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DELETED SCENE FROM COVETED By Shawntelle Madison
NOTE: These scenes would take place around the latter half of COVETED. They are raw (very undercooked). If errors are found blame Nat.
to a slow crawl. When it seemed like I’d my time would be better spent lining up lamps, a customer approached me and asked about an antique sofa. She appeared to be in her forties and her attire was much more polished that most of the clientele that came by. I gave her a brief overview of the sofa’s background. She slowly smiled while I gave what I thought was the dullest sales pitch ever. “You have great posture,” she said. “Have you ever participated in pageants before?” “Pageants? ” I actually sounded horriﬁed. “Oh, no. I’ve never done that.” With more poise than I’d ever displayed, the raven-haired woman said, “Well, that’s a shame. We’ve had a low number of entries in the Miss Forest River Pageant. I think you’d make a great role model for a lot of the young ladies who are entering our teen division.” A great role model? Was that before or after I showed off my Christmas collection as my talent? “You’re kind, but I prefer to keep to myself these days.” “I understand. Well, I’m Gilda Peake if you ever change your mind.” She returned to the business of purchasing the marooncolored sofa. Surprisingly, even with my poor salesmanship today, she bought it. Not long after she’d left the store with her pick-up slip, I breathed a sigh of relief. The last thing I needed was a reason to embarrass myself in front of hundreds of people.
My workday at the Bend of the River Flea Market had stretched
After I revealed my little talk with Gilda to Aggie, I should’ve known she’d think it was a good idea. “I know you don’t want to enter the pageant and all, but did you ever think about who else might be in it?” Aggie asked me. I snorted. “Yeah, a bunch of locals who think Vaseline on their teeth is the key to world peace.” We stood in the parking lot outside of Archie’s Burgers. The smell of seared meat and fresh fries tempted me, but Agatha McClure planted herself outside the door with her hands on her hips. “I have to spell everything out for you, don’t I? Look, I heard in the grocery store today that Erica and Becky have participated in this thing every year since they came back from college.” I folded my arms across my chest. Hopefully my facial expression said, And I should care because? Aggie’s eyes narrowed. “Did you ever think if you won that contest you’d have a leg up on her in front of everyone? All of South Toms River’s citizens?” Now that did sound a bit interesting, but I didn’t fully see her logic. “What makes you think I could win a beauty pageant?” “Of all my close friends—and I could count them on one hand— you’re the most determined person I ever met. Guaranteed. When you want something, you ﬁght for it. You may not like speaking in front of large crowds, but I think this would be good for you. It could also serve as leverage to help you get back into the pack.” “Okay, fake my way through pageant questions, yes. Fake my way through a swimsuit competition, hell no.” I raised my voice to silence her before she could interrupt me. “And how the hell do I ﬁnd a talent? My anxiety doesn’t make me too keen toward swirling plates on sticks or pulling germ-laden dead rabbits out of hats.” “If you’re willing to participate and kick her ass, I’m more than willing to take care of everything else.” I rolled my eyes. “As much as I’d love to virtually dig my heel into Erica’s back, I’m completely unprepared to participate in a pageant.” Aggie’s offered a conspiratory wink. “I got you covered. You may not remember, but your Aunt Olga used to be a heavy pageant participant when she lived in Russia.” I walked around her so I could eat. At least that was one thing I
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did well. But then the question remained: Would Aggie forget this little scheme of hers? [Aggie…convinced Nat to participate. Nat met with her Aunt Olga for her ﬁrst lesson. It was a painful experience. For everyone involved.] Aggie owed me big time for enduring all this madness. My lesson the night before with Aunt Olga hadn’t prepare me for what I had to endure the next day at the South Toms River Community Center. Gilda, the pageant coordinator, sat in front of us and droned on for ﬁfteen minutes about the pride and joy (her words, not mine) she’d experienced as Miss Forest River 1992. When I’d entered the room twenty minutes earlier, I’d learned everyone arrived very early. I enjoyed being on time like the next person, but I didn’t setup camp and build a bonﬁre. People who arrived early were the folks who saw the party preparation or stood on the side while dinner cooked on the stove. They merely got in the way. My competition, Erica, sat in the front row next to her partner-incrime Becky. The rest of the contestants sat in two rows of green metal chairs with bright smiles. Of course, when I got there, the only seat available was directly behind Erica. Swell. And when the introductions circled the room, I’d hoped the other contestants around