Escape Pod 883: Just Us and the Mannequins
Just Us and the Mannequins
by Linda Niehoff
It was creepy at first, all those mannequins. It must have been someone who’d worked at the mall because there were so many of them posed around town after everything had shut down and the streets were bare.
Standing on the sidewalks. Peering back into the same windows they used to look out of. Posing on a bench in a moment of what would’ve been an animated conversation. Except.
Except the eyes are dull. Painted blue, green, brown, with squares of white to look like something shiny. Something reflecting back what little light is left in the world.
Except the too-smooth plastic skin.
Except how they’re all suspended mid gesture.
All of them a strange snapshot in real life. Real time.
At night someone from somewhere broadcasts on the main channels, a basement radio station. At least, I picture it in a basement.
A man. A boy. Someone in between man and boy.
Someone my age.
He says the mannequins were done because the world felt too empty. Our brains aren’t wired to see populated places so empty now.
“It haunts you,” that voice says. It’s smooth. A slight crack to it, that sidewalk from boy to man. A root growing underneath, lifting it sometimes. Making his words trip. “It haunts you, walking along spaces that should have people in them. You start to see things that aren’t there.”
“Aren’t they?” I ask the radio that’s on low because I still have that belief that there’s something out there we can’t see. That we haven’t seen yet. Something that would come out into the dark streets, out from the shadows, and whisper your name. Because somehow they always know your name, don’t they?
Those things in the dark that you never paid a mind to.
I’d always been a little afraid in the city. I think all women are. But there are things you never even consider until everything was is stripped away. No coffee in a Styrofoam cup from the street vendor on Fourteenth. No club off Third Avenue. No more poetry readings on the east side. The trains beneath the city once a loud silver breath that roared up through the rusty grates, are now silent. Their breath gone out. They lay rotting in long silver lines below us and we who are left walk over them unaware. A graveyard down there in the tunnels and pipes and sewers we thought nothing of all those days ago. All those days when we didn’t know what we had.
Seems like once you stripped all those things away, that’s when you started to see. Started to see what was maybe there all along in the shadows.
The things that knew your name. Whispered it.
But we rushed past them.
“So somebody,” says the voice crackly on the tiny little radio in the corner of the closet.
“Somebody put ‘people’ out there.” People is put in quotes with his voice. “Somebody wanted us to feel like we’re walking through the same city we’ve always known.” There’s a pause where he takes a deep breath. Or maybe exhales a long line of silver smoke. A cloud, a ghost, trailing out through parted lips.
And I can’t think of what he looks like. I see his lips. I see his breath, smoky or not.
I can’t tell in that pause if he believes what he says.
Are we better off with frozen tableaus of people posed mid-walk, mid-sentence, never moving, never blinking, all around us?
In that pause I feel his breath as if it were on me, instead of the stillness I’ve grown used to.
I’m in the topmost apartment huddled beneath an old quilt that used to smell like a cedar chest and cigarette smoke, though the scent is going invisible. I broke in early on. It felt safer somehow to go up to the eighth floor. For one thing, heat rises. Not that there’s much of it. But being high up felt like the right thing to do. Felt safer. Like if something’s going to break in, it’s going to break in the ground floor, bars on the window or not.
I wasn’t living on the ground floor at first; I was on the second, but still. I wanted to go higher.
If there is something out there, I figure it doesn’t want to climb eight floors. Maybe it does. That’s the risk I’m taking. Plus there’s a fire escape. I keep thinking I’ll climb out there one night. Watch the sunset. Watch all the lights not come on. Or maybe even worse, watch tiny pockets of them all over.
Like stray fallen stars. Glittering one last time before they burn out.
I imagine myself wondering at each golden universe. Of course when I picture them now, I imagine that they’re all in groups. Like those mannequins. All of them together in their suspended lives. That I’m the only one alone.
But maybe they look at me and think the same.
Except that I don’t let any lights come on at night except for the radio and even that is only in the closet with the door shut. So maybe the pockets of people are really in the dark. We’re all in the dark.
That pause from the radio. Like frozen statues.
He doesn’t fill it, not yet.
