Of all the awards to be given away tonight, she had to present this one. Why? What unseen universal force sought to punish and taunt her?
Steffi Corden stood just off stage and squirmed in her strapless Herve Leger gown, which felt half a size too tight since the last time she’d tried it on. The compressed bodice of the otherwise flowing dress made everything she wore underneath just as uncomfortable. She twisted in place while somebody—she missed the winner’s name and didn’t recognize the guy, a writer in the limited series category, she guessed—kept the crowd’s attention with his rambling acceptance speech.
Gads! She had a wire—more like a needle—protruding from her bra and jabbing her underboob area. Steffi searched backstage, checking for gawkers and wondering if anybody would notice if she dipped her hand down her cleavage and ripped the offending garment away. Just her luck if somebody strolled by with a phone extended, creating a Snapchat story while they caught her fondling herself in public.
Her agent’s admonition, however, sounded in her memory. Suzan had been a costume designer in her previous life and as such finished the dress alterations at no cost to her. Whatever you got on under this thing now, wear it to the show, she’d warned. Unless you want a wardrobe malfunction to define your career.
Heh. Given how things were going at the moment, a little tit flash in front of the academy and eleven million at-home viewers wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen to her this month. Maybe she’d get a movie offer out of it.
In the distance, music swelled, and the winner’s voice pitched high to speak over the shrill strings. After a final fist pump in the air, award clutched at the base, he took the arm of the lovely young awards escort and strolled Steffi’s way.
Presenter Tripp Wallace, who’d guested on Steffi’s show in the first episode, loped behind the duo and offered her a wink as he passed.
“Good luck,” he whispered. “They’re all staring at their phones.”
I would, too. Point her to the nearest bar and wake her when all this ended. Gah! This frickin’ wire stabbing at my breast! Shimmying didn’t relieve the pain.
Lord, but she hated award shows—one necessary evil in her industry. Had she not come tonight to accept the Best Actress in a Drama Series statuette—assuming she’d win—the public might think her a snob, or else figure she didn’t want to share breathing space with her ex, Dash Gregory, and his new wife. The higher-ups at ExStream, the online streaming network where TV viewers could binge on her drama, ViP, might equate a snub to disrespecting the company. She was already in hot water with them. The first season of ViP, starring Steffi as the Vice President of the United States, failed to bring in the numbers they’d hoped for. Of the four original programs to debut in the last year, they had ordered new episodes for all shows but hers.
Danse Macabre, a dark fantasy about a motorcycle-riding Grim Reaper, starred her ex-boyfriend and attracted record viewership for ExStream. That morning Steffi had read on her phone how the network had commissioned an unprecedented three additional seasons from Too True Productions, helmed by former child star and current television wunderkind Gabby Randall.
AKA Mrs. Dash Gregory.
Gabby had everything she wanted—the man, the success, and in a few minutes she might get the award, too. Steffi looked down at the envelope in her hand, for Best Writing in a Drama Series.
Thanks to a few ill-timed tweets made by Steffi earlier in the year—beefing about Dash rekindling a romance with Gabby, his former Wondermancer High co-star from when both were teen idols—it seemed the whole world followed Steffi’s personal and professional decline with glee. She guessed the sadistic asshole responsible for planning this event intended to extend her humiliation by placing her on stage with her ex-lover’s new wife.
Because Gabby would win this damn award. She deserved it. Danse Macabre was sex on a stick, hot and crack-tastic. Every episode was the Super Bowl, the Lost finale and the ratings-gold bullet in Tony Soprano’s head, all rolled into a hot fudge sundae. All that and Dash’s super-fine naked ass as the cherry on top.
Danse came into this year’s awards with twenty-five nominations to ViP’s eight. Most of those were techie honors handed out at an earlier ceremony, but they still counted, and Danse had picked up a few more wins tonight. Steffi’s Best Actress nomination proved one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dreary year for her, and though she ought to be excited for her first prime-time acting nomination, she felt nauseated.
