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It’s Never Just a Mannequin

Please note: this story was provided by the author and published as is.

I guess I should start with a disclaimer. I’m a huge Crime Junkie. Both in the sense that I love true crime and in that I listen to the podcast Crime Junkie. Along with my best friend, Taylor, I’ve practically drowned my life in crime documentaries, shows like dateline and 48 hours, serial killers, missing person cases, you name it. So when I tell you I’ve quietly dreamed of finding a dead body that solves some 30 year old cold case, I hope it sounds less bizarre given my background.

Cool. Well now that that’s out of the way, I guess I should tell you the real reason I’m telling this story. Like I said, I listen to Crime Junkie a lot. And I mean a lot. Besides just listening to the regular weekly episodes, Taylor and I have binged all the fan club episodes, are proud owners of some CJ merch, and have adopted numerous Crime Junkie phrases into our day to day language. One motto they’ve repeated on numerous occasions is “It’s never just a mannequin”. It’s meant to say that when someone stumbles upon a dead body they usual mistake it for a mannequin at first before they realize it’s a human. However, given some recent events in my life… I’m wondering if there’s another meaning entirely…

So, I’m coming back from a summer camp, where I was a counselor for some middle school kids, and I’m driving home alone. To give it some perspective, this camp was about ~2 hours away from my hometown and to get there you have to take a hardly used interstate along with a couple back end roads. All the while you’re just completely surrounded by forest, hills, etc. 

Now, like I said, I was driving back home, alone. I hadn’t listened to the most recent Crime Junkie episode so you can probably guess what I had playing on my ride back. It was pretty early in the morning, say around 8:00, when all us counselors left the camp site and I was less than an hour into my drive home and nearly finished with the CJ ep when I caught something off the side of the road. I was going pretty fast so I didn’t have a clear look but it sort of- I don’t know, “shined” a little bit? And I say that because, a car bumper doesn’t really shine and while a wheel well might, this thing looked kind of peach

I told you before, I always had this fantasy about finding a body. And when you’re as invested in that idea as I am, you often find yourself actively looking for one. Do this long enough and at first glance, everything starts looking like a body. A trash bag floating down the river, some cardboard stuck in a bush, and peach colored thing off the side of the road that somewhat shines… 

I slowed the car down as my mind began running. Eventually, I stopped altogether and looked for a spot where I could easily make a U-turn. Driving back, I was frantically searching for… Whatever I saw. My eyes were glued to the ditch on the other lane. It’s a good thing this road barely had anyone on it. And then… I saw it.

It was definitely peach. I could tell that for sure. But I could see some other colors now too. It looked kind of bright pink? I found an area to pull over and put my hazard lights on. I carefully crossed the road where I got a clear view of my target. It was down the ditch and at the edge of the woods.

My heart skipped. 

The pink thing I saw was now looking more like a t-shirt. And wearing that t-shirt was a peach colored body. My adrenaline was rushing and what I’m sure was only a few seconds of me standing off the side of the road, felt like minutes, petrified. 

But that soon passed.

It took some time for my brain to register it, but… The “body” I was looking at didn’t quite look like a body. It was too rigid; limbs bent at weird angles. And just as I had seen driving by, it was kind of shiny. If anything it looked more like… a mannequin.

Silently, alarm bells were ringing through my brain. Because if my addiction to true crime has taught me anything, it’s that “it’s never just a mannequin”. But, as I approached closer, I could make out lines separating the joints. And though it was flat on it’s stomach, I could see no ears… It really was just a… mannequin… 

Once I was absolutely sure of what I was seeing, I turned the mannequin over on it’s side. This close, I saw that the mannequin had no facial features. Not that that’s surprising. What was surprising is that for the most part the mannequin looked almost brand new. Granted there were scuffs and dirt streaked all over, but the dim sunlight shining off the plastic told me this thing hadn’t been used much. 

It’s clothes, on the other hand, were ruined and torn; covered in tears and stained with mud. The whole outfit didn’t make sense either. On it’s torso was the pink shirt, which I saw had a Hello Kitty logo on the front. The only other clothing on it was some underwear, equally torn and covered in filth. An odd fashion statement to say the least. Especially for a mannequin that appeared to be modeled after a full grown woman. 

