done. They probably saved him some suffering.”
It was more than the old man deserved. He’d driven Matt’s mother away, and even at ten years old, Matt couldn’t blame her—except for leaving him and Dave behind to face things alone.
Matt wondered if she knew about Dad. He supposed he ought to tell her. It might come as a relief. He’d heard from Mrs. Smith that she’d married a rancher and moved to New Mexico. Matt had always meant to look her up, but up to now hadn’t. If she didn’t have a damn good reason for never sending him a word, he might end up hating her too; and there just wasn’t enough room inside him for that.
The funeral arrangements were made, and the body was cremated two days later. Mrs. Sandoval even managed to scrape together a few mourners for a short service. Then, surprisingly quick, it was over.
Dave finally showed up at suppertime, and they sat alone in the trailer with the shiny, gold urn Ally had picked out. It was bizarrely out of place in the dingy gloom of the trailer and seemed to glower down at them from on top of the entertainment center. Matt and Dave escaped to the back porch and finished the last of their dad’s Jack Daniels.
Matt stared at the sky. “I wonder if Dad is up there, somewhere.”
Dave snorted, “I’m pretty sure he went straight the other way.” He spit a gob of tobacco into the fire. It flared and sizzled as if making his point.
“I asked Mom once why she fell in love with Dad,” Matt said. “She told me he two-stepped his way into her heart. She said he was the best dancer in Terrell county and told jokes so funny she laughed till her ribs hurt.”
Dave shook his head, “Hard to imagine.”
Matt had to agree, where does so much laughter and dancing disappear to? “What do you think about fixing this place up? With solar panels and a well we could run a full-scale goat operation here.”
“Hell, no. Sell this patch of weeds.”
“Think about it, Dave. We could finally make this place good for something besides bad memories, like the Sandoval place.”
“You’re a colossal dumb ass if that’s what you think. But do what you want. I don’t give a shit.”
“It wasn’t all bad you know.”
Dave shook his head and retreated back inside, the screen door banging closed behind him.
He was three years younger and couldn’t remember the good times like Matt did. And there had been good times, especially before their mother left. Cool nights they made blazing bonfires and lay on blankets staring up at the huge black sky. Matt liked to trace the slow paths of satellites from horizon to horizon. The stars were so bright they seemed to reach down and tag him with their twinkling tails.
Hot summer afternoons they lounged on the couch in their Superman Underoos luxuriating in the cool breeze of the window AC and watched movies with their mother for hours. Matt’s favorite was about a little long-neck dinosaur whose mother died protecting him from a sharp tooth. After her death the tiny dinosaur wandered frightened across a desertscape full of danger until he made friends who helped him along the way. Matt watched the movie so many times it grew scratchy and finally snagged in the VCR.
Looking back, Matt wondered if his mother had known, even then, that she would leave him one day; and if maybe, somehow, he’d known it too, and that was why he’d loved that poor motherless dinosaur so much.
When Matt and Dave were older they spent entire days outside playing cowboys and bandits in the huge expanse of desert. They explored the hidden valleys and brown flats becoming junior naturalists without even realizing it. Matt, who’d always liked lists, counted the deer, hogs, and coyotes, that teemed in the arroyos and hidden canyons. Dave captured lizards, mice, even snakes and kept them as pets in two old, cracked aquariums they rescued from the trash heap behind the general store. Dave would sneak up behind the snakes, even corals and diamond backs, and snag them with an old swimming pool skimmer undaunted—no—excited by the danger.
This lack of fear had scared Matt about Dave even as a kid, but he admired his brother for it, too. Dave was a man of action and opinion. Angry often, happy only sometimes, but he was never overwhelmed by the whirling blackness of his own thoughts as Matt so often was.
Rain was rare, but roared when it came, forming roiling rivers in the dry creek beds. Afterwards Matt and Dave scavenged through the heaps of debris left behind, finding railroad ties, horseshoes, old forks and spoons, bottles and cans, once even a Spanish doubloon. Lost treasures, Matt had imagined. He still had a box full of the stuff under his bed.
As a boy it gave him a sense that he owned a place in the history of the land; and he had to admit, in his heart, he believed it still. Maybe that was why he couldn’t let the land go. He owed it to their great, great grandfather who had homesteaded the place after the Civil War, and their grandfather who had doubled their acreage, and even his dad though the only legacy he’d left behind was a trailer pretty much held together with plywood and duct tape.
The next morning when Matt woke, Dave was already gone. Matt knew he wouldn’t be coming back. Matt climbed back into bed and stayed there all day. Then he slept in the next day and the next. Before he knew it he’d missed a week of classes. Then it was too late to take his finals or start the next semester.
Ally lost it when she learned Matt hadn’t gone back. She drove back to Dryfall and literally tried to pack him up herself.
“If I leave now I’ll never come back. It will all be lost. Look at Dave,” Matt tried to explain.
“This whole thing is nothing but an apology to a man who doesn’t deserve it. Your dad was a total shit. I’m sorry to say it, but you know it’s true. You staying here and drinking yourself into a pickle will never change that fact.”
“Just give me a year,” Matt pleaded. “If I can’t make a go of it by then, I’ll go back to school.”
“Take as long as you need. I’m done.”
Ally cried as she got into her car and pulled out slowly, giving Matt plenty of time to stop her. He almost grabbed his bag and ran after her; but some freak gravitational pull locked him in place. He watched Ally’s car until it was a dot on Highway Ninety, knowing full well he was making the biggest mistake of his life.
Now, six months later, Ally was still so pissed she wouldn’t answer his phone calls or texts. Matt glared at the brown flat curve of horizon melting into nothingness all around him. He felt a chill despite the blazing heat and the ground seemed to tilt beneath his feet. Matt, grabbed a wrench, and slid underneath the 4x4 Bronco he had up on blocks.
Ally was right. If he wasn’t careful, this place was gonna lift him up and drop him right off the edge of the world like it had his dad. Matt drained the oil out of the pan then went to work on the spark plugs. Ally was the light in the dark spaces of his mind. Without her it was all for shit, regardless. Once he got the Bronco back running, water or no, he’d drive to Lubbock and talk to her. She wouldn’t ignore him if he came in person. And if she made him choose, he would—the right way this time.
Matt was popping in the last spark plug when Rudy sauntered around the corner.
“We’re in business.”
Matt jumped so fast he slammed his head on the hood, “You serious?”
Rudy gave Matt a thumbs up. “Never doubt the Rudinator.”
Matt grinned, “The Rudinator is not a compliment. You know that, right?”
Rudy snorted. “Come see your water, Jefe.”
Matt forced himself to keep Rudy’s slow pace as they walked to the well. He bent down and inspected the gauge. The needle was all the way right, full pressure. Tension uncoiled inside him. He pulled out his handkerchief and wiped his face, embarrassed by the moisture that filled his eyes, then bent closer to see. The depth on the shaft was 450 feet. “Aww Dude, you went way deeper. I’m not sure-”
“No worries. The Rudinator takes care of his compadres-but keep it on the down low.”
“You bet, thanks.” Matt grabbed the big man by both shoulders and tried to give him a hug.
Rudy shoved him away. “Get off me white boy. I’m not your girlfriend. But it’s good to have you back. This place will be real nice with you working it. It’s good land.”
Matt laughed. “If you like rocks, snakes, and heat.”
“Exactly.” Rudy folded his oversized body into the cab of the truck and saluted. “See you.”
