We'll always need storytellers. That's what one of the judges of this year's SFR Writing Contest tells us about the future of publishing. We couldn't agree more. And we're happy that our readers agree, too.

Like we do each year, the staff at SFR offered a loose theme. This time it was "Take it Back." One guy who called to inquire about "what it means" seemed puzzled when our editor wouldn't offer an interpretation other than: "We hope writers are inspired to create something that spins off that idea."

Sure, some of you took hints from the required words in the fiction category of sweetened, dotard and racket, and you wrote about the nutty political tides of the United States these days. Others took a hard look at ways to interpret the phrase that don't belong on ball caps or bumper stickers. We especially enjoyed that one entry featured a zombie apocalypse, one a population-changing epidemic, and in another, a serious out-of-body experience. In the end, the judges chose six favorites, and we trust them.

FICTION

First Place

Wonder
By Jennifer Edelson

Under the hot sun, the shanty lean-to of a bus stop does little to stave off the heat baking the arid dusty ground. The grimy bus is just up ahead; it won’t take long before it groans to a halt, belching its sooty breath into the cloudless sky, polluting my senses with the smell of burning rubber and the screech of squealing gears. Slowly, it inches toward the sparse portal, coming to a standstill just after the dilapidated metal structure. As it stops, I look down the road ahead, at a long golden stretch traveling through nothing, Kansas, lost until a tsking sound brings me back to reality.
From his high seat, the driver winks down the stairwell, waving me on.
The first step is the hardest. That’s the way those old Greyhound buses were made. It takes a large stride to reach level ground. Today, that first step is special, my hundredth Greyhound stair since I set out to see America. Five steps a bus equals 20 towns so far.
Sighing, I grab my backpack and sling it over my shoulder along with my newly acquired duffle bag—the one I pinched from the Kum & Go in Friendly, Tennessee. I close my eyes and lift a foot, pausing midair, waiting to slip as I step up onto the worn green runner splitting the bus between the left and right sides of town. But I don’t fall. I land solidly, two feet on a carpet that leads to an empty seat near the restrooms at the back of the bus. A seat next to no one; the way I like it.
Out the window, empty fields cup Oakley, Kansas, like a worn baseball glove, closing in on the failing town. Oakley is a blip, but outside, beyond its dusty main street, the land is starkly beautiful and stirringly desolate. Once upon a time America felt like this sweetened parcel of promise waiting for me to cultivate for my own. But most of what I’ve seen is vacant, and tribal, and vast enough to distance its citizen from its ideologies. Its enormity makes me shake. Like space, it swallows me up, a molecule in an atomic ocean.
“This seat taken?”
A massive body looms over the aisle, pointing to the seat beside me. The seat is piled high with my bags, a sure tell that it is not, in fact, available.
“What’s wrong with one of the ones up there?” I point toward the front of the Greyhound. Towards the seat the boy occupied before the bus pulled away from the station.
“Nothing.” He shrugs.
I want to say yes, it’s taken, can’t you see all my stuff, you dotard? But I’m curious. The boy’s followed me through five overnight stops already, trailing behind at each like a shadow only to disappear until the next bus to nowhere pulls into town. He hasn’t said a word to me until now.
“Fine,” I answer, looking out the window at waning fields of dried cornhusks.
Grunting as if my one bag and backpack combined weigh more than the bus itself, the boy pulls my items off the seat, throwing them in the frail overhead bin before sitting down with a thump. He taps his ratty blue Converse repetitively against the seat back, driving me crazy. 
“How old are you?” I ask.
“Twenty,” he says to the seat in front of him.
Twenty. Not a boy, not a man.
As the bus makes its way into the setting sun, the sky spreads out in fuchsia ribbons that glow against golden cornhusks and dried farmland. I envy him. We’re almost the same age, and yet, he seems … unspoiled.
The boy stares straight ahead, peeking sideways when he thinks I’m absorbed by whatever it is we’re passing outside—panoramas stretched like taffy by motion. I hate meeting people’s eyes. Peripheral vision is a gift from God. I can’t count the times it’s saved me.
In the distance, Oakley is a blur of grain silos. We ride silently beside each other and I wonder what he’s up to, pretending with his frayed knapsack and beat-up guitar case that he’s got nothing better to do than sit with some stranger. That guitar, like a prop from a movie—I wonder if he plays it or just carries it around.
My seat is hard and springy, but I’ve come to expect that. In front of me, blue fabric stretches across the seat’s backrest, a visual racket speckled with colorful polka dots that burst across the frame. It’s a pattern that’s neither comfortable nor attractive, but I’ve pretty much stopped caring about things like aesthetics after seeing so many ramshackle towns.
“Where are you going?” The boy asks earnestly.
