Saturday, November 14, 2020

Story: "The Last Mall"

It's been a while, hasn't it?


The mall was dying. I supposed its time was done. When I was a kid and nobody called us "Millennials," Burr Place Mall was the center of the universe, full of toy stores where I could look for new Transformers, bookstores where I could find new Garfield collections, and the food court where I could chow down on chicken nuggets. The mall near my house had costume contests on Halloween, Santa on Christmas, concerts, comic shows, celebrity appearances. But the bookstores and toy stores had gone bankrupt, the celebrities had all gone online, and there were better restaurants right outside the building. A mall across town had closed most of its stores and was now being used mostly for office space. The same fate probably awaited Burr Place.

My main reason for going was to buy a new pair of pants, but I could have gone to any Wal-Mart or Target or Belk for that. I went into Burr Place mostly for nostalgia's sake. This visit could be my last. Most of the stores were shuttered. The main hallway was so empty I felt like I was trespassing.

Although I did see one new sign of life. A banner hung in the window of the old Kay-Bee Toys that read "GRAND OPENING - NOW HIRING" I couldn't tell what it was selling, but it was full of strange equipment, both high- and low-tech. A team of women in red and black jumpsuits manned control consoles right out of a spaceship or nuclear submarine. Dots flashed on screens. An abacus hung on the wall, its beads moving left to right on their own. Chemicals bubbled through tubes along the ceiling. Hamsters ran on wheels.

On a platform overlooking everyone sat a man with a bushy black mustache, wearing a naval peacoat and a white cap that obscured his eyes. He saw me and rose from his leather chair. "Ah, you've made it," he said, stepping down from his platform. "I am Captain Henry Bruno. Please come this way, we don't have much time."

He headed toward the door in the back, while one of the women glared at me and said, "Please don't keep the Captain waiting."

I obliged and followed the "Captain" into the back.

Bruno sat behind a desk surrounded by sea charts, star charts, and printouts of spreadsheets. He gestured to the chair across from him. I took a seat. "So tell me a little about yourself."

"Um, well, I was born and raised here in the area. I'm currently managing a customer service call center, and I just got back from a trip to Alaska."

Bruno picked up a piece of paper. "Your resume didn't mention any managerial experience."

"Resume? This is a job interview?"

"You're not Hunter Ricard?"

"No, not even close." I told him my real name. "I'm just here to buy some pants."

"Oh dear." He adjusted his cap. "This has all been a misunderstanding. I thought you were my two o'clock."

One of the women from out front opened the door. "Captain, a Hunter Ricard is here to see you."

"Of course." Bruno got to his feet. "Sir, please accept my apologies. I didn't mean to impose on you."

"It's all right," I told him. "I was curious anyway. About what kind of store this is."

"Store?" Bruno smirked. "This is no store. It's a command center."

"For what? Who are you?"

"The captain of this vessel. And I am recruiting a crew."

I looked behind me out the door. There was a youngish man waiting at the entrance. Behind him, a Sbarro's was still open. "With all due respect, sir," I said, "this is a shopping mall."

"Correction: was a shopping mall. The only businesses left will either close or join us on our mission. We are right about to launch."

"Launch what?"

"Young man, do you know anything about interdimensional travel?"

"What does that have to do with anything?"

"Just that the architecture of the average American indoor shopping mall happens to be uniquely suited for it. The size, the shape, the wiring, the plumbing, all enable it to travel dimensions with the greatest of ease, as long as you use the right technology to harness it. You look shocked. Something had to be done with this derelict old building. My employer bought it, and once we launch, virtually anything can be built in its place."

"You don't seriously expect me to believe all that?"

"You don't have to," he said. "You'll know before too long."

I stormed out of that "store" and headed on to the Old Navy at the far corner. If that guy and those ladies wanted to play Starfleet back there, that was their problem. Things must be bad for Hunter Ricard if this seemed like a good career move.

I found a nice pair of black jeans at Old Navy, but still needed to try them on. I was in the changing room, just buttoning them up, when the ground jerked out from under me, and flung me into the mirror. I zipped and went out. The girl at the checkout counter was fixing her shaken-up hair, frowning.

A siren blared, and Captain Bruno's voice echoed out. "Attention. Launch sequence has been initiated. All non-essential retailers please evacuate now."

"Oh come on," the checkout girl shouted. "You said we were gonna get more of a head's up!" She grabbed my arm. "This way. There's an exit in the break room."

She snatched up her purse on the way through, and held the door open for me. The daylight in the parking lot blinded me for a moment. There were sirens screaming out here, too. Other clerks and customers were streaming out of other exits. I ran with the Old Navy girl all the way to the edge of the parking lot.

The sidewalk shattered. The outer walls cracked as they lifted up. The mall rose out of the ground, foundation and all, and lifted itself into the sky. I couldn't find anything that might have propelled it. It was floating under its own power.

Parts of the mall proceeded to shift around, fold back, compress, until it hardly resembled either a shopping mall or a ship at all. A box rose from one wall, revealing a window where I could see a small figure that must have been Captain Bruno looking down on us.

The cracks in the concrete walls lit up. I heard a high-pitched noise—at first the whine of an airplane engine, then the squeal of an electric guitar.

The mall stretched and shrank all at once, then was gone. All that was left was a vast pit surrounded by empty parking spaces and confused customers and elderly mall-walkers. I could see my car clear on the other side. It was a bit of a trek, but at least I was still on this planet. I reached into my pocket for my keys—

—and screamed.

"My keys! My wallet! My phone! It was all in my other pants!" I was still wearing the black jeans I had tried on. The other pants were lying crumpled on a bench in a changing room in an old Navy in what used to be a shopping mall in this dimension. Who knows when I'd ever see them again?

"Geez, that sucks," the Old Navy girl said. "Need help getting home?"

"I hate to impose. But if you don't mind..."

She took her phone out of her purse. "I'll call you a cab. Ugh, I can't believe I sent them my resume. Never been so glad to get ditched in my life."

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