Everything Must Go
As seen in Allegory Ridge, Archipelago, Vol. 3

               Andrea held up the needle gun and the ten-year-old barely flinched. In the old days, the better days, when Piercing Palace was a bubble gum pink dreamland with over five employees and a working bathroom, the ten-year-olds who visited viewed the needle gun with a sort of fearful reverence. And Andrea, as the wielder, relished the role she played in the whole ordeal. She felt powerful and kind at the same time, and when she pierced the soft hanging bits of cartilage on their ears and held up a mirror to show them their sparkly new earrings, she imagined herself to be a benevolent fairy bestowing gifts upon her grateful pre-pubescent subjects.

            The girl currently in the chair had straight black hair and droopy eyelashes and had waltzed into the store without so much as a glance at Andrea. She had selected the small diamond studs on sale for $99.99, and went back to scrolling through her phone as her mother handed over a credit card. Andrea smirked because she knew the diamond studs were actually cheap plastic crystals set in copper casings that were painted to look like gold. Piercing Palace used to sell real gemstone earrings up until three months ago, when the owner ran away with his Canadian mistress to live in Winnipeg and left his employees to fend for themselves.

            The piercing went quickly enough. After six years and only four mishaps, Andrea was an expert at efficient pricking. The girl admired her new earrings for a moment before sliding out of the chair and walking out of the store with her mother.

            “I’m taking my lunch break,” Andrea called out. No one else was in the store except for Cathy, her 38-year-old coworker who had two mortgages and a cat, and who was asleep in the back storage room with an erotic novel in her hands.

 

***

            All along the halls of the mall there was silence. Once in a while a large rat scurried across the linoleum floors, its paws barely making a pitter-patter sound on the tiles. Andrea walked past a row of vacant store fronts. Some kids had spray painted phallic symbols on the windows of what used to be a PetSmart.

            Howard was already in the break room, sipping from an expired coke can and watching sports on the fuzzy box television set in the corner. He worked at the Hallmark store down in the east wing of the mall, where half of the overhead lights were broken and the emergency exit doors didn’t work. Upon seeing Andrea, Howard shot upright and smoothed out the wrinkles in his button-down shirt.

            “Hi, Andrea.”

            “Hi, Howard,” she sighed. Andrea sat down at the table opposite from him and began picking at the dirt beneath her fingernails.

            “How goes life down at the Pagoda?”

            “Fine, I guess. Had a customer today. She went for the fake studs. Didn’t even say thank you after.”

            “At least you had visitors. My store’s as empty as it was yesterday. I rearranged the picture frame display at least three times. I like putting the black and white wedding photos up in the front.” Howard scooted over closer to Andrea. “You ever think about marriage?”

            Andrea rolled her eyes and flicked a crumb in Howard’s direction. It wasn’t the first time he had circled the topic of partnership, even though he knew Andrea wasn’t interested. Howard was at least twelve years older than her and although he owned a brand new Buick, he still lived with his mother on Sycamore Street. Still, he was the assistant manager at the Hallmark branch which counted for something, but Andrea didn’t want to settle for anything less than manager.

            Sensing her reluctance, Howard quickly changed the subject. “Barb was robbed again,” he said.

            Poor Barb, Andrea thought. It was the third time this year. The shoplifters always targeted Michael’s, the arts and crafts store, stuffing their pockets with brushes and plastic flowers and knocking over aisles of craft kits to make their escape. Andrea wasn’t sure what the shoplifters did with all those flowers and pipe cleaners. Probably some weird sex thing. At 29, Andrea felt she was too old to try new and adventurous positions. Andrea also supposed the shoplifters stole from Michael’s because the staff there were all sexagenarians, many of whom had hip replacements which inhibited their ability to catch the perps. And all the employees were under a terrible health care plan so they couldn’t pay for more lubricated hip joints or bionic knees. The fact that the robberies always happened on Barb’s watch was the cherry on top. Barb had some real cute grandkids. Andrea knew this because Barb made a point of saying so every chance she got. The staff at Freedom Mall had strategies and shortcuts memorized in case they needed to sidestep Barb in the break rooms or in the food courts. But Barb was one of the family, and the robberies weren’t right anyhow.

            “Should we do something?” Andrea asked.

            “Probably,” Howard replied. “It won’t be too long before they start coming after my picture frames. Unacceptable.”

***

            The two walked down towards the Michael’s, Andrea in front and Howard trailing behind. They passed by the food court where half of the fast food outlets were closed and all that remained was a McDonalds and a Panda Express. Andrea remembered the old days, the better days, when the mall was filled with parents shopping for holiday gifts and elderly couples in matching jump suits and sweaty teenagers on silent dates. Children, with faces full of sickly-sweet icing, ran around with party hats clutching newly stuffed bears underneath their arms. Now it was a ghost town without ghosts.

