2022 Porch Prize Winner in Fiction
Gemma Mae has graduated from the University of Florida, and is rejoining the Flatland Springs Community Choir. The sopranos and altos squirm with excitement at the news. They heard tell of what-all she’d gotten up to in Tallahassee: a drunk-and-disorderly, a late-night domestic abuse call, a few nights in a women’s shelter close to the highway. Her fault, no doubt about it. In high school, she was one of those pretty young things who followed men around.
The gossip stops when Gemma Mae strides into the rehearsal room. She’s squatter than before, thick like she throws tires in her spare time. The braid that lies between her shoulder blades is the green-blonde of hair that has withstood daily dunks in a pool. She’s a blazing-hot mess, the women think.
Then rehearsal begins and they hear Gemma Mae’s voice. She always had a pair of lungs on her. Now, it’s like they’ve stretched wide so they can suck in more air. She outsings everybody, especially the preacher’s wife, whose neck flexes tight when she hears those clear, high tones. Gemma Mae’s voice isn’t just louder, but more itself, like oranges squeezed into fresh juice.
“What’s your secret, little miss? You keeping a new voice teacher all to yourself?” ask the sopranos and altos.
“You get yourself some prednisone?” asks the preacher’s wife. She took the drug for an infected ingrown toenail once and found, like half of Broadway’s stars, that it pitched her voice higher.
The women want to outsing one another, each of them, especially the preacher’s wife. She likes being the loudest soprano. The only time she feels comfortable outshining her husband—a clean-shaven, thin man with a quiet voice and quick temper—is when she’s outshining other women. He says men can’t sing well anyway, unless there’s something queer about them.
Gemma Mae smiles, thanks the sopranos and altos for their compliments, and ignores their questions. Then, she opens the rehearsal room door and steps outside. A push of humid air sweeps in. The women lean away from it and guess where she’s headed off to: a new boyfriend’s apartment, a drug dealer’s den, a homeless shelter.
Gemma Mae doesn’t just sing better than before. She doesn’t act the same way—like the other women singers—any more. It’s like when she sucks in more air to sing louder, she expands, taking up more space. She doesn’t appear to feel an inch bad about it, either.
She wears tops that show her bra straps without apologizing for looking undone; she is first to volunteer for every solo with a grin; she stares down the director as he says how lucky the man in her life must be. When the director laughs and asks if she thinks he’s an old letch now, she doesn’t laugh to relieve the tension. She is not afraid of being awkward anymore, the women think. She is not afraid at all, apparently.
She leaves the choir room without calling a friend or holding tight to a canister of pepper spray. The women have never seen her get in a car or catch the bus. She walks home, wherever that is—she will only say she lives near Lake Mirror—like she isn’t afraid of anything. She stands with her back tall, pushing out her breasts. She doesn’t wear modest clothing either—no hoodies, but tight tank tops and sleeveless white dresses. The women are pretty sure her panties make contact with her seat.
After the first Christmas concert rehearsal, the accountant for Brazilian Dreams Steakhouse, an alto, asks if Gemma Mae needs a ride. The others watch, listening as hard as they can.
“It’s dark,” the accountant says. “I wouldn’t forgive myself if—”
“Nothing will happen,” says Gemma Mae, holding the rehearsal room door open with her back.
“There’s gators too,” says the accountant, raising her voice. “There was that one gator got that rapist who was hiding in a shack by the edge of the lake, and—”
Gemma Mae laughs. “They won’t get me,” she says.
She sweeps out the door, dramatic as usual, and the sopranos and altos burst into speech. Did they hear that? Well, she was warned, wasn’t she. Wouldn’t be a surprise if she showed up dead or worse. Some of the men join in as well; conversations about potential wrong-doings always attract the group of people most likely to commit the crime in question. They shake their heads, tell the women that they did what they could, that it’s a shame.
The men leave. They revv up their Honda Civic engines in the parking lot—dog whistles to their women. The accountant, in a hurried whisper, breaches the real topic of interest. She asks if anyone saw Gemma Mae’s teeth, whiter and sharper than anyone’s she’s ever seen.
“Like a shark,” hisses the preacher’s wife to a middle school guidance counselor.
The guidance counselor giggles, and the other ladies follow suit. But on the way to their cars, all of them savor the feel of night air on their faces. It’s almost cool. Night is the only time of day you can walk outside in Florida without wishing you were inside or dead.
They imagine Gemma Mae walking miles in the dark, in crisp air. It must make her feel alive, make her feel like a small life in the boonies of central Florida is worth living. They wonder how they can get their teeth sharp enough to allow them to go anywhere, anywhere at all, whenever they want to.
