Authors: Antony John
“HEY, SETH,” ONE OF THE PHOTOGRAPHERS
calls out. “What's the latest with you and Sabrina?”
It's pathetic, but my first instinct is to glance at my brother just to catch his reactionâsatisfyingly openmouthed, his eyebrows raised almost an inch. But then I notice Dad frowning, and I just want to get away.
I hurry them inside the hotel, and the cacophony of voices grows quieter behind us. “I wasn't expecting you,” I say.
Dad's mouth twitches. “R-Ryâ”
“Ryder? He brought you here?”
“Called us this morning,” says Gant. “Told us your room is plenty big enough for three. Even got us a taxi.” He whistles. “We stopped by his office on the way here. He wanted us to sign waivers, in case we're around during filming. Hey, maybe we'll be movie stars too.”
I press the elevator call button. “Lucky you.”
On the fifth floor, I walk them to my room. Dad goes straight inside and heads for the patio doors and the perfect pool view, while Gant lingers in the corridor.
“So, you and Sabrina, huh?” he says.
“Yeah. I mean, no. Nothing's going on.”
“You sure about that? She just ran out of the hotel in tears, and you were right after her. Seems like plenty to me. And then there's the photos.”
“What do you meanâ
? You and Sabrina getting cozy on a beach. Came out this afternoon. Haven't you seen them?”
The beach. Sabrina warned me we were being photographed and I didn't believe her. Now the pictures are out there, just as she predicted. But if she was so sure, why didn't she make us leave? Was I a prop? Another way for her to control the story of who she is?
I shrug. It's a meaningless response, but for once, Gant doesn't push it. “Hey,” he says, brightening. “I'm not saying I blame you. This is Sabrina Layton, right? Most guys in America would kill to be in your shoes right now.”
“It's not how it seems,” I tell him.
He wanders inside. “Try telling Dad that.”
Half an hour later, Gant and I are throwing a foam football across the pool, while Dad sits on one of the deck chairs, head tilted back as he takes in the majestic hotel. I glance at him from time to time, hoping to see him smile. But instead he knits his brow like he can't make all the puzzle pieces fit. Or maybe it's that the most important piece is missing. There's nothing I can do about it, either. Mom's never coming back.
“Isn't she in the movie too?” asks Gant, pointing behind me.
I turn around. Beyond the pool deck, a familiar figure in a red vest is running on a treadmill. “That's Annaleigh,” I say.
“What's she like?”
“Nice?” He gives the ball a little extra velocity. “She's been watching us.”
I fight the urge to look again. “Actually, I should go talk to her.”
Detective Gant smells something fishy.
“I'll see you back in the room.”
Gant hurls the ball at me anyway.
I climb out of the pool and throw on a T-shirt. Enter the gym from the back, which means that Annaleigh can't see me. Her triceps flex with every arm swing. Her stride rate is high, footsteps light.
As I pull up alongside her, she startles. “What's up?” she asks, looking worried.
“Can we talk?”
She places her feet on either side of the rubber track but doesn't turn it off. “Right now?”
“JustÂ .Â .Â . whenever.”
She presses the red stop button. A middle-aged guy on the neighboring treadmill stares at the overhead TV screens with such focus that I'm sure he's eavesdropping. Annaleigh must think so too, because she tilts her head toward the exit.
I follow her along the corridor to the elevator. We get off on
the fourth floor and she leads me to her suite. Coincidentally, it's directly underneath mine, but her room is tidierâclothes packed neatly away, bags out of sight.
She sits on the edge of her bed. “What do you want to talk about?”
“I want to say I'm sorry.”
“For not listening when you said that Sabrina was taking over this movie.”
“So you think she
trying to take over?”
“I don't know. But something weird is going on andÂ .Â .Â . I guess I don't trust her.”
Annaleigh reaches for the video camera on her nightstand. “Actually, I kind of wonder if all of this is my fault.”
“I should've held my own at the junket. And I totally overreacted about Kris joining us. He and Sabrina are big-time. It's no wonder Ryder wants them in the movie.” She turns on the camera and points it at herself. “Yeah, Sabrina, I got jealous. There, I said it.” She directs the camera at me. “It's not surprising you trusted her. You have pretty good chemistry.”
Reddening, I try to take the camera from her, but she rolls away. As I make another grab for it, she turns back toward me and we're only inches apart. She's still flushed from the treadmill. Where Sabrina is cool, detached beauty, Annaleigh is all fire.
