In its final years, the Mall was largely avoided by the Living. They roamed the halls searching reluctantly for anything besides unsatisfying meals or another go on the rusting carousel. After close, however, things never failed to become more interesting. Andy’s father worked retail for many years, so she was prepared to fit in when she died. We, most certainly, were not.
Andy was a wild Living kid, believe me! Quiet yes, but always cunning, easy to find if only you knew the best hiding spots, such as the loft above Susan’s Cookies (her favorite). Considering her father worked longer hours for more years than any other employee, the Mall was Andy’s castle, the whereabouts of its nooks her closest secrets. Ultimately, though, death silenced her. It’s hard to say when exactly she arrived, or whether the room felt more or less empty when she was present. We simply learned to take no personal offense from her absent stare, her wilted entrances and exists. The matter seemed settled until I was assigned to train her on realigning the carousel’s central pole.
The backlight of the Clock flickered on, its green glow rippling across the surface of the fountain pond. Normally at this time, I would hang my Skin in the locker room until the next workday, but I remained Skinned knowing Andy refused to remove her Skin after Living hours. Similarly, my Skinless form does not have hands.
We shook hands.
“Hi! My name is—”
I pulled back—she was warm. Summer sand between toes. Teacup against chapping palms beside a wet window. Perfectly warm.
“Let’s…get started then,” I said, opening the door leading to the underside of the carousel. Andy followed.
“You work with Gustav,” I began. “Lucky duck! Gus has been operating this machine since day one. Gentleman with all the heads, see him over there? Keeps a good eye on things around here, or a few shall I say, ha ha. Well. In the 70’s, there were—”
While Andy repeated the operations flawlessly, I knew she was not listening. She worked so swift, so intentionally, her limbs blurred like a scurrying spider. My hand remained warm throughout the training.
“That’s all there is to it. Questions?”
To my surprise, she asked, “Why did you remain in your Skin? You’re off the clock.”
“My form doesn’t have hands. I can show you if you’d like.”
“Just wondering,” she said, and walked away.
I never mentioned to anyone that Andy spoke to me, nor could I manage to bring up the warmness in her hand. I wondered, was it her or me? Can someone be half-Living? Was she holding on to something from before?
One evening a few months later I moseyed over to Blockbuster Bar Skinless. It was a busy night, all of bartender Lily’s tentacles mixing and pouring simultaneously. A Western on VHS was blaring from the TV. I sipped the tarry concoction with my eyes until she remembered my long straw.
“Thanks Lily. Always looking out for me.”
“‘Course hun. What’s good?”
“Besides seeing you?”
She winked at me, then looked to my side.
It was Andy. She placed a small bag on the counter that expelled the scent of fresh bread. Lily poured her a glass of water. The heat – buck stove in a wintry cabin – emanated from her. She took a gulp, then leaned towards me.
“Can you help?” she whispered.
I looked into her large eyes, smooth like clean marbles.
“Expecting someone?” I asked
I peered across the bar. Gus was slouched in a corner booth, all but one of his heads passed out, a collection of adoring vampires fingering his necks.
“If I lose my job, you’re dead.”
A Cheshire smile filled her face, the first since her death.
We slid across the grand room onto the carousel. Andy sat calmly on a bench with the bag cupped in her mitten-like hands, gazing towards the Clock. The secondhand hauled us gradually towards something we were certain must never come to an end. Death suddenly seemed so inconclusive.
An hour until Skins were to be reclaimed for work, Andy sprung from the bench, facing the glass door entrance. A man’s figure swayed uneasily on the other side. Andy motioned to me. I unlocked the door. Andy ducked behind the operator’s board.
The man shuffled from the door to the carousel like sandpaper smoothing over stubborn knots. He sat at the bench where Andy was previously and discovered the bag, still warm. From within it, he revealed one of Susan’s Cookies, consumed it pleasurably, then laid down on the bench.
Andy paced heel-to-toe, three seconds per step, step after step, until she arrived at the bench. She stood over him patiently.
Gustav wobbled over from Blockbuster with his Skin draped over his arm, his necks spotted.
“Has Lily been making them heavy lately? I feel light-headed as—”
“Shh!” I said. He noticed Andy.
The man rose and embraced Andy with the quiet force of an orbiting mass that could no longer bear the distance. Within this gentle collision they remained, reversing the expansion of time itself, until simultaneously they removed their Skins and disappearing altogether.
Gustav and I went to the bench where we found the man’s cold body beside the Skins.
The front door rattled. Two cats peered back at us from the other side of the glass, then scurried away. Gustav collected the Skins, sighing.
“Think we know what this means,” he said.
Shortly after, the building manager arrived, confused at the sight of everyone gathered near the carousel. When he found the body, he knelt to it and wept. We wept as well. We knew none of the Living would return, not after this.
A silent chill slinked through the halls and rooms, a chill not dissimilar from the ocean or the moon, taught between us all as the string that binds the two.
By the time it was announced that the building would be demolished, most of us found elsewhere to dwell. Gustav kissed my cheeks twice per head on the day the carousel was removed. Some stayed to hear the thunder of the Mall’s collapse, the moan in its final breath. Not me though. I couldn’t bear it. The last I saw of it was the secondhand spinning around the face of the green Clock.
Around and around and around it goes.
adoptee author based in louisville, ky @tcaptship