Chapter 14: Questions of identity
Copyright © 2015 by Brian Bixby
The image of the mouthless Cindy stays with me. It’s like an omen of what will happen to Cindy if we don’t find her. I was ticked at Cindy for wanting to stop for ice cream, but nothing deserves getting turned into one of the faceless dying souls here. I go running down the mall’s corridor, looking left and right for any sign of Cindy. She’s pretty tall, so I hope I can pick her out.
There’s a crowd ahead of me where several corridors come together. I start to swerve around it, and then come to a dead halt. Someone in that crowd is crying loudly. I know that’s Cindy’s voice. It sounds like the time she fell apart looking at all her pills.
I get out my phone, call Miranda, tell her where I am as best I can, and then go plunging into the crowd. For once, being small helps, small and determined. I manage to push through or under the crowd until I break into the center.
It’s Cindy, all right. She’s lying on the floor, crying and moaning, with her hands covering her face. The image of the “other Cindy” comes to me, scaring me. I rush to kneel down by Cindy and pull away her hands. I don’t dare say anything until I see her face.
To my great relief, Cindy still has all her features. But she sees me, and she shrieks even more, wrenching her hands away from me, and turning away while covering her face again.
What the hell can be wrong with her? And then I realize that she’s not wearing her sunglasses. Damn. That means the mall has her. Why she isn’t shopping for, oh, I don’t know, Taylor Swift albums, I don’t understand. I don’t know what to do. So I stand up, to look for Miranda.
What I see is much, much worse: mall security. I don’t know what those creatures are, but they aren’t human. They look dangerous, much more than I can handle. And they’re coming this way.
I have to do something. I don’t want to think what the mall security will do to Cindy. I get down beside her and savagely pull away at her hands. The moment she sees me, I yell, “Cindy, it’s me, Jane.”
She stops crying for a second. And then her face turns hopeless, and she pulls away from me again, crying even harder.
I’m desperate. So I do the one thing I wouldn’t even consider doing otherwise. I yank at Cindy’s hands again. And this time, the moment I get them off her face, I pin one down with my legs, hold the other, whip off my sunglasses, and put them on Cindy.
I figure I’ve experienced this before. I can resist it for a bit, long enough to see the travel agency nearby. Trips to Cancun, the Rivera, Tahiti. I get up and head over toward the agency’s entrance. I’m already imagining lying on a beach with a drink at my side and aacck!!
Horrible pain shoots up my arm as it gets twisted behind me. I try to scream, but something is choking me. I struggle to get free so I can go to a tropical beach and leave all my cares away, including being strangled. I try to aim a kick at whoever is holding me, hoping it’s a guy whose chances at fatherhood are about to be ruined, but my arm gets twisted even harder before I launch my kick.
And then I’m wearing sunglasses again. The hold on me is released, and I almost drop to my knees, I feel so weak. My head feels like it’s going to explode. But I’m free of the mall’s influence again. So much for being able to resist it myself. Stupid Jane.
I take my bearings. I’m standing up, still in the central court of the mall, but not where I was seemingly a moment ago. I panic. Where’s Cindy?
I turn around and see Miranda, who’s standing right behind me, looking grim. Cindy’s holding onto her. And she’s saying something. I finally make it out. She’s saying, “Jane, give me your hand.” What’s weird is that I’m standing right in front of Cindy, but she’s not looking at me, or at Miranda for that matter. She’s just staring, turning her head back and forth. “Jane, give me your hand,” she says again, as she turns her head and looks right past me. She doesn’t seem to see me. And she’s not wearing the sunglasses.
I reach out and take her hand. Cindy immediately turns to Miranda. “Is that Jane who took my hand?”
Miranda nods. Cindy looks relieved. But she doesn’t look at me.
I look to Miranda. “What’s happened to Cindy? Is she blind?”
Miranda’s mouth twitches. “She ran into a post and broke her sunglasses.”
Cindy chimes in. “And I can’t see you as you, Jane.” She turns to look at me. “I can see there’s someone there, but that someone looks like me, missing some of my face.” She looks around with a disturbed look on her face. “They all look like me. The worst ones have no face at all.”
I’m confused. “Why isn’t she off buying stuff like I did?” I ask Miranda.
Miranda presses her lips together in thought for a bit, and then answers. “I think, because Cindy’s sense of identity is more fragile than most people’s, the mall is striking at that. And since it already has part of her soul, it can do a damn fine job of it. At least that’s my guess. I don’t really know.”
Cindy looks at Miranda, shudders, and immediately looks away. Sounding both a little spacey and kind of angry, she asks, “How can it have my soul? I’ve never shopped here.”
Miranda offers an uncomfortable laugh before she replies, “Because you developed this habit of suppressing yourself, going still and thoughtless. In a way you were denying yourself. The part you denied came here.”
How Miranda knows this, I don’t know, but I don’t care. It makes a certain amount of sense, I guess. Cindy seems to agree. She says, “That part of me was the hostess in the ice cream shop?”
Miranda’s surprised by how quickly Cindy figured that out. “Exactly.”
A determined look settles on Cindy’s face. “In that case, we’re going back there, now.”
Miranda shakes her head. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
Cindy doesn’t even glance at her. “I do. Either you two are coming with me or I do it alone.” And with that she starts walking. I stay with her. Miranda doesn’t come along at first, but speedily catches up. When she joins hands with Cindy again, she says, “I hope you know what you’re doing.” Cindy doesn’t respond.
Cindy drops our hands as soon as we enter the ice cream shop. Even though she sees the rest of us as looking like warped versions of herself, she can somehow pick out her hostess look-alike, because she marches straight at her.
