A mother takes her daughter's hand and leads her underwater.
Blue. Cold, and shimmering through the dark. In reality, just the high school gym-but with the lights dimmed to a wintry sparkle, poster-board seaweed reaching up the walls, it's easy to pretend you've fallen into something magical. Today is the end of Winter Frolic, the annual Two Harbors fair. The theme this year, "Beneath the Ice," has sunk the town past the solid surface of Lake Superior to an arctic, exotic underworld, and the daughter looks around with a ten-year-old's appreciative awe: silver balloons in bubbly bursts, wispy blue streamers across the windows. The icy facade of those watery lights. Hand-cut paper snowflakes defy the laws of physics and shed their twinkling glitter across the hardwood bed of the lake. And in the middle of the basketball court, rising up like the Atlantis of the north shore, a gigantic white float waits for the coronation of the Winter Royalty, its red thrones like sunken hearts all in a row.
It's the last and most important event before the all-town chili dinner; the daughter savors every breath and detail of this, her first and last year as a member of the court. They move through the crowds, past bleachers packed with students, parents, grandparents, neighbors, the whole town awaiting the selection of those girls who will become, briefly yet brightly, minor celebrities in their respective schools.
"When I was crowned," the mother whispers in her ear, "they put my picture in the paper. Front page. There were boys from all over calling the editors for my number-Silver Bay, Beaver Bay. These twin brothers in Duluth."
"Relentlessly. Endlessly." She sighs. "Endlessly. That's when they were saying I should take my chances in Hollywood."
The mother was the Winter Queen in her senior year of high school. She still has the crown; some of the fake diamonds are missing now. The daughter is not allowed to wear it, though she sneaks into her mother's closet sometimes and becomes, in secret, a captive princess, waiting for someone to find her and rescue her and fall tragically in love.
"Just remember not to cry if they crown someone else princess," the mother whispers. "The odds are against you, so don't get your hopes up."
Pretend you are a princess inside, secretly. I'm the only one who knows.
The daughter nods, heart swollen with love or fear or the familiar knot of both. She squeezes her mother's hand, adjusts her shimmering dress nervously as they approach the rest of the "10 and under" court waiting near the float.
"Blue as your eyes," observes Mrs. Simmons from nearby, pulling a little too hard on the sleeve of her dress. The daughter looks down modestly. "Just look at you. Seems like yesterday your mama was up there and her mama was watching. What do they call it-succession?"
"The royal family," someone says.
The mother pulls her hand away from an ever-tightening grip. "Let's not count our chickens."
"Boy, does she look like you, Lila. Just the spitting image." Mrs. Simmons shows her teeth, gapped and grayish and sharp if you're looking up at them. There are murmurs of agreement from the crowd.
"Really," the mother says, "she takes after her father's side."
The women slip away while the daughter eyes her competition: Missy Norris, plump and shy, but with the advantages of dimples and naturally curly hair; Anna Krumm, those long dark tangles and pink glasses, no chance in hell; Ellie, to whom she sidles up, although today there is a strain here, a competitiveness they've never felt before as best friends. And looking down upon them all, the tallest girl in the fourth-grade class: Stacie Simmons, the undisputed favorite for the crown.
"We got my dress at the Mall of America," she is telling a gaggle of idolizing third-graders. "It's only been open a year, but I've been there thirteen times already."
"Thirteen times," murmurs an admirer.
"After this," Ellie whispers, oblivious to the other girls, "we can sneak to the sledding hill. My sister told me the middle school boys go there after Winter Frolic. Like, without their parents."
"My mom won't let me," the daughter whispers.
"So don't tell."
She shrugs, distracted, the buzz of the wait wearing her down. She is watching her mother flutter nervously to and from various groups of neighbors and parents; she is watching a change come over her, but not as it usually does. Usually the mother slips into a new role like a negligee: one smooth, easy motion over the head, arms stretched up and out and reaching as a calmness slides over her face, her body, all of her floating away into something soft. But today, she wanders, chatters loud and ungracefully, pats her hair and widens her eyes and laughs without meaning it. It's as if her role of the moment is one of the high school girls clustered across the gym, fawning over each other and looking anxiously beautiful. Sometimes the daughter sees her mother looking at those girls with a face like a damp sponge, wilted and old and sagging in the corners.
"What are you staring at?" Ellie whispers, annoyed. Ellie is thinking of a first kiss at the edge of the sledding hill, a boy's pink lips blooming out of the snow-frightening, thrilling. She wants company in the fantasy.
"Nothing," says the daughter quickly. "How do I look?" She turns for her friend, who turns for her, and both praise the other, selflessly but secretly crossing fingers, as the most deserving of the coveted crown.
Like a princess, says her mother's voice, a tickle in the ear-a smile. Like the most beautiful princess in the world, though she's still halfway across the gym with the high school girls; harder to pretend, now, that she's really saying the words.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, may I have your attention . . ."
They form lines like lacy soldiers, barricaded in tulle. The women observe, proud commanders, as each watches her ticket to PTA fame march past. Last one in the line, the daughter snags her mother's eye. But it skitters away like a wounded bird, and before she can catch it again they are clustered in a blinding blue spotlight, the high school girls gliding in behind them.
She can't see the crowds now. She can't see anything except the squinting brightness, like falling into a cavern of light. Lonely.
Just pretend, the daughter hears then, that you're a movie star. She closes her eyes. The Academy Awards. Red carpet, wide smile. Don't let your teeth stick. A fluttery feeling rising up in her chest as the lights and the eyes and the cameras soak in-a beautiful actress, just like your mom, and the change comes over her, finally. She is another person now, a person who knows what to do in a light this bright, there you go, you got it, the rhythm of applause quivering up through her feet, and with her eyes closed it's easy to imagine her mother nearby, whispering so quietly that only she can hear it:
Look at all the people who love you. . . .
And something else is changing. The world coming into focus, everyone's eyes swinging into hers; she looks back fearlessly but blankly, and it takes the handshake of the mayor, the icicle glint of the crown in her face, the astonished expression of Stacie Simmons twisting up beside her for the daughter to realize it's her own name they have called-that she has, for the first time in her life, become her mother.
And here's the crucial moment. A chance, a brief chance, that the dream will turn out differently this time. That they will place it on her head, a year's worth of popularity, and she will ascend the winding stairs of that float (the tallest, bragged the mayor, in Winter Frolic history), and when she takes the throne beside a newly crowned queen (king and prince a...