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NakedGirl: The Story of Dareen

[I was surprised to find that, according to my research, nobody had created a superheroine who acquires her powers only when totally naked.  Maybe it’s because costumes are so central to the superhero concept.

This story has topical references to when it was written in 2004.  Please make allowances.]

1.

        In spite of the load in front of her she found herself running as if in a dream.  It seemed so unreal, so silly, to keep running into the rain falling harder on this warm July night, away from her car, the sound of thunder in the distance.  Yet it was hopeless to keep staying in the car.  Dareen had waited an hour after the engine cut out and nobody had driven by on this old highway.  She had had a feeling it was dumb to take this back road home, after that long day at the new library out past Alpharetta.  So out the middle of nowhere, this area.  Just hills and trees and endless farms.  And now in the darkness it was hard to make out even those.  She had to call her roommate Elly to come get her, take her back to their apartment in Peachtree Heights.  But the battery in her cell phone had run out, and there was nothing to do but go out and find a house with a telephone.

 

        Beginning to get soaked, she stopped under a tree, where the raindrops were at least intermittent.  She really couldn’t run, she had to hold her breasts in front of her, something that shamed her and looked ridiculous, but otherwise these big loads would yank painfully at her chest as they bounded up and down.  She’d hated these oversized breasts ever since they began sprouting from her thin frame when she was thirteen.  She’d had to give up sports, had to dress in ugly clothes like this brown floppy sweater.  Thank God the insurance company finally approved the breast reduction operation.  They said it would be scheduled probably in two months.  Thank God!

 

        Now a gust of wind and an almost deafening rush of rain.  She clutched her breasts into her crossed arms as she looked at the thickening downpour.  She would be here for a while, it seemed.  Not being able to make out anything through the dark curtain of rain she thought, for the thousandth time, of what her life would be like with manageable breasts.  She toyed with the hope of wearing spaghetti strapped dresses without needing an industrial strength bra -- yet, maybe after all these years of covering up, Ms. Dareen Alkaras had simply become a modest girl.  It just suited her temperament.  Maybe she was a throwback.  She had spent all but the first two of her 24 years in this country, was totally Americanized -- her father had shortened their name from Al-Kharras -- yet she thought of her relatives back in Syria, especially her grandmother whose twinkly eyes looked at her from her black-clothed face in the photo in her bedroom.  And who’d worn a head-to-toe burka all her life.  Dareen wouldn’t want to do that, and definitely was opposed to all that oppression of women that went on in Muslim countries, but there was something about the burka and being covered up that appealed to her: a kind of dignity and maturity, maybe.

 

        Now a bright vague blotch at the horizon and a few seconds later, muffled thunder.  Dareen had to get going.  She didn’t want to be under a tree when the lightning got close.  She ran forward, going on pure impulse, knowing in the back of her mind that this was stupid, she should go back to the car.  But if she did that she might be stuck there all night!

        Panic pushed her from behind as she clutched her breasts and ran out, her poor two-inch heels a mess as they poked through the muddy grass.  On and on she went, wishing she had a third hand as she tried to wipe the rain from her eyes.  There seemed to be no end to this field -- she zigzagged trying to find some shape in the dark white shower of rain -- shit!  One of her heels snapped.  Finally, a light!  She ran faster -- damn that broken shoe just flew off -- must get it later -- yuck, the squishing of mud through her pantyhosed foot.  The shape of light was getting nearer . . .

 

        A small house, like a trailer that had been built onto and was now a house in its own right.  The front was dark; the light was coming from the back.  Dareen slowed down, took her hands down from her breasts, and in spite of the rain still pouring down, crept carefully around to the back.  She was already soaked; a couple of seconds more didn’t matter . . .

 

        To her surprise the back of the house was open, with a kind of overhead garage door that protruded like an awning and kept the rain out.  She dearly wanted to seek its shelter but was intimidated by what she saw.  For a moment she leaned in from the side, the rest of her body except for her head still getting deluged.

        It looked like a rocket, or a ray gun from some old science fiction movie.  As big as a car, a fat clunky metallic bullet bolted together, pointing upward with a kind of antenna at the end.  In the pale fluorescent light it looked so otherworldly yet so much like your typical mad scientist contraption; that part of her, way in the back of her mind, felt like laughing.  But she was wet and beginning to get chilly even though the night was warm; and she was more intimidated than amused.

 

        A feeling that suddenly increased when a short, balding man in wire glasses and a mechanic’s monkey suit appeared behind the big bullet, carrying a kind of diagnostic meter from a workbench in the rear.  He screwed it onto something in the back of the giant bullet and turned some dials.  Then he looked up.  Dareen yanked her head back out of sight.

 

        She stood there miserably in the downpour thinking of her options.  This man was a whacko, yet she was wet and far from home and needed to call someone about her car.  There was only one thing to do.

 

        She placed herself well within the awning, dripping all over the floor, and was opening her mouth to say “Please” when she was met by the man’s startled gaze.  She immediately crossed her arms over her breasts, feeling the squishing of her sopped sweater.

 

        “What?  Who are you?  Who sent you?”  He looked about 45 or so, she noticed as he came closer.  He brandished the little meter thing like a gun.

 

        “Please,” she bravely continued, “my car stalled and do you have a phone?”  She withered under his gaze.  Looking down at her stockinged foot where the shoe had flown off, wet and muddy, she saw the outline of her toes and moved her shod foot over to cover it.

 

        To her mortification, the man saw this.  “Quite a modest one, aren’t you? . . . Well, O.K., you can use the phone, but . . .”  He passed near her and looked out into the rain.  Another dull flash of lightning came from far away.  The wind died down for a moment.  The man looked at her.  “You don’t know what I’m doing, do you?”

 

        The wet, miserable, frightened girl shook her head.  He looked at her skeptically.  Then drew back to take a full length view of her.  With a playful smile he said, “You should get out of those wet clothes,” then went back to his work bench.  When he came back he had a white lab coat and he threw it to her.  “Take those clothes off and put this on.”

 

        She looked around for a door to a closet or someplace, not that she intended on doing what he said.  “Yes, right here,” he said, and she looked at him in shock.  “I’m packed to the rafters here, there’s no extra room for you to go to.  Go ahead.  Take them off.”

 

        Dareen clutched the robe to her chest for a moment to more completely hide her breasts that were already shielded by her wet sweater and her crossed arms.  “Come on, Miss.  Let’s get to it.  I’m a very busy man.”

 

        A flash of lightning, followed by thunder.  The man looked out, startled by its ferocity and closeness. He raced back to the dials at meters.  Not that Dareen noticed; she had dropped the robe and gotten the hell out of this bad place and this leering whacko.

 

        The wind picked up.  Now there was another sheet of light, covering half the sky.  Two seconds later, thunder.  The girl screamed.  And turned impulsively, not back to the house, but in a zigzag to the left.  Her breasts bounced crazily as she sprinted clumsily with one shoe.  She prayed, “please Allah, please Allah, save me . . . ”

 

        Now, no wind.  The hair stood up on her scalp.  It felt like ants were crawling all over her body.  Her eyes opened wide and her mouth too.  She knew that this meant.  This really was the end.  She was about to get struck by lightning!  A -- llah . . .

 

        “AIEEEEEEE!!”

 

        She felt herself being raised from the earth, then a tremendous bang like a cannon and blinding light, then a hammer blow from behind that pounded her into the ground face first.

 

        For a second she was dizzy and could not think.  Had she been killed?  No, she was still alive -- and aflame!

        “AIEE!  AIEE!”  She frantically rolled around in the wet grass.  Then she got up.

        Her clothes were ablaze.  Running aimlessly, she tried with desperate and ridiculous motions to pat the flames away with her hands.  It was no use -- to avoid being mortally burned she was going to have to rip off whatever was burning.  Barely thinking, her mind on auto, survival instincts taking over, she ripped off her sweater, then her blouse.  For a moment she reached behind to fumble with the six clasps of her bra but then just grabbed it from the front.  Surprisingly after only one tug it came off.  She threw the burning white thing down and it continued burning on the wet grass.

        But her skirt was burning too.  She hoped she could keep something on, but her pantyhose were on fire too and her remaining shoe.  She landed her butt onto the grass and pulled them off.  Then up and jumping. . .  “No, no, please no. . .”  But her modest mind was just a spectator to the primal motions of self-preservation.  The panties were a ring of fire around her most private places.  Whimpering and crying, she tugged them off and kicked the last of the burning things away from her.

        Dareen crouched down, her toes in the wet grass, hands across her shoulders, feeling the rain beat down.  Her body felt scorched but it was not aflame.  As far as she could tell she was not burned, a miracle she should be thankful for.  The wind had died down.  She looked at her clothes lying here and there, still oddly aflame even though they were soaked with rain.  Maybe it had to do with the lightning.  She was in some weird terrestrial other universe now.  Her skin still felt buzzy all over, like it was stuck into one big light bulb socket.

 

        Then she looked down at her toes.  They had a dull glow to them.  In fact her feet, her knees -- as she stood up her entire body throbbed with a weak fluorescence.  St. Elmo’s Fire?  She had heard of it.

 

        And her breasts.

 

        They stood straight up and out, round and firm, without a hint of sag.  She had never seen them like this -- as if they were in an invisible push-up bra.  Her nipples were erect and hard, the aerolas huge.  “What are these?”  Though no one was around, she was so embarrassed by them that she crouched down and covered herself again.

 

        Then the glow went away and her skin was its normal dusky brown.

        As the storm gradually left and things quieted down she duck-waddled forward to what remained of her clothes.  She picked at them.  The flames had gone and what was left was mere ashes that fell apart at her touch.

        “DAMN!”  Dareen yelled, slamming her hand onto the ground, which must have been very soft because her hand forced it several inches down.  She was not one to curse or yell, but she couldn’t help it.  Naked in the middle of nowhere -- except for that crazy pervert.

 

        Still crouched, she looked around.  She couldn’t see the house.  Being naked she certainly had to avoid it now.  She duck-waddled in what she thought might be the opposite direction, then realizing it was slow and silly to move that way, reluctantly stood up and walked, one arm over her breasts.  It was odd -- her breasts stuck out so much now that her arm was well in front of her body as it crossed to cover her nipples, now huge and rock hard, poking into her forearm.  They still bounced as she walked but more tightly now, not wobbly and jumping all over as she might have expected.  What had happened to her?

 

        At the top of the rise she saw the dull glow of the back of that nut’s house.  She turned in the opposite direction and, still with an arm across her breasts, started running across the dark wet fields, looking down to be careful where she put her bare feet that squished in the grass as she went.  She had to find something, somewhere.

 

2.

 

        As she minced over the dark fields in the drizzle, toes squishing in the grass, one arm over her breasts, Dareen kept telling herself. “I can’t believe I’m doing this.  I’m running totally naked through the middle of the night.  And not only that, but through the middle of nowhere, someplace I’ve never been where no one knows me.  Stupid, stupid, I might get attacked or worse, a naked woman defenseless and alone.”  But she had been zapped by lightning -- or by something like it -- and still felt unreal and a little dazed, like in a flip-side world where ordinary rules of nature and of behavior do not apply.

        She started being aware of the sensations -- she had never run naked before, she was always a modest girl who always dressed and bathed quickly, she had never even lain naked when alone in her room.  She had had boyfriends of course and had had a sporadic (and mostly unsatisfying) sex life, but even when making love she had preferred keeping under the covers, leaving something on, usually her bra and socks.  And now look at her!  Rain, not so pounding now but more like a steady drizzle, soaked her all over, every inch of her bare body.  She felt it drip from her hair down her back, into her butt crack.  Her bare butt was wet too, water coursing down the back of her legs.  Her wet breasts, still unnaturally firm and outthrust, rubbed against her arm, one hard giant nipple poking into her palm.  She felt the wet grass between her toes.  These were such strange feelings; and they felt good.

        She came to the two-lane road and got focused back on her plight.  She wasn’t sure which direction to find her car.  Not that it would help her to go back to it.  She would still be naked.  Maybe wait there and some nice policeman would find her.  About the police she had been of two minds.  She had relatives who had been given a hard time or found it hard to get through airports, for a lot of Arab-Americans it was a fact of life these days.  Yet she herself had not had any trouble, and she would hardly be suspected of being a terrorist, cowering naked and wet in a stalled car.

        “Why am I doing this?” she asked herself yet again as she decided the car was to her right, yet she found herself turning left, and with crimped steps ran along the road, which with no street lights was as pitch black as the rest of the countryside.

        She decided it was dumb to keep covering her breasts, no one was around to see, and besides, her breasts seemed like they wouldn’t flop around in their new hard condition.  So she dropped her hand and began pumping both arms, and soon she was running full bore, not really knowing why she was doing it or where she was going, what she was looking for, and now she ran faster, feet slapping against the wet asphalt, found herself running yet faster and faster, and . . .

        She’d never felt so alive.  And she was going so fast!  It must have just seemed that way, her senses being so dislocated by what she’d gone through.  Yet here she was, running barefoot down the street, and her feet didn’t hurt, not even when she felt a pebble or two underfoot.  That should hurt like blazes -- and yet it didn’t.  Now she took great leaps, seeming to jump twenty or thirty feet, thudding onto one foot before her toes sprang into another leap and thudding onto the other foot.  “What’s going on?  Am I really doing this?  I feel like some sort of naked superwoman!”

        Now there were some lights ahead and she slowed down.  The rain was just a mist now, and she stopped in the middle of the road, feet apart, feeling the water drip from her hair down her back and into between her butt cheeks, and around in front to her wet forest of pubic hair.  There was a store ahead with a gravel parking lot in front with gas pumps.  Did she really want to just walk naked into there?  Yet she had to get help, first of all get clothes.

 

        She decided to run off some yards to the field on the other side of the road and wait and watch to decide what to do.  It wasn’t really necessary but she lay down flat on her stomach, feeling weird about it, knowing she was doing it to feel the grass along her front, another new experience.  She wiggled and squirmed, enjoying the rubbing of the wet grass against her breasts, her bare tummy, her legs.  She shook her head.  These sensations were distracting her.  Got to watch and decide what to do.

        The store was called Peppy’s Food Mart, a convenience store, and there was no one in it except a short man with a mustache, with rather dark skin, possibly Pakistani or something like that.  Maybe he was Peppy.  He was behind the cash register, making a list of some kind on a pad.  He reminded her a little of her Uncle Rakhman; not only his face and stature, but the meticulous and fussy way he wrote.  Behind him there was a big clock that said it was 12:30.  It was broken, though; a few minutes went by and the hands didn’t move.

 

        The rain had stopped and all was quiet.  As the minutes went by Dareen began to observe minutely to see what could be useful to her.  There was a rack with clothes near the counter, mostly T-shirts it looked like.  Well, that would be a start, she had no money, but surely he would at least lend her something to wear.  The usual collection of junk food, the coffee machines.  A telephone, in front of the clock.  A magazine rack.  Man, those biker magazines were all the same, women in the tiniest possible bikinis draped over gigantic motorcycles.  Some news magazines, the usual cover stories about the Middle East.  Newspapers.  Ugh, the Argus Democrat (known around the Atlanta area as the “A.D.”) what a rag!  The latest lottery winner was on the front page: a guy with six kids.  The little caption under his photo said he was 38, lived in Central Heights, not far from her, had a Bachelor’s from Austin Peay . . .

 

        Dareen felt a chill of something like fright and covered her eyes.  Was this a dream?  She was reading tiny newsprint from what must be two hundred feet away.  Impossible.  Yet true.  She looked up and read the same caption.  She could read everything else on the magazine rack just as easily.

        She was grateful to be jolted into more mundane observations with the arrival of a car, a big old Thunderbird, pulling up quickly and braking in front of the gas pump with a violent jerk and the crunch of gravel.  A tall black man got out with a “do-rag” and a very bulky sweatshirt down to his knees.  He ran in.

        Dareen’s mouth opened as she saw the quick movements.  The man grabbed Peppy’s neck, shook him, then pulled out a little club (or maybe a gun) and clocked him two or three times.  Peppy sank down out of sight.  With skillful motions, the man pushed some buttons, popped open the cash register, cleaned it out and ran out to the car.  He gunned the Thunderbird and sped off.

        “Good heavens!” Dareen found herself saying.  She got up, wiped some bits of wet grass off her bobbling breasts, and stepped forward.  The Thunderbird was quickly disappearing down the road, dull red taillights diminishing into the misty night.  The naked girl’s insides burned.  “This was a wrong thing.  I wish I could do something about it . . . ”

        And she was off.  Running after the car as if pushed from behind by a force she could not control and could not resist.  This is stupid, stupid, a little voice in her head said, yet she ran faster and faster.

        And now she was catching up to the car!  It just couldn’t be.  This had to be a dream.  She wanted to grab the roof.  Now she reached both arms forward and jumped.

 

        She felt her toes leave the road and her feet rose up behind her.  Wind whistled past her nipples, over her butt, through her toes.  She was flying!

        Eyes open in amazement, Dareen reached forward and up and she rose higher.  Now she was over the car.  She leaned to one side and found herself turning a little to the right.  Her left arm still extended forward, she reached down with her right hand into the top of the passenger’s side window, prying it open with her fingers, grabbing under the roof.  A quick little lurch upward and the car left the road with her as both ascended.  She heard the revving of the engine and the wheels as they now spun rapidly with no road to meet.  A few seconds later, sounds of shouting and screaming from within, then little jolts as the man inside frantically banged on the roof and kicked at the doors.

 

        She looked up, and with the same motion her left arm rose and both girl and car ascended higher.  It was still misty and pitch dark but she felt there had to be a town a couple of miles ahead.  Dareen gulped as she looked down.  They had to be fifty feet up by now.  She should be frightened out of her wits.  This was dangerous.  She would fall.  But she wasn’t falling, and she felt perfectly safe.

 

        “Must be dream.”  With this is mind, she accepted what was happening and her mind sat back to let her feelings guide her actions.  And enjoyed the feeling of the air whooshing by her, hair spritzed back by the mist. . .  She wiggled her toes, even flexed her butt cheeks, and felt the air on the underside fluffing through her pubic hair.

 

        Now, the sight of houses below.  She slowed down a bit, wondering how fast she was going.  The streets were deserted, of course, at this hour, and there were no cars driving around to compare her speed with.  Now some stores.  The police station.  There was only one thing to do.  She deftly and gently descended right in front of the station door and the car touched down with just a little bump.  Then she rose up, staying in place thirty feet up by extending herself spread-eagled.  From within the car she heard muffled sobbing.  Then the man bolted out of the car and ran right into the station.  The words were breathless and desperate.  “Jesus!  Man you gotta -- ”

        She really wasn’t curious as to what was going to happen now; she felt like she had done her thing and it was time to go.  So she banked to one side with arms out and glided up and away.

 

        “This is the most fun dream I’ve ever had,” she told herself.  “Best yet, this is one of those dreams where I know I’m dreaming and I can enjoy myself.  It’s so sensual -- flying around naked in the rain.  I haven’t had a sexy dream like this in a long time.”  As she flew she shimmied her hips, kicked her feet in little motions, and jokingly parted the air in front of her with fluid arm strokes as if swimming.  Whoa -- she didn’t mean to turn like that.  She decided to practice her flying techniques.  She could turn just by leaning her head.  Arms up was to ascend, arms down to descend.  Standing spread-eagled, arms to the sides, legs wide apart -- how naughty that seemed, exposing everything -- made her hover in place.  Curling up into a ball, knees up to her chin, she drifted slowly downward.  She tried her earlier habit, back when she was a weak mortal, of holding her arm in front of her breasts.  She could fly this way, with one arm, just a little slower and not so steady.

 

        She judged it maybe twenty minutes later when she remembered Peppy.  “While I’m being a naked superwoman in this dream I really should see to him.”  She sped back to the store, backtracking over the road a hundred feet up, and the store came into view.  There was a police car speeding away from it, lights flashing.

        She hovered over the store, then descended across the road where she was before, the grass coming up wet, squeaky and lush under her soles.  The place was now dark.  Walking up to it, she saw that there was no sign of Peppy.  And now the register was closed.  She saw the button on the floor and knew what had happened.  Peppy, while being attacked, had pressed the button and the police had come.  No ambulance -- he must have come to and been all right.  That made her feel good.

        And now she had an unsettling feeling.  Dareen, wet and naked, looked at the clock (12:30) and the telephone and the rack with the T-shirts and remembered her plight.  Surely it wasn’t a dream that her car had stalled and she had run out in search of a phone.  That crazy man with the big clunky bullet, the lighting, her clothes burning off.  There was no point at which she could have fallen asleep.  Inconveniently for her peace of mind, this was all for real.

 

        She closed her eyes and opened them again.  “Let’s deal with the details, the nuts and bolts things, stay sane.  Have to get clothes and call Elly.”  The door was locked, of course.  She ran around the back and the door there was locked too.  She looked up to the roof.

 

        How could she not take advantage of her new powers?  With one bound she was up on the gritty tar paper roof.  There was a vent.  With only a moderate grip of two widely spread hands she ripped the heavy metallic cover off its rivets.  Down she slid, kicking out the ceiling grille with toes that did not hurt, then down to the floor with the soft thud of her bare feet.

 

        Yes, she was committing burglary.  But she was naked and alone and her behavior could be excused -- not that she was planning on getting caught.  Gratefully she took an extra large T-shirt from the rack and slid into it.  There were some shorts there too.  She took the plainest looking pair and stepped into it.  Ahhh . . .  Clothes.  Too bad there were no socks and no shoes of course.  But this would do for now.

 

        With a quick look around to the outside -- what if a customer came in -- she went to the register.  A phone book.  She looked up Peppy’s and got the address -- along Route 52.  Now the call to Elly, with directions and a request to bring a full set of clothes and shoes.  “Mine got all soaked and ruined, it’s a long story.”  Not that she felt like telling Elly any of it.  Maybe she would say only that she wandered around looking for a phone and -- but if her clothes were “soaked”, where were they?  Why had she gotten rid of them?  She supposed she would have to say there was lighting and her clothes got burned.  Elly was rather nosy, but maybe that would satisfy her; a scary story, but no getting around it.

 

        The coffee was hours old and tasted terrible but Dareen drank a cup.  She wasn’t stealing; it would have gotten thrown out anyway.  Though she was hungry, she resisted grabbing those yummy-looking cookies out of the plastic case on the counter.  She looked at the magazine rack and yes, the little caption really did say what she thought it had said.  She looked forward to getting some sleep.  This whole experience was too much to deal with; she should sort it out in the morning.

 

        Enjoying the feel of the T-shirt and shorts, clothed again, Dareen put the empty coffee cup into the trash and went over to under the hole in the ceiling where she had kicked out the vent.  She extended her arms up and nothing happened.  She jumped and went up about a foot, coming down and landing off-kilter on a stray pebble that hurt like blazes.

3.

 

        “Why you hiding your boobs like that?  And what’s with the pants?”  Elly was always direct and by now one might understand how she just had to say something.  Still twiddling the car keys on her fingers, sitting on the old couch in her usual uniform of T-shirt, jeans and flip-flops, her pretty dark brown Pakistani face looked through the dimness of the apartment at 2 a.m., where only the overhead stove light was on.  Dareen was awkwardly trying to open the refrigerator for a glass of milk while holding a towel over her sweatshirt-clad chest, and while pressing her hips against the counter as if to keep her pants from falling.  Odd, because the pants fit her perfectly before, at least the one time she tried them on.  A birthday present from the thin, flat-chested Elly, who was always trying to get her friend to “use what you got -- you’re lucky you got curves.”  Dareen had worn it exactly once.  It was too tight-fitting and way too low-rise for her sense of modesty.

 

        And of course it was one of the things Elly had brought with her to Peppy’s Food Mart.  Dareen, certain she could not get out of the locked-up store without tripping some kind of alarm, had waited until the yellow new-style VW Bug had pulled up, then darted out a back door and around the front to meet her roommate while hunched over in the T-shirt and shorts she had taken from inside.  But the sweatshirt Elly had also brought was pretty sensible, along with Dareen’s old sneakers that were her usual casual footwear.  And panties and one of Dareen’s formidable bras.

 

        Dareen struggled with the carton of milk and was halfway through drinking the glass when she decided she just had to tell her friend; not only about what happened, but the more obvious thing, the kind of thing which could not be hidden from a roommate.  She steeled herself.  This was going to be tough.  But she turned on the kitchen light and looked at Elly with a serious face, then solemnly brought the towel down and stood there as her sweatshirt bulged out to the maximum stretching point and the pants fell some inches to hang precariously around her hips.

 

        Elly got up and, not seeing how intensely Dareen was blushing, looked at her from head to toe.  “What happened to you?  You’re even more -- Dareen than before!”

        Dareen bit her lip.  It would sound ridiculous but it was the truth, and what could really explain such a thing?  “I got hit by lightning.”

 

        Elly looked up, about to laugh at this explanation but she caught herself.  “Oh God. . . You’re lucky to be alive.”  Then the two young women hugged.  “Thank God you’re O.K.  That was some unusual storm.  It was on the news.  Something about ions.”

 

        “Yeah, it was some storm,” Dareen said, as Elly let go and stood back to look at her again.

 

        “Dar, could you please, if you’re O.K. with it . . . ”

        Only with Elly would Dareen consent to exposing her modesty thus.  And it was time for truth telling.  She couldn’t hide her experience from everyone; she had to have one person she could unburden herself to.  Dareen took off her sweatshirt, kicked off the sneakers and lowered the pants, and stood in just bra and panties.

        The bra was stretched to bursting.  Her breasts, full and high, bulged out over the tops of the cups, and her erect nipples could be seen through the thick double-lined cotton, poking out between the strained seams. Below, her waist had narrowed so that it could no longer hold the pants up.  Her tummy was concave and hard.  Her butt was taut and trim, her legs hard and wiry.  Even her feet looked different, stronger.

        “Jesus,” Elly said, slowly circling the now ultra-statuesque woman.  She looked up.  “And your hair . . . ”

        Now that the lighting was good she was noticing it for the first time.  She took Dareen by the hand to the bathroom, and Dareen got a first look at her new physique.  It was gross having breasts like that.  She looked like a siliconed bimbo, some nude dancer or porn star.  And what a tiny waist!  And the hair -- her formerly black hair had taken on a kind of violet-tinged luster.  Pretty, but a little showy for her taste.  But her attention was mostly taken up by those breasts popping out of the bra. She put her arm up to hide them.

 

        She silently went back to put on her clothes and sat on the couch.  Elly sat across from her, not saying anything, knowing these changes were not really something to be envious of.  Something heavy and real weird was going on here.

 

        Now the choked up voice, the tears.  “Tonight, Elly, I was hit by lighting and -- I flew.”

 

        “Wow.  You were lifted off the ground.  Static electricity.”

 

        “No.  I mean I flew.  Just stuck my arms out and . . . into the sky.”  It seemed odd for tears to come but they did.  “And I could run faster than a car and pick it up with one hand.  I could read newspapers off the rack from two hundred feet away.  I . . . I stopped a burglary.  Or I mean I . . . I saw that store getting robbed and I chased down the guy and flew while carrying the car to a police station.  It had to be several miles.”

 

        Elly was being thrown for a real loop now.  Her friend was talking crazy.  “Dareen, are you  feeling all right?”

 

        Dareen looked at her, a tear rolling down one cheek.  She brushed it away with a quick motion of her hand which caused her breasts to jiggle ponderously.  “I-it really happened.  I got hit by lightning and my clothes burned off and I could do like a super woman.”

        “You did all this naked?”

 

        Dareen nodded.

 

        Elly looked down.  “Wow.”  What an image, she thought: Dareen flying naked through the night.  “Um, can you do that now?”

        “No.  When I got back to the store for some clothes . . . I couldn’t fly any more.”

        “Why not?”

 

        “I don’t know.”

        “Maybe it was just a dream.”  To Elly, Dareen just needed some rest.  Being hit by lighting scrambled her senses and probably knocked her out and would cause some bizarre dreams. She got up and pulled Dareen up by the hand.  “Go to sleep.  You had a tough night.”

 

        “Yeah.  Sleep.”  As the two young women went to their respective bedrooms, Dareen joked mordantly.  “This bra is killing me.”  And so, for the first time since she was fourteen, she slept without one.

 

        For Dareen, waking up was a bummer.  Her breasts were still there, high and firm, blocking the view of the rest of her.  Under the covers (she was modest even when alone) she tried to extend her hands around them, then grabbed what she could of each and moved them around on her chest.  So big and round and firm, not wobbly like before.  Some guy would be in heaven grabbing these.  And on top of the twin mountains, the big dark brown nipples, poking up into the blanket.

 

        She looked at the sun outside her window, rising over the towers of downtown Atlanta, and thought of her commute.  Tuesdays and Wednesdays she didn’t go to the new library in Alpharetta, she took the subway to the main branch downtown.  How am I going to go to work with these things on my chest?

        She decided she’d call in sick today.  Maybe tomorrow she would have the exact same problem but she needed time to think.  She took a shower without being able to look down and see her feet.  Drying herself off she saw that her pubic hair had acquired the same violent tinge as the hair on her head.

        Elly seemed surprised to see them too, the huge shrouded mounds under Dareen’s bathrobe as she came out.  Maybe Elly was hoping that she had been dreaming as well.  Elly was watching TV in the kitchen eating cereal.  The TV was on the Cobb News Network and the news anchor was saying, “Some of these immigrant cultures have this worship of violence that makes me sick”.

 

        “How could you watch this?” Dareen said, grabbing the remote off the table.  It was a point of contention with them.

 

        “I think it’s funny,” Elly said, giving her stock answer.

        Dareen changed to another news channel, ordinarily not any use because the same company owned all the channels in the city, but at least on this one they happened to be doing the local news and weather.  It would be another steamy July day in Georgia, humid and 90 degrees.  The roommates munched their bran flakes in time with the cadence of the weathercaster’s standard sing-song.  He mentioned the “severe ion-type storm last night” and Dareen broke her rhythm to say, “Duhhhh!  Like tell me about it”, in imitation of the lilt from her teenage years.

        Coffee was sipped, toasted buttered, fingernail polish examined.  It was in the middle of the first sentence that both girls looked up again.  “The perpetrator, who turned himself in, told police that a flying naked woman had carried his car to the police station.  He is being kept at Modoc Psychiatric Center for observation.  Well Cindy,” the newscaster said to his co-anchor with a smirk, “that sounds like something out of a dirty comic book.”

 

        “I am naked woman, hear me roar and carry cars around,” Cindy said in her dipsy Southern-belle accent, and they were onto the next story.  Routine joking around.

 

        But not for Elly and Dareen, who stopped munching and looked at each other for a long moment.

        Elly was thoughtful.  She understood that Dareen would not want company.  Elly’s mother was supposed to visit from New York that weekend but before Elly left for work she called to postpone the visit with a story about her car needing repairs.  Then she was off to her job at the computer store where she was the purchasing manager.  She had moved down here for that job two years ago.  Smart girls were in demand everywhere and, though she liked New York, Atlanta was the happening place for young folks these days.  As for Dareen, Atlanta was the only place she had lived since her family had immigrated when she was two years old.  Actually she grew up in Dunwoody, a suburb; she was the youngest of six kids, all moved away from the area now -- she had two brothers in the Army -- except for her.  She usually stopped in with her parents a couple of times a month.  Though that next visit would have to wait for awhile.

        She spent the morning in a funk, watching TV, reading newspapers online -- she liked reading papers from overseas, you got so much more news that way -- and periodically looked down at her chest, wondering when those big things were going to go back down to normal.  But they didn’t.

        And those super powers.  She was forced to believe it really happened.  “This is too much for me, Allah, I’m just a normal girl.  If it really happened then I’m unique, the only person in the world who could do that.”  With a trace of black humor, prompted by the newscaster’s little joke, she thought of herself as being a “Super Hero” last night, like Superman or Wonder Woman.  But what kind of super hero flew around naked?  The most distinctive thing about those comic book creations was always their costume.  She had no costume.  A pretty blah super hero.

 

        And why had those powers left her?  She tried to think.  It seemed to be when she put those clothes on in the store.  Maybe it was only when I’m naked.  Hating herself for giving in to curiosity, she took off all her clothes and stood naked in the middle of her bedroom, then jumped.  Nothing.  Then the obscene bounding up and down of her breasts when she landed.  Those powers were obviously just that one time, maybe an immediate after-effect of the lightning.

 

        It made her think that perhaps her new physique was a temporary effect too which was a nice thought.  And she considered: I’ve been struck by lightning and I wasn’t killed; something to be thankful for.  She had been avoiding her morning prayer, not wanting to bare her soul, but now she finally unrolled her sajjada, or prayer rug, out from under her bed and had a nice calm pray, which focused on being thankful.

        She puttered around the apartment the rest of the day and felt better.  Her breasts didn’t shrink.  She decided that she was going to go to work the next day and looked through her closet for what to wear.  Dareen’s normal bust size was 34F, and as such she already had an arsenal of techniques to hide her breasts.  Blazers were a good strategy.  Or billowing fluffy blouses, loose and shapeless without being baggy.  Any strategy seemed useless with whatever size her breasts were now -- actually the size wasn’t all that different, just the fact that they stuck straight out and refused to be reined in by her minimizer bras -- but Dareen rose to the challenge and tried several combinations.

        “What do you think?” she said to a rather surprised Elly when her roommate came back from work at 5:30.  Elly was diplomatic as possible.

        “Maybe a looser blazer.”

 

        Looking at herself again in the mirror, Dareen knew that she had been deceiving herself.  She still looked like she had pumpkins stuck to her chest, like an over-siliconed bimbo.  She hated herself like this!

 

        Seeing Dareen plunged into gloom, Elly talked her into going to Alfredo’s to at least get her out of the apartment.  Alfredo’s was the world’s darkest restaurant; they had gone there maybe twice and joked about hardly being able to see what they were eating.  So they went.  Dareen, like any big-busted girl, had a sixth sense about when someone was looking at her breasts.  But she ate with Elly without detecting any undue attention.

        And now, on the second morning after being struck by lightning, Dareen Alkaras prayed on her sajjada to Allah for strength; dressed to hide her breasts as best she could; donned her sunglasses; took the elevator the five floors down to the lobby; and with a gulp and a deep breath, stepped out onto the bright morning sidewalk, heading for the subway stop.

4.

 

        The administrative offices of the Georgia State Regional Library, Atlanta: four doors, usually open, on the edge of a large room not open to the general public lined with low bookstacks strewn with seldom-used reference materials, on top of which were a series of out-of-date computers, not quite ready for disposal, but not connected or in use either.  A large room that no one has ever figured out what to do with.

 

        On the first door (“Dareen Alkaras” in small letters) is a finely-wrought color drawing of a hilly desert area with a tiny stone structure in the hill on the far right.  The title, “Waiting in Damascus”, is in little letters at the bottom.  Though depicting daytime, there is a crescent moon above with a small star between its horns.  In front of the tiny stone house is a yet tinier figure, looks like a woman in a long burka waiting for someone.

 

        Underneath the drawing, a rectangular rug swatch, with a complicated pattern.  If you look at it long enough, you will see that if you turn each little red-and-black pinwheel one fifth of the way, it becomes a mirror image of the pinwheel next to it.  Above the drawing, a recent addition, a small American flag.

 

        Inside the open door, a sparely decorated office with a computer and filing cabinet behind it, pictures of family members, including an old woman with twinkly eyes looking out from under a black veil, a poster on the wall of a big bouquet of flowers, then two college diplomas, a picture of an adorable little white dog lying on its back on the grass looking at the camera with a satisfied look, being that it is chewing on a huge bone, and right next to the desk a framed message, “One Day at a Time”.  Next to that, a little hand-shaped sign, “Lefties Rule!”

        The next door, “Jamal Nathan Jackson” in somewhat bigger and more permanent-looking letters, a picture of a crowd of people in a public square, a small American flag, and inside, another desk and file cabinet, a large orange and black rug tacked to one wall, at the front of the desk is a miniature ceramic football mounted on a tee, and then there were diplomas (not in Library Science, but Computer Technology), and over them the picture of Malcolm X shaking hands with Martin Luther King, a chance meeting and the only photo of them together.  The rest of the desk is a paper-strewn mess and on the edge is a little squeegee on which someone has scrawled, “Desk Clearing Machine”.

        Between Ms. Alkaras’s and Mr. Jackon’s doors is a large photo of James Earl Carter, Nobel Peace Prize winner and former President and someone we Georgians are very proud of, thank you very much.

        The third door, “Billy Stonewall Gibbs”, a photo of the “General Lee” from the old “Dukes of Hazzard” TV show, half-turned as it flies through mid-air, the Confederate flag visible on its roof.  Above the photo, a much larger American flag than the others.  Mr. Gibbs being on vacation, the door is closed.

        The fourth door, set a little further apart from the rest, “Katharine G. Hom, Administrative Director”, nothing else on it but a small American flag.  Inside, a very neatly kept office with black and white photos of a distinguished looking Asian man and his wife standing on a stage.  To their right is a flag on a pole, the Union Jack.  There are four diplomas on this wall, the first dated 1972.

        By 9:30 Mr. Jackson and Ms. Hom are in their offices.  Ms. Hom likes classical music and her radio is on.  Mr. Jackson doesn’t mind.

        Dareen was late this day.  She darted in around 9:45, quickly saying hi and then going into her office.  She thought about closing the door but that would draw attention.

        “Hi Dar . . . ”  Jamal got up and his lanky frame ambled over to her doorway.  “Are you O.K.?”  She had called in sick yesterday.  His glasses glinted in the overhead fluorescent lights and he was concerned.  “I like you new hair,” he said after some hesitation.

 

        Dareen looked up and smiled.  “Thanks.”  Jamal was so nice to her.  He had noticed the new violet luster of her hair.  She had tried to make the best of it by wearing it as plain as possible, combing it straight and long so that it went halfway down her back, not realizing that this style tended to turn men on more than any other.  She knew Jamal was trying not to look at her chest, and hoped her blazer was doing as good a job as possible of concealing it.  Yet it really was hopeless.  As she looked down at her current project -- some pages she had printed off the internet the other day -- she had to push them a little away from her so that her breasts didn’t block the view.  She suspected (correctly) that Jamal, like most men, had spent a lot of mental energy trying to guess what her bra size was and what her breasts looked like.  And now -- well, this was going to be difficult.

        The trip here was difficult too.  She couldn’t help noticing people trying not to stare on the subway, the occasional glance of disapproval (usually from an older woman) as if to say, “Those breasts are fake, you must be a topless dancer or a whore.”  A reasonable assumption; if they were real, she would hate them by now.  At least if she had been forced to heft them around since adolescence.  Dareen didn’t quite hate them, at least not yet.  Though she blushed when the usual “Good morning, Dareen” from the front desk guard seemed to catch in his throat.

        Dareen closed her eyes and took a breath, feeling her chest heave up and down.  I’ve just got to get used to this as long as it lasts.  She said a short prayer, “Allah, help me through this . . . ”

        Jamal and Dareen and Ms. Hom worked through the morning.  Dareen closed the door twice like she always did, for her morning and afternoon prays on the little sajjada she kept rolled up under her desk.  Ms. Hom came in once and pretended like everything was normal, but her boss was always something of a sphinx.  Not a bad boss, but she never laughed, rarely smiled, she was all business.

 

        The day ended.  Another trying ride on the subway.  Dareen was relieved to get home and close the apartment door behind her, only to find Elly in an uncharacteristically glum mood.  She was listlessly eating cereal in the steamy apartment, flapping her flip-flop against the floor, and reading the Democrat-Argus.  Dareen had read it this morning.  There was a big editorial about clearing out the topless clubs over in Buckhead, and as usual they implied that anyone who disagreed was morally corrupt or a child molester.  On page 2, meanwhile, was a big story about a girl who was making her way through college while stripping.  It had pictures.

 

        Elly looked glumly up at her roommate.  “I see you’re still the same.”

 

        Dareem went into her bedroom and stripped to her bra and panties.  Yup, still the same.  She turned on the air conditioner and got into shorts and her biggest T-shirt.  When she got out to the kitchen Elly got more expansive.  “I feel like there’s something wrong with me, like I’m in a dream.”  She looked up at Dareen and ventured a direct stare at her roommate’s breasts.  “You got hit by lightning and changed and, like, flew.  I say to myself, Please tell me this isn’t happening.  I couldn’t think at work today, I didn’t have any energy.  Dar, tell me this is all a dream.”

 

        Dareen felt Elly’s gaze and thought of trying to cross her arms in front.  But in dejection she looked down and then, as if in surrender, pushed her firm mounds out so that they seemed to protrude halfway over the table.  “No, it’s not a dream.”

 

        “You must have gone through hell today.”

 

        “I felt people staring.  But work was O.K.”

 

        Elly smiled a bit.  “How did Jamal react?”

 

        “You know how he is, he’s always nice.”

 

        “He’s probably jerking off now thinking about you.”

 

        “Oh Elly!”  Elly could be so crude sometimes.  She had visited Dareen’s office several times and had met Jamal.  “He WANTS you!” she had said to Dareen after that first time.  This time, though, she was not in her usual playful mood.

 

        Dareen sat down and brushed back her long straight violet hair.  “Can you go with me to mosque?”  That was in two nights.

 

        Elly was brought up Muslim too but didn’t really observe; she didn’t pray and hadn’t been to mosque in maybe a couple of years.  Dareen always went, as Elly would put it, “go mosquing”.  There was one nearby.  Sometimes when she saw her parents she went to the old one in Dunwoody, an hour away.  But her car, which Elly had gotten towed back after that night of lightning, was still in the shop.  Not that Dareen was into seeing her parents in her current condition.  But at mosque so many of the women went heavily clothed, she could really bulk up so that no one saw her new endowments.

 

        Elly cleared her throat.  “I hate to say it but maybe you and I can both use some mosquing right now.”

 

        The next day the air conditioning was broken in the library and it was a hothouse.  Jamal took off his tie, Ms. Hom took off her sweater.  But for Dareen there was nothing she could do.  She certainly couldn’t take her blazer off.  She was sweating bullets and in misery.  She even had to use a tissue to wipe the sweat from her forehead.  Underneath, her wide bra straps dug into her back, into her shoulders, the cups squeezed and encased her.  Clothes were just so uncomfortable with her new body.  Maybe she just needed things that fit better.  But it was hot, hot, hot . . .  At least since she didn’t sag any more she didn’t have that terrible heat rash problem on the undersides.  Still it was hot, hot, hot . . .

 

        Jamal asked if she would join him for lunch.  They limped along the sweaty, sunny Atlanta streets to the little diner on the corner.  Dareen had her sunglasses on, which allowed her to ignore people’s reactions.

 

        Jamal was the perfect gentleman as always and didn’t look at her body even when they sat down in the booth.  “Can I get you a drink?” the teenage waitress said, glancing casually you-know-where.  Jamal actually felt in the mood for a gin and tonic (his favorite summer drink) but was mindful of that “One Day At a Time” sign in Dareen’s office.  He had always decided it wouldn’t be right to drink in front of her.  So they both ordered sodas.

 

        “Hot . . . as . . . blazes,” Jamal said, using a napkin to wipe his glasses.

 

        Dareen nodded.  “It might be cooler if you shaved your head.”  Black men with shaved heads look so elegant, she mused.

 

        Jamal smiled and ran his hand over his medium-cropped hair.  “I tried it once, it didn’t help a lot.  Also my head is shaped funny.  There’s like a little dent right here.”

 

        The sweating girl smiled.  “You must be really suffering in those clothes,” he said.

        “Well I’m really modest.”

 

        It’s easy to eat light when it’s so hot.  They were halfway through their salads when Jamal finally said something.  “Dar, are you O.K.?  You seem different the last couple of days.”

        Dareen felt the urge to tell him something to explain her new appearance.  He deserved to know something.  She hadn’t even told him (or anyone else except Elly) about her upcoming breast reduction -- was that still going to happen?  Could she still get medical clearance for surgery?  Too much to process.  She decided to fudge it.  “I haven’t been feeling too good.  Some kind of bug.”  And felt miserable about saying such a lie.  Though maybe it was a little bit true.  No, it was a lie.

 

        “Hope you get better.”

 

        “Thank you.”

 

        A little later they got to talking about work.  Particularly that meeting with the higher-ups at the State Education Department last week.  The Homeland Security department was going to install filters and monitoring equipment in all the internet surfing computers in state libraries.  Well, one could see how that might be a good idea to track terrorists.  Everyone could see the inevitability of it.  A few months ago, Dareen and everyone else had been fingerprinted.  That’s just how it is these days.  Yet . . .

 

 

5.

 

        “I wish they’d just give the software to us, and then let us install it,” Dareen said.  She had been asking a few too many questions at the meeting until she got a stern look from Ms. Hom.  Probably for her own good.  It wasn’t a good idea for an Arab girl to appear too resistant to security measures.

        “Yeah, I just had a bad feeling about it,” Jamal said, though he hadn’t said anything about it at the meeting.  The guys from DHS were nice and seemed to “click” with Ms. Hom.  Billy Gibbs seemed supportive too.  “Or at least let us get a copy of the program so we know what is being filtered and monitored.  That’s what I like about you Dareen, you’ve got your own mind.”

        Indeed.  Dareen had noticed it herself -- she’d been at the job for a year, her first job after getting her master’s degree in library science, and in the past few months she’d become more sure of herself and had gotten a little out of her shell.  Last month was perhaps the ultimate -- she had actually written an angry letter to the Democrat-Argus.  They had been running an “expose” about the city schools and had printed essays by grade school kids showing misspellings and mistakes.  The names of the kids were shown, and photos.  Humiliating these kids was bad enough, but to top it all off, the reporters were not too educated themselves.  Her letter pointed out the misspellings in the reporters’ own articles and how one “mistake” pointed out in the essays (that Central America is in the Northern Hemisphere) was actually true.  They never printed her letter, of course.  But it still made her feel good to send it off.  She’d been feeling like there was a “new Dareen” emerging.  Maybe after that operation and with smaller breasts she wouldn’t have to be hiding herself all the time and could be even more assertive.

        And now this!!  An even newer Dareen, not in the least what she wanted.  She had wished for small breasts for ten years, but never so fervently as now.

        Sweating and feeling like an ingrate for lying to Jamal, she was walking with him on the way back, and while waiting for the light to change, he said, “I’ve got to get going on my invention.”

        “What?”

        “The ‘ice hat’.”

        “What?”

 

        “Ice Hat.  You lose most of your body heat through your head, right?  Well, if you would wear an ice pack on your head, like a soft helmet covering your whole scalp, with maybe a battery pack running from your shirt pocket to keep the refrigeration going, then you could stay cool on a day like this even if you have to wear a suit.”

        Dareen smiled and nodded.  And gulped -- that would feel so good right now.  She felt a little better back in the office, fantasizing about having an ice hat, staying cool while being strapped into these infernal clothes.  She thought about it even through her afternoon prayers.  “Mmmm . . .  Allah . . . ice hat . . .”  She even chuckled about it.  Allah wouldn’t mind.

