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Its Beak Was Quivering

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Tuesday, I was off. I watched the electoral college votes roll in with Kelly, a bong, and - later - a bottle of Hennessey’s. Wednesday morning, I was hung over, pissed, and not in the mood for the Baldwin Mall’s shit.

I ignored the fresh cracks weaving between shelves of leggings in the Macy’s Women’s Casual department. I ignored the door-less wall outside Macy’s, and the new door by the Mural Entrance. I ignored the pile of elf dolls in the window of Wet Seal, and I ignored the fact that Claire’s had been shut down and hastily boarded up with plywood.

I had my crucifix and bible in my backpack, and I planned on ignoring any X-Files dumbfuckery I might happen across. I’d been trying really hard since the primaries to get excited about Hillary Clinton, I’d express-mailed my absentee ballot to the swing state in which I was registered, and then I’d watched it all fall apart, leaving me staring down four long years of apologizing to the world for the Sentient Yam in Chief’s late-night Twitter rants.  

So I ignored the cracks, I ignored the doors, and I ignored the maintenance men painting  a patch of wall along the atrium. I didn’t glance into Forever 21 to see if Evie was working, like I usually did. I couldn’t handle the sight of anything orange. Not even Evie’s hair.  

But, as I walked past Grandma’s Attic Toys and Dolls, I inadvertently looked through the huge windows. And I saw something I couldn't ignore.

Not the Snow Princess Limited Collection. Not even the elf dolls, scattered across every flat surface. But two young girls, standing close together, staring out at me, smiling.  

They were, maybe, twelve. Their skin was porcelain-pale. Their hair was thick and black, to match their lacy, old-fashioned dresses. Their mouths were small, red, and perfectly painted. And their eyes were pitch-black. One of them raised a dainty, flawless hand.  She waved.

I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t even startled. I felt nothing but pure, unbridled anger.  

I stormed straight through the door of Grandma’s Attic. But, in the three seconds I’d not been looking at them, the porcelain-skinned, black-eyed girls had managed to hide. Except for me, the store was empty. 

Yeah, screw that. They weren’t escaping this time. 

I strode the length of the shop, looked behind every shelf of engraved picture frames and  dollhouse furniture and big-eyed stuffed animals. Nothing. 

“Sir!  Can I help you find something?”

I whirled around. The Muslim girl with the scarf stood behind the register, staring at me authoritatively.  

“Yeah!”  I stammered. “Uh, there were two little girls in here a minute ago. Teenagers. Really pale. Where did they go?”

The Muslim girl looked at me the way you’d look at a misbehaving kindergartener.  

“What are you talking about?” she said condescendingly. “I just opened. You’re the first person in here.”

Now, lemme just stop here and say there was no excuse for what I did next. If I had been thinking clearly, I would have arrived at the fairly obvious conclusion that a woman with an accent and a hijab was probably even less enthusiastic about the future President Trump than I was. But I wasn’t thinking clearly.  

“Are you KIDDING ME?” I screamed. “They were RIGHT THERE!”

I charged towards the register and attempted to get behind the counter, sure - in my frantic, hung-over haze - that the pale girls with black eyes were hiding there, giggling. The cashier stood in my way, holding her cell phone at chest level with one hand, reaching into her pocket with the other.  

“Get out,” she snarled. “Now.”

I stopped. I recognized the red button on her phone’s screen - she was recording me. Seething, I turned around to leave.  

“Come back, and I call security,” she called after me.  

I raised a middle finger. I hoped she knew what that meant.  

I walked through the corral doors of Jackie’s Dogs at 12:17 to a glaring, cussing Lina. I was late again, and she had to pee. And, since the food court bathrooms were still closed, she had to waddle all the way up to the second floor to do so. I was 0 for 2 that morning, pissing off women left and right.  I’d become the President Trump of the Baldwin Mall.

Tsukaya Grill was closed. The entire stand was blocked by giant black squares, the type the mall used to hide stores under construction. I realized that, in the day I’d been off work, a few places had shut down.  Claire’s was boarded up. The windows of Sephora had been blacked out, and there was a heavy chain with a lock at the door.

