‘A dark, relentless, time-twisting, page-turning murder story guaranteed to give you heart palpitations. It shines.’ MATT HAIG, The Radleys
‘A tremendous work of suspense fiction ... a mind-melting, heart-pounding mashup that delivers on its promise.’ CORY DOCTOROW, Little Brother
Lauren Beukes is the author of Zoo City, a black magic noir set in Johannesburg which won the Arthur C Clark Award and was long-listed for the Dublin IMPAC prize, Moxyland, a corporate apartheid thriller, and Maverick: Extraordinary Women from South Africa’s Past. She’s worked in journalism, satire, documentary-making and children’s TV and writes comics for DC Vertigo. She lives in Cape Town with her husband and daughter.
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 any more, 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?’
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.
20 NOVEMBER 1931
The sand gives way beneath him, not sand at all, but stinking icy mud that squelches into his shoes and soaks through his socks. Harper curses under his breath, not wanting the men to hear. They’re shouting to each other in the darkness: ‘You see him? You got him?’ If the water wasn’t so goddamn cold, he’d risk swimming out to make his escape. But he is already shivering violently from the wind off the lake that nips and worries at him right through his shirt, his coat abandoned behind the speakeasy, covered in that shit-heel’s blood.
He wades his way across the beach, picking a path between the garbage and the rotting lumber, mud sucking at his every step. He hunkers down behind a shack on the water’s edge, assembled out of packing boxes and held together with tar-paper. Lamplight seeps through the cracks and the cardboard patching, making the whole thing glow. He doesn’t know why people build so close to the lake anyways – like they think the worst has already happened and there’s no downhill from here. Not like people shit in the shallows. Not like the water might swell with the rains and wash the whole goddamn stinking Hooverville away. The abode of forgotten men, misfortune saturated deep down into their bones. No one would miss them. Like no one’s going to miss Jimmy fucking Grebe.
He wasn’t expecting Grebe to gush like that. Wouldn’t have come to it if the bastard had fought fair. But he was fat and drunk and desperate. Couldn’t land a punch, so he went for Harper’s balls. Harper had felt the sonofabitch’s thick fingers grabbing at his trousers. Man fights ugly, you fight uglier back. It’s not Harper’s fault the jagged edge of the glass caught an artery. He was aiming for Grebe’s face.
None of it would have happened if that dirty lunger hadn’t coughed up on the cards. Grebe had wiped the bloody gob off with his sleeve, sure, but everyone knew he had consumption, hacking his contagion into his bloody kerchief. Disease and ruin and the cracking nerves of men. It’s the end of America.
Try telling that to ‘Mayor’ Klayton and his bunch of vigilante cock-suckers, all puffed up like they own the place. But there’s no law here. Like there’s no money. No self-respect. He’s seen the signs – and not just the ones that read ‘foreclosed’. Let’s face it, he thinks, America had it coming.
A pale streamer of light sweeps over the beach, lingering on the scars he trailed across the mud. But then the flashlight swings to hunt in another direction, and the door of the shack opens, spilling light out all over the place. A skinny rat of a woman steps out. Her face is drawn and gray in the kerosene glow – like everyone else’s around here – as if the dust storms out there in the country blew away all traces of people’s character along with their crops.
There’s a dark sports coat three sizes too big for her draped over her scrawny shoulders, like a shawl. Heavy wool. It looks warm. He knows that he is going to take it from her even before he realizes that she is blind. Her eyes are vacant. Her breath smells like cabbage and the teeth rotting in her head. She reaches out to touch him. ‘What is it?’ she says. ‘Why are they shouting?’
‘Rabid dog,’ Harper says. ‘They’re chasing it down. You should go back inside, ma’am.’ He could lift the jacket right off her and be gone. But she might scream. She might fight him.
She clutches at his shirt. ‘Wait,’ she says. ‘Is it you? Are you Bartek?’
‘No, ma’am. Not me.’ He tries to pry her fingers off of him. Her voice is rising in an urgent way. The kind to draw attention.
‘You are. You must be. He said you would come.’ She is verging on hysterical. ‘He said he would—’
‘Shhhh, it’s all right,’ Harper says. It is no effort at all to raise his forearm to her throat and push her back against the lean-to with his full weight. Only to quiet her, he tells himself. Hard to scream around a crushed windpipe. Her lips pout and pop. Her eyes bulge. Her gullet heaves in protest. She twists her hands in his shirt as if she’s wringing out laundry, and then her chicken-bone fingers fall away and she sags against the wall. He bends with her, setting her down gently, even as he lifts the coat off her shoulders.
A little boy is staring at him from inside the hovel, his eyes big enough to swallow you whole.
‘What you looking at?’ Harper hisses at the boy, hooking his arms through the sleeves. It’s too big for him, but no matter. Something jangles in the pocket of the coat. Loose change, if he’s lucky. But it will turn out to be much more than that.
‘Get inside. Get your mother some water. She’s poorly.’
The boy stares and then, without changing his expression, opens his mouth and lets out a screeching wail, drawing the goddamn flashlights. Beams lance across the doorway and the fallen woman, but Harper is already running. One of Klayton’s cronies – or maybe it’s the self-appointed mayor himself – shouts, ‘There!’ and the men stampede down towards the beach after him.
He darts through the maze of shacks and tents put up without rhyme or purpose all tumbled on top of each other, with barely space for a pushcart to move between them. Insects have better judgment, he thinks as he veers in the general direction of Randolph Street.
He is not counting on people acting like termites.
He steps on a tarpaulin and falls straight through it into a pit the size of a piano box, but considerably deeper, hacked out of the earth where someone has set up a semblance of a home and simply nailed a cover into the ground across the top of it.
He lands hard, his left heel smacking the side of a wooden pallet bed with a sharp twang like a guitar string snapping. The impact slams him sideways into the edge of a homemade stove that catches him under his ribcage and knocks the breath out of him. It feels like a bullet has torn clean through his ankle, but he didn’t hear a gunshot. He can’t breathe to scream and he’s drowning in the tarp, falling in on top of him.