me would occupy my time. The last thing I wanted was to pass out from Erica’s venomous eyes. After I’d reluctantly shaken everyone’s hands, Erica turned in my direction with a blank face. My breath caught in my throat and I wasn’t sure what to do. Even though she remained in her seat, her demeanor spoke volumes. The stiff shoulders. The raised chin. She didn’t need to snarl or frown to show her displeasure. The urge to make a run for it grabbed me by the back of my neck—until I noticed Gilda watching the entire scene. I couldn’t resist the feeling of triumph as Erica slowly reached for my hand. She shook it with what strangers could call a hint of a smile. “I look forward to the competition, Natalya. I’m sure you’ll do well.” I nodded and returned a similar expression. Damn, she intimidated me so well. Only another werewolf could detect the
blacked animosity that practically oozed from her pores. For the next twenty minutes, I sat through the rules presentation and nodded when appropriate. It didn’t take many brain cells to ﬁgure out when to smile or giggle at the jokes. Twice I smiled at another woman and said, “I completely agree.” During the whole time, I reminded myself, You’re not at home alone. You are interacting with people. Not your ﬁrst choice, but people who are part of the human race. Well, the human and supernatural ones. “Ladies, this year, we’re doing our mentorship program again with the Miss Forest River Teen Pageant.” My heart sank. Based on the events for the past ﬁve years, I wasn’t exactly mentor material. I have a job and own a home, but do I really want to show my potential mentee that my interests lie in collecting boxes of nutcrackers? Gilda continued. “I’ve already selected your mentees at random from a hat. They’ll be here any minute.” I didn’t mind kids. I mean, I had cousin after cousin to deal with under the age of eighteen. But I’d already bore the brunt of Erica’s harassment over Thorn this afternoon. Her demeaning words were rather hard to forget. Especially where my relationship with Thorn was concerned. The very thought of having to act as a mentor drove me nuts—and not in a good can of Planter’s Peanuts kind of way. The teens ﬁled into the room with bright and smiling faces. Around me, the other contestants smiled and greeted the young women with grins. Of course, I was the only one with a straight face. For good measure, I applied a half-smile to not frighten them. Gilda announced the names of the pairs. I watched the girls walk over to the other pageant candidates who stood and said hello with a handshake or hug. All the girls looked nice and all, but the thought of shaking their hands left a sour feeling in my stomach. I’d seen my younger cousins come out of the bathroom with unwashed hands. Most of the kids in my family were Petri dish-covered biohazards. Three remained and I still didn’t have a mentee yet. Of the three, two appeared ready to burst with sunshine and bubble gum, while the third appeared to be there through coercion. Her black ﬁngernails and dyed sable hair didn’t mesh with the peach suit she wore. And of course Gilda pointed to her, and said, “Miss Potts, your mentor is Natalya Stravinsky.” She nodded and walked over while the other two proceeded to
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squeal with delight for being matched with Becky and Erica. For once, I was happy to get a quiet one. We stood beside each other for half a minute before I felt compelled to at least introduce myself. “What’s your name?” “By.” She picked at her chipped ﬁngernails. Rather ragged and sad-looking. But otherwise she appeared put together enough. According to my nose, she was clean with a touch of lilac-scented perfume. “Bye as in goodbye?” “Naw. My name’s Blythe, but I hate it. So my friends call me Bly as in ﬂy.” I nodded. “I don’t use the name I was born with either. I’m called Nat as in hat.” The others around us chatted as if they’d been friends for years. Gilda peered in our direction and then walked over. “Hope you two newcomers are getting along. I bet you’re both nervous. Why don’t you share why you’re participating this year?” She patted my shoulder and strolled off. I snorted. Should I tell my mentee I was strong-armed into participating? That’d be a great way to teach the youth about the value of friendship. “You look as excited as I am to be here right now. I’m sure you’ll do great,” I said. With what I hoped was enthusiasm. “Thanks, to be honest I’m not thrilled to be here right now,” Bly mumbled. “Right there with you. I haven’t cracked a smile this wide since I got off buying a whole rack of Christmas clearance at the local 7-Eleven.” Blythe nearly choked on her breath mint. “Sorry. That was rather outspoken of me. Let me try that again. This whole afternoon has been such a joy. How about you?” My voice dripped with honey. “Thanks to you, I think I may make it into adulthood without being bored to death tonight,” By replied. “Believe me, you don’t want to try this responsible adult thing. Mortgages, men with crazy girlfriends.” I stole a glance at Erica. “Staying at home for free with Mom and Dad is where it’s at.”
