The First Mall of America
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The Malls of America, Part One

Gaton nervously squirms, his hand sweating as his mother leads him through the mall. She smiles as people look at her son, nervousness painted on his face like oblique expressionism. “Gaton, please, just this once calm down in here…”

Gaton is nine and was diagnosed with high-functioning autism only two years ago. The ins and outs of this diagnosis are understood very little, but one of the main symptoms is a dislike of large crowds and public spaces. Despite this, he is at the mall, as his father is at work and his mother can’t find a babysitter. He still sees them both as “mom” and “dad,” who have not yet differentiated their identities beyond what they represent in his life. They are caregivers, safe-keepers, and protectorates. But he understands why he needs to be at the mall today. He needs new shoes and to try on pairs to find ones “with growing room,” as all his clothes have.

The too-tight sneakers squeak along the tiled floors, the towering ceiling painted a bright white that seems to shine with the noon sunlight. Various banners and advertisements hang, and just thinking about how high up a person needs to be to install them sends a shiver of fear through Gaton. Heights, especially ones where he can imagine a clear vision of the fall and eventual death, have always terrified his mind, the presence of death a nearly incomprehensible terror that hangs in his head, among many others. Another fear is people. Will he say the wrong word? Will what he say be some kind of trigger for someone? How can he please as many people as possible without upsetting anyone? These thoughts swirl in his mind as he walks into the shoe store.

Leaving Payless ShoeSource, Gaton makes a bad decision and looks up to the ceiling. He stares up at the bright white girders, eyes catching the hints of shadow at the edges that haven't been filled in by the garish fluorescent lights, the harsh whiteness of the walls sharpening the bright light even more. He stares up, neck craned in fearful amazement at the marvel of engineering he is currently paralyzed in. Despite his terror, it's still better than looking at the crowd of people in front of him. They have eyes that stare back, of course. As he stares and his mother is distracted by a text, he sees something. A small shift of cloth, darker than the rest of the shadows seems to flit in and out of the corners of the structure. It happens again, the edge of a tattered cloak flitting in and out of the air and disappearing back into the corner like a piece of foam sucked up by a vacuum cleaner.

Gaton starts to tap his mother's side. "Mom! Mom! There's something on the ceiling! The ceiling! Lookup there, look! it's a monster!" He's screeching, throat going hoarse from both fear and excitement. His mother quickly grabs him, putting him against her shoulder, and walks quickly towards the nearest exit. It's a move she has practiced due to her son being hypersensitive to many things, bright lights and harsh spaces being one of them. They exit the mall, and Gaton begins to whimper. The images of the creature, that gaudy face, that cloak that looked as though it did not agree with physics, are still present in his mind. They will not leave for a long, long time.

Gaton is eleven now, finally matured past some of the more aggressive symptoms of his autism. No longer affected by bright fluorescent lights as badly, and grown the courage to enter malls again. He strides in, still extremely nervous about the entire event of getting new shoes again, having let his feet be utterly constricted due to nerves for the past few years. He smiles nervously as his mom makes small talk, choosing a shoe store on the second floor this time. Picking out a shoe is easy- Gaton never had any particular fashion sense or desire to gain one. Grabbing a simple pair of Converse, he and his mother go to the check-out counter and wait for their turn. Gaton stares out the nearby window, looking around at the people he never felt he fit in with, the people that stared at him when he said something "weird" or "out of pocket." An eternity laid before him, a life of being alone, of being apart from all the crowds of humanity he will never feel the same as.

As he stares, his eyes wander to the ceiling again, catching sight of a wide advertisement for a new brand of shoe. As he does, he catches sight of something in the corner of the roof. He lies to himself, saying it was just a trick of the light, his long eyelashes casting a shadow on his eye. But that lie is overturned, as something begins to squeeze into the world. A white mass, oblong at first, then beginning to take shape. Its like shoving a stress ball through a pinhole, or seeing a galaxy get sucked into a black hole in reverse. And what slowly reveals is…

A skull. A gleaming white, flawless human skull emerges, the warping effect continuing as it pulls a long, flowing black cloak out of the hole, its jaw clicking so loudly that Gaton is amazed no one else can hear it. It turns its eyes towards him, and Gaton feels like his knees are jelly. He passes out, brain going numb with shock and stress. His mother acts, calming the people around her while taking Gaton's tongue out. "It's just an absence seizure, he'll be fine! I just need to get him outside!" A large man picks Gaton up, rushing to follow the mother outside of the store. The skull sits, turning to watch the parade, chittering loudly as it surveys the crowd. If Gaton had been conscious, he would've been frightened of the man. His mind would've thought about all the words related to fat that could slip out. Thankfully, in his retrospection, he was too out of it to say anything.

Gaton came back to reality shortly, drenched in sweat. He was silent about what he saw. Later, he was diagnosed with a sensitivity to fluorescent lights, and the doctors he saw decided that he should wear darkened sunglasses and a hat when in buildings with harsh lighting. Great, Gaton thinks, another thing to be made fun of for. Besides that, nothing happens again. He is convinced what he saw wasn't real, and accepts it as a stress-based illusion bought on by a migraine. To tell his mother if he feels like that again. To tell anyone. To talk. To use the words he has such an intense fear of using.

Gaton is now fourteen, standing at the entrance to that same Poughkeepsie Galleria, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and reflective shades. He smiles, thinking of all the issues he's had in malls, and confident in the doctor-recommended shades and hat. He feels ridiculous but confident that entering the mall will not cause any massive issues, his mom had dropped him off and left for a doctor's appointment five minutes ago. He strides in, finally able to look up at the walls and ceilings that caused him and his family so much grief with confidence for the first time in his life. The second-floor entryway isn't scary, nor is the main path through the mall towards the shoe store, where he enters and purchases a new pair of shoes with no issue. He gets a couple of stares due to his outfit, but besides that, he feels home-free when he exits the store. He stares at the corner again, waiting for a full minute to see anything. As the corner stays normal, he turns to his right and begins walking towards the exit.

His eyes see a random women from behind and let's his eyes follow the figure of her body upwards. Again, he lets his eyes wander to the ceiling, and in a different corner, perched and staring obliquely at the woman is that pure white skull and gray cloak. Sitting like a hawk on the hunt, it stares directly at the women, dead eye sockets almost radiating malice as its jaw clicks and lacks. Gaton screws his resolve to its sticking point and begins to follow the women closely. The skull begins to float down, its grey cloak flowing in a nonexistent wind. Suddenly it swipes down, its cloak flapping silently, and hits a large soda out of someone's hand which causes the attractive woman to fall towards the railing, most likely about to fall to the first floor and be harmed. As she falls, Gaton dashes forward, dropping the shoes and preventing the woman from falling to injury. Gaton stares up, looking at the head as it chitters at him. A sick thought passes through his head, Is it fucking laughing? With that it begins to flip away, disappearing into one of the corners of the walls again. Gaton decides to escape any repercussions, leaving the women on the floor and striding away quickly. He decides, at that moment, to understand what the creatures are however he can.

As he strides away he ignores the woman laying on the floor, almost yelling for him to come back so she can reward him in some way. He doesn't care, only knowing, feeling deep in his heart, that if he stays inside that mall for another minute, something will happen. As he turns to look at the woman, he sees two more of the creatures, now orbiting her and chittering in some kind of pattern. Seeing this he sprints, exiting as fast as he can. His mother then reprimands him for forgetting his shoes inside, and his eyes stop aching. He turns and looks at the Poughkeepsie Galleria, and sighs heavily. One day, when he can finally go into a mall without feeling like death…

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