Chapter 1 - Val
“Mr. King, do you feel confident in being independent?” the man asks me.
He’s wearing a grey suit. They all do. It’s like their signature color.
Everything around me is grey. The people. The office. The city. The house that’s supposed to be mine. The world.
“I do,” I tell him and wait for his questions.
We’ve done this so many times before that he feels like a friend rather than a government official, but he’s not. We’ve done this over and over, and while I didn’t feel ready in all my previous reviews, this time I am. I’ve spent hours on the internet, researching, practicing, meditating. Doing everything in my power to be myself again.
“Would you like to tell me why?” he asks.
I glance at Fred and a fleeting smile of encouragement appears on his lips. I take a deep breath and look back at the court investigator.
“I haven’t had an episode in the last year. I’ve adjusted almost perfectly to the new prescription, and I feel like myself again. I’ve been on my medication consistently, and my creativity is in full swing. It’s been a long time, but it feels like I’ve found myself.
“I’ve also been taking an online course in finances, and I’m learning how to manage my allowances better. I believe my uncle can confirm that I’ve been a responsible adult for a long time, and I haven’t put myself or others in any danger.
“In addition to that, may I also add that, despite my increased workload, I haven’t had any episodes.” I try not to sigh when I finish, but I’m definitely proud of myself.
I’ve spoken nothing but the truth. I’ve worked my ass off to gain my independence back, and I’ll be damned if I let myself down.
The investigator, Mr. Jones, turns to my uncle and asks him to confirm what I’ve just stated.
“Val has made tremendous progress, a big part thanks to the new psychiatrist who’s been looking after him. I’ve been praying for this day for a very long time, Mr. Jones, but I think we’re finally ready to end his conservatorship,” Fred says, and it makes me giddy hearing the words come out of his mouth.
He’s always been strict with me. Always careful. Better to err on the side of caution than ruin my life again is what he’s always told me, and for a very long time I agreed with him.
To hear the man I trust, the person who looked after me when everyone abandoned me, announce that I’m ready to be my own man brings tears to my eyes.
“That’s great to hear. I will, of course, need to see paperwork and evidence to back your claims, and I will be speaking to his doctor to make sure we’re on the right track. Now, may I please speak with you alone, Mr. Graves?” Mr. Jones says, and I stare at him. “Mr. King, if you wait outside, I will speak with you straight after.”
I nod and get up. As soon as I close the door, I press my ear against it and try to listen to their conversation when someone dry coughs behind me.
Slowly, I turn around and find Mr. Jones’s secretary looking at me over the top of her cat-eye framed glasses with pursed lips.
I choke a laugh and take a few steps back to sit on the couch outside the office. To stop myself from staring at the door, I take my phone out and scroll through the comments of my last video on my SoCo profile. SoCo stands for Social Community and is a social media platform with over two billion users.
It’s where all my fans hang out, and it’s where I keep them updated about my music and my life. Even if the latter tends to be a heated topic more often than not.
Most comments on my video are positive and praise the teaser of the song we’ve posted. My new pop ballad hits the digital shelves next week, followed by the release of a holiday album with some pretty hot collaborations.
Tickets to the launch concert, King’s Holiday Ball, were limited to a few dozen for my fans—the rest reserved for people in the industry and celebrities—and they sold out within seconds of going live, and none of my fans have even heard a word or tune of my new songs. But those people, my Courtlings as they’ve named themselves, would literally follow me on a freefall from a cliff. I know they’ll love whatever I put out there even when I don’t always like my content.
Sounds just like Party Life. That’s what happens when a 30yo man won’t get the memo that he’s no child popstar anymore. I used to be a fan but Val King needs to fire all his staff and hire new people because this is the kind of recycled garbage we hate. But oh wait. I forgot! He can’t fire anyone.
You’d think after nearly fifteen years of these kinds of comments I’d be used to it, but it still has me seething, making my fingers itchy to type a reply.
Instead of doing that, however, I just open up the thread of comments underneath user GeminiCricket85 and read people’s responses.
Most users tell him how wrong he is and that he should take his comment down, no need for the negativity, that he’s a troll, but it’s one comment in particular that I read and re-read and it brings this wave of… something inside me. Whatever it is, any pride or hope I have washes away with it leaving me feeling numb.
That’s not a joke, douchebag. Val King is a great guy who’s trapped under his uncle’s claws and can’t escape him. We shouldn’t be attacking Val, but that monster who keeps taking advantage of his nephew’s success and fortune, working him like a dog only so Gotfrid Graves can profit. #FreeKing
User IStandWithKing21 is wrong, of course, but his words don’t fail to remind me of where I am and what’s happening today.
My uncle is not a monster even though the news and fans often like to paint him as the bad guy. He’s the only person that took me in and put up with me and my mental health since I was fourteen.
But the fact that my freedom is on the line today brings back my nerves, so of course my knee starts jerking and my heart beats faster and I chew my lip even though my stylist would go nuts if she saw me.
It’s been a year and three months since my last episode. My doctor’s impressed with my progress and how well my meds are at keeping my mood swings regulated. There’s absolutely no reason why I should stay under conservatorship. But it’s all in Mr. Jones’s hands and the justice system.
The door opens and Fred walks out, shoulders stretch back, chest up like the secure and powerful man he is.
I shoot up and try to get something—anything—out of him, but Mr. Jones appears behind him and asks me to follow him inside. And so I do.
