A Word From Your Sponsor
This book begins with a plane crash. We do not want you to worry about this. According to the U.S. Department of Unnecessary Statistics, your chances of dying in a plane crash are one in half a million. Whereas your chances of losing your bathing suit bottoms to a strong tide are two to one. So, all in all, it's safer to fly than to go to the beach. As we said, this book begins with a plane crash. But there are survivors. You see? Already it's a happy tale. They are all beauty queen contestants. You do not need to know their names here. But you will get to know them. They are all such nice girls. Yes, they are nice, happy, shining, patriotic girls who happen to have interests in baton twirling, sign language, AIDS prevention in the animal population, the ancient preparation of popadam, feminine firearms, interpretive dance, and sequins. Such a happy story. And shiny, too.
This story is brought to you by The Corporation: Because Your Life Can Always Be Better™. We at The Corporation would like you to enjoy this story, but please be vigilant while reading. If you should happen to notice anything suspicious in the coming pages, do alert the proper authorities. Remember, it could be anything at all --- a subversive phrase, an improper thought or feeling let out of its genie bottle of repression, an idea that challenges the status quo, the suggestion that life may not be what it appears to be and that all you've taken for granted (malls, shopping, the relentless pursuit of an elusive happiness, prescription drug ads, those annoying perfume samples in magazines that make your eyes water, the way anchormen and women shift easily from the jovial laughter of a story about a dog that hula-hoops to a grave report on a bus crash that has left five teenagers dead) may be no more consequential than the tattered hem of a dream, leaving you with a bottomless, free-fall feeling.
This is the sort of thing we are warning you about.
But let's not worry, shall we? There's nothing to worry about. Though there is the threat of a war, it happens in the background, in snippets on the nightly news between ads for sinus medicines. It's none of our concern. This is a happy story.
Now, our story begins, as so many happy stories do, with a blue, blue sky. A blue, blue sky punctuated by thick white clouds; they drift across the expanse like semicolons, reminding us that there is more to come. The pilot, a man in his forties who once stayed on a mechanical bull for a full eight seconds, has just turned off the fasten seat belts sign. The flight is on its way to a remote tropical paradise where the girls will compete against one another for the title of Miss Teen Dream.
Oh, dear. Compete is a rather ugly word, isn't it? After all, these are such lovely girls, pure of heart and high of spirits. Let's say that they will be "drawing on their personal best," and some girls will "proceed on a path of Miss Teen Dreamdom" while others will "have the option to explore other pageant opportunities elsewhere at an unspecified future time." Ah. There. That's much better, isn't it?
The pilot and copilot, whose names are not important to our tale, are trading stories with each other, as they may be wont to do in those mysterious quarters beyond the galley. We cannot truly know. We do know that in just a few moments, they will struggle valiantly to land the plane on a small scrub of island in the middle of the ocean. They will be partly successful.
On the other side of the cockpit door, fifty girls smile and preen and pose for the cameras. One girl confesses this is her first plane ride as she stares out the window, her mouth open in awe, her mind completely unbothered by thoughts of who will live and who will "have her living options curtailed."
In the cabin, the pilot notes the red light and abandons his story. Flames erupt from the right engine. The turbine breaks into useless slivers. Vibrations shake the plane, causing it to pitch and wobble. The view from the right is now marred by a billowing plume of black smoke.
And so our tale begins with a sudden fall from blue skies, with screams and prayers and a camera crew bravely recording every bit of the turbulence and drama: What a lucky break for their show! How the producers will crow! Ratings will skyrocket! Suddenly terse flight attendants rush through the aisles barking orders, securing latches on the agitating overhead bins. One girl leads the others in a song about Jesus being her copilot, which makes them feel better, as if, even as they assume crash-landing positions with their arms over their heads, a bearded man in white robes and sandals is strapping on a headset and grabbing the controls.
The right engine quits entirely, and there is a brief period of absolute silence. In the pressurized air of the cabin, a hopeful, euphoric feeling swells behind the lacy underwires guarding the chests of these girls --- the thought that perhaps there was nothing to be frightened about after all, that they've escaped a grisly fate and are now being given a second chance. Through the left-side windows, they can see the strange, verdant land taking shape, growing bigger as they descend. It's beautiful. They will land safely, no matter the sudden near-vertical descent. They're sure of it. After all, these are can-do girls from a nation built upon dreams. And what is the earsplitting scream of metal against metal, the choking smoke, the sensation of falling through a surprisingly uncaring sky, against such unshakable dreams? You look worried. Really, you should relax. Reading is a pleasurable activity and worrying is bad for your heart.
"Are you all right?"
The voice was tinny in Adina's ears. Her head ached, and she was wet. She remembered the plane pitching and falling, the smoke and screams, the panic, and then nothing.
"Am I dead?" she asked the face looming over hers. The face had apple cheeks and was framed by a halo of glossy black curls.
"Are you dead?" Adina asked warily.
