The Girls by Emma Cline

Lose yourself in the California desert in the summer of 1969

The Girls

There were three other girls in the bus, and they turned to me with eagerness, a feral attention I read as flattering.

The three of us worked together to get the chain back on. The smell of their sweat as we propped the bike on its stand. I’d bent the gears somehow when the bike fell, and the teeth wouldn’t line up with the spokes.

“Fuck.” Suzanne sighed. “This is all messed up.”

“You need pliers or something,” Donna said. “You aren’t gonna fix it now. Stick it in the bus, come hang with us for a while.”

“Let’s just give her a ride into town,” Suzanne said.

She spoke briskly, like I was a mess that needed to be cleaned up. Even so, I was glad. I was used to thinking about people who never thought about me.

“We’re having a solstice party,” Donna said.

I didn’t want to go back to my mother, to the forlorn guardianship of my own self. I had the sense that if I let Suzanne go, I would not see her again.

“Evie wants to come,” Donna said. “I can tell she’s up for it. You like to have fun, don’t you?”

“Come on,” Suzanne said. “She’s a kid.”

I surged with shame.

“I’m sixteen,” I lied. 
“She’s sixteen,” Donna repeated. “Don’t you think Russell would want us to be hospitable? I think he’d be upset if I told him we weren’t being hospitable.”

I didn’t read any threat in Donna’s voice, only teasing. Suzanne’s mouth was tight; she finally smiled. “Okay,” she said. “Put the bike in the back.”

California Polaroid - The Girls

I saw that the bus had been emptied and rebuilt, the interior cruddy and overworked in the way things were back then—the floor gridded with Oriental carpets, grayed with dust, the drained tufts of thrift store cushions. The stink of a joss stick in the air, prisms ticking against the windows. Cardboard scrawled with dopey phrases.

There were three other girls in the bus, and they turned to me with eagerness, a feral attention I read as flattering. Cigarettes going in their hands while they looked me up and down, an air of festivity and timelessness. A sack of green potatoes, pasty hot dog buns. A crate of wet, overripe tomatoes. “We were on a food run,” Donna said, though I didn’t really understand what that meant. My mind was preoccupied with this sudden shift of luck, with monitoring the slow trickle of sweat under my arms. I kept waiting to be spotted, to be identified as an intruder who didn’t belong. My hair too clean. Little nods toward presentation and decorum that seemed to concern no one else. My hair cut crazily across my vision from the open windows, intensifying the dislocation, the abruptness of being in this strange bus. A feather hanging from the rearview with a cluster of beads. Some dried lavender on the dashboard, colorless from the sun.

She’s coming to the solstice,” Donna chimed, “the summer solstice.”

It was early June and I knew the solstice was at the end of the month: I didn’t say anything. The first of many silences.

“She’s gonna be our offering,” Donna told the others. Giggling. “We’re gonna sacrifice her.”

I looked to Suzanne—even our brief history seemed to ratify my presence among them—but she was sitting off to the side, absorbed by the box of tomatoes. Applying pressure to the skins, sifting out the rot. Waving away the bees. It would occur to me later that Suzanne was the only one who didn’t seem overjoyed to come upon me, there on the road. Something formal and distant in her affect. I can only think it was protective. That Suzanne saw the weakness in me, lit up and obvious: she knew what happened to weak girls.

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