For those who want a taste of the novel, please dive right in . . .
“I was afraid you were never going to drink the poison.” Ellen adjusts the straps of her sleeveless dress. The front curtain is still drawn, and she wants to look perfect for the audience. “Were you watching me the whole time?”
She sounds suspicious. Maybe even a little freaked out. The honest answer is Yes, I was watching you, because in character, that’s what felt right.
But I’m not Romeo anymore, and she’s not Juliet. I’m back to being Seth, who went out with Ellen once after rehearsal and thought it might mean something. I also thought I was a shoo-in for a new series of Chevy commercials, but I guess I was wrong about that too.
The curtain parts. We lock arms and step forward with the rest of the cast. The standing ovation is spontaneous, the camera flashes persistent. Energy hums through us like a current.
I ought to smile. It’s closing night of the first fully sold-out production in Valley Youth Theater Company history. We’ve had excellent write-ups in the local newspaper. The rest of the cast are practically cheering themselves, but I can’t join them. The spotlights feel too bright, too hot.
“Bow!” Ellen stage-whispers.
I follow her lead, and when she retreats, I do as well. As the curtain closes, she tilts her head and clicks her tongue like a mother chastening her child. “Focus, Mr. Crane,” she teases.
Our cast mates exchange celebratory hugs. Ellen hugs me too. “See you at the party,” she whispers.
As she saunters past the front row of props, her friends fall in line beside her. She doesn’t look back.
“Would’ve been nice if you could’ve smiled, Seth.” My brother’s voice drags me around. Gant Crane, future paparazzo, stands stage left, examining photos on a ridiculously expensive camera. “I mean, I’ve got some awesome shots of the play, but the curtain call . . .” He shakes his head to underline how bad I must appear on the camera’s small screen.
“You can just delete those ones, right?” I say.
“Uh-uh. Your director wants the full album.”
“I’ll give you ten bucks.”
“She’s giving me a hundred.”
“A hundred? For one evening?”
He raises one eyebrow. “It’s only the stars of the show who get paid nothing. I told you not to get into acting.”
It’s true—he told me that. He’s annoyingly smart for a sophomore.
“You going to the party?” he asks, flicking his head toward the back of the stage.
He knows the word later is significant. “Is this about the Chevy commercials?”
“No,” I say. But I can tell he sees right through that lie too.
I did two low-budget TV commercials back in middle school, but the Chevy gig would’ve been huge. National exposure. Good money. They’d pretty much told me the part was mine. Instead, this afternoon I got a one-line email saying they were moving in a new direction.
“I just want to stay out here a minute,” I tell him. “Try to feel normal again.”
This time he raises both eyebrows. “News flash, Seth. You’re wearing pointy shoes and five coats of makeup. Nothing normal about that.”
Gant snaps another photo and leaves. Brows furrowed, I probably look more like Hamlet than Romeo.
I slide around the front curtain and survey row after row of empty velvet seats. With the audience gone and the spotlights off, the place no longer seems magical at all. The wooden planks beneath my feet creak slightly. The air is tinged with the still-there smell of paint from the props that were only finished four days ago. I know because I helped to paint them.
“Little odd for the star of the show to be out here alone, isn’t it?” someone calls out.
A guy ambles toward me. He looks about thirty. Goatee. Untucked white shirt and dark blue jeans.
I look around, but I’m the only other person here. “Costar,” I say.
“Uh-uh. Not all Romeos and Juliets are created equal. You know it. I know it. Everyone in the audience knows it.” He flutters a program. “Says here that in addition to his work with the Valley Youth Theater Company, eighteen-year-old Seth Crane has appeared in the short movie Taken Out, as well as commercials.”
He places his hands on the stage and pulls himself up. Sits on the edge, feet dangling. “I’m Ryder. Ryder Whatley.” He extends his hand. I step forward and shake it. “So what’s the issue, Seth?”
“Show’s over. You ought to be celebrating. But you’re still here.”
“Yeah, well . . . I lost out on a commercial today.”
“That’s too bad. Did your agent say why?”
“I don’t have an agent.”
“Hmm.” He pulls out a card. Below his name is written: WRITER – PRODUCER – DIRECTOR. He has a Los Angeles address.
My heartbeat quickens. “What are you doing in the Valley?”
“Glad you asked.” He takes out his cell phone and touches the screen. Pulls up a movie website that shows production status on a film called Whirlwind. “You heard of this?”
I sit beside him. My legs dangle farther than his. “Yeah. Sabrina Layton’s in it.”
“Was in it. Kris Ellis too. But then they split up in real life, and everything went into limbo. Now we have a script and shooting schedule, but no leads.”
“Didn’t anyone else audition?”
“Sure. Hundreds. But once the biggest teen actors in Hollywood signed on, I had better things to do than wade through hours of audition tape.” He chuckles. “Which is ironic, ’cause now I’m doing it anyway. Well, except for this evening.”
Ryder pinches the bridge of his nose. “Look, Seth, community theater isn’t my thing. But someone I trust told me to check you out. After I read that write-up in the newspaper, I figured, why not? And you know what? Watching you on stage, it was like I was seeing the character in my movie: the face, the movements, the voice. . . . What I’m saying is, I want you to audition.”
My feet bounce lightly against the side of the stage like I have no control over them. “When?”
“Tomorrow morning.” He turns his business card over and points to an address handwritten on the back. “There’s a conference room at this place. Ten o’ clock work for you?”
Before I can answer, a cheer erupts from backstage. When it’s quiet again, the whole situation feels surreal—losing out on a commercial one moment, and auditioning for a movie role the next.
“I don’t get it,” I say. “There must be hundreds of guys who want this part.”
“Sure there are. But sometimes we’re looking for exactly the kind of person who’s not looking for us.”
He watches me, waiting for yes. He must know how much I want this. Need it. It’s written all over me.
With the audience gone, the noise from the lobby has all but died away. Nearby, the party is in full swing, but I won’t go. I have other, bigger goals.
“Ten o’ clock,” I say. “I’ll be there.”