“You know,” she says, waving the camera tantalizingly close, “you need to get used to being filmed.”
“You know,” I say, taking it from her, “so do you.”
I move around the bed. Sit on the desk chair and zoom in on her. “My turn to embarrass you now.”
“Go ahead and try.”
“Do you have a crush on Kris Ellis?”
She rolls her eyes. “I'm a girl with twenty-twenty vision. Yeah, I have a crush. But nothing like the way you crush on Sabrina.”
I'm turning red again. “Crush
,” I say quietly. “Not crush.”
“So no Christmas Day celebrations with Sabrina, then? No prezzies? Not even some mistletoe?” She puts on a sad face. “TMZ viewers
I'm so glad I'm behind the camera right now. “Actually, my family's in town. When's yours coming?”
“They're not. Dad's stuck in Arkansas. Mom's staying with him.”
“So what are you doing for Christmas?”
She shrugs. “Give me that,” she says, reaching for the camera.
I wish she'd turn it off, but I play along. Pretend that it doesn't bother me to have a camera in my face.
“You should spend Christmas with us,” I say.
“Why? So you can prove that you're over Sabrina?”
“No. I mean, yeah. Look, I don't care about Sabrina right now. She'll be fine, no matter what happens. Same with Kris. But you and meÂ .Â .Â .” The camera lens turns. Is she zooming in for a close-up? “For a while there, I honestly thought we were going to get cut. Now we've gotten a second chance, there's
no way I'm going down without a fight. You know what I'm saying?”
“Yeah. I know.”
“So you'll join us tomorrow?”
She lowers the camera and turns it off. “Okay. Actually, I'd like that very much.”
CHRISTMAS DAY. WE DON'T HAVE A
tree, so I steal a potted plant and set it on the coffee table beside Dad. He stifles a laugh.
Annaleigh comes over at five o'clock. She's wearing three strings of red-and-silver tinsel around her shoulders. “I liberated them from a stairwell,” she says. “Tinsel this pretty has no business being hidden away.”
As she adds them to my plant, there's a knock on the door. Waiters wheel in two trays and four sets of plates and cutlery.
“Seriously?” says Gant. “Room-service turkey?”
“Mmm-hmm,” I reply. “Enjoy it now. When Brian gets the bill, he might ask for it back.”
“That could be messy.”
Annaleigh chuckles. “You're a family of guys. I'd expect nothing less.”
It's an innocent comment, but also a reminder that Mom is gone. “Time to eat,” I say quickly.
Dad claims the carving knife and attempts to cut the turkey. He does okay at first, but his hands shake the harder he concentrates, so I step around the table and take the knife from him. He gives it
up without complaint, but his shoulders slump.
“Look at y-you all,” he says. “Doing soÂ .Â .Â . so well.”
Annaleigh gives an appreciative smile, but I can hear the sadness in his voice. I'd thought that feasting on a too-large turkey in a fancy hotel room would make him happy. Trouble is, all of it is because of me, not him, as if I'm the head of house. Dad wants to provide for us, to be the one we depend on. I should've let him carve the turkey.
When I'm done serving, and the four plates are overflowing with food, I raise my water glass. “A toast to Brian and Ryder, for bringing us together.”
It's not until the words are out that I remember Annaleigh's parents, conspicuously absent from the festivities. She's the first to clink glasses with me, though.
“To turkey,” says Gant.
“AndÂ .Â .Â . andÂ .Â .Â . t-to all of you,” concludes Dad, raising his glass with a shaking hand. “I'm pr-proud.”
. I'm not sure I deserve that right now, but it wasn't just directed at me, and I don't think he's talking about the movie. As I look at Gant and Annaleigh, I realize that each of us is trying to get by. We may never be stars like Sabrina and Kris, but we're not quitters either, so maybe Dad's right.
I raise my glass too.
After dinner, Annaleigh and I go out for a walk. She tells me to take the headcam. Says we need to practice wearing it, and anyway, it'll be kind of funny. I slide it on and check out my reflection in the mirror. I look funny, all right, and not in a good way.
Rodeo Drive is busy, but everyone moves slower than usual. The lights, so bright yesterday, feel tired now, like they're clinging to Christmas rather than welcoming it. The piped-in Christmas hits of Frank Sinatra seem to follow us like a deranged stalker, promising snow and white Christmases and a million other things that Los Angeles can never deliver.
