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For Jonathan. You keep me grounded, and you help me soar. CONTENTS Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve Chapter Thirteen Chapter Fourteen Chapter Fifteen Chapter Sixteen Chapter Seventeen Chapter Eighteen Chapter Nineteen Chapter Twenty Chapter Twenty-One Chapter Twenty-Two Chapter Twenty-Three Chapter Twenty-Four Chapter Twenty-Five Chapter Twenty-Six Chapter Twenty-Seven Chapter Twenty-Eight Chapter Twenty-Nine Chapter Thirty Chapter Thirty-One Chapter Thirty-Two Epilogue Author’s Note Acknowledgments CHAPTER 1 At home, I’m invisible. At school, I’m bizarre. But to the rest of the world, I’m a journalist. I get this specific feeling—a tug in my gut, a hitch in my breath—every time I craft a news story, open the FlashFame app, and broadcast live to my 435,000 followers. When I step off the Q train at the Times Square stop and shoulder my way to the exit, I take a moment to collect my thoughts. I pull in a hearty breath and smile. Holding the phone in front of my face, I go over the plan in my head for my weekly New York City update. What to cover, where to walk. “Hiya!” I shout into the phone and smirk as the commuters behind me dash out of view. “I’m Cal, and welcome to my weekend update. New York’s been slow on the news front—murders and Amber Alerts, all normal stuff—but in national news, one thing is a standout: the search for the twentieth and final astronaut to be added to the Orpheus project.” In the front-facing camera, I see the city scroll by in a mass of billboards, shops, cabs, and bikes. I try not to show the strain in my smile, and remind myself that even the most seasoned reporters have to report on what their viewers want to hear most. And according to my comments, there’s no contest: people want to know the latest. It’s not like I’m surprised—it’s all anyone can talk about right now. Six humans will be setting foot on M; ars, and it’s ignited an interest the space program hasn’t seen in decades. “The astronaut in question will be chosen in the coming weeks, after which they will relocate to Houston to vie for a spot on the Orpheus V spacecraft, the first crewed mission to Mars.” If this performance doesn’t win me an Emmy, I will throw a fit. You ever tell someone you’re overjoyed by something, when secretly you’d rather vomit in a bucket than talk about it anymore? That’s me with the Mars missions. I hate the hype. However, people are so wrapped up in the drama around this Mars mission, you’d think it was the latest Real Housewives installment. Therein lies my dilemma: Do I want to report on things people care about? Yes. Do I want more followers and viewers? Also yes. “A representative of StarWatch spoke about the search today,” I continue, “but the cable gossip network didn’t offer any new information about the candidates.” After my brief, obligatory NASA report, I bring the stream back to New York City by offering recommendations for the biggest events of the weekend: parties, farmers’ markets, and everything in between. All while watching the live viewer count climb. I’ve done local stories, national stories, worldwide stories before. I covered a full midterm election year, attending rallies for Senate and House candidates in the tristate area, even the severely inept ones who thought microwaves gave you cancer. I used to feel helpless every time I opened up my news aggregating app, but reporting gave me a platform for my voice, and that resonated with people. While cable news angled stories to fit their followers and pushed sensational bullshit—Is Trump homophobic? We interviewed this homophobic Trump voter to get his thoughts!—my reports covered the real news. Raw and unbiased. Like when the Republican candidate for New York senator fell off the grid and refused to debate or see the press until election night … but had no problem attacking his opponents on Twitter. One day, it slipped that he’d been seen in the city, so I slipped out of school and waited outside the restaurant where he was. I started incognito with my phone in my chest pocket and asked him some light questions. He obliged, until I brought up his pending embezzlement investigation, charges of sexual harassment, and the recent staffing shakeup that could have been related to either. In the end, I chased his limo up Fifth Avenue, where he cursed me—and the fifty thousand viewers—out, live. Needless to say, he did not win the election. Nowadays, I carefully plan my videos for the week. National news updates one day, a focus on teen issues another, with a few personal stories sprinkled in. Then, there are my NYC updates. Even if they don’t get the most views, these streams are my favorites. It’s me, the city, and quadrillions of New Yorkers and tourists in the background. The front-facing camera starts to show just how much the humidity is taking a toll on my once perfectly coiffed hair, and if I don’t sign off soon, I’ll look like a frazzled maniac. “Wow, I guess there was a lot to talk about, because”—I flip away from the front-facing camera and give my viewers a panoramic shot of my surroundings, and the tall buildings on all sides blend into a mix of brick and concrete—“we’re already at Thirty-Eighth and Broadway.” These updates always start at the northern tip of Times Square, and I usually just walk down Broadway until I run out of things to say, or until my voice starts to crack. And even in the latter case, I’ve been known to subject my viewers to the true New York experience: buying a seltzer on the street—after haggling the price down to a reasonable amount, of course. “And that’s all I’ve got. Keep an eye on my FlashFame story to see why I’ll be scouring the streets of the Lower East Side.” I flash a smirk as I end the transmission, and release a deep sigh as I shed my journalistic brand. I catch the F train at 34th toward Brooklyn, which is about the only way to get to the Lower East Side from where I’m at. The flair of the city dims as tourists block the subway doors, as the train stops between stations for three minutes at a time, as the air-conditioning breathes lukewarm air down my neck. The notifications roll in from my video, which was watched live by around eighty thousand people. But somehow, FlashFame knows which comments to highlight, specifically the one that will slash deepest into my heart. JRod64 (Jeremy Rodriguez): Love this! How long does it take to get over someone you barely even dated? The irony of him “loving” my posts when he couldn’t even commit to “liking” me is at the forefront of my mind, and a rage burns inside me. The anger ebbs as I walk the streets of the Lower East Side, where the tall buildings of midtown have disappeared, replaced with short brick apartments with fire escapes, towering over everything from abandoned bodegas to artisan vegan bakeries. I double-check the address and take the stairs down into a dark, windowless shop. “Jesus, Calvin, there you are,” Deb says. She always uses my full name. She full-names everyone but herself, really—but that’s because she says Deborah is a grandma name. “I’ve been in this store since you signed off, and the owners of this cassette shop really like to talk about cassettes, and I didn’t have the heart to tell them I was only here to be your cassette wingwoman. I think they know I’m a fraud.” “I would pay to see you pretending to be a cassette fangirl.” The thought makes me laugh. “It’s not hard. I just repeated the bullshit you say—‘the sound is much smoother’ or whatever. It was going fine until he asked me the model and year of my boom box.” I browse the collection while Deb impatiently waits behind me. I promised her a vegan doughnut—or twelve—from the bakery across the street in exchange for making the trip to browse cassettes with me. Unfortunately, nothing here catches my eye. I raid a few tapes from the dollar bin based on their covers alone—guys with beautiful, flowing eighties hair, movie soundtracks with old VHS-style covers—and unironically pay for my retro tapes using my iPhone. “Finally,” Deb says as she busts out of the record store. “That place was weird. You’re weird.” “I’m well aware of both, thanks.” We meander through the Lower East Side, which isn’t all that different from our neighborhood in Brooklyn. Okay, it’s a little bit dirtier, and there are fewer toddlers getting in my way, but otherwise, I see the similarities. “I love this area,” Deb says. “Yeah, it’s okay for things like that random pop-up cassette shop,” I say with a shrug. “I hear they’re putting in a Trader Joe’s here.” “Jesus,” she swears. “Of course they are.” We duck into a tiny bakery with no more than five stools of seating. The two bakers are cramped behind the counter, and I start to get claustrophobic on their behalf. But as I look around, I see glimpses of the neighborhood in notices plastered on the walls. Yoga classes, babysitting offers, piano lessons, writers’ groups. Panning out, I see protest signs, queer pride flags of all varieties, old campaign stickers from the past couple of elections. New York has a way of making you feel at home, no matter where you’re at. You just have to step off the street, and some neighborhood will claim you as one of their own. “Exactly how do you make a vegan lemon curd?” Deb asks, fascinated, and I realize I’m missing her in her element. Before the baker can even answer, she rambles on. “This place is amazing. I’m going to get a dozen, but I think I want literally one of each flavor. Is that too much?” she asks no one in particular. I’m a vegetarian, but she’s a full-on vegan, and she’s in heaven. Vegans get a bad rap, but Deb’s always been down-to-earth about it. She embraces it, but not to the extent where she’s treating it like a cult. This also means we have to go to every new vegan restaurant, bakery, pop-up, and festival the moment it opens, and I am not complaining about that. “You’re sharing these with me, right?” I ask. “Oh dear sweet Jesus in heaven,” she says after biting into a doughnut. “Not if they’re all as good as this lemon curd.” We take our time walking toward Brooklyn, with no real destination in mind. It’s too far to walk all the way, but it’s a surprisingly nice day, and I’m not in a rush. I know Deb’s not. “You shouldn’t have paid for these,” Deb says. “I have a job, dude. You don’t need to jump in and save me anymore.” I blush. “I know, it wasn’t that. But I left you alone in that cassette pop-up, so defenseless you had to pretend you were one of us to fit in. The horrors you must have overcome. This is the least I can do.” What I don’t say is, I know she’s saving every penny from her job. Deb works harder than anyone I know. If I could fix her home life, I would. But until we can flee our respective coops, all I can do is pay for her sugar high. “One World Trade. We’re approaching tourist central,” I say. “I’ll take