            Up ahead, a few people straggled out of the movie theater, eyes glazed over. Andrea peered inside to see Brett sweeping up stray bits of popcorn on the ground.

            “Hey Brett,” Andrea said.

            “Sup,” Brett replied. He nodded to Howard who puffed up his chest and jerked his head slightly in response. “What are you guys up to?” Brett asked.

            “Going to see Barb. Another robbery,” Howard interjected, cutting off Andrea before she had the chance to speak. Andrea figured he was jealous since she and Brett used to sleep together. But that was back before streaming sites, when the movie theater was doing well and Brett was on track to be promoted, and he could smuggle her into matinee showings with a free blue slushy in hand. She didn’t find him so attractive anymore.

            “Wanna come with?” Andrea asked.

            Brett pushed back his hair and gestured to the mess around him. Stray gummy bears and half-filled coke bottles littered the floor.

            “I like Barb. She helped me pay my DUI fine. I get off in an hour, I’ll meet you there.”

Brett turned away from the pair and resumed sweeping the floor.

            ***

 

            Back on the main walkway, Howard whistled a happy tune.

            “I didn’t know Brett had a DUI,” he mused. “Paints him in a different light, no?”

            Andrea shrugged. She wasn’t hooking up with Brett anymore so it didn’t matter to her. Plus, she had an uncle who was in jail for Grand Larceny for stealing tires from a Goodyear, so she was familiar with more serious crimes.

            “Me, on the other hand,” Howard continued, “I have a Buick that I drive responsibly, my own bank account, a steady job…”

            “As an assistant manager at Hallmark,” Andrea retorted.

            “What’s that supposed to mean?”
           “Don’t you have any ambition?”

            Howard smiled softly. “Sure I do. I just don’t have many options,” he sighed. “What else is out there for a forty-one year old man with a GED and only basic computer skills?”

            Andrea couldn’t think of an answer, but she knew there had to be one.

            “It isn’t as easy as it used to be,” Howard admitted.

            She shook her head defiantly. “Well I’m not gonna be stuck. I’ve got my eye on a manager position, you know,” she said.

            Howard looked at her with eyes sadder and wiser than they had ever been. And Andrea for a moment felt a cold pit in her stomach and a weight around her ankles grounding her to the floor.

            “We’re here,” Howard said.

 

***     

            Barb’s glasses matched her hair. Both were a shocking shade of red not occurring in the natural world and common only in drug hallucinations where colors are blindingly saturated. She was more frazzled than usual, and when Andrea and Howard found her, she was pacing up and down the acrylic paint aisle.

            “We can’t get robbed again. What will my grandkids think? They’re real cute you know,” Barb reached down into her pocket to pull out her phone, but Andrea stopped her.

            “Howard and I are here to help. Brett too, when he gets off.”

            Barb grasped Andrea’s arm and squeezed it and Andrea had to look away because Barb’s smile seemed a little too much like her own, only older.

            The trio walked around the store pointing out blind spots on the security tapes and deciding which corners were best for trapping thieves. It was decided that Barb would canvas the pottery aisle, as well as the framing corner. Howard set up shop next to stuffed animal display, which was adjacent to the ribbons. Andrea was stationed by the door, in case the kids should try to make a run for it. It was nice to see everyone working together, and when Brett finally arrived flushed and sweaty and youthful from his shift at the Cineplex, it became that much nicer to watch. But after a while Andrea’s vision started to blur and her palms started to sweat and she bent over to throw up in a full-price pink metal trash can. That damn pit was back in her stomach and there was a pounding in her head too. Maybe it was the prospect of facing a bunch of teenagers with a penchant for anarchy and stealing craft garden gnomes. No, it wasn’t that she thought. Maybe the fumes from the half-opened turpentine pails a few feet away were clouding her thoughts.

            Andrea blinked twice and when she opened her eyes she could see everything. In two years Brett would get a promotion and also a new haircut so she’d decide to sleep with him again only to get knocked up because the condom was from the dollar store in the west wing. In three years serious looking suits with heavy briefcases would come to inspect the mall, prodding and probing every faulty light switch and broken revolving door. They’d close up soon after, every store plastered with yellow and red signs marking the end of days and massive sales. Without a job or a promotion she’d move in with Brett and their one-year-old son named Jack and try for a while to be happy while Brett went off to work in a new mall with an Amazon Book Store. They’d fight and cry and fuck and fight all over again, and when Brett drinks too much one night and lets it slip that he's sleeping with Wanda at Abercrombie, Andrea won’t feel sad only disappointed. Everything after is a blur of job applications and failed online college courses and whiskey and parent-teacher meetings.

            And Andrea laughed and laughed and couldn’t stop laughing because it all seemed so pointless to her. Howard glanced over with concern and for a moment it looked as if he would say something but decided against it.

