Mall Life: The City Of A Million Lights
Written by: Termascur
Published On: December 7th, 2021
Art by Priestess
We left the Witch’s Brew with a few hours to kill. Even in a less-traveled part of town like this, crowds had grown uncomfortably thick. William and I set out in search of someplace to sit and relax before the party. We passed a couple tea-and-sandwich shops, but they were all filled to capacity. Stepping into a larger concourse, we took a left toward an area with more restaurants.
The Pan-Demonium Bakery, its yellow and purple logo swirling like primal chaos, had no free tables or room to stand. Most places we passed had crowds gathered outside waiting to get in. The Red Palace Akamotian Buffet, with its ostentatious façade and sign wrought in faux-rubies, told us we couldn’t even step inside without a reservation.
“This is ridiculous,” I grumbled. “It’s never this busy! Where did all these people come from?!”
“You’d see crowds more often if you left your house when normal people were up.”
Continuing on, we reached the anchor at the end of this section; an organic grocery store called Health Nut. The ‘a’ was an apple formed in red-and-green neon and a marigold yellow peanut leaned against the second ‘t’ at a jaunty angle. Prices were nearly criminal, so it earned the nickname “Wealth Nut” amongst the less well-to-do locals. We passed through brick pillars with wooden accents and went in. For whatever reason, maybe because nobody wants over-priced raw almonds on New Year’s Eve, there was hardly anyone in the store. We made our way through the clusterkerfuffle of aisles designed to get you lost and sat in the little cafe. We stayed for a couple hours, talking about nothing, until it was time to head to the party.
Down the gauntlet of crowded restaurants, we returned once more to the central atrium. We boarded an escalator to the first floor. Halfway down, William tapped me on the shoulder and leaned close.
Without pause, I crouched down and threw my arms to the heavens, staring into the middle distance with as much dignity as I could muster. Behind me, William placed one hand on my shoulder and almost certainly had the other pointed to unseen horizons. I could hear a crowd of teen girls below, laughing in surprise and maybe even mockery. I hardly cared. They wouldn’t understand.
At the bottom of the escalator, we released our dramatic poses, straightened our clothes, and walked on as though nothing happened. Down one of the longer concourses was a branching path added sometime in my teens. At the time, the powers that be expected a surge in business from outside of town for some reason. However, that business never came and many of the shops had since been replaced by dusty art exhibits and a branch of the library. On the far end of this was our destination.
The Handsome Mansion was a luxury (overpriced) apartment located in a place called The Wooly Mill. It was originally intended to be an upscale department store to serve as the new branch’s anchor. It was built in the style of a Sybaran lumber mill with brick walls, high windows, and wooden beams. It quickly went out of business and remained vacant for years. Recently, it was renovated into spacious apartments with great views of glacial runoff and poor heating.
The party was complete sensory overload. A spacious first floor and a loft-style second floor all full of people I didn’t know. Loud music by bands I had never heard of blared over the sound of a dozen conversations. The music was the perfect embodiment of the party. It faded in and out as if it kept dipping underwater. I could swear it got stuck at one point; the same thing repeating over and over. The perfect background music for my social purgatory. I spent my time looking around for Eudora or standing awkwardly beside one of the four-ish people I knew engaged in conversation with people I’d never met.
As midnight approached, the crowd grew more rowdy and I could see my friends becoming drunker and drunker. Still no sign of Eudora. I found William trying to climb a tapestry and waved him down.
“HAVING FUN?” he shouted.
“NO.” Having to shout to be heard hurt my throat. “YOU SEEN EUDORA?”
“THERE’S NO NEED TO SHOUT.” William wagged his finger at me. “SHE CAME BY EARLIER, BUT LEFT WHEN SHE DIDN’T SEE YOU.”
“WHEN WAS THIS?”
“WHEN YOU WERE IN THE BATHROOM.”
Figures, the two minutes it took me to pee is exactly when she showed up and left.
“TYR AND JERAI TRIED TO GET HER TO STAY, BUT SHE SAID THE CROWD MADE HER UNCOMFORTABLE.”
“I. KNOW. THE. FEELING.”
William threw his arm around my shoulder. “HEY.”
Midnight came with a sloppy, drunken countdown. Within an hour, most of the guests had left. The party had been whittled down to the residents of the Handsome Mansion and a few others. Tyr was the only person besides me who was relatively sober. But then, he was a giant so maybe it took more to get him drunk. Our friend Riley, on the other hand, could barely stand and kept mumble-screaming about how he wanted to go to Roy’s Diner. That was usually a sign the party was over.
