Two fingers pulled away from my chapped lips in a mockery of the four lit cigarettes in the car. I exhaled a plume of white fog out the window and into the frigid humidity. Zed was the only one with a car or a license, so naturally Sab, John and I had all piled into the backseat. And Christie—Zed’s “girlfriend”, our Darth Vader of stupidity—just had to come. We edged into the mall’s parking lot, bony hips grinding into one another and against the doors.
We circled the infinite rows of occupied spaces until another round of cigarettes had almost passed. I didn’t understand why we always waited until the last week of holiday shopping to make this pilgrimage. The mall now overflowed with both the empty-handed and the over-laden.
Zed’s predatory turn signal flickered on in delight and yanked us out of our daydreams. The reverse lights of an old Bonneville conduced a universal cheer from our car. We edged up to the vacated space and noticed a police vehicle parked like a crooked painting. One wheel dangled awkwardly over the white line halfway into our treasured spot.
Zed must have circumvented the laws of physics or something, because we made it in with a few centimeters to spare. I hugged my belly through that narrow, fatal gap between car and car door. Christie, on the other hand, had to perform fat roll gymnastics to traverse the center console and evade the steering wheel. A few accidental honks and she was free out the driver’s side, carrot fingers grasping after Zed’s hairy, thin digits.
The two of them just made no sense. One moment, she was throwing things at him. The next, Zed was pushing the door closed behind us, masking moans and giggles of apology.
I looked to Sab and John. The flurry of finger tapping had begun, signaling the beginning of a Pokemon battle on their handhelds.
“Guys, let’s go,” I urged, annoyed. No response; more button mashing. A tempting wave provoked me to unplug the cable facilitating their distraction. But I let the urge crash past; I was always the diplomat. I walked up to them and tapped on their screens sharply.
“Dude, we’ll catch up to you,” Sab mumbled, “Christie wants to go to that organic soap and lotion place anyway.” Clearly this wasn’t a good prospect for any of us, though Sab’s greasy, straightened hair could have used a rinse. They had every right to go off on their own, but I couldn’t help but feel as if it were rude for us to abandon Zed when he was paying for the gas. I looked the two of them over and surrendered my attempt to make peace.
I paced towards the glass façade of the mall entrance, alone. The winter windows were obscured with condensation and grimy finger prints. I held the door open for a figure that was more shopping bag than woman, and slipped in the narrow gap after her. I was greeted instantly with the welcoming smell of bleach masking vomit on the old, cheap tile floors.
The few shops I passed featured the occasional gate barring off what used to be an ice cream vendor or a jewelry merchant. I seemed to be the only one without a group here. There were couples, yoga moms, church groups, a few homeless men coveting the real estate surrounding the fountain. I disappeared into the herd and bulldozed my way towards the store Christie had dragged Zed.
I had not expected to be so overwhelmed by the array of scents in here. Surely it was better than what I had just walked through but I couldn’t help but feeling critical of the mixture of almond butter, watermelon, and cocoa battling for my attention. I spent a few minutes wading around in the unoccupied corners, in between tables and employees, picking up a select few scents and humoring the organic craze that had swept my high school recently.
There were a few interesting combinations of hibiscus and banana, rosemary and orange. I couldn’t imagine that something like this would smell very good, let alone really clean you. Then, to my astonishment, I encountered a hand soap of Eucalyptus and Spearmint that might as well have been on a pedestal in the spotlight; this was undeniably it. “Stress Free,” it read, and I was brought back to memories of Australia and the chewing gum mom always carried around in her purse. I never liked that gum, how it burned my nose. But when there was no other option, I’d swallow my pride and ask for a piece.
At sixteen, this was the first year I had been able to earn my own money and I wanted to do something nice for the few people in my life. I flipped the bar of soap over in my palms and a price tag of eighteen dollars and ninety-nine cents slapped me across the cheek. Feeling the sting with one hand, I placed it back down on the shelf, defeated. Oh well, I thought, this stuff is way overpriced anyway. By this point, Zed and Christie would probably be finishing up in here, so I danced back around the displays, weaving between pyramids of merchandise, searching.
You could spot their out of proportion bodies even through this festival of people. Zed’s drooped head stuck out over the rest of the crowd, and sure enough, Christie would surface below when I reached them. But they were so close to the counter that I decided to continue loosely browsing until they checked out. Even though I had no merchandise in my hands, there would inevitably be that angry shopper yelling at me to not cut in line. People got so selfish around the holidays.