“Santa Fe for a couple weeks.” I lie because I don’t now, and never have had a plan. “Next though, Plains, Oklahoma. Then Clayton, New Mexico.”
“I mean in the end.”
He’s attractive and that bothers me. But he’s also awkward. Too tall and too big, as though still a child trying to inhabit a man. His fair eyes are innocent despite rugged features, and his soft slow voice, tinged with Southern inflection, makes me want to strangle him.
Where am I going?
“Nowhere,” I shrug. “Just like you.” I grin at him disingenuously then close my eyes against the glare outside. Small talk is worse than truck-stop coffee.
“Mind if I go with you?”
“To nowhere?” I raise my eyebrows.
“Yeah. Why not?”
The boy’s grey eyes are unguarded, but not simple. They’re sweet. Unaware. They smile openly above his delicate nose, the only other fragile thing about him. He reminds me of a puppy patiently waiting to be thrown a bone.
“Where were you headed?” I ask.
“Santa Cruz. At least I was.”
“You’ve been following me?”
I already know he has been. I first noticed him back in West Virginia, in line for a Minneapolis-bound bus. Then suddenly there he was again, sitting four aisles ahead of me headed down Interstate 64 for Kentucky. He got off with me in Lexington then got on with me heading for St. Louis.
“Kind of.”
“That’s creepy.”
He shakes his head. “Not really.”
“Yes it is. It’s called stalking.”
“I’m not stalking you. You just … you seemed alone.”
“We’re all alone.”
He smiles sheepishly. “Sure. But we don’t have to be lonely.”
Shielding my forehead, I meet his stare. The bastard looks sincere; he smiles a small genuine smile, totally unaware I’m packing a .45 and will probably rob someone, maybe him, when we stop for the night in the next town. “You have pretty eyes,” he says, holding his pointer finger near enough to my face to actually poke me. “Like amber.”
“What’s your name?” I ask, pinching the bridge of my nose as though my head hurts, hoping to shut him down.
“Octavian.”
“Seriously? Like Caesar and all that?”
“Seriously. Like Caesar and all that. Octavian Orion Xavier August Navarro. What’s yours?”
“Do me a favor.” My name is transient. It has no meaning beyond what other people assign it. Like me, it’s a ghost. Grimacing, I change the subject, because I can’t even care enough to take back the awful things I’ve done, which means I probably shouldn’t get to know him better. “Grab my backpack.”
Octavian stands up and pulls my pack down from the overhead carriage, snagging it on a jagged piece of plastic jutting from the bin before sitting down again. He fidgets beside me, flicking at a flap on his denim jacket as he stares up at the tiny television screen suspended from the ceiling above us. He’s obviously waiting for me to say something else. But I don’t, and he doesn’t either. 
There’s a small travel alarm in my duffle; I set it to ring in an hour. The last part of the day’s trip takes us through the Prairie National Grasslands before stopping in Oklahoma, and I don’t want to be sleeping then. Land is my one indulgence; I’m not ashamed to admit it’s my only love.
Anson Stevens-Bollen
I revere roads especially. Even before I knew what escape meant, highways, and all their tributaries, haunted me—all that infrastructure, leading somewhere I wasn’t. All that violence. A day on a dusty stretch of empty highway tamps the humdrum noise inside my head. Movement keeps me sound, and that’s stellar, because reason feels like it’s become a dirty concept.
The bus’ tires hum against the tarmac. It’s a soothing sound and I drop my forehead against the hot glass, letting the sun-warmed pane sear my skin. Drifting I keep my eyes mostly closed and furtively squint out the window. My reflection in the grimy pane makes me anxious. I know my face well, but the rest of me, is so unpredictable. 
Minutes later we pass over a pothole and I realize Octavian is sleeping beside me like the dead. As we head southwest into Oklahoma, rows of cornfields give way to prairie grass, and I wonder about him. I wonder whether to change seats, or take him back to my motel room when we stop for the night. I decide to change seats. But then take it back. I’m too intrigued by his credulous nature.
In Plains, Oklahoma, storm tentacles like dark streamers wind through the late prairie light, stalling over dry corn stalks in the near distance. Lingering above a small dearth of land, the storm washes the golden fields in white-hot flashes of electricity. The highway splits the grimy town down its middle. On one side, tall silos loom over railroad tracks and an open field of grass dotted with park benches. On the other, abandoned warehouses stand like sentries on the edge of town.
The air is static and the area eerily immobile. We stand under a tin roof, sandwiched between the early-evening sounds of crickets and buzzing electrical lines and hushed obscurity. Up the street, perpendicular to the highway, a neon motel sign blinks Good-Sleep-Inn at us against a mostly dusky backdrop. Together, we make our way toward it, past a ramshackle Stop and Go I think about robbing later and a shanty aptly named Bar Nowhere. I wonder if once Octavian figures me out, he’ll turn me in. It’s not too late to send him packing, but he’s such an anomaly. Tomorrow we’ll reach Clayton, full of empty spaces and beaten-down people; a good place to bury mistakes and secrets, or ideas that follow you cross-country. I could change my mind. But I’d rather gamble.

