Stories by Emily Hoover
  1  Surge
3  Angelo Loves Tammy
4  El Brutál
5  Real Fun
  6  Tectonics of Time
  7  Some Kind of Saint
  8  Snitch
  9  Demolition
10  Reflections at Aqua Key West

  About the Author  |  |  Summer 2021 Fiction Issue


He watches her with wide eyes as she paints the colors of the night onto her porcelain skin. First, she draws thick, black lines above and below her eyelids, smudging some at the corners to hide the wrinkles. Then, she lines her too-thin lips with crimson. The lipstick she chooses is precise: a shade lighter than the liner, just enough to add texture but not enough to be noticed, especially in a poorly lit room. The liquid liner has dried some, so she brushes a dark purple across her fluttering eyelids and adds white near her brows.

She looks kind of pretty in the fake yellow light, he decides, and finds his own reflection in the bottom corner of the mirror. He watches himself watching her, the Florida Gators shirt clinging to his sweaty body. “You look nice, Mom,” he says, instead of I’m hot or why can’t we have A/C? Imagining her drawing fine lines on his face, he leans against the wall behind her, broadening the gap between them.

She huffs at his compliment, scrunches her face the way she does when she sucks down Zimas out on the porch. “Thanks, hon.”

“I mean it,” he says, trying to keep her attention. They have the same cheekbones. He turns his face to the side slightly, sucks his cheeks in a bit.

She ties up her dyed-blond hair with the leopard-print scrunchie he remembers her buying from the dollar store in a pack of four. Where were the other three? He remembers liking the one with the little perfume bottles on it. Once her hair is pulled back, she teases her bangs with a small black comb from her purse; it’s as though she’s forgotten he’s standing there behind her.

“Can I have five dollars?” he asks, suddenly. His tone has changed; it’s softer now. He anticipates her annoyance and looks instead at his fingers painted with red Sharpie, the linoleum beneath his Salvation Army sneakers.

“I knew you wanted something.” She digs around for mascara. “Ingrate.”

“It’s not that,” he says, even though he doesn’t know what “ingrate” means.

“Then, what is it?” Her mouth opens when the wand touches her lashes. “Christ, Daniel, I can’t even buy new shoes for Tammy until I get paid. What’s gonna happen when you need new shoes, a new backpack? What about Phillip’s braces? None of you know how to take care of anything.”

“But you’re a bartender.”

“So?” Her eyes narrow. She stares at him through the mirror’s dirty glass. “You’ve been behind the bar. Did it look like I had a money tree back there?”

“No. But you have tips. I know that.”

“Oh you do?” She closes the mascara tube, lights a Virginia Slim with her Zippo.

“I know if you give me five dollars you’ll get another five back. Fast.” He also knows he learned this kind of talk from his father.

She takes a long drag and places the cigarette on the corner of the vanity. There are brownish marks all over the surface. He likes to think it’s the place cigarettes go to die. “Get a grip, Daniel, I don’t have time for your shit,” she says.

His cheeks feel hot. His eyes swell, and he decides he hates her. He slams the door and stomps toward his room, defeated.

“Watch it, faggot,” Phillip says on his way out of their shared space. He blocks the door, shows the gap-toothed grin he inherited from their father.

“Get outta my way. I’m serious,” Daniel says and attempts to push his older brother aside.

But Phillip’s fist meets Daniel’s chest with sharp force. Daniel falls to his knees, clutching himself.

“Sissy boy Danielle,” Phillip says, laughing. He pushes Daniel down, kicks him in the stomach twice, and moves into the living room.

Tears come. Daniel’s wails fill the small house. The pain worsens after a few breaths, and he brings his knees to his chest, still sobbing. Daniel plans to stay this way until his mother comes out of the bathroom. He whimpers loudly, louder than necessary, because he knows she’ll give him a dollar for another Surge if he stops all the bellyaching.

Daniel hears Tammy and Phillip fighting over the TV remote in the living room; Tammy wants to finish cartoons—they only have one channel and it’s fuzzy most of the time—but Phillip wants to shut it off to play Notorious B.I.G. on the boom box he got for his birthday from the grandma they’re otherwise not allowed to see.

