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


When Phillip awoke to the sound of his mother banging pots and pans together in the kitchen and the smell of sausage frying, he let out a loud sigh and kicked off his Star Wars comforter. He opened his eyes, gingerly at first, and fixed them on the glow-in-the-dark stars his younger brother Daniel had stuck to the blades of the ceiling fan. Even though the early morning sunlight shone through the cracks in the aging blinds, from the top bunk it was still pretty dark. Phillip yawned. He hated getting up early on weekends, but he wanted to see his father. Plus, he loved watching the fan spin around when it was on high: how the stars went from glittery, green pieces of plastic to a continuous icy ring spinning around the gaseous body of Saturn. Phillip imagined himself up there, sometimes in a flickering spaceship and other times tethered to it, his body buoyant among distant shooting stars.

“Phillip, are you awake?” Daniel sounded groggy and cranky, which was how Phillip felt as he plucked the boogers from his eyes.

“Who wouldn’t be?” Phillip yawned again, this time for effect. “She’s making enough noise to wake up the whole neighborhood.”

Daniel let out a laugh and Phillip half-smiled, imagining Daniel up there as well, spacewalking with him. Daniel was the only person who knew Phillip wanted to be an astronaut when he grew up. He’d been quietly fascinated by NASA since he went to Cape Canaveral on his fourth-grade field trip and spent the hour-and-a-half ride back to Lakeland daydreaming about space rocks and freeze-dried ice cream.

But his father believed any job that required intense commitment, like a college degree or an ounce of passion, was sissy boy work. Daniel once said he wanted to be a singer and suffered a punch in the arm. After that, Phillip told everyone he wanted to do on-the-job training and work construction like his father.

“Get up, sissy boy,” Phillip said suddenly, intimidated by the moment of tenderness that hung between him and Daniel. He beat his fists hard on the mattress to stir his brother and moved down the ladder, skipping the last of the rungs and enjoying the faint pain in his feet as they hit the ground with clumsy, uneven force. “Mom’s going to be mad if we’re late, and I’m not getting the switch for you like last time.”

Daniel looked at Phillip, then rolled out of bed. “Quit it. I’m not a sissy.” He reached for a pair of dirty socks by his bedside.

“Yeah, right.” Phillip grabbed Daniel by the shoulders and threw him to the ground face first. With one quick jerk, he pulled Daniel’s hands behind his back like he’d once seen on Cops.

“Ow, no,” Daniel said and Phillip kneed him in the back. “Seriously, it hurts.”

Phillip pressed Daniel’s face into the carpet with his free hand. “Stop resisting or I’ll snap your shoulder. Say ‘uncle.’”

Daniel said what sounded like a muffled ‘uncle’, and Phillip released him, laughing. “Like I said, sissy boy. Sissy boy Danielle.”

Daniel came to his knees.

Watching his brother stand up carefully, Phillip felt a tinge of guilt in his throat. He swallowed it and felt it expand in his belly. “You better stop crying, though,” he said. “Dad’s not gonna want to see you like that.”

Phillip detested sausage patties, especially the Winn-Dixie brand ones. But he liked the links, if they were Jimmie Dean, smothered in maple syrup. His mother knew this because he remembered telling her. He didn’t understand why she insisted on making him sick.

He pressed his fork into the patty, groaning at the grease that seeped from between the metal tines. His mother had tried to trick him by slipping the sausage into a fried egg sandwich, his favorite, but he knew to look inside the sandwich before taking his first bite.

He noticed a sliver of sausage in Tammy’s oily fingers. She didn’t meet his gaze. Meanwhile, Daniel smiled sarcastically as he popped the rest of his sandwich into his mouth, sausage included. Phillip looked down at his plate. The fake grill marks on the now-lukewarm patty made his stomach churn. “These are gross, Ma, come on.”

From the kitchen counter, his mother let out an annoyed chuckle and poured herself another cup of coffee, her back to the table. “Save it, Phillip. I’m done listening, okay?”

“You don’t ever listen! How hard is it to get Jimmie Dean sausage links and then make pancakes?”

She slammed the mug onto the mail-cluttered counter and whirled around. “Pancakes! How hard is it for you to shut up and eat what’s put in front of you?”

