Katie Cortese


Katie Cortese holds an MFA from Arizona State University and a PhD from Florida State. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Carve, Gulf Coast, Word Riot, Sport Literate, and Passages North, among other journals. She teaches in the creative writing program at Texas Tech University, where she also serves as the fiction editor for Iron Horse Literary Review.

Wakulla Springs

Early inhabitants dubbed the springs, ‘strange and mysterious waters,’ an accurate name because in some locations spring waters appear somewhat magically from the ground, run downstream for several yards, and disappear mysteriously below the surface once again. […] the source of the spring still remains a mystery.

Last week my teenager’s best friend died after taking a pill she thought was “Molly,” a pure form of the active ingredient in ecstasy. It was a pink pill stamped with a tiny imprint of a unicorn, my teenager told me in the ER that night, where I had been summoned at 3:15 in the morning.

My teenager had also taken one of the pills, she told me in the waiting room, all her limbs folded at their creases in a way that turned her body to envelope, a smooth and private receptacle neatly concealing an unknown number of luminous sins. She had thrown it up though, thank god, along with the Niçoise Salad we’d shared before she left for the concert. Too many vodka Redbulls, she told me without shame, wheedled out of too many hopeful of-age men.

“We should still get you checked out,” I told her, the scuffed leather purse on my lap weighting me to the seat in the room where we waited for Kendra’s parents. They lived all the way across town in a graceful neighborhood shielded on all sides by live oaks and Spanish moss.

My teenager switched the set of her crossed arms over her birdbone chest. She wore her father’s old army jacket, a covering fetched from the car when I saw the way she shivered in her sequined top beneath a framed print of “Starry Night.” The last time we shared this waiting room, two years ago, I’d been cradling her on my lap. She’d gotten down to 82 pounds and had passed out, hitting her head on the coffee table. We were past all that now, though.

“It came up whole,” she said. “I remember thinking ‘there goes fifty bucks, literally down the toilet.’”

Another mother might have forced her to the admitting nurse, secured a curtained gurney, begged for a tox screen, a stomach pump, but I believed her. She had not lied about the concert, after all. I’d let her go. It was seventeen and up. I wasn’t even mad about the drinks. At least she’d told me. Secrets were a bad sign. Secrets led to skipping dinner because she “already ate.” They led to three exorbitant weeks at Canopy Cove with equine therapy and 24-hour supervision.

And my teenager did not shake or twitch or sweat now, as her friend had done before the ambulance was called. My teenager picked at her purple-painted nails and did not cry because the death was occurring out of sight, in another realm of reality that would have no bearing on her life until the Wednesday wake, the stares in the halls, the cell phone mute on her hip.


Last night, my teenager sat on a stool at the kitchen bar, her laptop a flimsy shield between us while I sliced peppers for stir-fry. “Is your paper done?” I asked. Something on the fall of the Roman Empire. I had to watch her for the answer, which came in the form of a shrug.

“Pepper?” I held out one long, green question mark and she pinched it between her fingers without looking away from her screen. Slowly, she brought the tip of it between her teeth and bit, chewed slowly, then set the rest on the counter. I wondered how many vitamins there were in two centimeters of a slice of bell pepper.

“Your father’s going to be late again. Set the table for you and me, okay?”

My teenager finally looked at me with all the sentience of a blank piece of paper. She closed her computer without saving whatever she’d been writing, and laid her head on top of its humming smoothness. Hair dyed the red-brown of maple leaves fanned itself over her face.

Six days she’d been this way, close-mouthed to words and food, yet always keeping me in sight. While I deadheaded roses, she slumped in the porch swing. As I separated recyclables, she lingered in the garage with me, lifting and resettling her father’s hammers on their wall pegs. Every time I came out of the shower, she was lying in a heap on my bed.

My husband is an engineer. He has tried to fix the problem with ice cream. With the church of his childhood that I do not attend. With serious discussions about the varied side effects of recreational drugs. With a new iPad. With the purchase of a scrapbooking kit that sits on her bedroom floor, still shrink-wrapped, slowly accumulating a cache of worn socks gray on their bottoms. His new plan seems to involve once again retreating to the cubicle where he spent most of his time before the accident, leaving me and our teenager essentially alone.


Today is the first Saturday of October in Tallahassee, a place where summer resists the fall with a child’s grudge against bedtime. A full week after.

