“Mannequins,” Darren G. Miller

The only thing Jacob wanted was to get inside the beach house and get behind a locked door.  He raced up the wooden steps from the beach, taking them two at a time.  The shells he had picked up, now forgotten, were clicking against each other, rapid-fire, in the front pockets of his hoodie.  He reached the house and risked a glance over his shoulder.  Except for his sandy footprints on the wooden planks, the walkway behind him was empty in the twilight.  He didn’t slow down as he turned the corner to go up the side steps, already digging his right hand into his pocket for the keys.  He saw the figure in front of him as soon as he turned the corner, but it was too late to put on the brakes.  Jake put his head down and led with his left shoulder to brace for the collision.

Jake hit the walkway and lost his grip on the keys just as they cleared his pocket.  He sprawled on the boards in a tangle of arms and legs, watching the keys fly through the air in slow motion.  Jake scrambled forward, right arm stretched out.  He couldn’t let the keys fall between the boards.  If he had to go down the stairs and look for them, he would be caught.  He watched as the keys arced toward his hand, silver metal glinting in the porch light.  They landed on the board next to Jake’s outstretched hand and he closed his fist around them.

Jake came up running, barely recognizing that the figure he had collided with was not only still on the ground, but its right arm had come off and one of its legs was at an impossible angle behind its back.  He danced around the dismembered mannequin and sprinted up the steps to the side door, slammed the key home and dove through the door, slamming and locking it behind him.  Jake collapsed on the cold vinyl floor, panting.

Jake recovered his breath and climbed stairs to the third floor, stopping in front of the massive picture window overlooking the beach.  He could barely see the Atlantic out there in the dark, an angry gray beast beating at the bars of its sandy prison.  The lights above the wooden walkway were flickering to life, casting the skeletal shadows of the boards onto the ground below.  Where the stairs crested the dune line, one of the figures was standing in the pool of light.  It wasn’t there a few seconds earlier, Jake was sure.

For the last two years, his parents had rented this house for their beach vacation.  They always came to the beach in September because, as his dad said, the rentals were cheaper and the lines at the seafood buffets were shorter.  Last year, when Jake was down at the arcade, some local kids asked where he was staying.  When he told them, their response was immediate.  “Next to the mannequin house.”

It was creepy.  For some reason, the house next door had some kind of department store mannequins in some of the windows.  Jake’s dad said the owner must have been some paranoid of guy who wanted people to always think someone was home.  Jake thought one or two mannequins would have been enough.  The mannequin house had at least a dozen that Jake had seen.  Now, they were on the move.

Jake crept to the side window overlooking the mannequin house and pulled back the curtain just a crack.  He immediately drew back as if the curtain had burned his hand.  Jake backpedaled away from the window, barely even realizing it.  His brain refused to comprehend what he had seen.  It wasn’t possible.  The soft back of Jake’s knee made contact with the edge of the coffee table and he stopped himself, just barely, from falling backwards through the glass top.  He caught his breath, took control of his muscles and forced himself to go back.  He crouch-walked back to the window, parted the curtain a tiny sliver and forced himself to look.  His eyes hadn’t lied.

The side porch of the house next door was lined with mannequins.  Dozens of them.  Their department store clothes flapped in the ocean breeze.  It was a nightmare version of an Old Navy commercial.  They were all looking at him.  Unblinking.  Unmoving.

Jake crossed back to the picture window and looked down to where he’d seen the mannequin at the top of the stairs.  It was gone.  He had an excellent view of the walkway from here, but he didn’t see it anywhere.  As he scanned the walkway for some sign of the mannequin, he heard it.  An engine.  There was a car coming in from the street.  He saw the headlights splash between the pilings under the house and turned to run for the front door.  His parents were home.  As he turned, the window overlooking the mannequin house caught his eye.  He moved back to it and parted the curtain again, slightly.  The porch was empty.  There were no mannequins.  How was it possible?  How was any of this possible?  Jake squinted, looking closer.  They weren’t all gone.  There were a couple of them in their usual haunts just behind the windows, their plastic faces staring out as they always did.

Jake let the curtain go and ran for the front door.  He could hear his parents’ car idling in the parking space under the house.  He reached the door and let it close behind him as he bounced down the steps.  His keys were inside the house somewhere, but it didn’t matter, his dad had another key.  He just had to somehow convince his dad to take them away from this place.  Jake reached the bottom of the steps and froze mid-stride.  He could see them through the car’s windshield, his dad behind the wheel and his mom riding shotgun.  Their plastic faces smiled back at him, eyes wide and unblinking.

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