"I just have to win," Erin O'Brian was saying as she walked with her boyfriend and her mother across the county fairgrounds. Her normally pretty face was marred with a deep frown. "I just have to. I don't know what I'm going to do if I don't."
Margaret O'Brian, Erin's mother, patted her arm. "I think you have a very good chance, dear," she said. "You did very well in the personal interview, and you played your flute beautifully in the talent compet--"
"No, I didn't," Erin interrupted, tossing her long reddish hair. "I flubbed two notes."
"I didn't notice," Margaret said.
"Neither did I," Josh Stevenson, her boyfriend, offered. "It sounded perfect to me."
"I trilled to the right ones," Erin told them. "The judges noticed, I'm sure they did."
"I doubt it," Josh said with a chuckle. "The judges are just ordinary ladies from town, Erin. Businesswomen, not concert musicians. Your solo sounded just fucking fantastic."
"Language, dear," Margaret said reprovingly.
"Sorry," Josh said with a grin. "Anyway, the fitness competition is next. You go on stage naked. You are the hottest girl in town, Erin, there's no way anybody is going to touch you in that."
At this, Erin nodded and her frown faded. Stopping for a moment, she looked down at herself. At that moment, she was clad in a T-shirt and shorts; her very long legs looked perfect, even to her most severe critic--herself--as did her high and firm C-cup breasts and utterly flat athletic belly. "I guess. I've worked my butt off to get this body. As long as I can walk the walk."
"You can," Josh assured her. "I've seen you do it, a hundred times. You have it down pat."
Erin shook her head. "But then there's evening wear. Lindsay Simmons has a French gown, she's going to--"
Margaret nodded. "Lindsay's family is wealthy," she agreed. "They had a custom gown made in Paris for the competition. You could lose there, we can't match their money. But the stage question is next. You're much better spoken that she is."
"Maybe," Erin agreed tentatively. "But a lot depends on what we're asked. They won't be the same question. She might get something easy, and I might get something really hard. Like the one Lauren Hale got last year, remember?"
"I do remember," Margaret said with a nod. "She was asked if the United States should consider military strikes against nations that refuse to try to control their female populations. That's a loaded question, it's still being debated in Congress right now."
"Concerning the situation in Chile," Erin said. It was well-known--on the news almost every night--that a fundamentalist religious party had taken control in Chile, and had stopped all efforts to balance the genders there, saying that such matters should be left up to god. At first other nations had paid little attention, feeling that such matters were strictly internal--but as time passed, tens of thousands of unattached females from Chile were flooding over the borders into Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru, all of which had very aggressive female-reduction policies in effect. Peru had responded by heavily guarding the border with troops that had orders to shoot females trying to cross on sight, and Bolivia simply rounded them up and assigned them to perform in various erotic shows--shows that always ended with the woman's death.
Argentina, however, sharing a very long border with Chile, had serious problems. For close to two years, Argentina had been talking about declaring war on Chile and changing the regime by force, and had sought the aid of the United States, Canada, and Brazil in this undertaking. But the modern world had very little appetite for war, considering the drastic changes that had taken place following the Biowar, changes that many thought might eventually threaten the very existence of the human species.
"Do you remember her answer, Erin?" Margaret prompted.
Erin nodded. "I do. She reminded us that it was a virus developed during the Biowar, a virus designed as a weapon, that had brought us the modern gender imbalance, that had created a situation where thousands of young women had to die. And that meant we should be very hesitant about ever going to war again. But she also said that the actions of Chile's government are a threat to the whole world, and that we might be forced to do something about it."
"And? What was the response?"
Erin pursed her full lips. "She got a standing ovation."
"And who was the Queen of the Pageant last year?"
"Lauren. Okay, I get the point, Mom." She then giggled. "You know, you are the only person who still refers to the pageant winner as the 'Queen.'"
"Call me old-fashioned," Margaret said.
By that time they were close to their destination, the building where the pageant was being held. Outside the doors to the auditorium was a sculpture that was kept in storage all year and brought out only for this festival each May. The trio stopped and looked up at it. It was a giant steel penis, twenty feet tall, brilliant hot pink in color but otherwise anatomically correct, pointing rigidly skyward. Alongside and slightly in front of it was the scrotum with the two massive bulges that represented the testicles, each with a small seat atop it, seats used by the pageant winner during her coronation and her chosen man--who was in fact referred to as the "King." In front of and below the seats was a low table, perhaps four feet long and eighteen inches wide. Above and behind it, attached to the shaft of the phallus, was a large cup, perforated at the bottom as if to hold flowers.
"Never fails to impress..." Margaret said, looking up at the gigantic glans. She smiled. "I remember so well, twenty years ago, when I was in the pageant."
"You placed third, didn't you?" Josh asked. Without even attempting to be discreet, he looked her up and down. At thirty-eight, Margaret was still quite an attractive woman. Her legs especially, almost completely revealed by the short dress she was wearing, were the equal of Erin's, even though Erin was just eighteen.
"Yes, I did. I wanted to win too, very badly. I didn't--and life went on." She shook her head. "They did refer to the winner as the Queen in those days. The Queen of the Phallus."
"That sounds so stilted, Mom. That's why they changed it to 'Miss Seduction.'"
She lowered her head and turned to her daughter, green eyes meeting green eyes. "The ceremony," she reminded Erin, "is religious in nature. Right after the Biowar, there were some immigrants from Japan living here, and they suggested we import their tradition of Kanamara Matsuri, 'The Festival of the Steel Phallus,' and use that time to pray to whatever gods or goddesses we chose--it was left very open-ended so it could be inclusive--for more boys to be born to our women. Ever since, we have had the highest male birthrate in the state. Now there are several hundred Kanamara Matsuri festivals across the country, in April or May. But we were the first in the United States. My point is, it's a serious affair, and using a title like 'Miss Seduction' cheapens it. In my opinion, anyway."
Erin rolled her eyes--but not until after her mother had looked away. She knew this history quite well, it was taught in the local schools, and this wasn't by any means the first time Margaret had made her little speech about the name of the title. "Well," Erin said, "I thank you for the dinner break, but I've got to get back inside and start preparing for the fitness competition." She looked from one to the other. "You are staying, aren't you?"
Josh nodded. "Wouldn't miss it, hon."
Margaret nodded her agreement. "And your father should be here by the time you go on stage. You're fourth, right?"
"Fifth," Erin told her. She made a face. "Right after Lindsay."
"You'll beat her," Josh assured her. "Keep the faith."
Leaving Josh and her mother behind, Erin turned and walked past the giant phallus to the stage entry door and went inside. Most of the other contestants, about twenty in all, were already in the dressing rooms. As the next phase of the pageant involved them all being on stage nude--a logical change, considering the times, from the old swimsuit competition--they had all already stripped down and were applying makeup judiciously, covering any minor flaws in their appearance, rouging their nipples and genitals to make them stand out. Discarding her clothing, Erin joined them. She had, she noted with pride, very few flaws to cover--the only item that required much attention was an almost healed scratch on her ankle, a mark from Josh's toenails inflicted during a recent lovemaking session, an injury she had not even noticed at the time.
"You look amazing, Erin," the girl seated next to her said, a touch of something like envy in her voice.
Erin turned to her. The girl's name was Bonnie Douglas, a girl Erin went to school with, a friend. Bright blond, her skin even whiter than Erin's, she had an almost too-slender figure with large breasts that made her look unbalanced, breasts that Erin had herself once envied, before she had gained much more of an appreciation for her own C-cups. "You look really good too, Bonnie," she said.
Bonnie sighed deeply. "No. I look okay. You, Lindsay Simmons, Kelly Edwards, you guys look good. Really good. One of you is going to be the winner."
"You knocked them out with your song in the talent..."
"Yeah. And you missed a couple of notes in your flute solo." Bonnie smiled wryly. "You covered it very well, though, only another musician--like me--would notice. And so our scores were the same."
"You beat me in the personal. You're ahead of me in points, right now."
"Yes, right now. But half an hour from now, we're going to go out there naked, and after that, you, Lindsay, and Kelly will be the leaders." She closed her eyes for a moment. "Do you know what position I'm in? First. I have to go out there first. Means I probably cannot get any bonus points. None."
Erin shuddered. "Oh, Bonnie, I do not envy you that. I didn't know, I only knew that Lindsay is fourth, I'm fifth, Kirsten Phillips is sixth, and Kelly is tenth."
"Giving Kelly an advantage, the judges aren't paying as much attention after the first few. The very first one out there--that's just a death sentence, that's all."
