Twenty-four, written by Molly Fennig

The Forever 21 photoshoot would’ve been bad enough without Brittany there, lips permanently pouted, coated in So Hot Pink gloss. I’d known her for years. Through Gerber baby commercials, toddler pageants, Seventeen magazine shoots, Miss Junior Illinois, and now a shared contract with Chicago Models. Still, it was hard for me to be around her for more than 19 seconds, 9 on a bad day.

Hans, the stylist who had taught me everything from what a BB cream was to how to make your legs look longer on camera, was rocking blue glitter eye shadow which emphasized his dramatic eye rolls every time Brittany smacked her gum or checked herself out in the mirror or asked questions like, is Texas a bigger country than Delaware? And, why are some people so ugly? Had it been me, I would have ripped her Prada bag into swatches or chopped off her beachy waves, but Hans just rolled his eyes and sighed.

“Such talent. Such beauty. Such a waste on girl like that.”

Brittany stopped behind my chair, making eye contact in the mirror. “I hear they’re terminating contracts today. Some loophole thing where you have to sign on for the next two years or lose it. If they still want you, of course.”

She strutted away, the tag on her inside-out skirt flapping behind her.

I picked at my Dark Hue-mor nail polish until Hans hit me with a magazine. “Stop worrying. You wreck my hard work. If anyone doesn’t get contract, it’s her.”

I smiled, even as my eye caught the clock and I knew I only had two minutes until I went on set.

Hans waved the curling iron absentmindedly. “How is Mamma Stacey?”

“Good,” I said, knowing she would cringe at being called Mamma.

I tried not to think of how I left her at home. The mail stacked on the kitchen table, too weary to stay upright. Zoloft and Paxil and Lunesta spilled out of their containers on the table and Stacey’s door closed. I’d gone in anyway.

“Wake up.” I opened the beige curtains, hopped over the maze of clothes, Prada and Louis Vuitton and twice as many knockoffs, and sank into the bed.

She rolled over and let out a groan. Her blonde hair was dead, hair-sprayed into a crisp cloud. She’d gained weight since her modeling days, so she was almost healthy-looking despite the wrinkles wrestling against the Botox.

“It’s 1:00. You have to get up.” I peeled the comforter off.

“Let me sleep, baby. I’m so tired.” Stacey grabbed it back, cocooning herself.

“You need to get a job,” I said, standing up.

“Where?” She mumbled.

“There’s Denny’s,” I said, wishing there was more this town could offer her besides dishwashing. “Or you could take the GED.”

Her words were quiet, drowsy. “Maybe tomorrow.”

There was silence until a snore reverberated from beneath the covers. I let the door slam behind me.

I sat down in front of the old TV in the living room, the shag carpeting crusty beneath me. I mouthed along with Easy, breezy, beautiful. Covergirl and Maybe she’s born with it. Maybe its Maybelline. and could almost convince myself I was four again, not twenty-four, and Steve hadn’t left us for the waitress yet and Stacey still remembered how to laugh, and we watched ads all morning because she was in most of them. And she taught me all the important brands and magazines and supermodels and how to see the world the way she did. All this as we ate the marshmallows out of the Lucky Charms, with Stacey always giving me the bigger bowl, which wasn’t unhealthy because it was cereal, we said.

“Peyton Gallagher. You’re on set in 30 seconds.” The director’s assistant was new, with knockoff, lens-less Raybans and black hair that had been strangled by a straight iron. “And take off that hideous necklace.” Before I could say anything, she unclasped the silver heart’s chain and threw it onto the edge of the makeup table. I pushed it carefully into a pile towards the center.

Hans let loose the hair spray, the mist settling onto my curls, before handing me the large, black sunglasses and straightening out the low-cut, short-skirted yellow dress that was almost as thick as tissue paper.

“Thanks.” I hopped off the directors-style chair, gave Hans a hug, and ran, despite my 3-inch pumps.  

The lights were hot, the stale air pushed around by a loud fan as the balding, middle-aged photographer yelled contradicting instructions to the petrified staff corralling loose sequins on the green screen. He was decently good-looking for his age but had just a little too much of everything to be attractive. Acne. Facial hair. Breath.

He stopped when he saw me, taking both of my hands, looking me up and down to take in everything but my face. “Exquisite, darling. So chic.”