        At about 4:30 Ms. Hom called her in.  And closed the door.  This was not good.

 

        Ms. Hom said, in her stilted manner, “Miss Alkaras” -- she never called anyone by their first name, it seemed.  “I can’t help but say this, but your appearance the last couple of days has caused me some . . . concern.”

        Sitting and squirming in the chair, Dareen played dumb.  “I don’t know what you mean.”

        As if she hadn’t said anything, Ms. Hom said, “It is important to maintain a professional appearance and not be too distracting.”

 

        Dareen looked down, which unavoidably meant looking down at her newly-protruding breasts.  She was on the spot now; she had to give an explanation.  There was no getting around what Ms. Hom was talking about.  Dareen thought of something, the truth, at least partway.

 

        “Ms. Hom, I’m going for a breast reduction operation in two months,” she said.

        No reaction from her stone-faced boss.

        Dareen’s voice went very low.  She hated talking about this, but she had to.  “I’ve had a problem with -- my breasts have been hurting lately so I’ve tried a new bra with more support.  I guess it kind of shows.”

        What a relief.  After a moment of more deadpan, Ms. Hom cracked a little smile, something she rarely did.  “You have a problem I’ve never had to deal with,” she said.  “Try to find a better way of hiding your body.  At least until your operation.”  Then she was back to her solemn self.  “Do you know when that is?”

 

        “No.”  The insurance folks were supposed to get back to her about that.

 

        “Tell me as soon as you find out.  Be sure to put in the sick day form.”  And the little scary meeting was over.  Dareen stiffly got up in her stuffy hot clothes and felt like her heart was in her mouth.

        The folks at mosque were always nice, though a little quiet.  Al-Hijia Mosque, one of three little mosques downtown, not a very imposing building.  There was an American flag strung up in an awkward place, along one wall, right where, the week after September 11, 2001, the mosque had put up a big banner: “We Pray for the Victims of This Terrible Tragedy”.  No one looked at the flag, which, it was painfully obvious, was put there to cover yet another attack of foul graffiti.  Elly, though she had never been here before, was also too tactful to look.

        Dareen introduced Elly to the usual crowd, the women who hung out after the service in the kitchen making coffee (that really strong old-country stuff) for the turban-wearing men who sat around talking while the kids were in the playroom.  She introduced Elly to Imam Tahir, a short, heavy and rather high-strung man whose sermons seemed always to be about the importance of family.  Made Dareen and Elly feel like they should find a man and start producing babies, and quick.  She laughed about it with Elly afterward.

        “It seems a little medieval,” Elly said, “these women who don’t say anything serving coffee for the men while they talk about the world.”

 

        “It’s not what it seems,” Dareen said.  “Mojgan and Hari and me, we roll our eyes sometimes.  The women aren’t really subservient.  Like Flavia Agnes says . . .”

 

        “I know, I know,” Elly said, taking her kerchief off as she headed back to her room.   Their apartment was really a one-bedroom; Elly’s room was really supposed to be the living room.  The only common area was the kitchen.  “I wish they’d actually ACT dominant, instead of leaving it to people to figure it out.”  She and Dareen went around and around like this sometimes.  Dareen had been much impressed by an essay she had read by someone named Flavia Agnes -- she always kept tabs on new books on Islam that came into the library -- and had copied it out for Elly to read, to no use.  Dareen kept seeing virtues in a religion that Elly had pretty much discarded as hopelessly sexist.

 

        “SHIT!” Elly said, emerging from her room.  “Guess what?”

 

        “No!”  Elly didn’t have to say it.  Once again, their air conditioners had blown a fuse.  Not something they should complain about, because they were only supposed to have the one air conditioner, not two.  Tomorrow, on the sly, they could again prevail on Pedro, the super, to re-set the fuse again.  But for now it would be a hot, stuffy night.

        Dareen tossed and twisted in bed.  She could survive only an hour before she had to throw the covers off.  Her body seemed about to burst out of her bra and panties under the bulky cotton pajamas.  She looked out the window, past the bars of the fire escape.  The lights of downtown glimmered in the distance.  A hot, muggy night.  Think cool thoughts like the ice hat . . .

 

        She hated getting up in the morning after not sleeping well.  What could she do to get to sleep?  Sometimes warm milk helped, but they were out of milk.  The solution was easy, actually, but she kept trying to push the thought out of her head.  She shut her eyes.  Then gave into temptation and did it.

 

        She dreamed she was flying over nighttime fields.  With cool rain hitting her from above and below.  Ahhhh . . .

 

        When she woke she remembered that she was naked.  In the dark, alone in her room, the modest girl instinctively curled her legs up and covered her breasts.  Then looked out the window again.  Through the open bottom half a slight breeze blew in.  Giving in to temptation, she put her arms to her sides and felt the gentle wind waft over her nipples.  Hmmmm. . .  She was a little aroused and thought about pleasing herself, something she did every few days, with silent fingers under the covers and then the blessed gasps.  She idly played with her pubic hair in the dark.

 

        She didn’t know what made her do it, but she got up and went over to the window.  No one could see her in the dark room, but looking out she saw there was no one to do the seeing to begin with.  The street was still, silent.  In the distance, an airplane descended on Hartsfield Atlanta Airport, ahead of its ripping the air with a far-away scorching sound.  She could see the wing lights, red on the left, blue on the right.  It kept her interest until it disappeared behind buildings.

 

        And now something really silly, she couldn’t believe it, but she found herself crouching through the open window and stepping out on the fire escape.  At least she could control her eyes, which searched below as her body did this silly thing.  Good, no one around.  She looked up and did a little hop to get out onto the metal-banded floor.

        WHOA!!  Up in the air twenty feet!  She looked down past her bare toes to the fire escape below.  She was floating.  Naked, over Boylston Street, in the middle of the city!  “I must still be dreaming.  But no . . . ”

 

        She twisted and held her arm out and shot over the street, over the row of buildings to Auburn Street, then banked and turned and flew back, landing softly onto the fire escape again with the pad of bare feet and the slight rebounding of large breasts.  It was so easy, as easy as breathing.

 

        “Maybe it isn’t a dream but it feels like it.  Why not?  I’m still hot and the air whooshing past feels so good!”  She decided to do a little traveling.  She hopped back into the room to check the time.  “Wait, let me get my watch.  I’ll stay out one hour, then back.  Can’t stop being Responsible Dareen.”  With the watch in one hand, she flew out again, way up to where no one could see her, even though anybody was around, then decided to stay away from the lights.  Clothed by the dark and her own dusky colored skin, Dareen banked a nice easy arc upward and out of town.

 

6.

 

        Unseen high over the Atlanta suburbs, the solitary human body glided quickly and silently several hundred feet up, like the largest of the birds.  Yes, there was the occasional bird up here -- hawks, geese, orioles -- she could see them even in the darkness of this moonless night.  The air was thick, sibilant, textured, humid, and with her arms out in front of her, holding her watch in one hand, she felt the rushing oceanic texture blowing back her hair, whooshing over her butt, whistling past her nipples at the tips of her large, firm, cantaloupe-sized breasts which hung down below, past her toes which she spread and flexed, feeling the wind go around each toe.

        Past Grant Park, Ormewood, Thomasville.  Dareen, a life-long (or almost life-long) Atlanta area resident and a bookish type who liked to read maps, could recognize the clusters of lights down there, the highways delineated by the lines of street lights, the black blank areas that she knew to be lakes or ponds.  She knew the vista from the few times she had looked from airplanes, but she had a full view now, not just through a little oval window, and there was no noisy engine, just her own naked self and her senses.

        And her sensuality.  Air this thick was like swimming in water, something she’d never done naked, of course, but she could imagine it would feel as good as this.  She stopped and stretched upright, arms and legs out, standing still in mid-air, looked down past her feet and still was amazed to see nothing underneath, nothing to hold her up, to keep her from falling down into that lake down there, nothing except her newfound super powers.

 

        She never felt so alive, as she hovered, her hard concave tummy breathing in and out.  She could see miles in each direction.  She could see that little flock of ducks heading southwest; what, they must be two miles away and she could still hear their quacking to each other, she almost felt like she understood what they were saying.  Now, she heard a little splish from that lake, a catfish swirling to the surface to catch a dragonfly.  “I feel sorry for the average person, I can see so much more, can hear so much more.”

 

        And she felt so much more.  What human had ever been lucky enough to feel all these sensations?  And to fly!  Lucky, yes, that’s what she was.  She was still modest Dareen, and would be mortified if anyone saw her naked like this, but there was no one to see way up here in the dark.  This was her own private world, way up here at night, out of town.  No, she wasn’t alone; she felt like the birds knew she was here, maybe even that catfish.  “Just me and the animals, no, just me and nature.  Something to be thankful for.  All thanks be to You, Allah.”

 

        Still hovering, she drew her knees up and put her head down, praying on a sajjada of air.  In the back of her mind she knew that this was not exactly a Muslim woman’s standard of modesty, especially conscious of a gentle breeze blowing behind against her exposed rear sphincter and her slightly-open pussy lips -- but that was only in the back of her mind and even that thought soon went away.  With her mind and body unified Dareen had the nicest, most reassuring, most relaxing and refreshing pray she probably ever had.

        Still kneeling on her sajjada of air, she brought her head up and then looked down.  In this position she was drifting downward slowly, closer to the lake.  It was probably thirty feet deep where it was directly below her.  It might make a noise, but . . .

 

        She didn’t have much experience with diving; because of her breasts she had generally avoided anything where she had to strip down to a swimsuit.  But she tried it, head first, pointed hands in front, she controlled her descent and . . .

 

        Aaaaahhh.  Her nude body knifed into the water and the coolness slid past her and then was all around her, into every crevice and pore.  What a relief from the hot night.  She thought of Elly, who no doubt having thrown her clothes off but was still sweating back in her room.  She wished Elly could feel this.  She wished everyone could feel this.  “What a nicer world it would be.  How could anyone be angry, anyone be hateful, anyone be time-pressed or worried or frustrated, if they could feel what I’m feeling, doing what I’m doing!”

 

        She slithered in sinuous snakelike motions, swirling the water into every little corner of her body, and saw the fish gliding by, fish that somehow didn’t swim away when they saw this large creature coming at them, in fact she felt like she was saying “hi” to them as she passed.  She descended to the bottom and felt the squishy moss of the rocks under her soles.  Then, flexing her muscles only a little to counteract her natural bouyancy, she walked along the bottom, as her hair billowed up and gracefully danced in a large plume over her head.  Though it had to be pitch dark she could make out the rocks and the weedy plants and felt like she could recognize and name each individual fish.  And there went that eel darting by . . .

        She suddenly realized that she had been under for maybe five minutes and still had no desire to go up to the surface for air.  Could any person comfortably hold her breath this long?  Yet another super power!  She laughed, baring her teeth, the giddy sounds reverberating through her head as they lugubriously gurgled outward to the water.  No doubt the fish heard it.  Still not feeling the need to breathe, she squatted down and fanned her fingers over some sea grass, feeling it play around her fingers, and looked down to where her pubic hair puffed out and rippled with the currents she had made.  She spread her pussy lips and felt her clit down there, hard and big.  A few diddles sent a thrill of pleasure through her body.  Another underwater giggle.

        She considered her watch, still enclosed in her other hand.  Was it waterproof?  She didn’t know.  She jumped up, intending to hit the surface, but again underestimated her own strength; she shot up out of the water and into the air until she stopped herself about fifty feet up.  Yes, the watch still worked.  I’ve been away an hour.  Time to get back and get to sleep.  I can do this again some other night.  Water was still coursing down her body down to her dripping big toes, from where it loudly plopped into the lake below.  There was no one around but she was worried about the dripping sound reverberating into the nighttime Georgia forest.  She extended her arms up and flew straight up, higher, higher, then banked to the left and cruised at a nice comfortable altitude as the air dried her off, the last spritzes of water flying off her nipples and toes.

        She approached the city.  Looking again at the watch in her hand, it was now 2:30 a.m., and seeing no sign of light as she turned into a sitting position to look at the eastern horizon, air pushing against her bare back, she decided to swing by downtown.  The skyscrapers were all dark, only a sprinkling of lit windows here and there, probably no one was there at all and the lights were left on by mistake or out of habit.  Wow, a view like from a helicopter, the streets below looked so tiny.  The air was a little warmer here, she was intensely conscious of that.  She felt it in her pores, in her sensitive nipples, her nostrils flared, she was enveloped in a heavier, warmer air now that was smoky and redolent of electricity and gasoline and exhaust.

 

        Then she made her big mistake.

 

        Idly fastening the watch around her wrist before heading back to the apartment (it was such a bother to carry it in her hand like this) she suddenly started sinking, losing altitude.  She stretched her arms out, kicked back with her feet, but down she went, down, down, down, and now she was spinning and tumbling out of control, she waved her arms in front of her frantically.  “Allah help me!  NO!  NO!”

        She quickly figured out the problem and managed to undo the watch, and again held it in her hand.  But no use!  This can’t be!!  What’s happening!  NO!!

 

        She saw the buildings rising quickly around her, the whistling air of doom in her ears, now down below there was a hard roadway, a big traffic circle, and she twisted and headed to the center of it and . . .

        The honking of a car horn was the first thing that registered.  Dareen raised her head a fraction of an inch.  Then knew enough to put it down again.  Her eyes blinked open to get used to the morning light and then widened in surprise and fear.

 

        She knew her situation immediately, panic flooding her in spite of the thudding pain where she had hit her head.  She was lucky to be alive.  But now!  With her quickening breathing she felt her breasts rubbing into the grass.  She dared to move her fingers.  Her watch was gone, no doubt it was thrown clear.  Again she told herself, “I’m lucky to be alive.“  Her eyes darted her and there.  In the morning light and on the ground she recognized where she was: the traffic circle at the Perimeter Center in downtown.  One of the busiest traffic spots in the city!

        The middle of the traffic circle was a grassy area surrounded by low shrubs.  She must have fallen headfirst and been knocked out.  Fortunately on the soft grass, she had survived.  And now!

        It seemed to be early morning.  On a Saturday, not too much traffic, yet there were cars and trucks circling around her as if to attack.  Or as if to get a full gawking view from several angles at this naked woman in the middle.  No, they obviously didn’t see her.  Now that she thought about it, few people have reason to look at what’s in the middle of a traffic circle.  Yet they would have to look OVER it, to see the cars on the other side.  And while their eyes were glancing that way . . .

        She shut her eyes.  “Oh Allah, please help me, I feel such shame.“  She was lying prone on the grass, her arms to each side, her legs splayed.  The riffing of the morning air against her nether regions told it all.  Her anus was on total display, so was her vulva.  Her big breasts were crushed under her, ballooning out to each side of her torso.  At least her nipples were hidden as they poked into the dewy grass.  “How do I get out of here?“

        She dared not move.  That would attract attention.  She was facing one of the entrances to the rotary; she could see drivers kind of look in her direction as they entered.  Did they see her?  How could they not?

        Naked in the middle of downtown in the broad daylight; afraid to move.  She needed help from someone.  But who?  What if she had her cell phone?  “Elly . . . please come get me.  I’m in the middle of the Perimeter Center rotary n-naked . . .”  Her situation would be laughable if it wasn’t so dire.  In her nervousness she flexed her toes, then quickly froze the movement.  In the intensity of her shame she blinked back a tear.

        She could be clearly seen through the shrubs.  And even if the shrubs covered her they would not have been much use because they were only about two feet high.  Seconds went by.  Then minutes.  She felt the warmth of he rising sun as it hit her butt cheek and then her left sole.  The terrified, mortified, modest Muslim woman thought she was being punished by Allah.  To fly around naked like that must be an offense.  Yet it felt so good and she’d had such a good pray up there in mid-air.

        Imam Tahir would talk about the importance of modesty often.  To the extent it wasn’t merely old-fashioned male oppression of females, Dareen had taken this modesty business as an instruction not to boast, not to be greedy, not to be showy.  But maybe covering up was in itself a good thing.  Certainly, if she hadn’t stripped in her bedroom, she wouldn’t be in her present fix!  But then again . . .

        “I’ve been seen.”

        “I’ve been seen.”

 

        She said that to herself again and again.  Cars were being stopped.  Something was going on above her line of vision.  It making no difference now, she turned her head.  A stopped police car, and an officer making his way across the lanes.  Dareen thought of what must happen next.  Arrested for indecent exposure, the call to Elly, the mark on her record, fired from the library, her parents would surely find out.  Maybe he thought she was a dead body, but he seemed surprised to see her head move and her eyes look at him.  Now he began to step over the shrub in front of her and began to say, “Young lady . . .”

 

        Dareen could think only of escape.  She jumped up, breasts bouncing, and in the same motion found herself going up, up, higher, over the traffic circle, looking down only for an instant at the astonished officer and then whirling her arms to the right and up and shooting the hell out of there!

        Eyes open in panic, the wind drying the tears off her face, Dareen got to well above the tops of the skyscrapers and looked around, then darted toward Boylston Street.  Maybe no one would see her way up here, even in daylight, but once she got down to her building it would be a different story.  Back through the fire escape, of course.  As she approached it she tried to figure out which one was hers.  They all look alike!

 

        She alighted on the banded metal floor and immediately crouched down.  She turned.  No one was looking; but that was just people outside.  Maybe someone in the building across the street saw her through their window.  Looking in to the window she saw it was Elly’s room, not hers.  She thought of going to her own fire escape but that would involve a jump and would attract attention.

        She tried to open the window and it was locked.  Still amazing herself with her newfound strength, with two fingers she bent and broke the metal catch.  She could explain it to Elly later.  Opening the window she gratefully hopped into the room.

        Elly must have gone out.  Dareen stepped around the piles of clothes and CD’s.  Elly was the opposite of Dareen, her room was a chaotic mess.

        The naked Dareen, relieved and a little shaky from what she had gone through, took a deep grateful breath, looked down at her protruding breasts, and thought about being back in her room in a few seconds and putting on clothes again.  “Sorry, Allah, I’ve been bad.  No more.  I promise.”

        She opened the door and stepped into the kitchen, flinging away one of Elly’s strewn T-shirts off that she had caught in her toes, and looked up.

        She was being stared at by Elly, standing there in her pajamas.  And by Pedro the super, in his T-shirt and jeans with the long string of keys.

7.

 

        Pedro Villareal was an amiable fellow of about 30 who lived with his wife Josefina and two kids in one of the basement apartments.  Though Elly knew her desire could never be fulfilled, she liked him a lot.  Even Dareen had to concede he was cute: a nice smile, lustrous black skin (he was from the Dominican Republic but his mother was Haitian).  Fine-looking dreadlocks that Elly had tried herself but just couldn’t manage; her hair was too fine.  Pedro had been up this morning to re-set the fuse box in the hallway, but it was a handy pretext for Elly to chat with him in the kitchen.

 

        That was in normal life. Right now was not normal, not with a naked woman standing in front of them.  And super-modest Dareen, of all people.  And what a Dareen!

 

        The two clothed young people, and the naked young woman, stared at each other open-mouthed for a prescient second.  Then Dareen muttered an agonized “Ohhh . . . ” and bent over and covered her breasts and crotch with her hands.  Bare feet slapped against the tile floor as she darted to the door to her room.

 

        This was an old building and it was a heavy, solid wood door.  Once again the frantic naked girl did not know her strength.  With a yank at the doorknob there was a loud ripping and shearing of wood and the door and its hinges separated from the jamb.  And now the knob, not designed for such stress, broke in the girl’s hand and the heavy door pivoted and started falling toward Elly.

 

        To save her roommate from serious injury Dareen quickly bent down and grabbed the door with both hands.  To remove any further danger in the little kitchen she held it high up over her head.  And then she stood there, not knowing what to do next.

 

        As her anguished eyes looked at her friends they could not help but look at the naked supergirl up and down.  Thinly muscled arms effortlessly held aloft a door that weighed almost a hundred pounds.  Sticking out from the thin brown torso were firm giant breasts, round and oblivious to gravity, that seemed to stick halfway across the tiny room.  A preternaturally tiny waist with a hard concave tummy fanned out to a pair of trim hips and a generous forest of violet-lustered pubic hair.  Thin but strong legs, perfect feet.  She was like an alien creature; so modest was Dareen, so completely she had always covered up, that they (especially Pedro) had been utterly unable to imagine what she looked like naked.  But this was indeed Dareen.

 

        As they could see from her familiar pretty face, now tense with shame as she continued to hold the door aloft. In fact she could have easily set it down against the wall, but still not fully conscious of her powers, she feared losing control of the door if she tried that.  For a few horrible seconds she stood there in the mortification of full frontal nudity.

 

        Elly’s mind finally unfroze and she acted to end her modest friend’s agony of exposure by running to the bathroom to get their largest towel.  Carefully darting behind Dareen, she reached way out in front to wrap it around the huge breasts and then around to the back.

        “Oh . . . oh . . . ”  With her powers suddenly doused Dareen’s arms shook and it was all she could do to heave the door forward, where it smashed the kitchen table, a terrific crash as door and table hit the floor.

 

        Bump! Bump! Through the floor came the thumping of Mrs. Burns (or her son Tyrone), evidently via a broom handle against their ceiling, a reliable complaint whenever something loud happened in the girls’ apartment.

 

        The towel barely could go around her, and went only from the tops of her breasts to mid-thigh, but it was welcome covering. Dareen clutched it to her chest and leaned forward into Elly’s comforting embrace.  “Sorry,”

 

        Pedro looked by turns at the towel-clad girl, the ruined door jamb, and the smashed table.  Only now was awareness dawning so that the memory of the exquisite naked form caused a stirring in his pants.

 

        “Bet you didn’t know how strong Dareen was,” Elly said with a smile.

 

        “Ay!  That door must weigh . . .” he said.

        “Sorry about that,” Dareen said. “I’ll pay for it.”

 

        After assuring them that he wouldn’t bill them for the broken door, Pedro left, bewildered, wondering what conclusions to draw from seeing Dareen emerge naked from Elly’s room, seeing her lift that heavy door, and how to go about fixing the jamb.  He was in a daze the rest of the day.  It was only that night, while Josefina was riding him in bed, that he concluded that the jamb must have been rotted out anyway, and that the pumping of adrenaline caused by the surprise of being seen by him and having to hide gave Dareen the momentary strength to rip the door out.  Of course, that still didn’t explain the part about Dareen coming out of Elly’s room naked.

 

        Still wrapped in the towel, Dareen sat on the floor next to Elly, sipping the tea Elly had made.  Elly guessed correctly that Dareen had been “out flying” last night.

 

        “You can fly only when you’re naked?  Do you mind?”  Elly touched the towel, hoping Dareen would give a demonstration.

        Dareen had it figured out by now.  “No, I have to be n-naked.”  She didn’t like saying that word, at least as it applied to herself.  “For a few hours.  Anything I put on me, even a watch, and I can’t fly any more.  I have to take it off and wait again.”

 

        “Wow.”  Elly wanted to see her fly, but knew that it would be too much to ask for Dareen to not only be naked again, but stay naked for several hours.

        Seeing her friend gradually regaining her composure, Elly said, “Is there anything I can do?”

 

        “I’m hungry.”  Dareen no longer having a door to her room, Elly tactfully retreated to her own as Dareen dressed.  Soon they were out getting a sandwich.

 

        It was around 11 p.m. when Elly was awakened by a knock on her door.  “Dar?”

        The door creaked open and Elly sat up in her bed.  “Jesus!”  In the darkness she could make out a shadowy brown, Dareen-sized object floating in, level with the top of the door.  As the dark form drifted nearer along the white ceiling, Elly could make out the hair hanging down, the two large round forms, the legs sticking out behind.

        “I’m your conscience,” the form said.  “Elly, clean up your room. It’s a mess!”  Then a low giggle.

 

        “Holy . . . ”  Elly said a couple of words in Urdu, the language of her childhood, words that would lose a lot in the translation.  Then she said, “Are you O.K.?” As if Dareen’s slow flight into her room was caused by illness and it was not Elly herself who was freaked out.

 

        The dark form descended a bit and straightened upright into a big “X”.  “I’m fine.  I had a nice pray.  Flying is a gift, not a curse.  And it came from Allah.”

        After a pause, Elly said, quite reasonably, “Where else would it come from?”  Then she reached out and turned her nightstand on.  In a split second Dareen darted to it and turned it off.  Which was comforting to Elly, actually; this was still Dareen, averting exposure.

        And now the dark form came down next to Elly, inserted gentle arms under her pajama-clad body, and they both rose together.  Elly quickly exhaled through clenched teeth, then grabbed Dareen’s hands with a death grip, looking down at the bed.  After clutching Dareen with the other arm, crushing her friend’s bare breasts against her cheek, Elly started breathing easier, realizing there was no danger.

 

        “El, do you want to go on a little trip?”

 

        Elly’s protest of “NO!” died on her lips.  All week she had thought about Dareen’s nighttime flying and wondered what it would be like.  And as for any danger, there was no one she trusted more than the sensible and always sober Dareen.

 

        “Hop on top of me,” Dareen said.  It felt odd having a naked woman underneath her but Elly positioned her prone body on top of Dareen’s, arms under to hook around Dareen’s armpits, bent legs clutching the sides of Dareen’s hips.  Dareen made a motion toward the window and, sensing the need for footwear before going out, Elly reached down next to the bed and slipped her flip-flops on, on one side then the other.  She had her long pajamas on; it wasn’t as hot tonight as last night.  From her perch Elly could sense the slight seismic tremors from the sides of Dareen’s breasts as Dareen lifted the window.

 

        Elly’s cry of panic was shushed by Dareen as they flew out over Boylston Street, then as Elly clutched ever tighter, they turned and arced over the city, air whooshing through Elly’s hair.  The astonished girl ventured a look down as the streets passed under them.  Her wide-eyed reaction of wonder was expressed in one word, repeated. “Wow, wow, wow.”

 

        “Akkk . . . please,” Dareen said.

 

        With the wind whistling by it was hard to hear.  “WHAT?”

 

        “YOU’RE CHOKING ME!”

 

        “OH.  SORRY.”  Elly moved her hands to Dareen’s shoulders.

 

        Dareen didn’t know how she did it, but she intended to go to the same pond as last night, out past Thomasville, and suddenly there it was below them.  She gently uprighted herself as she soft-landed at the water’s edge.  Elly tried to stand on weakened knees, straightening out her pajamas.

        “Watch this.  Don’t be afraid, I’ll be fine.”  Dareen flew up and dove into the center of the pond.  Minutes passed by and she didn’t come up, though Elly was not afraid for her, Dareen being perfectly O.K. as could be seen from rocks shooting up like rockets from the surface every few seconds.  Soon the dripping naked girl was up over the water and hovering over Elly, getting her wet.  “Sorry!”  Dareen landed next to her, water still coursing over the tops of her breasts, little waterspouts sloping off each huge nipple.  “And now for my next trick . . . ”  Dareen walked over to a large boulder on the side of the pond, as big as half a couch, and with encircling arms uprooted it, dirt falling from the bottom.  Shifting it back onto her left arm, she wound up and flung it across the pond and then some.  There were a few seconds of silence as the dull dark object completed its trajectory.  Then it landed with a loud dull thump on the other side.

 

        “I’m jealous,” Elly said with a smile.  “But maybe not.  Not if I have to be naked.”

 

        Dareen had almost forgotten about her nudity, but after hearing this remark, she crossed her arms over her breasts and crotch.  “Sorry,” Elly said.

 

        The view of the flight back was even more amazing, with Dareen circling over the warm, gasoline-scented city.  “Wow, wow, wow,”  And now Elly became nervous once more as Dareen descended on Boylston Street with the asphalt below seeming very dangerous from five floors up.  Landing with strong bare feet on the fire escape, Dareen skillfully pulled Elly into her room.

        Now she floated, with Elly on top of her, about three feet above Elly’s bed.  “Give me one of your flip-flops.”  Dareen then slowly slipped it onto one of her feet.

 

        “Aiee!”  Elly squealed as they both bounced down onto the bed. Dareen got up.  “Now watch.  It’s gone now.”  She jumped up and down, hitting the floor like a regular mortal.  This made her conscious of her bouncing breasts, and she brought her hands up.  On Elly each hand would enclose an entire breast; on Dareen each hand could cover only the nipple and areola.  “Got to get dressed.”  As Elly’s eyes adjusted to the darkness she saw her friend walk out, lithe bare back and tight butt cheeks, and with such a strong easy gait that for a second it almost seemed that she was proud of her nudity.

 

        They began to chat but then got the urge for pizza.  Fortunately Reilly’s, the place on the corner, was open until 3 a.m.  They sat in a booth near the window.  There were maybe six other people there, white folks at the other end listening to the TV on the wall, tuned to the Cobb News Network.  At the moment there was a film of the President of France, walking to the accompaniment of chicken clucking sounds.

 

        The TV acted to mask their conversation. “So now what?”

 

        “What about what?” Dareen said, chewing on her slice.

 

        “Are you going to be a super hero?”

 

        Dareen smiled.  That amusing thought had occurred to her before, the first time she flew after that storm.  “A super hero needs a costume.”

 

        “You can’t be Wonder Woman.  That’s already taken.  How about Naked Girl?”

 

        “Um, no.”

 

        “Mighty Tits?”

 

        “El!!”  Dareen smiled and gave her a mock punch on the shoulder then got back to her pizza slice.  Chew, chew, swallow.  “Being serious though, if this is a gift from Allah, I wonder what he wants me to use it for.”

 

        “I don’t think Allah exactly approves of naked women,” Elly said.

 

        “But like you said, where else can this gift come from?  And what do I do with it?  Just fly around for kicks?”

 

        “Maybe fight crime!  Like Spider Man!”  Elly preferred to joke around rather than deal with Dareen’s question.

 

        Dareen’s voice went low.  “Maybe fight crimes against Muslims. Like those idiots who keep defacing the mosque.”

 

        On the TV, the host of the show was saying, “Third world nations.  We should call them ‘TURD world’ nations.  Ever sit next to a Pakistani on the train?  Try not asphyxiating!”  Dareen had a stone face but Elly just rolled her eyes.  “Don’t let it bug you, Dar. No one takes that stuff seriously.”

 

        Dareen mused, “Maybe I’ll be an evil superhero.”

 

        Elly said, in a mock-newscaster voice, “Naked Girl . . . if only she had used her tits for good, instead of evil.”

 

        “El!”  They broke up giggling.  One of the guys watching the TV looked over, and smiled as he noticed that the girl with the long hair and the bulky sweatshirt seemed quite well endowed.

 

        When Dareen awakened, late Sunday morning, she had a funny feeling in her nipples.  It felt like bugs were crawling all over them.  A feeling she had before, recently.

 

8.

        She sat up, reaching forward to clutch the tips of her braless breasts as they pressed out against her white flannel pajamas.  Something was wrong, or about to be.  Though she scowled with concentration, she couldn’t sense anything more specific.  But the ominous feeling of foreboding was unmistakable.  Something bad was about to happen.

 

        She hopped to the kitchen, through the tacked-up blanket that served as her temporary door until Pedro fixed the old one, still holding her breasts. Elly had gone out. Thinking about what to do, it occurred to her that the tingling was exactly the feeling she had all over her body that stormy night just before she was struck by lighting, or by whatever that was. Only now it was just in her nipples, not all over.

 

        She said a short prayer. “Allah, please see fit to make my mind clear. What was wrong exactly?”  But nothing came to her. She ran to Elly’s room, still holding her bouncing breasts, and looked out the window, the window she had flown through last night.  It was a bright, bright day, not a cloud in the sky.  People were walking on the street below.  But somehow she felt the need to go back to looking at the sky.  So blue.  So clear.  Now the tingling got stronger.

 

        She had to do something.  Report it to the police.  But what?  With mounting anxiety she decided to get dressed and head for the police station.  Maybe it would come to her on the way.  As she got into her usual sunny-day outfit of bulky T-shirt, unbuttoned sweater and jeans and sneakers, she kept telling herself: no, this is not crazy.  “I’m not sure why I’m going to the police but I’m not a crank.  I’ve been given special powers and right now those powers are telling me something.  Of course, if that’s how I put it they’ll think . . . ”

 

        She brushed these thoughts aside and bounded out onto the sidewalk and walked briskly, ignoring the double-take by the occasional guy at her bouncing frontal assets.  The police station was five blocks away and she lumbered on up there, somewhat more slowly during the last block because “it” still hadn’t come to her.  What should she tell them?

 

        She stood there in front of the station like an idiot, hesitating about going in.  A deep breath.  The tingling was getting stronger.  Wait.  She just had to wait.  She decided to lean against the low concrete wall, below the surveillance camera, and wait.

 

        An officer walked by.  “Can I help you, miss?”

 

        “I’m . . . I’m waiting for a friend who wants to apply for her ID card,” Dareen lied.  “Her English isn’t too good and she wants my help.”

 

        With a little smile the officer said, “I understand,” and walked into the station.

 

        A moment later, Dareen saw it -- a little metal-bullet kind of rocket flying high over the city, vaguely familiar, and now she grabbed the bottom of her T-shirt and hesitated before pulling it off, she began trying to step out of her sneakers.  And then . . .

 

        In the middle of the sleepy sunny Sunday afternoon, the blinding flash of light, the intense hissing sound, were things that all Atlantans would remember the rest of their lives.  As the flash died the people who were outdoors wanted to panic but found themselves frozen in their steps.  9/11!  9/11!  9/11!  The numbers ran through everyone’s head, it was the first thing and the second thing and the third thing they thought about.  Hearts were in mouths.  Eyes closed, people prayed.

        When eyes opened there thankfully was no destruction.  But there was a quiet and in a moment everyone realized what it was.  The lights were out.  Air conditioners were silent.  Cars were stalled.  Inside, computer screens were dark.  Cell phones did not work.

        And the people of Atlanta slowly began moving again, making their way this Sunday afternoon in a city with no electricity, no radio waves, no frequencies, no lights, nothing except their own muscle power in a city full of the inert carcasses of dead technology.

 

        Dareen bunched up in a ball on her bed, shaking and crying. Oddly in her distress fatigue overcame her and she fell asleep. When she woke up it was early evening and she realized she was hearing the sounds of cars outside.  She reached over and turned on the nightstand.  The lamp went on.  Was that whole thing a dream?

 

        Evidently not. Elly came through the blanket curtain and wordlessly embraced her friend.

        “Did that really happen?” Dareen said sleepily.

 

        “Oh Dar, I thought the world was ending, I thought we were 9/11 right here in Atlanta,” Elly said.  “Shit.  I was over at the bodega and I actually got down and prayed.  Thank goodness it wasn’t a-an exploding bomb.  Everything came back after an hour or so.  Just some kind of electromagnetic pulse, the radio said.  But computers all over are still fucked up and the trains are still out.  Dar, I feel like going to mosque.”

        Dareen stood up and thought.  It would be a long walk with no trains, but . . . ”  Good idea.”  She needed something to comfort her now.  Some news would comfort her too.  “Let’s find out more.”

 

        They turned on the TV.  The local news reported the general chaos and how the city was getting back under control.  The governor had declared a state of emergency, the President was flying in.  They were finishing up an interview with the mayor.  “This is clearly a terrorist act and thank goodness no one was killed.  But this bomb has crippled our city and the technology is clearly a threat to our Western civilization.”  And now the screen switched to a newscaster who said, “No terrorist group has claimed responsibility for this bombing.  As the mayor just said, thankfully no one was killed, at least not directly.  Yet there are 17 people in area hospitals who are in critical condition because various life support devices were out.”

        “Oh no!” Dareen said, her heart thumping.  She returned Elly’s puzzled glance and gulped.  “Elly . . . I saw the rocket.  It was a rocket that exploded.  I could have . . . I could have stopped it.”

        Elly unwittingly glanced down at Dareen’s chest.  “How?  How could you know, so you could strip in time?  And even then, what would Naked Girl do about it?”

        “I know somehow I could have . . . maybe grabbed it and threw it far away.”  Dareen’s wet eyes looked at the screen.  Then she closed them.  “Please Allah, let those people in the hospital live.  Don’t let them die.”

 

        Elly embraced Dareen again and spoke into the back of her friend’s neck.  “Don’t torture yourself.  It’s not your fault.  It’s some bad person’s.  The people who sent that rocket.  THEY’RE to blame.”

 

        The phone rang and they broke the embrace.  It was Dareen’s mother, tearful.  It took a few minutes for Dareen to calm her down and reassure her that everything was getting back to normal in the city.  “I want you to come home right now,” she said.

 

        “Mom, it’s O.K.,” Dareen said.

 

        After a long silence her mother said, “Remember, be careful outside.”  Dareen didn’t have to ask what she meant.  After the Oklahoma bombing a few years ago, her brother Kes was chased down the street by some white guys.  Fortunately he outran them and got to his car in time.  Muslims, and Arabs especially, just had to be careful every time something like this happened.

        Dareen said, “I’ll be careful.  I love you, Mother!”  It always made her mother glad to hear that.  Dareen was the youngest child and, though it had been two years, her mother hadn’t gotten used to the last of her children now living away from home.

 

        After they hung up Elly said, “I think we both could use some prayer right now.”

 

        Dareen said, “And people around us.  Let’s go to mosque like you say.  I’m sure the Imam has it open at a time like this.”

 

        The went into their rooms and reappeared with their kerchiefs.  Elly moved to the TV to turn it off.  A minister was being interviewed.  In the rolling lilt of a Southern Baptist preacher he said, “That we must pray for the terrorists’ souls does not mean that they and their sympathizers must go unpunished.”

 

        “Shit, I don’t need to hear this!”  Elly meant to hit the “off” button on the remote but she hit the “Channel Up” button instead.  Now it was the Cobb News Network.  A skinny, long-haired blond woman in a very short skirt was thundering, “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them all to Christianity!”  “Amen to that!” said the adoring news anchor.  Elly finally hit the “off” button and the little kitchen was in silence.

 

        Elly and Dareen looked at each other.  Two women of Middle Eastern ancestry, going to mosque at a time like this, with the TV encouraging everyone to hate.  It was safer for them stay in the apartment, but the force drawing them to the mosque was powerful.  It was the kind of moment most of us have at some point in our lives, when we are called upon to be brave and true.  The two kerchiefed young women gulped and went out the door together and started the mile-long walk to Al Hijia Mosque.

 

 

9.

 

        “Allah we pray to you that our fears shall be eased, that we shall not suffer, that the cause of this terrifying bomb shall be discovered and laid to rest.”  It was the piping, accented voice of Imam Tahir, acting as Khatib for this special service, the sermon after the common prayers.  The little mosque was so crowded that there was no separation between men and women and no one could sit except for a few elderly people up front.  Dareen and Elly were packed in at the back.  They had gotten there just in time.  They craned their necks to see the Imam, standing not in his usual spot, but in the middle, next to his wife and seven young children.

 

        “I apologize for not being with you on September 11, 2001.  We were in Paris visiting family at the time when the terrible news came over the media.  It was afternoon in Paris at the time.  The next day was the day of mourning.

 

        “We went to the great square, several millions of us, and at 12:45 p.m. all the churches in Paris rang their bells.  Even the great church of Notre Dame, where the bells are rung only on great historical occasions, from there the bells were heard.  Now we Muslims have different associations of the sound of church bells, but at the time the resounding sound throughout the city could not fail to grab one’s heart.  The church bells stopped ringing and the whole of us, the whole of humanity, stood silently.  The entire country, the entire world in fact, stood together as if to say: We are all Americans.  And then a trumpet was heard, playing ‘taps’, the tune that is played in the military in honor of the dead.  It was too much for me, and for my wife, and we cried.  Many others did too.

 

        “We were all Americans on that day, and we are all Americans here now, and we at Al-Hijia must stand here in testament to those three young people, cousins of those in our mosque, who were killed that morning as they were working their jobs in that great building.  No matter whether we pray to Allah or to one of the other religions, no matter what race we are or where we were born, we are all flesh and blood, we all bleed, we all have the capacity to love and want to be loved, we have much, much more in common with each other than the differences.  That is what I learned, through and through, that day in Paris and all the Parisians and visiting foreigners who were there in that square felt the same.  The outpouring of sympathy for America, from all corners of the world, was amazing.  No matter what our differences, the people who died that day, and their loved ones, had the unconditional love of from many millions of people around the world.

        “For many of us here, America is the land that we chose, and it has been very good to us.  It is the land of new hope, of opportunity.  Think how free we are here compared to the countries we came from.  I don’t think anyone will disagree with that.  It is a shame on our people that the perpetrators of that terrible tragedy were Muslims. That kind of thinking is not unique to Islam, of course, one can only point to the Crusades and many more recent examples of Christians.  But no one, from Allah or from anywhere else, can kill innocent people.  It is a crime against humanity and against Allah.

        “These might be difficult times for us in America.  I do not want us to fall into hatred and cynicism.  There is much misinformation.  But I want you to look at your children.  I will look at mine.”  With a quaking voice he looked down at his youngest, a very cute little girl of two.  “Think of how much you love her, or him, and remember that a white person loves his little child just as much.  Now tell me, if you thought that child was in danger, would you not fight?  Would you not be defensive?  Or rather be on the offensive?”  He turned back to his flock.  “White persons who have been misinformed may be under that impression and may act accordingly.  It is for each of us to say, ‘No, you are wrong about that.  You do not know me, though you think you know me.  Let me be your neighbor.  Let me into your life as a neighbor.’

 

        “This is not only the command of Allah but it is also practical good sense.  No one knows who is responsible for this . . . bomb, but though it does not appear to destroy buildings or people, it seems designed to disrupt communication and modern life.  This could be here in Atlanta or in Cairo or Ankara or in Mecca itself.  We might be in for a long period of uncertainty and fear.  As Muslims in America we should not barricade ourselves.  We should not withdraw into insularity and make people suspicious.  Remember that most people do not hate us.  Go about your lives and be fair and just and happy with others just as you are with your own people.  Smile and be polite to everyone.  It is simply a good idea.  And if something is done wrong, do not be afraid to go to the police.  If we trust them they will be far more likely to return that trust.  Do not try to take the law into your own hands.

 

        “And now, I wish to make a prayer for the seventeen people lying in critical condition in hospitals . . . ”

 

        It was in the middle of this silent prayer that one could hear a phone ring in the back room.  Abdi, a tall black man whose family was from Sudan, silently but quickly strode in and whispered into the Imam’s ear.  The Imam closed his eyes and put his hand onto his heart, then spoke.

 

        “I must inform you that there has been a bomb threat made.  We must leave immediately.  You know how to proceed.”

 

        Dareen and Elly saw the quick about-face as people pressed toward the back.  The two young women were all the way back, and they moved aside to let Hasfan and Keni, the ushers, open the double doors.

 

        Dareen knew this was false.  She just knew it.  And now the sensible, shy part of her suddenly was forced to watch helplessly as she heard herself saying, “Wait! Wait!”

 

        To hear a woman speak out in mosque was unusual enough; the Imam didn’t strictly forbid it but it just was not done.  But Dareen moved forward, resetting her kerchief, her breasts bulging forward under her loose-fitting black smock as she took a step or two ahead.  “Wait.  This can’t be real.”

 

        “Dareen,” Imam Tahir said, “What are you saying??”

 

        “How could they plant a bomb so quickly?  This is not a regularly scheduled service.  And why in this little mosque.  No, this is unrelated and not real.  They’re just trying to scare us, keep us apart and scattered!”

        For a long second the mosque was silent except for an occasional shifting foot.

 

        “Dareen, we must take any threats seriously. And many of us have children.”

 

        The sensible Dareen took over.  And felt like she had really made a fool of herself.  She was right -- there was no bomb.  But were they going to just take her say-so?  Of course they were going to leave.

 

        “I want to stay here,” Dareen said as Elly looked at her with disbelief.

 

        The Imam came up to her.  “Dareen, I see your reasoning.  It probably is a false alarm.  But we can’t take the chance.”  And so Dareen and Elly left with everyone else.  When everyone was out Abdi locked the door.

 

        It was then, with a crowd of Muslims outside the mosque and being an easy target, that what sounded like the loud report of gunshots was heard.  Women screamed.  Everyone hit the sidewalk.  Then silence.

 

        Now the gunshot sound again, further away, and everyone saw what it was.  It was a large truck speeding down the avenue, probably going too fast, its heavy tailgate flapping on the metal bed with a thunder-like boom every time it hit a bump, resounding off the surrounding buildings.

 

        Dareen lay in bed, not able to sleep, and thought about the crowd in Paris, and the bomb that the media were calling the “pulse bomb” and remembered the tingling in her nipples and last Monday night, that crazy man with the big bullet-shaped rocket, and her frantic run with a broken heel through the thunderstorm and getting raised up off the ground before being hit by lighting, raised up off the ground as if chosen for a special purpose.

        She turned off the nightstand so that the room was in total darkness, then quickly, as if to make the least fuss about it, took off all her clothes, fought the urge to cover her breasts or her crotch, waited for the hours to pass, and then she still lay there, concave tummy breathing in and out, breasts topping high and firm like little mountains above the rest of her, trying to stay awake to what might be calling.

10.

 

        Looking up at the mountains, in spite of the wind blowing around them which mussed one’s hair, one saw the circling eagles, the blue sky with clouds.  Tremors shook the mountains at slow regular intervals but oddly it was not frightening, just expected.  It was such a pleasure to lie on one’s back on the cushiony ground of this far planet, looking up, way up, the mountains topped with snow, only this snow was dark like chocolate.  Eagles landed on them and drank, fastening their large alien mouths around the tips.  Now more wind, another tremor, up and then down, and the eagles with their six wings flew off to circle the brown mountains yet again. . .

 

        Dareen didn’t have to be told; though Monday was her day at the new library branch in Alpharetta, she would be more needed at the main office to help repair the damage caused by the “pulse bomb”.  The operation was organized by Jamal, who was not a librarian but a computer database specialist; Ms. Hom and Dareen worked under his guidance as they tested drives, tested and restored the accessibility of every known database.  It was hard work for three people; Jamal even found himself saying, “Too bad Billy isn’t here.”  During his vacations Billy Gibbs would fall off the edge of the earth, out of contact.  He was probably drunk on corn whiskey at some bluegrass festival, not even having heard of the bomb.

 

        Fortunately the damage was not total.  Not much data had actually been erased.  It was more like somebody had shut off the electricity everywhere for a time, though the problems that created were bad enough.  Jamal kept his radio to the news all morning.  The city was slowly getting back to normal.  Thankfully, and much to Dareen’s relief, those people in hospitals in critical condition had all recovered.  But the day seemed so unreal.  In a way it hadn’t really sunk in on people, the fact that a strange new anti-technology bomb had really been exploded right over downtown Atlanta, without being detected.  Where did it come from?  Nobody knew.  Except, of course . . .

