He woke with some hesitation, enjoying the silky cold sheet too much to jump right out of bed. Motivation started with a light tingle in the heels of his feet that traveled up his legs, around his hips, and along his spine. When it reached the back of his neck, his eyes opened. A thin shaft of orange light was leaking through a tear in a paisley patterned window shade, dust swirling thick within it. His chest rose as he took a long draw of the stale air. Something tickled the back of his sinus cavity. He sneezed.
The comforter was caked in a layer of grime that started latching on to his hand the moment he made an effort to move it. He spun on his center of balance and set his legs dangling off the side. The bed seemed to sit unnaturally high. He pushed off, his bare feet clapping against the shiny shellac of the wooden floor. The sound echoed in the room as if the paint on the walls was new. Despite the warmth in the room, he shivered.His bleary eyes scanned the floor for any sign of footwear and, finding none, moved to a night table near the bed. A pink Arvin radio sat atop an orange and brown crocheted doily. On the bottom left was a volume knob and set center-right of the speaker was an over-large tuning dial. Both were a dull flesh color.
A turn of the volume knob produced a click and nothing more. He bent down to check under the table for an unplugged wire and found nothing, not even an electrical outlet. Standing back up, he lifted the radio and turned it over. Its wire had been cleanly cut off.
Perplexed, he set it down and looked to the door on the opposite wall. The lack of a light switch surprised him. A bead of sweat crept down the side of his face and he became aware of the growing heat in the room. He moved to the door and tried its knob. When it would not turn, he pulled backwards and it opened without protest. Beyond the doorframe, a narrow set of stairs descended into a brightly lit room. He thought he could see the back of a brown couch.
The stairwell was a cheap build. Tops of nails jutted out of the boards, scratching the bottom of his feet with every step. At the landing, he bent a leg to the side and examined his foot. With no open wounds to worry over, he raised his gaze. Sitting on the sofa with his back to him was a man in a sharp grey suit. He approached the man with light steps, trying to keep his heart’s pace under control. The presence of this newcomer tightened his stomach.
“Hello,” he said to the man, voice raspy and low.
“Why, what was that sound honey?” replied a stilted, tinny voice that sounded far too distant to have come from the man.
The sudden and strange reply scared him. He jumped forward and slammed a fist into the side of the man’s head. The force of the blow was mighty, removing the head and sending it flying across the room. He heard it hit the far wall and roll into the foyer.
His violent act complete, the adrenaline subsided and guilt flooded in. The pit of his stomach filled with lead and a lump came to his throat.
“My God, what have I done?” he asked aloud, staring at the now headless body.
“Why, what was that sound honey?”
He blinked and bent forward, examining the man’s wound. Instead of an open and bleeding throat, he found a wooden stump with two metal clips. He sighed and turned towards the foyer. He found the head stuck against the front door. There was a toothy, salesman-like grin on its face. He recognized it as a department store model, recalling one he saw at the Base Exchange.
Nudging the head aside with his foot, he looked to the right, into the kitchen. A woman was bent over an open stove, long blonde hair shielding her face. He blinked a few times and determined this was another dummy. Smiling now, he strolled into the kitchen and pushed it from the side. It fell forward and hit the floor with a loud clack. The blonde hair fell back and a melted, soot-covered face appeared. Only a few bits of legible femininity remained, namely hot-pink lips and blue eye shadow. He shuddered and excused himself from the room.
This must be some bizarre model home, he thought.
He eyed the front door, which looked to be whitewashed oak with a textured viewing window set five feet high. It created a wave-like reflection on the wooden floor behind it. As he approached it, a muffled moan sounded from somewhere outside. He grabbed the knob and yanked the door open.
A blast of hot, dry, and dusty air hit his face full force. He had to grip the doorjamb to stay upright. Some granules of sand entered his mouth and nostrils. He hunkered and coughed and wheezed for a full minute. Eyes still watering, he stepped out into the sunlight. The moaning was louder. He turned left, towards it, and walked.
Behind a short picket fence that connected to nothing were two metal poles. Each one had a rope tied through a hole at the top. On the end of one rope looked to be the carcass of a small dog, looking long dead. Attached to the other rope was a larger dog, whining in agony. He could see its rib cage.
