Am I Pretty Yet?

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Chapter 4: Intruder Alert

"Mia, please, stop!" Chase yelled, fumbling to unbuckle his seat belt. I waited with bated breath but Mia kept running, her footsteps stomping against the concrete pavement as she passed by house after house. Even though Journey to the Skies had ended for nearly two years now, I had the complete deluxe edition of all four seasons on DVD. It had been a birthday gift from Mom last year.

Stuffing a handful of cheddar cheese chips into my mouth, I grabbed the remote to turn up the volume for what seemed to be the millionth time. One thing I despised about the beginning of spring was the sudden and drastic downfall of rain. The clouds in the sky turned gray; the mornings were chillier; the air became cooler and smelled of chunky mud. Mom had already gone to the effort of taking out two of our umbrellas from the hallway closet and placing them by the front door for easy access as I headed to school and she headed to work.

The droplets were turning fatter and fatter, pelting against my window pane. When Chase finally reached her and whirled her around by desperately making a grab for her arm, Mia's mouth was moving, saying something I couldn't quite catch. I groaned in frustration, turning up the volume even more. Then I heard a bang. My shoulders jumped in surprise, and I immediately lowered the volume until the TV screen indicated it was on mute.

My heart pounded. It was a Sunday night. Mom was out with her older sister, my Aunt Delilah, across town having dinner at Queenie, the Italian restaurant with overpriced french baguettes. The owner had a cheesy French accent, and Harrison and I highly suspected that it was all an act for business reasons.

Another bang sounded, and this time I grabbed my octopus out of instinct. Looking down at my cell phone, I punched in Mom's number and held the speaker up to my ear. When I realized it wasn't even ringing, I looked down, my heart sinking. No signal.

I heard another bang, and then the entire house was cloaked in darkness. I swallowed hard despite my throat being dry, sitting frozen on my bedspread, unable to make myself move or even breathe. The rain was still coming down on the roof at a steady rate.

drip drip drip drip.

I fumbled with my phone, trying Mom's number again but still there were no bars on my screen. A knocking noise erupted, this time coming from downstairs. Someone was at the door.

I was going to die.

It was a burglar. Or a rapist. Or a burglar slash rapist. Like the not so smart girl in horror movies, I found myself quietly moving downstairs, my footsteps softly padding along the carpeted steps. I had to at least attempt to protect our home. We had been living here for as long as I could remember. I learned how to do a backwards flip on a trampoline in the backyard, and Harrison chipped a tooth once in the front yard when we'd been playing tug-of-war back in the Eighth Grade with an old jump rope we'd found in the attic. If a burglar slash rapist was really going to barge through the front door, they were going to have to get through me first.

A thunderous knock sounded again at the door. I took an umbrella from the stand, holding it in a way that I’d seen a protagonist in some action film that Harrison had been obsessed with during our first year of high school hold it. This time the knock sounded more like a desperate pounding, so I unlocked the door and bravely swung it open, hitting the intruder on the head immediately with the end of the umbrella.

“Jesus!” the intruder yelled, tumbling to the ground and clutching their head. The intruder sounded a lot like…

Harrison?” I called out, running out in the rain and kneeling in front of him. He was holding his head in both hands, taking deep breaths. “What the hell are you doing here? It’s pouring.”

He lifted his head and every ounce of fear I had in my body earlier drained out of me. Harrison, with his T-shirt clinging to his sculpted chest, with his face dripping beads of rain and his hair covered in thousands of droplets. He looked like the most adorable wet dog I had ever seen in the bane of my existence, only human.

“I tried… banging on… your window…”

“I didn’t hear anything.”

“Because you were watching that stupid TV show again,” he said, sounding a little less breathless and a little more sane as a teenage boy doused in rain can get. “The lights in your neighborhood went out.”

I looked around at the houses in our cul-de-sac, realizing he was right. The whole round looked like The Twilight Zone. All the neighbors were outside on their lawns, holding umbrellas and flashlights, making sure their newly cut hedges and drain pipes were alright. Mrs. McLauren from across the street shined her flashlight at me, and I squinted, putting my hand up to my face.

“You okay over there, doll?” she called out from the safety of her front porch. She was in her peach fuzz bathrobe with curlers in her hair and a James Patterson novel in her unoccupied hand. I smiled. She was the only person who called me doll, and it comforted me.

“Yes, Mrs. McLauren! Thank you!” I yelled in return. She shined her flashlight on another neighbor, asking the same thing. I sighed, shivers already running up and down my arms as rain drops soaked their way down the front of my T-shirt.

