I press a hand to my stomach and breathe deeply, mentally placing my personal turmoil on the back burner. Today I am one thousand percent focused on Birdie.

And I have the distinct desire to help her kick some ass.

I can feel eyes on me as I carry my suitcase down the stairs, all the way to my Range Rover, where I stow it in the back. So much for putting turmoil on the back burner. By the time I close the hatch, my entire body is covered in goosebumps and I’m having a hard time swallowing. Perhaps ironically, I dig deep for my own pageant poise and walk toward the house, pausing when Birdie and Jason pile out, plastic-covered dresses draped over their arms, tote bags likely containing makeup and shoes slung in the crooks of their elbows.

It’s almost impossible, but I avoid eye contact with Jason and paste a broad smile on my face, reaching out to take some of the burden. “And how are we feeling today, Ms. Birdie?”

“Er…vomity?”

“That’s perfectly natural.” I shoulder a tote bag and reach for more. “There will be vomit receptacles backstage.”

Birdie blinks. “You’re kidding.”

“I never joke about vomit,” I say, winking, feeling like an actress in a play about my life before Florida. But it’s working. It’s pushing me from point A to B. Encompassing Birdie and an inscrutable Jason with a brisk look, I turn on a heel toward my Rover. “I’ll bring this stuff in my car and meet you there. Let’s go make magic!”

As soon as I’m behind the wheel with the engine started, I deflate a little, then perk back up. Keep going. Keep moving. It’s a twenty-minute drive to the pageant venue and we arrive in the parking lot at the same time. Jason insists on carrying the entire haul of clothing and beauty equipment to the rear entrance, Birdie and I taking over from there. In a scene straight out of my memories, backstage is a chaotic whirlwind. Teenage girls huddle in half-naked groups, their overly caffeinated mothers trying to apply makeup from awkward angles, unplugged curling irons tucked under their arms like weapons. Ready to be plugged into the closest outlet and used at the drop of a hat.

Two girls I recognize as Pastel Hell in Heels jog past, stopping to drop kisses onto Birdie’s cheeks, wishing her good luck. She repeats well wishes back to them, her shouldering relaxing somewhat at their easy acceptance over her being there. I want to run after them and smother them in hugs, but I’m distracted by the pageant director marching through the fray with a clipboard. She rattles off call times and answers questions with her pen lifted gracefully.

“Is it too late to back out?” Birdie drones.

“Yes. Come on.”

We weave through dozens of brightly made-up girls who stare at Birdie with open curiosity—and it’s no wonder, since she’s wearing a Guns & Roses T-shirt with the sleeves cut off so wide, the sides of her bra are visible. “Why is everyone ready so early?” She whispers to me as we pick our way to our assigned preparation area, complete with beauty station and changing room. “The pageant doesn’t start for two hours.”

“To socialize. Network. Learn each other’s weaknesses. Maybe catch sight of the judges on the way in and gauge their moods. Anything to gain an advantage.”

She falls into the padded chair. “You didn’t think we’d benefit from any of that?”

I wink at her. “No one benefits from waking you up early, Birdie.”

“Not even I could sleep with Jason pacing back and forth until the sun came up.”

My hands pause in the act of removing Birdie’s beauty kit from the tote bag. “Oh.” My heart has shot up into my mouth, but I settle the case on the smooth, lacquer surface and brighten. “Can I get you a coffee before we get started, then? Have you eaten? We want to make sure we keep your blood sugar in range.”

Birdie gives me a measured look. “Excuse me, but this is fucked.”

“Birdie Bristow,” I admonish without heat. “We really do need to get you ready.”

“I’m no masterpiece, but we totally don’t need two hours.” She tugs on the neck of her shirt, her movements restless. “You came here for a new perspective. An adventure. Didn’t you find that? Didn’t you have one?”

“Yes,” I whisper.

“And you’re content with that? Finding something and somewhere that makes you happy and being satisfied just to know it exists.” She shakes her head at me, like I’m a difficult math problem. “I don’t get that. I don’t get why you wouldn’t hang on to something that makes you happy. Won’t you miss it?”

“Every day.”

“Then don’t.” Her eyebrows slash together. “Don’t miss it. Hold on to it.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“Why can’t it be, Naomi?” Silence stretches between us, filled in by the muffled chatter of other contestants. “Why can’t it be as simple as keeping what and who makes you happy?”

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