 

        Dareen was very tense around Jamal.  She ached to tell him her secret.  But it was just impossible.  Yet she owed it to him, somehow.  It was now a part of her life as real as what she was doing this minute.  She had lain awake half the night, naked in the dark, her super powers at the ready, feeling the warm wind waft over her breasts from the half-opened window.  Certain that she would be “called” to do something, in a way hoping, so as to relieve her guilt at not stopping that bomb somehow.  Her mosque was in danger.  People she knew and cared about were in danger.  It was a vague but strong feeling.

 

        Finally she could no longer stay awake and had that weird dream: her breasts as mountains.  She looked down at her chest, the size hardly concealed by her sweater and the frilly shirt underneath.  Something was about to happen, she just knew it.

 

        Perhaps Jamal sensed that she wanted to say something.  Or maybe it was because he had just turned the radio off after hearing the commentator, apparently the actual news anchor, say, “We’re still waiting for area Muslim groups to denounce this dangerous and potentially tragic act.”  But in the middle of everyone’s checking the system and backing up files, he came over to her office and said, “Anybody been bothering you?”

 

        Jamal was a minister’s son, very conscious of people’s religion, respectful of Dareen’s.

 

        “No,” she said.

 

        “How about the mosque?  No vandalism?”

 

        “No.  Well yes, a few days ago, but that happens every now and then.  We had a special service last night and they were all scared.”  She looked up at Jamal.  “Like everyone is scared.”

 

        “Yes, it was scary. I was out at my folks’ and the lights flickered.  Where were you?”

 

        She bit her lip.  She couldn’t tell him she had actually seen the rocket.  “Near our place.  I heard a whistling sound.”

 

        “Bet your parents are worried.”

 

        “They want me to stay with them.”

 

        “I don’t blame them.”  Jamal looked at Dareen with concern, though partly he was appreciating the beauty of her big brown eyes.  “Look Dar, why don’t you stay with them.  The city is a terror target.  No two ways about it.”

 

        Dareen took a deep breath, looking down and now noticing her breasts surging up at him.  “No thanks.”  I can take care of myself, she thought, with my new powers.  Jamal went back to work.  He was so sweet, so concerned.  And good-looking.  At times she wished she could feel “attracted” to him, but she just wasn’t.  Was it because she was just too shy?

 

        She had her morning pray, and shortly after that the two federal cops came.

 

        They were white, of course, but not in the dark suits one might expect.  One even had a closely-cropped beard.  At first she thought they might even be salesman for some software.  But salesmen usually came in ones, not twos.  Ms. Hom appeared with them in her doorway.  “I told them they could only be a few minutes, we are very busy,” she said to Dareen.  Jamal’s tall form lurked behind attentively.

 

        “Dareen Alkaras?  Ms. Alkaras, could we ask you a few questions?  Alone, of course.”

 

        Dareen took them to one of the microfiche rooms where there was a little table with chairs.  “What’s going on?” she said.  Her first thought was that someone had done something to the mosque.

 

        “We just need to ask some questions,” the bearded one said.  He flashed the same badge he had shown the very concerned Ms. Hom.  “Detective Samuelson, FBI.”  Dareen found herself trying to memorize the badge number.  “What is your address?”

 

        Dareen’s eyes flashed.  Why are they questioning me?  It obviously had something to do with the pulse bomb.  Were they just grabbing any Arab they could find?  But then again, she did have something to hide.  Being uncooperative would only get her into trouble.  Just answer the questions.  “36-E Boylston Street, Atlanta”.  She hated giving that address, so close to her bra size.  To hear a big-breasted woman say “36-E” . . .

        “How long have you lived there?”

 

        “A year and a half.”

 

        “Does anyone share that apartment with you?”

 

        “Yes.”

 

        “What is that person’s full name?”

 

        Dareen just couldn’t go on without objecting.  She wasn’t going to drag Elly into this, no matter what it was.  “I insist you tell me what this is about.  Is this a criminal investigation?” she found herself saying.  And kicking herself for saying it.

 

        “We don’t have to tell you that,” the clean-shaven agent said.  “But you do have the obligation to answer.”

 

        “Otherwise we will have to, uh, take you in,” the bearded man said.

 

        “You have to tell me my rights,” Dareen said, again kicking herself.

 

        The two agents looked at each other.  “Your knowledge of the law is, shall we say, out of date,” Detective Samuelson said.  “What is the person’s full name,” he repeated.

 

        Dareen exhaled.  “Yasmeen Randhawa”, she said.  “Elly” was a childhood nickname that stuck.

 

        “Is this a male or a female.”

 

        “Female.”

 

        “Spell that please.  Is she your friend or a relative?”

 

        “Friend.”

 

        Samuelson was writing all this precious information on a closely-held little pad.  Dareen didn’t know it but his partner was also wearing a wire.

 

        “Are you a member of the Al-Hijeera Mosque?”

 

        “That’s Al-Hijia,” Dareen said.  “What business is that of yours?”

 

        “Please, Ms. Alkaras, I ask that you be cooperative,” Samuelson said.  Our task is very important.”

 

        Maybe these folks were just following up on a lead.  Well, whatever they were after, it was a dead end.  Best to give answers and help them come to that conclusion.  But then they asked a question that made Dareen’s jaw drop.

 

        “Ms. Alkaras, do you have any knowledge of aviation?”

 

        “What??”

 

        “Just answer my question.”

 

        She caught her breath, then said, “Of course not.  I’m a librarian.”

 

        The clean-shaven agent shot a quick look down to her breasts, which made her angrier still.  Then the two agents looked at each other.

 

        “Thank you, Ms. Alkaras,” Samuelson said, flipping closed his pad.  “We will contact you if we need anything further.”

 

        “Did anything happen to the mosque?”  She just had to ask it.

 

        “Unfortunately Ms. Alkaras, it is for us to ask the questions, not the other way around.  Good day.”  Dareen showed them out.

 

        When she got back to her office Jamal and Ms. Hom quickly appeared in the doorway.

 

        “They asked my address, and Elly’s name, and then they asked me if I knew anything about aviation,” she said, shaking a little.

 

        “What!”  Jamal was outraged.  Ms. Hom was surprised.  “Just because you’re Arab-American, they think you fly airplanes into buildings??”

 

        Dareen knew the answer was a little more complicated than that, at least as her relationship with the topic of flying was concerned.  She gulped.  “It’s just a dead end they’re following.  I’ll tell Elly they might be calling her.”

 

        Ms. Hom said, “I don’t understand this.  Why would they be questioning you?”  She seemed uncharacteristically at a loss.  Then she said, “Ms. Alkaras, we support you.  I will talk to the Education Department about this if you want.”  She was about to say, “We cannot have federal police coming in here and questioning innocent librarians,” but of course, there was nothing that could be done about that.

 

        “No thanks,” Dareen said, just wanting the whole thing over.  They went back to work. Not that she could take her mind off what happened.  Fortunately all this database accessing was pretty mindless.  A little later she closed the door, took out the sajjada, and had a long pray which made her feel a little better.

 

        It also made her feel better when she got home and broke the news to Elly.

 

        “Great,” Elly said, who because of her temperament was not as nervous about this as Dareen was.  Both she and Dareen knew people who had been “questioned” since 9/11.  “They’ll probably think I’m an Arab too.  What if I give my answers in Urdu?”  This was a pet peeve of Elly’s.  “Like, duuuhhh!” she would say, relating scenes she’d had with her co-workers.  “Look at the freaking’ map.  From Pakistan you have to go through Afghanistan and Kazakhstan and all the other ‘stans’, then go a thousand miles through Iran, before you get to any Arabs.”

 

        “If they call, just cooperate.  It’s a dead end,” Dareen said.  She smiled a bit.  “Don’t be a wise-ass with these guys.”

 

        Dareen went out later to the mosque, just to see how it was.  No, nothing had happened to it.  Just the American flag covering the graffiti like before.  She quickly looked around if the place was under observation.  Nope.  Nobody sitting a car observing the mosque.  Or her.

 

        After night fell she got back behind the curtain and curled up on her bed, turned off the light, then did the only thing that gave her her special gift from Allah.  She took off her shoes, socks, pants, sweater, blouse, bra, and panties, and sat there totally naked.  Then she contemplated the skyline outside the window.

 

        A motion behind the curtain.  “Dar?”

 

        “Don’t come in,” she said.

 

        “Are you nakey - nakey?  Time to do your Naked Girl thing?  Can I come along?”

 

        “Don’t come in.  No, I’m just thinking.”

 

        “It’s not like I haven’t seen you in your super costume before,” Elly pointed out.

        “Well . . . you know me,” Dareen said.

 

        “Good old modest Dar.  O.K., good night.”

 

        Dareen sat there and felt her powers returning.  Please, Allah, give me strength.  She knew she would be called, she just knew it.  She put on the nightlight and took out her Koran, to one of her favorite verses.  “We believe in Allah, and the revelation given to us, and to Abraham, Isma’il, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and that given to Moses and Jesus, and that given to all the prophets from their Lord: We make no difference between one and another of them: And we bow to Allah.”  She didn’t know why, but it seemed fitting.

 

        She turned out the nightlight and lay down, looking up at her two brown mountains. And then the call came.

 

 

11.

 

        It wasn’t a tingling in her nipples, like with that “pulse bomb”.  But it was a definite feeling that something bad was happening, or about to happen, and she was needed.   Dareen looked out her window and gingerly crept out to the fire escape.  Nobody was out there to see her.  She quickly thought of those FBI men who now knew her address, and looked down on the street.  There didn’t seem to be anyone observing her window.  She got up and crouched, her toes curling over the railing, and jumped up, breasts bouncing over her concave tummy as she stretched out to full length.

 

        Despite her uncertain yet serious mission she couldn’t deny the sensual, bracing feeling of ascending and banking and swooping over the city, the warm, gasoline-scented air whooshing and caressing her naked brown skin.  Arms stretched in front of her, legs back, she peered carefully at the streets below, her eyes picking through the lights that shimmered with the convection currents of the warm night air, the tops of cars and trucks, the darkness of the rooftops.  She wished she had a better idea of what she was looking for, what she was being called to do.  It was some kind of pure animal homing instinct.

 

        Now the instinct told her to zero in.  It was that corner, that dark street with no lights.  Just past downtown.  She knew how to slow down and land, putting her feet forward, extending her arms up and out in an “X”.  As her toes landed on the dirty sidewalk she saw them half a block away like it was close up.  It was a mugging and possibly worse, two men in dark clothes grabbing a woman, one stuffing cloth into her mouth, high heels scraping uselessly against the pavement as they dragged her toward an alley.  Dareen had only a moment of fright -- like any woman would -- before she realized her invulnerability.  In two bounds she was upon them.

 

        “What the -- ?”  Seeing a naked woman charging them was about the biggest shock either of the young criminals had ever experienced.  Almost on instinct, one of them raised his gun and fired, a really stupid thing to do in any event, but here it just bounced off the girl’s breast, making it jump and jiggle.  To Dareen it only stung a little like being hit by a thrown pebble.  And now she flew forward and grabbed them by their belts and ascended.  Now it was the men who were shouting in pure fear and dire surprise.

 

        The lady was middle-aged, looked like a waitress coming home from work, Hispanic in features.  Her dress was ripped and Dareen could deduce what she had prevented from happening.  Hovering over her, a little ridiculously like a naked Tinker Bell, Dareen said, “Did they hurt you, Ma’am?”  Having momentarily forgotten her nudity, she took the woman’s look of amazement as an inability to understand English.  Fortunately Dareen knew some Spanish from college; she used to practice it on her Hispanic friends.  “Bien?  Hacen dano a usted?”

 

        In fact the woman understood English perfectly well but, how does one react to a flying naked girl?  Forgetting about clutching her dress together, she looked up open-mouthed and after a second or two remembered to shake her head.

 

        “Me voy a policia,” Dareen said.  The men shouted again, more like a scream, like you hear on roller coasters, as Dareen flew them up and out.  Somehow she knew where the nearest precinct was, and swung around to it, being playfully cruel to these beasts by hanging onto only their belts that stretched precariously away from their pants.

 

        She kicked the double doors open with a strong bare foot and strode in to the desk sergeant, throwing the two would-be rapists onto the floor.  “I found these on 17th Street, between Park and Federal,” she said, wondering for a moment how she knew that information.  “They were trying to rape a middle-aged Hispanic woman.”  She realized she sounded like a cop herself.  But that was what this sergeant needed to know, wasn’t it?  “But she’s O.K.”

 

        The assailants cowered on the floor.  The sergeant, a tired wrinkled man in his late fifties, looked at them for a moment, “Johnstone, is that you?”  He recognized an old face, now out on probation and then looked up at the naked girl with shock and contempt.  “Girl, I’m about to arrest you for indecent exposure.  I don’t know what club you’re from . . . ”  And then he got fixated on her breasts.

 

        Dareen’s eyes darted down and in a panic.  She quickly covered her breasts and her crotch.  Not wanting to show her bare butt, she backed out of the vestibule and jumped and flew off.  The sergeant’s eyes popped open.  He huffed outside as fast as he could, just in time to see the thin, full-breasted form disappear over the buildings.  The distant whoosh of air left a silence that was eerie.  Was he losing his mind?

 

        When he got back in, Johnstone was standing up.  “It’s real, man.  That chick was flying!”

 

        The sergeant looked at Johnstone, and at his confederate.  “Hankins!”  Then saw the gun in Johnstone’s hand.  The sergeant grabbed it from him and they calmed down and the sergeant gave him a familiar, serious look.  Johnstone had violated probation, big time.

 

        It was hard to fly while clutching one arm over your breasts and another over your crotch, Dareen quickly learned, yet as she headed home it was hard to undo the response her sense of modesty demanded.  Once she got the message she was needed, she just had to do what she had to do, and until reminded by the sergeant’s stare, she had forgotten all about her nudity.  After all, a woman was about to be raped -- so what if I’m naked?

 

        Actually, a big deal.  Hardly anyone had ever seen Dareen naked in her entire life.  Which was why that incident holding the door up in front of Pedro and Elly had been so tramuatic.  And now that group included that woman (well, that wasn’t so bad) but those two bad men, and worst of all, in the bright fluorescent light of that police station, the desk sergeant.  She cringed at the thought that he believed her to be some kind of nude dancer or prostitute.  She had never been so totally shamed.

 

        And yet . . . she had done the right thing.  She had saved a woman from a terrible trauma.  And could only have done it naked.  Why, Allah?  Why such a predicament?  Why can I only do good while violating dozens of Koran injunctions against brazenness or shamelessness, especially in women?

 

        And she somehow expected she would be called to do something like prevent another pulse bomb from exploding.  But when she got the call, although she apologized to that woman in her heart for thinking this: it was only a run-of-the-mill crime, the kind that has always happened, especially in big cities like Atlanta, that had nothing to do with getting hit by lightning or that mad scientist guy or that tingling in her nipples.

 

        When Dareen climbed back into her bedroom window she immediately dove under the covers.  She felt her powers ebbing and then going away.  Good, I’m back to being a normal girl.  She thought and thought and said a little prayer and then, calmed down, drifted off to sleep.

 

        It was a hot night and she awoke to throw back the covers, sweating.  She put on her shortest, coolest nightie but it seemed immodest.  Yet it was hot, too hot to even think about strapping herself into a bra.  Again she drifted off to sleep.

 

        In the morning light she got a crazy idea.  Yet it seemed fitting.  Hanging in her closet was a thin full-length burka with a veil.  She had gotten it from an aunt who was liberalizing and had a bunch of them she wanted to dispose of.  Dareen felt drawn to it and decided to take it.

 

        She stood next to it in her short nightie, touching the thin black material.  Back where she was born, Syria, it was brutally hot in July.  She had heard from cousins that to beat the heat some of the more adventurous women went around with nothing on underneath.  Dareen found herself eager to see what that would feel like.  All covered up and still comfortable?

 

        She flung it on over her head and it draped over her nude body.  A quick look in the mirror over her dresser and she adjusted the veil, moving it up to the bridge of her nose.  Only her eyes were showing. She thought then of what had been told to her many times, that she had pretty eyes.  Now, the eyes showed just a trace of narrowing at the corners, the sign that she was smiling.  Yes, she had never felt so pretty.  Just my eyes, my big brown pretty eyes.  And all covered up, aaahhh.  She gulped.  It might be a tool of male oppression, this burka, but in some ways it is quite a sexy fashion.

 

        She looked down and saw her bare toes poking out the bottom.  Pointing to the kitchen, and the ritual of making coffee.  She could drink it by lifting up the veil.  Having a blanket curtain, instead of a door, made this scene seem even more old-country.  She pushed through it.

 

        She had forgotten that Elly would be there, at the table in front of the little TV, in her short shorts and T-shirt, eating cereal -- which she could hardly keep in her mouth as she exploded with a big snorting laugh.

 

        Dareen looked down.  The burka was made for women with more normal dimensions, obviously.  It was loose and flowing except around the bust.  Her breasts pushed forward like balloons, stretching the fabric that was thin enough that the big dark circles of her areolas could be seen clearly.  The huge nipples stuck out, cockeyed, nearly poking holes through the thin black cloth.  Dareen’s outfit didn’t exactly hide her body like it was supposed to.  Quite the opposite.  If there was a magazine like “Maxim” or “Playboy” in fundamentalist Islamic countries, Dareen right now probably looked like the cover girl.

 

        She had to admit it was funny.  And yet, keeping the air of mystery, she met Elly’s eyes with smiling eyes of her own, and silently padded over to the table and sat down.  They ate while watching the TV.  Dareen permitted herself a sigh -- again, the Cobb News Network.  This time the chicken clucking sounds were accompanying footage of a politician who had opposed the war with Iraq.  He walked with a limp.  They didn’t say this, but it was because he lost part of his leg while fighting in Vietnam as a young man.

 

        Now the local news.  And not your typical beginning.  A cartoonist’s rendition of a girl flying through the air, naked except for a mask and thigh-high boots, and the fanfare of movie music.  The girl was turned a little so her breasts can’t be seen, nor her crotch.  “She must be a super hero,” the anchor man began.  “Folks, this cannot be believed but it’s been corroborated and must be true.  A rape and mugging in progress in the East Downtown area was foiled by a NUDE woman who, and this again is corroborated and true folks, FLEW without the aid of any visible means of propulsion, stopped the crime before it began, and carried the perpetrators to the Ninth Precinct House.”  Now mug shots of two shady-looking black men.  “Kendrease Johnstone and Taurus Hankins, men with a long previous criminal history, have been charged and are being held without bail.  Before being incarcerated they confirmed the story, as has Sergeant Philip McMickle.”

 

        A wrinkly old cop, shaking his head as he tells his story to the microphone, trying as best he can to maintain his standard this-is-how-you-talk-to-the-press copspeak.  “The, uh, perpetrators were brought in by a, young female, uh, without clothes.  She then jumped off the front step of the precinct house and I saw her achieve a, uh, flight over the Barnham Building.  The flight was witnessed also,” he added quickly, “by Officer Spinella who was outside.”

 

        The newscaster continued, “This is believed to be connected to the incident of last week, when the perpetrator of a convenience store robbery in the Alpharetta area turned himself in after reporting being apprehended by a flying nude woman.  That man, currently under observation at Modoc Psychiatric Center, is being questioned again.  So are the two suspects from last night.  None of them has been assigned a lawyer, federal authorities having taken charge of the prosecutions under the Patriot Act.

 

        “In addition, there was an incident later last week when a nude woman was seen lying in the garden in the middle of the Perimeter Center Traffic Circle and then flew into the air and out of sight.  The officers who were about to apprehend her on the obvious charge, indecent exposure, have now come forward with that story.

 

        “To return to last night’s attempted crime, the victim, Isabel Cortes-Hernandez, reported the incident independently, confirming the relevant details.”  A middle-aged Hispanic woman, speaking in a thick accent, “She saved me.  She was desnuda.  And she flew.”  The woman then crossed herself and brought up the crucifix that had been around her neck and kissed it.  “Gracias a dios, she saved me.”  She was close to tears.  Now a man hugging her, her husband.

 

        “The mystery super hero has not been identified,” the newscaster said, breaking into a smile, “because none of the seven persons known to have seen her have been able to describe her face.  Evidently they were all distracted by her, uh, endowments.

 

        “Still, whoever she is, we have a super hero in the Atlanta area.  For lack of any better name, NakedGirl.”  And the word “NakedGirl” was emblazoned in brave block letters across the cartoon of the nude woman.

 

        Elly looked at Dareen.  Dareen’s silent eyes looked at Elly with a deep sense of seriousness.  She was not conscious of it but she turned slightly, the balloon-like breasts turning too, as it happened causing one of her nipples to point directly at her roommate.

 

 

12.

        It was a little plastic statuette he had bought at some flea market.  A sideways naked white woman with outrageously huge breasts hanging down in perfect half-globes ending in little red-painted nipples.  Arms extended forward, wearing a mask and kick-ass high-heeled boots, long blond hair whipping over her, ending over her trim bare butt.  Underneath, holding the naked lady up on top of the little pedestal, the Stars and Bars and the words, “NakedGirl: Pride of the South”.

        “You know you can’t put that out here,” Jamal said.  “Plus, you know how I feel about that flag.”  He had seen this thing sold around town recently and had been half expecting this.

        “Jesus, it’s not what y’all think,” Billy Gibbs said, then launched into his usual complaint.  “Us mountain folk never owned slaves.  Now those fat cats at the statehouse who want to wipe the stars and bars off every T-shirt, they’re the ones whose great-great-great granddaddies used the whip in the cotton fields.  Not us!”

        Dareen, sitting with her coffee at the table in the little kitchenette, looked at the plastic naked superheroine with feigned amusement and secret horror.  She had taken to wearing a kerchief and long skirt, bulking up with loose-fitting blouse and blazer as always.  Fortunately the air conditioning was back on line, though coming to work was a sweaty ordeal.

        Then Billy flicked on a little switch underneath and the naked girl’s boobs lit up and then started blinking.  Even Jamal had to snort.  “Energizers,” Billy said proudly.  Blink . . . blink . . . blink . . .

        Ms. Hom came in for a refill.  She looked quickly at the scene and there was a trace of rolling her eyes.  Billy knew he couldn’t leave NakedGirl out on display but it was good for a laugh.

        When she had gone, Billy said, “So who is this girl?  That’s what I want to know.”

        Jamal was half tired of this speculation, but it was unavoidable.  It was the buzz of Atlanta, in fact of the nation.  “She has unique powers.  Maybe she got them through a government experiment.  No, that’s stupid.”

        “Not any more stupid than any other theory,” Billy said.  “The other question is, why does she go around naked?  Does she have to be an exhibitionist about it?”  Blink . . . blink . . . blink . . .

        “I don’t know, maybe she’s a stripper,” Jamal said offhandedly.  In fact that was a common theory.  The cable news was on it 24/7.  Dareen and Elly kept watching it with mixed amusement and disgust, though with Dareen there was the extra cringe factor.  A parade of psychologists opined that the girl had a messed-up childhood, was screaming for attention yet wanted to hide, and what did she do during the day anyway?  She only came out at night.  Then there were the crazies who said she was an alien being.  “But apparently doing a very good job of looking like an earth woman,” one newscaster smirked.  It was a standard joke by now, that the people who reported her were so distracted by her large breasts that they couldn’t describe her face.  Then there was the FBI guy who said only, “We are looking into this.  She might be a foreign agent.”

        There had been attempts to fake robberies so as to draw NakedGirl onto the scene where she could be photographed.  But she never showed up; and real crimes happen only by surprise.  As far as the real crime rate, it had gone down, but only slightly.  Almost anyone who would commit a crime knew about the new superheroine, of course.  They would get to see a naked girl, but just as surely, they would be apprehended.  One former mugger who appeared as an “expert guest” on TV said, “I wouldn’t do it, man.  I just wouldn’t.  You could see a naked girl any time, go to a gentleman’s club, but it’s not worth the extra five to fifteen, even with parole.”

        “Are you NakedGirl?” was becoming a standard line in bars.  “Under These Clothes I’m a Superheroine!” was a new T-shirt message, popular on young women’s tank tops.  As well as, “Secretary by Day ???? by Night,” “No You CAN’T See Me in My Super Costume”, and “Excuse Me, I’ve Got to Strip and Save People”.

        “She does good things,” Dareen ventured weakly.  Which is what she said the last time she was home, her parents being distracted by the conversation and forgetting about her new bulky clothes.  “I’ve put on a little weight”, is how she explained it to Uncle Rakhman, the only one who noticed.  Her parents meanwhile were in a foul mood of disapproval as to the superheroine.  “That girl is just shameful, going around like that,” her father said.  “She could just as easily do that with clothes on,” her mother said.  Her older brother Kes wasn’t so offended.  “It’s kind of nice,” he said with a mischievous smile.

        Back at the kitchenette, Billy said, “Well good for her.  Catching bad guys is always O.K.”  Blink . . . blink . . . blink . . .

        Jamal exhaled. “African-American bad guys.”  Which was another thing.  Every time the mystery woman caught someone, the Cobb News Network put his mug shot up next to their computer-generated white face of NakedGirl -- the contrast was as obvious as it was unspoken.  She had caught a couple of white guys, but they were the exceptions.  Last night Dareen and Elly were horrified to see a local civil rights leader talk about NakedGirl as “a new version of white-sheeted vigilantism.  With no clothes.  She makes racism sexy.  A naked woman -- the best marketing racism ever had.”  At the end of the clip, Elly said, “This is starting not to be funny any more.”  They had sat through the media circus, the call-in strippers claiming to be the girl, the send-up clips of a local comedienne as a bumbling NakedGirl, with breasts and crotch fuzzified by computer of course, being offended when the people she was trying to rescue looked over and said, “You really must do something about that bubble butt.”  But with the racism accusation things were getting a little unsettling.

        Not that it ever had been much fun for Dareen.  Every night after supper she went to her room, took off her clothes, and sat on her bed as it got dark.  Some nights, she got the call.  So far, she hadn’t sensed being needed during the day when she was at work and clothed and powerless.  Thank Allah for that.

        “I hate to say it, but she catches black guys because they’re the ones who are committing the crimes,” Billy said.  Blink . . . blink . . . blink . . . “If you’re going to look for muggers in downtown, what do you expect?”

        Jamal said, “That’s the problem with superheroes.  You never see them catch white collar criminals.  The big time crooks.”  Blink . . . blink . . .  “Will you turn that thing off?!”

        Billy took the plastic NakedGirl off the table and they all went back to their offices.  Dareen adjusted her kerchief and looked down to her modest cover-all shoes, her stockings, and her long skirt.

        Flying through the driving rain, she had to keep wiping her eyes to see clear, though maybe she didn’t need to do that and it was just habit.  She kind of knew the way anyway, like always.  She descended along the row of telephone poles on the highway just outside of town, past the stadium, and saw the problem.  This time it wasn’t a crime, but people were in big trouble nonetheless.

 

        The bus was stalled, a big touristy bus with out-of-state plates.  And now the bounding of wires above, and through the thunder she could hear the twisting and cracking of rotted wood, and now the telephone pole, laden with wires and transformers, lurched and then fell, screaming down toward the bus in a haze of sparks.

        Inside the bus the loud thump on the roof sounded to the terrified passengers like the pole had hit them.  Actually it was the hard landing of wet bare feet.  NakedGirl caught the pole with her hands and then, as a wire flew toward the metal roof, she kicked forward and it ricocheted back and wrapped itself safely around the top of the wooden pole.  Standing on top of the roof, legs braced well apart, arms extended to hold the five-ton pole above her, torrential rain coursing off her breasts and off her pubic hair, she looked around and then decided to fly toward that old brick building a little off the road.

 

        As her toes left the bus roof and she slowly ascended, lifting the pole above her, sparks flew from the transformer and the broken wire fell off the top of the pole and wrapped around her breasts.  She exhaled as she was zapped across both nipples.  Ouch, that hurt.  But her strength was unimpeded as she pulled the pole up toward the top of the old building.  Toes reached out to the lip of the ledge and then she pulled herself, and the pole, up even with the roof.  It stung her hands like mad hornets but she used the live wire to tie the pole to the ledge.  There was one final spark and then the wires went dead, along with all the lights along the highway and the surrounding buildings.

 

        When she was finished she looked down at the bus and it was then that she was really frightened.  A couple of adventurous passengers had come out to see.  Odd, they had had a better view through the windows of the bus.  But one of them was fumbling with a camera!

 

        Lightning struck in the distance, illuminating the wet naked body, and she heard the click of the camera.  She flew away, but knew it was too late.

 

        “We now have a picture of NakedGirl,” the TV guy said.  “Last night in the middle of that thunderstorm, she saved a busload of passengers who were about to get hit with a falling electrified telephone pole.  One of them, Clarence Goulding, had a camera and first let’s let him describe what he saw.”

 

        An old man with a scratchy old-black-man accent said, “We saw the pole fall toward us and thought we were goners.  Then this thump on the roof and we saw the -- the nude girl carrying the pole up to where she tied the wires up and out of the way.  She was gorgeous.  She ain’t . . . ”

 

        He was in the middle of saying “She ain’t white” but that part was cut off.  Now, the photo and Dareen and Elly both held their breath.

 

        Whew.

 

        The photo was blurry with rain.  The lightning flash in the middle of the windy rainy night.  A human-like form crouched on top of the building, maybe like a cat about to pounce.  Hard to see anything about it, not with the big blop of rain right where NakedGirl supposedly was.

 

        “Well, it was a good try, Mr. Goulding,” the announcer said.  “We will give you a consolation of half the prize.  But our offer still remains.”

 

        The Cobb News Network was offering $25,000 to anyone who could come up with a picture of NakedGirl.  Of course, they had gotten a lot of fakes.  They had posted them on a page on their web site, “FakedNakedGirl.Com”.  Some of the photos were pretty tacky and funny, sometimes intentionally so.  Invariably the woman had boots and a mask on, sometimes a cape.  They were clearly getting a kick out of posing.

 

        It wasn’t put on the air, but there were people who protested the prize.  Dareen had read about the “Leave NakedGirl Alone” protest in the Democrat-Argus, which somehow let it into the back pages.  There was a picture of the organizer of the protest, a punky-looking buzz-cutted Asian-looking woman named Mary Shin.  “I know it sounds odd, but she’s entitled to her privacy,” Ms. Shin said.  “Let her be the way she wants to be.  She doesn’t want to be seen, she just wants to do good things, and for that alone we should be thankful.”  Reading down further, Dareen found that Ms. Shin was the keeper of a Taoist temple that Dareen had passed by in another part of the city.

 

        If only everyone could be like this Mary Shin.  As the rainy-photo story ended Dareen sat on her chair in the kitchen, her jeans-clad knee up under her face.  She hugged herself tightly.  “I wish they’d leave me alone,” she said.

 

        Elly was sympathetic but realistic.  “You can hardly expect that, doing what you do.”

 

        “Elly, I don’t want to do it any more.  I don’t ever want to go around naked again.  I want to be covered up and wear clothes and be normal.”

 

        “Then just stay covered.  Why do you strip yourself every night?  Why do you go out and do the NakedGirl thing?”

 

        “I just have to.  I just have to.  It’s like Jesus said, ‘Don’t put your light under a table.’  Use your gifts.”

 

        “I still think you don’t have to do it.”

 

        “But those people need me.”

        “It’s not worth it if you lose your mind in the process . . . We can’t all save the world, you know.  Isn’t there someone you can talk to about this, like a counselor.”

 

        “There’s the Imam, I suppose.”  Dareen grunted mordantly.  “Like he would ever listen to a girl who goes naked.”

 

        Elly said, “He seems O.K. to me.”

 

        “Yeah, he’s O.K. It’s just not the kind of thing . . . ”

 

        “I think this is his area.  Your problem is Islam, with that covering up business.  You know I hate that stupid doctrine, but you, you’ve got to deal with it.  You have to know if you can be a good Muslim and still be NakedGirl.  The Imam can keep a secret, right?  Like Catholics with confession?”  Having broken away at an early age, Elly’s ideas about that topic were rather vague and undefined.

 

        “He has to keep it a secret if I ask him,” Dareen said.  But she knew she was not ready to go to the Imam about this, not yet.  What a transgression, going around naked in public.  Yet this just couldn’t go on.  That rainy photo thing was a real scare.  It was only just a matter of time before she was exposed.

 

        Not that she wasn’t “exposed” already.  Billy’s statuette with the blinking breasts and the constant publicity, the fake NakedGirl photos, guys in bars talking about NakedGirl (even though her identity was secret) she still felt on display, her bare body was the constant topic of public discussion.  It was almost as bad as actually being naked in broad daylight with everyone knowing who she was.  The naked Dareen Alkaras.  Dareen Alkaras, naked.  Naked Dareen.  Hey, Naked Dareen!  Wow, look at Dareen’s boobs.  Dareen, the naked chick with the big boobs.

 

        She shut her eyes and then went to her room.  This time she waited until it was fully dark before she began the process of disrobing.  And now, another call.

13.

 

        If one looked really closely from the west Tennessee cornfield, one could see it.  A tiny speck slowly moving across the sky, obviously a far-away airplane.  Silent, evidently too far away for the engines to be heard.

 

        No one would bother to use binoculars or a telescope on such a mundane sight, but if one did one would see that it was brown, an unusual color for an airplane, and also an odd shape.  No wings.  An odd bulge on the bottom near the front, or maybe two bulges.  Landing gear?  But so high up?

 

        A really strong telescope would reveal it was the totally naked form of a thin but muscular, tiny-waisted, large-breasted young woman, zipping through the altitudes at several hundred miles an hour, silently, long black hair whipping behind her.  Even in these times of heightened security she was invisible to radar or other detection systems, which are designed to pick up metal, not flesh and blood.

 

        The thing to do was get out of town.  Dareen needed some kind of breather.  At work she had had to endure another Friday, hearing Jamal and Billy speculate about NakedGirl in the kitchenette.  Sweating in her kerchief and long skirt and floppy, double covering to hide her breasts, the air conditioning not being up to full strength.

 

        Jamal was starting to lighten up.  “O.K., I have to admit, it’s cute.  She’s also a little fine looking, for a white girl that is.”  Blink! blink! blink!

 

        Dareen felt like saying, “The real NakedGirl isn’t white,” but of course, she couldn’t.

 

        “I think it’s just a matter of time before someone gets a picture of her, then we’ll find out what she really looks like,” Billy said.  “Maybe a few days.”

 

        “Did you ever think she doesn’t WANT to have a picture taken?” Dareen suddenly found herself blurting out.  Then decided it was O.K., there was no way these guys would suspect anything.

 

        “She flies around naked, pops up all over town, and you think she doesn’t want people to see her?” Billy said reasonably.

 

        Dareen shrugged.  “I don’t know.  This whole thing is a total mystery.”  Then she said, “If she really was the pride of the South, I hope she helps out with these hate crimes.”

 

        “There haven’t been many,” Billy said.  “Just some bad words.”

 

        “It could lead to worse,” Jamal said.  One could forgive him; his great-great uncle had been lynched in 1924.

        “Hope not.  It’s understandable in a way,” Billy said, which caused Jamal to roll his eyes.  By way of making peace Billy said, “Maybe NakedGirl can come to the rescue.”

        Blink! blink! blink!  Dareen winced with every flash of those infernal plastic breasts.  She’d seen this stupid plastic figurine sold on street corners, there was one on the bar in Alfredo’s, and of course wherever it was, guys were clustering around it.  Those were HER breasts, she alone knew.  Being tweaked in public with each blink.  Yet she couldn’t say, “I find that really offensive,” because one, she didn’t want to seem like a humorless feminist, and two, if she wasn’t really NakedGirl, she probably wouldn’t have minded it that much, it being one of Billy’s many lapses into political incorrectness.

 

        Like the NAAD incident, for example. A few months ago a very boring, pompous bureaucrat came in to talk about a new “Native American Awareness Database” the library system was going to implement.  A worthy cause, and actually a good idea, but she went on and on and on about it . . . Finally during a pause, Billy said, “Did you hear about the Indian who drank too much tea, and died in his own tea-pee?”

 

        Ms. Hom quickly admonished him, and Billy apologized, but through the rest of the presentation Dareen and Jamal were trying to hide a bad case of the giggles.  Fortunately the bureaucrat was too dense to detect their tortured straight faces.

 

        Blink! blink!  The flashing lights got her attention again.  Heavily clothed and protected as her nipples were by the sturdy bra, cotton blouse and double-knit sweater, Dareen felt the urge to cover them with her hands.  She resisted, of course.

 

        Jamal was right, though, things were getting ugly in town.  A federal official was on the Cobb News Network talking about “secret intelligence” linking the pulse bomb to a Middle Eastern country.  There were reports of Muslims, or anyone foreign and dark-skinned, getting harassed, and new defacements on her own mosque and others.  Fortunately it seemed limited, nobody had been seriously hurt.  But Elly got heckled yesterday by a couple of white guys while walking down the street.  When she got home she was a little shaken, and she decided to go hang out with her folks in New York for the weekend.  And now, Dareen’s brother Sanny found out his unit was being shipped out to Iraq, something they had all been dreading but half-expecting for weeks.

 

        Ahhhh . . . Now flying high over the cornfields on this beautiful Saturday afternoon, she felt cool and clean and alone and free.  She had launched from her fire escape last night, gliding around the city, then felt the urge to go west, into the cool air over the mountains, then further, further . . .  As she sky got lighter blue she thought of turning back, then dithered until it was too late.  She couldn’t risk flying around the city in daylight, she would be seen for sure.  So she kept going, flying high up, avoiding populated areas.  I’ll just come back tomorrow night, she told herself.

 

        Going so fast, even the thinner air up here was thick and lush, like swimming through water, and it felt just as good as swimming through her favorite pond past Thomasville.  She enjoyed the sensual feeling of the air whooshing by her nipples, through her toes, over her butt cheeks, and then there was the bracing feeling of air in her face, in her eyes, waking her up, making her glad to be alive.  This cannot be a mistake.  Allah wants me to feel these feelings, feelings that no other human can experience.  And there is no shame in being naked up here, with no one to see.  Thanks to Allah.

 

        Going faster, she learned, was a matter of straightening out her body, putting her head down, pointing her toes.  Turning her palms, she spun onto her back, and now she was flying on her back, looking up at whipped-cream clouds as she passed under them. The lower ones she was actually passing through, giggling as the cool droplets hit her like millions of tiny little icy needles, leaving a sheen on her brown skin which quickly dried off.  Now, she slowed down and had some fun: straightening up, running in place, doing cartwheels across the sky.

 

        Early August and the earth is bursting with food.  Dareen was getting hungry and took notice whenever she passed over orchards of oranges, lemons, then as she got to the mountains, apples (though these were not ripe yet).  It was so easy, she could see the individual fruit without any strain to her eyes.  There were people working them here and there, tiny figures she could see from far up and she avoided them.  Now over the cornfields, she saw an unattended stretch, and slowed and landed right between two stalks, strong bare feet impacting the hot dry stony soil.

 

        It was technically stealing, she supposed, but then thought of Jesus eating corn with his disciples, against the rules.  “The Sabbath was made for Man, and not Man for the Sabbath.”  One of her favorite sayings from scripture.  The Koran had things to the same effect, but Jesus put it most succinctly.  Allah wouldn’t mind.

 

        Corn tastes better when it’s raw, she decided, having husked a few ears and sitting now cross-legged, enjoying the warm earth pressing up against her bare butt, pigging out on one ear after another, so moist that she kept brushing juice that dripped onto her melon-sized breasts.  She never realized how hot and airless it was in the middle of a cornfield.  And buggy, though oddly none of the many gnats circling around her got close enough to be a bother.

 

        Stretched out in an “X”, looking up past her brown mountains at the sun, feeling it warm every inch of her body, beads of sweat on her forehead and above her breasts, she felt her hips undulate, the command of a feeling she was getting more often these days, and felt the last eaten cob in her hand and without hardly thinking slowly brought it down to between her legs and did the natural thing.

        She kept away from towns, away from planes, easy to do because she could sense them from miles away, she would look in that direction and she could see the shape of the plane and read the letters on it like it was close up.  A refreshing dip right into the Mississippi along a deserted stretch -- she could recognize the wiggly wide shape from maps -- and she was off over the dry, wide plains of north Texas.

 

        This was truly deserted, a brown-yellow sun-baked expanse of short brown grass, the occasional untraveled road, no houses or buildings.  It went on for miles and miles, even picking up speed Dareen could not get to the end of it.  Taking a closer look she detected strings of animal trails.  It seemed like prints from hooves of horses, and sure enough she saw one horse, then a couple more coming over a rise.  Now in the distance there was what she could only call an oasis, a little pond with trees around it.  A dozen horses were there, standing around or drinking with warm, placid bowed heads.  Dareen flew past it, then pointed her feet forward to ascend and went further on over the near-desert, wondering where it would end.

 

        This must be federal land.  Maybe a test range?  No, those were more to the west, Nevada or Utah.  Dareen had been across the country once, the summer after she got her bachelor’s degree, driving with her friend Susie to her new job in California, and remembered the evil chill from seeing the Nevada road map with those mysterious boxy red markings south of I-80 near the salt flats “Danger Areas”.  Ordinary shooting ranges?  Fallout from bomb tests of the 1940’s?  Extraterrestrials?  Yeah, right.  Susie believed in such things -- she had spent way too much time on the internet, and spoke about millions of Americans being abducted by aliens and the government knowing about it -- to which Dareen could only sigh.  “Susie . . . ”

 

        Dareen was always quite the “down to earth” one, but now . . .  Further west the grass got sparser, it was mostly sand dunes.  Could that be?  Swooping down for a closer look Dareen stood, spread-X’ed in mid-air twenty feet up.  Yes, it was true.  A trail of bare footprints, human.  Maybe female.  They gathered and ended and there were little sweeps in the sand, then just a set of hoofprints, leading back to where she had come.

 

        Dareen felt drawn back to that oasis and soon was hovering over it.  She descended down, down, until she was right next to a tree that overhung part of the little pond.  Oddly, the horses did not run or seem scared; in fact they looked up and seemed to be waiting for her to come down.  They had no saddles or bits.  These were wild horses.  She wondered how they could find enough grass to eat here on this desolate range, but here they were.

 

        Facing downward with arms and legs stretched out in an “X”, spreading her fingers and toes, Dareen found she could hover motionless a few feet above the pond.  She felt the urge to jump in but something made her wait.  With the horses leaving off their drinking to look at her, the pond became still and in its natural mirror Dareen saw her super self clearly for the first time.  At first she disparaged it.  Two big melons stuck to a bean pole, a comic book body, looking like an Arab Wonder Woman after breast implants, except no costume.

 

        But then she looked again.  There was a strange handsomeness, a strange symmetry, to her features.  True, almost a caricature of the object of male lust, but the strong, thin and buxom body, with its luxuriant violet hair and pubes, could almost be called beautiful, even by women.  Indeed, for the first time she didn’t seem to be a mutation; she seemed an intentional, balanced, internally consistent work of creation, one of Allah’s beautiful and perfect creatures just like these horses.  Islam tended to frown on focusing too much on the body (it was a sign of idolatry) but there was no denying the “rightness” of her new body.  It seemed more “right” than her old one, which was flabbier and with breasts that were destined for serious sagging and scheduled for reduction surgery.

 

        Surgery ughh! Cut into this perfect body?

 

        Dareen exhaled and shook her head and uprighted herself, drifting down to the pond.  She was getting too caught up in herself.  This NakedGirl business was a pile of trouble.  As for the surgery, that was a question for another day.

 

        She found herself saying, “Ahhhh . . . ” as her toes submerged into the surprisingly cool water.  By now well practiced in controlling mid-air descent, she felt the water rising up to her ankles, then her knees, past her crotch, into her lower crevices, then up past her concave tummy, then the sense of displacement as her breasts went in and then her head.  She remembered being told to imagine such slow submersion into cool water long ago, in a psychology course when studying hypnosis, as a relaxation technique.  But this was real, and the cool relaxation more engulfing and penetrating.

 

        She opened her eyes in the depth of the pond and could see the sunlight filtering down, the roots of the tree, then felt her toes sink into the cool squishy mud.  Up she went, shooting up from the pond, water coursing off her brown skin as she hovered just over the surface.

 

        The horses were enjoying the show.  It was almost like they were used to being visited by a naked girl.  And not freaked out by a girl who flew, a big, strange-looking bird to them.  She had heard that horses were naturally skittish; though such big animals, they protected themselves by running away because they were so good at it.  But with her these horses were relaxed and unafraid.

 

        Dareen had a sudden flash of insight: I am part of creation, not a threat, I am somehow more at one with animals than before, more at one than the ordinary human.  Not minding if her wet hands got pasted with hairs, she petted one of the horses, then hopped on it, and it carried her around in a jaunty circle as if showing off while the others watched.  Dareen felt the warm, unclothed flesh and blood under her own, muscles and bones moving under her own.  All her worries seemed to fly from her mind.

 

        She stayed with the horses all day, playing with them, scooting around in the air as they tried to smack her with their wet noses, like a wood nymph of mythology cavorting with a herd of Pegasuses.  She swam around in the cool water and drank from it and ate the ripened fruit of the tree, which turned out to be a fig tree.  She was so glad to be alive, so glad to be a naked girl, so glad to be NakedGirl.  A super heroine on her day off, where there were no people to see her nakedness.

 

        As dusk fell she sat her bare butt on the sandy soil, she looked at the setting sun and crystallized the thoughts that had been circling around in her unconscious mind.  I’m NakedGirl, a super hero.  I go to where there’s trouble and help out; that is what I do, that is the role that Allah has assigned me.  At the same time, I do not escape the commands of the Koran or the need to protect the sensibilities of my family.  I will use my creativity to pursue every call in a way that preserves my modesty to the extent possible, and that keeps my identity as Dareen Alkaras a secret.  As for those silly plastic white statuettes and the talk of NakedGirl around town and in the media, it really is nothing to get upset about.  It’s not really me, it’s just an image people have, perfectly understandable.  And in the case of the statuettes, actually pretty funny.

 

        She exchanged her wordless goodbyes with the horses, and banked up and out and across the dark dry prairie, knowing that she would return someday.

14.

        She just had to giggle as she flew, making her breasts jiggle as she sped toward another call on this humid, foggy night.  She got a big kick out of Rayette McIver, the comedian whose weekly 10:00 “NakedGirl Barely Comes Through” segment had just ended.  This week, in her trademark cheap-looking Halloween-style raccoon mask and long fake-plastic shiny black boots, she was huffing her chubby pale body down the side of the highway, computer generated fuzz obscuring her breasts and crotch, even though it was obvious she was wearing a body stocking, trying to get to a bank that was being robbed.  “Why don’t you fly, NakedGirl?” some truck driver yelled at her.  “I gotta eat more beans,” she huffed to herself.

 

        Dareen giggled again and then suppressed it, admonishing herself for her mind wandering.  But of course, she always showed up on time and always prevented bad things from happening, so maybe on this -- was it her twenty-fifth call, she had lost count -- she was losing a little of the earlier sense of urgency.  She remembered her friend from college who worked at the rape crisis center, whenever she went “on a call” to counsel someone she kept joking going out the door, which seemed childish and irresponsible to Dareen, but maybe it was a way to keep from burning out and to stay sane.  She apologized to Allah in her heart for having giggled.  Still, if she ever disclosed her true identity to anyone (aside from Elly), she wanted it to be to Rayette McIver.