a few pics for my Flash story, then we’ve got to get a train.” The sun’s nowhere to be seen, but a series of low clouds pass by, getting split in two by the shining tower. It’s a perfect New York afternoon, but I feel the tug in my chest that reminds me what’s waiting for me at home. As we hop on a train and make half smiles at each other, I can tell we’re thinking the same thing. There’s a pretty high chance that one or both of our nights are about to be ruined by our parents. We make it back to Brooklyn in record time. Anxiety grips my chest as I take the stairs up our stoop, and I know Deb usually feels the same. To be quite honest, I would have been fine spending a few more minutes delaying the inevitable awkward conversations and heated fights that wait for me at home. Not like the arguments are ever directed at me, but they’re still all around me. Lingering. Wearing our family down. I part ways with Deb at the third floor of our apartment building, and a tightness balls up in my shoulders—clenching, constricting—when I launch up the stairs to my apartment, taking them two at a time. Before I even reach my door with the shiny 11 on it, I hear the shouts. It wasn’t always like this. I put the key in the lock, and with a heavy sigh, I turn it. A frown falls over my face almost instantly. I slam the door to make my presence known, but it doesn’t fix things, it doesn’t stop them. I want my being home to mean something. I want … I don’t know what I want—to not feel helpless when they’re like this. I try to escape into my phone, but my notifications are once again flooded with questions about … the astronauts. I sigh as I scroll through. kindil0o (Chelsea Kim): Hi, big fan. Um, is it just me or have you stopped profiling the astronauts? I used to love your streams, and I still do, but I’d like to see more of your old stuff. Are we getting to Mars or not? You only spent like 30 secs on the new astronaut search?? I mute the notification. Of course my followers would notice how short my NASA segments are, how my eyes dart away from the camera when I mention the search for the newest astronauts. Everyone wants to know why, and I’m staring at the reason: my dad just flew back from Houston from his final round of interviews with NASA. If he has it his way, I’ll never escape this mission. CHAPTER 2 “Stop waiting by the phone,” my mom shouts. “They said they’d call you today if you were chosen. It’s five thirty. You’ve used all your vacation days and it’s barely June; you’re flying back and forth from Houston every few weeks—it’s taken over your life. It’s taken over our lives.” She points to me, and just like that, I’m a part of their game. A pawn left out conspicuously to lure a bishop and set up a checkmate. She makes eye contact with me, and I briefly see the exhaustion on her face. The panic, the stress. But my gaze darts away. I won’t give her that power. I won’t be a part of this. “I’m sorry, but it’s time to drop this fantasy,” Mom says, turning her attention back to Dad. “Just … think about it practically. We can’t relocate. I have a life, a job.” “Does this really have to happen every other day?” I say as I rush down the hallway toward my room. “It’s only four thirty in Houston.” Dad clears his throat, almost nervously. “And you work remotely. You could code anywhere. I know you don’t want to hear it, but there’s still a chance. A real chance this could happen.” “What about Calvin?” she snaps back. “We’d pull him from his school just before his senior year? Did you ever tell him about what this would mean for his videos?” “Wait. What about my videos?” I spin back toward them, but as I do, the pieces fall into place. If he got the job, we wouldn’t only be moving to Houston, we’d basically be stepping onto a TV set. Every moment of our lives would be monitored, recorded by StarWatch for their annoying Shooting Stars show. They’re both avoiding eye contact. “Well, we don’t know anything for sure,” Dad starts, “but there was a clause in the paperwork.” “A clear clause,” Mom says as she slowly massages her temples, “that said no other public video transmissions can be made including people involved with the mission. And as family, they would consider us a part of the mission.” And I’m gone. “Cal, wait!” I slam my bedroom door and lean against it. Within seconds, my parents are back at it, and there’s a part of me that wants to turn around and fix this. To make things right again. They still fought before the astronaut thing, but rarely, and not like this. My fists clench as I argue with myself, wondering whether it’s worth sticking my neck out, trying to help them, trying to stop them. But that’s never worked. “You’re making me dread coming home, Becca. Every time I come back with good news, you fly off the handle!” “I’ve lived here my whole life.” Mom’s hurt voice creeps through my door. It’s like they’re having two separate conversations. Neither’s listening to the other. “This was our first home. I was born here, my … family was born here.” I hear what she doesn’t say—my aunt was born here too. She lived down the street from us for years. This street, this neighborhood is all tied up in memories of her. No wonder Mom doesn’t want to leave. “You didn’t have the decency to run it by me before you—” That’s all I let myself hear. This is another reason why my dad can’t be an astronaut: we’re clearly not fit to be an astronaut family. NASA picked their first astronauts for the Orpheus missions three years ago, in small groups—three or four added each time. Orpheus I through IV tested individual components of the spacecraft, each test more successful than the last. The families, though, became stars. What they have is flawless; their personal and professional stories follow a story arc that even I couldn’t write. It’s hard to look at them and not think they have everything my family doesn’t. The astronauts have heated arguments that line the pages of People magazine, and sure, sometimes one of the spouses will have a little too much to drink during brunch. But they still smile for the cameras. They know how to make their imperfections seem … perfect. In the end, they stay happy and supportive—two qualities my parents haven’t shown in a while. I plug my headphones into my retro tape deck and put them on. I add my new finds and sort through the rest of my eclectic collection of cassettes: Nirvana, Dolly Parton, Cheap Trick, bands and artists I only know thanks to my thrift store finds. I settle on Cheap Trick and jam it in, and let the guitar overtake the voices. Dad wants to be one of them. The astronauts, that is. Way more than he wants to be who he is now—an air force pilot turned commercial air pilot who wants to ditch the 747 for a spaceship. NASA announced they’d be hiring the final five astronauts for the Orpheus project. He applied months ago, when most of the spots had already been taken up. I didn’t have the heart to talk to him about his chances. I covered them all in my reports: one of the new recruits was an astrophysicist with a social media following nearing Kardashian levels, another a geologist/marine biologist who’d won two Oscars for her documentaries and even a Grammy for a spirited reading of her audiobook—which was a bestseller, of course. And those weren’t the most impressive ones. Dad’s a good pilot, I’m sure, but he’s not like them. He’s angry. Impatient. Surly. Okay, I’m not painting him in the best light. I mean, he is an okay dad in other ways—he’s super smart and gives killer advice on my calc homework. But it’s like everything my mom says hurts him like a physical attack. He snaps back, which triggers my mom’s anxiety. Their fighting isn’t camera ready. It’s messy, it’s real, in a way that’s too raw to be captured by a camera. If they can’t put on a show for me—at least pretend that everything’s okay, like Deb’s parents do—how can they put on a show for the world? I get through a few tracks while I sit on the floor and close my eyes. There’s nothing else but the music. And a few cars beeping outside. Okay, more than a few. This is Brooklyn, after all. After a while, a calmness pours over me, drowning out the fear. I feel … at peace. Alone and no longer worried about my future plans. Not worried about the BuzzFeed internship I start next week. Not worried about the hundreds of messages in my inbox—replies to the weekly Cal Letter (I couldn’t think of a clever name, don’t judge)—where I link to my videos along with important news stories, geared toward those who give a shit about the world. I think about these things, but I’m able to push them out of my mind for a few minutes, then a few more, until I have to get up and switch cassettes. The tension in my chest eases. It’s meditation. For me, it’s the most effective self-care system in the world. That is, until I hear a knock. Through noise-canceling headphones and blasted music, I hear it. Which means it’s less of a knock and more of a pound, but regardless, I take off my headphones and shout, “Yeah?” My mom peers into the room—she’s always afraid she’ll catch me doing “something,” and we all know what that “something” is, but I’m also not an idiot and can figure out how to do said “something” twice a day having never been caught thank you very much. But then I notice her expression. She’s tearing up, which is not good. See, she doesn’t cry. They fight, they yell, they make things seriously unpleasant for everyone in a two-apartment radius, but they don’t cry. They shout, then Mom retreats from the world and Dad goes for a walk. It’s how they process. Getting at each other’s throats, but not offending the other bad enough to let them carry their hurt to the next hour. And … here she is, crying. “I, um.” Mom comes into the doorway now. I scan her for bruises, for covered arms, for anything—though I know Dad would never hurt her like that, I never see her upset like this, so my mind reaches for options. Until she speaks. “Come into the family room. Your father has news.” News. My mind freezes. Did the phone ring sometime in the past hour? Did NASA interrupt their fight to tell Dad he was chosen for …? But that doesn’t make sense. We’re not like them. We’re not ever going to be like them. NASA should be able to figure that out, right? Before I get too far ahead of myself, I stop the tape and make my way to the door, seeing the empty space where my mother just stood. She turns the corner quickly, leaving just a fluttering patch of fabric in her wake. She’s running away from this conversation, and away from the face I know I made when she said “news.” Like it could mean anything else. I make it halfway down the hall when, pop, a champagne bottle confirms the fears flowing through my body. My gut turns to mush. My heart rate doubles. I feel it all over my body like an electric shock, but instead of causing sudden jerks of movement, everything