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The Courage of Lost Souls
By Stephanie Angelea
Santa Cruz sat helpless on a park bench of the hospital, wiping the tears from her rosy cheeks. She listened to the sirens still ringing loudly from yesterday’s hurricane warning but she didn’t care. Her feelings were numb to emotion now and life would no longer see her tears. Local authorities had ordered their evacuation but her father was too sick and could not be moved. Refusing to leave, she stayed behind.
George Cruz was the best father a girl could wish for and a big-hearted Cajun man. He was the glue that held everyone together at the Hands of Salvation Ministries, spearheading food and clothing drives for the needy and seeking out shelters for the homeless. She admired his strength for all he did, but it was a strength that failed him in the end when he needed it the most.
Like now, even on his deathbed, he would have used all his strength to prevent her from challenging a deadly storm head on, whose strong winds matted her hair and whose violent sprays off the ocean waves soaked her clothes.
In one hand she held the letters of stories she had written to cheer him up in his hospital room — some being silly poems of seagulls and whales. In the other hand she carried a red, copy-paper box containing everything he owned, which wasn’t much. He was a simple man who treasured her stories the most, holding them tight when he drew his last breath barely an hour ago, before the screams of the hospital staff deafened the stairwells to the basement.
She preferred to ignore them, walking out the front door as glass shattered around her. Still, in the end, what crushed him harder than the cancer that killed him were the painful words written on a worn postcard from St. Tammany Parish by a woman who abandoned them long ago.
It read, “I am gone. Do not wait for me. I will not return!”
The card felt rough from the dried tears of her father’s sadness. Thinking back, she remembered her cheating mother leaving them penniless on that dreary, winter’s day in January, taking everything they had, sparing them enough money in savings to buy a cheap coffee maker to caffeinate their sorrows in.
Santa, unlike her father, was happy to see her go. The woman slept with every man around and mostly fathers of teens from her school. Not a day went by she didn’t feel embarrassment hearing the whispers and hushed talk when she passed them in the hallway.
The evening darkened and the street lamps buzzed above her, illuminating the frightening weather in front of her.
“Where do I go from here?” she asked herself, choking on the raindrops.
She contemplated climbing the tallest palm tree and falling to her death, letting the waters drown her as it flooded the beaches, or letting the sharks eat her alive as they attacked, camouflaged by the raging waters.
The notion sounded completely rational to her, but then reality set in reminding her how terrified she was of heights and sharks, and that idea was immediately squashed. The climb alone would kill her, but seeing how the trees now bowed to the storm, she could just hop on the tips of them and let it slingshot her to the deepest part of the ocean to be swallowed up by the tentacles of the jellyfish who would then sting her to death. Either way, It didn’t matter anymore.
Balancing the paper box on her knees, she summoned every ounce of courage she had to open it. It was a paper box from the hospital’s front desk. The charge nurse emptied it to fill their copy machines before giving it to her for her father’s things.
The box still smelled of the Office Depot down the road. A store she visited often for her writing supplies, mentioning to them more than once that she WAS an aspiring author and it was her favorite store.
Each side of the box had written words on it from a permanent marker now smudged from the rain. It read: “Cruz — Personal Items.”
There wasn’t much for her to pack. His pocket watch was old and one her grandfather had given to him when he too passed away of prostate cancer. The box protected his wallet of pictures of her and grandma Marie plus ten dollars in ones, the old pocket watch from grandpa Willie, a new handkerchief, and a clipping from Wednesday’s newspaper with a circle around a building’s name, Penelope’s Printing House, downtown near the countryside.
She guessed she would hold onto them as long as she could. They belonged to her father and he was the only person in the world who cared about her. He was gone now and she was alone in a hurricane that was predicted to kill them all.
The rain beat down harder and she took a moment to collect her thoughts. Maybe she’d eat at the local diner later and see what underwater specials they had. Maybe she would just die of shock and never wake up.
“Whichever kills the quickest!” She sighed, thinking again of her father.