“Yo, Damien!” a woman’s voice knocked me from my thoughts.  

Evie was standing at the register. With her was the black goth girl who’d told me about the stairs in the woods. Today, she was wearing skinny jeans, combat boots, an Amberlin t-shirt, and a nose ring.

“Hey! I… saw you last week,” I said weakly.  

The black girl held out her hand. “Saskia. I work at Spencer’s. I’m Evie’s roommate.”

“And my secret lover,” Evie added.

“Damien,” I said.

She crinkled her nose. “Your parents named you after the evil little boy from The Omen?”

“Yeah, that’s what I always thought. But my cousin told me my mom actually got the name from The Exorcist.”

“Because that’s so much better,” Evie said sarcastically.

They ordered onion rings and, as Lina was still off pee-ing, I threw them in the deep fryer. The food court was nearly empty, save a few young mothers with strollers and meandering retirees. 

Amongst the milling patrons, I saw Axel the security guard. A young dude in a security uniform stood nearby; I’d never seen him before. I thought about what Avni had said - another security guard quit.  Axel was talking to a thirty-something Asian man in a suit and tie. I hadn’t seen him around, either.  

“That’s the fourth new guard since October,” Saskia said.  

Evie snorted. “Is it that hard to find a good security guard? Like, 90% of the job is sitting on your ass.”

“They keep on quitting. Not just security, either. I heard we’ve had the highest employee turnover of any mall in the county since 2008.”

“Who’s the Asian guy?” I asked.

“That’s Kevin Chang,” Saskia said. “New general manager. The last one ran for the hills after the Promenade construction went over-budget. Corporate doesn’t love this place right now.”

“Are you the KGB?” Evie asked Saskia. “How do you always know this shit?”

Saskia smirked. “I have my ways.”

We talked for a bit, I gave them their onion rings, and they scampered off to work. Axel, though, spent a bit more time in the vicinity of the food court. The Asian guy - Kevin, the new manager - left, and I later saw Axel talking to two maintenance guys outside of Best Buy. He handed them a black camera bag.

Best Buy was relatively new. They’d taken over a large store-space, nearest to the sets of sliding glass doors that led to the food court parking lot, in June. This was good news for management, apparently, because it was one of the biggest spaces in the mall and it had been empty since Barnes & Noble closed in 2014. They’d been advertising a huge Black Friday sale, starting at midnight.

My shift was quiet. My anger and my hangover wore off, and I thought about the Muslim girl at Grandma’s Attic. I’d really been a jerk to her.  

Axel came by Jackie’s at 7:45, just as Lina and I were closing up. Lina was counting the register while her husband, Jose, hung around the other side of the counter, still in his Best Buy manager’s uniform. I wrapped the condiments and set them in the small fridge under the prep table. When I saw Axel, I checked the steamer for left-over, waterlogged hot dogs.  

“You hungry?” I said to him. “We’re just gonna throw these away."

Axel shook his head. He’d missed a few shaves; his hair was growing back in. His eyes were pink-rimmed and droopy.  

“How’s the head?” he asked.

“My head’s fine,” I said. “My arm’s still a mess, though.”

I held out my bruised left wrist. His eyes bulged. For a split second, he looked like he had when he’d found me that day, sprawled on the floor of the storage room.  

“Damien, what the heck?”

Lina was yelling at me, holding a fistful of credit card receipts. I went to see what she was freaking out about.  She forced the receipts into my hand.

I flipped through them, then flipped through them again. At the top left corner of every single receipt, drawn in red ink, was the same little picture. A set of squiggly lines going upward and meeting at a point, and three more lines curling around at the bottom. It looked like a poorly-drawn fish tail.  

“Did you draw those?” Lina demanded.  

“No!” I insisted. “I… I didn’t even notice.”

Axel and Jose hovered over the counter to get a look. Axel seemed confused. Jose frowned.  

“I’ve seen that before,” Jose said. “It’s a Mayan logogram, I think it’s the symbol for fire. My dad was way into that stuff.”

