Hello, Sunshine


By Leila Howland

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A Prep School Girl with a Hollywood Dream

Becca Harrington is a reject. After being rebuffed by every college on her list, she needs a fresh start, so she packs up everything and moves to LA, giving herself one year to land an acting gig or kill herself trying.

Unfortunately, not everything turns out as planned, and after a few grueling months, LA is looking like the worst idea ever. As hard as she tries, Becca can't land an agent, she's running out of cash, and her mom is hounding her to apply to more schools. In an act of desperation, Becca and her friend Marisol start posting short videos online-with the help of their adorable filmmaker neighbor, Raj-and the videos catch the attention of a TV producer. Could this be it? Her big break? Or will she have to move back home with nothing but some bad head shots and a monstrous credit-card bill?

Becca may not get the Hollywood ending she was hoping for, but perhaps she'll learn there's more than one way to achieve her dream.

Readers will love every page of this funny, romantic, aspirational, and ultimately triumphant novel about a girl who just wants to make it on her own.


For my mother, Phebe Jane,
who gave me roots and wings.

“OH MY GOD, we’re almost there!”

Alex smirks at my enthusiasm as we see a sign for the exit we’ve been headed toward for two weeks. We’ve driven all the way from Boston in this rickety old Volvo, and the passenger seat has kind of started to feel like home. I can’t believe our trip is almost over. My breath gets shallow and my heart accelerates. The dream that’s been in the future since April—since I was a little kid, actually—is about to be the present.

I’m totally psyched, but as a clammy sweat breaks out on my forehead, I also feel queasy. It doesn’t help that it’s a hundred and twelve degrees outside, and this car’s old air-conditioning system only gets the temperature down to the low nineties. I switch to a more upbeat playlist on the iPhone, unroll the passenger-side window of Alex’s car, and let the hot, dry wind wash over me.

“Look out, LA! Here I come!” I shout out the window.

A guy in an old BMW makes a nasty gesture with his tongue.

“Ew!” I say, and I duck back inside the car and roll up the window. “Ew! Alex, that guy just went like this.” I show him the tongue move and Alex laughs, waving it off.

“Forget about him, Becca,” Alex says. “Stay focused. What’s your number-one goal again?”

“Get an agent. I will not rest until I have one. If Brooke can do it, so can I.”

“Bet your ass,” Alex says, and switches lanes.

Brooke was my main acting competition in high school, and she got into Tisch, NYU’s theater school. When I didn’t get accepted anywhere she was such a dick about it. Everyone felt bad for me—Carter Academy has a 99.9 percent matriculation rate, after all—but Brooke took her pity to a new level. I almost barfed on the spot when I learned that she’d found an agent literally the day after she moved to New York for a summer Shakespeare seminar. She’d been discovered at a café near Washington Square Park, wherever that is. Within a week, she’d booked an in-flight safety video for Delta.

“Oh, I love this song.” I turn up the volume to get Brooke and her perfect skin out of my mind. The latest girl-power song from my favorite pop princess blasts from the speakers. “I know you hate this jam, but I really need to sing it right now. Okay?”

“Go for it,” Alex says, and turns up the volume even higher. He grins at me as I belt out the song off-key. When he smiles, lines from his eyes frame his cheeks—the result of a relentlessly happy childhood. He’s had everything that money can buy and everything it can’t, too. It was really no surprise when he got into Stanford early.

The car does that shaky thing it’s been doing since Utah whenever we get up to seventy miles an hour. “Come on, Ruby, don’t fail us now,” Alex says.

I thought of the name Ruby when he bought the car from his next-door neighbor last year.

“What do you think, is Ruby actually going to make it all the way to Palo Alto?” Alex asked. After he drops me at my cousin’s place, he’ll be taking the scenic route up the coast.

“Oh yeah,” I say. “She’s a trouper.”

“Easy, baby,” Alex says to Ruby, who is rattling more than usual. Alex’s jaw flexes as he signals and heads toward the exit. Even after two years of dating he can still make me melt. He has a strong jaw and the nose of a future leader. His eyes are the color of a lake on an overcast day, and his blond hair smells woodsy close to his neck. And don’t even get me started on his body. He’s a champion skier and has the legs and ass to show for it. Last night we had the most amazing time at a motel in Palm Springs. We couldn’t get enough of each other. We barely slept. The people in the next room actually complained to the front desk, which we laughed about for the next hour, as quietly as possible, of course.

