By Kristina Rivera Colón
The little girl peeked around the curtain and looked at the audience. The adults sat in black velvet chairs, a harsh contrast against the bright white of their attire. The women wore floor-length silk dresses while the men each had on three-piece suits. Their children, some of them her classmates, sat in front surrounding the stage in matching black chairs and white outfits.
The little girl looked down at her own pink chiffon dress and cream stockings. The bow at her waist was so big she could barely see past it, and her bubblegum Mary Jane shoes pinched her feet and cut into her heel. At ten years old, she felt she was too grown to be wearing any of it. Her teacher stood before her with a can of hairspray and a tube of pink, sparkly lip gloss. With her teacher’s hair pulled back in a tight bun and the bright lights casting shadows across her face, the little girl could see a frown setting in and wrinkles beginning on the sides of her eyes and mouth. The little girl thought her teacher was still beautiful, but she knew what everyone else thought. Having just turned thirty-five, this year would be her teacher’s last. The rules were very strict.
“Okay, when you go out there, I want you to smile big. Huge. And then bow toward the crowd.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Turn around and let me spray your curls,” the teacher said as she set the little girl’s hair and adjusted the barrettes over her ears. The little girl covered her mouth with her hand and squeezed her eyes shut as the spray fell over her head and onto her face and shoulders. She hated the alcohol smell of hairspray, but she hated the bitter taste on her tongue and the sting in her eyes even more. “This is the most important thing that will ever happen to you. Once they give you a nickname, you’re stuck with it for life. Okay, now face me. Pucker your lips more. Yes, like that. Oh, I almost forgot, carry this in your arms when you go out there.”
“But I’m too old for dolls.”
The little girl stared at it hotly, frustrated by the whole act. Her dress itched in a spot that would have been inappropriate to scratch in public, and she was already beginning to sweat underneath her stockings.
“It’s for presentation. Just do it. It will better your chances. Do you remember everything we’ve practiced?”
“Are you scared?”
“Good. You know it will only make things worse for you if you’re scared. You need to have a clear head. See each move in your mind before you do them. It’s a dance. Remember that.”
“Go now. They’re ready for you.”
The little girl straightened her back and walked toward the audience with her sweetest smile on and a porcelain doll in her arms whose dress and hair matched hers exactly. She clutched it to her chest and continued to drop her eyes and look back up at the crowd through her eyelashes as she approached the stage, making herself seem shy.
The Announcer passed right by the little girl and threw her a playful wink before he tapped the microphone and began to welcome the audience. He wore a three-piece suit as well, but his was a deep charcoal with a slate gray shirt and a black and gray pin-striped tie. Only the audience members were permitted to wear white; everyone else, excluding the performers, had to wear dark colors.
His dress shoes were so shiny, the little girl could see her reflection on them, and as she looked up at his face, she could see his wrinkles plain as day. He wore no makeup to try and hide them or make himself look younger, and his salt and pepper hair was on full display, a sign of his long-winded career as the Announcer.
He told the audience that they had quite a show tonight and to prepare themselves because he believed that they would see things they had never seen before. Then he turned toward the little girl and motioned for her to stand at his side. Once she was close enough to smell the sourness of his cologne, he motioned for another girl to stand at his left. The little girl hadn’t seen her earlier, but now she took note of her opponent. She was wearing beige socks with ruffles encircling her ankles and a pale-yellow tulle dress. Her lip gloss was a soft peach, and her hair sat on the top of her head in a braided bun with delicate blonde tendrils falling around her face. She also had on a plastic tiara.
“Ladies and gentlemen! I’d like to introduce to you our two performers for tonight, but before I do that, they have to have a name, right? They can’t begin without a name or how will they know whom we’re rooting for? Hmm, let’s see here… Let’s begin with the little girl in the beautiful yellow dress. Hello sweetheart, how are you?”
“W-w-well, thank you.”
“Aww, it seems as though we have a nervous one tonight.”
“N-no, sir. I just h-h-have a st-stu-stutter.”
