Loaves and Fishes by Vanessa Hua (NOVEL EXCERPT)

guest-edited by Jennine Capó Crucet

 

        Of all the signs and wonders Prophet Alex Chan had ever witnessed, none stunned him as much as the stranger coming down the aisle during final boarding. The flight attendant had begun to shut the doors when the man in a grey hoodie and sunglasses slipped past her.

       Prophet Alex prayed that the man would go by, leaving the middle seat empty on the red-eye from San Francisco to Hong Kong. On flights, the white noise hum of the engines and the stale recycled air made his mind receptive to God’s small, still voice. The window seat passenger had draped her plaid scarf over her head, trying to sleep, but the stranger most certainly would crowd the armrest and most certainly would step over Prophet Alex to sit down.

       The stranger didn’t have a carry-on, the unencumbered sort who never handled a piece of paper or had to wait in lines. Sunglasses at night: trying hard not to be recognized, he was conspicuous as a rock star. When the man stood beside him, apologizing in a husky voice, Prophet Alex recognized him. Kingsway—the Hong Kong pop star, Kingsway Lee, in coach!  An improbability great as a plague of frogs, great as God descending into a burning bush, great as a man walking across water.

       Which is to say, a miracle, when Prophet Alex needed one most. 

       Rain lashed the scratched Plexiglas windows, blurring the lights of the ground crew at SFO. The late autumn storm had delayed the flight for forty minutes, and it was windy tonight, had been for days, strong enough to down power lines and blow apart heaps of leaves. 

       Kingsway bent his head over his phone, his thumbs pumping like pistons, and the flurry of chirping replies caught the attention of a flight attendant. 

       “Sir.” A brittle blonde, with the desiccated skin of a woman bombarded by solar radiation at high altitudes. “Your phone needs to be in airplane mode.”  

       With an apologetic smile—a smile that belonged in the light of a thousand paparazzi’s flashbulbs––Kingsway fiddled with the settings. The flight attendant’s stride faltered, and a giddy smile overcame her, as if she’d been doused with glitter. She turned her back and Kingsway resumed texting, with an intensity that suggested his fate rested upon these keystrokes.  He’d only pretended to disable cell service.

       The seatback screens, playing an introductory loop, froze and the picture pixilated, a hiccup in the in-flight entertainment system. Last year, Prophet Alex had taken a cross-country trip on which the system malfunctioned, turning the passengers restless and rude. On this thirteen-hour flight, if the system shut down, mutiny might break out. After the flight attendant flipped the latches on a wall cabinet and hit a reset button, white numbers and letters cascaded down everyone’s screens, like ancient computer code for a voyage to the moon. 

       She noticed Kingsway texting again, and told him to put his device away. He apologized and slipped the phone into the kangaroo pocket of his hoodie, but within moments, he was texting again. His hands furtive and compulsive, as if he were jacking off on a park bench. Prophet Alex peeked at an incoming message in a cartoon bubble: “Not now, not ever.”

       Kingsway was an American-born singer and actor who found fame —and now infamy—in Asia. All those pictures, all those naked starlets in Hong Kong, stolen off his laptop and circulating on the web. Last summer, the tabloids tracked Kingsway to his hometown, a wealthy suburb east of San Francisco, where he’d been accused of trying to seduce a girl—fifteen, sixteen years old?—and broken his nose in a fistfight. 

       After that, he’d disappeared from the headlines. In hiding, Kingsway might have tried to carve out another life, gone back to school or attempted another line of work. Prophet Alex had contemplated the same, and Kingsway must have also realized he wasn’t fit for any other calling.

 

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       Although the world had continued as usual after June 9th, Prophet Alex’s life had not. For almost a year, he’d told his followers to prepare for an earthquake and tsunami on that date. He’d dreamt of a massive wave that swamped the Golden Gate, its cables snapping, towers collapsing as a roiling wall of water swept around the Transamerica Tower and turned San Francisco’s fourteen hills into fourteen islands. After the waters receded, neighborhoods had been pulverized, strewn with crumpled cars, smashed boats, and snapped matchstick bodies. 