"You're exaggerating, Bonnie," she said with a laugh. "And even if you're right, well, you know..."
"Mmm." Bonnie turned back to her mirror. "Well, let me get this face in as good a shape as I can. Might as well."
Erin turned to her own mirror. "Got to give it your best," she said. Silently, she wondered why Bonnie had bothered, but then answered her own question immediately. All eighteen-year-old local girls that could reasonably be expected to be judged as Class A or Class B were expected to enter the pageant each year. Any that did not were seen as disrespecting the local tradition and were subject to fairly severe public disapproval. Far from being an athletic B-type, Bonnie would be either a C or an A, and very few people could look at her pretty face, her large breasts and long slender legs, and call her a C. More, she did not get eliminated in the first cut, which involved hacking the initial entry of several thousand girls down to the current twenty, based only on their photographs.
Erin looked at her reflection in the mirror and judged herself as objectively as she could. A, almost certainly; maybe, just maybe, a B by some people's taste. Any worse, she thought with a wry smile, and she herself would not have been among that final twenty. She went back to work on her face, carefully applying subtle lipstick and less subtle eyeliner and eyeshadow.
She was still working on her eyes when one of the organizers stuck her head in to call "Ten minutes! Let's go, girls!" Erin began to hurry a little. Once Bonnie went on stage, the other girls would not be allowed to further tweak their makeup. Deciding that she'd done as well as she could, she rose, put on the short off-the-shoulder yellow tunic and fake gold sandals all the girls wore when they went out on stage in this event, and walked to a the line of chairs in front of a long curtain, where they were expected to sit and wait their turn. She sat down in number five; number one was already empty, as Bonnie was already passing through the right wing curtains. As she settled into her seat, Lindsay gave her a coolly appraising look she was sure was meant to be intimidating. She answered it with a friendly smile--although in no way could Lindsay be considered a friend of hers. In response, Lindsay simply tossed her long blond hair and turned away.
The performance was expected to last about four hours total, meaning each girl had around twelve minutes to be introduced, strip down, and impress the judges--and the audience, which would cast a vote by the loudness of their applause. The girls were not allowed to watch the performances of their predecessors, they were required to remain in their chairs at all times except for bathroom runs--of which there would be, Erin knew, several, mostly girls vomiting from nervousness. Erin fully understood that she was not unique, all twenty of these girls desperately wanted to win.
Twelve minutes later, Bonnie returned and sat, somewhat slumped, in her chair. Reasonably loud applause could be heard; Bonnie raised her head and looked over at Erin.
"Seven-point-five," she said. "Plus audience." She shook her head. "Not bad. Not a winner."
Jinx Fordham, a cute little brunette, was next. She came back with a score of nine. Miriam Radisson followed her, scoring only seven, and then it was Lindsay's turn. Surprising Erin, she scored only eight, leaving her solidly behind Jinx and just a little ahead of Bonnie as far as the judges alone were concerned. As she sat down, looking sour, Erin rose and went through the curtains onto the stage, taking up a position in the center.
"Erin O'Brian!" the announcer cried. Erin, posing, smiled out at the audience--and soon picked out Josh and her parents, sitting in the fourth row. As music began to play, she turned her back on the onlookers and slowly moved in time with it as she slipped the strap of her tunic off her shoulder. As she was lowering the tunic, she glanced up at the video strip above the stage; Bonnie had 7.5 judged, 6 on applause--anything above 5 added half a point to a girl's score, anything above 10 added a full point--and no bonuses, which meant Bonnie's total was 8. Jinx had 9, 11, and one bonus point, meaning her total was an impressive 11. Miriam had done poorly, scoring 7, 4, and no bonus, for a final of 7. Lindsay had scored 8, 10, and one bonus--even with the added scores she remained behind Jinx at 10.
Moving gracefully in time to the music, Erin allowed the tunic to fall to the floor and stepped out of it. Turning slowly and carefully, she revealed her body gradually--and was gratified to see big smiles on her parents' faces and a thumbs-up from Josh. She then looked to her right, where a naked young boy about her age was seated in a chair, and then to her left, where another naked boy was waiting. Erin knew them both, having met them during the socials the pageant conducted. Beside each of them, on the floor, was a mattress.
"Ted first," John Ellis, the boy on her right, said in a whisper. "He's ready."
Given that Ted Franklinton, the boy on her left, already had a raging erection and John did not, Erin had already decided which one she was going to first. Wasting no time, she danced over to him, draped her body over his, and kissed him with what looked like real passion. His hands found her breasts; she allowed him to caress her for a moment, then dropped to one knee beside him, making sure she was positioned so that everything she did could be seen by the judges and the audience--and then quickly adjusting herself so that John could see, as well. As she was checking her position, she stroked Ted's hard cock with her hand. Then she leaned over and took it into her mouth. Lindsay had obviously been fucking him, she could taste female juices. After stroking it sensually with her lips for a few seconds, she took a deep breath, pushed her head on down until her nose was pressed firmly against his pubes, and looked up at him. Then she began what she considered her special trick, something she'd been practicing with Josh for years--she began swallowing, rapidly and repeatedly, massaging him with her throat. He groaned and squirmed; knowing he was close, Erin ignored her need for air and continued, bringing her tongue into play as well. Just a moment later she was rewarded with spurts of semen into her throat; some came out her nose. She pulled back just slightly, closed her throat, and held still until he finished. Then, pulling her head back further, she allowed part of it to drain from her lips--and, finally, swallowed the rest.
"Wonderful," Ted said as she stood up.
"Thank you, Ted," she said with a rich smile. Taking a towel from a bin beside his chair, she cleaned her face. Her waterproof makeup was untouched. "You were terrific."
"Hey, that was all you," he replied. Erin beamed; one bonus point in hand, she felt her performance has been really good, and best of all, she'd used less than three minutes of her total time. Taking her leave of Ted--and being careful not to rush--she danced across the stage to John.
Having watched her with Ted, John now had a strong erection. "I have a feeling," he told her as she came close, "I'm not going to be out here long!"
"I hope not," she purred, stroking his body with one hand and working his cock with the other. The boys were "retired" after they had an orgasm, and Erin was intent on bringing John off in nine minutes--thereby gaining another bonus point. Even more important, though, was showing off her sexual techniques to the judges. She kissed him, slid down his body to suck his cock for a moment, then straddled him and took him inside herself. As she squirmed on him, she gave him her best, her thoroughly practiced, impassioned look. After remaining astride him in the chair for perhaps a little more than a minute, she moved to the next phase of her carefully-planned--and well-rehearsed, with Josh--performance. She rose, pulled him up to his feet, and pressed her body against him, kissing him furiously and raising one leg to massage his side with her thigh. She then pulled him down onto the mattress, embraced him for just a moment more, then spread her legs and pulled him in between them. His rigid cock slipped back into her, and she folded her legs around him, keeping him in as deeply as she could. Over the next few minutes they shifted positions quickly. After a minute or so of "doggie-style," she positioned him on his back and, facing her audience and facing away from John, sank back down on him again. She knew--from practicing with Josh in front of a large mirror--that just a half-inch or so of the base of his cock would be visible between her smooth and cleanly-shaven vaginal lips and she wanted that to be the main visual for the judges, although periodically she rose a little and then pushed down hard, taking absolutely all of him. He was squirming under her but she was getting anxious, knowing the horn would sound soon and she'd have to leave the stage.
But then, as she ground down on him hard, she unexpectedly went into an orgasm of her own. Her breasts and belly flushing bright pink, she cried out softly, grabbed his thighs, and quivered on him. It pushed him over the top and he began spraying semen up into her--but at that point she was too distracted with her own climax to even realize she'd won another bonus point.
When she did, she put her hands over her mouth and giggled. At that point the horn sounded; she rose off John and stood for a moment with her legs slightly spread, letting his semen drip onto the stage. The audience applauded very loudly.
"You're amazing," John said, holding her shoulders and kissing her neck. "If you don't win, something's really wrong." She smiled, thanked him and left the stage--noting, as she did, that she'd gotten a 9.5 from the judges, a 14 from the audience, and, of course, both bonus points--giving her a total of 12.5 and putting her solidly in the lead.
As she walked back toward her chair, she encountered Kirsten, an auburn-haired girl with a nice figure and a very cute doll-like face, on her way to the stage. "Bitch," Kirsten said, although she was smiling. "Now I have to start all over with two fresh guys."
"I had a break," Erin said graciously. "Lindsay had Ted ready to pop. Gave me extra time with John." She glanced at Lindsay, having deliberately spoken loudly enough for the blond to hear her. Lindsay, however, just glared at her, her bright blue eyes narrowed, a look of near-hatred on her face.
