The yard was infested with mannequins. Smooth, plastic, fake. They were women, mostly, with a few men peppered throughout. Some arms, some legs (scissored into the air), and the occasional half-woman sticking out of the ground, hands posed mid-gesture like fortune-tellers, but mostly whole: standing, leaning, sitting on the bench, lying insomnious in the hammock. They all looked poised to, at any moment, start living. Moving. Like they were waiting for the music to resume in a game of freeze dance. There must have been more than two dozen of them, and each time you thought you’d spotted them all, one would catch you by surprise. You’d look up and notice the blond one hanging in the tree, staring at you. You would probably find it creepy, if you were anything like Virginie.
“Good morning, Ginnie,” said Rat, whistling and cooking eggs.
“Not my name,” said Virginie under her breath, in what could have been a father-daughter ritual, a morning spat, if Rat had been Virginie’s father. But he wasn’t.
Rat acted like the mannequins weren’t there, like he didn’t see the mannequins any more than he saw the shutters, which needed a new coat of paint. That was one reason Virginie hated him. To him, the mannequins were as organic as his shrubbery, planted around the house and then forgotten. They blurred into the yard and trees, the way you don’t really notice a painting that’s been hanging on your wall for so many years. But Virginie saw them, and they saw her.
She stood in the front yard, waiting for the bus, with an army of frozen figures behind her, the head of a smiling, soulless militia. She was itchy, in the way you’re itchy after spotting a spider somewhere in the room. At any moment she might feel an innocent brush against her shoulder and see a mannequin poised closer than it had been a few seconds earlier. She couldn’t turn around, but she could feel them all behind her, watching her wait for the bus, discussing a secret about her, calling her an orphan. Virginie wasn’t an orphan. She had a father, somewhere, and he was nothing like Rat. Virginie was sure of it.
The kids on the bus were quiet and still, like they’d been discussing her for the entire ride to her house and suddenly fell quiet when she stepped onto the bus. It wouldn’t surprise Virginie if they all lived at the same big house, talking about Virginie (and the mannequins and the weird man she lives with) every night before bed, and every morning while brushing their teeth and combing their hair; getting ready for school. Virginie could join in if she wasn’t Virginie. She could move into the big house with all the bus riders. And the bus driver, their caretaker, could make her famous scrambled eggs every morning instead of Rat, who didn’t know anything about eggs. And the yard would be planted with actual shrubbery, nothing plastic.
The bus driver eyed her in the rearview mirror every few minutes until they arrived at school. She did this every morning while Virginie sat with her back to the window, feeling the mannequins wave good-bye behind her, whispering. We’ll see you after school!
Whenever anyone asked Rat where his nickname came from, he told a story about being a street drummer, and Rat being short for Rat-a-tat. That wasn’t true at all. His friends started calling him Rat because he had thick black hair with a long rattail, almost to the middle of his back. He did play drums, just not very well, and had never been a street drummer. He’d always wanted to.
Rat lived in a house in a section of town called Vanderbilt. It was the artists’ district, near the river. He’d been living in the mannequin house for years, and joked that everyone in town had been his roommate at one time or another. They were all artists or musicians, the roommates, and all left a mark on the place before moving on to something better and leaving Rat behind. One roommate named Demitri had found a bunch of old mannequins behind a department store. He’d spent a month dressing and painting them and positioning them around the yard.
At the moment, Rat's roommate was Paul, a twenty-something artist who worked at the trendy lounge nearby, so trendy that it wasn’t called a restaurant, but a “kitchen.” Battalion Kitchen. And now suddenly there was Virginie, who wasn’t really a roommate because she couldn’t pay rent. She was in high school, almost fifteen, and Rat’s daughter, if you believe his side of the story and not hers.
Rat hadn’t talked to Virginie’s mother, Rhonda, in more than a decade, and hadn’t talked to Virginie, well, ever. If he’d known anything about her, he wouldn’t have let Rhonda name her Virginie, that’s for sure. Rat had nothing going on in his life when Rhonda died and Virginie was legally his; it felt like he’d gotten an instant family, a second (or third) chance. He couldn’t screw up this time. He gave her the attic space and told her she could decorate it however she liked. The whole space. He thought that would make her happy. He even woke up early on weekdays to make her breakfast, something he hadn’t done in years, but nothing made her happy.
Virginie stayed out as late as she could to avoid going home after school. She got off the bus every day two stops early and walked by the river. Every day she thought about jumping in. Every day she didn’t jump in. The water was too brown, and she thought she remembered a man drowning in the river last summer. Did they ever find him? Did she dream it? He probably looked like a mannequin beneath the brown water. Arms outstretched, fingers poised. Fake smile.
That night Virginie dreamed of climbing onto the bus. All the riders had turned into mannequins. She sat next to one of them who stared at her, smiling, unblinking. The driver was her mother, and she eyed Virginie in the rearview mirror. Stop mom, we’re going to drive off a cliff! she thought, but couldn’t say out loud. Her mother had turned stiff, and so had she, and they plummeted into space.
The next morning Rat was cooking eggs again. They were local eggs, like they used at the Battalion Kitchen, or so Rat said when Virginie walked past him. But you couldn’t really trust anything Rat said. Especially about eggs.
The mannequins all looked like they’d moved a half-inch since yesterday, at least that’s what Virginie thought. Maybe someone sneaked over in the middle of the night and moved them just a little. Maybe it was the ghost of the man who died in the river. Maybe it was Demitri; maybe he missed the mannequins. Maybe they came alive at night and moved themselves.
The bus stopped in front of her house. (Not her house, really, but Rat’s house.)
Virginie’s first period teacher, Ms. Lanthom, was long and slender. Her lips were shiny, like red plastic. She had an overbite, but it suited her. She wore pencil skirts and pinned up her hair. Virginie thought she looked like a character from a comic strip, or an old television show. Sometime in the middle of the school year, Ms. Lanthom stopped wearing her wedding ring and changed her name on the door from Mrs. to Ms. Virginie only heard this information in whispers around school while eavesdropping. They could have been making up stories, the bus kids, to whisper around Virginie to make her think she was eavesdropping.
Ms. Lanthom walked past Virginie and let her hand slide across the top of Virginie’s desk. Her slender fingers with polished, plastic nails dragging, languid. She sat on a stool in front of the classroom, crossing her ankles so that Virginie noticed, for the first time, her prosthetic leg. A slightly different color than the rest of her skin underneath her pantyhose, down into a permanently poised foot with painted toenails. Well, Virginie couldn’t see Ms. Lathom's toes underneath her shoes, but they were painted. Pink.
She was lecturing on the Donner Party, which wasn’t much of a party, honestly. Virginie imagined Ms. Lanthom gnawing on someone’s arm, her overbite giving her an advantage. Then someone eating her leg, the missing one, right down to the dainty, perfectly manicured nails, flecks of pink flinging from the toothpick afterward. Maybe it was her ex-husband. He ate her leg and then divorced her, the bastard. Virginie was so overcome by the mental imagery that she asked Did he eat your leg? out loud, and she startled herself. It was like talking in your sleep; first the voice startles you, and then you realize it’s your own.
The class erupted in gasps and stifled laughter, and Virginie, red, furiously shaking her head as if to convince herself that she hadn’t really said it, tried to apologize but couldn't speak. Ms. Lanthom shot up from the stool, ambling around speechless for a minute before settling behind her desk, and no one spoke until the bell rang. Virginie looked around the room for some sort of salvation, but no one met her eyes. Instead, they sat with pursed lips, nearly choking on repressed laughter and surprise. None would acknowledge her.
When the bell rang, she bolted through the hallway and out the front door, past the river and all the way home.