Chapter 6: Dig Deeper
“Everyone’s staring at you,” Faith subtly whispered into my ear as I reached a hand into my locker to pull out my notebook for World History. I slowly lifted my head to take a quick scan of the hallway. People were, in fact, gawking at me. Or rather, the girls were gawking in surprise and the boys were… well, the boys were doing a mix of staring and checking out. I ducked my head back down, my face heating up.
Someone slammed their shoulder dramatically against the locker beside my own, and I felt myself jump, as well as everyone else in the hallway. The eerie quiet disappeared fast and students were milling about again, opening and shutting their locker doors, clicking and spinning in locker combinations, chattering amongst themselves. The janitor rolled his cart along the floor, the wheels squeaking against the blue and white speckled tile floor. I looked up at the shoulder slamming culprit.
“Parker,” I mumbled, surprised.
He leaned his face close to mine, zooming so quickly in front of me that I stumbled backwards, knocking into Faith. His eyes were searching every part of my features, from my eyes to my cheeks to my lips. “Huh,” he said, and I squirmed. “Maybe my twin actually does know what she’s doing.” He smiled and I blinked, blinded by it. One of his front teeth was chipped, yet somehow it strangely added to the charm that he was exuding. “She did a good job on you.”
“Um,” I quietly breathed, unsure of what exactly to say. I wasn’t used to getting compliments at all. “Thank you?”
“Don’t make it sound like a question, be assertive,” he said firmly. I blinked again. He waited. I cleared my throat, slowly shutting my locker door.
“Thank you,” I tried again, this time making sure my voice sounded sure of itself when truly, on the inside, it was almost like tasting a new food for the first time. The “thank you” resonated around the roof of my mouth, sounding weird on my tongue.
“Better,” he replied, sounding just like Richel. He looped his thumbs through the strap of his backpack, which was slung lazily around one shoulder. He turned to Faith, sending her his chipped tooth smile. “Hi, I’m Parker.”
“Faith,” she replied, sending him a guarded expression. She widened her eyes at me, shooting me you-know-this-guy-and-does-he-have-a-friend looks. I tried to shush her with my telepathy friendship powers, but clearly they weren’t working out so hot.
“Have faith in me, Faith,” Parker teased, and Faith actually cracked a smile. “I don’t bite.” His green eyes rotated their way back to me, and he winked. “Much.”
Faith coughed obnoxiously, lightly kicking the back of my shoe. I dropped my notebook, bending down to pick it up, but two hands beat me to it. When I looked up, I smiled.
“Harrison. Hey,” I sighed, smiling in relief and taking my notebook from his hand. Parker held onto another end but let go. He smirked, folding his arms and resting his back against the locker that was most definitely not his.
“Hey,” Harrison replied slowly, eyeing Parker with disdain. Leslie stood beside him, her fingers interlocked with Harrison’s. She sent me a small smile, then did a double take only this time with wider eyes.
“Nina?” Leslie laughed, astonished. “Is that you?”
“No,” Parker cut in. He sent me another wink, and Harrison frowned. “This is the new and improved Nina Gregory. She only talks to me, so looks like I’m going to be stealing her away before the day begins.”
Everyone lapsed into an awkward, confused silence. I stifled a laugh, biting my tongue.
“Joking,” Parker said. “I’m joking.” He sighed, running his fingers through his hair, brown locks that reached just above his shoulders in waves. “Man, no one knows sarcasm in this town.”
“Who are you?” Harrison asked, letting his fingers slip away from Leslie’s. She took this moment to look at her cuticles, then yawn.
“Sensei Lightning Bolt,” Parker introduced, lending out his hand. “Oh, but people also call me Parker.”
Harrison sent me a what-a-weirdo glance before taking Parker’s hand. I noticed how Harrison’s knuckles turned white and the tendons in Parker’s wrist bulged out. They let go, Harrison grimacing and Parker just smiling, dandy as could be.
“Well, I’ve gotta bounce before Principle Warren starts doing a patrol check,” Parker sighed. He gently nudged his knuckle against my chin, smiling. “See you later.” We all watched as he walked away, and I let out a breath. Faith let out a fangirly yelp, shaking my arm so hard that if I were a Barbie doll, it would have disconnected from my body.
“Parker oozes of bad assery,” Faith sighed, her eyes fogging over as she left reality and checked into her wonderland. I rolled my eyes, placing my notebook into my backpack.
“Nina, you look great,” Leslie commented before leaning in to kiss Harrison on the cheek. “I have to head to Econ early, but I’ll see you at brunch?”
Harrison nodded, waving at her before whipping back around at me. “Did I miss something?”
