Stainless steel, plate glass, high gloss granite floor tiles, everything squeaky clean. I know this place comfortably well. A few units boarded over, as usual, splashy logos promising me something new and exciting, coming soon.
The girls know I can’t deal with trailing round behind them while they browse the boutiques and the kitchen store. I need a goal; a purpose. I go shopping for something. I get it and I’m done. I suppose I do browse a little. My tastes are tech stores and bookshops. Not that I buy paper books any more, when I can download weightless kindle and audio versions. Or I go and get a coffee. Plenty of coffee shops in here. After that, I gravitate down to Carrefour where I’m sure to catch up with the girls. I know I’ll find them in the greengrocery aisle. I always do.
I think I’ve been for my coffee already. Where did I have coffee? I’m not sure. The girls must be finished in the fashion stores by now. What time is it?
It’s busy in here today. They call it Black Friday. Something to do with getting back into the black after too long in the red. Sales everywhere. People falling over one another to buy stuff they don’t need. There was a hymn they made us sing in school.I danced on the Friday when the sky turned black. It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back.
My knees and ankles feel a little stiff. I suppose I’m not getting any younger. Have to expect a few aches and pains these days. Wonder how many steps I’ve done, around this place. Three levels and a dozen elevators and escalators. Is there a way to visit every store without walking over the same ground twice? It would be like one of those puzzles where you have to connect water, gas and electricity to three houses without any crossover. Probably impossible.
I don’t think I did have a coffee today. Come to think of it, where is Starbucks? I could have sworn it was right here but there’s just Top Man and Maxx. The place isn’t as I remember it. It’s changed. It’s changing. Where is everyone? The place was packed a few minutes ago. Was it a few minutes? Might have been a few hours. I’m really not sure. Day and night must look the same in here. Spring and summer, winter, autumn, only the fashions on the mannequins change. I saw them set the Christmas scene up in the central display area. Actually, I didn’t. I saw that they had set it up, then taken it down, then there it was again. Like a whole year went by in, how long?
I’m going to head to Carrefour to find the girls. Looks like I’m the only one here. Can’t even see a security guard. Perhaps they’re about to close. We had better be quick and get our shopping. What time is it? I don’t seem to have my wristwatch. Or my phone. Must have left them at home. That must have been at around… I don’t know. I don’t remember leaving home. I don’t remember this morning. Or yesterday.
Wait, where’s Carrefour? It was at the end of this row, I know it was. Largest store in the mall. I’ve made a wrong turn. No, I’m sure I’ve been all around the ground floor. It’s gone. So where are the girls? Did they leave without me? But I still have the car keys. Where did I park the car? I can’t find my keys. I’ve tried all my pockets. Have the girls gone home and left me? That’s not like them. Not like them at all. Strange, I can’t remember what they were wearing when we got here. When was that? It seems like a long, long time ago.
Wait, there’s a security guard. I can ask him. He has his back to me. I call out. “Hey, friend! Can you help me?” I mean, I struggle to call out. All I can manage is a raspy whisper. I try to catch up with him. I don’t seem to be getting any nearer. Is he walking away from me? I don’t see his legs move. I reach out to tap him on the shoulder. My hand… what the hell? It’s just bones, like a skeleton in some crappy ghost movie.
He starts to turn. The hair touching his shirt collar crackles like dry grass. His skin isn’t white, and it’s not black. It’s grey and green. Part of his cheek is missing and I see his teeth go all the way around.
His slack jaw drops open. His hoarse, dead voice speaks from the bottom of his grave. “I’m sorry I can’t help you, brother.”
Three thousand miles away, the leaves are returning to the trees. Penny Fairchild and her grown-up daughter, Amy are making one of their regular trips to visit Bryce, their respective husband and father. Amy has fresh daffodils. Warmly, she remembers the happy weekend shopping trips with her mum and her dad; how he would go off for his coffee and hammer away at one of his stories on his iPad while she and her mum got on with the shop-till-you-drop routine. She smiled, recalling him getting all huffy-puffy, following them round from store to store. They’d end by buying something delicious from Carrefour and heading home to cook it for dinner.
It’s strange now, without him. At first she used to cry every night. Like an aching tooth you can’t help but bite on, she wallowed in exquisitely painful emptiness when she thought of the bedtime stories he would make up, with her soft toys as characters, set in the magic world of Greentedsville. The plot always had a moral and there was bound to be a happy ending. Real life just wasn’t like that, she’d learned. Then, with time, the happy memories shone a little brighter and the hurt, while never going completely away, merged into the background like the whirr of a fan.
Bright eyed and blinking away a tear, Amy lifts the crackling, skeletal remains of old, dried flowers from the headstone and replaces them with the pliant, fragrant new ones. Death just keeps haunting you. You never get away from it.
Practical as ever, Penny busies herself with her shears and trowel, tidying up.
Neither woman can really believe it has been ten years since Bryce died. It seems like yesterday he waved them goodbye as they set off to H&M, himself heading for his beloved Starbucks, where, a few minutes later, he succumbed to a lightning heart attack, crashing like a falling tree before he’d a sipped his cooling coffee. The elderly security guard recognised them from their frequent visits, so he’d known where to look for the two of them when it happened. Amy recalled the poor guard’s words, shaking his head, seeking absolution. “I’m sorry, madam, miss. I’m so sorry I couldn’t help him.”