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On the White House roof, tucked into a corner of the Promenade, there’s a bit of loose paneling right on the edge of the Solarium. If you tap it just right, you can peel it back enough to find a message etched underneath, with the tip of a key or maybe a stolen West Wing letter opener.
In the secret history of First Families—an insular gossip mill sworn to absolute discretion about most things on pain of death—there’s no definite answer for who wrote it. The one thing people seem certain of is that only a presidential son or daughter would have been daring enough to deface the White House. Some swear it was Jack Ford, with his Hendrix records and split-level room attached to the roof for late-night smoke breaks. Others say it was a young Luci Johnson, thick ribbon in her hair. But it doesn’t matter. The writing stays, a private mantra for those resourceful enough to find it.
Alex discovered it within his first week of living there. He’s never told anyone how.
RULE #1: DON’T GET CAUGHT
The East and West Bedrooms on theb second floor are generally reserved for the First Family. They were first designated as one giant state bedroom for visits from the Marquis de Lafayette in the Monroe administration, but eventually they were split. Alex has the East, across from the Treaty Room, and June uses the West, next to the elevator.
Growing up in Texas, their rooms were arranged in the same configuration, on either side of the hallway. Back then, you could tell June’s ambition of the month by what covered the walls. At twelve, it was watercolor paintings. At fifteen, lunar calendars and charts of crystals. At sixteen, clippings from The Atlantic, a UT Austin pennant, Gloria Steinem, Zora Neale Hurston, and excerpts from the papers of Dolores Huerta.
His own room was forever the same, just steadily more stuffed with lacrosse trophies and piles of AP coursework. It’s all gathering dust in the house they still keep back home. On a chain around his neck, always hidden from view, he’s worn the key to that house since the day he left for DC.
Now, straight across the hall, June’s room is all bright white and soft pink and minty green, photographed by Vogue and famously inspired by old ’60s interior design periodicals she found in one of the White House sitting rooms. His own room was once Caroline Kennedy’s nursery and, later, warranting some sage burning from June, Nancy Reagan’s office. He’s left up the nature field illustrations in a neat symmetrical grid above the sofa, but painted over Sasha Obama’s pink walls with a deep blue.
Typically, the children of the president, at least for the past few decades, haven’t lived in the Residence beyond eighteen, but Alex started at Georgetown the January his mom was sworn in, and logistically, it made sense not to split their security or costs to whatever one-bedroom apartment he’d be living in. June came that fall, fresh out of UT. She’s never said it, but Alex knows she moved in to keep an eye on him. She knows better than anyone else how much he gets off on being this close to the action, and she’s bodily yanked him out of the West Wing on more than one occasion.
Behind his bedroom door, he can sit and put Hall & Oates on the record player in the corner, and nobody hears him humming along like his dad to “Rich Girl.” He can wear the reading glasses he always insists he doesn’t need. He can make as many meticulous study guides with color-coded sticky notes as he wants. He’s not going to be the youngest elected congressman in modern history without earning it, but nobody needs to know how hard he’s kicking underwater. His sex-symbol stock would plummet.
“Hey,” says a voice at the door, and he looks up from his laptop to see June edging into his room, two iPhones and a stack of magazines tucked under one arm, and a plate in her hand. She closes the door behind her with her foot.
“What’d you steal today?” Alex asks, pushing the pile of papers on his bed out of her way.
“Assorted donuts,” June says as she climbs up. She’s wearing a pencil skirt with pointy pink flats, and he can already see next week’s fashion columns: a picture of her outfit today, a lead-in for some sponcon about flats for the professional gal on the go.
He wonders what she’s been up to all day. She mentioned a column for WaPo, or was it a photoshoot for her blog? Or both? He can never keep up.
She’s dumped her stack of magazines out on the bedspread and is already busying herself with them.
“Doing your part to keep the great American gossip industry alive?”
“That’s what my journalism degree’s for,” June says.
“Anything good this week?” Alex asks, reaching for a donut.
“Let’s see,” June says. “In Touch says I’m … dating a French model?”
“I wish.” She flips a few pages. “Ooh, and they’re saying you got your asshole bleached.”
“That one is true,” Alex says through a mouthful of chocolate with sprinkles.
“Thought so,” June says without looking up. After riffling through most of the magazine, she shuffles it to the bottom of the stack and moves on to People. She flips through absently—People only ever writes what their publicists tell it to write. Boring. “Not much on us this week … oh, I’m a crossword puzzle clue.”
Following their tabloid coverage is something of an idle hobby of hers, one that in turns amuses and annoys their mother, and Alex is narcissistic enough to let June read him the highlights. They’re usually either complete fabrications or lines fed from their press team, but sometimes it’s just funny. Given the choice, he’d rather read one of the hundreds of glowing pieces of fan fiction about him on the internet, the up-to-eleven version of himself with devastating charm and unbelievable physical stamina, but June flat-out refuses to read those aloud to him, no matter how much he tries to bribe her.
“Do Us Weekly,” Alex says.
“Hmm…” June digs it out of the stack. “Oh, look, we made the cover this week.”
