Barbie for Girls
by Donna M. Nowak
part 1 of 2
It was a dizzying view above the flashing neon where I perched, minute and indestructible against the stone buttresses, like a gargoyle jutting out over the metropolis. On a clear night I could sail far above the city through its vat of orange and blue lights, looking down on the network of tiny life moving purposefully through the confused maze below. It had been a good idea to bring Ava Oliphant, the manicurist, here, although I knew it would not help her forget.
“It’s beautiful, Barbara,” Ava sighed. “I can only imagine how Barbie Battle feels when she sees this. I feel her out there sometimes and wish we could communicate, because I’ve been so desperate. I’ve tried to keep hope about Muriel, but I can’t help feeling that even Barbie Battle has given up after all these years. Still the faintest hope holds me that maybe, just maybe Muriel is alive.”
“Don’t ever give up hope. You’ve got to keep believing. Barbie Battle won’t give up until...”
Ava looked at me, smiling wanly, the lines caused by stress deepening. “Let me finish it. Until there is no hope. It’s the not knowing that’s the hardest. There’s always the possibility that I may never, ever know.” Her voice broke off and she looked off disconnectedly, brows furrowed.
Her pain hurt me. The truth was that I cared deeply for Ava, but my true feelings could never be revealed. For a long time, I had debated on whether to tell her that I was the superbeing with extraordinary super powers, the female avenger, Barbie Battle, and feel the bright light of a real friendship, but the fear was too great.
Posters of Muriel were scarce now, but still Ava vigilantly pasted them throughout the town, her anguish and determination made more acute by the passing of years. Muriel would be thirteen now. She was ten when she disappeared, a self-conscious child who wore long sweaters in the summer to hide her developing body.
The sketches had been age enhanced to reflect an “older” Muriel: long brown hair, cherry-dark eyes and cleft in chin like her mother, wire-frame glasses (these disputable, although she wore glasses of some sort since a small child), more pronounced bone structure.
The picture on Ava’s station at work, however, revealed Muriel already juxtaposed between childhood and adolescence: taller, clothes more self-consciously hip yet clutching a doll. She had gone to the corner to mail a letter, the autonomy a rare privilege, but she never returned. The letter never reached its destination, which indicated Muriel never reached the mailbox. She disappeared into thin air on one of the clearest of summer days.
The posters with Muriel’s picture read:
HAVE YOU SEEN THIS GIRL?
Come home, Muriel. We love you.
Daddy cries for you every night. Love, Mom.
Baroque cupolas and spires towered over the narrow cobblestone streets in Extown, the streets crossing and fanning out like tributaries from the central square. The vivid pastels of the row houses made candy stripes and the lit cars of the sky transit glittered like splintered sun rays in the dusk.
A tear rolled down Ava’s face. “Muriel,” she whispered into the night.
* * *
People wonder how superheroines are born. Perhaps we are products of natural adaptation, evolving to best survive in our environment like jungle insects upon whose backs pebbles and leaves are duplicated as natural camouflage — or maybe we are freaks of nature.
As a child, I was aware of being different and understood instinctively that this meant my true self must remain camouflaged. At eleven years old, while experimenting with gravity at an abandoned tree house in the Extown woods, I discovered I could fly and at such times be invisible. Although thrilling, it carried a heavy weight of responsibility, since it exacted an enormous drain on my energy.
My gifts increased my sense of alienation, and I had few friends in spite of my blonde hair, blue eyes and chiseled features, in spite of the love of my parents and sister Cherry. Since crossing beyond the boundaries of mortal sensitivity, I’d encountered another “alien” and decidedly hostile force who, like myself, appeared to be the result of genetic mutation or something equally disquieting.
While flying through thunderstorms, I glimpsed his shadowy, hooded hulk like an eerie negative superimposed on a photograph. The Hooded Evil, as our paper The Extown Sun dubbed him, was once the only known super-being until Barbie Battle thwarted his acts of malevolence.
Under the alter ego of Barbara Bates, I lived in the Princess apartments on Pink Street in Extown. Unlocking the beautiful white door of my apartment with its center knob and keyhole, I entered and removed my shoes, tossing my bag on the sofa.
The next thing I did was turn on the television so there would be noise in the apartment. This was what came of living alone. Cherry would be dropping off my eleven-year-old niece, Patty, however, so the quiet would not last for too long. I looked forward to her lively presence and had stocked up on cookies and ice cream for her weekend stay.
I went to my pink bedroom, the twin double beds fitted with satiny pink quilts, and slid into furry slippers. Then I crossed my living room to the greenhouse where large glass windows afforded a superb view of the river and the distant forests. It was my custom to check on my plants and flowers and spend some time at the window, meditating or looking through my telescope at the shoreline.
