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Chapter 1: Bronzer-Covered Goddesses

Updated: Jan 13

The curtains split. Jay was blinded by spotlights as big as a car as the announcer’s shrill voice echoed through the sound system: “The finalists for the Miss College Town Belle Regional Pageant!”

Don’t fall, don’t fall, don’t fall. The straps of Jay’s high heels bit into her feet as she followed the rest of her evening gown-clad competition toward the front of the stage. She forced her lips into a wider smile as she pivoted into her rehearsed pose—hands on hips and right knee popped forward just in front of her, torso twisted enough to face the audience without elbowing the women on either side of her in line. If Jay had learned anything in these last few torturous weeks, it was that prancing across a stage was way more complicated than it looked.

The audience was a dark blur beyond the spotlights, a roaring mass of faceless cheerers. The host, Former Miss College Town Belle of 1993, swung her now-flabby arm wide, proudly presenting the contestants to the audience, then announced them one by one.

Jay focused her eyes on the curly-haired back of the head in front of her. Seriously, how did she get her hair to look like that? Any time Jay attempted curls and ribbons, her hair looked like someone had tied bows on a mop.

“Miss Jayana Merryweather from Tampa, Florida!”

Jay plastered on a smile she hoped looked genuine, sucked in a quick breath, and stepped out of line to make the same sashayed path across the stage as the women called before her. She desperately wished she’d just stayed home, but what was done was done, and the important thing in this moment was not face-planting on the stage. She tried to make each careful step look effortless, like she was a floating feather, rather than the awkward baby-giraffe walk it felt like. She hoped it wasn’t obvious that her teeth were clenched and she was just barely keeping her balance on the heels. Could the judges see the sweat dampening her forehead and armpits? Did they deduct points for wet pit stains?

Jay completed her sashaying circuit and slipped back into her spot in line, pasting her smile in place as the next girl took her turn prancing across the stage.

The rest of the girls floated across the stage like they were born weightless, a bunch of bronzer-covered goddesses in all skin tones and combinations of features, every one of them perfect. Jay didn’t belong here, and she knew it.

Genetically, she had managed to blend in. Her long legs – inherited from her father, but quite a bit less hairy than his – and her striking green eyes with thick, dark lashes from her mother had gotten her past the initial rounds of this competition. But how she’d ended up here, at the Regionals three rounds in, she wasn’t sure. Long legs and lashes could only take her so far. The other girls seemed nice enough, but Jay couldn’t shake the feeling that any moment, she would be exposed for the fraud she was and they would all turn on her in a unified glare of bronzer-goddess fury.

Jay wasn’t a pageant girl. Except... today she was. And last week. And the week before that, at the initial selection rounds. Jay sucked in a gasp. Oh my word, I’m a pageant girl. It hit her like a slap in the face, as though the stage lights and audience and gowns and all the things leading up to now had been separate entities, not at all connected to this moment. Something inside her died a little, not because she hated pageant girls—Jay could respect the skill set, especially having had to learn a bit of it —but because, yet again, her life felt like a taxi she’d never intended to get in, with a driver who didn’t ask or even care where she’d meant to be headed.

“And now for our final event... the talent competition!”

Jay’s stomach plummeted as she followed her fellow bronzer-laden floating goddesses off the stage and into the wings. The talent competition. Jay’s real talent was inventing, research…science, in general. Maybe some art, too; she was decent at graphic design. But those were hard to demonstrate on stage, and Jay needed that prize money. So she’d studied the judge’s preferences from previous competitions and settled on a talent that might actually win: singing.

Jay was secretly a talented singer, but it didn’t matter how many times Jay’s mother had forced her to sing in public at childhood recitals or what praise she received for doing it well, singing in front of an audience always evoked true, goosebump-raising, muscle-quivering dread for Jay. But she needed this win.

She forced a deep breath. You can do anything for... How long was her song again? Two minutes and twelve seconds. Suck it up, get through it. She couldn’t die from singing a song in front of hundreds of people. Could she? No, probably not. Just get through it.

The first girl had already taken the stage. Jay was next, slotted second by some merciful panel judge who must’ve suspected that any more anxious waiting than that would possibly actually kill her. Jay felt the urge to pace, but – high heels. Instead, she slid back against the nearest wall and stood like a statue, petrified, hoping maybe she would just fade into the wall and disappear.

The music flourished, and Jay gasped as the first girl belted out the opening words—that was Jay’s song. Didn’t they screen the acts? Why would they let two girls sing the same thing one right after the other? Dread clenched Jay’s stomach. Jay was good, but this girl was good too, and following right after her would only make Jay’s act seem like a copy, forgettable at best and perhaps even pitiable. That wouldn’t work. She needed to win.

“You’re going to have to dooooo it,” a voice murmured over her shoulder.

Jay stifled a squeal. The other girls glanced her way, eyes questioning.

“Stop it, go away, stop it,” Jay whispered to the voice.

The girl closest to her cut her eyes over then took a step away, as though Jay’s crazy might be contagious.

“Look at me, little Jayana, look at meee,” the voice cooed.

“No, stop it. Go away.”

“Need I remind you you’re here to win? You have to.”

Jay took a shaky breath and slowly turned, fighting back the urge to run at the spectral eyes that stared back at her.

“Oh, there you are. Nice to see you.” The ghost laughed.

“I would say the same but it’s not,” Jay hissed. “Go away.”

“That song isn’t going to be enough now. You’re going to have to go for the other act. You know the one.”

Jay sighed. The ghost was annoying but it was right. “Fine, whatever. Okay.”

“What did you say?” The girl nearest Jay turned to her, looking offended.

“Oh, nothing, just...rehearsing my lines.”

The girl gave Jay a half-smile and looked away.

“Science kit’s in the back, Jayana; you know what to do. Make it a bang!” The ghost shouted as it faded away.

Stupid ghosts. They used to only bother her at home, but now it seemed they followed her everywhere.

Jay pushed off from the wall and strode past the line of staring girls to find the Talent Act Coordinator.

He turned to her with a look of annoyed concern, hand over his ear-microphone. “Why aren’t you in line? You’re next.”

“I – I need to change my act.”

“Absolutely not.”

“But the girl ahead of me sang my song.”

“Then sing it better! Get back in line; you’re up in twelve seconds.”

Jay hurried back to the front of the line as quickly as she could safely move in her heels.

Applause erupted from the other side of the curtain as the girl on stage finished her act. Oh no oh no oh no...

“Up next, Miss Jayana Merr – “

A deafening crash came from the stage, followed by a chorus of screams.


Author Note:

Here are the relevant spin-elements you’ve seen so far:

Female, 20, Jay.

Likes science.

Invents things.

Tall with green eyes.

Goal: win a pageant.

Conflict: Ghosts.

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