Read Red, White & Royal Blue Online

Authors: Casey McQuiston

Red, White & Royal Blue (48 page)

So yeah, of course he got a personal invitation.

“Listen, I,” Alex starts, “I wanted to thank you—”

“Do not,” Liam interrupts him. “Seriously. Okay? We’re cool. We’ll always be cool.” He makes a dismissive gesture with one hand and nudges the cute, dark-eyed guy at his side. “Anyway, this is Spencer, my boyfriend.”

“Alex,” Alex introduces himself. Spencer’s handshake is strong, all farmboy. “Good to meet you, man.”

“It’s an honor,” Spencer says earnestly. “My mom canvassed for your mom when she ran for Congress back in the day, so like, we go way back. She’s the first president I ever voted for.”

“Okay, Spence, be cool,” Liam says, putting an arm around Spencer’s shoulders. A beam of pride cuts through Alex; if Spencer’s parents were Claremont volunteers, they’re definitely more open-minded than he remembers Liam’s being. “This guy shit his pants on the bus on the way back from the aquarium in fourth grade, so like, he’s not that big of a deal.”

“For the
last time,
you douchebag,” Alex huffs, “that was Adam Villanueva, not me!”

“Yeah, I know what I saw,” Liam says.

Alex is just opening his mouth to argue when someone shouts his name—a photo op or interview or something for
BuzzFeed
. “Shit. I gotta go, but Liam, we have, like, a shitload to catch up on. Can we hang this weekend? Let’s hang this weekend. I’m in town all weekend. Let’s hang this weekend.”

He’s already walking away backward, and Liam is rolling his eyes in an annoyed but fond way, not in a this-is-why-I-stopped-talking-to-you way, so he keeps going. The interview is quick, cut off mid-sentence: Anderson Cooper’s face looms on the screen overhead like a disgustingly handsome Hunger Games cannon, announcing they’re ready to call Florida.

“Come on, you backyard-shooting-range motherfuckers,” Zahra is muttering under her breath beside him when he falls in with his people.

“Did she just say backyard shooting range?” Henry asks, leaning into Alex’s ear. “Is that a real thing a person can have?”

“You really have a lot to learn about America, mijo,” Oscar tells him, not unkindly.

The screen flashes red—
RICHARDS
—and a collective groan grinds through the room.

“Nora, what’s the math?” June says, rounding on her, a slightly frantic look in her eyes. “I majored in nouns.”

“Okay,” Nora says, “at this point we just need to get over 270 or make it impossible for Richards to get over 270—”

“Yes,” June cuts in impatiently, “I am familiar with how the electoral college works—”

“You asked!”

“I didn’t mean to remediate me!”

“You’re kinda hot when you get all indignant.”

“Can we
focus
?” Alex puts in.

“Okay,” Nora says. She shakes out her hands. “So, right now we can get over 270 with Texas or Nevada
and
Alaska combined. Richards has to get all three of those. So nobody is out of the game yet.”

“So, we
have
to get Texas now?”

“Not unless they call Nevada,” Nora says, “which never happens this early.”

She barely has time to finish before Anderson Cooper is back onscreen with breaking news. Alex wonders briefly what it’s going to be like to have future Anderson Cooper stress hallucinations.
NEVADA: RICHARDS.

“Are you
fucking
kidding me?”

“So, now it’s essentially—”

“Whoever wins Texas,” Alex says, “wins the presidency.”

There’s a heavy pause, and June says, “I’m gonna go stress
eat the cold pizza the polling people have. Sound good? Cool.” And she’s gone.

By 12:30, nobody can believe it’s down to this.

Texas has never in history gone this long without being called. If it were any other state, Richards probably would have called to concede by now.

Luna is pacing. Alex’s dad is sweating through his suit. June is going to smell like pizza for a week. Zahra is on the phone, yelling into someone’s voicemail, and when she hangs up, she explains that her sister is having trouble getting into a good daycare and agreed to put Zahra on the job as an outlet for her stress. Ellen, too tense to stay upstairs, is stalking through it all like a hungry lioness.

And that’s when June comes charging up to them, her hand on the arm of a girl Alex recognizes—her college roommate, his brain supplies. She’s got on a poll volunteer shirt and a broad smile.

