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Authors: Phil Stamper

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BOOK: The Gravity of Us
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My stomach sours, and I feel the tension claw through my shoulders. We need to move fast if we want to get out of here with no notoriety. A solid smile. A brief wave. And we duck
inside. But they’re recording, and I can’t shout that instruction to my dad, who’s stopped, standing like a dope with his head pivoting back and forth from me to the camera.

And I see why.

And my chest falls.

I knew they saw my FlashFame video. But I was wholly unremarkable with my almost-half-a-million viewers in New York City. Not here. Not to these small news stations. They know what happens when they put a clip of me online: all my fans will watch it. The cameras are on me.

Which means, they didn’t come here just to see my dad.

They came here for me too.

 

CHAPTER 6

To hell with a graceful exit
, I think as Dad rushes past me and into the house, slamming the door so I’m stuck outside.
That was on camera!

So I smile and pretend it’s one of my videos. I smile because it’s the only thing holding me and this family together, and I hope the cameras were too` focused on me to get the full effect of Dad’s tantrum. If he loses his cool in there, which he will, the mics might pick it up.

Please don’t shout
.

Please don’t shout.

Without putting too much thought into the matter, I go into damage-control mode. I force my legs to move—they’re stiff and they ache from being held so tightly. I paste a smile on my face. At first, it’s strained, but as my limbs loosen, my face does too. By the time I’m at the end of the driveway, I’ve got as close to a natural grin as I can pull off.

The reporter stays on the sidewalk—she knows she’s not allowed to come closer—so there are a few feet between us. She’s got that Hillary Clinton look, with an immaculate solid blue pantsuit. Her smile is practiced; her arm is outstretched.

“Cal Lewis, I’m Gracie Bennett from KHOU-TV. We were thrilled to see your announcement about moving down here, as Houston doesn’t get many viral superstars in our midst. Congrats to your father and the family on this exciting adventure. So, we’ve got to ask—can we expect any Houston weekend roundups in your future? Are you going to give us the inside scoop on the astronauts’ lives?”

I chuckle—it’s forced, but everything’s forced right now, so give me a break. My mind scrambles for a way to redirect the conversation back to my dad, and NASA. “I, well, I’m not sure yet. All I know is my dad’s so excited to join the ranks of great astronauts like Jim Lovell, John Glenn, and to be living in the same town as they did—it means a lot. To all of us.”

She gives me that soft head tilt and pleasant smirk that you get when the other person starts to see you as some teddy bear.
Adorable
, I see her thinking. I groan internally.

I’m not sure what else to say, but I’m stopped short when I notice someone approaching the cameras from the corner of my eye. As her shoes clack on the sidewalk, her lavender sun dress billows in the soft breeze. It’s Grace Tucker. She takes off her sunglasses, and even I’m a little starstruck. She turns to the camera.

“Grace, hello! What do you think about—”

Grace cuts in. “We’re all so thrilled to have the Lewis
family joining us. We’d say more, but I’m too excited to introduce my family to them, and I can’t wait any longer. ’Bye, now!”

I wave goodbye, and Grace reaches for my arm.

“You’re welcome down at the station anytime, Cal!” the reporter calls after me. “Remember, K-H-O-U!”

I let Grace guide me back into the house. I stop short at the door when I hear the yelling. We make eye contact, and I don’t want this to ruin her first impression, so I say:

“Sorry, we didn’t realize they’d be on us like that. It really surprised them.”

She nods and smiles and we pretend she’s accepting my words at face value, but then I step inside and announce over Dad: “We’ve got a visitor!”

Silence.

Recognition.

Awkwardness.

I see Dad go through these phases like they were the five stages of grief. That’s two embarrassments for him today. I wish I could tell him that it’s not my fault the cameras panned to me. That I didn’t want him to have to share the attention. I only wanted to tell my story, and not let some contract he signed get in the way of that.

“Grace. Or, um, Mrs. Tucker.” My dad crosses the floor to the doorway and offers his hand for her to shake. “It’s nice to meet you.”

“Same, same. And please, just call me Grace.” She takes a look around the house, and she runs her finger across a recently
polished vintage typewriter. “How do you like the decor here? It takes a while to get used to, but it really is beautiful. Anyway, it’s a pleasure to meet you all.”

“It’s, well, better than I could have imagined.” Dad gestures to us, briefly. “This is Becca, my wife, and Cal, my son.”

