Authors: Kirsten Hubbard
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Fiction, #General, #Family, #Family Life, #Siblings, #United States, #Sisters, #Friendship, #People & Places, #Schools, #Female Friendship, #High schools, #Best Friends, #Families, #Family problems, #Dysfunctional families, #Wyoming, #Families - Wyoming, #Family Life - Wyoming
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Text copyright © 2011 by Kirsten Hubbard
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.
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The winds in Washokey make people go crazy.
At least, that’s what everybody says. Our part of Wyoming is plagued by winds: hot winds, cold winds, dry winds, wildwinds. Wildwinds are the worst. Not only do they torment us from the outside, but they also seem to bluster inside us: battering around in our lungs, whistling through our capillaries.
I wouldn’t be surprised if some of that wind blew into the passageways of our brains.
On the afternoon of my last beauty pageant, almost eight years ago, the wildwinds had already begun. That was what got into me, I like to think: I acted crazy that day because my head was filled with wind.
But that doesn’t explain why that afternoon sticks in my memory like a tumbleweed blown against a barbed wire fence no matter how much I would like to forget it. It’s because two of the biggest events in my history came gusting together at once: I saw Mandarin Ramey for the first time. And Momma gave up on me for good.
How I despised those beauty pageants. The judges with white teeth and orange skin. The itchy dresses like bathtub poufs. The makeup lacquered on my face, and the shoes binding my feet like those of the Chinese concubines in my chapter book
Women of Faraway Lands
. The usual girls screeching the same three songs—“I Feel Pretty,” the national anthem, and “Home on the Range.”
Instead of singing, I recited historic speeches. When paired with my classic cuteness, it made me just unusual enough to stand out. I won plaques and trophies. A bowling ball airbrushed with wild mustangs. Gift certificates to restaurants with names like the L & L Hitchin’ Post Inn and the Cow Town Café. Momma entered me in every pageant within two hundred miles, and some even farther away than that. We’d spent the majority of my early life on the road, zigzagging through the state in Momma’s little pink hatchback, from Sundance to Saddlestring, Evanston to Medicine Bow.
The final act of my pageant career could have happened in any one of those places. But to Momma’s everlasting humiliation, I screwed up in our own backyard.
Little Miss Washokey, Wyo., Pageant
—as the butcher paper banner affixed to the stage read—was held every spring on our school’s great lawn. I’d turn seven later that month, which meant the stakes were high: Momma said the winner of the Little Miss Washokey pageant would be eligible for the tri-county pageant in Benton. After that came the state pageant in Cheyenne. And after that, the nationals, which just might make me world famous.
Our talents had been showcased, our speeches recited, our hypothetical questions answered, and the dozen or so of us were packed onstage for the grand finale, which consisted of us bopping in our clashing dresses to music rasping from a tape deck. The wildwinds plucked at the curls of our hair, tugged at our skirts. Momma had pinned a lilac bloom behind my ear, and the wind tore it away.
I remember watching it whirl across the stage like a paper boat caught in an eddy of rainwater, my mouth hanging open.
That was probably when the wind got in.
In the beginning, pageants had been fun for me. Well, maybe not the pageants themselves, but everything that went with them: our exciting road trips, shopping and prepping, all that special time with Momma. But as each pageant season came and went, Momma grew more serious. Or maybe she didn’t—maybe she’d always been dead serious about the pageants, and at almost seven, I was finally old enough to realize it.
Either way, as I watched my purple flower gust over the edge of the stage and disappear, I knew I wanted the fun back.
Momma never forgave me for what I did next.
I gathered the front of my yellow dress with both hands and, to her absolute horror, flipped it over my head.
The audience—parents, schoolteachers, old folks with nothing better to do—gasped in unison. And maybe they sucked in too much wind themselves, because they all began to laugh. Their laughter encouraged me. Whoever was managing the tape deck cranked up the volume, and the other girls stopped dancing to watch as I bounced and skipped and twirled, waving my dress in the air. I kicked over the microphone stand with a bang. I even turned and shook my lacy white bottom.
