KR OnlineFiction

The Guinea Pig and the Window Dresser

For the past six years, Travis Yang has been part of drug trials in every major city in the Northeast, plus a bunch of smaller towns. He’s taken fat-regulating hormones in Brooklyn, drunk experimental sports drinks in a clinic in Poughkeepsie, and once in a hospital in Brunswick he had to drive through a series of traffic cones in the car park while high on GHB.

This time they’ve set him up for a Phase-1 at the George Clinic in Trenton for a month, some targeted enzyme inhibitor. He has to take two ten-day courses of the experimental drug Hemaprax intravenously over four weeks. Hemaprax is derived from blood products, so it’s not without its risks, but that’s why this trial pays the big dollars.

At the clinic Travis meets Barkley, who told him about this gig. Travis last saw him at that numbing cream trial in Schenectady, and they soon get to talking, dragging their IV stands behind them like old men. The clinic has set up a rec room with some board games, a couple of ID-tagged iPads, a beat-up old piano, and a limited library with an inordinate number of James Patterson novels. They begin a game of backgammon, one of their favorites.

“How nice is this?” Travis says, arms out.

“Same shit,” Barkley replies. “But nicer rooms, I’ll give ’em that.”

Barkley’s been a guinea pig on and off for over twenty years. Things were different in his day, when it was just underfunded university studies for him and a bunch of exploited immigrants and desperate ex-cons. Now that Big Pharma is involved, the places have hot showers, clean sheets, larger rooms. The two of them reminisce about the regulars: CJ, Kernaghan, Simon.

“Have you seen Eric?” Travis asks.

“He was in that BGN trial,” says Barkley. He does not need to say any more.

Eric was a brain tramp. Barkley had told him early on never to do two things, no matter how much money they offered: neurological drugs and immunosuppressants. They were too dangerous. Barkley had learned that the hard way, he said.

Travis had taken his advice, but there are still some trials he regrets. Once when he was desperate, he let them take a muscle biopsy, a nickel-sized chunk of tissue from his leg. There is still a small dent in that leg, a smooth, melon-ball divot in his flesh. There were always some dangers.

• •

By the time Travis is done, it is dusk. He has filled out his questionnaires and had both his blood draws. He has nothing else to do, so he gets a pass-out from the charge nurse and heads outside to walk around the neighborhood. It is something he enjoys much more, now. Back when he had regular work, he was always too busy. But now he’s forced to washout for a month between each trial to clean his system. Now he has more time.

Trenton is a contradiction, a quiet town with busy people, and the gentle rhythms of the city are a comfort to him. The wind rushes down the valleys of streets carrying the smell of car fumes and dreams. He passes the red brick office of a Vietnamese accountant, then a gourmet hot dog store fronted by a teenager dressed up in a giant hot dog costume, replete with white gloves and a mustard hat. A clothing store called Nino is closed, but the lights are on anyway.

Travis is drawn to its blue-framed window display. In the left corner, what he can only call an explosion of clothes is occurring. Steel cables emerge from a steamer trunk in the corner, the metal lines strung with blouses, skirts, a pea coat. They are pinned so that they seem to be moving, shot from the box. Two mannequins are positioned in their way. One is situated on the floor, as though it’s unconscious, a rumpled green business skirt draped outwards on the hard plastic body. Travis has never seen a shop arrangement like this. It is as though someone has taken a murder mystery scene and frozen it in the window.

The second mannequin faces the full brunt of the wardrobe cone, her arms raised to fend off the onslaught of garments. She has on too many layers of clothes, one on top of the other. The initial, bottommost layer seems to match, but the subsequent layers are a hodgepodge of colors and styles: a purple cloak with an olive jacket, an earring hanging precariously from a buttonhole. The figure is defensive, perhaps afraid. A turquoise scarf that might or might not have been part of the original ensemble peeks out from underneath the pile.