“Many, many things,” Faith emphasized. “All of the boys are falling in love with Nina.”
“All of the boys are not falling in love with me,” I snorted, rolling my eyes. I waved downwards at the other half of my body. “Hello. I’m still dressed exactly the same. My face has just changed a bit, that’s all.”
“Right,” Faith said, patting my shoulder. “You keep telling yourself that. By the way, I left my knee pads in your gym locker.”
“Knee pads?” Harrison asked, his brows furrowing further and further.
“Catch the boy up, will you?” Faith called over her shoulder, heading off to her Art class. “It’s rather embarrassing.”
I ran my fingers through my hair, which was now sleek and straight. I was still trying to get used to it, to seeing it hanging over my shoulder and being able to flip it over my shoulder if I wished like all those other girls in the movies. “I joined the volleyball team,” I said to him, biting my lip. His jaw dropped.
“You joined the volleyball team?” he repeated, gaping at me. The bell rang, and Harrison groaned in disbelief. He stared at me with puppy dog eyes. I strictly folded my arms once it sank in.
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “We’re taking a ton of notes in World History today.”
He continued to give me the puppy dog eyes.
“Not even if I can get us passes?”
As soon as Harrison opened the door, I let out a spontaneous whoop. He turned around, clearly startled, before bursting into laughter. He shook his head in amusement, leaving the door open with his arm to let me go through first. He had been doing that for me a lot lately, actually, since we had .
It wasn’t so much that I thought girls should be treated differently, but rather that I often found myself wishing that people, not only Harrison, would see me as someone who was beautiful. Now, being considered as someone who was physically appealing to the eye was something even I found difficult to believe every time I looked into the mirror. It was something I was still trying to grasp and understand; pretty felt like sand slipping through my very fingertips. I was still struggling to comprehend its concept.
“We haven’t been up here in months,” Harrison said, walking along the concrete, running full speed towards the edge of the roof. I let out a yelp, and he stopped just in time until he reached the wall, pulling himself up over it. He always did that- pretended he was going to jump to scare the living daylights out of me. I walked towards him, watching with a tender smile on my face as he climbed over and let his feet dangle. We were only two floors up; the top of the high school was all flat roof. It took three flights of stairs but it was worth it because once you reached the top, you could overlook almost all of Melway- the shops lined up along the streets, the freeway exit that led to the fancy restaurants downtown, to the cul-de-sac houses in their own individual groupings. Everything in this town seemed to have its own neat, little category. Harrison and I only came up here when we felt like we were losing touch, like we were letting the contents of our town swallow us up. At times like these, when we needed to talk one-on-one, we came up here, where it was just me, him, and the view.
“We haven’t needed to,” I replied, shrugging my shoulders. A cool breeze blew across the sky, dancing along my skin, and a shot of goosebumps grew along my arms. I folded my hands into my sides to keep my stomach from getting cold. I pushed myself up onto the edge, swinging my feet over with a certain satisfaction, then looked down. We could only see the tops of the roofs of cars. The seniors had their own specific parking zone.
“So,” Harrison sighed, turning his neck to look at me. The color of his eyes reflected off the sunlight and I had to blink hard to remind myself that he wasn’t mine and I couldn’t just lean over and kiss him if I wanted to. Not without consequences and confusion. “Volleyball team, huh?”
I nodded. “Yeah,” I laughed. “Crazy, right?”
“Not crazy,” he earnestly replied. I raised an eyebrow and he laughed. “Maybe a little. I mean, you haven’t been the most athletic person in the world. Out of character is probably a more appropriate word. What gives?”
“Richel said that in order to impress the panel of judges for the beauty pageant competition, I need to be more involved.”
Harrison gasped, placing a hand against his chest as if he were having a heart attack. “You are involved!”
I threw my head back, shaking my head and grinning. “That’s what I tried telling her!”
“First of all, you go to this academic institution,” he stated, beginning to tick off reasons on his fingers. “You own a locker. You go to class.”
“I even drink at the water fountain,” I added. “Don’t forget that one; that one’s a biggie.”
“Of course,” he said, playfully knocking his shoulder into mine. He let it stay there for a minute, the warmth of his skin pressing into my cold arm, before pulling away. I closed my eyes and tried to unlike Harrison. I told my heart to just stop, to just let go and turn off and stop liking him. But the heart doesn’t work that way.
“My interview is tomorrow,” I breathed. “And I’m nervous that I’m not going to get in or that they won’t be impressed or that I won’t be good enough to even be there in the first place.” I paused before saying the thought that had been ringing in my head for weeks, years. “I’m not my mother, so I’m probably not good enough.”
