Cover Stories

SFR Writing Contest Fiction Winners

Short stories on the theme of “Secrets and Lies”

As editor-in-chief and faculty adviser of the Santa Fe Literary Review, Kate McCahill is accustomed to sorting through thousands of pieces of writing to choose a collection for readers. While she usually has a team of five interns and a board of genre editors to help call the shots for the annual publication at Santa Fe Community College, she took on the challenge of judging the fiction entries in the SFR Writing Contest on her own.

McCahill is a tough critic, yet she viewed the entrants with tenderness and intrigue in their responses to the 2022 theme, “Secrets and Lies” and the three required words: yogini, affidavit and corn.

“It really brought a bunch of diverse submissions. It’s not like I was seeing one topic or one specific focus,” she says. “You could tell who wrote a piece with those words in mind and generated something new, which I think is so cool and bold and brave to do, and then you could tell there were other folks who could incorporate those words into what they already had, and people did it in such clever ways…I think [the three words] did steer people’s work in interesting ways. That was one of the things I was considering as I was evaluating each piece: How seamlessly did they embed those terms and incorporate the theme and, did it feel forced, or did it feel so natural that I barely even noticed?”

Watch for the nonfiction winners next week! The SFR Spring Poetry Search entry period opens in February. (Julie Ann Grimm)

First Place

The Lady in the Gray Space

By Sue Bryan

There is an empty space at the edge of awareness—a silent, gray space where we collect impressions that don’t make sense, perceptions of flitting spirits around us, or sure knowledge of extraordinary magic. In the tragedy of maturation, we replace our curiosity about what may or may not be real with a patterned narrative that we call truth: A swearable affidavit we repeat ceaselessly to create the impression that we know how the world works.

I couldn’t even read yet when I trudged along with my sister and her friend Gayle into the undeveloped area beyond our neighbor’s expansive backyard, where we played pick-up baseball games and held neighborhood clam bakes in the summer months.

Today, autumn leaves fluttered around our ankles as we entered the cold shadows of the woods. The older girls were giggly as if we were doing something we shouldn’t. Maybe we were. We walked slowly through the thick litter of leaves and the tangly ferns, some of which were almost as tall as me. I gripped tightly to my sister’s hand. Just last Saturday, I had lost my grip on her in the corn maze and had to sit down and cry before she came back to find me.

In front of us, Gayle stopped suddenly. “What’s that?” she whispered.

We looked and crept forward, stopping just short of a clearing in the trees. I jumped at my sister’s side, anxious to see what Gayle was pointing to.

My sister’s voice was hushed and shaky. “I didn’t know there was a house here.”

“There isn’t!” Gayle shook her head as if to clear it. “At least there hasn’t been for, like, 100 years.”

“I want to see.” I broke away from my sister’s protective hand and ran into the small clearing. It was a house all right. Even a pesky little sister like me could see that. A big house too. White. Clearly old. The porch roof was sagging to one side. The wide steps were rotten through in some places. I wanted to climb up those steps but the girls held me back.

“It’s the widow’s house,” Gayle whispered, shrinking back.

“That’s not a thing,” My sister’s voice rang out and echoed back. She stamped her foot.

“Look!” Gayle pointed to the wide picture window in the recesses of the porch, next to what must be the front door. “Did you see that? The curtain moved!”

Gayle’s hushed and trembly voice was beginning to scare me. I stared at the window. It was framed by white, wispy curtains. Even from here, I could see that the curtains were tattered and hung lopsidedly across the window. In the center of the glass, we could see a huge white pitcher, like an old-timey wash basin pitcher. It looked too big to be real. It looked like it was big enough to hide in. I started forward. The girls screamed and caught up with me at the foot of the porch steps.

“You can’t just go in there!” my sister scolded.

“Why?” I hadn’t been alive long, but I knew that in my neighborhood I could go into anyone’s house if I needed to pee or get a drink of water—a privilege of suburbia, I suppose.

“It’s haunted is why.” Gayle sounded out of breath.

While the older girls argued about the house, I watched as the curtain inside the picture window fluttered. I waved.

“Let’s go!” My sister tugged at my arm. But at that moment there was a movement at the front door of the decrepit manor house. I stared and tugged back.

The door didn’t seem to open, but suddenly there was someone there. On the porch. A woman in a long white dress. Try as I could, I couldn’t see her face clearly. She clutched at the decaying porch railing, heedless of the peeling paint and splintery wood.

The older girls seemed frozen.

The white-dress lady raised a hand to her brow and peered outward toward the woodsy area we had come through. She didn’t seem to see us at all, right here at the foot of her steps.

