The summer I turned eleven, our air conditioner broke.
I woke nightly in fits of heat—hair stuck slick to my neck, shirt clinging to the damp pockets beneath each arm. The house seemed to speak in floorboard creaks and water pipes, whispering behind the walls, as I slipped down the hall to my parents’ bedroom.
Their door moaned. I padded inside. They always slept with the window open, curtains fluttering, moonlit fingers streaming through the room. Cast in blue shadow, my mother’s silhouette rose and fell with sleep, knotted in the sheets like a cocooning moth.
I stepped to my father’s side. Large and boxy, he was the type of man who played football in college but watched it now, on Friday nights, the reason the glossy-haired pediatrician said I’d grow up to be a tall young lady—they don’t make ‘em like that anymore.
So I wasn’t surprised by his body in bed, strong and steady and perfectly still.
I crept closer. His alarm clock glowed red, numbers clicking when they changed. In the dark, his face glistened like the smooth skin of dolls I used to unwrap on Christmas morning. He didn’t use a blanket, just his pajamas, blue, unwrinkled, and melding to the hinge of his shoulder, the same shiny slick as his skin. His eyes, unblinking, stared at mine.
My father was the first to turn plastic.
* * *
The doctor from downtown had a stethoscope for a face.
He rode into our neighborhood on the city bus, all white jacket and glass gaze. My mother shut the blinds. "That Mrs. Scott," she'd told me. "Pretending to water her lilies for the last half-hour, the nosy hag."
The stethoscope crawled out of the doctor’s ears, black and leggy. I remember how the metal part glinted, pressed to the vinyl of my father’s chest. He was lying on the couch. The doctor had asked to put him in the kitchen, but Mom, knuckle bitten, had said "Oh, but sir. This is the nice tablecloth."
She kept her hand firm between my shoulder blades during the examination. Our ceiling fan turned, thrummed. I leaned over Dad, tried waving in front of his face, just to see if I could get those cardboard corneas to blink. But my mother hissed my name and when the doctor turned around, fixed her grimace easily into an apologetic smile.
“Is everything going alright?” she asked.
The doctor’s stethoscope crept to his neck and hung like a medal. “Well,” he said, the kind of voice that delivered statistics, “it certainly isn’t anything I’ve seen in the city.”
“But when will he turn back to normal?”
“Well,” he said. “I’m not sure that’s a question I can answer.”
"Well," I thought.
“Well,” he said. “Your husband is dead, ma’am.”
* * *
By July, the other fathers burned his body in sour plumes of black. Mr. and Mrs. Miller from down the street had turned, too, and their ceremonies were held the same evening as my dad’s.
Strangely, I could only think of the Halloween the Millers had carved person-sized boxes out of plaster and plastic, an open window sealed in saran wrap. They stepped inside and looked like human dolls. We all thought it was funny. Their daughter, Suzie, was supposed to be the girl doll, but she didn’t trick-or-treat that year. Someone told me she stayed in their basement all night and watched the kind of scary movies you could only find on television channels tucked between static, and when I rang the Millers’ doorbell to hold out my pillowcase, I swore I heard the screams.
Suzie wasn’t outside for the burnings, either. Looking up, I thought a shadow flickered behind their top window, but the curtains rustled shut.
The rest of the neighborhood came. Porch swings cried in the summer wind and kids coughed into the hems of their shirts. The trees drooped yellow, bark flaking like the skin of a scab. Whispers fermented in the smog—"Smoke damage," Mrs. Scott sneered, "I don’t care if it’s the Pope they’re burning out there, I won’t let them stain my house yellow!" Other families stood on their steps, shook their heads, pushed their children back into the house.
For three days, the sky was scorched bitter, and when kids extended their tongues, ash melting like snowflakes, they coiled back in giggly disgust. It’s hot! they cheered.
"No," I wanted to say. "It’s my father."
My mother wore a veil for the ceremony, curled into herself like a bat. If I didn’t know how shallow she breathed, her twitching nose, I might’ve thought she’d gone plastic, too. By the end of the month, though, she was back to bending over the gardenias and wiping her forehead with the flat of her hand, back to wrapping my peanut-butter-and-honey sandwiches in crinkly cellophane and sending me to school with a kiss on the forehead.
