Sophia Liu stops writing French verbs and drops her pencil. She’s a little dizzy after guiding her way with a ruler for a long time without looking up. With the ruler in her hand she goes to the refrigerator. Suddenly she forgets that she wanted a root beer. Something else is tugging her from inside, something more urgent. She veers off, plops the ruler into the toaster oven, and turns it on.
Something bad needs to happen to that blue length of plastic, lying inert on the tray that Nai Nai had carefully lined with foil. Something wicked. At three-hundred-and-seventy-five degrees, as if it were toasted cheese, the centimeter lines wobble and warp. It smells of chemicals and is promisingly sweet.
The raised centimeter marks recede. ‘MADE IN CHINA’ shrinks to an illegible blotch. Then the entire blue length curls, convulses, and burns beyond recognition. It reminds Sophia of the bacon strips Mom burned the week after she came home from the hospital with the babies.
“Cool!” Sophia says, clapping. Her voice drifts off into the ceiling beams. A tiny part of her feels bad, because Dad bought this ruler for her at Long’s the day before she started the fourth grade.
Outside a car door slams. Jada, back from Erin’s house. Sophia grabs a potholder and is about to dump the burnt mess in the trash. The side gate pushes open and Jada comes weaving her way around the toys and chairs cluttering the patio.
Sophia cracks open the oven door. Her nostrils flare at the stink. Fumes rise all around. Her mouth tastes bitter and prickly and she even gags a little bit.
Jada opens the sliding door and comes in. “What is going on?” she says. Her eyes register confusion. She clamps her hand over her nose.
Sophia shows Jada the blackened strip on the tray. An object of her own creation. Newly born and like no other.
Behind her purple-framed glasses, Jada’s brown eyes brighten.
“Oooooh Soph…” Jada hisses. She begins to rifle through her backpack.
The white gummy art store eraser stinks badly but merely softens without burning. An army of red and black pen caps smells only like microwaved plastic wrap, and Jada is not impressed. But Sophia feels satisfied seeing them start tall, human-like, and get beaten down into nubs.
Watching objects lose form and disappear into simple helplessness quickens Sophia’s pulse. And feeling the red-hot heating element warm her face perks up all of her cells. The fine hairs of her arms stand on end. Being the orchestrator of these meltdowns relieves Sophia of the mundane. Finally she feels like a master of something. Like she’s able to tap into some hidden truths.
Five months ago, on Sophia’s tenth birthday, Mom finished painting the new nursery walls an unsurprising blue. In the laundry room she turned water onto the rollers and brushes full force. As swirls of Ocean Breeze and Alabaster escaped down the drain, her energy left her. She later told the girls that she sat down on a heap of dirty towels and couldn’t get up.
That day, Sophia and Jada were the last to get picked up from school.
“Dad! Why are you so late? Where’s Mom?” Sophia asked when she saw her dad. She slid herself across the leather back seat.
Dad looked at his phone and scrolled down.
“Dad…tell us!!” Jada said.
Dad turned and rubbed his eyes. “Girls, Mom is fine. But she’s in the hospital. We’re going to see her right now.”
“I had some pain,” Mom said carefully, straining to sit up in her hospital bed. She looked pale, despite her bright coral lipstick. “But the doctor said not to worry. It’s because I’m getting so heavy.”
“What about the babies?” Sophia asked.
“They’re doing great,” Mom said. She held out her arms and exposed her rounded belly. “Ooh, one’s kicking now. Or maybe that’s both. Feel.”
Jada held her small hand against her mother’s stomach. “Good. So you’re coming home with us. Right?” she asked.
Mom looked at Dad for a long second.
“Come here, girls,” Dad said. He pulled Sophia and Jada towards him. “Actually, your mom will be staying here for a little while.”
“Why didn’t you tell us, Dad?” Sophia said.
“I am telling you,” Dad said.
“Well your timing is too slow, and your delivery is horrible,” Jada said.
“Jada!” Mom said. “I’m sorry about this. But I’ve been put on bed rest. Doctor’s orders. You’ll come visit all the time. And FaceTime me any time you want.”
“I thought we were going to Rinaldi’s for my birthday dinner,” Sophia said, fuming. “I wanted ravioli. I was supposed to have gelato.”
“I know, Sophia. I know we promised. I’m so sorry!” Mom said.
“We’ll make it up to you,” Dad said. “We will.”
Days stretched slowly. There was school and after-school and soccer but nothing really to look forward to. Their housekeeper, Mrs. Li, served Sophia and Jada microwaved pork buns alongside tortilla casseroles that neighbors had dropped off. Then Mrs. Li blasted Chinese soap operas while she clattered plates into the dishwasher. She checked the kitchen clock constantly. When they heard the garage door open and Dad’s car pull in, she would grab her purse. She’d slip past Dad as he came in the door. “Bye Bye!” she would yell, jogging to her car.