I shook my hand loose from my sister’s and took a step forward. “Hi.”

But the women acted like I wasn’t even there. This was not a new experience for me, so I did what I always did when I was invisible. I felt into the situation, to know what I could about the world around me. I could hear the traffic on the distant highway. And I sensed the dank earthiness of the woods behind us. I felt a wave of sadness, tinged with what seemed like a drop of hope radiating from the woman on the porch.

Poor lady. The husband who was supposed to paint the porch and repair the steps and the curtains wasn’t there. Everything was falling apart. I felt her resolve to wait, to be faithful.

I tried to send the pretty lady a prayer of love. Tried to tell her not to wait anymore. It’s been 100 years (if Gayle is right). He’s probably not coming. Probably not going to fix the stairs. Probably not going to paint the porch.

For just a second, I swear she stopped gazing into the trees and looked down at me. Right into my eyes!

But then Gayle and my sister unfroze and grabbed at me screaming. They yanked me back through the woods, through ruthless scratchy branches, back into the safety of the manicured lawn. They collapsed on the grass breathing heavily and I sat down next to them, a crossed-legged yogini, serene amid their chaotic fear.

“What was that?” Gayle pounded the ground with her fist.

“She was lonely,” I said.

“Don’t be ridiculous.” My sister’s voice was severe.

“She is waiting,” I tried again.

“Shut up!” She sat up and grabbed my shoulders looking intensely into my eyes. “That was nothing. Nothing happened. You’re making stuff up and you need to stop it right now.” My sister nodded affirmatively in Gayle’s direction. I watched Gayle nod dumbly.

Young as I was, I already knew the rules of the game. There are some things you never talk about. Like when grown-ups are lying. When Jesus visits you at night. The fairies that live near the creek. The hatred and sadness that people feel even when their faces are smiling. And now, the sad lady in the woods. These things live in the gray area where things might or might not be real.

“Let’s go home,” I said and grabbed my big sister’s hand.

Sue Bryan is a local author, community builder and life coach. She loves exploring the mountains and the line between the real and the unreal.

Second Place

Were You Ever There…

By Doug Bootes

Mica looks across the table, the woman facing her intimately familiar and a total stranger at the same time. “I’m going to school at night, pre-law, and studying to be a Kriya yogini. There’s a few daily asanas I do, but it’s predominantly a meditative breathing practice. I meditate four hours a day, sometimes longer.”

The wiry, weathered version of herself responds, “There’s a special place in hell for deep thinkers.”

Mica holds onto a smile and says, “I was hoping for something a little more nurturing. Anyway, I wouldn’t call it thinking, really. In fact, the idea is to put the brain to rest, to suppress thinking through focus on the breath, on the third eye, and on the ohm. To allow the energy of the universe to flow through you freely, unimpeded by thought, guilt, worry, all of those worldly emotions.”

“Oh shit. You’ve been in Santa Fe way too long. All this flow talk makes me have to pee.”


“What? I can’t help it. My bladder is the size of a peanut now. You wait. You got that gene too, I bet.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

“Well, what about when you’re just sitting there marinating for four hours. Don’t you have to go?”

Mica sighs. “No, Mom. It’s med-i-tat-ing, and body functions shut down as you go into the deeper states, just like your thoughts, wiping the slate clean. I’m sure you can relate to that image. I didn’t come here to discuss pee. You know, I’m not even comfortable calling you Mom at this point.”

“Well, what else would you call me.”

“I can think of a few things, Tracianne.”

“You know I don’t like being called that.”

“Precisely. Are we going to talk about it? Because if we’re not, there’s no point in either one of us being here. You can’t keep acting like nothing happened, like you didn’t just evaporate into thin air and abandon me there in Pecos with Blaze.”

“Keep your voice down, people…”

Mica struggles to suppress the emotion in her voice as she softly but sternly says, “You don’t give a measly fuck about what people think. What do you think people thought when you just disappeared for six years? Do you even care? Do you even care what that did to me? Do you have any idea how many nights I wondered if you were dead or alive? If you hated me so much you couldn’t ever come back and just look at me? No phone calls, nothing. And then you show up one day looking like a zombie and I’m supposed to act like nothing happened, to act like I’m happy to see you and goddammit I am happy, friggin’ ecstatic, but I’m mad too, Tracianne—”

Shaking, Tracianne gets up, clutching the faded Dora the Explorer backpack she came in with. “I really do need to go to the restroom. I’ll be right back. I’m sorry.”

