A car deposits you on the curb. Your sneakers bite into the cement as the door brushes the back of your shirt, slamming shut behind you. Away whips the vehicle, up a road curtained in black skies. Its brake-lights vanish over the hill, leaving you in utter darkness.
You blink, patting your butt where the car door gave you a whack. Slowly, you realize that there is a little light, after all: a single light comes from a massive concrete structure laying twenty feet before you. You start forward. Almost at once, your foot catches on a step. Arms wheeling, you fall. Doesn't hurt that bad. You gather yourself up in a huffing pile on the next several steps. Stairs.
Onward and upward. That was always her motto. Gotta do her proud.
The light ahead grows brighter. While you climb, your eyes adjust. On the wall over the ten sets of black-glass double-doors before you, you make out an unlit sign: MOST MEGA FUCKING MALL EVER. Blinking harder, you walk toward the one of the dark glass doors that someone propped open with a rock.
Everything is lit up on the inside. It's a food court. Yesterday's popcorn chicken congeals in a puddle of last week's lo mein, atop a house of cards made out of seven faded blue serving trays, built on the sextuplet of trash enclosures arranged near the front entrance. Honey-mustard leaks a slow waterfall down the front of the THANK YOU stenciled onto the nearest enclosure's swinging, creaking door. Voices fill the cavernous room: the squalling of untended babies, the yelling of unsupervised children, and the urgent, desperately jubilant cheering of adults trying to look everywhere but downward or backward. Too-bright lights and too-loud filtration fans stretch from the fast Chinese place by the fluorescent bathroom-hall, all the way past the long display counter of the Grandma's Style Cookies, to the open, red-carpeted front of the movie theater just right of the doors.
From within the theater's gaping maw, a nervous usher in horn-rimmed glasses and a little red vest eyes you while he uses a threadbare broom to try to sweep crushed popcorn outta the carpet. The popcorn's ingrained, and the mangled broom probably couldn't even catch a "to go" container on a smooth floor, but the guy just keeps right on brushing at that ingrained popcorn, always trying it from a new angle, like that's gonna accomplish something.
Down near the room's center, right in the middle of two hundred messy, bustling tables of diners, someone's set up a clear plastic cube for a live performer. It's a singer, in there alone with his guitar and a rickety microphone. The guy sits inside the cube on a stool, rarely looking up. "Today's grey skies and tomorrow's tears," he might've been singing--but through the slits in the plastic, you can barely hear it. Besides, muzak's playing from the speakers overhead, and even that can't compete with the drone of so many excited, ceaseless conversations. Some guy in a clear cube with only four slits: he doesn't have a chance in the Choirs.
Three kids, one after the other, run across the grimy gray floor tiles in front of you, throwing wads of ice-cream-soaked trading cards into each other's hair. A hunched, blind janitor, wearing a coverall marked with the logo MOST MEGA FUCKING MALL EVER, struggles to figure out why the wheels on his slop bucket won't turn. You look at him, pitying, and realize the bucket's caught on the strap from someone's backup.
You give a gulp. You start over to help the guy get his bucket loose. Before you can get very far, a girl bumps into you. Bumps hard. She's got an orange yogurt smoothie, but it doesn't spill. "Sorry!" she wails. "Hey, did you get anything yet?" Stressful frizzles have turned her long brown hair into the "before" on a conditioner ad. Her toes poke out of her sandals. She’s carrying a bag, but you can’t tell what’s in it.
She's gone before you can give her an answer. The janitor figured out why his bucket wasn't moving. Your steps carry you past the theater, past the hallway that leads to the bathroom, and past the food court entirely, to where things seem a little quieter.
The storefront-lined hallway on the other side stretches on forever. Dark green floor tiles, white green floor tiles, fluorescent lights, dark green floor tiles, white green floor tiles, forever. No way out but through. A guy manning a kiosk comes out to ambush you. You know the guy. Blue polo so tidy it looks like it just got waxed. Cheap, clean, rubbery black sneakers that squeak on every single floor tile. Real short hair--almost a buzz, but not quite. Big, happy brown eyes. Chin that won't quit. Smile you couldn't punch away if you had a year. Shaven, but not all the way shaven, like it was on purpose.
