First off, a breif moment of silence for those who lost their lives on the eleventh of September, 2001.
At first glance, this chapter is going to seem pretty superfluous. I mean, 12 1/2 pages of John going Christmas shopping at the Mall? But yes, it actually does have an impact on the story.
First: world building. It's important to know what effects the E.H.U.D.s and everything are having on the economy, right? You all remember what happened after... after that event eight years ago today... the market took a hard hit. Well, psychic super-soldiers and presidential assassinations (not to mention the car bombing mentioned in chapter six!) have a similar effect.
Second: This chapter works a bit more on the whole John/Shaun/Lucy thing, which is fairly important to the plot. (unless I'm wrong. I'll admit, I've never read this thing, so if you think it's a waste of space, leave a comment!)
Third: Chekhov's location. This mall becomes incredibly important later in the story, and especially in book two, so I want to have it introduced before it has to be used. (Don't know who Chekhov is? GO to tvtropes.org and search 'Chekhov's gun'!)
Okay, so that's all I have to say about this chapter.
The picture at the top there is a piece I did for a colored pencil class. Yes, it's based on Copper from The Fox And The Hound. Yes, I changed it a little (note the number of legs...). No, I have neither the time nor the inclination to change its layout. Just tilt your head.
In closing, I now have the official, full length title of this book, previously known as E.H.U.D.: Prelude to Apocalypse. The full title is, are you ready, American Inheritance: Trilogy I: Tales of The E.H.U.D.s: Book I: E.H.U.D.: Prelude to Apocalypse. Whew... That's five colons... And yes, I intend to fave five other books to finish this off, so get ready...
Now, onto Chapter 17...
Ever since moving into Sky Crest, John had intended to go to the Philadelphia Metro Mall, but had somehow never found a reason to go more than about half-way through concourse that connected the two buildings. But with the winter gift-giving season approaching, he now had a reason to go in and explore. He was going to get something for Vanessa.
The previous evening, John had been in the Sky Crest fitness center, jogging and berating himself for failing to properly support Rachel. Reggie had called earlier in the day, looking for Rachel. No one seemed to know where she was; her mother hadn’t seen her, and she wasn’t at her best friend Tisha’s house. John had suggested that Rachel talk to Wayne, but Reggie had adamantly refused, insisting that Rachel had the sense not to go hanging around with Wayne. After several minutes of fruitless conversation, Reggie hung up, and John went to work out his frustration on the treadmill.
Four hours later, John was beginning to long for companionship, someone he could talk to, someone who could hopefully give advice and consolation better than John could. In the past, he might have hoped Mistlethwakey would be there, but now the only image in his mind was Vanessa’s face. They hadn’t known each other very long, but John was certainly drawn towards her, although he expected she didn’t feel the same in return. The speculation was rendered moot, however, when Vanessa arrived, and the two of them conversed.
Their first subject was Rachel, with John asking if there was anything he could have done differently, anyway he could have clamed Reggie and reunited father and daughter. Vanessa had been very helpful on this point; she had grown up with a sister who had gotten pregnant while in high school, and said that given time, the shock would wear off and all parties would find peace with each other. John had been there as a solid point for Rachel to hang on to, and even though she had turned on him and resented him, that was all that he could have done.
From Rachel, their conversation moved onto a discussion of religion; specifically, the celebration of ancient holidays in a modern world. John found it offensive that Christian rituals were intruding on the traditions of other cultures and that no matter where one looked, Christmas and Easter and other similar holidays were forced on the populace, be it through television, advertising, and in-store displays. Vanessa countered that traditional Christian celebrations such as Christmas and Easter actually pre-dated Christianity, and merely served the purpose of marking seasons and solstices. In their purest forms, they were secular holidays, and that no one’s culture was cheapened by celebrating them.
Vanessa’s point was well argued, and John agreed with her, leading to the conversation’s third topic: Vanessa’s plans for the holiday season. She reluctantly admitted that she had no plans beyond staying at home and possibly going ice-skating if it was cold enough. Mustering his courage and social graces, John invited her over to his apartment for a completely secular winter solstice dinner and, after the briefest of hesitations, she had agreed.
