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Week #40: Creative Writing Challenge – A King Chooses a Queen

November 1, 2021

By way of a lottery system, the king chooses you to be his queen.

“You did this, didn’t you?” I hiss at Shelly. She shoves me toward the aisle with a grin on her face.

Slowly I get up and make my way towards the front of the room where Vance looks just as confused and upset as I do. When I get to the stage I stand by Vance and he hands me the card with my name on it, like he’s trying to convince me that it really is random that he’s drawn my name. I look out at the senior class where they’re clapping and hooting and whistling. Is this really the pinnacle of achievement for our little town; king and queen at the Watermelon Festival? Oh how the mighty bread basket of America has fallen if we think that riding a float down main street in the August heat is more exciting than discovering the cure for cancer or working for the NYT reporting on conflict in Sudan.

I’m so glad I’m getting out of here come September.

The thing is, I don’t care about standing up here on this stage next to Vance. What I do care about is sitting up on that float in August supposedly celebrating a dying small-town farming culture. The government can’t even subsidize the family farms around here enough for them to make a profit, despite Trump giving the agriculture sector $28 billion in 2019 and 2020. They’re all in such a big hole they’re never going to dig themselves out. They government doesn’t care, the banks don’t care. No one cares enough to figure out a way to survive long-term, and at some point the whole thing is going to implode, and there’s no way in hell I’m going to be here when that happens.

Okay, okay, okay. Some of it is Vance. Most of it is about the issues, but yes, some of it is about Vance. You see, Vance and I have a long history. He’s a farmer’s son. A good, honest, hard-working, God-loving, young man.

I, on the other hand, am a liberal political activist and a writer. I will lie when I have to, take short cuts if I need to, and definitely don’t believe that God will save me from the shit in this world.

Vance and I grew up together. My dad worked on the Regins (yes, that’s seriously his last name) family farm for years and would take me with him sometimes. Vance and I roamed the farm, played with the animals, hid in the tall grasses of fields that lay fallow, and enjoyed our freedom. We pretended to be pirates exploring the world and talked about all the things our eight year old imaginations could create.

When I was ten, my mom, who was a school teacher, found a great job teaching at a charter school in California and we moved. My mom was the bread-winner of the family so there wasn’t really any argument, and I was excited to get out of small town U.S.A.

Unfortunately, when I was sixteen, the charter school lost its funding and couldn’t afford to keep my mom, so we ended up back in small town U.S.A. where we knew my father could easily get a job again at the Reigns family farm, or any other farm in the area. My grandparents were also in the area and finagled a job for my mom at the local elementary school. This had been great for my parents.

My parents had both been born in small town U.S.A. and they loved farm culture, but California had changed me. I came back cynical about the world, with a chip on my shoulder, and no hope in the American dream. I found the journalists, the political activists, the artists, and other people with open minds at school and hung on for dear life. There weren’t many of them, but they were there.

Vance had found me the first week I’d been back. He’d grown tall and was lean and muscled from working in the fields. His brown hair had streaks of blonde from being outside and his smile was beautiful and kind, just like I remembered. I could see some of the ten year old I’d left behind, but there were new pieces I couldn’t identify and I wanted to discover them.

There was an instant attraction and we set about getting to know one another again, but by the time junior year ended I was in love with Vance and knew I’d made a mistake. I couldn’t get sucked into Vance and this town or I might never escape, and I didn’t have the courage to see Vance get destroyed by it first hand. I drew away. I knew it was a shitty thing to do and didn’t at all represent my feelings for Vance, but the fear of getting stuck in small town U.S.A. was overwhelming me. Vance called me out one night at the end of junior year. He said he loved me. I said the world was a lot bigger than this small town and asked how he could not want to experience it all. He said he was proud to be growing America’s food. I said this town was the worst thing to ever happen to me. He said I was stuck up and cynical, a hypocrite for not doing anything about all the problems I complained about. I said he was sheltered and delusional.

I was wrong to break his heart that way, but I didn’t know what else I could do. I had to cut ties before I got sucked in too deep. The problem was that I still loved Vance and my best friend Shelly knew it. Senior year was the worst. I avoided Vance as best I could and when I couldn’t, I pretended that I wasn’t miserable thinking about him all the time. The only thing that got me through the days was hoping and then knowing that in another year I would be at Columbia working on a journalism degree and not stuck in small town U.S.A. working on a farm. Vance ignored me as much as he could. Neither of us had dated anyone else.

So here I was standing on a stage next to Vance fucking Reigns, who I still fucking loved, slated to be the next Watermelon festival queen. What a shit show.