is slow. My nerves dance, but my limbs won’t cooperate. All is ash and tasteless, and smells are weak, and I can’t even come up with metaphors that make sense because … “A glass for each of us—even for you, Cal. It’s a special occasion.” Dad hands them out, his happy face immune to the terrified, broken expressions on ours. “And a toast, well, to me. NASA’s newest astronaut.” It takes a few seconds for the words to sink in, and it’s like my brain is the last one to this party. My fists clench. Breaths won’t come. I feel the pressure building everywhere, in my back, my sinuses, my stomach. My legs ache as I repeat the word in my head: Astronaut. Astronaut. Astronaut. You know how sometimes you say a word so often it loses its meaning? That doesn’t happen. The definition sticks in my brain—and it’s even in the etymology. Astro-naut. Space explorer. What every three-year-old kid has not so secretly wanted to be since the sixties. I slam my champagne glass down with a clink and push past my mother. The hallway blurs by as I barrel into our bathroom. I don’t know what this means for my dad, my mom, or me. But I do know one thing: I’m going to be sick. Shooting Stars Season 1; Episode 6 EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: On this episode of Shooting Stars, astronaut Grace Tucker sits down with host Josh Farrow and gets straight to the question we get most from our loyal StarWatch fans. (First aired 6/15/2019) “Good evening, StarWatchers, I’m Josh Farrow. Tonight we welcome Grace Tucker: a fierce pilot, a brilliant engineer, and above all else, a determined astronaut. Who knows what role she’ll play in the Orpheus project? Will she assist from the ground, or could she possibly leave the first human footprint on the surface of Mars? It’s only her third month on the project, after all, but she’s made quite a name for herself. We have Grace in the studio tonight to discuss all this and more … Grace, thank you for joining us tonight. There are nine of you now, and NASA recently announced they will add up to eleven more to the Orpheus project over the next year.” “Thanks for having me, Josh. You and I know NASA wants the best astronauts. There was a time when NASA’s astronauts were only the toughest, roughest white men. Think back to the Mercury Seven and the New Nine—men like Deke Slayton, Alan Shepard, Jim Lovell, Pete Conrad. They were all smart as hell, sure, but in time NASA realized the benefit of diversity. Diversity in skill set; in place of life; in race, gender, identity, and orientation.” “Yes, of course. But we—Shooting Stars viewers—also know NASA has not always been at the forefront of these issues. Like how Mae Carol Jemison, the first black woman in space, went up on Endeavour in the early nineties. That was, what, thirty-some years after the space program was founded?” “Which, if I may interrupt, is why diversity in the space program has always been one of my top priorities, and I’ve made that clear from my first days at NASA. So I fully stand behind NASA’s decision here, and I look forward to meeting and flying with the new recruits.” “Let me put this another way: Do you think your chances of leading this flight are dropping, given how many new recruits NASA’s bringing on board?” “I’m not worried, Josh. Nothing’s a given in this environment—you must know that. I could be taken off the mission for getting the flu a day before launch. The government could pull funding; your fans could lose their interest. I just do my best every day. It’s all any of us can do.” CHAPTER 3 Maybe it’s the panic, but Grace’s first StarWatch interview plays in my mind. Over and over and over. It’s the only thing I can think of. Grace’s upright posture, her camera-ready attitude. Her subtle concern. I flush the toilet and stand to stare at my reflection. My face glistens with sweat, and my panted breaths fog the mirror. I wipe it away and start to brush my teeth, holding my own gaze like it’s the only thing keeping me here, keeping me grounded. My mind fills with more news stories. Local, national, gossip, blogs. The barely covered press release announcing the relocation of all astronaut families to Houston, the rumors of a shuttered mission—why spend money on space exploration when we could better fund schools or infrastructure? And I remember the moment it all changed. StarWatch Network announced its partnership with NASA, complete with a teaser episode of Shooting Stars featuring a pilot in a simulation cockpit. Sweat dripped down astronaut Mark Bannon’s brow as the narrator explained the test. During the simulation, as the craft entered Mars’s atmosphere, the screen goes blank. As the surface of Mars comes into view, fast, Mark resets the gauges. When this fails, he reaches for a pen and paper beneath his seat. The scene cuts to Mark entering coordinates and new trajectories into the still-glowing command module. As the craft nears the ground, all panels come back to life, giving Mark just enough time to make final adjustments before … thud. “Orpheus V has landed,” he says between breaths. Then the screen cuts to a message to tune in weekly to watch StarWatch’s new show: Shooting Stars. The uptick in attention the families got from adoring fans was instant. To some, they became American heroes; to some, they became the newest reality show. They’re interesting. They’re perfect. They’re … Not like us. “Calvin, honey?” My mom’s voice is hoarse. My parents file in after I gain the strength to unlock the door. Mom’s got the look of a concerned mother down perfectly, all creased brows and soft eyes. But my dad’s got a different expression. His mouth slants, and he seems detached from it all. I can’t tell if he’s annoyed, or just not tolerating my reaction. Yeah, it was a little much, but I don’t exactly have control over when my falafel cart lunch decides to make a fast escape. “Are you done?” he asks, and all my muscles tighten at once. “I’m fine,” I say. “I—uh—ate too much.” Dad chuckles and takes a generous sip of his drink. “Right. So it had nothing to do with—” “You overcoming literal impossible odds to become an astronaut?” I force a laugh. “No, not at all. For the record, it’s also not about the fact that we have to uproot our lives in a few months. It’s definitely got nothing to do with how I won’t be able to stream my reports anymore. It’s just a lot to take in, okay?” “Maybe they could let him keep doing the videos?” Mom says. “Why don’t you ask them when you go—” “I can’t believe this is what we’re talking about right now,” Dad says, splashing the rest of his champagne into the bathroom sink. “Look, I’m sorry you won’t be able to play on social media anymore, but this is real life.” I choke back a laugh. “Real life? I have to give up my journalism, plus my entire life, because a reality show says so. You really think what I do is less ‘real’ than StarWatch?” My mom’s caught between us in our tiny bathroom. She’s wringing her hands and looking back and forth. Not daring to say anything else. When she and Dad fight, she always knows what to say, never backs down. But now, her face is frozen between panic and helplessness. I know this isn’t good for her anxiety, so I take a deep breath to calm myself. I squeeze by her and into the hall and break into a quick walk to my room. “Cal,” Dad says, and I stop. It’s short, but not sweet. His voice has an edge of pity to it. “I’ll … I can ask them.” “No, it’s fine,” I say. “It’s great, actually. Why would I need to do the one thing I’m good at and actually enjoy, when I could be out there enjoying the Lone Star State? I’ve always loved the allure of Texas. Tripping over Republicans every other step, somehow keeping vegetarian in the land of Tex-Mex and barbecue ribs, it’s a literal dream come true.” I’m being selfish right now, and I know it. But this whole thing is born of selfishness. Dad didn’t tell us he was going to apply. He didn’t explain what would happen if he got in. He just plopped a binder on the kitchen table one day. It was his portfolio—I have no idea why his résumé needed to be in a three-ring binder, especially when you could have just as easily scribbled “Delta” on a napkin and used that. And then we waited. Well, he waited. Mom and I gave him shit, because that was so much easier than accepting that he could actually make it in. He could change our lives, make us regulars on Shooting Stars, which, despite its patriotic and unifying start, slowly devolved into the overdramatic, ratings-hungry reality show it is now. But he never asked if that’s what we wanted. “Jesus. Get it together,” he says. Looking at my mom’s eyes, I can tell we’re in agreement here. “Let’s leave him alone for a bit,” Mom says, voice squeaking, and ushers him away. I can breathe easier, even if just for a second, even though I know what’s about to happen. “It’s not my fault he can’t process it. Neither of you seem to get how important this is.” His voice rises. “I’ve worked my whole life for this.” “I think you can drop that,” Mom says. Her voice is stronger now. Anxiety be damned, she doesn’t take his shit. “We’ve been together seventeen years, and we all knew you loved space, but you never mentioned considering being an astronaut until you slapped us with that ridiculous binder.” I take the opportunity to flee to my bedroom. As I’m shutting the door, though, Dad comes stomping back down the hall. “Wait!” I do, briefly. I take a deep breath and push out the nicest response I can muster. “I can’t be excited for you right now. I have to go clear out the troll comments on my video, plus my BuzzFeed internship starts on Monday, and I have forms to fill out. We’ll talk later.” “Cal, you don’t get it,” Dad says. He looks nervous now. “We don’t have time to wait for you to get on board.” A beat, and all the energy gets sapped from the room. My legs feel wobbly. I feel my heart rate spike, and my hand feels slimy on the doorknob. I breathe, but it’s shallow and unfulfilling. “We need to start packing tonight,” he says. “They’ve got a house for us.” “What do you—” “We’re moving on Monday.” My insides stop working. I’m experiencing literal—okay, figurative—organ failure right now. I just stare, and blink, and stare again. Then I pull back and unfreeze my body for a second. Just enough to clench my fingers around the doorframe and slam the door in his face. I click the button lock and dash to my headphones. I press play on the cassette deck and let the sounds pump through, blocking out the shouting and the expectations and my frustrations. I block it all out. For a few minutes. The music isn’t working. I can’t concentrate, and everything sounds like noise and makes me tense up. I feel angry and sad, but I don’t know which feeling brings the tears to my eyes faster. I start to cry, but I take off my headphones before I let myself do it. I can’t let him hear. My parents resume fighting