After that, the conversation spiraled down into small talk, eventually ending with John stumbling and being flung from his treadmill. Vanessa couldn’t seem to decide if this was something to be concerned about or to laugh at, but John wasn’t hurt, and the two amiably parted company shortly thereafter.
The next morning, John got up bright and early, ready to head off into the great secular temple of consumerism to acquire a suitable winter solstice gift for Vanessa.
Passing through the concourse that connected the Sky Crest to the mall, John was only mildly impressed. The concourse was open for about forty feet to the ceiling, with two floors of shops along the walls. Everything was antiseptic white, and the floor was almost blinding underneath the occasional skylights. It was nice, but it wasn’t different from any mall that John had ever been to before.
Exiting the concourse, John was momentarily distracted, first by a group of children who almost knocked him down as they ran by, and then by a large inflatable Santa that smiled crazily at him. John walked forward and continued to stare at the somehow malevolent looking balloon until he was stopped suddenly by a rail hitting him in the stomach. His head twisted to the front and he stared out along the length of the mall. Stretching out into the distance for nearly a mile, the building was certainly long. Again, John was only mildly impressed. It was a mean feat to make a building this long, but it wasn’t all that special; besides, he had gotten used to seeing it from the windows of Sky Crest’s fitness center. John glanced upwards at the ceiling, which was a large frosted skylight about five stories overhead. John lowered his gaze down along the walls, taking notice of the stores embedded there and the walkways that connected them. John sighed and let his attention drift. He had secretly been hoping that there would be something architecturally interesting about this place, but it was just an average mall. Then John gazed downwards.
He instantly stepped away from the rail that had stopped him. Beyond the rail was… nothing. The mall extended some two-hundred feet into the earth, with ten floors of shops along the walls, and many thin bridges criss-crossing the cavernous space. On the floor of the mall was a large food court, and beyond that, a small playground, a miniature golf course, and finally a massive arena with a stage at one end decorated for what looked to be a play of A Christmas Carol.
John stood and stared dumbfoundedly at the space all around him, amazed by the sheer size of the place. He had designed much larger buildings at Cohen and Associates, but none had had a space as big as this one. He began to quickly calculate the floor space available in—no, he needed to find out the average size of the stores—
“Can I help you, sir?”
A short man, dressed as a Christmas elf, had approached John. He glanced nervously at John’s slack jaw and unfocused eyes.
John blinked a few times and cleared his throat. “Uh, no, I-I’m just—I’m an architect, and I was just kind of blown away by, by—“
The short man nodded and smiled conspiratorially. “Yes, I had the same impression when I first saw it. Second largest retail space in the country, you know.”
“Yep. Was the largest, but they redid the Mall of America a few years back.” He snorted angrily. “Had to take the best stuff off brochures… Anyway, can I help you find anything?”
“I’m a Roving Information Elf, always here to be happy and helpful,” he said without emotion. “It’s what I’m here for.”
“Oh, well, in that case, I ‘m looking for a present for a woman I know…”
The short man rubbed his chin and absently tapped his foot. “You’ll want something nice, but practical… this is hard…” he gestured out at the walkways lining the walls, which John noticed were largely empty. Along with the lack of people, there also seemed to be a lack of stores; only one out of three had lights on and security gates up. “Should’ve done this shopping last year; half the store closed down.”
“**** straight. No one’s buying anymore. This place was designed to accommodate some serious amounts of traffic, and now it’s almost completely dried up.”
“Yeah, unless you want a parking space.”
“For the last two years we had to shuttle customers in from other lots miles away.”
John whistled in appreciation for the difficulty that presented.
“No one’s going out and buying specialty goods; too concerned about the end of the world. I bet bulk warehouse stores are getting good business. But us… I used to own a great comic-book shop down on the seventh floor, but it folded right after Latterndale got shot, and I had to get this job to pay off late store rentals.” He sighed and stared dejectedly at his feet. “Anyway… Locket-cell.”
