The Accidental Beauty Queen
My sister has always been the pretty one. The Jane Bennet to my Elizabeth, the Meg March to my Jo.
It’s been this way for so long that I’ve never questioned it. It’s never even bothered me much. It just is.
Ginny is my sister, and I love her, no matter how different our lives are. And trust me, they’re about as opposite as you can imagine. But the chasm between our worlds has never been quite so glaringly obvious as it is now, because instead of restocking books on their respective shelves, I’m standing in an elevator at the posh Huntington Spa Resort in Orlando, Florida, on the first Monday afternoon of summer.
For starters, at five feet seven, I’m by far the shortest person of the half dozen or so on board. This is a rarity for me. As an elementary school librarian, I’m accustomed to towering over people for the majority of my waking hours. I’m also used to sitting in tiny chairs and using tiny, bluntedged
scissors, but that’s beside the point. Five feet seven isn’t short. . . .
Unless you’re riding an elevator packed with beauty queens.
I don’t know what I expected when I signed on to spend a week cheering for my sister at the Miss American Treasure pageant, but it wasn’t this. The preliminary competition doesn’t start for another two days, so why are they all wearing crowns and sashes already? And what is going on with their shoes?
Beauty pageant contestants wear heels. I know this, obviously. I mean, I’ve seen Miss Congeniality at least twenty times over the years, thanks to Ginny. But these are beyond high heels. Gracie Lou Freebush wouldn’t have lasted a minute in them.
No offense to Sandra Bullock. I’m just saying.
I tighten my grip on the handle of my suitcase, suddenly extremely conscious of the state of my hair. Orlando is one of the most humid places on earth, and the half hour ride on the airport shuttle was not kind. For once, I actually feel sorry for Ginny. It’s one thing to be expected to look perfect onstage, but hotel elevators should be a safe space. I, for one, plan to be roaming the halls in a spa bathrobe and complimentary slippers en route to the vending machine for the majority of my stay.
But to each her own.
Besides, Ginny chose this life, just as surely as I chose mine. She also gets paid more for one sponsored Instagram post than I make in a week, and when I remember this, I keep my sympathy in check.
The elevator comes to a stop on the fifth floor, which has clearly been reserved for the pageant, because we all disembark in a glamorous, glittering herd.
Myself being the exception.
No one seems to notice my presence, though. The Hogwarts T-shirt I’m wearing might as well be an invisibility cloak. Fine. I’m not here to make friends. I’m here for the chance to stay in Ginny’s luxury hotel room for a week, for free, and completely nerd out at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
I’m also here for moral support, of course. I plan on being at every single pageant event, cheering like a maniac while inwardly cringing in horror at the very thought of prancing around in only a tiny swimsuit and a crown. But since the competition doesn’t start until 5:00 p.m., that leaves my mornings and afternoons free to hit up the theme park. I’ve emptied my paltry savings account and invested in a five-day unlimited pass. Bring on the butter beer.
But first, I must locate our room amid a sea of glitz and sparkle. According to the text Ginny sent when I landed, we’re in 511. All of my elevator pals are in rooms along the same stretch of corridor. Half the doors on the floor have
hangtags on the knobs that read, Do not disturb! This Miss American Treasure contestant needs her beauty sleep!
I roll my eyes mightily.
Dangling from the knob of room 511 is one such tag, but I highly doubt Ginny is actually sleeping because I can hear the television booming through the door. I knock extra hard so she can hear me above the din of whatever reality show she’s probably watching.
Just please God don’t let it be the Kardashians.
An explosion of barks answers my knock. I take a deep breath. I’ve somehow forgotten all about my sister’s French bulldog mix, Buttercup. Ginny adopted her a month ago as part of her “platform.” I’m not sure exactly what that means. She’s a pageant queen, not a politician. But according to approximately five million posts on Ginny’s Instagram, she volunteers regularly at her local shelter in support of her animal rescue policy.
If memory serves, last year her platform was anti-bullying. But so many other contestants on the pageant circuit had already thrown themselves into the anti-bullying movement that she felt pressured to switch to something else. In other words, she got bullied into giving up her anti-bullying platform. Oh, the irony.
The door to the hotel room swings open, and Ginny is standing there in a white spa bathrobe with her hair piled on top of her head in a messy-yet-artful twist. She’s got one
of those serum-soaked sheet masks stuck to her face—the kind that make regular people look like something straight out of a bad horror movie.