But… How did it get here? My first thought was someone ditched it. I’ve seen people drop off old furniture on the side of the road before, so maybe someone tossed this out? But what an odd place to get rid of a mannequin. Who would drive all the way out here if all they wanted to do was dump some trash?

My second thought was maybe it fell off a moving truck. That would explain all the scuffs and dirt. More to prove this theory, around the mannequin I found an exposed line of mud cutting through the grass. In my mind I figured the mannequin could have fallen off the truck, tumbled, and impacted in the dirt, here.

Well, now that the “mystery of the mannequin” was solved. No lie i had floods of nancy drew nostalgia wash over me but I was left wondering… “What do I do now?” 

Embarrassed that I had wasted this much time for some beat-up mannequin, I started back towards my car…

But then I got this idea…

And listen, I get it, hindsight is 2020 and knowing what I know now, this had to be the worst idea I’ve ever had… 

I picked up the mannequin beneath its arms and began carrying it back to my car. I know, “who the hell would take a dirty mannequin off the side of a road?!” But hear me out. Remember my best friend Taylor? She’s just as big of a Crime Junkie as I am and I got it in my mind that if I would turn around my car and check some ditch by the forest for a “dead body” (visible air quotes there), then how would she react if say a “dead body” showed up in her backyard?

Maybe it’s tasteless humor to some of you guys, but for me, I was grinning ear to ear, concocting my perfect plan. 

The mannequin was that kind of model with all the adjustable joints so it was easy to fold at the legs. Once I did, I stashed it safely in the trunk of my SUV. Picking up the thing I was surprised at how light it was. I guess I was just expecting something a little heavier. I got in my car, turned back around, and continued on my way home. 

When I got home, the first thing I did after taking in my bags was clean my secret treasure. I hauled the figure to the back where I had a hose & soap ready. I guess I’m lucky I live alone because explaining exactly how I came to find this mannequin and why I still have it wouldn’t make for any kind of conversation where I don’t come off as a lunatic. 

I began by removing the clothes that were on the mannequin. The underwear came off pretty easily but the shirt was difficult since the thing bent awkwardly. It wasn’t until after I took scissors to cut it off that I realized I probably could have just removed the arms. It must have been in that ditch for a while because the shirt was hard and dry with dark muddy stains. 

Now that it was bare, I hosed the figure off. It took some scrubbing in a few places but in no time I had it looking shiny and new. I took a towel to dry it off and once I was satisfied, I brought it inside to store in my basement. It would be a few days before I would see Taylor- the day I strategically planned to spring my trap.

My plan went like this: 

Taylor and I scheduled a get-together at her place. A kind of “welcome back” party after being away for so long watching over a bunch of middle school campers. We agreed on her place and at no time in particular. 

Well, on that day I sent her a text that I would be over around 5:00. At 4:30, I texted her I was on my way. Of course, at 4:30, I was already outside her house. I know Taylor, and she’s not one to wait by the door. If I had to guess, I would say she was on her phone in her living room waiting for me to send a message to her saying I was outside. And outside I was; hopping over her fence with a life size doll I dressed in some of my old clothes. 

Her backyard was pretty average, with a shallow-only pool and one circular pool-side table with a large red and white patio umbrella. I had already planned for where I was going to stash the, quotes, “body” before I got there. I knew that anywhere around the pool would be too obvious & no doubt she would see it in a second. And while I wanted her to find it, I didn’t want it to be so easy that it would quickly be recognized as a mannequin.

The bushes around her fence. They were the kind that lay low to the ground. And while not far or hidden from view, they provided just enough cover for the figure so that it couldn’t be found without a little effort. I carefully set my trap, stuffing the mannequin in, flat on it’s stomach

Once I was prepared, I casually texted Taylor and met her at her front door. 

We got caught up with each other’s drama and before moving on to our second round of drinks, I suggested that since the weather was so nice, we sit outside by the pool. I struggled to suppress my excitement when Taylor agreed. 

But when we went out to her backyard, I nearly panicked. The mannequins was sticking out way too much! I could have sworn I hid it more than that? But it’s upper body was more than a foot out of the bush. Luckily, Taylor hadn’t noticed and remained totally oblivious to my mistake.

