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The Shrunken Head, Page 2

Lauren Oliver

  There had once been many other dime museums in New York City, and across the country—each of them declaring its own collection the most renowned, the weirdest, the most extraordinary.

  But times and interests had changed. Money had run thin. People had lost interest in the weird and the wonderful; they preferred the kind of entertainment that was easily enjoyed and just as easily forgotten. Slowly, the other museums had shuttered their doors.

  By the time our story begins, Mr. Dumfrey’s Dime Museum of Freaks, Oddities, and Wonders truly did live up to its published promise: it was unlike any other museum in the world. And it was the only place on earth where four extraordinary children like Thomas, Sam, Pippa, and Max could fit in.

  The nightly performance began punctually at six thirty. The rain had stopped three quarters of an hour earlier, and either the change in weather or the advertised shrunken head, or both, had worked their magic: there was a crowd of nearly two dozen in the audience to witness Dumfrey’s Living Miracles and Wonders!, as the show was labeled on the distributed handbills. This was more than three times the usual number, and Potts, grumbling the whole time, had to bring up extra folding chairs from the basement.

  Pippa always watched the early acts from the wings, safely hidden behind heavy velvet curtains that had been recycled from a funeral parlor. As usual, her collar was pinching her. Pippa hated the dress Miss Fitch forced her to wear. It managed to be as shapeless as a sack and too tight in all the wrong places.

  But at least, she thought, it was better than Sam’s costume: frayed khaki shorts and a ripped white undershirt, as though he was the sole survivor of a desert island shipwreck.

  “What’s he do?”

  Pippa hadn’t heard Max approach. She turned around and saw that Max, too, had been outfitted by Miss Fitch. She was wearing black leggings and leather boots, along with a tasseled leather jacket that had been used at one time for a short-lived cowboy act featuring a two-headed horse.

  “He’s the strong man,” Pippa whispered.

  Max nearly choked. “Strong man? No way. He couldn’t win a fight with a string bean.”

  “Just watch,” Pippa said.

  Sam always started the show. Now, he shuffled miserably onstage, hands shoved deep in his pockets, hair hanging over his eyes, like a prisoner moving toward his own execution.

  A quick murmur went through the audience, and there was a faint rustling, as nearly two dozen people consulted their programs. This couldn’t really be Samson Jr., Strongest Boy Alive? This pale, miserable, speckled, scrawny thing, like an overgrown newt, who stood sullenly, blinking on the stage . . . ? Perhaps there had been a typo or a change in the program.

  But then Mr. Dumfrey’s voice rolled out over the audience. “And now . . . ladies and gentlemen . . . boys and girls . . . I give you the most amazing, incredible, unbelievable, and inconceivable Strongman of Siddarth!”

  Max snickered as Smalls the giant and Hugo the elephant man wheeled out a large block of stone on a dolly. Mr. Dumfrey invited audience volunteers onstage to test it, touch it, sniff it, taste it, and the stone was declared real and solid. All this time, Sam stood slightly apart, looking mortified.

  When the audience members were satisfied, Mr. Dumfrey trumpeted: “Hold on to your seats and sit tight on your hats, ladies and gentlemen! What you are about to witness is a superhuman, a supernatural, a superfluous—”

  He did not get any further. With an exasperated look, Sam stepped forward and drove a fist straight into the stone. There was a thunderous crack as the stone cleaved straight down the middle and split in two.

  For a second, there was utter silence from the audience. Then applause: a smattering at first, then cresting to an appreciative roar.

  Sam turned so pink, it looked as though he’d been dipped headfirst into an oven. He rapidly hurried off the stage.

  “See?” Pippa whispered to Max. Max was doing her best to look unimpressed, and only shrugged.

  Next was the magician, the Great Goldini. He seemed to be speeding through his act. Before she knew it, he had successfully withdrawn an ace of spades from the purse of an ancient woman in the front row, whose face looked like it would crack in half when she smiled. He had extracted a rabbit from a hat, and then, with a wave of his wand, transformed it into a gopher. Even though Pippa knew the secrets behind Goldini’s tricks, she was still impressed, especially since they didn’t always go so smoothly. Just a few days earlier, the magician had reached into his hat for a rabbit and pulled out an ace of spades, while the gopher somehow ended up in the pocket of an unsuspecting audience member.

