What I want is an Orange Crush. It’s my one and only kryptonite, diet or no diet. One of these floors has to have a soda machine, and even a walk down the hall beats being holed up in a hotel room.
I’m pulling a hoodie over my head when the door lock clicks green and Mark strides in, coming off a call from some other agent or producer or whoever.
“Hey! Yo, ever heard of knocking?” I grumble, tugging my hoodie down in aggravation.
“Heard of it.” He takes a no-taste beer out of the mini-fridge and pops it open on the half-kitchen counter. “Enjoying the hotel room?”
“I was just about to go get a soda.”
“Call room service,” he replies, taking out the menu from behind the phone on the desk in the sitting area. Yeah, my hotel room has a sitting area. “What do you want? I’ll do it—”
“Never mind. I’ll just have a bottle of water.” I sulk over to grab one from the fridge. Electrolyte water tastes as bland as my soul feels. “What’d you want?”
“What, a father can’t spend some quality time with his son?”
I give him a look.
“Fine.” He takes another swig before setting his beer on the coffee table. He sits down in one of the plush velvet chairs. I take the one opposite of him.
We look alike, from our brown skin to our black hair. But I got my nose from my mom, and apparently my temperament from her father. At least that’s what Mark said. They split up a long time ago, in the B.S.C. (Before Seaside Cove) days. Mom went back to her socialite family in London, and I can’t say I blame her—if being Mark’s son is this bad, I can’t imagine what being married to him was like. These days she’s always doing charity work with her new husband in India or modeling for Italian magazines or something. She used to invite me to family reunions to meet the Dayal side of the family. I went once, but because I grew up with my dad, I didn’t know how to address my grandparents, I didn’t know table etiquette (you use your right hand, never pour your own drink, eat only after the eldest at the table has eaten). The Dayals were open and welcoming, but I felt like an idiot, like a jigsaw piece that didn’t fit into their big picture.
After that disastrous reunion I stopped going, and after a while Mom stopped inviting me, the son of a Hollywood social climber—I’m sorry, manager. Now it’s just me and Mark, united under the Freeman brand.
“So, here’s the deal,” he says. “We’re moving your vacation to the weekend after you wrap filming.”
“Surprise,” I deadpan, waiting for the rest. I want him to bring it up—ExcelsiCon. Because he sure as hell hasn’t yet. I failed miserably this morning when I called—well, texted—that stranger. I didn’t get the person at the con, and I practically blew my cover besides. It was, certifiably, one of the worst ideas I’ve ever had.
“We had some last-minute gig come up. A photo shoot for Entertainment Today, a car commercial—assuming those clowns at BMW USA sharpen their pencils a little—and that appearance at the…you know. The thing.” He waves his hand in a spiral.
“The con,” I say shortly.
He snaps. “That’s it. Look, I know Hello, America spoiled the surprise, but—”
“Spoiled the surprise? I’m not an idiot, Mark. I know you didn’t tell me so that they’d corner me and I’d basically have no choice but to agree on camera!”
He sighs. “Come on, kid. You love cons, don’t you? You always went with that buddy of yours. Billy or Bucky—”
“Yeah, him. And you haven’t been to one in a while. I thought, hey! Let’s give him something he’ll actually like doing!”
I massage the bridge of my nose. “Mark, you know I don’t—”
“Yes yes, you ‘don’t do cons.’ I get it—”
“Did you just air-quote me?”
“—but hey, you know what? It’ll perfect timing at the end of summer to remind everyone that you’re in Starfield. You’re coming right off filming! You’ll be in great shape! And it’s great press to get out there and meet the fans.”
“The fans,” I repeat. Like the Rebelgunner blogger, ready to slug me in the face for besmirching Carmindor’s good name.
“C’mon. It’ll be good for you to get out and do something normal.” He’s trying to reason with me—which, props for that, at least. “All you gotta do is show up—”
“And do a meet-and-greet—”
“—with one lucky contest winner, and make an appearance at their weird dance party afterward—”
I jerk to my feet. “How many times do I have to tell you? No.”
