Aged

Levi Eliseo Guzman

1st Place

Fiction

 

Willow Tree

Miranda Hanson

2nd Place

Fiction

 

First Love

Harley Maldonado

3rd Place

Fiction

 

A Soldier's Fear

Edward Dunklin

1st Place

Creative Nonfiction

 

The Boy In The Body Bag

Ricardo Martinez

2nd Place

Creative Nonfiction

 

    “Forty nine years of marriage and not a single ‘Thank you,’” he muttered, to no one in particular. Grasping the banister tightly and looking up into the darkness at the top of the stairs, he scowled, and slowly began his ascent.

    “Year after year…” he sighed, dragging his bad leg up a step with each word. “Month after month, day in and day out. Late nights at the office and early morning commutes—but no, not a single ‘Thank you’ to be heard in this house, no sir.” He paused halfway up the stairs and held his aching back, gazing into the dark and swallowing his exhaustion at what used to be an easy trip to his bedroom. Scowling once more, he began again, muttering still, all the while.

    “How long have I slaved away,” he started, emphasizing his words with the effort it took to bring his tired leg up another step. “And all for what? All for you.” He squinted forward, glowering at the darkness that lay above him. “You heard me right, all for you. Lord knows I never had a minute to enjoy my own harvest, not a single minute, I tell you. One day, maybe,” he continued, nearing the top of the staircase. “But not today,” he groaned, dragging himself up the last few creaking wooden steps. “And certainly not tomorrow!” he finished, struggling to catch his breath as he at last completed the endeavor.

    Breathing heavily, he leaned against the wall and gazed down the dark hallway, to a door at the very end with a dim light glowing beneath it, from a light shining on the inside. He sighed and, regaining his composure, started down the hall. Shuffling forward, he paused at a doorway halfway through—the bathroom—and felt inside of it for a switch. Same place that it always was, he found it, and flicked the light on. It was bright—too bright for his old, tired eyes which had grown accustomed to the shadows of the floor below. Shielding them with a raised hand he stepped forward across the faded tiles to a sink, and, slowly lowering his hand and exposing himself to the brightness of the room, gazed into a dingy mirror.

    Seeing his own reflection often surprised him, as of late. The same piercing blue eyes stared back at him as they had always done, but everything else seemed different. Was this really him? This tired, old face, filled with spots and wrinkles, crowned with wispy white hair and soft flesh? Surely not. He scowled and twisted on the sink’s faucet, washing his hands beneath the icy water which spewed forth. He splashed his face with the cold liquid and, feeling refreshed, stole a glance at his reflection once more, briefly wondering if it would wash away from him all of the years and exhaustion that he had accumulated.

    “Ridiculous,” he whispered, and turned to leave the room, hitting the light-switch again on his way out. He paused in the hallway, giving himself a moment to once more adjust to the gloom, the only source of light coming from beneath the gap at the bottom of his bedroom door. He grimaced and started forward. “All for you,” he repeated, nearing the doorway. “So much work. All of this—” he held up a trembling hand. “—All for you.” His eyes narrowed as he reached forward and slowly turned the knob to his bedroom door. Gently, and trying his utmost not to make a sound, he pushed the old, wooden door forth and quietly stepped into the room, closing it softly behind him.

    He crept forward to the edge of his bed—oh, his sweet, soft bed—and slowly lowered the sheets and lifted his worn body into them. He gave a long sigh of relief as his tired bones sank into the mattress, and reached over to a bedside table to turn off a small light which had been left on, bringing the room to darkness. He lay there for a moment, absolutely still, breathing in and enjoying the comfort of the bed after a long day’s work. And then, turning over, he wrapped his arms lovingly around the figure of his wife, and whispered, “All for you, my love.”