That night, the rain continued to fall, leaving the landscape soggy and soaked. The sound of the falling rain was rather relaxing—when I didn’t think about ﬂooding, mud, and all the other gunk people tracked all over the place. Aggie and I had eaten dinner at my parents’ house and she’d somehow survived my aunt Vera’s matchmaking antics. I felt rather proud her. Aggie had caught on pretty fast that my distant cousin Anatoly wasn’t exactly the hot catch of the year. Especially since he’d ﬁnished a relationship with a sixty-ﬁve year-old human woman. The last I’d heard he’d moved out of her condo in Manhattan. My aunt had said, “He might be twenty-two, Aggie, but he’s mature.” Aggie replied as she ate her food. “I’m not his type. I’m broke.” “Oh, don’t say that. He just prefers…mature women.” Right. I shook my head from the thought and shrugged off my wet jacket. I took Aggie’s and placed them in a basket in the laundry nook off the kitchen. With all the problems with Alex, I’d forgotten about Nick, the mysterious attack, and my issues with Thorn. I hadn’t heard from him since yesterday morning. As to why Thorn couldn’t call made me suspicious of his feelings. Why did he always take that extra step to see me face-to-face when a message on my cell phone would sufﬁce? It was those instances that left me wondering why he had to marry Erica. I headed upstairs to change out of my wet clothes. When I came back down, I found Aggie sorting through brown boxes I hadn’t seen before. “What do you have there?” She offered a big grin. “While you’ve been busy ignoring the fact the pageant is coming up, I’ve been hard at work preparing you for the big showdown with Miss Holden.” I snorted. “If you only knew how easily I forgot.” “Oh, stop it. I found a talent for you.” This had to be good. In my mind, I’d shoved the Miss Forest Pageant into a deep crevasse in my brain where I couldn’t cringe every time I thought about taffeta and April Hastings screeching out the American anthem with her mother banging out the tune on the piano. I asked, “What kind of talent is that?” And please let it involve
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clothing. “It’s the only thing I could think of for you. I talked about it with your Aunt Olga and since you can’t dance, sing, or play an instrument other than a cow bell you’re stuck with using the Rubik’s cube.” I laughed until my side ached. And then I laughed even more when I noticed she was dead serious. “Of all the hairbrained ideas that you’ve come up with in the past,” I said. “You seriously think people are going to be impressed with this? And ﬁrst of all, what makes you think I still know how to use this? I did that kind of stuff in high school.” I picked up the cube she placed on the coffee table. The disheveled colors bothered me to no end and my ﬁngers itched to align everything correctly. “I was lame when I did this, and I’ll be even more lame if I do it again.” Aggie stepped forward and pushed the cube toward my chest. “Prove me wrong then. Show me you can’t do it.” Her grin widened and then she took a step back. “You know as well as I do it takes practice to keep up a skill like this.” “Okay, you can thrill me now.” I glanced at the cube. My ﬁngers rubbed the green spots and then the white ones. Then my hands ﬂew. Somehow I knew where everything should go. I wasn’t sure how many seconds had passed, but when I placed the completed cube back down on the table I heard Aggie chortle. “You’re still a nerd,” she said. “But I love you either way.” “Bitch.” “Now that’s calling the kettle black.” She laughed. “Okay, talent check.” She opened the box and revealed a garment bag. “Your aunt donated a dress for you. And before you give me that look its one of her friend’s dresses from Russia.” I shuddered. “From the eighties?” “No, not from the eighties. She has a friend she mentors over in St. Petersburg. She told me Yelena kindly sent over a dress for you to wear. Your aunt is so excited about your participation that she had a genuine dress acquired for you.” I peered at the garment’s back and checked out the royal blue dress. The see-through garment bag showed off the ﬁne detail of the corset and snug-ﬁtting skirt. I tried to resist smiling. It was beautiful.
Not my normal attire, but even I could appreciate something where love had been used to place every zipper, button, and shimmer. “Now, Aunt Olga told me we may need the dress adjusted. She said Yelena is ﬁve-foot-eleven and with you at less than that the dress will trail all over the place.” Aggie’s size perhaps? “Sounds like the perfect height for you.” Aggie looked over the dress and found the zipper. “Here, take the dress and try it on. No backing out now. You have a talent and dress. That should be enough to either win or humiliate yourself. But we won’t think that way, will we?” She pushed the garment into my hands. I tried not to think of it as a foreign object. The perfumed dress ﬂowed through my ﬁngers like a waterfall of silk. If I wore this dress, would people think differently of me? I pushed a tendril of my hair behind my ear and tried to imagine myself on the stage waving at the crowd. The idea poured an avalanche of fear over my conﬁdence. “Okay, when you get back from your trip to Fantasy Land with Peter Pan could you try on the dress?” Aggie asked. “I was hoping to put it back into the garment bag this century.” I opened my mouth to offer Aggie a piece of my mind, but decided it was best to simply stalk into my room to try on the dress. As I attempted to wiggle into the Miss St. Petersburg outﬁt from a more cheerful time, I heard the phone ring twice. “Could you pick it up?” I grumbled. I faintly heard her chatting with a manager at Barney’s Pickles. A lively discussion about pricing mistakes for Barney’s Bountiful Basket of Pickles came up multiple times. If I had to discuss the intricacies of baskets of wrapped pickles, I’d need more medication. The mirror needed my attention right now. With hair in disarray and not a stitch of makeup, I appeared out of place in the gown. I couldn’t prevent the sigh from between my lips as I slid my ﬁngers down the dress which clung to my hips. The dress hugged my body and accentuated my features but for some reason it didn’t feel right. These weren’t my usual clothes. Not the ones I wore everyday and brought me comfort. I slowly took off the gown while trying to ignore the growing anxiety in my chest. What reason did I have for this crazy venture? The side of my mouth lifted for a half smile. Oh yes, the possible victory of a leg up against Erica. But what would happen if I win? Hell, I knew if I lost I wouldn’t score any brownie points. Would the