As Travis watches, one of the metal lines starts to sag. A flurry of colors droops, then jumps and falls to the floor in a heap beside the first body. Travis steps back, surprised. He sees the hand that has unsnapped a cable: long, delicate fingers capped by black nail polish. Trailing back from the hand is an arm with a floral tattoo sleeve; then a faded, retro Style Council T-shirt; and finally the dark, painted eyelids of the window dresser.

Travis watches her unclip the rest of the cables and unpin the clothes, tossing them out behind her. She moves, revealing a large box of props and clothes. Travis finds himself wondering what new scene this window dresser will create. Perhaps a coconut tree made of skirts and pants, or a school of underwater shoes traversing the ocean floor.

He feels it coming, then, a tingle in his occipital lobe, and he blinks. The next thing he knows, the window dresser’s face is in front of his, separated only by a shining pane of glass. He has lost time again—probably only a few seconds, maybe longer. It is one of the things that happens to him now, after the incident, one of the things he neglects to mention to the doctors when he signs up for clinical trials. Oh, by the way, I was struck by lightning, and now I get these micro-seizures.

Her face is still before him. How long has he been staring? How long has she been staring? Unsure what else to do, he smiles. She waves at him, a wristy fan of her fingers. Trying to recover, he attempts to indicate, through gestures, how he feels about her work. He mimes: an arced arm swipe, a finger point, a thumbs-up. For all he knows, he’s communicated gibberish. But something must have worked, because she moves forward and addresses him through the glass.

“I’m Anna,” she says.

Her head is thrust forward, so the pink cherry blossoms tattooed across her collarbones ripple and rise up. The look on her face is anxious; she is either worried for him or afraid of him. His right hand rotates in an apologetic wave, and he scampers away from his embarrassment.

• •

Travis and Barkley are seated in curved plastic chairs, getting their treatment. Barkley turns and asks Travis if he’s been having strange dreams.

“No. You?”

“It’s probably nothing,” he says.

They’re both experienced enough to keep an eye out for strange and unexpected reactions. Travis remembers the micro-seizure, but that was not because of the medication. He gets them regularly but sporadically, more when he’s nervous. It’s why he’s not allowed to drive a car.

“Any other symptoms?” Travis says.

“Maybe. I’ve been using the bathroom a lot.”

“Number one or two?”

“Three,” Barkley says, smiling. “Say, you interested in a game of Texas Hold ’Em later? Some of the boys here think they can play.”

“Nah,” Travis says. He is thinking of a burst of clothes and a cherry blossom tattoo.

After his guinea pigging is done, he returns to Nino. It is mid-afternoon and the shop is open this time, but the window display is new. Now there are three mannequins. The left mannequin is seated in a white chair, elbow crooked, thoughtful. The second figure is standing but bent slightly at the waist, the chair she just left perched behind her. The third is posed standing proudly, her chair pushed backwards and toppled on its side.

Each of the figures is clothed differently, except for one thing: the turquoise scarf from the previous day’s display. On the first mannequin it is positioned normally, looped once around her neck. In the second it is draped across her outstretched hand. In the final arrangement, it appears to be shot out of her palm, stuck in mid-motion in the air. When Travis looks closely, he sees the mannequin’s hand is the locus of half a dozen fine wires that attach to the walls. The scarf is pinned to the wires like an organism, a fabric jellyfish.

That’s when Travis understands. The first window display with an exploding trunk of clothes. The second display, a three-panel comic strip. Travis pieces them together: he is seeing a superhero origin story. There was a blast of clothes, a radioactive spill or laboratory accident. Somebody died, probably a sibling or parent, because every origin story needs tragedy. And somebody else got powers. In the three mannequins in front of him, the heroine is learning to use her abilities. Clothes are her power: she shoots them from her hands, or controls them with her mind, or talks to them. Something like that, anyway. He is certain of it.

Travis laughs out loud when he gets it. He enters the shop, but the window dresser is not there. The woman behind the counter is older, with a splash of blond fringe on her forehead.

“Your display,” he says. “It’s really good.”

“Isn’t it, though? I wish I could take credit, but that’s not my work. My niece does the window.”