       He preached about the coming disaster, and his followers had stockpiled water, canned food, and medical supplies. Although he didn’t have his own church, he traveled the country, staging prayer meetings and revivals at colleges, attracting Asian Americans touched by his message of accepting and not trying to earn God’s love. About the difficulties of honoring your parents while putting the Lord first. (“You’re thinking, idolatry?  The golden calf?  False idols?  Your parents on a pedestal are no different.”)  His fans followed his blog, Twitter, and Instagram feeds, and downloaded his holy hip hop hits, “Liteshine” and “U Want Him.”  

       On the appointed day, he and two dozen of the most faithful gathered on Mt. Tam, by the fire lookout tower to greet the dawn with songs. Prayer warriors clad in work boots, cargo pants, and heavy leather gloves, armed with video cameras to document the disaster and their relief efforts.

       Hawks had wheeled and floated on the wind that carried the sun-warmed scent of eucalyptus and sage, in a blessed quiet he would never forget. Far below, June gloom had obscured much of San Francisco, smothering the city like tailpipe exhaust, which he hadn’t seen in his dream, but he wasn’t nervous, not until early afternoon, when their voices had gone hoarse and they’d run out of songs. People checked their email and surfed the web, the signal strong from a world that carried on. Then they left. 

       Prophet Alex had been certain, but he must have misunderstood. The Lord meant next year, or a decade from now. After all, John the Apostle’s vision of the apocalypse—the four horsemen, the seven-headed dragon, the sun black as sackcloth, the moon like blood—had yet to come to pass. Or maybe the earthquake had been averted through prayer; the people of Ninevah had been spared from destruction after they repented, fasted, and prayed. Perhaps he was supposed to learn that no one could predict the ways of the Lord. Another lesson: he’d flown too high, assumed too much, and God wanted him on his knees. 

       No one had died, no one had been hurt, and it might have blown over except online commentators posted it to Reddit, and he found himself picked apart, called a false prophet, a celebrity pastor, a con man not only because of this campaign but the Happiness Project, One Thousand Hugs, Burritos-by-Bicycle to the homeless—every bit of his brand as a preacher, motivational speaker, hip hop artist and faith healer. Sales plummeted on his Christian singles and his t-shirts, baseball caps, and iPhone cases with his slogan “Crazy love.” Churches and campus clubs cancelled speaking engagements, and he was forced to move in with his parents.

       Wings clipped, he couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat. When he tried to read the Scriptures for comfort, for an explanation for his misery, the verses swarmed before him. He couldn’t catch them, anymore than he could catch cinders flying off a fire. Nothing made sense. It was said such suffering was necessary, to share the pain of Jesus on the cross. To be humbled. To be purified. To shape servants of the Kingdom. Excuses, all. Nothing felt true but this: God had forsaken him.

       Then, like a rainbow over a flooded world—hope. God led him to an online ad for Awaken, a youth revival in Hong Kong, the kind that used to host him as a keynote speaker. 

       He booked the next available flight on the last of his airline miles, though he didn’t know where he’d stay, how to get on the conference schedule, or what he’d say. He’d redeem himself in a city where born-again billionaires built scale-model replicas of Noah’s Ark in the harbor, where spectacle was a measure of faith.

 

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       Kingsway gnawed on his thumbnail, and he jiggled his right leg in an electrocuted beat. Prophet Alex suspected he wasn’t returning victorious to Hong Kong, flying on the tab of a studio head or music producer for his comeback—not without an entourage and not in coach. He seemed shipwrecked, lost. And Prophet Alex had found him. All at once, he realized why they’d each boarded this plane. By flight’s end, he would share how he’d been saved. By flight’s end, he’d divine secrets known only to Kingsway—and to God. By flight’s end, Kingsway would agree to appear at the revival, whose organizers would rejoice in Prophet Alex and his star convert.

       Although your mistakes shaped you, you weren’t the sum of them. Judas and Peter had both denied Jesus before his death. Judas, leading the Roman soldiers to ambush Jesus in the olive grove. Peter, denying his master three times before the cock crowed. Both repented, but when Judas hung himself, his betrayal defined him. Peter lived on, served as chief of the apostles, and his failure of faith didn’t become his legacy.