“What the hell is going on here?” his mother asks and comes out of the bathroom. She glances at Phillip, before kneeling beside Daniel. “What’s wrong? Come on, Daniel. Stop. What is it?”

He comes out of the fetal position, turns to lie on his back, and lifts up his t-shirt. He reveals his belly, the reddening flesh.

“Your stomach?” She wipes away his tears, brushes her long fingers against his skin. The commotion in the living room becomes louder. “Phillip, enough,” she yells, turning her head to the side. “Your sister was watching first. Build a bridge and get over it!” Her eyes come back to Daniel.

“Yeah,” Daniel says, sniffling.

“Too many Surges eating your gut, huh?” she asks.

“No,” he says forcefully.

“Are you nauseous? Do you want some Pepto-Bismol? I’ll have Phillip heat up a can of chicken noodle soup for you.” She brushes her fingers through his hair. “How ‘bout that?”

“No.” He shakes his head. “Phillip kicked me. It hurts. And he called me a nasty name.”

She grunts, grits her teeth. “Phillip,” she calls.

He comes into the hallway, keeps a safe distance.

“Come here,” she says.

Phillip squats beside her guardedly.

She slaps him hard across the face and he falls back, joining them on the hallway floor.

“Ouch, Ma, come on!” Phillip says.

“Shut up,” she says. “How old are you, Phillip Jr.?”

“Twelve,” Phillip says. “You know.” He keeps his hand on his cheek, flinches when she turns to face him.

“I do. Going on thirteen, too. You know what that means? It means you’ve got to get your shit together and stop acting like a child, like a little spoiled baby. You’re the man of the house now; doesn’t that mean anything to you?”

“Yes,” Phillip says. There’s a small gash on the side of his face from her rings. Daniel sees now that it hurts; it hurts far worse than his stomach, even though his insides still feel weird.

“Don’t you have something to say to your brother?”

“I’m sorry,” Phillip says, but Daniel knows he doesn’t mean it. Phillip gives him a look that says after their mother leaves for her double shift, he’ll be sorry for tattling.

“Thanks,” Daniel says anyway and offers a smile. Phillip doesn’t smile back; he gets up, goes back into the living room. Daniel hears Tammy giggling at something The Animaniacs said.

“You sure you’re okay?” his mother asks, rubbing his stomach.

“Yeah, I think so.”

She pulls a dollar out of her pocket, puts her index finger to her lips. “Shhh,” she says and hands the bill to Daniel.

He comes to a seated position on the floor and takes it into his hands, grinning.

“You better get you some lunch before Tammy eats it all up,” she says, rolling her eyes playfully. “You know how she loves her SpaghettiOs.”

When Daniel leaves his front porch that afternoon, he doesn’t think to ask his mom’s friend Marsha if he can go down the street to the Circle K to pick up a Surge. He just starts down the driveway. The dollar is burning a hole in his pocket, his father would say.

“Where the hell do you think you’re going?” Marsha asks. She stands in her garage with her hands on her hips. “Your mama told you to stay put. You have all you need in the house.”

“But she gave me a dollar and I just—”

“You just—nothing. You’re gonna save that dollar like a good boy. Your mama told me about all them Surges you and Phillip been drinking. That shit’ll rot your teeth.”

Daniel sighs and walks back inside his house; he watches another episode of Animaniacs with Tammy and sneaks out his mother’s window while Phillip’s in the bathroom. He jogs across the yard, crouching low, and hops the fence.

Daniel cuts through Ramón’s yard to avoid the older kids at the end of the street, the ones who like to pick on him after school at the bus stop. He tries to avoid Ramón’s open windows as well because his mother told him he couldn’t talk to his friend Ramón anymore after she caught Ramón touching him down there, where it’s soft, while watching cartoons. This was after his father went away.

Up the road, he sees a couple of guys with shopping carts yelling at each other near the Circle K. He passes them, head down, and smells something other than body odor. It’s like when Phillip burns the cellophane cases off his mother’s empty cigarette packs, and it reminds him of his father.

The bell chimes as he enters the air-conditioned store. The cashier—an old man with an eye patch—looks up at him from his newspaper at the counter.

“Good afternoon there, young man,” the cashier says. He folds the paper and drops it in front of him. He leans back in his chair, watching Daniel with his good eye.

“Hi,” Daniel says and makes his way to the soda display.

