On her fourth stint working for the Treasure Trove, Pauline was tasked with sorting muumuus, separating the vintage Hawaiian labels from everything else on two racks. She noticed that the new blonde-haired mannequin was no longer there and now the dollhouse she had arranged stood alone in the front window with the mannequin children peering in at it from outside, having returned to their place on the bench.
“What happened to the new one from the front window?” Pauline asked. “The one that Chester just finished.”
“Oh, that was a nice one. Got snatched up by a resale boutique from the downtown district,” Betty Lou replied. “Those lovelies are in high demand, they never last long here… He’s downstairs now, finishing work on another beauty in the basement.”
As Pauline finished separating muumuus, Chester clamored up from his workshop downstairs, carrying a new little girl mannequin who appeared about age eight. Her curly red hair framed her pale freckled face and brought out the gold in her hazel eyes. She was exquisitely detailed and remarkably lifelike, dressed in a white lace and taffeta Easter ensemble with a bright yellow sash tied gently around her waist. He arranged the girl next to the dollhouse, placing a diminutive teddy bear in her hand as if she was putting it to bed. Pauline thought she heard a small whimper arise from the mannequin as Chester let out a loud, hoarse cough. She hadn’t recalled seeing any child mannequin parts in the workshop, but maybe she’d just not noticed them at the time.
Chester left the girl in the window and returned to the basement. He reemerged with a heavy duty rusted out orange bucket filled with some kind of thick red liquid that stank of harsh chemicals and something else… whatever it was Pauline couldn’t quite place it over the astringent scent of bleach or degreaser or cleaning solution. But something about the mixture smelled familiar in a stomach-turning kind of way, and as he exited out the front door she recognized the lingering odor of rotting flesh as it settled into the back of her nasal cavities, burning in that kind of dead funk that radiates off of road kill that has been sun baked in the right conditions. Betty Lou gave the shop a good spray down with the tropical odor eater aerosol spray she kept up front by the register, and the smell was drowned out in cheap pineapple air freshener.
Pauline watched Chester as he dumped the bucket in the weeds that grew in the gravel driveway at the edge of the road and hosed it out to follow up with a second dump before returning inside. Betty Lou gleamed, “You’ve really outdone yourself sweetie!” Her eyes twinkled as she licked her thick lips. He sidled up to her and she landed a passionate plump kiss on his receding hairline. She rose up on her cane and hobbled towards the back of the shop with him in tow, calling out, “Watch the register, hon, we’ll be back in a minute…”
Pauline stood there in shock. She wasn’t sure exactly what she’d just seen, but she was pretty sure she didn’t want to think too hard about it. She didn’t even know how the register worked. Not that it mattered, since the store was empty except for her and the mannequins. She felt herself entranced and wandered over to the new little girl mannequin playing with the dollhouse.
The girl was definitely whimpering. There was no doubt in Pauline’s mind this time – there was a faint crying sound sighing forth from the mannequin’s lips. It was barely audible, but for once there was nothing to drown it out. Betty Lou had left the television and radio off and she and Chester were off in the other room, engaged in God only knows what. Pauline stood in what should have been total silence, acutely aware that there were faint whispered cries all around her. The loudest came forth from the newest mannequin, the girl right in front of her, but she soon became attuned to the muffled screams that filled the rest of the room, radiating from some of the other mannequins as well. The more lifelike they appeared, the more sound seemed to emanate from them. Pauline’s heart raced as her eyes darted back and forth through the room.
Pauline’s mannequin, the one that she was working off who now bore the SOLD sign, emitted a shrill yelp as if someone or something trapped in a distant and far away room was tucked into the dark recesses of her hollow Fiberglass bust. A male mannequin with black Afro wig and vintage 60s fringed jacket, multicolored psychedelic flower power shirt and bellbottom blue jeans who was staged looking out the window, had a deep churning howl like a distant storm. Standing beside the 60s hippie mannequin was a little boy wearing a sailor outfit with blue rickrack trim who seemed to sigh endlessly, like wind whistling through pine trees. The shop was filled with barely audible hushed yowls.
All at once, the new redheaded little girl mannequin shot a side glance at Pauline out of her wayward left eye, meeting Pauline’s gaze in a sudden jerky movement. Pauline’s heart fluttered as she lurched into a rack of clothes in immediate response. She lost her focus as she fell backwards into the clothing rack, her mind reeling. As she righted herself, heart pounding ready to fight or flee, Pauline noticed that the little girl mannequin’s gaze focused forward on the doll in her hand, as it had from when she was brought upstairs and placed by the dollhouse. Her eyes were still cast in that same vacant stare. But hadn’t she just glanced at Pauline? What was going on? The room was painfully, deathly quiet.
The door to the back room opened and Betty Lou and Chester emerged, a bit bedraggled. “Had to help get Chester ready for his next project,” Betty Lou exclaimed as she shuffled back to her Papasan nest in the front. She flicked on the radio to blast forth with operatic music. “Did anyone drop by?”
Pauline shook her head no, unable to speak and standing beside the upended clothing rack. The air was suddenly heavy and smelled of lilacs and lavender oil. Something about it seemed dizzying and drowned out, like incense smoked to mask another smell. Pauline felt faint. She watched, cemented in place, as Chester, wearing a hardware store respirator facemask, sauntered to the front door and dead-bolted it. “It’s time,” he nodded towards Betty Lou, who was wrapping a long, loose scarf around her nose and mouth. The room began spinning and Pauline fell backwards into the rack of clothes she had only recently extracted herself from.