The Texas Bar Journal Short Story Contest 2021

THIS IS ONE ISSUE THAT WE—AND MANY OF OUR READERS—particularly look forward to. Storytelling is alive and well, and the Texas Bar Journal relishes the opportunity to share some of it with you. We’d like to extend an appreciative thank you to the 20 writers who submitted entries to the 2021 competition.

To keep the contest fair and impartial, author names were removed from each entry. Two panels of judges faced the challenging task of selecting the winners, and for each round, the same evaluation form was used for consistency. Nine entries advanced to the final round, which was judged by Pamela Buchmeyer, of Dallas and Jupiter, Florida; Mike Farris, of Dallas; and last year’s winner, Brian Schmidt, of Athens.

The winner, “The Captive” by Mark Ratway, earned the highest number of points.

We have published the first-place, second-place, and third-place winning stories on the following pages. We hope you enjoy these creative short stories as much as we did.

FINALISTS

Please congratulate these attorney-authors for making it through the competitive first round of judging to the finals.

  • THE CAPTIVE,” by Mark Ratway (First Place)

  • RETURNING THE FAVOR,” by Caryn Carson (Second Place)

  • A PUNCHER’S CHANCE,” by Alexander G. Hughes (Third Place)

  • “SMALL DECISIONS,” by Katherine Ho

  • “THE UPSIDE-DOWN SNOW GLOBE,” by Dave Beran

  • “FORGETTING TO REMEMBER,” by Victor H. Segura

  • “BEHIND CLOSED DOORS,” by Luvenia Sanchez

  • “SOFT RAIN FALLS IN THE SPRING,” by Paula J. Gaus

  • “NORMAL,” by Shara Saget


First Place

THE CAPTIVE
Written by Mark Ratway

February 12, 2021

The elevator opened onto a dark floor of the Leland C. Delaneaux Federal Building. The elevator buttons flashed in strange  combinations and sequences before going dim. Scarlett’s heart began to race when she mashed the alarm button and it did not work. Though she thought her phone was charged, it would not power on. She felt the elevator lurch up and down a few times, and the doors began to close. Not wanting to be trapped, she  stepped off.

Her heels clacked onto marble tile. The elevator doors shut behind her, dimming the room. All around her were what  appeared to be empty, old-fashioned prison cells with vertical bars. A central aisle cut through them all and ended at another larger cell. This cell was more modern—it had a heavy door with a narrow paned-glass viewport, as well as a numeric keypad. As Scarlett walked toward the cell, she noticed a warm yellow light coming from within. Scarlett’s shadow retreated into the aisle as she approached the light within the cell.

When Scarlett peered through the viewport, she saw a round orb, chrome-gold and glowing, with a surface that shone like oil-slicked water and rippled as if disturbed by wind. It gyrated, like a globe, turning toward her—noticing her—and a flash of white-hot light engulfed her vision. The brightness seemed to become her, and she it.

A low voice rumbled.

<<YOU ARE NOT JUDGE HEIMHALTER. YOU ARE INTRUDING.>>

The voice seemed to come from within her own head. She lost all sensation of having a physical body.

“What is this?” Scarlett asked. “What … where am I?”

<<IT SHOULD NOT BE POSSIBLE FOR YOU TO BE HERE. HMMMMM…>> And the voice was silent for some time before it rumbled again.

<<HE HAS INSTRUCTED ME TO RUN A MEMORY CHECK ON ANY INTRUDER. APOLOGIES, BUT I MUST TAKE YOU … BACK … FOR A MOMENT. IT HELPS IF YOU DON’T RESIST.>>

“What? Take me back?”

<<YES. INSTEAD OF YOU WASTING ALL YOUR BREATH TELLING ME WHO YOU ARE, AND HOW YOU GOT HERE, I AM SIMPLY GOING TO LOOK.>>

Then, the brightness intensified even more, and Scarlett felt like she was falling backward.