Sitting at the pool-side table, I made sure we were positioned in such a way that Taylor would be able to see the mannequin hidden in the bush behind me. It took some mental manipulation to get her head up from her phone. I would show her a picture but hold my phone out in a way where, if I was lucky, she might just glance the thing hiding behind me. For a while I thought she might never notice at all, but in time I was able to innocently shift her sight onto the oddity behind me.

Man, I wish I had a camera to catch it all. Her eyebrows furrowed for a second. And in the next, they went completely wide.

She shot up from her chair screaming! She was already at her door before I even had a chance to stop her. I was barely able to breath, I was laughing so hard.

I ran after her and after some serious consolation, I was finally able to convince her to come back outside. When we got out I forced her to reenact her initial discovery of the mannequin. Although, Taylor didn’t share my same enthusiasm. Once she was finally filled in on the prank she was laughing with me.

“I thought it was a burglar!” She told me, catching her breath from all the laughing.

“You thought a burglar was hiding in your bush?” I replied.

“It was a weird angle, I thought it moved when you turned your head and- WHERE did you even get this!?”

I gave her the backstory. After a few more laughs and even more drinks, we decided we hadn’t had enough fun with the mannequin. We took group pictures, set it up in poses, and even christened her with a name; Jessica. When all was said and done, Jessica was fully indoctrinated into our little circle of friendship.

It was well past midnight when we decided to call it. We made it a joke to both carry “drunk Jessica” to the backseat of my car, where I carefully put on her seatbelt. I said my goodbyes to Taylor and left for home.

There was barely any traffic out this late and so I really felt alone with the mannequin. Even though it wasn’t a real person, the silence felt… weird. A few times I would turned to Jessica and make some short one-off comment; either about how she “stole my outfit” or something stupid like that. I don’t know.

I would blame the alcohol, but really, it was just a way for me to kill the silence. Though I was too tired for it, I tried putting on some music… But even then I couldn’t shake this anxious feeling… 

Every now and then I would look in the rear view mirror and glance at the mannequin’s expressionless face… unmoving…

I got home after what felt like hours. Quick to get out of the car, I promptly opened the door to the backseat and reached for the seat belt across Jessica’s frame…

When I did, I found that the buckle was already undone… 

I tried rationalizing it. “I probably was just drunk and missed it. I mean, it was dark so of course I missed it. And there were a few bumps, it could have just come loose…”

I looked at the mannequin; at the place where it’s eyes should be… “Jessica, don’t tell me you did this…” I was trying to play it off as a joke… “Did you?” 

… It said nothing… It did nothing… 

I firmly grasped it by the side and yanked it out of the car. Still leaving all of my clothes on it, I quickly took the mannequin down to my basement and locked the door at the top of the stairs… 

I don’t think I’ve ever locked the basement door…

I had one last drink before I went to bed…

The next week went by… pretty uneventful. I did my work at home (I’m a writer for a blog) and cleaned up around the house. I had finally undressed the mannequin and found a corner in the basement where I would store it. Maybe I would use for a Halloween party in the future.

A little after a week of nothing, my sister came to town to drop off my niece and nephew. She was going on a trip for her anniversary and I had agreed to watch the kids for a few days.

It had been almost 6 months since I’d seen them and I could tell they were just as excited to see me as I was them. Little 5 year old Annie came out of the car cheering “Auntie Nina!” as she jumped into my arms.

Nina isn’t my real name but was the nickname my sister had given me when we were little. Her kids picked on the habit and we never corrected them.

Zack, my 8 year old nephew, tried playing it off cool & mature with a handshake but I could tell he was just as happy to see his aunt. I forced him into a big hug and showed them inside. 

My sister and I chatted for a bit before she had to leave to catch her flight, leaving me alone with the kids. I had a mini itinerary planned for our week together, a trip to the zoo, a movie, you know. All the things to earn your cool aunt points from with kids. Of course, kids always find a way to throw a curveball into your plans.

I still had some work to do so I let the kids loose to pick out their rooms, unpack their bags, and basically play around the house for a bit. At this point I had completely even forgotten about the mannequin in my basement when Annie came up to me asking, “Nina can I play with your dollie?”

