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Authors: Phil Stamper

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BOOK: The Gravity of Us
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“Hey. Kiara, right?” I say.

“Good memory.” Her cool demeanor clearly hasn’t changed.
“How was your night, kid? Sounds like you and the Tucker kids were able to, uh, have some fun. Might want something to cover that champagne breath—here, hold on a sec.”

She pulls me to the door of the van, hands me a piece of gum. After it’s in my mouth, she says, “Close your eyes,” and spritzes my face and neck with a soft vanilla-scented spray.

“This will last you until you get home.” She smirks at my disbelief. “Not my first rodeo, kid.”

“Thanks. How … did you know?”

“You’re not the only reporter here, Cal.” She gestures to herself. “And I heard you all chatting around back during my second smoke break out here, just before someone chucked a large glass bottle into the recycling. I made some educated guesses.”

I laugh—if I wasn’t a little buzzed, I might be more worried. But if she wanted to expose us, she wouldn’t have told me. So I have to trust that there might be a modicum of dignity with
Shooting Stars
.

“Mind if I ask you something about StarWatch?” I say.

“Go for it.”

“Do you … hate your job? I noticed you at the party, and your expressions only ranged from unenthused to enraged.”

She shakes her head. “It’s complicated. I think some of this is cool, but it’s hard. We coasted for a few episodes on these parties just being fun and opulent and … champagne-fueled. But Josh has been breathing down my back lately to find a new story or get some drama. And let me tell you, these people are on their best behavior when a camera is on them.
We got some really good gossip early into the party, but Josh wants to save it for later.”

“Isn’t going to Mars dramatic enough?” I ask. “Maybe I’m naive, but there are so many people working on this project—especially outside of the twenty astronauts—that you could focus on.”

She shakes her head. “I just do what they tell me. That’s why I’m an
assistant
producer.”

The Tuckers’ front door swings open. Behind my dad stand Leon and his mom. Leon gives me a wave, and I return it weakly. My cheeks flush with heat. I break away from the van to go see my dad.

I turn back to Kiara. “Thanks for the … you know. Hope you find your story.”

“I think I have.” She smirks, and she slowly pans from me to Leon and back. “But we’ll see how it plays out.”

“Want to drive back?” Dad asks, confirming that he one-hundred-percent does not smell the champagne on my breath or see the blurriness that covers my eyes—I whisper a silent thanks to Kiara.

I shrug, then look up into the sky. The streetlights are dim, so it feels like you can see all the stars out here. Thousands upon thousands more than Brooklyn, that’s for sure. Dad follows my gaze upward, to the sky, and releases a heavy sigh.

“Let’s walk back,” I say. “We can pick up the car later this weekend. Maybe you can remind me what all these constellations are, since I haven’t seen them in a while.”

He puts an arm around my shoulder, and I smell his
champagne breath. I know he’s not that drunk—to be honest, I’ve never seen Dad super drunk. But he’s feeling good, and so am I. Which reminds me to breathe downward, since I don’t think he’d be too keen on me secretly drinking during my first week in Clear Lake, and a stick of gum can only do so much.

“Well, let’s start easy. See those stars that look like a pan?”

“I know the Big Dipper, Dad,” I say, laughing.

“What about that one? The five stars that look like a W?”

“Casio … something, right?”

He makes an affirmative grunt. “That’s Cassiopeia, and there are a lot more stars than five in it. Can’t really see most of them now, though. And if you look at that pentagon-looking one near it, that’s her husband, Cepheus.”

“Does Orpheus have a constellation?” I ask.

“Sort of.” He looks down at me and smiles. “The constellation Lyra is around here. It’s tiny, though, so I won’t be able to spot it. It represents the story of Orpheus and Eurydice.”

“And that is …?”

“The brief version? Eurydice dies; Orpheus takes his magical lyre and travels to Hades to save her. He plays his lyre for Hades, who promises to return Eurydice under one condition: she would follow, but if he turned to look at her, she’d be gone forever.”

“How’d that turn out?” I ask.

“Not well.” He shakes his head. “But it gave us a good name for the project. Orpheus, son of Apollo. A story about trust, and moving forward. It’s clever, I think.”

