Chapter 11: Nina the Protector
The agitation in the air as we left the gymnasium was thick and overwhelming. No one seemed to be in the mood to even reassure one another that everything was going to be okay, because clearly things were not. After Coach Tracy spoke with the ref, she had managed to work out a deal: to call it a draw. Although we had been ahead of the game and winning, the fact that it was past time to finish the game required for us to come to a tie.
“It’s not your fault,” Faith mumbled to me for what seemed to be the millionth time. We were walking off Trinity school grounds and heading to the bus in the parking lot. Coach was still inside tying up a few other loose ends; Richel and Parker had been escorted off the premises by Trinity school faculty; and Leslie had dragged Harrison to her car after he carried me back inside the gym. Needless to say, the entire day had been a mess and it wasn’t even three in the afternoon yet.
“It feels like it,” I muttered back, my head hanging down and my eyes staying focused on the gravel.
“It’s not,” she insisted. “Everyone is just pissed off that Trinity actually decided to throw a shady move like that. I mean, whatever happened to sportsmanship?”
I shrugged my shoulders and found myself bump into someone’s back. When I looked up, I saw Michelle smiling mischievously, her feet planted to the ground, looking at a baby blue bug parked by a gate. I raised my eyebrows at her. “Michelle? Are you-”
“That’s. His. Car,” she stated. The entire team froze, all of our eyes widening. “That’s my ex-boyfriend’s car. He was here. He came to the game, and I had no idea.” She whipped around to turn to us, and I felt my insides swirling. “Does anyone have a can of whipped cream?”
A girl named Jacqueline shot her hand up, bursting into giggles. Michelle placed her hands triumphantly on her hips. “Great. And what about permanent markers? Not those wimpy Crayola Washable markers, but permanent markers.”
I felt someone move behind me and realized that Faith was raising her hand. I elbowed her in the ribs, but she brushed me off. Everything after that was a completely unexpected rush of rebellion: I had never seen a group of girls more careful and cautious while vandalizing someone’s car. Jacqueline and two other girls sprayed the car windows and window wipers with the two cans of whipped cream that had been stuffed deep within their gym bags. Apparently Jacqueline had a thing for sundaes topped with the stuff right after every volleyball game. The other girls, including Michelle and Faith, were drawing all over the boy's car: angry doodles of devil horns, mean emojis that could be found in heated text messages, and other rude phrases. Luckily, they weren’t writing strings of curse words.
When they were finished (five minutes flat), they all took a step back and observed the damage done. Like a kindergarten class started a furious art project. Picasso would approve, if Picasso was an angry teenage girl. Michelle let out a sigh of satisfaction, swiping a thin sheen of sweat that had formed on her forehead. She turned to me, handing me a permanent marker.
“There’s still some space here on his side mirror. Write or draw whatever you want. You are vicariously one of the victims, after all,” she said, placing the black Sharpie in the palm of my hand. I gulped, shaking my head.
“I can’t,” I replied hurriedly, looking around frantically. “Someone might see us. They might have cameras in the parking lot.”
“To hell if they have cameras in the parking lot! Don’t you want to let that Trinity girl who purposely sprained your ankle know what’s on your mind, if not face to face, then through his car?” she asked. “Come on, Nina. If not for me, then for yourself. Look at your ankle.”
I slowly turned my eyes down to my leg, where my ankle was now swollen and a tad bit red. Taking a deep breath, I uncapped the permanent marker. The team was watching me with disbelief in their eyes. I couldn’t believe it myself: timid Nina Gregory, stepping up and taking part in a crime of spontaneity and high school madness.
In my neatest cursive handwriting, I leaned over to write: Kisses, The Pretty Girls. The team laughed, high fiving one another. I grinned, laughing myself, a thrill running through me.
“One last thing to make it perfect,” Faith called out, rummaging through a side pocket of her gym bag before whipping out a tube of lipstick. Confused, I watched as she handed it to Michelle, who applied a coat onto her lips. It wasn’t until she leaned down to kiss a spot just beside my cursive message that I realized what she was doing.
She was leaving her mark, her signature. This was her closure, this was her way of stating that she had kissed him first. She had him first. A first was a first- unforgettable. As we ran back to the bus, squealing and practically peeing in our pants from laughter, I felt a bolt of invincibility strike me. I wish I could see the reaction on the boy’s face when he walked into the parking lot and saw the consequences of his fatal mistake: you mess with a pretty girl, and she will call for her warriors.
