Queen For A Day
Third Place, Fiction
The Queen of the No. 19 made sure she was the first in line for the 2:40 northbound. She had to take out a couple of people to do it; she did it with her brain waves, while they were still blocks away. She felt them from afar: the oncology nurse who had forgotten her keys in her locker and was forced to return for them, the older gentleman waiting endlessly for his discharge papers. The Queen delayed them and felt only a small twinge of guilt. Waiting on the wind-bit corner from precisely 2:19 p.m., she was confident of being the first one on. Her feet hurt a little bit, so she shifted from one to the other. She did a little tap dance, a slow shuffle. She picked a feather out of her heavy coat. She would not sit down, not with so many people gathering behind her now.
The bus was seven minutes late, so the Queen erased the driver, replacing him instantly. When the door swung open, she greeted the new driver with a smile, since the delay hadnít been his fault. He looked defensive and annoyed, but she didnít let that concern her. They all wore that expression--it seemed to be a defect in the model.
She flashed her card and made her way down the length of her empty bus, populating it as she went, tracing her hands familiarly over the rows as she did so. She took her designated seat, her favorite, the middle of the back row, and gazed beneficently at the growing crowd, composed of loyal subjects and spies alike. It was so hard to tell who was who these days. Gone was the time she had felt at peace; that had long ago been replaced with paranoia. Even the babies spoke in coded messages now. She hated babies, especially on the bus. If she could figure out a way to ban them, she would. Things that might once have been easy were so hard now without a true mandate.
The problem was that the playing field had gotten crowded. As crowded as this bus, almost. It was stopped now at the middle school, where children in khakis and white polo shirts were being piped into the corners and crevices like icing, only louder. They filled up the available space and air.
The Queen filled up her lungs and held her breath. She excelled at this, as she did at all things. She could commandeer the remaining air if necessary but wasnít ready to cause a panic. And what if one of them were to do the same thing? She had seen pictures of the North Wind, rendered as a cloud. It looked like Dizzy Gillespie. What if she had competition here, two vacuums competing for one space? They could tear the bus apart! How would she get home?
She despised the very thought that she was sharing her bus with the competition, though she knew they were there and was powerless to stop them. They had come out of the woodwork in the last few years. Deregulation might not have worked with electricity, but on the Queenís line competition was flourishing. She knew it for a fact.
She cataloged those whom she could see from her vantage point at the back of the bus. Spread out among the shouting teenagers and the snoring shift-workers, so many were here. The Hat Lady, with her flowered hats and pimp hats and sometimes three or four at once. The Walking Bible. Harvey, six-and-a-half feet tall, who liked to stand in the middle, holding onto the upper rail, to form a sweat-stained, squared-off arch under which all must pass. The old woman the commuters jokingly called The Greatest Pity on Earth, bent in half at the waist, and again at the hump in her shoulder. Each competing for her territory, her recognition, her star appeal. The No. 19 had been hers for so many years before these freaks had started cropping up.
She hated the Doomspeaker most of all. His brain was so scrambled that if you asked him what day it was, he would say ďFrance.Ē He sat in the very first seat behind the driver; his legs were two different lengths, so he qualified. He sat there muttering, so that most of what you heard was about hell and devilry and your place in it. He had a different kind of doom to put on every person who walked past him. That was another good reason for the Queen to get on as close to first as she could manage; if he got on before her, he could put his curse on her, too. He hadnít managed to throw one that would stick to her yet, but that didnít keep him from trying.
She knew that he was there even when she couldnít see him. She could see it in the faces of the riders as they filtered past him and down the aisle. Some thought he was funny, and some looked a little unnerved. Nobody really wanted to sit next to him, though eventually somebody lost out. Only the schoolkids didnít seem bothered, since their heads were all put on at right angles so they could talk to their friends over their shoulders. They diffused his power a little bit anyhow, by ignoring him so completely.
Today even the Doomspeakerís presence didnít bother her much. This was the day she would finally win her rightful attention back. Queen of the 19. She had worn her crown for 19 years now, since the inception of the route, though its anniversary--and hers--had passed without fanfare three months before. This was a more auspicious day, though; this was Sept. 19, so she would be extra strong. If there were a 19th month, she would have waited for that, but the ninth would have to do.
She remembered back to when she was the only one with a vision, other than the junkies. Back then, she could ride her bus around for hours, paying calls on her subjects and surveying the land. The bus had changed a lot in 19 years, not least because nobody paid attention to her anymore. Her crowns and summer robes and greatcoats didnít even gain her a second look these days. Not today, though. Today they would remember.
The Queen of the No. 19 coughed loudly as the bus passed Erdman Avenue. She would have cleared some room for herself--two or three seats on either side--if anybody had any room to move. As it was, the young Korean couple directly in front of her squeezed a little closer to each other, and an inch or two farther from her, using their backs like shields. They were no match for her today, of course, but she felt no need to call their bluff.
She coughed again, louder, and tried to grind in some phlegm for added effect. She felt a pounding in her coat, like her heart, but more insistent. Intensifying. She couldnít wait much longer. Another cough, her best act yet, racking and ragged. They gave way, the people on either side edging toward those in the window seats, the couple in front of her pressing into the center. Finally, she had enough room to open her coat. Hands trembling, she reached for the top button.
The first pigeon escaped in an explosion of wings. Another button, two more birds. She kept going. She could feel the bird shit running down her sides now, mingling with her sweat. She didnít mind.
Nineteen in all.
People were screaming and covering their heads. Others were scrambling to open the windows. There were feathers and pigeons and voices everywhere, and the air was turbulent with the effort of flight.
Harvey, head and shoulders above the rest, closed his sweaty armpits to himself and tried to shrink. The Walking Bible was praying for himself now, not just God-blessing and proselytizing. The Queen even saw the Doomspeaker standing on his seat at the front of the bus, grabbing at the sparrows with his hands and his teeth.
Best of all, the riders around her were staring at her again, open-mouthed, awed, just the way it should be, and maybe better.
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201