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Thicker Than Water by Dylan Allen (1)

1

Reece

The first thing I notice are her hands. They’re fine boned and small with short nails that are painted bright red. They’re not elegant hands. But they’re beautiful. Hands whose character has been shaped by use. They look capable and strong.

And, apparently, they are. Those hands wrote the book that has taken the country by storm. Throw Away the Key has been sitting at the number one spot on The New York Times Best Seller list for almost thirty weeks. It’s being hailed as the book of the year. And all of this from a first-time author, who self-published her book, initially. Those hands have my respect.

As does the rest of her.

She hasn’t done a single television interview since the book gained national prominence. Her pen name L. Vega and her bio, which refers to her in the first person, don’t indicate whether she’s a woman or a man. Honestly, I hadn’t cared either way.

Until I saw her.

Now, that I know she’s a woman, it’s all I can think about. She’s beyond beautiful.

She’s tiny. She can’t be more than a couple of inches above five feet tall. And every single part of her in perfect proportion. Her dark hair tumbles in seemingly perpetual waves, spilling over her shoulders and hanging almost to her waist in the back. Her full lips are painted in the same vivid red as her nails. Otherwise, she is completely devoid of makeup.

In this town where people dress to impress, she appears to have made practically no effort at all. She’s not even wearing a suit. Her jeans have more holes than fabric, her white shirt sits off one shoulder and falls short of reaching her belly button. All that caramel, smooth skin is a feast for my eyes, almost daring me not to look.

Her beauty, her appeal is all effortless. She has what we, in this business, call presence. She’s captivating and I already know that she’s going to sell this film for us. When we put her in front of a camera, the public will eat her up. Add that to her obvious talent and clear ambition, and I can tell this woman’s a winner.

She’s sitting across from me, her beautiful face placid. It’s like she doesn’t have a care in the world. She shouldn’t. When it comes to her book and the movie studios vying for the options, it’s definitely a seller’s market. The film belongs at Artemis Film and I’m prepared to do what it takes to make that happen.

“Thank you for agreeing to talk to us, Ms. Vega. I know you’ve been approached by several other studios about your book,” Zev says in his trademark, brisk, no nonsense tone. He’s my President of Development and normally he’d be running this meeting without me present. But I don’t trust him not to fuck this up.

He’s not interested in turning Lucía Vega’s book into a film. He thinks it’s a waste of time and money. Normally his opinion is worth its weight in gold. But, not today.

I’ve got a good feeling about this book. The timing and the story are perfect. It’s a topic that’s on a lot of people’s minds. If it’s not, it should be. This film is going to win us awards and make a shitload of money. So, I’m here to make sure we get this done.

“We were surprised to get your call,” her agent, Sol Kline, responds. Sol is one of the country’s biggest literary agents. He knows everyone, understands the ins and outs of this business, and can smell bullshit a mile off. The fact that he is her agent tells me that they aren’t surprised at all. He only seeks out and represents very successful writers.

“I was surprised to be making it,” Zev says, with a chuckle that fails to mask his disdain. “But Mr. Carras insisted.”

I cut an ire-filled glance at him before I interject. I lean forward and look at her directly for the first time.

“Yes, I did insist. I read your book. It’s great. I believe it’s a story that needs to be adapted into film so that we can reach an even wider audience. I’m going to be stepping into the role Zev would normally play on this project and will oversee it myself.”

The room is silent at my declaration. I’ve surprised everyone. Including myself. I feel Zev’s eyes bore into me, but ignore him. Sol tips his head to the side, studying me. I don’t give him more than a passing glance as I train my gaze on Lucía.

“You know who I am, don’t you?” I ask her, looking only at her. Speaking only to her. When our eyes meet, I can see things in her expression that I didn’t before. Her wide, rich brown eyes give me a glimpse into her thoughts. She’s excited, but wary. Hopeful, but unsure. Whatever she sees in my expression makes her eyes widen with surprise.

She blinks hard and when she opens her eyes, the surprise is gone, the calm enigmatic expression back in place.

“Yes, I do,” she answers. Her voice is deep—almost smoky—and surprisingly soft. She tips her head to the side. Her hair falls with the motion, and it caresses her bare shoulder leaving a ripple of gooseflesh in its wake. I force my eyes back to her face and my mind back to the conversation. I clear my throat.

“So, then you know that I’ve spent years involved in activism on this issue. Trying to raise awareness, to get people talking and thinking and to get lawmakers to take action. Your book has done, in a matter of months, what I’ve spent a decade trying to achieve.” She flushes and I can’t tell if it’s in pride or embarrassment. But it lends her an air of innocence that’s unexpected and charming.

“It shouldn’t surprise you that I am chasing the option rights for this book so stridently. I want to take this story and put it in front of an even wider audience than you’ve reached already.”

Her book, Throw Away the Key is told from the point of view of a young girl, named Azalia. She belongs to a class of people who have entered this country illegally as minors, typically with parents and not of their own volition. They earned the moniker of DREAMERs from an acronym for a piece of legislation that’s currently rotting in committee in the United States Congress. The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act would give the millions of people who meet the criteria, a path to permanent and legal residency status in this country.

