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Be Beautiful MAG
My little sister Abby won't stop squirming.
With difficulty, I apply her false eyelashes. They flutter on her eyelids, turning her from an innocent toddler into a young, overly made-up woman. She puckers her mouth for lipstick, and then shakes the Electro Rollers out of her hair. She really hates those; the heated spiraled surface makes it easy to burn yourself.
“Do I look pwetty, Aurora?” she asks, twisting in front of the mirror. Her three-year-old diction is adorable. I feel my throat well up.
“Beautiful,” I croak. She walks around the dressing room, totally comfortable naked. I know she will fight that dress as hard as she can, so I hand her a bathrobe, delaying the inevitable tantrum.
“Wead it again,” she demands, thrusting the Advi-Tablet at me. I clear my throat, and press the small red button. A tiny hologram pops up – Miss America of this year. She is tall, brunette, and addresses us with a sickly sweet artificial smile.
“It's time for the Annual National Pageant, ladies! Mandatory for all girls three to twenty years old. It takes place March 21st, 2083.You know the rules, and each State will have a winner! The lowest scored will be Chosen, darlings, so do your best!”
As the young woman fades, blowing kisses to a cheering invisible audience, my little sister sighs. “What is Chosen?” she asks for the millionth time that day.
“I don't know, honey. No one does. They just leave … and never come back.” I waver slightly, not wanting to tell my baby girl the truth. We are orphans, and I am the only one allowed to care for her. Though this week saw my twenty-first birthday, I am still required to participate this year. Then I will never step on that damn stage again.
Abby steps into her dress, and I wince. It is entirely too skimpy for her toddler body, transparent fabric with skimpy diamond swirls barely covering her nonexistent chest and cinching her waist. She wiggles her tiny feet into the silver stilettos that accompany the Required by Law dress. I attach her headpiece with difficulty. The delicate silver tiara would be so pretty alone, but it towers with tall white feathers and drips with faux diamonds.
My sister pirouettes for me, and I feel nauseous. She has transformed from a three-year-old child to a three-year-old hooker with the zip of a dress and a couple of bobby pins.
Then the favor is returned. My dress is worse than hers; my generous chest and newly gained figure are mortifyingly enhanced. Glancing in the mirror, I feel the urge to cover myself. Instead, I apply thick eyeliner and red lip paint. My headdress is a wreath of faux diamonds and pearls woven into a headband, with extra strands braided elaborately into my dark hair.
My sister squeals excitedly at my transformation.
We have already been rated Desirable in the doctor's examination before the Pageant, so we troop over to the arena. A couple hundred young women of all ages are already lined up.
“Do you remember your routine?” I ask Abby. Her face is now drained of all enthusiasm, and behind the thick streaks of blush, she is ashen.
“Yes,” she whispers.
I register us quickly. Abby is nestled behind my legs the entire time.
People used to tell stories of real beauty pageants, where no one was murdered for receiving the lowest score. More modest affairs, a parade of courage and satisfaction, where ladies conveyed class and elegance. If such events ever existed, they disappeared years ago. Now, the Annual Pageants are required by law, and we are told that image is everything – “Beauty before brains. Beauty one can't see means nothing at all.” It was why I had a nose job when I was Abby's age, and why Abby has already dyed her hair raven black three times to hide her auburn strands. I don't doubt she will want a nose job soon too. Our family's noses are slightly hooked, though hers isn't too pronounced yet.
The rules of this game are fairly simple. Girls dress in skimpy bits of fabric generously labeled dresses, don headpieces, and paint their faces with make-up, all of which is chosen by the government. High-heeled shoes are given to each girl. If you don't wear what is provided, you will immediately be disqualified and will face the same grisly fate as any of the Chosen.
The Chosen girls are the ones who receive the lowest scores from each State. Each year they are assembled, fifty in number, and killed in the capitol. The lowest anyone three to 13 can score is a 10. Which makes the older girls more vulnerable. Hopefully, my sister is safe. Only once was a three-year-old Chosen, and that was because she threw a tantrum all the way across stage.
The next three hours flash by in a swirl of hairspray and ever-present music. I watch the horror show of three hundred girls, each fighting to upstage the last. The sight makes my skin crawl. Abby and I are back to back, thank goodness. She strides across the stage to the beat of a teen pop song, makes sultry eyes at the judges, blows kisses, and twirls whenever someone cat calls. She waves lavishly and steps off stage. She receives a perfect score.
I breathe a sigh of relief and struggle to keep down my meager breakfast of nutrition caplets and water. I didn't feel well enough for food, but at least the caplets will give me a bit of color.
It's my turn. I have three minutes to win over the all-male panel of judges. If I get less than perfect, I risk being Chosen. Then Abby will have no one to care for her. I am determined to do well. Maybe even better than well.
I twirl, dance, and walk so my dress shows much more of me than intended, like the seasoned pageant girl I am. The thought of “last time, last time, last time” pounds in my head, louder than the beat of the music. I blow kisses, smile, flutter my eyelashes, and giggle. The hot stage lights burn into my skin, but I force myself to smile even wider. The audience explodes in wolf whistles, excited hoots, and drunken proclamations of love by husbands who are too tired of their everyday routine to feel shame at being here.
