“I’m sorry, Tay-Tay,” she murmured. “I can’t be what they want me to be. I can’t do it.”
“I’m sleepy,” Taylor said with a yawn.
Her mother carried her upstairs and put her to bed. “You be a good girl, now. Be Mama’s strong little girl, and you’ll be okay.”
The next morning, her mother was gone. At first, Taylor had been fearful. How could a person just disappear like that? What if other people and things began to disappear — her father or the TV? She gathered her toys around her and tied them together with jump ropes like a sculpture, each one tethered to another. She pitched her pink Barbie camping tent nearby and tied the toy sculpture to one of the poles.
Two weeks later, Taylor saw Ladybird Hope on TV talking about her life in pageants, how it had given her the confidence to go after her dreams. Taylor left the safety of her tent and padded into the kitchen, where her dad sat reading the paper and eating a bowl of cornflakes.
“I want to be Little Miss Perfect,” Taylor announced.
Her daddy signed her up. The ladies at the church saw to it that she got her dresses and lessons. And when they placed that first crown on her head, Taylor found her calling. They loved her. If you did everything right, they had to love you. That mantra had seen her through countless pageants. But this time she’d done everything right and they were leaving her anyway. You couldn’t be perfect enough to keep the world from betraying you. There was no way to win this game playing by the rules that had been set up so long ago. No. You had to rewrite them. You had to play your own game.
Her cheeks were wet. Taylor didn’t usually cry; it was hell on the mascara. Only amateurs cried. Angrily, she wiped the tears away and talked through her affirmations:
“Never count a pageant girl out.”
“I am Taylor Rene Krystal Hawkins. And I am Miss Teen Dream.”
“It’s always darkest before the ultimate sparkle.”
She let out a sharp whoosh of breath, stood, and stretched. She shadowboxed and circle-turned. Then she glossed her lips and took a bow. There was still a chance. She’d make it right.
A flash of light caught her attention. For a moment, she thought she heard deep murmurings. It could have been the echoes of the jungle and nothing more, but Taylor was the daughter of a military man, and her senses were sharp. She slipped between the trees, keeping her breathing soft, following the sound till it became more pronounced. Definitely voices. Male. One deeper; the other higher, younger. It sounded roughly like English. They were saved! Well, she would certainly have something to say to those Negative Nellies back at the camp who didn’t believe they’d be rescued.
She would march right up to these people, whoever they were, and let them know who she was and that everything would be okay. It was a good thing she’d taken the care to keep up her beauty routine every day, unlike the others. She gave herself a good sniff. Not too bad. Still, there was always room for improvement. With a hard kick, she split a coconut, dabbing the sweet juice behind her ears and squeezing it between her wrists like perfume.
Through the breaks in the dense tree line, Taylor glimpsed men behind a barbed wire fence carrying guns. Their work boots and crew cuts said military to her, but they had no familiar identifying markers — no berets, no camouflage or flag emblems. Instead, they all wore the same black shirts, though one had pinned a Daffy Duck emblem on the back. It was odd. And unsettling. Taylor’s instincts, honed during countless pageants when the one who claimed to be sweet was the one to put Nair in your shampoo, came crawling up her spine and into her cortex. She hid herself.
“That ought to do it, sir,” one of the mystery men reported to a man in khakis and mirrored aviators, gesturing toward some crates.
“Good work, Agent.” Aviators man took in the Daffy Duck emblem. “Is that how you fellas dress these days, Agent?”
“Sir. It’s Casual Friday, sir.”
“And there’s a team-building exercise at four, followed by a Cinco de Mayo tequila party at five,” said a college-aged-looking dweeb in sneakers dribbling a basketball. Taylor made a mental note that when she returned home and won Miss Teen Dream, she’d start a charm school for clueless college boys. The world expected girls to pluck and primp and put on heels. Meanwhile, boys dressed in rumpled T-shirts and baggy pants and misplaced their combs, and yet you were supposed to fall at their feet? Unacceptable.
Aviators man shook his head and exhaled through tight lips. “Go on, Agent.”
Dismissed, the mystery men approached the volcano. One of them lifted a fake rock panel and punched in a code on a keypad. A hidden door slid open to reveal a brightly lit corridor. The men stepped inside and the door closed again as if it had never existed.