I hit the remote control next to the bed and turned on the lights to play The Secret Land of Zenon. Normally the game helped me fall asleep after a show. But tonight I was too wired, so after a while on Level 63 I paused it and called Jane's room next door. Maybe talking to her would calm me down, or at least she could give me one of her zolpidems.
It rang six times before going to the hotel's voice mail. I tried her cell. "Jonathan?" Jane said through loud background music.
"I thought you were staying in tonight," I said. From the song's bass line, I could tell it was Madonna's "Like a Virgin," which has a dance groove that closely mimics "Billie Jean," even though it's directly influenced by that old Motown song "I Can't Help Myself." But pretty much everyone rips off bass lines.
"The label asked me to meet a radio producer for a drink," she said. "And turn off the game."
Zenon still plays background music when it's paused, synthesized strings and light percussion, and I guess she could hear it over the Madonna. It's savvy audience-loyalty retention strategy, because it reminds you the world of Zenon is still there, always waiting for you to come back.
"I can't sleep. When are you coming home?" "I'm not sure. Take a zolpidem."
"I finished all the ones you gave me. Can Walter or someone from concierge get the bottle from your room?"
"Absolutely not," she said. "I don't want anyone poking through my stuff. You'll have to fall asleep on your own."
I ran my hand over the puffy white comforter. Hotel beds are way too big, like the mattress and sheets are swallowing you up and you could disappear inside them if you aren't careful, and it can be harder to fall asleep in a luxury king than it used to be in a sleeping bag on the carpet at Michael Carns's house.
"Can you sing the lullaby, at least?" I asked. Sometimes it made me sleepier.
She waited a few seconds. Then she quietly sang the part of the lullaby that goes
Hush-a-bye, don't you cry Go to sleepy, little baby Go to sleepy, little baby
When you wake, you shall have
All the pretty little horses
All the pretty little horses
She doesn't have a great voice, but she sang it slow and low. "I'm sorry for snapping before, but try to go to sleep," she said. "We have an early start and a big day tomorrow."
"Good night, Jane."
"Good night, baby," she said, and hung up.
I put down the phone and stared at it. It was easy for her to say I should try to fall asleep when she wasn't the one who'd just performed for two hours in front of a capacity crowd of 17,157 fans and had to take a meeting with the label tomorrow back in L.A., who was probably going to voice their concerns that the new album hadn't meaningfully charted yet, which meant it never would, since sales momentum rarely reverses at this stage in the game unless there's a major publicity coup.
And now that I'd convinced myself zolpidem was the only way, I didn't have a chance without it.
Walter needed his shut-eye to be alert enough to protect me, and I wasn't supposed to call Nadine for non-tutoring issues unless it was an emergency and she didn't like it when I took zolpidem, plus neither of them could get access to Jane's room anyway and they might tell her I'd asked them.
I had one other option, but I'd never tried anything like this on tour before. If it didn't work, I'd be in big trouble, but thinking about my schedule the next few days, a bad night's sleep might be worse. My body shook a little as I picked the phone up again and called the front desk. "Hi," I said. "I'm in 2811. Can I get into 2810, belonging to Jane
Valentine, under the name Jane Valentino?"
The woman who answered sounded black, but it's hard to locate accents in a city like Vegas, where everyone's from someplace else. She went, "I'm sorry, but we can't allow anyone access to guest rooms."
I told her I was Jane's son, Jonny, and it was okay. "Hold up," she said. "You're Jonny Valentine ?"
I said yeah, and she laughed. "Uh-huh, right," she said. Her voice changed the way it does when people think I'm fooling them. "Even if you were Jonny Valentine, I don't know if I could do it."
I was probably checked in under James or Jason Valentino, so I told her that, and said, "If I could prove who I am, will you let me in?" and she said she'd believe it when she saw it, so I asked where she was working and what her name was.