       While the airplane pulled away from the gate, Kingsway jabbed at his phone. If the flight attendant spotted him texting, if he refused to stop, she’d kick him off.

       “Cabin crew, prepare for take-off,” the captain announced. Prophet Alex unbuckled his seatbelt and stood, trying to block the view of Kingsway as the blonde flight attendant approached. 

       “Sir, sit down.”

       “I gotta get something—” He stretched his arms, trying to shield Kingsway from her view. “Just give me a sec.”

       She told Prophet Alex he’d have to wait until the flight reached cruising altitude. Kingsway tucked his phone into his hoodie pocket and nodded at him. Did he understand that Prophet Alex had done him a favor? He might be suspicious of Prophet Alex and his motives, on guard against endless requests for an autograph, a picture, anything that could be sold to the tabloids. Yet he might also resent Prophet Alex, if he pretended he knew nothing about the sex scandal: the photos of the topless tattooed starlet, kneeling on a toilet seat, her back arched like a mermaid’s, and the glistening pink shade of Kingsway’s erect penis, a wad of watermelon bubble gum, the yawning mouth of a sea anemone. Or maybe, given the chance, Kingsway might want to introduce himself like anyone else.

       The flight attendant huffily retreated down the aisle.

        “Come fly the friendly skies,” Prophet Alex said. Kingsway didn’t laugh, didn’t say a word as he inserted his ear-buds, his message clear: Shut up. He asked God to reveal how he should counsel Kingsway. 

       Father, hear me. Answer me, because I need your help.

       Tinny music whined from the ear-buds as the airplane began to taxi, jouncing down the runway. Upon closer inspection, Kingsway’s glossy surfaces were smudged: a white smear on his black tee shirt, his fingernails ragged, and his shoulders damp with rain. Mud splashed his suede sneakers, stylish but impractical, with no arch support. His movements had a frenetic energy that Prophet Alex recognized—the wired buzz from sleepless nights and too much caffeine. 

       The engines revved and the plane gained speed, straining, swaying against the gusts. With the shriek of a pterodactyl, the landing gear retracted, and they were aloft, steeply climbing, the world at a tilt. Kingsway had gone pale and clammy as an earthworm. He wasn’t aloof. He seemed afraid to fly.

       The plane broke free of the clouds, outrunning the flashes of lighting that had the look of rockets over Baghdad. Kingsway slid his sunglasses off, turned on a movie, and didn’t look up when the flight attendants took drink orders and served dinner. As the cabin lights dimmed, Prophet Alex worried that Kingsway might never rise from his movie marathon. He watched so attentively he never blinked, his eyes glassy. Didn’t he need to stretch his legs? Kingsway’s bent knees brushed against his tray table. Prophet Alex was built like a fighter pilot, and whatever difficulties short men had in this world, sitting in coach wasn’t one of them.

       According to the flight tracker, the plane was cruising along the coast of California, bound for Alaska, crossing over the Bering Strait, Siberia, and speckles of Japan and Taiwan before landing in Hong Kong. Prophet Alex got up and paced, rounding the corner past the galley and front lavatories, praying for divine inspiration.

       God. God, please. I have nothing left. 

       He walked down the other aisle, before turning by the rear lavatories and completing the circuit. Kingsway hadn’t budged, and the blue light of the seatback screen flickered over his handsome face, the kind that launched hit movies, belonged on billboards, and opened hearts to the Lord. 

       After Prophet Alex made three loops around the body of the plane, lapping an Indian woman in a peacock blue sari and white sneakers, God answered with an idea so simple, so audacious, he almost laughed out loud. He’d reboot the entertainment system, temporarily disabling it and forcing Kingsway to look up. Located in a wall cabinet near the forward galley, where the blonde flight attendant bustled with trays. Prophet Alex would have to wait until she left, but the next time he came by, she was still stuffing trash into a plastic sack. “Walking all the way to Hong Kong?” 