* * *
Two weeks after he turned: my eleventh birthday.
We celebrated at home. Mom didn’t want other people coming over. She hated the way they wrinkled their noses, huddled in driveways, and whispered things like "That poor girl, or The wife, it has to have something to do with that wife of his."
“You don’t see them saying those things about the Millers, do you?” she said, standing at the stove, sticking eleven candles methodically in a vanilla cream cake. “Nobody’s talking about little Suzie Miller, not like that. Nobody’ll talk about little Suzie Miller at all.” She shook her head. “That poor girl—she was a degenerate from the start.”
Suzie Miller had grapefruit-colored hair that she shaved, once, alone in her room. She threw the clippings through her window and the breeze carried them down the street like flitting flies. It was not uncommon to hear crinkling beneath your sneaker, look down, and see not the papery auburn of fallen leaves, but Suzie’s own hair, pressed into the creases of your sole.
She was three years older than me; she wore cargo shorts to church, and her buzzed head shimmered in the sun all summer long. The other kids said she was staying with her nanny, for now. Apparently she hadn’t spoken in days.
“You know what that dreadful Mrs. Scott said to me? She said—”
I traced circles on the table. Our air conditioner still hadn’t been fixed, and Mom kept the window open as she cooked—shades fluttering, electric fan humming beneath the sill.
Flies buzzed against the light fixture. Dad used to kill the bugs. Mom pretended not to hear them and turned toward me, cake in hand. I puckered my lips and blew, flames flickering but burning still. Finally, Mom pressed me back, blowing them out herself. She clapped, lightly, but the sound faded after a few beats.
The knife glimmered, biting into the cake. My fork scratched the porcelain. Mom didn’t eat. She leaned forward, crossed her legs beneath the table, ran a finger over the rim of her teacup. “Mabel, dear,” she asked, propping her chin in a hand. Her upper lip shone, with tea or sweat or both. “Did you make a wish?”
* * *
Summer melted into fall, and Patty Cedarman’s mom turned, too.
Patty was washed-every-day curls and thin wrists, my grade. The same freckles that mottled her own cheeks marred her mother’s, but when Mrs. Cedarman turned, the skin gleamed unblemished. I remember later, Mom tying her apron at our stove and murmuring, "At least the plastic did that complexion a favor."
They burned her on a Sunday. Distant birds, crackling leaves. The air was bitter with smog and collective coughing, and Mrs. Scott crossed herself with light fingertips.
Mr. Cedarman held his daughter to his side, grass curling around their ankles.
From our porch, my mother shook her head. “Tragedy is one thing,” she said, “but that lawn is another story.” Wind whistled through bare branches, trees weeping white bark. Fallen leaves lined the Cedarmans’ driveway. Mom lead me back through the house, door clicking shut behind us.
Soon, school started up again.
Sixth grade, the year I got to sit on the back of the bus, but since Patty and I were the only in our class with plastic parents, the rest of the kids whispered, hot and quiet, on the backs of our necks. So I’d probably have to sit with the little kids, at least for the first week.
At the door, Mom bent to kiss my forehead. Her lips were wet, smeared my skin with pink gloss; licking her thumb, she rubbed the space between my eyebrows raw. Her undereyes flaked pale powder, teeth a synthetic white. I blinked—and for a second, thought the skin of her cheek glistened a little, like polished wood or new plastic.
Mom pulled away. “Darling,” she said, “get out there before you miss the bus.”
* * *
I rode with the little kids.
The kind that fish for green things in wormhole nostrils and tug the hems of girls’ skirts. Their laughter peeled from pink lips, breath like bubblegum. It was all very second grade. Very parents-hadn’t-turned-plastic-yet.
When I was in the second grade, we took a field trip to the art museum.
Our teacher held us in line on a rope, scratchy around our knuckles. Security monitors stared down long noses. Our giggles and squeals bounced off the walls, our teacher, forehead vein running blue, with a perfectly mastered "Shh!"
We crushed our noses against the exhibit glass and flattened our palms. Inside, a mock teenage bedroom: plastered posters and unmade bed, flannel curtains on cardboard windows, a crate of records in the corner. It was almost like a dollhouse, but dirtier, less orderly. Nothing my mother would have bought me.
