Sam Stover | Fiction
Because her parents are getting divorced and because she is already a regular fixture in the McKeown household, Hannah is invited along on Fern McKeown’s family vacation. It’s just Hannah and Fern, and Fern’s undivorced parents, Monica and Greg. For one July week they lounge around their hotel, spending the glaring afternoons in the shade of pool umbrellas and the nights playing putt-putt and singing karaoke. The hotel is the kind of place with coral hot-glued to the headboards and what feels like miles of hot, sugary sand between the pink stucco walls and the ocean. Together they try raw oysters and chuck anchovies to the grizzled sea lions at the water park. Greg pays fifty dollars for Fern and Hannah to ride in a helicopter from one end of the neon beach to the other and back again. Monica and Greg treat Hannah like one of the family, like a second daughter. She knows she isn’t really, but it feels good to play along.
On Friday afternoon, Fern’s parents go snorkeling. They invite the girls to come with them, but Fern, learning that the goggles and snorkels are rented, says, “There is no way I’m putting someone else’s snorkel in my mouth.” To which Hannah replies, “That’s not what I hear,” causing Fern to laugh and her mom to shake her head and say, “I’m going to pretend I never heard this.” So the two of them stay behind in the hotel with the TV turned up loud and binge on Diet Cokes and Sun Chips from the hallway vending machines.
For the first time, the girls have their own room. They’d both turned sixteen, Fern in January and Hannah in June, and that brought certain rights. The room is a whole floor above Fern’s parents’, with its own balcony high over the square blue pool and the tiki bar. Tidy and smelling of vanilla soap when they’d entered, it’s now a stew of dirty tank tops, salt-crusted sandals, empty cans and soggy beach towels. Hannah, used to a life of military neatness, allows herself to relish in kicking her shoes to far corners, flinging a rank bra onto the floor and leaving it there.
After a while, Hannah and Fern go out onto the balcony. The sliding glass door sticks, years of sand stuck in its tracks. They leave it open and crank up the air-conditioning so it pours out and melds with the hot beach air. There’s nothing else to do, so they try to catch videos of the swarm of scraggly seagulls hovering a few feet out from the balconies. On another balcony below and to their right, someone plays music from portable speakers. It’s a song they both know the words to, although only Fern sings along. Fern laughs at the video she has taken—two gulls pecking one another mid-air over a piece of stale cracker—while Hannah leans against her shoulder to see. A message flashes across the top of the screen:
205-906-7756: Bored here by myself
“Who’s that?” Hannah asks.
“That guy from Tinder again,” says Fern. She composes a reply while Hannah reads over her shoulder.
Fern: Ugh, boring here too. I thought the beach was supposed to be fun? Where are all the🍹🎶💃?
205-906-7756: I could come over? Then we can b bored together
“Tell him no way,” Hannah says.
“He’s probably some perv.”
“You think everyone on Tinder is a perv.”
“You know I’m on Tinder, right?”
Fern gives Hannah a playful shove. This is how it is between them. Fern gives Hannah friendship—and with it, clemency from hallway body-checks and lewd notes shoved through the slats of her locker—and in return Hannah gives Fern the witty banter of a sidekick and, occasionally, an alibi when she’s caught coming home too late. For Hannah, Fern’s parents are perhaps the best part of the deal. In the months since her own parents separated, Hannah has spent more and more time at the McKeown’s house, with its reading nook and attic bedroom where Fern and Hannah hole up and wait for Fern’s mother to bring them midnight mugs of hot chocolate and steaming bowls of Easy Mac.
“Look, he’s pretty cute, right?” Fern holds up her phone to show photos of the guy. He’s not bad looking, Hannah has to admit. Like a scruffy Michael Fassbender. In each photo he wears a dingy red baseball cap.
“I bet he’s going bald,” Hannah says.
“You’re impossible,” Fern replies.
Fern’s parents return from snorkeling and they drive the
girls a few miles up the beach to a seafront restaurant for dinner. Inside it’s dim and smells of salt and frying oil. While they wait for their food, Greg does impressions of
the sea creatures he and Monica glimpsed on their excursion, puffing out his cheeks and bulging his eyes like a fish.