[About the author] Artist. Writer. Mother. Bollywood fanatic. Former attorney. Respects Ativan and Albert Camus. Would spend my days outdoors, traveling and writing if I could.

Second Place

A Call for Help
By Carol Stephens

Dear Chiang Mai Flock,
I feel it is important to tell you what has been happening here in Bangkok. It has been gradual like the way we wake up in the morning—a chirp here, a chirp there—until suddenly, after a series of loud calls, our sounds are everywhere creating a glorious impromptu concert in the sky—at least that is the way it used to be. But unfortunately, the change I want to tell you about has been different.
I’m not exactly sure when the trees decided to let us down, but we have had to adjust. Maybe that isn’t a fair statement. We never knew exactly what happened. Was there a war, we wondered? The trees obviously lost their power, but perhaps there was a disease we didn’t know about. However, we can usually spot illness. But whatever it was, like I said, we had to adapt when the change, or perhaps takeover is a better word, began.
At first it was just one building or two, but now Bangkok is forested with a new species. There are several classifications, but frankly, it is hard for me to differentiate. Skyscrapers, high-rises, office buildings, condos, apartments and residences … they are all the same to me. But they take the place of banyans, palms and teakwood trees.
That is why instead of writing this from a cool, leafy place, I am sitting on a hard cement railing with a noisy air conditioner drowning out my song.
Anson Stevens-Bollen
Yesterday I had an unexpected visitor from the beach in Phuket, where the tsunami hit a few years ago. It was Khun Fa, a delightful little sandpiper I once dated. You can imagine my excitement when she dropped in. Maybe, I thought, she wants to rekindle our relationship.
“What silly branches you have here,” she remarked with a coquettish flick of her tail. “What happened to all the fluffy foliage and the limbs I used to love?”
I had to tell her that this cement forest of downtown Bangkok has taken some getting used to. There still are traditional trees, of course, and she wanted to see them. So I took her over to Bangkok’s famous Lumphini Park.

She really liked it, and as we lunched on some berries sweetened by the sun, she asked me why I didn’t live there instead of where I was. She obviously didn’t understand that park areas have become very rare and are coveted. Any avian friends who are lucky enough to be hatched there never leave.

I found myself getting a bit maudlin. “You know, Fa, I miss the old days. It seems you don’t appreciate things until they are gone.”

Of course, Fa, living at the beach, where the majestic palm trees still prevail, did not get it. She had no vision of how a city could change so gradually that you don’t notice it until it is too late. But I didn’t want to sound like an old dotard so I tried to lighten the mood by spreading my wings and whisking her off to the National Art Museum and the Grand Palace.

Finally Fa grew tired, so we glided back to one of my favorite balconies. She wanted to enjoy the view of the city one last time before leaving. However, after the lushness of the park, I wondered what she was thinking.
Seeing my discomfort, Fa kindly tweeted: “No worries, Khun Nok. This is a very nice place to perch. And look at all the interesting features. Why, there are lots of plants and flowers here and a nice large bowl of water for bathing.”
And with that, Khun Fa jumped into the bowl with a dainty splash and motioned for me to join her. Now I really felt like I was getting somewhere. I could almost hear wedding bells, and I was thinking maybe I should convince Fa to stay a bit longer. But just at that moment everything changed … A door slid open and, even though we were 10 stories high, out sprang a cat!
Oh, how I wish now that I had chosen another balcony! After a great deal of panic and loss of feathers we managed to get away. But reason tells me Khun Fa will never be back.

Sadly, Fa’s visit made me realize how embarrassed I am to be living here. It is only going to get worse. There are new buildings cropping up all the time. And their births make quite a racket, and it takes forever to complete them. In the old days you hardly even knew when a sapling was growing and becoming an adult.

