Thundermist #3: Catch a Falling Star
Copyright 2019 by David Lafleche, all rights reserved. No part of this book may be quoted without express permission from the author.
This is a work of fiction. Any similarity between the events and characters depicted in this story, and any actual events, and/or any actual persons alive or dead, is purely coincidental.
All questions should be submitted to
Peter Laval was glad to receive actual, tangible correspondence. As much as he liked his computer’s ability to organize his science research files, he still liked to have something solid in his hands, and reading material that couldn’t be hacked.
Of course, that didn’t guarantee all of the mail would be enjoyable. “Hmmm…electric bill, gas bill, tax bill, supplemental tax bill…and a letter for Zoe and Rhoda from…‘Ann O’ Nymis.’”
“Oh, I know who that is!” Zoe said excitedly. “Stella Nova! I haven’t heard from her in months!”
“Stella Nova?” Peter asked. “You mean that friend of yours in fourth grade who made it big in Hollywood?”
“Well, Dad, starring in some dopey comedy series is hardly what I would call ‘big.’ But a job’s a job, I suppose. She’s been even more busy since Teen Utopia wrapped up.”
“Why would she be contacting you by snail-mail? Wouldn’t an e-mail or a text be better?”
Zoe dismissed the idea, shaking her head. “No, not really. With paparazzi constantly hounding her, she’s had her server hacked by those vultures a few times, and she didn’t want to take chances.”
Zoe carefully sliced the envelope with a letter-opener, and began reading. Stella’s penmanship was flawlessly legible, as always.
“Rhoda!” she yelled. “Where’s Rhoda?”
“Try the intercom, Zoe,” her Dad suggested. “Please don’t raise your voice in the house.”
“Sorry, Dad, but I couldn’t help it! This is awesome news!” Zoe rushed to the intercom. “Rhoda, are you in the house?”
“I’m in my room, sis!” Rhoda answered. “And you’re not going to believe this news I’m hearing!”
“I take it from your tone that it’s good news? Well, nothing is better news than this!”
“I wouldn’t bet on it, Zoe. Get up here! You’ve got to hear this report!”
Zoe ran upstairs to Rhoda’s room. She was sitting at her desk, listening to a news video. “I got texts from about a hundred people from school! Listen to this!”
“And in entertainment news…Kiloword Pictures has just signed an agreement with the city of Thundermist, to begin filming a major motion picture right here in town! Although details are sketchy at this point, it has been confirmed that teen heartthrob Buster Jeebers will be in it. Best of all, former Thundermist resident and current Hollywood teen-actress Stella Nova has been signed to play a role in the movie, titled, ‘A Panic in ’93.’
“The popular African-American superstar had won awards for her role in the hit TV comedy series ‘Teen Utopia,’ as well as for the title-song, ‘Don’t Ask Questions, Just Have Fun.’
“The popular show had ultimately been done in by the multibillion-dollar merger that created the NickyMicky Toonworks Channel, and subsequent executive shake-up.
“On that note, the merger of three cable networks was a stunner that rocked the entertainment industry and Wall Street, so what exactly led to this monumental decision?”
“Well, we had been ripping off each other’s programming ideas for a long time,” the CEO explained. “So, we figured…what the heck, let’s merge.”
“There you have it! As for the movie, its release is due to coincide with the release of the ‘Teen Utopia’ DVD collection, and Kiloword Pictures has high expectations. No doubt Stella Nova’s fans will be eager to line up for both of them.”
Rhoda shut down the internet connection, and leaned back on her chair, smiling confidently. “You said you’ve got good news?” she asked. “Well, top that.”
“Oh, yeah, I can top that!” Zoe replied. “I’m talkin’ Mount Everest, here! I got a letter from Stella, saying about the same thing!”
“Oooh, let’s hear it!”
“You’re not going to believe this! Not only is Stella coming back to Thundermist to make a movie, but she wants me to help work on it!”
“Yes way, Rhoda! She wants ME to be her costume designer!”
“Cut it out! Well, don’t just stand there! If it’s not in Braille, read it to me!”
“Okay, here it is (ahem)…
“Dear Zoe and Rhoda…
“Sorry I’ve been too busy to write more often, but you’ll be thrilled to know the reason: As per my demands, my agent actually found a respectable, well-written role for me. After what Mary-Kate and Ashley had been through, there’s no way I’d ever do that kind of cookie-cutter slapstick trash. I don’t have time to write out all the details, but I can tell you that it’s a comedy.
“Even better, it’s a period-piece that takes place in the 1890s, so that will give me a real opportunity to show everyone that I’m not just some dumb teen, but that I do, in fact, have some acting range!
“Regardless of what kind of movie it is, I would have written you to tell you the news; but I would also be honored if you would be my costume designer. You always were a great artist, and a whiz in history, so I know that your designs will have an authentic look.
“If I remember your Mom, I’m sure she would have reservations about this. But I can assure her that this movie is a clean, family-friendly, old-style, screwball comedy. I will set no wicked thing before mine eyes, so there’s nothing about the story that you would need to watch in secret. Of course, I expect that you’d get her permission, anyway.
“I’ve arranged to send you a copy of the script. Now, mind you, I had to really wrestle with the producer about that! But he agreed, as long as you promise to keep it to yourself, and never let that script leave your house!
“I’ll be in Thundermist soon. After I get settled, I’ll see if we can hook up.
“Your best bud, Stella.”
Zoe and Rhoda let loose with a high-pitched squeal, normally reserved for less-serious girls. Their mother could hear it from downstairs. “Ouch!” she complained, half-kiddingly. “That adds a whole new dimension to the term ‘pierced ears.’ What’s the commotion?”
“I’ve already heard this news report about a dozen times,” Rhoda answered. “But I wouldn’t mind another one. Check this out!”
Meanwhile, Kiloword Pictures producer Hugh Briss was a little less thrilled about these developments.
“Miss Jones!” he barked at his secretary. “Where’s Stella? Have you gotten hold of her yet? She was supposed to be here half an hour ago!”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Briss,” the secretary replied. “Stella was headed for the commissary for dinner.”
“What do you mean, ‘commissary’? She just had lunch a few hours ago! Is that all she can think about? Tell her to come to my office first.”
“She’s on her way to your office right now.”
“Well, you tell her that she’d better not mess up her photo shoot with Teen Preen magazine. She already weighs 115 pounds, and those editors are starting to get on my nerves! The home-video release of Teen Utopia is coming up, and I can’t afford bad publicity!”
“Let her in.”
Stella sat down, and looked half-dead; that is, slightly better than usual.
“Where have you been?” he demanded.
“I was on my way to dinner,” Stella answered.
“Is that all you can think about? Food? Cryin’ out loud, you’re getting fat as it is!”
“I know, I know: junior salad, no dressing, and a glass of water.”
“Well, okay,” he nodded, grudgingly. “But that’s not what I want to talk about. What’s this e-mail you sent me, about wanting some other kid to be your costume designer?”
“Her name is Zoe Laval, and she’s not just ‘some other kid.’ She’s a talented artist and a history buff, and I think she’d be perfect for the job!”
“And you know this…how?”
“Because she was my best friend in school, when I was living in Rhode Island. She even has her own business: Knit-Picker’s Custom Clothing.”
“You can’t expect me to hire a fourteen-year-old kid!”
“She’ll work cheaper than scale.”
“Deal. Set up an appointment for your friend. We’re flying out to Providence in three hours, and you can get settled at the location in Thundermist.”
Finally here, Stella thought.
“Where have you been?” Hugh demanded, impatiently. “It’s already 5:00 A.M., and you have a tight schedule!”
Stella could only lean her head against the wall, using a picture frame as a pillow. She had become quite adept at taking micro-naps while standing up. “Yeah, so I slept in, so kill me,” she muttered, almost inaudibly. “I’ve had a long flight, and a short rest. So, what’s on the docket today?”
“Okay, first you’re doing a photo shoot for Teen Preen magazine, and later, you’ll record a song for Clone Records…” Hugh began.
“What song?” she asked.
“I dunno…you’ll find out when you get there.”
“Well, how am I supposed to rehearse a song, if I haven’t even read the lyrics yet?”
“‘Rehearse’? What’s that got to do with anything? Just run it through a couple times, warm up the pipes, then get that thing in the can. You’re supposed to shoot the video next Tuesday.”
“‘Tuesday’? I can’t do a video next Tuesday! I have twelve hours of location-shooting for the movie!”
“Oh, that’s okay,” Hugh assured her. “Just do the video between takes. We’ll have a soundstage right next to the movie set.” He took a long swig from a bottle of bourbon, then leaned back on his chair.
“And, Stella, would you please stop leaning against my wall? You’re getting it dirty.”
She staggered to the nearest chair, and flopped into it. What does a dirtbag care about dirt? she thought. Besides, I just took a shower…which is more than I can say for you.
Stella propped her head up with one hand, trying to stay alert. “I’m almost afraid to ask this, but…what else is there?”
Hugh accessed his e-mails, and squinted painfully at the screen.
“Read the one in the middle,” she suggested.
“Uh, right…uh, okay! In addition to the shoot, you’ll be interviewed for an article in Teen Preen.”
“What’s the topic?”
“‘My Healthy Lifestyle.’ You’re going to explain to your fans all the benefits of going vegan.”
“What do you mean, ‘vegan’? I am not a ‘vegan.’ I’m not going to lie to my fans.”
“Well, that’s what the article is about! You’re not trying to make the news media look bad, are you?”
“Not at all. They can do that on their own,” she muttered.
“And, for cryin’ out loud, perk up! You can’t go into a shoot looking like you’ve been filming a zombie movie!”
“It was a terrible flight from L.A. I only slept three hours last night.”
“Well, that’s no problem.” Hugh reached into his desk drawer, and took out a different bottle. “Have a few greenies, then report to make-up. You gotta look good for the media. Remember, all this is timed along with the home-video release of Teen Utopia, and you need to put your best face forward for the sales and promotion department!”
Oh, that turkey again? She took the pills in her hand, then dragged her way to the door.
“Where are you going? I’ve got some water right here.”
Yeah, and it’s never been opened, she thought. But she still needed an excuse. “I have to go ‘powder my nose.’” By that, she meant, “use the facilities.” But she forgot that the expression had a newer, secondary meaning.
“You’re not into that stuff, are you?” Hugh asked.
“Certainly not!” Stella insisted. “And I never will be: not after what happened to Dana Plato!”
She found the strength to leave quickly, then rushed to the ladies’ room. Fortunately, this particular one accommodated only one person at a time; even better, it had a lock. With this rare moment of privacy, she did as always: she flushed the amphetamines down the toilet, then splashed cold water in her face. After drying off, she went to the commissary.
“Hey, Stel!” the waitress said. “You’re looking a little better this morning!”
“Compared to what?” she asked.
“What’ll it be?”
“Large coffee…black, two sugars.”
“Wow, I didn’t know you liked coffee that much.”
“Not all that much,” she explained. “But at least caffeine withdrawal doesn’t require rehab.”
The waitress returned quickly, and asked, “Breakfast…?”
Stella was starving, and tried to get something a little more substantive. “Breakfast…hmmm…I guess I’ll have ham and eggs…”
“No can do,” the waitress warned. “Mr. Briss has been very adamant about keeping your weight down.”
“What ‘weight’? I only weigh 115 pounds.”
“Hey, just between you and me, you look fine,” she admitted. “But tell that to him.”
“I can’t tell him anything,” Stella moaned. “Talking to Hugh is like talking to a wall: a big, smelly, hung-over wall.”
“Well, since Hugh is monitoring your meals, what’ll it be? The usual…?”
“Yeah,” she sighed. “Junior salad, no dressing.”
Stella ate her salad as slowly as possible, savoring what little flavor there was in such a thing. She chugged the coffee, left a tip for the waitress, and headed back to Hugh’s office. She found him passed out on the floor, next to an empty bottle.
“‘My healthy lifestyle,’” she muttered. “Actually, my lifestyle is killing me; but I’m still in better shape than you are.” Her stomach growled violently, dissatisfied with such a skimpy breakfast. “Well, that was a magnitude eight.” Hugh was still out cold, and did not notice.
She saw that Hugh’s computer was still on, with her itinerary on the screen.
Noticing that part of the day was still clear, Stella made a few alterations to her liking. “Let’s bump up that up a little; two hours will do.”
With more free time, she figured she could hang out with Zoe, and called her up.
Zoe picked up on the first ring. “Hello…?”
“Hey, Zoe, it’s Stella.”
“What’s up?” she replied excitedly.
“I just flew in last night, and I have a little spare time this morning. What are you doing?”
“I just got dressed, and I was about to eat breakfast. I was going to check out the movie set before school. For that matter, where is it?”
“We’re set up in an otherwise-unoccupied mansion on the north end, two blocks away from the park. It’s got a temporary fence and security guard, so you can’t miss it.”
“You said you have free time?! Excellent! Why don’t you join us for breakfast?”
“I’d love to!”
“Great! My mom overheard this, and offered to pick you up. Where will you be?”
“Tell her I’ll be near that iron fence surrounding the park.”
Zoe relayed the message, and her mother nodded. “Yes, she’s got it. She’ll be driving a green station wagon.”
“I’ll be ready!”
Stella rushed down to wardrobe, and put on a wig, a wide-brimmed hat, and a men’s spring jacket. I can’t believe I have to do this, just to get a little personal time…
Her stomach growled again.
…and a decent meal!
She managed to sneak past security, and made it to the pick-up point with a minute to spare. Removing the hat and wig, she was recognized immediately.
“Stella!” Naomi shouted. “Long time, no see!”
“Shhh!” she warned her.
“Why? What’s up?”
“I’ll tell you on the way.”
Meanwhile, Hugh had woken up with a crashing hangover, having been roused by pounding on his office door. The human alarm clock was Noticia Amarillo, editor of Teen Preen magazine. Disgustedly, she kicked Hugh lightly on the ribs (though she was tempted to hit harder), and managed to get him to stand up, however shakily.
“Hittin’ the hooch a little early this morning, are we?” she asked.
“Huh…?” Hugh answered. “Wha…what time is it?”
“Time for you to go dry out!”
“Ah, what do you know?” Hugh demanded. “That DVD release is coming up, and it better be a hit. Our profit margin rose by less than ninety-eight percent last quarter, and the stockholders are getting on my nerves. You have no idea what kind of pressure I’m under!”
“‘Pressure’?” Noticia complained. “You should try dealing with my sponsors! Where is Stella? I hate wasting my time going on a scavenger hunt like this, every time I have work to do!”
She helped Hugh slump into his chair, and mixed up some seltzer. Glancing at the computer screen, she noticed Stella’s handiwork, but didn’t know it as such.
“Cryin’ out loud! Why didn’t you tell me you moved up her schedule?”
Hugh could only squint through bloodshot eyes, not sure what he was seeing.
“Look at the screen in the middle.”
“Oh,” he replied. “I did that? I must have forgotten.”
“Is someone chasing you?” Naomi asked.
“I hope not!” Stella answered nervously, and ducked out of sight. “Is anyone else out there?”
Naomi looked around. Fortunately, the coast was clear. “No. It’s 5:30 in the morning. Who would be around?”
“You don’t want to know,” Stella answered.
“Oh, but I do.”
“Well, okay…paparazzi. Stringers and photographers are always about.”
“‘Paparazzi’? They sound more like Mafia hit-men.”
“I should be so lucky. Anyone there?”
Naomi looked around again. “Nope. Nobody here but us chickens.”
Stella worked up the nerve to peek above the door, and was glad to see the coast was clear. She heaved a sigh of relief, and let herself relax a little. “Do I look recognizable in this?” she asked.
“To be brutally honest,” Naomi admitted, “you look some dude in desperate need of a make-over and a haircut.”
“Whew! It worked!”
“I can’t believe you have to go through this!”
“Welcome to my world.”
It was a few miles from the movie location to the Lavals’ house, on the other side of town. It was impressive, but not in the usual sense. Being an actress, Stella had seen far bigger houses in Pasadena and Beverly Hills; but none of them looked quite like this one.
“That is your house?!” she gasped in amazement. “Zoe and Rhoda had mentioned it, but the half was not told me!” She continued to stare, as the car approached its parking spot. “It looks vaguely familiar, but I can’t quite place it.”
“Have you ever been to the Houston Astrodome?” Naomi suggested.
“Well, not exactly. I had a concert at Reliant Stadium, and I do remember the Astrodome across the street.” Stella accessed her smartphone, looked up a web page of the old stadium, and couldn’t believe it. “Hey, it’s like a small-scale replica! It’s obviously in much better condition, but looks more or less the same. How did you do that?”
“My husband designed it. He was always fascinated with the idea of a round house.”
“This must have cost a fortune!”
“No, not really. We built it mostly from recycled steel and aluminum. It was much less expensive than it looks.”
“What do you do for a living?”
“My husband and I are into scientific research,” Naomi explained. “We’ve filed a few patents: nothing earth-shattering, but commendable.” She then pointed at a sign on the front lawn: “TIOLI LABS.”
“Wow…” Stella gasped. “Zoe and Rhoda had mentioned that, but I had no idea! They never sent me a photo.”
“We moved in just recently.”
The station wagon pulled into its port, in the back of the house. Naomi closed the door, and invited Stella to relax and enjoy the comforts. “You’re safe now. We’re surrounded by trees and walls. We’re the only ones who know you’re here. Come on! I’ll show you around!”
They went upstairs, and entered the living room. The first thing Stella noticed was its utter lack of opulence: it looked comfortable, but the snobs in Beverly Hills would probably sneer at it.
The Lavals’ family portrait, and other framed pictures, stood out. One of them especially caught Stella’s attention: a guy with flaming-red hair, like Naomi’s.
“Oh, is that your husband?” she asked.
“No, that’s my son!” Naomi answered. “His full name is Joshua Corey Laval, but we usually just call him ‘J.C.’ for short.”
“And that’s his Dad…?” she asked, pointing to another picture.
“Wow. He looks like his Dad, but with your hair.”
“Genetics can be quirky.”
Stella continued to stare at the picture, unaware that she was zoning out.
“Uh, Stella…?” Naomi asked.
“Oh, uh, sorry, Mrs. Laval. I was a little distracted.”
“Check this out.” Naomi pointed to a wooden sign on the wall, with an inscription carved into it:
THE WORLD IS A WAR ZONE, AND A MAN’S HOME IS HIS FOXHOLE.
“Now, that’s clever!” Stella said. “Who came up with that?”
“J.C. made it,” Naomi answered.
Stella returned to staring at the picture. “It’s odd that I never met him,” she sighed.
Naomi seemed surprised by that claim. Before Stella moved to California, she had occasionally been a guest of Zoe and Rhoda. But Naomi had to agree that the claim was true, recalling the times when Stella had visited. “You’re right,” she said. “It was circumstantial, I guess. When you were living in Thundermist, J.C. was a little ahead of you in school. Or, maybe he was playing a Little League game.
“His Dad was still playing Minor League Baseball at the time. Every now and then, his team would go on a road trip. Sometimes, the entire family would go with him, but that wasn’t always possible. But he would take J.C. alone, if he could. I didn’t mind, though; it gave me some mother-daughter time with my girls.”
The reminder of Zoe and Rhoda finally broke Stella’s concentration on J.C.’s picture. Excited by the prospect of talking with them, she eagerly suggested the idea. “Where are they?” she asked. “We have so much to talk about!”
“I can show you,” Naomi said. “But they can’t talk right now. Come with me, but don’t make a sound.”
They went upstairs, tip-toeing quietly. At the top, Naomi gestured silently for Stella to peek around the open door. Fortunately, they were unnoticed. J.C. and Zoe were huddled around a computer monitor, while Rhoda read a Braille book.
Naomi gestured again to sneak back downstairs, hoping not to distract them. Having succeeded at that, she continued the conversation. “Well, what do you think?”
“Is this place always so tranquil?” Stella asked.
“We try,” Naomi answered. “They always go over their homework or studying before breakfast. The words of wise men are heard in quiet more than the cry of him that rules among fools.”
“What was that huge thing Rhoda was holding?”
“Oh, that’s a Braille book. Every year, we buy a Braille edition of her textbooks, or we just make one ourselves.”
“That is awesome!”
“Despite her disability, Rhoda is an excellent student. Check this out!” Naomi pointed to a shelf, displaying three Science Fair trophies Rhoda had won.
“Yes, she told me about that.”
“Three years in a row.”
Stella fought hard to keep her emotions in check. But she had to release a little bit. “I envy her,” she sighed.
