The atmosphere in the studio was so thick with discomfort that Hayley was starting to wonder if it was because of her.
The Do It Live Incident, as the saccharine execs had called it while scolding her like she was a misbehaving toddler, had been more than a week ago. She was done with her Little Episode (again, not her own wording) and back to being the perfectly accessible, approachable, relatable, non-threatening wonder bread milquetoast morning news host Roseville knew and kept firmly on a pedestal. Unless she had forgotten to put her clothes on before leaving for work or she was standing on the desk screaming and tearing her hair extensions out without noticing, there wasn't any reason for tension to be hanging thick in the air like globs of molasses.
The instant they broke for commercials she stood up and made a beeline for makeup and wardrobe. The camera might have actually caught the beginning of her mad dash, but all she cared about in that moment was getting out of the oppressively grim atmosphere hanging over the sound stage like cigar smoke.
"This is our long commercial break, folks," the director's voice echoed behind her, just barely loud enough to drown out the hubbub of the rest of the crew. "Coming back into Bear in a Dumpster in three minutes!"
Hayley ran right into a mannequin in her haste but managed to catch it—and as soon as she realized it was wearing a beige overcoat and a black hat she let it hit the floor. The last thing she needed right now was to start having another Episode. They had been hitting her harder and happening more often for months now. Every time she caught herself fantasizing about trenchcoated sleuths or about dropping a light onto the set from the rafters, she shoved it out of her mind—the higher-ups probably wouldn't take too kindly to her stumbling around like a dazed newborn deer for the second time in as many weeks.
Hayley collapsed into the chair in front of the hair and makeup mirror like a marionette being dropped. It made her lower back ache, but the seat at the news desk made her butt sore so at least it was a change of pace. The makeup artist—the usual one, she noticed with relief, not the intern who made small talk like someone who had never held a conversation in their life—emerged from some shadowy corner and descended on her.
"What a mess," he said, making brief eye contact with Hayley in the mirror. She was offended for a split second before he started tugging out the bobby pins that had been poking into her scalp since the intern had crammed them there.
"So, you know the guy who hosts Roseville at Nite?"
Hayley let out a dull hum, used to pretending she cared about the station gossip. She knew of him—he always got to the studio just as she left, and she never stayed up late enough to catch his show, but they'd had a few encounters. He was very short, with a thick torso and noodly little limbs, and he had a voice that was more suited for print. And, as if he wasn't distinct enough already, he was absolutely covered in thick blonde hair that obscured his face and hands and probably the rest of him. He reminded her of a Muppet.
"Well,” the hairdresser said, re-pinning Hayley's hair in a much more comfortable position, “he was trying to get some more variety into the music spotlight, because they were running out of local bands. So he somehow got this big shot musician in, right in the middle of her world tour, and you know what happened?"
Hayley raised her eyebrows, both annoyed and somewhat intrigued. "What?"
"She seduced him right there during filming!"
"You're kidding!" She hated herself for saying it with such enthusiasm, but this was a step up from the regular hot gossip about parking lot fender benders and stolen lunches.
The hairdresser raised his hands and shrugged. "I swear on my life, that's what the camera crew are saying! The two of them left in the middle of the shoot and he didn't come back the next day. And that was three days ago! God only knows where they are by now."
That was, without a doubt, the source of all the tension in the studio. It was good to know it was probably only half because of her recent less-than-professional conduct, the fresh memory of it dredged up by the Roseville at Nite Incident (as it was undoubtedly being called).
She realized the room had been silent for several seconds and blurted out the best response she could come up with. "Wow."
"Wow is right."
Thankfully that was all he had to say about the matter. Hayley zoned out of the rest of the poking and prodding session to consider the uncomfortable emotion that had settled in her stomach like a brick. She couldn't quite pin down what she was feeling, or why she was feeling it about the weird little Roseville at Nite host. Maybe she just needed an antacid.
A screechy voice in the distance snapped her out of it. "Alright folks, Bear in a Dumpster starts in 60 seconds, hop to it!"
She wasn't sure what the opposite of hopping was called—slithering, maybe—but she did that out of the chair and across the studio to the smaller soundstage.
She took her seat in the middle of the too-soft couch as usual and yanked her skirt over her knees as best she could, because they'd gotten a complaint once about too much leg showing and that was somehow her fault and not wardrobe's. She flashed her best fake smile to the woman sitting across from her and got an uncomfortable one in response.