Then my body really started shaking, except part of it was from setting the thermostat to sixty-four since colder temperatures make you burn more chub. I changed out of my pajamas and put on my sunglasses and Dodgers hat and stood on top of a chair to scope out the peephole for any child predators. If I ran into someone without Walter providing crowd buffer to prevent interference or trampling or abduction, I needed something to cover my face, so I grabbed the teen-demo glossy with my one-page write-up in it that the label had messengered over in the morning. It wasn't the smartest disguise, because there was a small photo of me in the top horizontal strip, which meant my plan was to cover my real face with a picture of my face. But, as usual, Tyler Beats owned the central real estate and commanded consumer attention, with a candid of him holding hands with a brunette actress and the headline Tyler's New Squeeze!
I poked my head out to make sure the hall was clear. It might've been fun to do this with someone else, but on my own, it was way scarier than preshow butterflies at the MGM Grand Garden Arena.
I didn't have Walter with me getting clearance to use the freight elevator, so I inhaled down to my diaphragm and ran to the regular bank. If we'd had penthouse suites, I could've just taken a private elevator to the private concierge lounge, but the label didn't spring for them in every city this tour. They didn't want to do it at all at first, but Jane fought them to a compromise.
One was coming down, and the closer it got to the twenty-eighth floor, the more nervous it made me that I was going somewhere by myself. I didn't know what would be worse, encountering a child predator or Jane finding out I'd left my room alone.
So I imagined I was playing Level 63. Instead of being in Vegas, I was in The Secret Land of Zenon, and I wasn't trying to get the key-card to Jane's room, I was looking for the key to a locked castle door. The easiest part was pretending about experience points, since you get them in Zenon for exploring and experimenting with different actions you don't do in other games. Like if you reach a real locked castle door and don't have the key, you might get points for picking the lock, or breaking it down with your sword, or setting it on fire with a torch, or casting a spell to destroy all nearby wood. You don't know what gives you the most points until you do it, and when you get enough, a gem appears, which means you can fight the Emperor's minion on that level and advance to the next one. Most of the time, I don't even care much about getting to the next level. I just like doing whatever I want, seeing what gives me experience points, and wandering around wherever I want in Zenon, over the tall mountains and through the deep forests and into the dark dungeons.
The elevator opened with a gray-haired guy in a relaxed-fit suit and tie. He looked up from his phone at me for a couple seconds when the door slid open, but I think he was wondering what a random kid in sunglasses was doing by himself in a Vegas hotel elevator at ten o'clock on a Thursday night. That's the nice thing about flying business class, the business guys are too far out of my demo to visually ID me, unless they have daughters who are rabid fans. He seemed safe, but I sized him up like Walter would, since sometimes the guys who look the most normal are the biggest pervs of all.
I got in and held up the glossy over my face. Jane was pissed they'd pushed back the pub date to over two weeks into the tour, after we'd already finished the South and Southwest legs. At least we still had the heartland ahead of us, where I need to bulk up my presence so I don't project only a bicoastal identity, which is funny considering I'm from St. Louis, but St. Louis isn't high-tier enough for me to strongly connect with it. Geographic background is a tightrope you have to walk carefully.
I folded it over to my profile to read it. I'd been putting it off all day, because in the interior photo I wasn't wearing a track sweater and was slouched over and it looked like I had way more stomach chub than I actually did, and they didn't help me out with Photoshop.
Will He Be Your Valentine?
by Wendy Detay
Send an RSVP to your local arena: Jonny Valentine is cruising into your city! We caught up with the eleven-year-old heartthrob before he launched his cross-country Valentine Days tour on New Year's Eve, with shows in thirty cities over forty-six days, as he dished about what song made him want to be a pop star (Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean"), what his life goal is ("To share the music and the love"), and, of course . . . girls!
"I love spoiling girls with one-on-one face time," JV says, brushing his world-famous blond hair out of his eyes as his mother and manager, Jane, watches over him in their Los Angeles home. "Like, if a girl wants to see a movie, I'll surprise her and rent out the whole theater just for us, like the rest of the world doesn't exist, with all the popcorn and soda we want. It's awesome."
