The Second Mall of America
rating: +10+x

Gaton feels himself come back to normal in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, the seizure having abated and a semblance of mental normalcy returning to his brain. The thick, melodic buzzing of a migraine is still in his head, the aftereffect of the seizure a familiar feeling. He wrenches himself into a sitting position, the ambulance screaming down the road now slowing down with the subject regaining consciousness. His mother squeezes his hand, crying.

"I know, I know… thanks Mom, I love you too."

Gaton mumbles, the experience of waking up with a stressed parent next to him a common occurrence. His head feels like a bowling ball held by a weak hand, heavy and awkward This isn't an unusual feeling, but it always feels terrible. Gaton looks out the ambulance window as it speeds into the hospital parking lot, thankful for the recently instated free healthcare. As he stares out the window, he realizes that his vision seems to be… doubled, in a way. An afterimage of everything he sees is vibrating delicately underneath or above everything else. Whichever the true vision is, doesn't matter. Floating outside the hospital, next to a loudspeaker, is yet another skulltula, its dead-eyed sockets fixed on Gaton as the cart passes into the entryway.

Gaton sighs watching the sun- bright sodium lights blaze by their head. Sharp pangs echo Gaton's cranium, like an echo chamber of pain, as the nurse pushing the cart reports the condition of the new patient to the attending physician, and with each sentence Gaton comes to terms with something. With every mention of the word "he," a thought crosses Gaton's mind- That isn't me. There are many better situations where one could think about something like that, but sometimes that's just how it goes. Said word is now rotating in Gaton's mind. When Gaton says they refer to themselves, it fits. It blends with their identity like molten metal poured into a mold, hardening and becoming one with the block of thoughts and feelings that make up "Gaton," the ethereal piece of meat and nerves that composes their body.

Whatever these thoughts are, they need to be dealt with in a neutral, calm setting. Gaton stores them in the back of his head as he begins to think about his past and the moments that bought him to this point in life. A constant spiral of issues and problems, many of which were bought upon by no choice of his own. A spiral like this is common, but when it's reinforced by lying in a hospital bed, it feels even worse. Like his entire life was leading to this moment, this ultimate collection of mistakes and accidents. But Gaton sees something flit in the corner of their vision- a black cloak, flitting away and around the corner again.

Grunting, alone, Gaton begins to stand up, slowly crunching their body until it stands up straight, the soreness of adrenaline withdrawal making their back stiff. She grimaces, the pain of muscle soreness the only thing present in her brain as she slowly walks forward, hanging off of the colonoscopy holder. Another skull flits by, and Gaton smiles at it this time- they no longer fear the beings. But they need a name, and Gaton thinks of something that fits them perfectly- Skulltulas. From a videogame, he played as a child at his grandparents, one with chunky polygons and dialogue that always felt off, but the name fits extremely well. They are now skulltulas, and Gaton wonders if someone else in history has seen them. She reaches the curtain, throws it aside and stares up and down the hall, and sees a collection of skulls floating around a vaulted wall in the corner of the hospital. Gaton squints and massages his temples, the bright sodium lights feeling like pushpins jamming straight into his brain. Before they retreat to their darkened cavern, they notice what the skulls are gathered around- a WiFi router. A potentially momentous thought, cut off by a foolish action, a nurse rushing by, slamming into their side and causing Gaton to stumble back to the bed, their head rushing. Blood pumps, heart races, fingers shake, eyes water. The hydration in the colo bag hasn't kicked in yet. Gaton lies down, attaching the heart monitor to his finger again, and smiles, ideas swirling across the frontal cortex, their mind firing slowly as the electrolytes and hydrating fluids course through their veins, lulling them into a restful slumber.