“What on Earth happened here?” Mom yelped as soon as I walked (or rather, limped) through the front door of our house. She sat in the living room with her reading glasses on and a calculator in hand. Faith had her arm looped through mine and was helping me carefully set my shopping bag (courtesy of the overflowing bags from the mall in the trunk of Michelle’s car) near the foyer.
I sent Mom a sheepish smile as I limped towards the couch. “I was going up the escalator and I tripped,” I sighed, hoping I sounded genuine enough to get her to believe me. She rushed over to me, kneeling down to inspect my ankle.
“This is pretty bad, sweetheart,” she said, clicking her tongue. “You’re lucky you didn’t break a bone. It’s awfully swollen.” Her head snapped up to look at me. “Where is Harrison?”
“He just stopped by his house to fetch a pair of crutches for me to borrow,” I replied. Mom turned to Faith. We had rehearsed this on the bus: every possible angle that my mother threw at her, she had to answer as calm and collected as she could manage.
“Is this true, Faith?” she asked, getting up and standing tall, hands placed firmly on her hips. Faith faltered and for a moment I thought all was lost. Mom would find out that I had been at a volleyball game and not at the mall and that the reason I was on the volleyball team was because I had joined a beauty pageant. She would ground me for all of eternity. But luckily, Faith got herself together.
“Yes,” Faith sighed tragically, frowning and placing a comforting hand on my shoulder. “It was so embarrassing. Nina’s always been a bit klutzy, as you know, and for her to fall down each and every step of the escalator and flash the cute guy behind her by accident with her underwear-”
I cut Faith off with a harsh glare and a slight shake of my chin to let her know that she was going a bit too far with her imagination. Mom clapped a hand over her mouth, covering up a laugh.
“That is indeed an embarrassing story for the books,” Mom chuckled, shaking her head solemnly at me. “Thank you for helping her walk up the pathway, Faith. Did you want to stay for dinner?”
Faith shook her head. “Oh no, that’s alright Mrs. Gregory. My parents expect me to come home right after the game.”
“The game?” Mom asked, her brows furrowing. My eyes widened, and I quickly stepped in to do damage control.
“Shopping for dresses is the hardest game a girl has to take part in, Mom,” I sighed. “Trying on dresses, realizing none of them fit or the color makes you look like an oversized grape. You of all people should understand the never ending battle.”
She scratched the top of her head, a small smile forming on her lips. “That is true, counting the number of dresses I had to try on in my pageant days,” she sighed fondly. “Well, you’re welcome here any time Faith.”
Faith nodded, then turned to me, clapping a hand hard on my back. I cringed, gritting my teeth. She was out the door in less than five seconds, evidently ready to stop feeling the pressure of putting up a facade in front of my mother. Unfortunately, I was the one who had to play by this role around the clock.
After much hobbling and leaning against the walls for balance, I managed to make it to my bedroom, plopping down onto my bed. I felt exhausted. The upper area of my arms felt sore, not to mention my knees were aching. It felt like a breath of fresh air to finally be lying down, my head resting against my pillow. I was halfway to dreamland when a loud rapping noise sounded from my window pane. My eyes shot open and I quickly sat up. I wiped a small drool stain from the side of my mouth, looking up to see Harrison. I rubbed the remainder of sleep from my eyes, yawning as I limped over to the window.
He breathed against the glass before writing Crutches for Punches. I laughed, shaking my head before doing my part and breathing on the glass back. I wrote My hero before opening the window and letting him in. This time, he didn’t nearly knock his foot into my face. He handed me the crutches, then took a deep breath and slumped against the floor. I placed the crutches beneath my underarms and practiced walking around. He watched me, simply sitting beside my windowsill. For a couple of minutes it was just this: the sound of the crutches step-step-stepping along the floor, me focusing on balancing and lifting my opposite foot at the right time, and Harrison sitting on my bedroom floor, watching me.