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fruit of my labor be worth it to face the wrath of that woman? With the utmost care, I placed the dress into the garment bag. I had a few days to ﬁgure out what direction I needed to take. Right now I had too many doubts and a zealous friend bent on my victory. I found Aggie wrapping up her phone call in the kitchen. Instead of an irritated smile, she glowed as walked over to me with a devilish grin. “I have a fabulous idea for the pageant. Your talent will blow people away.” My eyebrow rose. Rubik’s cube performances that would blow people away…Now this I had to hear. The night of the pageant left me in a dazed state. Tomorrow the full moon would crest in the sky and I’d bow down to the urges of my werewolf ancestry. I took two pills the day before to keep myself in check, but I noticed the wolf straining to emerge. I was already stressed out about the Long Island werewolves. The scent of their attack lingered in the air and left me feeling wary. Aggie gripped my hand with concern as we drove to the community theater. “You’re shaking like a dog fresh from the winter cold. Take deep breaths.” I tried to relax and allow the medication to do its job, but a side effect of the jitters snuck up on me. Tonight would be a Friday night freak show if I couldn’t keep myself under wraps. “Don’t wolf out on me and scare all the nice humans in the audience.” “Just shut up!” I bit my lip until I drew blood. Why couldn’t she allow me this one time to vent? “Cut it out, Nat. This isn’t the time to wig out.” Her command had undertones I couldn’t deny. She didn’t like to exert her superiority, but right now I needed it. A calming wave hit my body and I tried to ride it the rest of the way to the theater. “Much better. Now deep breaths, in and out.” In the parking lot, we found Aunt Olga waiting for us with Aunt Vera. I smiled when both of their faces welcomed me. “You look beautiful, Natalya,” Aunt Vera said. “Thank you.” I nodded in her direction while Aggie and I pulled the bags from the back of my car. “Once we get inside we can go over the ﬁnal details before the
pageant.” Aunt Olga took over like a stern sergeant. She stood to the side dressed in a forest-green colored dress with a straight back and perfect eyebrows. I couldn’t imagine the number of hours required to pluck those things. Once inside the community theater, we proceeded to the dressing room. The other contestants, along with their teen mentees, found spaces where they could to hang their garment bags and boxes of makeup and whatever else crap they needed to look good. With whatever pride I could muster, I dropped my box of Rubik’s cubes on a table to the side. Others peered at me with curiosity. I could see the fear in their eyes, yep, fear of losing out to the chick with the box of Rubik’s cubes. I was so screwed. Aunt Olga ordered Aggie around to prepare my clothes. I think she hadn’t expected her little scheme to turn into full blown servitude to my aunt. While I applied my foundation, Aggie prepared my dress and swim suit. “Are you sure I have to wear that thing?” I’d tried on the monokini, or a bikini that resembled a one-piece disaster, in the swimsuit store, and never looked at it again for the sake of my sanity. “You could go out naked?” “Yeah, that’ll win me the competition.” Erica sat next to Becky on the other side of the room. I tried to ignore her as she smiled and greeted the other women. She exuded a conﬁdence that I had to admit left me a bit ﬂustered. From the way she applied her makeup to the blonde curls that perfectly ﬂowed down her back. The woman could’ve held up a shampoo bottle and companies would’ve come calling about product endorsement. Becky sat on her other side and reﬂected the same. “Move it, Natalya,” my aunt barked in Russian. “Your makeup will not apply itself. You still have to put on your dress and go over the ﬁnal details. I need ﬁfteen minutes for that.” A line of sweat formed in the middle of my back. The line to reach the stage frightened me to no end. I’d marched with the rest of the women two days ago during the dress rehearsal, but it wasn’t the same thing as the moment when you knew over a hundred people waited in the audience. I had to bring the whole package together, even if a fang threatened to sneak out of my mouth. I tried to reach within for the conﬁdent woman who used to walk with poise and purpose. How long had it been since I’d seen her in
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the mirror? The woman in my shoes right now had the right dress, the right shoes, and a perfect hairdo to boot. But I didn’t feel as conﬁdent. Aunt Olga placed her hands on my shoulders and gave them a soft squeeze. “Natashechka, you’ll dazzle them tonight,” she whispered. “Hold your head high and you will conquer all that oppose you. Speak the truth and you will receive the truth in return.” My aunt had never spoken to me in such a fashion before. I’d been born Natasha Fyodorova Stravinsky. Not more than a few hours after leaving the hospital, they’d called me Natalya and the name stuck. To hear my name in such a manner gave me pause. Almost as if she truly acknowledged my presence. For that brief moment in time we connected on a level which ﬁlled me with bliss. She’d taught me many things over the past couple of days. Not it was time for me to show what I could do. With Aunt Olga’s pep talk in mind, I walked across the stage to join the