"You do realize," Jinx said as Kirsten passed through the curtains, "that if you'd taken him up your ass you would've had a perfect ten." She smiled. Jinx was six or seven inches shorter than Erin, a small girl with a perfectly-toned athletic body, long legs, and breasts hardly more than an A-cup. Her face was heavily freckled and her freckles extended onto her chest and back. Her short hair and her eyes were both very dark. She had a very bright, very infectious, and very appealing smile. Like Erin, she had neglected to pick up her tunic from the stage as she left, leaving both of them still naked. "But then, I didn't get to it either..."
"It would have taken too much time," Erin told her. "My asshole's too tight, I haven't done anal enough. Takes a while to get it in there. I never planned on it, I was going for the bonus point. A whole point instead of half a point."
"You got it, too," Jinx said. "You have this competition won, Erin."
"You didn't do badly yourself," Erin said.
"Guess I'm the dark horse," Jinx replied with a laugh. She glanced back at the row of waiting girls and looked directly at a voluptuous young woman with a classic face, very long shapely legs, beautiful breasts, and a cloud of unruly light brown hair. "Can't count on second or third, though. Still got Kelly to contend with."
Erin nodded. "She could take first."
"I hope she doesn't."
Jinx looked mock-serious for a moment. "Guess I shouldn't say it, but second's okay with me, I don't mind taking third." The two girls laughed, then returned to their seats.
The next few girls went through their routines, and the word among the contestants was that Erin, Jinx, and Lindsay were still the leaders. Kelly was up next, and Erin watched anxiously as she passed through the curtains.
For Erin--and, she was sure, for Jinx and Lindsay as well--the next twenty minutes passed slowly. They could not see what was happening on stage, what sort of performance Kelly was giving--but they all knew it would be good. The big question was, would it be good enough for her to displace any of the three leaders. At the end of the time, though, the girls could hear the applause from the audience--which was surprisingly low key. A moment later Kelly reappeared--and, as soon as she did, burst into tears.
Erin rose and went to her. "Kelly, what happened?" she asked as a couple of the other girls gathered close.
"I don't know!" the other girl wailed. "I don't know, it never happened to me before!"
"What never happened?" Jinx asked.
Kelly shook her head. "My... my pussy, it just locked up... Leroy and I were about to, I was straddling him, I... he couldn't get it in, I was just all locked up... I saw the audience, so many people, watching me, I just locked up..."
"You never fucked either of the guys? At all?" Jinx asked.
"No! All I could do was go down on them. Oh, god, I can't believe it... I got a five, no applause points, no bonus... nothing." She sobbed again and shook her head. "I'm finished, it's over for me. Fuck!"
"Vaginismus," Jinx murmured. "I've heard of it, never seen it."
"What's that, Jinx?" Erin asked. She did not doubt that Jinx knew what she was talking about; she was one of the star students in school, heading for a career in bioscience with one paper already in publication and a scholarship offer from Harvard already in hand.
The small girl shrugged. "Involuntary spasm of the muscles around the vagina," she explained. "Usually the cause is anxiety. In Kelly's case--"
"Stage fright," Kelly said. "I never should have looked out..."
"I'm sorry, Kelly," Jinx said. "You deserved better than that." She patted the taller girl's shoulder. "You are better than that."
Kelly shook her head. "Too late now, though." Her shoulders slumped, she went to her chair and sat back down.
The remainder of the "fitness" competition was almost anticlimactic. No further surprises occurred; the event ended with Erin still in the lead, Jinx right behind her, and Lindsay--who seemed furious at the outcome--in third place. The three leaders were brought out onto stage, presented to the audience, and their positions announced--and their positions in the overall contest as well, where the same three were the leaders--Erin with a total of 31.5, Lindsay and Jinx tied at 30 each. Then the curtain came down. The girls then began searching for their tunics, most of which had been left on stage when they exited. Jinx initially picked up one far too large for her and the other girls laughed when she mugged in the oversized garment.
"You realize," Lindsay said as Erin was laughing at Jinx' antics, "you only won two points because I had Ted right on the edge. Another thirty seconds and I would have had the double bonus. It just isn't fair!"
Erin turned to her and saw that her face was twisted into an ugly near-snarl. "I'm sure you're right," she said evenly, determined not to escalate things. "And you're right, too, that it isn't really fair. Some girls get lucky, tonight I was one of those. But you know, the only fair way to do things would be for each girl to start with two fresh guys, and even then there's luck involved, some guys are much more hair-trigger than others. But the simple fact is, we don't have enough guys to do things that way."
Lindsay was not placated. "It doesn't matter," she answered. "That point should have been mine, not yours!"
Erin shrugged. "There's nothing I can do about it, Lindsay," she said. "If you really think you have grounds for a challenge, you have to talk to the judges."
"You know that won't get me anywhere!" She shook a finger at Erin. "Tomorrow night, it'll be my turn! You'll see!" She then turned and stomped away.
"I'm sure you're right," Erin said, too softly for the blond to hear. "All I can do is hope you only beat me by a point or so in the evening wear, and that the final question goes my way." Turning away as well, she went back to the dressing room, donned her shorts and T-shirt, and went out to the lobby, where Josh and her parents were waiting for her. As they went out to the car, her father and Josh were profuse in their praise for her performance, and even the much more reserved Margaret was being more than complimentary. Erin felt she was literally glowing with pride, but a lifetime of training brought her up short whenever she began to think of herself as inherently better than any other girl.
"You had a lot to do with it, Josh," she said, snuggling against him in the back seat of her parents' car as they drove home. "All that practice..."
He kissed her hair. "You can't imagine it was a chore, Erin!"
She giggled. "Well, no. But you were very patient with me when I was trying to learn the deep-throat technique, Josh. You remember what happened the first time I got it all the way down my throat?"
"I sure do," he answered with a laugh. "You went all pale and you threw up in my lap!" He rolled his eyes. "It burned too, I had to run for the shower!"
"But you came right back and we did it again. And tonight, it paid off."
"It certainly did," Margaret offered from the front seat. "I have never seen it done better, dear. Never."
Irrationally, Erin felt herself flush a little to hear her mother complimenting her technique at sucking cock. There wasn't a reason for her to be embarrassed; she was well aware that Margaret had done the same things on stage years ago, and, in sharp contrast to the ways of the prewar societies Erin had learned about in history class, families were almost always very open about sexuality these days. Her parents had been well aware of what she and Josh were doing when they spent hours in her room. Her mother had even advised her, saying that she could "bring a man to orgasm" much more quickly if she "took his organ in deeply during intercourse and moved laterally rather than vertically." Never had she heard her mother say the word "fuck," it was always "intercourse." Never "cock" or even, for that matter, "penis"--always, "the man's organ," or occasionally, "phallus"--the language of a college professor of English literature, which Margaret had gone on to become. Remembering, and basically just basking in the moment, she smiled.
At that point, Erin's father pulled the car into their driveway--and everyone fell silent for a moment. Sitting in front of the house was a white van. The front door, rear doors, and side door were all open. One or more girls--rather rough-looking girls--were sitting in each open door, staring at them. The one in the driver's seat was pounding a short truncheon rhythmically on her palm.
"What the hell?" Josh asked. He got out of the car, followed quickly by Erin's parents. She started to get out too, but her mother told her to wait. She obeyed, watching through the window as Josh and her parents walked toward the van. There was no confrontation; as they approached it, all the girls pulled back inside, the doors closed, and the van drove off.
Erin got out of the car then. "What was that all about?" she asked, addressing no one in particular.
"I'd say it was a warning," Margaret said.
"From Lindsay," Josh added, and both Erin's parents nodded. "Or from her family. There's been a lot of talk about how much they're invested in this."
"Maybe more of a suggestion," Erin's father said. "A suggestion to you, a suggestion that you not try very hard in the competitions tomorrow. A statement that she really wants to win, no matter what it takes to do that."
Erin glared in the direction the truck had gone. "Should we call the police?" she asked.
"It won't help," Margaret said succinctly. She started walking toward the house and the others followed. "We know who hired those girls, I'm sure, and we understand the message. On the other hand, they didn't do anything illegal, they didn't communicate any threats, didn't make any gestures toward us of any kind. And even if they had, we couldn't tie them to Lindsay."
"Well," Erin said, "it won't help, anyway. I'm not going to blow the pageant out of fear of Lindsay. If she wants to win, she'll have to do it straight-up. I'm only a point and a half ahead of her, and she's going to get at least a point on me in the evening wear, maybe two. It'll come down to that final question, I'm sure of it."