“Becca,” she repeats. Then she turns to me and smiles. “And I actually know this one. My daughter Kat has been a follower of yours for years now. I heard they were bringing your family up here, but I didn’t know it would be today. Lucky that Kat saw your video and told me. I came as quickly as I could.” She turns to my parents. “The—for lack of a better term—paparazzi can be hell here.”

Dad glares at me. “You posted a video? Is that why—why they knew we were here? You know the rules about that.”

“I decided to sidestep the rules,” I say weakly. My cheeks flush, and I suddenly realize there are three pairs of eyes aimed right at me, judging me. I want to take a walk, but I can’t even escape with all the news vans out there. Maybe I can outrun them. “But I can fix this. Let me go out and see if they’re still here. S-sorry.”

As I’m leaving, I hear Grace warn me not to go outside, but I don’t care, and my speechless parents don’t protest. I can’t be in this house anymore.

I know I can fix this, even if I’m not sure how just yet.

When I open the door, I’m struck by the media circus in front of our place. The number of cars, vans, cameras, and reporters has tripled. I freeze as they all point their cameras at me, but a thrill pumps through my veins. It’s the same rush I
feel when I give my reports, but it feels bigger somehow. Why would America care about
me
? Just because I’m the newest character on this obscene reality show? Because my dad has a one-in-four shot at making it on Mars?

It doesn’t make sense.

“Hey, um, Cal?” a voice calls out from next door.

A second person’s gasp falls out behind him. “Oh my god, it’s really him.”

My cheeks flush as I turn and see the two teens from the Tucker family portrait staring at me. Both of them are immaculate and prepared for this life, with easy smiles and a confident gait. They’re wearing pressed clothes, dressed up a little too much for school.

“I’m Leon,” the guy says, extending a hand. His posture is too tight, his expression too practiced. “It’s nice to meet you.”

His voice is a little loud, and I guess it’s so the microphones pick it up. It makes me cringe, but when you’re standing in front of perfection—even when you look like a sweaty mess who hasn’t showered in days—you just have to do your best to fit in.

“Good to meet you too.”

An uncomfortable pause lingers between us. We’re making eye contact, and I’m so lost in his gaze I almost forget about the hundred thousand people who will be watching this interaction.

“We came as soon as we heard,” the girl says. “I’m Katherine, a pleasure to meet you.”

Though there are three of us, they’ve naturally angled their bodies out in a way that makes them look like they’re in a stage performance—all our bodies tilt toward the cameras.
In this moment, I wonder how many rounds of media training they had to go through to act like this. So composed and polished next to each other.

My smile starts to fade, as these don’t seem like the people I want to be friends with.

The thrill’s long gone now, and all that’s left is this awkward energy.

“Right,” I say. “So we’ve all met.”

Silence cuts through us for a split second longer, until Leon bursts with laughter. His sister and I follow closely behind, and for one brief second, Leon hunches over and puts his hand on my shoulder. I feel his grip, even after his hand leaves my body, and despite the heat, a chill goes straight down my back.

“Sorry,” he whispers. “I know it’s awkward with all the cameras.”

“Anyway,” Kat says, regaining some of her composure. Her voice is soft, like she’s no longer performing for an audience. “The van at ten-o’-clock? That’s StarWatch. And they’re going to insist on interviewing the family.”

StarWatch is here. It takes a while for it to settle in. Will their cameras be on me? How is Mom going to handle the constant attention? How much will it take for Dad’s composure to break?

“And we were thinking,” Leon says, “there’s a path that goes between our houses that the reporters can’t use. We can sneak away and hide out in the playground just off the trail. That is, unless you want to be subjected to StarWatch on your first day here …”

I look back and forth, and my head starts shaking a clear no without my brain giving the command. The only way I can fix this and give the focus back to my dad is by leaving.

Okay, and partially it’s just that I want out of here as soon as humanly possible.

“Is Mom in there?” Katherine asks, and I nod. “You two go around back. I’m going to let her know what’s going on.”

In a blink, she’s gone, and I’m following Leon around the side of my house. His profile catches in the sun, and I wonder how he’s not sweating at all. He’s got these high cheekbones and bright eyes, where he could smile without even moving his lips.

“I’m Cal,” I say. “I know we did this already, but I think we need a do-over. Because that was … weird.”

“Leon.” He leads me down a grassy slope and to a path lined with trees. It’s not like the old woods you see in the parks in New York, but it’s equally manicured.

