Chapter 18: Stars
After a few awkward moments of mother-daughter tension, Greg reached over and slipped the mic out of my mother’s hands before announcing the winner himself. He looked down at the card in my mother’s frozen hands. “Nina Gregory!” he yelled, then looked up out of shock. The audience burst into applause, and I found myself stepping forward, my feet holding a mind of their own. A pink sash was graced around my neck, and the girls around me politely clapped on.
If I looked into the crowd, I could spot Faith and the rest of the volleyball team whooping the loudest, causing the people nearby them to shoot incredulous glances. But I wasn’t looking at them. I wasn’t even looking at the contestants around me, or at the pink sash now around my body, crossing my chest in a diagonal line.
My eyes couldn’t take themselves off my mother, who stood center stage, right beside me. The fury in her eyes was blazing by the minute, but there was more than anger inside of her. What the other emotions were I couldn’t put a finger to.
“Alright,” Greg slowly said, trying to put the audience back at ease. He scratched the back of his neck awkwardly before continuing. “Miss Gregory will now give a speech. It’s a tradition that we have in our yearly pageants.”
Mom and I both reached for the microphone, then drew our hands back slowly only to have them fall back down at our sides. The back of my neck was burning up, and my palms felt clammy. She was still giving me the side eye, and I could only imagine the questions flying through her head. Greg cleared his throat before handing me the microphone. I had to force myself to calm down in order to keep my hand from shaking as I took the mic from him, bringing it up to my mouth. I blinked, looking out at the audience. I was completely lost for words.
“Nina,” Jane said. All eyes moved to her, including mine. She was smiling encouragingly at me, her own microphone still held up to her lips. “We’re all curious: what was it like to be a part of this first pageant round and how has it influenced your life?”
My mother’s eyes were burning a hole into my dress. Greg was merely perplexed by the sudden turn of events. My tongue lay flat and still inside my mouth, but I knew I had to answer the question. People were pondering about my pageant experience. I had to start from scratch.
“I used to think that ‘pretty’ was my mother.” At this the audience flew into a rush of murmurs. In my peripheral vision, my mother’s hardened expression softened. It gave me the courage to go on. “I also used to think pretty meant being a flowery pink girl and having the attention of everybody in a room. But it’s so much more than that.”
Jane nodded, motioning her fingers as if to say give-them-more. So I did.
“It’s so much more than this dress or this sash or this stage. Pretty holds a definition that’s beyond reach. For a long time, though, I didn’t know this. I let the validation of others affect how I saw myself.” I looked around at everyone, then turned around to cast the other mesmerized contestants behind me a grateful smile before facing the audience once more. “I may never grow taller or be thinner, but this is who I am. I am pretty because I think I’m pretty and because I feel pretty. And that’s what this pageant has taught me.”
Unsure of what else to say, I added, “Thank you.”
The reaction that followed astounded me: very slowly, Faith stood up and began clapping. Then Coach Tracy stood up, then Michelle, then the volleyball team, and then every single individual in Melway Hall stood up from their chairs to clap until the entire room rung with thunderous applause. The grin on my face and the feeling of joy were priceless. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined myself standing up on a stage telling this to complete strangers. It wasn’t that I had done this with bravery and fearlessness, but that I dived head first into my speech with fear and came out okay.
“Thank you, Miss. Gregory,” Greg declared over the continuous rising acclamation. “What a well spoken address. Nina is not only walking away tonight with a pink sash and a ticket to the next round, but a check of one thousand dollars!”
The applause grew. The Headset Woman from backstage jogged out from behind the curtains, holding an oversized check that was twice the size of my whole body. She handed it to me graciously, and the weight of it collapsed onto my palms with a force. I gritted my teeth and smiled, settling the check subtly on the floor against my knees instead.
The contestants that hadn’t made it to the next round walked sullenly towards their families and received mighty hugs from their relatives. People began filing ut the doors, holding pink paper programs in their hands, gathering their purses, clearly eager to leave as soon as they had come. My fingers touched the sash, soft pink silk. I had won. Me, of all people. In my mind, confetti was flying around and I was jumping and dancing.