Josh moved close to her and put his arm around her waist. "I don't want to see you come in second," he said softly. "I really don't."
She turned to him. "I don't either," she agreed. "But if that happens I'll just have to accept it, and so will you."
He sighed. "I know. But--"
"No buts, Josh, that's just part of the game, right?"
"I think," Margaret said, "that you are going to win. I have every confidence. Now: you need to rest, you need to be at your very best tomorrow. Just try to forget about all this."
"Yes, Mom," Erin agreed. They went inside; Erin and Josh went up to her room, where he planned to spend the night. As the door closed, though, she could hear her parents downstairs, discussing what had just happened.
It wasn't going to be easy to ignore it.
Like the swimsuit competition, the "evening wear" phase of the pageant had changed quite a bit from what it had been in previous days, and was combined to an extent with the all-important final onstage question; each was worth up to ten points, but it was almost always that dreaded onstage question that decided the winner. The "evening wear" part, while still referred to as such, could now more accurately be called the "party dress" competition. The emphasis was on sexy and revealing, but without the overt blatancy of the "fitness" phase. It was simple, and fairly quick; the girls simply came out onto the stage, walked across, posed, and left again. Poise and style was supposed to count for as much as or more than the costume itself.
In the dressing room, Erin could not help stealing glances at Lindsay as the blond slithered into her French-made, custom dress. It was gold in color and looked like real metallic gold; it clung to her body perfectly, outlining the shape of each breast as if it had been painted on. The lower part of it, split up both sides to her waist, really did look like molten gold pouring onto the floor. It moved as she did, the top sliding aside to reveal almost all of a breast but never quite exposing the nipple, the bottom gliding across to show her hip and the edge of her groin but stopping just short of showing her genitals.
"The only way," Jinx said as adjusted her own dress, "that she could lose this part is if she falls flat on her face as she walks out on stage." She looked down at herself. Her dress had a very short flyaway skirt that lifted itself in the slightest breeze and did, at times, expose her groin and her rear, and plunged at the top to show much of the inner portion of her breasts. She moved her feet inside spike-heel shoes that added three inches to her height. "I know I might!" she said ruefully.
"Lindsay is way more used to heels than any of us," Bonnie noted as she smoothed down her almost-transparent silky white gown. She looked at Jinx. "You need to be careful, you lose points if you actually show nips or pussy on stage, you know. This is supposed to be tease."
Jinx made a wry face. "You'd think they'd switch these two. Teasing before we're out there stark naked fucking and sucking the guys in front of everybody. That would make more sense."
"It's just the traditional order," Erin offered. "The way it used to be, back in the days before the War."
"I guess." Putting her hands on her hips, Jinx looked Erin up and down. "That looks pretty damn good, Erin," she observed. "You might just give Lindsay a run for it."
"Just in honor of my Irish ancestry," Erin said with a smile. "And my name, and the green matches my eyes, and so on and so on." She posed for an instant. Her dress was more or less in authentic Irish tradition; kelly-green with gold accents, floor-length, held up by thin shoulder straps. In the front, the sides were held together by a long leather strip that crisscrossed dozens of times from her collarbones to her waist; the sides at the top were just close enough to cover her nipples. Behind the strip and under the gown was a white silk panel, even more transparent than Bonnie's gown, falling almost to the floor but showing all of her legs and her belly plainly. Her groin was covered by a tiny thong panty that basically covered only her genitals and clung to them very tightly, showing a pronounced "camel-toe." In the back, the green gown clung tightly to her buttocks, revealing their shape completely. A thin gray jeweled belt--faux-jewels, her family could not afford real ones--held the garment tightly around her waist. Looking down, she adjusted it, pushing it down below her navel.
"Ten minutes, girls!" one of the pageant officials called from the door.
"Well, here I go again," Bonnie said. This time the girls lined up rather than sitting, Erin getting a withering glance from Lindsay as she took her place behind her in the line. A little more than a half-hour later it was over and the girls had returned to the chairs, waiting their turns to go out on for the final event, the onstage question. As expected, Lindsay had won the evening wear competition, scoring a perfect ten. Erin placed second at 9; Jinx and Kelly tied for third with 8.5. Headed toward the end, that left the Erin in the lead still with 40.5, Lindsay at 40, and Jinx at 38.5. A bit surprisingly, Bonnie was in fourth place and still in the running at 36.5. In spite of her poor score in the fitness event Kelly was clinging to fifth at 34, although even she understood that it would be a miracle if she were to win or even place in the top three.
But, in the past, the onstage question had produced miracles. Girls in the lead had managed to totally flub their answers and had gotten ones and twos from the judges, and others--like Lauren Hale the previous year--had scored perfect tens and won.
About ten minutes later Bonnie returned, looking satisfied. Looking over at Erin, she smiled and Erin gave her a thumbs-up in return. Unlike the other phases, the results of the judging on the on-stage question were not posted immediately, since doing so would reveal to the audience who the winners were before they were announced, but Bonnie's smile indicated she must have felt she'd done well. A short time later Jinx came back and if anything her smile was brighter. Miriam, already pretty much out of the competition, went next. As she walked through the curtains, Lindsay turned to Erin.
"You," she said coldly, "are not going to do well on the final question. You aren't going to get any better than a four. You understand me?"
Erin frowned. "No," she answered. "I don't."
"Let me explain. I have some friends, you know--loyal friends. If you win, well, they'll see to it that you don't ever get a chance to enjoy it!"
"The girls in the van? Lindsay, are you telling me you've hired some thugs to--what, kill me if I win? Are you kidding me?"
"I need to win this," Lindsay said in a low voice. "And I will be the winner, you are not going to take this away from me, and you're certainly not going to leave me in second place! You will screw up that onstage question!"
"Even if I do, you still have to beat Jinx!"
She snorted. "I'm sure I can beat that little nerd. You're the real problem. You'll take a dive or face the consequences. I'm sure I can--"
At that point, the curtains behind the girls suddenly swirled; three police officers, two women and a man, stepped out, along with one of the pageant officials. "Lindsay Simmons," one of the female officers said, "you are under arrest. For communicating threats and for attempting to interfere with a duly authorized city function."
"And you are also," the pageant official said frostily, "disqualified from the pageant."
Lindsay stared at them wide-eyed. "No," she muttered. "No, you can't prove--"
"We've been standing there listening, and recording," the officer said. "Stand up and put your hands behind your back, please."
Knowing what this meant--communicating threats was a felony, and felony convictions for women always brought the death penalty--Lindsay looked from her left to her right as if she was considering making a run for it. But then she slumped, and allowed the officer to handcuff her.
"Why, Lindsay?" Erin asked her. "You had a great shot at it, I'm only a little ahead..."
She looked at Erin, tears in her eyes, all the hostility and arrogance gone. "I wanted to be sure... wanted to make my Dad proud of me... I'm not smart like Jinx, I'm not talented like you and Bonnie... I..."
"Let's go," the officer said. Not roughly, she pushed Lindsay toward the exit. Erin watched her go.
Then the curtain swirled again, and Margaret stepped out.
"Mom?" Erin said. 'What are you doing back here?"
"Setting all this up, dear," the older woman replied. "It only stood to reason that Lindsay would threaten you directly. I informed the pageant officials, and they called in the police. We've been very close to you, all evening."
Erin rolled her eyes. "Oh, great. After all this I've got to go on stage. Look, there comes Miriam now. With Lindsay out, I'm up next!"
"You'll have just a moment," the pageant official said. "There will be an announcement first, informing the public that Miss Simmons has been disqualified."
"I'm not sure a moment is enough," Erin said, shaking her head. For her, the "moment" seemed to flash by in no time at all, and she found herself out on the stage, posing automatically, smiling automatically, waiting for the Emcee to ask her the question.
"All right, Erin," he said. "Ready for your question?"
She kept smiling. "Yes, sir."
The Emcee cleared his throat. "As you know, Erin, in many places in the world there are Special Beaches and Impulse Parks, where women can be killed freely under certain conditions. In the United States, though, these are prohibited by law. Do you believe these laws should be changed? If so, why? If not, why not?"
Erin's smile broadened. Just as it had been the previous year, the question had to do with matters then being debated in Congress, as several senators had introduced bills to allow Special Beaches and Impulse Parks to exist in the US--and to change things so the Goodbars, currently operating only because of a loophole in the law, were fully legal. It was something she was very familiar with, she knew most of the arguments.