But the Angel of Pop swears there's no one in his life right now—he's focused on his supersonic career. And what he's most psyched about is his final show on the tour, on Valentine's Day at New York City's Madison Square Garden. "It's every performer's dream to play the Garden, but I've only been to New York before on business trips," says the "Guys vs. Girls" singer in his crush-worthy voice. "And we're bundling it with an Internet live-stream for $19.95."
I was glad the writer hadn't asked why I'd never played the Garden before, because we always had gate-receipt conflicts with the bookers that Jane finally ironed out, but I was even gladder she'd put in the plug for the live-stream, which we were hoping would make it my exposure breakthrough in the untapped Asian market. The whole thing, the Garden debut plus the live-stream, could make this a brand-perception game changer, if we pulled it off.
The elevator stopped and a good-looking couple in their twenties got on in clubbing clothes, smelling like alcohol. They might be able to ID me. And if they did, and blabbed or Tweeted about it, it might end up in a tabloid or on the Internet, and it would eventually get back to Jane, and she'd enforce check-ins every half hour and not give me my own key-card, like on the first national tour. I held the glossy closer to my face like it was the most interesting article in the world, but I couldn't focus on it to read the rest.
In real life you might encounter a child predator who could molest or kidnap or kill you, or a tourist who could take a candid of you with his phone and post it and create a mini-scandal, but in Zenon you encounter enemies who can reduce your damage percentage. The lower it gets, the slower and weaker you are, and if your damage percentage or anyone else's hits zero percent, your ghost silently floats up into the air and the narrator's voice and the screen both say, "Everyone must depart the realm sometime." It's for the thirteen-and-up demo, but Jane let me get it anyway. The online version against real people is supposed to be different, but I haven't played it because who knows what kind of crazies I'd meet out there.
The business guy's finger pecked at his phone like a bird's beak until we hit the lobby. The younger guy told his girlfriend how everything that happened tonight was definitely going to stay in Vegas. People repeat everything they see in commercials. Yeah, what they did here, they'd keep private. Gossip about riding in an elevator with a celeb didn't count. My stomach kept tightening up every few seconds, especially when the guy got off-balance and put his hand on the wall near me for support, but they were so into themselves and drunk that they didn't notice me.
We got out, and with the blinking lights and sounds of the casino on the ground floor like an overproduced video and song, I blended in more easily and could've passed for being on vacation with my parents. I found the lobby desks and saw a black woman with gold glasses and the name tag Angela behind one. She was fit for her age, which I'd guess was thirty-seven or thirty-eight. I'm getting almost as good at the age game as Jane.
A few people were in line, so I waited to one side with my back turned and pretended to be reading the glossy. What would really kill my chances was if a tween girl spotted me. But I was the only kid around. When no one else was near, I walked over to Angela and lifted up my sunglasses for a second. "Is this enough proof ?"
She put her hand over her mouth and was like, "Oh, my God, you weren't joking! Wait till I tell my girls about this, they play 'Guys and Girls' twenty-four-seven!"
Normally I'm only a little annoyed when adults act this crazy around me and forget I'm in the room with them, except Angela made me extra pissed since she could've sparked crowd interest and she called it "Guys and Girls," not "Guys vs. Girls." There'd been like a five-hour discussion with the label when we produced it about vs. or and.
But I acted like a consummate professional. "If it wasn't for my fans I wouldn't be here. Everything I do belongs to them," I said. Angela was still in shock and I don't think she really heard me, so I waited a few seconds, also to make it not sound like this was all I cared about. "So, do you think you can get me the key-card to my mother's room?"
"I don't know." She wasn't so starstruck that she wasn't worried she could get caught, the same way I was. "You're not authorized in the system."
"What if I give your kids an autograph and let you take a picture?" She looked around to make sure no one was watching. No one was, and she pushed a hotel stationery pad and pen over the desk. "Write it to Ashley and Lucy," she said. Offering the autograph was like gaining thirty experience points in Zenon.
