First: The Hidden Mall – a beginning of something
Previous: Back the Way They Came
Abby glanced at both her Livs, to find one of them as shocked as she was and the other completely not surprised.
She cleared her throat. “Food?” she asked. “We can trade some ridiculous fruit.”
“Fruit?” Kevin leaned forward. “I haven’t had fruit in-”
“It’s been a while.” Vic squeezed his shoulder. “Okay. You have the question-face on. So. Short version: This is this world’s Kevin. I’m not this world’s Vic – she couldn’t make it through the doors. I’m a traveler, but I lost my Sandy, and without her it’s almost impossible to go anywhere, and, besides, this one might be kind of grubby, but nothing here is actively trying to kill anyone. Um. Usually.” She coughed and looked away.
Kevin picked up where she’d left off, though his voice was still shaky. “She’s waiting for a Sandy or a Liv she can pair with – not this one, this one doesn’t really go anywhere anymore. I guess it works better in pairs. Or, um. Threes and maybe fours, but I haven’t seen more than four. The doors just open into other parts of this dead mall for me.”
“So how did you get back here?” Liv-2 sounded sharp, suspicious. Abby couldn’t really blame her.
“I’m not sure,” he admitted. “I was looking for – uh. For Abby. And someone gave me a shove and here I was, I mean. It didn’t look quite that bad back then. But now I can get back and forth between the mall, and even out, if I want. I mean. There’s nothing out there, so I don’t go out much. But there wasn’t anything out there when I came into the mall looking for Abby, either. Not after… well.” He cleared his throat. “Things went bad. And I guess. Uh. I guess it might be that we’re your future, or you’re ours, or possibilities? Either way, if we talk too much about what happened Outside the Mall-”
“Bad things happen.” Vic snipped the words off. “Don’t worry though, if you’re a traveler, there’s only like one mall in a thousand you can get out of. Don’t know why, but for most of the travelers, most of the malls just – don’t open into the rest of the world.”
“I don’t think they’re real.” Greg’s voice was even quieter than Abby remembered it. “The other worlds, the other malls. I think they’re set dressing.”
“Set dressing?” Abby pulled the fruits out of her bag one by one, her fingers pausing on the third one. Something about Greg’s eyes was different. No, all of their eyes. “And we’ve been through a bunch of those malls. They’re real.” Her leg throbbed where the shark had bitten her. “Very real.”
“The malls, yeah. They keep going forever, someone said.” He closed his eyes for a moment, like he was remembering something sad. There seemed to be a lot of grief here. “But we made it through once. Uh. Me and Tommy.” He made a quiet noise. “Not this Tommy. We made it through, three doorways and then back here. The Sandy that led us through, she said she hadn’t met anyone she could lead through before. And then she tried again and we were blocked. Well, I was blocked. Tommy went through. Sandy brought this one back a while later.”
“Don’t look at me like that, man,” Tommy – whichever Tommy this was – complained. “It’s not like I had a choice in the matter. I didn’t like hijack your Tommy’s place or anything. Beside. It’s Tom. Not Tommy.”
“See?” Greg complained woefully. “It’s not the same, and everyone keeps pretending that it is. It’s not like we all – you know.”
“Set dressing.” Abby handed the fruits to Vic, still feeling a little weird about it. “What did you mean?”
“It’s… the malls are real, yeah, but some of the worlds, you feel like you can leave, right, go outside. But uh, like Vic said. Most of the malls just don’t open into the rest of the world. I think that’s because there isn’t any more world out there. Like, there never was.”
“You don’t want to see outside those doors.” It was Liv’s voice, but it was coming from the shadows, snappish and old-sounding “You don’t want to see what’s outside of the places where there isn’t anything.”