Sure enough, a perfect score flashes on the screen. I wave, faking pleasure and respect at one of the older Judges, who is making an obscene gesture in my direction, but turn away quickly so he can't see my disgust or the tears threatening to slide down my cheeks as I step off stage.
Just twenty more girls and the pageant is over. But something is different. After an awkward pause in which they are to announce awards, the Judges get up and leave.
The fathers, husbands, and elderly men are all shooed out by strict-looking officials in red, white, and blue uniforms. We, the participants, are herded onto red cushioned chairs. I murmur quietly, so as not to scare Abby, “What the …?”
My sister has acquired a plush pink robe, and is wiggling into my lap.
“Hello, ladies,” a computer-generated voice coos. We all stiffen – or at least, we older girls do. It's the voice of our president, Miss Lady Cormier. It's icy and cold. I shiver and hug Abby tighter. The hologram appears. Miss Lady Cormier is the most beautiful woman in the country, maybe even the world. That makes her deadly to men, whose eyes cloud over when they see her, but I can see through her act. I am invincible to her charms. Abby, who is awed and a bit envious, has her little mouth hanging open.
Lady can't be older than her mid-twenties. She wears a long blue dress that's fitted in all the right places. The neckline plunges to her belly button, and the hem brushes the floor. Her long blonde hair wafts over her shoulders as she brushes it back, and her eyes are a deep, cold violet fringed with thick lashes. Her skin is creamy white, like porcelain, and her lips are painted an overzealous pink.
“Are you ready to see the Chosen?” she asks.
I can hear the fake respect in her voice, with the underlying tone of mockery. Yet we all nod and say “Yes, ma'am” in voices like syrup.
“This State's Chosen young lady for the Pageant of 2083 is …” She unfolds an envelope, and I notice the huge diamonds that adorn her fingers. She pauses dramatically, eyes feigning surprise at the name there. “Angelina de Casio. Angelina? Where are you? Would you make your way to the front please?” We punctuate the awkward silence that follows with a round of polite applause, initiated by the officials.
I know Angelina from our Virtual Scholars Program. She is an absolutely gorgeous 19-year-old. Her fault must have been saying too much, being too opinionated, because she is not lacking in beauty. She has high cheekbones, skin the color of dark chocolate, eyes like the night, and a smile that can light the room. She is easily five foot eight, but walks effortlessly in the sky-high stilettos. She is long, lean, and graceful. We were once good friends.
The odd process today, the way they are calling her to center stage … they wouldn't. No, surely they won't kill her here! Not here. Not in front of my baby sister. But yes, I think they will. Angelina, stiff spine and gritted teeth, hands balled into fists, walks to center stage. She announces, as custom, the best things about herself. Her last wishes, if you will.
“Angelina was a pure woman,” she says shakily, softly. Then stronger, “She never tried to be beautiful on the outside, except to stay alive in this country. She never spoke badly of anyone, was never married, and grew up an only child.”
I can feel my eyes well up. Then Angelina loses it.
“Freaks!” she spits. “You condemn your sisters, your daughters, your grandchildren. I will die today innocent, as will forty-nine others. The same thing will happen a million times over, yet you participate!”
But then, her anger ebbs away, and I can see her as the sweet girl she is. “Please … someone?”
Against my will, my legs straighten, and I am standing, holding Abby against me. She presses her face into my shoulder, suddenly shy. I say loudly, “I'm here.” The crowd watches, aghast and so silent one could imagine the heartbeats pounding.
“Please,” she entreats again, “tell my parents I was happy. And that it didn't hurt.”
Abby squirms. “What are they going to do?” she asks timidly.
I ignore her and say, “I promise, before the sun sets tonight. It will be done.” She curtseys to me, a sign of deep reverence, and I mirror her.
I sit, cover Abby's eyes, and begin to hum loudly in her little ears. She doesn't shake me off but trembles under my touch. We are supposed to clap, but the crowd stays silent.
A white hot beam of light pierces Angelina. Her screams echo throughout the arena. Abby begins to hum to herself, louder. I close my eyes, willing the entire world to disappear. The Choosing process is guaranteed to be painless, but I am willing to bet that Miss Cormier wanted to remind us what happens when we speak too freely.
Abby turns to me as they sweep up the pile of Angelina ashes on the stage, retrieving the now empty dress, shoes, and headpiece. She is crying, dark brown mascara coating her red cheeks. She wipes the red paint off her lips vehemently.
“Why?” she asks, and my heart breaks for her. She is shaking.
“I don't know, sweetheart,” I whisper. I sign our names in a loopy cursive signature on the Attendance record and step out of the suffocating arena.
I glance at the banner adorning the doorway, emblazoned with our country's motto.
“Be beautiful!” it announces. I sneer and drag my sister home. We are grateful to be alive, for the Pageant to be over with.
That is, until next year.