A short story wherein an unexpected gift opens doors to infinite possibilities…
by: Valerie Hughes
In between texts of tweets about Oscar-winning actors’ breakups or during the commercial breaks of half-hour celebrity news shows, Ty and Lorraine joke that they don’t consume pop culture. It consumes them.
Every Friday night, they huddle around Ty’s laptop with bowed spines. Ty’s knitting needles tick; they’ve made an abundance of scarves. Onscreen, a normally pretty actor shuffles, backdropped by the underside of a bridge. He is brightly sunburned and there are brown smudges on his cheeks and forehead. He has said, multiple times, that he’s starving but doesn’t want any fans to bring him food. His long blond locks are pulled into a greasy bun at the base of his neck and his teeth are a toxic white. Behind him, tents blow in the wind.
“What I’m doing,” he says, taking the interviewer’s microphone, “Is seeing what it’s like out here, on the streets. The character is a homeless guy, you know? I can’t understand his experience if I don’t try it out.”
Lorraine scoffs. “What an asshole.”
Ty nods. “I hope someone beats the shit out of him,” they say.
A cry erupts from the laptop’s tinny speakers as someone lunges into the actor, their fist hitting him squarely in the eye. He goes down with a shriek. The camera jerks down and focuses on the sidewalk.
Lorraine’s jaw is slack. “Oh my God!”
“Did I just make that happen?” Ty asks.
“I don’t know. Do it again.”
Maybe they’re too tired from the long week to consider it a coincidence. An electric charge currents the air, binding them tighter to the laptop. But already, the shot of the street is gone and they’re looking at a different anchor in the studio as she tries to shrug off the scene by mentioning a reality star’s second wedding.
Ty tries something as the bride appears in her cupcake of a dress: “Trip!” But she continues walking up the aisle.
“It’s pre-recorded,” Lorraine says, “We need something live.”
The two begin wishing that they had cable and it makes them feel old. But nearly every morning show has a livestream online. At first, Ty thinks it’s fun to mess with the hosts. They make an anchorman speak Latin and another act like he’s been possessed by Anne Boleyn. They make a pop star, who’d been canceled multiple times for racist and transphobic comments, say that he has lied every time he said that he wrote one of his albums. Ghostwriters wrote them all. What he really wants to sing about is Satan. Lorraine protests. She’s loved the singer since she was twelve.
On Instagram live, Ty and Lorraine watch a forty-something Democrat representative laugh at the possibility of a tax on billionaires.
“That won’t close the wealth gap in this country,” the politician says.
“She has a massive yacht,” Lorraine says.
The next time the woman sips from her mug, Ty makes water snort out of her nose. Then Ty puts words in her mouth: her yacht, her jets to DC, her kids in private schools. Don’t tax me. The livestream cuts off; probably someone on her team.
Ty starts to wonder about that one guy who’s always saying that gay people are corrupting children or that the best way to get rid of guns in schools is to arm teachers so they can kill a possible former student? What about that guy? He’s gotta have a livestream, too.
Lorraine sometimes thinks that Ty has a soft touch. They’ve never tried to manipulate anything in their reality, only what happens through a screen. Ty prefers the separation, says that it’s safe. But Lorraine and Ty could become rich because of this.
“I don’t want to go public,” is what Ty says. “Everyone will think I’m a genderqueer demon.”
Lorraine has tried to say that getting rich doesn’t mean going public. Ty can open up each of their bank apps and probably just command the number to increase. They could avoid taxes and be fine. They could travel anywhere without passports. They could move to Italy. But Ty says no to everything. They don’t want to be a rich asshole.
“Money doesn’t turn people into assholes,” Lorraine tries.
“Okay,” Ty says dully, rolling their eyes. They’re failing Biology and have been staring at their homework for the ninety minutes.
Lorraine doesn’t bother saying that if they talk to their professor, they could skip every class and still come out with an A.
But Ty knows what she’s thinking. “It’s not really about making me happier.”
Lorraine tries not to roll her eyes. “Can you at least make me happy?”
Ty shakes their head. They tap their pencil. “The actors, the reality stars…fuck them, honestly. That’s not gonna change shit.”
“I know,” Lorraine says. More silence, she thinks she can veer back. “You can’t toss me a couple thousand bucks?”
“Aren’t your parents paying for school? No loans, right?”
Lorraine doesn’t respond. She goes out for some ramen instead, alone. Pays with the credit card she doesn’t get billed for.
There’s no huge blowout fight. In April, Lorraine tells Ty that she’ll dorm with someone from her Modern Art History class sophomore year instead. Ty nods. Purses their lips and says okay.
The next day, Lorraine gets her period a week early. She thinks maybe Ty had something to do with it but says nothing. They’re cordial to each other for the last month of school but the distance stretches taut, is painful. No more crowding in front of screens, no more obsessing about the next publicity stunt relationship, and no nights staying up studying at the library or Sunday outings for bagels slathered in cream cheese, either. Every part of the friendship dwindles. Ty starts listening to a lot of right-leaning shit. Their eyes are often red.
Lorraine always looks for headlines about pundits getting fired or proclaiming they have a gay lover and the Dems are right about everything. But there are only silly things. A four-month streak of hiccups that keeps a Q-Anon anchorwoman off-air. A fascist governor who can only speak when his entire head is in a bucket of sparkling water.
“Everything’s fucked up,” Ty says once, sitting by the toilet. They’d been throwing up all night and Lorraine got up after the fourth time they got up.
“I don’t know how I’m supposed to make things better.”
“It’s not your job,” Lorraine says.
Ty glares. Their breath reeks. “You should go back to sleep.”
Lorraine listens, puts headphones over her ears and blares white noise for the rest of the night.
When Lorraine is deep into sophomore year, one incident makes her wonder. A presidential candidate keels over on the campaign trail. He’d been saying that gender affirmation surgery was child abuse, and then he clutched his chest and fell sideways, eyes agog. The cameras don’t cut away for a few minutes. He doesn’t move on the floor. Security surges around him. People in the crowd scream that he’d been shot. But it isn’t that. Just a heart attack.
Lorraine isn’t relieved by his death. Cut off one head and all that. But she thinks of Ty having to see that, to hear all of that shit. She’d noticed that they’d deleted their Instagram and didn’t know if they were still at school — she hadn’t seen them since November. She hopes that maybe they’re at home, on their parents’ couch — they were nice people — and watching daytime talk shows or fun weird court proceedings. Only reruns. Or they can finally get into scripted shows, all the award winners. They can sit back and enjoy, maybe knit something, and ignore everything else for a little while. Turn it off like a switch.
Valerie Hughes lives and writes in New York City. She writes fiction — flash, short, long form — and the occasional poem. Currently she is working on a novel about re-exposure to trauma, desire itself and desire to gain control over the past through the present. She has been published by Breadcrumbs Mag, Paragraph Planet, and other publications, and is also a Prose Editor for Hominum Journal. Find her on instagram and twitter @_valeriehughes.