“Hey,” Harrison said softly, placing a firm hand on my shoulder. I turned to look at him. “Don’t say stuff like that. I hate it when you say stuff like that.”
“Sorry,” I mumbled.
“And don’t apologize for it, either,” he sighed, running his fingers through his hair, making bits stick up like they always did regardless of whether he was running his fingers through it or playing basketball outside. “Nina, I get why you feel this way about your mom. We’ve talked about it for years now. But I wish you could see that you’re so-”
The door opened and we both jumped off from our seats on the edge of the roof, leaping across the concrete until we were both hiding safely behind a gray wall. My heart was pounding and it felt like it was going to rip out of my chest because if I got caught cutting class I would have a bad case of detention for one week. I turned to look at Harrison and he looked so young for a moment. His jawline popped out, and his eyes were wide, his pupils dilated as he watched the person who had intruded our moment. He looked like the Harrison I hung out with during the summer, bright eyed and up for any escapade. I heard a familiar scroll of wheels and it clicked for me that it was the janitor. I listened to a few ruffling noises before whispering to Harrison, “What is he doing?”
“Picking up pieces of trash,” Harrison whispered back. We both craned our heads out past the wall, waiting for the janitor to complete his job and leave the premises. When he finally did, we both sagged against the wall, letting out breaths of relief. I socked him in the arm out of habit.
“I thought we were going to get in trouble,” I laughed. “My heart was going haywire.”
“My heart is always haywire around you.”
I slowly turned to him only to find him smiling at me, eyebrows raised. I gulped.
“Because our friendship is action packed with adventures,” he added, blinking before ruffling my hair.
“Adventures that are going to give me a heart attack one day,” I replied back, still trying to control the beat of my heart.
“Yeah, but that won’t be until you’re eighty. I’ll just hand you your bottle of medication.”
“And, pray tell, how will you do this if you’ll have the walking speed of a turtle?”
“Good point. We’ll figure that out later. Come on.” He lent me his hand, already standing up. I squinted at the sunlight behind him, burning bright just above his head. He looked like he was wearing a halo; he looked like an angel. I took his hand, knowing that I would always take his hand if he offered it out to me.
Richel and I entered the lobby. It was a wide, spacious room filled with two narrow tables against opposite ends of the walls and rows of chairs smack dab in the middle. I tugged down at the skirt of the dress she had let me borrow from her closet. Parker stood beside me, whistling at a girl that walked by. She must have been six foot two, towering above me. I was only five foot seven. She had platinum blonde hair and her eyelashes were a mile long. I felt myself shrinking to the size of a microbe bead in comparison to the other possible beauty pageant contestants in the room. The girl that Parker whistled at shot him a glare, then lit up when it registered that he was actually good looking.
My interview would begin in just twenty minutes. There was a hound of girls standing around the room either with their parents if they were about fourteen or on their own if they were seventeen and eighteen, looking through their purses, which were attached to their wrists like arm candy. I looked down at my wrists, panicking. I hadn’t brought a purse. I didn’t even own a purse.
“I am so glad I came,” Parker said, smiling in delight as he scanned a group of brunettes that walked by clearly on purpose to ogle him. He smirked, and Richel elbowed him in the ribs. The brunettes laughed in unison and Parker glared at Richel. She smiled sweetly.
“The only reason you’re here is because Mom made you drive us,” she snapped.
“Also because you still don’t have your license,” he curtly replied. He turned to me. “She failed the written test three times already. Our mom has to pay another fee.”
I stayed silent, growing used to their constant back and forth bickering. They were twins, sure, but they were as different as day and night. I watched as more girls walked through the lobby door. They weren’t all tall and petite, which was refreshing and a relief. Some were curvy, others had wide hips, others had frizzy hair but great outfits. I looked down at my plain black attire paired with sandals. Around my shoulders I wore a thin beige wool cardigan. I had to borrow Richel’s razor and shave my legs in her bathroom. I had nicked my knee, and Richel had to press three different cotton balls on the area to stop the bleeding. The only makeup I wore on my face was a tinted moisturizer and lipgloss. Richel had wanted to try for mascara but then chickened out in fear of me having points shaved off for wearing makeup to a no makeup interview. But I could already tell that nearly all of the girls in the lobby were wearing a makeup product of some sort. It was making me wish I had brought something with me, even if it was only a small tube of lipgloss. But Richel had encouraged for me to go for a natural look.
“You already have color in your cheeks; just pinch them,” she had advised in the car when we were on the way here.