But then I fell. Or rather, I almost fell, until Harrison caught me. His hands reached just around my waist, his fingers sliding a bit up my shirt and splaying onto my bare skin. I realized what people meant now in narrations when they said “electric touch.” I felt everything inside of me tingling and the hairs on my arms were standing up. He straightened me immediately, moving his hands to my shoulders, but stayed right where he was: close to me.
“It’ll take some practice but I know you’ll get it down,” he mumbled, staring straight into my eyes. My heart did a strange flip flop.
“I hope so or else you might have to carry me around on your back for the next week or two,” I murmured in return, unable to look anywhere else but at him. Up close, I could see how long his eyelashes really were, and I could practically feel his body heat emanating off of him and onto me since his arms were still settled on my shoulders.
“That wouldn’t be such a bad thing,” he replied, slowly smiling at me. I slowly smiled back. If we kept slow smiling at each other like this I would lean over and kiss him. If Leslie found out, she would call her warriors, just like Michelle had done. So I blinked and took a step away from him. I had to know my place. I was his best friend, and nothing more.
Trying to haul a dress over my head while in a moving vehicle was proving to be a difficult task. Parker sat behind the wheel, zooming past a black UPS truck and swerving to be in front of it. The driver honked at us before angrily switching lanes, probably to avoid Parker’s frightening driving. Which, to be honest, I couldn’t digress.
“This is a mess,” Richel groaned, clearly frustrated. “How are you supposed to walk down that practice runway today? They’re going to have all the Top Twenty line up and practice stage walking.”
“I can do it,” I replied, my words a bit muffled by the scoop neck I was desperately trying to squeeze over my head. “Richel, did you get the right size for this dress?”
“Yes,” she insisted. “It’s a size two. You have a petite body type.”
I grumbled to myself as I continued to struggle pulling the dress over my head and sticking my arms through the arm holes. My unharmed foot was already in a white high heel, and I wasn’t wearing stockings, which meant I had shaved my legs once again. It wasn’t that I never shaved my legs on a daily basis, but I always managed to nick the skin near my knees. Luckily, I had been extra careful today and had managed to go nick free. Richel made a first attempt to curl my hair with a large barrel iron, in which I flinched every time the iron moved even slightly near my face. Parker distinctly used the words “90’s movie star” to describe my hair do. I prayed to God that this was a compliment. As for my ankle, the crutches were greatly helping but the gauze wrapped around my leg was not exactly appealing to the eye.
Parker jerked into another lane, and I felt my arms surprisingly slip through both arm holes with ease due to the sudden force of his horrible driving. The luncheon was supposed to be located in another lobby but out of town. Forming another diversion to tell my mother took a bit of thinking and help from Harrison, but luckily we worked out a plan in which she thought I was with Harrison and she would never find out that I wasn’t with him. Problem solved.
“Thank you,” I sighed in relief, smoothing the strands of my curls. Parker shot me a cheeky smile from the rear view mirror before turning on his blinker and making a (shocker) smooth turn into a spacious parking lot. I rolled down the window to get a better look at it all: the tall white building that seemed to tower above me, white with a stucco exterior. Parker whistled as he pulled into an available parking spot, unbuckling his seatbelt.
“This place is nice,” he laughed. Richel actually laughed, nodding her head in agreement. As I stepped out of the car into the bright daylight, holding up my hand to shield my eyes from the sun, I turned to the both of them, glad to see that for once they were getting along.
Parker was fidgeting with his keys, throwing them up in the air, but he let them slip and fall to the ground when we made eye contact. Richel jogged over to me, squealing and pulling me in for a hug.
“You look amazing!” she screeched in delight, pulling away to adjust a few strands from my loose curls. “The makeup, the dress, the heels, the hair… one hundred percent gorgeous, Nina. You’ve even made my brother speechless.”
We both turned to Parker, who cleared his throat and blinked, turning to stare at the ground and scramble to pick up his keys. He jammed a hand into his pocket, opening his mouth to speak but not saying anything at all. Richel slapped my shoulder silly.
“See?” she whispered, giggling. “Come on! Let’s head inside; the luncheon should be starting soon.”
As I limped along beside Parker, Richel led the way, weaving through a bush or two before we were waltzing through a revolving door: spinning, spinning, spinning until we were inside. I felt like I was inside a washing machine, being tumbled around until I was ready to come out, fresh and new and clean. My eyes wandered down the lobby to a large patio area, filled to the brim with girls flitting around in their dresses: short dresses, long dresses, flowy dresses, tight dresses, dresses galore.
