Photo courtesy of Christopher Carmona

“Strange Leaves” by Christopher Carmona, a Texas Observer Short Story Contest Finalist


Above: Christopher Carmona

When Elizabeth McCracken signed on to judge the 2014 Texas Observer short story contest, she told us she was looking for fiction that offers what William Boyd labeled a complexity of afterthought: “When I finish a short story,” McCracken said, “I want to feel as though my brain has been struck like a gong.”

Today we present the third of four brain-ringing contest finalists, Christopher Carmona’s “Strange Leaves” which explores a border-crossing that could have been culled from yesterday’s headlines.

Look for our final finalist to appear in this space later this week, leading to the publication of our winning story in the Observer’s annual October Books Issue.

Read finalist #1, “Possibilities,” by Yliana Gonzalez, here.
Read finalist #2, “Tongues,” by Jill Birdsall, here.


Strange Leaves
by Christopher Carmona



Steps off of bus. Downtown McAllen. After surrendering to Border Patrol. Given ticket to see judge in three to six months. Options are simple: take bus ride to detention center deep in U.S. territory or report to refugee center located two blocks south of bus station. Shi barely understands since only knows few words English and not much more Spanish. Mostly just gesturing and points on Border Patrol paper map. Shi points at church. Symbol she knows well. Cruz blanco … white cross … salvation she hopes. Shi walks down city block filled with tiendas, parking garages, and loud blasting norteño music. Streets are different yet same somehow. Many brown faces. A few white ones but not too many. Shi was expecting English but this place is more Spanish. More Mexican. Maybe I’m not in America yet, she thinks. But keeps walking to church. Shi goes to first building that looks like church. It is white with big wooden cross on steeple. Has to be it, she thinks. Tries door. It is locked. Hears footsteps. Older woman with glasses answers door. Opens it just a bit, enough for half her face.

“Can I help you?” woman says.

“No habla ingles. Habla espanol?” Shi asks.

“Si, mija. ¿Que quieres?”

“Estoy buscando Say-cri-ed Heart.”

“¿Usted es inmigrante, mija?”

Shi nods head while woman explains where to go. Strange, she thinks, woman never opened door all the way. Just enough for her to talk. Then shut it hard and fast.

Walks past two buildings until she rounds corner and sees six big tents with giant air conditioners making plastic walls shake. Red Cross truck sits just past gate. TV news vans with names like Telemundo, Galavision and Univision are at door where woman with blue vest tells her to go in. Woman in blue vest never gets off phone. Everyone speaking Spanish here. Shi walks into building where women with blue vests are everywhere. Clothes in piles. Tables with food. Tables with toothpaste, brushes and deodorants. No one says anything to her at first but then young girl with hair in bun walks up and says, “Hola. ¿Puedo ayudarle?”

Shi explains her story to girl. Long walks in desert. Riding on top of trains. Same shoes. Same clothes. Same everything for days. Girl with hair in bun tells her many things, some she doesn’t understand. When she attempts to tell girl with bun in hair that she doesn’t speak Spanish well, girl cuts her off. Girl with hair in bun shows her to room with small shower and plastic curtain. Shi smiles for first time in weeks. Girl in bun tells her that she will have new clothes when she is done. Shi smiles again. Shi takes shower and sees new clothes on chair waiting for her. Shi puts on new clothes. Feels like new person. No longer dirty. No longer Shi. Girl in bun comes around corner and asks, “Why no bra and panties?”

Look comes over her face that takes her back to the Shi she was before shower. Shi looks at girl with hair in bun and tells her that coyotes made her hang them from tree after. Girl in bun looks horrified. Becomes speechless. Shi looks at girl and steps closer and tells her that it is OK. Shi smiles again because she took pill before. No baby.





