Authors: Hugh Howey
by Hugh Howey
It was the last day of summer, and Daniel Stillman spent it
looking for a girl. He grabbed his mouse and scrolled through the list, paying
as much attention to the number of viewers listed by each window as he did the
small picture inside. He had learned to shy away from the girls with hoards of
onlookers, but also to avoid those with just one or two voyeurs. While Daniel
was loathe to compete with a crowd, he was also reticent of those who couldn’t
draw one. Screen names went by: jasMine21, dancegurlz, StacYnKate. Daniel
clicked on one, adding the chat window and webcam to the cascade of other potential
dates for the evening.
While the loading advertisement rolled, he checked his
appearance in his own webcam window. Daniel had on a pair of ripped jeans, his
feet tucked up underneath him, the rips clearly visible on video. Excellent.
For his t-shirt, he’d picked out a fake vintage Pepsi, the blue of which showed
up nicely on screen. Part of the press-on logo was melted from a botched job of
ironing the shirt, but he thought the extra damage was a nice touch. It looked
more than a few months old.
The only flaw he could see was that his hair wasn’t
perfectly messy. He licked his palms and ran them up the sides of his head
while Ford wrapped up their attempt to sell him a car he could never afford. He
ran his fingers through his short choppy hair one more time, his coordination
stymied by the correct-facing video, which undid seventeen years’ experience of
combing his reflection in a mirror. He finally gave up and made one last
adjustment to the webcam. It brought a heap of dirty laundry into the screen
behind him, which forced him to move the cam back rather than get up and deal
Finally, leXie213’s video stream popped up, revealing a
window into a teenager’s bedroom. Lexie, he could only presume, was bent
forward, pecking at her keys, her head distorted from being so close to her
camera. When she leaned back, Daniel could see that she was lovely. And
laughing. He glanced down her chuckling neck, past her loose tank top, and at
the chat window beneath her image, scanning for the origin of her mirth:
show us your tits!
was thinking Amherst, but am applying to State n case.
Amherst would be nice.
she ain’t gonna show em.
unstrap them puppies!!
c’mon, just a quick peak..
Kewl. U into fish?
then free them guppies swimmin in yo tank!!
Lexie was still laughing. She rested back on a low wall of
pillows on her bed. The lower half of two unrecognizable posters could be seen
hanging just above the headboard. Daniel figured both were vampire-related by
the red font on almost solid black backgrounds. As Lexie leaned forward to
rattle off a reply, he stopped sizing up her room and focused on the
aforementioned breasts. Was she really laughing at this Luke character? And was
“tank” a reference to her tank top? If so, how did these guys come up with shit
like that so fast? And how could a girl like Lexie laugh at someone screaming
to see her tits?
Daniel sized up his competition. They were arranged in two
rows of little cubes off to the right of Lexie’s much larger chat window. None
of her other suitors displayed the barest hint of over eagerness and
desperation that Daniel felt. They looked relaxed. Half of them wore large
trucker hats with bills pressed sheet-metal flat. Somehow, they were able to
not look ridiculous in them.
Daniel knew he would have. He’d tried them on.
Not a one of the boys smiled, even as Lexie laughed. They
wore the frozen expressions of the serially disinterested. One boy glanced in
his coffee cup, swirling it around. Another held a guitar on his lap, his shirt
off, looking like he wasn’t even aware he was on camera. They each exuded a
calm and confidence that Daniel recognized as intoxicating to the opposite sex,
something as impossible and awkward to arrange in himself as it was to sort out
his hair with the webcam. Their chiseled jaws made his comparatively thin face
look more like the chisel. Two of the kids had rounded shoulders like water
balloons. With shoulders like that, Daniel could imagine asking to see a girl’s
tits and being laughed at in a
He grabbed his Winamp window and placed the squiggly lines
of a Coldplay tune over the double row of trucker studs. Daniel’s confidence
was shaken. He imagined his webcam window arranged alongside the others and
wondered what Lexie would think of the boy who looked different from the rest.
And not different in a cool, hipsterish way. Which was to say: the same.
When he looked back to Lexie, Daniel saw that she had taken
a call. She laughed into her cell phone, and he wondered if she was maybe
talking to one of the dozen other guys peeking into her life. Daniel quickly
typed that she had a gorgeous laugh and watched as his message scooted up the
screen, chased away by catcalls, talk of college, and pleadings for more tits.
Lexie’s eyes never made it back to her computer before his little flirtation
was gone. This beautiful girl, sitting in any one of hundreds of millions of
upstairs bedrooms all across the globe, laughed and rolled her eyes at
something said on the other line. She ran a thumb under one of her tank top
straps and adjusted it, caring little for what innocent gestures did to less
innocent onlookers. Coldplay quit their wailing and Winamp moved randomly to a
song by Train, the squiggles dancing madly over the sort of guys Lexie was more
Daniel adjusted his webcam and thought back to the beginning
of the summer and the one time a girl in a video chat had given him her number
to call. It had turned out to be a prank, or something more like a marketing
scam. The video of the girl had been a loop, not a live view at all, and his
traced call had started a flood of text ads for 1-900 sex lines and links to
websites with names like: sexyhotblondes.ru.
Two hours of wrangling with AT&T customer service had
eventually netted him a new cell phone number, which put an end to the
embarrassing flood. A stolen minute with his mom’s and stepdad’s cell phones, a
quick edit of his own entry in each, and they weren’t the wiser. It wasn’t as
if either of them knew his number by heart. Hardly anyone knew anyone’s numbers
His sister and brother had to be told, as parting either
from their phones for even a minute would’ve required more patience than Daniel
possessed. His excuse for the change of numbers was that he had someone
stalking him. They both seemed to know it was something worse (and more likely)
as they updated his contact info.
