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“Don’t offer your flower, dear, offer your beauty.”
The creeping words were whispered over my shoulder, sending shivers down my spine. This is my last year; suck it up. I look at the single mum, staring back up at me, innocently. The flames are waiting for him to join them. For this flower to shrivel like a crisp among the million others. “I’m sorry,” I whisper.
I drop the beauty in.
I am pulled away before I can see the blackened petals of the mum. I go behind the curtain and watch Lizzy go next. Her flower is missing a big tuft of petals; she had probably picked them off in anticipation.
She looks at the half-mum, then without a second thought, drops it in the flames and skips over to me. “Is it time yet?!” she shouts enthusiastically. Luckily, the judges are too far out of earshot to hear her.
“No, honey, not yet.” I grab her hand as she starts to run to the dressing rooms. “My dress is BOOt-iful!” she announced to the young ladies in the room when she walks in. “Just BOOT-iful!”
Some of the girls smile, but most just hang their heads, knowing what Lizzy would soon learn. “Hey Jess,” a few greet, but I’m in a daze as I get my dress and Lizzy’s. Such beautiful plants… Why burn them?
As soon as Lizzy sees her dress, she jumps up and squeals. “It’s even MORE BOOT-iful than I remember!” I smile at her excitement. Soon, it would fade; soon, she would just be a shell, working for the amusement of the judges.
She seizes the dress, and runs into a corner of the room to change. I see her brag about the dress to the others. Meanwhile, I have to change, too. I choose the corner furthest from the door that I can find (behind the piano, but in front of the stack of chairs) and start to undress.
My Burning Gown is in need of a new wash; the edges of my sleeves are burned from the time I went too close to the fire and a couple of stains dot the interior. I hope none of the judges noticed.
My Pageant Dress is far too revealing for my liking; the back is opened all the way down my spine, and the front has a high collar and an opening in the middle of my chest. It doesn’t show anything violating the rules, so I can live.
I pull the red, breath-killer on and ask a nearby girl to zip it up in back. She watches in wonder as I look in the mirror for any tell-tale signs of awry stitches.
“It’s… Beautiful,” the girl commented.
I turn around to face her. “Thanks.” She’s wearing a short, silvery dress and matching shoes. She looks like an angel, a bit younger than me, with dark brown hair and crystal-blue eyes. Her make up is already applied; I can see a fault in the eyeliner. I walk over, and licking my finger, rub off the excess pencil. She looks in a handheld mirror.
“Wow. Thanks.” She marvels at her reflection for a bit more, before introducing herself. “My name is Kili. I’m from The Islands. How old are you?”
“I’m 16. Been doing this for 10 years. I can’t believe it’s my last. How old are you?”
“13,” she mumbles. “The worst age. You realize what’s going on, but you still have 3 years to go.”
I nod, sympathetically and turn away. I can’t handle it anymore. No sense in making friends. Lizzy is standing next to a girl her age. I can’t tell where she’s from exactly, but if I could take a guess, I would say the West Coast. Her hair is short and she wears sunglasses to accompany her outfit. Lizzy’s enjoying it, although the girl looks slightly annoyed.
“C’mon, Liz, we gotta go.”
“This is Dana!” Lizzy introduced, “She’s as old as I am!”
I smile at Dana apologetically, and drag Lizzy away. I apply her makeup carefully, in one of the changing rooms. Finally, it's so caked on, she looks like a tiny Barbie doll.
Lizzy kept bragging to the other kids. "Lizzy. Come here." I grab her hand and drag her out of the room."
When we reach a small hallway, I pull her in front of me. Before I can say anything, a look of panic crosses her face. “Where’s Jamie?!” she realizes, “She was here a moment ago!”
I swallow back a sob. Every time. Every, single time. “Jamie’s busy,” I reply, as always. I can’t tell her the truth; not yet.
“You’re on,” a lady monotoned, appearing right next to me. “Good luck.” She grabs Lizzy’s wrist and pulls her to the stage for the children’s section. She gives me a fleeting glance of fear, then disappears behind the stage.
"Remember to smile!" I call, but I don't know if she heard me.
I wait for two hours as the kids section finishes, then the Tweens. I'm called next for the teens.
Taking a deep breath, I take my place, last in line. Kili is up front, chatting animately with a girl her age. I watch her go on, then wait for my turn. Finally, I am to go on.
For three minutes, I flaunt on stage, smiling forcefully and waving flirtatiously. The judges smile blandly and some seem to be sinking into space; their eyes glazed over. I answer questions about myself, answering each one with the words, "It's better to be beautiful than smart." The judges seem to like me.
When the sickening minutes are over, I am whisked off the stage. The next hour passed in a blur. That would be the last time I ever had to go on the stage. I would never have to go on again… I couldn’t wait to leave.
After what seemed like an eternity, they called all of the contestants to the auditorium. Lizzy is sitting up front with the other kids her age. I have to sit in back because I’m 16, the oldest age.
A woman from The City stood on the stage. She’s wearing a puffy dress that ends at her knees and she’s frighteningly thin. Her face has been powdered and eyeshadow applied far too thick. Upon her eyes are fake eyelashes that have little orange pinpoints at the edge of an inch of eyelash. She has an envelope in her hand. She leans over delicately to speak into the microphone.
“Hello, children. Tweens. Teens. For some of you, this is the beginning of great, fortune and fame. For one other, it’s the end.”
A heavy silence set over the crowd.
“All of you are here to represent your country! You have all progressed from schools, to townships, to counties, to states and now countries! 50 participants, one of each age group from every country in North America! You are the most beautiful girls in each of your countries! Congratulations!”
No one looked happy.
The woman blinked uncertainly, then proceeded to open the envelope. “The third place winner for age six is…” She proceeded to talk, spouting off names. Lizzy didn’t win, and she seemed heart broken. Finally, the woman reached the end. “Now, what all of you have been waiting for! But before we announce the honorary winner, we must announce The Sacrifice.”
The silence became more condescending.
My blood froze in my veins. It had never happened before.. It couldn’t be Lizzie. She was too young. Jamie told me to protect her. Without thinking, I shot up from my seat. “I volunteer!”
The woman looked at me, as well as Lizzy, who had stated to get up, pale as a sheet. “I, Elisa Marin, volunteer for The Sacrifice.”
The woman looked down at her envelope, her mouth hanging open a little. “Um.. Okay then. We have a volunteer!” She gulped.
In a trance, I walk onto the stage. They bound my hands and feet in front of the fire. The woman in front of me gulps again. “Before this young lady is sacrificed, we must announce the winner. The winner of the 67th Annual Pageantry is-”
“May I say my final words?” I interrupt.
She looks around, then nods, reluctantly. I try to regain my posture and stand regally in front of the audience. “My best friend, Jamie, and Lizzy, over here,’s sister, died. She was sacrificed. Now, Lizzy must live without a sister or guardian. Her father died from over-exertion during one of the tests and her mother died when Lizzy was a newborn. She, too, was sacrificed, just like Jamie. This whole thing is sickening. It separates families. It threatens us, and hangs over our heads. Please, take a stand. Don’t let us die in vain.”
A couple of people in the audience nod.
I step back, or at least hobble, because of the ropes. The woman in front of me has her face scrunched in contempt. “The winner of the 67th Annual Pageantry is Elisa Marin,” she finishes.
I only have a second to realize that I won, before the fire burns me and I drift into the fire to join the mums.