Thursday, December 12, 2013
Abigail Ballard had started keeping a record of her dreams.
A spiral notebook was set aside on the top of her nightstand so that when she woke every morning, she could jot down everything she remembered from her slumbers. The realm of dreams was a fascination of Abbie’s for years. She loved trying to interpret and decipher her dreams, to discover the hidden meanings and messages intertwined in them.
She often had trouble recalling all the details or would forget minutes after stirring from her sleep. Hence the notebook. For months it helped Abigail keep track.
What started as an eccentric hobby in January became a guide to help her understand the nightmares that had plagued her through March and had spilled over into April.
From what she could recall, the dreams all shared one identical attribute. They all transpired in some underground labyrinth where Abbie would find herself running. She could hear heavy footsteps as her impending attacker chased after, but she could not see his face. Not because her assailant was wearing a mask though.
He didn’t appear to have a face.
It was as if a new layer of skin had formed over his hair, eyes, ears, nose, and mouth, enveloping his features. Her attackers face was a pale, blank canvas that only added to the terror and mystery surrounding these nightmares.
What did his lack of a face represent? Was it a sign that something was missing from Abbie’s life? Was it a metaphor for the way she often felt forgotten or brushed aside by her family and friends. And the biggest question that Abbie pondered, did this faceless attacker really mean her harm, or was it all just part of the dream?
These were the questions that kept Abbie preoccupied for weeks. Virginia Ballard refused to let her sister waste the last few days of spring break.
Virginia had scored a modeling gig in Ocean City and had bribed Abbie into coming by giving her that beige Coach bag she was always drooling over. She figured Abbie might even get laid out of the whole deal, but part of her doubted it.
Abigail–an introvert whose major was entomology, the study of insects–was still a virgin at age nineteen. Virginia tried to change that fact for years, but she failed to realize that Abbie wasn’t like her. She wasn’t like any of the girls her age. She prided herself on being different.
* * *
Griffin Dunn sat in the black BMW his parents bought him for Christmas and watched his buddy Ian grind up a gram of pot with his fingers and roll it with papers.
“You’re not smoking that in my car,” Griffin warned him.
“Like hell I’m not,” Ian said, reclining his seat and bumping the knees of Jude, who was passed out in the backseat.
Jude awoke grumpy and saw the joint, snatched it from Ian’s sticky fingers. Then he rolled the window down and sparked the joint with his lighter.
“Hey!” Griffin admonished him.
“What, I rolled the window down,” Jude disputed. “Are we there yet?”
“We haven’t even left Mill Pond,” Griffin remarked. “We’re still waiting for Virginia and her sister.”
“Pass that J,” Ian demanded.
“Fat chance,” Jude inhaled and shook his head.
“Hey, Jude, didn’t you fuck Virginia once?”
“Twice,” he exhaled and coughed. “Thanks for the reminder. I swear, double bagging it doesn’t even help with that girl. You have to triple bag it and top it off with a shot of penicillin.”
“You’re just saying that because you’re not getting with her anymore,” Griffin laughed. “She’s not so bad. She’s just like us.”
“She has a dick?” Ian asked sardonically.
“Very funny,” Griffin mumbled. “You guys didn’t have to tag along you know. I can’t believe you’re coming just to score cheap weed."
“The key word is cheap,” Jude said as the joint burned down to a roach at his fingertips. He took one last hard drag and flicked the roach out the window.
“What’s the deal with the sister?” Ian asked as the front door of the house opened and Virginia and Abagail stepped forward with their luggage.
“Virginia’s the slut, Abigail’s the virgin,” Jude explained.
“She’s still carrying her V-card? What decade is this?”
“She’s saving herself for marriage,” Jude mocked. “She thinks she’s going to find Mr. Right.”
“Whoever Mr. Right is, I kindly doubt he’s going to buy the car before he test drives it.”
“Pipe down,” Griffin said as he popped the trunk. “They’re coming.”
Virginia and Abbie packed their luggage in back; Abbie had one bag, Virginia had three. Then they squeezed into the back with Jude. Virginia forced Abbie to sit in the middle to act as a partition between her and Jude.
“Virginia,” Jude murmured and nodded in her direction.
“Jude,” Virginia managed to cough out his name.
“This should be a fun ride,” Abigail whispered to Virginia. And with that, she popped her ear buds in, turned her iPod up full blast, and closed her eyes.
