by William Alexander
“If you drink a tea brewed from the plastic shavings of his credit cards, then his fortunes will fall and yours will rise—but beware the price.” Zoe leaned forward and lowered her voice. “There is always a price. In this case, the carcinogenic effects of scalded plastic will exact that price.”
“Sure, sure,” the client said. “I’m already paying a lot for this, though.” She looked older than she was—a consequence of terrible bangs and a high forehead. “How do I get his credit cards without him noticing?”
“That is up to you.” Zoe glanced around to make sure they were not overheard. The semi-public nature of this conversation bothered them both, though Zoe was better at hiding it. If she could afford an actual storefront, they would be conducting business in relative privacy. Instead, they sat on stools beside Zoe’s kiosk, surrounded by the endless currents of mall traffic. A foldable wall of rice paper offered some visual shelter, but it wasn’t much, and she needed to keep her shelf of tchotchkes visible and enticing.
Zoe sold runes of good fortune, beauty, and potency, all carved into bright and shiny things. She sold necklaces guaranteed to improve standardized test scores, and others that would grant sure footing to a daughter’s soccer team, and more for preventing airline delays. She preferred to peddle positive and upbeat sorts of charms—but hers was a business of moving sideways, and this inevitably circled around to a certain amount of vengeance, backstabbing, and stealth.
She ran one hand through her hair. It had passed through every single dyeable color on its way to the resigned brown of frozen dirt in late November.
“I can provide a charm which might make him careless, and your own fingers more nimble,” she whispered. “But, in the end, your success will be yours. The risks will be yours. The rewards will be yours.” This was pep talk, legal disclaimer, and invocation of the secret, wealth-making forces of the universe that clients never failed to believe in, as though both physics and the music of the spheres answered the strum of the Invisible Hand—and here, at the mall, they probably did.
The client narrowed her eyes at the tchotchkes on display, clearly trying to make out the numbers on price tags. A cheapskate. She didn’t want to pay any more than she had already forked over for the session. Zoe re-calibrated her approach.
“You may have the luck charm. My gift. Wear it around your neck, tucked under your clothes—it needs the heat from your skin for it to work. The tea leaves will be ten dollars, and they will help make the plastic taste better.”
The client still grumbled over the cost of the tea, but she paid for it. Then she took the necklace charm—without thanks, as though entitled to the gift, as though it were even possible to be entitled to a gift—and went on her way.
Zoe gave no visible sign of her relief that the session was done, that the client was gone, and that a fraction of kiosk rent was now safely paid for. She adjusted the placement of her chairs and waited for the next mall-walker in need of witchcraft.
Several monks went by, each one holding a disposable coffee mug. They made an elaborate show of avoiding Zoe’s kiosk, and crossed both themselves and the air in her direction. She responded by pretending to give them the evil eye, while carefully avoiding the possibility of actually giving them the evil eye. This was all for show—or at least it was mostly for show. The act would drop after standard business hours. Monks were decent guys, who brewed decent beer. They kept to their monastery most of the time, tucked out of sight behind the movie theater, but they also ran a more public storefront for selling the beer, tankards, and indulgences on the fourth floor.
Then Alexander showed up. He sat on the stool she reserved for actual clients. He looked like he always did: pale, thin, younger than he actually was, and probably suffering from a wasting illness and consuming obsessions. He reached for the amulets on display and took down both kesk and ma’sik. He had not yet bothered to say hello.
“This is beautiful work,” he said, running his thumb over the carved letters. The compliment actually sounded genuine.
“Thank you,” said Zoe. “Put them back.”
“Can I buy these?” he asked.
“No. Not those two. You can’t afford them.”
“Can I borrow them?”
“No. Make your own.”
“You know I can’t possibly do that. My skills are elsewhere.”
“You don’t have any skills,” she told him. “You have talent, great heaping amounts of fumbling talent, but you have never paid attention to anything long enough to develop skill. Put the amulets back.”
Zoe and Alexander were not lovers, in case you were wondering. Anything that may or may not have happened on Zoe’s couch last year is no business of yours.
He returned kesk and ma’sik to the display case.
“How’s custom?” he asked.
“Fine,” said Zoe. “It keeps me in tea.”
Alexander nodded. “Good,” he said in a distracted sort of way. “Then you can spare an hour or two. Close up shop and let me buy you lunch. How about sushi?”
He knew she loved sushi. “You can’t afford sushi,” she told him.
“I don’t need to,” he said. “I know the chef.” This was not in any way surprising. Alexander knew practically everyone.
“Okay,” she agreed. “Twist my arm.” She folded up the paper screen, shut the drawer of tea canisters, and closed the glass case.
“Bring kesk and ma’sik,” he said, making a show of pronouncing them properly. “Even if you won’t let me borrow them. Please.” Alexander did not often say please.