Our teacher pulled the rope tight. Come on, she said, let’s see the real art.
The next week, people said Suzie Miller was found all the way downtown—she’d taken the city bus. I didn’t know where she got the fare; I imagined her squatting, scratching for pennies in concrete creases, slipping her long fingers into the donation jar at church, sloshing around the fountain outside the school. They said she stole albums from the record store and kept them beneath her bed. The school hadn’t funded a field trip since.
Now, walking into class, I couldn’t help but think of our own rows of shiny desks, the smell of carpet, like something preserved. Lines of clean cursive in chalk and multiplication tables taught with a pointer stick, clicking against the board. Our teacher always kept an apple on her desk—red or green but never yellow. She wouldn’t eat in front of us, either.
Two weeks into school, her fingers turned. She wore gloves, but we all knew, and soon, pantyhose couldn’t hide the gleaming hinges of her knees.
The sky grew ashy again.
The doctors from downtown took the city bus into our neighborhood once, twice, three times. With each visit, their foreheads crinkled, their eyes squinted with things they wouldn’t say aloud. They all had stethoscopes for faces.
We stopped burning at the day of death, instead collecting all bodies until Sunday morning when, after church, everyone would stand at their porch and bow their heads. Mrs. Scott always had to shush her little yappy dog. Her lilies were wilting; it was nearly December.
Mrs. Scott turned plastic on a Friday, and by Sunday, we’d all forgotten about the dog. (It was strange: her doll face was not carved with wrinkles like her human skin. Instead, the crevices were drawn in shaking brown marker.)
It wasn’t long after Mrs. Scott that they stopped burning the bodies completely. Clouds stained the color of dirty bathwater, white doors spread with a rash of yellow, blue shingles wept grey. Children started turning, too. The only difference, I thought, was how small they looked. But their bodies piled just the same—behind brick walls, peeking out over hedges and picket fences. Alleys spilled bulging trash bags, filled rusted dumpsters, mounds of shiny plastic towering between.
The rest of the kids played in them, sometimes, scrambling to the top on all fours, using vinyl arms as footholds and synthetic hair as belays, shrieking when the bodies rolled beneath them, and they cascaded back to the concrete. Again, again!
I was glad they had burned my father before this new development.
* * *
That winter, it was discovered that plastic people made terrific bases for snowmen.
We were no longer trying to understand the phenomenon. Instead, the bodies became currency: houses with traditional three-ball structures would never make the city paper. You only got your photo taken when life-sized snow people lined your yard, when you strung them with lights and arranged their bodies in the nativity scene.
When the city people rode in, the whole neighborhood held its breath. But even when they walked our pavement, sat beneath our cotton-ball clouds and yellow crayon sun, I knew they weren’t really like us. They had cameras instead of eyes and recording devices for mouths. They spoke in headlines and microphone feedback. They stepped off the bus, snapped their photos, and rode the next one back to town.
I watched from our open door, how Mr. Cedarman covered Patty Cedarman’s body in snow. How daughters enhanced their mother’s hips and cinched their waists, scraping powder into mittened palms.
“If only we hadn’t burned your father, Mabel.” Mom was behind me, fingers spindly like spider legs up my spine, resting on my neck. Spindly like something else. “His stature would have been perfect.”
Her fingers. Spindly like cold, spindly like—
“Close the door.” Mom blew a sigh through her nose. “You’re letting the draft in.”
She withdrew her hand and the hallway creaked as she receded. I glanced over my shoulder—just in time to see her disappear around the corner, tucking the shiny hinge of her knuckle in a pocket.
I stepped outside. Snow flitted like ash and my nose dripped numb. Ours was one of the only houses not decorated; the others belonged to families who had turned completely, or—
In the Millers’ yard, a single statue had been erected between the boxwoods and the porch. Where the rest of the house suffocated beneath a blanket of white, untouched since the Millers’ burnings, this person lifted from the snow like an extension of the earth itself. Arms at its side, feet planted. Nothing decorative.
And the rounded top of that head shimmered, almost, reflecting winter light. It wasn’t tall—only a bit taller, I thought, than me.