A cigarette smoked itself in the ashtray by the toaster, coating his mother in a hazy fog. Phillip didn’t speak, eyed the magazines collecting dust.

“Because I’d say it’s damn near impossible, wouldn’t you?” She shook her head back and forth.

Phillip felt himself reddening, but he kept silent. Tammy whined a little—she’d been having these baby-tantrums without their father around—and Daniel tried to distract her by singing the song “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” from Toy Story, a film both Daniel and Tammy had loved since they saw it together the previous autumn.

“Now, cat’s got your tongue, of course. Well, I’ve had it up to here with your shit.” His mother scanned the dark room. “I’m through with all of you. It hasn’t been easy around here since your good for nothin’ daddy went away.”

Phillip hated it when she said his father was away. It wasn’t like he had a choice in the matter, or that using a word like away could numb the sharp pain his absence had caused. It was like breathing shattered glass. “He was good for something,” Phillip said.

“Yeah? He’s good for selling drugs to lowlife scumbags, that’s what he’s good for. And just so you know, Mr. Knowitall, the links and syrup you’re crying about—well, they ain’t cheap. Not without a coupon, they’re not. You’ll eat what I say you eat or you can just starve. See if I care.”

“You don’t.” Phillip sucked his teeth. “It’s your fault he’s not coming back.”

“You gonna eat that?” Daniel asked in his polite voice.

“What do you think?” Phillip stabbed the sausage with his fork, gritting his teeth and feeling a dull ache in his jaw.

“No, Daniel.” She was at the table in a flash, standing over them and collecting Daniel’s silverware, and Phillip caught a whiff of her gas-station-vanilla perfume. “Your brother’s still hungry and he’s going to eat. He’s going to eat his sausage, or we’re gonna wait here at this table until he does. And your daddy’s going to be real sad if we stand him up over a piece of sausage.”

Tammy let out another sharp cry.

“Hush,” their mother said, waving her hand. “Ain’t that right, Phillip Jr.?”

“Yes.” He jiggled the fork back and forth, making a screeching sound against the plate and slicing the patty in half.

“That’s better, young man.” She cleared some empty plates. “Eat.”

Phillip rolled his eyes, slicing the patty into smaller pieces and grimacing. He looked over his shoulder and saw their mother had turned her back and was furiously scrubbing the egg yolk and melted cheese off the plates. Then, he looked to Tammy and put his index finger to his lips. When she smiled, he locked eyes with Daniel, nodded at his plate, and Daniel shoved the pieces of sausage into his mouth. He gave Daniel the rest of his apple juice to wash it all down. Tammy stifled her laughter, her hands covering her mouth.

“Finished,” Phillip said, unusually grateful for his brother, whose stomach was a garbage disposal.

Daniel gulped. “Finally,” he added, grinning.

The foul weather came just before they reached Leesburg, on I-75. Big raindrops fell and collected in beads on the Greyhound bus window. Thunder bellowed, lightning lit up the dense forestland, and trucks roared on by with impressive, almost-monster-truck tires.

In the meantime, Phillip—who fought Daniel for the window seat, got a punch in the face, and ended up sitting alone—felt stationary. He couldn’t see how fast the bus was moving, of course, but a fair number of the cars on the road had turned on their blinking lights. What would be a three-hour drive for people with good cars was much longer on a bus that made stops, Phillip knew, especially when that bus made stops in the rain. Luckily visiting hours went until 3 p.m. He desperately wished he were inside the Civic his mother had to push-start every day before work, with Daniel devouring Goosebumps novels in the backseat, and Tammy snoozing alongside him.

Phillip fingered his fat lip. His mother had threatened to abandon the trip when his lip started bleeding and told the boys if they roughhoused on the bus, she’d kick the shit out of them, right in front of God and everyone. Phillip was surprised his brother had actually hit him and made contact. Maybe sissy boy Danielle, a whole three years younger, wasn’t so sissy after all. He turned and looked to Daniel, who sat behind their mother and Tammy, tracing the raindrops on the window and pouting. Phillip knew the punch was a cheap shot, and he would get Daniel back later.