They find him there, flailing against the canvas and cursing the son of a bitch human driftwood who didn’t have the materials or the skills to build a proper shack. The men assemble at the top of the hidey-hole, malevolent silhouettes behind the glare of their flashlights.
‘You can’t come here and just do what you want,’ Klayton says in his best Sunday preacher voice. Harper can finally breathe again. Every inhalation burns like a stitch in his side. He’s cracked a rib for sure, and he’s done something worse to his foot.
‘You have to respect your neighbor and your neighbor must respect you,’ Klayton continues. Harper’s heard him using this line at the community meetings, talking about how they needed to try and get along with the local businesses across the way – the same ones that sent in the authorities to tack up warning notices on every tent and hovel, advising them that they had seven days to vacate the land.
‘Hard to do respecting when you’re dead,’ Harper laughs, although it’s more of a wheeze and it makes his stomach tighten with pain. He thinks they might be holding shotguns, but that seems unlikely, and it is only when one of the flashlights shifts away from his face that he sees they are armed with pipes and hammers. His gut clenches again.
‘You should turn me over to the law,’ he says, hopefully.
‘Nah,’ Klayton replies. ‘They got no business here.’ He waves his flashlight. ‘Haul him out, boys. Before Chinaman Eng comes back to his hole and finds this d-horner garbage squatting in here.’
And here is another sign, clear as dawn, which is starting to creep over the horizon past the bridge. Before Klayton’s goons can climb down the ten feet to get to him, it starts to rain, slicing drops, cold and bitter. And there is shouting from the other side of the camp. ‘Police! It’s a raid!’
Klayton turns to confer with his men. They sound like monkeys with their jibber-jabber and arm-waving, and then a jet of flame sears through the rain, lighting up the sky and putting paid to their conversation.
‘Hey, you leave that—’ A yell drifts across from Randolph Street. Followed by another. ‘They got kerosene!’ someone yells.
‘What you waiting for?’ Harper says quietly, under the drumming rain and the uproar.
‘You stay right there,’ Klayton jabs his pipe at him as the silhouettes disperse. ‘We’re not done with you.’
Ignoring the rasping sound his ribs make, Harper scoots up on his elbows. He leans forward, grabs hold of the tarp that is still clinging to its nails on one side, and tugs on it, dreading the inevitable. But it holds.
Above, he can distinguish the dictatorial tone of the good mayor’s voice, cutting through the melee, shouting at persons unseen. ‘You got a court order for this? You think you can just come here and burn up people’s homes after we’ve lost everything once already?’
Harper gets a thick fold of the material in his grip and, using the over-turned stove for leverage with his good foot, heaves himself up. His ankle bangs against the dirt wall and a bright flash of pain, clear as God, blinds him. He retches, coughing up only a long stringy amalgam of spit and phlegm tinged with red. He clings to the tarp, blinking hard against the black holes blossoming across his vision, until he can see again.
The shouts are dissipating under the drum of the rain. He is running out of time. He hauls himself up the greasy, wet tarp, hand over fist. He couldn’t have done this even a year ago. But after twelve weeks of driving rivets into the Triboro in New York, he’s strong as the mangy orangutan he witnessed at a county fair, ripping a watermelon in half with its bare hands.
The canvas makes ominous brittle sounds of protest, threatening to tumble him back into this goddamn hole. But it holds and he pulls himself gratefully over the edge, not even caring as he scrapes open his chest on the nails fastening the tarp. Later, examining his wounds in safety, he will note that the gouges make it look like an enthusiastic whore has laid her mark on him.
He lies there, face in the mud, the rain pelting down on him. The shouts have moved away, although the air reeks of smoke, and the light from a half-dozen fires mixes with the gray of the dawn. A fragment of music drifts through the night, carrying from an apartment window, perhaps, with the tenants leaning out to enjoy the spectacle.
Harper crawls on his belly through the mud, lights flaring in his skull from the pain – or maybe they’re real. It is a kind of a rebirth. He graduates from crawling to hobbling when he finds a heavy piece of timber the right height to lean on.
His left foot is useless, dragging behind him. But he keeps going, through the rain and the darkness, away from the burning shantytown.
Everything happens for a reason. It’s because he is forced to leave that he finds the House. It is because he took the coat that he has the key.
18 JULY 1974
It’s that time of the early morning when the dark feels heavy; after the trains have stopped running and the traffic has petered out, but before the birds start singing. A real scorcher of a night. The kind of sticky hot that brings out all the bugs. Moths and flying ants patter against the porch light in an uneven drumbeat. A mosquito whines somewhere near the ceiling.
Kirby is in bed, awake, stroking the pony’s nylon mane and listening to the sounds of the empty house, groaning, like a hungry stomach. ‘Settling,’ Rachel calls it. But Rachel is not here. And it’s late, or early, and Kirby hasn’t had anything to eat since stale cornflakes at long-ago breakfast, and there are sounds that don’t belong to ‘settling’.
Kirby whispers to the pony, ‘It’s an old house. It’s probably just the wind.’ Except that the porch door is on a latch and it shouldn’t bang. The floorboards shouldn’t be creaking as if under the weight of a burglar tiptoeing towards her room, carrying a black sack to stuff her in and carry her away. Or maybe it’s the living doll from the scary TV show she’s not supposed to watch, tick-tacking on little plastic feet.
Kirby throws back the sheet. ‘I’m going to go see, okay?’ she tells the pony, because the thought of waiting for the monster to come to her is unbearable. She tiptoes to the door, which her mother painted with exotic flowers and rambling vines when they moved in four months ago, ready to slam it in the face of whoever (whatever) comes up the stairs.