I grabbed the pad and wrote a "Songs, Smiles, and ♥ JV" autograph, which I basically do without thinking now like when Dr. Henson hits my knee with that little hammer. Angela took a photo of me with her phone and gave me a key-card and whispered, "Don't tell anyone about this, okay?" which relaxed my diaphragm because it meant she wasn't going to tell anyone, either, plus the photo could've been taken at any time so I didn't have to worry about it getting back to Jane. I waited until the elevator area was clear before going upstairs.
I got back to Jane's door without running into anyone else. The locked castle door. I knocked in case she'd gotten back, but no one answered. When I opened it, the lights were on and a bunch of dresses and thongs and shoes were scattered around one of Jane's open suitcases like a mage from Zenon had cast an explosion spell inside it. She throws a fit if there's any mess or dirt at home, but she's a slob in hotels.
One of her toiletry kits was between the two bathroom sinks, and the zolpidem bottle was inside. That was Level 63's gem, the zolpidem. I shook out one of the tiny rectangles. It's harder to wake up when you've had two.
I turned off the lights to save energy, but when I did there was still something blue glowing from the back of the room. Jane's computer was open on the desk, and it was on my Twitter account's sign-out screen. It's super-important to have a strong social media presence, and Jane's always going, When interviewers ask you about your Twitter, say you love reaching out directly to your fans, and I'm like, I don't even know how to use Twitter or what the password is because you disabled my laptop's wireless and only let me go on the Internet to do homework research or email Nadine assignments, and she says, I'm doing you a big favor, it's for nobodies who want to pretend like they're famous and for self-promoting hacks without PR machines, and adults act like teenagers passing notes and everyone's IQ drops thirty points on it. Jane hasn't set up her own Twitter since she doesn't have as much brand awareness.
I went over to the computer and Googled my name in a new window. It was the same stuff I always saw, tons of pictures and videos and fan sites and articles and blog posts and the "Jonny Valentine Legal Countdown Page" this gay guy set up that has a timer ticking down to my eighteenth birthday that Jane tried to take down but he has a legal right to keep up because he's not explicitly being a child predator. It was at 2,248 days, one hour, thirty-three minutes, and sixteen seconds. I watched it tick down a few more seconds.
There was too much to go through, and some of it I couldn't access anyway since Jane had a parental block on and it thought a lot of regular sites were porn sites, sort of like how normal-looking guys might be child predators.
I was about to close the browser and get out before she caught me, but I noticed a piece of paper sticking out of an envelope at the corner of the desk. It was one page, and there were a lot more underneath it in the envelope. The stationery address listed a law office in L.A. called Bergman Ellis Jacobson & Walsh and the top said
VIA OVERNIGHT MAIL AND EMAIL
re: Albert Derrick Valentino
Jane always told me my father didn't have a middle name, so I almost didn't recognize his name at first. I tried reading it:
Per our telephone conversation on 1/12, until we are able to determine the identity of the individual(s) referred to in the letter dated 1/7, we cannot seek any judicial remedy. However, we recommend the following precautionary measures.
The rest of the page was all legal language, and I'm usually okay at understanding financial terms because Jane reviews my contracts with me, but I couldn't figure any of this out, and I was afraid to take out the other papers from the envelope in case I screwed up the order. I slipped the page back in where it had been and spun in the chair once around the room to make sure I was still alone and for fun.
Then, even though it was a high-risk decision, since if Jane caught me she wouldn't just enforce check-ins, she'd take away my game system, too, I double-checked that Jane's computer was preset for private browsing like it always is, and Googled "Albert Valentino."
All the usual info about him being my father and how nobody knows anything about him came up, like that he left our house when I was five or six, and even I don't know which it is or when they got divorced because Jane doesn't hardly ever talk about him. The times I've asked, she says something like, Jonathan, remember that your father left and the one person in this whole world who will always stick with you is me, everyone else will try to take from you, but people who love you will give to you.
