I jogged through the nature trail that looped around my subdivision every morning around 7:00. The cool air, the absence of others, I found it a peaceful time of day.
The woods in rural Kissimmee are filled with sharp, subtropical bushes, twigs, and palm shrubs. Some summer days are crisp, but this morning, it felt heavy between the solid gray sky and the dense morning fog. As I rounded the first loop, something caught my eye. A light-colored object breaking the darkness of the mangled brush.
My sneakers scraped as I came to an abrupt halt. I squinted, in hopes that it would hone my vision. The more intensely I looked, the more I realized what it was in the brush. At first, I thought it might be a cut log from the yellowed shade, but to my dismay that is not what was before me. It was an arm. An arm turned at an odd angle, poking out from under a large palmetto bush. For a second, I lost my breath.
As I made my way through the prickers, not bothering to avoid them, I pulled an earphone out. This person needed help. I rolled the earpiece’s soft rubber between my fingers as I stepped over and on branches. The crackling and crunching broke the heaviness of the morning air, and when I thought I was in earshot, I called out.
I looked around, but I was alone on the trail. Well, not entirely.
“Hello?! Are you okay?”
When no reply came after the second asking, I rolled the earpiece between my fingers again, then gulped. I hoped she was just unconscious, and not anything worse. Like dead. Yeah, the dead was worse in a situation like this. I wasn’t sure if my stomach could handle witnessing a corpse.
I took out the other earpiece. When I didn’t get a reply, outright or muffled, I deliberated. Go in after her? Call the police? I could probably get to her faster than the latter. Instead, I called my level-headed boyfriend, Josh.
“Well, don’t just leave her there. Go in after her.”
I hung up and complied.
The closer I got to the body, the more I realized that a human arm could not hold in a position like this one did. Holy xxx or holy cow! It was plastic. Really? I scraped up my legs and stopped running for this. A fake person. But I was there, and I wanted to see what it was. I guess curiosity had the best of me at this point. I pulled the shrub apart. What I saw was the full body of a mannequin. But the most unsettling thing that I discovered when I turned the mannequin over, was that it was not just some discarded model. This life-sized doll looked a lot like me. My arm hair bristled, and I almost felt my knees buckle beneath me.
I stared at it blankly for a moment, trying to register its image of the golden-haired girl. I, too, had very distinct, pixie-like features, including a dainty, upturned nose, large, blue eyes, and thin, pink lips. If someone wanted to do a police sketch of me, the face of this doll accurately fit my description. From the blonde hair tied up in a high ponytail to a bodily figure just like mine. When I noticed the clothes on the doll, I bent over and clutched my stomach.
Those were my clothes.
My white tank top.
My peach shorts covered in oily smudges.
My missing laundry.
A rock caught in my throat.
With a trembling hand, I pulled the strap of the shorts between my index finger and thumb, sliding them from the doll just enough to reveal a pair of my own underwear. I immediately released it like I would if I had just discovered that I had a bug between my fingers. I stumbled a backward, tripping over a vine in the process. A sticky note lay on the ground nearby.
It said, “YOUR MINE.” The scrawl was as bad as the grammar. Perhaps it had been attached to the doll. And then it sunk in. This thing resembled me, wore my clothes, so whomever did this was… after me?
I gathered myself to my feet and raced back to the trail. An adrenaline surge pushed me into a full-on sprint from the trail. I returned to the main street in a state of fresh panic. My lungs burned from the exertion with every breath. My heart thudded against my chest so loud that I could hear it throbbing in my ears. As soon as I entered the house, Josh came through to the front hall.
“What happened with the lady?” he asked.
In a decorative mirror hung along the wall of our foyer, I could see my face bleached of its color. My lower lip trembled uncontrollably. What was I going to say? That the lady wasn’t real and that I saw a doll in the woods that looked like me?
“I think someone’s been in our house. I think they stole my clothes.”
“What?” His thick, brown brows furrowed, and his face contorted, but into a grimace. I thought it an odd facial expression and that he should be in shock, like me, but I’m sure he was just confused. I needed a moment to catch my breath, twiddling with my earbuds between my fingers before speaking again.
“A doll. In the woods,” I managed breathlessly. “Not a lady.”
“A doll. A mannequin. It was gross and looked like me. ME!” I sucked in another breath. “It had my clothes on. Josh, my clothing.”
“The hell? Here, let’s get you some water.”
With one hand on my waist, Josh guided me through the hallway to the kitchen and stationed me on a bar stool at the island counter. He grabbed a glass from the cupboard and filled it. Wow, he’s so nice. I couldn’t believe there was a time when I considered not dating him because I wasn’t sure how I felt about him—I had thought he was too “red-neck” for my personal taste. He had an odor, a strong bodily musk that didn’t appeal to me then, but that I now found attractive, masculine. I took a sip. The water calmed me as it trickled down my throat. It felt cool in my stomach. I tipped it back and drained it. He poured me another.