Clutching at her lopsided french braid, Momma stumbled over the folding metal chairs and the people in them, her face puckered with fury. She marched onstage, shoved down my dress, and latched on to my arm. She didn’t let go until she had dragged me around the corner of the old brick schoolhouse.
“What’s gotten into you, Grace?” Her face was inches from mine. “Why’d you have to go and do that?”
I licked my lips and tasted Vaseline. “Spring fever,” I suggested.
Momma usually chuckled at what she called my precocious remarks. But that time, she just mashed her lips together and shook her head.
“I’ve told you showing your panties in public is obscene. What were you thinking? You knew how important this pageant was! But you decided to make a fool of yourself in front of
and humiliate me, you, the entire family …”
Momma and I
the entire family. I stuck out my bottom lip and nodded at appropriate intervals, hoping she would hurry up and finish yelling so we could get home. Momma scolded me often, but we always hugged and made up.
It was then I noticed Mandarin Ramey.
Of course, I didn’t know she was Mandarin, not yet. She was just a strange girl, standing a few yards away beneath a cottonwood tree, staring openly at us.
In one hand she held a lilac bloom. Her other hand was stuffed into the pocket of her jeans—boys’ jeans, with patches on the knees. Dirt smudged her wind-chapped cheeks. Her skin was darkly tanned, but her eyes were pale hazel, the color of a glass of tea held up to the light. Her tangled black hair seemed to catch the wind, to ride it, like Pocahontas in the Disney movie. She looked like one of those feral children, raised by wolves or worse.
She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
Momma’s voice pierced through my trance. “Are you listening to me?” She gave me a shake. “Have you heard a single word I’ve said?”
Again I glanced at the strange girl, the girl who was Mandarin Ramey, searching her eyes for contempt. But her expression was unreadable. I wondered if she’d seen me flip up my dress. I hadn’t felt embarrassed until then.
“Beauty pageants are stupid,” I said to Momma. “What’s the point?”
She yanked her hands from me as if my skin had turned scalding hot. It took her a second to regain composure. Then she seized my shoulder with crablike pincers and hustled me toward the car, her whole face crimson.
I felt sorry for a second. But then I risked one last awestruck glance back.
The girl twisted the lilac between two fingers, flicking the pale purple bloom back and forth. Her ink-flower hair shifted and danced in the wind. She stared steadily back at me, holding my eyes as if by an invisible length of chain—binding me to her, even then.
My little sister, Taffeta, peered through a kaleidoscope as we walked to school, her face tipped back, her exposed eye squinched shut. She’d found it in the alley behind Arapahoe Court. Since she refused to give me her hand to hold, I led her by the mitten clipped to the sleeve of her red plaid jacket.
“Stop pulling, Grace,” she complained. “My mitten’s gonna get yanked off.”
“Then pay attention to where you’re going.”
With her eye still pressed to the battered tube, Taffeta shook her head. She looked like a cat with its head stuck in a Pringles can.
“Fine,” I said, releasing her mitten. “If you slip in a patch of slush and crack open your head, don’t come bawling to me, all right?”
There wasn’t any slush left, though. A few weeks earlier it had clogged the gutters like congealed fat, but by now the last of it had melted.
No matter the season, Taffeta always dragged her feet during our morning walk. She hated school with a passion I never could understand. Her kindergarten classmates adored her, just like the judges of every beauty pageant she entered. She had immense brown eyes and hair the color of baby-duck feathers. A legendary music in her voice. People approached us on Main Street all the time just to hear her speak—which my mother loved.
“Everybody just wishes they had a gift like hers,” Momma often said.
As a child, I’d resembled Taffeta, even though we were just half sisters. But whatever in me had appealed to pageant judges had long since vanished. My childhood softness had become a skinny awkwardness, as if my fourteen-year-old self had been nailed together from colt legs and collarbones. My hair was the yellowy tan of oak furniture. I french-braided it every morning to ward off the wind, but pieces always broke free and whipped my face like Medusa coils.
“Taffeta?” I called, realizing she was no longer beside me.
