To get out of here, you first need to find a way out of the Ellistown Zoo, home of the pageant, where “A Holly Jolly Christmas” is blaring through the blown speakers. Then out of Ellistown itself, where the only thing that awaits you is a daughter of your own on this very stage, fresh from her braces, fatted collarbone beneath a hand-sewn dress and spackle of freckles. Your head starts to buzz like the time you drank all the wine coolers at Mary Elizabeth’s pool party at the Holiday Inn, though this time it’s less pleasant.
Rick is standing at the bottom of the stairs with flowers, and you pretend not to hear the other girls snicker behind their acrylic nails. You look up at the sky, desperately wishing on an invisible shooting star: please let that mascara they shared give them pink eye.
Rick is Ellistown personified. You are all at once protective and ashamed of him. He is not your ticket out. He’s like the leftover snow on the ground – whatever might have been invisible under a rime of salt and dirt. You let him help you down, though, and navigate the rough ground in unfamiliar shoes.
He’s still there with the blue and white carnations, choked at their leaves from his hot, nicotine stained hands, when you emerge in a flannel shirt to offset your full face of makeup.
You’re the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, he says.
Don’t be hyperbolic, you tell him.
I’m not hyperwhatever, he says, pausing to spit.
You cross your arms in front of yourself because a breeze has started to weave its way through the thousands of strings of twinkle lights over the stage. Let’s take a walk, he says. So you do.
It’s dark out and the animals are sleeping in their pens. In some places the shit smells right, not unlike cows, and in others you hold uneasy breaths. The bears and the cats are hiding, but the bulk of the yak and the moose can be seen in the dim.
The caribou are awake and eating, white vests flashing in the night. You wonder if it’s cold enough for them; if they miss the wild, white north or if this fresh hell is close enough. You can hear the call and response of Missy Durban, this year’s winner, and her court through the trees, and you try to push Rick ahead.
Lookit their horns, he says. It’s like they don’t know which way to go.
You follow his hand, and you see a chariot, a space wide and strong enough to carry you away.
You imagine a dark VFW hall full of mounted heads – teenage beauty queens amid the camouflage vests, choking on Wild Turkey and smoke.
Rick leans in to kiss you, but you imagine you hold an antler in each hand, weapons to push the here and now away.
Wait, he says. You know I love you. You know you want this.
Of course I do, you tell him. It’s just not the same this. No one in Ellistown knows what you know: it will never be the same.
Camille Griep lives and writes north of Seattle. Her recent work has been featured in Wyvern Lit, WhiskeyPaper, and Synaesthesia, among other fine journals. She is a senior editor at The Lascaux Review. Her first novel, an epistolary fairy tale, is forthcoming July 2015.