“Do you know for sure that the doll was wearing your clothes?” His back was turned while he filled my glass with more water. He ran a hand to scratch the back of his neck. The skin beneath his hairline appeared flushed. Perhaps he felt nervous for me.
“Well, then, we should probably call the police. I think you’ve got a stalker.”
A week went by, and without a suspect, my life came to a screeching halt. I stopped the trail runs, and for the first time paid to work out on an indoor treadmill at the local gym.
Josh seemed overly eager to install a Ring doorbell system that could be controlled from our phones, or the new little back box called Alexa that, or shall I say who, sat next to our large screen TV. I admired his effort over my personal safety. The following Saturday, with the case still unsolved, we opted for a home movie night. Josh said he thought it would help me “to chill”.
We snuggled up on our sofa together. Josh was in his jeans without a shirt, and I had changed into my pajamas for the at-home date night. I leaned against his chest. I had turned our lights off, so it was dark except for the glow of the television, which made for a great movie atmosphere as we settled in front of a decent romantic comedy. The chilling out and snuggling, however, was short-lived. Unusual, loud noises coming from our next-door neighbor’s garage disrupted our night.
I paused the movie.
“Did you hear that?”
“Yeah,” Josh said. It sounded like something metallic being dragged across the neighbor’s driveway. He was right, it was a sharp noise. Our position was no longer cozy, our bodies stiffening like statues.
“I’ll check it out,” he said.
I shuffled out of Josh’s lap as he stood and walked to the window by the front door. A vehicle door thudded shut. I watched the back of Josh’s head as he peered through a crack in the blinds.
“It looks like he put something in the bed of his truck,” he said.
I looked at the time. 10:00 p.m. What would someone be putting into his truck at this time of night?
“Weird,” I commented.
We looked at each other and shrugged. Probably nothing. Josh walked back to our seat as we resumed our movie, only to be interrupted again fifteen minutes later. This time, it sounded like chains clanking.
“I’ll check this time,” I said.
I went to the window. I heard the trunk slam again. I slowly cracked open a space between the blinds. I saw him walking from the back of his truck. He must have seen me because he stopped and turned his head in my direction. My heart stopped. Fear or something other than blood flooded in my veins.
This was my first decent look at him since he hadn’t lived here for very long. Those creepy, wild eyes seemed to stay fixed on me. I kept thinking he’d look away, but he didn’t. His eyes locked on me for about twenty seconds. He had on an old, faded camouflage t-shirt. Oily, black smudges coated the front of his jeans. Finally, I closed the blind and took a step backward. My breathing was uneven.
“What’s going on?” Josh asked from the living room sofa.
“I—I don’t know,” I answered. I stepped forward again, daring to reopen the blind, but now he was gone. A pit opened in my stomach. I turned and strode towards Josh.
“Was he out there again?”
“Yeah, but uhh… Josh?”
“How much do you know about our newest neighbor?” I asked. He paused for a moment before answering. Peculiar…
“Not much,” he said, but I detected the Adam’s apple in his throat bob with the reply. I tilted my head at that. Was he lying? Why would he lie? He wouldn’t. “Why?”
“He just looks… He looks off.”
“He’s probably just packing for a camping trip or something. Forget about it. Come back and let’s finish our movie,” he said.
How could he be so calm? I sat back down but couldn’t focus on the movie. Tense and stiff, I stared at the images flashing on the screen. Nothing registered.
The doorbell rang. I jolted from my seat.
“Hang on,” Josh said, “don’t answer yet. I want to use the new doorbell camera app.”
Together, we looked at Josh’s phone screen as the video footage popped up. On our front doorstep was the neighbor. My heart lurched, and had my ribs not held it in, it would have shoved from inside out at the mere sight of him. He was standing, cracking his neck from side to side. I blinked about a hundred times as I suddenly felt my fingertips grow cold, my palms moistened, and went clammy.
Through the lens of the camera, I saw the details of his face. He looked rougher than before, with specks of dirt across his forehead and cheeks. He contorted his mouth into a twisted scowl. While carefully watching the footage, I noticed him fiddling with something heavy in his jean pocket. He pulled up his pants, so I assumed the mysterious object was dragging them down. He put one hand in the pocket with the object and with the other grabbed a belt loop.
“Maybe I should answer and see what he wants,” Josh said.
“No,” I blurted. “He seems sketchy.”
“Yeah, you’re right. I wonder what’s in his pocket…”
We didn’t answer, and he let forth a frustrating grunt over the speaker. The next thing he did, scared the daylights out of me. He jostled the door handle. He was trying to force his way inside our house. Thankfully, we had remembered to lock the door.
“Call the police! Call the police!” I screamed. Josh quickly complied, picking up my phone to dial the emergency line so that we could continue using his phone to keep our focus on this maniac who was trying to break into our house. While Josh explained the situation to the 9-1-1 operator, I watched as the neighbor at our front door leaned in for a closer look. I saw his big, crusty eye in the door camera’s lens.
