Taylor tried to lead the way, but many of the girls ran scattershot for the forbidding jungle, scrambling over brambles, scraping their tender flesh against the prickly trunks of the palms. They were nearly up the first hill when the wave hit full force, upending girls like bowling pins, the fast-moving current carrying them down, out, under.
Tiara, Shanti, and Nicole had managed to climb into the branches of an ornately limbed tree. Below them, Petra held tight to a low-lying branch with a precarious crack in it. The water tugged at her overnight case, bending the tree dangerously close to the raging waters and threatening to bring them all down.
“You have to let go!” Shanti yelled.
“I can’t!” Petra shouted. If she let go, her pageant dreams and her secret, more important dream would wash away with it.
“Let it go!” Shanti tried to kick the case loose. The strain broke the tree’s limb, and the four girls plummeted into the water and were borne along by the fast-moving current. They bobbed up and down like a wet Whack-A-Mole game, their screams cut off only when they disappeared for a few seconds before fighting their way back to the surface. They barely even noticed the falls as they slipped over them.
Jennifer had been the first one away from the beach. She broke right, running hard and fast toward the volcano and the mist-shrouded circle of mountains that bordered it. The water caught her like a giant Slip ’N Slide, spinning her through trees, making her dizzy.
“Holy f —!” she managed before going under again, as if the water sensed that young ladies of such beauty and promise should never curse.
“Move, move, move!” Taylor shouted to her crew as the angry sea chased them relentlessly. “Go higher, Teen Dreamers!”
The girls clambered over the steep terrain. The growth was thick here, and the ground turned to mud as if by an alchemist’s touch, but they managed to reach the top of the mountain.
Taylor addressed the soaking, exhausted survivors. “Ladybird Hope says a lady’s true colors come out in times of crisis. These circumstances are not as big as you are! We are bright, shining lights in the darkness, and nothing can extinguish the fierce light of a Miss Teen Dream’s true heart.”
“That’s mixing your metaphors!” Adina spat out bits of mud and grass.
“Don’t be a hater, Miss New Hampshire,” Taylor scolded.
“I hate everything about this! It’s the beauty pageant from hell! I didn’t even want to be a Miss Teen Dream! Do you know why I’m here? I’m an investigative reporter for the New Castle Knights school paper. I embedded myself so I could expose the pageant from the inside.”
“That explains the budget weave,” Miss Ohio said.
Adina whipped around. “This is my own hair.”
Miss Ohio put her hands up in a “whatever” gesture.
“Why did you want to do that?” Mary Lou asked.
“Because it’s wrong! It exploits women. We’re parading around in bathing suits and evening gowns, letting people judge us for the way we look. No wonder the world doesn’t take us seriously.”
“What’s wrong with wanting to look pretty?” Brittani asked.
Taylor’s face was as hard as the lava cliffs jutting up from the island green. “I am shocked, Miss New Hampshire. You are a real Judas. When we get back, I intend to make a full report to the pageant officials and have you replaced with your state’s first runner-up.”
Adina threw her hands in the air and laughed bitterly. “Fine. You do that. IF we ever get back, Little Miss Perfect!”
“For your information, I have not held the title of Little Miss Perfect since I was six. We will be rescued, Miss Teen Dreamers. I have absolute faith in that. And you, Miss New Hampshire, will be reported.”
“Cripes, you guys. Let’s not fight. At least we’re safe here,” Mary Lou said.
The muddy ground shook. Adina’s eyes widened. “Oh sh —” The earth beneath them gave way suddenly, and the girls were swept down the mountainside in a spiral of mud and sequins and screams.
LIVE ON BARRY REX LIVE
BARRY REX: Ladybird Hope, thank you for joining us tonight.
LADYBIRD HOPE: You betcha, Barry. I just want to assure everybody out there in our great nation that we’re doing everything we can to make sure we bring these girls home safe. You know, Barry, it just makes my heart kinda sick when I think of all the bad girls whose planes could have gone down. It’s such a tragedy that these sweet girls who follow the rules set down for women through the ages while also learning to walk in bathing suits and heels are the ones who are now missing. Some of those bathing suits are from my own Ladybird Hope, Pageant Princess swimwear line, which is America’s bestselling teen swimwear line, by the way.