Bottled Beauty: Part Six
The next day was a flurry of activity. My mother had apparently scheduled a number of last minute appointments scattered throughout the Lost Desert. With her arm tightly clenched on mine, she dragged me excitedly from place to place so that we wouldn’t be late for the Beauty Contest at 7 o’clock.
The first place we went to was a dress shop. A bored looking Meerca wearing too much make-up was sitting behind the counter, playing with a pen. However, as soon as we walked through the swinging door, her eyes brightened and she immediately flew to my side.
“Wow,” she said breathlessly, fingering a tress of my dark hair. “Your daughter,” she told my mother, “is absolutely stunning.”
“Thank you.” My mom beamed. The green Kougra looked giddy with excitement; she usually got like this for Cara’s dance recitals with the costume fittings and hair appointments. It felt odd having it directed at me. “I’m sorry for the short notice, but we’d like to purchase a dress and have it fitted by tonight.”
“Normally it takes longer than that...” the Meerca said slowly, but her gaze never left my face, her brown eyes transfixed on me. I had looked in the mirror this morning before I had left with my mother, so I knew exactly what she saw. Not just any purple Acara, but one who was slightly stunning in a way that almost didn’t seem possible. I was immediately thankful I had squirted some perfume on the night before.
“I’m sure we can squeeze it in,” the woman said with a wink, and she rushed off to pull some dresses off the rack.
We tried on an assortment of dresses in a variety of colors and shapes and sizes. I felt awkward, slipping the fabric on, standing in the middle of the room on a raised platform, and then being critiqued. I was used to wearing t-shirts and shorts, not silken dresses dyed rich shades with fine embroidery work and jewels. But no matter what I wore, I was always sure to receive a compliment.
“That one fits like a glove!”
“Beautiful color on you!”
“It makes your eyes sparkle!”
“Everything looks amazing on you, darling!”
In the end, we purchased a dazzling white dress carefully hand-stitched with gold embroidery. As soon as I had slipped it on, I knew it was the one. The fabric was draped beautifully, a cascade of ivory with threads of gold. One glance in the mirror and I could see myself glowing.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have much time to admire my purchase.
“Off to the beauty salon!” my mother gushed, dragging me out into the bright sunlight as we ran across the hot sand to our next appointment.
Night came faster than I had ever thought possible.
At 6:55 NST I was dressed in my new gown and my dark hair was pinned back with a gold clip. Around my throat was an amethyst necklace a jewelry shop owner had practically gifted to me, and my feet were clad in leather strap sandals that laced up to my knee and were studded with diamond-like jewels.
I looked at myself in one of the many vanity mirrors set up backstage, making sure that nothing was out of place. There were ten of us in the Beauty Contests. The other girls looked beautiful with big eyes, flawless skin, and long dresses. There was a nervous energy in the air, like the hum of static electricity before a thunderstorm, but I felt a strange sense of calm. I could see the other girls’ furtive glances towards me, their eyes widening, and knew that I had a good shot.
I patted the hidden pocket in my gown, feeling the slight bulge of the perfume bottle. Finally it was my turn to shine.
“Three minutes, girls!” the stage manager, a yellow Tonu, announced. In his paws was a clipboard. “Come on, time to line up!”
There was a flurry of whispers and giggles, the sound of long dress material swooshing as we all got up from our individual vanities and merged into a single file line on the stage behind the closed curtain. We stood in the order of the contestant numbers pinned neatly on our dresses. I was number 7. Lucky.
But despite my confidence, I felt my heart speed up. The curtain was only a foot or so away from me and I could hear the rustle of people gathering on the other side. Neopets who had come to see the contest. To see me.
I was so lost in my thoughts that I was completely startled when someone grabbed my arm from behind. I wheeled around, my mouth opened to yell, when I recognized the brown Bori.
“Milo?” I asked, immediately confused. I hadn’t seen him since he had rushed off the other day in school. I had thought he was avoiding me and hadn’t expected him to be at the Beauty Contest at all, let alone backstage. “What are you doing here?”
He looked frantic, not like the Milo I usually knew who was always calm and collected. His shirt was wrinkled and his hair was a mess, as if he hadn’t combed it or had spent too much time raking his hand through it. Something was bothering him. “Celia,” he said quickly, “I had my mom translate the tag.”
I let out a sigh of relief, thankful that the tag was all he was worked up about and that nothing worse had happened. “Milo, I told you the other day, I don’t need the translation. We already know what it does.”
“But Celia,” he said, nearly begging me, his paw tight on my arm, “there’s a ti—”
“Good evening ladies and gentleman!” a loud voice boomed through the speakers. The emcee. The Beauty Contest was about to begin.
“Milo, I have to go,” I said, prying his fingers off my wrist. “Tell me after.”
“...and here are our ten contestants!” the voice echoed.
