Still Life Chapter 2: Natura Morta

Dolly stared daggers at my back.

“I can’t bring you with me. Okay?”

A frosty silence filled the air as I loaded supplies into the back of the van. A crowbar, a gun, food.

“No, this isn’t because I don’t trust you.”

I turned to face Dolly. Her head was turned to the side, slightly downcast, arms crossed in front of her chest. She wore a slim and stylish jacket, belted at the waist, emphasizing her hips. I could almost swear she was frowning, though her face remained in the same neutral expression that all the mannequins wore.

“If you wanted to hurt me, you had plenty of opportunities. It’s not like I had my eyes on you all the time. I don’t know what this person is talking about, but they might not trust you. Look, if I get there, and it’s safe, I can come back and get you. Alright?”

She didn’t say a word.

“Of course I’m going to come back for you! I’m not going to just abandon you! Look, I’ll call all the time, okay? I’ve got your number, I’ve got my phone, I’ll call you every day.”

I bent down, picked up one of the heavy jugs full of water, and set it back in the car. I looked up, and Dolly was gone. I frowned, and turned around. She sat in the passenger seat of the jeep. I wasn’t exactly going to worry about fuel economy on this trip.

“Dolly, come on. I really can’t.” I sighed. “There’s a lot I don’t know. Like, can you really not move while I’m looking? Or is it just an embarrassment thing?” I bent down to pick up another set of canned potatoes, and the door slammed. I stood up sharply, and saw Dolly in mid-stride, about twenty feet away. She was very fast when she wanted to be. “Dolly!”

I ran up to her. Her legs were spread apart, arms out sharply at her sides, back hunched, an expression of absolute neutrality on her plastic features.

“Dolly- Come on. You don’t… Are you proving a point?”

She pointedly ignored me.

“I just want you to be safe. What if it is dangerous where this other person is? What if the mannequins are more dangerous there? What if they hurt you, or what if…” I couldn’t continue the words. “What if what’s happening around them spreads? It could be dangerous.”  I turned away from her. “I don’t know. I don’t want to be on bad terms with you when I leave, Dolly.”

Her hand rested suddenly on my shoulder, very gently, the stiff cold plastic strangely comforting nonetheless.

“Thanks. I’m just not sure what’s going to happen, and having you along could be as dangerous as it is helpful.”

I turned, and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek, and returned to the car. I loaded it, and Dolly helped, my eyes closed as I heard the cans settling in the back. When I finished, I climbed into the front seat, started the engine, and drove. I saw Dolly in the rear view mirror, her arms crossed, her head lowered. Like she expected to never see me again.

It wasn’t the most cheerful note to leave on. But I had to leave nonetheless. I set down the now familiar roads, on the way to Pennsylvania. As I travelled, the sky darkened. A light rain fell, forcing me to drive slowly to avoid rear-ending someone as I made my way down the road. I flipped my brights on, and appreciated the feeling of simply driving. An audiobook played on the stereo as I drove, my eyes focused forward. I briefly felt tired, and realized that I had no hurries, and stopped to nap by the side of the road.

About halfway through the day, on the border between New York and Pennsylvania, I stopped at a gas station to refuel. I frowned when I realized I didn’t have money on my card to pay for the pump. I walked into the gas station, and stopped.

There were half a dozen mannequins in the gas station. One behind the counter, one standing at the entrance to the men’s room. Another four scattered around the aisles. That wasn’t so odd.

What was odd was the way every one of them had their head turned towards me.

“Hey. Just passing through, need to get some gas. Don’t mind me.” I slipped behind the counter, and flipped the switch for the gas pump by my car. When I looked up, the mannequins had crowded around the counter, uncomfortably close, their expressions fixed on me. “Uh… Hey.”

I felt a little prickle run down my spine as I walked out of the gas station, keeping my eye on the gas station. I had to look away for a moment when I selected the gas. I went with premium, because frankly, why not. When I looked back up, the door was open, and the mannequins were standing in a small crowd outside. I kept my eye on them, feeling the disquiet growing in my stomach. I began to blink one eye at a time, not giving them a chance to get closer.