“Well, hate to break it to you, buddy, but you agreed to do it on live television. If you cut out now, it’ll look bad. Like you’re temperamental. A diva.” He lowers his voice. “Hard to work with.”
He gives me an appalled look. “What’s gotten into you, kiddo? You know how important these things are for your image.” He softens. “And you love conventions.”
“Loved. Past tense. I also loved making my own decisions, but I guess that doesn’t get me enough good press, huh?” Turning on my heels, I snatch the room’s keycard from the counter and shove it into my back pocket.
“Where the hell are you going?”
“To get a soda,” I grind out, yanking open the door.
“Remember your diet—”
I slam the door.
The hallway’s quiet, white and immaculate like a lot of these new-age hotels. The hallway actually reminds me of the Seaside set, stark white walls with halogen lighting. Empty. Except the set was fake and I could pull back the plywood that made up most of our “houses” and peek at the tech guys behind them. Here, I can’t get away from it.
There isn’t a vending machine on my floor, so I take the stairwell down to the tenth, and then the ninth. By the eighth floor, still no vending machine, but no people, either. At this point, the less people in my life, the better.
On the seventh-floor landing, though, I hear voices. I quickly press myself against the side of the wall as they get louder, drawing near the stairwell. I sink down on the bottom step of the landing, and there I sit, waiting for them to leave.
Maybe they’re just regular people. Maybe they won’t recognize me. Or maybe I’m crazily paranoid. Long story short, there are people like my dad who want to channel your fame and help you rise to the top. Then there are people like Brian, who take damning pictures of you when you invite them to visit the set and sell them to TMZ. That’s what hurt, more than the yacht fall. And no, despite what the “IS SEASIDE COVE’S DARIEN FREEMAN IN A FREEFALL?” article said, I wasn’t drunk, or high, or tripping on anything besides my own feet. It wasn’t some publicity stunt.
And yes, I have a scar to prove it.
I put my face in my hands, getting impatient. All I wanted was an Orange Crush. Just one. It’s been a day. I deserve one.
Getting to my feet, I pull my hoodie over my head and wrench open the stairwell door and—slam into one of the guys loitering in the hallway. There’s three of them, one girl. My age, maybe a year or two younger. Tourists, by their sandals and backpacks.
“Sorry,” I mutter, and duck my head as I pass.
Don’t recognize me, don’t recognize me, I pray. These days, when everyone’s got a jillion-megapixel camera in their pocket, you don’t even have to worry about official paparazzi. Why couldn’t I live during the days of flip phones?
Phones. My hand goes to my pocket—empty. I turn around. The tourists are still there.
“Hey, dude,” one of them calls.
I turn back around, go in the other direction, speed up.
“Wait a sec!” the girl adds, a slight tilt to her words. French, or Canadian. Of course the girl would be the one to recognize me. I hear her start running down the hallway toward me. “Hey—hey, dude, you dropped your phone.”
She holds it out and I take it, trying not to look her in the eye without seeming rude.
“Thanks,” I mutter.
She frowns. “You look really familiar—”
“I get that a lot,” I reply, and quickly spin on my heels again, making my exit down the hallway.
“Weird guy,” one of her friends murmurs.
“Whatever, it’s New York. Everyone’s weird.”
Yeah, understatement. They keep talking and I force myself not to listen as I follow the signs toward the snack machines. I push open the door and the iridescent lights of the soda machine shine eerily in the dark room. Bingo. I don’t bother to turn on the lights as I dig into my pockets for spare change and pop the coins into the machine.
“Take that, luck,” I mutter, pressing the button for orange soda.
OUT reads the machine display.
I jab it again.
“Nox’s crack, come on,” I plead, jabbing the button with the fervor of a man on death row.
Sighing, I opt for water instead, and the vending machine groans as it operates, rolling out a sparkling bottle of nothingness. Have you ever noticed how vending machines are never out of water?