The Pageant Winner
A Short Story by Tim Josephs
Written using the suggestion "Assassination"
Originally featured on 09-19-2008
As part of our series "The Bigger They Are, The Harder Empires Fall (The Ions Behind the Scenes of Every Regime Change)"

I read about it in the paper. They called it an “assassination.” To me that was a little bit of an exaggeration. Can a beauty queen really be assassinated? I thought that was a term reserved for people in positions of real power like kings or presidents. But there it was in black and white: “Pageant winner Cindy Barlow assassinated in front of Wal-Mart.”

Can you think of a more pathetic place to die? I guess it would have been worse if she had been there to shop but no, she was there to cut the ribbon for the store’s grand opening. It was her first public appearance since becoming the new Miss Tri-County Area.

The photo in the paper showed her moments before it happened, still holding the large pair of novelty scissors, a dazzling smile on her face, her shiny crown slightly askew.

Julie was actually only a few paces behind Cindy when she had gotten that crown. Through all the commotion — the noise and confetti, the tears and the hugs — she had watched it all up close.

I never really wanted her to enter the pageant. I love my daughter but Julie…she just didn’t seem like the kind of girl who’d be a part of something like that. She’s not particularly tall or blonde or peppy as most of those contestants always seem to be. Truthfully I was surprised she even wanted to enter, as far as I knew she’d never expressed any interest in beauty pageants.

But no, she had insisted, they’re not beauty pageants, they’re much more than that. Apparently you got rewarded for your intelligence and your talent. Plus, Julie kept stressing, the winner received a lot of stuff, including money for college.

Her mother and I discussed it for a while — debating whether or not it would be a good experience for her, wondering how she’d cope with rejection — and finally decided to giver her the rather costly application fee. She sent it in along with a neatly typed essay and a short video she recorded on her computer and a couple months later received a thick envelope in the mail. She squealed and ran around the house for a while and then immediately began practicing her talent — piano — and writing answers to questions she thought they might ask. Over the next month she worked as hard as I’d ever seen her work on anything.

The pageant was at an arena a couple hours away, and as we drove there Julie couldn’t sit still she was so excited. When she wasn’t jabbering to her mother and me, she was on her phone talking to probably every friend she’s ever had.

We dropped her off and then milled around the small town until it was show time. As we searched for our reserved seats we talked to some of the other parents. A few, like us, had children who were in their first pageant, and they seemed as nervous as we were. But others looked almost bored; I overheard a woman say it was their eighth one that year.

When the show began there was a lot of loud music and flashing colored lights and the host — a local weatherman — jogged out in a tuxedo. He spoke for a few minutes and then the girls came out. There were forty altogether and it took me a minute to spot Julie. She was in a shimmering purple dress, her hair was done up, and she had a lot of makeup on. I had never seen her looking so glamorous, so grown-up before, and it nearly brought tears to my eyes. She just looked so beautiful.

And she was wonderful. I might sound like a doting father with a child who can do no wrong, but that’s not it at all. Julie was graceful during the little dance number, she spoke eloquently, she played the piano like a professional. I don’t think she could have been better.

But she didn’t win. Cindy Barlow won. Tall, tanned, blonde, blindingly white teeth, large, probably fake breasts. When she was announced I could see Julie smiling but it wasn’t hard to see that she was terribly disappointed. She applauded and then a moment later was ushered off the stage along with everyone else except Cindy and the giddy weatherman.

When Julie found us in the lobby about a half hour later, back in her t-shirt and jeans, remnants of blush still on her cheeks, her eyes were wet. She sniffled as we walked to the car, ignoring our accolades, and on the ride back home broke down, sobbing uncontrollably against her mother’s shoulder. Her wailing was horrible. The sound of a wounded child to their parent is sickening. And I did feel sick — I was nauseous and there was a sharp pain in my chest as if my heart was actually breaking.

 

The paper said Miss Tri-County Area’s bodyguard did all he could do, that he threw himself in front of her. He didn’t. After the first shot the skinny kid who looked like a mall security guard froze, a confused almost comical expression on his pasty face. After the second shot, the one that entered that pretty blond head, he ducked behind the podium. That’s where he found her. His lame attempt at CPR of course did no good.

Although no one from the pageant committee would comment besides the customary “we’re all incredibly saddened” and “it’s a real tragedy,” the writer of the article speculated that at some point the first runner-up would have to take over the duties.

It might be sad, but Cindy Barlow didn’t really deserve to win anyway.  But that’s all in the past now.  The girl who should’ve won, the rightful winner, will be wearing that crown soon enough.

One down, just thirty-eight more to go.

Read More By Tim Josephs

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Portland Fiction Project

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