line of women. Becky stood at the front and glowed while Erica stood at my far side with grace. I wondered if anyone could see me beyond her golden mane of hair. The stuff practically glowed with the sheen of a collie. Gilda, who acted as the announcer for the evening, wore white bright enough to blind the audience (who I could barely see, thank goodness), introduced us one by one for a brief walk around the stage. The whole time I walked I said to myself over and over again, “One foot in front of the other. The audience is butt-naked. Bared to the world in their birthday suits. And they look like Brad Pitt. Yes, Brad Pitt like when he was delicious in Fight Club.” By the time I returned to the line to pose my face hurt from all the smiling I’d done. How professionals did all this happy-go-lucky stuff from day-to-day I didn’t know. Pissed off people deﬁnitely had less endorphins, but the facial pain from smiling wouldn’t be so bad. After introductions, Gilda announced that we’d perform our talents and then move on to the swimsuit portion. To my profound relief, I’d learned earlier that the roster sheet said my performance would come second to last. When I headed back to the dressing room, I turned to see Becky and Erica staring me down. No smiles or frowns, simply eyes which bore into my own. Erica’s blue eyes dared my own to hold them. She wanted me to challenge her. And I did—for a second longer than I
normally would. I wasn’t dumb. With the full moon looming tomorrow, Erica wasn’t a woman I was ready to cross on the hunting grounds. I could sense Becky’s smugness from across the room. They loved to see me squirm. Becky stood and gathered her baton. People went crazy for chicks in white boots and barely there cowgirl outﬁts who twirled batons. I thought it was the most boring shit I ever saw during the rehearsal. But to each his own. Erica remained behind and continued to sit like a statue staring at me. She watched me like a wolf examined its prey before it pounced. That is, until another girl interrupted her for lip gloss. Erica’s facade returned. “Oh sure, hon. What kind? I have oodles of them!” The bubble gum speech covered the oozing tar of the wolf that lurked under her skin. All the werewolves in the room had a scent that radiated from their skin. The excited smell of a pending hunt—almost like preparing for a grand feast. You knew the food was coming feeling and your stomach growled in anticipation. I scratched my wrist and, in alarm, quickly covered it. Two pills might not have been a great idea. A patch of light brown hair covered my knuckle to my wrist. I closed my eyes and counted to ten. Not now. Not now. You’re normal. Your wrist is free from hair and you’ll look down and notice everything is all good. I opened one eye a crack. Oh, fuck. Not even close. “Natalya?” My teen mentee Blythe showed up as I placed my wrist under my bottom. Not the most ladylike position, but I’d rather not frighten the girl into thinking her mentor couldn’t shave properly the night before. “Yes.” My voice came out low and hoarse. A bit hoarser than usual. I ran my tongue over my teeth and made a mental note to talk without showing the inside of my mouth. “I am so nervous about learning whether I made it into the top ten or not.” She smiled and pushed back one of her tendrils of hair behind her ear. This wasn’t the same girl from earlier. The goth teen appeared to have come into her own. Or else her mother had bribed her with a new car for putting up with this shindig. I suspected a car and some clothes shopping money were the culprits. “I’m sure you’ll do ﬁne.” I spoke like a ﬁne ventriloquist with a head tilt that couldn’t be denied. Even I was shocked how conﬁdent and happy I sounded. “I thought this whole night would blow chunks. But things haven’t been so bad after all.”
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I nodded. She didn’t ask a question so why should I talk? “My dad said he’d hook me up with a new car if I ﬁnaled so I can’t wait.” I chuckled and tried to hold it in. Yep, wheels had a way of motivating our troubled youth. “You look so beautiful,” By said. “I’ve never seen you look like this. During rehearsal, you never dressed like this.” I wanted to tell her there was a very high probability she’d never see me dressed like this gain, but instead I smiled and patted her hand. Why yes, nothing’s stressing me out at all. I perked up when I heard someone say, “You’re up, Erica.” Erica left the room without glancing in my direction. She didn’t need to acknowledge me. But I joined the others and said, “Good luck, Erica.” Even with her sour treatment, I could at least try to be polite. And hey, Miss Congeniality won extra points, right? Five minutes later, the auditorium shook with thunderous applause after Erica’s piano piece. Even I could hear how well she played. She commanded the keys and played Rachminoff with such fervor that even I appreciated her talent. To a point anyhow. One more contestant and I’d enter the cave of doom. April stood proudly and marched out to sing her song. All I had to do was hold myself together for ﬁve more minutes. A quick glance at my wrist conﬁrmed I was fur-free. One problem averted. Erica re-entered the room to congrats and smiles. She thanked everyone, including me for some reason, and walked over to Becky to speak. The noise in the room prevented me from hearing them, but from the way they glanced in my direction, I knew they wanted me to crash and burn. They knew what I planned to do. They saw a simple demo during the rehearsal. I took one cube and ﬁxed it. But I did it slowly—on purpose. Why allow them the pleasure of knowing what I planned to do? After the friendly applause for April’s performance, I was called to standby. “Good luck with your cubes, Natalya,” Erica chirped. Even though a thank you seemed unnecessary with such a snide comment, I still said, “Why thank you.” “Oh, Nat!” I’d left my table, only to turn around and see Becky holding a cube I’d left. “You forgot your cube,” she purred. “I almost left it behind,” I said.
