Beauty Queens

13,075
05.03.2019

Shanti pointed to the volcano. “I hope that’s not active,” she said in a slightly British Indian–inflected voice.

The girls walked in the direction of the smoke and possible survivors, chaperones or handlers who might take charge and make everything better. They trekked through the inhospitable growth, breathing in gelatin-thick humidity mixed with soot and smoke. The jungle sounds were what they noticed first: Thick. Percussive. A thrumming heartbeat of danger wrapped in a muscular green. Sweat beaded across their upper lips and matted their sashes to their bodies. A bird shrieked from a nearby tree, making all the girls except Taylor jump.

“The smoke’s comin’ from over there, Miss Teen Dreamers,” Taylor said. She veered to the right, and the girls followed.

The jungle gave way to a small clearing.

“Holy moly …” Mary Lou said.

Enormous totems rose next to the trees. With their angry mouths, jagged teeth, and bloodred, pupilless eyes, they were clearly meant to frighten. But who had built them and what were they supposed to frighten away? The girls huddled closer together, alert and terrified.

“You think there might be cannibals here?” Mary Lou whispered.

“Maybe these have been here for centuries and the people who built them are long gone,” Adina said without conviction.

Shanti put up a hand. “Wait. Did you hear that?”

“Hear what?” Petra said.

“It came from over there!” Shanti pointed to a copse just beyond the ring of totems. The sound came again: a grunting. Something was moving through the bushes.

“Grab whatever you can,” Taylor instructed. She yanked a heavy switch from a tree. “Follow my lead.”

Shanti, Mary Lou, Tiara, and Petra picked up handfuls of rocks. Adina could find nothing but a measly stick. Taylor held up three fingers, counting down to one. “Now!”

The girls launched the rocks and sticks at the jungle. From behind a bush came a hiss of pain.

“Lost Girls, hold your fire,” Taylor instructed.

A willowy girl wrapped in a singed navy blanket stepped out into the open, moaning. Her skin was the same deep brown as the carved figures.

“I’ll try to communicate,” Taylor said. She spoke slowly and deliberately. “Hello! We need help. Is your village close?”

“My village is Denver. And I think it’s a long way from here. I’m Nicole Ade. Miss Colorado.”

“We have a Colorado where we’re from, too!” Tiara said. She swiveled her hips, spread her arms wide, then brought her hands together prayer-style and bowed. “Kipa aloha.”

Nicole stared. “I speak English. I’m American. Also, did you learn those moves from Barbie’s Hawaiian Vacation DVD?”

“Ohmigosh, yes! Do your people have that, too?”

Petra stepped forward. “Hi. I’m Petra West. Miss Rhode Island. Are you okay?”

“Yeah. I’m fine. A little sore and scratched up from where I got thrown into some bushes, but no contusions or signs of internal bleeding.” Nicole allowed a small smile. “I’m pre-pre-med.”

Shanti frowned. She’d hoped to have the ethnic thing sewn up. Having a black pre-pre-med contestant wasn’t going to help her. She covered her unease with a wide smile. “It’s good we found you.”

Taylor sheathed her makeshift club. “We’re trying to find survivors. Did you see anybody else out here?”

Nicole shook her head. “Just a lot of dead chaperones and camera crew. I was scared I was the only one left alive. Are we the only ones?”

Tiara shook her head. “We left the Sparkle Ponies on the beach to tend to the wounded. We’re the Lost Girls. Oh, but you can choose to be a Sparkle Pony if you want. You don’t have to be a Lost Girl.”

For a second, Nicole wasn’t sure that she should go with these white girls. They sounded like they’d gone straight-up crazy, and the only other brown girl was giving her an eyeful of attitude. Nicole did what she’d been taught since she was little and her parents had moved into an all-white neighborhood: She smiled and made herself seem as friendly and nonthreatening as possible. It’s what she did when she met the parents of her friends. There was always that split second — something almost felt rather than seen — when the parents’ faces would register a tiny shock, a palpable discomfort with Nicole’s “otherness.” And Nicole would smile wide and say how nice it was to come over. She would call the parents Mr. or Mrs., never by their first names. Their suspicion would ebb away, replaced by an unspoken but nonetheless palpable pride in her “good breeding,” for which they should take no credit but did anyway. Nicole could never quite relax in these homes. She’d spend the evening perched on the edge of the couch, ready to make a quick getaway. By the time she left, she’d have bitten her nails and cuticles ragged, and her mother would shake her head and say she was going to make her wear gloves.