"Those opposed to the Special Beaches and Impulse Parks," she began, "have a valid point. Their contention is that women are often killed in such places when they did not actually give their permission, as an example, the victims of the snippers. This is true, and it is a valid concern. But it is also true that no woman is ever forced to go to a Special Beach or Impulse Park, or if she is, whoever forced her is, in countries like Australia and Brazil, subject to criminal charges--even including a murder charge if a woman is forced to go and then killed there. Opponents also say that at times, on the Special Beaches in other countries, men are killed by stray gunfire. But, if we were to legalize them here, we do not have to copy of the law of any other country exactly; that issue, for example, could be avoided simply by prohibiting guns.
"In the United States, it seems to me, women have too few choices. If I were to decide tomorrow that I personally should be culled and I could not afford to travel, my choices are really only four; suicide, having my parents or my boyfriend sell me into slavery, volunteering for public execution, or signing in at the local Goodbar. Other than simple suicide, none of these give me really free choices about how my demise is to take place. As a volunteer I can choose my method but the circumstances are formal and prescribed. I can choose at a Goodbar, too, but legally the choices a Goodbar Girl makes are mere suggestions, they do not have to be followed. Let us say I wished to be slowly and gently strangled by my boyfriend while making love with him, and that I also wanted some of our close friends present at the time. I do not have this choice, not here. Yes, it can and it sometimes is 'set up,' the boyfriend selling the girl into slavery to a third party and then having that third party sell her back to him--but the third party does not legally have to do this, a contract cannot be legally written requiring it, and it must be done in private. Yes, I can choose strangulation as a volunteer in the public arena, but I cannot choose to be having sex when I'm strangled. I can go to a Goodbar and wear a pendant indicating my preference, but no Goodbar would knowingly allow my boyfriend to be my executioner because of the legal issues. And in no case can I have friends present to witness, at least not many, or else the execution becomes legally 'public' and must be carried out by a licensed executioner."
She then turned and faced the audience. "I should have those right, those choices," she said loudly, her voice sounding impassioned. "Those women who volunteer for culling should be honored, and we are not honoring them by limiting their choices, they should have as much freedom as possible to select their own way. In Prague my boyfriend and I, and a hundred of our friends if we so desired, could simply go down to the Impulse Park and do whatever we chose. We could go to the Special Beach near Rio de Janeiro and do the same." She began speaking louder. "Women in the United States do not have those rights and we should have them, we should all write to our representatives in Congress and demand them! And if they do not give us these rights, we should organize and vote them out of office! These rights should be ours, American women who cannot afford to travel to Europe, to Australia, or to Brazil, are being discriminated against, and it should end now!"
She then turned away from the stunned audience and looked back at the Emcee. "So the answer is yes," she said in a quite calm voice. "I believe Special Beaches and Impulse Parks should be legal in the United States." She then smiled demurely.
Whatever the man had to say was drowned out in a sea of applause and cheers, as every woman in the place almost instantly came to her feet. Erin turned and acknowledged them, feeling a lump of emotion in her chest. At that moment, she felt quite sure she had won the contest--the only way she could possibly lose was if the judges were biased and did not like her answer, which had--or so everyone believed--happened in the past.
But still, she felt very much like a winner. She left the stage with tears in her eyes and was soundly congratulated by the other contestants, especially Jinx, who said she'd been listening and agreed completely.
As was usual in these pageants, once the last girl had had her turn, the officials brought all the girls, still in their "evening wear" outfits, out onto the stage, lining them up in the order they'd made their appearances. The Emcee waved at them, declaring them to be the "best of the best." Then, he looked at the electronic pad in his hand.
"The final three," he announced. "Bonnie Douglas!" Pause. "Jinx Fordham!" Pause. "Erin O'Brian!"
Looking delighted--and maybe, just a little, apprehensive--the three girls stepped forward to center-stage. The remainder of the girls applauded, as did the audience. Erin's mind was in turmoil as she glanced at the other two. She was still hoping to win, but there were other matters, as well.
After a few moments, the Emcee motioned for silence and the noise died down. "The position of the second runner-up," he said, "is a very important one. If for any reason during the coming year, Miss Seduction is unable to fulfill her duties, the second runner-up will be called upon to do so. Ladies and gentlemen, the second runner-up is... Miss Bonnie Douglas!"
Bonnie, looking delighted, stepped forward and accepted the standing ovation the audience gave her. Erin and Jinx, trying to smile but looking anxious, waited patiently.
"The first runner-up," the Emcee said when the noise died down again, "as you all know, is assigned to be the special attendant of the sacred phallus. No role, not even that of Miss Seduction, is more important. And, this year, the first runner-up is..." He paused, much longer this time, to let the anticipation build. "Jinx Fordham! And Erin O'Brian is Miss Seduction!"
For just an instant, Jinx looked ashen. Very quickly, though, she found her bright smile once again. "You'll make a wonderful queen, Erin," she said, turning to the red-haired girl. "You deserve this honor."
"Jinx, no, I thought... all along, Lindsay, I really expected..."
"No," Jinx said firmly. "It is as it is. Enjoy your moment, Erin. Please."
Erin, feeling confused at that moment, turned back to the audience--and saw that Lauren Hale, the reigning queen, was approaching her. Feeling as if she were in a dream--in many ways a very good dream, but a good dream with a dark tinge around the edge--she accepted the other girl's embrace, then accepted her crown, which was decorated at the front with a miniature of the giant steel phallus.
The remainder of that evening--the brief after-party, then the ride home with Josh and her parents--passed by like a whirlwind for Erin. Again, her mother suggested she retire early, since the next day as going to be a very full one. Josh stayed over at her house that night, and the next morning they had to get up early to attend a breakfast with town officials, where she dutifully named Josh as her choice for "king," a purely ceremonial role that required him to do nothing at all other than sit on one of the seats on the giant phallus during the final ceremonies.
As the morning waned, the three winners, along with Lauren Hale, were driven to the edge of town where the annual parade was to begin. With the winners again dressed in their "evening wear" outfits, the four were loaded into convertibles where they sat on the back of the rear seat. Erin, as the queen, was in this last car, and behind her was the "parade phallus," an exact replica of the giant one that was the destination of the procession, but only about six feet tall. This one was mounted on a platform with heavily padded beams extending from it, two from each side, eight in all.
As Erin waited for the parade to begin, she was lost in thought--so abstracted she hardly heard the drum roll and crash of cymbals from the San Juan College band that announced that the parade had started. Behind her, a forklift had raised the parade phallus to a height of about five feet, and forty girls, all the others from the pageant plus the local high school and college cheerleaders and a few more, all of them completely naked except for sneakers, moved into position under the beams. Erin watched them as the forklift slowly lowered the display onto their waiting hands. By the end of the parade, Erin knew, they would be exhausted; she herself had been in that crew the previous year, as had Jinx, Bonnie, and Lindsay. The display with its platform weighed more than three-quarters of a ton, which meant each girl was carrying about forty pounds, and the route was long. Even though there would be several stops where the girls would be relieved of the weight for a short while and the day was not overly hot, all of them would be covered by a sheen of perspiration at the end. Behind them, ready to march in formation waving flags with the symbol of the phallus on them, were another thirty naked girls, ready to take the place of any of the bearers who simply found herself unable to go on. As soon as the girls were ready, the limo Erin was sitting in lurched forward and, taken by surprise, she had to catch her balance.
The limo rolled slowly on. There were only a few spectators at that point, but Erin dutifully waved and smiled at them--and stole glances back at the girls lugging the heavy phallus. Already the strain was showing on a few of their faces. She remembered last year; she and Jinx had made the entire route, but Lindsay had dropped by the wayside early and Bonnie late. Twice the big icon had become unbalanced and the backup girls had rushed up to help them get it stabilized again. They had never dropped it, but that wasn't a rare occurrence during the parade. That the bearing of the phallus wasn't easy was a deliberate and carefully calculated matter, and had been so since the beginning of the parades.
After two city blocks, though, everything seemed to be going well. The bands ahead of her took turns playing mostly marching songs--John Philip Sousa, as always, was a favorite--and the streets were now heavily lined with onlookers. Vendors moved among them, selling little candies on sticks in the shape of erect penises and engorged vaginas, and many people were sucking them or licking on them. Virtually all of the younger women in the crowd--who made up the majority of it--were scantily clad, many topless, and some naked except for shoes. The men and the older boys were being attended to closely, just about every one of them surrounded by a little crowd of girls. Here and there the girls had gotten some man's pants down or off and were either massaging or sometimes sucking his erection. Occasionally a couple could be seen engaged in intercourse while those around them cheered them on. Confetti flew in the air; the festive atmosphere, as always, seemed to build continuously as the parade marched on. As it wound around a broad curve in the road Erin could see, for a moment, the floats ahead of her; one bore a Christian cross, another an Islamic crescent, another a man in costume playing the role of Pan, another a feather flute player symbolizing Kokopelli, the often-phallic fertility god of the Hopi, and yet another a giant plumed serpent. No expense had been spared in the creation of these floats. Erin remembered wistfully how she'd stood as a spectator and watched this procession go by when she was a little girl, how impressed and excited she'd been; since she'd entered her teens she'd been a participant in one role or another and had been required to focus on the task at hand rather than just enjoying the party.