He pulled out, leaving Matt coughing, in a cloud of dust. Matt fumbled for his keys, then headed straight for the Bronco. It was a long drive, but if he booked it he might make it by dinner. Ally liked pizza…
The school bus sped away in a cloud of dust. Tony started up the steep drive to the ranch house. The afternoon sun baked the back of his neck. His backpack bit into his shoulders and sweat dripped into his eyes.
Tony wiped his face and rolled his neck. He swallowed hard. Ever since his mom died in the car wreck six weeks ago, he felt like he couldn’t take a full breath. It was like an invisible hand was wrapped around his throat choking him all day long.
He kicked a rock. It ricocheted off a stump and hit him in the knee. It figured. Tony was mad all the time but couldn’t figure out at who. His mother for dying? His father for dishing him off on his grandpa? His grandpa for living so far out in the country that he had to ride the bus an hour to school?
When Tony finally reached the house, he was surprised to see the sheriff’s truck parked out front. The sheriff and Tony’s grandpa were deep in conversation.
“Two sheep. Completely drained of blood on Wednesday,” the sheriff said. “And last night, three calves and Mrs. Smith’s Blue Heeler. All dead, with nothing but puncture wounds on their necks.”
“No other injuries?” Tony’s grandpa asked.
“None.” The sheriff shrugged. “It’s the darndest thing.”
“It’s a Chupacabra,” Tony’s grandpa said. “They’ve been round these parts before.”
The sheriff laughed. “I’d not jump to that conclusion, Mr. Saenz. More likely a cougar wandering out of the mountains. Still, you’d best pen your stock tonight.”
Tony’s grandpa didn’t argue. “Thanks for letting us know.”
As soon as the sheriff pulled away, Tony said, “Grandpa, you can’t go talking like that. People will think you’re crazy.”
Grandpa shook his wooly, grey head. “Crazy is denying what’s right before your eyes. Cougars eat their prey. They don’t suck their blood.”
Inside, his grandpa pulled a faded photo from a drawer. It was Tony’s mother. She was about his age and had long brown pigtails and was cradling a baby goat with a pink collar in her arms.
“The Chupacabra killed Lulu, your mother’s favorite goat, last time it was round these parts. Your mother cried for days.”
Tony walked away. He didn’t want to talk about his mother. It felt like the blood was being sucked out of him every time he tried.
After dinner Tony headed outside to round up the goats. Once there had been a whole herd on the ranch. But now his grandpa only kept a nanny, a billy, and a baby goat born last spring.
The baby was black with white patches above each hoof and looked like she’d stepped in a can of paint. She followed Tony around when he did his chores, chewing on his sleeves and begging for treats.
Grandpa had told Tony he could name her, but Tony hadn’t. He didn't want to care about a baby goat—or anything else for that matter. Still, he fed her the best scraps and made sure she got her fair share of oats and hay before the bigger goats moved in. At night he brushed her till her coat shined.
The nanny and the billy were dozing under the porch and refused to come out when Tony called. He had to crawl underneath and pull them out by their collars. The billy gave Tony a sharp nip on his hand to show his displeasure, but both were happy enough when Tony filled their troughs with fresh hay and water.
Then, Tony searched the yard for Baby Goat calling and shaking a cupful of Cheerios, but she didn’t answer. He walked the entire back pasture, but she wasn’t there, either. So he headed down the hill to the meadow by the river, carefully avoiding the family cemetery that stood on its edge.
The meadow had been Tony's favorite spot on the ranch when he was a kid. It was shady and next to the river with a nice fishing hole. But now, since his mother had been buried there, a fresh mound of brown dirt marking the spot; he hated the place. He hadn’t fished a single time, even though Grandpa had bought him a new rod and reel.
Tony scoured the underbrush walking up and down the river’s edge calling for Baby Goat, but she was nowhere to be seen. He gave up when it was too dark to see.
“Any luck?” Grandpa asked when Tony returned.
Tony shook his head.
Grandpa squeezed Tony’s shoulder with his strong, gnarled hand. “She'll wander on home when she’s ready.”
Tony nodded and headed to bed. He hadn’t slept well since his mom died. During the day he could barely hold his eyes open. But at night his brain ran on overdrive replaying memories of his mother.
Grandpa had brought her old comic books and baseball cards down from the attic. Tony pored over them. Baseball was Tony’s sport, and his mother had loved it, too. They both played third base. She’d played softball in college and after that on a woman’s league. She'd been on her way to a tournament when her car was hit by the tractor trailer.
He was staring at the clock at midnight, when he heard an urgent, high-pitched bleat. He hopped out of bed slipping his bare feet into his boots, grabbed the flashlight on the counter next to the door, and ran outside toward the sound. The cries continued frantic and shrill.
Tony sprinted through the yard and into the pasture wearing only his boxers and boots. Brambles tore his skin, but he didn’t slow. The bleating led him to the top of the hill. He hesitated, wondering if he should get his grandpa. But then Baby Goat cried even louder. There was no time.
As he raced down the slope, a cloud passed over the moon. The darkness became so deep, Tony couldn’t even see his feet. He stumbled on rocks and ruts but didn’t slow. He followed Baby Goat’s maws into the meadow then skidded to a stop. The bleating was coming from the cemetery.
He shined his flashlight inside the stone walls, but the thin yellow light couldn’t penetrate the thick mist.. It hovered over the ground hugging the tombstones like a living thing. It seemed to breathe.
Tony wanted to help Baby Goat, but his feet were frozen as if chained to the ground. He looked around for someone, anyone, to help him. But he was all alone.
Baby Goat shrieked again, higher now, desperate. The sound made the hairs stand straight up on Tony’s arms. But, somehow, released the lock on his feet.
Tony opened the gate and ran inside. A huge beast like a hairless, coyote with thick, grey skin crouched over baby goat pinning her tiny body to the stone wall with a giant paw.
“Get out of here!” Tony yelled.
The beast looked up at Tony with angry yellow cat eyes. Blood dripped from its two long, curved incisors. Tony smashed the beast’s muzzle with his flashlight. The beast roared and raised up on its hind legs towering over Tony.
Tony turned and ran. The ground shook as the beast pursued him. He could feel the beast’s hot, rancid breath on his neck. It was gaining on him. Tony focused every ounce of his energy into running as fast as he could toward the river praying the beast could not swim.
But barely a foot from the water’s edge, the beast roared and leapt onto Tony’s back, knocking him to the ground. As he fell he glimpsed a girl running towards him through the mist. She held a baseball bat in front of her like a club.
Then, Tony’s head smashed the ground. The beast pierced his neck with its razor incisors. Tony screamed as blood began to flow out of him. In that moment the girl reached them. She struck the beast with her bat. It roared, releasing Tony. The girl whacked the beast again, swinging the bat as if she was hitting a line drive. Tony heard the crack as the bat impacted the beast’s skull.
The beast yelped and took off running along the river’s edge. The girl knelt next to Tony and pressed her hand against his bleeding neck.
“Don't worry. I'll take care of you.”
Tony wondered, briefly, why she seemed so familiar. Then he blacked out.
When Tony came to, light shone through the barn window. His grandpa was crouched over him.
Tony sat up. “Grandpa, how did you get me up the hill?”
“I found you here, just now.”
The events of the night rushed back to him. Tony brought his hand to his neck. A thick dressing was taped to his skin.
“Grandpa, a chupacabra killed Baby Goat. And there was a girl—”
“Baby Goat is fine.” Grandpa pointed. “She’s here with you.”
Sure enough, Baby Goat lay curled next to Tony with a bandage on her neck that matched his own. She had a collar, too. It was faded pink but clearly read, “Lulu.”
Grandpa sat back on his heels. “Isn't that strange?”
