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Excerpt: You Don't Know Jack

Book 5: The With Me Series

Chapter 1

Delaney

“Your father talked to Trevor,” my mother casually, then turns to the waiter with the famous Helen Laurens smile, the one that launched a movie career. “Darling, I’ll have the salad, hold the dressing and cheese and any sort of bread. I’ve been off carbs since I was thirteen.”

The waiter turns to me.

“I’ll have the hamburger, well-done, with fries. If possible, I’d like the fries extra crispy, please,” I say. “Carbs are my best friend.”

I swear I see the waiter’s lips twitch in response before he schools a bland expression on his face. The waiter takes our menus and promises to return to refill our water glasses.

“So, tell me about your new role,” I say, not letting my mother continue any further nonsense about my father or Trevor, who’s a director and owns a production company. As I knew it would, my prompt works, and my mother starts to talk about her newest starring role, a sure bet for an Oscar contender. The key to getting attention off me is to put it on my family, the rare times I see them. They love the spotlight, which is a good thing, since my father, mother, and siblings are famous actors. The Laurens family is legendary, as well-known and well-revered as the Barrymore’s.

I’m in showbiz, too. Just not in front of the camera, or right behind it as a director, producer, or that sort of thing.

I’m a screenwriter.

A struggling one.

It’s completely baffled my family as to why I haven’t succeeded like they have. They’re mystified that I don’t have Oscars lining their shelves. They’re embarrassed, especially my parents, when their younger children’s’ names are so easily recalled by the media and public, and almost always, they don’t bother to make a correction about also having another daughter, who is their fourth of six children.

My mother is only interrupted by the food arriving, and her skimpy salad looks depressing. My hamburger and fries are not depressing. They’re delicious, and I happily eat away.

“Now, Delaney,” my mother says, putting down her fork. She’s barely eaten anything, and I frown at her. “Darling, don’t do that.”

I continue to hold my expression until she relents and eats some more food. My mother has struggled with anorexia her whole life, and unfortunately, so has one of my older sisters, Bridget. Changing how their physical bodies look is expected of actors for roles—and even if losing weight is supposedly done healthy—it always frightens me when my mother or Bridget are told to lose a few pounds on their already stick-thin frames. I might not be close to them but I don’t want them to harm themselves and fall victims.

My mother sets down her fork yet again, with only a few pieces of lettuce remaining on the plate. “As I was saying earlier, your father has talked to Trevor.”

I don’t say anything. I don’t need to, as my mother is already onto her next line of dialogue.

“And Trevor told your father about your screenplay. The one that Trevor said no to, as did everyone else.”

“I know who’s said no.” My rejections could paper the walls of my apartment.

“I thought we’d talked about this,” my mother says. “You weren’t going to write another one of those screenplays.”

“I like those screenplays.”

“No one else does.”

“They did, in the 1930s and the 1990s.”

“Romantic comedies are not popular, darling. They’re of the past. If you want to go the Netflix route—”

“Netflix also said no.”

My mother doesn’t even hear me. “—but romantic comedies don’t win Oscars, darling. You can save your breath and not list the ones that did way back in the day. You’re not writing the next It Happened One Night. You’re writing—what was it called?”

Written in the Stars.

My mother gives me a look. “Are you writing about astronauts now?”

“No, it’s—” I stop. My mother really doesn’t care what my screenplays are about. She only cares that they haven’t sold. According to my parents, Delaney Laurens should be a household name. I’ve been shunned from my family because I’m a nobody.

“That title makes no sense. No wonder you were rejected. But, to win an Oscar—to be known—you need to write screenplays that meansomething.”

“My screenplays do mean something. Love is everything.”

“Oh, darling, please tell me you don’t believe in that hog-wash.”

“You want me to write something where everybody dies at the end. No thanks, I’ll pass.” I push back my own plate. At least I was able to finish my meal before this conversation started, though dessert is definitely a no-go. “And, more importantly, I don’t want to write those type of screenplays. I want to write what makes me happy and is my passion—and it’s what I want to see on-screen.”

