Joyland

New York |

Beauty Queens

by Brittany Lynn Goss

edited by Emily Schultz

Lisette can feel her little sister Vi watching her as the car speeds along. Vi is in the backseat and Lisette is up front with their mother, staring out the windshield at the bright road stretched ahead. She feels Vi’s eager eyes on her body and, in a moment of reversal, imagines what she looks like: her full, round form a dark shadow against the yellow sunlight washing through the windows. They are going to a beauty pageant in Albany. Vi has won the local competition and now it’s on to the state. Lisette is there as an audience, seventeen years old and twelve weeks pregnant. She turns around to look at her sister and finds herself, instinctually, comparing: they have the same eyes, but Vi’s hair is chestnut and curly while Lisette’s is straight, limp and blonde. Vi’s nose turns up in a way that Lisette’s never did at that age; the effect is that she always looks slightly cheeky.

Vi smiles. “How much farther?” she asks, in the singsong-whine tone that Lisette knows is both a bid for adoration and a prelude to some eight-year-old crankiness if things don’t go her way.

Lisette does not actually know how much farther. To soothe Vi, she says, “We’ll be there soon.”

From the driver’s seat, their mother shoots her a look. “Tell her the truth, Lisette. It will be at least another hour.” Her too-red lipstick is feathering at the edges. This morning before they left she asked Lisette what she thought of her recently styled hair, and Lisette had answered honestly—with not a little meanness—that she thought the highlights looked fake. Now she will spend the rest of the day in the orb of her mother’s critical sphere, paying for her earlier comment.

Lisette rolls her eyes and reaches to turn up the radio. It’s country, Vi’s favorite and Lisette’s least favorite, but she will always compromise for her younger sister. Strewn across the backseat is a collection of half-dressed Barbies, looking like the recent victims of a bombing or a wildfire, with their smudged faces and crazy, uncombed manes. While she colors in a Disney princess coloring book, Vi hums along to the sad bastard song about a man whose wife has left him. Vi, their mother often notes, with the sort of intonation that means unlike Lisette, is a girl’s girl.

Lisette cannot let the silence pass for long. “Fine,” she says to her mother. “You think I’m the one who doesn’t tell her the truth?” She turns to her sister. “Vi, you know this is the whole state competing? That’s hundreds of other girls.”

“Lisette! Stop!” their mother protests. “You’ll make her nervous.”

“She just needs to know the truth, Mom.” But Lisette feels a movement somewhere in her chest when she sees Vi’s forehead crinkle, and softens her tone. “Just…it’s okay if you don’t win. It’s a big deal just that you’re—”

Their mother interjects with “Of course she’ll win, won’t you, baby?”

“It’s a big deal,” Lisette continues over her mother, “just that you’re in the competition. But statistically, you have about a one percent chance of winning with all of those girls competing.”

“There are no other girls like Violet!” their mother sings.

Vi repeats: “No other girls like me!”

Lisette releases a heavy sigh and slants her eyes at her mother. “Fine. Don’t be sad if you don’t get first place.”

“I won’t,” says Vi, but Lisette can tell by the contented look on her face that she has dismissed any possibility of losing. Vi always needs help with her math homework, and Lisette can do that, because she was good at math before she dropped out. Lisette, unlike her Rite Aid coworker Myrna, who is older than her, can count change back into a customer’s hand without the aid of the cash register’s digital numbers. When Lisette tried to teach that to Vi, Vi insisted that nobody needs math because of calculators. This is where Lisette thinks Vi might be getting spoiled. Ever since she was five and won her first contest at the Marshall Dairy Festival, she’s been interested in nothing but performing. Lisette turns around and pulls her seatbelt up over her shoulder, snapping it into place.

Their mother rolls down her window and rests her bare elbow on the car door. It’s a warm day for April in New York. Still, Lisette is dressed in loose jeans and a black sweatshirt, a kind of uniform she has been wearing for weeks. She leans back, scooching low in her seat. She breathes. She touches her palm to the space below her belly button where the baby breathes too, though she can’t feel it yet. She sucks in and presses, trying to flatten her stomach, which was never flat to begin with. She wants to forget about the pouch she knows will soon stick out like a kangaroo’s — pouch of bad decisions. She imagines that her stomach will disappear when she straightens her spine, when she holds her breath, when she closes her eyes.