But quite quickly, I came to my senses and tumbled back down to earth. My mother was offstage, leaning against a wall and staring at me with her arms folded and her lips pursed together in one hard line. I took a deep breath, my shoulders lifting, before carefully descending my down the stage, picking up the bottom of my dress to make sure I didn’t trip. By the time I reached her, nearly all the audience members had cleared out of the hall.
She held up a hand, closing her eyes. Her brows furrowed as a frown formed on her face. When she finally found her patience again, she spoke. “Nina, why didn’t you tell me you were in a beauty pageant? Is this what you’ve been doing in your spare time away from the flower shop and why you’ve been coming home so late? Because you’ve been rehearsing for this?”
I bit my lip, nodding. “Yes, but-”
“I don’t understand why you chose to keep this a secret from me, Nina. You’ve never acted this way before, and I think we are going to have to-”
“Mom!” I yelled, breathing hard. My throat was tightening up, but I found the will to keep going, making sure my voice was steady and not shaking. “Being your daughter…” I paused, swallowing before clarifying. “Being the daughter of a previous beauty pageant queen has made me feel so insignificant. I felt so small next to you, Mom. I felt like a speck of dust.”
Her eyes began to fill up, and she took her hand into mine, squeezing my fingers hard. “Honey, you have always been beautiful in my eyes.” She took a moment to suck in a breath. “People in this world are unkind. When I was in beauty pageants, I was criticized constantly from every angle about how I looked. It was why I never even made the suggestion for you to join one, because I didn’t want you to hear what I had to hear at your age.”
“You were criticized?” I asked in disbelief. “But everyone thinks you’re perfect.”
She laughed. “Oh, honey, I’m far from perfect. You out of all people should know that.” She placed a gentle hand against my cheek. “I am deeply sorry if I have ever made you feel like you aren’t pretty. But you are, Nina. I’m surrounded by beautiful flowers all day at the shop, but you are the prettiest thing in my life that I could have ever asked for.”
A sob escaped my throat and I buried my head into her shoulder, wrapping my arms tightly around her waist. I shouldn’t have ever compared myself to her. This was my mother. This was the person who had placed me here in this world. Of course I was a part of her. Of course I looked like her. She was me, and I was her. Anyone who said otherwise only looked at the surface.
When we pulled away from one another, she wiped my under eyes with her thumbs. “I don’t want your mascara to ruin. You still have a dance to attend to, right?”
I nodded but felt my heart sink a bit. She nudged her chin to the edge of the hall, where Faith was waiting for me. As soon as we made eye contact, she waved, then motioned for me to hurry and come over. She wanted to see Danny, which I couldn’t blame her for. She finally got to be with the boy she wanted to be with.
Mom leaned down to place a chaste kiss on my cheek. “Be home before ten o’clock. You’re not completely off the hook for this stunt of yours, missy.”
I saluted at her, laughing. “Aye aye, Captain.”
She rolled her eyes, waving good bye at me as I trudged over to Faith, feeling a bit listless from the rush of everything that had just occurred. Pageant by day, formal by night. What an abrupt change of scenery indeed. Faith had already changed into her formal dress: a strapless yellow dress with a feathered skirt. Her hair had been pulled back with two clips, and she’d applied bright red lipstick to her mouth.
“Hey,” I sighed.
“Hey!” she squealed. “Congratulations, Beauty Pageant Star.” She whipped around, waving at the group, who was waiting outside. Richel shivered in a spaghetti strapped black ensemble, and Michelle examined her nails all while wearing a casual ocean blue gown. And there stood Parker, ready to go in his suit and tie. His hair was slicked up and his green eyes stood out against the dark night. He spotted me and smiled, straightening up. A tornado was growing in the pit of my stomach.
“Thanks,” I muttered.
Faith frowned. “Are you alright?”
The pounding in my head was enough to cut a wooden log in half. “No.”
Faith’s eyebrows raised before pulling me further into the corner she stood in, out of sight from Parker and the rest of the girls. “Okay, what’s going on? You look very unhappy, and it’s either due to being hungry or a boy.” Bingo. Her eyes widened when she noticed how I ducked my chin into my neck at the latter. “A boy? Parker?”