We continue walking as Dad points out all the constellations he knows. He even acknowledges his star-mapping skills are rusty. But it’s nice to have this moment.

“The astronauts are all really welcoming,” he says. “The NASA administrators were too. They kept asking questions about you, since they saw your update. Josh Farrow, though,
whoo boy
, he was so salty
.

“Look, I’m really sorry about that. I didn’t think—”

“Don’t be.
NASA
loved it. They want this stuff to go viral any way it can, especially to kids your age. They want you to keep doing it, since it’s better than us olds forcing it on them.”

My cheeks flush, and not because of the champagne this time. “Really? I don’t even know if I want to cover all this. That’s your thing; it seems … weird. Also, don’t say ‘olds’ ever, please.”

I’m expecting a weight to be lifted off my chest—I didn’t get us all in trouble—but it’s like the weight got swapped with an even larger one. NASA wants me to cover the missions, even though StarWatch is furious about it?

Anxious energy rattles around in my chest. On one hand, I don’t give a shit about that trashy network or any of its shows, so making them angry kind of sounds fun. But on the other hand, having my content controlled by NASA?

“Donna said you could tour the facilities anytime you want. See the shuttles. Maybe I can take you to work with me one day. Oh, here.”

I feel the pressure start to compound when he hands me her business card. When I moved here, I thought I’d only have to manage a new school, keep my head down for a year, and find a way to get back to New York to live with Deb. Within one week, I’ve got a new crush to deal with (and whatever baggage he’s hiding), a pissed-off best friend (and whatever baggage she’s hiding), and now the pressure from NASA along with the wrath of StarWatch (and whatever baggage they’re collectively hiding).

I don’t want my content controlled by anyone, but a part of me wants to help them. To really shove it in StarWatch’s face. This
is
the most newsworthy thing going on in America right now, and I have a front-row seat. Now that my BuzzFeed internship imploded, and I have no plan, I feel the need to do
something
that gives me back the control I had over my life.

Having this card in my hand feels like an opportunity. One I won’t be wasting.

 

CHAPTER 10

I wake to the sounds of chirping birds, and even without lifting the covers from my face, I take in the Texas sun with my other senses. The summer heat crawls through the room, pushing back the air-conditioning, and I feel its warmth spread over my bed. The window’s shut, but I can still smell the cut grass and the damp humidity.

After an uneventful weekend of unpacking, delivered meals, and me overanalyzing every text from Leon, it’s Monday morning. It’s Dad’s first day of work. And I can tell by his frenzied back-and-forth pacing, he’s stressed.

“Oh good, you’re up,” he says as I step outside my room. “Could you get the car this morning? We shouldn’t have left it over at the Tuckers’ all weekend. Mom’s on a work call, I have to fill out the new hire paperwork this morning and be in by noon, and I’m having a slow start. I can’t be late on my first day.”

I agree, and he leaves, so I jump in the shower and get ready for the day. Unease swims in my blood, in a way that I can’t shake off. And I wonder if I’m starting to act like Mom in new situations.

There’s something calming about my morning routine. Wake, water, social. A shower so hot it kind of burns my skin even though, yes, that’s not good for my skin, I get it, this is my cross to bear. Next comes the face scrub, oil-free moisturizer—with SPF, because my pale skin can’t even compete with the sun on cloudy days—then just enough hair paste to keep it all in place.

I’m not obsessed with my looks, which are fine—stubby nose, fanged teeth I wish I could trim down—but I like the process. Taking my time to get ready makes me feel better about myself. Yes, I notice more pimples this way, but I also feel my skin moisturizing, and I get to flip my bangs up in the front. It’s my signature.

And this is what tethers me to Brooklyn, to home. It’s the same process. The same steps. Sure, I’m doing this in a bigger house, thousands of miles away, but for now, I feel okay. Only okay, but that’s okay.

Okay.

I still don’t pull out my John Mayer hat. It’s a kind of porkpie hat with a brim so wide you could wear it to a Southern Baptist church. My style is flamboyant enough as it is, but one day, Texas will be ready.

I wear a tight white tank top with thin blue horizontal stripes, and jean shorts rolled up a couple of inches higher
than they were meant to be. I opt for my strapped sandals. No, not clunky Tevas, but ones with thin leather straps that crawl their way up my leg.