“Here comes the server. What do you want?”

“I’ll have what you’re having, I really have to go.”

“Alright, go pee for crying out loud. Hope you like huevos rancheros, Tracianne.”

The server watches her go, then leans down and says, “So, how’s it going? You look just like her, except you have all your teeth.”

“Hey, Leo. Don’t say that. That I look like her, I mean.”

“I just mean bone structure. Hey, you doing okay? I know this must be hard. You want me to stop by after work tonight?”

“Would you? I mean, Guillermo won’t be mad?”

“He’ll be fine. I’ll just give him a wank when I get home.”

“You’re nasty.”

“You know it. Do you know what she’s having? I just got sat with a party of nine.”

“Huevos rancheros. We’ll split an order. You mind?”

“That’s fine, chica Mica.”

“It’s just that I know she won’t offer to pay anything and I’ve only got…”

“Hush. You don’t need to explain.”

“Hey. I really appreciate this. I don’t know if I could have done this without you here. You’re a good friend. I can’t believe she even showed up.”

“I got your back, girl. Now I gotta get my back in motion. How do you want your eggs?”

“Scrambled hard.”


“Blue corn.”

“Alright, cha-cha. I’ll try to get this in before the nine top. Stay strong. No trickier trickster than an addict, even if she is your mom.”

Mica resists the temptation to go into the restroom. I’m not going to check on her. It’s up to her if she wants to have a mature conversation. It’s like the therapists say, she won’t change until she wants to. She looks out the window into the street for distraction, sees her reflection, remembers the weeks and months starving herself because she couldn’t think about anything else. Concern is healthy. Obsession is not.

The people passing by always seem so happy, normal. She wonders, what would that be like—what if Tracianne/Mom came out and sat down, began to answer all the questions that you can’t ask out of fear she’d vanish again—

“So, this yoga thing. You’re, what, like studying with someone?

Mica says, “Yeah, sort of. It’s a home study course, I get weekly lessons emailed.”

“An internet guru? Well, I’m glad you’ve found something that makes you happy. And you’ve got your own apartment?”

“Yep, day I turned eighteen. It’s just a room. I share the bathroom and kitchen with a couple from Colorado. They’re nice. It’s good to be away from Blaze. He’s become even more of a turd since the dispensary opened. Thinks he’s some sort of self-made legend because he was growing weed for forty years before it was legal. His stupid cow girlfriend’s even worse. I’d slit her throat with a dull knife in her sleep if I had to stay there another week.”

“Geez, you got some anger issues, honey.”

“I’m working on it. How about you? Plan on sobering up in this lifetime?”

“I’m clean, two weeks now. Don’t look at me like that. I am, really. I’m going into a year-long intensive treatment program called Clear Skies in Sedona. I’m hoping you’ll be able to come visit, I get a weekend a month of supervised visits.”

“Who’s paying for that?”

“It’s court-ordered.”

“Of course. That’s a long way. Couldn’t you find somewhere closer?”

“I know too many people. It’s too easy, and there’s something else you should know. You’re going to have a baby brother. I’m pregnant. I know it’s a boy, I can just tell, you know.”

“You’re joking, right? That’s not even funny.”

Tracianne shakes her head, takes a deep breath and grasps Mica’s hand. “I really need you to understand. And I’m going to need your support in this. So, okay, here’s how it’s been since I left, and believe me, it’s better that I didn’t get you involved.”

Mica pulls her hand away. “Thanks for that.”

“It was the worst thing that’s ever happened to me, leaving you like that. I’m not making excuses, either. I’m just gonna lay it out there the way it went down and hope that somehow you can understand. That somehow you can forgive me. Believe me, it’s better that I left and didn’t get you involved…”

“You said that. You know Mom, let me say something before you dive into your redemption tale. I want to believe in you, I really do. I want to support you in this, but you need to understand that I need to take care of myself too. Can you even get pregnant at your age? I mean, how is that possibly going to work?”

“Boundaries, right? Had a little therapy myself. I don’t believe in that between a mother and daughter. There’s no boundary for my love for you. I’m so proud of you, how strong and independent you’ve grown up to be.”

“Yes, well, it’s not like you gave me much of a choice.”

Leo sets the platter down in front of Mica. “Here you go, I brought an extra plate. Sorry it took so long, the kitchen’s in the weeds. Is she in the restroom again?”

Mica stares at the steaming plate.

Leo’s voice lowers, “Oh no, she didn’t bail, did she. Are you okay?” They hand her another napkin. “You’re crying, here.”