But then when he does, when that inhale comes again (maybe full of smoke, maybe not), I swear it shakes. And he says, “I have an idea.”
I’m walking down the sidewalk. It’s unnerving to come up on a mannequin when you don’t expect it.
“I think it’s a trick,” I say right there to all that gray around me. The gray building with the black windows on my left. My boot heels tapping out a rhythm like a fast heartbeat. I try to steady my own. I talk out loud when I walk sometimes because it feels like holding on to something. Something that keeps you from rocking. Something steady.
It’s been so long since there’s been anyone to talk to.
“A trick,” I say again. About where I’m going. About the mannequin. There’s one right up ahead of me. A woman, paused at the edge of the block right in the middle of the sidewalk. Like she’s waiting for the light to change so she can cross, except that she’s not facing the road. She’s looking into one of the black windows. Window shopping. She’s got a straw-colored bob and that hair is lifting in the slight breeze. Even though there’s a layer of gray above us, the October air is still so warm somehow.
Was so hot all summer long and now the heat is still hanging on.
“I get it,” I say to the warmth that moves around me. “I get the hanging on.” I’m talking a little bit louder because of what’s up ahead.
That mannequin woman is dressed in a fur coat and a glitter dress, like she’s on her way home from some late night party. So late that it’s day now.
What’s especially unnerving about this one is that she’s all white. Mummy white. There’s no mistaking her for something real. No surprise out of the corner of your eye where you see a pink or tan or brown flash. Just alabaster white. Like something alien with marble skin.
I can’t see her eyes from here but I can already feel their viper slits. Like she’s judging this world and what we’ve done to it. How we have fallen so far. Her lips will probably be painted a sultry pink, downturning slightly in a judgement she doesn’t really want to hide.
Sometimes you’ll think you’ll see one of them move.
It’s like you forget for a minute. Like that flash of skin. You’ll think it wasn’t just your eye.
You’ll see them move.
You’d swear to it.
A gesturing arm.
A smile that broadens.
Once I saw one of them pirouette.
Or at least I’d swear I did.
I’m convinced sometimes they live when we close our eyes. That maybe they are and always have been the things that come alive when we were too busy to notice.
Maybe no one moved them out here at all.
Maybe they were tired of store windows.
Maybe they are the cause of it all.
My pace has slowed and my heart doesn’t feel like it’s beating. More like one steady beat that won’t end. A constant pressure squeezing my chest.
I don’t like to come up on them.
I don’t trust them.
But this one.
I go and stand right beside her, facing her at first. She’s not as tall as I expected. They always looked taller in stores. I turn my head slowly when I’m sure that she’s holding still. I turn my head and look at what she’s looking at.
The black window.
It takes a century to turn my head. Civilizations rise and fall in the spinning. I’m so terrified I’ll see another face looking out.
Whoever did this wouldn’t be that cruel, would they? I don’t know why it sounds so awful, just that it does.
I turn. Expecting to see that or to see a black that’s deep and endless. A kind of deep night that has nothing inside to ease its dark. No pinprick of light flashing off a clock or a stove. Nothing but an empty void.
Instead I see her face reflected back.
And the sky behind us and more black squares from windows on the building across the street.
I ease myself closer to her. Her hair blows against my cheek. My hair blows, too, mingling with it. And for a moment, I look at us framed in a picture. I imagine us as a snapshot. Maybe we’re coming back from a New Year’s Eve party or, since it’s October, a Halloween one. Maybe we stopped for coffee after work and I told her about the boy—man—that I listen to on the radio. How he doesn’t even know I exist, but how his voice, when I lock myself in the upstairs closet and huddle underneath a shield of blankets, keeps me steady. Like hearing my own voice does out on these streets.
I stand as still as I possibly can. I keep my eyes open and don’t blink them. Her eyes are much less viperous than I thought. They’re wide and neutral. Careless and unaffected.
I try to make my eyes look the same. I don’t smile, just as she’s not smiling.
I imagine that there’s someone out there somewhere looking at her and me right now. Thinking that we are the same things. That I am not a person. That I’m a hard shell in the shape of a person. Maybe I’m unrecognizable for what I am.