“How often does it change?”

“She’s on her own schedule, that one. You’d think she’d listen to me, but no. Sometimes, when we have a sale or something, she’ll make her deadline, but otherwise it’s just when she feels like it. This one’s not finished, though. She’s still got to put up the signage.”

Travis thanks her, but on his way out he spots a burst of turquoise, the same scarf that hangs up in the window. It’s softer than he thinks, and when he checks the tag he realizes why. It’s cashmere. It’s expensive, and he’s never been one for scarves, certainly not cashmere.

He buys it anyway.

It looks good on him, if a little fancy and out of place on his worn white T-shirt. Barkley will make fun of him. It’s not turquoise, he tells himself as he puts it on. It’s just a blue scarf. You can pull off a blue scarf.

• •

Travis comes back in the evening, after his next vial of blood has been drawn. The shop is closed, but he sees Anna in the window lugging a sign that reads “20% off second purchase, 50% off third.” He is wearing the scarf, two ends dangling loosely in the front, like the mannequin. It looks better on the mannequin.

He remembers his first meeting with the window dresser. He steels himself and approaches. She stops working when she sees him.

“I’m Travis,” he says. He shouts the words through the glass.

“Nice scarf,” she says.

“It’s an origin story,” he says, pointing to the mannequins in the window. He is just beginning to feel self-conscious about talking through a sheet of glass when she waves him to the door. But she does not invite him in; instead she steps out.

“I hope other people get it,” she says. Her eyes crinkle at the corners as she smiles with satisfaction.

“I’ve never seen anything like it.”

She looks as though she wants to say something. Travis can imagine what she is thinking; he can almost see the wheels turning. She wants to know why he zoned out the night before.

“I like your tattoos,” he says.

“I like yours too,” she says. She is referring to the marks peeking out from his T-shirt, a souvenir left behind from the lightning.

“Thank you.”

“Can I see it?”

Travis jerks, an involuntary twitch. Slowly he reaches his fingers around the neck of his T-shirt and peels back the opening. The skin from his neck to his right shoulder is marked by a series of interconnected lines, like the leaves of a fern branching across his body. The pattern begins as faint striations of white that become increasingly dark toward the shoulder and then lighten again toward the elbow until it blends into the color of his skin.

“It’s so different,” she says. Her own tattoo sleeve is intricate, a complex illustration of flowers and stems. His markings are more stark, but equally delicate.

“It’s not a tattoo—not all of it, anyway. It’s called a lightning flower.”

“Why?”

“See this part here, where it fades into white? That’s not a tattoo, that’s a scar. The whole thing’s a scar, actually. I just had the rest inked on.”

“A scar,” she says, her lips pressed together into a thin line as she runs through the things that might leave a scar so fine and elaborate. “You were hit by lightning?”

Travis nods. The rain had been light but persistent all day, a constant drizzle. He was getting ready for a gig when his phone rang, a violinist from his chamber group. She cancelled on him, again, and he walked outside so his roommates wouldn’t hear him yell at her. The rain struck his face, but he was so annoyed he didn’t care. Suddenly there was a flash of blue and a roaring in his ears. He remembers the soft patter of rain as he lay on the sidewalk, a pulsing heat on his right side, the smell of something cooking.

“Two years ago,” he says. “That’s why sometimes I . . . ” He makes a face, his zoned-out face. “Like last night.”

“Ah,” she says. “Come inside. We can talk while I set up.”

“Can I help?” he says.

“What if you . . . ” She makes her own zoned-out face.

“It’ll be fine. Just don’t give me anything heavy. Or fragile.”

“Can do,” she says.

• •

The next evening, Travis and Anna have dinner. They meet at the shop, and Anna says she knows a good place within walking distance.

“Is it far?” he says.

Anna smiles and starts walking, and he follows behind. She walks two doors down and stops, and Travis sees what she means by walking distance. The fast food joint is called Diggity Dog. The teenager in a hot dog suit ignores them.

Great dogs here,” Anna says.

