Read Red, White & Royal Blue Online

Authors: Casey McQuiston

Red, White & Royal Blue (21 page)

She gives him a dubious look but leaves the last burnt, sludgy vestiges of coffee where they are and rolls off with her cart.

He peers down into his
CLAREMONT FOR AMERICA
mug and frowns at the almond milk that’s pooled in the middle. Why doesn’t this office keep normal milk around? This is why people from Texas hate Washington elites. Ruining the goddamn dairy industry.

On his desk, there are three stacks of papers. He keeps staring at them, hoping if he recites them enough times in his head, he’ll figure out how to feel like he’s doing enough.

One. The Gun File. A detailed index of every kind of insane gun Americans can own and state-by-state regulations, which he has to comb through for research on a new set of federal assault rifle policies. It’s got a giant smudge of pizza sauce on it because it makes him stress-eat.

Two. The Trans-Pacific Partnership File, which he knows he needs to work on but has barely touched because it’s mind-numbingly boring.

Three. The Texas File.

He’s not supposed to have this file. It wasn’t given to him by the policy chief of staff or anyone on the campaign. It’s not even about policy. It’s also more of a binder than a file. He guesses he should call it: The Texas Binder.

The Texas Binder is his baby. He guards it jealously, stuffing it into his messenger bag to take home with him when he leaves the office and hiding it from WASPy Hunter. It contains a county map of Texas with complex voter demographic breakdowns, matched up with the populations of children of undocumented immigrants, unregistered voters who are legal residents, voting patterns over the last twenty years. He’s stuffed it with spreadsheets of data, voting records, projections he had Nora calculate for him.

Back in 2016, when his mother squeezed out a victory in the general election, the bitterest sting was losing Texas. She was the first president since Nixon to win the presidency but lose her own state of residence. It wasn’t exactly a surprise, considering Texas had been polling red, but they were all secretly holding out for the Lometa Longshot to take it in the end. She didn’t.

Alex keeps coming back to the numbers from 2016 and 2018 precinct by precinct, and he can’t shake this nagging feeling of hope. There’s something there, something shifting, he swears it.

He doesn’t mean to be ungrateful for the policy job, it’s just … not what he thought it was going to be. It’s frustrating and slow-moving. He should stay focused, give it more time, but instead, he keeps coming back to the binder.

He plucks a pencil out of WASPy Hunter’s Harvard pencil cup and starts sketching lines on the map of Texas for the millionth time, redrawing the districts old white men drew years ago to force votes their way.

Alex has this spark at the base of his spine to do the most good he can, and when he sits here in his cubicle for hours a day and fidgets under all the minutiae, he doesn’t know if he is. But if he could only figure out a way to make Texas’ vote reflect its soul … he’s nowhere near qualified to single-handedly dismantle Texas’ iron curtains of gerrymandering, but what if he—

An incessant buzzing snaps him present, and he digs out his phone from the bottom of his bag.

“Where are you?” June’s voice demands over the line.

Fuck. He checks the time: 9:44. He was supposed to meet June for dinner over an hour ago.

“Shit, June, I’m so sorry,” he says, jumping up from his desk and shoving his things into his bag. “I got caught up at work—I, I completely forgot.”

“I sent you like a million texts,” she says. She sounds like she’s vision-boarding his funeral.

“My phone was on silent,” he says helplessly, booking it for the elevator. “I’m seriously so sorry. I’m a complete jackass. I’m leaving now.”

“Don’t worry about it,” she says. “I got mine to go. I’ll see you at home.”

“Bug.”

“I’m gonna need you to
not
call me that right now.”

“June—”

The call drops.

When he gets back to the Residence, she’s sitting on her bed, eating pasta out of a plastic container, with
Parks &
Recreation
playing on her tablet. She pointedly ignores him when he comes to her doorway.

He’s reminded of when they were kids—around eight and eleven years old. He recalls standing next to her at the bathroom mirror, looking at the similarities between their faces: the same round tips of their noses, the same thick, unruly brows, the same square jaw inherited from their mother. He remembers studying her expression in the reflection as they brushed their teeth, the morning of the first day of school, their dad having braided June’s hair for her because their mom was in DC and couldn’t be there.