       He forced a smile. His armpits and back wet with sweat. When would she take a break?  Nearing the rear lavatories, he caught an oppressive whiff of urine and floral air freshener. The toilet! He’d plug it up and tell the flight attendant, diverting her attention. After locking the door, he stuffed fistfuls of toilet paper into the bowl. He couldn’t stand airplane lavatories, where the walls pressed in, the sickly glow of the overhead light, the sticky floors, wet counters, and crumpled paper towels half-in, half-out of the garbage.

       He flushed and the mass disappeared with a violence that made him dizzy. Had he seen a flash of night sky, a glimmer from below, a light on the body of the airplane?  He searched for something else to flush. Maxi pads, and also the socks he yanked off and tossed into the bowl. Grimacing as his bare feet touched the floor speckled with bodily fluids, he hit the button and the toilet clogged with the sound of a dinosaur choking on a bone. 

       Exiting, he noticed the lavatory across the aisle was vacant, which seemed providential. If he caused two clogs, the flight attendant would stay busy, giving him time to figure out the master control panel for the entertainment system. His socks were gone, but he could sacrifice his underwear. He dropped his jeans around his ankles, braced himself against the wall with one hand and wiggled out. He caught sight of himself in the mirror, naked from the waist down, above the sign: “As a courtesy to the next passenger we suggest you use a towel to wipe off the basin.” Courtesy? He’d screwed over his fellow passengers, putting the forward toilets out of commission two hours into a transpacific flight.

       After Prophet Alex told the blonde flight attendant about the mess in both—both!—lavatories, she rushed out of the galley. He checked if anyone was watching, unlatched the wall cabinet, and discovered a touch-screen listing two options for resetting the entertainment system: an individual seat or the entire plane. He swiped “all,” closed the cabinet, and returned to his seat. Those awake groaned as numbers and text tumbled down their seatback screens. They rubbed their eyes and checked their watches, struck by the unhappy realization they had many miles left before reaching their destination. 

       Kingsway had slipped off his ear-buds and was talking to the passenger by the window, a pretty Chinese girl—Heidi, she said—and judging from her ecstatic expression, she must have recognized him. Kingsway’s overhead light was on, but not Heidi’s, adding to the sensation that he was shedding his brilliance on her. 

       “You fly often?” Prophet Alex asked. Neither replied, and he fought back his anger. If Kingsway gave him a chance, he’d see how much they had in common as fallen men. He glared at his tray-table, latched crookedly, that he wanted to punch until it lay flat. Everything squeezed him: the seat’s dark blue cloth patterned like a casino’s carpet, the institutional beige and grey of the plastic interior, the magazines jammed into the seatback pocket. The rising cabin temperature might have been pleasant in shorts and a t-shirt, but felt punishing now. His skin crawled, his bare feet in his sneakers and his swampy crotch. So thirsty he felt nauseous, he wanted an icy soda, but if he hit the call button, he couldn’t look at the flight attendant without confessing.  

       Kingsway took off his hoodie, his shirt pulling up to expose his abs and the V-shaped cut in the muscles of his torso. He left the hoodie crumpled on the seat and waited for the lavatory, in a line that stretched halfway down the main cabin. As the purser made an announcement, warning passengers not to touch the seatback screen during the system reboot, Heidi leaned over the middle seat.

       “What’s his name?” she asked. “I know he’s famous, but I can’t remember his name!”

       He could have helped her. Carlson Chung, he said. The only other Hong Kong film star he knew of, whose good looks bordered on girlish—flawless skin, a prepubescent gymnast’s body, and the huge, surgically enhanced eyes of an anime character—who didn’t resemble Kingsway. Cruel, to mislead her, but he wanted Kingsway humbled.

       “He’s filming a movie in California,” Prophet Alex said. A fake detail that would sting if she mentioned the project to Kingsway, the sort of work that he must have hoped to land again. “Somewhere by the beach.”

       “In Santa Monica? We haven’t been there since I was a kid.” Her family was wealthy enough to vacation in America. Pills snagged her cashmere sweater, the reddish-brown highlights in her hair had grown out, and her shaggy bob was overgrown and greasy. She resembled a lapdog gone missing from its designer tote, about to dash into the street. He understood at once that she—or her family—was struggling. She had a red sketchbook tucked into her seatback pocket, and he suspected—he knew—that she’d been a student at that expensive art academy in San Francisco, the one with the bus ads, the one with lax admissions standards, where foreign students paid a fortune for the privilege of a visa.