“Well, that’s unfortunate. Hopefully, it won’t affect your performance tonight.”
“N-no, sir. M-m-my arms work f-fine.”
At this, the little girl put her head down at the same time that the whole audience burst into laughter. The girl with the stutter instantly widened her smile, thinking that she had won over the audience, but her attempt at a joke had only confirmed their suspicions: she was dumb.
“I see. Well, you sure look lovely tonight. Doesn’t she ladies and gentlemen? Just like a slice of lemon pie. Lemon Pie! How about that for a name? Do you like that sweetie?”
“I don't like l-le-lemon p-pie.”
The Announcer gave her a tight-lipped smile. You were never supposed to say that you didn’t like the name he picked for you. She was doing everything wrong. This was the first thing they taught you when you began practices. She should have known better. It was a sure way to lose the audience’s favor.
“Well then, let’s see if we can find you a different one. Let’s see here. How about Peach Pie? For those pretty peach lips of yours. Or how about Banana Muffin? For that banana yellow dress. I know, how about Little Princess? After all, only princesses are allowed to wear tiaras. How about that ladies and gentlemen? I’d like to introduce you to Little Princess!”
The audience whooped and hollered, and the children began to get antsy in their seats, their faces expectant. It should have already begun ten minutes ago.
“Let’s move on to the other little girl we have here. Hello honey, how are you?”
“I’m doing well, thank you.”
“Don’t you look stunning? And who is that in your arms? Did you bring your doll tonight? Your little baby doll?”
“Yes, sir, I did. She’s my best friend.”
“Well isn’t that sweet. I think I have the perfect name for you. Everyone, here is Baby Doll. Now I know we’re running a little behind schedule, so I’m just going to get right to it. Your two performers for tonight are Little Princess and Baby Doll” he yelled, spreading his arms wide and swooping his hands down, gesturing toward the two girls. “Now at the sound of the bell, I’d like you two darlings to please begin. Ladies and gentlemen do not sit back, relax, and enjoy the show. Instead, I hope you sit at the edge of your seats clawing at the fabric with excitement! I hope your eyes bulge out of your skulls with anticipation! And, most importantly, I hope you go crazy!”
As soon as he was off the stage, the bell rang, and suddenly, Baby Doll’s spine went rigid. She knew what she was supposed to do, but her hands remained tightly around her doll. Little Princess approached her slowly, locking eyes with Baby Doll. Once directly in front of her, she stopped. A child from the audience yelled something obscene and threw a lollipop at Baby Doll’s head. She turned and looked toward the direction from which it had come, and as soon as she did, Little Princess charged forward and knocked her down. Her doll flew out of her hands and shattered across the floor behind her somewhere backstage, breaking into pieces and making loud crashing sounds as they scattered. Little Princess was on top of her, tearing at her hair and her dress. The audience began to roar. Baby Doll put her hands up, protecting her face. Her heart was pounding in her ears. She stayed like that until Little Princess’s blows began to slow. Then, Baby Doll put her hands on Little Princess’s shoulders, kicked up and flipped her over. Baby Doll jumped up and got on top of Little Princess and pinned her down.
“W-wh-what are you d-doing? Hit me!” said Little Princess angrily.
Baby Doll grabbed her tiara and pulled it from her head, throwing it toward the audience. She watched it fly through the air in horror. Attached to it, were pieces of Little Princess’s hair and blood. One of the women in the audience reached up and caught it, handing it to her child in front of her. Baby Doll looked down at Little Princess. Blood dripped down her face where one of the tendrils of hair had been. Baby Doll was close to tears. She hadn’t meant to do that.
“D-don’t you d-d-dare cry in f-front of them.”