“Your dad,” she begins.
“I was going to say, he seems kind.”
“Oh, right. Yeah, he is. I'm sorry your parents couldn't be here too.”
“I'm not. Life is easier when they're not around.”
She peers up at me. Seeing her in the glow of the streetlights, I can't help noticing that her face is rounder, less dramatic than Sabrina's. Her expressions are spontaneous and unguarded. Annaleigh hasn't divided herself into three separate personas. Her unhappiness is written in every word, every muscle. But she still isn't answering my question.
“What's the story with your parents?” I ask.
Her steps become slower. Her eyes flicker between my eyes and the camera perched a couple inches higher. “Would it be all right if I don't answer that right now?”
“It's justÂ .Â .Â . this is Christmas, you know? And I'm happy.”
She links our arms and we stroll along in silence. Passersby stare at my camera and smile.
“I think it's your turn to film now,” I say.
“No. I feel full of profound thoughts, and I'd hate for our viewers to miss out on them.”
“Like why does everyone in L.A. wear full winter gear even though it's sixty degrees? Look at them. Coats, hats, gloves, scarves. Your city's just weird.”
She's right: This is my city, although it doesn't feel that way right now. Christmas trees and garlands adorn Rodeo Drive. Lights dangle from the roof of the Beverly Wilshire like cascading diamonds. Everything is bigger, brighter, and bolder here.
“Penny for your thoughts?” Annaleigh asks.
“Just a penny?”
“Or an IOU for a buck. You'll get it when we're paid.” She clicks her tongue. “Maybe.”
“I was just thinking, we're going to be okay, you and me. We'll stick together.”
My phone chimes. Annaleigh lets go of me so I can read the text, and I feel the breeze where her arm has been.
The message is short:
You shouldn't play the field.
“What is it, Seth?” she asks, watching me.
She continues toward the hotel. I don't follow right away, though. Instead, I stare at the lamp-lit streets and wonder where our stalker is, and what the hell he wants.
THE ITINERARY SAYS
There's an instruction to “dress in character,” which ought to feel freeing, but doesn't. Ryder has remade my entire wardrobe. Which of the many possible versions of Seth-Andrew does he want me to impersonate today?
He picks us up at ten a.m. Compliments Annaleigh on her print dress and cardigan combo and turns to me.
“Nice shirt,” he says. “Someone has good taste.”
“You bought it, not me,” I say.
We travel east on Santa Monica Boulevard. North on Fairfax. East on Hollywood Boulevard. I visualize a map of L.A. and mark off each turn. Half an hour passes before we stop beside Hollywood Reservoir. To one end of the large park, the gray concrete of Mulholland Dam peeks above the still, glassy water. To the other, the Hollywood sign stares down from its hillside perch a mile away.
Two guys emerge from a minivan in the next parking space. One carries a long-lens camera that would make Gant envious, while the other shoulders a video camera.
Ryder notices me watching the videographer. “As well as publicity shots, we need footage for the DVD extras, that sort of thing,” he explains. “Figure we might as well do it now. When you're in the thick of filming, you'll be too tired to worry about that stuff.”
As Ryder issues instructions to his crew, Annaleigh points at the Hollywood sign. “It's kind of stupid,” she says, “but seeing that thing gives me goose bumps.”
“Not stupid at all.” I've seen it too often to feel the same way, but I can remember a time when I did.
“I wonder how many people have come to Hollywood thinking they're going to make it big.”
“Thousands. Maybe millions.”
“Doesn't it freak you out?”
“Not as much as it did a couple days ago.”
She cocks an eyebrow. “What changed?”
“They're photographing you and me for the promo materials, not Sabrina and Kris.”
She slides her fingers through the chain-link fence that separates us from the water, and glances at the Hollywood sign again. “I hadn't thought of it like that,” she says.
“Okay, let's get moving,” Ryder shouts.
Like the Pied Piper, he leads his posse of actors and cameramen toward the middle of the dam. There's water to one side and a massive drop on the other.
“We're doing this without permits, so we need a quick turnaround,” he says. “Imagine this is the lake scene from early in the movie. You're just walking across the bridge, chatting, smiling.
No one's getting in your way, and things are good. Got it?” We nod. “Good. Turn your cell phones off. We don't want any interruptions.”
Annaleigh and I exchange a glance and begin walking.