       “My mother loves the ocean.” A wistful tone, as if she doubted her family might go again. She toyed with her pendant, a pink crystal ribbon, the international symbol of breast cancer, a logo aiming for the brand recognition of Coke or McDonald’s. 

        “How long has she been sick?” he said, softly, so she’d have to strain to hear, so she’d focus on his words and wouldn’t let doubt creep in. 

       She stared at him. Even the most godless youth were hungry for miracles that might rescue them from a future that held melting ice caps, polluted air, school shooting rampages, a sinking economy, and zombies and vampires bursting through their front doors. Hungry for the meaning and purpose that only God could provide. 

       “It’s cancer, isn’t it?” He hadn’t planned on giving her a prophecy, but if God stirred in her, then she might speak on his behalf to Kingsway.

       Her eyes welled with tears, glistening in lashes lush and long, fakes applied a hair at a time. “How?” She didn’t seem to remember she wore an emblem of the disease.

       “God knows.” Jesus and his apostles performed miracles, revealed secrets, letting their audience experience the kingdom of God. Then, now, always. 

       She sucked in her breath. She’d probably confided in no one, crushed under the burden of her family’s secret. “You’re an emotional person, with a lot of compassion.” A vision of herself she wanted to see. How helpless she must have felt, time zones apart, how frustrated by the cryptic communications from her parents who didn’t want her to worry. 

       When Prophet Alex opened himself to the Holy Spirit, a God-given certainty overcame him, delivering secrets that shocked his listeners. Not always. Sometimes—often—the transmission was garbled, incomplete, or failed to arrive, forcing him to improvise.

       His mother, Madame Chan, taught him how. In addition to repairing mobile phones, televisions, DVD players, and other electronics, she told fortunes in the back of their Oakland shop. She charted out lucky dates for marriages and read palms and faces. Thick lips signified honesty and reliability. Thin eyebrows, a cold heart. A wide and deep groove above the lips predicted a smooth life. She asked broad questions about sickness and health, about love and wealth, universal concerns that clients applied to their lives.

       While doing his homework at the shop counter, he watched her unraveling their secrets with the authority she lacked in her halting English. She stroked the lines in their palms with an intimacy he never saw pass between his parents, and the clients gasped, awed by this visitation from the gods. Madame Chan had a gift, they marveled, and for a time, he’d agreed. When she lit the incense, he felt carried into the heavens that could not be found in the shrine, draped in red vinyl and buried under plastic lotus-flowers and cheap porcelain gods with blurred faces. Many clients traded goods and services for their reading. A grateful stylist permed his mother’s hair into a helmet that could have shielded her in a motorcycle crash. Another sent over so many pork buns, to this day, he couldn’t stand them. Another dry-cleaned and pressed their clothes, though the sharp crease in his jeans ruined his gangsta style. 

       If Madame Chan hit upon the truth, worry twisted the faces of her clients and slumped their shoulders. If she misspoke, she corrected herself, so quickly the client forgot the error. But if she had a gift, why was her family stuck in the ghetto, working fifteen-hour days? Why didn’t she predict the thieves who ripped off their shop a dozen times? She couldn’t save her own family or anyone else, and for a short time, before his arrest, he sold weed to give their family the riches they deserved: a designer purse for his mother, a flat-screen television for his father, and a microwave as powerful as a nuclear reactor. In juvie, he’d found God, filled with a serenity and love, his heart a kaleidoscope brilliant with light. A first-time high he was forever chasing, that he wanted to share with as many people as he could.

       He probed for conflict, wounds where he might offer solace. “Your father. Some men, when their wives get sick, can’t deal.” Heidi frowned, and he backtracked. “Your father isn’t like that. Praise God, he’s been at her side from the beginning.” 

       She wrapped her arms around herself. “Is she going to be okay?” 

