The woods had been dead for who knows how long. Left behind were tree trunks that rose into colonies of black branch, brush on the forest floor that was orange like stagnant remnants of the fire. The girl thought she was the sole explorer of the forest until one day she came upon a man in overalls, digging into the earth next to the beheaded tree she had slowly been filling with moss. The girl approached the hole and gazed over into the widening pit below.
“That’s where I’m putting it,” the man said, without looking up.
“What?” the girl asked.
The girl sat cross-legged on the ground and watched the man finish his work. When he was satisfied with the hole’s width, the man nodded and picked up a red dress crumpled beside his feet.
“To hell with her,” he said. And down went the dress, piling into a rumpled ball of silk in the corner. The man refilled the hole before spitting on the ground over it and walking away. The girl took some moss from the tree trunk and spread it across the earth, making a circle around the filled pit. It felt like the right thing to do; some kind of mark to ensure its remembrance.
The next day, the girl pictured the dress as she rode the bus home from school, lying hidden forever. It seemed a terrible waste. And when she got off the bus, the girl marched past her house and into the woods, making a stop at her Uncle’s toolshed to pick up a shovel. The sky was an ashy grey as the girl traversed the rotted woods, arriving at the burial site to find a mannequin standing inside her moss circle, rooted by a red bar connected to its back, naked save for a single brown glove on its left hand. Its expression was stoic, a permanent ambivalence. The girl slid off the glove and tried it on; just her size.
The girl was still wearing it at dinner, sitting at the table with her sleepy father and the nanny who tried too hard, who was now staying with them five nights a week.
“I like your glove,” said the nanny who tried too hard. “Where’s its sister?”
The girl shrugged. She tried not to speak around the nanny who tried too hard. Her father had dozed off again, head slumped against the chair, food missing tiny bites below. The nanny who tried too hard dumped the rest of it in the trash and asked how school was going. The girl shook her head. Later, she heard the boy with the pocket chain come over and kiss the nanny who tried too hard on the neck. The girl knew it was the neck because she’d seen him do it before and the nanny who tried too hard was still talking.
“She never says anything.”
“They’re better like that,” pocket chain said. “My little brother threw a tantrum today and it was agony.”
“I don’t know. I think he lost something.”
The girl could hardly sleep that night. In the morning, she skipped breakfast and ran back to the moss circle, where she found the mannequin wearing a white bra. The girl took it off and stuffed it into her backpack. She thought that mannequins and moss circles were maybe not so different from humans; they got mixed up, confused, forgot who they were dealing with. But the girl couldn’t help feeling a bit disappointed on the bus ride to school. In class, the girl asked her teacher where mannequins were made, and the teacher said something about a giant warehouse located in the stillest place on earth.
“Where’s that?” the girl asked.
“I don’t know,” the teacher said. “Maybe Greenland.”
That night, the nanny who tried too hard took a candy bar from the pantry and snuck it in the girl’s backpack as she often did as a bonus for next day’s lunch. The girl heard the zipper from upstairs as she lay in bed and pretended to sleep. The sound was followed by laughter, and the girl remembered what was inside. She tore off the covers and ran downstairs to find the nanny who tried too hard showing the bra to the boy with the pocket chain. They were smiling.
“There’s our little thief,” said pocket chain.
The girl’s cheeks burned red. On the couch in the corner, her father slept deeply.
“It’s not mine,” the girl said.
“I know,” said the nanny who tried too hard. “Why did you take it?”
The girl’s father snored. Even though she knew they wouldn’t wake him, the girl put her finger to her lips and shushed them.
“He’s sleeping!” she said.
In the morning, the girl woke to find the bra on her bedside table, a little note attached to it that read for future use with a smiley face at the bottom.
“It really wasn’t mine,” the girl said at breakfast.
“It’s okay,” said the nanny who tried too hard. “I have enough bras.”
The girl was mad at the mannequin for embarrassing her and didn’t return to the charred woods for a week. When she did, on a dark and windy Saturday morning, she found the mannequin covered in soot, moss growing up the legs, modeling a long plaid skirt and a yellow top, a red beanie stretched over its head. The girl pulled at the skirt begrudgingly. It stayed firm on the plastic hips. She tried to slide the top up and over, but it didn’t budge. She jumped and grabbed at the hat, but it seemed to be glued on.
Years passed. The nanny who tried too hard went off to college and the girl’s father said that they couldn’t afford a new one. A nicer way of putting it would have been, you don’t need one anymore, but the girl knew it was just something parents did, denying the aging of their children. She chose to take it affectionately.