“How many girls are auditioning today?” I mumbled to Richel, who was now walking through the lobby and admiring a vase of flowers sitting on a center piece table. She turned to me.
My eyes widened. “Sixty seven? I thought you said they were running out of girls!”
“They were. The needed number of girls for this pageant was sixty. They barely just made the mark a couple days ago. One of those marks includes you.”
I sighed, fiddling with the ends of my straightened hair. We hadn’t experimented with the curling iron yet in fear of my hair frizzing to death and there not being enough hairspray to tame it in time. A woman wearing a pantsuit with a badge on a lanyard hanging from her neck was walking around the room, handing girls yellow laminated cards with numbers on them. She reached me, grinning a little too wide for her small face.
“You’ll be number two,” she said.
“Number two?” I squeaked. Why couldn’t it have been number twelve, at least? I had been hoping for number sixty seven, to be completely honest.
“Number two,” the woman confirmed. “Please feel free to help yourself to the refreshments at the table, Miss Gregory.” She smiled sweetly at me once more before sweeping away and moving onto yet another contestant, who appeared just as nervous.
I whipped around, grabbing Richel’s wrist. I felt my palms growing clammy and sweaty. “How can I eat anything when I feel like I’m going to throw up?”
“Breathe,” Richel commanded, staring me straight in the eye. “You are going to answer each and every one of those questions perfectly. We practiced this. We covered every possible angle. You’ve got this.”
Parker stepped in, placing his hands around my cheeks. “You are going to rock this, Nina,” he said, then moved closer. “If you get in, can you hook me up with one of the girls?”
I laughed. Richel seemed to hate her twin, but I thought Parker was witty. He was simply misunderstood; I was sure of it. He waltzed over to the snack table, picking up an apple all while turning to the same blonde he had checked out earlier, who conveniently happened to be beside a bowl of granola bars. He shot me a wink before starting up a conversation with the girl. Richel snorted, looking down at her manicured nails.
“I should have known he would pull something like this,” she said. “He’s obsessed.”
“Obsessed?” I asked.
“Obsessed with girls,” she explained. “If he sees a pretty girl, he pounces like a puma.”
“That’s common for teenage boys, though.”
“Not for Parker. If he actually likes a girl, he will literally give her his all. The last girl he fell in love with left him so scarred that he didn’t come out of his room for weeks.”
“Not even to pee?”
Richel giggled. “I’m sure he went out for that.”
“Number Two,” a voice over the speakers declared. My face fell and my first instinct was to bolt out the door. I didn't even recall them asking for Number One. Had Number One bolted due to a possible anxiety attack? Richel held onto my wrist, pulling me back.
“Nina. Breathe,” she insisted. I swallowed away the hard lump forming in my throat, then nodded my head.
“Number Two. Nina Gregory,” the voice over the speaker declared once more. I took a deep breath, bracing myself as I walked towards the room.
I nearly stopped in my tracks when I spotted the Jane Lee sitting in the middle of two other judges, an older woman with high arch brows and a middle aged man wearing an emerald green suit. Jane smiled at me.
“Hello,” she said. “Come on in.”
I walked along the floor, feeling quite like I was walking in a dream with cotton in my mouth. I smiled politely at her, then at the other two judges. What I couldn’t take in was the fact that the most popular young adult actress, who had played Mia in one of my favorite TV shows of all time, was sitting in the same room as me in Melway. Melway, of all places. This beauty pageant must have been a bigger deal than I had originally thought. She was even prettier in person, and I loved her short hair.
“How are you today?” she asked, taking a small sip of her water.
“I’m fine. And yourself?” I asked in a voice I had never used before.
Her eyebrows shot up and she smiled at me out of amusement. “Very well, thank you for asking.”
Inside, I panicked, but on the outside I made sure to stay calm. Calm was a key factor that Richel had reminded me about when we’d practiced interview questions in her bedroom.
“What is your name?” the older lady with crazy eyebrows asked me.
“Nina Elena Gregory.”
“Gregory…” the lady murmured, tapping her chin, before she raised an index finger in the air. “Is your mother Flora Gregory?”
My stomach dropped. “That’s her.” Even when my mother wasn’t present, she still managed to worm her way into my moment. She was a sword hanging over my head.
“Welcome,” the lady replied enthusiastically, grinning at me, then turned to the older man, continuing on to say, “It’s nice to see how beautiful her daughter turned out to be.”
I strained a smile, and Jane cleared her throat uncomfortably. Was that a sympathetic look she just sent me?
“So, Nina, are you attending Melway High?” Jane asked, folding her hands together and placing them into her lap. Her posture seemed so straight and aligned; I made sure to stand taller, myself.
