The sun would be up in two hours. By the time that happened, I needed to be out of this apartment with at least twenty miles between me and the three people sleeping on my floor in the living room.
My stomach hurt the way it used to on the first day of school when I was young. I put a hand over my navel while I swept loose change off my dresser with one hand into a Ziploc bag. It wasn’t much, a collective nineteen bucks or so, but it would have to last until my first paycheck went through. My new company had already paid me, but my bank was holding the funds. Apparently, a large cash deposit of twenty grand raised some eyebrows at my rinky-dink little credit union, and they didn’t want to let anything slip through the cracks.
In other words, they wanted to make sure things were legit.
I couldn’t blame them. The last large deposit I’d had was most likely the refund I got after returning a hundred and twenty dollar leather jacket I didn’t need and couldn’t afford. That very same jacket hung on my bedpost. It had floral embroidery along the shoulders, roses and greenery mostly, and tiny silver studs trimming the stitching down the sleeves, along the pockets, and down each side of the zipper. I’d fallen in love with it the moment I saw it.
Unfortunately, the price tag didn’t love me back. Upon bringing it home and realizing the jacket meant I didn’t have enough money to buy groceries for the week, I brought it back to the boutique, cried about it on the bus ride home, and woke up the next morning to find it folded neatly on the edge of my bed.
Duke always did shit like that.
He knew how much I wanted the jacket, and how broke we all were, and how easy it would be to snatch it for me. I could have brought it back and apologized to the shop owner, but one week turned into two, and by the time I’d owned it for a month, there was no sense bringing it back because it was obviously used and it smelled like my watermelon and lime body spray.
I shrugged into my jacket and dropped the Ziploc bag of coins into one pocket. I stuffed my phone into the back pocket of my jeans and slung my duffel bag over one shoulder. The nylon material of the bag whispered as it swished against my hip while I hurried to my bedroom door.
I didn’t have time to dally, but I found myself turning back to my bedroom to get one last look at the place that had been home for the past four years.
The room measured up to a whole lot of nothing. The dresser tucked between the two thin windows on the south wall had been abandoned outside a dumpster downstairs in the resident parking lot. Duke and Cross helped me carry it up and put a few dings and dents along the edges. It still held half my clothes because I didn’t have room or time to pack everything I owned. All I could take with me tonight were the essentials. Everything else could be replaced in time.
My twin bed looked terribly small pushed up into one corner. I didn’t have a nightstand and instead used a stack of used books. Most, if not all, had been borrowed from the public library down the block and never returned. It didn’t matter. The name on my library card didn’t match the one on my legal ID. Besides, did people actually get in trouble these days for not returning library books?
Casting my gaze around the room one last time, I took a deep breath.
This is it. This is the last page of this book. It’s time to start writing new chapters. My chapters.
The plush carpet under my bare feet as I crept down the hall toward the living room was a hideous mossy-green color. I’d hated it as long as I’d lived here, but I found myself grateful for it as I inched into the living room. It made my steps deadly silent. Holding my breath, I tiptoed behind the sofa where Cross slept with his face crushed into the back corner. His snores were muffled but still loud, and Viper, my best friend only because I didn’t have anybody else, slept on her back on the floor with her arms over her head and her mouth wide open. Beside her slept Duke. He looked handsome and peaceful, his dark unruly hair curled over his thick brows and closed eyes.
If he knew I was leaving…
I banished the thought before it had a chance to fully take root, and made for the front door.
There would be time for guilt later. If I lingered and one of them woke up, I’d never get out of here. I’d stay, and I’d settle, and everything I’d worked so hard for over the past few months would all go up in smoke. I couldn’t afford that—literally and figuratively.
My friends would never understand. They’d see my recent breakthrough into the movie business as a chance for themselves. They’d follow me out of our shitty Los Angeles suburb straight into Hollywood, where they would soil everything they touched, including my reputation. People would be watching me now that I was starring in Aaron Morris’s debut film. He’d written books, dozens upon dozens of them, but this was the first to be purchased by a big-time director and given its shot on the silver screen.
Just like me.
Duke would tell me I couldn’t cut it out there with the bigwigs without him. He’d find a role for himself. He’d try to get invited to events where he’d most likely steal something a hell of a lot more expensive than a leather jacket. It was a risk I wasn’t willing to take. And if he brought Viper and Cross with him? It would be even worse.
Still, leaving them behind hurt.
Maybe because you know they’ll dry up without you.
It didn’t matter if that was true.
