Where are the stilt walkers? Has anybody seen the stilt walkers?”
I’m calm, but I can hear the shrillness creeping into my voice as I picture the absolute disaster that will result if Andy doesn’t show up soon with the damn stilts and the people to put on top of them. The stilt walkers are essential—the dramatic cherry on top of the charity carnival. The finale of Domestic Goddess, and the deciding factor in the rest of my life. And isn’t that typical? You raise $80,000 for charity, you erect a forty-foot tent practically single-handedly, you hire and coordinate seventy-five employees, and you produce the whole goddamn spectacle, and then your life hangs in the balance because of a couple of clowns on sticks. Meanwhile, the cameras are rolling and America is watching. My failure would make just as good TV as my success, so nobody cares whether I win or not. Nobody but me. And this is just what Sybil Hunter expects. I have to make this work.
Somebody runs past pushing a popcorn cart that dribbles grease along the floor. The amplifier blares circus music, then cuts out with a crackling pop. A chunky, squinting boy in thick glasses grabs my arm—Jerome, the facility manager’s assistant I roped into helping me. He looks barely twelve years old. “The sno-cone machine is broken, one of the ponies is sick, and somebody left the banner on the floor and it got trampled,” he says, pushing up his glasses nervously.
Easy, Faith. Easy. You’ve done this before. I’d handled events bigger than this, and disasters bigger than this, too. My eyes are fixed on the wide double doors standing open across the warehouse space, where Sybil Hunter stands, backlit, imposing, the evil overlord ready to reign terror and destruction on the final challenge of what has come to be, in my mind, a sell-your-soul-to-the-devil concept: reality television. I imagine her smirk, her lust for my failure. I’m barely noticing the cameras rotating around in front of us, though part of me recognizes that my alarm is being recorded for national consumption. Tears are welling up, but I bite my lip hard, reminding myself what Sybil told me during the middle of the season, when my team lost a challenge and turned on me, the team leader. “A woman who shows weakness in this business won’t last long.”
Suck it up, Faith. This is it. Keep your eye on the prize. With a last glance at Sybil’s Hitchcockian outline, I turn to the pimply kid waiting for instructions. They come out of me like machine-gun fire: “Call the vendor and demand another sno-cone maker within forty-five minutes. Get the sick pony out of here, call a vet, call the rodeo, whatever it takes. Repair the banner—just make it look good. And for God’s sake, get Andy and Jodi Sue over here now! I need my fucking team.”
He nods and runs off. I stare at my clipboard. The list of unchecked items is three times longer than the list of checked items. I persuade a man with a mop to clean up the grease that’s trailing the popcorn machine. My eyes dart over the list, trying to prioritize at warp speed. Suddenly, Jodi Sue, eliminated contestant and disgruntled team member, is in front of me.
“I can’t find Andy,” she says in her squeaky voice, her cleavage even more evident and elevated than usual in a bright yellow wrap dress with a plunged neckline. “I finished the caramel apples, the cotton candy machine looks great with the neon, and the programs were just delivered and they’re perfect.”
“Show me,” I demand. She holds out one and I grab it. The glossy, oversized program has saturated carnival colors, balloons, clowns, and a Ferris wheel on the cover. Good, very good.
“But Andy’s still MIA,” she adds, shrugging.
“Where the hell is he? What could he possibly be doing with five stilt walkers in the middle of Manhattan?”
“I really don’t know,” she says, shrugging again. “He won’t answer his cell phone.”
“This is great. Just great. This is Shari Jacobs’s lucky day,” I mutter. I could just imagine Sybil Hunter fawning over my ex-BFF/archenemy and fellow finalist, as she pulled off her final challenge with typical high-rent perfection. I get a carnival, and she gets a baby shower for Sybil’s pregnant cousin. A fucking baby shower. I can just see the fondant baby bootie cupcakes and sterling silver rattle party favors and pink champagne. They’ll all act like best friends, trying to impress each other with how rich their husbands are.
And here I am, sweating it out, pits soaked, with swamp crotch, trying not to have an anxiety attack, and running on fumes both on this warped excuse for a television show and in my life, with just eighty-seven dollars in my bank account and a team that hates me. Everything depends on an out-of-control carnival about to go horribly wrong. I’m so damn close to winning, and I need that prize more than anything, more than anyone else on the show. I just can’t bear going back to my so-called normal life.
Now I’m sweating blood to make this event happen, and I can’t even get some paid extras on poles to show up—hell, I can’t even get my whole team to show up.
I look around: total chaos. A group of union guys tries to unroll artificial turf into the same spot where another group is trying to set up the Ferris wheel. A speaker on the sound stage wobbles and topples over with a crash, nearly crushing the woman trying to secure it to the stand. I look at Jodi Sue in despair.
“How are we going to do this?” I say. “How is this even possible?”
“Search me,” she says. “It’s your challenge. I was eliminated weeks ago, thanks to you, and I wouldn’t be here helping you if it wasn’t in my contract, because I think you’re a bitch.” She smiles sweetly.
I’m in this alone. It’s a zero-sum game.
“OK, Jodi Sue,” I say. “Why don’t you just go sit on your ass out of the way and get your cleavage ready for the stilt walkers. They’re going to have a great view.” Her mouth drops open as I spin away and set off to track down Andy. Because if I don’t find those clowns in the next fifteen minutes, I might as well not even show up at the finale. As I storm past Sybil—she stands silently, critically in the doorway with her arms crossed—I can’t help myself. “What do you think, Sybil?” I ask. “Are you entertained? Is it everything you hoped to see from me? Because you haven’t seen anything yet.”