Fern shows Hannah her phone underneath the table. The guy has sent a photo. A bathroom-mirror selfie, shirtless and flexing, the phone blocking his face. Hannah raises her eyebrows at Fern.
“He’s really jacked, right?” Fern says.
“Who’s really jacked?” Greg asks. He makes a show of craning his neck to see Fern’s phone.
“Nobody.” Fern shoves the phone into her pocket.
“Just this actor guy,” Hannah says, covering. “He’s in a lot of those superhero movies.”
“No phones at the table, girls,” Monica says. “No matter how jacked anybody is.”
• • •
One of the stipulations of Hannah’s trip with the McKeowns is that she call home from the hotel phone at 9:30 p.m. each night. She dials her house’s number, the phone’s plastic cool against her ear. She listens to the line ring and then crackle to life.
“Hi, Mom,” she says.
“Hey, sweetie.” Her mom’s voice is croaky, slow. Like it’s the first time she’s spoken all day.
Ever since her dad moved out, Hannah’s mom has spent most of her time in front of the television. It doesn’t seem to matter what’s on—cable news, the home and garden channel, made-for-TV movies about girls with eating disorders. Sometimes Hannah catches her sleeping in front of the TV with a quilt pulled over her shoulders. Hannah imagines her now, sitting in the den, the light from the TV a cold flicker on her face.
“What did you girls do today?”
“Nothing much,” Hannah says.
“Nothing much? You could’ve done that here.”
“We went to the beach and some shops. I got a T-shirt from one of those airbrush places. It’s really cute.”
Over her shoulder, Hannah hears Fern open the door to the balcony and shut it behind her. She looks out and sees Fern sitting outside in the dark, face and hands lit by the blue glow of her phone’s screen.
“Has your dad called you?”
“No,” Hannah says. “Why?”
“I just wondered if he’d been in touch with you.”
For a moment, Hannah’s throat tightens into a hard, hot knob of anger. The last time Hannah’s dad had come to their house, her mother had refused to let him in the door. She’d dumped all of his clothes into a garbage bag and left it under the carport.
“No, Mom. He hasn’t called since the last time he came by.”
“Well, I’ll be glad when you get back. It’s hard not having my Hannah-banana around.”
She knows her mother wants her to say something kind, to make her feel loved, but she can’t make herself. The image of her dad stuffing the garbage sack of his life with them into the trunk of his car is still too raw in her mind. The moment passes with Hannah having said nothing. Her mom says, “Goodnight, sweetie,” and the line goes dead. A moment later, Fern slides open the balcony door, comes in out of the dark.
“You coming?” Fern asks.
“Out.” Fern holds up her phone so Hannah can read another round of text messages. She notices Fern has added Tinder guy to her contacts as “Hot Tinder Perv.”
Hot Tinder Perv: Why don’t you come over?
Fern: Nah, can’t. Folks have the car keys.
Hot Tinder Perv: I can pick u up . . .
“What’s the alternative?” Fern asks. “Stay in, watch Real Housewives, and get fat on Goldfish?”
“I like Goldfish.”
“Come on, Han.” Fern takes her voice up a register. It’s a tactic Hannah recognizes from when Fern pressures her parents to buy her something. “I just want to have some fun. And if you’re there I know things won’t get too weird.”
Hannah throws her head back dramatically and heaves a sigh.
“Fine,” she says. “But if this guy chops us into little pieces, I’m going to say I told you so.”
They change clothes separately, Fern in the room with the curtains open and Hannah in the bathroom with the door shut. They decide to wear their bathing suits underneath their clothes, just in case the guy has a pool.
They ride the elevator down with a chubby boy whose naked shoulders are wrapped in a Corona beach towel. The kid hops from one foot to the other impatiently, and runs toward the pool as soon as the elevator door opens, his feet slapping loudly on the concrete. Hannah and Fern wait in the breezeway beneath a light wreathed with yellow moths.
Fern taps at her phone with her thumb and suddenly he’s there in the parking lot, driving a hunter-orange truck and leaning over to pop the passenger door open.