She put thoughts of winning or losing out of her head. Tried to. The idea that a win for ViP saved her show from cancellation gave her some hope for her future.
A woman with a clipboard and an earpiece appeared by her side. “Ms. Corden, sixty seconds.” She disappeared before Steffi acknowledged her.
Right. Shoulders straight. Deep breath. Smile. Look for the teleprompter near the lighted camera. Don’t think about the poking sensation under your left boob and the blood that’s probably trickling down your torso and staining the inside of this two-thousand-dollar dress you’ll never wear again.
The first few notes of ViP’s theme exploded from the orchestra pit, and Steffi walked out to center stage amid polite applause. She’d presented major awards before, but only at the separate ceremony for daytime programming, back when she’d starred on a popular soap. This didn’t seem any different—just more TV viewers being kind to her on social media as they live-tweeted, she hoped.
She focused on the camera. From where she stood, she had trouble making out faces so it seemed pointless to seek out Dash and Gabby to gauge their reaction to her. The clapping died down along with the music and Steffi put on her star face.
“A vigilante confronts her mother’s killer. A husband discovers his spouse’s deceit. A sexual assault trial takes an unexpected turn. A warrior finds a new ally in the battle for supremacy against another planet. And, a detective takes a crucial step toward arresting a mysterious biker outlaw. These five stories kept television viewers on the edges of their seats this year, and tonight one of their writers will be recognized for their exemplary work.”
Whew. She’d gotten out the hard words with no fumbles. Steffi paused, her head bowed slightly while the faceless show announcer read the names of all the nominees. ViP, despite acting nominations and the Best Drama nod, had been shut out of this category. Nothing for her to root for here. How in the hell did our show final in all the major cats but this one? Too many channels, too many options now, she decided.
A second round of applause followed, bringing her back to the awards, and Steffi tugged at the envelope. Whoever had sealed it must have used super glue. One wrong move and she’d slice her wrist.
Steffi gave a short laugh, sensing the crowd’s tension. No pressure, just the entire free world watching her bumble like a fool. She released a breath and the flap came loose.
“And the award goes to…” Her voice pitched high, then the air left her when she saw the name on the card.
Ah, crap. I knew it.
“Gabby Randall, for Danse Macabre.”
‘It’s a great opportunity,’ she had said. ‘You’ll make connections in the industry,’ she had said. ‘Chances are high they’ll put you next to a producer and you can work your charm during commercial breaks,’ she said.
Barry Spahn sat in the fifth row and fumed. Almost everything his friend Mags had told him about the seat-filler gig turned out to be bullshit. Mags worked for a casting company responsible for finding warm bodies for this and similar events. One would think this town was full of starving actors interested in the opportunity, and when Mags had called him at the eleventh hour crying for his help he should have suspected something was up.
There was a reason Hollywood hopefuls didn’t flock to warm seats vacated by famous butts. For one, the job paid squat. He also had to furnish the tux and transportation to the venue and find a place to park—no limo escorts for the little people—and when he had arrived at the employee entrance a stern countenanced woman with a clipboard had thrust an NDA in his face to sign while she’d rattled off a list of rules.
‘Sit where we tell you, shut up and get up when prompted.’
‘No talking to any of the celebrities, or other nominees, their dates, their relatives or anybody else who paid to come here. Shut up.’
‘No texting, no tweeting, no selfies, no kidding.’
Why would Mags lie about the particulars of this gig? Don’t answer that, brain. Mags needed help with her job. He was a sucker with a white knight complex. A perfect fit.
So he was out the suit rental and gas, worrying about the security of his car parked several blocks away, and unable to network. He got over the ‘shut up’ part of tonight without issues, but anxiety about his car ate at his insides. His car was his livelihood at the moment, and if it got towed he was screwed.