in the other room. Well, not fighting, actually. It’s a discussion. I hear numbers being thrown out, and words like “movers” and “salary” and know they won’t be settling this anytime soon. I pull out my phone and send a text to Deb. Can I come down? Need to get out of here for a min She responds in a flash. Yeah, we heard the stomping. Door or window? I send her an emoji of a window and double-check that my door’s locked. They wouldn’t mind me going down to talk to Deb—it’s only one flight down—but I can’t bear to look at them right now. I imagine them coming to check on me and hearing no response. They’d think I was ignoring them, or if they used that little gold key above the doorframe, they’d know I bailed. And they’d stop the fighting for one second, and they’d sigh “oh shit” at the same time. And for once, I wouldn’t be the one trying to make things better, to fix our problems. Finally, something would be about me. I lift the window, then the screen. I duck out onto the fire escape and feel the wind tear through my body. I welcome the feeling, refreshing and calming, and stretch out on the landing. My eyes scan the world beneath me, all strollers and parents and dogs, rushing home for dinner before the sun finally sets. Bikes and cars and trucks and brick buildings line the avenue. Beyond that, the trees block my view of brownstones. This might be the last time I stand out here. This might be my last weekend living in Brooklyn. When I reach the third floor, I hesitate at the open window. Her sheer curtains are drawn, and I see her silhouette frantically darting back and forth—she’s probably throwing all her dirty laundry in the hamper so I can find a place to sit. It hits me so hard I stagger back and lean against the railing: I’m about to tell my best friend that I’m leaving immediately, indefinitely. Probably. Unless there’s some chance Dad’s being majorly pranked. She pushes aside the curtains, and I gasp. The moment she sees my face, which must be lined with tears, her jaw drops. A familiar pang hits me in the chest. I’ve seen this expression before. I’ve given her this expression before. Last year, I crawled in her window, a panicked mess, to break up with her. For some reason, I didn’t ease her into it with talking about us growing apart or going different directions, or wanting to focus on school or exploring other options. These were all phrases I had rehearsed. But she was my girlfriend … and my best friend. She deserved more than a weak excuse, so I went right to the point: “I kissed Jeremy.” We talked it out, and—months later—she accepted my apology. The thing was, Jeremy was always there in the back of my mind. He was the unattainable senior, and I was content with Deb. Unfortunately for her, I found something better than content as I sunk into his lips, the taste of Coors Light on our tongues. I found a fire, a passion that I was missing. My identity seems to change by the minute, but I knew I was queer—and Deb did too. The hardest thing for her to accept was that it wasn’t that I didn’t like cishet girls … I just didn’t like her like that, and after dating for three months, I wanted to find someone I did like. And I found Jeremy. Two weeks later, Jeremy found someone else. “Calvin?” She grabs my hand and pulls me closer. “Come in. What’s—wow, last time I saw you looking like this I had to bring you back from a panic attack so you could break up with me. What’s going on, babe?” My breaths aren’t coming easily. I’m suffocating, drowning in the overwhelming pink of her room. The pink beanbag chair with the pink fuzzy pillow and the—why can’t I breathe?—pink rug that I’m somehow lying on now, though I don’t remember crawling in through the window. I focus on a point on the ceiling, and I don’t let it go. Breathe in. Breathe out. Slowly, I pull myself together. I’m okay. “I’m okay.” Deb rolls her eyes. “Yes, I see that.” “I’m leaving. On Monday. Dad’s a fucking astronaut.” This is when she busts out laughing. Like, I’m still crying, and she is one-hundred-percent losing her shit. I can see her try to hold it together—clenching, biting her lip—but nothing’s working. “Oh, god, this is bad. Sorry.” She pauses to grab my arm. “It’s just so fucking unlikely. Your dad’s the least qualified person for this job.” I shrug. “I mean, he’s a pilot, I guess.” “For Delta.” She leans on that word like it tastes bad in her mouth. “He’s got to be the first nonscientist they’ve picked since, like, the seventies.” I decide not to tell her that his degree in aeronautical engineering does make him a scientist. “Focus.” I reach out to her, and all the air’s sucked from the room. She breaks eye contact and starts picking at the chipped paint on her toenail. “I’m leaving, Deb. On Monday, apparently. We’re moving to Houston, and I don’t know when I’m coming back. Or if I’m coming back.” It’s as if the world reacts to my words. A cloud passes by, casting the window in shade. The pink around me dims. Her lips almost pout as she considers me. She’s not laughing anymore. So, no, I didn’t love her like that. But I do love her. From the moment we met at the mailbox downstairs, when I was geeking out about the vintage Prince cassette I’d just scored off eBay. She’d just moved in that day, but that didn’t stop her from relentlessly mocking my obsession with cassettes. That didn’t curb my enthusiasm. I started rambling about it, about how much smoother cassettes sounded and how they had a quality she could never find in a digital copy or CD. I talked so much, I kind of forgot that my room was a disaster, even after I invited her up. She sat on my bed, which was totally unmade, and just listened. She definitely didn’t get it. The cassette thing. But she listened anyway. That whole year was spent falling into an easy friendship with her. One where I never had to ask if she was free later; I’d ask her, “What are we doing later?” We spent so much time together, it was like we were dating. Going from friends to more was easy too. Suddenly, we were dating, and it all felt the same. The same, though, wasn’t what I wanted. Where I sought fire and excitement, I got the same calm, comfortable relationship we’d always had. “What about BuzzFeed?” she asks, cutting through my memories. I pause. After my coverage of the midterm election got picked up by the national news, plus one full year of building my following and reputation as a reporter, BuzzFeed News offered me a summer internship to help with video content for their new local New York City feature. When I walked into the headquarters, with its yellow walls and couches everywhere, I knew I was somewhere special. With the laughing twentysomethings and their thick-rimmed glasses, phones always up on top of laptops in open meeting spaces. It was a dream. It was supposed to start next week. It was … “Not going to happen.” I realize it as I say it. Everything I’ve worked for. A foot in the door with a career in media journalism. Stolen away by the astronauts. “Fuck, this sucks. What do I even tell them?” “Tell them you’ll cover the Mars missions. They post a new article about the families like every day.” “On the entertainment page. I was supposed to cover city news.” I gesture to the window. “And StarWatch has a gag order on any other video, or really anything, coming out of Clear Lake, Texas. Once Dad signs that contract, I’ll be a part of the show. I won’t even be able to do my FlashFame vids anymore.” “That’s (a) not fair, and (b) wait, I just realized you’re going to be on Shooting Stars. Oh my god, Josh Farrow is going to be saying your name, aloud, on TV.” I groan. “I can’t even process that you still watch that show. It’s all perfect families, fancy parties, and petty gossip nowadays. We’ll never be able to fit in with those people.” The tension balls up in my chest. “First of all, it is a fantastic television program.” She pronounces each word with extra force. “Okay, yeah, it’s a little petty. But hey, they’re entertaining at least. Don’t act like you aren’t a little starry-eyed—pun intended. You were just as invested as everyone else until you found out your dad got an interview.” “Sure, I covered all the new astronauts and reported on the months-long debate about financing Orpheus before the Senate finally passed that funding bill. They were news stories that mattered.” “Well, maybe I think watching astronauts get drunk off champagne before falling face-first into a bush matters too,” she jokes. At least, I hope that was a joke. Either way, I roll my eyes. “I even did that in-depth report on all the drama NASA caused by buying out every house on the market in Clear Lake, and it got picked up by the Washington Post.” She nods, sagely, as I ramble through my frustration. Clear Lake City is conveniently close to NASA’s Johnson Space Center. When the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts—and, of course, all the related teams—relocated here from their respective towns, Clear Lake and a few surrounding areas became known for being the home of astronauts. American heroes who made their front lawns the Hollywood of the South. There was more than celebrity appeal then, however, and the same is true now. “StarWatch thinks people don’t care about the science of it,” I say. “Plus, the exploration, what it could mean for our planet, anything. It’s so scripted and boring. You know a producer is behind the scenes, stoking the fire or asking pointed questions.” She sighs. “We’re getting off track. Forget them—let’s get back to you. At least ask BuzzFeed if you could do the internship from Texas? You might not lose this opportunity if you try. I’m sure they can be flexible. It’s not the Times.” “I will,” I say. “It’ll give me something to do on the car ride to Texas.” She laughs and punches me in the shoulder. “NASA won’t pay for a jet? Come on!” “You know Dad wouldn’t go for that. He’s spent the past decade moving the car for street cleanings twice a week, even though we use it a handful of times a year. He’s not going to get rid of it. He’s going to make us all load up the car and go. Forever.” She pulls me into a hug, and I reach around her body and hold her close. “What am I going to do without you?” she asks. I know the question isn’t exactly rhetorical. At least once a week, she’ll tap on my window, needing an escape from her family. They fight too. Maybe all parents fight, I don’t know. But with Deb’s parents … their fights are always … scarier. More desperate. The echoed sound of a fist breaking through a particleboard door settles in my head. They break her heart, and I fix it. That’s how it’s always gone. Whether it’s splitting vegan frozen yogurt at Pinkberry or impromptu slumber parties, fixing her pain—or at least distracting her from it—puts me at ease. A shiver runs through my body as the truth breaks through. Sometimes, it feels like the only thing keeping me