Little Princess reached up and punched Baby Doll in the face, splitting her lip open. Baby Doll fell backward, clutching her mouth. Looking up, Baby Doll saw Little Princess’s shoe coming toward her face and, instinctively, she grabbed it with both hands and with her own foot she swept Little Princess’s planted foot, knocking her onto her back. Baby Doll got to her feet as blood dripped from her mouth. She stood in a defensive position that was similar to that of a boxer’s: one foot in front of the other, her weight on the balls of her feet. Both fists were up, ready to protect her face, or throw a punch. The intensity of the fight had loosened her limbs, and she watched as Little Princess rose from the ground slowly, taking in ragged breaths. Little Princess’s braided bun no longer sat at the top of her head but instead, was hanging at the base of her neck and there was a tear in her dress at the shoulder.
“I don’t want to fight you,” Baby Doll said under her breath as Little Princess advanced, pushing her closer to the edge of the stage.
“You have t-t-to.”
“No, I don’t. And you don’t have to either. We can both—”
“You have t-to. P-p-please! Or they’ll m-m-m-make me g-go b-b-back to him.”
“Wha—” Little Princess took a swing at Baby Doll, cutting her off, but she blocked it.
“Stop trying to make me hit you.”
Baby Doll accidentally bit her lip and winced as she swallowed blood. The taste of it nauseated her, and so without taking her eyes off of Little Princess, she spit it out over the edge of the stage.
Suddenly, there came a high-pitched scream from behind Baby Doll. It caused her and Little Princess to jump. Someone grabbed the hem of Baby Doll’s dress and yanked hard. Baby Doll heard a horrible ripping sound as she fell backward off of the stage and onto the floor. With the wind knocked out of her, Baby Doll could only watch as Little Princess jumped off of the stage and landed on top of her, arms swinging. The crowd encircled them, yelling profanities and chanting Little Princess’s name. Some even took turns ripping at Baby Doll’s dress and pulling at her hair.
Instantly, the faces of the audience began to be replaced by the faces of the security guards. They came out in a swarm from behind the curtains and down the aisles, pushing people back and even restraining a few in their seats. Then the bell sounded again, and the Announcer came back onto the stage saying that the fight wouldn’t continue until everyone was back in their seats. He then sent Baby Doll and Little Princess backstage to collect themselves. Baby Doll climbed onto the stage exiting stage right with Little Princess climbing up behind her exiting stage left, both hiding from the crowd behind the safety of black curtains.
Baby Doll’s teacher approached her and began rambling, saying something about how in the hell someone who graduated at the top of her class could be losing, but Baby Doll stopped listening. Her eyes were focused across the stage on Little Princess and her teacher. He was tall and broad-shouldered with light brown hair. His suit was the typical forest green color that all teachers were supposed to wear on this night, but it was slightly too small for him. As he kneeled, the bottom of his pants rose, and Baby Doll could see a hole in his sock just above the ankle. Little Princess sat stiffly on a stool, and he gave her a hug, pressing her head tightly against him. Then he bent forward, placing his hand on her knee. His thumb slipped just under the edge of her skirt, and Baby Doll shivered at the sight of him massaging the skin there. Little Princess automatically closed her legs and looked away from him, bringing her eyes up and accidentally making eye contact with Baby Doll. They held each other’s stares for a moment before Little Princess dropped her eyes once more. Baby Doll suddenly understood why Little Princess wanted to fight so badly. Whoever won would advance to the next stage and would no longer be under the guidance of their teacher.
For that reason alone, Baby Doll wished she could just let Little Princess win, but she knew what it meant to lose. She wouldn’t let them do that to her. Baby Doll hated The Performances. Hated what they did to people, what they took from people. Baby Doll had only participated in the classes because she was forced to, but she had never wanted this. Baby Doll thought back to the first and last performance she had ever seen. She was six years old, and her mother had dressed her in a white dress with a matching headband. Baby Doll had hated it. The headband stood out against the dark brown of her curls that were so much like her father’s and nothing like her mother’s golden waves. She had sat at her mother’s feet, fiddling with the headband until her mother slapped at her hand, telling her that the performance would be starting soon. Not long after the words had been out of her mother’s mouth did Baby Doll’s older sister, Roselyn, walk across the stage. She had been wearing a pale blue dress with a sequined overlay that glittered under the lights, and her blonde hair had stood in a topknot at the crown of her head. She looked like a princess, and immediately, the image of Disney’s Cinderella came to mind. The Announcer must have thought the same thing because that is what he had chosen to name her. Her sister’s opponent, a pretty Asian girl in a pale purple dress with a flower in her hair, had been named Miss Lavender.
