What happens when two lonely boys meet in a shopping mall food court?
“I was telling you about deciding I’d better to go school, so no one would be suspicious of me. I waited, looking around outside the mall; no one was there but me and thousands of parking places that were totally unoccupied. I waited until it was time to go, then rode to school. The mall is pretty close to my school, so it didn’t take long. I timed it so I’d get there about when I always did. I just parked and locked my bike and went in as usual.
“Everything was just as it always was, yet it felt funny. Everything was different in my life, I’d run away from my father, I was worrying about where I was going to sleep, I didn’t know what problems I’d have to face or how I was going to get by, I didn’t have much money and only a few clothes, all this was running around in my head, yet all the other kids were just talking and laughing with each other like everything was fine, a few teachers were out in the crowded halls, talking with some of the kids or each other as they walked by, smiles on their faces, books in their hands, I even saw the principal walk by looking busy and preoccupied and in a hurry like he usually was. Things in general were just going on the way they always did. Then I went to my classes, and we were learning about square roots and predicate nominatives. All that stuff just seemed crazy to me now, of no importance at all. I couldn’t concentrate, and whenever someone would say something to me, I didn’t know how to respond. I was in my own world. I was wondering if I’d have a place to sleep, and some teacher was saying something about protozoas. That was during third period, and I’d finally had enough. I asked to go to the restroom and then just took off. Got my bike and rode back to the mall. I knew I had to find a place to sleep. That was the most important thing and it had been weighing on my mind. Once I’d figured that out, then I could start thinking about school again.
“It was only a little after 9:30 when I got back to the mall that morning and a lot of the stores hadn’t opened yet, although the mall doors themselves were open. The parking lot now had a very few cars in it, all parked close to entry doors, resulting in seemingly several square miles of empty blacktop with a few pockets of vehicles scattered here and there close to the mall itself. The sign on the door I went to said the mall opened at 9:30, and when I checked the door it was indeed open. I locked my bike at a bike rack and went in. There was almost no one there, just a couple of people walking in the aisles. It felt funny, seeing it so deserted like that. It sounded different from when it was busy; there was an almost eerie stillness to the place and I felt sort of like I was trespassing. I could see lights were on in a few stores, a few had their front protective grates open, but a lot didn’t. As I watched, I saw some of the gratings rising on a few stores. I thought about this. The stores opened between 9:30 and 10, the mall itself opened at 9:30. If I was sleeping in a store in the mall, would I be able to get out before 9:30? How could I be at school at 8 if I were locked in the mall? Was this even going to work? I started to panic. I’d been counting on the mall.
“After a minute or so, I forced myself to calm down. I hadn’t even looked around yet. No matter what I did, it wasn’t going to be easy, nothing was going to be easy, so I needed to get a grip and not give up at the first problem. There was going to be more than just this one problem to solve, there’d be a lot of them. I talked to myself really hard. Finally, I stopped feeling like crying. I walked farther into the mall.
“It dawned on me that I was a school-aged kid, this was mid-morning on a school day, and someone might ask me why I wasn’t in school. I’d better have an excuse ready so I wouldn’t be trying to make something up on the spur of the moment if I was asked. So, while I was walking around, I thought up a couple possible things to say.
“I was looking at everything closely, even though I didn’t know what I was trying to find. I hoped I’d see something that would give me an idea. I now knew I couldn’t plan on staying in a store, then walking out the front door in the morning. Well then, could I walk out a back door? From scouting out the outside of the building, I knew there were a whole lot of individual doors along the outer walls that had store names on them, and I assumed they led into the backs of stores, but I wasn’t sure of that. Maybe I could find out.
“I thought it would be best to try a store that was crowded so I’d be less likely to be noticed. That was difficult because there weren’t that many people in the mall this early. However, there was a Truscott’s that had a few people in it. It was a large department store. I went in.
“This was certainly a large enough store that I could hide here pretty easily when it closed at night. There were circular racks of clothing crowded on the sales floors that I could simply get into where I wouldn’t be seen. There were counters I could hide behind. Just standing in the aisles in various places in the store and turning in a circle, I could see many places to hide.
“Then I thought about security. I didn’t know much about it, but had heard about home security systems and seen movies where buildings had motion detectors, and I had been to a friend’s house where they had a system like that in the home, so knew what one kind of those looked like at least. I started looking up at the walls. And right away I saw things mounted up high that could easily be motion detectors. Probably were. I immediately started to feel defeated again.”
Bryan stopped a second, revisiting how upset he’d been, remembering the sinking feeling he’d had at that time, the defeated feeling of not really knowing how he was going to do what he had to do, of being just one boy trying to get by on his own, and not having enough knowledge of how things worked to be able to do so.
Josh saw the look on his face and reached out and put his hand on his arm, gripping it. Bryan looked up at him and saw the worry in his eyes. He forced a small grin onto his face.
“I’m okay,” he said softly, gratefully, though his eyes still showed some emotion.