We've only taken a few steps when Ryder raises a hand. “No. We're looking for quiet understanding, not detachment. You're falling in love, remember?”
Annaleigh pulls her cardigan closer. It's softâcashmere, or something like that. She looks really pretty.
I offer her my arm and she laughs. “What is this, the nineteenth century? Next you'll be writing me poetry.” She takes my hand and we twine fingers. “Trust me, this is what we'll want.”
Ryder gives a signal and we resume walking.
“So,” she says. “What's your favorite kindergarten moment?”
“Hmm. The day I finally made contact in T-ball. You?”
“The day my parents gave me a packed lunch instead of the free school meal.”
“That's kind of a sad highlight.”
“You never saw our school lunches. What about elementary school?”
“That's easy. Getting cast in
The Greatest Christmas Pageant Ever.
I was one of the Herdman kids, and I was badass. Maybe a little too badass.”
She rests her head against my shoulder. “Like how?”
“They gave us rolled-up newspapers and told us to pretend fight onstage. You know, to show how bad we were. But I'd never been in front of an audience before, and I was pumped, so I swung that thing
against the littlest kid's face. I knew he
was in pain, but he refused to start bawling onstage, so no one in the audience realized what was happening. After that, he kept flubbing his lines, and everyone must've figured he was nervous, 'cause at the end they gave him this sorry, sympathetic applause. Even worse, I got a standing ovation. I guess compared to him, I was awesome.”
“That's horrible,” says Annaleigh, grinning.
“No kidding. The kid transferred to a new elementary school the next year. I've always wondered if it was my fault.”
“Was that when you decided to become an actor?”
“I think so. I was supposed to be a bad kid in the play, and sure enough, I messed this poor kid up. It was like Bruce Banner unleashing the Hulk. If I'd done that to a kid in school, I would've been in so much trouble. But because it was onstage, everyone applauded. It got me thinking: Who else could I be? Everyone wishes they could be someone else from time to time, right?”
“I know I do.” She takes a deep breath. “Is that your
thenâtaking out cast members?”
“Absolutely. One actor per production, by whatever means necessary.”
“Wow.” Annaleigh gives me a funny sideways look. “Thanks for giving me a heads-up. So who's it going to be this timeâme or Sabrina?”
“Neither. Kris is already gone, right?” I open my eyes super-wide so she'll know I'm kidding, but she's not looking at me.
“Cut!” Ryder claps his hands together. He's smiling. “That's exactly what I'm looking for, guys. Just ad-lib. See where the conversation takes you.”
He turns to his crewmen. “Did you get everything?” They give an emphatic nod. “Let's move to the next location, then.”
The men lower their cameras and traipse back to the van. With the cameras off, Annaleigh and I could ease apart. Instead we remain exactly as we are, hand in hand, her head against my shoulder.
“Is that story true?” she asks softly.
“Which one? Hitting the little kid, or taking out Kris?”
She knows I'm kidding, and pretends to punch my arm.
“Yeah,” I say. “It's all true. Did you think I was making it up?”
“I just wondered if I was talking to Seth or Andrew.”
“You were talking to me,” I tell her. “Were you Annaleigh or Lana, then?”
Now she loosens our hands. “I'll let you in on a secret. Lana and I have so much in common, it may not make any difference.”
We make stops at Santa Monica pier and downtown before returning to Hollywood. It's late afternoon and the streets are busy, and Annaleigh seems captivated by the restlessness of it all.
We park near the Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. It's a landmark, and a large crowd has gathered before the giant pagoda. Tourists stroll along the Hollywood Walk of Fame, snapping pictures of actors' and actresses' hand- and footprints.
Ryder has saved the interview questions for last. With the theater as backdrop, he tosses softball questions that give us room to say whatever is on our minds.
Annaleigh waves her thumb at the theater and says she can't believe her good fortune in being here, part of a real movie. I talk
about how unique the project is, and the challenge of making it work. It all feels so wooden, though. If Ryder really wants me to open up, he should let Annaleigh do the interviewing.
He's halfway through a question when his phone rings. He raises a hand apologetically and turns away to speak.
Seeing him leave, a group of girls shuffles toward us. “Are you in that movie with Sabrina Layton?” one of them asks me.
Annaleigh flashes me a grin, eyebrows raised.
“Yeah,” I say. “We both are.”
“Can we have your autographs?”
