Tournament night in a sweltering Las Vegas stadium, and the girl with the gap-toothed smile stood bleeding in her ballet slippers. The sodium lights of the arena lay upcast on the low-hanging sky above. There was an electrical charge in the air: a crackling undercurrent that came neither from the lights nor from the distant heat lightning, but from the galvanized excitement of the crowd.
Before her, some twenty feet away and elevated four feet off the ground, there stretched a long green balance beam, atop which, at the southernmost end, stood ten empty whiskey bottles. The bottles were perfectly upright and in single file. A small springboard crouched in front.
She closed her eyes and inhaled. The air was dry. She stood alone upon the stage. She held her breath a moment and then she released it.
When she opened her eyes, her gaze settled on the objects before her: the springboard, the balance beam, the whiskey bottles. The heat hung heavy. A rill of sweat slid between her breasts. She didn’t see the tiny camera-flash explosions igniting everywhere around her from within the darkness of the stadium. She forgot that there were thousands of eyes fixed upon her. She forgot also the pain in her toe and was unaware of blood leaking like ink across the entire top part of her slipper.
Offstage in the shadows, a young man in a baseball cap gave a thumbs-up, but it wasn’t directed toward her.
A man with a microphone emerged on stage. He was thin and well-dressed and darkly complexioned.
A hush came over the crowd. The man held the microphone to his mouth. His voice came booming through the speakers with great clarity.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “ladies and gentleman. May I have your attention, please. Thank you. We are finally at the end of the night, and — my Lord — what a night it’s been. What a competition.”
The crowd erupted.
“We have seen — excuse me, please — we have seen tonight some of the very best dancers in the world, and I’m sure you know that this is not an exaggeration. We have only one more to go. Did we save the best for last? Need I remind you that there’s fifty thousand dollars at stake here?”
“Now,” he said. “Do you see this young woman up here on the stage with me? I’m told she’s about to do something that only one other person in human history has done, and that was a German dancer named Bianca Passarge, in 1954 — except Ms. Passarge, I’m told, was not mounting a balance beam when she did her routine. Can this little girl — all 115 pounds of her — I say, can she do it? Can she steal the money from these big city boys and girls, the Bronx break dancers and West Coast B-Boys and all the others who have astounded us here tonight with their strength and agility and talent? Folks, we are about to find out.”
The crowd erupted again, and the MC turned and looked at the girl on stage behind him.
He lowered the microphone to his side and said in an unamplified voice that sounded peculiar to her:
“Are you ready?”
He smiled kindly.
He gave her the A-OK sign with his fingers and nodded back. Then her lips broke open in return, disclosing, very slightly, her endearing gap-toothed smile.
He brought the microphone back to his mouth and turned again to the audience.
“Here we go!” he said.
The crowd went dead-silent in anticipation.
“Okay, okay!” she thought. All ten of her fingers wiggled unconsciously and in unison.
Abruptly, then, the lights on the stage brightened behind her and the music began: fast-paced and throbbing and happy.
She bolted forward, sprinting toward the balance beam, and with unbelievable speed executed a back handspring onto the springboard, vaulting into a full fluid backflip on one foot upon the beam — which in the very same motion turned into another back handspring, and then another, all to within inches of the bottles at the far end of the beam. This entire process took no more than four seconds. Here she paused for a fraction and then performed a half turn. From there she leapt lightly onto the first upright whiskey bottle, which wobbled only slightly under her weight. She placed her other toe catlike upon the next whiskey bottle, and then she raised herself en point to great heights.
She was called Dusty May. It was a name she gave herself. Her biological father, Marcen Tomtas, whom she didn’t know, was a Polish acrobat of uncanny strength and coordination. For a time he was part of a traveling circus, which is when he met Dusty’s mother Shonda — in Windover, Nevada — while passing through. He had ropy arms and a vespine waist, and Dusty was conceived on a star-blown night in late May, along the outskirts of town, upon the canvas floor of a dusty tent, where the circus was pitched. The next day he was gone.
Shonda, her pretty mother, carried Dusty to term and named her Mary and then, because of her poverty, gave her up for adoption.
Thus Dusty was raised in foster care.
Her foster father was a man named Kenneth Dvorak, a mighty Christian who, at six-foot-seven, two hundred and seventy pounds, bald as a stone but handsome, commanded the attention of anyone whom he came in contact with. He was a pastor, and a very wealthy one at that. He had a large home in rural Nevada, which housed seven foster children and four of his own. He was a man of distinction. He spoke well. People argued about his modesty. His voice was rich and round and sonorously soothing. He had a special spot in his heart for Dusty, who was the youngest of all his children, both biological and foster. He admired her silent determination, the unbreakable glint he saw in her eyes. Shortly after Dusty turned thirteen, he began systematically abusing and raping her, though from the time she was a very young child, she’d been periodically molested by any number of her foster siblings.
On a warm autumn day when Dusty was eight-years-old, looking out the window with a pair of binoculars that her foster father had given her, she descried a young man walking tightrope-style around the thin cylindrical railing, which circumscribed a nearby gymnasium. It was a large building and a long rail. He was walking the entire perimeter of the thing. He was stripped to the waist. He wore faded blue jeans. She’d never seen him before, and she stood at the window, the binoculars glued to her eyes, captivated. He wasn’t muscular but thin and graceful, not tall, black-haired, swarthy, beautiful. She couldn’t take her eyes off him. He didn’t seem to be having any difficulty, yet it was such a long way around and such a thin rail that she expected at any moment he’d lose his balance and fall. But he never did. She watched him until he was finished.
When at last he came to the end, he did something that amazed her even more:
He leapt from the rail to a chainlink fence, some four feet to his right, and for a moment clung spider-like to the fence. Then he glided up to the top and from here, in one motion, vaulted over the fence, a full eight feet onto what she thought was the grassy ground.
Immediately, however, he came bouncing back up, high into the air, and then did a slow and effortless backflip, and kept bouncing. Dusty realized immediately what was happening:
A deep pit had been dug into the earth, a trampoline mat installed over the top of the pit.
Later that day, she asked her foster father if she might be allowed to jump on the trampoline, and he said yes.
And so it began.