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 grandaddies owned slaves. 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 in 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 a 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, and engaging Uncle Rakhman when he brought it up. Her parents were of the same mind. "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 commedienne as a bumbling NakedGirl, with breasts and crotch fuzzified by computer of cousre, 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 dicey.
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.
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.