Barry had mentally kicked himself for not asking about pay first thing. After he had accepted the job, though, Mags had played the guilt card for hours and promised to help jumpstart his career any way she could. Fine and good, but if he had to pay a towing company’s ransom Mags better have cash on hand.
With the show slouching toward an end, he decided not to hold high hopes on getting a check, given how Mags had neglected to tell him everything else about this ‘volunteer’ bit. He wanted to cut his losses and go home, but the last rule on the NDA burned in his head from the moment they had gone live. Any seat filler caught breaking a rule or behaving in a manner unbecoming to the academy will be ejected from the ceremony, and the person responsible for hiring said offender will be dismissed from his/her position.
Play nice, or Mags collects unemployment. Mags with the mortgage and two fatherless children. He did not want that on his conscience.
So, he sat in various spots throughout the evening until the coordinator parked him in the fifth row by the aisle. Twenty minutes and counting until the final goodnight, assuming the show didn’t run overtime. He had no idea whose place he’d taken, but he assumed the person had grown bored with the lame jokes and predictable wins and had slipped away to some bar, like he wanted to do right now. He’d given up precious writing time for a false alarm, and had he been plagued with a creativity block, he could have taken on a few rideshare jobs and earned some much-needed green.
Instead, he sat, his discomfort increasing with every second the cougar in the plunging V-neck gown perched next to him attempted to chat him up.
He struggled to recall where he’d seen her before. Sitting this close to the stage, she had to be somebody. Perhaps a nominee in a non-acting category, a person whose face wasn’t showcased on the big screen during presentations. She was rail thin and leathery tan, rocking a smoky eye and pink streaks in her dirty-blonde crop cut. She observed no boundaries, touching his arm and shoulder when she laughed at every damn thing out of the host’s mouth. Hot gravel stirred in a popcorn popper.
Where do I know you from, lady? Mags might know. Too bad he couldn’t snap a quick shot and text her. Mags watched all those Real Housewife-type shows, from Atlanta to Zanzibar. This woman resembled one to him. Especially when she opened her big mouth.
While he kept fast to the shut up slash eyes straight rule, his seat buddy leaned close and whispered in his ear, “I got two words for you—Jennifer Aniston.”
No, I don’t think you’re her. He side-eyed her and tried a smile. The tux, buttoned to the hilt, constricted him and he baked in his chair while a comedic ingénue announced the winner of the Best Writing in a Limited Series award.
A man—maybe a teenager, he wore high-top sneakers with his suit and looked as though a razor never had to touch his baby-skinned face—sprinted up the steps amid applause for his trophy. Barry guessed nepotism had gotten the winner this far. He had the vibe of a nephew with connections, handed a golden ticket.
Barry’s neighbor, by contrast, held a mischievous gleam in her dark-rimmed eyes.
“You know who’s up next? The person you’re subbing for.” An arm inked with a string of kanji down the underside crossed his line of vision as the woman pointed toward backstage. “I got a feeling you should make yourself comfortable. She ain’t coming back. She don’t like me much.”
I wonder why. Barry nodded, and smiled. Mouth shut. If there was a rule against listening while a celebrity or other person prattled on and on, the coordinator had neglected to advise him of such. He’d missed whoever vacated this seat when he’d taken it—saw only her retreating form as an escort guided her backstage, so he found the clue useless.
He eliminated Jennifer Aniston, who wasn’t here tonight.
If his instincts were correct, though. Yep, seat buddy opened her mouth again.
“Can you believe the balls of whoever parsed out these presenting gigs?” Hot gravel in his ear now. “If Gabby wins this, she’s going to receive the award from her husband’s ex-girlfriend.”
Ah. He might have spent the last year or so sequestered in his apartment writing when he wasn’t working, but even he emerged from the cave once in a while to catch up on trends and issues. So Steffi Corden was up after this next commercial break to give out the Best Writing in a Drama Series accolade. A flutter of envy over Gabby Randall’s nomination passed through him. He normally didn’t track television awards but he paid attention to all things writing in the industry, and though he’d only seen a few episodes of the series Gabby had created, he’d been enthralled by the dialogue and pacing.