The face above her shook from side to side, and then burst into tears. Adina relaxed, reasoning that she had to be alive, unless the afterlife was a lot more bipolar than she'd been led to believe. She pulled herself to a sitting position and waited for the wooziness to subside. A gash on her knee was caked in dried blood. Another on her arm still seeped. Her dress was ripped and slightly scorched and she wore only one shoe. It was one half of her best pair, and in her state of shock, finding the other became important. "Can you help me find my shoe?"
"Sure. I saw some in the water. I hope they're not leather," the other girl said in an accent flat as a just-plowed field. She had huge, blue, anime-worthy eyes. "I'm Miss Nebraska, Mary Lou Novak."
"Adina Greenberg. Miss New Hampshire." Adina cupped her hands over her eyes, looking out toward the sea. "I don't see it."
"That's a shame. It's a real nice shoe."
"Roland Me'sognie," Adina said, and she honestly couldn't Figure out why. She didn't care about the stupid brand. That was her mother's influence. Shock. It had to be the shock.
"If I can find my suitcase, I've got an extra pair of sneakers in there. I'm a size eight."
"You're welcome. I like to be helpful. It's sort of a Nebraska thing. My pageant sponsor says I've got a real good chance at Miss Congeniality this year."
"Miss Congeniality represents the true heart of the pageant," Adina found herself repeating from the Miss Teen Dream manual. She vaguely remembered that she used to make a gagging motion at that, but she was too dazed for snarkiness just now. Dazed because, yes, when she'd been looking for her shoe, she'd seen bodies in the water. Lifeless bodies.
"Miss Congeniality is an ambassador of smiles," Mary Lou said in a choked voice.
"It'll be okay," Adina said, even though she was pretty sure that this was the textbook definition of so not okay. "I think we should find everybody else."
Mary Lou wiped her nose on the torn chiffon of her sleeve and followed Adina along the crescent of beach. The air smelled of smoke. A blackened metal wing lay on the sand. Sparkly evening gowns floated on the tide like jellyfish skin, the shininess attracting the curiosity of the seagulls who swooped over them in a repeated figure eight. Girls in various states of bedraggled dotted the sand like exotic, off-course birds. The contents of opened suitcases and flung purses were strewn across the beach. A red-white-and-blue, fringed baton-twirler's dress hung from a tree. A soggy beauty whose sash identified her as Miss Ohio stumbled out of the surf and sank to her knees, coughing up water and bile.
"Oh my God," Adina muttered. She knew she should do something here; she just couldn't remember what. The Corporation's Miss Teen Dream plane had been flying them to Paradise Cove for the Fortyfirst Annual Miss Teen Dream Pageant. They were to film some fun-in-the-sun promotional pieces, ride the waterslides, and practice their performance numbers. They had all just arrived in Florida the night before, and that morning, at ten a.m., fifty beaming girls in outfits adorned with something emblematic of their states had boarded the plane. Adina had wanted to put New Hampshire's famous poet Robert Frost on her outfit, but her mother and Alan had said there were no poets among the judges, and now her dress had an image of the White Mountains that ranged disastrously across her 36DDs. She'd sat on the plane, her arms folded over her chest, hating that she'd been talked into wearing it. Then came the bang and the smoke, the screams, the falling, the exit doors opening, the sensation of tumbling through the air and landing in a mound of warm sand. How many had made it out? What had happened to the pilots, the chaperones, the Corporation film crew? Where were they now?
A voice with a strong twang rang out. "All right, Miss Teen Dreamers! Yoo-hoo! Over here! I'm wigglin' my fingers for y'all's attention! Could y'all come on over here, please?"
The waving goddess stood outlined by the smoking metal wing as if she were a model in a showroom of plane wreckage. She was tall and tanned, her long blond hair framing her gorgeous face in messy waves. Her teeth were dazzlingly white. Across the midriff of her dress was a sheer mesh inset of a Lone Star Flag. The girls wandered over, drawn to the command her beauty bestowed.
"Y'all come on down and gather round, horseshoe formation --- thank you. Some of y'all can fill in here in front where there are gaps."
The girls did as they were told, happy that someone had taken the reins.
"Hi. I'm Taylor Rene Krystal Hawkins, and I'm Miss Teen Dream Texas, the state where dreams are bigger and better --- nothing against y'all's states. I'm a senior at George Walker Bush High School and I hope to pursue a career as a motivational speaker."
There was polite, automatic applause. A dazed girl beside Adina said, "I want to pursue a career in the exciting world of weight-management broadcast journalism. And help kids not have cancer and stuff."
Miss Texas spoke again: "Okay, Miss Teen Dreamers, I know we're all real flustered and everything. But we're alive. And I think before anything else we need to pray to the one we love."
A girl raised her hand. "J. T. Woodland3?"
"I'm talkin' about my personal copilot, Jesus Christ."
"Someone should tell her personal copilot that His landings suck," Miss Michigan muttered. She was a lithe redhead with the pantherlike carriage of a professional athlete.
"Dear Jesus," Taylor started. The girls bowed their heads, except for Adina.
"Don't you want to pray?" Mary Lou whispered.
"I'm Jewish. Not big on the Jesus."
"Oh. I didn't know they had any Jewish people in New Hampshire. You should make that one of your Fun Facts About Me!"
