Beauty Queens


by Libba Bray

CHAPTER ONE

“Are you all right?”

The voice was tinny in Adina’s ears. Her head ached, and she was wet. She remembered the plane pitching and falling, the smoke and screams, the panic, and then nothing.

“Am I dead?” she asked the face looming over hers. The face had apple cheeks and was framed by a halo of glossy black curls.

“No.”

“Are you dead?” Adina asked warily.

The face above her shook from side to side, and then burst into tears. Adina relaxed, reasoning that she had to be alive, unless the afterlife was a lot more bipolar than she’d been led to believe. She pulled herself to a sitting position and waited for the wooziness to subside. A gash on her knee was caked in dried blood. Another on her arm still seeped. Her dress was ripped and slightly scorched and she wore only one shoe. It was one half of her best pair, and in her state of shock, finding the other became important. “Can you help me find my shoe?”

“Sure. I saw some in the water. I hope they’re not leather,” the other girl said in an accent flat as a just-plowed field. She had huge, blue, anime-worthy eyes. “I’m Miss Nebraska, Mary Lou Novak.”

“Adina Greenberg. Miss New Hampshire.” Adina cupped her hands over her eyes, looking out toward the sea. “I don’t see it.”

“That’s a shame. It’s a real nice shoe.”

“Roland Me’sognie2,” Adina said, and she honestly couldn’t figure out why. She didn’t care about the stupid brand. That was her mother’s influence. Shock. It had to be the shock.

“If I can find my suitcase, I’ve got an extra pair of sneakers in there. I’m a size eight.”

“Thanks.”

“You’re welcome. I like to be helpful. It’s sort of a Nebraska thing. My pageant sponsor says I’ve got a real good chance at Miss Congeniality this year.”

“Miss Congeniality represents the true heart of the pageant,” Adina found herself repeating from the Miss Teen Dream manual. She vaguely remembered that she used to make a gagging motion at that, but she was too dazed for snarkiness just now. Dazed because, yes, when she’d been looking for her shoe, she’d seen bodies in the water. Lifeless bodies.

“Miss Congeniality is an ambassador of smiles,” Mary Lou said in a choked voice.

“It’ll be okay,” Adina said, even though she was pretty sure that this was the textbook definition of so not okay. “I think we should find everybody else.”

Mary Lou wiped her nose on the torn chiffon of her sleeve and followed Adina along the crescent of beach. The air smelled of smoke. A blackened metal wing lay on the sand. Sparkly evening gowns floated on the tide like jellyfish skin, the shininess attracting the curiosity of the seagulls who swooped over them in a repeated figure eight. Girls in various states of bedraggled dotted the sand like exotic, off-course birds. The contents of opened suitcases and flung purses were strewn across the beach. A red-white-and-blue, fringed baton-twirler’s dress hung from a tree. A soggy beauty whose sash identified her as Miss Ohio stumbled out of the surf and sank to her knees, coughing up water and bile.

“Oh my God,” Adina muttered. She knew she should do something here; she just couldn’t remember what. The Corporation’s Miss Teen Dream plane had been flying them to Paradise Cove for the Forty-first Annual Miss Teen Dream Pageant. They were to film some fun-in-the-sun promotional pieces, ride the waterslides, and practice their performance numbers. They had all just arrived in Florida the night before, and that morning, at ten A.M., fifty beaming girls in outfits adorned with something emblematic of their states had boarded the plane. Adina had wanted to put New Hampshire’s famous poet Robert Frost on her outfit, but her mother and Alan had said there were no poets among the judges, and now her dress had an image of the White Mountains that ranged disastrously across her 36DDs. She’d sat on the plane, her arms folded over her chest, hating that she’d been talked into wearing it. Then came the bang and the smoke, the screams, the falling, the exit doors opening, the sensation of tumbling through the air and landing in a mound of warm sand. How many had made it out? What had happened to the pilots, the chaperones, the Corporation film crew? Where were they now?

A voice with a strong twang rang out. “All right, Miss Teen Dreamers! Yoo-hoo! Over here! I’m wigglin’ my fingers for y’all’s attention! Could y’all come on over here, please?”

The waving goddess stood outlined by the smoking metal wing as if she were a model in a showroom of plane wreckage. She was tall and tanned, her long blond hair framing her gorgeous face in messy waves. Her teeth were dazzlingly white. Across the midriff of her dress was a sheer mesh inset of a Lone Star Flag. The girls wandered over, drawn to the command her beauty bestowed.