Needless to say, I miss the old trees. I love the banyans wrapped in ribbons that have everyone’s respect. But now when you see one, their sashes and bands look worn and weary.
After Khun Fa left, I decided to explore the city a bit. It was not a good idea. My broken heart caused me to lose my bearings and took me to a new part of town. I live near a Marriott Hotel, so I made my way there but nothing looked familiar. I soon realized that I was completely lost. I had forgotten that Marriotts are springing up everywhere and apparently I was at the wrong one. It wasn’t until the evening lights came on that I recognized a shopping mall near my neighborhood, and I was able to fly home.
So, Chiang Mai Flock, even though I do enjoy the view from my rooftop, I have news for you. This Bangkok forest is not doing its job. Rather than cooling things off, it makes things hotter. Rather than make the air purer there are strange odors and exhaust coming from the buildings. Any shade this forest does provide is not peaceful and sheltering. So, my dear relatives, tomorrow I wing my way north. I may get to you or stop at another town along the way. But I need to resettle where a bird like me can once more live in a tree and hear myself sing.
Sincerely,
Your Cousin,
Khun Nok

[About the author] Carol Stephens is a resident of Santa Fe. She enjoys writing short stories and articles based on her experiences living overseas in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

Third Place

The Mistress Heist
By James Gould

Take the next train south to the hotel in San Diego. Bet on the horses. Charge the surveillance operation to the expense account. Hole up in Tijuana, somewhere cheap. Don’t fool with hookers. Hang around the station late at night. Piss in the gutters like the drunks. Make yourself known at a few seedy bars in that part of town that smell of cigarettes, stale beer and sick. Look for wrecked cars, broken windows, limp doors, hazy air and greasy tacos on the street with trash strewn into slick pools. Mean dogs will eye you from alleys and snarl. Everything will need a fresh coat of paint. Cool yourself with an iced horchata from the donkey cart.

Get yourself a lousy suit from a thrift store. Take some oil and stain around the collar, the front and the pants—especially around the crotch. Comb some into your hair too. No one will take you seriously.

Ease yourself into the One Eyed Jack. Let the barmaid at the place call you Hun or whatever. Smile at her and wink. Tell her she’s pretty. Women like to hear that. Learn her name or better yet, call her Baby Doll. Buy her drinks. They’ll be watered down, but do it anyway. Sweeten her tip jar with more than she deserves. You’ll need her when the time comes.
Throw back whiskey and stand your ground. Take a few punches if they come your way, but don’t hit back, or if you do make sure it counts. They need to be laid out on the floor or they’ll shove you out back and slice your face open from ear to ear. You’ll die there if you don’t hit hard. Maybe play deaf instead, or act like the ceiling fan has you hypnotized. Just don’t be a candy-ass. You got that?
Pay attention to the nuances of the bar flies. Know their game, especially the dotard wearing plaid at the end of the bar. He acts the fool, but he’s a clever con man. Stay away from him and his racket. Shoot pool badly. Lose discreetly. Look for poker tells. Get inside their heads. They all know her and where she hides it. Figure that out. Find out where. They’ll all turn when she walks in. Brace yourself. Your knees will tremble like every other man in the joint with one swinging. Guard your resolve and resist the urge to toss everything overboard and try to reach her. You’ll want to dive deep for her charms and jewels, so pretend you can’t swim or something. Spill ice down your pants if you have to, just don’t be stupid. You hear me? Don’t dick around.
It’ll be dark in there so wait till your eyes adjust. Be patient. Don’t act jittery. Listen to what they say around her. Watch their movements, their hands in particular. These peckers are sly and quick but someone will make a mistake and give up the ghost. Hold your nose if they haven’t washed in months. Buck up if they puke on you or drool. Humor them, but keep your distance. Lie to them. Make up a story. Learn to swear in their language, but don’t say anything idiotic. Right? Don’t be a dumbass.
Now when the day comes you find some punks. Give ’em a few bucks and tell ’em steal from the dry goods store across the street at half past eleven. We’ll handle the double-cross with the police. Wait for the explosion out front. Move your ass quick when everyone clears out. Grab Baby Doll if something goes wrong. Get that sharp knife up to her throat right quick and twist one arm up around her back tight if you need to. Tell her everything is going to be fine if she does what you say and keeps her mouth shut. Got it?
You find it and stuff it into the satchel, sling it over your shoulder and slip out the back door. Get in the car that’ll be waiting. Run like hell if you hear any gunshots. Don’t worry. You just do your part. It’s going to be fine. We’re gonna score big with this one. We’re gonna take it back. You wait and see.
Pull your hat brim down low. Yeah, like that. Now let’s go.

[About the author] James Gould has lived in Santa Fe for over 20 years. He spends part of his time looking after buildings at the Farmers Market and at the Center for Contemporary Arts while also teaching woodworking at the Community College and quietly exercising his creativity.