And I stand and I stand there. Because maybe it’s all a trap so I don’t want to go forward. I want to stay here with her.
And I think maybe she wants to go back inside. Stand behind the glass again like she used to. Back where she belongs. Maybe she’s standing out here on the sidewalk trying to get back in.
“I get it,” I say to her. “I get it.”
Someday my batteries are going to run out.
They’re getting harder to find. I tell myself I should skip a night. Let the voice talk to nobody.
But I don’t.
Especially not tonight.
At first when he comes on, he’s quiet. He’s only breathing, and the microphone—whatever kind he uses—picks it up. Just that breathing.
My heart’s making that squeezing single beat feeling again because I know what he’s going to say. Or I know kind of what he’s going to say. He can’t find the words yet.
I picture the microphone is a ribbed silver like the old days when really, it’s probably the kind with a foam ball. Or maybe even an old gaming headset that he plugged in. I don’t know how he has the power to broadcast. A generator maybe.
I’m back in my closet because that’s where I feel the safest.
I think about all the doors that are closed. There’s the one to the main lobby. Then the one to the stairs. Then there’s the front door that I have locked and bolted. Then there’s the bedroom door that I closed when I came in here. And finally the closet door. But even that doesn’t feel like enough. So nightly, I build myself a nest of blankets and pillows. Because everyone knows that blankets are the only thing that keeps out monsters. Doors are nothing to a monster.
I don’t even know if there are monsters.
It just feels like there are.
“So hey,” says the voice, and now the squeezing feeling is moving into my throat. Making it feel like a closed door.
In the pause that he leaves, I say, “I’m sorry,” and am surprised when my eyes fill with tears. When I try to shove down a sob, it doesn’t work. The sob escapes. “I’m sorry,” I say again and I’m blubbering now.
“So you didn’t come,” he says. And I can’t be sure, but his breath sounds shaky, too. Or like it was shaky. But he’s worked a long time to steady it. And now it’s mannequin still. Or almost. It still sounds a little wobbly.
I had told the mannequin in the fur coat that I needed to be somewhere. Needed to meet someone. I let those words hang between us, searching her face but she looked bored. I wasn’t even sure yet if I was going.
But I had found myself earlier that day creeping down the stairs in my apartment building. Pausing in the lobby. Looking again at all the names on slips of white paper beside a row of buzzers for all the people that used to live here. All of them gone.
Most of them jamming freeways or crowding subways in those last few days. Running. Some of them…well. Not running. But not here anymore.
I traced my finger across their names.
Then I’d gone out into the street and started walking.
“I told him I’d be there,” I said to the mannequin and she stared past me at her reflection. Enamored with it. I looked up at the sky trying to tell the time.
Then I turned and walked in the opposite direction. I didn’t mean to. It just happened. I was walking farther and farther away.
Because he’d said on that little silver radio, “I have an idea.”
It was the idea that anyone who was left should meet up. He was tired of being alone, he said. It was starting to feel hopeless.
“You weren’t there,” he says again now in the dark of my closet and his voice breaks.
I reach for the radio with both hands. Pull it as if it’s a face up to my cheek and for a moment, his ragged breath moves against my cheek.
And then he says, “Am I all alone?”
“No,” I say. But of course he can’t hear me. Of course he can’t. “Ask me again,” I say. “Ask me to meet you.”
But he doesn’t.
He switches his microphone off and all that’s left is static.
I start going out hoping I’ll see him. I start going to parts of the city I’ve never been to before, and I’m surprised how many mannequins there are everywhere. It really must have taken someone a lot of effort.
The things we did early on to comfort ourselves.
You really don’t realize how many mannequins a city has until they’re all out in the streets and parks. Hundreds. Maybe thousands. You begin to think how we really were out of control as a species. What were we thinking? Mannequins suddenly seem like the most ridiculous thing in the world. Maybe they’re in the midst of a slow-motion uprising. Maybe in a millennium they’ll have moved into position. In another millennium they’ll be in control.
I almost wish for it.