“My dollie? What dollie?”

“The big dollie you have downstairs.” 

I then realized what Annie was talking about. I didn’t see the harm in it at the time, in fact, I thought it was a great idea. A perfect distraction for a little kid. I could only imagine being her age and how cool it would have been to have a life sized toy like that.

“Oh you mean Jessica! That’s her name you know?” 

I could tell Annie was excited, “Yes! can I play with Jessica?”

I said “Sure! Let’s go bring her upstairs!”

We went into the basement and found Jessica where I hid her a week prior. Her shiny body stood in contrast to the pile of boxes and shelves laid with dust. Annie was jumping with glee as I carefully lifted her up the stairs.

At the top of the stairs, Zack saw the mannequin in my arms and seemed genuinely interested in playing with it too. And so I let the kids loose, to play with Jessica and their imagination. And for the most part they seemed to really enjoy themselves!

Zach lost interest after a bit but Annie was still having the time of her life, playing tea-party on the floor with Jessica. 

It wasn’t long before I finished my work and I told the kids we were going out to eat. I reassured Annie saying that once we got back, she could play more with Jessica. Not wanting to leave a mannequin just laying around my house, I told Annie that we had to make sure we put our toys away when we were done playing with them. So we put Jessica in the basement for now.

We weren’t out for long. The whole time Annie was just anxious to get back home and play with her new toy. 

That night she asked if Jessica could sleep in her room…

I- I don’t know why, but the memory of seatbelt around the mannequin came into my head… 

I told Annie no… and I locked the mannequin in the basement for the night… This was the second time I ever locked the basement…

I thank God I did…

That night, I woke up to a noise- I wasn’t sure what time it was. The sound was soft- but also loud… At first I thought it was Zack or Annie but it clearly wasn’t coming from their rooms…

I followed it… I went down the hallway and down the stairs to the first floor. It was louder, but I still couldn’t make out what I was hearing… it sounded almost human… but… only almost

I listened close… It was coming from…

The basement…

Slowly… Nervously… I pressed an ear against the door. And listened…

What I heard… sounded like… muffled screams

Like someone had a rag stuffed in their mouth and was trying to yell! Or like their lips were sewn shut or- or sealed just like…

Just like a mannequin’s…

I reached for the handle- I don’t know why! I was terrified- confused! Part of me didn’t believe what I was hearing but as soon as I turned the handle…

Nothing…

Everything was silent… the tick of the kitchen clock, the only sound to echo in the room…

With a creek, I opened the basement door and using the flashlight on my phone, slowly descended the stairs… I only needed to go a few steps to peak down and see, across the room, the still, plastic figure… frozen in the corner I had left it…

I couldn’t sleep much that night. 

That morning I got up before the kids and searched the basement for any signs of a wild animal. I’m not saying I thought a wild animal made those noises. Hell, I’m still not sure what I heard. But… it’s what made the most sense right? I did find some droppings next to a mousehole but…. nothing else…

When the kids were up for breakfast, I told them that they would have to stay out of the basement … And even though it cost me a lot of “cool aunt points”… I also told Annie that she couldn’t play with Jessica anymore. 

Teary-eyed Annie begged and cried and cried and cried. And eventually, I just got fed up with it- so to get her to stop I made up a lie about my friend Taylor needing to borrow Jessica for a few days. I then quickly filled her head with promises of all the other cool things we would get to do and after 15 minutes of crying and one headache later, I finally got her to calm down.

We were suppose to go to the park later. But first I had to get groceries. And while I was out, I was also going to buy a few mouse traps. I didn’t think it would be an issue to leave the kids back at the house. I wouldn’t be gone for long anyways. 

I got back after less than an hour. When I did, I could hear Zack and Annie playing upstairs. I put away the groceries and went down to the basement to set the traps. I only made it halfway down the stairs when I immediately saw it.

Jessica had been moved. 

She was not standing tucked away in her corner. No, she was across the room, underneath the windowsill that hung high above Jessica’s outstretched arms. 

At first, I was startled but I quickly became furious. My only thought was that Annie had disobeyed me; That, while I was gone, she snuck into the basement and had played with Jessica.

