INSIDE THE STUFF-A-PAL WORKSHOP
I am afraid of the dark. I know it seems stupid, one of those kid things everyone grows out of, but I never did.
It’s a secret, of course. It’s not something you share at the lunch table: Oh hey guys, you know what? I sleep with THREE night-lights because I’m afraid of the DARK. There’s only one person who knows: my best friend, Maddie. Which is why, when the lights snap off and the floor grumbles and shakes, she squeezes my arm and says, “You’re okay.”
This is more of a command than a statement of fact. We have not been okay for weeks—not since being trapped with a deadly virus in a mall run by creepy government overlords and psychotic security guards. We are not okay now, huddled on the floor at the back of the Stuff-A-Pal Workshop-turned-jail while all the nice men, women, and children are secluded in the HomeMart. Maddie can barely move after having been Tasered by security. My hands are tied together with a strip of plastic that’s digging into my skin. But the dark is the worst part. All the noise and shouting stopped, as if the black stole not only the room, but all the people in it. After a heartbeat, the silence turns to screams.
Maybe I am not alone in being afraid of the dark.
Maddie and I keep our backs pressed to the wall. I focus on its solidity against my spine. I need to stay anchored in the darkness: the wall, the floor, Maddie’s hand on my arm.
Legs brush past us. My foot is crushed under someone’s boot, and the person stumbles, then falls somewhere in front of me. Maddie holds me tighter. Hands grip my hair as they grope for the wall, fingers graze my face. Voices cry out, the gate over the entrance rattles.
A dull lamp flashes on in the hall just outside the store.
Then more lights blink on above my head, off to my right, and above the security gate over the entrance. It’s the emergency lighting. Something that makes sense in this world!
Screams turn to cries of joy and spontaneous hugging of strangers. Seconds later, everyone’s pushing and shoving their way to the front of the store to bust out the gate.
“Not the gate, morons!” screams some girl next to us in the back. “The stockroom!” She kicks the door Maddie and I were pushed through mere minutes ago. Are there still security guards back there? Would they help even if they were?
“Screw this,” a guy at the front yells. He grabs a stool and throws it at the glass display window beside the entrance, but it just bounces off and hits him in the chest. He goes down, disappears in the mass of bodies. I squeeze my back even harder against the wall.
“Remain calm,” Maddie whispers through gritted teeth. “I will think of something.” But I can tell from her grip on my arm that she is as terrified as I am.
Another guy grabs the stool. This time, he rams the metal legs of the thing against the glass, and it spiderwebs. He kicks out the whole panel. The crowd pours out the new exit into the hallway, and races into the dark. Their howls and cries echo around the cavernous courtyards.
Only when everyone else is gone does Maddie attempt to stand. “I thought that was it,” she says, hobbling toward the front. She stares out the gate at the vast blackness beyond. “When the lights went, I thought they were finally ending this thing and blowing us up.” A shard of glass drops from the window frame and shatters. “Cowards,” Maddie whispers.
She surveys the room, then walks back and holds a hand out to me. “We may as well get the hell out of here.”
I let her pull me upright. Until I’m standing, I’m not convinced my legs will carry my weight. Maddie releases me, then flips a switch on the wall—nothing. She hoists herself out the broken front window into the hallway and looks over the balcony at the floors below. People are still screaming. Somewhere, someone’s banging on a gate.
“These crappy safety lights are the only ones working in the whole mall,” Maddie says, crawling back in through the window and coming to where I stand, frozen. “Government must have cut the power.”
“Why would they cut the power?”
She takes a ragged strip of metal from the remains of the stool and begins sawing at the plastic binding my wrists. “Why does that matter?” she says. “It’s done. Maybe this is the prelude.”
Maddie is convinced that the government wants to blow up the mall with all of us inside it. That this is the only way to keep the virus from getting out and infecting the world.
“They are not going to nuke the place,” I say with as much conviction as I can pretend. I cannot believe that after everything we’ve been through, after how long they’ve led us to think we can survive this, that they’d just wipe us out.
Maddie slices the last of the plastic, then shrugs. “It’s what I’d do.”
“So now what?” I ask, moving on.