 

        Getting serious, not knowing what kind of situation she was heading toward, just the usual sure sense of exact location, she found herself heading into Scotchtown, kind of a white working-class area.  Though a lifetime Atlanta area resident, she hadn’t been around here much.  Landing on the top of an apartment building, she saw a delicatessen opened late, next to a convenience store, people buying lottery tickets, hanging out.  On the next block, a pawnbroker’s shop on the corner, and some other down-and-out type places, a boarded up “Kit Kat Club” with a female silhouette over the sign, Dareen guessed it to have been a topless dancer club.

 

        The naked superheroine stood poised behind the cornice, crouched out of sight five floors up, looking around, wondering what was about to happen.

        A dark car rounded the corner quickly and holy sh --

        The assault rifle poked out the window and Dareen heard the click of it being cocked before any of the people on the street were aware.  Someone pointed to the dark car and there was screaming and frightened scrambling and at the same time, a nude large-breasted female swooped down from somewhere, in a twinkling placing herself in front of the gun, bracing her spread arms and legs with hands on the roof of the car and hard soles on the asphalt, a sound like sandpaper as her feet acted like brakes to stop the car, a muffled sprinkling as she absorbed a round of bullets which bounced off her flat tummy and tinkled down onto the street, then with the car stopped, half spun-around, she bent the long shaft of the assault rifle into a “U” shape, threw the useless scrap of metal onto the street where it fell with a clank.

 

        And now as the word “NakedGirl!” escaped from various mouths in the quickly gathering crowd, the nude brown figure yanked the gunman out of the car, a young man in jeans and T-shirt.  The driver, in a business suit, tried to escape but with a quick turn of her torso her breast clubbed him and he fell to the street.  A space in the crowd and an old man, possibly the intended victim, had fallen to the sidewalk, clutching his heart.  Helpful arms carefully carried him into the delicatessen.

 

        Dareen, as she now expected, had a certain sense of where the nearest precinct was.  She carried the men, frozen with fear, by their collars and was not put off by the realization, as she kicked open the precinct door and delivered the criminals with her report to whoever was on duty, that she seemed to be a character in a boring series with an unchanging plot, which always ended with this scene.

 

        But this time her work was not yet complete.  She flew back to the scene and, after a moment’s hesitation, reluctantly landed in front of the crowd of people.  She had to check on that old man to see if he needed a quick flight to the emergency room.  Standing awkwardly in front of the gawking crowd, her modesty suddenly kicked in and she felt the movement of her hands to cover her breasts and crotch.  She quickly strode into the delicatessen.

        The old man was sitting at a table, short of breath but apparently perfectly O.K.  In fact there were several tables here, it was not only a carry-out place but a place where people sat and ate.  In the unexpectedly large restaurant Dareen found herself surrounded on all sides.  She looked down at her bare feet next to all the shoes and sneakers and her toes squirmed.  For a long moment no one spoke, the nude girl with an arm across her nipples, the other hand cupped over her crotch, clutching her butt cheeks in a vain attempt to hide the view of her totally bare backside, head to heels.

 

        “NakedGirl!” someone said.

 

        “Is he -- are you all right?” she said to the old man.

        “Fine.  You saved my life, thank you,” he said, in an old-style Irish-like accent.  Then he crossed himself like a good Catholic, and tried not to look downward at the girl’s nudity.

 

        The rest of the people were not so circumspect.  Their stares were direct and intense.  Three young men right in front of her got over their awe and couldn’t help licking their lips at the sight of such unvarnished female beauty.  Dareen tried to glare back.  Then remembered her super powers and forced herself to drop her hands to her sides where they formed fists.  “Excuse me, I have to go.”  Seeing the young men stare anew as they regarded the huge dark nipples, Dareen felt like covering herself again.

 

        Then out of the corner of her eye she saw a camera being taken out.  Without thinking her hand went out in a blur and knocked a man’s camera to the ground.  She looked at the man and he looked at her.  She looked down.  It was a quite fine 35mm camera.  “Sorry,” she said.

 

        But now there were other cameras being brandished.  And now a TV camera crew, having heard of the drive-by attempt and the police report, was arriving outside!  She couldn’t knock down all the cameras.  She thought of her pledge by the horses, doing what was asked of her while protecting her modesty, and decided on the quickest and simplest solution.  Flee!  She jumped over the people’s heads and ran down the narrow hall to where she sensed there was a back entrance.

 

        There was -- but before she got within eyesight, still within the narrow crooked hall with corners piled with boxes, she heard people coming in that way too.

        It was stupid, it was temporary, but it was the only way to keep from having her picture taken in the next few seconds.  She found a dead-end passage which led to two big doors, coolers, she knew, and careful so as not to rip the door like that time in her apartment, she slid into the second one.

 

        She stood for a second in the cold darkness, feeling dirty ice under her bare feet.  This was really cold -- it wasn’t just a refrigerator, it was a freezer.  She heard people moving around outside and getting closer.  With her super sight she looked around in the darkness, the boxes half-torn open to show frozen chicken pieces and ribs and goodness knows what else.  A small cabinet up near the ceiling.  She carefully opened it and crawled in.

        Smells can’t travel well in cold air, but her nose unfortunately was sensitive enough to pick up the rank odor of frozen, long-forgotten omelette mix.  The cabinet was just big enough for her to crawl into it and close the door.  She cringed at feeling the yellow frozen glop rubbing against her bare hip.

        She hugged herself against the cold, and listened.  The door to the freezer room opened and a light was switched on.  She held her breath.  Then the door was shut and she was alone again in freezing darkness.

 

        Please, Allah, don’t let me freeze to death.  All the ice here, it must be well below freezing.  In the dark she could read the beat-up thermostat: seven degrees Fahrenheit.  She prayed everyone would go and she could leave safely before the heat was sapped from her body and hypothermia set in.

 

        Minutes went by.  The sounds had ceased.  And a few minutes later, doors were being locked.  She wiggled her fingers and her toes.  No loss of feeling, though she could feel every degree of the cold.  To stay totally naked in a subfreezing compartment like this, she was COLD.

 

        Yet apparently she was unharmed.  After maybe twenty minutes she emerged from the cabinet, felt her soles touch the dirty ice on the floor, stretched her arms and legs.  Hmmm.  I seem to be O.K.  And then she realized she had discovered another aspect of her super powers.

 

        She stood there, no sound except her breathing the air that emerged with clouds of condensation from her nostrils, wanting to be absolutely sure before she attempted her escape that there was no one around to surprise her with a camera.  Finally she chanced it, s - l - o - w - l - y pulling the door latch, creeping out, feeling the warm air hit her, the warm floor under her feet.  No, no one around.

        To go out the front entrance would be folly, right out onto the street.  She continued to the back.  There was a lit room that she had to pass.  Waiting a few minutes, hearing no movement, she somehow sensed that no one was there (which did turn out to be the case).  And as she passed the room, apparently the office with a desk and bills and papers on spindles, there was a mirror on the wall and she saw herself in it.

 

        She recoiled at first.  After an hour in the subfreezing cold, her violet-tinged hair boasted a slight frosting.  And her nude body -- her skin had a faint purplish hue.  She touched her nipples, bent over to touch her knees, her toes.  She still felt the chill on her skin but she didn’t feel stiff or anything.  But the sight of how her body looked after exposure to cold was a little scary.

 

        She got to the back door and of course it was locked.  How to break the lock silently?  Then she looked up.  The ceiling had a trap door that was open, revealing the dark cloudy muggy night sky.  That was why those people had given up looking for her; they assumed she had flown out that opening.  Which it turned out she did now.  Dareen launched through the opening, into the night sky, back across town to her fire escape.  Hating the memory of standing naked in the middle of that crowd of people, she hopped into her bedroom and was glad to be under the covers, alone where people couldn’t see her, and after experiencing the dark cold of that freezer, she enjoyed the warmth, enjoyed for a change the hot stickiness of the Georgia summer night.

 

 

15.

 

        Her light brown, delicate shoulders were what one noticed first, as she stood on the ATM line on the outdoor mall on this hot Sunday afternoon.  Fiddling with her little purse, grabbing and pulling a couple of dollars from the little front pocket of her tiny jean shorts, slender knees knocking together.  She seemed unaware of how one could see the shape of her body so clearly as if she was not wearing even these scanty scraps of covering.

 

        Maybe not all that scanty, though there was plenty of skin.  Long black hair combed into ponytails on each side, a backless top that exposed her shoulder blades, down to a narrow waist crossed by the two tiny strings that held her top on.  The jean shorts were low-rise, though not extremely so.  Still, the beginning of pink panties visibly peeked over the top.  Below, a pair of clunky black sandals, maybe five years out of style, completed the outfit.

 

        Dareen, sitting at one of the taco stand tables in the shade of a big umbrella, was enchanted by this girl, obviously still in her teens.  There was something about her that kept Dareen’s interest.  Besides the fact she was undeniably beautiful, and pretty too, as she saw when the girl turned briefly, brushing back a strand of hair as she moved from fourth on line to third.

 

        Her skin was maybe a shade lighter than Dareen’s and she looked Hispanic.  Though there were many kids her age around, she seemed to be alone, and sad somehow.  Or at least very serious.  And now two guys walked past and one said, “Nice thong.”  Dareen burned; she had been the subject of many unwelcome comments from guys, though with her mostly concerning her breasts.

        Indeed the girl’s panties were increasingly making a showing over the hollow of the her slender back and they were thong style, though a little wide as thongs go.  Dareen had never tried thong panties, the idea seemed so uncomfortable.

        Obviously hearing the remark, the girl reflexively tugged up her shorts and the thong disappeared.  She slouched forward, arms moving a little to the front.  Dareen knew the gesture well, a sign of trying to hide one’s body.  This girl was modest, like Dareen herself, who felt a sisterly affection for this child.  Yet . . . why was she so scantily clad?  Dareen was glad for the shade she was in but still hot in her kerchief, long-sleeved blouse, long skirt, socks and sneakers; she might as well be wearing a burka, she often told herself.  She felt both envious and grateful, comparing her coverings with the girl’s.

        The girl got her money and went over to one of the flea market tables near where Dareen was.  There was the usual summer stuff (little tops, shorts, flip-flops) that other teenage girls were going through.  The girl came to something, then hesitantly picked it up.  It was a truly tiny short short, low rise and cutoff at the same time, maybe wide enough for her little teenaged hips, but hardly any longer than her hand.  The girl put it down, looking desolate.

 

        She came over to sit at the table, facing away from Dareen, slouched over, elbows on her knees, every vertebra visible in a graceful curved line.  And then when she turned around to put her purse on the table to rearrange it, Dareen saw that she had tears in her eyes.

 

        The surprised Dareen said, “Are you O.K.?”

        The girl bravely wiped the tears away and said, “Si. Yes.”

        “You don’t look O.K.”

 

        “I . . . ”  The girl couldn’t get out a sentence.  She cried and hid her face and began to get up and run away.

 

        Dareen jumped up and held her.  It was the only thing for a big sister to do.  “I don’t like seeing a girl like you crying.  My name’s Dareen.  What happened?  Should I call someone?”

 

        The girl looked at Dareen through a thick veil of tears.  “Que pasó . . .  What happened to me . . . I don’t know.”  She had a thick Hispanic accent.  Despite more prodding she kept shaking her head.  “Let’s go for a walk,” Dareen said, but the girl quickly refused that idea.

        After some prodding she did go along with Dareen’s offer to duck into the nearest restaurant for an ice cream.  And was relieved when Dareen picked the booth way in the back.

        “What’s your name?”

        “Lourdes,” the girl said.

 

        Dareen went through the preliminaries of ordering the ice cream sodas and it was only when they were into sipping them that she tried to play therapist again.

 

        “You seem like a modest girl,” Dareen said.  “So am I.”

        The girl crossed her hands to cover her bare shoulders and bowed her head.  “I don’t like to dress like this so little.”

        “Why do you do it then?”

        “I have to.  Since that ‘thing’ happened a few weeks ago clothes bother me more and more.  I get sick from wearing so much.  Ay, Dios mio . . .  My fathers think I am turning into a . . . puta.”

 

        “Your fathers?”  Dareen thought back to her rudimentary knowledge of Spanish.  “You mean your parents.”

 

        “Sí, lo siento.  My parents.  They are muy tradicional.”

        As she began to open up Dareen found out her story.  It turned out that Lourdes and her family had immigrated from the Dominican Republic on a work visa two years ago.  She had just turned 18 but because she had been through remedial English, she still had an extra year of high school to complete.  She had been to a doctor about her condition but he concluded it was psychological, which just tended to confirm her parents’ suspicions that she was turning out like her older sister, who had gotten into drugs and prostitution and was just now straightening herself out.

        And Lourdes was illegal.  Her whole family was.  Last year they received a letter at their old apartment stating that because they had missed an appointment they had 30 days to leave the country.  The appointment letter had never gotten to them, not surprising because in their old place the mailboxes were always broken and mixed up.  Dareen thought of the new law that schools had to report any illegal immigrants among their students.  Fortunately, as Dareen had read, the principals in downtown schools, which were attended mostly by immigrant children, were not cooperating.

 

        “My work, they give me pain too,” Lourdes said.  She worked stocking shelves at a shoe store.  Her boss had made hints that if she wanted to keep her job she should be dressing more conservatively.

 

        “I want to, much, but I just can’t,” she said tearfully.  “I get the more sick, I can’t breathe, I vomit.  At first it was just long mangas?”  She made a motion with her hands.

 

        “Sleeves?”

        “Yes.  Then I couldn’t wear sleeves at all, I had to wear tank shirts.  I couldn’t wear shoes anymore, or socks, now I have to wear sandalias all the time.  It’s just getting the more bad.  I don’t feel heat, it’s more an allergy.  Or something.  Ever since that big rain.”

 

        “Big rain?”

        “Yes.  I went with some friends to a party out in Two . . . Park de Two Rivers?”

        “Two Creeks Park?”  A big park just south of the city.

 

        “Yes.”

 

        Dareen felt the hair on her scalp stand up.  “What happened?”

 

        “Big lights, lightning I mean.  After it got dark.  I ran away but then I felt like insectas all over me and it raised me up.”

        It was as if Dareen’s question and the answer were pre-scripted, she was watching herself and Lourdes as if in a movie.  “What day was that?  Do you remember?”

 

        “I can’t forget.  The twenty-six of June.”

 

        Dareen looked Lourdes in the eye, a look that puzzled the young girl, of course.  Then the girl put her head in her hand and sniffed back tears.

 

        “I don’t know what to do.  It is the more and more bad.”  She squirmed in her seat.  “I can’t wear anything on my back.  These pants are so low, but they feel like choking my waist.  I have to get even more short, lower rise.  And my,” she looked around and whispered, “my panties, I hate to wear thong, but even that is too much.”  She sat up, crossing her hands onto her bare shoulders again.  “I have to get more and more shame, I will lose my job, my parents think I’m a puta, and how will I go back to school like this?”

 

        Dareen took off her kerchief.  “Here, put this on.”  And she put it onto the bare shoulders of the longing girl to cover them.  It took only a second, of quaking and sudden paleness in the girl’s face and blotchy redness and the awful rash that immediately covered her features, for Dareen to be convinced of the girl’s plight.  It was very frightening. Dareen pulled the kerchief back and within two seconds Lourdes was back to normal except for having to catch her breath.

 

        Dareen suddenly knew herself on a mission.  She took out a pen and wrote her number down.  “I want to help you, Lourdes.  I am your friend.  I want you to call me any time you want to talk.”  She thought for a second.  “I want us to meet every week. How about here?”

        Lourdes’s frightened look made Dareen realize that she didn’t want to be out where people congregated if she could avoid it.

 

        So Dareen walked Lourdes to her car and drove her to the apartment.

 

        Elly was there.  “This is my friend Lourdes,” Dareen said.  Then said quickly, “I’m tutoring her, she’s from the Dominican Republic.”

 

        “Where is that?”

 

        “Near Cuba.”  Dareen, always good with maps.  Elly was about to make a playful comment about all Hispanics being the same to her, but remembering her frequent complaints about white people mistaking her for an Arab, she held her tongue.  Dareen and Lourdes and Elly hung out, watching TV.  They got a kick out of the novelas, the soap operas on Spanish TV.  Lourdes seemed to forget about her predicament the typical teenage girl in her came alive.  She was explaining the characters and the plot, but of course, soap operas are the same the world over and no translation was needed.  Dareen waited for Lourdes to say something about her condition to Elly but she didn’t.  Lourdes apparently wanted it to remain a secret.

 

        Dareen brought Lourdes home, a neighborhood with run-down apartment buildings and lots of little kids playing on the dirty sidewalks and loud salsa and merengue music blaring from seemingly every window.  Before they got to the corner Dareen saw a small public library branch and, thinking quickly, told her she would be there every Wednesday at 7:30.  As they said good-bye they hugged.  And then Lourdes, carrying her purse over her bare shoulder with her backless top and short shorts, clip-clopped up the stairs in her clunky sandals, up through the front door, its lock broken, hanging half-open.

 

        The next day, Dareen got to work a little early and searched the internet for map information.  She wasn’t sure, was Two Creek Park in Arlington?  Yes, it was.  Now she searched official meterological sites, and zeroed in on the date of the storm, June 26, 2003.  An “ion storm” she remembered the phrase from the weather report the next day, when she was sitting in her apartment with Elly listening to the report of the naked girl picking up that robber’s car.  It took a while; she had to think and then search again, in the middle of doing her work, as Jamal and Ms. Hom and Billy came in, then she did her morning prayer, then finally she found the information she was looking for, on the web page of a physics department for a local university.  There were two centers of ion activity that night: where she was hit, near Alpharetta, and also near Arlington.

 

        She saved the page to her hard drive, not really knowing what to do with it.  She was no physicist and didn’t have a clue as to what had happened that night.  It was a good feeling, knowing that there was some kind of explanation, even though it had affected her and Lourdes in different ways.  She thought of her super powers, especially her latest nocturnal adventure, with the drive-by shooting in front of that restaurant.  And this competed with the realization that that nutty mad scientist guy, that crude and crazy man who had wanted her to strip in front of him, probably knew what the explanation was.  So many secrets were accumulating in her head.  Her identity as “NakedGirl”.  Her hunch, if not knowledge, that it was that scientist who had shot that pulse bomb.  And now Lourdes and her mortifying ordeal.  It was frustrating, knowing that something had to be done about Lourdes soon, yet not knowing what.

 

        It was then that Billy Gibbs asked her to come into his office.  He was about to close the door behind him, an unusual gesture, when Jamal saw him and he said, “Excuse me, Jamal, we have to plan your surprise party. Oops!”  Which would have really been a surprise because Jamal’s birthday wasn’t for another six months.

 

        After the door was closed Billy said, “Set yourself down, I’ll just be a moment,” and as Dareen parked herself in front of his desk he comfortably settled in behind it.  Dareen was a little mystified and nervous but that quickly graduated to pure fright with what happened next.

        “Dareen, do you moonlight?  Do you have another job that you do at night?”

 

        “I, I don’t know what you mean.”

 

        Billy, looking quite serious for a change, brought the plastic NakedGirl statuette out from behind his computer and placed it front and center on top of a stack of papers, right in front of Dareen’s face.  He didn’t turn the blinking lights on.  Instead he looked Dareen right in the face, then at the statuette, then at Dareen again with a long, long look.

16.

 

        Dareen found herself stupidly playing dumb even though the jig was up.  “I don’t know what you mean.”

 

        Billy said, “I was there.  Over that fry place and package store, Clancy’s.”  He glanced down briefly.  “My girlfriend lives on the third floor.  I’m one of the lucky few to see NakedGirl.  And dang if it wasn’t you.”

        Dareen’s mouth was open.  She knew she could still plausibly deny it, say it wasn’t her, but she just couldn’t lie to Billy.  He was crude at times, they had nothing in common, he made occasional references to being the only white person in the office: “I’m the new minority, watch out!” but he seemed to have basically a good heart, and with her he had always been nice, in fact he had a courtly “Southern gentleman” style that he turned on when dealing with the ladies in general.  Still with her mouth open she realized this man had seen her naked.  Now, though he wasn’t staring at her body, she nevertheless imagined his gaze penetrating her sweater and her blouse and her long skirt.  “Lord . . . ”  She crouched down and crossed her arms over her chest, pressed her legs together.

 

        “It was the most amazing thing I ever saw.  Sherry too.”

 

        “Who?”

        “My girlfriend.”

        That Billy had a girlfriend was news to her.  In fact no one knew much about Billy except that he used to be in the Army and his family was from the mountains in the northwest part of the state.  “Oh Lord . . . she saw me too?”

        “Dar, dozens of people have seen you by now.”  The Clancy’s rescue, of course, had been on the news, like all NakedGirl’s other exploits, though so far no one had gotten a picture.  “It was only a matter of time before it was someone who knew you.”

 

        Dareen stayed bent over, not wanting to look up at him.

 

        “You’re so modest here, why do you go around butt naked like that?” Billy said.  “No, I’m not looking at you now, I’ve . . . well, my curiosity’s been satisfied.”  Feeling like she was on the verge of tears, he said, “It’s O.K., Dar.  I won’t tell anyone.  I’ve got so many questions though.  How do you do it?  When did it start?”

 

        Still crouched down in the chair, Dareen said, “It . . . just happened.  I can only fly when I’m . . . without anything on.  I get a feeling I’m needed and I go.  I don’t know why, I don’t know anything more than that.”

        “Does anyone else know?”

 

        “Just Elly.”

 

        Billy looked at Dareen for a long moment.  “You can only fly when you’re naked?”

        Dareen, feeling ridiculous being all crouched over, forced herself to sit up straight.  Her arms were still crossed over her chest, so newly firm and voluminous, pushing her elbows so high up they practically seemed like they were poking Billy in the eye.  “Only after my clothes are off for a couple of hours.”

        Billy realized the import of what he was being told.  “Dareen, don’t be ashamed.  I admire you a great deal.  To save people, like old Charlie, to put yourself out like that, when you’re so shy, that takes guts.  Guts is something we need more of in this country, if you ask me.”

        They sat looking at each other for a long moment.

        Dareen found herself accepting an invitation to have lunch with Billy at a restaurant/bar she had seen nearby, the Old Dominion, which turned out to be a place with lots of rifles and dead animal heads on the wall.  And a big Confederate flag over the bar.  Needless to say it was filled with white people.  Dareen felt a little uneasy among this belt-buckle and cowboy-boot crowd, being the only person with brown skin.  There were a couple of glances.

        Fortunately there was an upstairs which was quieter and more like a restaurant.  Not too many people eating at these tables, just a few business types having lunch meetings across the room.  Billy obviously knew the waitress, a cheerful middle-aged lady with big pile of red hair who didn’t mind him ogling her very low-cut leotard top.  “I’ll have an Oly.  You?”

 

        “Just a coke, please.”

 

        It was after the waitress left and they were looking at their menus that Billy said, “Oh Dar, I’m sorry.  I just remembered your ‘One Day at a Time’ sign.  You can’t drink, right?”

 

        “YOU can, it’s O.K.” she said as she switched her table setting around.

 

        Seeing this, Billy said, “Discrimination against left-handers.  It never ends, I imagine.”

        “Amen to that,” Dareen said with a little smile.

 

        “But really, let me cancel my beer.  I don’t want to, um, tempt you.”  He was about to get up to go downstairs but Dareen stopped him.  “Really, it’s O.K.”

 

        Surveying the menu, Billy said, “I recommend the reuben.  They have good french fries too.  I mean freedom fries.”

 

        Another smile from Dareen.  “I don’t eat pork.  My religion.”  Then quickly she said, “I’ll have the pizza burger.”  She knew Billy was feeling awkward, first ordering beer and then recommending ham.  Yet she was liking him more.  They had never hung out like this before.  It made her feel relaxed, less shy.

 

        As they ate Dareen noticed Billy wasn’t touching his beer.  Finally she said, “I order you to drink that.”

 

        Billy obliged with a modest sip.  “You don’t seem like the type to get smashed . . .  Was it a long time ago?”

        “You’ll laugh.”

 

        “Go ahead, tell me.”

 

        “I grew up in a pretty religious family, or at least they were then.  We never had alcohol in the house.  My father even threw out some floor cleaner because it had ten percent isopropyl alcohol.”  Between munches of her pizza burger, Dareen got into one of her occasional voluble modes, a quiet yet articulate way of talking, that her past boyfriends had found enchanting.  “Then I took driver ed in high school and we had to know blood alcohol levels in drinks, like how much was in beer, or a glass of wine, or a martini.  I didn’t know what they were talking about.  Does wine come in bigger glasses than mixed drinks?  And what’s a ‘mixed drink’, anyway?  Does that include those wine coolers I see on TV?  I kept on getting confused.

 

        “So anyway I flunked my written test because there were about five questions on that and I got every one of them wrong.  After our graduation party I sneaked out with my girlfriends to a friend’s house where their parents were away, and alcohol was out.  I told them about my flunking the test, and they showed me the difference between a glass of wine and a shot of whiskey.”  On the rare occasions when Dareen told a long story she had a way of squinting in one eye, again, something quite engaging.  “They told me to try a sip of each, to see how much stronger the whiskey was, and showed me the bottles with the ‘proof’ numbers on them.  By that time, though,” Dareen said with a shrug, interrupting with a bite of the burger, “I was enjoying the drinks too much to do much calculating.  I was really messed up that summer and my whole first year in college was a waste.”

 

        “So you finally passed the exam, right?”

        “Yes, and the road test, but a few close calls and one time the police took me home.  That was my wake-up call.  That was me hitting bottom and, well . . . it was ‘higher power’ time.”  Dareen thought of adding, “One day at a time.  I still get the urge to drink but I aim for bedtime.  Once my head hits the pillow I know I’ve made it another day.  It helps to turn in early.”  But she cut herself short, knowing how recovered alcoholics can go on and on about this.

        “Wow.”  Billy listened thoughtfully.  “Some of those A.A. types really get into Jesus.”

 

        “I know.”

        Again, Dareen thought of saying, “That’s why I stopped going.  They were helpful at first, but I could only transpose ‘Jesus’ into ‘Allah’ so many times before it was clear that they were simply going down a different path than me.  And I’m sure some of them were, if you pressed them, just anti-Islam.  Which you find a lot of these days.  I wish there was an Islamic A.A. group here in town.  But I seem to be doing all right without going to meetings, fortunately.”  Again, she didn’t say it.  All Billy heard were the first two words, Dareen lapsing into being her typical quiet self again.

        Billy stopped the friendly small talk and got serious.  “You know, this country could use you.”

 

        Dareen, chewing the last of the burger, looked up in puzzlement.

        “We’re at war,” he said.  “The president says it like a goddam broken record but it’s true.  Your roommate’s from New York, right?”  He had met Elly the last time she visited Dareen’s work.  “When she goes downtown there used to be two big towers down there.”  Dareen flinched a little, thinking of her breasts, then felt embarrassed at having heard this pun.  “They’re not there any more.  I hear it smelled all dusty down there for months.  The smell of powdered people.  We really are at war.

 

        “Now someone like you, who knows ahead of time where bad things are going to happen, with super powers . . .  This country needs you.”

 

        “Billy, I’m not sure I can . . . ”

        “I thought about this a lot, after seeing you that night and seeing what you can do, and then watching all that’s on TV about terrorists . . .  I think it’s your patriotic duty as an American to volunteer your services.”

        Dareen was speechless.  She didn’t know how to react.  Her mind was caught up in logistics.  “How can I?  I don’t see how it can work.”

 

        “Dar, you just gotta do it.  Volunteer.  I come from a long line of volunteers.  My great-great granddaddy volunteered for the rebel cause.  Didn’t ask no questions, he just did it.  It might seem wrong now, but it’s what a country’s all about.  Any country that’s worth a damn, anyway.  And you KNOW you will be on the right side.”

 

        The dusky, heavily clothed, shy young woman could do nothing but look down at the table, saying nothing.

        “And it would be good for everybody,” Billy concluded, his voice a little lower.  “I’m not one of those people who say all A-rabs are terrorists.  But let’s be honest.  You probably know someone, who knows someone, who knows something about bin Laden or that crowd.”  He ignored the flash in Dareen’s dark eyes and went on.  “The folks at Cobb News and everywhere else think NakedGirl is white.  Well, you ain’t white.  If you ‘come out’, like, and volunteer for Uncle Sam, and now there’s a Muslim girl, an American, fighting against terrorism, well, that would be very good.  Maybe we wouldn’t have so many trash things happening to Muslims like recently.  It would be badly needed.”

 

        Dareen thought about that last point.  It was distressing to her that people thought Muslims, or any persons from the Middle East, were in league with terrorists.  And frustrating.  Commentators on Cobb News were always claiming that American Muslims weren’t denouncing terrorism.  Like most Arab Americans she knew terror against America was only part of the story.  Still, it was important to separate yourselves from the terrorists, and Imam Tahir had said at mosque that he’d been trying to get on local TV to that effect, without success.

 

        While these thoughts were bouncing around in her head Billy said, “It’s not a matter of if, but when.  I’ll keep your NakedGirl deal a secret, like I say.  But sooner or later everyone will find out who you are.  And then the feds will ask you to help them, and you really couldn’t refuse, could you? Headline: ‘Local A-rab girl refuses to help war on terror’.  So my advice is, do it sooner rather than later.  You still have the card from that FBI guy who visited you that time when I was away?  Call him.”

 

        Billy sat back.  “End of sermon.  Time to pass around the money dish,” he said, just as the check came.  “It’s on me.  Think about what I said, O.K.?”

 

        As they sat waiting for Billy’s credit card to come back he said, “You know, you really should tell Jamal.  He’s, uh, he’s got a thing for you.  Always has.  He hasn’t said anything to me, but I can tell.  I think he can keep your secret.”

        Actually Dareen knew perfectly well about Jamal’s interest in her, and was thinking how distracted he would become, his imagination going bonkers at the thought of her flying around naked.  Still, she trusted him to keep a secret and she started considering it.  “You might be right.”

 

        “So,” Billy said as they were about to get up.  “Tell me.  What bra size are you?  Remember, I’ve already seen you naked.”

 

        “Oh, Billy . . . ”  Dareen bowed her head and crossed her arms over her chest again.  He was back to being his old juvenile self.

 

        “What’s the big deal? Remember,” he repeated, “I’ve, you know, already seen y’all.”  Using the plural now, quite deliberately and mischievously.

        “Well I’m not telling you,” she said with a smile as they headed downstairs and out to the street.

 

        It was boiling hot outside, as always.  Dareen felt the sweat beading up on her forehead, the infernal tightness and scratchiness of abundant clothing on sweating suffocating skin all over.  She wished she was flying out over the Tennessee cornfields again where no one could see her free and unclothed with cool wind bathing her all over.

 

        They got back into the building and it was just the two of them that got into the elevator, an old creaky affair with worn wooden walls and a flickering fluorescent light above them.  She looked over at Billy.  He was so easy to be around, now that she knew him a little better.  She pressed the button for the fourth floor.

 

        After the doors closed on them she said, “Thirty-four F.”

 

        It had been fifteen minutes but Billy knew what she was talking about.  “Thirty-four F?”  He considered it acceptable to glance down at her briefly.  “I would think you were more like a 40 or so.”

 

        “Please, I’m a skinny girl.  I just graduated from a 32.  Definitely not a 40.”

 

        “Oh.”  Billy seemed confused.  “Ever read the Jenny stories?”

 

        “What?”

 

        “I suppose you haven’t.  I read them on the internet.  A girl who keeps losing her clothes.  English.”

 

        Dareen covered up her ears playfully.  “I don’t want to hear about pornography.”

        “It’s not dirty.  Mostly silly stuff.  Fun to read though.  She has big ones too, size 38 double C.”

        “38 double C?  There’s no such size.”  A moment’s thought.  “And I ought to know.”  As would any thin, busty young woman who had spent years discreetly trying to find bras that fit.

        “Maybe I should e-mail the writer,” Billy said.

        As the elevator got to the fourth floor, he said, “Think about what I said.  Your super powers are needed.  And, uh, don’t worry, Dar.  Your secret’s safe with me.”

 

        They walked out to their offices, back to their daily tasks, saying hi to a slightly puzzled Jamal.  Behind them, the elevator doors closed on the flickering fluorescent light and the worn wooden walls which held a surveillance camcorder up near the top.

 

17.

        “Latina girls don’t seem to mind showing skin,” Dareen said to herself as she looked out the window of the Hostos Branch Library.  Sweating in the tiny, poorly ventilated reading room, she almost envied the teenagers and young women jiggling by, though she knew she could never go out like that.  Little halters, backless blouses, tube tops . . . everybody showing navels and several inches of skin below, some in tiny little red shorts that seem to be the new fad, some walking along the dirty, litter-strewn sidewalks with their boyfriends who wore loose tank shirts, long, long shorts and oversized sneakers with untied laces.  There was a wealth of female skin out there, in all shades of brown and black, all colors except white.

 

        As Dareen waited for her first appointment with Lourdes she looked around inside and appraised the library.  In her professional opinion it was very inadequate, though there was nothing she could do about it because this was a City library, not connected to the State system.  A few tables, out of date reference materials, only a few stacks, and just two computer stations, both of which seemed to be out of order.  A real shame.  No wonder there were only a few people here besides herself, old folks reading Spanish language newspapers.

 

        She briefly reflected on the past few days.  She still couldn’t believe she actually told Billy her bra size.  Yet it was a relief in a way, to share her experiences with someone besides Elly.  Elly seemed a little distant recently.  At first amused by the NakedGirl business, she had been unnerved by that time she was insulted on the way home from work by that gang of white guys.  Not that Dareen could blame her for being uneasy, any Muslim was these days.  But Dareen felt she needed a circle of friends, not just one.

        And Billy was right about her identity as “NakedGirl” being found out.  It was just inevitable.  On her last call, two nights ago, she thwarted a shooting outside a disco.  There must have been twenty people out on that sidewalk who saw her.  Staring right at her, calling other people out, as usual the full force of shame hit her all at once, it was all she could do to keep from covering her breasts and crotch with her hands, but of course she needed her hands to grab the offenders and turn them in.  Unfortunately two more black guys, and of course Cobb News put their mug shots next to their idealized white masked girl the next day.  And once again she found someone fumbling with a camera and once again she knocked it out of his hands with a lightning-fast kick of her bare foot.  Someday soon, someone would succeed in taking a picture.   Mary Shin and her “Friends of NakedGirl” group were still around, urging people not to take pictures because NakedGirl didn’t want to be photographed, but they had little influence.  Dareen still read about them occasionally in the back pages of the Democrat-Argue, but they still hadn’t managed to get on TV.

 

        She should tell Jamal.  Or maybe not.  She kept going back and forth about that.  And about Billy’s forceful suggestion to offer her services to the War on Terror.  Certainly the government would keep her identity a secret if she wanted.  Governments love to keep secrets.  And they probably would allow her, when possible, to do her super powers alone where no one could see her.  Yet how would it work?  Would she just sit around naked in some room waiting to get a sense of a terrorist attack?  How would they decide where she should hang out?  And how would she keep her job at the library?  On the other hand, her country needed her.  And then yet . . . she thought of her time with the horses in Texas, and wondered if she was really equal to what she had decided, that being NakedGirl was her role in life.  When there were people to see, she HATED being naked, hated the shame.  She really was a Muslim woman through and through, who wanted to stay covered.

 

        It was a relief from all these tortured thoughts, when something told her to look up and here was Lourdes coming down the street, noticeable for her skimpy covering.  Even in this parade of scantily-clad Latinas, the almost total nakedness of Lourdes turned heads, as well as her undeniable beauty of both face and figure.  Lourdes had the narrowest tube top Dareen had ever seen, a white strip maybe three inches wide that just held the bottoms of her apple-sized breasts, her little nipples poking through, then the long, long expanse of clear, brown skin, past the navel, the wide “V” of her delicate hip bones, and then, finally, the little denim shorts, so low that it was a wonder no pubic hair was showing, and so short that as she turned to go into the library entrance Dareen could see the delicate “Y” below her tail bone and beginnings of the tops of the rounded bottoms of her small butt cheeks.  The clunky strapped sandals were gone, replaced by platform flip-flops.  The way she slouched, her unhappy look, the wilt of her shoulders along which she slung her little white purse, the way she seemed all too aware of the stares of the guys.  Dareen’s heart went out to this poor girl.

 

        As Lourdes came in and turned to look around, Dareen had a closer view of the dimple over her butt, framing what was now a very minimal orange thong, just a “T” made of tiny string.  Reflexively the girl tugged up her low-rise shorts but the thong was still visible.  Dareen recognized all these skimpy items from the bargain table at the outdoor mall.  Fortunately, Dareen mused, even with her very limited budget Lourdes was able to buy the increasingly minimal clothes she was forced to wear.

 

        Lourdes saw Dareen and slunk over to sit across from her, sliding the purse strap off her bare shoulder, seemingly glad there was the back of the chair to hide her almost totally exposed backside.  “Hola,” she said, “I am happy to see you, Dareen.”  Though she didn’t look happy; she was trying to keep her composure.  “I lost my job.”

 

        Dareen clasped Lourdes’s hands across the table.  Then Lourdes said, “He said I was a puta.”  Dareen knew this meant “whore”.  And now the tears came.  Dareen went around to hug Lourdes from behind, covering this poor child with her wealth of clothing, her sweater and blouse and long skirt no doubt feeling welcome against the all but bare teenage skin.

 

        The library was no place for this.  “Let’s go to my place.”

 

        As Daeeen explained to the teenager in the car, Elly just had to be told something, to explain why Lourdes went around wearing so little.  It was tricky, because Dareen wasn’t ready to tell Lourdes the truth about herself, at least not yet.  She felt like she was being unfair, she knowing about Lourdes, but not vice versa.  They agreed they would say that Lourdes had gotten allergic to clothing and was being treated for it.  It was a very unsatisfying solution, no doubt temporary.

 

        But it worked for now.  When Elly saw the heavily clothed Dareen come in followed by the nearly naked Lourdes, even more scantily clad than the first time she was there, she said playfully, “You sure know how to keep cool,” but then got sympathetic when told about the “allergy”.

        They watched Lourdes loosen up as they turned on Spanish TV for her again, the young women looking on in bemusement as Lourdes asked to use the phone, and at their insistence she was given a bowl of chips and told to just hang out as they went about separating clothes for the laundry.  Dareen and Elly stopped once and watched from a distance.  Lourdes, slouching cross-legged on the chair, picking out chips with one hand, phone in the other, jabbering in high-speed Spanish to one of her girlfriends, interrupted by an accented “Ohmigod!” as they talked about what was happening on the screen.  She had kicked off her clunky sandals, and her toes, hanging over the side of the chair, wiggled excitedly as she spoke.  From behind she looked almost totally naked, the tube top having carelessly gotten a little folded up, only two inches wide, over the gentle arc of her backbone, and way, way below, just above the wooden seat of the chair, two inches of butt crack were visible, bisected by the little orange string, with no sight of the super-low-rise shorts she was sitting on.

 

        Elly had been thinking of Lourdes’s job misfortunes and had an idea.  “The bikini shop in the outdoor mall,” she said during a commercial.  “I saw a help wanted sign there yesterday.  It would be perfect; they wouldn’t mind hiring someone with your fashion sense.”

        After Elly explained where it was, Lourdes’s face showed a flash of recognition.  “Si, I go there sometimes with my girlfriends.  Bathing suits good, but expensive.”

        “Good selection,” Elly said, too tactful to mention that, though not exactly well-off, she was gainfully employed and had the money to have bought suits there several times.  They had a large variety of thongs, which Elly favored.  She had tried to get Dareen to buy some bikinis (they had ones with bra-type tops that gave support to big breasts) but she knew it was a lost cause.  Dareen was dedicated to one-piece suits and was hesitant to appear even in those.

 

        Elly said she would take Lourdes to the store the next day.  Dareen thought of something.  “She’s undocumented.”

 

        This caused Elly to pause only momentarily.  “I don’t think Hank cares.  We’ll see.  Anyway he won’t report if we asked.”  It was a new law; employers had to report any undocumented aliens who even applied for jobs.  Of course, many employers didn’t comply; no one wanted to dry up the large pool of people who were willing to work off the books for below minimum wage.

 

        “Gracias.  You are like my sisters big, I don’t see Cruz too much now,” Lourdes said, referring to her sister who had been straightening her life out after adventures with drugs and prostitution, but who was busy raising her two little kids in another part of town.  Lourdes’s butt crack turned with the rest of her as she did something unexpected which affected Dareen and Elly a great deal: she reached over to hug one and then the other.  Then she went back to eating chips and watching the novella, where the heroine was having another confrontation with her boyfriend during which she cried streams of tears, something she did every seven and a half minutes.

 

        It got dark out and Dareen drove Lourdes home.   After she came back she was met with Elly’s constant questions about this “allergy” to clothes.  Finally she decided to tell Elly the truth, Lourdes’s story about being in the park and surrounded by lightning.

 

        “Wow, you two really are sisters.”

 

        “Yes, but . . . I’m a super hero.  She, on the other hand, is a defenseless kid with a big problem.”

 

        They were going to talk about it more but then there was a knock on the door.  It was Pedro the super, finally showing up with the new door to Dareen’s room and some lumber to redo the jamb.  Dareen felt hot in the face, remembering that he had seen her naked that time she was holding the old door up, her huge new breasts sticking right into his face.  She crossed her arms over her chest as she said hi.  She then excused herself to go out on a drive while he did his work.  Not that he was likely to do it quickly, what with Elly flirting with him.

 

        He said he would be an hour or two.  It was about nine p.m. now.  As Dareen walked out to her car, looking at what stars were visible through the glare of the streetlights, she thought about going out toward Alpharetta, on that road where she had gotten zapped that night.  She decided against it.  She was lost that night and probably would get lost again, unless she got naked and let her super powers guide her.  She smiled, thinking of driving naked.  Yeah, right!  So she decided to put on a few ounces, and go to a diner for a salad with lots of blue cheese dressing, her favorite.  She did find herself wanting to go back to that stretch of road, even at the risk of meeting up with that mad scientist man.  She was beginning to think that being a naked super hero was a burden she would much rather give up.  She wished she could go back and somehow get unzapped.  And get Lourdes unzapped too.  The child needed it more urgently than she did.

 

18.

        Imam Tahir sipped the coffee from the little cup, grimacing but then drinking the whole thing, pretending that he hadn’t forgotten to put in sugar, then putting it back on the saucer in front of him on the floor.  Across from him in the big circle sat the Grand Imam and his two adjuncts. Another regional council, at the big mosque in Dunwoody.  It was good to see old friends, to chat with other imams at meals, see how things were going in other areas of the southeastern United States.  And good to hear guests from other conferences of this loose-knit patchwork called American Islam.  But now the Grand Imam was in “expounding mode” and though others were supposedly welcome to add their comments, one was hesitant to do so.  The Grand Imam did not like too much dissent, not when “the days are now perilous”, as he kept saying.

        And he didn’t like to talk about specifics.  Tahir was ten years into being an imam and knew that specific issues were best dealt with in small groups.  But the case history method could still be instructive.

 

        In contrast to Tahir, who was short and nervous, the Grand Imam was a tall man with a long white beard who carried himself like a great dignitary, which of course he was.  He also spoke like one.  “Women historically have been treated as less than full humans, sold like cattle, and that was an error which the Prophet never condoned,” he was saying.  “Yet Allah created Man and Woman different for a reason.  Women have breasts for a reason.  Men have superior strength for a reason . . .”

 

        The Grand Imam was glancing at him and it was apparent what the Grand Imam was talking about.  His adjuncts had mentioned it.  The message was that they thought Tahir was letting his congregation get too liberalized.  For one thing, he had separated the men and women side by side, instead of women in the back.  That was a big change, which he hadn’t discussed it with the council first.  And now, Tahir knew, it was too late to go back to the old setup without telling the congregation he had made a mistake and sending a chill throughout his mosque.

 

        Always, he had tried to steer a middle ground.  He didn’t want to lose his flock by being too strict, yet wanted to keep Islam distinctive and apart from the type of gross secularization that had caused the mainline Christian churches to dwindle.  And then there was the pull of the Wahabis and the Shi’ites.  No one dared sympathize with them these days, not here in America, yet there was no denying the undercurrents of attraction they held for some young people. All that wildness.  It reminded him of gangster hip-hop and its pull on black youth.  How self-destructive.  Unfortunately it was also, for lack of a better word, sexy.

 

        “True happiness lies not with what may seem convenient or fashionable, but with following the will of Allah as revealed by the Prophet . . . ”  Again the quick glance.  Tahir knew he was talking about Dareen Alkaras.  And some other women in the congregation, but especially Dareen.  The Grand Imam had been to his mosque three or four times this year.  Back in February he was visibly amazed when during the question period some women raised their hands.  He astutely chose not to ignore them, politely taking their questions, which were fairly innocuous, but it clearly made an impression on him.

 

        The Grand Imam had a photographic memory for faces, especially those of the young women, and at his next visit when Dareen had a question he called on her by name.  Again, a rather obedient question, asking whether women should wear a kerchief at all times.  (The Grand Imam recommended it.)  But then . . . news had gotten out of Dareen’s outburst at the special service after that pulse bomb -- questioning her Imam’s command to evacuate after a bomb threat -- and today, as the Grand Imam droned on, Tahir knew the subtext of his remarks: Dareen Alkaras must be spoken to.

 

        Tahir felt firmly that, though Dareen’s outburst was a cause for concern, it was a product of excited circumstances and nothing she had done was objectionable.  She was from a good family who attended this very mosque, she was not trying to be disruptive or loud, in fact she was clearly basically a shy girl, simply someone who was well-educated and smart and wanted a faith that was thought through, and not just accepted without thinking. In fact he wished more women in the congregation were like that.  And if Islam were to survive and thrive in this country, it would have to make room for such women.

 

        As the Grand Imam continued speaking, Tahir determined to take a bold step.  After the session ended, he would invite the Grand Imam downtown to his house for dinner and meet the issue head on, discuss the matter of Dareen Alkaras and how she was not a threat to traditional Islam in the least.

 

        Lourdes got the job at the bikini shop.  Which would do at least for a while.

 

        The outdoor mall was right off the subway stop but Dareen had offered to drive her home after her first day.  Lourdes had invited her in and Dareen had an awkward conversation with her parents, who were polite but distant.  It was hard communicating in broken English, since they obviously didn’t understand anything else and Dareen’s Spanish was too poor for her to risk misunderstandings.  She hoped she had gotten through to them that she was tutoring Lourdes in English as part of a Library program.  She also said several times, “Lourdes is intelligent,” pointing to her scantily clad young friend.  They nodded but it was clear they didn’t think much of their daughter’s recent choice of wardrobe.

