The JRB presents an excerpt from Ungirls, a new short story from Editorial Advisory Panel member Lauren Beukes.
Ungirls is part of Disorder, a collection of six short stories of ‘living nightmares, chilling visions and uncanny imagination,’ published by Amazon Original Stories.
Amazon Original Stories, 2019
From Ungirls. Used with the permission of the publisher, Amazon Original Stories. Copyright © 2019 by Lauren Beukes.
You can also listen to an audio recording of the excerpt here:
Friday afternoon at Hello Sailor, all four of them, Nats, Zukiswa, Mel, and Luvo, squeezed around one of the wobbly outside tables for happy hour double gin and tonics. It’s good, Nats thinks, being out with her crew of hustlers, Petite Noir playing on the sound system, the summer heat baking down.
‘You know what the problem with Obs is?’ Mel waves her hand-rolled cigarette vaguely at the bustle of Lower Main Road. She’s their ‘token white friend’. Blonde, blue eyes, freckles, corn-fed. They tease her about coming all the way from America to do sex work in Africa. Zukiswa roared in delight when she found out: ‘You’re telling me there’s no demand for skinny white bitches in Connecticut?’
‘Not much in the way of affordable master’s degrees in sociology more like,’ Mel countered.
‘Is it the pervasive urine smell?’ Luvo offers now. He’s dressed to party, or just because. Either way, he looks head-turningly amazing in a black tank and mesh top, with a dusting of glitter along his sculpted cheekbones and his temples, bright blue eyeliner. ‘The traffic?’ A white minibus taxi hoots its outrage at a delivery truck that has dared to stop in the loading zone outside the hardware store, as if to demonstrate his point.
‘Not enough vegan food on offer,’ Nats says.
‘Too much vegan food!’ Luvo counters. ‘We evolved these big, beautiful brains of ours thanks to our animal protein-eating ways! Too many self-righteous vegans.’
‘Too many oblivious meat-eaters!’ Nats retorts.
‘Gasp,’ Luvo says, like that, the whole word. ‘I’ll have you know I only eat lab grown, cruelty-free.’
‘Guys!’ Mel tries to interrupt. ‘I’m trying—’
‘Too many drunk and feisty students at four p.m. on a Friday afternoon,’ Nats says.
‘Hey, we are not the bad guys here,’ Zukiswa jumps in. She’s a third-year medical student, which means they’re always pestering her to test their party drugs or get them Adderall, to which she snarks that she doesn’t ask them for freebies. ‘How about gentrification? That’s the problem, this influx of hipster idiots,’ she snarls at a white guy with arms full of old-fashioned tattoos and his long hair piled on his head. ‘Yeah, I’m talking to you, mustache-wad!’
Nats chips in, ‘Dude. I think that’s the owner of the restaurant. Or former owner.’
‘Still a mustache-wad, babes,’ Zuks mutters.
‘There’s a new owner? Since when?’ Luvo asks.
‘It’s changed hands a couple of times,’ Natalie reassures him. ‘Hang on. Is that the problem with Obs, the lack of internal consistency?’
‘’S related,’ Mel slurs. ‘Would you let me talk?’
She’s already quite drunk, Nats realizes, or it’s that dank cheese they smoked, stealthily and huddled up in Zukiswa’s room at Lilian Ngoyi res overlooking the Baxter theater, breathing out the window, because even though cannabis is technically legal, smoking in the university residences is definitely not.
‘The problem … ,’ Mel continues, compensating by overenunciating, ‘the problem with the previously artsy, boho-as-fuck suburb of Observatory, Cape Town, ZA, is that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to tell the legitimate homeless from the barefoot anarcho-cryptocurrency-tranceheads who haven’t come down from AfrikaBurn yet.’
They sit with that for a second, and then Luvo sniffs. ‘I still maintain it’s the smell of urine.’
‘Speaking of urine …’ Mel raises her eyebrows, an effect lost behind her heart-shaped sunglasses.
‘Oh no.’ Zukiswa rubs at her shaved head. ‘I do not want to hear about your Tuesday man. You could not pay me enough, babes. For any of it. I don’t know how you guys do it.’
‘That’s not the hard part,’ Nats teases.
