Pick a fight with a computer
POPPY PALLADINO HAD TRIPPED, FALLEN, AND HUMILIATED herself on live television in front of thirty million Americans, but convincing the CVS touchscreen to reverse its stance on her bungled self-checkout transaction?—that was pure torture.
“Help is on the way!” the computer chirped.
“I don’t need help,” Poppy told it. “I need you to take my coupon.”
The pharmacist leaned out over her pharmacy battlements. “You need some help, hon?”
“I’m told it’s already on the way.”
The pharmacist came to her aid, a woman with limp hair and glasses that in all likelihood had been swiped from the nearby rotating eyewear display. She must have been a recent transplant; Poppy had never seen her around town before. The name tag on her blue polo shirt said JEAN!
“Hi, Jean!” Poppy said. Politeness went a long way in the art of savings.
“Hi there. What seems to be the problem?”
“Sorry to pull you away from your drugs. It’s my coupon.” Poppy showed her the crumpled-up coupon smelling of receipt ink and old gum that had been trawling around the bottom of her bag since her mother imparted it two weeks earlier. “It didn’t work.”
“Well, let’s give it another try.” She took the coupon from Poppy and smoothed it between her hands, as if Poppy had not done this half a dozen times by now.
Only twenty minutes were left before she had to get back to school for rehearsal, but Poppy remained patient?—?albeit less than thrilled to have to sit through yet another round of Let the Adult Fix the Thing That the Idiot Teenager Broke. “The machine told me to scan my coupons,” she explained, “so I did. Then it beeped. Then it scolded me. Then it stopped talking altogether and decided to have an existential crisis instead.”
“Sorry about that. These things can be finicky sometimes.” JEAN! put a hand on her chin and looked from the screen to Poppy. “Did you wave it across the scanner in a fluid mo?—”
She froze. Her mascara-laden lids began to blink rapidly. “Wait a sec. Are you . . .”
“Yes,” Poppy said through the tiny hole her mouth had formed. “Yes, I am.” Immediately she looked down at the floor and rubbed the scar at the edge of her hairline, her default reaction whenever someone recognized her. It wasn’t her favorite reflex; she’d prefer to strike a heroic stance and burst out of the nearest plate-glass window in an epic display of bravado and fearlessness. But some bug in her internal programming wouldn’t allow it.
JEAN! put a hand to her mouth, which Poppy could tell was twitching at the edges. “Oh, my.”
“Poor thing.” Despite the woman’s best efforts to be polite, her eyes crinkled in that way that suggested there was a laugh coming, a bombastic chortle barreling its way up her throat with no regard for tact or civility or the feelings of an emotionally fractured seventeen-year-old. “How are you holding up, dear?”
Poppy’s tight mouth contorted into a tight smile. “I’m fine.”
On paper, at least. Poppy’s therapist had officially labeled her “No Longer Traumatized,” a phrase that her best friend, Jill, had found so hilarious, she had it printed on a T-shirt and gave it to Poppy for her birthday. “Everything’s fine,” she reiterated.
The pharmacist, fully embracing the fineness of the situation, was fighting the giggles so hard, her neck wattle was quivering. “It wasn’t that bad, you know.”
Poppy was beginning to think that a dollar off deodorant wasn’t worth this level of ballyhoo. “I’m sorry, but the coupon . . .”
“Oh, yes! You know what, hon? Just take it.” She pushed the deodorant into Poppy’s hand, then grabbed a package of Skittles and a ChapStick and piled those on top as well. “After all you’ve been through? You deserve it.”
Poppy considered her offerings. “You’re right. After all I’ve been through, I do deserve the promise of moist, kissable lips.”
JEAN! gave her a loving pat on the hand and ushered Poppy toward the exit, gallantly waving her arm at the sensors to make the automatic doors swish open.
The doors closed behind Poppy as she left, but not fast enough to muffle the explosion of laughter from within.
∗ ∗ ∗
Poppy had not always been America’s preferred object of ridicule. Six months prior, no one outside Paraffin had known her name. And within Paraffin, she was simply That Girl. The Blond One. With a Penchant for Maple Ice Cream and Musical Theater.
She’d had no reason to suspect that trying out for Triple Threat would be a bad idea. After all, she could sing, act, and dance, thereby satisfying the trio of purported hazards. And she wasn’t delusional, either?—?it was more or less agreed upon by all who saw her perform that she was good. Maybe big-fish-in-a-small-pond good, but certainly not the sort of train wreck those reality show talent competitions love to poke fun at, with goofy sound effects and dramatic close-ups of the judges, their beautiful faces twisted into dual looks of pity and God-given superiority.
She would do right by The Sound of Music. She would make her hometown proud. She would never be relegated to the blooper reel.
But what everyone at home and in the audience at Radio City Music Hall had failed to account for on that steamy June evening was one simple, fateful equation: incompetent stagehands + an inconsiderate preceding act = imminent tragedy.
It wasn’t her fault.
It wasn’t her fault that the El Paso Players were absolute morons and decided to stage the musical number “Be Our Guest” from Beauty and the Beast complete with real food that would be tossed and smashed around on a stage that was already slicker than an ice-skating rink?—?all while citing their commitment to “authenticity,” as if singing and dancing cutlery were the epitome of realism. It wasn’t her fault that the wreckage got nothing more than a quick mop during the commercial break. It wasn’t her fault that she was scheduled to go on after them. And it certainly wasn’t her fault that she slipped on an errant bit of pie and pudding (en flambé) and crashed to the floor in a pile ...