stable is the shield I put up. Cal the performer is always put together. Cal the friend is always there to fix your problems. I try, but I can’t even picture the real Cal. The one without a carefully planned video schedule and content calendar, the one who has a clear vision of his future, the one without anyone to turn to. And I especially can’t picture any version of myself in Clear Lake, Texas. I rest my head on Deb’s shoulder and fight back the tears. I’m a little more successful this time, so I get the courage to tell her: “I’m really going to miss you, Deb.” I nod toward the fire escape, and she follows me out there. We take our usual spots, me a few steps higher than her, the wrought iron crisscrossed grate I sit on hurting my ass. The wind is cutting, though it’s a warm day in spring, and my hair is a disaster. It’s all perfect. The sun’s almost set, but we could be out here all night for all I care. “Everything’s going to change,” I say. Deb releases a bark of laughter. “Is that so bad?” She bites her lip, and her eyes glisten and puff up. I know Deb could use a change. The only reason Deb is okay now is because she’s working the register at Paper Source, which means she can avoid her family for most of the day and night, depending on the shifts she picks up. I know she’d run if she could, but that doesn’t make it any better, for either of us. I wish I could bring her along, to have someone with me on this trip who doesn’t drive me mad like Mom and Dad do. “It might not be so bad—god, why am I tearing up right now?” She takes a moment to rub each eye with her sleeve. “I’ll visit you, and you’ll come back when you can. You’ll end up back in Brooklyn eventually, for good, don’t you think?” “Oh, um, probably.” I hadn’t yet thought about coming back, really, because I never thought about leaving. Too much. “It’s too much,” I say. “Promise me …” She points to my phone. “Promise me you won’t stop. Keep streaming all your news stories. “You know how fickle fans are. If you take a year off, I’m afraid … once you move back here, you won’t have anything left to come back to.” She’s right. Her words slap me across the face, waking some fire within me. I have my next decade planned out meticulously. I have the college brochures on my desk, the SAT prep courses scheduled. I knew exactly how I was getting into my career. If I leave, even for a year, I could lose so much. “I know it’s against the rules or whatever,” she says, “but I say post everything you can until StarWatch pries that phone from your hands.” There’s nothing I can do to change NASA’s mind. There’s nothing I can do to stop this move. The only thing I can control is sitting in the palm of my hand. A spark of rebellion warms my soul. It’s not the smartest move, and it could get my family in trouble, but maybe Clear Lake, Texas, has a story out there just waiting for me to uncover. Shooting Stars Season 1; Episode 10 EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: The Tucker family’s house has a reputation for being party central when it comes to welcoming new astronauts, honoring achievements, or celebrating holidays. In this episode, we pay a visit to Grace, Tony, Leon, and Katherine Tucker to get an inside look at their home and to learn more about the sacrifices the family’s made for the Orpheus project. (First aired 7/17/2019) “Good evening to all our viewers. I’m Josh Farrow, and I’d like to welcome you to another new episode of Shooting Stars. Tonight I’ll be taking you on a very special tour through the Tucker family home. But first, I thought it would be nice to catch up with our astronaut family du jour: Grace Tucker, her husband, Tony, and their children, Leon and Katherine. It’s been a few months since we last got to chat, Grace, isn’t that right?” “Yes, and I can’t believe how much has changed in such a short time. I want to thank all the viewers for their help. Without your support, and the thousands of calls and emails to Senate and Congress members … well, let’s just say we might not be sitting here right now.” “Couldn’t have said it better myself. So, last time I was here, we did a quick interview with Grace on that couch, but we only talked business. I want to know more about you all as a family. Leon, with a mother like Grace, you have a lot to live up to. However, you seem to be doing so in your own unique way. By this point we all know about your great talent for gymnastics—in fact, Tony was just telling me about your impromptu gym session today. No pressure, of course, but a few of our fans want to know, do you think we’ll be seeing you compete anytime soon?” “I’m … not so sure about that. I’ve only been back once so far. Still looking for the right trainer. Kat dragged me to a gymnastics center in Houston earlier today, and I spent some time on the rings, hit the mat, and … face-planted a few times. I’m not quite so sure I’m competition material anymore.” “My brother’s being a little too humble. See, back in Indiana, Leon was basically guaranteed a spot in the USA Gymnastics Elite Squad for his age group. But when we moved here, it was hard for all of us to get into the right rhythm. Plus, our new school is a lot more competitive—academically, I mean. Having said all that, we all know he’s still competition material.” “That’s great to hear—and I love to see the supportive bond you two have. My sister and I are a year apart too, but we’ve always been far too competitive to have that kind of relationship! Before we go to break, I wanted to let viewers know we’ve actually acquired some fan-submitted videos of the Tucker kids at the gym. Our viewers can go to StarWatch.TV to see those videos. Once you’re there, read on to take a look back on how Leon’s promising career in gymnastics may have been cut short years before a potential Team USA Olympics run. As we know, he’s not the only family member whose life or career was affected by the Orpheus missions. With a full StarWatch pass, you’ll get access to a new miniseries that takes an in-depth look at the astronauts’ loved ones and the dreams they’ve left behind.” CHAPTER 4 The weekend goes too fast. Way too fast. A few days ago, I never thought I’d leave my nook of a bedroom, with the tiny bookshelf, twin bed, and tape deck. But now, it really hits me. I’m leaving Brooklyn. “Look, buddy,” Dad starts. I hate when he calls me that. So I just keep looking into my bowl of ice cream. I shuffle my feet out of habit, feeling them stick to the stone floor just slightly. This shop’s been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, serving the same four ice-cream flavors. Unlike a lot of Brooklyn—new Brooklyn, at least—it’s a no-frills kind of place. Ice cream in the summer. Soup in the winter. And really, both foods usually warm my heart. Today, though, my chest is too heavy. There are some pains even ice cream can’t fix. “I want you to know that … I get it. I know how hard this can be. I was a military brat—my parents moved me all over the place, and I hated it every single time. I resented them for it, and I know you will too, but I hope one day you’ll understand.” “And I hope …,” I start, not sure how to express the jumble that’s in my chest … how to say it in a way that will make him take my work seriously for once. “I hope you know what this is costing me. I know you’ve always treated my videos as a hobby, and I’m sure it looks that way for you. You don’t even watch them. So you don’t see the time I put into my reports. You don’t see the folders I have on my drive—portfolios to help me get into journalism schools after I graduate, all my research on writing scholarships to help pay for college. It took so much work to build this following, and having to abandon something like this just … sucks.” “I know.” Dad takes a big bite of ice cream. I follow suit. “I should have been more honest with you two in the beginning. That way you could have worked this into your plan. I know how you think—though, I have no idea where you got the planning gene, with how your mom and I are. It’s something I’m going to work on. But I need you to get on board, and help your mom do the same, okay?” I shrug. A half-hearted gesture is all I can offer right now. Pushing aside the rest of my ice cream, I take one last look at the small shop. I’m going to miss the sticky floor, the water-stained ceiling tiles, the enormous plastic ice-cream cone outside the storefront—the paint is chipping, yet it still manages to creepily light up at night. Right now, movers are loading boxes into the truck. Boxes containing my entire life are about to be flung across the country. I sigh, and the chill of the ice cream finally catches up to me, until a firm hand grips my shoulder. Dad’s voice is almost a whisper. “I’m going to miss it here too.” “I still can’t believe you get to meet the astronauts,” Deb says while Dad loads our suitcases into the trunk of our car. “You’ll get to meet Grace Tucker and Mark Bannon. Like, actually speak to them. Maybe touch them?” I roll my eyes. “I think we’ll take it slow, at first. What with them being double my age, and always on the news.” “Oh, shut it.” She slaps me on the arm. “You know what I mean.” The thought of meeting Mark Bannon, one of the first astronauts picked for the project, immediately intimidates me. I did one report on him that focused on his advocacy for the space program, back before we even knew if Orpheus V would earn the funding to get off the ground. It got me a ton of new followers—the same ones who are probably complaining that I don’t do those updates anymore. I know him as a Hulk-like presence who still somehow always looks ready for the cameras. He’s got an animated, passionate personality reminiscent of the Apollo astronauts, and I wonder if the rumors are true, about him and Grace vying for the same spot on the Orpheus V mission. I think back to Grace’s Shooting Stars interview—which I only watched for research purposes, and maybe because I was a little interested in these new pseudocelebrities—and something about her stubbornness inspired me. How down-to-earth she was, when Josh Farrow wanted her to reveal some tension between the astronauts. Maybe there’s more to this mission. Maybe there are real people under this facade. A real story. The rush creeps back inside me. Blood pulses through my veins. I pull up the latest issue of Time on my phone and see the Tuckers’ faces beaming up at me. Deb, a notorious space invader, creeps up behind me. “God, they’re beautiful,” she says. My gaze drifts to their son, Leon Tucker. His smoldering stare makes my pulse spike. She’s not wrong. “Could you imagine us on that cover? Me and my parents? We’ll never pull this off.” I clear my throat. “You know where you watch a movie or read a book or something, and the main character switches schools and is worried about not fitting in, or making new friends? I’m not … I’m not feeling any of that.” She considers me softly, with a subtle arch of her brow. So I continue. “I’ll make friends—or I won’t, I don’t know. People generally suck anyway—but my family won’t fit in. Mom’s anxiety’s gotten so bad she barely leaves home anymore, except to go walk around Prospect Park. And they’ve been fighting so much since Dad applied. The other astronauts are all on another level, and their kids are too. Am I a near-Olympic-level gymnast like Leon Tucker? I just feel so … inadequate.” “Calvin, you have like half a million FlashFame followers. You’ve given reports that literally helped sway an election. And even if you have to give it up, you still got the chance at a BuzzFeed internship as a seventeen-year-old—they don’t just give those out.” She places an arm on my shoulder and lets her words sink in. “You’re more than adequate, babe. You’ll fit in. All of you. But you’ll have to let them in too. You’ve got to get behind this mission—I mean, after the shitshow America’s become over the past few years, we all actually have something to rally behind and be proud of. We’re going to fucking Mars. And in whatever way NASA deems appropriate, you, your mom, and your dad are going to help us get there.” “I know,” I say. And I do. In this moment, just barely, the sparkle of the mission leaves me breathless. To be a part of history, to play a tiny role in this massive scientific undertaking. I keep my voice low so my parents can’t overhear. “I thought if I ignored everything that’s happened over the past year … I don’t know, I guess I thought that if I didn’t put any faith in it—” “Your dad wouldn’t get picked?” “No, not that. I thought if I could stay grounded and make this feel unreal for all of us, then I could be the realist who helped … put Dad back together when he eventually got the crushing no.” “Noble,” she says. “But that’s not your job.” “It’s a compulsion,” I say. “I want things to be … right. People to be happy.” “But sometimes that bites you in the ass. Like when you told me about Jeremy,” she says unflinchingly, “and then I had to hold your hand and coach your breathing after I found out you cheated on me. But you wouldn’t leave—you needed me to be okay, you needed to fix our relationship.” “Are you still pissed at me?” “Oh my god,” she says. “You’re doing it again! No, I wouldn’t be this flippant if I was still holding a grudge, Calvin.” Deb throws her arms around me, and I’m enveloped in a floral scent. Not like roses or lavender, but like a fall-scented candle in the middle of a potpourri bowl. It’s comforting. But I can’t bring myself to hug her back. She continues. “But you couldn’t magically fix us. I just needed time. And you can’t fix your parents.” When I lay my head on her shoulder, the tears soak into her shirt. “So let’s make a game plan,” Deb says after a moment of silence. “We’ve only got one year left of school, unless you fail out, which would fuck up all my planning, so don’t do that. Depending on when our graduations are, we can find a place as early as May. I’ve got a job, and maybe your family would be rich by then, so we could find a place together in Brooklyn.” “What kind of place are we going to find?” “I don’t know, some closet in Bed Stuy? We can live in Coney Island for all I care. I just need out.” The desperation in her voice hits me. “Deb, what’s going on?” There’s a pause, where my heart makes its way down into my stomach. She doesn’t hesitate. She’s not like this. “It’s just not great at home lately,” she says, and I get the feeling that’s the understatement of the millennium. She drops her voice to a whisper. “Okay, well, it’s awful actually. My parents have been around all the time since my pa got laid off. Unemployment is only going so far.” “I thought he was going off on his own?” I ask. Her dad was a designer for a big corporation and said this layoff was the perfect excuse to start his own design firm. “That’s it. He’s got a few clients, he has business cards, he’s draining his unemployment buying new computers and software, but he’s not even registering his company. Mom’s always fighting with him, because having income and taking in unemployment is illegal, but fuck, we still barely have enough money to live off.” She clears her throat. “They’ve been using my money. Some of it, for groceries and rent and stuff.” “That’s not fair!” I shout. “You work really hard for that.” “I know, I know, but they kind of have a point—I’m the only one with a steady income, and they’ve taken care of me for so long, I should help a little, I guess. But Cal, I don’t even know if we have health insurance anymore.” “And you think you’ll be able to just up and leave them next year? How will you even save up the money if they’re taking it?” She sighs, long and slow. “I don’t know yet. But I’ll figure it out, even if I have to crack open my radiator and hide it in there.” “Don’t worry,” I say. There’s one way I can fix this situation. “I’m coming back as soon as I can. If you can just wait until I graduate. I’ll be eighteen; there are plenty of schools up here on my list. NYU, St. John’s, Columbia—I’d need a scholarship, probably, but I think we could actually make it work.” “Cal, honey?” Mom joins our conversation and gestures lightly toward the car. Her face is strained, almost like she’s in pain. I know she’s sad. I know she hates the thought of leaving our home. I see the way she tenses her shoulders and grits her teeth. And I hate that I want to beg her to stay and keep me here. Let Dad do this on his own. “Are you almost ready to say goodbye?” “We don’t have to do this,” I say. It’s almost a whisper, and I feel Deb’s embarrassment from here. But I have to say this. “NASA’s making Dad move there. Not all of us too. It’s not fair—have you even googled Houston? It’s a cesspool.” “Believe me, I have. Clear Lake City is different, but it’s beautiful in a suburban way. And I think I understand it. Why they’re making everyone move to the same town where the first astronauts lived. I can’t even go on Facebook without seeing all my college friends post about them. And though I’m so sad to be leaving my hometown of forty-three years, it’s something I have to do. It’s something we have to do, for your dad.” Her feathered brown hair covers half her face. She places a palm on my shoulder and gives me a smile that never quite reaches its full potential. “Plus,” she adds, “with your dad’s temper, I give it a week before he gets kicked out.” We laugh, but once the laughter fades into awkward silence, I know it’s time. We’re one drive away from a new life. Which means I have three days and a twenty-four-hour drive to figure out how to exist in the town of astronauts. Outside the car, I give Deb a hug and a kiss goodbye. Both are short, and awkward, partially because of the move and partially because of my mom’s eyes lingering on us. “Love you,” I say. Deb smiles. “I know.” I settle into the back seat and roll down the window, savoring the last couple of minutes with my best friend. But we don’t say anything. Really, what is there to say at this point? Except, just, goodbye. Once we’re on the road, I busy myself by pulling up all the information I can find about the Orpheus program. Its goals, what it means for our country—outside of the entertainment factor, that is. Orpheus V will take six astronauts to Mars, where they’ll build a temporary Martian base, execute some elaborate excavation plans, and perform scientific experiments. Not long after that, Orpheus VI and VII will be on their way, bringing supplies to Mars to set up a permanent base, while Orpheus V sweeps back toward Earth, carrying a ton of soil and rock samples. I switch to the full Time story and see variations on the Tucker family portrait. Their eyes stare back at me; their faces hide all emotion behind them. Where I look for panic, I see reserved excitement. Practiced excitement. Grace Tucker’s two teens play their roles well—Leon, the serious, Olympics-bound brother (who is supremely hot, if that wasn’t clear), and Katherine, the precocious sister. It makes me wonder … what role will I play? The article has a few more pictures spread out of the family together, posed on sets from the sixties. It reminds me of some of the old magazines I’ve seen. A wholesome family candid, with the family around the small box television with its wooden frame and obnoxious antenna. “Do you know much about the sixties? Like, the Apollo missions?” I ask. Dad fake swerves the car and gasps. I roll my eyes. Mom shakes her head but doesn’t start a fight. “You’re asking about the sixties? You’re asking me and not Siri?” “Dad, no one actually uses Siri. And whatever, I’ll just look it up,” I say, knowing he will absolutely not let me do that, now I’ve shown an interest. “So clearly, I wasn’t around then, but the sixties and early seventies were the golden age of spaceflight.” I catch his eye, and I can see the sparkle from here. “See, the astronauts moved to Clear Lake and the surrounding areas, and they all lived together, partied together, mourned together, and, eventually, some of them took America to the moon and back. It was a scene, like nothing that’s ever happened before. I know you don’t care for Shooting Stars, but even back then, the town was always swamped with the press. You couldn’t get a car down the street to save your life on launch days because of all the news trucks and fans. It was like Hollywood or something.” “You showed me those articles once before, I think.” “I have all the good ones in the storage unit. Not doing much good there, I guess. But the country was obsessed with the astronauts. The whole country held their breath as mathematics and sheer brilliance brought back the Apollo 13 crew from the explosion that could have taken their lives. And they mourned when the Apollo 1 flight crew were burned alive on the test pad, thanks to a vulnerable wire and a pure oxygen atmosphere.” A silence fills the car. “They were the true American heroes, all of them.” I listen to him talk, and I’m mesmerized. He cares so much, but I never really knew. I mean, he had a few books on this; he obviously loved flying planes … which is also why this eight-billion-mile road trip was utterly confusing for me. Was this really his dream all along? Was I never paying attention? “That’s cool, Dad.” “You think so?” My mom laughs at this and places her hand softly on my dad’s leg. I feel the connection in the car. It’s warm, and for one moment, we’re all smiling. I can’t even think of the last time we were content to be around one another. No shouting. No slammed doors, no loud music to drown it all out. I know it can’t last. I know my parents, and a part of me wonders if this truly is happiness or defeated acceptance. But I savor the moment as I pull up old paparazzi photos and Shooting Stars clips. I start taking note of everyone’s