She stands behind the door as if it’s a shield, straining to hear, picking at the rough texture of the paint. She has already stripped one tiger-lily to the bare wood. Her fingertips are tingling. The quiet rings in her head.
‘Rachel?’ Kirby whispers, too softly for anyone but the pony to hear.
There is a thump, very close, then a bang and the sound of something breaking. ‘Shit!’
‘Rachel?’ Kirby says, louder. Her heart is clattering like an early train.
There is a long pause. Then her mother says, ‘Go back to bed, Kirby, I’m fine.’ Kirby knows she’s not. But at least it’s not Talky Tina, the living killer doll.
She quits picking at the paint and pads across the hallway, sidestepping the broken bits of glass like diamonds between the dead roses with their crinkled leaves and spongy heads in a puddle of stinky vase water. The door has been left ajar for her.
Every new house is older and shabbier than the last one, although Rachel paints the doors and cupboards and sometimes even the floorboards to make it theirs. They choose the pictures together out of Rachel’s big gray art book: tigers or unicorns or saints or brown island girls with flowers in their hair. Kirby uses the paintings as clues to remind herself where they are. This house has the melty clocks on the kitchen cabinet above the stove, which means the refrigerator is on the left and the bathroom is under the stairs. But although the layout of each house changes, and sometimes they have a yard, and sometimes Kirby’s bedroom has a closet and sometimes she is lucky to have shelves, Rachel’s room is the one thing that remains constant.
She thinks of it as a pirate’s treasure cove. (‘Trove’ her mother corrects, but Kirby imagines it as a magic hidden bay, one you can sail into, if you’re lucky, if your map reads right.)
Dresses and scarves are tossed around the room as if by a gypsy pirate princess throwing a tantrum. A collection of costume jewelry is hooked onto the golden curlicues of an oval mirror, the first thing Rachel puts up whenever they move in somewhere new, inevitably whacking her thumb with the hammer. Sometimes they play dress-up, and Rachel drapes every necklace and bracelet on Kirby and calls her ‘my Christmas tree girl’, even though they are Jewish, or half.
There is a colored glass ornament hanging in the window that casts dancing rainbows across the room in the afternoon sun, over the tilted drawing table and whatever illustration Rachel is working on at the time.
When Kirby was a baby and they still lived in the city, Rachel would put the play-pen fencing around her desk, so that Kirby could crawl about the room without disturbing her. She used to do drawings for women’s magazines, but now ‘my style is out of fashion, baby – it’s fickle out there.’ Kirby likes the sound of the word. Fickle-pickle-tickle-fickle. And she likes that she sees her mother’s drawing of the winking waitress, balancing two short stacks dripping with butter, when they walk past Doris’s Pancake House on the way to the corner store.
But the glass ornament is cold and dead now, and the lamp next to the bed has a yellow scarf half-draped over it, which makes the whole room look sickly. Rachel is lying on the bed with a pillow over her face, still fully dressed, with her shoes on and everything. Her chest jerks under her black lace dress like she has the hiccups. Kirby stands in the doorway, willing her mother to notice her. Her head feels swollen with words she doesn’t know how to say.
‘You’re wearing your shoes in bed,’ is what she manages, finally.
Rachel lifts the pillow off her face and looks at her daughter through puffy eyes. Her make-up has left a black smear across the pillow. ‘Sorry, honey,’ she says in her chipper voice. (‘Chipper’ makes Kirby think of chipped teeth, which is what happened to Melanie Ottesen when she fell off the climbing rope. Or cracked glasses that aren’t safe to drink from anymore.)
‘You have to take off your shoes!’
‘I know, honey,’ Rachel sighs. ‘Don’t shout.’ She pries the black-andtan slingback heels off with her toes and lets them clatter to the floor. She rolls over on to her stomach. ‘Will you scratch my back?’
Kirby climbs onto the bed and sits cross-legged next to her. Her mother’s hair smells like smoke. She traces the curly lace patterns with her fingernails. ‘Why are you crying?’
‘I’m not really crying.’
‘Yes, you are.’
Her mother sighs. ‘It’s just that time of the month.’
‘That’s what you always say,’ Kirby sulks, and then adds as an afterthought, ‘I got a pony.’
‘I can’t afford to buy you a pony.’ Rachel’s voice is dreamy.
‘No, I already got one,’ Kirby says, exasperated. ‘She’s orange. She has butterflies on her butt and brown eyes and gold hair and um, she looks kinda dopey.’
Her mother peeks back at her over her shoulder, thrilled at the prospect. ‘Kirby! Did you steal something?’
‘No! It was a present. I didn’t even want it.’
‘That’s okay then.’ Her mother rubs at her eyes with the heel of her hand, dragging a smudge of mascara across her eyes like a burglar.
‘So I can keep it?’
‘Of course you can. You can do almost anything you want. Especially with presents. Even break them into a million billion pieces.’ Like the vase in the hallway, Kirby thinks.
‘Okay,’ she says, seriously. ‘Your hair smells funny.’
‘Look who’s talking!’ Her mother’s laugh is like a rainbow dancing across a room. ‘When was the last time you washed yours?’
22 NOVEMBER 1931
The Mercy Hospital does not live up to its name. ‘Can you pay?’ the tired-looking woman in the reception booth demands through a round hole in the glass. ‘Paying patients go to the front of the line.’
‘How long is the wait?’ Harper grunts.
The woman inclines her head towards the triage waiting area. It is standing-room only, apart from the people who are sitting or lying half-collapsed on the floor, too sick or tired or plain goddamn bored to stay on their feet. A few glance up with hope or outrage or some unsustainable mix of the two in their eyes. The others have the same look of resignation he’s seen in farm horses on their last legs, ribs as pronounced as the cracks and furrows in the dead earth they strain the plow against. You shoot a horse like that.
He digs in the pocket of the stolen coat for the crumpled five-dollar bill he found there, together with a safety pin, three dimes, two quarters and a key, worn out in a way that feels familiar. Or maybe he has become accustomed to tarnish.