Fern flops in the front seat. Hannah climbs into the narrow backseat and scrunches her knees up. The footwell is littered with warm, half-empty bottles of Dr. Pepper and magazines with boot prints crusting the covers. He’s older, like thirty, Hannah notices right off. If he’s put off by Hannah coming along, he doesn’t show it. He smiles at them, a quick toothy smile.
“I love this song,” Fern says, and twists the volume of the radio up.
His name is Desmond, he tells them. He drives quickly, skidding through turns to make the girls shriek and laugh and beg him to stop. Fern does, her voice gone high with delight, each syllable stretched out a beat too long. It’s a routine Hannah has seen before. She recognizes her cue to fade into the background, so she leans back and looks out of the tiny backseat window at the rows of hotels, putt-putt golf courses, airbrush T-shirt shops, and glowing signs for souvenirs and live hermit crabs. The front windows are rolled all the way down and the salty stink of the sea ruffles through Hannah’s hair. She leans her head against the cool triangle of glass of the back window and holds herself steady as the truck careens down the glittering beachside strip.
“So, you two are starting at Florida State this fall, is that right?” he asks.
“That’s right,” Fern says quickly, and shoots Hannah a look that tells her to keep quiet, play along.
“So, what, are you sisters or something?” He glances from Hannah to Fern.
“She’s my best friend,” Fern says, and reaches back to give Hannah’s knee a squeeze.
“That’s sweet,” he says, and tilts the truck through another turn.
• • •
He pulls up to a house a few miles down the beach from their hotel. It’s low-roofed, with cracked green storm-shutters. Out back is a peeling, whitewashed deck that leads out onto the beach.
“Ladies,” he says, and holds the screen door open for them.
Inside is messy but spare, with dark-hued leather couches and a glass coffee table with splotches and rings interlocking on its surface. It reminds Hannah of the apartment where her father now lives alone, with its pre-furnished rooms and frayed carpets.
He pops the tabs on two cans of beer and hands one to each of them without asking if they wanted any. Hannah sinks into the creaky leather couch and takes small, cautious sips. Fern moves around the room, pretending to look at the pictures on the walls with a feigned unsteadiness that makes her seem like a clumsy baby deer. He disappears into another part of the house and comes back in sandals and swimming trunks. Hannah notices the trail of hair running from his navel down to the waistband of his trunks, which he wears low enough to see the bones of his hips.
He tells them he is a photographer. He shows them his camera, a heavy black Canon with a thick, segmented lens. He presses a button and the flash flicks open like carapace of a beetle.
On a laptop he pulls up a website. He’s apparently one of a consortium of photographers who contribute to the site. He navigates to his own page, and clicks through his portfolio. Some are landscapes, beach vistas mostly. Peach and tangerine sunsets with the color filters saturated, giving the sand and the water an electric glow. Some of the photos are of women, sun-browned, sand-spattered. They wear bikinis or clutch towels to their chests.
“That’s my friend Rachael. She’s an artist at Electric Ink. She did this for me.” He rolls up the hem of his swim trunks to show a grey-tint tattoo of an octopus wrapped around his thigh. He clicks to another picture. “And that’s Kirsten. She moved up to New Jersey last year, but she still comes back in the summer sometimes. You can really make bank in tourist season if you’re lucky.”
“You sure have a lot of pretty friends,” Hannah says flatly.
“Perks of beach life,” he replies. “So, you want to?”
“Want to what?” asks Hannah.
“Do a shoot. You’d be perfect.” He takes Fern by the chin and turns her head left, then right. “I knew it as soon as I saw your profile.”
Hannah lets herself sink further into the couch. The leather sticks to the backs of her legs. It smells worn, like an old and greasy baseball glove.
“You too, sweetheart,” he says to Hannah.
“Me?” she asks.
“Why not?” Fern says and downs the last of her beer.
They follow him out onto the splintery, weathered deck and watch him drag away the table and chairs and knock a row of empty cans from the railing into the sand below. He clears away the corner of the deck aimed under one of the floodlights that hangs from the house’s gutters.
“Me first,” says Fern. She hops, grinning, in front of the camera. She pulls her T-shirt over her head at once and leans in bikini top and shorts against the railing. Fern pulls her hair up off of her neck, tucks her chin and puckers her face in a glower. Hannah can tell she’s mimicking the women in Desmond’s portfolio, all those Rachaels and Kirstins. After a while, he stops and lowers the camera from his face.
