By Leonora Pinto
Everything changed the day Nancy ate her gun.
Before that day, Nancy was nobody. Or, rather, nobody that anybody saw. She was the elephant cage cleaner and the strongman’s little girl and the one who followed Ivan the Amazing around with her hazel eyes or her orange-socked feet.
It’s not that they couldn’t see her; it’s that they didn’t want to. She was the scar on their face that they would rather erase with make-up than acknowledge in any way.
She had ten toes and ten fingers, two arms and two legs. She didn’t have any facial hair. She couldn’t see the future. She couldn’t fit herself into a box one-tenth her size or breathe fire or walk on a wire. She didn’t have another person growing out of her. She couldn’t break glass when she sang or stretch the skin of her neck over her head. She was of average height and average weight and average strength and average proportions.
Nancy had been born normal in a place where normal was out of place.
Every morning she’d wake up, hoping that she had grown another eye or that she could lift an elephant with one hand like her dad or that she could throw knives blindfolded at people without hitting them like Ivan or that her feet had sprouted another fifteen inches. Something – anything – that would make her fit. But each day Nancy woke up and found out she was still the weird one.
And then, the day she turned sixteen, Nancy’s father gave her the gun.
She shot it whenever she was sad and whenever she was angry and whenever someone refused to see her, which made her both, sad and angry. She shot holes in Ivan’s hats and pretended she was shooting holes in his head. She shot at the air above The Mystic Marlena’s cat and made-believe she was shooting tigers in jungles where it was okay if nobody saw her, because nobody else was there. She shot out the bottoms of the dwarves’ shoes and told herself all their shortness would fall through and they would be the wrong size like she was. She shot at the ground hoping it would shoot back at her with mushroom spores that would make her grow tentacles.
Outside her head, though, nothing much changed. All that happened was Ivan hid his hats, Marlena’s cat hid itself, the dwarves hid their shoes, and her father whipped her hide. And Nancy remained the blotch marring the carnival’s face.
Until she had the dream.
In the dream, she put the gun in her mouth, pulled the trigger, and saw the bullets fly out of it, flap little wings to her brain, grab pieces of it in their jagged teeth and carry them out of her head. Everybody was okay with seeing her then. She was like them, now, because she had a big hole in the back of her head and everybody came to see the newest carny – the girl through whose mouth you could see the whole world. Even Ivan wanted her now, and even though it was only for his show, she was happy. She would stand there with her mouth open and he would throw his knives through it at things his pretty assistant, Anya, would hold behind Nancy’s head – hats, apples, balloons, clay pots – pfat, thuk, pop, thwack they all went. And after the show, Nancy and Ivan would hold hands and bow while Anya stood off at the side clapping with the rest of the audience.
Nancy woke up and the smile that was prancing around on her face turned into a scowl when she reached around the back of her head and found it all closed up. She got out of bed, put on her orange socks and kicked Poncho, her stuffed elephant, to the other side of her caravan.
She reached under her bed, and pulled out the box where she kept her mother’s letters and the gun her father had given her. She took the gun out of the box, and wondered if she could make the dream really happen. Maybe she was like everybody else, after all. Why shouldn’t she be? Her father was, with his superman strength. And her mother was, too. Her mother used to talk to ghosts before she ran away when Nancy was 5 to join the world outside the Carnival, where the other freaks like Nancy lived. She thought, now, that maybe that’s why her mother left her behind. Because she knew that Nancy had something normal inside her blood, she just had to find it. And maybe that dream had found it for her.
Nancy took out the gun and looked at it, chewing on her lips. She put it into her mouth and squeezed the trigger. The click of the empty barrel hurt her tongue. She took the gun out of her mouth and laid it at her feet. Alright. Trial run over. Time to try to be normal for real, now.
She took out the red and black pouch she had made for her bullets with the shed skin of one of Sarla’s snakes. She shook the bullets out into the palm of her hand and popped them into the cylinder. She snapped the cylinder back into place. She held the gun in her hand and looked at it again, like she didn’t quite know what to make of it – the way you look at an insect you haven’t seen before and wonder if it will hurt you or turn you into a superhero.
Once more, Nancy put the gun in her mouth. Once more, she pulled the trigger.
The bang made a thunderstorm in her head, and she felt like her brain had turned into jelly and her ears had jumped off and run away to hide. She sat there for a moment, afraid to move. Her hands forgot how to work and fell into her lap. Her mouth still held on to the gun. Did she have that hole in the back of her head now? Or was she one of those ghosts whom her mother used to talk to?
Nancy reached around the back of her head. There was nothing there. Meaning, everything was still there; skull, scalp, hair. No hole. She wanted to scream, but her mouth wouldn’t open. She realised why. Her teeth were stuck in the gun, holding it shut. She made her hands work, and pulled it out. But still, she couldn’t scream. Her tongue was stuck to the top of her mouth. She pulled it loose. She felt something warm on it, something that tasted metally, like blood. But it wasn’t blood. Whatever was on her tongue was hard and it was grainy. She scraped it off with her teeth and spat it into her hand. Little lumps of melted bullet. She looked at them, then she picked up the gun with her other hand and looked at it. The part of the muzzle that had been stuck in her mouth was all chewed up like a wooden pencil. Nancy put it back in her mouth and bit down. A piece of the muzzle snapped off. She chewed on it, and it crumbled on her tongue. She swallowed it. She put the melted bullet lumps back in her mouth, and chewed and swallowed them, too.
This time, Nancy did scream. But it was the kind of scream those freak teenagers in the other world let out when they saw their favourite pop stars. Yes, those freaks. Because Nancy was no longer one of them. She could eat guns! She was a normal carny now!
Nancy ran out of her tent to show everybody, and then it was just like in her dream. They all saw her now. And they all loved her, now. Gustavo, the carnival head honcho saw how rich she could make him. Her dad saw how she really was part of him. Anya and Sarla saw that she could make pretty clothes for one of them, and money from snakeskin knickknacks for the other. Marlena saw that she would no longer be shooting at her cat. And Ivan just saw her for the first time. She was everybody’s girl, now.
She was ‘Nevada, the Devourer’ now, the star of the carnival, and her tent was always full. Nobody wanted to see Sarla the Snake Dancer or Gollum the Giant or The Mystic Marlena or the dwarves or Samson the Strongman or Bella, the Bearded Lady. They could see those at any carnival. They could only see the girl who ate guns at this one.
Then, Nancy woke up one day to find that the carnival had picked up and rolled on, leaving her behind with just a caravan, her gun and a letter from her father to add to the ones from her mother. She wasn’t a scar anymore. She was something worse now. She was a perfect nose that kept reminding the disfigured face what it wasn’t. They had to get rid of her because now they couldn’t not see her.