Beauty Queens


“I’m glad to see you.” Nicole smiled right on cue and watched the other girls relax. She fought the urge to put her fingernails in her mouth.

“Daylight’s wasting, Miss Teen Dreamers. Let’s not stand here jibber-jabbering,” Taylor said and set off in the direction of the smoke.

On the trail, Shanti hurried to walk alongside Nicole. “Hello. I’m Shanti. Miss California. I can make popadam as my mother and grandmother taught me in honor of our heritage.”

“Oh. Cool,” Nicole said.

“Do you have any traditions like that?”

Nicole shrugged. “We go to my Auntie Abeo’s house on Thanksgiving. That’s about it.”

Shanti smiled. Bingo. “Sounds fun.”

“Yeah. It’s pretty fun, I guess,” Nicole said, trying to seem extra friendly. “She’s Nigerian, and it’s all about teaching me traditional Igbo drumming. Sort of boring. But it comes in handy for the talent portion.”

Shanti’s smile faltered. “You do traditional Nigerian drumming as your talent?”

“Mmm-hmm. What’s your talent?”

“Traditional Indian dancing.”

“Oh. Cool,” Nicole said.

“Yes. You, too.”

A low-lying branch almost caught Shanti in the nose, but her reflexes had been honed through years of synchronized Tae Kwon Do, and she whapped it away at the last moment. She glanced sideways at Nicole, sizing her up. Pre-pre-med. Traditional Nigerian drumming. Great legs. The degree of difficulty had just gone up, but Shanti hadn’t spent two years under the tutelage of her handler, Mrs. Mirabov, for nothing. It was just another challenge to be met, another challenge to win.

“Go ahead,” Nicole said, letting Shanti pass.

“No. After you,” Shanti said. After all, it was the last time Nicole would get ahead of her.

They reached the smoking wreckage of the plane’s cabin. The front still burned. Debris was spread out in a wide circle. Inside, Adina could make out the charred bodies of the pilot and copilot still strapped to their seats, hands stuck to the gears. There were other bodies burned beyond recognition.

“Oh, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” Mary Lou whispered.

They spread out, searching for anyone who might have survived, but there was no one. And the plane was too hot for them to go inside. They called, but no one answered.

“We better go back and see what the Sparkle Ponies have found,” Taylor said.

Mary Lou squealed and the girls rushed to her side. The body of a flight attendant lay in the bushes about ten feet away, her arms reaching forward as if she had tried to escape by crawling into the jungle. Her dark blue uniform was only slightly singed.

“So sad,” said Mary Lou.

“Miss Teen Dreamers, we can’t leave this body here. It will attract predators,” Taylor said.

“You mean like those guys who NetChat you and pretend they’re a hot German pop star named Hans but who turn out to be some old fat guy in a house in Kansas?” Tiara shook her head. “My mom was so pissed.”

“She means like tigers or bears,” Petra said.

“Oh my.”

Mary Lou made a face. “What … what should we do?”

Taylor thought for a minute. “Put her in the fire.”

Shanti swallowed hard. “Way harsh. I mean, it’s terrible.”

“Yes, it is. But sometimes a lady has to do what’s necessary,” Taylor said. “From Ladybird Hope’s I’m Perfect and You Can Be, Too, Chapter Three: ‘A lady’s quick thinking can save a bad situation.’

She was talking about putting nail polish on a runner in your hose, but I think the same rule applies here.”

The girls set about their grisly task. They dragged the body to the front of the plane, where the fire raged, and hoisted the flight attendant into it.

“Oh God,” Mary Lou said, and threw up in a bush.

In her head, Adina said a mourner’s prayer for the flight attendant, and for everyone else who’d died. It was true that the situation was dire and Adina had hardly known these people. But their deaths still deserved the dignity of a prayer here in the wilderness.

Petra stared at the dead woman another long minute. In her head, she did the math of survival. Seven days of medication. That was all she’d brought with her — and that was if she could find her overnight case.

“What do we do now?” Mary Lou asked through fresh tears. She rubbed the St. Agnes medal at her throat.

“They’ll be looking for us,” Nicole assured her. “Right? I mean, they have to be looking for us.”