The Diva, Chapter 1:

WARM FRONT
By Hedeia


"Lou?"

I ignored it and kept typing, holding out for the louder, more plaintive wail I knew was coming.

"LOU!"

This time I rolled my eyes.  "I'm in here," I said through gritted teeth.  As if I'd be anywhere else at 5:15 on a Tuesday…who did she think got the whole show together, anyway?  She was worthless except as a card-reading Barbie doll, and Ike the producer was a forty-year veteran who was still convinced television was a passing fancy.  So, as usual, it was just me, hunched over my desk in the middle of the newsroom, anxiously watching the door to the studio in the hopes maybe she wouldn't walk out that door, come over to me, and start complaining-

"Lou! Lou!"

Zara sashayed toward my desk, her hair wrapped in rollers so big they made her head look like an alien creature.

"Lou! What are you doing?"  she asked, lifting a hand toward her mouth as if to bite her perfectly-manicured nails, then thinking better of it and extending them in front of her face, admiring the polish. 

"Writing your copy," I informed her.  "And you're on the air in forty-five minutes, so if you want me to finish…"

"Lou, you have to help me."  She threw her head back in an overdone gesture of frustration. 

I was well-versed in Zara's dramatics.  She was an self-described actress, you see.  The crew had gone together to see her in a couple of truly ghastly production, off- off- off-Broadway, as she called them, but as any cartographer will agree, you have to go pretty far off Broadway to get to Indiana.  Like a lot of local weathergirls with delusions of serious news casting and method acting, Zara was ripe for a break.  Unfortunately for her, aside from the face of an angel, the figure of a model, and a honey-smooth, beautifully accentless voice, she didn't have much going for her.  She tended to sound like a cross between a bratty four-year-old and a vapid snow bunny when she opened her mouth - that is, unless she was reading the words I put into her mouth on a nightly basis.  Frankly, watching her pretty pink lips stumble around the big words like Ted Baxter was enough to keep me amused…and enough to keep me in this miserable job for nearly a year now.  Zara wasn't the only one with ambitions.  I had visions of the big time, too.  I was going to get out of Fort Wayne, and if writing copy for WKXL and putting up with the daily tirades of the station's spoiled pseudo-star was the only way to do it, then I was up for the challenge.

"Lou."  Her lip trembled, just a little too perfectly.  "They're trying to take away my cue cards, Lou!"

Huh. Since I was the one who stood for hours, biceps trembling, holding heavy cue cards over my head, that news was hardly tragic.

"So?  Ike's springing for a TelePromTer.  You should be flattered," I told her dryly.  It wasn't as if she deserved it, after all.

"I don't want a Telepointer," she whined.  "I need YOU to hold the cards, Lou."

"Te…le…prom…ter…" I said slowly, enunciating precisely.  You have to be careful with Zara; slip up and she'll mispronounce something on the air.  Not that I care if she embarrasses herself - she does that on a regular basis with her I'm-such-a-star tantrums - but I wrote the copy and it was my ass on the line when I had to send tapes with my job applications.

"Looooouuuuuuuuu," she dragged my nickname out until it was almost painful.  "I can't work without my cue cards!" 

My fingers hovered above the keys of the ancient hulk the station called a computer.  "Zara. I NEED to finish this before you go on the air.  It's called breaking news?"

"But this is more important!" Typical Zara.  She stamped her foot.  "Besides," she added, smirking, in the first sensible thought she'd expressed that evening, "how important can it be if it's breaking HERE?" She gestured vaguely around as if the whole ultra-flat Midwestern stretch of the three-city area were contained within the four walls of the newsroom. 

"Zara…"

"Come on, Lou," she wheedled.  "If YOU tell Ike that the Tele…Tel…that we need to keep the cue cards, he'll keep them.  He listens to you.  Pleeeeaaaase…"

"No," I snapped, my Zara-patience growing thin.  "You don't have any reason not to want a TelePromTer except that you can't pronounce it.  And if THAT'S your sole criterion for liking something, then I can't imagine you get out much."

She stared at me, huge blue eyes shining with what I assumed were crocodile tears. 

Still, they got to me. 

This JOB got to me.  I pressed my fingers to my temples.  Maybe Zara's headaches were contagious.  Lately, on the days she threw her major fits, she'd collapse afterward with an icepack clutched to her head, blaming her bizarre behavior on piercing headaches.  I wasn't particularly sympathetic, especially since I'd gotten thunked on the head last week by one of her famous projectiles.  If you think getting a tape hurled at your head by a nearly washed up weathergirl posing as an anchorwoman is worth a cruddy salary and no respect, well, you'd love my job. 