  For his final trick, the magician sawed his assistant, Thomas, in half. And as usual, Thomas looked absolutely miserable—Miss Fitch insisted that the magician’s assistant must dress as a girl, and Pippa could see him glaring at the audience from underneath the thick fringe of his wig’s bangs, as though daring anyone to laugh. Sadly, until they could find a replacement who was as good at managing the illusion, which required him to squeeze his whole body into a wooden container barely larger than a breadbox, Thomas was stuck in the job.

  After Goldini came Caroline and Quinn, the albino twins, who performed a perfectly synchronized ballet, although as soon as they retreated backstage, they began arguing furiously, each accusing the other of having been off tempo. Then, a parody: Smalls the giant and Danny the dwarf also performed a dance, which never failed to produce a laugh, especially when Danny sprang into Smalls’s outstretched hand and executed a graceful pirouette on his palm.

  After that came the stately procession of Hugo, the elephant man, and Phoebe, the fat lady; Betty, the bearded lady, and Andrew, the alligator boy. Although they did nothing but walk across the stage and stand for a minute under the spotlight, the audience gasped and tittered nervously. It was always particularly momentous when Betty, who emerged from the wings backward, swaying her hips, spun around to reveal her long beard, crimped and tied with a bow.

  And suddenly the stage was cleared and the lights were dimmed and it was Pippa’s turn.

  “Don’t choke,” Max whispered.

  Pippa wanted to respond, but her voice had turned suddenly to sand in her throat. The spotlight was up, and the old gramophone, concealed behind the scrim, began to warble faintly. That was her cue.

  As she stepped into the light, there was another gasp. The dark fabric of her dress, embroidered with hundreds and hundreds of reflective, diamond-shaped chips, was dazzling. The effect was supposed to be of jewels, although Pippa knew that the dress was made of tarlatan, sequins recycled from the gown worn by last year’s “mermaid,” and tiny glass pieces.

  Pippa launched into her prepared speech: “Where I come from, we speak not with our tongues but with our hearts and our minds.” She ignored the very audible snicker that came from the wings. She had to focus. Otherwise, she would block. “With our minds,” she repeated significantly and raised both arms.

  She closed her eyes as though to signify that she was busy looking deep into the mysteries of the universe. In the darkness, she heard a rustling sound, the scuffling of shoes, a sneeze, a short yip of surprise and then an apology—the usual sounds. When she was satisfied that the silence had gone on long enough, she opened her eyes again. “Can I have an audience volunteer?”

  “Oh!” The old woman in the front row looked alarmed when Pippa’s eyes landed on her. She was fanning herself energetically with one of the illustrated guides. She had a ferociously noble-looking nose, with nostrils that quivered like a frightened bunny’s, as though they were besieged by terrible smells from all sides. “Not me, please. Oh, no. I could never.”

  “I’ll do it.” A man stood up from the second row. Pippa felt a rush of gratitude. Picking the audience volunteer was the worst part—she hated the moments of ticking silence, the awkward laughter, the protests.

  The man made his way quickly to the stage. He was tall and had a thin mustache above a very pleasant, toothy smile. An honest face. That was a good thing: for w
hatever reason, Pippa could think her way into the pockets and purses of honest people more easily. She supposed that liars had all kinds of blocks up.

  “The name’s Bill Evans,” he said, putting two fingers to his hat brim. “Reporter.”

  Pippa felt like smiling back, but she couldn’t. It would be out of character.

  “Thank you, Mr. Evans. Your job is very simple. All you have to do is stand still. Close your eyes, and open your mind. And I will tell you what you have in your pockets.”

  Actually, it wasn’t necessary for him to close his eyes. He didn’t have to stand still, either—he could be dancing a jig, for all she cared. But it was all part of the show.

  “In my pockets?” Mr. Evans instinctively put his hands in his trouser pockets, as though worried that Pippa would steal something with her mind. “I’m afraid you’ll find them disappointing.”