I resisted the urge to tell him that this dress cost maybe $2 to make in a sweat shop in some overseas country, something far from chic, and also that it was un-exquisite that Chicago Models only paid me for the amount of time I was in front of the camera, not for the two hours of hair and makeup, or for the hour it took to get here in my yellow VW bug.

He took my hand and led me to the center of the green screen, the fan blowing back my hair. I tried to imagine S’mores from pre-modelling days and Lucky Charms in front of the TV with Stacey pre-depression, tried to smile, as I posed.

“No, no, no, darling.” The camera stopped clicking, the flashes fading to blurry spots in my vision. “The body is good but try not to look so pained. To model is to taste the delights of heaven and capture it in your eyes.”

Back when Stacey was famous and Steve was Dad, sometimes they’d send the babysitter home and let me sit and watch the models dancing in the spotlight, their skin and hair and everything so flawless. How happy they looked, Stacey too, laughing, as her eyes lit up and the camera clicked, and everyone burst out clapping. How the stylists would coo over me, brushing on mascara when Stacey was on set. But then I turned five and Steve left, and the models started to have permanent scowls and the lights were too hot and the stylists too busy and then Stacey became too depressed to leave her room.

I knew modeling was my destiny, even before I was conceived, possibly in the yellow VW that was Stacey’s before it was mine, even though part of me was convinced it was an immaculate conception-type situation. There was so much of her crammed into me, I didn’t think there was room left for any Steve. Not with all the features we shared that were God’s Gifts that We Deserved and Proof that Modeling was a Gallagher Family Thing and that We Could Do Anything, Just the Two of Us.

I wondered what we could do if there were three of us again. If Steve felt like his life was missing something. If he knew a 6-foot-tall blonde girl was the perfect shape to fill the hole, with or without her Jimmy Choos.

I wondered what he thought now about runways and photoshoots. If they met at one. If that was where he gave her the necklace she gave me, the silver heart. 

“No, no, no. Horrendous,” the photographer yelled, bringing me back to the set. “It is as if I am stabbing you repeatedly in the eye. Which I will do if we do not get the shot we need.”

I let my mind go blank, hoping it didn’t make my eyes look like those of a fish mounted on a wall. I could tell by the slight softening of the photographer’s smile that it was at least a little better.  

At least a magazine wasn’t as permanent as the giant picture of me fake-laughing above the register at American Eagle even though it was shot in winter and I couldn’t feel my toes. I was also probably still on pages 3 and 7 of the Target catalogue, smiling, in just underwear. The itchy, fake lace kind that rode up and fell down, sometimes all at once. It was almost worth the money, enough for a week’s worth of rent and utilities but nothing more, even though it had been on my 21st birthday. And Stacey was appalled that, unlike her, I still didn’t have a Covergirl contract.

“That’s a wrap,” the photographer said, and I was not surprised when no one clapped, and I told myself crying would only make my mascara run.

Brittany waved a piece of paper at me as I slid out of my cheap dress and into black adidas sweat pants and a crop-top which, lucky for me, was now called “athleisure” instead of you-were-too-lazy-to-put-on-real-clothes-this-morning. “Got my new contract. Two more years, at a higher salary. It’ll be sad if you don’t get one, but this is a tough business, you know.”

“Good for you, Britt,” I said and walked away so I didn’t accidentally slap her.

As I drove back home to suburbia, I switched the radio from classic rock to country to rap, trying to avoid the commercials. On Main Street I passed the bus stop and the Quiktrip next to the run-down movie theater where all the seats were stained with fake butter and first dates. I passed the Denny’s and the diner, although why we had both, I didn’t know, to the Family Foods that was all Mr. Johnson had left besides a two-bedroom on 5th street since Suzanne left him for the plumber in August.

Family Foods was out of cookie dough ice cream, so I spent four minutes contemplating whether I should get Moose Tracks or Cookies & Cream before deciding on the former, grabbing a whole quart, and marching to the register. I begged the overweight cashier to try the credit card again, but it still came up declined.

I called my agent, Erin, as I made my way up the broken steps to our townhouse, ice cream-less.

“Hey, Peyton. I was just going to call you. Chicago Models just sent over your new contract.”

My hand paused over the doorknob. “What does it say?”

“You’d be locked in for two years at the same amount—”

I kicked the pebbles under my feet into the bushes. “Same amount? They promised last time—”

“I know, but you’re taking way more frames to get a shot now-a-days.”

I rubbed my forehead, saying nothing, my chest feeling size 00 tight.

