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Authors: Phil Stamper

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BOOK: The Gravity of Us
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Kat returns and sits next to me. “He really knows how to hype up a crowd.”

“It’s all nonsense,” Leon says.

I stay quiet. Truth is, I felt Mark’s passion through his speech. My heart’s pounding in my chest, and I get that rush. I get the way he tells this story.

Off the podium, Mark and Mara speak to the local news, who can’t get enough of the action. When the Bannons hold hands, even I get the urge to go interview them and join the media frenzy.

“I don’t know,” I say. “I think Mark really believes what he says.”

They stay silent, probably because they moved on to another topic while I spaced out. When the Bannons tire of the interview and take their leave, the cameras fan out to get some shots of the other families.

A photographer breaks off to get some candid shots of Mom and Dad at one of the gardens. Leon grabs my shoulder, hard, and I nearly jump—but when I see a StarWatch producer and cameraman hustling toward us, I get why.

We stand and dust ourselves off as the producer gives orders to the cameraman to hold off on recording for a few minutes. She turns to me.

“You’re the one with the social media or whatever, right?”

“I … guess so?”

She looks so uninterested, I can’t tell if she’s happy, sad, or has the capacity to feel human emotion at all.

“I’m Kiara. I’m from Brooklyn too.”

She doesn’t ask for my name, but I guess that’s because she knows it, or she doesn’t care. Even with her attitude, there’s a part of her that comforts me. She’s cute and familiar. Like, Brooklyn cute, which makes sense.

She’s got ankle boots and tight black jeans. She’s got a mostly see-through white blouse on with a plaid shirt overtop. Her unnaturally black hair falls down past her shoulders, and she looks out at me from behind bug-eyed reflective shades. Somehow, she pulls off the look
and
stays sweat-free.

And I can tell her attitude isn’t directed at me, or anyone for that matter. She just seems … over it. Which I have to admit is also a comforting emotion, given how expressive all these Texans are.

“These events are just the worst, aren’t they?” she asks.

“It’s my first event,” I say with a shrug. “But hopefully I’ll be conveniently sick for the next one.”

Leon snorts, but says nothing. She chuckles too, and the snarky Brooklyn chord that still strums within me resonates with hers.

Kat moves closer to us just as the camera starts rolling, and the three of us pose awkwardly in front of the camera. After a heavy breath, Kiara’s personality flips. She’s on. She’s smiling, engaged—I’m drowning in her passion.

“I’m here with all three teens of the Orpheus astronauts,
and fast friends since day one: Cal Lewis Jr. and Leon and Katherine Tucker. So, what did you think of that speech?” Kiara asks. “Pretty amazing, huh?” We hesitate. Her eyes narrow, and I see the real Kiara flash behind them.

“Oh, yeah,” I say quickly. “Listening to Mark will always get you inspired.”

“That’s
so
true,” she replies. “Do we have any budding astronauts in this group?”

She smiles and tilts her head like we’re puppies, which
definitely
isn’t condescending or enraging at all—I have to physically strain to hide my disgust on camera.

But even I can’t form words. I know these interviews are fake; they’re expertly cut to fit whatever narrative they find most entertaining. I’ve seen it happen so many times, but to watch StarWatch do it in person to me? That’s when I start to feel icky.

Thankfully, Kat saves the day. She launches into a seemingly prepared response about how she can see herself becoming one of NASA’s programmers someday, but would
never
go up on a spaceship.

She smiles. She giggles. The camera eats it up.

“And Leon, we assume you’re not following in your mother’s footsteps. Everyone’s wondering when we’ll learn more about your gymnastics career. Do you think you’ll steal the spotlight from your mom and make it on the US Olympic Gymnastics Team?”

“I, um, think that’s a bit of a stretch.” Leon’s posture’s changed; he seems unenthused to the point of exhaustion.

“That’s a good point. Can’t get cocky yet! You’ve got a long road ahead, and we’re so glad there might just be a whole family of American heroes here. And you—”

The camera points to me, and I hesitate.