“Have you talked to Adam lately?” her mother asks loudly, over the rushing noise from the window. Lisette hears something gentle in the tone of her voice, a hint of reparations being made.

“No,” Lisette says. She still feels prickly, and not ready to make up. “Not since I told him about the baby.”

“Oh, he’ll be over the shock by now,” her mother says. “You should call him. I’ll bet he misses you.” Lisette’s mother has this idea that if Adam and Lisette get back together, everything about the baby will be fine.

“Why?” she says. “If he doesn’t want anything to do with it then I don’t want anything to do with him.” As a kind of justification, though it’s not really true, she adds, “He’s terrible with Vi, even; he ignores her.”

“Well, that,” her mother says, pointing a scarlet nail at Lisette’s belly, “needs a father.”

Lisette gives her mother an incredulous look meant to communicate that she and Vi never knew their fathers, and this baby won’t need one either. Her mother gets it. For the next few minutes, she stares through the windshield as if hunting for something small.

Lisette didn’t tell her mother about the baby. One day her mother told her. They were in the kitchen, the pale street light illuminating snow in the darkness outside. Lisette clearly remembers the snow, a detail that in hindsight makes the scene look cozier and more romantic than it actually was. It was only week five; she’d been throwing up in the mornings and she had taken secret home pregnancy tests the week before, which she threw out late at night in the dumpster. Her mother was washing the dishes and Lisette came in to get a yogurt from the refrigerator when her mother turned, looked her up and down and said, “You know you’re pregnant.” Lisette wasn’t sure if her mother thought she hadn’t known, or if she was accusing her of hiding this knowledge. At five weeks she had been thinking about the abortion, about how, if she got one, her mother would never have to know. But her mother did know. Her mother knew everything. Maybe her mother just wanted to let her know that she knew.

A Stewart’s gas station looms in the distance. “Can we get out here?” Lisette asks. “I have to pee.”

*

In the parking lot of Stewart’s a woman is tying her toddler’s shoes. Lisette watches with a vulpine wariness. She has been noticing mothers with their children. This is one of the tender moments. More often, when she witnesses these moments, the mothers are calling their children back or scolding them, the dark circles under their eyes proof of sleepless nights. Lisette figures she’s got something on them: she already has the dark circles from not sleeping, is already tired from her full time job and taking care of Vi during the nights when their mother works at the bar. Lisette picks Vi up from school and makes her dinner, has her do all of her homework, and puts her to bed. She was the one who taught Vi how to tie her shoes.

Lisette skirts past the mother without making eye contact and pushes open the glass door of the gas station. She makes herself walk past the tubs of ice cream, thinks of the smell of dairy cows in an effort to make the sweets distasteful, looks in the mirror of the bathroom, thinks she is a cow. Farmer’s daughter, ready for the annual dairy festival parade, ready to hoist the dairy festival queen up onto her bovine shoulders, ready to plod along and bear. She pinches her cheeks to bring some pink into her ashen complexion and fixes her ponytail. She has always been a little bit fat, but it’s not something she feels she can change. What she has working for her is the angel face, that cherubic quality that allows a pudgy girl to remain attractive. She tries smiling in the mirror, feels stupid, grimaces, and looks away.

When she returns to the car Vi and their mother are eating ice cream, the kind with Pop Rocks in it, and Vi is squealing about the sensation the Pop Rocks make in her mouth. Their mother smacks her lips in a way that annoys Lisette.

“Do you want some?” she asks.

Lisette does want some, she wants a barrel of it; she would like an entire gallon to eat alone, in private. She shakes her head no. Her mother shrugs and backs the car out of the parking lot.