I watched as Milo, his face nearly white, quickly darted off to the wings so as not to be seen by the crowd. He faded to the back of my mind as the thick red curtain whooshed open. The stage lights were hotter than I had expected and the brightness made it hard to see anyone in the audience, but I could hear the roar of the crowd, the thunderous clapping as they applauded the beauty amassed on the stage. And by squinting gently, I could just make out my family in the front row. My mom and dad clapping their paws together, and Cara clapping as well, in her lap a bouquet of my favorite flowers.
So this is what it feels like, I thought, soaking in the applause and smiling to the crowd. This is what it feels like to be something special.
“Alright, alright,” the emcee, a stylishly dressed red Shoyru, said to the crowd. “Let us begin with some brief introductions!”
He went down the line, holding a Virtu-mic towards each of the contestants, letting their names echo throughout the great auditorium as they talked about themselves briefly. However, as girls one through six spoke, I kept my eyes trained on the audience. My blue eyes were slowly adjusting to the harsh stage light, and I noticed with relish that no one seemed to be paying attention to the other girls. All eyes were on me, utterly entranced, as if they couldn’t even see or hear the other girls on stage.
“And now contestant number seven... oh my...” the Shoyru said, staring at me dazedly. In fact, in his stupor he dropped the small index card he was holding and had to scramble to the floor awkwardly to pick it up. Hand shaking, her held the Virtu-mic up to my mouth. “Your name is...?”
“Celia,” I said, smiling gently to the crowd. They went nuts, cheering and clapping as if I had just announced an end to world hunger as opposed to my name.
“Well, now,” the emcee complimented, “you certainly are beautiful. And from the crowd’s reaction, it seems we already have a forerunner in our contest tonight.” He smiled at me and looked down at his card. “So it says here that this is your first Beauty Contest.”
“Yes it is,” I confirmed.
“Wow, that’s extremely hard to believe.” He shook his head. “What in Neopia stopped you from entering before?”
Magic perfume, I thought, but out loud I said, “It just never crossed my mind. It just didn’t seem like something I’d be good at.”
“Well, Celia, I can already tell you that you are doing very, very well. I wish you the best of luck. Not,” he added seriously, his eyes sweeping from my hair to my dress to my shoes, “that you need it.”
And reluctantly, he moved onto girl number eight.
I couldn’t help it. I felt a huge smile appear on my face, the host’s words playing over and over again in my head. It was unreal. I stared into the audience, soaking in the feeling of their combined gazes on me, their looks of admiration. It was absolutely wonderful and I was determined to enjoy it for as long as I could.
However, as the contest went on, the magnetic pull I’d been having on people all week gradually seemed to dim. It started as the host interviewed the final contestant. It was subtle, just a few audience members glancing away from me to look at the new girl. But then it became more obvious. One by one the audience members blinked, as if had been snapped out of a trance and were finally reunited with reality. They would look at me just for a moment more, their faces gently confused, and then would turn away, as if I was as uninteresting as a lightmite.
Or worse: As if I wasn’t beautiful anymore.
The perfume must be wearing off, I realized with a jolt.
My pulse started racing. If I didn’t win, the whole Beauty Contest, the fact that my sister had given up her recital for me, would have been for nothing. I couldn’t let that happen.
I reached into my pocket to pull out the vial of perfume. As soon as my paw touched its cool glass surface, I felt a surge of relief, thankful I had planned ahead and packed it with me. As inconspicuously as possible, I opened the vial, dipped the jeweled stopper into the bottle, withdrew it...
It was dry.
Frantically, I peered inside the bottle, but it was completely empty, as if all of the perfume had suddenly evaporated in the hot desert heat. There wasn’t even a single whiff of the perfume inside.
“No!” I gasped, and immediately covered my mouth once I realized I had said it aloud. Hundreds of eyes latched onto me—even the emcee paused in his speech to turn and look at me—but the gazes were no longer kind and admiring. In fact, it was as if everyone’s thoughts were etched clearly on their faces, easily readable and completely raw: She’s the one I thought was pretty? That girl? But she looks so plain, so ugly. Why is she even here in the first place?
But worse than the stares of strangers were the stares of my family. My mom blinked, as if she hadn’t seen me clearly before, and leaned forward in her chair. My dad had slowly lowered his Virtu-cam to get a better look at me standing awkwardly on stage. And Cara... she had dropped the bouquet of flowers onto the floor. The beautiful lilies she had bought for me were discarded like tissues on the ground and her face was buried in her hands. By the way the blue Blumaroo’s shoulders were shaking, I knew she was crying, upset that she had given up her recital, her big day, for me, her sister who didn’t deserve it. Her sister who wasn’t even beautiful.
It was too much for me. My eyes stung with tears, but I didn’t dare let any fall. I put on a fake smile, knowing that it was no longer entrancing to those who saw it, and stood stiffly in my gown as the Beauty Contest came to a close.
Votes were cast.
A winner was chosen.
And finally, when the show ended and the curtain swished closed in front of me, the tears streamed down my face and I ran off the stage.
To be continued...