My feet carried me back around the perimeter of the store. I felt some facial scrubs and lotions which seemed to be popular. An old man was exclaiming over something for his “foot fungus” and I edged away uncomfortably, again meeting the Eukalyptus-Spearmint hybrid. The price tag had not changed. I sighed, spotting Zed finally bouncing his way to the exit, and returned it once more.
Before I had time to call out to them, they changed course sharply and I lost them in the stampede. A few collisions and apologies later, I reached an empty chair which I hopped on to scan the crowd. Two stores over I recognized my now reunited group making their way into a Hot Topic. Admittedly there was a bit of self-consciousness going into a store that sold studded leather and piercings, but I followed all the same.
Sab was reliving his brutal defeat of John’s Pokemon when finally I reunited with my group. I rolled my eyes at the absurdity of the story and noticed Zed’s empty hand that wasn’t being digested by Christie’s. He had resisted and not emptied his wallet for her. Woah, I thought, impressed. Then almost on-cue, her droning voice abruptly cut off Sab’s tale.
“We have to go back, Zed,” Christie pouted, ignoring us completely. The annoyance was written on everybody’s face as we met eyes. Zed began mumbling his reluctant reasons to deny her as we quickly dispersed. Things tended to get ugly if we got dragged into their arguments. I trailed behind Sab and John in the dim lighting as we browsed the wall of band tees.
We made our way through the labyrinth of shoppers and stores and displays, nothing really catching our attention. An occasional purchase here or there. We passed a set of tables outside the food court, empty, but for a rather violently skinny man dressed in too many layers. It seemed as if this man was having a conversation with the half-eaten lemon in his dirty palm. He quivered with emotion as he spoke. I felt a militia of goosebumps work their way up my back and quickly slipped myself in the middle of our group.
Perhaps two hours passed and we collected a great gamut of things. Sab and John spent a few bucks on some obscure albums from Europe that were marked down to less than two dollars. Zed had purchased more than I could pretend to remember for the famously unemployed Christie. I, with the limited money folded neatly in my pocket, had obtained a pack of Magic the Gathering cards and a candle for my mom. At this point in our venture it was rather clear that food was on all of our brains.
We headed back past the rows of stores running themselves out of business one free sample at a time. I took a handful of flavored popcorn, a pretzel bite, and a dime-sized club sandwich on a toothpick. We fell in line at separate “restaurants” in the food court and met up at an unwiped table. One by one, our cheap lunchroom trays obscured the varnished surface of an old map of the Floridian waterways. A cacophony of sneezes and coughs blended together amidst the jovial laughter of departing shoppers.
I had barely sat down before Sab and John had vacuumed their lunch and began a rematch on their handhelds. I found myself lost in their battle, not really paying attention to Christie’s endless spew of speech. Sab was down this time and John had a chance. They were perhaps seconds from conclusion when Christie ripped the cord out between them.
“Are you even listening to me?” came her demanding yell. We didn’t even make eye contact with each other. We just stared without a word at the cable between her fat fists. Our three glares slowly met hers. Zed buried his face in his phone, contacting nobody.
A few curse words were exchanged before we came down to a reasonable volume. I was acutely aware of several pairs of eyes lingering on our exchange. By now, a police officer had noticed our quarrel, scowling down a billowy moustache and deciding whether or not to intervene.
Christie continued dogmatically arguing that we shouldn’t leave yet. Zed had “promised her” that if she didn’t ask for much else he would get one or two things for her at the organics place. Christie was halfway through her ninety-five theses of why we had to go back when I cut her off.
“Christie, Christie, CHRISTIE!” I urged harshly in a subdued rage. She turned to me with a blazing gleam on her pale, fat face, ready to lop my head off. “Let’s go, and make this our last stop. We’re all ready to leave, but one more store isn’t going to kill us”. I was speaking more to Sab and John, who appeared mutinous. Christie slowly returned her overlarge backside to the seat underneath her, irritated, but placated. She looked triumphantly to first Sab and John and then to Zed, who had sank at least six inches in his chair.
Once we squeezed back into the shop, I found myself wrestling against the wall of customers and overdressed employees putting on a live display. This young lady with terrible acne was sitting, wide-eyed in a chair to an onlooking crowd of fifty or more. Once again, I found myself alone between friends and the crowd of onlookers.
