Beauty Queens


“Her bitch cells are binding to the proteins,” Petra murmured.

“Shh, she’s coming closer,” Shanti whispered.

Out of sticks, palm fronds, salvaged shoes, glittery jewelry, two suitcase wheels, and evening gown scraps, Taylor had built a found-object beauty queen sculpture upon which she placed a scrawled sign for a sash. The sash read Miss Miss, making it seem as if the sculpture were just off. Taylor talked to the figure. She called it Ladybird and seemed to be waiting for its approval.

“What is that thing? It looks like the most busted beauty queen ever,” Nicole whispered, and no one was sure which one she meant.

“I thought it was a g*y bunny,” Tiara said.

“Ladybird, watch this!” Taylor executed three backflips, ending in a machine-gun stance.

“Okay, that’s not disturbing at all,” Shanti said.

“She could probably sell that at MOMA for a fortune,” Petra said appreciatively.

Taylor tilted her head to one side and smiled. “Yes, Ladybird. You have to put your heart, soul, and sparkle into it. It is a total commitment to the sparkle.”

“She really has lost it,” Adina murmured.

Taylor stopped, suddenly alert. She scrambled up the tree and disappeared.

“O-kaaay,” Nicole said. “What’s next?”

“Do you hear something?”

The girls listened, but in the constant burble of jungle noises, it was hard to hear anything unusual. It was only when the enormous snake dropped down from the tree that they realized the sound was a hiss.

“What is that?” Mary Lou whispered.

“Big snake thingy?” Tiara offered.

“Thanks. I hadn’t figured that out yet.”

“Don’t move.” Jennifer instructed.

“Does ‘don’t move’ include your bowels? Because you’re too late,” Miss New Mexico said.

With a piercing scream, Taylor jumped forward, circling the blow dryer over her head by its cord. She let it fly and smacked the snake across the tail. It turned with a fierce roar.

“Come mess with Texas,” Taylor said.

The snake obeyed. It lunged for her and Taylor dodged with acrobatic grace.

“Miss Teen Dream is a bright light in the world,” she said with prayerlike intensity. From the makeshift bandolier, she removed a small can of hair spray, thumbing off the top. “Long-lasting hold!” she yelled. “Never let your ’do droop!” She pressed the nozzle on the spray can and lit a match, igniting a huge fireball that engulfed the snake. It screamed and fled into the trees like a wounded comet. Taylor shoved the can back into the unicorn wallet on the bandolier. She blew on the end of the hair dryer and shoved it nozzle-down into her rope belt.

“Whoa,” Petra said. “Toto, I don’t think Taylor’s in it for Miss Congeniality anymore.”

Adina called the meeting, having everyone sit in the same horseshoe formation that Taylor had. “Now that Taylor’s incapacitated —”

“What?” Tiara asked.

“Gone nuts,” Petra explained.

“Now that Taylor’s gone nuts, I am assuming the duties of team leader. After all, I am first runner-up, and you know what that means. I can’t help feeling that something’s not right about this whole thing. Taylor was clearly trying to warn us about something. She said ‘Danger.’”

“There were all those weird things in the old temple where I found Sosie,” Jennifer remembered. “Ration kits. The machete. Candy bars.”

Tiara eyed Sosie and shook her head. “It’s always the handicapped ones you have to watch out for.”

“What?” Jennifer said.

Sosie tugged on Jennifer’s ragged outfit. “What is she saying about me?”

“Maybe she’s some kind of spy. For all we know, she may not really be deaf,” Miss Ohio said.

“That’s crazy!”

“Right! How many fingers am I holding up?” Tiara thrust three raised fingers near Sosie’s face.

“Get your fingers out of my face!”

Tiara smiled triumphantly. “I knew it!”

“Uh, Tiara?” Petra said. “Sosie can see just fine.”

“I think we just proved that.”

“What’s going on?” Sosie demanded.

“Well, if we’re talking about suspects, one of us was found in the jungle, far away from any wreckage.” Miss Montana flicked a glance at Nicole.

“Oh, right. Let’s suspect the black girl right off the bat.”