The buildings cast ominous shadows as the sun set behind them. The streets were deserted aside from a handful of homeless people looking for a place to crash.
Fred was new to the area and found himself fascinated by Birmingham’s ‘skyscrapers.’ There sure wasn’t anything like it back home in Yawnsville, Arkansas. Of them all, one orangey-red brick structure captivated Fred: The New Ideal department store. Not because it was ostentatious or imposing, but because it was old, abandoned, yet still retained its inventory. Through the filmy windows, Fred glimpsed racks of clothing from the 1980s, mannequins sporting the then-latest styles, and even cash registers.
Walking forward while looking backward never ends well. Thus, Fred failed to notice the signs cautioning him not to enter the construction area where they were digging up the street. One of the workers, perhaps in his haste to meet his buddies at the bar, had inadvertently left a manhole exposed. Fred, still obsessed with the sights of Birmingham, stumbled right into the gaping void.
He yelled for help, but no one responded. Homeless people have their own problems.
Fred dangled from the side of the manhole for as long as he could, but eventually his fingers grew numb and he lost his grip.
He plummeted for what seemed like miles of darkness. Fred remembered a story he’d heard from his cousin, Narville. It was something about dropping a glass cup into a canyon, and never hearing the cup break—
“It could still be falling to this day….” Narville was full of shit most of the time.
Finally, something broke his fall. It felt like some sort of slide, but not the kind you’d see at a playground.
It wasn’t smooth and easy and warmed by the sun. This one was made of rotting wood and iron, as far as Fred could tell. And it was cold. There was something wet and slimy on the wood also, probably moss or some such. The further he bumped, bounced, and careened down the slide, the denser and danker the air became. It smelled like a sewer had backed-up mingled with the distinctive odor of vermin.
Just when Fred thought he was nearing the end of the ride, the slide made a crazy hairpin turn taking him even deeper into the bowels of the earth.
As abruptly as the slide appeared, it disappeared, but not before depositing Fred in a huge, multi-room basement with 20-ft-high ceilings. The light was dim, but at least he could make out his surroundings: mannequins. There were male and female mannequins of nearly every stripe: American, Asian, Hindi, Black, and Hispanic. It was like a UN meeting of dummies. One thing Fred noticed was that they weren’t 100% plastic or fiber glass. Some had a bit of human in them—patches of flesh— it seemed, and some more so than others.
It appeared that each mannequin was at a different stage of dehumanization.
“Welcome!” A male voice called out. Fred glanced around trying to figure out which one had spoken, but he couldn’t tell. They all stared straight ahead, poker-faced.
“Over here, to your left.” The same voice instructed. Fred thought he detected a British accent.
Fred picked himself up from the grimy cement floor and moved toward the voice. He studied each of the faces in hopes of catching a glimpse of life. Finally, he looked into the brown eyes of one of them, and it blinked.
“Sorry I couldn’t help you up, but as you can see…” He gestured with a white silk-sleeved arm toward where his legs should have been. Instead there was a metal post reaching up into his torso.
“Yeah.” Fred gulped. “I see.”
“How rude of me,” the mannequin began. “The name’s Randolph. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
Slowly and seemingly painfully, Randolph moved his arm toward Fred as if to shake his hand. Fred responded in kind, and when he grasped Randolph’s warm, sweaty hand, it fell to the floor.
“Whoa!” Fred instinctively jumped back. “What the fuck!?”
“Oh, dear,” Randolph sighed. “My apologies. I just knew that would happen at the most inopportune moment. It’s been dangling there, hanging by a tendon for…God only knows how long. There’s no way to tell time in here…”
Fred bent down to retrieve Randolph’s hand from the sludge-coated floor.
“Not to worry. Just leave it. The sewer-rats will take care of it when they let them in.
Sewer-rats? And who is ‘they’? Fred wondered.
“What is this place?”
Randolph ignored the question. “I didn’t catch your name?”
“Oh, uh…” Fred cleared his throat. “Fred. My name’s Fred.”
“Fred, you say.” There was a smile in his voice. “My father’s name was Fred.”
“You had a father?”
“I had a mother, too.” Randolph’s eyes narrowed. “Did you think I was hatched?”
“No, no. Of course not.” Fred tried to backtrack. “Hell, I don’t know! You look like you came out of a ritzy department store. What is this place?”
“Ah! Interesting question,” a voice on the other side of the room interjected.
Fred whirled around to see a Hindu mannequin — complete with a vermillion tilak on his forehead—smiling like a clown. Well, it wasn’t exactly a smile. It was more like two rubbery smudges of red stretched across his face. This mannequin had no arms, although the empty sleeves of his suit jacket suggested that he just might sprout a pair, or perhaps they’d already fallen off like Randolph’s hand.
“That would be Om-m-mar, with three ems; pronounce all of them,” Randolph explained. “He knows everything.”
“Why the three ems?”
“He fancies himself a guru. You know, ohmmm….”
“C’mere, Freddy.” Om-m-mar’s voice was raspy, as if he’d been a smoker. “Let’s get up to speed.”
Fred stepped carefully over the sludge and filth.
“This fine establishment is known as the Abaddon Transfiguration Bottega.”
“That’s just swell,” Fred replied. “But what is it?”
“Apparently, Freddy-boy, it’s time for your modification.”
“My modification? What do you mean?”
“I can see it starting already!” Om-m-mar beamed. “I wish I had a mirror to show you but feel your nose.”
“Yeah. Go ahead. Just touch it and feel the progress!”
Fred eyed Om-m-mar curiously but did as he was told. The moment he touched his nose, it detached from his face and fell to the floor with a plop. There it lay amongst the filth and grime.
“My nothe! Oh, no! Oh, thit, not my nothe!” Fred wailed. “How will I bweathe?”
“Oh, don’t be such a pussy!” Om-m-mar chided. “You’ll grow a new one. In the meantime, breathe through your mouth. Now, listen to me. The changes will happen in their own time. Everybody’s different. You’ll evolve at your own pace, like the rest of us.”
“That’s right, Freddy. Evolve.”
“Oh my!” Randolph exclaimed from across the room. “Look, everyone! I’m already producing a new hand!”
Sure enough, a plastic hand was peeking out from beneath Randolph’s shirt sleeve. The mannequins who were able gave him a round of applause and a sincere, “Way to grow!”
“But, Om-m-mah. I’m alweady hooman. I mean, how mud mo’ avanthed can you get?”
“Oh, you’d be surprised.” Om-m-mar grinned. “On a scale of one to ten, Humanoids are right around four, maybe five….”
“How do dey figoo dat?”
Om-m-mar shrugged. “It’s The New Ideal.”