Tony scratched Lulu’s chin. She mawed and butted him gently with her baby horns.
Every inch of Tony’s body ached, but he didn’t care. For the first time since his mother died, the invisible hand had released its grip on his throat. He could breathe again. READ MORE LIKE THIS IN CORPUS CHRISTI WRITERS 2021
Allyson Larkin reads from "Dryfall" from Corpus Christi Writers 2020
Jesus Lopez mows his own lawn. So do I of course. So do most of us; but Mr. Lopez is paraplegic.
Twenty-five years ago, a bullet lodged in Jesus Lopez’s back severing the neurologic connection between his spine and legs. Now no signal reaches the muscles below his waist. Paralysis and deformity ensued. His feet are contracted and twisted upside down so that they look like curved bowls -- no good for walking or even standing for that matter. So, Mr. Lopez mows his yard in his wheelchair.
Mr. Lopez’s home health nurse keeps calling me, complaining that his dressings are dirty or have fallen off when she goes out to care for him three times a week. She can’t figure out why. So this visit I’ve got to have a “heart to heart” with him about his role in the healing process.
“Mr. Lopez, you won’t heal unless you are compliant with our wound care plan. If your dressings are dirty or wet when the home nurse sees you, you will never heal.”
“Sorry Doctora.” That is what he calls me. “I think it might be the mowing. I’ll tie a grocery bag on my foot from now on to keep the bandage clean.”
“Mowing? How do you manage that?”
“I pull my chair right up next to the mower so I can pull the crank at the same time I squeeze the start paddle on the handle.”
“It’s a push mower?” I cannot believe what I am hearing.
“You bet, self-propelled. Once I get it started, the mowing is easy.”
I shake my head.
“I pull my chair up behind the mower and push it with my left hand. I drive the wheelchair with my right.”
“That doesn’t sound safe,” I say as I inspect the horseshoe-shaped ulcer on top of his right foot, which due to his contractures, is actually resting on the footplate of his wheelchair.
“I tie that belt around my legs to keep them from flopping if I hit a rut.” Mr. Lopez points to a frayed brown leather belt draped on the edge of his seat. A jagged tear in the cushion has been repaired with silver duct tape and a shopping bag chock full of gear -- a sack lunch, an umbrella, a blanket -- hangs off the handles. “I’ve never had a bit of trouble.”
The wound is pink and shallow. It looks like it should heal right up; but never does. It is maddening. “Dirt and debris getting into your dressing isn’t doing your foot much good either,” I say.
“I have to do it, Doctora. I have a big yard and if I don’t keep it cut, the city will fine me $75. I’m not made of money. ”
That’s true. He gets to my office by bus, but unlike a lot of my bus patients, he is never late. I should have Mr. Lopez give a class: “How to Master Public Transportation and Arrive On Time.” I didn’t even know he took the bus until one day I ran so late that I made him miss the last pick-up. He had to borrow the phone at the front desk to shift around for someone to pick him up.
“Jesus Lopez’s mother died,” my medical assistant warns me before I go in for our next visit.
“I'm so sorry, Mr. Lopez,” I say as I look at his foot.
“Thank you Doctora. I miss her. We were very close, but she was old. It was her time.”
“You lived with her?”
“Yes, just her and I. The house is very quiet now.”
“How are you managing? Have you had to move?”
“Doctora,” Mr. Lopez pauses waiting until I look up and give him my full attention. “My mother couldn’t get out of bed this last year. I managed to take care of her. I sure can take care of myself.”
I blush. This is the closest to an angry word I have ever had from Mr. Lopez, and I deserve every bit of it. I’ve been treating him for a year, but I don't understand a thing about his life.
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean -- I just assumed.” I struggled for words. I did not want to offend this man, always so courteous and patient. “But how do you possibly manage? It’s not just your paralysis, but your feet. You can’t even -- ”
“Doctora. I got shot over twenty years ago -- and it was pretty much my own fault. For a few weeks I thought all about ‘I can’t.’ I couldn’t get out of my mind all the things I would never do. But then I decided, ‘Hey, I’m alive. The Lord is not done with me.’ So, every day I just do everything I can do.”
I am humbled and have no response.
“So I took care of my mother. I owed her that. She gave me life and I wasn’t gonna put her in a nursing home.”
“You’re like MacGyver,” I say.
“Oh Doctora,” Mr. Lopez laughs, “I love that show.”
I have an idea. “Do you think if I put home health on hold, you can figure out how to you reach down to your foot and dress the wound yourself everyday?”
“I’ll find a way if you tell me what I need to do.”
“Jesus Lopez is healed.” My medical assistant moon walks in the hall outside Mr. Lopez’s room at his follow up appointment two weeks later.
I walk into the room, hoping but not convinced. I shine the spotlight on his foot. Indeed there is a thin, translucent layer of pink tissue over the wound.
“Mr. Lopez, you are healed.” I can’t help but grin.
“I thought you’d like that, Doctora. Thank you for healing me.”
“Mr. Lopez, are you kidding? You did it. I’m just sorry I didn’t have you change your own dressings months ago.”
“That’s OK, Doctora. You always did your best. Sometimes it takes trying different things before you get them right.”
Copyright Allyson Chavez Larkin
Allyson Chavez Larkin is a family physician specializing in wound care. She lives in Corpus Christi, Texas with her unfailingly patient husband, a Midwest transplant who still cannot get used to the heat, and three lovely children who are turning into amazing people right in front of her eyes. She reads and writes voraciously in her spare time. Middle grade and young adult fiction are her guilty pleasures.
Alyanna Mena lives in Corpus Christi. She believes many choose to live to work, but she reminds herself to work to live. She enjoys reading, painting, drawing, and singing.
Can’t tell tale this time
Without taking a sip of scotch
And a shot of the past
The cable swivels onto the right channel
And our play resumes in the green theater
A grin and a grimace
The show recalls, and the actors bow and exit to different stages of life
Static, another swivel, and a familiar production from the conduction of electricity
Here comes my favorite part, when the reruns take us back to the bar and back to the start.
Do you know what it’s like to feel used? I am used every day in different ways. I’ll explain later.
While most people wake, drink their morning caffeinated beverage, and go to their 9-5, I stay encapsulated in a decorated can. Humans have free range to roam, but that is not the case. I’m encased! Depending on the living you humans make, I can be quite expensive (or cheap). People come from different backgrounds, and I’m used by all of them. I live in and through everything. I stain. However, I don’t make an appearance unless I have to. Honey, I’m actually quite shy. I can’t control it either, so please forgive me. There’s a puppeteer at play, and I am their doll.
Remember I told you I would explain? Riddle you not. READ THE REST IN CCW2022
When the sun and the moon pass off shift report as the moon dresses for work.
Being a white night owl, the hue in the sky signals my need for candy. Because within a place, all different sorts of confectionaries await to be swallowed.
Each step on the tile, rhythmic like a heartbeat. The door beeps behind me as the lock engages and I breathe in the cold air perfumed with alcohol.
I study each jar carefully deciding which will fill my craving. As I lift a bottle the soft rattle increases the anticipation as I choose my sweet. My mouth waters like a toddler.
My fingers twist the lid open and I place 3 small red pills onto my palm of my hand. I lick my lips, work has just started.
What an enticing wrapper
Dried, the rustling cover sounded of leaves
Yet when wet, scarlet bleeds through
What an enticing wrapper
Dried, the rustling cover sounded of leaves
Yet when wet, scarlet bleeds through the delicate paper onto your fingertips
The holder doesn’t remember the sweeties’ origin other than from their pocket
Your lustful eyes gaze upon my naked body
My clothing crimped in one hand while gripping me softly in another
You place me between your lips and suck the sweet juices
The swirling cinnamon burns the tongue but cools when inhaled
So long as you don’t choke.
