I guess you could say it all happened because of the pothole.
I’m referring to the same one that went un-repaired for months, requiring those walking down the busy uptown street to make wide detours around it to avoid potentially snapping an ankle or breaking a heel. On the day that changed my life forever, the city had finally chosen to repair the pothole—resulting in the cordoning off of the entire corner of sidewalk behind it. Pedestrians had to either cross to the other side of the street or detour down a block and go around. For some reason, maybe because I’d had a bad day at work and needed to be away from people, I chose to take the longer but less-traveled detour. Halfway down the side street, and for reasons I couldn’t say, I decided to cut through the alley to get back on track. It was just a whim, I suppose. Even by day, that part of the city can be a bit sketchy, but when you’ve already had a miserable day at work, coupled with a splitting headache, thoughts of homeless men huddled in refrigerator boxes or groups of shady-looking characters seem a bit less intimidating.
I’d just entered the alley when I saw him in a garbage dumpster. Well, a part of him anyway. One leg. It was sticking up at an unnatural angle, the waxy skin and joined toes foretelling of anything but someone taking a late-afternoon dinner dive. I froze in my tracks, staring at it for a full minute without knowing what to do. I considered going back the way I’d come; the street with its safety net of pedestrians was only half a block to the right, with the less traveled but much safer detour street the same distance to the left. Standing there in my knee-length business skirt and high heels, I didn’t fit the picture of an investigator. Yet, as I stared at the leg, transfixed almost, I couldn’t help but wonder who it belonged to.
A bum, his luck having run out? A murder victim hastily stashed?
Those little hairs on the back of my neck stood on end—a vestige of some primal instinct that told me to either get the hell out of there or call the police. I did neither. Instead, I removed my heels (they’d been bothering me since lunch anyway, being a new pair that rubbed the outside of my toes in a weird way), and I planted a bare foot in a recessed notch halfway up the side of the dumpster. Grasping the top edge, I hoisted myself up so that I could see directly inside. I can’t really say what I’d expected to find. Eyes open or closed? Body bloodied or in pristine condition? I’d assumed the leg belonged to a female due to the lack of hair covering it, but I was surprised to find the opposite. Two other things surprised me, too—the guy was completely naked, and the guy wasn’t really a guy at all.
Confusing, I know. Imagine how I felt at the time, balanced on bare feet on the side of a filthy dumpster, looking down at the upturned face of what appeared to be a man—quite a handsome one, at that—with a perfectly bald head and large, expressive eyes that stared up into the late-afternoon sky. With a physique so chiseled that the lines separating his abdominal muscles seemed carved into the flesh, he could have been a triathlete or a professional model. With his other leg extended slightly behind him and half-buried in the mound of trash, he had the appearance of being in the process of either walking or running up the side of the dumpster. Frowning, I looked closer and was shocked to find that he lacked genitals of any kind.
Only after staring hard for another few seconds did it hit me.
A dummy. Or mannequin, whichever you prefer. I suppose the word ‘dummy’ constitutes a denigration of sorts. Political incorrectness and all that. Either way, I breathed a sigh of relief and hopped down to put my heels back on. I’d taken three steps when a strange feeling made me stop. Like that sense you get when inspiration hits you out of nowhere, commanding you to take a course you haven’t yet considered. It seemed crazy to me then, just as it does now. Why a young woman, alone in that situation, would fish a mannequin out of a dumpster, wrap it in a discarded roll of carpet, and carry it home like some prized find in a garage sale, I cannot explain.
But that’s exactly what I did.
Twenty minutes later, I stood in my apartment’s living room, hands on hips and biting my lip. I’d set him up on the near living room wall, positioning his left hand up near his collarbone, his right arm at his side, and canting his head in a way that had him looking out the window. An urban David. Deciding it gaudy to leave him naked, I threw one of my oversized t-shirts over him, figuring I’d find something more appropriate later. That done, I took a hot bath and then plopped down on the couch to watch one of my favorite Netflix shows. My headache had worsened since I’d gotten home, but it was something the bath and half a bottle of leftover Rose helped ease. I turned in early and woke the next day feeling refreshed and newly energized.
