Thank you to all of the talented writers and authors who submitted their short stories to be published as part of art&culture magazine! 

The editors of art&culture have selected two winning stories for the 2019 Fiction Contest: Ms. Bella by Jeannette Maria de los angeles Alfaro (Lake Worth) and A Windblown Memory by David Einhorn (Palm Beach Gardens). You can read both of their online-exclusive stories below! 

Ms. Bella

By Jeannette Maria de los angeles Alfaro

She had been sitting there for what felt like hours, but in reality, it had only been a few minutes. Time is gauged differently when you are dying, and so a moment may be all you have before you drift into that other dominion, where souls bump into one another in the dark looking for each other, guided only by the secrets of their hearts.

Her patience was growing thinner, and her frustration at her inability to communicate with the nurses to remind them she was there was making her head hurt even more.

Howwasitpossiblethatshecouldenduplikethis? It must be a punishment from God…a way to make her repent for all she failed to do while she was young and strong. But repenting was the last thing she wanted to do in this place. This was not her home, this was her R.I.P.

She didn’t want to die here, not here. With all these strangers. Old people that smelled like pungent death and sadness. Where was her daughter? And her beautiful grandchildren? Oh, she ached to hold them one more time. To smell the youth in their hair and the strength in their skin.

She started to panic.

“Miss…miss!” she hissed to a passing nurse who clearly was too busy with medicines and stethoscopes to help her. A rogue tear started to stream down her onion skin, stinging and reminding her that this was all her fault. She had not always been this way. She was kind and sweet somewhere along her timeline.

“Now, Ms. Bella, you know we’re on rotation and someone will be moving you soon enough. Don’t be so cranky, it’s a new year,” a male nurse, Gordy, quipped at her. Gordy was a huge, bald, and shiny black man with big white teeth and dimples. His eyes were round and bright and soft. He truly was a beautiful man. But his personality was the best part about him. He was gentle and kind and loved to smile. And when he laughed, which he did often, he turned any room into a concert hall.

She liked Gordy. Probably the only nurse she liked, really. He pushed her wheelchair closer to the nurse’s station and smiled a giant smile at her. She liked him, but she didn’t smile back. That was her way. That had always been her way. She learned a very long time ago that smiling conveyed many mixed messages, and it was too risky. So she stopped smiling a long time ago.

The nurse’s station was much better. There was a small Christmas tree on the counter, and the tiniest ornaments adorned the little tree. Shiny objects still got her excited, and the ornaments were so sparkly and colorful, she felt like a little girl again. One of the ornaments was clearly made by a small child. It was a snowman, but the thing was poorly created. The stick arms were uneven, and the carrot nose was too close to the dots that made up the mouth. She started to resent the snowman and its imperfections. And then she remembered…

She had been a teacher many years ago, and her students would bring her beautiful ornaments every year. Some were store-bought, but most of them were handmade from household items like corks, pipe cleaners, fabrics, plastic balls, origami, and she even got one made from marshmallows. The kids were creative and resourceful for sure. She asked the children to put their names on the ornaments so she “would always remember them.” She received so many over the years that she had to keep buying a bigger tree every so often to accommodate them all.

But now, all of that was gone. The trees, the gifts, the children. Even Christmas. And suddenly, another tear rolled down her bony cheek. She reached up to wipe it, but Gordy saw it.

“Ms. Bella, are you okay?” he asked her from behind his clipboard. He grabbed a tissue and walked over to her. He didn’t actually wipe it because if there was one thing he learned early in his career, it was that old people did not like to be treated like children. He handed her the tissue, but she didn’t take it. She didn’t move. She didn’t even look up at him. She was embarrassed. Even at her age, her pride was deep and painful.

“Ms. Bella, how about you and I check out the lunch line? I heard they have chocolate mousse today,” Gordy spoke softly and gently.

She perked up a little and looked him directly in his big brown eyes. Chocolate mousse was her favorite food in the world, and this place made it perfectly. She nodded once, and then the smallest smile came across her thin and crinkly face. Gordy had never seen a smile from Ms. Bella so he was pleasantly surprised and smiled back. A big, toothy and dimply smile. Gordy, the only person in the world who managed to get a smile from Ms. Bella.

She knew what he was thinking. She was old, not stupid. And then Gordy gave something to Ms. Bella. He placed it gently in her lap. It was a small box wrapped in pink tissue, her favorite color. She hesitated at first and then opened it ever so gingerly. Inside was a glass dove, small and delicate. She turned it over and read the inscription: Gordon Rios, Class of 1993. She stared at it for what seemed an eternity. Tears rolled down her face faster than she could wipe them away.

