He walks the mall by day seeking the eternal Jenny, but there is no one who comes close until this day, and he aims to keep her his.
A mall is no place to spend your days. It’s a way station beckoning with misdirection, curtains and sheets to cover and soften dreary existence.
It was nearly time for the mall to open and I was bored to death.
Most mornings people cluttered the entrances. I stayed back, in the telephone alcove, long since removed with cell phones everywhere. When I was innocent I’d done what other young bucks had done: I honed in on girls and talked up my soon-to-be historic exploits. That phone booth was crowded with young things talking to friends they could not be parted from, not for one minute. Close enough, brushing a ficus or wandering to look in the window, you might overhear them, feign interest in a display while they used the reflection to adjust their hair, always with hope they’d look at you, maybe turn to friends and giggle, maybe make that second look.
The guard opened the doors, and this Monday two weeks ‘til Christmas there was a crowd. Mostly moms with a list, or older women with clipped coupons headed for the big box stores.
And there she was, the free space for my bingo card. She turned into Dorfmans and I followed, unseen. She stopped at cosmetics, idly glancing down, talking on the phone to Marsha-something. High breathy voice. She picked up a lipstick. Not the right color at all. Much too red. But who’d listen to me, some stranger?
“Let me send you this.” She held the phone to capture her incarnadine lips, and I ambled up behind her. A quick flash, and she sent the photo.
I walked away before the ending, the rising voice, the stumbled answers about a stranger ruining her selfie.
I disappeared into the crowd, maybe ten or fifteen feet, imagining her perfume—one of those light citrusy types. She wasn’t so confident now, and pretended to try on earrings, using the mirror to see behind her, trying to match the face in that photo.
Her voice was lower, confidential, tinged with hysteria. “No, I do not know who he is or how he got there.” She jabbed to end the call, her elbow holding her purse close to her hip as she strode down the marble floors.
Good. I could see her in the sunlight over the food court. The play area was now Santa’s Workshop, with moms pushing strollers, pulling screaming kids. I slipped even closer.
She stopped at the info booth to show Cliff. “You know this guy?”
Good ol’ Cliff. He shook his head and sighed. “Yeah. We all know him. Used to work here. Girlfriend died here, and he got a little crazy. Thinks he sees her sometimes. Harmless, but call 911 if you see him again. More of a bother, really.”
Good ol’ Cliff. A bother, huh?
He was talking to the guard station, and I caught her name. “Yeah, Madeleine Jenkins. It’s him, again.”
“That’s it? ‘On the lookout’? I’m just some blonde looking for trouble?”
“We take complaints seriously at Fairhaven Mall. But he won’t touch you. We spot him, we’ll take care of him. He just shows up now and then. Can’t do much unless he does something stupid. It’s a public space; people do stupid things. Stupid, not illegal.”
“Harassment is illegal.”
“If he harasses you, we can deal with that. If you see him again, let security know.”
Just a few nudges and whispers led her to the bench where Jenny and I had been sitting when she passed. We’d shared our hopes, kissed, even touched in public. We were not-quite-arguing about chick flicks versus real movies, and she’d gasped, and sucked in her breath. Then, dead. Stroke. Nineteen and a sophomore in college, like me.
I was screaming at first, for someone, for anyone to come and goddam help, but she was gone before her head hit the marble floor.
That moment, laughing and arguing, the shaft of sunlight as a halo of cornsilk, was my happiest. And the saddest, tying joy and sorrow to that bench.
Then I was a blur of grief and shuttered emotions. My guys offered me other women as solace. I tried that. Tried not doing anything but flicking through photo albums, wandering around school, lost, avoiding classes and friends.
After a dark time I found myself hanging around the mall, hoping to see someone like Jenny.
Cliff was right. I was harmless. Nothing I could do, really. That part of life was over. I just wanted to watch. Maybe remember.
She saw the bench in the sunlight by the fountain and sat down, just like Jenny. I was going to sit at the bench when Cliff walked up.
“Thought I’d find you here.”
“Just wanted to be sure you felt safe. Haven’t seen him, if you’re wondering.” He wandered away.
She scowled. “This mall creeps me.” She pulled out a lipstick—that same too-red color. Wasn’t right for her.
I swatted the lipstick from her hands.
She cried out, looking to see who’d done it.
The lipstick rolled over to the fountain’s edge, and I pushed it into the water. She stood up, disbelief washing her face.
“What the—?” She walked over and looked in. “Well. Maybe not really my color. Maybe something less red.” She shook her head and walked towards the entrance.
I moved beside her with my arm on her shoulder. She shivered. My Jenny. Sensible as always. She called Marsha-something again. “You’ll never believe it. Dropped that new Crimson Slash right in the fountain. Fifteen bucks. Gone. But it looked like death on me.” She walked out the door and off to her waiting car, I suppose.
I stayed behind where I belonged, in the mall. Maybe another day Jenny would show up again and we might walk together, she alive, full of energy and fun, and me, here, in the shadows.
A mall is a terrible place to die, and an even more terrible place to wander.
by Stephen J. Matlock Published with Permission
Note from the Author: This is my second entry to the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction contest. I came in the top in the first round in my division. If I can come in the top 5 averaged over both rounds, then I advance to the third round. My prompts were Ghost Story, Shopping Mall, and Lipstick. We get the prompt midnight Friday evening, and we have to turn in a completed, 1000-word story at midnight Sunday.
Note from the Editor: Go Stephen!!!!!!!!!!!!!! -sjk
Lordy, I cannot believe I missed a significant word in my comment to Sheri–I came in the top *three* in my division of 28 writers (there are 25 divisions), not the absolute top.
Sorry about that.