       She needed hope, in this life and in the eternal. Hope that she couldn’t find anywhere else. He nodded. Amazing, the relief that flooded over Heidi’s face, the light in her eyes and her wide smile. His mother must have told fortunes, not only for the extra income, not only for the power she felt when people spilled their secrets, but because the readings gave clients the confidence to change their lives and follow the advice they found nowhere else.

       “You’re about to make a big decision,” Prophet Alex said. What his mother used to say—for why else would the client seek her out? Heidi dipped her head in affirmation. Most likely, she was deciding whether or not to leave school and stay in Hong Kong.

       Unlike his mother, he pushed people into the arms of the Lord. Apostle Paul drew followers because he understood their motivations and desires, and adjusted his message accordingly. To the Jews, he became a Jew, to win the Jews. To the weak, he became weak. Becoming all things to all men. Manipulative, but for the highest cause of all: to save their souls. With each prophecy, Prophet Alex was warming up, like a pitcher going through the windup before a game, preparing himself for visions from the Lord. 

       The earthquake had seemed like the sacred message he’d been waiting for, but it turned out God hadn’t spoken to him. Heidi reminded him of the good he might do. He felt jolted awake, as if out of a coma. God’s grace, circling them both. Most passengers were asleep now, slumped in awkward positions, as if they’d been hit by knock-out gas, and he wanted to tuck blankets under their chins and plump up pillows behind their heads. Anyone could find glory in God’s mountain vistas, His might in crashing waves, but Prophet Alex felt the spirit moving here in this drab airplane cabin. Pressing a hand to her shoulder, he asked her to pray. Tentatively, she clasped her hands together—“Like this?”—and closed her eyes. 

       What he admitted to no one, and would have hid from God if he could, was that the prophecies diminished Creation. A world reduced to types: Good Girls, afraid of their mothers, life and responsibility yet seeking excitement. Mama’s Boys, aching for success. Wise Guys, whose defenses fell with enough flattery. But if man was created in God’s image, when people flattened and shrank in the eyes of Prophet Alex, so too did God. 

       He prayed for Heidi’s mother, to transform her weakness into strength, but his thoughts returned to Kingsway. With a long line for the bathroom, by the time Kingsway returned, the entertainment system would finish rebooting and he’d plug himself back in, ignoring everyone—unless Prophet Alex swiped his finger across Kingsway’s seatback screen. It locked up, and he felt as Moses must have, parting the Red Sea with a sweep of his hands.

       Heidi opened her eyes. He’d trailed off in his prayers. “Let her be filled with patience and joy.” 

       What prophecy could he offer Kingsway? He heard nothing, not even static. Nothing, until he noticed Kingsway’s hoodie, cut from the microfiber of an astronaut’s spacesuit, left on the middle seat. He continued praying and Heidi closed her eyes. No one was coming down the aisle, but he hesitated. Going through Kingsway’s belongings broke the silent covenant everyone made with their neighbors on planes. People believed their fellow travelers would politely pass their drinks and wouldn’t stab them in the neck while they were sleeping. Yet hadn’t he already violated common decency when he clogged the toilet?

       “Restore your servant to full health.” He slid the phone from Kingsway’s hoodie and swiped his finger across the screen. He needed a pass code. Lord, oh Lord. Prophet Alex sensed a string of numbers—“1234”—the most frequently used password, he knew, after working at his family’s electronics shop. When that didn’t work, he tried another combination—“1111”—Kingsway must consider himself No. 1, and thank God, it worked. Heidi’s eyes squeezed shut, her hands clenched together, straining to feel Him. If she caught Prophet Alex, she’d scream. His palms went slick. The background photo was a sleeping newborn of an indeterminate sex. That surprised him. Kingsway’s secret love child? A few swipes and taps led to vicious texts between someone named Viann and Kingsway, each with avatars whose cuteness didn’t match the nasty exchange. She, standing on the Eiffel Tower; he, driving a red convertible.

       “Miss u,” Kingsway had written a day ago, and a few hours later, a pathetic “hey.” He must have carried the phone everywhere, into bed, into the bathroom, hoping every beep signaled her reply.

       “Do me a favor. Delete this number,” Viann wrote. His girlfriend? The name sounded familiar, but dozens of women had been linked to Kingsway in the media after the sex scandal.