He recognizes the same expression on her face now: carefully tucked-away disappointment.

“I’m sorry,” he tries again. “I honestly feel like complete and total shit. Please don’t be mad at me.”

June keeps chewing, looking steadfastly at Leslie Knope chirping away.

“We can do lunch tomorrow,” Alex says desperately. “I’ll pay.”

“I don’t care about a stupid meal, Alex.”

Alex sighs. “Then what do you want me to do?”

“I want you not to be Mom,” June says, finally looking up at him. She closes her food container and gets up off her bed, pacing across the room.

“Okay,” Alex says, raising both hands, “is that what’s happening right now?”

“I—” She takes a deep breath. “No. I shouldn’t have said that.”

“No, you obviously meant it,” Alex says. He drops his messenger bag and steps into the room. “Why don’t you say whatever it is you need to say?”

She turns to face him, arms folded, her spine braced against her dresser. “You really don’t see it? You never sleep, you’re always throwing yourself into something, you’re willing to let Mom use you for whatever she wants, the tabloids are always after you—”

“June, I’ve always been this way,” he interrupts gently. “I’m gonna be a politician. You always knew that. I’m starting as soon as I graduate … in a month. This is how my life is gonna be, okay? I’m choosing it.”

“Well, maybe it’s the wrong choice,” June says, biting her lip.

He rocks back on his heels. “Where the hell is this coming from?”

“Alex,” she says, “come on.”

He doesn’t know what the hell she’s getting at. “You’ve always backed me up until now.”

She flings one arm out emphatically enough to upset an entire potted cactus on her dresser and says, “Because until now you weren’t
fucking the Prince of England
!”

That effectively snaps Alex’s mouth shut. He crosses to the sitting area in front of the fireplace, sinking down into an armchair. June watches him, cheeks bright scarlet.

“Nora told you.”

“What?” she says. “No. She wouldn’t do that. Although it kinda sucks you told her and not me.” She folds her arms again. “I’m sorry, I was trying to wait for you to tell me yourself, but, Jesus, Alex. How many times was I supposed to believe you were volunteering to take those international appearances we always found excuses to get out of? And, like, did you forget I’ve lived across the hall from you for almost my entire life?”

Alex looks down at his shoes, June’s perfectly curated midcentury rug. “So you’re mad at me because of Henry?”

June makes a strangled noise, and when he looks back up, she’s digging through the top drawer of her dresser. “Oh my God, how are you so smart and so dumb at the same time?” she says, pulling a magazine out from underneath her underwear. He’s about to tell her he’s not in the mood to look at her tabloids when she throws it at him.

An ancient issue of
J14,
opened to a center page. The photograph of Henry, age thirteen.

He glances up. “You knew?”

“Of course I knew!” she says, flopping dramatically into the chair opposite him. “You were always leaving your greasy little fingerprints all over it! Why do you always assume you can get away with things?” She releases a long-suffering sigh. “I never really … got what he was to you, until I
got
it. I thought you had a crush or something, or that I could help you make a friend, but, Alex. We meet so many people. I mean, thousands and thousands of people, and a lot of them are morons, and a lot of them are incredible, unique people, but I almost never meet somebody who’s a match for you. Do you know that?” She leans forward and touches his knee, pink fingernails on his navy chinos. “You have so much in you, it’s almost impossible to match it. But he’s your match, dumbass.”

Alex stares at her, trying to process what she’s said.

“I feel like this is your starry-eyed romantic thing projecting onto me,” is what he decides to say, and she immediately withdraws her hand from his leg and returns to glaring at him.

“You know Evan didn’t break up with me?” she says. “I broke up with him. I was gonna go to California with him, live in the same time zone as Dad, get a job at the fucking
Sacramento Bee
or something. But I gave all that up to come
here,
because it was the right thing to do. I did what Dad did—I
went where I was most needed, because it was my responsibility.”

“And you regret it?”

“No,” she says. “I don’t know. I don’t think so. But I—I wonder. Dad wonders, sometimes. Alex, you don’t have to wonder. You don’t have to be our parents. You can keep Henry, and figure the rest out.” Now she’s looking at him evenly, steadily. “Sometimes you have a fire under your ass for no good goddamn reason. You’re gonna burn out like this.”

