Authors: Kristen Ethridge
“Maybe it’s just your subconscious talking to you, Gloria.” Monica screwed the orange lid back on her drink bottle. “You know, like when I got my new car last year. I thought I was getting something unique. Next thing I know, I see a green Volkswagen convertible at every stoplight. I still don’t know if there was some kind of Beetle convention on the island, or if I just became more aware of them.”
Gloria picked through the bag of trail mix, looking for raisins. “I’ve had that happen to me before, too. But this is just getting weird. It’s like you know how they say ‘be careful what you ask for’—well, I guess I got it.”
A chuckle came from Pastor Ruiz. “Oh, I think we all prayed for strength when those winds were howling.”
Gloria knew he was probably right. Everyone probably telegraphed a prayer to God to help them make it through the night. Even nonbelievers did that in times of extreme stress, so it wouldn’t be too unusual. But she’d become a cynic, a lapsed believer, and it had been a long time since she’d really talked to God about anything.
“It’s just that...”
“It’s been a long time since you’ve prayed for anything?” The middle-aged man’s eyes conveyed a tenderness and understanding that made Gloria feel anything but strong. Her knees softened a bit and she adjusted her stance.
“How did you know?”
He clapped a hand on her shoulder and patted it twice. “I’m your pastor. I’ve known you a long time. In the good times and the bad. And I know you’ve just been going through the motions since Felipe and the baby died. Your body is here every week, but your heart isn’t. God knows it, too.”
Of course He knew. Gloria might feel disconnected, but she still remembered all those childhood Sunday school lessons. God knew everything. It made her stomach turn with shame and dry saltines.
She’d tried to hide in plain sight when really, she should have known better.
Instead of moving away, Pastor Ruiz took one step closer.
“But, Gloria, it’s okay. Even the Prodigal Son ran away. What was important was that the son came back.” The pastor patted Gloria gently again. “It’s important that the daughter comes back, too.”
Gloria found herself at an unusual loss for words.
The silent pause didn’t seem to bother the pastor. Instead, he used it to make a graceful exit and leave Gloria alone with some heavy thoughts.
“I see my aunt over there. I’m hoping she has an update from city hall. When you need a shoulder to cry on or someone to talk to, I’ll be here. I think we’ve got a pretty long road ahead. But I meant what I said. We’re stronger together. A cord of three strands is not easily broken, remember?”
She nodded as the pastor walked back across the lawn. He’d said those same words at her wedding.
But Felipe was gone. And Gloria had been so sure God was, too.
If these feelings and words
nudges from Him, what exactly was He trying to tell her? Gloria felt as confused as she had the first time she’d stepped back into her home alone two years ago.
If a cord of three strands was stronger than a cord of two strands, Gloria wondered what that meant a strand of one was.
* * *
Leave it to La Iglesia de la Luz del Mundo. The members could turn anything—even a community posthurricane check-in—into a social event. Rigo had been helping with relocating some supplies from a staging point downtown when he saw Councilwoman Angela Ruiz, the pastor’s aunt, and gave her a ride to the church from city hall. She’d been hunkered down with city leadership on an emergency strategy–planning session and had immediately been swarmed by the gathered cluster of her constituents, all of them desperate for any information.
With cell phone towers destroyed and the power grid still offline, the citizens left on Port Provident were totally cut off from the rest of the world.
Rigo saw Gloria, standing alone, holding an empty drink bottle. She looked distant, as if she was there, but not really
. It worried him a little bit. He was used to the Gloria who would always step in and take charge—like she’d done during the hurricane for Tanna and the baby.
“Glo?” Rigo walked toward the corner of the building she stood near. “You need anything?”
She rolled the bottle back and forth between her fingertips. He recognized it as nervousness. She’d always played with her hands when she was lost in thought or agitated about something.
“Um, no. Not really.”
Rigo gently plucked the bottle out of her hands. “Something’s on your mind.”
“Maybe.” She smiled a half smile. “What do you think about strength, Rigo?”
He didn’t know where she was going with this. “I think Island Workout Club is pretty destroyed. I drove past it earlier.”
The half smile grew into a Cheshire grin. “I wasn’t talking about going to the gym. Not that kind of strength. Besides, if I need to exercise, I have a feeling there are plenty of two-by-fours for me to lift around here.”
