I was sitting at the kitchen table dressed in my Buzz Lightyear PJs when I heard a high-pitched scream from upstairs that could only belong to Stacey. My eyes immediately went to Mom, who was standing at the stove making pancakes with her back toward me. Her shoulders were hunched up all the way to her ears and they were shaking, which was Mom's weird way of laughing. We heard Stacey's bare footsteps quickly slapping down the staircase. Seconds later, she was standing inside the kitchen door. Her face was its familiar tomato color, a shade it liked to get whenever she got excited or mad. In her chubby hand was a new Barbie doll.
"Mom! I love it!" Stacey said. "Thank you, thank you!"
Mom turned to face Stacey halfway. Rosy cheeks accompanied her laughter. "Happy birthday, baby." Mom looked over to me. "Well, Sid? Aren't you going to wish your sister a happy birthday?"
I twirled a finger in the air. "Yippee," I said, earning a frown from Mom before she turned back to the stove.
Stacey took one look at me and her mouth split into a wide, toothy grin. "Look, Sid! Mom got me the new Sydney Down Under doll!" She bounded to me.
I tilted my head back so she didn't get me in the face as she raised the doll toward me. I looked at her new Barbie down the length of my nose. It wore khaki shorts that stopped just above its knees and a matching jacket with little button pockets at the front. Tied around its neck was a pink handkerchief whose color perfectly matched the shade of the Barbie's stupid toothy smile. Brown plastic hiking boots covered its feet, and a clear plastic band held Barbie's grey Safari hat down to its braided length of brown hair.
"See, Sid? She looks like you, right?" said Stacey. She bounced up and down rapidly on the balls of her feet. The Barbie shook in front of my face. "She has blue eyes like you do, and when your hair is long, it's brown like hers and mine! She has a tan like you do, and ooh! Her smile is just like yours! See?" Stacey used her free hand to point at her Barbie's face. "See how her teeth are straight and white?"
I had gotten my braces off just a few weeks ago, so while my teeth weren't crooked—or yellow, for that matter—like they were before I started wearing braces, at least I didn't smile like a dumb Barbie. "I don't have a Barbie face!" I said.
Stacey laughed. "But you have a Barbie body, Syyyydneyy!"
I ground my teeth together so hard that my jaw hurt. Thanks, Stace, for reminding me that I haven't started puberty yet. Mom said Dad had been slow to change when he was young, but I still hated the fact that most of the guys my age were getting crackly voices. Some of them had even started to grow hair on their faces. Me? Here I was starting middle school in two weeks, and I still looked like a hairless rat with the high-pitched voice of a girl to boot.
"Don't call me that name," I said. "I'm not like your dumb Barbie."
Stacey, too caught up in excitement over her new doll, wasn't listening to me anymore. "I'm going to call her Syd, after you," she said.
I swatted Stacey's hand. The hard contact of flesh sent "Syd" flying into the air. Stacey screamed as her new doll landed head-first on the kitchen's tiled floors with a light pock.
I terrorize my little sister's Barbie dolls for fun. It's not playing with them, whatever people might say. I'm not dressing up these stupid dolls and pretending to have tea parties with them like Stacey does. I mean, is it called "playing" when a thirteen-year-old boy takes his sister's dolls into his room to cut off their hair? Or rip off their limbs and heads and replace the missing parts with screws or nails? Or perhaps—my personal favorite—tying Barbie dolls to an iron poker and then placing them over the licking flames in the living room fireplace just to watch his sister's dolls slowly melt and char to a black crisp?
I didn't think so.
Sometimes, I like to think that I hear the dolls screaming out in pain and terror when I'm doing things to them. It's funny to imagine these things as real. It makes torturing them all that much more fun. I mean, think about it. Having the power of life and death over a foot-tall human-lookalike in the palm of your hand? That's so cool.
Stacey always cries like a baby whenever she finds another Barbie missing. It makes me almost pee in my pants to watch her round face fold into itself like a beanbag chair, slowly turning red as single tear drops turn into streams down that face. She acts like it's the end of the world whenever I take her Barbie dolls. Plus, it's not like Stacey can't ever find them again. Just look into my room. They're sometimes there—sure, not in the same condition as before.