“Why?” she asked. The question wasn’t a refusal. She was curious.
“I’ll tell you at the restaurant,” he said.
Zoe put both amulets around her neck and finished locking up.
The very best sushi restaurant had recently moved to the third floor across from Personals, a storefront of classified ads. Personals offered complimentary espresso whenever a customer took out—or put themselves into—a browse-able ad. Zoe had it on good authority that they burned the espresso every single time, and that it was difficult to sit pleasantly on display with a full bladder and caffeinated veins.
Zoe and Alexander took the sweeping marble staircase rather than the elevator, just to work up an appetite.
The restaurant seating area was part of the main hallway, separated from the mall-walkers by a length of red rope. Zoe watched the currents of traffic while Alexander made small talk with the waiter. He ordered a Naughty Dragon Roll without looking at the menu. She considered the full contents of the menu before ordering a Very Hungry Caterpillar and a pot of flowering tea.
The waiter took their menus and went away.
Zoe folded her hands and leaned back in her chair. “I’m listening.”
Alexander leaned forward. “So I was in the aquarium today—” he began.
“I thought the aquarium fired you months ago,” she interrupted.
“They did,” he admitted, “but I still have friends there, and even the ones who aren’t friends are properly grateful for the old fishermen chanties I taught them, the ones that make it easier to net the fish at tank-cleaning time. And I never gave back my keys, so I can still get in whenever I like.”
The basement of the mall held the largest underground aquarium in North America. It also doubled as a tornado shelter. Last summer, during the height of tornado season, sirens had gone off and Zoe had taken shelter there without having to pay the steep admission fees. She spent the whole time talking to squid and trying to explain what tornadoes were. Whirlpools in the air, she had told them.
The waiter brought a transparent teapot and filled it with steaming water. Zoe watched a small bouquet of tea leaves bloom inside.
“So you broke into the aquarium…” she said, guiding Alexander back to his story.
“I did. It was closed, but that didn’t really matter. I found a whole team of vets implanting tiny sensors in the fish. They maintain a constant broadcast of their vital signs.”
“Seems a bit excessive,” Zoe said.
“It is a bit excessive,” he agreed. “But here’s the point: the sensors aren’t there to help care for the fish. The sensors make it possible to whisk away fish in distress before they actually die. Death never comes to the mall, not even among fragile, tropical fish.”
“Of course not,” said Zoe, unsurprised. “The fantasy of this whole place depends on death’s exclusion. They don’t let me sell charms for speaking to the dead.”
“The bookstore won’t stock ghost stories, either,” he said. “I asked why, and the manager told me that they ‘aren’t family oriented.’ ”
The food arrived. Zoe started eating. Alexander kept talking.
“Then I went to the mall chapel and asked about funerals. They won’t do them. They’ll perform marriages, and toss in complimentary tickets to whatever romantic comedy is playing in the multiplex, but they never do funerals.”
“None of this is news,” said Zoe. She took another bite of Very Hungry Caterpillar.
Alexander grinned. He lowered the volume and pitch of his voice. “We should invite death to come back.”
Zoe gave him a sideways look of scorn and skepticism. “And how do we do that?” she asked. “Go on a shooting spree?”
“Of course not,” he said. “Nothing so crass. I’d just like to prank this place and make it the site of grand Memento mori. We don’t need to kill anyone to accomplish that. We just invite those who are already dead to walk around for a bit. Sound like fun?”
“No,” she said, though it did a little.
“Consider it charity,” he pressed. “Death will find its way back in here eventually. The longer they keep it exiled, the worse it will be when that finally happens. But we can mitigate the damage, and stall that painful inevitability, if we invite the dead to come visit.”
Zoe ran one hand through her very brown hair. “I doubt your altruism.”
“That doesn’t mean I’m wrong,” he said.
She chewed on the last of her sushi roll. “How do you intend to accomplish this prank?”
“Not sure,” he admitted. “We would need kesk and ma’sik, obviously, and I put together a thanatos charm of my own, but beyond that…” He trailed off, hopeful.
Zoe savored a sip of her tea and considered the challenge. “I might have suggestions.”
The largest fountain in the mall stood at the intersection of three separate hallways. Jets of water arced into the central pool from high-pressure spigots around the rim, timed to match the tempo of whatever live or recorded music might be playing nearby. Zoe thought it looked like a pissing contest with the actual contestants missing. Today the spigots matched the tempo of choral arrangements piped through hidden speakers.
Thousands of tossed coins glinted on the fountain floor.
“Here?” Alexander asked.
“Here,” Zoe told him. “This is the only place of offering, the only spot outside of exchange and equivalence. People come here to wish rather than want.”
