Estimated reading time — 17 minutes
I remember my first kiss. What boy doesn’t? Lisa Miller’s soft wet mouth pressed into mine as the salty flavor of her tears coated my lips, a taste I still remember after all these years. Then she was gone.
I was eleven when the plastic men came. Sydney called them polished men because their blank faces reminded her of the polished plaster sculptures her mother collected. Their featureless faces, like saran wrap pulled tightly over bone, still haunt my dreams. They wore bowler hats, like old English businessmen. One of the kids from New York called them city gents, but I called them plastic men because I knew what they were.
Most of us witnessed our parent’s death. I can still hear my sister Tina scream from her playpen as Mom and Dad lifted into the air, their cracking bones resounding through the house, their skin pulled taut. An ivory film washed over them in undulating waves. When I reached for my mother’s arm, her skin felt mushy, like grabbing a sponge soaked with wet paint. Heat radiated from their bodies and I watched the skin and bones melt into a puddle of red and white slime, soaking into the carpet as Tina continued to scream. I’m told every adult disappeared from the planet in less than an hour.
When the plastic men took me, I begged them to bring my sister, but they ignored me. I never saw her again. Now as a man, I regret that I didn’t do more for her. I try not thinking of her last days, left to starve in her playpen. They brought me and the other children to a place called Grover’s Farm and Orange Grove. They made us work in the fields and pick oranges. Sydney said there were places like ours all over the world and that soon we would all disappear. There wasn’t any way she could know, but I believed her. Looking back, I think the work we did meant nothing to the plastic men. They never ate any of the food. Hell, I don’t even know if they ate food at all. I believe the work just occupied our time while they waited until we reached the age they could turn us.
They always took two boys and two girls between the ages of seven and sixteen every month. I didn’t understand why at the time and I still don’t know why they only took four of us. Sydney said it was because they needed two couples, one main and one backup. Of all that Sydney was right about, I think she was wrong about that. I’ve read a lot over the years to try to make sense of what happened to us. That part still leaves me bewildered to this day.
As I sit here writing this, I can see Lisa’s face. I wish I could picture the girl I knew from middle school, the one with the bright blonde hair and boisterous laugh that echoed through our lunchroom. But all I can retrieve from my memories is the day they took her. When they pulled her away from me, her body floated off the ground, summoned to the circle as if she were a moon orbiting the plastic men who stood in the center. Static electricity charged the air as each of the four children hovered, as graceful as the saved ascending to heaven. The terrible sucking sound followed as the plastic blurred their faces, replacing our friends with a mannequin version. They hung above the dirt ring, their faces wiped clean of familiarity, disappearing into fake plastic stares, like the plastic men who watched from the side with their bowler hats and three-piece suits.
Except for Tobey.
Tiny twelve-year-old Tobey, with his red hair and pale face peppered with freckles, resisted. His face contorted like the others, but with a shake of his head, his features returned, a look of bewilderment in his eyes, and his body lowered to the ground. When he touched down, the plastic men slid over to him. But their movements were not their typical smooth line. They flickered, as if slipping and tripping through space and time. Vibrations, like miniscule waves across a white desert, covered the blank plastic sheet that bent to form expressions on their dead faces. Tobey had hurt them.
They took him by the arms and whisked him away. As we watched, the rest of the plastic men moved aside. Lisa and the others still hovered as the plastic overtook them completely. I stared at Lisa’s hand, the same hand I held on our walks, and watched it solidify into a hard synthetic shell.
When I tried to leave, Sydney grabbed my arm. “They’re eating their innocence,” she whispered, looking over each shoulder, her eyes darting side to side.
“Well, then, you’re safe,” laughed Ronald.
“Fuck off, Ronnie,” Sydney shot back, her dark hair falling across her forehead, allowing only glimpses of her cold blue eyes. “I found the path yesterday when you all were jerking off with your football. There’s a way out, through the generator room. There’s a path through the field that leads to the woods. From there…”
“They’ll just bring you back,” argued Ronald.
Sydney narrowed her eyes, shaking her head. She hated when people interrupted her. “If you get out of range, they can’t find you.”
“You don’t know that. They’ll kill you.”
“They’ll kill us anyway. And with me and you, Tubby, it’s going to be real soon. We’re almost old enough.”
“This is crazy. You’re going to get yourself killed. Just leave me and Charlie out of it,” said Ronald.
“Pussy,” spat Sydney. “Stay here and die. See if I care.”
“I’ll go,” I said.
As soon as the words came out, regret filled the core of me. It felt as if I had swallowed one of the oranges from the grove.