“So, Val, if everything is to be believed, you’re doing great, and your conservatorship could be coming to an end,” he says when he sits down.
“Really? Do you mean it?” I ask, sounding so much younger than I am that I roll my eyes at myself.
Mr. Jones holds his hands up and pulls the reins on my enthusiasm.
“There’s a process. I can neither confirm nor deny anything yet. I will need to conduct my investigation thoroughly before I can answer that question. I do, however, want to make sure that you’re ready for the eventuality of ending your conservatorship.”
Before he even finishes his sentence, I cut in with a resounding “yes.”
“That’s great that you think you’re ready, but I need to make sure that you’re taking this seriously. You’ve been under your uncle’s care since…”
“Since I killed my parents. Yes, I know,” I tell him.
I might sound cold and insensitive when I say it, but I’ve been called far worse things. And I’ve come to accept what I’ve done. I still hate myself, but as Dr. Rahid has told me numerous times, I can’t help my episodes and what I do when I have them no more than a man can control his bodily functions.
“Well… I’ll pretend you didn’t say that and instead I’ll go with the official report,” Mr. Jones says, and I grimace.
“I’m sorry. I meant when I had a psychotic breakdown and set fire to my house which resulted in my parents’ death,” I say, but Mr. Jones doesn’t look too pleased with me.
I’m screwing this up. Shut up, Val. Let the man speak.
“Do you understand what ending the conservatorship means, Val?”
“Yes, sir. It means I will be in charge of my own life and affairs. I’ll need to make sure I stay on my medication, report any episodes to my doctor, take charge of my financial affairs, and control my income and expenses.”
If it sounds practiced, it’s because it is. I’m more than ready to be independent. I’ve waited a long time for this. I’m not going to let Mr. Jones, or Fred, or anyone else down.
When the review finishes, I go back out and Fred calls the car.
“We’ll have to go through the back. Someone has called the media and those vultures are waiting outside,” he says, all business.
I follow him and my personal security guy through doors, stairs, and corridors until we’re in an enclosed parking garage where my driver is waiting in the black BMW that we took to come to the review.
“Hey, Jorge,” I tell my driver when I climb in, and he looks at me through the rearview mirror with a warm, affectionate smile.
Jorge might be pushing sixty but he’s the best damn driver there is, and I’m fiercely loyal to him, even when Fred was going through budget cuts and wanted to get rid of him for a younger, cheaper guy.
“Hola, señor. How did it go?” he asks.
I shrug but give him a smile, nonetheless.
“We’ll have to wait now.” I turn to Fred, and as Jorge drives off, I ask him what kind of questions Mr. Jones had for him.
“The usual stuff, Val. He wants to make sure you’re one hundred percent ready for this.”
“If you had to guess, what do you think his verdict will be?”
Fred sighs. He doesn’t like it when I ask a lot of questions. I can’t say I blame him; I can be quite annoying.
“I think he’s going to end your conservatorship,” he says.
I’m so happy to hear the words coming out of his mouth that I pull my long hair with a shriek, which gives cause for a raised eyebrow from Fred. He also hates it when I act like a child.
His phone rings and he turns to it, huffing.
“Almost forgot. It’s time for your medication,” he says and takes the pill bottles out of his pocket and passes me three. Two blue ones and one white.
I flick his thigh next to me and scold him. “You might have forgotten, but I didn’t. I was going to take them when we got home. I told you to let me be in control of taking them. If I’m going to be independent, I can’t rely on you to remind me.”
Fred just passes me the pills and a bottle of water, anyway, and only murmurs it’s his job to do so.
When we get back to my house, I have the lunch prepared by Magda—a delicious Greek moussaka—and then head to the studio to work on the next song on my list. A pop rendition of Jingle Bells.
It’s not my favorite, but my label and uncle insist it’s what my fans want, so I do what they tell me. I hope when I’m independent I can make the kind of songs I want to be singing.
One moment I’m sitting at the controls and the next I’m in bed and an hour has passed.
Uh-oh. That’s not good.
Why today of all days? I haven’t had any blackouts in fifteen months and I have to have an episode on the day of my review?
I have to report it to my doctor, and he will have to report it to Mr. Jones, and then I can wave goodbye to my freedom for at least another year.
I look around me and find no one. Not that it’s often I have visitors in my bedroom. I could tell no one. If nothing happened, what’s the point of telling anyone and messing it all up?
I walk out of the room to check if anyone’s around, but there’s no one in sight.
And then I feel it.
The heat coming from behind me. I turn to find where it’s originating, and just as I see the smoke coming out of my closet, the door bursts open and Nina runs out coughing and choking.
I run to her and help her stay up, but the smoke is followed by fire and I pull her as far away as possible.
It’s not long before the fire alarms start screeching across the house. Nina and I run outside and watch the top right corner of the house go up in flames.
“What-what happened?” I ask Nina as the fire engines sound in the distance. Jorge joins us from inside the house, followed by Fred.
“What the hell is going on?” he shouts and looks up at the raging fire.
“I-I don’t know. One minute I was going through Val’s clothes and the next there was smoke coming from everywhere,” Nina says.
Fred sighs, and even though I’m not looking at him, I can hear the disappointment in it.
“I-I must have blacked-out,” I say as if I only just realized and put my hands in my pockets.
There’s something metallic on the left pocket. I don’t need to take it out to know what it is. It’s a lighter.
I have no idea where it came from or where I found it, but one thing I know for sure.
No freedom for me.
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