She took the amulets from around her neck, spoke to them in an undertone, and tossed both into the fountain. Alexander watched the splash with regret.
“You wouldn’t let me borrow those, and now you’ve just thrown them away.”
“Nope,” she said. “I offered them as gift. Do the same with that little thanatos charm you made.”
He took the charm from his pocket, mumbled a handful of words, and tossed it in.
“What now?” he asked.
“Now we walk around and wait,” she said. “It shouldn’t be long.”
“How will we know when it starts?”
“We’ll know,” she said. “Probably. Hopefully.”
They passed a souvenir shop, a pet store, and the Prayer Wheels of Fortune that advertised the chance to win an additional fifty percent guaranteed quality karma for no money down and no interest for the first year if you buy your tickets with the in-store credit card, available in holographic editions depicting a) enlightenment, b) kittens, or c) a buck with wide antlers standing proud and slightly frightened.
Dust and ashes began to flow across the polished floor.
The dark substance moved in ribbons and snakes like powdery snow in a high winter wind—though of course there was no wind inside the weatherlessness of absolute climate control. The air remained still, calm, and pleasant. Dust and ash still moved through it, collecting into drifts and piles.
Zoe reached into one such pile and took up a handful of dry, fine powder. She spat into it, kneaded it into a ball of mud, and then pinched and pulled it into the shape of a small figure with a round, marble-sized head. She used a hairpin to poke two eye sockets into the head, but neglected to add a mouth; it might look too much like Munch’s scream if she added a mouth.
“Hello,” she said, and tapped the forehead once.
The small figure lifted one lumpy arm and waved.
“I’m going to call you George, if that’s okay with you?”
The figure nodded.
“Are you composed of the dust and ashes of the dead?” Zoe asked.
George nodded again.
“There you are,” she said to Alexander. “It’s started.”
He wasn’t much impressed. “I was hoping to do a little more than make work for the janitors.”
Tired looking men with long dry-mops arrived to sweep away the dust of generations. Mall janitors never came out during the day, not ever—but here they were, blinking in the bright lights and dodging customers’ feet.
“Give it time,” Zoe said, a bit defensive.
They walked and dodged around mops. Nearby customers muttered and complained more about the presence of janitors than they did about the dust.
“This needs more oomph,” Alexander said. “Your work is elegant, but this is too timid.”
“And you’re much too impatient,” she told him. “What do you suggest?”
“This.” He wrapped his right hand around his left index finger and broke it.
George covered its eyes with its stubby little arms.
Bones emerged from the dust drifts immediately. Wrist bones rolled across the floor like dice. Finger bones climbed potted trees to cover the stalks and branches, scratching against each other as the plants swayed in the wind between worlds. Several larger bones collected themselves into skittering crab-things, building on very old memories, re-membering and repurposing themselves. Skulls become shells, ribs became legs.
“Better?” Alexander asked, grinning and wincing at once. “Ow ow ow ow ow.”
“Better,” said Zoe. “You don’t have any health insurance, do you?”
“No,” said Alexander. “I might need your help to set the bone later.”
The janitors retreated. Even mops with an eight-foot wingspan couldn’t do much against huge crabs made out of bone. The majority of the customers also left, some shoving and hurrying, but most slipping quietly and uncomfortably away.
Then the security guards arrived by the dozen. They swung long batons and shattered skulls.
Zoe winced. “We’re not done yet,” she said. “Let’s find my kiosk.”
She found bone structures climbing, like coral, up and around her kiosk . Tubes of stacked vertebrae swayed back and forth around her purple sign.
A guard ran up to them and started to hit things.
“You can’t be here!” he shouted. He had exactly the kind of mustache that Zoe would have expected him to have.
“That’s my kiosk!” she shouted back, pointing. “At least let me save the cash box!”
She leaned up against the bone reef and pushed one arm through. She couldn’t actually reach the cash box—it was locked in place, anyway—but her fingers found a canister of loose leaf tea. Then she deliberately scraped the palm of her hand against a jagged, broken bone. Skin broke. She squeezed her fist, dribbling blood among the bones.
Zoe heard thousands of voices scrape against each other in a choral mutter, deep inside the bone pile. One long, dry cough drew itself out into an aria.
The mustached guard yanked her away from the bones. Her sleeve caught on the way out, shredding the fabric, and George nearly fell off her shoulder.
“Get back!” the guard shouted. He smashed a few more bones with his baton. He clearly thought himself heroic and necessary. Zoe swallowed the curses that she wanted to say.
“Back to the fountain,” she told Alexander. “That’s where the dead will be going. They remember blood, now. They’ll put together flesh and sinews next.”
“I’m impressed,” he said, following. He held his left hand away from his side to keep it from brushing up against anything. The skin of his finger had turned a confused and angry color.
