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Shaun’s smoke screen gave me the opportunity I needed to slip out of the car and start worming my way toward the restaurant doors. Paparazzi gatherings are one of the few times you’ll see a crowd in public. I spotted nervous-looking Berkeley Police in riot gear around the edge of the crowd as I made my way toward the thinner concentration of bodies. They were waiting for something to go wrong. They’d just have to keep waiting. There’s only been one incident where an outbreak started from a gathering of licensed reporters, and it happened when a nervous celebrity—the real sort, a TV sitcom star, not one of the ones who built themselves celebrity out of boredom—freaked out, pulled a gun out of her purse, and started shooting. The jury found the TV star, not the paparazzi, at fault for the outbreak that followed.

One of the Newsies near the police offered me a sidelong nod, making no move to draw attention to my position. I nodded back, relieved by his discretion. He was just crowd-surfing, but it was a nice thing to do. I made a note of his face: If his site put in for an interview, I’d grant it.

Irwins get crowd-comfortable the easy way: When you live in the hope that an outbreak will happen where you can observe it, you don’t worry about avoiding them the way a sane person might. Fictionals go one of two directions: Some avoid crowds like everybody else. Others refuse to acknowledge that they could possibly get infected when they haven’t put it in the script and they go gaily bouncing hither and yon, ignoring the danger. Newsies tend to be more cautious because we know what could happen if we’re not. Unfortunately, the demands of our job make it hard for us to be total hermits, and so even those of us who don’t need the additional income or exposure from the paparazzi flocks join up with them from time to time, getting accustomed to the feeling of being surrounded by other bodies. The paparazzi flocks are our version of the obstacle course. Stand in them without freaking out and you might be ready for real field work.

My “skirt the crowd and keep your eyes on the door” technique seemed to be working. With Shaun and Buffy providing louder, more visible targets, no one was going for me. Besides, I have a well-established—and well-deserved—reputation for being the sort of interviewee who walks away leaving you with nothing you can use as a front-page quote or saleable sound byte. It’s hard to interview someone who refuses to talk to you.

Ten feet to the door. Nine. Eight. Seven

“—and this is my gorgeous daughter, Georgia, who’s going to be the head of Senator Ryman’s hand-selected blogging team!” Mom’s hand caught my elbow just as the gushing, ebullient tone of her voice caught my ears. Trapped. She swung me around to face the crowd of paparazzi, fingers digging into my arm. More quietly, through gritted teeth, she said, “You owe me this.”

“Got it,” I said, out of the corner of my mouth, and let myself be turned.

Shaun and I figured out early what our purpose was in our parents’ lives. When your classmates aren’t allowed to go to the movies because they might be exposed to unknown individuals, while your parents are constantly proposing wild adventures in the outside world, you get the idea that maybe something’s going on. Shaun was the first to realize how they were using us; it’s about the only place where he grew up before I did. I got over Santa. He got over our parents.

Mom kept an iron grip on my arm as she mugged and preened, re-creating her favorite photo opportunity, version five hundred and eleven: the flamboyant Irwin poses with her stoic daughter, polar opposites united by a passion for the news. I once sat down with the news aggregators and compared a public-image search to the collection of private pictures on the house database. Eighty-two percent of the physical affection I’ve received from my mother has been in public, in careful view of one or more cameras. If that seems cynical, answer this: Why has she reliably, for my entire life, waited to touch me until there was someone with a visible camera in shooting range?

People wonder why I’m not physically affectionate. The number of times I’ve been a rating-boosting photo opportunity for my parents should be sufficient answer. The only person who’s ever hugged me without thinking about the shooting angles and light saturation is my brother, and he’s the only one whose hugs I’ve ever given a damn about.

My glasses filtered camera flashes, although it wasn’t long before I had to close my eyes anyway. Some of the newer cameras have lights on them strong enough to take photographs in total darkness that seem to have been taken at noon, and there’s not an intelligence check associated with buying that sort of equipment. One of those suckers goes off in your face, you know you’ve been photographed. I was going to have a migraine for days thanks to Mom’s forced photo opportunity. There was no way I could have avoided it; it was give in before dinner or spend the entire meal being harangued about my duties as a good daughter, leading to a much longer photo session afterward. I’d rather kiss a zombie raccoon.

Buffy came to my rescue, slinking through the crowd with the sort of grace that only comes from the kind of practice most of our generation has avoided. Reaching out, she caught hold of my other arm and chirped, all dizzy good cheer, “Ms. Mason, Georgia, Mr. Mason says our table’s ready! Only if you don’t come now, they may release it, and then we’ll have to wait at least a half an hour for another table.” She paused before delivering the coup de grace. “An inside table.”

That was the perfect thing to say. Sitting outside added to the family’s mystique, making us look brave and adventurous. Parental opinion, not mine. I think eating outside when you don’t have to makes you look like a suicidal idiot dying to get munched by a zombie deer. Shaun sides with everybody on this one—he’d rather eat outside when we have to eat with the parents in public, since that way there’s the chance a zombie deer will come along and rescue him. He just agrees that it’s a stupid thing to do. Mom doesn’t see the stupidity. If it was a choice between an outdoor table where the photographers could get some decent shots and an indoor table where people might gossip about the fearless Stacy Mason losing her nerve, well her answer was obvious.


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