An excerpt to celebrate Piper’s birthday!


A Freak among Freaks

The mercury soared to ninety-seven on Saturday, making it the hottest July 24th on record. And though the sun was like a woolly blanket over the boardwalk, Coney Island was the coolest option for three hundred thousand New Yorkers.

Piper sat outside the tent, fanning herself with her top hat. The bathhouses were overflowing and the police had granted special permission for thousands of people to camp out on the beach for the evening.

Johnny Eck

Johnny Eckhardt (a.k.a. the Half-Boy, Johnny Hart, Johnny Eck) was a freak show performer born with the appearance that he was missing the lower half of his torso. Johnny is best known today for his role in Tod Browning’s 1932 cult classic film, Freaks. Johnny was also an artist, magician, penny arcade owner, and expert model-maker.

On the stage outside the tent, Johnny was performing a few magic tricks for a handful of spectators. Despite the heat, he was dressed in a tuxedo jacket while perched upon a tasseled stool. No one was attending the shows inside. The tents were way too stuffy.

Piper stepped down from the stage and headed toward the cafeteria. She was not looking forward to serving dinner in the blaring heat. So she was as much relieved as she was surprised when Rosita, Bunny, and Tharda walked out of the kitchen carrying a cake decorated with burning candles.

Some of the other freaks joined the three women and they all gathered around Piper singing, “For She’s a Jolly Good Fellow.”

Rosita placed the white frosted cake on the table in front of Piper. “What’s this all about?” she asked, smiling at all her friends.

“Thirteen years ago today, you were brought to us under strange circumstances that we still don’t understand,” Rosita said.

“Then you were taken from us just as suddenly,” Bunny added.

“Now that you’ve come back, we have two reasons to celebrate!” Tharda said.

“Oh, my gosh!” Piper exclaimed. “It’s my birthday!”

She had been working so hard in the unbearable heat that she had forgotten. The only person she had expected to remember was Sal. But they still weren’t on speaking terms.

The freaks sat at the long wooden table and banged on it with their forks chanting, “Make a wish! Make a wish! Make a wish!”

“My friends, you’ve all given me everything I could ever wish for. I’ve never felt more accepted in all my life. I can’t think of anything that would make me happier.”

But still they chanted. So Piper closed her eyes and thought about the one thing she wanted. When she opened them, she blew out the candles. The Curiosities all hooted and applauded.

Piper looked around hopefully. But Sal was nowhere to be seen.

As if sensing her disappointment, Johnny jumped onto the table and held out a small box.

“I made it myself,” he said, thrusting out his chest.

Piper opened the box and took out a ring made from tightly woven paper matchsticks.

“Oh, Johnny! It’s perfect!” she said, slipping it onto the ring finger of her right hand.

“It’s a circus ring!” Johnny exclaimed. “Get it?”

Frances O'Connor

Frances O’Connor the Armless Wonder (a.k.a. the Living Venus de Milo). She could play violin with her toes. She was also a marksman who could shoot the spots out of a playing card with a rifle operated by her feet.

Piper giggled and gave the Half-Boy a kiss on his blushing cheek. Then she picked up a knife and prepared to serve the cake. Frances the Living Venus de Milo snatched it from her hand with her feet.

“You’re not serving anything tonight,” the armless girl said.

“Sam’s given you the night off,” Rosita explained. “As a matter of fact, he gave all us girls the night off so we can take you to the flickers.”

She waved a handful of movie tickets in front of Piper’s nose. “The theater is showing a sneak preview of Son of the Sheik and we’ve got front-row seats!”

Piper’s eyes almost popped from her head. “Valentino!” she squealed, clapping her fingertips in excitement.

“I hope you got a ticket for me,” Albert Alberta said, snapping open a lacy white fan and waving the feminine side of her face. “Valentino is my dream pie!”

“You mean cake eater,” Johnny sneered.


Being in the theater with Rosita, Bunny, Tharda, Frances, and Albert reminded Piper of the time she had slipped into the flickers with her Hollygrove friends. This time, however, she was comforted by the fact that the girls beside her could never be taken away from her.

Despite the odd appearances of her new friends, Piper had never met a more “normal” group of people in all her life. They laughed and chatted like schoolgirls all through the show.

She couldn’t understand why Sal was looking forward to talkies. What fun would it be going to the flickers if you had to keep quiet?

An hour later, the girls stepped out of the theater and immediately grabbed some frozen custard to beat the heat. Sea gulls could be heard cawing in the distance despite the raucous sounds of hawkers selling their wares and amusements barreling across wooden timbers. Ocean waves twinkled in the rays of the setting sun. Piper loved these midsummer nights when daylight lingered long into the evening hours.

