A cast member of TV's number-one show is about to be fired—how will Alison, Bill, TJ, Rafe, Molly, Miranda, and Susie handle the possibility of being unemployed?
A bombshell has just been dropped on the cast of TV's Hard Time High: A major new storyline is being introduced. But it means someone is going to get canned from the show.
Former childhood star TJ has lived through this before, when his previous hit TV show was canceled. Used to the steady paycheck after a life on the road, Molly makes a list of her options. Left with a mountain of debt if he gets axed, Rafe's only hope is the movie he just filmed. If ex–teen beauty queen Alison loses her job, how will she go on supporting her family? After years of commercials and made-for-TV movies, Bill doesn't want to lose his chance at a real career. Miranda can't imagine being let go when she's still learning the acting ropes. And Susie worries that she was only cast in the first place because she's the producer's daughter.
But one of the seven is going to be kicked off the show. The bigger surprise is what will happen next.
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Hard Times High
Make Me a Star, Book Six
By Susan Beth Pfeffer
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1986 Susan Beth Pfeffer
All rights reserved.
"Susie, wait up!"
Susie Goldstein turned around and smiled at her friend Alison. "Come on," she said. "Hurry up. We don't want to keep Daddy waiting."
"I never want to keep Dick waiting," Alison said, reaching Susie's side. "Do you have any idea what this meeting is all about?"
Susie shook her head. "Daddy was excited about something this morning," she replied. "He whistled at the breakfast table, and that always means he's in a good mood."
"Good," Alison declared. "He wouldn't whistle if he was going to fire me, would he?"
"He wouldn't fire you in public," Susie pointed out. "Not that he's about to fire you anyway."
"I wish I had your confidence," Alison said. "He's bound to notice sooner or later that I can't act."
"You can act," Susie said. "At least you don't overact like that awful Molly."
"Molly can act just fine," Alison said. "So this meeting is a total mystery. Maybe the lights will go off, and one of us will be murdered."
"Sometimes I think you're really weird, Alison," Susie declared.
"Sometimes I am really weird," Alison replied. "It's part of my charm. Keeps me from being just another pretty blond."
Susie examined her friend carefully, and not for the first time. Alison was far from being just another pretty blond. Pretty wasn't strong enough a word to describe her. And Alison was nice, too, and funny, and smart, and not full of herself the way the other kids on the Hard Time High set were. Being a TV star hadn't made Alison conceited. And she had a lot more reasons to go around worshiping herself than the other members of the cast did. Alison had given up her year's reign as Miss Young America to be a regular on the TV show that focused on six teenagers in high school. What had the other kids starring on the show given up? Unemployment or being nobodies mostly.
Susie had spent enough time standing in front of mirrors to know she looked nothing like Alison, and nothing short of major surgery was going to improve matters. If she were Alison, she's avoid hanging out with a fat kid like herself, especially one who was a couple of years younger. The other kids on the show all had that attitude. Susie Goldstein knew she was poison to them. She could feel them turn away from her just when she walked into the room. Bill was nice enough, she supposed, but Bill was nice to everybody. That was the role he played. The other kids at least were honest enough to make no effort at being friends with her. Except for Alison, the most beautiful girl on the show, and she was Susie's friend. No wonder the other kids didn't like Alison either. She was too good a person for them.
"Hey, Susie," T.J. Tyler said, joining her and Alison. "What's this meeting about, do you know?"
"How should I know?" Susie asked.
"Your father's the producer," T.J. said. "That gives you an inside line."
"Daddy is very careful not to let me know things he doesn't tell you," Susie said, trying not to sound shrill. She knew how much the other kids resented the fact that it was her father who had cast her in Hard Time High. He'd created the part of Emily for her, but only after Susie had done enough begging and wheedling to last a lifetime. Even then he'd chickened out, and threatened to cast Emily through open auditions, the way he'd cast the other roles on Hard Time High. But Susie's mother went to bat for her, and between the two of them, they'd worn Susie's father down. Susie had gotten the role she was perfect for. Of course her father had retaliated by not giving Susie anywhere near the best storylines, but Susie had faith that those would come with time. First her father had had to get over his massive infatuation with Molly, the child actress who had been in hundreds of productions of Annie. It was Molly this and Molly that for the first few months, and Molly had been given a storyline the others would have killed for, with lots of chances to cry on camera. Molly still got more than her share of camera time, but lately the show had been featuring Miranda as well, so maybe things were evening out. Susie wasn't sure how much longer she could wait before she got her chance to dominate the show.
"A meeting in Dick's office has got to be serious," T.J. declared as he joined them. "He wouldn't call us all in for nothing."
"I haven't been able to figure it out," Alison said. "I was visiting Dick last week, helping him the way I do sometimes, and he didn't say anything to me."
"What do you do when you help Dick?" T.J. asked.