I found her crouched beside a fire-ant pile, using her kaleidoscope to poke at the few creatures braving the early-spring air. Twin splotches of mud soiled the knees of her white tights. I sighed, knowing that Momma would find a way to blame the mess on me.
“Taffeta, get up,” I ordered.
“Don’t call me Taffeta. Call me Taffy and I’ll come.”
“Taffy’s awful,” I said, although I didn’t think much of Taffeta, either.
“If you don’t get up, I’ll freak out.”
I started toward her. But my boot skidded in a slick spot, and I had to grab the chain-link fence so I wouldn’t fall. I glanced around wildly and decided nobody saw.
“I need to tie my shoe,” Taffeta said.
She refused to let me tie them for her, so I crossed my arms and waited. I could already see the school building all the kids in Washokey shared: a faded brick rectangle from the olden days, set against a panorama of dry hills and open range. Endless space. A dead planet.
I’d wandered through the Washokey Badlands Basin so many times I’d memorized the feeling. The forlorn boom of wind. A sky big enough to scare an atheist into prayer. No wonder cowboys sang about being lonesome. Yet somehow, I felt part of something significant out there, collecting mountains whittled into stones to carry with me, like pocket amulets.
I dug in my tote bag until I found that day’s stone: a hunk of white quartz the size of a Ping-Pong ball. It wasn’t anything special, but I liked the feel of it. Rounded on one side, rough on the other, small enough for me to close my fist around it.
“Done,” Taffeta announced.
I grabbed her wrist, ignoring her protests as I towed her schoolward.
Like always, we paused at the edge of the great lawn, still glittering from that morning’s watering. But my stomach knotted up even more than usual. The winners of the All-American Essay Contest would be announced in homeroom.
“Can’t I go with you today?” Taffeta asked. “I’ll be good, Grace, I promise. I hate school. Todd at my table looks up my dress.”
“You know you can’t come with me. Just keep your legs crossed like Momma told you.”
Taffeta scowled at me. “School is horseshit.”
My jaw dropped. Before I could demand where she’d heard that word, Taffeta scampered off toward the other kindergartners, brandishing her kaleidoscope. They swarmed around her like ants to a fallen bit of candy.
I remained awhile longer, squeezing my quartz stone and watching the high school students on the other side of the lawn. At the beginning of the year, administration had decided I belonged with the sophomores, a year ahead of my class, instead of with the kids my age. Like I could possibly fit in any less.
It was as if all the other students spoke some language no one had ever taught me. The pretty girls, who squealed with laughter. The monkey-armed guys in cowboy hats, who never looked my way. The wholesome farm kids, like glasses of milk, and the bored bad kids, who made their own fun. I didn’t even fit in with the so-called brainy kids—the handful of them—because either they knew how to fake it, to stand out in a
way, or they were weird. Like Davey Miller, who thought wearing socks with sandals was the greatest idea since Velcro.
The bell rang, and the other kids headed for the double doors. I knew that Mandarin Ramey probably wasn’t among them, but I searched for her anyway.
My homeroom and history teacher, Ms. Ingle, was proud to be an American. She plastered proof on every available surface. Even the ceiling was a crazy quilt of glossy rectangles, blazing with stripes, spangles, pictures of presidents, and a massive map of Wyoming, emblazoned with
The Equality State
in four-inch fancy letters. Her boyfriend, Mr. Mason, ran the Washokey Historical Society, located in a trailer parked behind the gas station. I’d spent all ten hours of fall’s community service project there, organizing sepia-colored photographs of covered wagons and surly pioneers.
Although I liked Ms. Ingle, sometimes I found myself sneering at our forefathers or extending my middle finger, unseen, in my lap.
Then I felt guilty, as if George Washington were hiding underneath my desk.
Davey Miller tapped my shoulder. He sat behind me and was always trying to make conversation. “What’s up, Davey?” I asked.
“I forgot to give your pencil back yesterday,” he said, blinking hard.
