Terra Firma

By Jane McAdams

he shoes were too tight. Anne knew she should have bought a bigger size, but she had wanted the red ones, for luck.

“All right,” said the game show host, grinning into the camera. “Here she goes! Anne from Topeka!” The game show’s theme song burst from the speakers, and the audience cheered. “To the top! To the tippy, tippy top!” shouted the game show host. He pointed up at the Millionaire Mountain, looming in the corner of the stage. The Mountain looked cheaper in real life than it did on TV. Anne could tell that the dollar signs affixed to its side were really only styrofoam, dribbles of glue holding sparkles to their surfaces. A rickety wooden path wound up the face of the Mountain.

“Can you make it to the tippy, tippy top?” the game show host continued to chant. The audience chanted with him, lagging a few syllables behind.

Anne looked up at the plastic “$1,000,000” sign stuck to the top of the Mountain. She tried to see the gears holding the wooden path to the face of the Mountain, hoping to predict the direction in which the path would shift.

“No fair peeking,” the game show host said. “Nobody knows how the path will move.” He grabbed Anne’s hand and shouted, “Anne tells us that she’ll lose her house if she doesn’t win ten thousand dollars!”

Anne wondered how he knew. Then, she wondered if he had really spoken at all. She had had so little sleep.

The game show host smiled waxily at Anne, and the music throbbed across the stage. Anne looked again at the Millionaire Mountain, huddled in its bulky artifice. The music stopped, and the Mountain began to rumble as though beset by a synthetic eruption. The wooden path jerked into motion, grinding against the plywood face of the Mountain.

“Climb on up!” The game show host shoved Anne toward the Mountain. “And try to hang on!” He waved at the audience, who shouted, “To the tippy, tippy top!”

Anne skittered across the stage in her too-tight shoes. The Millionaire Mountain music had begun to whine from the speakers, the wooden paths groaning menacingly in syncopation.

Anne reached the base of the Mountain and peeled off the styrofoam “$2.00” sign.

“That’s the easy one!” shouted the game show host. “Everyone gets that one.” The audience hooted and applauded, and Anne regarded the erratically moving wooden path. She put one foot on its undulating surface.

“To the tippy top, Anne,” the game show host murmured ominously into his microphone. Anne looked up the shuddering walkway and pressed a hand to the Mountain’s sparkly face. The slick sole of her shoe slipped sideways on the wooden path as she tried to take a step.

“Looks like we might already have a loser,” the game show host said, but Anne grabbed the next styrofoam dollar sign before her feet slid out from under her. She landed on her knees, the path still moving underneath her. Putting her hands on the surface of the path, Anne stood and grabbed for a $1.00 sign. She kept her knees bent, balancing.

“To the tippy, tippy top,” the audience had begun to chant again. Anne thought of her house, the little herb garden she had planted along the front walkway and the sun porch where she read the newspaper on weekends.

“To the tippy, tippy top!”

Anne looked up at the “$100,000” sign, clinging to the side of the Mountain just above her head. The throbbing of the path intensified the pain in her feet, and Anne staggered up to the next sign—“$1.00” again.

“And she’s won four dollars, folks!” the game show host said. “But hang on. We need to break for a commercial. Stick around to see if Anne can really do it.” The audience cheered some more and then quieted abruptly. The Mountain path ground to a stop, and Anne slid back to the floor again. In her hands, she held the pile of styrofoam numbers.

The game show host sat on the edge of his silver dais. He lit a cigarette and stared out at the audience, narrowing his eyes. “You can’t win,” he said to Anne. He exhaled a stream of smoke. Anne wanted to ask him to explain, but the music had begun to play again. The audience roared, and someone pulled Anne back into her position on the wooden path. The game show host snapped up to his full height and gestured toward Anne. “We left Miss Anne at the four-dollar mark. Let’s see how close she can climb to a million dollars.”

Anne lunged for the next plastic sign, her feet straining against the red leather of her shoes. She grabbed for the styrofoam just as the wooden path lurched violently underneath her. Anne felt her shoes slip over the edge, and she tried to grab the shiny face of the Mountain before she fell. Her chin bumped the edge of the path, and Anne slumped onto the slick floor of the game show studio.

The music played on manically as Anne lay looking up at the studio lights. Her shoes still hurt.

“Well, Anne from Topeka,” the game show host said. “Thank you for playing with us today.” He pulled Anne to her feet and whispered, “I told you.” Then, he slapped her on the back, sending her offstage.

Thick curtains muffled most of the music. Anne stood uncertainly behind them.

___

In 2009, Jane McAdams published “The Shark Kite” in Ladybug magazine. Her short story, “Sleeping,” appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of Inkwell, and her “Psychic Hotline” appeared in the March 2012 issue of Foliate Oak.


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