* * *
Ocean City was a four hour drive from Mill Pond. Half an hour from their destination, Griffin pulled off at some no-name gas station to fill up his tank and give everyone a chance to stretch and move about after three and half hours of being crammed in. Virginia was the first to exit the car when they stopped.
“Thank God,” she said, flexing her sore arms. “I need to stretch my legs.”
“Did you say stretch or spread?” Jude quipped.
“Eat me,” Virginia said, waving her middle finger about in his direction. “Not literally though. If your tongue touches me, I’ll cut it off.”
Virginia walked it off and Jude turned to Abigail. “A bit rough around the edges, isn’t she? It must be tough looking after her.”
“Virginia is tough enough to look after herself.”
“What about you?”
“What about me?”
“Are you tough?”
“Touch me and find out,” she smirked and Jude backed off.
“What’s your angle?” Ian inquired.
“What do you mean, angle?"
“Well, Jude and I have our own agenda. Virginia is tagging along because of her modeling gig. Griffin is going to try and reunite with his ex, Shelly. So where do you fit in?”
“I don’t fit in. I’m like that one missing puzzle piece that you can never find.” Disinterested, Jude and Ian followed Griffin into the gas station to pay the attendant. The attendant–a bald, toothless, middle-aged man named Frank–sat behind the register, reading the local paper. He didn’t glance up to acknowledge them. Not when Griffin cleared his throat or tapped his fingers on the counter to grab his attention.
“Hey, douchebag, you open for business or what? My friends and I are looking to buy some gas.” It was Jude’s remark that garnered Frank’s full attention. He set the paper aside and stared at Jude intently, trying to burn a hole through him with his eyes. Finally he spoke.
“I’ll bet you ten bucks you won’t take a dollar bill out of your pocket right now and rip it up,” Frank wagered.
Jude laughed and said, “If I rip up a dollar bill you’ll pay me ten?”
“That’s the bet,” Frank clarified.
“Piece of cake,” Jude replied and took a crumpled dollar bill from his wallet. He tore the dollar down the center, ripping it in two.
“You lose,” Frank cackled.
“Fuck are you talking about? I did exactly what you said?”
“No, the best was that you would rip it up. You ripped it down.”
“So you’re telling me I just lost a dollar for nothing?”
“Technically you lost eleven dollars,” Frank corrected him. “You owe me ten because you lost the bet.”
“Fuck off,” Jude said. “I’m not paying you shit. And you owe me a dollar.”
“Well, you ain’t getting it,” Frank scoffed. “And I don’t think you’ll be getting any gas either. Those pumps don’t take credit cards and I’m pretty sure the tanks are empty too. Better luck at the next gas station. I think it’s just twenty miles or so up the road.”
Jude clenched his hand into a tight fist but Griffin grabbed his friends arm and pulled him back before Jude could inflict any harm.
“Forget it, man,” Griffin shook his head. “He’s not worth it. There’s a diner up the road. We’ll figure it out there.”
Frank eyed them carefully as they exited the station and Griffin’s BMW pulled off down the road, heading west. Then he picked up the phone and made the call.
“Yeah, there are five of them. Three guys, two girls. They just pulled through here, heading your way now. The guys might pose a problem.”
* * *
The Bayside Diner was virtually deserted and that meant Jude didn’t have to worry about keeping his voice down, which he never did in public places. He liked his opinions, no matter how absurd or inappropriate, to be heard.
“We should’ve stopped at that Exxon in Cherrywood,” Jude scolded Griffin.
“I told you I won’t support them after the oil spill,” Griffin said.
“Fuck the oil spill,” Virginia said. “I have a modeling gig in two hours and I’m not going to miss this opportunity. Which way is town?”
“Ocean City is fifteen miles west. I think I have enough gas to get there. But I don’t know of any other gas stations along the way. I hope we make it.”
“And if we don’t?” Virginia asked, her voice filled with concern.
“Then I’m afraid we’re stuck here for a bit. Worst comes to worst, we can always walk to the nearest gas station. There’s a Mobil in Ocean City. I can’t promise you’re going to make that gig though.”
“Don’t you dare say that,” Virginia cried.
“I’ll make you a deal,” Jude started in. “You slob my knob and I’ll carry you to that gig if I have to.”
“Pass. If I want a two inch fuse in my mouth, I’ll blow a stick of dynamite.” Ian howled at that line until Jude punched him in the shoulder and he quieted down.