I yelled for the kids as I was stomping up the stairs. I know it seems like a pretty harmless thing to get upset about, and you’re probably right, but I mean with all the crazy shit I had to deal with and two kids on top of that. And I only gave them one rule! I leave them alone for an hour and they’ve already broken it! I called out for Zack and Annie again as I reached the top.

Zack came down the stairs first and then Annie shortly after. 

“Annie?! Did you play with Jessica when I told you not to?!”

I must have been pretty loud because Annie looked terrified of me. I could also see confusion on her face. But I wasn’t buying it.

“Well? Did you disobey me and go into the basement and play with the mannequin?”

She shook her head and spoke through a soft cry, “No no. You said Jessica wasn’t here. That’s what you said.” 

She was fully crying now. Exhausted, I turned to Zack.

“Did you do it Zack? Did you go in the basement after I told you you couldn’t?”

“No! I didn’t!”

“Then how did Jessica wind up across the room, huh? One of you two had to have done it while I was gone!”

Zack denied all of it and Annie just cried. I wasn’t going to play these games all day so I put my foot down. I told them since neither of them would fess up neither would get to go to the park. 

Let me tell you. I don’t envy my sister. One kid on a tantrum is enough to send you insane but two… Well, that’s where I was now.

No, we didn’t go to the park that day. Woohoo for me, more cool aunt points lost. And no… Neither Zack or Annie ever confessed to moving Jessica…

Nothing happened that night. No sound or anything… The next day I was feeling pretty guilty about not taking the kids to the park. I mean they’re just kids after all. It’s not like what they did was even that serious. More than anything, I didn’t want to waste the little time we had together punishing them. 

So that day we had a big outing. We did all the cool stuff I them promised and more. The park, arcade, pizza, the whole deal. By the time we got home the kids were all smiles & everything was back to normal… well, almost normal.

I hadn’t even stepped inside the house when I noticed… a smell.

At first I thought maybe it was a skunk. I just stood there, dumbfounded. “How in the hell did a skunk get in the house?” But then my mind immediately went to… the basement. I entered, inside, to a foul odor… 

This definitely was not a skunk. If anything it smelt like road kill; rotten meat that’s been left out for days. I unlocked and opened the basement door, a wave of revulsion spilling over me. There’s no way something living could make this smell! Did the traps kill a mouse? But it reeked of rancid decay and the stink was so pungent I couldn’t imagine anything smaller than a cat collecting such a stench.

I was about to go grab kitchen gloves in preparation for removing whatever horrible thing was stinking up the house when… I heard something…

It sounded like… scratching… and it was coming from the basement… 

Ignoring the gloves… I decided to investigate… The kids were behind me, they both were clenching their nose because of the smell and I told them to go up to their rooms. I told them that there was an animal downstairs and I didn’t want them getting hurt… They must have known I was lying because I could see the fear reflected in their eyes… My fear…

They obeyed and ran upstairs… As I descended down the dimly lit steps. With each step, the smell grew stronger and the scratching louder. And louder. And LOUDER.

As I came halfway down, the whole basement came into view.

There, beneath the windowsill… and beneath the hundreds of claw marks cut into the concrete wall, stood the mannequin… arms stretched above its head and into the stone…

If not for my frantic shaking, I would have been just as paralyzed as the plastic figure. Building up the courage, I continued the final steps down the stairs, never once taking my eyes off the mannequin, not even to blink. I remained fixated. At the bottom, I carefully crept closer. 

I suddenly gagged and my eyes welled up with tears as I was now overcome by the horrific stench that poured from the mannequin. My focus completely abandoned I now noticed the chalky, concrete dust that layered the mannequin’s hands. The feral slashings on the wall, at the perfect height to meet them. 

I’d like to say I’m willing to try reason in place of paranormal absurdities but THIS? THIS was too far. There’s no way someone else did this! The house was locked and I KNOW what I just heard! I KNOW what I’m now smelling! God, this AWFUL SMELL!

I found a trash bag. One of those really large ones you use for leaves and crap and I- I threw the mannequin inside. I had to fold it at its joints and. -ahk- what the FUCK. It’s never been this hard to bend before!? but I finally get it inside. I double bag and tripple bad the thing to be sure. I heave the bag up the stairs but I swear, it’s never been so DAMN HEAVY!