‘Is this enough for mercy, sweetheart?’ he asks, shoving the bill through the window.
‘Yes.’ She holds his gaze, to tell him that she is not ashamed to charge, even though the very act of doing so says otherwise.
She rings a little bell and a nurse comes to collect him, her practical shoes slapping against the linoleum. E. Kappel it reads on her name-badge. She is pretty, in an ordinary sort of way, with rosy cheeks and carefully ironed cherry-brown curls under her white cap. Apart from her nose, which is turned up too much, so it looks like a snout. Little piggy, he thinks.
‘Come with me,’ she says, irritated that he’s there at all. Already cataloging him as so much more human trash. She turns and strides away so that he has to jolt after her. Each step sends pain shooting up to his hip, like a Chinese rocket, but he is determined to keep up.
Every ward they pass is crammed to capacity, sometimes with two people to a bed, laid head to foot. All the sickness inside spilling out.
Not as bad as the field hospitals, he thinks. Mangled men clustered on blood-stained stretchers among the stink of burns and rotting wounds and shit and vomit and sour fever sweats. The incessant moaning like a terrible choir.
There was that boy from Missouri with his leg blown off, he remembers. He wouldn’t let up screaming, keeping them all awake, until Harper sneaked over, as if to comfort him. What he actually did was slide his bayonet in through the idiot boy’s thigh above the bloody wreckage and neatly flick it up to sever the artery. Just like he’d practiced on the straw dummies in training. Stab and twist. A gut wound will drop a man in his tracks every time. Harper always found it more personal than bullets, getting right up into someone. It made the war bearable.
No chance of that here, he supposes. But there are other ways to get rid of troublesome patients. ‘You should break out the black bottle,’ Harper says, just to rile the chubby nurse. ‘They’d thank you for it.’
She gives a little snort of contempt as she leads him past the doors of the private wards, tidy single-occupant rooms that are mostly vacant. ‘Don’t you tempt me. Quarter of the hospital is acting as a pest-house right now. Typhoid, infection. Poison would be a blessing. But don’t you let the surgeons hear you talking about no black bottle.’
Through an open doorway, he sees a girl lying in a bed surrounded by flowers. She has the look of a film star, even though it’s been over a decade since Charlie Chaplin upped and left Chicago for California and took the whole movie industry with him. Her hair is sweat-plastered in damp blonde ringlets around her face, made paler by the wan winter sunlight struggling through the windows. But as he falters outside, her eyes flutter open. She half sits up and smiles at him radiantly, as if she was expecting him, and he’d be welcome to come sit for a while and talk with her.
Nurse Kappel is having none of it. She grabs him by the elbow and escorts him away. ‘No gawping, now. The last thing that hussy needs is another admirer.’
‘Who is she?’ He looks back.
‘No one. A nudey dancer. Little idiot poisoned herself with radium. It’s her act, she paints herself with it so that she glows in the dark. Don’t worry, she’ll be discharged soon and then you can see as much of her as you like. All of her, way I hear it.’
She ushers him into the doctor’s room, bright white with an antiseptic sting. ‘Now sit here and let’s take a look at what you done to yourself.’
He hops up unsteadily onto the examination table. She screws up her face in concentration as she cuts away the filthy rags he has tied as tight as he could bear in a stirrup under his heel.
‘You’re stupid, you know that?’ The little smile at the corner of her mouth says she knows she can get away with talking to him like this. ‘Waiting to come here. You think this would get better all on its own?’
She’s right. It doesn’t help that he’s been sleeping rough for the last two nights, camped out in a doorway with a cardboard box to sleep on and a stolen coat for a blanket because he can’t go back to his tent, in case Klayton and his stooges are waiting with their pipes and hammers.
The neat silver scissor-blades go snik-snik through the rag binding which has cut white lines into his swollen foot, so that it looks like a trussed ham. Now who’s the little piggy? What’s stupid, he thinks bitterly, is that he came through the war without any permanent damage, and now he’s going to be crippled from falling into some hobo’s hidey-hole.
The doctor blusters into the room, an older man with comfortable padding round his belly and his thick gray hair swept around his ears like a lion’s mane.
‘And what’s your complaint today, sir?’ The question is no less patronizing for the accompanying smile.
‘Well, I ain’t been dancing in glow-in-the-dark paint.’
‘Nor will you have the opportunity, by the looks of it,’ the doctor says, still smiling, as he takes the swollen foot between his hands and flexes it. He ducks deftly, professionally even, when Harper roars in pain and swings at him.
‘Keep that up, sport, if you want to get chucked out on your ear,’ the doctor grins, ‘paying or not.’ This time when he flexes the foot up and down, up and down, Harper grits his teeth and clenches his fists to stop himself from lashing out.
‘Can you pull up your toes on your own?’ he says, watching intently. ‘Oh, good. That’s a good sign. Better than I thought. Excellent. You see here?’ he says to the nurse, pinching the hollow indentation above the heel. Harper groans. ‘That’s where the tendon should connect.’
‘Oh yes,’ the nurse pinches the skin. ‘I can feel it.’
‘What does that mean?’ Harper says.
‘It means you should spend the next few months on your back in hospital, sport, but I’m guessing that’s not an option for you.’
‘Not unless it’s free.’
‘Or you have concerned patrons willing to sponsor your convalescence, like our radium girl.’ The doctor winks. ‘We can put you in a cast, send you off with a crutch. But a ruptured tendon isn’t going to heal itself. You should stay off your feet for at least six weeks. I can recommend a shoe-maker who specializes in medical footwear to raise the heel, which will help it along some.’
‘How am I supposed to do that? I gotta work.’ Harper is pissed at the whine that creeps into his voice.
‘We’re all facing financial difficulties, Mr Harper. Just ask the hospital administrators. I suggest you do what you can.’ He adds, wistfully, ‘I don’t suppose you have syphilis, do you?’
