17 July 1974
He clenches the orange plastic pony in the pocket of his sports coat. It is sweaty in his hand. Mid-summer here, too hot for what he's wearing. But he has learned to put on a uniform for this purpose; jeans in particular. He takes long strides — a man who walks because he's got somewhere to be, despite his gimpy foot. Harper Curtis is not a moocher. And time waits for no one. Except when it does.
The girl is sitting cross-legged on the ground, her bare knees white and bony as birds' skulls and grass-stained. She looks up at the sound of his boots scrunching on the gravel, but only long enough for him to see that her eyes are brown under that tangle of grubby curls, before she dismisses him and goes back to her business.
Harper is disappointed. He had imagined, as he approached, that they might be blue; the color of the lake, deep out, where the shoreline disappears and it feels like you're in the middle of the ocean. Brown is the color of shrimping, when the mud is all churned up in the shallows and you can't see shit for shit.
"What are you doing?" he says, putting brightness in his voice. He crouches down beside her in the threadbare grass. Really, he's never seen a child with such crazy hair. Like she got spun round in her own personal dust devil, one that tossed up the assortment of random junk splayed around her. A cluster of rusty tin cans, a broken bicycle wheel tipped on its side, spokes jabbing outwards. Her attention is focused on a chipped teacup, turned upside down, so that the silvered flowers on the lip disappear into the grass. The handle has broken off, leaving two blunt stumps. "You having a tea party, sweetheart?" he tries again.
"It's not a tea party," she mutters into the petal-shaped collar of her checked shirt. Kids with freckles shouldn't be so earnest, he thinks. It doesn't suit them.
"Well, that's fine," he says, "I prefer coffee anyways. May I have a cup, please, ma'am? Black with three sugars, okay?" He reaches for the chipped porcelain, and the girl yelps and bats his hand away. A deep, angry buzzing comes from underneath the inverted cup.
"Jesus. What you got in there?"
"It's not a tea party! It's a circus!"
"That so?" He turns on his smile, the goofy one that says he doesn't take himself too seriously, and neither should you. But the back of his hand stings where she smacked him.
She glares at him suspiciously. Not for who he might be, what he might do to her. But because she is irritated that he doesn't understand. He looks around, more carefully, and recognizes it now: her ramshackle circus. The big top ring marked out with a finger traced in the dirt, a tightrope made from a flattened drinking-straw rigged between two soda cans, the Ferris wheel of the dented bicycle wheel, half propped up against a bush, with a rock to hold it in place and paper people torn out of magazines jammed between the spokes.
It doesn't escape him that the rock holding it up is the perfect fit for his fist. Or how easily one of those needle spokes would slide right through the girl's eye like Jell-O. He squeezes hard on the plastic pony in his pocket. The furious buzzing coming from underneath the cup is a vibration he can feel all the way down his vertebrae, tugging at his groin.
The cup jolts and the girl clamps her hands over it.
"Whoa!" she laughs, breaking the spell.
"Whoa, indeed! You got a lion in there?" He nudges her with his shoulder, and a smile breaks through her scowl, but only a little one. "You an animal tamer? You gonna make it jump through flaming hoops?"
She grins, the polka dots of her freckles drawing up into Dutch apple cheeks, revealing bright white teeth. "Nah, Rachel says I'm not allowed to play with matches. Not after last time." She has one skewed canine, slightly overlapping her incisors. And the smile more than makes up for the brackwater brown eyes, because now he can see the spark behind them. It gives him that falling-away feeling in his chest. And he's sorry he ever doubted the House. She's the one. One of the ones. His shining girls.
"I'm Harper," he says, breathless, holding out his hand to shake. She has to switch her grip on the cup to do it.
"Are you a stranger?" she says.
"Not anymore, right?"
"I'm Kirby. Kirby Mazrachi. But I'm gonna change it to Lori Star as soon as I'm old enough."
"When you go to Hollywood?"
She draws the cup across the ground towards her, stirring the bug under it to new heights of outrage, and he can see he's made a mistake.
"Are you sure you're not a stranger?"
