The Mannequin's Itch

          The mannequin felt her skin itch whenever the sirens went off. It was on the outside of her thigh, just under where the flowered print on the yellow fabric fell. She would have liked to reach down and scratch that place—the only gesture she ever wished for, except that once in a while, she thought it would be nice to wave at the passersby. She thought that that was a sort of itch too.

          Her left hip thrown out, her arm extended, her hand beckoning, she smiled toward the rising sun or the rising moon, or to each person who stood in front of her window. Some people looked her in the eyes, laughing silently through the plate glass. Others frowned and chewed their lips at the dress, moving their heads around in search of a price tag that wasn't there. A few crouched down and tried to look under the skirt at her nonexistent genitals. She smiled equally to all of them.

          But when the sirens sounded and the people in front of her window hurried away, the itch returned. It felt purple, she decided, or maybe violet. She wondered why she itched only in that spot and nowhere else; maybe there was a tag underneath the hem that tickled her.

          Apart from the itching, it was restful when the sirens sounded. The streets were empty and silent; no traffic disturbed her view of gray buildings or green parks. And then would come the sound of wind, and the sky would turn green, and the buildings across the street would turn green. It was interesting. After a while (the mannequin wasn't very good at judging time) the sky and the buildings would change back to blue or white or gray, and the wind would stop. Eventually most of the people came back. But not all.

          The girl in the blue coat and the girl in the red coat came every day at about noon; the mannequin guessed they came here instead of eating lunch. They were old for girls, young for women, like the mannequin herself, although they looked nothing like her. The mannequin had red curls on her head, and her plastic skin was the color of eggshells. The girls had black hair and eyes, and skin the color of walnuts. Their coats were heavy, sometimes too heavy for the weather, but they wore them in all weathers.

          The mannequin got tired of her clothes, but it would only be a few weeks before the clerks would come out and strip her naked behind the screen, then put her in something new and move her limbs to another position. She thought of the positions and the clothes together: green evening gown with fingers laced together in front of her; blue bikini with hands on hips; gray flannel suit with one foot in front of the other and toe pointed. With the clothes and the positions went feelings: the evening gown meant shyness; the bikini meant curiosity; the suit meant mirth.

          When the girl in the red coat walked, the mannequin saw a faint limp. Sometimes the girl in the blue coat held her arm or her waist. The mannequin wondered whether the girl in the red coat had once stood too long with one hip sticking out. She thought a limp must be something like an itch.

          Sometimes the mannequin wondered what happened to the people who went away after the sirens. Of course, it was hard to be sure whether anyone had gone away, because the passing crowds in front of her window were different from day to day. But she was sure that at least some of the people she saw daily, running someplace at sunrise and away from that same place at sunset, stopped coming to her window after the sirens sounded. And they never came back.

          The girl in the blue coat never came back.

          Sometimes one of the pedestrians would return after the sirens with tears on his face, leaning his head against the window until his nose was mashed, staring into the mannequin's face and shaking, and the tears would dry to a faint salt crust that marked the glass for days. Eventually one of the clerks would come out and wipe the window to get rid of the marks.

          The mannequin liked tears; they helped her itch go away, as if they were washing over the place like a salve. She wondered what it would be like if she could cry herself. She thought it might be fun. If she could cry, she thought, maybe her tears could fix the itches of some of the people in the street. That would be nice, especially for the girl in the red coat.

          When the girl in the red coat started coming alone, she did not cry. For an hour or more every day, she would just stare into the mannequin's face, her lips occasionally moving. Every now and then she would look around as if to find someone, or maybe to hide from someone. Then she would shrug. It looked itchy. The mannequin thought that if she cried, she could mend the girl's itch, and maybe her limp.

          Then, one day when the sky was the color of gray flannel, as the mannequin strode unmoving in tight jeans and a tank top and the girl in the red coat pressed her nose against the glass, the sirens went off again. The girl in the red coat shuddered, her glance turning from the mannequin to the street. All around her, people were running or briskly walking, lips tight, eyes glancing around.

          The mannequin's thigh itched.

          The girl in the red coat slowly shook her head from side to side. She placed both hands and her forehead on the glass, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath. Some of the people hurrying by the window shouted over their shoulders to the girl; the mannequin couldn't tell what they were saying, but she could see the girl's reply: No. Then once more, No.

          How nice, the mannequin thought. The girl in the red coat will stay with me during the sirens. It will be pleasant to have a friend here. Then we can look at each other, and maybe she will cry.

          The girl in the red coat did start to cry, big tears that lingered in her eyes, then dropped resignedly onto the coat, painting maroon streaks on the heavy fabric. Her mouth remained shut but trembled.

          Then came the sound of the wind, and the girl in the red coat closed her eyes and bit her lip, and the sky turned from gray to green, and the windows across the street were tinted again. The mannequin's itch throbbed as if she had a pulse.

          In the green light, the girl's skin turned green, and her coat turned green. Then both the girl and her coat became fuzzy to look at, as if the mannequin's eyes were playing tricks on her. The mannequin could not see the girl's eyes, and then could not see her mouth, and then could not tell the difference between her skin and her coat. Then the girl was gone.

          The sirens stopped and the people came back out in the street. Later the sun came out.

          The girl in the red coat didn't come back to the window, but the mannequin no longer expected it. Days came and went, some days the sirens sounded and some days they didn't.

          But now, the itch never went away.









Click here to listen to Ken Schneyer reading "The Mannequin's Itch"









Kenneth Schneyer has sold stories to Analog, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Abyss & Apex, Clockwork Phoenix 3, Daily Science Fiction, Ideomancer, GU, and elsewhere. He attended the Clarion Writers Workshop in 2009 and joined the Cambridge Science Fiction Workshop in 2010. By day, he teaches humanities and legal studies at a U.S. university. He lives in Rhode Island with one singer, one dancer, one actor, and something striped and fanged that he sometimes glimpses out of the corner of his eye. He blogs at http://ken-schneyer.livejournal.com.


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