When Lisette and Vi’s Aunt Cathy was pregnant, she would come over for dinner and happily fill her plate twice, singing “Eating for two now!” like it was a kind of hymn, a grace. Lisette cannot finish her meals. She has acute cravings that she will not give in to. Pickles. Popcorn. Bacon. Part of her wants to starve out this baby. She’s heard of girls who didn’t eat enough and had miscarriages. Though she thought about having an abortion, she was afraid: on the surface, of disapproval from her mother and everybody else, especially at church, and underneath, the much more tangible possibility of giving something up, even if it’s something she’s not sure she wants. After her mother knew, Lisette kept finding reasons to put off going to the clinic, until it was too late. She wants a natural mishap, one that is not her fault, an event nobody can blame her or punish her for. It would be the perfect undoing: an almost complete erasure of the past. But she’s not good enough at not eating, because last time she went to the clinic, the doctor told her in chipper tones that she was “safe.” Most women don’t have miscarriages after the first trimester.

When she could no longer hide her morning sickness from her co-workers at the Rite Aid, she confessed her dilemma to Myrna, the closest to her in age. Myrna, instead of offering the expected words of comfort, told her a story about a woman who had an abortion and, for months afterwards, woke in the middle of the night to the sound of babies crying. “She thought it was her dreams,” Myrna said. “Then she thought she was hallucinating, but later she found out it was the fox killing the wild rabbits outside. When they die rabbits make a sound like babies crying. So she couldn’t stop having these dreams about her abortion that were really the rabbits dying.” She had turned her thin, hawkish face towards Lisette’s and flashed an unkind grin with her sallow teeth. Lisette, out of breath, had mumbled, “creepy,” and rushed to help a customer in the shampoo aisle. After that she lay awake at night listening, but there were no rabbits dying in her backyard. She couldn’t tell if what she felt was relief.

Lisette’s mother continues driving until they arrive at the large high school where Little Miss Albany will take place. When they turn into the parking lot there is a banner with balloons that says “Welcome, Beauty Queens!” in pink. Lisette feels a little sick. She gets out of the car and helps carry some of Vi’s things: her costumes, a baton, a large makeup case. She cannot remember ever owning so much makeup, but some of the things in this case are hers: eye shadows, lipsticks. She lets Vi borrow them for events like this. It makes Vi feel special.

They lug everything in and stand in the brightly lit foyer, between swinging doors, accepting nametags from a woman with a ceramic rose pinned to her sweater just above her breast. She smiles large at Vi and says, “Well, aren’t you darling!” and Lisette wonders how many times she has said that today. She sticks her nametag in the pocket of her jeans instead of pinning it to her chest like Vi and her mother. They walk down a hall decorated with student artwork: self portraits of kids Lisette’s age with their names typed onto little rectangular pieces of paper below, just like at a real art gallery. Lisette has never been good at drawing. She barely glances at the portraits after the first few, choosing to stare at the backs of her mother’s feet to guide her down the hallway. Her mother is tottering in heels two inches higher than she would normally wear. Made of cork and strappy, shiny pleather, Lisette thinks they look too young for her. Everywhere there are mothers wearing jewelry and makeup and heels, as done up as their tiny, regal daughters, but they are somehow more elegant than her own mother. Lisette is embarrassed for her, whose low-cut cotton dress is from a discount store, whose earrings are gaudy faux-diamonds. She is annoyed with her for being so unsophisticated.

Makeup is done in the cafeteria. They choose a corner with an unoccupied table and Vi sits down, ready for her first act. “Make me pretty!” she says, pointing her face towards her mother and thrusting a tube of lipstick forward like a sword. They are surrounded by Little Miss Albanys. Hairspray and makeup cases and mirrors and glitter litter the blue graffiti-ridden tables. Nearby there is a girl twirling to make her dress flare in a bell shape, her dark hair in dozens of tiny braids. There is a set of twins with dimples, practicing a dance routine. There is Vi, with her face pointed up towards her mother, up to the sky, waiting not so patiently for her turn to shine.