“Darling, really, you’ve become such a disappointment.”

Ouch. That really hurt, even though it’s been said to me before by my mother and father. I wish I ordered that that glass of wine when I’d had the chance.

“You’re a Laurens. Your screenplays should be selling on name alone. The fact they don’t . . .” My mother carelessly lifts her right shoulder and lets it drop with meaning. My mother is a great actress. She can say everything and everything with the smallest body movement.

Still, it takes me a while to process what she’s saying without saying. In truth, it’s hard for me to grasp, for me to acknowledge it. It’s harder yet to speak the words out loud.

“You don’t think I’m good.”

never said that. They did.”

“But you and Father do say that. You most certainly think it. You tell me to write differently—to have substance.”

“You can have your love story, if you must—but with substance.”

“Substance means death. You want me to fridge one of the leads to advance the character arc of the other.”

My mother doesn’t ask for the bill; she just hands over a credit card. “Preferably, you’d fridge the female. The audience identifies with the male gaze so much more readily than the female one. Females hard held to such higher standards. A difficult woman is a strong man in film. Besides, I’ve died on-screen countless times—and won awards for those roles.”

“Wouldn’t it be nice if you had lived instead? If your character—let’s take one as an example. How about Amanda in My Country is My Country?”

“I loved that role. My seventh Oscar win. So fraught with emotion, so much visceral pain and tension and conflict. Oh, how my character suffered! It was delightful to sink my teeth into that.”

“But imagine if Amanda had lived,” I persist. “If, instead of wading into the sea, her dress full of stones and bricks, after her husband had done all those horrible things to her, she’d just left him and found her happily ever after with that hot mechanic. Imagine if she’d found happiness.”

“Darling, don’t talk to me as if I’m the unlearned one,” my mother says as she signs the credit card slip, her signature an ineligible scrawl. “I pick the roles that speak to me, the ones that have meat and bones to them. Sometimes, my characters arehappy even if their endings are not, but life isn’t a fairy tale. There is no such thing as a happily ever after. In a cartoon meant for children, you can have this sort of fanciful nonsense, although I dislike it. The sooner children know, the better. In the real world—in the art we create—we must be true.”

“You’re asking the opposite for me. You don’t want my truth.”

“That’s because your truth doesn’t exist. Trevor said that you’ll continue to fail and be rejected unless you get serious.”

“I am serious.”

“I find that hard to believe. You’re twenty-eight years old, Delaney. Do you know what I was doing at twenty-eight? I had three Oscars by that point. I’d been nominated, in either Supporting or Best—and sometimes in both—since I’ve turned fifteen. Your father and siblings don’t have as many Oscars as I do. Only Meryl has managed to keep ahead of me. Your older sisters, Antonia, Bridget, and Cecelia, had won Oscars by their twenty-eighth birthday. Your younger siblings, Elijah and Florence, just won theirs at the last Oscars—both at sixteen. What have you won?”

“Nothing.”

“What have you sold?”

I grit my teeth. “Nothing.”

“My point exactly.Nothing.” My mother stands from her chair, all elegance and grace. “You’re not only a disappointment, you’re a disgrace, and you should no longer call yourself a Laurens since you’ve never acted as one.”

***

My roommate/best friend stops me just before I’m about to chuck my laptop in the trash bin outside our building.

“Woah,” Alex says, grabbing my laptop from me. “What’s got you so upset? Characters giving you trouble? Plot going sideways? Twitter running amok?”

“Twitter is always running amok,” I say. “Aren’t you supposed to be at an audition?”

Alex gives me a lazy smile and starts walking back to the building. “I was. I read. I left. Alas, they’re not going to cast me.”

Besides the weirdness of us both sharing the same birthday on March third—this year, he turned thirty-three to my twenty-eight, I know many things about Alex. Primarily, his favorite word is alas. Mine is giraffe, because I always feel like I’m sliding down a very long neck of said animal when I say the word. It’s like this: I imagine a giraffe, who’s been standing all day, eating leaves, avoiding those pesky lions, and now it’s time for the giraffe to unwind, and she lowers herself down, down, down, until she felts the barely-there swaying wind. The stress on the first syllable with the softness of a second feels exactly like that, all those letters bending down like tall, gangly limbs and then a whisper of a breeze.

