Beauty Queens



Thump-thump-thump-thump! The trees reverberated with the joyful cry of a Hindi love song from Shanti’s Greatest Bollywood Hits CD. The curtain that had been hung between two poles parted. Decked out in a glittering blue sari, Shanti stood front and center, lip-synching to the Indian love song. Behind her, the girls’ bangled arms fanned out like Kali’s. The music changed to a percussive rhythm. The girls peeled off and formed a line across the stage. They reached behind them for the plane seat cushions, which they tossed to one another like juggling pins while Petra ducked under, scooting to the front. Like a Bollywood flight attendant, she used two fingers on each hand to indicate the location of the exits — forward, back, over the wings. Her execution was flawless.

The girls jerked left, then right, simulating the plane crash in dance. They broke apart, and several of the girls slipped behind the curtains as if being sucked from the plane. They waited until they were sure the guards’ attention was on the stage, then they sneaked behind the Jeep and into the jungle to make their way to the ship.

Under the lights, Jennifer sidewinded across the stage, letting Sosie mock-throw a jar of Lady ’Stache Off at her. Jennifer “exploded” and rolled offstage while Sosie blew on the jar as if it were a gun — eliciting chuckles again — and placed the jar in the sand at the end of the runway. She executed three perfect backflips to applause and joined Jen backstage. Jen jerked her head toward the jungle and the two of them scuttled into the cover of leaves. They climbed the nearest tree and searched for the vine that would carry them to the next tree in a contagion that would take them nearly to the compound.

As Shanti lip-synched nervously, the girls backed toward the curtains, trying to follow her lead in the dance. Petra produced the flare gun from her cle**age, and it was passed from hand to hand until it came to rest with Adina, who dropped into a firing pose. She aimed at the jar of Lady ’Stache Off, but the flare gun jammed in the island humidity. The girls glanced at her in panic, then resumed their smiles. Quickly, Shanti grabbed the gun and tossed it to Petra.

“WTF?” Petra said through clenched teeth as they performed a pop-and-lock imitation of fighting a tsunami.

“Fire!” Adina whispered.

Petra took a shot, but the trigger was still stuck. “Damn,” she said and tossed the gun to Nicole. Back and forth the flare gun flew, the girls never breaking stride. The song was coming to an end, and the girls felt real panic. Unless they could create a distraction, how could they escape? Finally, the last note was played. The gun came to rest in Tiara’s hand. She pressed the trigger all the way. A fireball arced through the crowd and ignited a palm tree.

“Operation Peacock is go.” Agent Jones spoke into his hidden mic and the troop of black shirts disguised as Republic of ChaCha rebels burst from the jungle bearing machine guns, shouting and shooting into the air. In the audience, the Corporation employees screamed and dove for cover under their seats. Some ran for the beach and the disguised black shirts shot them down. Shanti made a dive for the flare gun, but one of the black shirts kicked it out of the way.

The Peacock stood on the sidelines, a dazed look on his face. “What is the meaning of this?” he finally shouted, but the cameras did not swing in his direction. They were focused tightly on the performance area.

“Death to the capitalist symbols!” a fake rebel shouted.

The fake rebels raised their guns. The girls formed a huddle. If they were going out, they were going out together.

“In the name of the Republic of ChaCha, we —”

The curtains parted with a sudden arrival.

“What the hell is that?” one of the black shirts said.

Miss Miss rattled down the runway on squeaky wheels, but she was no longer clad in just a sash. No, Miss Miss had come to compete in a slinky pink evening gown that stretched across her misshapen body. Her coconut-shell face had been heavily made up with blue eye shadow, rouge, and red lipstick. A chipped rhinestone crown topped her busted wig-of-many-hairpieces. On her right, her twig arm had been turned upward, as if in a wave. The momentum, which had propelled her onto the runway, faded away. Miss Miss tottered slightly on her wheels and at last came to a stop near the end of the runway, where she sat, waiting, like some ancient idol. For a moment, everyone was utterly spellbound. Even the ocean quieted to a gentle purr.

The hiss of walkie-talkie static punctured the stillness. Taylor’s voice rang out. “Miss Teen Dream is a light in the darkness. Patriot Daughters can and Patriot Daughters do!”

“Do you hear that?” Agent Jones’s voice could just be heard coming through the earpiece of a fake rebel.