The blinking was a nervous tic. It made him appear forever on the verge of tears. His little sister, Miriam, was the same age as Taffeta. When Davey dropped her off to play, he often lingered in my kitchen to talk until I fabricated some excuse to make him leave.
“Keep it, Davey,” I told him. “I’ve got plenty.”
Before he could say anything else, Alexis Bunker, who sat to my right, backhanded me across the shoulder. Washokey High mixed kids of all grades in homerooms, and just my luck, Alexis and I had been placed together.
“Grace, guess what!” she squealed. “Did you hear?”
Alexis had squinty blue eyes, freckle-prone skin, and blond hair she’d hot-curled so many times for the regional teen pageants it looked like frayed twine. The summer before, she’d sprouted an enormous chest, and it amused me to watch her attempt to navigate around it. Since our mothers had been best friends since their childhoods, Alexis and I had also considered ourselves best friends until we started high school and realized we had nothing in common. At lunch, I still sat with Alexis and her cronies—aka Alexis & Co.—only because I had no sophomore friends to sit with. Most friendships in Washokey were founded on circumstance, not connection.
“Did I hear what?” I asked, rubbing my shoulder.
“Mandarin Ramey got caught sneaking into the school pool last night with some older guy. Paige’s sister Brandi’s boyfriend was out taking his dog for a walk and he saw. He says the guy must’ve been like thirty. Ain’t she a slut?”
I feigned disinterest as Alexis colored in the details. Nothing she said could shock me, of course. I knew more about Mandarin than anyone.
“Well, ain’t she?” Alexis insisted.
I touched the rock in my jacket pocket. “She is,” I agreed.
Because that was one of the two truths everybody knew about Mandarin Ramey:
1) Mandarin was beautiful
2) Mandarin was a slut
The loudspeaker beeped, and Alexis swung forward in her seat, clunking her beige cowboy boots in front of her. Washokey kids wore all kinds of cowboy boots: stiff and new, creased and battered, bright-colored and fashionable. Alexis’s boots, though, were the only ones with spurs.
“May I have your attention, please. May I have your attention, please.”
Mr. Beck, the principal, requested our attention twice during morning announcements. He wanted to take full advantage of his daily five minutes of fame. Usually, I ignored him with the rest of the class, but that day I stared straight at the speaker, a black circle like a pupil with no eye around it.
“Good morning, everyone, on this terrific Tuesday, April tenth, with the temperature in the low sixties. This is your principal, Mr. Beck.”
“Beck’s stuck in the sixties,” a guy called from the back of the class.
“Ha, yeah, I bet he’s taking a puff of the dooja right now,” called another.
With perfect timing, Mr. Beck coughed. Everybody laughed except Ms. Ingle, who opened her mouth and then closed it.
“First news of the day,” Mr. Beck continued. “I’m pleased to announce I have the winners of the All-American Essay Contest, kindly funded by the members of Washokey’s 4-H and Kiwanis organizations, right here on this paper in front of me. Hold on to your seats!”
I curled my fingers around the bottom of my seat. My essay flashed before my eyes like a reel of microfilm, each paragraph flipping by with an imaginary tick. Certain sentences hopped out at me, the turns of phrase I’d wrangled like rodeo calves. I’d written exactly what I thought would win me the grand-prize trip.
“Third place and twenty-five dollars goes to Becky Pepper, junior.”
Becky Pepper was a 4-H kid, bused in from one of the farms or ranches that made up Washokey’s unincorporated south. I suspected she’d written about the history of beef breeding or dairy science, something the judges would love.
“Second place and fifty dollars goes to—”
Mr. Beck coughed again. I sat very still.
“Grace Carpenter, sophomore. And one hundred dollars and admission to the three-week All-American Leadership Conference in Washington, D.C., goes to our very own junior-class president, Peter Shaw! Congratulations, Peter.”
My heart plummeted to the soles of my feet as I watched the other kids mob Peter. They mussed up his hair, snatched at his glasses. When Ms. Ingle went over to congratulate him, I couldn’t stand it any longer. I snaked my arm through the strap of my tote bag. Unnoticed in the confusion, I rushed out of the classroom.