Topher tinkered with his ring light in the bathroom for so long, you would have thought he moved to LA to pursue photography. He wiped the sweat off his blonde mustache, which the window air conditioner did little to alleviate. If he could just turn the light another quarter of an inch, open the blinds a touch, and tilt his head upwards and to the left about seventeen degrees – no. Maybe an eighth of an inch. The incessant honking from the streets below was enough to make Topher’s head explode. He finally yelled and kicked the tripod legs out so the light fell to the tile floor with a loud clang. Topher let his back slide against the wall until he was seated on the ground in tears.
He had fought the feeling for years, but Topher was starting to come to the realization that he’d never become the Hollywood heart-throb he’d always dreamed of. He just didn’t fit the part. He’d been in LA for about two years and had never gotten further than the fourth line of an audition before the director cut him off and commented on his inflection, or more often his ‘tragic’ face. He had Steven Tyler’s colossal mouth, Clint Eastwood’s irritated eyes, and Owen Wilson’s crooked nose according to a collaborative effort of insults. Not to mention nobody wanted to cast a twenty-eight-year-old with a receding hairline: not even for a comedy. Enough people had commented on his horrid features that he hardly wanted to walk outside anymore. No angle or lighting or pounds of makeup could hide the truth: Topher looked like a botched plastic surgery job, yet a knife had never come near his face. Perhaps it should, Topher thought. Maybe it was time to sink his last dime into pursuing his dreams.
As he sat on the bathroom floor, Topher opened an internet browser on his phone and typed in the words he swore he’d never search: ‘facial reconstructive surgery’. Thousands of results in the LA area came up, but he didn’t quite have a Tom Cruise budget with which to work. He scrolled through page after page of luxurious makeover shops that he couldn’t dream of affording: ones that boasted the artwork of some of Hollywood’s most famous faces. That was until somewhere around the thirteenth page where he stumbled across his one and only answer: Karl von Muckle’s facial reconstructive surgeries – prices negotiable. They’d probably laugh in his face when Topher told them he had just under three thousand dollars left to his name, but it was worth a shot.
The next Friday in a particularly scorching August heat, Topher rented a car and drove up into the Canyon to the address he found online. Past the Hills, the journey was terribly boring and required all his strength to stay awake: miles and miles of open road, the likes he hadn’t seen since leaving Minnesota. But after a nearly two-hour treacherous drive, he came upon a storefront tucked away between two giant sand-colored boulders: Karl von Muckle’s Mannequins. He recognized the name, but not quite the business. Mannequins? Topher put on a blinker and cautiously turned right into a mostly abandoned parking lot apart from the 1998 3 Series Beamer parked in the sole ‘EMPLOYEES ONLY’ spot. He took out his phone and searched the place again. The address was correct, and as he remembered, so was the name: Karl von Muckle. He took in a nervous breath and turned off the car, immediately overtaken by the sweltering heat. Topher stepped out and approached the front door.
It was eerily quiet. The lights looked to be turned off inside, but it was hard to tell past the years’ worth of dust sullying the windows. Despite its appearance, a crooked sign reading ‘OPEN’ hung on the doorknob. Topher thought he of all people should know not to judge a book by its cover.
He knocked a few times to no answer, but didn’t expect one. The door was unlocked, so he pushed it open and it hit a tiny rusting gold bell that jingled as he entered. “Hello?” Topher called out. No answer. A light was on in the back, past the cash register, but all the rest were off. All Topher could make out were silhouettes of countless mannequins spread throughout the store like the Terracotta army. His heart slowly rose to his throat: he didn’t know why, but something about the featureless mannequins in the dark made him uneasy. “Hello?” he said again, this time louder. If nobody answered soon, Topher would start to feel like an intruder.
But suddenly all the lights flicked on and a head popped out from the back room. The sudden flash of light startled Topher. He needed to blink a few times to regain his bearings. When he did, he was able to see the man had approached him and extended his hand out before Topher, eagerly awaiting a handshake and growing disheartened with each passing second. Topher extended his hand and the man fervently shook it. “Good day to you friend,” the man said in a harsh German accent. “May I help you? You look lost? Perhaps some directions?”
Topher took a moment to internalize each word and understand what the man was saying. “No, actually I think I’m in the right place. Or at least sixty percent sure. I’m looking for a man named Karl von Muck – Moo-ck-el?”
“You are in the right place, friend. That’s me – Karl van Muckle. Muck-el. It’s Scottish.”
He thought Karl was joking for a moment and waited for a laugh, but it never came. Nothing but a deathly serious expression stared back. Topher examined the now-lit store and glanced at a few mannequins: if they made him uncomfortable in the dark, that was nothing compared to now. He’d never before considered mannequin-making to be a viable art form before. Each one was more stunning than the last. It felt like walking through a bustling crowd down Melrose. They weren’t perfectly beautiful people, but they were so convincingly life-like that Topher was at a loss for words longer than he knew. Long enough for Mr. von Muckle to endeavor for his attention. “Ehem,” Karl cleared his throat.
