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Book 1 – Chapter 6 – Climax – Part 3

Elory had a talk station on her radio when I climbed in. It was a PBS show on the war. She turned it off.

“That was a lot of nothing,” I said. She passed me a roll of chocolate-covered mints.

We doubled back up Harvard Street. “I’m sure you gave Della a good scare,” she said. “Let it sink in.”

I really didn’t have much faith that Della would be moved, but I had nothing else to go on.


I walked to Harvard Square that afternoon to catch a film. I forget which. On the Mass Ave sidewalk, a pigeon crapped on my boot in mid-step but missed the rest of me. A little snow cleaned it off. I wasn’t sure if that was a good omen or not.

After the show, I stopped by a local games shop and read the first chapters of a dozen new books. I scanned the CD bins at Newbury Comics for good, cheesy dance music. I poked into TokyoPop to see if they had any manga I would actually spend money on.

I couldn’t shake the dread of the next few days. They might have been the start of a new school year, the end of an easy job, or the reprieve before excommunication.


Simon called me Sunday morning to ask if I was up for the Mall Game. I explained I might be a little grumpy, but I’d meet him there.

The weather had resigned itself to the fact that it hadn’t killed me this year. The temperature wasn’t so cold that it demanded my attention. The sky was pure blue, which made it interesting to watch from the Green Line to Lechmere. I sat on the left side of the train to stare over the top of the Museum of Science from the elevated tracks. The ground kept rumbling at the Lechmere stop. Across the street, they were tearing down the old NECCO candy factory to put up condominiums. A massive crane, taller than the high-rises, dropped a weight to break the foundations. It shuddered all the way over to the Cambridgeside Galleria but died off in the courtyard. I listened to the ice snap in the frozen ring where the boats come to give tours of the Charles River in the summer.

The mall was pretty busy for a Sunday afternoon. The food court had the same chains and Asian cuisine, and I was bummed that they hadn’t replaced the make-your-own-salad bar that went out of business a few years ago. The ice cream shop was still charging the price of a pint of Ben and Jerry’s for one scoop. I almost wished I would run into Della.

Simon was waiting with the old crows and some students by the Cinnabun outlet. The smell of that place was so decadent, I had that over-sugared cramp in my belly without buying anything. Simon stopped showing websites on his Palm Pilot to the guy beside him and aimed his stylus at my nose. “Halt,” he said. “What’s the password?”

“I did this last year,” I said.

“Then you should know the password,” he said.

I reached around him for a big old fox hug.

“That works for me,” he said. “Any word from the big ‘D’?”

“Nope,” I said. “When are we starting?”

“A few minutes,” he said. “We lost some people to the bathroom.”

Simon’s friend looked close to a death-metal band member without the mullet. “Excuse me,” he said. “Did your tail just curl itself?”

I tapped him playfully with it. “Yup,” I said, “but I have to charge you a dollar if you want a photograph.”

He handed me a bill from his wallet. I struck a Charlie’s Angels pose, cocked my fingers at him with my tail spinning around my side. He promised he would send me a copy.

A few stragglers met up with us and we gathered at the rear of the shop to avoid security. While I wasn’t sure who the organizers were, Anne Sempers was definitely their voice. She had a pageboy cut and a flippy sweater that she shook as a cape while staring us down.

“All right, welcome to the third Annual Mall Game,” she said. “Before we begin, let’s go over the rules. As the cliché goes, the first rule is…”

The rest of us repeated on cue, “Do not talk about the Mall Game.”

“Exactly,” Anne said. “Mum’s the word, unless you want to blow the game for the rest of us. Security can easily arrange for us never to play it again. You are shoppers. If you are suspected of playing the Mall Game, buy something and give it away later. Rule two is, ‘No stealing.’ This is a con game. The object is to get as much free stuff as you can from these fine retailers, as long as you have the express vocal consent of an employee for each item. Stealing will not only get you disqualified, it may land you in the security office, where none of us are going to help you. And finally, there is me.”

She lifted both her arms over herself. “Hi, I’m Anne. I am not like you. I am better than you. I am the judge for this game. Rule three is that my word is law. When you come back with your hand-held TV that only receives Fox News and the player beside you returns with a sample of chicken teriyaki on a stick, and I say the chicken is worth more points, it is worth more points. There is no question. If you come back with Schrödinger’s cat in a box, I will declare if it is alive or dead. Any complaints about this game will be directed to me, and I warn you, I am heavily biased towards myself. Has everyone paired up?”