Several days later, at the hospital, Mom said she would be on bedrest until at least week thirty-two.
“What week is it now?” Jada asked.
“Twenty-five,” Mom said softly.
Sophia picked up Mom’s phone and swiped through two months on the calendar. She turned sullen.
“But you’re not even doing anything here, Mom,” Jada said. “Don’t you feel bored?”
“My main job right now is letting these two babies grow,” Mom said.
“Oh. But what about the children that you already have?” Sophia said. She folded her arms across her chest.
On the way home, Sophia saw Dad watching them from the rear view mirror. She refused to meet his gaze.
On Saturday as the girls lazily rode their bikes around the cul de sac they noticed an old Mercedes sedan pull up to their house. “Nai Nai! Ye Ye!” they yelled. They raced towards their grandparents, hopping off and letting the bikes fall onto the lawn.
“What? So pretty!” Ye Ye cried, in Mandarin. He set down a half dozen crinkly sacks, bulging with groceries from the Chinese market, and opened his arms. Sophia buried her face in his grandfather’s plaid shirt. It was warm and smelled faintly of pipe smoke.
“And so tall!” Nai Nai said, also in Mandarin. She hugged them, then stepped back and looked at the girls closely. She smoothed strands of Jada’s stringy hair behind her ear.
“I guess your father has been managing,” she said softly, “as best as he can.” She picked up a jump rope and an old tennis ball from the walkway and went inside.
Sometime after ten or so that night, Sophia quietly got out of bed and went into her sister’s room. Jada, also awake, sat up quickly and blinked in the milky moonlight.
“Let’s go outside,” Sophia whispered.
Jada nodded and got up. They padded into the hallway, past their parents’ closed bedroom door, and ran down the carpeted stairs. They slid the patio doors open and walked barefoot out to the guesthouse.
Blue-tinged television light glowed from the edges of the windows. Before they could knock, Ye Ye opened the door. He wore blue striped pajamas and held a shiny pipe in his hand.
Nai Nai appeared behind him and exclaimed, “What? It’s so late! You girls have school tomorrow!” She began slipping on her shoes. “I’m walking you back.”
“No! Please. We’re scared,” Jada told them.
“We can’t sleep,” Sophia said. “We don’t sleep well these days.”
Ye Ye and Nai Nai looked at each other. “Well, you’d better come in then,” Nai Nai said. She made them hot milk and gave them almond cookies. The girls sat and helped with a puzzle, just started—a familiar painting of a ship in rough seas. Ye Ye turned the channel to The Late Show.
Sophia picked out some dark blue edge pieces and tried to fit them together. Deep in concentration she almost forgot that Mom wasn’t home. But when she looked at Jada, falling asleep with cookie crumbs on her face, it came back to her. She felt a dull pang.
“Jada, let’s go,” Sophia said. She led her sister out and back to her bed.
That a Barbie’s upturned nose flattens on ‘Broil’ gives Sophia pleasure. Her eyelashes melt into a giant mascara mess. As if she’s crying hysterically. Sophia whoops feverishly when Barbie’s face softens and caves in. A major breakdown. After that, she takes the tray out of the oven. She enjoys letting the mess cool and stay ugly. The deformed face, between the pink neck and the yellow hair, is so satisfying.
But Jada is more satisfied with full destruction. Eight-year old Jada, small and thin like their mother, has lost most battles with Sophia in her life so far. But Sophia sees this changing. Jada’s determination is fierce. It is new and strange and kind of scary.
Elise Hoffman’s mom drops them off after soccer practice one afternoon, and they let themselves into the house. Mrs. Li is watching Chinese reality TV on her phone. She absently rearranges lotion and soap on the bathroom counter upstairs. Downstairs it is still. The shades are mostly drawn.
Jada goes upstairs. When she comes down she is holding another Barbie. She confidently cranks the oven dial. She leans towards the glass window and waits. Her eyes glisten as she admires tendrils of brown smoke and Barbie’s face turning into lumpy coal.
“My favorite is when the hair goes ‘poof’,” Jada says. She cups her hands and quickly pulls them apart.
Hair doesn’t ignite gradually, with an ember forming at the ends and gradually moving up individual blonde strands like Sophia had imagined. Broiled Barbie hair flames up suddenly. It generates a sick, exciting sizzle.
The girls stand in front of the toaster oven, their elbows planted on thick granite countertop. Their attention is on Barbie’s face and hair. This time her body has been discarded. Sophia’s own black, bone-straight hair falls forward, brushing the range burner. A new possibility flits through her mind. She flicks on the gas and passes a clump of her hair through the blue flame. Some hairs catch fire immediately, shrinking up so rapidly she’s afraid she’s done something terrible. The crackling and the pungent, live smell is too much. The hairs curl up, cobweb-like, receding and crackling. Sophia clamps her hand over the sparks. Her breathing is short and quick.
