In Some Strange Department Store

Story by
Cole Webber
Image by
Gottscho Schleisner

The mannequins looked unwillingly and untwitchingly from their podiums, with just the same boredom that little Sally felt. She tapped her toes delicately against the plywood-painted display boxes, proudly posturing high-heels, neckties and leather belts alongside pastel cut-rate price signs. Women plastered with makeup and bright, sales associate smiles bustled around, their high hair dos rumbling. Her small eyes tried to see out and beyond, but got caught and lost in the maze of shelves, of windows reflecting neon signs, or distant products either in this towering shop-castle or out in the rest of the shopping mall plaza. It was such a maze, a fortress to consumerism, hiding away ten dozen shops and double that in back spaces, back hallways, supply delivery rooms and holding areas, and parking slots, nearly always empty except on the weekends, when they were nearly always full. This was not a weekend; Sally’s stay-at-home mother (though she didn’t really know what that meant) had drug her along, her brother in school, and her mother without a sitter. It was still bustling with oddly manicured women on this strange Wednesday, but the joint spaces — the promenades lined with palm trees and skylights, the manicured garden entryways with their park stops to keep trucks from ramming, and the escalators — hummed and twitched along silently with great abandonment. Crying slowly and almost silently for some attention. Her mother’s slender figure rusted behind the curtain, in the changing room to Sally’s left. She continued twitching her toes on the seat of the bench — makeshift as it was, just the edge of one of those display pylons for electric mixers or toasters, or — Sally looked behind her back, sending her curls bouncing: in her present case, a coffee percolator. She watched as her reflection changed, grotesque, on its stainless steel surface. She shot back and upright, having frightened herself a bit with the unwitting game of Bloody Mary, but more due to the atmosphere. The curtain shielding her mother still twitched, shedding dust; the air conditioners still rumbled overhead, as if the world was crashing down on them, sending the plastic hangers of clothes knocking against each other in lonely landfill chimes; the escalators buzzed like bees, carrying nobody on their burdened backs; and worst of all the mannequins still looked on, without blinking. What a strange and awful place, was such a grand store with nobody to sell to? It was a graveyard of merchant’s dreams… Sally wandered off, supposing if she was doing the looking, it might do her better.

She snaked through aisles aimlessly. Fragments of her face were flown back to her off of polished ceramics, crockery, gleaming steel racks of dresses on wheels. When she bumped them, they shivered away from her, like scuttling cockroaches. Were there cockroaches here? The signs and sharp neon and fluorescence of the sterile store said no, but the carpet screamed yes. That carpet, Sally knew, even now, in all of the stores: musty and mouldy, no matter how new the stores were. So thin that it padded your feet like just a small film of water; greying or greening or browning, or somehow altogether all at once, like it never had a color itself, just stole it from the dirt on the shoes. It was eerier, she realized; it sucked up the tapping of her shoes, of everybody’s. So that all the people walking around made no sound in this longing and cavernous space. Down those empty hallways of products, no footsteps were ever heard. You could not even hear your own. It was a space that wasn’t there. You were someone who couldn’t be in it.

With no effort of her own, she looped back around to the tucked away corner with the shoes and pointed wire bras — fitted on sculpted busts of Venus de milo mannequins — and to her mother rumbling, still, somehow, in the changing room. “Sally?” She called distantly. Somehow she was right on time. “Yes?” She called back to her mother, taking her rightful place of boredom and tapping her shoes next to the percolator again. She felt the lid waddle on the reservoir behind her. It made a light tap tap tapping noise. And the air conditioner rumbled. And the escalators tried to crawl their way away, never to reach it. There was no answer from her mother; just making sure she was there. And with that she had done her brief duty, and she was off again. Something was sinister about the towering ceiling tiles that faded back, all the same like sky. The flickering lights. The unmoving people, and the imitations of them. Sally caught herself flinching when one of the cashiers at the little ticket booth terminals moved, croaking to life with another breath of cigarette air; she had thought she too was a statue. Sally wanted to hide inside one of the circle-racks of clothes. But that was not like a closet, not nearly as safe; it was open on all sides. You did not have just one door to watch.