Simon gave me the thumbs-up.

“Excellent,” Anne said. “We will begin in two minutes. To make the start fair, we will go outside. I want half the teams to circle around to the front entrance of the mall. I don’t care who. We have one hour, people. Remember, I will judge your prizes based on their cleverness, not quantity. And new guys? Victoria’s Secret catalogues do not impress anyone. Ready?”

“Ready!” we said.

“Move out!”

We followed the line to the courtyard. Since Simon and I were can-do people, we joined up with a cluster of other players braving the foot traffic around the mall. The number of stores inside hadn’t grown since last year, and we had to avoid repeating ideas. I hadn’t planned anything with Simon, though, and with the other teams close by, I wasn’t about to start.

So we talked about the weather. “Really, I’m glad its warm,” Simon said.

“We need it,” a girl from another team said. “If I had known winter around here was this bad, I would have gone to Berkeley.”

And we went on like that for a while.

A line of taxis was parked across from the front doors. Their drivers eyed us with ambivalence. We swooped into the mall’s decompression chamber and crunched the layer of dirt smeared into the carpet. Simon and I hid behind a vending machine as the others went ahead. He handed me a pair of glasses from his pocket. The frames were fairly thick and unfashionable. The lenses were weak. I could see decently through them, but the left earpiece fell off when I bent it.

“I took the screw out,” he said. “Take it to the optometrist’s shop for a new one.”

He ran off to the cheesecake shop before I could get there, and I finally understood the subtlety of his plan.

I brought the glasses into the bright yellow office. The reflections everywhere made it impossible to focus. I pretended to inspect the selection of frames without looking directly at the optometrist.

I spotted her white lab coat approaching before she asked me, “May I help you with something?”

“Yes, I’m so glad you’re in the mall,” I said. “My screw popped out and I have no idea where it went. Do you have replacements, or do you have to order them?”

She took the pieces from me and inspected them. “No, we have plenty,” she said. She disappeared into an office for a minute and returned with the glasses repaired. I held still while she slid them onto my face, and my sight went fuzzy again.

“How is that?” she said. “They don’t look very comfortable.”

“No, they’re fine,” I said, but I couldn’t stop her from pulling them off me. She dipped the ends over a tiny heater and shaped them to my ears. She tried them on me again until they were locked to my face.

Simon appeared next to me with a sheet of cardboard under his arm. “How are you making out?” he said.

“I should be set,” I said. I almost stumbled when I released the counter. The room grew larger and moved slightly to the left. “Thank you so much. What do I owe you?”

“It’s a free service,” she said. “Glad to help out.”

I hung onto Simon’s arm until I could ditch the glasses around the corner. “What did you pick up?” I said.

“A tiramisu-less tiramisu box,” he said, and then took out a small bottle. “And a sample of the actual water they use to make their desserts. Or wash their dishes in. I didn’t ask.”

The first floor was being picked clean by the other teams, so we took the escalator up. The Godiva chocolate store called to me, but I had picked up wrapping paper from them the previous year. A long hallway led toward Filene’s, and I spotted a present from the Gaming Gods blending into the tile. It was a laminated Clinique poster advertising a tote bag of samples. I told Simon to wait while I shot to the Clinique booth in the store. Both of the clerks were busy with makeovers on a mother and daughter, and didn’t object to my keeping the poster.

In return, Simon dragged me towards the Best Buy in the opposite hall. “I need,” he said. His feet were enchanted by electronic magic and I stumbled after him, helpless.

“What on earth are you going to get there for free?” I said.

“That’s the beauty,” he said. “No one else will be expecting this. It’ll be all mine. I mean, ours.”

“Sure,” I said. Simon lacked a leash around his neck, and I intended to fix that someday.

I was tempted by the bookstore next to Best Buy, but I hadn’t had any luck there the previous year. Their employees were a bit obsessive.

We had to squeeze through the shoplifting detectors single-file, which made no sense when the ceilings inside were high enough for any humpback whales who might stop by. I didn’t see any merchandise which wasn’t tied down or stickered. Simon didn’t bother with the racks of software or music, but went straight for the giant plasma wide-screen home movie system. It played clips from the new “Underworld” film which I hadn’t seen, and the star’s rubber suit was pretty damned hot.