‘Pity. There’s a study starting in Alabama that would have paid for all your medical care if you did. Although you’d have to be a Negro.’
‘I’m not that, either.’
‘Too bad.’ The doctor shrugs.
‘Will I be able to walk?’
‘Oh yes,’ the doctor says. ‘But I wouldn’t count on being able to audition for Mr Gershwin.’
Harper hobbles out of the hospital, his ribs bound, his foot in a cast, his blood full of morphine. He reaches into his pocket to feel how much money he has left. Two dollars and change. But then his fingers brush the jagged teeth of the key and something opens in his head like a receiver. Maybe it’s the drugs. Or maybe it was always waiting for him.
He never noticed before that the streetlights hum, a low frequency that burrows in behind his eyeballs. And even though it is afternoon and the lights are off, they seem to flare as he steps under them. The hum skips ahead to the next light, as if beckoning him. This way. And he’d swear he can hear a crackling music, a faraway voice calling to him like a radio that needs to be tuned in. He follows the path of the humming streetlights, going as fast as he can manage, but the crutch is unwieldy.
He turns down State and it leads him through the West Loop into the canyons of Madison Street, with skyscrapers looming forty stories high on either side. He passes through Skid Row, where two dollars might buy him a bed for a while, but the humming and the lights lead him on, into the Black Belt where the shabby jazz joints and cafés give way to cheap houses stacked on top of each other, with ragged children playing on the street and old men with hand-rolled cigarettes sitting on the steps, watching him balefully.
The street narrows and the buildings crowd in on one another, casting chill shadows over the sidewalk. A woman laughs from one of the upstairs apartments, the sound abrupt and ugly. There are signs everywhere he looks. Broken windows in the tenements, handwritten notices in the empty shop windows below: ‘Closed for business’, ‘Closed until further notice’, and once, just ‘Sorry’.
A briny clamminess comes in from the lake on the wind that cuts through the bleak afternoon and under his coat. As he gets deeper into the warehouse district, the people thin out, and then vanish altogether, and in their absence, the music swells, sweet and plaintive. And now he can make out the tune. ‘Somebody from Somewhere’. And the voice whispers, urgently, Keep on, keep on, Harper Curtis.
The music carries him over the railroad tracks, deep into the West Side and up the stairs of a worker’s lodging house, indistinguishable from the other wooden tenements in the row, shouldering in on each other, with peeling paint and boarded-up bay windows and a notice that reads ‘Condemned by the City of Chicago’ pasted up on the planks that have been nailed across the front doors in Xs. Make your mark for President Hoover right here, you hopeful men. The music is coming from behind the door of 1818. An invitation.
He reaches under the crossed planks and tries the door, but it’s locked. Harper stands on the step, full of the sense of a terrible inevitability. The street is utterly abandoned. The other houses are boarded up or their curtains are drawn tight. He can hear traffic a block over, a hawker selling peanuts. ‘Get ’em hot! Eat ’em on the trot!’, but it sounds dulled, as if coming through blankets wrapped around his head. Whereas the music is a sharp splinter that drives right through his skull: The key.
He sticks his hand in the pocket of the coat, suddenly terrified that he has lost it. He is relieved to find that it is still there. Bronze; printed with the mark Yale & Towne. The lock on the door matches up. Trembling, he slides it home. It catches.
The door swings open into darkness, and for a long, terrible moment, he stands paralyzed by possibilities. And then he ducks under the boards, negotiating his crutch, awkwardly, through the gap, and into the House.
9 SEPTEMBER 1980
It’s that kind of day, crisp and clear, on the cusp of fall. The trees have mixed feelings about it; leaves showing green and yellow and brown all at the same time. Kirby can tell Rachel is stoned from a block away. Not just by the sweet smell hanging over the house (dead giveaway), but by the agitated way she is pacing the yard, fussing over something laid out in the overgrown grass. Tokyo is leaping and barking around her in excitement. She isn’t supposed to be home. She’s supposed to be away on one of her sojourns or ‘so-johns’ as Kirby used to call it when she was little. Okay, a year ago.
For weeks, she wondered if this So-John guy was her dad, and if Rachel was working up to take her to meet him, when Grace Tucker at school told her that a john was a word for a man who uses a prostitute, and that’s all her mother was. She didn’t know what a prostitute was, but she gave Gracie a blood-nose, and Gracie pulled out a clump of her hair.
Rachel thought it was hysterical, even though Kirby’s scalp was red and sore where the hair was gone. She didn’t mean to laugh, really, ‘but it is very funny.’ Then she’d explained it to Kirby the way she did everything, in a way that didn’t explain anything at all. ‘A prostitute is a woman who uses her body to take advantage of the vanity of men,’ she’d said. ‘And a sojourn is a revitalization of your spirit.’ But it turned out that wasn’t even close. Because a prostitute has sex for money, and a sojourn is a vacation from your real life, which is the last thing Rachel needs. Less vacationing, more real life, Mom.
She whistles for Tokyo. Five short sharp notes, distinctive enough to separate it from the calls everyone else uses for their dogs at the park. He comes bounding over, happy as only a dog can be. ‘Pure-bred mutt’ is how Rachel likes to describe him. Scrappy, with a long snout and patchwork sandy-and-white fur and creamy rings around his eyes. ‘Tokyo’ because when she grows up, she’s going to move to Japan and become a famous translator of haiku poetry and drink green tea and collect samurai swords. (‘Well, it’s better than Hiroshima’ is what her mother said.) She’s already started writing her own haiku. This is one:
Rocket ship lift-off
take me far away from here
the stars are waiting
This is another:
She would disappear
folded like origami
into her own dreams.
Rachel applauds enthusiastically whenever she reads her a new one. But Kirby has begun to think she could copy down the wording from the side of the Cocoa Krispies box, and her mother would cheer just as loudly, especially when she’s stoned, which is more and more often these days.
