This story (written in the early 2000s) introduced Martin -- and Eric, who is unnamed. These two later became two of the main characters of Kings of the Earth.
Copyright Christopher Stanton.
It was two weeks after Christmas on a Wednesday night, and the mall was nearly empty. Before his shift began at nine, Martin decided to pay a visit to the woman who worked at the arcade.
She had caught his eye a few days ago when he was working the early shift. Her long auburn hair was tied back in a ponytail, a few strands casually circling her face. She wore a faded leather jacket which covered the blue apron where she kept keys and containers full of quarters. As she walked past the security station, stomping the snow off her boots, she smiled at Martin, and he could swear that she winked at him, too. Her name tag read: P. Gordon, and he figured that a good icebreaker would be to ask what her first name was.
Martin already missed the holiday music and the decorations and the children. Winter was moving in to stay for a while, and his battered Honda had trouble making the drive down the icy access roads around his apartment complex. He had started a Beginning French course at the community college down the river, and it helped him take his mind off the bare, dead trees and the broken space heater in his bedroom. Nights like tonight, when he worked the graveyard shift, he brought his textbook, "Nous, les jeunes," and studied in between walking his rounds. He had just opened a savings account into which he contributed 15% of each paycheck, without fail. Within a year, he would have enough to visit his brother and newborn nephew in Montreal.
Martin took a shortcut through the food court on his way to the arcade. He passed the elderly night janitor, who was whistling quietly as he swept the floor beneath the plastic tables. The man was new but always smiled at Martin when they met. “Hey George,” Martin called. “Another night, huh?”
George motioned him over. “You seen that black car out there?” he asked, gesturing with a withered finger through the glass doors that led to the parking lot. “Been out in the north lot all night. Tough looking dude, watchin’ all the people who come and go. Got the windows rolled down.”
“Rolled down? In this weather?”
George nodded. “Yes sir. Blasting rock music, too. Some kind of freak, I guess.”
“Thanks,” Martin told him. “I’ll check it out.” The mall was a favorite hangout of transients and most of them only needed a gentle push to be sent on their way. He zipped up his wool jacket over his uniform and moved out the set of double doors that led to the parking lot.
George had swept the sidewalk clear of snow and sprinkled salt on the icy patches that remained. Martin walked carefully across the cement walkway, his breath forming a cloud in front of him, his heavy boots crunching the ice.
A black Chevy Nova was idling at the curb. Jethro Tull pumped from the stereo and the driver’s side window was open. Martin leaned down to the passenger side and gestured for the driver to roll down the window.
A forty year-old man in a flannel shirt leaned over. His sleeves were rolled up and a ragged red beard covered his face. “What?” he said. “I ain’t breakin’ any laws, am I?”
“Good evening,” Martin said carefully, ignoring his question. “Are you waiting for someone?”
“That’s none of your business, now is it?” The man turned up the stereo, his biceps straining underneath his shirt, and smiled a mouthful of perfect white teeth. There was a small tattoo of a wolverine on his neck, below his right ear.
Martin swallowed. He hated trouble. “You see, it is, though,” he replied. “The mall’s closing and I can’t have you idling here. The patrons are complaining.” That last part was a bit of an exaggeration, but sometimes it was necessary when dealing with difficult people.
“They can kiss my ass,” the man said. “And so can you. This is a free country and I ain’t movin’ jack shit.”
“Maybe you’d like to explain that to the police,” Martin replied. He stepped back up on the sidewalk and turned to go inside.
The man pushed the engine into drive. “Fuckin’ rent-a-cop!” he spat. The Nova roared away from the curb, its taillights vanishing around the corner and into the night.
Martin dashed back up the sidewalk and inside the mall, his skin tingling from the welcome blast of heat. He caught a glimpse of his reflection in a store window as he walked toward the arcade, his mission to visit P. Gordon now a priority before his shift began. His dark curly hair crept onto his shoulders, and his gray uniform looked less rumpled than usual. Martin had a set of barbells that his brother had handed down to him when they were in high school, but the plastic was chipped and he didn’t like the way they felt in his hands. Instead of lifting weights, he went swimming at the Y almost every night and he felt sure that women would give him a second look.
