First place -- “Alma’s Walk” by Kim Freeman
Weary from covering another oven-hot seven miles, she squatted in the stingy shade of a creosote bush to study its pointy green leaves and yellow blooms. In a few months, the flowers would birth fuzzy white capsules fat with seeds. They’d litter the ground, take root in the sandy soil, and steal the water from nearby plants to survive. Alma understood the water-starved brush nearby. For weeks thirst had sat like an unwelcome guest in her parched, dust-coated throat. But she admired the toughness of the stinky creosote and its usefulness. Her Abuela had harvested leaves from the long stands behind their home, crushed them into a paste, and rubbed it on Alma’s skinned knees.
Her knees were full of scabs now from dozens of stumbles that had left a trail of flesh sacrifices honoring her home hundreds of miles to the south. No one in the caravan seemingly knew the secrets of creosote and her mama said they could not stop to make a salve. Her scrapes were cleaned with a bit of water and her mama’s dry lips soaked up her tears like a fresh sponge. Alma looked over to her mama, who sat nearby on a smooth, flat rock. The dark circles around Luna’s sunken eyes looked to Alma like the Dia de Muertos masks she and her brother had worn to celebrate the lives of their departed family. But those masks came off until the next year’s Day of the Dead festival. She feared her mama would wear a living skeleton face forever.
Feeling her daughter’s eyes upon her, Luna turned, stopped fingering her worn rosary beads, and gave a tight-lipped smile. Alma knew her mamá teetered daily between determination and despair. Luna held Alma’s hand as they walked and in the other hand she held her rosary. Each mile Luna’s lips moved in silent prayer, her fingers moving bead to bead, her eyes fixed at hope on the horizon.
Alma started her walk in a worn pair of her brother’s hand-me-down sneakers. Somewhere in southern Mexico, holes as big as Abuela’s handmade tortillas consumed the shoes. She left the tatters, not much more than dirty shoe strings and a strip of faded rubber, behind and continued barefoot. Hot pavement, sharp rocks, and litter had toughened her soles to elephant hide, her mama said. Even so, when her 8-year-old body couldn’t take another step her mama scooped her up and let her ride piggyback. Alma understood the sacrifice Luna made at those times because hunger kept tight company with thirst.
The group stirred as more northward miles were needed for arrival in El Paso day after tomorrow. Alma watched her mamá do the sign of the cross, then make her way to her. Luna carried a small woven bag holding what she called “important papers.” It was among a few things they brought from their home near San Pedro Sala. Alma had begged to pack more but her mama was as unmovable as the Mayan Ruins of Copan. She carried nothing but memories of her favorite dress, a beloved rag doll, her dog, Chico. Worse was leaving her Abuela and her papa, who stayed behind to care for his elderly mama and tend the gravesite of her brother, a casualty of poor health born of poverty.
Although young, Alma knew why her parents decided she and her mama would make the long, dangerous walk north to America. Hard-eyed men with big guns started raiding homes in their village demanding “rent” for homes they didn’t even own. They grabbed people off the street and made desperate families pay for their return. Families that couldn’t pay got back the body and sometimes not even that. The gang members did “bad things” – that’s all her familia would say – to women, even young girls like her. Then they came to her casa. While she hid under a bed, a man with a gun told her papa if he failed to pay the rent, they’d take Luna and when they were finished with her, they’d be back for Alma. Her mama wailed and threw herself at the man but her fists glanced off his chest like feathers striking concrete. He had just laughed while slamming the door behind him. Alma’s papa collapsed pale and watery-eyed and in that instant, a decision was made. Within a week, she and her mama joined a caravan leaving Honduras for the United States.
Alma stirred from her dream, still smelling the creosote bush and feeling her mama’s warm hand in hers. Sitting up slowly, her back aching from sleeping on the concrete floor, she pulled her thin silver cover tighter. Alma’s walk ended weeks ago. Glancing at the cage around her, hope and her mama gone, she dropped her head and cried.
Second place -- “When the South Wind Blows” by Hannah Haines
Brick walls and iron gates
I gazed up at the old building towering above me. The green shutters glistened in the sticky air, outlining the windows. The edge of my slightly over-worn shoe caught the top of the first wooden step and stopped me dead in my tracks.
“Keep moving, pumpkin,” Mom yelled from the driveway. I looked back at her with her hands full – bags in one hand, boxes in the other. I didn’t catch her eye. So, I rolled mine, and kept on walking.
As I stepped through the door, I was greeted by the dank stench of dust and old. I coughed into my sleeve, loud enough so that Mom could hear. But she didn’t even notice.