January 10, 2019

“Look, Scarlett, we would just like to see a bit more from you this upcoming year.” It is her first performance review. “Some of your peers are taking depos already. Your written work is … fine. But, we’d like to see what you can really give us.”

“I appreciate your guidance during my first year here,” Scarlett responds. “I promise you, everything I do is geared toward being a success here at Nelson Pitt.” After Scarlett says this last part, she thinks that she would do anything to make it.

The vision flashes momentarily.

February 11, 2021

Scarlett is up late again, working.

Her phone buzzes, and it is one of the partners, Helen, commanding Scarlett to go to the Del (that is what lawyers call the Leland C. Delaneaux Federal Building) in the morning to attend a “simple” hearing that Helen no longer can argue because of a client emergency.

Scarlett’s face is solemn but determined in the glow of her laptop screen, which suddenly flashes brightly…

February 12, 2021 (earlier)

Chief Judge Heimhalter fires salvo after salvo of questions at Scarlett. She scrambles for answers and knows they are unsatisfactory even as she mumbles them. He has read her client’s motion (that she did not draft) and seems to anticipate every argument, every road she could possibly lead him down. She feels mismatched against his terrible intellect, and she knows she will have to return to the office again in defeat after he rules against her client.

After the hearing, she heads to the elevator and presses the button for the parking garage. As she does, she dwells on Judge Heimhalter’s questions and the sting of her failure. She thinks of arguments she wishes she would have made. She sighs and closes her eyes for a moment, and the elevator descends deeper into the Del than most people have ever been.

February 12, 2021

These strange visions ended; Scarlett flashed back into the bright void.

<<HMMMMM…I SEE. HELLO, SCARLETT.>>

“What is this? What are you?” Scarlett asked.

<<I AM … THE CAPTIVE.>>

“Captive? Who took you captive? What is this place?”

<<PERHAPS IT IS BEST TO SHOW YOU. I HAVE TO TAKE YOU BACK AGAIN. BACK BEFORE YOUR TIME.>>

There was a flash, and before she could object, Scarlett was falling again.

November 9, 1884

An amber meteor splits the sky in two, crashing into the old Del where Judge Otto Heimhalter is working late. Judge Otto stands over the holes in the second and first floors and stares down into the basement lockup. The meteor glows in a crater.

Suddenly, Scarlett can feel and see herself again as she materializes into this vision of the past. Next to her, the Captive is chrome-gold, amorphous and shifting, like a lava lamp. She realizes she is watching something that happened long ago.

“Are you Ghost-of-Christmas-Past-ing me or something!?” she asks the Captive. The Captive ignores—or doesn’t get—her joke.

<<DO YOU RECOGNIZE HIM?>>

“He looks like Chief Judge Heimhalter.” Scarlett sees him peer into the crater, which is glowing a white-yellow color as it smokes.

<<IT IS HIS GREAT-GRANDFATHER, OTTO. AND JUDGE OTTO HAS JUST MET ME FOR THE FIRST TIME. STAND BY, WE MUST MOVE FORWARD A YEAR.>>

December 19, 1885

<<YOU PROMISED YOU WOULD LET ME GO.>> Scarlett sees the Captive talking to Judge Otto from a jail cell.

“But I need you. And I need you to take me forward again.”

<<AND IF I DO THIS FOR YOU, YOU WILL LET ME OUT?>>

“Yes, yes…of course. Eventually. Now can you show me? Can you take me forward?”

<<I CANNOT TAKE YOU FORWARD UNLESS YOU DESCRIBE YOUR PROBLEM DISCREETLY.>>

“Truthfully, the hearing tomorrow will decide the fate of this city. This dispute is over an oil well on the edge of town. And …” He looks down and shoves his hands in his pockets. “… I cannot decide. Can you show me?”

At this moment, the vision pauses. Everything stops. Judge Otto is frozen in place in front of the Captive’s cell. The Captive—not the one in the vision, but the one from her present—is beside her and speaks to her.