She blames So-John. Or whatever his name is. Rachel won’t tell her. As if she doesn’t hear the car pull up at 3 a.m. or the hissed conversations, unintelligible but fraught, before the door slams and her mother tries to tiptoe in without waking her. As if she doesn’t wonder where their rent money comes from. As if this hasn’t been going on for years.
Rachel has laid out every single one of her paintings – even the big one of Lady Shalott in her tower (Kirby’s favorite, not that she’d admit it), which is normally stowed at the back of the broom cupboard with the other canvases her mother starts, but never quite manages to finish.
‘Are we having a yard sale?’ Kirby asks, even though she knows the question will irritate Rachel.
‘Oh, honey,’ her mother gives her a distracted half-smile, the way she does when she’s disappointed in Kirby, which she seems to be all the time these days. Usually when she says things Rachel insists are too old for her. ‘You’re losing your child-like wonder,’ she’d told her two weeks ago, with a sharpness in her voice like it was the worst thing in the world.
Weirdly, when she gets into real trouble, Rachel doesn’t seem to mind. Not when she gets in fights at school or even when she set fire to Mr Partridge’s mailbox to pay him back for complaining about Tokyo digging up his sweetpeas. Rachel told her off, but Kirby could tell she was delighted. Her mother even put on a big pantomime, the two of them yelling at each other loud enough for that ‘self-righteous windbag next door’ to hear them through the walls, her mother screeching ‘Don’t you realize it’s a federal crime to interfere with the US mail service?’ before they collapsed in giggles, clamping their hands over their mouths.
Rachel points to a miniature painting positioned squarely between her bare feet. Her toenails are painted a bright orange that doesn’t suit her. ‘Do you think this one is too brutal?’ she asks. ‘Too red in tooth and claw?’
Kirby doesn’t know what that means. She struggles to tell her mother’s paintings apart. They’re all pale women with long flowing hair and mournful bug eyes too big for their heads in muddy landscapes of greens and blues and grays. No red at all. Rachel’s art reminds her of what Coach said to her in gym class, when she kept messing up the approach to the vaulting horse. ‘For Pete’s sake, stop trying so hard!’
Kirby hesitates, not sure what to say in case she sets her off. ‘I think it’s just fine.’
‘Oh, but fine isn’t anything!’ Rachel exclaims and grabs her hands and pulls her into a stepping foxtrot over the paintings, twirling her round. ‘Fine is the very definition of mediocrity. It’s what’s polite. It’s what’s socially acceptable. We need to live brighter and deeper than just fine, my darling!’
Kirby squirms out of her grasp and stands looking down at all the beautiful sad girls with their skinny limbs reaching out like praying mantises. ‘Um,’ she says. ‘Do you want me to help you move the paintings back inside?’
‘Oh, honey,’ her mother says with such pity and scorn that Kirby can’t bear it. She runs inside, clattering up the porch stairs, and forgets to tell her about the man with the mousy hair and jeans pulled up too high and a skew nose like a boxer, who was standing in the shade of the sycamore next to Mason’s Filling Station, sipping a bottle of Coke through a straw and watching her. The way he looked at her made Kirby’s stomach flip like when you’re on the tilt-a-whirl, and it feels like someone has scooped out your insides.
When she waved vigorously, over-cheerful at him, like, Hey, mister, I see you staring at me, jerk-wad, he raised one hand in acknowledgement. And kept it up (super creepy) until she turned the corner up Ridgeland Street, skipping her usual shortcut through the alley, hurrying to get out of his sight.
22 NOVEMBER 1931
It’s like being a boy again, sneaking into the neighboring farmhouses. Sitting at the kitchen table in the quiet house, lying between the cool sheets of someone else’s bed, going through the drawers. Other people’s things tell their secrets.
He could always tell if someone was home; then and all the times he’s broken into abandoned houses since, to scrounge for food or some overlooked trinket to pawn. An empty house feels a certain way. Ripe with absence.
This House is full of expectation that makes the hair on his arms rise. There is someone in here with him. And it is not the dead body lying in the hallway.
The chandelier above the stairs casts a soft glow over dark wooden floors, gleaming with fresh polish. The wallpaper is new, a dark green and cream diamond pattern that even Harper can tell is tasteful. To the left is a bright modern kitchen, straight out of the Sears catalog, with melamine cupboards and a brand-new toaster oven and an icebox and a silver kettle on the stove, all laid out. Waiting for him.
He swings his crutch wide over the blood seeping like a carpet across the floorboards and limps around to get a better look at the dead man. He’s gripping a half-frozen turkey, the gray-pink flesh pimpled and smeared with gore. The fellow is thickset, in a dress shirt with suspenders, gray pants and smart shoes. No coat. His head has been pulped like a melon, but there is enough left to make out jowly cheeks with stubble and bloodshot blue eyes staring out of the mess of his face, wide in shock.
Harper limps past the corpse, following the music into the parlor, half-expecting to find the owner, sitting in the upholstered chair in front of the fireplace, the poker he used to bash the man’s head in laid across his lap.
The room is empty. Although the fire is lit. And there is a poker beside the wood rack, stacked full, as if in anticipation of his arrival. The song spills from a gold-and-burgundy gramophone. The label on the record reads ‘Gershwin’. Of course. Through a crack in the curtains, he can see the cheap plywood nailed up over the windows, blocking out the daylight. But why hide this behind boarded-up windows and a condemned sign? To prevent other people finding it.
A crystal decanter filled with a honey-colored liquor has been set out next to a single tumbler on the side table. It’s on top of a lace-doily tablecloth. That will have to go, Harper thinks. And he will have to do something about the body. Bartek, he thinks, recalling the name the blind woman had said before he choked her.