Once in a million years, though, she'll slip and say something nice about him, like when we saw this war movie on TV two Christmases ago with a telegenic young Irish actor, the first time he came on-screen Jane whispered to herself, "God, Al," and at the end of the movie, when the Irish actor jumps in front of his general before a grenade goes off and he departs the realm, Jane cried a Jacuzzi, and it had to be because the actor looked like my father, since it was a mostly crap movie and he was the caliber of actor who you could tell was repeating someone else's words. I only have a couple memories of him and don't totally remember what he looked like, just brownish hair and that he smelled like cigarettes. If we ever had any pictures, Jane threw them out.
Then I Googled something I'd never Googled before: "Albert Derrick Valentino."
There weren't many hits, and they were all about people or things that weren't my father, but I went to the second page anyway, and when I did, something stopped me. His name showed up in a Jonny Valentine fan forum.
A bunch of comments from a message on December 24 were from haters, saying I was gay or sounded like a girl or they hope I'll get electrocuted onstage when I cry into my mike. When Jane sees this stuff she's like, It's not the Internet that makes people stupid and annoying, they were always stupid and annoying, now it's in our face. But at the bottom of the message, a commenter named "Albert Derrick Valentino" wrote, "If Jonny is reading this, he can contact me."
His email address was listed, but that was it. There were a lot of impostors pretending to be either me or Jane or sometimes my brother or sister who don't even exist and once in a while my father, but I never saw anyone use a middle name, and especially with our old last name, which only the rabid fans know about, not the lay fans, and not say he was my father. The media never pays them any attention because they know they're fakes, but I always guessed my real father never went to the media. Or maybe he did, but Jane shut it down by threatening a publicity freeze-out to whoever was going to break the story.
I Googled "Albert Derrick Valentino Jonny Valentine." A bunch of different fan sites came up, and he'd posted the same message in each of their forums, all on December 24, at different times over the whole day. So it probably wasn't a spam-bot. It was a real person. I just didn't know if it was actually my father.
My hand was shaking over the touch pad like it does sometimes holding the mike preshow, and I got worried Jane would come back and find me reading it. I scribbled the email address on a piece of hotel stationery in case the post got erased and made sure the letter was exactly where it had been and left her room with the lights on like it was before even though it's wasteful.
Back in my room next door I buried the stationery in the pocket of a pair of jeans in a suitcase. Was that message really from my father or an impostor? If it was an impostor, how did he know my father's middle name? And if it was my father, why didn't he say anything else besides telling me I could contact him, which was a weird way to say it?
I was thinking about it so much I got even more awake. I could have taken the zolpidem, but I was also excited to get back to Zenon now that I'd pretended to be playing it in real life.
So I loaded my saved game, and after a few minutes of traveling through a forest I encountered a horse. First I tried riding the horse, which didn't do anything. I reloaded and damaged the horse, and it jumped up on its back legs and kicked at me, but my two-handed sword was too powerful and I got it all bloody and its horse ghost floated up in the air, except that didn't give me any experience points, either. The second time I reloaded, I fed it a loaf of bread in my inventory. My experience points went up by seventeen, and a gem appeared on the ground.
I picked up the gem, and a few seconds later the Emperor's minion jumped out from behind a tree. He was a regular-looking soldier in chain-mail armor, with a curved sword and shield. We battled, and he reduced my damage to seven percent and I thought I was going to depart the realm, but I came back and knocked his shield away and hacked him down to zero percent, and the narrator's voice and screen said, "You have defeated the minion of Level Sixty-three and advanced to the next level of The Secret Land of Zenon. You must pass through thirty-seven additional levels until you encounter the Emperor."
That's the other cool thing, how you don't have a name in it. Other games, they'd give you a stupid name, like Kurgan or Dragonslayer or even just the Warrior. In Zenon you're only you.
Finishing a level always helped me feel less wound up. I turned off the game and popped the zolpidem. I'd be able to conquer sleep now, and sleep was the Emperor's minion. We had an early start and a big day tomorrow.
From The Love Song of Jonny Valentine by Teddy Wayne. Copyright 2013 by Teddy Wayne. Excerpted by permission of Simon and Schuster.