Becky placed her hand on her hip and offered a soft smile. Black widows could’ve crawled out of her ears, but she still would’ve maintained that stone-cold expression. “We wouldn’t want your performance to go poorly.” Then Erica whispered soft enough for only the wolves in the room to hear, “I can’t believe she’s headed to the stage to do that shit.” As I reached the edge of the stage, my feet began to scrape against the ﬂoor. I peered at my reﬂection in the shiny wood. I could do this. The stage had been set by Aggie. All I had to do was perform. Gilda’s voice came through the speakers, but I had trouble focusing on her words. “That was a wonderful performance by April. She’s an absolute sweetheart. And our next contestant is Natalya Stravinsky, another one of our local girls. Please welcome Natalya.” I paused for a moment as the applause began. Oh, shit, move legs move! A hand touched my back and I turned to see Thorn pushing me forward. “What are you doing here?” I whispered. Against my back, he replied, “You may not see me, but I’m always around.” With a meager surge of conﬁdence, I marched onto the stage with legs cut from a bowl of Jell-O. I pasted a smile on my face and walked to the spot on the ﬂoor for contestants to stand. I was quite grateful someone placed the damn thing there or I may have continued walking to the other side of the stage. The applause nearly deafened my ears. On the stage, a table had been left for me with my ﬁve cubes. Gilda waited patiently and handed me the microphone. Oh, shit. Did they expect me to speak? After the warm device was placed into my hands, I tried to think of something witty to say, instead silence prevailed. I had ﬁve to eight minutes to perform and I was standing here waiting for the whistling crickets to do something. A voice in the distance whispered, “Move it, Natalya.” Aggie. “Good evening, everyone.” Awkward pause. “The current World Record for speedcubing the Rubik’s cube is seven seconds. Everyone through the years has enjoyed the cube and this evening I plan to showcase the art of speedcubing.” Aggie hissed, “Remember the contest!” I perked up. “In addition, for each cube I complete, Barney’s Pickles will donate meals to the local food pantry. Wish me luck
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everyone.” I put down the microphone and prepared everything. Aggie’s idea was ingenious, but in my current state I wondered if I’d pull it off. My hands trembled as I gazed at the ﬁve cubes on the small end table. I tried to clear my mind but thoughts swirled around it. The stage with numerous bright lights and a murmuring audience didn’t help. Due to my damn werewolf hearing, I could hear every snicker or snore. Old man Andrew Hill was knocked out in the third row and I could hear his snores rolling in the distance like a freight train. The Holdstead’s baby cried. Concentrate. Stop it! I’d already wasted half a minute letting them distract me. I picked up the counter and handed it to Gilda who stood off to the side. “Could you kindly start the countdown?” Gilda smiled and then said, “You have three minutes. And go!” I stood there like an oaf. From the side, Aggie growled, “Oh, come on! Don’t freeze up right now. Move, your ass.” After she said the command, my hands moved. The push in her words drop-kicked me into action. Then all I heard was the click, click, and click. The swish, swish, swish as my hands ﬂew over the cubes. Thirty seconds for the ﬁrst cube. Cube down. Twenty seconds for the second. Click, click. I was thriving in the zone now. Nineteen seconds for the third cube. Time’s running out, girlie. Faster, faster. Fourth cube dazzled the audience. Two astonished women exclaimed, “Wow!” Fifteen seconds and I didn’t blink once. A round of applause exploded in the room as I slammed the fourth cube on the table. Who knew these folks liked the cube? In my haze, Gilda said, “Thirty seconds.” Caught in the moment, she offered a girlish giggle. The ﬁnal cube burned into my palm. Time to ﬁnish this. My ﬁngers ﬂew and I saw the ﬁnal formation in my mind. Flick, ﬂick. Then my brain stopped. Not now. The woman picked up her crying baby and started to leave. I’d ignored them before, but as the baby’s howls increased my mind sought out the distraction like a hungry sponge searching for water. My gray matter sought chaos and with the cube nearly solved I couldn’t focus. Gilda shouted her countdown, “Ten, nine...” Move, move. My hands ﬂew again to complete the cube. I ﬁnally slammed it down on the table as she yelled, “Time.” I stared at the cube and table as silence prevailed. Their initial
applause echoed in my mind. I didn’t want to look up to face them. I’d barely made it and stood there most of the time like some mime who posed in silence. But then I heard it. One set of hands in applause. Then three turned into everyone cheering and whistling. Holy shit! I did it. “Great job, Natalya. Everyone, look, she completed all the cubes within three minutes. I’m sure our food pantry on Dover Road will be more than happy to accept ﬁve nights worth of meals from Barney’s Pickles.” I nodded and tried to move an arm which felt like a block of lead. My wave resembled a ﬂoppy wet noodle. I really had this pageant thing down pat. Yet my event had been victorious. So why did I feel defeated all of a sudden? When I entered the dressing room, the women surrounded me and offered praise. “I would have never done something like that,” one said. Another said, “How cool.” Erica and Becky stood to the side. Their obligatory, “Well done,” had been said brieﬂy for the beneﬁt of the others nearby. I headed to my seat and plopped