Redheaded women! Those blood oranges! Those cherry bombs! Those celestial shrews and queens of copper! May they never cease to stain our whitebread lives with super-natural catsup.
—Tom Robbins, “Ode to Redheads”
SUNDAY, MAY 2
The banner fluttering in the breeze outside City Hall read SCARLETVILLE, IOWA: NATIONAL REDHEAD SANCTUARY
Felicity St. John, who had lived in Scarletville all her life, couldn’t even begin to guess how many times she had encountered the phrase “national redhead sanctuary.” It blasted from her clock radio every morning, repeated over and over by the DJs at Scarletville’s classic rock station, KRED. It was printed under the masthead on the town’s newspaper, the Scarletville Gazette. It was etched onto a plaque on the front of Scarletville High School. And Felicity was probably going to hear the clichéd phrase a hundred times more today.
It was Scarlet Sunday, the anniversary of the founding of Scarletville, and the yearly carnival was in full swing. The lampposts in the center of town were festooned with red flowers, and the breeze carried the popcorn-and-fried-dough smell of celebration. The town was turning seventy-five this year, and the mayor’s carnival committee had really outdone itself. Main Street was lined with food vendors, game booths, and displays of local crafts, as it was every May. But this year, the number of rides in the town square had tripled, and they were significantly more terrifying than usual. Felicity couldn’t even look at the paralyzing vortex of doom called Zero Gravity without feeling slightly ill. Her twin half brothers, on the other hand, had no such qualms. From all the way across the plaza, she could hear Andy’s and Tyler’s seven-year-old voices shrieking with joy as the flying swings whipped them around in dizzying circles. Felicity hoped they would keep their cotton candy securely in their stomachs, but judging from past carnivals, it was highly unlikely.
The mayor must have publicized Scarletville’s anniversary quite aggressively this time around—the dinky local press was there, of course, but there were also representatives from neighboring towns, including a reporter from the Des Moines Register. Right now, all the reporters and a sizable portion of the town’s population were gathered in front of the grandstand, where the mayor was holding a press conference. He was just finishing his opening remarks, using the same speech he always gave on Scarlet Sunday. Felicity and her best friends, Haylie and Ivy, had heard it so many times they could recite it along with him.
“Less than four percent of the world’s population is blessed with red hair, and in my grandfather’s day, those redheads were scattered far and wide across the globe!” boomed the mayor. “And to add insult to injury, these poor scattered redheads were often much maligned in their communities, where they were considered oddballs and curiosities. Our priceless recessive genes would have been bred out of existence within fifty years had no one stepped up to prevent it! But my forward-thinking grandfather saw that we should bond together in solidarity, making precious redheaded children and raising them in a safe, supportive environment. Let’s hear it for Scarletville, our nation’s one and only redhead sanctuary!” The crowd applauded wildly, as it always did.
When the mayor finished the Gospel of Scarletville, reporters peppered him with questions about the town’s history and redheadedness in general. A small blond journalist raised her hand high. “Mayor Redding!” she called. “How would you respond to the accusation that Scarletville discriminates against people with other hair colors, particularly among the younger generations? According to my sources, the student council, the Scholastic Bowl, the cheerleading squad, and several of the athletic teams at the high school are composed exclusively of redheads.”
The mayor’s undersized orange mustache twitched like an agitated chipmunk, and Felicity had to work hard not to snicker. “Of course we don’t discriminate against people with other hair colors,” Mayor Redding said. “We love all our children here in Scarletville. But are we really to blame if we’ve created an environment where redheads can blossom and live up to their full potential?” There were shouts of approval. “Besides, nearly seventy-five percent of the students at Scarletville High are redheads. Statistically, it makes sense that most of our highest achievers would have red hair. Redheads are Scarletville’s finest natural resource!” This was another of the mayor’s pet phrases.
“Do you think Redding can possibly be his original family name?” Ivy whispered. “His grandfather must have changed it back in the day, right? Don’t you think it’s just a little too convenient?”
Felicity shook her head, and her long, sideswept bangs fell into her eyes. “There’s just something about that mustache. I can’t get over it.”