Kat’s all in. Leon’s all out.

And I’m somewhere in the in-between.

 

CHAPTER 9

In the past few hours, I’ve listened through four of my cassettes, changed into three different outfits, and ignored two heated arguments (Dad unpacked all the kitchen boxes; Mom can’t find anything) all to prep for one party. But it’s an important one. It’s our welcome party.

However, I can’t find an outfit to save my life, because Leon texted “
excited to see you tonight :)
” and my body melted into a puddle on the floor, and now I can’t even button up a shirt right because my entire body is tingly.

I tear through my closet, knowing nothing I own will impress him.

I pull out my phone, without much thinking, and dial Deb. If anyone can calm me down, it’ll be her.

“Astrokid, what’s happening?”

I scoff, and consider hanging up on her to prove a point,
but I say, “Shut it. I need your help. Wait, maybe this will work. Or does it look like I’m trying too hard?”

“Do you want me to stay on the line or …?”

“Yes, hold on, sorry.”

The outfit I’ve settled on is simple. Well, it’s one of those that isn’t really simple, but
looks
effortless. Black jeans over worn boots. A light jean jacket over a tan-and-gray-plaid shirt, over a black tee. Each time I look in the full-length mirror, I feel self-doubt gnaw at me in a way I don’t usually experience. Is this right? Is this
too
Brooklyn? I already ditched the John Mayer hat and infinity scarf—because let’s be honest, Clear Lake ain’t ready for that.

“Sure, okay, whatever, let me drop everything,” she says.

“What could you possibly be doing right now?”

The silence on the other end is palpable, and I realize I’m being pretty rude. I’ve always thought of Deb as mine, as in, you never had to make plans with her because she was always free (and vice versa).

“Okay, I’m being rude but I’m also freaked. We have our first party tonight. Like, with all the astronauts. StarWatch will be there.”

“Have they said anything about the cease and desist?” she asks.

“Not yet,” I say. “But I know they will soon. My videos have been getting a lot of traction lately.”

“Yeah, I’ve already seen you on the news twice since you moved. This has been an eventful week.”

“Exactly. Plus, I’m doubly freaking out because Leon Tucker
said I was cute, and I also think he is cute, and it’s not like I can run to my parents and talk about this because, as you can probably hear, they are always shouting about something.”

“If you really wanted me just to say everything’s going to be fine and you’ll be great, we could have done this over text.”

Her voice is bitter, and it reminds me of the few times we passed each other in the stairwell or saw each other in school after I broke up with her. But just as our relationship was inevitable—she was the literal girl next door, with the wit and charm to make anyone want to be around her—so too was the rebirth of our friendship.

Our dating relationship was easy, until it wasn’t, for me at least. But our friendship always seemed to transcend our petty fights or obnoxious habits.

“I’m … sorry?” I say.

A sigh from the other end. “Fine, sorry. Guess it was my turn to be an ass. I just have a feeling this is going to be one of those catch-up sessions where you talk the whole time and then say ‘I gotta go’ and dash when I have things to tell you too.”

“That’s not true,” I say before glancing at the clock. “Shit, well …”

“You actually do have to go, don’t you?”

“The party started five minutes ago. I just don’t know how fashionably late we’re going to be.” I clear my throat. “I’ll call you later, okay? Maybe not tonight, but soon.”

“Fine, fine.” A beat. “And Cal?”

“Yeah?”

“Everything’s going to be fine and you’ll be great. You can text me a picture of your outfit if you want me to approve it, which I will, immediately. Just call me later, okay?”

“Okay. Thanks.” I take a long breath and let it hiss out of my teeth.

“Love you,” she says.

“I know.”

We drive up to the party at eight fifteen, though if the party is as champagne-fueled as I’ve been led to believe, we will be walking back.