In reading the book, the reader gets to walk in Azalia’s shoes as she navigates life with this cloud of being undocumented over her head. The book is a work of fiction; yet her characters’ struggles are real. I’ve heard real stories like the ones she tells. I’ve seen them with my own two eyes. I’ve lived them.

She regards me, her darks eyes catch the light and are lit with so many dimensions of brown color, they glitter. I return her regard and raise my eyebrows, prompting her to respond. She shifts to look at Sol and then back to me. Her eyes are still calm, but I can see her throat working before she speaks.

“I appreciate your passion, Mr. Carras, but I’m just not sure . . .”

When her voice trails off, I take the opportunity to cut to the chase. “Ms. Vega, let’s not waste each other’s time. Tell me what it would take for you to say yes,” I say to her, making sure that my intent shows on my face.

I find myself, for the first time in my professional life, completely uninterested in the idea of driving a hard bargain. I want this so badly, that I know I’m going to give her whatever she asks for. So, I cut to the chase.

She folds her arms across her chest, her chin juts forward slightly. “Tell me what you loved about the story. Which specific scene really struck you?”

It’s my turn to blink. I’m taken aback that she’s testing me. Clearly, she doesn’t believe I’ve read it.

But my affront fades quickly and leaves behind respect tinged with guilt.

I don’t want to tell her, at least not right now, that I didn’t actually finish the book. So, I pick the scene that made me stop reading, pick up the phone, and call Zev.

“Well, I’ll begin by saying that I found Azalia very relatable and easy to empathize with. Your writing was clear and vivid.” She sighs with impatience and I rush on. “But the part of the story that struck me was the playground scene. Where an argument about a toy escalates and another child hits Azalia.”

I see a flare of surprise in her eyes. Her shoulders hitch the tiniest bit.

“What . . . why that scene?” she asks, clearly flustered and trying not to show it.

“Her mother’s muted response to seeing her child being bullied and hit infuriated me. I could feel Azalia’s heart breaking as, instead of receiving comfort from her mother, she was told that she should have just given the child her toy. The reader and Azalia’s resentment toward her mother are borne in exactly the same moment. For Azalia that resentment takes years to leave. Yet, you make sure the reader understands her mother’s heartbreak and guilt. The powerlessness she experienced in that moment turns the reader’s resentment into empathy and—” Lucía starts to cough. She grabs the glass of water in front of her and takes a sip. Sol pats her back and even though she’s still coughing, she waves him away. He stops and we all wait for her to catch her breath.

“I’m sorry, dry throat,” she says sheepishly once she’s recovered. “Please, go on.” She shifts uncomfortably in her chair and glances at Zev before she looks back at me, this time not quite meeting my eyes. I look at Sol but he just nods for me to continue.

“Well, that scene and the ones that follow are a turning point in the story. They crystalized, perfectly, how defenseless a child is when they live in a country that’s unwilling to give them protections of residency. Even though more harrowing things happen to her later in the book, that’s where her character’s refusal to accept the meager scraps she was being offered came from. As much as I know about this issue and care about it, I spend most of my time talking to adults. Reading as a seven-year-old child learns that she’s to spend her entire life being punished for a crime she didn’t commit, was really powerful. I think audiences will respond well and will feel compelled to act.”

I glance at Zev. He’s looking at me wide-eyed. I’ve kept my politics separate from the studio. He’s probably never heard me talk about this before and I know that my passion probably surprises him. He knows me as a pragmatist. Objective and unemotional. My motto is: What we feel isn’t as important as what we know. But this, for me, is an issue where what I feel and what I know are perfectly aligned.

“We have an obligation to the DREAMERs. They’ve been raised here, educated here. They love this country and it’s their home. Throw Away the Key, through its characters and its message, makes that argument in a visceral and honest way that will translate beautifully to the screen.”

Her expression has softened, and it’s as if she’s seeing me in a different light. She gives me an almost imperceptible, but very real, smile before she looks at Sol and nods.

He opens his briefcase and pulls out a thick document. He sets it on the table in front of them. When he starts to slide it across the table toward me, Lucía lays a protective hand on top of it and stops Sol’s from pushing it any farther.

He gives Lucía a small frown, and she pushes the document in my direction. “This is an agreement we drafted.” I don’t pick it up yet. Sol continues, “The highlights are this: She wants to write the screenplay, she wants to be involved in casting and have the right of refusal. We’ve detailed her requests for an advance and back-end royalties. She doesn’t want to do any press—the studio and the actors can have all the screen time. Everything else is pretty standard.” He taps the stack with a finger and says, “Read it, let your lawyers look over it. Sign it, and we have a deal.”

These terms are almost unheard of. Yet, I don’t miss a beat responding.

“Fine,” I return, even as I feel Zev’s eyes burning a hole into the side of my face.