He’d crushed on Gabby once upon a time, as a fan of her old vehicle Wondermancer High. She’d played one of the popular girl wizards on the show about a magical high school. He understood young actors involved in cult series had trouble breaking the stereotypes, or finding subsequent performance work at all. Gabby, like Ron Howard and Jodie Foster before her, had proved an exception by moving behind the camera and hitting big. Her leading man Dash Gregory, mired in stereotype city as Wondermancer High’s token geek, had seemed headed for obscurity until she’d cast him in the very different role of Reaper.
He could only hope for a career half as successful as theirs. Hell, if he had the chance to write one episode of Danse Macabre he’d leap at it.
Any TV show. Something besides carting around actors on the way to auditions and slash or the unemployment office while they spilled drinks and broke wind in his car.
“She’s the new Jennifer Aniston,” the woman next to him said. “Gabby’s Angelina.”
“Ah.” Well, hell. Heart in his throat, he searched the immediate area for the clipboard lady. Then he pressed his fist to his mouth and coughed to cover up his error.
He recalled seeing Dash Gregory trending in social media during his turbulent romance with the actress. Fans would catch them brawling in restaurants and create looped videos of nails scratching, glass flying, four-letter terms of non-endearment screeched. Mostly on Steffi’s part, for Dash was too busy ducking and dodging.
His neighbor quieted down as Steffi announced the category, and he applauded for each nominee, then winced when his seat buddy whooped at mention of Gabby. When the actress called out Gabby’s name as the winner a collective cry of elation filled the auditorium but he kept his eye on Steffi, ashen and thoroughly defeated. The girl at the school dance passed over by the quarterback for the head cheerleader.
Well, maybe that wasn’t a good analogy. You were supposed to root for the wallflower, who would bloom in the third act and win everybody’s approval. Everybody in Hollywood knew Steffi had brought most of her ill fortune on herself with her bad behavior.
Gabby shook Steffi’s hand, accepted her award and turned her attention to the crowd. “Wow, thank you so much,” she gushed, radiant with an expression of shock. “This is a surprise. As long as I’ve been in television, I’ve dreamed of standing here. Never thought it would be for writing, but I’ll gladly take it.”
A ripple of laughter erupted. Barry’s seat buddy squawked and clasped her hands together, more into this moment than anyone else. He figured the lady had spent a fair amount of time before the show at the VIP green room, partaking of the free booze. She was tripping.
“I want to thank ExStream for having faith in the show,” Gabby continued, “to Lina DeVito and everybody at Too True Productions for their hard work and support and Randi Marsh for her exceptional directing in this now award-winning episode.”
Somebody in the upper level let out a rebel yell and Gabby’s speech faltered. The lady next to him twisted in place to search for the offender. “You hear that?” She smacked Barry’s arm so hard he expected a bruise. “I got a fan.”
At those words, his memory jarred. He stopped himself from snapping his fingers, certain it was also against the rules—he hadn’t read the NDA word for word before signing it.
Holy cow. He hadn’t recognized Randi Marsh, AKA Randi Raucous—eighties glam metal queen and occasional actress. In her prime, Randi had ranked among the top female rock musicians—Joan, Lita, Wendy O., Randi. Barry recalled the poster his brother had pinned to his bedroom wall, highlighting curvy Miss Marsh clad only in strategically placed strips of electric tape, spread-eagle over a giant Gibson Flying V guitar as if she was about to ride it to the moon. After the rock glory had faded, Randi had appeared on Gabby’s old show from time to time, playing a relative or something.
Eccentric bisexual rebel, so the tabloid sites claimed, but she had connections. Gabby Randall freakin’ name-checked her in her speech… She directed television shows, and the clipboard lady forbade him to talk back. Damn it!