expressions: crisp, practiced, perfect. Are they all that good at faking it? Or do they actually buy into all this? I’m looking for a flaw, but I can’t find the reality behind the show. Until I come upon a candid shot from one of the parties—looks like another mixer at the Tuckers’ house. Grace has on a sleek, formfitting red cocktail dress; her laugh looks so pure it makes you want to join in. But in the background— “Leon,” I say. Mom turns around. “What’s that?” “Oh, I mean, nothing.” I return to the image. “Just thinking.” He’s sitting on their couch, the glow of his phone illuminating his face. But he’s looking up at the spectacle of it all, just past the camera. And there’s a brooding there that pulls me in. I’m interested in him purely from a journalistic standpoint, I remind myself, even as his narrowed eyes and sharp jaw pierce through my chest. It’s easy to crush on him for being insanely good looking, sure, but what appeals to me the most is his expression. There’s a fire that burns behind those eyes, and I cling to hope that maybe he’s a cynic, like me. My breath catches, and my hand reaches out to the picture. I might be imagining it, but I still cling onto the hope that someone in that suburb could actually be my ally. Or maybe … maybe something more. CHAPTER 5 Praise me, for I have lived through a twenty-four-hour car ride. I have lived through two nights in crappy hotels—believe me, the best hotel in Higginsville, Mississippi, is roughly a negative-three-star hotel by New York standards. I survived staying in the same hotel room as my parents, in tiny rooms with thin walls and two double beds. I have lived through figurative hell, and my reward? Arriving in literal hell. Clear Lake, Texas, at ninety-two degrees. I step out of the car and survey my new hometown. The heat is wet—the humidity clings to my body, to my lungs, to my eyelids. We’ve pulled into a park to stretch our legs as we wait for our NASA rep to come show us to our new house. There’s a swing set, a few of those rocking ponies, and an old metal slide all on a bed of wood chips. I try to imagine the kids of the Mercury astronauts from the early sixties—Astrokids, I think they were called—playing in this same park. I imagine a picture-perfect mom holding an infant in her arm while pushing a toddler in the little swing that looks like a plastic sumo uniform. Standing here in this swampy mess of a day, I wonder how much they had to fake it for the cameras. Put on a happy face, retouching their makeup between diaper changes and photo shoots. The astronauts had their jobs—to get us to the moon—but their wives had it even harder. They had to fit in, raise their children, take care of the house, the lawn, the gardens, the cooking, the baking, the parties, all while caking on the makeup. The Astrokids must have played their parts just as well—rambunctious when the magazines wanted them to be, calm and pensive at other times. I groan when I think about playing that part now. “Cal!” Dad shouts. He’s in good spirits, which is the only positive thing to come from this sweaty nightmare. “The NASA guy is pulling up now.” Dad’s smile reminds me again of the absence of fighting between all of us. It’s like we’re back to the pseudonormalcy of our pre-NASA days. Dad has plenty of reasons to be happy, but why is my mom smiling too? Does she not want to shatter his fragile happiness? Is she pushing down her feelings? Her angst about being taken away from Brooklyn, her irritation for the duties that are about to be added on top of the fifty hours a week she spends coding? The spouses aren’t like the astronaut wives of the sixties—prim, perfect, calm, sober—but there’s still an expectation. Or is she actually … happy? Hopeful? That thought makes me nauseous. She was supposed to be on my side. The “NASA guy” gets out of his car, and quickly makes his way to Dad. He’s supremely put together, with his short but styled blond hair, checkered shirt buttoned to the top with no tie, and gray slacks that fade into brown boots. The fact he’s in anything but shorts makes me sweat doubly on his behalf. Are Texans just immune to this? He shakes my hand as soon as I get to the group. “Brendan,” he says. “You must be Calvin Junior.” I offer a faint smile. “That’s Calvin,” I say, pointing to my dad. “Call me Cal.” “Got it. Well, do you want to see your new house?” he asks. “Get ready for it. NASA’s been big on bringing back the retro appeal.” He rolls his eyes briefly, but his smirk says it all: it may be over the top, but it’s worth it. The town’s not awful. It’s even kind of cute. There’s a different kind of history here. Modern history. Brooklyn has homes that date back 150 years—even our apartment had the original hardwood floors from the early 1900s. We pull up to our house, and I take in the pristine lawn, which fades into the precisely cut bushes lining the house. It’s been so recently painted you can see a glossy shine. The windows sparkle; the mailbox has our last name etched into it. There’s something so real about this place, and it counters everything I got from the park. Seeing the pictures, reading the stories, it all seemed perfect. And this kind of … is perfect. I watch my dad take it all in, his smile gone—his expression replaced with a look of pure wonderment. If I’m feeling this way, I can only imagine the thoughts going through his head. “As I’m sure you know, we’ve got a little … media problem here,” Brendan says as he unlocks the door to our new house and steps inside. “Mostly local news, people looking for anything to trend. A few amateurs who want to sell footage to StarWatch, which is a whole other beast you’ll need to prepare for. But there are strict rules, even for StarWatch: They get full filming rights inside the astronauts’ houses—within reason, of course—and at the space station, but at the end of the day, it’s your home. You decide whether to let them in, keep them outside, or kick them out.” Brendan and I share a smile, and there’s a strange comfort in having clear boundaries and a little bit of control over our new life. “So why isn’t anyone here now?” Dad asks, disappointment hitting his face. Like he’s actually looking forward to getting assaulted by the press. Brendan laughs. “NASA’s holding a press conference now and mentioned important updates, so every camera in the city is there. The media team tricked them into thinking we’re announcing the final astronaut, basically, so they didn’t swarm you right away. Don’t worry, we’ll let you settle in first.” I hear my mom’s sigh of relief from here. When our eyes meet, a quirk of a smile hits her face. Even if Dad doesn’t end up on a flight, this is going to be a wild ride. “Does everyone who works at NASA have this problem?” I ask. “Well, I don’t. Since the news isn’t very excited about the soil samples I work on.” He chuckles, and ends with a high-pitched huff. “But the astronauts have to deal with it, all of them. They’re—you’re—the interesting ones.” “I mean, soil can be interesting, I guess?” “My team thinks so, but I doubt the general public does. Not yet at least.” He shrugs. “Rovers send back a ton of great data, but they can only do so much—we’ll get the first samples back after the Orpheus VI flyby, where we can do real tests, study the soil in a lab, that stuff.” If there’s one thing I know about the “general public,” it’s that no self-professed media pro actually knows what the public is interested in. Sometimes trial and error is worth a shot, but it’s not surprising StarWatch would choose glamour and prestige over … dirt. After following him inside, I take my first refreshing breath. The cool air makes my skin prickle all over, in the best way. The place is sterile, new. Foreign. My dad paces around the living room, where a brand-new television sits on a midcentury-modern sideboard. A light-colored plush couch faces a retro coffee table flanked by two accent chairs. Okay, this is a pretty cool house. The whole place balances vintage personality with modern appliances. A record player sits on a bookshelf, with a collection of vintage records at its side. They really went all in on this retro thing. If you replaced that record player with a tape deck, I might be kind of here for it. “Your lawn is your own. There’s a special number for the local police on the fridge. The media isn’t that bad, usually. But they’ll only get worse as we get closer to Orpheus V launch.” I take in this moment of peace, knowing it’ll be my last in a while, and follow Brendan to my room. I throw my bag on my new bed, say I’m going to change, and shut the door. I find my dresser—this is where my cassette deck will go, I’ve decided—and I sit and lean against it, slumping down. I take a few deep breaths. Admitting I like our new home, even this town, feels like I’m abandoning my old life. I pull out my phone and open the FlashFame app. Then I close it. I know the rules, I’ve read Dad’s contract—to stay consistent with the narrative arc set by the Shooting Stars host and producers, no streamed or recorded video is to be shared publicly without prior consent and guidance from StarWatch Media LLC. Meaning, they don’t necessarily want me to shut down my accounts. But they want to control it—which is even worse. The pang in my gut gets stronger as I type out a text to Deb. I think I’m going to do it. I mean, technically, I haven’t signed anything, right? They can’t sue me or whatever, right? … right? I planned on updating on the way down and telling my followers I was going on a brief social media hiatus, but I wasn’t able to do it in the car, and the rest stops and hotel rooms only provide so much privacy—meaning, none at all. But now that I’m here, knowing that my dream is flickering like a dying candle, I can’t go on any hiatus. I can’t—no, I won’t let StarWatch control me. I clear my throat and stare at myself in the camera. My dark hair covers my eyes, a cowlick pushing my hair up in the back. Not my hottest moment, but this will be short. As soon as I hit the LIVE button, the viewers tab starts climbing. I let it pause for a minute, allowing my followers to react to the notification they all got on their phones before I start. I smile and point to my cowlick comically as the hundreds of viewers become thousands. In the middle of the day on a Wednesday. Who are these people? I wonder. Why do they care? And then I don’t care why they care, because I enjoy being a little famous. My core tightens again, at the thought of being forced to shut my account down. To give up everything I’ve worked for. By the time I got back to New York, I’d have … nothing. “Hi, everyone,” I say, voice squeaking, after the viewers tab hits two thousand. “I, um, have one hell of an update for you all, so sit tight.” I feel the rush flow through me. Once again, there’s a story out there to break. And I’m doing it myself. “Let’s cut the