Mannequins are a kind of living organism; Aaron knew that. Though rigidly fixed in place and confined by an uncanny plastic shell, every model in every shop in the mall had been imprinted by human touch. The employees that dressed them, moved them, and posed them on display racks left a little piece of themselves inside their work — a twinge of personhood in every milky figurine. Each one was a celebration of the living, breathing, human form.
That’s why Aaron wasn’t entirely surprised when Cynthia first turned her head. He had been in charge of the clearance section for the better part of four years at that point; he knew every model by name, by serial number, by style. He typically fitted Cynthia in short casual sundresses, mostly warm colors, and a pair of worn tawny slingbacks that had never made it off the shelf. He also dressed Marco, always posed at the far end of the display table on a tiny cylindrical chair, arms slack under his loose-fit tees. And next to him was Seth, lanky and slim in his khakis and long-sleeve knits. They formed an unnatural trio, with Cynthia always standing alone at her end of the table, adventurous and daring in her bright-colored dress.
At first, Aaron assumed that Cynthia’s moving was a joke. Someone had snuck in early, or stayed late, and twisted the mannequin’s head to face the entryway of the clearance department. He thought of Davie from customer service, or Joe from the loading docks — people with time on their hands. He smiled in spite of himself, adjusting Cynthia’s head, facing it towards the expansive, maze-like aisles and seas of disorganized racks, to where the people would be. He stepped back into his office, wondering why his coworkers hadn’t turned Marco and Seth to face him too.
It became a recurring game of sorts, a cycle under the stagnant, concave retail lights. He would look to his computer for ten minutes, clacking away at quarterly sales reports, then peek back to find Cynthia’s face, void and reflective, staring his way from over the discount racks. He would exhale hard, lift himself out of his chair, and return her to her original position. The tediousness made Aaron feel like a new parent, watching over their baby’s crib at all hours of the night. Days passed, and regardless of Aaron’s best efforts, the culprit was never found. The passage of time turned the peculiar into the strange. Aaron began to sweat under her watchful gaze.
On a dreary, cloud-stained Friday, as the last shoppers trickled out the main gate and the department store became a tundra of detritus and merchandise, Aaron came to understand what it all meant. He stepped out of his office to find Marco, leaning back without a fixed joint, hand loosely grasping the end of the table. Seth, almost timidly, crouched from his post to hide behind Marco, whispering in his ear. Cynthia, bold by design, looked Aaron’s way one last time, holding out a hand, as if asking him to dance. He approached them slowly, nervously. He understood that this wasn’t the work of man anymore, it was something entirely different. Aaron reached out, almost comforted by the familiarity of their presence, and rested his palm onto hers. To his surprise, it was warm. The plastic felt strangely supple — pulpy to the touch. He slid two fingers up and rested them on her wrist. The lights of the store dimmed with the passing of the day, obscuring the forms of the mannequins with shadow. For just a moment, the line between maker and model blurred, and Aaron was left to wonder if the heartbeat that he felt was really his own.
Connor Harding is a recent graduate of the Ohio State University with a BA in Creative Writing. His work can be found in Collision Magazine, Prometheus Dreaming, and Rogue Phoenix Press. He lives in Columbus, Ohio.