“I still don’t understand why you’re here,” I said to Harrison, who was looking more and more like a sheep dog. I was sure I just looked like a weeping willow. My hair was draped around my shoulders, and my bangs stuck to my forehead uncomfortably.

“My mom wanted me to check on you. She’s in the car over there. You’re sleeping over tonight at our place,” he said. I craned my neck to look at Harrison’s mom, Mrs. Clarence, in her mini van. She waved a hand outside her window, her wedding ring sparkling even in the dark. I waved back. “You know how you’re like the daughter she never had.”

I beamed, clasping my hands behind my back. Harrison’s mother had always been overwhelmingly kind to me. She knew all of my favorite dishes, and for my birthday three years ago she had made me peanut butter crumble crisp, which were thin peanut butter flavored cookies, light and flaky and delicious. To this day, they were my absolute favorite dessert.

“My mom-”

“Has already been contacted by mine,” Harrison cut in. “Now come on. Go get your duffel bag. You’re starting to look like a sheep dog.”

“So are you,” I shot back, racing inside my house.

“The rain was so heavy that it caused a short circuit in the electric boxes of everyone’s homes,” Mrs. Clarence explained, turning the steering wheel and making a sharp right onto Chateau Court. “I told Harrison right away to go and check on you because I remember how afraid of the dark you were when you were in middle school.”

“She was thirteen, Mom,” Harrison said, rolling his eyes at me. I shook my head, smiling in amusement. Harrison was at a certain stage in his life where everything about his mother irritated him, from the way she folded his laundry to her stubborn refusal to not dye the white hairs growing on her scalp to her constant scolding before he left the house about his choice of attire.

“Thanks, Mrs. Clarence,” I butted in, shooting Harrison a don’t-be-rude look. He lightly nudged my rib with his elbow.

“Are you seriously going to try out for the Melway Beauty Pageant?” he whispered so that his mother wouldn’t hear. I shrugged, thinking back to how the other day Richel had emailed me the form to fill out in order to enter the contest. I had merely stared at it, letting the blinking cursor hover over the words in bold italics stating that this was, indeed, a three part competition. First Melway, then Miss USA, and then Miss America. This didn't make sense to me because Miss USA and Miss America practically meant the same exact thing...

They needed to work on their competition titles.

The judging panel holding the competition was looking for young, fresh faces that not only were beautiful on the outside, but beautiful on the inside. Literally, this was a description on the form in print. Richel had also texted me to call her if I had any questions about it because my Operation Pretty In Fourteen Days had to commence quickly. If not, I was a lost case. She didn’t admit this, but I knew it in my heart.

“I want to help out the other girls in the competition,” I replied, placing my hands beneath my thighs and squeezing them until I felt my fingernails digging into my skin. I hated lying. “Melway does this pageant every year. It would be a shame to have our town miss its streak just because they didn’t have enough girls participating or auditioning.”

“Since when do you even care?” he asked, raising his eyebrows at me in amusement. “It’s not like you’ve dreamed about walking down a runway. Unless you have…”

“I haven’t,” I quickly said, and this was true. Modeling and walking down runways… that was my mother’s dream. She loved it; it was her life. Somewhere in the attic of our house were four boxes filled with ribbons, medals and trophies of various pageants and beauty contests she had won from the tender age of eleven. For me, this contest would prove that I could do it, too. I could prove myself as more than the naked eye could see, more than a girl working at a flower shop. “Like I said, I just want to help.”

Harrison unbuckled his seatbelt as we pulled into the driveway. His hair was dry now, but it was sticking up in certain places as if a weed whacker had been atop his scalp. “Leslie thinks you should do it.”

“She does?” I asked, getting out of the car.

“Yeah,” he said. “So do I.”

“You do?” I gaped at him in both shock and suspicion.

“Maybe this competition will help you look more like a girl,” he snickered. I lifted my fist back to punch him in the shoulder but he dodged it, jogging out of the van before I could even form contact. I gritted my teeth in frustration.

“Children,” Mrs. Clarence warned us, but there was a certain light in her eyes that told me she wasn’t actually enforcing restriction. She sent me a warm smile. “Nina is a growing lady, Harrison. Perhaps it’s you that needs to open your eyes.”

Harrison stretched his eyelids and I wrinkled my nose in disgust. “They’re wide open, Mom. See?”

“Gross,” I commented, pushing past him and walking along the pavement up to their front door. I always had to push aside this particular bush.

“This is my house, Punches,” he teased, slinging an arm around my shoulder. “But it’s okay. You can enter it before I do. You’re number one.”

