Those Who Remain Quiet Literary Short Fiction By James Callan

Those Who Remain Quiet: Literary Short Fiction By James Callan

James Callan, author of “Those Who Remain Quiet”, has published and forthcoming fiction in Bridge Eight, White Wall Review, Maudlin House, Cardiff Review, and elsewhere. His novel, A Transcendental Habit, was released in February 2023 by Queer Space, an imprint of Rebel Satori Press.


I don’t exactly know how it came to be true, how it made any sense, but having removed the designer tee-shirt, my fingers working to unbind the elastic sleeve, the taut neckline, then, after the release of the vice-like denim, the marathon of belt loops and silver buttons, the tug-of-war workout pulling off those skinny blue jeans, those moments when full disclosure was laid bare and absolute, the mannequin came to life, or seemed to. In all this world, there is nothing half so vivacious as that plastic mold of man or maybe woman unburdened from its clothes. Its sexless form, cetacean-smooth, its pupilless gaze, unblinking; modern art meets Michelangelo; aerodynamic amphibian race car, or something like that.

I knew that I was risking my job when I had committed to taking it out of the shop, taking it home with me –not to borrow, but to keep, to live with, to sleep beside, to cherish until death do us part. And really, technically, between the two of us I was the only one living, and thus, the only one capable of dying.

I knew that I was risking my job when I had committed to taking it out of the shop, taking it home with me…

Yet to put that shirt back over the gentle gradient of its mild-but-respectable pecs, its subtle six-pack, was as good as blowing out a hot flame, as good as turning out a bright light, putting an end to something vital, as if terminating a pulse, a beating heart, placing a mask over the most beautiful face in the world, throwing acid across an unblinking, unfocused gaze of perfection, a crime, a murder, and so, though not literally, the mannequin was surely alive, symbolically if nothing else, capable of dying. Unlike our love, which is forever, beyond the grave, beyond the storefront display of this season’s fashion, next season’s, seasons immemorial, past, future, present. Our love, true as any, is eternal. My love, technically speaking, but let’s not do that all over again.

So I agreed to close the shop. I had conceded to staying late, even though I had opened early that morning. Yes, I am rusty, but I assured my boss I can do it all the same. I can count the till, lock the doors, check the dressing rooms for would-be marauders, deposit the money in the safe, check stock with a roving, discerning eye, punch in the alarm code and get the hell out of there before it goes off and The Grateful Thread is stuck with paying the fee for emergency call-outs, for false alarms.

How the mannequin goes missing, of course, will remain a mystery. I play it back in my head, something to the effect of Mission Impossible, though perhaps somewhat less high-tech, less professional, not so deftly done, so utterly flawless, not Hollywood smooth, not half as polished as Tom Cruise, not as snag-free, as streamline, as a gleaming mannequin, no tense, driving soundtrack to make it all the more cool. But I got the job done all the same. Mission accomplished. Tom Cruise, eat your heart out.

That night, when the power went off a few minutes before closing, I had ushered everyone out, shut shop, did what needed to be done. After the heavy lifting was done, I had restored the juice, the lights, the cameras, which will bear a small gap in their otherwise uninterrupted recordings, and now, having been restored to power, will henceforth record the same exact scene, a shop floor, unchanged –but wait– and there it is, a discrepancy; a shop floor, yes, sans mannequin, the absence of which will be attributed to an assumed, doubtless result, a thief taking advantage of the power outage, probably a saboteur, the cause of the outage in the first place, in no way suggestive of me, of an inside job, of a love-struck retail worker who has found their one and only and always.

I don’t have any kids –can’t stomach the snot-nosed, little shits– so I have no basis for comparison, but the mannequin was light, the weight of a small child perhaps, yet it was fully six foot, even after the removal of its fashionable, smokey-blue fedora. So even though I could carry it under one arm with occasional support from my free arm for assisted balance, the plastic Venus de Milo was awkward, its length of sculpted perfection hardly inconspicuous, and proved to be a challenge while attempting to wedge it into my Jetta, positioning it in such a way as to avoid its toeless, arched feet extending out of the open window, which, in the end, I accepted as inevitable, and drove home to the side-mirror view of alabaster ankles glistening in the evening’s amber streetlight. Red lights were embarrassing, but I kept my head forward and pretended not to hear the various instances of abuse, laughter and heckling applied in my direction.

In the comfort of my apartment, the cat had less to say than the opinionated rabble that I encountered on the roadways home. Curious perhaps, Jonesy meowed, but reserved all other judgments. His feline mind was unmoved by the pale human locked in apparent rigor mortis while tucked beneath my arm. A shake of the dried kibble and the sound of tiny, dried biscuits colliding with a tin dish sent him to scurry, soft-footed, across the linoleum, a ginger motion trail across the checker pattern at my ankles.