Their mother is attending to Vi’s makeup with the care she uses on her own face, dabbing on concealer and lipstick—just a little bit; nothing trashy, she says. She and Vi have created a little mother-daughter universe and Lisette is just to the left, disappearing. In a flash of irrational resentment, she leaves her nametag on the table and takes off down the hall without saying anything. Her family does not call after her. She does not know where she is headed. There are classrooms to either side of her, dark and closed, doors with butcher paper over the windows to keep out distractions from the hallways. Bulletin boards sprout colorful fliers about bake sales and club meetings. The walls are brick, inside and outside; the lockers are gray, rows of them, standing empty. Vi’s pageant is not scheduled for a while. She will go out for a walk, maybe into the woods behind the school, which she saw from the parking lot. With her mother here, she’s not technically responsible for her sister.

There is a door at the end of the hallway. She makes a beeline towards it, wanting to be anywhere except a school, where the lockers seem to close in on her and crowd her out. But as she passes one of the classrooms, another door beside her opens suddenly, and there is a boy there, emerging. He catches her eye just as she walks past. He is tall, with a button-down shirt untucked over his jeans. He wears loafers. He does not look like the guys in her town with boots or nondescript black sneakers or leather jackets and tattoos. He looks like a boy in a college advertisement, like a face in one of the brochures she used to glance at in the guidance counselor’s office. She takes her hands out of her sweatshirt and waves, a fluttering of uncertain fingers.

“Hi.” He is half in the dark and she feels herself in a kind of spotlight created by the overhead fluorescents. She is still not sure why he is in the classroom. Is he a teacher? A student?

“Hi,” he says. He gives her an easy smile. “I’m Caleb.”

“I’m Lisette.” She has stepped closer to him. She can see his face more clearly in the light now­—kind of long, a long nose. Not old enough to be a teacher’s face. His hair is slightly messy as if he just woke up; she likes that.

“Huh. What kind of name is Lisette?” he asks. She is thrown.

“…My mother’s middle name, I guess.”

“I meant, like, the origins of your name.”

“Oh. I don’t know.”

“Funny,” he says and she does not know what he means. Is it a funny name or funny that she doesn’t know the origins of her name? It’s an acceptable name, she thinks to herself. She hunches her shoulders, making herself smaller.

“Where were you going?” he asks. “Before I interrupted you, I mean.”       

“Outside.” She hesitates, then asks him if he wants to join.

“Sure.” He closes the classroom door behind him. His clothes are more rumpled than she had noticed. They walk down the hallway together. At first she finds his confidence off-putting, that he would be so game to hang out with her, a girl he doesn’t know. But she remembers that there aren’t many kids their age here. He, like her, is probably just bored.

“Why were you in that classroom?” she asks him.

“My mom’s room. She’s somewhere around here with my sister.”

“Oh.” She pauses and presses her lips. “My sister is here too.”

“Yeah? What age?”

“Eight.”

“My sister is seven. They’ll be in the same competition.”

Lisette pictures a seven-year-old girl in little white Keds with a tennis racket or something preppy like that. She thinks of Vi in all of her colorful cowgirl getup, microphone in hand. She imagines them as almost-twins: small, tense hands wrapped around their props, matching curly hair, rows of pearly baby teeth.

They arrive at a pair of large metal doors. There is a sign that says they will set off the alarm if they leave. Lisette hesitates. “There’s no alarm,” Caleb says. “Not on Saturdays.”

“Do you go here?”

“Used to. Only when I had to.” He grins wider this time, showing off.

He must be in college, she thinks, or at least has graduated high school. She feels very young all of the sudden. She does not want him to know about her; she is keeping her hands folded in her sweatshirt pouch. Adam is different from Caleb, in that he wears worn-through jeans with a box of Pall Malls in the back pocket and a Yankees hat that hides his buzzed hair, and he talks less. Adam’s features are sharper than this boy’s, leaner and warier. When Lisette told Adam about the baby, she thought in a brief moment of uncharacteristic optimism that he might stick around, but he just said “I dunno, Lisette, it’s a lot to think about. Let me think.” Then he  drove away. As far as she knows he is still thinking.