When I wake, my teenager is not on the sofa where she’d fallen asleep. Her car, which has not been driven since the Spangler concert, sits in the driveway under a layer of needles from the paternal pine tree hunching above. Back inside, I tear back shower curtains and peek in the laundry room, checking all the places where heat and lightheadedness have in the past conspired to bring her down. Finally, back in my bedroom, I shake my husband awake, “Raymond,” I say, but even as he begins to surface and blink, I see one pink sole curled against the carpet and bend to find her sprawled flat beneath our bed, face flushed in sleep.

“S’kay, Jeannie,” Ray says. He blows out his lips in sleep, horselike. “Jus’ a bad dream.”

I go down on protesting knees so I can reach one hand to her forehead before squeezing her ankle with the other. When she tries to sit up, the bones in my fingers crunch between the crown of her head and the bedframe, and still she says nothing, conveying all her shock of waking into the same old terrifying universe with her walnut-wide brown eyes.

“Come with me,” I tell her. “We’re going out.”

She lies back down, but after I begin to bustle around, yanking jeans from a drawer, shrugging into a sweatshirt, she steals into the hall and I hear the bathroom door click closed.


At Starbucks, I get her favorite green tea smoothie, but she just stares out her window, palms up in her lap like a Buddhist monk in prayer. Most of the leaves over the tunneled canopy roads are still green. When we pass the farmer’s market in the chain of parks running like an emerald vein across Tallahassee’s belly, the car fills with the burned sugar smell of kettle corn.

In her pigtailed single digits, my teenager’s favorite place on earth was a mile-long spring in Wakulla County where alligators sunned on muddy banks a hundred yards from the roped-off swimming area, and where all manner of egrets and spoonbills and moorhens and warblers nested and fed and fought in the underbrush, and where, in the spring, manatees mugged for the tour boats in water clear enough to make out every dip and ridge of the weed-dotted silty bottom.

“It’s too cold to swim,” she says, when I take the last turn before the springs.

“The boats run all day,” I say, careful not to whoop or grin at her first words since the night Kendra collapsed at The Moon and the band just kept on playing. “We’ll take a tour.”

It’s a weekend, so the pavilions overflow with birthday parties on the wide lawn between the lodge and the spring. Grills sizzle with sausage and caramelizing onions, smelling of a county fair. Kids run and turn handsprings, chasing each other beneath the faded sign touting one of the park’s archaic attractions, Henry the Pole-Vaulting Fish, done in kitschy fifties style. Balloons anchored to picnic tables jostle in the breeze like bubbles in a glass of champagne.

There are twenty minutes until the next tour begins, so we park ourselves on a bench in the loading dock with a dozen other passengers, watching kids wade on the other side of the fence where the water’s green silk nibbles at a white-sand shore. One little boy, about four, has his jeans rolled to mid-thigh and shivers visibly, lips a dusky blue as he cups what he can of the spring and flings it at an older girl, his sister maybe. As we watch, she digs a piece of driftwood from the muck and uses it to scoop up double the water his little hands can hold.

“When was the last time we were here?” I ask my teenager, hoping for more words.

She too watches the children play. Their parents are not obvious on the small beach. So much time passes that I touch her shoulder. Even after all her progress, it’s nothing more than a knob of bone beneath a crepe-paper-thin t-shirt. “Was it your birthday?”

She shrugs that compact shoulder, then brings up the cuff of the Leon High sweatshirt looped around her waist to jab at one of her eyes. It comes away with two perfect circles of wet.

“It was warm,” I say, talking myself into the memory. “I got a milkshake in the lodge.”

The kids have stopped splashing now. The little girl has run out of the water. She’d been holding up her dress and now, when she lets it fall, she’s almost dry, good as new, but the little boy wraps himself in an imperfect hug, blue jeans heavy and dark with wet, feet powdered above the ankle with white sand. I’m standing before I realize it, unzipping my sweatshirt to toss it over the fence, when a woman in short white shorts crosses the beach. “Come and get it, Darryl,” she says, and he waddles faster, chasing her back to the biggest pavilion.

“Mom,” my teenager calls from behind me. I force my fingers to release the fence’s black bars. “Boat’s loading.”

“Lucky if he doesn’t catch pneumonia,” I say as we follow the others down the metal ramp, which sings with the rhythm of our steps. The sky overhead is perfectly white, unmarked.

“Now you’re a doctor?” My teenager walks before me, hair cordoning off the sides of her face like blinders. She was up to 100 pounds at her physical last month, happier than I’d ever seen her, buoyed by a new love of music and singing in the choir where Ray takes her to Mass.