Mica takes it as she says, “No I’m not. I’m sure she’s gone, but can you just send someone in there to check, to make sure she isn’t…dead or something.”

“Will do. You want a to-go box? Oh my god, you poor thing. I can’t believe this.”

“I can. In fact, if you asked me, I would have sworn out an affidavit that something like this would happen. Besides, you didn’t even ask what kind of chile we wanted.”

“Its always Christmas for you, chica.”

Mica looks up from her plate, tears and snot soaking the napkin in her hand. “You’re still coming by, right?”

“Sure thing, sugar cheeks.”

Doug Bootes teaches creative writing classes at the Institute of American Indian Arts. His writing has been published in Poetry Northwest, Runestone Literary Journal, Tribal College Journal, World Literature Today, Connotations Press, On the Run Contemporary Flash Fiction and others.

Third Place

Nash Equilbrium

By Jennifer Edelson

Finnian’s eyes meet mine defiantly, dusky under the waning red moon. He holds my stare as he says, “There’s a secret alien base under Archuleta Mountain in Dulce, New Mexico. Did you know that, Clara?”

A crisp breeze ruffles his hair, sending dark curls skittering over the left side of his face. “I know many things,” I answer, mesmerized by his mouth and how it tugs up at an arc that mirrors his right eyebrow. I have loved that mouth almost as much as I love being alive.

My best friend Martina says that the sacred shapes of geometry form the foundation of all connections in this world. A sometimes yogini, she teaches things like the ancient art of obtuse angle yoga on Friday mornings at the Chavez Community Center. Truth be told, I sometimes wonder if Martina came from that mountain. Because what kind of being can bend into a scalene triangle, for starters?

The moon moves further into the Earth’s umbra, turning a darker shade of crimson as Finnian continues to stare. “Did you know there’s also a secret alien base right here, under Santa Fe?” I point down at the blacktop. “In the tunnels.”

Finnian’s unobscured pupil narrows to a point, swimming in red. “Why do I think Martina told you that?” He looks up at the eclipse, then to Orion, snorting doubtfully like they’re old buds that share a secret.

To be fair, Martina did once insist I shun corn because she had it on good authority that elote is an evil Mayan imp that lures people into empty fields on full moons and turns them into corn stalks (her words). That “corn = cannibalism” billboard that went up on I-25? Yep. Martina. She’s that kind of trickster.

“An underground base in Santa Fe makes sense,” I insist. Because if Martina can teach a successful Tuesday morning yoga class called “finding your inner isosceles triangle,” I’m not about to feel bad for pushing the limits of anyone’s reality, especially not Finnian’s. “All those missing cats and so-called skunks roaming around?” I pause for effect. “I’m sure cats are tasty. And if I wanted to blend in and just observe my surroundings, skunk would be my go-to. Nobody fucks with skunks, Finnian.”

Finnian hops off the kiddy swing he’s sitting on and walks closer. The moon is a black ball outlined in red now. Kind of a twin of what he likes to tease is my maligned heart. It sometimes smarts, knowing we can’t transcend the affidavit I signed back when it felt like the world could be my oyster.

“Do you want to go down there, Clara?” He throws a graceful arm around my shoulder, and like always, the heft of it reminds me how long I’ve been grounded.

“Should we go down there, Finnian?”

It’s a scary story game of chicken. We do this every month, meet here in the same spot, and try to convince each other we’ve got a line on some mysterious secret. Finnian calls it our tower of lies—but with a smile like he’s proud to construct something so ephemeral and precarious.

“I’m not afraid if you’re not afraid,” he says cuttingly.

“I’m not.” I turn to face him.


I’ve never called his bluff before. And he’s never called mine. I think we’ve both been biding our time. Or maybe I’ve just been hoarding mine. Time seemed irrelevant back when we met at the crossroads. But lately, it’s a ghost I know will introduce itself the minute I let myself believe he’ll release me from our contract.

So I nod. And for a moment, he looks earnest. I see the thing he once was, lingering behind the thing he’s become. Year after year of unfulfilled yearning has worn him down. For Finnian especially, these last few have been an albatross around his neck that’s all but strangled the spark that drew me to him.

“But all the other moons,” he says curiously. “Why now?”

“This one’s red. Like blood.” I stare at my bare arms, at the veins I once coveted and how they branch at my wrist, like a fork in the road or what Martina likens to the tip of a triangle. She adores triangles. Because whichever side one chooses, both routes meet the same baseline, proving all roads ultimately lead to the same end. No matter how humans try to fight it.