Then it was me and the mannequin, the couch, the sprawling, over-familiar Netflix library aglow in the muted light. Recent shows, popular shows, flashed in overt suggestion, quick to fill up an idle moment with stimulation; Joe Exotic smiles with a tiger that stands up on its hind legs, his godawful –but great– haircut and lovable face pixelated large to reflect off the glass coffee table, the smooth, ivory calves and toned thighs of Mr. Mannequin, who may be a Miss, who could no longer be named Mannequin, but something more personal, more warm, more alive, more exotic –Joe? No, not the Tiger King. The Plastic Queen?

Then it was me and the mannequin, the couch, the sprawling, over-familiar Netflix library aglow in the muted light.

It all seemed dumb, so very wrong, but when I leaned over to press my lips against its own, slip my hot tongue across its cold, unflinching mouth, I breathed out Manny, natural as anything, entirely organic, unfettered by thought, fueled by instinct, by undiluted passion, a name whispered in the language of love. And so it became Manny. Manny, who is many times more than man. Everything, always. If that’s not love, what is?

When I was a child I loved stuffed animals. I was partial to plush dolls, cuddle buddies, even pillows. I had always preferred a teddy bear, a stuffed lion, a G.I. Joe or a Cabbage Patch Doll to, say, a Nerf gun or water balloons, a jump rope or even a good frolic on the lawn, the thrill of gravity that played delightfully with my tummy after a hearty butt-bounce upon the taut, woven fibers of a neighbor’s coveted trampoline. All that other stuff was great, I recall, but secondary to the warm, inner fuzzies that rumbled to life from within me during those tender embraces with my stuffed companions at home.

Even the moonless, starlit sky paled beside the reflective glow of the nightlight active and alive with shapes and shadows swimming in those dozens of marble eyes, a row of plush sentries lined against the wall watching me while I slept. I cannot put my finger on it –although I did, almost constantly, put my finger on it– but something about a menagerie of stuffed animals pried open my soul and filled me up in the best possible way.

My active endearment for stuffed bears, puppy dogs, marsupials, plastic soldiers; men of action, all bicep and gun; blonde beach babes, all leg and no waist, disproportionate bust, big smile no matter how you treat her, whatever –it stayed with me over the awkward development that bridged the gap between being a child and becoming a man. Blossoming, they call it. Me, I’m not so sure that fits. Though every rose does have its thorn –that much is true.

Whether or not I bloomed into adulthood or merely collected my fair share of acne along the way, one thing is certain: my fixation on mindless companions, my love for human or vaguely human-shaped inanimate vessels, or, as I view it, unblemished canvases to be decorated by the limitless paintbrush of the imagination, soulless golems waiting to be filled with personified, fabricated zest; this tendency followed me throughout the years, never once leaving my side, oppressively near, like a conjoined twin, my spectral double, as if my image was mirrored at the waist on still water, a doppelganger, unseen, only felt, known but hidden, like baldness concealed beneath a cap.

What’s more, I dare say the condition of my fondness for stuffed toys, inanimate figures –we will not say lifeless– has elevated with the passing of years, has become greater than ever if truth be told, almost insatiable –no– definitely insatiable, all consuming, the core of my soul, the sole ingredient of who I am.

But I never asked myself why. Why this reverence for the Beanie Baby or Bratz Doll? Why dolls at all? The blowup doll in the closet waiting for the breath of resurrection at a moment’s notice when the need strikes? What’s this unbridled, desperate urge to cling to a store mannequin?

I didn’t know the answer myself. I didn’t realize until recently. I didn’t realize, actually, until Manny resisted blinking even as I probed his open eyeballs with my aching tongue. All my life I couldn’t put my finger on it –yes, yes, I put my finger on it, over it, in it, et cetera– but suddenly it became irrefutably apparent, obvious, a mystery laid bare, totally unveiled. My affection for static beings, soft or otherwise, stemmed from their inability to speak, their unfaltering reliability to withhold retort, abstain from talking back. I could say –do– anything, yet still that stuffed bear would smile, its eyes still sparkle, its soft paws not even tremble, no complaints, no resistance. This, more than anything else in companionship, is what I value. It was the quiet that opened up my heart, laid bare my troubled soul.

That first night with Manny I slept like a baby, like a rock, like a log, like a corpse, like a fashion retail mannequin. I woke up refreshed, renewed, but was nervous heading back into work, more than a little worried that my careful planning had not been careful enough, that my meticulous orchestration of theft was like one of those trendy, expensive pairs of jeans, the ones that come with pre-made tears and scuff marks, rifts in the fabric to expose the coveted flesh beneath, holes, loopholes, something to expose my guilt, pin me as the man with the mannequin, the driver of the Jetta with the plastic body halfway out the window recorded leaving the staff parking zone.

