Beauty Queens

13,054
05.03.2019

“Well, I’ll be,” the man said, smiling. “Come on out. I won’t hurt you. I’m here to help you.”

For a moment, her mind slipped sideways again, and she imagined he was her daddy coming to offer her a hand out of her stuffed-animal cave after her mother left. “Come on, baby. Come on out,” her dad had said. The light from her bedroom window had fuzzed the top of his buzz cut like a dandelion.

“No,” Taylor had said. And then she’d started crying. “What did I do to make Mommy leave?”

“You didn’t do anything. This isn’t your fault.”

“Then why?” she’d wailed.

“I don’t know,” her daddy had said, and he looked so sad.

“It isn’t fair!”

“No, it isn’t, baby. Not by a mile. The world’s only as fair as you can make it. Takes a lot of fight. A lot of fight. But if you stay in here, in your little cave, that’s one less fighter on the side of fair.”

He’d let her be, but every morning, he’d put down a tray with French toast, her favorite. It was brown around the edges and squishy in the middle, just the way she liked it. And eventually, she’d come out. When she was good and ready.

Focus, Miss Texas. Taylor forced herself to look again and concentrate. This man offering his hand was not her father or anyone like him. In this man’s smile was all the unfairness of the world in its thuggish seduction. “Just come with me. We’ll take care of you.”

“No, you won’t.” Taylor stroked the man’s cheek. She reached her arms up to cradle the back of his head and, with the skill of a champion, she broke his neck. Then she dragged him into the bushes, took his gun and walkie-talkie, and kept moving.

CHAPTER TWENTY

“What is she doing?” Adina asked.

It had taken two days, but the girls had found Taylor’s hiding place deep in the jungle and had gathered to watch her. She looked rough. Her normally smooth blond hair was a matted tangle. She’d camouflaged her face and arms with dirt like a soldier in a war movie. The white dress she’d taken the care to wash out every day was ragged.

“I can’t believe she ate that psycho-fruit. It’s like she was trying to kill herself or something,” Mary Lou said.

“It’s weird,” Adina said. “That’s just not something I could remotely imagine Taylor doing.”

“She was pretty upset about not getting rescued,” Jennifer said.

The girls kept a safe distance, crouched low behind the cover of plants as they watched Taylor work. For days she’d been sneaking into the camp and stealing random items — eyelash curlers, a hair dryer, earrings, stockings. It wasn’t like they needed them here, but why did she? Only Mary Lou had worked up the courage to approach Taylor’s XL Crazy. “What do you need those for, Taylor?” she’d asked, and Taylor had done a little circle-turn and half a jig punctuated with jujitsu moves.

“If chosen as Miss Teen Dream, I will not let the bad people mess with our pretty. Their outfits are wrong. They’re not good people. Tonight on Patriot Daughters!”

“It’s like she’s some freaky pageant robot that went haywire,” Mary Lou said. “Also, she licked a tube of mascara.”

“Don’t use that now,” Brittani said. “You’ll get eye herpes.”

“Boy, I hate eye herpes,” Tiara agreed. Beside her, Nicole pretended to write something on imaginary paper, which she tore off and handed to Tiara. “What are you doing, Nicole?”

“Writing you a prescription to come talk to me.”

“Can you do that if you’re not a real doctor?”

“Sure,” Miss Ohio said. “I found a guy on the Internet to write me a prescription for horse diet pills.”

“Horse diet pills?” Nicole repeated.

“Yeah. They worked great, but my mom made me stop when I grew an extra set of teeth inside my large intestine.”

Petra stuck her fingers in her ears. “La-la-la-la-la.”

“What’s she wearing?” Sosie signed.

Around her dress, Taylor had constructed a makeshift bandolier out of airplane seat belts, a pink unicorn wallet, and a tampon carrying case.

“That girl is serious about her feminine hygiene,” Shanti said.

“Should we tackle her, bring her back?” Jennifer asked.

Shanti shook her head. “No way. She’ll cut a bitch. Even hopped up on crazy juice.”

“I don’t understand — you guys ate those berries and you’re fine,” Adina said. “It wore off in a few hours. I wonder how come it’s not wearing off for Taylor.”