Travis orders a Non-Dog (beef mince, tomato sauce, cheese, onions), and she gets a Haute Dog (organic pork, gouda, Swiss mushrooms, and a drizzle of truffle oil). He picks at his food. When she asks him whether he likes it, he says the Non-Dog is good, but he’s lost his appetite from the drugs. When she asks, he doesn’t lie. He tells her about the drug trial, his life as a guinea pig, Barkley and the other long-timers.

Anna is equally candid. She tells him she dropped out of an industrial design course after a year and worked in a variety of jobs: a seamstress for a theater company, a waitress at a lesbian café. She still works part-time stacking cans and mixing paint samples at the local hardware store, since window dressing gigs are infrequent. She lives with her aunt now, she says, her mouth curling into a tidal wave. He doesn’t know what the expression means. Perhaps it means there’s more to her story, but Travis doesn’t like it when people prod him about his own history, so he leaves it alone.

“See that hot dog kid out there?” she says. “I used to do something like that, too. Except I was a giant phone. My costume even made ringing noises.”

“That doesn’t sound so bad.”

“Except for the soul-destroying part, it wasn’t,” she says. He doesn’t know if she’s kidding. “What did you do before the—” She makes the sound of an electric shock, accompanied by her convulsing body.
“I played the piano.”

“Are you any good?”

“Not anymore,” he says.

After the lightning, Travis couldn’t make his fingers move the way they needed to. No more trills and arpeggios, no flourishes of theatricality. He found it difficult to concentrate for more than a few minutes at a time. Even when he knew the music in his head, his body wouldn’t implement the movements. He stopped performing and tried to work as an accompanist, but he soon found he couldn’t even do that.

“What kind of things did you play?”

“Classical. Chamber music stuff. Nothing cool, but I liked it.”

“And now you roam the country in search of adventure.”

“Like the hobos, only better paid,” he says. “Thanks for not asking me what I’m going to do. You know, after.”

“No problem,” she says. “ So, what are you going to do after?” Anna grins and wipes the remains of her Haute Dog from her mouth. “Sometimes people ask me what I’m going to do after.”

“No plans to go back to school?”

“Nah. It wasn’t for me. I’m a window dresser now.”

Travis screws up one of her food wrappers into a ball and tosses it onto the food tray. “I have no idea what I’m going to do after.”

“Does there have to be an after?”

Travis recalls the long-term guinea pig crowd. CJ has had kidney troubles on and off and has had to resort to signing up for trials using false IDs. Whenever Travis runs into him, he’s always careful to find out what name he is going by that day. Simon has three kids in three different towns from women he’s constantly trying to avoid.

“What about you?” Travis says.

“I’m not one for plans. I haven’t thought any further than the next few windows.”

“How many more are there?”

“I’ve got three more in my head.”

“So what happens next?”

“We could go back to my place.”

“Ah. I meant in the window scenes.”

“Oops,” she says. “Well, you know. It’s an origin story. So there’s an arch-nemesis, a battle, a sacrifice.”

“I’d like to,” Travis says. “It’s just—”

“You don’t have to say anything. It’s cool.”

“It’s not that. I’m only in town until the end of the trial. Three more weeks.”

Anna shrugs a tattooed shoulder, a single white lily rising up. “Yeah, I know. You told me that already.”

“Well. Yes, then.”

• •

Three weeks into the drug trial, Travis notices Barkley talking to one of the nurses. He thinks nothing of it until Barkley returns with an Adverse Effects form.

“What’s going on?” Travis says. Barkley waves him closer.

“I overheard one of the doctors talking. He said ‘Alzheimer’s’.”

“Wait, what? It treats it or causes it?” Travis’s first instinct is that his luck has run out, again. First the lightning strike, now this.

“Treats it.”

Travis sighs with relief. “So what’s the big deal then?”

“So something like this is big money. And the more money there is, the more people like you and me get fucked over.”

Travis indicates the paperwork in Barkley’s hand. “Are you OK?”

“I’m feeling, I don’t know, fuzzy.”

