Maybe it’s insane that a news movement that started as the chosen medium of politicos and techno-nerds and geeks of all stripes wound up with a college professor and a former dental hygienist as its primary poster children, but that’s the thing about reality. It doesn’t need to make sense. They were in the right places at the right times, they had the right level of heroic dedication and personal tragedy, and maybe most important, when their backs were against the wall—when their son was dead and the world was changed forever, and the things they’d been doing during the Rising to keep themselves from thinking about those two unchangeable facts weren’t an option anymore—they decided to become stars in the highest-rated reality show anyone had ever seen. The news.
I dried my hands on the blue towel next to the kitchen sink before stepping aside to let Becks at the faucet. “Remember why we’re here,” I said, voice a little sharper than it needed to be. “This isn’t a social call.”
“I’m sorry. It’s just…” Becks stuck her hands under the running water, using that small domestic activity to buy herself a few seconds. Finally, she said, “I thought she’d be taller. It’s a cliché, I know, but I really did. I should know better—I’ve seen pictures of her next to you—but somehow, I still thought she’d be…” She stopped, and then finished, lamely, “Taller.”
“I get that a lot.” Along with requests for autographs, and occasional offers of money if I could somehow get my hands on naked pictures. My college journalism courses were hell. George had it a little better—I guess Irwins feel more entitled to demand the gory details, while Newsies just look for something they can hang you with.
“I wanted to be your mother when I grew up.” Becks said it like it was somehow shameful, the sort of admission that could only be dragged out of her by a kitchen with yellow wallpaper and stupid curtains. Mom would have been proud of her environmental design. Hell, for all I knew, she already was. For all I knew, she was watching us from upstairs; they’d had this place bugged since before I could walk. “She was so… brave, and strong, and she always knew what she was doing. Not like me. I was just sleepwalking through the things my parents wanted me to do, until the day I finally got up the nerve to run.”
We never did that, said George. Her voice echoed oddly, coming half from right beside me, half from the inside of my head. It was the house. I’d spent too much of my life in this house with her; she was haunting it as much as she was haunting me.
God, was that what it was like for the Masons after Phillip died? Did they see him every time they turned around, a bright-eyed little ghost that never refused to take a nap, never drew on the walls with his crayons, never screamed because he couldn’t have another cookie? No wonder they adopted us. We weren’t just another way of bringing in the ratings. We were a living attempt at exorcism.
“We never ran,” I said softly.
Becks shot me a startled look that softened into understanding. We were raised by journalists; we grew up to be journalists. That wasn’t the whole story, but it was enough to make a nice headline. We were raised by people who hurt everyone around them in their single-minded pursuit of the story. No one could look at the number of bodies in our wake and not believe that Georgia and I were two apples that didn’t fall far from the transplanted tree.
“Shaun?” The voice was jovial and dry at the same time, the voice of every college professor who ever told a slightly off-color joke and laughed with his undergrads, proving he was “part of the gang” without giving up an inch of his authority. It was the voice of my childhood, the man I watched George beat herself to death trying to become.
Sometimes you can go home again. That’s what hurts most of all. “Hi, Dad,” I said, turning to face him.
Dad smiled as he studied my face, his calculating expression making him look so much like George that it hurt, even though the two of them weren’t biologically related. “The prodigal son comes rolling home. And who is this charming young lady?” His smile turned more sincere as he aimed it at Becks, the consummate showman finding an audience he could charm. “Please tell me our son didn’t bring you here thinking you were going someplace pleasant.”
“Hi,” said Becks, smiling glossily. I resisted the urge to groan. “I’m Rebecca Atherton. It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir. I’m a real fan of your work.”
“Rebecca Atherton, from After the End Times?” Dad glanced my way for a split second, like he was making sure I saw how intimately he knew our site. “The pleasure is mine. Your report on the events of Eakly, Oklahoma, during the Ryman campaign was positively chilling. You have an eye for the news, Miss Atherton.”
“Okay, you’re laying it on a little thick,” I said, unable to contain myself any longer. “Can you stop trying to spin Becks for thirty seconds and let us tell you why we’re here?”
“Now, Shaun. Your mother was looking forward to having a nice family breakfast, just the four of us.” Dad’s smile faded. “I’m sure you wouldn’t want to disappoint her.”
“I gave up on trying not to disappoint her a long time ago.” I glared at him.
He glared back. Something about that expression made him look as out-of-date as the kitchen, and somehow, between one second and the next, I started to see him, not just the man I remembered from my childhood. He was wearing pajama pants and a belted gray cotton robe, preserving the illusion of collegial dignity, but his already-thinning red Irish hair was almost gone, leaving an expanse of gleaming forehead in its wake. His eyes were tired behind the lenses of his glasses. I’d never really thought of him as tired before.
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