I imagine him sitting in between two of them on a park bench. Or in a group by the subway station. Would I even notice? In the same way that you think they’re always moving, maybe you wouldn’t see someone holding completely still.
I wonder if maybe he saw me, standing next to the mannequin in the fur coat, staring into our glass reflection. Maybe he didn’t know what he was seeing.
Would we even recognize another person at this point? People are vague memories. After images when you close your eyes.
I’ve been on my own for so long.
The hope of one day meeting him felt better than actually doing it. Because then what?
What is there to hope for after that?
I’d found that little radio at a Best Buy. The windows were broken out and the shelves had been looted long before. But that was when people were taking flat-screens and computers. The radio I’d found was in the back like maybe it belonged to somebody. Like the people in a break room would listen to baseball games on it.
I took it back to my apartment and turned it on, hoping that maybe some radio station out there had left a long ago recording going on a loop. At least I might hear voices. Or a couple songs. I didn’t really know how those things worked, but I hoped.
At first it was only static. I liked the sound of it. I imagined that I was reaching my fingers out into the darkness, only nothing could get me. I was a deep-sea diver. It even sounded like ocean waves. I was going out, seeing what was out there.
Then one day, his voice. “Hello?” it said.
I was so startled I swung my arm around and knocked it into the wall.
It had been so long since I’d heard a voice other than my own. Other than the ghosts that lived in my head in fragments of conversations long gone.
It was intermittent at first. And he spoke with such faith that there were others listening to him. He’d sing songs with a guitar, some I remembered some I didn’t. Tell stories. He never asked if we were there. He talked like he knew we were.
Until he started to say that he hadn’t seen anyone out there in a long time.
Until he said that we should all meet up.
I’d pictured myself going to the park down by the water. How there would be a dozen, maybe more, people, both mannequin and real.
I pictured how we’d all be shy at first.
I even pictured a red checked table cloth and lemonade and someone brought cupcakes and someone else, a frisbee.
It would be like before, only in miniature.
But when it was time to go, I found myself walking slower and slower. I thought of all the things that could be hiding in the shadows. I thought of all the things that could be holding still but only pretending. I thought of how it would be to stand in front of another person, smiling.
And I walked in the other direction.
I figured there would be other meetups. Other times.
But there weren’t.
Every night, I turn on the radio and hold it up as if I’m cupping someone’s face in mine, forcing them to look at me.
“Talk to me again,” I say.
I turn on the static and listen to it. I don’t want to run down the batteries. Still, I try every night.
But he doesn’t come back on.
I have no way of finding him. Of getting to him. Of telling him that he’s not alone. That I’m here.
I even go out on the fire escape finally. The night is chilly and I wrap my arms around myself, holding on tight. I step outside moving as slowly as I dare and once I’m out there, I stand completely still. Only my eyes moving. Maybe if anything bad sees me, they will think I’m another mannequin, though I’ve never seen one on a fire escape or inside a building. They’re all outside now.
It’s funny how I still expect to hear traffic. The dull roar and the nearly constant horn honking. I expect to smell a thousand dinners, especially the deep fried kind from restaurants, saturating the air so that you can almost taste it. And voices. The trill of laughter rising up suddenly. Like a backward moving waterfall. Instead I’ve stepped out into the profound silence of what I imagine deep space to feel like. I look up toward the stars and feel like I’ve somehow been transported up to them.
There’s simply nothing.
No pockets of light like I thought.
And just like that voice on the radio in the dark, I’m all alone.
I start looking for ways to die.
I’ve always assumed there’s something following me in the shadows. Watching what I do. Something waiting for me. Now, despite all those glass-eyed windows that look down on me as I walk down sidewalks, down the middle of the street sometimes, I’m convinced there was never anything there at all. Which feels more frightening somehow.
Because now I don’t know what to fight.
I don’t know how to survive.
I could jump off one of the buildings. My fear is that it wouldn’t work.
I could find a pharmacy and look for something, though so many people did that early on, I’m not sure what would be left.
I could try to drown myself.
But I don’t do any of those things because the truth is, I don’t really want to die.
But I also don’t want to live like this.