 

        Not that it wasn’t appropriate to the heat.  In spite of the hot weather the worn-out little apartment was made even more boiling from the rice and beans cooking on the stove.  Dareen’s feet were hot in their stockings and sensible shoes, her body was hot under the layers of itchy clothing, her breasts felt squeezed and practically tortured, her head was hot under the kerchief.  Yet she looked at Lourdes, forced to be nearly naked all the time, and wouldn’t want to trade places for anything.

 

        Lourdes had been hanging out in Dareen’s room a lot recently, at Dareen’s own invitation.  It was clear that the girl enjoyed this haven away from prying eyes.  Now, two days later, Dareen was sipping coffee and reading the paper in the kitchen, thinking she should have a copy of their apartment key made for her.  Elly wouldn’t mind.  In fact the three of them had gotten to be something of a group.  They went out to eat the other day at Reilly’s, the pizza place on the corner.  Lourdes had sat next to the wall so that her skin would not attract stares.  This meant Dareen had to sit at the edge and the bulge of her sweatshirt-covered chest attracted a couple of looks, but she was good at keeping her arms in front so that no one got a direct view.

 

        Later that night, without having to say why it was needed, Elly took Lourdes into the bathroom and gave her a razor and cream so that the teenager could trim her pubic hair.  Elly left the bathroom with the door closed so that the teenager could have privacy.  It was a full half hour later when Lourdes emerged wordlessly, buttoning the top of her tiny shorts.  Then they turned on the novelas.

        Having finished her coffee, Dareen put the empty cup into the sink and padded over in her stockinged feet to her doorway.  Pedro had done a good job on it, though he still needed to cover the two-by-fours and then do the painting.  Then she contemplated Lourdes, lying sprawled on the bedroom floor, doodling on some sheets of blank paper.

 

        She was barefoot, her flip-flops (now down to thin-soled three-dollar items from Old Navy) scattered across the room.  She had had to give up panties entirely, maybe to her relief (Dareen had never worn thongs but imagined them to be very uncomfortable) and had gotten a new pair of prewashed jean shorts, even more low-rise, even shorter, measuring maybe only five inches long.  Dareen had noticed that even when she was standing and tugging these new shorts up over her trim little butt, Lourdes could not prevent the beginning of her crack from showing.  Now, with the girl’s legs bent and sprawled on the floor as she scribbled busily, Dareen counted three inches of butt cleavage.  The top of the shorts actually seemed closer to the beginning of her legs than it was to the Y-shaped dimple at the base of her back.  Above, the tube top now being too stifling, the poor child was reduced to a tiny string bikini top which showed the rounded sides of her size 32-C breasts.

        Dareen stepped closer and noticed something else, what Lourdes was writing.  This was not simply doodling.  She was writing numbers, stacks of numbers in fact, though written in loopy, teenage-girl style.  And down near the bottom were triangles.

 

        “What are you doing?”

 

        Lourdes looked up, aware now of Dareen’s presence, reflexively tugging up her shorts.  “I figure out roots square of numbers.  I like to do this, it’s fun.  Division too.”  She gathered the sheets and drew herself up cross-legged, making a vestigial effort to hide her bare toes, which caused her practically free breasts to wobble.  She began to point with the pencil but paused to casually tug at one of the little bikini top triangles which had been in danger of moving off its nipple.  “But I have trouble with angulos.  If you know how large each side is, and know the angulo here” -- she pointed at one of the triangles at the bottom of the sheet, “you must know the, sorry, the angle here.  But I can’t think of how to do it.”

 

        Dareen wasn’t a math whiz but she had always paid attention in class and remembered something of her high school days, specifically ninth grade.  “You’d need to find the sine or cosine, I forget which.”

        “The what?”

 

        “You’d need trigonometry.”

 

        “What is that?”

 

        Dareen looked at Lourdes and then quickly back at the sheet to hide her thoughts, her pity and her anger.  What a shame, what a crappy school system.  About to graduate from high school and they hadn’t even taught her trigonometry yet.  And such a bright girl who thirsted for knowledge.

 

        The next day at work Dareen went down into the stacks and signed out a book on elementary trigonometry for Lourdes to read.  Searching the computer data base Dareen saw that there was a book on it in Spanish, out at the Athens branch.  But she decided against ordering it.  It would take a week for it to come in, and besides, it was better for Lourdes to keep learning English too. Also, math was an international language, a bright child like her could probably pick it up just from the diagrams.

        And now, Dareen’s lunch with Jamal.  Today was the day she was going to do what Billy suggested: tell him that she, shy little Dareen Alkaras, was the fabled NakedGirl.

 

        She asked Jamal out to the diner he had gone to with her before and of course it had just started raining buckets.  Dareen hadn’t brought her umbrella to work; Jamal went back up to get his, and they ran together under it, Jamal not being afraid of putting his hand on her far shoulder as he held the umbrella over the two of them.

 

        “What was with the lunch with Billy?” he asked right away, or at least after they had ordered.

 

        “I just never hung out with him before.”  Dareen tried to invent a story.  “We had had a little argument about that . . . statuette, and we were patching things up.”

 

        “Oh yeah.  That flag.  Not that I don’t mind seeing naked women in the office,” he added with a smile.  “But seriously, he just has a blind spot about that flag.”

 

        “He has a good heart.”

 

        “It’s not just that.  I told you about my great-great uncle.  Billy sees that flag as a symbol of pride.  To me it’s a symbol of murder.  A much bigger point than his.”

 

        They ate.  Dareen was about to say something a few times.  How to bring it up?

        Jamal cleared his throat and ventured, “Dar, have you been working out? You seem a bit more pumped up lately.”

        “Um . . . yes, I’ve been exercising.”  She didn’t tell him about her upcoming breast reduction, like she had with Ms. Hom.  And felt bad about it.  Keeping Jamal in the dark about everything just didn’t seem right.

        Jamal said, “That reminds me of another invention I thought of.”

        “Like the Ice Hat?” she said with a little smile.

 

        “People at my gym, I see them huffing away lifting weights, running on treadmills with all that excess energy.  If only all exercise machines could be attached so that energy wouldn’t go to waste.  They would actually be helping feed into a big flywheel of some sort.   I’ve done an internet search and it’s amazing, but it looks like nobody’s thought of it yet.  Mechanical energy, stored up so we can make it through another blackout like with that pulse bomb.”

 

        Another little smile.  They were finished now and Dareen felt her chance slipping away.  Unfortunately Dareen’s attempt at disclosure was too little and too late.  “Jamal, you know, that NakedGirl statuette . . . ”

 

        “Yes?”

 

        “How do they know . . . that she’s white?”

 

        Jamal paused for a minute and scratched his close-shaven head.  “That’s what I like about you Dar, you have a different viewpoint.  No one has actually taken a picture, right?”  He thought some more.  “Even if she was black, though, I wish she’d be more diverse in her, um, perpetrators.”

 

        And so they got up, Jamal still a little puzzled as to why Dareen had uncharacteristically taken the lead in inviting him to lunch.  They walked back to the office over the wet streets as the sun came out again, Dareen almost kicking herself.  NakedGirl might be big and brave, but Dareen Alkaras, mild-mannered librarian, was a weeny.

 

        That night, disgusted with herself, Dareen went to her bedroom and got ready for what she had been feeling lately was the only thing she could do well, as she closed the new door behind her, sat on her bed, peeled off every bit of clothing, and lay down.  She put her head down and said a short prayer to Allah, asking for guidance and peace of mind, and waited for her powers to come.  And possibly a call for help from somewhere.  She thought of recent days.  So many unfinished situations, so many stopgap solutions.  She had an uneasy feeling, that things were percolating to a head, that something was about to snap.

 

19.

 

        Dareen fell asleep, and dreamed once again about brown mountains rising up above her.  Then had a horrible dream of Lourdes, reduced to a thong bikini, screaming and running barefoot down a dirty sidewalk just ahead of a gang of rapists.  She woke up.  It was dark and quiet outside, probably after midnight.  It was uncomfortable to do this naked but she sat up on the chair in her desk in the dark bedroom, knees up to her chin, breasts crushed against her thighs, and contemplated what stars could be seen over the city lights, past the fire escape.

 

        She remembered running stupidly through that thunderstorm back in June, trying to find a phone, and that crazy scientist with the bullet-shaped rocket who wanted her to change her wet clothes right in front of him.  Being lifted into the air by lightning, or something, which burned her clothes off.  Discovering her super powers.  Only Elly knew.  And now, Billy Gibbs.

 

        She thought of her brother Sanny in the Army, now stationed in Iraq, thank goodness in a safe place, inside one of the big American bases.  It was just as well his Arabic was so neglected so as to be unusable (their parents didn’t use it much at home) and she, being the only scholarly one, was the only one to actually keep it up.  If he knew Arabic well, they might put him out among the people where he could get shot at.  Her other army brother, Mikky, was pretty well established giving flying lessons to cadets at West Point, so at least he probably wouldn’t be sent out to Iraq too.

 

        She thought of the recent vandalism on mosques, the time when everyone at her mosque thought they were being attacked, the Cobb News Network talking about “turd world nations”, that horrible blond lady saying Muslims smell bad and must be converted to Christianity, the comments Elly had heard on the street.  And thought about the cousins of the people at her own mosque, who had been working as busboys at the restaurant on top of the World Trade Center, such a great honor for them yet it had become their fiery grave.  There was so much hate and violence in the world; she just wanted it to end.

 

        She got out her sajjada, and said a prayer, still naked though clothed by the darkness in the room.  Please Allah, let there be peace.  Then she thought of Billy’s request that she volunteer her services to her country.  And how it seemed inescapable, she just couldn’t keep her powers to herself when help was so badly needed.  So many innocent, helpless people.  But how could she help all of them?  Even as a super-hero, she was just one person.

 

        Tired from her thoughts, wondering maybe that her brooding was pointless and maybe she should lighten up a little, she got up and, her eyes now used to the dark, went to the closet and slipped on that burka.  She felt it tight over her breasts and smiled, remembering Elly laughing at it.  Then, realizing she had doused her super powers by putting it on, she tossed it off and went back to her bed to await regeneration.  She thought of Jamal and his unrequited affection for her, his silly invention ideas, exercise machine power, the ice hat. And then she was asleep.

 

        She woke up and it was almost dawn, but she had a very uneasy feeling.  It was almost like the familiar feeling that she was needed somewhere, though not quite.  But she was getting very strong feelings emanating from downtown.  No, no, not now.  Please, Allah . . .  So far all her work had been done under cover of darkness.  And this morning she had to go to work.

 

        In the pellucid dawn light she quickly checked outside, then opened the window, hopped onto the fire escape rail, her toes curling around it, then stretched her arms out and with a quick flexing of her knees, silently darted upward.  Feeling the cool morning air on her face and nipples, she banked left and up as high as she could given the increasingly strong sense the place where she was needed was near the ground.  She glided high over midtown, looked down on the first of the morning traffic, cars and people walking sluggishly as if wishing they had stayed in bed an hour longer.

 

        Then she felt the sun rise, felt the first rays on her butt, and figured she had to hide somewhere fast.  She hopped down onto the top of the Joly Tower, a safe thirty-five stories above the street, and hid behind the cornice, looking down and waiting.

 

        The Joly Tower was a narrow, semicircular building, only a few years old, built during the 1996 Olympics, distinctive because it was striated reinforced metal from top to bottom, looking like a big tool of some kind.  The naked supergirl knelt behind the two-foot-high cornice, feeling the tarred pebbles digging into her knees, painful but tolerable to one with super powers, then squatted up on her toes, looking back at the service door, hoping no one would come up and see her.

 

        She looked down at the street again.  It was getting close to eight o’clock and the plaza below was starting to fill up with people scurrying along holding their briefcases and their cups of coffee.  Cars and taxis were now filling the streets.  She hoped this was all a false alarm, wondering if she could fly away without being seen, or whether she was stuck here all day until it got dark again.  Or maybe . . .

 

        At first she felt the rumble through her toes, then the whole building shook and there was a loud boom like an explosion far below.  Dareen’s face took on a frightened expression at the same time that people on the street covered their heads and ran.  Now the distant sound of screaming far below and Dareen felt the building begin to pitch forward.  No, no!

 

        She stood up and felt the building begin to teeter to the right, toward a lower line of buildings across the street.  She jumped into mid-air and out over the street to get a better look below.  Rubble and smoke around the bottom, the smoke starting to waft upward, all noise blocked out by horrible loud tinning of bending metal sheared past its elastic limit.  There was only one thing to do.  Could she?  Did she have the strength?

 

        As she flew down the rapidly narrowing space over the street she knew and felt that Allah had given her the power, the power to save the lives of the people of her city.  She was only dimly aware of the shock and screams of the people in both buildings as the Joly Tower toppled toward its neighbors.  Down twenty stories, then she put her body horizontal and pushed with all her might, feeling the cool straining metal, the vibrations of the shearing below coming up through her hands.  The tower slowed its sideways fall.  Just in time.  She felt her bare toes brush against the lower building and knew that it would not be able to withstand the sideways stress.  Then the tower lurched to the left.  She followed it and looked down.  The boulevard below was wide enough, fortunately . . .

 

        To the people on the street, looking up as they ran away, it seemed like the tower was coming down on them, though unnaturally slowly, like time was standing still.  They didn’t see the little brown figure stuck to its side, still less could they tell that the figure was guiding the direction of the fall.  Inside the building, end of life prayers were said, people hopped onto the walls as their world turned onto its side, dodging the piling on of sliding desks and copying machines.

 

        Slowly the building lay down on its side, or moved as if that was what it was going to do.  Fortunately because of its unusual construction it did not come apart from the stress.  Then it dawned on the people that it was being guided.  And now as the building, two blocks long, slowly descended, they saw something which made them think this was a dream, a dream sprung somewhere from deep in the pit of the id where fear mixed with desire -- a naked woman, brown of skin and large of breast, with lustrous purple hair both above and below, holding the building up as it descended, until finally it was a few feet over the street, held up by the naked woman whose strong bare feet pressed against the asphalt of Caroline Avenue which began to buckle and crease under the weight so narrowly centered.

 

        She looked uncertain as people approached up to a safe distance, both in front of her and behind, lining the sidewalks, staying away from under the narrow building.  Hours seemed to pass though it was only moments, as they beheld her magnificent strong nudity in the morning light from all angles, breasts riding high on her chest as her arms stayed up to hold the hundred tons or so above her, her muscles straining a little but not really all that much, her tummy concave, legs placed a little apart to brace the bare feet.  Behind, people saw the strong bare back, the narrow waist, the tight buttocks, the muscles of the calves.

 

        There were people with cameras and of course she could do nothing as they approached and snapped.  The local Cobb News people poured from their office across the street and now there was a videocam.  Microphones were thrust forward.

 

        “What is your name?  Where did you come from?” were the questions thrown at her.

 

        It was the first thing on the news, of course.  The camera frantically being turned on and a quick view of the photographer’s sneakers and then the upview of the building coming down, horrible memories of 9/11 but now the slowness in descending, an immense object being carefully controlled, and the blessed thankful relief that things were in benevolent hands as it slowly and safely approached the ground as if it was a tired building that was taking a rest.

 

        And the close-up of the naked woman, nipples and crotch digitally fuzzified, under the horizontal tower as it slowly and softly went lower, lower, then gently the naked woman’s feet rested on the pavement and all was safe.  Her nude body took up the full screen as people could be seen gathering around.  And now the close-up of her amazed, shy, newly famous face, a gentle brown pretty Arab-American face with big brown eyes.

 

        In the living room of a modest tract house in Dunwoody, Hemet and Fatima Alkaras, who had been wondering why their daughter hadn’t called in a few days, looked at the screen in open-mouthed astonishment.

 

        On a little black and white TV in the kitchen, the nearly naked Lourdes, who had been sitting gloomily and uneasily with her parents and munching fried bananas and watching the Noticias, tuned out the rapid Spanish of the announcer as the face appeared on screen.  She gulped down too much and began coughing.

        In an apartment over Charlie’s, Billy Gibbs, slouching on a sofa with his girlfriend, stopped sipping from his long-necked Coors and playing idly with his girlfriend’s dreadlocks, and said, “Jeee -- sus!”

 

        Dareen’s naked form and now a close-up of her adorable face took up Jamal’s TV screen.  He sat back in the chair in his bedroom, looking at the TV sideways, no longer concerned with the internet surfing in front of him.  His mouth was open.  He couldn’t breathe.  Strangely he felt his eyes getting wet.

 

        Elly, listening with her co-workers clustered around the radio in her office, sat back apart from the others and muttered, “Oh . . . my . . . God . . . ”

 

        At Cobb News headquarters in New York, interns were running everywhere, executives were butting in on each other’s cell phones, ideas were thrashed around, the film clip was showing over and over on the screens on each desk, on the screens up on the wall.  The place was going bonkers.

 

        And now Imam Tahir, sitting down in front of the television in his quiet little house with the Grand Imam for a little rest after that fine meal his wife had cooked.  They placed their coffees on the table in front of them, the Grand Imam of course with slow dignity and a sense of presence like with everything he did.  Tahir thought he had made some headway with him tonight.  He seemed willing to withhold judgment for now on Dareen and the other women at his mosque.  He had said, “Great changes must come slowly,” which was a concession that eventually the change would come.

 

        Tahir turned on the remote control and the first thing they heard was, “And now a news bulletin from Action News.”  The shot of the tipping Joly Tower, and the naked woman guiding it down to rest.  The eyes and mouths of the two men opened wider and wider as they watched.  Even Tahir’s wife came out of the kitchen to look.

 

        And now the closeup of Dareen Alkaras’s face filling the screen.  Tahir emitted a strange choking sound.  “What is your name? Where are you from?” an off-camera voice called out.

 

        She said the most natural thing that came to her.  “All glory to Allah . . . I am glad to do Allah’s will.”  And then the camera panned back to her bare butt (fuzzified) as she turned, carefully and awkwardly set the building down onto the street, and jumped up.  The camera tilted up and caught only a blur as she flew away.

 

20.

        Elly just couldn’t turn it off.  They kept playing it and playing it, on all the channels.  In between “experts” opining on who this NakedGirl might be, why she wanted to be secretive, where she might have gone after saving hundreds of people that morning.  And there were a couple of conspiracy theorists on Cobb who wondered who had planted that bomb in the basement of the Joly Tower, and how exactly did this NakedGirl know it was going to go off?  Was this a setup?  As one of the anchors said, “We realize this line of speculation might seem offensive to some people, but at this puzzling time of crisis, with so much at stake and so little known, every theory must be explored.”

 

        Indeed.  If it was a white girl there wouldn’t be such a theory being bruited about.  In the past few days Elly had really gotten turned off by Cobb News, she was picking up every right-wing slant, it wasn’t funny any more.  Of course, it was late and she was probably getting paranoid.  This conspiracy business was only a minority viewpoint, even on Cobb.  She had reason to worry though; where was Dareen now?  Elly had drunk two coffees, which she knew better not to do after supper, and had reverted back to her old teenage habit of smoking cigarettes.  Just gone out on an impulse to the corner store, walking quickly like she was dodging sniper fire, even though it was a calm night and nobody was looking at her funny, and gotten a pack of Winstons, her old brand.

 

        Staring blankly at the screen at half past twelve, slumped in the chair in the kitchen, still in her day clothes, puffing away on her eighth cig, Elly did not hear the soft landing of toes on the fire escape outside Dareen’s bedroom, but she heard the window being opened and sat up like a shot.  Were they breaking in?  She sat and waited and hoped.

 

        A minute later Dareen, fully clothed in long sleeve shirt stretched by the sturdy bra underneath and long jeans, walked into the kitchen.

 

        Elly was almost in tears, she was so thankful.  “Oh, Dar . . . ”  She hugged herself against her roommate’s massive firm breasts, putting her head next to Dareen’s, and couldn’t help but kiss her on the cheek.  “You’re safe.”

 

        Dareen managed a little quip.  “Of course, I’m NakedGirl.  What could hurt me?”  Dareen looked at Elly, usually so easygoing and bemused, now drawn and nervous.  “Are YOU all right?”

        Elly looked at her with bloodshot eyes.  “You’re my hero, Dar.  You saved hundreds of lives . . .  How did you know a bomb was going to go off under the Joly Tower?”

        Of course, Dareen had explained this to Elly before.  Maybe Elly just wanted some reassurance.  “I just know ahead of time when I’m needed.  Only this time,” she said, standing back and crossing her arms over her chest, “it was in broad daylight.”  She closed her eyes.  “Oh . . . Lord . . . everyone saw me.”

        “I hate to say it, but your bod and your face has been all over the TV.”  Dareen nodded slowly, even though she hadn’t been watching -- she’d been hiding out in the countryside, waiting for darkness and the still of midnight before returning.  Then she saw the phone on the counter with the cord taken out.

 

        Seeing this, Elly said, “They figured out who you are, Dar.  From your face.  Or maybe they’ve got a suspicion and they don’t know.  How they found out I don’t know.  The phone was ringing off the hook, reporters . . .  I kept telling them I didn’t know what they were talking about.  Oh, and your folks called.”

 

        This had to be dealt with in spite of the hour.  Dareen got her cell phone from her desk.  It showed there were 18 messages on it, truly a chilling feeling -- even  phone number had been found out.  She dialed her folks.

        They were still up.  “Dar,” her father said, “was that really you?”

 

        “Yes, Dad.”

 

        A long pause.  “Do you have your clothes on?”

 

        “Yes, Dad.”

        “We’re proud, but ashamed . . . ”

        “I have to be . . . like that, Dad.  Otherwise I don’t have super powers.”

        Another pause.  Then her mother got on.  “Dar . . . we love you, but we think you should do some praying.”

 

        “I know.”  Then with an assurance that she was O.K., Dareen said good-bye and said she’d call tomorrow.

 

        Elly said, “Dar, everyone knows your face.  What are we going to do?”

 

        It was so heartening to see that Elly considered it her problem as well as hers.  Dareen could only return the hug that Elly had given her.  Breaking it only to say, “Ughh. I’ll take up smoking.  THAT will keep everyone away.”

 

        It was nuts, she told herself, but the next morning she got dressed and went out to work like nothing had happened.  She got some odd looks, of course, people looking at her face and then turning away as soon as she looked back.  Twice, someone spoke.  Once on the train, again while waiting for the light to change.  “You look like NakedGirl,” they said, one a young guy and one a middle-aged housewife type.  Her reaction was the same.  A smile, and a quick, “Everyone has been telling me that.  She looks like me, but it’s not me.”  And a sense that everyone around was looking down at her body curiously.  Fortunately she was encased as usual in head to toe wrappings, sweating through another late summer Georgia day.

 

        She passed Billy Gibbs’s office and he gave her a concerned, knowing look, saying nothing.  Then Jamal came in.  “Let’s talk,” he said.

 

        In the nooks and crannies of this old building there were several deserted offices.  She followed Jamal into one.

 

        “Dareen . . . you’re my hero,” he said, eyes getting a little wet, standing in front of her, quite a bit taller than she was, looking down into her eyes, his gawky arms and legs seemingly undecided as to whether to stand still or do something else.

 

        Exactly what Elly said, but what else could one say to someone who had done what she had just done?  Dareen gave a shy smile.  “Thanks.  Now you know my secret.”

 

        “Why didn’t you tell us?”

 

        Dareen felt bad once again.  It seemed like something she should have shared with Jamal, he was so nice to her.  She looked at the floor then up at him then at the floor again.  “You know me . . . I’m shy.”

 

        Well, maybe not that shy.  That was just an excuse.  She crossed her arms and crossed her heels.  “Well now you know what I look like . . . ”

        Jamal let the silence stretch a bit and then said, “Dar, I really care about you.”  He cleared his throat and tried again.  “Girl, I have a lot of feelings for you.”

 

        “Now that you’ve seen me . . . ”

        “No, no.  It was like this before too.”

 

        Dareen looked up at his handsome dark face, his short hair, his slim but muscular build.  “I know, Jamal.”  Maybe it was a mistake, but she wanted to do something for him.  So she hugged him.

 

        Then she said, “We can talk about it more later . . . ”  Which might have been a mistake to say.  “I have so many feelings of my own today, so many . . . ”

        “I can imagine.  I’ll leave you alone now.  If you want to talk, or if you want to hang with someone, you’ve got my number.”  Everyone in the office had the others’ home phones to call if necessary.

        A little while later Ms. Hom came into her office, which was unusual.  She had a short but well-rehearsed statement. “Miss Alkaras, let me congratulate you.  We will handle this any way you want to.  If you want time off, I will arrange it.  Appearing in public as you did, would ordinarily be grounds for dismissal, but . . . ”  she and Dareen shared a little smile,  “but I don’t think any of those people whose lives you saved would approve of that, do you?”

        A few more stares on the way home from work.  Then, as Dareen walked down Boylston Street to her building, she saw the people standing around the entrance.  She ducked into an alley and called Elly’s cell phone.  “We’ve got to get out of here,” Elly said from her bedroom.  “It’s Thursday, I’ll call in sick tomorrow.  Let’s get out of town.  Let’s go to my folks’ place in New York.  I’ll come out the back with your things.”

 

        The back door of the building was in effect a one-way passage.  The lock had been rusted out a long time ago and there was no exterior handle.  Dareen waited a few minutes then angled around the back street and when she got to the back, there was Pedro and his wife.  They looked at her with silent awe.  Dareen smiled.  “No, it wasn’t me.  She just LOOKS like me.”  They seemed unconvinced.  Fortunately Elly was down in a minute with two backpacks.  They hopped over to Elly’s car in the next block and Elly got behind the wheel.  She kicked off her flip-flop and slammed down on the gas.  In five minutes they were on the interstate to New York.  Ordinarily Elly took a plane to New York but obviously Dareen couldn’t go through airport security.  It would be a ten-hour trip.  But the important part was just the getting away.

 

        Not that Elly could resist staying tuned to the radio for news.  Dareen found her attention unavoidably fastened too.  Night fell and they were crossing into Virginia.  Dareen had taken over the wheel, with Elly puffing away on the condition that she keep the window open.  And then, as Elly was in the middle of turning up the radio, they heard:

 

        “The young woman, known as NakedGirl, has been identified as Dareen Alkaras.  She lives in the Atlanta area.  Her address has been withheld upon the request of law enforcement authorities.”

 

        “Shit,” Elly said softly.

 

        The hot wind blew over the bleak plain, a scene of desolation, a huge desert.  The woman in the head-to-toe burka watched silently over it, only her eyes visible which spoke her silent thoughts.

 

        Such a big yawning bleakness in the middle of the crowded city.  Dareen had seen the World Trade Center before, when she was a teenager and her family was in town to visit her aunt.  She looked at the white ashy earth and, gruesomely, wondered how many particles of the ash were once parts of human beings.  Now just bits of dust.

 

        She thought of something from a novel she’d read once.  “Man is matter.  Drop him out the window and he’ll fall.  Set fire to him and he’ll burn.  The spirit gone, the flesh is garbage.”

        The burka was a good idea.  Dareen hadn’t thought of it before.  Not that the burka in her room would have been any use; as she and Elly remembered, it was comically too small to accommodate her breasts.  But Elly went out and got one, a bigger one, when Dareen was having lunch at her parents’ house.  Now, at Dareen’s request, the two of them had taken the subway down from the Bronx and now stood on the viewing platform, along with several others.

 

        There was not much to say.

 

        They stopped into a pizza place nearby and had a slice.  Not easy to eat, with Dareen wearing a veil that she had to keep lifting.

 

        “So now what?” Elly said.

 

        “Thanks to Allah that your parents can keep a secret,” Dareen said with a little hokey old-country accent.

        Elly snorted.  “It’s good that you can keep your sense of humor at a time like this.  Don’t get all religous-y on me.”

 

        “Well maybe it’s a good time to pray.”

 

        “Amen to that, I suppose.”

 

        “You mean ‘ameeen’”, Dareen said, drawing out the second syllable, as it’s said in Arabic.  “Being real traditional is a good idea with this burka, anyway.  It’s actually more comfortable than all those clothes I’ve been wearing.”

 

        “A good way to hide your face.  But won’t you stand out anyway?  You don’t see many burkas in Atlanta.”

 

        “Maybe I should find a place where they wear them.”

 

        “I don’t think there’s anyplace like that in town.”  Meaning Atlanta.

 

        “I can think of a couple of places.  I’ve lived there all my life, El.”  Dareen took another bite.  Then she clutched her breast, a very unusual motion for her.  “Oh!”

 

        Elly put down her soda.  “What! Are you all right?”

        Dareen put her hand down with great effort.  Her nipples were tingling, like that time before the pulse bomb was dropped.  But now the tingling was worse.  It was like bees stinging her nipples.  And because her nipples were so large, it was a lot of bees.

 

        Dareen stood up quickly, an unusual motion for a woman in a burka.  “I’ve got to get out of here, El.  Fast!”

       

21.

        They were out on the sidewalk like a shot.

        “El,” Dareen said, fidgeting in her burka, trying like hell not to bring her hands up to clutch her bee-stung nipples, “I’ve got to . . . ”

 

        “Get naked?”

 

        “Shhh!!” Dareen said.  Someone gave them a glance as he walked by.  She leaned close to Elly, her eyes, peeking out from the veil, displaying urgency.  “I feel a pulse bomb coming.”

 

        “A pulse bomb!”  Elly’s eyes opened wide.  “Well let’s find a place where you can strip!  How long do you have to you-know-what before you get your power?”

 

        “Two hours, about.”

 

        “Two hours!  Jesus Christ!  How are you gonna do that?  You can’t just hang out nude in downtown Manhattan for two hours.”

        “We have to find someplace,” Dareen said.  They were jabbering a mile a minute and hustling down the street frantically, Dareen in her burka, Elly in her jeans and T-shirt.  Dareen’s eyes, the only part of her visible, darting from side to side; all the time she was trying not to scratch the terrible burning in her nipples.

        “Don’t walk so fast,” whispered Elly with rapid-fire words.  “Two brown-skinned Middle Eastern women right next to Ground Zero, we gotta act cool.”

 

        “Cool!  Some whole city might be in danger!  Another pulse bomb!!”

        “SHHH!”  This time it was Elly who shushed her friend.  Another guy looked askance as he passed, though actually it was because he had detected signs of a very large bust under Dareen’s burka.

 

        They suddenly found themselves at the corner.  The Hudson River came into view.  “Maybe if you took off your clothes and swam.”

        “El!  Two hours!!  The police will catch me in plenty of time.  I can’t tread water for two hours anyway!”

        “Tell them who you are!”

        “El, I can’t!  They don’t know NakedGirl needs two hours!  They’ll think I’m a nut or a . . . ”

        They glanced at a door two doors down.  “Live Nude Girls”.

        Dareen’s eyes flashed at Elly.  “Don’t even THINK it!”

 

        Frantically they turned around and walked back the way they came.  Dareen looked up.  “If only I could climb onto a roof.”

        “You’d have to hop over those canopies and scaffolds.”

        They got to the other corner, almost dizzy from having checked out everything up and down and side to side.  There was no place to hide, no place to get away.  “A pulse bomb,” Elly muttered, “oh man!”

 

        “Shit!” Dareen said softly, in an unusual blurt of profanity, punching her fists down.  The sight of a woman in a burka doing this got a couple of people’s attention.  Dareen shrugged at them with a look of apology in her eyes and the people walked away.

 

        They turned around and resumed their frantic controlled pace, passing the same stores a third time, which only got them more frustrated.  They came to a fire escape going up five stories to a roof.  “Try that,” Elly suggested desperately.  “Strip now.  I’ll give you a boost and you can climb up to the roof!”

        “Don’t you think someone would notice that?”

        “Dar, the sooner you get your clothes off . . . ”

        “I know!  I know!”

        Again they got to the corner where the Hudson River was and again they turned around.  “Wait, this is stupid,” Dareen, moving as quickly as a burka-ed woman could manage, went back to the corner and headed up the side street.  They got to an alley.  Dareen looked in.  “This is it.”

 

        Elly looked.  It was a narrow alley with a dumpster at the end.  “What, jump in the garbage?”

 

        “No, behind it.  There’s a space.  I’ll hide there.”

 

        “Yuck.  With bare feet!”

        “I can jump in a pond later.  C’mon!”  And they walked down the alley.

 

        “Wait,” Elly said.  “I’ll keep a lookout.”  And she went back to stand on the sidewalk.

 

        Dareen hustled to the dumpster and squeezed around the side.  Just enough room, she had to push her breasts through one by one.  There was about six feet space behind.  “Ughh!”  She stripped off the burka, then her T-shirt and shorts she had underneath, then her bra and panties.  Lastly and most reluctantly, her sneakers and socks.  On this hot day the garbage stank, and a lot of it had managed to miss the dumpster.  There was garbage strewn everywhere except for some spots of very dirty pavement.  Her soles squirmed as they touched the warm filthy asphalt.  Then she crouched and waited, looking at her clothes piled next to her with longing and regret.

 

        Two hours she had to wait.  Alas, not five minutes had gone by when the loud sound of a truck backing up resounded against the high, windowless brick walls of the buildings on both sides; a garbage truck.

 

        From the street, Elly had seen it approach.  It then occurred to her that keeping lookout, what exactly would that involve?  There was nothing she could say, nothing she could do except watch helplessly as the driver and his partner, big beefy men with moustaches, perhaps of Pakistani descent like her, switched between looking back out their windows and checking their side view mirrors.

 

        Dareen listened to the approaching engine with mounting panic and then heard the loud clank as the outriggers of the truck shoved up into the eaves of the dumpster.  In a few seconds she would be exposed to anyone who wanted to look down the alley.  And the men would see her too in their mirrors. As the dumpster rose she thought and acted fast.  She hopped up and grabbed the side with her hands, placed her toes against the bottom rim, and rose up with the dumpster.

 

        The men, of course, did not notice the extra hundred pounds or so of load.  The dumpster rose up to the horizontal and then as it began to tip upside down, emptying its contents, Dareen hopped forward onto the top of the truck.  The racket of the machinery was so loud that the soft thump of her bare feet was not heard.

 

        As the dumpster went down and the truck parked it back on the asphalt, Dareen looked up.  If only there was a fire escape or a ledge . . . but no, the two buildings were just solid brick, no place to jump onto.  As the truck grumbled out of the alley past a horrified Elly, the naked girl dropped to her stomach and lay as flat against the truck as she could.

 

        West Street affords a view of the Hudson River, and the reborn Jersey shore beyond, which is not only naturally beautiful but inspiring.  Though Dareen was facing that way, one could forgive her for not appreciating these triumphs of man and nature as she sprawled spread-eagled and naked on top of the filthy garbage truck.  She felt the grime of the unwashed metal scraping into her skin.  Her breasts were squashed beneath her and spread from the sides of her slim torso, always an uncomfortable feeling for her but even more so on dirty shaking metal.  As the truck picked up speed she felt the air whip over her buttocks.  She tried not to look over to her right, into Manhattan, where surely someone in those buildings was looking down and noticing the very unusual view of a naked woman hugging the top of a truck.  The truck, though dirty, was painted white and her brown skin would certainly stand out.

        And now the Jersey view was blocked by the new entertainment centers along the Chelsea Piers, another inspiring sight that included an outdoor roller skating rink, a playground, and a trapeze school.  The truck stopped at a red light and Dareen died a thousand deaths, waiting for someone to notice her and call out.  “Please, turn green, turn green . . . ”  The red light seemed to go on forever.  Cars and trucks were stopped around her, some of the trucks higher than she was.  She could hear the driver and his companion talking through the roof of the cab, it sounded a little like the Urdu phrases Elly had exchanged with her parents over lunch that day.  Then the engine revved again, seemingly amplified as the vibrations resounded through her abundant breast tissue.

 

        She watched the trapeze people in their shorts and T-shirts, the women in sports bras, as they swung and flew and grabbed hands.  Suddenly one of the men glanced in her direction and missed a grab.  He fell in a crazy semi-pinwheel turn down to the net.  So did his partner.  When they were done bouncing on the net and got back up to the platform Dareen saw people pointing.  Right at her!  She cringed right down to her squirming toes, thinking of her bare butt on full display even though these people were a couple of hundred feet away.

        Blessedly, the light finally changed and the truck lurched forward, then shifted gears and got up some speed.  The Chelsea piers were now behind her.  And now, more menacingly, the boat docks and now the great aircraft carrier Intrepid, permanently docked at 45th Street as a museum.  It towered high above the garbage truck and the naked girl’s tensed butt as they passed.  Surely the people up on the deck would notice!  Her thoughts were interrupted by a jolt as the truck hit a pothole, then another.  Her chin hit the truck roof.  Her breasts, crushed though they were, jiggled crazily beneath her.

        Once again a dreaded red light at 57th Street.  Dareen could not help turning her head.  There was midtown, the wide two-way cross-street, hundred of people crossing in Dareen’s line of sight, which meant that they also would have a view of her if they looked.  Again, Dareen detected a couple of people looking at her, and swore she could see the faces of astonishment.

 

        57th Street is the last light; after that West Street becomes the West Side Highway with no stops up to the toll plaza at the Broadway Bridge at the northern tip of Manhattan, up past 207th Street.  That stretch would have afforded Dareen ample opportunity to jump off onto a grassy shoulder and then dashing into a leafy and uncrowded woodsy area where she could wait.  But no, the garbage truck turned off onto the service road, Twelfth Avenue.  Looking ahead, she saw that it was headed for a depot of some kind, with lots of other similar trucks.  More ominously, there was a platform above them that men were standing around on, sipping coffee.  She would be right under their eyes, a few feet away.

        She had to act fast.  To the side was a building with a construction canopy, obviously with a floor though she couldn’t see it behind the lip of the canopy.  There was an open window above.  She got up onto the truck, careful not to fall over as it lurched slowly over the bumpy road surface.  Luckily, it swept close by the canopy, maybe three feet away.  The naked girl saw her chance and hopped onto the lip, her foot curling uncomfortably around the narrow plywood, and jumped down onto a corrugated metal sheet.

        To her horror it began to give way.  This wasn’t a floor at all, it was just a rain guard of some kind.  She didn’t want to get stuck on the sidewalk, and she might get injured, it was a long way down.  With mincing steps frantically headed for the building she grabbed onto the concrete sill and felt it scraping her breasts and tummy as she pitched into the room inside.

        It was very dark inside and musty, with a smell like old books in a library.  She was at the top of some stairs.  As her eyes got used to the dark she saw a narrow hallway in front of her and another door, slightly open.  She knew herself naked and alone and vulnerable in a strange place.  She found herself getting onto her knees and falling forward in a prayer to Allah.  Please, let no one see me, let me be alone until my powers come.  And then, let no one see me as I go where I’m called.  She hated being naked, she dearly wished to be back in her burka.  But that was impossible.  She had been “called” to maybe her most important task yet.

 

        She got up and brushed the dirt off her front areas, off her breasts.  Her body had been shaken almost to numbness by the vibrations of the garbage truck but now she felt the stinging sensation returning to her nipples.  She tenderly cradled her breasts in her cupped hands, hands that could cover her nipples and areolas but not much more.

 

        A sudden sound from down the stairs startled her.  She thought again of telling whoever found her that she was Dareen Alkaras, NakedGirl, whose face they had seen on TV.  But that was a crazy idea.  They might not recognize her face, and where were her super powers?  Alone and without clothing or ID she was in danger of rape.  Or arrest, with the slapping on of handcuffs that would prevent her powers from coming.  And with a pulse bomb on the way, much more than her own safety was at stake.

        The sound down the stairs seemed to come closer.  She padded as silently as she could down the narrow hallway.  With one footstep slightly to the side she found out that it wasn’t a hallway at all, it was a plank.  By then it was too late -- she had tipped forward and grabbed onto anything she could, which turned out to be a white rope that was suspended from the ceiling.  It sank with her weight about four feet.  She heard the soft squealing of pullies above.  In the dimness she could make out another white rope to her right and grabbed it.  It too yanked down, though only a little.

 

        Dareen looked back to where the plank was.  By swinging back she could reach it with the tops of her bare feet, but then what?  She could not let go of the ropes.  She closed her eyes, realizing how close she had come to falling quite some distance and maybe getting seriously injured.  She looked down and shook one of the ropes slightly.  She did not know how far down to the floor below but sensed it was quite some distance.  She descended with straining hands grabbing one rope, then the other, only to find that they both came to an end in little loops.  She wished she knew how far down it was to the floor, but dared not jump.  From wherever it was -- this strange dark place of ropes.

 

        She waited, holding the two loops that were three feet apart.  A minute went by.  Her arms were getting tired.  She felt her whole body stretched out, her breasts jutting out in front of her, her tummy concave, her big toes pointing downward.  If only her powers would hurry up and manifest themselves . . .

        Then, somewhere ahead, muffled in the distance, a door was pushed open and now the sound of it hitting a stop.  And now another door opening, and the footsteps of hard leather against a hard floor.

 

22.

 

        Dareen was all stretched out, hanging there in the dark, her hands gripping onto the looped ropes above her.  She wanted to let go and jump but she couldn’t see below her.  For all she knew it was thirty feet down.

 

        And now somewhere lights were switched on and more footsteps and her heart sank with shock and despair.  It was very dim where she was, but now she knew she was suspended over a stage.  Maybe five feet in front of her were the folds of a curtain.  Her eyes followed it down.  She was up near the top. The hardwood stage floor was maybe twenty feet below her.  As the number of footsteps increased she heard the low rumble of voices, all apparently male.  More and more people were coming in.  She pictured them as older-sounding.  There was something else -- a lilt, some German-sounding words that were vaguely familiar, but perhaps not.  Then she recognized it.  Israeli.  Hebrew.  Yiddish?  She didn’t know those languages but could recognize them.

 

        With a panic she realized it might not be just a meeting, it might be a presentation where the curtain might be drawn.  She had to get the hell out of here.  Could she jump?  She looked down again, her neck craning forward as she strained to see past her firm, outthrust breasts.  Maybe, just maybe . . . but it would be such a loud thump when she landed that someone would be sure to come back here to check it out.  Then she turned her head to look a little behind her and down.  Set on the stage was a big free-standing screen.  Looking at it harder in the dimness she saw it was a map, a map of Palestine.  Great.  This was indeed a presentation, they would be opening the curtain for sure.

 

        Dareen wished once again her super powers would come but it wasn’t time yet.  She heard steps coming up to the front of the stage and a deep voice, sounding like an older man, saying, “Good afternoon”, and then he continued in Hebrew.  The hanging naked girl looked up.  The ropes originated from a big black tube or bar that ran across the ceiling.  If she climbed up there she would be out of sight, and then she could make her way across to the side and possibly sneak out from there.

 

        In junior high and high school she had never been too good in gym, what with her breasts in the way all the time, but she remembered before that, in third grade or so, being able to climb rope.  She hoped the ability hadn’t left her.  Reluctantly letting go of one rope, she grabbed the other with both hands and tried to heft herself up.  It was a big strain, but putting hand after hand up and up on the rope she made progress, her feet wildly swinging below her.  She prayed the pulleys wouldn’t slip again.

 

        She got to the top and looped her hands around the thick black bar.  Looking along its length she saw it held a number of ropes, all rather short or tied up.  Evidently it was used to hold up rear scenery as if for a play.  Or maybe a background sheet for concerts.

 

        And now she held her breath as the curtain opened.  Her eyes widened with horror as she saw the looped rope below was still swinging a bit.  Fortunately it seemed to be above the canopy and out of everyone’s line of sight.  She looked down with widened eyes as the older man, in a black suit with a beard and a yarmulke on his bald head, walked back to the map.  Someone in the rear of the auditorium turned on some more lights and now the stage was all lit up.

 

        The man walked in front of the map and continued to give his presentation in Hebrew.  Dareen’s hands were frozen motionless to the bar, trying not to make the merest sound.  She looked down hoping fervently that the old man wouldn’t look up.  It was a bizarre sight, as from her foreshortened perspective she saw her huge breast eclipse the man’s head, then it was her toes, and then his head was partially obscured by the fuzz of her pubic hair.  She had a lot of respect for Orthodox Jews, at least when they weren’t fighting with Arabs, and knew that their tradition, like hers, believed in keeping oneself covered, especially the women.  And now look at her!

 

        She cringed with shame and fear and horror.  Also with impatience.  Her nipples were burning again.  What terrible thing was going to happen?  Another pulse bomb?  Where?  Was she already too late?  If only she had her super powers.  Please, Allah . . .  Her hands and arms were getting tired . . .

        She looked to the side and saw her possible salvation.  The black bar ended at the wall where there was a plank -- a catwalk, she now knew -- connected to the one she had just fallen off of.  If she could sidle over to there she’d be saved.  Just stay on that plank, or better yet get back to near the window she’d come in from, where she could wait for her powers.

 

        She looked down at the old man pointing at the map.  If he looked up he’d probably have a heart attack, seeing the crotch of a naked Arab girl.  Careful . . .  She moved one hand a few inches, then the next.  Inch by inch she crept to her right.  With her softly swaying body she looked down as the man’s head was again eclipsed by one breast, then the other, by one big toe, by her pubic hair.  And then the big black bar responded to the shifting weight with a loud creak.

 

        The man stopped lecturing and Dareen bit her lip.  Wondering what had caused the creak, he looked around to the sides, then behind the map stand.  If she weren’t in such a state Dareen might have wondered why he was so leery.  But thankfully he didn’t think to look up.  With a very Yiddish shrug the old man made a little joke and there were some chuckles from the unseen crowd.  Then he began talking again.

 

        Dareen’s arms were getting very tired and she had to continue simply as a matter of survival.  Hand over hand, very carefully, her swaying nude body ventured rightward.

 

        She inhaled through her teeth as one hand slipped.  Trying to regain its hold she clutched onto a rope that seemed to be tied around the bar.  But . . .

        It gave way and she was stuck holding onto it.  Down, down she went, then it gave way faster.  She swung down and her foot kicked the top of the map stand, knocking it over.  The rope stopped uncoiling and Dareen found herself swinging ten feet over the stage, facing an audience of Orthodox Jewish men in the full frontal shame of total nudity, her body stretched out, her breasts and nipples stuck out and pointing at them like cannons over the concavity of her brown tummy.

 

        For a long silent moment the nude girl and the heavily clothed, bearded audience looked at each in openmouthed horror.  Then the exclamations.  The old man looked around as if in panic.  Men started rising out of their seats.

 

        Dareen squeezed her eyes shut in misery.  No, no, no . . .  She wished she could close her ears too, from the increasing hubbub.  She was sure men were cursing at her.  She knew she was the object of execration.  There were scraping sounds on the stage below her.  When she ventured to open her eyes she saw a stage ladder being placed below her.  Her toes gratefully rested on the top rung.  A younger man with a long black beard was stepping up in his shirtsleeves, holding open his long coat in front of him as if about to drape it over her.  Dareen gulped and felt on the verge of tears.  How she dearly wanted that coat, any covering for her nakedness but . . .

