New Fiction By Lindsay Hunter: "Twentieth"

In this story for our Almost Famous series, a model grapples with the aftermath of a heinous attack that derailed her from the stardom she was destined for.

Dawn pulled a hunk of hair across her face. She’d never be over it, that mole she had, the poor thing. Well, I had ladder rungs of stretch marks running all up the insides of my thighs. Titsy had one globey boob and one saggy one, like she’d had two balloons but one popped. Something to do with irregular periods or something, is what she always said. We’d fantasized about showing up at our 20th high school reunion with that vengeful kind of fitness, perfect lipstick and interesting hair, open-toed shoes and not a corn to be seen. But alas. The point was that none of us was perfect. Neither, now, was Diane.

“Gotta be her, right?” Dawn said, ashing into her cupped palm. She meant the “extra-special guest” we’d been promised. We were standing around on the deck outside the event space — that’s what this place was, not a restaurant or a club or a hotel, but an Event Space, la dee da — and my feet in my dumb new shoes felt like they were wrapped in foil and baking in the oven. It was 7 o’clock in the evening but the sun shone like it was 2.

“Gotta be her,” Titsy said, nodding. We were holding drinks, shaking the condensation into a collection of potted cactuses that attempted to hide what appeared to be a sewer line, or wiping it on our necks and arms, trying to sip like ladies even though the sun had us feeling desperate to gulp.

We were talking about Diane again, how beautiful she was back then. Titsy was gorgeous, too, still was, but since she put out it was like a catchable kind of pretty. Diane had that other kind of pretty, that kind that wept through your fingers if you tried to grab on to it. None of us had seen her in years.

Even Dawn had her own way about her, naturally curly lashes and big wet brown eyes, but she had that bulb-like mole bulging out from the crease between her nose and her cheek, a witch-like accessory she tried to disguise with her hair, but hair can only reach so far across your face. At 19 she’d asked a doctor about getting it removed but when he started talking roots and scars she let it be.

I always saw myself as cute, or at least I tried to be. No one could get mad at cute.

Diane, though. Pond-green eyes and dark hair that tumbled down her back like it didn’t have a care in the world. Never yanked or spritzed or teased or ironed. It could make you feel real angry just looking at it, or at least it did that to me sometimes. I swear I got a third-degree burn from holding the hair dryer turned to high over my cowlick every morning. I remember Diane wasn’t all that pretty in elementary school. The boys were confused by her dark hair, her skin tone; they called her Little Indian and yelled oo-boo-boo at her and sometimes we joined in, but we always tried to feel bad about it. Then in high school it was like someone drew back the curtains and the real Diane stepped through, skin the color of almonds and long legs and a big smile for everyone, even the boy we all called Boogers, Judd was his real name maybe, or Jake or something. Even him.

Titsy fished an ice out of her glass, ran it along her jawbone. She aimed her eyes at a man in pleated gray pants whose face got progressively redder until it purpled and shimmered wetly at his hairline. Was it Philip Rogers? Hard to tell. Anyway, that move used to work wonders on guys, back in Titsy’s day. Now it looked like a gesture you’d see your math teacher doing when she didn’t know you were looking, something you’d mimic and laugh at later. But we were all older, I guess, all of us more teacher than student these days.

“I just want to see what she looks like now,” Titsy said. The ice escaped and she slapped at herself, trying to catch it, but it disappeared down the front of her tank and she left it alone. Maybe-Philip went back inside and honestly it was a relief; he was clearly the type who couldn’t handle the sun, had started breathing through his mouth, and was that ever a good look on anyone?

“Well,” Dawn said. “I think we all know what she looks like now, don’t we?” She laughed meanly, a snort, looking for us to join in.

“You just never know,” I offered, noncommittal, loyal to all sides, even Diane’s. She’d been in a couple of my classes senior year. I had a memory of us exchanging lopsided mugs we’d made in Art before Christmas break, mine painted with yellow stripes and hers painted with fluffy purple flowers, but I didn’t have anything like that in my cabinet at home, so it must be something I hoped would happen, or dreamed had happened, or I’d thrown it away moving home after college, but why would I have done that?