She drifted down the store on her white flats, instinctively itching for the walls. And this brought her of course back to the corner. She traced her hand on her mother’s curtain. Her mother didn’t notice anything, or, if she did, did not say anything. The only other person was perhaps five hundred yards away, behind five hundred fake ones standing. She waddled down the hall to the mirror, in fact three of them, tucked behind a podium you can stand and admire yourself at to the cheerful jeering of the saleswomen. Only now none were there. It was long and spotlit and lonely, behind a dozen curtained doors of the changing rooms: it was all a show. Some special light seemed to cast itself on, down and out behind her — shining a white tunnel on to her back, her face, and into the mirrors. Sally watched herself a moment, in peculiar wraparound. It was like watching yourself from outside of your own body. She looked at her blue, sparkling eyes — though she could not quite pin them down in the three angled mirrors, and the infinite reflections they spawned. She would look, catch, look again farther off, and get distracted all the while by her own movements in this small internal mirror house. Her blondish brownish hair — she was still too young for it to have fully decided itself — bounced on curls. Her ponytails, brightly colored, mismatched each other. Her nose was freckled, and still small — even to her small toddler face — more like a baby’s. She was wearing a purple dress with white flowers dazzled on the sides. It was thin and let the heat flow through when she ran outside in the hot summer. But now in here, it was cold and claustrophobic, with air conditioning like Icelandic thunder.

It all looked a bit kaleidoscopic if she titled her head, seeing the manyfold angles at once. She squinted hard into the dead space up and around her head; the space of nothing more than mirror on mirror. What did that look like? A reflection of… nothing. But she made herself dizzy. And fell in.

She was half surprised the mirror didn’t shatter. She was in a small black space. The mirror lay ajar to her side. It had opened like a door but into a place where the light from behind her seemed not to reach. It was very black, so black that you could not see the room’s edges or height or surfaces. It was like falling through a star and into the rest of the night. In a moment, the velvet around her bled its fingers more static. It prickled and hummed with silent electricity. Edges formed themselves, not as if revealed but as if created. Her hands reached out, pushed the blackness back, and soon hit a wall wherever the black hole decided to end. A passage formed, and lapped up the diffusion of color from the tube behind her. It was longer, now. The door, the mirror, her half-remembered mother’s voice seemed very distant. It seemed only logical to continue forward. It was a snaking, yellow hallway, with that brown carpet. Small locust like noises shimmered through the heavy air, either lightbulbs flickering, cockroaches scuttling, or some unknown machinery sighing from strain. Signs littered the hallways, the kind with bright and smiling cartoon model citizens, but to her the symbols all seemed nonsense.

The hallways mirrored each other, in endless permutations of rooms and signs, rips in the wallpaper, rusting drinking fountains, and pipes without purpose. Soon it all trickled out into the rows of plastic hangers, pin up mannequins and neon department signs that were familiar. Soft and slow elevator music cracked out from a tin.

She looked behind her. No door was there, only a snaking black pit behind a wall that carried with it a suggestion there might have been something there once. It would soon fill in with wallpaper, and large glossy photo prints of actresses smiling and holding fragrance bottles, delicate pumps in slender fingers and the labels facing expertly out. She walked forward. The elevator music scratching out from overhead speakers seemed to be only a few notes, stuck in a canyon in the record. No people seemed to be shuffling in between aisles. She caught a drifting halo of smoke in the air with her small eyes, and darted over to it. The cigarette remained in the ashtray, smoking fresh. The woman remained still, her arm down, resting her face on her hand with red finger nails, leaning over the thing. Smoke tickled her face. No veins moved. No cheeks or chest breathed. She did not blink, and it took Sally a full minute of staring to conclude — not realize, but to think — that the eyelashes were plastic. She wandered away checking behind her shoulder. And then she caught on to the devices and items stacked in the shelves, on the racks and in the cupboards. She could not yet read. If she had, the signs would have been a quicker giveaway. But they all just looked like symbols to her, and she could not tell much of a difference between the ‘H’s ‘J’s and ‘I’s that used to be there and the Eye in the Triangle that were traced in neon now, the brain leaking from a head, the eyeball following her in fluorescent pink and the flickering messages of unknown languages above her.