Alyssa Outhwaite is a graduate student at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. Her love of writing began in middle school. More about Allyssa at the end of this section.
Sneezing, wheezing, coughing, hacking
Still I lay there typing tapping
Keyboard strokes, no time for napping
Pushing through pain, my strength sapping.
Eyes watering, breathing ragged
Forcing forward feeling haggard
Pages frayed my corners jagged
To stop is lazy? I’m staggered.
To rest, to sleep, to breathe’s a crime
Too many things, not enough time
Repeats all day, my mantra chime,
“If I had more hours, I’d be fine.”
It’s a lie, I’d fill each with more
And endless time? I’d be a whore
Selling my soul for open doors
How else do I move forward?
Enough, enough! I want to rant
Where is the time for me? I pant
The rest, they sleep, and breathe! I can’t?
Is this the prize ambition grants?
Pressing on to be efficient,
Perfect model of persistence,
But will alone is not sufficient
Blunted axes are deficient.
I should stop to sharpen my tool
To restore the mind, rest is fuel
These seem like lies, and I a fool
For wanting breaks to be a rule.
You’d think stopping would be easy
To care less, be light and breezy,
But it’s so hard I feel queasy.
Surrender makes me uneasy.
Fear of failure keeps me going
Climbing high no weakness showing
With each new height my dread growing.
Sure to fall but there’s no slowing.
At the top I toss a token
Wishing, praying words unspoken
From this nightmare to be woken
Yet terror remains unbroken.
At the end, when my time has come
I hope, of all the things I’ve done,
That regret not have the largest sum.
Maybe. Only if change has won.
Alyssa Outhwaite is a graduate student at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. Her love of writing began in middle school where she often spent her days creating short stories with her sisters and friends. She was inspired to write “Only if” while struggling with the demands of getting a Ph.D. and believed her feelings would resonate with others juggling happiness and “success.”
Amishi Bhasin lives in Delhi, India and is in the final year of schooling in presidium, Indirapuram. She spends her free time reading and writing- the love of which was "passed down to me by my aunt when she gifted me 'the universe of us' by lang leav on my 10th birthday. I've had some of my works published in local newspapers and have even had experience interning as a content creator."
Neither as a shadow to inkling,
Nor as a succession to preamble.
are in no requirement of either.
till I could think of little else;
till I could not move to act on that little else.
It was deafening in its silence,
in the way every susurrus was able to drown my helpless screeches;
In the way it was calling me,
“Submission or surrender,
a nuance in meaning really,
A nuance as subtle as a lacquer of free will.
A nuance that ceases to exist
When the lacquer relinquishes its lustre”
I thought of it a foreshadowing to my own,
my first prelude;
stemming from something so deep,
that the word prelude fell short in all its mildness.
It was but a promise of ruin,
A guarantee of a breath snuffing out;
A breath so precarious that its fragility bemused.
But fragile could no more be used to describe a breath,
Than it could be the susurrus that warned to harm it.
For what next replaced the whispers,
were a thousand harangues,
Quick in succession,
So much so that they were difficult to comprehend;
insignificant in existence,
So much so that they ablated, unable to do so beyond the coherent two.
The first had me met with an image of my self-worth;
Dark with animosity in certain places,
Light with an absence of anything else in the other.
Its effect on me,
Was placating when I could call it disformed,
Aggravating when I had to admit it mirrored.
The second ululated
The presence of something flowing,
Something that wasn’t mine to possess,
something red incarcerated to hasten within me.
And as quickly as it was said,
The lustre faded away for me to surrender;
For I learnt that some rivers always run in red,
some shards always ink in scarlet.
That at times red has to be given,
to tickle another pink.
Someone has to be cuffed twice over,
For the captured to take the captor’s place.
To conclude the denouement to the story as well as I,
It had been a while before anyone noticed,
Before anyone could see one of the victors tainting me,
And even when they did they never knew of the other,
the herald had left as undetected as it came,
And its message, well its message had been long delivered.
Ana Varela lived in Los Angeles, Buenos Aires, and Taipei before moving to Corpus Christi, and then to Denver. More about Ana at the end of this section.
Pacing back in forth in the lobby of a women's shelter
she paused at the paperwork, looked at the baby and felt that no one could help her.
She lifted her daughter, flipped up her hoodie and walked back into the blur.
Pacing back and forth in the lobby of a women's shelter
she paused at the paperwork, paused at the baby and noticed the same day on the calendar.
She lifted that baby, and she put her back down and tried to remember where they were.
Pacing back and forth where they said that they can help her
she paused at the thermostat, thought about smoking crack
and wondered where she could get hers.
She flipped up her hoodie, flipped it back down-
She couldn't feel the right temperature.
Pacing back and forth, wondering about her worth
She looked past the paperwork, stared at the floor
and saw her crawling daughter.
She lifted that baby, walked back into the blur and felt that no one could help her.
The valley knew that it would change my life forever. The longer that I spent in it, the more sure I was of where I needed to be. Nothing could be the same after that summer in the desert.
I met Jay in the three days that I spent at the end of spring in the Joshua Tree Desert. I would not leave for good until the come and go of a year of seasons. If I was once a seed I had grown into a mesquite, and I was finally enjoying my shade. Before, I had wandered content, well-nourished from the freedom of decisions that had led me to this event. When I reached the desert, I gave in to a restful time and listened, for once, to the message of a music festival. If “music is the soul of life” then the desert is the body from which energy might manifest as humming, the vibrations as song. I met my Jay in Joshua Tree, and, one day, I flew away with him.
My first winter with Jay was a high-desert January and a world of wonder. I drove the three hours from Los Angeles, as I had done so many times throughout the summer, to reach our paradise in the desert. The last hour of the drive, heading up the mountain after a windmill valley, was hard on the car but easy on the mind. I passed the small but popular Joshua Tree city, catering to the tourists that came from around the world to visit the national park, the businesses boutique with faux-desert facades. Farther up the road Twentynine Palms -- an even smaller bucolic town that most only know if they have heard of the military base. Two different cities, like two very different beasts, feeding on that which keeps them growing. Turning off the main street there, I drove for a quarter of an hour more as the asphalt turned into dirt road. Not too far in the distance, with its red stripe around its side, the 1970’s El Rey camper was my minds favorite sight. I imagined that I could hear Jay's small dog panting as he listened for my tires driving up the property. I was moments from Jay's smile and feeling the weight of the wine glass in my hand.
The sky in winter matched Jay’s eyes -- a crisp and clean bright, blue grey. By morning, I was happy to be in the El Rey, warmed by the closeness of our bodies. If this had been August, the camper would be empty by midday, and we would be somewhere else searching for shade. Winter called for a noontime wandering. When the morning freeze had melted under the sun, we set out from our cozy home. Imitating the flower buds of the cacti around us, we wrapped up in layered bundles, bursting with anticipation for spring. Vast and limitless, ours was the most beautiful backyard in the world. Except for the few trails we had worn around the property, we explored in a new direction every day. There was every shape of twisting branch discovered for each pairless shoe found. When the afternoon warmed enough, we stopped anywhere in a greasewood bush field to drink wine, laugh, and watch as the stars appeared.
The Joshua Tree seemed the greatest teacher, the desert the greatest classroom. For it to survive, the Joshua Tree gave parts of itself to the desert; fruit for the sloth (extinct to humans) and seeds for Yucca Moth larvae to eat. When the flowers bloom in spring, the appreciative moth pollinates other trees. It is a thousand year old dance of coevolution. The philosophy of the Joshua Tree was simple; keep only that which you need to survive and a partner to help you grow- the rest is too heavy to carry.