  “That’s for us to decide, Mr. Evans,” she said, and the audience tittered.

  She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, fighting back a wave of panic. This was it. The moment it came—or didn’t. Focus. Deep breaths.

  She felt a huge, stubborn pressure—that was his mind, bumping up against hers, elbowing her off. She was surprised. Harder than she thought. She tried once again to think her way into his fingers, into the fabric lining, into the fabric itself. It was like pushing through layers of treacle and sludge.

  “Well?” Mr. Evans sounded amused. “Can I open my eyes yet?”

  “A minute, please.” Pippa fought a wave of panic. She was going to choke—in front of Max, in front of everyone. “The workings of the inner eye won’t be rushed.”

  “Whatever you say, little lady,” Mr. Evans drawled, and Pippa heard a chuckle from someone in the audience.

  Just then, she got it: a break in the folds, a separation in the tissue, and she wrapped her mind comfortably around the objects the man was carrying. She opened her eyes.

  “A money clip,” she blurted out.

  Mr. Evans smiled, showing all his teeth. “Anyone could have guessed that.”

  “A silver money clip engraved with the initials WDE, and containing exactly seventeen dollars.”

  Mr. Evans’s smile faltered. He reached slowly into his pocket, extracted his money clip, and counted the bills slowly.

  “She’s right,” he announced to the audience. This was greeted by a low murmur and scattered applause.

  Pippa wasn’t done yet. “Also,” she said loudly, and the applause died away, “a roll of breath mints, containing four mints; three quarters and one nickel; a cigarette case; a set of two keys, one brass, one iron, held together on a silver key ring; a notebook; and two pens, one running very low on ink.”

  By now Mr. Evans’s face was pale. “I’ll be scratched,” he said. “She’s right about everything!” The audience broke out into full applause. Mr. Evans leaned in closer, so only she could hear. He whipped out the notebook and one of his pens and began scribbling in it. “You read the New York Screamer? No? Best paper this side of the Atlantic. Check page six tomorrow. I’ll give you a write-up.”

  Pippa couldn’t stop herself from smiling then. She took a short bow as the audience continued applauding. She even heard several murmurs of “Good show,” and “Excellent. Very excellent.” The old woman in the front row had redoubled her fanning and was staring at Pippa openmouthed, as though she were enchanted.

  Pippa cast a triumphant glance toward the wings. Even Max looked impressed, although as soon as she met Pippa’s eyes, she scowled.

  Pippa practically floated off the stage. Max was preparing to go on.

  “Don’t choke,” Pippa said to her.

  “I never do,” Max replied.

  Pippa resumed her usual spot in the wings so she could watch Max’s performance. She had to admit, Max was good. Better than good. She had a gift like Pippa’s—like Thomas’s and Sam’s, too—an ability that didn’t seem learned but was just there. Her hands moved so quickly, they were a blur. She hit the exact center of the tiny red bull’s-eye of a target pinned to the wall on the opposite end of the stage, then threw another knife that split the handle of the first one. Then she split a grape midair. She diced a whole tomato by tossing four paring knives simultaneously.

  “Impressive—extremely impressive.”

  Mr. Dumfrey must have been watching the performance from his typical position: the right wing, third leg. Pippa, standing in the second, heard his voice quite clearly despite the heavy cloth between them.

  Miss Fitch responded with much less enthusiasm.

  “Mmm,” Miss Fitch said. “Terrible manners, though.”

  “Well, who can blame her?” Mr. Dumfrey dropped his voice, and Pippa leaned closer to the velvet to hear him. “I’ll tell you, Evangeline”—Pippa was momentarily bowled over by the mention of Miss Fitch’s first name, which she had never known—“that girl must have had it very hard. All those years . . . I thought she was dead! And then she lands like a fly onto the doorstep. Can you believe it? Now I know all four of them are safe—”

  “Let’s hope they’re safe,” Miss Fitch replied darkly.

  Pippa’s curiosity was piqued. But at that moment Mr. Dumfrey and Miss Fitch moved off, and she lost the thread of their conversation. She was quickly distracted.