The sound of my buzzer startled me as I was deep in thought. Cherry was at the door, her blonde hair tousled beneath a red cap, her energy and presence kinetic. Patty followed her inside, smiling impishly at me. She was growing taller and more beautiful every day with her dancing dark eyes, long yellow hair and more pronounced cheekbones.
She carried a backpack with all her simple overnight needs and in her arms, Suzy-Q, her favorite doll since a baby. It was a gesture of sentimentality that Patty carried Suzy-Q, since she didn’t play with her anymore, and I rued that in a few years, Suzy-Q would disappear into her closet, a relic of childhood.
“It’s supposed to rain buckets tonight,” Cherry said. “And I’ll be catering. She’ll have no problem staying in. I know you’ll ply her with goodies.”
“You’ll be sleeping in my room, so it’s okay if we tell ghost stories,” I said to Patty with a wink. She gave me a sweet but perfunctory smile that let me know I was babying her but she would humor me.
“You go ahead and cater. We’re going to have a great visit,” I assured Cherry. After Patty tossed her bag onto a chair in my bedroom, I got out my board games (purchased just for such visits) and prepared a tray of goodies and hot chocolate for us in the living room and we settled cross-legged around the end table on pillows borrowed from the sofa.
“Have there been any sightings of Barbie Battle? I wish she’d swoop down and take me out of school,” Patty began.
I almost choked on my hot chocolate, laughing, yet felt my face flush with guilt at the same time. Thankfully, although Patty had vague ideas of what Barbie looked like (I was careful never to be glimpsed very closely), she didn’t seem to suspect, although she was unusually sensitive and perceptive. “But I have a really nice teacher this year, Miss Gilheaney. I think I might like her as much as Miss Ceriello of last year, but Miss Ceriello was also coaching my basketball team, so it’s hard to say.”
“Miss Gilheaney?” Muriel had had Miss Gilheaney several years before. An uncomfortable memory about Ava surfaced in my mind at the mention of the school, the time Ava had been called in because of some behavioral problems that Muriel was having. Only several months before her disappearance Muriel refused to eat and cried uncontrollably about a list of novels Ava had chosen for her to read over the summer, behavior which had alarmed Ava, although she stood by her “requirements” as important for Muriel’s education. She wanted Muriel to have the opportunities that she never had, so Muriel would be more than a manicurist.
“Do you want more whipped cream? I hate when I’m down to the last of the whipped cream with hot chocolate.” I grinned. “Or do you want a whipped cream sandwich?”
“I don’t eat whipped cream sandwiches anymore,” Patty said with a slight but insistent edge of dignity.
“Since when?” Oh, well. Suzy-Q was only a matter of time.
“But I’ll have more whipped cream on my hot chocolate,” she added.
I felt uneasy as I squirted another frothy tower of whipped cream onto our hot chocolates. What if Muriel had run away? It was not the first time I considered it with all the disturbing implications it had. Yet if she had, where had she run to and why had no one seen her? Muriel was quite attached to her mother, almost unusually so, perhaps because she only had her mother. Moreover, she had disappeared into thin air and if she had run away on her own, she would have been spotted.
Abruptly the rain came and shook the windows with a ferocity that was unnerving as if our rock tight apartment would be blown to bits. “Oh, my God, and Mom’s catering tonight,” Patty said.
We took another round of hot chocolate into the greenhouse to watch through the great glass windows which were as thick and sturdy as the glass windows in a zoo. The slanting skeins of rain in a frighteningly dark sky splattered the windows, making the view blurry. Across the water the tops of the black trees waved like a sea of hands at a Baptist revival.
As my now tall and willowy niece stood at the window, she exuded a wonderful air of confidence that I hoped would not be defeated in future years. How traumatic it was to tell children that there were bad people in the world who wished them harm like the monsters behind the closets at night. It was even worse when nightmares came true.
I saw Ava sitting at her table in the nail salon, speaking to me as she did the obligatory manicure on my nails (only a courtesy to her on my part) while an eight-year-old Muriel sat complacently behind her on a stool with a coloring book. Ava was a single mother, Muriel’s father having left shortly after her birth, and when Muriel got out of school early and her remarried father couldn’t take her, she sometimes had to come to Ava’s business. This was before he evaded his responsibility altogether by moving across the country, later blaming Ava for her disappearance. “I could’ve done so much more with my life,” Ava had said, “if it wasn’t for her. I wish he’d take her for a year.”
