Little Miss Bird-in-Hand

Fiction by Annie Bilancini

 2013 BOOTH STORY PRIZE RUNNER-UP

Of a shade intermediate between black and white

The girls of the Little Miss Bird-in-Hand County Pageant instantly understood that Contestant Twelve was different, though they could not be certain why. To begin with, her parents were different from theirs. They were older. They did not preen their daughter like tropical birds. When they dropped her off at the dressing room, they lingered with stiff limbs in the doorway as though their coats were stuffed with newspaper and straw. The girl waved at them and smiled, gently shooing them off. After a moment they turned away, two hunks of stale putty shuffling down the hall, leaving their daughter alone with the other girls. Arabella Tornabene spoke first because Arabella Tornabene always spoke first.

“Girl, your parents are weird.” The girls eyed Contestant Twelve as she sat at her dressing mirror and arranged the contents of her toiletry bag on the table: a curling iron, pink lipstick, hairspray, needle nose pliers, a vial of glitter. She turned and smiled the same gentle smile she’d offered her parents.

“They’re engineers,” she said. Junie-Rae Wright scoffed, but the girls all knew Junie-Rae didn’t know what the word engineer meant.

“My dad is a salesman,” Arabella said proudly.

“What does he sell?” asked Contestant Twelve. Arabella considered her question, and a smirk bloomed on her face.

“Stuff your family probably can’t afford,” she said triumphantly. But Contestant Twelve’s congenial expression didn’t fade. The girls all leaned forward, expectant.

“That’s okay. My parents make everything we need anyway,” she said. Arabella’s mouth slackened like an old tire. The girl twisted the top off her tube of lipstick and turned back to the mirror. “My name is Gray,” she said to the reflections of the other girls in her mirror, “It’s nice to meet you all.”

 

Ms. Bondurant’s maternal instincts kick in

Glenna Bondurant, the pageant director, asked the girls to refer to her as Mama B. She told the girls she wanted them to think of her as a second mother during their time in the pageant (or only mother, since DeeDee Wessel-Fink had two fathers and Shira Whiteeagle’s mother had been killed in a car accident seven years back). To Mama B every girl was a winner, and she wanted them all to feel special despite the fact that only one girl could be crowned Little Miss Bird-in-Hand County, and the fact that this distinction might indicate that one girl was better than the rest and therefore more special; so special, in fact, that this particular girl was awarded a crown with real crystals and a $3,000 scholarship from Georgette Von George’s Tailored Fashions, the premiere fashion warehouse in all of Bird-in-Hand County.

No, in Mama B’s eyes, all the girls were equal, special.

 

The Tarkington Twins and the porousness of identity

Because they are identical twins, Charlene and Darlene Tarkington (contestants number four and five, respectively) have the luxury of an emotional and intellectual connection that most other adolescent girls cannot possess. They shared the same egg and the same placenta, which put them at a high risk for complications in utero, as well as during their mother’s twenty-six hour labor. But the danger they faced before they could even form memories created an indefatigable bond between them.

In line with popular perception, they can, in fact, predict what the other will say. They have and often do finish each other’s sentences. They menstruate at the same time. They suffer migraines simultaneously. They often fall into step when walking together. Their heart rate is frequently synchronized. They’re fairly certain they’ve involuntarily engaged in telepathy with one another. It’s a rather freaky business, but they are just that in tune.

The pranks started when they were very young. In order to tell her identical daughters apart, Mary-Margaret Tarkington would color code the twins: pink for Charlene and purple for Darlene. Every clothing article was coded from underwear to hair ties. The shenanigans started small. Charlene would wear Darlene’s lavender socks. Darlene would don Charlene’s fuchsia headband.  But after a time the switching grew bolder, more sinister, and the girls would completely switch places, purposefully deceiving their parents. They’d switch for weeks at a time, thrilled by the opportunity to play a different role. And their parents could never tell, which made it all the more exhilarating. For such a harmless, controllable pleasure, the high was indescribable. They continued to switch for years, learning to answer to either name, to play either part, to be either girl.

Years later when the twins are fifteen, their parents will divorce and mutually decide it will be good for the girls to function separately at times, so on alternating weekends the girls are split between the parents. It will be at this point that the twins come to a horrifying realization: they no longer actually know who is who. Charlene might be Darlene. Darlene could be Charlene. They will live their entire lives never truly knowing which twin they actually are.

 

Under the glowing spotlights of the Munificent Order of the Sons of the Frontier Lodge main stage

The girls lined up and waved to the cheering crowd as music from the five-disc CD changer and stereo system swelled. The Little Miss Bird-in-Hand County Pageant had officially begun. Colored strobe lights flashed and a smoke machine wheezed wet fog onto the stage and into the first few rows of the audience. When the music and the fog died down, Griff Klinghorn Jr., the master of ceremonies, walked to the center of the main stage. The rubber souls of his patent leather brogues squeaked on the waxed wooden stage. When he reached the center, he paused, his body burnished and still as marble. Then, slowly, reverently, he brought a silver microphone to his smooth-shaven chin. A breath in. And.

“Welcome!” he intoned, “Welcome one and all to the 66th annual Little Miss Bird-in-Hand County Pageant and Scholarship Competition!” The crowd roared. Griff Klinghorn Jr. outstretched his arms and leaned ever so slightly into their cheers. “This night is about celebrating the best and brightest our humble county has to offer. This night is about our girls, the future of Bird-in-Hand, the future of America!” The room erupted again. Parents, grandparents, generations of Bird-in-Hand county were packed into the Lodge assembly hall. Twelve thirteen-year-old girls stood before them bedecked in glittering gowns and kitten heels, radiant with youthful effervescence. The girl called Gray stood at the far left of the line beaming happily. The lights of the spotlight shone bright and hot on her face, and  he shutters of her eyes dilated till her irises were delicate copper rings. It was a lovely day to be a little miss.