Beauty Queens


“Mom, my plane crashed on this island and we had no food and people died and —”

“Don’t you worry, baby. We’ll get you fixed up in no time.” Her mother reached over and patted a collage taped to the wall. The glossy pictures had all been torn from magazines, a collection of pale, blond, hipless women with aquiline noses, bony legs, blank eyes, and thin, wan smiles. The body parts had been taped together like a series of lines, more Bauhaus building than woman. Sighing, Nicole’s mom ran a hand over the thickness of her thighs, the roundness of her bottom, and it was as if Nicole could feel the shame in her own body. “It won’t do, baby. It won’t do at all.”

“What should we do?” Nicole asked.

Nicole’s mother turned to her. It was hard to see her features under so much cover. Only her eyes shone out, wide and afraid. “The giant’s coming,” she whispered. “We don’t have much time to get you ready, Ne-Ne.”

“Ready for what?”

Her mother clapped and the sidekicks danced into the room. One did the moonwalk. They struck their poses, hips cocked, lips pursed, palms out in a talk-to-the-hand motion.

“I know you,” Nicole said to them. “You did pageants before you went to Hollywood. Now you’re on TV.”

“That’s right. We’re the sassy black sidekicks.”

“You know, the best friend of the main character.”

“The comic relief.”

“The ones who can put you down and tell you off.”

“I’ve been working on my head swivel. Wanna see my head swivel?”

“What happened to you?” Nicole said, going down the line. “You used to play Bach on the viola and work at a nonprofit after school. You wanted to go to London and start that cool underground theater and you never, ever moonwalked. And you … you were Episcopalian.”

Number 3 swiveled her head perfectly. “Not no more, sugar.”

“Why are you talking like that? What’s with the double negatives?”

“I’m about to double negative your head in a minute!” She snapped twice, and the laugh track erupted again. In it, Nicole heard barks and screams.

The ground shook. Nicole’s mother gasped and the girls went into their head-swiveling, finger-snapping minstrel show at a frenzied pace.

“What’s happening?”

Number 1 offered Nicole’s mother a large pair of garden shears. Her mother looked balefully to the collage. “It’s the only way, baby.”

Nicole understood and she felt frightened. She didn’t want to cut herself down. The jungle shook with a giant’s footsteps.

“Quick!” Nicole’s mother lunged at her with the scissors and Nicole ran out of the house and into the menacing shelter of the jungle. Behind her, footsteps thundered. Trees cracked and fell. The jungle was losing color, becoming a silhouette. The white space nipped at Nicole’s heels, tugged at her hair. She could not outrun it, and then she was lost inside, a feathery black cutout in the background, her hand still reaching for safety.



09:00 HOURS

Inside the volcano, the elevator’s thick steel doors whisked open. Agent Jones entered the control room. Glowing green maps flickered on wall-size screens. The constant hum of work filled the cavernous space — the clicking of fingers on keyboards. This base had existed for some time, privately financed by interested parties. Unregulated by the government, it had operated without rules or oversight, almost as its own country, and it had done as it pleased. But now, the island’s resources were nearly tapped out. Something new was needed. That’s why there was Operation Peacock.

The agent poured himself a cup of free trade coffee from the wheezing pot, took a sip, and frowned. French Roast. Was it so hard for these guys to get Hazelnut like he’d asked? Every month, he filled out coffee requisition forms in triplicate. To date, they’d received Arabica, French Vanilla, House Blend, Viennese, even Kona. But no Hazelnut. The agent sighed in irritation.

“Yo, Agent Jones, my main man!” An Ivy Leaguer in a Lakers T-shirt popped his head above the cubicle partition. Harris Buffington Ewell Davis III, aka the Dweeb, was the son of The Corporation’s former CEO. The kid had never held a job in his life and was spending his summer break from the Ivy League here, ostensibly to get training. Mostly he played covert games of Pong and annoyed the hell out of Agent Jones. “What’s going on?” Harris raised his hand for a slap.

Agent Jones left the kid’s hand kissing air. “Hello, Harris. How’s production going?”