Vance and I stood there on stage listening to Principal Walters describe our duties as the king and queen of the festival, as well as what the graduating class was responsible for. Each year the graduating class sponsored the Watermelon Festival. Indentured servitude was more like it, but it was “tradition”. They would set up everything for the events leading up to the festival and then during the week of the festival the king a queen judged contests, presided over events, and then shared a float during the closing parade. People from all over came for the festivities and I swear the town made most of its money for the year during the week.

I have a job with the local gazette for the summer to pad my resume. I’d worked there last summer doing anything that people needed done. This year they trusted me enough to do some fact-checking and Pete the managing editor said I could try and write some pieces. If they were any good he promised he’d run them. Anyway, the job has me stuck in town through the end of August until Columbia starts. I don’t have any good excuses to get out of the Watermelon Festival, and I don’t think I could do that to my parents. They’re going to flip their shit when I tell them the news. My mom had been the Watermelon queen after her senior year too. The least I could do before escaping from small town U.S.A. forever was make my parents happy.

Principal Walters keeps Vance and I for a few minutes after everyone else has filed out of the auditorium. He goes on and on about dates for events we’ll have to be at and things we need to prep for. Apparently there’s a “team” to make sure the king and queen show up to events on time and look their best, and we get to pick our “team”. I immediately tell Principal Walters that I want Shelly to be on the team and he yells her name. She’s been trying to listen to our conversation from the door. At her name she saunters into the auditorium like she’s just been passing by.

“Hi Principal Walters. What can I do for you today?” She says in a cloying voice I don’t think he picks up on.

“You will be head of the King and Queen Team. Pick two other people to help out. You’re responsible for making sure these two show up when and where they’re supposed to and that they look fantastic. Shouldn’t be too hard. Here’s the schedule for the summer.” He hands Shelly a binder full of information and she practically beams. Shelly is an artist. Her specialty is designing album covers, but she likes any kind of design, including fashion. She’ll be in heaven for the next two months. Plus, she’s really organized.

“Okay that’s all for now.” Principal Walters dismisses us with a wave as he leaves the auditorium. Shelly is babbling about how fun this is going to be.

“Shelly, can you give Vance and I a minute?” I ask her. Vance hasn’t said a word and I’m starting to worry that he’s going to flip a farm boy gasket if I just just walk away and leave him standing there like I want to do. Shelly quickly makes herself scarce.

“Listen, It’s two months. It’ll make both our parents really happy and then you never have to see me again.” I tried to stand up tall and speak with conviction, but on the inside I’m a mess. How am I going to be in close quarters with Vance Reigns for two months? I want out of this town more than ever, but it’s Vance. There’s a full out war building inside me and hopefully it doesn’t break out in the next two months.

Vance sighs. “Fine.” It’s all he says before storming out of the auditorium.

I walk over to the bin with all the names of the female students in the senior class. I draw out a handful of cards. More than half of them have my name on them. Of course they do.

Shelly calls me two weeks later to tell me the plan for the first event associated with the Watermelon Festival, the 4H entries. Each year rotates between different types of animals and this year we are picking sheep and pigs. Perfect. The king and queen are supposed to preside over picking entries for the competition that will take place during the festival week. Believe it or not, it’s an event in itself. Everyone from the local community comes. Regardless of who we pick, no one ever knows who will win because there’s still six weeks until the actual competition. This event is meant to ramp up suspense for the festival.

We’ll be meeting at the school to get ready and then head over to the fairgrounds all together. Shelly dresses me in blue jeans, a tucked in blouse with violets on it, and cowboy boots. I throw the boots at her head once before she convinces me they’re a necessary costume element. Shelly braids my long brown hair into a crown as a final touch and threads real violets into it. The end result isn’t bad, certainly not my style, but those fucking cowboy boots are definitely going to cut off circulation to my toes before we even got to the fairgrounds.

We meet Vance and his friend Chris in the parking lot and walk to Shelly’s car. Shelly has chosen Chris as her number two. He’s Vance’s best friend and knows our history. Also, he worships Shelly even though she’d made it abundantly clear that she wasn’t interested in the male variety. Being lesbian in small town U.S.A. just doesn’t happen, so Chris just pretends that Shelly’s playing hard to get. Chris isn’t a bad guy and I know he’s talk to Shelly and pledged his support for her, but he’s just been pressured into conforming in our small town. It’s another reason I need to get out of here.

Vance looks like the quintessential farmer. Really, he just has on clean clothes, but they look good on him. I survey him as we walk to the cars. I must make some kind of noise because Vance turns around and catches me staring at his butt.

I whirl around and hiss at Shelly, “I don’t think I can do this.”

“Of course you can.” She is no nonsense and spins me around to keep walking.

“I hate you.”

“Of course you do. But you also love me.”

We make it to the fairgrounds without incident and Shelly situates us in the stands that are starting to fill up. We are seated at a table covered with paperwork for all the 4H entries. I take the opportunity to remove my cowboy boots, hoping no one will notice them under the table.

