1st place, O’Connor High School
2018 Fiction Contest Winner (9th/10th Grade Division)
As a preface, I must say that homework was always a burden; this was just the first time I was almost arrested for doing it.
Everything was fine before Mrs. Windstrom, my English teacher, assigned a writing project titled “What It Means to Be Part Of San Antonio”. As an Indian who had only been in San Antonio a year, it was a topic that flew over my head. We had to interview someone who represented the city and write about it; unfortunately, my diffidence meant my social circles were miniscule, consisting of people hardly exuding San Antonio’s “spirit”. Coupled with the fact that I had no idea how to define being part of San Antonio, the assignment was going to decimate my English grade. As I sat in that desk, watching other kids churn out ideas, I began to despair. That’s when Cass sauntered over.
Cass was one of those special cases in a constant state of delusion. I used to view him as a teenage Mr. Bean, a kid with cognitive problems but momentary flashes of brilliance; after some time, I realized through experience his ideas were anything but brilliant (to be fair, it seemed pretty cool at the time to zipline on electrical lines; first-degree burns and my picture in the neighborhood’s HOA “Problems With Our Youth” article said otherwise). However, as my sole school friend, Cass was able to make me listen to his harebrained ideas.
“Baljeet, have I got a miracle for you,” declared Cass, beaming with a gleam I had come to recognize as a sign of imminent trouble.
“Listen man, I don’t know what you’re planning,” I started, determined to not become ensnared in his plan, “but I’m already freaking out over this project. I don’t need more stress.”
“Ah, but that’s what I’m here for!” Cass triumphantly spread his arms. “You can ace that project while meeting Jim Bowie’s ghost!”
It was at that point he had my attention. Though I had lived in San Antonio for a year, I still knew about Jim Bowie and his impressive masculinity. The only confusing detail was meeting his ghost. “How are you going to resurrect him? Plus, what makes you think we could do our project on him?”
“First off, why wouldn’t do our projects on Jim Bowie? He’s as Texan as they come, with the hunting and fighting he did! Also, we don’t have to summon him; this one conspiracy site said he rises at the Alamo at midnight on the anniversary of his death, the day before the project’s due!”
It was there he lost me. First, I doubted Mrs. Windstrom would give me credit for Bowie being part of San Antonio because of hunting. Secondly, I wasn’t about to start my project the day before it was due—I was bound to fail. Finally, as the strongest reason, there was no way I would believe Cass’ conspiracies. Cass still believed that Elvis was alive and disguised as our school janitor; I wasn’t about to start believing him now.
“Sorry Cass, but I think I’ll just try my luck with a real person.”
“Suit yourself, Baljeet.”
He shrugged and headed back to his desk, no doubt coming up with ideas on how to break into the Alamo. While I still had the project tormenting me, I remember being grateful I wasn’t entangled in one of Cass’ crazy plans. That didn’t last very long.
With my penchant for procrastination and limited social interaction, I never found someone to interview. Even in my panic mode throughout the final week, I still had no plan for starting the project. It was then, in a state of hopelessness as I tried to comfort myself with steaming tamales, that my eyes alighted on the Alamo replica I bought when I first moved here. I don’t know why I considered it; maybe the pressure of failure on a major grade had destroyed my common sense. However, in that moment I decided to follow Cass to see Jim Bowie’s ghost.
After sneaking out and catching the bus, I made it to the Alamo at 11:50. In the overpowering darkness, crawling over the towering iron gates, I stumbled in search of entry; after finding an unlocked side door, I entered the Alamo to find a smug Cass.
“I knew you would come through.” He grinned, displaying a smile more radiant than the pale beam of his flashlight as it searched the plastered ceiling.
Unwilling to show my belief, I stated, “I just don’t have anyone to interview. He’d better show up.”
“He will, my good friend. Just wait five more minutes and we’ll have an interview that’ll blow Mrs Windstrom’s socks off!”
That’s how I ended kneeling against a chilling table leg and waiting for a ghost to show up. I glanced over at Cass, who giddily held up a finger. Another minute and I would either be euphoric or cursing my life. I realized I had no idea what I was going to do if I met Bowie. What do you say to someone who’s been dead for centuries?
The shout echoed through the building like a shot and I jerked my head, slamming it on the table. Hands grabbed my shoulder, and I screamed, “Please don’t hurt me, Jim!”
“What the heck?”
That’s the last thing I heard before I lost consciousness.
I woke up in a compact office, my head still throbbing from my encounter with the table. Looking around, I noted Cass seated and talking with a security guard at his desk. The guard looked up with a grin.
“Hey, your intruder friend woke up.”
Cass jumped up, looking relieved.
I smiled with a dazed look, still confused. “Where are we?”
The security guard stood from his desk, stating, “I found you two trespassing and lugged you here. Your friend said y’all were here for a school project about someone who represented San Antonio, but he never explained why.”
“Oh, about that.” I grinned sheepishly. “We were trying to interview Jim Bowie.” I noticed his name tag, naming him Ben.
“Are you guys on something?” Ben questioned, his eyes now narrowed in suspicion.
“No way, sir!” answered Cass. “I read somewhere he would appear yesterday at midnight. We thought he would be awesome to interview for our English project.”
“Well,” started Ben, his face now displaying condescending amusement, “y’all chose a terrible guy to interview, considering he’s dead. But,” he continued, “I do feel bad for y’all. I wish I could help you guys with your project, but my life story is pretty boring.”
“Do tell!” remarked Cass, fascinated by the guy who ruined my chance of getting a 100 on that project. “Maybe it’ll be cool!”
“Ha!” chuckled Ben. “I’m nothing special. I’m just a teenager trying to provide for my family. Ever since we moved here, my parents haven’t been able to find work. Working the graveyard shift here is difficult, but it pays the bills, and being here makes up for the struggle. I mean, San Antonio’s a pretty cool place. The culture here flourishes in a way I’ve never experienced; it’s so vibrant here, and the food is just amazing.”
Yeah, yeah, I thought, still irritated by my failure.
Eventually, my parents came to get me. Irritated at being woken up so late, they berated me for a bit and then thanked Ben for not pressing charges. On the way home, as I tried to drown out my parent’s disappointment, I started to despair. There was no one I could interview anymore who manifested San Antonio’s spirit, no one who loved the city… or could I?
As I pondered, it hit me: Ben had that San Antonio spirit. He wasn’t born here, but neither were those who cultivated San Antonio as settlers. Ben came here and suffered struggles, but he still loved the city. When I probed deeper, I realized Ben was like me: someone who entered as a stranger, but was adopted by the city. We changed and benefited from San Antonio; I myself loved the culture Ben had called vibrant. The spirited festivals, energizing music, delicious tamales; I realized the city’s spirit had diffused into Ben like it did in to me.
As soon as I got home, I raced to my computer and started typing. I transcribed Ben’s story, of his family’s struggles and Ben’s undertaking of the challenge, a true citizen of San Antonio. I wrote about his immersion into a beauteous culture, one that he cherished. Though I wrote until 6:00, drowsy with exhaustion, I smiled as I dotted the last period. The sun rose through my window, characterizing the warmth I felt inside. My midnight excursion might not have worked out as expected, but I still ended up with an eloquent paper and renewed love for the city. To think Cass was right after all; that trip to the Alamo was the miracle I needed.