Alex turns on his indicator and takes the exit for Orange Grove Boulevard. Vivian’s exit. We’re almost there. Oh my God. We’re almost there.

“How hard can getting an agent actually be?” I ask. Alex opens his mouth to answer, but I stop him. “Famous last words, I know. I should probably learn how to wear eye makeup for on-camera auditions. I’m going to need some new looking-for-agent clothes, because everything I have feels a little too…I don’t know…Boston.” Alex seems nervous as the car slows, and we turn onto a wide boulevard lined with tall, evenly spaced palm trees. I know how he feels. I’m so nervous I can’t seem to stop talking. “Can you believe how perfect last night was? That was the best night ever. We have to go back to Palm Springs!”

“Becca,” Alex says. He bites his lip as he makes a left on to Bradford Street, Vivian’s street.

“I don’t want to say good-bye. I really, really don’t want to,” I say. I feel carsick actually, and a little untethered. We slow down in front of Vivian’s complex.

Alex looks pale as he parallel parks, and yet, even with his pallid complexion, the sight of him nearly takes my breath away. I snap a picture, the last of the roll of film. Before we left, my mom gave me her old camera so that I could take pictures with actual film. It’s nothing fancy, just a vintage-y point-and-shoot from when she was my age. I’ve spaced the twenty-four shots out over the course of our road trip.

“Why’d you do that?” he asks.

“You just look so cute when you parallel park, and I’m not going to get to see you do it again for a while,” I say, and inhale sharply. I have a cramp, like I get when we do the mile run for gym class. I clutch my side.

“You okay?” he asks.

“I’m just freaking out a little. I can do this, right?”

“Of course you can,” he says. He turns the engine off and faces me. I put my hand on his leg. “But…we need to say good-bye now.”

“I know. Your orientation is tomorrow. At least we have the Jones concert in six weeks. How many days? I think it’ll be easier if I think in terms of days—”

“Actually,” he says, his face rearranging in an unfamiliar way, “I think we should take a beat.”

“A what?” At first his words don’t register. But then he tilts his head, looks me in the eye, and squeezes my hand. My heart drops straight through the floor of the car and lands with a sizzle on the hot tar. “Wait. You’re breaking up with me?”

He inhales a definitive breath.

“Why?” I ask. My stomach turns over. For a second I think I might throw up.

“Everyone knows long distance doesn’t work,” he says.

“But we won’t be that far apart. It’s only an hour by plane. There are airfare deals all the time!”

“It’s not just that. I want to make a fresh start, you know? It’s a new chapter of my life, and I want to be able to throw myself into it. And so should you.”

“Are you telling me this is for my own good or something?” I ask.

“We’re going to be doing such different things. I think it’ll be hard for us to relate. We’re in different phases of our lives.”

“I wouldn’t call it a different life phase. Didn’t we just graduate from the same high school?”

“Look,” Alex says as he wipes sweat from his upper lip. “A part of me wishes that I could stay with you and cheer you on….”

“You can!”

“But I’m going to be so involved in my own life at Stanford. And I deserve to be able to enjoy myself.”

“You deserve it?” It sounds like a sentence he’s been practicing. I feel a sharp stab in my chest as I wonder how long he’s known he was going to do this. “How long have you been planning this? The whole trip?”

“I guess I’ve been thinking about it for a while. Hey, you deserve your freedom, too.”

“I don’t want any more freedom,” I say. “I’m scared of all the freedom I have.”

“You’re going to be fine,” he says.

“You don’t really think I’m going to make it, do you?” I ask. I’m in so much pain that I’m on the verge of hyperventilating. My ears are buzzing.

“That’s not true,” he says without looking me in the eye. He pops the trunk and gets out of the car.

Vivian emerges from her condo wearing a preppy tunic, white jeans, and a huge grin. She waves from her door. I try to signal for her to go back inside until Alex and I can talk more—this is all happening so suddenly, can it even be real?—but she doesn’t get it. I step out of the car, heart pounding even as my blood seems to slow. Alex hands me my suitcase and purse as Vivian walks toward us across an impossibly green lawn.

“Hey, girl!” Vivian calls.

“Hi,” I say through a broken smile, and then I turn back to Alex and ask quietly, “What about last night?”

“It was great,” he says as though this has nothing to do with anything.