           

***

            At quarter to five the store was still as empty as it had been the entire day. Barb’s hip hurt and Howard’s foot fell asleep so the both of them sat quietly on a bench, eyeing the door. Brett was smoking a cigarette next to a pile of homemade wreaths and Andrea walked over to join him. She took a drag and let the smoke fill up her lungs and nose before exhaling up towards the ceiling. Andrea asked if he was happy and he said he wasn’t sure.

            “What are we doing here?” Andrea sighed.

            “Helping Barb.”

            “Not what I meant.”

            Brett shrugged and fumbled with the cigarette between his fingers. There wasn’t much left, just a few more puffs until it was bust, but the end glowed red and fiery and angry-looking.

            “Waiting it all out I suppose,” he said. “Waiting out life.”

            Andrea thought that to be very profound and for a moment was tempted to jump his sturdy bones but then she remembered her turpentine-induced vision and decided against it.

            Just then the sliding glass doors opened. Three gangly teenagers stood at the frame, dressed in all black. One, who had a snaggletooth, held a skateboard with fire decals on the bottom. Another had white streaked hair and carried a large green knapsack over his right shoulder. The only girl of the bunch had long legs and a tragically botched fake tan and was holding a selfie stick. They sauntered into the store and began running their fingers over the displayed items. Andrea sidled up next to Barb, who was standing by the cash register with a scan gun firmly gripped in her hand.

            “Is that them?” Andrea whispered.

            Barb shook her head. “Different kids. Same bag. Must be part of the same posse.”

            Andrea nodded and casually walked over to her assigned spot by the front. Howard was by the back bathroom wielding a broom as a makeshift lance. Brett pretended to restock items while concealing the plastic zip ties hidden underneath his shirt.

            Fake-tan pulled out her phone and began recording Snaggletooth who was rifling through wrapping paper in a bin by the back. The girl leaned in a whispered to her accomplice who laughed and swatted at her shoulder and grinned over at the scattered employees.

            Barb approached White-hair and in a warbling voice asked if they needed any assistance to which the kid said no. Fake-tan ran up close to get a better shot. Snaggletooth took a hit from a JUUL and blew the smoke at Howard who choked back a cough and twisted the broom behind his back.

            Crash. Barb hit the floor, pushed over by White-hair on his way to raid the sketchbook aisle. She clutched her left hip (the one that had been replaced) and reached out as if to grab the teens, who were snickering and high-fiving each other as they stuffed travel-sized watercolor paper packs into their bags. Howard rushed over to help his fallen comrade as Brett charged at the gang with his zip ties in hand. Fake-tan swung her selfie stick at Brett and hit him just above the knee. He crumpled to the floor and howled out in pain as she stood above him and prodded his ribs with her pole.

            The thieves shoved their hands into button containers and grabbed fistfuls of the shiny smooth things to jam in their pockets. Howard ran to stop them but slipped on the floor that was covered with turpentine residue and he slid all the way down to the end of the row before smacking into a shelf of glass vases which tipped over and covered the entire floor with shards of broken glass and droplets of blood.

            Andrea chewed the insides of her cheeks like she did when she was nervous. Her post was by the front door. Could she leave? Fear rooted her to the ground as she looked helplessly at her coworkers. Andrea thought about all her years of waiting. Waiting for a promotion that would never come. Waiting for a raise she would never get. Waiting for the perfect man to sweep her off her feet and take her on vacations to Boca Raton. But Andrea, a woman fueled by daydreams of success and bravery but stuck in a stagnant reality, was not one for heroic gestures. And yet. This could be her moment, the time to prove that she was not just an idle being, content to stay in the same place for her whole life. That she wouldn’t marry Brett and she wouldn’t become manager at Piercing Pagoda and she wouldn’t become a version of herself that she hated. She locked eyes Barb, an old woman with a strangely familiar smile, and saw what a future of waiting would bring.

            Andrea planted her feet on the linoleum floor, blocking the only exit to the store left, since all the emergency exits had been locked up. The three intruders eyed her warily before advancing at a pace slightly above a jog. They were getting closer, the echoing of their feet on the floor getting louder. As the hungry-eyed teens ran up to the door, Andrea stood there with her fists balled and teeth clenched and knees locked and she prayed to God that she might stand up for herself for once in her life. She could hear the echo of her heart-beat rattling around in her head, pulsing in her ears. Could feel the sweat pool in her hands and under her armpits. Sensed the tension in the air around her. Felt a rumble beneath her as the teens charged. Closer. A few yards away—this was it— passing the glass pebble display — their eyes burning — coming into focus now— Andrea could do this— close enough to touch…

            Snaggle-tooth, White-hair, and Fake-tan whisked right past Andrea as she stood motionless in front of the door, her courage never fully realized. The kids laughed and laughed as they sped off into the night and Andrea was left behind, yet again.