Maggie Parr is a finalist in the 2009 Literary Awards Program. Below is an excerpt from her entry, Faith.
Another bum, another whore, another night in the rotten city of Angels.
She sneezed into the foul air. The sound bounced off concrete and glass and echoed down the dark street. Millions of people sleeping all around her, even the homeless, and she was stuck awake. Shouldn’t have accepted that bump of crystal. Fucking Tammy, never took no for an answer. Now she’d be up for hours cleaning her apartment, tomorrow already ruined.
The music from the club thumped in her head as she stopped to light a cigarette. She studied her reflection in the blank shop window. One arm folded across her stomach, the other elbow rested on her hip, holding the cigarette, palm open. She curled her hand toward her face and took a drag. The streetlamp cast shadows beneath her sharp cheekbones, full lips, the crisp puckers and folds of her gold lamée jacket. In this surreal spotlight, everything looked so real. She checked her pose: looking good, chiqita. You always did make a better-looking woman than a man.
She tossed the half-smoked cigarette and turned into the alley. Her stomach churned with chemicals and alcohol, hungry for solid food. While she fished in her purse for gum, her foot sent a can clanking across the ground, startling a bird. Turning to watch it fly away, wondering what a seagull was doing this far inland, she saw three black silhouettes in the mouth of the alley.
The hair on her neck prickled against her wig. She turned and walked more quietly, listening. Nasty laughter echoed over the hollow sound of metal scraping pavement. Her fingers searched through pens, tissues, tweezers, keys – any hidden weapon in the bowels of her purse. The alley widened and she could see the bright bus stop ahead. Just a few more yards. She grabbed a slender can, whipped it out and spun around, summoning every last bit of testosterone she had left.
“Back off! I have mace!”
They stopped, surprised. The one in the middle, the bald one, leaned in from the shadows and grinned. “Shit, Chang, it is a fucking guy.”
Chang pushed his cap back and laughed. “I told you! He’s one of your people, essai.”
“No man, he’s a Chink like you.”
“I’m Korean, you fucking beaner.”
The one on the right slapped a metal pipe in his hand. “He musta come from that faggot bar.”
“Ya think so, genius?”
“Fuck you, essai.”
She watched them bicker, edging backwards, finger trembling on the spray nozzle, her mind racing and her mouth dry. They shadowed her progress, kissing and whistling, keys and coins jingling in their pockets.
“Whatchyou gonna do, squirt us with that little can?”
“Here, chocha, you got a pussy under there?”
“Are those tits real or fake?”
“I bet you suck cock like a puta.” Tall baldy grabbed his crotch.
The genius with the pipe lunged, and she screamed and sprayed.
He waved his hands across his face. “Hey, it’s sticky!” They watched the mist sink and dissolve between them.
She dropped her can of Sebastian megahold hairspray and ran. She’d loved these heels when she bought them, paid two hundred dollars of her own hard-earned money, but tonight, as she tried to run, she hated them. Pain seared through her ankles. It only took a few seconds for Baldy to catch up. He hopped in front and shoved her backwards. Chang spun her around and held her shoulders. She kicked and scratched, but they closed around her like a vice. Genius leaned in, his eyes leaking from the hairspray, and pressed the pipe across her throat.
“You make me sick.” He spit beery foam into her face.
She gagged. Her vision sparked around the edges and her legs drained away. The air glowed and crackled and she wondered if this was it. Please no, not this way – who would take care of Palomino? The image of her delicate seahorse floating in its aquarium, just a few miles away, filled her with panic. She flailed hard and almost shook them off. But a cold weight seeped through her limbs and pinned her in place.
Her attackers shouted. Something or someone was beating them up – she couldn’t see in the blinding glare. A tickle snaked across her shoulders and back, then grew into an unbearable pressure, like someone had jammed in a hook and strung her up. Her mind screamed against the pain and went numb.
She remembered lying in a hospital bed at sixteen, her stomach pumped clean and her abuela crying in the hall, mi nieto, mi nieto. The door opened and she thought it was a nurse, but the woman glowed like a gulper eel in the depths, and when she spoke, her mouth didn’t move. “You don’t need to do this to yourself, you’re so beautiful.” The words spilled into her like liquid love and buoyed her up that night and the next day, when she talked herself out of a hospital stay. She’d always thought she’d been saved by an angel.
If only it had been that easy. Regrets unfurled like a tattered carpet through her life. All those wasted years. Tammy and Sherry, the crystal, so many nights snorting and drinking, crashing at dawn. Tricks in the alleys. Money leaking away, like her life, in parties and shame. I should have loved myself more.
A sob wrenched through and dragged her awake. Tendrils of light faded into the darkness. She wiped her eyes and noticed her hands. The cut on her thumb was gone, the one she’d gotten from cleaning the aquarium that morning. But now, letters were tattooed across the backs of her fingers, one below each middle joint: L-O-V-E-H-A-T-E.