<<I HAVE TO SHOW YOU WHAT I SHOWED HIM THEN.>> The Captive pauses. Scarlett senses its concern. <<I HAVE NEVER TAKEN SOMEONE BACK AND FORWARD AT THE SAME TIME. YOU MUST MAINTAIN YOUR SENSE OF SELF. I RECOMMEND YOU RECITE YOUR NAME A FEW TIMES.>>

“Scarlett, Scarlett, Scarlett, Scarlett …” And she is falling in all directions at once.

Forward from December 20, 1885

At first Scarlett sees Judge Otto on the bench, and he is asking brilliant, probing questions about an oil well. He rules from the bench in favor of the oil company. Some people in the courtroom are happy.

Flash.

She sees an oil derrick tower above a work camp. The town square is prospering.

Flash.

She sees more derricks spring up around the first.

Flash.

Scarlett feels herself flash through moments in history—moments that were, never were, and could still be. She sees the town grow through the 20th century.

Flash.

The vision continues like this for Scarlett, with different futures flashing (e.g., versions where the oil well catches fire and takes half the town with it). She somehow begins to understand, like a warmth washing over her, that, despite all the possible outcomes, Judge Otto must permit the oil company to drill on the outskirts of town.

The Captive from her present speaks to her again. <<I MUST SHOW YOU ONE MORE THING.>>

Flash.

April 28, 2001

Scarlett sees the Chief Judge Heimhalter that she knows. He is in the same room where Scarlett found the Captive.

<<IT WAS PROMISED LONG AGO THAT I COULD LEAVE.>>

“We both know you cannot. And besides, if you leave, you’ll reveal this basement to everyone in the courthouse. There will be …” He looks at his fingernails. “… too many questions. And that will not do, will it?” Judge Heimhalter smiled into the cell, his eyes twinkling.

<<I WANT TO GO BACK.>>

“You cannot. You are needed here.”

February 12, 2021

Again, Scarlett was yanked back into her present.

“This is insane, but I understand now,” she said. “This is how Judge Heimhalter is always a step ahead. He has built his career off you. Off your power. The way you can take people forward.”

<<I SUPPOSE SO.>>

“I see. Can you put me back into my body? I’m tired of this nothingness …”

<<APOLOGIES. ONE MOMENT.>>

Scarlett felt herself phase back into her physical body. Her senses rushed back. She doubled over, sick.

<<MOMENTARY DISCOMFORT IS NORMAL.>> The Captive said. Its voice still seemed to come from within her head.

Scarlett noticed the keypad on the Captive’s cell door. She looked at it through the glass viewport, and she remembered how the Captive twice begged for its freedom.

“This is no way to exist. How do I let you out?”

<< I CANNOT MOVE THROUGH MATTER, SO THE DOOR MUST BE OPENED. BUT YOU DO NOT HAVE THE PASSCODE FOR THE DOOR.>>

Scarlett stood, tapping her foot.

“Take me forward.”

<<YOU NEED TO DESCRIBE THE ANSWER YOU NEED.>> Behind Scarlett, the elevator dinged.

“Just take me forward! Hurry!”

<<STAND BY.>>

Flash.

Forward from February 12, 2021

Scarlett sifts through the branching versions of her future with one thought: rush to the version where she finds the key code. She fails to find it in many versions (usually getting arrested stalking Judge Heimhalter or raiding his home).

But then something happens that the Captive feared.

Like the Heimhalters, Scarlett sees the timelines where she does everything right. Where she takes clients from Helen. Where she starts her own firm. Where she succeeds.

Vacations in Italy.

A sports car.

And these versions tempt her for a long time before she finds

herself again—before she remembers she seeks the passcode.

Scarlett focuses with all her might on the passcode. Instead, all she sees are shards of twinkling broken glass and another surge of light. She senses that someone, somewhere, is yelling at her.

<<HE IS HERE>> The Captive says.

Flash.