“Harrison,” I said, and her jaw dropped. Before I knew it, I was gushing every single detail that I’d been holding inside of me. “I’m going to formal with a boy that should be the right boy but isn’t. Parker isn’t the right boy I should be going to formal with because I want to go to spring formal with Harrison. But Harrison is already at formal with Leslie. That’s probably why she wasn’t even here tonight, because she was too busy making out with Harrison in the back seat of some limo. And it sucks and it hurts like I’ve scraped my knees multiple times on a sidewalk, Faith.”
“Are you saying that you like Harrison?”
“That is exactly what I’m saying,” I sighed in relief, slapping a hand to my forehead. “A lot. I like him a lot.”
Faith clapped a hand over her mouth before letting out a laugh. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
I folded my arms, hurt by her reaction. “He’s not that bad of a boy to fall for.”
She shook her head, still laughing. “It’s not that. It’s just… you do know that Harrison has liked you since the Seventh Grade, right?”
Now it was my own turn for my jaw to drop. “What?”
“Nina, you had to know this. It was so obvious!”
Tingles were crawling up my spine. “You’re pulling my leg.”
“I am most definitely not pulling your leg! Harrison told me our freshman year of high school. I kept bugging him about who his crush was because it came up in conversation, and when I wouldn’t stop, he blurted out that it was you. Complete accident and he made me swear that I’d never tell you. I just never thought you liked him, too.”
My face was growing warm. Harrison had liked me since the Seventh Grade. That was when we first met one another, when I’d socked him in the face. I’d only started liking him last summer. “You’re positive he’s liked me for that long?”
“Yes. He told me himself; he said he fell for you during the Seventh Grade and that nothing’s changed since then. I haven’t brought it up with him again since his last confession, but since he’s broken up with Leslie, I’m guessing he still feels the same way.”
“He broke up with Leslie?” I screeched. Now it was as if someone had chucked my brain into a snow globe and shaken it until my thoughts were all jumbled up.
“Yesterday,” Faith confirmed. “And that’s why she wasn’t here today, because she didn’t feel too well about it. Not because she’s making out with Harrison in the backseat of some random limo, crazy.”
“Oh my God. Oh my God,” I repeated, placing my hands on top of my head in hopes of stopping the world as I knew it from spinning. “But he’s gone out with so many other girls…”
“Because he thought you would never feel the same,” she added.
“But I do!” I felt frantic now, agitation rising inside of me so quickly I was sure my blood pressure was spiked. “I have to get to the dance now.”
Before Faith could utter another revelation that would make my head spin, I rushed over to the group. They’d already begun filing into their own vehicles, getting a head start to the school. Richel was slipping into Michelle’s vehicle to catch a ride, leaving Parker and I to ourselves. I gulped. Here came the part I dreaded, the part I knew had been coming all along yet chose to avoid until this very moment.
“I must have done some kind of good to have a beauty pageant winner as my date to spring formal,” he commented, shooting me a charming smirk all while leaning against the hood of his car. I almost didn’t say it; I almost just let it go and made the decision to be happy with what was right in front of me. But that would be unfair.
“Parker,” I quietly began. The smirk from his face faded away and he blew out a breath, turning to look at the ground.
“How bad is this going to be?” he chuckled, shoving his hands into his pant pockets. He really did look handsome, all polished up like this. It only made it harder to do what I was about to do.
“Bad,” I admitted, swallowing the lump in my throat. “I need to tell you something, and I need for you to not hate me afterwards because you are one of the closest friends I have. I don’t want to lose you over this.”
He lifted his head up to look at me before sending me a gentle glance. “Go for it.”
“I can’t go to the dance with you.”
He laughed. “You can catch a ride with Faith if you-”
“No, no. I mean I can’t go to the dance with you,” I said again. He blinked before nodding his head slowly, a twinkle growing in his eyes.
“Ah,” he said. “Well. That is pretty bad, isn’t it?”