After I actually settle on an outfit, I’m out the door and down the street, taking in the warming heat before it gets too unbearable. As I approach the house, I feel a little flutter in my stomach, and I remember leaning in to kiss Leon, how much I wanted to be there for him, but I didn’t know how. I also knew it was something beyond me, and I wondered if he was seeing a therapist or taking medication or therapy or Reiki or whatever it is that could help him.

When I get to the car, I wave to Kat, who’s sitting on the porch. She puts down the book she’s reading and runs over to where I’m standing.

“Hey!” she says. I take in her spirit and try to make it my own. I’m not sure how she can pull off being so perky when it’s this early. “I wanted to, well, thank you for getting to know Leon.”

The sentence strikes me off guard. “I like him a lot. But why do you think you have to thank me?”

“I know he’s my older brother, so it’s weird for me to be saying this. But he doesn’t … make friends that easily. He was so into gymnastics for years, and he had friends on the team, but he just kind of lost interest before the move. Dad’s been trying to force him to keep training, to try to get back on course. But it’s like he hasn’t liked anything or anyone in a long time. Maybe he just needs to get back to the gym or something.”

“I’m not sure what I can do to help.” I gesture to my scrawny physique and outfit and say plainly, “I am not athletic.”

My mind drifts to NASA’s invitation to tour the facility and do a post from there. It’s Monday, and I usually do a start-of-the-week video. Since my initial rebellion, I’ve been itching to create new content.

“Do you want to say hi to Leon? I think he might be up.”

“I do, but I have to get back home so Dad can get to work,” I say as I take out the business card from my wallet. “It’s okay—we’ll talk later.”

I dial the number on the card and wait for the NASA social media woman to pick up the phone. I let each ring sound out, even though it’s well into the normal workday at eleven in the morning, and she is most likely busy and wouldn’t want to talk to a guy like—

“Donna Szleifer, NASA social.”

“Donna, hi. It’s Cal Junior. The FlashFame guy.”

I hear a little gasp on her end. “Oh, hi, Cal. I’m so glad you called. I thought you’d be debating my proposition from Friday’s party, and I didn’t even get to talk to you about everything we have planned and what you could help with.”

“That’s what I’m calling about, actually. I wondered if, maybe I could come up sometime this week and shoot a video?”

“Not to rush you, but could you do it today? The astronauts are busy all day and we have some social posts scheduled and whatnot, but we could really use the boost of your followers right now. I know StarWatch is doing what they can, but bless
them, they can’t get any traction on that FlashFame app, and everyone seems really thirsty for info after your last vid.”

“Oh. Well, I was going to do a weekly post today anyway, and I guess it would be cool to do it from the space center.”

There’s a pause on her end. “Perfect. Just perfect. You get your butt down here, and if I have to go put out first-day-of-school fires over here, you can just wander around. I’ll get you a visitor’s pass ready.”

I look to the front of the house and see that Kat’s long gone, but in her place is a sleepy guy who’s so cute I could literally melt right here, leaving nothing but my hipster tank and unraveled sandals on the hot pavement.

“Can I bring Leon Tucker?” I ask quickly. “I need someone to film me.”

“Two passes, then! Come along with your dad, and I’ll get you guys.”

I can’t help but admire Leon, all lanky and tall, with a lazy smile and his wrinkled T-shirt and gym shorts like he just got out of bed. I walk up to him, smile briefly, and take in the discrepancy of our outfits. A smirk forms on my face, just before he leans in and gives me a hug. I feel his arms wrap around me, and I’m so caught off guard by it that I almost gasp.

Yes, this is how some people say hello, but that’s not exactly what we do in Brooklyn, so I’m a bit alarmed by it. And comforted by it. And kind of never want it to stop.

But, unfortunately, it stops.

“Hey, Cal.”

There’s a slight drawl in how he says my name, and I almost die at the sweetness. This crush is strong. This crush is too powerful. This crush will be the end of me.

Or maybe I’m just being dramatic.

“I’m going to the space center to record a Flash vid. They said I could bring you. Want to come?”

“They?”

“Yeah, the social media woman I met at the party.”