I open my mouth to speak, but I can’t think of what to say to this boy who I’ve loved for two years, who I thought loved me.

“Take care,” he says.

Take care? What does that even mean?

Seconds before Vivian reaches us, he gives me a stiff hug and hops in the still-running car. I wait for Ruby to be out of sight, and then I turn to Vivian and burst into tears.

“REFRIGERATOR, what are you trying to tell me?” I ask. It’s five days later. It’s also 4 a.m. I’ve been listening to the refrigerator’s cycle of whines and moans for hours now. Since other methods of quieting it have failed, I talk to it. My hand grazes the white door. “I can’t help you unless you tell me what’s wrong.” It sputters. “Fine, be that way.” I turn over, curling into a question mark on my sleeping bag. I’m lying on the kitchen floor in my Carter Academy T-shirt and granny panties I’ve had since eighth grade. I thought they’d be comforting, but they aren’t.

I’ve been trying to fall asleep for five hours. I’ve breathed according to a pocket-size book about meditation, read the People magazine I bought near the bus stop in Pasadena, memorized half of a Shakespearean sonnet, and flipped the pillow to the cool side, but nothing has worked. I’d hoped that tonight’s sleep would be long and deep and give me a new perspective in the morning, because right now the challenges ahead seem to await me like the pack of wolves that I imagine are prowling outside the door of this Hollywood apartment building. The building is named the Chateau Bronson. The only castle-y things about it are the majestic font on the building’s sign and the odd drawbridge-inspired door.

At 4:17, I decide to get up and finish cleaning my new apartment. Maybe scrubbing this place until it gleams will get my spirits up. A single bird chirps somewhere outside. I kick myself out of the sleeping bag that still smells vaguely like a camping trip I took as part of the junior year science program, the one where Alex and I first kissed. Why does everything have to remind me of him? And why does it take five whole business days for 1-800-GET-A-BED to deliver a twin bed to a major US city?

I turn on the halogen lamp that I found on the sidewalk yesterday. It leans a little to the left, but it works. I almost took the mattress that was next to it—it looked brand-new, but in a flash I could see my mom’s face grimacing in disgust, and I didn’t touch it. I blink for a second against the light and look around at my new place. I’d shut the curtains, but I don’t have any. I pull on my pajama bottoms, tie up my hair in a ponytail, and get to work.

The apartment is one room, about the size of my bedroom back home, with a wooden floor that’s covered in a thick layer of brown paint. The kitchenette is off to the right. There’s my friend the fridge, whining and pitched slightly forward, a mustard-yellow 1970s oven, and a small sink. It could be depressing, but the nook by the window has potential. I narrow my eyes and picture curtains, a bunch of wildflowers in a mason jar, a steaming cup of tea. I can fix this up, I think, instagramming it in my mind.

I open a kitchen cabinet that has a strange metal interior. I don’t know what it’s for, but I feel like Alex would, because he just knows stuff—like that the raised stones on the cobblestone streets in Beacon Hill were used by ladies to step into their horse-drawn carriages. Or that when people say something is “neither here nor there” they’re quoting Shakespeare without knowing it.

My heart lurches at the thought of him up at Stanford, where he’s probably started his classes. Did we really break up? How is it possible that just a week ago we were in Texas, dancing in a country bar, laughing and getting stepped on because we were the only ones who didn’t know the moves? How have we not spoken since he dropped me at Vivian’s? I feel a sharp pain in my gut, like a thumbtack is being stuck into a vital organ. What the hell happened?

I’ve gone over our conversation a hundred times at least, trying to remember every detail in order to make sense of it, and it doesn’t add up. How does a person just cut another person off like that with no warning? Was he just having a pre-college freak-out? That’s got to be it. He had a similar freak-out the summer after junior year, before he headed to Maine. He broke up with me saying that he wanted space, but called me the next day practically in tears and invited me up for the Fourth of July. This is probably just a more exaggerated version of that.

And anyway, he didn’t actually say he wanted to break up. He said he wanted to “take a beat,” which is a totally different thing. I was the one who said the words break up. He’s obviously in denial. It’s not possible that I can just be erased. Right? I’m not calling him first, though; there’s no way. He’s the one who messed up. I have to let him figure that out on his own.