I stumbled off our porch. Snow froze against the bottoms of my feet. Eyes of children in yards and parents from windows fingered the hair on the back of my neck, and Mom’s voice bubbled between my ears—asked what in the Lord’s good name I thought I was doing, walking barefoot in the snow, I’d surely catch a cold—
I slowed at the mouth of the Millers’ driveway. The statue blinked back.
“It’s the nanny.”
I heard her voice before the whining hinges, and there she was, leaning against the open door frame. Suzie Miller wore a wife beater, fabric faded where her budding chest poked through, and those cargo shorts. Her skin, unmottled by the goose flesh that lifted on my own bare calves.
She was holding a mug of hot chocolate. She took a slow sip but did not wipe the fine line of brown on her upper lip, instead fished into the mug, pulled a marshmallow between tweezered fingertips, and sucked the cocoa from her knuckle with a suctioned pop. “I got so sick of her ugly face, those eyes.” She nodded to the yard. “The easiest thing to do with the body.”
I wanted to ask Suzie if it was true, about the shaving and the records and the city bus. If she thought it was disturbing, how people used the bodies as decorations. If she was glad they had burned her parents, too. If she was okay.
My mouth opened but tasted only winter. Suzie seemed to know my questions already and shrugged as if I had asked.
“They were plastic before,” she said, another long drag of hot chocolate. Hair sprouted from her head in coiled tufts, like a layer of mold frosting yogurt left too long on the counter. “The only difference now is we’re forced to do something about it. Look it in the eye.” Her crowded teeth assembled a grin. “And there’s nothing this neighborhood hates more than looking shit in the eye.”
Snot leaked, cool, from my nose. I was afraid what Suzie might think if I wiped it away.
“Mabel! What in the Lord’s good name do you think you’re doing, walking barefoot in the snow? Surely you’ll catch a cold!”
I spun. Across the street, Mom was half-hanging out our door, eyes darting between me and the neighbors. She waved inside, glanced over my shoulder, and disappeared in the house. When I turned back around, Suzie’s door was shut, and I looked upward, but her window was drawn.
By the time I’d reached our house, my toes bloomed purple. Mom ushered me inside and pulled the blinds. She was wearing gloves.
Our heating system was still broken; the vents would splutter, but only coughed plumes of smog. Icicles grew from a faucet left dripping, and our shared breath collected in clouds at the center of any room. I sat at the table while Mom made hot chocolate. But I kept thinking about Suzie’s bitten fingernails, plunging into my own mug and drawing ripples, like toes splashed in a pool’s edge. I wondered what we looked like out there—me, barefoot and snotty; her, with boys’ clothes and a peach fuzz head.
I suppose I hadn’t anticipated hearing her speak at all. Her voice surprised me more than the words: with plastic parents, the last thing I expected Suzie to sound like was steel.
* * *
Late December. The funny thing was, while supermarkets closed and school let out, the plastic hadn’t paused for the holiday season.
I should have realized, six months into broken vents and frozen faucets, that the house was turning in its own quiet way. Our lights no longer flickered or thrummed; they did not ignite at all. Where linoleum once melted to soft shag carpet, from kitchen to living room, my feet no longer recognized the difference in the flooring. Each, the same shiny slick, the same icy cool.
In the corner of the living room, a plastic tree swelled between each wall—a perfect cone-shape, free of thistles, stained deep green. I tried to pluck an ornament, but my knuckles ached. Square gifts had arranged themselves accordingly. Turning one in my fingers, weightless and hollow, I found on the present’s underside not a card from Santa, but a yellow caution sign. Warning: Choking Hazard.
Through the window, at least, the neighbors’ houses were alight, snow collecting on the sill, frosting the corners of the glass. I remember lifting a finger to trace shapes in the condensation. But my nails found the crease between the upper corner of window instead. In a single drag, I peeled the sticker from the wall—painted image of snow, festive neighborhood, snaking driveways—and knotted it between my fingers.
They were plastic before, Suzie said. And I wondered how I hadn’t noticed sooner.
The door rattled behind me—on the house of synthetic sinks and vinyl floor and my mother, beneath the covers of her bed, where she would stare unblinking for the rest of her days.
* * *
I stumbled into the street.