“Why are you doodling Mayan symbols?” Lina snapped.  

“It wasn’t me,” I said again. “The Latin half of me is Cuban. My ancestors weren’t Mayans.”

“Yeah, well, no one else was at the register." She tore the receipts out of my hands and angrily stuffed them in the bank bag with the cash.  

We finished cleaning up without looking at each other, then Lina left with Jose. I found Axel sitting at a booth in the dining area, leaning back, eyes closed. He perked up when I sat down across from him.  

“What’s up with that, dude,” he said jokingly. “Drawing on receipts to freak out your boss? You crazy, man.”

“I mean it, man,” I told him. “I didn’t draw on the receipts. I have no idea how those Mayan scribbly things got there.  We don’t even have a red pen at the register.”

Axel stopped smiling. He regarded me with an expression that was almost sad. Pitying.

“Dude, what’s going on here?” I asked. “The doors. The cracks. Those elf toys that I swear are multiplying. And what do the maintenance guys keep painting over?”

His eyes narrowed. He opened his mouth, then sighed.

“You should get your head checked out,” he said finally. “Because you’re acting kind of paranoid right now.”

“Other people see them, too!” I snapped. I decided not to bring up the bathroom turd monster or the floating homeless lady.

Axel pressed his eyes shut. He shook his head. Then, he stood abruptly.  

“You need to leave, Damien,” he said. “Management doesn’t want employees hanging around after hours.”

*****

I did what Axel said, and started back to my car.  He was in a bizarre mood. Any other time I’d been hanging around after hours with other employees, he’d be hanging around with us. I didn’t see how my presence in the food court at 8:05 could have been that much of a problem.

The light was still on when I peered through the window of  Grandma’s Attic. I saw the Muslim girl behind the register. She was talking to the lone customer in the shop, a middle-aged woman. The doors were open.

I should go apologize, I thought.  

Unassumingly, I entered the store. The middle-aged customer was loudly bemoaning the doll she’d seen on the store’s website, which the staff had the absolute gall to be sold out of, and the indignity of the Muslim girl’s suggestion that they special order the doll for her, forcing her to wait and come back.  

I pretended to browse the merchandise, which alternated between sickly-sweet and old-fashioned disturbing. There was a little table with a stack of boxed Furbies, and a couple out on display. I avoided that table. A lot of late 90’s trends were coming back in style, but why did Furbies have to be one of them?

Instead, I looked at a big framed black-and-white photograph on the wall, directly across from the register. It had been taken at a beach with rocky sand and gentle waves, rounded hills and what looked like a city in the distance. Three children stood by the water. They were somewhat far from the camera and their backs were turned, but it looked like two were boys and the smallest was a girl. Something resembling a doll hung from the little girl’s hand.  

On the shelf nearest the photograph was a series of girl figurines with plump cheeks and puffy dresses, each holding a number, probably for how old they were supposed to be. The type of figurines a tasteless aunt would give as a birthday gift. They caught my eye.  

Because every single plump-cheeked, puffy-dressed girl - from the tiniest to the oldest - was holding the same number. 16.  

I counted backwards in my head. 24, 23, 22, 21… The lady at the counter was getting louder.  

“I just think it’s disrespectful to make me drive all the way back here,” she moaned dramatically. “If a product is on your website, it’s your responsibility to have it in the store. I’m the customer. Are you gonna pay for my gas money to come back?”

Garden variety Asshole Type #3C - the Precious Little Victim, or PLV. Usually female, aged 35 and up. I dealt with five of them a shift at Wal-Mart. They’d all use that same holier-than-thou, faux-traumatized whine, as they explained why I owed them a discount because the lines were too long, or how a stock boy hadn’t said “good morning” and it ruined their day.

“Again, ma’am, I apologize,” said the Muslim girl, in a polite tone barely veiling fury, so familiar I felt it in my bones. “But I actually have no control over what we stock.”

The customer snorted. “So you’re worthless, then.”

With an over-wide smile, the girl handed her a card. “We’ll call you when it’s in. Have a good night.”