My eyes were filling up yet a laugh still escaped my throat. “I’m trying to be serious here,” I said, sniffling and wiping at my eyes. He took one of my hands in his before sighing.
“I know. Sorry.” His eyes flickered around the details of my face before opening the passenger car door. “Hop in.”
“Parker, I can’t-”
“Hop in so I can take you to the kid. This is about the guy I got into it with before, right? He’s the one you want to go to the dance with?”
I bit my tongue and chose to nod instead.
“I should have known from the way he looked at you,” he chuckled to himself before gesturing for me to get inside the car. I squeezed his hand and hopped in.
Parker pulled into what seemed to be the last available parking spot. The parking lot was packed: cars were jammed so tightly together that I had trouble getting out because I was too focused on making sure I didn’t hit the door of the car beside us. Music was blaring and we could hear it all the way from the outside. The beat vibrated against the ground, and I could feel my pulse rising once more.
Parker threw his car keys into the air before catching them in his hand. He raised an eyebrow at me, smiling. “What are you waiting for? Go get ‘em, tiger.”
I ran around to the other side of the car and launched myself at him, my arms wound around his neck. “Thank you,” I whispered into his ear. His hands placed themselves along my waist, and when we pulled away he playfully chucked his knuckle against my chin. I took another second to stare into his green eyes before dashing off into the school gymnasium.
I bolted through the double doors before getting hit by a wave of a new song being blasted through the speakers. The funny thing about dances being held inside a gymnasium is how startling the before and after is. This was the same exact place I ran and sweated inside, occasionally sitting on the bleachers out of boredom. Now, the bleachers had been pulled in, out of sight and out of mind. The basketball hoops had also been pulled up, however those were still fairly visible. You couldn’t hide everything. Neon colored lights were pulsating from above, and someone had even gotten the clever idea of sticking a disco ball up there. Classic.
Finding Harrison was going to be a bit of a scavenger hunt. As I squeezed myself past handfuls of students, all who were moving around, jumping on the balls of their feet or swaying side to side, I realized that in the dark all the boys were dressed practically the same. I groaned loudly in frustration. Now, of all moments when something right in my life happened, now I wasn’t allowed to properly find the right boy. The boy that, like Faith, I wanted to be with.
“Alright, alright,” the DJ said at the very front of the room, abruptly ceasing on the techno pop that had been playing. “We’re going to slow things down a bit. You know what to do. Grab that someone.”
I wish I could! I thought, sighing and standing on my tiptoes in hopes of spotting the familiar brown eyes I had grown comfortable staring into and the mop of black hair that was usually untamed.
“Excuse me,” a person said from behind me.
“Oh, sorry,” I said, quickly moving to the left to get out of their way. It wasn’t until I did a double take before realizing that the person who had spoken to me was the person I’d been looking for. Harrison had done a complete one eighty. His hair had been combed over and smoothed down. No strands were sticking up or out of place. His suit was pressed and his blue tie was tucked into his coat jacket. I hadn’t even recognized him.
He stuck out his palm towards me. “Can I have this dance?”
Mesmerized and stunned, I took his hand. He led my arms around his neck while his fell around my waistline. He took the first step forward and I took one step back. A soft piano and guitar instrumental was playing in the background, and the lights had been dimmed so that only a few shimmering white spotlights fluttered along the walls and floor.
“Judging by the pink sash, I’m guessing you won,” he said. I was confused before looking down and realizing that I was, in fact, still wearing the pink sash that had been placed around my shoulders. I felt my face heat up.
“I did,” I mumbled. He smiled and everything in me stumbled.
“I knew you would.”
Before I lost my nerve, I said, “I know your secret.”
He blinked, his eyebrows raising. “What secret?”
“That you’ve liked me since the Seventh Grade,” I said, then angrily punched him in the shoulder.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I demanded. “Do you know what I’ve gone through since summer?”
“Do you know what I’ve gone through since the Seventh Grade?” he shot back, and I fell still. He sighed, taking a step to the left. I followed his lead. “I thought us ever becoming something more than just friends was a lost cause, so I didn’t bother touching on the topic.”
“So kissing me in the Jump was an accident?” I frowned, my eyes moving away from his gaze.
