It was while watching an episode of Vampire Prom32 that Nicole saw the commercial for Miss Teen Dream and figured out the perfect solution to her problem: pageants. They offered something Nicole actually wanted — scholarship money — and it satisfied her mother’s craving for the spotlight. So Nicole learned traditional Nigerian drumming, which she didn’t totally rock at but it wasn’t like the judges knew anything about Nigerian drumming anyway. She let her mother relax her hair and oil up her skin with cocoa butter. Over afternoon teas, she made nice with the alumnae of Delta Sigma Theta so they’d sponsor her for regionals. She even let her mother pick her platform: Beautifying America, because there was nothing controversial about cleaning up litter, nothing that would make the country uncomfortable.
Now, out in the jungle by herself — by herself! — she felt at peace. In fact, she was giddy. She hummed an old Boyz Will B Boyz tune as she tested the drum. Not bad. A sharp cracking sound reminded Nicole that there were other dangers out here. She crouched and held her stick ready. The sound came from her right. Someone or something was definitely there. Nicole ducked behind a tree and held her breath. The cracking sound came closer. And closer. She’d heard once that the best defense was a good offense. She grabbed the stick in one hand and her knife in the other. With a loud “Keee-yaaaaah!” she leapt out.
“Aaaahhhh!” Shanti cried, arms up.
Nicole blinked. “Bollywood? What are you doing?”
“I was following you. And I told you, don’t call me Bollywood. So,” Shanti said. “What are you doing out here?”
Nicole chewed at a fingernail. “Um, I came out here to have an adventure and find myself.” By myself, she thought.
“Great. I’ll come with you. I’d like to have an adventure, too,” Shanti said. “You shouldn’t bite your nails.”
Nicole quickly dropped her hand to her side. She balled her fingers into a fist and released them again.
“Um, no offense, but I kind of wanted to explore on my own for a bit.”
“Why?” Shanti said in that suspicious way that always put Nicole on the defensive.
“I just do, okay?”
“Well, you don’t have to get mad about it,” Shanti said. “Besides, there’s no law that says I can’t be out here, too.”
Nicole started to say, “Fine. Go ahead.” But she was tired of bowing to everyone’s needs but her own. “You know what? I’ll go somewhere else, then.” She grabbed her new drum.
“I knew it. You’re practicing,” Shanti said in triumph. “Trying to get ahead.”
“What? No! I just made this,” Nicole said, and she wondered why she was even explaining herself. “Why are you following me? You don’t even like me.”
“That’s not tr —”
“Please. You have been eyeballing me ever since we met. Don’t lie. It’s just the two of us out here. You can stop with the We’re All One Big Happy World routine.”
Shanti’s smile faded. “Okay. Since we’re being honest. This is a competition. And I am in it to win.”
“Okay. I can get with that. But you don’t give the other girls a hard time.”
“Because they’re not my competition. You are,” Shanti leapt ahead of Nicole on the path. “Come on. You know they’ll never let two brown girls place. And then there are the similarities: You want to be a doctor; I want to be a scientist. You’re doing Nigerian drumming; I’m doing Indian dance. I’ll bet your platform is something nonthreatening like saving animals or teaching kids with cancer to make stuffed animals.”
“Cleaning up litter,” Nicole admitted.
“Hold on. I need this pageant for the scholarship money. So I can go to medical school.”
“And I don’t need the money?”
“I don’t know! I don’t know anything about you. Because you’re like this big mystery. I’m getting to know everybody else. But you, you’re like a window display for an empty store, if you ask me.”
Shanti’s eyes burned. “Maybe I like to keep myself to myself.”
“Fine. Do that. And I’m going for a walk. By myself. Just go on back to camp.”
“I can’t,” Shanti said, wide-eyed.
Nicole put a hand on her hip. She sighed. “Why?”
“Stuck being unpleasant?”
“No. I mean I am literally stuck. I can’t move my feet.” A hint of panic worked its way into Shanti’s voice. “I think this is quicksand!”