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.
"Si, 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."
"Si, 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.