Martin straightened his tie and entered the arcade.
A burly kid with a shaved head looked up at him from behind the counter. "Yo,” he said. He went back to reading his skating magazine.
“Is Miss—um, Gordon…here?” Martin asked, raising his voice to be heard above the commotion from the game machines.
The kid looked up at him again, as if surprised that Martin was still standing there. “Paula ain’t here,” he said. “She’s sick tonight. Measles or something.” He took a sip from his Big Gulp. “I’m fixin’ to bail this popsicle stand.”
Martin sighed. “Drive safe,” he said, and left. It was going to be a long night.
Instead of heading straight back to the security station to relieve the middle shift man, Martin decided to take a quick detour to the restroom to splash some cold water on his face. Whenever he started to feel down, Martin had trained himself to refocus and stay in the moment. Usually he thought of his brother in Montreal, and his newborn nephew, whom he had never seen. He would think of Canada and entertained fantasies of walking down the street, speaking perfect French to everyone he met. Looking toward the future made him feel more grateful for the present.
His spirits were low partly because he hadn’t slept at all that afternoon; the kids in the apartment downstairs had blasted a god awful Sex Pistols album from lunch time on. Around four o’clock, Martin had given up and watched cartoons until it was time to leave for work.
He strolled down a long access corridor, past the pay phones and community rooms where local business groups held fund-raising meetings. The tune that the night janitor had been whistling popped into his head, and he began to hum.
Martin pushed open the restroom door. Paper towels covered the floor around the trash can in the corner, and a thin puddle of water was forming below one of the sinks. Florescent lights flickered overhead. I’ll have to call George in here, Martin thought. This’ll make his night.
He turned on a faucet, and it released a torrent of water, splashing all over his pants. Martin jumped back in surprise and slipped, falling to the tiled floor, his nightstick skittering in the opposite direction.
From his perspective on the floor, Martin could see a gray stuffed elephant, tattered and worn, lying next to one of the toilets. Within a split second, a hand shot down and scooped the toy out of his line of sight.
“Hello?” Martin called, his voice hollow and loud. “Mall security. We’re closing up in ten minutes. Best get a move on.”
There was no answer from the stall. Martin got to his feet and knocked on the door. “You hear me, sir? Ten minutes.”
Just as he was about to knock a second time, the door flew open.
The boy was about twelve years old. Matted blond hair covered his eyes. He clutched a battered sleeping bag in one hand and his stuffed elephant in the other, and he stood balanced on top of the toilet like a bizarre acrobat.
“Don’t hurt me,” he mumbled. His eyes darted back and forth.
Martin smelled liquor on the boy’s breath. He took a step back and reached for his nightstick. It wasn’t on his belt. “Hey,” he said, trying to keep his voice even. “Settle down, little man. What’s your name?”
Martin didn’t see the knife until the kid had jumped off the toilet and plunged it toward his shoulder. “Fuck you!” the kid yelled.
Martin caught his arm above the elbow and pushed the knife away. He lost his balance and went flying across the room, where he smacked his forehead on the counter and sank to the floor. The kid dropped the knife and took off running across the bathroom and out the door, leaving his sleeping bag and stuffed elephant behind.
Purple spots danced in front of his eyes as Martin got to his feet, still not sure what had happened. He had not yet picked up his walkie-talkie from the security station. Protocol dictated that he call for assistance on a red courtesy phone.
Martin dashed out the door and back down the corridor toward the mall. He saw the kid round the corner and make for the main doors.
“Stop!” Martin yelled, trying to get his breath. He spotted a red phone across the corridor from the drinking fountains and grabbed it.
“I need help,” he stuttered, as soon as Wiley, the evening guard, had picked up the phone at the security station. “A boy attacked me in the bathroom. Tried to stab me. I’m in pursuit, heading for the north lot.”
