Beauty Queens


“Y’all come on down and gather round, horseshoe formation — thank you. Some of y’all can fill in here in front where there are gaps.”

The girls did as they were told, happy that someone had taken the reins.

“Hi. I’m Taylor Rene Krystal Hawkins, and I’m Miss Teen Dream Texas, the state where dreams are bigger and better — nothing against y’all’s states. I’m a senior at George Walker Bush High School and I hope to pursue a career as a motivational speaker.”

There was polite, automatic applause. A dazed girl beside Adina said, “I want to pursue a career in the exciting world of weight-management broadcast journalism. And help kids not have cancer and stuff.”

Miss Texas spoke again: “Okay, Miss Teen Dreamers, I know we’re all real flustered and everything. But we’re alive. And I think before anything else we need to pray to the one we love.”

A girl raised her hand. “J. T. Woodland3?”

“I’m talkin’ about my personal copilot, Jesus Christ.”

“Someone should tell her personal copilot that His landings suck,” Miss Michigan muttered. She was a lithe redhead with the pantherlike carriage of a professional athlete.

“Dear Jesus,” Taylor started. The girls bowed their heads, except for Adina.

“Don’t you want to pray?” Mary Lou whispered.

“I’m Jewish. Not big on the Jesus.”

“Oh. I didn’t know they had any Jewish people in New Hampshire. You should make that one of your Fun Facts About Me!”

Adina opened her mouth but couldn’t think of anything to say.

“Ahem. Dear Jesus,” Taylor intoned more fervently. “We just want to thank you for gettin’ us here safe —”

There was a loud, gurgling groan. Somebody shouted, “Oh my gosh! Miss Delaware just died!”

“— for gettin’ some of us here safe,” Taylor continued. “And we pray that, as we are fine, upstandin’, law-abidin’ girls who represent the best of the best, you will protect us from harm and keep us safe until we are rescued and can tell our story to People magazine. Amen.”

“Amen,” the girls echoed, then fell into noisy chatter. Where were they? What would happen to them? Would they be rescued? Where were the adults? Was this something to do with the war?

“Teen Dream Misses!” Taylor singsonged above the din, smiling. “My stars. It’s gettin’ kinda noisy. Now. My daddy is a general, and I know what he’d say if he were here: We need to do a recon mission, see if there are any more survivors, and tend to the wounded.”

“My head kinda hurts,” Miss New Mexico said. Several of the girls gasped. Half of an airline serving tray was lodged in her forehead, forming a small blue canopy over her eyes.

“What is it?” Miss New Mexico checked to make sure her bra straps weren’t showing.

“N-nothing.” Miss Ohio managed an awkward smile.

“First things first,” Taylor said. “Any of y’all have first-aid training?”

Miss Alabama’s hand shot up at the same time as Miss Mississippi’s. They were both artificially tanned and bleach-blond, with the same expertly layered long hair. If not for the ragged state sashes they still wore, it would be hard to tell them apart.

“Names?” Taylor prompted.

“I’m Tiara with an A,” said Miss Mississippi.

“I’m Brittani with an I,” said Miss Alabama. “I got my Scouting Badge in First Aid.”

“Ohmigosh, me, too!” Tiara threw her arms around Brittani. “You’re so nice. If it’s not me, I hope you win.”

“No, I hope YOU win!”

“Ladies, this part is not a competition,” Taylor said. “Okay. Miss Alabama and Miss Mississippi are on first-aid duty. Anybody have a phone that survived?”

Two of the girls brought forward phones. One was water damaged. The other could not get a signal.

Adina spoke up. “Maybe we should have a roll call, see who’s here and who’s missing.”

Missing settled over the girls like a sudden coat of snow shaken loose from an awning, and they moved forward on autopilot, dazed smiles in place, and stated their names and representative states. Occasionally, one would divulge that she was an honors student or a cheerleader or a volunteer at a soup kitchen, as if, in this moment of collective horror, they could not divorce themselves from who they had been before, when such information was required, when it got them from one pageant to the next, all the way to the big one. Of the fifty states, only twelve girl representatives were accounted for, including Miss California, Shanti Singh; Miss Michigan, Jennifer Huberman; and Miss Rhode Island, Petra West, who, ironically, was the biggest girl in the pageant at nearly six feet. Some girls argued over whether the death of Miss Massachusetts — favored by bookies to win the whole thing — meant that the competition would never feel entirely fair.