"I mean, the circus, right? What is Lori Star going to do? Flying trapeze? Elephant rider? Clown?" He wiggles his index finger over his top lip. "The mustachioed lady?"
To his relief, she giggles. "Noooo."
"Lion tamer! Knife thrower! Fire-eater!"
"I'm going to be a tightrope walker. I've been practicing. Wanna see?" She moves to get up.
"No, wait," he says, suddenly desperate. "Can I see your lion?"
"It's not really a lion."
"That's what you say," he prods.
"Okay, but you gotta be real careful. I don't want him to fly away." She tilts the cup the tiniest fraction. He lays his head down on the ground, squinting to see. The smell of crushed grass and black earth is comforting. Something is moving under the cup. Furry legs, a hint of yellow and black. Antennae probe towards the gap. Kirby gasps and slams the cup down again.
"That's one big old bumblebee," he says, sitting back on his haunches.
"I know," she says, proud of herself.
"You got him pretty riled."
"I don't think he wants to be in the circus."
"Can I show you something? You'll have to trust me."
"What is it?"
"You want a tightrope walker?"
"No, I — "
But he's already lifted up the cup and scooped the agitated bee into his hands. Pulling off the wings makes the same dull pop sound as plucking the stem off a sour cherry, like the ones he spent a season picking in Rapid City. He'd been up and down the whole goddamn country, chasing after the work like a bitch in heat. Until he found the House.
"What are you doing?" she shouts.
"Now we just need some flypaper to string across the top of two cans. Big old bug like this should be able to pull his feet free, but it'll be sticky enough to stop him falling. You got some flypaper?"
He sets the bumblebee down on the rim of the cup. It clings to the edge.
"Why did you do that?" She hits his arm, a fluster of blows, palms open.
He's baffled by her reaction. "Aren't we playing circus?"
"You ruined it! Go away! Go away, go away, go away, go away." It becomes a chant, timed with each slap.
"Hold on. Hold on there," he laughs, but she keeps on whacking him. He grabs her hand in his. "I mean it. Cut it the fuck out, little lady."
"You don't swear!" she yells and bursts into tears. This is not going like he planned — as much as he can plan any of these first encounters. He feels tired at the unpredictability of children. This is why he doesn't like little girls, why he waits for them to grow up. Later, it will be a different story.
"All right, I'm sorry. Don't cry, okay? I've got something for you. Please don't cry. Look." In desperation, he takes out the orange pony, or tries to. Its head snags on his pocket and he has to yank it free. "Here," he jabs it at her, willing her to take it. One of the objects that connects everything together. Surely this is why he brought it? He feels only a moment of uncertainty.
"What is it?"
"A pony. Can't you see? Isn't a pony better than some dumb bumblebee?"
"It's not alive."
"I know that. Goddammit. Just take it, okay? It's a present."
"I don't want it," she sniffs.
"Okay, it's not a present, it's a deposit. You're keeping it safe for me. Like at the bank when you give them your money." The sun is beating down. It is too hot to be wearing a coat. He is barely able to concentrate. He just wants it to be done. The bumblebee falls off the cup and lies upside down in the grass, its legs cycling in the air.
He is feeling calmer already. Everything is as it has to be. "Now keep this safe, all right? It's real important. I'll come to get it. You understand?"
"Because I need it. How old are you?"
"Six and three-quarters. Almost seven."
"That's great. Really great. Here we go. Round and round, like your Ferris wheel. I'll see you when you're all grown-up. Look out for me, okay, sweetheart? I'll come back for you."
He stands up, dusting his hands against his leg. He turns and walks briskly across the lot, not looking back, limping only slightly. She watches him cross the road and walk up towards the railroad until he disappears into the tree-line. She looks at the plastic toy, clammy from his hand, and yells after him. "Yeah? Well I don't want your dumb horse!"
She chucks it onto the ground and it bounces once before coming to land beside her bicycle Ferris wheel. Its painted eye stares blankly at the bumblebee, which has righted itself and is dragging itself away over the dirt.
But she goes back for it later. Of course she does.
Adapted from The Shining Girls. Copyright 2013 by Lauren Beukes. Published by Mulholland Books/Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group. On sale June 4.