I pause inside the doorway, and my eyes widen at the sight. The walls are all wood with teal and gold details. The glassware is out, dozens of champagne glasses—bright, sparkling ones like the expensive crystal flutes my parents bring out every year on their anniversary. Copper serving trays are being passed around, with deviled eggs and other more questionable meat appetizers.

To the side, taking up an entire kitchen island, are the bottles of champagne sitting in a copper tub full of ice. Leon and Kat were right: no one would notice a bottle—or ten—missing from this supply.

Everyone’s dressed up in their own interpretation of the term. From air force uniforms to sleek dresses, to bow ties and blazers over jeans. Glasses clink; the scent of vanilla candles fills the space between the tightly packed bodies.

I navigate around the pockets of chatting astronauts, their families, and media types. I can’t discern the music that plays, but the strumming of a rhythmic guitar floods the room. It’s coming from all around—the record player’s hooked up to a surround sound speaker system. It’s a heavy-handed metaphor for the whole night, but it works.

When I turn back, my dad comes through the door and freezes. “This is just like … oh my god.”

Tears start forming in his eyes, but he rubs his eyes quickly to shrug it off. We’re all dazzled, but thankfully everyone’s huddled in the kitchen, and they haven’t really paid attention to us.

“You remember those
Life
magazines I’ve showed you?” Dad asks. “With the astronaut parties with the families? This is it. It’s real.” He clears his throat as a tear rolls down his cheek. Mom puts a hand on his back.

I’m feeling something here. Some bizarre nostalgia for an era that came half a century before my existence.

It’s all beautiful. And overwhelming.

Until I hear the whisper-yelled commands of someone to my right. “Closer,” the voice says. “Did you get the tear?”

In the corner of the room, Kiara’s got her sights set on me and my dad, while Josh Farrow—“the face of
Shooting Stars
”—stands next to her with a clipboard, directing her every move.

Dad doesn’t notice, but just being in the same room as StarWatch makes me uncomfortable, so I slip away as Mom introduces herself to the families who were lucky enough to get out
of gardening duty. As I reach the kitchen, Kat runs up and gives me a big hug. I did not think we were hugging friends. Or, maybe hugs are just a Texas thing.

She pulls out a Tupperware stocked with deviled eggs and starts placing them on the tray.

“I made these, so you better like ’em.”

“Why are they … green?”

She laughs. “Fair question. I add avocado to them. It’s my secret ingredient, though I guess when it completely changes the color it’s not so secret.”

“No, not exactly.”

I take one anyway, thankful there’s at least one meatless thing I can eat here. I scan the crowd, and my chest aches as I look for Leon. This isn’t a totally new feeling for me. There were sparks with Deb once. And something with Jeremy too.

But something about this feels different. Deb was my best friend, and we just fell into a comfortable relationship. Jeremy was new and exciting, and he was there as I took a self-guided tour of my own queerness—something I may never fully find the right label for.

But with Leon, the burning in my chest has never been so perfectly bright. So clear. It’s like when I spend hours picking background colors for the teaser images before my shows—when I hit that perfect shade of bluish-green, and I could never describe
why
it’s perfect, but it just is
.

With my crush on Leon, it so clearly
is
right.

Every time I close my eyes and let my mind drift for too
long, I see his face giving that side-eye smirk with those perfect teeth. Those teeth that rarely see the camera—back at the swings, it felt like he’d stocked up all his smiles for me, for that moment.

And something else—no, not his ridiculously sculpted gymnastics muscles—draws me to him. It’s the hesitant quality that the camera
does
get to see. The side I saw in the gardens. Everyone else here is so sure of themselves, so overconfident. But he’s different. Real.

I’m jerked out of my daydreaming by a palm on my back. I turn to see a woman in a dark blue blazer, and I’m caught off guard by her intense body language. She’s too close for comfort, and now her hand’s outstretched, and I wonder if my face reflects my shock.

“Donna Szleifer,” the woman says. “I’m NASA’s deputy social media manager, and this is Todd Collins, who directs our public affairs team.”