“And what activities are you involved in?”
“I’m a part of the volleyball team.” Since just yesterday, I was tempted to add, but I knew not to. I could almost hear Richel scolding me in the back of my mind if I did.
The woman sitting beside Jane nodded her head thoughtfully, jotting something down onto a piece of paper attached to a clipboard. That had to be good, right?
“What do you think about the current Melway community, and if there was something you could improve, what would that be?” the older man asked. He straightened his tie, waiting for me to speak. I blinked before quickly recomposing myself.
“I think the current Melway community is fairly tight knit and well accommodated to everyone’s needs. We’re a community of balance, not simply of give and take,” I rattled off, wondering whether any of it was making sense at all but praying that it did. “However, if there was something I could improve in our community, it would be the lack of local activities for the children to attend to.”
Richel and I had worked this part out in her bedroom: talk about helping little children, and you got the panel’s attention- hook, line and sinker.
“Activities such as…?” the older woman questioned. Jane rested her chin on top of her knuckles, staring at me with curious eyes. It was strange to see her in person and not on the screen of my television back home.
“Activities such as library reading games, where children could win prizes for reading a certain amount of books; a day in the park where families and other volunteers can play physical activity games like hopscotch and jump rope with the children. Activities like these would benefit the children both mentally and physically; they would also help get them outdoors breathing fresh air rather than staying holed up at home playing video games.”
Lies, lies, lies since this whole entire week all I mainly did in my free time was watch recap episodes of Starcrossed. Why hadn’t they told us contestants that Jane freaking Lee would be present?
“Very good answer,” the woman commented, nodding her head and jotting down more notes. Jane blew a chunk of hair out of her face, sending me a seemingly tired smile.
“Nina,” she stated, “why have you decided to join this competition? What is motivating you to do this?”
I took a deep breath. “I want to follow in my mother’s foot steps,” I said, although the truth was rather that I wanted to take a step away from her path and try recreating my own without people referencing me to her every twenty seconds. “I want to go on the journey she went through and see where it’ll take me.”
Jane tilted her head at me, squinting her eyes. “Yes, Nina, I understand that your mother is a big inspiration of yours and that she, I’m assuming, was once a beauty pageant contestant. But do you yourself want this?”
I blinked at her. “Yes.”
“Are you positive? One hundred percent?” Jane leaned back in her chair, staring at me. “Because we are looking for young girls that are striving to be in this competition. Girls who are hoping to gain something out of this and grow from what they will learn. This competition will not only be based off of beauty. We’re going to dig deeper than that. Are you ready to face this head strong?”
If my mother were here, she would have no problem answering a question like this. She had poise and spoken etiquette. I was still in the process of coming out of my shell. Could I truly walk on a stage and model? Could I answer more difficult questions that required my own thinking process in front of hundreds of people? Could I do all of these things while still clutching onto the idea of being pretty?
“I am. I can do it,” I responded firmly, nodding my head fiercely, then adding, “I want this.”
Jane smile at me, taking one last sip from her glass. “Thank you, Miss Gregory. You may go.”
“So… how was it?” Richel squealed, squeezing my shoulder with her hand once we were back inside of Parker’s car. We had to drag him out of the lobby, away from an innocent fourteen year old girl who clearly was much too naive to see through Parker’s smirk and dancing green eyes. Parker caught my eye in the rearview mirror and raised an eyebrow at me.
“It was crazy,” I gushed, laughing, running my fingers through my hair. “Jane Lee is one the judges on the panel; can you believe it?”
“I can,” Richel said, smiling and shrugging her shoulders. My mouth fell open.
“You knew?” I asked, gaping in awe at her. “And you didn’t think of even telling me? I am a full blown Starcrossed fan to the max! I am a one hundred percent shipper of the Make It Rane foundation!”
Richel shot me an odd look. “I have no idea what any of those things mean because I never followed along with that starlet Hollywood hype. All I knew was that they were going to have a celebrity being featured in the panel. If you make it through the first competition, you’ll get to see her again at the Miss USA pageant.”
I screamed, jumping enthusiastically in my seat. Richel covered her ears, and Parker let out a laugh.
“I wasn’t aware that quiet girls had such ear splitting screams,” Parker yelled as he hit the brakes suddenly when we reached a red light. Richel and I yelped, tugging tightly at our seat belts as we lurched forward. How Parker passed his driving test was a mystery to me. A car behind us honked, and another car at our side swerved into the next lane, giving Parker the middle finger. Parker gave it right back, and my eyes widened. He turned around, sending me a smirk that I was beginning to expect from him. “This calls for a house party celebration.”