Take it.  Please.

"Okay, sorry," I muttered finally.  "But I'm not going to tell Ike, Zar.  Sorry, but the Tel…the machine will make MY job easier.  And yours too. There's nothing wrong with technology even if most of this station DOES exist in the dark ages."

"Lou!"

"No!  Go away, Zara, come on, Ike's going to be pissed if we have dead air at six…"

She shot me a poisonous glare, spun on her heel, and stomped off. 

5:22 and counting…

It was 5:24 when an ear-piercing shriek cut through the welcome two minutes of silence I'd been using to throw together the rest of my copy.

"Lou."  Rod the cameraman strode out of the studio, hand pressed to a rising welt on his forehead.  "Lou, she's crazy.  I quit."

"No!" I jumped up.  It's not a normal day if someone on the crew doesn't try to quit over Zara, but we needed Rod.  It was almost five thirty, late even for Zara to start throwing a tantrum.  Did she have ANY sense?

Dumb question.

I pulled his hand away to check his forehead.  "You'll live…I'm so sorry…please don't sue…" It was our mantra.  He rolled his eyes.

"I won't sue. And I won't quit; I'll stay because I like you," he said matter-of-factly.  "But you have GOT to do something about the Diva.  And I do NOT light her badly," he added hotly.  "So she can stop complaining about that too."

"I'll do something about it, I promise," I assured him, shooting hatred rays toward the studio.  I was so sick of this.  I was NOT her agent, for crying out loud.  I had an Ivy League education and I was stuck in the middle of nowhere ducking flying videotapes and trying to reason with the criminally insane.

"Someone has to!" he shouted over the din, stomping toward the break room. "I'm not going back in there while she's pitching a fit."

"Rod…we're on the air in thirty!"

He glared.  "Tell the princess to film herself."

"Rod, wait…"

"I need some water," was all he said, and he disappeared behind the door.  Another crash drifted down the hall.  That was IT!

I stomped down the hall, through the door and into the studio, pushing open the door so hard it snapped against the frame.  "WHAT is the matter with you?" I shouted at Zara, who was so stunned she dropped the current projectile, which turned out to be her extremely expensive face powder.  The jar shattered on the floor and a huge puff of powder rose from the glass shards and coated Zara in fragrant peachy-pink dust more or less from head to toe.

I couldn't help it.  I started to laugh.

BIG mistake.  Zara's face darkened.  "That's YOUR fault!" she screeched.  "Now my outfit is RUINED and I'm on the air in THIRTY MINUTES and it's ALL YOUR FAULT!"

The laughter died on my lips.  "Excuse me…all MY fault?  You're the one in here acting like a two-year-old who can't find her bottle!  What the hell is going on, anyway?"

Zara took a deep breath, almost looking like a sane person for a brief moment.  "Lou, I told you, I want YOU to hold the CUE CARDS!"

My teeth clenched so hard pain radiated through my jawline.  "You're acting like this because of the CUE CARDS?" Unconsciously my voice turned into a shriek on the last two words just like hers had.  Zara's face changed, looking quite frankly concerned.  I didn't blame her.  This was hardly what she'd expected, and certainly not how she usually choreographed her tantrums-not with mousy little Lou Saperstein coming in here and raising her voice and actually standing up to the Diva.

Well, Zara was in for a surprise.  Because she wasn't the only one around here with ambition.  My hair might have been pulled into a messy ponytail rather than sleeked and coiffed to perfection, and I might have been wearing a slightly ragged sweater from the Salvey and cords instead of a prim fuschia (well, face-powdered fuschia) suit, but Miss Zara Pierce of WKXL was about to find out that there was a little Diva in me, too. 

And tonight it was MY turn to be the star.

I put my hands on my hips.  "That's it! Enough!" I yelled before she could start shrieking again.  "PUT THAT DOWN!" I added when she reached for a mug on the table next to her.

"Zara, so help me, if you throw that…"  I looked over my shoulder in case Rod was coming in to help, or at least to squeal "catfight!" which was more his style.  No sign of him.  He was probably buried in the sludgy coffee in the breakroom.  I sighed.  He deserved it; he HAD been injured on the job.  Zara was OUT of control! 

My train of thought was interrupted by a brown mug sailing past my head and crashing on the opposite wall.  