The parade had gotten about three blocks past the bend when the girls behind Erin began having trouble with the phallus. Those on the right-hand side were perhaps carrying it too low, or possibly those on the left too high, but in any event it began to tip to the right. As Erin knew from the previous year, keeping the thing upright was essential; any tilting put much too much weight on one side, and that effect started magnifying itself very rapidly. The girls staggered to the right as the extras rushed up to help; the piercing cry of an air horn, operated by one of the parade officials, split the air and the procession halted. Spectators to the right of the icon drew back as the girls struggled to get it righted again.
While Erin watched, four of the backups ran around to the right side and grabbed the poles, pushing them back up. An official at the front, known as the "balance master," yelled at them that they were pushing too hard, but everyone was yelling by then and they apparently did not hear her. The phallus came up erect again, then tipped sharply and suddenly to the left. The girls on that side, suddenly overwhelmed by the weight, could not hold it. Before any of the other backups could come to help, it passed the point of no return. Several of the girls on the left panicked and let go, scrambling to get out of the way, and that made things even worse. As it pivoted on the shoulders of the girls in front and in back, some of the girls on the right were momentarily lifted into the air. The ends of the beams on the left struck the street with a loud metallic clang, and at least one of the bearers screamed in pain. The right side then came crashing down, knocking most of the girls out of the way but trapping a few of them under it, and the whole thing bounced a couple of times as it settled onto the street, still upright. More screams could be heard; Erin could see one of the girls, her legs pinned, clawing at the pavement as she tried unsuccessfully to drag herself free.
After just a moment of complete confusion, the backup girls were ushered to the side as the forklift, which had been following the parade at a discreet distance, rolled up. A few minutes later the icon had been lifted again; blood stained the street and three girls lay unmoving. Medics, red crosses marking their white coats, rushed in and began checking them.
The pause stretched on; the spectators had packed in to the sidewalks close to the accident, jostling each other for a better view. After perhaps ten minutes, a parade official with a bullhorn began running down the damage.
"Three dead," she announced. "three who have already given their lives in the service of the phallus. Marian Grimsley, Ida Simms, Alice Worth." She then started running down the injured. One broken back, three broken legs, two broken arms, one broken wrist, three internal or head injuries, seven skinned knees, elbows, or lacerations. Seventeen in all; fully half the bearers had been killed or injured.
But the count wouldn't stay like that long, as Erin knew well; she had seen the phallus fall before. Four men dressed in jeans, workshirts, and full-length aprons moved in. The first one went to a blond girl who was sitting on the pavement holding a clearly broken arm and who was also bleeding from severe cuts and abrasions around her shoulder.
She looked up at him. "My life for the phallus," she said. He smiled, stood behind her, pulled her head back, drew a large knife from his belt and slit her throat. He let her go and she fell to the pavement, blood spouting from her throat, her body bouncing and writhing. The man, a certified and licensed executioner, left her to die at her own speed and moved to the next, the girl who Erin had seen trapped under the phallus, who was writhing with the pain of two crushed legs. Kneeling beside her, he paused for a second, waiting for her to speak her line, but all she could do was squirm and moan. With a slight shrug, the man drove his blade into her back between her shoulder blades, piercing her heart. She gave a short sharp cry and collapsed, her hands twitching randomly.
Meanwhile, the other three executioners had been dispatching other injured girls, mostly by slitting their throats or stabbing them in the heart, either from the front or back, killing the most severely injured girls first. The majority of these were able to speak their line, and they did. From the onlookers came cries of "belly stab!" and "midline gutting!" but the executioners were ignoring them. But finally, when all the severely injured girls had been put down, a girl whose only apparent injury was a badly-skinned elbow approached one of the executioners. With a little shock Erin realized the injured girl was Kelly, one of early favorites in the pageant.
"Give them what they want," she said, her voice tremulous. Then more loudly, and much more strongly: "My life for the phallus!"
The executioner smiled, put his arm around the small of her back, turned her slightly, then plunged his knife deep into her lower belly. She gave a loud grunt, threw her head back, and grabbed at his shoulders. He pulled the knife upward, slitting her lower belly open, then used a sudden hard upward jerk with the knife buried deep to split her navel. She cried out loudly. Even so, Erin knew it wasn't as painful for Kelly as it looked. All the bearers and backups had been given injections before the parade started, stimulants to keep them going and painkillers which would allow them to ignore aching muscles--and which would help them if they found themselves in circumstances like those Kelly was facing at that moment.
"Hold your belly together with your hands now," the executioner instructed. Her eyes wide, she obeyed. He cut on, almost to her sternum, then pulled his knife out and turned her toward the almost frenzied crowd. "Go," he said, patting her on her rear.
Holding her belly together tightly, keeping her entrails inside, she staggered toward the rope that separated the onlookers from the parade. The spectators pushed against it, their hands stretched out to her. When she got close enough they began touching her, wiping their fingers in the blood streaming from her belly. Many of them then marked their foreheads with the locally-accepted Sign of the Phallus, two vertical lines with a little pointed cap atop it. It was believed, by many sardonically but by others very fervently, that marking oneself with that sign in the blood of an offering to the phallus would bring luck in having male children. A number of the mothers in the crowd marked their daughters with the sign, and at least a few boys were marked as well.
On the other side of the street, one of the executioners had pulled a slender blond girl, a girl whose injuries consisted of a badly skinned knee and a deep cut in her thigh, up to her feet, asking her if she minded "going to the crowd." If she refused, Erin knew, she'd be dispatched quickly--but very few girls ever did.
She nodded and smiled wanly. "No, I don't mind," she answered. "And you can do it so I'll last a little while." She threw her arms up. "My life for the phallus!"
"Good girl," the man said. He then turned her so that her back was to him, held her tightly, and plunged his knife into her bare belly alongside her navel. She cried out in pain; he ripped the knife out and stabbed her again, a little lower. She squirmed in his grasp. After two more stabs to her belly, he plunged the knife shallowly into each of her breasts, twisting it a little each time so that she would be bleeding freely. He then sent her to the crowd; hands grabbed her breasts and stroked her bleeding belly, then passed her down the line.
On the other side, too far away for Erin to hear any of the conversation, a third executioner had picked another of the former contestants--Kirsten Phillips, the cute auburn-haired girl who'd followed Erin on stage but who now had a broken wrist. While she stood passively, he held her by shoulder and drove his knife into her lower abdomen, burying only half the blade. He then twisted it sharply, causing her to flinch, before driving it on in as deeply as possible. Blood spurted out. He pulled the knife out and immediately stabbed her again, in her left breast, squarely through her nipple. After drawing it out once more, he apparently instructed her to spread her legs; when she did, he slipped the blade of his knife up into her vagina. Even at that distance Erin could see her eyes and mouth fly wide open. The man pulled the blade down then, tugging it forward at the same time, cutting her severely. Blood gushed out, spattering on the street between her legs. Awkwardly, her legs still far apart, she tottered toward the crowd, but it was apparent almost immediately that she was too severely injured to make it even that far. The executioner swept her up by her waist and delivered her to the ubiquitous outstretched hands, where they held her up as they began passing her down the line; only weak movements of her arms and legs showed that she was, for the moment, still alive. Once the crowd had Kirsten, her executioner turned to another skinned-knee casualty and, after getting her agreement, cut long deep incisions in both her sides, from her ribs to the crest of her pelvis, before turning her over to the onlookers. The variety in the types of injuries inflicted by the executioners was, Erin knew, deliberate and planned beforehand.
Kelly, meanwhile, was moving with slow, uncertain steps down the line, allowing as many people as possible to sample her blood. A woman caught her right hand and pulled it away from her belly, which then opened, allowing her intestines to sag out. Another woman grabbed them and started pulling them out of her. With triumphant cries, others joined in, and a moment later her bloody intestine was being stretched out and passed through the crowd. She weaved on her feet as she was being disemboweled. A young man caught her eye and reached his hands out to her; she took them gratefully. He pulled her close and kissed her as the crowd continued to pull her entrails out of her. Just a few seconds later her strength left her, she fell to her knees and then onto her side, her body jerking violently as she went through her death throes.