The hostess had just shown some customers into a booth. She turns and sees Cindy. And then she transforms. Her face splits open to show a wide mouth with sharp pointed teeth. Her fingers turn into claws with long nails. Call it the Count Orlock look, if Count Orlock looked like an awkward teenage girl. Orlock-hostess charges at Cindy.
Just as they reach each other, Cindy sticks out her right arm and grabs the hostess by her neck. The hostess’s neck suddenly seems to get longer as if it were some sort of snake, her head twists, and she sinks her sharp and pointed teeth into Cindy’s arm. Her long talons slash at the front of Cindy’s clothes, turning them into ribbons and drawing blood. Blood is pouring off Cindy’s arm as well, where she’s been bitten.
I cry out, but Cindy herself doesn’t even seem to notice that’s she’s being torn to shreds. Instead, her look becomes ferocious. I can see the muscles in her arm tighten. It’s too much for the Orlock-hostess, who lets go her bite on Cindy’s arm. Her face, convulsed with pain, contracts until the mouth is almost gone. Her arms flail wildly and then drop to her side. Barely able to breathe, the creature croaks, “You can’t kill me. You’ll be killing yourself.”
Cindy laughs, an exultant laugh. “Kill you? You are a part of me. You don’t exist but for me. All of your power comes from me. And now I’m taking it back, all of it. There isn’t going to be any brain-dead Cynthia Van Schacht anymore.” And with that, she tightened her grip even more.
Cindy’s words seem to have paralyzed the creature. It just stares at her. Its mouth relaxes and transforms into a normal shape. Its eyes glaze over and close. Then it began shrinking and fading. Within seconds it is gone. And Cindy Van Schacht is standing there, unharmed. There is no trace of the injuries the Orlock-hostess inflicted on her.
Cindy turns to smile at us, and smiles even more broadly when she sees us. “Hey, I can see you two again, really, the way you’re supposed to look.”
I can’t help but smile myself. I look over at Miranda, but she’s not smiling. Instead, in an urgent tone, she says, “That was probably the most impressive display of magic I’ve seen in a long time, Cynthia Van Schacht, but the mall must now know we’re here. We’ve got to leave, now!”
I see something tall, dark, and ominous coming up behind Miranda and shout out a warning, “Miranda! Behind you!”
Miranda spins about, long knives appearing in each hand. It’s one of the inhuman security guards. In one smooth motion, Miranda stabs the guard with her left blade while slicing off its head at the neck with the other. Green fluid shoots out of the thing in all directions. Miranda yells at us, “Make for the nearest exit, both of you.”
I don’t have to be told twice. I do not want one of those security guards to get hold of me. I dash out, wait for Cindy to catch up, and we start running down the mall, looking for an exit.
We turn a corner, only to find ourselves in a dead end with the rest rooms. Cindy comes to a stop, turns to me, and asks, “Where’s Miranda?”
I shake my head. “I hope she’s following.”
Cindy replies, “We’d better go look. We need to find another way out, anyhow.”
I nod my head. We both turn around and start heading back the way we came. We turn around the corner . . . and I stop dead.
One of the security guards is directly in front of me. Before I can even turn to run away, one of its tentacles shoots out. In an instant it slips over my head, enveloping me in its flesh. It’s warm and wet and icky. I close my eyes and try to reach up to pull it off. Before I do, I feel a pricking at my neck, and suddenly I can’t feel my body anymore. It’s like I don’t exist below the neck. And then something is poking into my ears and nose, and forcing open my jaws, and pulling back my eyelids. I can’t help but look. But it’s not what I expect, the flesh of the tentacle. It’s a zillion impossible images. I can’t see them properly, I can’t focus, and yet I can’t look away. It hurts. It’s doing the same to the rest of my senses with loud noises, weird smells, even strange tastes in my mouth. I can hardly think. And yet I can feel it’s somehow getting inside me. It’s confusing me so I can’t grab onto anything to fight it. It’s taking me over.
I’m bumping up and down. There are yells and explosions. What’s happening? I was being absorbed by the security guard, and I couldn’t feel anything below my neck. Now my body is being jostled every second.
I open my eyes. I can’t focus them. I don’t have my sunglasses on! I try to move, and can only squirm a bit.
“Be still, Jane, we’re almost there.” It’s Cindy’s voice. I lift up my head and look again. Cindy’s face is tilted horizontally, down by my abdomen. And then I realize she’s carrying me. I’m the one who’s horizontal. I almost laugh. It comes out sounding more like a burp. Cindy glances down at me and smiles.
After several more seconds of running, Cindy announces, “We’re here.” She puts me down, leaning me against something. It’s Miranda’s car. We’re out in the parking lot. I can barely stand. Cindy throws open the car door and almost tosses me in, following in right behind me. She shoves me into a sitting position and buckles my seatbelt before doing her own.
I really don’t know what’s going on. I look across Cindy, out the car windows, and see Miranda running toward us. Every so many steps, she turns around and holds up her arms crossing each other and some sort of light or bomb or something hits her, knocking her back.
After several of those hits, Miranda finally reaches the car. She opens the driver’s door and jumps in. “You two okay?” she asks as she turns on the ignition.
Cindy says, “Jane’s still a bit out of it, but she’s conscious.”
Miranda sounds stressed. “We don’t have much time. I’ve got to shift to the astral drive without a running start. It’s going to be rough. Hold on.”
Just as the weird 4-D effect begins again, the car is hit by something exploding against it. And then it’s rolling over and over in a firestorm.
End of chapter fourteen
(You think maybe Jane’s getting a bit skeptical of Miranda’s abilities? OK, so Miranda saved her from Genevieve and a devastating spirit. But just in this little adventure, Jane’s had her mind attacked three times . . . and whatever happened to the car, we know it’s not going to be good. But what neither Jane nor Miranda know is that someone else has been watching what they’ve been up to, and that someone has their own agenda, which we’ll discover in the next chapter.)