“I’m getting a good feeling about this,” he said.

I patted him on the back. “I’ll run recon,” I said. “See you in a few.”

A newer player was hovering over a stack of AOL CDs, waiting for a store employee to acknowledge him. Anne didn’t like those last year, and I doubted her feelings had changed since.

One of the last-ditch tricks of the Mall Game, if you can’t get cool swag, is to have employees consent to strange things. I wasn’t feeling especially creative, so I searched for a free check-out lane. I lifted a sales flyer and dug the pen from my coat pocket. My grandmother’s fox figurine was still in there. I reminded myself to take it out later, but of course I forgot.

The last cashier in the block seemed the most harmless, with freckles dabbed on each cheek and a hairstyle that was more carved than cut. I set down my flyer and pen in front of him.

“Hi, I was wondering if you could do me a huge favor,” I said, and gestured to the hand scanner beside his register. “I’m doing a project on the infrastructure of processing goods, and I’m interested if you have any idea what that scanner is worth?”

His head bobbed to the scanner, then to me, and back again. “I really don’t know,” he said. “I just started for the Christmas rush, you know? You should ask the store manager.”

“Well, that’s the thing,” I said. “You work with it all the time. I want your opinion on its worth. I can find out the real cost later, easily.”

I fluttered my eyelashes.

“Okay,” he said. “Well, how about a hundred bucks?”

“That’s great!” I said, and slid the pen and paper to him. “Would you mind signing an affidavit for that?”

He accepted the pen gingerly. “An affa-what?” he said.

“Just write, ‘I estimate this scanner to be worth one hundred dollars,’” I said, and held myself back from asking him to add “darkly.” “Then sign your name.”

“Okay,” he said, and wrote it in the margins. He also included a phone number. “Just in case you want to tell me about how the project is going, y’know?”

“Fabulous,” I said and stuffed it away. “I will contact you when the project’s done. Be seeing you.”

“Yeah, you too.”

I hurried away before he tormented himself any further. I made a careful sweep of the aisles for any loose promotional boxes. The DVDs and games were a mess, picked up and thrown back without a care. I shook boxes I thought were empty, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when I heard, “Excuse me, miss?” behind me. The man had skin which must have been shrink-wrapped on. He wore a Red Sox jacket with a white buttoned shirt underneath. He had a serial killer stare, hoping I would run.

I held myself steady. “Yes,” I said.

“I’m with store security,” he said. “You had one of our employees sign something. Please let me see what it is.”

My tail brushed my ankles. I dug for the paper and passed it to him. I had done nothing illegal.

He read it over. “What’s this for?” he said.

“College psych project,” I said.

“Is that some kind of machine on your back?” he said.

“It’s a tail,” I said. “There’s nothing wrong with it.”

“Will you come with me?” he said.

He ushered me towards the passage to the mall. I noticed a door to its side marked “Employees Only,” but we mercifully passed it. He motioned towards the shoplifting detectors. “Would you step through, please?” he said.

I walked through them and they did not go off.

He nodded to me and crumpled the flyer in his hand. “You can solicit the employees on their off-hours,” he said, “and I don’t want to see that tail in here again. Understand?”

“Yes, sir,” I said. He waited for me to hide in the bookstore before he returned to his patrol.

I phoned Simon, and surprised him. “What’s up?” he said.

“I was kicked out of the store,” I said. “Plainclothes security didn’t like that I had a cashier sign a fake affidavit.”

“I’ll be over,” he said. He hurried through the detectors to me. He held a button with the Best Buy colors that read, “Ask me how to get 10% off my next purchase.”

“Are you doing okay?” he said.

“I’m fine,” I said. “I thought I’d blown our cover. Is there anything else in there you wanted?”

“No, we can hit another one,” he said. “You should have heard me. I sweet-talked this out of the customer service girl. It was poetry.”

“She just wanted into your pants,” I said.

Simon grimaced. “Butter’n’eggs,” he said.

The time limit was approaching, but I insisted we check out the Payless shoe shop, as the windows were brimming with boots. “You can pick up some free footsies or something,” I said before we split up.

I kinda have a thing for boots. Payless shoes don’t last long, but they’re great for variety. I pored through the stack and found a pair of thigh-highs at 20% off. The heels weren’t too clunky, and they didn’t echo when I took them for a test walk.

