“Life, being what it is, one dreams of revenge.”
– Paul Gauguin
The pageant was a couple of hours from starting and the Zeke Matthews had only just realized the finality and full weight of the situation that had been created. And he had just one thing on his mind. It was some kind of an oath, really. It went something like – “if we lose this, Nadia is going down.” – Though not in those exact words. Nadia herself had things on her mind that she didn’t want to disclose to anyone. Derek, her senior boyfriend – the legendary hockey player of the college, cute as a button, best dressed boy in town – was turning out to be quite a dick. The palette she had chosen was a reflection of the tumultuous battle she faced inside her heart and mind – pale, sombre and eternal.
The two childhood friends, Zeke and Nadia, stood in different green rooms, dressing up for the show, while the crowd overwhelmed the security – at the venue and in their minds. Mira Hallow stood in the thick of the crowd, next to an insignificant boy – Rahil – from her own grade. He lived in her building, just a couple of floors below her own, and had incessantly implored her to take him out to her social gatherings. She had had to give in. He was persistent, if anything at all, she admitted. She spotted a lot of familiar faces too! Her time was basically divided between dishing out her signature collection of dazzling smiles and four finger waves, and texting people on her Blackberry. At the buzz of a certain text message, Mira Hallow interlinked her arm with Rahil and swiftly walked towards the stage in her sensibly flat-heeled shoes.
The pageant had been hyped by everyone in knowledge of it. It was the best of the best and admission was strictly based on invitation – as in the case of Mira Hallow – or exorbitantly priced passes. While Nadia obviously qualified for the pageant in everyone’s opinions, Zeke was being highly underestimated. He understood colour palettes and designs better than they gave him credit for. Tyre designs, car paints, graffiti ink, shoe laces – Zeke’s interests were varied. The hair gel in his hands was an annoying shade of blue. He turned his fingers in it and pushed his hair out of his face. He was going for the Italian Mafia look. Movement flickered in Zeke’s periphery and he turned instantaneously hoping it was Neal – dead Neal – but was disappointed. It was a little looking girl, with a glint of hope in her eyes and her lips parted in exasperation. “Zeke Matthews, you look fantastic! Oh my God, you’re like Scott Disik, only better! God have mercy on those judges -” He cut her off with utterances of thanks and let Amelia Stine hug him in her Hug of Death.
“I really don’t mean to interrupt the moment, but if I could have Zeke for a minute, that would be nice.” Nadia arrogantly nudged Amelia and pointed to the exit. Her haughtily plastered smile and immaculately painted beige nails were hardly a consoling sight. But the girl obeyed. Her new found confidence about approaching Zeke was something that came with a lot of restrictions. Amelia had taken on what she called ‘the butterfly approach’. She would slowly break out of her cocoon and turn into the social butterfly she wanted to be.
Loudly sighing once out of sight, Amelia stood with her head against the wall of the green room. The intolerably high levels of oxytocin that her body had released pumped through her veins. Everything was blurry once more as the humming began in her ears. Her mind went through the classic ‘he loves me, he loves me not’ sequence twice (at least) before she realized her surroundings. Suddenly the voices were not that hard to recognize. Nadia’s piercing tone and Zeke’s throaty timbre intermingled into a painful and dark sounding harmony. Amelia didn’t dare move out of earshot.
“It’s really not your show, Nadia. I need my opinions heard. I am equally a part of this team and you need to listen to what I want to say.” Zeke said.
“If I did start to listen to you, we’d already be burnt out ex-models. Zeke Matthews, you put those shoes down NOW. I don’t care about the brilliant color scheme you must have come up with -” Nadia sounded a little distressed and Zeke cut her off “I have reasons for doing what I do. The season is gloomy and sad and we could brighten it up! My life needs a little color-”
The two childhood friends kept cutting each other’s sentences off to have a say of their own until a soft sob escaped Nadia’s mouth. Zeke immediately dropped his voice to a whisper and walked towards his crying friend. “Probably had a tough week too.” He thought.
Nadia, by some fresh dose of resolve, threw her head back, and strutted right out of Zeke’s green room, without the slightest concern for his outwardly stretched arms.
“I’m going to win this thing, and I’m going to win it in sober colors. You want out? Go. Leave Zeke. I dare you. We’ll see where you reach without me. I’m sure the agency will love you!”
Sarcasm hurt. Who was he kidding? Sarcasm wasn’t the beginning of his problem. And Zeke knew that. Nadia’s outbursts were becoming so frequent that he had begun to predict what she would say. The agency was only putting up with her because of her rack. What was Nadia without her beautiful body, after all?
Zeke decided to make good with nature as it beckoned him to the bathroom. With his face in the palms of his hands, Zeke moved out of the green room, hoping that the ghosts of his fight with Nadia would leave before he got back. Amelia slinked into the dark racks of clothes that hung right next to Zeke’s green room, and scuttled out of there as soon as Zeke left. Zeke and Nadia’s conflict was definitely not something she was supposed to have heard.