“Dude, she’s nuts,” said Ronald. “Don’t let her bully you…”
“Let Charlie speak for himself,” Sydney interrupted.
Ronald opened his mouth to argue, but only chuckled as he walked away shaking his head. Sydney fixed her hardened stare on me. “We should go tonight. No reason to wait.”
“Really? After a failed transformation?” I asked, hoping to delay my inevitable backing out.
She nodded, excitement filling her voice. “Exactly. They’ll be all wrapped up in why it happened. They’ll let their guard down.”
My regret morphed into fear and Sydney saw the apprehension in my face. She raised a finger and waved it at me. “Don’t you back out on me now. What happened today is perfect for us.”
I turned away from her, my body wanting to flee. She grabbed my shoulder and spun me around. Her thin wiry hands gripped me hard, nails digging into the flesh. Working in the field as hard as she did had endowed her with muscles I could only dream of at my age. Brushing the hair from her face, she put our foreheads together.
“Today was nothing,” she said. “They probably thought he was older, is all. He’s the only redhead in this entire place. They probably just misjudged his age and thought he was ready for the change.”
I know I wanted to go with her, but I never thought I would have the courage. I guess it was because she scared me a little. They had brought Sydney in with the last group and she had been defiant from the start. I had a great deal of respect for her fervent passion. She approached everything she did with zeal, from simple chores to her plans of escape. She put all of her into everything she did. It burned inside her and part of me wanted to be close to that heat. I wanted her to keep me safe. Since she was two years older than I was and smarter than most of us, I thought she could protect me.
We thought we would never see Tobey again. But that night, they hurried us into one of the large farmhouses, the big green one in the center of the complex. Sydney said that was where they slept, but I never saw the plastic men go into any of the buildings. They seemed to vanish around corners or blend into cracks between the trees and tractors. They were all there that day, standing on the makeshift stage.
Plastic men lined the back wall, the paint peeling randomly behind them. As I stared at the spots of rust and paint, my imagination created screaming faces in the random lines. Light poured from behind them dousing their emotionless faces in shadows. All we could see was the outline of their bowler hats. A single rope drifted listlessly next to one of them, a noose at the end, as the others took their place in front. They turned their backs to us and tipped their hats to the stage. As they put them back on, Tobey walked out. He stared blankly, as if he were drugged or uncaring of the crowd that had gathered. He walked to the noose and turned to face us. Dusty motes drifted in the artificial light as the plastic man tightened the noose around his thin neck.
“Are they going to kill him?” asked Ronald.
I turned and looked at Sydney. Rage filled her eyes. I grasped her hand to quell my shaking.
The plastic man who stood on the stage tilted his head slightly. Tobey’s body came off the ground, slowly at first, and then shot up into the rafters, stopping a foot below the ceiling. With a nod of his head, the plastic man turned away and Tobey fell to the gasps of the crowd. I heard his neck snap and he jolted back up before his lifeless body went limp, swaying in the silent room. The plastic men in the front clapped as if watching a nice shot on a par five.
Now as an adult, I understand that the first moment a child comprehends true evil is a terrible thing. But with us, it meant that the plastic men noticed you. After Tobey, we couldn’t pretend any longer. We all knew that one day before our sixteenth birthday, they would call to us, we would gather in the circle, and we would become lost in the euphoria of the change. We would turn into plastic and melt away, like our parents. For the first time, one of us resisted. He did not turn, but found relief in death. For us, that was a better alternative.
The next night, Sydney came to my bunk and crawled into bed with me. I felt her tight body against mine, like one large muscle enveloping me. Her breath smelled of onions and sweat.
“You understand we have to go tonight, right?”
I always thought the sparkle in Sydney’s eyes portrayed passion or some level of perseverance that urged me to want to follow. Looking into her eyes under the covers of my bunk, I understood that what I saw was lunacy.
“I think we should wait for a better time,” I said.
I could hear her teeth grinding. She wrapped her arms around me.
“I’m ready to live or die tonight. I’m done waiting. I’ll scream and they’ll come. They’ll hang us both just like Tobey.”
I started to cry. “Why are you doing this to me?”
“Shut up. You have strength in you, you just don’t know it. When you get older, you’ll understand. But we have to leave so you can get older. Don’t fuck this up.”
“Please, let’s just stay. We should think about it.”