“We see if there’s anything useful under all this crap.” Maddie pokes around the store. Like anything of value would remain in the wreckage. The Stuff-A-Pal Workshop has functioned as a jail for days and even in this half-light looks about as good as you’d expect. The foil linings of ripped wrappers glint from every corner. Someone’s stained sweatshirt is draped over the register, which lies on the floor in front of the counter. Even the cutesy pictures of cartoon bears and giraffes have been made over with devil horns and buck teeth and . . . other parts. Private parts. Big, hairy private parts, some with faces of their own.
Maddie emerges from a squalid pile with something in her hand, raised like a trophy. “Half a fruit-and-grain bar!” She walks toward me, kicking balls of stuffing across the rug, and splits the bar remnant in two. She holds a piece out to me, shoves the other into her mouth.
“What if the person who ate the rest of that is sick?” I say. “What about germs?” I’m the girl who wipes the rims of shot glasses at parties.
Maddie rolls her eyes, gives me the oh-honey look she is so famous for. “Girlfriend, germs fall last on our list of current problems.”
I don’t agree. At least germs are not last on my list. I would rank germs just below the dark, actually. But I will not be able to stay vertical for much longer without some sort of sugar in my body, and so I brush the worst dust and dirt from the surface of the bar, pray that whatever germs were on it are dead, and choke it down.
“We should find a bathroom,” Maddie says, digging through more trash and emerging with empty bottles. “And we should fill these, then hunker down until the lights come back on. Or until they blow us up.”
“Stop saying that.” The one bite of food has made me ravenous. I slide down the wall to my knees and begin rummaging in the trash. There must be another scrap of bar lying around here somewhere.
“And flashlights,” Maddie says, continuing her planning. “Crap, those are probably all with the assholes in the HomeMart.”
She kicks a trash pile, scattering wrappers. I wonder if there’s anything stuck to the insides.
Maddie claps her hands. “Glow sticks!” she says. “They’re practically in every store with Halloween around the cor—” She catches sight of me. “You question my bar, but have no problem licking the inside of a wrapper?”
I start to cry. I don’t want to cry. “We’re going to die, aren’t we?”
Maddie kneels in front of me. “Hey, I’m the Debbie Downer of this duo. You have to be the optimist. Remember, your dad is going to get us out of this. Big Mean Attorney Franklin would never let them blow you up.”
I nod. The tears pour down my cheeks.
“Say it,” Maddie says.
“Dad will get me out of this.”
“Mean it!” Maddie yells, shaking my shoulders.
“My dad would never let me die!”
Maddie smiles. “That’s my Ginger.”
• • •
We carry three empty plastic bottles each to the nearest bathrooms. There is a dim emergency light in the ladies’ room, and even in its meager light it’s clear the place has returned to its pre-senator-land state: The trash can lies on its side, its contents scattered, and the room smells like the outhouse at my old camp. Why did the senator’s nice totalitarian dictatorship have to fall apart? At least under her rules, the bathrooms were cleaned.
At the sink, Maddie pauses before turning the handle.
Water sputters forth. She lets out a little bark of a laugh. “We have water!” she cries.
There was a chance we wouldn’t have water?
“Start filling,” she commands.
We fill the bottles, then take a moment to wash our faces and hands. Maddie ducks into the dark of a stall. I gulp water straight from the faucet. It’s almost as good as eating.
“Where’d you get those bottles?”
I lift my head from the sink and see a guy in the doorway. He looks like a college kid, but that could just be the Harvard T-shirt. In other circumstances, he might seem cute.
“We found them,” Maddie says. She stands inside the door to her stall.
“Looks to me like you have a spare one,” he says, walking toward me.
My heart races. I grip the edge of the sink. His eyes glint in the dim light like some animal’s. We have six bottles. Do we need all six?
“These are our bottles,” Maddie says. “Scrounge your own.”
The guy keeps walking toward me. “At least let me get a drink.”
Maddie steps in front of him. “Use the men’s room.”
The guy puts his hands on Maddie’s shoulders, like he’s going to shove her aside. She leans in, grabs his sleeves, pulls him toward her, and smashes his nuts with her knee. The guy drops to the floor.
“Stupid bitch!” he yelps, holding his groin. “I just want a drink!”
Maddie grabs her three bottles. “Then you should have used the men’s room.” She shoves my bottles at me. “Let’s go.”
“Should we tell someone he’s in there?” I ask.