  Danny the dwarf—who was technically an inch too tall to be a real dwarf but kept his knees bent permanently to conceal the fact—toddled onstage, wearing a Panama hat. He took his place in front of a small wooden post, looking extremely unhappy.

  Max crossed toward Danny and placed a single lima bean on the flat top of the hat.

  She withdrew a sharp blade from the belt around her middle, long and slender as a dagger, sharp and glittering in the light. She turned to the audience and lightly pressed her finger to the knife’s tip. Instantly, blood welled up.

  The ancient woman in the front row muttered, “Mercy.”

  All this time, Max hadn’t said a word. Her face was expressionless, calm. But Pippa could see her eyes were blazing. She was having fun, Pippa realized.

  Max pivoted so that she was facing Danny. She held the blade loosely in her right hand. Danny’s face was now practically as green as the lima bean balancing precariously on his hat.

  Max moved so quickly, Pippa nearly missed it. One second she was still. The next she had flung out her right hand and there was a whoosh of air and a small ping, and the blade had pinned the lima bean to the wooden post board behind Danny. He had not had time even to flinch.

  For a moment, there was stunned silence. Danny removed his hat with a flourish, took a little bow, and collapsed to his knees. The audience burst into thunderous applause. The old woman in the front row was fanning herself so furiously, the brim of her hat fluttered. Pippa noticed Bill Evans scribbling away in his notebook.

  Max gave a short bow, then turned and abruptly left the stage, smirking.

  As she passed, Pippa said, “Good job.”

  “I know,” Max responded, without even looking at her.

  Then it was time for the big finale. Mr. Dumfrey himself took the stage, and Potts appeared immediately after him, scowling, and pushing a wheeled glass case covered by a heavy velvet drape. Underneath it, Pippa knew, was the prized shrunken head from the Amazon.

  In reality, she knew that Mr. Dumfrey had found the head on a dusty back table of a hole-in-the-wall collectible store in Brooklyn, just behind the collection of broken clocks. The head was not even all that shrunken—it was certainly bigger than Monsieur Cabillaud’s head by at least two inches around—but of course advertising a smaller-than-average head from a junk shop would not have had the same effect.

  In the stage lights, Potts’s face, which was pitted with acne scars, looked like the surface of the moon. No sooner had he wheeled the case into position than he clomped off the stage, muttering. Dumfrey, however, came alive on the stage—like a strange variety of flower that blooms underwater.

  “And now, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, a special tr
eat,” he said. “An object so horrifying, so terribly grotesque, so murderously macabre, it will blow holes in the brain of any civilized man! It will make you shiver and shout, and send you home praying for protection! Never before seen on the shores of this or any God-fearing country . . . I give you . . . the shrunken head of Chief Ticuna-Piranha!”

  With a grand sweep of his hand, he whipped off the velvet drape, just as the spotlight brightened and fell on the single object on display there: the shriveled, blackened head, teeth bared as though it were grinning. Thick tufts of wiry hair sprouted from it; feathered earrings hung from ears so shriveled, they resembled dried apricots. Around its neck, or what remained of its neck, was a bone necklace.

  It didn’t actually look all that impressive to Pippa—just kind of gross and sticky, like a rubber ball charred in a fire. But it had the desired effect. Several people gasped, and someone screamed. A flash went off.

  Then there was a heavy thump and another scream, this time long and much, much louder.

  Suddenly, everything was chaos. Pippa was nearly toppled by Hugo, who came running onto the stage, yelling for someone to call a doctor.

  The lights in the auditorium came up; Pippa saw that the ancient woman in the front row was lying facedown on the floor, directly on top of her very noble nose.

  “I about swallowed my tongue when the old balloon sat up,” Max said. “I thought for sure she’d croaked.”

  Philippa shot her a look. “Don’t sound so disappointed.”

  Max shrugged.

  “It’s too bad she didn’t, in a way,” Thomas said thoughtfully. He was still covered with dust from the vent, which he had used to travel between floors to report on the progress of the police and hospital workers as they loaded the old woman, whose name was Mrs. Weathersby, onto a stretcher. “The probability of someone dropping dead from shock is one in forty million. It would have been kind of exciting.”