It being the weekend, I slid down to my favorite coffee shop around the corner and then bought some fresh veggies from a nearby farmer’s stand. On my way home, I passed an old consignment shop, which reminded me to grab some guy clothes for the mannequin. It felt fun shopping for a man who had no choice but to wear whatever I bought him. As I perused the racks, I was reminded of an ex of mine who I’d once bought an expensive shirt for. I remembered it taking me an hour to choose between several options, finally deciding on his favorite color (blue) and fabric (Egyptian cotton). Pulling it from the gift bag, he’d frowned and cast it aside without so much as a thank you. I’d never bought him another article of clothing again. And I’d promised myself to consider—very carefully—the prospect of buying clothes for a man in the future.
Technically speaking, this didn’t count.
I settled on a Hawaiian button-down and a pair of khakis. I decided to leave him bald and barefooted. I liked the casual flair that sort of look gave him, as if he’d be ready to step into a beach-side eatery and order the calamari and a beer. Seeing as how my apartment’s austere look hadn’t changed much since I’d moved in six months before, the addition of the mannequin gave it instant personality. A conversation piece if nothing else.
Standing there looking him over, inspiration struck me again. He needed a name. Searching my mind for something appropriate, I settled on the obvious—Manny. It suited him. Chiseled, high cheek bones. A prominent jawline. The muscles in his arms forever flexed and the relation of his upper body to his waist retaining that perfect V-shape. I sighed. If only real men came this way. I thought back to my list of exes and fought to recall if any of them had even remotely resembled Manny. Adding to this wish, I attributed all their best attributes into him, from sweetness, to being a good listener, to possessing a great sense of humor. But that only made me realize I was being guilty of what many people do at some point of their lives—putting into practice the useless exercise of expecting perfection.
The following day, my mother came over to visit. As soon as she saw Manny, she laid into me good.
“What on earth is that?” she asked before even sitting down. Rolling my eyes, I told her the story.
“Well, I don’t like it,” she said, giving Manny a wary eye as she set her purse down on the kitchen table. “It’s creepy. Why don’t you try bringing a real man in here for once? I doubt that thing will be giving you any orgasms.”
There it was. Always one to take her shots, she apparently hadn’t needed her usual warm-up today.
“If you must know, I’m talking to someone,” I lied. “Not that I need to report my love life to you.” I could already feel my anxiety creeping in, bringing out the hives over my arms. “Besides, it’s harmless. It’s like art.”
Mom scoffed. “I’m telling you, it’s creepy. It gives you the impression it’s always looking at you. I can only imagine standing with my back to it, alone in here! God.”
I made us some tea and sat down on the couch beside her. Sipping the soothing liquid, I changed the subject. Soon, however, she brought up my love life again, and I was forced into my usual self-defense stance. Arms and legs crossed as I slumped into the couch cushions, face set, my foot fidgeting in an unconscious attempt to deflate my own rising aggravation. “Why are you so interested in who’s sharing my bed?” I asked her, already knowing her answer.
“Life is short. I won’t be around forever,” she said, placing a hand on my knee. “It’s not like you have to get married. Times are different. I married your father—Lord rest his soul—because society said I had to. If I’d been born into your generation, I’d have asked him to impregnate me on our first date and then never talked to him again!” She laughed at her own joke, giving off that high-pitched, staccato cackle that sounded more animal than human. Rolling my eyes again, I wondered why I hadn’t told her I was busy all weekend washing my hair, or plucking my eyebrows, or even getting a Brazilian wax.
* * *
The next week went by uneventfully. Cramps that found me right on time retreated for their three-week sabbatical, and work got better. I’d been stressed over getting prepared for an important marketing meeting to be held that Friday, and once it was finished without a hitch, I gladly accepted an invite from a group of co-workers to go out for cocktails at a hip new bar I’d been wanting to try. Our group included three girls and a pair of guys, one of whom worked in a different department than us. As we all talked, I noticed the guy I didn’t know making eye contact with me. Not creepily, but in a way that spoke of quiet confidence—and suggested that he probably knew how to fuck. I considered myself just this side of pretty, had my shit together, and owned the opinion that my personality was fairly normal. I took tremendous pride in my sense of humor. Always one to joke and not be offended easily, I laughed as the group and I enjoyed a conversation that had become increasingly lubricated by alcohol. One of the girls joked that our boss was secretly a cross-dresser, eliciting guffaws all around. The guy I knew well added his own joke, saying he was currently wearing a pair of crotchless panties that allowed his balls to breathe easier. The table exploded into laughter. The whole time, the other guy kept glancing at me above the rim of his beer glass.