Jada stays huddled over the toaster oven, watching a hole form and Barbie’s face shrink away. She doesn’t seem to notice what her sister is doing.
“That’s enough,” Sophia says. She pushes her sister back and snaps off the dial.
“Hey! It’s not done yet!” Jada shouts.
“Yes it is.”
“No it’s not! Her hair’s still yellow!”
“Oh my God! What’s your problem?” Jada rams her shoulder into Sophia’s side.
“I showed all this to you. Now I want you to stop,” Sophia says. She pushes Jada hard. Jada falls onto her butt. She looks up at her sister, incredulous. She scrambles to her feet and goes off, wailing.
Sophia plucks the head from the oven and throws it in the sink. Barbie’s hair is fluffy, caught in the seconds before igniting. Sophia slides to the floor and holds her head between her knees. The buzzing in her head won’t go away.
Sophia sat at the foot of her mother’s bed and reached into her backpack. “Does anyone want to hear my science paper? I did a lot of research. It’s on twins.”
Mom smoothed the sheet and motioned for Sophia to come closer. “Go ahead, sweetie,” she said.
Sophia cleared her throat and began. “Identical twins occur when an egg is fertilized and forms a zygote. A day later, the zygote splits into two separate embryos that grow in the uterus as two babies.”
Jada looks on, her face blank, but her eyes registering some sort of understanding.
“Fraternal twins grow bigger than identical ones. Sometimes they get so big, they run out of room. They fight each other for space. At birth, twins can have big scratches on their faces and bodies. Because they have fingernails already.”
“Ooh. That’s interesting, Sophia,” Mom said. “Go on.”
“That’s it,” Sophia said. “The End.”
Everyone’s face looked as vacuous as Sophia’s own, staring back at her, warped, in the chrome bedrails. She was sick of all this—the antiseptic smells, the cheerful nurses, the carts clattering down the long hallway.
And then Mom came home, with newborn little brothers. They were supposed to be large for twins, but to Sophia they were just wrinkled little babies. Suddenly the house was overwhelmingly full—with crying, diapers, bottles and all things baby. Mom and the babies settled into the master bedroom. For days all Sophia heard was baby cries and the humming of Mom’s milk pump.
Sophia and Jada eat their cereal in silence. They’re at a loss—they’ve melted the things they can think of—a yo-yo, squishies, farm animal figurines, tupperware.
“Nothing that’s a human body,” Sophia says. “Just no arms or legs or hair.”
Both girls are sleepy. Sophia yawns widely. The babies cried most of the night and everyone is still asleep.
Jada gets up and sets her bowl in the sink. She runs her fingers over the baby bottles on the dishrack.
“Hey…this one.” She picks up a bottle with the image of a small blue rabbit. She takes it straight to the toaster oven.
“Don’t even.” Sophia slides off the barstool.
“There are so many. Come on.”
“Because they need them. To eat. Otherwise they’ll cry, cry, cry. Ohmygod, do you want them to cry more?”
“No one will notice.”
Sophia knows that she led Jada into this place. For that she feels kind of guilty. She would like to reverse time, to before they knew how to destroy. To when there were four of them. But part of her likes this companionship. Having someone who understands the curiosity, the satisfaction. How will it smell? What will they discover?
Jada pushes the bottle into the oven and turns it all the way, to 450 degrees. Small brown blisters form almost immediately. They spread, growing larger and darker, overcoming the embossed rabbit. Then a hole forms and grows. The walls cave in, like a glorious crater on Mars.
The bottle surrenders into a gooey lake. Jada claps and hoots aggressively. Sophia laughs with nervous pleasure. All at once a bright blue flame leaps from the pooled plastic.
The flame hovers and spits. Jada lets out a sharp yelp.
As if fueled by gasoline, blue and orange flames spurt up, licking the red hot heating element. There is rapid popping. A loud bang. Sparks explode in the oven. Sophia grabs her sister and pulls her away.
Sophia’s bare legs press against the refrigerator. Cold stainless steel helps her keep her senses. Jada’s shoulders are shaking—her tiny body swims in a pair of yellow overalls. In Sophia’s arms Jada feels like a baby.
“Little white rabbit…hurry, open the door…” Sophia sings softly, in Mandarin. Mom taught them the song when they were tiny. She strokes Jada’s hair and kisses her sister’s crooked white part. Jada’s mouth opens in astonishment. Her eyes register gratitude. All at once the fire goes out—the oven is dark.