Jay had a bird’s eye view of the world, and could see farther than I ever could alone. He could see where the wind would blow, dropping pieces of desert trash and treasures in a secret sand bowl. It was a long valley, hidden between a row of small mountains and sand dunes. Burnouts and storms and time had turned parts into pieces and sections to shreds. Collecting our favorite fragments of broken plates, plastics, and metals, Jay and I spent afternoons creating our mosaics. Longing for a body of water, the sound of a crashing wave, or the salt saturated spray of ocean mist, he brought a sea creature to life in the dry desert. With teeth of glass and shotgun shells for scales a devilish angler fish appeared from the sand. Once, a friend, stopping in our desert on a roadtrip across the country, painted a monarch over a wide boulder in our secret mosaic sand bowl. Before him, that boulder had looked like an abandoned Volkswagen bug in the distance. Then, it was as if the butterfly had flown swiftly into the side of the boulder and left her color splattered all over the sand. So vast, in fact, was this mosaic valley, that when we returned to find the massive monarch, with a wingspan twice as large as mine, she seemed to have flown off. Perhaps the Volkswagen had suddenly driven away.
Nothing dies in the desert. A seemingly dry greasewood, when its bare branch snaps, reveals a jade green center, ready to feed the new leaves of spring. If something begins to lose life, it crumbles over the sands' surface and smooths to preservation becoming an important particle of the ever growing land. Everything becomes the desert again.
The first time I crashed a motorcycle I fell into the soft embrace of the desert. The deep trail behind me snaked its way more sharply the closer to where I lay. Jay hadn’t seen me yet. I didn’t want him to think that I was hurt. I unburied myself from the sand and, despite the pain in my shin, walked over to the other side of the little red Honda to pull it up. By the time Jay had noticed, I was loading onto the bike again. I only fell once more that day as we were leaving the mosaic valley, burying my front tire into the side of one of the dunes. Again the snickering snake led to exactly the point where I was splayed across the sand.
Summer had gone months before but the grab of its rays still burned like yesterday in our memories. Each blazing day of that season, when the rocks and the trees and the mountains began to see their shadows, we set off on another ride. The buzzing motorbikes echoed through the canyons we explored. The world hummed to the tune of our adventures. Eager for curious visitors and luring us in with their shade, we rode up to the mouth of the hungry caves. Abandoned mines that had no notion of time. It would be weeks before the next desert riders would find them again. Leaving behind the cold and burning superheated summer surface world to the lizards, we walked into the earth and entered the cool, endless darkness. Deep blue turquoise streaks lined the inside of the otherwise rough earth; perfect lines of oxidized copper led us deeper and deeper inside.
Like Plato's allegory of the cave, I wondered if my high-desert stories made sense to many city dwellers or the strictly social media savants. Would they see the value in the voids or the expanses of the desert? How might I convey the worth in the woe of an abandoned mine? After allowing our internal temperatures to drop, and our inner thoughts to cool and calm, we wander back to see how the sand of the summer had changed. Time is measured by the sun, and it waits for no one.
We were never lost following the cooing and whispering hints of the wind, then the allure of the light. Emerging from the mine, we were enveloped in a warm embrace by the two; the sky and the sun welcomed us again. Unlike a city, where the alleys at night should be avoided, this world would not punish me for walking into the darkness.
Regardless of the season, each morning my eyes were opened by the gentle kiss of sunrise, calling for me to come outside to face the rising Ra. These 2,700 feet above sea level are pure -- similar to starving the muscles for oxygen, so does the elevation strengthen the soul. There is little room for the toxic smog of my mind that I bring with me from the city each drive and soon it is all taken away by the very same wind the urges me forward. I must have followed that very wind to that Spring festival that took me away with Jay forever. Each day in the desert since then, we did as the animals did and looked to find shade at noon otherwise, we would be bake in that retro and aluminum camper. We had to move or risk withering away as I once did on the third day that I had met my Jay.
I was falling in love with a blue Jay, and distracted I forgot to drink water, to eat, or to sleep under the stars. So, I unknowingly was fading away until I finally fainted. Catching me, as if I were a seed, Jay took me under his wing and placed me in the shade of my desert realty; there is no room for toxicity, remember the lessons of the Joshua Tree; only take what you need, and he chose to take me, the rest was too heavy to carry.
While in that daze of those days, I remembered the day Jay firmly dodged the first time I reached for his chin. In a tent booth full of precious gems and crystals, he was the most captivating -- the most valuable thing. Resonating over the entire Joshua Tree valley, the festival music enveloping the tent seemed muffled and low to the mocking Jay’s song. Would he believe that we would spend so many sunrises together in this very desert? Or riding home each sunset before the darkness could envelop the two of us on our motorbikes? One day, although it was sudden, we would fly away. We were unlike the valley’s ephemeral blooms, destined instead to flower forever. Nothing was the same after that summer in the desert and, after a year of seasons, we flew away together, my desert Jay and I.
You are talkative, aren't you?
Oh! Expressive too!
Out of nowhere, really
Overreacting or just
Out of your mind
or out of control And
Suddenly, Involuntarily, and Perpetually
out of line.
you are SO
out of it and in over your head
and losing your shit.
Now calm down. Go back to bed.
You were just dreaming.
EL MUNDO INHALO (The World Inhaled)
Alguna vez te paraste a los pies de un árbol alto? Miras hacia arriba y pareciera que las últimas hojas tocaran el cielo. Dentro de su tronco hay un rio corriendo desde la tierra hasta llenar las nubes. Como vos, toma lo que le da su mundo y crea algo nuevo; frutas, aire, sombra, ideas, energía, apoyo. Alguna vez sentiste la tierra, recorriendo por tu ser, y de tus pies hacia tu cabeza, surgieron palabras frescas y deliciosas, las cuales el mundo inhalo.
THE WORLD INHALED (El Mundo Inhalo)
Have you ever once, stood at the feet of a tall tree? You look up and it is as if the tallest leaves could touch the sky. Within its trunk there is a river running from the earth to fill the clouds. Like you, it drinks what the world gives it and creates something new; fruit, air, shade, ideas, energy, support. Have you ever once felt the earth, flowing through your entire being, and from your head to your feet, fresh, delicious words appeared, those which the world inhaled.
Ana Varela lived in Los Angeles, Buenos Aires, and Taipei before moving to Corpus Christi, and then to Denver. She has proudly worked at a domestic violence shelter, as a paralegal at a non-profit immigration law firm, and spends her free time finding volunteer families for international students.
Andrea Perez is a Corpus Christi native. She started writing in the Fall of 2019 after the tragic death of her dog Max to distract her from grief. She hopes to write a children’s book about Max soon. Writing is a creative outlet she now enjoys and hopes to have her poems published in an anthology. When not writing she enjoys yoga, meditation and Reiki.
Memories from a past life
You can’t regret or forget
The visions rewind in your head
The most beautiful golden hue
White dresses flowing
Roman leather sandals
Not a care in the world
A field of flowers blooming
The sharpest greens I’ve ever seen
Butterflies in the spring
A vision that brings me everlasting peace
Azrael Montoya grew up in Corpus Christi. As a child, he was a Power Rangers and Spiderman fan. More about Azrael at the end of this section.
It was hard to find you.
I really had to try.
You drove me to work and I was
thankful. Your smile was beautiful and
luminous like daisies in the field.
Your laugh was like a beautiful wet shark.
