Johnson County Library is pleased to announce that Hunter G. has won second place in the second age group for the Sci-Fi Spring 2021 Youth Writing Contest with his piece "The Time She Had Returned."
María sat quietly and carefully outside in the front area of a bar. The area was quite overgrown with a variety of green. What the bar lacked was people. This little town she had once remembered was teeming with solemness. María wondered why the plants continued to grow with little water. They climbed up in search of something. These desperate plants continued no matter what. It was impressive, she thought to herself. María realized how hot it had gotten. It was mid July and the sun had never been meaner. The air would take any moisture out of the ground, if there was any left to begin with. The dusty yellow hills rolled one after another like small bumps. Big clouds of dust rise in the distance from traveling cars. The dust would sit still and expand into a large cloud before coming back down. Sometimes a short breeze would carry that dust over the yellow and green foliage that vastly took over the land. The sun, burning violently, casted a hue that was special to this land.
In her hand María held a small wooden horse. She was given this horse by her brother. She has kept it with her for the years she has been gone. He used to carve little animals when he was angry.
When María was young she repeated the phrase that was subconsciously repeated by everyone, a mal tiempo, buena cara. When María turned 12 and her brother, Santiago, the only sibling that she felt a connection with, moved to Madrid for a job, she repeated this. She said this once more when she met him. María knew that he could only be a couple years older than her; she also knew he was not from around here. The way he spoke was unfamiliar to María’s untrained ears. María’s family was too poor to travel. They did not leave the country like many
did for vacation. María stayed quiet in her corner of the world and let the commotion of the rest travel unbothered. She would occasionally see him on her walks to school. It was her first day walking by herself after Santiago left. As she approached the crosswalk, she saw him.
“Hello,” he said.
She stopped and lifted her head to reveal her dark eyes and tanned skin. María’s curly dark hair would often block her view, so today it was tied up. The man’s pale skin looked younger and less aged than she had though originally. María was not the type of person to warmup to strangers, but something was different. He was not too much older, but he held so much power over María.
I found you when you were 16.
As the years continued they started to take from María. She grew into a mold similar to her mother. A taller, skinny, sharp, mold. As much as the years took away, they would always give back. She gained a new type of relationship that was foreign to her. Although time has passed, his voice still intrudes her mind. She watched her past replay in her mind, how a stranger turned friend, turned lover, turned regret.
"A coffee for you Señora?" asked a young waiter who snapped her back to the bar. He could not be that much older than María; she found that odd.
As María sat inside tucked into a small table, she still had not understood the severity of the situation. It was a delicate matter with María's family life. Apparently some people do not forget who you turn your back on. Maybe that's a good thing.
"Gracias," María left swiftly and kept her head up. This was not new land to her; it was only changed. This was an uncertainty however. María could not be certain if the town had changed, or she had changed. Either way, she thought, it was new.
"How much for a cab?" María ducked her head down to reach the level of the short car.
"Psht... same as any."
Out the window in the distance, she could see a ferry traveling away from her. It was most likely to be going to Nador, a city in Morocco. Jefe had once taken her to Morocco. She had just turned 18. Jefe had picked her up from Almería, and they drove alongside the coast for a few hours to reach Tarifa, a port town in Cádiz. When María reached Tarifa with Jefe, she was happy, she was in love. It was the first time she had traveled so far from home. It all happened so fast too. She was swooned with the promise of something new. She was promised change, and Jefe wanted nothing more than what would satisfy him. María began to notice it then off the boat in Tangier. María has come to realize what she was really doing in Tangier. Although far, he continued to invade her mind.
You turned 18 in Tangier María...remember?
“15 euros,” The man abruptly stopped María’s mind from wandering with the ferry.
She handed him the money and climbed out of the car. She stood in front of the house she had lived in lifetimes ago. She was in her late twenties now; it had been years since Tangier, since him.
“Excuse me. What are you doing outside of my house?” A short tan skinned woman asserted. She looked slightly familiar, but her hair was lighter.
“María.” She knew that voice.
María turned to see Santiago a man. Sure, he had her when he was 18, but he had grown into the image of her father. His jaw was square, and his eyes were squinty and exhausted. He had also looked a little heavier.
“It- It’s you.... María it’s you.” The woman said. It had just occurred to María that was not just a stranger; it was her sister. She had grown into a woman. She was almost unrecognizable except for her eyes. Most of her family had brown eyes, but there were a couple exceptions. One being Esmeralda. Esmeralda’s eyes would sparkle like jewels in the desert sun. María loved her.
“I thought you’d left with h... I- I just thought you were lost, but you’re here now! ”Santiago was filled with elation.