“You would envy her? She’s blind!”
“Well, that much, I know,” Stella agreed. “But she’s so…normal: homework, home life…who wouldn’t want that?”
“True,” Naomi answered. “You know, you should have a chat with her Dad. He didn’t have that advantage when he was her age. He always made sure our kids had a chance to succeed, and a quiet place to think.”
“Yeah,” Stella sighed. “‘Dad’…‘quiet’…‘think’…”
She looked back to take one more look at J.C.’s picture. Her concentration was broken again, this time by an impatiently-growling stomach.
“Well, that’s good timing!” Naomi remarked. “You must be hungry. I’d better alert the kids.” She went to a switch on the wall, marked “INTERCOM.”
“Rhoda,” she said. “Study time is over, and it’s your turn to cook breakfast!”
“I’ll be right there!” Rhoda replied.
“‘Your turn to cook…’?” Stella wondered.
“My parents insisted that their children…that is, my sister Caroline and I…learn to cook, starting at age seven. I taught my kids how to cook. We all take turns. It is especially important for Rhoda to take her turn regularly, to re-enforce her orientation-and-mobility training.”
That had never occurred to Stella. She had always known Rhoda and her Aunt Caroline were blind; but now she suddenly realized that Aunt Caroline, being an adult, had to manage her own life and house, and that Rhoda would have to learn to do so as well. For a brief moment, she stood there, and tried to imagine how.
“Are you coming…?” Naomi asked.
“Oh, uh…sure, Mrs. Laval! Thank you so much!”
Stella could only wonder what other surprises awaited her.
“Shhhh!” Naomi gestured silently, making it clear to Stella that she wanted to surprise Rhoda. Stella nodded in agreement, and kept her presence a secret.
Rhoda came along, tapping confidently with her cane. This was a brand-new house, and she constantly practiced exploring the layout. Most importantly, she got the hang of the kitchen, and knew where everything was. Everyone else sat at the table, eagerly anticipating what Rhoda would whip up.
“So, Rhoda,” her mother began. “What’s on the breakfast menu this morning?”
“A Texas omelet fit for a king…or a lumberjack, whichever is bigger,” she answered. “And with that you get oatmeal, and the pièce de résistance: Nutra-Goop!”
While the rest of the family gave their compliments to the chef, Stella stood by quietly in the next room, wondering what “Nutra-Goop” could be.
Naomi couldn’t hide her secret any longer. “Make a little more, Rhoda. We have a guest at the table.” She signaled for Stella to come in. Rhoda had been too busy with her studies to think about Stella’s return, and couldn’t imagine it would turn out to be her.
“Rhoda!” Stella shouted.
“Stella!” Rhoda shouted back. “I’d know that voice anywhere!” Zoe shot up from her chair, and the three of them embraced.
“Is it my imagination, or have you gotten taller?” Rhoda asked.
“A little,” Stella admitted. “And look at you, Rhoda! You look absolutely radiant!”
“And you look…uh, well…” she took off her sunglasses, and squinted, somewhat ineffectively, through the irritating light and increasingly-thick cataracts. “Well, you look kind of like, uh…a ghostly, grayish blotch!”
“Same ol’ Rhoda. Always on the lookout for an easy laugh. And you, Zoe! You look terrific! So, is that gym teacher still pestering you about playing baseball?”
“Yeah, same ol’ Ms. Manchild,” Zoe sighed. “But I prefer to be a clothing-designer…which is why we need to get down to the movie set right after we eat. Actually, I like watching sports, but I prefer to leave playing to my brother.” She turned and formally introduced them. “This is J.C., and I’m sure you know who this is: Stella Nova.”
A jolt like electricity shot down Stella’s spine when she looked into his eyes for the first time. J.C. felt the same thing. For perhaps a split second, both of them were afraid they might break out in a cold sweat; but J.C., being a baseball player, and Stella, as an actress, were already accustomed to keeping their composure before an audience. Nevertheless, Stella fervently hoped that someone would change the subject, to give her a moment to relax and break the ice a little. She soon got it.
Their Dad was most curious about her, and led the conversation. “So, Stella, my girls told me you’re an actress…?”
“Uh, yes, Mr. Laval,” Stella answered. “I was in a TV comedy series called Teen Utopia.”
“Oh, I’ve seen that one,” Peter replied, with an unmistakable tone of disapproval. Zoe and Rhoda both winced at the sound of this, but Stella didn’t mind.
“Go ahead, Mr. Laval. Be brutal! Because I’ve already heard a lot worse from professional critics. I deserve it!”
“I don’t have to be ‘brutal,’ Stella, just straightforward. What I don’t understand about that show is, how could two teenagers live in a palatial, high-rise apartment in San Francisco, with no steady income, no parental supervision, and yet still be happy?”
“Oh, that,” Stella sighed. “All I can say is, that was the general idea of the title song: ‘Don’t ask questions, just have fun!’ You didn’t actually watch that, did you?”
“Once or twice,” Peter admitted. “But it was so unreal, I couldn’t stand it. Who came up with that idea?”
“That’s my boss, Hugh Briss. He’s the creator and producer. That’s just his style, I guess.”
“Well, Rhoda and I did watch the show, for no other reason than you were the star,” Zoe said. “But Dad is right: it was totally unreal! It’s just not possible to live that way. Anybody with half a brain couldn’t possibly accept such a ludicrous idea.”
“That’s a sign of the times,” her mother replied. “People shall turn away their ears from hearing the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.”
Meanwhile, Stella’s attention had turned to Rhoda. Even with her dark glasses blocking what little light her ruined retinas could process, she was still able to keep track of three or four things, yet left no mess on the stove.
“Breakfast is served!” she announced.
“You are a whiz in a kitchen, Rhoda!” Stella remarked. “I’m sure a lot of people think this, but how do you do that, if you can’t see?”
“I took a course called ‘Cooking Without Looking,’ she explained. “Aunt Caroline also coached me. She said the most important thing was to keep the kitchen clean and rigidly-organized, then memorize where everything is, in a clockwise pattern. Let all things be done decently and in order, and eventually I got the hang of it.”
Stella was deeply impressed with Rhoda’s confidence; but it suddenly dawned on her that she herself had never learned to cook, clean, or do much else besides entertainment. Here I am, some hotshot actress with an entourage, room-service, occasional chauffeur…and this blind chick lives more independently than I do! She kept this complaint to herself.
She slowly ate her omelet and oatmeal, savoring every bite. This stuff is awesome. One more day of rabbit food, and I’ll go insane!
She then observed a small bowl of mush, and was taken aback. But she knew that a shocked expression would appear rude, and kept her cool.
Zoe understood her reluctance, and had already anticipated it. “Don’t sweat it, Stella,” she assured her. “Everybody reacts that way, at first. Eat that which is set before you, asking no questions. Trust me, it tastes a lot better than it looks.”
“What do you call this stuff again? ‘Nutra-Goop’? What’s in it?”
“It’s my own invention,” Rhoda explained. “It is simply a mash-up of fruits and vegetables, with various herbs, spices and other seasonings. Zoe, do you have the recipe?”
“Right here,” she answered, handing it to Stella.
“This is good!” Stella exclaimed. “I could go for this!”
“All the nutrients you need,” Rhoda said. “But low in fat, and purely organic.”
“You know, Rhoda, I read that science term paper you had written about diabetes, and you were absolutely right! As an African-American, I would be prone to that and other diseases, if I’m not careful. A few friends of mine in Hollywood already have it.”
“Deep-fried foods would do you in,” Rhoda warned. “But, eat no manner of fat, and you’ll do well. We learned from an Asian chef how to fry with as little oil as possible.”
As they ate, Stella kept giving J.C. a quick glance now and then. She finally decided it was up to her to get things going. “So, you’re J.C.,” she said. “Your sisters told me so much about you! You play baseball, right…?”
“Yes,” he answered.
“You know, it’s odd, but I’ve been to your house…at least, the old place…but I’ve never actually met you.”
“That was circumstance, I guess. You and I had rather busy schedules.”
“That’s true,” Naomi admitted. “During those times when you came over to visit, J.C. was either playing a game, or he went on the road with his Dad.”
“Did you make him get into baseball?”
“‘Make’ him? We couldn’t keep him away from it! The first thing he ever even said was at a ballgame! He said, ‘Lookit Dad! I want that Dad do!’”
“J.C. was very impressionable. As soon as we got home, he picked up a tennis ball, and started throwing it all over the place. His left arm was pretty good, for a toddler.”
“Yeah,” Peter recalled. “We were living in an apartment back then. He threw the ball right through a window! The landlord was none too pleased. But it was worth twenty bucks, I guess. I started training him right away.”
“And you went for it?” Stella asked.
“Oh, definitely!” J.C. answered. “I wouldn’t be a baseball pitcher myself, if I didn’t enjoy it.”
‘Enjoy…’ Stella thought. Now there’s a vocabulary word I don’t recall from drama classes.
“I wish I had more time to talk,” Stella sighed. “But I really have to get back to the location. I have rehearsals, then filming begins on Monday.”
“I got an e-mail from your producer,” Zoe said. “He wants to see my work. I have just enough time to show him before I go to school.”
“I’ll drive you in,” Peter suggested. Rhoda looked anxious to go, but her Dad nixed the idea. “Sorry, Rhoda,” he said. “But for Stella’s sake, we have to keep it simple. We can’t go there looking like a bunch of autograph hounds.”
“True,” she sighed.
“Is it okay if J.C. comes?” Stella suggested, hopefully.
If there had been any possibility that Rhoda would be upset, Zoe took her sister aside, and quickly dispelled the idea. “Let it go, Rhoda,” she whispered discreetly. “You should have seen the way those two were looking at each other. I think there’s some real chemistry there!”
“No kidding!” Rhoda whispered back. “You think this could go somewhere?”
“I hope so. I think they really hit it off! You know, J.C. never got a chance to meet Stella until now. I have to be there to show my portfolio; but, if you sit this one out, maybe I can help move things along between them.”
“Yeah, but you know how Dad and Ma feel about dating.”
“Who said anything about ‘dating’? I wouldn’t want to move too quickly; but, you know, a little more ice-breaking couldn’t hurt. I’m going to see if I can get J.C. in as an extra. Even Dad would agree to that. Sound like a plan…?”
“Go for it!” Rhoda agreed eagerly, then she spoke up. “Oh, I don’t know. Were you planning anything, bro…?”
“No,” J.C. answered, trying not to smile too conspicuously. “I’ve got a little time.”
“Are you sure about that, Stella?” Naomi asked.
“Oh, don’t worry about it, Mrs. Laval,” Stella answered. “We do need a few extras in the movie, so maybe he could do something. You don’t mind, do you, Rhoda?”
“Not at all,” she answered. “Besides, this story does take place in 1893, doesn’t it? A blind person would be an anachronism in that era of Upper-Class society, and I wouldn’t want to distract you…you know, get you out-of-character. You’re playing a servant, not a mobility-trainer.”
“Thank you, Rhoda! I knew you’d understand!”
If this goes where I’m hoping it does, it’s worth it, Rhoda thought.
“Well, if that’s settled, we’d better get going,” Peter said. “We should take the van. It’ll be easier to smuggle you past your over-eager fans.” He paused suddenly, as he realized the implications of this statement. “I can’t believe I actually had to say that!” he sighed.
“Welcome to my world,” Stella replied.
As they drove off, Peter took the opportunity to learn more about Stella. Like J.C., he had no real opportunity to do so until now. “Stella, would you mind if I asked a personal question?”
She paused momentarily, but quickly realized that he wouldn’t ask any question too personal, with two of his own kids around. “Okay, shoot,” she answered.
“What was your birth-name? And why would you agree to a stage-name like ‘Stella Nova’?”
Oddly, none of the Hollywood beat-writers had ever asked her that. Now they were busybodies, speaking things which they ought not. Up to now, Stella had been way too busy to socialize with anyone; but, if she had done so, she would have preferred that journalists keep their noses out of her personal life. At least this guy knew his boundaries.
“That’s not a stage-name,” she sighed. “That is my birth-name.”
“Would that I were! But, really, that’s what my mother named me. She had aspirations for me to get into show business right from the start, so she picked a name that sounded…uh, you know…show-biz-e, to spare the trouble of doing it later.”
“Oh, well. Eventually, everybody gets a new name…or no name. What’s your Mom’s name?”
“What does your Dad think about that?”
Stella trembled noticeably, but managed to fight off bitterness. “I never met my Dad. He abandoned me before I was even born.”
Peter felt that question had crossed the line, and quickly apologized. “Oh, I’m so sorry, Stella! I didn’t mean to pry.”
“No, that’s okay, Mr. Laval. I suppose it had to come out, eventually.” Finding a positive spin on the subject, she did manage to crack a sly smile. “Oh, well. At least some guys know their priorities.”
“A real man provides for his own, especially for those of his own house.”
The van drove to the north end of Thundermist, to a neighborhood consisting mostly of large, stately, nineteenth-century mansions. They had been built by the industrialists of the time, who had made Thundermist a major industrial center. But those days had been long gone, with most of the factories having gone out of business, burned down, or converted to Section-Eight housing. The van approached the largest of those mansions, which had some of the sets and production offices, but was otherwise unoccupied. A temporary chain-link fence and a guard shack cordoned off the area.
Hugh did not like being disturbed by any security guard, since that kind of message usually meant spending money, rather than making it. Though irritated by the intrusion, he thought it better to get it over with.
“Yes, what is it? Make it quick!”
“This is east gate security, sir,” the guard said. “I think I’ve got a gate-crasher here.”
“What do you mean, you ‘think’ he’s a gate-crasher? He is or he isn’t. Make up your mind!”
“Well, that’s just it, sir. He does have a pass. He says he got it from Stella.”
Oh, not again! he thought. Another one of Stella’s pea-brained fans! Then he remembered that she had other connections in the community. “Hold it,” he replied. “Is this guy accompanied by a thin, blonde-haired girl?”
“Yes,” the guard answered. “Zoe Laval. She has a pass.”
“I was expecting them. Send them in.”
Stella came in first, silently shushing her companions. She knew how to deal with Mr. Briss, and they nodded in understanding.
“Where have you been?” Hugh asked.
“I had to get Zoe, and tell her where the location shooting was,” Stella answered. “Besides, she needs to sign an official contract to be the costume designer.”
“Let’s not rush this,” he replied. “First, I want to see some examples of her work.” Stella moved aside, ushering Zoe before the desk.
“I’m kind of in a hurry,” Zoe admitted. “I have a moment, but I have to get to school.”
“Good,” Hugh agreed. “Pass these out when you get there.” He handed her a stack of flyers, advertising both the movie and the DVD release of Teen Utopia.
“This is my portfolio,” Zoe said. “I’ve been doing work like this since I was eight; but I have recently started my own clothing-design business.”
“And you’re how old…?”
“Well, you’re in a hurry to grow up.”
“I am not reluctant to test the waters, so to speak. I prefer to jump right in and swim.”
“I see…” Hugh mumbled incoherently as he reviewed Zoe’s design sketches. “I must admit, these are pretty good! You must have taken a lot of art classes.”
“Only a few,” she admitted. “I get a lot of practice. In High School, other girls are such fashion fanatics! They’re always trying to upstage one another with the latest designs. They spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing. I keep coming up with new ideas, and they keep buying them!”
This girl is sharp as a tack! he thought. But he still needed to know if she could produce authentic-looking designs for an 1890s setting. “Yes, these sketches do look good for modern designs; but can you recapture the look of late-nineteenth-century, Upper-Class society?”
Zoe thought for a moment, then noticed an unoccupied table in the room. “If I may…?”
She set up a large collection of colored pencils, charcoal and heavy paper, and gave the matter a little thought. “Of course, I am accustomed to working at a tilted drawing board, not a level surface. I hope you’ll excuse the crudity of this work.”
“It’ll have to do.”
Zoe leaned over the table, and whipped up a sketch with surprising speed. Everybody else backed off as she zoned out, staring at the paper with intense focus. In nothing flat, she was done.
Hugh was dumbfounded as he stared at the sketch. “That is amazing!” he marveled. “How did you know how to do that?”
“I had taken a few Middle School field-trips to the Newport mansions: ‘Millionaire’s Row,’ as they call it. And I’ve always been interested in the history of fashion-design, having studied the work of George Woodbridge, so I was well-prepared to replicate it.”
‘Newport Mansions,’ huh…? You definitely sound like my kind of employee. “Well, I’m sold! This is excellent work!” He buzzed the secretary, and said, “Miss Jones?”
“Yes, Mr. Briss…?”
“I want you to arrange an office for Zoe Laval, complete with a drawing board. Inform the wardrobe department that she’ll be working with them.”
“Yes, Mr. Briss.”
“Uh, that is, with your approval, Mr. …?”
“…Laval,” he answered. “Peter Laval. And this is my son, J.C. I’m all for it, as long as we can monitor her.”
“I have no problem with that, if she doesn’t.”
“Not at all,” Zoe agreed.
“And you…uh…J.C., we could use you as an extra.”
“Very well,” he replied, remembering not to sound like an over-hyped fan.
Stella couldn’t hide a very noticeable grin, and a sly, sideways look from Zoe. Hugh hadn’t seen Stella look that enthusiastic since Teen Utopia wrapped up.
“What’s up?” Hugh asked, as the director came in. Wilhelm Scream was, by far, the most successful director Kiloword Pictures ever had. Nobody would ever confuse his movies with fine art; but even his worst critics…of whom he had many…had to admit that they were profitable. As such, his advice couldn’t be ignored.
“Hugh, I’m concerned about this Zoe Laval kid. Are you sure we should be doing this?”
“Why not?” Hugh asked. “Stella did recommend her, and she’ll work cheap.”
“I like her already,” Wilhelm agreed. “Still, I wouldn’t want to take any chances with this girl. She is a cute-looking blonde, and she just might get Buster Jeebers’ attention. We’re supposed to be fixing him up with Stella.”
“I wouldn’t worry about that. Buster isn’t due to get here until next Monday, remember? You said yourself that you’re shooting all his scenes in one day.”
“True,” he nodded. “For that matter, I’ve been doing a few re-writes, and I’ve got a special scene I’ve added: you know, with Buster and Stella? Tell me what you think.”
Wilhelm handed him the edited pages, and Hugh nodded his approval. “Ooh, this is good! You still have the old touch, Willie!”
“It’s a work-in-progress. Okay, Hugh, that’s settled. Now what do we do about Zoe’s brother?”
“Yeah, J.C., the red-headed guy? He’s an extra. I had to get around to that, eventually.”
Wilhelm paced around with that thought. He knew Hugh was right, but was still wary of dealing with locals. “Stella is a friend of Zoe’s,” he warned. “What if this J.C. dude starts making the moves on her?”
“Not a chance,” Hugh scoffed. “That kid is just another local yokel, not a celebrity. What does he bring to the table? I wouldn’t sweat it. But, if you’re that concerned, I suggest you lay down the rules with him and his family. Keep them in their places. What could go wrong?”
“Okay, fair enough,” Wilhelm agreed. “When will they get here?”
“Later this afternoon, after school.”
Right on schedule, Peter arrived with J.C. and Zoe. Wilhelm was the first to meet them. “So, you’re their Dad?” he asked.
“Yes,” Peter answered.
“And your purpose for being here is…?”
“J.C. and Zoe are my kids. If they’re going to be working here, I’m going to be monitoring them. I am simply looking out for their best interests.”
The guy seemed mildly surprised by Peter’s answer, and probed further. “Well, if that’s all you’re going to do, that’s fine with me; but if you think you’re going to use them to gain access to Buster Jeebers, don’t even try it!” He turned to Zoe and asked, “He doesn’t have a camera on him, does he?”
“Certainly not,” Zoe answered. “Security has already dealt with that issue.”
“Who the heck is Buster Jeebers, and why should I care?” Peter asked. “I am not some idiot autograph-hound. As a former baseball player, I can appreciate the desire for a little privacy.”
“Oh, a former baseball player, huh?” Wilhelm asked. “So, what are you doing now?”
“My wife and I are research scientists.” Peter handed him a business card. “Whoever this ‘Buster Jeebers’ guy is, get back to me when he invents something, or discovers a cure for ALS, or whatever. That would be my idea of a celebrity.”
“I don’t know about that, Mr. Laval. But more to the point: your daughter has been hired as our costume designer, at Stella Nova’s insistence, and your son is an extra, so here they are. What is your interest in this production?”
“I just need to know the people she’s working with. I take it you’re the director?”
