This month’s Patreon Novella is Still Life. A young man awakens after the end of the world to find a town full of silent, unmoving mannequins. If you’re interested in reading the entire thing, patreon.com/user?u=5359808 all of the novellas are available here for only a dollar a month- And we’re up to 12 novellas, one full year!
The first of four chapters follows.
Chapter 1: Apples in a Dish
Zombie apocalypses are not about the end of the world. So often, the world does not end in that apocalypse. Certainly, countless billions die. There is tragedy, and glory, and a thousand beautiful moments, but life continues. People survive. Humans are born survivors, and the end always leaves survivors. The zombie apocalypse is different, because things are so often unchanged. You find yourself trying to survive, amid a vast tide of mindless, thoughtless creatures who live only to consume, to feed, ravenously filling their maws with whatever they can get their hands on.
In other words, it is no different from the world before the apocalypse. That, after all, was John Romero’s point. Humans are the real monsters.
Philosophers have been happy to get in on this fun, too. I remember, in a high school philosophy class, learning about zombies. Philosophical zombies. A thing, physically identical to you or I, which acts exactly as a human would, but does not feel. A thing which doesn’t have actual emotions, but simply fakes them. If you were to prick it with a needle, it would say ‘ouch’. It would scream if you threatened it, it would cry, it would beg for mercy. But it wouldn’t actually be feeling everything. It would show stress hormones if you took its blood. But it wouldn’t feel anything. It wouldn’t have consciousness.
The teacher who introduced this explained that philosophers on both side didn’t actually believe that p-zombies exist. They were an argument against physicalism. If p-zombies could exist, then there couldn’t just be physical phenomena, because there’d be nothing physical to distinguish you or I from a p-zombie.
It bent my brain. That’s philosophy. Twisting and writhing, trying to pin down the world, to make it cohere to the biases and flaws of a meat-based computer assembled by random chance and optimized to find fruit and avoid lions. A system of ‘science’ that favored illusory laws that the human brain threw up in place of actual laws of the world, of nature, of physics, chemistry, and biology. I hadn’t taken a philosophy class since then. And still, the concept of p-zombies had stuck with me.
I woke up, and the world was empty. It took me several hours to realize that. It was early Saturday morning, and I was in my dorm room. I had a single, after my roommate had moved out halfway through the semester. A large, empty room which I inhabited whenever I could. I climbed out of bed, rubbing sleep from my eyes. The hallways were empty, which was unsurprising at 6 AM. I took a shower in the communal bathroom, and nobody entered or left. I thought nothing of it. I sat down at my computer, and played games. Single-player games. Things that I could do on my own, isolated. That was the way I liked my life. Not having to deal with other people.
Around 9 AM, I checked Reddit, and that’s when I first realized that something was wrong. Every post was about 6 hours old. Since 3 AM, nobody had posted on any of my subreddits. I checked the front page, then the news sites. A few late night stories from other continents about financial news, President Trump’s latest controversies, the Atlantean Embassy opening a new branch in the mouth of the Potomac, some new comet. Nothing about the internet going down. I refreshed a couple of times, checked the connection. Even made a post.
There were no responses. That wasn’t unusual. But no moderator deleted it for being off topic. That was existentially terrifying.
I pulled on clothes, and walked out onto the lawn. That’s when I noticed the mannequins.
Three of them stood in a circle in front of the building, facing each other. They were department store mannequins, human-shaped, but with featureless faces that imitated a human’s, but with blank spaces where the eyes should be, lips remaining unparted, sealed together. They wore clothes, and each one was holding a lit cigarette. Smoke slowly drifted upwards from each lit cigarette, the tips cherry red and burning merrily.
I stood there, watching them for perhaps a minute. I didn’t feel panicked, exactly. It was hard to describe what I felt. It was surreal, perhaps even disturbing, but not threatening. I just wondered what the hell was going on.
As I walked down the sidewalk to the street, the oddities grew. A car, stopped in the middle of the road, with a mannequin sitting in the driver’s seat, a smartphone in one hand. The library, a mannequin sitting at the desk inside, a pumpkin spice latte sitting in front of them. No humans.