María started to feel rivers from her eyes. Jefe couldn’t win this time. She wouldn't cry for him. She maintained her composure, and when Santiago ran to hug her, she put out her hand as to offer a tip. Santiago stopped at this formality. He looked her up and down as María noticed small lines where his tears had whipped the dust from his face. María continued to hold out her hand; Santiago backed towards Esmeralda.
“Hmm... why don't we go inside?” Santiago asked as he began to walk inside. With María’s hand still outstretched, Esmeralda took one sharp glance at the hand and then up at the face of this stranger. María had noticed how her eyes were glowing in this light. They could certainly be noticed miles away.
“You’re a stranger to me María.” she said coldly.
María walked once more into this house where nothing changed. Santiago took her to the kitchen. It is a strange phenomenon, returning to a place untouched as you were broken down and rebuilt up. This is what María was experiencing.
“You’ve changed since- since him, María.” Santiago continued to talk about him.
When María was 19 she took her first trip to Russia. She walked on to the hot tarmac under the mean sun as her hands began to jitter. María had been skeptical. She remembered the
disappointment in Morocco. She had the choice of reliving the nightmare of Morocco. Jefe had introduced a storm in her mind. This black storm cloud infected her mind and overtook the shining sun. María’s heart fluttered as she stood in front of the large staircase into the plane as she watched Jefe get on a few people in front of her.
“Do you need help joven?” asked the flight attendant who had noticed María’s discomfort.
Little did this flight attendant know, she gave María a choice. By asking this, María was able to decide if she would keep in the walls of Almería with her family, or would she forget. María could feel the storm cloud approaching. She chose to forget. As she ignored the flight attendant and took her first step she repeated the phrase.
That was only 7 years ago María
Days had gone by since María had arrived. Her old bedroom she had to share with her younger sister had turned into a room of junk. Tattered cloth draped over old furniture that was longing to be thrown and destroyed. The room was covered in a carpet of dust. Nobody had occupied this part of the house for years; she could tell as she wiped her fingers down the top of a desk. Her fingers intruded the peace of the dust to leave two small valleys on top of the desk. The floral quilt that her abuela had made still layed folded on the foot of the bed. María realized now that it was untouched in the hopes of her return.
“Hermana, it’s been days, maybe you’d like to eat with us.” Santiago said as María started to remake her bed. “We can move these boxes and junk too.”
María nodded in response. She had used to be fond of speaking, but lately she felt like a stranger in this town of close people. This town was like a quilt, she thought. Everyone was designated to their own square that was tightly knit to the next square.
As they all sat at the table eating, Esmeralda shot María with, “Why are you here.”
“Esmé she’s your sister... she’s is always welcome here.” Santiago said sternly.
Esmeralda gave María a look and then her brother, and looked back down at her plate.
“You know María, you can always come down and help at the bar.” Santiago looked her in the eyes. “I moved back down to live with Esmé when papá died.”
“I told you hermano, that I didn’t need you to do that, I’m very independent.” Esmeralda responded.
Santiago looked at and smiled, “You couldn’t possibly live in this big house and pay for it all by yourself hermanita.”
María had been focusing on how the warm oil dripped down the sides of the bread onto her plate. It was a familiar thing. The familiar sight of this delicacy brought her joy.
“Come on María, we are shorthanded down there and I’m sure the boss wouldn’t mind” Santiago started, “you pick up quick too.”
“Why does she even get your attention,” Esmeralda emphasized. “You only bothered to come here and meet me when papá died, never once did either of you care!”
“Esmé please... don’t yell in front of María.”
“She never cared about this family... maybe if she didn’t leave us alone, she’d bewelcome here.”
“Esmé, that is enough!”
Esmeralda’s lips started to tighten and her brow furrowed, “I’ve been here with you and you’ve never once asked me to do things, but the second this stranger walks in the door you drop everything for her.” María got up and hit the table. She started for the door and turned once more, “Leave!” She slammed the front door behind her.
“María, she just has to warm up to you again, you’ll fit in again real quick,” he smiled. “What do you say... will you come down and help?”
A woman’s place is not to get dirt under her fingernails
A few weeks had passed. Santiago’s boss was apprehensive, but desperate for help. Helet her start off by cleaning the floors after closing. Santiago would work overtime until closing with María; he was worried about the walk home in the dark. The first week was really difficult for María. She wouldn’t dare try to make conversation with Esmeralda. When their paths would inevitably cross, Esmeralda would attempt to make amends.
“María I... I just want to tell you that- that I’m sorry for the way I have been acting.” Esmeralda expressed her apology.
“Would you care to take a walk down to the market with me?” Esmeralda asked.