The remainder of his newspaper lay on his nightstand along with his reading glasses.
“Did he have a chance to read this?” she wondered, packing it anyway.
She could not deal with this now since the growling in her stomach became an angry roar and meaner than the noisy hurricane.
The winds grew stronger and it became more difficult for her to hold onto her father’s possessions. The lid blew off and the newspaper began to flutter around in the box.
“Blow away, you bastard!” she screamed to the newspaper at the top of her lungs. “I have no one, BLOW AWAY!”
Something dark and fuzzy scurried away from the light of the street lamps growing intensely brighter by the minute. A power surge, perhaps. Adjusting her eyes to its brightness gleaming off the wet sand, she squinted. “What’s under there?” she asked, threatening to beat it with her father’s pocket watch. “Come out!”
Slowly, it appeared out from under the handkerchief — a beautiful quill of a black feather. It spun from the newspaper, startling her, and proceeded to write words in the air of bright colors: purple, green, and gold.
“I’m gone. Do not wait for me! I will not return!”
Tears welled in her eyes and anger filled her heart.
“Why do you write HER words! I do not want to remember her, you stupid feather!” she shouted.
“I’m not writing her words for you. I’m writing her words for us.” The quill continued writing faster. “Your mom left because of sadness, your father died with sadness, and now you stare death in the face longing for more sadness. If you cannot learn to care for yourself and others, then go ahead and kill yourself and sadness will be your murderer — not life or the hurricane!”
“I have NOTHING! Do you understand? I have no job, no money, nowhere to live, AND I’m about to DIE!” Santa sobbed. “Why am I talking to an ink-tipped feather? WHY?”
The quill fought to pull the newspaper clipping from the box.
It read: “Penelope Printing House. It stands empty and is in need of a live-in janitor. Pay is minimum wage, full benefits, and weekends off. Owner has plans to renovate. If interested, please call Judy at 435-4167 between 7 & 3.”
“What does this have to do with me?” Santa shouted. “The damn storm will destroy the building. There is a HURRICANE coming!”
The quill flipped over the clipping to three words written in her dad’s handwriting. It said: “For you, Santa.”
“Your dad still watches over you even in death.
“Live your life and follow your dream. FIGHT to survive! Do not dishonor his memory by giving up! There will always be pain and sadness.
“You’ve had a lifetime of both, maybe you should give happiness a chance for a while before your bodiless headstone reads: ‘I am gone. Do not wait for me. I will not return.’ Write your own story!” the quill concluded, disappearing into the massive spin of the hurricane walls. The air calmed, and she stood in the center of the eye watching it toy with lifeless bodies and feed on the debris of palm trees.
When the levees broke, the flow of dirty water rose high in the parishes.
Struggling to stay afloat, Santa climbed onto a pink surfboard recently treated with Sex Wax. For the first time in days, it was quiet and only the gurgling of water splashing against the floating houses could be heard. Then the wails of screaming began and the pain of death floated around her.
“Help me, PLEASE!” shouted a severely injured woman.
“I can’t help you, I’m so sorry!” cried Santa.
A bloody dog whined in the distance gagging to breathe.
She passed a cat who meowed to her, hanging on for dear life atop a plastic hubcap.
“Come here, baby,” she gently pleaded to the cat, noticing she was not hurt. “You can hitch a ride with me.”
The farther down the parish they floated, the more dead bodies they saw, and live ones too. The injured especially could not be saved, and all she could do was manage a prayer or two for their soul to find peace.
Santa and the cat floated and waited for help that would never come. They were on their own. The screams of the dying quietened, the horror of gunshots fired above her, and hopelessness overwhelmed her. They would die floating in the streets of her hometown.
“Santa! Santa!” yelled a voice nearby. “I am coming. Wait for me! I will be there soon!”
Santa listened and heard the beautiful sound of a strong voice as she stroked the cat to calm her nerves. They waited for the boat coming to save them. A brave woman rescued them in a small boat, and for the first time in years, she smiled. She smiled seeing the familiar face of a mother she lost long ago.