When the girl was fifteen, her father had another stroke and died. The finality of it came as a kind of relief; watching him live had been like watching a mouse dangle over the mouth of a snake, right in front of her, yet utterly out of reach. The nanny who tried too hard was home for the summer and came to the house after the funeral service. The girl’s father had not had many friends and the house was sparsely populated, mourners lurking quietly in the kitchen and living room. The girl heard the door open and peered around the corner to see the nanny who tried too hard hugging her cousin in the entryway. Her eyes were searching and the girl knew that she was looking for her. The back door was the only escape, and the girl fled outside and into the woods. Long-dead leaves crunched beneath her feet. Sparrows watched her from disintegrating branches, silent. It had been a long time but she still remembered the exact pathway to the small opening where she had come upon the digging man years earlier. The mannequin was nearly unrecognizable, with vines growing over its body and cracks stretching across its face. The soot had developed into a thick, tarry substance that the girl was afraid to touch. The eyes were distant, hidden beneath a layer of grime. On its left hand, the girl could just make out the brown glove, years of muck stained over it. She covered her hand with her sleeve and gripped it, holding it for a while before gently trying to ease it off. But the glove kept tight to the mannequin’s hand, and the girl did not use any more force. The resistance didn’t feel antagonistic this time; it was more like a friend, asking for her trust.
“Okay,” the girl said.
To throw out the white bra seemed wrong somehow, but the girl never wore it. After her father died, the girl went to live with her cousin and his wife in a different part of the neighborhood. She stayed quiet as they introduced her to their baby and showed her how to unfold the futon in the living room. And then she said, “Is your washing machine fully functional?”
And for the next two years, it was. Then, in the midst of a dreary March weekend, the washer stopped halfway through its first cycle. Though her cousin was prompt in the calling of a repairman and the girl didn’t have any pressing laundry needs, it suddenly felt disappointing, not to finally use the white bra. And the next morning, the girl reached underneath the futon and retrieved it from its hiding place. Her closet was now a clothes rack next to the window, which made it feel as if her wardrobe could go on sale at any moment.
After school, the girl bussed across town and walked to her old house. Two cars were parked in the driveway and she snuck carefully through the fence and past the backyard. The girl felt no surprise at what she saw in the woods: the mannequin restored to its original state, glistening in the pale light of early evening. The red bar holding it up seemed freshly painted, and the eyes were bright. The girl started with the glove, sliding it off easily. She then unbuttoned the plaid skirt and pulled it down, pushing it into the soft earth and out from under the mannequin’s feet. The beanie came next, then the yellow top. The girl undressed and changed on the spot because it seemed clear that the mannequin needed such external validation. Old clothes in hand, the girl went back into the neighborhood and knocked on the door of the house across the street. A man wearing a sweater vest answered with a suspicious how can I help you?
“I’m looking for Selena,” the girl said. “Does she still live here?”
The man shook his head and told her that the nanny who tried too hard was doing environmental research abroad.
“Where?” the girl asked.
The man looked into the distance and pointed.
“Greenland,” he said.
The girl could never have explained it to her cousin and his wife, so she just left a note on the futon, reading please don’t worry – I’ll be back. They were both busy and distant with work and the toddler and the girl figured it would be enough. She had saved up a decent amount of money from her job at the pretzel shop and was able to afford a round-trip flight to Greenland, getting a taxi to meet her three blocks away from the house at 11 p.m. She couldn’t sleep on the flight and mostly just looked out at the dark clouds and listened to the snores and flutterings of the few other passengers on board. She stretched her legs across the empty seats next to her. She bought the in-flight movie but not the headphones and made up dialogue for the actors on the little screen, spinning a rom-com into a story about mannequins come to life, adjusting to their new abilities of movement and clumsily discovering sexual pleasure. The man in the sweater vest had given her the address of the research base where the nanny who tried too hard was staying and when she landed the girl recited it to the cab driver waiting outside the airport. Her ears were still adjusting from the flight and the world felt as quiet and still as a paused movie. It was a long drive and the girl had to use the rest of her savings to pay for it, the taxi finally stopping at the entrance to a small trailer park on the outskirts of a wilderness reserve. A sign in front of it read:
Free Living Community.