Down one of the aisles, I noticed a blue box at the top of a shelf. The smiling face of Richard Simmons was printed on the top. A clerk fetched me an empty box when I requested one, with no reason to ask why.

I left the store with two boxes, the one I paid for and the one I didn’t. Simon snagged a handful of footsies on the way out.

Our team was the fourth to arrive in the food court. With my poster and our boxes, we came out pretty well. Another team had a stack of posters from bad Saturday Night Live movies and a three-foot high stack of ice cream cups.

Anne extended the time limit by fifteen minutes since there was no such thing as an organized mall trip. I informed her about the security at Best Buy, and she added it to the list of warnings for next year.

A few chairs squawked as other players leaned to spot my tail. They were too polite to ask, but not as stealthy as they hoped to be. I jabbed Simon to show him.

“I need a business card to hand out,” I said. “Something with catchphrases, like ‘Tails are nature’s balancers.’”

“How about, ‘Oh come on, you always wanted one too’?” he said.

“‘The tail runs on six D-size batteries which last around six hours,’” I said, “‘which is why Cheryl charges for pictures.’”

“Really?” he said.

“I get the cheap ones in bulk,” I said. “The Duracells might last longer, but they cost three times as much.”

One of the guys leaned over the table towards me. “You know, there’s a company in Chicago that sells them wholesale to everyone,” he said. “Name brands too. My house goes through a case a year.”

“Get out,” I said. “Who are they?”

He typed up the name on his Palm Pilot. “What’s your email?” he said.

I gave him my junk account.

“That’s a lot of juice,” a girl beside me said. “Does it get hot?”

“A little,” I said, “but it never burns.”

More people leapt in as soon as the discussion turned technical. I learned a lot about thermoconductivity and how to estimate the amperes required for off-the-shelf motors to perform physical work. They came to a consensus that the tail consumed far more energy than it needed, and created too much waste from the batteries, but as a prototype was ultimately worth it.

I was afraid to ask if anyone worked with Professor Lanyi.

Anne announced the arrival of the last team and we presented our goodies for scoring. One team only had a packet of machine lube and a clown-shaped paperweight, but they explained they had been close to getting a belt from an exercise treadmill. Another team also pulled off the eyeglass-and-screw trick and said the optometrist had a lot of questions for them. One team won a ton of points with their broken Gameboy.

Simon and I scored in third place, but more importantly, I had an hour without Della on my mind. Most of our goodies went to the garbage, but Simon kept the Clinique poster. He said he had a special place for it.

The teams said goodbyes and we all dispersed until next year. Simon and I grabbed tacos for lunch. We found seats by the courtyard windows as another couple was leaving.

“You know, your tail doesn’t flip around like it used to,” Simon said. “Most people don’t notice it move at all. Unless you’re excited.”

“You mean,” I said and wagged it quickly.

“Exactly,” he said. “I thought you couldn’t control it.”

“I don’t remember when I could,” I said. “It just happened.”

He put his taco on his plate and stabbed a finger at me. “Sit! Heel! Roll over!” he said.

I had a faux-glare specially reserved for anyone who tried that trick again. “I don’t know. You must think I’m such a therian, but I’m more comfortable when it’s on,” I said. “I don’t want to lose it.”

Simon stroked my hand in his. “I don’t want you to either,” he said.

We sat over half-eaten tacos when everything clicked. All my obsessions over Della collapsed together into cogs to form an answer. I had the same rush from when I realized the bass line to Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” was the same as “Can’t Help Myself.”

“What if I came out to the professor first?” I said. “I mean, I’m doing things with the tail I never read in his notes.”

“And if he wants it back?” he said.

“Yeah, if he wants it back I’m screwed, but if I don’t pay Della four grand, I’m screwed too,” I said. “I’ll go over to her place and tell her if she tries to send anything to him, I’ll come out to him first. I’ll push her to cut her demands.”

“Do you want me to come with you?” he said.

“No. Really, hon, I can take care of this,” I said.

He shrugged, with his eyes on his plate. “You win,” he said.

“No, I don’t,” I said. “But thank you.”

I joined him on his side of the table and kissed him on the cheek. “I’m really glad you’re there for me,” I said.

He hid his face behind his heavy hand. “Aw, shucks,” he said.

Categories: Book 1 - How Cheryl Got Her Tail, Chapter 6 - Climax.

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