It feels strange to give autographs. I don't get to take it too seriously, though, as Annaleigh keeps nudging my arm. She does it really gently so that no one sees, but my signature changes every time.
When the first group leaves, another takes its place. Annaleigh surveys the growing crowd with disbelief. “I guess this is what you were talking about at the party the other night, huh? How it feels to be noticed. To
This isn't exactly what I had in mind, but we're definitely getting noticed.
“Do you think we'll get to put our footprints here too?” she whispers, pointing to a concrete slab imprinted with two hands, two feet, and Marilyn Monroe's autograph.
“Sure,” I say. “If we screw up this movie, I could definitely see Brian sticking our feet in concrete and tossing us into Long Beach Harbor.”
Annaleigh frowns. “That's not the way I want to be remembered. Plus,” she adds, tapping another slab with the toe of her
shoeâthis time, the tiny hands and feet of Shirley Templeâ“teen stars are supposed to mess up, right? It's part of the stereotype.”
“Seth!” Ryder holds out his phone. “Brian wants a word.”
I take the phone from Ryder and walk several yards before speaking. Rita Hayworth's prints are on a slab to my right, which reminds me of Sabrina:
They go to bed with Gilda. They wake up with me.
“Hi Brian,” I say.
“I'm sending a picture through,” he replies.
A photograph appears on the phoneâSabrina and me again, but we're not on the beach anymore. This time we're in the darkened surroundings of Machinus Media Enterprises. Her arms are draped over my shoulders. Our lips are pressed tight together.
If I'm getting autograph requests now, wait till everyone gets a load of this.
“First you go and tell Maggie about Kris and Tamara,” says Brian. “Now you're making out with Kris's ex-girlfriend. I have to tell you, Seth, you're not making life easy for yourself.”
That might be true, but as I stare at the photo, Kris is the last thing on my mind. What I'm trying to work out is why Sabrina and I let it happen in the first place. We both knew the curly-haired guy with the cell phone was trying to film us. We knew how it would look if he succeeded in getting an intimate photograph. But we kissed anyway.
“It won't happen again,” I say, like that's going to make any difference.
Brian sighs. “Just be smart, Seth. Actors are big business. Don't make yourself a target.”
He hangs up, and I stand there, staring at Rita Hayworth's prints.
“Over here, Seth.” Ryder waves from the most crowded spot on the sidewalk, where Annaleigh is waiting for me, eyes wide, smile wider.
I take a deep breath and join her. The photographer wants to snap away, but people are getting in the way of the picture. At the junket, Sabrina suggested that this might happen. Encouraged it, even. It's not random passersby that have me tense, thoughâit's Sabrina herself.
“Closer,” the photographer says, pressing his palms together.
This time, a whole group of guys steps in front of the camera. They look like they're college students, a frat on a field trip.
“What's the scene?” one of them asks. He's large and red-cheeked. “You want us to be part of this movie, right?”
His friends bump fists.
“Are you two going to make out?” another asks Annaleigh. “You should totally make out.”
A third steps forward and kneels before her like he's about to propose. “If you need someone to make out with you on camera,” his says, words slurred, “I'm here for you.”
Standing, he reaches for her hand. As Annaleigh shrinks back I push the guy away. Off-balance and probably drunk, he topples over. A moment later, he bounces back up, arms outstretched like he's ready to fight.
“That's a wrap,” yells Ryder, stepping between us. He turns to the guy challenging me. “You were awesome,” he says, patting him on the shoulder. He gives appreciative nods to the others too.
“All of you were great. Thanks for being part of this.”
They all wear matching confused expressions, like they're not sure if he's serious, or just trying to avoid a bad scene. Ryder points to his crewmen, still shooting from nearby. Then, to reassure the students further, he produces a clipboard and asks each of them to sign a waiver. He's doing anything, saying anything, in a desperate attempt to defuse the situation.
As the energized crowd closes in once more, Annaleigh and I hold each other, like anchors restraining rudderless boats. There's no orderly line for autographs anymore and no respect for our personal space. I look beyond the crowd, hoping for a way to escape.
Instead I see other passersby stopping, drawn by the crowd and the noise. Some of them clearly recognize Annaleigh and me, while others behave as if they're trying to remember where they've seen us before. Plenty more turn quickly away like we're a nuisance. Or just invisible.
Maybe we are a nuisance, but we're not invisible anymore.
Not by a long shot.