“Y’all—” June says, breathless. “Molly just—she just came from—fuck, just, tell them!”

And Molly opens her blessed mouth and says, “We think you have the votes.”

Nora drops her phone. Ellen steps over it to grab Molly’s other arm. “You think or you know?”

“I mean, we’re pretty sure—”

“How sure?”

“Well, they just counted another 10,000 ballots from Harris County—”

“Oh my God—”

“Wait,
look
—”

It’s on the projection screen now. They’re calling it.
Anderson Cooper, you handsome bastard.

Texas is gray for five more seconds, before flooding beautiful, beautiful, unmistakable Lake LBJ blue.

Thirty-eight votes for Claremont, for a grand total of 301. And the presidency.


Four more years!
” Alex’s mom outright screams, louder than he’s heard her scream in
years.

The cheers come in a hum, in a rumble, and finally, in a storm, pressing from the other side of the partition, from the hills surrounding the arena and the city surrounding the streets, from the country itself. From, maybe, a few sleepy allies in London.

From his side, Henry, whose eyes are wet, seizes Alex’s face roughly in both hands and kisses him like the end of the movie, whoops, and shoves him at his family.

The nets are cut loose from the ceiling, and down come the balloons, and Alex staggers into a press of bodies and his father’s chest, a delirious hug, into June, who is a crying disaster, and Leo, who is somehow crying
more.
Nora is sandwiched between both beaming, proud parents, screaming at the top of her lungs, and Luna is throwing Claremont campaign pamphlets in the air like a mafioso with hundred dollar bills. He sees Cash, severely testing the weight limits of the venue’s chairs by dancing on one, and Amy, waving around her phone so her wife can see it all over FaceTime, and Zahra and Shaan, aggressively making out against a giant stack of
CLAREMONT/HOLLERAN
2020 yard signs. WASPy Hunter hoisting another staffer up on his shoulders, Liam and Spencer raising their beers in a toast, a hundred campaign staffers and volunteers crying and shouting in disbelief and joy. They did it. They
did
it. The Lometa Longshot and a long-awaited blue Texas.

The crowd pushes him back into Henry’s chest, and after absolutely everything, all the emails and texts and months on the road and secret rendezvous and nights of wanting, the whole accidentally-falling-in-love-with-your-sworn-enemy-at-the-absolute-worst-possible-time thing, they made it. Alex said they would—he
promised.
Henry’s smiling so wide and bright that Alex thinks his heart’s going to break trying to hold the size of this entire moment, the completeness of it, a thousand years of history swelling inside his rib cage.

“I need to tell you something,” Henry says, breathless, when Alex pulls back. “I bought a brownstone. In Brooklyn.”

Alex’s mouth falls open. “You
didn’t
!”

“I did.”

And for a fraction of a second, a whole crystallized life flashes into view, a next term and no elections left to win, a schedule packed with classes and Henry smiling from the pillow next to him in the gray light of a Brooklyn morning. It drops right into the well of his chest and spreads, like how hope spreads. It’s a good thing everyone else is already crying.

“Okay, people,” says Zahra’s voice through the rush of blood and love and adrenaline and noise in his ears. Her mascara is streaming, her lipstick smeared across her chin. Beside her, he can hear his mother on the phone with one finger jammed into her ear, taking Richards’s concession call. “Victory speech in fifteen. Places, let’s go!”

Alex finds himself shuffled sideways, through the crowd and over to a little corral near the stage, behind the curtains, and then his mother’s on stage, and Leo, and Mike and his wife, and Nora and her parents and June and their dad. Alex strides out after them, waving into the white glow of the spotlight, shouting a jumble of languages into the noise. He’s so caught
up that he doesn’t realize at first Henry isn’t at his side, and he turns back to see him hovering in the wings, just behind a curtain. Always hesitant to step on anyone’s moment.

That’s not going to fly anymore. He’s family. He’s part of it all now, headlines and oil paintings and pages in the Library of Congress, etched right alongside. And he’s part of
them.
Goddamn forever.

“Come on!” Alex yells, waving him over, and Henry spares a second to look panicked before he’s tipping his chin up and buttoning his suit jacket and stepping out onto the stage. He gravitates to Alex’s side, beaming. Alex throws one arm around him and the other around June. Nora presses in at June’s other side.