“I was wondering when those were going to come off.” Vance smiles at me.

“Well, I tried throwing them at Shelly’s head, but she was having none of that. This is my compromise.”

Vance laughs and it leaves a nice feeling in my chest. “I would expect nothing less from you.” A pause. “You look really nice Haley.”

Are we having an actual pleasant conversation?

“Listen, I just want to say…” I try to start, but Vance interrupts with a firm, “Let’s not do this Haley.”

Okay, so not a pleasant conversation. The rest of the event proceeds with minimal conversation and the conversation that does take place is securely rooted in sheep and pigs. At the end of the event I sneak my cowboy boots back on and Shelly ushers us toward the holding pens.

“So I didn’t want to tell you earlier because I thought you might freak out, but there’s someone here from the gazette who wants to take a few pictures of you and Vance.” Shelly tells me when she quickly pulls me aside as we walk. I can see ahead of us that Chris has done the same thing with Vance. Chris and Shelly really are partners in crime. I give Shelly a withering look and just nod.

The photographer arranges us in front of some sheep and instructs Vance to put his arm around my waist. He looks to me for confirmation that it’s okay and I’m transported back to when Vance asked if he could kiss me at the end of our first formal date. I give him a nervous nod. His hand is warm through my blouse and he tucks his two smallest fingers through my belt loop out of habit. Vance smells like fresh hay and mint and sunshine. Like anyone could smell like sunshine. My senses are befuddling me. I close my eyes and the words are out of my mouth before I can stop them. “You smell like sunshine.” Vance runs the hand not tangled in my belt loop through his hair and when the photographer tells me to lean my head against Vance’s chest, I can hear the rapid beating of his heart. Is he as nervous as I am?

As soon as the photographer finishes, Vance and I disentangle ourselves. Shelly and Chris are talking to us, but I can’t hear them. What I can hear is Vance say my name, barely a whisper, but it’s there. I want to cry, and as soon as I think it tears start welling. I turn and run.

Shelly finds me hiding in a horse stall twenty minutes later. I’ve been grooming my pain away.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Shelly asks quietly.

“Nope,” I say between sniffles.

“Okay.” She grabs a brush and starts working the mare’s tail in silence.

Finally I ask, “Why did you do it? Why did you put my name in the drawing so many times?”

Shelly looks at me. “I can understand why you might not believe me considering previous meddlesome behaviors, but I actually didn’t do it Haley.” I consider her. She seems genuine, but if she didn’t do it then who did?

“Is it really such a bad thing? Having to do this with him?” She asks me earnestly.

“I can be the queen of the Watermelon Festival for my parents. That part is easier than I expected. You should have seen my mom and dad fuss last night. It was adorable. But Vance…” I pause trying to find the right words to describe how I’m feeling. “It’s like when you fall off your bike and scrape your leg up. You’re scared of riding your bike again, not because of the bike itself but because of the pain you’re going to feel when you inevitably fall off again. So you just put your bike in the garage and try to forget about it, but you can’t stop remembering the wind in your hair and feeling like you’re flying. And it just hurts so much every time you look at that fucking bike in the garage.” I break down into a sobbing mess and Shelly leads me out of the stall so we don’t frighten the mare.

She holds me tight as I cry. “That was the most beautiful analogy of love I’ve ever heard. You should publish it.” Her words make me snort and then I’m laugh-crying.

I’m at the gazette two days later when I see the photos. We look happy. We look like we belong right there in front of those fucking sheep. I’m so angry I have to dig my nails into my palm to keep from ripping the photos into shreds. I don’t want to look like I belong in front of those sheep. I don’t want to belong to small town U.S.A. anymore.

There isn’t another event where Vance and I have to show up together for a couple of weeks. I think Shelly and Chris thought it best to divide as many responsibilities between the two of us as they could and limit the time we were together. I am thankful.

So it’s not until three weeks later that Vance and I ware required to preview the Festival grounds together as a publicity stunt. They make a new commercial every year to advertise for the Watermelon Festival. The king and queen giving previews of the events is a huge part of it. Shelly and Chris bring Vance and I separately. The advertising company has hired all the personnel for making the video, including a wardrobe and makeup artist. We are supposed to look like kings and queens, so it takes a while.

I end up in a blue sleeveless gown with a slit up to mid thigh. It’s tight fitting through the hips and then slinks to the ground. They’d finally put me in a pair of flats, admitting that I would likely injure myself if I’d had to walk around in the Stilettos they had me try on originally. They left my hair down, and it curls into long brown waves that hang down my back. They’d done a fabulous job with the makeup, not too much, but enough to accentuate my bright blue eyes and full lips. The whole ensemble is more me than anything else I’d had to wear as queen yet.

