The big question was where she had even gotten the matches. Her mother didn’t smoke, the pageant was at a convention center, not a hotel. She couldn’t have brought them from home. Natalie’s parents were careful; no outlet uncovered, no corner without its protective casing. Their house looked like a Lysol ad: clean, white, sterile. But somehow Natalie had got those matches, and somehow she had managed to strike one just right across that raspy strip on the back (a feat her father had never been able to manage) and light her pretty blond hair on fire, hair her mother had just a few minutes before finished encasing in a thick film of Aqua Net. Her mother’s back was turned for a minute to get the makeup kit.
“It was only a minute,” she said, lip quivering, cradling Natalie’s blistered bald head in her lap.
The woman running the pageant had never seen anything like it. Little girls screaming, eyeliner running down their chubby cheeks making them all look like Alice Cooper. This was going to ruin her, just ruin her. She yelled for her assistant to call 911, had the stage manager move the mother and child to another room, knew she would have to convince everyone the show should go on. She couldn’t afford another debacle like the Pretty Woman incident the year before – not that this could even compare to that.
She clapped her hands at the front of the room and called out, “Everyone! Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen!” Everyone turned toward her, the mothers with Kleenex held to their children’s faces, the little girls trying valiantly to stop their tears. “We’ve called 911 and they’re on their way. But the show must go on! Please continue with your preparations and we’ll come back for you shortly. Any questions?”
One hand raised. “Will we get a few extra minutes to redo makeup?”
The EMTs arrived as the competition was starting, and the bass thump of “When I Grow Up” pulsated through the door as they took vitals and assessed the situation. Todd, who had just started a month ago, worried that he had mistaken some of the beats from the music for the beats of Natalie’s heart and took her blood pressure three times before calling it. It didn’t look good.
Natalie’s head looked like it was covered with a shower cap and he remembered his own little girl, Maizie, and how one time he had thrown a cigarette butt into the driveway while he worked on the car and she’d stepped on it in her bare feet and how she howled, how accountable he’d felt, how he’d vowed to quit smoking. An hour later, though, Maizie happily running around with her Hello Kitty Band-Aid on her foot, he’d lit up another one and cracked a can of Miller Lite.
He told Natalie’s mother that she would be fine. “You’d be surprised how tough kids are.” He helped load Natalie onto the stretcher and gently took her mother by the elbow, shielding her and her daughter from the News 4 reporter hovering at the ambulance.
Jennylynn Murphy tried to put that poor girl out of her mind, concentrating instead on pantomiming her daughter Destynie’s dance routine. She really did feel bad thinking it, and she’d be sure to tell her friends that later, how bad she felt, but with Natalie out of the pageant Destynie had basically no competition. She won every pageant where Natalie wasn’t entered and Jennylynn just knew this was her time to shine. Destynie’s time, that is. She wasn’t one of those crazy moms living through her daughter. She had her own life. She winced when Destynie stepped right instead of left and then tried to correct it. She’d have to go over that – again – with her tonight in the hotel room. She watched Destynie shimmy across the stage and imagined print ads, TV commercials, Disney. She smiled rapturously. Mis-step or no, Jennylynn had this in the bag.
Susan Watson from News 4 had tried to get the EMT’s attention for a sound bite, but everyone ignored her. She had been disappointed when once again she was assigned to the human interest cotton candy piece. Especially this one. Susan’s childhood memories were all of long road trips, the smell of industrial-strength hairspray and jazz hands. She had gone so far as to argue with her manager about this story.
“Don’t you think the pageant thing is a little overdone?” she’d said, pitching instead a piece about how the mill in town was dumping tons of waste into the river. And now she finally had a chance to be there for a big story, fate had worked in her favor and handed her the story that could get her career off the ground, and she’d blown it. She should have been more aggressive. Mitch McCormick would have elbowed his way right up to the mother and gotten not only a quote but a moving visual of the disfigured, critically injured girl. She guessed that’s what made Mitch anchor, and her pageant-girl.
Susan finished up at the pageant, interviewed the little girl who won (and despite the mother spelling the name three times, Susan would still turn it in as “Destiny”), retrieved her coat and walked alone to her car. She slid a Virginia Slim from the pack, patting her pockets down, searching her purse, stamping her foot. She’d lost another goddamn book of matches.
Marlena Clark is a Maine native living in Boston and a recent graduate of the MFA program at Emerson College. Her work has appeared in Scissors and Spackle and Pilgrimage. She currently searches for glimpses of home in the wilds of the city while working on her first novel. You can find her online at www.marlenaclark.com.