Caleb and Lisette walk towards a field and into the woods. He says there is a river behind there, and they can go if she wants to see it. They are in step with each other. She thinks of her mother and Vi, still in the cafeteria, grooming and practicing curtsies. She wonders if her mother has stopped worrying about where she is. Maybe she stopped three months ago. Maybe she’s looking for Lisette right now; maybe she’s angry. Or maybe she hasn’t noticed yet. Lisette decides she doesn’t care. She is tired of participating in the beauty contest prep: the hair curling, the noise of so many girls, the cooing over Vi. Let her mother do it alone this time.

“Are you in high school?” Caleb asks.

“No.”

“College?”

“Yes,” she says, knowing the chances of her lie being uncovered here are slim to none.

“Where?”

“Union.” It’s the only one she can think of off the top of her head. Where one of her cousins goes.

“I go to Hamilton.”

She nods. She can’t remember where that is.

“What’s your major?”

“I’m pre-vet.” Lisette thought she wanted to be a veterinarian before, though now she’s not sure what she wants. She does not want to show her face in school again, does not want to venture to community college or study for anything. She is glad that her family came to Albany today and that she has the day off. It means that for one day she will not have to be a cashier at the Rite Aid and endure people’s looks of pity or disdain; it means that for at least one day, nobody will have heard about her “situation.” Nobody will be able to tell what she is hiding. Lisette can look older. This morning she put on more mascara than usual, and Caleb could easily think she is a pre-vet college student.

“Cool. I’m a philosophy major,” he says.

Lisette doesn’t know what kinds of classes philosophy majors take, really. It doesn’t sound like a good major to her, a major that leads to the kinds of jobs colleges are supposed to get people, so she says nothing. They talk more about school, and Lisette continues to lie. She finds out that she lives in a dorm with a girl named Katherine who drinks too much and listens to country; that she is on the student council; that she goes home for the weekend sometimes but more often stays on campus and goes to parties; that she does all right in her classes. She decides that the dining hall food is bad but there is a good pizza place in town. Because she does not actually know what pre-vet students study, she says her favorite subject right now is biology. Caleb likes a class about German philosophers; he also has a roommate and stays on campus most of the time; he plays lacrosse. Lisette has never seen a lacrosse game, so she can’t picture it, but she acts enthusiastic.

The path through the woods lets out into a clearing where they stop. The trees here are beginning to grow buds, pale green shoots off the gray branches. She wraps her arms around herself and shivers. She wonders if Caleb does think she’s just a little fat, or thinks nothing at all.

“Do you do beauty pageants like your sister?” he asks.

Lisette is startled; she knows she is not pretty that way. “No,” she says. “Of course not.” She braces herself for the joke.

“I bet you could do it,” he says, stepping towards her. Too close. “You could win one, maybe.”

She snorts derisively. To her, his face is leering. Seeing him smile ignites a burning sensation in the back of her throat and, tensing her muscles to close herself off from him, she has an urge to change the subject. “You know rabbits?” she asks.

“Yeah?”

“They sound like babies crying when they die.”

His face furrows in confusion. “Okay.”

After a beat he says, “Did you learn that in vet school?”

“No,” she says, and steps backwards. She is not interested in kissing him like he might be interested in kissing her. She only wanted to go for a walk, and have somebody her own age to talk to. Somebody who doesn’t know her. If he kissed her, he would know what her lips taste like, and he might taste her secrets, and she doesn’t want that. She can see the river through the trees. She begins to walk quickly towards it, and hears him following a few steps behind her. He is there when she steps one toe of her sneaker into the water. It still feels winter-cold, the cold of snow runoff and February thaw. He asks what she is doing and she doesn’t answer. She only says, “Come in.” Now she has both sneakers immersed in the water and her feet are starting to go numb. She wades into the center, slowly, the water coming up to her knees, then halfway up her thighs, then numbing her crotch and finally seeping up underneath her sweatshirt and covering her stomach. She makes a little sound, an “oh!” She watches her reflection spread through the water, near the reflection of a white birch from the other side. In water she looks like anybody, unidentifiable, a pink blob on top of a black blob. Caleb is still watching from the bank. “What are you doing?” he asks again, and keeps asking.