intro,” I say, deciding to rip off the bandage. “You’ve all started to notice I’ve been dodging questions when it comes to NASA and the Orpheus missions, and it’s time I told you why. The twentieth and final astronaut added to Project Orpheus is none other than … Calvin Lewis. No, not me, my father, Calvin Lewis Sr. I’m coming to you live from Clear Lake, Texas, where we’ve just relocated. Recognize this dresser? This room? No? Well, I don’t either, but if I have my way, both of us are going to see a lot of it in the future, so get ready.” I get up and walk around the room, collapsing on the foam mattress. I hold the camera high above my head. “So, yes, I may have broken a big news story just now, but if you all don’t mind, I need to turn this into a personal story. My father—an airline pilot turned astronaut, apparently—forced the family on a three-day road trip to Texas instead of putting us on a plane. I don’t get it either, but I do have a very thorough review for the Higginsville Holiday Inn off Route 49 in Mississippi. As much as I love family time”—I pause for effect—“I can not handle another road trip like this.” I spend the next five or ten minutes recapping my road trip from hell in all its gory (boring) detail, until my mom peeks her head in the door. “Are you …?” she mouths before taking in a sharp breath. “Never mind. Put that down and come outside with us. Now.” “Please stand by,” I say robotically to my phone and peek through the window. A few cars line the streets, staying out of our driveway, and my dad and Brendan stand there staring at them. “Well, that was fast. I should have mentioned this earlier, but I may have just broken a lot of rules. I’ll give you the full update tonight … if StarWatch doesn’t murder me by then. Wish me luck.” I stop streaming and leave the room, ignoring the gnawing in my stomach that I’m not ready for whatever’s coming. The mood shifts when I step outside. The air-conditioning that cooled me off apparently gave me temperature amnesia, because I’m shocked by the curtain of heat I just dipped under. Standing on the blacktop driveway by our car, a little stunned, is my dad. He just stares at the street while reporters buzz around their news vans like flies, making cameras appear as if from nowhere. Mom sighs loudly. We make eye contact, and I can see the strain on her, the tension in her facial expression. “You should go. I’ll get Dad.” I nod to make her feel confident I can take care of this, and she darts back inside. I can’t tell my dad’s expression from behind, but I see him go rigid. He’s never been the center of attention, outside of making the announcements as copilot on his flights. And for that, he can hide behind the cockpit. He can’t hide here, where the sun highlights every flaw and accents every doubt. He had the foresight to wear a clean shirt at least. “Crap,” Brendan says. “Okay, um. I’m not usually the person who deals with this. I’ll make a call.” The realization hits me in waves. I did this. I broke a national news story. It was a small act of rebellion, which is not entirely uncharacteristic of me—like when I slipped past guards at City Hall to attend a press conference to grill the NYC Housing Authority on a mass of broken elevators in their public housing projects. But that wasn’t for purely selfish reasons. The pang in my gut turns to fire. This is my calling, and I won’t let StarWatch get in the way. Sometimes, you have to take your future into your own hands. And one way or another, I just did that. Only, I didn’t think about what that would mean for my family. “What do you want to do?” I ask Dad. There’s a firmness in my voice that I didn’t know I had in me. “Should I get Mom back out here? Or should we hide inside?” My shallow breaths start to make me feel light-headed. Dad turns to me for a second and considers my question as one producer starts her report. “We’re here at the house of the newest astronaut for Project Orpheus, Calvin Lewis Sr., whose son is widely known thanks to his following on the social media platform FlashFame. Calvin—senior, that is—is assumed to be the final astronaut selected before NASA launches its preparations for Orpheus V. The lucky six astronauts on that mission, poised to be the first humans to set foot on Mars, are still to be determined.” 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?” His gaze meets mine, and an ache pulls at my chest, reminding me of Jeremy, of Deb. Of crushes, and of falling. Shooting Stars Season 2; Episode 6 EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Our producers meet Calvin Lewis Sr., the final astronaut picked for the Orpheus missions. He takes a break from unpacking and starting a new life in Clear Lake, Texas, and joins astronaut Grace Tucker to chat with us about the space program, Calvin’s chances of making it to Mars, and the announcement that took us all by surprise. (New episode airs 6/10/2020) “Welcome to a new, and exciting—albeit rushed—Shooting Stars interview. I’m your host, Josh Farrow, and I am enthused to be bringing an exclusive interview to you with the final astronaut chosen for the Orpheus missions. And here he is: Calvin Lewis, along with a soon-to-be close colleague, Grace Tucker. Welcome to Clear Lake, Calvin.” “Well, um, thank you! Hope you don’t mind the boxes; we kind of just got here a couple hours ago.” “I assure you our viewers are not bothered by that. They’re interested in Calvin Lewis—Calvin Lewis Sr., I should say. Many of our viewers, of course, know all about Cal Junior. I must say, we were taken aback by his surprise announcement today.” “I think we were all a little caught off guard by that. Look, we’re really sorry about—” “We’re so happy to have Calvin on board at NASA. I know how hard it was for my family to adjust—pulling Kat and Leon out of school, Tony’s job transition. We want to make sure they have a smooth, conflict-free transition, don’t you agree, Josh?” “Right, of course. Now, I’ll be honest with you, I usually go into these interviews much more prepared, but I’ve barely had time to review the press packet. So why don’t you talk to us about your experience. I see you most recently worked as a commercial pilot with Delta, is that right?” “Yes, I flew for Delta for about a decade, but I started in the air force—that’s where I met my lovely wife, Becca. She was working in cybersecurity, so our jobs never overlapped. But we happened to cross paths, and, you know, sparks flew.” “Fascinating. You know what I love most about interviews? It’s digging in and finding all the fascinating pieces of a person the world doesn’t get to see. And hopefully we’ll see that side later, but I am curious … what do you think your specialization is here? What do you bring here that no one else does?” “Oh, wow. That’s a big question. I feel like I’m in the job interview again, only there’s literally a spotlight on me now. Hah.” “Josh? If you don’t mind, I wanted to cut in.” “Of course, Grace. Go ahead.” “We were just discussing our experience, and I have to tell you—he’s genuinely knowledgeable and passionate about NASA, and I can’t wait to have him in flight simulations with us. During his time at Delta, he trained more pilots there than anyone else in the entire company. You know when you meet someone and automatically know they’ll go above and beyond to reach any goal? I haven’t seen that kind of determination around here since I met Mark Bannon! But there’s a personal connection too. Calvin, why don’t you tell them about when you first discovered you wanted to be an astronaut?” “Oh, sure. It’s a simple story, really. When I was ten or so, I watched this documentary on Apollo 11. Everyone knows Neil Armstrong, and we all know the glory those astronauts received, but I remember thinking of how innovative we must have been. They said the RAM, the memory, for the guidance computer matched that of a digital watch—and that was back in the early nineties, way before smart watches. I looked down at my own watch, which could barely do anything but blink and beep at me. And it hit me that … somewhere at the intersection of sheer human intelligence and determination—and a little bullheaded bravery—we made it to the moon. I can’t think of anything more inspiring. Nothing gives me more faith in humanity than seeing something like this come together. So, yes, I bring a lifetime of experience and enthusiasm, but I also bring a deep appreciation of the history and tenacity that made NASA what it is today.” CHAPTER 7 Dad mutes the television. “So as you see, you missed a great interview.” It’s sarcasm. And I deserve it. We watch the show in its entirety, which starts out with a surprisingly in-depth look at all the new astronauts who have been brought on. The final astronaut, my dad, was barely covered. “They didn’t talk about you much, but that’s probably because they knew you had that interview with Grace,” Mom offers. He laughs. “I enjoy your optimism, but it’s pretty clear that Josh guy hates me. He said, maybe, three words to me?” “He said way more than that, Calvin.” She pauses to massage her temples. “Cal, he came in pretty quickly after you left with the Tucker kids. He was clearly pissed, but he thawed as soon as your dad told that story. Your dad’s got a little bit of that charm left in him.” Mom flicks Dad’s ear playfully. “Ew, guys. And I’ve told you, I’m sorry. I was just tired and grumpy. I didn’t think about what would happen. And really? Screw Josh Farrow. He just tried to make you look like a fool on camera, and you knocked that question out of the park.” “Thankfully Grace was there to lob me that softball of a question,” Dad says. “She was actually very nice to us, don’t you think?” Mom sighs, kind of wistfully. “I don’t know how she does it. As soon as you left, she snapped into media-training mode. She taught us so much in so little time. Thank god they didn’t want to see me, though. I was a mess.” “They will someday.” My voice is soft, but it still sucks the joy out of the room. “They’re going to be everywhere we go for the foreseeable future. Every public event. Every party. Was Josh Farrow really that angry?” “He was,” Dad says. “About time someone wiped that smug look off his face.” It breaks the tension in the room, momentarily, even though we know we’re not out of the woods yet. It’s day one, and we’ve already angered the wrong people. But for once, our family is gelling, and maybe that’s because we’re in this together. We don’t have any distractions—my only real friend is thousands of miles away, and I still haven’t unpacked my things, so I can’t even escape into my cassette collection. As I go to my empty room, I feel oddly free. The coils of tension in my back have snapped, my breaths are stronger, deeper. I slide under the sheets and squeeze my blanket. The heaviness of the day finally starts to set in as I plug in my phone.