        As the coat was about the enclose her she sprang her foot off the top rung and, before swinging back, let go of the rope.  Her bare feet thudded on the floor as she landed.  It hurt.  She ran offstage.  There was a door there -- locked!  She scrambled along the rear wall.  Another door -- locked!  Her thinking fogged by desperation, she ran up to the front of the stage and jumped off then ran up the center aisle.  Out the door, and into a little vestibule.  Looking behind she saw she was being followed by more men holding out coats.  Cell phones were being whipped out.

 

        Dareen ran out the vestibule and found herself outside on the sidewalk!  Good Lord!  She looked both ways and picked going to her left.  Run, run, run . . . just have to stay naked a little longer and then I can fly away . . .

 

        West 57th Street, a center of the fashion and publishing worlds, has seen its share of publicity stunts, but nothing quite like a totally nude Arab-American woman running alone down the sidewalk.  She was past most people before it registered in their minds what they had just seen.  The more alert people, or those watching in amazement from across the street, looked in their things to see if they had a camera.  Cars suddenly stopped and honked.  Traffic stopped.

 

        For the sake of speed Dareen was forced to stop holding her breasts as she ran.  Her bare feet thudded on the pavement as she tried to move as fast as she could, her chest hurting as her breasts bounced crazily.  But where should she go?  The important thing was to kill time.  Maybe she would find a place to hide.

 

        She knew how ridiculous this prospect was yet she kept running and then turned a corner.  And then she saw it in front of her; if she could reach it.  A fire escape, with the low ladder possibly reachable if she jumped real high, as high as she could.  She passed under it and her hands missed it by inches.  She turned around and got another running start, intensely aware of the astonished faces around her.  This time she got it.

 

        Splitting her legs open so she could loop her toes up around the ladder, she knew her most private crevices on view to what seemed like the whole world.  The late afternoon wind was starting to kick up and she felt it blowing across her open pussy lips and her butthole and this only accentuated her sense of total exposure.  She swung and got herself up, and then hopped up the metal stairs, one story after the other, despite the depths of her shame being a little proud of how strong and agile she was in her normal state.  On the fourth floor there were some potted flowers that got in her way.  Her foot accidently kicked one and it fell to the sidewalk below, breaking.  An old woman stuck her head out the window, ready to yell at whoever that barefoot person was who had just kicked her plant over, but she was rendered speechless by what she saw.

 

        “Sorry, Ma’am,” Dareen said, covering her breasts as she hopped up the stairs.

 

        Up to the sixth floor, the top landing of the fire escape, and now how to get onto the roof?  Resolving not to look down, not the least because there was now a thick clump of people down there looking up at her, Dareen hefted a foot up and curled her toes around the railing, making sure she balanced over the landing in case she fell, and rose up to grab the edge of the cornice.   She grabbed with both hands and lifted herself up, grimacing as she felt the masonry crush and scrape her breasts and then her tummy and finally her thighs.

 

        Finally, up on a roof.  She squatted down, holding her head, glad she could rest, her arms especially.  Thanks to Allah, I am finally safe.  She closed her eyes and tried to feel her powers.  No, not yet.  She clutched her stinging nipples and massaged them, first gently and then vigorously, but to no avail.

 

        She was grateful no one could see her.  What kind of NakedGirl could she be, if she hated being naked in public?  But she had no time for such musings.  Looking up she saw two police officers running on the roof to where she was.

        She ran in the opposite direction, feet slapping against the warm tar roof, hurting as they landed on little stones.  She thought of confronting them and saying, “I am Dareen Alkaras, NakedGirl, you must let me be naked,” but that would be ridiculous.  Even if they decided she looked like the girl they had seen on T.V. who held up the Joly Tower, they wouldn’t be sure, and of course she had no I.D.  Explaining that she had to stay naked before her powers took effect -- that would sound like “a likely story” from a nutcase girl who just liked to run around naked.

        Quickly she found herself running out of building as she approached the cornice on the other side.  She looked back.  One of the policemen was coming at her with a blanket, a nice big warm blanket that would enwrap and cover her.  How she wished she could . . .

        The only thing to do was grab onto the cornice and see if she could scale down the other side of the building.  She carefully peered over the side of the cornice.  She was in luck.  Another fire escape, with a landing right below.  Again the front of her body was scraped by brick as she clambered over the cornice and dangled her feet over the fire escape landing.  With a soft thud of the balls of her feet on the metal she hit the landing.

 

        The police were everywhere, it seemed.  Two more were running up this very fire escape, their hard shoes causing vibrations that Dareen could feel through her soles.  Below them, on the sidewalk, a crowd had already gathered.

        Being pursued from above and from below, the nude girl looked around frantically for an escape.  She found it in the form of a nearby wall-mounted flagpole, sticking out over the street.  Surely it would support her weight, and she could grab it if she got onto the railing of the fire escape.

 

        Dareen found herself hanging once again, this time from the base of a horizontal pole that she shared with an American flag, which flopped around in the late afternoon breeze.  The scene below was getting more and more abuzz.  Two police cars blocking the street, a news truck with two cameramen emerging, the crowd getting bigger.  All of them looking up at her naked bod.

 

        Again she prayed for strength.  And wished she could be less modest.  Nakedness was just something she had to get used to.  Yet it was so hard . . .

        A fire truck arrived.  Dareen wondered when her two hours would be up.  Certainly she was down to the last few minutes now.  All I have to do is stay here.  Yet it wasn’t easy.  She felt all breasts and pubic hair as she hung stretched out over the crowd.  She could do nothing to hide any part of herself.

 

        Her thoughts were interrupted by the flag, licking at her butt cheek.  It unfurled full length in the wind, then out away from her again.  Dareen at once recognized the danger.  If the flag wrapped around her, clothing her, she would have to start the two hours over again.

 

        There was only one thing to do.  When the flag came her way again she used one hand to grab it.  With a quick tug it ripped in half.  She threw it down and it wafted gently to the ground.  There; danger over.

 

        And now the round of boos from below.  She realized what she had just done.  She felt like shouting down, “I am a loyal American!”, but again, that would sound ridiculous, coming from the crazy woman who had just run along 57th Street naked.

        Now a cherry picker coming up from the utility truck.  It extended higher, higher, and on the little fenced platform was a young fireman with a blanket.  Another nice, snug blanket.  On his hat was a badge commemorating comrades who died on 9/11.  The platform came closer and closer.  There was no avoiding it.  The policemen on the fire escape were a few feet away, holding out their own blanket.  Dareen could struggle, but within a few seconds she would be all wrapped up.

 

        Her nipples burned like blazes.  Somewhere she was needed to save lives, perhaps many lives.  Allah had given her this power, she was put on earth to use it.  She looked down.  Surely Allah would not let her die.  What if she jumped and on the way down . . .

 

        It was not necessary.  Allah did not require her to be suicidal, to make a literal leap of faith.  Dareen exhaled gratefully as she felt her powers come.  Just before the fireman’s blanket touched her bare shoulder, she let go of the flagpole.  There was a collective whooshing inhale of breath from the crowd as the nude woman fell.  And a few screams.

 

        And then they saw her thrust her arms out in front of her.  The path of the brown, naked, big-breasted form curved upward and then out over 57th Street.  She was out of sight, south and west over the Hudson River, before these New Yorkers realized they had just seen, as they all said to themselves at almost the same time: “NakedGirl!”

 

       

23.

 

        The wind was so loud in her ears that it seemed deafening, pummeling her eardrums. She straightened out as much as she could, putting her head down, pointing her toes behind her.  Her engorged nipples stung from the increasingly strong vibrations she had been feeling for two hours, and were battered by the wind whistling past them.  Looking down she saw a big city pass and from the contours of the river knew it to be Philadelphia.  It had only been a couple of minutes.  Moving so fast was almost like a dream.

 

        She recognized the shores of Chesapeake Bay and raised her head.  With alacrity she saw her target, her destiny.  Alacrity mixed with relief -- she hadn’t been too late.

 

        Another little rocket, like the one that had discharged the first pulse bomb over Atlanta, now heading down toward downtown Washington, D.C.  Pointing down now to the wide-open spaces of big white historic buildings and monuments, the Mall, the Washington Monument, the Capitol, the White House . . .

        Dareen shut her eyes and said a little prayer.  Give me the strength, Allah . . .  She knew her purpose now, and felt unequal to the task.  I’m just Dareen Alkaras, an amazed and confused 24-year-old librarian.

        Opening her eyes she got focused on the hard, the material, the physical: namely the task of diverting this rocket.  It turned out not to be that difficult.  She flew up to it while it was still a couple of thousand feet up.  It was ten feet long, shorter than that bullet-shaped 1950’s lug in that crazy scientist’s garage, and thinner too.  He must have improved the design.  The naked supergirl turned upside down with it and hugged it, wrapping her arms and legs around it like a lover, feeling the vibrations through her crushed breasts and below, right into her pussy.  Her feet clasped each other on the far side.  The metal was a little warm, though quite hot around her feet.  Her nipples were so hot they seemed to meld with the rocket, like good and evil siblings who love/hate each other.

        With a little grunt she twisted the rocket and reversed its direction.  She relaxed as its thruster now propelled the both of them upward, through clouds that left a sheen of cold condensation on her hair and her butt cheeks, then up further.  The thruster expended itself and Dareen knew it was time to act.  She was making it up as she went, but she hopped off her evil mechanical lover and grabbed it from below with hands placed firmly on both sides.  Bracing her legs apart, she coiled backwards and held her breath, her breasts sticking up in front and blocking her forward view, and then with a mighty heave she flung the rocket up into the stratosphere.

        The rocket went up, up, out of sight almost.  Then it exploded.

        Dareen, standing spread-eagled in the cool air, watched as the little faraway puff of smoke dissipated.  Then she reached down to feel her nipples.  That stinging sensation was gone.  She exhaled, then felt her concave tummy flex in and out as she caught her breath.  It was not a matter of physical exertion; that had been well within her powers.  There was just something about this that had taken a lot out of her.

 

        After a couple of moments she flew back down with her usual ease and surveyed the city far below.  To her relief it seemed normal.  Tiny cars were still moving slowly along the narrow streets.  She detected lights among the buildings.  Lengthening shadows from the buildings as sunset approached.  Everything was O.K.

 

        She looked around in her airy environs.  There were no fighter jets, no sign of activity.  Evidently nobody had detected the rocket but her.

 

        She allowed the slow ascent as she knelt forward in mid-air, on her invisible sajjada, thanking Allah for being of service, thankful that the horrible thing that was to happen to her country had been averted.  And then, straightening up again, she looked at the sun getting low in the sky, a few long reddish clouds both above and below it, and decided that was where she was going to go now.  She figured that Elly must be back with her folks in the Bronx.  They lived on a crowded street, no way for NakedGirl to make a visit and have the press bug them like they did with her and Elly’s apartment.  She wanted Elly’s folks to remain anonymous to the press and to the world.

 

        She turned and swerved and flew west and south, back to the dry high plain with the water hole and the fig tree and her friends the horses.

 

        The night advanced and the stars came out, thousands of them in the crisp night of the Texas plain, the naked supergirl felt the last bit of sun warmth leaching from the sand under her bare back and bare buttocks.  She lay stretched out on the rise, legs and arm apart, totally open to the universe above.  In the distance, she heard the slight ripples as a horse drank.  Mostly they were asleep now, with a snorting exhale now and then.  Dareen, her tummy full of figs, closed her eyes and dozed off.

        When she awoke it was still night.  Odd, how she had fallen asleep in such a totally bashful position.  Yet there was no one to see and the air, though not that warm, was like the softest of blankets.  She wondered if without her powers she would feel so comfortable in nature and decided she certainly wouldn’t.  At bottom she was Muslim, a believer in women staying covered.  It was not a matter of subjugation but of dignity.  Dareen’s beliefs on this were becoming more organized.  Sure, it was comfortable to wear skimpy clothes in hot weather, but the girls who did that seemed to fall into three categories.  First, the stupid and the silly.  Second, the showoffs and the sluts.  Third, intelligent girls who were simply unaware of what they were giving up.

 

        And here I am, NakedGirl.  Very much a part of Creation, she had decided, but naked by necessity, not by choice.  Or so it seemed.  Once again she told herself: Allah has given me this power and I have saved lives with it.

 

        Not entirely placated by this thought, Dareen got up and brushed the sand off her back and butt.  She looked down and wiggled her toes, shaking sand off, watching her jutting brown mountains jiggle in the process.  She tugged on her nipples, so dark and huge and hard in this cold air, they felt tough like leather.  Then she looked up to the stars.  She just couldn’t sleep tonight.  She had just saved the federal government from a shutdown, from being a sitting duck for something worse, and probably saved thousands of lives in the process.  That first pulse bomb over Atlanta, the one she had failed to stop, that was just a trial run.  Whoever that crazy scientist guy was, he was deadly serious now about disrupting the world, or at least the United States.  A more dangerous terrorist, in some ways, that the evil men who had planned 9/11.

 

        More immediately, she had to assure Elly that everything was O.K.  She could picture Elly going back to her folks’ house in panic and despair, not knowing what happened.  But how to contact her? Dareen didn’t have her cell phone with her of course, or any I.D., she had just her own naked self.  She had to find someone with a phone and call 411 to get Elly’s parents’ number.  She remembered the street and Elly’s last name, it should be easy.  Then she decided not to show her nakedness to any more people than necessary.  In short, find a pay phone.

 

        Dareen waved to the horses as she flew off.  They looked up and seemed to acknowledge their bare-skinned friend.

        Find a pay phone, call Elly, then get back to Atlanta.  Though going back to her apartment, with the press calling up all the time and probably visiting, that would have to be re-thought.  Dareen sped through the cool night air under the stars.  She found herself enjoying it.  Though the wind-chill made it actually cold, she felt like she was diving through the cold water of a pool.  After a while she got used to it.

 

        She went higher and faster and looked down, past the little blotches of lights here and there.  No particular urge to visit any one of them.  Her mind wandered as she journeyed.  Her super-perceptive eyes peered down into the blackness and picked out wide deserts, sandstone formations, the occasional narrow river.  In no time at all she was quite far out to the west.  She looked behind her to the east and thought she could sense the beginnings of the sky getting lighter, a change too slight for the normal eye to detect.

 

        A small bright light caught her eye.  She knew what it was, knew it was stupid to go down to it, but did anyway.  A window in a clothing store.  In the display window was a beautiful dress on a manikin, the display light still on at this hour for some reason.  Actually this was a rear window, facing away from the little street in a tiny town.  As the naked supergirl could see, there was a rear entrance with a set of stairs going down to it from a raised platform, all painted black for some reason.  In the cold air, the naked girl sat on the dark steps, elbows on her knees, hands under her chin, and contemplated the dress with desire and longing, like a poor girl who wanted it but couldn’t afford it.  The dress was so beautiful, nice long sleeves, ankle-length.  And with shoes and nylons on the manikin too.  And the rear door was half-open!  A little showy for Dareen’s taste, but it would feel so good on her . . . to be covered up . . . she could just walk through the door and take it . . .

        Dareen shook herself from such thoughts and got up, brushing away some pebbles from her butt.  She couldn’t just take the dress; it would be stealing.  And she couldn’t put anything on now; she needed her super powers.  Without another thought she flew up and out of there.

 

        She passed some more towns, but mostly there was just the blackness of the hilly desert dotted with little shrubs and some cactus.

        Presently she found what she was looking for.  Down she went, towards a solitary street light, into a small one-street town, maybe three stores and a post office.  The street light was right in front of the post office and, her impression had been correct, it shone down onto a pay phone.

 

        She gazed up idly at the post office -- it said, “Scrub Flats, Arizona” -- and picked up the phone and dialed “0”. A recorded voice said, “You must first deposit twenty-five cents for this call.  You must first deposit twenty-five cents for this call.  You must first . . .” Her bare shoulders slumped.  She called 411.  Same message.

        If she was in Arizona, then in New York, three hours ahead, it would now be 8:30 or so.  Elly would be up by now.  Yet how could Dareen get a hold of her?  She definitely wasn’t going to show herself to anyone.  In mild frustration she kicked a pebble with her big toe and it shot down the street like a bullet and, two hundred yards away, hit a 55-gallon drum next to the gas station with a loud clang.  Dareen’s head darted in every direction.  Didn’t anybody hear that!!  Apparently not, the town was deserted at this hour.

 

        Still, she felt uneasy about being right under the street light.  She spread her arms aloft and softly landed across the street on the tar paper roof of the little diner.  As she looked around for other possibilities she felt the cold air on her erect nipples.  It sure gets cold in the desert at night, she told herself.  A normal girl would probably die of hypothermia here.  She felt the gritty tar paper under her soles.  Yuck.

 

        There was a scrub-studded hill up to the right.  There seemed to be a light on in a little building.  She glided up, looking for another pay phone.  It turned out to be a security booth to a gated community.  Hovering a hundred feet up, she saw the parked ambulances, the walkers, and realized it was for senior citizens.  She thought of what her father once said.  “When I get old, shoot me before you put me in one of those places.”

 

        She hovered closer to the booth.  There was a light on in there all right, and a TV.  The booth was closed up on this cold night, but through the window she saw a telephone.  Unfortunately, it was next to the security guard, who was leaning back in his swivel chair, snoring.

        Dareen squatted down on the ground some distance away, elbows on her knees, wondering how to get at that phone.  Should she create a distraction to get him out of the booth?  A trick, and she would be using the phone without permission, but she thought she could be excused given the circumstances.

 

        Her plans were interrupted by what was coming over the TV.  The pale blue light could be barely seen from such a distance, the words inaudible, but not to NakedGirl.

        “So based on this late-breaking news from New York, what we have here is Dareen Alkaras, a young Arab woman who has some kind of secret formula that allows her to do these -- things and performs some ‘good deeds’ to fool the more gullible among us, yet she is a shameless exhibitionist and obviously anti-American.”

 

        “Yes, and more than that, Bill,” the bearded “expert” guest said in a Brit accent.  “I’m sure we are in agreement, we should give credit where it is due, we are very glad as to that handful of people whose lives she has saved.”

        “Yes, you can’t take that away from her,” the host interjected quickly.

 

        “But her other antics, barging naked into that Jewish Friends Committee meeting, knocking over the map of Israel with her bare foot, then ripping down the American flag in front of a crowd of people -- not to mention being profoundly offensive to the Muslim community by flaunting her nudity into the face of the cameras after she caught the Joly Tower, and declaring herself doing the will of Allah -- well, Bill, this woman apparently just wants people to hate her.  And in that she will probably succeed.”

 

        “Yes, viewers are encouraged to respond to our latest Cobb News poll, ‘Is NakedGirl the savior of mankind or a spoiled supergirl’, though not a scientific poll, the early returns are running to the second choice, 60 percent.  Now, Andrew, what do you say to those people who point to her, you just mentioned this, catching the Joly Tower in Atlanta?  A very close parallel to 9/11, obviously.”

 

        “Perhaps deliberately so.  One is forced to ask, ‘How is it that she happened to be right there when the bomb went off in the basement?  How could she know?”  The answer is, she HAD to know.”

        “Andrew, that’s a very serious charge.  Are you saying that NakedGirl was behind the bombing?”

        “I’m saying that she, and the bombers, probably had similar motivations.  They both are anti-American and opposed to the many cultures that co-exist here.  By saving the tower from impacting, she was able to paint herself as a hero, in preparation for future mischief.  I think the authorities should look at it in this light.”

 

        “Thank you, Andrew.  Well you have heard previously, Mr. Nedrow of the FBI has said that there is nothing to support that theory, that as far as he knows Ms. Alkaras has no criminal record and NakedGirl is acting alone, though of course at this early stage all kinds of theories can and must be looked at.  We will return in a moment.”

 

        Dareen, squatting naked in the predawn air, nipples hard and erect with the cold, was in shock.  Her brown eyes were wide with disbelief.  This was like a bad dream.  Hopefully as soon as they know she saved the federal government they would change their minds.

 

        The phone rang, loudly.  It was a jolt to her and also to the security guard, who woke up in mid-snore.  “Yes . . .  Building four?  Damn, I thought I fixed that . . . O.K.”  He roused himself and walked out of the booth, closing the door behind him as he pulled on a jacket.

 

        This was her chance.  The naked girl saw him walk down the road, almost out of sight before disappearing a few hundred feet up behind the furthest building.  Then she hopped into the booth.

 

        It was nice and warm in here.  Quickly she called information and got Elly’s folks’ number.  “Where are you?”

 

        “Arizona.”

 

        “Arizona?”

 

        “I did it, Elly.  It was a pulse bomb over Washington D.C.  It was heading down and I turned it up and it went into outer space.”

 

        A long silence.  “Wow . . .  Looks like nobody knows.  After I lost sight of that garbage truck I had nothing to do but come back to my folks’.  Then you had your adventures which I saw on TV.  Dar, they’re really dragging you through the mud this morning on the cable news.”

        “I know . . .  What should I do?”

        “Stay away a couple of days.  You’ve got to stay out of sight.  Then we’ll think about it.  I don’t think it’s a good idea to go back to the apartment, not now.”  Elly sounded nervous and then coughed.  Dareen sensed she was smoking a cigarette, even at this early hour.  “I’ll bring your things back to Atlanta. Call your cell phone when you get back, I’ll have it.”

        “Okay . . .  Thanks, El.”

        “We’re in this together, Dar.”

        Dareen bit her lip.  “I love you, El.”

        “Love you too, Dar . . .  Take a dip in the Pacific for me, O.K.”

        “O.K.”  And now she heard the security guard’s footsteps, still far away but heading her way.  “Bye.”  She hung up and flew out the booth and out of sight.  When he got back, the security guard wondered why the door was open; he was sure he’d closed it.

 

 

24.

 

        “Go away.”

 

        The hand-scrawled sign in Elly’s window was visible from street level and also from the top of the building across the street, where the naked Dareen knelt behind the parapet.  She looked down at the handful of people at the entrance, chatting on cell phones, writing on pads or punching into palm pilots.  They must be reporters, trying to get an interview with NakedGirl.  Was Elly’s sign directed at them or was she advising her airborne naked friend that it wasn’t a good idea to return yet?

        Dareen looked around quickly to make sure no one was looking.  After flying back across the country at a leisurely pace, enjoying the sun on her skin at a thousand feet, she had timed it so that it would be dark by the time she got back to Atlanta, darkness that would hide her nakedness.  She still felt improper and immoral, being naked outdoors.  As a Muslim woman, and as NakedGirl called to use her super powers, she didn’t know whether to hold onto this feeling, or pray that she might finally overcome it.

        But she had to, so she shook herself and, looking at the reporters and slowly getting up, brushing the pebbles off her knees, she considered where else to go.  The best choice was unfortunately the most shaming.  She would have to go to her parents’ house.

 

        It was easy from the air, even at night, to find the street in Dunwoody, about ten miles from downtown.  She had driven there many times.  It wasn’t the house she had grown up in; her parents had bought this new, spacious house on this curvy residential street only a few years ago when she was the only child still at home.  After living in cramped houses as a young couple, her parents had always wanted a big house with lots of space.  Hovering two hundred feet up, their youngest child contemplated the familiar house way down there past her toes.  This was not going to be easy.

 

        It was just too much to stand naked at the front door and knock.  She didn’t want neighbors seeing a naked woman in front of her parent’s house.  Instead she alighted on the patio in back and found that the sliding glass door was unlocked.  As quietly as possible she opened it and padded silently through the kitchen.

 

        Her parents were in the living room.  The TV was off, which was unusual, and her father was reading a newspaper.  Her mother was embroidering, her latest hobby.  Dareen, one arm across her nipples, the other hand over her crotch, approached and wondered if she shouldn’t have knocked on the back door.  They would have been less shocked that way, perhaps.  Both parents stared up at her with mouths open.

 

        Her mother caught her breath and said, “Get some clothes on, Dar!”

 

        “I can’t, Umi,” Dareen said in a tiny voice.  Her family didn’t speak Arabic any more but the children still used the Arabic words for “Mom” and “Dad”.  “If I do I won’t be able to fly.”

        Her father, wincing as he tried not to look at how his daughter had “developed”, looked her in the eye and said, “Young lady, I don’t care if you’re a super hero, out to save the world.  Put clothes on and be a normal girl!”

 

        Dareen felt almost on the verge of tears.  She had always been a “good girl” and could not remember ever having incurred her parents’ disapproval like this.  Especially for doing something so shameful as walking around naked.  She desperately wanted to run to her old room and put on clothes, but she knew she had to wait.  “I’m sorry, Baba, I can’t fly with clothes on.  And I have to fly to find Elly.  She has my things from when I went to New York.”

 

        “Yes, we heard about your antics,” her mother said.  “Ripping down the American flag.  Akbar has formed a prayer group about it.”  Akbar was the Imam at their mosque.  “We keep saying we know nothing about it.  Now they think we’re bad parents, who don’t talk to their little girl.”

        “Umi, I didn’t mean to -- I had to -- take off my clothes because I got the feeling . . . ”  She knew that this sounded ridiculous but she forced herself to say it through because it was the truth, and with her parents she always had to be truthful.  “I can tell when there’s a pulse bomb, like that time a few weeks ago.  There was one that almost went off over Washington D.C.”

 

        Her father stood up.  “What?”

 

        Dareen clutched herself tighter, and looked down at her bare toes squirming on the carpet.  “I flew up and grabbed the missile and threw it up into the atmosphere.”

 

        Her parents looked at each other.  Her mother said, “THAT wasn’t on the news.”

 

        “I don’t think anyone found out.  It was too high up . . . You believe me, don’t you?”   In her nakedness and desolation she seemed upset.

 

        Her father thought a moment and said, “Of course we do, Bibi.”  This is Arabic for “Baby”; he used to call her that all the time.  Seeing his youngest child so ill at ease, he went to her and, not wanting to hug her when she was naked, he instead leaned forward and kissed her on the forehead, like he had done a thousand times before when she was a little girl.

 

        “Oh Baba,” she said, putting her arms around his neck and hugging him.  He stood there not knowing what to do, feeling her huge firm breasts crushed against him, trying not to look down past her bare butt cheeks.  And then heard her sniffle and rub her nose.  He decided to hug the back of her head in his hands.

 

        She broke the embrace and again covered herself with her hands.  “I’ve got to find Elly.”

        “She called,” her mother said, “she’s at a friend’s house.  Dar, you should stay with us.”

 

        “Have any press people called you?”

 

        “Well yes, but we can handle it, Dar.”  Her mother was more understanding now.

 

        Dareen knew this was just not true.  She couldn’t stay here and put her parents in the glare of publicity sure to come.  To her parents’ relief she said, “I’ve got to get some clothes . . .  Do you have a burka?  Or a chador?”

        “A what?  Look in my closet, I’ve got a couple I think,” her mother said.  The family had some very conservative relatives in Savannah and Dareen’s mother sometimes wore a burka when visiting their mosque.

 

        Dareen almost choked with frustration as she handled the burkas without being able to put them on yet.  Downstairs, she dashed into the kitchen and called the number her mother gave.

        “I’m at Sherry’s,” Elly said.

        “Who?”

 

        “The white guy you work with, that guy with the confederate flag on his door?  Billy?  When I called your work he said we could stay at his girlfriend’s.  Jamal invited us to his place too.  Maybe we can alternate.  I think we’re going to have to be nomads for a while.  I’ve got your things here.  Let me give you directions.”

 

        “I know where it is.”  It was the place where she had foiled the drive-by shooting, where Billy Gibbs had seen her from his girlfriend’s window.

 

        Clutching the folded-up burkas in front of her, Dareen hopped into the living room and bent forward to kiss her parents good-bye.  She backed out of the room, not wanting to show her bare butt.  But they could not help watching as she walked out onto the patio and, with a little jump, flew off silently into the night.  She dared not do so much as tie the burkas around her wrist; in spite of her intense desire for covering she had to hold them in one hand as she stretched her arms out in front of her, once again feeling the rushing of the night air over every part of her as she went to the other side of town.

25.

 

        The gentle late-summer breeze wafted sensuously over Dareen’s body as she flew over downtown.  True, there was the whiff of gasoline and exhaust, plus that electric smell of ozone caused by electricity.  Yet she could not deny that warm air over her bare skin felt good.  It almost blocked out the recent memory of shame at standing naked in front of her parents.

 

        A quick jolt to the left and she sensed danger.  This was not a tingling in the nipples; it was that vague feeling that had led her to break up attempted murders and rapes.  She shut her eyes for a moment and squeezed the folded-up burka that she clutched in her hand.  She had been naked far too long, in front of far too many people, and desperately needed to be covered again and indoors and alone.  But it looked like that would have to wait a little longer.  How could she just turn a blind eye when she was so badly needed?

 

        Arms out in front as she descended, she recognized this as Lourdes’s neighborhood.  She turned into the alley where she sensed the danger to be.  And then her eyes widened, her heart beat thuddingly, and her speed increased as she saw that the person in danger was Lourdes herself!

 

        The teenager was in the middle of a gang of young men.  Her arms were held back painfully behind her, her elbows almost touching, causing her apple-sized breasts, barely covered by the little bikini top triangles, to stick out in front.  One of them had escaped and the dark brown nipple poked out, erect in fright.  Her mouth was stuffed with what looked like a sock, and a guy was in front of her, talking in low dirty Spanish and unzipping his fly.  Her pretty eyes caught the glint of the nearby streetlight, wide with fear.  The rapists surrounded her, her helpless, almost total nudity contrasting with the violence of the jeans and leathers and big sneakers.

 

        A strong bare foot knocked the wannabe rapist to the ground.  NakedGirl scooped up the sobbing teenager with one arm.  With her other hand holding the burka, she had to do her work with her feet.  Her legs splayed wide while with her other foot she scattered the guys who had been circling around.  She chased the guy who had been holding Lourdes’s arms, flew after him as he ran down the alley, and with a footballer’s motion kicked him up into the air.  He went twenty yards before he landed painfully on the trash-strewn asphalt.

 

        Lourdes was sobbing into the nape of Dareen’s neck as they flew up and out of there.  Though Dareen had looped her arm securely around her waist, she was hugging the super hero with all her strength.  When they were a few hundred feet up, Dareen stood up and put her arm around the upright Lourdes.  Dareen had arrived in time.  Her young friend seemed O.K.  Her shorts were torn a little and she had lost one of her flip-flops, but there were no scratches or bleeding.

 

        Not that she wasn’t scared.  “Oh Dios mio!!” she cried, looking down at the city far below her toes.

 

        “You’re safe,” Dareen said.  “I can hold you up . . . Don’t look down.”

 

        Lourdes wrenched her big brown eyes up to look at Dareen.  She smiled through her tears.  “Oh Chica Desnuda!  Dareen!”  Realizing this had to be the translation of “NakedGirl” that Lourdes must have heard on Spanish TV, Dareen nodded and they hugged, still floating in mid-air.

 

        Dareen brought them to a nearby rooftop so the girl could sit down, on a low stub of an abandoned chimney.  She sobbed again, feeling the after-effects of what she had been through.  Dareen did what she could to comfort her.  Then they got to talking.

        “I see your name, I didn’t know it was you before,” Lourdes said.

 

        “Yes, that’s me,” Dareen said.  With reluctance, “NakedGirl”.  She saw Lourdes look her nudity up and down and resisted the urge to cover herself.  “Why are you out this time of night?”

 

        “Mis padres, they tell me not to come back until I put on the more clothes.”  She coughed and said, “Perdon,” and crossed her arms in front of her, pulling up the bikini top so she could use one of the little triangles to dry her eyes.  Then she cleared her throat again and arranged the triangles back over the nipples.  “So I stay out, and did not know what to do.”

 

        Dareen stared at her in disbelief.  “Your parents are very bad.  They kicked you out?”

 

        “They don’t understand.  I can’t wear more clothes.  It would please me much to put clothes on, I want to, but I can’t.  They no believe me, nobody no believes me, not even my boss at the bikini store; nobody except you and your friend.”

 

        Lourdes stood up.  “You are the NakedGirl.  Dareen, you are my hero before because you believed me and you give me books to help me with learning.  And now you are my hero again.”  She looked up and down the superheroine’s statuesque body.  “Que pechos grandes.  Breasts very big.  And little middle.  Men would look at you much.  Yet you go naked.  No verguenza, no shame.  Orgulla, proud.  I heard on the TV that you were NakedGirl.  That was three days ago and I think about it much.  You give me strength.  I still feel shame walking down the street in these little things,” she looked down at her skimpy top and the little low-rise micro-shorts, “but when I think of you I know that I should not feel shame.  I should be proud.”

 

        Lourdes’s beautiful eyes, big and wet with emotion, looked right into Dareen’s.  “You make me strong.  I think of the woman more strong in the world.”

 

        “S - strongest woman,” Dareen corrected her, haltingly.

 

        “Sí, strongest woman in the world, how she feels no shame to be naked, and I become strong too, in mi mente, my mind.  Tu eres mi inspiracion.”

 

        Dareen did not know how to react.  Lourdes stood up and hugged her again, her sweet face, so recently contorted in fear, now at peace as it nestled above Dareen’s huge crushed breasts, like a baby that had had its fill of breast milk and was now quick off to sleep.

 

        She just made you feel good, that’s all.  Dareen kept smiling at this tall, big-boned African-American lady with the large happy open face and the long dreadlocks who was standing and leaning back against the stove watching the three young women eating at her table.  Dareen kept smiling even though she was still naked and trying to hold down the desire to put on that damn burka folded up on the kitchen table next to her hominy.  The lady made good hominy too.  It actually tasted like something, a mild flavor like corn.  Across the table, Lourdes was really hogging her portion.

 

        “I got me a bunch of runaways here.  Well that’s O.K.  I was a runaway too when I was a young fool.  I was fifteen.  Ten years ago. Ha!”  She shifted her big gray T-shirt and scratched her butt, her dreadlocks draping across her large breasts as she turned.

 

        “C’mon, you don’t look a day over 45,” Elly said, sipping a Mr. Pibb as she slouched in the chair next to Lourdes.

 

        “THBB!” said Sherry, then breaking into a wide incandescent grin of what looked like a hundred white teeth.

 

        She had set up couches and cushions so all three could sleep in the little living room.  There were calls to make.  Elly called the voice mail at work to make sure she was up on things.  Dareen returned a call from Jamal and said she’d be at work tomorrow and when he expressed concern, she said, “In disguise.  But you’ll know it’s me.”  Then she made Lourdes call her parents.  “Tell them you’re staying at my house and you’re O.K.”  Dareen overheard the quick Spanish as Lourdes spoke into the phone and felt the urge to grab the phone and tell them a thing or two.  But they probably wouldn’t have understood her.

 

        Then the four girls sat down in the living room and watched one of Lourdes’s Spanish soap operas.  Like at Dareen’s apartment, the Latina teenager from time to time tried translating what was going on but didn’t have to.  Soap operas are an international language.  “You can tell the hateful ones right away,” Sherry observed.  “What’s ‘good’ and ‘bad’ in Spanish?” she asked.  After that, when a new character appeared, Sherry would guess.  “Bueno!” or “Malo!”  The answers were supplied by Lourdes and also by Dareen and Elly, who had kind of gotten into the plot of this particular soap from watching it a few times with Lourdes.  Sherry’s guesses were right every time.

 

        Halfway through the show the phone rang.  It was Billy, checking in from the mountains.  He said he’d be there tomorrow night.  Of course, he’d see Dareen at work.

 

        The girls sat through a second “novela” and the atmosphere was like a slumber party.  Except that only Sherry and Elly were wearing pajamas.  Dareen was still naked, sitting cross-legged behind the others, out of their gaze, though from time to time Lourdes glanced back admiringly.  Lourdes was the other exception, sitting happily in her tiny strings and scraps, an inch of butt crack showing over her little shorts, the happy youngest child in this temporary family.

 

        Lights went out, Sherry went to her room, and Elly and Lourdes quickly sacked out under the blankets on their respective couches.  Dareen stayed awake for a while, naked on top of the convertible mattress, glad to be clothed in darkness but fighting the terrible urge to put on the burka that was still on the kitchen table.  Waiting for a call, if there was to be one this night.  There wasn’t.  Dareen lay down, looking up at her brown mountains.  She curled up into a fetal position, arms across her breasts.  At length she was asleep too.

 

        “Even NakedGirl has to make a living,” Dareen explained to Lourdes, as she padded across the living room in her burka, folding up sheets.  “Just like you have to sell bikinis.”

        “Sí, but then the weather makes cold,” Lourdes said, about to go into the shower.

 

        “I’ll take you to work,” Elly said to Lourdes.  “It’s on my way, from here.”

 

        Sherry didn’t have to go to work until 12 today.  Or rather, be on call.  She was an Emergency Medical Technician for the City.

 

        For Dareen, going to work in a burka was another new adventure.  Fortunately this was a big size and could well accommodate (and hide) her figure.  One problem was shoes; Elly had brought Dareen’s purse and some clothes but had forgotten shoes.  Sherry’s shoes were way too big.  Both Dareen and Lourdes ended up borrowing from Elly’s inexhaustible collection of flip-flops.

        Dareen felt insolent and stared at, flip-flopping up to the state office building in a burka.  She was hopeful that Ms. Hom would understand that she couldn’t show her face in public, at least not at the moment.  Not with everyone knowing her identity and with the cable news people increasingly calling her an obnoxious and anti-American influence.  Fortunately she got through the checkpoint.  She showed her I.D. to Hank, the security guard, who recognized her eyes peeking out good-naturedly over the veil and waved her through.

 

        She was the first one at work that day.  She took a long look at the door to her office.  It was as if seeing it for the first time.  The painting of the veiled woman overlooking a desert, “Waiting in Damascus,” she had bought it at an outdoor fair a couple of years ago.  It had a strange attraction to her, like it represented her waiting for something, something to give direction to her life.  And now she was indeed a veiled woman.  What was she waiting for?  Did she know yet?  And the rug swatch with its interlocking pinwheels.  Muslim art: always abstract, depictions of living things being considered a form of idolatry.  The swatch, a pattern you didn’t recognize until you looked for a long time.  Maybe like her own life.  Finally, the little American flag above.  She was American, and felt renewed shame at having to rip down that flag in New York.  She briefly considered putting a little flag on her burka.  Then chuckled at how ridiculous it would look.

 

        It is possible to type with a burka on once you know how to drape the folds behind your arms.  Seated at her desk, Dareen got onto broadband and, as she feared, there were dozens of messages from addresses she’d never heard of.  Somehow people found out what her e-mail address was from knowing her name.  And some of the messages were not at all nice.  She didn’t answer the ones with the mean titles, like “GO BACK TO WHERE YOU CAME FROM YOU SAND NIGGER SLUT.”  She just deleted those.  The others were kind words of support.  Mary Shin, from the Taoist temple in town, invited her to their next prayer lunch, with her phone number.

 

        One e-mail especially grabbed her.  It was from Rayette McIver, the comedian who had been spoofing NakedGirl back when she was thought to be white and the “Pride of the South”.  “Dareen, even though you’ve ruined my career, I hope you stay strong and keep saving lives.  Don’t listen to people who call you anti-American.  We are all Americans!”

 

        A letter from one of the Dixie Chicks, to the same effect.  “Don’t listen to the media, listen to your heart,” it said.  “Stand up for what you believe.”  Gosh, Dareen had gotten an e-mail from someone famous.  Of course, now she was famous too.  Or infamous.

 

        She opened one that had been entitled, “We love you, Dareen!”  It turned out to be from something called the Anna Ohura Society.  Who was Anna Ohura?  She did a google search and her heart sank when she found out.  A porn star from Japan.  Yet when the photo came on the screen she didn’t close the window immediately.  A sweet young girl, it seemed, with enormous breasts but an innocent expression, not made up or anything or with a porn star’s pouty face.  She was standing up in a bed, looking down as if trying to wake up her lover.  Dareen looked at the photo for a long time.  And realized that it would be a picture of herself, if she had been light-skinned and Asian.  At least the proportions were the same, and the shy expression seemed very Dareen.

 

        Ms. Hom walked into the big room and Dareen quickly closed the window, even though her monitor was facing only her.  Here I am, looking at pornography!

 

        Ms. Hom went to her doorway.  “Good morning, Miss Alkaras.  All of us have heard about what you did over the weekend in New York.”

        Dareen just couldn’t bear any disapproval from Ms. Hom.  “Ms. Hom, I diverted a pulse bomb over Washington D.C.”

 

        Her boss’s eyes widened in uncharacteristic surprise.  “This was not on the news.”

 

        “No.  You believe me, don’t you?”

 

        Ms. Hom thought for a moment.  “I see you are in disguise.  I don’t blame you.”  Then the awkward silence of a middle management person under pressure.  “I have been told that there are government agents who want to spend a few minutes with you.”

        As soon as she said this, two men in black business suits appeared behind her.

 

 

26.

 

        Two big, scary-looking white men in black suits.  But when they sat down with Dareen in the same empty office where the FBI men had questioned her, they turned out to be less stiff and formal than the FBI men.  “Ms. Alkaras, let me be honest.  There’s much we want to know about your powers.”  Of course they had shown her their badges, if only for a second, but Dareen was a quick reader: The National Security Agency, whose very existence was at one time a secret.

        “You have recently been the subject of much publicity,” one of them said.  “Not all of it good.”

 

        Dareen just had to quell any suspicion that she was not a loyal American.  “On Sunday afternoon I stopped a pulse bomb over Washington D.C.”  Sounded like boasting, but it was the truth.

 

        “Yes, we know what you did,” the NSA agent said, much to Dareen’s relief.  “We consider you a hero.  It can’t be overestimated what you saved this country from.  We owe you a great deal.  Yet we must ask you to keep what you did a secret.”

 

        “Why is that?”

 

        “We think we know who is responsible and we want to string him along.  Probably he doesn’t know what happened.  We found out only from video surveillance.”  Dareen’s face burned at the thought of her naked body now on film, from a government camera.  She was glad that the film was a secret.  “Perhaps he thought the device went off course, or failed to ignite.”

 

        “Who is this man?”

 

        The agent smiled.  “Governments like to keep secrets.  I’m afraid we can’t divulge that to you, Miss Alkaras.”

 

        Dareen felt presumptuous at asking this question.  She didn’t want to pry, and regretted having been a little resistant when the FBI men came to question her and she had asked if she wasn’t entitled to an attorney.  She felt inadequately dressed too next to their business suits, sitting here in flip-flops and a burka, which she had pulled back the top of so that her head was free.  She didn’t want them looking at her bare toes and felt the urge to fold her legs under the burka.

 

        “I’ve told Ms. Hom about the pulse bomb.”

 

        “We’ve spoken to her, she can keep a secret.”

 

        “I also . . . told my roommate.”

 

        “Would that be Ms. Randhawa?”

 

        “Yes.”  Dareen now remembered, she had given the FBI men Elly’s full name.

 

        “You should tell her immediately to not tell anyone.”

        “I . . . I think she can keep a secret.”  Actually, Elly was the Voice of America when it came to secrets.  Maybe she could shut up about this one.  Dareen didn’t want Elly to be subject to questioning too.

 

        The agent gave her a card.  “Your country needs you, Ms. Alkaras.  We want to know about your powers.”

 

        Dareen sat up straight.  “I will do anything to help my country.”

 

        “Please come by this office tomorrow at 10 a.m.”  He gave her a card.

 

        “I can’t talk about it.”

        This seemed O.K. with Billy but it was driving Jamal nuts.  “Dar, I have a bad feeling about this.”

        “They just want to know about NakedGirl,” Billy said, with a self-conscious glance in Dareen’s direction before he emptied his Coors.  “What makes her tick, that’s all.  Probably just a regular physical.  Then seeing her do some of her supergirl tricks.”

 

        Dareen, in her burka, sitting between them at the kitchen table in Sherry’s very crowded apartment, was getting a little peeved.  “Look guys, it’s up to me, and I’d appreciate it if you don’t go on about it.  It’s my body, you know.”

 

        “Guys, she ain’t naked now, but you still want to look,” Sherry said, turning from her frying pan.  Then, to Dareen, “They care about you.  All of us do.  Do your country proud.”  Again, the big smile with lots of teeth.

 

        “Sorry Dar,” Jamal said.  He was obsessing on behavior modification, truth serums, being poked and prodded, the gamut of bad movie ideas of what oppressive governments can do to a person’s body.  Not all of it fictional.  He confined himself to saying, “Don’t let them poke you with any needles.”  And immediately felt sorry for saying it.

 

        Fortunately Dareen took it as a joke.  She smiled as she sipped her juice.  With the drawn-back floppy cowl from the burka she wiped sweat off her forehead.  It was hot in the kitchen, but of course Dareen didn’t want to take anything off if she didn’t have to.

 

        Elly arrived with Lourdes in tow, Elly with the scent of a recently-snuffed cigarette.  “She’s got quite a fan club at the mall,” she said.  This seemed to embarrass Lourdes a bit, a feeling that was overcome by hunger.  “Rice with pollo,” she said, plowing into the plate Sherry set before her.  “Gracias.”

 

        “De nada,” Sherry said, proud at knowing this much Spanish.

 

        Dareen noticed that Lourdes’s bikini top and shorts had undergone some modification, by Elly no doubt.  The advance of the poor girl’s clothing allergy had required yet more cutting away of covering.  The bikini top had tinier strings now.  They were now hardly thicker than a single thread.  And the micro-shorts, already so low-rise that Lourdes’s butt crack almost showed even when standing, had been cut on the sides, some fabric removed so that one could see the bare sides of the teenager’s hips, interrupted only by a sturdy cord of denim across the top and the bottom.  The shorts were so tiny anyway that the cords were only about six inches apart.  Looking down, she saw Lourdes’s flip-flops had changed; they were now a little dressier, with thong straps even more slender than the basic Old Navy ones she had been wearing.  Dareen wondered how long this could go on, how long the girl’s outfit would stay legal.

 

        A couple of days ago Elly had told Dareen that after picking Lourdes up from the store a policeman had stopped them and made a comment about Lourdes’s minimal clothing.  “You shouldn’t go around like that, Miss, it’s almost against the law.  I have to warn you.  Don’t take this the wrong way.”  Elly took it very much the wrong way, though was smart enough not to get into a fight with a cop.  It got Dareen thinking.  She did an internet search and found the city ordinance regarding indecent exposure.  The nipples had to be covered, and the “genitals”, which when she did a further search, turned out to be the vagina plus the anus.  She printed the ordinance out and gave it to Lourdes, much to the girl’s embarrassment, but Dareen explained that it was necessary in case another cop gave her a hard time.  “Just show them this and they’ll know you’re totally legal.  And proper,” she added.  Lourdes reluctantly folded it up into one of the tiny pockets in her shorts.

 

        Indecent exposure wasn’t Lourdes’s only problem.  School would start in only a couple of weeks.  The weather would get cold.  The bikini store in the outdoor mall would close.  And then what?  Dareen knew it was on the girl’s mind, as well as the mind of everyone else.  It was an unspoken problem that everyone was working on in their heads.