After chatting on the couch for a while, Tyr stood up. “Who wants to go for a walk?”
William jumped down from the loft. “Me.”
“You’re just going to run away,” I said.
“Nahhh…” William booped my nose. “I’m fine.”
“Don’t worry,” said Tyr. “I can handle him.”
“Whatever,” I said. “But he’s going to run off.”
Jerai stood up to join us. I looked to see who else was still there.
“Where’s Riley?” I said. “He was passed out in the living room.”
After one collective shrug from the group, he headed for the front door and found it ajar. We went out and Riley was passed out in the process of dragging himself down the hall. Presumably on his way to Roy’s. We stepped around him and headed for the concourse.
This time of night, the only light in the concourse outside The Wooly Mill came from dim yellow lamps and the occasional glow of a neon sign. Between the mood lighting and most people being at home, I vastly preferred to go out at night. As we stepped outside, I breathed in the atmosphere, and William took off running. Tyr looked at me.
“I’m not going after him,” I said flatly.
Tyr sighed and ran after William. His long legs quickly caught up to the man half his size. He reached out and grabbed William by the shoulder. Instantly William grabbed his wrist. Tyr’s willowy limbs soared through the air as William flipped him over his shoulder. He landed flat on his back with a dull thunk. William kept running without looking back and disappeared up a flight of stairs.
“You okay?” I hollered to Tyr.
“Yeah,” He groaned back.
Jerai turned to me. “Yo, I gotta go drop something off at my friend Willy’s, you wanna come with?”
I wasn’t keen on meeting new people, and Willy was a new person. “I dunno, I’d rather just go home.”
“Willy’s a cool guy,” said Jerai. “You’d like him.”
“It’s been a long day.”
“Come on, it’s not that far,” said Jerai. “Keep me company for a bit.”
I had nothing better to do and Jerai had a casual charm that was hard to say no to. I shrugged and said, “Sure.”
Jerai and I walked down along for a while. We passed the hall where the leisure district was located. Its multitude of lights stood out like a shifting aurora in the late-night gloom. From there, we went around some escalators (currently off, disguised as stairs) and passed a line of high-end clothing stores. Between an expensive shoe store and a nail salon was a dark hallway I’d never really noticed before. I just assumed it was a maintenance tunnel. Jerai made a sharp turn and led me down it.
Suddenly, we were in the bad part of town. There were no lights save for the light spilling out of shops, some of which had been taken over by squatters. Scaffolding and plastic sheets created a maze. The ceiling had been ripped out exposing metal beams with darkness beyond. Floor tiles were covered up by plywood or else ripped up exposing deep dirt holes. The omnipresent music of the mall wasn’t broadcast here. I could still hear it becoming distant, distorted with reverb as we plunged deeper into this place.
The people here were dressed to match the grungy atmosphere. Mismatched vintage clothes from a bygone era; colors faded with age. They walked with faces covered and heads obscured. Many wore goggles that cast an eerie red glow from within the shadows of their hoods. A guy in an oversized sweater with blinking lights stitched into it stumbled through the streets.
“DRUGS?” he shouted. “ANYONE KNOW WHERE I CAN GET SOME DRUGS?”
A man with a purple mohawk approached him as we passed. “What kind of drugs?” he said helpfully. “I got adrenaline and dopamine.”
“Where are we?” I whispered to Jerai. “I didn’t even know a place like this existed.”
“The pit,” said Jerai. “Pretty sick, huh?”
I had to admit, I liked the aesthetic here way more than the white pillars and manicured greenery found elsewhere. The grungy construction and poor lighting gave the place a lived-in feel.
We entered a nail salon hastily converted into an apartment. Jerai introduced me to his friend Willy. He was short and skinny with tired eyes and stubble. The two of them talked for a bit before Jerai went in the back to use the bathroom.
The second we were alone, Willy, or Willas Marcus von Burgundy VI, told me about how his family were disgraced nobles. His mother sold their family’s assets to pay for a drug habit and his abusive father died in a suspicious accident. He was currently writing a rock opera about it.
Jerai came back in the middle of Act II. “Yo, you guys wanna go to Roy’s?”