María nodded. Although it was hard for María to convey, she was grateful for the acceptance; it eased the pain.
I will always be with you María.
María felt okay. She felt more accepted by her sister. They laughed and smiled picking fruits in the spanish sun. María was afraid however, She was afraid it would all crash on her. Sh eis afraid of losing herself again to the cloud that takes over her mind. Santiago removed her from her memories on their way to work.
“Good news hermana, boss said you could take a few orders today” he said as they walked into work. “Oh- and here... I have something for you María!” Santiago held out his hands to offer a gift. María looked at it. It was a small wooden horse. She picked it up and stared at it carefully admiring its delicacy.
“The matching one! I- I love it.”
As they walked in through the back María was jittery. She was not confident in her skills to remember orders. She kept her hard persona and walked through the door behind Santiago.
“Hola tío,” the boss said, “and tía,” he waved.
The bar had been a little bit busier than it had been in the past few days. Out of all the days to help with tables, this may have been the worst one.
“María can you get those tables please.” The boss commanded her.
She made her way for the first table. “One cuscús and a pinchitos de pollo.”
She walked back and repeated this to the cook. He nodded to her. All she had to do was repeat this task a few more times and it’d be over. She carried the first tray back, the second, and the third. Next, María walked over to a table. It was 3 foreign men. She assumed they were from the East because of their accents, but they could have passed as spanish.
“Why don’t you start us off with some drinks princesa.”
María was alarmed by their tone and what they had called her. Nevertheless, she memorized their complicated drinks and returned to the bar. She returned moments later with their drinks and placed them on the table. She felt eyes on her as she leaned over to place them down.
“I think we’ll skip the waiting and just order now cariño,” said this foreign man whose accent reminded her of him.
María was angered at the way she was being treated. She had no idea who to tell or if the boss would say anything. So, she walked up to the bartender as she finished with a different table, “Those men are making me uncomfortable. ”
“Here you are.” María leaned over once more attempting to lay the hot plates onto the table. She felt a squeeze.
María, do you remember those nights in Tangier
María slammed the plates down and they tumbled off the table onto the men. They yelled out because the meals were hot. The three of them shot up and the dishes went crashing to the floor. It was clear to the restaurant what had happened. Obviously, María had dropped the plates onto them because she was new.
The boss came running out of the back, “Clean this mess up immediately!” he yelled at her. “Jesus I knew hiring a nobody was gonna get me in trouble.”
“I’m not paying for this!” One of the men yelled at María.
The boss came rushing with towels, “Of course sir.”
Normally, someone in María’s position would have gotten off, but because he was convinced by Santiago to hire her, he was furious.
She looked at the bunch of men arguing, and she conceded. María did the only thing she could, leave. She just wanted to go back to before. She wanted to when she used to cross the street with her brother. She wanted to go back to her classes with her friends. María thought if she tried hard enough to melt back into Almería she would forget about that part of her. She would forget the shame in leaving home, the way her father looked at her when she came back late, the time she left Almería for the last time, the way her sister looked at her, the way she violently shook off the boat in Nador. María kept walking until she finally returned home. She carefully walked inside for her anger to be interrupted by Esmeralda.
“You know hermana, I- I just don’t know you.” Esmeralda stared at María in front of the door; she went in to comfort María.
María stepped backward and continued to act like she had not been crying. Neither of the sisters said a word about her appearance.
“María please- please say something. I... I am trying María please.”
Still, María persisted on being solemn. She did not feel welcome.
“María you don't care! You don’t accept our help! You don’t try to feel loved!” Esmeralda’s love had turned into anger like María had predicted.
“It’s no one else's fault but your own María. You left us. We should be the angry ones María. You should be the one warming up to us, NOT the other way around!” Esmeralda ended.
María looked calmly at her sister, and carefully walked past her towards her room. Esmeralda was in awe at this.
“IT’S CLEAR YOU DON’T CARE... JUST LEAVE US AGAIN!”
María turned around sharply, “I am a stranger to you just as much as you are to me Esmé.” María started towards her room once more.
“Santiago told me what happened to you hermana. He told me everything about that man who used to cross the street.” Esmeralda ended.
It was late morning when Santiago woke up. Esmeralda had already left. As Santiago left for the table, he noticed something out of place. Where there used to be a vase from his mother, there was now a carefully carved horse. It was a small figurine. It was no bigger than a chess piece. Santiago shot up from his chair. He rushed to María’s room. He threw the door open and his heart stopped. María had left the second wooden horse. Santiago saw her bed. The bed was remade how it always was, with the quilt folded neatly on the foot, and there it would stay, longing for her return once more.