Again with the furniture store. Be it ever so cramped, there’s no place like home. Or maybe home was where you hid under the bed.
After more than a week of this, Shades had long since tired of trying to make up cheesy jokes about the most nerve-wracking part of his new life. Just wondering how long he could keep getting away with this before someone finally caught on to him. Though he always ended up crashing from sheer exhaustion, he hadn’t really had a decent eight hours’ sleep since his first night. If he wasn’t awakened by half-remembered nightmares about John and Amy, he was instead disturbed by imaginings of guards striding through the dark, empty “after hours” places, on patrol.
On the hunt.
Mostly just remembering another strange day.
Again in dirty clothes after an all-too-brief shower. His hair still smelled of chlorine, and he hoped it might conceal the ever-intensifying odor of his clothing. His days of being able to walk among other people without drawing too much attention to himself were counting down by the hour. In recent days, he had taken to scavenging change from vending machines, arcade games, and pay phones, spotting random coins— once even lucking out and finding a fiver— on the floor, had even pocketed a couple tips someone had left on unoccupied tables in the food court. And now he would have to take it to the next level, resorting to the old Five Finger Discount just to survive. A dangerous venture, as he would have to learn it quickly in this place where the guards do more than just kick you out.
He regretted using so much of his meager cash supply at the mall’s indoor swimming pool, but he had seriously needed to clean himself up. Of course, he stuck around for the whole session, and not just to get his money’s worth— it had been too many moons since the last time he got to go swimming. Fortunately, he had taken his gym shorts back home to wash for the weekend, finding them smashed flat in the bottom of his pack, but he was barely able to pass them off as swim trunks. Still, he was able to have a few hours of fun, washing away days of stress in the pool, as well as dirt and sweat in the locker room shower.
It felt so unreal to just slip back into his old troubles again. Mounting all that pressure with each garment he put back on. Stepping back into the nightmare as he left the locker room. After swimming for several hours, he was famished, so he would have to find the cheapest meal he could, then go back under his bed.
Though a small piece of the experience still lingered with him. For as long as he could remember, any time he went swimming, the sensation of floating stuck with him for a couple hours after he left the pool. As if he could just spread his arms and glide through the air.
Floating was a good description of how he felt at moments like this, as if he was walking along the bottom of the ocean. As if he was just hovering, bobbing, not so much that he was drifting through these rooms as much as it was that the rooms simply moved around him. The other half of the time he just had to put one foot in front of the other and take each floor tile on faith because with each step he took he could feel himself falling.
The jury was still out on which of these two states was worse.
He slid back and forth between the two in the course of his second mission. Swim, then shower, before stealing clean clothes. Spending every minute not quite believing he was doing this. Had to look middle class to keep a low profile. Picking out clothes based on whether or not they had ink-tags, and if they did, in places where he could cut the fabric around them in less conspicuous places. Hiding each tag somewhere it wouldn’t be found anytime soon. Taking one item from each store, then making sure he wasn’t followed before entering another.
First his jacket, to cover his dirty shirt. Then his shoes, remembering that people judged you by your shoes. Then pants, to make his outer appearance complete. Shirt, so he could unbutton his jacket again. Underwear and socks, so now maybe he wouldn’t smell so much.
By the end of it, he was a nervous wreck. He wondered how the hell real shoplifters did it. He had once resolved that he would never steal unless it was a matter of survival. The cruel joke here was that it was. When he saw himself in the mirrors and such, he could see that he was turning into a vagrant before his very eyes, and that was making it harder and harder to avoid the guards’ attention. That left him with a choice of risking getting caught stealing, or getting caught for simply existing.
In the end, he concluded that stealing was a lesser sin than suicide.
At one point, he had run an experiment wherein he tried to follow some people out. But no matter how hard he tried to be subtle, they got suspicious and started trying to evade him. One even threatened to call Security. Exactly what I need… He knew that if he tried to explain, he would just come across as some kind of nut. In the end, he had to abandon the experiment for fear of drawing too much attention to himself.
In the course of his explorations, he had discovered that this place wasn’t as infinite as he had originally imaged. Huge, certainly, but he found that the mall was divided into about a dozen “sectors”—each with its own architectural styles and atmosphere, and he was still learning his way around. On one hand, he was glad he could find his way back to certain places, but if the mall was never-ending, he would at least have been able to make a fresh start in each new sector.
Before returning to House of Clutter, he passed through a hall that was empty, most of the stores closed at this time. It made him think of how empty his life had become of late. Aside from the few vaguely familiar images he could find here, his whole world had vanished without a trace. Just as he had similarly vanished from that world without a trace. He was glad Mom had been out of town on the night of the experiment, had been spared the ordeal he currently endured, but he also knew she must be pulling her hair out by now, and he had no way to tell her he was alright. Alright for now, at least. Admittedly, between his job and hers, the two of them had seen less and less of each other in the last couple years, in spite of living under the same roof. Still, he was surprised at the hole her absence left in his life. His mom, all of his friends, he even found himself missing his old routine, which he had chafed under for years.
What was left behind when the dust settled was utterly alien, or at best only a cheap knock-off of the most shallow elements of his old life.
