"Shannon" is one of fourteen stories in Dandelion Crossing, my unpublished collection of linked short stories about characters who work at or visit a brand-new suburban shopping mall in November 1983.
This gives you a flavor of what the book is like. If you're an agent, editor or publisher and want to learn more, please message me!
Shannon was almost seventeen and in the process of turning her life around. Ever since eighth grade, when her parents divorced and her mom married a bald assistant manager of a stereo shop named Leon, Shannon had been in serious trouble, both in and out of school. She fell in with a rowdy group of girls who called themselves The Benatars. She started skipping class, failed Algebra and Spanish, and got held back her freshman year. And she fell in love with Kyle, an unruly dreamboat who looked like a high school version of Christopher Atkins but had committed four misdemeanors that Shannon knew about for sure, and no doubt countless others.
Six months before, Shannon was positive that she was pregnant. She had no appetite, she had constant headaches, and her period was very, very late. Shannon knew she couldn’t have or raise a baby, and abortions were illegal for minors in her state, even with parental consent. She enlisted the help of Charlene, who lived two doors down from her and drove a garbage truck for the city. Charlene was brazen and wise and wore her hair in a purple Mohawk. She took Shannon to a clinic downtown to take a pregnancy test and speak to a sympathetic doctor.
The test was negative. That was all it took to flip a switch in Shannon and send her in a completely different direction, like a wind-up toy. Then Charlene was murdered by her boyfriend in a domestic dispute on the 4th of July, and Shannon’s mind was entirely made up.
Now it was Saturday, and she decided to take the bus to a new shopping mall called Dandelion Crossing, to buy Christmas presents for each of the important members of her family. Shannon didn’t have the money to afford a used car, but she was taking Life Skills at school and had learned quite a bit about budgeting, which often involved taking alternative forms of transportation. She had also taken a bold but uncomfortable leap and gotten her first job, working at the front desk at a neighborhood veterinary hospital, answering phones and updating patient records. And most importantly, she had broken up with Kyle and stopped running with The Benatars.
Shannon came from a part of the city with liquor stores and check cashing spots on every corner. Her one-story home was more than forty minutes away from Dandelion Crossing and she actually had to transfer buses once to get there, but as they drew close to the massive shopping center, she could already tell that the hassle would be worth it.
The bus dropped her off in front of a department store called Fiddelmeyer’s, and Shannon was glad to step out of the snow flurries to get inside. The place had two floors and a basement and was decked out for Christmas, with holly garlands strung along the perfume counters and colored lights adorning the handbag displays. Nat King Cole’s version of The Little Drummer Boy played on the PA, but not loud enough to interfere with shoppers’ internal dialogues. Shannon was grateful for that, because her mom was first on her list.
Shannon was approaching this shopping trip as a way to make amends for the wrongs she had done to each of her immediate family members. She knew that a Christmas present couldn’t make up for harm she had done. But it was a small way of showing that she understood what made the people in her life happy, and that was a first step toward improving relationships with them. She had learned that from a recent episode of Donahue.
After her parents’ split, Shannon’s mom worked two jobs, as a school cafeteria manager and a bartender. During this time of skipped breakfasts and no parental supervision, Shannon brought boys home after school, which was strictly against her mother’s rules. She had always been a B student through the start of eighth grade, but the constant fights at home between her parents had worn Shannon down and caused her to stop caring about Social Studies and Art and every other subject that filled the periods of the day.
Something in her disposition attracted boys to her like honeybees to lilac blossoms. Shannon figured it wasn’t her looks; she had feathered copper-colored hair and teeth that badly needed braces that her mother couldn’t afford. She wore knockoff Jordache jeans that she had bought at a flea market. But every boy she was with seemed to always say the things that made her feel appreciated again.
Shannon and the boys snuck liquor from her mom’s cabinet. They smoked cheap cigarettes in the TV room downstairs while they played Maze Craze on her Atari. And two days after her fourteenth birthday, she lost her virginity to a boy named Darryl, who had one blue eye and one green eye. They had sex on her mother’s waterbed while the TV played Eric Heiden on the medal stand at the Lake Placid Olympics.
Thinking about it now, Shannon knew that this was completely wrong. It wasn’t so much the sex part, which had been highly awkward and full of gurgling noises, but satisfying overall, as far as first times went. It was the fact that she had gone into her mother’s private space and done something so intimate. There had been plenty of loud fights, awful name calling, even money stolen from pocketbooks. But the waterbed incident bothered Shannon the most.
She moved past the perfume counter and found herself in a section that displayed crystal serving bowls and elegantly crafted drinking goblets that refracted the Christmas lights around them. Shannon knew her mother loved things that sparkled; she still remembered the slinky blue dress that her mom wore when Leon took her to the disco on their first date. It twinkled like a night full of stars, even under the feeble overhead light in their front hallway.