“Let’s give Hannah a turn.”
Fern, always at home in the spotlight, steps away reluctantly. She makes a show of putting her chin on Desmond’s arm so he can show her the photos on the camera’s little screen. Desmond gestures for Hannah to come forward.
“Come on, don’t be shy.”
She takes Fern’s place in the corner of the deck and stands blinking in the floodlight. She can see neither Desmond nor Fern—Desmond with his face hidden behind the camera, Fern lingering somewhere outside of the light’s glare.
In situations like these, Hannah never knows how to say no without losing face. The only solution is to become brash, ebullient; to allow all the nervous energy in her body to manifest itself in wisecracks and cocky insults. Sometimes she says too much and embarrasses herself, but it’s usually worth it if she can laugh through the awkward parts—if she can make people laugh before they laugh at her of their own accord.
She turns her back to them, crosses her ankles, and peers over her shoulder, a pantomime of a pinup girl. Physical humor—not her best, and barely worth the snort of pity Desmond allows her. He lowers the camera and steps toward her.
“Can this come off?” Desmond asks, fingering the sleeve of her T-shirt. She tugs it over her head and stands in just her bikini top. “And these?” She slips off her shorts and tosses them to Fern who wads them up and lays them on one of the chairs.
“Perfect,” he says.
He fiddles with her shoulders and chin, getting the angles he wants. She half expects him to reach behind her neck and pull the knot of her bathing suit loose for a joke, like any of the boys at school might. Instead, he gently places his hands on her ribs, just below her breasts, and steers her further into the light.
“Just like that,” he says, and his face disappears behind the camera again. Hannah hears several fast clicks and tries to hold still. After a moment, he steps forward again and studies her.
“Here, I want a good shot of just your face. Kneel down so I can get the light right.”
She kneels down and looks up at the camera’s lens, the wood of the deck hard on her knees. He looms over her, the camera lens retracting and lengthening with stiff, mechanical sounds. She thinks again of an insect. The whole moment is too serious, too heavy. She sticks out her tongue and makes a face to lighten to the mood.
“Oh, that’s great,” he says and snaps several more shots. “Good girl,” he says.
When he’s finished, she excuses herself to the bathroom, leaving Desmond and Fern alone on the deck. She shakes the grit out of her T-shirt and shorts into the bathtub and slips them back on. She hopes the photos don’t end up in one of Desmond’s portfolios. She doesn’t like the thought of people commenting on her thick arms, her obvious farmer’s tan. Looking in the mirror, she’s embarrassed to find a scrim of beer foam at the sides of her lips. It’s been there the whole time, and neither Desmond nor Fern bothered to mention it to her. She wipes it off with a square of toilet paper.
When she comes back outside, Fern and Desmond are nowhere to be found. She goes back into the house and hears the two of them through the wall, in one of the rooms off the carpeted hallway. She hears Fern squeal and listens hard at one of the doors. Fern shrieks again and Hannah pushes the door open.
He has Fern slung over his shoulders and spins her around, her arms and legs flailing. He throws her down onto the bed hard enough for her to bounce. She springs up laughing and leaps onto his shoulders again.
“There she is,” Desmond says, spotting Hannah by the door. He lets Fern fall onto the bed again. She gets up and allows Desmond to drape an arm across her shoulders.
“We thought you left,” Fern says. Fern’s face is flushed, her eyes glassy. Hannah knows for a fact Fern has never drunk anything stronger than a Zima. The beer must be going to her head.
“Of course she didn’t leave.” Desmond says. “You want another beer, Hannah? Here, Fern’ll share, won’t she?”
Fern hands Hannah her open can of beer and turns to fiddle with the stereo in the corner. Music, low and pulsing, fills the room. Hannah sits cross-legged on the bed and rests the cold can against her ankles. On the nightstand is Desmond’s camera. Hannah picks it up. She pushes a button and it buzzes to life in her hands.
“Whoa, best be careful with that,” Desmond says.
“I will be,” she says.
