Beauty Queens

13,082
05.03.2019

“None of that, now. Save the tears for your victory walk. Otherwise it looks premature and the judges will think you’re cocky. Or emotionally unstable. Or premenstrual. None of that will get you a crown.”

“You’re so right. Buck up, Miss Texas.” Taylor dabbed at her lashes with her knuckles. Then she tested the digital watch she’d taken off the guard’s wrist. It was a standard issue military timepiece and it counted down just fine.

“It’s a whole new world of pretty. …” She sang the Miss Teen Dream theme song as she worked. She clicked the watch into place and closed Our Lady, smoothing out the wrinkles on her sash. With that, the sculpture was not only beautifully accessorized, she was fully armed.

“Who messes with Miss Teen Dream?” Ladybird Hope asked.

“Nobody,” Taylor answered. She smeared mud and tree sap to camouflage her face and arms till she seemed an outgrowth of the island. She almost sensed the black shirts before she saw them on their way to the beach and the other girls.

“I think they might be messing with our pretty. What do you think we should do, Miss Texas?” Taylor whispered. She wasn’t sure if she’d said it aloud or inside her head. It was hard to tell the difference anymore.

“A Miss Teen Dream doesn’t rely on others to solve her problems. She tackles her issues head-on, with a smile and a wave,” said her other self.

Tears filled Taylor’s eyes. “You’re so right.”

“Of course I’m right,” said her other self. “I wrote the book on right. Silent Somersault?”

“I think so, yes.”

When Taylor had won Miss Dustbowl County, she’d wowed the judges with her signature gymnastics move, the Silent Somersault, a series of revolutions that happened so fast, no one could hear her feet and hands touching earth. Now she flew in a beautiful blur of spandex and sequins, a girlish ninja star arcing through the air. And when she brought her feet down on the men, snapping their necks like cheap drugstore straws, they never heard a thing. Carefully, quickly, she pulled their bodies into a nearby ravine.

“Cover ’em up good,” said the other Taylor from her perch in a tree. “They’ll come looking. And take their walkie-talkies, too.”

Taylor nodded, but secretly she worried that the judges wouldn’t like this. It seemed a little overt. She might lose a point or two and have to make it up in swimsuit or talent. But it had to be done.

With a heavy sigh, Taylor examined the hands that had done this thing, her hands, as if seeing them for the first time. The long, slim fingers. The mud-caked knuckles. The strip of pale skin on her fourth finger where her sweet sixteen ring had been. She turned her hands over and over, palms to backs, backs to palms, marveling. She bent her fingers to inspect her nails and the frown returned.

No. This was all wrong. What had she done? When did this happen?

“Oh, no,” she said as her eyes filled with tears. “I broke a nail.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

The next morning, Duff found Adina by the lagoon tending to the fishing lines. His eye was swollen and purplish, and Adina wished she could feel some satisfaction that Mary Lou’s punch had been so effective, but she only felt the pain of betrayal.

“Adina. Can you just stop for a sec and listen to me?” he said.

“I’m working. You’ll have to deal.” She expertly repaired a section of the line that had been nibbled by fish.

“I’m sorry,” Duff said at last. “I never meant to hurt you.”

Adina allowed a small “ha!” She kept her focus on the line as she blinked back tears.

“I don’t blame you for hating me.”

“Gosh, it’s so nice to have your approval,” Adina growled.

Duff dug at the sand with a stick. “The producers asked us to keep personal blogs to attract a fan base. Sinjin was the most popular, of course. I couldn’t think of anything to say. I mean, I’m just a bloke on a boat trying to figure out who I am and what I want to do.” He offered a small, apologetic shrug. “Anyway, I was reading about Casanova, and something clicked. I settled on that persona and started blogging about my supposed conquests. I was getting more hits a day than the other chaps, and the producers were talking spin-off show and … I just didn’t know how to stop.” Duff waited for Adina to say something. When she was quiet, he said, “I’m really, really sorry. I’m a messed-up guy. But I do really like you, Adina. I didn’t lie about that part.”

Adina’s mind was tempted with flea-market promises: He’s only lost. Confused. Wounded. You could save him. Change him. Make him. It would hurt a little. Maybe a lot. And then he would love you forever. And his love would prove your lovability. She remembered what her mother said the day Johnny, husband #3, moved the rest of his guitar collection into the rented U-Haul and drove it away to live with a Hooters waitress named Fragile. Her mother had curled her hair and put on a fresh coat of lipstick and stood on the porch, watching the U-Haul’s shadow clawing along the street. Adina waited for her mother to throw her coffee cup. Call him a bastard. Do a little dance. Instead, she said softly, “What’s wrong with me?” Adina had hated her mother for saying that. And she hated that some part of her asked the same thing now.