In this place where there would be no witnesses if anything happened, he was again reminded of how precarious his situation was anymore. The last time he was at Bankshot, DJ told him about a man who had once killed himself in the very atrium he had wandered when he first came here. And how. After alternately begging and demanding to be shown the way out, he had finally blown his brains out. In front of a live audience.
Though it had happened well before Shades ever set foot in this forsaken place, the story still freaked him out. Especially knowing there would be no police investigation. No investigation of any kind, knowing Security. Just like it was with the man who warned him that fateful night.
The day before, he had gone to the site of the suicide. The man had done himself in with an automatic shotgun, and sure enough, the wall had been plastered over in that place. Right where he was cornered at the end. Just like all of the other incidents, a mute testimony of the evil that resided within these walls.
Yet that wasn’t even the worst of it. When he had turned to be on his way, he saw something out of the corner of his eye. What he saw when he turned around, his mind still adamantly insisted on attributing to sleep deprivation. Blood, dipping, oozing down the wall as if it had happened only five minutes ago.
The part that made him shiver as he made his way down that vacant hall was the image of the wall itself soaking it up, making him wonder if there really had been anything to clean up later.
He suspected that this place was full of scary images, sometimes he got the impression that some of the kids he saw didn’t seem to like this place as much as one would expect. As if they had perhaps gotten a brief glimpse of this place’s true face. This whole place ticked like a clock— he pictured an alarm-clock time-bomb— waiting. For what, Shades didn’t know. A deathwatch, a giant ticking clock.
And sometimes he got the disturbing idea that it was counting down to his demise.
This place messed with his mind— he was increasingly certain it was more than just the loss of sleep. There were forces at work here that no one seemed to understand, moving behind the scenes. He was afraid the place itself was somehow alive, in some way he wasn’t sure he wanted to know.
It made him wonder how many of the passing people here were real. How many were just camouflage for passing victims. Based on what DJ had told him, he had come farther than most, and the thought really frightened him, too far now to ever close my eyes.
Lost in thought, Shades nearly tripped over a bench, catching his feet and grabbing onto the back of the bench. As he righted himself in this darkened corridor, he stepped around the bench, gazing at it as if at some abstract art display. For a moment, he wondered if he should have disrupted this little scene, which for some reason felt like a still shot from some surreal movie.
Again remembering the vision that jolted him awake whenever he dozed, of himself curled up comfortably on a bench very much like this while guards quietly surrounded him, he wondered if something along those lines may have happened here. For a moment, he half expected to see blood on the seat, but everything looked okay. It was while examining the bench that he noticed the card sitting on the far end of the seat.
He paused for a moment before approaching the bench, again not quite sure why he thought of it as a scene. Yet he almost felt outside himself, watching himself, as he played out some part he didn’t fully understand. For a moment, he almost swore someone was watching this, but when he looked around, he saw no one. No cameras, either, that he could see.
Feeling for all the world like this whole situation was another weird dream, he reached down and picked up the plastic card. It was the right size for a credit card, had a black strip across the back. Across the front was the acronym FMBNC, then First Municipal Bank of New Cali, printed underneath in fine print.
Holding it in his hand, he again wondered what he was doing. A voice in his head asked him if perhaps this may have been left for someone else. Another part of him knew, just knew, that it had been laid out and was waiting right here just for him.
Or someone like me, Shades concluded.
That was when he noticed there was a scrap of paper left underneath the card. He picked it up and read a hastily scrawled note: Jackals closing in. No way out. Don’t let THEM have it. Upon further inspection, he caught the number 4963 scribbled on the back.
Shades again paused in understandable confusion. Should I have taken it? Am I the one? Am I fulfilling some mysterious last request? Or am I now cursed?
But now he had the card, and its previous owner had cast it off. Finders keepers, and all that jazz. Of course, he had his own dark suspicions about who “them”— who the jackals— might be, and by the simple act of keeping it he would be fulfilling the writer’s cryptic last request. As much as he hated the scavenger-esque feeling of walking away with what was likely a dead man’s possession, he felt deep down that it had been left for him, whether its previous owner knew it or not. So he put it in his pocket and walked away.
It’s mine now.
Yet that mystical feeling hung on. He had no idea what the future held, for himself or his friends, but he had ventured into this dungeon and found his first real treasure. He was where he was, and could only take things as they came. It may have sounded grim to some, but he was beginning to understand what Master Al had told him about how one of the greatest strengths one could possess was the ability to improvise when the going gets tough.
But what a tradeoff. Yes, there were some parts of his old life he didn’t mind, some he was glad to be rid of, but not all of it— though definitely the monotony— and he wished he hadn’t lost his friends in the process. Sometimes it was all he could do to shake off the fear of being alone, left on his own— and much sooner than expected.
Shades had made a wrong turn on the way home from work one night, and now he was lost on that proverbial Unknown Road. His fondest wish was for Arthur, or Tom, or especially John or Amy, to explore it with. Just like his fragmentary vision of her that night, he felt that he— and they as well, out there somewhere— was now cruising on some endless highway.
Just trying to read all the new road signs.