I throw it in the trunk. No WAY am I having this thing ANYWHERE near my house! I ran inside and up to the kids room. I let them know that I have to get rid of the dead animal and that I’ll be right back. 

Back in the car, I don’t even hesitate before I turn the ignition and drive away. I wasn’t even sure where I was going but all I knew was that it needed to be AS FAR AWAY from me as possible. I couldn’t just drop it off at the dump site. There’s usually someone on shift and I don’t want to stop- I can’t stop to explain this shit to someone. Right now I need this thing GONE. 

While I’m driving in this mad craze, something catches my eye in the rear view mirror. Something… moving. And then I hear what sounds like a trash bag… the trash bag. My eyes are wide with terror as I witness the bag bend and pulse behind me. 

There’s only one place far enough away.

One place where no one ever goes.

I make a sharp turn and floor the gas, heading the same direction as I would for Summer Camp.

The whole way I can see the bag rising and falling and as we get closer to our destination the convulsions grow more aggressive. I’m almost 5 minutes away and the rolling has turned to violent struggling when I start hearing screams! Muffled screams that cry out and become so intense that I can’t even hear the running engine of the car or even the radio I have on full blast just to drown out THE DAMN NOISE! 

We’re there. It’s dark, so I can’t see where we are exactly but I know it’s close enough. I quickly pull the car off to one side of the highway and scramble out the door. Leaving the engine still going, I rush to the trunk. The banging and cries force me to pause for a single moment before I throw the trunk open and grapple the trash bag.

I feel parts shifting and squirming as I haul the thing down to the ditch where I found it. I go a few feet into the tree line before I toss the thing into the darkness. I’m standing over the bag and turn to run back to the car when I fall face into the dirt. Under layers of plastic bags something grabs a hold of my ankle. 

I audibly scream and frantically kick at the thing stuck on me! My hands wildly search hold for something, ANYTHING until I find what feels like a large rock. Struggling and with both hands I lift the rock over my head and bring it crashing down on the bag. 

I hear it scream and it’s grip loosens a bit. I hit it again and again. Even after it’s let go of my leg I still hit it. Bringing the hard heavy rock to crush whatever thing writhed inside the trash bag. 

At exhaustion I dropped the stone and breathed in heavy gasps. From the bag I saw no movement but heard, under muffled tones, a pathetic, wet choking.

I stumbled back to the car and drove away without a second glance.

– – – PAUSE – – –

Three weeks had passed since that day… My sister got back from her vacation only a few days after that night and took the kids back home… I never told her what happened… I never told anyone what happened. But after the kids were gone and I could rest easy knowing they were far away from here

I was restless for a week, waiting for something to happen. Listening for a scream. Looking out my window for a half mangled, plastic-human to come shambling back to my house. But… nothing did happen. I considered driving back to that spot- the place I- where I left it… But I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

And now, I know I never will.

Yesterday, I was watching the news when they were covering a police press conference. It was supposed to be a break in some cold case from 17 years ago… The police said they had connected numerous disappearances to this same case and recently they received an anonymous tip as to the location of this killer’s “dumping grounds”.

However, when local law enforcement followed this lead what they found instead was that the killer had sadistically arranged piles of mannequins… dressed in the victims’ last known clothing. Because of this, the news media has come up with the name “mannequin killer”.

The news feed ended noting a report made by the police that, while several victims have been connected to the case by their clothing found in this “mannequin grave” there was no match to a recent girl who went missing just three months prior. As a courtesy to the family and police the news feed showed a newer picture of the missing girl.

She looked young. Younger than 15… She was blonde, white, and had beautiful green eyes. And on her vibrant, pink shirt, was a familiar Hello Kitty logo…

When I looked back on how I found the mannequin; Traveling on that abandoned interstate outside the forest surrounding the “mannequin killer’s” dumping ground… I would think about how odd those dirt marks looked… How it didn’t quite make sense that a mannequin could fall off a truck and leave a trail in the mud, away from the road…

But now I know. It didn’t fall of any truck. Those marks were made by the mannequin… As it crawled out of the forest..