When he turned forward, Phillip pulled his sweatshirt hood over his brown mushroom cut and sank deep into the seat, knees grounded on the back of the chair in front of him. The sleeping man stirred, then continued snoring.

He observed the cars with blinking lights as some braked for standing water and others pulled off the highway into the mud. Much like the stars in his room, the cars before him transformed into space pods, carrying supplies from the mother ship to smaller spacecrafts that existed only in Phillip’s mind. He imagined the bus was the mother ship and he was the pilot. Daniel, this time, was nowhere to be found. Phillip daydreamed that Daniel had become dislodged from his tether in a freak accident and spun weightlessly into oblivion, his face frozen in a contorted shriek. This made Phillip smile, and he ran his tongue against the inside of his lip, flinching from the sting that brought a mix of pleasure and pain.

His stomach growled, and he almost wished he’d eaten the sausage. After a brief stop in Ocala—for a Mountain Dew Killer and a package of Twinkies, he hoped—they’d be an hour out.

Phillip almost didn’t recognize his father when he saw him hobble into the visiting room, wearing a dark blue jumpsuit that resembled nurses’ scrubs. His face looked thinner, his teeth slightly yellower, but the muscles in his arms and neck bulged out more than Phillip remembered, even in the loose-fitting clothes. His face was stern, unshaven, as he surrendered to pat-downs from guards, lifting his arms out to the side and revealing a poorly drawn tattoo of the state of Florida on the inside of his bicep. The tattoo was unfamiliar to Phillip. Yet when his father sat down across from him moments later, he flashed a smile that reminded Phillip of his own.

“Hey, there.” He leaned over to kiss his wife and Tammy, then Daniel, then Phillip. His movement was swift, careful, hard, and Phillip caught the scent of something—soap?—on his skin. “It’s sure been a while, and I’ve been missing y’all like crazy.”

“Go on, it’s okay,” Phillip’s mother whispered to Tammy, who moved into her father’s lap with what Phillip saw as silent unease. She was only five—not yet four when her father was locked up. Phillip wondered if she could even picture his face when she wasn’t with him, and the thought of his father reduced to a faceless goon in his sister’s eyes disgusted him. It sent tingling heat down his neck and shoulders.

“We miss you an awful lot, too, Dad,” Phillip said, returning the smile.

“What’ve you been up to?” Daniel asked, stuttering a little. He was prone to that when nervous.

“You mean when I’m not moping around missing y’all? Well, I’m reading mostly. Crazy, I know. Got a library job and been trying to study up so I can get my GED. I want to take better care of y’all, especially your mama.” He reached across the table for Phillip’s mother’s hand, showing that his had the word “hope” newly tattooed on the knuckles. Phillip admired the thick, green script. Even though Daniel recoiled, seemed frightened by their father’s gesture, Phillip knew it was permissible for an inmate to squeeze his wife’s hand in the visiting room. The practiced no touching parroted by the guards was only for childless couples who got frisky and visitors who weren’t immediate family members. Phillip, unlike Daniel, had been to see his father in prison twice since his incarceration—once at Polk County Correctional and once at Raiford, after he was transferred for some reason or another. This was his third time, Daniel’s second time, and Tammy’s first time visiting their father inside the prison, which looked to Phillip like a children’s daycare center because of the colorful murals on the wall. Truthfully, Phillip was bored with all the school talk.

“That’s great, Dad,” Daniel said. “You look fit.”

“Think so?” He flexed a bicep and winked at their mother, who forced a smile. “Yeah, I been working out some. Not much else to do but read and pump iron. Enough about me, though. How’s it been going at school?”

“Tammy’s been reading a little, too,” his mother said. “They’re teaching them to read in Kindergarten now, not first grade, which is nice. She’s doing good with it and can write all her numbers perfectly except the eights.”

His father listened intently, bouncing Tammy on his lap, even though she was probably too old for it. “What do you mean, her eights? Just draw two circles on top of each other. That’s not so hard, right, boys?” His smile was crooked, but genuine.

Phillip let out a few short laughs, which seemed to please his father.

“Oh, hush, you.” His mother pulled a small zebra-print change purse from her bag. “You know that’s not proper.”

“Not proper?” His father frowned. “What the hell are you talking about, not proper?”

