Patricia Saves the Beauty Queen
by Samantha Bryant
Patricia stared at the phone in her hand incredulously, then put it back to her ear. The muted TV mounted above the stonework gas fireplace in her living room showed the news camera images of the gunman pacing the catwalk at the mall’s main stage, pulling some teeny-bopper beauty queen along by her hair. The scrolling text at the bottom was screaming something about hostages and gunfire. Susie had insisted she watch, and now was demanding that she do something about it. Patricia was exasperated. “Why the hell should I?”
Susie squawked on the other end, something about it being the right thing to do, people who can help should help, higher standards, moral duty. Blah, blah, blah. Someone’s mother was on screen now, all smeared mascara and clasped hands. Pathetic loser.
“Susie, I’m not Peter Parker. I don’t buy the whole ‘great power comes with great responsibility’ racket. I didn’t ask for this and I don’t owe anyone anything.”
Patricia’s strange affliction had come on a few months ago, along with the hot flashes and hormonal bullshit. The Change, indeed. What she had at first mistaken for an especially bad patch of eczema, had developed into thick scales and had eventually spread over her entire body, rendering her very skin invulnerable to damage. Now, her reputation as an old battle-axe was more than just metaphorical.
Her intern Susie, the eternal optimist and idealist, with the moral righteousness that only the very young can spout unselfconsciously, kept claiming that there was some greater meaning to it all, that “Everything happens for a reason.” She kept pushing Patricia to make some kind of use of her condition, to do something for the public good. Patricia didn’t see the point. What reason could there possibly be? She was a just a victim of some bad chemistry, an herbal remedy gone wrong. Susie’s sweetness gagged her sometimes.
But Susie was her boss’s daughter as well as her intern, and Patricia needed her. Susie kept Mr. Braun from noticing how often Patricia was working from home while they worked together on ways to control and disguise her condition. So, maybe Patricia did have to “do something” if only to keep Susie on her side.
She sighed into the phone dramatically. “Okay, fine. I’ll go.”
It wasn’t that difficult to get around the police perimeter. Springfield was still very small town for all its recent growth, and the police were not accustomed to dealing with these kinds of situations. Patricia had driven around the outer ring of the mall and seen that all the cars were gathered near the central entrance, by the food court. There were officers milling around outside the mall, and probably more inside.
The side entrance, on the other hand, was watched only by a mall rent-a-cop, who probably hadn’t been informed about what was going on at the main entrance. Patricia’s brother had done this job for a while, back in Illinois. He was always complaining about what the higher-ups didn’t tell him.
This man was leaning against the car window of pretty blonde in what was probably her father’s sports car, chatting her up. He didn’t even notice when Patricia simply walked up, skirting the hedges to stay as far out of view as she could, opened the door and went inside.
She was surprised to see a boy standing behind the counter in the small coffee shop just inside the entrance. She walked in. He didn’t react, even when she tapped her fingers on the counter, until she reached across the counter and tugged on the strings of his headphones, popping one out of one of his ears.
“Sorry, lady. What can I get you?”
This idiot didn’t even know he was supposed to have evacuated the mall. Patricia didn’t enlighten him. “I want a raspberry mocha, soy milk, no whipped cream, with a dusting of dark chocolate on top. I have something to take care of. I’ll be back in fifteen minutes. Have it ready.” She left a five dollar bill on the counter.
Without waiting for his response, Patricia turned on her heel and went into the empty mall. The mall wasn’t bad with no people in it, she thought, pausing to read the mall map. The mainstage was outside the JCPenney on the first level. She was just around the corner from all the action. Maybe this would be fun after all.
Patricia took off her jacket and laid it on a bench. She took off the low-heeled slides she could still wear over her enlarged feet and slid them beneath. Then, she took a deep breath and stretched her arms in a wide circle around her. As she pushed out her breath through her nose, she flexed her arms and upper back and felt the spikes pop out. It didn’t hurt. Very little could hurt her these days, at least physically, but it felt strange, sort of like feeling the rumble of distant thunder through your feet or chest.
It was a vague sensation. If it weren’t for the additional weight the plates put on her frame, she might have thought she imagined the prickly sort of feeling as they sprang up.
It was stranger still when she rotated her head and felt the scales spread up her neck and onto her cheeks. Those she could feel. It was like they slipped out from secret compartments in her skull and slid into place, forming a protective mask. There was a rustling sound as they configured themselves under her hair and around her eyes and ears. She’d never get used to that.
Patricia checked the effect in the reflective glass of the darkened Bible bookstore. The creature she saw there was broad and fierce, covered in grey-green scales with spikes sticking out of the back and shoulders. Her white tank top was stretched to its maximum and now had holes up the back where the backs plates had sprouted bumps. The black yoga pants were similarly strained.
Even after all these months to adjust, it was always a jolt to see herself this way. The only thing that still looked like her to her was the shock of red hair she paid her stylist to maintain for her. It looked very red against the scales. Otherwise, she looked like some kind of alien, or maybe a bipedal dinosaur, one wearing yoga clothes from NorthFace.
She walked through the mall as quietly as she could, but her heavy footsteps seemed to echo against the glass storefronts. Some of the windows and pull down security cages shook as she walked by. She hadn’t weighed herself yet fully armored, but she had a feeling she wouldn’t like the number.