Zara and I stared at each other across the room.  Then two things happened at the same time: 1. she grabbed a video from the shelf and shrieked "Get Ike in here and tell him I NEED MY CUE CARDS!"  and 2. I grabbed HER, wrestled the video away from her, and dragged her back toward her dressing room.

I don't know who was more surprised, Zara or I.  The tiny, petite figure that made her glow on camera proved no match for the lanky muscles that had made ME a star field hockey player.  I yanked her into the dressing room and slammed the door behind us.  She was too shocked to speak. 

"This ends NOW!" I said sharply.  "Or I QUIT!"

She was too shocked to speak, but not too shocked to kick me in the shins.

Ow, ow, goddamned ow.  Where were my shin guards when I needed them?  I was too smart to lean over to grab my shin; I knew her type and she'd use my distraction to leave or strike again.

Instead, acting on pure instinct from God knows what source, I grabbed her arm, dragged her over to the settee in the corner of her dressing room, and in one fluid motion sat down and yanked her over my lap.

She rose, kicking, immediately; I wrestled her down again and instinct took over once more as I smacked her fuschia-clad backside, hard.  A layer of powder billowed into the air, making us both cough, but I summoned some inner reserve and didn't laugh.

"Ow! What the hell-what are you DOING?" she shrieked, suddenly finding her voice as I smacked the brightly-colored target in front of me several times.

"You are acting like a total brat and I am SICK of it.  You can NOT just throw tantrums on a whim, especially," I paused for emphasis, "when it's to do with MY having to hold those STUPID CUE CARDS!"

"I'll have your job for this!" she screeched.

"TAKE it!" I yelled back.  "Please!  God knows it's a misery to work anywhere near you!"

I swatted her bottom again but she'd stopped wriggling.  "Okay, fine, what do you want?" she asked suddenly, petulantly, sounding like a small and not very well behaved child.

"What do I want?"

I paused, resting a hand where I'd been swatting, just out of convenience, then quickly yanking it away when I realized my armrest was actually her ass.

"Apologize to Rod, for one!  And you can apologize to me, too, because I am NOT just a damned cue card holder.  I'm a PERSON," I snapped; clichéd though it sounded, it was true.

"I'm not apologizing to him!  He lights me badly!" she howled and I smacked her a few more times.

"He lights you BEAUTIFULLY and he works his ass off for this thankless job, so you can just stop torturing him…torturing BOTH of us!"

I waited and she didn't respond; I swatted her again, still harder.  "Do you hear me?"

"Yes!" she yelped.  "Do you MIND? People are going to HEAR!"

"Your dressing room is soundproof," I reminded her.  "That was YOUR idea.  No one can hear us now."

"Oh, great." She rolled her eyes.  "Can I get up now PLEASE?" she asked, voice dripping with sarcasm.  I don't know how she managed to retain her superiority complex considering she was hanging over my knees, covered in Crème de la Mer dusting powder and in the middle of getting her backside soundly whacked.

I supposed, in retrospect, it was because she knew my hair would NEVER look as good as hers.  But that was no excuse!

"No, you can't!" I snapped.  "You are getting impossible to take!  You were pretty bad when I started here and you've only gotten worse - you've been unbearable these last few weeks!"  I underlined every few words with a hard smack.  "You treat EVERYONE in this newsroom like we're all your slaves.  We do NOT exist to serve you, and you are acting like an ungrateful, spoiled brat!"

A funny sound came from the floor near her head. 

"And for the last time, I am NOT going to keep busting my ass holding up cue cards for you just because you happen to LIKE it better when I'm acting as your serf!"  I smacked her bottom several more times.  Hey, if she sued me over this I could just point out that spanking her was cheaper than sending her suit over to the dry cleaners.  I'd already smacked most of the powder out of the skirt, and for free!

I heard that muffled sound again, almost like a snuffle.  Then she mumbled something.

"What?"

"I said," she mumbled, her voice thick, "that's NOT the reason why."

"Oh yeah?" I asked, heady with finally having gotten through to her.  "Then what IS it?  Cue cards are trendier?  TelePromTers are too hard for you to read?" I asked meanly.

"Yes," she whispered.

"Right," I said.  "Sarcasm, as usual.  Fine, then…"

"No, Lou…" her voice broke slightly.  "They really are."

Ice flooded my veins.  "You can't…you…" Oh my God.  I was a terrible, terrible person.  "You can't read?" I squeaked.  In horror at my un-PC-ness I loosened my hold on her waist; she slid off my lap and onto her knees beside me.