“Sorry. You can take the rest of the night to think it over, just get back to me as soon as you can.”

“Okay,” I said, but the line was already dead.

I couldn’t get another job, not with taking care of Stacey and the crazy unpredictability of my modeling schedule. But I also liked not having to wake up at 5:00 to take the bus to the YMCA in the next town over to shower when there was no power, and I liked eating more than just ramen and ketchup, even if it meant slipping the money into Stacey’s wallet because she was too proud to accept it face-to-face.

When I opened the door, though, the lights had forgotten how to turn on and Stacey’s bedroom was still asleep. I made myself a kale salad, ate three bites and spat the rest into the trash can. Grabbed a few slices of old, cold pizza instead and read Seventeen and Cosmo and Covergirl until I fell asleep.

I woke up early for the ­second day of the photoshoot and threw on my Silver jeans, my pink Coach pumps, and the white blouse Stacey got me for Christmas last year. Feeling my way along the wall, I flicked on the light switch and jumped when Stacey turned around.

“Wow, you’re up early.” I pulled out a coffee mug, stirring streaks of cream into the black liquid.

“Couldn’t sleep. You aren’t eating breakfast, are you?” Stacey glanced down at my stomach, pulling her bathrobe tighter.

I fished a yogurt out of the fridge, letting it dribble out of the corners of my mouth.

Stacey rolled her eyes. “You have a shoot today?”

“Yeah, Forever 21.” I put the spoon in the dishwasher, pouring water into the pots piled by the sink.

“Is Hans still working?” Stacey leaned against the counter top, staring into the floor tiles.

“Yep.” I pulled my hair into a high ponytail, wrapping a strand around the hair tie to hide it.

“Well, don’t forget to smile with your eyes. Keep your chin up and find the light. And if you’re doing swim suits stand on your tiptoes—”

“To make my legs look longer. I got it.” I grabbed my purse and keys, spritzing on Chanel perfume.

“Right, well, good luck.” Stacey patted my arm and retreated into her room.

When I got to the set, a tall brunette girl I had never seen before was sobbing in the corner. Alexis, the Texas-born girl with thick, red hair was yelling into her iPhone about the price of dog champagne while Britt, with a skirt caught halfway over her head, ran face-first into the wall.

Hans, now decked out in orange eyeliner and purple star-shaped glitter, took my hands. “Thank goodness you are here. I cannot stand these girls without distraction of hair and makeup.

I fell into the chair, letting out a sigh. My eyes were puffy, my hair flat, my skin dull.

“Hmm rough night, yes?” Hans shook his head. “But we let Hans worry about this, ok?”

After he was done with me, I looked almost like Stacey used to, and I had to lean back and forth to make sure the mirror wasn’t lying.

Afterwards I got smooshed into pants so tight it took three stylists to get them over my butt. With it, I wore a graphic t-shirt of kittens and avocados, the meaning of which didn’t make sense to anyone I asked.

After about 30 frames, the photographer called for a break, taking off his glasses and rubbing his eyes. I looked up into the spotlights, taking a deep breath.

The photographer’s voice drifted over the sound of the fans. “Can you even believe she’s related to Stacey?”

 “I mean it would be one thing if she was pretty, but yikes,” the director added. They both laughed in sharp barks.

I ripped the pumps off my aching feet and peeled the shirt off as I ran towards the dressing room. Dropped both to unbutton my pants. Yanked at them, even as they stayed stuck, yanked harder as the other stylists tried to reach their hands in to help. Felt the seam give way, but still kept yanking. Only to let them peel the pants off me after the tears made everything too blurry.

At home I fell asleep on top of my comforter, not even bothering to take off my shoes. 

There weren’t many people on the bus at 5:00 am the next morning. Just the man covered in shadows – of stubble and sleeplessness and sadness. And the woman in the back wearing bright green Lululemon leggings, a baby balanced on one leg and a textbook on the other. And the elderly bus driver, worn down by tedium and lost dreams.

I didn’t make eye contact with the ATM as I passed, knowing the two dollars and fifteen cents inside would not help anyone with anything. I didn’t breathe in when I passed the bakery either, too scared of what I’d do if I smelled real food I couldn’t afford. Most of all, I didn’t think about showering with real soap, not the body-wash-shampoo-conditioner on the wall at the Y, but I couldn’t complain too much because it was free. 