She flashes the glossy cover at him, which has a photo of the two of them inlaid in one corner, June’s hair pinned on top of her head and Alex looking slightly over-served but still handsome, all jawline and dark curls. Below it in bold yellow letters, the headline reads: FIRST SIBLINGS’ WILD NYC NIGHT.
“Oh yeah, that was a wild night,” Alex says, reclining back against the tall leather headboard and pushing his glasses up his nose. “Two whole keynote speakers. Nothing sexier than shrimp cocktails and an hour and a half of speeches on carbon emissions.”
“It says here you had some kind of tryst with a ‘mystery brunette,’” June reads. “‘Though the First Daughter was whisked off by limousine to a star-studded party shortly after the gala, twenty-one-year-old heartthrob Alex was snapped sneaking into the W Hotel to meet a mystery brunette in the presidential suite and leaving around four a.m. Sources inside the hotel reported hearing amorous noises from the room all night, and rumors are swirling the brunette was none other than … Nora Holleran, the twenty-two-year-old granddaughter of Vice President Mike Holleran and third member of the White House Trio. Could it be the two are rekindling their romance?’”
“Yes!” Alex crows, and June groans. “That’s less than a month! You owe me fifty dollars, baby.”
“Hold on. Was it Nora?”
Alex thinks back to the week before, showing up at Nora’s room with a bottle of champagne. Their thing on the campaign trail a million years ago was brief, mostly to get the inevitable over with. They were seventeen and eighteen and doomed from the start, both convinced they were the smartest person in any room. Alex has since conceded Nora is 100 percent smarter than him and definitely too smart to have ever dated him.
It’s not his fault the press won’t let it go, though; that they love the idea of them together as if they’re modern-day Kennedys. So, if he and Nora occasionally get drunk in hotel rooms together watching The West Wing and making loud moaning noises at the wall for the benefit of nosy tabloids, he can’t be blamed, really. They’re simply turning an undesirable situation into their own personal entertainment.
Scamming his sister is also a perk.
“Maybe,” he says, dragging out the vowels.
June swats him with the magazine like he’s an especially obnoxious cockroach. “That’s cheating, you dick!”
“Bet’s a bet,” Alex tells her. “We said if there was a new rumor in a month, you’d owe me fifty bucks. I take Venmo.”
“I’m not paying,” June huffs. “I’m gonna kill her when we see her tomorrow. What are you wearing, by the way?”
“Uh, the royal wedding,” June says. “Of England. It’s literally on every cover I just showed you.”
She holds Us Weekly up again, and this time Alex notices the main story in giant letters: PRINCE PHILIP SAYS I DO! Along with a photograph of an extremely nondescript British heir and his equally nondescript blond fiancée smiling blandly.
He drops his donut in a show of devastation. “That’s this weekend?”
“Alex, we leave in the morning,” June tells him. “We’ve got two appearances before we even go to the ceremony. I can’t believe Zahra hasn’t climbed up your ass about this already.”
“Shit,” he groans. “I know I had that written down. I got sidetracked.”
“What, by conspiring with my best friend against me in the tabloids for fifty dollars?”
“No, with my research paper, smart-ass,” Alex says, gesturing dramatically at his piles of notes. “I’ve been working on it for Roman Political Thought all week. And I thought we agreed Nora is our best friend.”
“That can’t possibly be a real class you’re taking,” June says. “Is it possible you willfully forgot about the biggest international event of the year because you don’t want to see your archnemesis?”
“June, I’m the son of the President of the United States. Prince Henry is a figurehead of the British Empire. You can’t just call him my ‘archnemesis,’” Alex says. He returns to his donut, chewing thoughtfully, and adds, “‘Archnemesis’ implies he’s actually a rival to me on any level and not, you know, a stuck-up product of inbreeding who probably jerks off to photos of himself.”
“I’m just saying.”
“Well, you don’t have to like him, you just have to put on a happy face and not cause an international incident at his brother’s wedding.”
“Bug, when do I ever not put on a happy face?” Alex says. He pulls a painfully fake grin, and June looks satisfyingly repulsed.
“Ugh. Anyway, you know what you’re wearing, right?”
“Yeah, I picked it out and had Zahra approve it last month. I’m not an animal.”
“I’m still not sure about my dress,” June says. She leans over and steals his laptop away from him, ignoring his noise of protest. “Do you think the maroon or the one with the lace?”
“Lace, obviously. It’s England. And why are you trying to make me fail this class?” he says, reaching for his laptop only to have his hand swatted away. “Go curate your Instagram or something. You’re the worst.”
“Shut up, I’m trying to pick something to watch. Ew, you have Garden State on your watch list? Wow, how’s film school in 2005 going?”
“I hate you.”
“Hmm, I know.”
Outside his window, the wind stirs up over the lawn, rustling the linden trees down in the garden. The record on the turntable in the corner has spun out into fuzzy silence. He rolls off the bed and flips it, resetting the needle, and the second side picks up on “London Luck, & Love.”
Copyright © 2019 by Casey McQuiston