One the other side of the street an executioner had taken a girl close to the ropes and asked her to kneel in front of the crowd. When she did so he cut off her head with three or four expert strokes, showering the delighted onlookers with her blood; he moved her quivering body from side to side as it sprayed out, wetting down as many of them as possible. Another skinned-knee girl had had her belly slit open hara-kiri style and was holding herself together just as Kelly had as she moved down the line. Watching, Erin remembered the previous year, when she, Jinx, and the rest were required to sign forms authorizing their summary executions if they were in any visible way injured during the parade, and that possibility had been real for her when the icon became unbalanced, when it seemed it might fall. Then, it hadn't, and all the bearers had survived. Not so this year.
"We need new backups!" the parade official cried through her bullhorn after all the girls had been killed. "Twenty new backups!" Without delay, girls began piling out of the crowd, discarding their clothes as they came, picking up the dropped flags. One women appeared to be in her late thirties, and she led her daughter, no more than thirteen or fourteen, out into the street where they too stripped down, grabbed up flags, and took their places among the backups. The backup corps soon swelled to at least fifty. The parade official did not send any back, she merely told those without flags to move to the back.
The original twenty bearers and twenty of the backups then shouldered the load again, the forklift was pulled back slowly, and the parade began to move again. The bodies of the girls killed in the accident were, for the moment, left lying in the street, and after the slowly-moving forklift had passed the onlookers rushed out to get samples of their blood. This, too, was not something Erin had not seen before; the blood would be largely mopped up in fairly short order and after that the corpses would be mutilated, the people would be cutting off hair, fingers, toes, ears, and nipples to preserve them and keep them as good-luck charms. Spectators from out of town often found the spectacle grotesque and even sickening, but the locals commonly reminded them that for the most part, those taking pieces of the dead girls' bodies--almost all of them women--had themselves carried the phallus, often more than once, as teenagers--thereby risking death and mutilation themselves. Carrying the phallus was a proud tradition in their town, an honor, and in spite of the well-known risks practically everyone was eager to participate.
As the parade moved on, Erin could see, in the faces of the onlookers, a fervent hope that the phallus would fall again. Once, a block or two later, it became unbalanced, but this time the girls were able to get it under control before it went over--to the visible disappointment of the audience. Then, at last, the giant stationary version of the phallus, their destination, came into sight. Without anyone consciously intending it, the parade sped up a little, and, without further mishap, they arrived at the ceremonial center. The cars bearing the pageant winners pulled up near the huge icon; the bearers finally were able to put their burden down, after which a number of them essentially collapsed against it. Josh and Erin's parents, along with all the town's dignitaries who had not been in the parade, were waiting for them. Erin, Jinx, and Bonnie were whisked inside, where they would change from their parade attire to ceremonial robes. Time was limited; as they were changing, the spectators outside were arraying themselves in a large semicircle around the huge phallus.
As the ceremony began, Erin, Jinx, and Bonnie were led out in a slow procession, each of them wearing a full-length robe. Bonnie's was lavender, the one Jinx wore was bright red, and Erin's was royal purple. Josh, also dressed in purple, came out to take Erin's hand and lead her to the seat atop the icon's right testicle, after which he took his position on the other one. Bonnie's seat was beside and below Erin's; Jinx, looking very small in the red robe, was led to a seat alongside the table at the base of the sculpture. Erin, lost in thought, gazed down at her fixedly. She knew exactly what was about to happen, and it did not seem right to her.
There followed a number of speeches by town officials, each of whom promised to be brief but wasn't, talking about the pageant, about how proud the town was of the winners, and about what they'd be expected to do in the coming year. The afternoon sun was growing warm, though, and the crowd was getting obviously restless. The last few speakers were indeed brief.
Finally, the mayor, Kim Letterman, took the podium. "And now," she said, "the time has come. As you all know, it is traditional for us to offer the first runner-up to the spirit of the phallus, in a manner appropriate to the name of our city." She waved her arm. "And I now give you--Miss Jinx Fordham!"
Jinx stood and without any noticeable hesitation walked very slowly, very regally--as she was expected to--to a position in front of the table, where four local police officers and the chief, himself a trained executioner, waited for her. All of them were dressed in purple ceremonial robes. In his hand the chief held a precise replica of an Aztec sacrificial knife, a tecpatl, made of freshly-flaked obsidian. Jinx looked at it, then calmly started to undo her robe.
The next stage, Erin knew, was for Jinx to call for someone special to her to hold her head while her heart was being cut from her body, and after that she would be given a ritual name. There wasn't much time left, but Erin had made her decision.
She suddenly stood up. "Wait!" she cried. "As Miss Seduction, as the Queen of the Phallus, I have a proclamation!"
Mayor Letterman looked up at her. "After the sacrifice, Erin," she said, her look slightly disapproving.
"No," Erin said, staring her down. "Now. For today, I am the queen, I have the right to, uhm, proclaim. At any time."
The mayor nodded. "Very well."
Erin turned to the crowd. Her knees were shaking a little, but she cleared her throat and began to speak. "From the origin of this festival," she opened, "we have always done things the way we're doing them today. First we choose three of the best, the brightest, the most beautiful eighteen-year-old women in town. We name the winner Miss Seduction." She looked down at her mother, who was standing in the front row not far away. "Although, like my mother, I believe that the title of 'Queen of the Phallus' is more appropriate." She then found herself reciting her mother's own lines, about the religious nature of the event. "And we pray," she continued, "to whatever god we might follow--Yahweh, Jesus, Allah, Pan, Cernunnos, Quetzalcoatl, Kokopelli, Osiris, Shiva--to spare us from the curse of the Tongu virus and give us sons. And to that end, we offer in sacrifice one of the winners of the contest." She paused for a moment. "And, for reasons that are not at all clear in the history of this festival, we have from the beginning offered the first runner-up."
Erin saw her mother silently mouthing "no" and, on the other side of the phallus, Josh had risen from his seat. The mayor and the police chief were staring at her; clearly, they all knew what she was about to do.
And she did not disappoint them. "Although there are factors not counted in the contest," she plowed on, "it has been decided, when a winner is named, that she is the best, the brightest, the most beautiful. The first runner-up is the second best, the second brightest, the second most beautiful. We should not offer our second best. We should offer our best." Pausing again, she took a deep breath. "I hereby proclaim," she said formally, "that, beginning with this year, the offering will not be the first runner-up, the offering will be the winner, and the first runner-up will assume all the duties of Miss Seduction throughout the year. Jinx, would you come up here, please?"
While the crowd looked on in stunned silence, Jinx, her red robe flying, ran up the stair. "Erin, no, you can't do this," she said breathlessly.
"Yes I can," Erin answered. "I've been thinking about this since I was crowned. What decided it for me is who I am and who you are. I was planning a career as an actress. You were the best student in school, you have a scholarship to Harvard, you're planning a career in biological research. You might just be the one to find an answer to the Tongu. For me, it's probably only a matter of a few years before Josh gets tired of me and requests my execution, or before I get offered a 'red role'--a part in a movie where the actress is killed on camera--so good I can't turn it down. If I live to see thirty it'll be amazing. You'll still be playing with your test tubes at sixty." She smiled. "It really is a no-brainer. Take off your robe."
Jinx complied, and the two girls switched robes. Erin then lifted the crown from her head. "When you give me that," Jinx pointed out, "I'll be the queen. And I can proclaim a reversal of your proclamation."
Erin laughed. "Yes, you can. Then we switch again and I re-proclaim, and we keep doing that until everyone here gets bored and they either fall asleep or kill us both in a mad rage. Don't."
Jinx' dark eyes were intense. "You would not have done this," she pointed out, "if Lindsay had been first runner-up."
"No," Erin said with a smile. "I wouldn't have. I'm not anywhere near that noble. But really, it's what should happen, Jinx. We should offer the winner, the girl we've designated the best. This whole business of offering the second-best is just silly and always has been." She handed her crown to Jinx. With tears in her eyes and some obvious reluctance, the smaller girl took it. The two of them then embraced briefly, and Erin, now wearing the red robe of the designated sacrifice, turned and descended the stair to where the police chief and his officers were waiting.
The police chief, Hernando Perez, gazed at her steadily. "That," he said as she drew close, "was an extraordinary thing for you to do. Your courage is a tribute to your family." He smiled. "Between you and me, it should have been done years ago."