          The bright glow from the early sun peeked its way through my curtains, laying its warmth softly on my face.  As I began to awaken, my eyes slowly opened, adjusting to the stream of light in my room. Everything was a blur and for a moment I saw you lying next to me. I closed my eyes. Everything was peaceful and calm in the ease of that early morning. Our breaths entered our bodies in harmony, giving us life, our one life together.  I softly smiled, trying to steal time and keep this moment alive.
           As I further awoke from my slumber, and my consciousness changed from that dream-like state to reality, I knew you were not there. That moment was gone. I was filled with a sudden jolt of panic, afraid to fully awaken. My palms started to sweat and I tightened my eyelids.  The realization that you were not there set in; no matter how long I keep my eyes closed it wouldn't change that fact.  I took a deep breath to get over the fear, but the scent of faint amber and leather, your scent from my bed sheets, kept the fear alive.  The chilled autumn air blew in the window and I pulled the sheets tighter. Not long ago, you were sleeping here next to me, but the sheets are now cold where you once laid.  I remembered everything--your smile that made me smile, your laugh that made me laugh, your joy that made my life full. I had hope that I would see you again soon, that you would be home for Christmas.  This hope, like the sun that had creeped in, gave me the energy to open my eyes.
           I threw the sheets off and climbed out of bed, gently placing my feet on the cold floor. I grab my robe which hung on the edge of the bed frame, right next to where yours used to be. I slid first my left arm and then my right, slowly into the sleeves of the robe. Trying to keep my strength, I walked toward the bedroom door and made my way down the stairs.  I entered the kitchen and opened the fridge. As the light shocked my eyes, blurring my vision for a quick second, I reached for the eggs and cheese. I never had cheese in scrambled eggs before you, but that's the way you like them, and I now like cheese in eggs too. I began to mix the eggs when something caught my attention outside the window.
    The branches of our weeping willow tree were gracefully dancing in the breeze. We planted our tree two summers ago, after selecting it at the local farms market, and lifting it into our small SUV.  If you saw the willow today, you wouldn’t believe how proud it is, standing tall, in our yard. As the branches swayed back and forth, memories came alive of the times shared outside under our willow tree. The picnics we shared, the conversations we grew from and the moments we cherish. That night after we planted it, we had our first picnic, our first memory under our willow tree. You brought out a blanket, two sandwiches and some of my favorite sweet treats, homemade rice crispy treats. The sandwiches were a bit dry, but you could burn cereal if you really tried. I laughed out loud, thinking of your lack of cooking skills, and thankful the house was still in one piece. Soon after we finished our sandwiches it began to rain, so we covered our heads with the blanket as we rushed inside, laughing. Although it wasn’t a long picnic, it remains the best memory of all of our experiences under our tree.
    When the doorbell rang it rushed me back to reality. I made my way over to the door and spotted a tall dark figure threw the window. My mind raced with ideas.  Could it be you? Maybe it's the mailman.  My hand grabbed the doorknob and pulled the door open. Soon my wondering mind was halted. It wasn't you and it wasn't the mailman.  A well-groomed man in uniform stood before me. I said a silent prayer, “Please God, please let him be okay!” I fell to my knees, my hands covered my face, and tears filled my eyes. He started speaking but I already knew what he was going to say. There's only one reason he would have been here and it's to tell me you're not going to be returning home, my biggest fear. I could only hear parts of what he was saying, “…We regret to inform you…he was airlifted…he did not make it…”  He helped me stand and guided me to the sofa.  I then noticed there was another serviceman with him. One of them asked if there was anyone they could call.  Another one asked if he could get me some water.  Then one of the said, “Ma’am, as he was being airlifted, he must have been having visions, as he was talking about a willow tree.  The guys thought that might be important to you, and asked me to pass it on.  Is it?  Is it meaningful to you?”  Yes, yes it is! I smiled, a faint smile, but I smiled.  I no longer have you, but I will always have our memories under our willow tree.

“A first love is like a weight that you build and build the strength to try and just shove off. It’s like that annoying fly that won’t stop buzzing around your ears or that one employee at Bath and Body Works that keeps asking you if you ‘need any help finding anything?’ when you really just want to search for that damn bottle of Sweet Pea lotion by your damn self, pay for it, and get out.

“My first love, well, my first real love, was with someone I ended up being best friends with. She was tall. She was Canadian. She was assertive and my total opposite. She could kick my ass into next week and hardly break a sweat.

“It’s obvious we aren’t together. In fact, now that I’ve grown the hell up, I don’t think I could ever see us being together. But in a platonic way, we click perfectly, despite the fact that I’m a sensitive wallflower and she’s assertive and strong, and bossy in the best of ways. We’re both ambitious and innovative. We connect and are great together…platonically.

