Beauty Queens


Shanti held up three fingers in a scout’s-honor pose. “No bleaching cream.”

Nicole put up her fist. “Bump me, Bollywood.”

“Namaste, sassy black sidekick,” Shanti said, and gave Nicole’s fist a thump with hers. She pulled herself out of the water, squeezed the water from her hair, and loosely plaited it. “What do you want for dinner — grubs or bulrush?”

“A cheeseburger,” Nicole said. “And fries.”

“When we get back, I’m eating everything. Twice.”

“That sounds like the best plan ever.”

Arm in arm, Shanti and Nicole walked back toward the beach camp. Behind them, the wind swooped down from the painted mouths on the hill over the ruined land as if it could reach out fingers to tap them on their shoulder, turn them around. To warn them.

Jennifer stared at the radio. “Work with me,” she pleaded. With a sigh, she took off the cover again. How she wished she had a sonic screwdriver or a superhero’s radio-fixing powers. Jennifer tried to remember all she’d learned both at her mother’s plant and from comic books. She touched two wires and got a small shock.

“Ow!” she said, shaking her finger. The radio blurbled to life. “Oh my God. I did it,” she said. “I fixed the radio. Hey, you guys! I got a signal!”

The girls ran to Jen, crowding around the radio. Taylor pushed her way through to the front.

“Listen,” Jen said. Beneath the static, the girls could hear a whisper of sound.

“It’s too soft. See if you can get a stronger signal, Miss Michigan,” Taylor said.

Jennifer made a few gestures to Sosie up in the tree to adjust the makeshift antenna. Jen twisted the knobs, listening for some heartbeat of sound. The radio answered in static and loud hisses, like a radiator coming to life on the first cold day of fall. A blurp of an old country and western song thrilled everyone for a moment.

“I go out walkin’ after midnight… .“Nicole warbled along. “Ooh, I love Patsy Cline!”

“Shh,” Jen admonished. She put her ear closer to the radio. Faint voices broken by static came through.

“… final score: New York Giants, twenty-four. Detroit Lions, seventeen …”

“Lions suck,” Jennifer said, shaking her head.

A strong, clear signal rocked the radio. A male voice in accented English asked about coordinates and product and delivery status. Another man with a Midwestern voice answered, “We are on track for delivery,” and gave coordinates.

The sound faded and was replaced by other voices.

“… press conference about the crash of Corporation Flight A-617 carrying those missing Miss Teen Dream contestants, Bob …”

“Quiet!” Jen shouted.

REPORTER: Ladybird, is it true that The Corporation and the government have called off the search for the missing plane?

LADYBIRD HOPE: Yes, Sue. It is.

REPORTER: You’ve suggested that terrorism is responsible for this, that the plane was shot down by enemy combatants?

LADYBIRD HOPE: Absolutely, Sue. And I will not rest until the truth is known about this. As you know, I was a sponsor for Miss Teen Dream, and this feels like a personal loss for me, too. Next Saturday, at 8:00 P.M. Eastern/7:00 P.M. Central, we’ll be broadcasting a special memorial, “Death Is Not the End of Pretty.” Many wonderful celebrities have already signed on to participate in this touching tribute to our lost girls. Fabio Testosterone will host.

REPORTER: So there you have it. The search for missing Corporation Flight A-617 has officially been called off. Sad news, Bob.

REPORTER #2: Indeed, Sue. Thanks. Coming up next: Have you ever wondered how celebrities get their famous glow? Facialist-to-the-stars Jilly Starbeam will be here with us to share her secrets. After the break …”

The radio hiccupped into a jingle for Forever Young Jeans35. Jen flicked off the radio and a terrible quiet descended on the beach.

“They gave up,” Taylor said. Her voice was barely above a whisper. “They just … left us. We did everything they asked, and they left us.”

Nicole put a hand on Taylor’s arm. “It’s okay, Taylor.”

“No. It’s not okay. It’s not okay at all.” Tears beaded along Taylor’s thick lashes. “This … this was my last year!”

Taylor pushed through the gathered girls and ran toward the jungle as fast as she could.

“Should we go after her?” Jen asked.

Adina shook her head. “Let her go. She just needs some space.”