Haylie smacked her on the shoulder. “Don’t bash Mayor Redding. I think he’s adorable.” One of the news vans on the corner crept a little closer, and Haylie eyed it with excitement. “Hey, do you think we’ll be on the news?”
“You won’t, shorty,” Ivy snorted. “All the cameras will be able to see are two little red buns with butterfly barrettes.”
Haylie looked outraged. “Look who’s talking! You’re half an inch taller than me, if that!”
Felicity always felt like a giant next to her best friends. She was only five seven, but she had a good five inches on both of them.
“The difference is that I don’t want to be on the news,” Ivy said.
“Want me to carry you on my shoulders, Hays?” Felicity offered. “You weigh about forty-five pounds. Hop on.”
“I’m such a shrimp. I’m never going to win the Miss Scarlet Pageant with stumpy legs like these.”
Haylie was a ballerina and had an appropriately tiny frame, but she was anything but stumpy. “Haylie, short people win pageants all the time,” Ivy said. “Don’t you ever think about anything besides the stupid Miss Scarlet Pageant? Why do you care so much?”
“It’s not stupid! And how could you not care? They’re announcing the competitors as soon as the press conference is over!”
“I don’t care because I didn’t enter. Which part of me says ‘pageant girl’ to you? Is it my flowing tresses? Or perhaps my bodacious bosoms?” Ivy gestured to her rust-colored hair, which was cropped in a messy pixie cut, and her virtually nonexistent boobs. Today she was dressed in her swim team T-shirt, a fleece vest, cargo pants, and flip-flops. Ivy in a ball gown made about as much sense as Mayor Redding in pink footie pajamas.
To be honest, Felicity didn’t see herself as a beauty queen, either. Haylie was the one who had always loved the town’s pageants. But Felicity had done them both with her: Little Miss Scarlet when she was eight, Miss Ruby Red at twelve. And now here she was, a junior in high school, waiting to see if she had been chosen to compete for the all-important title of Miss Scarlet. Countless times, she had considered backing out and saying she just wasn’t interested in pageants.
But there was no chance of that. Not when her mom was the one who ran them.
Ginger St. John had been crowned Miss Scarlet the year the town turned fifty, and from the moment that crown landed on her head, the pageant was the love of her heart. She had been grooming her daughter to follow in her footsteps since Felicity had been two years old. Felicity suspected her mom had gotten pregnant at twenty-five on purpose, just so her daughter would be the right age to compete in Scarletville’s seventy-fifth-anniversary pageant.
And so far, Felicity had done everything right. She had been born a girl. She had dutifully played with the other little girls Ginger considered potential stars. At her mother’s urging, she had learned to pose, answer interview questions, and strut down catwalks. To be a better pageant contestant, she had taken tap, jazz, and ballet with Haylie instead of the art classes she’d really wanted. And although she didn’t enjoy competing, she had grown quite good at it—her fear of disappointing her mom had always motivated her to work hard. She hadn’t won anything so far, but she had been first runner-up in the Miss Ruby Red Pageant, to Ginger’s unending delight.
Miss Scarlet was Felicity’s final pageant, but it was also the most important one. It was her last chance to become the winner her mom expected her to be. And the prize money that came with the title would be a huge help to her family. As Ginger constantly reminded Felicity, fifteen years of costumes and dance classes didn’t come cheap.
The mayor concluded his remarks, and Felicity’s mom approached the podium. The whole town grew quiet as Ginger adjusted the microphone. Haylie forgot about her argument with Ivy and grabbed both her friends’ hands for moral support. Her grip was so tight that her nails carved little crescents into Felicity’s skin. “Hi, everyone!” Felicity’s mom beamed at the crowd. “My name is Ginger St. John, and I’m the director of the Scarletville Pageant Committee! I’m here to announce the competitors for this year’s Miss Scarlet Pageant!” The crowd roared its approval. “There are seventy-eight eleventh-grade girls this year, all of whom are eligible for the competition, and sixty-four of those young ladies chose to enter. Our competitors were selected based on their photos, their accomplishments, and their essays about how holding the title of Miss Scarlet would help them achieve their personal goals. I just want everyone to know what a tough decision we had this year. All you girls are spectacular, and I wish we could have taken everyone. But as always, there are only twelve slots in the competition.” She made an exaggerated sad face, and Felicity sighed.