       “im sorry.” If Kingsway was apologizing for the first time over text, he didn’t have a chance with this woman. Prophet Alex had never snooped like this, but if God had wanted to stop him, Heidi never would have closed her eyes. He peeked at the lavatories and didn’t see Kingsway in line. He might return any second, and Prophet Alex put the phone away. “Amen.” 

       “Amen,” Heidi repeated after him. She looked refreshed, as if she’d woken up from a massage. She rubbed lotion onto her hands with the scent of vanilla, the chemical sweet of ready-made frosting.

       Prophet Alex stepped aside, Kingsway sat down, and Heidi pulled out her sketchbook. She was going to ask for his autograph, ask for the wrong name because Prophet Alex had misled her. Before he could warn her, she blurted, “Carlson, my mother’s a huge fan.”

       Without flinching, Kingsway signed his showbiz rival’s name, sparing her the embarrassment, with a kindness and grace that Prophet Alex didn’t expect. The entertainment system finished rebooting and every seatback screen began to work, except for Kingsway’s. He rang for the flight attendant. 

       She pointed at the frozen screen. “You shouldn’t have touched it.” Another passenger approached, complaining about an overflowing toilet at the front of the plane. In the front? But Prophet Alex had plugged the toilets in the rear. The back of his neck prickled. If all the toilets were connected, then he might have caused an epic clog, his socks, his underwear in a logjam of shit and piss in the bowels of the plane.

       Heidi passed the sketchbook to Prophet Alex, asking if they could trade e-mails.

       Kingsway studied him, as Prophet Alex jotted down the information. Until then, he didn’t seem to think of Prophet Alex as much of a threat and didn’t think her much of a prize. Soon—Kingsway’s look seemed to say—he’d drape Heidi across his lap. Neither the first nor the last of his conquests, but then he seemed to reconsider. Collapsing in on himself, like a rogue wave disappearing into foam, exhausted and trapped as everyone else on the flight.

       Prophet Alex closed the sketchbook. “I see a cake with many candles. A birthday cake.”

       “He knows things,” Heidi said. “He knew all about my mother.”    

       “Breast cancer?” Kingsway pointed at her pink ribbon pendant. “Your necklace.”

       Her eyes clouded, the light of her new faith flickering. “But he knew about my father, he knew things no one else knows. He prayed for us.”

       Kingsway touched her hand. “I wouldn’t count on this guy, or anything he promises. He knows what people want to hear. To get what he wants.”

       “He didn’t ask for anything,” Heidi said.

       Prophet Alex leveled his gaze at Kingsway. “You miss her.” 

       Kingsway rubbed the back of his head and looked around the cabin. “Are you screwing with me? Are we being filmed?” Angry yet aching too, for any sign that he might recover the spotlight and might be delivered into the arms of the woman he loved.

       A flight attendant burst through the first class curtain, swift and grim as a doctor responding to a code blue, and huddled with the cabin crew by the lavatories. Prophet Alex couldn’t hear what they were saying. If all the toilets were broken, the plane would have to land.

       “What’s her mom’s name?” Kingsway asked. “Did God tell you that?”

       “Viann misses you too,” Prophet Alex said.

       “She does?” Kingsway had all but called him a con man, yet he still might believe because he wanted to believe. He shifted in his seat, his phone slid out of his hoodie, and clunked on the floor. He seemed to realize then what Prophet Alex had done. “You went through my messages.”

       Heidi shook her head. “I was here. He didn’t.” 

       “God has a plan for all of us,” Prophet Alex said. “You want ten thousand followers of Christ praying for your mother? For you? A million? Come to Awaken this weekend. God will be moving there.”

       “I’ll come,” Heidi said. If not for her seatbelt, she might levitate through the roof and into the heavens. “My parents too.”

       “How many?” Kingsway asked.

       “Some nights, enough to fill the coliseum,” Prophet Alex said. The city’s biggest venue. A miracle of numbers, of loaves and fishes multiplied, and the tactic he should have taken with Kingsway from the beginning.

       “Who goes?” Kingsway asked. Old fans, and a chance for new ones.