She made her way back to the white shelves holding objects rather than flimsy fluttering fabric. At least the air conditioning remained the same, though here-or-now it seemed swampy and humid. The dust was not blown away, but lingered in the air, making a screen. It caught on her as she walked through. The devices seemed to her just as nonsensical as the ones mother used in the kitchen. Odd gizmos of plastic, metal and wire, some with electric cords coming out. She traced her eyes and fingers with her down the aisle. That one seemed odd even to her: a mass of pulsating flesh was suspended in a clear chamber which elongated to a spout. A wire ran out of it, and it was buzzing, the liquid bubbling and the spout whistling. An eye squeezed itself awake from out of the mass, and focused itself on her. She walked forward. A blender went off, its tall beaker reservoir a slurry of red and magenta. She stepped a few feet back, almost hitting the shelf on the other side. When the motor whinnied off, bits of tube meat and feathers were in the thick goop. She hurried out of the aisle.

The walls seemed deep and blue and far away, curving away from her like night. She walked, rushing to hear the sound of her own feet, trying to follow them to some walls and some safety. She saw the mannequins, the high heels, the percolator on its white wooden box. She rushed for it, so fast that she rumbled into the stand, and sent the white plaster mannequin, with its hand on its hip and a purse draped off, rocking, teetering and tumbling to the floor. Sally leapt back to avoid the porcelain explosion. Its sound erupted like a stadium, silencing the music in a rain of twinkling glass. But it was far off, was fed through tape, and was so much larger than what she found when she opened her eyes. Sally wandered close to the thing, which laid face down and amongst some white dust, but mostly intact, hand still on the hip. She twisted it over. The mask had cracked through. Underneath the blank and expressionless face scar tissue was writhing. A cockroach ran out of it: Sally bolted back again, and heard a sigh like dust falling on a window sill, like rain hitting a tin roof, echo from out of the turned over head. The figure began swaddling — shuffling around in this contained casket of plastic. The legs, all fused together with the arms and the torso, were bumping up and down. Someone inside was trying to aimlessly thrust out, to crawl like a caterpillar.

Sally turned to run away but felt a hand on her shoulder. She looked straight up, expecting to see a looming security guard, or that woman with the painted on eyes. Instead it was her mother. He red-marked lips quivered in a pucker. It was like she was trying to speak, but could not. At last out leapt, “Sally! How dare you! The store’ll make us pay for that.” She glanced around, but: nobody was there. No security guards. Sally darted her eyes to the cashiers desk in front of the changing rooms. A fixed person hung their head here over a still steaming cup of coffee. She lingered her gaze to confirm the same: she didn’t blink. Her own mother seemed not to notice. She grabbed her daughter with all the force of her smooth forearms. Sally looked at them, seeing them rumble and shake, but not making out any hairs or even small imperfections, or maybe, they never had been there. She darted nervous and small eyes around, waiting to see it all return to normal. But the odd eye in the sky, the dreaded neon eyeball still watched her. Its pupil had moved right to her, and small tracings of popped veins glowed in pink light. The odd devices still buzzed and whirred. The figure which should be still still lay shaking on the ground, and those that should be moving still stood transfixed. She looked up to her mother with pleading eyes. She was already parading the two of them out of the store. In a last desperate attempt to confirm her own reality, Sally kicked off her white ballet flat in the direction of the rocking plastic man on the floor. It hit the coffee percolator, spilling over, toppling, hitting the live mannequin and letting loose thick dark liquid which seeped into the browning carpet. It was red; deep red, like old blood, kept for a long time and steeping. “Look! Look! Don’t you see!” Her mother’s eyes had hardly been diverted by the clanging crash, and now she simply continued to march on, dragging her girl by the dress collar. “NO! You’re not getting your shoe back!”

The doors opened dutifully on their automatic tracks, and they were trekking out into the baking desert of a parking lot. Their daisy yellow car was the only one that remained. Then, why did they park so far away? 

Sally was thrust into the seat. She was shaking, picking her small fingers at her light dress, looking for signs of the white plastic dust that had fallen off of the shaking man, or the splattering red from out of the coffee can. There! There! Nearly all her flowers had their colours changed, she tried gasping or shouting, but she could barely speak. The car rumbled to life; the engine roared on top of her. She looked out the window. The trees swept backwards in the wind. The signs glowed brighter, even in this odd daytime. She moved her eyes to the rear view mirror at the front of her car: her mother’s perfect face was reflected within. It looked awfully white. Sally sat watching. The car rolled lazily through the vast empty space. The roads and soon the freeway offered no more resistance. The car glided on through empty roads to the empty suburbs. And all the while she sat watching her mother through the mirror. She never blinked.

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