“I heard the guy died,” Dawn said.

“He did,” I said. “Heart attack in his cell.” We all cheersed to that, Titsy adding a “Fuck him,” and it was hard not to laugh at her, since she’d never been all that nice to Diane and here she was…well. We were talking about the guy. The old man who’d done it. I guess he’d shown up once before to Drippy’s, the ice cream store where Diane worked, had ordered a cone and talked to her about normal old guy stuff, what do you want to do with your life, what’s a pretty girl like you doing sticking close to home, back in my day and all that. I heard all this from Amber, Diane’s closest friend.

“Diane was just too nice,” I said, remembering.

“Too trusting,” Dawn said, with a whiff of disgust. Dawn was going through a divorce. Her husband’s idea. We had all hoped for a mistress, a fucking bitch we could hate, but so far it seemed like he’d just fallen out of love with Dawn, wanted to move on. And so life revolted her at nearly every moment.

"I can't believe you wore that," Dawn said to Titsy, in a way that was like wow, you're brave and also wow, you're sad.

Back then there were always rumors. Diane was away for a weekend and everyone started saying she’d met with a modeling agent in New York City, New York City falling from people’s lips like they were trying to pronounce an unpronounceable object, a flashing jewel worth more than a whole street of houses. Then we heard that a kind of famous college swim coach had dinner at Diane’s house, some said fish sticks and others said spaghetti. That was how in awe everyone was of Diane: We’d argue amongst ourselves about what she ate for dinner. My favorite thing I heard was that she had started IMing with Brad Pitt, late into the night most evenings. They’d stumbled across each other in a chat room, started talking about— I actually don’t know about what.

Diane was going to be someone, we all knew it. She would drift from our town and into fame and fortune as easily as an oiled key into its slot. You hear about people like that, sometimes. Even my dad had heard of her. “All right, all right, what’s she, fart glitter or something?” he said one night at dinner, stopping me short. I guess I talked about her a lot back then. The point was, if she didn’t make it, then this whole life was a joke. Just forget it.

“I can’t believe you wore that,” Dawn said to Titsy, in a way that was like wow, you’re brave and also wow, you’re sad.

Titsy looked down at herself, the tank with the bedazzled straps, the denim mini, the wedges. Kind of a throwback to our high school days, but modern, too, is how I’d describe it if asked. Dawn could be that way. She knew what to ask or say to make you feel just a little off-kilter, a little less confident. “Still got it,” Titsy replied, sniffing loud and authoritatively. You had to hand it to her.

“It’ll just be nice to see her again,” I offered.

“I just hope you don’t end up staring,” Dawn said, looking at me. I know what she meant, though. She hoped none of us ended up staring.

The old man — turns out he had seven grandchildren, had been married over 40 years — he was waiting in the parking lot at Drippy’s after Diane’s shift ended one Saturday. It wasn’t even nighttime; Diane had the day shift that ended at 4 o’clock. It was broad daylight. For some reason Diane went over to his window, maybe because he called to her — did she recognize him? She was just too nice. Too trusting, like Dawn said. The man reached out — maybe Diane thought, Is he going to touch my hair, or something? Aww, do I remind him of his wife when they were young? — and slashed her face to ribbons. It was a pocketknife; somehow Diane had ahold of it, tight in her fist, when the cops and everyone showed up, and who knew a pocketknife could do something like that? Somebody took pictures that the newspaper ran, and then later when that national magazine did the story, there were the pictures again. Rivers and rivers of blood, her red-and-white gingham apron soaked through. A thick scarlet X over her face. Her blinded left eye.