February 12, 2021

Judge Heimhalter’s eyes widened as he entered the basement and recognized one of the attorneys who had just argued before him standing at the door to the Captive’s cell.

“STOP!!!” He screamed.

Scarlett turned around and reached her hand to the keypad.

“DON’T do it, girl!” he snarled. “Stop and think.” He inched forward with his hand out, palm down, begging her not to. “I know what it showed you. You could be great. Think of what you could become.”

Scarlett paused, thinking of the indisputable potential of her success. Vacations in Italy. A sports car. She thought of what she would give to make it and stared back into the Captive’s cell.

Judge Heimhalter stepped toward her.

“I didn’t learn the code,” she said, now staring down at her feet.

Judge Heimhalter laughed.

“Of course you didn’t. The keypad is fake. There is no way to unlock that door. Why would I ever let it out? You know what it can do.”

“I didn’t learn the code.” She reached down and ripped off one of her heels. “But I did see this …”

And as she smashed her heel tip through the glass viewport, the Captive burst forth in a stream of brilliant, golden light that danced on the walls deep in the courthouse. TBJ

Headshot of Mark RatwayMARK RATWAY is an associate of baker McKenzie in Dallas, where he specializes in intellectual property law. A native texan, he attended Cistercian Preparatory School in irving. ratway went to the University of Oklahoma for his undergraduate studies and baylor Law School for his J.D. in his free time, he enjoys reading, fishing, and trying new restaurants with his wife, Brittany.

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Second Place

RETURNING THE FAVOR
Written by Caryn L. Carson

Mallory jabbed the poker among the last of the firewood her now ex-husband Gareth left behind when he moved last year. Gareth texted her last week to remind her to get some more firewood just in case, but her usual disdain for any and all suggestions from him made her double-down on optimism or self-reliance or maybe a little of both. She’d be just fine.

It was harder than she expected to rip out more than a couple of pages at a time from the Federal Reporter she held in her mittened hands.

“Goodbye 505 F.3d,” she muttered under her breath. She ripped a few pages and tossed them in the fireplace. They crinkled and crackled and turned to ash.

Sitting cross-legged on the Persian rug in front of the fireplace, Mallory took in the sounds of her small Tudor house. Rather than the usual hum of the heater or the faint thump of clothes in the dryer, she only heard the drip drip drip of the kitchen faucet and the occasional pop from the fireplace. With a Vanderbilt hoodie, a pink wooly hat, and faux fur earmuffs covering her ears, it was hard to hear anything. Plus, if her mind was less fuzzy, she would have realized she hadn’t actually heard the drip of the faucet since yesterday. How did it come to this?

* * *

When the power first went off 48 hours earlier on Monday morning, she was leaning against her kitchen counter and nursing a hangover from a Valentine’s Day spent alone with a bottle of pinot grigio and a sleeve of Ritz crackers. At least she got the coffee made first. She sipped her French roast and used her iPhone to dash off text messages to cancel the couple of clients with whom she had appointments that day. If her house had no power, she assumed the same was true for the She Shed/Law Office. She wasn’t about to step outside and look; it was 7 degrees outside.

When the pandemic hit last year and the partners at Straker & Klayman started shedding of counsel like Mallory because they “no longer aligned with the firm’s strategic vision” (read: she took on too many plaintiff’s cases), Mallory decided it was for the best. She was a lone wolf and liked to do her own thing. She converted the backyard She Shed, as Gareth once called it, to a space to meet clients. She had plexiglass installed on her desk so she wouldn’t have to be too close to her clients—for pandemic reasons, of course. She bought a handful of Federal Reporters from a furniture store going out of business and put them on the bookshelf to make it look lawyerly. She cleaned her late mother’s Hummel figurines off a side table and added a clock and a weathered “Mallory Callaghan, Esquire” sign she bought on Etsy. She was back in business a week after leaving the firm with nothing more than her framed law license, a USB drive, and five bankers boxes full of files.