“No. I wanted to kiss you that night, Nina. I’ve wanted to kiss you a lot of times, but I just haven’t had the guts to.” This statement managed to shut me up, and I felt my cheeks growing hot. “I’m sorry I never told you. I just thought… I just thought. That’s the problem with me: I always think but I never do.”
He looked so helpless, so endearing as he spoke. I wished someone could capture it on film so that I could watch this moment over and over whenever I wanted to.
“What happened with Leslie?” I quietly asked. This was one thing I wouldn’t allow: improper closure between Harrison and Leslie. Had Leslie been a conniving being towards me? Yes. But did that mean I wished for her to suffer a horrible heartbreak? No. No one deserved that, ever.
“After I kissed you, I realized that I couldn’t stop avoiding the fact that I have feelings for you. So yesterday, I broke up with her. It just wasn’t fair anymore, to either of us.”
“She wasn’t in the pageant today.”
He sighed. “I’m an idiot.”
“You’re not an idiot,” I said. “You’re Twinkles.”
He laughed, shaking his head before stopping to dip me. I felt my hair fall back a bit before he brought me up again, adjusting a loose strand by tucking it behind my ear. “I saw stars back then when you punched me in the face, and I still see stars right now looking at you.”
His eyes moved down to my lips. I felt the satisfying alignment of everything coming together, every loose thread being stitched up again. When his forehead pressed against mine, I let him kiss me, and as we kissed I swore that I was tasting those stars.
Harrison’s hand was officially my favorite hand to hold. His black coat jacket was draped around my shoulders, and my head leaned against his shoulder as we walked along the sidewalk. Our fingers were intertwined, and he was doing this thing where he brushed his thumb lightly along the back of my hand. It was sending shivers up my spine. The only real light guiding the way was the moon and the nearby streetlamps.
“What are we now?” I asked, breaking the peaceful silence and lifting my head off his shoulder. He looked down at our hands before holding them up. Both our fingers brushed against the leaves of a tree we were under.
“We’re Mia and Chase,” he said. I gasped, falling into a fit of giggles.
“So you do watch Starcrossed!” I exclaimed, clapping a hand over my mouth out of shock. He shrugged his shoulders, the tips of his ears turning red. “You always said that was such a girly show.”
“It’s a girly show with a good plot.” He paused. “Is it true that Jane was one of the judges on the panel?”
“Yes. Too bad Ryan Santana wasn’t there, too. Now that would’ve been a dream,” I sighed. Harrison pouted, and I let out a laugh. “Kidding.”
We were passing by a cross walk when I realized what street we were on. A breeze blew through the air, ruffling the hem of my dress. There was one last thing I wanted to fix tonight. Maybe it wasn’t too late.
“Can we stop somewhere really quick?” I asked. Harrison smiled, nodding his head.
I tugged on his hand and we made a right turn, entering a round of houses. A majority of the lights were already off, and the curtains to every window were closed. If Harrison and I held our breaths, I was certain that we could hear the nearby neighbors snoring, snuggled up in their warm beds. But there was one house that was still alive and awake. Harrison snapped his neck towards me, his eyes crinkling in confusion. I tugged on his hand once more in the direction of the house, letting him know that it was okay. I wanted to do this.
As we got closer to the house, I took note that the curtains were wide open. Walking up the steps and passing by the mailbox with its flag up, I could easily see Helena asleep on the couch in the living room. Balloons were floating all around her, and brightly colored wrapping paper was on the floor in shredded pieces. When we reached the door, I lifted a shaking finger to the doorbell. Before I lost all nerve, I pushed it.
I heard the sound of running water from the kitchen being turned off. Footsteps thumped along the wooden floor inside until they reached the door. I wasn’t expecting it to be him right away, but it was. Christina must have been cleaning up the rest of the house, sweeping the floor or even arranging Helena’s gifts and moving them into her bedroom. But he was there, his hand on the doorknob, a surprised expression clearly written all over his face and a kitchen apron tied around his neck. My heart simmered a bit before cooling down.
I took a breath before smiling at him. “Hi Dad.”
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