The air on the other side of the doors was stale. Mostly it smelled of collected dust, but Nico was almost positive he could still smell the cinnamon and brown sugar from the pretzel stand. It was cold, colder than outside. The further they walked in the heavier the clouds of breath in front of them became. It was a tomb. Darker than he would have thought, too. The ceiling, high above, arched into sky lights that only managed to turn the darkness into a musty gloom.
“Place this big must have had a backup generator.” Birdie spoke softly, but her words still echoed down the hall. “If we find it we’ll get the lights on. Maybe get some of these doors to open easier, too?”
It was a question, and she had her eyebrows raised. It took a few seconds for Nico to remember this was his operation. He had been the one to suggest coming down to the mall, and he was the one who had argued for it for over a month. It was too far, John said, and probably empty by now anyway. Wait for the spring, Nico had suggested, for the roads to melt. As for being looted already, the mall hadn’t been built in the best place. Even when the world was doing gangbusters, the few times he’d had to step a foot in there’d only been a few dozen other people. Anyone left alive might not remember it.
The snow had melted off the roads and John had finally relented. He still wasn’t convinced, that was obvious, but Nico had just worn him down. As if Nico cared. Same result. Except then John had declared that Nico would be in charge of this operation, and then Nico had gaped at him which had made John glare and his face turned red and Nico had accepted it and left the room before John could just take away the whole plan. So now he was in charge. He picked the day and he picked the people. Birdie, of course, which meant her new shadow June, and Mike and Paula and Dennis. They were all looking at him, waiting for direction. Well, except June, who was glaring at the map posted in the middle of the hall.
“Um, yes. That’s right- we should do that. Birdie and I, I mean. You three, start where you can getting stuff in the truck.”
“What are we even looking for, here?” Mike asked. His hands were tucked into his pockets and despite the darkness he still had his ball cap pulled low over his eyes. He’d been interested in the plan right up until Big John had said Nico would be in charge. Mike had still come, but had made it very obvious he wasn’t a fan of taking orders from someone twenty years his junior.
“Any-everything-anything useful,” Nico said. He swallowed hard, like he could reset the stutter, and talked slower. “Clothes, shoes…batteries? I think there’s a pro shop on the other side, we’ll probably want to clean that out.”
Mike still didn’t seem very impressed, and Nico was sure he wanted to open his mouth and say something else. Lucky for him, Paula and Dennis didn’t have the same hang-ups Mike seemed to have, and had already made their way over to the nearby shoe shop. He eventually followed, still glaring at Nico from under his cap.
“Prick,” Birdie muttered under her breath. “Come on, maybe we can get some heat on here in, too.”
They started into the gray cavern of the mall, passing the stores with their washed out colors cautiously. They could have missed something, some sign of humanity, and it would be no good if they were ambushed the first time Nico got to be in charge. Mike, certainly, would never let him forget it. He and Birdie were a few stores down when he heard footsteps behind him and almost turned to yell, a hand sitting on the gun holstered to his thigh. At the very last second before making a fool of himself he remembered June.
It had been over a month since they had found him wandering around Main Street, and Nico still didn’t know what to make of him. It was obvious he was damaged. Only unclear by what. Those two hulking monsters had been beating and drugging him, and using him as bait, and that can’t be good for anyone’s psyche. But Birdie had also told him of the scar she and Doc Wendy had found. The dent. Holy shit, what kind of blow could leave a dent in a man’s skull and still let him walk around? It was old, too, they said. Impossible to know when, exactly, but at least a year.
June was better than he had been when they found him. There was intelligence in his eyes now, and sometimes when you were talking he would look right at you and you could believe he was understanding. But he still hadn’t spoken a word. He still had trouble working with his hands, like with a fork and knife or buttoning up his coat. And he had latched on to Birdie. Slept on a futon in her room. Stayed closed. And if she did have to leave him for a few minutes…well, he stayed quiet, anyway. Wrapped his arms around himself. The look of panic in his eyes…Nico had seen that look in deer.
He was trailing them. Looking into store windows, crossing over to the other side, looking up to the second floor like he was searching for something. But he never fell far behind, always keeping them in view.
“He doesn’t worry you?” Nico asked, watching June as he stared at a dry fountain. “At night, sleeping in the same room?”
Birdie shrugged. She had been looking all around, almost the same as June, but even from a glance you could tell it was different. Birdie was looking for something. June was just looking.
“What if he flips out? Gets violent out of nowhere? I’ve heard even golden retrievers can just suddenly snap and bite someone.”