When she turned the corner, she could see the scene. She wanted to laugh. How cliché! The gunman was a twenty year old white kid with black emo hair hanging in his face, wearing an army coat over a black teeshirt that said, she was sure, something hip and ironic, and holding a big black machine gun of some sort. Where did he think they were? Hollywood? It’s been done, little man. Did no one have any originality any more?
He was still standing on the stage, holding a skinny little blonde girl by her up-do, just like she’d seen him in the news footage. The girl’s strapless blue sparkly dress stayed, amazingly, perfectly in place. Beauty-queen duct tape, Patricia guessed. Imagine what she could have done with that kind of inventive mind, if applied to something that actually mattered.
Surrounding them at a short distance, officers in riot gear stood behind ballistic shields or near barriers, keeping their guns trained on the pair. Patricia tapped one on the shoulder. “Who’s in charge here?” she asked, her voice strangely husky and thick. Yuck! Even her tongue felt scaly.
The boy blinked and gestured with his head–“Captain’s over there.”
“Thanks.” Patricia could feel it as all the officers in the room began to take notice of her. The boy on the stage kept pulling at the girl. He was ranting about something, but Patricia didn’t have the patience to try and work it out. It didn’t matter. He was just another attention-seeking lunatic. She didn’t care why he was doing it. She was there to make him stop. She felt a rush of pleasure at the thought that she could indeed stop it. It was powerful, knowing that this boy would not get to victimize that girl. Not on her watch.
Patricia approached the group of uniformed officers that had been pointed out to her, watching as they went silent one by one, their weapons falling to their sides, forgotten as they struggled to wrap their minds around what they were seeing. She suppressed a desire to laugh aloud. “Captain,” Patricia called out. A red-haired boy turned around. She supposed he might be twenty-five, but he looked twelve. He also looked frightened, whether at her or the general situation, she couldn’t tell. “You might want to get your men behind the barriers. If this jerk shoots me, I don’t want anyone catching the ricochet.” The boy-captain reached out and grabbed her bicep, like he intended to stop her. As if he could. Patricia shook off his hand forcefully and heard him hit the floor behind her as she strode back towards the stage. She hoped he would have the good sense to take her advice and get his men sheltered.
The gunman had loosened his grip on the girl, looking slack jawed at the creature approaching him. But he pulled her tight when Patricia got near. The girl squeaked, like some kind of mouse or rabbit. “Don’t come any closer!” The boy shouted, his voice cracking, “I’ll shoot.”
“Go ahead honey. If it makes you feel better,” Patricia said, stepping onto the stage. The struts groaned under her heavy steps, but it seemed like they would hold. She hoped so anyway. Her approach would lose some menace if she fell through the structure and got stuck. She took another step. The structure held. She smiled and flexed her facial muscles, causing the nictitating membrane to flicker across her eyes.
The boy gasped just as she had expected. Patricia could see the panic in his eyes, but he still brought the gun level. “I mean it!”
“I’m sure you do.” Patricia didn’t stop walking. The boy loosed his hold on the girl who fell like a dropped handkerchief at his feet. He gripped the weapon with both hands and opened fire. Patricia was sure that the bullets had hit her. How could he miss at this distance, after all? But she didn’t feel a thing.
She closed the remaining space between them in two steps, pulled the gun from his grip with one of her hands and slapped him with the other. His head snapped back and he fell like a scarecrow, boneless, out cold. Things like jaws didn’t hold up very well against her armored skin, even when she didn’t use much force. His was probably broken. She’d been feeling kind of cranky when she slapped him.
Patricia turned to the young woman, still laying there playing damsel in distress. “Girl,” she hissed, “Get out of here. Maybe this’ll teach you not to try to get by on just your looks.” The girl slid off the stage and ran sobbing toward the waiting police officers.
Patricia turned to the crowd, saluted with two fingers and bounded off the stage, stalking away with a confident stride, moving as quickly as her bulk allowed. She wasn’t interested in letting the authorities find out who she was just yet.
As she walked, she began her calming breathing, By the time the officers and the camera crew snapped out of their surprise and began calling for her to stop, she had ducked into an open clothing store, hidden herself inside a clothing rack, and settled down to wait for her spikes to retract.
It was a lot faster this time. Susie had apparently been right about the yoga and meditation techniques. She was able to shift back to her normal appearance in the space of only a few minutes. Finding that the coast was clear, Patricia slipped out the door and walked back to the bench where she’d left her jacket and shoes. She was glad to have the jacket to cover the ruin of her tank top. There wasn’t much she could do about the pants, but that’s how it goes sometimes when you try and help people. She patted the jacket pockets and found her phone, keys and money clip all intact. She checked the messages and saw Susie’s text, “I knew you could do it.” She had to admit that it had felt good, pushing back the bully. Maybe Susie had something after all, about using what had happened to her to do some good in the world.
When she stopped by the coffee shop again, the place was still empty, but the kid was no longer entranced by his own tunes. He was watching the Breaking Story television coverage of the fight with wide eyes. Patricia tried to smile. “My coffee?” The boy pushed a cup towards her, only half looking at her. Patricia tried a sip and nearly spit it out. “What the hell is this?”
“Um, a cherry mocha with whipped cream?”
“One out of three, Sonny Boy. Here, you drink it.” She shoved the cup back at the boy and turned and left. Seriously. Why did she even bother?
* * * * THE END * * * *
Copyright Samantha Bryant 2014