Bartek never belonged here, the voice in his head says. But Harper does. The House has been waiting for him. It called him here for a purpose. The voice in his head is whispering home. And it feels like it, more than the wretched place he grew up or the series of flophouses and shacks he’s moved between all his adult life.
He props his crutch up against the chair and pours himself a glass of liquor from the decanter. The ice clinks as he swirls it. Only half-melted. He takes a slow draft, rolling it round his mouth, letting it burn down his throat. Canadian Club. Finest smuggled import, he toasts the air. It’s been a long time since he had anything to drink that didn’t have the bitter homebrew aftertaste of formaldehyde. It’s a long time since he sat on a chair that had cushioning.
He resists the chair, even though his leg is aching from the walking. Whatever fever propelled him is still burning. There’s more, right this way, sir, like a carnie barker. Step up, don’t miss out. It’s all waiting for you. Keep on, keep on, Harper Curtis.
Harper hauls himself up the steps, hanging on the balustrade that is so polished that he leaves handprints on the wood. Oily ghost impressions – already fading. He has to swing his foot up and round every time, his crutch dragging behind him. He is panting through his teeth at the effort.
He limps along the hallway, past a bathroom with a basin spattered with runnels of blood to match the towel in a soggy twist on the floor beside it, leaking pink across the shining black-and-white tiles. Harper pays no heed to this, nor to the stairs leading from the landing up to the attic, nor the spare room with the bed neatly made up, but the pillow dented.
The door to the main bedroom is closed. Shifting light stripes the floorboards through the gap underneath it. He reaches for the handle, half-expecting it to be locked. But it turns with a click and he nudges the door with the tip of his crutch. It opens onto a room bathed, inexplicably, in the glare of a summer afternoon. The furnishings are paltry. A walnut closet, an ironwork bed.
He squints against the sudden brightness outside and watches it change to thick rolling clouds and silvered dashes of rain, then to a red-streaked sunset, like a cheap zoetrope. But instead of a galloping horse or a girl saucily removing her stockings, it’s whole seasons whirring past. He can’t stand it. He goes to the window to pull the curtains shut, but not before he glimpses the tableau outside.
The houses across the way change. The paint strips away, recolors itself, strips away again through snow and sun and trash tangled with leaves blowing down the street. Windows are broken, boarded over, spruced up with a vase of flowers that turn brown and fall away. The empty lot becomes overgrown, fills over with cement, grass grows through the cracks in wild tufts, rubbish congeals, the rubbish is removed, it comes back, along with aggressive snarls of writing on the walls in vicious colors. A hopscotch grid appears, disappears in the sleeting rain, moves elsewhere, snaking across the cement. A couch rots through seasons and then catches fire.
He yanks the curtains closed, and turns and sees it. Finally. His destiny spelled out in this room.
Every surface has been defaced. There are artifacts mounted on the walls, nailed in or strung up with wire. They seem to jitter in a way that he can feel in the back of his teeth. All connected by lines that have been drawn over again and again, with chalk or ink or a knife tip scraped through the wallpaper. Constellations, the voice in his head says.
There are names scrawled beside them. Jinsuk. Zora. Willy. Kirby. Margo. Julia. Catherine. Alice. Misha. Strange names of women he doesn’t know.
Except that the names are written in Harper’s own handwriting.
It’s enough. The realization. Like a door opening up inside. The fever peaks and something howls through him, full of contempt and wrath and fire. He sees the faces of the shining girls and knows how they must die. The screaming inside his head: Kill her. Stop her.
He covers his face with his hands, dropping the crutch. He reels backwards and falls heavily onto the bed, which groans under his weight. His mouth is dry. His mind is full of blood. He can feel the objects thrumming. He can hear the girls’ names like the chorus of a hymn. The pressure builds inside his skull until it’s unbearable.
Harper takes away his hands and forces himself to open his eyes. He hauls himself to his feet, using the bedpost for balance, and hobbles over to the wall where the objects pulse and flicker, as if in anticipation. He lets them guide him, reaching out his hand. There is one that seems sharper somehow. It nags at him, the way an erection does, with incontrovertible purpose. He has to find it. And the girl who comes with it.
It is as if he has spent his entire life in a drunken blur, but now the veil has been whipped away. It is the moment of pure clarity, like fucking, or the instant he opened up Jimmy Grebe’s throat. Like dancing in irradiated paint.
He picks up a piece of chalk that is lying on the mantel and writes on the wallpaper beside the window, because there is a space for it and it seems he must. He prints ‘Glowgirl’ in his jagged sloping script, over the ghost of the word that is already there.
30 JULY 1984
She could be sleeping. At first glance. If you were squinting into the sun dappled through the leaves. If you thought her top was supposed to be a rusty brown. If you missed the flies thick as midges.
One arm is flung casually above her head, which is tilted fetchingly to one side, as if listening. Her hips are twisted the same way, her legs folded together, bent at the knee. The serenity of the pose belies the gaping wreck of her abdomen.
That carefree arm that makes her look so romantic lying amongst the tiny blue and yellow wildflowers, bears the marks of defensive wounds. The incisions on the middle joint of her fingers, down to the bone, indicate that she probably tried to grab the knife from her attacker. The last two fingers on her right hand are partially severed.
The skin on her forehead is split from the impact of multiple blows by a blunt object, possibly a baseball bat. But equally possibly the handle of an axe or even a heavy tree branch, none of which have been found at the scene.
The chafe marks on her wrists would indicate that her hands were tied, although the restraints have been removed. Wire probably, by the way it has bitten into her skin. Blood has formed a black crust over her face, like a caul. She has been slit sternum to pelvis in an inverted cross, which will lead certain factions among the police to suspect Satanism before they pin it on gangbangers, particularly as her stomach has been removed. It is found nearby, dissected, the contents spread on the grass. Her guts have been strung from the trees like tinsel. They are already dry and gray by the time the cops finally cordon off the area. This indicates that the killer had time. That no one heard her shouting for help. Or that no one responded.