Except Ginny isn’t a regular person. So instead she looks like Gwyneth Paltrow enjoying a quiet day of self-care.
“Charlotte, you’re here!”
“Yep. My flight was right on time.” Thank God. I’m ready to make the most out of day one on my unlimited pass.
“Come on in.” She holds the door open wider.
The room is a double, with side-by-side queen beds and a balcony overlooking a pool flanked by umbrella-covered lounge chairs, a tiki bar, and two perfectly symmetrical rows of palm trees swaying in the balmy Florida breeze. Any spare moments I have this week that don’t include Harry Potter will be spent right there, with my feet up and a piña colada in hand. It’s been so long since I’ve taken an actual vacation that the mental picture I’ve just conjured nearly makes me weep.
“This is gorgeous. Ginny, thanks again for inviting me.”
“Are you kidding? I’m so glad you’re here. Dad and Susan aren’t coming until the finals.” Her smile falters. Behind the face mask, I can see her full lips tip into a frown.
I know exactly what she’s thinking. “You’ll make the finals. I know you will. You’re a shoo-in for the top twenty.”
Ginny always makes the finals. She’s up onstage every
year alongside the winner and the runners-up. She’s just never managed to crack the top five.
“This year will be different,” I assure her.
She nods. “It has to be.”
As much as I hate to see my sister devoting her life to chasing a silly crown, and even though I positively loathe the pageant scene, my heart gives a little tug. Sometimes I forget why she got started in all of this. But every once in a while, when Ginny’s composure slips, I remember that this is her way of feeling connected to the mother we barely knew. The crushing sense of loss that inevitably follows always seems to catch me off guard. It’s in those moments—moments like this one—that I understand her dream.
I paste a smile on my face. “It will. I promise.”
I have no right to make that kind of promise. After all, I’m not judging this thing.
Truly, why would anyone want that job?
But it’s so rare to see my sister like this that I can’t stop myself. She’s always been the poster child for confidence. Which just goes to show how much this particular pageant means to her. More than all the others combined.
“You’re right.” She nods with renewed vigor. “Of course I’ll make the finals. This is my year.”
“Definitely.” Pep talk over for now, I head toward the bed on the far side of the room—the one that’s still neatly made and not covered in anything bedazzled.
Every item on Ginny’s bed shines like a disco ball, including her official Miss American Treasure tote bag. I’m beginning to understand why she uses one of those sleep-mask things like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I might need to invest in one myself.
As I cross the room, Buttercup launches herself at my wheeled suitcase, growling and nipping at it as it drags behind me. By the time I’m within a foot of my bed, she’s fully attached herself to it and I’m hauling both luggage and bulldog.
“Is this normal behavior?” I ask. It can’t be, can it?
Ginny waves a dismissive hand.
I give Buttercup a little nudge with the toe of my Adidas sneaker. She backs away, peering up at me with her bulgy little eyes. They almost seem to point in two different directions. Like plastic googly eyes.
We stare each other down for a second, and then she resumes her attack on my luggage.
“Is she always so”—I pause, struggling for an appropriate adjective—“headstrong?”
Buttercup and I have never been properly introduced. I only know her via Ginny’s Instagram, where she’s usually doing something less destructive and far more adorable.
“Buttercup is shy,” Ginny says by way of explanation.
I look down at the snarling dog. “Sorry, I’m not getting shy here.”
“You’re stressing her out. She’s not used to strangers and new experiences. She’s a rescue dog, remember? The poor thing sat in the shelter for four months before I adopted her.”
Ginny checks the position of her sheet mask in the large mirror over the bathroom counter. It’s a double vanity, theoretically big enough for both of us. But Ginny’s massive amount of toiletries take up the entire space. “Did you know that seven million dogs and cats enter shelters every year, and half of them end up being euthanized?”
I did not know that, and it’s a horrible, horrible statistic. But her canned delivery prevents me from absorbing the news with the proper level of emotion.
She’s slipped into pageant mode. She’s rattling off more devastating facts and figures about homeless pets, all the while posing with her hand pressed to her heart and her head tilted just so.
I glance at Buttercup. Something tells me she’s heard the speech before.
“Maybe less euthanasia talk in front of the rescue dog?” I suggest. No wonder the poor thing is stressed.