Finnian pulls me in for a hug, his tall, sturdy frame dwarfing my comparatively minuscule one. My ear meets his chest, settling in the cleft that separates his pectorals from his stomach. The moon is still completely black. Cloaked by the Earth’s shadow. I close my eyes, listening for life. Pretending the sound my heart makes as it rattles with my breath is his heart beating ardently. And I tell myself it’s okay to let go of him.

“You remember the rules?” he asks, his lips pressed against my crown.

“Yep. Full moon. We make up stories. Alter the fabric of reality. Until the stakes are too high and one of us acquiesces. If it’s me, I reap whatever we’ve sown. No matter how ridiculous or scary. No turning back. No changing my mind.”

I wanted to be human. Finnian wanted a soul. It seemed like a perfect exchange at the time. But Finnian never expected to fall in love with me. And I never expected to fall so in love with living. For a while, we both pretended the heart he gave me didn’t long ago outlive the life he promised. But recently, it’s become clear that Finnian will never give in. That this new story-telling pastime is just a means to stave off the inevitable.

“Will you miss me?” he asks.

I will. Terribly. I know what it took for him to keep rewriting the rules he laid out in that affidavit. And I adore him for it. But it’s hard to admit it in light of my decision. So I put my game face on.

“Will you miss me, Finnian?”

He sighs. “You know I will.”

“Did you think it’d go on this long when I first came to you?”

He shakes his head. “No.”

We walk arm-in-arm to the nearest utility hole, and I wait for him to lift the heavy, rusted disk, leaving it on the road beside what feels like a gaping chasm. He climbs down first, and I imagine him glancing up at me, wondering if I’ll be the one to finally elevate his status as I shimmy down after him.

“Even now, it’s still hard to believe that you, Finnian are a crossroad demon.” I laugh when my feet touch ground. “Think they’ll make you king of Hell for roping my ass in?”

“If they do, I’ll come for you,” he promises. “My fallen angel.”

We walk through a dark tunnel into a sterile room crawling with silver-suited, comically rendered skunk-aliens, a now permanent corporality that just minutes ago was a figment of my imagination.

“You’ve always been the clever one,” he chuckles.

Behind him, a shiny metallic door closes with a hydraulic whoosh, sealing us in. And for a moment, I wish he knew how right he was.

Finnian begins to chant, and the aliens join in, their eyes glowing as he reaches a crescendo.

A ragged hole opens in the ground, revealing blinding flames that burn like the sun, singeing the edges of the circular cavity.

Finnian steps closer to me. But then Martina materializes, furiously fluttering her fingers, weaving invisible strings into shapes that finally form a tangible rectangle. Like an empty, upright, enormous see-through coffin.

Finnian’s eyes bulge. And I register the moment he realizes I played him.

“They’ll keep you down here.” I nod at the creatures I’ve created. “For as long as it takes for me to get being human out of my system. When I decide I’m done,” I match his grimace with my own, “they’ll let you go. And then you can cash me in.”

Martina steps back, away from the coffin’s pull. “Never trust a woman with a trickster for a best friend,” she says gleefully. “Even when she tells you she loves you. Especially when she tells you she loves you.”

“And I do love you,” I tell him. “I always will. I just love living on Earth more.”

“How long . . .” Finnian trails off.

“Just after I got you to modify the terms of our contract. Martina figured it out. When you agreed to it and changed the rules, you inadvertently created a loophole.”

Finnian closes his eyes. “Clara,” he says quietly.

He swoops in on me in a flash, pushing me into the box before the words “I’m sorry” can leave my mouth.

“Never trust a trickster with a woman for a best friend,” he counters sadly. “Tricksters have no loyalty to mortals. You should know that.” With the flick of a wrist, he moves the box closer to the precipice, then steps back, aligned with Martina. “Every angel I’ve ever bargained with tried to get out of it in the end. Turns out living is more fun than sitting on the sideline. I love you too, Clara. Truly. But I always knew how this would go down.”

“What did he promise you?” I warble, almost too impressed with him to be angry.

“Three pots of gold and a pony.” Martina grins.

Finnian gives her a look. “I sold all my souls to her a millennia ago, Clara. Servitude in exchange for an up-top position. I’m sorry.”

He turns away from Martina to gaze at me. The coffin teeters at the edge. I brace myself as I meet his eyes, and Finnian winks knowingly.

Jennifer Edelson is a writer, artist, pizza lover and Bollywood fan. She loves hiking, exploring mysterious places, and meeting new people—if you’re human (or otherwise), odds are she’ll probably love you. Find more of her award-winning work online and at bookstores and libraries around Santa Fe

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