“Balls,” Miss Ohio whispered.
“No. We didn’t know. We were duped. But now that we do know, we can’t continue to fraternize with Miss Rhode Island. It’s against the rules.”
Adina was on her feet. “What? That’s ridiculous! We’re on a deserted island, for chrissakes! We’re way beyond the rules of some stupid pageant here!”
“Rules are rules, Miss New Hampshire. They exist for a reason. For taking the Lord’s name in vain, you owe me another quarter. You also spoke without the baton. Latrine duty for you, too.”
“Yes!” Miss Ohio mouthed while making a small fist pump.
Adina’s hand shot up. “Permission to speak!” She wiggled her fingers.
Taylor let them hang there.
“Permission to speak,” Mary Lou said.
“Recognizing Miss Nebraska.” Taylor handed Mary Lou the baton, casting a triumphant glance at Adina.
“Well, um, I just want to say that I’ve read the rule book cover to cover and there’s no specific rule against a transgender contestant,” Mary Lou said in a halting voice. “Not a single one. So, technically, we’re not breaking the rules.”
“But … she’s a he! A guy!” Shanti growled.
“Says who? What makes a girl a girl? What makes a guy a guy?” Petra asked. Her eyes blazed in the firelight. Quickly, Mary Lou shoved the baton at her. “Do you have to be what they want you to be? Or do you stop and listen to that voice inside you? I know who I am. I’m Petra West. And I’m a girl. You want me to sleep somewhere else, fine. Whatever. But I’m not going to pretend to be somebody I’m not. I’ve done enough of that.”
Adina stood and linked arms with Petra. “If Petra goes, so do I.”
Nicole jumped up. “Me, too.”
“Word,” said Jennifer. “And I’ll be taking the radio.”
Taylor reached a hand out for the baton and Petra relinquished it. “I think this is a matter for the pageant officials to decide. But since there’s no specific rule against Miss Rhode Island being with us as dictated by the official Miss Teen Dream handbook, I move that we all stay together for the time being. All those in favor say aye.”
The ayes were strong.
“All those opposed.”
A few nays straggled in.
“Motion carries. Miss Rhode Island bunks with us. Let’s get some sleep, Miss Teen Dreamers. Tomorrow’s going to be a real busy day. And I, for one, do not intend to have puffy eyes. Miss New Hampshire, you’re on first watch.”
The girls filed out. Nicole and Adina gave Shanti dirty looks on the way past, and Shanti felt shamed and unfairly picked on.
“Look, I wasn’t trying to ostracize anybody. It’s just that she — he lied about who he was.”
Petra turned to her. “Everybody lies about who they are. Name one person here who isn’t doing that and I will drop out right now!”
Shanti felt that snake of truth coil around her legs, threatening to squeeze.
“I didn’t mean …”
“No one ever does,” Petra said, shoving the baton back at Shanti.
THE REPUBLIC OF CHACHA
MoMo B. ChaCha was not happy. His favorite pajamas were not yet back from the cleaners. When MoMo was unhappy everyone was unhappy. With a sigh, he settled on a pair of cotton pj’s. In the morning, he would have the cleaners assassinated.
MoMo removed his custom Elvis-with-sideburns hairpiece and placed it carefully on the plaster of Paris wig form made to look just like MoMo, complete with long, fat mustache and oversize sunglasses. Without the wig, the dictator’s head was like a smooth pond covered by thin strands of brown floss, strands that had grown thinner during the fifteen years, four months, three days, and twenty-two hours he had been absolute ruler of the Republic of ChaCha. It was a small country, but rich in natural resources of the type that made other countries bend over backward to accommodate it. For this reason only, MoMo had a seat in the UN where, on more than one occasion, he had stood on the table in his platform shoes and ermine-trimmed bell-bottoms and danced out his protest against U.S. sanctions. He hated everything about the country of the Miss Teen Dream Pageant, except for three things: Elvis Presley, the greatest entertainer who ever lived; reality TV, especially the raucous Captains Bodacious; and Ladybird Hope.
For this reason, every night after dinner and executions, he would retire to his secret bedroom on his private yacht, which had been wallpapered ceiling to floor in photos of Ladybird Hope. He would don his Elvis Comeback Special black jumpsuit pajamas, crawl into his heart-shaped bed, and pretend that Ladybird was beside him, as if they were a couple on an American sitcom.