It’s a generic response, and it makes Travis even more worried. To be a good guinea pig you only filled out an AER when it was necessary, and then you used clear, detailed language. “Fuzzy” isn’t a word a pro like Barkley would normally use.

Travis wanders around the other patients and prods them gently for information. He finds two with similar symptoms. He starts watching the nurses because they’re easier to read than the doctors.

To the doctors, Travis is more abstract than real. He’s a data point, a mannequin in his own window display. Their stolid faces never reveal much. The nurses are the reverse. They don’t care about the data, just the people. If you watch them closely enough, their attention will linger on one symptom, one patient. And this time, although they try to hide it, their attention is on Barkley.

“Aren’t you seeing Anna tonight?” Barkley says.

“I can see her tomorrow.”

“Go see her today.”

“What about you?”

“I’m fine.”

“You’re not fine.”

“I’m surrounded by doctors and nurses. What are you going to do that they won’t?”

Travis has no answer.

“I appreciate the offer,” Barkley says, “but I knew the risks of this job when I took it. So did you.”

“It’s not really a job, though, is it?”

“Of course it’s a job. They’re paying us, aren’t they?”

It’s never been a job to Travis. Being a guinea pig was the only thing he could do. A job is something else. A job is options.

Travis blinks, and suddenly things have changed. Barkley has moved to the left, and his arm position has shifted.

“Be cool,” Barkley says. “They’re watching.”

“How long?”

“Just a few seconds.”

“Thanks, Barks.”

“No problem. Now go see her.” Barkley’s thumb flicks toward the door. His thin lips are dry and cracked, but they smooth out when he smiles.

• •

Anna stays with her aunt, but their two styles are opposites. Her aunt’s house is clean and matronly, with matching pelmets and glass knickknacks from the 1950s. Anna’s bedroom is a collision of cultures. It has a line of origami cranes flying across the walls; a swathe of dark material pinned to the ceiling, arcing down like an Arabian canopy; a poster of Catwoman (Darwyn Cooke’s Catwoman, she says, the distinction seemingly important) stuck to the back of the door. The one cliché she allows herself is the joint after sex. Travis doesn’t want the marijuana to show up in his bloodwork, so he doesn’t indulge. Anna touches his lightning flower, traces the lines down his shoulder.

“This is your only tattoo.”

He nods.

“What made you choose this?”

“That lightning ruined my life. I thought it might be transformative.”

“And was it?”

“Not really, no.”

Travis remembers a blue light and an acrid smell. Then the first few months of recovery, which he thought was the hard part, only it wasn’t. The hard part came next: piano pieces he could no longer play; chamber groups that no longer wanted him; the growing, inevitable feeling of uselessness. Whatever he used to be, he certainly wasn’t anymore.

Travis gets up from the bed and wanders around the room. He fiddles with some titles on her bookshelf: some DIY stuff, a couple of cookbooks, a tattered copy of Moby Dick. He notices a box on the floor with several lengths of steel chain, some transparent plastic rods, and something else.

“Handcuffs?” he says.

“Relax. They’re for my escape scene. I was going to use the rods instead of fishing wire, but I think it’ll just look like Holly’s being impaled on invisible spikes.”

Holly is the name of Anna’s superhero mannequin. It is one of several things Travis has learned about Anna, along with other things: her aversion to celery; an inability to parallel park; and dimples that appear when she smiles, but not in the usual place. Her dimples emerge from under her eyes, not by the corners of her mouth.

“What if . . . ”

“What if what?”

“Forget it. I’m no expert.”

“You have an idea.”

“What if you used colored twine? I don’t even know if they make that, but if you string up the chains using something colored, it might look as though she’s escaping using her powers.”

Anna pauses, her mouth wrinkling into a question mark. “I could spray paint the fishing wire with fluorescent paint. And hide the attachments under Holly’s clothes.”

Anna seems genuinely excited, and he is more pleased than he expected. It has been a long time since he has been involved with anything creative.

“The sale ends this Sunday,” he says.