       “High school and college students hungry for the word of God. Hungry to know they’re not alone, hungry for God’s forgiveness. For God’s love.” 

       Kingsway’s face filled with longing and desperation, like that of a child reaching for the forbidden on an impossibly high shelf. He must be dreaming of what would follow if he proclaimed he’d found God.

       A cattle yard smell drifted from the lavatories. The fasten-seat belt sign went on, and passengers groggily woke up and smacked their lips, dry-mouthed. Prophet Alex suspected the captain would soon announce a change in plans due to the backed-up toilets. He reached for Heidi’s hand, over Kingsway’s lap. He wanted to form a prayer circle, but Kingsway folded his arms across his chest, crackling with the don’t-touch of a live wire. 

       “You may feel strange, up in the air.” Prophet Alex said. “But you’ll know it, feel it, when you’re standing on solid ground.”

       “Folks, our apologies,” the captain said.  “We’ll be making an unscheduled landing in Anchorage.”

       Landing. Just as Prophet Alex had predicted. Heidi gasped. The engine noise softened and it felt like the plane was suspended mid-air, seconds from plummeting.

       “The toilets are inoperable, and we have to clear them. Please stay seated for the remainder of the flight.” A few passengers laughed, others muttered in disgust or crossed their legs, regretting the second soda or cup of coffee, jittery and off-kilter from interrupted sleep. 

       The plane hit turbulence—the straining that accompanied descent, or shaking from the hand of God? A baby wailed, a sound that pierced between the eyes like a throwing star, and the overhead bins rattled so loudly it sounded as if the doors might burst open. Kingsway’s breath turned shallow and panicked, the sound of a man being buried alive. His odor gamey and mildewed, like a wrestling mat. 

       If he calmed Kingsway, the star might begin to trust him. And if the panic attack spiraled, turned into the worst Kingsway had ever suffered, he’d be grateful when Prophet Alex talked him out of it.

       “Planes don’t crash every day.” Prophet Alex dug out the airsickness bag in the seatback pocket, and thrust it into Kingsway’s face. Kingsway rocked back and forth in his seat like a Muslim boy in a madrassa, as the captain ordered the flight attendants to take their seats.

       “We’re not going to crash,” Prophet Alex said. “Don’t think about it. That flight disappearing over the Indian Ocean—that never happens. Almost never.” 

       Groaning, Kingsway dipped his head low, his eyes blank as a drowning victim’s. 

       “Can you lift your arms? Lift your arms,” Prophet Alex said. Slowly, Kingsway raised his arms, his fingers limp, as if he were a zombie. 

       “Up and down. Up and down.” 

       Kingsway complied, though he was panting when told to draw out his breathes for two, four, and finally six seconds as the plane eased off. Prophet Alex rubbed Kingsway’s damp back. A touch that he cherished, whether blessing a newly baptized Christian emerging from the waves, or laying hands on a teenager in the throes of demonic possession. A touch that healed Prophet Alex as much as it healed those he ministered. “I see us on stage.” His voice booming, as if he’d never left the pulpit, as if confidence and volume would bring his vision to life. “People are cheering, sending you so much love. They love you, always have, love you even more after you share your story.” 

       He gripped Kingsway’s sticky hands. Eventually, Kingsway might believe. Conviction once would have mattered to Prophet Alex, but not now, maybe not ever again. The spotlight at the revival would be bright and blinding as a nuclear blast, and the roar fit for Jay-Z. Smoke machines, giant video screens, and purple strobe lights, God blasting like a wall of speakers, he and Kingsway center stage where they belonged. The plane banked sharply and descended. Prophet Alex’s ears ached and sounds grew muffled until he could no longer hear himself, only a singsong drone that presumed the voice of God.

 


Contributor Notes

Vanessa Hua is the recipient of the James D. Phelan Award for Fiction. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, ZYZZVA, Calyx, New York Times, PRI’s The World, FRONTLINE/World, New Yorker online, and elsewhere. Previously, she was a staff writer at the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, and Hartford Courant, and has filed stories from China, Burma, South Korea, and Panama. She is a graduate of Stanford University and UC Riverside's MFA program, and a recent Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing. Find her online at www.vanessahua.com