"Quiet on set," the director hooted. "Going live in five, four, three..." he mimed the last two numbers then pointed at Hayley. Her internal chipper morning host awakened like some kind of long-slumbering fantastical beast and took control.
"Wake up, Roseville!" She had no idea why they made her say it after every commercial break. Branding, or something. "Our special guest today is Susan," no last name needed, everyone knew each other in Roseville, "the parks ranger who responded to reports of a bear stuck in the dumpster at Roseville Elementary over the weekend."
Hayley was so used to the interview formula that she didn't even need the teleprompter. You got the bear out of the dumpster? Yes. What did you do with the bear? Knocked it out and booted it back into the woods. Is there any reason to worry? No, it was very young and stupid and probably learned its lesson. What other kinds of animals have you hauled out of dumpsters?
As the interview progressed Hayley found herself feeling more and more sympathy towards the stupid dumpster bear. The poor thing was probably just sick of twigs and berries and wanted some pizza crusts or something.
She didn't realize the interview was over and that she'd encouraged the audience to stick around for more until the director started squawking again. "Okay folks, good work! 90 seconds for the stocks and then we're back with Corned Beef Shortcake!"
Hayley threw up in her mouth a little, and it wasn't even because of the shortcake. As the rest of the studio surged into motion again, she stood up long enough to shake Susan's hand and give her another tooth-whitening-advertisement smile then slumped right back onto the couch.
What the hell did the viewers get from that interview? What had she gotten? She was the one who scripted the thing, so why was she shaken to her core about it? She should have asked something about what bears usually eat, or how to keep them away from populated areas, or about... pandas, or something. She could have asked any question in the world but she picked the ones she did.
For every second she thought about the stupid dumpster bear, that ugly and mysterious emotion twisted through her stomach more and more, but this time she was positive she had it nailed down.
She was disgustingly jealous and mad enough at herself to blow the top off a volcano.
The shrimpy Roseville at Nite host had just done what Hayley was too cowardly to do—he'd said to hell with the mundane, to hell with the comfortable and routine. He was out of the stuffy studio, far from Roseville, and probably living it up like a rockstar, all because he was bold enough to get up out of his chair and walk out the door.
Hayley's stomach churned again with the knowledge that she had done this to herself. It was something she knew and kept expertly bottled up, but there was nowhere left to hide from it. This kind of work was easy, and repetitive, and something she knew how to do. It was way more simple to keep writing stories about junior league softball and farmers markets than throw herself into an actual newsroom.
In the distance, beyond the crew and the cameras, Hayley could see the mannequin she had knocked over earlier. It was standing up again, facing away from her, shoulders broad and firm and hat tipped at a jaunty angle. It was the one thing not moving in the swirl of activity that always happened between segments.
She imagined herself wearing the coat and the hat, not the tiny ones she played with as a kid but the full-size adult professional ones. She had spent so much time staring at herself in crisp makeup mirrors and on fuzzy TV screens that it was easy to conjure up the image of herself standing tall and wrapped in the sandy-coloured coat that was so familiar and so distant.
“This is Hayley the reporter,” she thought, “coming to you live from Seattle, Washington. The North American brown bear, known to most as the grizzly, is a common sight in the Pacific Northwest, but may not be so common ten years from now. Populations—”
“This is Hayley the reporter,” she restarted, “coming to you live from Chengdu, China, home of one of the leading efforts to protect the iconic and vulnerable panda—”
“This is Hayley the reporter!” She imagined yelling it this time, over the screaming noise of a concert. “Coming to you live from the final stop on the world tour of whoever it was that seduced the Roseville at Nite guy! He deserves to live his dream! All the people here tonight deserve to live their dreams! Everyone deserves nothing less than the best,” she yelled, pointing directly into the camera and holding her gaze fierce and steady, “especially you!”
“Corned Beef Shortcake in thirty seconds, people! Thirty seconds!”
That was really what it all came down to. Twigs or pizza crusts. Staying or going. Easy corned beef shortcake or fighting to capture an ever-changing portrait of the entire world in her words and her camera.
Hayley stood, turned, and walked off the set with her shoulders thrown back and her jaw set. By the time she made it to the emergency exit and slammed through the doors and out into the sunlight, she was running.