She fished out a couple quarters. “They don’t want them drawing the eights with two circles anymore. It’s bad penmanship. They’re teaching them to draw a squiggly line.” She drew an eight in the air with her free hand. “You know what I mean. We been practicing, right, baby girl?”

Tammy nodded.

“Daniel’s on the honor roll again, excited for fifth grade to start this fall.” His mother removed a few singles from her purse.

“That’s my boy.” He gave Daniel a high five and Phillip saw the word “less” was written on the knuckles of his other hand.

“Another school year almost over. Can’t believe my eyes.” She counted the money quickly.

“And you? Junior high next year, huh?”

Phillip’s stomach dropped. He looked to his mother. Why was his father suddenly so interested in school and why didn’t she prepare him for this?

She stared at him with slim, tight lips and then her eyes moved to his father. “Well, Phillip’s teachers have decided to keep him in sixth grade another year.”

“What do you mean, like hold him back?”

Phillip tried to lock eyes with his father, who wouldn’t look at him.

“His grades aren’t up to par, except in science. What do you want me to say?”

“They’re going to fail him, Marjorie? He’s a failure now? I can’t believe you let this happen.”

“Don’t do this.” She looked around, nodded cordially at a few nearby guards. “Not here, Phil. Not after we came all this way in the rain.”

“Fine,” he said, sliding Tammy off his lap. “Why don’t you take Danny and Tammy and get us all a soda with that money in your hand. Maybe some chips too, if they have good ones at the vending machine. I’d like to talk to Phillip Jr. a second.”

“All right.” She sighed. “Come on, y’all.”

His father waited until they were gone, leaning back in his chair. “So tell me what’s going on.” He placed his hands behind his head as if he were under arrest.

For as long as Phillip could remember, his father had never put any value in school, always made fun of it. “What do you mean?”

“What the hell are you doing at school? You sure ain’t learning, that’s for sure. I know it’s not impossible because Danny’s doing it all right. So ‘fess up.”

“I don’t know.” Phillip’s voice sounded small, foreign, and he could feel the anger growing in him.

“You don’t know what?”

“I don’t know what’s wrong. I just—I don’t like school.”

His father sniggered. “Who does?”

“Daniel.” Phillip looked over his shoulder and saw his mother and siblings were still waiting in line.

His father leaned in, grounded his hands on the cheap, plastic table. Phillip confirmed the word on his knuckles was indeed “hopeless.” “Between you and me, Junior, your brother’s a bit of a sissy boy. Always has been.”

“I know.”

“What I’m getting at here is that school isn’t for everyone. Hell, it ain’t for me, so I can’t talk. But I’m trying to make it work for your mama.” He rolled his eyes playfully, but Phillip knew he was serious. “Point is: the law says you can quit school at sixteen. Until then, you got to suck it up, man up. Do what they say, Junior. Listen to your teachers. Keep your mouth closed and your head down, like I’m trying to do in here.”

Phillip studied the muscular, tattooed men around him. Some cried with their wives, some cradled babies, and others went over important-looking documents with important-looking people. “No more excuses or stealing. And stop fighting. You’re a damn fool if you think I don’t see your busted-ass lip. Mind your mama and mind your teachers and if you can show me you can keep a job at sixteen, then quit. Four years is all. Like my sentence. Got it?” He straightened his body suddenly and smiled, looking beyond Phillip and towards the commissary.

 Phillip turned and saw Tammy running back to them with a bag of puffy Cheetos. Daniel and his mother trailed behind her, cans of Coke in their hands. “Got it,” he said.

Phillip had just dozed when the bus skidded to a stop and catapulted him forward, almost directly into the seat in front of him.

“What’s going on?” He leaned over Daniel, tried to see out the window. The rain had stopped sometime before they said goodbye to their father and walked to the bus stop, holding hands. Harsh sunlight and dense, humid air replaced the mist and cold wind from earlier, and to Phillip, it was like a new day altogether. He wished they lived closer to the beach. “Did we hit something?”

The bus driver jumped off quickly and went to inspect the vehicle, bombarded with questions from passengers closer to the front.

“No,” Daniel said. “Something’s smoking back there.”