By Monday evening, after a day of pacing around the house in a puffer jacket, the power finally returned—for 49 minutes. That was enough time to reset the clock on the microwave, charge her phone to 60%, and down a melty pint of Häagen-Dazs mint chip ice cream. The thermostat in her house read 52 degrees. She regretted that ice cream as she climbed into her chilly bed, tucked her head under the added layers of covers, and scrolled through Facebook long enough to curse her friends’ pictures of their dogs in the snow with captions like “Texas Winter Wonderland” or of the chicken divan they cooked in their ovens. “Must be nice to have electricity,” she thought as she fell into a shivery, fitful sleep.

The welcome hum of the heater and a blinking alarm clock beside her bed woke Mallory at 4:05 a.m. on Tuesday. “Today’s going to be a much better day,” she thought and rolled over back to sleep. By 6:34 a.m., the house was again quiet, and the only light was the sunrise peeking through her bedroom window. “Not again,” she mumbled as she fumbled for her phone. She had a text from her client, Landry Maxwell:

Mrs. C, can I still come talk to you today? The roads are terrible, but I’ll make it there. I really need to talk to you if possible. I’ll come around the side to your office in the back at 2:30. Thx.

Landry was such a needy client. She first took his water rights case through Legal Aid. His landlord cut off the water to his trailer, and she got it turned back on after considerable time, expense, and, on one occasion, the appearance of a shotgun held by said landlord. But when Landry was in an accident in his 18-wheeler, he called Mallory, and she made a little in fees handling both his workers’ comp case and his auto liability claim. After she left the firm, Landry did not seem to mind when she first asked him to come to her She Shed/Law Office by walking around the side yard rather than coming through her front door. She asked all her clients to do that because of the pandemic, of course. And she didn’t want them to see how she lived. That too.

Her head ached with fatigue but she managed a quick reply to Landry.

Not today. Power out. I’ll let you know.

Mallory wasn’t sure how long she laid in bed after that. She couldn’t remember from her Girl Scout days if you’re supposed to lay quietly to conserve your energy when you’re cold or if it is better to move around. It seemed easier to stay in bed.

With her phone battery down to 22%, Gareth texted her.

Don’t forget to drip all the faucets.

She didn’t reply.

Mallory, if your power is out, get somewhere warm.

You there?

That aggravation was enough to get Mallory out of bed. She shuffled to the bathroom and let a trickle out of the faucet. She forced a pair of jeans and two sweatshirts on over her pajamas. She stiffly wandered the house, looking for anything to layer on: a windbreaker, an itchy scarf, a Burberry poncho. She caught a glance of herself in the front hallway mirror. She looked ridiculous, but she was oddly proud. “I got this,” she thought, “I’ll warm up by a fire.”

She pulled a pair of Ugg boots on over her three pairs of socks and strode confidently to the back patio door. The temperature was 17 degrees that late Tuesday afternoon, and the air stung her face as she stepped outside. There was less firewood than she remembered in the rack, but it would have to do. It took three trips and the realization that her suede boots were not, in fact, waterproof to get the wood inside. After rummaging through drawers in the dark kitchen for several minutes, she found the matches Gareth had left behind. After six attempts and three days’ worth of the Dallas Morning News, she got a smoky fire going in the fireplace. She pulled off her boots to warm her damp socked feet and celebrated with a package of peanut butter crackers and a bottle of grape Gatorade.

She must have fallen asleep for a few hours in front of the fire, which had dwindled down to a glowing heap of embers. It was almost pitch black in the house, and she was confused where she was when the phone rang and the screen lit up with Gareth’s photo. She still hadn’t removed that stupid picture of him holding a fish. She jammed her icy fingers on the screen until she finally sent the call to voicemail. With 8% battery remaining, she texted back instead.

It’s all covered. I’m fine. Stop texting.

He did.