I had been startled by the pronouncement since the very bright and precocious Muriel was in hearing range, but Ava had been completely nonplussed about it, just as she had been nonplussed about saying as Muriel played calmly with her dolls nearby, “Muriel’s drawing didn’t get chosen in the art contest, but when you see the ones that did, you’ll understand why. They’re really good.”
Human beings were never perfect and often wounds were passed like heirlooms through the generations with residues of regret. Still, these memories haunted me and I, the powerful, felt powerless.
* * *
The rain continued through the night, a comforting sound while one was in bed, yet my sleep felt disturbed. For one thing, there was the ringing of the school bell. It was disrupting our session in the schoolyard and it wasn’t until I sat up on one elbow drowsily that I remembered that I was in bed.
Muriel had been in the schoolyard, whispering confidentially to a friend who was as blonde as she was brunette. For one confused minute, I had been convinced I was the friend and with dream logic, it didn’t matter that I was far beyond grade school years and Muriel was no longer ten years old. I hurried to join them, at which moment the little blonde girl turned around and I saw with astonishment that she was a blonde Muriel. Just as I was about to say something to them, the school bell rang and recess was over.
Now the bell was ringing and ringing and ringing. As I sat up dazedly, my head clearing, I realized it was the telephone, and with another shock, it struck me the room was pitch black. Patty appeared to be sleeping peacefully in the other bed, deep sleep the province of children. “Hello?” I mumbled, trying to keep my voice devoid of alarm.
There was silence for a minute, then a female voice blurted out, “Is this Barbie?”
“Yes,” I said uncertainly.
“I have information about Muriel Oliphant.”
“What?” Now my heart was racing faster as I tried to shake the cobwebs out of my head. “Who is this?”
“If anyone knows I spoke to you, I’m dead. I know you’ve been involved in the search over the years. I can’t say much more.” There was panic in her voice.
“Just tell me about Muriel.” I endeavored to keep my voice steady and searched my mind as to whether this voice was familiar. It didn’t trigger any connections.
“I would’ve come forth earlier. If I could...”
“What do you know about Muriel?”
“Muriel is alive. She’s living in an apartment complex built under a network of tunnels. It’s the old underground system, like a warren, the trains and catacombs they used before they put in the sky transit. You have to listen carefully to what I tell you.” The person on the other line lowered her voice, her trepidation palpable. “Come tonight. I’m afraid for Muriel’s life. I can’t go on like this. I just can’t.”
“Come where?” Instinctively I lowered my voice as well.
“That’s what I’ll tell you. You must come alone and be careful not to be seen. I’ll give you the directions, so listen carefully.”
“Wait. I want to write everything down. I’m going to pick up the extension. Please don’t hang up, okay?”
I put the phone down on the bureau and slipped into the living room, picking up the phone there and grabbing a pad of paper and pen. My caller was still on the line. “Go ahead,” I instructed, turning on the lamp.
“If you go past Kroeger’s Meat Store, you’ll find a manhole that is painted bright blue. On the nearby deserted building you’ll see murals — a scene of an old market with doors. One of those doors is real, but it’s almost impossible to tell. It’s got a number three on it. I’ll have it unlocked.”
“But in this storm...” I was having trouble hearing her.
“It must be tonight. Muriel’s life depends on it. Bring a flashlight, maybe a pen light, something very small. When you go through the door, you’ll find a flight of stairs. They’re set up with booby traps. The handrail between steps four to ten on the way up is alarmed and on the 20th step, there’s a trap door. You need to go through that trap door or you’ll be trapped in the bowels of the tunnel system. That’s very important.”
“Between four and ten, 20th step,” I murmured as I wrote. “Why have you not called the police? How do I know this isn’t a trap?”
“I can’t call the police! I fear for Muriel’s life. You must be discreet.”
“Why now, after three years? I have to know why I should trust you.”
“Because I know you have the power to save Muriel, unlike me.” The voice rose in a hiss of panic. “You are a super-being, aren’t you? I must go. Please don’t fail Muriel.” There was the dial tone.
For a while I could only stare at the phone before placing it in its cradle but to my horror, I heard an almost imperceptible click. Had someone been listening on her extension? Was Muriel now in jeopardy, if this story were indeed true?
I gasped when a shimmery white figure appeared in the doorway of the bedroom. “Patty, go to bed,” I said, realizing that I was snapping. “What are you doing up?”
Patty stood there silently for a few minutes.
“I didn’t want to wake you. Do you need some water or something?”
She shook her head, but when she spoke, her voice quavered. “Why didn’t you tell me you’re Barbie Battle, Aunt Barbie? You are Barbie Battle, aren’t you?”
* * *
Copyright © 2007 by Donna M. Nowak