When Vance comes out of the dressing room fiddling with his tie I nearly trip over my own feet because he’s wearing a form-fitting black suit with a black dress shirt and a black tie. He had some gel in his hair to keep it out of his eyes. He looks really good, even better than he did at our junior prom. When he finishes with his tie he looks up and freezes. His eyes travel the length of my body, slowly. His gaze stalls at the slit in my dress.

The silence is deafening as we blatantly study each other.

“Okay enough undressing each other with your eyes, we have work to do.” Shelly says loudly and then makes such a fuss about getting the camera crew going that no one thinks twice about what she actually said.

Our first stop is the arena where all things animal would happen at the Festival. Vance and I have to stand together in a bunch of different places so the director can set up the appropriate lighting.

“You look good in blue,” Vance whispers to me.

“You look good in black,” I respond.

“Could have fooled me. Your face said they might have looked better on the ground.” Vance Reigns is flirting with me. Maybe he isn’t as mad at me as I thought.

“I thought you were going to combust back there when you saw the slit.” I tease him.

Vance runs a hand through his hair. It’s his tell when he’s nervous or embarrassed or finds himself in an awkward situation. I can’t tell which this is, but he sighs and says, “You know I think you’re gorgeous Haley.”

We are both saved by the camera people moving us around. We don’t get a chance to say much more for the rest of the day.

The final shot is us dancing, king and queen, in the Hall under the strings of lights. The Hall wasn’t actually a building with a roof, it’s just a dance floor and stage, so we’d had to wait until it was dark for this one. The camera people play some slow music for us to dance to since there won’t be a live band until the festival.

“Let’s just see what happens. Try to ignore us and make it as organic as possible.” The director tells us.

I sigh loudly. It’s been a long day and I’m tired.

“May I have this dance m’lady?” Vance asks and reaches out a hand with a big smile. Even though there hasn’t been a lot of conversation, spending the day with Vance has been lovely. He’s still the kind and considerate guy that I’ve always known. I take his offered hand and flash him a smile in return. If he can end this day happy, then so can I.

He walks me to the dance floor. The strings of lights come on and we both look up together in surprise at our own personal starry night sky. Vance pulls me gently toward him, settling his hands on my waist while mine find each other around the back of his neck.

“What do you say we surprise them with our dance moves?” Vance asks. I grin up at him. I can’t help but be drawn in. We both know how to dance and we work well together as dance partners. Vance removes one of his hands from my waist, trailing it up my arm to claim one of my hands that’s been stationed behind his neck. My other hand settles on his shoulder. When it fits with the music Vance pushes me away and spins me slowly, then pulls me gently back to his chest. He leads with confidence. I don’t have to think about what I’m doing or where I’m going and I start to relax. I surrender to him, and the music, and it feels like a weight has lifted. He spins me more, each time pulling me right back to enclose me in his warm body. I close my eyes. Maybe I can just hold onto this one moment.

The song is ending and he dips me slowly. His eyes meet mine as he effortlessly brings me back upright against him. Everything is silent and I’m drowning in his eyes. Still folded safely in Vance’s arms I rise on my tiptoes as he bends his head toward mine. His lips are soft and tentative on mine. One of his hands migrates to twine in my hair as the kiss deepens slightly. I pull away first and just looked up at him.

“I’m sorry Haley, I don’t know what I was thinking.” Vance says quickly.

“It’s fine. It’s just the dress and the suit. I’m sure we’ll come back to our senses by the morning.” I say to him and quickly walk away, protecting my heart with my words. I can hear the director saying that the take was just perfect and congratulating everyone for a good day, even though my heart is breaking. I can’t love Vance and escape this place at the same time.

The next morning I wake to a slew of text messages from Vance.

VANCE: Can we talk about what happened?

VANCE: Please Haley, just talk to me.

It’s afternoon and I still haven’t responded when he sends me another text.

VANCE: Well, I have some things to say even if you’re not going to talk to me.

VANCE: Honestly, that kiss was… well, wow Haley. I can’t stop thinking about it.

VANCE: I thought we had a real good thing going and then when you just checked out last year I really didn’t understand. I was angry and hurt, but over the past year I’ve paid more attention. I think breaking up with me didn’t actually have anything to do with me or how much you liked me. I think you broke up with me because you’re scared of getting trapped in this small town, and I respect that Haley. I really do.

VANCE: But I need to know how you’re feeling after that kiss. Because if you’re feeling anything like I’m feeling… I need to know how you feel about me, just me. Everything else we can figure out if you just talk to me.

VANCE: Please talk to me Haley.

I decide I’ve had enough. I’ve had enough of pretending that I don’t love Vance Reigns. Maybe he’s right. Maybe the two of us can figure it out together. Maybe I just need to take a leap of faith.

HALEY: Meet me at the Fairgrounds.

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