Maddie stops mid-stride and faces me. “Stop worrying about him. Stop worrying about anyone else. This,” she says, pointing from her face to mine, “is all we worry about.” She grabs my arm and drags me along behind her.
• • •
“We will get killed if we try to get food now,” Maddie says. We stare over the railing at the mob raiding the Sam’s Club. It’s like a mosh pit, only the people are fighting over canned goods, not dancing.
“Let’s snag us some glow sticks,” she says, heading toward the stalled escalator.
The third floor looks abandoned. Maddie darts across the hall to the costume place, Shades of Halloween. I lope behind her. She stops at a display of glow wands and necklaces and cleans out the whole thing into her gargantuan purse.
“Go check the stockroom,” she snaps over her shoulder as she moves on to the next display.
“Is it a good idea to split up?”
“There’s no one here,” Maddie says. “Go now before that changes.”
Shades of Halloween is not a regular store for obvious reasons—every season, the space morphs into something else: “Shades of Halloween” to “Down Home Christmas” to “Blooming Bunnies” and so on. There’s little back in the stockroom, which makes sense. Why stock a lot of stuff if the store is only around for a few months?
I find one locked door. Maddie will kill me if I return empty-pursed, so I ransack the checkout counter and find a key ring marked SPARE rattling around in the back of the bottommost drawer. Three keys into the ring, the door opens to reveal a closet packed with candy.
A laugh escapes my lips. Of course the closet is packed with candy.
When I was five, Maddie’s mom took me trick-or-treating for the first time. Maddie was a brown dog and I was a ballerina, dressed in one of my mom’s old tutus. Coming home, my bag was so full of candy, I could hardly lift it up the stoop. Mom took my bag as she closed the door behind me. I can’t believe she lets Maddie eat this poison, she said as she dumped my whole sack into the trash. Then she smoothed a stray hair back into my bun. Serious dancers don’t pollute their bodies with junk food. I wanted to be a serious dancer like her, so I never ate candy. Ever. Until now.
I tear a bag of Snickers open, pick out a mini bar, unwrap it, and bite.
It’s so sweet, I gag. Then I eat the whole bar in a single swallow. And another. And another.
“You trying to make yourself sick?”
I freeze mid-bite and turn to face Maddie. “I was hungry,” I manage.
Maddie snatches the bag from my hands and jams it into my purse. “Let’s start you slow on the sugar, okay?”
She fills both our purses, then shuts the door and locks it, stowing the keys in her pocket. “This will be our stash,” she says. “Let them eat chocolate!”
“Marie Antoinette died, you know.” The sugar is beginning to course through my veins. I feel like my head might explode.
“But not from starvation,” Maddie says, shaking a Snickers at me.
Something crashes out in the store. Maddie peers out the narrow window in the stockroom door, then holds a finger to her lips. I creep to her side.
There’s a group of people, guys and girls, rummaging around. They look older, but it’s hard to tell in the dim light from the one emergency bulb above the door. Is it me, or has the light dimmed?
“We should all wear the same mask,” one says. He holds up a gorilla head.
“Masks are dumb,” says another guy by the registers. “You can’t see anything.”
“Who cares if we can see?” a girl says from the other end of the store. “The emergency lights are already running out of power. It’s going to be completely dark again in a few hours.”
“The point is to identify our group,” says register guy—make that claw guy. His knuckles sparkle, like he’s wearing a fistful of rings, but the rings are all topped with curved knives. Whatever fear I had ticks up a notch.
The girl pulls out a black hooded dress, like what the Grim Reaper would wear. “This. We all wear this, but wrap tape from the post office around our arms.”
“We’d blend into the dark,” gorilla-mask guy says, shrugging. “How is this different than doing nothing?”
Claw guy abandons his post, examines the costume. “Doing nothing, we look like everyone else.” He grabs one of the robes off the rack, pulls something off the makeup display, and shoves it into the gorilla guy’s chest. “We’ll put this on our faces to stand out,” he says, and returns to the door. “Let’s move.”
Gorilla guy opens the package and smears his cheeks with slashes of glow-in-the-dark paint. “Hells yeah.”
When they’re gone, Maddie makes a beeline for the Grim Reaper rack and tugs one of the robes over her head. She grabs a second and shoves it into my chest.
“Why are we putting on their costume?”