The fans were on, whirring throughout the empty house. I could still feel the heat creeping in from outside, inescapable. I heard a loud thump, then, “Whewwww. First load’s in. Liv, dear, will you bring this upstairs?” I picked up a bag with my name on it and walked upstairs to claim my space.
The stairs looked like those ones from the movies where the girls and guys got dressed up to go to a dance, and they all stood lining the stairs to please their parents for one more photo. For a split second, I pictured myself on those stairs in a blue satin dress with a boy standing next to me. Maybe this year. Starting at a new school my junior year is not ideal. But I didn't have a choice. So, here I am. Standing in an unknown place, waiting for the next time my mom would call my name.
I picked the back room with the window facing the garden. It was cozy enough and had a lot less brick than the other rooms. I set my bag down on the scuffed up, dirty floor and lay beside it. The ceiling beams stared back at me. I took a deep breath, praying for a breeze to cut through the humid air.
“Sweetie, are you okay?” Mom must have snuck up behind me.
“I’m just resting. Driving in the back of our cramped van wasn’t too comfortable.”
“I know, but aren't you happy we’re here? The house is beautiful! I hope Grandma can teach us some things about it. Aren’t you excited to see her?”
“I just –”
“I know, dear. I know. But she loves you, and she needs us right now.”
“Is this the lucky room that is home to my favorite daughter?”
“I am your only daughter, Mom.”
She patted me on the head, giggled, then walked back down the winding staircase.
The grass in the backyard looked overgrown, but dead. The end of the yard was lined with trees, inviting me to explore. My shoes crunched the ground as I walked toward them, announcing my presence. Sweat dripped down my forehead and onto my nose. Drop. It hit the ground, watering the yellow grass.
It was never this hot back home. The air was always refreshing. Maine was host to the house I grew up in, my adventure partner and my Dad. My tire swing, my first kiss and the best movie theater in the world. Not sure what I miss most right now. It’s too hard to pick. Drop.
I knew Mom was probably worried where I was by now, so I ran back to the front of the house. She was facing the road fidgeting with her blonde hair under Dad’s baseball cap. She rarely took it off, apparently even in this heat. Boxes were piled next to her, cooking in the sun. I picked one up and started back into the house. In and out. Drop. Up and down.
Once the pile was gone, Mom lay on the stairs with her head against the big wooden door. The green paint was peeling back, crawling away from the house.
“Sweetie, go get the gate for me please, Momma needs to rest.”
I walked down the dirt driveway toward the road. Drop. I shuffled my feet in defiance and created brown clouds that quickly surrounded me. The clouds took over, dirt in my eyes, my mouth and up my nose. I swung my arms pushing the dirt away. As I swatted, probably looking like a lunatic, the gate surprised me. Its iron rungs stood before me, with the gate swung open toward the road.
I crossed the line at the end of the property, our property, and felt something shift in me. Something lifted and rose with the dirt into the sky. Nowhere to be seen. Drop. The gate was heavy. I pushed and pushed with all my strength, and finally, it creaked closed. Slowly. I watched the iron gates slam before me. Trapping me into my new life.
Third place -- The Flight Attendant by Alyssa Chivington
Katherine often found herself at a level of anger that can most accurately be described as a simmer on low heat. Her anger did not bubble over her edges- it tended to remain a safe distance from them, though it wouldn’t take more than a nudge of a dial to bump her to a rolling boil. It takes practice to amass the kind of turmoil the teen kept buttoned under her grey cardigan. Her eyes wandered over people outside, thinking to herself that there were entirely too many people in existence, and dreaming about them turning into bubbles and floating away while she mopped the bathrooms in the back. Contrary to her anger Katherine was not an unhappy person, she enjoyed most things in life; like driving with the windows down, the coolness of the tiles at the pool, and her bird Sesame. But she did not enjoy the work assigned to her by a 5’5 block of ice named Helen- who also happened to be her sister.
“Kat do me a favor and count the drawers after you’re done with that?” Helen asked, interrupting Katherine’s thoughts.
“Sure.” Katherine mumbled, a forced smile stuck on her face like the gum underneath the candy display.
Katherine often imagined herself as Cinderella, slaving away while Helen kept her locked in a tower, laughing an evil stepmother’s laugh. Helen, however, imagined herself as flight attendant on a plane that was careening towards the earth, and as she tried to affix an oxygen mask to the person in seat 2B the phone rang. The petite woman picked up the phone from its place on the wall “Hello, how many I help you?” She said, using what drops of gentleness she had left.
“Helen? Can you come get me?” The voice wavered, his tone unsure.
“Jack? Sure, give me another minute to close up, I’ll bring Kat.” She said, smiling as though he might see and take comfort in it.