“New jewelry. It’s a small locket, flips open into a phone and automatically plays a slideshow on the screen. I was going to get my girlfriend one, but… well, you know.” He pointed down across the pit, to a point about half a mile away. “Electric Elegance, fifth floor, green section.” He noticed the confused look on John’s face. “There’s a small stripe on every support pillar in the wall. Look for the green ones.”
“All right, thanks for your help.”
“No problem,” the man replied, nodding and edging towards a harried-looking woman surrounded by four small children.
Glancing one more time into the great pit, John walked along the thin railing that separated the walkway from open air. About a hundred yards away was the thin glass shaft of an elevator descending from the ceiling. He moved towards it, but quickly changed his mind when he saw how many people were trying to use this one. Next to the elevator was a wide spiral staircase, hanging out over the void. John got onto the stairs and was quickly pushed downwards by the swell of people descending from higher floors. By the time he had descended two floors, the traffic had reversed, and the majority of the people were going back up to ground level. John had to be on constant alert, dodging between people and around groups until finally, at the point of exhaustion, he got of on the fifth floor underground.
Making sure not to get entangled in any groups of shoppers, John worked his way to the inside wall and then leaned against it, gasping. A woman in the uniform of a Roving Information Elf walked towards him, but John waved her away. He continued to lean against the wall for several minutes after his breathing had returned to normal; he was busy studying the shops on the wall across from him. There were clothing stores, jewelry stores, home media, furniture, occasionally toy stores, each packed. And then next to them… A hole. An empty store. And another and another and another… The E.H.U.D.s wouldn’t have to do anything else to get revenge on their captors; their mere presence in the public consciousness was killing the economy.
John pushed these thoughts aside and fixed a picture of Vanessa in his mind. He was there for her.
He managed to take three steps away from the wall when he heard a woman yelling his name. He turned and there, walking quickly toward him, was Lucy. She waved cheerily at him as she wound her way expertly through the crowds of shoppers. John forced a smile, and looked for a way to avoid Lucy. The last time he had seen her had been on Memorial Day, and he had hoped to keep it that way. Whenever they were together, she grew nostalgic, and talked about how great things would have been if they could have stayed together. Her attitude was beginning to wear on John, and he was almost grateful when Shaun confronted him about Lucy’s semi-romance.
“Oh, John, it’s great to see you!” Lucy swept John up into a big hug, and then inspected him from arm’s length. “How are you doing?”
“Oh, I’m fine. How are you?”
“Doing good, doing good,” she said, nodding for emphasis. “So what are you doing here?” She gestured to a large inflatable snow-man set up in the middle of one of the walk-ways that crossed the pit. “It doesn’t seem like the kind of place you’d hang out.”
This didn’t seem like the place for truth. “I was just seeing the mall, you know? I’ve lived next to it for months, but never been in it.”
Lucy’s smile widened. “Well, why didn’t you say so?” She grabbed John’s arm and pulled him into a river of shoppers. “How would you like a tour?” John tried to protest, but Lucy continued. “It really is a great mall. It’s just slow. The economy should swing back up next year, assuming there’s no more terrorist activity. It’ll be great by this time next year.”
John smiled weakly and nodded, but noticed that Lucy was taking him away from Electric Elegance. “Um, where are we going?”
Lucy got into line at the elevator next to the stairs that John had just descended. “The best place to start is the food court. Get plenty of calories in us for the hike, hit all the highlights. Don’t worry; they have moving sidewalks in some areas.”
“I, uh, I don’t have much time—“
“It’ll give us a chance to catch up. We haven’t talked in months, and I’ve already had to go fifteen years without you. We need to keep in touch. After a good talk, we can get to that tour I promised.”
In less than five minutes, Lucy had brought up that sore subject. John wondered if he should just leave, reminding her that they were no longer engaged, that their life together was over, that he now found her obsessive and more than a bit annoying. But he couldn’t say that. It would crush her, and he just wanted her to move on, not cause her pain.