She looks at Sol and gives him a broad, joyous grin. The energy of it brightens the entire room.

I want her to smile at me like that.

Where that thought came from, I don’t know, but I banish it. I’m on a mission.

Just like every beautiful woman in this town, I’m sure she knows exactly how she affects men. I’m not falling for that. Been there, done that.

I glance at Zev, and he’s staring at me. His bafflement and anger are on unfettered display across his face. I’ll have to deal with him in a minute. I look back at Sol and Lucía, “We’ll have this reviewed and signed by early next week.”

Sol raises a surprised eyebrow at me but only nods. Then, pats Lucía’s hand in a very fatherly gesture. This surprises me, Sol is not known for his warmth, not even with his oldest clients. “Well, then we’ll consider this meeting adjourned until then. We’re looking forward to working with you.” They start to stand, but I stop them.

“So, we sign your paperwork and the story is ours?” I ask, wanting to be sure that we’re all on the same page.

Lucía straightens completely and I have to stop my eyes from looking at the scar, jagged and angry, that runs down the right side of her belly button. I want to ask her what happened. I want to touch it, and see how it feels in contrast to the otherwise smooth skin of her stomach.

What the fuck is wrong with me?

“Yes. If you sign that document,” she says pulling me back to the conversation. She nods at the papers on the table. “We’ll have a deal.” She puts her hand out for me to shake and I do. Her grip is firm and when our palms touch, I feel it and so does she. Her eyes fly to mine as she pulls her hand back. Her eyes are wide, and her lips slightly parted in surprise.

I can still feel the energy from her palm in my now empty hand, and I can hear the rasp in my voice when I say, “Thank you for coming in.”

Her nod is a quick, jerky motion and she glances between my face and her hand.

“Sure. Thank you for inviting us.” Without saying goodbye, or waiting for Sol, she turns and walks out of the room. I watch her go, my eyes on the patchwork of torn fabric interspersed with bronzed skin that runs the length of her shapely legs.

“Reece, you have until Monday with those papers and then we’re talking to other studios,” Sol says. He’s also followed my gaze. When he looks back at me, he’s frowning, his expression one of rebuke and warning, then he follows her out. I close my eyes, annoyed that he saw me ogling her.

As soon as the door closes behind him, Zev pounces.

“Reece. What. The. Fuck? You can’t be serious.” He leans toward me and says this in a loud whisper as he if he’s afraid someone will overhear us.

“I’m dead serious. You haven’t read the book,” I respond in a tone that’s calmer than how I feel.

“I don’t need to read the book. We don’t make movies like this. We chase box office dollars, not critical acclaim.” He slams his fist on the table.

Zev’s worked here longer than I have. I know he resented my promotion to Studio President last year. I’ve been sensitive to that and have treated him with the respect I believe he’s earned. But no matter how he feels, I’m his boss and he clearly needs to be reminded.

I raise an eyebrow at him. “Since when did you decide the creative or financial strategies of this movie studio?” I ask him, my tone quiet, but my anger not disguised.

He pales a little, and when he speaks again, his tone is less combative.

“Fine. But you’re going to have to explain this to the writing team. You’re going to have to get legal to sign off on it and you’ll also have to explain to the board when we dump money into it and don’t make it back at the box office.”

I sigh. I don’t want to alienate Zev, I respect him. I know he’s got the conventional wisdom right, but I know this movie will be a success. I won’t let it be anything else.

“I want to tell this story. I’m willing to take a risk. If it does well, it’ll be great for the studio. Yeah, we chase box office success over critical acclaim. This is our chance to have both. I think Ms. Vega’s got real star power. She’ll be great when we start doing promo for it.”

All of a sudden his expression loses some of its hardness, and a conspiratorial grin spreads across his face.

“You want to fuck her, right? I get it, she’s gorgeous. I mean, I’m married, but I wouldn’t mind getting my hands on that hot little body.” He slaps my shoulder as he stands up and starts toward the door. “But, Reece, there are cheaper ways to get some ass. I bet she’d be on her knees for you if you just asked.”

I close my eyes and exhale. This is the movie business. The casting couch is real. People use sex as currency all the time, and this sort of banter is common. But not at Artemis Film. My father and I are two of only four male Chief Executives across the entire organization. We’ve worked hard to create a culture that rewards creativity and hard work. This is where the brightest people want to work because they know that nothing but their effort and attitude counts.

I pick up the contract and start to flip through it, letting Zev know that I’m done talking. Just as he reaches the door, I call his name. When he stops I look him straight in the eyes. “I’ll only say this one time. Consider it your warning.” He frowns in confusion. “If I hear you talking about anyone who works for or with us, like that again, I don’t care how long you’ve known my father. You’ll be gone.”

I look back at the contract and flip to the next page. He doesn’t say anything as he leaves, but the door closes with a tiny slam. I don’t really care how he feels. I meant every word.

I pick up my pen and add a few provisions to the contract. Lucía Vega is asking for a lot. I’m going to give it to her.