I said all
the time, I
I love you.
I really did.
Touching your body all time was smooth as a record. We kissed for long periods of time and it was greatly appreciated. It will go down in history.
I love you.
I love you.
I needed you.
You put on your blue uniform to go fight in the war for the spiritual world. You always followed the prescriptions in your zenned up journal.
Our focus on love was like an Act of Congress.
It was powerful and atomic.
Its very essence sure of itself.
Then the other better man came with his gun in the air to get your attention.
And finally you left me in my house with clutter to be back no more.
1. The world
holds us in its arms and drops us down
into space to never be found again.
Like the Joker plays with Batman,
It’s that way with life you win, or you die.
You’re like a speeding wind-up toy shot from a gun.
Because sometimes we need power in us to feel electric and alive.
The electricity motivates us,
like a depressed person looking for his pills.
There’s no liquid inside us that’s pure.
Here comes the dream with the red warning signs
The weapons you need when
YOU go through the trial.
2. Chase That. Balloon
Chase that essence down to the ground.
At least you’re chasing something.
Chase it to the highways filled with broken glass.
Chase it to the space ways filled up with smoking atoms.
Hear the sound of drums as you walk on the street.
You could be like the balloon and live in the air,
Deflate and kill your senses.
That balloon floats away like you.
It’s solitary like you,
Runs on impulses like you
Runs on instinct.
It’s mind. Isn’t computer programmed.
Both objects can crash to the ground.
Then motion stops suddenly.
3. Help Me
find my name
And I’ll buy you a dog and all the galaxies I can find on sale.
that go off inside around other lights.
Lights that go off in explosions.
Lights that explode in air.
Lights in television.
This vision is from a distance.
Lights that lead you running like a cartoon character.
Lights can make sounds to let you know of their arrival.
There are lights locked up in. the eyes.
Lights and glows in a simple small atom.
Disillusioned lights in some drugs
Lights during Christmas
Yes, even the lights have a job just like human beings.
Point A to. Point B.
Then end and cycle back again
One question for the world:
What are you devoted to?
Devoted to money
Devoted to pain
Devoted to sex
Devoted to drugs
Devoted to nihilism.
Devoted to science
Devoted to the body.
Devoted to love.
Devoted to what you are
Because one day you’ll be written out of the world
For the next television show.
6. The Mountains
They travel upwards with no end in sight
The mountains and wind are alone like you.
Like two sides of the same coin given to Caesar Augustus.
God is one side and you the other.
The free will is a wall the Lord wants you to perfect.
So many hypocritical tentative redeemers
Travis Bickle, Walter White, or Dexter Morgan
Because you learn your morals from TV
Choosing life. Is a choice in. itself.
Will you meet the Lord?
On the other side of such a high mountain?
Mountains intense with no end
Sometimes when pain is in your will
Like the mountain life seems to have no end
This is what free will is.
Choice after choice then over again.
7. Dance Off the Devil
Dance off the devil
Dance him to the next room.
Maybe he can go up to his skyscrapers in hell
And leave the world alone.
Jesus and Mary embarrassed him off the planet
Into another dimension he goes to have his own party
You fought the devil off this Easter year.
Maybe next year he’ll come back and try again.
I grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas and I’ve lived here all my life. I graduated from Tuloso Midway High School in 2008. As a young kid film and television have been a big and influential part of my life. I’m a big Power Rangers and Spiderman fan. I always enjoyed those stories growing up. Life is about making a series of choices and hoping for some luck sometimes.
I am a young poet who informs students at my school that they aren’t alone. My words have let people know that it’s going to be okay no matter what. In summary, I love to help and inform people that overall things will be okay.
Excerpts: My Brain in Poem is a collection of poems that I have wrote over a period of time. These poems show how my thought process goes, and the racing thoughts in my head. I wrote these poems in the times I felt at a lost. At times where I felt like a million thoughts were racing though my head, and the overwhelming feelings of being sad. And through it all I end up to be okay because nothing last forever.
My Instagram handle is @hellitsblu
Shut the fuck up please!
The constant thought of...
READ THE REST IN CORPUS CHRISTI WRITERS 2022
Bob James spent 24 years as a teacher in the fields of Special Education and Technology. All of his work can be accessed through his website called "Bob James – The Author." More about Bob at the end of this scetion.
The dulcet tones of “Morning Flower” rudely interrupted my sleep. Which meant that they weren’t so dulcet this morning.
I rolled over and slapped my phone. And missed. I slapped at it again, and then I remembered I needed to slide the off button over, which I did, finally turning off that godawful noise. I picked up my phone and squinted to look at the time. Yes. Four freaking o’clock. Exactly the time I needed to get up to meet at Ratcliff’s house.
I rolled to a sitting position, and scratched my belly and then my head.
“Ranch, water, bird shoot,” Miranda mumbled and then fell back asleep.
I rubbed my eyes and let out a deep breath. At least she fell back asleep. The night light in the bathroom gave me enough light to enjoy the peaceful look on her face. I shook my head, hoping to loosen the cobwebs—but alas, no cobwebs can be cleared before five-thirty in the morning according to federal law or something. I headed to the bathroom for the quick version of my morning routine.
Enough of the sleep had dropped out of my eyes that I saw the clothes I now remembered laying out to make getting dressed easier this morning. I applauded myself for my foresight, if not for my sense of fashion. I consoled myself that even if not fashionable, they’d keep me warm as we trudged through the wetlands on our way to the blind. I tried not to make any noise that would wake Miranda. She’d surprised me when we first married. I’d always heard about men snoring, but no one ever talked about women doing so. Still, I smiled as I thought of our many years together and plodded toward to the kitchen, hoping we had a biscuit or two left over from last night.
I rubbed at my eyes as I walked into the kitchen and realized that the light on the coffee machine was on. That dear, sweet woman, who can’t stand the smell of coffee had a pot waiting for me. I smiled as I poured my cup. Then, three teaspoons of cream, and three, no make that four teaspoons of sugar today, and I began gulping it down as I got ready to go. Gathering my materials became a labor of love as the coffee began to energize me and I began to smile at the thought of today’s shoot. Michael Ratcliff had been bragging for years about the sight of all the birds flying over his land in the morning. When he asked me to join him, I accepted the invitation. The contract was important.
I pulled down a to-go cup from the cabinet and poured an extra-large cup of coffee to take with me. I loaded my gear into the car, locked the door to the house, and headed toward Michael’s ranch on the west side of Oso Creek. We’d be shooting into the sun, but if we got there before six, or so Michael said, we’d have some great shots in the dawn light before the sun came out. Staples street was practically empty this time of morning, so I breezed down the road, smiling as the anticipation grew.
Then, the traffic lights gathered their forces and made sure to turn red as soon as I approached. It wasn’t cross-traffic tripping the lights, there was none. The lights were obviously conspiring against me. I laughed at myself. “Maybe I should have had another cup of coffee,” I said to the vacant seat next to me. I passed the last light and breathed a sigh of relief. It was still too dark to see much as I drove across the bridge, but I slowed anyway, opening the window in case any birds were calling and looking around hoping to see the white of an egret against the dark water.
Sadly, the only thing I saw was the reflection of the headlights from the car in my rearview mirror. Given his speed, I didn’t think he’d take too kindly to waiting behind me while I observed nature, so I exhaled loudly and pushed the car back to the speed limit. I looked to the left and saw the housing development. Over to the right lay the Botanical Gardens. The next left after the housing development would lead me to Michael’s ranch. I slowed since caliche roads are hard to see without lights. They guy behind me was considerate; he flashed his brights at me instead of honking and waking up the neighborhood. I turned on my blinker, hoping that he knew what it meant. Apparently, many drivers from Corpus Christi don’t know.