Later, as we all left the bar, he took me aside and asked if he could call me sometime. Not text or DM Call. It was refreshing to be hit on by a normal guy who didn’t seem averse to regular conversation. I said ‘sure’ and gave him my number. What the hell—maybe my mom had been right for a change.
He called me five minutes later. Normally, I’d have seen that as a red flag. Too needy or too horny. But I hadn’t gotten that impression. When I picked up the call, he had me laughing right away, and before I knew it, I was at a different bar with him having another drink. As we left, he pulled me close and kissed me. Later, I’d remember the taste of scotch and bubblegum on his mouth. He was a great kisser, which was no surprise since I can usually tell those things just from looking at a guy. He asked to come back to my place, but I told him no. That normally would have been a red flag also, a guy asking that so soon, but not this time and not this guy. My place was a mess, and I hadn’t shaved in several days. It wasn’t as if I planned on screwing him, but two people alone in an apartment while under the influence of alcohol have been known to knock the boots once or twice before. I did agree, however, to lunch the following day, and then I floated back to my apartment on a cloud.
As soon as I locked the door behind me, I collapsed on the couch and found myself staring at Manny. I’d adjusted his arms and head the day before, just to change things up. Light from the hallway cast him in partial shadow, giving him a slightly eerie appearance. Standing to turn on the overhead light, I paused in front of him and looked into his glassy, darkly large eyes. “I kissed someone tonight,” I confessed, and was surprised to feel better at having articulated it. Like he could be the personification of a diary. I sat back down and began speaking to him about my entire week. Before I knew it, an hour had gone by and I’d recounted most everything that had happened during that time. And I went to bed feeling emotionally recharged, as if I’d just spoken to a good friend who listened more than they spoke. As long as I had Manny, I wondered if I would ever need counseling.
The calendar turned, and life went by as normal. I went on a few more dates with the new guy. Eric. He didn’t over-pursue, which I liked. We learned more and more about each other, including our similar backgrounds and many shared passions. After each date, I came home and told Manny about it. With a glass of wine in hand, I would sprawl on the couch and talk to him, recounting where Eric and I had gone and what we’d done. It didn’t seem weird at all. People often talked to themselves, I figured, just like they talked to their plants and pets. I didn’t have a large collection of friends, and the ones I did have were largely superficial or preferred to communicate with their smartphone keyboards. Among the guy friends I had, most either wanted to sleep with me or couldn’t hold a conversation for longer than five minutes. But as I’d begun to realize, talking with Manny about my life was cathartic. He’d become my sounding board, my never-complaining confidant.
One evening, after I’d just ended an exasperating phone conversation with my mother, I turned to Manny and said, “You’re the only one who really understands me.” I felt shocked saying the words. Here I was, a grown woman with a college degree, confiding in a doll. If anyone else had been present, I may have been embarrassed. But I felt good saying it and discovered a level of comfort I hadn’t known in quite some time. Standing there resolutely, frozen in his own masculinity, Manny projected everything I sought in a man…save for his lack of a brain, heartbeat, and most importantly, a dick. I found it maddening in a way to constantly pass this model of my perfect guy, one who listened without fail and never judged me, but not being able to actually have him in flesh and blood. But I soon resigned myself to the fact that, although it felt nice to be around a breathing male sometimes, the unalienable truth remained that no man had ever made me feel the way Manny did. As I turned in for the night, I warned myself against becoming too idealistic. I did that a lot. It was easily my worst flaw.
Two nights later, I finally brought Eric back to my place after having dinner at a nice place by the river. Plopping onto the couch, we began to kiss heavily. I’d even let him finger me beneath my dress—something that had driven me wild with passion and challenged my resolve to wait to sleep with him. Neither of us owed anything to the other, of course, and I don’t think either of us had any expectations other than having fun together in an increasingly insane world. It reminded me of a story I’d recently read about the Battle of Britain, when the Germans had indiscriminately bombed London and relative strangers had engaged in spontaneous love affairs in the underground shelters. But for my own reasons, mostly because I really liked him, I’d set the decision in my mind to take a bit longer with him. Looking for the slow burn versus the quick fuse.