While he's still greeting you, you dodge. You're fast. You're committed. Onward and upward. That was always her motto. Gotta do her proud.
On the left, the first storefront opens up. A dried, sun-crisped leg sticks out the front opening. Dead bodies perch on mounting brackets through the window. Inside the shop, the ceiling speakers produce a soundtrack of thuds, booms, and grinding gears. Clerks in camouflaged reaper-robes step over piled, rank corpses, their every footfall squeezing out the foulest goop you ever imagined. The bodies' receding, decayed lips reveal smiling teeth and empty sockets: always watching whoever's outside the front of the store, always smiling.
Faster than before, you walk on. On the right, another store opens up. Corpses again, it looks like. But no, that's not right--they just look like corpses. The merchandise here is skinny, skinny as rails, and so empty cheeked, all of them, that none of their mouths can seem to close all the way. Hair falls out. Bare feet shuffle, weakly wiggling big toes as thin as #2 pencils. Thickset men in dark blue guard the doors, trying to keep the merchandise from shuffling out. At the same time, a tear-streaked clerk jumps up and down, struggling to make you see her waves over the heads of the emaciated horde. "Hey!" she yelps. "Specials! We've got specials today!" Tears streak her makeup. Her apron is the color of sunburn.
Onward and upward. That was her motto, right?
A dozen more stores go past in a blur. There're more with reapers; there're more with hungry human zombies trying to break free. Some have the lights on, so bright it's like a laboratory. Others have the lights off. Some have a jungle motif; others are spilling over with seashore sand, desert sand, or decorations that recall crumbling cities. In one or two, different parts of the merchandise's bodies are glowing, this eerie, nuclear green or yellow, like they had a neon sign grafted over their ribs.
Bile rose a long time ago. No wonder no one else is in this part of the mall. It's just you, the stores, and your own footsteps, ringing so lonely on that unending floor of green tiles, white tiles, too-bright lights, green tiles, white tiles. Onward and upward, you're sure it was. Someone said that to you, once. How the hell did you get trapped in here? How many of these rancid heaps do you have to pass? Some of them are all children; some are all elders. Some all women, some all men. Dead or starving, starving or dead. Most are a mix of everyone, so that you can’t really tell them apart. That’s the way it should be, you think she told you once. That’s the way it should be, not telling them apart, ‘specially when it gets like that. Some aren't so much starving or dead as they are dangling from cages in the ceiling, getting shocked every two minutes, or every time someone walks by the motion-sensor out front. You almost think you recognize some of those faces. Stop looking inside. Go faster. How many of these stores are there? There's no way to count.
Hope: a clamor arises, far ahead. You pick up speed. Past more kiosks you run.
You pass around a gradual corner. You feel like you can start to breathe again. There's everyone--there's the crowd. No, two crowds. Your steps slow. People aren't so much happy as they're angry. And they damn well should be. Fists and voices raised, faces both proud and livid, they shout and chant at each other. All at once it's louder than the food court.
A safe distance away, you come to a stop next to a directory for MOST MEGA FUCKING MALL EVER. War! Pestilence! Famine! Flying Deathkill Robots! Free Texting!
"This has gotta end!" squeals some guy from the crowd on the right. "You guys are so wrong! So medieval! So unrealistic!" His middle finger raises at the other group. Flushed with release, he points back at his favorite store. In the well-lit window, elaborate, gilded wooden molding frames a beautiful scene. Flower petals dust a crimson shag rug beneath two pairs of polished black, man-made-leather shoes. Your eyes run up four legs girded in matching tuxedo pants. Two male mannequins are locked in a modest kiss, their hands linked. They are tall, strapping, and handsome; they're cleanly shaven, and surrounded by friend-mannequins. A long buffet table nearby presents a turkey with all the trimmings, a beautiful wedding cake, and more hors d'oeuvres than three times that number of mannequins could eat.
Two real men hold hands before the window, stars filling their eyes.
Across the way, you already know, they're wearing severe frocks. They've got their kids with them, some of them, and in the window, there's a mannequin who looks only a little bit better than some of the ones from the other stores. He's almost naked, dead and abused, nailed to a wooden cross. His eyes are shut, and he's bleeding. "Sickos!" cry several from the crowd on the left. "Perverts!" "Indecent!"