The customer drew in breath, fake-outraged. “Sweetie, it’s ‘Merry Christmas.’ That’s how you address customers. This is America. We’re a Christian country.”

The Muslim girl kept smiling, but I knew she was incensed, because that’s how I felt. I’d spent most of my childhood surrounded by self-described victims of the War on Christmas. But it was November the ninth and the girl behind the register was obviously not a Christian, so the lady wasn’t playing the victim so much as bullying an employee because she knew she could get away with it.  Even my grandmother would have found that disgusting.

I spoke up then. “I know what you mean, ma’am,” I said to the customer. “As a devout Vandoozlian, I’m always offended when cashiers don’t wish me a happy Walwurp’s Day.”

She glared at me. “Mind your own business! Are you high?”

I smiled charmingly. “Oh, you’ve never heard of Walwurp’s Day? It’s the highest Vandoozlian holiday. We celebrate by demanding that everyone else tell us we're special for two months.”

The customer’s jaw dropped. She turned an unflattering shade of magenta.  

“Your manager will hear about this,” she seethed to the Muslim girl before stomping out the door, shoving me aside in the process.

The girl stopped smiling. She looked at me sternly.  

“What are you doing?”

I laughed nervously. “I dealt with assholes of that magnitude daily at my old job. Don’t worry, she’s not actually going to call your manager.”

“She’d better not,” the girl said. “I really need this job.”

Still glaring, she held up her cell phone. She’d been recording the conversation.

“I always do this when customers get angry, just in case they lie to my manager and say I was being rude.  But if I show my manager this, he’s going think I told you to upset that lady, and I’ll get in trouble.”

“You speak really good English,” I said, hoping a compliment would calm her.  

She set her phone down on the counter, smiling joylessly. “I do. I went to Harvard.”

For a girl making minimum wage hawking doll parts, she had quite the superiority complex on her. You can take the princess out of the castle, but you can’t take the castle out of the princess, I guess. I saw she was wearing a name tag. Her name was Noor.

“Do you want something?” Noor asked impatiently, “or are you going to start yelling at me again?”

I was about to say something back, when we were interrupted by a metallic, mechanical chirp and a grinding.

“Eb denih eeth lelch enreduh.”

I turned. A Furby had jumped to life. Its beak was quivering as it rocked on its little feet, jabbering tonal nonsense. I’d forgotten that their eyes glowed red. It got louder.

“Tah eeth awe aret!”

“I’ll shut it up,” I said to Noor.  

I went to the table, knocked an elf doll out of the way, and grabbed the offending toy - an orange one with a white belly.  As I clutched it, it kept right on tittering in Furbese, or whatever annoying name Tiger Electronics had given their baby talk.

“Hess enehvuh niet einuh nehwet eet einuh!”

I turned it over and fiddled with the battery compartment. Noor had come out from behind the register, and was standing beside me.  

“eBEE deniHUH eeth ELLlch enreduh tAH eeth AWE areTUH!.”

I flipped open the little door on its base. There were no batteries inside.

“HEHsss ENNhvuh NEEHT!”

Burning panic, I threw the Furby against the ground. I stomped on it. 

“What are you doing?” Noor yelled.

“EINuh NEHwet EET EYEnuh!,” the Furby shrieked.

I smashed the Furby violently with my foot, again and again, feeling plastic shatter under my sole.  The metallic gibbering stopped. 

The Furby was caved in. Under fur and plastic, I could see chips and wires. From its cracked face, its plastic eyes stared lifelessly.  

“Are you crazy?” Noor demanded. “You’re destroying our merchandise now?”

She was holding her cell phone.  Apparently, she’d been recording me the whole time. Expecting me to do something crazy.  She thought I was just another psycho customer.  

Wordlessly, I pulled a 20 out of my wallet and dropped it with the Furby.  

“I’m sorry,” I said to her.  “This should cover it.”

*****

I Know How to Use it All as a Weapon (Part 1)

I'm Just Dandy the Way God Made Me (Part 2)

Read the next chapter here.



Written by NickyXX
Content is available under CC BY-SA