Chapter 1 – Dylan
“Come Out for Progress!” a banner screamed at me from the side of the Walker Matthews campaign tour bus. Seeing it emblazoned there along with a picture of the Matthews himself, the devastatingly handsome first openly gay candidate for President of the United States, still bowled me over.
This is really happening, I thought as the bus came to a stop in front of me. It was set to be my home away from home for the next two weeks, along with however many hotel rooms Newspin TV saw fit to book for me along the way—not that I could complain. There I was, a relative nobody in the world of news, about to spend fourteen whole days with a presidential candidate while he made his way around the great state of Iowa leading up to the Democratic party’s first and crucial vote.
“Dude, can you even believe this?” a voice asked, forcing me out of my thoughts. I turned to find Andy, the one and only member of my camera crew, standing beside me and staring up at the bus. I’d only been with the television division of Newspin for a few months so I hadn’t gotten to know him very well yet but he seemed like he’d be easy enough to travel with. It didn’t hurt that he was older and had done the presidential party bus thing before so he knew what to expect.
“Honestly, no,” I answered and Andy chuckled, his beer belly and thick beard jiggling from the motion.
“I’ve seen a lot of shit in my time covering politics but I never thought I’d see something like this,” he said.
“That makes two of us,” I said.
“Just goes to show how quickly things can change if people really want them to,” he said. It was true. Not even a year ago, the country would’ve flipped its shit over a gay candidate, but in the frigid January air I couldn’t help feeling like we were on the verge of something—some sort of social thaw or paradigm shift or whatever—and I felt beyond honored that I was going to get to cover it. Andy rummaged around in his luggage and dug out his camera and equipment.
“Dude, it’s just a bus. I don’t think you’re going to get a very interesting shot out of that,” I said and Andy shook his head.
“If you think that’s all that’s gonna happen here then I guess you really are green as the grass, man,” he said. “You’d better get your questions ready because Matthews is gonna be out here talking to us any second now.”
“Seriously,” he said as he put his tripod together and mounted the camera. My nerves caught fire. I’d never interviewed anyone as important or as influential as a presidential candidate, and though I doubted he’d even have the time to talk to me, I didn’t want to get caught with my pants down if by some miracle he took my questions. More than that, though, I wanted to make a good impression with the crew back at Newspin HQ since a lot of them weren’t exactly happy I’d gotten the assignment.
And then Andy’s hands were on me, making sure my mic was setup properly. Like sheep, some of the other reporters and camera people who’d gathered to wait for the arrival of the bus started to do the exact same thing and within minutes the parking lot we’d been told to wait in was buzzing.
“How do I look?” I asked, straightening my blazer and checking my hair in the reflection from Andy’s camera lens. It’d fallen down a bit since this morning when I’d loaded it with wax so I pushed it back up and wiped the residue on the leg of my pants.
“Like a total noob,” Andy laughed and I rolled my eyes at him.
“Don’t play with me, I’m nervous enough as it is,” I said.
“Sorry, it’s true. But you look fine, dude, much better than most of the people around here,” Andy said. He wasn’t wrong. A quick glance around at the other reporters backed it up. Most of them looked like they’d barely gotten any sleep at all—neither had I, I was way too damn excited to sleep—and almost all of them had a thermos or styrofoam cup full of coffee.
A hush fell over the crowd and I whipped around just in time to see the bus doors open. A few people in crisp suits, men and women both, stepped out. I didn’t recognize any of them but they must’ve been members of Matthews’ campaign team. The cameras clicked away as the team formed a line in front of the bus, each of them looking about as nervous as I felt.
Two other guys came around the side of the bus hauling a podium, which they set down in front of the campaign team, then came another team of serious looking dudes in suits, no doubt Secret Service or private security of some sort. They took their places among the crowd and formed a bit of a barrier between us and where Matthews would be standing. And then moments later, out stepped Walker Matthews himself to a raucous round of cheers.