I’ve got the radio on again but I’m out on the fire escape, the window open behind me so I can hear the ocean sound of static. It’s like a constant wave that won’t ever break, just swells and swells. Or maybe it’s a constant breaking that won’t ever stop. Only ever breaks.
The night is crisp and I can see every star. See my breath.
There’s no point in hiding.
Below me are a group of mannequins gathered on the corner in a semi-circle. A paused conversation. Or maybe one that is unfolding so slowly I won’t ever see the end of it and how it turns out. I’ve never liked them down there, but when I see them, it’s like a landmark for home and relief always moves through me like a ribbon of honey, warm and sweet.
And so now I simply watch their dark stillness.
I’ve looked everywhere for him. Everywhere I can think of.
I even walked straight down the middle of Houston Street shouting at the store fronts. Calling for whoever was hiding to come out.
I don’t even know his name or how old he is.
Maybe he left. Packed up. There were people who did that early on. But we never heard anything back. Saw fewer and fewer people out in the streets until there were none at all. Surely if there was something more out there we’d know it by now, wouldn’t we?
I don’t know how. But it feels like we would.
Maybe I should go. Take one of the highways out of the city. Find a little farmhouse out there somewhere. Figure out how to live off the land. Maybe take up basket weaving or knitting.
I’m imagining it. Imagining a new life out there when suddenly a silence swallows the staticky ocean wave. At first I think the battery has run out.
But then I realize I hear a smaller ocean.
I hear breathing.
I hit my head on the window sill while scrambling back in. I miss a step and bang my shin and thud onto the floor. I lay there, the pain in my leg shrieking. Then I turn and crawl toward the radio as if it’s a phone that’s ringing and if I can’t get to it in time, it’ll be too late.
I grab onto it with both hands and pull it down to me, looking into its face as I hold it up to mine.
“So hey,” that familiar voice says after a moment.
“Hey,” I say back even though he can’t hear. And I start to cry.
“Let’s try one more time,” he says.
I’m carrying Beatrice sideways like she’s a plank. Ben’s got one under each arm – Teddy and Katherine. We’re moving as many as we can to The Battery near where he lives by the harbor.
He wants a big wedding.
Me? I don’t care so much.
“Standing room only,” he says over his shoulder as he places them near the front of a group that’s already there. We waited all winter, and now it’s finally warm again.
Ben’s got green eyes, brownish red hair that’s shaggy and touches his shoulders, and a beard with a white scar slicing through the right side of his face. It’s like if you were looking down onto a forest from a plane and saw a white curved road carving through the trees. I trace it sometimes. Feel for it in the dark like a landmark.
He doesn’t offer up where he got it.
But we’ve both been through dark times. We both have roads of scars covering us, inside and out.
I wish there was a way to mark the light times, too.
But I guess this is it. The mannequins all grouped together facing out toward the water, out toward the sky.
“Do we really need more?” I ask. We’ve got about twenty-five already.
Beatrice is the one I stood with the first time I was supposed to meet Ben. I’ve asked her to stand up with me. It seems like she’s been with us since the beginning.
Ben said he’s partial to Teddy and Katherine. They’ve always stood by the deli a block down from his apartment building. He sees them all the time. Admitted to talking to them after I told him about posing in the window with Beatrice. Telling her I was scared to meet him. So we brought them all the way down here.
The first time I finally saw Ben was from far away. Standing in cargo pants and hiking boots and a blue and black flannel shirt. He was in this same park, the ocean stretching out behind him. The blue of the sky so sudden after endless buildings and endless gray. He was so still standing there that for a moment, I thought he wasn’t real.
I think maybe he thought the same thing about me.
But then he lifted a hand. And I just stood there, shaking. Unable to move for the longest time. I stood there afraid to move forward. Afraid of losing the only hope I’d carried, even though something new was right there in front of me, waiting. Then I lifted my hand, too, and his face broke into a smile.
After Ben and I met up that first time, we went to bars and empty movie theaters. We sat inside empty churches. We strolled in the park. We did all the things you would do if you found the person that kept you from being alone. We talked about how we might’ve met in the before times, making up a hundred different scenarios. He showed me where he broadcast from—not a basement but the roof of an apartment building that had lounges and chairs and little side tables. There was a small greenhouse and rows of raised beds.