Or maybe everything was fine. More than fine, exactly as it should be. Manny was in my bed, after all, and would be in my bed when I came home, come hell or high water, so in that regard everything was worth it. Still, I’d rather not come home unemployed. I’d rather not bury the plastic body in the courtyard of my apartment complex or the park down the street to hide my guilt, conceal my wrongdoing. If I am fired on account of thievery, then any other job prospect in the mall is out of the question. Word spreads in this town like syphilis among the unchaste. I’d have to consider the shopping mall downtown, and then what’s the point of living in this outer-rim suburb?

On the way into the mall I was greeted with a familiar sight, the dozens of identical posters lining the glass doors, old ones sun-faded, new ones vibrant, a picture of a girl, Jenny Markakis, the pretty, doe-eyed, frizzle-haired, seventeen-year-old who went missing last month, the same girl who worked within the mall, who was last seen at the end of her shift cleaning out the freezer at the Jamba Juice.

The image of her face, which I knew by now like the back of my hand, like my Tickle-Me-Elmo, a collector’s item that has been rendered worthless by the bald patches inflicted by decades of close cuddling, a Sesame Street doll that has never laughed despite its battery-powered gimmick, its selling-point that makes it unique but which I have always found to sully its otherwise perfect silence, like little Elmo, who would laugh no matter how roughly you handled him, I knew Jenny’s face well, her picture that seemed to spread like fire, her smile that faded with the passing days, stolen by the sun that kisses her face, bleaching the text that reminds you of her name, the date she went missing, the reward for her hopeful return.

Inside, the air conditioning hit me like an unwarranted bitch slap. The chilled current held the smell of buttered popcorn, a waft of the nearby cinema, and with it, the dank, fetid carpet, the men’s bathroom with tiles that seemed at war with the mop, a constant ebb and flow of contradicting aromas, an outward tide of chemical cleaners, then, hours later, the inevitable return of stale urine, sticky footprints, the ghostly patterns left behind by passing souls, passing soles of shoes. Then, the moment of truth as I walked into work, a living, breathing body in the land of The Grateful Thread.

“Hey!” My boss yelled to me from across the floor. I’m doomed, I thought. Totally fucked. But then she smiled, a genuine flash of joy, nothing spiteful, not even remotely malicious. “We made a killing yesterday!” Her choice of words lingered in my mind. Killing. It resonated. Like a death dirge, a funeral hymn, it echoed in my mind. It haunted me.

“Seriously, Dude. Like, way above last year’s earnings!” Her fingers paged through dollar bills, twenties, fifties, a Benjamin or two. She took the money and created a fan, a great peacock plume, and though faded and green, to her, it was a thing of beauty. Money. It blinded her to the obvious.

“What about the mannequin?” I heard myself say and inwardly winced. But then I got the notion, the perceived idea –bringing it to her attention, being the one to point out that the streamline, plastic man is missing– it’s for the best. I mean, come on, what thief would elect to highlight the absence of the object they have themselves stolen? No thief in their right mind. Unless, of course, a clever thief, entirely in their right mind, one with the insight to bring to attention that which they have stolen, an act that would by all logic paint them plainly innocent. Right?

“Oh, shit,” she said. “Fuck. I guess someone stole it?” Then she went on, uncaring, counting the bills, smelling them, kissing them, probably picking up a million germs from a hundred hands, planting little castaway microbes on the soft, downy, almost-invisible hairs that nonetheless caught the overhead lights and spread across her upper lip, electric and loud. Like an android, my boss positively glowed, her greedy smile as bright as a row of LED lights. Really, she is rather beautiful, I thought. If only she would just stop talking. If only she’d be quiet.

I swallowed. I took a breath. Then I realized in slow-motion, a trickle of awareness: the moment had passed. My guilt had been overlooked. Then, ice cold, I shivered in the oppressive air-conditioning, an arctic atmosphere made so many times worse by the nervous sweat that secreted from my armpits to tally down my ribs, dark shadows stretching nearly to my hips. But whatever. I was elated, if but a bit uncomfortable, a tad self-conscious about the sweat stains and mild stench of onions that radiated from me. It was a long day, but I made it through my eight-hour shift. I remained unscathed, unbranded –guilty, yes, but unproven, innocent by law, not even suspected.

On my way out of the mall I stopped by the Jamba Juice. I ordered an Orange Dream Machine, tasted it, smiled to the teenage kids who labored to make it, and deposited my change into the plastic box with that same, smiling face of Jenny Markakis, her frizzy, wild hair that in the waft of my smoothie seemed to smell of cut citrus, not a photo at all but an actual girl, alive and accounted for. My quarter and dime fell into a deep well of good intentions, a wishing well with one repetitive hope: that Jenny is alive, that she is found, safe and sound.