“Oh my God.” Ginny blinks. “Do you think she understands?”
“I have no idea, but why take the chance?” Besides, I can’t handle Ginny’s platform-level intensity right now. I’ve been up since 4:00 a.m.
“I suppose you’re right.” Ginny scoops Buttercup into her arms.
I take advantage of the cease-fire, lift my suitcase onto the bed, and remove my things, paltry in comparison to the vast wardrobe Ginny has stuffed into the closet and all but one of the dresser drawers. Fortunately, I travel light.
Clotheswise, anyway. Beneath the layers of jeans and T-shirts, four hardback novels line the bottom of my bag. I remove all four and arrange them in a nice, neat stack atop the nightstand closest to my bed.
When I look up, Ginny’s shaking her head. “Are you sure you brought enough reading material?”
“Don’t judge. I’m on vacation, remember?”
“Exactly. You’re a librarian. Your vacation should be book-free.” Ginny makes a zero sign with one of her perfectly manicured hands.
“How are we even related?” It’s not the first time I’ve asked that question, and I know with every fiber of my being that Ginny wonders the same thing sometimes.
How could she not?
“Before you dive into one of those, can you take Buttercup for a quick walk?” She grabs a Barbie-pink leash from her nightstand. And—surprise!—it’s heavily bedazzled. “Pretty please.”
“What? Why me?” My gaze flits toward Buttercup, who’s now positioned on Ginny’s pillow with her plump
rear facing me. “She doesn’t even like me. Stranger danger and all that.”
Ginny rolls her eyes. “Stranger danger? You spend too much time with little kids.”
True. She dragged me to yoga once, and I kept referring to easy pose as crisscross applesauce.
Still, Buttercup doesn’t seem any more thrilled by the idea than I am. Also, I’ve already begun typing the address of the theme park into the Uber app on my phone. I’m supposed to be dodging a fire-breathing dragon in Diagon Alley right now, not walking a petulant French bulldog.
“I was kind of hoping to head over to Harry Potter World so I could be back in time for us to have an early dinner. Don’t you have pageant stuff today?” I’m pretty sure she has a date with some spray tanner this afternoon. Her skin tone matches mine right now, and I know from experience that Ginny is usually at least four shades closer to orange when there’s a pageant on the horizon.
“Yes, and of course you can head right over there just as soon as you walk Buttercup. She hasn’t been out since early this morning. I can’t do it—I’m not allowed to leave the room without my sash on.”
I blink. “What?”
“Contestants can’t leave their hotel rooms unless they’re pageant-ready. Outside of this room, I have to wear my sash at all times.”
I don’t even know what to say, but suddenly the army of beauty queens from the elevator makes more sense. “That’s crazypants. It’s like you’re some kind of pageant hostage. Put your sash on, and take her out yourself.”
Ginny sighs. “Dramatic much? This isn’t some tiny regional pageant. Miss American Treasure is the big time. She’s a role model. You know that.”
I do. I probably know more about that than any of those chattering elevator girls.
“I can’t go out there like this,” she says.
“Fine.” I take the leash from her hands. She’s clearly in no condition to leave the room, although I would pay money to see an Instagram post of Ginny wearing the sash and her sheet mask at the same time.
“Thank you.” Her slender shoulders sag with relief. “I owe you one. We’ll have a great dinner tonight, I promise. It’ll be just like old times.”
I don’t believe her for a minute. When we were kids, our favorite dinners included sloppy joes and macaroni and cheese. I can’t remember the last time I saw a carb cross Ginny’s lips.
“Come on, Buttercup,” I mutter.
The portly little dog growls the entire time I’m attaching her leash to her sparkly pink collar. This should be lovely.
“We’ll be right back.” I cast a glance over my shoulder as
I lead Buttercup out the door, and Ginny catches my gaze in the mirror.
She gives me a little wave. I wave back, and for a moment, I go still. Rooted to the spot. Ginny’s sheet mask is gone, and her face is bare. Clean. It’s been a while since I’ve seen her makeup-free. Without the airbrushed foundation, the contouring and highlighting, the carefully lined lips and the double layers of false eyelashes, she looks a lot like me.
She looks exactly like me, actually. Same nose. Same eyes. Same heart-shaped face.
Because even though my sister has always been the pretty one, the beauty queen—the Jane Bennet to my Elizabeth, the Meg March to my Jo—she’s also my twin.