“We’ll be right over there with the other parents,” Richel whispered in my ear, sending me a thumbs up before jogging off to mingle with the antsy mothers and the apathetic fathers sitting at separate tables to the far end of the patio.
“Bye Mom,” I sarcastically mumbled to her back.
“As long as I’m not like your dad because that would be creepy,” Parker said to me. I looked up at him and grinned, laughing.
“That would be extremely creepy,” I commented, nodding my head before gesturing towards where Richel now sat. “Aren’t you going to join her?”
“In a bit,” he replied, stretching his arms. “How are you feeling?”
He looked at me for a long time.
“Nervous,” I added for his benefit. When he still didn’t budge, I tried again. “Excited?”
He chuckled, nodding his chin at my dress. “Richel knows how to pick them, huh?”
I felt my face flush, looking down at my dress: a scoop neck in baby blue. My wrist was adorned with a matching thin baby blue watch. I checked for the time. The luncheon would be starting soon. I looked over at the other girls, who were now gawking at me. If I had forgotten for a minute that I was the only girl here on crutches, here was my reminder through their alarmed stares.
“Aren’t you going to head on over there with the other contestants?” Parker asked. I shot him a glare before shrugging my shoulders, shifting my stable leg to gain balance with the bandaged one.
“In a bit,” I mimicked, rolling my eyes at him and biting my lip in embarrassment at the fact that I was currently a fish out of water here.
“Hey,” he softly said, and I met his green gaze. “I think you look great. You’re going to rock that stage, even though you’re crippled and all.” I let out a short laugh before he continued. “If anyone sends you snide remarks just hit them with your crutch. Easy.”
“See, unlike you, I like to handle situations without resorting to violence,” I sweetly replied, sending him my best sarcastic smile. He tilted his head back to laugh.
“But that’s no fun, now is it?” he asked, bumping his elbow lightly into my arm. Deciding that he was right and that I should at least go and meet the other contestants, I walked (as smoothly as a girl on crutches can walk) along the concrete over to a table that held platters of fruit. The man serving handed me a small plate filled with grapes and slices of apple. He glanced at my crutches, then at the plate. I took the plate before he could say a word and turned away from him.
“What happened?” a small voice asked to my left. I twisted my neck, then found my eyes moving down as I spotted a small girl of about five feet with long blonde hair. She wore a flowy white dress that cinched in at the waist, and she certainly wasn’t my age. I followed her gaze down to my bandaged ankle and crutches. I grimaced, shooting her a shameful smile.
“I was playing in a volleyball game the other day and fell trying to hit the ball,” I explained.
She sucked in a breath, her eyes widening. “Wow. That sounds-” Horrifying? Uncomfortable? Humiliating? “-epic.”
I nearly did a double take at her words before it sunk in. “Epic?” I repeated, mystified by this tiny blonde girl with the quietest, lightest voice I have ever heard to enter my ear drums. Quieter than mine, and that’s saying something.
“I read a book recently where a girl fell off a cliff to save a citizen of this dying city, and she ended up being praised and cheered by the mayor and the mayor’s son. There’s a romance, you see, between her and-”
I watched in amusement as the girl rambled on and on about the tale of this book, surprisingly enjoying her company and narrative of the book she was explaining. When she paused in her speech, I almost frowned.
She fiddled with her dress, turning her head down to stare at her feet, strapped in turquoise sandals. “I’m sorry. I’ll just-”
“No, no,” I rushed, placing a hand on her arm before pulling it away. I looked at her, really looked, and somehow found bits and pieces of myself in her: afraid and overly cautious, never wanting to step out of her comfort zone, soaking herself in the dark. I sent her a gentle smile. “It’s okay. I’ve heard about that book before. I’ve been meaning to borrow it from my school library.”
Her eyes lit up and her shoulders moved up to her ears. “Really?” she breathed. “Wow. I’ve never met anyone else who liked that book, too.” She hesitated before adding, “I’m Anna.”
“Nina,” I replied, shaking her hand while balancing the crutch beneath my armpit. “How old are you, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Fourteen,” she timidly responded, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. Fourteen, the same age I was when I first thought I’m not pretty. Fourteen was such a tender age, young enough to absorb everything with a certain naivety and old enough to know that fairytales were just stories before bedtime. “How old are you?”