Gloria ran one hand through her hair and twisted a lock around her finger. Rigo recognized that gesture, too. He knew she’d changed over the years—they both had—but under it all, the same Gloria was still there. She’d put up defenses, to be sure, but at this moment, it was as though he was looking through a crack in her mortar and saw the teenager she’d once been, innocently fingering her hair as she gathered her thoughts.
“So what do you mean?”
“It just feels like I’m hearing it everywhere these days. Trouble is, I don’t feel like I measure up.”
Rigo cocked his head. “How could you not measure up?”
She looked down at her feet and dug the toe of her tennis shoe in the squishy mud. “There’s so much to do now. I tried to rebuild my life once before and I don’t think I was very successful at it. Look at them.” Gloria pointed at a group of church members, standing in a circle with bowed heads, holding hands. “They know exactly what to do. And they believe God will get them through all this mess. I...I don’t think I do anymore. I’m scared of having to rebuild again.”
Rigo placed two fingers under her chin and raised it. He wanted to see her face. He knew he had been behind the blows that had broken her spirit. “I’m sorry, Gloria. It’s my fault.”
“You’re responsible for a lot of things, Rodrigo Vasquez, but this is between me and God.”
He’d been in a number of scrapes over the years. Stupid bar fights in Mexico. Tangles with young punks as a cop. And more than one beat down by an aggressive jellyfish while lifeguarding over the years. But nothing stung like Gloria’s words.
“If I’d never left for Mexico, I’d never have broken your heart the first time. And if I hadn’t called Felipe for backup that night, well, I guess it wouldn’t have saved Mateo, but at least Felipe would have been there for you. He died because I called him for help. If I hadn’t called Felipe, your heart wouldn’t have broken again.”
He dropped the plastic bottle on the soggy ground and took Gloria’s hand. It trembled like a baby bird, and Rigo knew he’d caused that, too. He’d probably said too much. But he might never get the chance again. “I don’t have any right to ask this, because I know I’ll probably never be able to forgive myself for that. But I hope that one day you can forgive me.”
Gloria exhaled deeply. She closed her eyes slowly, as though a fighter’s punch had just connected with her head. She exhaled again.
Time seemed to stand still as Rigo waited for whatever she was going to say next. If she cut him out of her life again, he would just have to be okay with it. He’d had the opportunity to do what he said—apologize to her—he couldn’t ask for anything more.
But still, the silence didn’t fall softly. It landed stark and unmoving around them.
Gloria took in one more breath, then flicked her eyes open. They were clear and unblinking.
“Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself. It lets you move on without living in the past. That’s what your aunt says.”
She laid her other hand gently on top of Rigo’s.
“My home is nothing but a leaky roof and wet walls. My keepsakes are stained with mud and they smell of sewage. I don’t have much left. So I’m going to have to rebuild, whether I like it or not. I don’t want to live in the past anymore, Rigo.”
Gloria squeezed his hand and looked him squarely in the eye. Rigo felt his shoulders tense and his teeth grind together.
“If I’m going to move forward, I don’t think I have any other choice. I have to forgive you.”
* * *
To replace the flooded truck he’d had to leave in the streets the night of the hurricane, Rigo had been given another one, which had safely ridden out the hurricane in one of the upper floors of Provident Medical Center’s parking garage. As he patrolled the beaches, making sure everyone continued to stay out of the water, Rigo couldn’t stop thinking about Gloria’s declaration. He thought about the soft touch of her hand and how it still fit in his like it had during summer strolls on the beach. He liked the feel of her palm brushing against his. He liked the memory.
But he felt burdened.
Lord, make me worthy of her forgiveness.
He’d been there and seen for himself the anguish when she realized her carefully constructed memories had been sloshed with mud and tide. He knew she’d had the bandage ripped off her heart today and the pain was real. He knew what it had to have taken for her to offer forgiveness on today of all days.
But maybe, he thought, maybe this was the only day she could have done it. Maybe she needed to lose all the things that bound her to the past in order to walk freely into the future.
Lord, make me worthy of her forgiveness.
The words seared into his mind as he headed back for the rest of his twelve-hour shift, driving slowly around the debris still jumbled in the middle of almost every street.