Erin called at 7:00 am as I waited for the bus to bring me back to town, but I let it go to voicemail. The air was cold, pricking my skin as it seeped through my jacket, crystalizing in my raw throat, hardening my wet hair into straw, as the bus was late, still late, even later.   

I ducked into the building behind the stop as my fingers lost feeling. Bikes lay stacked by the pawnshop door, glass cases overflowed with jewelry on the left, and on the right, precarious piles of vinyl records and old books were tucked between tables of toys and trinkets.

I wandered towards the jewelry, the diamonds glittering in the dim florescent light. Next to them, necklaces shimmered, some of them with silver hearts like mine.

“Can I help you?” The owner asked, an older man with fake Nikes and a real mohawk.

“Uh, I— I was just wondering how much you would pay for something like this.” I picked the pendant up off my shirt because there was no harm in asking and it was better than admitting the real reason I came in. 

“$170.”

“What about $220?” I countered, trying not to let my jaw drop.

 “$200, final offer.”     

I ripped off my necklace, because I was twenty-four not four, and Steve didn’t deserve to be hanging right above my heart and it was the only thing still worth anything since we sold the wedding bands during the worst of the recession last winter. I told myself that the feel of the bills in my hand, crisp and new, was better than the cold of the silver on my skin, even when my fingers kept reaching for it and I knew it was the only thing I’d ever have from Steve.

When I finally got back to town, walking past the bank on Chester Street, I called Erin but she didn’t pick up.

I walked to Denny’s because I didn’t have a diploma either, and applied to wash dishes. I almost cried when they agreed to let me start. Food and $8 an hour and all the leftovers. My hands begged me to stop, trying to convince me with rashes and blood and numbness. My stomach gurgled in reply.

When Erin called, I was too soapy to answer. When I got off, it was 5 am and even the crickets had gone to sleep.                     

I sat on a park bench, my stomach full of leftover pancakes, my wallet just thick enough for groceries and tomorrow. The grass glistened like sequins, dotted with pearls of dew. Stacey hadn’t texted, which meant she was still in bed. I focused on the spider web stretching across the walkway. Steve had never tried to see me. An acorn fell from a tree, bursting open on the sidewalk.

Erin called. I picked up.

#

I walked down the aisles of the Family Foods, feeling at home with the brands splattered aggressively on the containers. Coke, Blue Bunny, Folgers, General Mills, Quaker, Gold’n Plump, Lipton. I ran my hands along the containers, knowing I had enough money for anything I wanted. I filled the basket, stopped as I got to the register, and went back for Lucky Charms.

At home, Stacey was awake, even though all she was doing was staring at the coffee stain on the blue wallpaper in the living room.

“Hey,” I said, sitting down next to her on the couch. She kept on staring at the stain. “I have to tell you something.”

“Did you get it?” She asked, eyes finally finding mine. “The Covergirl contract? Oh, I knew you would—”

The lightness in her voice, her eyes drifted away as I shook my head.

“I quit.”

“What do you mean?”

 “I didn’t renew the contract. I’m done.” I got almost all the way to the door of my bedroom before she stood up too.

“You’re not done.” She started to take down her braids, combing quickly through the thinning blonde hair. “We’ll go to Mr. Klein’s office, make him give you another chance.”

“No.” I crossed my arms. “You don’t get to have a say in this.”

“I’m your mother, of course I do.”

“You don’t. I’m twenty-four now, Mom.”

Stacey was silent for a moment, jaw tensing, before she turned away. “I’ll be in my room.”

“Wait.” I put away the milk and the chicken and grabbed two bowls and the box of cereal. I turned on channel 37 because the power bill finally went through and channel 37 had the most commercials and I handed Stacey the bowl with the most marshmallows.

“Will you stay out here with me? At least for a little bit?”

“Only if you don’t talk through Maybelline or L’Oreal.” She took the bowl, sinking into the couch.

I sat down next to her. “Deal. What about Pantene?”

“Ugh, for that one, talk all you want.”


Molly Fennig received a BA from Swarthmore College in Neuroscience, English, and Spanish. She has work published in The Blue Route Literary Magazine, The Blue Nib, Running Wild Press Anthology, and multiple scientific journals. Her YA novel about a boy wrestler with an eating disorder, Starvation, will be published in November. Additionally, she runs her own blog on writing, mollyfennig.com. Beyond advocating for mental health through writing, Molly loves her goldendoodle Mocha and chocolate of all varieties.