“The name is Scream,” he replied, extending a hand. “Wilhelm Scream.”
“‘Wilhelm Scream’?” Peter gasped. “Not THE Wilhelm Scream! I know you! You’re the guy who made all those low-budget slasher flicks!”
“No, that’s not entirely true!” he protested. “In my last picture, the victims were not slashed, they were tortured!”
“Gee, how civil of you. Why the change of heart?”
“I didn’t want to be typecast.”
“Yet now you’re doing a comedy? That’s not really your style.”
“I’m simply trying to broaden my horizons, that’s all.” Wilhelm glanced over his shoulder at Stella, who was standing further away. Peter noticed that he glanced over at Stella with an odd look on his face, but wasn’t sure what to make of it. “Now, if you are satisfied with the formal introduction, would you please stand aside? You can go about your business of, uh…‘monitoring’ from backstage; but stay at least thirty feet behind the cameras.”
Stella, Peter and J.C. followed Zoe to her work station. “Dad!” Zoe said. “You didn’t actually watch that horror garbage, did you?”
“Nah,” he answered. “My goofy brother Joey was into that. I preferred those Japanese movies with cardboard cities and rubber monster suits.”
Meanwhile, Wilhelm went over the script. Noticia Amarillo then arrived to take her own pictures. “So, Wilhelm,” she began. “How’s life among the Great Unwashed?”
“Now there’s a study in contrasts!” he answered. “What a city this Thundermist is: a neighborhood full of mansions, then a Working Class rathole within walking distance.”
“Too bad you couldn’t book a real Newport mansion. But you’ve shot on location before. You gotta do what you gotta do.”
“I suppose so,” he agreed. “The upside is that most of the action takes place here, so there’s no risk of contamination. The stuff in the Working Class neighborhoods can be long-range shots.”
Zoe was having her own issues. It was only her first day on the job, and already she had to butt heads with the seamstresses. “No, that’s wrong,” she said. “This is supposed to be a nineteenth-century design. The ‘neckline’ on these dresses actually go up to the chin, and they’re a bit more frilly.”
“Well, excuse me,” one complained.
“If you don’t believe my sketches, check out these old photographs. See? That’s exactly what it’s supposed to look like.”
“I thought my dress was supposed to be ready,” Stella said.
“That’s what I thought, too,” Zoe agreed. “It’s just an artistic difference of opinion, that’s all. This is going to take a little longer. At least J.C.’s outfits will be easier for the tailor.”
“As long as I’m waiting, I guess I’ll go check out the sets,” Stella said. “I’ve never done a shoot inside a real house.”
“I guess I should do that, too,” J.C. agreed. “Might as well get to know the layout.”
“I’ll stay here,” Peter said, but did not specify how long.
J.C. and Stella casually walked down the hall toward the commissary. “You read my mind, J.C.,” Stella said. “I’m starving.”
“Reading minds has nothing to do with it,” he replied. “I could hear that low roar from your gut.”
“This crazy diet they’ve got me on isn’t cutting it.”
“Well, I’m not on any restrictions. I’ll just order for both of us. I don’t have any cash, though. Do they take debit?”
“You won’t need that. Just show them your employee I.D. It doubles as a meal ticket.”
“Good. Zoe tells me you like seafood…?”
“Now you’re talking,” she said with a sly look and a smile.
“Do you have a feeling we’re being watched?” Stella asked nervously.
“Of course we are,” J.C. agreed. “After all, we are in the commissary, there are other people around. Besides, I have no doubt there are paparazzi, stringers and other wanna-be journalists, hanging around here like Cold War spies. You should be used to that.”
“I suppose; but still…”
“You seem so nervous! Please tell me why. You don’t have to say anything, if you think it’s too personal.”
Stella was nervous, and she thought the issue was personal; yet she felt she could trust him. Her conscience had better instincts, and was practically screaming at her to level with him. Finally, she managed to get started.
“Do you like me?” she asked, barely above a whisper.
“Yes, I like you,” J.C. admitted, without hesitation. “What’s not to like?”
Stella seemed genuinely surprised by his quick, straight answer, followed by a straight question. Normally, her intensive training as an actress would enable her to mask her shock; but not this time. She was more accustomed to “players” and their mind-games. Nevertheless, his honest, straightforward approach emboldened her a little.
“Look at me!” she finally blurted out. “I’m dark as a coal mine! That doesn’t bother you?”
“If it bothered me, I wouldn’t be here. After all, it never bothered Zoe, Rhoda, or my parents.”
Stella’s head was spinning. Such plainness of speech was in total contradiction to everything she knew…or thought she knew. J.C. seemed to sense this, and thought a quick science lesson would help. He pointed at her…being extra-careful not to touch her…and asked pointedly, “Do you know what that is?”
Though this was another straight question, oddly enough, it seemed to calm her a little. She almost giggled…almost. “Uh, it’s my arm…?”
“Well, yeah, but that’s not what I mean. I’m pointing out what’s in it: melanin.”
“What about it?”
“Melanin is merely a biochemical. Some people have more, others have less. You just happen to have more. And you’ve spent a lot of time in a hot, desert climate in southern California, so that probably had an effect on it.”
“Well, yeah,” Stella agreed. “Everybody knows that. So what?”
“My point, exactly. It doesn’t make you any more or less a person.”
She finally understood that this was the answer she had been looking for. “I’m sorry, J.C.,” she replied, sobbing.
“My doubts were based on assumptions. I’ve run into people who have looked down on me, and I brought up the issue, just to see how you’d react. Now, at least, I see you have the same mindset as your sisters. They’re the only ones I’d ever met in school who really liked me.”
“In that case, I’m pretty lucky,” J.C. replied.
“I’d say that’s a rather exclusive club, don’t you think?”
The irony of this statement finally struck her funnybone, and she barely stifled a loud laugh. But he wasn’t finished yet.
“That is totally irrelevant. Yeah, so it has some superficial properties; but the most important thing is truth in the inward parts, not some chemical pigment. And the truth is, I’m not going to judge you on outward appearance.”
“And everyone in your family thinks the same way,” she agreed. “I’ve never met anyone like them…or you…in Hollywood.”
“We can do nothing against the truth, but for the truth. Anybody who looks down on you because of that chemical, doesn’t know or care about truth.”
They could feel something, almost like static electricity. In the back of their minds, they seemed to know that it would soon explode into a full-blown lightning-bolt…until one of Stella’s unseen observers disrupted the process.
Both of them were jolted upright in their seats; Stella seemed more shocked, but this sound, however startling, was familiar to J.C. Everyone else turned in the direction of the noise, but never caught the actual source.
“What was that?” Stella asked, clearly frightened.
“Oh, that,” J.C. answered calmly. “That was a horn: one of those ‘canned noise’ things. I’ve heard those things around. Sports fans take them to ballgames all the time; but, for some reason, they’re most often used by hockey fans.”
Hockey fans…? he thought. “Uh, oh…”
“My Dad takes me to hockey games a lot!”
“Is this a bad thing?”
“I hope not. Come to think of it, I’d better order something. We shouldn’t just hang around like this.”
Meanwhile, in the linen closet, another unseen observer had also been startled by the sudden interruption. Teen Preen editor Noticia Amarillo, who had hoped to get a good shot of Stella hanging out with Buster Jeebers, was surprised to find somebody else.
“Who in the world is that guy?” she wondered as she dialed her phone. The secretary answered, knowing who it was. “Hey, Tish,” she said. “What’s up?”
“I have no idea!” Noticia answered. “That’s what I’m trying to find out! Is Hugh there?”
“Is he sober?”
“Yes, again. He has to be, since he’s driving to the country club later for a round of golf. I’ll put him on.”
“Yeah, Tish, what’s up?” Hugh asked.
“I was just going to ask you the same thing!” she answered. “Long story short: I’m here at the commissary. I was hoping to get a few shots of Stella hanging out with Buster Jeebers, for the hook-up-and-break-up story, but I didn’t get that.”
“I’m not sure what to make of it,” she answered, peeking back. “Did Buster get his hair done, or something I didn’t know about?”
“What?!?” Hugh gasped.
“Well, either that, or there’s some stranger with her, right now!”
“Uh…” Noticia peeked again out the door. It was across the room, but she got a decent look. “He’s a tall guy, red hair, and wearing a blue hat.”
“With a ‘B’ on it…?”
“That’s a Red Sox hat. Buster Jeebers is still in L.A. And, no, he doesn’t have red hair.” Hugh’s memory, usually fogged by alcohol, suddenly recalled who this was. “I know who it is. That’s J.C. Laval. He’s Zoe’s brother: you know, she’s Stella’s girlfriend, the one we hired as the costume designer? Her brother is supposed to be an extra on the movie set.”
“Oh, yes,” Noticia replied. “I knew about her; but why is this guy hanging out with Stella? This is going to mess up the whole relationship article!”
“Yes, it could,” Hugh agreed. “The ‘other guy’ in Stella’s life has to be a celebrity, not some local yokel.”
“I was afraid of that.”
“You’d better be! After all, you already have Stella’s hook-up-and-break-up with Buster Jeebers all written out, haven’t you?”
“Yeah, what about it?”
“Well, have you written the follow-up? We still have to come up with ‘the other guy,’ don’t we? She’s not supposed to break up with Buster Jeebers, unless she immediately goes for someone else.”
“True. I’ve been so busy setting up the first part, I forgot about the second. The problem is, there are no other eligible celebrities around here. What are we going to do?”
“You’d better warn that deplorable to stay away from Stella! I suppose we’ll have to wait till we get home to dig up some other celebrity. But I’ll get on it.”
Noticia felt a little relieved. “I hope so.”
“I know what to do. We’re doing some rehearsals in an hour. I don’t want you to tip anyone off, so put on one of those dresses, get into the scene, and tell that jerk to back off! Later on, you can start coaching Stella about her part.”
“Now, that’s better!” Zoe commented when she saw the costumes. “Exactly the way they should look.”
“Oh, definitely,” Stella replied. “I finally get to see your work in action. These outfits are awesome!”
“I can’t wait to see you in yours.”
“There’s only one dressing room available here, and your brother is in it.”
Zoe knocked on the door, and asked, “How’s the fit, bro?”
J.C. emerged in a nineteenth-century men’s suit and derby. “Pretty good,” he said. “The styling is kind of nice, too. But the wool is itchy! Couldn’t you do this in cotton and polyester?”
“No,” Zoe answered. “It’s tempting, but it wouldn’t look authentic. Even an amateur could spot it a mile away.”
Meanwhile, Stella had put on her costume, and came out. Zoe pumped her fist, and said, “Yes!”
J.C. was deeply moved. “She looks gorgeous!”
“In that?” Zoe asked. “It’s just a drab, gray, earth-tone. The style is just a cheap, frumpy dress worn by servants…or what they used to call ‘the help,’ in those days.”
“Still, it looks a lot more classy than that modern, ripped-jeans look. If that dress were powder-blue, it would really compliment her.”
If Stella could blush, she would have turned candy-apple red; but she quickly became distracted by the outfit herself. Staring in the mirror, she admired its authentic look. “Wow!” she gasped. “It’s so…real. But, yeah, you were right, J.C. This material itches! How did they put up with it?”
“I suppose people got used to it,” Zoe guessed.
“Okay, so let’s deal with the business at hand,” J.C. suggested. “What is an extra supposed to do?”
“Not much, actually,” Stella admitted. “The general idea is to look as though you’re part of the scene, but not really involved in the story.”
“I got a script,” J.C. replied. “But I have no lines. In fact, I’m not even named: only identified as ‘Guest One.’ What am I supposed to say?”
“Well, let’s see that script,” Stella answered as she flipped the pages. “It says your scene is supposed to be in a banquet hall with a large crowd, and you’re supposed to be ‘Guest One,’ in the background, chatting with ‘Guest Two,’ whom I assume would have to be another extra.”
“What do I chat about?”
“Oh, anything: weather, sports, economics, quantum physics, whatever. Just speak in a low mumble, so the boom-mic doesn’t pick it up too clearly, and it doesn’t overlap the actual dialogue going on in the foreground. The sound-editors will make sure of that later.”
“That’s it. Just think of yourself as sort of a two-and-a-half-dimensional backdrop.”
“Too bad Rhoda couldn’t be here,” Zoe sighed.
“That couldn’t be done,” J.C. replied. “Disabled people rarely hobnobbed with that kind of Upper-Class crowd. They didn’t even want to admit their existence. Remember what that creep Kennedy did to his own daughter?”
An announcement came over the intercom, saying, “EVERYONE REPORT TO THE BANQUET ROOM FOR FIRST REHEARSAL IN TEN MINUTES.”
“Well, here goes,” Stella said.
“I’ll be watching from a distance,” Zoe said. “May you have a strong and healthy leg.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well, what did you expect me to say, ‘Break’ it?”
They arrived at the banquet hall set, and Stella was impressed by the décor. “So, this is what a nineteenth-century Upper Class party was like!”
“For an experienced actress, you seem rather awed,” J.C. replied.
“I know, but I can’t help it. I’ve been watching some old movies with scenes like this, you know, to try to grasp the concept; but to actually be on such a set is like culture-shock!”
“Actually, that could help.”
“Yes.” J.C. flipped the pages, focusing on Stella’s first scene. “According to the story, your character is a newly-hired black servant for an uber-rich Newport family, right?”
“Okay, then! Put yourself in character, and think about what that would be like in real life. A black teen girl, coming from a poor background, would feel like a fish out of water in such a place! Therefore, if you really do feel a bit unnerved, why not act it out? That’s how she is supposed to feel, so that’s how you should feel.”
“Hey, that’s right! I hadn’t thought of that!”
The arrangements weren’t quite ready, so J.C. and Stella poked around and got a better look at the set. The tables were decorated in fancy-woven linen and imitation silverware. The “food” looked tempting, but most of it was fake props. “I’ve never seen a party like this,” J.C. admitted. “The only parties I ever had involved pizza, cake and ice cream on paper plates.”
“Yeah,” Stella nodded. “This is nothing like the party scenes I had to do on Teen Utopia. We blasted hip-hop, rap, heavy metal, etc.; this crowd is into classical, chamber-music, and so on. It’s like a whole other world.”
“Your real-life parties must have been off the scale, Hollywood being what it is!”
“No, not really,” she sighed. “After ten or twelve hours on the set, my ears were ringing from all the noise, my strength was sapped by the hot studio lights…I had no time or energy for ‘real-life’ parties. Neither had I rest, neither was I quiet; yet trouble came. I never cared for that ‘party’ lifestyle, anyway.”
“That’s what I like most about you.”
Stella permitted herself a sideways look and a sly grin.
By then, the rest of the cast and the other extras had taken their positions. Wilhelm was in his director’s chair behind the camera, talking on the phone.
“Okay, Noticia, we’re all set up,” he said. “The banquet scene is the first one I’m going to shoot. But remember: this is only a rehearsal.”
“Good,” she replied. “Where is that rotten little meddler?”
“You mean J.C. Laval? He’s going to be in the back of the room, behind the table near the kitchen entrance. Are you in costume?”
“Good. You can mix right into the scene, as long as you get the message across, and don’t disrupt the proceedings.”
“Aw, Wilhelm, you underestimate me!” Noticia complained. “Would I do that?”
“Your reputation precedes you,” he answered. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather wait till the rehearsal is over?”
“I can’t take that chance!” she gasped. “Have you been watching those two? They’ve been giving each other the eye, and I don’t like it! If that guy is really serious, then I’ve got to put the fire out, or he’s going to ruin the whole set-up with Buster Jeebers! Next month’s issue of Teen Preen magazine depends on it…to say nothing of this movie and the home-video sales of Teen Utopia. I can’t let him get between Buster and Stella!”
“Agreed. Get in position.”
“I’m on it.”
J.C. was in his place, and remembered Stella’s instructions. Noticia approached him wearing a fancy dress, so he assumed she was “Guest Two.” But she soon made her true identity quite clear.
“I understand you have some interest in Stella Nova…” she began with an ominous tone of voice.
J.C. felt a little confused by this conversation already. “That couldn’t be in the story,” he replied. Nevertheless, he tried to roll with it. “Oh, well. Every guy in America has some interest in Stella Nova! Don’t you think she’s pretty?”
Noticia was in no mood for small-talk. “Look, dummy, I’m not an extra, I’m a reporter!” She took out her press pass, and identified herself. “Noticia Amarillo, Teen Preen magazine.”
“We don’t need no steenkin’ bahdges!” J.C. replied in a very bad, mock-Latino accent. “Oops! Sorry, wrong movie.”
“DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?!” she shouted, getting unwanted attention from everybody else in the room…including Wilhelm, who frantically tried to signal her to cool it.
“As a matter of fact, I don’t.”
“Look, kid, let’s cut the gab, and get to the point! Stay away from Stella Nova! I’m already planning to fix her up with Buster Jeebers! I’m not going to warn you again. Stay away, or you’re off this picture!”
“You and what army?” He had been in show biz for only two minutes, and he was already sick of it.
“You’ll never make it in show biz with that attitude!”
J.C. figured he had nothing to lose at this point, so he stared her down with a nasty look. “My Dad was a baseball player; today, he’s a research scientist. Now, there’s a person I can admire! He’s accomplished more in one day than you’ve ever done in your lifetime, so where do you get off?!” With that, he turned his back on her, and walked away.
Noticia was furious that a mere boy would get the last word with her. She tried to console herself knowing that he would have less time with Stella; but she still had some reservations.
“Wilhelm, that kid makes me nervous,” she admitted. “Tell Hugh I want him out of here! We’d better hurry up, get this picture finished, and get the ball rolling with Stella Nova and Buster Jeebers. For that matter, when will he get here?”
“He’ll be flying in from L.A. on Sunday morning,” he assured her. “I’m going to shoot Buster’s scenes on Monday. I’ll let the second unit handle the rest. Don’t worry about it. That loser won’t stand a chance to compete with a hottie like Buster Jeebers, anyway.”
Naomi looked her husband in the eye, and said, “Peter, I think it’s high time you had a talk with your son.”
This did not begin like the usual conversation. Caroline had thought she knew all the codes and buzzwords Peter and Naomi would use: If it involved casual, everyday issues, they would refer to their firstborn by his nickname, “J.C.” If the topic were more serious, they would refer to him by his actual first name, “Joshua.” But “your son” was a new one she hadn’t heard before. Normally cool as a cucumber, Caroline felt downright nervous. “Should I even be here?” she asked. “This sounds like a deeply-personal family matter.”
“Right on both counts, sis,” Naomi assured her. “Yes, it is a deeply-personal family matter; and, yes, you should be here.”
“Is it bad news?”
“Not if Peter and I handle it correctly. Besides, Caroline, someday you’ll be married, and you’ll have your own kids, so you’re going to have to learn how to deal with these things, and this is the perfect time.”
“So, what’s the issue?”
“It concerns that girl, Stella Nova,” Peter answered.
“Oh, her!” Caroline replied. “Zoe and Rhoda had told me about her. They’re close friends, aren’t they?”
“They’re her only friends,” Naomi sighed. “They were very close when Stella was still living in Thundermist.”
“But you said J.C. had some involvement…?”
“Not back then,” Peter answered. “Both of them had conflicting schedules, and never had a chance to meet. Besides, Stella was a straight-A student, and that was a major turn-off to all the other guys.”
“Why did she leave?”
“Stella went to Hollywood, and starred in some TV show. But get this, Caroline: she once played Juliet in her Middle School drama class!”
“Wow,” Caroline gasped. “A black actress doing Shakespeare? I wish I had caught that!”
Peter didn’t want to get too far off-subject, and reviewed the matter from the beginning. “Anyway, Stella recently returned to Thundermist to shoot a movie on location, and we invited her to breakfast the other day.”
“And that’s when…ahem…‘your son’…got involved?”
“It was the first time they were formally introduced,” Naomi said. “Do you believe in love at first sight?”
“Well, in theory, I guess,” Caroline agreed, waving her white cane. “You really think so?”
“You should have seen the look in their eyes when they met! There was electricity in the air!” Naomi barely stifled a giggle when she recalled her own lightning-bolt experience. “I’ve seen that look in a boy’s eyes before.” She leaned over the table, resting her chin on one hand. “I still do,” she said with a sly, breathless gasp.
Caroline cracked a huge smile. “Is Peter blushing right now?”
“Phhhttt! Nah, he’s used to it. We talk like this all the time while we’re working in the lab. It makes science research so much more fun.”
“All the time?”