NONFICTION

First Place

Origin Story

By Jennifer Love

No one can tell me how many nurses surrounded me when I was born. I might find out if I look up the standard for medical assistance offered to an incarcerated woman during labor. I'd ask some nurse or doctor who was present: Did I get stuck in the birth canal? Was my cry louder than my mother's screams? Did I even cry? Did you think, just for a moment, about taking me home with you?

Maybe the woman whose body I emerged from held me close to her. Maybe I drank her milk. Maybe I was only embraced by an incubator and fed formula. Maybe that woman thought about keeping me. Maybe I inherited my stubby feet from her? Maybe I inherited her proclivity to sell myself for money or to commit grand larceny. Maybe I was addicted to her drugs. Maybe I stayed in the hospital one night, a few nights, or a few weeks. Maybe I was a healthy baby. Maybe someone soothed me when I cried. No one I know can tell me if I slept quietly in a rickety crib.

I do know in the hospital that woman gave me one thing: the name Marasha. Marasha Lynn Depew. In either the state home or foster care, or both, they called me Marasha, too. But when I was adopted, I lost the one gift my birth mother gave me. The woman I call my mother, my adopted mother, wanted to keep my name. But my adopted father overruled her, and they named me Jennifer. Maybe people would have called me Mar. Instead they call me Jenn. Maybe people would have asked me where does the name Marasha come from? Maybe I would have responded I don't know, but my birth mother gave me that name.

Only a file, with words filled in by some social worker, can tell me about the first year of my life, and no one can seem to find those documents. Disappointment doesn't describe wanting to know something most everyone else already knows. I wonder about my birth because it feels like level one in the maze of understanding my biology. I should let go of wondering about the context of my birth and who I was born to and whether that woman is alive or dead and ever wonders whether she was right to hand me over to the state of Texas.

I can let go of not becoming a zookeeper or a biomedical research engineer I can let go of not knowing how to spell genius during the fourth grade spelling bee I can let go of not telling my third-grade teacher about what Ma had been doing to me and would keep doing to me because I didn't say anything to that teacher when she asked I can let go of acting so cruelly to my first boyfriend and letting the last boyfriend act so wickedly toward me. I refuse to let go of wanting to know about the nine months the woman who carried me endured or her experience of expelling me into this world. But no matter the byline, the name on my marriage certificate, or the name my students call me, I am still Marasha Depew. Carrying that woman's blood the way she carried me, I represent her, even if we never meet.

[About the author] Jennifer Love coordinates developmental education at the Institute for American Indian Arts. She lives in Santa Fe with her three dogs—Thembi, Diablo, and Hughes—and her husband, Tim Host. She enjoys taking long walks on the concrete through the city.

Second Place

Pilgrimage to Saint John the Divine

By Melanie Faithful

I have a history with cab drivers.

There was the time the raving bigot of a taxi driver pulled out her large knife, the blade reflecting in the headlights at the intersection in Times Square. "It's to take care of the ni**ers," she screamed with her windows down and the crowds within earshot. I huddled in the back seat, hoping that the men she was referring to outside the car could not hear her horrific words among the horns, blasting music, laughter and all the other distractions that make New York City the pulsating place I love. She must have thought my Southern accent bonded us. I threw a $20 bill into the front and jumped out the door, trembling.

Anson Stevens-Bollen

Or there was that time in Chicago, I turned to embrace a friend at the hotel entrance as I climbed from the cab, my purse left gaping open after paying my cab fare. Reaching the front desk to check in I discovered to my horror that I had no wallet. All I had left was a receipt from the cab driver, who when contacted, denied ever being at my hotel. Taxi drivers were not registered with the city so there was no way to follow up, according to the Chicago police.

I have more creepy cab stories which contributed to my calcified attitude when I climbed into the taxi, that unusually warm day in February of 1995. Back-to-back meetings were the order of the day. I was in New York City to visit several book publishers, the lifeblood of the book wholesaler that was my employer. I love New York, and again I realized that I would probably not get to everything I wanted to do in my small window of spare time, which always happens when I am there. Every corner is like a birthday and every door is like a present, waiting to be opened. Instead of frantically hopping and jumping all over town, I learned how to just enjoy whatever came my way. Really good bagels, a thick newspaper, and vendors lining my walk along Central Park South were usually enough.