“Look, guys. I’m not trying to hurt anyone. Just getting some gas.” I coughed. “Sorry for stealing it, but, uh…” I tried to think of something better to say. I was talking to an ominous group of inanimate mannequins. The gas pump let out a soft chunk as the flow stopped, and I placed the nozzle back in its cradle while keeping my eye on the group. Without looking away, I fumbled with the door, opened it, and climbed in the driver’s seat, buckling my seatbelt by feel. I reversed out of the gas station, and took off a bit faster than I probably should have.

After about a minute, I let out a breath, and reached up, my heart rate finally returning to something normal. I reached up, and adjusted the mirror, realizing I hadn’t checked it for a while.

A mannequin sat in the seat behind me, an arm reaching out. I let out a completely undignified shriek and hammered the brakes, the mannequin tumbling forward between the chairs and landing awkwardly across the passenger’s seat. It was holding a phone. I stared at the screen. It was opened to google maps. A destination had been punched in. Sturgis, South Dakota.

“Christ,” I muttered. “Scared the hell out of me, there. Sit in the front seat, would you? It’s your lucky day, though, I’m headed to South Dakota.” I reached over, and helped the mannequin into its seat. It took a bit of willpower, but I closed my eyes. The seatbelt clicked, and when I opened them, the mannequin sat quietly in the seat next to me.

I started the car again, and began driving once more.

“Sorry about freaking out on you. Got some ominous news, been a little edgy today… You know how it can be, right?” I chuckled softly as I started off again. “So, Sturgis. Got family there? Visiting someone?” I smiled to myself. “I admit, I’m surprised to find a mannequin looking to go anywhere, let alone hitch-hiking. You always seemed kind of sedentary to me, you know?”

Mannfred didn’t respond, but there was nothing particularly new about that. I nattered on for a while, happy for the conversation. Pennsylvania quickly gave way to Ohio. I stopped for gas, and this time, I locked the doors to the car when I stepped out of it. As the sun set, I noticed the cars stopped on the road had their lights on, making driving somewhat less stressful. Even so, I was beginning to feel tired. I frowned. The encounter in the gas station had shaken me, and I wasn’t entirely comfortable with that. I waited until we had gone without seeing any other cars for a few minutes, and pulled off onto the shoulder, lying back in the chair, closing my eyes, and going to sleep.

I didn’t awaken to find myself being strangled by mannequins, so I was inclined to think that things had gone safely enough. I yawned, as I climbed out of the car, stretching my arms into the air. The air was crisp and clear, but there were dark clouds on the horizon. More rain.

I wondered briefly about what I’d seen in the e-mail. About the idea that there was more rain. How was that possible? There was a limit to how much it could rain. Was it just raining more frequently, with greater rates of evaporation? Or… That was an unsettling thought. The idea that it would rain, more and more. The whole world slowly drowning. Like global warming, but gloomier.

Was that even possible? Where would the rain come from? Was it connected to the damn mannequins, or what?

“Don’t suppose you have any answers, do you, Mannfred?” I asked, grinning lightly.

Mannfred did not.

I took out my smartphone, and dialed Dolly. She didn’t pick up. I didn’t know whether that was because she couldn’t, or because she was busy with something else. Both questions raised some very bizarre implications. “Hey, Dolly. It’s me. You know, the only person in the world who can call you. Uh, trip’s gone alright so far, had kind of a spooky encounter outside a gas station, I’m not sure if it was what this person was talking about, some kind of bad neighborhood, or if I’m just getting a little spooked and paranoid. Picked up a hitch-hiker, he’s looking to go to South Dakota too, so he’s got my back on the trip there. I’ll, uh, keep my eye out, make sure that everything looks good. Don’t worry about me, everything’s going good and smooth here, I’m staying away from any big cities and stuff, been keeping moving on the highways. Love you. Uh, that sounds weird when I say it out loud, but… Yeah. God, I hope you can open your voice mail. Wish you were here, but, I’m glad that you’re not.”