1926: Italian-American heartthrob Rudolph Valentino (1895 – 1926) stars in the desert adventure ‘The Son of the Sheik’, directed by George Fitzmaurice for United Artists. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

“Valentino was amazing!” Rosita exclaimed above the roaring wheels and clamoring shrieks from the roller coaster above their heads.

“And so sensual!” Frances added, accepting a spoonful of custard from the tattooed woman. “I’d love to run my toes through his thick, black hair.”

“And his eyes—they mesmerized me!” Tharda said.

“Any chance he’ll cast me as his next leading lady?” Albert asked with a flutter of eyelashes.

Tharda gave him a playful shove.

“I’m just glad they didn’t charge me for three seats,” Bunny giggled.

They all laughed.

“If anyone’s looking to get me a birthday present, I’ll gladly take a Valentino,” Piper said through a mouthful of icy vanilla. They laughed even harder.

Their merriment came to an abrupt halt, however, when a figure in a white robe appeared unexpectedly in their path.

“Oh! Hello, Howaito,” Rosita said.

The Samurai Sorcerer glared at them but said nothing. Nor would he budge from his position. Piper felt like he was staring right through her, challenging her.

“Okayyy then,” Tharda said, ushering the girls to walk around him.

When they were out of earshot, they all started giggling again.

“I don’t care how many clams he rakes in for Sam,” Frances said. “That guy’s a freak!”

They all burst into hysterics again and stumbled into each other like a bunch of drunken teenagers. They were still giggling when they reached the Dreamland Sideshow tent where Johnny was continuing to perform before a meager audience.

To escape the tent’s stifling confines, some of the other freaks were also lingering outside the canvass walls. Sal was among them.

Piper turned her head to avoid his eyes.

“Welcome back, ladies!” the Living Skeleton hailed the six companions. “Looks like Valentino set more than your hearts a-flutter.”

Bunny wrapped her chunky arms around her husband’s wasp-like waist.

“Aww, don’t be jealous, Petey-Pie. You know you’re my one true sheik.”

Piper had been trying so hard to avoid Sal’s gaze that she failed to see him slip beside her.

“Happy birthday,” he mumbled.

“Like you care,” she said without meeting his gaze.

“Piper, please let’s—”

But he was cut off by the sound of Johnny Hart’s high-pitched voice addressing the audience.

“Ladies and gentlemen. For my next trick, I will make the blade of this tiny guillotine pass harmlessly through flesh and bone. I need a volunteer from the audience.”

He pointed to Piper. “How about you, miss?”

“I’d be delighted,” Piper said in a tone meant to annoy Sal.

“Piper, don’t!” he called, slapping a protective hand on her arm.

The finger guillotine

“Relax, Sal. I know this trick,” Piper said in a low voice, finally meeting his eye. “Houdini showed me how it works. The blade swings to the side at the touch of a button, missing the finger completely.”

She continued to the stage where Johnny extended his hand to help her up. Then he hopped onto his pedestal and set the miniature guillotine on the magician’s table between them.

“First, allow me to prove that the blade is indeed quite real…and dangerous.”

The Half-Boy placed a carrot in the hole of the guillotine’s frame. Then he slammed the top of the blade and the vegetable fell to the floor in two halves.

“Are you frightened, my dear?” Johnny asked Piper.

“Terrified,” she replied with joyful sarcasm.

“Don’t be. This trick only failed once and…well, you can see what happened,” he said, indicating his missing lower half.

The audience chuckled.

Taking Piper’s finger by the ring he had given her, Johnny guided it through the tiny guillotine’s hole. Piper turned her head and stuck her tongue out at Sal.

The next thing she heard was the sound of a high-pitched shriek echoing inside her head. Then she realized that the scream was her own.

Piper pulled her hand away from the instrument and held it up. A flat stump oozed with blood from where her finger had just been.

Her mind was numb but not her hand. The pain was blinding.

There were screams from the audience. Johnny picked up the severed digit from the table and leaped off his stool. He grabbed Piper’s wrist and pressed the finger to the wound. Piper howled even louder.

“Get away from her, you lunatic!” Sal cried out, hoisting his bulk onto the stage.

“No! It’ll heal by itself! Watch!” Johnny cried, frantically jabbing Piper’s hand with the detached finger.

“Give me that!” Sal demanded. He grabbed the finger out of Johnny’s grasp and shoved him off the stage. He tore a strip of cloth from his shirt and wrapped it tightly around Piper’s hand. Then he took out a handkerchief and delicately folded it around the detached finger.