So what if I ruin her little playmates? Mom buys more for Stacey every once in a while to show me how Stacey's such a good little kid while I'm the mean older brother. What does it fricken matter if I take the ones Stacey will end up not playing with ever again? Stacey goes through her dolls the way she goes through shoes. She eventually outgrows them. I'm just helping her make some space for her new Barbie dolls. At least I'm not letting them to go waste, but nooo. Mom still gets on my case.
"You're supposed to set an example for her, Sid," she tells me whenever I complain about Stacey getting another Barbie. "If you're not respecting her things, she won't respect yours."
Hah. Respect. What the hell does Mom know about respect? She barges into my room, takes my clothes from wherever I had placed them for safekeeping on my floor and my chair to do the laundry. Then I can't find a single pair of socks that match when the hurricane that she is blows out. Sure Mom, respect.
I hate Stacey's Barbie dolls. Not only because Mom gets whatever "Princess Stacey" wants so she doesn't have to see that ugly tomato beanbag face, but also because I just hate those frozen smiles. Those smiles are just creepy and fake. The Barbies smile at nothing. Always smiling.
Out of Stacey's Barbie collection, I hated her Sydney Down Under Barbie doll the most. Stacey was sure asking for it when she said I looked like her dumb Sydney—even naming that doll after me! What did she think? That I'd leave it alone just because we supposedly look alike and have the same name? No fricken way.
I took my time getting to Syd. It was just another part of the game of Having Fun with Stacey's Barbies. I took other dolls, pretending every time I headed out of Stacey's room with another Barbie clutched in my hand that Syd's blank stare was watching me. Watching in horror as her Barbie friends went out with me and rarely ever came back in the same condition—if at all.
The week before seventh grade started, I finally decided Syd had waited and watched long enough.
On a night when Stacey slept at her friend's house, I snuck over to her room. I imagined myself like a one of those masked kidnappers who'd sent an anonymous message to Syd days before about being stolen, with no information about when it would happen. Taking the brass door knob, I turned it and pushed the door open. It swung with a loud squeak. The moonlight shining from the window across the hallway peeked into Stacey's room. Its luminous gaze fell on Syd. She sat at Stacey's tea table, surrounded by all her Barbie friends. They were having a late night party. That stupid smile was on everyone's face, even on the Barbies who'd been lucky enough to survive earlier encounters with me.
Well, I hope they told Syd what was in store for her tonight.
Her passive stare watched me reach the table. My calloused fingers wrapped around her plastic body. I straightened up with her firmly in my clutches. I spun on my bare heel and then fled the scene of the crime. I turned Syd around so she could watch the door of my room down the hallway approach. A neon green desk lamp provided the only light in my room. It cast looming shadows on the paneled walls. The desk itself looked like a mad scientist's table. I took Syd over to it. The lamp shined its light on my usual instruments: the good ol' fireplace poker, a battered matchbook, a pair of silver scissors, and my dad's red toolbox.
I had lots of fun with Sydney Down Under that night. I took up the scissors and snipped the clear band that kept her plastic hat around her head. As Syd's hat made its way down to the carpet, I began to hack away at her braided lock of synthetic hair. I cut it all until she was nearly bald. Stacey had been right. Syd really did start to look like me without all that hair. I proceeded to cut off all her clothes, the khaki and pink pieces of fabric making a messy pile on my table, until Syd was fully naked in my fist. In honor of us sharing the same-sounding name, I gave Syd the full works. I took a hammer out of my dad's toolbox and used it on the twin mounds on her chest, hammering away at them as if I were trying to crack open a nut until they were smashed down. I took a match to her face. Tickles of glee rose in my chest as I watched that stupid Barbie smile slowly melt, the corners of her pink mouth turning into a frown. All the while, I imagined that inside Syd's head, she was screaming in pain.
The next morning, Stacey's hysterical screams woke me up.
"Mom! My Sydney is gone!"
Mom's voice sounded far away. She probably was downstairs making breakfast when her thoughts immediately went to me. "Sid, where is your sister's Barbie?"