Phillip stretched his arms over his head, trying his best to see over the bald heads in front of him. “What are you, some kind of mechanic now?”

Daniel pointed to the thick smoke escaping from the back of the bus. “You were too busy snoring and drooling to see.”

“Shut up.” Phillip elbowed him. “I don’t snore.”

“Do too.” Daniel’s elbow caught Phillip in the ribs, and Phillip winced, then smiled.

The driver climbed the stairs. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he spat into the intercom, breathing heavily and taking off his ball cap to wipe his sweaty brow. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but it seems our engine is overheating. So we’re gonna be here for a while.” Passengers groaned. The bus driver sighed dramatically, pushing out his pot belly. “I know it, and I apologize. Good news is we were gonna stop in Ocala anyway, and we’re less than a mile from the station if that’s your stop. You can see we’re outside of town. There’s also a Circle K gas station over yonder if you need to relieve yourself, get a snack, or use a pay phone.”

Phillip’s mother stopped and set her hand on the seat in front of them, pink fingernail polish sparkling in the late-afternoon light. “Boys, Tammy’s got to go to the ladies’ room quick. She’s fixing to burst, so I’m going to run in and take her. If you have to go, well, now’s the time. I don’t think we’ll be moving for a while. They have to fetch another bus or something.”

“I have to go,” Daniel said, rising from the seat and stepping over his brother’s baggy JNCOs.

“Come on, then. What about you, Phillip?”

“I’m good.” Phillip watched as a line formed and the bus slowly emptied.

“Come with us,” she said. “Stretch your legs. You might have to go in a little while and you might not get the chance.”

He rose from the seat without saying a word and joined his impatient family, who trudged along at the back of the line.

When Phillip boarded the bus a little while later, fingering the package of Ho Ho’s in his sweatshirt pocket, he was thankful to be alone so he could eat in peace. His mother was waiting in the enormous payphone line outside the gas station, probably telling someone to cover her shift at the Black Cloud, while Daniel and Tammy were playing some kiddie game in the parking lot with a few kids from the local neighborhood. All of it bored Phillip. Plus, he was bummed because he wanted to go to his friend Willy’s house and play PlayStation like he did most Saturday nights, and he knew he’d never get home in time.

Phillip moved into a seat close to the back, watching the bus driver entertain a small group of passengers as he fiddled around near the engine, unlit cigarette dangling from his lips. Phillip opened the window slightly, just enough to clear out the scent of body odor and tuna salad sandwiches.

“Do you mind if I sit here?”

Phillip jumped a little and looked at the owner of the deep, silky voice. It belonged to an older man whose grey mustache sucked into his mouth every time he breathed. Phillip was surprised he didn’t hear the man board the bus; he must’ve been up in his head and didn’t hear the door hiss. “There’s a whole empty bus, Mister.” He fidgeted, looked around. “Why would you want to sit next to me?”

The man slid into the seat, his tattered brown corduroys making a whooshing sound against the fleece of the seat. “Because you’re all by yourself. I admire a young man like you, traveling all this way by your lonesome. It can be pretty scary. Anyway, I was just wondering if you’d like some company.”

Phillip’s cheeks felt hot. “I’m not afraid.” He should have said he wasn’t traveling alone, but he didn’t.

The man quickly grabbed the tote bag he had been carrying, yanked it onto his lap. “I didn’t mean to say you were afraid.” He pulled out a sandwich Phillip recognized as being from the Circle K. “You’re quite mature, if you ask me.” He smiled.

Phillip hadn’t asked the man for an opinion on anything, but he warmed at the compliment. After all, he only wished he were traveling alone. But it had been a while since someone noticed his efforts, went out of their way to compliment him, so he smiled back at the man.

“How old did you say you were?” The man removed a few napkins from the bag and dropped it at his feet.

“I didn’t. I’m fourteen.” Minus two years. Phillip didn’t know why he was lying so much, but for some reason he wanted to impress this man, continue to seem quite mature.

The man let out a low chuckle. “Fourteen, really?”

Phillip nodded, feebly, looking around for sight of his mother and siblings.

“Imagine that. Did you know I didn’t leave Pensacola, my hometown, until I boarded a plane for Chicago and went to boot camp? I was seventeen before I traveled anywhere by myself.”