She rolled her eyes a little when I looked questioningly at her.  "You'd like that, wouldn't you?" she asked, tearing up.  "You're so smart and I'm so stupid.  That would just fulfill ALL of what you say about me."

"No, Zara, I…"

"Well, you can forget about it." She smiled crookedly, then swiped the back of her sleeve across her eyes.

Then burst into a coughing fit when another round of powder was released into the air.  I reached over to the table next to the chair and poured a glass of ice water from the handy pitcher there, which thank goodness had been saved from Zara's earlier tantrum. I handed her the cup of water and she drank greedily for a few moments, then handed the glass back to me. 

"Thanks," she mumbled.  "Anyway…I CAN read."

Inwardly I sighed with relief.

"Just not…SMALL things."

"It's your EYESIGHT?" I squeaked.  "But why don't you…what about glasses?"

"I can't wear glasses!" she burst out. "They're fine for…people like you…I mean, no offense," she said.  "But I'm on AIR, Lou.  I can hardly go out there looking like some big nerd…."

"Have you ever heard of contacts?"

"I can't…I don't think I really need them, it's just if I only read big things I'm fine. I just stay away from small things."

"This has gotten worse lately," I said slowly as light dawned.  "The headaches…the tantrums…it's been getting worse, right?"

She dropped back onto her bottom, then hissed and rose to her knees again.  Eyes on the floor, she nodded.

"Zara, you have to get that checked out. You can cause permanent damage…to your eyes, not to mention to your career.  Ike is TWO steps away from firing you," I lied through my teeth.  Ike adored Zara.  He was losing much of his hearing and was partly senile; he thought Zara was adorable and charismatic; he missed most of her tantrums and flying videos.  Rod and I, on the other hand…

"He is?"  She looked up in shock.  "I'll…I can get them checked out.  But tonight…"  She fixed those enormous blue eyes on me, the ones the Fort Wayne Observer commented on this year when they reviewed our show.  "Irresistible," they'd called them.

"I'll hold up the cue cards tonight," I mumbled wearily.  The blue eyes remained steady on mine.  "And…as long as you need them UNTIL," I said sharply when she started to perk up, "you've been to the doctor and gotten contact lenses."

She nodded quietly.  "Okay."

"And you WILL stop throwing these tantrums, for crying out loud, or I'll…"

She stood up awkwardly, brushing some of the powder off her skirt.  "I know," she said, "what you'll do."  She put a hand behind her to rub.

I stood up, automatically helping her to get the powder off some of the harder to reach places.  "About that, Zara…"

I broke off when she suddenly threw her arms around me from behind.  I practically lost my balance; I had to grab onto the edge of the desk to keep from falling.  "Um…Zara…"  I wasn't really big on physical contact, and the closest Zara came to touching me on a normal day was to take the painstakingly-written news report out of my hand minutes before brutally butchering my words on air.

"Thanks," she whispered.  "I couldn't tell anyone about…I mean, the eye thing…you'll keep it a secret, right?"

Vanity, thy name is Zara Pierce.

"Um, sure."  I spent a few seconds wondering how to disengage myself from the impromptu hug.  It just wasn't my sort of thing, but…

"ON AIR IN FIVE!"  Rod's voice yelled from within the studio.

Both of us jumped about a foot in the air.  "Lou!  What am I going to do?  My hair…my face…"

"Okay, calm down."  For the second time that evening I took charge, hauling her into the small bathroom off her dressing room, helping her to press a quick cold pack to her face, smoothing and re-spraying her hair, and wiping the last of the powder from her suit. 

In the intense light of the studio I could see a few traces of powder still shining against the fabric of her outfit.  The cold pack had turned her blotchy face peach-perfect again; her blond hair glowed like satin, and she looked relaxed and confident, framed in front of the blue filming backdrop.  From behind the cameras, Rod winked at me, his broad face flushed and still happy from the apology he'd gotten minutes before.  I held the cue cards high above my head, ignoring the slight trembling in my arms.

"I'm Zara Pierce, and welcome to the evening news at WKXL, serving the three-city area."  She paused for a second before speaking again, smiling that big, broad, toothy smile.

"I'm so happy you're here with me tonight."

She says those words at the beginning of every broadcast; I've heard them each night since I started working at the station.

But tonight, for the first time…she seemed to be speaking directly to me.


END.