“I promise I’m not sneaking in without paying,” I reassure the grandmother wearing the Cayleigh is My Shining Star T-shirt. “Just trying to find someone…”

I spy Jason leaning against the back wall about twenty yards away. His arms are crossed over his mighty chest, and Lord, if he doesn’t look more uncomfortable in his surroundings than a bear at the opera. As if sensing me, his gaze cuts in my direction and stays there. He doesn’t wave, smile or come to meet me. We just watch each other through the excited conversation of the crowd. It goes against everything inside me not to run to him, but I understand what he’s trying to communicate. Last night was our goodbye. No sense in making it any harder.

My legs are unsteady beneath me as I turn back toward the side exit and shove through, out into the heat. It raises the temperature of my chilled skin somewhat, but nowhere near enough. My only hope is I appear confident as I rejoin Birdie in time for the director to start calling names.

“He’s against the back wall. Just to the right of the entrance.”

Birdie exhales. “I knew he wouldn’t sit.”

“He’s fine. Focus on the intro.”

Watching Birdie walk through the curtain from the side of the stage minutes later is almost surreal. She’s wearing black workout gear with silver studs running along the seams…and a pair of red Converse. On stage, the spotlight bathes her and she smiles radiantly into the white beam while her name is trilled over the loudspeaker, along with her hometown, her age, her hobbies—avoiding organized social activities—and the fact that it’s her first pageant, which draws murmurs from the crowd. When Birdie told me she’d omitted any mention of her sister in the paperwork, I worried it would be a mistake. That she’d want that recognition for Natalie when the time came. I can see now why she did it. Why she decided to hold that mission close to herself. It’s too sacred to share with a room full of people who didn’t know the weight Natalie carried. They would forget it by tomorrow.

True to my own word, the next hour is a blur. After the introductions, we strip Birdie out of her fitness outfit and zip her into an asymmetrical, black and purple sequined gown with a retro vibe. I comb her hair to one side and clip it, curling the ends while she reapplies eye shadow, completing the look. Some of the girls in the room have a hair stylist and makeup artist, in addition to their mothers, but I think Birdie would have gone crazy with that many cooks in the kitchen. Or at least I tell myself that so I don’t feel so woefully inadequate.

“Jesus. You need a glass of Sauvignon Blanc.”

At Birdie’s words, I take my first breath in what must be an hour. “You know my drink of choice, too?”

“Jason stores the case of wine he had delivered in my closet.” She blots her lipstick. “Probably so you won’t see it and realize he’s been a goner since your job interview.”

Time slows down, my pulse walloping me at all the crucial pressure points. “Why did you have to go and tell me that?”

“You’re right. That was mean.” She visibly braces when her name is called from the stage entrance. Not for the first time, I notice Birdie seems kind of distracted, instead of nervous. Like she’s trying to work out a puzzle. “Um. Okay, coach. We are go for the evening gown portion.”

I snap back to the here and now, just as the music begins to pump in the theater loud enough to shake the walls. Little pockets of cheers go up as contestants begin walking the stage and Birdie rushes to the stage entrance to wait in line. “Dazzle them,” I say lamely, trying furiously not to think of the fact that Jason ordered me a case of wine. What is the deal with my composure falling apart over wine? Honestly, Naomi.

Before I know it, the evening gown portion is over and we’re backstage, changing Birdie’s dress once again for the question and answer round. Her dance partner, Turner, has texted me that he has arrived and is waiting in the area designated for men, so I tick that item off my list of things to stress about. He might have been kind of a jerk, but at least he’s completing his end of the bargain. Probably because I have his final payment in my purse.

Around me and Birdie, mothers quietly read practice questions from flash cards while daughters shake out their limbs, close their eyes and try to get in the zone. It’s so familiar to me, I get a knot in my throat and I give myself a moment to look around. I enjoy this world. It’s a lot like me, in a way, isn’t it? Pretty, frivolous and kind of silly on the outside, but behind the scenes, there’s a whole host of insecurities and pressure to say the right thing, be what everyone expects. Most of the girls scattered backstage have flawless grade point averages and interests that extend far beyond pageants. They’re here to rack up scholarship money and if people find that frivolous then they can go stuff a sock where the sun doesn’t shine.

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