“That’s right,” said Zoe. “You are.”
She glanced at the salvaged tea in her own bleeding hand. It turned out to be pomegranate, rich in antioxidants and good for fertility. I can work with this, she thought.
Zoe sat on the rim of the mall’s largest fountain and trailed her hand in the water. Chlorine stung the still bleeding gash.
“Cut the spigots for me, will you?” she asked Alexander. He spoke to the spigots, and they all petered out. The pool stilled.
Zoe traced patterns with her hand in the surface of the water and slowly brought it to a boil. The coins below the surface grew bright in the boiling. Then she opened the canister of pomegranate tea and dumped it all into the pool. Rich fruit smells rose up with the steam. The water turned a swirling, ruddy brown. It looked very much like blood.
She took George down from her shoulder and set it on the fountain rim.
“You have to go first,” she said. The stubby little figure waved goodbye and dove into the pool.
Zoe stood up on the rim to have a look around. Alexander climbed to stand beside her.
Across the length of all three hallways, the dead pushed toward the fountain. They made new kinds of motion, shambling and toddling. They continued to build and repurpose pieces of themselves and each other. Zoe found the broken improvisation horrible and wonderful to watch.
“I thought they would remember how to move better than this,” Alexander whispered, quietly critical.
“All who remember, doubt,” Zoe whispered back to him. “Who calls that strange?”
Security guards pushed against the tide, reactionary in the opposite direction. Batons rose and fell and did not matter. The massive throng of the dead pushed through, surrounding the fountain, moving in both human shapes and new shapes that Zoe admired even as she looked away.
“Drink,” she told them all.
The dead pushed by her. The raw, unfinished feel of them scraped against her shoulders and elbows as she wrapped herself around herself. They climbed into the fountain and drank it dry. Hands half-remembered scooped up the coins and fed them into empty eye sockets, over and over again. The dead claimed each freely given gift and took them all as payment for their passage back.
Security guards stood beside the fountain. They watched in silence as the dead dissolved. Dust and ash settled in the dry basin.
“You did this,” said the guard with the mustache. “You made them go away.”
“Yes,” Zoe agreed, with sideways honesty. Hers was a sideways profession.
“Thank you,” said the guard. “We thank you, and the mall thanks you.”
Zoe and Alexander met the following week over another round of free sushi. A security guard passed them on his beat. Alexander nodded and smiled. He had, of course, befriended several of the guards after death came to the mall.
“They have to pay for their own gear, you know,” he told Zoe. “Radios, batons, pepper spray, everything; it all comes out of their paychecks. Can you believe that? Though it might not be such a bad thing, actually. They might not use the pepper spray casually if they know they’ll have to replace the canisters.”
Zoe sipped her tea, unsympathetic. “What did we actually accomplish?”
“We have written THIS TOO SHALL PASS in blood and ashes across the illusory permanence of this place,” he answered, waving his plaster-wrapped finger for emphasis. “We cracked the façade of their polished illusions. We made a mess, mocked the mall, and got away with it. We were thanked for it. I call it a victory.”
“The place doesn’t look any different,” she pointed out. “They hired a few more guards and added an exorcist to every chapel, but otherwise the façade is unchanged. And we’re still working here.”
In their gratitude, the mall had offered Zoe a storefront of her own, and further offered to reduce her rent for the first six months. She had turned them down politely, traded in her kiosk, and taken a temporary job in one of the tea shops. She needed it to be temporary. She needed to know that she would not always work here.
Alexander, meanwhile, had become a bookstore clerk. He kept the shelves surreptitiously stocked with ghost stories.
“No shame in it,” he insisted. “We do have to eat somehow. And the work gives us continued access and opportunity to curse and critique this place. We can make overnight jungles of their potted plants. We can turn shirt buttons into mouths shouting in sweatshop choruses. We can open doors and windows to let the world and weather in.”
“The mall has no windows,” Zoe pointed out.
“Then we can make windows!” He grinned, his own delight and ego impossible to puncture. “I’m not sure how, but give me a few grains of sand and a match and I bet I can turn these walls to clear glass.”
“Boring.” Zoe sat back in her chair and let her teacup warm her fingertips. “Come up with a better one.”
Currents of mall traffic flowed beside them while they sat and schemed.
William Alexander won the National Book Award for his debut novel, Goblin Secrets, and the Earphones Award for his narration of the audiobook. A companion novel, Ghoulish Song, will be published in March of 2013. He studied theater and folklore at Oberlin College and English at the University of Vermont, and currently lives, writes, and teaches in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His short stories have been published in various marvelous magazines and anthologies, including Other Worlds Than These, Interfictions 2, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and Fantasy: The Best of the Year 2008. Visit him at willalex.net and goblinsecrets.com.
Photo credit: Matthew Aronoff