I entered the dining hall, climbed the stairs, wondering what I would see. It was deathly silent as I entered the hall. Mannequins sat everywhere, trays in front of them. There was food on the trays, none of it eaten. A mannequin sat at the entrance, and by reflex, I held out my meal card. I stood there for a second or two, before I put it back in my wallet, feeling extremely foolish. I walked to the counter, where the usual Saturday morning breakfast buffet was sitting steaming and fresh.
This touch, more than anything else, added to the surreality. There were mannequins behind the counter. Who had made the food? Who had served the food? Who had taken it over?
I carefully scooped out a piece of bacon, and sniffed it. It smelled fine. Great, even. I took a bite. It didn’t taste evil, or like it would turn me into a mannequin. I piled my plate high, and walked over to the corner seat, where I could keep my eye on the entire hall and eat my meal. Crispy bacon, a waffle from the waffle iron, blueberry syrup, orange juice with a little peach juice mixed in, a corn muffin smeared with a little honey butter. I ate quietly in the corner, watching the silent room.
It wasn’t entirely unpleasant. Nobody turned to look at me. None of the mannequins were staring at me, or eyeing me. It was like I was perfectly alone in the room. Nobody judging me, nobody laughing at me. The apocalypse, it turned out, had its upsides. I ate my breakfast unmolested, unworried, and enjoyed it.
It was a beautiful autumn day, the sunshine bright and the sky immensely clear. The lights of the cafeteria were steady and unflickering. There was still power, then. Everything was being maintained. Everything was normal. Would that last? Would the power run out? The food? A tight little knot formed in my stomach. How widespread was this? Had I lost my mind, gone completely bugfuck, become detached from reality? Delusional?
That was philosophy stuff. What if I was just a brain in a jar somewhere, being stimulated to think I was a person? That didn’t matter. Getting too focused on it would just drive me insane. I just had to keep calm, and figure out what to do now.
If civilization had ended, what was there to do with my life? I had planned on being an engineer, living a good life, making money, maybe- probably not- getting married someday. Now… Now, there was no one. Nothing. Nobody. The world would keep spinning on, but there was going to be nothing new. No new movies, no new games. No new sequels, no new media. No new conversations, no new arguments, no new discoveries. Humans would never land on the stars, we would never reach immortality, we’d never create robots. Humanity, as far as I could tell, had been reduced to a single person. When I died, we’d all be gone.
I felt like I should cry. Like I should weep and curse the heavens or kill myself because what was the point of life without other people. But by and large, other people were miserable to me. This didn’t feel any different, really, from any other day that I had gone through, save for the fact that people weren’t being actively aggressive against me anymore.
“This isn’t so bad.”
I left the tray with the food half eaten on the table. To hell with worrying about it. To hell with the social norms. It wasn’t any different from the way it had been before. I was still living a life that would be meaningless, that wouldn’t have any great and huge adventures or wonders in it. It was all the same damn thing.
I went back to my room, and played Stellaris and listened to Blue Oyster Cult as high as my speakers would go, as much because I could as anything else. As I crushed my enemies, enslaved their worlds, and listened to the Blue Oyster Cult talk about psychic wars, I put the strangeness at arm’s length. The world had gone bizarre. Something inconceivable had happened. I’d never be able to figure out why, so why bother? I allowed it to pass over me, and played until the sun set around 6 PM. My stomach growled, and I wandered out onto the streets again, after pulling on my coat. It was chilly out.
The mannequins outside the dorm had moved. They weren’t there anymore. On the one hand, that was a little unsettling. The mannequins could move, which explained how they maintained things. On the other hand, they hadn’t shown any interest in hurting me. It all seemed safe enough. I walked past them on the street, crossed without looking both ways, and entered the local Chinese restaurant.