down. Another contestant needed to perform after me, but then I’d need to return to the stage for the swimsuit portion. Good grief, what had I done to myself? I didn’t have the conﬁdence to face Erica and Becky. After a few cleansing breaths, I wrung my cold ﬁngers together to generate warmth. I could do this. An hour more and I would’ve pushed my goals even further. Soon I’d stand in front of the South Toms River Township and speak again while wearing a swimsuit. I tried to wrap my mind around my accomplishments as another part of me tried to shrink away with claws reared. Anxiety crept into my mind like a dark leash tight around my neck. Not now. I had taken the medicine. It shouldn’t have worn off by now. My toes curled in the shoes and the claws strained to emerge. The wolf stirred and wanted to vent the anxiety. The girl beside me smiled and said, “You okay, Nat? You look a little pale.” “This is my ﬁrst pageant. I’m adjusting,” I murmured. “I didn’t get applause like that.” She patted my shoulder. The strawberry blonde curls down her back jiggled. “Matter of fact, I even heard a few whistles. I just hope I place.” I nodded.
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“Do you need help with your makeup before you put on your swimsuit?” I turned and looked at her. If my memory hadn’t failed me, her name was Angela. I hadn’t expected her to offer help. “We have a few minutes and you look a bit frazzled.” She giggled and her enthusiasm was infectious. She stood and walked up to me. “Goodness gracious. Time to get you gussied up.” Only a man, a lecherous one at that, would tell women they should wear swimsuits and parade around for points in a beauty contest. This lecherous planner also must’ve been in on requiring the question and answer session to be conducted while the contestants wore swimsuits. As I stood on the stage, trying to hold the perfect pose that didn’t reveal my goodies, I kept telling myself that the men in the audience weren’t imagining me naked. That the women who sat nearby cheering on their sisters and wives didn’t look at me with condemnation. Gilda questioned each contestant with a list we’d seen the weekend before the competition. The questions ranged from the standard like, “What could you do to help the South Toms River community?” To the cliché ones like, “Where do you see yourself in ﬁve years?” So I’m sure you imagine my surprise when Gilda held the mike and asked me, “Where do you see yourself in ﬁve years?” For half a sec, I frowned. I would’ve settled just ﬁne for the previous question another girl had, “What is the most prevalent problem in our community?” Or what the woman had in front of her, “What would you tell your future self if you saw her ﬁfty years from now?” I almost heard the Jeopardy! music while I stood there stammering. Think of something eloquent! My mind wrapped around saying something really cool like, “I’d like to further my education, perhaps pursue a master’s degree and then open my own business.” Instead, I said, “I see myself as being alive in ﬁve years. You know, the way the world is changing our children have to face challenges we didn’t know about ten years ago. Drugs and crime are still prevalent.” Off stage, someone moved their hands in the “wrap it up” motion. Oh, damn. I’m babbling cynical nonsense. Who in their right mind says
they want to be alive? Instead of playing the music when people blathered on and on they had some dude off the stage wave his hands like one of those groundsmen who guided planes into the airport. Somehow, I ﬁnished with, “In conclusion, I hope to see myself within ﬁve years make an impact on society.” The audience applauded and I walked back into line with a trembling smile. I just couldn’t get any lamer at this point. Even my inner wolf wanted to run off the stage. Somehow I waited patiently as the rest of the contestants completed their Q&A. Fifteen minutes later, with our gowns back on, we stood in a line on the stage waiting for the placement. The teens had learned their results a few minutes earlier. My mentee Bly placed third. She beamed with pride after hearing her name. She waved brieﬂy in my direction and smirked at the audience. I sure hoped her parents had great car insurance. At ﬁrst I thought we’d learn our placements right after, but Gilda began a long speech on how women needed better life skills to survive in the US today. How the old guard, which included women her age, respected themselves and strived to work toward leadership in the community. Younger women needed to see the power within. Naturally, I agreed with her sentiments. What women needed today was stability also. Not that we couldn’t adapt to change, but let’s keep it real here. I could use a lot less stressors in our life. My mom had to deal with not only a fulltime job, but she had to raise my brother and I while dealing with dad’s antics. (A gold medal should be offered for marrying any man in my family.) I had to content with invading werewolf packs, psycho girlfriends, and most of all, trifﬂing customers. As to how I was breathing and thinking at the same time should’ve been a miracle. While I pondered on the speech at hand, everyone in line seemed so serene from the outside, but I could practically smell their impatience underneath the cloud of perfume. They wanted the damn results. If Gilda spoke anymore, two or three of the girls might swarm on her like my pack on a meal. Finally Gilda said, “Now, the results for the women’s division. I am so thankful for our judges today who’ve spent their time considering each candidate. Now, on to our winners. Fifth place runner up goes to Angela Jackson.”