“Sixteen,” I answered, and she grinned.
“Wow,” she breathed. “I can’t wait until I’m sixteen. My mom made me join this pageant in hopes of me interacting with people other than the ones in books.”
I threw a hand to my chest, my mouth dropping. “But those are the best kind of people!” I exclaimed. Our conversation flew back and forth like this, and for a moment I felt like I had a little sister. Unfortunately, we were rudely interrupted by two girls who arrived to the fruit table. One of the girls, to my dismay, happened to be Leslie. I hadn’t even been aware that she’d made it into the Top Twenty, and I certainly hadn’t seen her during the interviews. But then again, the room that day had been swarming with over sixty girls. The competition had slimmed itself down.
“This is supposed to be formal,” she sniffed at Anna, who immediately shrunk in her presence. I found myself puffing my chest out, not wanting anyone to hurt my new friend. She needed to be protected.
“I believe the itinerary said semi formal,” I defensively shot back. I would have folded my arms to emphasize my point, but my crutches were proving to be a burden.
Leslie stood beside a much older looking girl, eighteen perhaps, wearing round sunglasses and a clunky purple heels. Why do bitches always have side kicks?
“Whatever,” she replied, shaking her head at me. “Says the girl in the crutches.”
“I may be in crutches, but these crutches can do some serious damage.” It was like the words had come out of my mouth yet another person had thought of them. I was Nina the Great, Nina the Brave, Nina the Protector and all the other cheesy heroic titles that have been brandished on heroines in books and films. Parker was right: sometimes being tough was a little fun. My reply seemed to scare Leslie and her minion off as they scurried to another area of the patio, where they probably went to harass more peaceful contestants and rattle their cages. I rolled my eyes, turning back to Anna, who was looking at me in awe.
“That was so cool,” she breathed, her grin so wide I wondered how it fit on her small face.
“Hello, girls!” someone at the front of the patio called through speakers that were set up nearby a black narrow stage. Every single head in the room turned and then a small wave of screams and squeals erupted, including a high pitched one from Anna. Jane Lee stood at the very front, sporting a floral bustier matched with a floral skirt and nude heels. She looked like a floral goddess. “If you could gather here around this small stage that I’m on-”
She didn’t even have to finish her sentence: every single Top Twenty girl swarmed around the stage, leaning against it, whispering and smiling like maniacs. I was amidst all of this teenage beauty mayhem, and I was shockingly loving every single moment of it.
“Thank you all so much for attending this event. You all look beautiful. I’m going to take a moment of my time up here to congratulate you all once more for making it into the Top Twenty of the Melway Beauty Pageant round!”
A chorus of whistles, cheers and claps exploded, and I felt myself soaring. Although Anna had previously said that her mother forced her into this, I could tell she was enjoying it all just as much as I was. Jane laughed at our enthusiastic reaction, holding the microphone in her hand with as much grace as any other young adult top actress would.
“I hope you’ve helped yourself to the refreshments at the nearby tables. Parents, thank you for coming as well. As you know, the Melway Round is one of the first in a total of three rounds for this beauty pageant contest: Melway, Miss USA and finally Miss America located in Florida. We are going to get started with the Practice Runway, as the panel calls it. If I could have the contestants walk behind the stage. You will have five minutes to practice, so feel free to help one another out and give each other tips.”
“Something tells me that those two girls who talked to us earlier won’t exactly be chipper enough to give us runway advice,” I whispered to Anna, who covered her mouth and giggled. We walked to the back of the stage, or rather I teetered and Anna walked. A swarm of girls were mumbling to one another, swapping words at the speed of light. I blinked, feeling completely and utterly lost in the chaos that was trying to figure out how to walk. Literally, this was what the twenty of us were practicing. We had been walking since the ages of one or maybe even earlier, yet here we all were, stumped. Except, of course, for Leslie and her sidekick. They were walking back and forth, side by side, like two girls filled with wrath walking down a school hallway. Leslie shot me a smirk as she waltzed along the concrete, hips swaying, chin tilted upwards, as if she were above us all. I turned to look at Anna, who was attempting to walk in a similar way.