“Because then, if they find us, they might think we’re with them and leave us alone. Also, it hides our bags. No one will know we have supplies.”
“Why would anyone bother us?” I ask, pulling the thin, itchy cloth over my head.
“Why wouldn’t they?”
Maddie seems to think the people in the mall are going to start turning on one another. I don’t believe it. The guy in the bathroom just wanted a drink. Yes, security went crazy, but the people left in here are just regular kids. Once things calm down—
The emergency lights in the store flicker, then die.
The world is black again.
A hand grabs my arm. “We have to hide.”
I let her lead me through the dark.
INSIDE THE SHOE HUT
If the main lights are out it means security has bigger problems than watching this crap jail. I’ve got to get out of here and look for Shay. I won’t leave the one person I care about alone in this hellhole.
When dull, yellow emergency lights come on, I head for the locked stockroom door. But everyone else has the same idea. I’m crushed against a shelf. The first guy to reach the door starts slamming his shoulder into the wood until it cracks and he breaks through. The crowd presses forward, smashing my face into a shelf of men’s dress shoes.
I throw an elbow, then execute a tuck-and-roll—arms in, spin out—to get around this jerk who’s trying to pin me. But once free, there’s nowhere to go. It’s solid bodies from me to the lead guy, who’s stuck in the door.
People claw the guy, push him deeper into the wood panel. He screams, then disappears through the hole into the stockroom.
The crowd surges ahead. I’m shoved through by the force of the people behind me. My shoe gets caught against what remains of the door and I’m pinned down. Wood bites into a cut on my ankle.
I’m stuck, but then the pressure shifts and I jerk my leg, scraping the skin against the splinters, the pain so bad I see stars. Then my shoe pops off and my foor flops to the floor. I army-crawl across the narrow strip of tile, away from the flood of people headed for a set of double doors into the service hallway.
My ankle looks like crap. I pull out the bits of wood, but the skin all the way to the bottom of my foot is completely messed up.
Once the crowd is gone, I find my shoe, jam my foot into it, and wedge myself between a stool and the wall to lever my body to standing. I test the ankle. It holds. Sort of.
I take a step. It feels like a knife being jammed through my foot.
I’ve never had an injury I couldn’t play through. Concussions, sprained everything, even a chipped tibia—I kept going. This ankle is nothing.
I try again.
It takes five attempts before I’m convinced. I’m not going anywhere.
I drag myself into the deepest shadow I can find and lay my head back. Even if I found Shay now, what good would I be to her?
• • •
“Got a live one,” a woman’s voice says, followed by the squeal of a walkie-talkie. She’s in a black security uniform, and a stun stick hangs from her belt. “You okay?”
“I’m fine,” I say.
She snorts. “You might be fine, but that ankle’s toast. I’m Tina Skelton,” she says, holding out her hand. “I promise, I don’t bite.”
Not having much of a choice, I grab her hand and let her haul me up. She digs her shoulder under mine to keep me standing. She’s surprisingly strong.
“I have a first aid kit back at the pet store,” she says, taking a step. “I’ll fix that foot good as new.”
“Why are you helping me?” I ask.
She looks confused by the question. “Don’t you need help?”
Tina lugs me down the service hall to the pet store. The back room is lit by a few dim emergency lights, which glint off the eyes and wet noses of the dogs caged along the walls. When they see us, they get all excited and start jumping and wagging their tails.
“Calm it down, kids!” Tina says, smiling at the cages. “I took care of them. Senator Ross didn’t worry about the animals, but me, I’m a dog person. How about you?”
“I was never allowed to have a pet,” I say as Tina eases me into a chair.
“Well, now you have ten.”
She closes the door to the main part of the store, then opens the cages. The puppies race out across the floor, yipping and wiggling their whole bodies. One little black guy licks my hand over and over, nipping my fingers with his sharp, spikey teeth.
“Knew you had a smile in there,” Tina says, winking at me.
She sits on the desk beside me and lifts my bad ankle. She dabs it with hydrogen peroxide, then smears on protective cream. Her fingers are warm and fat, nothing like my mom’s, but it still feels nice.
Revue de presse
"Self-anointed king Marco remains a fantastic, complex character, and the extended denouement is rather poignant." — Booklist
"A chilling conclusion to a gripping trilogy." — School Library Journal