Becca has never eaten chocolate. I probably haven’t eaten a piece of chocolate myself since the Derailment — that’s what I call it. She was just a baby then, and we used to watch what she ate. We were responsible parents, we read books. But I guess no book would have prepared us for what would come next.
I’m going up the deactivated escalator of Memorial Plaza Mall. This is like when Rita and I spent a snowy weekend in Paris. When we went back a couple of years later, in the summer, we didn’t recognize any of the streets without the thin — but nonetheless expressive — layer of snow. It’s a different season on Memorial Plaza Mall now, and the thin layer of dust has rendered it unrecognizable.
I reach the third floor and lean against the rail to see the mall's lobby presenting itself with what was left of its pride. There’s a tree in the center of the lobby, an island of vivid green in a sea of lifeless gray. Vines stretch away from the tree like tentacles and cover the four long benches that draw a square around it. The sight is made more impressive by the natural light pouring through the large empty space in the ceiling, specs of dust dancing on the light shaft. The structure that used to hold the glass panels to the ceiling is still there, but the panels themselves are long gone — like the rib cage in a decomposing corpse: it was there to give structure and protect what was inside, but there’s nothing worth protecting in there anymore. Nothing alive, anyway.
I look around, searching for any sign of life in the deceased mall. After a long moment of silence, I’m bold enough to turn on the flashlight. The bright light pokes around inside the empty stores through broken glass and dismembered mannequins, but there’s no pulse. The mall is dead. I turn off the flashlight and whistle to the tree down in the lobby. Becca creeps out from under one of the benches and slinks up the escalator, just a blur.
There used to be a chocolate store on this floor: Cosmos. All their chocolates had space-related names. I wasn’t a fan, but Rita used to love their Nebula Bar. It didn’t matter how bad her day had been, if I got home with a Nebula Bar, a smile always found a way to creep into her face. She used to say the Nebula Bar was a sugary reminder of how the universe didn’t need magic to be magical. That, in the emptiness and bareness of space, there are clouds where particles of dust become stars. You give it enough time, and let the universe and gravity do their thing and bring enough dust particles together until, bam! It creates planets, asteroids, and even the most powerful sources of energy, perpetual self-feeding explosions: stars!
She also used to say she and I were little particles of dust, wandering through the emptiness of space, not really capable of much on our own, until: bam! We created a shining little star of our own.
Rita was a huge nerd.
I want Becca to taste that. Today’s her sixth birthday, and seeing her sneak her way up the dead escalator fills me with a warm and fuzzy feeling. I’m proud of my little girl, and I’m proud of myself for teaching her.
We walk down an empty aisle, a dead artery through which long ago shoppers pulsated, going to and fro without a care in the world. The next second, I stretch my arm and put an open palm on Becca’s little chest and she freezes — she knows to stand still when I do this. I think I heard something. The light coming from the main lobby is enough that I can see my way through the aisle, but not enough that I can see all the way inside the stores. I don’t wanna drain the battery of my flashlight, so I just listen carefully. I wait a minute. And then another. There’s nothing there.
Sometimes I’m afraid I might become paranoid, which is a form of paranoia in itself, and the irony of this is not lost in me. Still, sometimes I feel like there is no worrying too much after the Derailment. I’m not the only one who depends on my worrying, Becca does too. But I also realize I need my mental health to be in place. Becca needs it. She can’t afford to have a paranoid dad.
Being a parent is hard.
I sigh and keep walking. Becca follows.
The aisle is only barely visible at this point, but I still want to save the batteries as much as I can. I don’t know what evils await in the darkness, ready to ambush us from the depths of Memorial Plazza’s corpse, but a quick risk evaluation tells me to keep going. Life has been an endless array of pondering risks. If I use the flashlight too much I risk not having it when I need it. If I keep walking in the dark with Becca… wait.
My heart sinks and I’m taken by a desperate kind of dizziness. Where is Becca? She was supposed to be only a step behind me, only a silent step away. We talked about this. But she’s not there. The dim light is not nearly as much as I need right now, but I can see the aisle is empty. I'm the only one standing here. I reach for the flashlight and my mind is evaluating risks, a thousand operations a second. If I turn on the light I risk being seen, and I also risk drying the battery. If I don’t, I can’t find my daughter. I can call for her too, but if I do, I might announce our presence to someone hiding in the darkness. If I don’t, I can’t find my daughter!
I settle in both screaming and turning on the flashlight when I see Becca standing in front of a badly-lit store. The little devil is just staring at the wall. I rush for her, my heart thumping in my throat.
I slide on my knees to get down to her and pull her arm.
“Becca,” my voice is low but thunderous, “where were you? ‘One silent step away,’ remember? We’ve talked about this!”
My presence awakens her from her trance, her wide eyes are two bright stars shining in the darkness. As she comes to her senses she burrows her head between her shoulders. “I’m sorry, Daddy.” Her face contorts with shame.
“I don’t need you to be sorry,” I tell her, “I need you to be responsible!”