I groaned. My blankets weighed down on me heavily that morning. I cracked open my eyes. The blue sheets covered my entire body from head to toe. I lifted a hand to pull them off, but there was too much blanket covering me. As my vision cleared, I saw then that something was off. On either side of me, my sheets seemed to stretch on without end, as if I was caught underneath a large tent that had been dismantled with no idea where the edges were. I put both my hands up against the blanket. When I pushed it up from my body, that's when I noticed that I was completely naked. I had gone to bed last night wearing only a pair of underwear. What happened to it? I quickly rolled onto my front side. I saw ahead of me my white pillow sheet, but it looked like a huge wall. I scrambled toward it.
When I got out from underneath the blanket, I nearly fainted from seeing the wide valley of my bed stretched before me. My bed was humungous. I had shrunk down to a foot tall. But how did this happen? Panic welled up in my chest, clawing out from the inside to make sense of this craziness.
I jumped when my door rattled in its frame. Stacey's voice yelled for me. Her fists pounded on my door. The vibrations rumbled in my chest, shaking me.
"Sid! Give me back my Barbie!"
As the doorknob turned, I felt a hold on my entire body. I was no longer in control. My legs snapped together. I fell face forward onto the blanket with a yell. My flailing arms went to my sides and stuck there. My entire body was frozen, as stiff as a board. I heard my door swing open and Stacey bound inside my room.
"Sid!" she said at the top of her lungs. She might as well have shouted directly in my ear. My eardrums rang. Without the ability to shut my eyes, my vision blurred for a moment. "Where is she?"
I think Stacey saw my prone figure on the bed because I heard her light footsteps come closer. The next thing I knew, she was lifting me up to her face. I couldn't move a single part of my body, but I could feel the heat of Stacey's hand wrapped around my legs. Her palm was sweaty, but the pressure of her grip was firm. In front of me, her tomato face was smoothing out in relief.
Stacey, it's me! I screamed in my head, but my mouth wouldn't work. When Stacey had entered my room, the corners of my lips had turned up into an unmovable smile that had stretched itself across my face. To my horror, I realized what sort of smile I had on.
A Barbie's smile.
"Look what Sid did to you! Oh Syd, he took your clothes and made your chest flat and even cut off your pretty hair!" Stacey stamped a foot on my carpet. "Now you really look like him, Syd!" Stacey sighed in frustration. "At least he didn't do anything too horrible to you. C'mon, let's return to our tea party and forget about thiswholething."
Stacey took me to her room. It was how I'd left it with the pink tea table set and the Barbies sitting around waiting for their host. The lone chair that Syd had occupied last night was empty, but the hard stone in my stomach told me that it would be mine now. Stacey bent my legs at the hips so I was at a sitting position. Then she plopped me down, still naked, on the empty chair.
"Now don't start without me," she warned her guests. "Mom made brownies yesterday, so I'm going to see if there's any left. I'll be back soon."
My unmovable eyes watched Stacey leave the room. As soon as she turned the corner out of sight, I suddenly regained control of my body.
But I wasn't the only thing moving in the room.
The Barbie dolls around the table had been animated to life by the same force that had kept me frozen when Stacey had found me. All around me, the other Barbies were turning to their neighbors. They were all talking excitedly about Stacey's return. I was close to tears.
I screamed, "What is going on? What's happening to me?" Maybe this was some sort of nightmare. I lifted my right arm in front of me and pinched it hard. While I did feel the sharp pain of my nails digging into my arm, my skin was no longer soft or warm. It was as hard and cold as plastic.
"What is happening to me?" I repeated over and over. By now, I had brought the whole table's attention on me. Every Barbie was staring at me with those blank eyes and fake smiles.
The Barbie on my right turned her head to me and asked, "Hey Sydney, what did Sid do to you?"
Panic changed to anger, which I directed to her. I waved my arms in the air. "I'm Sid!" The entire table reacted in one collective gasp. It was then that I remembered when Syd's plastic body parts had burned in the fireplace last night after I had torn her from limb to limb. I remembered thinking, like I usually did with the other Barbie dolls, that I had heard Syd scream as she burned. But no way had that scream, and all those other screams, been real? Fear's bony fingers crawled up my back to wrap around my neck. I was barely able to choke out, "Wh-What did she do to me?"