“While the kids are in school, ya doofus!” Naomi replied with a playful shove.
“Okay, I get it now,” Caroline nodded. “So, you think J.C. might hit it off with Stella? You don’t object to that, do you?”
“No more so than your Dad ‘objected’ to me,” Peter answered. “He made it very clear what he expected of me, and I learned a lot from that experience. I knew J.C. had to get a girl, eventually, so I’m not surprised by this; but I want him to know where the boundaries are.”
“First of all, he needs to know the difference between real love, a crush…and just plain hitting up.”
“Ah…” Caroline nodded. “A lot of boys and girls don’t know the difference between ‘love’ and ‘crush.’ But ‘hitting up’? That’s easy! Even I know when boys have ‘that look.’”
“And just how would you know that, being totally blind?”
“It’s a lot easier than you’d think. I’ve had guys approach me: plenty of them. Some wanted a date; others were hitting up. I knew the difference.”
“Because every time some guy tried to bait me with phony-baloney sweet-talk, I could always overhear some jerk in the background whispering, ‘Yeah, Johnny! Go for it!’, or something like that. It never fails.”
Peter and Naomi laughed out loud at this, but Caroline wasn’t finished yet.
“Besides, for whatever reason, the hitters-up usually reeked of beer.” More laughter ensued.
“They were just chugging liquid nerve,” Peter agreed. “You can do better than that.”
“Yeah, when a guy is at rock-bottom, I can always go up from there.”
“What are you going to do?” Naomi asked her husband, staring at him with a more-serious look.
“I’ll do the same thing your Dad had done,” Peter answered calmly. “I’ll make sure they’re never alone together, always in a public place, and I’ll gauge their reactions. I’ve already seen them, at the studio commissary. I think I shook them up a little.”
“You’re not going to stop them, are you?” Caroline asked.
“Not at all. I have no objection to harmless socializing. What’s the worst that could happen, as long as they’re surrounded by other people? After all, I didn’t raise my son to be some crazy monk. He has to socialize, eventually. Even Naomi and I could do that, when we were kids.”
Peter leaned back on his chair and stared at the ceiling, seemingly at nothing. “But, like your Dad, I wouldn’t hesitate to crank up the fire hose, if it looks like they’re crossing the line.”
Wilhelm Scream looked like he was ready to do just that when he approached J.C. “Who do you think you are?!” he demanded.
“Well, I think I’m J.C. Laval,” he answered flatly. “And I’ve got a brand-new driver’s license to prove it.”
“Don’t get funny with me, wise guy!”
“Why should I? You’re a barrel of laughs, already.”
“Enough!” Wilhelm couldn’t believe that some wet-behind-the-ears newbie would dare to talk back to him. He took a spiral-bound document from his desk, and threw it on top. “Haven’t you read the employee manual?! It clearly says that ‘Mere employees of Kiloword Pictures shall not fraternize with actors or actresses.’”
J.C. was not the least bit concerned. “That’s quite a demand, coming from a director who specializes in butcher-burlesque. You can’t do even one lousy movie without throwing in a little, uh…heavy-duty fraternizing.”
“Yeah? What do you know about show-biz?”
“Oh, wait, my bad! You’ve done plenty of lousy movies, not just one. But, hey, you’re nothing if not consistent.”
“Well, Mister Laval, you are a ‘nothing’! But I, Wilhelm Scream, am the director of this movie! I will not tolerate civilians fraternizing with actresses…especially not Stella Nova!”
“Oh, really?” he replied. “Whatever happened to ‘celebrate diversity’?”
“I’ll be the judge of ‘diversity,’ not you.”
“The hope of the hypocrite shall perish.”
J.C. wouldn’t even flinch, and Wilhelm couldn’t understand why. He played his only remaining card. “You’re fired, kid! And you’d better warn your sister not to get out of line, or else she’s getting the gate, too!”
“Zoe can speak for herself,” J.C. replied, then walked out.
Doesn’t this guy know who I am? Wilhelm called Hugh, breaking out in a cold sweat. “Hugh?”
“Yeah, Willie. What’s up?”
“We’ve got problems, Hugh, big problems. I had to fire that red-haired guy.”
“Nah, don’t sweat it. He was only an extra. There’s plenty of disposable commoners living around here who would love to be extras.”
“Maybe they would, but not that kid! He acts like he’s got nothing to lose!”
“Why did you can him?”
“He was getting a little too close to Stella.”
“Didn’t Noticia take care of that?”
“She tried, but didn’t get through to him. That’s why I sent him packing.”
“You think his sister is just as bull-headed?”
“She could be dangerous. Zoe is the only connection between Stella and J.C. You’d better make sure she knows her place.”
“So, how’s Hollywood been treating you?” Zoe asked.
This was not something that Stella wanted to discuss. She had hoped to have a nice, leisurely lunch for a change, and was thrilled that Zoe and Rhoda had a half-day at school. The early dismissal couldn’t have come at a better time, and Stella would have preferred to speak of happier things. But good times had been quite rare, and she needed to talk to someone she could trust.
“To be honest with you, Hollywood has been treating me like dirt,” she sighed.
This came as a shock to Zoe and Rhoda, but especially Zoe. She couldn’t understand how any actress as popular and profitable as Stella Nova could possibly say that. But she did notice the circles under her bloodshot eyes, and how she seemed to have barely enough energy to hold her head up. She looked like she could sleep for a month, if she had the chance.
“I don’t get it,” Zoe said. “It’s not that I doubt you. I’ll take your word for it. But it doesn’t make any sense! Teen Utopia was a low-budget show with high ratings, and a merchandising bonanza. And, when that home video collection hits the market, it’s going to sell like hotcakes. I would have assumed your handlers at Kiloword Pictures would be more appreciative.”
“They’re not,” Stella replied. “Did you ever say ‘Thank you’ to an ATM?”
“No, I’m pretty sure I’ve never thanked a machine.”
“That’s a good way of putting it, Zoe, because that’s exactly what they think I am: a machine. You have no idea what a grind it was to do a TV series: twelve hours a day, six days a week…it wore me out. I was so relieved when we finished the last episode.”
Now it was Rhoda’s turn to be confused. “Stella, why didn’t you tell us this stuff in your letters?”
“I wanted to tell you,” she admitted. “I wish I could have said something. But even with those secret snail-mail letters I’d been writing, I couldn’t be exactly certain if some paparazzo may or may not have been monitoring me.”
“‘Monitoring’!” Rhoda gasped. “That sounds more like stalking to me! Cryin’ out loud, don’t those journalists have any respect?”
“None whatsoever, Rhoda. That’s why my house in Beverly Hills has such tight security. In fact, a lot of places in the area are like that. All these cities were fenced with high walls and bars; well, the individual properties, anyway. That’s what celebrities and the Upper Class have to do to get any privacy. Every time I go home, I feel as if I’m going to some sort of prison! I can’t even get out for some fresh air, because reporters swarm me like fleas on a mutt.”
“That, I figured,” Zoe nodded. “But monitoring your mail? Could that actually happen?!”
“I hope not. But I did catch one reporter trying to hack my e-mail, and another one was caught red-handed, planting a bug in my hotel room.”
“What possible reason could they have?” Rhoda asked.
“That’s easy: reporters are trying to dig up dirt, and in controversy they shall stand in judgment…even when there is none. One day, I was shooting an episode of Teen Utopia, and I had a minor disagreement with one director on how to set up a scene. It wasn’t all that bad: a small issue that was worked out; then a few days later, every rag sheet in the country had an article screaming about ‘Heated Arguments on the Set of Teen Utopia.’”
“Then I don’t blame you for leaving that stuff out of your letters,” Zoe assured her. “Those stupid journalists would start World War III, if they thought that could sell one more newspaper.”
“You said it, Zoe. I said in my haste, all men are liars; and, yes, there are an awful lot of female reporters who wouldn’t hesitate to throw me under the bus, if they thought that would advance their careers.”
The three of them seemed to get tired of the subject, and ate silently for a moment. Stella thought of something better. “This is sooo good!” she said, not caring that her mouth was full. “I haven’t been to Ye Olde English Fish & Chips in ages! And it’s such a relief to come here, and not have to fight off reporters and autograph hounds!”
“This was Rhoda’s idea,” Zoe replied. “We knew how much you love seafood. The High School crowd would rather hang out at Burger Tory. They don’t usually come here. Besides, I’m already in good terms with the management, and the staff is mature enough to respect your dignity.”
“I wish your brother had come with you.”
“He would have liked this,” Rhoda agreed. “But he does have scheduled workouts with the High School baseball team, even during the off-season.”
As they finished eating, Stella got her debit card, and was prepared to pay the tab. Zoe and Rhoda both gestured with their own purses, but Stella insisted. “I’ll get it,” she said. “This is one time I’ll do ‘redistribution of wealth.’ Even this acting grind has some upside. Waitress…?”
The waitress soon returned with some odd news. “Sorry, Stella, but your debit card was rejected.”
“How could that be?” she asked. “I have enough money in my bank account to buy a fishing boat, so why would a fifty-dollar tab be a problem?”
“It’s not a problem,” Zoe assured her. “More than likely, that’s a security block. After all, you are 3,000 miles from home, and you’ve never even made a debit transaction in this state. The card-issuer simply enforced a safety feature, just in case some thief had stolen your card.”
Stella then discovered that she had no cash, either. “I’m so accustomed to getting a meal ticket from my producer, or ordering room-service, I almost never do my own transactions anywhere! Now, is that screwed up, or what? I have all the money I’ll ever need, and I can’t even get at it. This is so embarrassing.”
Rhoda wouldn’t hear of it. “Oh, this is on us, Stella. Dad gave us some cash to pay for this.” She paid the bill, Zoe left the tip, and Stella felt a little better. The good feeling would not last, however.
They turned toward the direction of the voice, which came neither from a silly fan, nor from a pesky paparazzo. It was Hugh Briss, and he was not happy.
“What are you doing, eating here?!” he asked.
“Zoe and Rhoda invited me to lunch,” she answered.
“Oh, is that so?”
“Who are you, and what do you care?” Rhoda asked. “This is still a free country, and Stella can eat anything she wants!”
“Do you know who I am?!” Hugh demanded.
“No, I don’t. Am I supposed to know? Am I going to be tested on this?”
“I’m not here to debate with…commoners like you!” he shot back. “Stella, answer me! What are you doing eating fish? You know you’re on a restricted diet!”
“What do you mean, ‘restricted diet’?” Rhoda asked. “Stella is in decent health. And what’s wrong with eating fish?”
“Well, uh…meat is murder.”
“Yeah? Then what are you doing here?”
Zoe then noticed that Hugh was carrying a paper bag. She took a sniff, and said, “I’ll bet that’s the Fisherman’s Platter.”
“Oh, mind your business, Zoe! In fact, you and Stella should report to the set immediately.”
“Good,” Stella nodded. “The three of us could fit in your limo.”
“Not her,” Hugh replied. “You two. Let’s go.”
“What about Rhoda?” Zoe demanded.
“Don’t worry, sis. Ma was planning to pick us up anyway, remember? She’s out to lunch with Dad and Aunt Caroline. I’ll let her know.”
Hugh returned to his limousine, but the girls were in no hurry to follow. “So, who’s the Gestapo officer?” Rhoda whispered. “Does he always announce himself like that, rising up early with a loud voice, or does he just let the booze and gas speak for him?”
“Tell me about it!” Zoe agreed. “Not silent, but still deadly!”
“Be thankful he’s not driving,” Stella added.
“What’s he so angry about?” Zoe asked.
“Ah, the Board of Directors must be getting on his case about the weekly profit margin again.”
“Let’s get back to the set!” Hugh shouted impatiently. “We have work to do.”
“What is the meaning of this?!” Zoe demanded. Stella had never heard such anger from her; but, having been away in Hollywood for so long, she had no idea what a perfectionist Zoe was.
“What’s the problem?” she asked.
“Somebody altered my designs for your wardrobe! I mean, look at these things! If my Dad thought I’d drawn this stuff, he’d have a fit!”
Stella got a look at the re-drawn designs, and gasped. “Yikes! That’s nothing like your sketches! But you’re right, Zoe: If your Dad saw me wear these things, he’d take you off this production immediately.”
“I’ll spare him the trouble!”
Stella desperately wanted to defuse the situation. She was happy for Zoe having the opportunity to display her talents; but she also knew that this alteration was pushing her boundaries of good taste. And the guilty party was nearby.
“I did that,” Hugh said.
“Oh, it’s you, Mr. Briss?” Zoe asked. “Where did you learn to draw like that?”
“Well, let’s just say that I read certain magazines, but not for the articles. We need to talk. Step into my office, please.”
The path to the office was not an easy one, Hugh having hit the bottle. Fortunately, he’d had a little less than his usual ration, and was able to get to his desk on his own.
“Take a seat,” he invited her. “Stella, report to wardrobe.”
“That can wait,” Zoe said. “This concerns her, too, and I insist that she stay a moment.”
Hugh got up and paced around for a moment, trying to get into lecture-mode. Normally, this wasn’t his style; but the boldness of this mere fourteen-year-old girl had caught him by surprise.
“Zoe, do you know how I got rich in show business?” he asked.
“Ha, ha, ha…no, beside that. I am, as the plate on my door says, a ‘Producer.’ As such, I have to make arrangements to get things: things that are pertinent to the production of a movie or a TV show. Do you understand?”
“I get it.”
Hugh staggered slightly, as he went to his office safe. He squinted as he worked out the combination, trying not to reveal it.
“I can still read the numbers from here, Mr. Briss.”
“Really?!” he gasped.
“Well, you can relax,” she assured him. “The contents of that safe are no concern of mine.”
“Actually, they should be,” he insisted. “First and foremost, they concern Stella. She is your best friend, right? As such, the contents should also concern you.”
“And those contents are…?”
Hugh left the safe wide open, and returned to his desk. “Voila!” he said. “Take a look at that loaf of bread! Have you ever seen such a pile of money in your life?”
Zoe didn’t even flinch. “Not even in my dreams,” she answered flatly.
“Do you know how I got that?”
“I couldn’t care less.”
“Well, I’ll tell you anyway.” Hugh then revealed the only object he had retrieved from the safe: a boxed-set, home-video edition of Teen Utopia: The Complete Series.
“Do you see this?” he asked. “This is money in the bank. This is the home-video release of Teen Utopia. I’m sure you’ve seen it. It was one of the biggest TV hits of the decade, and this is the very first copy to come off the presses!” He got up, and placed the box back in the safe, carefully posing it face-first, directly in front of the piles of cash that occupied every other square inch of space, but did not close the door.
“That, Zoe, is only part of my cut. As creator and producer of that TV show, I was well-rewarded. And do you know why?”
“Why?” Zoe sighed, not bothering to hide her total disinterest.
“Because I always give my audience what it wants! If my audience wants fun, I’ll give ‘em fun. If my audience wants Buster Jeebers, I’ll give ‘em Buster Jeebers. And if my audience wants Stella Nova, I’ll give ‘em Stella Nova…which is why I wanted her in this movie. A Panic in ’93 is going to be an even bigger moneymaker in the movies than Teen Utopia had been on TV. I’m giving the audience what it wants.”
He turned around, and closed the safe, deliberately standing to one side, to drive home the actual point of his lecture.
“And that, Zoe, is why the contents of my safe should concern you. Stella needs that money even more than you do, because she is her mother’s only source of income. It works like this: You will accept those design alterations, and Stella will wear those dresses in the movie…or else she can kiss that income bye-bye!”
That argument didn’t sway Zoe at all. She knew that, if Stella needed any help, financial or otherwise, her family would always be there for her. What did worry her was how their friendship would be affected by her reaction. But she knew what she had to say, and made up her mind. It was the biggest gamble she had ever taken.
“You’re bluffing,” she said, completely unimpressed by Hugh’s threats. “And you admitted it yourself, you fool: you just said that Stella helped you make all that money! Well, I know for a fact that she does not approve of those dresses. So, what if she decides not to wear them in the movie?” She got up, leaned on the desk, and looked directly into Hugh’s bloodshot eyes with a soul-piercing stare. “What then, smart guy?”
Hugh was caught completely off-guard by Zoe’s firmness. For a kid, she was a pretty tough negotiator. But he didn’t get to be a big-time Hollywood producer by being anybody’s doormat: least of all, that of a teen girl. He knew he had his ace-in-the-hole, and didn’t hesitate to use it. He took two bundles of papers out of his desk: the contracts for the movie, signed by Stella and Zoe, respectively.
“I’ll tell you ‘what then,’ he answered. “Stella has no say in the matter! She is under contract, and she is going to abide by its terms! As for you, smart girl…” He leaned over and picked up the shredder at the side of his desk, threatening to put Zoe’s contract therein. “That’s ‘what then’!”
“I wouldn’t give you the pleasure.” Zoe snatched the papers from Hugh’s hand, and carried out the procedure herself.
“Have it your way, kid! You’ll never eat lunch in this town again!”
“For your information, this is Thundermist, not Hollywood. And I will eat lunch: wherever and whatever I want.”
Stella had been sitting there, quietly observing the debate to that point, but shocked by Zoe’s decision. “You’re quitting? Just like that? What about your clothing-design business?”
“I got that far without his help, and I don’t need him now,” Zoe answered. “The love of money is the root of all evil. I don’t care if my clothing-design business tanks because of this. I can’t do this to you, Stella! I just can’t!” She stared again into Hugh’s eyes, without fear. “‘Lunch,’ you say? Is that all you’ve got? Go ahead. Take your best shot.”
Actually, that was his best shot; yet it bounced off her like a BB gun hitting a battleship. And, while Hugh managed to maintain his poker-faced resolve, he couldn’t think of any reason to argue further. Zoe was inwardly pleased that she had the last word with him, and Stella was deeply impressed. Not many adults could get that far with a seasoned pro like Hugh Briss. Yet she still had one more thing to say.
“You are not going to be exploited like that, Stella,” Zoe muttered under her breath. “I promise you.” Then she turned and left.
With Zoe gone, Hugh could get back to the business of doing what he did best: being the boss. He picked up Stella’s still-intact contract, raising it in the air to drive home his message.
“Stella, you will report to wardrobe…now.”
“What’s this?” Stella demanded.
“What’s what?” the director replied.
Stella pointed to a part in the script she hadn’t seen before. “I’ve been reading and memorizing this script for six weeks,” she said. “But I don’t recall seeing this part.”
“This part!” she snapped, encouraged by Zoe’s boldness. “There’s a new scene in here that I don’t remember reading before! It’s bad enough that Hugh messed up Zoe’s dress designs. But if you think I’m doing a scene like that, you’re out of your mind!”
“Do you know who I am?” he shot back. “I am Wilhelm Scream, the most profitable director in all of Hollywood! And what Scream wants, Scream gets.”
Stella had been to various award ceremonies before, but never recalled any of Scream’s movies ever getting any of them…except perhaps in one of those mocking, “Worst Picture” things. “You’re not making anyone forget Steven Spielberg,” she scoffed. “All you ever did was crank out slasher flicks like a cheap sausage factory.”
Oddly, Wilhelm seemed to smile at this “accolade.” He leaned back on his chair, stared at the ceiling, and snickered, much like the killer in his most popular movie series. He settled down, then pointed to an odd, picture-framed object on the wall. “Do you see that?”
“I’ll show you. Come here, and look at my proudest achievement!”
He got up, and led her to the object in question; but it wasn’t a portrait or an award. It was a ledger sheet, blown up almost as large as a door.
“A balance sheet?” Stella asked. “So what?”
“That was from my most successful picture yet!” he crowed. “Vegan Vengeance VI. Did you happen to catch that one?”
“I’ve never watched any of your movies! Not after a reviewer gave your first one ‘two chucks-up!’ Yeah, so it’s the same old story about a homicidal maniac who attacks cattle ranchers with a vegetable slicer. What’s so special about that?”
“Funny you should put it that way; it’s part of the explanation.”
Wilhelm got up and paced around for a moment, trying to think of a way to make this mere actress understand. He stared out the window, then had some carefully-chosen words.
“When I made that first picture in the series, it actually came in on time and on budget. The stockholders at Kiloword Pictures liked that, but they thought I could do better.
“Now, some directors and producers would get stressed out by that kind of pressure. Not THIS one! No, I saw that as a challenge! I actually made a game of it: I bet the stockholders that I could do the next one even faster and cheaper!”
“I did just that! I got better and better with each succeeding production. But Vegan Vengeance VI was my crowning achievement! I got that one in the can for half the budget, in three days flat.”