Alex leans back, thumbing the stitching on the armrest of the chair.

“So, what?” he asks. “You want me to quit politics and go become a princess? That’s not very feminist of you.”

“That’s not how feminism works,” she says, rolling her eyes. “And that’s not what I mean. I mean … I don’t know. Have you ever considered there might be more than one path to use what you have? Or to get where you want to be to make the most difference in the world?”

“I’m not sure I’m following.”

“Well.” She looks down at her cuticles. “It’s like the whole
Sac Bee
thing—it never actually would have worked out. It was a dream I had before Mom was president. The kind of journalism I wanted to do is the kind of journalism that being a First Daughter pretty much disqualifies you from. But the world is better with her where she is, and right now I’m looking for a new dream that’s better too.” Her big brown Diaz eyes blink up at him. “So, I don’t know. Maybe there’s more than one dream for you, or more than one way to get there.”

She gives a crooked shrug, tilting her head to look at him openly. June is often a mystery, a big ball of complex emotions and motivations, but her heart is honest and true. She’s very
much what Alex holds in his memory as the sanctified idea of Southerness at its best: always generous and warm and sincere, work-strong and reliable, a light left on. She wants the best for him, plainly, in an unselfish and uncalculating way. She’s been trying to talk to him for a while, he realizes.

He looks down at the magazine and feels the corner of his mouth tug upward. He can’t believe June kept it all these years.

“He looks so different,” he says after a long minute, gazing down at the baby Henry on the page and his easy, unfledged sureness. “I mean, like, obviously. But the way he carries himself.” His fingertips brush the page in the same place they did when he was young, over the sun-gold hair, except now he knows its exact texture. It’s the first time he’s seen it since he learned where this version of Henry went. “It pisses me off sometimes, thinking about everything he’s been through. He’s a good person. He really cares, and he
tries.
He never deserved any of it.”

June leans forward, looking at the picture too. “Have you ever told him that?”

“We don’t really…” Alex coughs. “I don’t know. Talk like that?”

June inhales deeply and makes an enormous fart noise with her mouth, shattering the serious mood, and Alex is so grateful for it that he melts onto the floor in a fit of hysterical laughter.

“Ugh! Men!” she groans. “No emotional vocabulary. I can’t believe our ancestors survived centuries of wars and plagues and genocide just to wind up with your sorry ass.” She throws a pillow at him, and Alex scream-laughs as it hits him in the face. “You should try saying some of that stuff to
him.

“Stop trying to Jane Austen my life!” he yells back.

“Listen, it’s not my fault he’s a mysterious and retiring young
royal and you’re the tempestuous ing
é
nue that caught his eye, okay?”

He laughs and tries to crawl away, even as she claws at his ankle and wallops another pillow at his head. He still feels guilty for blowing her off, but he thinks they’re okay now. He’ll do better. They fight for a spot on her big canopy bed, and she makes him spill what it’s like to be secretly hooking up with a real-life prince. And so June knows; she knows about him and she hugs him and doesn’t care. He didn’t realize how terrified he was of her knowing until the fear is gone.

She puts
Parks
back on and has the kitchen send up ice cream, and Alex thinks about how she said, “You don’t have to be our parents”—she’s never mentioned their dad in the same context as their mom like that before. He’s always known part of her resents their mom for the position they occupy in the world, for not having a normal life, for taking herself away from them. But he never really realized she felt the same sense of loss he does deep down about their dad, that it’s something she dealt with and moved past. That the stuff with their mom is something she’s still going through.

He thinks she’s wrong about him, mostly—he doesn’t necessarily believe he has to choose between politics and this thing with Henry yet, or that he’s moving too fast in his career. But … there’s the Texas Binder, and the knowledge of other states like Texas and millions of other people who need someone to fight for them, and the feeling at the base of his spine, like there’s a lot of fight in him that could be honed down to a more productive point.

There’s law school.

Every time he looks at the Texas Binder, he knows it’s a big fat case for him to go take the damn LSAT like he knows both
his parents wish he would instead of diving headfirst into politics. He’s always, always said no. He doesn’t wait for things. Doesn’t put in the time like that, do what he’s told.

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