A rush of guilt pierced me as I realized that despite my intentions I had not purchased much of anything for anyone. Half my money was eaten up on a t-shirt and my lunch. Another third of that had been eclipsed by the contents in my little shopping bag. But for the third time that day I found myself toe to toe with that ominously perfect Eukalyptus-Spearmint soap. I felt the weight of it in my hands, coveting it, turning over the ripples of color between my fingertips. I squeezed my eyelids shut before the price tag could stare back at me tauntingly again. One eye squinted open, hoping for a discount, or divine intervention, or something.
“What?!” I exclaimed. The price had risen by four dollars in the small time we had spent walking through the mall. Heat thundered through my face as I felt my fists clench perhaps too tightly around the hardened soap. Rationality left me for the briefest of moments and I looked around incredulously for a sales clerk to yell at. There was no one to be found. All faces were turned towards the live display.
I considered something then that had never crossed my mind before. I could take this, right now, and no one would know. I was so close.
I scanned along the cheap ceiling tiles, the people talking excitedly, the sales associates wearing fake smiles and leading unsuspecting victims to the most expensive products. The soap slipped itself into my bag just as advertised: “Stress Free”.
Without much delay, I eased my way through the tumult and caught back up with Zed and Christie. I was disappointed to realize that they were no closer to making a decision than when we were here before. Christie had already filled her arms with too many products, surely more than Zed could afford.
I always took my relationships for granted until I saw a clear example of a bad one. I thought of Sab and John, always cheerful, always open minded and excitable. I thought of mom, always spending too much on me every holiday. I knew what kind of money she brought in. She couldn’t afford for me to buy my own lunch at school, but somehow, each holiday I found myself unwrapping something even the wealthy kids could appreciate. I patted my bag, securely.
I grabbed Zed by the arm and half-yelled up to him, “I’m gonna just go wait at the fountains with Sab and John. You guys catch up when you figure it out, and please hurry. There’s a new episode of Doctor Who tonight.”
I slunk my way back across the shop and slipped towards the exit. My body barely crossed the threshold of the storefront when a hand soundlessly molested my shoulder. I whipped around in alarm, and stood face to face with a woman wearing a headset and a severe look, announcing words to me that I didn’t hear.
I knew. I knew before I turned around that she had seen my bag. My plunder. And she knew. She knew before I saw her that I thought I was getting away with their stuff. My thoughts shattered. My throat closed. But I checked! There was no one watching! No cameras! No staff! Nothing! I forgot how to blink for the better half of her sentences and eventually my helpless body was walked into the store room at the back. Eventually an officer banged the door open and I was handcuffed. My body started convulsing with terror, spluttering apologies and tears.
Globs of fluid poured out of my face in quantities I wouldn’t have guessed possible. I told my story and tried my every tactic. I begged to pay for the soap if only my mom didn’t have to know. The officer laughed and patted his beer belly. He said that kids like me needed to be taught a lesson. He’d kept an eye on my group since our disturbance at the food court. He said some things that caught my disbelieving mind: “momma’s boy”, “find some good friends”, “find Jesus”, “your daddy needs to show you what being a real man means”.
I sat there silently listening to his spew of insults. When he finished, my tears had evaporated. The growing boil of my rage had seen to that. My bloodshot eyes met his smug ones and I burned him. I seared him with every bit of my reddened glare. I had contempt in my heart so powerful and so hot that for a moment I was convinced these handcuffs would shatter and I would rip the moustache off his face..
We wheeled to the main entrance and the officer climbed out, leaving me alone, trapped in a metal cage. My face was swollen from the long, uninhibited cry. I noticed Sab and John in the distance, standing around awkwardly, talking to three officers. Zed and Christie stood perhaps twenty feet apart, each on their respective phones, cigarettes furiously in hand.
Then I saw Mom, striding up in a high-heeled fury. She broke a linear path through the families and the friends and the new acquaintances. She met the officers and within seconds they were marching my way. The crowd stared. I stared. She stared. And I knew in that moment I was done.
Through the crack in the window, her wet eyes leveled with mine.
“Ben”, she croaked, weakly, yet sternly. Her eyes shone with that of not anger, not accusation, but true disappointment. “Ben. I just don’t…” she trailed off. She blinked away her uncertainty. “Ben. I don’t even know what to say to you right now. You deserve to be arrested and sit in jail and think about what you have just decided”. She turned away, took a step, then turned back, expression altered somewhat. She leaned back in.
“I still love you, Ben. But I don’t know what to do with you sometimes. We’ll talk about this later.”
And after several minutes, my friends rode off with my bags. I rode off with police officers.