I ended the call, feeling profoundly embarrassed by the way I’d rambled on, and then stepped back into the car. Mannfred was leaned back in his chair. He was wearing a hoodie and a pair of jeans, I noticed, and a pair of sneakers. He had a paperback book, some mystery novel, in his hands.

“Uh… Mannfred, this is probably going to be kind of invasive, but…” I reached out, and slid my hand into the mannequin’s pocket. “I’ve been curious about something.” I withdrew the mannequin’s wallet, and flipped it open. There was a driver’s license.

“Jill Nguyen. Well, that’s not very helpful, is it?” I sighed. “I was wondering if there’s a connection between the mannequins and the people they were, but… Hell, where’d you get this wallet?” I frowned. “Should I call you Jill?”

The distinctly masculine mannequin didn’t say a thing. I shrugged.

“Well, fair enough. I’ll stick with Mannfred to keep the joke going.” I frowned down at the card. “Hey, you didn’t pickpocket this, did you? It’s alright if you did.”

Mannfred had nothing to say about that.

This is the way the days went. I would wake up, call Dolly, leave her a message, and then drive. I ate out of the cans in the back of the car, and because I was both a piece of shit and painfully aware that it would never matter, I tossed the cans on the roadside. The world was fundamentally over, a bit of roadside trash one way or the other wouldn’t change things now.

Then, I drove. Long hours, eating up the miles, stopping only really to eat occasionally, to crap on the side of the road, and to refill on gas. My experiences of the first day, the spooky behavior of the mannequins not being repeated. Part of that may have been the fact that I wasn’t taking my eyes off the mannequins anymore.

And each night, I’d sleep, trusting Mannfred to wake me.

Things went like that, fairly calm, until about the fourth night of my trip. I went to sleep, as usual. I woke up to find my arm being shaken, lying in the driver’s seat as usual.

The moon was full. Bright and silvery. It shone down, lighting the Great Plains highway like the noon sun. I frowned. Mannfred’s hand was on my arm. “What’s up?”

I saw his other hand. It was pointing out the window.

It took me a second to realize what it was. The silvery moonlight shining down from above was bright, but monochrome, casting everything into sharp relief. It took me a few seconds to recognize the figures in the darkness.

Mannequins were gathered. Perhaps a hundred of them, in a large crowd half a mile down the road. I felt my stomach clench as I stared at the group. How long had they been swarming there? How long had I not noticed them approaching?

I wasn’t entirely sure where the mannequins had come from. I wasn’t close to any large city or towns. Had they been getting out of their cars? Moving to approach me? That idea by itself was a bit ominous. I took a deep breath. “Mannfred- Wake me up if they get any closer, alright?”

I closed my eyes, and Mannfred squeezed my shoulder once. I sighed softly, and tried to get back to sleep. I was very, very glad to have someone with me for this trip.

Consciousness returned slowly. I was groggy, deep in sleep. The car was shaking, I thought, before I realized it was Mannfred shaking me. I opened my eyes, panic surging.

The mannequins were standing in a crowd outside the jeep. There had to be hundreds of them. The most disturbing part, for me, was that none of them were wearing any clothing. Naked, doll-like bodies, no sexual characteristics, just smooth plastic, surrounded me. I tried very hard to keep my eyes on all of them at once, and failed. Each time I turned my head, they had crowded in a little bit closer. I felt the panic gripping me like a fist, and fought it.

I started the car, shifting it into gear. I closed my eyes, and when I’d opened them, the mannequins had begun to pull back, creating space in front of the car. They recognized their own vulnerability. I drove out of the crowd, watching the rear view mirror as they vanished into the distance behind the car.