We all visited her in the hospital, the whole school did, it seemed like. Me and Dawn and Titsy went, once. Diane’s mom blocked the doorway. I remember thinking her hair looked dry, I remember smelling her hot breath, thick and gross with old coffee. She wouldn’t let us in, said Diane was resting, but we could hear her saying Who is it, Mom? Are they here to see me? in this hopeful voice that made us uncomfortable, Dawn needing a Big Gulp on the way home and Titsy going right out that night and doing it with Brock Stitcher, who was only okay-looking but had a nice body. I remember crying into my pillow until my whole head ached, but maybe that was a different night, for a different reason. I cried a lot back then.

They got the guy easily enough. He’d driven home and parked neatly in his driveway. Eight different witnesses had his plate numbers, and when they arrested him his hand was still sticky with blood. In the magazine his wife said it had to be a stroke, or an aneurysm, or someone put a gun to his head and made him do it, he was the sweetest most gentle man on earth, but the article also mentioned two young girls in the next county over who’d been slashed a decade or so before Diane’s thing, never solved, so it made you wonder.

And then, you know, years passed. We moved on. We heard Diane got her G.E.D. — she never came back to school — and then we heard she’d moved with her family somewhere, somewhere cold is what I remember. It became this thing that happened senior year, like how my mom always talked about the boy who’d been beheaded by a tree branch out joyriding one night. Except that boy died, so it became like this legend. Diane lived, so we stopped talking about it.

Every once in a while I’d look for her online. I’m pretty good at it. But Diane Roberts is a pretty common name, I guess. I never found her.

Then the other day, Dawn’s text. She’d sent us a link to a site solely devoted to our upcoming 20th high school reunion, run by the ever-pitied Kimber Ferguson, whose front bridge fell out and tumbled down the bleachers at the Halloween dance one year, cracking in two, so she was toothless for the full half hour it took for her dad to come pick her up. These are the things we used to see as tragedies. Well, at least now Kimber had the upper hand; she had a scoop: According to her blog, there’d be a special guest at the reunion. Someone we’ve all been wondering about after all these years…was I think how she put it.

Who else but Diane?

Dawn had sworn she wouldn’t go to the reunion. At our 10th she’d brought her husband, had grinded on him, danced around him like he was a filmy pole at a strip club, had introduced him to everyone who caught her eye. Now he was off somewhere, probably in his new apartment watching something boring, being not-married-to-Dawn. They’d all blame her, wouldn’t they? People always blame the woman. At least these are the things I assume she thought. All she actually said about it was Fuck if I’ll be caught dead with all those losers. But now here we all were. The sun was giving a little; the sky was the color of those sugared peach candies my mom always liked. Our drinks were empty save the ice, itself giving. We were the only people out here now, the only people still hiding. I felt sorry for us, suddenly, but I turned it into feeling proud of them, Dawn and Titsy, and me as well. There was still something that could shake us right out of ourselves.

“Let’s go in,” Titsy said, but just then Kimber Ferguson poked her head out; she actually looked great, elegant even, is how I’d describe it, with her tight bun and tons of pearls around her dainty neck — when had she gotten dainty?

“Okay, guys,” she said, like we were toddlers holding guns, and also like there were way more people outside than just us three, her eyes roving around, “it’s about to go down! Better get inside so you don’t miss it!”

“We already were,” Titsy said in her boredest voice, at the same time Dawn was saying, “It’s Diane Roberts, we all know it’s Diane,” but Kimber had already ducked back in.

Inside, it smelled like warmed cheese and fruit punch, not a terrible smell actually, kind of familiar and nice. Maybe-Philip was weaving outside the bathroom, a woman who was probably his wife standing in a way that you knew she had just said something like Well, I’m not helping you through this one but you also knew that she totally would. The space was packed — tables lining the walls and clumps of people wielding plates and waiters with zits and braces slouching around offering plates of tumbleweeds and glop, sorry but that’s what it looked like, and a tiny square dance floor where the drunkest of us, the valedictorians of alcohol ha ha, were really breaking it down. There had been 384 students in our graduating class. Diane would have made it 385. Even with spouses and plus-ones the room didn’t have anywhere near 384 people in it, but still it felt like too many. You wanted to start shoving, squaring off, just to get some breathing space. And then Kimber snapped on the lights, everyone looking around fearfully, like the lights were leading an assault. It was, what, 8 o’clock? And we were squinting like it was 3 in the morning. Eight o’clock and here was the big reveal.