He then went to a table that had a bronzed, bottle-shaped trophy with the inscription, “THANK YOU, FROM THE SPECIAL EFFECTS DEPARTMENT.”
“Lucky for me, Wal-Mart had a clearance sale on ketchup! Why waste money on CGI?”
“Yeah, I’ll bet you made back the budget on one day’s worth of ticket sales.”
“‘Ticket sales’? Ha! I made it back on the popcorn. And that product-placement for Alka-Seltzer™…oh, man, that was sheer genius! I wish I had thought of that sooner!”
Stella seemed both disgusted and unimpressed by Wilhelm’s “accomplishments,” and tried to steer back to her original contention. “And what has all that to do with this surprise love-scene?”
“It has everything to do with it, sweetie. The bottom line is the bottom line: as long as I make the stockholders happy, they’ll make me happy. I can do anything I want. It’s in my contract. And you have to do what I want. It’s in your contract.”
Wilhelm stared into Stella’s eyes with a nasty look, even worse than anything she’d ever seen in a movie. “And that’s why you’re doing a love-scene with Buster Jeebers in A Panic in ’93. Are there any other questions?”
Stella could feel the blood drain from her head. Normally, she was very good at keeping her composure, but not this time. She trembled quite visibly, and she knew that he could see it.
“No,” she whispered, staring at the floor.
“Good. I’m so glad we can see eye-to-eye on this matter. You are dismissed.”
Dismissed or not, Stella would not have waited for an invitation to leave, and walked briskly out the door.
Nevertheless, Wilhelm did have some concern for her sudden attempt at independent thinking, however brief it had been. He called Hugh’s office, hoping to catch him in some degree of sobriety.
“Hi, Hugh, it’s Wilhelm. Are you sitting down right now?”
“Not at the moment.”
“You’d better. I think we have a problem with Stella.”
Hugh sighed deeply, and flopped exhaustedly in his chair. “Boy, Willie, you just took all the wind out of my sails. I was just about to go out to that country club in Imwit. Oh, crud, what now? Did Stella try to sneak a cheeseburger at the commissary or something?”
“Even worse: she’s not going for that scene.”
“Yes, and I have other ideas. We’ll discuss them at the country club.”
“Oh, okay. You did, of course, give her the bottom line…?”
“I did, and I’m pretty sure I got through to her.”
Hugh seemed to perk up a little. “Okay, then! If she got the message, what’s the problem?”
Wilhelm seemed genuinely worried about the whole thing. He was accustomed to dictatorial control over all his pictures. When Stella got out of line, it unnerved him. “I just don’t get it,” he answered. “In all my other movies, those bottle-blonde bimbos never questioned me! I could have told them to jump off a cliff, and they’d ask, ‘How high?’ But not this kid! Where does this chick get off, complaining to me about anything?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t sweat it,” Hugh assured him. “Believe me, I had the same issue with Stella about her weight.”
“Oh, wow. She’s not getting fat, is she?”
“At last check, she came in at 115 pounds.: which is kind of pushing the envelope, but still within acceptable range. But I put a stop to any possible rebellion: nipped it right in the bud.”
“First, I went to the commissary, and gave them strict orders to monitor her diet. That worked. But, for just a little extra insurance, I got ahold of her agent. I warned her that Stella had better get with the program, or she’d never eat lunch in this town again, in every sense of the cliché.”
“That did it?”
“Oh, yeah. Stella is her only client! And if she wants those commission checks to keep printing, she had better let Stella know who’s running this show!”
“Good! Thanks, Hugh. I’ll get on that right away. Have fun golfing! Bye.” Wilhelm hung up, and looked up Stella’s agent. Fortunately, she was in, but was none too pleased by the intrusion.
“Who is this?!” she demanded, groggily. “Do you have any idea what time it is?!”
“Yes, it’s 1:30 in the afternoon! Up with the chickens, aren’t we…?”
“Oh, ha ha. Who is this?!”
“This is Wilhelm Scream, the director of A Panic in ’93, as well as your sole source of income, that’s who! We need to talk about your client, Ms. Nova.”
“My last name is not ‘Nova,’ it’s ‘Voraces.’ Bertha Voraces. Stella Nova is my kid, too. What do you want?”
Meanwhile, Stella had gone to the commissary. It was closed, but she wasn’t there to eat. She dialed Zoe’s number, but got no answer. “Oh, that’s right,” she muttered to herself. “Zoe probably has the phone off at school.” Then she remembered that she had J.C.’s number, too. “Of course, duh!” she complained, slapping her forehead. “Maybe he’s working out, or something. Think, Stella, think!” She called the number, and this time got an answer.
“J.C., is that you?”
“It’s me! What’s up?”
She looked around, making sure no one was there. Certain she was alone, she spilled her guts. “J.C., I’ve got a problem! A big problem!”
“I can tell! Poor girl, you sound like a nervous wreck! What is it?”
Stella trembled violently, and a cold sweat poured down her face. She didn’t know how to break it to him, until she remembered Zoe’s advice: “If it’s important enough, don’t hesitate. Just jump in and swim.” She cleared her throat, but her voice cracked from stress. “They want me to do a love-scene!”
This development might have alarmed him, but he quickly realized one possibility. “Believe it or not, there is a silver lining to this. You can turn this to a positive.”
“Really. I take it from your tone that you object to this.”
“You bet I do!”
“Then I suggest you have a talk with my parents. They’ll know what to do.”
This answer surprised her: so much so, the shock of hearing it actually counteracted her frayed nerves. “I like your family, J.C., but I can’t imagine what any of them can do to help.”
“Oh, they’ll think of something. Believe me, your reaction to all this would secure an awful lot of trust in their eyes.”
Stella wasn’t sure what J.C. meant by that. She thought about it for a moment, but still didn’t understand. Yet for all that, his upbeat tone told her that he knew what he meant. Somehow, it gave her some sense of hope and confidence.
“Thank you so much, J.C. When should I go there?”
“Come to my place after school. We’ll sort it out then.”
“Thank you, J.C.”
“Well, I guess that crisis was averted,” Hugh said as he swung a golf club. “Fore!” Noticia waited patiently for her turn.
Wilhelm didn’t care much for golf, but he couldn’t wait to break the good news. “Oh, it is, it is,” he assured them. “Have I ever failed you?”
“I was beginning to wonder,” Hugh answered. “I’ve been meaning to ask you this, anyway. What I don’t understand is, why didn’t you want to do a feature-length Teen Utopia movie?”
“I thought about it, but realized that would be overkill.”
“A surprising choice of words, coming from a specialist in slasher flicks,” Noticia cracked as she took her swing. “Fore!”
“On the surface, yes: a Teen Utopia movie would seem to be the obvious choice,” Wilhelm explained. “But I think that concept has finished its course. Yes, it has ‘party-hearty,’ and yes it has ‘pointless crises,’ and yes it has the occasional ‘fake melodrama.’ But it’s high time we took Stella to the next level.”
“And ‘the next level’ would be…?”
“A love-scene with Buster Jeebers.”
This idea caused an excited look from Hugh and Noticia, and they thought the idea sounded intriguing. “The publicity over such a thing would be priceless!” Noticia agreed. Nevertheless, Hugh still had reservations. “But…! Stella Nova is only fifteen years old. No doubt some fanatics would have a fit over that. I wouldn’t want negative publicity to have a detrimental effect on the home-video sales of Teen Utopia.”
“We must consider the future,” Wilhelm argued. “We must move Stella Nova beyond the ‘sweet, innocent teen’ phase, right into adulthood. She’s not going to stay young forever, and we must work on preparing her for…shall we say…grown-up appeal. After all, it worked for Hanna Louisiana, or whatever that kid’s name is.”
“And you don’t think this would turn people off to the TV series?” Hugh asked. “After all, there is the nostalgia angle to consider.”
“True, I have thought about that.” Wilhelm replied. “The issue is one of timing. You see, I have a plan: We already know we can use A Panic in ’93 to promote the home-video release of Teen Utopia. It will take a few days, maybe a week, to shoot the movie.”
“I thought you’d try to break your own record again,” Noticia said. “That’s not your usual, hyperactive schedule. I don’t understand why it should take that long.”
“Because this is not a slasher flick. I can’t fall back on cheap action and gore to quicken the pace. A Panic in ’93 involves real acting, real storytelling. Such things take time to do it right.”
“Agreed,” Hugh nodded. “And you think this has its advantages?”
“Undoubtedly. During the shooting schedule, we can use Stella Nova as the common link between the movie and the TV show, even though they have little in common. Even better: emphasize that brief guest-appearance by Buster Jeebers. Since both of them will also be in the movie, that should drive up sales.”
“The idea has merit,” Noticia replied. “But what do we do after the movie…and its ‘love scene’…comes out?”
“Simple: the home-video will have a limited release; then we emphasize that ‘nostalgia’ angle you thought of, Hugh.” Inwardly, Wilhelm congratulated himself for such cleverness. He knew that giving some credit to Hugh for the idea would stroke his ego. As if on cue, he assented to Wilhelm’s plan.
“I think I see where you’re going with this, Wilhelm,” he said. “The home video sales of Teen Utopia will go up during the movie’s production; but, after the sales flatten out, then you want to take Stella to the ‘adult’ level.”
Hugh seemed to like the idea more and more; nevertheless, he still had to test Wilhelm’s confidence. “But I repeat: Stella is only fifteen years old. I had always kept that factor in mind. That’s why I kept her away from other competitors in the business.”
“No way…!” Noticia gasped. “You mean Stella Nova is…?”
“Showroom-new. Neither has any man ‘known’ her.”
“That is amazing! How in the world did you pull that off?”
“It wasn’t easy, but I figured out a way. Stella’s contract stipulates that her mother had to be nearby at all times, while she was doing that TV show. Bertha was one tough cookie. She scared off any and all would-be pursuers; and together, we made sure that Stella was off-limits. I thought it was important to keep her fresh for Buster Jeebers, and Bertha agreed.”
“Still, don’t you think this transition is a little abrupt?” Noticia wondered.
“Not at all,” Wilhelm answered. “In fact, it’s all the better! If any of Stella’s fans don’t like it, we can always use the ‘sweet innocence’ angle as a nostalgic selling-point for the old TV show.”
“I like it!” Hugh agreed.
“It gets better!” Wilhelm added. “You see, during the production of the movie, we can prime the pump a little by planting stories in the media about Stella’s romance with Buster Jeebers; which, in turn, will be free publicity for the movie. After the movie is released, we can sell the idea of those two doing a reality series on TV.”
“Wait a minute,” Noticia replied. “That sounds familiar! Where have I heard that before?”
“Of course!” Hugh said. “A reality series would be just the thing to do! You could set up a camera in Stella’s house, she could stand there in a bathrobe and facial, burning her breakfast or…whatever, and people would watch it! Best of all, it’ll save money on writers. This would be any director’s dream job: just wind ‘em up, and watch ‘em go!”
“That is an excellent idea, sir!” Of course, Wilhelm knew it was his idea; but it didn’t take much ego-stroking to get Hugh to agree with it. Two things that always get results in Hollywood are money and self-esteem, and they ran almost parallel to each other.
“Do you think Stella will go for this?” Noticia asked.
“Oh, she will. Money answers all things. Once she sees how much she’ll make on this, she’ll come around.”
“And what about her mother? Bertha Voraces is her agent, too; will she agree to this?”
“She will. Her dealers are like any other: strictly cash-and-carry. Bertha has to be on board with this, if she wants to keep that high-quality party-powder coming. Besides, Stella is still under contract, and she’d better agree. I’m sure she’ll come around; they usually do. Pressure makes diamonds, and all that.”
“Still, there is one thing that bothers me,” Noticia warned.
“And that is…?”
“Stella is hanging around with that J.C. Laval kid.”
“Haven’t we already fixed that problem?” Wilhelm assured her. “We’ll just keep that crazy family away from Stella, get this movie in the can by next week, and get back to California by next Sunday. It’s in the bag.”
The three of them soon headed for the clubhouse for a round of drinks. “A toast!” Hugh said, raising a margarita. “To show biz!”
“No business like it!” Noticia agreed.
“No business I know!” Wilhelm added.
Stella would have agreed with that statement, but in a far more negative sense. She disguised herself again, and went to the same waiting spot. As before, Naomi picked her up. But she was alarmed by Stella’s appearance.
“Poor dear, you look awful!” she gasped. “Maybe you should put down the back seat, and lie there for a moment.”
“I can’t, Mrs. Laval,” Stella replied. “I think I’m going to be sick.” She rolled down the rear window, and prepared for the worst. It never came, but she wasn’t taking any chances.
“If you’re upset over Zoe and J.C. quitting, don’t be,” Naomi assured her. “They told their Dad and me all about it, and we agreed with their decision one hundred percent. Besides, they already have their future plans, and Hollywood was never a real consideration, anyway. Who needs it?”
“It’s worse than that, Mrs. Laval: much worse. But J.C. did tell me that his Dad might be able to help.”
“Whatever it is, I’m sure he can.”
“I hope so.”
“I don’t know how else to tell you this, Mrs. Laval…” Stella almost broke down in tears, and could barely speak above a whisper.
“It’s nothing personal, is it?” Naomi asked.
“Well, let’s just say it shouldn’t be,” she explained. “But it would be, if this goes too far.”
“If what goes too far?”
Stella couldn’t even look her in the face when she finally admitted it. “They want me to do a love scene with Buster Jeebers!”
Naomi thought about what else she might say, but put it off momentarily. “Hold that thought, Stella. Would you mind if Zoe and Rhoda sat in on this?”
“Oh, no problem!”
Naomi went upstairs to give the invitation personally. “Stella just dropped in,” she said. “You two weren’t doing anything important, were you?”
“We were just finishing up our homework,” Zoe answered. “We’ll be right down.”
The three of them went to the living room, where Stella was waiting. And it was abundantly clear that she was deeply troubled by something.
“This doesn’t look good,” Zoe whispered.
“What’s wrong?” Rhoda whispered back.
“We’ll soon find out.”
They sat on the couch, facing Stella, who sat on the easy chair; though she felt anything but at-ease. She would not lift up so much as her eyes, and seemed ashamed to speak.
“Whatever it is, you can tell us,” Zoe assured her. “Rhoda and I hear enough nastiness in the girls’ locker room at school. We certainly wouldn’t want to contribute to it.”
“Absolutely not,” Rhoda agreed. “This will be in the strictest confidence.”
“Oh, if only, if only…” Stella sobbed, her voice cracking. But she remembered Zoe’s advice that, in some situations, one might as well cut to the chase, thus finding a solution to the problem that much sooner. She finally worked up the nerve to level with them.
“They want me to do a love scene with Buster Jeebers!”
“Where did that come from?” Naomi wondered. “You told Zoe and Rhoda that there wouldn’t be anything of the sort in that movie! I’ve read the script. A Panic in ’93 sounded like a really funny story. I don’t remember reading anything dirty in it!”
“It’s not her fault, Ma,” Rhoda said.
“I’m not blaming her at all. It’s obvious she doesn’t approve, or else she wouldn’t have told us about it.”
“I told your brother, too,” Stella said, trying desperately to find something positive. “I wouldn’t want to disappoint him. It was his idea for me to come here and tell you. For that matter, where is he?”
“J.C. went with Dad to run a few errands,” Zoe explained. “But don’t worry about him. ‘Disappointed’ isn’t the right word, anyway. He would know as well as we that you didn’t ask for this.”
“That came right out of the blue,” Naomi said. “The question is, How? Why?”
The question helped to work up Stella’s courage, and her tone went from sad to angry. “It’s that no-good director, Wilhelm Scream!” she complained.
“Wilhelm Scream?” Naomi asked. “He’s the director?”
“I’ve never heard of him,” Rhoda said.
“Oh, you don’t want to know,” her mother answered. “But I’ll tell you anyway, just to spare you the shock. Wilhelm Scream made a bunch of low-budget slasher flicks. His movies were notorious, not only for gory violence, but also for gratuitous sex-scenes.”
“Mom!” Zoe gasped. “You didn’t actually watch those gross movies, did you?”
“Not on your life! My Dad would never have allowed it. I was never into that kind of filth, anyway. I determined that I will set no evil thing before my eyes, so it’s not as though my Dad needed to remind me.”
“Well, that does explain why he would do such a scene in this new movie,” Rhoda agreed. “But it still doesn’t answer how. Where does he get off, just tacking on something like that at the last minute?”
“Money answers all things,” Stella explained. “Mr. Scream does have a ‘creative control’ clause in his contract, and that pretty much gives him a blank check to make alterations to the story. Again, it goes back to those slasher flicks: because they were so profitable, the studio bosses rewarded him with free reign.”
“Doesn’t take much, does it?”
“No, Rhoda, it doesn’t. The bottom line is the bottom line. The stockholders wouldn’t care if Mr. Scream made a documentary about raw sewage, as long as they got rich on ticket sales and merchandising.”
Naomi, as an experienced parent, had faced and overcome plenty of her own crises, some of which were much worse than this one. She had some assurance to give Stella, and knew whereof she spoke. “Well, don’t worry about it, Stella. If you don’t want a love scene, then you’re not going to do it, and that’s that. With the temptation, there can be a way to escape.”
“Thank you so much, Mrs. Laval!”
“But that raises another question: Who is Buster Jeebers, anyway?”
“He did a guest-star appearance, in an episode of Teen Utopia,” Stella recalled. “You know, Zoe, the one about the wild party…?”
“Which ‘one about the wild party’?” Zoe scoffed. “That would sum up about two-thirds of all the episodes!”
“Party, party, party…” Naomi said. “Is that all your show was about?”
“No, Mrs. Laval. Teen Utopia did have two other kinds of stories: 1) Protagonist does something stupid, gets in trouble, goes through mayhem, gets out of trouble, but suffers no lasting consequences and learns nothing from the experience; and 2) We had a couple of schmaltzy, phony-dramatic, two-part, season-ending cliffhangers.”
“Which one had Buster Jeebers?” Rhoda asked.
“Oh, I don’t know; but who cares? It was one of them! Anyway, Buster Jeebers did a walk-on: one quick scene, then he left.”
“I must have missed it,” Zoe admitted. “I guess I got up to make popcorn, or something.”
“You didn’t miss anything, Zoe. It was a publicity stunt, and an excuse to introduce us to each other, after the shoot was finished.”
“You don’t sound too impressed with the guy,” Naomi observed. “It’s pretty obvious you don’t love him; but you do resent having to do this love scene. Do you hate him?”
“Admittedly, I did hate him at first,” Stella explained. “I mean, all he did was a measly, two-minute scene, while I had to endure twelve hours’ worth of noise and hot lights! And he got paid a lot more money for that episode than I did.”
“If I were you, I think I’d have quit,” Zoe said. “I don’t know how you put up with it.”
“Actually, you do know how, Zoe!” Stella recalled. “You told me how hard it is to get that clothing-design business of yours off the ground, while still going to school. You work even harder than I ever did, for a lot less money. Who is able to stand before envy? You made me realize it wasn’t worth getting all worked up over it. Right now, I think my health matters most.”
“Okay, so you don’t love Buster Jeebers, and you now realize you don’t exactly hate him, either,” Naomi added. “What, then…?”
“I thought about that a lot,” Stella answered. “Then I suddenly realized, I hardly even knew the guy! Good or bad, how could I feel any kind of emotion over some…stranger? It’s just not worth it anymore.”
“Well, at least that much is established,” Rhoda said. “But, Ma, you said there was a way to escape. So how do we pull that off?”
“Maybe your Dad can help.”
As if on cue, the station wagon pulled in to the carport beneath them. Peter and J.C. both came into the living room, and Naomi briefed them on the issue at hand. “What are we going to do, Peter?”
“The first thing that comes to mind is that contractual obligation,” Peter answered. “Okay, Stella: you say that Wilhelm Scream’s contract gives him absolute artistic control over the content of that movie?”
“Right,” she nodded.
“Okay, then! So, what is your end of it?”
“What do you mean?”
“Is there anything in your contract that specifies exactly, precisely what you are expected to do?”
“Of course!” Zoe said. “A loophole!”
“Bingo. There has to be one. Don’t worry about it, Stella. We may just find that escape clause after all.”
“But there’s another problem!” Stella added, nervously. “Tonight, I’m expected to do a live television interview on Teen Preen P.M., and I just know they’re going to bring up something about Buster Jeebers! My contract says I have to do this interview. What am I supposed to say?”
“That’s easy,” J.C. answered. “Use the Bill Belichik method.”