He half-listened to Gabby’s acceptance speech. “Thank you, Emma and Charlie, Tania and Janie, the rest of the cast and crew. Too many names to get into here, but expect a long blog post later,” she said. “Lastly, there’s one special person I must thank. I am here, and Danse Macabre is here tonight, because of Dashiell Gregory, my star and my husband.”
A smattering of applause followed and Barry noticed Steffi’s eye roll. The camera projecting on the big screen focused only on the winner, but Barry smirked at the thought of somebody catching Steffi’s reaction. It was the stuff of GIF loops shared for years on Twitter.
“Dash, you are a truly remarkable actor and I am thrilled the world sees what I’ve known all along. I love you. Thank you all.” Gabby hoisted the award over her head in salute to her show, her crew and her husband, then started for backstage with Steffi several steps behind, her shoulders hunched.
For a fleeting moment, he felt sorry for the other actress. Like Randi had said, the moment represented a passing of a torch Steffi didn’t want to surrender. Not long ago she’d enjoyed a successful run on a daytime soap, then a network show and a cute boyfriend…albeit one drowning in on-demand and direct-to-video schlock. Perhaps his career downswing had attracted her, gave her an advantage in the relationship.
Now she loped behind a true victor, but the night wasn’t over. They still had the Best Actress in a Drama and Best Drama categories coming, and Steffi’s show had a shot at both of those awards.
Another commercial break. Seat fillers popped up and skittered out of sight. The clipboard lady barged down the center aisle, corralling loose people and directing them to newly vacated seats. Barry glanced at his watch—nearly eight o’clock, close to after-party time. Not that he’d been invited to any. On the East Coast, millions of viewers like his family in Florida were probably sacked out on their couches waiting for the agony to end.
“You ain’t much of a talker, are you, seat warmer?” Randi asked. He turned to her and caught the gleam in her steely eyes. She was testing him, he realized. He figured she’d been to enough of these shows to know the seat filler rules and, seeing as how she didn’t win her category tonight, figured messing with the help made up for it.
“Fuck, I’m just yanking your chain.” Randi laughed. “I gotta admit, though, I’m having a better time with you than I would have had I brought a date. I do like the silent type.
“Last guy I took to one of these things, we were right behind Kate Hudson and he kept flipping her hair. She thought I was doing it, and giving me all these dirty looks.” She leaned in with a conspiratorial wink. “Course, that might’ve been because she thinks I flinged with her dad once, or one of her uncles. I can’t keep ‘em straight.”
He wanted to speak, actual words. He’d been quiet all night, and feared if he opened his mouth he’d squeak from drought. He contemplated a possible penalty for himself or Mags if he slipped a business card from his wallet and handed it to the woman with a wide-eyed expression that read Please pass this along to your best friend, Gabby Randall. He licked his lips but the clipboard lady passed close and his body went rigid.
Randi slouched in her seat, straightening the spaghetti straps of her bodice. “Smart boy,” she murmured.
Camera on, cue to applause. Last year’s Best Actor in a Drama Series winner walked onstage to present the counterpart award. As with the previous acting award, each nominee received a fifteen-second spotlight on the big screen, a scene from the episode which netted them the honor then another quick round of applause. They were presented alphabetically, and the camera panned to Steffi standing backstage after her clip, eyes wide like a frightened rabbit’s, before moving on to the rest of the ladies.
“And the award goes to…” This time the presenter ripped through the envelope like onion skin. No fuss, no muss. “Dedra Worth, for District Two.”
The brassy theme to the popular cop drama started up and the screen filled with Dedra’s surprised reaction to her win. Elegant in a slim-fitting purple gown with spangled straps, she rose from her front row seat to claim her trophy. Barry watched from where he realized he’d sit for the rest of the program. He couldn’t see if Steffi still lingered where she’d stood, but he imagined the defeat had hit her like a punch to the gut. He wouldn’t blame her for seeking out the green room and drowning her sorrows in a drink.
Lord knew he was ready for a belt or five himself.