“What was that about?” I asked Mannfred, looking over at him. He was shrugging, his hands raised slightly in the air. “Shit. God damn it. I’m lucky they backed off. Lucky you spotted them. Lucky. Lucky. Can’t rely on luck.” I checked the phone. “We’re about two hundred miles from South Dakota. If I drive us straight, we should be able to get there fairly soon. I’ll drop you off in Sturgis, then, I’ll be on my way again.” I stopped the car, and took out the phone, composing an e-mail to countrymatters88. Not much information, just where I was, and that I expected to arrive by that evening.

I tried not to let the lack of good sleep, or the nerves, show. But it was scary as hell. I didn’t know what was happening, but it didn’t fit with anything I knew about how the world was supposed to work. The world had been so peaceful around me. Why were the mannequins suddenly acting so goddamn creepy?

I drove into town around sunrise, riding down the off ramp into the main drag. Abandoned franchises sat around. This place looked substantially less well-kept than home. No sign of mannequins out on the streets. I frowned out the window at a McDonald’s, whose windows had been broken. Weeds were growing out of cracks in the concrete. The lawns were all dead.

“You sure you want to be left here, buddy?” I asked, softly, before turning my head to Mannfred. He was flashing a thumbs up. “If you say so.” I stopped the car, looking away. I heard the door open, and close. When I looked back, he was gone. I sighed softly, and began driving again. The town looked rough, and I had the feeling it hadn’t always looked this way. I decided I would rather get out of the place, as quickly as possible. That’s probably why I didn’t see the caltrops.

The car’s tire exploded. I gripped the wheel with white knuckles, keeping the car going straight as I slowed down, my heart pounding as the car fishtailed over several dozen feet. I climbed out of the car, and stared. The tires on the left side were a ruin. The roads were littered with half a dozen caltrops- Six railroad spikes, taken from who-knows-where, welded together at the base to create something that looked like nothing so much as a giant jack. It had ruined two of the tires on the car. I had one spare tire.

I began to look around for another car, which is when I saw the door of one of the houses was open. A mannequin stood in the doorway. I opened the back of the jeep, and pulled out the gun, and the crowbar. Weapons of last resort. I walked over to the closest car, checked inside. No keys. I looked up, and could see the mannequin had left the house, and was approaching. Two or three more doors were open.

It was the slowest chase scene in the world. I walked with the crowbar hooked into my belt, the gun in the back of my pants, holding my phone in such a way that the camera stayed on my back. I walked down the street, checking each car as quickly as I could, and finding no keys. None of them had mannequins in them, either. The camera let me keep an eye on the mannequins, and I was able to outpace them as long as I didn’t blink too much. Each time I blinked, they took a few steps forward- as fast as Dolly, then- but I was able to put more distance between us. As long as I kept the camera up.

Five miles in, my arm was aching. I sat down, on the road, and turned to face them. The mannequins had gathered into a large crowd. Thirty, forty. More than I could shoot. If I approached them with the crowbar, who knew what would happen? If I took my eyes off them for even a second… I had to hope they’d get bored, or tired. Before I grew too tired, or the night fell, and it was too dark to see them.

I swallowed, hard, at the thought of that. My arms and legs seemed much less tired with that particular thought floating around in my head. I pushed myself to my feet, and began walking again.

Humans have been performing incredible feats of walking endurance for as long as there have been humans. We would race antelopes down. The antelopes were faster, but we had enough endurance, enough intelligence, that we would find them, make them run, watch them tire out, and then do it again. Eventually, they would stop running, or die of a heart attack.

Walking through the icy cold air, I could sympathize. Twenty miles into the walk, my bones were aching, my body straining to keep going. The featureless road ahead didn’t change. The mannequins, behind me, would occasionally disappear over the horizon for a time. Sooner or later, though, they would reappear, sometimes from oblique angles, coming from the sides, surprising me with how close they had gotten. Making it clear that I wasn’t safe.

There were no cars here. No sign that the road had seen regular human habitation. No shelter. Nowhere to run. Only the never-ending walk.