“Some vacation,” Abigail muttered to her sister.
* * *
Griffin’s BMW just about made it to the border of Ocean City. The car ran out of gas a few miles from the next station.
“What now?” Abigail asked as Virginia was slipping into panic mode.
“Give me your phone,” Jude said to Griffin.
“I’ll call my dealer, the guy Ian and I are supposed to meet up with. If he wants his money, he’ll get his ass out here and give us a lift to the gas station.”
“I’m not giving you my phone so you can call your drug dealer,” Griffin protested.
“Fine, have a blast walking in this heat. Send me a postcard along the way.”
Griffin sighed, took out his phone, and passed it to Jude. He called his dealer, a stoned slacker named Floyd, who said he’d be there in ten minutes. He showed up in thirty.
Jude and Ian crammed in the front with Floyd and the rest of the group climbed into the bed of Floyd’s pickup. At Virginia’s request, Floyd dropped her off on the way. Her gig was a small studio on Waverly Avenue and it wasn’t too far from the Mobil. Abigail tagged along, not wanting to leave her sisters side.
Griffin promised after they filled up the car that they’d meet the girls back at the studio.
The studio itself was on the first floor of a small, brick-front building that was divided into two parts. The second half of the building looked as if it was being used as a warehouse for mannequin parts.
When Abigail peered through the window, she could see them propped up in every corner. And there were two white bins below the windowsill, one holding assorting mannequin limbs and one for the heads. She backed away from the window slowly, a chill rushing down her spine.
Mannequins always gave Abigail the willies. Ever since she was a little girl and she had her first encounter with one at a department store. The eerie lifelike quality and the design of the eyes made it feel as if the mannequins were watching her, eyeing her every move.
The door of the studio opened and Trey Stone stood in the doorway to greet them. “Afternoon, ladies,” he nodded and grinned. Stone could be quite charming when he had to be. And the women still found him attractive for his age, which was nearing sixty. He still had a full head of wavy black hair and piercing grey eyes that seemed to gaze beyond the fleshy exterior and peer deep into the core of the soul.
“I’m Trey Stone,” he said, extending his hand. Virginia accepted it. His grip was smooth and gentle.
“We spoke on the phone,” she said as he released his light grip and folded both arms across his chest. “I’m Virginia Ballard.”
“Oh, of course,” Trey nodded pleasantly. “I totally forgot that was today. Well, no problem. I have a clear schedule and plenty of space so I’m sure I can set something up quick. Come in, please, come in.”
Trey turned back into the studio and Virginia followed with Abigail behind her, who was clutching to the back of her sisters shirt.
“Who’s your friend?” Trey asked as he gathered some of his lights and began setting them up in one corner of the room.
“This is my sister, Abigail,” Virginia introduced her.
“Pleasure to meet you,” Trey said as he quickly finished with the lights and checked the lens on his camera.
“Do you know the deal with the creepy mannequin shop next-door?” Abbie blurted out. The question was on her mind and she couldn’t help but let it out.
Trey chuckled. “It’s mine, actually. My father used to make them by hand, worked for a department store in Queens. He passed his expertise along to me and I sort of picked up where he left off. It’s a lost art. Not too many people make mannequins nowadays and yet there’s still a demand for them with all these department stores out there.”
“So what are the photographs for?” Virginia asked.
“For the mannequins. I need a model to base my work on. It simplifies the process for when I’m making the final mold. All I need is a few photos and your measurements and we’ll be all set.”
“That’s it?” Virginia asked, severely disappointed. She was expecting this to be her big break. “I thought this was a real modeling gig. You know, bikinis, swimsuits, lingerie, that sort of thing. I didn’t know I was going to be fodder for a mannequin.”
Abigail couldn’t help but chortle when her sister discovered this was what her big modeling gig entailed.
“If you’re unhappy with the job I can always find another model to accommodate me,” Trey shrugged.
“No, it’s okay,” Virginia assured him. “I’m here. I might as well take the money and keep my mouth shut before I talk myself out of this thing.”
“Very well,” Trey nodded. “I’m all set up. If you’d just step over there into the light in front of the backdrop, we’ll get started.”
“So how exactly do you make a mannequin?” Abbie inquired.