I frowned as I studied the counter. A mannequin- identical to the others, distinguishable only by height and its clothing- stood behind the counter. Two more were in the back hall. Three or four mannequins sat in the restaurant, food in front of them. They were all still. I could hear meat sizzling in the back. “Uh… Beef and broccoli?”
I stepped out of the restaurant, and stood on the corner. The college town, emptied of inhabitants, was peaceful. Birds tweeted in the trees. A mannequin stood nearby on the corner, holding a leash that led to a mannequin of a dog. The mannequin was female, and identical to every other female mannequin. It was distinguished solely by the dress it wore. A delicate red sun dress, it looked distinctly too loose and breezy for the cold weather, the mannequin’s arms wrapped tightly around its own shoulders, as though shivering. The weather had gotten cold, I noticed, the temperature dropping sharply with the sunset.
I had the strangest impulse, then. I took off my jacket, and draped it around the mannequin’s shoulders, tugging it shut. It was the kind of thing I always wanted to do, but would never dare to do to a human being. For fear of looking creepy, of being rejected. But the mannequin couldn’t reject the gesture. It stood there, arms still on its shoulders, with the jacket there. It was a ridiculous thing to do, but somehow, it made me feel a little warmer inside.
I walked back into the Chinese restaurant, and a bag sat on the counter. I opened it, and checked. Beef with broccoli, and a fortune cookie. “Thanks,” I said, and walked out of the restaurant. The mannequin was still there, head turned towards me now, hands holding the jacket around her shoulders. I flushed, and looked away to the right.
The liquor store was there. I wasn’t 21 yet, but I had gotten drunk a few times, at parties. The mannequins weren’t going to card me. I pushed open the door, and stepped in. I chose a bottle of banana schnapps, and slid it in with the bag of Chinese food. “Thanks a lot, guys,” I said, nodding my head to the mannequin leaning on the counter on my way out.
The mannequin I had given my jacket to was gone when I left the liquor store. A part of me felt a little bit rejected by that. I made it halfway back to my dorm room before I realized that I didn’t have to hide anything, and opened the bottle of banana schnapps, unscrewing the cap. It burned going down, and took away from the pain. Feeling rejected by a mannequin was about the silliest thing that I could imagine. It still hurt a little bit, but with the banana schnapps, the hurt felt rather comical.
The slight haze of inebriation rested around me like a shroud, as I walked up the hill towards my dorm. I took another sip from the bottle, and looked around me. All around, lights were on in windows. I could see the shadows of mannequins here and there. Trapped in a parody of life, they didn’t seem to be pretending that they were having a wonderful time. They were just going through the motions. I didn’t envy them, and for that, I was grateful to them.
I returned to my room, and set the broccoli and beef on my desk, taking another long swig from the banana schnapps. I smacked my lips as I started a game again. I had time enough. Time enough to just grow old, and die. Games to consume me until the day I died. Books to read, movies to watch. There would be some pains to it. I’d never find out how Infinity War was going to end, I’d never get to read the end of the Dresden Files, all of the stories I enjoyed would remain unfinished. But they might’ve just turned out like shit anyway.
The last man on earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door.
It took me several seconds to realize why the sound sent a shiver up my spine. I turned the music down, and frowned. I was just moving my hand back to the keyboard to start the song again when the knock came again.
I grabbed the closest heavy thing I could swing, which happened to be the bottle of schnapps. With the comforting weight of a blunt object close to hand, I stood up. Then I thought about it, and pulled on a pair of pants. If I was going to get murdered, might as well die fully clothed. There was another knock at the door. “I’m coming, damn it!” I said, and the shout made me feel better. Like the bottle, it was a base, animalistic thing to do. It satisfied the part of me that was frightened, and wanted to act like a frightened animal. I wasn’t sure how useful that was, but I grasped the door knob anyway, and opened it, lifting the bottle high.
A mannequin stood outside the door. It held the jacket in its hands. It was wearing a sweater, and I could see, on its shoulder, the delicate straps of the red dress I had seen before.
“Oh. You didn’t have to bring that back. But, uh, thanks.” I took the jacket from the mannequin. “How’d you find me?”
