Of course, of all the workaholics employed by the Mall’s cinema, I was the only person who volunteered.
Boss brought those giant paper snowflakes and cheerfully announced that the decoration had to be done after hours. Perhaps too cheerfully. And “after hours” means “deep night” if you work at a movie theater.
No wonder I was the only one eager to embellish the place.
I proudly adjusted my Cinematrix badge and grasped the broom, waiting for the last person to leave the auditorium. There is always someone with the obligation to sit through the end credits, lest some digital effects crew member’s name would be shown in vain before the empty seats.
I can wait. I can even wait outside not to embarrass that cinephile. I’m curious what the boss would say if he witnessed such an attitude.
I cleaned the audience, the usual stuff: empty boxes, paper cups. Neither smartphones nor jewellery this time.
After the routine had been done, I grabbed the ladder and the box with snowflakes. My colleagues rushed to the exit, celebrating their freedom with jovial laughter and mocking my solitude with neglectful backs.
Lights went out one by one, and the glowing golden illumination came to life – the nighttime thing, soft and cozy. Like the fog, it spread across the Mall.
Night has taken over.
Suddenly everything was lost; only lines remained; no shops, no restaurants – just hollow contours to reimagine the substance.
I arrange the snowflakes one by one, carefully. No rush.
Not my first night at work. A month ago, we changed all the upholsteries in the vintage-style auditorium. And then, in July, there were 70 mm reels incoming, to be loaded and tested before the big night. Turned out we had many hard-workers when the task consisted of checking out keenly anticipated crime comedy.
I wonder how the snowflakes hanging isn’t as tempting.
The first thing registered by the senses in the Mall at night is the total silence.
You hear your footsteps echoing in the distant corners; you hear your breaths.
There are no sounds except for the seldom hum of some machinery hidden in the Mall’s depths.
The silhouettes, boringly familiar in the daylight, suddenly bear a silent menace. Eerie creatures creep out of their daytime shelters to go hunting at night, preying on the unlucky who had to stay after hours.
Heart jumps wildly when you descend the twisted staircase wrapped in darkness.
When I’ve been changing the upholsteries in that damn auditorium (also that time everyone had prepared an immensely plausible excuse to leave immediately), I couldn’t actually force myself to go to the bathroom.
Maybe it was the “Shining” screening earlier that day.
I had suffered greatly, considered using disposable cups but somehow made it till the last row. Until I changed its upholstery, I have to clarify just in case.
And here I am again, alone in the vast shopping mall, like Jack Torrance in the spacious haunted hotel, checking the boiler room, I mean – hanging the snowflakes. I wonder if any generous apparition would pour me some diet coke if I walk into the cinema bar.
It’s when that inner monologue began to seem too forced, I knew that the uneasiness had found its way.
I might put some music on, but then I won’t hear… if something happens.
I think this snowflake will deafen me if I drop it to the floor.
Why would I drop it? My hands are steady. They aren’t shaking, are they?
Oh, boy, who made so many snowflakes? We aim to create a Christmas mood, not the January landscape from Minnesota fields…
I am working on the second floor’s balustrade (yes, Cinematrix is a big deal, we have thirteen screens in that Mall alone).
I don’t check the proper alignment anymore. Now I am rushing.
On the top of that shaky ladder, snowflakes in one hand, duct tape in another.
And as I position another flake, my hearing finally registers the sound.
Those aren’t the steps.
It’s the wind, the mice, the projectors.
Definitely not the steps.
My heart shrinks.
Those are the steps.
And they are approaching from the dark.
My brain sways frantically between the alternatives.
Should I climb over the balustrade and drag the ladder up?
Should I turn into the giant paper snowflake and melt away?
I peer into the thickening darkness. A flash of white! With the consternation taking over me, I hope the brain has chosen the snowflake. Easier this way.
I still decide to throw my leg over the handrail, and in that terrifying second, I hear a distinct popcorn crunch right below me.
“There is a staircase nearby, you know.”
“You will need a ticket, though.”
I look down. In the muffled aureate glowing, dressed in white pajama, holding the popcorn box, stands the sweetest and prettiest ghost I have ever seen.
Apparently, my brain is still shocked because I actually say it aloud.
“You are the sweetest and prettiest ghost I have ever seen.”
“Oh. Unless you are that kid from Sixth Sense, I wouldn’t call it a mighty compliment.”
“Aha. Right. Why are you wearing pajama?”
“It’s the middle of the night, isn’t it?”
“And what’s with the flakes? You have Minnesota days or something?”
“Precisely. Polar bears are incoming any time soon.”
“Don’t mean to be rude, but are you waiting for a serenade or something? I mean, I can try, but blame yourself.”
“Oh, sorry. Coming. Still… maybe you could cross yourself? Just for safety.”
“Come on, you don’t look that creepy.”
“You know, can’t be too cautious.” it’s with those words when my hand slips and I land hard on the back. I guess my hand was shaking after all.