Also entered into evidence:
A white sneaker with a long streak of mud down the side, as if she skidded in the dirt as she was running away and it came off. It was found thirty feet from the body. It matched the one she was wearing, which was spattered with blood.
One ruched vest, spaghetti straps, sliced up the center, formerly white. Bleached denim shorts, stained with blood. Also: urine, feces.
Her book bag containing: one textbook (Fundamental Methods of Mathematical Economics), three pens (two blue, one red), one highlighter (yellow), a grape lipsmacker, mascara, half a packet of gum (Wrigley’s spearmint, three sticks left), a square gold compact (the mirror is cracked, possibly during the attack), a black cassette tape, ‘Janis Joplin – Pearl’ handwritten on the label, the keys to Alpha Phi’s front door, a school diary marked with assignment due dates, an appointment at Planned Parenthood, her friends’ birthdays and various phone numbers that the police are going through one by one. Tucked in between the pages of the diary is a notice for an overdue library book.
The newspapers claim that it is the most brutal attack in the area in fifteen years. The police are pursuing all leads and urgently encourage witnesses to come forward. They have high hopes that the killer will be quickly identified. A murder this ugly will have had a precedent.
Kirby missed the whole thing. She was a little preoccupied at the time by Fred Tucker, Gracie’s older brother by a year and a half, trying to put his penis inside her.
‘It won’t fit,’ he gasps, his thin chest heaving.
‘Well, try harder,’ Kirby hisses.
‘You’re not helping me!’
‘What more do you want me to do?’ she asks, exasperated. She’s wearing a pair of Rachel’s black patent heels, together with a filmy beige-gold slip she’d lifted straight off the rail from Marshall Field’s three days ago, shoving the discarded coat hanger deep into the back of the rack. She’d stripped Mr Partridge’s roses for petals to scatter on the sheets. She’d stolen condoms from her mother’s bedside drawer, so that Fred wouldn’t have to risk the embarrassment of buying them. She’d made sure Rachel wouldn’t be coming home for the afternoon. She’s even been practising making out with the back of her hand. Which was about as effective as tickling yourself. It’s why you need other fingers, other tongues. Only other people can make you feel real.
‘I thought you’d done this before.’ Fred collapses onto his elbows, his weight on top of her. It’s a good kind of weight, even though his hips are bony and his skin is slick with sweat.
‘I just said that so you wouldn’t feel nervous.’ Kirby reaches past him to Rachel’s cigarettes lying on the bedside table.
‘You shouldn’t smoke,’ he says.
‘Yeah? You shouldn’t be having sex with a minor.’
‘Only on the eighth of August.’
‘Jesus,’ he says and climbs off her in a hurry. She watches him fluster around the bedroom, naked, apart from the socks and the condom – his dick still bravely erect and good to go – and takes a long drag on the cigarette. She doesn’t even like cigarettes. But cool is all about having props to hide behind. She has worked out the formula: two parts taking control without making it look like you’re trying to, and three parts pretending it doesn’t matter anyway. And hey, it is no big deal if she loses her virginity today to Fred Tucker or not. (It is a really big deal.)
She admires the lipstick print she has left on the filter, and swallows down the coughing fit that is trying to erupt. ‘Relax, Fred. It’s supposed to be fun,’ she says, playing smooth, when what she wants to say is, It’s okay, I think I love you.
‘Then why do I feel like I’m having a heart attack?’ he says, clutching at his chest. ‘Maybe we should just be friends?’
She feels bad for him. But also for herself. She blinks hard and stubs out the cigarette, three drags in, as if it was the smoke making her eyes water.
‘You want to watch a video?’ she says.
So they do. And they end up fumbling around on the couch, kissing for an hour and a half, while Matthew Broderick saves the world on his computer. They don’t even notice when the tape runs out and the screen turns to bristling static, because his fingers are inside her and his mouth is hot against her skin. And she climbs on top of him and it hurts, which she expected, and it’s nice, which she’d hoped, but it’s not world-changing, and afterwards they kiss a lot and smoke the rest of the cigarette, and he coughs and says: ‘That wasn’t how I thought it would be.’
Neither is being murdered.
The dead girl’s name was Julia Madrigal. She was twenty-one. She was studying at Northwestern. Economics. She liked hiking and hockey, because she was originally from Banff, Canada, and hanging out in the bars along Sheridan Road with her friends, because Evanston was dry.
She kept meaning to sign up to volunteer to read textbook passages for the blind students association’s study tapes, but never quite got round to it, the same way she’d bought a guitar but only mastered one chord. She was running for head of her sorority. She always said she was going to be the first woman CEO of Goldman Sachs. She had plans to have three kids and a big house and a husband who did something interesting and complementary – a surgeon or a broker or something. Not like Sebastian, who was a good-time guy, but not exactly marriage material.
She was too loud, like her dad, especially at parties. Her sense of humor tended to be crass. Her laugh was notorious or legendary, depending on who was telling. You could hear it from the other side of Alpha Phi. She could be annoying. She could be narrow-minded in that got-allthe-answers-to-save-the-world way. But she was the kind of girl you couldn’t keep down. Unless you cut her up and caved in her skull.
Her death will send out shockwaves among everyone she knew, and some people she didn’t.
Her father will never recover. His weight drops away until he becomes a wan parody of the loud and opinionated estate agent who would pick a fight at the barbecue about the game. He loses all interest in selling houses. He tapers off mid-sales pitch, looking at the blank spaces on the wall between the perfect family portraits or worse, at the grouting between the tiles of the en-suite bathroom. He learns to fake it, to clamp the sadness down. At home, he starts cooking. He teaches himself French cuisine. But all food tastes bland to him.
Her mother draws the pain into herself: a monster she keeps caged in her chest that can only be subdued with vodka. She does not eat her husband’s cooking. When they move back to Canada and downsize the house, she reloc