Shannon knew that the glassware that had first caught her eye was high class and far out of her price range, so she turned to a display along the wall that featured smaller-scale work. That’s when she saw the glass blowfish.
Shannon didn’t know much about sea creatures, but she admired any animal who could go through life seemingly unconcerned with how it looked. This fish resembled an inflated balloon with fins, its bottom half clear, smooth glass; its top a mix of orange and yellow textured glass that looked like actual scales. Shannon knew it would be a perfect fit for the kitchen window, which faced east and flooded the room with sun in the early morning, when her mom made coffee and braced herself to face each day.
A saleswoman appeared next to her. “May I help you?” she asked in a slightly disdainful voice, noticing Shannon’s black Members Only jacket and the thick pink comb in the back pocket of her jeans.
“Sure,” Shannon said. “I’d like this, please. In a box, if possible. And could you tell me where your toy department is?”
* * *
Shannon’s sister was called ChaCha and she was nine. The little girl was constantly sneaking into her room and looking through her things, which drove Shannon crazy. In spite of this, she was next on Shannon’s list.
The blowfish had been considerably more expensive than she expected, but that didn’t deter Shannon from deciding to buy ChaCha a Cabbage Patch Kid. The dolls were highly in demand, but thankfully Shannon had seen a Fiddelmeyer’s advertisement in the Sunday paper that recommended that shoppers call the store and reserve a toy under their own name. The store would hold the doll for up to three days.
The toy department was in the basement level. Shannon had to admit that she felt like a little girl again as she descended the escalator and an elaborately decorated Christmas wonderland surrounded her. A toy train chugged in a loop through a miniature North Pole. Mechanical polar bears wearing scarves waved to a nativity scene made up of Return of the Jedi action figures. Kids ran circles around festive displays, excitedly calling to each other as they investigated Jazzercise Barbies and Care Bears aplenty.
Shannon approached the harried young woman at the counter and told her the nature of her business. The woman asked for her name, checked a clipboard, then disappeared through a door nearby.
ChaCha was an incredibly intelligent fourth grader. She was especially interested in politics, and was in the midst of a school project that was examining the candidates for the next presidential election. Jesse Jackson had recently thrown his name into the ring, and ChaCha had immediately become infatuated with him, monopolizing dinner conversations with discussions about his stances on various issues.
ChaCha could be a bit aggressive in vocalizing her opinions, and that was putting it mildly. Shannon secretly admired this trait, because she knew it would serve her sister well in a world that seemed dominated by men. But because of this, ChaCha didn’t have many friends, and Shannon assumed that was why her sister put one of the popular dolls at the top of her Christmas list. Shannon wasn’t sure if substituting an inanimate object for a human friend was entirely healthy. This struck at the base of what she felt she had to apologize for.
There were plenty of times in the last three years that ChaCha had appeared at her bedroom door, interrupting Shannon’s bonding time with unfamiliar boys, asking for help with homework, advice on a particularly difficult playground matter, or just wanting to spend time with her. Nearly one hundred percent of the time, Shannon either slammed the door, pushed her away or promised her help that she never gave.
This was a complete failure in her job as a big sister, and looking back on it, Shannon was embarrassed and ashamed. This was alleviated somewhat when the saleswoman returned from the back room and showed her the doll she had reserved.
It was a Black Cabbage Patch Kid named Oliver Nathan Lee.
The saleswoman noticed Shannon’s pensive expression. “What’s the matter?” she asked.
Shannon considered the question. Why not get her sister a companion that made her feel less alone, until Shannon could commit to spending much more time with her?
“It’s perfect,” Shannon replied. “How much do I owe you?”
* * *
Shannon left the department store and made her way into the mall, which was overwhelming, like being in the front row of a fireworks display. She was used to poorly lit strip malls with dollar stores and discount medical supply outlets, not sleek architectural marvels filled with bustling shoppers.
Her wonder came crashing down when she encountered The Benatars leaving the food court.
Champagne, the leader of the group, wore tight jeans and enormous hoop earrings. She stopped in her tracks and regarded Shannon with a barely disguised sneer as she approached.
“What’re you doin’ here?” Champagne asked. Each of the three Benatars had plastic picks or combs in their back pockets and wore ripped denim jackets that made it look like they had just encountered a troop of rabid ferrets.
“Same as you,” Shannon said. “Shopping.” She tried to make it sound casual.
“We ain’t shopping,” a girl named Autumn said. She wore bright blue eye shadow and had just finished a stint in juvie for assaulting the typing teacher at their school. “We just needed a new place to hang. We ate some Chinese food and now we goin’ to the arcade.”
The third Benatar said nothing; she only frowned at Shannon with extreme displeasure. Shannon had always called her Sixty-Nine, but she figured that wasn’t her real name, only a nickname born from a rumor. She had the largest breasts that Shannon had ever seen on a girl her age.
