Bottled Beauty: Part Seven
Night was the only time the Lost Desert wasn’t scalding hot. The sand was cool, the sun was gone, and a chilly wind swept over the land. The sky was a deep inky black speckled with flickering silver dots and a thin sliver of a moon.
I had fled to the one place in the Lost Desert I knew I would be alone: the shallow river beyond Coltzan’s shrine. The tall obelisk was deserted of its usual flood of people. There was an old myth that the ghost of Coltzan disliked visitors at night when he was trying to rest, and most people heeded this superstition and left the monument alone as soon as the sun disappeared from the sky.
I had never believed it, though. If anything, I felt comforted knowing that Coltzan was perhaps watching me from his post, even if it was in tired annoyance. It helped me feel less alone in the barren landscape of the Lost Desert.
My face was wet with tears as I sat on the bank, my long white dress trailing behind me like cobwebs. The edges had fallen into the water and the rest was covered in a thin layer of sand I had stirred up as I had run away from the Beauty Contest. Away from my family and the faces that had been staring at me in horror. Staring at a purple Acara who wasn’t beautiful.
I could see myself gently reflected in the water, the reflection rippled from the current. A purple Acara with limp brown hair no longer held back in a clip, but straggly and messy. My eyes were no longer blue sapphires, but wet red pools of tears.
“Celia...?” came a soft voice from behind me.
I turned around, almost expecting to see the spirit of Coltzan emerging from the obelisk, but it was Milo. I turned away from the brown Bori and wiped my eyes hastily with the back of my hand.
He sat next to me. I glanced over at him. He was dressed the same as he had been at the contest, in a plain shirt and a pair of jeans.
“How did you find me?” I asked quietly. I didn’t want him to see how upset I was; I kept my eyes trained at the far bank of the river and the shallow grasses that grew there.
“I saw you run out of the auditorium from backstage,” he explained. “It looked like you were heading towards Coltzan’s shrine so that’s where I went.” I saw him lean towards me. “Are you okay, Celia?”
“Yeah, I... No,” I said honestly, relenting. “The past few days I felt like I was on top of the world and now I feel like nothing.” I shut my eyes, feeling foolish, and tried to stop the flood of tears. My face burned.
“You aren’t nothing, Celia,” Milo said soothingly, moving closer. “Did you feel like that before you used the perfume?”
“No, but I—”
“Stop,” he interrupted me. “If you didn’t feel that way before the perfume, then you shouldn’t feel it now.”
“Still...” I said, a breeze prickling my fur and sending a shiver down my spine. It was cold. I wrapped my arms around myself. “Cara gave up her recital for me and I didn’t deserve it. How can I forgive myself for that?”
“It was Cara’s choice, as guided by the perfume as it was,” Milo said, “and you can’t go on blaming yourself for that.”
I turned to protest but noticed he was fiddling with something in his hands. It took me a moment before I realized what it was: the perfume bottle tag.
“What does that say?” I asked, suddenly wanting to know what it said.
He blanched and looked as if he wanted to hide it. “Are you sure you want to know?”
He sighed and looked down at the tag, at the stark symbols that were only faintly visible in the darkness. “Bottled Beauty. Three uses, twenty-four hours each. Extremely potent.”
I winced. “I’d been going to bed early all last week. I didn’t realize it wore off... and I used it all three times. No wonder it was empty when I reached for it on stage.”
“Do you still have the bottle?” he asked me curiously.
I shook my head. As soon as I had gotten to the river, I had realized that the bottle was no longer in my possession. Either I had lost it in my frantic flight to Coltzan’s shrine or it had magically vanished. Either way, it was gone, and I knew I wasn’t going to see it ever again.
But suddenly I felt my eyes screw up as another wave of sadness hit me. Tears flowed down my face and I turned away from Milo suddenly so he couldn’t see me. “I’m so stupid,” I whispered, my voice half a whisper and half a sob. “How could I be so selfish? Using perfume to...” I couldn’t finish.
“You aren’t selfish!” he protested. The brown Bori pulled me into a hug and I sobbed into his shoulder, knowing it wasn’t true.
It was then something crossed my mind, something that had been subtly bugging me the entire week. I looked up. “Milo,” I asked, looking into his dark eyes, “how come you were the only one who the perfume didn’t work on? Why didn’t you think I was beautiful?”
He brushed a stray piece of my hair away from my face. “Because,” he said simply, “I always thought you were beautiful.”
* * *
I knocked on Cara’s bedroom door.
The Blumaroo looked up from her bed, her eyes rimmed with red. She rubbed her face with her hand, quickly wiping away tears. “Hey, Celia,” she said, trying to sound normal. “I’m sorry about your Beauty Contest. I really thought you were going to win...”