“Jai! Yo, Jai! What’s up, man.” Zeke’s hand approached the outstretched one on Jai. The boys semi hugged and Zeke plunged into the tale of his latest encounter with Nadia. “I don’t get it man. I don’t get you all. Why do you do this modeling shit? I mean, Nadia – I get it. She’s beautiful. But you’re a man! You’re rugged, and you’re – alright I gotta go. Sorry, man. It’s Jen. She’s been waiting out for some time now.”
Disappointment – that’s what Zeke felt. He hadn’t even reached the washrooms and he already needed some air. And something else, too. Something that started with the letter B. Beaula. Saying her name out loud, Zeke dialed. After almost an eternity of ringing on the other side, Beaula did pick up her phone.
“Zee? Babe, is that you?” her sweet voice was strained. No, scratch that. Stoned. She sounded stoned.
Zeke replied with utmost confidence, “Yeah, it is me. Can you talk for a bit? I kinda need a friend.”
“Aww…I’m just….this is not the best time. I’m…uh…I’m going for class now. Ttyl?”
Zeke could hear some music in the back. And a boy talking to Beaula – his Beaula. Disappointment crept up on his face and in his tone. And when he said “never mind” into the receiver, it was already dead. His eyes stung with rejection. His sweaty palms were intertwined with one another. He needed something.
Rubbed raw and reeling, Zeke wanted a hug. That’s all. He wanted a simple, tight, meaningful hug that would make him feel all better. But who could he rely on for it? He spotted Alisha walking in his direction as he approached the outside of the stairway leading out of the green rooms. Would she know? Here goes nothing. He waved, anyway.
Alisha’s breathing quickened at the sight of Zeke, but not because she liked him. He could tell her where Jai would be. But his face was off. Something was wrong with Zeke’s face and Alisha didn’t want to find out. She just needed to see Jai and then it would be done. She didn’t come here to deal with breakdown. “Why does Zeke have the worst timing in the world?” she thought to herself and shrugged. But he was waving. She waved back.
“Looking for someone?” the voice came with a flood of relief for Alisha. She was just a couple of feet away from Zeke, and from what seemed like nowhere, but was actually the back of the corridor, came Jai’s voice. She was saved from the awkward moment that would have taken shape had he not appeared. She immediately darted into Jai’s inviting arms and they waved at Zeke together. Before he could say a word, Alisha and Jai averted their eyes and Jai only looked back to tell Zeke that he had to leave.
Zeke was alone once more. And he couldn’t think of anyone he wanted to see more than Neal. “Neal is dead. I couldn’t possibly see him” and so on the sequence of thoughts played out. But Neal was the only person who could have pepped him up after a situation like Nadia’s. Neal would’ve told him to grow a pair and just tell Nadia to get back into the kitchen. But Neal wasn’t here. Mira and Zeke had seen his dead body.
He could talk to Mira. She had gone through the same sorrow as he had, right? And she’s always willing to help. Zeke quickly typed a desperate text message on his iPhone and pressed send before he could chicken out, or man up as Neal would have put it.
“SOS. Green room NOW. Need to talk.”
Mira Hallow’s phone had buzzed with Zeke’s message and she had hurried to the green rooms. Blame it on the soft spot she had for the boy since Neal’s death or the niceness of her soul, Mira wanted to help him. He seemed like he was strong and resilient on the outside, but everyone who knew Zeke, knew that he was bad at feelings. Mira walked. And Rahil followed.
As soon as she reached Zeke’s immaculate green room, she had a feeling things weren’t quite right. “Hey, bro. you texted?” Mira asked Zeke.
“I did. I mean, I didn’t mean to panic you or anything….but yeah.”
“Rahil, man, wait outside. Buy yourself food or something.” Mira commanded, irritated.
Zeke was red in the face and red in the eyes. Sweat droplets dotted his face like dew drops on grass on winter mornings. Mira instinctively knelt and put her arms around Zeke who accepted the embrace like a hurt child and began to tear up. Mira didn’t want to see Zeke like this and she sure as hell wasn’t letting anyone else. Straightening his shoulders, Mira asked him one question to which Zeke replied in one syllable “Nadia”, he said. And so the story poured out of Zeke’s mouth like a goodies out of a cornucopia.
“Why didn’t you tell me about this earlier? Zeke, man, why do you wait for these desperate times and shit? I mean, we meet every single day. You could’ve just mentioned it!”
“Like, how would I do that? ‘Hey Hallow! How you doing? Oh and by the way, Nadia is being a bitch to me! You know, just in case you wondered’.”
Mira and Zeke argued and within minutes, their accents were so unbearably exaggerated, that they sat on the floor, laughing together. Suddenly turning solemn, Zeke turned to Mira, and said louder than he intended “Nadia is not going to be okay if I lose. I will murder her. And I mean painfully. I have a lot at stake.”