Gaton smiles back at the nurse wheeling them from the hospital to the waiting car, happy to leave the place. Floating above the roof of the place of death are even more skulls, gathered around a newly installed communications array, a presence Gaton hadn't noticed before. Perhaps they prefer the frequencies they emit. Whatever the reason, Gaton squints at them as the car door closes, cutting them off from the outside world. His mother and father converse with him politely, thankful to have their child returned to them. "Bud, are you okay?" Christof smiles kindly, his beard starting to grow salt and pepper. Past his kind eyes, the communications array looms, suffused with the swirling twirling beasts of unknown nature.

"Yeah, Dad, I'm okay now… sorry for scaring everyone again." Gaton shirks away from her parents, embarrassed at the stress she knows was caused.

"Bud, I've told you over and over, you never have to be sorry for medical stuff. It's outside nonsense caused by bullshit beyond your control. We love you, and we'll do anything for you."

Gaton blushes, reaching forward to let his hands run over the shoulder of each parent. Suddenly, Gaton is overcome by the temporaneous nature of all of this. One day, he will be an old man. One day, she will have long, gray hair. One day, they will bury their parents in a hole, or in an urn on a shelf, in an industrial-strength plastic bag. The urn will move very rarely, once a year when remodeling. His mother will slowly break down, her joints slowly breaking apart, the ligaments falling apart like so many twigs in the rainfall of a storm. Her father will lose his mind, the brain of a kind man slowly deteriorating into useless pink gelatin, the eyes glazing over from glaucoma, his teeth slowly rotting into slack-jawed numbness. Their bodies will fail, slowly, and Gaton will be there for every minute of it, She will witness every minute of these deaths, he will see every minutiae of their slow decline, they will be helpless in the ever-long march of time. It hits them all at once- maybe it was the smell of the hospital antiseptic being used on a now-empty bed they passed by. Perhaps it was the beep of the heart monitor, the drumbeat of those on the edge. Maybe it was the precipice every patient feels they lie on when entering a hospital, the inane terror that, at any point, a kind-eyed person in a white coat will walk into the room with a clipboard. That those kind eyes will possess a practiced, poised expression of affection both detached and prefixed upon the patient. "We found something…" it will start, and at the same time, it will end.

Gaton begins to cry, squeezing their parent's shoulders and sobbing deeply, guttural sounds of depression and gratitude mixing into one cacophonous miasma of sound that fills the small vehicle.

"M-mom… d-dad… I'm so s-sorry for everything… I love you both so much… I'm sorry f-for t-the passage of time…"

The sobs deteriorate into senseless moans, his eyes turning red and her grasp collapsing into useless groupings. Their parents are filled with a mixture of hope and depression, of sadness and the knowing faith a parent has for every child. They know that one day, Gaton will overcome. It is not an "if," in their collective minds. It is a "when," a knowing faith and love that is unbreakable. Even this apparent setback does nothing to dim the faith they both have that eventually, given time, their son will rise to something they can both be proud of.

It is many hours later, the trip from the hospital long and arduous. Gaton has accessed her computer, doing various searches for "floating skulls," "skull in mythology," and "The Skull With a Cape" in the event that this phenomenon has been captured at any other point in history. After exhaustively combing through the Shmoogle results for an hour, he retreats to Shming and makes several more searches there. If anyone from a scholarly profession was nearby, the solution could have been elucidated easily- sometimes, typical sources are not enough. They realize this after another hour of Shmahooing, and decide to do something he would have avoided otherwise- forums. That cesspool of degeneracy her mother warned her about countless times, the internet hangouts of pedophiles and child abductors (and often, she elucidated, these were one and the same) where Gaton would be lured into a life of sexual servitude. These warnings rang heavy in his head when he decided to dive in- the cursor slowly dragging over one of the few links still unclicked, heavy with apprehension.


With a timid tap, the link was clicked, and a new world opened right before their eyes.