This driver seemed to know, because he stopped flashing his brights and he didn’t zip around me. I’m sure he was losing any patience he might have had left, because I kept decreasing my speed as I looked for the road. Just as I was beginning to think I’d missed my turn, the road appeared out of nowhere. I slammed on my brakes and turned sharply to head towards Michael’s ranch.
Only, I had to make a stop. Red and blue lights flashing on the car behind you are a pretty good indication that you did something wrong. I looked at the clock in the car. As long as the officer didn’t want to talk too much, I’d still be on time. I’d hate to have to go through this early wake up business again. I snorted a bit, exasperated, as I rolled my window down to await the cop.
I figured he was taking his time because he was running my plates, but I willed him to hurry so I could finish my business with him and head out to the blind. I kept looking in the mirror, hoping to see the officer get out of the car. My patience was rewarded as he eventually got out of the car and started approaching mine. He held his flashlight about shoulder height and ran it around my car and the surrounding area, then he walked up to my door and looked in the window.
“Son, do you know why I stopped ya?” he asked.
I looked at his nametag. “Yes sir, Officer Herrero. I made that hard left right in front of you.”
“Well, there’s that and there’s your erratic driving. When I first saw you, you were moving at the speed limit, then when you got to the bridge, you slowed way down. When you saw my lights, you picked up speed until about 75 yards before this turn, you slowed down.”
I nodded my head. “Yes, sir, all that’s correct.”
He glared at me. I hadn’t thought he’d mind an interruption that agreed with him. “Then you braked suddenly and made that hard left instead of slowing properly for the turn over a longer stretch of road. Mind if I ask you how much you’ve had to drink?”
“About two cups of coffee, sir,” I said as I pointed at my coffee cup. “I’m going to a new place to shoot birds and I wasn’t sure where to turn until I almost missed it. I was hoping to see or hear some of the birds when I crossed the Oso.”
The officer tensed and swung his flashlight around the interior of the car. “You got your gun in the car or in the trunk? Oh, and need I tell you this isn’t hunting season? I want you to get out of the car, nice and slow now, ya hear? Keep your hands away from your body. Back out and then put your hands on top of the car.”
I tried not to laugh. “I’m going to do that officer, but I think I used some wrong wording. The only ‘weapon’ I have to shoot birds is in the bag on the passenger’s seat. If you look at it, you’ll understand.” I started to get out as he had instructed me.
“Son, I ain’t playin’ games with you. Grab the bag and hold it away from your body, then set it down on the ground as you come out.”
I nodded. “Yes, sir,” I said and followed the officer’s instructions.
“Just so you know, two cops have been shot during traffic stops this month, so you get no benefit of the doubt. I want to go home and see my wife and daughter in about an hour. You put your nose on that car and don’t move. If you move…” He didn’t finish the thought, but he didn’t need to.
“Sir,” I mumbled into the car. I heard him working the straps on my bag and then I heard a chuckle.
“You’ve got to be more careful with your words. You could get into trouble some day.” He laughed. “Stay there,” he shouted as he saw me start to relax. Then he frisked me. “OK, now you can turn around and relax.” As I turned around, he was still chuckling. “Good thing you didn’t tell me you had a Canon. That would have really freaked me out.”
He examined the camera. “What kind of glass you got for this?”
Now it was my turn to be surprised. No one but serious photographers called lenses glass. “I got a 300mm lens I use most of the time and a 600mm lens for special occasions.”
“Nice set up,” he said. “How do you prop the 600? Those things are heavy.” He paused. “Oh, I tend to take pictures of all kinds of animals in nature. And in the future, you might want to describe what you do as ‘taking pictures’ not shooting.”
“Yes sir.” I laughed. Then, I surprised myself with the words that came out of my mouth. “I’d love to share pictures with you sometime. Maybe we could do coffee? Another day? I’m running on a sunrise deadline.”
“Oh, yeah, that makes sense. Be a little more careful as you drive. There, that’s your warning. We could meet at the Starbucks on Saratoga, some day. I’d love to see the pics you’re gonna take today. Would Thursday at ten be OK?”
“Sounds wonderful, Officer Herrero.”
“Good. See ya Thursday. Now, get in your car and take some good pics.” He put my camera back in the bag and handed it to me. Then he started walking back to his car.
I nodded my thanks and put the bag in the passenger’s seat. I looked at my watch and decided that I wouldn’t be late if I could navigate this road in ten minutes. I sat there waiting for the cop to leave. Then, I snuck a glance at the gun in the glove compartment and breathed a sigh of relief. “Well Michael,” I said quietly as I put the car in gear. “You get to live another day.” That cop could finger me so finishing the contract today wouldn’t be a good idea. Besides, I need to take some pictures for my date with the cop.
Writing haiku for
The Writers’ anthology
In Corpus Christi
The great blue heron
Always looks magnificent
So does the water...
Jason Riordan looked at himself in the mirror, using an eyeliner pencil to make the last adjustments to his makeup. He had to support his right hand with his left to quell the shaking. “That’ll work,” he said out loud, even though no one could hear him. He still had a private dressing room, in deference to his past greatness. He might not have the starring roles anymore. He might make more mistakes in his lines, but he still commanded the respect of audiences and directors because of his reputation and his perseverance in the face of Parkinson’s. There was a knock on the door. “Ten minutes, Mr. Riordan,” the assistant to the assistant director called as he opened the door just a crack to deliver his message. Jason smiled. His timing on getting his makeup done was still perfect. Ever since he’d started in theater, he had done his own makeup. “It helps me as I become my character,” he had told countless makeup artists. And now, his routine to get into character would continue. He stared at the mirror, inspecting his makeup one last time. Satisfied, he slowly closed his eyes and went over the play in his mind. He muttered softly, reciting his lines, and telling himself where to make his entrances.
He wanted this performance to be perfect and got so wrapped up in his preparation that he realized he must have missed the underling’s five-minute call. As the first notes of the overture sounded, he cursed silently. His routine called for him to be ready in the wings before the overture started playing. Now, he rushed to get to his place, so he could take his centering breaths a few seconds before his entrance. His first starring role ever was with this director as “George” in Our Town and now, knowing Jason’s condition, this same director had made a special accommodation to allow him to begin this version of Our Town, as the Stage Manager, with the freedom to look back on his career and give the audience a chance to acknowledge their appreciation for the retiring actor. They had flocked to see the once-great Jason Riordan in his last performance. Those who had acted alongside him including the first Emily and Stage Manager were in the audience, actors who had worked with him in the performances that had earned him his Tony nominations, and various assorted fans who wanted to pay their respects to one who, even in his ongoing illness, showed grace and respect to his fans. He got to his spot on the wing with a little over a minute to spare, and he took a couple of cool-down breaths. Then, he did that which he had never done before in his career, he pulled back the curtain and peeked at the audience. The stage lights kept him from seeing much, but the memories he had made with those people he saw and recognized overwhelmed him and left him with a slight case of stage fright. He closed the curtain and took another deep breath, and then, he was on. From that first, special monologue to his final line, he was perfect. He didn’t suffer from the dropped lines or cues that had plagued him in recent years. His swan song performance was amazing, and the audience recognized it. Decorum was thrown to the winds as his fans screamed his name and he took bow after bow. The stage hands picked up flowers that were thrown in congratulations. He left the stage triumphantly after one of his finest performances ever. He walked back to his dressing room accepting handshakes, hugs, and pats on the backs from the cast and crew. He kept looking at the floor, lest they see his tears. He arrived at his dressing room and lay his head on the makeup table to rest for a few minutes before taking his makeup off one last time. He didn’t want to take it off just yet, because that would make his retirement final.