At the foot of the stage, Rosita grabbed the Half-Boy.

“Johnny! What’s gotten into you? Body parts don’t just grow back! Magic doesn’t work like that!”

“But I saw it!” Johnny protested, struggling against the tattooed woman. “In Hell Gate! I saw it! I thought she was like me. Then her legs—they stood up…and she wasn’t like me anymore!”

Everyone looked at Johnny like he was deranged. Everyone, that is, except Piper. At last she understood.

Legs are overrated.

Busts don’t show arms.

She jumped off the stage and fled down the boardwalk. Sal and Rosita called after her, their feet pounding on the wooden planks behind her in pursuit. It didn’t matter—she was faster than all of them.

The sights and sounds of the boardwalk crowded in around her. She could feel them crashing in.

“Heavy and hard, men, heavy and hard. Hit the bell, win a prize!”

“Hey, hey! Roller coaster! Going up! All the way! Hey, hey!”

She ran past an organ grinder.

His tiny monkey dressed as a bellhop.

A stilt-man wobbling on long, spindly legs.

A juggler.

Behind the Wonder Wheel, the sun was painting the sky in oranges and pinks as it began its rapid descent behind the horizon.

Piper had to get away. Away from the sights. Away from the noise.

Tunnels of Love

Tunnels of Love, Coney Island (1920s)

“Take a slow boat ride down a dark and lazy river!” droned a weary voice outside the Tunnels of Love. “We’ll keep our lips sealed—but you don’t have to!”

Piper tossed the tipster a dime and jumped into the knee-high water. The tipster said nothing. It probably wasn’t the first time today that someone cooled off in the tunnel’s shaded canals without a boat.

Piper’s hand was still throbbing as she waded down the narrow channel. She trudged past exotic scenery that was supposed to entice and startle young lovers and came upon the figures of three naked women dancing around a boy in a hat. Holding her bandaged hand firmly in the other, she climbed out of the water and huddled at the foot of the sculpture.

It wasn’t long before she heard the patter of feet in the canal.

“Piper, are you in here?”

It was Sal. It was always Sal.

“How’d you know where to find me?” she murmured when he came into view.

“Are you kidding? This place was practically made for you!” he said, pointing to the sculpture. “Kind of corny, kind of creepy.”

Piper looked up and smiled. The ceramic boy in the hat was holding a bloody knife. She hadn’t even noticed.

“Have you come to say ‘I told you so,’?” she asked.

Sal smiled with one side of his mouth and shrugged slightly.

“It’s not Johnny’s fault!” she scolded.

“What?” Sal exclaimed. The word echoed off the tunnel’s walls.

“Sal, when I was trapped in Hell Gate, in the fire, I escaped through the Kefitzat Haderech. But when I came back, the funhouse mirror had a crack going straight through it.”

Sal pinched his lower lip but said nothing.

“I saw my legs, Sal!” she wailed. “Half my body was lying in front of the mirror! But when I woke up, after Johnny rescued me, everything was fine. I thought maybe I’d been hallucinating. Inhaled too much smoke. But he saw it too, Sal! Johnny saw it too!”

“That’s impossible,” Sal scoffed. “Johnny’s just a mixed-up kid. Smoke can make people see funny things, Piper. Like mirages.”

Piper looked at her bandaged hand.

“Mirages,” she said slowly.

“Come on. Let’s get you to Dr. Couney. He’ll give you something for the pain,” Sal said.

Piper wiggled her fingers inside the tourniquet.

“It’s okay. Doesn’t really hurt anymore.”

Sal cocked an eyebrow. He took her hand and squeezed it gently. Piper didn’t react. Keeping pressure on it, he carefully unwrapped the strip of cloth. It was saturated with red.

But there was no blood where the missing finger was. In fact, there was no trace of a wound at all! The skin had already healed over it, leaving just a soft nub.

Piper opened her mouth. Nothing came out.

Sal was also speechless. He reached into his pocket and opened the bloody handkerchief that held her finger. The matchstick ring at the severed end was also soaked with blood. But the finger was as smooth as the nub on Piper’s hand.

With the tenderness of a surgeon, Sal picked up the finger and held it to the nub. Tendrils of flesh lifted from both ends and entwined like mating squids as they knitted together. In less than a few seconds, the finger was whole again.

Piper flexed the digit and stared at it as if it didn’t belong to her. She turned her gaze to Sal. His eyes were as wide as hers.

Bondye mwen!” he gasped. “What are you?”

Piper saw something in his eyes that she had never seen there before. It wasn’t concern. It wasn’t pity. It was unequivocal fear.

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