Come only in–
And the girl crossed the threshold and walked down the dirt path, voices rising out of the trailers and small houses, lights from inside glowing in the dusk. Underneath her coat the girl wore the mannequin’s skirt and tank top, the red beanie snug on her head. At the end of the way there was a boy drawing something on a piece of cardboard, and the girl approached him and asked if he knew where the nanny who tried too hard lived. The boy rose and nodded and took her hand, leading her forward. The girl picked up his drawing for him and smiled at the near-complete outline of a hand holding up two fingers. The boy stopped in front of a worn-down house on the left of the drag, laughter eking out from within. Tattered shirts hung on a line in the yard and wind chimes sparkled faintly as the girl reached the porch. She took a long, broken breath, then put her hand to the door and knocked. The voices stopped and the girl heard the sound of footsteps coming closer. The door clicked open to reveal a curly-haired man wearing a tank top and jeans.
“Hi,” the girl said. “Is Selena here?” The man beckoned her inside and announced the presence of a visitor. In the dining room, four people were gathered around a rug, plastic cups set next to a mess of puzzle pieces scattered across the floor. The nanny who tried too hard was sitting slouched and smiley against the wall, eyes bloodshot. Her face widened when she saw the girl, and she rose and walked over the puzzle and stood in front of her for a moment before leaning in and embracing her. The girl put her head on the nanny’s shoulder, nose digging into her sweatshirt.
In the nanny’s bedroom, the girl lay curled up in the covers, listening to the wind outside, the occasional break of laughter from the dining room, followed swiftly by shushing. She was still awake when the door creaked open and the nanny crawled in beside her and shifted in the sheets. After a minute, the girl said, “I wore your bra.”
“The bra you gave me. I wore it.”
In the morning, the girl got up and sat on the edge of the bed. The nanny’s closet didn’t have any doors and the girl rose and looked through the clothes inside, shawls and jeans and lengthy skirts, T-shirts and tank tops and at the end of the line, a conspicuous red dress. The girl took it off the hanger and ran her fingers along the silk, checking for any signs of dirt.
“It’s weird,” the nanny said.
The girl turned around, dress in hand. The nanny looked at her with eyes half-open.
“I found it on my clothesline last week,” she said. “I’ve asked everyone.” She shook her head against the pillow. “No one knows.”
The girl put the dress up to the window and the morning sun beamed through the clean translucent red.
“You can have it,” the nanny said, yawning. “If you want.”
The girl paused.
“Maybe I’ll trade you,” she said. And the girl went to the bathroom and removed the plaid skirt and yellow top. She hung them on the towel rack and put on the dress and looked at herself in the mirror. The dress was not really the girl’s taste but they had a history and so she kept it on. In the bedroom, the nanny had fallen back asleep, and the girl picked her coat up and left the beanie resting on the pillow. She tiptoed through the house, careful not to wake the curly-haired man, sleeping on the couch. In the dining room, she examined the puzzle on the floor, complete save for a single corner piece that had been blacked out with sharpie and placed in the middle of the picture. The girl picked it up and held it between her fingers. Likely it was just a spot of blue or a touch of white to complete the sky or clouds. But it also could have been a tiny UFO, returning lost balloons. The curly-haired man woke and sat up on the couch and smiled.
“Careful,” he said. “We wouldn’t want to lose that one.”
The girl laughed.
“Why don’t I take it?” she said. “That way you can’t.”
Outside, the girl walked up the sleepy pathway to the street, sticking out her thumb as she started back the way the taxi had taken her. There weren’t any cars on the backwoods road and the girl had to walk several miles until she hit the highway. The woman who picked her up was delivering mulch to scattered farmhouses and they made several detours before getting to the airport. Somewhere in the second hour they passed through a seemingly endless sheet of tundra, barren save for a large and wide structure isolated in the middle of the landscape. The girl smiled at it knowingly. She considered asking the woman to pull over but decided against it; the act of getting closer seemed reductive, like the caging of something still expanding, the intake of an infinite breath.
On the plane, the girl set her coat on the empty seat next to her and sat shivering in the thin red dress. She rubbed against the fabric of the seat for warmth and pulled her arms back into the silk. She thought about puzzle pieces and turned the blank one over in her fingers. She thought that she had never felt so close to the world as she did in this moment. She felt empathy in the complimentary peanuts, the little cup of water, the stewardess who offered her a blanket even though she had a coat. And the girl closed her eyes. Amidst the quiet hum of plane, she could hear it: a tired mannequin, crumbling.
This is a reprint of work originally published in Gingerbread House.
Timothy Day loves old jazz, bad puns, and blanket forts, preferably at the same time. His fiction has appeared in magazines such as Jersey Devil Press, Menacing Hedge, Cease, Cows, WhiskeyPaper and others. He lives in Wenatchee, WA.