“Cara, I’m so sorry,” I apologized, walking into her room. The walls were dotted with pictures of her from her various recitals, a blue Blumaroo wearing different colored leotards with worn out pink ballet shoes.
She looked at me confusedly as I sat down beside her. “Why are you sorry? I gave up my day for you. You didn’t do anything.”
“It was your day first, and I didn’t deserve to be at the contest,” I pressed.
She sighed, looking down. “I just don’t know what I was thinking the other day. For some reason, near the end of the Beauty Contest, I suddenly realized how much work I had put into the recital and that I had just thrown away.” She looked at me, tears trickling out of her eyes gently, like a few drops of rain drizzling weakly down from the sky. “You’re my sister, Celia, and I’m so happy you were able to be in the spotlight for a day, but I feel so... hollow that I missed my show.” Cara looked away from me, towards one of the pictures on her wall, of her when she was only five, grinning broadly in a purple tutu. “I worked so hard for it and now I can never get it back.”
My eyes started stinging and I gave my sister a hug. “I promise, Cara,” I said, “I’ll fix it. I promise I will.”
* * *
One week later.
The atrium was packed. Neopets of all species and colors filed into the school auditorium through three large doors, taking hold of crisp white programs as they filed to their seats.
“Enjoy the show!” I said, passing a program to an elderly couple as they shuffled inside.
“Celia!” a voice greeted.
I turned my head at the sound and noticed Milo approaching with a wave. He had dressed up for the occasion, wearing khaki pants and a long sleeved shirt with a blue vest. He took a folded program out of my hand.
“Hey,” I said. “I’m happy you could make it.”
“I wouldn’t miss it,” he said honestly. He looked over at the crowds of neopets. “And very nice work. How long did it take you to put together?”
“Not too long,” I admitted, passing out a few more programs. I was dressed up as well, wearing a simple navy dress and a pendant around my neck. “I talked to the principal and he said no one was using the auditorium this weekend, so I could do as I wish. And all of the dancers said they didn’t mind doing a second performance, so I just rounded everyone up, got Neil to work the spotlight, Julia to do sound, Mindy to man the curtain, made tons of programs, and voila!”
“You’re a good sister.”
“So with all this work,” the brown Bori said, gesturing to the atrium, where the flood of neopets was slowly dimming as people trickled into the auditorium, “have you had any time to go to the bazaar and look for something else to add to your collection?”
“Oh, but of course,” I said, pointing to my necklace: a gold chain dangling a sparkling blue sapphire. I lowered my voice conspiratorially. “Apparently this pendant magically increases intelligence by almost 80 points...”
His eyes widened in horror. “Celia—!”
“I’m just kidding!” I cut him off with a laugh and his face immediately melted into relief. “Don’t worry, I’m still horrible at math. This is just a regular necklace. My mom gave it to me for my birthday.”
“You scared me,” he admitted, but started laughing along with me.
Suddenly the lights inside of the auditorium dimmed.
“The recital is about to start!” I said, leaving the programs at the table by my side and dragging Milo into the auditorium. I hurried down the navy-carpeted aisles until I found my parents in the front row, faint outlines in the darkness.
“Hurry!” my mom whispered as Milo and I slid into the empty seats beside her. My dad had a Virtu-cam in his hand, aimed at the closed curtain.
We made it just in time. As soon as we were seated, the curtain opened revealing nine girls in a line wearing dark navy leotards and tutus studded with rhinestones. Their costumes reminded me of early night, speckled with the faintest of stars.
I clapped my hands along with the crowd and spotted Cara standing dead center. She was beaming with her arms behind her back. However, before the music could start, she hurried over to a Virtu-mic stand perched on the edge of the stage.
“Before we begin,” the blue Blumaroo said, her voice echoing throughout the room, “I’d like to thank my little sister Celia for making this all happen.” She suddenly revealed a bouquet of pink lilies from behind her back and a bright light hit me from above.
I was in shock. Neil! I silently yelled at my friend working the spotlight, but he couldn’t hear my telepathic admonishment. The audience began cheering and I stood up, unsure what to do. Cara gestured me to approach the foot of the stage and I did. She leaned over and passed down the bouquet, grinning and wrapping me in a tight hug.
I almost started crying. “Thanks,” I said.
“No, thank you,” she said, pulling away from me and clapping along with the crowd.
I turned back and noticed my mom in the front row looking at me as if she was on the verge of tears, her earrings glinting in the darkness. My dad was grinning brightly, his camera flashing in my direction. And Milo was there too, like he always was, clapping his hands with a grin on his face.
And even though I wasn’t insanely beautiful, or smart, or talented, in that one moment, as the crowd cheered, I felt special.
I was plain Jane Celia. I was horrible in math and had a collection of ancient Qasalan items amassed on my dresser, but I also had family and friends who loved me. And I was perfectly fine with that.