After work, I find a headless mannequin lying face down in my driveway. The mannequin is dressed in a gold tuxedo and polished, black leather oxfords. A crust of red crystal clings to the craggy stump of the mannequin’s neck. The bottom half of its right leg is bent upward the wrong way, as if the unfortunate plastic being jumped (or was pushed) from the rooftop of my new house.
Coming home to this scene following an exhausting day at the warehouse, I am confused and also annoyed. For the past two hours I have been fantasizing about the unopened box of Honey Bunches of Oats with Cinnamon Clusters waiting for me on my kitchen table, but now I must deal with this tiring nonsense instead. So I sit in my rumbling Honda, grip the rubber ring of the steering wheel, and think about what to do. Pausing the experimental black metal blasting in my ears, I turn up the heat and study the mannequin’s fancy outfit. Why a tuxedo? Are its black leather oxfords a symbol for me to decode? Is this elaborate scene a threat of some kind? I can’t tell. I understand less about the world with each passing day.
Huffing a hot breath into my hands, I glance at the glowing dashboard on my right. It’s 10:23 p.m. and negative three outside.
I’ve been living in this house for almost six months now. Aside from my PS5 and flat screen TV, my meager and worthless possessions are still trapped in the plastic containers I bought from Walmart the day I moved out of my last apartment. Though I fully intend to unpack eventually, I understand that my things might live in those containers forever.
Shortly after buying this house, I took to the internet and discovered that the previous residents, a Jack and Sarah Matthews, were a pair of childless octogenarians who died in the same bed within a span of forty-eight hours of each other. That bed is now my bed. The bed I sleep in every night. The same bed I will soon return to in a matter of hours. Last weekend I drove to Topine and paid a visit to Mattias the Mattress God to buy a new mattress that had not been recently sweated and slept and died upon, but every one of those non-death mattresses were extremely expensive, so I did not buy a new mattress. I did purchase a new set of sheets however, and those have made a big improvement on both my sleep, and my peace of mind.
Now my stomach grumbles in impatience. So I turn off my car and investigate the mannequin lying in my driveway. Resting my hands on my knees and leaning over the corpse, I discover that the thing reeks like a dead animal. But a light prod of my boot to the intact left leg confirms that the mannequin is indeed made of plastic. Studying the red crystals stuck to the mannequin’s severed neck, I see that there is a thin dusting of identical stones worming down the center of the flagstone path in front of my house. Following this path, I soon arrive at my front door. Here I drop to a squat and watch as the trail of tiny crystals sneaks under the threshold of my front door and continues inside the house.
Seeing this, I turn around and look back at the mannequin. Then I walk into the middle of my lawn and squint up at my roof. But with no moon out tonight to provide extra illumination, I can’t see anything up there in detail.
So I unlock my front door and carefully step inside, making sure to not disturb the glittering trail of small red crystals on the ground. The house is warm; the lights are off; my flat screen and PS5 are still here. Apparently, I have not been robbed.
I flick on the lights and look down at the floor. The line of red crystals meanders through the center of the living room, stops in front of Mr. and Mrs. Matthews’s old couch, then takes an abrupt left turn and darts down the hallway toward the bedroom. Seeing this, I slip my phone out of my pocket and start dialing 911. But I stop myself a second later. What would I even say to the operator to explain this situation? How would I make them understand what my life has been reduced to? With an exhausted sigh, I return my phone to my pocket and follow the crystals on the floor.
Moments later I snap on the hallway light and see that the trail abruptly ends in the middle of the hallway, just underneath the door in the ceiling that leads to the attic.
In the six months I’ve lived here, I have not yet entered the attic. This is by design. In general, I am not a fan of attics. They are places I do not like to go. Perhaps that makes me superstitious. All I know is that good things rarely happen in attics. But it appears I have no choice on this occasion. These are the things one must do as a homeowner. So I make an exception and pull the string above my head.
The attic door swings open. The wooden ladder slides down. A glittering powder of red crystal clings to a rung near my shoulder.
When I poke my head through the doorway a few moments later, I see that the attic is empty. The floorboards lay bare. The air is cold and stale. With each cautious breath, spiny dust tickles the back of my nostrils. Despite all this, it does not take long for me to find the trail of red crystals on the floor.
From here the trail leads to a dormer window looking out over my darkened backyard. Tracing my finger along the narrow sill in front of the window, I come away with a sparkling fingerprint of tiny red stones.
But this is as far as I go. So I turn around and make a show of laughing in good nature, in case the ghosts/spirits/whatevers of Mr. and Mrs. Matthews are waiting to push me off the roof to my death, like the poor plastic soul in my driveway.
“Oh, ho ho,” I say out loud to the empty attic. “That’s very clever, my friends, but I will not be stepping onto the roof of this house in the middle of January. I thank you for the intrigue, however.”
The instant these words escape my lips, I scramble to the door in the floor and quickly climb down the ladder. Then I smash the attic closed and jog back to the front door to make sure it’s still locked. It is. From here I blow out a relieved sigh and tug off my heavy workboots. I turn on the TV and click over to HBO. In the kitchen, I wash my hands and grab my cereal off the table. I slide a sweaty jug of milk from the fridge. When I walk back to the living room, a pair of mannequins with the faces of Jack and Sarah Matthews are sitting on opposite ends of the couch, staring at me with eyes of red crystal.
Steve Gergley is the author of The Great Atlantic Highway & Other Stories (Malarkey Books ’24), Skyscraper (West Vine Press ’23), and A Quick Primer on Wallowing in Despair (Leftover Books ’22). His short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in X‑R-A‑Y Literary Magazine, Pithead Chapel, Maudlin House, Always Crashing, Gone Lawn, Rejection Letters, and others. In addition to writing fiction, he has composed and recorded five albums of original music. He tweets @GergleySteve. His fiction can be found at: https://stevegergleyauthor.wordpress.com/.