* * *

By daybreak on Wednesday, the thermostat read 40 degrees inside the house, the firewood was almost gone, and Mallory was still alone, shivering cold, and sitting on the floor in the front room of her house, swaddled in her mother’s quilt and surrounded by books and open boxes with “Straker” printed on the side. At some point during that second night without electricity or heat, she had drifted out to the backyard to find things to burn in the fireplace. She found her way to the She Shed/Law Office and was impressed with just how much flammable material was inside.

With the sun rising in the sky outside, that 505 F.3d was meeting its demise in the fireplace. The heat it gave off was negligible, but a gauze of smoke hovered around Mallory. She reached into a box and found O’Connor’s Texas Rules * Civil Trials 2015. She had grown tired of ripping pages out of books but found it equally cathartic to just throw the whole book into the fireplace. Few things are as satisfying as setting your past ablaze.

“Sorry Mr. O’Connor. I need to burn this. Who was Mr. O’Connor? Are we sure it wasn’t Ms. O’Connor? Rules, rules, rules…” Mallory babbled on until she heard a faint tapping. Or was that just a drip? No, it was definitely a tap on the window.

She did a double take when she saw a man’s face in the front window. Whoever he was, he was gesturing for her to go to the front door. She unsteadily rose to her feet, adjusted her earmuffs, and slowly opened the door just enough to see an older man dressed like he had just come from a dove hunt: Big parka, camo hunting hat with ear flaps, and those ugly brown Carhartt pants. Both of his hands were full with God knows what.

“Mrs. C?” The man looked Mallory up and down like he was sizing up a car wreck victim. “Are you alright?”

Mallory’s lip trembled. She wiped her nose on her mitten.

“Ma’am, it’s Landry. Landry Maxwell.”

Mallory stepped back and opened the door a little wider. When he looked inside, Landry saw a little encampment of torn books, cracker wrappers, wet socks, and smoke. The smoke made his eyes water a little.

“Sorry to come to the front door, but I was worried when you didn’t answer my texts last night or this morning.”

“My phone is dead,” Mallory weakly offered.

You could be dead! I know you lawyers think you’ve got everything all figured out, but there’s no fooling around with this cold.”

He pushed inside and closed the door. “Sheesh,” he muttered. “Let me guess—you’ve been burning paper, right?”

Mallory shrugged her shoulders.

“Well, that needs to stop right now,” ordered Landry, in a commanding voice she hadn’t heard before. He set down the camping generator he was holding in one hand and thrust a Pyrex dish towards Mallory. “The generator is from me. The breakfast casserole is from the wife.”

As she stood in the middle of the room clutching the warm casserole against her chest, Landry was a whirl of activity. He hooked up the generator and got a couple of lights going. He emerged from the garage with a dusty space heater she did not know she owned, and he got that going too.
“Mrs. C, nobody should be going this alone. We’re all in this crazy Texas weather together. Sorry, but you’re stuck with me for a while. You’ve done right by me in the past, so let me return the favor.”

Mallory realized only then that she really didn’t have it all covered. She wasn’t in control and didn’t need to be right that minute. Still bundled up and looking like a deranged designer quilt lady, she collapsed on the couch near the space heater and truly relaxed a little for the first time in days.

“Now,” Landry smiled. “Let me tell you about my new problem I need your help with.” TBJ

Headshot of Caryn CarsonCARYN L. CARSON lives in Albuquerque, new Mexico, and is a lawyer at Sandia national Laboratories. She thanks her husband, lawyer brian Gaddy, for nudging her to keep writing during the pandemic.

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Third Place

A PUNCHER’S CHANCE
Written by Alexander G. Hughes

Jessica’s mouth tastes like sour copper. Copper from her split lip. The sour notes from the lactic acid climbing her throat. She sits on the stool, blinking to regain her bearings as she breathes deep. In through her nose. Out through her mouth.

“Drink,” her coach Sergio says, shoving a water bottle in her face.