“I thought you had to be eighteen to join the military.”

“You do, unless your parents want to get rid of you as much as mine did. They signed without blinking an eye.”

Phillip didn’t know what to say, so he watched the man unwrap the sandwich. His hands were freckled, sun-spotted like his father’s, but his fingernails were clean and short. The sandwich was Phillip’s favorite: Ham and Swiss on white without all the soggy veggies.

The man looked at him. “Are you hungry?”

“I had some chips at the—you know, while I was traveling.”

“That’s all?”

Phillip nodded, choosing not to mention the three packs of Twinkies he’d had for lunch.

The man divided the sandwich, which was already sliced in half. “Here. Have half of mine.”

Phillip accepted and devoured the sandwich with big, sloppy bites. He didn’t realize how hungry he was until he pressed the food to his lips. The man’s biceps touched Phillip’s shoulder as he ate, and Phillip didn’t move away, though he felt awkward eating the man’s sandwich, especially on an empty bus.

“Where are you headed?” Phillip asked, finally. A blob of mayonnaise dripped from the crust of the bread onto his jeans.

“Here and there.” The man handed Phillip a napkin. He finished his half of the sandwich, thigh pressed close to Phillip’s. “The journey is half the fun, my boy. Until the bus gets a flat tire, of course.”

Phillip stopped chewing mid-bite. “But we didn’t get a flat tire.” He looked over at the man and swallowed hastily; the bite felt whole, stuck in his throat.

“Right,” the man said. He was looking down, but Phillip could see something in his face change. “You’re right.”

Phillip waited a beat, studying the man’s blue eyes, his shaggy salt and pepper eyebrows, his frameless glasses, his expensive Grandpa shoes. “The driver said the engine’s overheating or something.”

“Yes, I misspoke.”

“Don’t you remember?”

“I do.” The man didn’t look up at him.

“You don’t have a ticket to ride the bus, do you, sir?”

The man clenched his jaw, raised his head slowly, and offered a wide smile. “You caught me. Going to tell?” He gestured to the window at the back of the bus, and Phillip saw that most of the crowd encircling the bus engine had diminished. He couldn’t see his mother or the bus driver anywhere. “Well,” the man whispered, “are you?” He leaned in close, and Phillip could feel the heat of his breath. “Because I saw you steal that package of sweets from the store. You looked around twice, saw the clerk was distracted by a customer looking for matches, and you put it into this pocket right here.” He pushed his index finger into the fabric of Phillip’s sweatshirt, gave the Ho Ho’s a squeeze as he made a fist. “I’m pretty sure the clerk would remember you. I saw him eyeing you as soon as you walked in, like he could smell it on you. Thief.”

Phillip kept his mouth closed. If he got caught shoplifting again, his mother wouldn’t let him see his father. She’d said so after the last time, when he’d been caught stealing lighters from Walmart. And he knew his father wouldn’t ask to see him either if he were caught again.

The man rested a hand on Phillip’s knee, and Phillip resisted the urge to pull away. “Don’t you remember?”

Phillip nodded. Nausea bubbled up from the pit of his stomach.

The man nodded, too. “I think we can make a deal, don’t you?”


When the man put Phillip’s hand on his lap, Phillip felt hardness beneath the soft corduroys. The man put his palm on top of Phillip’s, moved it back and forth slowly. “Now you do it by yourself,” he whispered, and Phillip kept his head down, did as he was told.

Phillip wanted to cry; he wanted to punch the man, climb over him, and run off the bus with wild ferocity. He wanted to scream for his mother, for Tammy and Daniel and even his father, who wouldn’t hug him goodbye. But he didn’t because he knew his mother would believe the well-dressed man rather than him, a thief.

With his eyes shut tightly, Phillip tried to picture himself deep in space, navigating a small spaceship and traveling to a faraway galaxy—one without convenience stores, without school, without gravity, without pain. But instead, tears flooded his eyes and he wept softly, for he couldn’t shake the image of his own body spinning away from the spaceship, slipping into a backdrop of infinity that shimmered like diamonds.


  © Emily Hoover, 2021

NEXT  >> 

Back to top