Around three PM, the sky began to cloud over. Raindrops began to fall, adding to the savage cold of the experience- warmer than the air, but soaking my clothes. South Dakota, at least in the part I was in, was more akin to desert than great plains. The rolling hills were rough on the legs, too.

It was 6 PM, when I finally reached the coordinates that I had been given. I was turned towards the mannequins, holding my phone out to keep my eye on them while staring at the coordinates. I was definitely close. But all I could see was featureless, rolling grassland. Enough hills that the mannequins would be able to get closer to me. The sun was hanging on the horizon, the sky growing darker rapidly. I was almost there. I had to be within a few hundred feet of her. But I didn’t see any sign of another human being.

I felt a little crippling sense of despair in the pit of my stomach. If I never came back, what would happen to Dolly? Was Mannfred okay? My thoughts weren’t with my neglectful, hateful family who had driven me a thousand miles away for college. My thoughts weren’t with the people who I’d known in school, who I’d avoided, who I’d hated to be around. They were with a pair of mannequins. Would they still be people if I was gone? If I wasn’t there to observe them acting like people? Had they ever been people?

Maybe I’d just been lying to myself. I felt a strange wave of exhaustion run over me, a weariness with it all. Maybe it would be better if I simply died here, torn apart by mannequins on the side of the road. Maybe it’d be better if this all ended. Maybe countrymatters88 had died days ago. They hadn’t responded to any of my e-mails. Maybe I was already alone in the world. Maybe Mannfred and Dolly were going to succumb to whatever had happened to these mannequins.

I looked up. The closest of the mannequins was perhaps twenty feet away. Naked. I noticed a scar along its side, a burned place in the plastic. “What happened to you?” I asked, softly. “What made you act like this, here? Something in the water? Did someone do this to you? Or is this just what you’re like, in the end?” I watched silently as the mannequin stood, an arm outstretched. “Do you just need… a chance, or something? A little trust?” I closed my eyes just for a moment.

I opened them just as quickly as the mannequin’s fingers went around my windpipe, squeezing. With my eyes open, it was easy to break the creature’s grip, breaking one of its thumbs as I did. “Fucker,” I growled, my eyes running across the mannequins. I was tempted- so very tempted- to just draw the gun, and shoot every one of them in the head. I didn’t, for a few reasons. First, I didn’t have enough bullets. Second, I wasn’t perfectly convinced that they deserved it. They had attacked me, but I didn’t know why. And last…

If I was honest, I didn’t even know if it would help. What if I shot them, and they kept on coming? They didn’t have brains, presumably. They didn’t have organs. Maybe shooting them wouldn’t help. I couldn’t think of anything more terrifying than trying, and failing. So I kept going.

The sun had set. The darkness was profound. I had my phone out, providing some scant light with the flashlight. It had fifteen percent battery left, after having it on all day. When it ran out, I was going to die. I kept walking through the grass, very possibly in circles, constantly checking around myself, jumping at every rustle, every breeze of the wind.

Fourteen percent.

I stepped over a barbed wire fence, checking behind me. I couldn’t see the mannequins. The moon hadn’t risen yet. Or maybe it had, and it was invisible behind the cloud cover. I couldn’t see much in the way of stars. I could try turning off the phone, and acclimatizing myself to the darkness. If I thought, for even a moment, that I would survive that.

Twelve percent.

I turned, and a mannequin was standing there. Perhaps ten feet away, its arms outstretched, almost unbalanced, as though I’d caught it in the middle of a rush. I stepped back quickly, breathing hard, my heart pounding, backing off until it vanished in the darkness, turning more rapidly, now, trying to watch in every direction at once.

Ten percent.

The flashlight shut off, abruptly. Some power saving measure. I struggled with the interface for a second. Then a rustling filled the air.