“I heard you got a job,” Champagne told her. “Why you gonna let other people tell you what to do?”
“I work in an office,” Shannon said. “It’s nothing special.” She felt bad for lying, only because she thought the job was indeed great because it gave her spending money for the first time in her life.
Champagne cracked her gum, then regarded Shannon closely. Shannon knew that she was trying to figure out if she had indeed crossed over to the land of people who were responsible and actually cared what others thought.
“You better not tell nobody nothin’ about all the stuff we done,” Champagne warned her. “Because I got plenty of stories about you, Little Miss Thing.”
“Merry Christmas,” Shannon said, then walked past her former friends quickly, knowing that she couldn’t give everything up and have meaningless fun again.
* * *
Shannon decided to get her father a book for Christmas because he was the one who first took her to the library as a little girl. He helped her explore the shelves as she found picture books to borrow, then patiently read her stories by Bill Peet and Steven Kellogg on their knobbly plaid couch before she went up to bed. She didn’t realize it at the time, but Shannon knew now that her father was really trying to help her, to give her the foundation she needed to succeed in life.
It was just too bad that adult relationships were so complicated. He now lived hundreds of miles away in Wheeling, working part-time as a plumber. The last time she had seen him had been the end of May, when he had taken Shannon and ChaCha on a picnic in a state wilderness area. They walked a nature trail and saw two skunks having sex on a tree stump, and a Great Blue Heron feeding in a pond full of water lilies. They hadn’t discussed what they were currently reading.
Shannon started at the massive Stephen King display in the bookstore window, thinking of her father, and she suddenly felt lost. She wanted to feel his strong arms around her as he gave her a loving hug. The vicious cat on the cover of Pet Sematary seemed at that moment to represent the horrible force that had torn her life apart.
Shannon took a deep breath and entered the store, which felt comfortable and strange at the same time, like driving down the street she used to live on, ten years after moving away.
“Hi. Can I help you find something?”
Shannon turned and found a friendly-looking young woman watching her. She wore thick glasses and her nametag read: JANE.
For some reason, it had always been hard for Shannon to ask for help. But Jane’s kind face was exactly what she needed right then.
“I’m looking for a Christmas present for my dad. But I don’t know what he’s reading now, or what he’s read lately.”
Jane smiled wide. One of her front teeth was missing. “No problem,” she replied. “We’ll figure it out. What kind of guy is he?”
Shannon put down her shopping bags and considered this. “He’s a plumber,” she said. “But he wasn’t always. When he lived here, he drove a street sweeper. And he volunteered at an adult learning center. He taught people how to read.”
“That’s amazing!” Jane exclaimed. “Have you checked out what’s on his bookshelf?”
“That’s pretty much impossible, because he lives in Wheeling and I only see him like four or five times a year. My mom and him broke up when I was in eighth grade.”
Jane put a hand on her shoulder. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to pry,” the older woman said quietly.
“One night I came back early from the library and I found my mom on the couch with another man that wasn’t my dad,” Shannon told her. The words were out of her mouth before she even realized it.
“Oh my gosh. What did you do?” Jane asked.
“My mom took me the kitchen and made me promise not to tell my dad,” Shannon admitted. She felt like she was about to cry. “I promised. But it was such a big mistake. Mom kept seeing the guy for two more months before my dad found out about it.”
“Oh, sweetheart,” Jane said. Before Shannon knew it, Jane took her in her arms and gave her a hug.
“I should have told him,” Shannon said. “I should have told him right then. But I was scared of what it would do to our family.” She figured it wouldn’t help matters to tell Jane that the man in question was now her stepfather.
“I understand,” Jane said, releasing her from the hug. She wiped a tear from Shannon’s cheek and looked at her with genuine concern. Shannon realized how brilliantly blue Jane’s eyes were. It made her think of the light refracting off the glass blowfish, and she realized then that they were meant to find each other.
“I want to buy my dad a book that will let him know that everything will be okay. I know there’s no way of knowing that will be true, but sometimes stories can really help. Like the Bible does, for people who believe in God and all that stuff.”
Jane considered this. “I think I have just the thing,” she said. “Follow me.”
* * *
Shannon bought her father a book called Watership Down.
“It’s about rabbits, but it’s also an allegory,” Jane told her. “It means that even though the main characters are animals, what they go through can also be compared to what we experience as humans in Reagan’s America,” she added helpfully. “The story is exciting, haunting, but most of all, it’s really moving. It will help your dad realize what’s important to him, and maybe even give him some direction in his life.”
“Kind of like what I’m trying to do,” Shannon said. Jane looked at her quizzically, so Shannon quickly thanked her and made her way to World of Records. She had wanted to ask why Jane thought her father needed direction, but didn’t all adults these days?
