Every day I stand for hours in the department store window, frozen like a statue. Pedestrians walk along the sidewalk, unaware that my mask-like face is watching them. To them, I am just a mannequin. Some people stop to look, probably wondering what they might look like in the clothes that I wear. Other people walk past, talking with their companion or companions, oblivious to my existence.
After the store closes for the night, the curtains are drawn and we are removed from the store windows. Our clothes removed and replaced with a new outfit. Then we are taken back to the store windows. The curtains will remain closed until morning.
One night, the female mannequin that I shared the store window with asks me, “Lucas – how can you possibly expect humans to act any other way?”
“What if we told them, Zelda?” I ask. “That we are alive?”
“And cause a riot?” she asks. “Bricks and other heavy objects hurled at these windows? Our arms and legs yanked from our shoulders and hips? Fires set, melting us until we're a pool of liquid on the floor?”
“Not all humans would do that,” I say.
“Enough would,” she says. “Better that they do not fear us, than that they try to destroy us.”
“I wish that there was at least one human we could tell, one human that we could trust,” I say.
“That would be nice, but highly unrealistic,” she says. “Do not risk upsetting the status quo. Just continue doing your job. Unlike humans, after all, we cannot starve, we cannot thirst, and we cannot die.”
“We also cannot feel emotions like they do,” I say.
“A price I am willing to pay,” she says, “to remain safe and sound.”
“I suppose,” I say.
“Stop thinking and just let time pass you by,” she says. “You will only cause yourself problems.”
I shrug and go back to acting as if I were inanimate. No one said that a mannequin's existence had to be an easy one.
Time passes and it is Christmas Eve. It is snowing outside the department store. I can hear the ringing bells of the Salvation Army volunteers. I can hear the excited voices of children speaking with their parents. I can see couples, walking hand in hand, occasionally glancing at the store windows as they pass.
Like the other mannequins in the other store windows, Zelda and I are dressed in our Christmas outfits. Red and white shirts and coats, black gloves, red pants, black boots, and red hats on our heads with a white puffball on top. There is a sleigh filled with empty boxes in wrapping paper, ribbon, and bows between myself and the female mannequin.
After the store closes, no one removes us and changes our clothes. We are left to stand behind the closed curtains. This is rather unusual. I wonder why there has been a change in the daily pattern.
“The children seem so happy, Zelda,” I say.
“They have tomorrow morning to look forward to, Lucas,” she says. “Advent wreaths, Christmas trees, candles, decorations, presents, egg nog, and cookies.”
“And we just stand here all night and all day tomorrow,” I say.
“Just as we have since we were first installed here,” she says.
“If you could make a wish,” I ask, “what would you wish for?”
“That's an odd thing to ask,” she says. “What good would a wish do either of us?” Zelda looks at me. “What has gotten into you?”
“Humor me,” I say. “Something to distract me from the fact that it is Christmas Eve and I cannot celebrate it with anyone. Not even with you.”
She reaches for the curtains, and touches where they overlap one another. “I would wish for a pet.”
“What sort of pet?” I ask.
“Does it matter?” she asks.
“Assume that it does,” I say.
“A kitten,” she says. “A small, soft, fluffy kitten. Maybe a black-and-white one.”
“What would you name him (or her)?” I ask.
“Hope,” she says. “What would you wish for?”
“That there was someone we could reveal our true selves to,” I say. “Someone who would not react with fear and violence. Someone who would accept us as we are. Someone who could be our friend.”
“Unlike myself?” she asks.
“Someone flesh-and-blood,” I say. “A human.”
Zelda leaves the store window and returns soon after, with two lit candles. She hands me one, and keeps the other.
“Make you wish, then,” she says.
“You first,” I say.
“I wish I had a pet kitten,” she says. “Black-and-white.” She blows out her candle.
Nothing happens at first.
She shrugs. “Well, it was just a wish. I didn't think that it would come –”
We both heard a mew. Not a meow of an adult cat. But a mew of a kitten. Outside the window, sitting on its haunches, dusted with snow, was a kitten. It was looking right at Zelda.
“That's impossible,” she says.
“Nothing's impossible on Christmas Eve,” I say. “Do you want to welcome it inside before it freezes, or shall I?”
“You do it,” she says.
Holding my candle, I leave the store window and go to the nearby entrance. One push and the door opens outward. It should've been locked. Why wasn't it? I look both ways. No one in sight. The kitten comes running toward me, then between my legs, and heads straight for the store window. It jumps up and a moment later I hear a gasp and then soft laughter.
“Stop that, you silly thing,” Zelda's voice says.
I shut the door and return to the store window. She is holding the kitten in her hands. It is rubbing its cheek against hers and purring.
“I think it likes you,” I say.
“And I like it,” she says. “Thank you.”
“But I had nothing to do with it,” I say.
She does not look as if she believes me. “Your turn, Lucas. Make your wish.”