My offering collided with the other coins, dollar bills, the collected donations from various strangers and juice drinkers, a charity fueled by an inability to access a family’s acute, real pain, a warm, passing gesture to help relieve the guilt that comes with comparison to their own, happy, whole families. Beyond the smiling, seventeen-year-old face that is peppered in flecks of spilled fruit juice, contained within the plastic drop box beneath its image, there was perhaps one hundred dollars, the sum of leftover funds owed back after a day’s worth of transactions to obtain smoothies and blended juice. This, the helpful hand of a caring community. This, to support a family in pain, to help reveal a missing girl –probably dead– with her entire life yet in front of her.

Back home, I tore off my clothes. I discarded my damp shirt that smelled of old onions. I tiptoed to the bedroom to catch Manny unawares, to watch him sleep, to pounce on him like a predator, to make love to him, any which way, dealer’s choice, no complaints. And there he was, or I assumed him to be, a mound beneath the sheets –good, old, lazy Manny having slept all day. But when I crept closer, held my breath and moved with the intended stealth of a leopard stalking its prey, something suddenly seemed wrong. The shape beneath the sheets –too small, too lumpy, not at all the Manny of my dreams, a man more tasty than a freshly made Orange Dream Machine.

Then I saw the movement, the subtle up-and-down. I pulled back the white sheet, peeled back the covers like a thick skin removed from the body of a carcass. Then I, the would-be leopard, the silent predator, stared at a real cat, a ginger feline, Jonesy, an orange dream machine, dozing beneath the covers as he so often did. He stretched and yawned, blinked up at me and dozed back off without a second thought.

Then came my panic, my concern, my dread. Where was Manny? In a horrific moment I thought of Jenny Markakis, a missing person, an abducted or murdered girl, a body at the bottom of a river, deep within a forest, hidden beneath the earth, a grave to conceal rather than commemorate. I compared her disappearance, her probable death, her family’s ongoing plight that would never truly go away, never entirely fade to nothing, likely never to fade at all, the pain always present, always profound, and considered Manny, the object of my desire, my love, my one and only, who perhaps is merely in the other room but has no voice to answer when I cry out his name, who may be under the bed, not within it, but cannot crawl out to reveal itself, laugh at a joke gone a little bit too far, unable to crawl at all, to laugh, to do anything except be present, willing, totally unresponsive.

Revved up with agitation, I ran to the door. I ran to my Jetta, revved up its engine, agitating the neighbors. I sped off down the road, amassing abusive remarks while neglecting stop signs, zooming through red lights without a care for being caught by the law, for risking a crash, the safety of other drivers. I sped onward, focused, nervous sweat streaming down my sides and despite all its opened windows the Jetta smelling like a delivery truck with a cargo of onions.

An hour outside of my outer-rim, suburban neighborhood, I reached a familiar stretch of wilderness, a vast acreage of thick, pine forest; a dark wood; a place I knew well; a place of ritual. I pulled off to the side of the road and drove my Jetta as far into the forest as I was confident that I’d be able to turn it around and depart the way I had come. I broke off what low-hanging branches I could, dark emerald curtains of pine, and threw them over the hood and windshield of my little car, a dark husk shrouded in green needles, a black beetle burrowing to blend in with the earth.

Then I looked around, made sure I was alone, scanned the horizon for unwanted company, someone who may have trailed me. All was silent within the wood, all was utterly still, until I filled the quiet, somber scene with my laughter, my wild amusement at the notion that others might be there with me. After all, I was in the middle of nowhere –my happy place. I knew I was alone. Well… unfollowed, anyhow, if not entirely alone. For I knew of others who waited. I knew of those who remained quiet, who never stirred, never made the attempt to leave, never so much as blinked, no matter what I did to them, those who I love and adore more than life itself.

Sure enough, a mile or perhaps a little deeper into the forest, beneath the locked, cellar doors veiled by the amber showers of shed pine needles, down a stairwell leading into the carved-out space of moist, black earth, a hollow vacancy in the dirt now illuminated by the penetrating sunlight spilling forth through the open doors, and after, sealed up once again, aglow with a battery-powered light which greedily fingers through the gloom, lighting up the faces I know so well, the faces I see in my daydreams, in my nightmares, portents in the contents of my Orange Dream Machine, the dreadful horror I see in everything, everywhere, the fruits of my labor, the consequences of my actions, deeds for which I am without a shred of doubt guilty of, never mind that innocent-until-proven nonsense. I know. And that is enough.

I scan the dark room with my light. I see my love. I see my Manny. He is right where he needs to be. Where he will always be. He is right beside her. My other love. Shoulder-to-shoulder, two human shapes, soundless in the dark. A mannequin lies beside the bones of Jenny Markakis.


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