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Authors: Phil Stamper

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BOOK: The Gravity of Us
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CHAPTER 8

While I’m no stranger to mild fame, I’ve never seen myself on the news doing something as innocuous as getting Starbucks or shopping at The Container Store.
The Container Store!

Only a handful of days have passed since I called out StarWatch, and since then, it’s like a target’s on my back. My daily Starbucks runs have been documented everywhere from Houston’s eleven p.m. news to
Teen Vogue
, and every site has their own version of the “drama” my rebellion has brought to Clear Lake.

The real drama’s that every pic they snap shows me in a daze, with my hair eight kinds of fucked up. It’s not a good look for me. Sure, I’m being vain, but I’ve got a brand to protect.

An equally bad look for me? Bright yellow gloves, dirt-stained jeans, and sweat dripping off my face. The hand shovel
in my grip shrieks with strain every time I shove it into the ground, and I don’t blame it.

This is not my idea of a great Wednesday.

Kat walks toward my section of the community garden, and I guess she admires my work by the way she stares at it.

“Is this the pepper patch?” She kneels to get to my eye level, then jumps back. “Are … you okay? You look like you’re struggling.”

I wipe sweat off my brow with an equally sweaty forearm. “Gardening isn’t my favorite activity.”

“Oh, I see that.” She fails to stifle a laugh. “If it makes you feel better, Mrs. Bannon has Leon checking the melon leaves for fungus or something.”

I plant another pepper seedling—a tiny, insignificant little patch of leaves—and try to knock the dirt off my gloves by clapping. It doesn’t work.

“Leon’s here?” I ask, trying to sound three parts nonchalant and one part eager. I think it comes out the other way. “I wanted to thank him—well, you both—again for stepping in and sneaking me away from the reporters last week.”

“Don’t worry about it. And, yeah, I’ll show you where he is.” Kat pats the dirt around the last seedling I planted. She looks down the line of tiny leaves, hesitating, before taking my shovel. “Once we fix this. Sorry, these plants are too close. At least, based on what Mrs. Bannon told me when she asked me to come check on you.”

“Not a chance. I followed instructions exactly,” I say. Kat’s
gaze presses into me, and I give in. “Okay, there’s a small chance I wasn’t listening to
all
the details.”

“It’s fine, I’ll just take out every other one and plant it farther down the line.” She looks to me for confirmation, but I just shrug. “Sorry, I’ve been taking this online coding class, and I think it’s spilling into my real life. Like I’m troubleshooting your gardening mishaps or something.”

Laughing, I dig in with my hands and help Kat fix my mistake, while also trying not to damage any of the seedlings.

“I didn’t know you code,” I say. “I don’t know why I would have known that, but still. My mom’s a developer. If you need any help, I’m sure she’d be up for it.”

“Oh, I will definitely talk to her about it. Mom and Dad are no help when it comes to this stuff. I’ve been trying to start slow, but I have all these projects I want to try out. I write down ideas when they come to me … just have to wait until I’m actually good enough to code them.”

The heat is sweltering, but a few clouds have gone by. Between that and conversing with someone who’s not barking instructions at me, I’m a little less crabby.

A little.

“So, do you do this often?” I ask, gesturing to the infant peppers. “Dad never told me volunteering at the community garden was a big thing for the astronaut families.”

“Yeah, they don’t tell you about that when you sign up,” she says with a laugh. “But I think it’s great. Really. I mean, the parsnips I planted a few months ago should be ready to
harvest at any time now, and that’s”—she hesitates—“not … even a good vegetable. Damn, you’re right, this sucks.”

“I’m going to take a break,” I say. “If anyone asks, say I’m confirming the proper seedling spacing or something—it’ll buy me ten minutes at least. I just need a breather.”

If she’s figured out I want to
also
stumble upon Leon’s fungus search—which sounds gross, but I’m sure he could even make fungus look cute—she doesn’t let on about it.

“A break sounds good. I might go look for your mom. I’m really curious what coding languages she uses,” she says before we part.

The park is expansive by Clear Lake standards—at least the length of a couple of football fields. Apparently, they rent out small patches for personal use, and the crops from the bigger gardens go to the community food bank.