I look down at my candle, watching as the melted wax drips down the sides of it.
“Go on,” she says.
“I wish that there was someone we could reveal our true natures to, who wouldn't be scared, who would accept us as we are,” I say and blow out my candle.
Again, nothing happens at first.
“Maybe it only works with kittens,” I suggest.
“Wait and see,” she says.
“Maybe it was just a coincidence that the kitten happened to be there,” I say.
“You are too impatient,” she says. “That is all it is. Maybe your wish needs to wait until tomorrow morning.”
“Maybe,” I say, unconvinced. “At least you got your wish.”
Zelda looks at the kitten. “I did indeed. You are a wonderful gift, Hope.”
The kitten purrs in response.
“But what do we do when the humans return?” she asks. “Where could I possibly hide Hope? And she will need food, water, and a litter box.”
“Make another wish,” I suggest.
“Not until yours gets granted, Lucas,” she says.
Outside the window, the long Christmas night is ending and the day is beginning. There are far fewer pedestrians on the sidewalk and vehicles in the street today. Perhaps there will be more later today, or perhaps most people are already at home, celebrating.
I look over at Zelda. She is sitting on the floor of the store window, legs crossed. The kitten is asleep in her lap.
“Anything yet, Lucas?” she asks.
I shake my head. “I do wonder, though, why the front entrance was unlocked last night, when I went to get Hope and bring her inside.”
“Maybe the last human to leave yesterday forgot to lock it?” she suggests.
“Maybe,” I say. “But it has never happened before.”
“As you said yesterday, nothing is impossible on Christmas Eve,” she says. Then she puts a forefinger to her lips. “Listen.”
We are both quiet as we listen to what she suddenly heard: the sound of little feet. Padded. Perhaps wearing shoes? But where had they been all this time?
“I believe we have company,” Zelda whispers. “And not just Hope.”
She nods in the direction of the toy section. Someone is browsing through the toys. Someone small.
We both see a little girl, dark hair, light-blue pajamas. She is giggling and singing something. Maybe a Christmas carol? She runs from one toy to another, pulling them off of their racks and dropping them on the floor. Sitting next to them, she lifts the toys' packages, shaking them, and listening to the noises they make.
“How did she get in here?” I whisper.
“Maybe she snuck in while you were busy with Hope,” Zelda whispers.
“Where did she sleep all this time?” I whisper.
“Plenty of places,” she whispers. “Couches, beds, rugs.”
“But she must have parents,” I whisper. “Someone must be looking for her.”
“Unless she is an orphan,” she whispers.
“What do we do?” I ask.
“Why not go over to her and introduce yourself?” she whispers.
“And scare her away?” I ask.
“Or stay here and do nothing,” she whispers. “The choice is yours.”
I make a face and step out of the store window. The toy section is off to the right, on the other side of the store's entrance. I pick a longer route, so that I do not frighten the little girl, coming around from behind her. Closer now, she does not look more than three years old. Four at the most.
At first she does not hear my approach. Then she pauses, turns and sees me. She does not look scared. Instead, she looks curious and then smiles. Her dark eyes light up.
“Toy?” she asks, pointing at me.
I shake my head.
“Not toy?” she asks, looking sad.
I shake my head again.
She frowns and then asks, “Friend?”
“Friend,” I say.
She smiles. “Here,” she says, patting the spot across from her. “Sit.”
This was easier than I had expected.
I sit down.
“Your home?” she asks.
“I do not have one,” I say.
“No home?” she asks.
I shake my head.
“Where you live?” she asks.
“Here,” I say.
“Name?” she asks, pointing at me.
“Lucas,” I say. “What is yours?”
“Gabby,” she says.
“Nice to meet you, Gabby,” I say. I look at the toy package in her lap. It's a doll. “Do you like your toy?”
She nods. “Mommy no buy toys. No money.”
“What about your daddy?” I ask.
“He not at home,” she says. “Just Mommy and me.”
“Where is Mommy?” I ask.
“Home,” she says.
But how did you get here, then? I wonder. You didn't wander all the way from home to here, did you? Your mother is probably worried sick. She might have contacted the police. They will be looking all over the city. They might even be on their way … here.
I look up to see Zelda running toward us, holding Hope in her hands.
“Police car just pulled up outside,” she says. “The officers will be inside here soon.”
“We need to bring her to them,” I say. “She needs to go back to her mother.”
“But we cannot do that,” she says. “They will know about us.”
“That is a risk we will have to take,” I say. “For Gabby's sake.”
Zelda looks worried. “Then you do it. I am going to find a hiding place for Hope and me.” She flees.
The police officers enter the store. A woman is with them. She is not wearing a uniform. She has dark hair like Gabby. That must be her –
“Mommy!” Gabby cries out, stands up, and runs in the woman's direction.
The woman kneels and opens her arms. Gabby runs into them, and they hug.