Haldon Cruces [McAllen, TX] to Ronnie Garza [Albuquerque, NM]

I heard a strange sound when I was on the road {stop} It was night and I was somewhere around King Ranch {stop} I was definitely south of Sarita checkpoint {stop} Had pulled over to take a piss and thought I heard a woman scream {stop} Didn’t know exactly what it was {stop} At first I thought it was a coyote or maybe a goat but deep down I knew it was something horrible {stop} I contemplated whether I should check it out {stop} My conscience told me that I had to check, so I did {stop} I zipped up and turned on the flashlight app {stop} At first I thought I saw the shadow of three people run across the darkened brush {stop} Maybe it was the ghosts of immigrants that never quite made it {stop} But I knew better {stop} Walked up to the barbed wire fence {stop} I knew it was ranch land and private property but the sounds of a woman crying forced me to trespass {stop} What I saw, bro, was worse than anything I could have imagined {stop} First I saw a tree with strange leaves {stop} The woman was lying on the ground wearing only a shirt {stop} No pants, no panties, just a pair of sandals and a white shirt with a pink ribbon on it {stop} The shirt read, Help End Breast Cancer {stop} Don’t know why that is important, but it is {stop} She looked at me and told me in Spanish {stop} “Leave me before they come back and kill you” {stop} I told her in my best broken Spanish that I had a car and I could take her where she needed to go {stop} She looked at me, not ready to trust me {stop} She hung her bra and panties from a tree and said she couldn’t go with me because the coyotes would find her and kill her {stop} I explained that this is America and the Border Patrol are only a few miles up the road {stop} “We can make it,” I told her {stop} She agreed and she followed me back to my car {stop} I turned to look one last time {stop} Too many bras, too many panties, too many strange leaves {stop} My heart was pounding waiting for the coyotes to jump out and kill us {stop} But that never happened, she got in my car {stop} I told her my name and asked hers {stop} She told me her name was Shi, I didn’t argue {stop} We sped down the road to the checkpoint and I pulled over {stop} Something I have never done and flagged down the first BP I could find {stop} I told him my story and at first he didn’t believe me {stop} But then when she corroborated the story they took her inside the station {stop} I was there three hours before they let me go {stop} I asked what was going to happen to her {stop} BP guy told me that she was going to be processed and probably let go {stop} I couldn’t believe my ears {stop} I thought for sure they would deport her {stop} But BP guy told me no because she was the victim of a crime {stop} She gets a special visa and gets to see a judge {stop} Crazy right? I didn’t know {stop} I got to speak to her one last time and then I gave her my card {stop} Told her I lived in McAllen and if she needed anything {stop} Don’t know if I will ever see her again but at least I did my good deed for the day {stop} Catch you later bro, write back as soon as you get this {stop}




Shi doesn’t know what to do. Road is bumpy. Back of van is packed so tight, legs are starting to cramp from not being able to move. Shi closes her eyes and hopes ride is almost over. How many in here, she asks herself. Too many, she answers. Maybe 10, maybe more. Shi is only young girl by herself in this van. Others are mother’s and grandmother’s ages. Shi was sent alone. Mother didn’t want her back home. Shi was 14 about to be 15. Men on streets back in Guatemala starting to notice growing breasts on chest. Ass being shaped by growing hips. Thinning face and fuller lips. Mother tells her she is becoming a woman now. Shi thought she was woman when turned 13 she bled for first time. Men didn’t look at her then. Now when body aging faster than mind. Now Shi is woman.

Shi looks around darkened van. No real seats. No windows. Just smell of people sardined. At first, it bothered her. Now, she doesn’t even smell anymore. Other groups almost all made up of kids her age. This group is mostly grandfathers, mothers without children, and young men with fear in eyes and hope in heart. One woman asks if she is scared. Shi thinks it is strange question. “Aren’t we all?” she replies. Woman whose name is Benita Gomez-Santander touches her shoulder and smiles. Smile is most distraught she has ever seen. “No,” she says, “Are you scared of these men and what they are going to do to you?” Shi has not really thought of it. She knew what the unspoken penalty was going to be, so she puts thought out of mind. Shi asks Benita, “Are you scared?”

Benita looks at her and smiles again. This time the way a mother looks at daughter knowing that something terrible is coming and she can’t stop or protect her. “Mijita,” Benita says, “this isn’t my first ride.”

Shi just looks down and Benita just holds her until van stops and sound of car doors opening and closing is heard. Benita then puts something in her hand and says, “Take this.”

Shi is confused and doesn’t react, so Benita looks her dead in eye and says, “Take it, por favor, now!”

Shi only has swallow left of water and so she does as Benita asks. She swallows pill. Tastes bitter. Benita hugs one last time and says, “No baby. Not for you.”