She pulls another suit next to her, and the man in it smiles briefly.

“Hi,” I say. Because I have no other words to say to these people right now. Because I should not be the one interacting with NASA staff. “I’m Cal.”

“We were surprised to see that you broke the news,” Todd says.

“But we shared your clip right away on Twitter and Facebook,” Donna says, “and tied it in with our press releases, and it’s gotten a lot of attention, which is great. Just great.”

I reach behind my head and rub my neck, just to give my
hands something to do. My cheeks grow warm, and my shoulders form into a shrug.

“Yeah, look, I’m sorry abo—”

“Calvin Lewis,” Dad cuts in, and appears beside me, and I sigh as I’m saved from a potentially awkward conversation.

“Rebecca Lewis. But you can call me Becca,” my mother says and offers her hand. Her shyness is in full force, and she clutches her purse to her body as if someone here was going to snatch it from her. But she’s taking the lead in introducing herself. She’s putting herself out there. She’s really trying. Either that or she’s stocking up on stories to tell her therapist.

Out the corner of my eye, I see Kat by the back door. It’s a sliding glass door that’s propped open, though no lights or anything seem to be on. She nods toward the door and widens her eyes to give me the hint.

I slip out of the conversation, remembering the promise of champagne and time with Leon and Kat. Thankfully, it’s not too hard to go unnoticed.

But then I feel a presence behind me, a mammoth one, and it sends chills all over my body. The kind of chills that spike at your neck and raise hairs you didn’t even know you had, then rush down your back in shuddered pulses.

Craning my neck, I recognize the star of the astronauts’ volunteer day: Mark Bannon. Up close, it becomes even clearer that he is the tallest astronaut of all time.

That’s not an exaggeration. It’s his claim to fame. He’s six foot five, the exact tallest an air force fighter pilot can be, way
taller than astronauts used to be allowed to be. But the Orpheus capsules are bigger, and he has the room to exist there.

His smile is huge, unmoving, like his face is made of stone. Actually, his whole body might be made of stone. I have a feeling that if I were to punch him in the gut, I’d be the one hurting.

“Mark Bannon,” I say, as if he doesn’t know his own name. “Um, Mr. Bannon. I mean, Mr. Mark Bannon. I enjoyed your speech at the park.”

“Just Mark is fine,” he says with a heavy laugh. “Thank you, thank you. You Calvin’s boy? I suspect we’ll all be getting to know each other quite well.”

“I guess so. Maybe you’ll get to fly with my dad someday.”

Mark laughs. “That’s not likely.”

“What do you—”

He holds up a hand. I obey his rock-palm and stop speaking. So much for my meaningless small talk.

“You know how long I’ve been here, right?” he asks somewhat condescendingly, as if I’m supposed to do anything but agree with him.

I do. He was one of the first.

“But there are six spots.”

“The role your dad would play in a mission—it’d mostly revolve around maneuvering the ship. Your dad’s a pilot, just like me and Mrs. Tucker. Only one of us will be picked for the mission. The other two will be alternates, so we’ll all be working the same drills, day in and day out.”

“Oh, well, that’s nice,” I say. “Look, it was great meeting you, but I have to go find someone.”

He lets me go after a firm (almost painful) handshake. Once I finally get outside, the music and the noise of the party all die down and I’m able to breathe, even despite the humidity.

The moon’s glow lights the backyard, enough for me to see that there’s no one back here. I walk around the yard, taking in the brief respite, wondering when Kat and Leon will join me, when I hear a noise.

“Cal!” someone says. I turn to find there’s a pathway to the side of the house that I hadn’t noticed before. Their yard is fenced in, which leaves a little nook for a few chairs, a bottle of champagne, and a small shed.

I walk quickly over, nearly breaking into a run, and stop to smile when I see Leon. He smiles back and gestures to the seat next to him.

“Good to see you,” I say. “Everyone else is fucking weird here.”

“You’re including Kat in that?”

BOOK: The Gravity of Us
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