She wiped my tears away with her thumbs and took my cheeks in her hands. She kissed me. My second kiss. If not for the circumstances, I would have been ecstatic. As she stared into my eyes, she told me all she knew. She told me our innocence saved us. We were children and did not understand the world. We had hope. We still believed in something that grown-ups could not anymore. Once adulthood took us, the world would become simple and stagnant. We would want what the adults wanted: college, a career, a house in the suburbs; all the things needed to complete our plastic dreams. Adults were just waiting for the plastic men to come and follow through on what they already felt. The world had died in a sea of plastic and adults were the ones responsible for conjuring the plastic men.
When she finished, she kissed me again.
“I’ll go,” I said, and for the first time, Sydney smiled.
We crept out of the bunkhouse and made our way to the small building that stood near the edge of the property. It housed the large generator that provided power to most of the buildings. The electrical lines were still active, but the plastic men only allowed us to use minimal power to operate the machinery. We used candles or kerosene lamps at night.
Plastic men hovered along the perimeter of the property. When they first brought us to the farm, many tried to escape. The ones who spoke of their thwarted getaway attempts only said that there wasn’t a way out. As I gazed into the night, I imagined the plastic men floating in the dark waiting to put their cold hands on me.
“You see that small hole,” said Sydney, pointing to a crack at the bottom corner of the building. It looked to be about the size of a rabbit hole.
“You’ll never fit through there,” I said.
“You let me worry about that,” said Sydney, peering around the corner. “All you need to do is pry up the wood and squeeze through. It’s one of the drainage channels. You’ll have to slide all the way to the other end. Once you get to the other side, bust your way through and you’ll be right at the edge of the woods. Start running and don’t look back. Got it.”
I nodded and she hugged me. She turned and sprinted to the building. I followed, keeping my vision focused on the crack at the corner like a well-shot arrow. When I reached it, I gave the slat a quick tug and the cracking of the wood sounded loud in my ears. I did not look back. I scurried under and made my way into the dark corridor.
After a moment, my eyes adjusted to the room. A mixture of wet dirt and mouse droppings squished between my fingers and the smell of burning oil overwhelmed my nostrils. I covered my mouth to stifle a cough and tasted the muddy ground. I felt wet earth ooze across my arms and legs. I had crawled roughly halfway and I could see light beaming through the other side. My freedom awaited. Then I heard a muffled scream. I looked behind me to see if Sydney was close. Only a circular light from my entryway beamed back. I inched my head above the lip of the ditch.
Plastic men hung in a circle, their artificial faces crunched into smiles. Sydney stood in the middle, blood dripping from the corner of her mouth. Her clothes were torn and she favored her right arm. One of the plastic men reached down and slapped her across the mouth and she fell. When she lifted up, I saw the bone sticking out of her arm.
She turned and saw me. There are many things I want to forget about that night, but I don’t want to forget the way Sydney’s eyes lit up when she saw me and the smile that appeared at the corners of her mouth. It was the happiest I’d ever seen her. Bouncing to her feet, she charged the one who had hit her. He flipped his arm, sending her flying into the wall. Dust puffed as she landed and coughed blood onto the filthy floor. Before she could lift up again, they were on her, kicking and stomping. Blood spurted from her mouth. She wailed and cried as they came down on her like a pack of wild dogs clawing at her skin. They ripped the rest of her clothes from her skinny frame and dug their plastic nails into her flesh, beating her long after her body had stopped moving, as if they were kicking a bag of sand.
I felt sick and dizzy, but I turned to the light ahead of me and pushed forward. When I broke through the other side, I didn’t look back, just like Sydney had told me. My legs wobbled, but I bolted for the woods. Old tractors filled the field and I darted between them, lungs burning, eyes on the tree line that looked so close, but never seemed to get closer. I waited for those plastic fingers that had torn apart Sydney to grasp my shoulder, pull me down, and beat me as they had beaten her.
I’m not sure how long I ran. I didn’t stop until I collapsed from fatigue, passing out behind an old trailer. When I regained consciousness, I thought about going back to my home. It was a brief thought. I knew if I went back, all I would find would be the dried up puddles of my parents and the bones of my sister. I had enough horrific images to last me a lifetime. I didn’t need one more.
The trailer looked empty so I went in and found some cans of soup. I gobbled down the cold liquid and vegetables, my stomach roiling after each swallow, but I held it down. After grabbing a few bottles of water and some chips, I walked through the woods until I found a road. In the distance, I recognized the Bank of America building, its stone façade stretching into the sky, looking more like a cathedral. The copper and gold roof reminded me of the Mayan stepped pyramids we learned about in social studies. Light reflected off the synthetic casing that enveloped the building and bits of plastic clung to the antenna at the very top. I started walking toward it, knowing that I would run into civilization soon. I still hoped I’d find more people, specifically adults. Part of me believed that adults still survived somewhere and that the Army or someone had a plan to destroy the plastic men; I just needed to find them.