She puts her eye to the viewfinder. There’s the digital screen, but she prefers this way, the world simplified to a small, clear square. She trains the camera on Desmond and Fern. The two of them are standing at the foot of the bed, Fern cajoling him into dancing. Noticing the camera, Fern starts to vogue, her movements a little sloppy. Her bright red cheeks are shiny. She raises the camera to Desmond. He holds his hands out, blocking her view.
“Come on,” Hannah says. “It’s only fair.”
“Come on, please,” Fern echoes, pulling him to her side.
Reluctantly, he stands next to Fern and faces the camera. Where he had been cool, relaxed, he now seems stiff and uncomfortable. Hannah zooms in on his face. His mouth is twisted into a fake smile. She snaps a photo. Fern pulls on his arms to make him dance with her again. The more he tries to play along, the more ridiculous he looks. Hannah knows it’s because of her, but discovers she doesn’t care. It’s even a little fun, making him feel awkward in front of her.
“What would you do,” Hannah asks, “if I posted these photos to your site?”
“I don’t know, delete them probably,” Desmond says.
“You like taking pictures. Not getting your picture taken.”
“That’s right,” he says.
“What would you do if I posted them to my Instagram?”
“I don’t know, how many followers do you have?” He’s smiling at her now, aware he has her attention.
“What would you do,” Hannah says, continuing the game, “if I sent these photos to the police?”
“What?” he asks. Hannah snaps a photo of his What? face. She glances at Fern, who is dancing alone now, eyes closed, just swaying. She hasn’t heard what Hannah said.
“Nothing,” she says. “Just kidding around.”
For a moment he looks at her and then at Fern, who is again fiddling with the stereo in the corner. She finds a faster song, the chorus something about sex on an airplane. Hannah sees whatever epiphany Desmond considered having chased from his mind when Fern comes up and starts dancing on him again.
Hannah sits on the bed and takes a few more shots of Fern and Desmond dancing. She can see that Fern is so drunk she is practically asleep. A silly grin turns up the corner of her mouth, her eyes shut and brows furrowed like she’s dreaming. It’s less funny now, so Hannah turns off the camera and places it on the nightstand. Fern teeters over to the recliner in the corner and curls up in it. Desmond tries to pull her back up, but she waves him off. He wanders into the kitchen for more beer and by the time he returns, Fern is asleep with her mouth open.
“She always konk out like this?” he asks.
“Sometimes, yeah,” Hannah says.
“She’s pretty wild, your friend.”
“But you.” He stretches out on the bed beside her. “I don’t know about you. You seem”—he struggles for the right word—“quiet.”
“It’s always the quiet ones right?” she says. He smiles and twists his baseball cap from front to back.
“I should probably wake her up and get her home,” Hannah says.
Desmond reaches up, cups Hannah’s cheek in his palm, and touches the lobe of her ear with the tip of one warm, dry finger.
“You want to leave?” he asks.
“I mean, I guess. It’s late. I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?” His face is very close to hers. He takes off the dirty red cap and his hair is flattened against his head in some places, sticking out in others. “You don’t know?” he asks again.
“I don’t know,” she says.
He kisses her, then she feels his weight shift and he’s on her, knee between her thighs. The hem of her T-shirt rides up so that the skin of her stomach touches his. She feels a hand on her waist, her ribcage, under the hem of her swimsuit top. She isn’t stupid. She knows what comes next. She even knows what it’s supposed to feel like, having long ago taught herself in the small hours of night with a hard pillow and one of the curling paperback novels her mother keeps in a box labeled “Taxes.” This is, after all, what the whole night has been leading to, she now realizes. Whether through coercion or complicity—the lines between them seem suddenly murky to her—she has arrived at this moment, with this man’s weight pressing on her. Dimly, she wonders whether she’d even been hoping for it, hoping that it would be her this time and not Fern.
He slides a finger under her shorts. She feels a jolt of something like pleasure that quickly sours in her belly. Suddenly her heart starts to pummel against her breastbone. She feels the hair of his legs brush against her calves and has the weird impression that he’s not a man at all, but an animal—an ox or a mammoth.
“Sorry, I have to go to the bathroom again,” Hannah says and tries to slide sideways away from him.
“Come on, don’t be like that,” Desmond says. His hand slides lower beneath her waistband. She tries to think of something funny, something to diffuse the situation, but nothing comes to her.