“Good,” replied Josh, looking Bryan in the eyes. He didn’t remove his hand.
“You really sure you want to hear all this?” Bryan asked.
“You stop now, I’ll beat you with my tray!” Josh said, getting a big smile on his face, thinking how preposterous it was, him beating anyone with anything. Bryan’s sad look left his face. Which was what Josh was hoping for when he made his remark.
Bryan drank a little of his coke, then went on with his story. “I really felt down when I saw those motion detectors. But I remembered the pep talk I’d given myself earlier, and started thinking again instead of just feeling sorry for myself. This was the only store I’d been in, and maybe all the stores weren’t the same. After all, this was a big chain store, and they probably had more money for security than some of the others. Too, I realized I was only looking in the main aisles. Maybe there were other parts of the store that weren’t so well protected. So, I started walking again, this time heading through some of the bays where most of the merchandise was, off the main aisles.
“And I quickly saw the motion detectors, if that’s what they were, were only along the aisles. None of the bays I looked through had them. That made me feel a lot better.
“I came to a bunch of changing rooms and stuck my head in there. There was a desk near the doorway for the lady who checked how many garments someone had with them when they went in to try on clothes, but no one was sitting at it. In fact, there was hardly anyone in the store this early, either salespeople or customers. I walked in and saw there was a women’s and a men’s side with the desk in the middle. The place was deserted. I looked through both sides, finding several changing booths in each, with more for the women than the men. At the back of the men’s area was a door marked, “For Employees Only.” Steeling my nerve, I turned the knob and pushed. The door opened, and I peeked in.
“I found a long hallway with doors on both sides, mostly closed. The walls of the hallway were plain white with no decorations of any kind. I was scared to go any farther, but told myself this might be what I was looking for, and not to chicken out now. So, still feeling scared, I started down the hallway. The first door I came to was closed and had a sign saying Manager on it. I kept walking and next came to an open door. There was a sign on it, too, and this one said Canteen. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but put my head in and looked around. The room looked like a big kitchen with a sink, a refrigerator, counters with cabinets over and under them and a large table in the middle with at least ten chairs around it. The floor was covered with linoleum tiles. There was a coffee machine on one of the counters and a large box close by that looked to be donuts. There were some comfortable looking chairs and couches at one end of the room near the one wall that didn’t have counters along it. I quickly looked up at the walls. No motion detectors. My eyes were drawn back to the couch. What a great place to sleep!
“As soon as I thought that, however, I realized I had no idea whether they had security guards here. If they did, this looked like a place where they’d spend some time. As great as the couch looked, I wouldn’t be able to risk it.
“I kept walking. The next door was again closed and was labeled “Security.” Oops. I kept walking, a little faster, and came to the end of the hall. It ended in another hallway running in both directions. Again, the walls themselves were plain. There were no doors in the part that ran to my right, but at the end there was a door marked EXIT. I walked quickly to it and looked it over. There didn’t appear to be an alarm on it, but I had no way to know for sure. It had a push bar rather than a knob to open it.
“I was afraid to open it, but knew I had to find a way to get out of the mall before it opened in the morning, and this looked like a possibility. So, tentatively, and not knowing what I’d find, I carefully and slowly pressed the bar back towards the door. I felt the latch release, and the door began to open.
“I pushed the door open just far enough to see. I knew right away, before it was even open very far at all, it didn’t lead outside because the light coming through the crack wasn’t bright like it would be outside. I pushed the door open farther and was able to see the door led into a large storage area filled with rows of shelves reaching up to the ceiling. I realized this must be the store’s warehouse.
“I could hear some voices that sounded like they were coming from a long ways off. My heart was beating like crazy, but my head told me to keep looking around. If nothing else, this was a great place to hide. I slipped through the door after making sure there was a handle on the warehouse side that worked the latch. I needed to be able to get out of this room and this was the only door I knew. I started walking down a corridor along the wall the door was in. The floor was bare concrete, but I had sneakers on and they made no sound. The shelves all ran at right angles to that wall so every few steps I took I could see down a long aisle with merchandise rising high on both sides, much of it stacked on pallets. Once I saw a man standing a long way down one of the aisles looking at some papers he had on a clipboard he was holding in his hand. I kept going and he didn’t see me.
“When I came to the end of the wall I was walking next to, it ended in a corner, and in that corner, there was a door. Again, there was an EXIT sign. This time, however, attached to the push bar was a sign saying, “Emergency Exit Only. Alarm Will Sound If Door Is Opened.”
“I’d learned what I wanted to know. It only made sense that any outside door from this warehouse at the very least would be alarmed. I had to look elsewhere.
“It wasn’t as scary retracing my steps because at least I knew the layout and where I was going. I walked back to the door I’d entered through without seeing anyone, opened it and retraced my steps back into the corridor. I got back to the hall that branched off this one, the one I’d originally entered from the changing rooms area, and started back the way I’d come. I’d just passed the Security office when that door opened and a man stepped out, saw me and said, “Hey. Hold it.”