Helen ran her hand through her hair and then wondered when the veins in her hand had begun to show through- she was only thirty, and thirty was too young to have old hands. She came out from the office and around the corner, taking notice of the fact that Kat had only gotten one of the drawers counted.
“That was Jack.” Helen said. Kat’s eyes, which seldom met the eyes of others, were instantly attentive.
“I know.” She said softly.
Kat regularly listened in on phone calls, it saved her the trouble of having to ask later. The sisters spoke in glances and Katherine quickly put the drawer back in its place. When their brother went away they got stuck minding the store, and they were still waiting for him to come back. The pair walked to the car, the streetlights humming overhead. Helen noticed the group of moths that flew in panicked loops around the light, and she wished to trade places. She was the eternal flame, steadfast and unyielding. Everyone else sought her out, moving around her in fear and panic, waiting for her word. She wanted the luxury of a rash decision now and again, perhaps even a brief and tumultuous relationship that would give her feeling in the tips of her toes. She saved money for clothes she’d never buy and trips she’d never take, and sometimes she closed her eyes in her worn sweater and pretended she was on a balcony in Verona.
“Where’s he at?” Katherine said, pulling the car door closed with effort.
“Home. But he thinks he’s still over there.” Helen responded, turning the key in the ignition.
Honorable mention -- “La Noche de San Juan” by Isabel Berrios-Brown
“Prisa, Munequita,” Mama said excitedly, calling me by my nickname. My real name was Maria Alonso Sanchez, but Mama said I looked exactly like a baby doll at birth – pink skin, dimpled cheeks, and a crown of dark curls graced my little head. We were heading for Mar Chiquita, or Little Sea – a beach twenty minutes away from our home in Manati, Puerto Rico.
It was June 23, 1985, and we were on our way to celebrate La Noche de San Juan, which was an eve of a feast for Saint John the Baptist. For the last twelve years since my birth, my entire family has gathered at our favorite beach to celebrate Saint John’s birth.
For me, Mar Chiquita was a special place. The area was an oval-shaped, golden sand cove protected from the open sea by towering rock walls on either side. Every year as I reclined on the sand and stared out into the mesmerizing shades of emerald green and turquoise blue, I’d imagine myself una sirena – a mermaid born at the center of this glorious fan-shaped oasis with its crystal clear waters.
My cousins and I spent the day splashing in the ocean, tossing a beach ball, or burying each other in the warm sand. Now and then, we took breaks walking along the shoreline, collecting seashells, or climbing the rock walls. My favorite activity was searching for tiny snails to hide under my big sister’s pillow later.
In the evening, when all of my relatives gathered at the bonfire, my two abuelas, Mamá and others produced tasty ham and cheese sandwiches from large wicker baskets to share with all of my relatives – at least thirty of us altogether! Everyone enjoyed their delicious dinners with plantain chips and cans of refreshing coconut water. My uncles would get together to sing and dance, and soon, they’d have us all rolling on the sand with laughter from skits they’d created for our entertainment.
Even as the night cooled, the sand and sea stayed warm, and a million stars shimmered in the sky above. We all waited for the midnight hour, that magical time when we’d walk backward into the sea and immerse ourselves in the water. Tradition said that if we did this seven times, we’d have buena suerte or good luck for the rest of the year.
At dusk, Titi Josefa, my aunt, shrieked from the ocean claiming she’d been stung by a baby jellyfish. My cousins and I burst into giggles because Titi Josefa was renowned for her lunar antics.
Just before midnight, an electrifying rush of excitement filled the air as all of my relatives gathered at the crowded shoreline. Crowded because many other families were there. On one side, I linked arms with Mama, and on my other side, I linked arms with my favorite cousin, Miguel. My family and extended relatives were linked arm and arm like a chain of DNA, readying ourselves to step back into the sea.
As one of my uncles announced the last remaining seconds before midnight, I stared up at the sky, searching for the glow of the moon as all of us attempted to walk backward into the ocean. We’d start strong in unison, but someone invariably would stumble over a rock or get knocked by a crashing wave. That’s when our family chain would slacken as we proceeded to immerse ourselves in the water. By the sixth try, our linked arms grew weak and unsteady as the older and younger members began to lose their rhythm.
My uncle Juan shouted, “Una mas!”
By the time we took our final step backward, most of us were unsupported by the others, but a rush of excitement invigorated us for the final dunk.
“Toma mi mano, Munequita!” Mama said above the crashing waves.
And just like that, I’d find my mother’s slick, steady hand in the dark beneath glimmering stars. Her firm grip was all the reassurance I needed as I allowed myself to sink back into soothing waves of the deep, dark sea.Return to main story