“‘Bill Belichik’?” Stella asked. “You mean the Patriots’ coach? What about him?”
“Like all professional coaches, Belichik is required to hold regular press-conferences, and answer questions. The catch is, he’s not required to give the media the answers they want to hear. Best of all, Belichik is a tough nut to crack. They can never get past his exterior.”
“Interesting!” Stella agreed. “So how do I do that?”
“It’s simple: put on your best poker-face. Don’t move, don’t gesture, don’t even smile. When they ask any question, just level with them! Tell them exactly what you think. Above all, you must appear totally indifferent: speak your answers in a flat monotone. That should convince them to back off.”
“The truth will set you free. You’ve got nothing to lose.”
Armed with this advice, Stella felt much better. “Thank you, J.C.! Has anyone ever told you that you’d make a good director?”
“No,” he answered. “But I’d rather hear it from you than from that crowd.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t stay for dinner,” Stella sighed. “I have to attend a cast party at the shooting location.”
“You don’t sound too thrilled about it,” Zoe replied.
“I don’t want to go. I would have preferred to have dinner with you and your family, then sit in on one of your study sessions. But these parties are also semi-formal staff meetings for the actors and other people working on the movie. As an employee, I am required to be there. Extend my apologies to everyone.”
“You don’t need to apologize, Stella,” Zoe assured her. “I don’t have as much experience in show biz; but I’ve seen enough of it to empathize. If only acting were simply a nine-to-five job, and you could just do your thing, clock out, then chill out a little…”
“I hear you, Zoe, but it just doesn’t work that way. When I was on the set of Teen Utopia, I had to work twelve or more hours per day, just to get a single half-hour episode in the can; but filming A Panic in ’93 will be even harder.”
“Well, rest assured, my family and I will do everything we can to make it easier.”
“Thank you, Zoe.”
Naomi drove Stella back to the movie location, and she managed to sneak back in, unnoticed. She glanced at her watch. 4:50, huh? I’m not exactly redeeming the time; but, a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.
Stella did not particularly enjoy hobnobbing with other actors. There had already been enough run-ins with backbiters and despiteful, proud boasters to last her a lifetime. Not all of them had been like that when she worked in television; but those few who did get along with her had warned that movie actors could sometimes be a different breed, and far more insolent toward others. Stella had heard many rumors that turned out to be true, and she was amazed that a movie could be shot at all, when producers and directors had to be nursemaids and referees to a bunch of petulant, childlike adults.
I don’t care to bicker. Let’s just get it over with. The sooner I start, the sooner it ends.
The first one to greet her was Noticia Amarillo. “Good evening, Stella! I am soooo looking forward to having you on my TV show!”
“Oh, yes,” Stella replied. “Teen Preen P.M., right? I noticed your stage hands had put up a temporary set: nicely done.”
“Thank you. Have you been reading Teen Preen magazine?”
“No, not really,” she admitted. “I don’t have much time for recreational reading; besides, I have to keep my focus on whatever script I’m shooting.”
“Oh, of course, of course. How about my TV show?”
“I never have much time for that, either. Now that you mention it, I really don’t watch any TV shows all that much. Whenever I watch a TV show or movie, I already know that it’s a set, and I can almost imagine the lights and boom-mics hovering overhead; the illusion is gone.”
Stella’s tone of voice indicated that the illusion of show-biz wasn’t the only thing about her that had waned, and Noticia wanted to know why.
“You seem a little down,” she said. “What’s wrong?”
“Oh, nothing,” Stella sighed. “It’s just that I would much rather have hung out with Zoe and her family.”
“Oh, I’ve read up on them,” Noticia replied. “Granted, Zoe’s costume designs look pretty good, so I suppose she’s got a future. Now, her sister…uh, Rhoda…?”
“She won something called a, uh…science fair…?”
“Three years in a row!” Stella answered, with much more enthusiasm. “That girl is such an inspiration to me! To think that any girl would be so adept at science; but a blind one?!”
“Yes, that is an interesting angle,” Noticia admitted, grudgingly. “I suppose human-interest stories could still get some attention, now and then.”
“It doesn’t end there,” Stella added. “There’s also her brother, J.C.”
“Yeah, I looked him up, too,” Noticia said flatly. “High School baseball player, ho-hum.”
“What’s so ‘ho-hum’ about baseball?”
“Nothing; but get back to me if he signs with the Yankees or Dodgers.”
“I seriously doubt that,” she scoffed. “But, even if he never makes it, at least he’ll follow in his parents’ pursuit of science research.”
“Oh, please, Stella! You can do better than some athletic Einstein! What about Buster Jeebers? At least he’s already a real celebrity, and you’d be better off with your own crowd.”
“For that matter, where is Buster Jeebers?”
One of the caterers overheard this, and added a snide remark. “A better question would be, ‘Who is Buster Jeebers?’”
“Oh, get with it, you deplorable!” Noticia replied, then got back to Stella’s question. “He’s in L.A., doing some photo-shoots, interviews, and so on. He’s flying here on Sunday. So, how are you two hitting it off?”
“We’re not, actually. Who’s got the time? Between the wrap for the TV show, the home-video promotional ads, and this movie, I barely have time to breathe! Who’s got time for dating?”
“Well, you’re only fifteen, and this is meant to be your first fling; just follow the script, and you’ll be okay.”
Stella hinted at ending the conversation by nudging over to a buffet table. She tried to nibble some broccoli with ranch dip, but didn’t have much of an appetite; which was surprising, considering how little she had eaten that day.
“Go easy on that cheese dip,” Noticia warned. “You already weigh 115 pounds, and we need to keep your weight down for your own photo-shoots.”
“Oh, it doesn’t matter,” Stella replied. “I wasn’t all that hungry, anyway.”
Noticia couldn’t help but notice a tired, worn-out look in her eye, and tried to cheer her up. “You worry too much, Stella! Every actress goes through this, especially those who make the transition from television to movies. You’re stepping up in the world!” She invited Stella to sit down and relax, as she continued her lecture.
“I understand what you’re going through. You’re new to the Hollywood dating scene, but newbies are just like toddlers: you take baby-steps, you stumble, you fall, you cry a little, you get back up, you move on, you repeat. You’ll get used to it.”
Stella thought about this for a moment, then realized she had never gotten a chance to do that with her father; but there was still a possibility of falling into the arms of another, better guy. “Okay, then,” she nodded. “So, when do I finally learn to, uh…walk straight, so to speak, and find Mr. Right?”
“Oh, come on, Stella, let’s not take the analogy too far.” She vehemently disapproved of this train of thought; and, being a well-trained journalist, deftly changed the subject. “Look my career path wasn’t easy, either. I had to really fight through the ‘glass ceiling’ to get where I am today. I was in more or less the same situation; but you know how I dealt with it?”
“How?” Stella asked, weakly.
“I withheld not my heart from any joy!” Noticia answered. “Take a look around you: there are all kinds of pleasures here! And there’s plenty more where that came from! Teen Utopia said it best: ‘Don’t ask questions, just have fun!,’ and there is every reason to think that your life will imitate your art.”
The conversation was interrupted by Hugh getting up at a podium, and the electronic squeal of a microphone. “Your attention, please!” he said. “Those of you who are involved in our latest production would be thrilled to know that A Panic in ’93 is an odds-on favorite to win a bunch of awards!”
A raucous cheer went up from the audience, except for Stella, who couldn’t understand the enthusiasm. “What ‘awards’?” she asked. “We haven’t even started filming, and we don’t even know all of our competition. How can we be a ‘favorite’ in anything?”
“Well, let’s just say that I’m confident in my investments,” Hugh answered. He glanced at his watch, and said, “Oh, Stella! You’d better get ready for that live interview on Teen Preen P.M. You’re on at 7:00.”
Although Stella wasn’t thrilled about the interview, at least it gave her an excuse to leave. She rushed to her dressing room, and called Zoe.
“Zoe, I’m getting ready to be interviewed on Teen Preen P.M. at 7:00.” she said. “Wish me luck.”
“‘Luck’ has nothing to do with it, Stella. It’s skill. How do you feel?”
“Perfect! Remember that advice J.C. gave you? That should help you maintain that poker-face and flat monotone.”
“Give him my regards. Here goes nothing.”
“Quiet on the set!”
Teen Preen editor Noticia Amarillo loved doing television. Recorded interviews did pretty much the same thing as her magazine’s articles; but they had the added benefit of getting the same point across to people with no attention span who were barely literate. Being both the director and the interviewer, she figured it was a public service.
“Everybody in place? Good. Okay, cue music…lights, camera…ACTION!”
Noticia put on her best smile; Stella, not so much. But Noticia was a professional, and tried not to let this minor annoyance distract her.
“Good evening, movie fans, and welcome to another edition of Teen Preen P.M., courtesy of Teen Preen magazine! With all the latest dirt on all the latest celebrities, it’s your go-to show for those in the know! I’m your hostess, Noticia Amarillo, and thank you for joining us.
“Tonight, we have some really fun news to bring you! We are live on location in Thundermist, Rhode Island, where everyone’s favorite teen superstar, African-American actress and singer Stella Nova, is getting ready to film her very first major motion-picture release!
“The movie, titled, A Panic in ’93, promises to be an uproarious comedy. Set during the ‘Gilded Age’ of the late nineteenth century, Stella Nova plays a domestic servant to an uber-Upper-Class Newport family who turns out to be a lot smarter than her snobby employers assume! And, while we can’t reveal too much more about the plot, we have no doubt it will be a box-office smash that will propel Stella Nova into the upper echelons of Hollywood!
“Stella’s fans are breathlessly awaiting the confirmation of rumors that she has been dating another teen heart-throb, Buster Jeebers! Mr. Jeebers will also play a role in the movie, as a rich white kid who dares to have a forbidden fling with the African-American servant girl, played by Ms. Nova.
“Filming on this big-budget comedy extravaganza is due to begin next week: rehearsals are said to be going smoothly, and the cast and crew can’t wait to get started!
“But more to the main point: Is Stella Nova really having a fling with Buster Jeebers? Fans no doubt fondly recall Mr. Jeebers’ guest-star role on Ms. Nova’s hit TV series, Teen Utopia. It was during the shooting of that episode that they first met; and it wasn’t long before romantic rumors were in the air!
Noticia turned to face the interviewee. “So, tell us, Stella! When did you first realize you had a thing for him? Do yoooooou have a bad case of the Heeber-Jeebers?”
“Nope. I can’t say that I do,” Stella answered, flatly. “I never realized it, because it’s not real.”
Noticia trembled violently, and turned a ghastly, pale shade, as all the blood drained from her face. Nevertheless, she was a real trouper, and tried, however desperately, to get things back on track. “Rumors have it that, after the first day of shooting that episode, he immediately asked you out to dinner!”
“Those rumors weren’t true,” Stella replied. “How could they be? If I had gone out with him, the paparazzi would have been all over it.”
Noticia could feel herself getting downright nauseous, and began to crack a bit. “But there are photos of you with Buster Jeebers recently, at that ultra-exclusive French cuisine in Beverly Hills, Le Barrage Publicitaire!”
“Those photos were obviously faked. I’ve never been there. I do like Ye Olde English Fish & Chips, though.”
Noticia exploded in a burst of rage, and stomped off the set. “All right, all right, cut! Cut, cut, cut, cut, CUT!!! Okay, let’s have the excuse!”
A pre-recorded voice came over the broadcast, stating, “WE ARE EXPERIENCING TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES: PLEASE STAND BY.”
A stage manager rushed out to Noticia, gasping, “We’re getting a lot of angry calls from the sponsors! They’re demanding to know what’s going on! What should I tell them?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she sighed. “Tell ‘em the Big One finally hit.”
“Uh, I should remind you that we are on the east coast, and they don’t usually get earthquakes like that around here.”
“Ah, who cares? What do those bean-counters know about the weather, anyway? Just do it!” She turned to face Stella. “And you…!”
“Did I say something wrong?” Stella asked. But she did so, remembering one bit of advice from her lawyer: “Never ask a question unless you already know the answer.”
Noticia was so put off by this, she couldn’t even think of any way to respond that didn’t involve a string of random four-letter words. “MEDIC!” she finally screamed. A stagehand showed up with whiskey and a shot glass; but she didn’t even bother to pour, and chugged straight from the bottle. Sufficiently calmed, she went off on a slightly-less-explosive rant.
“Oh, directors warned me about you…!” she muttered.
“What?” Stella asked.
“‘What?’ she says! ‘WHAT?’! For cryin’ out loud, Stella, you’re not sticking to the script, THAT’S ‘what’! This week calls for the hot-and-heavy romance with Buster Jeebers! We’ve gotta get this thing in the can tonight! The romance angle to the story…to be written by Yours Truly…is supposed to go to press tomorrow morning, for this month’s edition of Teen Preen magazine! You’re gonna need this to boost sales of that home-video release of Teen Utopia! Your fans will be so happy for you, they’ll buy up the entire initial release within hours!
“But the big break-up scene isn’t until next month! Then your fans will feel sorry for you, and anybody on the fence about the show will go out and buy up the second run of the DVDs! You’ve been in Hollywood how long, and you haven’t figured that out YET?!”
The cameraman intervened, trying to restore order. “Take it easy, Noticia,” he whispered. “She’s still a kid. She doesn’t know any better. She just hasn’t had enough rehearsals. Try coaching her.”
“Oh, not again,” she sighed, taking another long swig from the bottle. “Oh, okay, one more time, let’s take it from the top. Ugh, I can’t stand dealing with kids.”
With the camera off, Noticia tried once again to counsel Stella.
“What’s the matter, Stella?” she asked more calmly. “Don’t you like Buster Jeebers? Do you hate him? What is it?”
“Not really,” Stella answered. “I don’t like him or hate him. I hardly even know him! How could I? The shooting schedule was so tight, I barely had time to breathe! Twenty-two episodes in two months is no picnic, you know! Then there’s the concerts…”
“But that’s where celebrity relationships are helpful! You know, some day, you’ll buy a car, right?”
“Well, you’d take a car on a test-drive, wouldn’t you? Relationships work the same way: you gotta have a little fling with a guy, just to see if he’s sexually-compatible! You know, go on a little joyride!”
Stella would have none of it. “The problem with that idea is that people do an awful lot of…shall we say…‘trade-ins.’ You think life is one continuous string of ‘joy-rides’? If this keeps up, before long, there’ll be nothing left for me in this world but a fleet of used cars!”
“Oh, forget it,” Noticia sighed. “You’re hopeless.” She turned and shouted to anyone who cared to listen, “Get this amateur out of here! Somebody get me a real actress!”
The stage manager interrupted her with more bad news. “Oh, I just got a call from that French restaurant. They’re stopping payment on the check. Boy, when it rains, it pours, doesn’t it?”
“Tell me about it.” She flopped into a chair, sobbing. “I knew I should have booked Ariana Grande.”
“Oh, that was a riot!” Zoe said as she turned off the TV. “‘Technical difficulties,’ they say. Yeah, right! As in, ‘Technically, we really can’t treat people like ventriloquist dummies.’ I can’t wait to hear what Stella has to say about that!”
“You’ll get your chance,” Peter said. “Call her up, and ask her if she’s available for dinner.”
“I hope so,” Zoe said as she dialed. “Hello, Stella? Zoe speaking. Yeah, I saw that on TV! Oh, you were terrific! You stood your ground like a pro!”
“Well, I am an actress,” Stella replied. “But your brother was right: I wasn’t really ‘acting’ the part. As far as Buster Jeebers is concerned, I really am emotionally indifferent. It felt so good to get that out!”
Peter hinted and gestured toward the dinner table, and whispered “Ask her.”
“Oh, right, Dad. Are you still up for dinner?”
“It’s kind of late, isn’t it?”
“It’s only 7:30. Granted, it’s an hour and a half later than our usual time, but that’s okay. It was a gamble, but it was worth a shot.”
“Okay! I wouldn’t miss this! Your mom is going to pick me up?”
“Be ready in five minutes. Can you sneak out?”
“No problem, Zoe. Everybody on this end is in full panic-mode over that interview.”
“Well, you did a great job on that one, so get ready for another.”
Stella wondered what she meant by that; but she also knew the Lavals had a completely different mindset from her usual crowd. Within minutes, Naomi had arrived to pick her up. Other than “Hi,” they said nothing. Each seemed to know that the other had a lot to say later, once they got to the dinner table. Exactly how Stella knew this, she didn’t quite understand. But can two walk together, except they be agreed? One way or another, she felt confident that she was in agreement with this family. This was nothing like doing Teen Utopia on TV. Hanging out with the Lavals wasn’t “fun” in the Hollywood sense, but it certainly felt a lot more peaceful.
Stella would have felt even better, if she hadn’t been so hungry. Her appetite had been thoroughly suppressed during the cast and crew get-together; but now it was back with a vengeance, and a very audible growl.
“Ooh, that was a magnitude nine,” Naomi said.
“I’m starving,” Stella admitted.
“I’ve got just the remedy for that.”
It almost felt like a holiday, or a family reunion, as Stella entered the house. She was greeted by hugs from Zoe and Rhoda, although J.C. knew better, and kept his distance. A mere smile from him was good enough for her.
“Dinner will be ready in a few minutes, so just relax and have a chat,” Naomi suggested.
“Stella, I think you should be this year’s Mystery Student speaker,” Caroline said. This was a tradition at Thundermist High School, in which a student is selected by a secret vote among teachers and administrators, to stand up and give a testimony of their life’s work or aspirations. Stella was no longer a student there, but would have to be the obvious choice.
She seemed hesitant, however. “I don’t know, Miss Pedersen,” she said. “First of all, I wouldn’t really know what to say.”
“I know exactly what you can say,” Zoe replied. “You’ve been saying how many issues and how much stress you’ve had in Hollywood, right? Just say it again, but before a crowd.”
“Okay, now there’s a thought,” Stella agreed. “Still, that brings up one of the major issues: As a uh…ahem…‘celebrity,’ I attract chaos! The last thing the school needs is a flash-mob of fans, autograph hounds and paparazzi swarming all over me like ants at a picnic!”
“The question is, how do we sneak you in there?” Rhoda asked.
Stella thought about it for a moment, and tried to recall some of the letters she had gotten from Zoe and Rhoda, hoping to get a good idea from one of them. Almost immediately, she came up with one. “I got it,” she said. “Miss Pedersen, Zoe and Rhoda had told me that you do some work for a Deaf-Blind organization…?”
“Yes, now and then,” Caroline replied. “What about it?”
“I could disguise myself as one of them!”
“That’s a great idea!” Caroline agreed. “We do occasionally have Deaf-Blind students visit the school, so that would work.”
“The question is, can you do it?” Zoe asked.
“I am a trained actress, Zoe,” Stella answered. “Besides, I did play Helen Keller in a Lifetime Channel production of The Miracle Worker. You know the Lifetime Channel: that’s the place bad soap opera writers go when they die.”
“What?!” Zoe gasped. “No offense, Stella, but you couldn’t portray Helen Keller! That’s impossible! She wasn’t black! You never told us about that!”
“In all fairness, would you have admitted it? Yes, it was revisionist history: guilty as charged! I didn’t like it, either. But it was a Kiloword Pictures’ production, and I am under contract, so I had no choice. There was nothing I could do about it. Still, it could have been worse.”
“We had originally planned to do The Miracle Worker for the History Channel; but they wanted me to dress up in bluish-gray makeup, fake, plastic bug-eyes, and claim that Helen Keller was a ‘space-alien’ or something.”
“Aye, yi, yi!”
“Fortunately, Mr. Briss thought the idea was a little over the top, so he said, ‘No.’”
“Okay, then, it’s settled,” Caroline agreed. “We’ll set you up as a Deaf-Blind visitor.” She reached into her purse, took out a spare cane, and unfolded it. “Okay, now put on these sunglasses, and let’s see what you know about orientation and mobility.”
Stella was a quick learner, and well-remembered the practice she had to do to play Helen Keller, absurd as it was. Nevertheless, everyone thought she looked very convincing.
“Well, how about it?” Caroline asked.
“Now that is downright awesome!” Zoe answered. “I’ve met a lot of real blind people among Rhoda’s crowd, and you’d pass!”
“There’s just one problem, Zoe,” J.C. warned.
“Regardless of the props, Stella is still one of the most recognizable actresses in the country, if not the world. Every kid in school would spot her a mile away.”
If Stella had been capable of blushing, she would have done it right there.