I came to a sign that read: Loch Raven. I remembered that our fourth-grade class visited the reservoir at Loch Raven to learn about the ecosystem. As I hurried down the road, I noticed the silence for the first time, as if I’d walked into an anechoic chamber. My ears felt stuffy and the pounding of my heart filled the void. I constantly spun around expecting the plastic men, with their faces devoid of life, to be there waiting.
I reached my first neighborhood, elated that I’d find someone. Houses stood in stillness in the mist of the dim morning light as if a lampshade covered the sun. Filmy residue shrouded the sky and for the first time, I really saw the plastic that covered the world. Pieces floated through the air like jellyfish in the ocean. Clouds faded and hazy light, like the light in a gas station bathroom, gave the street a dull ambiance. Shadows of darkness crept at every corner. Plastic, like a virus, spread across the ground in tendrils. It covered the grass in large circular patches, stretching like tarps thrown over a baseball field. Lines of thin plastic, like the silk from a spider’s web, clung to every tree and house.
I couldn’t stop staring at the artificial scenery until I noticed her. A small girl, sitting in the center of the road, legs crossed, rocked her head side to side as if listening to a familiar song. I approached her, stepping quietly. Her eyes closed, she hummed, continuing to bob her head. She looked to be my age, perhaps a year or so younger. Golden ballet slippers glistened against her pale skin, the laces as brilliant as sunshine. Her dress, a spiral of blue, red and yellow radiated in the bleakness that surrounded her. Freckles under her eyes and across the bridge of her nose enhanced the blossoming red of her cheeks.
“Hello,” I whispered, trying not to startle her.
She gently opened her eyes and smiled. Copper irises laced with ebony stared back at me, her look warm and inviting.
“You escaped,” she said plainly. Her voice calmed and made me uncomfortable simultaneously.
Pieces of plastic, like weeds scattered across a garden, shriveled around where the girl sat. “Do you know what’s happened?” she asked.
“They killed my family,” I said, the words escaping my lips before the emotion registered in my brain. I started to sob.
She smiled softly, her expression knowing and sympathetic. “Yes, they did. But they have not won. Not yet.”
She stood and took my hand. Her scarlet hair dangled in long strands. Turning, she pushed towards the plastic that crawled across the ground. It receded like the waves of the ocean. Squeezing my hand, she lifted my arm in the air, passing it over the ground. Strands of plastic pulled back and flittered into the air.
“Did you do that?” I asked.
“Yes. I will show you.”
She raised our arms above our heads and I felt power, electric and geothermal, surge through me. It came from the ground, the trees, the sky, the core of the earth. Burning, like molten lava, coursed through my veins and pain touched every molecule of my body. Tiny needles pricked my skin, numbing all feeling. Tears streamed down my face. I tried to let go, pull away from her. But she held me tight, her grip reminding me of Sydney.
“The pain will pass,” she said in an even tone. “Sydney was your friend?”
I looked at her. Pale skin sprinkled with tiny freckles. The pain subsided a little. “Yes, she was my friend. At the farm. We tried to escape together. The plastic men…”
She pulled me closer. “Do you feel her?”
Images filled my mind and the girl faded from my vision. I closed my eyes, trying to slow the vertigo.
“Don’t fight it.” The girl’s voice seemed far away, her light breath touching my neck, comforting, calming my nerves and allowing my senses to take in all that flooded my mind.
“Do you feel Sydney?”
Her words released Sydney into my conscious mind. Fever touched my skin as phrases and numbers spiraled around me. Then through the chaos, she was there. Sydney. It was as if she were under the covers again, her intense stare boring into me.
“Adults conjured the plastic men,” she said. “The plastic grew inside them. But I was wrong. It doesn’t have to happen to us. We can change the world. The plastic doesn’t have to be our story. When we reach puberty, the plastic men convert us. Girls are taken younger because they become mothers. The plastic men do not want more of us. Children can grow up and have children of their own that do not desire the plastic world or crave the loss of earlier adults. We can be connected again.”
Sydney faded into the air and she smiled, the same smile she flashed before the plastic men took her from me. When she disappeared from my vision, I realized the girl had released her grip and returned to her crossed leg position on the road. Her red hair glowed in the light as the sun dipped below the horizon, the shadows stretching over us.
“It’s night already?” I asked. Muscles in my legs twitched and aches ran through my bones.
“Alteration takes much from both of us. We need to rest now, reflect.”
She patted the ground and I collapsed next to her.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“I’m Maya. We can find the others now.”