There’s a weird silence in how he sizes me up just now. His eyes narrow, and he shakes his head almost imperceptibly, but in a flash, he drops all the tightness in his body. He relaxes, and offers a genuine smile, and nods.

“Yeah, I’ll go. Let me get changed.”

“Okay, be quick. I have to pick up Dad so I can take him to work.”

He’s very quick. Like, he literally just changed his shirt and threw on some shorts and called it a day. He didn’t shower. Which, I guess, is fine. He doesn’t smell bad or anything. And his shirt is actually cute—it’s a plain T-shirt, but it’s a pale, soft blue. The kind you see on the crayons that get used up first in a huge box. The color pops in contrast to his dark brown skin.

I get the urge to kiss him again. He’s not low right now, and nowhere in my perverse mind do I think he needs this kiss to fix him. I want him, and I want to do it for me. And for humanity, even. I want the world to be that much better because of our lips touching and his hand in my hair and …

My heart is racing. Thudding against my rib cage and shaking my body. I’ve never been able to go back and forth between
being so perfectly content and so perfectly lustful of someone so quick. It’s like a switch. And I want it to keep flipping on and off. On and off.

I stop outside the house and call Dad, who comes out dressed in a sharp suit and tie. He’s carrying this boxy briefcase I’ve never seen before. It’s all somewhat adorable, and this must be what parents feel like taking their anxious and/or excited children to their first day of school.

Swap the briefcase for a carry-on bag, and it’s not too far off from his Delta days. But he definitely carries himself straighter now. His smile comes easily, and his giddiness takes over the car the moment he steps in.

“Thanks, Cal. And good morning, Mr. Tucker.”

Leon gives an uncomfortable laugh at the formal title. I make eye contact with Dad in the rearview as he buckles up in the back seat.

I look up directions on my phone, and see that Deb’s sent me a ton of listings for studios all over Brooklyn, from Lefferts Gardens to Bay Ridge and everywhere in between, so she can’t be that angry with me for how self-centered I was acting when we last spoke.

Brooklyn is where I’ll live; Manhattan is where I’ll work and go to school. Texas simply doesn’t fit into the equation. But I can’t hide the fact that, even though I so recently fell into this opulent and bizarre world, the thought of leaving makes my chest ache with regret.

We pull up to the gate, and I pass Dad’s ID to the guard. He lets us in, and I wonder if Dad feels embarrassed now, having his kid drive him to his first day of work, in one of the most respected professions in the world.

But if he feels that way, he doesn’t say it … and he is the type of person who would say it.

Dad leads us in through the main gate and shows us around the various labs and the gift shop and points us to the section where they have a pop-up Mercury and Apollo museum with pieces of the old spacecraft that he got to touch on his last interview.

“Cal!”

Both Dad and I turn—sharing my name with Dad is the bane of my existence—to see Donna running toward us, iPhone flailing precariously in her loose-wristed grip. She smiles at the three of us and clarifies:

“Cal Junior, that is.”

Dad looks deflated, but he smiles anyway, and gives me a quick nod to instruct me to follow her out. I want to stay and make sure he knows that she didn’t mean anything by it, that he matters to this mission one bajillion times more than I do. But I don’t.

And I know I’ve hurt him. Just by existing. By being needed in the one place where it should have been him. For the second time, I’ve stolen his thunder.

Leon and I join Donna as she talks to us about the tour she’ll take us on and points out about fifty “really special” places for video shots. Leon’s participation in the conversation
dwindles to nonexistence, so when she turns a sharp corner and we’re momentarily alone, I place a hand softly on his shoulder and squeeze.

“This is overwhelming, huh?” I say. “I don’t think she’s taken a breath since we left the lobby.”

He laughs. “Yeah, she’s … something.”

“Hmm,” I say after a bit of hesitation. “We could shake her and do some exploring. Find some ‘really special’ places of our own.”

He side-eyes me, so I laugh and break into a jog to catch up to Donna, who’s still chattering. Even as I find my niche, and I start to fit in around here … as I start to feel a little happy, a little positive or hopeful or whatever it is, I think of my dad. His smile faltering, while Donna made a show of taking me around. It’s not fair to him.

But something in me wants to hold tightly to this. With BuzzFeed out of the picture, it’s all I have.

I can’t give it up. Even if it hurts my dad.

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