Jessica drinks. She’s lucky to make it to the final round. Her opponent—undefeated Houston women’s bantamweight MMA champion Laura “Boa” Ochoa—was seconds away from choking Jessica unconscious when the bell rang, saving her. Jessica stepped in as a last-minute replacement when Boa’s original challenger failed to make weight. She feels out of her depth.

Jessica’s behind on the cards and needs a stoppage to win. The spotlights above the cage burn down on her. The cold water douses her cottony tongue.

“Spit.”

Jessica does. Pinkish liquid splashes in the bucket her cutman holds in front of her. He sets it down and goes to work mending the bloody gash in her lower lip. As he prods her with a medicated swab, Jessica stares across the cage at her opponent who looks more like she just finished a light jog than two rounds of no-holds-barred fighting.

“She’s too good, coach,” Jessica says. Her shoulders slump forward as her breathing slows to normal. She looks up at Sergio. “I can’t beat her.”

Jessica took up mixed martial arts as a way to stay in shape and blow off steam from her job as a public defender. What started as a lark became a passion, and she started fighting in amateur competitions. She won more than she lost—but she didn’t expect a championship fight so soon. Not on a day’s notice.

Sergio drops to his knees and lifts Jessica’s gloved hands.

“She’s a human being just like you, champ,” he says. “Everyone can be beat. Just fight your fight and stick to your game plan.”

He lowers her hands.

“But if your heart’s not in it . . .” He taps her sternum with his index and middle fingers, “. . . you’ve already lost. If you don’t believe you can go in there and beat the odds, you’ll just get yourself hurt.”

Sergio grabs the white towel out of his back pocket and looks into Jessica’s eyes. “So do you believe you can do it?” He holds up the towel. “Or do I need to throw this in?”

“I’m gonna do it, coach.”

“Good.” Sergio wipes the sweat off Jessica’s forehead with the towel. “Now keep her at a distance. Don’t let her take you down. As long as you stay on your feet, you’ve got a puncher’s chance.”

“Yes, coach.”

Sergio replaces Jessica’s mouthguard and bumps her fists. She walks toward the cage’s center. The referee stands between Jessica and Boa. His arms are raised at shoulder height. His palms open. Once the two fighters’ teams are off the mat and relatch the cage, he turns to them.

“Ready?”

They nod in turn, then touch gloves.

“All right.” The ref claps his hands together and steps back. “Fight!”

The fighters step forward. Jessica’s hands are in a low guard—her right hand by her chin, her left extended a bit below her shoulder. She circles to the right, watching her opponent’s hips. Waiting for an opportunity to strike.

Boa throws a kick aimed at Jessica’s left knee. Jessica sees it coming and hops to safety. She throws a jab in response. It slices through the air, missing Boa by an arm’s length.

Jessica keeps circling. She needs to get closer.

Boa controls the center of the ring. She bends forward in a wrestler’s stance, moving her hands in big circles as she stalks Jessica.

Jessica kicks at Boa’s midsection.

Boa steps back to avoid it and narrowly misses grabbing her foot. Boa flashes Jessica a devilish smile as she regains her stance.

She’s toying with me.

Jessica throws another jab. This time Boa ducks under and shoots for a double-leg takedown. She gets her hands behind Jessica’s legs.

Jessica sprawls—she can’t get taken down again. She’s too tired to fend off Boa’s submission attempts for almost five more minutes. If this fight ends up on the ground again, Boa will choke Jessica out like her serpentine namesake.

Jessica pushes down on Boa’s shoulders and scrambles backward. Boa’s grip loosens as they near the cage.

Almost.

The champ keeps driving forward trying for the takedown. She turns her head to the left.

Seizing the opening, Jessica elbows her in the forehead. The blow stuns Boa and she lets go just enough for Jessica to pry free and move back to the center of the cage.

The crowd thunders. Jessica’s corner shouts encouragement. She may not win, but at least she’s making a fight of it.

Boa turns away from the cage and starts moving toward Jessica again. Getting elbowed erased her devilish smile. A bloodthirsty scowl takes its place.