Sophia wants to stop, but Jada doesn’t. After toy tractor wheels explode in the oven and harden into a permanently scarred mess, Jada logs onto Dad’s computer and easily buys another toaster oven on his Prime account. It is waiting at the front door the next day after school.
Jada melts a purple unicorn squishie with pink hair. The smell of the soft rubbery plastic is too much for Sophia. And the way it lies there in full blistering nakedness, smiling and eyes sparkling, turns Sophia’s stomach more than murder scenes on TV crime shows.
Sophia backs off. She decides that her favorite objects are the bright green Twist-Tyes that Ye Ye bought for the garden. She likes to tear them off of a roll and pile them into a loose haystack. The top layer melts and fades from green to grayish. After a minute under the broiler Sophia lets them cool and meld together. Her best one sits on her dresser. It is modest, with just a hint of the calm prior to full destruction. It looks a little like the life-like pictures of the Highway 101 wreckage her class saw during Safety Week. The teachers said that could happen when, not if, the San Andreas Fault erupted.
But Jada does not want to stop. Sophia shouts at her and shoves her away. But she can’t control her sister’s fascination for inappropriate objects—full prescription bottles, Dad’s razors, the reading glasses Mrs. Li had given up searching for.
Today Jada produces and old phone. “I found it in the trash can. Outside of the library,” she says. She flips it open and plops it in the oven.
Jada stands on the balls of her feet, ready for it to explode, ready to push off of the countertop with both hands. A thick blue-gray artery in the granite countertop runs alongside the toaster oven, goes right under Jada’s elbows.
The pushbuttons sizzle first, turning syrupy and dotting the glass with spatters. The sizzle gets bigger, louder, and the inside of the oven glows yellow. This is when Sophia expects Jada to skid towards safety in her striped socks. But Jada lingers several seconds longer before running, playing a game of chicken.
The glow gets hotter just as Jada turns away. She takes two steps and slips on the tiled floor. She falls, banging her head on the corner of the kitchen island.
“Jada!” Sophia cried. She helps her sister up. “You’re bleeding!”
Jada touches the spot on her hairline, her fingers find deep red blood.
“Owww!” Jada screams, rubbing her head again and again. “I’m hurt! I’m hurt!”
Sophia grabs a dishcloth and presses it hard to her sister’s head. This she also knew because of Safety Week. Meanwhile Jada sits against the cabinet, howling and kicking her legs wildly.
“Did it stop? Will it stop? Oh no, will I die?”
“No Jada, you will not die. But help me. Press firmly!” Sophia says.
There is not a lot of blood, but Sophia is scared. “Help!” She screams. “Nai Nai! Ye Ye! Help!”
Within seconds, her grandparents appear, running from the guest house across the patio, wide-eyed. And Mom comes down the stairs with a baby in her arms. Then Dad joins them, just home from work.
“Jada! Let me see your head!” Mom says. She sniffs at the air and her face clouds.
“What is happening here?” Nai Nai says, out of breath.
Just then the sizzling inside the toaster oven gets louder. Orange flames leap and shoot out from around the door, lick its sides. There is a solid bang. Bigger than any before. Dad flings open the cabinet and grabs the fire extinguisher. “Stand back!” he yells.
When the flames go out what’s left is a mound of white foam over a mass of grayish black lumps and scorched metal, two girls clutching each other tightly, and four shocked adults, looking at each other, spent.
Nai Nai gently rocks one baby in her arms. Mom looks at the cut on Jada’s scalp with her free hand.
“No one’s badly hurt, at least,” Mom says.
“But someone easily could have been,” Dad says. “Does someone mind telling us what you were doing? Sophia? Jada? Now.”
“That was scary,” Jada says. “But it was just a little experiment.”
“It won’t happen again,” Sophia says. “Even though we’ve been doing this for months.” Jada shoots her a cold glance. Sophia returns it.
Her parents look at each other. And her grandparents do the same—raised eyebrows and pursed lips. Then all eyes return to the melted mess.
Ye Ye gets out the trash can. Sophia cradles herself. She and Jada sit shoulder to shoulder against the cabinet. There is a clump of foam in Jada’s hair. As Sophia leans over to swipe at it, Jada uncrosses her knees. On the white tile beneath her is a fresh glob of silver plastic, nicely singed at the edges.
“Awesome,” Sophia whispers.
Then one baby begins crying. Soon the other joins in. Together their wailing rises in pitch. The sound is insistent and overwhelming—like heat, like fire.
Greta Wu is a writer and non-profit consultant. Her work has appeared in The East Bay Monthly, Mothers Always Write, and placed in the St. Louis Writer’s Guild short fiction contest. She currently lives with her family in northern California, where she is at work on more short fiction, essays, and a novel for young children titled Growing Pains.