The short ride back to their own hotel from the big hotel where the beauty pageant had been held, was like a silent ride through an icy landscape in a car full of snowmen. Darla sat with eyes closed, picturing how Mommy and Daddy would look if they were really snowmen. All white. Maybe Daddy would have an old corn cob pipe jammed in between teeth made from little lumps of coal. Maybe Mommy's eyes would be buttons with four holes in them. Maybe she would have a piece of fabric tied under her chin instead of the very blonde hair she always wore piled up on top of her head like a...
Mommy's voice cut through Darla's thoughts like a knife. The car had stopped, and Daddy was opening the door.
"Take Katie up to the room and give her a bath. Daddy and I will be home later."
Darla took her still silently crying little sister by the hand and pulled her out of the car. Outside the lights from the hotel entrance made the rain-wet pavement glitter around their feet. A porter was already getting ready to open the doors.
"Mommy... I am hungry, and Katie..."
"There was a very generous buffet at the pageant, Darla! And I told you to eat! If you didn't eat enough, you can go hungry. And don't you dare call room service! Katie can have some of the biscuits from the drawer."
Darla opened her mouth to speak, but Daddy slammed the car door shut.
"We'll be home when you are asleep", he said. Darla could only just hear the rest of the sentence over the sound of the engine, speeding up. "... and you'd better be asleep!"
Darla nodded, mostly to herself, and sighed deeply. Katie made a long wailing sound, and tugged at Darla's hand.
"I am coooold", she cried. Darla looked down on the small, upturned face. Mascara was running down the round cheeks, and a false eyelash clung to her little nose like a deformed spider.
"Yeah", she said. "Me too. Let's go inside."
They rode the elevator up to the seventh floor. Katie was still sobbing; racking, painful sobs that made her little body shake. Darla patted her on the head, awkwardly, and sighed.
"Mommy didn't mean all those nasty things she said", hearing how hollow and false it sounded. "She was just tired."
Katie didn't answer. Just kept crying.
Darla still remembered how those sobs felt; how they hurt, deep, deep inside. How the throat closed and wouldn't let air in, and how she had wished that she would fall to the floor, dying. Maybe if she was dying Mommy would stop lashing her with those hateful words... "You never pay attention! You let us down, all the time. Loser! Underachiever!"
Darla shivered, and squeezed Katie's hand as the elevator stopped on their floor, and the doors opened. "Come on", she said. "Let's get you into a nice, warm bath."
Darla cleaned the make-up from her baby sister's face, and fed her three biscuits while they sat on the big couch, Katie wrapped in a large fluffy towel. Her hair, moussed and sprayed and made into elaborate locks and curls for the show, had been washed and combed, and the plastic dentures had been taken out. Katie didn't smile, but at least she had stopped crying. Her little body was quite still against Darla's chest; only the chewing sound betrayed the fact that she was still awake.
So... Katie hadn't won the pageant. She hadn't even made third. She had stumbled on the catwalk, and she had forgotten to turn the right way when she walked back to the line, after presenting. That had made her trip and almost fall. Darla had watched in horror from the wings, stealing quick glances at Mommy, seeing her tight jaw and white knuckles. Oh, she knew what lay in store for Katie now. She remembered. Days without being looked at or talked with. No playing outside, and no watching tv: only training and rehearsing, and all the time the diamond voice, cold and sharp cutting her into tiny pieces of unhappy. And all she ever wanted to do was to please Mommy.
Nightmares always came to haunt her when she knew Mommy would not come if she called. They still did. Darla hugged Katie a bit closer, and rested her chin on her head. Katie was so small. Darla had also been this small then. 6 years was no age to be so unhappy. Nor was 12.
Katie sighed deeply, a shivering, tired sigh.
"Darla?" she said, and squirmed to get her arms out of the towel. "Will you show me how to turn around so's I don't trip?"
"Not now, Katie! I don't wanna train catwalk now."
"Tomorrow. No, wait, tomorrow we are going to the zoo. Mommy promised we would!"
Katie's eyes lit up, suddenly. Darla managed a smile. "Yeah. The zoo... So you'd better go to sleep now."
Later, Darla sat by Katie's bed and watched her sleep. Now and then a quavering sigh went through the little girl. Darla sighed too, in unison with her sister. There wouldn't be any zoo in the morning, she knew that. You don't get a reward for failing, Mommy always had made that point clear. Just like there never was a pony for Christmas, even when Darla had won the local pageants two years ago - because she came fifth in the big one, and Santa didn't carry ponies to losers.
The door to the balcony was open, and a breeze made the curtains ripple, filling the room ever so subtly with city sounds. The wind was warm and soft. Darla walked outside and peered over the railing to the street below. They never went outside when they were in the city. There was never time. There was training and competing, competing and training... And then they went home.
Darla turned and looked into the dimly lit bedroom. Katie slept, exhausted and still. Right now, in this now, everything was peaceful. Nobody tore into her soul with unfulfilled expectations, nobody pulled Katie's hair to make her stand straight and walk pretty. So quiet. So peaceful.
Darla made sure the covers were tucked tightly around Katie as she lifted her from the bed. Katie made a little sound, like a kitten, but never woke up as Darla, mustering all her strength, tipped her wrapped up form up onto the railing. She climbed after, and sat for a couple of minutes dangling her feet above the street, feeling it pulling on her. This now was full of calm and determination; this now was free from cold and hurtful voices. This now had no love in it, but Darla couldn't remember a now with love.
And then she pulled Katie to her, hugging her tightly as she pushed away...
For the The Horror Quest