As we sat together on the couch, I quickly realized Eric expected more. With a movie playing on the TV and our second bottle of wine empty, things started to heat up. I’d let him wander to second base, but when he rounded toward third, I put on the brakes.
“Is it me?” he asked with a wounded look in his eye.
I told him no, that it was just my wish to proceed more slowly. I reassured him that I liked him a lot, but that sex wasn’t on the forefront of my mind that night.
“Is it because that thing is looking at us?” he asked, indicating Manny standing on the opposite side of the room.
I laughed. “The mannequin? Of course not. I told you, it’s just a personal thing with me.” I suggested we get back to the movie, but he didn’t seem interested. His mood had changed. He seemed perturbed, almost pouty. I felt the air becoming heavy with an oncoming argument.
“How about we go into the bedroom where it’s not looking at us?” he suggested. “It’s sort of weirding me out.”
I smiled in the way a woman smiles at a man who just doesn’t get it. “Maybe we should just—”
And then, he was on me like a maniac. He laid across me, pinning me against the couch while pawing at the snap of my jeans with one hand and pulling up my shirt with the other. He kissed me so hard our teeth clinked together, and when I tasted blood, I wasn’t sure if it was his or mine. Struggling beneath him, I fought to push him off me, but he outweighed me by at least seventy pounds. He worked out a lot, he’d said, and it showed.
“Get the fuck off me!” I yelled, still struggling to squeeze out from beneath him. He’d managed to unsnap my jeans and was busy with the zipper when he whispered drunkenly in my ear, “Relax, it’s just sex.”
I’d played sports in high school and currently worked out at a local gym. Even though I’d grown a bit softer than I would have liked, I felt confident that, in a pinch, I could hold my own. Feeling the situation approaching desperate, I summoned every bit of strength I had and pushed upward with both my knees and elbows. An involuntary grunt escaped him as he rolled off me, striking the coffee table and then crashing to the floor. I wasted no time in getting to my feet and snapping up my jeans. Glaring down at him, I extended one finger toward the door and told him to get out of my apartment. He looked up at me with an amused look on his face. I wasn’t sure what infuriated me more—what he’d tried to do, or the look he was giving me.
“Whatever,” he said, standing and re-tucking his shirt. He bumped me on purpose on his way out, telling me to have fun fucking my doll.
* * *
The next day, I paid for two security cameras to be installed, each one showing the interior of my apartment from opposing angles. My apartment manager refused to allow me to install them outside my front door, citing ownership rules, but allowed me to have them inside. It made me feel better knowing I’d have a record of what went on inside my place in case something like this ever happened again. The installer taught me how to download the app so that I could review the cameras on my phone. It cost me five hundred bucks and half a day of missed work, but even though things were a bit tense when I eventually did show up to work and saw Eric, I resolved to stay as professional as I could. I felt okay with not reporting him to the police since I felt I’d handled it, promising myself to confront him if he as much as looked cross-eyed at me.
As I was getting ready for work the next morning, I heard a knock at my apartment door. Opening it, I saw a stern-looking police detective standing in the hall. He asked if he could speak with me about a case he was working, and because I knew I hadn’t done anything to be concerned about, I invited him in. As he sat down on the couch, he eyed Manny with a mixed expression of humor and pity.
A murder. Eric’s. A couple taking a midnight stroll had found his body about five blocks from my place just after midnight. My jaw hit the floor.
“We got a warrant for his cell phone records,” the detective said. “That’s how we found you. Text messages indicate he came here the night before he was killed. You two communicated right up until he got here, and then there’s nothing afterward. Care to elaborate?”
I didn’t like the insinuation, but told him the whole story truthfully, from start to finish. When I stopped talking, he gave me a look that said this was probably not the last time he’d ask to speak with me.
“Can I ask how he died?” I asked, feeling somehow guilty for having thrown Eric out the way I had.
“Not nicely,” the detective said, stone-faced.
It wasn’t until a week later, when I came home to find a bunch of freshly picked flowers on the kitchen table, that I knew someone had broken in. I’d noticed strange things before, but nothing to arouse hard suspicion. Just an item here or there being in a different place than where I remembered leaving it. Once, I’d left for the gym and turned around upon realizing I’d forgotten my towel. Walking back inside my apartment, I’d been surprised to find it on the floor at Manny’s feet, instead of on the foyer credenza where I remembered leaving it.