She cocked her head and blinked, trying to focus. No more gold lamée crunching when she moved. No more falsies. Instead, she was covered with a blue and yellow skin-tight material that hugged her body, a man’s body. Same one she’d been born with – but something was different.
Her gaze reached her bare feet, and she gasped.
“Who took my Jimmy Choos?” She touched her mouth. “What?”
Her lips were still, but she knew she’d spoken. She touched her eyes, nose, ears. The wig was gone, but her natural hair was there, thick and wavy, cut just below the ears. Something was very wrong, she could feel it.
“Well that was easy.” A figure stepped in front of her, brushing his hands.
She shrieked and jumped back. The stranger laughed and wagged a long, pierced tongue. Swirling tattoos danced across his yellow face and bald head. But it wasn’t a “he” – full breasts swelled under a short-sleeved body suit.
A taller one leaned into her line of vision. Pale eyes shone out from a black mask. A flag tattoo spread across a wide, bare skull. His white, sleeveless, leotard billowed into a skirt at the hips, and a large red “A” was emblazoned on his expansive chest. Muscles rippled under creamy skin, but when his full, red lips opened, a soprano voice drawled out.
“Wings? None of us have those.”
And then she felt it. The tickle along her shoulders. She peeked around. A thick curtain of feathers fanned up behind.
“What the – !” She swung her head back and forth, trying to see. “Oh my God! Get these off me!” She tugged at the massive stalks growing out of her back, but they wouldn’t dislodge.
The other two laughed. “She’s a feisty little bird!”
“It’s a girly girl like you.”
She stomped and hissed. “Hey! What’s going on?”
They looked at her, then each other. They stepped forward and each took one of her arms. The one with the mask smiled and patted her hand.
“Don’t worry, hon. Destiny will explain everything.”
“Wait, my purse!” She yanked away and tried to run.
But light flooded her eyes and froze her in place. She caught a glimpse of the bus pulling in before pins and needles spread through her body, piercing every cell, exploding her into pieces. She tried to scream but her mouth dissolved into air. The city unfolded below and she felt weightless, like flying, except without a body to fly in. Her vision narrowed to blissful nothing, and she was gone.
“Where the hell are we?”
“How should I know? It must be a mission.”
“Two in a row? With a newbie?”
“What do you want me to do about it?”
“I don’t know, use your special fingernails to call home?”
“Don’t be a smartass.”
“I hate the boonies. They give me the creeps.”
The voices were familiar, but she couldn’t remember why. She opened her eyes. Above, clouds scudded across a navy sky. A wide field stretched around, dotted with mounds of hay, ringed on all sides by black trees. A road snaked through like a still river reflecting the pale moon. Crickets and cicadas buzzed in the night air.
“Look who’s awake.” It was that high, Southern voice. The tall one with the mask leaned over her and smiled. “How you feelin, hon?”
When she cringed back she felt the wings. “Shit!” She stood up and swayed. The alien appendages in her shoulders sent shocks of horror into her stomach. She jumped up and down, convulsing, trying to shake them off. “Cabrón de la chingada!”
The shorter one laughed. “Ann, make her calm down. She looks like a crazy puppet!”
“Come on Rev, you freaked out too.” The tall one stepped closer. “Careful now, don’t hurt yourself.”
She yanked away and stomped her feet. “Who the hell are you? Why can’t I talk?”
“I’m Ann, this is Rev. Short for Anarchy and Revolution.” Ann leaned in. “I don’t know why your mouth doesn’t move, but we can hear you just fine.”
“And these?” She waved her wings. “Will you get them off?”
Ann smiled. “It looks like you’re stuck with ‘em. That must be your power.”
“What the fuck does that mean?”
The sound of a car engine cut through the night. Ann and Rev grabbed her arm and pulled her behind a haystack. She kicked and fought, but they held her tight.
Ann put a finger to her lips. “We’ll explain everything, just be quiet now.”
“I will not. Where the fuck are we?” She struggled to climb up the hay, but they pulled her down again.
Rev hissed at her over the approaching motor. “Zip it, birdie!”
“My name’s Christine.”
“Not anymore, it isn’t. Now shut up!”
She trembled with rage, ready to bolt; but as the headlights came into view, she hunched down with the others. The truck slowed to a stop just a few feet away. The pounding music died with the engine, leaving a sudden hole of quiet. Doors opened, and drunken voices spilled out.
“My own fuckin farm! Time to PAR-TAY!”
A lighter voice trembled beneath the deeper ones. “Wait, I thought you meant – ”
Cruel laughter drowned out the words. “Meant what? I said farm, I didn’t say farm HOUSE!”