The mannequin didn’t offer.
“Well, thanks, anyway. Have a good evening.” I closed the door. Almost immediately, there was another knock. I opened the door again. The mannequin still stood there, but now, it was standing with its arms behind its back, its featureless face tilted slightly to one side. I might have been crazy, but it seemed almost to be waiting for something. “Do you want to come in?” I was quiet for a moment. “Promise not to… You know, break my neck, or anything like that?”
The mannequin didn’t respond. God, I was definitely drunk.
“Alright, come on in.” I turned away from her, bracing myself. I sat at the desk again. “Sorry the place is a little bit of a mess. I wasn’t really expecting company. I’m, uh… not sure what would entertain you.”
The door shut. I turned my head after a second. The mannequin sat on the bed, one leg crossed over the other, completely still, and yet looking surprisingly natural in the pose. One of her hands was held out towards the computer.
“The game? I guess I can tell you about it. If you get bored, just… You know, walk out. I’ll keep my eyes off of you so you can leave. This game, uh… Well, it’s a sci-fi game-“
I talked. Like an idiot. Like the way I always talked about these things, going on, expounding about something no one was interested in. I was ready for the door to open and close at any moment.
She didn’t leave. She stayed the whole night, listening to me ramble and drink. She didn’t judge me. A lot of people would probably be disgusted with me to hear that I enjoyed that. That my ideal companion was an inanimate mannequin, listening quietly as I went on. That reaction’s part of what made it satisfying. She was, I suppose, nothing more than a p-zombie. Going through the motions. Except, except. She had chosen to find me. To track me down, and return something I had given her. To stay.
She couldn’t move, couldn’t really be, when I was watching her. But she was still there. Something about that was comforting.
I crawled into the bed at 2 AM, drunk, and found myself putting my arms around the mannequin. She was stiff to the touch, cold. Not at all like an actual human. That was a bit discomforting. On the other hand, she didn’t breathe heavily, didn’t snore, didn’t roll over on top of me, didn’t pin my arm down. I closed my eyes, and she didn’t move. It was a little lonely, but not as lonely as being in my bed by myself.
I woke up, groggy. My head was aching. I opened my eyes, and found a glass of water by the bed that definitely hadn’t been there the day before. I reached out, and felt plastic arms resting around me. I shrugged out of them, feeling warmer for having had the embrace to wake up to, and climbed out of the bed. “You got this for me?”
Predictably, the mannequin didn’t answer.
“Thanks. This is really kind of you.” I took a long drink, and sighed. “That tastes really good. Uh, hey. Do you want to go out? To a restaurant, or something?”
She continued to give me the silent treatment.
“Where? Well, there’s that Italian place. I never used to go there, it seemed really pricy, but it doesn’t seem like anyone’s using money, so…”
She was quiet in an affirmative way.
“Alright. I guess I should get dressed up nicely. Uh, I’ll meet you at the restaurant around 3 or so, alright?”
I stood up, and heard the door open and close. When I looked up, she was gone, but a card remained on my bed. There was a cell phone number printed on it, though nothing else.
“This is so bizarre,” I muttered. “Though, I’ll admit, I can’t say I hate it.”
I picked up the card, and walked down into town. I studied the cars. There were keys still in quite a few of them. I carefully opened one of the doors, lifting the mannequin out of the seat and setting it on its feet.
“I’ll be back with this in a couple of hours, okay? Sorry about the inconvenience.” I smiled, and started the car.
The nearest big town was Hornell. It looked just like the college. Empty, absent of anyone but the mannequins. I slowed and drove around the few cars I found stopped in the middle of the highway on the way there. The streets had the occasional mannequin, some of them child sized, some of them adult sized, but nothing in between. That was an odd thought. Would the mannequins reproduce? Have children? Could they raise crops? Find new sources of energy and mine them? How long could this world last like this?
Well, hell. That question had been lingering even before the world went through the calmest, most orderly apocalypse ever. I hadn’t cared about it before, why bother starting now?