I told Alex this, and his next words to me were: You’re a writer.

My response: You’re an actor.

His: Yes, but everyone knows that, so no points to Hufflepuff for you.

Me: I’m in Gryffindor!

Him: You’re the very definition of a Hufflepuff.

Me: Let me guess, you only know that because you’re in Gryffindor.

Him, pitying look: Delaney, you really don’t know your houses, do you? I’m Slytherin, through and through.

Me: You’re the one who doesn’t know their houses! I grew up in a house of Slytherins.

Him: No, you great up in a house of Death-Eaters.

I had no counter-argument to that one.

Even though my family is old-school Hollywood royalty, sometimes it’s a little hard for me to believe that my roommate and best friend was once theHollywood heartthrob, Alex Randall. I used to cut his pictures out of magazines. After a few months of living in the same place, I finally mustered the courage and told Alex about it all, and he just ruffled my hair and said I know. When I demanded how he knew, he told me that I had a wide-eyed look, and that he could practically see the teenage crush hearts dancing around my head.

We had a good laugh about it, and our friendship is just that, a friendship. I don’t see him that way, and he doesn’t see me that way, thank god. It’d be like hooking up with an older sibling, one that I actually liked. Alex trusts me enough where he’s shared everything about his troubled past.

He’s been clean and sober for almost twelve years, but hasn’t found the same success as he once had. And I know what caused his addiction, as does his other best friend, Hailey Bloom now Hailey Fox, who left fame behind long-ago and currently lives in Vermont with her husband and children. Although Alex has come forward about his own story of sexual abuse, harassment, and rape from both as a teen and, groped by a producer as recently as a year ago, he’s been having a difficult time in getting roles.

Alex knows he can unload to me and I know I can do the same to him. He knows about my family. I know about his. We’re both struggling to make it—he’s had success, my family has always known success. If it weren’t for my grandmother leaving me a very generous trust fund in her will, I would have nothing. I’m lucky—I don’t have to worry about money. I never had to until my parents cut me off financially four years ago until I made something out of myself.

My grandmother was so outraged that she gave me a million dollars on the spot and then said she’d be giving me more when she died, and that if her son or anyone in the family contested the will, that they’d never see a dime of the Laurens money. That money landed me this sweet apartment, and although I didn’t need a roommate, I heard from a friend of a friend that another friend needed a place to live so I volunteered. That friend ended up being Alex, and the rest is history.

Now, my mother is wealthy. My father is wealthy. But my grandmother was obscenely wealthy, and she refused to give her kids any money because she believed that needed to make their own way into the world. My father never forgave her for that, and they pretty much hated each other. My grandmother was no dummy, and she was crafty and sly. She saw that my parents and siblings didn’t care much for me, so, in her own way, she doted upon me. She was not a warm, fuzzy woman—but her acerbic wit and dry sense of humor were like rays of sunshine.

Most of all, she believed in me. She encouraged me. And she told me that I needed to forget about those fuckers and move forward with my awesome self. Her exact words, not mine. I miss her, but I know she’s having a party in the afterlife.

“You’re awfully quiet,” Alex says, as we avoid the elevator and make our way up to our fifth-floor apartment.

“I’m always quiet.”

“You’re not this quiet.”

I shrug, but don’t say anything in response. Alex doesn’t like it when I go to meet one of my parents or siblings. He sees the carnage left from the lunches or drinks or dinners.

Alex points out that they always make me feel like shit, and that I have to put my foot down and set firm boundaries—if they don’t respect me, then I need to write them out of my life. I know I should stop trying to connect with my family but it’s hard for me to give up. I think that a huge part of me hopes that one day my family will just accept me for me, and not want some other version of me that fits into their ideal.