This cavalier attitude served me well, until a cancelled appointment delivered up an hour and 15 minutes of freedom. There was no question where I wanted to go: straight up town to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, the most notable item at the top of my "things I want to see in New York but never have the time" list. Not that I hadn't attempted to make the visit before. There was the time I set out walking from Columbus Circle thinking it surely couldn't be too far north, but my feet and my free time gave out before reaching my destination. Or the time I tried unsuccessfully to convince my traveling companions that going to a cathedral, famous for its never-will-be-completed architecture and unsuppressed liberal heritage, could be just as interesting as Times Square. But now, finally, the opportunity to see the cathedral had arrived! This free time was a gift which, if ignored, would be like giving the fates the raspberries. I was obliged to seize the moment and flagged down a cab.

I climbed into the open taxi door clutching a scribbled address derived from the phone book in the hotel lobby. "The cathedral at 1047 Amsterdam Avenue," I said with confidence as I slid across the backseat, reaching the spot where I could see both the meter and the driver's registration. Interesting, the habits that women travelers develop as a way of arming themselves against vulnerability. It was important to know my destination, of course, but beyond that I prided myself on my familiarity with the city well enough to recognize if I was being taken for a ride. It was equally important to be cognizant of all mannerisms and physical characteristics of the driver in whom I put my safety and trust for those few minutes in the taxi. We pulled off, melting into the afternoon traffic, flowing up the West Side in our little microcosm of the city: the driver, him, and the passenger, me. I was in my chosen state of guarded quiet, sitting in my backseat haven like a soldier waiting for the blitzkrieg. And as air strikes go, this one would not be subtle.

"What is dis place—dis John de Divine?" the words stabbing back at me over his right shoulder. Like lightening, my brain raced, wondering how to answer Mohammed. I had already memorized his name from the registration. I didn't want to tread across all those dangerous land mines of misunderstanding, conflict and friction, especially while I was feeling very white, very Southern and very protestant.

"It's a big church, a cathedral." I was satisfied with my reply. It was a to-the-point answer without getting into details. I thought that perhaps I was off the conversation hook, since he had been silent since my response. I relaxed a bit and gazed out the window to the Central Park collection of walkers, break-takers and sun-worshippers. My mind finally joined them in their relaxation.

"So, is dis a pilgrimage for you?" Whack! Right between the eyes. I was going to have to have this conversation whether I wanted it or not. And the pause before his question was my clue that for him this was no mindless banter.

"Well, if you are asking, 'Is this someplace important to me, personally,' then I would say yes. It is also a place I have waited a long time to see. And this place does have importance to people in my religion, so now that I think about it, I guess my answer is yes, this is a pilgrimage for me."

Another pause.

"A pilgrimage is a very important ting in my religion," he says back to me, slowly, over his right shoulder. "Dat is why I drive dis cab." At his words I felt an oomph in the pit of my stomach, one of those spiritual kick-boxing jabs right to the midsection that always happens when I am about to be awakened to a soul truth. He continued, "In my religion, a pilgrimage is de most important ting you do in your life. To not make your pilgrimage is a very bad ting. My mother is very sick and will not be able to make her pilgrimage. Dat is why I drive dis cab. I work to raise money to make de pilgrimage for my mother before she dies."

"That is a wonderful thing you are doing for your mother. And I like the idea that you can make the pilgrimage for someone you love. This pilgrimage of mine is not as important or as significant as the one you do in your religion."

Silence returned for a few moments.

"Do you know what else I believe?"

"No," I responded as I felt my defensive wall start to raise. This had gone well so far, but I did not feel safe entering into a religious debate.

"I believe dat der is only one God. Your God and my God. Dey are all de same God."

I exhaled with the realization that I had been holding my breath. "I am so glad you believe that, because I believe the same thing. We have a saying where I come from. It is, 'The devil is in the details.'"

"De what?"

"The devil is in the details. It means that it's only when you get into the details of things that people have trouble or disagreement, but that overall, in the big picture, we can all agree. We have the same God, but our religions have different details—and those details are what separate us instead of bringing us together."

"I like dat. I will tink about dat today. De devil is in de details." And then he laughed.

Silence again as we rode in the sunshine. We pulled up to the curb next to the beautiful cathedral as my pilgrimage neared completion. As I paid the fare he paused in thought and I could tell he had one last question.

"When you go in dis place, will you pray?"

I paused at the beauty of this simple question and all it implied. "Yes," I said. "I will pray."

"Will you pray for me?"

"Of course. It will be my honor to pray for you. And I will pray for your mother too."

"Tank you," he replied softly but hurriedly as the traffic backed up behind him.

"Wait!" I said before he drove off. "Will you pray for me too?"

I heard him answer "sure" as he pulled away.