I shoved the phone in my pocket, grabbing the crowbar. I ran, blindly, through the night, holding the crowbar out. I felt a hand grab at my arm, stiff and plastic. I ripped free, and turned to stare into the darkness. The hands did not reappear, and I realized I could see- only the barest outline, a glimmer of light in an infinite black plain- but it was enough to keep me alive, at least for a little bit longer.

In the end, I couldn’t just lie down and die. I couldn’t give up. Every time this nightmare gave me a chance to surrender, a chance to give in and be murdered, I fought against it. I couldn’t stand it, the idea of stopping.

Mannfred and Dolly were depending on me. They needed me to come back. That was a hugely arrogant thought, that they cared what happened to me, let alone that they couldn’t continue without me around. But that was the nature of survival. I was going to keep going. I was going to keep fighting. I wouldn’t just lie down and die, like the rest of the world had.

I looked up. The gentle glint of mannequins surrounded me. I didn’t know how many- Dozens, hundreds maybe. They surrounded me. I took a few steps back, my heart falling into the pit of my stomach. It occurred to me that, at a certain moment, it didn’t matter how much guts or determination I had. They couldn’t overpower the shit-awful situation I was going to die in. I would die, and never know what had happened to me.

I raised the gun, and rested it lightly against my own chin, considering. Was it worse to die that way? To give up hope, in the face of the hopeless? Or would it be worse to find out what the mannequins intended to do to me? It was a hell of a decision to make.

I put the gun down. I took the phone out, instead, watching. I dialed the number. It was easy, it was the only number I’d called in months. I breathed in, and out, ready for it to go to voicemail.

Someone, on the other end, picked up.

“Dolly?”

No response. That was natural.

“Dolly… I’m sorry. I came out here, and things have gotten… bad. I’m stuck, and I don’t see any chance of getting out of this alive.” I closed my left eye, opened it, closed my right eye, opened it. Buying myself time. I was so damn tired. I’d walked for so long, so far. “I’m sorry, Dolly. I’m so sorry. I should have stayed there with you. I should have stayed where it was safe, just the two of us. If I could do it all over again- But, shit, I can’t.” I took a deep breath, and let it out. “I’m so sorry, Dolly. You were the best thing that ever happened to me. I love you.” I closed my eyes. “That’s so pathetic, that I loved a mannequin more than any human I ever met. But you were always there for me. I’m sorry I didn’t just stay there.”

I let the hand holding the phone drop to my side, and waited for death to come. And waited. Perhaps ten seconds passed, before I frowned, opening my eyes. The mannequins were gathered around me, unchanged since the last time I’d opened my eyes.

I turned slowly. And the flood lights went on. I screamed, covering my eye, and there was an explosion of sound. The phone was torn from my hand, as a cloaked figure held a rifle, firing shot after shot. I screamed, and screamed, covering myself.

“Hey. Hey, you can look now. It’d help, for that matter.”

The person’s voice was rusty as an old cast iron gate. Like they hadn’t talked at all in the last couple of months. But there were a few things I recognized about it. It was young. It was American, Midwest. It was female.

The last woman on earth smiled at me as she pulled off the goggles, blonde hair hanging around her face. She raised the gun, aimed it, and fired again. I turned, and saw another of the mannequins go down, its head pulverized into fragments, its body on the ground, along with a dozen or so others. The rest were all fleeing, stuck in positions of panicked flight. She took her time, gunning them down, one by one, and smiled as she approached me. “Patrick, I’m guessing?”

“Y-Yeah. Countrymatters?”

“Stacy,” she murmured, softly, smiling as she stepped up suddenly to within arm’s reach of me. She put a hand on the back of my head, and kissed me very suddenly, very hard, her tongue slipping into my mouth. She held me in her embrace for several very long seconds, before finally releasing me, leaving my head spinning, and my heart pounding. She was warm, and she smelled sweet and a little bit musky, and her hair was soft to the touch, and she yielded slightly where she pressed up against me. It was all just a little bit too much to take.

“Hi, Stacy,” I said, and she laughed, though it wasn’t remotely funny.

“Let me show you my place.”

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