“The same day as your drug trial.”

“Yeah.”

“Do you have another one lined up?”

“Yes,” he says.

“You could miss it.”

He knows what she is asking. But he cannot stay. There is nothing for him here: no work, no house, no friends. “I can’t,” he says.

“So that’s it?”

“I’ve got to get back to work.”

“It’s not like it’s a real job.” Hearing his thoughts in her voice is strange, as though he’s berating himself.

“It’s all I know how to do.”

“You’re not doing anything. You’re having something done to you.”

“I used to play piano. Now I do this.”

“Well. That’s sad, then.”

“I could stay until Wednesday, maybe.”

“Don’t do me any favors.”

“It is a job,” he says, but he doesn’t even convince himself.

“You should go,” Anna says.

She surprises him by reaching over to hold him, her tattoos touching his. He can smell the lingering scents of lavender and marijuana. When she releases him, she pushes him away forcefully, and he knows it is over.

• •

Travis dreams of flying scarves and colored stockings, polka dot socks passing over a field of daisies. The dreams are so real he is disappointed when he wakes. He rolls over and checks his phone. Anna hasn’t called. It’s better this way, he tells himself. His life is not designed to stay in one place.

He gets up to ask Barkley if he has had crazy, vivid dreams as well. But Barkley’s bed is empty. Travis checks the rest of the ward. Two other patients are gone. Travis finds the on-duty doctor.

“They’ve been moved,” she says.

“Moved where?”

“A secondary site,” she says, replacing a patient’s chart.

“Where?” he repeats, but already she is walking away.

He calls Barkley’s phone, but there is no answer. At the next shift change, when his favorite nurse comes on duty, a bald man with large hands, Travis enquires again. The nurse checks his records.

“They sent him to St. Francis,” he says.

“Why?”

“His temperature spiked.”

“And the other two?” He types into the computer.

“Them, too.”

“Is Barkley OK?”

“He’s getting the best medical care.”

“Stop saying that,” Travis says. “You guys say that all the time. It means nothing.”

He walks away and calls Barkley, but again there is no answer. He calls the hospital instead, and the receptionist tells him Barkley was there, but he just left. She won’t give him any more information about his condition or his whereabouts. Travis is getting ready to go to the hospital himself to search for him when his phone rings.

“Hey,” Barkley says.

“Jesus, Barks. You OK?”

“Those fuckers won’t diagnose me.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I still don’t know. They won’t pay for any more tests.”

“But we signed a contract.”

“My fever dropped, and my panels came back negative. They said I’m fine. But I know my body. Something is wrong.”

“What do the doctors say?”

“They keep talking about my medical history. The guinea pig stuff.”

The edges of the phone dig into Travis’s hand. “They’re trying to blame you for this.”

“My bloodwork is clear. They said anything else isn’t their fault,” Barkley says.

“They can’t prove that it’s not.”

“I can’t prove that it is. They’re not going to pay for anything else.”

“Where are you? I’ll come to you.”

“My train’s leaving soon.”

“Maybe you should go back to the hospital.”

“Nah, Trav, I’m done. I’m going home.” Barkley sounds tired. A sense of helplessness accompanies his silence through the phone. “See you at the next stop.”

“You’re not going on, are you? After what they’ve done to you?”

“What else am I going to do?” Barkley says. “It’s the silver lining, buddy. They can’t keep me out. Their own paperwork confirms there’s nothing wrong with me.”

Travis understands now that Barkley will never quit, as long as he is able. He will see Barkley again, when they test the next pill or cream or injection. He wonders what it will take to make Barkley leave the circuit, or if anything even can.

• •

Travis returns to the George Clinic for his final assessments. A man hands him his forms and smiles at him as though nothing is wrong. To him, nothing is. On the questionnaire Travis writes, This drug has done something to my friend and you don’t care, and hands it back. The man does not even glance at his response, just files it with the stack of papers in front of him.

Travis’s last interview is with a female doctor, her short dark fringe sitting high on her forehead. He does not answer her questions. Instead he tells the doctor about Barkley.