We follow the path until we come to a little swing set. He veers off and jumps into a swing, immediately kicking off and soaring high. I sit in the other and rock back and forth slowly.

“Your mom kind of saved me from the reporters.” I kick some of the dirt beneath my shoes. “It’s a lot to handle.”

“I get that. People are obsessed with us now. It’s like StarWatch makes our lives seem so dramatic—well, our parents’ lives. They usually stay out of
our
way.”

I chuckle. “Maybe that’s why they didn’t seem so interested in my dad. I think his chances of getting on the first mission are low.”

“Why do you say that?”

“He was a pilot for Delta.”

I say that, like I always do, but Leon just stares at me.

“Is that so bad?” he asks.

“It’s not bad, it’s just … everyone here is so cool. My dad’s smart, sure, but he only knows how to fly a plane.”

He laughs and slaps at the chains above my seat. I twist back and forth.

“Only knows how to fly a plane. So, I’m guessing it takes a lot to impress you?”

I pause, because even though I’m having a good time, I want to ask him if he really does buy into all this. The veneer cracked a bit when he laughed and when he kicked up on the swing set, but … the covers, the interviews, the relocation, the decor. How can he just be okay with it, when I’m all scrambled up?

Or maybe I’m all scrambled up because I might be okay with it too.

“There you guys are.” Katherine bounds toward us and sticks out her hand. “Okay, wow, I’m Kat, and I watch your feed religiously.”

I pull back, just slightly, then shake her hand.

“That was creepy,” she says. “I mean, your show and the Cal Letter are the only ways I get my news. I started watching when you covered the election, because you were the only news-ish person who didn’t make me want to punch them with their analysis.”

“Oh, thank you. I don’t … think anyone’s ever said something so nice,” I say with a smirk.

She shakes her head. “I swear, I’ll stop fangirling soon. Just. Seriously, you’re great. Your interview with the woman who developed FlashFame was my favorite, by far. I wanted to
be
her.”

I twist my swing and my gaze meets Leon’s. “No raving compliments from you?” I smirk, and he busts out laughing.

“You caught me—see, I’m the opposite. I just can’t stand your political analysis or whatever.” He rolls his eyes. “Joking. I’ve seen your videos, but only over Kat’s shoulder.”

“Hmm, no feedback,” I say. “You’re not very helpful.”

Katherine leans in, reducing her voice to a whisper. “The only feedback I ever hear is that he thinks you’re super cute.”

I pull back and almost fall out of my swing, while Leon makes a guttural gasp that makes Katherine jump back in laughter. His composure’s shattered, and I bet he’d flip if the cameras were on him now.

“Kat, what the hell?”

She smiles broadly at this. “So you have two fans, is what I’m trying to say.”

“This is a lot of information,” I say. I look between the two of them, and Katherine starts walking backward, away from our house.

“Anyway, the reporters should be giving up soon now that StarWatch has got a grip on the situation,” Katherine says. “There’s a party Friday night, at our place, and Mom is going to invite your parents. You should come, if they even give you
a choice in the matter. You’ll meet some of the other astronauts, and once you get incredibly bored of the science talk, you can find us at the back of the house with a bottle of champagne we’ve lifted from the stock.”

“Kat!” Leon snaps.

I nearly gasp—the prim, poised, and always proper Tucker kids. I imagine them in a backyard, sneaking out a bottle of champagne and staring into the sky. It reminds me of summer nights with Deb on the fire escape, with whatever we could lift from our parents’ alcohol stock—usually craft beers (meh), red wine (double meh), or scotch (quadruple meh, but wow it works fast).

“Oh, calm down—Cal’s cool!” Kat does a quick, excited jump as she clasps her hands together. “These parties get boring
fast
without any other teens around
.
The astronauts all have young kids. We only come because, well, we live there.”

I imagine how annoying it would be to be stuck around a bunch of drunk adults.

“I can see why you would turn to champagne to fix your boredom,” I say with a laugh.

“Oh, please,” she replies, “we end up pouring half of it out.”

“Your mom won’t notice a bottle missing?” I ask.

They both pause to consider me, and by the smirk on my face, they must be able to tell that I’m far more entertained by than appalled by their champagne heist.

“You’ll understand when you get to the party,” Leon replies. I stand and dust myself off. I think about her words and sneak
a glance at Leon before he can look at me. I think he’s cute too. Really cute. “See you soon, I hope?”

BOOK: The Gravity of Us
13.12Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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