Last Place: Part Three
The rest of the week blew by with a surprising quickness. Each morning, Cherie would wake Cora up bright and early to prepare for a day of campaigning. Cora would make a fuss and complain, but by Wednesday she had begun to enjoy the excitement of waking early and getting dressed up. Perhaps, she wondered, this was what Candace had been trying to explain to her.
Of course, she wouldn’t let that on to Cherie.
Cora never saw Bradley again that week. She did, however, acquire ten other ballot slips— most of them from friendly strangers whom she had taken a few minutes to get to know. None of the slips made it into her ballot box, though, instead disappearing straight into her pocket. She also became rather close with Candace, who every day sat at the table next to her, recounting funny stories from previous Beauty Contest endeavors or asking her about herself and her family. Near the week’s end, the two were chatting and laughing together like old friends.
At last Friday rolled around, the night of the awards ceremony. Cora, already dressed up from that day’s campaigning, poked her head into Cherie’s room. The Faerie Kau was sitting at her mirror, applying a thick coat of lipstick. She cleared her throat.
“Come on, sis, we’re going to be late.”
“Oh, don’t get your tail in a knot,” Cherie replied, smacking her lips together. “Besides, it’s only six. We’ll be early.”
“Actually,” Cora smirked, “some pets stay at the contest hall all day on the day of the awards ceremony. If anything, we’ll be late!”
Cherie turned around in her chair and gave her sister a scathing look. “Fine,” she snapped, “just let me get my stuff.” As she got up to search for her purse she added, “What’re you in such a rush for, anyway? Weren’t you complaining about this about a week ago? I thought you hated all this beauty contest stuff.”
“Oh, I do,” Cora replied, rubbing her arm. “But, you know, if I have to be there... I at least want a good seat.”
The contest hall was packed once more by the time they arrived. Cherie, in her typical fashion, edged her way to the front of the line by shoving her way through, with Cora in tow. She flashed her ticket and Cora her registration number at the administration desk; the Kacheek nodded them through and the two proceeded into the back auditorium, which was already almost full.
“Good thing we got here when we did,” Cherie said, noting the crowd, “or else we’d have been sitting in the aisles.”
“What’d I tell you?” Cora raised her eyebrow. Then she began looking around. “Where’s all our friends?”
“Our friends. You said you’d invited them.”
“Oh,” Cherie said, chuckling a bit, “that was just a bluff to get you to commit to the contest.” There was a whacking sound as a firm slap was delivered to the back of the Kau’s head. “OW. What was that for!?”
They snuck into two open seats just as the lights began to dim. A stylish looking Eyrie strode out onto the stage amid thunderous applause; he held his hand out as he reached the podium, and addressed the crowd.
“Thank you all for attending this week’s Beauty Contest awards ceremony,” he said with a remarkably handsome grin. “We’ve had a remarkable number of entries this week, all good, and right now I’d like to acknowledge all of our contestants with a round of applause.” There was one; he held up his hand again after a few moments had gone by.
“Now if I could have all the Acara contestants on stage for judging...”
And so it went, alphabetically down the line. Cora sat in her chair, watching as Chombies and Elephantes, Flotsams and Hissis went onstage to receive their scores and awards. She felt a sense of tense excitement, she found, even though she already knew her standing.
Each of the contestants, she noticed as they walked onstage, looked as though they were enjoying themselves... and, moreover, looked happy for one another’s successes. Perhaps, Cora thought, there really was something she’d been missing.
“If I could have all the Kau contestants on stage...”
Cora rose from her seat, but was held back by her sister. “Wait just a sec...” The Faerie Kau gave her the once-over, fixing her hair in places, straightening her dress, smudging at her makeup with her thumb.
“I’m fine, Cherie!” she protested, staving off her sister with an outstretched hand. “I’m fine!”
“I know you are, baby sis,” Cherie smiled, in a fleeting moment of sisterly affection. She pinched Cora’s cheek lightly. “Now get up there— it’s all you!”
Cora stuck her tongue out, quickly blew a kiss, and fled to the stage. The other Kaus were already lined up, waiting eagerly to hear their standings. They patted each other’s backs and held one another’s hands, their impatience mounting. She found her place behind Candace and grasped her hand, feeding off the group’s palpable excitement.
The standings were read aloud; Cora came in last place, with a grand total of zero votes— no surprise. Candace, unaware of Cora’s plan to come in at the bottom, squeezed her hand and whispered, “You’ll do better next time, Cora, I know you will. Don’t give up.”
Cora opened her mouth to respond but could think of nothing fitting. Instead, she offered a broad smile.
“And now, time to announce the winner of the Kau species category,” the Eyrie said. “This week’s first place trophy goes to...”
There was a collective intake of breath as the Eyrie paused for effect.
A shocked squeal erupted from Cora’s companion— she jerked forward, her hands flying to cover her mouth, as the room echoed with applause.
“Congratulations, Candace.” The Eyrie grinned, reaching out to shake Candace’s hand. Candace ignored the extended hand and threw her arms around him in a big hug; the crowd cheered and laughed and the applause roared on. The rest of the Kaus, however disappointed any of them were, showed none of it.
All of them looked utterly thrilled for Candace, reaching forward to hug her and rub her shoulder in support. And Cora couldn’t help but glow with happiness as the yellow Kau, eyes glistening with joyful tears, was handed the big golden trophy. She deserved it, she really did.
“Told you I’d get last,” Cora said, elbowing her sister in the side as they approached their home. She took a bite of her chocolate cone; they’d decided to stop for ice cream on the way back.
“Yeah,” Cherie replied, “I guess you did. Sorry about that, baby sis. You’ll do better next time— it’s an experience thing.” She finished off the last of her mint cone.
“Sure, sure— only there won’t be a next time!”
Cherie sighed and began rummaging around for her house keys. “Well, in that case, I hope you at least learned something from this experience, Cora.”
The door swung open; Cora stepped inside. “That remains to be seen— thanks for doing my hair and makeup this week, though!” And at that, she disappeared into the house, presumably off to her room again.
“You’re welcome...” Cherie shook her head slightly, a weary expression on her face as she locked the door behind her.
Upstairs, Cora stepped into her room and closed the door tightly behind her. Then, looking around as though to ensure she hadn’t been followed, she slipped over to her bedside drawer and pulled it open.
There, nestled amid the usual clutter, were the eleven ballot slips, folded neatly and stacked next to one another.
She pulled them out, one by one, and laid them across her bed. She admired each of them; she could recall from whom she’d gotten each, pieces of the conversation she’d had with them— and, most of all, how it had felt that they’d chosen her, of all the other Kaus, to give their vote away to. It was a warm, unique feeling. It was... touching.
Cora heard footsteps on the stairs, suddenly, and in a flash the ballots were gone-- tucked safely away in her beside drawer, where her sister would neither want nor dare to look. She hopped onto her bed and drew out her notebook; it opened to the page she’d last written on, showing her scribbled plans for an anti-Beauty Contest protest.
Cora tore the page out and inspected it. Among the scrawlings she read:
BC is evil! Girls who enter have no heart. Desperate attention-grabbing rich pets or pets with no self esteem. Votes always go to the painted. Why should we endorse a contest where judgments are made based on looks alone? This isn’t Tyrannia, it’s Neopia Central.
Cora glanced over again at her drawer, with all those memories and feelings locked away inside it. She thought of her conversation with Bradley and the look on Candace's face when she'd won the trophy.
With all of that in mind, her eyes slowly turned back to the page she held in her hand.
Smiling, she tossed it into the trash.