I come up to a sprawling patch of vines, and my gaze falls across the guy who’s closely inspecting each leaf. Leon. My heart does an extra pound for good measure, as if I wasn’t already aware of my feelings.

When I get to him, I give my mouth the command to speak, but nothing comes out. I’m just standing there, with the smile on my face growing by the second, like a creep. When he looks up at me, all disheveled and covered in dirt, I doubt I’ll ever be able to speak again.

Thankfully, I find the words.

“How’s the fungus?”

They’re not the best words, but they’re words nonetheless. My cheeks flush with heat.

“No sign of it yet,” he says, “but Mara is having me check again. She thinks the ‘cold spell’ last week brought the soil temperatures down.”

“Cold spell?” My laugh is too loud, too awkward. “What’d you get down to—seventy?”

“Seventy-five, maybe?”

Leon stands, and for a second, we just smile at each other. There’s a peace in being alone with him, even when we’re not saying much. The nuanced expressions, the rising pulse rate, all bring a rush, a high all over my body.

But the line between sweet and creepy is especially thin when crushes are concerned, and there’s only so long two people can stand in silence before it gets weird.

“You look nice,” I say.

“… How is that possible?”

“I don’t know. Dirt suits you? I have a thing for gardeners?” I pause. “I’m awful at this.”

“You’re fine.” With a soft quirk of a smile, he points to a shaded spot under a tree, and we take seats in the grass as he pulls out a water bottle. He offers it to me, and I take a sip of the cool water. But it doesn’t cool me off. It doesn’t calm me down.

“We didn’t really get to talk earlier,” he says. “It’s kind of weird getting to know someone who you only know vaguely from the internet. I mean, my sister probably knows every detail about you.”

“Eh,” I grunt, “she only knows a specific part of me. I give my personal updates sometimes, but I really care about my
reporting. Either way, the guy on the screen is just … a version of me. The version I want people to see. A brand, almost.”

I want him to see all of me.

“That’s got to be hard,” he says.

“It’s hard to always be
on
. I always feel pressured to have the cheekiest take on an issue, or to know every cool thing happening in the city. It’s a lot of work to keep this up, and I think, because it’s ‘just social media,’ people don’t see that.”

He starts to reply, but I’m distracted by the vibration in my pocket. When I pull the phone out, I gasp. “
Shit
.”

“What is it?” Leon asks. “Everything okay?”

“I … I had an internship for BuzzFeed—to cover local events in New York and boost their video content. It was going to be my first real chance to break into the business. Do something close to what I really want to do.”

“It …
was
?”

“Obviously, coming to Texas wasn’t in my plan at that point. My friend Deb convinced me to email them to see if they’d consider a remote internship or some other collaboration. I was desperate, so I did, and … now I’m too scared to read the response.”

He inches closer to me, and the place where his arm meets mine shoots electric currents through my body. As he leans closer, I smell the comforting aroma of earth and spice. Whether it’s his deodorant or cologne cutting through the smell of the park, I don’t know. What I
do
know is, I’m so caught up in the scent, my heart is struggling to keep the blood pumping through my body right now.

“Come on, read it. What’d they say?” he asks, his voice an excited whisper.

I clench my phone, still holding it facedown. I am not ready for this. Not here, not now. But with Leon next to me, I find the courage to turn over my phone and open the email.

Hey Cal—I talked it over with my boss, and we definitely want to work on something in the future, but unfortunately—

That’s all I allow myself to read. I stand up, wanting to duck out somewhere. But there’s nowhere to go. Cameras fill the exits, astronauts and their families prowl the gardens … this is as alone as I’m going to get.

“I’m so sorry, Cal.” Leon pulls me toward him and puts an arm around me—just quick enough for his scent to fill my lungs, but not long enough for me to come to my senses and hug back.

“It’s fine. It’s fine,” I say, even though it’s not fine. “I knew this would happen, I just didn’t expect it to sting so much.”

“You’ll find something else.”

“But this is what I wanted. This was my plan, my way in.”

His hand slides down my arm, gently but deliberately, and I feel the support pouring out from him. “Then just come up with a new plan.”