I’d seen him on TV and in pictures online but I had to admit that none of them did his actual appearance justice. Sure, he was good looking, what with his neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper hair and pale blue eyes, but it wasn’t just that. I couldn’t put my finger on it exactly but there was definitely something about him that looked downright presidential. The election was still months away and yet I felt like I was already looking at the next President standing in front of me.
He waved to us all as he walked from the bus to the podium and immediately the questions started flying. Not wanting to be outdone, I fought my way through the throng of people and ended up only managing to get about halfway to him. He raised his hands for quiet and amazingly enough, they all listened.
“Good morning, everyone!” he said, his deep, clear voice carrying easily over the otherwise empty parking lot. “Thank you all so much for coming. Listen, I know you’re all excited and have a lot of questions, which I can’t wait to answer, but it’s a little cold out here so I thought we’d make this quick and get on the road as soon as possible,” Matthews continued. He cleared his throat, took a look around at all of us, and gripped the sides of the podium. “So, who wants to go first?”
After a beat of silence, again the crowd erupted into questions and flying hands, all trying to get his attention. He pointed to someone behind me and I turned to find an all-too-familiar face in the crowd, a face that made my heart stop beating and forced the air out of my lungs. I didn’t believe it at first but when the crowd turned to see who Matthews had picked, I saw the name on his press badge loud and clear: Mark White, Our America News.
I whipped back around, Mark’s words a blur in my mind as he asked the candidate whatever question he’d come up with, praying he hadn’t seen me. This had to be some sort of joke, something my boss had put together to prank the new guy. It had to be. I hadn’t crossed paths with Mark in more than two years. It couldn’t have been coincidence.
“You OK man?” Andy whispered in my ear.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said, though I was anything but fine. My stomach twisted in a knot and I felt light headed. My ex, the guy who’d very literally just disappeared from my life after two months of seeing each other, was standing a few yards away from me.
“You look like you’re gonna barf,” Andy said.
“I’m just nervous, that’s all,” I said and Andy chuckled.
“He’s just another dude,” he said. Right, yeah, Matthews might be ‘just another dude,’ but that guy back there who almost ruined me is definitely not, I thought, wiping the sweat from my palms on my pants. The crowd laughed at something Matthews said, something I was too distracted to hear, and I used the opportunity to steal another glance over my shoulder, just to make sure.
Yup, it was Mark standing behind me. He wore glasses now, which he didn’t have the last time I’d seen him, but there was no mistaking him. I closed my eyes and took a series of deep breaths as I realized what that meant. He was going to be on this bus with me for the next two weeks, we would be rubbing shoulders at every little press stop and rally and whatever else Matthews decided to put on, and there was nothing I could do about it. For a moment I wondered if it wasn’t too late to call up HQ and ask to be removed from the assignment but I kicked the thought away almost as quickly as it’d come. I’d worked too damn hard to get this gig and I wasn’t going to let Mark White of all people ruin it for me. He’d already ruined enough of my life.
We’re both adults, we can be professional about this, I told myself. Besides, for all I know I might not even have to talk to him. I’ll probably be too busy and so will he. I’d heard that the so-called party bus tour was some of the most intense work for a reporter during all of the campaign and in that moment I found myself hoping that it was true.
“Are you sure you’re OK?” Andy asked, jarring me. “You look sick, dude.”
“I’m fine,” I insisted and straightened up to prove it.
“If you’re not feeling OK then now’s the time to say it, man. Don’t wait until we’re two hundred miles into this nightmare to tell me you’re sick,” Andy said.
“I’m OK, really. I’m just excited,” I lied.
“Yeahhhh, that’s not what excitement looks like to me,” Andy said and pulled his cell phone out of his pocket.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Sending Jeff a text to radio for backup,” Andy said and I snatched the phone out of his hand.
“What the hell?” he asked and some of the other crew members started to stare at us. I smiled at them and pretended that all was well until they looked away and then fixed Andy with the fiercest look I could muster.
“You’re not going to tell Jeff anything,” I hissed.
“Um, you’re starting to scare me,” he said.