On a different day, I’d come home from having drinks with a girlfriend and drawn myself a bath, thinking to relax in my scented bubbles while listening to Pandora. I always left my bubble bath in the same place; this time should have been no different. Except, when I’d opened the vanity, the bottle had been nowhere to be seen. Looking everywhere for it, I’d happened upon it sitting on, of all places, the kitchen counter. Rewinding time, I’d tried to remember if I’d misplaced it by accident, perhaps while chatting on the phone or engaged in one of my usual talk-out-loud sessions. But I was sure I hadn’t misplaced it. Adding to this certainty was the fact that I’d found the bottle open, the cap set beside it as if someone had smelled it and forgotten to screw the lid back on.
I also remembered coming home one day to find my underwear drawer open, feeling sure someone had entered my apartment to rummage through my things. I recalled the apartment maintenance man recently stopping by to fix a clogged sink, and while leaning over to show him the problem I’d caught him leering at me. This last episode with the flowers sealed the deal, obviously. But without solid proof, I’d be shooting in the dark. That’s when it hit me.
I began from the beginning—the day after Eric had tried to force himself on me. Uncorking a bottle of merlot, I poured myself a glass and sat down to watch the first day on fast-forward. Nothing other than me coming and going as usual… until I turned in for the night. The installer had told me the cameras had special night filters that illuminated my living room in low light. He wasn’t kidding—on video, my place lit up like a Christmas tree at night. As the time counter sped toward midnight, I poured myself another glass of wine and prepared for an uneventful viewing session, knowing I’d slept solidly until the following morning. At just after midnight, though, I saw something that nearly made me choke on my wine. Not believing what I’d seen, I rewound the footage and watched it three more times, amazement and confusion swimming through me.
There it was—direct, irrefutable evidence proving someone had indeed been rummaging through my apartment.
Let me explain.
At 12:03 a.m. that night, while I was fast asleep in bed, Manny walked across the living room and quietly let himself out the front door. Fifty-four minutes later, he re-entered, locking the door behind him and assuming his previous position against the wall. The detective had said Eric had been killed sometime between midnight and 1 a.m. Each time I re-watched the footage, I pinched myself to ensure I hadn’t been dreaming. But there it was in black and white. The mannequin I’d hauled out of a garbage dumpster and carried home, the same one I had cheekily bought clothes for and divulged my deepest thoughts to on numerous occasions, had miraculously and inexplicably moved on his own, out then back into my apartment while I’d slept unaware in the next room.
I went over the next several days’ worth of tape and confirmed what I already suspected. Manny had moved my gym towel, ostensibly to wipe himself down in a similar manner how I did after doing yoga in my living room. As I’d reentered the apartment, he’d hastily dropped it at his feet, not having time to put it back where I’d left it. As the video footage kept going, I saw him move several other things around, as well. Watching him, it seemed as though he was merely been curious—sniffing this, touching that—until I saw something that both touched my heart and terrified me. While I’d been at work just that day, he’d slipped out of the apartment again, only to return shortly thereafter with the flowers. Transfixed, I watched him glide effortlessly across the tiled floor, dancing with the flowers extended in his outstretched arm as he went, until he placed them atop the kitchen table, exactly where I’d found them. So much for my creepy maintenance man theory. Then, Manny had done something else, something that caused a chill to run down my spine. He’d stood in front of the blown-up photo of my father and me—the one my father had framed for me just a week before he’d died—and raised one hand to my portrait-face and held it there, lovingly almost, except I knew that to be crazy because he was a fucking doll, for Christ’s sake, and I wasn’t playing around anymore.
Slamming the lid to my laptop closed, I stormed over to where Manny stood and faced him toe-to-toe.
“Did you kill him?” I demanded, surprised at the evenness in my voice.
Nothing in response. Only his steadfast stillness. And my pounding heart.
“I saw you moving around. I saw you touching my things.”
Still nothing. I stood there staring into his soulless eyes for a full five minutes. I had it in my mind not to move until he did, deciding that the first one of us to break would lose this little battle which had formed between us. But I knew he would outlast me. I could stand there for a week and he wouldn’t move. He had that on me. I would grow weary, thirsty, and would need to go to the bathroom. He, on the other hand, could stand there until I’d turned to dust, were it necessary. But it wasn’t, because I threw my hands up and stormed my way to the kitchen, yanking open the squeaky drawer where I kept the corkscrew and assorted knife ware, and then proceeding to open another bottle of wine. I chugged a full glass to get my courage up and then went back to where Manny stood.