I snuck out the front door, locked it behind me, and hurried down the stairwell to the lobby of my dingy apartment building. The fluorescent lights in the lobby flickered as if saying goodbye. The door latched closed behind me and I bolted down the cracked-pavement path to the curb, where a yellow cab with its interior light sat waiting for me. The engine was off and the driver got out when he saw me coming to open the back door for me. I tossed my duffel bag in first, pulled out a rolled-up wad of cash from the same pocket I’d dropped the change, and handed him seventy bucks.
“Hollywood,” I told him.
He wore a mustard shirt with a floppy collar and had deep bags under his eyes from working night shifts. “Gonna try your luck in the city of fame and glory?”
“I’m going to try.”
The cab driver wasn’t all that chatty. I spent the drive with my cheek resting in my palm, gazing out at the palm trees passing by as the sun began to rise and paint the sky shades of deep purple and pink. It would be a glorious day to start my new life.
The sky was nearly orange when the driver dropped me off at the address my handler at the film agency had texted to me. I got out, told him to keep the change, and stared up at the terracotta resort-style complex. It looked like it belonged in Spain or Mexico, not LA, with its rounded arches, flower-lined paths, wrought-iron gates and fences, and perfectly manicured grass.
Adjusting my duffel bag on my shoulder, I stepped forward and under one of said arches. I followed the mental instructions my handler had given me and climbed two sets of outdoor stairs that led to an inner balcony that led to several units. Down below, an inground pool surrounded by lounge chairs, picnic tables, and grills offered a place to hang out later and hopefully meet some new people who weren’t anything like the friends I had back in my shitty town.
I found my door, searched in panic for my keys until I found them in a front pocket of the duffel bag, and let myself in.
The smell of flowers hit me while I searched in the dark for a light switch. When I found it, the whole apartment lit up, and I spotted the massive bouquet of assorted flowers on my white marble countertops. A black faucet plunged into a deep, ceramic kitchen sink. Candles in various colored glass containers sat in a neat row beside the flowers, daring me to light one if not all of them. There was a handwritten note beside the bouquet, welcoming me to my new home. It had instructions scrawled on it about how to work certain things in the apartment, like the thermostat controlled with an iPad or the espresso machine perched on its own coffee bar under a painting of the silhouette of a heavy-set woman with red lips holding a cup of coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
She looked like someone I could be friends with—someone worthy of replacing Duke and the others.
I set my bag down and turned in a slow circle.
This place was far nicer than I expected. White marble floors that matched my counters led into an open-concept living room boasting an A-frame ceiling. From the apex hung a glass chandelier right smack over the sitting area. Light gray velvet sofas faced each other, and a glass coffee table between them boasted current magazine issues, more candles, tissues, and a bowl of individually wrapped candies.
After kicking out of my shoes, I explored the whole place with a flutter in my stomach. I’d never set foot in a place so nice, let alone a place that was mine. The living room had giant double doors that let out onto a patio with enough furniture to seat at least ten people. A second set of doors that led onto the patio came from the master bedroom, which was nicely appointed with a king-sized bed, fluffy white blankets, a reading nook by the window, and a yoga corner. My bathroom had a rain shower and super soaker tub, as well as a makeup vanity complete with a small collection of designer brands.
I tossed myself onto the bed. The blankets felt like clouds all around me as I smiled up at my ceiling, where I discovered a skylight.
“How is this all mine?” I breathed to the silent room.
Nobody answered except for the voice in my head.
Sheer luck, it said. If you don’t act smart, you’ll lose it all.
My lips pressed into a thin line. I had to be careful. A long time ago when my mother was still alive, she used to say to me, “if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.” She’d been one of those people who was almost always right, and this definitely seemed too good to be true. I tried to reason with myself that I’d earned this, that I hadn’t stolen it like my jacket or the little gold hoops in my ears. I’d come by this opportunity honestly. I’d put in the work. I’d used my skill as an actress to beat out all the other young women who would have given everything—bodies, hearts, souls—for this role.
They’d picked me.
If I stayed on the straight and narrow, I might actually be someone. Wouldn’t that be nice?
A splash in the distance pulled me up off the bed. I left my apartment and crossed to the railing on the balcony that wrapped around the third floor of the inner courtyard. Resting my elbows on the wrought iron, I peered down into the pool. The reflection of the fully risen sun beamed off the surface as two young children wearing orange water wings played with their father in the water. He saw me smiling down at them and raised an arm to shield his eyes.
He smiled through his beard at me. “Welcome to the Orchid,” he called happily. His children squirmed in their water wings to turn around. They smiled up at me and waved, too.
I waved back and smiled so big my cheeks hurt. “Thank you!”