Tentatively, you step around the directory and its podium. "Guys? Guys!"
The crowds continue their shouting. No one so much as looks at you. Desperately, you move closer, gripping the sleeve of someone on the left. "Sir? Sir?"
He sneers at you through his tiny, round glasses. "Can I...help you?"
"There's something wrong in this mall," you plead. "Have you been...been to the stores back there?" You point over your shoulder, but he only shakes his head.
"I shouldn't have to put up with this filth!" Arm rigid, he indicates the crowd across.
Feeling weak, you rush to the other side. A woman stands there, holding a sign you're too dizzy to see. "Ma'am? Ma'am, please?"
She pauses, suspicious. "Yeah?"
"There's something wrong in this mall!" you tell her. "I don't know how I got here, I don't even know how a place like this could even exist, but there's something very, very wrong, and we've gotta do something about it."
Seriously, she nods. She points toward the other group. "Can you believe they don't like this store? I'm not even, you know, that way, but it's just unethical and wrong, what they're advocating!"
The guy next to her nods. He's eating half a warm chocolate-chip cookie, of the kind you recognize from back in the food court. As he grins knowingly at you, you begin to perceive something terrible in the backs of his eyes. His grin broadens. "Come on, we need all the help we can get, around here! Always room for one more!"
Wordless, you turn and run. You run, faster than you ever have, away from the crowds and back toward the food court. The complete blackness outside would be better. Whoever dropped you off might be there to pick you up.
Ten minutes of running later. No food court. Instead, you pass all the stores, all the kiosks, and they all look just a little different. Just a tiny difference in color, or a variation on the decorations around the bodies; the tools being displayed or used. No food court: you're right back at those two crowds. Pretty much the same people, but again, little differences. Different mannequins in the windows, maybe, doing slightly different things. Everyone's just as angry before, but they're not moving. You're there, right by the directory, and this time, it only shows a loop, around and around.
The guy from before--he's on the other side, this time--recognizes you. He waves. He's got a fresh chocolate chip cookie, in a wrapper that reads "Grandma's Style Cookies," with a logo from a place that doesn't exist any more. His smile grows.
Shaking your head in terror, you raise your elbows. Your shoes squeak on the floor. Keeping between the crowds, you run through them, past them, instead of turning around like last time. You'll take a maintenance exit; you'll take the back door or the fire exit; you'll take anything, to get out.
Ten minutes of running later, you skid to a stop against the directory. No food court. No nothing. The crowds are still there, with subtle changes. That guy--he's there, again, smiling knowingly at you. He has a brand new cookie. "Come on," he chuckles, coming over. "You have to stop running eventually. See the sign? I was once like you, you know. Yeah, I remember coming to this same spot, a few years back, and shouting until my voice wa--"
You turn. Heart bursting, you start running again. There might be no way out, but you can't stop here, anymore than you can go patronize any of those vile stores. Onward and upward, right? That was always her motto. Gotta do her proud.
(Just another one from Full Information Security. All rights held by Arken Funworks, Inc., una filial de Los Adventures Grandes de la Arken Americana, Sociedad Anónima, S.A. de C.V., Tijuana, Mexico.)
Good Consumer Choices
The utility of the saying "Dead Men Tell No Tales" is, as sayings go, relatively high. Dead men can tell tales in the metaphorical and supernatural sense, but for our practical purposes, they literally tell no tales. If we're not exclusionary male pirates, we could revise our saying to "dead people tell no tales." A number of other less obvious things that dead people don't do is:
1) Get certificates of citizenship;
2) Get employed;
3) Have access to choice housing;
4) Get laughed at while perusing stores at the mall;
5) Get married;
6) Get raped;
7) Feel offended after inappropriate slurs are made about them by a late-night talk show host;
8) Die again.
As important as all of the above things are, particularly #7, they're things that dead people cannot, practically, accomplish any longer. Various Jackass-/Weekend-At-Bernie's-style ruses could satisfy all of these in some form or other, to great amusement, which is why this one writes "practically."
~~see you at the Mall~~