Snow drifted, or ash. I extended a hand and the flakes burned the pink off my palms; closing my fingers around the embers, the smell of burning flesh fizzled, so much sweeter than roasted plastic. Around me, houses sagged, branches dipped with plastic leaves. Gravel burrowed in my soles, and I had to squint through rills of smoke to make sure I even saw her at all. I blinked.
Suzie Miller stood, feet yellow on the concrete, those cargo shorts. Wind whipped the crinkling things, the glossy things. Suzie didn’t drift. In the center of the road, she might have been a crossing guard, or a hitch-hiker, or the only girl left in a plastic neighborhood.
Her red lips ripped, open, but instead of words, only the rumble of engine unspooled from her throat, the squeal of tires, the smell of exhaust. Light swelled behind her. Her face glowed in shades of gold, and her hair spiraled from her head like fingers of fire, licking with sparks. The roaring surged.
The city bus groaned to a stop, just behind Suzie. The doors popped, propped open. Suzie looked at me, barely. But that was enough.
I followed her onto the bus. Finally, I got to sit in the back.
We rolled, swayed with the bends. When there was a sharp turn, I planted my feet in the aisle, so as not to press too hard into the warmth of Suzie’s thigh, the bony sharp of her shoulder. She looked through the window, black with night and fingerprint smudges.
The rest of the bus was empty. The driver, folded in shadow, only his eyes would flash, sometimes, in the rear view above his seat. I was not sure how long until we groaned to another stop. I careened forward; Suzie hardly moved. She stood, looked back down at me, eyes the color of popcorn, or dandelions.
We wove down the aisle. Both of us, barefoot. Suzie’s soles were brown. She thanked the driver and we stepped into the street.
The city was all fog, snaking between skyscraper heads, plexiglas grins.
Black umbrellas and trench coats pushed past, spilled from subway stations. I staggered and wove through the crowd. Sometimes, when the umbrellas lifted, I’d catch a cheek colored with cold, bloodied undercurrents I’d forgotten could run through skin when it wasn’t shiny slick. Their chapped lips would break apart, teeth not white, but tinged yellow with coffee, or nicotine, or anything hot and electric and human.
Suzie pulled me by my shirt. And it wasn’t until I recognized the ivy creeping on the building’s edge, its sleek white face, that I knew she’d taken me to the art museum.
We ducked under entrance ropes and slid past security monitors. Soon, we were walking those same clean hallways. Except this time, there was no teacher, no perfectly mastered hush. Our shallow breaths echoed instead of giggles, and the only things scratchy were the blisters on my palm.
Suzie stopped at the biggest exhibit, sanctioned in glinting glass. I slowed beside her, realized I was staring too long at the childish soft of her jaw, the flaky rim of her nose, when she said, “It’s called Dollhouse. Artist unknown.”
I turned. And looked at our neighborhood.
Mrs. Cedarman was watering her garden; even Mrs. Scott sat on a porch swing, her little yappy dog pillowed on her lap. And there was my dad, tipping his hat from the car as he left for work, my mom, waving from the doorway. Our rows of driveways. All pinks and blues and greens. All the same shiny surface, and all no more than three feet tall.
Behind the structure hung ten, twenty, a hundred printed photos—lit by humming overheads, shots of our houses, our yards, our parents. The lines of snow people. My father, lying on our couch. Pseudo-newspaper articles, false headlines and inky writing.
I found the Millers’ house, Suzie’s parents walking down the street, hands held. At my own house, I searched my bedroom window. Curtains drawn.
“Suzie,” I asked, “where are we?”
Suzie looked at me, smiled. “On the other side of the glass.” Her voice was what I thought a mother’s might sound like, if she was the kind of mother who kissed a scratch to make it better. “C’mon,” she said. “Let’s see the real art.”
She folded my fingers in hers. Her palm hummed with fleshy adolescence, clammy and raw. I felt her veins crawl beneath her skin.
"Dollhouse" was the winner of our 2017 Stephen Bonga Award for High School Students (Prose)
is a junior at Interlochen Arts Academy. When not writing, she enjoys watching movies, listening to music, and making art. She doesn't really have any photos of herself but has included this illustration of a ghost instead.