She was the freak show’s main attraction, dressed like a doll but she was no longer young. Her bones were too prominent and could not be broken and reset to appear girlish without dying.
Her hands teetered on her hips. She wore a cherry smile so tight that if it broke her sweetness would run.
Before us, the barker waved a series of needles in the air. Some were made for sewing and others were made for surgeries.
She pulled her skin to its limits. She would nod when ready. Slowly, the barker would thrust his chosen needle deep inside until its point exited. I believed – like many others, judging by their expressions – that she had access to other dimensions like the ones I had seen at the midnight showings, the ones they played over and over again. But she was better. In front of us was possibility and we could grab it if we were brave enough. It wouldn’t die like the glow of a screen, it couldn’t be switched off like the lights that draped over her like arms.
After the last needle had been inserted, she could not smile. She breathed through her nose. I counted how many times her chest rose and fell. And then I lost count.
The barker returned. I hadn’t noticed he had left. And he returned with a knight’s sword.
A stagehand followed with a step ladder. As he ascended the barker said, “You will be amazed like never before and after.”
He balanced the tip of the sword on her tongue and let it gently slide. The deeper it went, the wider her mouth and eyes became, the more the needles shook. Her chest was still but glimmered. I couldn’t breathe. I hope I wasn’t the only one.
When she was able, she reached and took over. The barker descended with the grin of a jack-o-lantern.
Under her command, the sword traveled farther than I could imagine, and, for a moment, I still believed she had no end, but I am a witness that nothing can go as deep as we think. We lost it. I did.
The barker held her like a gentleman and caressed her as though she were a drunk flapper, dabbing her costume and skin with his small collection of white handkerchiefs, expecting her to jolt up and dance and kiss him.
I tried to get to her. I climbed over the fleeing, I trampled on popcorn boxes and Dixie cups, and imagined I would jump on stage and rescue them both. But I only got as far as the edge. A series of light bulbs that had been strung for effect broke inside my fists as the Strongman yanked me back.
“You can’t cross this,” he said.
I was surprised by how much it stung. “I suppose there are people we can’t hold,” I said as I brushed off glass.
The Strongman glanced at the stage then said, “Doll.”
I looked down. I was scared of my own blood. Besides the popcorn boxes and Dixie cups, there were cigarette packs and dollar bills and advertisements of a hand drawn likeness of her, reprinted probably thousands of times. How did this all get left here?
We love to see what paper can hold. How much it can. Doll can’t be held. Can’t hold. Or can. But when we’re torn up or our bottoms give, we find we are less disposable than paper dolls.
Andrew Davis is a recent MFA graduate of Pine Manor College. His short stories “Peter’s Glasses” and “Wind-Up” are forthcoming in The Oddville Press as well as in The Rain, Party, and Disaster Society, and his poem “First” is forthcoming in the Apeiron Review. He lives in Lowell, Massachusetts where he is working on his first collection of short stories. You can reach Andrew on Facebook or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.