“Sorry, I was just – your mannequins. They’re incredible. They seem so…real.”
Karl scoffed and tilted his head backwards so Topher could see his nostrils. “They are real. Real as you and me. Each one has a name, a story, a personality. Talents and flaws. Dreams. They are my life’s work. Each one of them were hand-crafted by God himself – destined for Hollywood fame. Within each and every figure are brains, blood, a heart, but most importantly…life.” As he said ‘life’, Karl was grabbing the collar of Topher’s shirt and his head seemed to vibrate, loosely shaking his flimsy bleached hair which was starting to look like a toupee.
Topher stepped back and Karl released his shirt. He wasn’t expecting such a dead store to house such an eccentric man. “I didn’t mean to offend you. I’m extremely impressed.”
“Acres of skin. Acres and acres of skin,” Karl whispered as he marveled at his work.
“I’m sorry?” Topher said.
Karl ran his fingers through his hair and straightened his suit jacket. “Are you here to purchase one?”
“You are a producer? No? Here to put in an order?”
“No, not exactly. I’m here because I saw online that you do facial reconstructive surgery and that the price was negotiable. Is that correct?” Topher looked around at the rows of mannequins again, doubting the German’s antiquated website.
“Facial reconstructive surgery,” Karl annunciated through his thick German accent as if it was the first time he was hearing each word. He looked Topher up and down and didn’t speak again for a long while. Finally, he said, “Yes.”
“Yes? Yes, you’ll do it?”
Karl offered a warm smile and opened his hands. “Of course.”
“And the price is negotiable? That part is going to be really important. See I haven’t been paid in just under two weeks at the In-and-Out and I’m kind of between acting gigs right now and I–”
Karl raised a finger and shushed him with a Zen expression which seemed to calm the room – even the mannequins. “Of course. We offer a free consultation and at the end we can talk about price and who knows? Maybe we can do some work today.”
Karl nodded nonchalantly.
“Oh my God, that would be fantastic. Thank you. Thank you so much.”
Karl didn’t say anything, but motioned flamboyantly toward the backroom with both arms like a Michelin-rated waiter.
Once they were both in the backroom, Karl flicked off the store’s lights, again leaving the mannequins in darkness, then clicked the door shut. “Electricity. So expensive,” he mused aloud.
Am I really going to let this crackpot put a knife to my face? Topher thought. Yes. Yes, he would lest he wished to scurry back home to his parents in Minnesota with his tail tucked between his legs in an admission of absolute failure. He caught a colorless reflection of his permanent sadness in the back window. It can’t get much worse, he thought.
“Sit down,” Karl commanded. Topher sat in the worn recliner while Karl rummaged through cabinets. “Tell me about yourself. What is your story?” Topher didn’t say anything at first, waiting for a type of undivided attention of which Karl wasn’t quite capable. “I’m listening,” Karl reassured him.
“Um…” Topher cleared his throat. “My name is Topher Pugh and it has been my lifelong dream to be a Hollywood actor – to see my name in the opening credits of the best films out there. I moved to LA about two years ago and I’ve had rejection after rejection with each director telling me my face wasn’t fit for the big screens. And I was thinking…well…if I could just change…you know – everything – I could reach my dreams.”
Karl pulled out a box with a red cross on it. It looked like it was pulled straight out of the Vietnam War. “So Topher, you want to be a star?”
“I’ve had a lot of young dreamers come through here just like you. Fifty-seven, to be exact. I need to know just how bad you want it. I can make you a star, no problem. But I won’t do it for just anyone.”
“Please, sir,” Topher’s voice cracked. “I’d do anything. Anything.”
“That’s not quite good enough,” Karl said. “Being a star is more than – you say, ‘seeing your name in the credits’. It is about art, the performance, making people fall in love. You’re an actor, no?” Convince me.”
“Are you fucking serious?” Topher stood from the flimsy recliner. “I’ll give you every last dime I have for this. Three thousand dollars even. I need it. I’m willing to let some quack in the back of a mannequin shop in the middle of nowhere do whatever he needs to just to chase my dreams for a second longer. What more do you want?”
Karl started to put the medical kit away. “No, that’s not it.”
Topher reached over Karl’s shoulder and slammed the cabinet shut. He grabbed Karl’s shirt and spun him around, succumbing to tears. “I’d do anything, Karl. This is my dream, my passion. Everything in my life has led me to this godforsaken city and I can’t turn back now. I need this more than life itself. I’m on the brink of greatness, I know it. But look at my face? It’s not fair. I was born like this – disappointment after disappointment. I need it to count for something. I need you. I’d sell my soul to you if you want. Is that it? Do you need more money? I can take out a loan. Please, please. I’d do anything. I swear.”