He knew whatever future Gloria had wouldn’t be with him—she may have uttered words of forgiveness, but that didn’t just rub out the years like a big pink eraser from their school days. But seeing her today, holding her hand, watching her absently twist her slim fingers in her butterscotch strands of hair—it made him wish he hadn’t been so stupid.
It made him wish he wasn’t such a fool to want something he could never have.
He should have been content with her forgiveness.
But Rigo couldn’t stop himself from wishing he could once again have Gloria’s heart.
he sun rose early Sunday morning. The city’s electric grid had experienced a catastrophic failure during Hurricane Hope, as the salt water flooded the mechanics that had sustained the Port Provident community for decades. No one thought the storm would do this kind of damage, and even days after the storm, the residents who remained on the island were still without basic services like lights and water—because the pumping stations could not come back online without the power to run them.
Because of the lack of infrastructure, the city leadership kept a police officer posted at the base of the causeway bridge connecting Provident Island to the mainland. They were not ready to have a swarm of residents come back and strain the infrastructure reboot even further.
The La Iglesia congregation refused to be deterred, though, and assembled a small group of metal folding chairs on the front lawn.
“It feels good to be together with
,” Inez said as she took a seat. “Save the one on the aisle, Gloria. I’m sure Rigo will be here soon.”
After a twelve-hour shift, Gloria was sure Rigo would probably be resting. In fact, she hadn’t heard a sound out of his room at the top of the stairs this morning. She assumed he’d come in at some point in the middle of the night and crashed. She knew she was exhausted, and she couldn’t imagine the level of stress that was on him, being faced with hour after hour of patrolling the streets and helping keep the community safe.
As the small gathering of people settled into their seats, Pastor Ruiz walked to the front, holding an acoustic guitar. He sat on a chair facing the group, and without any fanfare, began to strum his guitar and sing a familiar, old hymn. With no choir, no other instruments and no boosting speakers, each word of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” struck straight to Gloria’s heart with the force of a swinging pickax, chipping away at the shell she’d created and sustained for years.
“When hope within me dies, I draw the closer to Him, from care He sets me free,” Pastor Ruiz’s deep, rich voice sang. Gloria felt her eyes closing to block out everything but the sound of the words. “His eye is on the sparrow—and I know He watches me.”
When she opened her eyes, she saw two nondescript brown birds perched in a nest near the pastor. They’d been exposed to the elements of Hurricane Hope, and yet, they made it through.
Her own hope had died on that hot August day in the past. But instead of taking refuge in God—who’d created the Heaven where her Felipe and Mateo now lived together—she’d shut Him out. She’d thought it would shut out the hurt. But she’d been wrong. She should have drawn closer.
It took an act of brutal nature to get her attention. Gloria could feel a weight being lifted. The feeling was real. Her shoulders pushed up straighter. It took coming face-to-face with Hurricane Hope to make Gloria realize the simple hope and truth of a song that had been sung for more than one hundred years and of a Bible verse that had been read for more than two thousand.
He’d provided refuge and a fresh start for those birds when the storm raged.
Why would she be any different?
His eye was on the sparrow, and for the first time in a long time, as the early-morning sunshine washed down and warmed a battered and sodden congregation, Gloria knew without a doubt His eye was watching her.
She’d been gone for a long time. The sun’s rays felt like a hug. She let the warmth wrap around her and indulged in the sensation for a moment.
Just as she’d forgiven Rigo, she knew she, too, had been forgiven for being away.
From deep inside, Gloria felt a smile rising. It danced along her lips and turned up the edges.
It had been a long time since joy had taken wing from her heart. It felt good.
* * *
Rigo slipped into the aisle seat next to Gloria. The pastor had started speaking, and he knew he should be listening, but Gloria attracted all his focus.
Her eyes were closed, and sooty lashes lay dusty on her cheeks. The corners of her lips curved upward and a glow spread across her smooth caramel complexion. Normally, he’d blame the Texas heat and humidity for any kind of glow this time of year, but Gloria hadn’t broken a sweat. This seemed to come from inside.
The very sight of her made him forget the time that had passed, the mistakes he’d made and the small cornerstone of rebuilding they’d laid between them. He wanted to reach over and hold her hand, just like he used to do when they were teenagers. But he knew he couldn’t do that.