I laugh, because that’s one thousand times easier said than done. After a few breaths, I start to believe it, though. There are other ways—I just have to figure them out. This is a minor setback. I suck in a breath and hold it in my chest, steeling my core.

“I’m still really bummed,” I say, releasing the breath, along with my confidence.

He places an arm on my back and leads me back toward the gardens. We have been gone for a while, and they’re bound to notice if we don’t come back soon. Plus, they seem to be setting up a stage for an impromptu press conference.

Leon clears his throat, dropping his palm from my back. “Can I ask you something?”

“What do you want to know?” I ask. “I’m an open book. Kind of.”

He laughs and scrunches his eyebrows to look like he’s deep in thought. “So … is that why you do it? The app and the fame?”

“I want to be a reporter.” He just keeps his eyes on me, and the words fall out. “But it’s more than that. I
am
a reporter now, however amateur it might seem. I want to make a name for myself. I want the mainstream media to know that this new form of reporting matters, and that it can make a difference.”

“Those sound like good reasons.”

“I guess I just like telling a story. I like challenging people’s thoughts, starting conversations. And, I don’t know … I kind of like when people listen.”

“Wow … it must feel good to know exactly what you want.” He rubs his shoulder in an awkward, almost self-conscious fashion. “That’s got to be validating, though. It’s like you have all this power. People really care. They listen to you.”

He won’t make eye contact with me now, and I see the boy in the magazine photo again with his distant stare, his sullen
expression. I wonder what I did, or what I said, to make this version of him come out. I want to make him feel better, but I don’t know what he needs.

I reach out to him, but a shrill screech comes from the amps that circle the rickety stage set up in the center of the park. Our attentions shift. Unresolved tension balls in my chest.

The moment’s passed.

After a quick sound check, and a few posed shots for the local news photographers, astronaut behemoth Mark Bannon approaches the stage. At the podium, five or six microphones intertwine, and I assume that’s because one is hooked up to the amps around the stage and the rest go to all the local feeds or StarWatch.

“Speaking of damning emails … have you heard anything else from StarWatch’s lawyers?” Leon asks. “I, uh, noticed you didn’t cease … or desist.”

I chuckle as we both sit cross-legged on the ground. “Nothing yet.”

“Are you nervous, though?” Leon’s hand reaches out for my elbow for a second, but he pulls it back. Even in this heat, my arm hairs prickle at the phantom sensation. “I would be. StarWatch is … well, they have a grip on us in a way that not even the bigger players like CNN or the
New York Times
do.”

“A grip?” My voice is thin, the bravado vanishing by the second.

Mark Bannon’s amplified voice breaks through our conversation.

“Friends, thank you for being here. And a special thank-you to Mara Bannon, my perfect wife, who somehow has the patience and the energy to coordinate these volunteer days.”

There’s a chuckle, followed by applause.

Mark clears his throat. “This is a great week for NASA. After five years of searching, the core team of astronauts for the Orpheus project has been assembled. We’re finally a complete unit. Now, we still don’t know the first six to be scheduled on Orpheus V”—he winks to a camera to his right—“which I know is dirt my friends at StarWatch have been especially eager to uncover. But what we do know is this: in twelve months, six of us are going up into space, and we’re not coming back until we touch Martian soil.”

Leon scoots closer to me on the ground and nudges me with his elbow. “Get ready—Bannon’s a bit of an … idealist.”

“As we approach, oh, T-minus thirty-one-million seconds until liftoff, it’s worth thinking about why we’re here. Why we’re doing this. Why should
you
”—the way he says “you” makes you feel like he’s talking directly to you, to all Americans, and all humanity at the same time—“care?”

Another dramatic pause, and I think I hear Leon snickering beside me.

“Progress. It’s another giant leap, yes, but it’s more than that—it’s about developments in solar energy, medical technology, climate research. Getting humans to Mars to set up the Orpheus Martian Base is the first step to unlocking all these secrets. When we land—I promise you’ll all remember where you are on that day for the rest of your lives.”

More applause as he gets off the stage, and Mara nearly tackles him as a greeting. I look to Leon, and he’s more expressive than I’ve ever seen him: rolling his eyes, an incredulous look on his face.

BOOK: The Gravity of Us
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