For the first time in Topher’s increasingly desperate pleas, Karl seemed to consider them. He placed the box down on the counter and sort of sighed. “It is not money and it is not fame, Mr. Topher. I do not need your money. I need your passion.” He undid the two clips on either end of the box and flipped it open. Topher expected to see a wide variety of tools and gadgets, but he didn’t know exactly what. He’d never been to a plastic surgeon before. But instead there were only two items in the box: a vial of thick orange liquid and a syringe fitted with a needle about three inches in length. “Afraid of needles?” Karl asked.
“No,” Topher lied.
“Sit down,” Karl said. Topher returned to the recliner. “This is a somewhat experimental treatment, but not to worry – I’ve used it on all of my clients and to great effect. Every one of them have gone on to be a movie star.”
Topher gulped as he stared at the needle. “Big films?”
“The biggest. I won’t name my clients, but I can name the picture: The Hills Have Eyes,Love Actually, The Notebook, Planet of the Apes, Avatar…”
“Avatar?” Topher asked in a giddy voice. That was the top grossing film of all time. Suddenly the needle didn’t seem so long.
“Like I said, Karl. I’ll do anything. No needle is going to stop me from following my dreams.”
Karl gave him a half nod. “No risk too great in pursuit of one’s dreams. Well, Mr. Topher: sit back and prepare to be famous.”
Topher smiled in a way he hadn’t in a long time. He leaned his back against the recliner and the chair’s cushions hissed and the wood creaked. Karl turned his back for a moment to prepare. He carefully placed the needle in the vial and slowly pulled it back, filling the syringe with that gooey liquid. “This compound is called Dioxin. It is used to harden facial features – perhaps give you that masculine cut to your jawline and cheekbones. It sometimes even makes my clients’ eyes glisten like pearls in the sea.” This all sounded fantastical to Topher: enough so that he didn’t bother to ask a single question about the procedure.
When he was done, Karl turned toward Topher and aspirated the syringe, squirting a droplet of the liquid onto the dirty office floor. “You will feel some pressure and a slight pinch for a minute,” Karl warned him.
Karl steadied the needle high on Topher’s arm near the shoulder and touched the needle to his skin. Topher grit his teeth in anticipation of the pain. He’d never seen such a large needle in real life before. He had no barometer for how it’d feel. Then Karl pushed the needle into his arm and Topher winced. “Star juice,” Karl laughed.
Topher was in too much pain to provide a courtesy chuckle. It was more than a pinch – it felt like he’d been shot. Sweat beaded down his forehead and he wondered when it’d be over. “Almost done?” he asked through his clenched teeth.
“Topher, my friend,” Karl whispered. “We’ve only just begun.”
Topher tried adjusting in the recliner, but he couldn’t. He blinked a few times, at first in shock by his inability to move. He tried again. Still nothing. “Karl, my legs – they won’t move.” He tried again to no avail.
Karl didn’t say anything. He just kept pushing the plunger into Topher’s arm, the orange liquid slithering out from the syringe.
“Karl,” Topher said. His lips were starting to feel numb. A liquid heat overcame his body and ran course through his veins. It felt like the very flow of his blood was slowing – like tiny daggers were being dragged across his skin from the inside. Then it wasn’t just his legs – but his arms too. He looked down to see his fingers hardening in place…hardening like a mannequin. When he spoke again, Topher began to slur his words. “Karl, I…” he said something else, but it quickly became incomprehensible. He felt a dryness overcome his skin – as if every ounce of moisture was sucked from his body through a straw.
Karl didn’t respond to the panic in his client’s voice. If anything, it made him smile. When the syringe was empty, Karl stood up his latest project and propped him against the wall. He grabbed Topher’s face by the cheeks, plastered in fear, and said, “Hollywood’s next star.”
Topher could do nothing to resist. He felt a crackling in his pectoral muscles beneath his shirt and then an airy emptiness flowing in and out of his mouth without drawing a breath. And finally, nothing. He was a shell of a man – a consciousness trapped inside a plastic nightmare.
And Topher did go on to appear in movies, just as the German had suggested. He’d appear amongst props on the sets of a few horror films, one murder mystery, and even in a meet-cute scene in a romantic comedy. He’d sport a fashion line in a high-end shop on Melrose, then finally be retired to stand in perpetual darkness in the Canyon’s most remote mannequin shop amongst his fellow plastic dreamers. Topher was a Hollywood star, as he’d always dreamed. But he did so without ever acting. In the end, somewhat ironically, all he had was his face: that tragic face plastered in panic, never to utter a single line.