“Come back,” he finally says. There is a note of alarm in his voice. She likes the thought that he could be worried about her, about what she is going to do. She likes the thrill of not knowing, exactly, what she is going to do, and the dangerous feeling of the icy water around her.

“Come in,” she replies. She places her palms flat against each other to make a point with her arms and does a little dive, holding her breath, immersing herself just underwater for a moment. It is deep enough to swim. She does a few strokes underwater, feeling the chill freeze her ears. She keeps her eyes closed. The darkness is good; the water erases any sound, and she feels free. When she needs air, she comes up and swims to the middle again, then lets herself float with the weak, steady current. Today she does not feel heavy. The numbness and the lightness relieve the soreness in her back. Caleb has started to wade into the river. He is complaining that it’s freezing, but he’s watching her steadily; he’s poised to move quickly. She swims towards him and past him to the bank, taking her time, not saying anything. On the shore she wrings the water out of her clothes without taking them off.

Caleb’s eyes are wide. He  looks angry. “What was that about?” he asks. She shrugs.

“You’re crazy.”

“I know,” she says, and turns towards the path. “Does this way lead back to the school?”

“Yeah,” he says. He stuffs his shoes back on his feet and shoves his hands in his pockets.

When they are out of the woods, he says, “I thought you might drown back there or something.”

She laughs. She is in a better mood than she was before, even though the spring air makes her shiver and she’s sure that her mascara is streaking down her face. “I know how to swim!” she says.

“Yeah…it’s just. I don’t know. Wading in with all of your clothes on. That was pretty weird.”    His tone is more begrudging than angry now, but it is clear that he wants her to feel responsible for causing his concern.

Lisette doesn’t answer him. She rolls up her sweatshirt sleeves and holds her sneakers out in front of her, hoping that some parts of her will dry on the walk back to the beauty contest. And even though it was a stupid thing to do, as long as Caleb doesn’t talk about it anymore she will feel like she did something brave.

*

Caleb knows a way into the school near the gym, where Lisette can use the locker room to dry off. A damp, heavy smell rises from her clothes. She hopes there aren’t any contestants or parents in the locker room. When they arrive, Caleb points her to the women’s door and says, “I have to go meet my mom and sister.”

“That’s fine,” she says. She doesn’t care to see him again. That’s why she came here, to be around people she won’t ever see again.

“Uh. Nice meeting you.” He holds out his hand and Lisette takes it. She pumps his arm hard, exaggerating the handshake. He looks confused, or annoyed, she can’t tell.

“Nice meeting you too,” she says. She feels jaunty, somehow; a lightening of the spirit she hasn’t felt in months. It’s nice not to care what someone like Caleb thinks of her.

When she enters the locker room there are beauty contestants everywhere, freshening up. Some of the mothers stare at her, but luckily none of them are her mother. There are several blow-dryers lining the counter, and she points one of them towards herself, warming first her hair, then her jeans and sneakers. She takes her sweatshirt off and dries that, then the plain white shirt underneath. She turns away from the other women to hide her naked belly, hanging over her jeans. She still smells like river—silt, mud, growing things­­—but she is less damp now. She pulls her hair back into a ponytail and surveys herself in the mirror. Her sweatshirt clings to her breasts and all of her makeup has washed off, but there is nothing she can do about it now. She has the feeling, emerging from the locker room and going to the gym, of stepping out from an underground cave.

*

When Lisette enters the gymnasium, the Little Miss Albanys are having a charm contest, walking in front of the judges for smile points and confidence points and wave points. It’s what they do, she knows, instead of a swimsuit contest for little girls who are working their way towards a lifetime of swimsuit contests on and off the stage. Vi is there, Vi in that blue polka-dot dress they found for seventy-five percent off at T.J.’s, smiling so wide it must hurt, her eyes bright with the lights glinting off waxed wooden floors and the adoration of audience parents. Lisette walks around the raised platform and stands at the corner of the bleachers, clapping at the right moments. Her shoes leave a trail of wet marks behind her. She can feel people near her staring but she claps anyway, and whistles a little, too. She stands through the whole thing, and halfway through her mother finds her and stands beside her. She purses her lips at Lisette’s damp clothes.