One of the few places in Neon Springs open 24/7 was Roy’s Diner. It was also the place all the drunkards went when they could barely function. But hey, what was New Year’s without a little food poisoning? So we all headed off to Roy’s.
On our way out of The Pit, we got stopped twice by people looking for cigarettes. Near the exit, we passed some drunk guy trying to climb the scaffolding. It made me wonder where William ran off to. As if on cue, my phone rang. It was William.
“Hey, where are you?”
“Do you want a girlfriend?”
I blinked. “Beg pardon?”
“Do you want a girlfriend?”
“What’s this about?”
“Do you want,” William paused for effect, “a girlfriend?”
“Uh, I mean, it depends on-“
“Just answer the question,” William snapped. “Do you want a girlfriend?!”
“Well, yeah, but-“
“You got one.”
My mind went blank. “What?! Who?!”
“Come to Roy’s and you’ll see.”
“Is this a joke?”
“Just trust me,” he said. “Get over here right now.”
I sighed. “Fine, I’m already headed to Roy’s. See you in a bit.”
“What was that about?” Jerai asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “He probably got me an anime poster or something.”
Roy’s Diner was tucked in a side path between a bank and doctor’s office. On the border of late night and early morning, the façade stood out with its horizontal lines of chrome and red neon over wide windows. We entered the establishment and were swiftly greeted by a waitress whose attitude indicated she was sick of dealing with drunk people. Then a familiar face popped up from a booth.
“Hey guys!” said William. He turned to the waitress. “See, told you my friends’d be here!”
“So you really did come here,” I said as we approached the booth. “How long have you been here?!”
“’bout an hour,” said William. “I got waffles and ham.”
“What was that on the phone?” I asked. “If you got me a Season Champion poster, I hope you remembered that Kaede is best girl.”
A familiar figure popped up from the booth behind William. “I like Yuki better,” said Eudora.
“BAH!” I jumped in surprise.
William threw his arms open. “Surprise!”
I stared in confusion at Eudora. Her pink hair was up in a side ponytail that draped over the shoulder of her black denim jacket. From where I stood, I caught just the barest glimpse of a purple and aqua plaid skirt and fishnet stockings. I shook my head to regain my composure.
“So wait,” I said. “The girlfriend William was talking about. That was you?”
Eudora tilted her head in confusion. “Girlfriend?”
Color drained from my face. I felt sick. The stench of cheap food and burnt grease was not helping.
“Whose girlfriend?” Eudora asked.
“Well, uh…” Panic Mode: Initiated. “William called and asked if I wanted a girlfriend so I was like ‘it depends’ and he said I had one and I was like ‘who’ and he told me to come here and I thought he was playing a prank but here you are and I thought he was talking about you and,” I paused to take a breathe, “I’m sorry, I thought you knew what he was talking about and please don’t hate me, but like, ever since the second I saw you I’ve been-” The words caught in my throat. I stared at Eudora like a rabbit looks at an oncoming bear.
“You’ve been, what?”
“Nothing, forget it.”
Eudora cocked an eyebrow. “Are you asking me to be your girlfriend?”
My heart pounded. The edges of my vision blurred. I glanced side-to-side debating whether to just run. “Yes?”
Eudora smiled. “It’s about time.”
My brain hummed with the effort to process what just happened. I slumped into the booth across from Eudora and tried to read her expression. A light pink flush in her pale cheeks. A faint mixture of amusement and something else, I can’t quite place. Some emotion I’ve never seen in a 3D girl before. All I could manage to say was, “What?”
“I like you too,” said Eudora. “I wanted to see how long it took you to pick up all the hints I’ve been dropping, but I was getting sick of waiting.”
William stood up from the booth and patted me on the shoulder. “Step sixteen.”
With that, he grabbed his plate of waffles and moved to a different booth with Jerai and Willy to give us some privacy. We were alone. What could I say? What should I say? This was new territory for me.
“So…” I tried and failed to make eye contact. “Are we like… a couple now?”
“Yeah,” said Eudora. “I guess so.”
Suddenly, I started laughing.
“What’s so funny?”
“I just realized, William tricked me into asking you out.” I shook my head. “That sneaky little garden gnome.”
I signaled the waitress and ordered a round of coffee. The two of us talked until columns of golden sunlight pierced the early morning gloom on the concourse. Caffeine and adrenaline kept my tired body going. The new year was off to an amazing start. Who knew what tomorrow would bring in this retail wonderland.