Chapter 13: Shopping for souls
Copyright © 2015 by Brian Bixby.
I hear the Twilight Zone theme music running in my head. “The Mall of Lost Souls,” I say. “Is that in Pittsfield?”
Cindy laughs uneasily. Miranda offhandedly replies, “It’s metaphysically everywhere there’s a mall or any place devoted to shopping. Though this is the North American version.” She pulls out onto Main Street and heads west.
It seems one has to ask Miranda a lot of questions to get useful answers, so I then ask, “What do they do, buy souls there?”
“Yeah. No. Look, it doesn’t matter. That’s not why we’re going there. And shut up for a minute while I get this set up.” Miranda sounds impatient as she pushes buttons on the console, bringing up a display that looks like it was done by M. C. Escher. The moment she’s finished, she abruptly turns off on some back road, floors it, and sends us hurtling toward the edge of the road. Abruptly everything goes 4-D, or something like that. It’s like everything is more complicated than it looks, and we’re traveling in something that looks like a color x-ray of my large intestine.
And then we come out of it, everything goes back to normal, and we’re in a parking lot, doing about 88 miles per hour. Miranda savagely brakes, dropping our speed to about ten, and then turns into a parking space. There’s a mall on our left. It looks familiar, like a lot of malls, but I’m pretty sure I’ve not been to this one.
Miranda reaches into her bag, and brings out two pairs of sunglasses. She hands them back over the seat to us. “Put these on before you step out the door,” she instructs us, “and under no circumstance take them off until we get back here. If you do, the mall will get you.”
With what? A markdown sale? But I put them on, as does Cindy, and we all get out.
I look around. The mall had looked normal through the car windows before I put on the glasses, but now looks strangely anonymous. I could have sworn I saw signs for at least four familiar stores. Must be my memory playing tricks on me.
Cindy pipes up. “Why are we here?”
Miranda turns around. She doesn’t look happy. “We’re here to find out who the ghost is that’s haunting Jane.”
Cindy turns to me, all excited. “You’ve got a ghost haunting you? Why didn’t you tell me?”
Miranda cuts in, saving me the trouble of explaining. “Talk about that later. We’re on a clock here, folks. The mall doesn’t like people using magic to keep it from taking souls, and is eventually going to notice us. That will be a bad thing. And not only do we have to find out about Jane’s ghost, we need to find part of your soul here, too, Cindy Van Schacht. That’s the other reason I wanted you on this trip.”
What was the first reason? But I don’t get to ask, as Miranda turns around and heads to the mall entrance. Cindy and I follow. Just as we get to the entrance, I’m reminded of something, and ask Cindy, “What was the business of Miranda holding up fingers to you?”
Cindy smiles. “She was talking to me in my head, and proving it by telling me beforehand how many fingers she was holding up. According to her, I can read people’s thoughts, but I don’t know how to do it well. So that’s why it only sort of works for me.” Cindy’s smile gets wider. “And that’s why I don’t really need drugs!”
“Great.” I start to say it with enthusiasm, but it dies in my voice as I look around. I can see all the store fronts, but none of them have any store names on them. And the people walking around us all look preoccupied and a bit unhappy. It’s unsettling. I walk quickly and catch up to Miranda, pulling on her sleeve. She stops and turns, and I start to ask her where we’re going when I see something that causes me to gasp in shock.
The employee in the department store to our right has no face. She has no face. None. No face.
Abruptly Miranda’s hand clamps on my mouth, and she hisses in my ear, “Shut up. We don’t want people to notice us. Especially not mall security.”
Cindy comes up, asking, “What’s the matter?”
Miranda lets go of me. “Jane got freaked out by the store employees. So I’m warning you both, ignore anything unusual you see. We don’t want to draw attention.”
Cindy turns and looks where I was looking, and takes a sharp step back. She turns to Miranda. “What happened to her?”
Miranda replies, “She’s lost most of her soul. You don’t think anyone wants to work here or enjoys it, do you?”
I’ve recovered from my surprise, and have had a moment to think about this. “But why don’t the customers notice? There’s some talking to her, and they don’t see anything unusual.”
“Because they don’t,” Miranda says. “Since when do customers treat mall employees as if they were really people, anyhow? But it’s also part of the magic of this place. It blinds the customers. To them, everything looks normal.”
“Is that why I don’t see any store signs?” I ask.
Miranda nods. “But the customers without those glasses you’re wearing see signs for the stores they’re looking for. Now enough of this. We’ve got things to do.”
Miranda turns and starts walking. Cindy gives me a smile, and follows. I’m curious, so I decide to take off the glasses just for a moment to see what things look like. What can a moment hurt? It’s not like I can’t put the glasses right back on.