"Nothing much," Alison said with a smile. "Mostly I try to stay out of the way, and learn as much as I can from listening to him on the phone. Your father is a master on the telephone, Susie."
"I know," Susie said, but she felt proud anyway. She loved hearing the other kids talk about her father that way. She knew sometimes they resented him, and sometimes they said nasty things about him, forgetting that she wasn't just a castmate, she was Dick Goldstein's daughter. What was worse was when they remembered it just in time. They cut themselves off from whatever bad thing they were about to say as though Susie would snitch on them, and tell her father just what they had said.
It wasn't that she would be unwilling to, she thought to herself as she, Alison, and T.J. walked in together. The truth of the matter was, once or twice she'd tried it, but her father had gotten really angry at her, as though reporting the nasty comments was somehow worse than making them. Susie was no fool. If that was how her father felt about things, then she'd just keep her mouth shut.
The secretary ushered them in, and Susie found her father's office had been arranged with extra seats, so there'd be room for all of them. Miranda was sitting, talking with Bill, and Rafe had pushed his chair over just a little bit, so he wasn't quite part of the group. Rafe had done that from the beginning, Susie knew, distanced himself from the others. Nobody liked him anyway, so he was right to feel like an outsider.
Susie let Rafe know she was staring at him, and sure enough he scowled. Susie had been the one to discover Rafe, playing in a band at a school dance her father had forced her to attend. She'd thought he was the most beautiful boy in the world. She loved dark and sexy guys. She'd never fall for T.J., who was the perfect California blond type. Not that she'd known T.J. then either. It was through her insistence that her father had tracked Rafe down, to invite him to audition for Hard Time High. Sure enough, Susie had been right, and Rafe had been cast as Juan. He was a terrible actor, but somehow that didn't seem to matter. The scriptwriters kept his lines down, and made them simple, and Rafe supplied the rest by simply standing there looking sexy. Now he'd even starred in a movie, which according to him was going to be a big hit that summer. He owed it all to Susie, and he never once thanked her. Instead he behaved as though she made his life a living hell. Which Susie would have been delighted to do, given the opportunity.
Her father strolled into the office, smiled at everybody and said, "We're missing someone."
Everyone stared at the empty seat, which was obviously intended for Molly.
"She should be here in a minute," Miranda said. "She was in the classroom when I saw her last."
"We can wait, then," Dick said. "I'd like to tell all of you at once what I have in mind."
So they sat there, waiting for Molly. It was so typical of her, Susie thought, having to make an entrance. When she did, too, she wouldn't just come in quietly and sit down, let alone apologize for keeping everybody waiting. No, Molly would make a big production of it, the way she did everything. Molly had actually stayed with the Goldsteins for a while that summer, and those had been the worst few days of Susie's life. Her mother kept treating Molly like they were adopting her, taking her shopping, and talking with her until the middle of the night. And her father kept behaving real strangely to Molly, as though he wasn't quite sure whether he liked her or not. A little strategic eavesdropping solved that mystery. Molly had been dating T.J., and Susie's father hadn't approved. He'd made them break off the relationship, in exchange for which, he'd given Molly's mother an acting job on the show. Molly hated him for it, Susie knew, but she couldn't understand why. Without Hard Time High, Molly was a nothing, just someone who'd done some acting in dinner theaters and summer stock. So she'd had to give up seeing T.J. Big deal. T.J. would have dumped her sooner or later anyway. She wasn't T.J.'s type, any more than Susie was. He liked girls who were almost as pretty as he was, not skinny, big-eyed things like Molly.
"One more minute," Susie's father said, checking his watch. Susie's mother had given him the watch for his birthday last year, and it had cost a small fortune. Susie had checked out the charge slip to find out. She figured the more they spent on presents for each other, the more likely they were to stay married.
"Sorry I'm late," Molly said, breezing into the room. "I was taking a geometry exam. Can you believe it? I was actually taking a geometry exam." She laughed, and the others laughed with her, as though there was something funny about Molly O'Malley, girl trouper, taking a geometry exam. It made Susie sick.
"We were waiting for you, but that's all right, Molly," Susie's father said. "We all agree that geometry is more important than meetings with your producer."
"I should hope so," Molly said with a grin. "You were the one who taught me that, Dick."
"I'm afraid I taught you too well," Susie father replied. "Well, that's neither here nor there. The important thing is I have you all together now, so I can discuss with all of you what's about to happen on Hard Time High. "
There was a collective inhaling of breath. Even Susie felt momentarily weak, and she knew if anything truly dreadful were about to happen, she would have heard giveaway whispers at her house.
"All right," Susie's father said, safely behind his desk. Susie knew that desk so well, the family pictures he kept there on it, the ones of her and her mother smiling at the expensive photographer they always hired because his pictures somehow made them look slimmer than they actually were. "Now I know this meeting is somewhat unusual, but I wanted you all to hear what's going to happen from me, and not third-hand from some gossip who'll have the story all wrong anyway."