Baby Doll had sat throughout the performance in terror. Her sister, the girl who had run out of their house once during a lightning storm to save her beloved beagle, had beaten another little girl until she not only cried but also bled. Baby Doll could not recognize her sister. Then, during the second half, her sister had begun to slow down. She had taken a hard kick to her ribcage, and Baby Doll swore she heard the crack and snap of a bone breaking. The girls never stopped fighting. Eventually, she had turned around and asked her mother when it would be over and her mother, not even taking her eyes away from the stage, had explained in a bitter tone that there was a time when the performers would fight to the death but losing that many girls was costly and so now it lasted only until one of them was physically unable to continue the fight. She had added at the end, finally looking at Baby Doll with an eager expression, that once in a while the performers got carried away and one of them would be killed. Baby Doll had been too stunned for words, and when she finally turned back toward the stage, it had only been because of the sound of her sister’s screams. Roselyn was at the edge of the stage, gripping her midsection with a look of anguish on her face. She had been panting and repeatedly spitting blood from her mouth. It looked as if she had taken another hit to the same spot in her ribs. Miss Lavender had then walked up to Roselyn and kicked her right in the chest. It hadn’t been a hard kick, but it hadn’t needed to be. Her sister fell backward onto the floor, dazed. Miss Lavender had then climbed on top of her, snapping Roselyn’s neck with one quick move. It had happened too fast for Baby Doll to have even realized what it meant. All she saw was her sister’s head dangling off the edge of the stage with her eyes completely vacant, staring right at her.
At that moment, Baby Doll had let out a noise that even she couldn’t identify. The pain that wracked through her chest had made her double over and vomit. Then the screaming started. She had screamed so much that her mother had picked her up and taken her out of the room but not before she saw the crowd go wild. Baby Doll didn’t remember much about what happened after that because they had given her a sedative, but before drifting off, she had promised herself that when it was her turn, no matter what, they would not turn her into that.
* * *
The bell rang for the third time, and Baby Doll was brought back to the present. She stood still at center stage, filled with even more determination and waited for Little Princess to approach her. When Little Princess stood directly in front of her, Baby Doll finally walked toward her and swung her right fist as if trying to punch her. Little Princess blocked it just as Baby Doll knew she would and grabbing that same arm, Little Princess twisted it around Baby Doll’s back locking her in position. With both of their backs toward the audience, Baby Doll tried to reason with her again.
“Listen, we could stop this right now and forfeit. Your parents could request another teacher; you wouldn’t have to go back to him.”
“No, they c-c-can’t af-ford another t-teacher. And the c-c-crowd has g-gotten too c-crazy. They would n-never let us b-b-both live.”
Little Princess twisted Baby Doll’s arm even more, and before she could dislocate it, Baby Doll swung her head back, making contact with Little Princess’s nose. The crunch of bone sounded in her ears, and Little Princess quickly let go as blood gushed down her dress and onto the floor. Baby Doll grabbed Little Princess by the shoulders and thrusting her hip forward, swept her leg one more time. Little Princess scooted backward on her butt several feet and came upon the broken pieces of Baby Doll’s porcelain doll. Then Baby Doll scrambled on top of Little Princess, holding her in place.
“I’m sorry, but this was the only way you’d listen to me.”
The crowd began to shout and flood the edge of the stage. The children were trying to climb onto it, as were the adults. Security came out again from behind the curtains and began throwing people off the stage and kicking them back toward their seats.
Baby Doll looked behind her and realized that they were no longer in sight of the audience.
“They can’t see us.”
“Well, l-let’s go b-b-back out there! G-get off!”
“No, I need you to listen.”
Little Princess kept trying to squirm under her, but Baby Doll wouldn’t let her move. Finally, Baby Doll felt Little Princess’s body go lax.