“Good. Listen to me. Don’t look now but there’s a guy about three yards behind us,” I started and jabbed Andy in the ribs when he made to turn around. “I told you not to look now,” I hissed.
“Ow, Jesus, sorry,” he said. “I can’t help it, when someone says not to do something I just do it.”
“Well don’t. Not yet. Anyway, there’s a guy behind us, a reporter. He and I have a history,” I said, my face burning.
“Oh shit, then we definitely need reinforcements,” Andy said and reached for his phone but I yanked it away.
“It’s fine. He and I are fine. Everything’s going to be fine,” I said, as much to convince myself as to convince him.
“You know, for as many times as you’ve said that word in the last five minutes, I can’t help thinking it’s not true,” Andy said. Neither can I, I thought but I didn’t dare share that with him. I wanted this assignment, had been working toward it for the last three years, so I wasn’t about to let it go this easily.
“I take it things didn’t end well then,” Andy said and I glared at him. He threw up his hands. “Sorry, not trying to pry, just need to know how deep of shit we’re in here.”
“There’s no shit,” I snapped. “We haven’t talked to each other in years. It’s just weird, that’s all,” I lied. It was beyond weird. It was uncomfortable in the most pressing way. What the hell would I say to Mark when we inevitably came face to face? “Hey, Mark, nice to see you again, you look great!” somehow didn’t seem to fit the tone of our relationship or whatever the hell it was we’d had together.
“Alright, man, chill. Secret’s safe with me. As long as you think you can keep your head on straight, I won’t say anything to Big Boss,” Andy said. “You can keep your head on straight, right?”
“Yes, I can,” I said, hoping it was true, though I doubted Andy heard me over the applause that had started among the crowd. Absently, I clapped along with them, grateful that it’d ended the conversation with Andy. I didn’t want to field any more of his questions, didn’t want to give him any more information than was absolutely necessary. But above all of that, I really didn’t want to think about Mark.
“OK, thanks again everyone! We’re ready to hit the road and I’m so glad to have you all joining us,” Matthews said and then he was escorted away by his team of people.
“Wait, where’s he going? I thought we were riding with him?” I asked Andy and he chuckled.
“Dude, you really don’t have any idea how this shit works, do you?” he asked.
“I guess not.”
“I mean, come on, that would be like a huge security and PR concern for the Matthews people if we were all on the same bus with him,” he said. “He’ll travel separately.”
“I guess that makes sense,” I said, though I was disappointed. What the hell was the point of this bus tour if we weren’t going to have full access to the candidate? “So when are we going to get to talk to him then?” I asked as the majority of the crowd dispersed—very few of them had been granted passes to ride on the bus but had come to the start of the tour anyway to cover it. Talking about it would keep me calm and keep Mark out of my mind, or at least I hoped.
“The campaign sent us the itinerary. Did you even look at it?” Andy asked and my face tingled as I realized I hadn’t.
“No,” I admitted. No sense in lying about it. Andy rolled his eyes and sighed. “This is gonna be a long two weeks, isn’t it?” I asked and stole another glance over my shoulder and found that, joy, oh joy, Mark White was waiting in line behind us to board the bus. There was no way I’d be able to avoid running into him, not when we’d be sharing our every waking moment in this moving tin can.
“No shit. But cheer up, kid, Newspin’s paying like two hundred bucks per day for both of us to be here so we’ve gotta make the best of it,” Andy said.
“How nice of them,” I said. After the security guys checked our badges to make sure we were cleared and took our suitcases to store under the bus, Andy and I walked up the stairs. Inside, it didn’t really look any different than the other big buses I’d been on in my life; it reminded me a lot of school field trips, only this trip had taken on a feeling of dread rather than the feeling of excitement that those middle school excursions had.
Andy led the way and I didn’t question him as he walked to the very back of the bus and took the second to last row of seats on the left. I hoped that sitting this far back would keep me from having to see or speak to Mark. I kept my face covered and my head down while I waited for everyone else to board the bus and take their seats.
When I dared to look up after most of the commotion had died down, I found Mark White’s eyes locked on mine, his face blank and mouth hanging wide open.