Before I know it, we’re at our apartment door and inside. Alex takes off his shoes then heads to the kitchen. I take a bit longer before doing the same and following him.

Alex is pulling out a carton of cookie dough ice cream, bless his soul. He takes out an ice cream scooper and two bowls. With the scooper in hand, he gestures to one of the stools at the kitchen bar-top. “You sit. I’ll scoop.”

“I had lunch with my mother,” I say, deciding to tell him now rather than later. “I know what you’re going to say, and trust me, I heard your voice in my head as I was driving to the restaurant and on the way back.” I bury my head into my hands, letting my long dark-brown hair fall forward, and then drop my hands to gesture to my yellow dress. “I even dressed up, so she wouldn’t find fault with my outfit.”

“I bet she managed to get a dig in.”

My face heats at the memory. “She did. She asked why I was wearing color when black was so much more slimming. She told me I would look better as a blonde and that I should wear a nude-colored lipstick since I didn’t have the right mouth shape for that cheap wine shade. I’m used to her criticisms about my appearance. I hear it from her. I hear it from my father. I hear it from all of them. And I should be used her insults about my writing—”

“What did she say this time?”

“The usual.”

Alex pushes a bowl of ice cream toward me. “What else did she say in her feeble attempts to crush your spirit?”

“Settle down, Shakespeare. You’ve heard this before. My writing sucks. I need to stop writing romantic comedies. I need to get serious. My father talked to Trevor—”

“Trevor is an asshole, and any man—other than Bowie and Bono and anyone else besides Trevor—who goes by only one name is a super asshole.”

“—and Trevor offered his unflattering opinion. My mother then listed her accomplishments, as well as those of my father and siblings. She finished by telling me that I was a disappointment, a disgrace, and not a Laurens.”

“She’s awful.”

I eat some of the ice cream. “She’s right. I’m not a Laurens, not in the important sense to them.”

Alex gets a thoughtful look on his face. “What’s your middle name again?”

“Rose. Why?”

“If you’re not a Laurens, then you should be a Rose.” Alex puts the ice cream away. “Delaney Rose has a much better sound that Delaney Laurens. Delaney Rose is already awesome as she is.”

“Delaney Rose.” I mull it over. “Why the hell not? I need a change anyway. I’m so tired of getting rejected, Alex.”

“You and me both.”

“I just want somewhere different than this.” I look around. “I think I want to get away, far away from Hollywood. Regroup. Start a new screenplay.”

“You’re not going to kill anyone off, are you?”

I snort. “Only happily ever after romantic comedies for me. But I think I need a change of scenery. Hell, I don’t think . . . I know I do. I need to get out of this area, away from the boulevard of broken dreams, and create some new dreams that aren’t tarnished by all of this shit whirling around.”

“I hear you. I’m headed to Hailey and Caleb’s lake house for a few weeks. Hailey swears by Vermont, and she loves the winters there, and . . .” Alex trails off, his gaze narrowing on me. “You should come.”

“I’m not sure about—”

“Listen, my little hermit, I don’t mean you have to stay with me and Hailey and Caleb and their rambunctious family—and I’m not just referring to their children. Hailey and Caleb have a small cabin, nestled in the mountains. It’s completely off the grid, so you won’t have access to Wi-Fi. You can disconnect from your family and social media. More importantly, you type away to your heart’s content and write your newest screenplay. You should go to Vermont with me.”

“I’ve watched horror movies. Every horror movie takes place in nature. You’re just setting me up to be Voorhees’d to death.”

“I’d be very sad if that were to happen. But listen . . . I need to regroup. You need to regroup. We both need the hell out of Hollywood, so let’s do it.”

“You had me at—”

Alex groans. “Delaney, I know it’s one of your favorite rom-coms and all, but don’t Jerry Maguire me.”

I huff out a breath, pretending to be annoyed, but the gig is up because I can’t hold my expression for long and dissolve into giggles. “Okay, okay,” I manage to get out between laughter, “I’m in. I’m so in.”


Excerpt: You Don't Know Jack