“Did I ever tell her I wanted her? Eventually. She thought she wanted me too, at the time. But maybe she finally saw my heart, brightly sewn on my sleeve, and let me down the easiest way she could. I think about that fateful conversation still, and wonder: ‘Was that real? Did she get over herself that fast? Or was it fake? Was she letting me down the gentlest way someone of her ferocity could muster?’

“A first love hits you like a pile of bricks. Imagine holding that for seven, eight years. You get a little cynical with time.”

    It was a normal day in Tokyo, Japan, a little dreary from the rain and haze. I arrived at my barracks room after a night out with friends and co-workers. I was off the next day, so I had big plans to attend a festival downtown. Little did I know after laying my head down for the night that my life was going to change in a few hours.

I was asleep when someone was banging on my door, yelling, “GET UP,” so I jump up, and still a little tipsy, stagger to the door. It was my best friend from the floor below me.

He told me, “Get up, get dressed, and get to my room ASAP.” Then he took off running. Not knowing what was going on I threw my shorts on and ran downstairs. When I entered his room, he was glued to the television and would not talk. I asked him what’s going on.

He said, “Shut up and sit down.” We sat there staring at the television watching the attacks on the Twin Towers. We were in awe; we didn’t know what to say or what to think. All we could say is, “This cannot be happening.”

Within a few minutes our phones were ringing. It was our bosses. We had a recall formation, an organized gathering at a moment’s notice, in one hour and everyone needed to be present. I ran to my room and threw on my Army uniform, then took off running as fast as my feet could go. When we showed up I was pulled aside by my Command Sergeant Major.

He said, “Get to my office, NOW.” Waiting inside his office while everyone else was in formation was making me curious. I watched while the Command Sergeant Major talked to everyone then dismissed them.

He was on his way. I got up and stood at parade rest, which is a respectful way to stand for a superior.

He walked in and said, “You are the only one here with the security clearance, jungle warfare training, logistics background, and a parachutist; get your bags packed, you are being deployed.” I swear, I asked a million questions. He did not know much except that I would be leaving in the twenty-four hours headed to Okinawa, Japan and someone would be there to pick me up. There was a slight fear of the unknown, but I stood proudly and said, “Roger that.”

While heading home to start packing all my gear, I had many thoughts that kept crossing my mind. I called my father and explained to him what was going on and that I would call him from Okinawa. I got everything ready to go; but then sitting around with nothing to do was really making my thoughts wonder about this unknown mission. The time to go eventually came and I got picked up and headed to the airport. I still had a lot of questions with no answers.

I got on the plane and within two and a half hours I was landing. I stepped off and a group of guys that looked intimidating approached me. They had to be the roughest guys that I have ever seen. They had all black attire, long beards, and looked like they lived their lives solely in a gym. I drove off with them to their compound and upon arrival one of the bearded men said, “Once you go inside the wired fence you will give us all devices of communications, so make your last phone calls.” As the time went, I was getting more nervous. I made one quick phone call to my father; being the men that we were, we never said “I love you” to each other, but this day we did. I gave my computer and phone to the armed guard at the gate and proceeded into the building.

Walking through those doors changed my life forever. I was escorted down a cold hallway that looked like a concrete bunker that headed towards a secure room. We all received a very intense confidential briefing that lasted for about six hours. I was being attached to the JSOTF-P, short for Joint Special Operations Task Force- Philippines, which included the Special Forces, Delta, Navy Seals, and the support element. That was me, the support element along with three other guys.

The intelligence briefing showed a large amount of terrorist activity in the southern islands of the Philippines. After some intense training and a few more briefings, we were getting ready to load up onto a C-130 airplane and head that way. At this point, I was still a little worried of this unknown, but I still had a somewhat calm feeling. It was in the middle of the night and not a soul was around, except us.  This team of “Special Guys” and the support element loaded up and took off within a few minutes.  Everyone was quiet and double checking their gear before the arrival in a couple hours. The C-130 was cold and slightly dark due to the dim lights. A heavy feeling come over me as we got closer and closer. The time came and the C-130’s crew chief came out and said “T-45 minutes,” meaning we would be there in forty-five minutes.

All the lights shut off and a few dim red lights come on. The red lights are used so we cannot be seen from the ground. The crew chief kept counting down the time as we kept getting closer. We were all getting anxious. The time came and the crew chief opened a huge door that exits out of the back of the plane. We double checked our gear once again and looked at each other’s parachutes for any last-minute issues. The C-130 took a nose dive toward the ground. We were about to jump. My stomach felt like it was in my throat and I couldn’t even think logically. The plane leveled out. I lost all my thoughts in utter panic as we were lining up. There was a small red and green light telling us when to jump and not to jump. It was red only for a few moments which told us to get ready.