And we named some of the mannequins. Ben gives them all sorts of backstories and romantic interests and sordid love triangles.
We’ve been all over the city and if there’s anyone else left, we haven’t seen them. Not yet.
It’s just us and the mannequins. But then again, I didn’t answer the invitation at first either. I’ve been making him broadcast most nights anyway. He’s even started broadcasting at all hours—just quick announcements saying when he’ll be on later. Just in case there are people out there that haven’t caught his regular broadcast.
Now, he surveys the wedding scene in front of us. Hands on hips, eyes squinting as he thinks.
“I just—” he stops. “I know guys aren’t supposed to care, but I always pictured it a certain way.” I know that draped over this scene are bunches of pink flowers and tulle tied into fancy bows. And people and faces we loved—real ones. Another time.
“I always pictured a lot of things a certain way,” I say. “And none of what I’ve lost compares to finding you.”
A smile tugs at his lips. I see the flash of white scar. “I guess we’re good, then,” he says.
“I guess we’re good,” I agree.
So many nights I’ve listened to his voice in the dark, making him whisper to me now that I’ve found him. Trying to match that voice from then with the face I’ve found now. “I loved your voice first,” I always say.
We’re going to broadcast a meet up for our wedding even though I don’t think there’s anyone left out there to come.
What if someone was afraid like I was? I’ve started talking on the broadcasts, too, just in case. So that they’ll know it’s not just Ben. Not just some crazy guy luring people out.
I keep picturing it when I close my eyes. I picture a bright sun. The silent mannequins all standing solemn. And then they come. People trailing out of dark hideaways. Blinking against the light.
All of us together at last.
But if not, I’ve still got Ben. And all the great love songs mention two people alone in all the world, don’t they? Just us.
And maybe that’s what we’ll be. Our own love song at the end of the world.
Making inanimate objects our friends is a time-honored tradition, from children befriending a stuffed animal to that volleyball from Castaway. Winston? Wilson? I’m not sure, I never saw it, but I know about it because of pop culture. The Umbrella Academy also used it when Number Five was alone after the apocalypse, growing very close to Doris, his mannequin friend. What struck me about this story was that while the survivors did have a similar desire to fill their streets with these fake people, the giant dolls only underscored their loneliness. And I mean to them, not just to us, the reader.
And while I do love a space adventure where people much braver than me go off and do brave or dangerous things, I appreciate a story that shows someone like me, unsure of herself, thinking the known status quo might be better than any unknown. I would be like her, questioning everything, including my own indecision. The stories about the human condition like these are some of my favorites. Some stories we need to find out Who it’s about, others we need to know Why something has happened. I’d call this a How story. We don’t need to know who caused the end of the world or Why, but How are our survivors going to keep going?
Escape Pod is part of the Escape Artists Foundation, a US 501(c)(3) non-profit, and this episode is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license. Don’t change it. Don’t sell it. Please do share it.
Our opening and closing music is by daikaiju. You can find more at daikaiju.org.
And our closing quote is from Brene Brown: “Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.”
Thanks for listening. Have fun, stay safe and stay kind. See you next time!
About the Author
Linda Niehoff is a writer and photographer living in a small Kansas town. She loves Scooby Doo, is an accidental collector of vintage cameras, and will read anything that’s labeled “gothic” or “atmospheric.” Her short fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Daily Science Fiction, Weird Horror, and elsewhere.
About the Narrator
Heather slings jewelry by day but is an aspiring voice actor by night. In her high school years she was classically trained in opera, but now mostly just sings karaoke. She is wildly enthusiastic about all things horror, and has notably curated an impressive collection of earnest, yet awful, dog portraits. “The Stripper” on Pseudopod is her first ever (and first professional!) horror publication. She lives in Denver, Colorado with her husband and her 2 evil cats, Muffin and Banana. Heather’s other narrations can be found on other fine podcasts such as the Creepy podcast, The Wicked Library, The Lift, Tales to Terrify, and The Starship Sofa.