Ratings would skyrocket. Viewer votes might keep her in the running until the very end, assuming she didn't self-destruct before then. Over the past three months, Amber had turned my job into something between a waking nightmare and a tightrope act. Just about every week, she gave the tabloids something delicious to print and me some bizarre incident to carefully spin-doctor to the show's benefit. In her defense, Amber pleaded that every single faux pas was an innocent mistake. American Megastar's Good Girl Detained at LAX—Amber claimed she had completely forgotten the box knife was in her coat pocket. She'd used it to help her grandpa cut open feed sacks back home. Gospel-Singing Goody-Two-Shoes Linked to Hollywood Brat Pack—Amber claimed that when the gang at the studio next door invited her out clubbing, she thought it was some exotic sport, like polo or croquet. She had no idea drinking would be involved. Gospel Girl Nabbed in Prostitution Sting—Amber was lost and she'd only stopped to ask directions. How was she supposed to know those ladies on the corner were ... were ... She actually blushed and stammered and took a full minute to whisper the words ladies of ... ill repute.

If it was an act, Amber was an actress worthy of an Academy Award. The show's crew even had an "Amber pool" going—a harmless little bet on when Amber's innocent façade would finally crack. Everyone except Rosita, the cleaning lady, was in. And that was only because Rosita didn't speak English. Not one crew member believed that Amber's farm girl act could last forever. Nobody short of Elly May Clampett could be that naïve.

It looked like the Amber pool might pay off pretty soon. Five days ago, Amber had been linked to Justin Shay, and reporters were hiding in bushes everywhere, trolling for pictures and details. Could the fresh-faced gospel girl really be dating a Hollywood bad boy almost twice her age?

Even I had no idea how to spin-doctor this one. When the latest Amber rumor crept into my office, I'd accepted it with a sense of resignation. She'd finally gone too far—embroiled herself in the kind of smarmy Hollywood relationship that even her honey-covered southern accent couldn't sweeten. I wasn't sad about it, really. When all was said and done Amber was an opportunist, like everyone else in LA. Why should she be any different from the rest of us? It was a cynical thought, and in the back of my mind, I was bothered by how easily it came to me, how quickly I accepted it, how I'd suspected it all along. There was a time when I was more like Amber and less like Ursula.

The lost idealism of my youth drifted back to me at the most unusual and inconvenient times, like the whiff of something sweet passing by. As I took in Amber's hometown, it left behind a vexing question—if Amber really was as innocent as her quiet little hometown appeared to be, then what did that say about those of us who were using her loss of innocence, the ultimate destruction of her dreams, to boost ratings?

If I was unsure where to stand on the issue of Amber Anderson, her hometown seemed to have no question. Hanging proudly over Main Street was a huge banner that said,


Below that, two workmen with ladders were tacking on a hand-lettered addition that read,

Birthplace of Amber Anderson,
American Megastar's Hometown Finalist

Vote for Amber!

A sick feeling gurgled in my throat and drained slowly to my stomach, producing the fleeting thought that I should have brought along the prescription ulcer medication Mother tried to give me before I left LA. She said I looked like I needed it, and now I knew I did. The Tex-Mex breakfast taco I'd eaten before taking an aerial tour of Daily in a network affiliate helicopter was rolling around in my stomach like hot lead.

My sixth sense, the one my best friend, Paula, jokingly called the Doom-o-meter, was in full emergency warning mode, which could only mean that disaster was headed my way like a freight train. I could feel it in some vague way I couldn't explain. If Paula had been standing there with me on the corner of Third and Main in Daily, Texas, she would have—after making some joke about the Doom-o-meter—filtered through her Buddhist-Kabala-New-Age spiritual philosophy and told me this place contained bad Karma. She would've dragged me off to her favorite soothsayer, Madame Murae, who told fortunes in her sandwich shop when she wasn't busy making roast beef on rye. Yesterday when Madame Murae gave me my sandwich, she turned over the love card.