“Who in the hell would do this?” he asked aloud, gripping the small fence. It lifted as easy as he thought it would. He laid it to the side and set the animal free. It merely crumpled to the ground and whimpered. He tried to pet it but it let out a feeble growl.
“You must be hungry,” he said in a soft, almost musical voice. “I’ll be right back.”
He stood up and ran into the kitchen. He kicked the female mannequin out of his way and started pulling cabinets open at random. They were stocked full with canned goods and various boxed items. The strong smell that entered his nose told him that some of it was rotten; however, he knew the cans were still good and grabbed a large can of chili.
He rifled through the drawers under the counter and found the silverware. There was no opener so he picked up a large ice pick and began stabbing the top of the can. The smell of the meat filled the room, making his mouth water. After he made enough holes, he turned the can on its side and gave the top of the can a heavy tap with the meat of his palm. The perforated top bent open and some of the meat slopped onto the counter. He scooped it up and threw it into his mouth. The meat was fatty and the sauce bland.
After downing another scoop, he ran outside with the can and dumped its contents on the ground next to the dog’s nose. It stopped whimpering and took two great sniffs before ramming its snout into the pile of chili. He bent to pet the dog as it ate, noting how dirty its fur was. As he knelt there, he became aware of a light ringing in his ears. It was as if they were hungry for sound, begging the surroundings to make any sort of noise. Instead, the air was unnerving in its perpetual silence, devoid of the din of a normal neighborhood.
He turned his head to the left and saw nothing but boundless desert beyond the bright green grass of the house’s back lawn. To his right sat, instead of the expected neighboring home, a small grocer. There were barrels of rotten, brown produce in the front window display; signs upon it were proclaiming a sale on apples, four for fifty cents. He could make out the silhouette of a man behind the window.
“Another dummy,” he proclaimed. The sudden sound of his voice startled the dog. It backed away from the remnants of the ham and began growling. He sighed and stood, putting a few steps’ worth of distance between himself and the animal. The dog quieted down and returned to the food.
He traversed the front yard and walked towards the grocery store. The moment he was on the asphalt of the narrow road that ran in front of the house, he got a clear view of the small desert village. Next to the store was a barber shop, complete with candy striped pole. Beside that stood a two storey police department, and beyond that, at the center of the town’s round-about square, was a high-steepled church. A crowd of mannequins in fashionable formalwear looked to be leaving a service. Set about the square, caught in everlasting poses, were more casually dressed dummies. One was walking an empty leash, another opening the door to a weathered Chevy, and yet another pushing a stroller along the sidewalk in front of the police department.
As he passed the grocer, he saw through its large display window a store full of mannequins stuck in the middle of their shopping experience. The barber shop had all three of its seats full, a tall male dummy in a white coat looking stressed with its work on a suited patron. The bizarre sight brought a chuckle to his throat. He contemplated entering the shop and knocking down the dolls, just to spite whoever had set up the charade.
The police department was empty. Some small part of him had hoped to open the door and find live policemen ready to explain the situation. His imagination dreamed up some wild scenario that included plot elements from a movie called Invasion of the Body Snatchers he had recently seen at a cinema. Instead, he found a hollowed out room with some painting supplies and a wooden step ladder, spare bits of wood and sheet metal lying about on the floor.
The crowd of mannequins exiting the church was a stranger sight. Many of the dummies used for the display had been burned or damaged in some critical way. Some even had limbs missing or chunks of their plastic flesh carved out. He pushed a few of them over, just for fun, and was about to pick one up and throw it before a howl pierced the air. He ran towards the only house in town. Cowering on its front steps was the dog he had fed. It was shivering again and was lying in a pile of its own excrement.
“What’s wrong?” he asked it, bending down. The dog made no effort to react to him. A siren’s wail slowly started to waft in on the arid breeze. It got louder and louder until it peaked, and with every wail afterward grew slowly silent, as if it were a train merely passing by. He heard what sounded like distant thunder from his left. Stepping over the dog, he found the two poles in the ground and then looked out over the expansive desert floor. A bright flash turned everything white for a moment. After that, it all went black.