Not only were these websites filled with people who identified as having illnesses Gaton had, but they also seemed proud of this identity, this part of their personality being worn on their sleeves. Men and women, researching their inane passions and wild theories, grasping at the finest of straws while embracing their identity as an "other." Coming from a world Gaton struggled desperately to fit in with, they were shocked; this was to just a loose collection of individuals, plugging away at a reality that was clearly already uncomfortable with their mere presence. People of all kinds here, together, whether casually or seriously, were exploring anything and everything that caught their eyes. A hollow in the woods here, a mysterious cave within an abandoned mineshaft, a vat of chemicals found in the middle of the woods- oddities and mysteries, treated with a desire for truth Gaton had felt for the past few years. Another thing Gaton noticed- is the pronouns. There were new combinations, a few new words, and even some that were already other nouns. It was a realization of sorts, one that shook Gaton to their core. Tears came to his eyes, her heart near to bursting with emotion, their hands shaking with the realization that the world has spaces for people like them. That is their struggle, they are not alone. The people on this board were truly more in tune with Gaton's view of the world than anyone they had ever met. Gaton had been drowning, alone, in an ocean of fear and uncertainty, but this place of beauty, of freedom of expression, came along like a luxury cruise and escorted them to the fanciest suite available. For once, when Gaton turned off the laptop and climbed into bed for the night, it was not loathing or malice or self-hatred that plagued their thoughts- it was joy, hope, and a surety of self Gaton once thought was impossible. Their bedsheets never felt so warm, their bed so luxuriously comfy, their pillows fluffy and welcoming. A new world was opened by that singular tap, one Gaton refused to ever leave or forget wasn't waiting for them at any moment.

Gaton stares out the window, thinking. The skulls that float among their world, the beings that have haunted their mind, made them suspect their insanity- they are not an intrusive part of anything. Gaton walks to their window, staring at the buildings near the small suburban abode, walls painted eggshell white with a purple trim that will stay in their minds forever. Across the street is the local post office, a massive piece of architecture with vaunted buttresses that make Gaton think of a medieval fort. The colonial aspects of this building notwithstanding, it stood as a focal point for the skulltula's for the past few years- as the wires feeding in and out of the place grew, so did the number of skulls. Even now, when the city sleeps, there are many of them circling among the spire of the building, bumping into one another languidly, silhouetted by the darkened, star-sparse sky typical of the city at night. These creatures, Gaton realizes, are an integral part of reality, whether or not anyone else can see them. Perhaps Gaton is insane. That doesn't matter. That woman certainly felt their effects, even if she could not see them. So Gaton decides then and there to devote themselves to understanding these ethereal beings, these creatures living between the visions of others. As Gaton returns to their bed they realize they forgot to make an account on the forum site, a needed step for any amateur paranormal investigator. It is only when they reach the "Gender" part of the account creation screen do they feel a certain sense of unease.

"He" is not a proper descriptor. When Gaton looks at the warped, mirrored world contained within the laptop screen, it is not a "he" that looks back. It is not a being constrained by gender, norms, or individuality contained and affected by what is included within the pants. The penis within the waistband does not define who possesses it- and Gaton is finally tired of being stuck in this groinal paradigm. Gaton decides something then and there, laying in the darkened hospital room with an IV inserted into their arm. It is a decision that will not create a physical change to Gaton, unless they desire it to do so. It is a decision that will not incur any obvious change in their outlook on life unless they choose to make it so. It is a personal decision, one that incurs no penalties except social awkwardness, if Gaton chooses. Gaton no longer sees themself as a "man," in the social sense. They no longer identify with the malaise of social hangups related to being a "guy." For all their life, Gaton felt outside of this dichotomy. Being referred to by male pronouns never felt right, never felt normal. "He" feels like an oversized coat, pushed onto you by an insistent parent- "him" like shoes that are a size too small, constantly squeezing in the wrong places. On the other hand, "her" feels like pants that are too long, constantly catching on everything you walk over "she" feels like gloves with holes in winter, cold air shocking the most sensitive areas. So Gaton smiles to themself, sliding the mouse over the "They/Them" button, clicking it, and entering an entirely new world.

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