“Of course not,” I say. Heat rushes to my jaw. In the hospital’s waiting room, my teenager had asked if Kendra suffered, or if it was like going to sleep. She asked if I believed in heaven. I’d told her I was just a secretary—going on twenty years in the Dean’s office—not a doctor. I’d said there were things it might be better never to know. “I don’t have to be a doctor to know it’s too cold to be messing around in the water. You said it yourself,” I say.

She relapses into silence, stepping from dock to flat-bottomed boat, then sits on the boat’s right side, halfway back behind the driver so she can look into the dense growth at the water’s edge where snakes and gators and cooters and occasional deer haunt the banks. I slide in next to her, studying her perfect ear studded with three silver balls, the metallic red of her flyaway hair.

Tomorrow she’ll sing of Christ risen at Good Shepherd, but today she’ll sail with me through a green cathedral where the fallen log gives rise to the mushroom that will feed the squirrel destined for the belly of a water moccasin. It’s the only kind of heaven I know.

“It was too thick to drink,” I say, remembering the Oreo milkshake from our last visit, the chunks that clogged my oversized red straw. “I had to suck so hard I got dizzy, remember? Then you tried, and your face almost turned inside out.”

My teenager is shaking her head as the boat backs up and the guide begins his speech. Welcome to Wakulla Springs, home of Tarzan and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Preserver of mastodon bones and whatever lies 190 feet down on the floor of its ancient basin. “I went and got you a spoon,” she says, fighting the way her lips want to curve and part and spread into a smile. Take note, ladies and gents, of the osprey nest up ahead.

She knows my father died when I was young enough for my memories of him to end at the shoulders, though by all accounts he was not a tall man. I’ve brought my teenager here to remind her that even in death we are in life, and that the best way to honor the dead is to live full lives ourselves. In our memories, we bear them with us. When my father died, that was the path my mother chose. It’s always made more sense to me than an ongoing toga party in the sky.

“Sweetie,” I say, and tuck a hank of her red hair—chestnut brown underneath all that dye—behind her studded ear. “I know how hard this week has been.” Her eyes are liquid brown, a color she longs to change with contacts, violet, in two years when she turns eighteen.

Her lashes grow wet as I watch. Her mouth opens, but just then the guide throws on the brakes and cuts the engine. I’m nodding at my teenager. Go on, please go on, but she’s turning, looking out her side of the boat where the other passengers have clustered to stare open-mouthed at a gator, five-and-a-half feet, the guide says, pointing out the splintered shaft of an arrow emerging from its hide, the remains of a failed assassination. The gator too is open-mouthed.

“Take a good look folks,” the guide intones. “These guys are secretive about hunting. Twelve years I’ve sailed this river and I’ve never seen one take prey.”

We watch the gator, camouflaged by the bank’s leafy expanse of fern and bald-top cypress knees, as the gator watches us, great snout agape, dull white teeth stalactite opposite stalagmite in a pink cave that hides within it, it seems, a second mouth: delicate, vulnerable, a pale silk purse to keep safe all struggling deposits. And its prey, an orange-beaked moorhen ducking its head beneath the surface among a stand of reeds, oblivious to danger in its hunger.

“We’ll give it another minute,” the guide says, voice taut with the triumph of presenting us this tableau. “These guys can go months without food. They’ll spend hours, sometimes, just like this, waiting—”

To spring. To attack. To strike. To feed. Whatever the guide says next is drowned by the single thrust of the creature’s massive tail, the resulting wave, the smack of its spring-loaded jaw. The sound my teenager makes is half gasp, half sob, backing into me so my arms can cross ineffectually over her, at last holding her breakable body against my chest. Her breath hitches there, back rising and falling against me, stuttering like the boat’s engine roaring to life beneath us. I’m holding her tight, rocking us side to side, peering over her shoulder when I see it, the moorhen jigging out of the reeds, head bobbing, beak parted to issue his shrill warning.

“It got away,” I say, pointing to the creature. “Look sweetie, it’s fine.”

The gator hovers now, nostrils and eyes showing through the thin scrim of water, scaled back like a mat of braided weeds stretching out behind. “Looks like it’s a lucky day all around folks,” the guide says into his microphone, muted with disappointment.

My teenager’s breath has slowed now, and she moves politely out of my grip. The boat slinks along the bank as mullet flash out of the water alongside us in little silver commas.