Gordy spoke: “Ms. Bella, you were always my favorite teacher and I never gave this to you. My mother passed away the week before Christmas, and we moved away after that. I just never had a chance to give it to you. Merry Christmas!” Ms. Bella smiled at him through her tears and reached up, her frail arms wrapping around his broad shoulders.

She was slowly becoming who she used to be…one tear at a time.

 

A Windblown Memory

by David Einhorn

A stiff wind blew in the other night, first under clear skies, then under clouds that zipped by so fast they didn’t have time to rain. It wasn’t the kind of wind that ebbs and flows in gusts. It was constant, like a fan turned on high blowing right at you.

The awnings of our fourth-floor apartment creaked and groaned as they fought off the assault. I was nervous they might come loose. But I checked the bars and screws and satisfied myself that all was secure, that the hatches were battened down. Maybe it was that last nautical metaphor that triggered my memory.

I sat down on the balcony and watched the palm trees along the Intracoastal bend in the wind. For some reason, I was still uneasy. A few minutes later, I realized the wind had rustled up a distant and troubling memory in the form of a question. I gave it life by asking myself out loud: “Is the anchor going to hold?”

On that night long ago, etched into my memory by a similar wind, we were on my father’s sailboat headed south on the Bahama Flats. The flats span hundreds of kilometers, like an open sea but with a depth of only a few meters. Because we were sailing into a stiff southeasterly wind, we didn’t get to wherever we were going by nightfall, so we had to anchor in open water. We found a navigational buoy and threw the anchor down so we could use the buoy as a reference point in case the anchor dragged.

Looking out, our speck of a homestead that night was surrounded by black. There was no land in sight on any horizon. Yet the phosphorescence of the churning waves made it look like we were floating on a sea of white. I slept in the cockpit under the stars, allowing my stepbrother to sleep below. My job was to watch, make sure we didn’t drift away from the buoy. I volunteered for the assignment because I found the howling wind mesmerizing. But the high seas and the shifting currents changed the position of the boat in relation to the buoy, so it was difficult squinting through the darkness to see whether we had moved farther away from it.

The atmosphere was tense, as always, because my father was a nervous captain, and he was a man who couldn’t be nervous without being angry—and couldn’t be angry without being angry at someone. Thrusting a fist at Mother Nature’s wrath was not enough to vent his rage. In calmer seas, he had his kinder moments. But in the never-ending drama that constituted my father’s character, the calm could flip to fury at any moment. The list of his jagged behaviors seemed endless, often exacerbated by illness, medications, alcohol, or some kind of unexplained guilty melancholy that I suppose today would be diagnosed as depression.

At some point during the night, my father came up wearily from the cabin, agitated and ready to cast blame if the anchor had dragged even a centimeter. He asked with the accusatory tone of a prosecutor if the boat had moved. I said I wasn’t sure, which set him off because he was a captain who hated unclear answers.

A few minutes of terrified hustle and bustle followed as he barked his orders. The boat bucked from side to side, and the spray made the deck treacherous. My stepbrother was solid on his feet, so my father sent him up to the bow to check on the anchor line. He would never have trusted me to do it, nor should he have because of my fear, clumsiness, and ineptitude. I had managed subliminally to lump them into a sort of passive resistance to my father. I hated him and his boat, but I was also utterly terrified of him. So, at age 15, ambivalence was the only weapon I had to fight him. He knew this better than I, and it enraged him even more.

My stepbrother carried no such baggage, and he knew how to keep his mouth shut and follow orders. A year older than me, he was glad just to have a father, even a flawed one, and so to him our father’s trespasses were just eccentricities to laugh about. He managed not to elevate them in his mind beyond that. The same exchanges that between my father and me were laden with our stated and unstated battles were nothing more than instructions and responses between my father and stepbrother. 

The anchor did manage to hold, and we pulled up the next morning and headed off to our next port. A few weeks later, we docked at a small island and stayed one night at a hotel. In the middle of the night, my stepbrother, with whom I shared a room, awakened to find me by the window, sleepwalking and babbling. He said later he couldn’t get me away from the window. I kept staring out and insisting to him that the anchor wasn’t holding. 

More than 40 years later, nothing more than a strong wind sweeps across my balcony one night and I am consumed by this memory, troubling still, except for the sheer reverie I remember feeling then—and still feel now—for the beauty and bluster of nature’s gale. The wind was so relentless that night on the Bahama Flats that I could barely keep my paltry blanket from flying away. But I also remember staring at the black night and marveling at the wind even as it chilled me to the bone. 

And now, sitting on my balcony all these years later, similarly chilled, listening to the awnings groan and watching the palm trees bend, I feel that same sense of wonder. It balances out the darker memories whipped up by that same wind.