“You’re full of questions,” Trey chuckled again. “Well, the original mannequins were made from papier-mâché. Then they used wax to try and create a more lifelike appearance. When wax ran its course, they used plaster. Today it’s a mix of fiberglass and plastic. You pour liquid plastic resin into a mold and wait for it to harden. The fiberglass comes after.”
Trey explained all this as Virginia fixed her hair and positioned herself in front of the backdrop, trying to find the right pose.
Trey stepped over to the wall and dimmed the house lights a tad. “Can you step to the right a little more?”
Virginia took two steps to the right and Trey flicked a red switch near the lights. The floor opened up and Virginia fell through the trapdoor that led to Trey’s cellar. She was not wounded in the fall. Trey had set up a rubber mat to ensure her safety. But she could tell navigating her way through this place would take some time. The cellar was not so much a cellar as it was a series of tunnels, an underground labyrinth like the one that had plagued Abbie’s nightmares for weeks.
She did not scream out or beg for help. She knew the minute she fell for his trap that this man was not who he claimed to be. He could only imagine the things he was doing to Abbie at that very moment. She couldn’t hear Abbie at all, and that didn’t bode well for her.
She rushed her way through the tunnels, using the light from her cell phone to guide the way. With no markings or distinguishable structures, Virginia felt as though she was running in endless circles.
The reception on her phone was weak. But she realized calling 911 was still an option. The battery was the only factor as her phone was on the verge of dying at any minute.
Without a moment’s hesitation, she dialed those three magic numbers and let it ring.
“911, what’s your emergency?” the operator asked after two rings.
“My name is Virginia Ballard. I’m stuck in the cellar of a man named Trey Stone. He has my sister. Please send help. We’re at 2454 Waverly Avenue.”
“Ma’am, I can’t understand you. You’re breaking up with every word. Where are you exactly?”
A light, harsh and blinding, pierced through the tunnel. The surprise made Virginia drop her phone and she heard it crack into pieces as the light drew closer and this strange figure came into focus.
The man had a white mask pulled tightly over the corners of his face, voiding him of any human features above the neck and making him take on a faceless appearance. The flashlight whooshed as it cut through the air and cracked against Virginia’s skull. She dropped and her eyes fought her as they tried to close while she struggled to keep them open. The sound in her ears popped in and out as the light slowly faded and she drifted off without further resistance.
* * *
Trey still had the mask drawn over his face as he set about completing his work. He liked to talk throughout the process, whether it was casual chitchat or deep philosophical conversation. The conversations were a little one-sided, but he found it made the procedure go by faster.
“Your friends, they seemed like a nice bunch of guys,” he said directly to Abbie. “They’ll make decent additions to my collection. But you and your sister, you two are the keepers. The real trophies. I knew your sister was the easy one to reel in. All I had to do was promise her a quick payday and she didn’t bother to ask twice. Your friends were a bit unexpected, but I can always count on Frank and Floyd to do my dirty work when need be. You wouldn’t know it by looking at them, but they’re actually father and son. It’s astonishing what some folks will do for money these days. But I’m sure I don’t have to tell you.”
But he was talking to himself as Abbie had been rendered unconscious by a sharp blow to the head. Her body was stuffed inside a large mold that matched her features precisely.
“You know the amazing things about mannequins?” Trey said as he stood over her, plastic resin in hand. “They can be so real, so lifelike, and yet they don’t inspire vanity because they’re not anatomically correct. They’re not projections of how we see ourselves. They’re objects that we hang cheap fabric on and try to sell for inflated prices. Mannequins aren’t the problem of society; society is the problem of society. The only way to fix it is to become part of the mold.”
He tilted the liquid resin and let it fill the body mold.
* * *
The Christmas season was upon them and the two girls figured they’d get a head start on their shopping. They had already taken a trip to the mall and visited the crafts shop on Park Place. Their next stop was the department store near Waverly.
Clarissa skipped along with glee as her friend Shelly trudged behind, lugging several heavy shopping bags that were filled to the max. Clarissa stopped outside the department store to admire the window displays. It was the mannequins that caught her eye, specifically the one wearing the grey Kashmir sweater she had wanted for months.
“Look at the lines and curves,” Clarissa remarked. Amazing, so lifelike. The person who makes these is an artist.”
“Huh?” Shelly remarked, slightly bemused.
“What is it?”
“The mannequin in the middle…looks kind of like my ex-boyfriends neighbor. What’s-her-name, Abigail?”