“I know just what to do,” Zoe said. “First, go to the bathroom, and wash off that lipstick.” Stella did so, and returned.
“Actually, you look even better without it,” J.C. told her.
“You know, you’re right!” Zoe agreed. “Still, that’s not nearly enough. Take a seat.”
“Okay, now what?”
“Ma, get me your curling iron, please.”
Naomi went to the bathroom closet and got it, but had her doubts. “Actually, I haven’t used this thing in a long time,” she admitted. “I hope it still works.”
Zoe turned it on, and it heated up. “It does. Now, fortunately, Stella, your hair is already pin-straight. What I’m about to do would have been impossible, if you still had an afro.”
“And you’re going to do what…?”
“You’ll see. It’s that ‘Laura Bridgman’ look. Brace yourself; this may hurt a little. I know it did when I tried it!” Zoe managed to pull back the entire width of hair, and get it into the curling iron, then twisted it into a tight roll that looked as though it was tied down to the back of her head.
“I told you so. That’s why I wear a painless ponytail. Uh, Ma, Bobby pins, please? Good! Now, let’s have a look at you.”
She stood up, looked in the mirror, and hated it. “Ewww! Owww, for that matter!”
“Wow!” Naomi gasped. “You remind me of my grandmother!”
“Excellent!” Zoe agreed. “Now, here’s the sunglasses and cane. Hmmm…one more thing: do that expressionless, poker-face thing again. Perfect! Now, Ma, do you still have those ugly, brown orthopedic shoes?”
“Yes, I do,” Naomi answered. “I haven’t worn those since the day you and Rhoda were born!” She got the shoes, an old sweater and a faded skirt. “Now, let’s see how this looks.” She held up the ensemble before the mirror, and smiled. “Oh, yeah. Wear this outfit, and the students would need a bloodhound to recognize you.”
“Zoe, you are a genius!” J.C. said. “From hottie to nottie! It’s kind of like My Fair Lady in reverse!”
“You said it,” Stella agreed. “I feel like I just escaped from a nursing home. But, man, I hope I don’t look like this when I get old.”
“Clean living prevails,” J.C. replied. “Eat more steamed vegetables than fried foods, get rest and exercise, and you’ll hold up.”
“Speaking of which, dinner is served,” Naomi said.
Noticia was on the verge of a nervous breakdown when she finally received a phone call that sounded positive.
“Yeah, what is it?” she moaned.
“Is this Noticia Amarillo?” the caller asked.
“Yeah, so who wants to know?”
“‘Who’ is not important, so much as ‘what.’ I’ve read your ad in Teen Preen magazine: you know, the one that offers a big payout for dirt on any celebrity…?”
This was one of Noticia’s favorite subjects, and the mere mention of it revived her spirits. “Ooh, ‘dirt,’ you say?”
“Well, not scandalous-type dirt, actually; but what I’ve got would be worth a landfill to you.”
“What have you got?”
“Okay, first of all, I am a student at Thundermist High School. I have intel that Stella Nova has been invited to give a speech in the auditorium on Friday morning.”
“That’s useful,” Noticia agreed. “But how did you know?”
“The teacher’s room gets rather loud after school lets out,” the amateur spy admitted. “How I got the information is not important; what you do with it is the priority.”
“That would be worth something,” she nodded. “But I have to get in there and get the exclusive. Security should be rather tight.”
“No problem,” the caller promised. “Meet me at the baseball field at 6:00 A.M. Friday morning, and I’ll fix it for you.”
“B*R*U*C*E*! Wake up!” As the laptop started up, Caroline plugged in the scanner.
“B*R*U*C*E*!” the program replied, in its synthetic voice. This was a screen-reader program (BLIND READERS’ UNIVERSALLY-COMPUTERIZED ELUCIDATION) developed by Caroline. Stella was deeply impressed. “Wow, Miss Pedersen! That is so cool! You must be a computer whiz!”
“I’d better be,” she replied. “I have to do other things on the side, because I sure didn’t get into teaching for the money.”
“AWAKE AND AT YOUR SERVICE, PROFESSOR.”
“Now, Stella, where is your contract?”
“Every employee of Kiloword Pictures has a personal page on their corporate website,” Stella answered. “If I may log on…?”
“Here you go.”
Stella quickly found the web page with her contract, but wasn’t sure what she could do with it. “Oh, that is really small print!” she complained. “It’s almost impossible to read!”
“No problem,” Caroline assured her. “B*R*U*C*E*, initiate scanner protocol One-A.”
“WORD-RECOGNITION ACTIVATED. SUGGEST FONT AND SIZE.”
“Twelve-point Times New Roman: send to word-processor.”
Instantly, the document changed to something more-easily read.
“Watch this! B*R*U*C*E*, give exhaustive concordance of scanned document.” The file seemed to swarm with activity, as each word was carefully counted and sorted into separate files.
“Will this take long?”
“Not at all. The entire document is only thirty pages. This could do an entire book in an hour. It comes in handy when I need to convert anything to Braille.”
In less than two minutes, the procedure was done. “CONCORDANCE COMPLETED.”
“Now for the next step!” With slow, careful precision, Caroline went over each and every word, each in its own file, and picked out the ones she recognized as pertinent.
“Miss Pedersen, can you understand that Latin gibberish?” Stella asked.
“Fluently,” she answered. “I’ve written textbooks on language study and grammar.”
“We should all clear out,” Peter suggested. “She needs solitude in order to focus. Besides, it is getting late, so I’ll drive Stella home.” The kids all agreed to this, and hinted at their own bedtimes. “Not just yet,” Naomi added. “You three need to come along. There’s something we need to show you and Stella first.”
All of them went to the van, not sure what she was doing; but they could tell a serious matter needed discussion.
Peter stopped at the baseball field behind the High School. Rhoda couldn’t see where they were going, but she did recognize the direction. “This is the baseball field, isn’t it? What’s going on here?”
“A lesson,” Naomi answered. “Now, Joshua, Stella, you’ll notice the fence between the dugout and the bleachers…?”
“What about it?” they asked in unison.
“That is where your Dad and I learned our boundaries.”
“Yes, Joshua: boundaries. You see, my father liked him. He thought he had an excellent future as a science researcher. But, in order to earn trust, he had to know how far he was allowed to go with me. This fence kind of exemplifies that.”
“How so?” Stella asked. “Is this the only place you were allowed to date?”
“We never ‘dated’ at all. We hung out at school, but that was it. My father often invited him to dinner. He questioned him constantly about his educational progress, his career path, and other things, and demanded accountability.”
“So, Dad, you had to get straight A’s in order to hang out with Ma?” Joshua asked.
“Of course, but that was only part of it,” Peter answered. “Her father knew she and I would be tempted to go a little further, so he used this fence to drive home a point: This was the only place where we were allowed to have any physical contact.”
“Whoa,” Joshua gasped. “You actually kissed each other during baseball games?”
“No, never. We didn’t dare!” Naomi explained. “My father took over as manager, after Woodhull got fired. Kissing was out of the question!”
“But,” Peter explained, “if I were pitching, and I won a game, she was allowed to give me a high-five; even then, I had to stay on my side of the fence.”
“That’s it?” Stella asked. “Not even kissing?”
“Never,” Naomi answered. “My father told us, ‘You’re not doing that until you get to the altar, and the minister says so. After that, she is yours, and not before that.’”
All the kids seemed amazed. “Wow,” they said. “That must have taken a lot of discipline.”
“It did,” Peter agreed. “But that’s the way it was. He told us that discipline begins with the man of the house; and a real man must wait until the right time to, uh…‘get to first base,’ so to speak.”
“I’ll never forget our wedding day,” Naomi said. “I could feel the electricity in the air!”
“I’ll never forget it, either,” Peter agreed. “Your father handed you off, and told me, ‘Rejoice with the wife of thy youth.’”
“One thing, Ma…?” Rhoda asked.
“How did you know that he was the one?”
“Oh, we knew!” her mother answered. “Maybe I didn’t recognize it right away; but from the day your Dad set foot in my house, and we had dinner together for the first time, we knew!”
“Besides,” Peter added, “Aunt Caroline and your mother were both at the top of the class, and they made the National Honor Society. They aced all their exams. That was a huge turn-off, and no other guy wanted either of them.”
“Ma, please don’t take this question the wrong way,” Rhoda began, with some hesitation. “But I must admit, I’ve always been curious.”
“Why did Dad pick you, and not Aunt Caroline?”
Her mother had always known this question would come up, one way or another. She had to deal with it herself, many years earlier. Naomi could not understand why a “jock” like Peter Laval would have any interest in a bookish “geek” like herself. Granted, Peter had been merely a junkball pitcher, a bit on the scrawny side, and didn’t look or behave much like a stereotypical jock; yet she couldn’t help but wonder what he had seen in her, that he did not see in her younger sister Caroline. Peter had often said that both girls had a lot going for them; yet, somehow, he thought Naomi had something more. Just a little bit more.
“I wasn’t sure, myself,” Naomi admitted. “Personally, I couldn’t believe it. After all, your Aunt Caroline is more beautiful than I am.”
At this, all the kids gasped in amazement.
“Ma!” Zoe finally blurted out. “How can you say that?!” She quickly added, “No offense.”
“None taken,” her mother replied. “We’ve been through this before.”
“Well, isn’t she?” Peter asked.
J.C. finally conjured up an excuse not to answer directly. “Dad, it’s not fair to ask us to critique the looks of a relative.”
Peter and Naomi snickered at this answer. Nevertheless, Naomi was compelled to finish the story, and provide the reason. “You see, Joshua, my father had the same question. But there was more involved than mere ‘looks.’ He was concerned that boys would reject her because of her disability. I knew that wasn’t true; but my father needed some convincing, and I needed to know why, too.
“I’ll never forget the day he popped the question. My father was really testing him, pushing him harder and harder, to see if he had any dishonest motives or intentions. He finally got to the point where he asked the same things: ‘In your opinion, who is more beautiful: Naomi or Caroline?’ He answered, ‘Caroline.’ Then my father said, ‘Then why don’t you want Caroline?’”
Naomi couldn’t stop giggling as she recalled this, so Peter finished the story. “I couldn’t take any more of that interrogation. I got up, looked her father right in the eye, and said, ‘Because I LIKE Caroline, but I LOVE Naomi! THAT’S why!”
“And what happened, Ma?”
“My father just laughed, cut us a blank check, and said, ‘Pick your time and place!’”
“Wow,” Stella gasped. “He was a tough negotiator; but at least you knew him.”
“Caroline and I were his only children. He just couldn’t hand off either one of us to a man without knowing him. Respect and trust have to be proven first, or there can be no love.”
“‘Trust…’” Stella sighed. “That’s pretty scarce in my experience.”
“Of course, there is no guarantee where all this is leading,” Peter warned. “Nobody knows the future. This could go anywhere: You might go your separate ways, you might be ‘just good friends.’ Maybe more. One never knows, does one?”
“Regardless of where it all goes, just remember one thing,” Naomi warned. “Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way. Keep that in mind.”
“Right now, all I can think about is getting out of that stupid love-scene with Buster Jeebers,” Stella said.
“Well, don’t worry about that, Stella,” Naomi assured her. “There’s a way out of any trap.”
As if on cue, Caroline called, just as Stella was getting out.
“Naomi?” she asked. “I didn’t know Stella’s number, so I called you. Put her on, please.” She handed off her phone, and Stella seemed giddy with excitement and nervous with apprehension at the same time.
“Stella speaking,” she said. “What is it, Miss Pedersen?”
“Do you have a lawyer?”
“You should contact him immediately, and see if he can confirm this.”
“Isn’t it kind of late?”
“Not in California. There is a time-zone difference. But call him as soon as you can. I think I’ve got something.”
“Okay, the coast is clear.”
Hugh, Wilhelm and Noticia followed the student through a side door, then made their way to the second floor. The student then found a way into the auditorium.
“Security isn’t as tight as I would have thought,” Noticia said.
“Well, it’s 6:00 A.M.,” the student said. “Nobody’s here but the maintenance staff, and a handful of early-bird students and teachers. Besides, the lock on this door has always been broken. That’s my little secret.”
He led them to the back of the top row. “Have a seat. The assembly is due to start at eight sharp.”
“Well, thanks for getting us in here,” Hugh said. “But how is this supposed to benefit us?”
“Because the principal doesn’t want the school mobbed with reporters,” the student explained. “They’ve made arrangements to do this as quietly as possible, videotape it now, then get it on the evening news.” He pointed to a small window above them. “That’s the projection booth. Mr. Laval will be recording the assembly, then get it to WCPR-TV later.” He took note of their carrying-cases, and correctly guessed what they were. “You got your own camera, a laptop and a satellite link?”
“Yes,” Wilhelm nodded.
“Great! Just do it live, forward it to your connections in L.A., and you’ll have the exclusive…and go national…before Laval can even get out of the parking lot!”
“Sounds like a plan,” Hugh agreed.
“So, we’re just supposed to wait here?” Noticia asked.
“Why not?” the student replied. “Besides, Ms. Amarillo, I know how you work. You’ve staked out celebrity homes for longer than that, and under worse conditions.”
“True; but won’t we look out-of-place?”
“Nah. Sit tight, be patient, and don’t do anything. Everybody will just think you’re Federal administrators. Now, about my gratuity: cash on the barrelhead.”
“Of course,” Noticia nodded. “A hundred is the going rate. And your name is…?”
“Larry Schlockstein,” he answered. “I gotta get back to my associates in the cafeteria. Ciao!”
Noticia was actually excited about the arrangement, and even felt giddy about it. “Wow, does this bring back memories!”
“How so?” Wilhelm asked.
“Well, here I am with a video camera, almost like a lion in secret places, just waiting to pounce! It reminds me of the early days as a stringer. It wasn’t easy; but, looking back, it’s kind of nostalgic.”
“I got my start in dinner-theater,” Wilhelm replied. “Oh, was that rough! The waitresses earned more money in tips than I did in salary! I can’t imagine what a stringer goes through.”
“I remember it vividly,” Noticia recalled. “There I was, a college grad with a degree in journalism, living hand-to-mouth…in my car, mind you…eating cold pasta out of the can, just waiting for a big scoop. Boy, I really paid my dues!”
“Same here,” Hugh agreed. “I had to produce some of that dinner-theater junk! It was no picnic.”
“Well, things are finally coming together,” Noticia sighed.
“Are you sure about that?” Wilhelm asked. “After what happened on your TV show last night, the stockholders were ready to lynch you!”
“Yeah,” Noticia agreed. “But all that will change. Once we get this exclusive, that movie will be the top story in Hollywood. They can’t buy that kind of publicity. They’ll forget all about that fiasco.”
“Our ship has definitely come in,” Hugh said. “Once the Teen Utopia video hits the market, I think I’ll retire.”
“At forty?” Wilhelm asked.
“Why not? The home video release will be great, and that movie will put us right over the top! I have much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink and be merry.”
“Well, I’m not going to retire. But doing a reality show is as close as a director can get, while still holding somewhat of a job. I’ll get there, eventually.”
“You said it!” Noticia agreed. “A toast!” She took a whiskey flask from her purse, and three paper cups. “Not fancy, but it’ll do.”
They raised their cups, and Hugh said, “To retirement!”
“To retirement!” the others agreed.
Meanwhile, Peter’s van pulled into the parking lot. “Well, here goes nothing,” he said. “Does everybody know what to do?” They nodded in agreement. “Good. Naomi, get the camera, and get set up in the auditorium. I’ll be there momentarily. The assembly begins in one hour.”
“I’m on it.”
Just as they were about to go, Stella’s phone rang. “Hold it, everyone,” she said. She noted the source, and said, “It’s my attorney!”
“That’s about your contract situation?” Rhoda asked.
“You got it! Let’s find out what it is. Hello?”
“Stella, I got your message,” her attorney answered. “I went over your contract. Are you sure you want to do this?”
“Why not?” she asked. “What have I got to lose?”
“Plenty. I think you’d better sit down.”
A shocked look came over Stella’s face.
“Stella, what’s wrong?” Peter asked.
“I can’t talk about it right now,” she said, her voice cracking. “I’ll tell you when I get in there.”
“Okay, let’s get this over with,” Stella sighed. “Are you sure this is going to work?”
“I can’t think of any better way to do it,” Caroline assured her. “If you’re going to speak at the assembly, we’ll have to sneak you in, one way or another. Otherwise, those wackos will cause a stampede.”
Peter parked the van in the place where students were least likely to hang out: the entrance that was closest to the school library. Sure enough, no one was there. “The coast is clear,” he said. “Let’s go.”
Stella unfolded the cane she borrowed from Caroline, and began her act; but J.C. wasn’t convinced. “You’re too nervous, Stella. Try to relax. Above all, your face should be expressionless.”
“I can’t imagine having to go through this,” Peter complained. “The things you have to do to just for day-to-day living! I think I’d crack.”
“Well, Mr. Laval, don’t you know?” Stella asked him. “After all, you were a professional baseball player, weren’t you?”
“Well, yeah, but that was in the Low Minors! Double-A was as far as I’d gotten, and most of my team’s fans made more money than I had. Only a die-hard fanatic would have wanted my autograph.”
“I have to deal with that all the time.”
Caroline agreed. “That’s true. But that begs the question: Why would anybody be so obsessed about you, Stella? No offense intended; but, really! So what if you were on TV, so what if you’re about to start shooting a movie. Why should that be such a big deal?”
Stella understood her reasoning, and wasn’t offended at all. “No, I get exactly what you’re saying. But that’s the nature of show biz. I see it all the time: hatred, variance, emulation, wrath, strife; but the key part is emulation.”
“Why is that?”
“Because that’s what leads to everything else! Other kids think I’m such a great actress…whoop-tee-doo…that they are obsessed with emulating me. Meanwhile, other kids emulate other actresses, so they get into heated debates over which actress is ‘better’: I, or some other one.”
As they went on, Stella felt a little more confident…until they heard one student’s remark. Noticing the white cane she carried, he said, “Wow, that’s the longest selfie-stick I’ve ever seen!”
“It’s not a ‘selfie-stick,’ Caroline replied. “Come on, I’ve been teaching here long enough for you to know what this is.”
“Caroline, how can anyone be that ignorant?” Peter asked.
“I honestly don’t know,” she sighed. “Actually, is it ignorance, or is he a smart-aleck troll, or what? It’s getting harder and harder to tell.”
They thought they had arrived early enough to sneak Stella into the auditorium without any onlookers getting in the way; yet some other students had already been there. Passing through the cafeteria, they noticed a group of them engaged in some decidedly non-academic activity.
The ringleader of the group stood up and declared the rules. “Okay, let’s make one thing clear: nobody can make any transactions without a certified DNA certificate!” To this, the remainder of the group agreed, and began their dealings.
“I got a text from a guy in Ecuador, who claims he has Stella Nova’s right kidney.”
“Ignore him. That sounds like one of those stupid conspiracy theories.”
“I’ve got a lock of Buster Jeebers’ hair!” another claimed.
“Oh, that is so lame. There’s enough ‘locks of Buster Jeebers’ hair’ on the market to stuff a mattress!”
“I got that beat,” said another. “I’ve got one of Stella Nova’s baby teeth.”
“Ooh, now there’s a limited-edition item!” the trader agreed. “We’ll start the bidding at…”
“May I ask what is going on here?” Caroline demanded.
“Oh, hi, Professor Pedersen,” the trader answered. “Just a little business transaction, that’s all.”
“It’s legal,” Zoe added. “He’s Larry Schlockstein. He’s in my Junior Business class, and he does have a license. Still, that is so gross! Come on, Schlockstein! Don’t you boys trade baseball cards anymore? A mint-condition, 1953 Mickey Mantle card would be worth a lot.”
“And you call yourself a business major!” he scoffed. “Ha! Baseball cards are passé. Celebrity memorabilia is where the real money’s at!”
“I shudder to think what will happen when you’re eligible to vote,” Caroline said. “Besides, even if it is legal, it’s hardly what I would call educational.”
“Of course, it’s educational!” he argued. “After all, the whole world went bananas when somebody dug up that King Tut dude, didn’t they? And who was he? Some third-rate bozo on the downside of a dynasty! Yeah, so they paraded the guy’s corpse around, big whoop. But how many people can say they have Stella Nova’s toenail clippings?”
“This is not about some dead King!” Peter protested. “You’re dealing in disposable pieces of a living person!”
“Oh, well. Think of it as pre-archaeology.”
“I thought the insanity about those Michael Jordan shoes was bad enough!” Zoe complained. “Yes, I am a business major; but I wouldn’t go that far for money.”