Be present, I think, fishing up a bit of wisdom from the mini meditation book. Be where you are. I grab the cleaning spray and paper towels from the weird metal cabinet and open up all the windows. I lean out of one and inhale the predawn air, looking for the bird with the continuous, high-pitched chirp. The streetlights illuminate the treetops, telephone wires, other apartment buildings, and the sidewalk below. A subtle breeze washes over me. There is the faint smell of jasmine, which I only recognize because of the tea my mom drinks by the gallon back home.

A few streets over there’s some kind of palace. The grand, gold-tipped turrets stand high above the dingy rooftops crawling with satellite dishes. What is that place? A temple? An embassy? A movie star’s home?

I hold the windowsill and feel the grime like soft sand on my fingertips. I pull my hand away—it’s gray. This place is so dirty. I’d better tackle the bathroom before I lose all my courage. It’s like Mom always said: do the hardest homework first while you have the energy. I take in one more lungful of morning air and get down to business.

The bathroom looks like it hasn’t been updated…ever. There’s black mold in the corners of the shower, mysterious yellowy-brown spots on the ceiling, and an all-over film of filth. I admit it: for a moment I think about going back to Boston, but there’s no chance in hell. I’m not going back east until I prove that everyone is wrong to feel sorry for me for not getting accepted into college. It was all so unfair. I was suspended for skipping school to go to a secret daytime concert at Cambridge Comics. A bunch of us did it, but I was the only one who got caught, and I wouldn’t name names. It turns out that one black mark on my school record was enough for college admissions people to put me in the reject pile. It makes me so mad to think about it. I’m not leaving this place without a victory.

I can do this, I tell myself as I spray the bathroom mirror and wipe it down. I already am doing this. I smile at my reflection. Even though Mom didn’t want me to go, even though she wants me to do something practical and résumé-building, or as she puts it “creative and practical,” I can’t help but think that on some level, if she could see me right now with this adventurous spirit flickering behind my tired eyes, she’d be proud.

“So can I ask your advice about something?” I ask Mom a few minutes later on FaceTime. I’m still in the bathroom cleaning, but I hold the phone close to my face so that she can’t get a good look at my surroundings until I’ve had some time to explain. She’s going to be pissed. I was thinking I would wait until the just-right moment to tell her, but the state of this bathroom is an emergency. I’ve doused the tub with several blasts of All-Natural Multipurpose Cleaner but can’t make any headway with the stains.

“Sure, honey. What is it?” Mom blinks back at me from our kitchen, where I watch her pour hot water into a mug. “Wait, what time is it there?”

“Four thirty, I think.”

She almost chokes on her tea. “What are you doing up?”

“I never went to sleep.”

“Why?” Mom asks. I drop the soaked paper towel in a grocery bag, which I’m using as the trash, and head into the main room. The faintest light is seeping into the sky. If I had a comfy sofa, I’d flop on it. Instead, I sit back down on my sleeping bag and lean against the wall. Noticing the background for the first time, Mom asks, “Where are you?”

“Before you freak out, I want you to know that I’m safe,” I say.

“Jesus. Where’s Vivian?” Mom asks, trying to see behind me.

“Probably at her place in Pasadena?” I say, and I brace myself.

I was supposed to stay with Vivian until I got a job to support my acting dreams in LA. Mom was hoping for some sort of 9-to-5 office-job-with-potential, even though I explained I needed something more flexible for auditions, like waitressing. But Pasadena felt almost worse than Boston, where my failure followed me like a stinky fart. Vivian’s condo complex was full of what she calls “young professionals,” but what I call “middle-aged squares.” There were literally no sidewalks within a two-mile radius, so I couldn’t go anywhere except the condo complex gym, and she made her point of view on my situation abundantly clear. (“Acting is a total waste of time. Hardly anyone makes it. You’re just going to wake up when you’re my age and realize that you’re five years behind everyone else! Quit now and focus on getting your shit together.”)

“You’ve lost me, Becca,” Mom says, her brow pinched with concern.

“I’m not exactly at Vivian’s anymore,” I say, gritting my teeth.

“What?” Mom yells. “Becca Harrington, where are you?”

“I couldn’t stay there. Vivian’s energy was really getting me down. She’s not a feminist, Mom. She told me I needed to get married on ‘the right side of twenty-five.’ Can you believe it?”

“I want answers,” Mom says in her sternest voice.

“I found a place in Hollywood. It’s a studio in a vintage building. It’s cute. See?” I pull the phone back to give her a narrow view of my place.