“I really have to go.” She slips out from under him and stands up. His hand is on her wrist now.
“You should be careful,” he says. “I don’t like to be teased.”
She pulls her arm free and bangs her hand hard against the nightstand. She hears something fall to the floor with a crunch. Desmond’s camera lays on the carpet, the lens popped off and little shards of glass glinting among the carpet fibers.
“Oh shit, shit no.” Desmond crawls off the bed. He scoops the broken lens into his hands, delicately, as if it’s a wounded animal. “You did that on purpose, didn’t you?” he says. “Do you have any idea how much this cost?” Hannah is surprised to hear his voice gone high and petulant, like a little boy’s.
At that moment, Fern sits up, and looks around the room, groggy, confused. “What happened?” she asks.
“The fuck’s the matter with your friend?” Desmond says.
“What?” Fern says. She looks at Hannah as though still trying to remember why they’re here. Hannah tries to say, “Nothing, I didn’t—”
“Just fucking destroyed a two-thousand dollar lens is what she did.”
“I’m really sorry, I didn’t mean—” But neither of them are listening. Fern unfolds herself from the chair and kneels down to help Desmond pick fragments from the floor.
“It’s OK, it’s just the lens, I think,” Fern says. “Do you have any glue?” she asks, stupidly.
“Better hope to fucking God the camera still works,” he says.
Hannah stands and clutches her elbows, trying to apologize. Eventually Fern says it’s probably best if she just goes back to the hotel.
“Just catch an Uber or something.”
“What about you?” Hannah asks. “Won’t your parents be worried or mad or something?”
“I’ll get him to drive me back. You’ll cover for me, right?”
“Jesus, Hannah, it’s the least you can fucking do,” Fern says, casting a glance down at Desmond and the broken camera.
“Yeah, all right, whatever.”
Hannah allows herself to be steered out of the bedroom and out onto the deck. The floodlights still glare at one corner. Then she’s down in the sand, then right along surf, walking briskly up the beach.
The hotel is miles away, but a straight shot if she follows the beach. The wind coming off of the ocean is cold. She tries tucking her arms inside the arm holes and stretching her T-shirt down to cover the tops of her thighs, but it doesn’t help at all, so she takes it off and throws it into the water. A large wave pushes it back up into the sand and rolls it around before leaving it in a pale sodden heap. After a while she gets used to the cold, and she walks right along the edge of the surf, letting the black water steal the sand from beneath her toes.
She takes out her phone and turns it back on. Waiting for her is a text from Fern.
Fern: Way to be a clutz (sp?) Han. Luckily D was able to save the pics. Thought you’d want to see how cute you look.
What follows is a link. It takes her to Desmond’s website. He has already uploaded the cache of photos he’d taken of Hannah and Fern out on the deck. He hasn’t, Hannah notices, included the photos she took of him and Fern. She scrolls through the images of herself. They are grainy and blanched, her skin washed of its color. Hannah’s attempts at runway coolness looked like fear in the floodlights.
She comes upon the photograph he took of her kneeling. He had caught her just as she’d started to stick out her tongue, lips parted, eyes expectant. Desmond’s foreshortened legs and feet are caught in the picture’s frame, the orange knot of his swim trunks inches from her face. Beer foam crusts her upper lip. Not merely unflattering: ugly, obscene.
She walks for a long time, long enough for the beach to empty of the last late-night partyers and for the music pulsing from the hotels and tiki bars to dim and then go quiet. She knows there’s a word for the photograph, a word for men like Desmond. But she also knows that if she allows herself—or anyone else—to use those words, she’ll become something worse than a punch line. She does the only thing she can do, which is to join in the joke, make it seem like she was in on it all along.
She saves the image to her photos. She crops it down to just the pink hill of her tongue and the wet glimmer of her lip. She adds a filter and uploads it to her feed.
Ready for my close-up, is the caption she gives it.
Sam Stover was born in Birmingham, Alabama. His stories have been finalists in the Glimmer Train New Writer’s Award and the Tennessee Williams Literary Festival Fiction Contest. He currently resides in New York, where he is completing an MFA at Hunter College.Featured Image by Agence Olloweb