She hated it when her mom slipped into beauty queen mode and mugged for the crowd.
“But enough suspense! Let’s get to it! Georgia, may I have the envelope, please?”
Georgia Kellerman, the reigning Miss Scarlet, left her seat near the podium and strutted across the stage. There was a storm of screams and whistles from the candy apple booth, where the cheerleaders were assembled—Georgia was their captain and queen. Today she was wearing her Miss Scarlet sash and crown over her cheerleading uniform, which should have looked ridiculous but somehow came off as chic. Her curled red hair hung loose to the center of her back and bounced as she walked. Had she been auditioning for a shampoo commercial, she would have booked the job for sure. When she reached the podium, she did a little spin, then presented Felicity’s mom with a large red envelope.
“Thanks, Georgia! Before I read the names, I just want to assure everyone that I did not help choose the contestants this year. That wouldn’t have been fair, since my Felicity’s in the running.” Ginger blew a kiss to Felicity, who blushed and wished she had something larger than her garden-gnome-sized best friends to hide behind.
“And now, ladies and gentlemen, the moment you’ve all been waiting for. This year’s Miss Scarlet contestants are . . .”
Felicity’s heart started hammering, and she squeezed Haylie’s hand tightly. If she wasn’t chosen, her mom might never recover. She was Ginger’s only daughter, her one and only chance to relive the most glorious experience of her life. If Felicity failed her now, seventeen years of careful planning would crumble to nothing.
The weight of responsibility pressed down on Felicity until she felt like someone had piled several boulders on her lungs.
Ginger pulled a piece of paper out of the envelope and unfolded it. Felicity searched for a telltale facial twitch indicating whether her name was on the list, but her mom’s expression didn’t change at all. “Madison Banks!” she called with a smile.
Madison was next in line to be cheerleading captain, and there was another round of screaming from the candy apple booth. She had won the Miss Ruby Red Pageant in seventh grade, so it was no surprise that she would be competing again. Her perky red ponytail bounced wildly as she jumped up and down and hugged her teammates. Felicity and Ivy made gagging gestures at each other, but Haylie seemed too nervous to notice anything except that the first name hadn’t been hers.
Again, this was no surprise. Lorelei had been the star of last fall’s production of Little Shop of Horrors and had played the lead in Annie the year before. It was a good day for the Griffin family. Earlier that morning, Lorelei’s mother had won the Magnificent Mommy award for having produced seven redheaded children, the highest number in the community. It was a good thing the award came with a hefty check, as she was rumored to be pregnant again.
Felicity barely had time to brace herself before Haylie came flying into her arms. “I made it I made it I made it!” her friend shrieked at the top of her lungs, drowning out the crowd’s applause. Ivy squeezed both of them, forming a Haylie sandwich, and Felicity struggled to stay on her feet. She was happy for Haylie, but that was three names down already—there were only nine slots left. What if she didn’t make the cut?
Haylie clambered back down to the ground as Ginger called Cassie Brynne’s name. “Don’t worry,” she said, reading Felicity’s mind. “You’re definitely going to make it.”
“You don’t know that for sure.”
Haylie rolled her eyes. “Um, hel-lo, you have the reddest hair in the whole school. I wish I had your color.” Her hair was lighter than Felicity’s, closer to carrot than copper. “And you’re the best artist, and you’re smart, and you’re so pretty. And everyone loves you. And, um, your mom runs the freaking pageant.”
“That doesn’t help. My mom didn’t get to vote,” Felicity said, but she felt buoyed by her friend’s compliments. There were still eight names to go. Maybe everything would be fine.
“Ariel Scott!” called her mom, and a small group of strawberry-blond girls near the edge of the grandstand shrieked with joy. Ariel was so overwhelmed that she started to cry.
“Ariel? Seriously?” scoffed Haylie. “Her hair’s hardly even red!”
“They always put one strawbie in the pageant,” Ivy said. “It looks bad if they don’t. Especially after the mayor’s whole speech about ‘loving all our children regardless of their hair color.’ ” She twitched her upper lip in an imitation of Mayor Redding, and Felicity giggled despite her nerves.
“But, I mean, it’s called the Miss Scarlet Pageant for a reason,” Haylie said. “It should really be for redheads only, don’t you think?”
