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The Hurricane

Hugh Howey

  The Hurricane

  by Hugh Howey

  For Paul


  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 with it.

  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:

  LuckyLuke: show us your tits!

  leXie213: I was thinking Amherst, but am applying to State n case.

  DwistfulPoet: Amherst would be nice.

  roBBerBaron: she ain’t gonna show em.

  DwistfulPoet: What major?

  LuckyLuke: unstrap them puppies!!

  leXie213: Marine Biology

  roBBerBaron: c’mon, just a quick peak..

  DwistfulPoet: Kewl. U into fish?

  leXie213: yup

  LuckyLuke: 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 good way.

  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 likely into.

  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:

  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 anymore.

  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.

  Train 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 fawning beauties begging 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 his—


  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 counter.

  “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-chiming 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.


  Daniel had waited his entire life to be a senior in high school. His brother was two years older, but had been held back in the fourth grade when coping with their parents’ divorce had wrecked his long string of Goods and Very Goods. Ever since the humiliation of repeating a grade—and having his younger siblings chase him down a year—Hunter had gone through school distracted and disinterested. He took up smoking earlier than he would admit (but began reeking of it by eighth grade), started hanging out with older kids who had cars, spent enough time in detention to nearly have it count as an elective course, and generally went through life grumbling and playing videogames. What looked like failure, however, made Hunter extraordinarily popular with other kids hoping to get away with doing very little. He and his friends had cast a constant shadow of mean-spiritedness over Daniel that had only been broken by Hunter having (barely) graduated high school. And now, with Zola coming in as a freshman, Daniel finally occupied an enviable position within the family hierarchy. It was the only year a middle child, such as he, would ever have that honor.

  Expectations of such magnitude just made his first day as a senior that much more of a colossal disappointment. Daniel’s swelling sense of worth and stature lasted from Carlton’s Volkswagen to his walk to homeroom. That was when the school principle made the “exciting” announcement that a new digital learning initiative (and a generous grant from Xerox, makers of the most advanced copiers in the world. Xerox, where copying is good) would provide every Beaufort High freshman with a brand new Apple laptop.

  Cheers could be heard through the painted cinder-block walls of the senior homeroom, obviously from a neighboring freshman class. The collective groan from Daniel and his peers barely dented it.

  “We don’t get laptops?” Daniel asked nobody.

  Mrs. Wingham waved the class down. Everyone else had the same question/complaint.

  After homeroom, Daniel bumped into his best friend Roby, whom he hadn’t seen since the last day of classes the year before.



  The impulse was there to embrace after so long a separation, but stigma and mutual social awkwardness intervened.

  “How was math camp?”

  “Easy as pi,” Roby said.

  Daniel laughed as dutifully as he figured any best friend should at so obvious a joke.

  “Computer camp was better,” he added.

  “What was the other camp?” Daniel asked with a grin.

  Every summer, Roby’s parents squirreled away their son in a never ending string of self-betterment camps while they spent their time at various locales abroad.

  Roby looked away from Daniel and out over the courtyard. Kids shuffled by with deflated, first-day-of-class backpacks on.


  “I’m sorry,” said Daniel. “What camp?”

  He knew what camp.

  “It was a vocal retreat,” Roby whispered.

  “Singing camp, right?”

  “What did you do with your summer?” Roby asked. Daniel li
stened for any change in his friend’s voice, any sign of perfect pitch, but noted none.

  Daniel shrugged. “Worked at the carwash. Got in a fistfight with Hunter. Pissed off my sister to no end. Roasted on the beach.”

  “Did you see that girl again?”

  “Nah.” Daniel tried to make it sound as if the loss were incidental. That girl referred to a fling the previous summer with a tourist from Georgia. Her parents had rented a house on the beach for a week, and Daniel had labored into first base with her, panting and sweating and not even thinking about leading off for second.

  “See anyone else?”

  “Not really.”

  “I met someone,” Roby said.

  “No shit?” Daniel felt immediately bad for the way he’d said it. Even worse for the way he looked his friend up and down, disbelieving. The primary reason the two of them were fast friends was because they couldn’t keep up with anyone else in the cool department. Daniel’s problem (his own self-assessment) was that he was too normal. He had tried fitting in with a few cliques: the jocks, the preps, the hipsters, the gamers—but in every case he had felt like he was donning a costume and playing make-believe. His comfortable attire of t-shirt (not vintage), jeans (not skinny), and modern sneakers (not retro) left him looking dull and uninteresting. Anything else he tried just made him feel like a spectacle.

  “No shit,” Roby said proudly—ignoring Daniel’s complete and absolute lack of belief.

  Roby’s problem (once again, according to Daniel’s assessment) was his parents’ expectations. He was the smartest kid in school, but mostly because he worked his ass off. He didn’t have time for friends, even though everyone knew him. They jockeyed for desks near his, crowded around him in class because he was known as a human cheat sheet. He studied too hard to get anything wrong, and was too overly polite to hide his answers. He wasn’t exactly revolting, just awkward and soft of body—but then half the kids in their school were overweight to some degree, and most of them still managed to score with the opposite sex.