“Keep your voice down,” she half-whispered, glancing at June. “He’s not a dog for Christ’s sake. And he understands more than you think.”
“I know he’s not…can’t brain injuries like that mess with emotions and stuff?”
Birdie stopped and turned so they were facing each other. June was still behind them, staring at the fountain. For someone who insisted he wasn’t a dog, Birdie was sure looking at him like he was a lost puppy.
“He cries in his sleep,” she said. “He hasn’t gotten angry once. He hasn’t shown much of any emotion, actually. But he’s getting better. He just needs patience and understanding.”
Nico fought back embarrassment. “Lucky for him, you’ve got that in spades.”
She smiled at him, something small and just for him, and Nico fought back that emotion, too. They’d already talked about that, and while she’d been kind, she’d also been firm. He looked away, unable to see those eyes looking at him like that anymore, and then grinned.
“Here we go,” he said, walking past her. Between a bookstore and a dollar store was a little hallway. A single plain sign had been hung at the side. “Maintenance.”
“Come on, June,” she called. Nico didn’t have to look back to know he was following. Hers was the only voice he seemed to hear.
They’d both worked with enough generators over the winter to get the gist of this one. It took a few minutes of puzzling on one end, and then another, and then Nico flipped a large switch and the machine at the other end of the room came to life with a roar. The bare light bulbs above them came on softly, flickered, and then shone.
“Let’s see what we’re working with,” Nico said.
“Hopefully the heat came back on,” Birdie said, rubbing her hands together. “My fingers are frozen.”
Gone was the mausoleum painted in shades of gray. Whatever system ran the mall apparently was automatic. The lights were on, pale and almost too bright. They reflected off all the hard surfaces, the windows, the tiles, even the signs and the benches all seemed to house baby versions of the lights. The metal gates in front of the storefronts were just finishing rolling up as they came back out, and the lights inside the stores were on, too. Music, that kind of boneless soft jazz that tried to offend no one and always seemed to fail, came from the speakers. With no other sounds to compete – no crying children, no laughing teens, no one at the little huts in the middle calling to them to buy overpriced creams and personalized wall art – the music echoed down at them from every direction, doubling over itself, filling up the empty spaces.
“Creepy,” Nico said, shuddering. “These places were awful when the world was still in one piece, eh, Birdie?”
She didn’t need to say anything, Nico could see it on her face. The light was shining in her eyes, and her chin was down just a bit, leaving her mouth open and creating a softly shocked look.
“I haven’t seen this place in years,” she said.
“You’ve been here before?”
“I used to come down when I was a teenager. Weekends. During the summer I’d be here for hours. Before I got my license I’d take the bus and then hitch the rest of the way. Walking around. Watching people. There was an arcade, down the other end. I wonder if it’s still there? I used to drop so many quarters into Ms. Pac Man.”
Now he was the one to look frankly shocked. “You never struck me as a teenage mallrat.”
Birdie threw back her head and laughed. “I guess I was. It was out of necessity, though. The mall was the only place I knew my parents wouldn’t be. And they wouldn’t follow me here. And they wouldn’t send anyone after me here.”
Pursing his lips, he tried to decide quickly if he should ask or not. Everyone in the Biddies knew that Birdie hadn’t gotten along with her family, had run all the way to California to get away from them. That was all most people knew, actually. Big John must have known more, he was the only other one to actually be from Broken Hearts, but he wasn’t talking. Neither was Birdie. She certainly didn’t seem like she was waiting for him to ask. Maybe, late at night, she told June the truth, knowing he wouldn’t say anything.
Nico had opened his mouth to say something – he wasn’t sure what – and closed it suddenly.
“June,” he said instead. “Where’s June?”
Birdie’s glances were casual at first, so sure she would find him. They became quicker, and frantic. They were in the center of the mall. There was a fountain in the middle, dirty water bubbling down. The food court over on the other side. Escalators humming as they marched up and down from the second floor. Hallways shot off in three different directions. They couldn’t see June, only the many different ways he could have gone.
“June!” Birdie called. Her voice echoed in every direction and Nico’s stomach rolled. “June!”
“Birdie, stop! What if we’re not the only ones here?”
Birdie shot him a harsh look. “The power’s on, I think if anyone’s here they know they’re not alone anymore. June!”
Nico stared at her back as she went off across the dead mall, still shouting for June. He was in charge. He could tell her to stop. That he’d just wandered off and they should start loading the truck and they’d find him soon. He was in charge, and she was supposed to listen.
With a sigh, he followed after her. ‘Supposed to’ didn’t mean ‘would.’