As much as I hated to admit it because it made me feel weak, this was why I couldn’t stop falling for him. Every time he said some cheesy friendship line like that, I felt my heart falling an inch deeper. Soon it would be in the pit of my stomach, and then I’d be in too deep to crawl myself out. My phone vibrated in my back pocket, and I reached my hand back to get it. Harrison was already heading into the kitchen, taking a seat on the stool at the counter. Mrs. Clarence was talking about dinner and whether we should order in Chinese food or warm up cans of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle soup. I opened up the text message.

To: Nina

From: Richel

8:52 p.m.

Meet at my house tomorrow? We need to get started soon because the next audition is this Wednesday. Let me know!

“Fried rice or egg rolls?” Mrs. Clarence asked, putting her cell phone on speaker as she opened the refrigerator to take out one of her diet smoothies.

“Egg rolls,” Harrison and I said in unison. He sent me an air high five, then waved me over to the counter. I typed back a quick response.

To: Richel

From: Nina

8:54 p.m.

Sounds good, I’ll be there.

"Is that Miss Nina Gregory I see?" a voice boomed from down the hallway. My head snapped up and I grinned, running over to embrace Mr. Clarence. He opened up his arms and pulled me in for a bear hug. He pulled away from me, shaking me by the shoulders. "Where have you been, kiddo? We haven't seen you in awhile!"

"She has work after school now, Dad," Harrison chimed in. Mr. Harrison went over to give Harrison a ruffle on the head, which made Harrison glare at his dad, although inside I knew he secretly liked it. When they were side by side, it was no doubt that Harrison got a lot of his facial features from his dad. He had his dad's square jaw and his dad's pearly straight teeth, after two years of orthodontic work, of course. But Harrison wasn't all Mr. Clarence. He had Mrs. Clarence's soft brown eyes and her thin lips. I wondered what it felt like, to have that reassurance and know that you look like both of your parents. To know that you are in both of them. I was only in one.

"That's right, you're at the flower shop now," Mr. Clarence said, nodding his head and placing his briefcase down onto one of the kitchen counter stools. He unraveled his tie from his neck just as Mrs. Gregory was exiting the hallway bathroom. They smiled at one another, and he pulled her in for a hug, kissing the top of her head. I slowly smiled, my heart instantly warming. They had a slow motion kind of love, a careful kind of love. Harrison let out a loud sigh and his parents chuckled, pulling away from one another.

"Please," he said, nudging his chin at me, "Nina is present, alright? Could you hold off on the romantic stuff?"

"It's fine," I insisted, frowning at Harrison. "You're one to talk, Mr. Wonderland Dinner."

The tips of his ears turned bright red, and he tackled me, squeezing his arms around my waist and heaving me over his shoulder, heading to the backyard. I yelped, pounding my fists against his back, but that didn't do much, especially since he was on the varsity basketball team. He was the only sophomore that had made the varsity cut.

He stopped walking just as we reached the pool side, and he put me back down slowly. My arms slid off his neck, and I felt my face flush. He looked out at the water, the built in lights within the people reflecting off of his irises.

"If I won the pageant, would you laugh at me?" I asked, looking down nervously at my palms. I looked back up at him and he was staring at me in bewilderment.

"Of course not," he said, and then realization dawned upon him. "Nina, just because I always tease you about..." He trailed off, gesturing his hand towards my clothes (loose black T-shirt with jeans and washed out brown flip flops). "Doesn't mean I don't actually believe in you."

I smiled. "So you do? Believe in me, I mean?"

He nodded, stuffing his hands and letting out a breath. "Yeah." I raised my eyebrows at him. "Yes," he insisted again. Then, "Does your mom know?"

My face fell, and I turned to face the pool, as well. The water looked still and calm. Harrison's neighborhood was fairly quiet, with only the sound of light rain falling and leaves rustling in the trees as birds nestled their way into the nests.

"Taking that as a no," he sighed. "Why not?"

I sucked in a breath. "I don't know," I honestly stated. "I just... I don't want her to know. I want to show her that I can..."

That I can be just as pretty and have just as much attention. That I can be beautiful, too. That I was my mother's daughter, and not my father's.

"That you can...?" Harrison coaxed.

I cleared my throat, shrugging my shoulders. "I want to keep it a surprise," I said instead, trying to remain cheerful and light. He nodded, much to my belief.

"Okay," he said. "I won't tell her. I'll leave that up to you."

I sent him a weak smile. "Right. Just leave it up to me."

The bright red rosebushes lined up along the pebble stone pathway was my indicator that I had arrived at my destination.