"They've canceled us," Molly said. "Just when I flunked geometry."
"Nobody's about to cancel us," Susie's father replied. "We were tenth in the Neilsens last week, the highest rating of any new show this year. On the contrary, the network is delighted with our success, and wants us to continue with the blend of harsh reality and sensitive storytelling that has made the show what it is today."
Susie knew that speech. She suspected that everyone in the room could recite it along with her father if they'd had to. Fortunately, her father chose not to deliver it in its entirety.
"The reason we're gathered here is so I can tell you about the next major storyline Hard Time High is going to be doing," Susie's father said instead. "I think it's a perfect example of what I've just been talking about. We're going to focus on an issue of major importance in America today, one which Hard Time High is ideally suited for. Like so many of the best ideas for this show, it didn't originate with me, but with my wife. As you know, it was my wife who originally suggested the incest storyline that's kept Molly so busy for so many monhs."
Susie frowned. She loved her mother, and she knew it was an accident, but it drove her crazy that her mother's bright idea had resulted in Molly ending up on the cover of TV Guide.
"The other day my wife and I were having coffee, and she mentioned to me the growing rate of suicide among teenagers and young adults in America," Susie's father declared. "Teenager suicide is growing to epidemic proportions. And Hard Time High, focusing as it does on a group of sympathetic teenage characters, is the ideal forum to dramatize this problem. Perhaps if we do it right, we might even be able to save a few lives out there. And what an accomplishment that would be."
Susie couldn't believe her ears. The suicide business had been her idea. She'd discussed it with her mother, and sure enough, her father had fallen for it. Most of the time, if Susie wanted her father to listen to her, it worked out best if her mother did the talking.
"Teen suicide?" Bill asked.
"Teen suicide," Susie's father said.
"Dick, I've been meaning to tell you something," Molly said. "I've been lying about my age again. Actually, I'm only eleven."
Everybody laughed, but Susie could hear the nervousness in their laughter.
Her father smiled. "Ordinarily when a TV series decides to do a storyline like this, they'll bring in an actor to play the part of the suicidal character," he declared. "Give the audience two weeks to get to know him, one week to worry about him, and then one week to kill him off. By week five, the other characters will have forgotten he ever existed. They'll be on to their new storylines, and the audience will have the sensation, and rightly so, of having been cheated. But we're not going to do that."
"I don't know why not," T.J. said. "Sounds good to me."
This time nobody laughed. Susie could see T.J. blush under his perfect tan.
"If Hard Time High is going to maintain its reputation as a show willing to take risks, then one of the regulars, one of the characters the audience has grown to know and love, has got to be the one to be suicidal."
"Suicidal," Bill said. "A person can be suicidal and live. People try to kill themselves all the time and get saved."
"That's true, Bill," Susie's father replied. "And that would be the way a lot of other shows on the air would handle it. That would be the easy way out. But Hard Time High is different. We want the audience to feel the pain of suicide, the pain of loss. And the only way we can do that is if one of the characters on the show does indeed commit suicide."
"One of the characters," Miranda said. "Does that mean it could be one of the teachers? Or somebody's parent?"
"Then it would hardly be teenage suicide," Susie's father pointed out. "No, Miranda. It's going to be a teenage regular on the show."
"But isn't it kind of sudden?" Bill asked. "None of our characters have been suicidal up until now. We can't just get a gun and shoot ourselves and make it realistic."
"I'm aware of that," Susie's father replied. "And that's one of the reasons why I'm telling you all now. During the next few weeks, the scripts will be altered to make the problems in your characters' lives even more troubling than usual. Jerry Zigler will be giving you direction on how to handle it. Some of you might be asked to show no emotion at all, others to get weepy, still others angry. We don't want all of you to walk around as though there are clouds over your heads. But we also don't want the audience to know just which one of you is going to commit suicide. Because I would be naive if I thought I could keep this storyline out of the newspapers. They knew about the incest storyline weeks before it actually aired. What I don't want them to know is which one of you will indeed be the character to die. Notice that I say character. Naturally I expect all you kids to live long and happy lives off the show, if not on it." He chuckled, but nobody joined him.
"What you're saying is one of us is going to get canned," Molly declared. "After a few weeks of storyline where we either do or do not weep. We get a big death scene and then nothing but unemployment checks. Right, Dick?"
"I might have put it a little more graciously, but yes, Molly, that's it," Susie's father replied.
"So which one of us is it?" Molly demanded. "If you tell us who it is now, then that person can motivate her character and act up a storm and, at least when the time comes to look for other work, have something behind her to show around. Not to mention how much worrying everybody else will be spared."
Excerpted from Hard Times High by Susan Beth Pfeffer. Copyright © 1986 Susan Beth Pfeffer. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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