“You guys done making out? I’m getting bored out there!” Rahil barged into the room just as Mira was about to say something. “Guys, I met that chick Amelia Stine. You know, the chick with the weird reading habits from the foyer? Damn, she seemed concerned about that whole murder sequence you spoke about, Zeke!”
The bell sounded and Zeke had to leave to get to the right stage and Mira to the audience seating. The two parted ways with a meaningful squeeze and smile. As Zeke had predicted, the pageant was a disaster. Almost every team turned up in the same combinations as Nadia and Zeke. But the real nail in team Zadia’s coffin was the fact that they were their own designers. They were responsible for their own defeat. Not only did the judge’s comments leave Zeke furious, Nadia came to the point of crying a little while on stage. The results were a quick affair too. They had lost. Everyone was sent backstage for the last time to change into their finale outfits.
Mira hallow had run backstage when she heard that Zeke had lost. She slipped through the crowd conveniently and her absence went almost completely unnoticed. Backstage, she spotted Zeke and Nadia moving in different directions and ran after an inconsolable looking Zeke. Nadia’s head was spinning. Her sculpted face, her perfectly standing nose, her heart shaped lips, her slightly flushed cheeks – everything looked distressed. Somewhere along the way to the green room, Derek joined her. He held her hand and guided her into the room and handed her the outfit she needed to change into. When she stepped out, after changing, Derek was pushing something into a big bag that was part of Nadia’s pageant trousseau. Not bothering to ask what he was doing, Nadia rolled her eyes at him and murmured “first Zeke, now this; I’m going to tolerate this only for so long” and something about the fuse of her patience running out. Taking it as a signal for him to console her, Derek grabbed Nadia’s waist and pulled her into a tight grip, dipped his head and kissed her. He pushed them both into the closet, and continued into detailed ‘consoling’.
Nadia was not in the mood for any distractions, especially after the disaster that the pageant was becoming. She tried to push Derek out of her way, when she heard a soft knocking coming from outside the closet door. But Derek was oblivious to anything other than his own self and Nadia.
“Derek, we need to get out. Get off me. NOW.” Nadia went.
Chuckling at the desperation in his young girlfriend’s voice, Derek went “alright, alright. If you could just give me a hug, now…..see that wasn’t that bad.”
They exited the closet only to find that the participants were needed on stage in a minute. Nadia hunted around for her shoes, the special ones for the finale – sighing and cursing under her breath. Finally, giving up, she yelled at Derek asking him to not touch her stuff again, to which he replied solemnly, that he hadn’t. Her shoes were under the bag that Derek had been stuffing something into, when Nadia had changed her outfit.
Storming onto the stage side, Nadia took almost no notice of Mira who was rushing towards Zeke. Nadia stared at some fixed point on the stage. Zeke was fuming himself. He had allowed Nadia to use her colour palette and choose the outfits only to lose one of the more important gigs. Disgusted. That was the word that resonated in Zeke’s head.
Mira ran and took her place in the audience stands and stood alone for the first time since Neal’s death.
The girls and boys walked beautifully, taking each step tenderly as if walking on clouds – even in their high heels. High heels were what Nadia was uncomfortable. Uncomfortable is what Nadia felt in her shoes – a slight prick at every step. Every step she took was a walk of shame. Shame and dread clouded Zeke’s thoughts too. Too many eyes were staring at them. Staring back was the only option they had left. They left their place to take a final bow, when suddenly, at the fourteenth step, Nadia stumbled. Nadia stumbled again at the twentieth step, her shoes entangled in one another, and gravity got the better of her.
With a scream of absolute horror and throwing her hands in the air, Nadia fell on the stage. There was a moment of silence when the whole auditorium took in what had just happened. Nadia had gotten up with a bloody and crooked nose, and Zeke had just stood there and watched the spectacle. Almost suddenly, then, Zeke broke into what some thought was nervous laughter. But it sounded so bitter and scornful, and unbelievably contagious, that everyone laughed with him. They all laughed at Nadia, who was being escorted out. The laughter only increased Nadia’s uncontrollable sobs and Zeke walked the last five steps alone, to take his bow.
As the stage cleared of all the contestants, backstage was filling up with them. Zeke came backstage high fiving a crew member and smiling the widest smile he had smiled in a while – only to run into a very angry looking Derek.
Derek’s light brown hair and golden tanned skin shimmered slightly with beads of sweat and his dark and attractive eyes were bloodshot. He swiftly grabbed Zeke by the collar, making some spectators elicit a couple of deep sighs and nothing more. The veins in Derek’s arms and neck stood out when he spoke.
“You bastard! You think I’ll let you get away with this? You think it’s funny? Nadia broke her nose. And everyone laughed at her. You think it’s a joke that my girlfriend broke her nose? Huh?”
Derek was starting to scare a lot of people around him, but not Zeke who shoved Derek’s hand away from himself and walked away from him, smiling and saying “Karma has always been a bitch, Derek. And it always will be.”