Suddenly, the light turned green and we started shuffling to the door. Without showing any fear to my comrades, I stood tall trying to hide any emotions. This fear had shattered my memory, body, and soul. I was weak in every aspect. My body didn’t want to move. I was sweating profusely. I wanted to run away, but this was not an option. I made it to the door even though my knees were so weak and managed to jump out. At this moment, as I’m headed toward the ground and felt more lost than I ever had. I was going into a jungle with terrorists, and I thought my life was coming to an end shortly.

We all landed and everyone was scattered in different areas, so we were gathering at a rally point, a meeting point, to make sure we had everyone.  The fog was unbelievable and the air was so thick I was having trouble breathing. There was no time for hesitation; I immediately started to the rally point finding a few of my comrades while navigating through the thick brush. We all gathered and everyone was safe at this point. We started moving toward an area that was planned for our FOB, Forward Operating Base. This is where we do all our planning, sleeping, eating, etc. After arriving at the FOB, the “Special Guys” went on a recon, reconnaissance mission. They just wanted to make sure the area was secure, while the support element set up the basics for the night.  

Starting the next day, it was hard to realize what was really going on from minute to minute. But the more the days went by the more it became my life.  Every day seemed

so long for the first month or two until we really got situated. Missions were being completed and terrorists were being captured almost daily. It seemed like I was isolated in a different world, but I grew to love it. The longer I stayed the less I wanted to go home. I originally was supposed to stay only three months, but I kept extending until they forced me to go back to Japan after one year.

I got back to Japan and could not adapt back into the “regular” Army life. Every time I looked around people looked happy, worry free, and content. Well, I wasn’t at all happy, worry free, or content. I was lost and I felt like there was nobody around that would understand me or my feelings.  I immediately turned my paperwork in to volunteer for Iraq. I thought by going back to war because I had brothers there that knew the new me. So, this became a pattern in my life. I spent a total of fifteen years overseas in different places, six recorded combat tours, and a few other undisclosed locations. Even till this day, I would rather be fighting for this country, than to be sitting stagnant. At least I know over there my fellow comrades understand and know me.  

It’s strange how we remember some things in our past. Sights, smells, sounds, places, names…. They all reside in the inner recesses of our brain, waiting to be resurrected and brought back to the present.  Every year as spring slowly eases into summer and the days grow longer and warmer, something, like clockwork, triggers those memories and I go back in time. The “boy in the body bag” always hearkens back every summer, returning me to Laredo TX,  circa July 1997.

Summers in Laredo are long, hot and dusty. The oppressive heat permeates your very soul.  The big tractor trailers and tankers lumber through the freeway enroute to Mexico like giant caterpillars, emitting black smoke and fumes and sucking the oxygen out of the air.  As an FBI Agent, I was used to living in different parts of the country, but Laredo had been particularly difficult on my family. We had a one year old at home and were still adjusting.  I was sitting in front of the TV on my favorite recliner one evening. I finally had some respite after a couple of desperate and unrelenting weeks searching for a 14 year old boy who had been kidnapped by drug traffickers.  The boy had the misfortune of being the younger brother of a drug dealer who had ripped off a load of drugs. The kidnappers meant business and had, at gun point, taken the boy to compel his brother to cough up drugs or monies.

I had dozed off when my wife nudged me awake and said the Laredo Police Department was on the phone.  The voice on the other end was familiar…. Sgt. Valdez, a gruff, no-nonsense homicide investigator.  It didn’t sound promising. “The Nuevo Laredo police have the boy’s kidnappers in custody,” Valdez said. “We’re here now and they are about to interrogate them, do you want to come down here?”

How could I refuse? This investigation had consumed my days, my nights, my thoughts and my dreams for the past two weeks. I had to go.  I called a new Agent I had been assigned to train and off we went to Nuevo Laredo.