The sopranos and altos bother Gemma Mae for weeks, right into the new year. They ask her if she’s taken up jiu jitsu, if she packs heat, if she blends grass smoothies in the morning then runs laps around Lake Mirror. They tell her there’s too much changed about her—the voice, the fearlessness—for her to claim ignorance. No one mentions her teeth, but everyone notices them now. They’re sharp, glinting out from the dark red of her mouth.
At first, she tells them she’s flattered. Then, when their questions grow a little more desperate, she says she doesn’t want to cause a ruckus.
She causes a ruckus.
The sopranos and altos are in a tizzy. Is it steroids? Or prayers to Jesus? Does she use crystals to channel the voices of spirits lost? They’ve seen the crystal shops popping up along Lake Mirror, at monthly farmers’ markets in the southside, the rich part of town. They’ve been wondering if that hoodoo is a shortcut to heaven or the devil’s trifling.
The preacher’s wife is tempted to find out either way. Clearly, there’s an answer to Gemma Mae’s changes. And if there’s an answer, if there’s something tangible she did to better her voice, to grow strong enough to walk alone at night, that means she can do it, too.
Each rehearsal, she and the others ask Gemma Mae for her secrets, beg her to cause a ruckus, over and over until, one evening in early January, Gemma Mae gives in.
She holds the rehearsal room door open, about to leave yet again. She always seems to be on her way out, on her way to something better. It is an unseasonably warm evening. Humid, heavy air blows inside the rehearsal room, but no one asks her to close the door. No one wants to speak; they don’t want her to run off. Sweat drips down between their breasts, trickling down their stomachs.
“I can show you,” Gemma Mae says. She glances at the director, who stands on the podium, eyeing the huddled group of women. “But you’ll have to meet me at Lake Mirror, and you’ll have to give me four minutes to explain.”
The following evening at midnight, the sopranos and altos meet Gemma Mae at Lake Mirror. It is unseasonably humid. The neon lights of a Red Lobster blink at them down the road.
Gemma Mae stands silently in front of the fifteen women. They switch their weight from foot to foot, their ankles wet with dew from the grass. The preacher’s wife peers into the water behind Gemma Mae, and swears she can see the tip of a gator’s snout floating nearby. She counts the women in front of her, notes how many the gator would have to kill before it could get to her. Five. Enough for her to stay.
Gemma Mae prepares to speak, opens her mouth, but she sees the Red Lobster sign blink, once. Faulty electric cables, she knows—nothing is new in Flatland Springs—but it feels like a sign, like something wants to remind her of where she came from.
The last time she was near a Red Lobster, she and her college boyfriend were on a third date. She held back at the meal, nibbling one cheddar biscuit and ordering a large Caesar salad. She wrapped and hid a biscuit in her tote bag when he walked off to the bathroom. Afterwards, they’d driven to a Walmart parking lot and slipped into the backseat of his car. He squeezed against her, using that slick voice that called Caesar salad right back up her throat. But she listened, thinking about the time he’d pushed her into the shower, about the forehead cut that had leaked more blood than she thought a head could hold. Later that night, as she ate the cheddar biscuit in a friend’s bathroom, she clawed at her stomach, watching the skin turn pink then red.
It makes Gemma Mae sad to think of that girl, but she does not have time for self-pity. The women are looking at her. They cross their arms. They fan their faces with their hands.
“Inside each of us is a gator,” Gemma Mae starts.
The sopranos and altos chuckle.
The smartest woman of them all, a high school English teacher, says, “Inside each of us are two wolves.”
The women laugh, louder now.
“Some of us might have wolves inside, two or one of them,” Gemma Mae says. “But I’d bet most of us women here in Flatland Springs have gators inside. And they’ve been well fed.”
She doesn’t laugh, she doesn’t smile. Her face glows in the moonlight, like she is about to reveal a new gospel, and the Lord has blessed her forthcoming words. Nobody laughs now. They wipe their foreheads and wait.
Gemma Mae doesn’t give a speech. She doesn’t think she needs to. Why bother listing the small injustices, when these women have secretly wrapped up garlic bread or nodded when their husbands said something foolish about stocks or agreed to go to Hooters after Sunday services? Why bother listing the life-changing, life-ruining injustices, when these women have locked themselves in bathrooms or tried to buck men off themselves or touched up black eyes with concealer? Why bother recounting the guilt, the annoyance, the anger, the fear?
They know it all. They live it every day. They are sick of lectures.