“I once read a true story, about a city that was under siege. Now there was found in it a poor wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city; yet no man remembered that same poor man.”
“Oh, really? And how much did he get paid to do that?”
“Nothing. He was poor, then forgotten.”
“Then that’s the reason, Zoe: money answers all things. Speaking of which, who’s got the comparative bids from Craigslist and ebay?”
“It’s getting close to the start of the school day,” Caroline suggested. “You guys should be packing up your uh…‘store’…and getting ready.”
“I am in class, Miss Pedersen! Business is business, and I’m learning on the job. Today, Thundermist High School; but tomorrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell and get gain! Let’s go, guys, and get the mere formality of school over with!”
Disgusted with the whole display, Stella and her posse walked off.
“Is that on the level?” Peter asked.
“I’m afraid it is, Dad,” Zoe sighed. “Still, how did that stuff get on the open market?”
Stella could only shake her head in dismay. “Well, let’s just say my mom had a bizarre kind of foresight.”
As they walked away, Schlockstein had a puzzled look on his face, and was momentarily distracted. “Waaaait a minute…” He took out some photos, and kept staring at them, then at Stella. One of his business associates was eager to see the pictures. “Ooh, what’s this?”
“You can look, but you’d better not touch!” Schlockstein warned. “None of these photos are on the market just yet; I’m waiting for the home video release of Teen Utopia. The value will skyrocket!”
“So what’s so special about these pictures?”
“Take a look: see, Stella has a little mole, behind her right ear, and so does that black chick with the cane!”
“Yeah, what about it? Stella Nova isn’t blind.”
“I’m tellin’ ya, that’s her! She’s got the same thing!”
They hurried to catch up to the posse, then casually walked by, taking note of Stella’s neck; which, unfortunately, was now exposed by the tighter hairstyle. Zoe could not have anticipated that the disguise would backfire in that manner.
“No doubt about it,” Schlockstein whispered. “That’s Stella Nova! And I’ll tell you what, the dermatologist who lances that mole would have quite an asset!”
Other students overheard this conversation, and the rumor…admittedly true…spread like wildfire. This, in turn, got Stella’s attention, being accustomed to hearing such buzz.
“I think we’d better hurry to the auditorium!” she warned. “The cat’s out of the bag!”
“We can’t keep up this charade any longer,” Peter said. “This is going to develop into a full-blown riot if we don’t do something now.”
“You’re right,” the principal agreed. “Stella, get backstage, and get ready.”
“Can I undo this awful hair-bun?” she pleaded.
“You can do anything you want, as long as no one sees you.”
Stella ducked into the stage door, and got ready. Meanwhile, teachers were desperately trying to herd droves of hyperactive students into the auditorium. Zoe started whispering a rumor that Stella would soon appear onstage: which was actually true. Fortunately, this was enough to get the mob to settle down a little, and get everyone seated. Zoe took her place with J.C., Rhoda and Caroline in the first row. Peter and Naomi were set up in the projection booth.
“Hey, guys, wake up,” Noticia said, nudging Hugh and Wilhelm. “The assembly is starting.” She got out her laptop and video camera, and contacted the boardroom at Kiloword Pictures. “Stand by,” she told them. “This is a live shot.”
“This better be good,” they warned. “This is going out to every network in the country, and drive-time radio in California.”
The eager audience quieted down long enough for the principal to begin the main event. “Ladies and gentlemen…and students…there is no need to get into a long-winded introduction. The rumors that you’ve heard are true! So, without further ado, I bring you this year’s Mystery Student speaker, your favorite TV star…Stella Nova!”
A thunderous applause arose from the audience, enough to shake the building. But before Stella even had a chance to speak, most of the crowd started singing (somewhat) part of the title song from Teen Utopia.
So the party lifestyle costs a ton;
don’t confuse me with facts!
I’m entitled to one!
Details, details! “Where is it from?”
Don’t ask questions, just have fun!
Caroline was more accustomed to teaching real music, and winced painfully at the sound of this. “That’s it?” she complained. “That’s the title song from Teen Utopia?
“Not all of it,” Zoe explained. “Just the refrain.”
“Well, I wish they would! What kind of idiotic song is that? What is that supposed to be, the Bohemian National Anthem?”
Zoe was no fan of the song, either, but tried to find a silver lining. “Oh, well,” she sighed. “At least it rhymes.”
“You’re really reaching, Zoe.”
The actual song lasted just over two minutes; but the refrain was the only part the crowd seemed to know or care about, and they kept chanting it as if it were part of a weird cult ritual. The chanting got louder and louder, until Stella’s well-trained voice overcame it.
“I HATE THAT STUPID SONG!”
That shut ‘em up.
One nearby student actually seemed impressed by this outburst. “Wow, I didn’t know you could do impressions!”
“What do you mean?” Stella asked him.
“You sound like my old man!”
“Oh, yeah? At least you know yours.”
The entire audience seemed stunned by this announcement. They thought they had known everything about Stella. Actually, they knew she had come from a broken home; but they tended to disregard that detail. And if they had thought that admission was heavy, they were totally unprepared for the one that came next.
“After consultation with my close friends and my attorney, having fulfilled the terms of my contract with Kiloword Pictures…I hereby officially announce my retirement from show business, effective immediately.”
Most of the audience gasped in shock. The Lavals and Caroline applauded raucously. Three others had a completely different reaction. Hugh, Wilhelm and Noticia shouted in unison, “You can’t DO that!”
“Oh, really?” Stella replied with equal parts confidence and sarcasm. “Hit it, Mr. Laval!” Peter pushed a button, and the projection screen dropped down. On the screen was the page in her contract, containing the clause that specified her obligation to shoot only one movie, blown up in an extra-large font. “Read it and weep!”
“Wait a minute!” Noticia protested. “What movie have you done? You haven’t even started shooting A Panic in ’93!”
“Yes, that’s true,” Stella agreed. “But I did do that made-for-TV remake of The Miracle Worker. That’s the one. My contract is therefore fulfilled, and I QUIT!”
Stella felt as though a ton of bricks had been lifted off her shoulders, and she felt better than she had in years. What made this all the more pleasing was that this was being broadcast live, on TV and radio, from coast to coast. Within a matter of seconds, everyone in Hollywood knew about it. Mr. Briss was almost hyperventilating into his phone, as he tried desperately to explain this sudden turn of events, to no avail.
Most of the students were not pleased, either. One of them, Wendy Chambers, stood up and shouted, “How could you do that to us?! You have betrayed women and the African-American community!”
“Really?” Stella asked. “How so?”
“I mean, here you are, an African-American girl who actually managed to escape poverty and make something of yourself! You gave the people reason for hope and change, and you’re throwing it all away!”
“Actually, you’re wrong,” Stella argued. “I have accomplished nothing. And, no, I have not ‘escaped poverty.’ After speaking with my accountants, I have discovered that I am, in fact, broke.”
At this, everyone gasped. Even the Lavals were shocked.
“Earlier today, in a conference-call, I spoke with my attorney and my bank in California. They informed me that my accounts had less than ten dollars remaining. It seems my handlers had wasted their substance on riotous living. I have worked all those years in Hollywood, but have nothing to show for it. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. Fortunately, my accountant has assured me that all the debts, overdue bills and back taxes have been paid. I owe no man anything. But, as of right now, I have nothing left.”
Rhoda stood up, and said, “We’ll help, any way we can.”
“…nothing left but you: the only real friends I’ve ever had in this world.”
Wendy wouldn’t hear of it. “You should stay in Hollywood! Keep making TV shows and movies; you’ll make all that money back! You owe it to us to keep at it!”
“I don’t owe you anything!” Stella shot back. “You owe it to yourself! You must study to show yourself approved!” She looked at the family in the front row, noticed Rhoda sitting there, smiling and nodding her head, and found inspiration. “Now there is somebody I can respect: Rhoda Laval! Despite her disability, she has found a meaningful purpose in her life. What was that you wanted to do, Rhoda…?”
Taking the invitation, Rhoda stood up and declared, “I want to do science research, just like my parents! More specifically, I want to focus on cancer research, though there are other things that interest me.” She turned around to face the audience, and added, “Of course, to succeed in any given field would require an awful lot of reading; but I have to wait until the material is converted to Braille. What’s your excuse?”
“I don’t wanna read,” Wendy replied. “I wanna have fun! Let’s hear it!” Whereupon most of the crowd started chanting the refrain from the song.
“You people are LOSERS!” Stella shouted. This put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. Stella looked at her friends, and said, “Come on, guys, let’s blow this joint.”
“Is that camera still running?!” Hugh gasped. “Shut it off!” He felt a bit shell-shocked. The legal staff of Kiloword Pictures managed to find some solace. “I’m afraid Stella’s right,” one lawyer said. “She found a loophole, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
“Can’t we sue?” he pleaded. "We gotta do something.”
“No,” the lawyer sighed. “What’s the point of suing a kid who has no money? What can we do, force her to keep going? After what she just said, that would be a public-relations disaster, and we’ve already got this one to deal with! No, I think our best bet would be to re-cast her part in the movie.”
“Don’t you think the home-video sales of Teen Utopia would be affected?”
“Yes, more than likely. We could cut our losses, and give the promotion a sort of nostalgic spin; but we’d better hurry. Within two weeks, Stella Nova will be yesterday’s news. Nobody will even remember her.”
The CEO of Kiloword Pictures called, and said, “I want to see you, Wilhelm and Noticia in my office, ASAP! Check your e-mail for your travel voucher.”
“But this is a Greyhound bus ticket!” Hugh replied.
“At this point, that’s all you’re worth. Besides, the trip will give you time to think about how you’re going to explain this.”
“You CAN’T quit acting! What happens to ME?!?” Bertha Voraces, Stella’s mother, was utterly terrified of that prospect, and didn’t try to hide it.
“Nothing will happen to you, Ma,” Stella answered. “You’ll just have to find a job…or, even better, find my Dad, and let him deal with it!”
“Oh, give me a break! If I knew where your Dad was, I’d have hauled him in for child support years ago.” Bertha sat down, and sorted through their mail, which had been forwarded to them from Los Angeles. “He’s not around, so that leaves you. And you’d better think of something quick! The bills are piling up!”
Stella peered over her mother’s shoulder, and noticed all the bills had been marked “PAST DUE.” Just how far past shocked her. “I’ve already taken care of that. But Ma, some of these bills go back six months! What have you been doing?”
“That’s none of your business, girl! And if I’m going to dig out of this hole, you’d better get back to that studio, and get back to work.”
Work was the last thing on Stella’s mind. She was too exhausted, physically and emotionally, to cry about it, but wished she could. She sat there, for what seemed like hours to her; but only a minute passed before she thought of something.
“Ma,” she whispered, “The children ought not to lay up for the parents, but the parents for the children.”
Bertha cut loose with a torrent of four-letter words, then a complaint. “What do you mean, ‘the parents for the children’?!” she demanded. “What have I ain’t done for you? Didn’t I pay for all those singing lessons, dancing lessons, acting lessons? Didn’t I help you get that audition for Teen Utopia? Didn’t I help arrange for Buster Jeebers to come on the show? You know, if you shacked up with Jeebers, you’d have a reality show, and that would solve all my financial problems!”
“Ma…” Stella sighed. She got up, and tried to relieve the tension by pacing around. She didn’t know how she would break the news of her decision; but she recalled Zoe’s advice: “Jump in and swim.” It had to come out, eventually.
“I don’t love Buster Jeebers. I barely even know the guy. I…I love…J.C. Laval. You know, Zoe and Rhoda’s brother…?”
“Well, that explains where you’re getting these crazy ideas from,” her mother complained. “You would pass up the Hollywood scene for a bunch of science geeks? Think of all the fun we had in Hollywood! It’s not too late. We can get it back!”
“No, you had fun.” Stella grabbed a handful of the bills on the table, and threw them into the air, letting them flutter to the floor. “I was the one doing all the work! I had to boil under those hot stage lights, twelve or more hours per day, and what did you do? You wasted my substance on riotous living!”
“Oh, lighten up, girl! You have no idea what kind of pressure I was under, being a single mom and all.”
“Then why didn’t you marry my father?”
Her mother had no real answer for that, but tried to dig one up. “Uh, well…he wasn’t good enough for you.”
“I was a baby. How was I supposed to know that?”
Bertha was in no mood to debate that issue, so she thought of another one. “Stella, do you realize what you’re giving up? With your income as an actress, you could do a lot to help the poor!” This she said, not that she cared for the poor; but because she was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein.
“Yeah, great idea, Ma,” Stella agreed sarcastically. “And maybe I could have…if you hadn’t blown it all.”
Bertha wasn’t going anywhere with that argument, so she tried another. “You are betraying your African heritage! Do you have any idea how many people in Africa wish they had your lifestyle?!”
“Yes, I do: None of them! How many people in the Congo or Ethiopia actually own a TV? How many of them will run to the store, and buy the home-video release of Teen Utopia? I’d be surprised if anyone there had even heard of me or that stupid show. I suppose some white folks in Johannesburg might; but, if they do, I’d tell them to get a life, because I sure never had one!”
The tension was momentarily relieved by a phone call. Stella first noted what the number was; and, realizing it was Rhoda, she was eager to pick up.
“Hey, Rhoda, what’s up?”
“Well, you sound cheerful!” Rhoda answered.
“Because, Rhoda, you are a voice of reason, amidst a storm of insanity.”
“You’re hanging out with that blind kid again?” Bertha complained. “What can she do that you can’t?”
“The Lavals have accomplished more than I ever did!” Stella replied, not bothering to cover the phone. “At least they have a purpose! Speaking of which…Rhoda, could you put your Aunt Caroline on, please?”
“Here she is.”
“Hi, Stella!” Caroline said. “What can I do for you?”
“Can you help me enroll in school?”
“Sure! Tell your mother to meet me in the Principal’s office in an hour.”
“Wow,” Stella gasped. “That was quick.”
“Well, we want to get through with that quickly. There’s an order of fish and chips waiting downtown, with your name on it. Ask your mom if she wants to come, too. There’s a lot that Mr. Laval wants to talk about.”
“We’ll be there! Thank you, Professor Pedersen! Hold on a second…” Stella turned to face her mother. “The Lavals want us to go to the Principal’s office right now; and, after I sign up for school, we’re going out to lunch: their treat.”
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Bertha asked.
“Mom, I’ve never been more certain of anything in my life. Let’s go. The fish are waiting.”
On her way out the door, Stella thought of one more thing to say. “Could you put Rhoda back on, please?”
“Sure,” Caroline answered. “Here she is.”
“Have Zoe write down your class schedule. I want to know how much of that I can get.”
“I heard that, Stella!” Zoe replied. “I’m on it.”
“Breaking news: A shocker out of Hollywood, as teen superstar Stella Nova announced her retirement from show business. As a result, Kiloword Pictures will immediately shut down production of their planned movie, until they can re-cast Stella’s part. Ms. Nova could not be reached for comment.”
“And I couldn’t care less about any comment on the matter, except, ‘Good riddance’!” Stella shouted. “Yeeha!” She turned off the TV, and flopped on the couch.
“There was more,” Rhoda suggested. “Didn’t you want to hear it?”
“I don’t need to hear it, Rhoda,” she answered. “I’ve lived it!”
“Yeah, let it go,” J.C. agreed. “It’s over. Why keep going back to it? But I’ll tell you what, Stella: you sure look a lot better! It’s like passing final exams or something.”
“‘Final exams’?” she replied. “That’s easy! This is more like being paroled from Alcatraz! I am going to sleep like a baby, tonight…probably for the first time since I was a baby!”
“Speaking of exams, I can’t wait till you get back to school!” Rhoda said.
“Oh, yeah! There’s just one issue that bothers me: everybody will know I’m there, and they’ll be hounding me for autographs.”
“No problem,” Zoe said. “Just make sure that you sign up for all of Rhoda’s classes.”
“What about yours?”
“We’re in all the same ones, except gym, obviously. Since Rhoda can’t participate, she just goes to a study hall. It’s your pick.”
“I think I’ll take gym,” Stella agreed. “But why would Rhoda’s classes keep celebrity-hounds away?”
“That’s easy,” Zoe answered. “Just hang out with us, and make sure you’re always talking about the subjects you’re studying: especially science and history. Guys hate that. It’s like bug-repellant!”
“Works for me. It’ll be great, being in all your classes. I have so much catching-up to do! It’s just a shame that I was just a few weeks short of J.C.’s age-bracket. I could have been in his classes.”
“Don’t sweat it,” J.C. assured her. “Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Besides, our lunch time overlaps.”
The conversation was interrupted by a call on Stella’s phone. “Yes…? Speaking. You’re kidding! Terrific! I’ll go right away! Thanks! Bye!”
“Who was that?” Naomi asked.
“A few of the cast members from Teen Utopia just called to say goodbye. They said, ‘Good luck in your civilian life.’ But get this: I have to go back to California to settle my affairs, retrieve my stuff…and they chipped in to charter a private jet to fly me there! They said a limousine is on its way to pick me up right now!”
“Wow,” Naomi gasped.
“Oh, it gets better, Mrs. Laval! They also asked if you, Zoe and Rhoda want to come with me! I’ve been telling them how you and your family are into science research, Zoe’s clothing-design business, and so on. They’d love to meet you!”
“As long as we get back by Sunday morning, that’s fine with me,” Naomi agreed. She turned and looked at J.C., and got serious for a moment. “Son, I’d prefer that you sit this one out. Stella and I have a lot to talk about.”
“‘Son’?” Stella asked. “That sounds serious.”
“Well, it is,” J.C. explained. “But it’s not as bad as it sounds. That’s okay, Ma. I hear what you’re saying. Dad and I can hold the fort.”
“That’s very understanding of you, J.C.,” Stella said.
“Oh, what’s to understand?” he replied. “I’m not going to throw a tantrum over a day-trip. Who is able to stand before envy? Life is too short to let that bother me. No, you three go on, do what you need to do.”
“Thank you, J.C.” Stella gasped. She felt urgently tempted to kiss him, but stopped herself before anyone noticed. “Well, the limousine should be here in about half an hour, so I guess we’d better get packed.”
“If we do it quickly, maybe we’ll have enough time to show you around the house,” Rhoda suggested.
“Great! Zoe told me you have a chemistry lab upstairs…?”
“Yes, we do,” Naomi answered. “What about it?”
“If I can’t be in J.C.’s classes, maybe I could still hang around and help him study…chemistry.” She turned and gave him a not-so-subtle wink.
“That’s fine with me, as long as you’re not alone together,” Naomi agreed. “We also have security cameras recording every cubic inch of that room, every minute of every day. I trust you wouldn’t do anything untoward.”
“If you could hold out, then I could hold out. Well, we’d better get going and pack. I want to check this out!” The four of them eagerly rushed off, leaving Peter and J.C. to their own devices.
“Well, J.C.,” his Dad began, “I guess we have the house all to ourselves for a while. What shall we do?”
“Oh, it’s back to ‘J.C.’ now?”
“Casual Friday, I guess.”
“Can I take this, uh…casualness…as a sign of approval?”
“‘Approval’ of what?”
“Well, you know…” he nodded, pointing in the direction Stella had gone.
“Oh, her!” Peter replied. “Oh, I get it. No, you have nothing to worry about. Stella is a nice girl, and you know what I expect of both of you. Where this goes, only time will tell.”
Father and son stood there for a moment, awkwardly trying to think of something else. Peter finally thought of something. “Well, it’s 6:00. It’s my turn to cook tonight, but it’s not worth messing up the kitchen for just two people. I’ll send out for pizza: the works?”
“What else could we do?”
“There’s a hockey game on later: Bruins vs. Penguins,” J.C. suggested.
“Great! The timing would be just right.”
“Just do me one favor, Dad.”
“Don’t use that annoying horn-thing!”
“Ah, you’re no fun.”
Peter called in for the pizza, and the two of them sat on the couch, flipping channels. J.C. noticed a slightly-confused look on his Dad’s face. “Dad, you seem a bit perturbed.”
“Well, I wouldn’t go that far,” he replied. “But I have been wondering about one thing.”
“And that is…?”
“Well, you kids know a lot more about today’s pop-culture than I do, so maybe you can answer this question.”
“Just who the heck is Buster Jeebers, anyway? Why is he a celebrity?”
“Beats me, Dad. I don’t even know what the guy does for a living! You know, we could log on to the internet and look him up.”
Peter thought about that for a moment, but decided it wasn’t worth knowing.