A bartender handed Kimber a microphone and it squawked and shrieked, like it was a bird she’d squelched in her fist. I guess I was starting to feel like all of this was a bad idea, like those times when you decide to go to the beach but for whatever reason don’t get going until close to noon and then it’s like do I see this through, will I be disappointed if I don’t? And then you’re in traffic for two hours and you get burned immediately and you go home and eat something sad for dinner, like a days-old salad, and then you go to bed early convinced you’ll be alone forever, because you’ve been alone this long already.

The bartender thumped the mic against his thigh and handed it back to Kimber. “Okay, guys,” Kimber said again. “I know you’re all excited to find out who the big surprise is, and I’m not going to wait any longer.”

Judging by the murmurs in the crowd it was clear not everyone had read Kimber’s blog post, had no idea there was a surprise. Maybe-Philip’s wife pulled him outside into the parking lot, night night to them.

“It took a lot of detective work on my part” — here Kimber put her hand over her heart, and Dawn laughed, a sudden raspberry, elbowing me and Titsy, thank God there’s someone more pathetic than me, is obviously what she was thinking, with great relief. “But I finally found her.”

Kimber was sweeping her arm wide, ready to announce who it was. “This is so silly!” a voice called, somewhere behind us. We all turned to see who the heckler was and it was like a movie how the crowd parted, all of us dumb sheep making way, and it was her.

“Diane…Roberts!” Kimber yelled, the mic shrieking briefly.

I remembered how it felt to look for someone online and finally find them — there was always this like half second of triumph and then I just felt…nothing. You know, there’s a reason you lose track of people, is I guess what it always came down to. And also like, was anyone looking for me?

Someone started clapping as Diane walked toward Kimber — what else were we supposed to do? I heard a woman — was it Lisa Karnes? I’d been studying her, standing just to the left of me, trying to decide if she was wearing a wig or not — turn to a friend and say, Who? The applause swelled politely and then died down.

“Here I am!” Diane was saying. “It’s so great to see you all.” It was hard to see her face. Or, I could see it, but it was hard to get a purchase on it. Everything about her looked smaller, somehow. Of course I looked for a wedding ring, I guess that urge is about as involuntary as breathing for me, and I did see something glinty there, so.

“I need a drink,” Dawn whispered, and broke away. Titsy crossed her arms under her breasts. I always guessed she did that to showcase the perfect boob and anchor the other one. It was her Hurry up and get to it stance. You know how some people act like they’re always in a rush because some lady in some movie was always in a rush and it looked powerful or something? Like that.

“And well, this is kind of embarrassing in a way, all this fuss…I haven’t seen you all in so long…” It was clear Diane was starting to ramble. Kimber took the mic.

“Diane,” she said, her voice suddenly serious. “We all remember what happened…you know, to your face.”

“Jesus Christ,” Dawn hissed, back with a full tumbler of something pee-colored.

“Tell us how you made it through,” Kimber said, and held the mic out.

"Diane, I noticed you've had some work done. Whoever did it is a genius. You can hardly tell anything ever happened!"

Diane made to push her hair away, without actually moving it any. I looked at Dawn to see if she recognized that move, that Look at my hair not at my face thing, but she just glared at me, jutted her chin back toward where Diane was, like pay attention, asshole. You know, some friends just need more understanding, more patience. In times of need.

I guess I was stalling, really. I didn’t want to look too hard, didn’t want to listen. This was Diane Roberts. Here she was! It felt like the culmination of something, the end. And what came after was a bottomless drop, how boring.

