I was sixteen the first time I saw another construct. He was about my age, slim and graceful, his long cat-tail balancing him as he danced. Long black hair poured down his back, like a mane against his tawny skin.
Daddy Frank had sent me off on an errand down the midway of Consolidated Shows, the carnival we were with that year. It was a bad operation, with every joint rigged, paper hangers and dips all over the midway. But they had good, solid rides and a terrific freak-show. Mama had let me join that one this year. They billed me as "The Teddy Bear Boy." I made about six dollars a week, sitting in a chair, dancing a little to some Big Band, and selling pitch cards along with tiny teddy bears in pants.
I saw the construct and stopped there on the midway, not remembering my errand, not caring that we were ten minutes until opening. He danced on that stage like a wisp of golden flame. I wanted to watch him forever. I wanted to talk to him, to get ice cream with him, to watch him dance, to dance with him, although my great clumsy bear paws wouldn't match his grace. I wanted to kiss him.
The thought surprised me, and I dropped the bucket. I'd never wanted to kiss anyone except Mama and Daddy Frank. I sure didn't want to kiss this boy that way. I picked up the bucket and hurried off for the radiator water Daddy Frank had sent me for.
I thought about him all the way to the water pump, wondering how his hand would feel in my paw. Maybe all smooth and velvety like paws of the kitten the Siamese twins had. They were pretty girls and they had a little smoke-gray kitten that was part of the act.
He wasn't on the stage when I walked back. Only Cinnamon, the colored hoochie dancer was out there, her face bored as she went through her rehearsal. I dropped off the water and scooted to the freak tent just as the horn announcing the opening blared over the loudspeakers.
At the end of the workday, I yawned and headed back to the truck. I wanted to see the lion-boy again. I wandered, weaving from exhaustion, through the darkened midway. The first drops of a warm spring rain fell on my fur. The only lights came from where the operators and roustabouts were playing dice and poker in the cook-tent. I went straight to the truck and crawled into my blankets on the floor of the vardo.
Mama and Daddy Frank came in a little later and went to bed, too. They didn't make love if I was in the vardo anymore since I was older. I heard them sometimes, on clear warm nights when I slept outside. I tried to find another place to sleep if they were getting cuddly. Kind of embarrassing to listen now.
I woke up early and went for water and built the breakfast fire in the brazier. Mama would be happy to have that ready when she got up. I hooked a cold biscuit from yesterday and wandered back down the midway to the Dance Palace.
The lion boy was sitting on the edge of the stage, eating a sandwich. He looked about my age.
"Hey, teddy bear," he said, his voice a soft purring growl.
"Hey yourself, kitty-cat. Nice morning." And with that, I was out of things to say, so I clambered up on the stage and sat beside him to eat my biscuit.
He nibbled at the edges of the ham and then looked at me. "You got a name?"
"Sure. Do you? Don't tell me, let me guess..." I pressed my paw to my forehead like the Mental Marvel did when he was reading the rubes' minds. "It's Leo."
"It's Gordon. They just bill me as Leo. How about you?"
Gordon smiled. "I like it."
We finished our breakfast and lazed in the sunshine for a few minutes watching the show wake up. I kept sneaking glances at him. He was so pretty, all stretched out and golden. I heard a low rumble and realized he was purring.
He realized it too, because he sat up and blushed a little. "Sorry."
I laughed. "Yeah, it's okay. Look, I gotta get back to work. Can I?" My tongue tangled all up, and I forgot the rest of the sentence.
He laughed at me and flicked that long tail around to swish my nose. "Come back for breakfast tomorrow. Bye, teddy bear."
I wandered back to the pickup, the smell of him—all hot cat and dust and wildness and a little smoke from the tent—filling my nose. I licked my snout where he had flicked me and got a mouthful of him. Cat again, with musk in, some smoke and dust from where he let his tail drag, hot summer wind, and all the odd smells of the show, like cotton candy and popcorn. I wondered if all his fur tasted like that. I wondered if he'd let me lick him.