“I know it was you. Nod if I’m right.”
“You owe me, dammit. I saved you.”
His eyes stared black and vacant toward the twinkling city beyond the window.
“Fine!” I said, and stomped to my bedroom, slamming the door and locking it. I was tired, and it had already been a long enough day. I wasn’t in the mood to argue with anyone, much less a doll.
I awoke the next morning nursing a cruel hangover. I shuffled to Manny and cupped the rigid contour of his chin in one hand. “I’m sorry I yelled at you,” I said, meaning it. Then, I drank the leftover wine for breakfast.
* * *
Winter came and went, and Spring budded anew. My talk with Manny seemed to have stemmed his indiscretions. At least from what I could tell. If he slipped away while I was at work or out with friends, I was never the wiser. I’d told him I would trust him and never look at the cameras again, but part of that promise had been due to my uncertainty if my sanity could withstand any more unexpected shenanigans. But after an initial period of coolness where we existed as distant roommates, we slowly became close again. When I got promoted at work (a senior marketer!), I burst through the front door and told him right away. Once, the detective who had told me about Eric’s murder dropped by to tell me they were moving the case over to being considered a cold file. No leads. If I had any further information to give them, he asked that I please drop them a line. I never would, of course.
My mother kept up her weekly visits, passing Manny and giving him an indignant look each time, as if his continued presence somehow reduced her own importance. She’d long given up the suggestion of me disposing of him. I wouldn’t have it, and she knew it. I suppose some deep-seeded sympathy for me having lost my father (hers was still alive) at such a young age must have kept her from browbeating me too harshly. Who cared anyway? In her mind, I’m sure Manny was relegated to being a harmless adornment of sorts. A novelty. I even think his presence helped reduce her ceaseless nagging on my relationship status. I’d gone out on a handful of dates since Eric, but there’d been nothing serious to speak of—and certainly nothing that necessitated informing my mother about it.
But that all changed on the day I met Michael.
If you’ve ever fallen in love at first sight, maybe you know what I mean. I’d been picking out zucchinis at my local produce stand when a bunch of them tumbled from their pyramid stack. Seemingly out of nowhere, a pair of hands appeared and caught them before they hit the floor. The hands’ owner straightened and smiled, a vegetable knight in shining armor. Six-three, well-built, and with a smile that could melt the polar ice caps. “They say if you save a zucchini, you have to eat it that day or you’ll have bad luck,” he said with a smirk. Laughing, I watched him place all five of them into my basket.
“That’s a lot of zucchinis to eat in one day,” I said, blushing.
“Not if you’re sharing them,” he said.
On impulse, I invited him over for dinner that night.
* * *
I made my homemade Bolognese, incorporating shaved zucchini lengths as the pasta equivalent for a lasagna dish. Delicious, if I say so myself. Michael brought a caprese salad and a bottle of cabernet that tasted of oak and berries. We talked over candlelight about everything and nothing. I quickly became lost in a dream-like state; never had I bonded so effortlessly with another person, let alone a man. He was a teacher at a local private school and dreamed of becoming a painter. Divorced with no kids. I could tell he was the type of guy who didn’t have a problem getting dates, and yet he managed to come across as never needing a woman’s attention. I felt completely comfortable in my skin around him, but the sexual tension was palpable. At one point, I dripped some wine on my finger while pouring us fresh glasses, and imagined him taking my finger into his mouth and sucking it clean. Jesus. I wasn’t myself. I had to excuse myself to the bathroom just to stare at myself in the mirror and calm down.
Hold it together, now. Act like you’ve done this before.
After dinner, we retired to the couch. I hadn’t had a man of any sort sit there since Eric, but that had already been four months past, so I figured it was about time I got over the shock of what had happened. Michael reminded me of what it meant to be alive. My nerve endings were electrified. The air sizzled, and even my feet seemed to float above the floor as I breezed barefoot across the kitchen tile. At one point, I passed by Manny and thought for a moment that I’d detected movement from his eyes, as if he’d been watching my progress across the floor. Having recently consigned our relationship to one of muted friendship, I’d failed to discern anything amiss from him until that moment. Something seemed different with him then. Even Michael commented on the undercurrent of tension in the room.