The only other person Daniel had to tell was his best
friend, who was away at a steady stream of camps all summer and couldn’t have
called if he’d wanted to. Daniel thought about how little difference there’d be
in the density of incoming calls now that nobody else knew his new number. The
porn spam, if nothing else, had made him feel popular for a few weeks.
quit their whining, and
A Puddle of Sunshine
lit into a ballad of pathetic crooning. Without the temporary silence in
between, Daniel probably wouldn’t even know his playlist was ticking through
the songs. It was one long emo-ish rant of false badassery. Still, any one of
the lead singers could probably log onto the webcam site and have a gaggle of
to show their tits. Daniel considered that as
he commented on the color of Lexie’s eyes, hoping that would somehow lead her
to remove her tank top in a way that outright demands seemingly weren’t. The
kid with “poet” in his name called Daniel a faggot, which seemed doubly unfair.
Lexie laughed, and Daniel couldn’t tell if it was at his comment, the insult,
or the myriad calls for “more skin” that shoved his false innocence off the top
of the screen.
He didn’t ask.
Instead, he flicked his cam off and closed the half-dozen
chat windows, most of them already dark from rejection. Summer was coming to a
close—and Daniel was unzipping his pants.
He shrugged the machine-ripped denim down to his knees,
yanked two tissues from the Kleenex box, and pulled up Youtube. A quick search
of “booty shaking dance underwear,” a promise that he was, indeed, one year
older than his birth certificate actually suggested, and Daniel was presented
with a veritable army of virus-free soft porn that could not reject him.
And so Daniel Stillman’s summer concluded much as it began,
interrupted only once and for a brief pause as someone thundered up the
carpeted steps, rushed past his bedroom and violently slammed their door,
leaving Daniel to flacidly wonder, only for a moment, if he’d bothered locking
Breakfast the following morning was a return to riotous
familial clamor as everyone in the house found themselves squeezed into the
same routine once more. After months of getting out of bed to find his mom and
stepdad already off to work, his sister stalking the mall an hour before it
opened, and his brother still in bed and snoring, Daniel was reminded why he
hated school year mornings. It was the jarring sense of crowded loneliness in
the packed kitchen. Everyone got in everyone else’s way. Daniel fished a clean
bowl out of the open dishwasher and plucked a spoon from the bottom rack before
sorting through the open boxes of cereal haphazardly arranged across the
“And here’s our little senior,” his mother said. She clacked
over on her heels, her pinstriped business suit bringing a whiff of noxiously
familiar perfume. She gave Daniel an awkward, one-armed hug from behind while
sipping loudly on her coffee—right in his ear.
He started to say something about how little he was looking
forward to his senior year, but she was already gone, pressing the plastic lid
onto her wide-bottomed travel mug as she click-clocked, click-clocked out of
the kitchen. The jingling of her car keys and the ding of the burglar alarm as
she opened the front door were familiar goodbyes.
The kitchen immediately felt more crowded, and Daniel felt
more alone. He dug his spoon under his cornflakes as he dragged a chair away
from the small dining room table with his foot. Carlton, his stepdad of two
whole years, looked up from his iPad at the squeal of the chair on the tile.
“Sorry,” Daniel muttered around a full mouth.
He watched his sister, Zola, text furiously as he shoveled
his breakfast down. Her thumbs were like feet on a duck, paddling madly while
the rest of her hovered serenely above. Daniel was often startled by the texts
he received from her. Paragraphs of jargon-heavy code popped up one after the
other while he fumbled to reply to the first thing she’d said. Attempts to
actually call her were futile. His sister’s phone was used to do everything
except take actual calls. It hadn’t taken long before Daniel had given up on
communicating with her. Most of what he knew about his sister he now discovered
second and third hand through Facebook. His classmates would ask him about some
guy she was dating, as if he knew.
Daniel’s older brother, Hunter, sat at the head of the
table, opposite his stepdad. A half-eaten breakfast burrito sat in front of him
on the silvery box in which it had been microwaved. Hunter frowned and bit his
lip at the PSP cluctched tightly in his hands. He steered the device left and
right, his face twitching with effort. By the sound of the heavy metal tunes
blaring from his brother’s earbuds, Daniel pegged it as the latest Need for
Speed racing game. He had given the game a spin a week ago, but Hunter had gone
ballistic when he’d wrecked some car his brother had spent two weeks upgrading
and modding to perfection. It looked like a fun game, but Daniel wasn’t likely
to get a chance with it again anytime soon.
So the four of them sat
in a buzzing, clackety, spoon
silence while Carlton finished whatever morning
news blog he was reading
on his iPad. When he shut the thing off and slid it into its black padded
portfolio, it was a sign for the rest of them to scatter for their book bags,
to hastily brush their teeth, to try on a different t-shirt, and all the
compressed chaos that made the formerly relaxed calm of the morning transform
into the suddenly hurried.
“Let’s go, let’s go,” Carlton sang by the front door.
The burglar alarm chimed. Dishes crashed into the sink.
Hunter ran by with a cold burrito; Zola skittered along, her thumbs dancing;
Daniel rushed after them both, his shirt on backwards. They exited into the
too-bright morning sunshine and piled into Carlton’s Volkswagen.
Well-engineered doors slammed tight with a muted patter. As Carlton backed out
of the driveway, heading off first toward the community college to drop off
Hunter, and then to the high school to unload him and his sister, Daniel gazed
out at the hazy blue of his South Carolina sky. The sleepy coastal town of
Beaufort slid by, waking up as the sun beat down. Daniel could feel its heat on
his face as the rays were trapped between him and the side window. In the
distance, a line of thick clouds sat low on the horizon, hunkered down and
quietly brooding. Daniel paid them little attention as the lines of zooming
cars, all in a rush, sped by in the other direction.