She says, “There’s nothing I can do.”

“My friend is sick and you won’t treat him.”

“I’m sure that’s not true.”

Travis scoffs. “For God’s sake,” he says. “At least own it.”

He gets up and leaves. The doctor does not try to stop him, but he sees her make a notation in his file.

Travis walks into the rec room and sees the old upright piano against the wall. Its wood is warped and yellowed with age. He sits down and rests his hands on the keys. It has been years, but he still receives a measure of comfort from the gentle pressure underneath his fingertips.

He starts to play. His movements are hesitant at first, and the untuned piano begins an ungainly melody. But eventually the notes come smoothly, one after another. He plays the Shostakovich piece he had once practiced every day for seven months. The music is off-pitch, but he doesn’t care. The song is playful and lively, unlike the composer’s other works. It is the reason why Travis chose it years ago.

Travis allows himself to fall into the music. He makes some mistakes but doesn’t stop because for a time he is his old self again. His hands follow each other, striking in similar patterns before dancing away. He reaches for the deep bass notes, his fingers fluttering to his left. As he approaches the difficult section, he hunkers his shoulders down over the keyboard in preparation. He needn’t have worried. His body remembers, and the tune comes easily. The sounds surround him, and his mind drifts to empty contracts and sick friends, to window displays and iris petals.

A beat, then everything is different.

The music has stopped, only he doesn’t remember finishing. His hands are flat on the keys. People are staring. In the awkward quiet, one of the patients starts to clap. Two more join in, a random smattering of noise. The others don’t; they know something strange has happened.

Barkley would cover for him. But Barkley is not there. Travis stands up and bows curtly before leaving, as though this is how it’s supposed to end.

• •

The next morning Travis finishes his exit paperwork. He leaves the George Clinic and starts walking, following no particular path. He passes a café, the staff sweeping the floor in a mid-morning cleaning. A dog yaps in the distance. Travis realizes he is not far from Anna’s store—that is how he thinks of it now, Anna’s store—and his feet head in that direction. He passes the hot dog shop. The teenager in the hot dog costume is gone. When Travis reaches Anna’s clothing store, she is not there. But the window display is new.

Holly the mannequin is bursting from her shackles, links of chain strung up on shimmering blue wires, one link half-embedded in the wall. A second mannequin, her nemesis, has turned away, shielding herself in a magenta blouse and knee-length tartan skirt. Something about the scene tugs at him, and then he realizes: Holly looks as though she has been struck by lightning. He imagines the mannequin with a tattoo of black fissures running down her arm.

It strikes him, then, who he is. He is not the superhero. He is the bystander, the innocent traumatized by events, not reborn. No one cares about that mannequin; no one tells his origin story. He is a rumpled shirt left on the floor.

Travis walks back to the hot dog store. He orders a Frank And Beans and asks to speak with the manager. Then he makes a phone call. He tells Anna he is sorry, that he has something to tell her. He asks her to come to the window display as soon as she can. By the time she arrives, he is ready. She walks right by him, and he has to chase after her to catch up.

“Anna,” he says, and she turns to him.

Travis is wearing the hot dog suit. White sleeves poke out from two pillowy buns, his face emerging from a red stocking. His shoes are different colors, one tomato red, the other mustard yellow. He has no plan beyond this, just this, but he doesn’t think she will mind.

Anna’s face is still. Slowly, her mouth slips into a curve, revealing her high dimples. Eventually the smile fades, replaced by a strange, tilted expression as she contemplates his new outfit. He feels a tingling on his skin, not like a micro-seizure but like an itch from his scar. He scratches at it with his enormous white gloves, and it fades away. He approaches her, his giant shoes soft on the pavement, and she presses her hand into the doughy shoulder of the costume.

Alistair Ong
Alistair Ong has had short stories published in various literary journals, including Chelsea and The Year’s Best Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy. He has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and teaches creative writing in Melbourne, Australia. He is currently working on two novel manuscripts, which he realizes is at least one too many.