I parked in front of a Men’s Warehouse. I considered, briefly, parallel parking, before deciding not to bother. I climbed out of the car, and walked into the store. I studied the clothes, pondering. I didn’t have the right frame for it. It was a bit embarrassing.
I’d always known that. I’d always known I was in bad shape. I’d never cared. And now, with someone who didn’t speak, who- so far as I know- couldn’t even see me, I cared about it suddenly. I wanted to look nice for a mannequin. For a plastic statue. The very idea of it was absurd. It was actually a little bit comical. But it was a feeling nonetheless. For the time being, I chose a jacket that would look half-decent on me, slid it on over my shoulders, and tried to suck in my gut a bit for it. It made me feel silly. But it’d do.
The drive back home was calm. Driving around the stopped cars kept me from going too fast, but they were infrequent enough that I could still keep up a good clip. There was something bizarrely serene about having the road to myself like this. The bright blue sky above was sunny and gorgeous, and I had a date to look forward to. The apocalypse was all upside.
The mannequin was still standing there when I returned the car to where I had first found it, arms crossed, one foot raised as though about to tap it. I put the keys in the mannequin’s hand. “Thanks for the use of the car.”
Thanking them was insane. Literally. I had no reason to believe that the mannequins could respond to the thanks, that they even cared. But I’d never been good at the empathy thing. It was polite to thank someone after imposing on them. So I thanked the inanimate objects for the hard work they put in, just in case they cared. And if that was crazy, it was far from the craziest thing I did.
I arrived at the restaurant, just a couple minutes after three. A problem showed itself almost immediately. The restaurant was nearly full, and there were at least half a dozen female mannequins sitting alone at various tables. None of them was wearing the red dress. I didn’t even know if she’d shown up, let alone which mannequin she was. I didn’t even know her name.
That brought on the isolation again, hard. Just about as long as it took to remember the card she’d left on my bed. I took it out, and dialed the number. One of the women’s purses rang. I smiled, and the isolation drifted away. I sat down across from her. “Smart. Really smart. I see you ordered for us already.” I waved at the bread, the salad, the wine, the large dish of shared pasta. “I guess you weren’t feeling too hungry?”
I was talking to myself. I was probably going insane from isolation or something, but it sure didn’t feel like isolation. I talked with her about one subject, and then another- Rambling, if I was honest with myself- and, god help me, it felt lovely. We took our time, I didn’t worry about money or about the end of the world or about resources or about boring her or holding up the restaurant. We just had a lovely time together, and I finished the meal in my own fair time, feeling hungrier than I expected.
Going home proved a little lonely. The two of us walked together down the street, her a few feet behind me. At first, every dozen or so feet, I checked to make sure she was still behind me. Once it was clear that she was, I walked faster, trusting that she would stay behind me. Her footsteps didn’t make any sound, which was odd; She had knocked, after all. Maybe she just walked softly.
We watched movies late into the night, and I fell asleep in her arms.
Monday was curious. School was still in session, mannequins crowded the classrooms, but there was nothing written on the chalkboards, no sign that anyone was actually writing anything. I spent half an hour in my class out of sheer bloody-minded habit and the side effects of being half asleep, before I returned to my dorm room. On a whim, I went for a run. No one around to see me make a fool of myself, no one around to mock me or tease me. No classes to worry about, nothing to do but enjoy life.
Time enough, at last.
This is how it went for about a week. Eating out, enjoying myself. But all good things can drain away, given time, and an empty world.
“It’s- It’s kind of scary, you know?” I said to Dolly. It was the worst name possible, but I couldn’t think of anything else to call her. Her mannequin dog sat on the floor of the dorm room, and she sat cross-legged on the bed in a cardigan and a light purple dress. “The idea that I’ll never see another human. That the world’s just… dead. That I’ll never see someone again. I’m… I start thinking about ending it, just to get it over with.” I sighed. “I haven’t heard another human being’s actual voice in a week.” I leaned back in the chair, staring out the window. “I didn’t think I’d miss other people, but… It’s hard, sometimes.”