“How are you girls doing?” Jane asked, walking up to us. Anna abruptly stopped walking, her left leg awkwardly placed in front of the other. Her face was turning bright red, so I stepped in.
“It’s proving to be a bit of a challenge,” I admitted, and Anna shot me a grateful glance. Jane smiled sympathetically.
“It’s still a challenge for me, too,” she replied, sighing.
“You?” Anna asked in disbelief, her eyes bulging. “But you’re a celebrity.”
Jane shrugged her shoulders, chuckling. “Photoshoots are still difficult for me to do. Especially walking down runways for fashion endorsements, ugh, those are the worst. That doesn’t mean that I don’t try to have fun with it.” She sent Anna a wink, and Anna grinned, continuing on practicing her runway walk but this time with her shoulders relaxed and her feet moving at her own pace.
Jane turned to me, her eyes widening as she took note of my crutches and bandaged ankle.
“It looks bad, I know,” I blurted out, scratching the back of my neck nervously. Jane bit back a smile, placing a hand loosely on her hip.
“Did you go rock climbing with your boyfriend or something?” she laughed.
“Not exactly,” I chuckled before adding, “My boyfriend?”
“That guy over there,” Jane said, pointing her index finger towards the tables at the very back corner of the patio, where Parker sat with Richel. Richel was taking pictures from afar with her phone and Parker’s chin was nodding into his chest, meaning he was falling asleep. “Isn’t he your boyfriend?”
I felt my face flush at the thought of someone like Parker being my boyfriend. For me to even have a boyfriend in general made my face feel hot. “No, he’s just my mentor’s twin brother,” I explained.
Jane nodded wisely. “Ah, I see. Well, Nina, regardless of you being on crutches, walk down that runway like you own it.” She paused, staring at me for a moment. “Your mother isn’t here to watch you?”
I wasn’t sure what made me end up telling her; after all, she was Jane Lee, the most sought after actress in Hollywood. But perhaps it was the way she talked to me: direct eye contact, full attention, and a sincere tone in her voice. “She doesn’t know I’m here,” I said slowly.
Jane raised her eyebrows in surprise before folding her arms. “I’m sure you have your reasons. I won’t tell anyone,” she replied, sending me a small smile.
“Thank you,” I said, letting out a sigh of relief after I realized that I had been afraid of her telling someone on the panel and me getting booted out of the pageant.
“But Nina?” she said, and I found myself growing nervous. “To have inner confidence, you have to be honest with yourself. You have to know what makes you happy through decisions that are solely formed by your own bias. No one else’s. Okay?”
I nodded, swallowing a lump in my throat that was making me feel like I was about to crash. “Okay.”
And with that, she walked off to mingle with other contestants. Anna clasped her hands together, her eyes shining. “I feel so nervous.”
“Don’t be,” I reassured, patting her on the shoulder. “You are going to be fabulous. I’m positive. Just have faith in yourself.”
After Jane announced that we would be beginning walking down the makeshift runway onstage, I felt a storm whirling around in the pit of my stomach. Inner confidence. Honest to myself. I thought I had been doing all of those things, but why did I feel even more bottled up? To distract myself, I watched the other girls walk down the runway. A majority were clearly first timers, from awkward hand placements on hips to unnecessarily wide grins, ones that stretched too far to be labeled as just confidence. Once it was Anna’s turn, I clapped my hands and let out a whoop. She floated down the stage with a grace I didn’t know she had in her, and when she turned back around to lock eyes with me, I could tell that her inner confidence was just burning inside of her. She made me want to feel that way, too.
When it was finally my turn, I took a deep breath. The woman and man that I had seen in my previous interview session looked at me with alarm as I walked down the stage on crutches. But Jane was smiling, sending me a thumbs up. I smiled, puffing my chest out a bit and feeling my hair blow back in the slight breeze, which I hoped only added to the effect. I could hear Richel and Parker cheering in the back (Parker woke up, huzzah) and Anna whistling from her spot behind the stage. I could see why my mother loved pageants. There was a certain vigor that you felt pumping through your heart when you walked down a stage or a runway and knew that you belonged there. Like you were a part of this gigantic, important group of people. Like you were somebody. For a flash of a second, I wished my mom was there to watch me becoming that somebody.