The stereo lurched into life. The men sang out of tune with the music. “Does your conscience bother you? Tell the truth! Sweet home Alabama! Where the skies are so blue!”
A sweet sage odor drifted into the night air. The rougher voices drowned out cries of protest. A single word rose up – DYKE! – and Rev and Ann leapt forward.
Christine peeked around the haystack. Two men stood frozen, staring at the intruders, pressing the smaller one against the hood of a pickup.
Ann raked her nails across the truck doors, piercing the night with a long, razor screech. The men cringed in pain, and the youth pulled up his pants and scrambled to the side of the road.
Rev popped out from the other side and thrust his tattooed face into the headlights. “Boo!”
He squatted and bulged his muscles like a body builder, then roared and raised a fist. “This is for your dumb ass Dixie music.” He brought his arm down on the truck, renting a deep hole in the hood. The music bleated and died out.
“And this is for your cheap pot.” Rev kicked the driver’s door, and the truck imploded, sending the lights in crooked angles.
He jumped onto the top of the cab. “And this is for calling someone a DYKE.” He stomped until the roof caved in, then he pumped his fists in the air in a victory dance.
“Hey!” The tall one reached into his jacket. “You faggot! You killed my truck!” He pulled out a pistol and aimed it at Rev.
As the sound exploded, Ann whirled around and sliced the air with her nails. The men gaped at the bullet pieces on the ground.
“Stop!” Christine jumped out from behind the hay. Her skull throbbed with rage and fear. “Everyone, STOP!”
A wave of energy rolled out from her head and parted the air. The trees shivered. Time and sound froze. She lifted out of her body and floated backwards, towards a scene below, and she sank into it, helpless again. Little Cristian watching his abuela open the front door to the policemen whose wide-brimmed hats dripped with rain. Abeula crying out and collapsing like a deflated balloon. Cristian dropping the Barbie he’d dressed in boys’ clothes and carried everywhere, even after it had fallen into the fire and one arm melted into a plastic stub. Cristian holding his ears shut against Abuela’s screams, the relentless rain, the policemen’s words: his parents would not be coming home, not that night, not ever.
The sound of weeping tugged her back. At first she thought it was her own – but then she realized the men were crying. She blinked and focused. They lay on the ground, holding their heads. The youth huddled against a shrub. Rev kneeled beside the ruined truck, mumbling to himself, while Ann leaned on the haystack, struggling to breathe.
Rev straightened first and shook himself. “Holy crap.”
Christine licked tears from the sides of her mouth. “What just happened?”
Ann stood and stretched. “Lord, that hurt. Haven’t thought of that in years.” She leaned forward and spoke in a whisper. “You made me see things – memories. Must be your power.”
“Honey – you’re part of us now. We’ve all gone through the change.”
“What is this, menopause?”
One of the men tried to crawl away but Rev kicked his leg. “Get up, you piece of shit.” Both men pulled themselves up and stumbled down the road. Rev called after them. “Next time you want to call someone a dyke, remember this ass whoopin’!”
Ann walked over to the young man and held out a hand to help him up. Bony white wrists poked out of worn sleeves as he reached for her grasp. “Am I dead?”
“No son, you’re okay.”
“I’m not really a boy.”
“We know.” Rev came closer and touched his arm. “This one didn’t get the beam.”
“What beam?” The boy flinched and backed away. “Who are you?”
Ann patted his shoulder. “Think of us as your fairy godmothers.”
“Speak for yourself, Tinkerbell.” Rev stepped away and faced the boy. “What’s your name?”
“Corey.” He pointed at Christine. “Is that an angel?”
Christine clamped her hands on her hips. “No, I am not. I don’t even know these people. Will someone tell me what the fuck is going on? Where are we?”
Rev cleared his throat. “Hello, we have a civilian here.” He grabbed Corey’s shoulders and leaned into his face. “You better learn to protect yourself, kid. We won’t always be around.”
“What do I do now?”
“You’ll have to walk home, but don’t worry. They can’t hurt you now.”
Corey stared at them, his eyes wide and full. Then he turned and walked down the road. His steps faded into the thick curtain of cicadas.
Ann looked up at the sky. “We’ll be on our way soon.”
“How?” Christine took a step backwards.
“The beam, the beam!” Rev danced around, punching the air. “Hurt like hell the first time it took me.”
“I hope we’re going back.” Ann stretched up, then reached down and touched her toes.
“I want to go home.” Christine edged behind the haystack. “Palomino needs food.”
“You had a pet? That’s too bad.”
“Why? What’s wrong?”
But Ann and Rev didn’t answer. They stood completely still, their hands hanging down. The air around them tingled with a million electric fireflies. A column of light formed around them, stretching upwards. Christine turned and ran, but her legs wouldn’t move. A scream caught in her throat and ripped her apart, until she was just a collection of specks floating into the heavens.