“I felt like running. I almost did. But he was only a foot behind me and I knew he’d catch me when I had to stop to open the door into the dressing room area. So I stopped and turned to face him.
“He was an older man with gray hair, wearing a security uniform and cap. The uniform had the word Security on one side of the chest and the store’s name on the other, with the name Sidney sewn underneath it. He didn’t look angry or even stern. He just looked like a man who was looking at me. He said to me, ‘Hey kid, this is a restricted area. What are you doing back here?’
“I told him I was sorry, but was looking for the bathroom and had got a little lost. He asked if I hadn’t seen the Employees Only sign, and I shook my head, then asked if he could tell me where the restroom was. He said he was headed that way anyway and he’d show me.
“And that’s all there was too it. He didn’t ask why I wasn’t in school. He asked if I liked baseball, I said yes, and we chatted about the pennant race till we got to a restroom in the corner of the store. I told him, ‘Thanks, Sidney.’ He smiled at me, said, ‘Sure thing, kid,’ and that was that. I went into the restroom, sat down and tried to let my heart slow back down to normal.”
Bryan stopped for a moment to take a sip of his drink, and Josh used the lull to say, “I’d have been scared out of my skull.”
“I was. But I calmed down eventually. While I was sitting there doing that, I realized this store just wasn’t what I was looking for. It had too much expensive merchandise, so of course they’d have pretty tight security. I needed to look in stores that wouldn’t need to be so careful, or couldn’t afford to be.
“I finally got up and made my way out of the restroom and then out of the store. In the mall there were now a few more people in the aisles. It wasn’t crowded, it wasn’t like a weekend, but at least I didn’t feel quite so conspicuous.
“I walked into several more stores. What I needed to do was get into the back rooms and check their rear doors. This was difficult because there was usually either a sales desk or customer service counter located right near the door into the back. So a lot of times, I simply turned around and walked back out, then tried another store.
“I was checking out all the stores, not paying much attention to what they sold. What I wanted was a place to hide and a place where I could leave in the morning through a back door. Whether the place sold women’s clothes or art supplies or kitchen gadgets or anything else didn’t make much difference. I was looking through a store that specialized in children’s clothes when I found what I needed.
“This was a small specialty store that sold secondhand clothes for kids from infants up to three years old. It had a sign on the window that said they bought clothes that were still in good shape that babies and kids had outgrown, washed them and then sold them at greatly reduced prices from what new clothes cost. When I walked in and started looking around, I saw the low prices on everything, and I immediately thought that this was a store that wouldn’t be paying a lot for security. Their merchandise just wasn’t worth that much and I doubted they made enough profit to hire anyone just to protect their store alone.
“I walked through the store, making my way to the back. There was only one sales clerk visible in the store, and she was working with a young woman, looking at baby clothes. I got to the back and saw the open door leading to the back of the store. Taking a quick glance back at the sales clerk, with my heart racing a mile a minute, I stepped through the doorway.
“There was a short hallway. On one side of it was a closed door with a sign saying Office, Employees Only, on the other a sign on a door reading Restroom. I kept walking and entered a back room. There were boxes of clothes on the floor and on shelves along one wall, racks of clothes hanging on hangers, a couple worktables with chairs pushed up to them and a washer and dryer. I saw all that at a glance. My eyes were focused on the door in the back wall. There was a sign over it reading EXIT. It had the standard push bar, but there was no alarm mechanism hooked to it that I could see. This was perfect, but I had no way of knowing if the door led outside or simply into another corridor or storeroom as had been the case before. “There was only one way to find out. Now I was really scared because I’d walked right by the bathroom and couldn’t claim I was looking for that. I had no business here. But I had to do this. I quickly walked to the door, and without pausing, pushed on the bar. If all hell broke loose, I was ready to run.
“The door opened into a broad alley that ran behind the mall. About 20 feet away, a guy in a security uniform was standing near another door, smoking a cigarette. He looked at me. I almost jumped back into the store, but was able to stop myself. It took a huge effort, but I looked at him, smiled, held the door open with my foot and stretched. I tried as hard as I could to look like I was taking a short break, just like he was. After a moment, I turned around and walked back into the store.
“I felt a little shaky, but couldn’t stop now. I quickly made my way back to the hall, then tried the restroom door. It wasn’t locked, so I slipped in. I stood leaning on the sink for a few seconds while regaining my composure, then flushed the toilet to provide sound effects, opened the door and walked out of the back room into the shopping area.
“The clerk was still helping the lady. Neither looked up at me. I stood just outside the doorway and surveyed the store. It was mostly kids’ clothes, but there were some shelves of toys, too, and in the back corner, not far from where I was standing, there was one of those enclosures full of balls that kids play in. It was probably there so that customers with kids would have a place to leave them while they shopped. I looked at it, then walked over and casually reached in and picked up a ball. The balls were three to four feet deep.
“I realized I’d found my place to hide.”
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