I can feel the grief still inside her. An anchor buried in mud. “That was something,” I say.

“It was my birthday,” she says, and I can smell the spring drying on her skin the way it had the last time we were here. She’d been jumping from the diving tower in a bikini that stood out yellow against a blue screen of sky. We went to the lodge after she’d dried off. She and Kendra, who’d worn a red one-piece, blond hair wound into a bun on her head.

“You had a banana split,” I say.

“And she had a brownie sundae,” my teenager finishes for me, one hand, so small, all bones, rising to grip the rail.

“I’m so, so sorry, sweetie,” I say. “Please, tell me what I can do to help.”

She shakes her head, mouth pressed to a thin pink line. “God, Mom,” she says, hands tiny fists in her lap. “We took it once before, and it was fine. This time it wasn’t. End of story.”

The boat enters the final green corridor, returning to the dock. Life teems on either side, ruffling the leaves of the cypress trees, burrowing into loam, ribboning underneath us. I think of that little pink pill and everything it promised. Euphoria. Intimacy. The beautification of an ordinary world. “What did your father and I do wrong?” I say, digging in my purse for a tissue.

As is her habit at this point in the tour, she leans over the edge of the boat as we glide toward the deepest part of the spring. If this was a sunny day and the water was clear enough, we’d be able to see the caves ringing the bottom where thousands of gallons of water flood into the basin each day, every molecule carrying along infinitesimal grains of Florida’s limestone foundation, slowly undermining the seeming-solid ground where we built our homes, where we let our children run barefoot across green lawns. Today the water’s surface is a blank silver.

“You and dad should try it once,” she says. In the thickening mist, the diving tower is abandoned. “You don’t think. You just are. You love everyone. And everyone is beautiful.”

The guide pilots the boat expertly back to the dock where we will disembark, and my teenager burrows into her sweatshirt. As soon as we emerge into the light rain, her uncovered hair fills with diamond flecks. We walk past the deserted beach, toward the emptying pavilions. I try to imagine my Raymond on ecstasy. He might like it, actually, if he didn’t have a chance to brace himself against it. When we met, he’d liked his weed. I’d be too focused on the science behind the drug to let it in, though. I’d try to chart the dopamine flood, map the damage to my gray matter, calculate all that could go wrong.

“When my father died,” I tell her, “everyone said it happened for a reason. Part of His unknowable plan. My mother and I had to find our own way through. I guess you do, too.”

At the largest pavilion, most of the balloons have burst and hang down from their strings like strange, withered fruit. A few adults bend over picnic tables, collecting plates littered with cake crumbs. The woman in the white shorts sits on the bench seat of one table, facing out, the little boy from the beach bundled in a plaid blanket and balanced on her lap, fast asleep there. She rocks him absently, stealing glances at his thin, slack-jawed face. The currents that feed the spring run under their feet and mine. Under those of my daughter in her checkered slip-on shoes.

“You should know, I’m going to do stupid stuff sometimes,” she says, my teenager, hands deep in her sweatshirt pockets. “But I promise to try not to make the same mistake twice.”

Every so often in this water-rimmed state, the ground crumbles beneath our feet, draining lakes and swallowing houses, plucking sleepers from their beds even as they dream.

“I’m starving,” I say. The urge to fill myself, to weigh myself down is sudden and strong.

Her face is turned down to her cell phone, which lights at the touch of her thumb. She laughs at something she reads there, then shakes the hair out of her face to look at me.

“We could stop for lunch, if you want,” she says. “I kind of feel like pizza.”

I pretend to consider while she digs white earbuds out of her pocket and plugs them in one at a time, beginning to nod to some music I can only hear as a distant whine. In a moment it has taken her over. She spins in its embrace, eyes closed as she mouths something along with the singer, twirling in the rain, expecting the world to make way for her as it always has, trusting that it always will, lucky that this time it does.

A few months ago, I moved from the green, jungle-heart of Florida’s panhandle to the dry, elevated, windy plains of West Texas. Both places are beautiful in their own way, but I think it’s human nature to long for the good parts of wherever we’ve just been (proximity to abundant water sources, fresh seafood, curbside recycling), and to conveniently forget the negatives (roving clouds of attack-mosquitos, suffocating humidity, and rampant kudzu that draped my yard anew each spring). This story is basically a love song to Wakulla Springs, my favorite place in Florida, and one that strikes me just as holy and healing as any Notre Dame or St. Paul’s.