Gloria said she’d forgiven him. Not that she’d forgotten.
She must have felt his gaze on her, because her eyes fluttered, then she turned her head and looked at him. Her smile wrinkled a bit, as if she were a little shy.
But she didn’t look away. Her eyes looked like warm maple syrup.
It made Rigo realize he hadn’t heard a word the pastor had said. And if Gloria kept her eyes turned toward him, he wasn’t sure he ever would.
He thought he’d never see that look again. It made him grateful, all the way down to his toes, to have had the opportunity to see it again.
Lord, make me worthy of her forgiveness.
Yesterday’s refrain came back to him. And maybe, just maybe, looking over at that unsure smile and those maple eyes, framed by that point of her hairline that came down and gracefully shaped her face into a heart...maybe he wanted to be worthy of her forgiveness even more today than he had yesterday or when he’d come back to the island.
But what could he do to show her that her forgiveness was not misplaced? What could he do to nurture that seed of forgiveness into a sprout of trust?
Pastor Ruiz closed his brief sermon and asked the church members to join him in prayer. Rigo bowed his head without hesitation. He knew there were so many needs in the community that the pastor would cover—but he had one of his own that he needed to ask God about first.
* * *
“Sobrino,” Tía Inez’s voice came through loud and clear, addressing Rigo with the Spanish word for nephew. “Are you able to stay for lunch with all of us? Or do you have to go back to work?”
Rigo did a double take. “I have a little break, but how is anyone serving lunch?”
He knew his tone held more than a healthy dose of skepticism. The ladies of the church could make something out of pretty much nothing, but he didn’t know how on earth they could pull together a meal for thirty or so people when there hadn’t been power or water for days.
Gloria must have picked up on his disbelief because she laughed. “The FEMA folks came by earlier and Pastor Ruiz talked them into leaving a couple of boxes of MREs for everyone.”
The MREs, Meals, Ready to Eat, had already become something of a legend around town. The Federal Emergency Management Agency had staged trucks of supplies in Houston when Hurricane Hope’s path became clear, and they were able to quickly get water and boxed meals in to those who had stayed behind. Because the causeway had been torn up, everything came across from the mainland by boat. Once the causeway was repaired, other agencies would be bringing catering-style trucks with hot meals, but they weren’t expected until tomorrow at the earliest.
For now, they all ate field rations and tried to wash the salty cardboard taste that lingered behind with a bottle of water and gratitude for the opportunity to eat a meal of any kind.
Inez’s shout told everyone to come on. She waved her hands toward a table near the parking lot, which had now become a staging area for debris being brought out of the church. “Come grab what you want. It’s time to eat.”
Rigo and several of the others picked up folding chairs and moved them closer to the makeshift dining area.
“Here you go.” He unfolded one next to Gloria. “Mind if I sit with you?”
She shook her head. “Not at all.”
“Tía? What about you?” He set a second chair for himself next to the one he’d put down for Gloria.
She pointed toward three ladies her own age near a pile of shingles. “I’m going to sit with Maria and Juana. Can you bring a chair for me?”
“Sure.” He picked up another chair, then turned to Gloria. “While I’m over that way, I’ll go get our entrées.”
Each box of MREs contained twelve different meals, so he’d have to see what looked most edible of the variety.
Apparently Gloria’s thoughts ran along a similar wavelength. She called after him with a small chuckle. “Don’t get any of the cheese and egg omelet ones, okay? I hear they taste like sawdust.”
“Your wish is my command,” Rigo said, bowing low. If only she knew how sincerely he meant that oft-used phrase.
Lord, make me worthy of her forgiveness.
Could an indestructible meal pouch be part of that? God had used food memorably before. Loaves. Fishes. Why not MREs?
On the other hand, Rigo had already sampled a few of these. Undoubtedly, the disciples had much better eating with fresh bread and the daily catch.
Rigo presented the beige plastic packet to Gloria with a flourish. “Today, for your dining pleasure, The Hurricane Hope Café is pleased to present beef ravioli.”
“Sounds tasty.” Gloria tore her bag open. Rigo sat down and did the same.
“Actually, I’m told this one is the best. I had tuna last night. I’m probably not going to be picking that one again. Do you know how to work these?” Rigo pulled out the food pouch, the heating element, a cardboard sleeve and a slim white pouch with a few ounces of water.