“You had Mommy so worried,” the woman says. “You should never run away. Especially not on Christmas.”
“I okay,” Gabby says. “Friend.” She points at me.
I stand up, uncertain as to what to do next. If I run, they will probably chase after me. But if I do not run, how do I explain who – and what – I am? Decide, Lucas! Decide!
But I cannot. And I stand there, feeling foolish, knowing that this is a greater risk than going to Gabby and talking with her.
Gabby's mother and the police officers look at me, surrounded as I am by small piles of toy packages.
I sit there and say nothing. As if I were a life-size doll.
Another person enters the store. It is my and Zelda's manager, Mr. Rosenbaum, or Rosy, as his human employees call him.
“Sir, we found a child in your store,” the officer tells him. “And this mannequin was sitting near her.”
“Someone must have moved him,” Mr. Rosenbaum says. “But he's usually in the story window, not walking around. He shouldn't be where he is.”
“I'm not sure I understand,” the officer says. “Please explain.”
“He's a mannequin, one of many,” Mr. Rosenbaum says. “I'll put him back in the store window and then put the toys back on their racks. No harm done, after all.”
“But what was my daughter doing with a mannequin?” Gabby's mother asks.
Mr. Rosenbaum hesitates. He knows. I did not know that he knew. But he knows. And if either of us tells the truth, who knows how bad the consequences might be? Would he tell a lie, then, and protect mannequins like Zelda and myself?
“She's too young to understand what a mannequin is, ma'am,” Mr. Rosenbaum tells her. “She probably thought he was a toy.”
He comes over to me and puts his arms around me, lifting me off the floor. I slump over his right shoulder like a large sack of flour.
“But there's no harm done,” Mr. Rosenbaum goes on as he carries me back to the store window. “Your daughter is safe and no one has stolen anything from my store.” He places me on the floor of the store window, next to the sleigh filled with its wrapped but empty boxes.
As he does so, we can all hear other footsteps. Plastic footsteps of another mannequin. Oh, please, don't be who I think it is. But it is. If only she had just stayed hidden for a little while longer.
It is Zelda, still holding her kitten. She looks over at me, then at Mr. Rosenbaum, then at Gabby, Gabby's mother, and the police officers.
“Another employee, sir?” the officer asks.
“This one is a humanoid robot I purchased in Japan last year,” Mr. Rosenbaum lies. “An advanced model that cost me quite a bit. Someone left her turned on. I'll take care of that now.” He walks over to Zelda.
“Do robots usually carry kittens around?” Gabby's mother asks.
“She must've found the kitten wandering around inside my store,” Mr. Rosenbaum lies. “Thank you, Zelda. I'll take care of the kitten. You go back to your storage room and go into hibernation mode.”
“Yes, sir,” Zelda says robotically as she hands Hope to him, and then turns and walks away.
“Toy!” Gabby insists, squirming as she tries to free herself from her mother's arms.
“No, sweetie,” her mother says. “No toy. But plenty of presents under the tree at home.”
“Toy!” Gabby says more loudly and this time frees herself. She does not run after Zelda, but heads straight for the store window where I am. She climbs up and sits next to me, her arms around me.
“Ma'am, I'm afraid that your daughter is sadly mistaken,” Mr. Rosenbaum says. “This is a mannequin, not a toy. Maybe I could give her a doll instead. Would she like that?”
Gabby's mother walks over to the store window, sees her daughter sitting next to me, her arms around me.
“Toy!” Gabby says.
“This is not a toy,” her mother says.
“I said as much, ma'am,” Mr. Rosenbaum says. “Now if you'll let me –”
“This is either a mannequin,” she says, “or it's a real person. It can't be both.”
“The former, of course,” Mr. Rosenbaum says.
“Say something,” Gabby's mother tells me. “If you can. Either prove him wrong or prove me wrong.”
“It can't talk,” Mr. Rosenbaum says. “Ma'am –”
I close my eyes, wishing that there was something else I could do. But what other option was left?
I open my eyes and say, “Yes, I can. We all can.”
“Then Zelda –” Gabby's mother says.
“Isn't a robot,” I say. “She's like me. A living being.”
Gabby's mother covers her mouth with one hand. “Oh my God.”
“Sir,” the officer says to Mr. Rosenbaum, “I think you're going to have to come back to the precinct with us and answer some questions.”
“But what about the mannequins?” the latter asks, trying to calm the unhappy Hope.
“They'll be melted down, of course,” the officer says. “They're just too big of a threat. I'm sorry.”
Gabby looks up at her mother. “Toy?”
Her mother shakes her head.
“Friend?” Gabby asks her mother.
“I don't know,” the latter says. “Maybe. If they let me purchase him.”
“What about Zelda?” I ask.
“I can only save one of you,” Gabby's mother tells me. “Either you or her. The choice is yours.”