She didn’t say anything.
“No, that’s not what it’s about.”
Her silence continued.
“No, you’re great! I… I wish you could talk, that you felt more… But that’s not the reason. I wouldn’t want to get rid of you. You’re special to me. But I… I don’t know.” I sighed. “It’s a weird need. I don’t know how to put it. If I’m here… just me… If it’s just me… Then, well. What do I have to live for?”
I looked away. I heard the door open, and close. I sighed. It was a lot to throw at someone who was, so far as I could tell, a mannequin. I sat quietly, staring out the window for half an hour, alone with my thoughts as the sky gradually darkened. It would’ve been almost Halloween. I wondered for a moment if the mannequins would dress up.
There was a knock at the door. I opened it. “Forget something-”
Dolly stood in the doorway, her hands held out. I stared down at the placard in her hand. It had been pulled from one of the buildings. I recognized it. “That’s… From the AV club room. Right?”
She didn’t respond. I took the placard from her hand. I frowned.
“You want me to go here?”
Her silence spoke volumes.
I set off, down the stairs, and out into the night. I trusted Dolly, at this point, to stay with me. The building was on the far end of the campus, at the top of the hill the college was built into. I frowned as I made my way up to the Audio-visual club, stepping through the door. I frowned as I looked across projectors, laptops, speakers. Trying to figure out what she was pointing to.
I heard the soft crackle of static. I turned my head, and saw Dolly standing by a radio transmitter, holding out the transmitter. Her head was tilted.
“What? Call on radio? Nobody’s online. Nobody’s responded to my phone. What makes you think that it’s going to be different if I use a radio transmitter?”
Her silence said it all.
“Man. What would I even talk about? I don’t know how to set up, like, a repeating transmission, or anything like that.”
She continued to hold the transmitter out to me.
“Alright. I’m sure I’ll think of something.” I sighed, and took the transmitter. “Ah. Hello, hello out there, to anyone who can hear me. This is Patrick Kilnik. I’m speaking from New York… Uh, you’ve probably noticed all of the mannequins around. Yeah, I’ve got no idea about them, either. So… Anyone out there?” I released the transmit button, and listened. The soft hiss of static filled the air. I waited perhaps five minutes, and then continued. “Well. Here’s my personal information. My e-mail address is…”
And so it went. Repeating the information, stating my location, my name, my e-mail, my cell-phone number, everything that someone would need to hear in order to find me. I mean, if I was one of the last people on earth, anyone who heard would probably be friendly. It’s not like we were competing for resources at this point.
I frowned as the static hissed as I finished. There was a sound, like… something I couldn’t quite describe. A very distant tapping. For some reason, I was reminded of rain landing on a tin roof, somewhere far in the distance. I sighed as I hung up the transmitter, and started futzing with some of the recording equipment.
Another month passed. October gave way to November, and no, there weren’t any costumes. The sameness of it could be a little bit… oppressive. There was rain, though. This wasn’t unusual for the area, but it seemed that, as the temperature dropped, more and more of it fell. Surprising amounts, to the point where I had to wonder about it. Whether it was because of the apocalypse, or some change from not having people, or just some kind of coincidence. As with so many things, there wasn’t a lot I could do about it.
I played games. I ate with Dolly. I spent time with her. I ran, gradually losing a little weight, and getting more fit, just in case. I sent out the messages each day, not so much because I thought it would work, as because it made me feel like I was accomplishing something.
November gave way to December. It was December 10th when something impossible happened. Something that was as frightening as it was thrilling. My phone buzzed as I finished up a recording. It was so unexpected, so unusual, I didn’t even think about it at first. I took out the phone, and found a single new e-mail in my mailbox. The first non-spam, non-automated e-mail in months.
Topic: stop fucking broadcasting
stop broadcasting. don’t call anyone. come here: 44°52’00.0″N 103°13’22.1″W
every time you broadcast the global rainfall patterns increase a little bit more. something is listening.
whatever you do, don’t trust the dolls.