I glanced up from the camera view for a second as Josh and I exchanged a worried look. When I looked back at the phone, the man had vanished. It was more unsettling not knowing where he was. I preferred having eyes on his position. Josh remained on the phone with the operator, his eyes darting side-to-side. I ran through the house, flicking on all the light switches. For some reason, this seemed to calm me.
The wood of the floorboards creaked as I made my way into our bedroom. The room was silent and dark, with only the glow of the light from the hallway filling it. I tip-toed cautiously towards the lamp on my nightstand. Suddenly, a light breeze touched my skin. To my horror the window was wide open. I was about to run back through the hallway when a pair of large, gloved hands cupped over my mouth. I screamed, but the sound was muffled.
“You’re mine, understand? I’m taking you with me,” his voice was hard, severe in a hushed whisper, his hot breath on my ear. I felt the stubble of his jaw graze my cheek. “Josh is not enough man for you, but I am. I’ve known him a long time. We worked together on the oil rig; you know how dangerous that job was? I saved his clumsy ass from death. He owes me. He promised me you.”
I gulped. My eyes watered.
“I’ve loved you a long time, Paige. Ever since I first saw you jogging with your cute butt in those tight, peach shorts. Oh, those peach shorts! Now, you’re mine. The shorts too.” He made the most guttural howl.
I wriggled, but he overpowered me. He held one hand over my mouth, and somehow tied a cloth around my head, gagging me. I tried to scream again, but with the scratchy thing so tight, it only came out as a muffled gurgle. He used both hands to pin my wrists together with a scratchy rope, then pulled me by my arms, forcing me to walk backwards. He yanked me through the window, and I hit the ground with a thud on the other side. He shut it firmly behind us.
“I’m taking you away from him. He doesn’t really love you, but I do—more than he does, at least. He owed me for his life. I asked him for his girlfriend, the running girl in the peach shorts. Now, he’s paid his debt. You’re mine.”
His speech was heavy with every hoarse breath. He sounded excited—too excited.
My heart racing fast and my veins fuelled by adrenaline, I attempted to stand up, but he tripped me by the ankle, and I fell back down. I landed with my cheek against the spikey grass. He pinned me to the ground and my eyes watered, leaked, from how helpless I felt. He hovered over me and held me down with one hand, reaching again into his jean pocket with the other. He pulled something out and pressed it against my temple. I swallowed hard. It was a pistol.
“If you don’t come with me, I’ll shoot. Blink twice so I know you understand.” I complied, hoping it would bide my time until the police arrived. As if reading my mind, the next words out of his mouth sent a chill down my spine, “the police aren’t coming, you know.”
He stuffed the gun back into his pocket and pulled me up, crushing me into his arms. He lifted me effortlessly, carrying me through the backyard. His stench was awful, like a garbage musk.
All the lights were on in our house, glowing through the windows, and there I saw Josh. Josh, standing in our living room. Josh doing absolutely nothing to help me. He wasn’t on the phone; his head lowered towards the floor while his eyes lifted to meet mine. A wall of glass was all that separated him from me, yet he didn’t rush to save me. He didn’t even look remorseful. He watched us pass by the windows.
His expression was devoid of emotion. Eyes like a blank canvas. I felt the sting of betrayal as my kidnapper’s words sunk in, registering in my brain. A combination of fear and confusion hit me all at once, causing every muscle to shudder feebly.
“He planned for me to take you. I set this up,” my kidnapper explained. “I saved his life and, I’m sorry, but he tricked you. He is and was so willing to give you up. I told you he isn’t good enough for you, Paige. But I will take care of you. And now, I won’t have to make that lookalike doll—I have the real McCoy!”
A dark laugh escaped with his breath.
Josh’s phone conversation with the police was an act. I should have figured it out. I should have called the police myself. He left the window open on purpose, knowing full well what would happen to me. He carried me through the dark, narrow passageway between two houses, feeling dehumanized. Like an empty shell of a person. We arrived at the man’s driveway, where he kicked open the door of his Chevrolet Silverado and tossed me into the backseat. The chains and metal noises from before all made sense now. On the floor of the car, plastic doll parts. My life had just become a horror movie, and I imagined the worst was yet to come.
Caged like an animal. A shed. A basement. The man turned to look at me, and through my tears, I observed up close those wicked eyes.
“You should have been more careful about who you trusted, Paige,” he said to me. “But don’t worry. I’m a nice guy once you get to know me and, trust me when I say that you’ll have plenty of time to get to know me…”
“Josh betrayed me. Who’s to say he won’t betray you too?” I planted a seed of doubt. His eyes wide and mouth agape, he registered my words, fear suddenly dropping like an atomic bomb in his expression.
S.J. Walker is a mother and an emerging writer in the landscape of fiction. She has a scattering of published short stories and volunteer edits for Grande Dame Literary Journal. Her tendency is strong to write within the realm of dark fantasy and thriller. A good pumpkin spice latte is her drink of choice, and a sleek black cat, who has allowed S.J. to reside with her, keeps the spirit of Halloween alive throughout the year.