“You okay? Now I see where you got all that caution thing.”
I stand up, and her sweet scent tingles my nostrils and all the way down…
There she is – in the flesh.
I actually squeeze her shoulder lightly to make sure she is in the flesh.
Her blue eyes glance at me, dark and bright at the same time, and she has this brightly blonde hair and a ponytail.
“You’re welcome. You should probably hate that crunch, don’t you?”
“It’s not that bad. And what’s your hatred, bed shop or something?”
“Bookstore. So, I hate to read, I guess. Sorry if that’s too obvious.”
“I am more of a corn chewer myself. Are you hanging snowflakes too?”
“Nope, you got all the fun. I am just doing inventory. At twenty-one sharp, my dear colleagues left with the precision of the Swiss watch, so here I am.”
“Why did you stay?”
“Dunno. Why not, anyway? What about you, Minnesota boy?”
“Same. I mean, where to hurry? Honestly, I kinda love the place.”
“Cinematrix! I am Percy, by the way.”
“I am Christina. You need a hand, Percy?”
“No, I think it’s enough. And you?”
“Sure, it’s enough. Otherwise, you might cause a little avalanche.”
“Right. I mean, maybe you needed a hand?”
“No-o. Books are meant to be read, not counted.”
Our joint crunching fills the room. Popcorn never tasted so good.
I think of all the people behind the Mall’s walls, how they are hurrying somewhere, meeting, chatting, eating, hugging, planning, running…
All that hurly-burly outside – and the silence here, only for the two of us.
The whole Mall is just for us.
Christina throws the remaining popcorn in the garbage can.
“So, Percy, the snowflake hangman. You want to go?”
“Sure, Christina, the book keeper. Where to?”
“Let’s do some shopping.”
And we go out of the Cinematrix, through the dim-lit gallery where walls are covered by movie posters and celebrities’ portraits. Movie stars and genius directors stare encouragingly as we stroll towards the ajar doors, further to the café, and through the bookstore.
She pauses at the table. A reading lamp stylishly outlines her cheeks, and glimmers in her eyes, in her pupils, like the sun blazing in the bright blue sky.
She raises her head from the papers, and her eyes exude promise of all the kind, warm, sunny, summery things.
“Say, Percy. Could you pick a digit from fifty to sixty?”
“So be it.”
She scribbles something down, and on we go, amid the extended bookshelves, and just as the portraits in the gallery, books are wishing us bon voyage too.
As we are approaching the staircase, our hands swing closely against each other, and as we step on the top stair, our fingers touch and entwine rapidly in the silent consent, considered beforehand, agreed instantly, sealed and signed.
As our legs hover above the invisible threshold, we freeze for a brief moment to acknowledge the fact that we are leaving. We look back simultaneously at our cozy world of screens and shelves, lamps and projectors, seats and sofas.
I feel she squeezes the fingers. We look at one another. Then down again.
The black abyss of the first floor is expecting silently, tinted just a tiny bit with the all-pervading golden shine.
We absorb the blackness around, the taciturn outlines.
We see a marvelous palace to be explored, a hidden miracle to be found.
“You think the guard is here somewhere?” I break the silence.
“I doubt it. I think there is no guard at all – just the alarms. And the lasers which cut your flesh when you hit the beam.”
“Oh. Ladies first, then.”
I feel the warmth of her palm in mine; I hear her silent breaths in the dark quietude.
Suddenly, the Mall is not a hive of monsters, but a castle, or a whole city with the alleys and palms and signboards – a city fallen asleep, a town under the powerful wizard’s spell, waiting for redemption and revenge.
“You know what that aisle looks like?” she asks.
“A palace’s passage?” I hope I feel the same way she does.
“Or a shiny road between the worlds, a path where the time and space criss-cross and flow together. Step to the left – one world, step to the right – another. Like that Zelazny’s thing, you know.”
I think of a palace. She thinks of the Interworld.
“I thought you hate books.”
“I suppose some staff still seeps in when I count them.”
Worlds change worlds as we are sauntering along the stardust-covered path.
“You know, night somehow transmogrifies everything around.”
“I think it rather unveils the true essence of things,” she whispers back.
Well, it is all different from the day, no doubt.
The wooden counter, ceramic coffee mugs, the silvery steel of espresso machine glowing mysteriously, like a medieval lab waiting for its alchemist.
The kids’ playground inhabited fierce dragons and valiant lions, swords longing for its heroes.
People inside the glass hall were petrified in bizarre mannequinesque forms as if they were caught by some malevolent spell.
“Percy? I’d love to step in for a minute,” she says besides the clothing store.
It has the gate lowered, but I approach it fearlessly. I touch the lattice, slide my hand over, catching the tiniest rattles inside. I know I just have to push the button from the inside. Can’t refuse some drama, can I?