“You’re n-n-ever going to f-fight me, are you?”
“I’m not a monster.”
“And I’m not going b-b-back.”
Then, too quickly for Baby Doll to stop her, Little Princess grabbed one of the porcelain shards and ran it smoothly across her own neck. A guttural scream left Baby Doll’s mouth as she pressed her hands against Little Princess’s throat, trying to stop the bleeding. She looked up, searching for help, and saw her teacher running toward her.
“I didn’t do it. She just, she grabbed it, and I couldn’t stop her…”
“Shh, be quiet. Here, take this in your hands. They need to believe you did it. I said, take it! Listen, I’m going to go tell the Announcer that you killed her and…Shh. I have to tell him that, or they’ll kill you too. Now, I’m going to go tell him, and you have to prepare yourself because the crowd is going to get worse. They pay big money to watch this and then they didn’t even get to see the ending. We’d be lucky if we get out of here alive, but I need you to collect yourself and act like the assassin we trained you to be. Do you hear me?”
Baby Doll nodded her head, one hand still pressed on Little Princess’s neck.
“Stand up. I’m going to the Announcer now.”
Numbly, Baby Doll watched as her teacher wiped her hands on a handkerchief and then stuffed it in her pocket before heading over to him. She whispered in his ear, interrupting his attempt to calm the crowd. Soon they both came running over to Baby Doll.
“Well done, sweetheart but they’ll never go for this,” he said, turning toward her teacher. “They’re going to need proof. We’re going to have to take her out onto the stage.”
“Is she going to have to answer any questions?”
Baby Doll stiffened at the idea.
“What? No, I meant her,” and he pointed at Little Princess’s body.
“No. That’s not how things are done. They fight, there’s a winner, and if there’s a body, it’s taken discreetly off the stage during the congratulatory speech. That is tradition.”
“In case you haven’t noticed my dear, there is nothing traditional about this performance, and if I go onto that stage without something to show them, we will all have hell to pay.”
“Show them Baby Doll. She’s covered in blood.”
“That won’t be enough, and you know it. Look, I don’t like the idea much either but you and I both know what will happen if the audience complains. The Orchestrator hearing about this fiasco of a performance is bad enough, he doesn’t need to lose money too.”
Baby Doll’s teacher grabbed her hand and pulled her completely backstage while the Announcer broke the news to the crowd. As soon as the words were out of his mouth, the people began to shout. Chairs were flipped over, and soon fights began to break out. The Announcer tried to quiet them down, but his voice couldn’t be heard over theirs. Baby Doll watched him whisper to a bald security guard. The bald man made his way over to Little Princess and, grabbing her by one of her feet, he dragged her to the center of the stage. Silence swept over the audience as they took in the sight of her. Then, as if on cue, they began chanting Baby Doll’s name and cheering. For a moment, Baby Doll refused to go onto the stage, but with a slight nudge from her teacher, she began to walk over to the Announcer.
As she came toward him, she was forced to step over Little Princess’s body. Passing over her, she noticed her eyes were dilated to the point where they seemed black. She knew what had happened, had even been part of the fight. And she knew who her opponent had been, but all Baby Doll could see as she stared at the body was her own sister looking up at her. Then she noticed the blood. It had only taken a few minutes, but already more than half of the blood in Little Princess’s body was spilled across the floor. In training, they teach the girls where all of the pressure points, major veins and arteries are, but that is only to incapacitate the opponent. This was the first time in the history of The Performances that someone used that knowledge to kill herself.
The crowd, including her own parents, still cheered Baby Doll’s name and threw flowers at her. As hard as she had tried not to fight Little Princess, The Performances had managed to make her a killer. Baby Doll looked around her at the chaos. The women dipped their hands into the puddles and smeared their wet palms across their dresses, asking afterward if she could sign her name across the bodices. The children jumped onto the stage and began to drag themselves along the floor.
The men, watching their families from the bar at the back of the room, clinked their glasses in a toast. They were all animals, each and every one of them.