When he opens the door, the cool air surrounds him. He wishes he were old enough to have a job because he wouldn’t mind stacking cool drinks all day; it sure beats sitting in a two-bedroom house with four people and no A/C. A can of Surge costs fifty cents and he decides to get two for a dollar. His mom usually gives him at least two dollars, so he usually has change.

He approaches the counter, places the two cans on its clear surface. Below, Daniel sees some lottery tickets and a hunting knife for sale.

The cashier keys in his order on the old cash register. “That’ll be $1.06.”

Daniel frowns. “Huh?”

“One dollar and six cents, my boy. You deaf or somethin’?” He laughs, smiling wider, exposing a mouth full of rotten, yellow teeth.

“But I only have a dollar. The sign over there says soda costs fifty cents each. Two for a dollar.” He pauses, eyeing the man to see if it was a trick.

The cashier nods. “Plus sales tax. Six percent, which equals six cents.”

“Oh,” Daniel says softly. “I’ll have to put one back, then.”

“Hang on a minute,” the cashier says. He rises from his chair, fishes around in the front pocket of his Wranglers. He places a nickel and penny on the counter, next to Daniel’s dollar and his prized cans of soda. “Looks to me like you have a dollar and six cents.” He winks.

Daniel nods and smiles. “Thank you.”

The cashier pushes the cans of Surge toward Daniel as the bell chimes. A dark-skinned man without a shirt enters, nods at the two of them, flashes his gold teeth.

Daniel returns the man’s smile. When he looks back to pick up the cans, he notices the cashier is no longer smiling; his good eye is glued to the man who slowly walks to the back of the store, hands in his deep pockets.

“Go on,” the cashier whispers. “Get outta here now, boy. Shoo.”

Daniel shuffles out of the store. Thunderclouds have formed to the east of him and the air is thicker than swamp water. It’s rained every day this week, and Daniel sees this as the end of summer: the beginning of fifth grade. He opens a can of Surge halfway, creating a sliver-hole in the aluminum, and sucks out a sip, watching the arguing men push their shopping carts behind the store. He wishes he had gotten a fiver from his mother earlier because he would have gotten Bugles too. He would have even shared them with Tammy, who always puts them on her fingers before she eats them. The other Surge, he sticks in the crook of his armpit, shivering a little at its coolness. He begins the short walk home.

He stops at a chain-link fence about a block up and thinks of his father—the roughness of his hands, the way his palms cracked open after hard work, the way he used them to push Daniel’s mother onto the pavement when she tried to take him and Tammy and Phillip away in the middle of the night. He takes another sip, swaying in the breeze that always comes before a storm.

Suddenly, Daniel hears yelling. He leans against the fence. Holding his body still, he sees the shirtless man coming out of the Circle K, and the cashier following behind him. A police car is there in seconds, turns toward the store on squealing tires from Combee Road.

“Stop that man, officer,” the cashier yells, pointing at the shirtless man heading in Daniel’s direction. “He stole from me, waved a weapon!”

Daniel drops the can of Surge and the yellow liquid seeps onto the pavement. He closes his eyes, hears two quick shots, and a loud thud. Urine stains the front of his shorts. When he opens his eyes, he sees the shirtless man has fallen and is now surrounded by a growing pool of red.

More officers arrive, clouding the air with red and blue lights. Everyone within earshot floods the area, too. Daniel stays frozen for a few moments, imagining there’s a bee on his nose. When no one talks to him, looks at him, or points at him, he decides he should keep walking before anyone notices he’s standing there. He doesn’t want the switch from his mama.

Instead of looking at the man on the ground again—he’s capital-D-dead, Daniel knows it—he hovers over the unopened can of Surge in the grass before him. It’s hard for him to catch his breath. He’s never seen a dead person before.

He knows Phillip will slug him in the face, pull down his underwear, and shove it in his mouth when he finds out he’s peed himself. He’ll mount him and punch him and call him a faggot until his ears bleed, until he says uncle and basically admits that it’s true.

Daniel opens the soda and pours it onto himself, flinching as the cold liquid further darkens his soiled denim shorts.

Minutes later, he walks through the front door of his house, hoping to make it into the bathroom before Phillip notices the smell.


  © Emily Hoover, 2021

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