Martin took the corner at full speed. The kid had a huge head start and he had a lot of ground to make up. There were bus stops and abandoned buildings and back alleys at the north end of the parking lot and if the kid reached them, he might be gone for good.
Martin’s forehead throbbed and his vision was blurred; everything seemed fuzzy and indistinct. As he rounded the corner, George looked up at him from his mop and bucket. “That way!” George yelled, pointing outside again.
Martin blew through the double doors and into the night. He spotted the kid about thirty feet ahead, making his way across the parking lot, dashing for the bus stop on the main road. Lampposts cast dim light on the patches of frozen slush and abandoned shopping carts. Beyond the road, Martin saw the lights from the freeway.
“Stop!” he yelled again. The sharp wind took his voice away in an instant.
The kid sprinted across the parking lot, leaping over the piles of snow that the plows had pushed around the concrete parking barriers. Martin felt slick patches of ice beneath his heavy black boots. The pain in his chest filled his lungs, choking him.
The headlights of the nine o’clock Metro Bus appeared around the corner. The bus skirted the main road and approached the entrance to the north lot.
“No!” Martin yelled.
The bus slowed, and opened its doors with a whoosh. Without looking behind him, the kid dashed the final yards to the bus, bounded up the steps and disappeared inside.
The bus took off down the road, its exhaust lingering in the night air. Then it was gone.
* * *
Inside the kid’s sleeping bag, Martin found a Metro Bus schedule and a miniature photo album. There was only one photo inside, and as Martin removed it from the plastic cover and held it up to the florescent lights of the mall bathroom, he forgot the pounding in his chest and his shame and embarrassment and everything else that had happened that day.
The boy stood on a rocky beach, his blond hair blown back from his face and his deep blue eyes twinkling in the sun.
Standing next to him, her arm firmly around his shoulders, her auburn hair tied back in a ponytail, was P. Gordon. She wore the proud look that only a mother could have.
* * *
Martin spent the next hour speaking with a couple of officers who arrived at the mall at about quarter after nine. They were both young guys, not much older than himself, but they were polite and listened to his whole story without interrupting. When Martin told them how he had slipped in the bathroom, the one with the crew cut had smiled, but in more of a sympathetic than a derisive way.
Martin showed the officers the bus schedule that he had found in the sleeping bag. They took the knife and put it in a plastic baggie. The Hispanic officer discovered that the cotton stuffing of the toy elephant had been removed; he found a rolled up wad of money, exactly $37, plus $1.05 in dimes and nickels.
Before the two officers left, Martin mentioned the scraggly man in the black Chevy Nova. And he remembered the first three letters of the license plate: GRT. They were the same initials of his own brother.
He kept the photograph in his shirt pocket, out of sight.
* * *
Paula Gordon sat alone in the food court, a cold slice of pizza on the table in front of her, an unlit cigarette in her hand. It was just after nine o’clock on Thursday, and all of the stores had closed their doors for the night.
Martin’s breath caught in his throat as he approached. He hadn’t expected to see her so soon.
Paula Gordon looked up and smiled slightly, pulling her coat around her uniform. There were dark circles under her eyes. “Hey,” she said. “I’ve seen you around before.” Her voice had a vaguely Southern twang that made Martin think of a tire swing on an open river.
“Hello,” Martin replied. He wasn’t sure if he should sit or not.
She looked down and seemed to notice her untouched dinner for the first time. “Been sitting here a while. Guess I should be getting home for the night.”
“It’s okay,” Martin said, his voice shaking.
“My son ran away yesterday,” she said, after a long silence. “We don’t know where he’s at. My boyfriend’s out lookin’ for him now.”
She looked up at Martin after he didn’t reply. “Why are you crying?” she asked.
Martin thought of the boy vanishing into the bus, the exhaust lingering in the night air. He took the photograph out of his pocket and placed it on the table in front of her.
“Because I lost him,” Martin said. He stood there, tears in his eyes, and waited for what she would say next.