Gloria dug around in her bag and followed Rigo’s lead. “No, I haven’t had one yet.”
“Well, these are pretty simple. Pour the water in this large green plastic pouch. It’ll cause a chemical reaction that will heat your food. Slide the sealed food pouch inside and fold it over. Then stuff it inside this cardboard pouch. Like this.” Rigo reached over to help Gloria put everything together and brushed her hand.
The green plastic pouch didn’t hold the only chemical reaction around here. Rigo was keenly aware of Gloria’s nearness and his own desire to stay close for just a few seconds longer.
“There. It takes about five minutes for everything to get hot enough. But in the meantime, it looks like we have a lovely pretzel appetizer to go with our bottled water.”
He laid the pouches of heating food on the ground, then cracked open the two bottles of water he’d also brought over and handed one to Gloria.
“It’s not exactly a cold bottle of Topo Chico,” he said, naming the popular Mexican mineral water he knew Gloria was partial to. “But it’ll do.”
Gloria took the offered bottle and then raised it. “A toast?”
The scene made Rigo chuckle. “Of course. To what? Hurricane Hope?”
She looked around. “How about just to hope? And a new start.”
“I’ll definitely drink to that,” he said. They tapped water bottles. “To hope.”
Rigo looked at his watch. “I think it’s been five minutes.” He reached down and picked up Gloria’s MRE in the cardboard and plastic cooking pouches and handed it to her.
” Gloria bobbled the hot pouch in between her fingers. “Ouch!”
The steam rose out and scalded Gloria’s fingers.
Rigo set down his water bottle, took the MRE from her hands and balanced it on the ground against the plastic bottle. He took Gloria’s hand in his own and held it up, fingers spread wide. “Here, let me.”
He blew gently, then took Gloria’s water bottle and splashed some water on them.
“Better,” she said, nodding. “Thank you. That took me by surprise. I didn’t expect such a strange-looking little thing to get that hot.”
“I’m glad you didn’t hurt yourself.” He handed the pouch back to her. It felt good to just be interacting normally. There was no drama of labor or howling winds or looking at hurricane-damaged dreams. Just two people sharing a meal and a conversation. “You know, when I take a girl out on a date, I like to serve up classy meals without injury.”
Rigo stopped himself from saying anything further. He knew he shouldn’t have made the joke as soon as the words left his mouth. Gloria mixed the contents of her MRE’s food pouch with a spoon, and he couldn’t see her expression due to the short layers of hair falling in front of her bowed head.
“Do you go on a lot of dates?” Her voice could best be described as monotone.
Even in Mexico, when he stumbled from bar to beach trying to find himself, there hadn’t been other women. And certainly not after he returned to Port Provident, where the memories of Gloria littered every corner and danced between every grain of sand.
No one measured up to Gloria. So he’d stopped trying to fill that hole a long time ago.
“It’s been a while.” He hoped she didn’t press him to define it any further.
“Me, too.” The monotone quality still clung to her voice. “You know, we went out for Italian on our first date. This ravioli isn’t as good, but all things considered, I won’t hold it against you.”
She looked up through her downcast lashes. He could see a faint twinkle in her eyes. Whether it was the shine of the sun or the light of a good memory that caused it, Rigo’s heart lightened. He’d say he’d missed this Gloria, the girl whose name, “glory,” seemed to perfectly reflect her spirit. But in truth, he’d carried this Gloria in his heart since he was young.
He looked at her shy smile, lips full and slightly curved. He wanted to kiss her again like he did when they were eighteen and the whole world was at their feet, before he second-guessed himself and broke her heart.
“Thanks,” he said. He owed her so many apologies, but he didn’t know if he’d ever have the words. If he kissed her, maybe he could make her understand.
A makeshift church picnic wasn’t the place and this wasn’t the time. But if he ever did have that chance again, he didn’t want to take her in his arms for granted.
“What’s your schedule look like today?” She set the bag, now empty of highly processed pasta, down at her feet and took a sip of bottled water.
Rigo finished a bite before answering. “I just got off. I’m not back on shift until tonight. What are your plans?”
Gloria leaned her head back and rolled it from side to side. He could see the tension in her shoulders.