Beauty Queens

13,077
05.03.2019

“Careful,” she warned Nicole, who’d gotten close. “It’s really hot.”

“Now watch.” With a flourish, Miss Ohio dropped a fish on the metal’s steaming hot surface. It sizzled and popped.

“It’s a solar hibachi,” Miss Ohio explained, serving up a perfectly done fillet. “I used a safety razor to descale the fish, rinsed it in a little of the freshwater, and now …” Using the handle of a hairbrush, she scooped up the fish and dropped it onto a mound of clean rocks. “Miss New Mexico?”

Miss New Mexico took a bite and rolled her eyes in bliss. “OMG, this is so good, I’m not even going to make myself barf it back up.”

“Tiara and I caught the fish with these!” Brittani said, brandishing a pair of straightening irons.

“Awesome!” Mary Lou high-fived them.

“This is so cool. How did you come up with this?” Adina asked. “Hello!” Miss Ohio rolled her eyes. “I’m from the Buckeye State. We are serious about our tailgating parties. I can turn anything into a grill.”

Petra sat surrounded by fabric strips. That morning, she’d ripped apart swimsuits and dance costumes. She’d fashioned a needle from a fish bone and stripped plant roots down to a stiff, thin thread. From a dead girl’s evening gown, she’d harvested sequins; from another girl’s jewelry pouch, she’d taken rhinestone earrings. These elements she sewed into a colorful banner with sparkles to catch the sun. When she was finished, they would stretch the banner between two trees in the hope that it would draw the attention of a passing plane or ship. Petra had been hunched over in the same position for hours. Her fingers ached. At last she finished, smiling at the message she’d sewn into the center. If that didn’t get somebody’s attention, they were lost for sure.

Mary Lou and Sosie gathered rocks and pebbles from the beach and spelled out the word HELP along the shore so that it might be seen from a passing plane. At the end of the word, Sosie made an exclamation mark with a smiley face at the bottom.

“That way, they’ll know we’re friendly,” she reasoned.

Jennifer took off the back cover of the radio and examined the tangled inner workings. It was a mess and more complicated than anything she’d worked on before. Why had she been so quick to volunteer? To promise the girls that she could get it up and running? What if she couldn’t? They were counting on her. That in and of itself was an odd feeling. Nobody counted on her. Back home, she’d been written off so many times and by so many people, she’d begun to feel like a comic book character who’d died but wouldn’t stay down. She knew what they thought when they saw her: Trash. Wrong side of the tracks. Dyke. Juvenile delinquent. Rehabilitation project.

When Jennifer had stepped in to take over for Miss Michigan after the first girl broke her leg skiing and the second had to go to anorexia camp, she knew no one expected much from her. “Just do your best,” her social worker had said, giving her a lame thumbs-up. Nobody expected anything from girls like Jennifer, except for them to drop out, get pregnant, f**k up. She stared hopelessly at the tangle of red, blue, green, and white wires. If she were like her comic book alter ego, the Flint Avenger, she’d have this up in a nanosecond. But she wasn’t. She was Jennifer, and she was utterly baffled.

“Can you fix it?” Sosie asked. She made the sign for fix and Jennifer repeated it. Sosie bit her lip, waiting for an answer.

Jennifer gave her a thumbs-up. Sosie hugged her and Jennifer closed her eyes, inhaling the slightly salty smell of her hair. She watched her go, then turned her attentions back to the radio and the strange, beautiful mystery of wires.

Adina and Mary Lou stood thigh-deep in the cool, clear lagoon where Adina tried her luck and her new, pumice-sharpened spear on the fish. So far, the fish had proved wilier than they’d imagined. Each time, Adina missed and the spear struck the muddy bottom, sending little tornadoes of sand swirling.

“I see one!” Mary Lou shouted.

Adina turned left and right. “Where?”

Mary Lou pointed. “There — by that rock. Oh. Not anymore. Boy, they’re fast.”

“Why didn’t you just spear it instead of telling me?” Adina said with some annoyance.

“I’m a vegetarian.”

“They have vegetarians in Nebraska?”

“Well.” Mary Lou thought for a moment. “There’s me.”

“If you’re a vegetarian, why did you volunteer to come fishing with me?”

Mary Lou shrugged. “So you’d have a friend with you.”