Felicity had just opened her mouth to respond when her mom called, “Ivy Locklear!”
Ivy’s eyes widened until they were dangerously close to popping out of their sockets. “What?” she gasped as Haylie jumped up and down, squealing and clapping. “But I— How did this— I didn’t—”
“I did your application for you, doofus. I wrote your essay about how you wanted to assert your feminine side because people see you as such a jock.”
“Are you kidding me? How could the committee possibly have believed that?”
“It’s exactly what they want to hear! There’s nothing they like better than a reformed girl who’s seen the light and realized how important pageants are.” Haylie beamed. “Don’t be mad, Ives. I just wanted the three of us to do this together, like we always used to dream about when we were little! Don’t you remember how we played Miss Scarlet every day at recess?”
Ivy was turning redder by the second. “Haylie, we were in first grade! I stopped caring about beauty pageants when I stopped playing with My Little Ponies!” She whacked Haylie with her plastic bag of cotton candy, and Haylie squealed and ducked as sugary wisps flew everywhere.
Ivy turned to Felicity, holding up the half-empty bag threateningly. “You were in on this, weren’t you?”
Felicity shook her head and took a quick step out of Ivy’s sticky reach. “I didn’t know anything about it. But it won’t be that bad, will it?”
“C’mon, Ives, don’t go all Grouchy McSourpuss on us. It’ll be great. I’ll help you.” Haylie tried to pat Ivy’s shoulder, which gained her another whack with the cotton candy.
“I don’t want you to help me! I want you to tell the committee what you did and get me out of this! Felicity, you can have my spot.”
“Shut up, Felicity’s going to have her own spot!”
Felicity wasn’t so sure that was true. She barely caught the next two names over her friends’ commotion, but neither of them was hers. There were only four slots left now.
Ivy stuffed a wad of the abused cotton candy into her mouth. “What am I supposed to do for my talent? I can’t very well swim the butterfly or do advanced math in a pageant.”
“You’re really good at walking on your hands,” Haylie suggested.
“You’re a virtuoso on the kazoo,” added Felicity. She tried to read her mom’s face again so she could tell if her name was among the last four. She wished they had worked out some sort of secret hand signal in advance. Raise your right eyebrow and tug your ear twice if I’m in. Mime slitting your throat if I’m out.
“Great,” said Ivy. “That’s exactly what I’m going to do, just to spite you guys. I’m going to walk on my hands while playing the kazoo. In my freaking ball gown. I’m going to make a complete spectacle of myself, and you’ll be sorry you ever filled out that application.”
“You don’t wear your gown for the talent portion,” Haylie pointed out.
“Amber Neilson!” called Felicity’s mom.
Three names left. Felicity’s heart was beating so fast it felt as if there were a hummingbird trapped inside her rib cage.
And then her mom looked straight at her and winked. “Felicity St. John!”
Felicity’s knees almost buckled as a wave of relief swept through her. She was in. She had lived up to everyone’s expectations, including her mom’s. Haylie danced around, screaming, “I knew it! I told you!” then smashed Felicity into another group hug.
Ginger called the last two names—Jessie Parish and Savannah King—and then invited the twelve contestants up to the grandstand to take a bow. Ivy tried to escape into the crowd, but Haylie clamped a hand around her wrist and dragged her toward the stage. For such a tiny girl, Haylie was surprisingly strong, and Ivy seemed to realize that resistance was futile.
Felicity brought up the rear, accepting kisses, high fives, and shoulder squeezes from her friends and acquaintances as she snaked through the crowd. Everyone seemed to want to touch her and congratulate her. Though her mom had always kept her in the limelight, hoping to ensure her popularity, being so visible had always made Felicity uncomfortable. It seemed strange that anyone cared about her personal business. Sometimes she longed to hide in the shadows for a change.
“Felicity!” Her boyfriend, Brent, was fighting his way out of the tiny ring toss booth he was manning to raise money for the football team. She paused as he jogged toward her, his crimson jersey billowing in the breeze. When he reached her, he swept her up in a hug and spun her around, knocking her into several other people. “Congrats, sexy. Knew you could do it.” Brent was economical with his words, as if he were always texting instead of talking. He rarely said anything longer than 140 characters.
