Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Steal your prayers

They used to call her Jackie back in the day, back when names had a meaning to her.  Now she wears tin-foil curlers in her hair to keep people from reading her thoughts, dresses out of dumpsters, and is the kind of hooker you go and find when you've already caught every disease going and need something worse to chase them all out of your system.  She was standing on the other side of the road as I exited through the hatch, my chest scraping along the pavement on some kind of slime – I was hoping for vomit as that washes out – squeezing spots on the side of her neck and peering at me like she was hoping she could frisk me before I woke up.  Her eyes were as crazy as ever, and her lips were so red I knew instantly I didn't want to know what she was using for lipstick.  She scuttered over to me like a hermit crab spotting a new hideout.
"Jackie," I said quickly.  A normal man would have stood up and chased her off, but I wasn't about to try standing for anyone until I'd got my breath back, and whatever I'd slid in across the pavement was making me retch.
"I'm Bella!" she said, her voice a half-shriek, cracked and scratchy.  "I'm Bella!"  She tilted her head sideways like a bird and eyed me again.  I felt like day-old carrion being scrutinised by the vulture, and suspected that I looked a lot like it too.
"Bella then," I said.  I got my hands underneath my chest and tried to remember if there were any tricks to doing a push-up.  "It's Mac."
She recoiled, and I felt insulted.  It's one thing knowing that there are fungi that consider you too far down in the sewer for their children to grow on, but it's quite another to meet any such fungus.  I pushed with my hands and they sank into whatever I was lying in without actually moving me any higher up.
"I'm Bella!" she squawked again, and I wondered how much of her brain had been scrambled by the tin-foil hair-curlers.  "I'm all sparkly!"
I pushed harder and managed to lift myself enough to get my knees underneath me and then my feet underneath them.  I felt like an accordion, but it was enough to lurch, unsteadily, to my full height and lean against a wall while my lungs heaved like a blacksmith's bellows on a midwinter evening.  "What are you doing here, Jackie?" I asked.  I didn't really want to know the answer, but I wanted her to keep in mind I was still alive and could probably fight back.
"I'm Bella!" she said again, and I wondered if she counted as a woman.  My mother, on those rare occasions she'd talk to me before she obtained the restraining order, had told me never to hit a woman.  I try not to disappoint her more than twice a year, and I still had four months to go.  "I'm turning tricks for Edward."  I thought about this: Edward couldn't be the name of her pimp because there wasn't anyone mad enough to take her on.  Even the guys who had two live hookers and three dead ones wouldn't take a chance on Jackie – or Bella, or whatever name she thought she had when she woke up that morning – in case they ended up with just her.
"That's great, Bella," I said, managing at the last moment not to call her Jackie again.  "I bet you're doing a great job."  There were no noises coming from the doors nearby, so either none of them went into the Blue Swan or they were still trying to sort out the fire-retardant chemicals.  I eyed the hatch warily, just in case.
"I'm pregnant!"
That was a low blow; just as I was trying to inhale and getting ready to move, she hit me with news that  I'd have sworn was physiologially impossible.  I actually stopped breathing through shock, and had to bang my fist against my sternum a couple of times to get things going again.  While that was happening, I thought I saw the hatch move very slightly.
"By Edward?" I asked, nervously.  "Is he the father?"  Had the hatch flexed a little then?
"No silly, by Jacob."
"Jacob was the name of that dog you used to keep on a chain," I said, concentrating on the hatch.  It looked like someone was trying to beat it open from the inside.
"I'm pregnant! By Jacob!"
"Right," I said, the horror of what she was saying knocking politely on the front-door of my attention while the definitely-flexing hatch kicked in a side-door and starting shouting.  I checked both ends of the street and decided to go with the closer.  It looked like a T-junction at the stop.  "Gotta go, Jackie, stay... stay... stay!"
She froze, and I lumbered into a run, my knees clicking like castanets and my feet slapping against the floor like an overenthusiastic penguin.  Behind me the hatch banged open and dark smoke began to billow out, while the bouncers slumped across each other, greedily sucking in fresh air.  Jackie – or Bella – stared after me, her eyes wider dilated than an elephant's cervix during the birth of twins, and as I rounded the corner I heard her say plaintively, "They steal your prayers."
"They can't if you never say any," I muttered to myself, and then I had no more breath for anything other than running.

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