“What happened to you?” she hisses, looking around to see who else is looking.

“I went swimming,” Lisette says, and lets her mother glower instead of trying harder to explain.

Together they watch Vi sing “Born to Fly,” a country song, and receive a standing ovation. She really is talented, Lisette thinks; she feels proud, knowing that Vi has something she can do better than other people, something special for her to hold on to even in the bad times. Not everyone has that.

Next is the interview portion, in which Vi will spend three minutes with the judges. This is a new arena of competition in Vi’s pageant history; for the younger girls, the judges might only ask one question or none at all. Vi has been practicing for this. Next to her, Lisette feels her mother’s body tense in anticipation.

There are three judges, two women and one man. The woman on the far left—serious, brittle-thin—asks Vi what her favorite color is, and she answers unequivocally, “Violet, because that’s my name, of course.” The audience ripples with light laughter, and she beams with the sense of a job well done. Her favorite color right now is actually pink, but their mother has trained her to say this instead to make her “stand out.” Vi is holding the microphone firmly and speaking into it clearly, as she has been taught. Other girls mumble or freeze up at the crucial moment, but never Vi. The man, sitting in the middle, goes next. He looks like a grandpa to Lisette, with his meaty fingers bulging around several gold rings, and his jovial, bespectacled face.

“What do you like to do in the summertime, Violet?” he asks.

“I love a lot of things about summer!” she says. “I like to swim in the lake near my house, and I like to play with my cat, and I like to go to the drive-in movie theater for kids’ night, and I like to be in the dairy festival parade.” The man smiles his approval, and nods at the woman on his right.

“Tell us about your family,” she says. She is clearly the winner of prior pageants, with her ice-blonde hair and frosty pink lipstick, her denim halter dress. Vi takes a deep breath.

“Well, I have one Mama who raised me all by herself,” she explains. This part is rehearsed. A few people in the audience clap their approval for the hard-working single mother. “And I have one big sister, who, um, she’s going to have a baby all by herself too, but”—Vi shrugs­— “maybe not, because she doesn’t want it.” Lisette’s mother turns towards her in some shock, condolence, or reprimand, as Vi points across the gym to both of them and says, “See, my family is right over there!” And the judges involuntarily twist in their seats, the blonde woman with a wan smile, before returning their attention to Vi.

“Thank you, Violet,” says the last judge. “We’ll welcome our next contestant now.” Vi curtsies low and exits the stage to polite applause.

Lisette, frozen between her mother’s disapproval and embarrassment, and Vi’s let-down as she walks offstage, must decide how much it troubles her if all of these strangers know about her personal problems. She avoids looking into the bleachers; wonders briefly if Caleb is there somewhere, staring at her, but then remembers that she has chosen not to care.

Vi is in front of Lisette and her mother now, scuffing her child-sized cowgirl boots along the floor. “I did good, right?” she asks, uncertainty causing tremors in her voice. She holds her arms up for the traditional hug from her mother.

“Yes, baby, you did good,” their mother coos. “Didn’t she, Lisette?” Over the top of Vi’s head, she is shooting Lisette a we’ll-talk-about-how-this-is-your-fault-later look, and Lisette has to resist rolling her eyes.

“She did real good,” Lisette agrees, and touches her hand to the top of Vi’s hair-sprayed do. The texture is brittle and unforgiving, like Vi’s hair is made of plaster. Beneath the immobile curls, Vi turns her face to gaze up at Lisette, and the jolt is like looking into a mirror where she had not expected one. Vi’s gaze is concerned—afraid, maybe, of what she sees in her older sister—and Lisette is all too aware of being permanently visible. It is just the two of them in that moment, a small universe in orbit around the shadows of who they will become.