 

        After finishing up, Dareen said, “I’m going to mosque.”

 

        “What?” Elly exclaimed.  “NakedGirl goes to mosque?  Dar, you’ve got courage but this is crazy.”

 

        “In disguise,” Dareen said, folding the burka over her head.  “There’s one nearby.”

 

        She had looked it up.  A few blocks away was a neighborhood where women in burkas were common.  She hadn’t gone to that mosque yet.  No one would know her, and it would be just her eyes showing anyway.

 

        Elly begged off but Dareen went.  It was a mistake.  A real conservative place, which shouldn’t have surprised her.  She didn’t like being stuck up in the balcony with all the other burka-ed women while the men got to sit down in front of the Imam.  This one was younger than Imam Tahir, and quite a bit more fiery.  Not a moderate at all.  And he was very expansive on the topic of NakedGirl.  “She is an abomination, an insult to Islam.  The believing woman must lower her gaze and guard her modesty.  Not so with this harlot who claims to be one of us.  If she really wanted to be of service to mankind she would be modest and clothed.  She would let men do her works.”  At this Dareen suppressed a mordant giggle.  “Yet she flaunts her sinfulness for all to see.  And,” his voice lowered, “she has insulted this country’s flag.”

 

        It was hard for Dareen to stand up there as one of the beaten-down, cloistered, covered-up women, listening to this man speaking to the other men who with their male privilege could sit down, clothed normally, and sip coffee.  Not that these men were privileged in any real sense.  Dareen was smart enough to realize that this was a poor neighborhood and these men were not wealthy.  Probably they worked at minimum wage jobs, or close to it, and sitting in front of the Imam at mosque was their only chance to feel important.  But shy as she was, she chafed at being so put down.  And she wanted to yell out that SHE was NakedGirl, stronger than any man, and she had saved the nation from another pulse bomb.  But she was sworn to secrecy now.

 

        The Imam said something else.  “She has also insulted the Jewish Friends Committee.  Disrupted their meeting with her nakedness.  In this we are united with the Jews.  She is an affront to us both.”

 

        Dareen closed her eyes and exhaled.  Great!  Jews and Muslims finally had a common cause -- against her!  She stood through the rest of the service listlessly, trying to think of nice things, and then wondering how she was going to manage going to work every day in disguise, in her burka.

 

        When she got back she called her parents to say where she was.  Her mother sounded anxious.  Then she called her brother Mikky at West Point to say she was okay.  Mikky said their father told him that someone had thrown a rock through their parents’ window; which was why her mother was anxious.

        Later she and Elly ventured going back to the apartment.  The “Go Away” sign was still up on the window.  “It was meant mostly for you,” Elly admitted.

 

        “Thanks,” Dareen said.  Now there was a spray-painted graffiti next to their window.  The message could be fairly described as racist and obscene.

 

        Still, they felt brave enough to go up.  Thank goodness for the foyer door and its key-lock.  Actually, thank goodness for Pedro.  The lock was often broken but it looked like it had just been repaired.  He was protecting her.  Good old Pedro.  Though Dareen still cringed at remembering facing him in the mortification of her full frontal nudity that time she was holding up that door.

 

        They got as much of their things and clothes out as they could.  So it was, the next morning, in her best outfit, her white blouse and red cardigan and her long gray skirt with the hose and the sensible shoes that Dareen went up the steps to the anonymous-looking office building at 10 a.m. for her examination by the NSA people.

 

       

27.

 

        The security guards couldn’t help but look as she emptied her pockets and put her purse on the conveyor belt.  The young woman was a knockout, very busty too, as she bashfully took off her blazer on request and put it too on the conveyor.  The guards winked at each other after she had passed through.

 

        Now, sitting across the big shiny table from the two men, Dareen tried to put that episode behind her and hoped that the blazer with the big shoulder pads helped minimize the appearance of her bust.  She sat upright and serious as they began, determined to speak to them about what had been, since last night, the most pressing issue on her mind.

 

        “My name is Under-Secretary James Nedrow,” the first began, a balding white man with glasses and an impeccable dark blue suit with a red tie.  “Your powers have been denominated a first-level national security issue.  We are here to test your powers and ask you about them.  This is Colonel McNulty, he has designed the protocols, which have been in preparation ever since we first heard of you some . . . some weeks ago.  Colonel McNulty is not only an Army doctor, he is also an Army physicist.”  He motioned to the colonel, a thin, pasty-skinned man of 60 or so with close-cropped gray hair.

        “First of all,” the colonel said in a scratchy voice, “we are glad that you have kept what you did over the capital a secret.  Especially given the negative publicity you’ve gotten, the urge to say something about it must be intense.  Your interviews and testing are being recorded and filmed.”  He pointed to a camera up near the ceiling.  “But all that, and everything that is done today, will also be kept secret, although the fact you are seeing us today is of course something that can’t be hidden.  Still, you are free to go at any time.”

 

        Dareen didn’t miss a beat.  “I will be glad to help my country.  I came here when I was only two years old but I don’t have an allegiance to any other country.”  Despite the feeling she was laying it on a bit thick, she went on.  “My parents and my whole family are proud Arab-Americans.  I have two brothers in the Army.”

 

        “Yes, we know,” Mr. Nedrow said.

 

        Dareen gulped and took a deep breath.  “I won’t tell anything about D.C. like you say, but my family has been subject to some harassment.  I don’t know what you can do about it, but I want everyone to know that even if there’s negative publicity as to me.”

        “We’ll deal with it,” Mr. Nedrow said.  “We’ll make sure your parents and family are protected.  We would protect you too, though it doesn’t seem like ‘NakedGirl’ would need any protecting,” with a little smile.

 

        The colonel said, “We will first interview you, then conduct a series of psychological tests, then take you to our biomechanical lab for some physical tests.  I suppose our first question is the obvious one.  Why are you naked when you use your powers?”

 

        “I only have the powers after I take off my clothes.”

 

        The two men looked at each other.  Dareen wondered why the colonel didn’t have a note pad, and then surmised their conversations were being transcribed by voice recognition software.  As a librarian she had been following the growth of that technology with some amusement -- why don’t some people simply learn how to type -- but knew that it had developed to the point where it was actually becoming useful.

 

        “What do your powers consist of?”

 

        Dareen looked down at her folded hands.  “I can fly.  I can lift huge heavy objects.  I can read newsprint from hundreds of feet away.  And I can kind of tell when I’m about to be needed.”

 

        “How can you tell that?”

 

        “I . . . I don’t know.  It’s a certain sense I have.  I know where to fly to.  Except that time with the pulse bomb.”

 

        “How was that different?”

 

        “I . . . ”  Dareen hated drawing attention to her huge assets but she had to tell the truth.  “I had a tingling feeling in my nipples.”

 

        “Tingling?”

 

        “Like pins were poking them.”  She hated giving the men this image and knew that they could not help looking down a bit.

        “When was the first time you noticed your powers?”

 

        She told them about that first time, about being lost in the rain, stumbling onto that mad scientist guy in his garage, then running away and getting lifted up by lightning.

        “Can you describe this man physically?”

 

        “He was balding, short, forty-five or so, glasses.  Sounded a little bit like an Eastern European accent.”

 

        “Does the name Novotny mean anything to you?”

 

        “No.  Is that his name?”

 

        The two men got up and stepped back from the table.  “We’d like a quick demonstration, Ms. Alkaras, as a preliminary matter,” Mr. Nedrow said.  “If you don’t mind, could you please disrobe and lift this table up?  It weighs a couple of hundred pounds but I think you can do it with one hand.”

 

        Dareen’s face burned.  Of course she would have to get naked, but she was hoping it would be in the relative privacy of a doctor’s office, maybe just maybe with a female doctor.  But she had been naked in public on so many occasions that they could hardly expect her to be modest.  Fortunately she had a ready excuse.  “My powers don’t come until after I have been naked for about two hours.  That is why I had those mishaps in New York City.  I had gotten that tingling feeling and I was waiting for my powers to come.  That’s why,” she said, warming to the chance to explain herself, “I had to rip down that flag.  It was about to drape over me with the wind and the two hours were almost up.  I had to do something fast or I would have had to wait another two hours.”

 

        The two men looked at each other again.  “Excuse us, will you, Ms. Alkaras?” Colonel McNulty said.

 

        Dareen waited, sitting alone in the room, and noticed that it was studiously nondescript.  No decorations on the beige walls except for an impressionistic painting.  A credenza against one wall with nothing on it except a lamp, which was off.  Soft fluorescent lights above that buzzed quietly.  Five minutes went by, then ten.  Her clothes seemed to itch.  Her breasts felt encased and squeezed and trapped in the sturdy 34F bra.  Yet she was glad to have her clothes.  In fact she longed for the extra covering of the burka and the veil.  She closed her eyes and prayed to Allah for strength.  She was a good and godly woman, she told herself, who was called to be brave for her religion and for her country.

 

        Mr. Nedrow and the colonel came back. For the first time she noticed that the colonel walked with a limp.  He had a little basket with him that he put on the table.  Mr. Nedrow handed Dareen a typed sheet.  “This has been cleared.  We will release it to the press later today,” he said.

 

        It said: “Dareen Alkaras, known to many as ‘NakedGirl’, has been voluntarily cooperating in investigative interviews with agents of the federal government.  It has come to our attention that her family and acquaintances have been subjected to harassment by the press and others.  Any harm that comes to Ms. Alkaras’s family or acquaintances will be aggressively investigated and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.  This includes any instances of intrusion or harassment that they might wish to report.  These are innocent people and the Department of Justice is dedicated to their protection.  Directives are going out to local and state law enforcement authorities to this effect.  Signed, the Attorney General of the United States.”

 

        Dareen exhaled.  “Thank you very much.”

 

        “Well we mean it,” Mr. Nedrow said.

 

        “We’ve decided to change the protocol a bit,” said Colonel McNulty.  “We don’t want to keep you longer than a day.  So while we are waiting for your powers to generate we might as well take care of the other stuff.  We will do the psychological tests first.  Why don’t you do the necessary and come with me.”  He pushed forward the basket.

 

        Do the necessary?  What an odd expression; but then Dareen’s mouth went dry as she realized what he meant.

 

        “Please disrobe and put your things in here,” the colonel said by way of being more clear.  There was an awkward silence.  Dareen cringed like never before.  Yet she couldn’t refuse.  The United States government wanted to test her, they wanted to know about her powers, possibly she had some energy force that they could harness to fight terrorists.  Or maybe cure her -- Dareen had that fleeting hope, that maybe they could find a way to relieve her of this burden of naked powers.  Of course that was only a fantasy.  But for now it was clear that they could only test her while she was naked and she was just going to have to disrobe and expose herself in front of these men.

 

        Dareen slowly stood up and cleared her throat as if about to make a presentation.  Looking down, she primly put her heels together and pried her shoes off.  She glanced at her hosed feet and remembered how she felt embarrassed to have that scientist (Novotny?) see the outlines of her toes.  She reached under the long skirt and up to her thigh, and began to roll off the long hose.  She pulled the hose off her feet and placed it into the shoes and reached up to place them in the basket.

        She took a deep breath and decided not to worry about what to take off next as it would all come off anyway.  She reached around and undid the button on her ankle-length skirt, then unwrapped it, revealing full-cut white panties.  She carefully rolled the skirt up for the basket.  Now, the panties.  It’s not a big deal, she told herself, these men are not crude gawkers, but serious investigators.  Yet that hardly made it easier as she looped her thumbs under the waist band and pulled the panties down to reveal her all-too-lush forest of dark pubic hair, the violent tinge not noticeable in the soft fluorescent light.

 

        Standing up again, placing her panties into the basket, she knew herself ridiculous looking, completely covered above the waist, completely nude below.  Now she turned and twisted more than she wanted to, pulling off the red blazer.  Feeling her breasts as big as balloons pressing against the white blouse, she carefully placed the blazer in the basket.  And now she resolutely looked down at her bare feet as she unbuttoned the blouse.  It was hard to keep looking down as she undid her bra, involving as it did pulling her shoulders back and reaching around with both hands, so she looked blankly over the men’s heads as she undid her last article of clothing and her breasts sprang free.  She folded the bra as she always did, one big underwire cup inside the other, and placed it into the basket.

 

        Totally naked, she looked at the basket with longing.  Then the naked, statuesque young woman forced herself to look the men in the eyes, hoping she had concealed her reluctance.  After all she didn’t want to seem like she was not cooperating fully.  She couldn’t help wondering what they were thinking.  In fact she had the biggest, firmest breasts either man had ever seen, over a remarkably tight and small waist, and certainly the biggest, darkest nipples too.  But they did not betray any emotions.

 

        “Thank you. I’ll check in later,” Mr. Nedrow said.  He said good-bye and left with his press release.

 

        “Come with me, Ms. Alkaras,” Colonel McNulty said.  He motioned for Dareen to follow him through another door.  Dareen looked back at the basket, hoping she could take it along.  But the colonel said, “We’ll leave your clothes here, they’ll be tested too.”  Dareen looked back at the basket with a sorrowful glance as they left.

 

        They entered a sterile-looking room with a long table with papers on it.  Feeling the cold tile floor under her bare feet, not knowing what to do with her hands, feeling her breasts pointing out in front of her like guns, Dareen felt small and weak as she followed the tall, white-coated Army doctor through this room and then down a hallway, his left boot clip-clopping against the floor as he limped.  To her horror there were a few people passing by, one or two in uniform.  They nodded at the colonel and at Dareen too, with only a brief glance down at her nudity.  The light was brighter out here and she felt completely on display.

 

        Into another room and a black woman with very short hair and a business suit got up behind a little table.  “Good morning, Ms. Alkaras,” she said, extending a hand.  She took the liberty of devoting her full gaze to Dareen’s breasts and waist and pubic hair.  “You are very fortunate.  I wish I could get my body to be like that.”  She gave a big, comforting smile.  Dareen smiled back politely.

 

        The woman was Major Coverly, a psychologist, and Dareen was grateful as she was left alone with a computer fill-in form and a test booklet.  Feeling the cold metal chair under her butt, she began taking the test, her toes squirming against the cold floor, her nipples more erect than usual in the cool air.  Against these distractions Dareen summoned as much concentration as she could to answering the test, which she discerned to be partly a personality test and partly a thinking test.  It was like tests she had taken in high school and college.  She had always enjoyed them, they were fun to answer.  A long line of gears: if gear A is going clockwise, which direction is gear B going?  Dog is to spaniel as car is to what?

 

        Then the personality sections: likes and dislikes, fears, strongly agree, agree, etcetera, scales from 1 to 7.  As she went along she realized she was putting in answers that a shy, modest person would put, but then again, that’s what she basically was.  “I don’t approve of women showing their bodies.”  That was a 1, “strongly agree”.  “I like to show off.”  That was a 7.  No, maybe a 6.  “I believe that women can do anything a man can.”  That was a 1.  That answer, at least, set her apart from the burka-ed semi-slave women at that conservative mosque near Sherry’s place.

 

        She finished the test and sat upright in the cold metal chair, waiting.  She wondered if she should cross her legs.  Looking down at her breasts which partly obscured the test sheet, she noticed again how her nipples were big and erect.  Not really sure if it was an itch, she scratched one nipple anyway, causing her whole breast to jiggle, and it was in that moment that Major Coverly and Colonel McNulty came back in.

 

        “On to our facility,” he said, and she walked between them, like a naked prisoner being marched to another cell.  Into an elevator and they went up, up.  This building had more floors than she thought.

 

        The door opened and sunlight hit her eyes.  They were on the roof and she found herself walking in the open air across the pebbly surface to a waiting helicopter.  Dareen, more than ever aware of being naked and a being apart from the rest, glanced back quickly at the door, thinking of her basket of clothes so far away now.  Apparently it would not be going with her.  She had never been in a helicopter before.  Its propellers were already whirling and the whoosing wind whipped around her.  Following the colonel, she placed her bare foot on the bar of the cage and hefted herself and her bouncing breasts into the waiting seat, giving Major Coverly a full view of her butt.  A warm gust of wind against her sensitive anus told her she was displaying that too.

 

        Then she sat between them as the city fell away beneath them and they rose higher, higher, then the chopper tilted and sped off.  Dareen, naked and vulnerable, felt a wetness in her eyes as she saw her home town recede in the distance, and felt like she was having an unpleasant dream that she would just have to sleep through until she woke up, in her own bed and clothed.

28.

 

        Of course they were not able to give her shoes.  For NakedGirl, walking barefoot over the rough stony road would have been no problem; that is, if she didn’t fly over it instead; but for Dareen Alkaras, a modest Arab-American girl of 24 who was not one to go barefoot let alone naked, it was a trial as she tried to keep up with the boots of the military men, her tender feet hurting with each step.  No doubt they realized her discomfort, they could not help but notice her arms tilting and body lurching back and forth as she tried to even up the assaults on her soles and avoid the pointier outcroppings, her outsized breasts gently swaying with her movements.  The situation was unexpected but unavoidable, now that they knew that her powers only came when she was naked, and only after being without clothing for about two hours.

 

        It was a long walk along this curvy stony road that led from the little clearing of the helicopter pad into a forest.  It was a hot day and Dareen could feel the sun on her bare butt, intensely ashamed of her exposure.  Her skin and face felt hot and flushed, which if she were white would register as a full-body blush from head to bare toes.  Colonel McNulty tried to make conversation, his pasty white complexion half in shadow from the visor of his cap.  “You see we really do like hanging out in the middle of nowhere.”  Dareen could begin to make out a round, low, white building through the trees.  “This used to be a fallout shelter for what they called ‘essential government personnel’.  Ten years ago they converted it into a bio lab.  And now, Miss Alkaras, it is devoted to studying you.”

        Dareen’s poor soles felt like they were bruised permanently as they approached the glass entrance.  “I’m flattered,” she said insipidly.  A scary idea: an entire lab devoted to studying her nude body.  At least it wasn’t in “public”, like when she was standing in front of all of downtown Atlanta holding up the Joly Tower.

 

        Of course there was a security checkpoint.  The others got in by holding up their passes.  Dareen walked her naked self through the metal detector and fortunately there wasn’t any beeping.  Still, the guard had her stand there while he passed the wand up and down her sides and her rear.  As he passed it over her front it lightly clipped her nipples.  “Sorry,” he said, as her breasts jiggled for a second.  He wasn’t used to such outward protruberances.  She hated this reminder of her bustiness.  She longed again for the breast reduction that had finally been approved by her health insurer, but by now that was probably just a dream.  She tried to numb her mind to what was happening as the guard and the others all looked at everything she had, all out for everyone to see.  The guard had her raise her arms and passed the wand along her armpits.  She caustically thought of body cavity searches then shuddered as she realized that here it was a real possibility.

        Fortunately they did not deem her that much a security risk and the ordeal was over.  It only remained for her to accompany the officers to the little registration desk.  She signed her name on the clipboard, with difficulty because the little string attached to the right side didn’t quite reach over to her hand.  Isn’t anyone here left-handed? she thought.  Then she was given a name tag.  She held it and looked up at McNulty, who suddenly laughed.  She found herself laughing too.  With a shrug and nowhere to clip the tag, she simply held it in her hand as they walked.

        She was grateful for the cool smooth floor under her tortured soles as they went down some stairs and then into a white-walled room with a table.  And to her dismay, six people, four men and two women, all white, in lab coats.  Well what did she expect?  She was introduced to them individually and she felt ridiculous, nodding and shaking each of their hands, as if she were as fully clothed as they.

 

        As Dareen positioned herself Ms. Danby took the little ladder away, leaving the subject of the testing stretched out in an X, arms and legs splayed along the upper and lower bars, facing the semi-circle of technicians who looked up at her total frontal exposure.

 

        The thick metal bars extended from wall to wall, the lower one about four feet above the black floor.  Each bare foot rested on a sticky rubber pad that had been tied around the bar.  The upper bar was just at the height where she could reach it with her hands stretched way out to each side.  Each hand, too, clutched a sticky rubber pad.  The air was a little chilly in this subterranean place and the totally black walls and ceiling gave it even more the feeling of a crypt, or a cave.  She was shamefully aware of her pubic area between her widely spread legs and knew from the feel of the cool air up into her insides that her lower lips were slightly parted.

 

        One of the team came around with a camera and started clicking from the left, from the right, close up, far away.  It was almost a parody of what Dareen imagined to be a porn shoot.  She could almost picture him saying, “Smile for me baby, you’re beautiful . . . that’s it, stick ‘em out, you have such big brown lovely ones.”  She imagined Anna Ohura having to put up with this on a daily basis.  Dareen closed her eyes.  “I’m not a nude model; I’m a modest Muslim woman.”

 

        To distract her thoughts Dareen looked up at her hands, down at her feet curled around the pads.  After dozens of clicks the photographer finally finished.  Dareen forced herself to look in front to where the research team, led by Colonel McNulty, was retreating behind a glass partition.  Except for the colonel, they all sat down behind a console.  Knobs were twiddled, checklists marked, apparently some monitors were being looked at.  Dareen looked up and for the first time noticed cameras up in each corner, mounted on the black ceiling.  She looked behind her and saw there were more back there too. And now she noticed cameras below, and to each side.  Her nakedness was being scrutinized and filmed from every angle.

 

        It was the colonel’s slightly staticky voice coming through a speaker.  “Are you comfortable, Miss Alkaras?”  Dareen nodded.  “It’s good that your powers won’t come for a while, this way we can test you in your normal state first.  You will hear a hum and see some bluish light.  These are electromagnetic tests to take a picture of you, so to speak, with various frequencies along the electromagnetic spectrum.  It should take about ten minutes.”

 

        And so it was.  Dareen, stretched out along the bars, heard the hum and saw the blue lights and thought of every inch of her, every crevice, being penetrated by probing light waves of both the seen and unseen variety.  She thought of the Psalm about Allah knowing of all one’s innermost secrets.  “When I was being knit in the womb, you saw me.  Your knowledge is high; I cannot attain it.”  As the minutes passed she closed her eyes and was grateful for at least being mostly in darkness, the only clothing she could have.  She envied the techinicans in their clothing and lab coats, hiding behind the console, and felt goose bumps rising across the tops of her breasts and her butt cheeks, felt her nipples hard and erect, the cool air seeming to chill her to the bone.

 

        No darkness now; she was in the bright light of a big medical lab, a glorified doctor’s office, being measured and weighed.  This was not so bad, not so much out of context, she told herself: being naked during a physical.  Still she longed for the dignity of a paper hospital gown, knowing that even that flimsy amount of covering was out of the question.  “Height, sixty-four inches.  Weight, 105 pounds.”

 

        Now she sat up on an exam table, hands pressed down on both sides against the crinkly paper, facing her questioners.  Actually the only questioning was by Dr. Vanaver, a young guy with glasses, as the colonel looked on with three others.  All of them, unavoidably, looking at her naked assets.  She tried to answer their questions in a calm voice, taking deep breaths.  Her pretty bare feet dangled below, the slow wiggling of her toes being the only outward sign of her nervousness.

 

        “When was your last period?”  Dareen realized she hadn’t even had a period since before that night of lightning, now six weeks in the past.  “June 16” was her guess.  “Before that, had your periods been regular?”  “Yes, every 30 days or so.”

 

        “Have you always had such large breasts?”  It was a question that Dareen had sometimes heard asked by jerks who were trying to be nice.  But this was a doctor asking and she had to concede it was a legitimate question.  After all, though her breasts were large before, nowadays she looked like a super-busty comic book heroine, only without the benefit of their skimpy costumes.

        “Yes, I suppose, since I was about 14; though they didn’t become so firm until after the lightning.”

        “When did they develop?  Did they develop right away?”

 

        Why this emphasis on her breasts?  Then Dareen realized it was because she had told these folks about the tingling in her nipples before the pulse bomb.  That was what they were probably concerned about most.  So naturally they would focus on her breasts.  As did everyone else in the world . . .

        She exhaled and tried to give as brief yet detailed an account as possible.  “They started growing when I was ten.  By the time I was in junior high they were up to a C cup.  I passed double D in high school.”  She rolled her eyes.  “It wasn’t easy, having the biggest breasts in the school, but that’s always the way it was.”  She glanced down at them, as if they were two wayward children of hers whom she was trying to explain to the school principal.

 

        “You have our sympathies, Miss Alkaras,” Ms. Danby said with a little smile.  “Thanks again for being so cooperative.”

        “It’s okay,” Dareen said.

        Then they asked her to lie down on the table.  Five faces crowded around her, looking down.  “If you don’t mind . . .” Dr. Vanaver said, “I will now palpate for any masses.”  He encircled Dareen’s left breast with both hands, then pressed down.  Then grabbed and pressed and moved his fingers around, pushing deep into her breast flesh.  It was like the self-exams she did every month only more forceful.  “They are unusually firm and resilient, but I find no masses or fibroids.”

        He went over to the other side and gave equal treatment to the right breast.  And now Ms. Danby was working on Dareen’s left breast, her fingers smaller and cooler, her smaller hands together unable to encompass each great mound.  Soon each of the lab-coated team was taking turns feeling up Dareen’s breasts.  A couple of them had really cold hands.  Finally the colonel took his turn, his hands more gentle than the others.

 

        “I will now try to express from the nipple,” Dr. Vanaver said.  To Dareen’s face he said, “This might hurt but just a little.”  A quick little inhalation from Dareen as he grabbed and then, realizing the nipple was too big for just two fingers, grabbed with fingers of both hands, pulling the nipple up, stretching it up from her breast, then twisting it and squeezing it.  Now he let go and repeated the process.  With a quick nod to the others Dareen found both her nipples being pulled up and squeezed.  She quickly recognized the motion; it was exactly like milking a cow.  She indeed felt like a cow, like a piece of livestock, her big udders being milked.  She closed her eyes.  Such a shameful thing in the sight of Allah, to be so on display and poked and pulled at this way, though she knew Allah would take no offense because it was a medical procedure.  It was the one time a Muslim woman was permitted to expose her entire self.  But she still felt the natural modesty of a shy Muslim woman under seige.

 

        There was no discharge from the nipples, of course, though all the doctors seemed to be doing enough yanking for her to produce several gallons of milk.  Suddenly she smiled and giggled.  The similarity was so obvious that it had to be on everyone’s mind.  The last one, the colonel, finally finished, and his pasty-white face smiled down at her as he said, “Thank you, Miss Alkaras.”

 

        Dareen couldn’t help it; she said, “Moooo.”  And everyone burst out laughing.

 

        The break in tension made it easier for her to get up and walk naked in their midst into another room.  Unfortunately it contained what she recognized as a mammogram machine.  She had had two in her life, once when a doctor detected fibroids (they disappeared with her next period) and once to complete the physical for entering college.  She had heard that for women with large breasts the process was painful and her experience had been no exception.

 

        The machine had a stool in front, and she felt her private parts pressing against the cool metal as she sat down, hands down at her sides.  Ms. Danby told her what to do, though she already knew.  She placed one breast on the glass and metal shelf and winced as the upper shelf came down on it.  At least when her breasts were normal and a little saggy they had “give” to them and spread out to the sides, but with her new firm breasts that wasn’t possible.  Which meant the machine had to squeeze harder.  She took a deep breath as her breast was squashed as if in a vise. Fortunately it only took a moment.  Then she turned and placed her other breast on the shelf.  In her pain Dareen allowed her thoughts to turn dark.  She imagined she was a naked prisoner and the doctors crowding around were torturers, witnessing a daily ritual, the crushing of Inmate Alkaras’s huge breasts.

 

        By the time she walked out of the mammogram room her poor breasts were throbbing, having been poked and stretched and mauled.  Fortunately it seemed they were going to get a rest.  The next room contained a platform upon which was a treadmill, surrounded by a console and lots of wires.

29.

        Dareen had never been into jogging, because of her endowments.  They always hurt, bouncing up and down.  With their new firmness, though, it wasn’t that bad.  It was a good feeling, actually.  At least that what she kept telling herself to put down her sense of shame as she trotted along on the treadmill, wires taped to her forehead, to the top of her chest, and to the sides of her lower back.  She had seen women on treadmills but never totally naked, with bare feet bumping dully against the black rubber tread.  And up on a platform for better viewing by the people who were watching her from every possible angle.

 

        Her super powers had not yet arrived and after a while she felt a sweat breaking out and then she started getting winded.  NakedGirl might be incredibly strong but the regular Dareen was still in need of some body conditioning.  She had always wanted to exercise, but everything she had tried in the past had been defeated by her large breasts, even swimming, which would have been the perfect exercise but she could not find a suit that fit unless she bought a very big two-piece and a very small two-piece and juggled tops and bottoms. But of course two-piece suits drew too many stares and sometimes, rude comments.

 

        Despite her protestations the researchers encouraged her to run through her exhaustion until she reached her second wind.  But it never came and finally she was allowed to stop.  “You’re a real trouper, Miss Alkaras,” Colonel McNulty said as they all looked up at her.  She stood on the treadmill, obligingly turning her nude self this way and that as Dr. Vanaver disconnected the wires.  There was a large mirror on the wall that she had been trying not to look at but the glint could not be ignored.  That is, the glint of the bright lighting hitting the sheen of sweat that covered her entire nakedness.  She was sweating like a pig.  Maybe like a piece of livestock, she told herself again, a being apart, while all around her were fully clothed.  What made it even worse was the musky sweaty smell that exuded from her in hot waves and filled the whole room.

 

        To her relief she was told she could shower if she wanted to and she gladly accepted.  Too bad she was denied privacy even in this.  The reason was clear -- contact with a towel might delay the onset of her powers, so she had to be blow-dried -- but did they really have to march with her to that big shower room?  As Dareen walked with them, feeling her arms slipping against her slick smelly armpits, she felt engulfed by the huge space.  It was like the showers in gym in high school, except way bigger.  And there were nozzles coming out of the floor as well as from every level of the walls.

 

        “Sorry for the overkill, dear,” Ms. Danby said, “but this used to be part of the decontamination facilities from the bio lab.  Now, it’s a two million dollar shower.”

 

        The nude Dareen was handed soap and a scrub brush and shampoo.  Ms. Danby went to where there were rows of switches and some dials.  She threw one of the switches and a nozzle along the far wall started spraying.  She turned a knob and said to her naked subject, “90 degrees.  Unless you like your showers cold.”

        Dareen smiled and walked her bare feet across the clammy tiled floor and into the spray.  It was nice and warm but not scalding.  Intensely aware of being stared at, she kept her back to them as she lathered up.  When she was finished she stood under the stream, watching the water cascade down her legs, delaying the inevitable.  Then she turned around, signifying she was done.  In that moment she felt like a nude fountain statue, water running to the ends of her breasts as if down a ski slope, only to jump off her nipples, shooting forward in streams that arced out two feet before heading downward.  Fortunately this comical display lasted only a second before Ms. Danby turned the water off.

 

        A low hum indicated to Dareen why everyone had been watching her.  Apparently the action of water over her body was being monitored too.  Every motion, every activity of her naked body was being intensely watched and recorded and analyzed.  She looked forward to the end of this day when she could once again put on clothes.

 

        But right now her clothes were miles away and there was more to endure.  Dr. Vanaver and two of the others approached her with battery-operated blow dryers and told Dareen to turn this way and that, put her arms up, even open her legs as each inch of her was slowly and carefully dried.  “Sorry for the low tech drying devices,” the colonel said loudly over the din that echoed through the big shower room.

 

        She was made to turn around and bend over and even spread her buttocks.  It was terribly shaming but she figured it was necessary.  She wondered if she should express some feeling of modesty but decided against it.  She wanted to leave no doubt that she was fully cooperative and eager to help her government find the secret of her powers.

 

        Then she was asked to walk back into the treadmill room.  She proceeded there in the middle of the little group of people who were allowed to wear clothes.  Her feet were dried; upon request she spread her toes, she stood on one foot and then the other so that the blower could go over each sole.  All very exposing and all very necessary, so that she wouldn’t collect dust on wet feet as she walked about.

 

        Time for more questioning.  The naked young woman sat on a stool, hands clasped unassumingly over her crotch, facing the team sitting behind a table as her medical history was taken.

 

        “Have you or any blood relative had diabetes?  Heart disease?  Asthma?”  No, no, no, except Dareen mentioned her grandmother who had hypertension.  Dareen came from a healthy family.

 

        “Any surgery, now or planned?”

 

        “Just a breast reduction operation,” Dareen said hesitantly.  Yet another flushed feeling in the face as attention was focused again on her bust.  Did she have to suffer these feelings of embarrassment over and over?  Couldn’t she get used to it?

 

        “When is that?” the colonel asked with some concern.

 

        “The insurance company okayed it, I think it’s supposed to be in late September.  They haven’t given me a date yet.”

        The colonel and his crew exchanged looks.  Finally in a low voice the pale, gray-haired man said, “Ms. Alkaras, given the national security interest, we strongly recommend that you give up that idea; at least for the time being.”

 

        Pungently Dareen paraphrased the colonel’s words in her mind, “The United States needs your nipples!”

 

        “O.K.,” she said, “then I’ll tell them to cancel.”  This was a quick response but still not easy to say.  Dareen ventured a quick glance downward.  Good-bye spaghetti strap dresses.  Good-bye wearing regular clothes.  Good-bye having men talk to her face for a change instead of always stealing glances further down.  She gulped, and sighed as if in sorrow and loss.

        “Any other diseases we haven’t mentioned?”

        “Yes.  Alcoholism.”

 

        “What family member was that?”

 

        “Me.  I’m recovered though.”  She had long since decided to phrase it like this when asked.  The approved word was “recovering”, used by the types who dominated AA, who had merely replaced their addiction to alcohol with an addiction to meetings.  And to an authoritarian mindset and an addiction to Jesus, and not in a good way.

 

        “Do you color your hair?”

 

        “No, it turned this purplish color after the lightning hit me.  Before that it was just black.”  She knew that to be totally truthful she had to lift her hands, part her legs and show her equally violet-tinged pubic hair.  “See, I’m all natural,” she said, while trying to hide her shame.  Friendly smiles behind the table.

        “Finally, Miss Alkaras, any dietary restrictions?” the colonel said affably.

 

        “I don’t eat pork, but that’s just a Muslim thing, not for any health reason.”  It was so clear that none of these folks were Muslims that she felt the need for this explanation.

 

        “Well fortunately we have lots of other stuff.  I bet you’re hungry.  Time for lunch.”

 

        Dareen exhaled and her stomach growled.  Unmuffled by clothing, echoing in the sterile room, the growl was easily heard.  Everyone laughed.  Dareen smiled and patted her flat bare tummy.

 

        “Can we call you Dareen?  Call me Mike,” Colonel McNulty said.  “Dareen, this is Roger Moody, he runs this place.”  Dareen leaned over, making sure her breast didn’t push into her mashed potatoes, and shook the hand of the friendly-looking heavy-set white guy in shirtsleeves with captain’s bars pinned over the front pocket.

 

        Dareen hunched her shoulders a bit and tried to eat inconspicuously.  Not that this was at all possible.  She expected a cafeteria in this building but this one was pretty big.  Four long double tables with perhaps three dozen people eating and chatting, some in lab coats.  She knew her nakedness on display as she waited on that serving line, and felt all awkward breasts and pubic hair and bare feet as she followed her team and plopped her bare butt onto the long bench.

 

        The food was good, as Mike -- she felt like she could call him that -- remarked to Roger.  “This meatloaf is very good.  I can actually guess what’s in it.”  Roger chuckled.  “We switched to a different supplier.  Also Jose is getting more patient with making gravy.”  Jose, apparently, was the cook.  And Roger was in charge of the nuts and bolts of the place, keeping the lights on.

 

        Dareen looked up and considered the crowd.  Occasionally someone looked over at her naked skin.  How could they not?  And hoped they would see only her bare shoulders, as if she were wearing a tube top, not that this was something Dareen ever could wear, or ever would be worn here.  She wondered what the people stationed here did.  It couldn’t all be for studying NakedGirl and her powers.  It also seemed like a friendly place.  People appeared to like working here.  Hardly what she imagined from a secret military installation.

 

        She needed her lunchtime coffee, and fortunately Dr. Vanaver offered to get her some, relieving her of the exposure attendant on going up for it herself.  Perhaps unsurprisingly the conversation around Mike and the crew involved small talk.  Nothing about their research on her.

 

        “The two hours are almost up,” Colonel Mike said.  “We’ve got to get ready.”

 

        And with that, suddenly and abruptly, the entire six-person crew stood up.  Dareen stood up with them and they all walked out, behind Colonel Mike clip-clopping on his wooden foot, the naked and barefoot woman trailing on silent bare feet, her beautiful brown back and butt cheeks and legs providing a visual treat for Roger Moody and his friends before they got up and applied themselves to some serious blueberry pie.

 

        It was a converted operating room, though now empty except for its sole occupant on her strange bed.  Above, in the observation booths at the tops of all four walls, the team members peered down.  Along with a number of other staff.  Charts were checked, dials adjusted ever so slightly, TV monitors showing the bright brown “X” shape in vivid detail, one screen on her nipples, one on her face, one on her feet, one on her pubic region.

 

        It was really the same arrangement as before in the dark room on the cross bars, but in consideration of the subject’s comfort, she was placed in a lying down position as she waited for her powers to generate.  She lay under the bright, bright lights on the smooth cold metal of the white table, her arms and legs spread out as instructed.  There was the low hum of the electromagnetic detection screening.  This was the great moment, perhaps as important a moment in the history of the nation’s security as the liftoff of the first military satellite.  Perhaps even more important.  They were about to learn the secret of incredible powers.  Or at least begin to learn.

 

        Every crevice of the young woman’s nude body, every last pubic hair, was brightly lit and on display and being closely watched.  And recorded.

        Her eyes were closed.  Perhaps the busy researchers paused in their racing thoughts to consider what she must be thinking.  Was there a kind of meditation that preceded the powers?

 

        In fact, under the intense lights, Dareen’s mind was retreating to some familiar prayers.

 

        The prayer for help.

 

        “I seek refuge with the Lord of the Dawn, from the mischief of created things, from the mischief of Darkness as it overspreads; from the mischief of those who practice secret arts, and from the mischief of the envious one as he practices envy.”

 

        And now, perversely, she could not help thinking of the prayer of putting on a new garment.  It had been taught to her by her grandmother and since she was a little girl she had always said it when putting on something like a gift dress or sweater or shoes for the first time.

 

        “All praise belongs to Thee, Oh Allah, as Thou hast bestowed this garment upon me to wear, I beg of Thee all the good that pertains to it, and all the good that pertains to the purpose for which it has been made; may it protect me from all harm.”

 

        This prayer brought Dareen almost to tears.  Spread out motionless, feeling her nipples stiff and hard in the chilly air, feeling her shamefully exposed pubic hairs seeming to stand on end, she tried to think of a better prayer.

        “Lord, grant me the favor that I may be grateful to Thee for the bounty that Thou hast bestowed upon me and upon my parents, and that I may act righteously so as to please Thee.  I am one of thy obedient servants.”

 

        She pushed aside thoughts of her bountiful breasts and thought of her true bounty, her super powers, and thought of bringing honor to her parents and to her country.

 

        And then she felt it.  The low hum got a little higher pitched.  Up in the booth there was much motion.

 

        And down below, the nude woman opened her eyes, stretched her legs, spread her toes, clenched her hands.  Her flat tummy became concave and her twin brown mountains heaved up as she inhaled, then exhaled.  Still in an outspread “X”, her body levitated off the cold white table and rose up and rose up, the lustrous violet-black hair trailing below her head, giving more prominence in the bright light to her beautiful brown Arab-American face.

       

30.

 

        Bleaahhhhhh.

 

        The bitter taste of that “barium milkshake” still lingered in her throat.  She had bravely gulped it down as the team stood around her in that cold sterile lab, perhaps taking extra interest in the tectonic tremors of her breasts as she took gulp after nasty gulp.  Now, in the brightly lit gym, Dareen turned her attention to the task at hand, the strength test.  These were the heaviest barbells that could be obtained, apparently; in her mind she added up the numbers embossed on the weights and came up with more than seven hundred pounds on each.  Yet she held one up over her head in her left hand, one in her right, with hardly a thought.  She looked up at the weights not for focus but just to avoid looking in front of her, thinking of the ponderous protrusion of each breast, so effortlessly lifted up by the raising of her arms, such that her huge dark nipples seemed to be looking up too, a sight to awaken the most jaded eyes.

 

        Now, three aides carefully rolled another barbell toward the nude young woman, the heavy rolling sound showing that it was at least as heavily weighted as the two she held aloft.  Dareen looked down, having been briefed on what to do, and lifted one bare foot, then anchored her toes under the bar.  With a flex and a little grunt she lifted the third barbell with her toes as if it were a pair of panties she was picking off the floor.  If only!  Then when the aides were safely to the side she flipped her foot and the barbell flew across to the wall twenty feet away with a terrific crash that left a crack in the painted cinder block wall.  The weights rolled off the bent and now ruined barbell.

 

        The bubbles were a little ticklish and she tried to imagine she was alone in a whirlpool, not that she had ever actually been in one.  She looked up at Colonel Mike and the others monitoring her through the glass, then up at the surface, ten feet above her.  She had been submerged for twenty minutes now, using her flying powers in reverse to stay at the bottom.  And still felt no need to go up for air.  She looked down at her buoyant breasts, right under her chin it seemed, and then looked blandly at the team.  What was she supposed to do now, just wait and wait?  In boredom she sat down cross-legged, her toes wiggling idly.  Then, after five more minutes, she got up and swam from one end of the tank to the other, feeling the water stream past her, wishing she was alone to enjoy that feeling, but in full knowledge that with her sinuous body and buoyant breasts she was giving a show that most men would pay a lot to see.

 

        The walls slid toward the naked subject from both sides.  What on earth did they use this for? she asked herself.  It couldn’t have possibly been built just to test my body.  She looked at the spectators who sat in the safety of the observation booth.  Dareen sighed and as the walls closed in she hopped up and extended her legs almost to a ballet dancer’s split, grasping the walls with her toes and then her flat soles.  The walls shuddered and quaked and finally fell silent, the unseen mechanism broken, having been built to exert only fifty thousand foot-pounds of force.  Dareen stayed perched up there, her split pussy practically in the observers’ faces.  First that barbell, now this sliding wall place.  I’ve ruined thousands of dollars of government property without hardly trying.

        The flight test was a relief, a momentary respite from the constantly peering eyes.  They had gone out to a clearing, branches snapping under her feet as she walked, then Dr. Vanaver had set up his radar gun and all she had to do was jump and be off.  Up past the tops of the trees she was out of their sight, though the sensor she clasped in her hand told them where she was.  She felt good doing her loop-de-loops and dives and ascents as if she were once again in the night sky over her favorite pond out past Thomasville.  Though now it was a sunlit afternoon and she could see Atlanta way over there in the distance, the buildings clear and familiar.  She tried to guess where her apartment was.  She longed for it to be even just two months ago, when she and Elly, comfy in their pajamas, would watch TV over popcorn.

 

        With regret she came back down, then moving a few feet over the watchers, did various positions, on her back, upside down, showing how body position affected her flight, finally hovering spread-eagled, looking down at them past her toes and the fluff of her pussy hair, feeling her lower lips open, knowing that they could see right up inside her.  Then, as instructed, she descended to the ground and uprooted a tree, wrapping her arms and legs around it, feeling the rough pine bark against her inner thighs, scraping her breasts, feeling the sap sticking against her.  With a little upward motion of her stomach muscles the tree was torn up from its home.  She unwrapped herself and carried it in her arms up and away to a gully a hundred feet away where she laid it down.

 

        Oddly her innards sensed sad vibrations from the tree, as if it were in pain.  As the team ran up behind her she looked down at the prostrate pine, then, though this wasn’t in the protocol, she flew back to where it had been uprooted.  She stuck her hands and feet into the earth and easily displaced several cubic yards of stony but rich Georgia forest soil.  She flew back to retrieve the pine and carefully guided it into its former hole.  Then, once again as the team ran up to watch, she stood on the ground next to the tree, holding it gently with her hands to keep it upright, while packing the displaced dirt back in with her bare feet and with their now dirty toenails.  No ordinary human would have the strength to keep the tree upright or pack the dirt tightly enough, but the nude girl’s motions were gentle and tender like a little girl planting a tiny seedling.  Colonel Mike and Ms. Danby looked at each other and smiled.  This girl was a real sweetie, good-hearted and gentle and sensitive; which was lucky for the rest of the world.

 

        “The imaging results are in.  These are LAJA rays,” Dr. Vanaver said.  They were sitting at a table in one of the rooms where the offices were, up near the entrance to the installation.  A very utilitarian place, nothing fancy, just white tables and white metal chairs, though this meeting room had a big picture of the Apollo lunar module on the wall.

 

        Dareen felt insolent and rude, sitting naked at the table with these people.  She should be dressed in business clothes like they were.  She just couldn’t get used to being naked in an office.  Her nudity, along with the white decor, made her brown skin in the presence of all these white people so much more vivid.  Then there was the recent memory of that second shower, out in full view of course, everyone watching her breasts bobble as she scrubbed her fingernails and toenails and scrubbed the sap off her breasts and her tummy and her thighs.  “Laja rays?”

 

        “‘Low amplitude jovian anomalies’,” Colonel Mike said.  “Jovian means Jupiter.”  Dareen, the librarian, knew that.  “Since 1955 they’ve known that Jupiter emits a special kind of electromagnetic waves, like radio waves, only slightly longer wavelengths.”

 

        Dr. Vanaver said, “There seems to be a field of laja rays surrounding your body.”  Dareen looked at her hands, then down at her breasts, remembering how they used to have a normal sag, but no longer.  Maybe it was her imagination but he made it sound like clothing covering her.  But she sure didn’t feel surrounded by anything; she felt exposed and open.

 

        Dr. Vanaver’s eyes were hidden by the glare of the overhead lights in his glasses.  “We still have much processing to do of our findings, but apparently during that storm, laja rays got a hold of you.  The storm was of unusual character.  There were a lot of free ions in the air that night.  Possibly they acted as a conduit for the laja rays.”

 

        Ms. Danby said, “The laja rays were very strong that night.  Jupiter was at its closest approach.  It was at perihelion, while Earth was at aphelion.  That means -- ”

 

        “Yes I know,” Dareen said.  Perihelion is the point in a planet’s orbit closest to the sun, aphelion the point furthest.  “But my powers . . . ”

        “That is the big question.  We don’t know why you have them. They are considerable, and beyond the measurement of the devices we have,” Dr. Vanaver said.

 

        Dareen tried not to look down at her nudity a second time.  She had been sworn to secrecy as to these findings but was as curious about it as the rest.  “When I put on clothes . . . ”

 

        “Apparently the field is disrupted,” Colonel Mike said.  “You say that even putting on a ring turns the powers off?”

 

        “Yes.”

 

        “We’ll test that in a moment,” the colonel said.  “We won’t use metal, we’ll start with the most inert possible material and work our way up.”