“Mellon!” I declare and raise both hands. The grate obeys.
“Come on, princess, before the forty thieves show up.”
“Actually,” she adds dreamily, wandering along the shelves, “might be a little more than a minute.”
“All the time in the world.”
“Good… Need something more suitable for the circumstance.”
She is humming joyous rhyme while disappearing in the dressing room with a pile of fabrics, I bet there is a whole palette, but the flamboyance is lost in darkness.
“Percy, don’t be shy should your eye catch something stylish!..”
Yeah, if my eye catches something in that darkness. I am not a cat.
Still, I somehow register the elegant suit right behind the showcase. It should be from the new collection.
No, I just can’t... Don’t have the audacity, I guess.
Christina’s canorous voice is now shimmering with the song.
The suit is glorious. That fabric, that cut, that chic in every thread…
It captivates me.
I change right here; it’s dark anyway.
My own clothes fall on the floor, and something else falls with them.
“Percy, honey, would you look for a spotlight. They ought to have it...”
I will get you a spotlight. I will get you a gaffer truck, fully loaded.
But there really is a spotlight.
I turn it on and point the cone of light to the black curtains of the fitting room.
“Alright, we are all set for the show. Don’t make us suffer any longer.”
I freeze in breathtaking excitement like a theater expecting the star to appear.
A gap forms between the black curtains and widens quickly into the brightly lit portal as she steps outside, like a vocalist in Sydney, like a prima in Bolshoi…
Her white sneakers stepping with the grace of gold slippers, and that emerald dress with all the cuts, and that scarlet shawl, and that necklace of pearls, and that tiara inlaid with rubies and sapphires shine in her glowing curls…
I make a step forward, and it’s like the step into another realm as if I was enchanted by the warlock and slept for decades, and there she is – my deliverance, my salvation, my enchantress, my princess.
With a gallant bow, I extend my hand, and the fragile minuscule shallop of her palm slides invocatory into mine.
The next moment we are at the entrance, we step back into that dark hallway where stardust is now dazzling in the air.
I think my Spotify launched itself and made a far better choice than I ever would.
The distant chords join in; they seem to be waterfalling from the roof above, from the glass ceiling, from the night sky weaved with the stars.
And the sounds fly in the air, leading us, calling us, as we revolve and turn and paint the floor with the invisible helixes of our steps.
Close and far, near and distant. I feel her warm breath on my cheek, I catch a blue glimpse of her eyes. These blue garnets in front of me glisten with excitement.
The waves of the golden glow are mixed with the tender blue.
The golden sea beneath merges the sapphire sky above.
We rocket up the winding stairs and jump through the palms and run through the fizzy fountain - we own every bit of that starlight kingdom.
We reach the central square, where the ice rink is. Somehow the skates are already on our feet, and we are waltzing across the icy surface, and when we reach the center, when we swirl in one last verse of our new-born song, in that icy chill and golden-blue glow, I feel her warm breath, and she feels mine and as a final word, at the culmination of the movement, at the verge of tears, just the nanosecond before the Great Explosion the sudden stop of our lips - touching together.
The world ceases to exist, drowns in golden and blue.
I am not here anymore. I am the glow; I am the chill.
The night is young, and we go to the movies. I can operate the projectors, and somehow we are so lucky to have the best seats.
We revisit the bookstore, and she tells me about her favorite books and recites her favorite passages aloud.
We sneak into the Asian restaurant with those red balloon lamps and dragons on the folding screens. We find some frozen dumplings and warm them up in the microwave. This is the best dinner I have ever had.
I say Starbucks. She says Soho.
I brew her coffee like it is a priceless elixir that will save humanity.
We sit down by the counter, the whole coffee house is just for us, but we squeeze as close together as possible.
I must admit Soho is good.
At the verge of a night, we lay down at the third floor, nothing there but soft coziness of the ottomans, nothing but a starry firmament above us.
As the stars leave blazing trajectories across the sky, sacrificing themselves to pave the Milky Road with our wishes, we talk of everything.
How we are going to spend this summer together, swimming in the mornings, watching collection VHS’s on the obsolete Japanese TV, sitting awake through the chilly nights, huddling under the wool blankets, sharing a gargantuan cup of tea, reading shabby, dog-eared editions of the old sci-fi magazines, walking in the woods where we can wander far away to see the places we never did, waking up together in the room flooded with sunlight.
We chat and chat, then we hush, but our conversation is flowing, wordless.
Suddenly we are awake in the bright sunshine, and the enchanted palace beneath comes to life. After the ten thousand years, the mighty spell was finally broken - in one glorious night.
“How about some pancakes? Know that place on the first floor?”
“Where they bake them on the huge pan right in front of you?”
“And lavishly add the rich ice cream and strawberry jam.”
“And then point to the coffee pot and say:”
“Fresh and burning!” we shout together and smile.
“So, what you say?”
“I say let’s go burn some throats.”