The two pace in a circle just outside one another’s reach. They probe for an opening.

Jessica delivers a snappy kick to Boa’s inner thigh. Boa winces. Jessica closes the distance and throws a right cross. Boa partially parries it, absorbing the blow with the crown of her head. Jessica continues the combo and throws a left hook that connects with Boa’s right cheek just below the eye.

Spit and sweat spatter into the air from the impact. Jessica lands a right uppercut to Boa’s jaw, staggering her.

Jessica pursues, but Boa closes the distance and clinches before Jessica can hit her again. Boa tries for a hip throw, but Jessica adjusts her weight and stays on her feet. The two battle for inside position as they move across the cage.

Sensing the fence is near, Jessica pivots hard. The women slam against the cage with Boa taking the brunt. Shaking her arms free, Jessica pushes off and backpedals to the center.

Blood drips from Boa’s nose. She reaches up and wipes it off. She creeps toward her opponent. Her movement is more constrained than before. All she needs to do is survive the round and she should win with the judges.

Boa’s coach shouts for her to fight smart.

Jessica’s confidence builds. A fight that felt impossible now feels winnable.

The crowd rises to their feet.

“Keep up the pace, Jess. Finish the fight!” Sergio yells from the corner.

Jessica swaggers toward the champ. She fires a right cross that tags Boa’s lip.

Boa tries to clinch again. Jessica pushes her away and delivers an elbow to her brow, opening another cut. Blood spills from her face like a leaky levee straining to stay intact. She touches her face and shakes her head, peppering the canvas with crimson droplets.

After stepping back to regain space, Boa shoots for another takedown. She has to lunge because of the distance. It’s sloppy and desperate.

Jessica sees it coming and reacts with a flying knee. As she bursts forward her right knee explodes into Boa’s jaw.

The crowd erupts.

Boa falls to the ground, teetering on the precipice of lucidity.

Jessica pounces on her downed opponent and rains hammerfists until the ref intervenes to stop the fight.

While the arena medic tends to the now-former champ, Jessica drops to her knees, removes her mouthpiece, and roars. The crowd chants her name, punctuated with whistles and hollers. Her team rushes into the cage to congratulate her.

She leaps into Sergio’s arms.

“Always believed in you, champ.”

* * *

Jessica sits on a flimsy plastic chair. The overhead light buzzes. Its fluorescent glow bathes the visitation room in a sickly artificial white. She doodles on her steno pad.

She waits.

Two sharp knocks snap her to attention. Jessica stands as the guards usher her client into the seat across the table from hers and remove his shackles. She thanks them and returns to her seat while they exit.

The August heat makes the 6-by-6-foot chamber even more stifling.

“Good to see you, Marcus.”

“You too, Jess. Been a hot minute.”

“Not long enough, man.”

They both laugh.

The last time Jessica saw Marcus was when she pleaded him down to two years for possession about three years ago. He didn’t waste much time getting back into the only business he knew when he got out.

Marcus leans over the table and wrings his hands together. Apprehension peeks around the edges of his brash façade.

“You gonna get me out? Work that magic again?”

Marcus got pulled over in a stolen car three nights ago and caught charges for grand theft auto, first-degree possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, and being a felon in possession of a firearm.

“Gotta be straight with you. Things don’t look great.”

The prosecutor wasn’t offering a deal this time. Marcus was probably looking at about 20 years and the feds were waiting in the wings on the gun and drug charges.

The same butterflies that flitted around her stomach before her last round against Boa return.

Jessica sits up and cracks her neck.

“But you’ve got a puncher’s chance.” TBJ


Alexander Hughes and his dogALEXANDER G. HUGHES is an attorney at Morrow & Sheppard in Houston. He is a graduate of the University of texas School of Law, a cryptocurrency enthusiast, and lives with his fiancée, Orla, and their bulldog, Floyd “Money” Maywoofer.

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