“Tell me about the mannequin.”
So, I did. The entire story, save for what I’d seen on the videotape. He listened with genuine interest, nodding here and there, giving an occasional uh-huh in all the right places. He mentioned that he owned a shirt much like the one I’d dressed Manny in (I’d since given him a new wardrobe with the changing seasons—it was a trendy, V-neck t-shirt worn with linen shorts), and never once questioned my sanity for having fished him from the dumpster. It was nice to just talk to a real man and receive an organic response. Which is probably why I leaned over while he was in mid-sentence and did something even I hadn’t expected.
Taking his face in my hands, I kissed him hard on the mouth. It had all been so much lately, with everything having taken place in my life over the past year. A move from the suburban home I’d grown up in into the city, a demanding new job, the death of my father, and finally the drama with Eric all hanging over me. There we were, Michael and I, two human beings brought together in a moment in time, and it was a moment that would never be re-produced because, just like snowflakes, moments were special, unique. The culmination of my hardest year yet and the undeniable sexual electricity between us resulted in the inevitable, I suppose. Recovering from the unexpected advance, he stood and hoisted me up. Like a gymnast, I wrapped my legs around his toned mid-section, my arms around his neck. Our faces still locked together, he carried me into the bedroom. I’d already lit a candle there, by some forethought or hope that the night would go just as it had. Laying me down atop the bedcovers, he kissed down my neck to the swell of my breasts, removing my shirt and unhooking my bra with one hand. I watched the shadows dance on the ceiling and wondered how long it had been since I had felt this way. How many nights alone I had spent recalling a collection of failed relationships, my father’s death, even questioning my move here into the city? It was all just so heavy, so much so that as Michael undid my jeans and slid them free of me, a new thought entered my mind. I thought about how exhilarating it was to be alive. To finally be free of that heaviness. Our snowflake moment in time, never before seen and never to be repeated. He kissed down the length of my body, and then he was inside me, suddenly, eye-openingly, and we threw our bodies together with abandon.
Afterward, we slept like gods.
* * *
I woke sometime later to the sound of Michael leaving the bed for the hallway bathroom. Rolling over in the sheets, I had just begun to doze off again when I heard what sounded like a commotion in the living room. Michael had probably become lost in the dark and tripped over the ottoman, as I had done countless times myself. The sound of footsteps could be heard then, going into the kitchen. He must have been in search of something to drink. Half-awake, I waited for the sound of the refrigerator opening. But instead of the recognizable noise of the door seals separating, I heard something else altogether. Something curious.
The sound of the squeaky kitchen drawer opening, followed by metal being drawn across metal.
Frowning, I turned my head so that I had use of both ears. Had I heard a groan coming from the living room, from where I’d heard the commotion? Then those same footsteps sounded again, followed by what sounded like someone choking—or being choked—before I heard the sound of something heavy being dragged from the hallway into the bathroom. The casting aside of the shower curtain; those metal clasps raking against the likewise metal rod. My curiosity rising, I lifted myself to my elbows and turned my head in the direction of the partially open bedroom door. Had I really heard that same heavy object being lifted and dropped into the tub? Nothing could be heard for several moments, until my heart thudded still in my chest as the worst sound of all came.
The sound of cutting.
It went on for minutes—hours, it seemed. Hacking and sawing, pausing now and then for the dropping of slightly less-heavy objects into doubled plastic garbage bags that must have been fished from beneath the sink. When it was over, there was the rinsing of the tub, followed by the shower and the sound of someone stepping inside of it to wash themselves off. I listened to all this while biting the corner of my pillow, and watching the last bit of candle burn away, its light creating dancing ghosts on the ceiling until finally it fizzled out in one final gasp.
I laid there in the dark, my heart in my throat, waiting for what would come next. And then it did, the other side of the bed depressing as a figure laid down beside me, drawing its plastic fingers across the skin of by bare back in a way that both thrilled and chilled me all at once.
Jacob Moon lives, works and writes out of Clearwater, Florida. He is an insufferable sports fan of teams that both thrill and depress him, and he enjoys good food and cold beer equally. His first novel, ‘Furlough,’ was self-published in December 2020. Learn more at writerjake.com