"Get in the car," Mom said stiffly, swinging the door open and climbing inside. She slammed it closed. I flinched, sneaking a glance at her. Her brown hair was frizzed around her face and her cheeks were pink with stress. I could practically see the word DISAPOINTED spelled out out her forehead as she looked at me for one long, agonizing moment before starting the car.
Wincing, I climbed into the passenger's seat. I set the tiny, silver-painted tiara on my lap, watching the red plastic jewels flicker in the weak sunlight. It was an ugly crown, but to Mom, the sixty-dollar check was even uglier.
"Hey, Emma!" A perky voice called out, followed by the sound of a perfectly manicured finger tapping on the window. "Ems!"
I turned and rolled down the window, my lungs welcoming the fresh air. It was Sabrina. My stomach dropped.
"Hi, Sabrina," I mumbled, my eyes fixed on the super-sized tiara propped up against her hip. Mom stared straight ahead, clutching the steering wheel in one hand and our sixty-dollar check in the other.
Sabrina wiggled her fingers at me, her smile a gleaming white. I blinked hard.
"I just wanted to congratulate you for trying your best. Placing isn't everything. You know that, right?" Sabrina batted her eyelashes and reached through the window, giving my hand a firm squeeze that you'd get from a really nice teacher after you failed a test. Needless to say, I had experience with this kind of thing. Some people said I was just a pretty face.
I forced a smile. "Yeah." I stuck my tongue in my cheek. "Uh, congrats on the big win."
Sabrina tossed her long, glossy brown hair back and laughed shrilly, patting her tiara like it was a dog. "Thanks!" She looked me in the eye. "I think it's really nice that you're being such a good sport about this. Okay?"
"Yeah." I stared at my hands, which were clasped on my lap. Mom had spent 200 dollars on the perfect, pink manicure. I couldn't let Sabrina see me cry.
"Well, buh-bye!" Sabrina blew me a kiss and walked away, her high-heels clicking on the pavement. I could hear her laughing all the way down the parking lot.
I rolled up the window. Mom started the car and pulled out of the driveway, her eyes wet with angry tears. My lower lip trembled.
"M-Mom, I'm really-"
"Save it, Emma," Mom snapped, her voice sharp.
"I didn't mean to lose. I-I tried my best." My voice cracked and I squeezed my eyes shut. Tears ran down my cheeks, leaving thick tracks of mascara behind.
"Did you, Ems?" Mom ran her hand through her short, curly hair. "Because I don't know what to think anymore. We spent almost five thousand dollars on this venture and you lost to SABRINA KING! SABRINA KING, Emma!"
"I, I...." I couldn't stop crying. "I'm sorry!" I felt like such a baby. A weak, fragile baby.
"Do you even understand what's going on, Emma? We wasted an unbelievable amount of money, all on YOU." Mom turned to me and scowled. "Oh, God, stop crying. You'll just have to try harder next time."
"I did try hard!" I shrieked through my tears, clutching my curly, blond wig in my hands. I felt like a complete failure. All my life, people had just seen me as a pretty face. I was supposed to rule the pageant circuit and then become a beautiful model. What did I have left for myself? I covered my mouth with my hand and sobbed harder.
"Just grow up, Emma!" Mom shouted at me, reaching over and yanking the wig from my hands. The cheap faux hair ripped through my skin and I yelped.
"Do you even understand what money is, Emma?" Mom continued. "This wig cost us almost three hundred dollars and I'm not buying another one if you ruin it. We have another pageant in two days."
I stared out the window, biting my lip to keep from crying. My shoulders shook with effort. I wanted to tell Mom that I didn't want to do the pageant, but I was afraid. Afraid of Mom, and afraid of who I was without all of this. The makeup, the spray tans, the dresses. I liked it, but was I anything without it?
"Anyways." Mom cleared her throat as if nothing had happened. "I heard from Angela that Margie O'Ryan is going to be attending the Apple Meadows Pageant in September. She'll be looking for a beautiful girl to sponser. I believe that you can do it, but we need the judges to believe that too. So, I was thinking..."
My heart leapt as Mom continued to talk. Margie O'Ryan sponsering me would be a dream, and I wanted to win more than anything. I loved the feeling of being dubbed more beautiful than any other girl in the room, but I was tired. All I wanted to do was take off my eyelashes and wash off my tan and go to bed.
When I spoke again, my voice was tiny. "Um, will she be at any other ones? I'm thinking of taking a little break after the summer, and-"
"What the hell are you talking about?" Mom hissed. Cars wizzed past us on the highway. The rain was coming down hard now. She twisted around in her seat to look at me, her eyes flashing. "A BREAK? Do you even underst-"
A huge crash cut Mom off. I heard a shrill scream and couldn't tell if it was Mom or me. I watched the world turn upside down and heard the sound of smashing glass. Pain grabbed me. Everything went black.