Before I could ask who the others were, dizziness overtook me and my vision blurred. When I closed my eyes, a large room appeared with a long wooden table, like the one in our elementary school library. Large bound volumes, suspended one on top the other, lined the black walls. Light hovered from an unseen source above. A map of the world lay on the table. Butterflies, small and large, colorful and plain, flittered from all directions. They landed on the map, their wings drawing still. There were thousands across the Earth.
“Feel better?” asked Maya. She appeared at my side wearing a bright yellow dress, red and blue flowers opening and closing on the fabric.
“Is this a dream?” I asked as my body glided to the table. Tiny white and blue lines, like veins, connected the butterflies on the map.
“No, this is now. Always now. We’re all with you and you are with us.”
“But what if the plastic men come while we’re in here? They’ll take us, they’ll turn us.”
She smiled again and touched my cheek. “They cannot touch us. We’re connected to the earth in a way that they do not even understand.”
As she spoke, her fiery hair twisted, changing color like an octopus in a coral reef. Yellow, green, orange, magenta, cerulean came and went in patterns. Her hair morphed around her face.
“Are you doing that or am I?” I asked.
“We both are.”
“I don’t understand.”
She waved her arm across the map. “We came from stars. Even the plastic men know this. We are all earth. We are all universe.”
Her smile dropped. “You will learn fast, I think. We have much to do. Please sit.”
I sat, feeling all the vibrations and sensations from the others in my mind, in my essence. Children, who like me had escaped the plastic men and connected to one another in a way lost to humanity.
“We are stars,” Maya repeated. “The universe is linked and we are her children. In the beginning, we lost touch with ourselves. We ignored the warnings. We only thought of the present and the self. Satisfaction became our driving force and with it, we accomplished much. But at great cost.”
The room grew dark and the butterflies glowed, illuminating the map in subdued light.
“Adulthood came quicker,” Maya continued. “Plastic engulfed us completely and we went willingly. We wanted nothing more than to believe in our plastic life. We hid in the false. It pleased us.”
“But it killed us,” I said softly.
Maya beamed with pride. “Yes. You do learn quickly.”
Tears welled in my eyes. “My friends at the farm. Sydney and Tobey. I should have done something to save them.”
As I spoke, Maya tilted her head as if listening to someone calling her name. Her eyes widened and a smile grew from the corners of her mouth.
“Your farm is open,” she said.
“What do mean opened?” I asked.
“Tobey. They took him unnaturally. The area is weakened now.” Her eyes narrowed and her smile turned sinister. “The plastic can be melted.”
We arrived at the farm the next morning and I could feel power emanating from Maya. When she took my hand, my mind connected with her and with the Earth. I drew power, feeling it, like a switch flicked on, as it spiked inside me. When the plastic men saw us approaching, they turned to run. They understood the power inside us and I tasted their fear on my tongue, savoring the flavor.
Maya would not allow them to escape. Fire encircled the farm and I felt the flames tickling my skin as I helped her maintain the perimeter. Slowly, we compressed the circle of flames, herding the plastic men into the center of the field. The children from the farm, timid and tentative at first, gathered around.
Maya rose into the air, hovering over the plastic men, her eyes like lakes of lava.
“I purge this plastic,” she proclaimed, her voice carrying across the field. She spread her arms wide and I used every bit of my newly found abilities to hold the fire ring in place. Sweat beaded my forehead as I exerted all my inner strength to hold them. Maya raised her arms above her head and closed her hands into fists.
When the flames constricted and swallowed the plastic men, they screamed as the fire shredded their bodies. Their bowler hats and suits exploded into flame. The fire intensified and my nostrils filled with the toxic smell of burnt plastic.
As the fire subsided, Maya floated down to the ground. Her face slathered with sweat, she reached her hand out to take mine. Her touch felt hot and clammy, but it reinvigorated me.
“You did well,” she told me. “You will improve each time.”
My hands trembled and she raised them to her lips, kissing them gingerly. Heat from her touch warmed my skin. She turned to the children who stood in disbelief.
“We are few. But we are strong,” said Maya. “Charlie and I will guide you. The plastic will be purged from this world.”
That was ten years ago. We’ve had many victories and some defeats. I lost Ronald to the plastic a year ago today. He grew up to be brave, but he left himself open to plastic dreams and they converted him. Plastic men still control much of the world, but we are beating them. Maya and I have children of our own now and my power continues to grow. Our only obstacle is within us. Our false fantasies are hard to resist. Some of us fall, but we keep fighting for our future. The world we desire does not need the plastic.
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