‘I don’t want to hear about the hard parts either!’ She covers her ears. ‘La-la-la-la, I can’t hear you.’
‘No, man.’ Luvo elbows her gently. ‘She means Nats’s big acting job.’
‘Please. They’re all acting jobs, even the radio commercials,’ Nats says.
‘Ohhhhhhh.’ Zukiswa leans forward on her elbows on the table. ‘Yeah, that I want to hear about. Tell me everything, dahling. And I do mean everything. All the dirt.’
Nats shrugs. ‘What do you want to know?’
‘Can you get me a gig?’ Luvo says, batting his lashes.
‘Says the guy who has two back-to-back bookings lined up for tonight, instead of coming to the beach!’ Zukiswa says.
‘I didn’t know you were considering the lifestyle,’ he snaps back. ‘You want me to make an intro for you? You’d be a natural whore.’
‘Ethical slut, thank you.’
‘Just giving it away … Besides, tonight isn’t back-to-back, it’s a double with the gorgeous Malik. And you know how much I love playing with my friends.’
‘Didn’t I already send you the audition link?’ Nats frowns.
‘Maybe? I’ve got a hundred and eight unread messages.’
‘From clients? I hope you’re charging extra for chitchat. Ain’t nobody got time for that.’
‘I think they’re mostly from my mom.’
‘Babes! You still haven’t come out to her?’ Zukiswa burns her fingers on one of the jalapeño poppers that have materialized on their table, and drops it back to the plate, swearing.
‘She’s still dealing with me being queer,’ Luvo shrugs. ‘Not to mention dropping accounting for English lit last year. One thing at a time is all her beautiful heart can take.’
‘So, tell us everything.’ Mel lights another one of her disgusting cigarettes and leans back in the chair. ‘What was the script like?’
Nats wafts the smoke away. ‘Uninspired. I had to ad-lib most of it. Standard stuff. ‘Oh my fucking god, you’re sooo big!’’ she moans, tangling her fingers in her curly hair, startling an elderly woman getting out of her car. The old lady gives them a dirty look and scuttles into the liquor store.
‘What was the dirtiest thing you said?’
‘Oh, I know the answer to this one. Definitely butt stuff.’ Mel has an infectious giggle, mischievous as hell. Which is different from the ‘oh, how interesting and funny you are, what a great joke’ ego-stroke titter she uses with especially annoying clients.
‘Can we get a dramatic reenactment?’ Zuks asks.
‘Okay, okay.’ Nats clears her throat and takes a moment to compose herself, head down, hands on her lap. She milks it, lets them wait, and then raises her chin. With wide eyes, blowjob-face on, she says in an adoring purr, ‘You’re so wonderful. I’m so lucky. How did I ever end up with someone like you?’
‘Oh, ew!’ Zukiswa shrieks in horror, throwing up her hands. ‘Ew, ew, ew!’
‘Aren’t you worried you’re going to put yourself out of business?’ Luvo says. ‘You’re like the little mermaid, giving her voice to the sea witch who wants to destroy her.’
‘I’m diversifying. Besides, it’s not like my clients have that kind of cash to blow,’ Nats says.
‘I don’t know how anyone could actually have sex with any of those things.’ Luvo shudders. ‘They don’t even have heads. It’s disgusting.’
‘You eat lab-grown meat, don’t you?’
‘Yes, but you couldn’t pay me to fuck it!’
‘And for you, that’s saying something!’ Mel laughs and kisses him.
‘You’re so wonderful. I’m so lucky. How did I ever end up with someone like you?’
About the book
In the near future, lab-grown sex dolls are the pleasure toy of choice in this disturbing and provocative short story from Lauren Beukes, the bestselling author of The Shining Girls.
Actor and sex worker Nats is experienced at putting on a show. However, her new gig supplying intimate whispers for growgirls takes her to a place darker and lonelier than she could have ever imagined. The lab-grown dolls can respond to pleasure or pain; their synthetic heads contain only the simplest AI to prevent any pesky robo sex doll uprisings. But just because growgirls don’t have a brain, doesn’t mean they don’t have a voice …
Ungirls is part of Disorder, a collection of six short stories of living nightmares, chilling visions, and uncanny imagination that explore a world losing its balance in terrifying ways. Each piece can be read or listened to in a single disorienting sitting.