Nuevo Laredo is a bustling town of approximately 500,000 denizens. Its slums rival those of third world countries and its mansions aren’t much different than those in Palm Springs.  Thousands of Nuevo Laredoans cross the border into Laredo every day to work, shop, or visit friends and family.  The municipal police department was housed in a weather beaten, nondescript cement block building reeking of cigarette smoke and sweat. Its police officers looked frazzled and demoralized, their uniforms stained with grease and grime.  The chief of police ushered me into his office. He was loquacious and appeared eager to show off his prize catch, like a hunter who has bagged a great trophy deer.  The chief wanted me to see the alleged kidnappers while they were being presented to the local media. As the cameras popped and flashed, the two miscreants appeared before the press gallery disheveled and with a look of resignation in their eyes.  When the photographers had been satiated, the Chief ended the session and led the suspects into an office down the hall. As he passed by us, the Chief asked if we wanted to participate in the interrogation of the suspects. I declined and waited in the hallway.  No sooner had the door closed behind him when I heard yelling and a loud whack followed by a wretched scream.  This was repeated two or more times until finally, the door opened. The Chief sauntered over, his uniform shirt covered in sweat and flecks of blood.  He had a satisfied and smug look on his face. “The kidnappers had confessed”, he said, and had volunteered to take us back across the border to where the boy was sequestered. We all piled into several cars and the long caravan of hope and despair wended its way toward Laredo.  

Hope is oftentimes an illusory emotion.  We nursed a forlorn hope that the boy was still alive but two weeks is an eternity in a kidnapping case. Our sad little caravan finally arrived by dusk at a small ranchette a few miles outside of Laredo. The ranch had only a small shack tucked away within a strand of mesquite trees.  The place had long since stopped being anyone’s abode and except for the detritus strewn about, no evidence of human habitation was evident.  The kidnappers pointed out the shack where they had held the boy captive. Exasperated and out of patience, I demanded to be taken to the boy. One of the kidnappers turned and pointed to a patch of scrub grass and, without a trace of remorse, said they had executed him a few days before and buried him on the spot. My heart sank, we were too late. All we could do now was excavate the body and return him to his family. The sun had disappeared into the hot and humid Texas night and it was far too late to attempt a retrieval.

The next day, a three man team of FBI Agents from the Evidence Response Team (ERT) arrived from the Lower Rio Grande Valley and began the long and laborious process of excavating the remains. It was going to be a painstaking process due to the exacting nature of preserving evidence for prosecution.  As the ERT continued its arduous work, the temperature steadily climbed until it hovered around 110 degrees by noon.  By 3:00pm, the ERT realized they were racing the clock in an effort to complete the excavation before darkness fell, so I called in the cavalry.  The Laredo FBI office was essentially closed down and we joined the effort to beat the clock. The thorn bushes and prickly cactus surrounding the gravesite tore at my clothes and flesh but I dared not stop. Though I had been careful not to step too deeply into his sepulcher, it was unavoidable and soon enough I found myself in the dirt, the muck, and the body fluids.  As we dug deeper into the young boy’s tomb, his hand suddenly appeared as if crying out for help. Soon other appendages were uncovered until his face, as if frozen in a ghastly death mask, made its appearance.  A cursory inspection of the body revealed a gunshot in the temple had ended his all too brief earthly sojourn.  The boy had been wrapped in a well-worn piece of carpet. We lifted him out, said a silent prayer and placed his remains in a body bag for transportation to the morgue.  After we had removed the boy’s body from the ground, I noticed several small cuts and scratches on my body, including a small abrasion on my right elbow.

Three weeks later, I found myself in the local emergency room with a very high fever and a staph and fungal infection. My right arm was as thick as a football and had turned a purplish hue. A deep abscess had formed in my elbow. The abscess had started small but within hours it had enlarged and seemed to be eating into my flesh. My doctor feared the worse. Unless he operated, I was either going to lose my arm or die of septic shock.  I underwent emergency surgery and stayed a week convalescing in the hospital.

Only God knows if my brush with death resulted from my participation in the retrieval of the young kidnap victim from his temporary internment. What I do know is that his murder exacted an emotional and physical toll on me as no case had before or after.  I sometimes wonder how that 14 year old boy’s life would have turned out. Whether his hopes and dreams would have been realized. What his 34 year old self would’ve accomplished personally and professionally. These are questions that will never be answered.  So each summer as the days grow hotter and the sun blazes ever more incandescently, I am left to contemplate those questions and dwell on the “boy in the body bag.