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Chapter 2: Miles Duran

While September 30th was taking place for me, it was also taking place for twenty-year-old Miles Duran. We would eventually meet, and he would tell me his story and that of Congressman Stafford. I’ll share some of what I’ve pieced together with you here, but I don’t and never will, know it all.

On the other side of the country, the air was slightly clearer, the water slightly cleaner, and the devastation slightly easier to ignore. Just slightly, though. On Capital Hill in Washington D.C., Miles was going about his day. He stood at the elongated gray counter in one of the break rooms of the Cannon House Office Building. Like me, he remembered many of the minute details of that day. They replayed in his mind as they replayed in mine, like a song you can’t remember all the lyrics too, but you cling to the refrains like liefelines. 

Miles wanted to be a leader. He wanted to have power. He wanted to be at the table. It was his destiny. He’d felt this way ever since he was fourteen years old. And, being a leader often meant working oneself up from the bottom. He reminded himself of this often.

He was lodged between the bit of space between the microwave and the refrigerator as he assembled the same lunch Congressman Stafford had asked for the past ten days in a row. This is just a stepping stone, Miles repeated as he set out the ingredients in a neat row and then grabbed a plate from the cabinet above. 

Congressman Stafford was a man of routine. A man who enjoyed the comfort of predictability. When it came to food, he would get a craving for something, or try a new dish, then he would want that same meal prepared for him for days until the novelty wore off and he moved on. It was a slightly amusing, if not frustrating quality for a politician. Either way, Miles got a kick out of telling people about this inside quirk, this private, privileged information about the Representative from Maryland’s 6th district.

As Miles stood there opening the lid off the jar of mayonnaise, listening to the sound of an increasingly heavy rain against the window, he was grateful the sandwich was something that could be assembled in-house. A few weeks prior, Congressman Stafford had wanted nothing but pad thai from a place ten blocks away, and had Miles running to get it at the snap of his fingers. This left the young intern running late to his meetings, missing important opportunities, and rarely having time to wolf down food of his own.

The wind and rain slightly haunted Miles on the windows that day, and each pitter patter tightened the knot forming in his stomach, though he didn’t know why. There had been no snow yet that year, but Miles knew it was coming. Though it was only September, winter was starting earlier and earlier every year, and on Capitol hill, winter seemed to bring out the worst in people. The air was thin, and patience was thinner. Miles was no exception. Ever since moving to Washington, his mood seemed to shift as easily as the Congressman’s favorite lunch.

Miles hoped the Stafford’s fleeting love of sandwiches would turn into a long-term relationship with bonds strong enough to persist through the winter. He strongly disliked the errands, though honestly that was most of his job. That, and arriving early to unlock the office, giving tours, and fielding calls from angry constituents.

There was a coffee machine in office -one of the fancy ones with the espresso maker and everything - but everyone wanted their own custom order from the place down the road anyway. So, at least twice a day he would make the trip, balancing eight lattes on trays as he walked the half-mile loop. After a few months at the job, he even coughed up the money for some reusable carrying trays and eight mugs, collecting them after an hour to wash and be ready for the next run.

Miles had been interested in politics ever since his mom petitioned for the city to stop dumping their pollutants in the lake near their house. It seemed like such a reasonable request to a child. How could someone say no to such a thing? He soon learned these matters weren’t so simple. A puppet was rarely maneuvered by one string alone. 

Miles grew up in Stafford’s district, which he was sure had gained him some points with the hiring committee. Miles agreed with many of Stafford’s earlier policies.  He watched some of the early videos of the congressman and he was so passionate. His policy visions clearly articulated. Now, at least to Miles, he mostly seemed irritated. Always on edge. Like the weight of the world was balanced precariously on his shoulders and he couldn’t step too far to the left or the right without it tumbling down.

But, you can’t change anything from the outside, so when he was given an internship in Stafford’s office he was elated. In front of him was a chance to get in at the ground level, meet some people in Washington, and start his career. He had his full ten-year plan mapped out, ending with his first run for a political office at the spry age of thirty.

Miles used a butter knife to slice the small baguette lengthwise. He spread on the mayonnaise, added the mustard, placed in the salami he had stocked up on at the beginning of the week from the deli on the corner, and topped with lettuce, tomato, and a thin slice of pickle. Then, Miles tore open a single serving bag of potato chips and balanced it on the side of the plate. Because no one was looking, he grabbed one and put it in his own mouth. Salt and vinegar. A taste that would never go out of style.

Miles had his own packed lunch in the break-room refrigerator -leftovers from his dinner from the night before - but was expected to deliver the congressman’s lunch to his desk before breaking himself. Miles balanced the plate on one hand and grabbed a bottle of coke out of the fridge with the other. He walked down the wide hall and used the toe of his shoe to knock on the door marked Congressman Stafford.

“Come in,” the congressman’s voice sounded distant, distracted. Miles opened the door. Stafford was sitting behind a desk covered with multiple stacks of paper. Miles was always amazed at how much real paper was still shuffled around the capital building. During his time in school, he rarely saw a sheet of the stuff. Stafford was holding one sheet of paper in front of his face, and his forehead was as scrunched as an accordion on an in note. The congressman didn’t look up as Miles stepped into the office balancing the lunch.

“Everything okay, sir?” Miles asked as he carefully stacked some spread out paperwork to make room for the lunch, then slid the plate onto an empty spot on the desk and set the coke next to it.

“Yes. Yes. Just wondering about this NASA announcement that’s coming up later today. I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about, but word on the hill is we need to all tune in. It’s mandatory. They’re asking us to all head down to the Caucus Room. Can you round everyone up in, let’s see, only forty-five minutes until the announcement? Where the hell did the morning go? At the top of the hour, okay?”