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The strawberry blonde smiled and waved at the audience before she headed over to Gilda to accept her small bouquet of ﬂowers and crown. The fourth place went to another girl I vaguely knew. We’d gone to high school together, but never spoke. “Now for the moment you’ve been waiting for! Our third place winner scored highly and I’m pleased to announce her as part of our top three winners.” At this point, all I could do was smile. I’d lost out on a lower placement which I’d hoped to secure. I hoped to best Erica at something but by this point I wanted the torture of the evening to be over. My stress level had been pushed to new limits today. “Erica Holden is our third place winner.” The crowd erupted into applause even though none of them saw Erica had clenched her ﬁsts. Her subdued anger ﬂared strongly under her skin as she went to Gilda. It was strong enough to make me cower a bit. As last year’s winner, she’d expected the judges to place her at the top again. Even if I didn’t win, this moment (as I cowered from how pissed Erica was), was worth its weight in gold to see her march up to Gilda with a smile pasted on her face as she accepted the third place crown. (And that crown wasn’t as large as the ﬁrst place one that waited on the side table.) Naturally, my stress lessened. Wow, those endorphins came out of nowhere. “Our second place winner for the evening is Natalya Stravinsky.” I’ll be damned. Did she say my name? The women beside me beamed and congratulated me. Another contestant pushed me forward when I didn’t budge. I slowly walked across the stage to Gilda. The roar of applause was like white noise in my ears. It made it difﬁcult for me to concentrate, but I made it to Gilda to accept the crown. I crouched as she placed the crown on my head. The tingling sensation in my toes spread up my legs and down my arms to my ﬁngers. Was this what winning felt like? I tried to wrap my mind around the situation as Gilda placed the bouquet of ﬂowers in my hand. The sweet scent of roses ﬁlled my nose. The scent of victory. But as I walked to stand among the winners as single though prevailed: I’m so dead meat now. The smile on my lips faltered. The open spot next to Erica was far too close for even my comfort. Mere inches separated us. Enough for me to feel
the building heat under her skin. All the while, Erica continued to beam to the audience. Faintly, I heard Gilda call the ﬁrst place winner: Becky Knoll. Ouch. Not only did Erica lose to me, but she’d been lost to her best friend also. Erica’s lips parted slightly, then she whispered. So low, that I knew with each of my quickened heartbeats that each word was meant for me. “Fifteen years of piano instruction. Nine years of ballet, jazz, and tap. And you waltz in here with the worst talent I’ve ever seen... You’ll regret fucking with me. Enjoy it now. While the feeling lasts.” She eyed me up and down--almost daring me to speak. Even with my victory, she’d easily pushed me down a peg or two. Her words echoed in my head and then sliced through my chest like a serated blade. What would Erica Holden do if she was pushed too far? The trip home sucked. “You may have won second place, but you just placed yourself high on Erica’s shit list,” Aggie grumbled. My best friend sure knew how to make the smell of satisfaction turn putrid. We left the auditorium into a downpour. It was still raining and miserable outside. “Whatever happened these days to ‘Congratulations on dragging vindictive bitches through the mud?’” I said. “No, it’s ‘Gee, you sure won and now you’re about to get your ass kicked!’ Thanks for the vote of conﬁdence, Aggie.” “Hey, I wasn’t the one who took a trip to FunkyTown. I’m joking, Nat.” “And where were you anyway? I stood there by myself in the reception for the longest of time while Erica gave me her death-ray stare.” “They had refreshments in the corner. And since someone doesn’t allow certain foods in the house…” “Is food all you think about? Ugh—I’m sorry I said that.” Aggie frowned, then smirked. “Not all the time. I have other things—men friends—who occupy my thoughts.” Her attempt to brighten the mood should’ve worked, but the trip home was silent instead. The crown didn’t feel as lucky anymore. Matter of fact, it weighed me down. I tried to think of what I’d
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gained tonight. A great victory against Erica Holden. To have a third of the werewolves in town see me win a prize over her was exhilarating. I’d accomplished so much. I held tight to the thrill of winning as closely as I could.
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