And President Ellen Claremont steps up to the podium.

EXCERPT: PRESIDENT ELLEN CLAREMONT’S VICTORY ADDRESS FROM AUSTIN, TEXAS, NOVEMBER 3, 2020
Four years ago, in 2016, we stood at a precipice as a nation. There were those who would have seen us stumble backward into hatred and vitriol and prejudice, who wanted to reignite old embers of division within our country’s very soul. You looked them square in the eye and said, “No. We won’t.”
You voted instead for a woman and a family with Texas dirt under their shoes, who would lead you into four years of progress, of carrying on a legacy of
hope and change. And tonight, you did it again. You chose me. And I humbly, humbly thank you.
And my family—my family thanks you too. My family, made up of the children of immigrants, of people who love in defiance of expectations or condemnation, of women determined never to back down from what’s right, a braid of histories that stands for the future of America. My family. Your First Family. We intend to do everything we can, for the next four years and the years beyond, to continue making you proud.

The second round of confetti is still falling when Alex grabs Henry by the hand and says, “Follow me.”

Everyone’s too busy celebrating or doing interviews to see them slip out the back door. He trades Liam and Spencer the promise of a six-pack for their bikes, and Henry doesn’t ask questions, just kicks the stand out and disappears into the night behind him.

Austin feels different somehow, but it hasn’t changed, not really. Austin is dried flowers from a homecoming corsage in a bowl by the cordless phone, the washed-out bricks of the rec center where he tutored kids after school, a beer bummed off a stranger on the spill of the Barton Creek Greenbelt. The nopales, the hipster cold brews. It’s a weird, singular constant, the hook in his heart that’s kept tugging him back to earth his whole life.

Maybe it’s just that
he’s
different.

They cross the bridge into downtown, the gray grids intersecting Lavaca, the bars overflowing with people yelling his mother’s name, wearing his own face on their chests, waving Texas flags, American flags, Mexican flags, pride flags. There’s music echoing through the streets, loudest when they reach the Capitol, where someone has climbed up the front steps and erected a set of loudspeakers blasting Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.” Somewhere above, against the thick clouds: fireworks.

Alex takes his feet off the pedals and glides past the massive, Italian Renaissance Revival fa
ç
ade of the Capitol, the building where his mom went to work every day when he was a kid. It’s taller than the one back in DC. Everything’s bigger, after all.

It takes twenty minutes to reach Pemberton Heights, and Alex leads the Prince of England up onto the high curb of a neighborhood in Old West Austin and shows him where to throw his bike in the yard, spokes still spinning little shadow lines across the grass. The sounds of expensive leather soles on the cracked front steps of the old house on Westover don’t sound any stranger than his own boots. Like coming home.

He steps back and watches Henry take it all in—the butter-yellow siding, the big bay window, the handprints in the sidewalk. Alex hasn’t been inside this house since he was twenty. They pay a family friend to look after it, wrap the pipes, run the water. They can’t bear to let it go. Nothing’s changed inside, just been boxed up.

There are no fireworks out here, no music, no confetti. Just sleeping, single-family homes, TVs finally switched off. Just a house where Alex grew up, where he saw Henry’s picture in a magazine and felt a flicker of something, a start.

“Hey,” Alex says. Henry turns back to him, his eyes silver in the wash of the streetlight. “We
won.

Henry takes his hand, one corner of his mouth tugging gently upward. “Yeah. We won.”

Alex reaches down into the front of his dress shirt and finds the chain with his fingers, pulls it out carefully. The ring, the key.

Under winter clouds, victorious, he unlocks the door.

 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I came up with the idea for this book on an I-10 off-ramp in early 2016, and I never imagined what it would turn out to be. I mean, at that point I couldn’t imagine what
2016 itself
would turn out to be. Yikes. For months after November, I gave up on writing this book. Suddenly what was supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek parallel universe needed to be escapist, trauma-soothing, alternate-but-realistic reality. Not a perfect world—one still believably fucked up, just a little better, a little more optimistic. I wasn’t sure I was up to the task. I hoped I was.

What I hoped to do, and what I hope I have done with this book by the time you’ve finished it, my dear reader, is to be a spark of joy and hope you needed.

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