“You have to give me four minutes to explain,” she says.
She taps through her phone, sets a timer, then slowly, deliberately strips off her clothes. First she removes her tank top, revealing a bright red bra, no lace. Then she pulls off her frayed jean shorts, revealing pink panties, no lace. Then she removes everything.
One woman—a Pentacostal healer who sells skincare products at choir parties—shrieks. “This woman’s the devil’s whore!”
The women glance at one another, but none of them is willing to give up this sort of gossip. Devilry or not, they won’t be missing it. Most especially not the preacher’s wife. And there’s something in the air, a heaviness beyond the humidity, that tells them this is it, this is the moment they’ve been waiting for since the first time they found themselves wishing they could slice off the fat of their thighs, since the first time a boyfriend said come on baby.
The Pentecostal healer stomps back toward her car, her flip flops sinking into the grass, flipping up specks of mud on her calves.
Gemma Mae’s face remains still, as though she has heard and seen nothing. She stands naked and upright before the sopranos and altos. She reaches toward her right armpit—her mother always told her her armpits were too fat; they weren’t flattering; no wonder that first boyfriend dumped her—and pulls.
Her pink, soft skin peels away like a rubber mask. It is a slow process; the skin is tightly fitted.
Underneath are thick, green plates. Claws that glint in the moonlight. And finally the eyes—yellow and flat, staring at each of them in turn.
The fifteen women drive home in their separate carpools. They ask one another, “Did she—?” “Was she—?”
A few search for their openings as soon as they arrive home. They touch the body parts they hate the most—their stomachs, their underchins, their delicate folds of skin by their waists. They pull. Underneath, there are the same thick green plates, horned and tough, that they saw on Gemma Mae.
The English teacher reaches out, fingers trembling, and strokes the coldness of her horned skin. The guidance counselor twirls in a circle, admiring herself. The accountant drops to the floor and finds that the more she enjoys her new height, the shorter her arms grow, the broader her snout grows. When she stands up again, she turns back into a human shape with gator skin.
Other women take pictures, then stare at them, sure that they’re hallucinating. One slips her skin on again, then off again, on again, off again. Several take weeks to discover their skins. A laundress, in the middle of telling her sons to wash their dishes—because Jesus Christ, she is tired of cleaning other people’s things—feels a grunt in her chest. She rushes to her room to hide the croaks that emerge.
The preacher’s wife refuses to think about Gemma Mae’s skin-shedding for a month. She pretends it never happened. When other choir members talk about it, she uses the restroom, hands out sheet music, straightens chairs. Then, the last week of January, in what she has told herself will be her year, she beats her husband in a friend’s game of Bibleopoly. Her husband laughs and bows in fake supplicancy. Back at home, he hits her in the kidneys with the edge of his hand. She rips off her skin in the bedroom and returns to her husband in scales.
By spring, the Flatland Springs Community Choir has disbanded. The women have started a new women’s choir, they say, and they sing only for themselves. Several sopranos and altos have disappeared—first, the English teacher, then the guidance counselor, then the accountant. Then nobody’s heard from the laundress and the preacher’s wife. None of the five come back, nor does the preacher himself, who went missing at the same time his wife did.
The preacher’s parents make a heart-wrenching appeal to the public. The preacher was a man of God, they say. They hope he and his wife return to continue their blessed work. Several women—those the preacher’s wife never knew about but always suspected—watch the news through teary eyes. One sobs. He said there was something special about her; that’s why he was drawn to such a young girl, not quite seventeen.
In Lake Mirror, there are five new gators sliding in and out of the water. At night, there are fifteen. They croak at people strolling by at late hours, snap jaws in the air if they venture close to the water. The men walking by—it’s always men by Florida water in the dark—jump and shiver and laugh at themselves. Those who know better, those who feel in their bones that the night is not theirs any longer, call their mothers, their girlfriends, and ask if they can chat for a while, just until they make it home safely.
Sometimes, when the moon is full and the lake is quiet, a sixth gator in her human form stands by the water and sings. She is glad to be home again; she is often on the road to community choirs across Florida. The other gators hear her clear, bright call and recognize it for what it has always been: a beacon.
They call back.
It’s a chorus, stronger than before. All the voices are equal, all are powerful. They do not try to outsing one another, though some voices are naturally louder than others. Their bellows echo into the darkness.
Throughout Flatland Springs, women hear their sisters singing. They stop prodding their belly fat, texting absent husbands, holding back tears. They move to open windows and sit on cracked stoops and stand on metal apartment stairs, straining to hear the bellows that fade into a sea of crickets chirping.