“You’re going to see a bunch of roses,” Richel said when she’d explained how to spot her house. “You’ll be able to smell them from a mile away.”

While she hadn’t exactly been spot on about the scent being so palpable that I could smell it from a mile away, when I reached the edge of her street, I could already smell the sweet perfume. They were called double delights, with large blooming red and white petals. We had a small handful of them back at the shop in the greenhouse. As I carefully walked up the steps of her front porch, I took note of the wooden swing and baskets of flowers sitting on the window sill. When I reached up to press my finger against the door bell, the front door shot open and a boy ran into me. His shoulder slammed into my chest, knocking the wind out of me. I stumbled backwards, falling flat on my butt against the floor boards.

“Parker, you rat!” Richel angrily yelled from inside the house. I peered my neck past the supposed dark haired boy named Parker at Richel, who was speeding down the stairs two steps at a time with a raging fury in her eyes. When she spotted me, still splayed out on the floor looking rather uneasy, her face crumpled up and her brows scrunched together. She shot another deathly glare at Parker, who seemed unbothered and actually smug. He looked down at me with curious eyes, then held out his hand. I took it, and he yanked me up. I frowned at him, shaking out my shoulder. He had quite the yank. Close up, Parker had Richel’s green eyes and Richel’s slender, pointy nose. He even had Richel’s chin. My eyes flitted back and forth between them. Parker continued to stare at me in amusement. Richel looked like she wanted to disappear.

“Yes, we’re twins. Thank you so much for noticing,” Parker commented smoothly. He extended his hand out to me again, shooting me a charming smirk. “I’m-”

“-going to work, right?” Richel reminded, cutting him off and raising an eyebrow at him.

He yawned, stretching his arms, one of his hands brushing my shoulder. I took a step back. “Right. See you later.” He turned to me, looking directly into my eyes. “See you.”

“Um, okay,” I mumbled, watching him get into a black Sedan, pulling out of the driveway, and screeching off down the street, recklessly making a right turn and nearly taking out someone’s mailbox from their lawn. I turned around back to Richel, folding my arms and sending her a questioning look. She sighed in humiliation.

“He’s my idiot twin brother,” she said. “I like to not acknowledge that fact, but since you two literally bumped into one another, I have no choice but to address it.”

“I never knew you had a twin brother,” I replied, alarmed. Richel seemed too independent, too fierce and strong willed that I never imagined her possibly having a sibling, much less a twin. I had assumed she was an only child.

“He’s not exactly a person I’m proud to be related to,” she sighed. “Remember the other day when Principal Warren thought you were a boy?”

“How could I forget?” I grumbled, tipping back on the soles of my feet.

“And he mentioned he thought you were a trouble maker senior?” Richel asked, placing emphasis on the words trouble maker. The dots connected right before my eyes, and my brain made a consecutive series of clicking noises as the gears inside shifted.

“Parker, go to class!”

My jaw dropped, and Richel sighed in both relief and mortification. I had never seen Richel this upset before. It was as if the confident front she had been putting on at school had been stripped away, and in its presence stood an unsure Richel, someone with a bit of a shaky foundation. I placed a light hand on her shoulder and sent her a gentle smile.

“He’s not that bad in my eyes. He’s just a little rough around the edges,” I said, patting her shoulder comfortingly.

Richel laughed, dabbing carefully at the corners of her eyes, presumably to avoid ruining her spidery lashes. “He’s more than rough around the edges, but thanks. I really do appreciate it.” She sighed, clapping her hands together and grinning, the confident Richel snapping back into place. “We’ve stayed out here for too long. Come in!”

She swept her arm out to the entryway of her house. I stepped inside, admiring the circular glass table beside the foyer. They had smooth oak floorwork and the staircase spiraled up, like we were inside a lighthouse. A very small one, that is.

“Did you bring the form?” she asked. I nodded, unfolding it from the back of my jean pocket. She wrinkled her nose in distaste, smoothing it out with her palms against the wall. “Okay. This will do.”

“What are we doing today?” I asked, walking further into the kitchen to stand beside the island. A bowl of fruit was placed directly in the center: pomegranate, kiwi, oranges. “Are you a health nut?”

“My mom is,” she responded, rolling her eyes. “She likes making those diet smoothies. She actually has a food pyramid glued onto the inside of our refrigerator. It’s laminated and everything.”

“Wow. Sounds hard core.”

“Trust me, the treadmill in her master bedroom indicates that it is.” Richel began to walk up the staircase and I stood there, watching her. She stopped in her tracks and looked down at me. “Are you coming or what?"

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