There’s a Sassy Sexy Suzy store on my left. That looks normal. It’s the same sort of lingerie I’d expect to see in any of their stores, knock-offs of what actresses wear on the steamier TV shows. I don’t see what the problem is. So I give the store a second look. I’ve never paid much attention to their selections before, so I’m surprised by what I see. The outfits on display really are attractive. They make the featureless mannequins look . . . oh, hot and sexual and steamy. And if I wore any of that lingerie I’d be hot and sexual and steamy. Eric would forget all about Double-D when he sees my breasts and thighs in that red teddy. I think it’s time I went shopping.
I walk into the store. The clerk is drop-dead gorgeous, but she’ll never look as hot as I’m going to look in what I’m going to buy. I just point, and she plucks one outfit after another off the rack. Every one of them is going to make me look great. I have her get thirty-one of them. That will give me one for each day of the month.
I’m just going to buy them when someone says to me, “Why don’t you go to the changing room and see how good you’ll look in them.” The thought of seeing myself as Eric will see me is making me feel . . . oh, I don’t know. Like I’m getting ready for sex, I suppose. So I take the first ten or so outfits back to a changing room.
It’s so depressing looking at myself in the changing room mirror. I can see why Eric turned me down. Worse yet when I take my clothes off. But I put on the first outfit, a lacy black pair of panties and bra, and I look . . . stunning. No man could resist me. No man will resist me. Especially not Eric.
Almost as I’m thinking it, a voice asks, “How do you look in it?” I turn, and it’s Cindy.
“Just look at me, Cindy,” I tell her. “Look! It’s perfect. Eric won’t ever look at another girl again.” Though now that I look this good, why settle for Eric?
Cindy doesn’t smile or tell me how great I look. She doesn’t seem to understand. Probably she’s jealous that she’ll never look this good, the ugly crow. “Who’s Eric?” she asks.
Before I can answer, I hear Miranda’s voice. “Never mind, Cindy. Let’s let Jane finish trying on outfits. We’ll be down at the food court, Jane, when you’re finished. Be sure to pay for those outfits on your way out.”
The two of them leave, but I don’t care. Miranda’s even more of a crow than Cindy. Probably wears all that black clothing to hide something, maybe ugly tattoos, or at her age maybe cellulite on her legs. Ugh! I take off the lingerie, and immediately get depressed with the sight of myself in the nude. It’s like I’ve gotten fat and ugly in moments. So I immediately put on another outfit, pink and black with a gauzy see-through top. I look even better in this one than the previous one. I’m so hot I just want to go out in the mall and mesmerize every man out there. I’ll have my pick of them. Eric can go take a hike. He’s missed his chance.
So I reach for my slacks to get my wallet. I don’t have enough cash to pay for all of this, that’s true, but my mom gave Donna and me a credit card “for emergencies only.” Well, this qualifies as an emergency. I don’t always carry it, in case I lose my wallet, so I have to check that I stuck it in there this morning.
It’s not in my pocket. Not just the credit card, my wallet! It’s not in the other pocket. My phone’s gone, too. I search the pockets over again. I look around the changing room, all along the floor. I check the pockets again. I look in the pile of lingerie. I check the pockets again.
I’ve lost my wallet. I’ve lost my wallet. If I brought it with me. Maybe I didn’t. I think, maybe . . . But I’m pretty sure I did stick it in my pocket this morning. So why isn’t it there?? I can’t pay for this stuff unless I can find my wallet. I can’t. I can’t. But I want these clothes. I need these clothes! I search my slacks and the room again. Nothing.
There’s only one thing to do. I doubt the clerk counted how many outfits I brought in here. I’ll have to put some of them on, hide them under my clothes, and walk out of here.
It turns out I can only put four of them on before I start stretching fabric. I put my own clothes on, gather up the remaining outfits, leave the empty hangers behind, and walk out of the changing room.
Right into a pair of sunglasses.
I have never shoplifted. Never, ever. Well, one time when I was seven, but it was candy. And I paid for it eventually, after my first stepfather finished punishing me. He used a belt.
I was just about to shoplift four outfits. I stand open-mouthed in horror at the thought. I turn to look at my right. Cindy’s there, looking worried. She knows. I blush with shame. I turn to my left. Miranda’s there. All she says is, “Cindy turned around and saw you drop your glasses as you headed into this store. Without the glasses, the mall got you.”
I feel defeated. “Yeah.” I don’t need to be told twice. I turn around to go back into the changing room. Miranda and Cindy come in with me. I strip off my clothing, then begin removing the store’s lingerie.