She smiled back. "I agree." She then removed the robe and laid it aside, and she kicked off her slippers, leaving herself totally nude. "I now call upon one to hold my head," she said loudly. She saw Josh watching her expectantly, and she hated to disappoint him--but she had a different choice. "I call upon my mother, Margaret O'Brian." She looked over at Margaret, who was openly crying. "It was she who taught me the serious nature of this ritual. Without her lessons I could not have done what I have done today."
Margaret came to the side of the altar. "You simply can't know," she told Erin in a choked voice, "how proud I am of you today. Sad, too, yes, in many ways I wish you had not done it. But intensely--one might say violently--proud."
"I love you, Mom," she said softly. She then mounted the few steps to the altar and stood on it, facing the crowd. Chief Perez laid the tecpatl down and picked up a long slender piece of pure white cloth. While Erin stood still, he wound it around her waist, then, with expert technique, down between her slightly-spread legs. Bringing the end back up and over in front, he let it hang. She was left with a narrow band around her waist, an even narrower one fitted tightly between her buttocks, and the wider end dangling in front.
The chief picked up the tecpatl again and held it high. "I will now give you your new name," he cried loudly. "For the rest of your life, you shall be known as... Xilonen!"
She smiled and nodded. "Xilonen."
The four officers approached her then. She stretched her arms out and spread her legs more, allowing the two men and two women to take her by her wrists and ankles. "Keep your body rigid," one of the female officers said. Erin--or rather "Xilonen," as she was already beginning to think of herself--complied, and the officers tipped her backwards, bringing her down slowly until she was lying on her back on the altar, her legs spread and her arms extended to the sides. Margaret moved in behind her quickly and placed her hands on the sides of her daughter's head.
Throughout, Chief Perez had remained in place, the tecpatl held high in the air, pointed skyward. "To any and all of the spirits who may exist and who may be here on this day," he intoned, "we beg you, our need for male children remains desperate even though we have already been favored. We offer you this young woman, the best we have." He paused briefly and glanced at Erin as he said that, smiling a bit. He knew, and so did she, that that line in the past had been "one of the best we have." He looked at Erin's eyes. "Do you accept? Will you offer yourself to the spirits and to the spirit of the phallus?"
Just to add to the drama, Erin let a moment pass before she answered. She knew quite well that she had to answer in the affirmative, no girl was ever sacrificed against her will. If she refused, she would be allowed to get up and Bonnie would take her place.
But from the beginning no girl had ever refused, and she was not about to be the first. "I do accept," she said strongly. "My life, my heart, for the phallus!" To emphasize her willingness she pushed her chest up.
Chief Perez then brought the tecpatl slowly down until the point was lightly touching her body just below her sternum, the edges at right angles to her body. "Hold yourself rigid again, Xilonen," he said softly. She obeyed, clenching all the muscles in her abdomen.
And he pushed down with the knife, quite gently. The freshly-flaked edges, far sharper than a surgical scalpel, cut through the skin and muscle effortlessly, and three inches of the blade sank smoothly into her. Her mother was lifting her head so she could see; she was amazed, there was at that point virtually no pain at all. Blood, brilliant red in the sunshine, welled up and ran down over her side, but still, there was no pain. Even so, a feeling like shock ran through her. The knife was actually in her, inside her body, in deep. She was being killed, she was being sacrificed, right then, right at that moment. She could not believe this was actually happening to her, the absence of pain made it seem very dreamlike; but at the same time, paradoxically, it seemed more intensely real to her than anything she'd ever experienced in her life.
Perez paused for maybe a minute, although it seemed longer to Erin/Xilonen. He then pulled the knife to her right and again the incredibly sharp edge sliced through her abdomen. Much more blood appeared, surging out and pouring off her; there was some pain then, but it wasn't very severe. The chief cut on, opening a four or five inch slit, following the line of her lowest rib. Without ever taking it out of her, he then returned it to the center and cut the other way. When he had finished this cut, her trembling body had been completely sliced open from side to side, just under her ribs and breastbone.
Erin/Xilonen, now feeling stinging and burning pain--although it was not even close to what she had been expecting--stared at the long and freely-bleeding incision. She was breathing very hard and already beginning to feel cool, and she knew that meant she was starting to go into shock. Chief Perez had returned the knife to the center position and had paused again. She knew what was coming next, and she stiffened herself even more in anticipation.
"Good girl," Perez murmured. He then slowly turned the knife ninety degrees, causing her body to jerk violently and stiffen even more as a wave of pain struck her. Using a slight in-and-out motion, he began cutting down the center of her abdomen, keeping the glistening black blade deep inside her.
Real pain arrived then, deep heavy cramps as her intestines were cut. She bit her lip, not wanting to cry out. Her insides felt liquid, as if she was going to have an attack of diarrhea, but the tightness of the wound loincloth helped her resist it.
Then, after cutting down almost to her navel, Perez stopped. "Deep breath now," he told her, his voice gentle. "As deep as you can." She nodded slightly and obeyed; he then slipped the tip of the obsidian blade back into the incision, and, using only the tip, quickly sliced open her diaphragm from side to side.
Her eyes flew open wide as her diaphragm was cut. Immediately she began to gradually lose the air in her lungs; she no longer had any control over it, and that felt very strange to her. She was by then experiencing waves of nausea, and she fought to prevent herself from vomiting. She'd seen that happen, in more than one of the previous sacrifices, and she knew it was not pretty. Blood was just pouring out of her, and the chilling effect that was causing helped her resist the nausea.
"Relax now, we're almost done," she heard Chief Perez saying. Laying the tecpatl aside, he then forcefully thrust his whole hand into the center of her body, pushing his fingers through the slit in her diaphragm. Her body jerked violently, she could not believe the sensation, a man's hand completely inside her chest. He pushed in deeper, and, even though he was going in through her upper abdomen, she had the impression that she was being penetrated by a giant penis; she felt a quivering between her legs and a moment later she exploded into orgasm. As it was rolling off she felt his fingers close around her rapidly-beating heart, and that was more than painful. She squirmed involuntarily to escape it, but the police officers' and her mother's hands held her tight. More wide-eyed than ever, she looked up at the chief's face.
And then he yanked his hand back out, tearing her heart free from her chest. Immediately she felt a massive, terrible crushing pain, and she would have cried out if she'd had a working diaphragm. But then, very rapidly, the pain rolled away and disappeared. She felt like she was lying in cotton, or perhaps floating in calm cool water. She could not breathe, but that didn't matter to her, not anymore. Time seemed to drop into extreme slow-motion; she looked up at her mother's proud but tear-stained face, then back at Chief Perez, who was holding her wildly-beating heart; she watched him transfer it, still beating, to the cup attached to the giant phallus, watched it bounce in the deep cup, watched the bright red blood trickle out through the perforations in the bottom. She could not help but feel that it was somehow mystically still attached to her, that she could still feel it beating--and feel it slowing. Her bladder released and she felt warm water soak her loincloth as skyrockets and other fireworks began shooting up out of the meatus at the tip of the huge phallus, painting the sky with multicolored splashes and streaks. Watching the display, Erin found herself mentally reviewing major events in her life, particularly those that had led to this moment, and it seemed to her then that this outcome had been inevitable, preordained somehow. Even though she knew she was just seconds away from death, she did not regret her decision in the slightest.
The officers had released her wrists and ankles by then, although Margaret was still holding her head. She moved one leg slightly and, with effort, turned her head a bit to the side; the onlookers had lined up to dip their fingertips or handkerchiefs in the blood. She was fading fast, although it did not seem like it to her. She tried to smile at her audience; she wasn't sure if she succeeded or not. A bright spot in the center of her field of vision was making it hard for her to see. After the procession was over, she knew, her head would be cut off and mounted in the case in City Hall with the heads of all the other offerings to the phallus, and then her body would be carved and butchered and used to make a giant pot of chili con carne, which most--but not all--of the townspeople would at least sample, she had eaten it herself, the previous year. Vaguely, she wondered if she'd taste good. She felt a little pang, knowing her parents would not taste it; by tradition, the parents and any siblings of the sacrifice were not permitted to partake.
Her vision by then was starting to go more rapidly. The bright spot had enlarged, all she could see was a ring around it and that had begun to appear hazy, as if something gray was hanging over her face. At the top of that ring she saw one of the town's water towers and the letters on it, reminding her why this particular town had been the first to adopt a heart offering to the nameless god of the sacred phallus.
Aztec, New Mexico.
Nine months to the day after Erin's sacrifice, Jinx Fordham and four other young women in Aztec delivered healthy baby boys.
Sometimes the gods do listen...