Adina opened her mouth but couldn't think of anything to say.
"Ahem. Dear Jesus," Taylor intoned more fervently. "We just want to thank you for gettin' us here safe --- "
There was a loud, gurgling groan. Somebody shouted, "Oh my gosh! Miss Delaware just died!"
" --- for gettin' some of us here safe," Taylor continued. "And we pray that, as we are fine, upstandin', law-abidin' girls who represent the best of the best, you will protect us from harm and keep us safe until we are rescued and can tell our story to People magazine. Amen."
"Amen," the girls echoed, then fell into noisy chatter. Where were they? What would happen to them? Would they be rescued? Where were the adults? Was this something to do with the war?
"Teen Dream Misses!" Taylor singsonged above the din, smiling. "My stars. It's gettin' kinda noisy. Now. My daddy is a general, and I know what he'd say if he were here: We need to do a recon mission, see if there are any more survivors, and tend to the wounded."
"My head kinda hurts," Miss New Mexico said. Several of the girls gasped. Half of an airline serving tray was lodged in her forehead, forming a small blue canopy over her eyes.
"What is it?" Miss New Mexico checked to make sure her bra straps weren't showing.
"N-nothing." Miss Ohio managed an awkward smile.
"First things first," Taylor said. "Any of y'all have first-aid training?"
Miss Alabama's hand shot up at the same time as Miss Mississippi's. They were both artificially tanned and bleach-blond, with the same expertly layered long hair. If not for the ragged state sashes they still wore, it would be hard to tell them apart.
"Names?" Taylor prompted.
"I'm Tiara with an A," said Miss Mississippi.
"I'm Brittani with an I," said Miss Alabama. "I got my Scouting Badge in First Aid."
"Ohmigosh, me, too!" Tiara threw her arms around Brittani.
"You're so nice. If it's not me, I hope you win."
"No, I hope YOU win!"
"Ladies, this part is not a competition," Taylor said. "Okay. Miss Alabama and Miss Mississippi are on first-aid duty. Anybody have a phone that survived?"
Two of the girls brought forward phones. One was water damaged.
The other could not get a signal.
Adina spoke up. "Maybe we should have a roll call, see who's here and who's missing."
Missing settled over the girls like a sudden coat of snow shaken loose from an awning, and they moved forward on autopilot, dazed smiles in place, and stated their names and representative states. Occasionally, one would divulge that she was an honors student or a cheerleader or a volunteer at a soup kitchen, as if, in this moment of collective horror, they could not divorce themselves from who they had been before, when such information was required, when it got them from one pageant to the next, all the way to the big one. Of the fifty states, only twelve girl representatives were accounted for, including Miss California, Shanti Singh; Miss Michigan, Jennifer Huberman; and Miss Rhode Island, Petra West, who, ironically, was the biggest girl in the pageant at nearly six feet. Some girls argued over whether the death of Miss Massachusetts --- favored by bookies to win the whole thing --- meant that the competition would never feel entirely fair.
"Thank you, ladies. I'm guessing that's where the rest of the plane is." Taylor pointed to the thick black smoke spiraling up from the jungle. "There might be more of us in there. We need to organize a search party. A Miss Teen Dream Recon Machine. Any volunteers?"
As a unit, the girls turned to gaze at the forbidding expanse of jungle. No one raised her hand. Taylor clicked her tongue. "Well, I guess there aren't any Ladybird Hopes4 in this crowd. My stars, I'm glad she's not here to see this. I bet she'd vomit in her mouth with disappointment. And then, like a pro, she'd swallow it down and keep smiling."
Taylor took a pink gloss from a hidden pocket and slicked the glittery wand over her lips. "You remember that The Corporation almost canceled the Miss Teen Dream Pageant last year due to low ratings, and they were gonna replace it with that show about Amish girls who share a house with strippers, Girls Gone Rumspringa? And then, just like a shining angel, Ladybird Hope stepped in and said she would personally secure the advertisers for the pageant. I have lived my whole life according to Ladybird and her platform --- Being Perfect in Every Way --- and I'm not about to let her down now. If I have to, I will go into that jungle by myself. I'll bet those Corporation camera crews will be real happy to see me."
"I'll go!" Shanti's hand shot up.
"Me, too!" Petra yelled.
Mary Lou nudged Adina. "I guess it wouldn't be very congenial of me not to go. Will you come, too? I want to have one friend."
Adina didn't know what they'd find in the jungle, but journalists always went where the story was, and Adina was the best journalist at New Castle High School. It was what had gotten her into this mess. She raised her hand to volunteer.
Two teams were organized and, after much debate, names were chosen: The Sparkle Ponies would stay on the beach, tend to the wounded, and try to salvage whatever they could from the wreckage. The Lost Girls would soldier into the jungle in the hopes of finding survivors.
Shanti gave instructions to the girls heading into the surf toward the mangled half plane, which was taking on water quickly. "We need to remember to bring out anything we can --- first-aid kits, blankets, pillows, seat cushions, clothes, and especially food and water."
"But why?" Tiara asked. "They'll be coming to rescue us real soon."
"We don't know how long that will be. We've got to survive till then."