When I imagine him now I see him smiling at this point, but I'm not so sure I ever really saw his face except for the photo on his registration.

I ran into the large stone coolness that is Saint John the Divine, not yet able to gaze upward into the beauty of the high open spaces. My knees grew rooted to the kneeler, my head was bent in shame and my tears flowed like the proverbial streams of justice. My fears had created walls of arrogance that were pulled down by a man forced by life to cross every type of boundary. His was a faith of asking questions. His was a faith of tearing down walls. His was a faith that was humble enough to ask for the prayers of others. And I prayed in earnest for him, his work, his mother, and for his need to complete his mother's pilgrimage. And I prayed for myself, my blindness and my fears that kept me from living an authentic life. I prayed that I might re-learn a way of moving through the world, and the bravery and wisdom to choose another path, knowing that the symbolism of never being finished, just as the cathedral would never be completed, was just what this pilgrim needed.

Decades have passed since my intimate encounter with Mohammed, but still I see him in my mind's eye, making that long trek across the globe for his mother, and hopefully another for himself. On September 11, 2001, besides praying for friends and family in New York and Washington, I also prayed for him, though my faith and prayers no longer fall into boundaries that fit into traditional religion. Sure, I've had lots of regrets, but it's probably just as well that life doesn't come with a rewind button. If you really want to learn the true things, Mohammed taught me that there is a lot to be found in the pauses in life, on the pilgrim's path.

[About the author] Melanie has had a career in academic and scientific publishing to pay the bills, and mostly writes poetry for herself and the cats. But hey, let's give this prose stuff a try. She lives in Santa Fe with her patient, native New Mexican spouse and enjoys her grown kids, some who live here in Santa Fe and some scattered around the world at different times.

Third Place

Take Our Country Back: A Family Trip to the Deep South and Racial Hatred in Charlottesville, Virginia
By John J Ciofalo

"This rally represents a turning point for the people of this country. We are determined to take our country back. We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That's what we believed in, that's why we voted for Donald Trump because he said we're going to take our country back and that's what we got to do …"

—David Duke, former Louisiana lawmaker and Imperial Wizard of the KKK

Nietzsche wrote that he always trusted thoughts that came while walking; I chose to revise this form of mobility to a road trip this summer to the Deep South with my family.

I am, or shall I say I was, a high school history teacher. Why I became one is a bit of a long story, but I took the advice of a mentor who said, 'If you want to make a difference in the world, working in a soup kitchen is OK, but you really should teach high school—get them when they're young.' After years of teaching at the college level, I made the move in 2012. I first taught at the Santa Fe Waldorf High School and then moved on to Desert Academy here in Santa Fe, New Mexico. My mostly affluent, predominantly white students loved hearing about the civil rights battles of the 1950s and 1960s, but had little or no exposure to this grassroots movement, a wellspring of most reform movements in this country. They wanted more, especially a readable account of the civil rights movement. Further, there were always questions and a desire to learn more about the women of the civil rights movement who stood in the shadows of the male triumvirate—Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Medgar Evers.

This spring I had an "'ah ha" moment: I would write that book. It took me some time to come up with a recipe to bring this history alive, and then I thought on one of my favorite pastimes, the road trip; this one would take me and my son, Augie, home from Beloit College and my 12-year-old daughter, Gemma to the seat of the Old Confederacy.

It made perfect sense. I turn 60 this fall, which coincides with the 60th anniversary of the day when the Little Rock Nine walked up the steps of an all-white high school in Arkansas. Emulating the powerful Civil Rights Monument granite table in Montgomery, we would drive in a circle, beginning at our home base of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and then travel to Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma and back again.

Little did I know when we set out on the trip that the scab of racial hatred would be torn off once again this summer over Confederate statues with chants of, "take it back!" Uncannily—if these protesters want to take the country back—we knew what they meant, for we found ourselves in Southern locales that frighteningly mirror the past with events of the present: We were in Pulaski, Tennessee—the birthplace of the racially violent KKK—on Friday, Aug. 11, the precise evening of the intimidating torchlit parade in Charlottesville; and the next day, we were in Memphis, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot dead at the Lorraine Motel, only to hear the news of the white-wing terrorist attack and death of Charlottesville's Heather Heyer.

For our Friday evening trip to Pulaski, we learned that it was another evening, Christmas Eve of 1865, when six Confederate veterans met there to form the Ku Klux Klan. In 1917, a bronze plaque was nailed to the building that read, "Ku Klux Klan organized in this, the law office of Judge Thomas M Jones, December 24, 1865." KKK supporters in Pulaski wanted the plaque because they felt that the town had been overlooked in DW Griffith's Birth of a Nation, a 1915 film that championed the Klan.