Lucy didn’t seem to notice John’s internal struggle; she kept talking, talking about the mall, and the economy, and what Shaun said that the police force was doing to curtail domestic terrorism. John nodded absently and occasionally muttered agreement.
After ten minutes, they were able to get into the elevator with about twenty other people. It was a large elevator, but with so many people it was crowded. Fortunately, John was able to stand next to the transparent outer wall and was able to see the whole mall rising above him as they were taken down into the earth. Moments later, the elevator stopped and they got out into the food court.
Lucy led John to a small Greek restaurant, which she claimed had excellent food, and ordered gyros for the both of them. Once they had their food, they sat down at a table in the middle of the food court, with an unobstructed view of the glass ceiling so far overhead. Only light and shadow could be seen through the glass, but John thought he recognized a large, dark mass as Sky Crest.
“What happens if someone overhead decides to spit down here?” John asked as he returned his gaze to Lucy.
Lucy didn’t answer. She sat rigidly in her chair, a mixed expression of anger and sorrow on her face. She took a deep breath and moved her plate away from herself. “I haven’t seen you since Labor Day.”
John didn’t know how to respond to this non-sequitur; she had seemed so calm and pleasant just a moment before. Too calm. It had been an act. “It’s a large city; the chances of—“
“Don’t feed me that bull****. I’ve been calling you, e-mailing you, texting, everything. It was a miracle that I found you here.”
“I never did texting, and… and… okay, yes, I’ve been avoiding you.”
“Why? Is—Oh, God, Shaun threatened you, didn’t he? He was going to an anger management class for a while, but he said—“
“No, he didn’t… well, actually, yes, he did threaten me, but that isn’t it. Lucy, do you love me?”
Hope glimmered in Lucy’s eyes. “Yes.”
“Well, I don’t love you.”
Lucy leaned back and looked for a moment as if she might cry.
“Do you love Shaun?”
“Yes…” Lucy whispered quietly.
“He does love you. Look, I’ve explained this before, but I guess you didn’t get it.”
“I did, but I thought that maybe you’d remember us, like when you remembered me—
“Just listen. I died fifteen years ago. I may be the man you once loved, but you’re no longer the woman that I loved. You’re the woman that Shaun loves. Marry him, be happy. I don’t want to hurt your feelings but, but… I’ve moved on. I have someone who loves me. That’s the real reason I’m here; I’m buying something for her. We’re not star-crossed lovers destined for each other; we each have someone else. We can each live our own lives.”
“But you coming back is our second—“
John reached out and grabbed Lucy’s hands. “No. If I had come back, and you were single, and we really had a way to exist with each other, then it would have been a second chance. But what about Shaun? This is his first chance; is it really fair to ruin his first chance for our second?”
“So if Shaun weren’t—“
“No. You love him; don’t let me ruin a good thing.” John pushed his chair away from the table and stood up, his gyro uneaten.
Lucy stared up at him, her eyes glazing over with tears. John felt a momentary pang of guilt. Lucy had always been the stronger than he was, able to calmly accept the death of her beloved grandparents without batting an eyelid. John’s death must have traumatized her deeper than she ever suspected.
“Can’t we at least be friends?” she asked desperately.
“No. I’m sorry, but I’m having a negative affect on you.”
“Shaun told you to say this, didn’t he? He’s forcing you to leave—“
John turned and began to walk away.
“No, don’t go!”
Lucy continued to call after him as he walked across the food court and back to the elevator that they had taken. People stared at them, but John ignored everything except the elevator. This was what was best for Lucy. She needed a reminder of what was reality, what was the present. John took it as a good sign that she didn’t follow after him.
After a long wait for the elevator, and an even longer hike on the walkway, John found himself outside of Electric Elegance. He picked out a cell locket, purchased it, and returned home, all the while hoping that he had gotten through to Lucy this time.