Bewildering Stories

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The Pageant

by Charles Richard Laing

The tension in the filled-to-capacity auditorium was mounting. It was almost a physical entity, a thick and oppressive creature that wrapped itself around the nervous young contestants as tightly as the beautiful designer gowns they were all privileged to wear for the finale.

The pageant was almost over. Fifty of the most beautiful young girls in the country had been winnowed down to a handful. The just-announced Second Runner Up was Miss Iowa, a perky brunette from Sioux City who — during the talent competition — had performed a memorable dramatic reading of an obscure poem by Lord Byron. What had most impressed the judges was that she recited the poem both verbally and in sign language for the hearing-impaired pageant fans.

The camera locked on the two remaining contestants. They were clutching each other tightly, an embrace borne more of desperation than affection. Of the pair, one would walk away with all the glory while the other would fade away into obscurity.

Miss Tennessee was the taller and more graceful of the pair, but Miss Oregon flashed the brave smile that had melted the hearts of at least four of the judges. At this point, the contest appeared to be a tossup. It would take a degree in mathematics to break down the scores of the two contestants that had flashed across the bottom of the television screen throughout the broadcast.

It was a dead heat.

“Are you nervous, ladies?” the genial host asked, trying to milk the moment for all it was worth. The contestants could only nod. The host — after making a subtle adjustment on the positioning of his toupee — turned to the camera and held up the sealed envelope containing the name of the winner. He took a deep breath. The world took a deep breath with him. Then he tore open the envelope and pulled out the card.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the host solemnly proclaimed. “I hold in my hand the name of the first runner-up. Please allow me to stress the importance of our first runner-up. If — for any reason — our winner is unable to fulfill her obligations, then our first runner up will assume the crown. Now, without further ado, I will reveal the name of our first runner-up...”

The percussionist in the orchestra pit started a thundering drum roll. The host let it build. He blinked. He silently read the name again. Then he spoke.

“Our first runner-up is..... Jane Temple, Miss Oregon! Our winner, and the new Miss Patriot, is Samantha Wells, Miss Tennessee!”

On cue, the orchestra started to play the familiar theme song. On stage, hugs and kisses were exchanged as the old Miss Patriot handed her crown over to the radiant new Miss Patriot. Next came the sash, followed by a lovely bouquet of flowers.

While the slightly off-key host started to croon, the newly crowned Miss Patriot began her reign by walking down the runway.

Voicing their love and approval, the audience rose to its feet and cheered the American beauty. As she strode gracefully forward, Samantha waved shyly to the crowd, all the while battling to fight back the tears that welled up in her flashing green eyes. Before she made it halfway down the runway she realized she was fighting a losing battle. Giving in to her emotions, joyous tears started to trickle down her flushed cheeks.

She managed to take three more steps before a strange feeling of lightheadedness stopped her in her tracks. Suddenly the world seemed to swirl around her. She raised her white-gloved left hand to her forehead in an attempt to ward off the strange sense of vertigo. She placed her right hand on her cheek.

Her right hand felt nothing. There was just an empty space. Her cheek had dissolved beneath her tears. Her mouth was gone as well, along with most of her chin. She moaned deep in her throat as she felt herself melt away in front of a billion viewers.

She tried to stop crying, but before she could control the streaming waterworks, it was too late. By the time the panicked pageant officials reached the spot where she had fallen, all they found were her shoes, the flowers, the sash, the gloves and the crown.

And the dress. The beautiful designer gown.

The host — knowing that the show must go on — reached down and picked up the crown. After drying it on his tux, he placed it tenderly on the head of Miss Oregon.

Fortunately, Miss Oregon was too stunned to cry.

Copyright © 2005 by Charles Richard Laing

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