“No, no, no. This was not our deal. Our deal was that you were supposed to find a job before you left Vivian’s—if you left Vivian’s at all.”

“I’ll find some sort of way to pay my rent. Bartending or babysitting or something.”

“Babysitting?” The vein in Mom’s right temple pops out. “How is that going to look on your college applications? Don’t you know how important this year is?”

“I’m going to put my acting work on my applications,” I say, regretting this phone call with my entire being. “That’s the whole point of being here!”

“We agreed that you’d find something résumé-building to do out there while you auditioned. You can do two things at once, you know. We had a plan—”

“I never agreed to that part of the plan, remember? The only thing I officially agreed to was reapplying to college, and that I’d come home after a year if I didn’t get in anywhere. That’s what we shook on.” She sighs. “It’s just one year, Mom. If I’m going to do this, I have to really do it, you know? I can’t hide out in a condo in Pasadena.”

Mom closes her eyes and takes a deep breath.

“Where is this apartment?” she asks. She looks as tired as I feel. Mom had me when she was only twenty. I was the result of a one-night stand she had on Martha’s Vineyard. My dad, some guy who could speak French fluently and who had awesome cheekbones, was never in the picture. This was right after her sophomore year of college, so she’s much younger than my friends’ moms. Her dream was to be a marine biologist. She’d just declared her major when she learned I was on the way. She promises me that she doesn’t regret a single moment of my existence, but I know being a pharmaceutical sales rep was not what she had in mind for herself. I swear, sometimes she could pass for a teenager, especially when she does stuff like sit on the floor in bookstores. But right now, she looks older than her age, and I don’t like it.

“I’m near the Hollywood Hills. That’s where the movie stars live.” I say. “See?” I hold the phone so that she can see the Hollywood sign in the distance. I have to hang out the window a bit and twist my body to the left to get a view of the whole thing, but it’s worth it for the inspiration.

“That is kind of cool,” Mom says, her voice a little softer now. I turn the phone back to face me and see in her eyes that light I’ve been waiting for. “But is this neighborhood safe?”

“Would movie stars live somewhere unsafe?” I ask, glancing at the sidewalk below. A skinny guy talks to himself as he searches through garbage cans. I smile back at Mom, and she raises an eyebrow. She’s not exactly buying this pitch. “It’s really cute, Mom. There are cafés and a used bookstore and a supermarket all within walking distance. You’d love it.”

“You know you can always come home, right?”

“I know.”

We stare at each other for a second. She’s sensing something’s off. I can tell by the way she’s searching my eyes. I study the floor.

“What does Alex think of all this?” she asks.

Damn! She’s good.

“Actually, we’re…taking a beat,” I say, and hold my breath.

“A what? A beep?”

“A beat. Like a rest. As in…not permanent,” I say.

“That doesn’t sound good, Becca,” Mom says. “Are you okay?” I nod, still holding my breath. “I want to talk to you about this, but I’m already running late. Why didn’t you call me earlier?”

“Because I’m fine and he’s just having a panic attack. Please, trust me, okay?”

“I’m trying,” she says, lines gathering in the corners of her eyes as she squints. “I’m trying. Bye, sweetie. And remember you can always come home.”

“Wait, wait, Mom! What about the advice?”

“Oh yeah. What is it?”

“The bathroom is a little…nasty. I need to know how to get rid of mold and rust.” Her eyes widen in horror. “Mom, deep breath. It’s fine, really. It just needs some freshening up. Please.”

“What have you been using?” she asks.

I hold up the All-Natural Multipurpose Cleaner.

“You need bleach,” she says, shaking her head. “And Lime Out for the rust.” Then she tells me how to put a rag on the end of the broom to get the corners of the shower. “And please wear gloves.”

“Should I really use stuff that toxic?” I ask.

“You know what’s toxic? Mold. Call me tonight. I love you, Becca.”


  • "An engaging take on the pursuit of creative fulfillment."—Kirkus

On Sale
Jul 10, 2018
Page Count
368 pages

Leila Howland

About the Author

A graduate of Georgetown University, Leila Howland spent five years acting in New York in everything from an MTV public service announcement for safe sex to a John Guare play at Lincoln Center, and was a proud company member of the award-winning Flea Theater in Tribeca. Currently, she is a school librarian in Los Angeles, where she lives with her family.

Learn more about this author