“I’m sorry,” she says again and I can see she’s about to cry.
I hug her before a single tear drops and look around once more, just in case.
“It’s okay,” I tell her. “Just don’t make daddy even more worried than he already is, okay? I have a problem, remember?”
I pull her away to check if the reference landed. She’s still upset, so I take it a step further. “I’m gonna go c-c-c-crazy,” I say while shaking my head whimsically.
She laughs a little and brings one hand to her mouth.
I think we’re okay.
“What were you doing here, anyway?”
She bites on her thumb and points with the other hand to a poster on the wall. It’s a large picture of a man with gelled-back hair. He’s wearing a nice blazer and adjusting his necktie. He’s quite a handsome fella. I’d think she’s a bit young for this kind of thing.
“He looks like daddy?” I ask her.
She shakes her head and points to his wrist. He has a big watch — the poster is actually a watch ad.
“What is this?” she asks with her hand on her mouth, a bit ashamed of her question.
“It’s a watch,” I say and instantly realize this kid has never seen a watch before. I try to explain. “It keeps track of time. It was something we cared about before the Derailment.”
“Why?” she asks with honest curiosity, and I’m stumped.
Why indeed, Becca. It’s crazy to think how much we used to care about time. We always had an eye on the clock. Smartphones — our first big step into cyborgness — were just glorified clocks most of the time. We couldn’t be late, we had to be on time. Now, you’re never on time. You’re always too late. Too late to enjoy the small things our technologically-advanced civilization provided to us, like the luxury to care about what time it was. I guess for some the real luxury was being able to not care about time. Either way, this is such an upsetting anachronism I just tell her I’ll explain later, we have to look for the Nebula Bar. Secretly, I’m hoping she forgets the subject altogether.
When we get to the store I finally use the flashlight. Becca keeps one silent step away. We look at every little corner in the Cosmos chocolate store, but there’s nothing except for empty shelves and old chocolate wrapping. When we’re about to leave, Becca pulls my arm and shows me something she found. It’s a chocolate bar. Not Nebula, mind you, but rather, Jupiter. I pocket the chocolate bar and we leave the store. I only unpocket it when we’re at the top of the escalator facing the lobby again, where natural light can help us investigate this thing.
We sit on the last step of the escalator and Becca can barely contain herself on my side. I carefully remove the dusty wrap to reveal a mold-covered chocolate bar. My expectations dissolve into dust. I tell her I’m sorry and she says it’s okay.
Her eyes wander to the tree at the center of the lobby and she asks after a second, “what did it taste like? Chocolate?”
I think for a while and pocket the wrapping — a souvenir of today's trip. “It tasted like…” I start, as if starting the sentence will bring the rest of it to my mind. “Progress,” I finally say.
“How?” Becca asks with confused eyes.
I sigh. “To make this chocolate bar, a farmer needed to plant cocoa. Another farmer, somewhere else, needed to plant sugar cane. The wrapping was made out of this thick liquid we had to extract from the ground. Then, they would take each of these to factories, on trucks, through roads that connected every place there were people. Once the factory made the magic of turning these things into chocolate, other trucks would take them to stores where people could buy them with an amount of money they could earn after working less than an hour.”
I can see this explanation is going over her little post-apocalyptic head.
“This chocolate bar was more than candy,” I try to summarize. “It was a sample of what we were capable of when we worked together.”
I think this landed better. Becca is looking at the tree, and I can almost measure the speed with which thoughts are crossing her six-year-old mind.
“What you’re thinking about?” I ask her.
She frowns. “Why do you call it Derailment?”
I sigh again. That’s another conversation we haven’t had yet. “Because that’s how it happened. It didn’t all happen at once. It was like a train going off the rails. First, one car tumbles, and it pulls the other, and the other, and the other. Things started going wrong one by one until everything was off the rails.”
I’m not sure how clear my metaphor is for her, but I can see she accepted this and will take it home to process it later.
After I’m done speaking, I freeze as I hear something from the upper floor. I grab Becca’s hand and don’t move. There’s a groaning up there. It sounds like the voice of a woman, but she’s groaning like a child who lost their toy and is about to throw a tantrum.
“Get out,” she then screams. “I know you’re there! Go away!”
I hold Becca’s hand firmly but I still don’t move, hoping the voice is bluffing. We can't see anything from here, just hear the nightmarish voice. Then, a shriek cuts the stillness of the lobby and pierces my ears. Becca lets go of my hand to cover her own ears, and she looks at me for directions.
I grab her hand and run down the escalator.
“Get away from here,” the voice screams in deranged, barely intelligible words. “‘Get out!”
I run away with Becca, we run until we’re out of the mall and we can’t hear the screams. Unfortunately, we can't go back to Memorial Plaza for more souvenirs of the past for a while. The place is haunted.
This is what happened to us. Some hide, some kill, some haunt, some run. Just particles of dust wandering through the emptiness of space. I hope someday the universe can bring us together again, and then we’ll once more create light, and bring this dead world back to life.