She feels hot tear trickle down Benita’s cheek and onto her forehead.




Ronnie Garza: Yeah?

Haldon Cruces: Dude, I need your help.

Ronnie: What’s going on, man?

Haldon: You remember that telegram I sent you about the girl I rescued?

Ronnie: Yeah, that was weird.

Haldon: Well, she’s here.

Ronnie: Wait, what do you mean she’s there?

Haldon: She’s here at my house.

Ronnie: How’d she find you?

Haldon: I gave her my card.

Ronnie: Why’d you do that?

Haldon: I don’t know. I just did.

Ronnie: Well now she’s your problem.

Haldon: Thanks, I know that.

Ronnie: How old is she?

Haldon: I don’t know, 15 maybe. Why?

Ronnie: Because you’re a 35-year-old man. Recently divorced. With an underage immigrant girl in your apartment.

Haldon: Dude, I’m not a pedophile. She’s a kid.

Ronnie: I know that. But the rest of the world ain’t gonna see it that way.

Haldon: I know this is going to sound weird, but I somehow think I need this in my life right now, but this is a big decision.

Ronnie: I don’t know what you should do. Is there a social worker you can call?

Haldon: The social worker dropped her off here.

Ronnie: The social worker drove her to your house? Why would they do that?

Haldon: Because all she had on her was my business card.

Ronnie: Why would you put your home address on your business card anyway? You’re a writer. There are a lot of Misery creeps out there.

Haldon: Ronnie, focus.

Ronnie: All right already. Tell the social worker you can’t take her in.

Haldon: I did that already. Vanessa told me she had nowhere else to go. She has no family here.

Ronnie: OK, who’s Vanessa?

Haldon: The social worker.

Ronnie: Oh, OK. Ummm, I don’t know, honey. You are in uncharted territory here. What are the girl’s options?

Haldon: Going to a detention center somewhere deep in the Midwest or—

Ronnie: Or what?

Haldon: Staying here.

Ronnie: You want to take care of this girl, don’t you?

Haldon: I don’t know.

Ronnie: I hear it in your voice. She is not your problem. You did more than anyone can expect. You rescued that girl.

Haldon: But I feel responsible for her.

Ronnie: Oh Hal. You and your conscience. They always get you in trouble.

Haldon: What do I do?

Ronnie: You already took her in, didn’t you?

Haldon: [pause] Yes I did.

Ronnie: Then why are you calling?

Haldon: You know why.

Ronnie: I’m your friend, not your mother or your wife. You don’t need my permission.

Haldon: Just your support.

Ronnie: You always have that.

Haldon: What now?

Ronnie: I don’t know, honey. You are on your own here. Keep me posted. Ciao.

Haldon: Yeah, later.

Ronnie: Hit me up on Facebook. Give me progress report pics.

Haldon: Yeah, I will.




Shi hates Mama because she took all their money. Everything. Took it and gave it to man with bushy beard. Breath like cerveza and eyes that always undress her. Mama says Guatemala is no place for indias bonitas. No place for young girls like Shi. Not anymore. Shi asks what about her, but Mama says, Shi is more important. Go to U.S., Mama says. Go to U.S. and have better life. Coyote tells Mama that all Shi has to do is get across Mexican border, turn self in to U.S. Migra and Shi would be free to be American. He also wants $5,000 American and a night with Mama. He wanted night with Shi, but Mama won’t have it. Threatens to cut off huevos with butcher knife if he tries. Don’t know how Mama will protect when Shi is on road with him. Don’t know if Mama lets that thought invade. Don’t think she wants it to. She cries all night before truck showed up, 4 a.m. Twenty others in back of old truck. Shi doesn’t want to leave Mama. Mama is all Shi has left. Papa was killed by gang coming home from mines one night. At least that is what Mama thinks. One night Papa just never came home. That was two weeks ago. Mama struggled to pay for both of them with waitressing and making pan dulce, but not enough. Never enough. Don’t know how Mama gets money to pay coyote. When asked, Mama refuses to tell. Has something to do with man who owns restaurant where Mama works. Shi wants to cry when she gets on truck. Mama sees it on her face. But doesn’t cry. Mama is always strong. But just before truck pulls away Shi sees single tear fall from corner of Mama’s eye glistening in moonlight.