“I left that all behind me,” Diane said, holding the mic like it was dotted with turds. She tried to hand it back, and when Kimber didn’t take it, she said, “I’m a mother, now. I have two beautiful girls and I’m blessed to get to stay home with them.”

The bartender brought another mic, so Diane had no choice but to hang on to hers.

“Diane,” Kimber said again. She’d watched too many Barbara Walters interviews, it was clear. But also, what did Diane think was going to happen? Kimber Ferguson was an idiot, we were all idiots. Had Diane become an idiot? “Diane, I notice you’ve had some work done. Whoever did it is a genius. You can hardly tell anything ever happened!”

I don’t know. By now I was starting to feel that itchy kind of mad, like in church when the pastor started talking about Eve the destroyer of man and all of that and asked you to Amen along with him, and you did but it was like a question like, Amen? Come again? Fuck you?

I couldn’t remember Diane’s face anymore, it happened that quickly, the old Diane erased, replaced. She was this small-nosed, puffy-lipped lady — and was that a glass eye? — nearing 40 like the rest of us. She was cute, just cute. Like me, or like I thought of myself. Cute is invisible and that is a blessing, most days. It lets you get away with stuff. But not like beauty can.

“Kimber,” I found myself yelling. Titsy and Dawn looked at me, angled their bodies away, like hey we’re in this other group, Lisa Karnes and what’s-her-name and him and us, that’s our group, we don’t know this pear-shaped plainface yelling out, but whatever, I could feel myself getting going. “Let’s talk about how you texted a picture of your tweeter to that high school boy last year.” I laughed, it was involuntary again, and it felt like burps going the wrong way.

“Or,” I went on, walking up and taking Diane’s mic, “tell us how you got caught shoplifting at the Belk’s. What was it, some Spanx and a shoehorn?”

None of this shit was true. Well, it was, but it was stuff Dawn and Titsy had done over the years. I heard Titsy gasp. What a fake! Dawn linked arms with her and they moved even farther away from me. I looked at Diane. She didn’t recognize me from Adam (that fucker, amen). It was a glass eye, a flatter green than her real eye, but really I couldn’t get over that she was a person, a real person. Maybe she should have died, the thought raced through me, so she could still be who she’d been. Someone who’d vault high above us, who’d prove something to each of us.

“Welcome home, Diane,” I said, and patted her arm. It gave underneath my hand like any old arm would. She flinched; her working pupil flared in fear, the poor thing. But Diane had survived, and made a life for herself, and so, it could be said, had all of us. How boring.

Kimber snatched the mic from me, and the bartender snatched them both from Kimber, and the DJ — who had frenched my neck in Titsy’s dad’s shed on a hot night over 20 years back, his breath like eggs — played a song that had a good beat but quite frankly was a decade before our time. That boy never spoke to me again, that I can recall. A group of women — including Dawn and Titsy, wearing bright smiles, total masks — was swallowing Diane whole, protecting her, moving her toward the bar. I’d spent 45 minutes deciding what to wear, standing in my closet until my back ached. That felt like years ago. I had that nothing feeling again. I didn’t know any of these people. If you really thought about it, at the end of the day, even Brad Pitt wasn’t Brad Pitt anymore. I could see the door but there were a lot of people to push through to get there. “Excuse me,” I yelled, elbowing a woman with frizzy hair, then pushing a man wearing a bolo tie — he wasn’t really pulling it off. “I’m just trying to get through,” I screamed. The man in the bolo tie grinned, held his hands up like I’m sorry about the bolo tie. The lights dimmed again, someone was throwing up onto his own shoes — everyone, all of us, desperate to make the night count.

Lindsay Hunter is the author of the novel Ugly Girls and the story collections Don't Kiss Me and Daddy's. Her next novel, Eat Only When You're Hungry, will be released in August 2017. She lives in Chicago with her husband, sons, and dogs.

Skip to footer