Miles was caught off guard by this. He assumed they would ask the representative to brief himself on whatever the announcement may be, as was customary with an agency announcement. But, for everyone on a congressional team to be watching live, that was something else. It had never happened during his eighteen months interning for the congressman.

“Would you like me in there too, Sir?” Miles asked tentatively. He didn’t want to sound too eager.

“Yes. Everyone means everyone, Miles,” Stafford said flippantly. The knot in his stomach that had started with the rain, morphed as he processed what news would warrant his inclusion. 

“Of course. Sorry sir.”

Miles observed the congressman once more - his loose tie, his disheveled hair. “Are you sure that everything is okay, sir?”

“I mean,” Stafford began, ignoring Miles’ most recent question, “when I was a kid I remember, well, NASA was all about the exciting stuff. You remember that? Oh hell, never mind, you’re too young. They haven’t done anything exciting in probably thirty years.”

“Not really sir,” Miles replied. 

“Hell, maybe they’ve found a new planet,” Stafford said hopefully. 

“Or knocked Pluto back up the ladder?” Miles added. 

“I mean, they’re probably just going to tell everyone the results of their investigation” 

Investigation? Miles wondered. This was the first he was hearing about it. Stafford grabbed his sandwich off the desk and took a large bite, continuing to talk while chewing and gesticulating wildly with his free hand. 

“You know,” Stafford continued, “reassure everyone that it will come nowhere near our atmosphere like the countless other NEOs people have gotten themselves worked up over in the past.”

NEO? Miles thought. As in Near Earth Object? The knot in his stomach doubled in size.

“What will come nowhere near our atmosphere, sir?” 

 “Hell, in 1998,” the congressman continued, once again ignoring Miles, “astronomers leaked that a similar asteroid, one a half-mile wide, might hit earth, and it turned out that that asteroid wouldn’t come close to earth for at least two hundred years. Now, nearly fifty years later, and people are still getting themselves worked up over what will probably be nothing. Just another exciting discovery that NASA wants to wax on about to prove that they are still relevant, when we all know they receive too much money as it is. This is just an attempt to hold the nation’s attention. I can feel it.”

“Yes. Sir. You are likely right.” Miles had the sudden urge to leave the room. “Anything else I can get for you while I’m here, Sir?”

The congressman sat up a bit straighter at the validation and grabbed his sandwich. Part of Miles’ job was reading the Stafford’s mood, and at the moment, there was apprehension written all over the congressman’s face. He also had become well versed at knowing when to approach him and knowing when to back off. With relief, Miles sensed it was time to excuse himself, and he turned to go.

“Yeah, uh, shut the door on your way out will ya?”

“Of course, Sir. Oh, and Sir?”

“Yes, Miles?”

“There is a comb in your upper left drawer.”

Stafford laughed slightly under his breath. “Alright kid. Note taken.”

Miles shut the door behind him and set out to let everyone in the office know they were to gather at the top of the hour.

Congressman Stafford dug through one of his desk drawers, found the comb, and ran it through his hair. Then, he straightened the knot on his tie, leaned back, and sighed. 

Stafford had a sinking feeling the news they were about to hear wasn’t just some new discovery, or fluff. But he had to keep everyone from panicking until they knew what was going on. The office would be flooded with calls from constituents soon enough, wanting to know everything they knew. Constituents and non-constituents, honestly. Because these days congressman received calls from everyone and anyone, regardless of their zip code.

But, Stafford didn’t know much of anything yet. People wouldn’t believe that though. They would assume he was hiding something.

He stretched his back in his chair, in a motion that looked uncomfortable. Then, he grabbed something else out of the desk drawer - a bottle of pain reliever - and downed a couple with a swig of the coke. He then looked to a picture on his desk - him with a woman. He grunted, and pulled something out from under his desk, tucked beside his feet - a duffle bag, filled with personal possessions from home. Enough to last several days. 

At the top of the hour, the whole team gathered in the conference room, as requested. Including Miles and the congressman, eight people currently worked in Stafford’s office. Throughout the other buildings on capitol hill, there were hundreds of meetings just like this one taking place at the same time.

Sitting around the conference table there was the chief of staff, the senior legislative assistant, the communications director, the scheduler, the office manager, and one other congressional intern.

Miles turned on the television on the far wall as everyone took a seat. He could feel the tension in the room as the team feigned relaxation and cast half-hearted smiles to one another. On the screen was a press room, not unlike the one that Stafford’s communications director would often make announcements in. A plain, windowless room filled with rows of blue fabric and metal chairs all facing a podium centered on a low stage. Not even large enough for a four-piece band, Miles thought. The carpet on the ground almost perfectly matched the indigo fabric on the chairs. It was an unremarkable room in every way. Reporters left the chairs unoccupied for now as they talked to each other, mingling nervously. Miles could almost taste the energy in that room - nervousness coupled with the excitement of a big story about to drop.

Then, a woman walked into the room and stepped up onto the stage. Clementine Reyes. Clementine was Hispanic and stood about five-foot five. She had sleek black hair twisted into a stylish bun, so that the twist was still visible on the right side of her head. She was breathtakingly beautiful. Miles had always had a bit of an on-screen crush on her the few times that he had seen her speak. She was a few years older - and way out of his league. He knew that. 

As Ms. Reyes approached the mic, everyone settled in and quieted down in the conference room around him. Everyone except for Peter the communications director who at the moment was opening up an incredibly loud bag of potato chips.

“Peter, quiet the fuck down will you? We need to hear this,” Congressman Stafford hissed, as he leaned back in his chair and started drumming his hands on the table top, oblivious to the fact that it was as loud as the chip eating. Miles didn’t dare say anything to that effect. Instead, he turned his eyes to the screen and gave it his full attention.