“Thanks,” said Felicity. Brent twined his hands through her wavy hair and gave her a kiss, and her stomach fluttered, just as it always did when he touched her. He was very attractive, with floppy auburn hair, dimples, and football-toned muscles. Felicity just wished she liked him a little more. He wasn’t exactly the brightest crayon in the box, and it was impossible to pretend otherwise. But he adored her, and there wasn’t any other boy in Scarletville she liked better. Every time she considered ending the relationship, it seemed like more drama than it was worth.
Brent held her tightly around the waist and clearly had no intention of releasing her any time soon. “Um, I’ve gotta go up onstage now,” Felicity reminded him.
“Oh. Right. Come by my booth later? I’ll give you a couple free tosses.”
“Sure.” She kissed him one more time, then gently pulled free and headed toward the grandstand.
As she walked by the sunblock vendor, Felicity passed a group of her brunette classmates, all of whom were staring at her coldly. She smiled at them—she tried to be friendly to everyone, regardless of their hair color—but their stony expressions didn’t change at all. “This pageant is so lame,” Gabrielle Vaughn said to Marina Rios, loudly enough to ensure that Felicity heard her. “I can’t believe I have to write about this crap for the Crimson Courier.”
“Why are you so pissed? It’s just another newspaper assignment. It’s not like any of us entered.” Marina flicked her dark ponytail over her shoulder.
“The point isn’t that we want to be in it,” Amanda Westin said. “The point is that even if we did, this stupid town would never let us.”
“Exactly. It’s not like that herd of redheads up there is any smarter or prettier or more talented than we are. Trust me, we deserve the recognition and the prize money a lot more than some people.” Gabby met Felicity’s eyes with a look so hostile it was like being doused with a bucket of ice water.
“Come on, Felicity!” Haylie called.
Felicity followed her friends, but she wasn’t paying attention to the crowd around her anymore. A pit had opened deep in her stomach, and all her relief about being named a contestant was spiraling into it like bathwater down a drain. As she made her way to the grandstand, she could feel a dozen brown eyes on her back.
She was the last one to reach the stage, and Ginger waited until she had mounted the grandstand steps to shout, “Let’s hear it for all our Miss Scarlet contestants!” The crowd cheered and whistled and catcalled, and the wave of sound washed over Felicity. Despite feeling completely overwhelmed, she tried to keep a smile plastered on her face. Pageants were all about smiling through your feelings. She might as well start now.
Parents began pushing through the crowd to hug their daughters, and Ginger St. John was no exception. The moment she was done announcing the whens and wheres of the pageant, she fled the podium and pulled Felicity into a bone-crushing embrace. “Baby, I’m so proud of you!” she gushed.
“Thanks, Mom.” As uncomfortable as Felicity felt, she was relieved to see her mom so pleased with her.
“I could barely keep from jumping up and down when I saw your name on that list, but I think my poker face was pretty good, wasn’t it?”
“A little too good, actually. You totally freaked me out. I thought for sure I wasn’t in.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry, baby, I didn’t mean to scare you. But this is so exciting! We’re finally on our way to becoming the very first mother-daughter pair of Miss Scarlets!” Ginger held Felicity at arm’s length and beamed at her, then pulled her close again and did a little happy dance, jiggling her awkwardly up and down. “Everything is going exactly like we always dreamed it would. This win is right there for the taking, baby. All you have to do now is reach out and grab it.”
Over her mom’s shoulder, Felicity spotted the little brunette island in the sea of red and saw that her disgruntled classmates still hadn’t stopped glaring at her. She quickly looked away. Though everything did seem to be going according to plan, all those cold dark eyes reminded Felicity that she didn’t deserve any of the praise she was getting. She didn’t deserve to be competing in the pageant at all.
Because unbeknownst to the adoring crowd, Felicity’s hair color—that bright coppery red that made her so enviable in Scarletville—was completely artificial.
There were only two other people in the entire world who knew her secret. One was her mom. The other was her stylist, Rose Vaughn.
Excerpted from Red by Alison Cherry. Copyright © 2014 by Alison Cherry.
First published in Great Britain in 2014 by Quercus, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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