The assistant to the assistant director knocked on Mr. Riordan’s door. “Five minutes, until you go on Mr. Riordan,” he said, opening the door just a crack to deliver his message. He waited for the customary acknowledgment. There was none. He knocked harder and called out louder. When he got no answer, he ran in and saw Jason Riordan slumped with his head down on the makeup table. He checked for a pulse. When he didn’t get a pulse, he ran out in the hall and looked for a stage hand. “Get the director!” he yelled.
“That is how you found him?” the director asked, trying to find a pulse. He teared up a little when he realized that Riordan was gone. He walked behind the body to get to the other side and looked at his face. He wiped away his tears and smiled himself when he saw Riordan’s smile. It was that shy, after-performance smile that he used when he’d look at the director and ask how he’d done. “It would have been one, great, last performance,” he said as he closed Riordan’s eyes.
copyright Bob James
Read more great writing like this in Corpus Christi Writers 2018: An Anthology
Bob James is a native of the Chicago area, growing up in Oak Park, Ill. He currently lives in Corpus Christi, TX. He recently retired after 25 years in the education business—one year as a sign language interpreter followed by 24 years as a teacher in the fields of Special Education and Technology. All of his work can be accessed through his website called "Bob James – The Author." He writes daily devotionals, Science Fiction and Thrillers, and is also working on a book about the journey that he and his wife went through during her battle with breast cancer. Bob has been married to his wife Lucy since 1979. They have two sons, one daughter, two granddaughters, and one grandson
Brenda's professor and classmates inspired her to create “Broken.” More about Brenda at the end of this section.
You’ve found me.
I’ll start with my name, and that’s Birdie. My father insisted on going against family tradition and not gift me his name. That’s what my mother wanted, but she had no choice; she was already dead. I lived the best childhood any kid could ever experience. I had CDs, VCRs, posters, and so many toys. Living my teen years in the 2000s was magical. I had the thinnest eyebrows and wanted to be Britney Spears every morning when I got dressed. I imagined that life would stay like 1998 and never be different. Calling my best friend on our landline and making my daddy mad when I would pick up the other phone while he talked to grandma. The good ole days, right?
Too bad she was never a mother figure but was always there for me. I never once heard from my mother’s family; it’s like they existed on another planet that wasn’t very far away. My life has been normal even without my mother. Her presence has always surrounded me and my father. He knew if he was too close to me and if he lost me one day, it’d be a repeat. We were close, but he always kept a distance.
This bottle is the last one that my father drank out of. He nearly drank himself to death on my mother’s anniversary. We longed for her, but now he longed for so much beer. It was his escape, and mine was writing. I wrote my feelings until my pages were soaked. I trash dug this bottle but wiped it clear with my tears and drowned it in my bathtub of sorrows. I tested out this experiment just for you.
I took myself to the beach, the edge of the water, and saw something.
I saw myself on the water, no, not my reflection.
I finally got to see where my tears went. Years of crying and years of mourning.
This morning I placed my hands over my heart and realized enough was enough. I crumbled my paper and attempted to throw it into the water. No bottle, no cork, just paper, and water, soaked like it would be on my desk anyway. This bottle was the last treasure of my father. I now have nothing that belongs to him. I have our memories and now your condolences.
How did you find me? Tell me.
Know that you’ve found me when I lost myself.
By this time, I’ve probably found myself again.
Tell me now; scream it to the sky or whisper it in the wind.
Tell me now who you are and how why you broke this bottle in half. Did you think you’d find treasure or money? You actually found a fortune, and that was this wine bottle. My father never drank cheap, and I didn’t recover a broken bottle either.
Now, this fortune is worth nothing.
You broke it. It’s your fault, but you didn’t know that.
A fortune could be even a dollar to anybody, but it’s worth memories to me. This was the last memory of my father, his last bottle. Perhaps it’s both of our lasts, his last bottle, and my last letter.
Wait, calm down; you aren’t in trouble; there aren’t any “cLuES” to my mysterious death or to my mysterious “RunAWaY” in this final letter. Because I didn’t.
I didn’t die or run away.
Well, I guess there’s a mystery, and that’s why I’m writing as if I’m still here. I decided to find myself and just let go. I let go of my troubles and left them to you.
I had a problem with my childhood home. The one I told you about and the one I grew up in. I treasured that thing because I could go upstairs and smell my mother anytime I wanted at her vanity. I could also play dress-up when my father wasn’t looking because he’d just cry, mourn and scream.
I only ask that you save it and bid on it. You better bid big, baby.
Are you broke?
Because you aren’t now.
Turn this page over —>
Here’s my last check and clear my name.
Take care of what was mine like it’s yours because it is.
Start over the way that I couldn’t.
I wasn’t strong enough to live alone in an empty, once-full home.
It’s not haunted or ghosted.
My name is still active, and you can live the double life that I wanted.
When you enter, walk ten steps up the stairs, and you’ll hear a creak. Trust me; you’ll hear a creak on that step. Lift the carpet and get what you can before it’s gone. Give yourself time to consider what you want to do. You want to renovate, redecorate, purchase a car? Do it; I’ll never know. Just stay off the streets and remain low, lay low and never speed. That’s all I did, and now you might pay the price for it.
Do you get it?
Do I need to explain again?
Here I’ll sum it up:
My mother died the moment I was born, and my father cared for me. We missed her dearly, and all my father ever did was hope to see her again. He would show me where he’d stand and watch her get ready at her vanity. He told me once to sit there so he could imagine my mother. He cried for days after that, and on the final day, he was gone the same as her twenty years later. I drank and sped up and down the street in frustration. I almost ended up behind bars for it. This was the last letter I ever wrote. I couldn’t bear to live to see the date my parents didn’t make it to. I couldn’t mourn the day of my mother without my father.
Go to my home and buy it. My father never finished paying it, and the government took it. Repurchase it. I can’t. I’m not strong enough to start over and begin a life of my own. Why not leave it to a stranger.
Go to the tenth stair and take my cash and identity. Don’t be scared, just live. Live the life that I couldn’t. You’ll find the home looks like I just cleaned and went out to the grocery store and never returned. In other words, it’ll feel like home. I snuck in last night and rearranged it the way I remembered it, not the way the realtor wanted it. For the last two weeks, I’ve unfortunately seen two families look and be interested. This check will let you bid the highest and get to keep my memories safe. Pay off my tickets and carry on. Carry that cash and live November 26 like it was my last because it’s your first.
Do you have a husband or wife, maybe a child? Whoever and whatever you are, look at the blueprints under the sink, and you’ll find all of the hidden treasures buried in the walls. I stand here twenty-one years later and must follow in my family’s footsteps. I don’t know any different and not any better. Don’t worry about our family coming for you; they’re on another planet and think I’m still living my sorry life.
If you don’t agree, just rebottle this paper and leave it in the sand, don’t throw it into the water because I didn’t do that. Make it look like it just came from the water so some other nosy person like you can find it, crack it, and get to live my fortune.
Birdie E. Lane
(By this time, I’m swimming in my sorrows, floating in my tears, and flying my spirit). READ MORE LIKE THIS IN CORPUS CHRISTI WRITERS 2021
Brenda Riojas is a graduate student at Texas A&M University - Corpus Christi. Her professor and classmates inspired her to create “Broken.” During her free time, she enjoys spending time with her parents, brother Ruben, and dog Rufus.