I notice something even more depressing as I undress. The outfits I thought made me look hot? They don’t. Well, nothing could make me look that hot, but this lingerie isn’t even all that good. It doesn’t even look or feel the same.
As I start putting my clothes back on, I give Miranda a sullen look. “Happy? Proved your point?”
Miranda shrugs. “You proved it for me.” She sighs, and then adds, “You might explain what happened to Cindy, to save her the trouble of trying to do the same thing. We don’t have all day, you know. Shouldn’t even have let you do this, but I think your idiotic move tricked the mall into thinking we’re normal.”
Gee, thanks for the backhanded compliment, Miranda. As I finish dressing, I tell Cindy what it was like. I have to get out a handkerchief from my pocket, because I’m to the point of crying when I think of how sexy I felt. I’ll never feel that good again, now that I see the real me again. No one will ever look at me that way. It was all a fucking illusion.
Cindy has the grace not to say anything while I’m talking, as we leave the store. So does Miranda, until I’m finished. Then she hands me my wallet and phone. I give her an annoyed look. She matter-of-factly tells me, “I learned how to be a pickpocket two or three hundred years ago. You were so distracted picking out lingerie, you were an easy mark.”
“Thanks,” I tell her with a minimum of actual thankfulness. Ungrateful? Sure. The whole experience has left a sour taste in my mouth. I want to be done and out of here.
As we walk down the hallway, Miranda goes on. “That’s how the mall works. It works on your emotions, undermining your own sense of value, and then it offers you something for sale that will solve your problems. So people buy, and buy, and buy. Eventually they run out of credit. Then the mall extends them credit, for a price. They have to work at the store. They never actually make enough money to pay off the mall, but that’s almost beside the point. They still want to buy stuff, and they’re working at some dreary job. Between those two forces, their souls gradually erode away. Once they get to be completely faceless, the store has their souls, and they’ll soon die.”
I shudder, thinking about the assistant at the lingerie store. She looked fabulous without the glasses, but with them on, she was a withered one-eyed creature. And then an even more horrible thought occurs to me. “What would have happened if they caught me shoplifting?”
In a flat voice, Miranda replies, “You’d have been sentenced to work off your crime as part of the custodial staff. They lose their souls even faster than the sales staff.”
I make a mental promise to myself never to take off these glasses again while I’m here. And I want to be out of here as soon as possible.
Out of the blue, Cindy asks, “Is there anything one can buy here without being owned by the mall?”
Miranda chews her lips for a bit before answering, “Anything, so long as you pay cash.”
Cindy smiles. “Good. After that, I think we deserve a treat. There’s some sort of ice cream store at the food court up ahead.”
I grab Cindy’s arm, spin her to face me. “No. I don’t want to stay here a moment longer than necessary.”
Cindy shakes me off. “Look, Jane, it’ll only be a few minutes. And you look awful. You could really use something to cheer you up.” Gee, thanks, Cindy. Way to make me feel better.
“Is this really necessary, Cindy?” Miranda asks.
“No,” Cindy replies, and then smiles. “But it will be fun.” And she turns and sets off at a rapid pace toward the food court.
Miranda and I are both surprised. Miranda at least has an excuse; unlike me, she doesn’t know how impulsive Cindy can be. We rush to follow Cindy. We catch up to her just as she goes into the ice cream shop.
There’s a hostess there at the front, looking down at the seating plan. Her uniform is strangely colorful. With the glasses on, every other employee’s uniform is gray. But this one is not only colorful, it looks familiar. I can’t quite place it.
And then the hostess looks up, and I know exactly where I saw it before. It was on my first full day in Netherfield. It was in the coffee shop I visited with Freddie. It wasn’t worn by an employee, but by a customer, a girl I didn’t know at the time. Cindy.
Cindy sees the hostess and shrieks horribly. She turns and runs off into the mall before Miranda or I realize what’s happened.
Miranda swears under her breath. She and I turn around. Cindy is already out of sight.
Miranda swears out loud. She turns to me. “We need to find Cindy as quickly as possible before she does something stupid. You go that way,” pointing to a corridor we’ve not gone down, “and I’ll go this way,” pointing to the corridor we came from. “Call as soon as you have her.”
Before I go, I look back at the hostess one more time. She looks just like Cindy, except that she has no mouth.
End of chapter thirteen
(If you don’t think you’ve been to the Mall of Lost Souls, you haven’t been paying attention. Which, frankly, is how the mall prefers it. And as we’ll find out in the next chapter, the mall has more than one way to trap its customers.)