Things stayed that way until 1986. That's when the KKK started returning to Pulaski every January to parade by the plaque as a way to spite the new Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday. As if it was a sacred relic, KKK members would walk up to the plaque and kiss it. This angered a civil rights heroine, Marguerite Massey, who owned the building that held up the plaque. In August 1989, Marguerite unbolted the plaque, flipped it to face the wall, screwed the bolts back in, and then welded them in place. The words commemorating the Klan were hidden. All that can be seen is the plaque's blank back side.

"This," she said, "was better than simply throwing the plaque away." It showed that she and Pulaski had turned their backs on the KKK and the past.

President Trump would not agree with Marguerite's gesture, but Mayor Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans would be the first to applaud her. On the one hand, for example, President Trump and others see a statue of Robert E Lee in Charlottesville as a part of our country's history, and therefore this Confederate statue and others of its kind should stay put. The KKK placard in Pulaski should not have been turned around. But we know that this placard was like a perverse Russian icon, to be kissed and cherished by the KKK. We should not, the president says, "change history."

This brings me to a more sensible view of history as expressed by the calming balm of Mayor Landrieu of New Orleans. "The Confederacy was on the wrong side of history and humanity. It sought to tear apart our nation and subjugate our fellow Americans to slavery. This is the history we should never forget and one that we should never again put on a pedestal to be revered."

Indeed, earlier on our trip, when dusk was settling in on New Orleans, Gemma, Augie, and I were on a trolley. Previously that day, we visited the William Frantz School and the facade that remains to remember and honor the heroics of 6-year-old Ruby Bridges, who was escorted up those school steps in November 1960 by federal agents through a gauntlet of screaming white mothers, known as the "Cheerleaders." The conductor later that afternoon announced the next stop: "Lee Circle!" We looked toward the setting sun that glowed atop the column; the sun, not statue a of Robert E Lee, became the pinnacle of the pedestal.

Mayor Landrieu did not change the name of Lee Circle; he did not demolish the site. He kept the name and the column to confront history, but the column whose pedestal is now an homage to the sun and stars is literally a shining beacon of racial healing. Marguerite Massey performed a similarly remarkable gesture with the KKK placard in Pulaski, Tennessee.

After our haunting visit to Pulaski, we went to Memphis. That morning, before the distressing news out of Virginia, Augie, Gemma, and I headed for the Lorraine Motel—where Martin Luther King, Jr. drew his final breath before being shot on its balcony on April 4, 1968. Our hope was to revisit that sorrowful day, as we did at the home of Myrlie and Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, where a bullet from a white KKK member was put into his heart in their driveway on June 12, 1963.

But as we walked up to the Lorraine Motel, we ran into Jacqueline Smith. For 29 years and 198 days!—through rain and snow, cold and heat, night and day—this unrecognized African-American heroine has staged a one-woman protest against the new owners of the Lorraine Motel, the National Civil Rights Museum and, as she at least infers, its ostensible corporate board. She lived at the Lorraine Motel from the time she was a young girl until 1988, when the police forcibly removed her and her belongings to the street to construct the museum. The incident drew national attention. She has since then been camped out all these years in front of the museum with all of her measly worldly possessions, wishing all visitors to boycott a commercialization of the slain civil rights leader.

Jacqueline Smith believes strongly that this enterprise undermines the ideals of Martin Luther King, Jr. Like a mantra, she quotes Dr. King: "Spend the necessary money, to get rid of slums, to eradicate poverty." As she says to people who pass by, "rather than standing in the museum's shoe prints of the alleged assassin, James Earl Ray, do something good today for society."

After showing us photographs of people who have listened to and supported her, including Cindy Lauper and Kevin Durant, Augie looked at his phone to tell us all the news. "A car driven by 20-year-old James Alex Fields, a misguided neo-Nazi sympathizer from Ohio rams through Charlottesville's counter-protesters, killing Heather D Heyer and injuring countless others."

Jacqueline chimed in: "Assassination, terrorism—my god, what kind of a country is this that feels like a broken record?"

Given the context of this news that arcs precisely from the founding of the KKK and the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. to this summer's torch-lit Neo-Nazi parade and the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, this was a weighty question that all citizens of this democratic nation urgently need to grapple with, especially given that we have a president who continues to stir the pot of racial animosity. Take the country back, really?

[About the author] John J Ciofalo received his BA in history at Colorado University and PhD in art history and comparative literature from the University of Iowa in 1995. He then went on to teach at a variety of universities. Since 2012, he has taught high school history.