The store was noisy and full of teenagers. This time, Shannon knew exactly what record she wanted to buy Leon, her stepfather.
“Do you have No Parking on the Dance Floor?” she asked the girl behind the counter, who was around her age. Her dyed blond hair was porcupine-spiky and she wore a torn purple sweatshirt, a black miniskirt and a studded faux leather belt.
The salesgirl looked confused. “Never heard of them,” she said.
“That’s actually the name of the album,” Shannon told her. “Never mind,” she added, and went to the R&B section.
Leon sold car stereos but he had no tolerance for Black people. This had come to be a problem because both Shannon and ChaCha had grown up in schools with a lot of ethnic diversity. So anytime Leon ranted at the dinner table about “this Black fucker” did this or “this welfare queen” did that, it had gotten more and more difficult for Shannon to hold her tongue. What made things even more challenging was that Leon actually did have a strong work ethic. Shannon had learned from him – although she would never admit it out loud – that she had to work hard to be able to find her own path through the world. Nothing was guaranteed – especially not the efficacy of trickle-down economics, according to ChaCha.
Shannon knew that she couldn’t change someone’s prejudiced views overnight. So her temporary solution was to expose her stepfather to some truly outstanding music made by Black musicians. She had danced with her ex, Kyle, to Midnight Star’s Slow Jam on their last date together, which was the Spring Dance earlier that year. Shannon could still hear the passionate and romantic plea of the singer’s voice as Kyle held her close. He had dumped her by passing her a note in Geometry class the following Tuesday, but that was beside the point.
Leon truly did care for Shannon’s mother, and he had consistently shown moderate interest in the well-being of Shannon and ChaCha. Shannon figured that once the two adults heard the album, they’d be inspired to clear the furniture in the living room, and have a romantic time dancing the night away. Shannon had learned through her limited life experience that bonding with someone encouraged trust, and trust led to being more open to change one’s views. She hoped that would be the result of her grand plan.
She found the Midnight Star album and brought it to the cash register to pay.
* * *
Shannon thought her Christmas shopping was complete, but she hadn’t counted on running into Kyle outside of the arcade. She realized then that the brand-new mall had attracted curious teenagers from all corners of the city. His family had moved to the other side of town that past summer, so now he went to another school – if he went to school at all.
“Hey,” Kyle said, which was typically as many words as he said at any one time.
“Hi,” she answered. The noise of the arcade and the chatter of the crowd faded away as she stared into his gorgeous green eyes, which were the color of a summer promise. He wore a rainbow down vest, like Mork from Mork and Mindy, and his Jordache jeans hugged his bottom.
“I just got a new high score on Zookeeper,” he said. Whenever he spoke, it sounded like he was preparing to kiss her. Shannon felt a tickle on the back on her neck.
“How’s your new school?” she asked, trying to keep her hormones in check.
“It sucks,” he answered, licking his lips and moving closer to her. “I’d rather be with you.”
Shannon inhaled his scent of cigarettes and Old Spice. It made her remember in an instant how much he felt like a man – or what she thought a man should be.
She looked down at the tile floor, her pulse racing. “I—”
“I loved making love to you,” he said. “And we both know you’ll never have someone as incredible as me.”
Kyle had started to grow a mustache, and the hair was coming in blond, like he was an urban Viking. Shannon could honestly admit that he was the only boy she had ever been with that had given her an orgasm. She knew what that word meant because one of the Benatars had stolen a Penthouse magazine from a liquor store. The gang had spent the night reading the Letters section to each other.
“Why not give me another chance, baby?” he asked. “I forgive you for everything.”
Shannon blinked. “What?” she asked. All of a sudden, she was back in the drafty clinic waiting room, staring at a display of parenting brochures, trying not to cry or faint.
“You’re the one who decided you’re too good for me,” he said. “Ain’t that true?”
“You broke up with me,” Shannon reminded him. “With a note. Remember?”
“I think this new attitude you have has got you spoiled,” Kyle replied.
“I’m just trying to do the right thing,” Shannon told him. “I’m trying to turn my life around.”
“You’re not fooling anybody but yourself,” Kyle said. “You’re from the East Side like me. You know nobody there ever does nothing good.”
Shannon felt her forehead grow hot. “So why not skip class and be your sex toy?” she asked. “Is that what you’re saying?”
“You sure weren’t complaining when we were together.”
Shannon considered this. “You’re right,” she said. “Because I didn’t know any better.” Right then she was imagining ChaCha knocking at her bedroom door, asking for her help with homework.
“Good luck pretending to be something you’re not,” Kyle told her.
“Merry Christmas,” Shannon replied, for the second time that day. She took a firm hold of her shopping bags full of valuable gifts and looked for the exit. It was time to catch the bus home.