 

        Dareen’s legs were pressed together.  “Can I use the ladies’ room?”

 

        “I suppose that barium milkshake is going through you,” the colonel said.  “It’s done its job.  Ethel, can you show her?”

 

        Ms. Danby led her to the women’s room, down the hall past a secretary’s desk.  Dareen walked in and sat down in the stall.  At least she would have privacy in urinating.  She looked down past her violet pubic hair at the strange green pee coming out.  Then she stared blankly at the door of the stall, contemplating her situation.

 

        On the stall door was an old graffiti that had been scrubbed over but could still be read.  “George Vanaver is really Clark Kent.”  Dareen grunted.

31.

 

        She held the barbell up with both hands so as to give Ms. Danby a clear shot.  Dareen felt her breasts pointing up like cannons at the team as they watched closely.  Dr. Vanaver held what looked like a radar gun, wired to a movable console that a couple of the aides were watching.

 

        It was a bra.

 

        Dareen’s heart sank, or maybe it skipped a beat in desire and longing as Ms. Danby held it up to her.  The nude girl’s eyes blinked and got a little wet as she contemplated the beautiful white lace, the soft cups, the stretchy fabric.  The cups were not nearly big enough for her -- she judged it perhaps a 36B, mabye it was one of Ms. Danby’s own bras -- but how she longed to put it on, to be in some pitifully small way covered, feeling fabric against her skin!

 

        Ms. Danby moved behind her and gingerly held it in front of the huge firm breasts, intending to wrap the bra around and fasten the clasp in the back.  Dareen watched closely as the cups drew closer and closer to the mounds that were far too big for them.  She held her breath as the fabric touched her nipples.

 

        “No -- NO!” she yelled in warning.  Her arms turned to jelly and she lurched backward.  Ms. Danby did too.  The barbell came crashing down in front of the naked girl and the woman researcher, bouncing twice and rolling to a stop.  The bra lay crushed under one of the weights.  Dareen looked at it, shaking, slouched, her breath coming in ragged gasps.

 

        * * *

 

        Dareen had to hold a little black tablet in her hand which would monitor her “regeneration period”.  She was still naked; they would wait the two hours or so until she got her powers back and then do some final tests.  In the meantime they had gone back to the cafeteria for a bite to eat. Dareen confined herself to a donut and juice, though for some reason all this research had made the team hungry.  Except for Colonel Mike, who sat with his coffee and chatted with Dareen about library technology.

 

        “Viruses are a big problem,” Dareen said.  “With everyone connected all kinds of worms are possible.”

        “Don’t I know it,” he said, “that’s why our network here is entirely disconnected from any other system.  To go online we throw a switch.  A long way from those big clunky IBM-card typewriters.”  Dareen didn’t understand that last reference.

 

        “We’ve got some time.  Let’s show you the solarium,” Colonel Mike said.  Apparently he was the only one who was not real busy; the others had things to do.

 

        Dareen followed him as he clip-clopped up the stairs on his prosthetic leg and soon they were in a sort of greenhouse on the top floor.  A bright, happy place thanks to the late afternoon sun working its influence through the translucent ceiling.  The plants, arranged in neat rows, did not seem too exotic.  In fact it was pretty much a vegetable garden.  “The only place around here with food that’s safe from Roger Moody”, the colonel said with a smile.  “He doesn’t much like veggies.”

        All day Dareen had been holding in feelings of shame.  Colonel Mike seemed like a nice man.  She knew it might be a mistake but when he said, “We can’t thank you enough for helping us out like this, Dareen,” the nude girl saw her chance.

 

        “Can you keep a secret?” she asked, hands at her sides.

 

        “That’s what this whole thing is, a secret,” he said.

 

        “No, I mean from everyone else.”

 

        He looked at her.  “That depends on what it is.”

 

        She decided to trust him.  “I don’t like being like this.  I don’t like being naked.”

        The colonel raised an eyebrow.  “You sure are doing a good job of hiding it.”

 

        “I want to be cooperative.  I’m a loyal American.”

 

        “Why do you think your modesty has to be a secret?  You’re a Muslim too.  It would be odd if a Muslim woman wasn’t shy about being without clothes.  That’s one of the first things I was wondering.”

 

        Such empathy was good to hear.  Still . . .  “I don’t want to take a chance.  I don’t want anyone thinking I might use it as an excuse for not helping my country if my powers are needed.”

 

        “I think your fears are unfounded.”

        “I’m an Arab American.  Lots of people can misunderstand me.”

 

        The colonel paced slowly, his wooden boot knocking gently on the floor, and Dareen followed him.  “I know. These days lots of people think Arabs are the enemy.  Any Arab.  Or anyone who looks like one.  You’re right to be cautious.  And . . . modest.  It shows a kind of humbleness.”

 

        “Humbleness is important,” Dareen said.

 

        “I know.  I learned that the hard way.”

 

        The colonel’s gaze followed hers.  “Avoid rash overconfidence.  That’s how I lost my leg.”

 

        He bent over and lifted his pants leg a few inches to reveal dark shiny wood.  “It was in the Mekong Delta.  I was an infantryman and we were ordered to pick off some snipers.  I was SURE the path was free of mines.  But I was overconfident.”

        Dareen felt so small-minded, making a point of her mere discomfort at being naked.  This man had sacrificed so much more for his country than she ever would.  It put things into perspective.

 

        After they walked a bit further she said, “Humility, modesty, those are basic values in Islam.  Not that I’m into the traditional female role.  But,” she continued, using a phrase in a book she read once, “some kinds of religious tradition are heavily protected against change.”

 

        “It’s a rough time for liberals all over, these days,” Colonel Mike said.  He seemed about to turn back when Dareen stopped him.  One more thing to say, very important, she just had to report it.  But only if . . .

 

        “Can you keep another secret?  There’s another person who was affected by the lightning that night,” she said.  The colonel listened, motionless.  “I didn’t know then, but I’ve met her since.  A young girl, she’s only eighteen.  But she doesn’t have super powers.  It’s almost the opposite.  She’s got an allergy to clothes that’s getting worse and worse.”

        The colonel thought for a moment.  “I wonder.  Like most energy forms, the laja rays could be composed of a strong force and a weak force.  Maybe she is surrounded by the weak force.”

 

        “She’s undocumented.”

 

        “What?”

 

        “Her family is from the Dominican Republic but they overstayed their visa.  It’s not their fault.”

 

        “And . . . you’re afraid if we call her in, her family will be detained.”

        “Yes.  And I think she would be very frightened by all this.  She’s just a kid.”

        The colonel thought for a moment.  “I have to say, your fears are reasonable . . . So what do you want me to do?”

        She looked down dejectedly, rubbing the floor with her big toe.  She had already said too much.  They were going to get Lourdes in here for sure.

        What the colonel said was a relief.  “You haven’t told me her name.  Keep it that way.  I’ll just make sure that we enter into our calculations the possibility that there might be a corresponding weak force.  By being naked you’ve already braved so much for the service of your country.”

        He looked at his watch.  “I’ve got to get going.  Major Coverly has some more tests for you.”

        As they were heading back, Dareen said, “Can you find a way to make the -- regeneration time” -- adopting their word for it -- “less than two hours?”

        She didn’t really expect an answer, it was just a sudden wild hope.  “I wish I could,” Colonel Mike said understandingly.  “It would make all this easier for you.  But we’re not nearly at that point yet.”

 

        Dareen also wanted to ask, Can you cure Lourdes’s problem?, but knew that she would get the same answer.  Her bare shoulders slumped.  “Excuse me, can I pray here?”

        The colonel thought for a moment.  “Five times a day, is it?”

        She was glad that he had bothered to know something about Islam.  “Well . . . you were testing so I couldn’t do the morning and noon prayers.”

        “Oh sorry.  Well, Mecca is . . . ” the colonel thought and then pointed across the solarium, “that way.”

        “Thank you.”

 

        “I’ll see you back in the meeting room.”

 

        After she watched him limp away, Dareen went to a corner of the greenhouse and prostrated herself on the bare tile floor.  No sajjada, of course.  As she bent down, feeling her butt cheeks separate, feeling the heavy breasts touching the floor, she had a simple prayer.  “Allah . . . I am your servant . . . I hope I am serving you thus . . . please give me strength . . . ”

        * * *

        There was another battery of psychological tests with Major Coverly.  Soon thereafter Dareen’s powers regenerated.  The rest of the testing was outdoors, as the team watched the naked superwoman run down a dirt road at 120 miles an hour, pick up car-sized boulders and toss them like frisbees, and read newsprint at distances up to 300 feet.  They could go longer, but it seemed pointless.  They just could not get to the limit of her powers so that they could measure where that limit was.  In the last test, they tried clothing her with a belt made out of soft pine twigs.  As soon as it closed around her tiny waist, she shook and dropped the big rock she had been holding.  It was then that the sun set.  Time to close up shop.

        Going back in the helicopter it was just her and the colonel and the pilot.  Dareen gave the colonel the number to Sherry’s apartment.  He said they would contact her.  Then they were back in that first meeting room.  The basket of clothes was there, having been rearranged.  Dareen clutched the clothes to her breasts.  The colonel smiled and left.  With great thanks to Allah Dareen put on her bra, her full-cut panties, the hose, the blouse, the blazer, the long skirt . . . ahhhhh . . . and the shoes . . . ahhhhh . . .

        And then, just as she was about to leave, she was overcome by tears.  She clutched herself, feeling the clothes tightly on her, wishing she had the further covering of a burka and veil, trying to blot out the whole day of running around naked and being tested and poked and probed and stared at.

       

32.

        “Nuestra padre in cielo, bendicho su nombre . . . ”

        The teenage whispering, the moonlight over the long straight black hair, the hushed quietness as Lourdes said her prayers, alone as she knelt against the side of the bed in the darkened little guest room in Jamal’s apartment.

        “Denoslo nuestra pan diario, y no en temtacion . . . ”

        Dareen, having pushed back the hood of the burka, which she now had a desire to wear all the time, knew she shouldn’t be eavesdropping.  But she had caught the sight through the narrowly opened door and couldn’t stop looking at her young friend.  Behind Dareen, Elly and Jamal were in the living room watching the TV where a blotchy-faced man was shouting down a guest on his show.  “How can you say that and claim to be a true American?  Just shut up, I tell you, shut up!”

 

        “Sancta Maria, madre de Dios, orele para nosotros culpadores . . . ”

        It was Lourdes’s nightly routine, standard Catholic prayers, though they seemed no less heartfelt.  She really was such an innocent child.  Dareen figured that her parents, knowing what a rough neighborhood they were in and not wanting a repeat of what happened to her older sister, had been very protective, not letting her go out much, which was why she was so innocent and naive.  Rejecting her must have been as traumatic for them as it was for her.  To make both sides feel better Dareen had been making Lourdes call every night to assure her parents she was O.K.

 

        “Bendicho su de los mujeres, y bendicho el resultado de su origen Jesus . . . ”

        Faith was something for the teenager to hold onto, as it was for Dareen herself.  The teenager was in the classic child’s praying position, at least for a Catholic child.  She knelt against the bed, her bare soles together on the floor.  She had set her flip-flops neatly to the side.  Across her back was the thin white string that held the little bikini top that barely covered her firm, apple-sized breasts.  Lower down, the tiny super-low-rise jean shorts, an inch of her soft rear cleavage showing above, the bottom curves of her little butt cheeks curving in below.  All that she wore, all that she was able to wear, all that covered what would have been an entirely bare backside.

        The nearly naked teenager finished her regular prayers.  “Ahora y el hora de nuestra morir, amen . . . ”

        Lourdes then bent her head down into her cupped hands and whispered more quietly now, words that Lourdes could not make out, not that she would have understood the Spanish anyway.  Dareen drew the hood around her neck, feeling so greedy with all this covering, wishing she could share it with her scantily clad little sister who had so little.  Finally reproaching herself for having peeked, Dareen silently closed the door and went back to the living room.

 

        It was just as Jamal turned off the TV.  Elly went out to the terrace and lit a cigarette as she slid open the glass door.  She was in her usual tizzy.  “Why do these jerks always have to be waving American guns at the rest of the world?  What are they compensating for?  We need guys with bigger dicks in charge.”  This made Jamal feel a little strange, though complimented in a way.

 

        Dareen padded in her stocking feet to the kitchenette where there was a high table like a bar, and put on some water for tea.  She said quietly, “We’ve got to do something about Lourdes.”

 

        Jamal said, “I’m more worried about you.  I’m glad they put out that announcement about protecting your folks and us, but notice there was nothing in it about YOU being innocent.  They said you were in for questioning.  That made you sound guilty.”

 

        “Guilty of what?” Elly said from the terrace, coughing in the middle of a puff.  Dareen didn’t like the way Elly had changed, from the carefree fun-loving roommate she once was to a chain smoking paranoid.  “Of being Arab?  Muslim?  Brown skinned?”

 

        “Not a real American,” Jamal said.  “And offensive to Islam too.  They can have it both ways over at Cobb News.”

 

        “Dareen, you need to get some reporter on your side,” Elly suggested.

 

        Dareen didn’t like to think like this but Jamal and Elly had something of a point.  What worried her more than the innuendo was the condemnation from practically every Muslim that got on the air.  She was wondering what to do on Friday night.  She just couldn’t go back to that conservative mosque again.  She wanted to go to Al Hijia, it was her home.  Yet how could she show her face, having been naked on TV?  She wished she could talk to Imam Tahir, but she didn’t have the courage to call him.

 

        Pouring the tea, she said again, “We’ve got to do something about Lourdes.”

 

        “Bummer about her job,” Elly said.  As they all expected, the bikini store job had ended, the season being over.  Next Monday was Labor Day and then school would start.

 

        “She really wants to go back to school,” Dareen said.  “She has a year to go to graduate and she wants to learn.”

        “How?  Dressed like that?  They’d never let her attend,” Elly said, stating the obvious.

 

        Dareen said, “Maybe if she had a doctor’s note for her allergy.”

 

        “I thought her parents sent her to one.”

 

        “Another doctor, a better one.  How about Patelu?”

 

        Dr. Patelu was Elly’s doctor, of Pakistani descent like Elly herself.  Sometimes Dareen heard Elly talking to him on the phone in what she had learned to recognize as Urdu.

 

        After a moment’s thought, Elly said, “O.K., I’ll call him tomorrow.  But even if she got a doctor’s note and they let her in, how is she going to go through a day in high school wearing just a few strings like that?  She’d get razzed from the opening bell up to dismissal.  Or worse, especially in a hell hole like the one she was going to.”

 

        “Maybe if we tutored her at home, and she went for her G.E.D.,” Jamal suggested.

 

        “That’s a nice thought,” Dareen said, “but we don’t have time.  We all have to work.”  She sipped her tea and put it down.  “Of course, that’s another thing,” she said in a low voice.

 

        “Yeah.  Between the doctor and bus fare and feeding her, we’ve got to get some more money coming in,” Elly said.

 

        “She wants to work, she’s always had an after school job, from what she tells me,” Dareen said.

 

        “But what can she do now?” Jamal said.

 

        In the little guest room, Lourdes turned onto her side, adjusted one of the little triangles that her nipple had slipped out of, reached back to tug up the back of her shorts, and wiped a little wetness from her eyes.

        * * *

 

        Something should be said about Dareen’s breasts, what used to be large but slightly floppy 34F’s that were obvious candidates for reduction surgery, but had become much different since that night of lighting.

 

        They stuck out firm and proud, as if to defy the embarrassment at their boldness that so often expressed in the beautiful, intelligent face above.  Like the rest of her, they were a little lighter than the color of milk chocolate.  They were the size of canteloupes, each one almost as big as Dareen’s head.  Out of proportion on her slender frame, especially above what was now a narrow waist and a flat, almost concave tummy and slim hips.  They stuck far out in front to make a startling profile.  Also a little to the sides, such that if she raised her arms a good part of the round globes could be seen from behind.  The areolas were four inches across and so dark brown as to be almost black, almost perfectly circular except for the fine mottling of the oversized pores at the borders.  The nipples, always erect and sometimes very much so, stood out almost half an inch and as thick as the tips of her index fingers.  They pointed outward slightly; in fact her breasts faced outward as if they were guns (she heard heard breasts called that once) aimed for maximum spread, partly hiding her upper arms when looked at from the front.  And the globes were so firm that a pencil, placed underneath, probably would not have lodged well enough to keep from dropping to the floor.

 

        These were the breasts that faced Jamal as Dareen disrobed in front of him.

 

        “It’s my nightly routine,” she explained.  “I have to be ready.  Let me lie on the couch.”  She and Elly and Lourdes had been spending a few nights at Sherry’s, then accepted Jamal’s invitation to spend a few nights here at his place.  It made either place crowded, but going back to the old apartment was still not possible, given the presence of the press and other prying types.  Also the three of them wanted to stay together.  So their plan for now was to alternate between Sherry’s and Jamal’s.

 

        Jamal, normally so in control, could not help but gape.  Then he looked up at her face.  “Sorry, Dar.”

 

        Dareen smiled shyly as she stood before him, now totally naked.  Hundreds of people had seen her thus, but having her co-worker and friend look at her so exposed was a different and more intense shame.  Still Dareen did not flinch.  She had been so unfair to Jamal, keeping her secret from him, keeping so many things from him.  It was almost like letting him see her thus was a way of making it up to him.

 

        And now Jamal’s nervous hand approached her left breast.  She looked down and let it approach.  It was not electric, it was only his soft touch as he placed his fingers and then his whole hand over her nipple and aerola.  His black skin was silky smooth against her as he tried to cup the side of the breast with his hand, which was not quite large enough for the task.

 

        And now as if kneeling in front of an altar, Jamal bent down and brought his lips to her nipple.  In a moment he was sucking on it.  Dareen, like a mother welcoming her child, wrapped her arms around his head.

 

        After having been so forward, Jamal stood up as if about to apologize.  He looked at her and might have been thinking of kissing her.  But Dareen hugged him, the side of her head against his.  She inhaled and exhaled, feeling her nipples dig into Jamal’s T-shirt.  “I love you Jamal but I’m not ready for this,” she said, aware of how much it must hurt for him to hear it.  But it was the truth, as he surely must know.  As much as she liked him there just wasn’t the desire in her for anything more.  She gave herself credit for not uttering the deadly phrase, “I like you as a friend.”  But it was clear enough.

 

        They said their good-nights and Jamal went to his room.  Dareen sat cross-legged on the couch and looked out through the glass doors at the late August Atlanta night.  She contemplated the little button-sized transmitter on the end table, that Colonel Mike had given her to take along if she sensed a pulse bomb again.  They would trace her through the transmitter.  They wouldn’t get there in time to be with her, but knowing the location would help them find and hopefully catch whoever that evil Novotny man was.

 

        It was not a very big apartment and the only view was of the cargo hangars in the rear of the airport.  She watched the planes fly in and out.  At length her powers came.  She hoped she would get sleepy and it would be a quiet night.

 

        But no.  She felt the tingling in her nipples again.  The tingling that foretold a pulse bomb.  She looked back at Jamal’s door, and the door to the guest room where Lourdes was sleeping on the bed and Elly on some cushions on the floor.  She picked up the button and as silently as she could she slid open the glass door and slid it closed behind her.  She felt the slight chill of the night air on her bare body, the cool concrete under her feet, the breeze of exhaust and gasoline from the street below.  She hefted herself up onto the railing, her toes curling around it, then with a little jump was up in the air and off.

        * * *

 

        The tingling feeling was fainter than the other times.  She knew that wherever she had to go it was far off.  Up, up, out of Atlanta, then west.  By flying higher she could go faster.  Head down, hands pointed straight out in front (with the button between her fingers), toes pointed straight out behind, she went faster than she ever had.  She was getting used to the loud whoosh of air past her ears.  Up, up, forward . . . over mountains and then over plains.  She heard a loud boom.  Was that a “sonic boom”?  Caused only by her  bare little body?

 

        She knew the way to California and the Pacific already but felt the urge to divert northward, turning right.  It was daytime again now, she had the odd feeling of seeing the sun rising in front of her, even though it was actually the setting sun.  As she banked over the great ocean the sun got higher and higher.  Soon it was at its noontime position.  The tingling was a little stronger now.  She stood spread-eagled, hovering high over what she guessed to be the Aleutian Islands, and rubbed the little button between her fingers.  No doubt defense stations along the Pacific were monitoring her progress, having been alerted by the quick change of position of the transmitter that she was onto something.

 

        She cupped a palm over one of her tingling nipples and sensed that she had to go further west yet.  From a few miles up she could follow the curve of the Aleutians and then  the last of them passed below her and she was headed for Japan.  No, north of Japan.  She felt the warm sun, now behind her, on her butt and the backs of her thighs.  Now she was approaching the great continent of Asia.

 

        She went over a peninsula and then over a large bay.  Then inland.  The cool breezes of the bay were quickly replaced by the oppressive hotness of still air.  She went over a mountain range and the air was even stiller.  The tingling was much stronger now, she knew she was getting close.  Now she felt it almost under her and began her descent.

 

        Her bare feet made a soft landing in the sandy clearing of a forest of low evergreens.  The trees were not much taller than she was, an odd feeling.  Almost a miniature forest.

 

        So this is Siberia, she told herself as she gently jogged along at 50 miles an hour, trying to find the source of the tingles.  She had always associated Siberia with Arctic cold.  Well, not now!  In late August it was downright sweltering.  Maybe 90 degrees.

 

        She stopped and stood still.  She didn’t feel the tingling any more.  Then it started again.  Then it stopped.  What was going on?  Jumping to a height of 100 feet she looked around.  She hadn’t seen any sign of civilization in this wilderness, except for passing over one or two empty broken-asphalt highways, but now in the distance there were some buildings.  Or ruins of buildings.

 

        She hovered over them.  Six long cabins side by side, and a couple of little huts, and what looked like a barn.  All dilapidated and almost falling over, surrounding a dirt road that disappeared into the low pines.  Most of the roofs were caved in.  What was this place?  Surely the pulse bomb wasn’t here.  But now her nipples felt nothing and she didn’t know what to do.

 

        Her brow went slack as she realized this might have been a prison camp from the Gulag days.  What a horrible place.  It was good that it was deserted.  She had read about these places.  If she could she would destroy it without a trace.  Thanks to Allah, those days were over.  What a horrible evil empire the Soviet system was.  Oppressing Muslims, Jews and Christians alike, and everyone else.

 

        She exhaled and looked at the button in her hand.  In a few minutes someone would be here.  Perhaps a Russian plane alerted by the United States.  Or maybe an American plane.  She decided to wait around until they came.  She walked along the stony, sandy soil, considering the little pines.  She lay down, stretched out on her back, feeling the stones against her bare butt, the hot sun creeping into every crevice of her body.  Ahhhh.  It felt good.  She tried to put out feelings of shame and thank Allah for such glorious creation.  But she still felt very naked, and was beginning to think she preferred being clothed even when there was no one around to see.

 

        The minutes went by and still no airplanes.  She assumed that’s what they’d do, try to get to where she was.  She reached out and grabbed a five-foot-high pine.  On a whim she yanked a little branch off it and tried to bite it.  To her surprise it tasted sweet, possibly because of the sap.  She chewed on it and ended up chowing down the branch, an impossible task for someone with normal teeth and a normal digestive system, but not for NakedGirl.

 

        More minutes went by.  At length Dareen gave up.  She flew into the morning sky, up into the higher air, glad to be out of that oppressive still hot air and glad to be away from those scary ruins.  At supersonic speeds she overtook the sun and saw it dip past the horizon behind her as she went homeward.

 

       

33.

        Colonel Mike seemed tired and distracted, somehow.  The questioning was done mostly by a new guy, evidently Mr. Nedrow’s assistant, a very tall, muscular looking young man named Robert Quincannon, who seemed to be an expert in geography.  Though mostly they were listening to Dareen spin out her narrative as she sat across from them at the shiny oak table where, so recently, she had had to take off all her clothes and put them in that basket.  She was glad to be fully clothed, enjoying the feel of the nylons and shoes, the long skirt, the ruffled blouse and blazer that, she hoped, successfully hid her frontal assets.  The more she remembered being naked, the more the appreciated and enjoyed her clothes.  She glanced at the little monitor button, which she had placed on the table in front of her.

 

        The first thing she had described was the abandoned camp that she had come to, how it looked like a relic of a Soviet prison camp.  “I wonder if that’s what it was,” she said.

 

        Mr. Quincannon said, “It’s possible.  Based on the landforms you say you passed over, and based on your GPS monitor, it seems like it was in one of the valleys of the Verkhoyansk Range.  There’s no record of any camp in that spot, but some of those places, all records have been lost.  Or destroyed.”  He seemed about to launch into a lecture on the topic but at a glance from Mr. Nedrow he stopped.

 

        At Dr. Vanaver’s request she gave a description of her flight over the north Pacific, how long it took her, how she pointed her toes and put her head down to go faster.  Also how the temperature changed.  “It was a little cold over the water, then I went over a city and I felt a blast of warm air. . . It was a very funky looking city, lots of broken down looking ships in the harbor, old buildings.”

        “Vladivostok?” Dr. Vanaver said.

        “No, must have been Petropavlovsk,” Mr. Quincannon answered.

 

        “Then when I passed over that bay and into the mainland, it got warm again.”  Dareen remembered the whistling wind over her nipples and knew that everyone in their mind’s eye was picturing her naked as she flew over Siberia.  Unconsciously she crossed her arms over her breasts.

 

        Then she told them about standing around near the camp, the little pine trees she saw, and how she grabbed a branch and ate it.

 

        “You say it tasted sweet?” Dr. Vanaver said.

 

        “Yes . . . I waited around, expecting someone would show up.  It could have been a pulse bomb.  Wasn’t this thing working?”  She looked down at the button.

 

        No one said anything for a moment.  Then Mr. Nedrow said, “It was thought best not to alert the Russians.  A pulse bomb in that wilderness would not have done much damage anyway.  Ms. Alkaras, obviously you can tell your friends and family that the government is doing testing on you, that will explain your time away.  But your flight, just like what you did over Washington, will have to remain a secret.”  He shrugged his shoulders and gave a little smirk.  “It’s kind of like a game.  We don’t want this pulse bomb man to know how much we know.  Your body in flight is not detectable by any known technology.  Likewise the GPS button, which has far too weak a signal and is just one of thousands of GPS signals shooting through the atmosphere these days.  You are,” he said slowly, “a very effective spy.  Your Middle Eastern background and appearance only enhances this.  A prize asset to whichever side has you.”

 

        Dareen felt flattered but also a little uneasy.  She squared her shoulders as if at attention, feeling a little flushed as she thought of her breasts sticking out through her clothes.  “I am a loyal American.  Anything I can do for this country, I will do.”

 

        Colonel Mike spoke up, tired but kindly.  “Dareen, there is no doubt about that.  You are as American as the rest of us.  Don’t worry about that for even one minute.”  That made her feel better.

 

        “So have you found out anything more about my . . . ?”

        Dr. Vanaver said, “Only that your body when naked is surrounded by laja rays which give you your special powers, that encirclement, even of a finger, disrupts the field entirely, and that it takes 115 minutes to regenerate.  Which is not much more than you already knew, I apologize.”

 

        Ms. Danby said, “We might have to call you back for more testing, dear.”

 

        Dareen hugged herself tighter, dreading the thought of again being so naked and exposed in front of their intense though clinical stares.

        The day was almost over.  She went straight to Jamal’s place, which is where she and Elly and Lourdes would be staying for two more days before going back to Sherry’s again.  She thought of taking the train up to her old apartment to see if reporters were still staking the place out, but decided against it.  Elly drove past it every day anyway.  As for Dareen’s car, she couldn’t use it for the time being.  The first thing the reporters had found out about her was the kind of car she drove.  It was too easily spotted.  So she had parked it at her parents’, whom the authorities had announced were not to be bothered.

 

        As Dareen rode the train, wearing the veil she had kept in her purse for public appearances to hide her face, she thought of Jamal and hoped he wouldn’t be home.  It was a mistake to let him suck her nipple that night.  She was doing it out of kindness, and it only served to lead him on.  A mistake a girl should never make.  She pictured what it was like from a guy’s perspective.  These days she probably had the most lusted-after breasts on the planet.  If anyone had earned the right to see them up close, it was Jamal.  And right up next to them it would have been unbearable not to touch them.  Yes, yes, she knew this was a standard unacceptable excuse from guys, as she had learned at those date rape trainings she had sat through at college, and it was much easier for Arab-American girls to get a handle on American customs than everyone seemed to assume.  But Jamal was special.

        She had a little trouble with the copied key Jamal had given her, but with the right nudge the door opened.  Luckily Jamal wasn’t home.  She still had some sorting out to do with her thoughts about him.  Elly and Lourdes weren’t back yet either.  She turned on the TV.  “NakedGirl -- conflicted soul?” was the special.  “Which side is she on?  Born in Syria, one of the hotbeds of terrorism -- ”  Dareen shook her head but sat down to watch.  Oddly she was not that bothered by the negative coverage; she knew her government was protecting her, and once the media could be told about her efforts to stop pulse bombs, all the suspicion would stop.  Mostly she was bemused at how the Cobb News Network -- given the almost total lack of actual news about “NakedGirl” recently -- still managed to keep spinning the story.

        * * *

 

        The big angry red graphic, “War on Terror”, stayed in the upper left as the anchor kept reading, his voice loud and penetrating, the only sound in this hot stuffy waiting room.  “More casualties in Iraq.  Story after the break, but also an inspiring story about how the Iraqi people are discovering their freedom and free schooling for the first time.  Before we go, a quick shot of the latest anti-war demonstration in New York.”  Indeed a quick shot of a crowd of angry ordinary-looking people filling an intersection, quickly cutting away to a much longer close-up of a middle-aged couple in leather fringe jackets, with graying ponytails and bloodshot eyes, holding up a hand-scrawled sign saying, “Bush equals” and then a swastika.  They hold up their fingers in “V” signs and start singing, “All we are sayyyyying, is give peace a chance!”

 

        “Real throwbacks,” the anchor chuckles, then a commercial for the next Cobb News Network movie, “9/11: Standing Tall”, a re-enactment with a very handsome actor playing George W. Bush.

 

        Elly fumed as she sat next to Lourdes in Dr. Patelu’s waiting room.  It was full as usual, and the only seats were these facing the TV up on the ceiling.  She hated TV’s in waiting rooms and had a momentary thought of going up to the receptionist to complain about being subjected to right-wing propaganda.  But as she coughed and felt the urge for another cigarette, she looked over to her teenaged friend and her mind turned to her plight.   Lourdes was curled up in her chair, obviously doing her best to conceal her almost total nudity.  The waiting room was full of mostly old people, who were either looking up at the TV with respect and attention, or staring and shaking their heads at the display of brown skin from the young Latina.

        Elly could only look at Lourdes with pity.  Lourdes was sitting cross-legged, her flip-flops parked carefully on the floor, hiding behind the largest magazine she could find, practically crouching down behind it with rounded bare shoulders.  From her side vantage point Elly could see the single string of the bikini top, and the two cords of the tiny low-rise cut-off shorts; the only things that interrupted her totally naked side.  Lourdes had again found the ensemble too suffocating and Elly had carefully pared another half-inch or so from the bottom of the shorts and made bigger cutouts in the sides.  The poor girl’s covering was shrinking down to -- to what?

 

        Elly and Dareen had gotten the girl’s hopes up but it was a pointless endeavor, trying to get Dr. Patelu to sign a note attesing to Lourdes’s “condition” so that she could be allowed to attend high school in such skimpy bits of fabric.  Lourdes harbored the hope that the doctor would find the “cure” that would allow her to wear normal clothes again, but that was just a dream.  If the government scientists couldn’t figure it out as to Dareen, this doctor wouldn’t be able to either.  And no high school would let Lourdes in, doctor’s note or no.  What would she do?  Work?  What kind of job would she get?  And what about when the weather turns cold?

 

        Elly had filled out the sign-in sheet and helped Lourdes fill out the questionnaire.  This was a cash visit, paid for by Elly.  Lourdes’s name was finally called and the two young females went in together.

 

        Elly could only picture what kind of bozo Lourdes’s family had as a doctor.  Dr. Patelu, a short bald man whose round glasses made him look a little like Ghandi, was no specialist, but he at least was conscientious.  After detecting the nicotine smell on Elly and chiding her for going back to smoking again, he sat Lourdes down and asked some careful questions about her affliction, how it began, how it progressed.  He tried putting a surgical gown over her and saw the sudden redness, and the full-body rash that was so easy to detect what with practically the teenager’s whole body exposed anyway.  Fortunately for the child’s modesty he did not ask her to disrobe -- though “disrobe” would have seemed too substantial a word for slipping off the skimpy strings.

        The doctor was a bit “old country” and had his collection of herbs and grains.  He had her hold samples in her hand, to see the source of the allergy, if that’s what it was.  Without success.  Apparently what set off the reaction was not the type of material but the fact that it surrounded a part of her body.  Maybe such minor things as a ring or a bracelet.

 

        Elly knew about Lourdes having been struck by lightning the same night as Dareen, but wasn’t about to tell Dr. Patelu about her association with “NakedGirl”.  Dr. Patelu could be trusted to stay mum, but in her current state of paranoia Elly pictured the government coming in and seizing his records under the Patriot Act.  And then leaking the information to the usual pro-government friends in the media.  The last thing Lourdes needed was the press after her, like it was after Dareen.  And of course, being an undocumented alien -- what the Cobb News folks insisted on calling “illegal” aliens -- she and her family would be deported.  Only after being vilified on Cobb, of course.  She just couldn’t sit there in front of the TV in Jamal’s (or Sherry’s) apartment and hear her best friend called a “possible Islamic agent” (what was that supposed to mean??) or, at best, “an ambiguous figure -- though her figure is in itself notable (chuckle, chuckle)”.  She badly, so badly wanted to call those folks up and straighten them out.  Dareen needed a reporter to get her side of the story.  Someone she knew she could trust.  But who?  And how to find that person?

        Such were the paranoid thoughts Elly was having these days.

 

        Dr. Patelu, alas, could not find an explanation for Lourdes’s condition.  But he made out a note that was as much as could be expected.  “To Whom It May Concern: Lourdes Gonzalez, DOB 6/14/85, suffers from an allergy to fabric.  Her clothing and footwear must be minimal at all times.  This is not due to any exhibitionist tendencies.  She is continuing to seek treatment.”

 

        The two young women went out into the waiting room, Elly in front.  And both opened their mouths and stood still as they saw Jamal being interviewed on Cobb News.

 

        “She’s just a very modest, friendly, good-hearted woman,” Jamal said.

 

        “How do you know?  How long have you known her?” the host said.

 

        “About a year and a half . . . ”

        “A year and a half, and you say you know there is no connection with Syria, where she spent her childhood?  One of the hotbeds of terrorism?”

 

        Jamal shared a split screen with the host of the program.  Jamal was dressed uncharacteristically in a tie and had a little speaker in his ear and was looking at the camera with a nervous glare.  He also had the trace of a nervous smile.  “I KNOW she’s no terrorist.”

 

        “But you’ve only known her for a year and half!”

 

        “It’s just so unfair,” Jamal’s voice got a little higher pitched and more excited.  “What evidence do YOU have that she’s at all connected?”

 

        “Well in fairness there’s no smoking gun, except that NOW suddenly there is this girl with super powers from an Arab country that supports terrorism.”

 

        “She’s from THIS country!”

        “She wasn’t born here.  She has powers which the plotters of 9/11 would have envied.”

        “Look, mister,” Jamal said, his smile disappearing.  “I resent seeing her guilty just because she was dark skin.  My great great uncle was lynched . . . ”

        “No no!!” the host shouted.  “You are not going to get away with that for even ONE MINUTE on this show!  We have a black assistant producer here.  We have a black copy editor.”

 

        “All tokens, I’m sure,” Jamal said.

        “Well NOW you’ve insulted the professional capabilities of my staff, and I resent it!  Can’t people with dark skin be conservatives?  Can’t . . . ”

        “Look, my great great uncle was lynched in 1924.”

 

        “SO WHAT!!  SO WHAT!!  My ancestors were starved by the English.  It was a hundred years ago.  Get over it!!”

 

        “I think you have no right . . . ”

        “Get over it!!”

        “to cast aspersions on my dark skinned friend.”

 

        “Get over it!!  Cut his mike, will you?”  And now it was just the host filling up the whole screen.  And then a commercial.

34.

 

        The boys and girls milled around in front of the high school on this September day, a little breezy coolness left over from this morning’s thunderstorm but otherwise typical weather for Atlanta in the fall.  Boys: low-slung baggy jeans, loose open sneakers, sweatshirts, occasional T-shirts.  Girls: low-rise jeans, some skirts, T-shirts or sweatshirts, sneakers, the occasional sandals.  A sprinkling of white kids, everyone else Latino or African-American.

 

        Elly and Lourdes, sitting in the front of Elly’s yellow New Beetle, watched the thick crowd of high schoolers.  Finally Elly said, “Well let’s go.”  She got out and started walking to the front entrance.  Then turned to see Lourdes still in the car.  “Come on.”

 

        “No puedo,” Lourdes said, slouched way down in the seat.  “I can’t.”

 

        Elly opened the car door but Lourdes pulled it closed again.  “I know it’s tough, Lourdes, but you have to finish high school.  And this isn’t your old school.”  It was true.  In her hand Elly had the paperwork she’d assembled showing that Lourdes now lived at Sherry’s address, which was in a different district.  This new school wasn’t Beverly Hills High, but it was better than that old hellhole.  Being that she was 18, there should be no problem.  Except for . . .

 

        “Come on,” Elly said.  Feeling a little miserable at being so stern; she was still distracted and pissed off at what they had done to Jamal on TV.  She pulled the car door open.  Lourdes cowered in the seat.  “Come on,” Elly said again, a little more gently.

 

        Like a chipmunk the Latina teenager poked her head up and looked around.  Then one all but bare foot gingerly descended to the pavement, followed by the other.  She slowly hoisted herself up.  With a bookbag slung over her shoulder, she walked with Elly, a study in contrasts with Elly in her long jeans pants with long-sleeved denim jacket.  As the teenage high schoolers saw the skimpily clad girl walking to the entrance, all motion and all talking stopped.  They watched her from in front and then from behind, the delicate shoulder blades and narrow waist, all bare, the natural sway of her hips expressed in the up-and-down see-saw of each side of the top of her low-rise mini-shorts.  The boys felt the stirring in their crotches.  Nothing could be heard except the slapping of the girl’s flip-flops against her bare soles, then the metallic clang as Elly pushed open the glass door and the two disappeared inside.

 

        * * *

 

        “I’ve been suspended, Dar.”  Jamal was almost apologetic, though not quite.  “Ms. Hom told us the orders were not to answer calls from the press, but I just couldn’t let it go on.  I couldn’t let you get trashed like that every day.”

 

        The mood of Dareen’s soft, pitiful gaze was interrupted by Billy Gibbs.  “You’re a danged fool!”  They were standing in Sherry’s living room.  “You got yourself fired, just about.  No way they’re going to let you back, not with those CYA bureaucrats in charge.  You’ll have to look for new work.  And what did you expect on that show?”

 

        “Billy,” Dareen said, “take it easy.”

 

        “That guy chews up his guests, it’s no secret,” Billy said.  He caught his breath.  “I’m saying this because I care about you, Jamal.  And to bring up your great great uncle!  I hate to say it, but your TV friend has got a point.  You should get over that.  That was 80 years ago.  It’s a different country now.  When you threw THAT in, I knew you were sunk!”

 

        Jamal looked into Dareen’s big, brown eyes.  “I did it for you, Dar.  I’d do anything for you.  I just wanted to set the record straight.”

 

        “Well you didn’t,” Billy said, “and now you’re out of a job.”  He went to the kitchen.  They heard the refrigerator door open and then the pshhht of a can of beer being opened, one of a seemingly endless supply of Olympias that Sherry kept there for her him.  Then the scraping of a chair along the floor as he sat down and sipped.

 

        Jamal shook his head.  “Why do they keep trashing you?  Why do they want to make you out to be in bed with terrorists?  Not that . . . ” he quickly said.

        “Bad choice of words,” Dareen said, smiling.

 

        “It’s got to be the government.  Cobb is getting instructions from them, everyone knows they do that all the time.”

        “You’re paranoid.  They just want to make money,” Billy said from the kitchen.  “Everything is War on Terror these days.  Bad girls are interesting.  Good girls aren’t.”

 

        “There’s no purpose in making NakedGirl out to be bad, unless they’re racists.  Which they are.”

 

        “Maybe Uncle Sam wants the terrorists to think NakedGirl is bad.  Maybe they want to lure them to her, thinking she’d be on their side.  Ever think of that?”  Billy came out again, beer in hand.  “Do you doubt for one minute that the U.S. government has a lot of smart people who have been working on this?  Maybe they’re really using NakedGirl in their fight against terror.”

 

        “More like a fight for oil profits,” Jamal said.

 

        “There’s a war on terror going on, and after what this country went through it doesn’t matter one smidgen if some guys happen to make money off it.  What I’m saying is, there’s a lot going on that we don’t know about.  A lot of secret stuff is going on.  Stuff that has to be secret.”

 

        “I wish they’d tell Dareen about them.  It’s the least they can do if they’re going to use her as bait,” Jamal said.

 

        Billy said, “Look, she has super powers.  At least when she’s naked.”  Which made Dareen’s face turn hot.  “She can take care of herself.”

        Jamal looked at her.  “Dar, I die inside when I hear anything bad said about you.  You need to talk to someone to set the record straight.  A reporter.  Stop this . . . ”  He paused.  “Don’t be offended, but stop this modest quiet Muslim woman crap.  Fight for yourself.”  He paused again.  “I’m sure your folks don’t like to watch what’s on TV either.”

        Dareen thought of a verse from the Bible.  “Mary saw and heard all this, and kept quiet with her own counsel.”  Or something like that.  She was feeling very much like Mary, being a spectator while these men were talking about her, and about her in her naked state.  But Jamal had a point.  Elly had been saying this too.  “I’ll think about it,” she said cryptically.

        * * *

        The pebbly roof was gritty under her bare feet, gritty under her knees, it would have been unbearable for an ordinary girl.  Not that an ordinary girl would be out naked at 10 at night, crouching behind the parapet on the roof of an apartment building.  It had been a while since she’d gone out like this, and Dareen’s nudity reminded her of her recent testing in front of Colonel Mike and his team.  She really hated being naked, she decided.  Allah couldn’t want this for her, not indefinitely.  She kept telling herself that this was only a temporary situation, and that soon she could help her country while wearing clothes, or better yet, her government would find a way to let someone else have these powers.

 

        She was also remarking to herself how jaded and snarky reporters were.  That was the impression she got, listening with her super hearing to the people across the street in front of her old apartment, talking on their cell phones.  It was hard to hear everything, what with the noise of cars going by.  But --

        “Tits of steel!” a young man in a very nice suit said.  “Do you think if you put a crashing building onto her tits, they would sag?”

        “This is like so yesterday,” a very thin middle-aged lady in a red dress said.  “Why doesn’t she just go into dancing at Janie’s?  She’s got a great bod.  Where exactly is she coming from, anyway?”

 

        “Yeah, right, if she’s Muslim, I’m John Dillinger’s dick.  It’s just religious crap.  Everyone hides behind it.  She just wants her jollies, that’s all.”

 

        “Why do you keep having me case this place?  She hasn’t been here in weeks . . .  No, I can’t . . .  I’ve tried talking to the super, he’s a Spanish guy and says he doesn’t understand me . . .  No, I don’t know what country.  I wouldn’t know one from the other anyway.  He’s got great dreds, though.”

        “I heard Playboy signed her to do a spread.  Yeah, I know . . . good word, spread . . . no I don’t have my source yet.  But isn’t it so obvious that that’s the next step?”

 

        Dareen crouched there for ten, twenty minutes.  One by one the reporters gradually left.  Apparently they had been assigned to do a nightly check-in on the odd chance that the apartment was open.  She was about to get up and fly back to Sherry’s when another walked up to the building entrance.

 

        He was white, looked about late 20’s, with black hair and a trim beard, normal height, thin, actually a good-looking face.  He had a black jacket, black tie, black pants, white shirt.  He rang the bell for Dareen’s apartment and waited.  Expecting no answer, he turned to the street and got out his cell phone.

        “Well I did it,” he said.  “Rebecca?  This is Hil.  Tell him I went.  No answer.  I really think we should leave her alone.  She gets enough abuse from Cobb.  And I have other stories to cover.  Okay.”

        That was all that Dareen needed to hear.  She braced herself, then prostrated herself on the pebbles for a quick prayer.  Feeling her nipples scrape against the roughness, she said, “O Allah, guide me, give me strength, help me control my shame, it is in Your service.”  Then she hopped upright, breasts bobbing, brushed dirt from her nipples and her knees, lifted a leg and curled her toes around the top of the parapet, and sprang.

 

        She landed in front of him as he was about to turn the corner.  “Can I talk to you?  Can you keep a secret?”  The young man stood there open mouthed at NakedGirl, standing huge-breasted and narrow-waisted in front of him.  After two long seconds, he slowly nodded.  Then he said, “Whooaaa . . .” as he was carried off under one arm.  His cell phone fell to the sidewalk as the two of them flew up and over the buildings into the brisk night.

        * * *

 

        His name was Hillel Drezdner and he was Assistant City Editor for the Atlanta Jewish Times.  He waited patiently on Sherry’s couch and saw Dareen emerge from the bathroom, adjusting the blouse under her sweatshirt, fully clothed except for being barefoot.  “You weren’t born here either?” she said.

 

        “No,” Hillel said, his blue eyes earnest, his speech formal and polite.  “My family is from Israel.  They moved here when I was eight years old.”  He had seen her body but he was trying to get over the fact that this woman -- her face -- was gorgeous.

 

        “Funny, my family moved here too,” Dareen said.  She combed her hair and wrapped it around behind her.  “I suppose I’m your big scoop.”

 

        Elly came in with some tea and toast.  To Hillel she said, “You’ve got to keep some things to yourself.”

        Hillel looked at Dareen.  Elly was getting an uneasy feeling.  There was this electricity thing going on between them.  He said, “I’m sure you’ll tell me enough to make a story.”

        “No, this is all true,” Elly said.

 

        “I’m sorry, that’s newspaper paper talk.  I mean to make an article.”  He saw the toast in front of him.  “Excuse me.”  Out of his jacket pocket he took a folded-up black thing.  Placing it on his head they saw it was one of those little hats Jewish men sometimes wear.  Searching their minds they remembered the word “yarmulke”.  Hillel closed his eyes, extended his hands, and said a quick prayer.  Then in one motion he took the yarmulke off, folded it up and put it in his pocket.

        After a couple of bites he said, “I am honored that you chose me to tell your story to.  Where do you want to start . . . ‘NakedGirl’?”

        “Dareen.”

        “Oh yes.  I know.  Dareen Alkasian?”