A male voice at the table answered for everyone. "Nothing that you didn't do to yourself."
I turned to my left and saw a Barbie doll with its head on backwards. Unlike the others, whose hair was either cut down to their soft heads or was still there, this Barbie didn't even have hair. I realized why. I was staring at the only Ken doll Mom bought Stacey. He hadn't lasted three days before I'd taken a match to his face and watched as only half of it melted off. The other side had burned black. The smell had been nasty, like overused car batteries.
Ken's head slowly turned around on his neck to look at me. The half smile that was left now darkly leered at me, more smirk than smile. Tremors ran down my spine. My stomach roiled. I pressed my hands on the table and took deep breaths.
Ken said in a cheerfully upbeat voice, "You're stuck like this forever with the rest of us."
I shook my head, willing myself not to burst out into tears in front of them. In the back of my mind, I wondered if I could even make tears. "No, no. I have to get out!" I said in desperation. Everyone at the table laughed as I jumped to my feet.
Barbie on my right said, "You can't get out, silly. None of us can. Every time Stacey comes into the room, you freeze up, right?"
I stepped up to her dangerously close, but the Barbie kept smiling up at me. I narrowed my eyes at her. "Why?" I demanded. "Why just Stacey?"
The Barbies around the table laughed again. Their staring wide eyes never blinked, and only their mouths and jaws moved in time to their high-pitched, squealing laughter.
Barbie on my right said, "Oh, silly! We have to do that for everyone. It's just something that happens. We can't control it. You can't either. You can't speak to anyone or show them you're alive. None of us can. But hey, look on the bright side. Now we're all in this together!"
The others sent up a chorus of chirpy assent.
"No!" I said and pressed my hands against my ears to block them out. "I won't be one of you stupid dolls. I'll let Stacey find out! I'll—"
"Don't fight it, Sydney," said Barbie on my right. "It's all right."
"My name's Sid, you stupid doll!"
I ran for it, leaping around the table. My bent right elbow hit Ken across the head and knocked him off his chair, but the rest of the Barbie dolls continued to laugh. I barely made it to the doorway when I heard soft falls of slow footsteps on the staircase that signaled Stacey's impending arrival with the leftover brownies on her Princess Barbie plate.
One of the Barbies at the table clapped her hands. "Hey! I hear Stacey coming back!"
I skidded to a halt inside the doorway. For a moment, I looked over my shoulder and watched everyone ready themselves for Stacey's appearance. Ken got back on his chair. His head swiveled around to face the wrong direction again. I wanted to be normal again. There's no way I'd go unnoticed. I needed to tell Stacey. I turned my head forward and made to step outside, but my legs weren't working anymore. They were straightening under their own volition. As Stacey's footsteps grew louder, I fell over onto my back. My entire body felt like it was being slowly encased in cement from the feet up. My arms came next. I tried to stop them from straightening at my sides but all my efforts were in vain. I could no longer turn my head or blink my eyes. I heard Stacey come down the hallway. Invisible hooks pinched the corners of my mouth and pulled them up. My lips parted at the center, revealing my braces-free smile with its perfect Barbie teeth.
Stacey appeared at the doorway. She stepped on me, crushing my entire body to the hard wooden floor. The pressure of Stacey's sneakers was flattening the back of my head against the floor. The tip of my nose was inverting in itself. My nose was being pushed into my skull. I screamed in pain but I could only hear myself in my head.
Stacey yelped and quickly removed her foot. "Syd! How did you get there?" she said before bending down to retrieve me. Stacey brought me over to the table and set me down again in the chair. My chair.
Try as I might, I couldn't speak. Nothing but my eyesight and my sense of touch was working. I was alive, but at the same time, I wasn't human anymore. The only thing about me that moved was my racing thoughts.
As Stacey set down the plate of brownies in the middle of the tea table, I couldn't help but wonder about my new companions. Had they all been real humans once? Had they also been magically turned into dolls for something bad they also used to do to dolls but had forgotten since? If that's what happened to them, then does that mean I will eventually forget who I am too?